Book 1 From the Shadows Between Lies series. When We Believed.
It is one of those sharp, clear Los Angeles blue skies in the middle of summer when barely a seagull flies in the baking afternoon sunlight. Venice Beach, crowded with skaters, where hot young things gather in the blocks of shade skirting the edges of buildings and palm trees.
They are eating burgers, fries and ice-cream as the silky ocean waves roll in on the high tide. Tall buildings, hotels, apartment blocks and squat boutique shops cram the coastline as the heat forces most into cool air-con interiors.
Crisp lines of mid-afternoon light streak through the teak shutters, warming Maddy’s naked body as she lies sprawled across the large double bed next to Logan. She inhales the chilled hotel air, sad and frustrated with his conversation. She appears sad and detached.
‘I can tell by the look on your face,’ he concludes.
‘It’s just the endless circular talk. We never resolve the issues.’ She slides from the bed, grabs a fine cotton shirt, and pulls it over her torso. ‘I have to let go,’ she states in an ominous tone.
‘Don’t leave, not like this,’ Logan reaches out for her hand as she moves away from the disheveled bed. Maddy turns to face him, tying the wrap-over skirt around her waist.
‘We can’t carry on like this, it’s unfair to everyone.’
‘Not on me,’ he gives a wry grin, pulling her back towards the bed.
‘Logan, I must go.’ They are entering familiar territory, his wretched desire conflicting with her fragile resistance. Things must change.
Their involvement has extended, over the years, into a lifelong affair. They split up once or twice during the early stages of Maddy’s marriage to Fred, long before Logan’s wife, Mila became ill. That part of their lives immersed in shared sadness feeds Maddy’s merciless guilt. Glancing down at him, spread-eagled on the bedsheets, his deep blue eyes tracking her every move, Maddy wonders if his persistence is the glue preventing them from ending their affair.
‘I need to get back to work.’ Maddy won’t play his game anymore.
She leans forward and kisses him; he holds her face in one open palm, the electric warmth of his lips pressed against hers suffusing her entire body with desire. Maddy pulls back and they hold one another’s eyes before she turns away and stalks from the room, closing the door behind her.
In the car, as she races across town, she is aware Logan knows she will never let him go. She must. She exhales a deep breath. The futility weighing on her mind. It has to end.
Her husband Fred is oblivious, and in some ways, it’s a perfect arrangement, but it doesn’t assuage her guilt. What did he say the other morning when she was brushing her teeth before meeting his best friend for breakfast? Maddy stops at the first intersection, lost in thought. Something about the clothes she wore. It was so out of character. Fred never notices a new haircut or a new dress, yet he made some unsettling remark. She had her toothbrush jammed in a mouth full of foam and smiled, before rinsing her mouth out.
Ah, that’s right; ‘I haven’t seen you in those shoes before.’ Fred never notices footware!
What, these old things? I bought them last spring. She decides not to comment out loud in case, with his ex-Navy Seal, supersonic paranoia he is baiting her and would catch her out. Sometimes she imagines Fred has always known about Logan.
Way back when they were eighteen, Fred asked her if she had ever slept with Logan, his best friend when she and Fred were first dating.
Now, decades later, he asks her again, his words muffled as she spits the toothpaste into the sink. She hesitates, rinsing her mouth, considering the best answer. Truth? Or dare to lie and complicate things further.
‘Yes, of course,’ she says. ‘We were together for over a year back then.’
‘I know,’ Fred looks at her, trying to read her expression. ‘He’s a lying bastard.’
He catches Maddy off-guard. ‘What? Isn’t Logan your closest friend? How can you say that about him?’
‘I believed him when he told me you two had never slept together. You were good friends, or some bull, and I bought it hook, line and sinker.’
‘That’s life, darling,’ she smiles at her husband, ‘and it’s a long time ago.’ Maddy dries her mouth and adds lipstick while watching her husband in the large bathroom mirror above the double porcelain sinks. He gives a noncommittal shrug and leaves the room.
Fred and Logan are closer than brothers. They cycle together most weekends, talk constantly and yet they are opposite in almost every way. Maybe that’s why Maddy’s addicted to them both. They are the Ying and Yang of one another. Maddy thinks the relationship between both couples is like a complex thousand-piece puzzle with four blind individuals fumbling to fit the completed the picture together. Intellectually superior, her husband Fred has a mind like the piercing glint bouncing from a honed blade, painfully slicing through layers of mathematical data, but shut-off to anything involving the heart.
The two wives, Mila and Maddy, have spent hours discussing the prime points and shortcomings of their respective husbands. Their conversations affirm the likelihood of Fred’s perspective matching an Asperger’s personality. Both a blessing and an excuse for Maddy’s semi-detachment from her husband.
‘I listened to an audiobook a few days ago,’ Mila explains, sipping coffee with Maddy at a local café over the weekend. She smiles, flashing her warm brown eyes at Maddy. ‘I had this epiphany, you know, a kind of spark of understanding.’
‘What about it?’
‘Just a psychologist interviewing some clients about their relationships and he made some interesting observations.’
Maddy nods, leaning closer to hear every word, above the clatter and chatter of several other customers enjoying the mid-morning break.
Mila stirred more sugar into her coffee. ‘He says people who are in relationships and spend much of their time fantasizing about other lovers from the past can become addicted to their secret fantasies.’
Maddy’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. ‘I’m sure it’s harmless.’
‘Well, that’s what I thought, but that’s not what the research says.’
‘Why? How could imagination destroy anything?’ Maddy had given up sugar but stirs half a teaspoon into her black coffee. ‘I mean thoughts, like dreams, can’t kill you.’
Mila smiles. ‘You think about it. If you imagine another lover and you build this imaginary person into the greatest listener, the best lover, the most thoughtful and interesting guy you’ve ever met, then he becomes preferable to your own husband.’
‘Sounds perfect,’ Maddy chuckles. ‘Where can I get one?’
‘The psychologist says you forget you’re making it all up. Imagining becomes a real and addictive habit. It takes intimacy away from your real-life partner. You avoid any depth of emotion with the real man, preferring to share your thoughts with the imaginary one. When things are tense with your husband, you escape to the fantasy. It takes away your commitment to a genuine relationship.’
‘But any thinking person realizes the difference and can…’
The young server interrupts the pair. ‘More coffee?’ she asks about to pour from a metal jug.
‘No thanks,’ Maddy says, placing her palm over her half-empty cup.
‘Not for me either,’ Mila smiles at the blonde girl.
‘No thanks,’ they both say together as the server turns on her heel and leaves the two friends alone.
Maddy concentrates on Mila’s face but they both remain silent.
‘Really?’ Mila finally says. ‘I find the concept of fantasies wrecking a proper relationship fascinating.’
Maddy tilts her head, trying to determine if her friend knows about her love for Logan. A ripple of guilt filters through her thoughts as Mila talks about a television series.
‘I’m watching it on demand,’ she explains. ‘Sister Wives, it ran about three years ago and I missed most of it so started downloading the series.’
Maddy swallows the last gulp of her lukewarm coffee. ‘I heard something about it but never got to watch.’
‘It’s about a guy who has five wives,’ Mila grins.
‘Talk about living the fantasy,’ Maddy laughs, ‘at least for him.’
‘It’s not anything sordid, they’re very religious.’
‘Utah religious?’ Maddy questions.
‘Of course. It’s illegal, but you can see how it works well for them all.’
‘Is this reality television? Mila, you can’t believe everything on TV.’
‘It’s not what you’d think. The husband has his work cut out for him. Five wives and something like seventeen kids. All the wives have their own house too.’
‘You sound like an enthusiast for this polygamy-type arrangement,’ Maddy states.
‘I dunno, but it is interesting, and it seems to work.’
‘Does the husband have a house?’
‘No,’ Mila says. ‘he moves between the five wives staying a night or two at each place.’
‘That could be a logistical nightmare. What if he likes one wife more than the others?’
‘He doesn’t. He’s very careful and fair, treating them all the same.’
Leaning back into the seat Maddy runs her hand through her hair, pulling the fringe from her eyes. ‘Sounds amazing.’ Here is a chance to discuss tactfully if Mila will consider a merger of their families. Her heart beats a little faster. She is impulsive, and maybe this takes things too far. But as a hypothetical situation? ‘Would you ever consider having two or three husbands?’ She laughs to disguise her serious intent. ‘The down-side is putting up with washing double the socks and listening to triple the sports talk.’ She frowns and leans in closer across the small table. ‘I mean, can you see any benefits?’
‘A man with five wives has sexual advantages and strong female mothers to raise his children. It’s more prevalent this way around, even these days, than a woman with several men in a family living arrangement.’
‘Yeah, I guess the woman with several husbands gets the short straw.’
‘In what way?’
‘Well, triple the sexual demands for a start and the three husbands could share the lawn mowing, halve their chores, so they are in a win-win situation.’
The pair laugh raucously, drawing attention from a middle-aged couple at a nearby table.
‘We better go. I might ask Fred, if he’s keen, to have a couple of brother-husbands in the fold. Can you imagine!’
Chapter 2. Breathless
Fred toyed with working two jobs because there’s never enough money to meet household costs. They spend everything he earns as a computer programmer on domestic consumption. His existing job takes up every waking moment and sometimes stretches into on-call evenings when networks go down.
Occasionally he sees a job advertised online, and he applies with the most relevant of his four resumes concocted over the years, but he can’t even land an interview. Disheartening, but it’s reality.
He glares at himself in the mirror. Grimaces as he passes his hand under his forty-three-year-old chin. He already has middle-aged jowls: Where had the time gone?
His stomach rumbles as he drags the razor over his neck and cheeks, dipping it into the shallow bathroom sink, rinsing and returning to the other cheek. Why bother shaving on the weekends? Gone were those days too, where he would dress to impress and watch the wild young things on the dance floor. He grins to himself. He and Logan used to knock back tequila shots in one gulp back in those days.
In their cramped apartment, shared with three other guys during their last year at university, they all helped lift an old barber’s chair into the lounge on the second floor. What a mission. He couldn’t even lift the footrest now without breaking into a sweat. It was the wildest party night, music blaring, everyone queuing up for laybacks in the cracked leather chair. It’s still an in-house joke. Each of them clambered into the old, black heavy steel framed chair and Jerry pumped the foot pedal to swing the back and headrest of the chair almost horizontal.
‘Open wide,’ Clyde shouted as he poured tequila straight from the bottle into the barber chair recipient, mouth open wide, gasping for air as the alcohol overflowed the rim of the victim’s surrounding lips. The shrieking and the laughter out-played the music. But what fun. Where had it all gone?
The stuff he and Logan used to get up to. He shakes his head, looking at the older reflection of himself with a slight nick on his chin. Bending forward, he splashes warm water over his face and dries it off with a hand towel. Gazing into the mirror again, his face already drained by exhaustion. Tired of life. Too much of a battle. During the last few years Fred has ghost-walked through a zombie life. When had he last enjoyed a good time?
On Saturday night he met Logan for a drink after work. They always sat on the same bar stools at the end of the deep curved polished bar counter. Fred clutched a beer, amused by Logan doing a show and tell enactment of a client’s stupidity. Moments after they both guffawed, Fred looked serious.
‘I need to rob a bank,’ Fred jokes, taking another gulp of his ice-cold beer.
Logan nods. ‘You and me both. Or come up with some amazing new phone app.’
‘With code to measure your beer consumption?’
‘Yeah, I guess most great apps are already on sale. But a quirky, fun app could work. It could warn you when you’ve had too much to drink.’
‘Um. I never get drunk.’
‘That’s your problem. Why don’t you break out more, Fred? You keep promising to take me fishing, but it never happens.’
Fred exhales. ‘Yeah I’m useless.’
‘Only if we don’t catch any fish.’
Fred grins. ‘OK, I get it.
‘Something wrong, Bud?’
‘Nah… Well, it’s Maddy.’ Fred sighs. ‘She’s off. You know how she gets. Bored with life like me, I guess.’
‘I hear you.’ Logan frowns, taking another sip, uneasy about Maddy. A wave of guilt passes through him as he glances down at his cell phone.
‘Need to go?’ Fred asks.
‘Yeah, I promised Mila I’d pick up the dry cleaning on the way home.’
Fred snorts. ‘Well trained, Bud. Domesticity incarnate,’ he says. ‘Hey, I thought Mila is staying with her mom this weekend?’
Fred frowns, watching his friend closely. What’s the expression on Logan’s face? Confusion or concern? Is he uneasy? Hard to tell.
‘Oh yeah, that’s right,’ Logan says. ‘I forgot. Still, Mila expects the clothes to be at the house when she gets home on Sunday. Don’t ask me why it’s a matter of life and death.’
Fred shakes his head. His sense of unease has heightened over recent weeks. Something is out of step. He regards Logan closely as he swallows the last of his beer and stands up. ‘I’ll get these, he says, plunging his right hand into his wallet and withdrawing his credit card.
‘Sure. Thanks.’ Logan says. ‘On the ride tomorrow?’
‘Yeah. See you at the Oak Street rendezvous.’
Fred disappears to the bar counter. There is something niggling at the back of Fred’s mind. The angle of his friend’s shoulders are hunched. He can only see his back as he hands his credit card over to the barman and it’s scanned to pay their tab. Something’s out of kilter, off about the awkward way Logan is acting. Yeah, acting out a part instead of being himself.
Fred has known him since childhood. Surely he didn’t think he could get away with anything. They only swallowed two beers, but Fred makes an instant decision to follow Logan home. Way out of character, but Fred senses his friend isn’t being entirely transparent. It’s disturbing, something unusual disrupting their equilibrium. Logan may deliver some answers and if Logan never finds out, well, no harm done.
Logan stands and gives a brief wave to Fred. ‘See you at seven a.m. sharp.’
‘Yup, I’ll be waiting.’
‘Yeah right,’ Logan pulls his chin up, chuckling. ‘Seeing is believing!’
Within seconds Logan saunters out of the bar and into the street. Fred marches towards the entryway. He waits a few moments before pushing through the swing door. The last thing he wants is to walk straight into his best friend. It would take some explaining. He counts to ten before pushing against the heavy wooden double doors and steps out into the street. At first, he can’t make out Logan in the darkness. He’s not on either side of the road. Has he taken a cab? Fred swings around, peering into the night, along the sidewalk opposite. There he is, hurrying past the second block.
Strange, that’s the direction of his house while Logan’s own home is to the west. Fred stays on the same side of the road and hangs back in the shadows yet follows his friend, now several hundred yards ahead. The streetlights shine their confirmation on Logan’s head as he strides forward, down the street, passing a few shops and apartment blocks. Logan stops and looks back, and Fred immediately steps into a doorway of a bakery, pressing his back into the dark alcove. He holds his breath, fearing Logan may return to find him cowering in the shop’s entry. How would he explain his behavior? What is he doing?
Embarrassment threatens to overwhelm Fred, but he controls it with his breathing, repressing the urge to squirm and give up. Feeling more determined, he presses his cheek against the door frame, with one eye squinting down the poorly-lit street. Moments later he observes Logan cut diagonally across the road and head towards the Hotel Bertrand.
Fred smiles to himself. The cheater. He must have a girlfriend, a secret lover! Why not fess up and explain? Hell, with a fifty percent divorce rate, more than half of every adult is having an affair. Of course he is, the dirty dog. He snorts in amusement. He can’t wait to tell Maddy, she will be astounded. She often takes Logan’s side and is more likely to justify his wayward activities. Maybe he won’t say anything, Maddy’s so close to Mila, she’s likely to tell. Not a good look in the grand scheme, but he decides to confront Logan about his secrecy.
Fred slowly moves out of the shadows, his shoulders stooped like a fox, licking his lower lip, heading for the henhouse. He quietly follows in Logan’s footsteps but comes to a halt for a moment outside the hotel. The four-story plastered building is only three-stars but looks clean and modern. Fred walks up the few concrete steps to the revolving glass door. He squints into the brightly-lit reception area, immediately identifying the back of Logan Jones. What the hell is he doing? Logan bends forward, kissing a woman on the cheek who sits on a comfortable green armchair opposite a low coffee table. Fred freezes as another hotel guest pushes past him and spins through the revolving door, obscuring his view.
The woman rises to her feet. It takes a few horrified seconds before Fred realizes the woman with Logan is his wife, Maddy. What is she doing here with Logan and his girlfriend? A porter carrying two suitcases and then a shuffling elderly woman move across his line of sight, momentarily blocking his vision. He watches as his wife and best friend walk together towards the elevator but veer to the carpeted stairwell, chatting happily, comfortable with one another. There is no secret lover! He rubs both of his open palms across his face and over his bald head before turning his back to the entryway, walking down the concrete steps, and slumps onto the edge of a raised planter box near the sidewalk.
It’s as if his friend has smashed him in the gut with a baseball bat. Winged, unable to fly, he feels grounded and defeated. He pushes himself up, stumbling towards the road before waving down a passing cab.