by Jessica Brody
Women’s Fiction
St. Martin’s Press – June 2008

1. Changing Channels

The man I was looking for was seated comfortably in the back of the hotel bar.

Dark hair, dark suit, tie loosened, top button unbuttoned. He sat alone in a plush, red velvet booth with his arm casually sprawled out over the top. His fingers gently drummed against the fabric to the beat of the soft lounge music while his other hand methodically brought his nightcap to his mouth for another sip.

I observed him, unseen, from the archway that led into the hotel’s lobby.

He was looking for something. Not anything in particular. But something worth distracting him. At least for the night.

I continued to watch as his eyes adeptly found the only other female presence in the bar. He examined her from across the room and upon taking in her high-rise slacks and unflatteringly conservative turtleneck, looked away, discouraged and took another sip of his drink.

And that, right there, was my cue.

I brushed a loose strand of hair away from my eyes and walked into the bar, making certain to move slowly enough so that his eyes could catch me. But with the combination of his wandering eye and the observable shortage of customers tonight, it wasn’t a difficult task.

Some nights are just easier than others.

They usually start with the legs. Most guys are Leg Men. It’s a fact. Two years ago I would have guessed that the male population was equally divided into thirds. Leg Men, Butt Men, and Breast Men. Or what I call, the Holy Male Trinity. But now, I know the truth. Most men like legs. Although, I usually bring three different outfits, just in case. Each complimenting one, and only one of the three features associated with the trinity. But I always start with the legs. It’s a safe bet.

Tonight it was a black suited miniskirt with strappy black Manolos…no nylons. I call it the Corporate Slut look. It’s corporate enough for you to be taken seriously and slutty enough for them to know you like being noticed.

For me, it’s not about liking being noticed. It’s my job for them to notice me. And even though, some might choose to criticize me on this point, the way I see it, I’m just doing my job.

Whether or not this particular one was a Leg Man became irrelevant as soon as his eyes wandered up from my ankles, over my thighs and to the elevated hemline of my skirt. Of course, he didn’t stop there…they rarely do. Only, after they reach the hemline, they can no longer rely on their eyes…it’s all imagination from there on up.

I passed his booth, acting completely oblivious to his attention, and made my way to the bar where I slid casually onto one of the high-backed stools.

“Grey Goose Vodka Gimlet, please.”

The bartender, content to finally have something to do on an empty Wednesday night besides shine martini glasses, nodded cordially and placed a cocktail napkin down in front of me before turning to prepare my drink.

With a tired sigh, I cupped my chin in the palm of my hand and rested my elbow on the wood-paneled bar. The movement was intended to make me look bored. Long day, long trip, long, lonely night ahead of me.

It worked.

As the bartender placed my drink down on the cocktail napkin and I reached for my wallet, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a crisp $100 bill slide onto the bar. “Here, let me get that for you,” a male voice offered.

I looked up to see the man from the booth standing next to me. I appeared slightly startled by his presence.  Why wouldn’t I be? It’s not like I was expecting him to come over.

“That’s so nice of you,” I said gratefully.

A sly smile appeared across his lips. “My pleasure.”

*          *          *

I was here because of a phone call I had received approximately one week ago. The woman on the other end needed my help.

Everyone who calls that specific number needs my help. That is, after all, why I have the number.

I agreed to meet with her the next morning.

“I’ll come to you,” I said, offering the same comforting reassurance I give to everyone who calls this number.

I sat in her large, elegantly-decorated living room and listened to her story. It was a familiar one. I’d heard it at least 200 times. Sometimes with slight variations, sometimes nearly word for word.

But always with the same core motivator: Fear.

“The maid found this in my husband’s pants’ pocket while she was doing laundry.” She reached onto the nearby coffee table and picked up a small crinkled piece of paper. She looked at it pensively, hoping that maybe if she read it for the 102nd time, it might say something else. Or maybe a new and better explanation would finally come to mind and she could send me home.

No such luck.

She reluctantly handed me the piece of paper with a despondent sigh and wiped her nose with a crumpled, over-used Kleenex. “I’m sorry, I’m such a mess. I just can’t believe I’m doing this.”

I looked down at the hand-written note and nodded understandingly. “Well, you did the right thing by calling me. It’s best to know for sure than to always wonder, right?”

She stared at me with uncertainty. “I guess.”

“It is,” I assured her. “Trust me.”

I had assured many women of the exact same thing. Sometimes, when you’re in their shoes, it’s not always easy to see. Or better yet, it’s not always the way you want to see it. The heart and the mind are legendary for disagreeing on subjects like this.

“What do you think it means?” she asked me, nodding toward the small, creased paper in my hand.

I looked down at it again, running my fingertip over the black ink. “It’s hard to say,” I admitted truthfully. “I’ve seen a lot of notes like this. Sometimes it turns out to be nothing…but sometimes it turns out to be…” I paused, hoping the time lapse would soften the word. “…something.”

She looked away, fearful tears stinging her eyes. Then finally, she surrendered a heavy sigh. “My friend who referred me to you said that you do some kind of test.”

*          *          *

I looked into the eyes of the man standing next to me as we clinked our glasses together and simultaneously took a sip.

“So what brings you to Denver?” I asked biting my lower lip. The lip biting technique works brilliantly to suggest that my confidence level is just enough to ask the question but not enough to keep from fidgeting while I do it.

Because, despite appearances, I actually knew more about this man than I was letting on. More than he would ever care for me to know. And certainly more than just any other woman in a hotel bar.

For instance, I knew that this particular man liked confidence but not too much. Because with too much, there’s no sense of conquest on his part. It comes too easily. If she’s just a little bit shy, it’s more of a challenge. He likes when women make the first move, but only so far as to show an initial interest, then he likes to take over.

I see a lot of men like him.

“My company is acquiring a smaller venture that’s headquartered here,” he explained.

I nodded my head intriguingly, as if nothing in the world could be more interesting. “And what company would that be?”

The man raised up a finger, motioning for me to wait, and then reached into his jacket pocket and removed a business card. He placed it on the bar in front of me as if to say, “Why waste precious words when the card already says it all?”

I slid the card closer to me and tilted my head to the side as I read aloud with genuine curiosity…as if I were reading the name for the first time. “Kelen Industries.”

Then I looked up at him as my expression changed from one of innocent intrigue to one of vague recognition.

“Wait a minute,” I said, taking a second look at the card and tapping my finger on it. “I know this company.” I paused and pretended to think long and hard, digging way back into my memory.

The man chuckled almost condescendingly. “I highly doubt it. We manufacture…”

“Car engines!” I interrupted with the enthusiasm of a celebrity groupie.

He shot me a look of astonishment. “That’s right.”

“You guys just released that new 10-cylinder, 5.2 liter engine to compete with the Japanese S8.”

He blinked in disbelief and then looked at me with such longing that he could have devoured me right then and there.

“How does a girl like you,” he began, giving me another once over, making sure he didn’t accidentally miss a pair of nerdy, taped-up glasses in my breast pocket, or a graphing calculator sticking out of my hand bag, “know about car engines?”

I blushed, as if he had just found my hidden weak spot. A shameful secret that I kept locked inside, but upon meeting someone of his status, could no longer bare to keep concealed. “Just a hobby,” I said bashfully.

He smiled and quickly added, “I’m sitting in that booth right over there. Would you like to join me?”

The invite was fast. About as fast as I had calculated. He was an easy code to break. I didn’t think I’d have to work at this one. This man was an obvious pro. I definitely wasn’t the first woman he’d ever invited to sit down. But luckily, I’m not the jealous type.

It’s my job to sit down.

The invite is always necessary no matter how fast or slowly it comes. It’s obligatory. I can’t invite. I can only accept. It’s one of the rules. And since I, myself, invented the rules, it would be silly to break one. For me, rules aren’t made to be broken. They were made for a reason and it was usually a pretty good one.

“Well…” I hesitated, looking at my watch.

“Just for a little bit,” he said persuasively with an engaging smile.

I considered for a moment. Just long enough to give him the rush of a possible rejection and as a result, the subsequent rush of a tiny first victory. Men like him live for that rush. It’s something they don’t get at home anymore. And in all honesty, judging by the size of his bank account, something he doesn’t get away from home either. A man this rich is rarely turned down. And he knew that.

But the one thing that differentiated me from all the other girls was that I didn’t want anything from him in return. I was just there to observe. And of course, take good notes.

Subconsciously, he wanted the chase. He also wanted the triumph at the end, but working for it made it so much more fun. That’s why tonight I had to be somewhat demure. Unsure if I had the time, or the desire to share a drink with somebody. I couldn’t be the type of girl who just sits down with any stranger she meets in a bar. His offer had to seem somehow…more intriguing than most.

But, then again, that girl is only a design. A fabrication of his perfect woman.

“I guess that would be alright,” I said at last.

He smiled and chivalrously picked up both of our glasses and we walked the few paces back to his plush, red velvet booth that looked like it could fit five people, six if they liked each other. He waited for me to slide in and then placed my drink down on the table before taking the seat next to me.

“So, where are you from?” he asked, sipping his drink.

“L.A.,” I stated matter-of-factly, playfully running my fingers up and down the sides of my glass. “And you?”

It was here in the process that I chose to reach down and adjust the strap on my Manolos…while he was digesting my question. Not that it was a difficult question, but at this point, there’s less and less blood flowing to the brain. So the questions become more difficult. Even the simple ones like these.

But the shoe strap adjustment is never just an adjustment. It’s a leisurely slide down the leg, making sure to touch upon all erogenous zones and a deliberate diversion of my attention. The diversion is always long enough for them to, if they so choose, remove the wedding ring.

And he did.

When I came back up and casually glanced at his left hand out of the corner of my eye, it was gone.

“Orange County,” he said, not missing a beat. “Looks like we’re neighbors. I have a house in Newport.” His casual response said nothing to the fact that he was now minus one very important piece of jewelry. As if the removal of his wedding ring didn’t faze him at all. Just as someone would take off their watch at the end of the day, this man evidently takes off his wedding ring when he meets girls in bars.

I smiled delightfully. “Oh, I love it down there! The beaches are amazing. My best friend lives right next door in Huntington.”

“Well then, you’ll have to come south for a visit,” he offered suggestively. “I have a great pool overlooking the ocean.”

I released a perfectly-timed, nervous giggle. The kind that lets someone know they’re making you uncomfortable…but at the same time implies you don’t really mind all that much.

“Maybe I will,” I replied softly.

Nevertheless, the one thing we both knew was that no matter what happened in the next few hours, I wouldn’t be making any trips down to Newport Beach in the near future. However, my understanding of that unspoken agreement was just a bit more informed than his.

 *          *          *

 “It’s called a fidelity inspection,” I had gently explained to the woman sitting across from me with tears in the corners of her eyes. “And how it works is: You and I will decide on a location where your husband will be in the near future. Preferably somewhere out of town. My research has shown that most infidelity in men happens away from home. I will then travel to that predetermined location and present myself as an “opportunity.”

She nodded slowly, taking it all in. One painful detail at a time.

“I will not instigate anything. I will only follow your husband’s lead.”

“And then what?” she asked, desperately wanting me to come with all the answers neatly wrapped up in a pretty little package. A marriage repair kit in a box. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work that way. With infidelity, there is never a quick fix. But there is a solution. That’s why I’m here.

“Mrs. Jacobs,” I began kindly. “I only offer information. What you choose to do with it afterwards is entirely up to you.”

She nodded and tried to smile.

The piece of paper in my hand was the first clue. There’s always a clue. The question is what you choose to do with it. Will you ignore it and continue living your life, always doubting, always wondering? Or will you do something about it?

This particular clue came in the form of a name and a series of numbers. “Alexis” was spelled out on the page in unmistakable, female handwriting and then underneath was a phone number, followed by the text, “Bathing suit optional!”

Although I didn’t want to admit it to the woman sitting across from me, it looked exactly like what I suspected it to be. My friends give out their numbers to guys all the time. And that’s what they write. A name and a number. And then sometimes a funny, private joke. Something to remind him of the conversation they had earlier in the evening.

“And you’re positive your husband doesn’t know anyone by the name of Alexis?” I asked earnestly.

She shook her head. “Not that I know of. Our friends’ daughter’s name is Alexis, but she’s only 10. I doubt she would have written that.”

I nodded in agreement and offered a heartwarming smile. “Yes, I doubt it, too.”

She fidgeted nervously in her seat. She had hoped it wouldn’t come to this. She looked down at her lap. Her hands were locked tightly together and she began to knead them like a loaf of bread.

We sat in silence for a moment until she finally lifted her head and looked me straight in the eye. “If you were me, what would you do?” she asked softly.

I looked at her with compassion, ready and willing to help in any way I could. “I would want peace of mind,” I said in all honesty.

*          *          *

 “What’s your name, by the way?” the man in the bar asked me.

“Ashlyn,” I answered as I turned toward him and extended out my hand.

Of course, it’s a code name. I never use my real name. “Ashlyn” doesn’t actually exist. She’s a hologram. A character in a play. A play I’ve performed hundreds of times, in a hundred different hotel bars. And yet, they all seem strangely familiar. The same show, over and over again for the past two years.

“What a beautiful name,” he remarked, becoming visibly more comfortable in the booth.

I thanked him kindly. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard it. Yes, it was a beautiful name. That’s after all, why I chose it. Because if you’re going to fight for a cause, you need a good alias to fight under.

“Nice to meet you, Ashlyn. I’m Raymond.”

But I already knew his name. That’s one of the basics. In fact, I knew a lot more about the man sitting next to me than what was written on his little white business card.

Raymond Jacobs. CEO of Kelen Industries, the second largest manufacturer of automobile engines in North America. Just shy of 38 years old, he lives in Newport Beach, California with his wife Anne and their two children. His hobbies include sailing, golf, downhill skiing and wine tasting although he hardly gets to do any of them because of his hectic work schedule. He likes Sushi but only if it’s expensive, the blue fin tuna stuff (he’s suspicious of cheap, uncooked fish). He watches Hockey and Basketball whenever a Texas team is playing because that’s where he grew up. He graduated from the University of Texas with a degree in engineering, a college sweetheart that he proposed to a year later and a lifetime allegiance to the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity.

I always do my research.

It makes my job much easier.

“Yes, I know.” I said with a faint smile that left my mouth half open so he could see my tongue playfully massaging the back of my teeth.

As soon as he began to stare, however, I quickly shut it and pressed my lips together tightly. Because tonight, with Raymond Jacobs, CEO of Kelen industries, I am embarrassed at being caught doing anything overly sexual. Especially when people are watching. I practice the tongue against the teeth maneuver in front of the mirror at least twice a week…when no one else is around. But when it comes time to actuallyuse it on someone, I am slightly less courageous.

“Raymond Jacobs,” I pronounced his name fully and with importance.

“How do you know that?” he asked, suddenly paranoid as he remembers that he hasn’t yet told me his full name.

I coyly pointed to his business card that sat on the table in front of me.

“Right.” He laughed at himself, seemingly relieved. Because for the very slightest moment, there was just a small sense of panic…that I might not be exactly who I say I am.

And the truth is…I’m not.

But the mind sees what it wants to see.

“So what are you in town for?” Raymond asked quickly, gearing the conversation back down its steady path to…well, exactly where he hoped it would go. “Business or pleasure?” Raymond’s implication on the word “pleasure” was far from discreet.  He wasn’t about to waste a perfectly good opportunity to insinuate.

Ashlyn may have been shy, but she certainly wasn’t stupid. I caught his suggestion and laughed nervously at what it implied. He watched my mouth intently, waiting for the laugh to turn from one of uneasiness to one of reciprocated flirtation.

And what do you know?

It did.

“Business,” I said with a flitting sigh, as if to suggest the dullness of my trip and the burning desire to make it a bit more interesting.

“What do you do?”

I tucked my hair behind my ear. “I’m a research manager for a law firm.”

Ashlyn has had so many jobs. Tonight, however, her job had to be interesting and important. Not overly flashy, but one that required a significant amount of brains. With some subjects, Ashlyn’s job is an important component of the mission. But tonight it was becoming increasingly clear that with legs like that, Raymond Jacobs could care less what she did during the rest of the day. As long as her nocturnal activities included a space for him.

“Wow, that must be exciting,” he said with an earnest attempt at sincerity.

He wanted this. And he knew what it was going to take to get it. Interest and attention. Because from experience, that’s what it normally took to win over girls like Ashlyn.

I flashed the kind of smile that radiates from someone who enjoys her job. “Yes, it’s pretty exciting,” I began. “Always something different…lots of travel. I get to meet new people all the time. And the research I do is usually pretty interesting and informative. The best part is, I learn about things I would never have chosen to learn about on my own.”

I laughed to myself as I realized that the whole speech was actually fairly accurate. I did get to travel a lot. I did get to meet new people. Not necessarily the most upstanding kinds of people, but still people. And sometimes the research required for this job can be pretty fascinating. For instance: over the past two years, I’ve learned how to speak French, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, German, Russian and some Arabic. It doesn’t really bother me that the only conversations I can have in those languages are all for the purpose of getting men to ask me back to their hotel rooms.

But I can’t complain.

Grunt work is part of any job. My grunt work is just a bit more…literal.

The more I spoke with Raymond Jacobs, the more confident I became that he was, what I call, a “channel changer.” Someone who doesn’t feel guilt. These are the ones that keep me awake at night. The ones that go through with it so easily, as if they’re just casually changing the TV channel during a commercial break. Just to see what else might be on. It’s a good test for any man. Can he sit through an entire commercial break without changing the channel? If he can, he might have potential. If he can’t, toss him out right away. Of course, with the advent of Tivo and DVR, testing capacities have become somewhat limited.

But the one thing I was fairly confident he would feel was remorse. Regret. Although it would probably not come in the form of, “How could I do something like this?” but rather in the form of, “How could I let myself get caught?” Successful men don’t really like getting caught with their pants down…so to speak.

Whether or not it will change them is the real human-interest story.

After three drinks and what seemed like hours of pointless conversation, I turned my wrist and looked at my watch. “Oh,” I said, seemingly surprised that someone like me could have lost track of time so easily. “It’s almost midnight. I should really get some sleep. I have such an early day tomorrow.”

I brought my gimlet glass to my lips and slowly tipped my head back, allowing the very last of my drink to slide down my throat. I was also allowing the reality of my parting words to fully infiltrate his mind.

Ashlyn is leaving. And there’s no doubt he wants more of her.

It’s a guaranteed method for dealing with any man. Married, single, divorced, gay, straight, bi-sexual. Always leave them wanting more. Never give them enough.

I grabbed my small, black hand bag and slung it around my shoulder as I slid to the edge of the booth and slowly stood up. I turned to him and paused before speaking again. This gave his eyes time to find their way from eye-level, which was now directly between my legs, to my face.

“It was nice meeting you, Raymond.”

He cleared his throat. “Do you really have to go?” His disappointment was purposefully transparent. Trying his luck with the “broken heart” card. Because girls like having a heartbreaking effect on men.

I nodded solemnly as I pretended to feel the effects of the alcohol I had just consumed. “Yes, I probably should. But thank you again for the drinks.” I giggled. “All three of them.” I extended my hand, letting him shake it, feel it, absorb it, long for it. “Good luck with your meetings,” I said sweetly and started to turn away.

“You, too,” he said, confused. I could see his mind scrambling for his next chess move. Knowing full well that he still needed to capture the queen, he was not about to let me leave that easily. And that’s exactly why I felt comfortable bluffing my exit.

“You know,” he started to say, his hand resting contemplatively on the metaphorical bishop of our imaginary chessboard.

I turned back around curiously, as if I had no idea what was coming next. As if I wasn’t already five moves ahead of him…just as any good chess player should be.

“I have this great mini bar in my room and I haven’t even touched it yet. Do you want to come up for another drink?”

Check mate.

I hesitated slightly. Considering his offer.

I had to think about it. To jump at the invite would be out of character. And Ashlyn never steps out of character.

I had to be flattered by his invitation but I also had to bite my lip hesitantly while I thought about it.

So I did.

But the indecision is actually built in for two reasons. 1) The Obvious: to allude to the fact that I am unsure about going upstairs with a stranger. And 2) The Unobvious: To give him the chance to back out. Yes, it is, in essence, counterproductive to my “mission” but I have to be certain that he really wants it. There’s a fine line between testing someone and entrapping them. They are fundamentally two different things, and I don’t do the latter. I don’t set traps and let men walk right into them. I let them lead the way and observe what they do with a “willing” participant.

Because in reality, temptation is everywhere.

I’m just a human camera. Documenting that reality.

“Yes, I think I would like that,” I said, lowering my head a half an inch.

He stood up, feeling an extraordinary sense of accomplishment. Letting the rush he longs for every single day to pulse though his veins and fuel his excitement. And together, we weaved our way through the bar, around the other tables and into the lobby.

Once in the elevator, he pressed the letter “P” for the Penthouse and the doors closed. His lips immediately moved toward mine. His kiss wasn’t tender or gentle. It was purposeful. I had agreed to the invitation and in that simple concurrence, I had knowingly agreed to so much more. It was an unspoken rule. One that Raymond, apparently, was very familiar with.

When he kissed me my mind filled with the same thing it always does…nothingness. It’s taken a while to master the art of thinking about nothing. I’d always thought it was nearly impossible…especially for women. Our minds are constantly racing, always analyzing, always planning. But after several meditation classes, numerous books on the Art of Zen and hours of practice, I had finally become a master of nothing. Empty space in my head.

And trust me, it’s the only thing you want to be thinking about at a time like this.

Because God knows there are several other options. His wife, his kids, his beautiful mansion in whatever impressive-sounding town he’s chosen to live in, the wedding ring once filled with meaning and virtue, now sitting lifelessly in his shirt pocket.

Looking at a man like Raymond Jacobs can be very deceiving. Because to the untrained eye, his family, his life, his accomplishments would probably look just like a sitcom. The perfect American Dream paradigm. But to an expert like me, it looks quite a bit different.

It’s funny. Never, as a child growing up watching Family Ties or The Wonder Years, did I picture I would encounter the husbands and fathers of these shows under these circumstances. But I learned rather quickly that sitcoms never actually reflect real life. They’re just an idealistic creation.  A utopia in the mind of some producer looking to strike an emotional chord in all of us who live in the real world. A world which, not surprisingly, looks nothing like that.

Not yet anyway. But I have high hopes.

The elevator dinged and the doors opened. He grasped my hand tightly and began to lead me down the hallway toward his room, a playful smile artificially painted on my face.

This is a very crucial time in the process. The game is nearly over. But it’s no time to be careless. Any slight mistake, change in character, wrong word could trigger suspicion and inevitably, an aborted mission. Raymond was far too distracted to be suspicious. But you can never be too sure. No matter how predictable someone is, they can always surprise you. And therefore, I can never lose my concentration. My true identity must always be concealed.

Backing out is one thing. But a blown cover is quite another.

He let go of my hand just long enough to fish his hotel key out of his back pocket. I giggled nervously as I watched him fiddle with the electronic lock. Trying it once, getting a red error light and then trying it again. If only he had stopped long enough to read the red light and respond to it obvious implication.

There are always signs…most just fail to see them.

The green light finally illuminated and he turned the handle and pushed the door open with his back. He reached out his hands and grabbed me around the waist, pulling me in after him.

*          *          *

“There’s just one more thing…” Mrs. Jacobs had said to me as I was packing up my things to leave.

I tucked the photograph of Raymond Jacobs that she had given me into the pocket of my portfolio and placed it in my bag. Then I looked up at her. “What’s that?”

She fidgeted in her seat, the inevitability of her forthcoming question making her visibly uncomfortable. But it was a question that needed to be asked. And she knew she would have to ask it eventually.

I, however, already knew what it would be.

Because it was the same question that always came at this point in the meeting.

The same disturbing image that would perpetually haunt her for the rest of the week, and possibly the rest of her life, unless it was addressed.

“What about sex?” she finally managed to get out. “Do you actually have sex with the…um…” Her voice trailed off. She was unable to even think about it, let alone say it aloud.

“Absolutely not,” I said without even the slightest waver in my voice. This point has always been nonnegotiable so it was important that I presented it as such.

She breathed a heavy sigh of relief. “Oh, thank God.”

I smiled warmly. “Mrs. Jacobs, I assure you, my test is based on an intention to cheat only. There is no sex involved.”

She shifted again in her seat. “Intention to cheat,” she repeated to herself.

“Yes,” I confirmed with a tenacious nod of my head.

“So how does that work exactly?”

*          *          *

Raymond and I stumbled clumsily through the extravagant, top-floor suite, his

lips on my mouth, my neck, my face. Anywhere they could find.

As we fell onto the bed, I made sure that I was on top. It’s a much easier escape route…when the time comes to escape.

His hands immediately came up and landed on my ass. I moaned with pleasure.

He liked it.

They usually do.

He continued to kiss me as he slid my suit jacket over my shoulders. Then he went for my shirt. Unbuttoning the buttons one by one. I didn’t protest. The shirt came off. He took one look at my lavender lace balconet push-up bra and let out an appreciative sigh. Sure, it was flattering. How could it not be? But tonight, like every other night, the focus wasn’t on me. And therefore, I usually took little notice of their “appreciation.”

Next off was my skirt, revealing the matching boy shorts I had on underneath. He touched my hipbones and squeezed. I shivered with believable excitement.

My fingers started unbuttoning his shirt next, stroking his chest and sliding it seductively off his shoulders.

He quivered with anticipation. “Oh my God, I want you so bad.”

“Really?” I asked softly, still as demure and unsure as ever.

“Oh, yes,” he replied. “You are so sexy.”

“Good,” I whispered.

And with that I rolled off of him, slid to the edge of the bed and callously started gathering up my items of clothing. Without a word, I quickly located my skirt on the floor, reached down to grab it and then stood up to put it back on.

“What are you doing?” he asked with more than a hint of annoyance in his voice.

“I’m leaving,” I replied blankly, stepping into my skirt and pulling it up around my hips.

He sat up, seemingly too quickly, either because of one too many drinks or a lack of blood flow to the brain…possibly both. He put his hand to his head to steady the room. A look of total bewilderment stretched across his face. “Why?”

I knew exactly what he was thinking. That this part was definitely not in the rulebook he had come to memorize. Boy buys girl drink. Boy invites girl to hotel room. Girl accepts. But girl certainly doesn’t just change her mind and leave for no reason.

“Because I’m done here,” I said matter-of-factly, sliding my arms into the sleeves of my shirt and proceeding to button it up.

And I was done.

He shook his head. “I don’t understand. Did I do something wrong?”

I shrugged. “I guess you could put it that way.”

This threw him off even more. The look on his face was one I’d seen many times. It was an expression of someone tracing back steps in their mind, trying to reassemble a pile of amorphous puzzle pieces that had absolutely no hope of ever interlocking.

I finished buttoning my shirt and then bent down to help guide my feet into my shoes.

“Wait,” he pleaded softly, hoping to sway me once again by his unyielding desperation for me.

But his tactics were useless on me now. I was no longer the same person he had met in the bar.

“Come sit down. Let’s just talk. We can discuss car engines if you want,” he offered in an artificial display of thoughtfulness.

I smiled without even the hint of feeling. “I’m not who you want me to be, Raymond.”

His forehead wrinkled in aggravated confusion. “Huh?”

I was all business now. “I was hired by a Mrs. Anne Jacobs who was in suspect that you had unfaithful tendencies and therefore requested my services as a fidelity inspector.”

His eyes grew wide at the mention of her name. “What the fuck?”

And this is where that remorse comes in.

He dropped his head between his knees. His fingers ran through his hair and around to the back of his neck. He pulled his chin up long enough to say, “She hired you?”

I stood emotionless and looked him straight in the eye. “Yes.” It was my duty now to be completely impassive. No pity, no compassion. Nothing.

He groaned loudly and shut his eyes again. It was time for me to leave. I grabbed my bag and jacket and headed for the door. But not before leaving a small, black card on the dresser. The only thing I ever leave behind after an assignment.

I guess you could say it was my calling card. But I don’t like to think of it as proof that I was there. More proof that something needs to change.

“Wait,” I heard Raymond say again. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him get up and reach down to pick up his slacks that had been kicked halfway across the room in our semi-authentic heat of the moment. He pulled a black leather wallet from the back pocket and opened it. “What’s she paying you, a grand? 1500? Look, I’ll double it.” He reached inside the billfold and started to count out hundred-dollar bills.

I turned around and watched him coldly sift through his pile of money like a miser with his beloved stack of cash. “This is not about money,” I responded flatly, before continuing to the door.

“It’s always about money,” he pressed indignantly. “How much do you want?”

I stopped, contemplated for a moment and then slowly turned to face him again.

Raymond cracked a triumphant smile at, what appeared to be, my sudden change of heart.

“I’m sorry,” I offered sincerely. “But my loyalty is not for sale.”

His smile morphed into a patronizing grin. “Trust me, honey. I have enough money to buy anyone’s loyalty.”

And just then, a small, shiny object on the ground caught my eye. I immediately recognized it as Raymond Jacobs’ wedding band, having evidently been tossed out of his shirt pocket during our earlier disrobing scramble. I bent down to pick it up and then with the delicacy of a surgeon mending an open heart, I gently placed it on top of the dresser. “Apparently not,” I replied.

I never know what happens after that because it’s not my job to know. My part is over. The intention has been confirmed. And that’s all I’m here to do. To confirm it or deny it.

Now it was time for me to leave.

So I did.