For the next two weeks, Erin played the part of a dutiful wife and mother. She took care of the twins, kept the house clean and cooked every evening. She kept up appearances in the hope that Ronnie would notice and change back to the man with which she had fallen in love.
In actuality, Ronnie never noticed any of Erin's efforts, or if he did he never mentioned them to her. She hardly heard him say anything now. He didn't even call her to let her know he was “working late.” It was like two strangers had taken up living in the same house.
The weekdays were bad enough. Erin was virtually a prisoner in her own home. She hadn't gone anywhere in over a month. Her mother started calling her on a daily basis since Erin's cry for help, so at least she could have one intelligent adult conversation a day.
Erin tried to note when Ronnie came home now. Over the two weeks, she either was awake and feigning sleep when he came home or was able to fix an approximate time from her feeding times for the twins. She began to see a distinct pattern in the times he returned home.
Weekends were worse. Ronnie was around the house almost all the time, but Erin still felt as isolated as she did during the week. The communication between them had sunk to the level of curt orders from him that she followed dutifully and monosyllabic answers to her questions.
The isolation and oppression began to take its toll. Slowly, doubt began to creep into Erin's mind. Perhaps she had misread her husband. After all, she was always so fatigued, so preoccupied with other things... the twins, the house... that she didn't take the time to make Ronnie feel special. She wondered if it was all in her mind.
It was the middle of the third week. Erin was nursing Francis, the older of the two babies (by no more than 30 seconds), when the phone rang. She reached over and checked the Caller ID display. It was her mother. Pushing the “Phone” button, she said, “Hi, Mom! How are you today?”
“Erin, dear,” she started with an odd tone of voice. Erin had heard that tone once before. It was when her mother called to inform her that her father had been killed in a car wreck on the way home from work one day. Erin's stomach suddenly felt like it was going to plunge to the center of the Earth.
“Yes, Mother?” she replied.
“Would I be able to come over in a bit?” she asked. “When do the twins go down for their afternoon nap?”
“I'm just about to put them in their cribs now,” Erin told her mother. “What's up?”
“I... I mean we need to talk to you,” she replied. She still had that odd tone of voice. It made Erin nervous.
“Sure, you can come over in a few minutes,” Erin said, the she added, “We? Who's coming with you?”
“It's just a friend, Erin,” was the reply. “We'll see you in about ten minutes.”
Erin didn't understand why her mother was being so mysterious. She put down the phone, finished feeding Francis and then put him in his crib. While she was in the nursery, she checked on his brother, Thomas. He was already fast asleep.
Erin went out to the living room and sat on the couch. She didn't want to be interrupted in the middle of a task, so she didn't know what else to do but wait. About twelve minutes later, there was a soft knock on the door. Erin jumped up and got the door. It was her mother and a man carrying a briefcase who looked like a door to door salesman. “Mom? Is this your...” she began to ask.
Her mother put her finger to her lips as a “shush” sign, then the two visitors walked inside. Erin's mom sat on the couch while the man sat in Ronnie's easy chair. “Well, what he doesn't know,” she thought to herself, “won't hurt him... or me.”
Her mother patted the cushion to her right. Erin sat down there, putting her in between her mother and the man. He had put his briefcase on the coffee table and had opened it. Inside there was a file folder, a manila envelope and a device that looked like an old CB walkie talkie. The man turned on the device, extended the antenna then got up from the chair and began walking around the room, waving the antenna in various places.
When the man had made a full circuit of the room, he asked Erin, “Where is the phone you were using a while ago?” Erin pointed to the side table between the easy chair and the couch. The man walked over to the side table and passed the antenna of his device over the phone. He then collapsed the antenna and turned off the device. “The room is clear,” he announced as he sat down and put the box back in his briefcase.
“Wha... what... Mom, what's going on?” asked Erin, who was confused by the peculiar actions of her companion.
“Erin, this is Victor Bennett,” her mother said. “He is a private investigator I hired to find out what your husband has been doing all these nights he comes home late or stays in the city.”
“Private investigator?” Erin asked. “You mean like on TV?”
“The work I do is not nearly as glamorous as it's made out to be on TV,” Victor told Erin. “It mainly consists of following the subject of the investigation and documenting what he or she does. It can be tedious work, especially when it's a matrimonial case.”
“Matrimonial case?” Erin repeated, confused.
“When one spouse suspects the other of cheating,” her mother suggested.
“That's right, Mrs. McDermott,” Victor said.
“Please, call me Colleen,” she replied.
“Did you hire him, Mom?” Erin asked.
“Yes, dear, I did,” she replied. “I thought it best that we find out what your husband has been doing. I also thought it would be better if you didn't know I had done it. That way, he wouldn't be suspicious.”
Erin gave a halfhearted smile. “Oh, Mom!” she exclaimed, “how can you afford it?”
Victor replied, “I gave Mrs. McDermott a special rate. Your mother can be quite persuasive.”
“Please, call me Colleen,” insisted Erin's mother.
“I think he understands, Mom,” Erin said. “So, let me get this right. My mother hired you to investigate Ronnie for me, correct?”
“That's an excellent summation, Mrs. Donnelly,” confirmed Victor. “I have followed him the past two weeks and I am now prepared to report that, in my professional opinion, your husband is cheating on you, Mrs. Donnelly.”
Even though she had suspected it, the pronouncement by the private investigator was like a sock in the gut to Erin. Her face was frozen in a look of shock, but her mind started racing faster than it ever had.
“Mrs. Donnelly, are you alright?” Victor inquired, concerned.
Erin pulled herself together and replied, “Well, I was expecting that conclusion but it's still hard to hear someone say it out loud.”
“I sympathize with you, Mrs. Donnelly,” Victor said with quiet sincerity. “I've had to do this more times than I care to think of, and it never gets any easier.”
“However, it is a necessary job, isn't is?” Erin observed.
“Unfortunately, it is,” Victor confirmed, “as it is my sad duty to inform you that it appears he is sleeping with a number of women, not just one.”
Erin looked surprised at that. “How can you be sure?” she insisted.
Victor pulled the manila envelope out of his briefcase and opened it. He pulled out a stack of photographs, which he handed to Erin. As she leafed through the evidence of Ronnie's infidelity, a peculiar feeling began to overtake her. It was a coldness she had never experienced before.
Each photo had a time stamp on it. They showed Ronnie entering and exiting different houses and apartments each weeknight for the last two weeks. There were even some shots through windows where Ronnie was embracing different women. One even showed him undressing the woman. Erin noted all the time stamps on the photos marked “Exit.”
“Mrs. Donnelly?” Victor asked.
“Yes, I see,” Erin replied. “The time stamps on these photos are in line with the approximate times that he returned home each night.”
“You kept a record of the times he arrived home?” Victor asked, incredulous.
“Yes, I did. I even wrote them down. Let me go get them for you.” Erin got up and walked into the nursery. She returned a minute or two later with a sheet of notebook paper. On it she had written the date and the time for each weekday for the last two and a half weeks. Erin handed it to the PI.
“You know, you took a great risk, leaving this around where he could find it,” Victor scolded.
“Not as much as you think, Mr. Bennett,” Erin replied. “I wrote it in longhand so there would be no trace of the record in the computer and I hid it in the nursery. Ronnie hasn't been in that room since the twins came home from the hospital.”
“I'm impressed, Mrs. Donnelly,” Victor admitted. “You analyzed your husband's habits and found the weak spots that worked to your advantage. How did you note the times?”
“That's why I said they were approximate,” Erin explained. “Some nights I couldn't sleep so I faked it when he came home. He never bothered to even touch me so he couldn't tell. Other nights, when I couldn't stay awake, I noted if he was in bed by the two o'clock feeding, or if he was in by the six A.M. feeding. That gave me a rough estimate of when he had returned home.”
“When this is over, Mrs. Donnelly, if you need a job, I could use some assistance,” Victor said.
“While it's a nice offer, I have to think of the twins first,” she replied. “I couldn't spend nights away from them for the foreseeable future.”
“It wouldn't necessarily be field work,” he replied. “I think you could make a superb analyst.”
“We'll see when the time comes,” Erin said. “For now, what do we do next?”
“I would seek out a competent lawyer that handles matrimonial issues,” Victor said. “The sooner you file for a dissolution of your marriage the better. You may be able to get an advantage if you file first.”
“Who would you recommend?” Colleen asked.
“I'm sorry, but I don't do recommendations,” Victor replied. “I work with every lawyer in the region so I have chosen not to favor any single one over another. The only advice I'd give you is to forget about the ones who advertise on TV.”
“Why is that?” Erin asked, curious.
“Those firms have high overhead from the advertising,” Victor explained, “and therefore rely on volume instead of service. I'm certainly no expert in law, but from what I've seen of your husband, I fear it will turn out to be a nasty legal battle. Again, that is just my personal opinion.”
“I see, Mr. Bennett,” Erin said. “May I keep these photos?”
“Oh. Please excuse me,” Victor said, a bit nonplussed. “I meant to tell you that those pictures are yours to keep, as well as a copy of my report.” He pulled out the file folder as he said that and handed it to Erin. “I was going to suggest keeping it at your mother's house, but if you're sure that your husband never goes into the nursery...'
'No, I think I'll take your suggestion,” Erin said. She turned to Colleen. “Mom, would you keep these safe for me?”
“I'd be happy to, Erin,” she replied, taking the folders from her daughter.
“One last thing, Mr. Bennett,” Erin said, turning back to the PI. “If we need any further investigation work done, may we call upon you again?”
“Absolutely, Mrs. Donnelly,” Victor asserted. “Until this case is resolved in one manner or another, feel free to call upon me if you need any additional service. They will be included in the price of the service I negotiated with your mother.” He closed the briefcase and picked it up as he stood up. “I'll take my leave now,” he said, then he held out his hand. “Once again, I am sorry to bring you such disturbing news.”
Erin shook Victor's hand as she said, “While it is disturbing, it's also a relief to know my fears have been justified. You've given me a good amount of information to allow a lawyer to judge the merits of taking my case. For that, I thank you.”
Colleen also got up. “I'll be back as soon as I take Vic... I mean, Mr. Bennett back to his car.” They all walked to the door, then Erin watched her mother and the private investigator walk to her car. As she did, a great weight was slowly lifting off of her shoulders, but her gut once again felt like it was being eaten away by acid.
“Give me the strength to get through this,” she whispered.