Nice Guys Finish Last By JC Andrijeski

JC Andrijeski is a USA Today bestselling author of paranormal mystery & supernatural suspense, often with a metaphysical bent. She’s lived all over the United States as well as parts of Europe, Australia and Asia, and has a background in journalism and political history. She currently lives and writes full-time in Bangkok, Thailand, where she has a beautiful view of a Buddhist wat right outside her window.

The short story Nice Guys Finish Last is from a recent anthology titled Mostly Murder: Till Death featuring works of authors such as Lawrence Block, Patrice Fitzgerald, H.B. Moore, and Jerilyn Dufresne. The story has been brought to you by Mystery Tribune with permission from the author and the editor for the anthology.

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***

 

I discovered my wife’s true nature in our third year of marriage.

It didn’t come upon me all at once.

It happened over a matter of months, with me slowly putting the pieces together, reading the clues she left me, however faint or obscure or harmless-seeming on the surface. Eventually, I began to put together the language she was speaking to me as well, in her own quiet way. Where I am now, I’ve had a lot of time to think about these things.

Eventually, I grew to understand that despite her sweet, loving and delicate exterior, by the end, my wife wanted nothing more than to annihilate my very soul.

The motives troubled me at first.

They troubled me a lot.

See, I really loved my wife.

My brother and a few of my friends joked that I loved her too much.

We met over in the Philippines when I was stationed there for work, but she was actually Thai, from a village in the northeastern part of the country, and had moved to Bangkok to attend college. She just happened to be in the Philippines visiting friends while I was there. Her being in Manila at all––much less while I would be there and following a trail that meant I would cross paths with her in such a crowded and chaotic city––seemed like nothing less than sheer magic to me. I thought about that for a long time after we met, the number of things that would have to fall into place for us to be in one another’s lives.

She was twenty, educated but had no money of her own, and her English needed some work.

She confessed to me later that another man she met while in school in Bangkok, a businessman who came to Manila to set up a call center for an insurance company, paid for her air ticket. She told me that when she met me, she fell so much in love that she broke things off with him and offered to pay him back the full amount.

I believed her. Men can be stupid that way.

Either way, we were in love. I’m sure of it.

I don’t think she could have deceived me to that extent.

On the surface, she was the dreamboat girlfriend.

Six months later, she was the perfect wife.

Hot as hell––especially when I first met her. Long, silky, black hair. Full lips. Light brown eyes––so light, they were really stunning, as in double-take kind of stunning, as in can’t-look-away kind of stunning.

She was on the small side in terms of her chest area, but I didn’t mind. She had long thin legs and a dazzling smile and she dressed so differently from the women I’d dated back in the States. No business suits or ponytails or clunky shoes or baggy T-shirts for my Kanya; she wore short skirts, low-cut blouses, high heels, full makeup, red lipstick.

I never once saw her hair anything but styled or down, no matter what she was doing. She ate like a bird and didn’t drink or smoke. Unlike most of her American friends, she kept her figure long after we got married.

I didn’t even mention it to her. She did that all on her own.

Not long after we got married, my job moved us to Albuquerque, New Mexico.

It was a relief to be back in the States. Kanya was excited to be a real American, too.

The lab where I worked promised me it was a real position this time, that I wouldn’t be moved again in a few months, either to another part of the country or another part of the world. I began to feel like I would be able to really build something in Albuquerque with my new wife, which was a huge relief after that whole incident in San Francisco.

It felt like a fresh start. The freedom to begin again.

Kanya was a big part of that.

Like most people in those years, I was still suffering the effects of the tech crash. Everyone was hurting back then, especially when the rest of the market crashed a few years later, with the housing bubble popping, jobs evaporating, full-blown recession and everything else. Even those of us who managed to hold onto our jobs suffered, and I was no exception, despite my unique skills. My employers had me over a barrel and they knew it, so I pretty much had to go wherever they told me.

I guess I was a little bitter until I met Kanya.

It struck me as prophetic, almost, that they finally let me return home to do my job, and only a few months after the ink on our marriage certificate dried.

I took it as a sign that things were finally turning around for me.

For us. For the first time in my life, I was part of an “us.”

I told Kanya I didn’t really want children right away, so she decided she wanted to go to school––first to learn English better, then to obtain a business degree. Or possibly something in the arts or graphic design. I supported her in that, and with a few phone calls and some work over her application and entrance essay, we got her enrolled at the University of New Mexico (or UNM) only a day or two before I started work at the new site.

I was forty-six. She was twenty-one.

I thought I was lucky.

All my friends thought I was lucky, too.

They’d all married American women.

Career-obsessed ballbuster types, my friends’ wives had no trouble running down their husbands in public, arguing with anyone and anything who didn’t march in time with their self-involved bullshit. Their wives whined if they made less money than their husbands, nagged and lorded it over the poor bastards if they made more. They kept their men on such tight leashes half my friends had to text or call every five minutes just to keep from getting screamed at.

Truthfully, the whole lot of them scared the hell out of me. I avoided being alone with any of them for more than a few minutes if I could help it.

After most of those work and neighborhood dinners, I came home and counted my blessings, feeling more gratitude than I knew how to express for finding my beautiful Kanya.

The day after one of those dinners, I bought her a new necklace with a diamond-studded bird on it. She squealed and clapped her hands.

After the Christmas work party, I took her shopping for the day and let her buy anything she wanted at the outdoor mall on Uptown Blvd.

She bought clothes of course… but she also bought things for the house. And for me.

That’s the kind of wife she was.

Really, in those first two years in Albuquerque, I can’t begin to express how lucky I felt.

I came home to food on the table, a spotless house, her smile hovering over her slim body in a form-fitting emerald green dress… or maybe a pale blue one… or a white one or a red one or a indigo one. Kanya never minded listening to me talk about my day. She gave me foot rubs and back rubs while I told her about all of the crazy things going on with my job. She liked taking care of things for me. If I had any gripe, it’s that her cooking was way too Asian, with too much rice and spice and whatever else, but that wasn’t a big deal since we ate out a lot anyway.

She handled all the household and yard issues without bugging me for money all the time, although I did let her hire a gardener and a weekly housecleaner when she went back to school.

All in all, for those first few years of marriage, I was happy.

Ecstatically happy, most of the time.

Kanya was happy, too.

At least, she seemed that way to me.

Then, somewhere around the end of year two, I started noticing things.

 

* * *

 

First off, things in the house started to disappear.

They weren’t all valuable things. Most weren’t even personally valuable things––meaning, things that may not have cost much but that I liked for one reason or another.

Hell, a lot of them weren’t even particularly useful things.

They were just… things.

Most of it was just totally random stuff, stuff I knew had been there, and now, with no ready explanation, simply wasn’t. What bothered me more though, is that whenever I asked Kanya about it, she would just smile at me nervously and go back to whatever she’d been doing, whether it was cleaning the kitchen or cooking or putting away the shopping.

Eventually, I had to confront her for real.

Something about not knowing really nagged at me.

Looking back on it now, I suspect some more animal, survival-oriented part of me was picking up on instinctual cues, sensing that I was in danger. At the time, however, getting the truth out of my wife felt more important than I could explain to myself. It became a quiet obsession of mine, and one night, I’d finally had enough.

I remember that evening well.

I’d just gotten off work. I’m the type who needs a lot of peace and quiet when I first walk in the door, even on a normal day, but that day, I needed it more than usual. I’d been stuck in meetings for most of the afternoon, with a particularly unreasonable and petty supervisor who, like most of my managers over the years, liked nothing better than to waste the time of his more highly educated and technically skilled employees.

So yeah, I guess I was already in a mood.

I really just wanted a beer and some silence, followed by something good to eat and then a peaceful evening with my wife for the rest of the night. I already knew what I wanted to tell her about that same boss over dinner. Maybe we’d order in, since I definitely wasn’t in the mood for spicy rice crap right then, no matter how much meat she put in it. I needed comfort food, like Mexican or steak or even pizza. I already found myself thinking there would be a movie after dinner, and a foot rub.

Maybe more than that, if I got my second wind.

It was raining that night.

Not normal rain, like you see on the West or East Coasts, but desert rain, summer monsoon, like you get every year in that part of New Mexico. New Mexico rains never really made anything cooler for long, but they made the air smell really good––fresh and clean and strangely nostalgic, even though I’m not from that part of the world. It’s like you’re smelling the old world as the sun got beaten out of the mesa and dust and adobe walls by the pelting drops, catching the lingering scent of a simpler, more black-and-white life.

Maybe a life more like what Kanya had, in that village in Thailand.

You got lightning with those storms, too.

Loud. You can’t hear much through that, for how loud it can be at times.

People cranked up their televisions. Or, like me, they took their beers outdoors to covered patios that had high ceiling fans running nonstop during the day, at least while people were outside. They’d sit out there in the dark and watch the lightning play havoc over the Sandia Mountains and smell the past through the machine gun pattering of rain.

Hell, you could probably set off a gun, and no one would hear it. Not while one of those storms raged directly overhead.

The next day, it would be just as hot as it had been the day before. The ground would be baked dry before you even got out of bed, and there’d be so little moisture in the air you could physically feel each inhaled breath sucking water out of your lungs and skin.

But that night, the rain was still coming down.

I sat on our porch in the dark, drinking a beer and smoking a cigarette, which I try not to do around Kanya if I can help it. Even as tired as I was, I tried to be a good husband, since I knew Kanya hated when I smoked inside the house.

That’s when I noticed the next thing missing.

At that point in our mysterious, silent battle of wills, I’d counted only four things that I knew with absolute certainty had disappeared.

The bird necklace I’d given her in our first year of marriage was the first thing I discovered gone. I asked Kanya why I never saw her wearing it anymore, when it used to be her favorite piece of jewelry, and when she was at school, I looked for it everywhere and couldn’t find it.

Next I noticed the blender gone from our kitchen counter, after I asked Kanya to make me a margarita one night.

Then one of the tablets we had between us disappeared.

Then both remote controls to our television vanished, too.

I’d broken down and replaced all but the necklace by then, but the mystery of so many disappearances over only five or six weeks had already started to nag at me. I couldn’t figure out why and how these things disappeared when only Kanya and I lived in the house.

At first, when the bird necklace disappeared, I’d wondered if it was our cleaning lady, Manuela, so I fired her and instructed Kanya hire someone else. For a few weeks after that, I only let the new one, Rosaria, come on the weekends when I was there. I also had her turn out her pockets before she left. She never had anything on her, not so much as a piece of lint.

Then the television remotes disappeared.

Then the tablet.

Then the blender… which I highly doubt Rosaria could have gotten out of our house without Kanya or I noticing.

I started to wonder if Kanya was giving things away, to the neighbors maybe, or to new friends she’d made in her English classes. She was a sweet, generous person, and too trusting at times. Was someone coming to the house while I was at work and convincing Kanya to hand over our personal things?

The possibility struck me as odd, given the things that were missing.

That night, when I noticed yet another thing missing––this time, something definitely too big to have been randomly “misplaced”––I reached the end of my straws and my willingness to ignore what was going on.

When I first bought the house, I’d bought Kanya one of those tiered, clay pots filled with different kinds of succulent cactuses. We’d been wandering around Old Town Albuquerque and they had a small plant and pottery shop, and she’d been fascinated by it, since the plants were so different here from any she’d ever seen before. So I bought it for her. I had it delivered and everything, since the thing was heavy––and big. It had been sitting in the same spot just below the adobe pony wall around our porch since it first came to our home.

Now, it wasn’t. Sitting there, I mean.

Now, like the other four things, the tiered, red-clay pot filled with succulents that Kanya had so carefully watered over the past few years… was just gone.

I couldn’t believe it at first, truthfully. I looked away and back a few times, trying to convince myself it hadn’t really disappeared. I knew I was looking in the right place. The ring of dirt and water deposits from watering still stained that part of the blue and white flowered tile. But the thing that created that ring, the giant red clay pot with the little holes all over it for different kinds of cactus, wasn’t anywhere in sight.

Full of dirt and dripping with plants, that pot had to weigh eighty pounds, if not more. I was pretty sure Kanya couldn’t even lift it by herself.

Heck, I wasn’t sure I could.

Anyway, I don’t know precisely why that was the thing I latched onto, but it was.

Once it finally sank in that the pot was really gone, I got off the swing and walked around the porch, looking for the damned thing while thunder and lightning continued crashing overhead. Once I’d finished my cigarette, I left the porch, venturing out to look in our actual yard, thinking maybe Kanya was stronger than I thought.

I walked all over that desert-landscaped yard and all around our swimming pool, even though the rain continued to pelt down on our part of the mesa and I still wore my shirt and tie and slacks from work. I even wore my favorite pair of loafers still, which weren’t exactly good in the wet sand and fast-forming puddles on the walk.

I walked around the pool a second time, then around the work shed in the backyard, the one hidden behind an adobe wall near the tall desert palms. I considered using my keys to look inside the shed itself, but I didn’t. The shed was mine, and Kanya knew that. I usually had that key on me, so Kanya would’ve had to move the pot there in the middle of the night, and why would she do that? The very idea was insane. The shed was mine.

She knew that.

In the end, I left it alone, focusing on the assorted scattering of cactus and succulents that filled our yard, thinking she must have just moved it somewhere else for some reason.

I think I spent some thirty minutes looking, but I never found it. Eventually I decided I just needed to ask her, so I walked back to the porch and then into the house, leaving my shoes outside the sliding glass door.

Once I’d shut the door behind me, I called out to Kanya.

“Honey?” I put the beer bottle on the coffee table when I didn’t see her, wandering through the lower level of our house. It was a big place, with an open floor plan made up of a kitchen, dining room and living room with vaulted, wood-beamed ceilings.

“Kanya!” I stood at the foot of the stairs, one hand on the polished pinewood banister. “Kanya! Where are you? I need you to come down here, sweetie!”

I walked up the stairs, now verging on annoyed, but honestly not sure if it was at her or myself. Usually she answered me right away.

Was she in the garage? Had she run to the store while I was outside rooting around our backyard like a fool, looking for a missing cactus pot?

“Kanya!” I bellowed it that time, from most of the way up the stairs. “Are you home?”

Still nothing.

After checking our bedroom and the bathroom, I wandered into my office. She was there, on the floor, staring down, like she was in a trance or something.

For a moment I just stood there, in the doorway.

Maybe I was in shock.

“Kanya!” Biting my lip, I deliberately calmed my voice when I saw her jump. “What are you doing? Haven’t you heard me calling you for the past however-many minutes?”

She turned her head, staring up at me with white-rimmed, terrified eyes like I’d hit her with a cattle prod. Breathing hard, her eyes still as dilated as an alley cat’s, she lurched to her feet, and the leather-bound notebook that I now realized she’d been holding in her lap fell to the floor.

I frowned down at it.

It was one of mine from work.

Looking back up at her, I fought to comprehend the expression on her face. She stared at me from a half-crouched position, as if she might bolt from the room at any second.

At a loss, I found my voice coming out in a kind of blank puzzlement.

“What are you doing in here? Why did you take that?”

“No-Nothing… nothing…” She stammered the word, her accent coming out thicker than usual. “I wasn’t doing anything, Bobby, I swear… nothing. I’m sorry… I know I’m not supposed to be in here. I was looking for a book… a book I saw…”

I stared between her and the notebook on the carpet for about a minute. I was waiting for her to go on, to give me more detail, more of a real explanation, but it never came. She knew what I wanted, but for once, she wasn’t my usual, sweet-natured and agreeable Kanya.

She just stared at me, like I was a malevolent spirit. Like one of those beings with the bulging eyes and the sticking out tongues from one of her Buddhist temples.

I considered addressing the issue of her going through my things, then decided that wasn’t the relevant issue right then. After a few more seconds of us both just standing there, I decided to go back to the thing that brought me upstairs in the first place.

“Where’s that pot of cactus I got you?” I said. “You know… the big one. From Old Town. What did you do with it?”

Whatever I expected her reaction to be to that question, it wasn’t what I got.

Her face went white.

I mean, you read about people’s faces going white in books and so on, but I’d never actually seen it happen in real life before. Her normally rosy cheeks went a bloodless, corpse-like white. I saw her eyes shift to the pad of paper on the floor again, then back up to mine.

Finally, I lost my cool.

“What is wrong with you?” I motioned towards her with a sweeping hand. She flinched. “What happened to the cactus pot? Why are you looking at me like that? You’re acting like I’m asking you something crazy, Kanya!”

Her face still white as chalk, she plastered on a falsely cheerful smile.

It looked grotesque, like some kind of paper mâché mask.

“Are you hungry?” Her voice still carried too much accent, which I knew meant she was afraid or upset or in the grip of some other intense emotion. “I make lasagna for you,” she said, still smiling that terrifying smile. “Just like recipe from your mom. Your favorite. Should be ready now, I just get out of oven––”

“No, Kanya! Not until you tell me what––”

“I get it now,” she said, her voice still overly sweet, despite that white face and the big eyes. “I get you whatever you want, darling Bobby. Right now. Okay? Mai pen rai.”

I knew the last meant something along the lines of “It’s all okay,” or “It’s no trouble” in Thai. She said that a lot, it was kind of a running joke between us at times.

Before I could figure out what I could possibly say to this, she scurried past me like some kind of rodent with its tail on fire and ran down the stairs.

I honestly don’t know why I let her go. I don’t know why I didn’t chase after her and make her say something that made sense to me… but I didn’t.

I just stood there, staring down at the notebook that lay open on the beige carpet, hearing her footsteps as she clattered down the stairs in her high heels. I listened to the distant sounds of her bustling around the kitchen not long after that, the open and shut of the door of our self-cleaning oven, the clink of glasses and silverware as she set the table. I don’t remember what I was thinking at the time, but at some point, I must have come to some kind of conclusion. Something that made me decide to let her off the hook, for now at least.

Not long after that, she called me down for supper.

I didn’t bring it up with her again, not until the next thing happened.

I don’t know why I didn’t.

Maybe my friends are right. Maybe my mother is right.

Maybe I love my wife too much.

 

* * *

 

The next thing to disappear was the keys to her car.

We tore that house apart, looking for them. They were the custom kind, the kind that cost a few hundred dollars to replace, and both sets were missing, the spare and her day-to-day ones, which made the whole thing that much weirder. After five days of looking, doing everything but ripping up the carpet and digging in the yard, I gave up and ordered her a new set of keys, which set me back a pretty penny to replace both sets.

I didn’t know what to say to her about that, either.

She still wouldn’t offer much, certainly nothing approximating an explanation or an apology. She didn’t even help me look really; it was more like she followed me around as I looked, wringing her hands until they were red and white in turn. I honestly don’t know if she was worried I wouldn’t find them or worried that I would.

I tried to find some pattern in the missing things, but I was at a loss.

I considered locking things up that might disappear, maybe in the shed in the backyard that had only one set of keys, but since I had no idea why the things were disappearing in the first place or what might be next, I couldn’t see much point to that, either.

I pleaded with Kanya to tell me what was wrong, why she was doing this.

She never told me though. She never told me anything.

After an hour of my pleading with her, she burst into tears.

The next day, I woke up with my first finger missing.

 

* * *

 

It’s going to sound insane, but I didn’t notice right away.

I did my usual rollover, hit the alarm with my good hand, and my body felt heavy and groggier than usual, so I didn’t think to look at myself that closely. Looking back on it now, I’d probably been drugged, given how odd and out of it I felt.

It was only when I planted my hands on either side of me on our double-padded mattress to shove myself up and out of bed, that I let out a startled cry.

When I looked down at my bandaged hand, it was like the potted cactus at first.

I couldn’t make myself believe it.

I just sat there, holding my breath as I stared at my hand, trying to make it real.

Then it’s like an electric jolt of current went through me.

Stumbling and running for the bathroom, I let out a cry when I stubbed my toe on the low riser in the doorway, skidding and tripping on the tile before I caught my balance on the granite counter that rimmed our his-and-her sinks. I stared at the bandage on my right hand, panting, and again noticed the odd shape it was.

I think by then, I knew.

I’m not a medical doctor or anything, but I’m not an idiot either. So I knew, but I didn’t want to know… I couldn’t make myself put the pieces together to form a coherent picture, at least not without first-hand proof.

Some morbid part of me needed to know.

After a few more seconds of staring, I gritted my teeth and tried to unwrap the bandage, one-handed.

When I couldn’t do that, I rummaged through the drawers, looking for something to cut the thing off so I could look at my hand. I don’t think I’d spoken a word since that initial cry when I stubbed my toe on the tile. I might have been muttering under my breath, and I’m pretty sure I was panting so hard it was full-blown hyperventilating by then, but I didn’t speak.

I also didn’t hear a peep from the other room, where I presumed my wife had to be lying in bed, listening to this, or else sleeping peacefully.

I couldn’t comprehend that she could be asleep, though.

Not now. Not given what had happened to me.

How could she sleep?

Using the utility scissors in the drawer, I cut the bandage off carefully. I didn’t nick anything that I felt, but by the time I’d finished, red had begun to seep through part of the cloth, and by the time I got it off totally, it hurt like hell, almost like my messing with it had woken up the nerve endings for the first time since I’d gotten up.

I stared at the bloody stump of my pinky finger.

Someone had stitched it up unevenly with thick black thread, almost like wire. It looked like something out of a horror movie. I stared at my hand in front of our bathroom mirror, gasping like I’d been running, sweat soaking through the back of my white T-shirt…

…and then I passed out cold.

 

* * *

 

I thought long and hard about whether I should go to the hospital that morning.

When I woke up on the tile floor of our master bathroom, Kanya was crouched over me, shaking my arm, panic in her light brown eyes, panic in her small, delicate fingers. Kanya pleaded with me to go see a doctor, over and over in her broken English. She sobbed when I wouldn’t answer her, when I only sat on the floor of our bathroom, grimacing in pain as I stared in the direction of my office that was just visible through the open door of our bedroom.

I remember fighting to think through the pain in my hand and my confusion over how genuinely worried she seemed to be about me. That worry seemed so real, so sincere. The depth of my wife’s emotion blanked out my brain. I was so afraid of her and confused I didn’t know what to do or even what to say to her.

In the end, I didn’t go to the hospital.

I didn’t even call my doctor at my worksite.

I called in sick instead, and told them I’d had an accident.

Kanya waited on me hand and foot, bringing me anything I asked and a lot of things I didn’t ask for. She rubbed my feet and put pillows under my head and collected all the television remotes for me and ordered in food and tiptoed around the house while I slept on the leather recliner in front of our giant, wall-mounted flat-screen television.

Two days later, when I went back to work, everyone expressed the usual concern and curiosity around what had happened. I made up a story about a lawn-mower, even though we didn’t have a lawn. I told them the motor of the thing had been so damned quiet that I hadn’t realized it hadn’t completely turned off. I’d reached in to check the blade for an obstruction and the damned thing cut my finger clean off before I could get it out.

Kanya never told me anything about what really happened to me.

She cried uncontrollably whenever I asked her about it, so eventually I left her alone. I know there are those who would judge me for that, for not immediately calling the police or trying to get her some kind of help, but I honestly felt paralyzed by it all. I couldn’t comprehend that this woman I loved so much could do these things.

Some part of me desperately clung to the thought that there had to be some other explanation.

My brain didn’t shut off entirely, of course.

I’d always prided myself on giving Kanya her privacy, but the second she took my car to the store to buy more groceries and more beer, I found myself going into her computer and skimming her social media accounts, looking for anything that might explain a change in her behavior. I read her text messages, looking for clues, but of course much of it was in Thai, not English, so I ended up feeling more frustrated than reassured.

I considered taking screen shots of everything and sending it to a translation service to find out the truth… or at least to unearth some real clues.

Clues that she secretly hated me. Clues that she had a boyfriend on the side, someone younger or more handsome or maybe more Asian––someone she had more in common with. Heck, I even found myself speculating that she might owe someone money. I thought maybe she got in with the wrong people back before I knew her in Thailand. Maybe those people found out she married well and now she was being blackmailed or threatened.

I think I would have accepted any explanation, no matter how outlandish, if it might help me understand why my sweet, lovely girl could do such terrible, frightening things.

I didn’t find anything, though.

About a week after that, the next finger disappeared.

 

* * *

 

That time, I didn’t pass out.

I threw up.

After I’d filled the sink with bright-orange bile and what remained of the beef stroganoff I’d eaten the night before, I swayed where I held onto the bathroom counter, looking at my own ghostly pale face and the dark circles under my bloodshot eyes. I looked like a caricature of myself. I’d lost weight. I wondered if I’d managed to lose more hair, too.

I stared at the skin sagging on my arms and the different hang to my belly and I tried to understand what was happening to me. I looked like I’d aged about fifteen years overnight. My face was dusted unevenly with a scruffy beard, but I didn’t kid myself there was anything rugged or sexy about it. It was more the homeless man on the street kind of scruff than anything remotely deliberate-looking.

For the first time, it really hit me that she would kill me if I didn’t stop her.

I shoved the thought out of my mind as soon as it struck me, but it lingered somewhere, in the less-bright recesses of my mind. I still couldn’t resolve myself to call the police on her, and knowing that they would definitely have some awkward questions for both of us at this point, I didn’t go to the hospital that time, either. I went into work, and didn’t comment on my bandaged hand at all and no one asked, but I knew eventually I would need to come up with some kind of story there, too, at least until I figured out what to do about Kanya.

I knew if I divorced her, they’d export her right away.

And the problem was the same problem I’d always had with her.

I didn’t want to divorce her. I loved her.

More than anything, I wanted her to love me again, too.

 

* * *

 

“Could you come in here a second, Robert?”

I froze, in the act of tossing my car keys on the kitchen counter. I’d never heard the voice before. It was male, deep, with the faintest trace of a Mexican accent.

A complete stranger was somehow inside my house.

My eyes searched for that stranger.

I found him sitting on the leather couch, his hands clasped neatly together where he hung them over his own thighs. The classic, “trust me, I’m your friend” pose that a lot of therapists and social workers adopted. I remembered that pose well from all of the bullshit critical incident debriefing they put me through in San Francisco, when I left the lab there.

Next to him on that same couch sat my wife, Kanya.

They sat way too close to one another, in my opinion.

She wore a sky blue dress, which somehow managed to make her look more Native American than Thai, and she sat forward with her hands clasped too. I couldn’t help noticing that the dress was low cut, and the man sitting next to her on the couch was about fifteen years younger than me, with a full head of thick black hair and handsome.

His serious brown eyes met mine over the kitchen bar, and he motioned me over with a graceful flick of his tanned hand.

“Please, Robert.” His voice exuded patience. “It’s important that we talk in here.”

The thing that came out of my mouth next may not have been polite, but you have to remember, I was pretty surprised to find this strange man in my house.

“Who the hell are you?” I heard hostility make the words ugly. “What are you doing in my house? What are you doing with my wife?”

The man’s expression remained serene.

Definitely some kind of quack therapist.

“It’s your wife’s house too, Mr. Davenport. She invited me here…”

He continued speaking as I walked around the counter. I couldn’t help giving Kanya a disbelieving look as I made my way into my own living room, where the two of them had apparently set up camp in order to ambush me.

“…She’s worried about you,” Robert was saying now. “She didn’t feel she could handle the situation alone, so she sought help from a neighbor, who happens to be a friend of mine.”

“Worried about me? A neighbor? What neighbor?”

At the man’s cocked eyebrow, I let out a derisive snort. I saw the stranger, the handsome man who now sat in my house like he belonged there, look down at my bandaged hand.

Watching him assess the bandage there, I scowled. “Did it occur to you that maybe I have a lot more reasons to be worried about her?”

Again, the man didn’t react visibly to my words.

“She’s worried for herself too, Mr. Davenport,” he said gravely. “Why don’t you tell me what happened to your hand?”

I looked at Kanya, again, unable to believe what I was hearing.

Was this really happening? Had Kanya brought in an outside party to somehow make her crazy behavior seem like it was coming from me? I hadn’t reported her to the police or even gone to a hospital where her violent acts might be reported by someone else.

I’d stayed loyal to my wife, even though I was now missing all but my index finger and my thumb on that hand. I’d tried to protect her while I figured out how to help her… and this was how she repaid me?

“I think you’d better go.” I stared at the man, no longer attempting to be friendly at all. “Right now.”

“I’d like to talk first,” the man said patiently. “Your wife would like us to talk, as well. Are you willing to tell me what happened to your hand? Or what this is?”

I followed his tapping finger to the top of our coffee table. I’d bought that for Kanya too, a dark wooden frame set with hand-painted Mexican clay tile. On that table, under his tapping finger, was the same notebook I’d seen my wife looking at in my office the night I noticed the cactus pot missing.

“That is a design notebook.” I heard a haughtier tone reach my voice, even as I continued standing over him, and over Kanya. “I am an engineer.”

“Weren’t you fired from your job recently?” the handsome man said.

I blinked at him, then stared at Kanya, that time in open disbelief. “No. Where do you think I just came from?”

“Your wife says you spend all day in the shed out back… that you work out there, designing things. Including this…” Again he tapped the notebook on the top of the table with his fingers. He did it more insistently that time, as if willing my eyes to go to the specific area where his fingers pointed, on the pages he’d displayed within the book. “Have you built this particular design yet, Mr. Davenport?” the man said, his voice holding a firmer edge now. “The mechanical hand? Could you show it to me?”

“It is only a design,” I said, feeling my jaw harden. “A design for a new type of prosthetic hand… a ‘smart’ hand, they call it.”

“But have you built it, Mr. Davenport?” The man’s dark eyes held a colder light. “Your wife says you have. She says you’ve threatened her with it.”

“Threatened her?” My jaw just about dropped to my chest. “Kanya told you I’d threatened her?”

“Yes, she did.” The man’s eyes remained that cooler shade of brown. “She said you’ve been locking her in the house. She said you’re restricting her movements and her interactions with others more and more often… that you took her car keys from her and then sold her car. That you took away her phone and her tablet so she couldn’t contact friends back home. She said you’ve been breaking things in fits of rage, often while wearing the mechanical hand you built. She’s afraid of you, Mr. Davenport…”

The man’s deep brown eyes grew colder still. “Were you aware that she was a minor when you married her, Robert? That her parents in Thailand were not at all pleased when you left the country with her without their permission?”

“What?” I stared at Kanya for real that time. “A minor? That’s impossible.”

“I assure you, it is not. The issue came up when it turned out you’d falsified her enrollment information at UNM. Your neighbor, my friend Lara, confirmed it. Your wife was sixteen years old when you left with her from Bangkok. That story you told everyone, about meeting her in high-end hotel in Manilla because she had a ‘businessman boyfriend’… Kanya told Lara and I that was all a lie. Kanya had never been outside of Bangkok before she met you. She didn’t grow up in a village, either. She grew up in a suburb of Bangkok itself.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I really couldn’t.

I glanced at my wife for the first time since he’d started talking.

She stared up at me, wide-eyed.

The perfect picture of the scared, abused wife. The delicate flower being held against her will in a paunchy, middle-aged man’s home. Looking at her and looking at me, I knew this man would see what most close-minded Americans would see. That we didn’t belong together. That all that mattered was what was on the outside. That she was young and beautiful and I was not would be enough to convict me in the eyes of most.

I’d known I’d be judged, bringing her back to America with me. I knew jealousy would drive people to say and think all sorts of unkind things.

But never in my wildest dreams had I prepared for a betrayal of this kind.

Not from my sweet Kanya.

Kanya had somehow convinced this man that I was the one doing all of these crazy things. It may have started with the woman next door, but now, from the way she huddled against this man, it was obvious that she’d positioned him in the role of her savior.

How? How had she conned both of them so thoroughly?

I could almost believe it of that nosey, stupid, fat neighbor woman from next door, but what about this man, who was obviously educated, and likely trained to spot deceits of this kind? How had Kanya convinced him so thoroughly?

Was she sleeping with him?

The longer I looked between the two of them, the more likely it seemed.

Why else would anyone believe her? She was a foreigner, barely spoke any English. I was an upstanding member of our community. I paid taxes, had a good job. And I’d been a good husband to her––a blameless husband. I’d only ever tried to give Kanya everything she wanted. I helped her get into those classes at UNM, even though I worried it might not be good for her, to be surrounded by young Americans who might indoctrinate her in Western culture. She wanted it, so I helped her. I bought her whatever she wanted, brought her home gifts.

Why would she turn on me like this, unless she was sleeping with him? Why else would she try to convince him I was this terrible monster?

“I want to see this mechanical hand, Mr. Davenport.” The man’s voice was calm again, but firm. “Right now. I don’t want to bring the authorities into this, but if I have to, I will. Either way, Kanya isn’t staying here any longer. She’s not a minor now, so she can decide for herself what she wants to do, but it’s clear she doesn’t feel safe with you here.”

I considered threatening to call the police myself.

I considered threatening to tell them he’d broken in, that I needed him ejected from my home forcefully. But I could see in his eyes how thoroughly my wife had indoctrinated him into her cause. I could see in his eyes that he thought he was right and I was some kind of horrible abuser of my wife.

Looking between the two of them for a few seconds more, I sighed, as if giving in. My wife avoided my eyes now, staring down at the sand-colored carpet.

“Fine.” I nodded as if in defeat, combing my good hand through my thinning blond hair and then patting it down on the top. I knew something about this gesture tended to put people at ease, maybe by reminding them I was a paunchy balding man. Nodding again, I sighed more sadly that time. “Come on. Let’s settle this thing, since my wife has obviously convinced you this crazy story of hers is true…”

Ignoring the frown that touched the handsome man’s full lips, I watched him glance at Kanya. Pretending not to notice that either, I motioned them towards the back yard.

“It’s out in my work shed. Like she no doubt told you. I’ve been working on a few designs at home lately, which is why I’ve been here, rather than at the lab. My company wanted me to keep some of these patent filings quiet, so I told them I’d work out the prototypes on my own…”

The man’s frown deepened. Again, he glanced at my wife.

She returned his look, wide-eyed, like a baby deer, and the man patted her bare knee under her short dress, letting his frown melt to a reassuring smile. I fought not to scowl when I saw it, although clearly he was trying to pretend the gesture was harmless, possibly even paternal. Now I couldn’t decide which of them was the bigger fool, this man or Kanya.

I suspected it was this man.

Men were always stupid when it came to women.

Women knew that. They counted on it.

The man with the perfect black hair and the tanned skin and too-white smile and too-full lips and too-deep brown eyes rose easily to his feet, making the leather sigh as he got up.

Kanya followed reluctantly when he motioned her up too, and the two of them followed me out into the yard in the midday sun, around the sky-blue pool on the blue and white tile, and deeper into our desert landscaped garden. We reached the adobe wall where the shed lived, and I pulled the key out from inside my shirt, again using my good hand.

“You keep that key around your neck?” the man observed, giving another frowning glance back at Kanya.

I saw my wife hiding behind him almost, as if using this strange man as a shield from me.

Unable to believe the extent of her theatrics, I swallowed my annoyance.

“I told you… I’m working on confidential patents.” I made my voice peevish that time, so that it jarred my own ears. I’d figured out long ago, even before San Francisco, that acting weak caused others to discount me. “…My company is trusting me a lot, letting me do this at home. I can’t let any of my work get into our competitor’s hands.”

I felt the skepticism wafting off the man behind me, but I ignored that, too.

“I work for defense contractors,” I added. That time, I couldn’t help but give Kanya a colder glare. I saw her shrink from it, clutching the man’s arm, and I looked back at him. “Most of our contracts are military. Even if the applications will be broader at some point, I have to be sensitive to the needs of my employers…”

The man only nodded, his expression neutral, his eyes flat.

I knew he didn’t believe me, though.

I’d always been able to tell when people didn’t believe me.

I could feel it.

Swinging the shed door inward on its hinges, I stopped short as sunlight filled the small workroom I’d designed.

Kanya had outdone herself.

The potted cactus sat on the floor of the work shed, one side of it broken open and soil spilling over the floor. Most of the succulents inside appeared to be dead or browning. Her broken tablet lay next to it on a low bench, along with the blender, which was also broken, and her two sets of car keys and the old remotes.

In the window hung the bird necklace I’d given her.

The diamond glinted in the sun as it twisted gently from the air rushing into the room as I opened the door. I stared around at the workspace, feeling a deeper grief fill me as the truth slowly sank in.

My wife had set me up.

She wanted me gone. Out of the way.

My wife wasn’t anything like I’d thought she was. She wasn’t at all the person I’d seen, pretty much from the instant I’d met her and fallen in love at that hotel in Manila.

She was something else. Some kind of spiteful manipulator. Someone who pretended to be the perfect wife only to prey on the men who desperately needed to believe such an illusive creature existed. It had all been a lie. A way to take my life from me. A way to hollow out my heart and head until there was nothing of me left.

And she’d enlisted this man to help her. To be her witness. To convince the world I wasn’t the man I pretended to be.

To replace me, maybe.

My worst fear had happened.

I’d discovered my wife didn’t really love me.

I’d discovered my wife was trying to destroy me.

I looked back over my shoulder at her witness and accomplice, the handsome young Hispanic man with the puppy dog brown eyes. He wasn’t looking at the cactus or the necklace or the blender or the remote controls or the keys, however.

He was staring at my wooden design bench, where a mechanical hand lay on a white cloth, like an insect that had flipped to its back, its legs curled in death.

Watching him look at it, disgust and a faint horror in his eyes, I knew exactly what it was I had to do.

 

* * *

 

My therapist asks me every so often if I regret it all now.

I never know how to answer that question.

Regret it all? Regret what?

Which part, exactly?

That I left San Francisco? That I let my company shuttle me off to Asia, out of sight and out of mind, so they didn’t have to worry about lawsuits from liars and psychotics? That in Asia I found a new start in life? That I met my gorgeous Kanya? Did I regret that I married her and had two amazing years with her before I discovered the true nature she hid behind that lovely figure and face?

Do I regret that I loved her? That I trusted her with my soul? That I was kind to her, bought her everything she wanted? Do I regret I didn’t seek help when all of her erratic behavior started? That I didn’t see her for what she was until it was too late?

Which part along that twisted, winding path was I supposed to pinpoint the exact instant where I should harbor regret? Request a do-over?

My therapist would always want to dwell on the irrelevant details though.

Not even with Kanya.

He always wanted to talk about San Francisco, which he would always refer to as “where it started.” He’d read me the same fabricated stories that I had to hear at the time, from another woman I’d first thought of as a soul mate and an ally, who turned out to be nothing more than one of those hateful, jealous women who live to manipulate and mess with men’s minds. Like everyone at my old job, though, my therapist always sides with her.

He drags me through every detail of that investigation––even though I was totally acquitted of all wrongdoing and didn’t have a single conviction on my record at the time. When he points out that I nearly lost my job and that most people at my old work site believed I was guilty, that I’d simply fallen through the cracks of the justice system, I try to explain how that woman had manipulated them all into believing that, but he didn’t want to hear it.

“Robert,” he would say, his blue eyes holding that fake-patience all shrinks seem to perfect over time. “In light of what you did in New Mexico, you must realize that everyone now believes you were guilty of that initial crime, as well?”

Then he would go on and on about the trial in Albuquerque, all of the lies that got told about me there, too. He’d remind me how my employer testified that I’d been fired from my job for too many missed days of work, along with so-called “erratic behavior”… totally omitting the fact  that I missed those days because I’d been drugged and mutilated by my wife while I slept.

At the trial, they displayed pictures of the shed and our backyard on the mesa.

The shed that Kanya had staged to make me look so crazy and guilty.

They showed pictures of the knives I supposedly used to cut off my own fingers, and the thread I used to stitch them up. They even put the mechanical hand on a table right in front of the jury, posing it in the most menacing way possible and showing how the grip strength and the bruises on my wife and the overly-helpful handsome shrink friend of the woman next door matched with the appendage.

It was all so misleading and taken out of context… but at that point, I could see that I was lost. Kanya had won. Everyone believed me to be the monster she intended. The judge. The jury. Definitely the District Attorney and the cops.

They looked at Kanya and saw what I’d seen in those early days.

A delicate flower. A slip of a woman, nearly a girl, who could never harm anyone.

And how could I blame them for that?

It still shocks me, however, when my therapist uses the word “everyone,” though.

Does he really mean everyone? Could everyone really believe these lies and distortions about me? Do all of the people who’ve known me over the years, who’ve seen me and heard me behave as a kind and generous friend, a helpful work colleague, loving husband… do they all really believe I could do these things?

All of them? Every one?

And true, none of them have visited me in here, or really since my initial arrest prior to the trial and all the publicity. But that could be for lots of different reasons, not simply because “everyone” believes these awful stories from those who want only to destroy me.

After all, they have their own jobs and reputations to protect.

Besides, I’m sure their wives believe I’m guilty.

I know everyone believed Carina, that co-worker who cost me my job in San Francisco. That hurt, I admit, especially at the time. Like with Kanya, I’d just been so shocked. Carina was always so nice to me. I’d really liked her––which is the only reason I showed her my side projects in the first place.

The next thing I know, and totally out of nowhere, she’s accusing me of sexual assault, of “unethical and grotesque experiments,” before launching into fake tears and showing my boss bruises that I had absolutely no memory of giving her. When I tried to explain that the company paid me to conduct that research, my boss sided with her of course, since she was a woman and she was crying so I just had to be the bad guy.

But here’s my question for my therapist, one that he’s never given me an adequate response to––at what point does a man have the right to defend himself?

Where is that line?

That’s all I ask. I want a line.

I’m a nice guy… I know I am. So tell me where the line is, and I won’t cross it, even if they do ever let me out of here. But they never say where that point begins and ends, precisely. Tell me where that point is. Tell me, and I promise, I’ll remember it when I see it again.

Back then, in San Francisco, a lot of people told me I loved Carina too much.

Perhaps that is my real fault. Perhaps that is the real line I keep crossing.

I love women too much.

Maybe that’s what I will tell my therapist the next time he comes to see me.