Two's a Crowd Ch. 11byangiquesophie©
I went to the office around eleven. My head still throbbed. I damned my stupidity -- the drinking too. Charlotte was her own sparkling self. She smiled and her voice sang. There was a plastic quality to her that I had never noticed before.
But it was a well-known kind of plastic.
"Is Onslow in?" I asked. There must have been sandpaper down my throat.
Her face lit up even more.
"Yes, Bruce! He is even expecting you," she exclaimed.
Onslow looked worse than I did. His skin was pudgy, like half-baked dough. He hid his eyes behind sunglasses.
"Hello Pierson," he said, half-rising from behind his desk.
"What the fuck is going on, Onslow?" I had no intention of wasting any of my hard-won energy in small talk.
"Aah, well, Bruce," he sighed, his hands up in the air. "Sit down. Sit down, please."
I did. It was hard to study his face with the damn glasses in the way. I guess he was too vain to take them off. Or he just didn't want me to see his eyes.
Charlotte came in with coffee. When she left, her hand was on my shoulder for a second. It sent a jolt of repulsion down my body.
"Sugar?" Onslow asked.
"Fuck the sugar!" I growled.
He grinned an uncertain grin.
"Actually, Bruce," he went on. "You should be grateful. I got you off the hook. Lighten up, man. You were up to your neck in trouble. Law suit, jail, losing your job."
I just stared.
"I saved your ass, Bruce!"
"Why?" I said. "Why save me? Since when did you become a saint, Onslow? And since when did you suddenly decide that I am stupid?"
That made him take his glasses off. He shouldn't have. Compared to him I drank milk last night.
"Okay," he said. "Sorry, Pierson. I should have told you. But believe me, when I am through with this story, you'll agree with me that I should have left you in the dark."
This time I said nothing because I didn't know what to say. There was a gloomy cloud hovering over me. Someone had written "doom" all over it.
"Take that coffee and another one," he said. "You'll need it as hard as I do."
Then he picked up a blue, plastic-ringed report and threw it at me. There were just two numbers printed on its cover: 2002 - 2007.
"Look up page 23," Onslow said, trying not to burn his lips on the coffee.
I saw that the page contained a list of transactions. They were some serious amounts, none of them smaller than seven digits. It seemed that money had been sluiced to numbered accounts. I knew what they were and where they led to. Switzerland, maybe. Or the Caymans. Or both.
I looked up at Onslow, eyebrows raised.
"Enthwistle and Daniels," Onslow said. "It stinks to heaven." Daniels was the CEO of the company we coveted.
I leafed through the report. There were balances and more transactions. I saw the names of all kinds of companies. Some of them I knew from my explorations in the last few weeks; others were new to me.
"This secret report nails them both, Pierson," Onslow went on. There was a crowing quality to his voice. "I got them by the balls and yesterday I twisted those balls. It made them drop all charges. It also made them more than willing to sell. And at our price."
I threw the report back.
"How did you get it?" I asked. "And why didn't I know?"
He smiled a crooked smile. I had seen it often on his face when he pulled one over on a business partner. "I didn't get it," he said. "You did."
I was puzzled. Then it started to dawn on me.
"The girls," I said. I remembered his drunken remark.
His smile was wide now. He glowed.
"But..." I stuttered. A feeling of vertigo washed over me. I had to grip the armrests of my chair.
"Yes," he said.
He waved the report as if it were a fan.
"This is why you went to the mansion, Pierson. Or rather, it is why Erica convinced you to accompany her."
I could have said "but" again, but I didn't. I didn't want to look as stupid as I was, I guess. His grin never left his damn face. The stale air buzzed and swirled around me.
"Bruce," Onslow said. "Erica and I go way back. She is a shrewd lawyer, amongst many other qualities. Since quite a long time ago, I had gotten wind of the foul play inside Enthwistle's and Daniels' companies. I knew that I would get the business for a song if I could prove it. It was a godsend that you could smuggle Erica in. She got the report. And here we are!"
He clapped his hands and laughed his cackling laugh.
I was stunned. I was also enormously pissed off for having been played in this humiliating way. But most of all I felt hurt. Erica had been the closest friend I had had in these difficult years. And she had gone behind my back -- using me. She had left me totally in the dark. She had lied to me. She had deceived me and played me for a fool.
"Since a long time, you say," I said. "How long?"
"Ah, a year. I don't know, maybe longer," he said, throwing the thought away with his hand. "Does it matter? It paid off. We did it, Bruce. We goddamn did it!"
I have never been a victim of this ever-spreading disease called paranoia. I guess I was too naïve for that. On the other hand, never having been infected may have exposed me more readily. I guess I was wide open.
"Erica never had the time to search for it, Onslow," I said. "And certainly never the opportunity. Not on her own."
Onslow pooed. "Whatever!" he crowed. "She got it and now we have it. The boys are history."
A worm nagged at the base of my skull. And it wasn't the hangover. "Girlzzz," he had slurred, yesterday. Not girl, girls.
"Myriam," I said. "Myriam was in on it, too."
He shrugged his shoulders.
"What do I know? What do I need to know, Pierson? Neither do you. They did it and we got it."
I rose from my chair. The floor felt as if it were covered with plastic air bubbles. It made me wobble, but I went on. I reached out over his desk and grabbed his jacket. I shook him.
My voice came from a distance.
"You godawful bag of shit," I said. My words were clipped and controlled. "You sent Myriam there to fuck her way up into the Enthwistle empire. You used her condition, so you could get your greedy hands on that company. You knew how vulnerable she was. And you knew how I still felt about her. You knew how it would kill me. And you just went on and did it -- even using me!"
By then a red haze blurred my vision. The claws that started to throttle Onslow's throat were not my hands anymore. I just watched what they did -- with deep and sincere interest.
Then two heavy hands pulled me away. A deep voice told me to let go. And I did. I turned my dizzy head and saw an immaculately clad woman and a big black man. The woman smiled. The man had me in a vice.
I fell back into the chair, panting.
Onslow's head looked quite red, I saw. I had no idea why he gagged all the time. My whole attention was focused on getting my heart under control.
Security led me out of the building. A cab took me home.
There I sat down in my leather club chair, staring out over the Park. It looked like an anthill. Only these ants were on roller blades and bicycles. They were playing ball and pushing prams. They were just having a great time in the sun.
My head felt like the attic of a barn, filled with bales of moist hay. Something was brewing, smoldering inside. They say that hay can easily go up in flames that way. It sure was how I felt.
The tiny lead that Onslow had given me with his drunken slur of "girlzz" had by now grown into the most fantastic paranoid nightmare I had ever heard of.
Over the last hour my mind wandered backwards over tiny stepping-pebbles of suspicion, just to see them grow more plausible with every step into the past.
Onslow knew Erica. He had known her for years, he'd said. Was it purely business? Was it even true? I had never heard her talk about Onslow -- or him about her, for that matter. To be sure, she had never even hinted on knowing anyone at the company -- or shown the slightest interest in what we did.
If she was a long time business adviser, I ought to have seen her at least once or twice at the offices, shouldn't I? Onslow and I had almost adjoining offices.
Even her name had never been mentioned, as far as I knew.
Erica must have known Myriam too -- not just through my stories. Maybe Onslow brought them together in his plan to get at the Enthwistles? But how. And when? How could he even have gotten in contact with her? She was in Texas or wherever, wasn't she?
My mind buzzed as I tried to look back at what exactly had happened -- and when. "A year, maybe longer," he said. A year ago I had told Erica all about Myriam and her problem. She had been very understanding and helpful. Loyal too.
"Bruce," she had said. "Forget the bitch. Please do me a favor and forget her. Promise me. She isn't worth it."
She had been very convincing.
I went further back. Erica had very quickly detected the cause of my distant attitude, back at the tennis club. We had only met each other a few times, by then. I remembered being impressed by how accurately she described my problem.
"I hope the woman behind you will stop controlling our conversation," she had said. At that moment in time she had never heard of Myriam or my divorce. Should I still be impressed with her feminine intuition? Or did she just know? Had she already met Myriam? Or Estelle, for that matter?
I fast-forwarded in my mind, hearing them giggle and sigh in the shower stall after we returned to the city. And of course in hindsight it was remarkable how fast Erica fell for Myriam's tongue at the rape in Enthwistle's mansion. Was it rape at all?
I moaned loudly, frustrated by the ongoing paranoia. Was I going insane? Or was I at long last starting to see the painful truth? Was it dawning on me? Or was I just plodding on, deeper and deeper into the gathering dusk? I took a cold shower and went out for a pizza. I chased it with a bottle of cheap chianti and two grappa's.
That stopped the treadmill in my head -- for a few hours.
The next morning I called in sick.
It was partly true. I knew I would get sick the moment I saw the lying smile of Charlotte and heard Onslow's treacherous voice. I also knew that I would call in again, maybe the next day and give him my notice. Getting a new job wasn't the biggest of my problems.
Right now my priorities were getting out and getting sane.
I was shaving when the phone rang. I thought I heard close-up breathing and distant sounds of beaches and seashores. Then I was disconnected.
It proved the first of several calls during the next hour. At the third one I asked whom it was -- just to be cut off once more. At the fifth I took a gamble. "Myriam?" I said. "Is that you, Myriam?"
The beeps of disconnection were instant.
I started collecting things and packing them in cardboard cartons. I don't know why. The apartment was mine and would be after I left the firm. But I guess I just didn't want to stay. Living in a hotel room suddenly seemed attractive. Maybe it was the anonymity -- or the sheer shallowness of that kind of life. I don't know, but I started packing.
I threw away most of the things Erica and her French girlfriend had helped me buy. They seemed stained with betrayal. I wondered about Marlene. Was she ever really her lover? Was she really in Paris now? Had she even been French?
I shrugged and smashed a vase.
The seventh call I had planned to let go to voice-mail. But I couldn't.
It was she. The same background sounds were there. Sea surf, clear children's voices. Even some music.
"Yes," I said. "Myriam?"
"I love you, Bruce."
Either the connection was poor or her voice broke. Did I care? Yes, I did. I knew I shouldn't, but I did.
"Why call, Myr?" I asked.
"I am dying."
Icicles dripped down my spine. Was it the utter sadness of her voice? Or the theatrical content of her words?
"Are you ill?" I asked. "Where are you? Tell me what's wrong, Myr. Tell me."
"I am...on this island. I don't know. Some tropical island. St. Kitts. Blue sea, beaches. It's Erica and me...you know?"
"I know nothing, Myriam. Why should I? You left me. You went away, remember?"
There was silence. Children screamed and I heard the distant hiss of the surf. The horn of a boat, too, maybe.
"I woke up this morning, Bruce," she went on. "My body was sore and tired. It's very tanned too. I was in a bungalow at the seashore, all alone. Nobody here, Bruce. Don't know where she went. Lots of empty glasses and things."
Deep irritation started eating away at my patience.
"What about this dying, Myr? Are you serious?"
Was that a sob? I guess so.
"I am almost gone, Bruce. They got me. They used me, you know. All the time. I never knew before what she did to me. But this time she made me see it all. What they did to you. What I did with Enthwistle, with Erica. Please believe me, Bruce. I could not help it. And soon I shall never be myself again. I love you. I could not help it! You must believe me, Bruce."
I felt my lungs empty with a sigh. I must have held my breath. I guess it was relief at hearing she did not mean physical death. It made me angry -- why should I care for the bitch?
I must have been silent for a bit.
"You there, Bruce?" she asked. I grunted.
"I know," she said with a whine in her voice. "You don't want me anymore. And I guess I deserve that. I just...wanted you to know that I am still here. And that I love you."
The connection died.
I threw the cell phone across the room with a cry of frustration.
There were a few bungalows in the shadows of a clump of trees.
Their fronts were to the beach and the sea. It had taken a few hundred dollars to find out which one was theirs. I took off my shoes and waded through the hot white sands. The breeze was salty with a tang of flowers and pine. It brought back memories of numerous vacations I'd had with Myriam. They were sweet memories with a lining of cruel bitterness.
The house seemed empty. Its big glass doors stood wide open.
The main room was a mess -- discarded clothes lay everywhere; glasses, bottles and empty boxes too. In contrast, the kitchen was immaculate -- it looked as if it were never used. But the bedroom I saw through an open door was one big pile of soiled and rumpled sheets -- pillows lying everywhere. The closets and drawers bulged with enough items to stock a Spring fashion.
"Bruce? Is that you?"
I turned on my heels. At the entrance of the bungalow stood Myriam. The afternoon sun gave her silhouette a golden lining. She was topless -- only wearing thong style bikini bottoms. They made her legs seem even longer. Her skin glowed with a fresh tan, splashed with a myriad of freckles. My eyes were drawn to her bloated tits -- then back up to the wide, white smile I knew so well.
"Myriam?" I said.
She started forward; then hesitated. It looked a bit awkward.
"I'm so glad you came," she said. "I missed you."
Her voice had no guile. Her eyes were moist. I saw how her lower lip trembled.
"Where is Erica?" I asked. The question made her head turn to the beach and back.
"She...we were tanning," she said. "She is still out there."
I picked a few dresses and underwear off the couch and threw them aside.
"Please, sit," I said, nodding to the cleaned space.
She sat. Her fingers lay restless in her lap. She looked up at me, never minding the display of her pornographic chest.
I threw her a silk blouse.
"Please put this on," I said. "You make me nervous."
There was a tiny smile as she put on the blouse. She tied it under her tits. The smile vanished when she again looked up at me.
"We must talk, Myriam. Or whoever you are now."
She nodded. "I am Myriam," she said. "With you I always am."
"My crotch remembers otherwise," I said. "How long have you known Erica?"
Her eyelashes batted. She seemed to struggle with what to answer. Then a decision was made.
"I met her in the second year of my job at Brinston Impex," she said. It was the firm where Myriam had worked in our old town. It was also in the second year of our marriage.
"We had a big party after winning some business. Erica was William Brinston's date. We got along great..." Her voice faded. She looked away before going on. "It was the first time I let Estelle out...as far as I know...since we got married, I mean."
There was a silence. "As far as I know," she repeated. The sheer curtains at the open doors billowed with the breeze.
Myriam cleared her throat.
"When I surfaced again, I was alone with Erica. We were naked and kissing. She said she loved me. I didn't know what to say. I grabbed my things and fled."
Myriam rose and started tidying up the room. As she did, she talked. She suddenly seemed in a hurry to get it all out.
"Erica was an escort girl, you know. A classy hooker -- very high scale and expensive. That evening Estelle filled me in on everything that had happened. She said she had fallen in love with Erica. She admired her and her lifestyle. She never stopped harassing me about it. Soon the black-outs returned. Whenever you were away for business, Estelle pushed me aside and grabbed what she wanted. But one thing was different from then on -- she kept telling me everything she did."
The surrealism of her inner dialogue made the skin on my back crawl.
By then she had collected a pile of blouses, dresses, skirts and underwear. She started picking up empty glasses and bottles as she talked. She asked if I wanted anything to drink. I shook my head no.
She stood for a second. Maybe she wondered how to go on.
"The man you saw me...eh, Estelle with at the Excelsior," she then said. "He wasn't a client. Ah well, he was a client, but not of Brinston's. He was a trick, as they say. A john. Erica had turned Estelle into an escort. The man was one of her regulars. She dated him as often as he was around and she was...available."
I remembered the smiles, the touching, the intimacy. It still flushed me with a helpless kind of anger.
"And you were fucking Erica too?" I asked -- careful to use the aggressive wording.
"I...Estelle...saw her as often as she could," Myriam went on. "I, eh...I think they were really in love."
I walked over to the open doors. I didn't want her to see my face.
The beach was emptying as the sun went down. I saw a pink umbrella and two lounge chairs. On one was a woman -- I couldn't see who she was. I turned back to Myriam.
"And then I kicked you out," I said.
"Yes, Bruce. And I could not understand why you did that. It hurt so much. I had tried and I had fought. I had done everything to save our love and our marriage. I loved you and you divorced me."
Tears ran down her face. I didn't say a thing.
"I fought the divorce, Bruce. But my hands were tied. Estelle sabotaged everything I tried. I wanted to beg your forgiveness. I tried to tell you about my...condition. I fought for us. But she blocked my voice. And Erica helped her. Erica wanted her for herself. I didn't stand a chance against the two of them."
The third-person insanity made me shiver.
"Estelle took over after you left, Bruce," she went on. "I quit my job and Erica set me up as a full time professional. She also encouraged Estelle to have these done..."
Her hand fluttered over her chest. "Later on she had them made even bigger."
"After the divorce I went to Dallas. Well, you know what I did there."
"Public relations," I said. I could not let the stab pass. She winced.
"Erica helped me getting set up. But she often had to go back for her regulars. We saw each other as much as we could."
"You?" I said.
It took her three seconds to see what I meant.
"Eh..Estelle...Estelle of course." She blushed. I held her gaze until it wavered.
"Onslow was one of her regulars, wasn't he?" I asked.