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The Smells of Walking

walking, benefits of walking

A jacaranda in spring bloom

When we first gave up car ownership and I started walking more, I discovered something that I’d been missing. My sense of smell.

Okay, the sense, itself, was never any worse than it’s ever been. But when you’re in a car all the time, you forget that there are smells all over the city.

I know what you’re thinking – that most of those smells are pretty grim. Okay, some are. But a lot aren’t. A lot of smells, like the scent of a flowering jacaranda tree, are pretty nice. Then there’s my fave and it’s everywhere in Southern California – star jasmine. It’s a shrub that’s very, very hardy and so it winds up in a lot of planters around here. It’s not technically a jasmine, but when its small white flowers bloom, oh, the smell is exquisite.

Then, of course, there’s another human-made smell: street food. I love street food. There’s a guy with a small little rig he pulls behind his truck, called El Ultimo Tren. He makes burgers and tacos and they’re delicious. And the smell… Oy, it’s gorgeous!

I sometimes wonder if my deadened sense of smell got that way because there was nothing to smell. If anything is going to get through the airflow of a car, it’s going to be pretty strong, like a skunk or diesel fumes. The more subtle scent of flowers? Not happening. So with nothing to smell, I stopped smelling.

So now, I’m out on the streets, letting my under-used sense of smell get a work-out and it’s been pretty good.

spy fiction, mystery fiction, cozy mystery,

Chapter Four

spy novel, spy fiction, cozy mystery, cozy spy novelOctober 5 – 20, 1982

 

As Mr. Hackbirn drove us to Mr. Fukaro’s dojo the next morning, he seemed perplexed. He didn’t say anything about it until we were headed for our next stop.

“You seem very up,” he said. “Are you sure you’re not in denial?”

“About what?” I asked.

“About being drafted. Don’t you have any feelings of anger? Outrage? Anything like that?”

I thought. “Maybe a little. I suppose I should be angrier, but I’m really kind of excited. I’ve always felt like I had such a boring life, and now I’m a spy. It’s pretty neat, really.”

“I might have known,” Mr. Hackbirn grumbled. “Miss Wycherly, you had better get those happy, romantic little notions out of your head right now. This business isn’t James Bond, and it isn’t a neat, painless undertaking. Most of it is deathly dull, and when it isn’t, it’s ugly.”

“Well, it can’t be totally awful. You don’t seem like you’re that miserable.”

“I’m not, and I can’t say that there are no fringe benefits. However, I don’t want you lulled into a false sense of security. You and I are in perpetual mortal danger, and will be for the rest of our lives.”

“I know. I just refuse to let it get me down is all.”

He didn’t say anything to that. I think he knew that the danger part hadn’t sunk in for me. What I found at the deserted warehouse in Long Beach helped make his point. It was a shooting range for a variety of operatives, all of whom needed a place to practice without being seen. Actually, the shooting range itself didn’t phase me. The target did. It was a police silhouette of a man. I made a face.

“I don’t like shooting at them either,” said Mr. Hackbirn. “But that’s what you’re facing.”

“Right.” I reached for the revolver he had.

He pulled it back. “Miss Wycherly, this is not a toy.”

“I know.”

“It’s a Smith and Wesson model thirteen, three fifty-seven magnum revolver. I know it’s a big gun, but believe me, you don’t want a pea shooter. Now, you’ve got to stand and brace your arm so that you can absorb the recoil. I’m warning you, this baby packs a wallop.”

I let him show me the proper position.

“Do you want me to stand behind you?” he asked. “It’s got quite a kick. And maybe I’d better move that target closer.”

“Don’t waste your time.” I slipped on the ear guards and put a shot into the target’s left shoulder.

Mr. Hackbirn squinted. “Not bad for a first try. Just remember to aim for the chest. It’s the easiest to hit.”

“You can kill someone that way.” I squeezed off four more shots to the left shoulder.

Mr. Hackbirn pushed a button, and the target floated towards us. He looked at the five holes, then at me. I smiled weakly.

“I got fourth place in the Tahoe Region Skeet Championship,” I told him. “The first three went on to international competition.”

“That’s pretty good.” He looked me over again. “I guess I owe you an apology. You just don’t seem the type.”

“Well, sewing and knitting are about as domesticated as I get. Daddy and I nailed a lot of ducks and pigeons together.”

“Ah. Well. We’ll go right into shooting on the run. Now, remember, aim for the chest. You won’t have time to finesse a shot.”

We worked for an hour. I have to admit, I didn’t put everything into a shoulder, but I hit the target every time. Mr. Hackbirn was impressed.

“I just put it between Donna Reed’s eyes,” I said, as I reloaded.

“You what?”

“Oh.” I blushed. “It’s an old joke. My best friend always said that. She’s a hardcore feminist, and there was this TV show.”

“I’m familiar with it.”

“I’ve never seen it. Anyway, neither of us were big on traditional housewiving. I mean, it’s alright if that’s what a woman really wants to do. I just don’t think a woman should have to.”

“I’m liberated myself,” said Mr. Hackbirn with a bemused chuckle. He shook his head. “I just didn’t expect it from a church-going type like you.”

“Look, I believe in God, and I try to live my life in a way that’s consistent with what I know about Him. But that doesn’t mean I turn my brain off just because some Bible thumping conservative thinks women belong in the kitchen. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about my values, and I know what I believe and why I believe it. Okay?”

He backed off. “Okay. I’m sorry I assumed.”

“I didn’t mean to get so defensive,” I sighed. “I just get so tired of people treating me like a mutant because I believe sex belongs in marriage.”

“Actually, I know how you feel.”

“What do you mean?”

“I get tired of people assuming I’m some depraved monster because I’m sexually active.”

“Oh. I guess you would.”

I hadn’t really thought he was a monster. But I considered him depraved. He was pretty busy most evenings.

We were just as busy during the days. Getting his office together was put on hold. In the meantime, I had to learn how to administer certain drugs, how to locate hidden microphones, how to install hidden microphones, how to ditch a tail (well, how to do it even better) how to tail someone, how to make microdots and how to read them, and codes.

There was a new code every day to break and I also had to learn how to encode things. It was miserable. I spent so much time working on those codes I wondered if I’d start mumbling keywords in my sleep.

The only thing worse than the codes was Mr. Hackbirn’s safe. What few records we had on the business were stored there and they were relatively innocent at that. The safe was in Mr. Hackbirn’s office under the floor next to his desk. His waste can covered the almost imperceptible cut in the carpet. The dial was behind a false back in a drawer of one of the file cabinets.

Getting to the dial and to the safe was easy compared to opening it. Each number of the combination had to be dialed exactly, having been passed a specific number of times. If you didn’t do everything just so, the safe wouldn’t open. To make matters worse, the safe was finicky and I often suspected that it sometimes wouldn’t open out of plain orneriness. Mr. Hackbirn took it all in stride and pointed out that it was better that the safe was so hard to open. I think he was just glad he didn’t have to do it anymore.

Then there was all the technical equipment, including listening devices, surveillance devices, tracking devices. Most of the stuff you see in spy movies is out and out ridiculous, but we do get to use some pretty sophisticated stuff. It’s all very small, too, to make it easier to hide.

And speaking of hiding, Friday was spent on all the different places and things I could hide on myself to get me out of a tight situation.

“You can always hide something,” said Mr. Hackbirn. “In fact, I think you ought to get your hair permed. It’s long enough, with a little extra body, you’ll be able to hide all sorts of things in there.”

“Like what?” I asked.

“Like one of these.” Mr. Hackbirn pulled something small and dark out of his hair. It was a quarter inch wide and about two inches long. “Spring steel. You’d be amazed at all the things this little goodie will unlock, and it can cut strapping tape, too.”

“Strapping tape?”

“Used to bind hands instead of handcuffs. It and duct tape are carried because handcuffs can arouse suspicion.”

“Oh.” I shuddered. “I don’t know if I want to carry a piece of metal in my hair all the time.”

Mr. Hackbirn shrugged. “I don’t, except when I’m working. But even then, it probably wouldn’t be a bad idea. You could be attacked or captured at any time. Anything you can keep on you to help you just might save your life. In fact, I would be surprised if you’re not carrying a bit of spring steel on you right now that no one will ever think to look for.”

“Really?” I looked over my jacket and clothes, then flushed when I noticed Mr. Hackbirn studying my breasts. He was perfectly clinical about it, but I was still embarrassed and closed my jacket over my chest.

“You’re wearing an underwire bra, aren’t you?”

“Mr. Hackbirn, isn’t that my business?”

“Spring steel, Miss Wycherly, that’s the wire. You could get out of a pair of handcuffs with it.”

“Well, maybe.” I put my hands behind my back and tried to reach my bra strap. “Except I’d never be able to get the bra off my arms if I was cuffed.”

“True.” Mr. Hackbirn studied me a moment longer, mulling over the problem instead of my breasts. “Ah. The solution is simple. Wear bras with detachable straps.”

“I wonder where I’d get one.”

“The lingerie department might be a start. In any case, I know they exist. I’ve seen them.”

I smirked. “Oh, really.”

“I’ve seen a lot of bras in my time. But don’t just get one. Wear them all the time.”

I snorted. “This is getting a little ridiculous. It’s bad enough you’re telling me how to wear my hair, now you’re dictating the style of my underwear? I’ve had it.”

“Miss Wycherly, I understand your irritation.” Mr. Hackbirn glared at me. “But you need to understand just how deadly serious this is. You are entering a new way of life. You are a spy, and everything you are as a person is affected by it. How you act, make friends, what you eat, even your damned underwear. Secrecy is the word you live by now, and being prepared is how you’ll stay alive. I’m giving you every trick, hint, whatever that I know to keep you that way.”

I hung my head. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s alright.” He smiled softly. “I know what you’re going through. I went through it, too. But I’m alive because I accepted it.”

“Well, I guess I’d better make that appointment for my perm.”

“Good. But first, I want you to try these on.”

He pulled a box off the file cabinets. He had brought it in that morning when he returned from making a pickup. The box held a pair of black running shoes. Mr. Hackbirn gave me a pair of tube socks, which I put on over my nylons.

“They feel great,” I said after lacing the shoes up. I walked around. “Sheesh. I’ve never had shoes this comfortable before. Are these why you did that plaster cast of my feet the other day?”

“Mm-hm. I have a pair just like them. They’ve saved my butt more than once.”

I giggled. “Don’t tell me. I click my heels and a knife will pop out.”

“Not quite. Sit down and slide your fingernail between the sole and the shoe on the inside.”

I did. “Hey, there’s a groove. Oh, my god.”

The sole popped open. Inside was a stiletto, a flat handle,  two screwdrivers and more spring steel.

“There’s wire, a wire cutter, a transmitter and batteries in the other,” said Mr. Hackbirn. “It’s a pity platform dress shoes aren’t in style anymore. You’d be surprised at all the stuff I could stick in those. We won’t be able to hide much beyond some spring steel in your dress shoes, and there’s always the last. That can be sharpened, and makes a very effective weapon.”

I looked at him. “What about your dress shoes?”

“I have a similar set up in all my heels. Most of the time, I have no need for it, but you never know.”

I put the sole back on and tested the shoe again.

“Armored running shoes.” I tried to smile. “What will they think of next?”

Saturday, I asked Mr. Hackbirn to let me go out to Mae’s the next day.

“You did say I was on my own,” I said at breakfast that morning.

“Of course.” He put his paper down. “Isn’t she in Fullerton?”

“Yeah. I get there on the train. I can take a bus to Union Station.”

“That’s fine. I was more interested in Fullerton. There’s an enemy operative out there working as an information broker for the Soviets. It’s odd that your sister just happens to be out there, too.”

“She’s no spy.”

Mr. Hackbirn laughed. “Nobody with five kids would have the time. I was merely bemused by the coincidence. Are you planning on taking the bus back tomorrow night?”

“Yes.”

Mr. Hackbirn shook his head. “Why don’t you come back Monday morning instead? I’d rather not worry about you on the bus after dark.”

“I can always wear my armored shoes.”

“It’s better to avoid trouble. Come back Monday morning.”

“If you insist.” I didn’t like the worrying nonsense, but coming back the Monday meant no running, so I wasn’t about to argue.

Mae’s whole family picked me up at the train station in Fullerton. I could see that Mae was dying to give me the third degree about my new job, and why I hadn’t been able to visit the previous Sundays. Even though she’s six years older than me, people sometimes think I’m older because I’m taller than she is. She’s got more padding than I do, too, with brown hair, which she keeps short and permed to stay out of her way.

Neil was calm, as usual. It takes a lot to flap him. He’s tall and skinny, with bright red hair. His son, Darby, looks a lot like him. Darby was nine at the time. He manfully picked up my overnight case. Janey, age seven, and Ellen, age four, both attached themselves to me. They have their mother’s coloring, only Janey has big hazel cow eyes, and Ellen’s eyes are blue, like her father’s. The twins, Marty and Mitch, were whooping up their greeting noises from their stroller. They were two and looked more like Darby and their dad.

“Is there surprise?” asked Ellen shyly.

“Of course,” I told her with a squeeze.

There always was. Mae’s a health nut and Neil’s a dentist, so the only time those kids see candy is when I or the grandparents bring it. It’s one of the advantages of being an aunt, and one of the few times I press it.

Mae didn’t get to her interrogation right away. She and Neil had to go to some Marriage Encounter shindig, and they didn’t get home until ten that night. That was why I had come, to babysit. Mae and Neil have a little problem that way. Janey won’t stay quietly with just anyone.

“So?” Mae asked me the moment she had come downstairs after checking on the kids.

“So… What?” I asked.

Neil sat back in the kitchen chair with his arms folded and chuckled.

“Tell me about your job,” Mae pressed.

I swallowed. I wasn’t used to lying to my family. Still, Mr. Hackbirn had been right, and, strangely enough, I didn’t want to tell Mae what he had gotten me into.

“He just takes some getting used to,” I explained slowly.

“But you sounded so worried before,” said Mae. “And you said something strange was going on.”

I forced a laugh. “Oh, that. It was nothing. My boss, he just… you know, gets around.”

“You already told us that,” said Neil.

“Well, he really gets around,” I replied. “And he was trying to cover it up. Only I kept catching little things, and he finally came clean with it.”

Mae snorted. “Are you sure?”

“I accidently walked in on him in his living room, and he was butt naked with a naked woman.”

Neil laughed.

“In the middle of the day?” shrieked Mae.

I shrugged. “He wasn’t asking me to.”

“I don’t know, Lisa,” said Mae. “Something’s not right about all of this.”

“Leave her be, Mae,” said Neil. “Lisa’s a big girl. She can take care of herself.”

Mae didn’t believe that for a second, but she did let up. The next morning, everything went as smooth as silk, except that Mr. Hackbirn drove me to the gym that night to make sure I worked out, seeing as though I had missed running that morning.

I finally got my hair permed at the end of my two weeks of training. I got home from the beauty parlor late that afternoon. As I walked in the front door, I heard piano music coming from the library. I didn’t know the piece, but it was something classical and complicated. [It was the rondo allegro from Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata, number 8, opus 13 – SEH]  My interest was aroused. I’d been trying to play the piano for years, in spite of lessons. Whoever was playing that afternoon was certainly fairly accomplished. [Accomplished? I hadn’t played in two years and I made a mess of it! – SEH]

It was Mr. Hackbirn. He stopped when he saw me.

“I thought you said you only played sometimes,” I said coming over to him. “That sounds like pretty often to me.”

He just shrugged.

“Where in your unstructured background did you pick up something as structured as playing like that?” I asked.

“It was the only disciplined thing my aunt had me do. Although, strangely enough, I practiced pretty much by my own choice. When you’re in a private school, your friends don’t live near you.”

“And the parents who lived near you didn’t want their kids playing with a commie.”

“In a couple of cases.” He stopped and looked at me. “How’d you know about that?”

“Observation and research.” I smiled, glad that my guess was accurate. “So you had a lonely childhood.”

“Yes and no. I was a loner. I didn’t have many friends because I didn’t want them. And it was my aunt who was the commie, by the way.”

“Why didn’t you take up music? In college I mean.”

“Didn’t want to.”

“So what motivated you to play now? Something bothering you?”

“Not really. Why do you ask?”

“You kind of hinted that you hit the music when you were lonely.”

He looked at me intently for a moment.

“That is often the case,” he replied slowly as if he wasn’t sure he could trust me. “Not this time, though. I just felt like it.”

Something told me he wasn’t hiding anything.

“Ready to go?” he asked, abruptly changing the subject.

“Go where?” I asked.

“To the bar at La Brisa restaurant on Sunset. You’re going to make a pickup.”

“A pickup!” I was shocked. “I’m not going out with any strange guy.”

“No,” groaned Mr. Hackbirn. “You’re picking up a piece of information to be sent up the line.”

“Oh. That’s almost as bad.”

“It’ll go as smooth as silk. Your contact will ask you where he can find a pineapple tree. You’ll ask him if he wants an upside-down cake.”

“An upside-down cake,” I repeated. “I’m going to really botch this one up.”

“What could you possibly botch?”

“I don’t know, but something will present itself.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll be there just in case the Soviet army shows up. Just don’t come near me unless there’s a genuine catastrophe.”

“That’s so reassuring.”

The bar was crowded and dark. I sat on a bar stool at the bar quietly sipping ginger ale and trying to make small talk with the various people there. There was a small combo at the other end of the room playing songs from the 30’s and 40’s. I had waited for over an hour with no hint of any fruit at all. I hadn’t seen Mr. Hackbirn come in, but I saw him now, sitting in a booth not far from me. I also saw him smiling in my direction.

The band dedicated the next song to the lady at the end of the bar, where I was sitting. The song was called “Let’s Misbehave.” I saw Mr. Hackbirn smile and raise his glass to me. I was certain something had gone wrong and he needed to talk to me.

“What’s wrong?” I whispered as I sat down next to him.

“What are you doing here?” he hissed back.

“You meant me, didn’t you?”

“No, I was signaling to the blonde behind you!”

“Well, I never!” I said loudly, getting up.

I all but stomped back to my place at the bar.

“He wanted you,” I growled to the blonde.

“He did?” She smiled at Mr. Hackbirn, who smiled back.

“You’re nuts if you do,” I told her as she left the bar.

Her place was taken a minute later by a rather handsome young man.

“It gets pretty embarrassing when you read the signals wrong doesn’t it?” he said warmly.

I just snorted.

“By the way,” he continued, “Know where I can find a pineapple tree?”

Every nerve in my body instantly awoke and started tingling.

“You want an upside-down cake?” I asked, hoping he couldn’t hear my heart pounding.

“Why don’t we get a table and talk about it?” he suggested.

At the table, we traded small talk for about five minutes. During that time, he slipped me a small envelope under the table, which I promptly put in the pocket of my jacket. I waited a couple of minutes then stood up.

“I’ve got to get up really early tomorrow,” I said. “So I’ve got to go. Nice talking to you.”

It took all the control I had to not run out of the bar.

When I got home, I dropped the envelope on Mr. Hackbirn’s desk and headed for the kitchen. There I found everything ready to make a mug of peppermint herb tea, a particular favorite. I knew Conchetta had some idea something was going on but didn’t know about Quickline itself. I wondered what Mr. Hackbirn had told her when he asked her to set out the tea. I was pretty sure he hadn’t set it out himself. That’s not like him and even if it had been, I doubted he would have set out the peppermint, which he loathes. Conchetta had set out the tea, no doubt about that. [No. I’d set it out – SEH]

As I cleaned up what little mess there was in the kitchen, I debated waiting up for Mr. Hackbirn, but only briefly. Considering the blonde, if he were to return home at a decent hour, he would probably not be alone. Sighing, I took my tea with me to my room and went to bed.

The next morning, Mr. Hackbirn briefly congratulated me on a job well done. Later that afternoon I overheard him on the phone.

“Not Gannett, damn it,” he was saying to the person on the other end. “Are you sure there’s no one else?” There was a pause while the other party answered. “Look, Gannett has seen me… In a couple months, no problem… She’s great, but she’s only made the one pick up. You can’t send someone with no experience on something like this… There’s got to be…” He sighed. “Alright. Set it up… Gee, thanks. Talk to you later.”

I walked the rest of the way into the office as he hung up.

“What was that all about?” I asked.

“You’re going to make a major pick up tonight,” Mr. Hackbirn grumbled.

“You don’t sound as if you have a lot of confidence in me.”

“In you, yes. You’re doing very well, but you need experience. This assignment… I don’t know.”

“What is it?”

“A certain gentleman has let it be known that he has some very important top secret U.S. information that he’s willing to sell.”

“Gannett.”

“Right. Another agency, on our side, has been setting up a sale with him. It’s up to us to grab him, get the information, and send him upline to be taken care of.”

“I don’t like the sound of that, but it doesn’t sound terribly complicated.” I sounded more confident than I was.

“Except for the fact that the agency isn’t the only buyer Gannett has been entertaining. You might have some competition tonight.”

“Terrific.” All pretense of confidence fled.

“That’s not the worst of it.”

“Gannett’s seen you, so I’m going solo.”

“I’m afraid so.”

But Mr. Hackbirn wasn’t going to let me out of it. We discussed every possible thing that could happen, then exactly what our plan of action would be. At 3:30, he gave me an article to enter into the computer and left to run an errand or two.

He didn’t get back until 5, just as dinner was ready. As we sat down to eat, he pulled something out of his pocket and tossed it on the table. It was a round gold brooch about 2″ in diameter made of a ring of gold wires twisted together.

“That’s how Gannett will spot you,” said Mr. Hackbirn. “He’ll be asking for a one-way ticket to the zoo. Just say you have one.”

I had to laugh. “Where do you come up with all these crazy lines?”

Mr. Hackbirn just smiled and shrugged. “A vivid imagination, I guess.”

“I guess.”

I felt rather better about the whole affair as I drove Mr. Hackbirn’s Mercedes to the bar where I was to meet Gannett. During dinner, Mr. Hackbirn had drilled me on what I was going to do. By the end of the meal, he seemed relieved and told me he thought I was going to be fine and that he’d underestimated me. I looked at him closely and saw that he meant it.

After dinner and before I left, Mae called. The kids were getting to her. Somehow the conversation got around to our own childhoods.

“Do you remember how we used to tell each other stories?” Mae said wistfully. “Especially you.”

“You told some pretty good ones yourself.”

“Yeah, but you told the best. You should have written them down. You could have made a fortune in adventure stories.”

I laughed. If only she had known about the adventure I was living. As a child, I had longed for adventure. I don’t think that I actually wanted to be a spy, myself, but cloak and dagger stories had always enthralled me. Now I was living one.

I thought about that as I walked into the meeting place. I walked up to the bar and ordered a ginger ale. Though I didn’t need to be told, Mr. Hackbirn had drilled it into me that one drink a night was a lot for a person whose livelihood depended on absolute secrecy. Drunkenness was a great risk and even one drink was too much when you were working.

I wasn’t there half an hour before I was asked for a one-way ticket to the zoo.

“I’ve got it,” I replied to the man who had addressed me. “Let’s go get a table and talk about it.”

Gannett was about average height. As far as I could tell, he had light brown hair and was basically as nondescript as they come.

“Have you got the money?” he asked anxiously.

“What have you got that’s so good?” I replied a lot more coolly than I felt.

“Not so fast. Money first.”

“I have it at my place.”

“Then go get it.”

“Not so fast yourself. I hear there are other bidders.”

“So?”

“So you can come to my place and we’ll see what you’ve got.”

My left hand rested casually on the table in front of us. My right hand was on my lap. Trembling, it reached into my purse and pulled out the revolver Mr. Hackbirn had insisted I carry.

“What if I choose not to go to your place?” my guest asked.

Underneath the table, I pressed the gun’s barrel into the guest’s side. I watched him stiffen at the contact.

“Do you feel that?” I asked. He nodded. “You no longer have a choice. Now we’re going to get up and leave here. You’ll do as I say and just because you don’t see my gun, doesn’t mean that it’s not pointed at you or that I don’t have friends with me. Is that clear?” He nodded again. “Alright, let’s go.”

When we got to the parking lot I thanked heaven it was empty of people. At the car I blindfolded Gannett and after putting on the seat belt, taped his hands. It had been my own idea about my “friends,” and I was glad he’d believed me. After seeing that he was secure, I stashed the gun under the front seat and for some reason my brooch also. As I turned to get in, two men came up to me.

“Yes?” I asked.

“We’re interested in the gentleman you just picked up,” said the man closest to me. The other remained in the background.

“It’s my business who I pick up.” I tried to sound sophisticated, but I think I just sounded hard.

“That’s an interesting way to treat a pickup.” He glared at Gannett.

“So I’m kinky,” I shot back.

“I want that man and now!”

At that moment, something clicked and it seemed like what I was doing, I wasn’t doing, instead I was standing outside myself and watching a stranger do it. The man grabbed me and started pulling me away. Instead of resisting, I fell into him, throwing him off balance. He let go and I landed two good punches in his belly. He fell backward into his companion.

I jumped into the car and backed out of the parking space. I almost hit a large car. I could see the two men getting into it.

I stepped on the accelerator and shot out onto the street. It was a miracle I didn’t hit anyone. I had turned right and right again onto another street. Looking into my rear view mirror I saw a car right behind me. I got into the left lane. It did the same, all but kissing my bumper. I was going to turn left but a signal stopped me.

I knew the only way I could lose them was to make a lot of quick turns. But that was almost impossible with the way traffic is in on Hollywood Boulevard. A residential neighborhood would have been ideal, except that I didn’t know the streets in L.A. once I was off the main bus routes. Losing my tail wouldn’t have done much good if I lost myself in the process.

I saw a sign for U.S. 101, south to Santa Ana. I knew the streets in Fullerton pretty well, so if I couldn’t lose them on the freeway… I nearly creamed a car trying to get in the right lane for the onramp. Once on the freeway, I checked my mirror. My tail was still there.

They say stress can help us perform in a heightened manner. Well, the stress I was feeling and the grace of God are all that got me through that night. I believe I already mentioned that I was working on automatic pilot. I had to. I hate freeway driving. It scares me. When I can’t avoid using the freeway, I stay in one lane and drive fifty-five.

That night I rarely drove under seventy. I changed lanes constantly, dodging around cars. My tail stayed tight on me. I hardly dared breathe. My guest remained silent. I thanked God. I found myself caught behind a slow car and the lane beside me blocked. I hit the brakes and checked the mirror. The car was still there. If Gannett heard my continual litany of Our Fathers and Hail Marys, he didn’t say anything. I pulled around the slow car. I made it to Orange County in less than thirty minutes. I turned off the freeway at the last second from the middle lane. My tail hung on.

I swallowed and headed for the housing tract where my sister lived. I knew the area, although it had been two years since I had lived with Mae while going to college. The tract was a veritable labyrinth.

I suddenly turned off the main street. The tires squealed in protest. I remembered that Mae had told me something recently about cops cracking down on reckless drivers. I made another rapid turn. Cops were all I needed. I turned again and accelerated. Even if they didn’t pull me over, they’d send somebody after me. The tires screamed as I turned again.

I drove like that for about half an hour. Somewhere in the last five minutes of that time, I lost the tail. I drove on, relieved but afraid it was too good to be true.

For once it was true. I stopped at a stop sign. Around the corner to my left, a large car was parked by the corner. Behind it I could see the flashing lights of a police car and the silhouette of a policeman talking to the man who’d tried to stop me. I smiled and breathed a thank you to God.

Three minutes later, I was on another freeway, taking an alternate route back to L.A. No one tailed me, though I had one eye in the mirror all the way. I didn’t even slow down until I hit the Babylonian castle that I’d always used as my almost there landmark.

I sighed as I pressed the button for the garage door opener back at the house. I drove in, braked and turned off the ignition. Then I summoned everything I had left for one last surge of energy.

“End of the line,” I said, reaching under the seat for the gun.

I got Gannett loose from the seatbelt and out of the car. Mr. Hackbirn was at the garage door and held it open as I led the man into the house. Silently, Mr. Hackbirn took the lead. He guided us to the room where we were going to put our guest for the night. At the door to the room, I removed the tape and shoved the guest in. Mr. Hackbirn shut the door and locked it. Numb, I headed for the office.

It’s at this point that things get pretty fuzzy. I do remember hearing Mr. Hackbirn ask what took so long. I remember dropping the gun on the desk and I remember sinking into the chair. But that’s all I remember until I woke up the next day.

The sun was shining. It seemed exceptionally bright. I was in my bed. My jacket had been neatly hung up and my shoes were in the closet, but otherwise I was still fully dressed. My tongue felt like it had swollen three times its original size and there was a dry taste in my mouth.

Foggy, I groped my way to the mirror over the dresser. I still don’t know what I was looking for, but I stood there a long time. The phone rang. I stumbled my way to the bedside table where it was, picked up the receiver and grunted into it.

“I figured you’d wake up about now,” said Mr. Hackbirn’s voice.

“Yeah.”

“How do you feel?”

I thought a moment. “Nauseous.”

“That’s to be expected. You’ll probably feel a little groggy for a while. Why don’t you take a shower? It’ll wake you up some. Then I need you in the office promptly.”

“Breakfast?”

“My dear, it’s past lunchtime.”

As I hung up I looked at my clock. It was 12:30. Groaning, I realized that if I thought any more about food, my nausea would come to fruition.

It took over an hour for me to shower and dress. I was still drowsy as I headed for the office, but awake enough to wonder what had hit me. I was also trying to remember going to bed, but couldn’t. I didn’t have a headache, so I doubted I’d been drinking.

“I don’t understand it,” I replied when Mr. Hackbirn asked if I was still feeling groggy. “I know I’m not that swift in the mornings, but I’ve never been this bad. I feel awful. I wonder if I’m coming down with something.”

“I doubt it,” said Mr. Hackbirn. I had sunk into the chair in front of his desk. He sat on the edge closest to me, looking at me intently.

“The funny thing is,” I continued, “I don’t remember anything after we locked up Gannett.”

“Anything?” Mr. Hackbirn lifted an eyebrow.

I thought for a moment. “I think I remember coming in here. I wanted to get rid of that gun. And I think I remember crying.”

“You were hysterical.”

“Hysterical? That’s ridiculous. I’ve never been hysterical in my life.”

“You were last night.”

“I was?”

“It took two barbiturate tablets to calm you down. By that time you were knocked out.”

“You fed me dope?” I was halfway out of my chair in fury.

“A sedative, Miss Wycherly.” Mr. Hackbirn remained infuriatingly calm. “Which you sorely needed.”

“So that’s why I feel like a wrung out wash rag,” I grumbled.

“That’s an interesting image. I’ll have to write that down.” He paused as I glared at him. “Well, maybe later. In any case, the side effect will be gone by tonight. What I need to know now is what happened to cause your reaction.”

“I was scared.”

“That is obvious. What scared you?”

So I told him in detail what had happened. Mr. Hackbirn listened without interruption.

“I have two questions,” he said when I had finished. “First, did you see the license plate of the car tailing you?”

I shook my head. “It was too dark, and the lights were shining.”

“Perhaps it’s just as well. Secondly, did they shoot at you at all?”

“No,” I replied. “I guess it was too crowded.”

“Then what frightened you so badly?”

“Wasn’t that enough? Good heavens! Haven’t you ever been scared?”

“Well, of course…”

“Then try to think of me. I’m new at this. I come from a basically sheltered background. Nobody’s ever even wanted to physically hurt me and now I’ve got to deal with two men who want to kill me just for some jerk I’ve never seen before, and they’re willing to chase me all over to do it. Wouldn’t that have put you a little off track at one time? You might also consider the fact that I’m basically an optimist. I’m used to trusting people. I find it very hard to believe that anyone could willingly want to hurt someone else. Oh, I know intellectually, it happens, but deep down it doesn’t make sense and, therefore, it’s hard to believe. At least it was ’til last night. Was that ever a cold slap in the face. You want to talk about a shock to the system? Mine got a major jolt. Okay, maybe I did overreact. I don’t know, I wasn’t really there. All I know is that man was utterly malicious and that frightened me like nothing has ever frightened me before.”

Mr. Hackbirn sighed. “Miss Wycherly, I don’t want you to take this as a rebuke. It isn’t. You are to be commended for keeping your head and waiting until you did to break down. I might add it was probably waiting that caused the hysteria. However, that reaction could get you into big trouble if you panic at the wrong time. As a result, I am very concerned. What’s going to happen to you when real violence occurs? I can’t have you becoming a basket case every time you find yourself endangered.”

“I know,” I groaned.

“Miss Wycherly, you are going to have to get used to the fact that A there is a great deal of evil in this world and there are quite a few people in this world that have no qualms about taking a human life; and B this is a very dangerous business we have here. Most of it is rather dull. But the U.S. is, in effect, involved in an underground war with the Soviets and a few other countries. We are part of that war so that the vast majority of our country can lead peaceful, productive lives.”

“You make it sound as if we’re on the brink of disaster.”

“We are.” Mr. Hackbirn removed a piece of paper from the inside breast pocket of his suit coat. “This is the information Gannett wanted to sell.”

On the paper was a written mathematical equation, only there were no numbers except exponents and it contained a symbol I’d never seen before.

“Looks fairly innocuous.” I shrugged. “Of course, I only got as far as precalculus in college.”

“It’s called the Lipplinger Formula. It was developed by Doctor Miles Lipplinger. He teaches physics at Georgetown University. That formula is probably the most dangerous piece of information in the world.”

“Why?”

“It makes possible limited nuclear war.”

“Oh, my god. Surely, the Soviet Union wouldn’t…”

“The only reason we are at peace now is because nuclear war would destroy the world. If that formula were made possible, we would be plunged into the worst war humankind has ever known. As it stands now, I’d say only 50 people know of its existence. Fortunately, they’re on our side, and out of that 50 less than 10, including our guest, have actually seen it.”

I swallowed. “How could it stay so secret?”

“Professor Lipplinger discovered it by accident. He thought it could be used for peaceful purposes, but quickly realized what it would be used for. He promptly contacted the CIA, who eventually concurred with his belief. But they also felt that destroying the formula would only endanger the U.S. in the likely event that the Soviets also developed the formula and did not hesitate to use it. Professor Lipplinger graciously agreed to monitor information provided by the CIA to see if he could detect the formula in the development and so cue the CIA who would arrange to sabotage the work.”

“So how did Gannett get a hold of it?”

“He was one of the engineers working with the professor monitoring the Soviet work.”

“So now what do we do?”

“I doubt anything. There is a cause for concern because of Gannett’s disloyalty, but he’s already been sent upline and will soon be dealt with.”

“I don’t like the sound of that.”

“Like I said, Miss Wycherly, we are at war and betrayal is a crime.”

SewingReport

Sewing Men’s Pants

sewing men's pants

Pretty welts on my husband’s new pants

Yeah, I get it. Crazy is one thing, but sewing men’s pants? WTF am I thinking?

I’m thinking my husband needs trousers and I’m not finding any I like and there was this cheap fabric I’d picked up, so what the heck?

Truth be told, it’s not any harder than sewing pants for women. The biggest difference is that I have to put belt loops on my husband’s pants because he always wears a belt, and I can leave belt loops off of mine since I seldom wear a belt. Oh, and the center back seam is wider at the waist to make it easier to adjust the fit later as someone’s waist expands or not. Since we women are more likely to expand and deflate, you’d think you’d see that on women’s pants, but no.

Yes, there is a little more tailoring… Well, I wouldn’t call it tailoring, but you can get fancier with your finishes on the inside. But I’m not going to. It’s not going to show and it doesn’t affect the fit. Why bother?

Besides the belt loops, the big lesson here? If you know a better way to do something than what the pattern instructions say, dump the pattern instructions. That being said, it doesn’t hurt to read them first.

Sewing Men’s Pants Photos:

And here they are:

men's pants

There’s the extra wide seam at the back

men's pants

Waistband interfacing – It did make things easier.

Men's pants

Tah-dah! Men’s pants. And they fit him, too.

 

spy fiction, mystery fiction, cozy mystery,

Chapter Three

spy fiction, cozy mystery, mystery fiction serialOctober 4

It took six more days for me to get my explanation. Mae wanted to know why I couldn’t come out that Sunday. Something told me that telling her what was going on was not a good idea. I made a vague excuse and said I’d try to get out on the following Sunday.

Monday was D-Day. I knew it as soon as Mr. James showed up on the front doorstep. He’s a tall man, somewhere in his late forties, balding and much of the dark hair that is left has gray streaks in it. His shoulders are broad and he has a definite middle age spread. He also has the reddest face I’ve ever seen in my life.

I ushered him into Mr. Hackbirn’s office and didn’t quite shut the door. I stayed near the crack, too.

“Is this what I think this is?” Mr. Hackbirn asked, pleased.

“What the doctor ordered,” said Mr. James. “By the way, I got an interesting report from Highland when they closed down.”

“Yeah.” Mr. Hackbirn sounded caught. “Well. I didn’t have much choice. They sent it there, and Gannett’s been seen watching the place. I didn’t want to chance it. He knows me too well. She’s obviously clean. No harm done, right?”

“You’re just lucky it didn’t blow up. Shall we bring her in?”

Mr. Hackbirn chuckled. “Come on in, Miss Wycherly.”

Flushing, I slid open the door.

“She’s been..?” Mr. James looked at Mr. Hackbirn.

“I told you, she’s bright.” He grinned at me, then turned serious. “Please sit down, Miss Wycherly.”

Puzzled, I sat down on the edge of one of the chairs in front of the desk. Mr. James stood next to it.

“Miss Wycherly,” he said, pleasantly. “Sid has informed me that you have noticed a few oddities about his household.”

I glanced at Mr. Hackbirn. His face was passive and unreadable.

“I have,” I answered slowly.

“And has it occurred to you that Sid might be a little bit more than merely eccentric?”

“Well, I have thought that certain of his little oddities seemed a little too planned to be mere idiosyncrasy.”

“I see,” replied Mr. James. He looked at Mr. Hackbirn.

“She’s bright,” said Mr. Hackbirn.

I decided to be bold. “Am I bright enough to be let in on whatever it is that’s going on around here?”

Mr. James smiled and so did Mr. Hackbirn.

“That’s why you’re here, Miss Wycherly,” Mr. Hackbirn said, becoming serious once more.

“Miss Wycherly, you picked up a package for Mr. Hackbirn last Tuesday,” said Mr. James. “Do you know what was in it?”

“As far as I could tell, paper,” I replied. “I assumed that it was some sort of report.”

“The paper was a blind,” said Mr. Hackbirn. “What really made that ream important was a microdot containing top secret information.”

“It’s beginning to make sense,” I said. “That clearance.”

“Miss Wycherly,” said Mr. James. “Within the structures of the FBI and CIA are several smaller organizations. Organizations so secret that only their members know they exist. Mr. Hackbirn is a member of one called Operation Quickline.”

“He’s a spy.” I swallowed back my fear. “For the US?”

Mr. Hackbirn smiled and nodded. “Yes. I work secretly through the FBI, and now so do you.”

“Me?” The news hit me like a punch to the bread basket. Locked in. He’d warned me off. Something inside me snapped, and it was if I was watching everything that went on from another corner of the room.

“Your security clearance and adoption came through this morning,” said Mr. James.

“You mean you guys want me to be a spy, too.” My voice sounded distant as if another person were speaking.

“No,” said Mr. Hackbirn. “You are a spy.”

“What if I don’t want to?”

“You will just have to live with that. I’ve had to do the same. All I can do is offer my sympathies.”

Mr. James stepped forward. “You have to understand, Miss Wycherly, that the only reason Quickline is effective is because it is so secret. Therefore, when we must recruit new members, we cannot ask them without endangering the system, so we draft likely candidates.”

“I can’t believe this,” I gasped.

“It will take a day or two,” said Mr. Hackbirn.

I got up as well as I could. “I gotta get out of here. I’ve got to think.”

“As you wish,” Mr. Hackbirn replied. “But, Miss Wycherly, please keep in mind that my life, and now yours depends on your secrecy. It is that critical. I told you I am a dangerous person to know. This is why. I’m afraid you’ll be risking your life right along with me. I wanted to tell you what you were risking, but I couldn’t. I’m sorry.”

“I understand. Sort of.” I looked at him helplessly, then turned. “I’ll see you later.”

I left the house and ran down the streets to the bus stop. I was confused. I was a spy. They hadn’t even asked me, and, oh, that made me mad. But I was also excited. They had chosen me. But for what? Yes, I would be risking my life, but how did I know these guys were telling the truth? I only had Mr. Hackbirn’s word for it that Mr. James was from the FBI. The bus arrived, and I found myself making the long trip to West LA, and FBI headquarters.

I was scared as I paced the foyer, and I realized the thing that scared me the most was that I had no way of knowing if Quickline truly existed and if it really did work for the US. What if it was really an enemy operation?

Oh, was I naive then. That should have been the least of my fears. Of course, I had never laid my life on the line before, and risking my neck didn’t sound that bad in theory. I never really believed that I had no choice in the matter either. I’m not sure I do even now.

A buzzer sounded above the rattle of the young woman typing. She looked up at me.

“Go on back.”

The office was well appointed and comfortable. A woman about my mother’s age sat behind the desk and smiled professionally.

“May I help you?”

I took a deep breath and began the story I’d rehearsed on the bus.

“I’m a writer, doing a story on espionage in the US, and I’ve stumbled across something. I can’t reveal my sources. Is there a spy operation working for our government called Operation Quickline?”

The name phased her for a moment. “Not necessarily.”

“Look. I need to know.”

“You don’t necessarily have the right to know. Can you tell me why this is so important?”

“If I could tell you that, I wouldn’t be needing to ask you!” I felt my voice go shrill and took a deep breath to steady myself.

I don’t know if the woman guessed what was on my mind, or if God merely intervened and made her do something she wouldn’t have normally. I didn’t care then, and I don’t now.

“I can’t really say yes or no,” she said softly. “You should forget you ever heard the name. But I wouldn’t worry about Quickline being a threat to national security.”

“Thank you.”

I left the office feeling somewhat reassured. On a lark, I went to find Henry James’ office. It was there. The secretary seemed vaguely familiar, with brown hair, clipped into a barrette. She must have been expecting me because she sent me right into the inner office.

Henry James was there, too.

“Quite a shock, isn’t it?” he said smiling with paternal warmth.

“Yeah. I don’t know what to say.”

“Well, you’re probably feeling angry, and a little mixed up. Don’t worry. We all do. Any questions?”

“Not right now, Mr. James.”

“Please, call me Henry. We’re going to be seeing a lot of each other. I’d like to be friends.”

I smiled rather weakly at him.

“Sure.” Fumbling for something to say, I looked at him. There was something reassuring about him. “Uh, you can call me Lisa.”

“Thank you, Lisa.”

There was another awkward pause.

“I’d better get back,” I said finally.

“Before you go, Lisa, I’d better say something.”

“Yes, sir?”

“Operation Quickline is one of the most successful spying operations that the U.S. has. It is successful because it is so secret. Even my secretary doesn’t know it exists. Its continued success depends on your ability to maintain its secrecy. Lisa, absolutely no one can know about it except you, Sid and myself.”

“Not even my family?”

“Not even your family.”

“I’ve never held anything back from my family before. Well, I haven’t told them where I’m living right now. I haven’t gotten around to it. But I will.”

“That doesn’t matter. Quickline does, for their safety as well as yours.”

“I suppose. Is it really as deadly as Mr. Hackbirn says?”

“The risk is always there. That’s why you can’t tell your family, Lisa. No one must know about this but you and Sid.”

“Are there any restrictions on friends? I’m meeting some very nice people at church.”

“That’s fine. Just be careful, and don’t let them get too close. If you need support, I’m always here, and you’ve got Sid.”

I had to chuckle. “I don’t know if I’d trust him that way.”

Henry chuckled, too. “Maybe, maybe not. Lisa, he’s a very lonely man. He uses Quickline as an excuse not to reach out. Your life may have been turned upside down today, but so has his. The sad part is, he doesn’t even know it yet.”

“I guess.” I got up. “I’d better get back to the house.”

“Fine. See you around.”

“Sure, Henry.”

I left his office deep in thought.

“Excuse me,” said the secretary. “Have we met before?”

I looked at her again and flushed pure vermillion.

“Oh, my god,” I groaned. “The clothes.”

“What? Oh!” She recognized me and laughed. “You’re Sid Hackbirn’s secretary. You didn’t recognize me with my clothes on, did you?”

“I’m sorry.”

“Boy, you sure put Sid off his paces.”

I turned to her. “I did?”

“Yeah. He couldn’t believe you’d never seen a naked man before. He kept saying you were a genuine innocent.”

“Oh.” I paused. “I hope I didn’t mess things up too much.”

She purred. “You can’t mess up Sid that badly.”

“Oh.”

She held out her hand. “I’m Angelique Carter.”

“Lisa Wycherly.” We shook. “It was nice meeting you… Uh, again.”

She laughed. “Yeah. Again. To many more meetings. With our clothes on.”

I laughed also. “Right.”

I hurried out. Once on the street, I paused. No one seemed to be following me. I decided to test it. I walked up to Westwood and went into the first burger place I found. I knew lunch would be waiting for me at the house, but I’d had one heck of a morning. I deserved a real meal for a change. I got a double chili burger with fries, cole slaw, onion rings, a chocolate milkshake and a piece of cheesecake for dessert. [Oh, Lisa! – SEH]

I suppose I should have been more upset. Mr. Hackbirn had radically changed my life without doing me the courtesy of asking me. Well, he had tried to warn me, and he did give me a chance to back out.

At first, I was too numb from the shock to protest. As the shock wore off, I became caught up in the romance of being a spy. The danger seemed very unreal to me. Later, when I realized just how real the risks were, I was too caught up in other problems to feel much outrage at my fate, and I’m not the type to spend much time brooding about things I can’t change, anyway.

It was almost two when I got back to the house. Mr. Hackbirn was waiting for me in the living room.

“Well?” he asked.

“I guess I’m in,” I replied, brightly.

“That goes without saying. Any questions?”

I thought. “Why me? Why even have a secretary?”

“As I said before, you are a woman who sticks to her standards, even when it’s hard not to. That takes a lot of strength. When I told you I needed someone with guts, I meant it.”

“That’s not very reassuring.” I sank onto the couch.

“No, it isn’t.” He sighed as he sat in the easy chair. “Ours is a very dangerous business, I’m afraid. Anyway, as to why a secretary, that was my idea. I’ve always wanted someone who could handle those mundane little trivialities of life that are so time-consuming and dull, yet must be done. Because of the nature of my business, any secretary I’d hire had to have a security clearance. The people upline didn’t want any more people involved than necessary, so they put the krabbatz on that.”

“What made them give in?”

“Business got good. I’m not physically capable of making all the drops and pick ups they want made. So when they said they were going to give me an associate, I said I wanted a secretary. They, in turn, replied they didn’t have one and if I wanted one that badly, I could recruit the person myself. It’s policy to keep recruits under twenty-four-hour surveillance, which is why you’re living here.”

“And why you followed me to church that Sunday. And why you wouldn’t let me out of the house.”

“That was because you ditched your tail that Friday you went shopping.”

“You mean he was part of the surveillance?”

“Yes. They caught up with you at the church because of the list I had you give me. However, since you kept ditching them, I couldn’t keep you under surveillance, that’s why I kept you in.”

“Except for last Tuesday. Was that also surveillance?”

Mr. Hackbirn winced. “No. I was glad you ditched him. I wasn’t supposed to send you. You weren’t cleared yet, nor did you have any training.”

“You mean he really was a bad guy.”

“Yep. You handled it well, though.”

“Thanks.” Something else occurred to me. “I wasn’t followed to the FBI offices. Does this mean no more surveillance?”

“You’re on your own.”

“So I suppose I could move now if I wanted to.”

He made a face. “You could. I’d rather you stayed. It is convenient.”

“There’s that. I’ll have to think about it.” I leaned forward. “Tell me about Quickline.”

“We mostly pass information around, hence the name. However, we occasionally take real packages and sometimes act as a safe house.”

“We don’t do any of the actual spying?” Believe it or not, I actually felt disappointed.

“It depends on what you call actual spying. We do sometimes have to break into places to get things, and sometimes we handle investigations. But we are a domestic operation. Only under very rare circumstances will we do any foreign work.”

“How long have you been doing this?”

“I started in the army when I got drafted. Intelligence first got me in boot camp and kept me undercover. After my discharge, I was transferred to Quickline.”

“So what now? I assume you’ve got me in the self-defense class because of this.”

“Right.” His smile turned ominous. “Tomorrow your real training starts.”

I swallowed. “Oh dear.”

“By the way, Amalgamated Paper Company will be augmenting your salary from now on.”

“So that’s what those checks were.”

“Precisely. And you’ll be getting them, too.”

“You mean I get a raise?”

“It’s a promotion. You are now my associate.”

I grinned. “Not bad for two weeks work.”

“To all outward appearances, you are still my secretary, and you’ll still be performing all the same functions.”

“I was afraid of that.”

Mr. Hackbirn laughed. “Don’t worry. I’m still paying for the mundane trivialities.”

“You don’t have to.”

“That is my decision, and I will continue to pay.”

“Thanks. I appreciate it.”

We looked at each other. I was filled with that warm cozy after the storm feeling, the kind when you know everything is going to work out just fine. The kind when you know you’ve just found a very good friend.

How to cook, cooking for beginners, cooking without recipes

Organizing Your Kitchen

kitchen organization, cooking, how to cookIt has been a while since I’ve done a Dark Side of the Fridge (how to cook) post. But I’m working on a whole new scheme to post regularly and…

I’ve got my fingers crossed, too.

In any case, if we are going to talk about learning to cook, rather than simply read recipes, then we’ve got to think about the space in which we do it. Okay, even if we mostly prepare recipes, how our kitchens are organized will have a massive impact on how easily things get done. Which if we’re not wild about cooking, in the first place, is not generally something we want to be thinking about, let alone spending money on.

But, but, but. A reasonably well-organized kitchen can make it a lot easier to get in and get out before you go nuts or die of hunger. Seriously. Some folks come to this conclusion quite naturally. Some folks ain’t me. I have to think about these things, such as realizing the reason the damn circuit breaker keeps blowing in the mornings is because the toaster oven and the coffee maker are on the same circuit and both draw a lot of power.

Now, the thing the so-called experts recommend is to look at your kitchen layout and imagine the Food Prep Triangle. That’s the triangle made by your fridge (where most of your food is kept), your sink, and your stove. You want to line things up so that they’re included in this magic triangle to reduce steps. Sounds really nice and can help get you started thinking about how you move in your kitchen. But it doesn’t always take into account how kitchens are really laid out. Or that maybe it makes more sense for your pantry items to be in the pantry, which is just outside of your kitchen. Or that, as the diagram of my kitchen shows, the stove needs to be in the far corner because there are a bunch of kitchen cabinets in positions 1 through 6 and the port for the gas line is in that far corner. Or that directly across the kitchen from the door to the dining room is the door to the utility room and pantry and the back door to the house.

Movement in my kitchen is profoundly affected by that back door because we have to go through the kitchen to let the dogs out, get the laundry hung out on the line, hang out in the back yard, things like that.

The fridge is in the opposite corner because there’s nowhere else to put it.

That being said, even with the supposedly bad layout, my kitchen is pretty darned efficient. Why? I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about where and when I use things and putting the appropriate tools and/or dishes near those locations. For example, I have a stand-up mixer which I keep on my counter at position 5. All my baking ingredients are in the cupboard underneath. My pots and pans are on the baker’s rack next to the stove. My dinner dishes are in the top cupboard at position 1, where I can grab them and head straight to the dining room, where I will use them.

Not everything is perfectly placed. I had to put the toaster oven on a different circuit and that ended up being on the counter at position 1 because the coffee maker, at position 4, is next to where the water for it is. But most things are where I can get them easily. Knives in blocks on the counter at position 6, close to the fridge, where the veggies I will chop are. I also have my cutting boards next to my knives. Wooden spoons and whisks are in a jar on the baker’s rack, next to the stove where I will use them to stir soups and sauces. The microwave is next to the fridge, so I can pull something out and heat it quickly.

So, when you have an off day and a lot of extra time, look at your kitchen and ask  yourself if the tools you use all the time are out next to where you use them. Ask whether the ingredients you use are stored near the place where they are prepped. Can you shift something around on your counters so that you can get to it when you need it, rather than having to shuffle through a drawer or two first?

These may seem like minor things, but making your kitchen as efficient as possible does make it a lot easier to get the cooking done. I promise.

spy fiction, mystery fiction, cozy mystery,

Chapter Two

cozy mystery, spy fiction, spy novel, cozy spy novelSeptember 14 – 28, 1982

For the rest of that week, I was pretty busy. Monday afternoon I spent playing with the computer, and most of Tuesday morning. He had a database program he wasn’t even using. Just for the fun of it, I indexed his clippings on it, then cross referenced it all to the file folders. Mr. Hackbirn can’t find a thing without me. Talk about making yourself indispensable.
Tuesday afternoon I got my first article to word process, a piece on the F.B.I. The sheets of binder paper were a mess. Not only was the handwriting cramped and angled funny, any crossed out words were completely blacked out. At least there weren’t any arrows. When I finally deciphered it, I saw why he didn’t do a lot of writing. The points were logical and flowed well, but his grammar and spelling stank. I knocked on his office door and entered.
“Uh, Mr. Hackbirn, would you mind terribly if I cleaned this up a little?” I asked.
“What do you mean?” he asked back.
“Just little things like spelling corrections.”
He let out a rueful chuckle. “It’s not so good, is it?”
I winced. “Your grammar’s pretty bad, too. It’s mostly just sentence structure. You state your case well, and it flows together beautifully.”
“That’s right. You got your degrees in English.”
“Well, literature. But… Yeah.”
The phone rang. There was something funny about the way the line on his phone lit up.
“Miss Wycherly, would you please excuse me?” Mr. Hackbirn put his hand on the phone but waited to pick it up. “And make sure the door is shut on the way out.”
I left, shutting the door. Sitting back down at my desk, I looked at my phone. None of the lines were lit. And there were only three hooked up. I picked up the fourth line. Nothing. Yet a fourth line had lit up on Mr. Hackbirn’s phone.
Mr. Hackbirn came out of his office in a hurry.
“I don’t know how long I’ll be gone,” he told me as he rushed past. “Go ahead and eat dinner without me.”
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“Out.” And he was gone.
I shouldn’t have. It was his office, and how he chose to live wasn’t really my business. On the other hand, I was dying to know. I told myself that it could affect me. I went into his office and picked up the phone, and pressed the button for that fourth line. I got a dial tone.
That was as far as my nerve got me. The next day I noticed something else that was funny about the phones. It was Wednesday night, really. Mr. Hackbirn has the same three line phone that I have on my desk in every room in the house. I was in my sitting room and picked up to call my sister without noticing which button I’d pushed. The conversation I heard was intimate. I slammed the phone down, then fretted because he had to have heard me slam it, and then had to explain, and…
The next morning at breakfast, I apologized.
“For what?” Mr. Hackbirn asked.
“Well, I accidentally picked up your line, and you were talking. I didn’t listen very long.”
He chuckled. “I can imagine. Don’t worry about it. I had no idea you were on.”
“You must have heard me slam the phone down.”
“No.” He went back to his paper.
“You mean you can’t tell if an extension is picked up?”
“Can’t hear a thing. Unless you speak, of course.”
I mused. “Makes it real easy to spy on someone. Hey, you’re not listening in on my calls, are you?”
He flipped down a corner of his paper to look at me.
“What do you think?” he asked in a bored, but amused tone, and went back to reading.
It was odd, but, hey, the guy was an eccentric. I let it pass. That morning, I stumbled onto all his personal papers, like his birth certificate. He was born in New York City to Sheila Hackbirn and an unknown father. A death certificate had been filed for his mother when he was two. She’d died of massive cranial injuries. There were papers giving Stella Hackbirn, aunt and only living relative, custody of him. Those all had been filed in New York.
There was a report card from a kindergarten in San Francisco. Mr. Hackbirn was a bright little kid, and definitely had a mind of his own, much to his teacher’s chagrin. I found a few notes from what I guessed were schools. They were all called Free-something-or-other and were not too interested in structure. Well, that accounted for the lousy grammar and spelling. Then there was four years’ worth of report cards from San Francisco High School. His grade point average was none too shabby. The comments, for the most part, decried his inappropriate behavior. [Gee, I wonder what that could have been – SEH]
Then I found his draft notice. He served two years in Viet Nam, which surprised me. He made corporal and was honorably discharged. There were some more grade reports, this time from Stanford, with a diploma. He graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. in business and a minor in journalism. I don’t know how he did it with his grammar and spelling. [There were several girls who didn’t mind helping me – SEH] And finally, the deed to the house in Beverly Hills.
Was it nosy? I figured it was my right to gather basic information on my employer. Not that it told me much about the man, himself. He kept me at arm’s length, responding to my questions without answering them.
Friday morning, Mr. Hackbirn asked me for a detailed list of my plans for my shopping trip.
“Why?” I asked.
“I might be able to drop you and meet you some places,” he said. “It’ll be faster than taking the bus.”
“Okay.”
We set out at about twelve thirty, right after a fabulous gazpacho, with wheat toast and melon for lunch. Good food, just not enough of it. We stopped first at his bank so I could open my accounts. Then we went to a discount office supply store. Mr. Hackbirn was appalled until we went to the regular price place to get the stuff we couldn’t get at the first place. He remained appalled but admitted it was kind of silly to pay full price for the same items offered at the discount store.
Then we went to Adray’s on Wilshire, where I bought a sewing machine. I tried using my Master Card to get it on installments, but they wouldn’t take it. Mr. Hackbirn offered to buy it for me, which I refused. I did let him co-sign, though, threatening dire consequences if he even tried to pay it off.
Next stop was the Beverly Center. It was Mr. Hackbirn’s idea to go there. He groaned when I went straight to the Broadway sale racks.
“You don’t have to stick around,” I told him. “I’d just as soon shop by myself.”
“I can stay,” he said, then saw something. “On second thought, I think I will take off.”
I looked in the direction he had but didn’t see anyone, male or female. He went in the opposite direction, anyway, so he wasn’t chasing someone. I couldn’t figure out what he’d seen that had changed his mind.
The man was pretty unobtrusive, sandy hair, glasses, sport shirt and jeans. In fact, I couldn’t be sure he was the same guy I’d seen at the food court. I left the mall and went across the street to the fabric store. I was so absorbed there, I didn’t notice him. But I did as I paid.
I walked up the block to the bus stop. He watched the shop windows. I changed my mind and walked down Beverly Boulevard. He just happened to be coming my way. I did an about face and went back to La Cienega. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him scramble into a doorway. At the corner, I put on a sudden burst of speed and just barely caught the bus. Through the window, I saw my shadow running up, looking for me.
I changed buses twice. I had planned to visit some shops I knew of in Westwood but changed my mind. Instead, I ended up at a strip center in Brentwood, and there was no way I was going to pay those prices. That left only one more errand.
It was a nice, conventional little church, with a school and a hall. The sort of church your parents grew up at. It was also several blocks in from Sunset, and some of the hills there are steep. I was gasping and sweating as I registered.
I didn’t see him that time. Just an odd glimpse or two, but someone was again following me as I left. I could have cried. I had that big, heavy bag from the fabric store, and a couple others from the mall, too. I all but ran down to Sunset.
I had to wait for the bus. No one approached me. I still couldn’t shake the feeling that I was being watched. Mr. Hackbirn’s house is a good hike in from Sunset, also, with really steep hills. I was so tired, I didn’t care if I was being followed. I promised to save my next paycheck for a car.
Mr. Hackbirn was in the front hall, waiting for me as I entered.
“Where have you been?” he demanded.
“I gave you a list this morning,” I gasped. I dropped my bag and stumbled into the living room. I could see the street from the window. It was empty.
“What are you looking for?”
I flopped onto the couch. “It’s weird. Ever since I met you, people have been following me. All last Saturday and Sunday, I kept seeing something that looked like you. Then today, at the Beverly Center, someone else starts in. I ditched him, go to register at church, and then someone else again is following me. Either I’m getting paranoid, or something strange is going on.”
“You seem awful short of breath.” Mr. Hackbirn looked me over thoughtfully.
“It’s a hike up that hill.”
“What kind of exercise program do you have?”
I looked at him. “Me? I attribute my excellent health to a complete avoidance of physical exercise and a steady diet of junk food.”
Mr. Hackbirn winced. “I was afraid of that. Well, Miss Wycherly, that changes tomorrow morning. After breakfast, I will drive you over to my health club and sign you up. Monday, you will start martial arts training.”
“What? Don’t I get any say in this?”
“No. It’s a condition of your employment. I need you in top shape.”
“Why?”
He paused. “So you can keep up with me. Dinner is ready. Let’s eat.”
True to his words, Saturday morning found us first at the sporting goods store for workout clothes and shoes, then at the health club. I was in pretty bad shape. I used to hike a lot, and camp, and ride horses when I lived in Tahoe. While I was in college, I worked up there during the summer and did all that stuff then. I hadn’t done much of anything since my first year teaching. I was pretty stiff Sunday morning.
I made it to mass on time. Walking home, I got that creepy shadowed feeling again. I turned a corner, then hid. Sure enough, around the corner came Mr. Hackbirn. I whirled around and almost smashed into him.
“Alright. This is too much,” I shouted. “What are you doing, following me?”
“Uh…” He fumbled for an answer. “You said you were followed Friday. I was just seeing if you had reason to be concerned.”
“You are so lucky that the last thing I want to do is go back to Tahoe.” I stalked off towards his house. “What is going on with you? I mean eccentric is one thing, but this is ridiculous.” He walked next to me and didn’t answer. “Don’t you trust me? What am I going to do to you? Am I supposed to be setting you up for a robbery?” He still didn’t answer. “Well?”
“It seems to me that is a rhetorical question.”
“Hmm.”
“Perhaps it would be better if you just remained at the house. I appreciate the inconvenience. But in the first place, you won’t have to worry about being followed, and in the second, I won’t have to worry about you being followed.”
“For how long?”
He sighed. “I wish I knew, Miss Wycherly, but it shouldn’t be too much longer.”
Monday morning I started running with him. Mr. Hackbirn runs for an hour every morning. I walked. He shook his head, and walked with me, pushing me to a run every so often.
After breakfast, we visited Mr. Fukaro at his dojo on Melrose. That seemed ridiculous, too. So did getting a mace can for my key ring, including the certification. Mr. Hackbirn insisted. It beat stifling in Tahoe, and it was nice to know I could fend Mr. Hackbirn off, should he try anything. He wasn’t about to.
That afternoon, he hovered over me at the UCLA research library. Wonder of wonders, someone wanted to look at an article he’d offered them. He told me a friend of his had typed the query letter and cleaned it up.
Wednesday morning Mr. Hackbirn showed up for our run very stiff and with a nasty bruise on his left cheekbone.
“What happened to you?” I asked, very concerned.
“Never mind,” he grumbled.
“Are you alright?”
“I’m fine.”
“What did you do? Run into a door or something?”
“No,” he replied curtly.
“It wasn’t one of your girlfriends, was it?”
“No such luck.” He stopped as he saw my shocked look. “I told you, I’m not into S and M.”
“I wasn’t thinking that. I just figured you must have been mugged. Did you call the police?”
“Miss Wycherly, enough. I do not care to discuss it.”
“But…”
“No more.” He took off.
And he meant no more. I’d learned that much. Right after lunch, we were working on the article he’d written the day before.
“I’ve never heard it before,” I told him. We had the article laid out on his desk, and I leaned over him. “And I can’t tell what it means from the context unless there’s a word missing in there. Either your pen leaked or you didn’t write in the word you decided to use instead.”
“Mont Blanc makes the finest writing instruments and inks in the world,” he said. “Nor is there a word missing. It’s a basic concept when it comes to funds.”
“Yeah, but would your audience know it?”
He thought. “Good point. How to define it…”
He leaned back in his chair. The phone rang. It was that fourth line. I dove for it. His hand got there first.
“Miss Wycherly, you are not to answer that line, under any circumstances, even if I am not here.”
“What is it?”
“A private line. Now, leave, and shut the door.”
I left. He didn’t seem angry, but there was something deadly serious in his voice. It scared me. I wanted to know, and I didn’t want to ask.
I did my best not to think about it. I had a job. It paid well. The food was good, if sparse. And it was a nice place to live. The rumpus room had a large screen TV, and a VCR, and a superlative stereo system that could be piped throughout the house, thanks to the intercom system. There was a full wet bar in there, too, which I didn’t mess with. My rooms were lovely. The library was great. The living room had a fireplace and cozy overstuffed furniture.
I did spend a lot of time sewing. Patterns and pieces of fabric don’t get you much cash, so I’d hung onto those. Friday night, it was getting late. I stopped sewing, and got into my nightgown, then poked around in one of the boxes I had yet to unpack. I found several cassette tapes and an old Panasonic cassette recorder. Laughing, I put in the tape I’d made of the Sergeant Pepper’s album way back when I was in high school. It was my best friend’s record, and we taped it on her dad’s hi-fi set.
I danced as the guitars twanged, and beat on air drums. I took the tape recorder with me into the bedroom, only to find that the Nero Wolfe novel I was reading was not on my bedside table. I’d left it in the living room. I didn’t want to stop my tape. I was having too much fun regressing. I found the ear plug, and plugged it in, so I wouldn’t disturb Mr. Hackbirn if he were hanging around somewhere.
It wasn’t likely. He was out most evenings. I assumed he was off chasing women. I didn’t expect to find him in the living room, and I really didn’t expect to find him naked as a jay bird with his hands all over an equally naked woman with really full brown hair. See, the living room is open, with a really wide doorway and no door.
I yelped and scrambled into the hallway. Mr. Hackbirn’s date also screamed.
“What the hell?” yelped Mr. Hackbirn. “What are you doing up?”
“What are you doing in there?”
The woman laughed.
“What does it look like?” asked Mr. Hackbirn.
“I meant why are you there? There’s no door.”
“I thought you were asleep. Why the hell aren’t you? It’s after midnight.”
“I came to get my book.”
“It’s no wonder you’re so dead in the mornings.”
“Can I have my book? It’s on the coffee table.”
“Come on in. We’re not doing anything.”
“You’re in your birthday suit!”
“You’re a grown woman. Haven’t you ever seen a naked man before?”
“No. And I don’t want to.” I put my hand in the doorway. “Will you just hand it out?”
I didn’t look. The book ended up in my hand.
“I’m sorry I surprised you. I hope I didn’t stop anything.”
Mr. Hackbirn snickered. “You wouldn’t have.”
My face flushed fire hot as I fled.
I spent most of Saturday afternoon trying to convince Mr. Hackbirn to let me go to Fullerton to visit my sister and her family. He wouldn’t budge.
“Miss Wycherly, please,” he said finally. “It’s just for a little while longer. Why would you want to go to your sister’s, anyway?”
“To relax.”
“How can you relax around five small children?”
He had a point, but I wasn’t going to let on. Besides, I enjoy my nieces and nephews.
“I manage,” I replied. “I get the feeling you don’t like children.”
“Not really.”
I sent him a snide glare. “Surprise. You spend so much time starting them. I can’t believe you haven’t produced a few by now.”
He didn’t seem in the least perturbed. “I had that fixed a long time ago.”
“Fixed?”
“A vasectomy, Miss Wycherly.”
My face went red. Mr. Hackbirn just chuckled and sauntered off to his room.
Sunday, instead of following me, he drove me to and from church. Monday morning, he threw (figuratively) his household accounts at me. The stocks and stuff that made his money were all handled by his broker and accountant. Getting it into his bank account and keeping track of what happened to it from there was my job. I’d been wondering where his money came from, i.e. was it legal? Everything in the shoe box he handed me seemed legit. Did it all make sense?
The checks from Amalgamated Paper Company didn’t. All the other check stubs were quarterly, and the amounts varied. The APC stubs were all monthly, and payroll checks at that. Admittedly, that wasn’t much to worry about, except for all the other stuff.
At lunch, I told Mr. Hackbirn there wasn’t any way I could get the information he wanted over the phone, so he insisted on driving me to the library. He hovered over me, claiming he was interested in how I did my research. He wasn’t. I finally sent him to get some microfilm reels.
The moment he was gone, I slipped out of the viewing room, and downstairs to the reference floors. I checked all the business abstracts. No Amalgamated Paper Company. I checked through the Yellow Pages for the city in which it was supposedly located. It wasn’t listed, nor was it in the BusinesstoBusiness supplement. I thumbed through Dun and Bradstreet once more.
“Why the hell did you sneak off like that?” Mr. Hackbirn’s voice snapped behind me.
I slammed the book shut. “I, uh, wanted to double check something.”
“Dun and Bradstreet has nothing to do with drug smuggling.”
“Well, not that. I’m sorry, Mr. Hackbirn. I’ve just been noticing things, and you’ve got a whole bunch of check stubs from a company that, as far as I can tell, doesn’t exist.”
“Oh.” Mr. Hackbirn pressed his lips together and thought. “Miss Wycherly, there is a logical explanation for that. Give me a few more days.”
“It’s not only those check stubs. There’re all sorts of other things.”
“I know. Now is not the time to discuss it. Please, Miss Wycherly, in a few more days you will have a full explanation.”
“Are you involved in something criminal? Because if you are”
“Miss Wycherly,” he interrupted, “now is not the time. You will know in a few days.”
When we got home, he went straight to his office and shut the door. The line on my phone lit up a second later. I went to the door and put my ear against it. I couldn’t hear a thing. It’s a sliding door, too, on a track, so nothing could escape through a crack at the bottom. For all intents and purposes, that office was soundproof.
I went to my desk and picked up the phone, and pressed the lit up line.
“Sid, what can I do for you?” Henry James’ voice asked. A director at the F.B.I., he called fairly often.
“Hasn’t that paperwork come through yet?” Mr. Hackbirn complained.
“Sid, have patience,” replied Mr. James. “The adoption has been approved. The clearance should be through any day now. We’re dealing with a bureaucracy, remember?”
“I know. But Wycherly is pretty bright and she’s asking questions. Not to mention that business is booming. I need the help and she’s sitting there completely impotent.”
“I’ll try to redirect a little of your business.”
“I’d rather have that clearance. What’s taking so long?”
“Who knows? Can you just hang tight?”
“I’m hanging fine. It’s Wycherly I’m worried about.”
“Well, worry about Lipplinger, too.”
“Aw, hell. Is that finally breaking?”
“Gannett’s putting the feelers out.”
“Push it some other way. Gannett saw me.”
“We’ll need you for the other phases, so stay ready.”
“When aren’t I? I’ll talk to you later. Call me the second that clearance comes through.”
“I will. Bye, Sid.”
“Bye, Henry.”
I put the phone down quickly and spread my notes out over my desk. Not that it mattered. Mr. Hackbirn didn’t leave his office until dinner. I decided not to say anything about what I’d heard. He was definitely up to something. Still, it could have been related to his writing. Mr. Hackbirn did do a regular feature on the F.B.I. for a newsweekly magazine. That could be why I needed a clearance. Which really didn’t make sense, but I was too worried about going back to Tahoe to question it until it was obvious Mr. Hackbirn was doing something illegal.
I was surprised the next morning when Mr. Hackbirn sent me by myself on an errand. That mysterious fourth line had rung again, and he’d kicked me out of his office. Five minutes later, I was called in.
Mr. Hackbirn wanted me to pick up a package for him at an address on Highland Avenue.
“Tell them you want the package for Big Red,” he told me.
“Big Red?” I asked, trying not to laugh.
“It’s an old joke,” he replied without any sign of humor.
I made the hike down to Sunset and picked up an eastbound bus, connecting to a southbound one at Highland. I got off at Santa Monica and went half a block south.
As I approached the building where the package was, I noticed a man leaning up against the building watching the door. He was the sort you see every now and then. He had longish stringy dirty hair and a half-grown beard with patches of gray in it. His denim pants and bomber jacket had both faded but not at the same rate. Something about him bothered me. By that point, I was convinced I was paranoid, so I ignored the feeling and went into the building.
The package turned out to be a ream of eight and a half by eleven paper in a brown wrapper without any markings. At least that’s what it looked like. I assumed the paper inside had some information on it. It seemed rather unlikely even for Mr. Hackbirn to go to so much trouble just for plain paper.
I left the building carrying the package and headed south again for a different bus stop. I wanted to go to the bank to deposit my check, which I hadn’t done Friday because Mr. Hackbirn hadn’t let me out of the house. I stopped at a window to look at something and noticed the man in denim about half a block away staring at the traffic. I wasn’t paranoid. I was being followed again.
I ducked in front of a stopped bus, then dashed across the street to a northbound bus, and got on board. How I wasn’t hit, God only knows. My guardian angel must have been working overtime. I changed buses three times, then stood for an hour at the bank. Well, it seemed like it. I didn’t see anyone in denim, let alone potential vagrants, although I kept looking. I was exhausted by the time I got back to the house.
“What took so long?” Mr. Hackbirn asked as I handed him the ream.
“Call me paranoid. I was followed again.”
Mr. Hackbirn became deadly serious.
“When?” he asked quickly.
“After I picked up the package.”
“Terrific!” He took off for the living room. “Did he follow you all the way here?”
“No. I grabbed a bus and it left before he could get on.” I followed him. He glared out the bay window to the street below. “I didn’t see him after that.”
“Tell me exactly what you did.”
So I told him. I even described the man.
“Who was he?” I asked when I was finished.
Mr. Hackbirn turned from the window and shrugged.
“I don’t know,” he said.
“Why would he be following me?”
“He was probably just some weirdo.”
“Then why are you so bugged about it?”
“Miss Wycherly, why don’t we just forget it happened?”
“No,” I snapped. “Something pretty darned strange is going on around here, and if you don’t tell me what it is, I’m leaving.”
“Miss Wycherly, please. I promise. Just a few more days.”
“Not good enough. See you.” I started for my rooms.
He grabbed my shoulders and turned me to face him.
“I can’t tell you now. Please. Trust me. I will tell you the very second I can.”
Man, his eyes were gorgeous. Dumb, I know. For all I knew, this guy could be signing me up for the Mafia, and there I was getting hot and bothered over his eyes. Definitely hot and bothered. I pulled away quickly, my face blazing.
“The very second you get that clearance?” I blurted out and regretted it. “Yeah, I can listen, too.” Terrified, I burst into tears. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have. But there’s too much weird stuff going on. But if it’s something criminal, you’ll kill me before you let me go, so I don’t testify against you, and I gotta find a chance to escape before I know too much, cause you know too much about me.”
“It’s nothing criminal,” he said softly. He was upset, also, but not angry at me. If anything, he looked guilty. “If you want to escape, go now. You already know more than you should, but if you want out, trust me, get out now, and forget you ever knew me.”
“I didn’t mean to do anything wrong.”
“Oh, hell.” His laugh was short and cost him. “Lisa, you’ve done more right than you could possibly know. That’s why you’re so confused, damn it. But I can’t clear it up without locking you in. I’m sorry I got you into this.”
“Do you really want me to leave?”
He turned away. “No. I want you. You’re good.” He looked at me sadly. “But in some ways, I want to warn you off, and I can’t tell you why.”
I bit my lip. “You’re not like into murder or something?”
“I promise you, it’s nothing criminal. I don’t give my word lightly.”
“I won’t find myself undressed, or… You know.”
He laughed. “No. I don’t go around trespassing upon the virtue of innocents unless they ask me to.”
“But you’d like to talk me into it.”
“I can’t say the thought hasn’t crossed my mind.” He came over and laid his hand on my cheek. “However, I do respect the word no.”
His touch was so light, so gentle and caring. My breath was coming shorter than after running. I pulled away and started for the office.
“Mr. Hackbirn, I-”
“Call me Sid.”
“Mr. Hackbirn, I think… I don’t know what to think.”
“Lunch is ready.”
I turned to him. “You say I’ll be locked in. I have to admit that’s pretty scary.”
“Then why don’t you think about it. You can take off any time tonight. Assuming you want to.”
I shook my head. “Thinking about it isn’t going to change anything. This might sound pretty crazy to you, but I’m not afraid of taking risks. You’ve given me your word. That’s good enough for me. I’ll stay, that is if you really want to put up with me.”
He smiled. “I think I can take my chances.”

spy fiction, mystery fiction, cozy mystery,

Chapter One

cozy mystery, serial mystery fiction, spy novelSeptember 10 – 13, 1982

My name is Lisa Wycherly. I live with my boss. I’m not sleeping with him. He’s got enough girls in and out of his bedroom. He doesn’t need me.

Oh, Lord, that sounds defensive.

It’s just that, thanks to my boss, my life has radically changed, and I still don’t know how to make sense of it all. Things got just plain scary last weekend, not to mention that horrible fight, and I’m still more freaked out because I’m sharing a house with a man. Okay, maybe not that I’m living with a man, but this man, a guy whose values are so totally opposed to my own when it comes to sex and relationships.

Maybe I should just start at the beginning. It started because I was hungry.

Neither of us knew what we were getting into that night. [And let’s be thankful we didn’t – SEH] We were in a bar, the absolute last place you’d find me under normal circumstances. He sat down across from me.

“Ditched your date?” he asked, pleasantly casual.

He was very nice for someone so obviously on the make, and good looking with dark wavy hair, a cleft chin, and very bright blue eyes. He wore a silk shirt with a sweater neatly tossed over his shoulders. Later, I found he was on the small side of average, about three inches taller than me, but just barely.

“Yes,” I replied, as coolly and politely as possible. “And thank you, but I don’t care to be picked up by anyone else.”

He glanced into the restaurant of which the bar was a part.

“Well, I suppose getting grabbed while starting your salad is enough to sour an evening.” He started to get up. “My apologies for presuming, Lisa.”

“Wait.”

He sat. “Yes?”

“How did you know my name?”

“You’re wearing it around your neck.”

My hand flew to the necklace as I let out a sniff.

He gazed at me softly. “Are you in trouble?”

“I’m alright!” I snapped, then blushed. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be rude.”

“But you are in trouble.”

“It’s nothing life-threatening.”

I felt the tears well up again. And I’d thought I was past crying about it. I blinked them back and looked at the man across from me. There was something about him…

“I’ve been out of work for a year,” I heard myself say. “My unemployment’s run out, and things are getting tight.” I touched my necklace. “This is the only thing I haven’t pawned.”

He nodded. “No money for a taxi, I presume.”

“I’ll be alright. I can call my sister.”

“Who is not currently home, at least I assume that’s who you called earlier.”

“They won’t be home ’til eleven, and they’re in Fullerton.”

“And we are in Hollywood.” He checked his watch. “Which means you’ve got a long wait. Why don’t I buy you dinner and take you home?”

I sighed. It was certainly my night to fend off aspiring Don Juans. Except the current one was anything but sleazy. In fact, he was the first genuine threat to my honor that I’d ever known. Wouldn’t you know, that’s the moment my date decided to show up.

“Wo, there you are, Lisa.” Larry was not wearing a leisure suit, but he might as well have been. “You were taking so long. I thought I’d better make sure you didn’t fall in.”

“I survived the restroom, Larry,” I said.

Even though I wanted to fend off the man across from me, I still felt embarrassed by Larry.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Larry,” said my nameless friend. He got up smoothly and shook Larry’s hand. “Lisa and I go way back. We haven’t seen each other in a while, and I just had to have a chat with her.”

“Well, the waiter brought dinner,” Larry said to me.

“Oh, that’s too bad,” said the nameless one. “Lisa’s coming to dinner with me.” He signaled the maitre d’. “In fact, our table’s ready now.”

“Now, wait a minute!” protested Larry. “Lisa-”

Larry made a grab at me. My benefactor stepped between us and put his arm around Larry’s shoulders. They spoke together quietly for a minute. I couldn’t hear over the music. [I told him blind dates were a drag, and that I’d take you off his hands, and put him onto Sue Wilkins if I remember correctly – SEH]

“Happy hunting,” my friend said, and slapped Larry on the back, then slid around and took my hand. “Come on, Lisa. He won’t hold that table forever.”

I went with him. I don’t know why I did, but I went with him. Larry gaped at me, then at some redhead. I didn’t see what happened next. The maitre d’ seated us in a nice, secluded booth, and my friend slipped him something.

The maitre d’ grinned. “Thank you, sir.”

“You’re welcome.”

I put my face in my hand. “You didn’t have to do that.”

“It’s my pleasure.”

“What about Larry?”

“That desperate little dork is getting the fate he so richly deserves.”

“What do you mean?”

“The redhead at the end of the bar.”

I peeked around the booth. I couldn’t see the bar.

“She isn’t going to dump him, is she?”

My friend laughed. “Hardly. In the first place, she’s so easy he won’t know what to do with her, and in the second, should he figure it out, she’s into S and M.”

“That’s… Oh no!” I started to get up.

“Let him be.”

“But…”

“The jackass drove you from a salad you desperately wanted, felt you up in a public place, he’s crude and he thinks he’s God’s gift to women.”

“Just because he’s a jerk doesn’t mean he deserves to get hurt.”

He looked at me. “Are you serious?”

“Of course, I’m serious.”

He shook his head. “Well, relax. She won’t hurt him. Unless he asks, and that’s a different matter, isn’t it?”

I slumped back into my seat. “I guess it is. I don’t know. I’d always heard pleasure was the idea.”

“It’s not how I get my kicks, but who are we to judge?”

“True.” My face felt fever hot. “Do you know if he’s left yet?”

“They left just as we were sitting down.”

“Good. I’d better be getting back to the bar.”

“Why? Don’t you want dinner?”

I swallowed. “Yes. But I don’t want to get any deeper in.”

“It’s nothing.” His smile was genuine and warm.

“A maitre d’ at a place like this does not grin at nothing.”

“You’re hungry. I saw you attack that salad with the ferocity of a starving child.”

“How do you know that’s not the way I always eat?” Which, in truth, it is.

“I also saw you slide two dinner rolls into your purse.”

I blushed again. “Alright. I’m hungry. Like I said, things are tight. But I’m not hungry enough to compromise my standards.”

He shrugged. “This is merely a philanthropic gesture.”

“I’ve heard that before.”

“I don’t doubt it. Well, I’ll confess to ulterior motives.”

His manner was relaxed, his grin casual. But his eyes had an intensity that made me catch my breath. I could see he would not trespass without my permission, but he would be happy to convince me to give it.

“Look, it’s not you,” I stammered. “You seem really nice, and I really appreciate your being honest about it, and the way you got rid of Larry, and it’s very sweet of you to offer, but I just don’t believe in sex outside of marriage.”

“Don’t you want dinner?” He seemed genuinely surprised.

“Yes, but… Well, I just can’t. Larry was a blind date, and the friend who set me up knows how I feel, and I told him how I feel, and he ignored it, I guess. Anyway, I don’t have any money, and I can’t give you my body, so…”

“I can accept that.” He looked at me again. He was considering something, unrelated to the messing around, for once. “Can you accept dinner and a ride? I promise I won’t touch you.”

“Sure, if you really want to.” I shrugged and he nodded at the waiter.

“What’s your name?” he asked after I’d ordered.

“Lisa Wycherly. Yours?”

“Sid Hackbirn.”

“Oh. What do you do for a living?”

“As little as possible.”

I grimaced. “Not funny.”

“I suppose not. Apologies. I do some occasional freelance writing and dabble in the stock market. Just enough work to maintain a comfortably high standard of living. And you?”

“Well, I was a teacher.”

“Was, huh? Hmm.” He considered again.

I don’t why, but it made me nervous.  After I’d eaten, he put me in a taxi, gave the driver my address, and I thought that was the last I would ever see of him.

I was wrong. Still, I didn’t regret it when Mr. Hackbirn showed up on my doorstep three days later.

“What are you doing here?” I asked, with the door opened only as far as the chain would let it. I wasn’t particularly surprised that he was there. I’d thought I’d seen heads of dark wavy hair following me in the previous days. I continued to write it off to my imagination, but it did make his appearance less of a shock. Besides, I had other problems just then.

“I’d like to talk to you,” he said.

“Right.”

“I’m serious. I have a business proposition for you, and nothing more.”

“Alright.” I shut the door, removed the chain, and let him in. “The worst you can do is kill me.”

He chuckled. “I like that attitude.”

“The place is a mess,” I said, sighing over the boxes and stuff all around.

“You’re packing.” He shifted the vest of the discreet three-piece suit he was wearing.

“I’m being evicted.” I choked and grabbed for a tissue.

“Going to your sister’s?”

“For a couple days. Then, Neil, he’s my brother-in-law, he’s going to help me move to Tahoe. I’m fleeing to the security of the womb.”

“Not your preferred option.”

I fought back the tears. “Well, Mae and Neil don’t have the room. They’ve got five kids. It won’t be so bad. I’ll be working. My dad has a business up there.”

“A resort and a souvenir store, I believe.”

“You’ve been there?” I was a little more surprised at that, but I’d met people who’d been to my parents’ place before.

“Not really. I stay on the Nevada side when I’m there.”

I turned on him. “You’ve been poking into my private affairs!”

“I prefer to call it research.”

“I call it nosy.”

“I reserve the right to gather basic background information on a prospective employee.”

That caught me. “Mr. Hackbirn, are you offering me a job?”

“Yes. I need a personal secretary to take over the mundane trivialities of life.” He smiled. “You impressed me last Friday with your backbone.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You are a person who sticks to her convictions even when there’s strong temptation not to. That’s a very difficult quality to find in people.”

“I don’t type very well.”

His eyebrow lifted. “A master’s degree, and you don’t type?”

“Not very fast. I stayed up late a lot of nights.” I looked him over again. “Just how much do you know about me?”

He shrugged. “Basic facts. Your college background, your year of community college teaching, things like that. You got excellent references from your former employer, by the way.”

“Let’s hear it for budget cuts.” I sighed. “What makes you think I’m going to take a chance working for you?”

“I’m offering an excellent salary and a place to live, neither of which you have at the moment.”

“I do so.”

“Independent of your parents?” He shook his head. “That is what you find most galling about going back there, and don’t think I don’t know it.”

I looked away. “So where is this place to live?”

“My house. I will need you to live in.”

“Sure.” I snorted. “Now, I get it.”

“Miss Wycherly, I assure you, I have no time to waste on virgins with standards. This is a business proposition, nothing more.”

“I still feel like it’s an elaborate plan to seduce me.”

“If you really want to think so.”

He smiled a truly sensual smile. I blushed and swallowed and tried to control the way my heart was racing. He was mulling over the possibilities of bedding me by sundown. He could have done it. But he wouldn’t unless I said yes. And the really strange thing about it was that I knew I could trust him.

I smiled. “Alright, it’s not. Why don’t we talk some terms?”

They were attractive, to say the least, and included my own rooms and guaranteed time off to go to church on Sundays. We dickered for an hour. Finally, I shook his hand.

“I guess I can take my chances with you,” I said, happily.

Mr. Hackbirn sighed. “Miss Wycherly, before we call this final, I’d better tell you. I wanted you in particular because I need someone with guts. I can be a dangerous person to know.”

“Mr. Hackbirn, I’m not a thrill-seeker. But danger beats stifling hands down. Don’t get me wrong. I love my parents, and they wouldn’t hold me back intentionally, and I’ll probably end up running their businesses when they retire, or whatever. But with them… Well, you get the idea.”

He got it. I was the one who didn’t have a clue. I called my sister and told her about the eleventh hour save.

“What are you going to do about your landlord?” Mae asked.

“Well, I’m moving.” I looked over at Mr. Hackbirn. “I found a new place right away.”

“What about first and last months’ rent?”

“Um. My new boss said he’d loan me the money. He’s taking it out of my check.”

Mr. Hackbirn smirked. Maybe he had a right to. All I knew was that I didn’t want Mae talking me out of it. I told her I’d phone her with the address and phone number as soon as I was settled in, and hung up.

“Mae’s a nice person,” I explained awkwardly. “But she gets judgmental sometimes, and you never know when.”

“I see. Well. Why don’t I call the moving company? We’ll get them straightened out, and then you can come over to my place and start today.”

I took a deep breath. “Okay.”

There really wasn’t much left in the apartment except my clothes, my books and other odds and ends. Anything of value I’d pawned or sold, even my trusty old sewing machine. The movers arrived a half hour after Mr. Hackbirn called them. While we waited, I tried to find out about my new employer. He was pleasant but evasive. I didn’t realize it until some days later when it dawned on me he hadn’t answered one question I’d asked him about himself.

His car is a dark slate blue Mercedes Benz 450SL, one of the first ones they ever built. I had expected something a little newer, although not necessarily flashier. One thing that was obvious about Mr. Hackbirn, he had excellent taste.

He also has plenty of money to spend. His house is in Beverly Hills. I was in awe as we rolled up the steep driveway to the gray ranch-style house at the top of an ice plant covered slope. The place had been built in the early sixties and looked like it. There was a Japanese garden in the tiny front yard.

We went in through the bare garage. Inside looked like a model home or something out of a magazine. Mr. Hackbirn, or his decorator, really likes period furnishings. The formal dining room was Eighteenth Century, the rest of the place tended towards Victorian and lots of oak. The library was sheer heaven. Books lined all four walls, and there were two red velvet wing-backed chairs, each with a good reading lamp next to it. There was also an ebony baby grand piano.

“Do you play?” I asked Mr. Hackbirn.

“Sometimes,” he said.

The offices were also oak paneled. I think they must have been one room in the past because to get to Mr. Hackbirn’s, you have to go through mine. My desk was modern, and it had a computer to one side, with two printers next to it. There was also a green leather couch on the opposite wall, sliding glass doors to the front yard on the side, and four oak filing cabinets with five drawers each.

The phone rang. Without hesitation, I went over and picked it up.

“Mr. Hackbirn’s residence, Miss Wycherly speaking,” I told the caller.

“Already?” answered the man on the other end. “Is Sid in?”

“I’ll see. May I tell him who’s calling?”

“Mr. Henry James.”

There was a hold button, and I pressed it. It was a multi-line phone, and it looked like Mr. Hackbirn had three lines hooked up.

“It’s a Mr. Henry James,” I told him.

He sighed in relief. “Miss Wycherly, I appreciate the way you screened that call, but in the future, under no circumstances are you to identify yourself, or this place as my residence.”

“Should I call it your business?”

“Don’t identify it at all. A simple hello will do. I’ll take the call in my office. Why don’t you start getting the files in order, then I’ll show you how to work the computer.”

The file cabinets were empty except for the first one. That was loaded with papers randomly tossed in. Almost all of them were clippings of articles from magazines and newspapers. Mr. Hackbirn was certainly well read, and given the number of different newspapers I found, got around. Traveled a lot, I mean. He gets around a lot the other way, too. But that has nothing to do with the clippings.

After his call, it was lunch time. Mr. Hackbirn introduced me to Conchetta Ramirez, his housekeeper and cook. She doesn’t live in. She works from ten to six, Monday through Friday and that’s it. My rooms were technically hers, or would have been if she lived there. I have a small suite off the breakfast room, with a sitting room, full bath, and bedroom.

Lunch was chicken salad with butter lettuce, whole wheat toast made from homemade bread and a fruit compote. The portions were on the small side, but I was in no position to complain. We ate in the breakfast room, a bright, cheerful space off the kitchen, furnished in white French Provincial. We also ate dinner there at five o’clock, grilled mahi-mahi, salad with vinaigrette, fresh steamed zucchini, brown rice and small portions. Mr. Hackbirn, it seemed, was on a diet.

Not that he said so. Nor did he comment on the fact that I was done eating in a few short minutes. It’s not really obvious because my mother did pound good manners into me, but I tend to wolf my food down.

“You should feel free to watch television in the rumpus room if you like,” said Mr. Hackbirn, trying not to notice how fast my food was disappearing. “Or if you prefer, I can arrange to have a television put in your room.”

“I don’t watch much TV,” I said between bites. “I was wondering about the library, though.”

“Help yourself. To any of the common areas. I’d just as soon consider you a housemate outside of business hours.” He paused. “Although, you might be more comfortable if you make a habit of knocking first before opening any closed doors.”

“Well, of course. I-”  I stopped. “Oh. Yeah, you might be right.”

Mr. Hackbirn chuckled, then looked at me. “One more thing. I would appreciate if you’d not leave the house for a week or two. Just until we’re settled in with the arrangement and all.”

“Oh.” I frowned. “I was going to go shopping on payday. All I have is one suit, and you did say business wear during office hours.”

“That’s right. I did. I think I can arrange that. Why don’t you go Friday afternoon? We can put together a more detailed plan that morning.”

I nodded. It seemed a little weird. So the guy was kind of eccentric. I didn’t have anyplace to go, anyway. I agreed to stick around.

Later that night, I found a Complete Works of Shakespeare in the library and thumbed through just for the heck of it. In the second scene of Julius Caesar, a line jumped out at me. It was Cassius’: “Therefore it is meet that noble minds keep ever with their likes, for who so firm that cannot be seduced?”

Well, me, for one. Then I thought back to that morning and that really hot little smile of Mr. Hackbirn’s. Alright. Maybe it was possible. But I wouldn’t go down without a fight. And what the heck was I doing there in the first place?

spy fiction, mystery fiction, cozy mystery,

That Old Cloak and Dagger Routine – Prologue

I’m trying something new on the blog today – a fiction serial. That Old Cloak and Dagger Routine was a novel I wrote in the early 1980s. I’ve kept it in its original time period. It’s not your usual spy novel, but I hope you enjoy it.

Prologue

spy novel, spy fiction, mystery fiction, cozy mystery‘Twas Glasnost what done us in. That and a CIA mucky-muck with a chip on his shoulder. All those years of guarding our secret, and now we’re on overt status. Quickline has folded, a victim of the thawing cold war.

At least my journals can see the light of day. I started them shortly after I was first adopted by Quickline. It was a dangerous and perhaps even stupid thing to do. But my life had suddenly and profoundly changed. I needed some way to make sense of it, to understand it and the person I was becoming. The things I was doing were so unlike the person I’d always thought I was and the values I’d spent so much time working out. As it turned out, my values weren’t challenged. Just me.

Anyway, all the names have been changed, and some of the places. Secrecy remains a habit with us. Still, as I look over the pile of tattered notebooks and binders stuffed with pages scrawled over with cipher, I’m glad I wrote it all down. [Dear Lisa, so am I – SEH]

Essays, general essay

My Mystery Novel Bring Into Bondage is Due July 31

Bring Into Bondage, cozy mystery, Historical mystery, romantic mystery, mystery fiction, mystery novelIt’s here! Well, almost. My mystery novel Bring Into Bondage is finally ready and will be officially released on July 31.

This is the sequel to my Roaring Twenties novel Fascinating Rhythm, which features socialite author Freddie Little and his editor Kathy Briscow. In Fascinating Rhythm, the two meet and realize they really like each other. In fact, when we leave them, they’re deciding to go on dates together. (Don’t worry, that’s not a spoiler)

As we begin Bring Into Bondage, Freddie’s setting up a very special date with Kathy, but it does not go as planned. Turns out, Kathy’s mother has summoned her home to Hays, Kansas, because Kathy’s father is seriously ill. That’s not the only bad news. Vandals have been attacking the family farm. Freddie talks Kathy into letting him fly her home in his airplane, and once there, the vandals strike again. So Freddie and Kathy decide to try and figure out who’s out to get the Briscow family and put a stop to the trouble.

There are lots of secrets in the tiny town, not to mention an orphaned boy with tell-tale bruises on him. Some of the attacks almost turn deadly. But there’s even bigger trouble afoot. Freddie and Kathy get caught spooning behind the barn and Pa gets the shotgun out.

The fun part about all of this is that the ebook version is available for pre-order both on BarnesandNoble.com, for your Nook or other e-reader, and on Amazon.com. If you haven’t read Fascinating Rhythm yet, you can get it at both places (including a print version) at both sites.

Finally, I want to thank all the nice people who weighed in on my book cover concepts. This is what my designer did with the winning choice. I really appreciated all the input. I think the cover rocks. Special thanks to Helen Kim, of The Think Farm, for all her hard work.

SewingReport

Chalk Ink Makes Marking Easier

Chalk Ink  So it was a few months ago that I received the Chalk Ink marker samples. Come to think of it, it’s been a few months since I did a Sewing Report. Mea culpa. My sewing machine broke down. Life was uncommonly nuts this past spring. I didn’t have any time to sew.

But what got me interested in the press release from the Chalk Ink people was that the ink is opaque and meant to be used on dark surfaces. Which got me thinking…

Chalk Ink

A nice clear line for a dart

One of the problems working with a dark fabric is that it’s really hard to mark the positions of darts and pockets with something you can see. I’ve used the traditional tracing paper, but I often lose the marks because they steam out when the fabric is pressed. Or if I take too long to get around to making the garment. And tracing paper can’t always get to where I need it. Chalk usually makes too thick a line and it also either fades or steams out with pressing.

When I’m using lighter-colored fabrics, I use Flair pens – the old felt-tipped pens. They’re skinny enough that I can get precise marks and the ink is very water soluble, so it almost always washes out (usually with a bit of stain remover). The problem is that with very dark fabric, the pens don’t work because they’re not opaque. Even lighter colors just blend right in.

Chalk Ink

No bleed through

But the Chalk Ink is opaque, so the white pen makes nice, easy to see marks. It didn’t press out and washed out of several samples that I put it on without using any stain remover. The tip I had was a bit thick. But then I discovered that they do make markers with fine points. Nor did I take the time to see how long the marker lasts. The extra fine tip costs $4.99, which isn’t too bad unless the marker won’t last for more than a project or two.

I would test the ink on any potential fabric before using it to make sure it does wash out and that it doesn’t bleed through to the right side. It didn’t on any of the samples I tried, and one of them was fairly light weight fabric. But a nice, easy way to mark a dark fabric? Hey, I’m down with that.