She didn’t press. He would make the first move when he was ready. This was her last appointment and she had time. Meanwhile, he sat there staring at the floor, twisting his wedding band as though he were trying to unscrew his finger.
“I think my wife is cheating on me,” he finally murmured, avoiding her gaze.
Leah Schade put her elbows on the desk and leaned forward. “I’m sorry to hear that, Mr. Hightower.”
“Seth… It’s Seth.”
“Ok, Seth. Could you tell me why?”
Releasing the ring, he looked her in the face for the first time. “Maybe I’m just being paranoid.”
“I’m not a psychiatrist, Seth, but you don’t strike me as paranoid. And I’m a pretty good judge of my clients’ suspicions. So since I’m not in the habit of wasting other people’s money, let me know what brought you here and I’ll let you know if it’s worth a look.”
Opening the mini-fridge by her desk, Leah pulled out a small bottle of mineral water and held it out with eyebrows raised. Seth hesitated. Shrugging her shoulders, she opened it herself and took a swig. “I’ve got something with a bit more kick, if you’d like.” He passed on the liquor but did draw himself up to his full height—he was actually quite tall—and cleared his throat.
Leah brushed the bangs out of her eyes, pencil at the ready, like an attentive schoolgirl, a schoolgirl wearing a shoulder holster.
“Every couple of years, Jules, my wife, gets on a fitness kick. Gym memberships, new exercise clothes, nutrition plans. She sticks with it for a few months and then quits.”
“How long have you been married?”
“Almost ten years. Anyway, she’s off to Lord Gym every Tuesday and Thursday night. Never misses. I watch our six-year-old, Lucy, when she goes. It’s more fun than poker night.”
A framed photo of Leah and her family—an older man and two kids, a grinning boy and girl atop a vintage Harley—caught his eye. “Cute kids. They look sweet.”
Leah cracked a wry smile and snorted. “They have their moments. The gentleman’s my father.”
“When I have the time. My father taught me. Go on.”
“Anyhow; a week ago, I bump into this guy on line at Trader Joe’s. Turns out he works the desk at the same Lord Gym. Tuesday and Thursday nights…” Leah kept listening, but she knew where this was going. Mr. TJ’s had never seen Seth’s wife.
He probably wasn’t paranoid, and it was definitely worth a look.
Then came some less colorful particulars: a photo of Jules, make/model/license of her car, and her schedule, plus a list of favorite hangouts (the ones he knew of). A couple of keystrokes later, she was sliding a contract in front of him and describing her rates, as well as how they would communicate.
Pushing away from the desk, Leah stood, took her new client by the elbow, and gently guided him to the door.
“I hope I’m wrong,” he said.
“Me too,” (but I doubt it). “I’ll be in touch.”
* * *
Nobody noticed Leah two days later sitting in her nine-year-old Honda across the street from the Hightowers’ flat, camera in hand. She liked to discretely observe a family at the kick-off of a domestic job: Did they seem happy? Bored? Did they argue too much? Or too not enough? Out the front door came Seth, sporting a standard-issue business casual outfit, then a kinetic little girl carrying a backpack and wearing a Baltimore Ravens T-shirt. Leah liked her immediately. Close behind was Jules.
The resemblance between mother and daughter was striking. Lucy deposited a perfunctory kiss on her mother’s cheek before bounding over to Seth and clambering into his car as though she were going to an amusement park instead of school. Having been much the same way with her parents, long since divorced, Leah chuckled and snapped a few photos. “Another daddy’s girl…”
Being a Tuesday, gym night, Leah figured she’d see how Mrs. Hightower spent her day, as a warm-up to confirming what kind of exercise she was really getting.
Six hours of surveillance produced nothing of interest: an uneventful shift bartending at a trendy tapas spot broken up by a lunchtime tour of the nearby boutiques (complete with some recreational shoplifting).
Coffee and Kools kept Leah going until her subject got off work and headed toward the local supermarket. She actually had shopping of her own to do and followed Jules inside, managing to pick up a few sundries and ultimately joining a neighboring check-out line just in time to see Jules plunk down a bottle of red and a pack of condoms on the conveyor. An acne-speckled checker’s perfunctory “Did you find everything you need?” forced the detective to stifle her guffaw behind a Kleenex.
The setting sun found Leah stationed across the street from an apartment house where Jules was undoubtedly enjoying a tandem workout behind drawn shades. After a quick peek at the door buzzers to learn the likely lothario’s identity, she packed it in.
* * *
Experience had taught Leah that a strong matrimonial dossier usually needs something juicy to convince a client that the love of their life had outfitted them with a nice pair of horns, even though they had hired her in the first place. Proof of a non-existent gym membership and an array of PG-rated photos of Jules in the company of one Val Zuccino, a sometime studio musician, would likely not do the trick. Nor would evidence from a couple of secret shopper visits to the tapas bar revealing that she had her hand in the till.
Perhaps Val was out of town on a gig two days later, as Jules left work and headed straight to The Tiger’s Revenge, a dimly lit establishment that did not serve infused beverages, unless you wanted your beer infused with well bourbon. Pinning up her hair, Leah held back a moment and then took a small table within earshot of Jules and what appeared to be a close friend. Some liquor-fueled girl talk could provide just the coup de grace Leah was after, so she turned the tiny mike poking out of her purse toward the oblivious ladies, ordered a PBR, and pretended to read a copy of People.
“Hon, you wouldn’t believe the day I’ve had. Thank God my ball and chain likes babysitting. They’re probably watching Star Wars for the hundredth time.”
“No V-man tonight? You give him his pink slip?”
“Ha ha. Nah. He still makes me laugh, though he’s getting kinda possessive,” she said, rolling her eyes.
“Well, you still have your marriage. Hee hee.”
“Puh-leeze. At least Seth brings home the bacon. There’s no way I’d give that up for a wannabe rock star who’ll be waiting tables at fifty. Too bad for me Mr. Low Sperm Count noticed I missed my period almost as soon as I did and surprised me with a home pregnancy test. Thank God the kid looks like me instead of Ronaldo or Harvey or whichever genius couldn’t put the condom on right. Anyhow, what he doesn’t know… Hey, that tat new?”
The girlfriends moved on to a series of more mundane topics before Jules popped a Tic-Tac and said goodbye, gym bag slung over her shoulder.
Leah lingered over her beer and mulled the embarrassment of incriminating riches on her recording. Unfortunately, it included an unexpected landmine, the kind that could produce considerable collateral damage. It was time for a consult.
* * *
“Bunny!” boomed a husky voice from the other side of the front door. A chain slid back and the door swung wide, revealing a tall, sixtyish man in a bathrobe who looked as though he could still bowl over a few hapless linebackers en route to the end zone. Even with his full beard, Leah could see him smiling from ear to ear. “You’re a day early. Something up?” Hank Williams was playing on the stereo.
“Hi, Dad.” She stood on tiptoe to kiss his cheek. “I didn’t think Jews listened to this shit.”
“How about a scotch?”
“I see,” said Mr. Schade with a raised eyebrow on his way to a mini-bar draped with a John Dillinger target. He fixed each of them a double and sunk into the couch next to her with a soft “Oy.”
Leah swirled her drink and stared into the glass. “Dad,” she said, glancing at an old photo of a tall cop in uniform with his arm around a beaming, wiry girl, “when you were working, did you always give the victim’s family the whole story?”
“I never lied to them, if that’s what you mean.”
“I know that. But did you ever hold anything back, you know, for their own good?”
“It depends.” He lit a cigarette. “Caught a ticklish one, eh?”
“Those things will kill you, Dad… Lemme have a drag. Anyway, this guy thought his wife was steppin’ out on him and—”
“Let me guess. That’s not the half of it.”
“Nope. Turns out they have a daughter and she’s not his, but he thinks she is. And those two are like two peas in a pot.”
“Whatever… Anyway, she’s crazy about her dad, and if that ever came out…” Leah blew a couple of concentric smoke rings and drained her scotch.
“Then don’t tell him. What good would his knowing do? “
Leah nodded. “Fair enough.” She thought about how much her dad had loved his job and managed to hang in there for so long despite all the heartache a cop sees day to day, much of it worse than what was now looming over Seth’s family.
Taking in the familiar room, she noticed things were much the same as they’d been since her teens, except for the old bureau. Now filled with the clutter of late middle-aged bachelorhood, it used to be graced with photos of grinning boys in blue from the one-eight posed with everything from a twelve-foot marlin to a notorious hood they’d landed. Somewhere in there, buried like a fossil beneath several strata of out-of-date papers, was his certificate of retirement, a document that had not seen the light of day since he hung up his shield. “Dad? I know it’s been off limits all this time, but I’ve always wanted to know the reason you quit the force. The real one. I’ve seen you play tennis, so please don’t tell me it was because of your back.”
He took back the cigarette and killed it off with one drag. Hank was singing about doing time in Georgia.
He reached over and brushed Leah’s bangs behind her ears, just as he’d done since she was a kid. She let him, as always. The LP was done now and skipping, but neither of them noticed.
“I had a partner, my third, savvy and very tough. We caught this guy we suspected of killing his wife. Smug bastard. But we didn’t have the evidence to lock him up. He was gonna walk for sure, so my partner decided to encourage a confession.”
“What’d he use, a phone book?”
“Something like that. Anyway, that’s never been my way.” Leah just sat, hugging her knees. “So, after a couple of sleepless nights, I went to my commander.”
“And he backed your partner.”
“More like he swept it under the rug. Then suddenly, nobody’s talking to me and I’m starting to wonder if I’ll get back-up when I need it.” He shrugged. “And so…”
“You took early retirement.”
“I took early retirement.”
Leah turned and leaned against her dad for a few silent minutes, watching the smoke curl above their heads. Then she got up and gave him a kiss on the forehead before turning over the record.
* * *
Seth’s color deepened along with his breathing as he paged through Leah’s dossier of his wife’s extramarital escapade, including a tactfully edited transcript of her damning barroom banter. Dropping the folder, he withdrew a small picture of his daughter from his wallet and touched the face smiling back at him. The set of his jaw said it all and, without being asked, she slid a couple of cards for good divorce attorneys across the desk like a blackjack dealer.
* * *
Other jobs kept Leah busy over the next few months, though Seth kept her up to date on the divorce proceedings. He was pushing hard for full custody, which, given the soon to be erstwhile Mrs. Hightower’s serial infidelities and terminally indifferent parenting, he was probably going to get. But Leah feared that would not be the end of it. She had pegged Jules as an adult version of those toxic high school girls, a sore loser with a vindictive streak who would like nothing more than sticking it to her ex. She also knew his weak spot: Lucy.
Lying on the couch in the darkness of her office, listening to the air conditioner hum, Leah fretted over what she should do. What would her dad do? Would playing by her father’s Marquess of Queensbury rules, something he’d preached since her first schoolyard fight (which she’d won), protect what was left of the Hightower family?
* * *
Leah watched Jules take a secluded booth by herself at the Rusty Anchor, the latter’s new favorite since the divorce proceedings had convinced her The Tiger’s Revenge was jinxed, and order a Dirty Martini. She was two sips in when the sturdy little blonde slid across from her.
“Looks like you need some company,” said Leah.
“If I want any, I’ll ask.”
Leah pushed her sunglasses up on her forehead and made herself comfortable while Jules motioned to the burly doorman, “Antoine!”
“Don’t waste your breath. Antoine’s been well paid to make sure we’re not disturbed.” Leah extracted a pack of Kools from her purse. Tapping out a couple, she offered one to Jules, who invited Leah to kiss her ass.
“Oh, that’s right, you’re a gym rat… What? No Val, tonight?”
Jules’ eyes narrowed with recognition. “Is this Seth’s doing?”
“No, he’s far too nice. This was my idea,” Leah replied, lighting up and blowing smoke in Jules’ face.
Lunging across the table, Jules tried to slap the smirk off Leah’s face, but the detective intercepted the blow midway and expertly jerked Jules’ pinky from its socket.
“Cute nail polish. Now, you gonna behave?” Leah tightened the wristlock until Jules, a tear now running down her cheek, nodded vigorously. “Good. Here’s the deal: I just bet you’re planning to let Seth have it by sharing that nasty secret about Lucy’s paternity. That would fix him, wouldn’t it? Every time he looked at Lucy, he’d imagine the face of some generic loser who knocked you up… How am I doing?”
Jules could only gawk at her newly misshapen hand.
“Well, that’s not going to happen.” Leah smiled sweetly and drained Jules’ martini. “Lucy may not know it, but she’s part of a sisterhood… with me. So, if I find out you have fucked with those two in any way, I guarantee you’ll end up with worse than a dislocated finger or maybe have a tough time hanging on to a job or an apartment. And it won’t matter if you actually did anything to lose them, like that small-time horseshit you’re pulling at work, because I’ll make sure you look guilty as sin.” With that, Leah popped Jules’ pinky back in place. “One more thing: don’t think changing zip codes will protect you. You’re too dumb to stay underground for long… And I’d put some ice on that, if I were you.” Then she donned her sunglasses and strolled out the door, leaving Jules cradling her throbbing hand.
* * *
One twenty-five remained in the game and the Ravens, down by six, were driving. Wearing matching team jerseys, Leah and her father were leaning forward together, elbows on knees, too nervous to talk. The final whistle found the home team stalled seven yards from victory. Leah arose with an exaggerated groan, turned off the TV, and carried her drink over to the window, swirling it but not sipping. The sun was on its way down, but the streetlights had yet to come on.
“Don’t worry, hon,” her dad said, “it’s only week four.”
“Dad, remember that case you told me about?”
“Oh, that. What about it?”
“The guy was guilty, wasn’t he?”
The clock ticked. And ticked some more.
“What’d you do, Bunny?”
Leah just stared out at the darkening sky.
Matthew Snyderman lives in Northern California with his wife. When not writing, he enjoys swimming, watching old movies (preferably in a theatre), and collecting music. His work has appeared in The Avalon Literary Review, Dark City, The Lowesoft Chronicle, The Opiate, and Twin Bill.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “Daddy’s Girls”:
We love stories that deal with ethical issues, and we publish them all the time. Some have been our most powerful pieces.
If everything in the world was black and white, ethics would be a simple matter of following the rules or breaking the rules. But the world comprises shades of gray, and ethical issues are not always clear cut. When neither choice is perfect, we have to find what we hope results in the best good for all.
Author Matthew Snyderman presented us with one of those conundrums. Was Leah’s action unethical? We’d probably agree that it was. Did she go too far over the ethical line to serve what she saw as the greater good? That’s up to you to decide.