Victoria Giraud ~ Editor / Author

Original Short Story

THE DARK SIDE

by Victoria Giraud

As it turned out, the problem was money, not sex, though Anne had always felt the two were intertwined, feeding off each other.

Anne had been single almost as long as she'd been married. During the years after her divorce, she'd explored the possibilities of many men. Los Angeles was full of single men, even in the suburban bedroom community where she'd chosen to remain, counting on the friends and business connections she had cultivated. After the first wild years of sexual exploration and frustration, she'd settled down to one man at a time.

A tall, slender woman in her 30's, Anne had a thick head of curly, red hair, and green eyes. Her looks and personality drew a good deal of male attention, but her choices at first included married men and a few playboy types that were not looking for commitment. After a few years she realized that she wasn't ready to settle down either, and perhaps she did not quite trust men. She felt she wanted a man for companionship and sex, but hadn't accomplished either one to her satisfaction.

Meeting and pursuing Paul had been an attempt at establishing an original, lasting relationship, based on friendship and common interests. Anne had a sensual nature, but Paul, except for passionate kisses, hand holding and a few back rubs, shied away from intimate sexual contact. That fact both intrigued and frustrated her; she was used to sexual reactions from men. Paul gave off an air of kindness and humor; his expressive face was attractive and full of warmth when he smiled. His gray-blue eyes, reflected in small wire-framed glasses, also told of secrets, of mysteries she would never fathom. Although she wondered about the secrets and her friends later speculated about them, she accepted people easily as they presented themselves. Paul's sense of humor, his seeming air of sharing confidences and easy, effortless conversation enticed her. He was a slim, tall man with brown hair slowly turning grey. His nervous energy and flirtatious manner with her promised an excitement that seemed always on the edge of happening, but never did. She heard the thunder but never saw or felt the nourishing rain.

As the months passed his promise turned into elusiveness; his humor, she realized, was a shield. His ever-present energy kept him on the move, a man not willing to be scrutinized.

Tantalizing hints of his real feelings came out in tiny revelations during the eighteen months of their friendship. In her wildest imaginings, she never would have guessed the secrets he hid.

Paul had answered her personal ad in the summertime. His telephone greeting was funny and modest. "I'm new at this, but you seem like a real person, and I like your idea of people needing hugs. I have a bike, and I can get used to rides along the beach," he said in a light, Boston-accented voice.

He shared a small bit of his own history-that he had been married three times and had five children and two stepchildren. Enchanted by his bantering tone, interesting accent and his honesty, she refused to be deterred by the number of marriages or children. She called him, enjoyed laughing at his jokes, and they made a date for dinner.

In their first conversation they had talked about her need for hugs. When she walked into the expensive yet comfortable restaurant, Paul immediately recognized her from her telephone description. He rose from a couch where he had been waiting and briskly walked toward her. His arms were open, and he hugged her enthusiastically. She noted he smelled just-washed with a hint of cologne.

"You carry through with your promises," she laughed, feeling immediately at ease. His warm reception and generosity to offer dinner on a first date put a glow on the evening, though afterwards she wasn't so sure how she felt about his almost non-stop conversation and persistent teasing of the attractive waitress. Did he always need an audience?

Their first months together were romantic, even though they never went beyond ardent kissing and a minimum of touching. Anne found herself getting more involved; he had so many of the qualities that she wanted in a man: warmth, intelligence, humor, and they shared a passion for writing. She had never dealt with a man who failed to succumb to her physical charms. How could he continue to kiss her as if he really cared, and not want to explore further? It was almost as if they were pristine lovers of another era.

By Christmas of the first year, Paul had sensed she cared about him a great deal.

"I don't know why you're interested in me. I'm not fascinating. I'm never going to be able to offer you what you want, and deserve. I'm sorry, but I don't feel about you the way you do about me," he said one night as they kissed in his car after a particularly amusing time at her friends' Christmas party.

The following week he asked her to dinner and presented her with a Crosse pen to encourage her writing, a gift that surprised and touched her. Anne refused to become discouraged; she felt there was a part of him that loved her and would open up eventually, given more time. She convinced herself she could see his eyes sparkle when he gazed at her. He continued to kiss passionately.

Paul's schedule was full, and as the year turned and spring became summer he gave her less and less of his time. He interested himself in his children, especially his oldest daughter, Susan, a single mother studying to become a doctor. When Paul wasn't working, he was babysitting his granddaughter, working on film ideas with a writing partner, or socializing with a male friend from work. One of his ex-wives, a South American beauty who had been a television star, or so he said, came back to Los Angeles to promote a book, and despite his busy schedule, he decided to help her edit it.

He always sounded happy to hear from Anne when she called, and took the time to share his life and ask about hers. Despite the distances Paul put between them, Anne kept in touch and invited him to occasional dinner parties. Her friends enjoyed his hilarity so much that a dinner party's date would be changed just to accommodate Paul. He, in turn, enjoyed contributing a homemade cake as well as wine and beer although he seldom drank. He was excellent company and rarely silent. Most of his jokes were sexual, and since he frequently joked he had been celibate for several years, her friends speculated on the underlying reasons for his lack of sex. The hint of asceticism in his demeanor combined with the celibacy led them to call him Father Paul.

Paul was a controller for a wealthy property management company in Los Angeles. He appeared conscientious and loyal, devoting himself to working six days a week. He was paid well by the owner, a determined and inflexible septuagenarian, a self-made taskmaster born in Poland. Their relationship was not an easy one Paul had told her, but he had reliably served the company for six years.

"I think I'll just shuck it all and go to Florida," Paul told her one day in disgust." The old man is impossible, no matter how much work I do. I lent him my computer for a book he's writing, but he's never grateful for anything."

"How could you possibly be thinking of Florida? You need to sell your film ideas here."

"The film industry is growing rapidly in Florida. Besides, I can always find another controller job. You know how I love numbers. I could play around with numbers just as easily in Florida."

"What about the literary agent you just got?" Anne asked anxiously, surprised at her fear of losing him, despite the convoluted relationship they had.

"Nothing's happening. I love to pitch ideas, but everything takes so long. Maybe I'll just forget it all. I've got a cousin in Australia."

She couldn't imagine not having him in her life in some way. She felt so sure of his talents and determination; surely he'd pull something off. He had so many ideas and projects in mind. She dismissed his grumbling as just talk. Men were full of plans that never materialized.

Looking for opportunities to draw Paul into her company more consistently, Anne convinced her own writing partner that Paul could help them with an entertainment business scheme and perhaps might want to invest. Setting up meetings would be a way of seeing Paul, and she felt she would set in motion the perfect situation for all of them. The scheme became impractical, but Anne thoroughly enjoyed their meetings and his attention. Paul would always greet her with a kiss, and enjoyed putting his arm around her if they were walking.

Occasionally she would wonder when she was going to give up and let go of the hope that this relationship would change into a romance. At one of their several business meetings Paul turned his gaze full upon her. Thoughtfully, he said, "You're too nice. You're blind, and far too trusting." She accepted his judgment without a comment. She smiled and was secretly pleased, even with the paradox the words conveyed. She would remember the words months later.

As their second summer rolled into fall, Anne took a lover. It had been far too long, and she was becoming resigned to what reality had dealt her. She had hardly seen Paul in months. Turning to the singles ads again, she met a married standup comedian. She was very attracted, but ruefully admitted to herself that this new situation wasn't much better. She noted the irony; Jim was funny and he also came from Boston, where his wife still lived while Jim tried breaking into the entertainment business. The sex was marvelous, and she wondered why she'd denied herself the intimacy for so long. She tried to forget the other similarity-the lack of commitment.

When Jim went home for Christmas, Anne wondered whom she would invite to an upcoming party. The same dinner party group was having a holiday party, and she preferred a date. Would Paul accept an invitation? She hadn't seen him in three months. She called, but kept missing him at work. The party's hostess, who considered herself a friend and fan of Paul's invited him for her. Paul was to call Anne and confirm. On the day of the party Anne still hadn't heard from him. Saddened and frustrated, she attended alone and came home early.

Anne was upset by his absence and his lack of consideration. Paul hadn't called to decline the invitation nor had he called to apologize for his non-appearance. Anne felt something serious had happened; it was so unlike him to be rude and thoughtless. She swallowed her pride and called him at the office. This time he was there. She couldn't help but be forgiving as she reminded herself that they were not committed lovers. She still couldn't bring herself to let go of the friendship, or put the relationship into perspective.

"I missed you at Pam's party. What happened?" She kept her voice light, but concerned.

Betraying nothing, he answered warmly, "I was very sick with that flu everyone seems to have. I was in bed for three days."

She murmured her sympathies, "I'm having a New Year's Day party, and would love you to come."

His voice seemed pleased at the invitation. "I've got a pitch to make at Fox that day, but I'll make it if I can."

"Someone is listening to movie business on New Years?"

"I couldn't believe it myself, but I can't miss the opportunity."

That was the last time she talked to him. New Years came and went, and Anne wasn't surprised at his failure to appear, but she was still not ready to let go. In mid-January she called him at home, but got no answer, even from his answering machine She tried again several times. By the end of January she decided to try his office and was told by an unfamiliar male voice that Paul was no longer with them. Feeling uneasy and not believing that he could have left without saying goodbye, she wrote him a short note.

When the letter returned with no forwarding address a week later, Anne was tempted to drive to his apartment. Paul's daughter lived across the street, but she didn't know the address or remember the daughter's last name. Anne had an odd feeling of apprehension as she pondered what could have happened and searched her memory for little details that might indicate what to do next. Had she missed some important minutiae about him in all these months? How well did she really know him, she reflected, as her mind raced with the possibilities.

Paul had meant too much to her to let the matter drop. He couldn't have just left, she reasoned. What of all his obligations, his children, his friends? He filled his life with so many people and duties; surely someone would have the answers.

She called the office again, remembering that Paul's best friend, Tom, worked in the same building. Tom told her he couldn't talk in the office, he would call her at home. His comment piqued her curiosity. What would he tell her that was so secret?

The following evening he telephoned, eager to share the story.

"You remember that Paul went back to Boston to spend Christmas with his aging parents. He said he probably wouldn't be seeing them again. I just assumed he meant because they were getting older. Then Paul ended up talking to me for three hours after our office party the Friday before New Years. He usually scooted out of there right after work, no matter what." Anne listened carefully and recalled that Paul had taken several short trips to see relatives during the past year.

Tom continued. "Paul didn't show up for work the Tuesday after the New Year holiday. When he didn't come on Wednesday, I called his daughter, Susan. Susan hadn't seen him in a couple of days, she said, but there was a letter from him on her desk. She said she'd check on things and call me back. When she called back a half hour later, she was hysterical."

Anne's stomach churned. She fought off her worst fears as she took the phone to a comfortable chair in her living room, calming herself consciously as Tom talked on, warming to his story.

"The letter said 'I'm off to seek my future.' And it gave instructions on how to dispose of his things in the apartment. He told her I would help her. When we checked the apartment, we found that he had only taken sports clothes- no suits, not his precious computer. But the computer had been downloaded."

"Wow!" was all Anne could find to say.

"Do you remember the job Paul had?"

"Sure. He was a controller."

"Well, Susan told me something that I never guessed in the six years I knew Paul. He and I were best friends. Soulmates, I always thought. We would get together almost every weekend, and we saw each other every day at work."

"Umm, I remember Paul talking about you a lot," Anne interjected.

"Did he ever tell you he worked for CBS?"

"Yes, and that he'd sold a script to one of their drama series. He said something about being laid off."

"He wasn't laid off," Tom said. "He spent 18 months in Chino prison for embezzlement. Susan visited him every weekend while he was there, but he never let anyone know."

"No wonder." Anne was stunned with this overwhelming news, but grateful that he hadn't said that Paul was dead. Anything but that.

"Paul had apparently had some kind of trouble like this before he came to California. And, he'd done it to his boss here a few years back. He'd been allowed to pay it back."

"You mean he embezzled at this company?" She was even more shocked.

"Yes. And he's done it again. He had to leave when he did since they'd be auditing the books soon. I don't know how much he got; they're very closed about it. They even suspected me, and I had to get my lawyer involved. It took some convincing that Paul had let no one know where he was going. You remember he was talking about going to Australia?"

"Yes. Yes, I do. Do you think that's where he is?"

"Maybe. Maybe even in Brazil. That's where his third wife came from. I just hope he gets away with it and stole enough money to make it worth it. If they ever catch him, he'll never last in prison."

"I can't believe that he could do such a thing. He seemed so close to his kids, to his granddaughter. I'm finding it very hard to deal with this," Anne said, her heart feeling very heavy. "It's amazing...it's unbelievable.

When he hung up, she couldn't keep still. She got up and paced, her mind alive with all sorts of imagined implications. Her heart felt heavy. She would never see him again. He might as well be dead. She felt his memory would linger for a long, long time, the bizarre factor of his crime only adding to the mystery.

Restlessly wandering her apartment, she stopped in front of a painting a friend had given her. She remembered the day she had proudly shown Paul this colorful rendering of a knight about to cross the drawbridge to his old castle. She had pointed out that she felt the knight was herself going toward her goal. The old castle, a bit tumble-down around the outer ramparts was her aging self. The inner core that was still preserved was her inner self, stable and lasting.

Paul disagreed. "I think the knight is your knight in shining armor, the knight that you deserve. I don't see that castle as you. You need something fancier and more mysterious."

He paused. "My castle would be mysterious and dark. Everyone has their dark side, you know."