The Missing Link
Chapter 1

Caution: This Drama Sex Story contains strong sexual content, including Ma/Fa, Consensual, Heterosexual, Horror, Cheating, Slut Wife, DomSub, Rough, Humiliation, Oral Sex, Anal Sex, Slow,

Desc: Drama Sex Story: Chapter 1 - When reality bit his foot, Liza did her utmost to make him doubt his memory. Maybe, in retrospect, he should have let her convince him.

"Just sex?" she asked. Her voice struggled for control. A grimace floated across her face.

"Yes, Liza," I said. "Just sex. It was good, but it meant nothing ­– it was gymnastics. She had a great body – lovely tits. A bit bigger than yours I'd say, and firmer, but then again, she was at least ten years younger. But other than that, just sex. Sweaty exercise."

Her eyes darkened under her knitted brow – I saw the anger brewing. "Bullshit, Steve," she spat. "There must have been more. You are not a 'just sex' guy. I know you."

"You know me," I repeated. "But do you really, honey? Do you know me as well as I thought I knew you?"

Liza is my wife. I am Steve. I am 30, she is 32. We have been the Stevensons for seven years now. Yes, my parents had a weakness for alliteration. We have a child, a boy of six. We called him Eric, just for the heck of it – no granddad, no uncle with that name. And thank God, no alliteration. He is bright, and he'll need it; his world has turned into a mess.

So has mine.

At college I lusted after Liza. It was because of her tits, her face and the way she hugged me with every square inch of her body after I helped her getting through a Business Management test. I needed exactly one date to fall in love with her eyes, her laugh, her voice and the fact that she remembered how I liked my coffee.

It took us three more dates before we had sex. Then I needed six months to find the courage to ask her to be my wife. And finally it took us a year to graduate, find jobs, an apartment – and marry.

In the seven years of our marriage I changed companies twice until I decided, two years ago, to go it alone. I navigated small companies through the dire straits called taxes. And as more and more of them seemed to appreciate my efforts – bigger ones too – I started doing well.

After having little Eric Liza switched jobs. From being an account manager in an advertising agency she became a free-lance proofreader for ad agencies and publishers. It didn't pay much, but it allowed her the flexible hours a mother needs to keep house and raise a child while the father is out making money. She worked mostly when Eric was at school, or in the evenings when I could take care of him.

Life was good to us. The house we lived in had been built with the bricks of the American Dream, including a lawn, a picket fence and two cars of recent make. Living a cliché can be very comfortable, especially for young families. But I never knew that our life also included this other well-worn cliché – a cheating spouse.

My feelings when I found out surprised me – I felt embarrassed. Go figure: my wife acts like a common slut and I am the one feeling embarrassed. I felt dumb for having trusted her. I had chosen her to be my only one, my best friend and soul mate, the mother of my child and she turns it into a farce. Shouldn't she be the one to feel embarrassed, guilty and ashamed – even before being caught?

Yes, I know, I can be quite naïve.

I came home one day early from an ICT seminar. Of course I had tried to contact Liza about the change in schedule. Her cell was down and at home the voice-mail picked up my call. I left a message and decided to try again after landing.

When I waited for my luggage I did try again and got a sweet and bubbling Liza. She had found my message and was excited to have me back early. I rushed to find a cab and hurried home. The unexpected treat of a free afternoon and night with my family made me feel like a little boy on Christmas morning.

Eric was with her mother's, she said. She seemed as excited as I when she opened the door. She looked delicious and I was horny after two days of bits and bytes. We went straight up to our bedroom where we undressed in a hurry. Sweet currents of electricity ran up and down my spine when I pressed my face between her naked breasts, inhaling the scent of her perfume.

When I reached her pussy after a meandering journey of kissing and licking, my tongue entered a swamp. I know, you'll call me stupid for not getting suspicious at once, but be honest – you would have been just as clueless if I hadn't given you warning. I was also handicapped by the fact that all the blood my brain needed was commandeered by a different body part.

I was horny, she was willing – thinking could wait. It waited through numerous orgasms on her part and three on mine. It waited through two rounds of snacks, a bottle of wine and three hours of sleep before I woke up from a crowded bladder and slid out of bed. That's when I felt the sting of doom, right into the sole of my bare left foot. I cried out, making Liza stir. I lifted my foot to see what was under it. Then I picked up the object. I placed it on the open palm of my hand, where it gleamed in the ghostly light of the tiny night lamp.

It was a cufflink.

It felt quite heavy, made of real gold, it seemed. It had two connected square flat surfaces, a large one and a smaller one – the latter obviously to be worn on the inside. Both surfaces had a relief, making them look like seals on a signet ring. On the smaller one were letters, which made me wonder who owned it – and how on earth it could have ended in my bedroom, biting my foot.

I turned around and watched Liza. She breathed slowly with her eyes closed. I rose and walked to the bathroom. The pressure of my bladder – nearly forgotten – returned with a vengeance. My cock still looked red and angry after having been used so vigorously before. I redirected the splattering stream to make it less noisy. Then I shook off the last drops, walked over to the small basin and rinsed my hands under the faucet.

The gold cufflink stared back at me from the white marble ledge where I had put it. I saw more detail now, in the better light. On the bigger square was a heraldic kind of seal, divided by a diagonal. The upper part sported a prancing horse, the lower showed three round dots, like a set of billiard balls. The smaller square had a more intricate pattern. It showed interwoven letters, maybe the initials of its owner.

I saw an R. It seemed to be woven through the legs of an M, but there was also a C. RMC, CMR, MRC, MCR – so many possibilities, but what the hell? Liza wasn't married to an MCR or an RCM, was she? Besides, I never even owned a cufflink, but here it was – very male and lying under our bed in our bedroom. Tears pressed at the back of my eyes when the significance of it all started to seep in. My fist hit the porcelain of the basin.

"Stop it!" I hissed through clenched teeth. "Don't be ridiculous. Think."

So I found a cufflink beside my bed that wasn't mine. It could not have lain there longer than a few days. The cleaning lady vacuumed the room every Thursday. Today was Friday – no, Saturday by now of course.

I looked into the mirror, shaking my head as if to free it from the dark thoughts that clung to the inside of my skull. I fought to keep them hidden under more innocent possibilities, but those weren't more than feeble excuses, really. How could a cufflink lie in a bedroom without having been dropped by its male owner? And was there a plausible reason for dropping it, other than while opening or closing the cuff of a shirt? And wouldn't one have taken off a shirt before putting it on again?

"Ah!" my friend Denial piped up. "Maybe he just lost the link, but never took off his shirt?" "In your wife's bedroom?" my sounder friend Reality retorted. "Why should he be there at all?"

Before this schizophrenic dialogue went further, I growled. I grabbed the cufflink and left the bathroom, tiptoeing through the bedroom and down the stairs. I had to think, didn't I? I had to keep the panic and the black thoughts at bay, if only to eliminate mistakes by rushing to conclusions.

The thought of Liza cheating on me had never entered my mind. Admitting that she obviously did would be like tearing down the house around me and hurling myself into the indifferent emptiness of outer space. It was like pulverizing the very foundation of my existence. The eight years with her had spun a warm, hugging cocoon around me. It was the only thing protecting me from a thirty below zero winter on the Siberian tundra. Accepting the reality of her cheating would leave me limping along like a helpless amputee.

And yet – there it was on the kitchen table: cold, gold, very real and riddled with consequences.

I poured a shot of my long-saved Laphroiagh single malt scotch. It was a waste; I didn't taste a thing. I poured another, allowing the dark demons to rush in. Liza had cheated on me while I was gone. I went out of town quite a few times this year – seminars, courses, clients. I have been doing that for years. Why would I believe this to be the only time she cheated? Just because it was the first time I found out?

The third whisky brought about the one and only classic question: why? Of course I summed up all the equally classic answers, throwing them out as quickly as they popped up. I started doubting everything I had been taking for granted – our material comforts and the almost perfect bliss of our family life ... little Eric, our love life, the frequency of our sexual encounters; their quality. Could she have been nursing unfulfilled needs? How? Wasn't my exhausted cock proof of the opposite – still tingling from our last work out? And wasn't it – by the way – a very respectable seven inches? All right, six-and-a-half.

"You ask why?" said my fourth whisky. "Fuck the why. Fuck the 'with whom' too. You married a slut, plain and simple." Did I marry a slut? Just thinking the word filled my befuddled brain with angry indignation. How could anyone even think that I would marry a slut? Me? Marry a slut? Outrageous, I thought. An offense.

And I poured the whisky that would be my last before the lights went out.

Liza's voice had an edge of concern when she shook my shoulder – well, at least as far as I could hear her over the beating of hammers on anvils. I lifted my head from the puddle of drool that had leaked from my sleeping mouth. First thing I saw was a half empty bottle. Second thing I saw, after focusing my eyes, was the absence of the cufflink. My head was a battlefield. Thoughts wandered in and out of a lingering mist. The steaming mug of black coffee smelled like medicine. I didn't even dare to check its taste.

"God, Steve," Liza said, sitting down at the other side of the table. "You gave me the shock of my life. First, you weren't in bed when I woke up. Then I find you here, head on the table, dead to the world with an empty whisky bottle in front of you. What is going on?"

Her words were too loud and too many; they insisted on invading my skull through a way too narrow entrance – painful, painful. I rose. I tried to rise. I rose. The world needed leveling; my eyes seemed to observe it from a distance.

"Later," I said with the voice of a stranger.

Upstairs I first emptied my stomach. Then I took a shower and three aspirin. On the way to my bathrobe I went past the bed. I fell on it and slept another three hours.

When I at last reentered the kitchen, Liza had gone. On the empty table lay a note informing me that she was picking up Eric at her mother's. "Kiss, L," the last line said. The note lay almost exactly where the cufflink had been. Or had it?

While drinking coffee I wondered if I might have dreamt the whole thing. And then I wondered if it would be such a bad thing to believe that. Liza for one might find it convenient.

Damn, why did I have to hit the bottle like that?

Eric was a ball of energy, running into me full force. I took him outside to shoot some hoops and inhale much-needed gulps of cold, fresh air. Afterwards he had to beat me with his newest computer game, another of the many gifts my doting mother in law spoiled him with. God knows where she finds the money, but he is her only grandchild.

Liza stayed away from us, but maybe she always left us alone when we did our boy things. I tried to remember and couldn't, really, but I guessed so.

After receiving three sound beatings I left the boy to it and returned to our kitchen. Liza was at the table, slicing onions and peppers. I smelled fresh garlic too. Liza believes in home made food; I gladly help her eating it. The simple sight of domestic bliss brought the threat of tears to my eyes – or was it the onions? I sat down.

"Liza," I said. "There was a gold cufflink on this table. Did you find it?"

The sharp knife just kept doing its almost professional dance, very close to her fingertips. She never missed a beat until she finished the onion. Then she wiped the little white cubes off the blade and carefully laid the knife down before looking at me.

"A cufflink? You never use cufflinks, do you, honey?"

It was the perfect answer given with the perfect timing and the perfect face to accompany it. Even the slightly puzzled smile was spot on.

"Did you find it?" I insisted. "It was right here."

"No," she said. "No cufflink. I found a puddle of drool and an almost empty bottle of booze, but no ... no cufflink." And she picked up the knife to attack another onion. Liza never tears up when she does onions, I remembered. Come thinking of it, she doesn't cry a lot anyway, I thought.

Should I tell her how I found the cufflink next to our bed? Or that it was a signet cufflink with an R on it and an M and a C? Should I ask her if she knew an RMC or an MRC? Maybe I should, but I didn't; what was the use? Her casual denial caused a great sadness to sink over me.

The cufflink wasn't there anymore because she had found it. Maybe she had taken it to her lover already, on her way to picking up Eric? She would certainly have called him to allay his fears at discovering the loss.

Anyway. I did give her a chance to come clear – or to seriously prove her innocence. She did neither.

In my college years I have been drunk at parties, so I know how alcohol makes you forget things. But this time I had been sober when I found the damn thing. Moreover, I even remembered every detail straight through the haze of my later drunkenness.

The cufflink had been there and now it was gone. The only person who could have found and taken it, was Liz. And she denied even seeing the thing. She blew her chance to come clean and it made me unspeakably sad.

"Liz," I said, with a voice that was calmer than I felt. "Will you please lay down the knife and look at me. I have an important question." She looked up quickly, wide eyed.

"Of course, honey," she said. I had her attention now; maybe even her worry.

"How did that cufflink end up beside our bed, Liz?"

It was her second and last chance.

She rose and walked over to me, wiping her hands on her apron. She bent down, reaching for my shoulders. Her eyes held mine. Then she shattered my world.

"Please, honey," she said with her warmest, most concerned voice. "What is this about a cufflink? I really don't know what you mean. I never saw it, not beside our bed and certainly not on this table."

I just stared back, shaken by her calmness.

"Darling," she went on. "You must have been drinking a lot. Why was that, anyway? You never drink. It scared me."

I took her hands off my shoulders and rose.

"Liz," I said, fending off her attempt to hug me. "I shall leave you alone for a bit, so you can think of a better story."

I went upstairs and collected a few things like underwear, clothing and my laptop. When I came down again, Liz protested as she saw my bag. She tried to stop me, but I went into the garage, into my car and out on the street.

I saw Liz in the open door when I drove off. Knowing where to go was easier than knowing what to do.

I felt miserable. There was the supposed betrayal and the obvious lying from a woman I'd loved more than myself for almost nine years. There also was my son; not seeing him would be hell. And then of course there were the minor but manifold pains of missing all the automatic comforts and securities of my life: my house, my bed, the easy rhythm of things and all the other certainties that I took for granted until they disappeared.

A hotel room shows its true face when it becomes your only room. It is boring, impersonal; it is a place where time grinds to a halt and seconds become minutes, minutes become hours. TV gets like a black hole, sucking your mind empty. You read, but the words don't register; they only allow you more time to dwell on your misery. The few friends I had were out of town or otherwise engaged. My mom and brother live half a continent away.

So I went out to escape my room, just to discover that bars and cinema's, malls and restaurants are even more apt at giving you a feeling of loneliness. Isn't it remarkable how being alone emphasizes that all the other people are not?

Going to work on Monday was a relief, until Liza called me, around 10 a.m. I had closed down my cell phone all through Saturday and Sunday, but there was no way I could do that at work. I decided to take her third call, if only to tell her not to bother my poor secretary.

Liza was in tears, but they were angry tears, soaking the remains of a well-nursed rage. She accused me of making her worry when I kept myself unreachable all weekend. I told her to stop it or I would hang up. She did not hear me. So when she went on wondering how I could have done this to her and little Eric, I disconnected the phone. I also told my secretary to keep her away from me.

Eight calls later the girl came into my office, giving me an ultimatum: get Liza off my back or I'll leave this building, screaming. I took the ninth call, finding her considerably more subdued. I asked her to stop calling me at work, but I already knew she would not do that. She wanted to talk. I told her I'd only do that if she allowed me to see Eric whenever I wanted, whatever would happen. She said I should come home, so I could see him all the time. I put down the phone. It rang a minute later. I picked it up. She said I could see Eric as often as I wished. So I gave her the name of a restaurant we both knew and promised to be there around one.

She didn't look pale or tired, nor did she look nervous when she rushed into the restaurant, ten minutes late. Her blouse was crispy white under a tightly cut jacket. It was in a color only the French have a name for, leaving us plodding cavemen wondering what on earth might be mauve or taupe. But thankfully her missing upper buttons made up for that – as did the tightness of her skirt. I wondered about her wearing them; normally it would have been jeans and a sweater. Did she do it to tease me, or was it to rub my nose in it? And did I care? Yes, I did, but right now it only instigated darker thoughts.

She was a whirlwind, turning heads while rushing down the aisle to my table – her high heels tapping a tattoo on the marble floor. I took quite a bit of that whirlwind out of her sails by refusing the hug and the kiss she had in mind. I didn't even stand, let alone help her into one of the fragile chairs.

Her smile died. She sat down across the small table, her fingers nervously torturing her tan leather clutch – yes, definitely tan, I decided.

"So," I said. "I guess you found a better story?" Her face ran a gambit of emotions, half of which I could not read. The last one I'd qualify as despair, but that could very well have been due to my own feelings.

"Honey," she said and paused, closing her eyes and opening them again. Her voice was thick with controlled emotion – or was it indignation? "I don't need a story, truth will do. Why are you so cruel? I came here to tell you how very concerned I am – with you, with us. Just imagine – we make the most wonderful love and the next moment you are zonked out, draped totally drunk over our kitchen table, an empty bottle of booze before you. And all you rant about is a goddamned cufflink! Now how would you have felt in my place?"

I just stared. Then a waitress interrupted us. Neither of us seemed hungry. We ordered coffee and water.

"Now how would you have felt, Steve?" she immediately went on after the girl left. "I got scared out of my mind. You get up, go vomit in the bathroom and faze out again on our bed. I go pick up Eric, having an awful time not to betray my obvious distress to my mother – and when I get back all you want to know is how a fucking cufflink I've never seen ended up in our fucking bedroom. Then you pack your things and leave. You left me, Steve, and I didn't sleep a wink all night."

I can't say she never uses the word fuck, but I never heard her use it twice in one sentence – and connected to words like "bedroom" and "cufflink," no less. I did wonder what Freud might have thought about this. I also wondered how she could look this good after sleepless nights. And lastly I wondered why I wondered about things like that.

"Liza," I said finally. "You are right. This isn't a better story. It isn't even a story at all. The only thing you do and have been doing, is trying to convince me that I was too drunk to think straight, and that I should worry about my mental condition. Why do you do that, Liza?"

She gasped, not unlike a fish out of the water. Her hands crept towards mine, clasping them.

"I don't think you are crazy, honey," she said. "I love you and I worry. Something must have happened. I read about how people change when they have a stroke. You should see a doctor, honey, you really should!"

A freezing cold crept up my spine. She wouldn't ... How could she? With a voice that seemed to come from a distance, I said:

"No need to worry, Liza. I am as healthy as a horse, or maybe not a horse but the stupid ass you must think I am – one that believes your lies, whatever you say." Her eyes widened. They moved left and right, quickly.

"Oh dear God, honey," she whispered. "I don't lie! There never was a cufflink on the table – ever! Please, you must believe me." Her eyes stopped moving now. Her voice had turned warm and sincere. Her hands squeezed mine. Her lips even trembled slightly. It broke my heart.

"Why do you defend him so, Liza?" I asked. "Is he so important to you that you'd rather break my heart than break your secret?"

The sound was a kind of mewling until it turned into a tortured scream. She threw away my hands, kicking back her screeching chair before stomping out of the restaurant – leaving rows of baffled faces behind. Before the doors sighed closed, I called after her:

"I'll come to see Eric tonight!" All faces in the restaurant turned my way. I shrugged.

I did come over to pick up Eric that night. We took a hamburger and fries to the park, where we practiced baseball. It became kind of a tradition in the weeks that followed. He never asked what was wrong – he's a clever boy.

Liza didn't call me anymore during the days and nights that followed. I only called her if something came up concerning my visits. We never said more than our "hi's" and "bye's" when I picked him up or brought him back.

I stopped drinking and started reading. I also began to take my membership of the fitness club more seriously. I never liked the sweaty machines, but I loved doing mindless laps in the 25-meter pool. Liza was a member too, but I knew she only went on Saturday mornings – as far as I knew anything about her anymore, that is.

One night I ran into Roger, or rather, I swam past him – about thirty times. I only recognized him when we both climbed out of the pool. He looked good, toned and tanned. I remembered his long, muscular torso from the time we both swam at college. He grinned when he saw me, cleaning his left ear with the tip of his towel. His hair had thinned, I saw, and I wondered why that made me feel good.

"Steve," he said, walking up to me, clasping my hand.

"Roger," I answered.

We shared a drink at the 'health bar.' We had been good enough friends at college, which was remarkable as Roger back then had all the traits of the classic jock when I already showed the nerdy signs of the future bean counter I became. Most of our conversation was about reminiscing old times, shared acquaintances and the whereabouts of the men and women that made up our circle of friends, back then.

Roger left immediately after graduation to start his career in Europe. His rich father's business had obtained a spreading number of branch offices there, but Roger made a point of building his own career. I remember how we were able to keep track of his race up the corporate ladder by the Christmas cards he sent – Rome, I remember, Paris, London and St. Petersburg. But as often is the case, our contact tapered off until there was nothing left.

Remarkably, while we reminisced he never asked about Liza. I told him we had a child and that we were still together. I left it at that.

When we were back in the locker room to shower and get dressed, he told me that he'd returned a few weeks ago. He would stay just long enough to cure an ailing business in our town that was a new acquisition of the British conglomerate he worked for. A mere stepping-stone in his irrepressible march to the top, I supposed. But by then my mind was already distracted. I was wrestling with my tie – I hate the damned things – when I saw in the mirror how Roger slipped on a big ring. It was a signet ring, a huge one. I was unable to see what was on it, but I did see he was wearing matching cufflinks as well.

Then I remembered he is called Roger Chesterton. I forgot his middle name, but yes, it was enough to peak my interest.

Being separated tends to give one a lot of time alone. Some of it I used to search the Internet. Roger did indeed have an M for his middle name. But I also found a Martin C. Robinson, businessman and member of the local Chamber of Commerce. He was 38 years old. At the same Chamber I found a Carlos R. Montero, the 43 year-old owner of a construction company. I never knew Liza to fall for Latino's, but then again, did I know her at all? Through other channels I dug up Maurice R. Coleville, 44 years old and a VP at one of the bigger banks in town. He was black, but again: what did I know? And last but not least I found a guy called Richard (Ricky) C. Muratti, only mentioned to be a businessman owning an "import and export" company. I couldn't find his age, but the picture hinted at somewhere between 35 and 40. His hair was slicked back. He sported a thin moustache and a shining suit. Capiche?

Doing research can get you obsessed. The hunt in itself can become a goal, so I had to stop myself. I had to realize that the excitement of finding all these names might well distract me from my dark mood, but it wouldn't bring me any closer. Closer to what, I pondered. Closer to the man who dropped his cufflink in my wife's bedroom – and then what?

I had a list of five men with the initials that were on the backside of a cufflink – the link that was lost and found before disappearing, taken away by my wife. All five of them lived in the vicinity and were of an age close enough to Liza's. Close enough for what? For that, yes. Most of them also seemed to be wealthy enough to own signet cufflinks. I'd found a Mo(rris) C. Rawalski, but he was 61 and lived in a poor part of town. And after deliberating for some time I decided to drop Mary R. Callahan, 28, for obvious reasons, but who knows? Do lesbians wear cufflinks?

Five names, five men. Were they signet material? No way to know. Signet rings run in old families – traditional old money families. But they also are a status symbol, coveted by nouveaux riches who love to buy into fake tradition and show off the illusion of pedigree. And of course there were the members of special societies, like the Free Masons, but the prancing horse and the three dots didn't look like that at all, I thought.

I supposed Roger had the traditional background for them. He never wore them in college, but I guess he didn't want to flaunt his conservatism in a liberal place like that. Rickey the Mobster might also sport them for quite different reasons, but it would disappoint me in many ways if Liza fucked around with guys like him. I chuckled wearily. As if the kind of asshole she fucked would change my disgust for her actions. "Ah, but honey, I don't fuck Mafiosi, I fuck aristocracy."

The whole tawdry exercise started to annoy me. What were my options, anyway? To research each one of them? Even seek them out and confront them? "Sir, do you own signet cufflinks? I found one in my wife's bedroom." Or should I find a private detective and ask him to do the job for me? I slammed my laptop shut and went swimming. So did Roger, obviously. We once more had a drink afterwards, but we didn't talk much; he was in a hurry. Before he left he asked if I played golf, so I offered to introduce him to my club next Saturday morning.

He proved to be a great golfer; of course he would be. He also offered me part of the business of the local branch he visited. A sudden inspiration made me invite him to our house the next day. "Bring your wife, we'll do a nice barbeque." He accepted but told me his wife had stayed back in Paris. He would go back there after "tying up his little problem here."

I called Liza after he left and said we needed to talk. She seemed nervous about it, telling me she was at the Mall and wouldn't be home until dinnertime. I said that was fine, I would make dinner. She said Eric would be staying over at a friend. "Even better," I answered. She didn't ask why I said that. She seemed in a hurry.

So I got food and wine for dinner and meat and salad for the barbeque. I also bought beer, and a toy for Eric. I hesitated over a bunch of pink roses, but decided against it. Then I returned and bought them.

The house felt empty – not just because there were no people in it; it seemed as if some essence had leaked away. But of course this must all be just in my mind. I started by inspecting the bedroom. There was nothing out of the ordinary – not with the bed or the bed stands; not with the closets and the drawers. There were new clothes, nice ones too, but they were all hers. Same with the bathroom – no male toiletries, no extra tooth brush, no cufflinks lying around. Of course she could have run home to clean up, after I called, but somehow that didn't seem likely. Nevertheless, I inspected the waste bins; I even went down to the cellar – no results there either. Then I took a shower and dressed in a fresh shirt and slacks before going down to prepare dinner.

She arrived around six-thirty. She didn't rush in, nor did she smile, hug or kiss. She wore jeans and a sweater – plus two bags carrying the names of trendy fashion shops. The word that might describe her best was "wary." She didn't even comment on the delicious smells of the food or the flowers that stood prominently at the center of a nicely made table. She did answer my greetings, though, and excused herself for being late. Then she turned and went up the stairs. I heard the shower start. Twenty minutes later she came down, hair still damp, wearing the same jeans, but another sweater. I wondered why I felt disappointed. I wondered why I was here at all.

We drank her favorite wine. She admired the table, thanked for the flowers. She smiled, but all her actions were veiled with reserve. The happenings of the last two weeks must have made her wary; my running off, the refusal to take her phone calls or answer her e-mails, the dressing down at the restaurant, the cold attitude when I picked up Eric and who knows ... the continued visits of her lover? Where had she been today, I wondered – shopping, obviously, but all day? And did it matter? Yes, it did.

"Bon appétit, honey," I said, after serving the bowls of spicy pumpkin soup and garlic bread. "I can see that you must be confused." She looked up, smiling weakly. I blew on my first spoon and took a sip. "I just thought what the hell," I then said. "Not talking will get us nowhere either, will it?" The soup was too hot, so I lowered the spoon, watching her carefully before preparing what might possibly be a bomb.

"Part of my mission is to ask you if you would help me host a small barbeque gathering on our deck, tomorrow," I said. The question surprised her, of course. She looked puzzled. "Here?" she asked. I nodded. She sat wide-eyed. Then she suddenly rushed her words: "Of course, Steve. Of course I would."

A white smile opened up her face. "Does that mean..." she said without finishing the sentence. I held up my hand. "Don't you want to know who our guest will be?" I asked. She fluttered her lashes. "Of course, of course," she said. "Who is it?"

"Roger," I said. "Roger Chesterton – remember him?"

I don't know what I expected – blushing, paling, shock, embarrassment? Whatever she showed, it was nothing like that. The smile only got wider. "Roger from college?" she asked. "Tall, rich, good looking, slightly snobby Roger? God, we haven't seen him in ages, have we? Isn't he supposed to be in Europe?"

I told her how I'd met Roger and why he was here now. She asked all the right questions and seemed genuinely pleased with his visit. We ate our soup and the lamb chops I prepared. And by the time I served dark chocolate mousse and ice cream for dessert we were almost as happy and relaxed as we had been until a few weeks ago. Almost.

We drank coffee on the couch. Then I said I had to leave; she'd see me again next morning. That was when she started crying. It almost touched me. When I drove back to my dreary room I wondered if I wasn't an asshole as well, be it not the aristocratic type.

The barbeque went on famously, next afternoon. Liza wore her casual jeans and a jersey sweater, like yesterday. No dolling up for me, but neither for Roger. Her reactions convinced me that Liza hadn't seen him since the goodbye party when he left for Europe, more than a decade ago. There was never a lull in our conversation. He told us about his place in Paris and the woman he shared it with. We told him about Eric and the things that kept us busy. The air was balmy, the meat was tender and the beer cold.

Of course Roger wore a polo shirt; no cufflinks there. No signet ring either, this time. Was it normal not to wear one while casual? Who was I to know?

When he left he invited us for a follow up visit at a restaurant of his choice. I also made another golf date. We hadn't discussed our separation with him or even hinted at it. I'd felt very married all afternoon.

I picked up Eric at his friend's place and took him home. He was pleased to see me and beat me twice with his videogame to celebrate it. After taking him to bed and reading a chapter in his illustrated children's version of the Odyssee, I went down, planning on leaving.

"Please stay a bit longer," Liza said, offering me a glass of wine. I shrugged. "Thank you for this afternoon," she went on. "And for yesterday."

I sat down with her, sipping the wine.

"Now, what was this all about?" she then asked. Liza is a shrewd woman. I played innocent. "I couldn't very well entertain him at my shabby hotel room, could I?" I asked. She didn't buy it. So I decided to do what I'd planned not to do.

"Roger owns signet cufflinks," I said.

She didn't pale, but all softness left her face. She rose abruptly and walked over to the window, looking out.

"Okay," I said, rising too after putting down the glass. "I'll be around Tuesday afternoon to pick up Eric." And I turned to leave.

"No, Steve!" Her voice stopped me in my tracks. "Please stay. This can't go on like this."

My heart quickened. Would she confess? I turned, searching for her eyes. Or would she lie again? And even if she did, would I still consider it lying if she kept denying the existence of the damn cufflink? These last weeks had been hell for me; a hell that was based on one hazy memory – a memory of which the only proof had disappeared. I had left the love of my life for that one unproven, alcohol-soaked memory. I had left my son for it; my home and my life. Through the last two weeks I had become uncertain about my memories. I guess her unwavering determination wore me down. How certain was I? And should I destroy my life over it?

Why would she still lie? If she confessed her affair, could that be worse than the price we were already paying? If she truly cared about me, about us, these last weeks must have been hell for her too. She must have been as softened by this weekend, as I had been. Why not take the risk and come clean? And I? Why not take the risk and believe her?

"I listen," I said.

It turned out, though, that there wouldn't be much to listen to. She just smiled, saying nothing. Then she put down her glass and crossed her arms in front of her, hands down. Her fingers gripped the hem of her top, pulling it over her head. She shook her hair free; then threw the sweater aside. She started walking to me, swaying her hips in her tight jeans. Her bra cupped her breasts in white lace. It wasn't new or special. I saw a glimpse of dark nipples.

She closed her eyes and opened her lips; a wet tongue ran around them. Halfway she stopped. Her hands crept up behind her back, deftly opening the catch of her bra. The cups slid off, freeing her breasts, making them sway with her movements. She lost the bra and cupped her breasts; the nipples slid in and out between her fingers. I noticed the subtle softness of her belly, betraying her motherhood. It always touched me – not now.

She started walking again, placing her feet like a model. It made her hips sway. The jeans rode low on her hips. Her eyes never left mine. Then her face was almost into mine. I felt the warm air of her breath on my skin. Her bare tits flattened against my chest. I felt her hands at my belt. She moaned.

It was then that I pushed her away. She lost her balance when she hit the low table, but somehow ended on her knees. Her eyes were wide with disbelief. Her mouth worked, but there were no words.

"I listened," I said. "And do you know what is so very ironic? This time I would have believed you if you'd kept to your story." I waved my hands to encompass her body. "But this story? Sorry, honey, I don't think even you yourself believe it. Bye Liza."

I turned on my heels and walked away, feeling my cock throb in its confinement. I heard her voice when I reached the door. She called my name.

I didn't sleep that night. Had I misunderstood? Had I overreacted? I didn't think so. I felt used, manipulated. I felt patronized and let down. It made me sweat. It also made me cry.

In the morning I called my secretary not to count on me. And in the afternoon I sat with my lawyer. I learned I didn't need to have proof; "irreconcilable differences" were good enough for me. She could have the house if she kept her hands off my business. Sharing our private assets 50/50 was fine, but I had to have shared custody of Eric. There would be child support, naturally, and even some alimentation. The lawyer said he was sorry. I said I was too.

Liza was served two days later.

The moment I pressed the bell of the house that used to be mine its door flew open. Liza yelled in my face. She was too close and her voice too loud for me to understand her. The name Eric was in it, though. I waited until I might begin to understand what she said, but she went from screaming to crying – drowning her words. Then she fell against me, sobbing into my shoulder. I shortly wondered how much she cried, recently.

The material of my jacket muffled her voice enough to make me heard. "I came to pick up Eric," I said. The sobbing stopped. She looked up. Her face was blotched, her eyes wild.

"You won't get him," she said, hoarse with emotions. "You won't get to see your son until you talk to me. I won't agree to the divorce until you listen to me. Do you hear?" Her fists were around the lapels of my jacket.

I pushed her a few inches back. "I listened," I said. "Remember? And all you did was show me you are a slut who thinks she can fuck her way into my understanding. Do you think that would have convinced me? Do you think so little of me, Liza? Who are you? Who have you become?"

She broke down again and I again thought I never saw her cry as much as these last few weeks. I held her. "I am sorry," she said after a while. "It was s-stupid of me. I don't know what came over me. I was desperate for you. Please forgive me, I was a silly cow."

I rocked her gently. "It was a spectacular striptease, though," I said at last. "Didn't know you had it in you." Her smeared face looked up, suspiciously. She doubted my sincerity. Maybe she was right.

"Liza," I said. "What can be so horrible that you'd rather ruin our marriage than tell me?" She let go of my embrace, still sniffing. I handed her my handkerchief; she promptly used it to blow her nose. It made her look like a thirteen-year-old suffering from a spectacular cold.

Could I ever not love her?

But then she said: "Nothing! I told you over and over there is nothing; it is all in your mind. You tell me I lie. So I try not to repeat what you consider a lie. I try to show my love by seducing you and you divorce me! Now who is the crazy one here?"

She shook, but I felt shaken too by her last words.

"You still call me crazy?" I asked. Then I saw the faces of our neighbors peep through their curtains. I took Liza's shoulder and pushed her inside, closing the door behind me. "You still think I am crazy?"

She looked up at me. The thirteen year old had gone; the tears and the redness had stayed – a less attractive combination.

"How could I not?" she asked. A belligerent note crept back into her voice. "You accuse me of making a male cufflink disappear that you allegedly found in our bedroom. I NEVER SAW THAT GODDAMN CUFFLINK!!" The exploding voice made my ears ring. Fearing the consequences of her sudden outbreak, she grabbed my shoulders and almost whispered: "Sorry, honey, I shouldn't scream, but please believe me! Maybe it was something else? Maybe you never brought it into the kitchen? You drank a lot, darling. Maybe your memory was, ehm, compromised?"

I rubbed my tired eyes. "Darling," I said, using the endearment without thinking. "You were so damn adamant about the fucking thing not existing that I started believing you. And then you thought you had to be clever and throw in your body. But you only cheapened us, and all we ever had. Do you really think that a piece of ass and a quick blowjob would get you off the hook? That I would want to be married to a woman like that? Who do you think I am?"

She shook her head wildly. "It wasn't like that, Steve! I was at wit's end. You didn't believe me, so what could I do? I already said I am sorry."

"I am sorry too, Liza," I said. "I am sorry I let you talk to me. First you try to fuck me into believing you. And now you try to fuck with my head."

"No, honey, oh please don't ever think that!" she cried out. But I pushed her hands off of me and turned to leave. The thud I heard behind me, made me turn back. Liza had fallen to the floor, unconscious.

People falling down and staying down, unmoving, are a scary sight – whoever they are. This was my wife of seven years, the love of my life, the mother of my only child. She looked pale; she looked awful. It scared me shitless.

I walked over to the kitchen and got a cold, wet towel and a glass of water. When I returned, she moaned and tried to sit up. I put the towel in her neck and slid the rim of the glass over her lower lip, pouring some of the water in. It made her cough. It also made her return to the land of the living.

A smile tried to lift the corners of her pale lips. She groaned and mumbled before her words became audible. "Don't leave me, Steve. Please." I lifted her up and carried her to the couch. Her head was in my lap; a thin blanket covered her limbs. I should have left, but I couldn't. Not enough asshole genes, I guess.

I thought she fell asleep. I checked on her breathing. The house was eerily silent. But she either didn't sleep, or she woke up pretty soon, for her voice suddenly filled the air.

"I never cheated on you, Steve. Never. I love you. I never want to lose you. The cufflink..." her voice petered out. She rose and turned a bit, so I could see her face. "The cufflink never existed. You must have either dreamed, or your memory must have been playing tricks. Maybe it was like sleepwalking. You always told me you did that a lot, as a child. Please, believe me, Steve. I would have told you, if I had seen the thing – even if I really had cheated on you. It hurts me that you think I could lie to you."

Now she says it's been a dream, I thought; sleepwalking. It's no longer a stroke; I'm no longer a nutcase or an alcoholic. I dreamt it all, how novel. How convenient.

"Please don't divorce me, Steve. I couldn't live without you. And little Eric..."

I pulled my hands from hers. "Keep the boy out of it, Liza," I said. My voice had a rough edge. "And as for talking to you again, first stop lying."

I rose and ignored the renewed sobbing. The front door's hinges needed some oil, I noticed.

Of course Liza refused to accept the divorce. She did take a lawyer too and the unavoidable battle commenced. Every initiative of my attorney was stonewalled by the simple phrase that she first wanted to talk – face to face. Luckily her lawyer talked her out of keeping me away from Eric. We even succeeded in being as normal as possible around him. Up till now we also succeeded in keeping friends and relatives at bay. We had problems, we said; a rough patch that we tried to smoothen by a short separation – bla bla. Isn't it funny how we believe we can deceive people we consider intelligent?

My attorney made it clear to me that I could forget any speedy divorce as long as Liza wouldn't co-operate. He advised me to go and talk with her. I showed him the four remaining names of the men with the corresponding initials. Would it help to have them dug up by a PI and maybe have them interviewed? Carl (my lawyer) wasn't optimistic. He asked me if I thought Liza was continuing the affair, if ever there was one. I answered with another question: should we have Liza followed? He said it was my money.

Another two weeks went by, with two more adamant responses from Liza. I talked with a detective who was recommended by Carl, be it reluctantly. I guess my question stirred the man's interest. He had never been asked to follow a trail of cufflinks, I suppose. He thought that confronting their supposed owners might hardly do it; at best it would warn them off. But after some searching he came with another possibility. "If the seal is genuine," he said over the phone, "it ought to be found in special family registers. It could of course be some fantasy trinket you found, but as you believe the thing was real gold we might try and see." I gave him a go and already the next day he informed me that the seal with the prancing horse and the three balls belonged to a family called Moreland, heralding from Essex, England. It seemed I had found my M. It also seemed I could throw away the list of names I had found before, including Roger M. Chesterton.

"This won't help you any, Steve," Carl said. "Go talk to the woman. Half an hour might save you years. It won't hurt you, would it?" He obviously wasn't the one who had to do it. "And go find yourself a decent apartment. Staying in that shabby hole doesn't exactly project the image of a man bent on divorce, does it?"

He was right and I followed up on his advice to find a more definite place. I found one pretty soon – fully furnished and close to the office. Close enough to Eric's school as well. Following up his other advice wasn't quite as easy. All I really did was procrastinate to give myself the time to think of silly alternatives.

"Just sex?" she asked. Her voice struggled for control. A nervous grimace floated across her face.

"Yes, Liza," I said. "Just sex. It was good, but it meant nothing ­– it was just gymnastics. She had a great body, though – lovely tits. A bit bigger than yours I'd say, and firmer, but then again, she was at least ten years younger. Other than that, just sex. Sweaty, athletic exercise."

Her eyes darkened under her knitted brow – I saw the anger brewing. "Bullshit, Steve," she spat. "There must have been more. You are not a "just sex" guy. I know you."

"You know me," I repeated. "But do you really, honey? Do you know me as well as I thought I knew you?"

She ignored my question. Her face darkened until she exploded into a scream. "You fucking asshole! For months now you harass me with your childish accusations and your trumped up allegations about men dropping their cufflinks in my bedroom, no doubt after fucking me. You accuse me without a trace of proof. And now you tell me YOU cheated on ME??" She rose, her arms forward, fingers clawing into an invisible throat. "Get out! You cheating asshole, you'll never ever see your son again. I'll divorce the pants off your cheating ass. Get out. GET OUT OF MY LIFE!!"

I stood and grabbed her arms when she attacked me. I held her tight, our faces close. I started laughing, stunning her into silence.

"I lied, Liza," I said. The words dropped calmly into her sudden silence. "I never cheated on you – never, ever. You are right; I could never do that."

She gasped as if lacking air. "You ... lied?"

"Yes," I said.

"Why?" she asked, stunned, her voice distracted. "Why ... lie?"

I followed her wandering eyes, trying to capture them.

"Why indeed," I said. "It must seem crazy. But I had to find a way to let you feel how it is to be lied to. I obviously couldn't tell you I didn't cheat, like you did, so I had to use the reverse way. On the other hand, who knows; maybe I am lying now and wasn't before. Or the other way around. Getting dizzy, honey? I only have your word, don't I? Just as you only have mine. How does that strike you?"

Her sails had lost their wind. Her arms went limp with her sagging shoulders. "You ... lied," she mumbled. "Maybe," I said. "Maybe not."

"You ... asshole," she whispered, but there was no anger in her voice; she rather sounded surprised.

"I guess so," I said.

Yes, it was a truly insane plan I brought with me to the talk she'd wanted so badly. But by then it was all I had left. I hadn't a trace of evidence about her infidelity – only the never fading memories of that night. The god-awful cufflink still seemed to stick to the sole of my foot.

The day I executed my silly plan was when we at last met in a small conference room at her attorney's office building. I let her talk first and was once again disappointed by the way she rehashed her standard story. This time it was wrapped in platitudes about love, trust and my fatherly responsibilities – which only pissed me off more.

So, after half an hour of (again) tears and hot wind, I decided to give her my so-called confession of infidelity. And now here we were, sitting in impersonal office-chairs around a shining design table – paid for with the misery of anonymous people like us. Liza just sat, silently staring. "No," she then said, as if coming to a conclusion. "No, Steve, you're not the asshole here, I am. But no more – I've done enough, protecting the true asshole."

I looked at her, taken aback by her almost translucent paleness. She sat trembling, looking like a ghost.

"Roger is a charlatan, Steve," she said in a robotic voice. "I married him in college."

"You what?" I was completely thrown off balance.

"He is gay, Steve. And being gay is, well, let's say not done in his family. It would have cost him his career, his inheritance, everything, if his father would know. So I cut a deal with him."

I just looked and listened, not believing I was even there.

"But," I then muttered. "He has a wife in..." She shrugged.

"So many homo's marry to cover up, don't they?" she said. "He did back then, so why not now?"

"Anyway," she went on. "I had no money. You don't know that, but I had no funds at the time, just a small scholarship to pay for college, but that was all. My two meager jobs could just barely pay for the rent. As you do know, I am the only one who ever went to college in my family. And then my father died. I had to succeed, if only for his and mom's lifelong dream." She sniffed, running a sleeve over her eyes before going on.

"Right then I was over my head in debts. Roger offered me a way out when my expectations were the bleakest. Beside that, he made it look like just another silly prank. So he started taking me to this posh mansion of his father's, parading me like his fiancée. He dressed me in expensive gear and showed me off like the eye candy I was supposed to be. Only months later he married me in a way over the top ceremony, complete with a white wedding dress and a five-tiered cake. I hardly saw him during our honeymoon. The whole thing, I'm afraid, was scary, but also pretty overwhelming."

"That was when?" I asked. At last my head started working itself out of the shock and around the surreal surprise.

"First year in college, way before we met," she said, touching my arm. "Roger was the perfect gentleman in public, albeit a lying one. But then everything crashed down around me. There was a party one night at his father's mansion; his trophy stepmother turned thirty-five if I remember well. It was a big and posh affair with valets and butlers and a real life orchestra. We arrived in Roger's white Porsche ... you remember it."

I did. He had several.

"At first, the party was like living a dream – Cinderella, Sissy, the whole chandeliered shebang. There were champagne fountains and mountains of oysters, caviar. Guests paraded entire wardrobes of Dior, St. Laurent, Prada and Gucci. There were fur coats and sparkling jewelry, film stars and politicians. Millionaires were as common as cosmetic surgery." Liza's eyes still shone with the memory.

"I guess," she went on, "that I drank too much, but I certainly was high on excitement. So afterwards I could not tell how I finished up in this ballroom size bedroom, lying naked on the four poster Louis the Umpteenth bed."

Her eyes returned from the past. A sudden uncertainty seemed to stop her. Then she shrugged.

"Roger's father pinned me to the bed with his huge hands while his heavy body pressed down on me. His head was close to mine; he smelled of cigars. Then he mumbled something about "droit du seigneur" and I felt his cock enter my vagina. I was no virgin, but he was very large and I was rather dry. He also wasn't the last one who fucked me that night ... not by far."

Liza coughed, looking away. I searched for her hands, holding them. "Bastards," I said. She winced at the word.

"The next morning I threatened to go to the police. They might call it whatever they wanted, I had been raped, I said. I had a very sore pussy filled with goo to prove it. Roger wasn't there, his father was. He just grinned and said I shouldn't be silly; no one would believe me. They would consider me a gold digging party girl who got clever after getting herself fucked. He said he was sorry and offered me ten thousand dollars..."

Another silence interrupted her story. She blushed fiercely before going on.

"I ... Roger had money, of course, and he'd pampered me with dresses and trips, but I had never seen so much money – let alone owned it. If you are hungry food can obsess you. If you are poor the mere sight of a lot of money can severely influence your judgment, believe me. Not that I wasn't already very confused by all that had happened. I was nineteen; I had gone through hell. I took the money."

She stared at me, almost challenging. I stared back until her eyes turned away.

"Three weeks later I missed my period. I was pregnant and of course I had no idea who the father was. Roger paid for the abortion. He also promised a large sum for my silence, a monthly allowance. I didn't even have to blackmail him, but I had to collect the money at his father's. It soon became all too clear what the money was really for, but by then I was past caring. I was a little rich, mentally wrecked girl; I dropped out of college for a year."

"These goddamned assholes," I said, surprised by my vehemence. "I'll kill them."

"Don't," she said. "They're not worth going to prison for." I shook my head, but of course she was right. "Besides," she went on, "this is not the whole story. In the end you may think differently."

I only discovered that her hands had been in mine when she started sliding them out from between my fingers. "I am thirsty," she said. "Would you pour me some water?" I got a glass and filled it from a pitcher. The noisy ice cubes were the only sound. She sipped. Then she smiled an uncertain half-smile.

"I was crazy for a while," she said, picking up the story again. "It was a stretch of ... parties, one might call them, I guess. Exotic trips too. I was in private planes and on private yachts; there were tropical islands, big cities. I lived in incredible villas and square-mile penthouses. There was no limit on my credit cards. No walk-in closet was big enough for my wardrobe. There were lines of white powder too. And I have never been as constantly fucked as during that year."

She fell silent again, her eyes down. Her fingers strangled her glass. She looked up. "Sorry," she whispered.

I cleared my throat. "What made you change back?"

She stared at me as if the question confused her. "Ah, yes," she said at last. "Change back..." She took a gulp of water, making the ice-cubes tingle. "It happened at a ... business trip to Vegas, ten months after it all started. I lay on a huge bed after a night of limitless fucking. I knew none of the participants, just that there had been many men – women too. By then they had all left, leaving me sprawled amidst smelly pillows and soaked sheets. The sun pried at my caked eyelids. My jaws hurt, as did my pussy and my ... Well, anyway, I was a mess. And I realized there had been way too many mornings lately when I had been this same mess – hair and skin caked with come, powder clinging to my burning nostrils. I crawled off the bed. On my way to the bathroom I broke down."

The silence was perfect. My breathing had stopped. I imagined the woman I had loved for eight years lying there as she'd described herself. A coke whore. A fucked out company slut. The room started spinning. Bile rose in my throat. Her voice came from a distance.

"Are you all right, Steve? Oh God, I feel so awful and I am so sorry. I can understand why you'd want to get rid of me. That's why I couldn't tell you this. Not when we met, not after. And certainly not after we had little Eric. I am so sorry, Steve. Steve?"

I must have been a sight, stumbling over a chair, trying to reach a wastebasket and throwing up in it. My head glowed like a light bulb. My throat retched with dry-heaves. I stank. When I felt her arm around me, my tears found a way out.

I guess I'd been pretty loud. Carl, her lawyer and a secretary rushed in, uttering their concern. I told them I would be all right, probably a bug or something I ate, you know? I freshened up in the bathroom and returned. Liza was fussing over me like a mother. She said it was all right with her if I wanted to go home and maybe lie down. I wondered if she might be talking for herself; she looked pale.

"No," I said. "We aren't finished, are we?" That at least sent a blush to chase the paleness away. "No," she said. "We aren't. But could we go ... some place else? Maybe outside?" I thought she had a point. A few minutes later we walked into a nearby park. The air was lovely. Her hand searched mine, but I refused to take it.

"What happened after you broke down?" I asked. Being forced back into her story obviously bothered her. It had been sweet to just walk together. A cloud settled on her brow.

"I, ehm," she started. "I woke up in a hospital. The doctors told me I was on the brink of total exhaustion, partly caused by the pills and cocaine I took. And the fuck marathons, of course, but they never said that. They weren't entirely clueless, though. An hour later the police visited me; FBI, I think. They had all kinds of questions. Apart from Roger's family and a few others I had no names for them. The herds of men in my beds had always been anonymous. It was hard to even remember a face without mixing it up with others'. Cocks might be better reference, but I doubt they have data banks for that?"

She grinned sarcastically, but her eyes were cold. "After they left I fell into a deep sleep and woke up the next morning. There was a woman at my bedside. She was a psychiatrist. Without meaning to, I gave her the whole story. It must have been due to my weakness, but it ended up being the best thing I could have done. When I flew back here, three days later, I had an appointment with Suzan Atkins. You know her."

I did. I'd been told she was an old friend, though. She often dined with us. "You never told me she was your therapist?"

"She wasn't," Liza said. "She is." I stared past the lawn to a glimmering pool. Two little boys were busy launching a toy sailboat.

"You have many secrets, Liza," I said. "Too many." I heard her sigh. Her hand once again touched mine. And again I refused to acknowledge it.

"In the next few months I took therapy," she went on. "I avoided most people except family. Curiously, Roger never called me or came looking for contact. In the second semester of the next year I started attending college again. Now you know why I struggled with Business Management; I had fallen behind. You may wonder why I decided not to change colleges, but I did not want to leave my mother alone. Thanks to all my therapy, avoiding Roger proved to be quite easy. Especially after he apologized. You see, he is just this little gay boy, crushed by his awful bully of a father. He was really sweet when he handed me an annulment of our marriage and quite a sum of money. I hesitated about the money. Then I decided I would use it as a fake trust to finance my studies. I also used part of it to pay off mom's house."

"Must have been quite a sum," I said. "I guess Roger was afraid you might blackmail him and betray his homosexuality to his father after all." I wondered if I cared.

"Yes," she said, chasing a bee with her hand. "There was that, of course. But there was guilt too. As I said, Roger isn't as tough as he wants us all to believe. He's been bullied all his life, partly growing up without a mother. I think he really felt guilty for letting his father do to me what he did."

"Bullshit," I said, looking away. She shrugged. "Anyway," she went on. "They left me alone. And then I met you and it all became moot." I snorted.

"Clueless me," I said. "Stupid Stevie. It must have been easy to keep the moonstruck idiot in the dark about your slutty past. You must have had a ball with Roger Rabbit, joking behind my back." I sounded bitter because I was. Her sharp intake of breath was followed by both her hands grabbing me. "No!" she cried out. "Never! Oh please, Steve, never say that. Don't destroy all we have. You were the best thing ever happening to me. You are! My love is real. I love you, Steven Stevenson." God, did I hate being called that.

I shook myself free and rose to walk away a few steps. I had to be away. She sat with her face in her hands, but I couldn't see or hear her cry.

"I became friends with the creep, goddammit!" I said. "We partied, did trips, we even studied with him at our flat and you never told me! I invited him last week and you were happy and relaxed around him, all the time keeping this secret from me. Who do you think I am? Who are you?"

She looked up. I saw now that she had indeed cried. "It was you I was in love with, Steve. I still am. Nothing else mattered. Nothing else does."

Another "bullshit" lay on the tip of my tongue, but I swallowed it. I guess mostly because I felt it wasn't bullshit. I walked away a bit farther before turning again, watching her.

"What about the cufflink?" I asked. "I heard a million words and we still haven't arrived at the retched thing."

There was silence. It lengthened until it seemed to get a life of its own, filling up with the buzzing of insects and the twitter of birds. There were excited cries of the boys at the lake. But at the silent center of it all was her face, closed like a clam. What was it about that damned cufflink? How could it be more difficult than what she already told me? Roger was in the past, or was he? Had he been visiting her? In the bedroom? Was that it? Had he never been gay after all? I exploded: "My God, Liza! I KNOW that the fucking cufflink is Roger's! His initials were on it. So was he in your bedroom while I was gone? Did you lie about him being gay? Did you fuck him for old times' sakes? Are you still with him? Do you want to leave me for him? Talk to me, Liza!"

Her head started to slowly shake left and right. "It wasn't Roger's," she then said, almost whispering while a new paleness spread to prove she could be whiter still.

I slumped down on the bench right across from hers. So it had been true; there had been a cufflink and she knew whose it was. She'd lied and denied and lied a bit more, just to keep it a secret. She'd even used Eric to beat my brow. "You lied to me after all," I groaned. "You told me I was sick, that I had dreamt it all, that I was a delirious drunkard. You did everything to keep me from knowing what you knew all the time. You'd rather drive me away from Eric than tell me the truth. Who are you, Liza? How could you? Who are you?"

She broke down crying. Not just crying – bawling. I rose, feeling my knees tremble. Then I walked out of the park. I found my car and drove. I just drove.

I'm afraid I drank again. At a bar I met a few people who thought they'd found the same solution to similar problems. As the night progressed, we learned to understand each other better and better. In the end the barman thought it wise to keep my car keys; I didn't want to disappoint him. The cab driver had a problem understanding my directions, which wasn't so strange – I hardly knew where I was.

Next morning the phone rang too early, ten o'clock, but twelve o'clock would have been early too, as would have been three in the afternoon. When I got the delusive bastard, it went to voice mail. "Please," a voice with a crack in it said. "Please, please, Steven, call me. I'm alone, I'm sad, I'm sorry." It was Liza, of course. The one voice I didn't want to hear. The one voice I ached to hear.

Maybe I was still drunk or maybe I am indeed a sentimental dope, but I called her. We were both silent for a while. She probably was as stunned as I was by my actually calling.

"I'm so scared," she said at last.

"I'm still drunk," I answered.

Maybe our physical distance caused it, or our disembodied voices. Or maybe it was the emotional exhaustion that gave me the feeling that we really talked for the first time since the damn cufflink bit my foot. The truth was not so much in what we said, it was in the sound of our voices.

I told her I admired her courage. "Yes," she said. "Not bad for a coward." I heard her giggle, knowing that she didn't want to, but couldn't suppress it. Humor is such a sneaky intruder, always looking to be misunderstood.

"The more courageous since I think the truly bad part still has to come," I added. This only provoked silence. "You still there?" I asked. "Yes," she said at the end of a mighty sigh.

"Can we talk?" she asked. "Talk some more?"

"But we do talk now, don't we?" She sighed again.

"I love to hear your voice," she said. "But I have to see your face too."

"Why?" I asked. "To see if I'm lying?" Damn, I thought, who needs smart asses?

"I deserve that, I guess," she said. It started a new silence.

"How much will it hurt me this time, Liza?" I asked at last. The easy intimacy had gone; we were back in Iceland.

"You said you wanted the truth, Steve. So yes, it will hurt. It will hurt us both." Her voice trembled.

"Swing, two o'clock," I said and she knew what I meant.

The swing was at the tiny park behind our house. Eric had worn it out until he decided that he was "too old for that." He'd made his friends there, two of whom he was still very close with. They kept meeting at the park, but never to use the swing again. And of course we weren't supposed to chaperone him anymore.

Liza and I used to go there, nevertheless – sometimes alone, sometimes together. It was a nice and often quiet spot to do some reading; or to just talk, like now. One bench was our favorite, as it had some privacy behind an overgrown hedge of sweet-smelling dog roses.

She was there already when I arrived, flipping through a magazine. Her legs were bare under shorts and a tank top; her feet were in flip-flops. The air was sweet; spring was kissing summer.

I watched her from behind the roses. She looked good. When relaxed, her face had this touch of innocence, even in her mid-thirties. But of course that impression didn't last. Memories of what she told me yesterday crept into my head, darkening my view. Seeing her like this and knowing what she had been capable of doing made for a very sick cocktail – especially since it had an erotic undertone.

I guess I wasn't in the mood for undertones.

"Hi, Liza. Such a lovely day." She looked up, producing a nervous smile. "Hi, Steve," she said and made room for me on the bench, patting the seat. After I sat down, she touched my arm. "Yes," she agreed. "It's lovely." We sat and watched the first roses. Memories crowded my mind, colliding with today's reality. Maybe choosing this place had been a sad mistake, poisoning whatever sweet memories it still possessed.

"Do you think it will stay lovely, Liza?" I asked. "The day, I mean?" She sighed, lifting her shoulders. I always loved the fragility of her collarbones. The silence stretched; there were children's voices in the distance.

"So you said the cufflink wasn't Roger's," I began, just to remind her where we'd left off. She started answering twice, but there were no words.

"It was his father's," she then said. She almost whispered the words, her voice trembling. She never looked at me. I exploded.

"HIS GODDAMN FUCKING FATHER??" I cried, jumping to my feet. "The one who raped you? Who used you as his whore? The one who pimped you out to his buddies? Who drugged you? The one who left you with child and made you abort it? The one who bought and sold you?"

She never answered. I was cloaked in a cloud of blood red anger, unable to form words, let alone string them into sentences. I walked away and returned and walked away again. Then I returned and forced her to look at me by grabbing her chin. Her eyes went wide with fear.

"You still see him?" I asked, only marginally calmer. "You still fuck him? You still let yourself be whored out by him??" She shook her head in denial, but kept her silence.

"Talk to me, Liza!" I said, forcing the words through clenched teeth. "Talk to me."

She wrung her hands. I'd never seen people actually do that, but she did. Her eyes were swimming in tears – tears again. "Please, Steve, sit down," she then said, but I didn't. She sighed.

"I should have told you the first time he called again," she said. "It was in February, you were at that seminar in Denver. The doorbell sounded and as I was expecting our neighbor Anne to visit, I opened the door without checking." The memory made her eyebrows frown.

"He still was ... massive." She hesitated before going on. "And he still had the square, ruddy face – jowls, bushy eyebrows, bristling moustache, big nose with flaring nostrils, fat wet lips and teeth, strong yellow teeth." She shivered, looking away. Her fingers were plucking at her skirt. "But he smiled," she went on, looking almost surprised. "He said he'd been in the neighborhood and suddenly wondered how I might be doing. It was all bullshit, of course, but he covered it with the sick honey voice I remembered. And while he talked, he forced his bulk inside, filling the doorframe – making me retire into the hall. I should have run or whatever; screamed maybe, but I was mesmerized. I was nineteen again, and completely helpless. I stood and looked, no doubt giving him all the wrong signals."

"You let him fuck you again," I said, sickened by the resignation in my voice. Her head flew up, her eyes wide. "No!" she cried out. "No, I didn't. I love you, Steve. How could I betray you?"

"But he did fuck you."

"He raped me," she said through a veil of despair, her voice shrill, her hands grabbing mine. "He tore the clothes off my body, threw me ... threw me face down over the sofa's side and, and rammed his cock up my ... ass, ass hole ... no preparation, nothing ... he hurt me, hurt me..."

Her voice by then had the high, mewling sound of a cat. I pushed her away and stood over her. Her hands went up to cover her eyes. "Rape," I said. "He raped you and of course you screamed for help. You ran to the neighbors, afterwards. You called the police. You called me ... But no, you didn't really, did you, Liza? You didn't do anything like that, did you?"

She cried. I shook with anger. The day had surely lost its loveliness. I wanted to run, but my legs refused to obey. Time went on, nothing happened. Then she looked up, her hands baring her tear stained face – fucking tears.

"I just lay there, hurting, Steve, my face buried in the sofa's leather. His breathing calmed; the bulk of his body lifted off mine; his softened cock slid out of my burning hole. I heard a zipper close. His voice was hoarse when he said I was still the great fuck he remembered. He also said he knew about your new business and how vulnerable it still must be. Then he said he knew where Eric went to school. He slapped my ass hard, marking me with a purple bruise. 'Be a good girl, ' he said. 'Wait for my call.' And he left."

I stared at her ruined face. I remembered the bruise and her excuse for it. "So you waited for his call," I said. "Being a good girl for Daddy; never telling me anything." My voice sounded powerless.

"I didn't think I had a choice," she said. "He threatened you, he threatened Eric. I was scared shitless."

I sat down beside her, defeated. "Yes, you didn't think," I said. Her eyes were dark, framed in weeping mascara. "I did think, Steve," she said with a halting voice. "I did, too – a lot. But please understand. He threatened everything I love – you, little Eric ... What else could I have done? It scared me to death."

Her words pulled the rug from under the last remnants of my sanity, plunging me into despair.

"Fuck you, Liza!" I said, not even raising my voice. The coldness startled her. "Do you even hear what you're saying? You whored yourself out to protect us? Do you think so little of me that you don't even consider I might have protected you and my child – that I at least should have had the chance? Don't you see that you killed my self respect by not even considering that?" My rising anger increased the volume of my voice until I screamed. "You can't have been as silly as that, bitch – not then, not now. Don't you see how ridiculous your words are? Fucking the bastard and his degenerate buddies to protect the ones you love?"

She watched me with her mouth open. "It... , " she started. "It was all I could think of. Please, you must believe me. I was so scared, Steve. They would have killed you, us. You, you don't know him, don't know him like I do. He is a monster."

I rose. My legs were like rubber. "Yes, Liza," I said. "I am certain you know him better, much better. But if he's a monster, he's your monster, all yours." Her hands reached out, but I turned away from them. "There will be new divorce papers," I said. "I won't let you keep Eric; not like this. Good bye, Liza."

And I left.

It was a silly bluff, of course. No way could my attorney have made it stick. "I can write up any fairytale you'd like," he said. "Including evil mother-witches and bloodthirsty trolls, but you don't have a shred of evidence, do you? All you know is what she told you and she won't testify surely. She would risk losing custody if she did." He shrugged. "Stay with the papers we already got. Make her sign them and find a way to live with it."

She didn't sign, of course, not even our first, generous version. Part of me was infuriated by it – the angry part. Another part was just paralyzed – the part of the silly lover who still didn't want a divorce at all. Divorce? What would it get me? Freedom? The very word made me chuckle. I'd never be free. Who's free when he still loves the bitch that tears the heart from his chest? All I would be was the bitter long distance father of a torn-up boy. A child that might not even be mine, really. Last February, she said? I have only her word for that, don't I?

The next few weeks I lived alone in every sense of the word. I worked a lot, as it was the only way to avoid the demons that waited at home. Home? Sorry, I mean the apartment I lived in.

I missed holding, smelling, kissing Liza. I missed reading my son from his children's Odyssee. I could only hope he missed it too – just like I hoped he missed beating me in a video game or going to the park to practice ball. But how could I miss them – a woman who obeys another man and a child that might not be mine either?

Liza called and e-mailed me, mostly to offer me time with Eric. I never responded. For two murky months I was one sorry son of a bitch. No one felt sorrier for me than I did.

At last the self-disgust boiled over.

"I have no intention to die, Steve."

I studied the man's face, puzzled by his statement. He was the private detective I had hired. His name was Phil Manson. In the past half hour he had reported about Robert Terence David Frederick Archibald Chesterton, CEO and owner of a small empire of corporations all over the world. He was worth a sloppy six billion dollars and heir to the noble Moreland family estate in Essex, England – Robert Count Moreland was the name he used, to be precise.

Phil also gave me a glimpse of the more private life of the Count, starting with a flamboyant and well-published youth at locations like Monaco, Rome and Los Angeles. There, to the delight of many a hard working paparazzo, he frequented posh clubs, was seen with half naked starlets and crashed expensive cars. When the old Count died, he changed, though. He took over the family business, proving that the energies of his playboy lifestyle could be easily transferred to the world of global business. As if by turning a switch the limelight went off, plunging the once racy private life of Count Moreland into impenetrable darkness. Of course there were rumors of ongoing orgies and the liberal spending of money in wealthy places. But what the world's eye saw from then on was just a serious and extremely successful businessman. Sure, he entertained, and dazzlingly so, but there were no more scandals, no more playboy silliness.

I studied some of the pictures that accompanied the report. Moreland had been an athletic youth in his playboy-years; tall, dark and handsome, not unlike his later son. But there was one rather large portrait of more recent times, reminding me of how Liza had described him. Sure, he was big and fleshy, wearing his gray hair in a buzz. He had a ruddy skin, but he was nowhere the primitive gnome she'd suggested. He was meticulously groomed. The eyes looked intelligent and there was even a rather paradoxical softness to his smile. A great actor? A wolf in sheep's clothes? Or perhaps a misrepresentation by my wife – maybe on purpose, who knows? It's easier to believe that brutes rape women, isn't it? Not well-groomed gentlemen.

I read that Moreland married Lady Anne Moresby, a sturdy, well-connected girl with a face to suit her hobby – horses. Her ample loins duly presented the Count with a son, Roger, and a daughter, Elizabeth, who sadly inherited her mother's equine genes.

To the indignation of their British peers, the family moved to the United States where Count Robert wanted to live for business reasons. Eight years later a homesick Anne and her daughter returned to England, after a remarkably discreet divorce. It provided her with enough money to buy every worthwhile horse in Essex. The Count soon remarried a well-known blonde model not even half his age. The son, Roger, stayed with him. He went to a college that, remarkably, was not one of the Ivy League elite-schools. He excelled in sports and generally followed in his father's playboy footsteps, driving fast cars and being photographed at all the right hotspots, holding all the right hotties.

Then he suddenly married. There was an illustrated account of the day. The bride was a lovely young girl, whose antecedents were kept a mystery. Her name was Liza Shearer, 19 years old and a "college sweetheart." Her smile outshone the dazzling whiteness of her dress. They divorced about a year later. That news only got five lines in a local paper.

There was more, though, Phil said. He produced a hazy copy-of-a-copy of a report from the FBI, concerning the arrest of a Mafia-type group of men in Las Vegas, about a year after the wedding. There seemed to be drugs involved and there was a suggestion of female slave trade and prostitution. The case had been dropped for lack of hard evidence. Liza's name was mentioned; there was even a typed-out interview with her, riddled with "don't knows" and "never saws." The name of Count Moreland wasn't mentioned, but there was an R. Chesterton – probably him, more likely his son.

After glancing through the information, I looked up. "That's all?" I asked. "There is nothing new in here; nothing she didn't already tell me. What I need is dirt on the damn Count, I mean the real sticky kind."

The man watched me silently. Then he asked: "And if I gave you that, what would you do with it?" I watched him, puzzled by the question.

"Well," I said at last, "nail him, of course. The animal invades my house, rapes my wife, blackmails her into becoming his whore by threatening me, our son and my business – and you ask me what I should do?" He again waited before answering.

"But there is no evidence, Steve," he then said. "Not a shred – just hearsay and rumors; just the confession of your wife. Would she testify? And if – would she be believed, even by you and me? This guy has clout, real clout. We talk about a six billion dollar international tycoon with mobster connections."

I looked at him. "Do you have evidence?" I asked. "Any evidence about anything?"

That's where he made the statement of not being ready to die. It was the first moment I realized the dizzying depth of the shit I was in –­ and the utter improbability of ever getting out.

Phil did produce evidence. Not of the bastard fucking my wife, but of his real business. There were print outs of phone calls, copies of memos, letters, balances. There were pictures of him shaking hands with U.S. senators, with organized crime capos, rogue state leaders and weapon dealers. But there was never anything explicit, only the proof that Moreland moved in bright as well as shady circles. If this was evidence of anything, we might just as well drag every politician, businessman or lawyer into court.

"So he is a bad ass," I said, leaning back. "How many years in prison do you get for bad assery?" Phil shrugged.

"You asked what I got. This is what I got."

I remembered his statement concerning the possible ending of his life. What I saw in front of me would never result in that. There had to be more. So I nudged and poked, but he was adamant. I gave up, returning to what really obsessed me.

"So he visits her at home," I said, picking up on a piece of information he gave me earlier.

"Yes," he said. "Regularly – sometimes for a few hours, sometimes all night. But she also takes the boy to her mom and leaves for a few days – sometimes with his private jet: Vegas, Manhattan."

"What is regularly?"

"Once, sometimes twice a week when he is around. He's abroad a lot, but there are others." I winced.


"Buddies, I guess. Business favors, maybe."

"In her house?" I asked. "What about Eric?" He raised his hands.

"The boy is out when it happens," he said. Then, shrugging: "I guess."

"You guess?"

"Look," he said, leaning forward. "You asked me to tail the bastard. Any idea how hard that is? He lives in a cocoon of security guards – they are everywhere, and they are good. All I can do is follow his schedule, see where he goes, but never what he does inside. Or what happens there." I nodded.

"Sorry," I said. "Of course I know and I appreciate what you found out. When will he visit her again?" He looked up, his eyes narrowing.

"No chance, Steve," he said. "No fucking chance. Don't even think about it." I just watched him.

"I think of nothing else, Phil," I said. "Of nothing else."

As it had been my house for years, I knew where to stand close without being seen. I'd arrived at 5:00 in the morning. It was still dark and rather misty when I stealthily took my place in the clump of thick conifers twenty feet to the right of my porch – my ex-porch. About two hours later I was still there; it was chilly, moist mist clinging to the bushes. I supposed I was safe, wondering where the bastard's goons were.

Three weeks ago I started checking out the house. It had been a tedious chore, but easy. Whenever I spotted the black Mercedes in the street and the gorilla on the porch, I could be sure Moreland was visiting. So I bought the gun, shocked at how easy that was. I took a few lessons at a shooting range, once more surprised how soon I could regularly hit my marks

The weapon felt cold and heavy in my pocket as my hand closed around it. I knew how to use it, but would I be able to actually draw and shoot? Would I even get a chance? And if I did, would I live? Did I care? What was the point of even caring? If I succeeded and also managed to escape, I would either be hunted down by the bastard's goons or the police. It would be death or life imprisonment; take your pick.

I shrugged, steeling myself with the thought that it didn't matter anymore. The loneliness, not seeing Eric, missing Liza and knowing that she didn't miss me at all, had drug me into the black hole of a depression. I was certain that my life would be over after the divorce. Even if she'd been generous at first, I was sure she would find ways to shut me out of the life of our son – and if she didn't, the bastard would.

I once more wondered why there was no guard on the porch. Moreland must have gotten careless when things became routine. I winced at the word routine.

After standing there for almost two hours, my feet were numb; there was a growing tension between my shoulders. It obviously had been an all-nighter – pretty long for a rape, I mused sarcastically. Was it ever rape? The way Liza told me about her "crazy year" had been like reliving an adventure. It had been dangerous, maybe, and laced with horror towards the end, but exciting nevertheless. There had been lots of money for a once-poor student, first-class travel, expensive clothes, unlimited sex, and cocaine – just like she has now, I thought. The ending might have been less glamorous, but Liza's mind seemed to travel back longingly, when she told me her story. But that may have just been my overheated interpretation.

I do believe that Moreland's brutal sex on the day he returned was rape, and for a reason. He must have known Liza well – better than I did. He knew from the past what rape did to her. It would scare her enough to obey his wishes. She wouldn't tell me or anyone else. At the same time it would get her ready to become his whore. Was the supposed threat to Eric's life and my business meant to break her? Or did he just offer her a convenient outlet for her guilt? Maybe it had been both. Or maybe Liza had added the threats herself, to allay her conscience?

Just thinking about it disgusted me. This was Liza, you know? My Liza? Yes, but who the fuck was Liza?

My train of thought had me wonder. Why would he want Liza anyway? She was a beautiful woman; the most beautiful in my eyes. But Moreland's world must be filled with beautiful women. Liza was great in bed; the most sensual woman I've known. But what do I know, compared to the asshole? He must have been knee-deep in willing women all of his life. So why Liza? Why destroy a marriage only to have what must be thirteen to a dozen for him?

Waiting for hours while your nerves are taut isn't the best pastime to make you think clearly. My mind was flooded with fantasies that had spooked me ever since Liza's confession. In none of my imaginations did I see her as the resisting victim of a brutal rape. No, in my imagination her arms wrapped themselves tenderly around his neck, her legs eagerly climbing the brute's hairy shoulders. It gave him the deepest access to her treacherous cunt, I knew – a cunt that she'd of course carefully shaved for him. In my mind his cock was huge and his spade-sized claws mangled her tits. I saw her sweet soft lips stretch around his monster cock; I also saw it split her ass. And throughout the entire ordeal she kept watching me, smiling pitiful smiles.

Of course she was very, very vocal in the image-factory of my head, and every one of her words was meant to humiliate me – emphasizing the supposed pencil thickness of my dick. I'd never been able to satisfy her, of course. She'd never had orgasms like she had with the swine, etcetera. It was the purest of porn I watched in my theatre-for-one, but it was porn with the woman I loved more than I loved myself. It was the dirtiest of porn with the woman I once thought was the purest I knew – my woman. The woman I'd die for.

I grinned at that. Yes, I'd probably still die for her, but I wouldn't be alone.

After all the waiting, the actual opening of the front door still took me by surprise. I'd told myself that speed was of the utmost importance, but when the door opened, I froze. Through a blur I saw Liza, naked and on tiptoes, her arms around the asshole's neck, deeply kissing his mouth – thanking him. The sight made my bile rise. I hesitated, but then a jolt of jealousy set me in motion – pure, unadulterated jealousy with a generous shot of adrenaline, no doubt. My hand jumped from my pocket. The unwieldy gun recoiled as the bullet popped from its mouth to plow itself into the back of the kissing man. I never knew what made me shoot the second time, but another bullet sprang from my hand to hit again.

The last thing I saw was Liza's shocked face and the blood splashed on her pale body. I stumbled forward from the trees, raising the smoking gun to my temple. She saw me; her hand went to her mouth, muffling a cry. Then a hard blow to my head made me fall forward. My skull hit the stone steps. There was no pain, but the lights went out.

My first impression was one of whiteness – the unfocussed whiteness of wooly mist. It cleared and slowly turned into sheets and walls and nurses' uniforms. My head throbbed, but I was awake and I had no doubt whatsoever about where I was and why; I was in hospital and there was someone I knew at my bedside.

"Hi, Steve," he said. "Good to see you made it."

"Moreland," I croaked, having to clear my throat to get the name out. Then realization hit my befuddled head. I lifted it off the pillow, only to feel a dazzling jolt of pain. I groaned.

"Moreland?" I said again. "But ... but you are dead. I killed you. And then I shot myself." He chuckled, a grin stretching his smug face. He touched it with his fingertips.

"Obviously not," he said. I squinted to read his eyes.

"You're here to finish me, then," I concluded. It made him laugh again.

"Not at all," he said. "I'm here to thank you."

What he said should have surprised me, but I wonder if it showed. It must have been the concussion. Go try and surprise a man who has just returned from what he supposed was death; you won't succeed. At best he'll listen, but the miracle of being alive will be such an overwhelming competitor to anything you might say, that you shouldn't expect a response. So I hardly reacted; he must have taken it for incredulity.

"I really do, Steve," he said. "I know you hate me, and rightly so. But you can't possibly have hated me more than I hated my son." I still didn't respond, but it didn't seem to faze him.

"Ah," he then said. "You don't know, of course. Roger is dead, as dead as can be. You killed him. Of course you thought I was he, but what's the difference. He fucked your wife, so you killed him." He chuckled. "Never knew you were this motivated, Steve – and this deadly."

"Okay," I said. "So you're here to avenge him." He laughed even harder.

"For a dangerous man you can be quite dense, Stevenson," he said. "Didn't I tell you I hated him maybe more than you hate me? I am here to thank you." His hand grabbed my shoulder, sending a shot of pain up my head. I winced; he apologized.

"The police," I said. "They must have been around already." Moreland kept grinning.

"They will be here sometime soon, I guess," he said. "When they hear you can be investigated. I'm afraid you won't be able to explain away the dead body on your doorstep. That's where the 'thanks' are for, you know. I always knew you'd come in handy one day." He chuckled and rose.

At that moment the door opened and a nurse came in. She was dark, Indian, and she looked nervous. I told her everything was all right, but her concern was evidently Robert Moreland. "Time's up, mister Moreland," she said and walked over to my side, checking the statistics on the little screen of the beeping machine next to my bed. I wondered if he'd bought her too. How else would he have been admitted to the bedside, even before the police?

"Just another minute, Ms Pattel," he said, unperturbed. "I think I have to reassure mister Stevenson before I leave. Can't have him worried. Just a minute, please." His smile was charming and it seemed to work; the nurse muttered, but she left again.

"You hit me, bastard!" I hissed as soon as she was gone. "I could have died."

"No," he said. "You couldn't. It was just a tap with a muffled bat, but then you fell rather, ehm, unfortunately. Sorry for that."

My excitement had left me dizzy. The surreal twist of happenings affected my breathing. "You were there," I panted. He grinned and nodded.

"Guilty," he said. "Waiting for what you would do – and I must admit that Roger's Mercedes was a far more comfortable place to do that waiting in than those clammy, dripping conifers you'd chosen."

I hung in my pillows trying to catch my breath. "You knew all along," I said. "You knew I was going to shoot you. You were there, waiting for it to happen – knowing I'd shoot your son." His eyes hardened at that.

"Don't call him my son," he said. Then the grin returned. "And knowing is a big word," he went on. "Let's say I gambled. But I have taken too much of your time already. I should have waited until you were stronger, but well, I thought it wouldn't be wise to be seen with you later on."

I struggled to get up, but a wave of nausea threw me back in the pillows. Just then the nurse returned. Moreland raised both hands in acknowledgment.

"I'm leaving, nurse. Please treat my friend here well. He'll need all his powers." He chuckled as he turned toward me.

"Be well, Steve. And thank you once again – for Liza too."

He turned, leaving me while a fully geared roller coaster roared through my head.

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