by Ed Gorman
Art by Laurie Harden
By eleven o’clock that morning, three people had come up to Michael Brody and asked if he was feeling all right. He joked that he’d imbibed a little too much in the course of last night’s TV football game. Most of the people who worked in the parole office had had the occasional hangover themselves, so they readily accepted his explanation.
He closed the door to his small office and prepared for his eleven-thirty appointment. As usual before seeing someone, he ran a pocket comb through his easily mussed dark hair. He was a rangy man with a melancholy face that some women had been generous enough to call handsome.
The computer screen had all the information on one John Richard Cahill, thirty-four, recently paroled from state prison after serving five and a half years for burglary and assault. Previous to that he’d been convicted of domestic abuse after beating up a young woman he’d been living with. He’d earned probation for that. As a juvenile he’d been in trouble for three other assaults. “A predilection to violence,” as a judge had noted. According to the computer screen, Cahill was still married. Thirty-year-old Susan had visited him frequently in prison.
They’d tested his urine for drugs and alcohol this morning and found him clean. The test was standard before every parole-office meeting.
When Nancy Daly, the administrative assistant who worked with all five parole officers, knocked on his door and said, “John Cahill is here,” Brody felt acid burning up from his stomach into his throat.
“Send him in.”
Even after almost six years of gray and treacherous prison life, Cahill had not lost the swagger in his step nor the amused contempt in his blue eyes. He had the sort of reckless good looks that had likely won him many, many women, at least for brief periods of time. Of course, this being his initial visit to his parole officer, he aimed to impress as nothing more or less than an average, decent citizen. The clean, pressed white shirt, the blue dress trousers, and the scent of Brut were meant to indicate that he was on his very best behavior. So was the quick, strong-but-not-too-strong handshake, the full smile, and the boyishly rendered, “I’m kind of nervous about this, Mr. Brody.”
“Nothing to be nervous about, John—if I may call you John.”
“Sure, Mr. Brody.”
“And please call me Michael. We’ll be seeing each other pretty regularly so we might as well be on a first-name basis. Care for some coffee?”
“I’d love some.”
As he filled two cups, Brody asked Cahill how things had been going his first week out.
“I’ve got a great little wife. She waited for me this whole time. Never asked for a divorce. Never ran around. We picked up right where we left off.”
“You’re a lucky man, John.”
“Tell me about it,” Cahill said as he accepted the coffee. “But I guess you know what I’m talking about.” He nodded to the framed photo of Jane and their daughter.
“I’m a lucky man too.”
After a few more minutes of strained chatter, Brody began to explain the parole system and what Cahill could expect from it. He emphasized the need for monthly contact, for checking by phone if Brody had any questions about something that might violate the terms of his parole, and avoiding the obvious traps of alcohol and drugs.
“Some of your old friends will probably come around.”
“A few already have. I told them to buzz off. I’m not going back. Ever.” Anger in the voice now. Anger at being caught and sent up, probably. Resentment, really. “There’s no way I’m going back to prison. No way.” Cahill obviously sensed that he’d allowed his real feelings to show—he’d sounded threatening just now. He backed them off with a broad faked smile. “I learned my lesson.”
Brody picked up a paper from his desk. “I see you like working with cars and trucks.”
“Yeah. That was the only thing I enjoyed in the joint. My old man was a mechanic and I guess I picked it up from him. I worked in the prison garage five days a week, seven hours a day. Probably didn’t miss more than four or five days the whole time. I get these sinus infections that really do me in.”
Brody handed him the single sheet of paper. “There are three names with addresses and phone numbers on there. These are shops that are part of our Second Start program. They hire men who’ve been incarcerated. I’d make appointments with them right away.”
This time the smile didn’t seem contrived. “I get a job right away, my wife Susan’ll be real happy.”
“I think you’ve got a good chance with one of them. The economy’s picking up some, so they all say they’ve been busy.”
“And they don’t mind ex-cons, huh?”
“All three of them have former convicts working for them.”
“That’s pretty nice.” Once again Cahill managed to sound sincerely pleased.
“I’d appreciate it if you’d give me a call and let me know how the job hunting is going.”
“Be happy to.”
“You’ve laid it out pretty good. Especially about staying clean and reporting.”
Brody studied him for a moment. “You say you don’t want to go back. We don’t want you to go back either.” He wondered how many times he’d spoken those exact words. He should think about freshening up his routine. He stood up and offered his hand.
As they shook, Brody said, “The wife was worried about how I’d handle this meeting. But you’ve been such a nice guy it went pretty good, huh?”
Cahill was back to shining him on. The scorn in his eyes revealed how he felt about Brody. Just another nowhere hack in the justice system. A nerd, a square.
“Well, I’ll keep you posted, man.”
The “man” was another slip and they both realized it at the moment it was uttered. “Man” indicated Cahill was back swaggering down the street.
He gave Brody a nod then hurried out the door.
Before making the call, Brody walked over and poured himself more coffee. Sitting down again, he allowed himself a sigh. Then he dialed the number. He’d known better than to put it on his speed dial.
“Hi. He just left.”
“How’d it go?”
“Pretty much the way you said it would. He knows how to put on a show. He’s good at it. The only time I bought his act was when I told him that I thought he could get a job as a mechanic.”
“In the old days, I always joked about how he loved cars more than he did me. That’s one of the things I appreciate so much about you, Michael. I know you love me more than anybody else. Except your daughter, of course.”
It used to come so easily, he thought. Eighteen months of lust and maybe even love. She was the romantic of the pair but he’d almost been able to match her soap opera-like patter. These days, the patter was difficult, if not impossible, to come by. “That’s very sweet of you to say.”
“Well, it’s true. That’s why I can’t wait for us to just go ahead and do what we have to and get married.”
“Susan, I told you we need to take it slow. Carrie’s having problems again. Dr. Wohlner says we have to be extra careful.” Four months ago, realizing the trap he’d made for himself, he’d created mental problems for his nine-year-old daughter Carrie. He’d even invented a Dr. Wohlner. Much as he wanted to ask his wife for a divorce—he’d told her—he couldn’t do it at a time when Dr. Wohlner said that if they weren’t careful, Carrie could end up in an institution. He’d accompanied this with some very dramatic mumbo jumbo about Carrie’s alleged schizoid condition.
“I feel so sorry for her.” But it was herself she felt sorry for of course, he realized.
“I hate that you can’t come over anymore. You can’t even phone at night now.”
“We knew it would be like this when he got out. We just have to accept it.”
“We’re still meeting at that motel tomorrow afternoon, aren’t we?”
“Of course. Two o’clock.”
“It’ll be so nice when we’re married.”
“I can’t wait either.” Sounding as smitten as he could. “But now I need to go. Your husband isn’t my only client today.”
“I love you so much.”
“Me too. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
He sat in the wake of all these words, realizing that he’d put on at least as much of a show as her husband had. And after that realization came the ironic one he’d had last night. After five or six years with his wife Jane, he’d become bored with her psychologically and sexually. Maybe it was the extra twenty pounds she’d put on despite her frustrating attempts to lose them. But now, after his time with Susan, he’d found Jane once again as powerful erotically as she’d been in the old days. And now her bossiness—which he’d always despised—struck him as amusing, even charming. And he had to admit most of the unwanted “advice” she gave him was much sounder and more productive than the advice he gave himself.
The affair had been a calculated risk. Most of the time he’d felt that he’d gotten away with it. He hadn’t ever considered the possibility that the roles of the two women in his life would reverse themselves.
Now it was dull, bossy Susan he needed to escape from. . . .
Three months before Susan came to his office Brody had had his first taste of adultery. At the good old office Christmas party that Jane hadn’t been able to attend because of the flu Carrie had dragged home from school, he’d drunkenly found himself entangled, in a stockroom no less, with a married secretary from a judge’s office three floors down. He’d seen her before but they had never even spoken. She was buxom, and generally he didn’t care for buxom, but that night as he’d sped through first, second, and third base—the elusive home run eluding him—he felt what the evangelicals say when they claim to be born again. Except here he was born again in carnality. And in the hangover morning he felt not guilt but exhilaration. Wanting more.
But what with family life and work, more was not to be. He’d never cared for bars and he certainly didn’t want to start up with anyone in the office, and the few times he’d seen the woman from the Christmas party she’d looked humiliated. He felt sorry for her.
But Susan came to him. For all the wrong reasons, as it turned out.
She sat in his office in a cheap tan trench coat with her dishwater blond hair in a chignon the wind had played hell with and watched him with pleading brown eyes that he found beautiful. Once again she played against the type he ordinarily fantasized about, the middle-class women of ripe bodies, poise, and playful humor. Many of Jane’s friends were this way.
When she told him that she was a waitress at a decent restaurant and that after being struck by a car in a crosswalk she’d had to go on welfare while she recovered, he began to understand the wounded gaze. But for all of it she was quite pretty and when she finally took off her coat—Brody found himself eager to keep the conversation going—she was one of those women who managed to be thin but sumptuous.
The reason she’d come here was to seek advice on her husband’s parole. Any points he could give her on how he should handle himself during the hearing. She said that she’d been told by a friend whose husband had also faced parole that Brody had given her good advice. He dimly remembered that woman; the advice he’d given had been cursory at best, designed to get rid of her because he knew she’d come to the wrong place.
At one point Susan had started to cry. Out came the tissues and the soothing words. He found himself ridiculously jealous that she could love a man like her husband—he’d punched him up on the computer as they’d spoken—so passionately. Hell, she’d once reported him for domestic abuse but had withdrawn the charge so that he wouldn’t be arrested.
She stayed nearly an hour, long enough for him to find himself completely taken with her. Still shaken, she had thanked him and left. The rest of the day his skin tingled where she’d touched his hand in gratitude. A day later, pretending to be concerned about her and apologetic that he hadn’t been more help, he called her and said that he’d contacted a parole-board member he knew and asked him a number of questions about the kind of convict who tended to win parole. It was all bullshit, but it won Brody a lunch with her the following day, lunch with Susan always being at two o’clock. That was when she got her midday break until five o’clock, when she returned for her dinner shift.
She was so fixated on the fate of her husband that it took a month and a half of lunches and phone calls before she realized that she and Brody had become, in her words, “such good friends,” and that she’d come to depend on him. It was after two months, on a Tuesday evening that she had off, that he brought a good bottle of wine to her shabby little apartment and got her drunk, thanks to her inability to handle alcohol. He’d kissed her, but she’d pushed him violently away. “How could you do that to me?”she said, the tears already apparent. “I’ve never cheated on my husband.”
He did the only thing he could. He apologized and fled her apartment.
It was two weeks before he called her again. He apologized once again and asked her to have lunch. She was reluctant, but she finally agreed. Another month of lunches. He was the good friend and nothing more. And then, at one of their two o’clock meetings her hand suddenly took his and she said, “I hate myself for even saying this—it isn’t right to even think it—but I have feelings for you I shouldn’t and I don’t know what to do about it.”
Three more lunches and they ended up in bed in her apartment. He always thought of it as teenage sex—that virile, that tireless, that purely erotic. Teenage sex but with a more knowing understanding of the various ways of coupling. Months and months of it. And for all her guilt—which he knew was real—she matched his passion every time they made love. What he enjoyed especially about it was that it wasn’t just somber humping and bumping. They laughed a lot; a lot. They watched porn on her DVD player, something Jane would never allow. He even convinced her to let him tape one of their sessions. There were days, numerous days, when they couldn’t see each other. He said the tape would help him through those times.
Jane, understandably, wondered why they so seldom made love these days. She also understandably wondered why he was so suddenly uninterested in family life. At the dinner table he frequently changed the subject when Jane talked about her day or Carrie her time at school. There had been a time when he’d doted on hearing about their lives.
Looking back, he realized that he should have taken Susan’s first hints of divorcing her husband and marrying Brody more seriously. But he’d been so caught up in the sex that he sort of half-assed thought that maybe that wouldn’t be a bad idea. Yes, marrying her so that he could have these simple, sweet, orgy-filled times indefinitely. Somehow it would all work out. He put it out of his mind; all he wanted were the good times.
His disaffection came when Susan started writing him letters. They’d agreed that they would never, never send each other e-mails. He hadn’t even thought about letters until hers began arriving at his office. They forced him to take seriously her ideas about their someday marriage. They also forced him to realize that the sex was no longer enough and that Jane had begun to stir him deeply for the first time in years. And not just carnally. He was interested in her again as a woman.
And one more thing. Even though Susan was generally well spoken, her letters were disasters of cliches and illiteracy. What was he, a freaking literary critic? he thought, feeling guilty about his arrogance. But Jane had once written him love letters that had approached real poetry, or so it had seemed to him at the time. He used the office shredder to get rid of Susan’s letters.
It was at this time that he created a Dr. Wohlner and poor Carrie’s desperate mental problems as a shield against Susan’s now constant plans for their marriage. That fantasy had protected him for a time, but Susan’s letters indicated that Carrie’s problems would no longer keep talk of marriage at bay.
So now he sat in the same office where he’d first met her wishing fervently that he never had to see her again. He loved Jane and Carrie. He was a respectable middle-class man. Didn’t driving a Volvo mean anything these days? But he was beyond humor. Susan was desperate enough to—
To what? Grimly, he considered the possibilities. Write Jane. Tell her husband. Or—she certainly wasn’t dumb—drop a note to his boss informing him that Brody had taken advantage of her and seduced her when all she’d wanted—needed—was simple advice.
The ultimate scandal. He would be fired, of course, but even worse, he would be disgraced. The media would love it. And poor Carrie and Jane. My God, what they’d go through.
He tried to calm himself by thinking of how sweet Susan was. Sometimes she was almost an innocent. Her lower-class life had kept her from knowing so many things—a trait he’d found so charming in the beginning. He’d loved introducing her to more sophisticated music, movies, even a novel or two. But like the sex, her intellectual limitations had begun to pall. Jane got all his references and jokes and now they were back to laughing at the dinner table the way they once had.
Tomorrow would be critical. The motel room. He had to come up with a way to make Susan see that he was in no position to split from his wife.
Dammit, he had to. . . .
# # #
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"Calculated Risk" by Ed Gorman, Copyright © 2014 with permission of the author.
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