The building didn’t look much from the outside. It was just an anonymous 1960s concrete monolith, completely devoid of character or artistic architectural grace. It was grey, reflecting the grey sky and the grey surroundings in those windows I could see.

 

I shrugged, partly to shake some of the rainwater from my shoulders, and partly to try to find the courage to enter. I closed the umbrella, forcing me to make a dash for the door.

 

The lobby was tatty. The wooden panels needed replacing, while the board with office details thereon was missing a screw on the top left hand corner, so everything was at a slant.

 

I saw the name I wanted: - J. Perkins. Private Investigator.

 

Taking a deep breath, I pushed the button on the panel, as a deeply concerning grinding noise emanated from the bowels of the building. I swallowed, changed my mind and made for the stairs.

 

The office was on the fourth floor. I suppose I was fortunate, it could have been on the twelfth. The glass panel on the door made me smile. It was like a 1940s Bogart movie. The gold lettering was fading and a couple were missing. - J. Per ins. Priv te Inve igato welcomed me.

 

I immediately imagined a lean and hungry man, with square jaw and a large dark felt hat pulled over his hooded eyes.

 

I opened the door and entered.

 

The first surprise was the light and airy office. It was clean and tidy, and I could see none of the shabbiness that I expected. The furniture was all modern - brushed aluminium and pale wood, not a dark brown filing cabinet in sight. A trim young girl was typing rapidly on the computer keyboard.

 

She looked up and smiled. “Hello, can I help?” she asked.

 

She was a pretty girl, no more than nineteen, with short dark hair and bright eyes. Her dress was quite short, so I had to smile as I thought that her slender legs would fit into any detective novel most appropriately.

 

“I called earlier, to see Mr Perkins,” I said.

 

“Fine, go on in, he’s only watching the telly,” she said, glancing at the open door to my left.

 

“Jimmy, customer!” she shouted, grinning apologetically.

 

I smiled, as my nerves had evaporated somewhat by her very normality.

 

I was then faced by a man who shattered all my illusions. I wasn’t certain what I expected, but it certainly wasn’t him!

 

“Hello, Mrs Carmichael?”

 

“Yes.”

 

James Perkins was about five foot two. I was five eight, so I was used to being above average height for a woman, but even so I still had to look up to most men. It was rare for me to feel quite so tall.

 

He was also quite young, late twenties at the most. His grey suit was neatly pressed, and even the top button of his shirt was properly buttoned, which was a pleasant surprise. The tie was of the striped and conservative variety, I think it was a regimental tie, though I am no expert.

 

He took my hand and shook it gently. He had a firm, dry hand and didn’t try to show me how strong he was. I was disarmed by his smile, as he had obvious charm, and knew it.

 

“Come in. You look wet. It’s a filthy day, isn’t it?”

 

“Yes, that’s what you get with global warming,” I said, trying to sound cynical and witty.

 

He had the grace to laugh.

 

“Let me take your coat, there’s a hanger on the back of the door.” He helped me struggle out of the coat, so I looked around the office as he hung up it up.

 

His office was as bright and cheerful as the outer one. His desk was of highly polished pine and was clear of all clutter, with the exception of a PC with a plasma screen.

 

He propped my umbrella against the corner of a grey steel filing cabinet. At one end of the room were a sofa and an easy chair. There was a small TV on a wall bracket, which he switched off.

 

“Things are a bit quiet, so I was watching the idiot-box. Please sit down.”

 

He gestured to the sofa, so as I sat smoothed my skirt. He sat in the chair and just smiled.

 

“You’re nervous, I can tell. Please don’t be, I’m sure we can get you sorted out,” he said.

 

I smiled. He was right, it had taken me three weeks to summon the courage to get this far.

 

“Would you like a tea or coffee?”

 

I found my mouth was dry, so I nodded.

 

“Yes please, a tea would be lovely.”

 

He went to the door and asked the girl for two teas.

 

 “Please don’t be worried, I promise I don’t bite,” he said, so I laughed, nervously.  The girl came in with two mugs of tea.

 

“Sugar?” she asked.

 

“No thanks,” I said, taking the mug she handed me.  I watched her leave and close the door.  The tea was Earl Grey, it tasted nice.

 

“It’s my husband,” I said.

 

He smiled. “Go on.”

 

“He’s been acting very strangely recently, and I really don’t know what’s happening.”

 

He just nodded and looked at me.

 

“It started about two months ago. He would spend so much time on the Internet, yet whenever I came near, he’d shut down what he was looking at. I even would check through the temporary files and the history, but he deleted everything after he finished each session.”

 

I paused, conscious that I was giving the impression of a neurotic wretch.  I felt the need to explain.

 

“I use my computer for work, so I know about such things.” Hell, I even sounded apologetic!

 

“Then, the text messages started, and he was forever smiling and being evasive. A couple of the times, I awoke in the middle of the night, only to find he was out of bed. He’d be downstairs, either on the bloody computer or on the phone. All the time he’d whisper, scared I’d overhear.”

 

“So, what do you want me to do?”

 

“I don’t know. I’ve tried asking him, but he always says it’s work related or nothing to worry about. He’s a management consultant, not a bloody stockbroker. He never has to work after hours like this.”

 

“How long have you been married?”

 

“Ten years in two weeks, on May the 20th.”

 

“Children?”

 

“Three. Mark is eight, Hannah is six, and Amanda is just two.”

 

“Okay, I’m sorry if some of these questions are a bit personal, but I need to know a bit of background. How old are you?”

 

“Thirty-four, and Douglas is thirty-six.”

 

“How would you describe your relationship?”

 

“Up until this moment, wonderful!”

 

“So, you never had any reason to suspect he’s been unfaithful before?”

 

“Never!”

 

“I have to ask, have you ever been unfaithful?”

 

“No, I’ve not had time, with work and the children, neither have I had the inclination. Doug is everything I want in a man. He evens irons his own trousers, for goodness sakes!”

 

Mr Perkins smiled.

 

“So do I, as my wife always gets tramlines in them.”

 

“That’s what Doug said the first time I did them, and so I told him he could bloody well do them himself. So he did, and has done ever since.”

 

“What do you do for a living?”

 

“I’m a writer.”

 

“What do you write?”

 

I smiled, feeling silly. “Romantic fiction.”

 

He smiled, making a few notes on his pad.

 

The questions went on.

 

“Mrs Carmichael, I have to ask this, do you think he’s having an affair?” he asked.

 

“I don’t know. No,… yes,…. oh shit! No, I don’t think he is, but I don’t like not knowing what is going on. It isn’t like him to be so secretive.”

 

“Okay, I think I have enough to go on. If you want me to find out, I will try. You have to prepare yourself for the news. It may not be good, it may be devastating, but as long as you accept that now, we could be in business. It may be you can’t, and therefore I would not be able to do the work.”

 

“Devastating?”

 

“Mrs Carmichael, your husband may be having an affair, you said as much. It may be the affair is with another woman, or even another man.”

 

I gasped. I hadn’t thought of that at all.

 

He continued. “It may be he is involved in some criminal activity, so I am duty bound to inform the police if that is the case.”

 

I hadn’t thought of that either. It was slowly dawning on me how naïve I really was.

 

“It may, however, be something completely innocent, which, for some reason you’ve seen something and taken it out of context and blown it up out of all proportion. I can’t discuss other cases, but I will simply say, nothing ever surprises me, and so I have to ask you to prepare for anything.”

 

He stared at me. My mind was a maelstrom of conflicting emotions. On the one hand, I trusted Douglas implicitly, but his actions had been so unusual and out of character that I found myself confused. It was the not knowing. He never, ever surprised me, as he knew I hated surprises. That stemmed back to when my parents split up, and my father just wasn’t there any more.

 

I had been eleven and adored my father. I knew my parents' relationship was stormy, but as a child, I had been sheltered from it for the most part. Things came to a head one evening and, the next morning, he was gone!

 

I heard later he had gone to Australia shortly afterwards, and had since married again. He had been in touch occasionally, but so acrimonious was their divorce, that my mother refused to acknowledge contact, so over the years he dwindled into a memory.

My older brother, Richard, had been sixteen at the time. After a couple of years, he left home and drifted to find his father. We sort of lost touch, so I felt cheated out of my family by my mother, who was by now an elderly, bitter and rather unhappy woman.

 

Douglas was wonderful with her, despite her open hostility towards all men. She still feels betrayed, first by her husband and then by her son. Our relationship was sound, but to be frank, I had almost had enough. My children were reluctant to visit her, as she did nothing but complain and moan at them.

 

“Mrs Carmichael?”

 

I was jerked back to the present.

 

“Sorry. I was miles away. I’m confused, Mr Perkins, I just want to put my mind at ease.”

 

“I understand. Please call me Jim, you’re Sarah?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Do you mind me calling you Sarah?”

 

“Not at all.”

 

“Sarah, I need a decision.”

 

I stared at him. My main emotion was one of guilt. I felt guilty for not trusting the man I loved, yet I was also angry at him for being so secretive.

 

“May I say one thing?” he asked.

 

“Please.”

 

“If it helps, in my experience, I have found that the woman’s instincts are usually correct.  If you sincerely believe he isn’t having an affair, the chances are he isn’t. However, what he is up to, I’d hate to try to guess.”

 

I made my decision.

 

“Go for it. If you get nothing in a couple of weeks, then I’ll have a rethink.”

 

“I’ll send you a daily report if I think I have found anything. Otherwise, I’ll call you on a weekly basis. Are you sure you want to do this?”

 

“No, but do it anyway.”

 

We discussed terms for a few minutes. His fees were quite reasonable, under the circumstances.

 

“One thing I have to stress. Sometimes I find things out that place me in an awkward situation, so please understand if it happens on this occasion.”

 

“Like what?”

 

“I can’t say, but you will know when the time comes.”

 

“You mean like an incurable disease, or something?”

 

“Perhaps.”

 

I nodded, that would make sense. Doug wouldn’t want me to worry, but he knew about my hatred of surprises. Yet his whole attitude wasn’t as I’d expect if it was a disease.

 

“That’s fine,” I said.

 

“Good, then that’s settled. I hope we can clear this matter up for you.”

 

“So do I. Thank you for being so understanding. You aren’t anything I imagined, you know?” I said.

 

He grinned, suddenly looking much younger.

 

“I get that all the time. I trained as a jockey, but had a bad fall. I always liked working with people so I thought what the hell? So I went for it, and it is amazing how many people don’t see small men!”

 

I stood up. He helped me into my coat and handed me the umbrella. He shook my hand.

 

“Nice to meet you, Sarah, I’ll only call your mobile, and never after five in the evening."

 

“Thanks, goodbye.”

 

I left the office feeling a good deal happier than before. Even the rain had stopped and the sun was trying to break through the clouds. I walked to the car park and found my car. I drove home with my mind trying to come to terms with the enormity of what I had just done.

 

I collected the children while Inga, the au pair, looked after little Amanda. Douglas came home from work as usual. Life in our house became hectic until the last child was tucked up into bed. Doug was as loving and attentive as usual, so I felt terribly guilty for what I had done.

 

“Are you okay, my love?” he asked.

 

“Mmm, fine,” I said, hating the lie before it was even released.

 

“You seem very quiet.”

 

“I’m just enjoying the peace and quiet after the bedlam of the kids.”

 

He smiled. “How about an early bath?” he asked with a special smile.

 

We had a large spa bath, which we both fitted into, so it inevitably led to serious love making.

 

I smiled. “All right, that’s if you still love me?” I said.

 

He grinned, so my heart wrenched.

 

“Can you ever doubt it?” he asked.

 

I stood up and went to run the bath. I undressed and slipped back downstairs, naked. He was on the computer, so I came up behind him silently, putting my arms around him. I tried to see what was on the screen, but as soon as I touched him, his mouse cursor flew to that X in the top right hand corner, clearing the screen.

 

He turned round and kissed me. Then standing up, he lifted me off my feet and carried me upstairs like a new bride, where we had a special time.

 

He took me to a wonderful plain that was marred only by my own mistrust and deceit. As we lay in each other’s arms, in post-coital bliss, I decided to call James and cancel the whole deal. Then I recalled the speed at which Douglas had closed the window on the screen.

 

*It can’t hurt, just finding out!* I thought.

 

We slept.

 

 

*          *          *

 

 

A week later, I had heard nothing and Douglas was completely normal. No more secret calls, no more funny computer activity, I began to believe I had imagined the whole thing.

 

The weather improved and it looked as if summer would be coming this year after all. I had some time in the garden, so I was planting out the geraniums from the greenhouse into the flowerbeds. My mobile rang.

 

“Hello?”

 

“Sarah? It’s Jim.”

 

My mind went blank.

 

“Jim Perkins. Remember?”

 

“Oh yes, sorry, I was miles away.”

 

“Again? You keep doing that.”

 

“Sorry, yes, what have you found out?”

 

“Okay, I’m not sure what he was doing, but I can say that he is not having an affair. Neither is he involved with any illegal activity. To be honest, he seems about as normal as you can get. Now, I have to confess that I’ve done certain things quite improperly, in that I have bugged his phone without authority. I have nothing to report at this time. I promise I will tell you when I do.”

 

“So, you are sure he’s not having an affair?”

 

“Absolutely. Look, to be honest, you’ve a good bloke there, but I am intrigued as to what he is up to. It’s certainly unusual!”

 

“In what way?”

 

“I can’t say at this time. I’ll call you when I know more.”

 

He rang off.

 

“Bugger!” I said, causing Inga to look at me in some surprise from the swing hammock. Amanda was asleep in her pram, so the girl was reading one of her English Language books. She was eighteen and a pretty girl, a stereotypical Swede, with white-blonde hair and high cheekbones. She had attracted a real hunk of a boyfriend from the local college, where she attended three evenings a week learning English. She wanted to be a vet, so hoped to study in Britain, as our vet schools were supposed to be the best. My thoughts returned to Douglas. Knowing he wasn’t having an affair was better, but not knowing what he was doing was screwing me up completely!

 

At dinner on the Thursday evening, we were discussing schooling. Douglas wanted to start Mark at a private Prep school this September. We had discussed it before, and I had always put off the decision. It seemed a lot of money for something we could get for nothing in any case.

 

He suddenly changed the subject.

 

“Oh, can you pick me up tomorrow, at about six?”

 

“Why?”

 

“I have a boozy lunch with some clients, so I thought I’d take the train. The last thing I want is to lose my licence, as that would bugger my work completely.”

 

“Where from, the station?”

 

“No, we’ll be at the Grange Court Hotel and conference facility, you know, on the Bath Road?”

 

“At six?”

 

“Please.”

 

“Okay. I’m out to lunch tomorrow, you remembered that?” I asked.

 

“Oh yes, with those women you go to fitness club with, isn’t it?”

 

“That’s right. So, I’ll have to get Inga to pick up the children and start supper.”

 

“Fine,” he said, changing the subject back onto schools again.

 

 

*          *          *

 

 

The next afternoon, I had a very jolly lunch with six girl friends from the club. We always went to a fancy Thai restaurant nearby, and enjoyed dressing up and just splashing out on ourselves. It was a congratulatory meal for working so hard in the gym for so long.

 

I was a little late when I arrived at the hotel. I sat in the car park for ten minutes, coming to the conclusion that Doug had ‘popped’ into the bar while waiting. I parked the car and walked into the hotel. The lobby was quiet, so I went to the bar. There were a few people drinking, but none was my husband.

 

I looked on the conference board to see which suite his meeting had been held. It had been cleared, now the day was over. Sighing in frustration, I approached the reception desk.

 

“Yes, Madam?” said the receptionist, a pretty girl who ought to get a decent haircut.  I hate it when fringes flop forward across the eyes the whole time.

 

“Hello, I’m looking for my husband, Mr Carmichael.”

 

“Ah, his party is in the upper banqueting suite, Madam. Would you like me to page them?”

 

“No, I’ll go get him. He’s going to get dried chops at this rate!” I said, mildly cross by this time.

 

I went up the ornate staircase with the plush deep pile carpet, and found the banqueting suite.

 

I pushed open the door and was surprised to find a huge room laid up for a banquet for over a hundred people. It was, however, completely bereft of people.

 

“Bugger!” I said, turning to leave.

 

An older man in a dinner suit and bow tie had come in behind me. I immediately thought he was something to do with the hotel.

 

“Sorry, I’ve lost my husband,” I explained, feeling foolish.

 

He smiled sympathetically. Yet there was something familiar about him. He was about sixty, with a tanned, weathered face, as if from much exposure to the sun.

 

“Hello Sarah, you look so lovely!” he said.

 

I paused on my way out. How did he know who I was? Then I saw Douglas with another man, who was equally tanned.

 

“Sally! How are you, love?” the other man said, I noticed a real Australian twang to his voice.

 

I looked back at the older man, and only then, it hit me.

 

I fainted.

 

When I came round, Douglas was looking worried. I was on a sofa to one side of the room. The room was crammed with people, all of whom were looking at me.

 

I glanced up and saw my father. He smiled and took my hand.

 

“Come on, girl, up you get. We can’t have the guest of honour unconscious for her celebration, now can we?” he said, hugging me.

 

I held onto him as if my life depended on it. Tears were streaming down my face. My long-lost brother Richard came over and joined the hug, as did my husband, to whom I would speak later.

 

“Happy wedding anniversary, darling,” he muttered.

 

“You bastard, you just wait!” I said through clenched teeth.

 

He simply laughed. They allowed me to retreat to the ladies, where I repaired my makeup and my composure. When I returned, Doug told me he had sorted everything with Inga, so we were to relax and enjoy our evening.

 

He led me to my place at the top table, and was surprised to see my mother there as well. She was nowhere near my father, but it was a small step. I then saw another familiar face.

 

Mr James Perkins, Private Investigator.

 

He looked sheepish. “Congratulations.” he said.

 

“When did you find out?”

 

“Before you came to see me. Your husband approached me and asked me if I would be willing to be hired by you to investigate him.”

 

I frowned.

 

“What?”

 

“He told me that he was aware that you were suspicious, so he arranged for you to get my card, and then I had to stall you for a few weeks while he made the arrangements.”

 

“Oh dear God!” I said.

 

He smiled. “So much for the element of surprise!” he said.

 

 

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