Zach Barnes sits at a table outside Whole Foods Market nursing a no-longer-frozen fruit drink and feeling vaguely like the guy whose date has stood him up for the Senior Prom. The passersby wear upscale casual clothing and carry shopping bags from Lord and Taylor or Nordstrom, reminding him that he’s at the very heart of Blue Back Square in West Hartford. It’s only a matter of time before they begin staring at him.
He’s just decided he’ll give it ten more minutes when a woman in a navy tee and white slacks appears from around the corner of the building and picks him out, not a challenge because he’s the only man sitting at any of the tables.
When she gets closer, Barnes sees tension tightening her jaw and crinkling her eyes. Without that tension, she’d be pretty, short dark hair above a face with even features. Barnes doesn’t know shoes, but they match her bag.
“Mr. Barnes?” Her soft voice makes his name sound like the secret password.
“Ms. Ramsey?” He stands and she looks around as though she expects the paparazzi to charge from all directions.
“I know, I’m being paranoid. But…” The woman’s short haircut reinforces her youthful look, her cheeks the only part of her Barnes would call plump. The sunglasses hiding her eyes make her look like a kid pretending to be a spy.
“Paranoia’s gotten a bad rap over the years,” he says. “There’s a lot to be said for discretion.”
Her fingers tangle with each other on that green mesh table top. “I’m being threatened. Well, no,
that’s not correct. I’m being…blackmailed. For something I didn’t do.”
“What does somebody say you did?”
Her throat contracts and he thinks of a bird swallowing. “I received a letter two weeks ago.
Someone said they knew what I was doing and that if I didn’t pay them three thousand dollars, they’d tell my husband.”
Barnes thinks “letter,” like a mental bullet point. “When you say a ‘letter,’ do you mean it came in the mail? With a stamp and a postmark and everything?”
“Yes. It was a Hartford postmark.” Hartford only lies fifteen minutes away. “Another letter came, last week. And it was more…ah…explicit.” The woman nibbles her lower lip. “And this time they demanded five thousand dollars.”
She looks at Barnes for the first time.
“Ms. Ramsey, what are you doing that you wouldn’t want your husband to know about?”
“Nothing.” Her voice is so soft that Barnes reads her lips more than he hears the word.
“Do you have any idea who the person is, or why he’s targeting you, especially if his accusation isn’t true?”
“No.” The woman’s fingers dance on her purse, like spiders on a hot plate. “All I can think of is that he knows I have enough money to make his efforts worthwhile.”
Barnes thinks “money,” his second bullet point.
“Is it your money, your husband’s, or both?”
“Both.” Diane Ramsey wears plain gold band. “My mother still lives in the family house in Litchfield and my husband is David Ramsey. He started Ramsey Engineering himself at twenty-eight.”
“I don’t know the firm, but I assume that means he’s still quite young, too?”
“Well…” Diane’s pink cheeks turn her into a teenager. The more Barnes sits with her, the more he finds himself thinking of her as “nice,” minus all the sarcasm he normally gives the word.
“He’s a few years older than I am, I’m his second wife. That’s part of the problem.”
“I don’t think I follow.”
“David’s business took off. In the first year, they landed a contract designing engines for Sikorsky. And the year after that, they got a contract with the space program. David’s built a business worth heaven knows how much, and his first wife died of leukemia when they were both thirty. The twins were six at the time.”
She plays with her ring. “I lost my father when I was very young, too. I don’t really remember him. My mother remarried when I was four. So I understood what Stephanie and Tim were going through.”
She stops playing with the ring and runs her fingers across the mesh table.
“How long have you been married?” Barnes asks.
“Seven years. If this…person tells him I’m cheating…”
She pulls her sunglasses down so Barnes sees her eyes for the first time. Brown, round, and not quite dripping with tears.
“Mr. Barnes, I love David. And he loves me. And I love the kids. They’re both at Choate Rosemary Hall now, they’re sixteen, and I’ve been their mother for half their lives. If someone tells David these lies about me…”
She fumbles in her purse for a tissue. A kitten might make more noise blowing its nose than she does. Barnes watches her brace herself for the question she knows he’ll ask.
“So why does someone think he can accuse you of being unfaithful?”
She gives that bad-spy-casing-the-joint look again before she draws an envelope from her purse.
Barnes opens what he expects to be the blackmail demand and feels his face change at the picture before him.
A woman with short dark hair kneels before a man’s crotch, one hand guiding him into her mouth, and her clear bright eyes meet Barnes’s head-on. A generic lamp glows behind her head and Venetian blinds block the window. The background could be any motel in the United States.
When Barnes looks up again, tears roll down Diane Ramsey’s cheeks and drip onto her navy blue tee.
“That isn’t me.”