Phyllis Smallman and a Different Kind of Sleuth

Phyllis Smallman

I have to say Phyllis Smallman beat me to an idea I had that I haven’t quite developed – a homeless person as a sleuth. It’s a terrific conceit, especially when you consider just how invisible homeless people are, sadly. Anyway, you can find out more about Phyllis and her character Singer Brown at her website www.phyllissmallman.com. Or you can read below.

Who is Singer Brown and whatever possessed me to write about this homeless woman? The two main reasons were Janis Joplin and Jack Reacher.

I saw her as a Jack Reacher character, moving from city to city and finding trouble wherever she went. And then there was Janis Joplin. I’ve always wondered if Janis would have found a place in the music scene that came after her? I don’t think so, and Singer didn’t either. She left home at sixteen to sing in a rock band and almost made it, almost a star, but bad choices, of lifestyle and men, took away her options. Now she lives in her old yellow van and sings on the street for coins. Her life consists of watching the lives of others unfold, and watching for danger, while constantly being told to move on. Life on the street turns women into prey, but Singer is no easy victim. And Singer has discovered, there are benefits to being one of the unseen people. When she wants the perfect disguise, she mutters to herself and has arguments with invisible adversaries, becoming that person everyone gives a wide berth.

Life on the street may have robbed her of her dignity and her sense of belonging, but it hasn’t taken away her humanity, her deep sense of right and wrong. In Saving Kali, while parked in an alley between derelict buildings, she sees a woman take a pre-school girl into an abandoned factory and come out alone. Singer tells herself not to get involved, rhymes off a list of reasons to ignore what she saw. And besides, there’s probably a good explanation for what just happened. The problem is she can’t think of one.

Singer hardly has time to pat herself on the back for her courage before unintended consequences put her at great risk. Does she save herself or does she do the right thing? And what is the right thing? For Singer, it seems to depend on the situation.  For instance, in Long Gone Man she goes to a small island of the coast of British Columbia to kill the man who destroyed her life.

Beach Kill is my latest book in this series. Singer is in love and is tempted into a normal existence. But life has a different plan for Singer. When a teenage girl is killed and mutilated, first by man and then by nature, Singer identifies her by the blue butterfly on her ankle.

Singer represents my worst fears. To be without a safe space to call my own, without people who love me, is a terrifying thought but one, in the deep recesses of my heart, that has always seemed possible. In writing Singer, I’m writing my fears. Strange therapy, isn’t it?

You can find Beach Kill at Barnes and Noble and Amazon.com.

Christina Hoag on Moving From Non-Fiction to Fiction

Christina Hoag, author of Skin of Tattoos

My connection to Christina Hoag is one of those things that really makes you believe in those six degrees of separation. We both belong to the same mystery readers email list, which how we first connected. Turns out, we’d actually met face to face the week before at our local Sisters in Crime chapter meeting here in Los Angeles. Even better, she knows some friends of mine from the Miami Herald. She’s also got a really great novel out, Skin of Tattoos, which came from her work as a journalist. Here she writes about the difference between the two.

Many novelists have started their writing careers as journalists. Ernest Hemingway, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Graham Greene to name a few. But writing nonfiction is a different skill than writing fiction. To be sure, there are many similarities, but there are also key differences – namely one is restricted to truth and the other enjoys the panoramic realm of imagination. There are others that are less obvious, as I was to find out when I started writing fiction in earnest, trying to fulfill my childhood dreams of writing novels.

I’ve been a print journalist for thirty years. I’d written fiction on and off since I was a child. In fact, I won a prize when I was six years old for “writing interesting stories.” So becoming a journalist was a natural step for me. It’s been a career that I’ve loved but ultimately I also felt restrained by. It was always about writing someone else’s story. Fiction is your own story, of your own choosing, and I was eager to undertake this challenge, but in order to develop my fiction I had to “undevelop” several journalistic habits.

The key hurdle in writing fiction for journalists is emotion. Journalists are trained to be neutral observers, impartial witnesses, to present a balanced picture of the facts. Emotion, in your average news story, does not factor in the equation, although it does to a greater degree in narrative fiction. Emotion, however, is the cornerstone of good fiction. Novelists need to portray the range of emotion their characters feel in order to evoke emotion in their readers. There’s no need for balance or impartiality. Indeed, the less of that stuff, the better.

Those elements stand in the way of portraying emotion, and why, in my opinion, many reporter/novelists gravitate toward writing plot-driven stories, such as detective mysteries, where there’s more of a “just the facts ma’am” feel to that type of fiction. Mysteries, for example, generally involve little emotion or emotional arc in the characters.

When I was writing the first draft of my first novel, I got about 170 pages in and I realized what I’d written read like a reportage. I chucked it and started again. It actually took many more drafts before I found myself loosening the reins and letting that emotion come through. And when it did, it gushed out.

Something that really helped me in this regard was acting classes. Acting is all about depicting emotion. Once I gave myself license to do that physically in either scene work or exercises designed to reach and draw out inner emotion, it became much easier to do that on the page with my characters. I also understood better how emotion works in dialogue and scenes, how to show it more than tell it.

I firmly believe, however, that journalism is great training for novelists. Reporters instinctively know what a good story is. They know how to research, how to interview. They know that details can make a story come alive and how to construct sentences that make sense, and structure and order a story. They are exposed to all types of people, issues, lifestyles, experiences. As I like to say, I’ve interviewed bums to billionaires, presidents to prostitutes. All that makes great grist for the novelist’s mill. Maybe, most importantly reporters are used to sitting down in a chair in front of a blank computer screen and filling it with words—on deadline.

I would never exchange my background as a journalist for, say, an MFA. Yes, it may take some work to switch from one to the other, but many have done it, including myself.

Thanks, Christina. You can find out more about Christina Hoag on her website www.christinahoag.com, or connect with her via social media at Facebook.com/ChristinaHoagAuthor, Twitter.com/ChristinaHoag, or Instagram.com/ChristinaHoagAuthor. Skin of Tattoos is available at Barnes and Noble or Amazon.

cozy mystery, spy novel, serial mystery fiction

Chapter Six

May 29 – 31, 1983

 

We got up rather late on Sunday. Well, later than usual. We went to brunch at nine. It was Sid’s idea. He must not have been thinking straight because it was a buffet. I made at least five trips and scarfed down beignet, crepes, gumbo, bacon, sausage, grits, eggs, fruit and waffles.

“Is there any hope of you being finished within this lifetime?” he asked tiredly.

“Probably not,” I replied. “But I am getting ready to change restaurants.”

Sid shook his head. “Let’s go over your drop. According to the dossier, the suspect is Blaine Winters, caucasian, five eleven, dark blonde hair, blue eyes, fairly heavy. His cover is independent electronics sales. He has a place out in the bayou, with a P.O. box here in the city. Same good record everyone else has, except he’s a little weak in the area of investigations.” He paused. “You’re going to noon mass, aren’t you?”

“Yeah.”

“I, uh, will probably drop you off a little early and meet you at one thirty. Is that okay with you?”

“Take your time. My drop isn’t til two and you don’t have to be there.”

Sid thought it over. “Wear your transmitter. I’ll make sure I’m in the neighborhood in time. I don’t like the alley set up, but there’s no reason to believe they’re expecting you.”

Sid left me at St. Louis’s Cathedral about fifteen minutes before noon mass. After mass, I killed about twenty minutes looking around the cathedral, then another half hour in the gift shop. The drop point wasn’t far away. It was a small alley off of the square. About two doors down, sitting in the doorway was a man fitting Winters’ description in a black beat up fedora and old dark raincoat.

“Excuse me,” I said approaching him. “I’ve got a small package to deliver on Bourbon Street. Can you help me find it?”

“I’ll draw you a map,” he replied. “You got something to write on?”

I dug into my purse and pulled out a pen and pad. Under the pad was the sealed envelope. These I handed to the man. He wrote the directions down and handed back the pen and pad.

“Thank you,” I replied and continued down the alley.

Ignoring the directions I’d been given, I left the alley at the first real street I came to. I had gone about half a block when I looked into a window and saw two men standing at the end of the alley I’d just left. One of them was short and fairly heavy, wearing a poorly fitting dark suit. The other was tall and had a dark green overcoat on. Neither was Winters.

After turning down a couple of streets, I discovered they were still close behind and getting closer. I walked a little faster. They picked up speed and started gaining on me. Wondering where the heck Sid was, I slid my hand up the sleeve of my dress and tapped out an urgent message on the transmitter. I turned a corner and broke into a trot. Checking behind me, I saw that they had not caught up with me yet so I ducked into a souvenir shop.

Apparently, they saw me go into it because a few minutes later they came in. I ducked behind the shelves, keeping one eye on the tall one, edging towards the door. The tall one was heading for the back. Just as I was almost to the door, I looked down the long aisle just in time to see the two of them spot me and come after.

That was enough. I dropped any pretense of discretion and ran full out, crashing through the doors, and headed in the direction I’d just came from. I looked back and saw the two of them running after me. But I’d gained almost a block’s lead. I frantically tapped out another message to Sid. At the second cross street I came to, I crossed the street I was running along, then nearly got myself hit by a car, running across the cross street. I hit the sidewalk and turned onto the street I’d just crossed. I looked back to check the progress of my pursuers and ran straight into someone.

“Excuse me,” I gasped without looking and tried to run on. Sid’s hands held me firmly but gently.

“Oh, thank God,” I gasped. “I’m being tailed.”

Sid looked quickly around and pulled me after him through two saloon doors. Just before I went through, I saw my tails come around the corner and spot me.

Firmly holding my hand, Sid led me through the dark, smoky room, weaving between the crowded tables. It was terribly noisy in there with loud music and people trying to talk over it. I heard the catcalls but somehow didn’t notice the ramp down the middle of the room.

“They saw me come in,” I said in a low voice in Sid’s ear. “They’d just come around the corner.”

“Do you think they saw me?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Okay. We’ll take a chance on assuming they didn’t.”

Sid found us a table in a dark corner, about midway through the room. A cocktail waitress came up and slapped two huge menus on the table. Smiling, Sid picked up one and opened it.

“Perfect,” he said quietly. “Don’t hold it so high it’s obvious you’re hiding, but this is excellent cover.”

I opened my menu and looked at it. The bill of fare was pretty typical. I guess the lewd drawings were too, but I had never seen anything like them. I began to realize what sort of place I was in. I swallowed.

“Carefully now,” said Sid. “Look up and check out the two gentlemen who just came in.”

My eyes were adjusted to the dark by then, so I could take just a quick peek.

“That’s them.” I dove behind my menu.

“Are either of them Winters?” Sid asked.

“No. But I picked them up as I left the alley.”

The waitress came to take our order.

“Just a few more minutes,” said Sid and off she went.

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see my tails heading for the back. Sid suddenly got up and left for a minute.

“Okay, they’re gone,” he said, returning.

I lowered my menu. For the first time, I saw the woman dancing on the ramp. I froze.

“Oh my god, she’s stark staring naked.”

“She’s not a very good dancer, either. Come on, let’s get out of here.”

Once outside, Sid put his arm around my shoulders and held me tight against him. I started to pull away, but his grip was too strong.

“Hang on to me,” he ordered, as we walked quickly down the street. “It’ll be harder for them to spot you.”

I stopped pulling.

“Not that I think they’ll get out of there any too quickly,” he continued.

“Why not?”

“There’s a cat house in the back there.”

“How’d you know?” I looked at him suspiciously.

“Observation, my dear. I saw several men go back there, all escorted by obvious professionals. You got any cash?”

“Some.”

“Oh.” There was a pause. “I just spent my last hundred bucks to keep those goons of yours occupied.”

“How?”

“I sent a couple of girls after them. Told them to say Jerry sent them.”

“Who’s Jerry?”

“Beats me.”

“Are you sure that’s going to stop them?”

Sid looked behind us. “Well, they’re not following us. Besides, I was able to get a better look at them than you were probably able to. They looked like your standard thugs to me. I get the feeling somebody hired them to do some dirty work. That’s just the type to take advantage of a freebie, even if it means being lax on the job.”

“I hope so.”

We got back to the motel without any sign of a tail. Still, we didn’t leave again that night. The next morning, Sid left fairly early to look around. He returned just before noon, saying he hadn’t seen hide nor hair of Mutt and Jeff, as we’d come to call my pursuers, but that I’d better not go out that afternoon. We could go out that night, under the cover of darkness. We ate lunch in the motel coffee shop and spent the afternoon playing cards. That night Sid told me he had a surprise for me the next day.

It was an all day riverboat trip on the Mississippi. We had a wonderful time even though I lost ten dollars to Sid when I dared him to spell Mississippi. He couldn’t do it. But he challenged me to, and I didn’t get it right until the third try. That hurt my pride more than it hurt my pocketbook.

We got off the boat just in time to check in with the Dragon. Sid was not happy when he hung up the phone.

“Guess who set up a phony meeting with Winters and asked me to tail him when he splits after no one shows,” he said.

“Why would she do that?”

“Your friends, Mutt and Jeff.” He looked around. “It’s not ’til six thirty. Why don’t we get some dinner and window shop for a while, then you can go back to the motel while I’m on Winters’ tail.”

“Sounds good, but don’t you want to stay wired?”

“Uh, yes and no. The Dragon said I shouldn’t hold onto him too tight, and I thought I might take advantage of the separation, if you don’t mind.”

“I guess not. When do I start worrying?”

“Tap in a message around ten. I’ll make sure I keep my receiver on and give me, say, twenty minutes to respond.”

We took our time and pretty much stayed near the waterfront, as the meeting was in that neighborhood. At six twenty-five, Sid spotted Winters at the restaurant.

“There he is. Now, remember, straight to the room.”

“I’ll see you later.”

He watched me until I got half a block away, then got into position on the other side of the restaurant, where I couldn’t see him. I did see Mutt and Jeff watching Winters, which I thought was rather odd. I didn’t think they’d seen me, so I turned into a nice old fashioned drug store on the corner. Ordinarily, I would’ve done exactly what Sid had told me, but the next day was Sid’s birthday and I wanted to get him a card. I had plans and I couldn’t wait to surprise him.

Finding the right card for him was no easy task. Getting back to the hotel proved to be much harder. I had just paid for the card and stashed it in my purse when I saw Mutt heading my way down the aisle adjacent to me. I didn’t wait. I pulled a wire rack of greeting cards into his path and took off.

After bursting through the doors of the store, I turned right into a dark green overcoat. Gasping, I pulled away and tried to run over a small foreign car parked at the curb. But Jeff pulled me down by the back of my sundress.

By that time, Mutt was there. He grabbed my upper arm hard and held me so tightly it hurt. Jeff took hold of my other arm just as tightly. They escorted me down the street, to a large, dark, four-door sedan. Mutt shoved me into the back seat and climbed in next to me, while Jeff seated himself behind the wheel. Mutt pulled a gun. I decided not to try anything.

I wasn’t blindfolded and I do have a pretty good sense of direction, so I was able to pretty much keep track of where we were, even though I was terrified. I was too scared to play cool. It was all I could do to keep my head clear enough to think and not panic.

We parked in front of a line of seedy apartment buildings on the edge of the French Quarter. When Mutt pulled me out of the car I stumbled and fell, scraping my elbow. I was roughly dragged to my feet and escorted into the building we’d parked in front of.

The stairs weren’t lighted or carpeted. The place reeked of urine and burnt food. Somewhere I heard an infant screaming. I was pushed up three flights and then down the hall.

The apartment I was pushed into wasn’t any nicer. There were newspapers all over the floor, an old yellowed lamp in one corner, a couch with the stuffing coming out in several places and a kitchenette with a sink piled high with dirty dishes. At the end of the room was a door.

Mutt patted me down, missing the twenty-two automatic strapped to the top of my thigh. Sid had told me to wear it as close to my crotch as possible just because people usually avoid searching genitalia unless they have to. I was shoved through the door into a small bedroom with a foul smelling brass bed and a white ceramic stand alone sink up against one wall. In the other wall, was a window.

“Don’t think of trying anything,” said Jeff, as he shut the door.

I tried the window. Even if I could have opened it, there was no place to go but straight down three stories. I wasn’t that desperate yet. I debated blasting my way out with the twenty-two. But while the gun was better than no gun at all, it was little more than a pea shooter, and with two of them, I figured the odds were pretty good I’d get hit before I could get them stopped without killing them.

I decided to listen at the door, to see if I could learn something useful. All I heard was that someone wasn’t answering and snatches of debate about what to do in the meantime. I looked at my watch. It was eight forty-five.

Time crawled along. To calm myself, I recited the Rosary under my breath, counting the Hail Marys on my fingers. Shortly after nine, I heard the phone clatter onto its cradle. It seems whoever wanted me raped, strangled and dumped near the waterfront. Then they started talking about doing it together and arguing about who took the top and who took the bottom first. I had only a vague idea what they were talking about, and a bad feeling that I didn’t want to know. It took them ‘til ten-fifteen to settle it and they came after me.

I yanked up the skirt of my dress to get the gun. The fabric got in my way, then the door slammed into my hands.

Seeing me so close to the door really irritated Mutt and he backhanded me across the face, first one way and then the other. I stumbled, crying softly, as I felt the blood from my nose drip onto my upper lip. I saw him double up his fist and ducked just enough to catch it in my left eye. Then the room went spinning as another fist connected underneath my jaw. I fell backward onto my seat, my tongue throbbing on one side where my teeth had sunk in.

Looking up, I saw the both of them advancing on me. Jeff had come in without his overcoat and was playing with the fly on his pants.

“Holy God have mercy on me,” I prayed in a low voice.

Mutt turned to Jeff. “Quit playin’ with yourself and help me get her onto the bed. You can drop your drawers when we get her tied down.”

That wasn’t how I’d envisioned losing my virginity. I crawled backward as Mutt advanced on me. I tried to get my hand under my skirt again. Before I could get the gun, Mutt made a grab for me. I rolled away and scrambled to my feet. I think Mr. Fukaro, my martial arts instructor, would have frowned on my style, but I landed a good solid kick into Jeff’s groin. I swung around and landed a rabbit punch in Mutt’s ear and knee jerked him in the groin.

I found my purse in the other room and quickly checked inside to make sure everything was there. I guess they figured since they were killing me, they could always empty it later. With the transmitters on Sid and me, there really wasn’t anything of obvious interest in there, except my gun, which was on the same table as the purse. Jeff groaned and stumbled out of the bedroom. I grabbed the model thirteen and put a slug in his shoulder. Then I ran.

I got out of the building okay, but as I started running down the street, a bullet ricocheted off the building next to me. As another passed through my skirt dangerously close to my legs, I ducked for cover in a doorway.

I peeked around the stone to see Mutt, still doubled over, but hanging out the window with a gun. A car came towards us. I was about a hundred feet away from the cross street. As the car passed, I darted out from the doorway, running behind the car, to the corner and headed down the cross street.

I got turned around a couple of times and was making a lot of turns anyway, to avoid being followed, so I didn’t get back to the motel until eleven thirty. I couldn’t take a cab because Mutt and Jeff did get the cash out of my wallet. Gasping and sweating from the run, I got the key from the desk and hurried onto the elevator. My hands shook as I inserted the key and opened the door. The room was dark. I breathed a sigh of relief. Sid hadn’t gotten back yet. I had time to clean myself up and hopefully, he wouldn’t ask any questions. I could always say that the transmitter hadn’t worked.

I sank onto the edge of my bed closest to the balcony and blankly looked at the curtains. The key in the lock scraped and the door opened behind me.

“Where the hell have you been?” Sid was furious. “I’ve been worried sick about you.”

“Just out.” I kept my back to him. “I had to get something.”

I wanted to get to the bathroom before he saw my face.

“Just out,” snapped Sid. “I got back here at nine and you were gone. I found out from the desk clerk you never came in. I told you to come straight here.”

“I had to get something.”

“What, pray tell, did you have to get that took you four and a half hours to buy? Will you look at me?” Sid strode over. I winced as he grabbed my arm and turned me around. “Jesus. What the hell happened to you?”

“Will you please?” I groaned, trying not to cry. “I hate it when you use His name that way.”

“I’m sorry. What happened?”

“Mutt and Jeff were watching Winters. I figured you’d seen them, but they found me. They knocked me around a little, but I got away. I kept an eye out. They didn’t follow me.”

Sid looked me over tenderly. A glance in the mirror told me I was a mess. My hair had gone wild from the run. My left eye was beginning to swell and redden. There was dried blood on my upper lip and out the corner of my mouth. My tongue had swollen and I was speaking with a slur. My upper arms were beginning to bruise. My elbow stung. My dress was filthy, with dark greasy spots all over it. My skirt had been torn away from the bodice in one section in the back and had a bullet hole in one side. My nylons were a mass of runs.

Sid bent and gently took off my sandals, which, amazingly, had held up. Then he turned down the covers on my bed and propped the pillows up against the headboard.

“I want you to stay put exactly where you are,” he said, pulling my nightgown out of my suitcase. “I’m going to get some ice. While I’m gone, I want you to slip out of your clothes and into your nightgown. I don’t want you to try and get up. I’ll clean you up when I get back. Okay?”

“Okay.”

“Will you follow directions this time?”

I nodded.

“Alright. I’ll be right back. I’m taking my key, so don’t answer if anyone knocks.”

He left.

I did change into my nightgown. But he came back to catch me staggering out of the bathroom.

He set the ice bucket on the dresser.

“I thought I told you to…”

“I had to go.”

He softened and gently picked me up. I was too tired and shaky to protest. He set me down on my bed with my back against the propped up pillows. Then he quickly gathered together the towels, ice, washcloth, bucket and first aid kit, and neatly laid everything out on the bed beside me. He sat down next to me and without saying anything washed off my face and arms. I closed my eyes and allowed myself to enjoy his gentle touch. His hands were soft as they very carefully, gently probed my nose and around my eye, searching for things out of place, and then inspected the bruises on my arms and the scrape on my elbow.

“Doesn’t look too bad,” he said, smiling. “Just a nice selection of bruises and scrapes. You’re going to have quite a shiner, there.”

“Terrific. Can I have a piece of ice to suck on? I bit my tongue, too. It hurts.”

“Sure open wide.”

I did so and he popped the ice in.

He improvised an ice bag out of a plastic bag and a towel and had me hold it to my eye. Then he bandaged my elbow.

“Feeling any nausea or dizziness?” he asked, picking up the stuff.

I shook my head.

“Good. But let me know if you start feeling sick.”

He put everything away and then sat down next to me again.

“Now, I need to know exactly what happened.”

So I told him, starting from when I first saw Mutt. He listened without comment, although I saw him getting mad when he heard about the attempted rape.

“So you got them where it hurts,” he said and then to himself, “I wish I had.” He looked at me. “I’m proud of you. You handled yourself well.”

“Thanks.”

“But why were you at the drugstore in the first place?”

“I had to get something.”

“I know, but what?”

I bit my lip. Besides wanting to keep Sid’s birthday a surprise, I knew he’d be furious if he knew I’d gone there just for a birthday card. Fortunately, Sid took my hesitation for something else.

“Is it time for your monthly?”

I blushed but seized on the excuse. “Well, not quite. I just don’t like not being covered.”

I figured that was close enough to the truth. I hadn’t checked my calendar, but I knew I wasn’t due for at least another week and a half, more like two.

“You could have asked me to buy whatever you needed. I don’t mind doing that sort of thing.”

“I’m sure you don’t. But you know me.”

“Afraid so. That was a damned stupid thing to do. Next time, ask me, will you?”

“I will.” I watched him get up and go over to his bed. A question kept nagging at me. It was unpleasant, but I had to know. “Sid, I told you what they said before they came to me. Do you know what they were going to do?”

Sid looked at me sadly, then slowly nodded.

“What were they going to do?”

“You don’t want to know.”

“I do. It’s bugging me.”

Sid turned down his covers with a vicious snap before he spoke. He looked at me.

“They were going to take you both at the same time, probably more than once.”

“How?”

“One normally, one orally.”

I put my hand to my mouth as my stomach heaved.

“That’s sick,” I said through my fingers.

Sid shrugged. “It’s not really that bad. It’s the rape element that’s sick.” Sadly, he pulled his pajama bottoms and robe out of his suitcase. “Why don’t you go on to sleep?”

He helped me readjust my pillows, then disappeared into the bathroom.

Sally Wright Part Two

This is the second part of Sally Wright’s guest post. She is the author of both the Ben Reese and Jo Grant mystery series. You can find out more about her on her website, www.sallywright.net.

 

How would Ben Reese be different if you were writing one of his stories while doing chemo? And would Jo Grant be a different character if the cancer hadn’t come along?

 

– I don’t know how Ben Reese would’ve been different if I’d had pancreatic cancer when I was writing his books, but it is an interesting question. I was who I was then. It took quite a while for Publish And Perish, the first Ben Reese, to find a publisher (which made becoming a Mystery Writers of America Edgar Alan Poe Award finalist for Pursuit And Persuasion even more of a gift). I was younger and healthier, riding horses all the time, with my kids at home, then just off on their own, then well-established elsewhere, as those books were being published.

I could travel more easily to do the research for the Ben Reese books (which was more complicated in some ways than what I have to do for the Jo Grant books), and gave me some of my all-time favorite memories – hunting with hawks and ferrets in Scotland high on the list among them. The Ben books came out of that time, when I could work with John Reid and write whatever book got my attention. I don’t altogether choose the books I write. They come to me, and make themselves known, and I get caught up in what they ask of me. They can grow out of a setting, or a character, or an historical event, or a method of murder that seems interesting. They’re what they had to be then, and now I can’t imagine them being different than they are.

But Jo Grant is affected by me having cancer, and from other real-life experiences as well. They’re supposedly written by Jo in the mid-1990s when she’s in her mid-sixties, looking back thirty some years on events that happened when she was in her early thirties. She describes the situations she lived through, fitting herself in like every other character in the “memoirs” she’s chosen to write as novels. She uses excerpts too from her journals from the sixties to show what the day-to-day was like while she was going through it.

Jo lived through suffering and danger and the death of those she loved, and how she deals with it in the beginning of Breeding Ground (the first Jo Grant) is different than she does by the end, or in Behind The Bonehouse, the new book in the series.

One of the organizing principles of the way I constructed the framework of the novels is that Jo tells the reader in the preface and the epilogue that she’s seriously ill without identifying the condition. It’s clear she’s living on borrowed time and has no guarantee that she’ll finish the book. (Which is actually the way we all live, even if we don’t think about it much).

Still, “she’s” finished two books (and started a third), and she sees these years as a gift. The perspective I have on the nature of life and death, and the things that become important when you know you have limited time, do affect the way I portray Jo. We don’t complain about the weather anymore, and we’re more grateful for less.

Jo cared for her mother before Breeding Ground opens through to her death from a brain tumor, and when I began planning that plot, I, too, was caring for my mother (who lived next door, with wonderful caregivers) through nearly ten years of dementia. I had Whipple surgery for pancreatic cancer three months before she died on her hundredth birthday, and was going through chemo and radiation during those months.

Jo loses her much loved brother, as well as her mother, and when we first see her she wants nothing to do with caring for anyone or anything – even a good horse. She feels old before her time, as though she’s lost a large chunk of her life, and she wants to be left alone to do her work as an architect without more death and sorrow, or interference from anyone.

Life does interfere, as it’s wont to do in this world. And Jo has to grow up – with the help of a very perceptive chemical engineer who’d been in the OSS in France during WWII. It’s when Jo’s in her sixties, looking back in the preface and the epilogue, that she can explain what she went through more clearly and see what matters most.

Behind The Bonehouse examines the horrors of being wrongly accused (which we all are, sometime of something), then scrambling to prove your innocence when the legal system isn’t listening – before you gradually begin to realize that even if you’re acquitted, many around you, in your small tight community, will always believe you’re guilty. It examines the depths of vindictiveness that human nature is prone to, and the place of forgiveness in surviving it.

Which is not to say that Breeding Ground and Behind The Bonehouse are all doom and gloom. They’re not. They examine, in interesting and unexpected ways, the opportunities and conflicts inherent in family businesses, which have been the backbone of the American economy until the last few years when the cost of doing business makes it harder to start a business, as well as keep it afloat. I was raised with a family business, and I know a lot about the pressures on the founders and their children, and there’s much that’s worth contemplating in those family dynamics.

There’re interesting collections of characters in the Jo Grant books who are easy to like and love, along with great horses, and entertaining dogs. There’s humor too, and happiness that means something, and underpinnings from WWII and the OSS, as well as the kind of danger and death that makes mysteries what they are.

The Jo Grant books are important to me, personally and as a writer, and the positive reviews they’ve been given by accomplished mystery writers like William Kent Krueger, Charles Todd, and Terence Faherty, help me want to get to work in the morning and try to finish the next.

Many thanks to Sally Wright for her contribution. You can buy Behind the Bonehouse and other books by her at Barnes and Noble or Amazon.

cozy mystery, spy novel, serial mystery fiction

Chapter Five

May 24 – 28, 1983

 

We were up early and ran, as always. I got the bathroom first, dressed, then repacked the bags. Our flight to Orlando wasn’t leaving until two, so I figured I might as well.

“Damn it! Lisa!” Sid suddenly bellowed.

“I thought we weren’t supposed to be using names,” I said as he came to the bathroom door.

He was wearing his jeans, but no shirt, and his face was half covered with foam. His left forefinger was pressed against the dimple in his chin. He spoke quietly, but he wasn’t happy. “Did you remember to change the blades on my razor?”

“Well, I remembered, but…”

“Then why didn’t you?”

“I couldn’t figure out how to do it. I left the new one right beside it so you’d see it. I was going to tell you, but you were asleep and I kinda forgot.”

Sid sighed and looked at the blood on his fingertip.

“You just slide the blade assembly off the base.” He replaced his finger. “It’s very simple. You can’t even misalign it.”

“Oh.”

“Please remember that. I don’t like cutting myself.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Apology accepted.” Sid sighed and withdrew to finish shaving.

When he came out, I had to look for the cut to find it.

“Do you cut yourself often?” I asked as we left the motel. “I mean with that dimple and all…”

“Almost never. Of course, it took a certain amount of practice. My aunt was fond of saying she was surprised I had a chin left.”

“Why didn’t you grow a beard?”

“I don’t like beards, or any facial hair, for that matter. I did have a mustache in high school, though, one of those thick Sergeant Pepper things. I graduated with it. I was one of the few guys my age who could grow one.” Sid chuckled in reminiscence. “I shaved it off at boot camp and haven’t grown one since.”

I sat back in the rental car and tried to imagine him with a Sergeant Pepper mustache and then with a beard. I decided I liked the cleft chin more, though I didn’t tell him. He was vain enough as it was.

We still got to the airport by ten fifteen that morning. We went ahead and checked our luggage, then Sid phoned our contact.

“I was afraid of that,” he grumbled, as he left the booth.

“What’s the matter?” I asked, worried.

“The drop’s set for Disney World.”

“How fun. I’m excited.”

“You would be. I suppose you’ll be dragging me on all those silly rides.”

“Oh come on. Loosen up a little. Do me a favor and dump the dignity for a while. You might even have some fun.”

“Are you implying that I don’t know how to have fun?”

“Not at all. You’re just limited.”

He sighed.

We still had an hour or so to kill. I talked Sid into the cafeteria. He opted for an early lunch. I pored over some brochures I’d found.

“Let’s see..,” I mumbled between bites of polish sausage and french fries. “They say here Epcot costs extra, but they have combined passports…”

I dug a pen out of my purse and did some figuring on the paper placemat. Sid shook his head. He was eating a chef’s salad, but had picked out the ham slices and set them aside.

“How long do you think we’ll be there?” I asked. “May I have your ham?”

“At least through Friday and no you may not. It’s not good for you.”

“That’s just a myth.” I reached over and took it anyway. “There is no trichinosis in that meat.” I continued with my figures.

“Maybe not, but there is an enormous amount of fat, and even if there’s isn’t, it’s probably salt cured. That’s not even count—”

“Shut up. I’m trying to divide.” I worked at the math a few moments longer and then smiled at the results. “Okay. The four-day passport is the best buy, but it hardly seems worth it if we’re probably leaving Friday. So we should probably get the three-day passport.”

“I’d like to keep our time at the parks to a minimum.”

“Oh, come on. Disneyland is about as safe as you can get.”

“I wouldn’t know,” Sid said, bored. “I’ve never been there.”

“You’ve never been..?” I was aghast.

“Nope.”

“But you’ve lived in California all your life. Heck, my parents weren’t rich and we still managed to make it down from Tahoe at least once a year.”

“I couldn’t afford it.”

“Oh, come on.”

“I’m serious. I was dirt poor as a kid. I didn’t come into my money until my second year at Stanford. Being a communist made my aunt rather hard to employ.”

“I suppose but… well, how’d you learn to play the piano so well? That takes years of lessons and that’s not cheap.”

A faraway look came over Sid’s face, he quietly laid his fork by his plate and wiped his mouth with his napkin. Slowly he placed the napkin by the fork.

“Stella taught me,” he said finally. Stella was the aunt who had raised him, and as far as he knew, his only living relative. They hadn’t spoken since Sid was nineteen because he allowed himself to be drafted instead of going to Canada. Sid had never been close to Stella. According to him, she’d never wanted him in the first place. So this sudden emotion over her surprised me a little. “She was a student at Julliard when she broke with her family and changed her name. I don’t know if she continued there after that, or not. I’m not even sure if she graduated.”

“Why don’t you know? Didn’t she tell you?”

“Stella never told me anything about her 24background or mine. What little I know, I pieced together from various stories I heard from people who knew her at the time.”

“Could you tell me what you know?” I leaned forward and smiled warmly.

Sid looked at me for a moment and returned the smile. He leaned back in his seat and took a deep breath.

“As far as I know, Stella had been a communist and was broken off from her family for some time, when my mother got pregnant. She got disowned and sought out Stella. Stella took her in, very unwillingly, and managed to convince my mother that an abortion would just be asking for trouble.”

“That’s right, they were illegal, then.”

“Mm-hm.”

“Do you know what your mother was like?”

“I don’t remember her at all. I have heard that she wasn’t exactly an innocent victim. Stella was rather fond of hinting that my mother didn’t tend towards chastity, even after she was pregnant.”

“Like mother, like son.”

Sid laughed. “That’s exactly what Stella said when she found out I was into fooling around. But that’s another story. Anyway, Stella took pretty good care of my mother, but when she went into labor, Stella panicked. She took my mother to the hospital, but couldn’t get her admitted. I’ve heard all sorts of reasons, such as my mother had never been married and wouldn’t name the father, or more likely, Stella just didn’t have the money and got unpleasant about it.”

“Oh no. You were born on the sidewalk.”

“Almost. Apparently, it was quite a scene. My mother sitting on the curb in labor and Stella standing over her screaming Communist propaganda. Finally, they were rescued, by of all people, a priest and Stella was furious about that.”

“How wild.”

“It’s not necessarily true. The man that told me all this was prone to big lies, especially when he was stoned, which he generally was.” Sid smiled. “Donovan Smith. Sheesh, I haven’t thought about him in years. He was the closest to a father figure I ever had. Used to pop in and out of our lives periodically. I hitchhiked cross-country with him several times. Sometimes Stella came with us, too. He was the only man I ever suspected of being her lover. She was strange that way, not gay, just completely indifferent, like it was a nuisance.”

“What happened to Donovan?”

“He died, in `67, I think. I heard he took a bad trip on LSD and jumped off a building.”

“How sad.”

“I suppose. It was no surprise. Stella always said he was headed for it.”

“But what got you started on the piano?”

“Oh that. That was Stella’s idea. I remember that day. It was my sixth birthday. I was also excited because kindergarten was almost over. I hated it. I was always in trouble and the teacher was always making me do stupid things, like building houses out of blocks, and they had to be just so and when I asked her why, which I did often, she had fits.”

“My teacher did that too. She always made us put roofs on our houses and I got mad because we couldn’t play with them that way.”

“I wonder if it was the same lady.” Sid laughed, while I shrugged. “Back to the piano. I came home from school and Stella told me that the time had come for me to receive my legacy. Neither she nor my mother had anything to give me in material goods, they belonged to the people, anyways, and the Revolution was not Stella’s to give. But Stella said she could give me music and that would be my legacy.” Sid paused. “I didn’t even know what the word meant. For years I thought it was playing the piano. Anyway, she sat me down at this old battered upright and started me playing scales. That’s how it all began and every day after that for years I worked on my music for hours. When there wasn’t a piano available, I was drilled on theory. It was the only thing we shared.” Sid fell silent for a minute, then looked at me. “So tell me about your childhood.”

“I was basically happy. Very comfortable. I was sick a lot as a little kid, though. I got pneumonia every year without fail until I was seven, then I got double pneumonia. After that I was healthy. I always said I got it out of my system early. But when I was well, I had a good time. I was Daddy’s girl. Don’t get me wrong. He never played favorites. He loved Mae very much. But I was special because they almost lost me so many times.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, Mama said her obstetrician was surprised I lived at all.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Well, Mama never had any trouble getting pregnant, she just couldn’t keep them. She miscarried twice before Mae, carried Mae to term, then had five miscarriages in four years before she got pregnant with me and I showed up two months early. I barely weighed four-and-a-half pounds at birth.”

“Is that bad?”

“Average is seven to eight.”

Sid whistled low under his breath.

“Anyway, Mama miscarried three more times after I was born. Then I kept getting sick, which was to be expected, I guess.”

“You must have been one tough little girl.”

“Yep. Of course, part of that was Daddy’s fault. You see, I doubled as his son. He was disappointed when he found out I was a girl. But he told me when I was eleven that when he saw me in the nursery struggling just to breathe, he knew I was going to be a very special baby and he loved me very much because of that.”

“Is that why he’s so protective of you?”

I laughed. “Yes, that’s part of it. Of course, he’s very protective of Mae, too. Neil used to work for Daddy, put himself through dental school that way. Daddy almost fired Neil several times because he thought Neil was making moves on Mae and that was before they fell in love with each other.”

“He seems to like Neil well enough now.” Sid’s tone was a little rueful.

Daddy has never liked any man that Mae or I have dated. He really can’t stand Sid. He considers Sid’s urban polish effeminate, which bugs him. He’s convinced Sid has designs on my body and is going to lead me straight into living in sin. [The man had a point there – SEH]  Worst of all, Daddy is insanely jealous of Sid, more than he’s ever been of anybody I’ve dated, which I can’t figure out for the life of me.

“Well, Neil is his son-in-law,” I said.

“How is the old cuss, anyway?” Sid asked. He’s not terribly fond of Daddy, either.

“Just fine. I didn’t get to talk to him when I called in Washington. But that reminds me, if we go any further south, we’ll have to drop the Donaldson’s. There are parts of Dade County where I can’t spit without hitting a relative.”

“Dade County?” Sid grinned. “As in Anita Bryant?”

“Yes,” I groaned. I hated those jokes. “My parents are from Dade County.”

Sid chuckled. “It figures.”

“Will you please? He is my father.”

“Alright. But what are the odds of us running into them?”

“Almost nil. They’re already back in Tahoe. Summer season starts this weekend. It’s Memorial Day, you know.”

“Ah, that’s right.” Sid looked up as they announced the flight to Orlando. “That’s us. Let’s go.”

We had a pleasant afternoon. We got checked in at the motel outside Disney World without a hitch, then went to change into our swimming gear.

At first, I was a little nervous. The time had come when I had to face Sid in my swim suit and him in his. I was afraid he would have one of those little knit bathing suits that leave nothing to the imagination, but he came out of the bathroom wearing, brief, but sufficiently modest, trunks out of a blue Hawaiian print and an open short-sleeved shirt out of the same fabric. He, in turn, was surprised when he saw me. My new bathing suit was discreet, but just barely, a halter with a front that plunged and closed just before you could see anything and a back that dipped becomingly low.

“I thought you’d be wearing something that covered a lot more,” Sid said.

So I told him what I thought he’d be wearing.

“I’m not an exhibitionist,” was his reply.

Sid brought a magazine with him to the pool, but when he discovered there was no shade, he decided to swim with me.

“Didn’t you want to work on a tan?” I asked. “Not that it’s much work.”

Sid chuckled. “I can’t out here. We don’t want people to complain to the motel management.”

“At the risk of further inflating your ego, I can’t see anything to complain about.”

“I can’t either. But you see, I don’t believe in tan lines, and some people find that objectionable.”

“Oh.” I could feel my face growing hot. “I thought you said you weren’t an exhibitionist.”

“I’m not. Just because I don’t exhibit my body for show doesn’t mean I am uncomfortable in my natural state.”

I confess I did briefly try to imagine him that way, but it was just too embarrassing. Sid noticed and laughed.

Disney World and Epcot were a blast. Okay, the Magic Kingdom was almost just like Disneyland, but that didn’t bother me because I love Disneyland. Sid made the drop without trouble. He even went on the rides without complaining.

By Thursday, however, Sid was getting a little touchy, and made a few pointed comments about the number of frozen bananas, orange juice bars, hamburgers and boxes of popcorn I consumed. It didn’t help that we were given a second drop to make the next day. By then, Sid was positively distant.

“I just don’t feel like communicating right now,” he told me after breakfast.

“Okay. But the last time that happened, we ended up in that really awful fight and it just made it harder when things blew up.”

He sighed. “Alright. Point taken.” He turned to me and gently touched my cheek. “But the only resolution for what I’m feeling at the moment is something you don’t want to get into. Can you bear with me until Sunday?”

“Oh. Yeah.” I felt guilty, but Sid was right. I didn’t want to get into that.

He was still sulking at lunch.

“We’ll have to take time out from your food and ride fest to make that second drop,” he grumbled. “The layout is pretty good from our standpoint. I’ll be at the hotel bar, and she’ll talk to the bartender. It’ll be pretty hard to pop me with someone right there. I want you to be extra careful on the perimeter sweeps.”

I was, but there was nothing to be seen. Nobody was in the bar in the middle of the afternoon. The bartender was very friendly and I could hear Sid chatting pleasantly with him. I moved around behind the bar. Static crackled in my ear, and instead of Sid, I got the radio from the monorail. I stepped into the ladies room and took off my transmitter. Fat lot of good that did. I whacked it a couple times.

“Approaching station,” said the professional voice. “All clear.”

I went back to the bar. Sid met me out front.

“Let’s go,” he said.

“Everything go okay?” I asked. “My transmitter cut out and picked up the monorail.”

“So did mine.” He paused. “Listen, is your heart still set on another run through Space Mountain?”

“Yeah.”

“Then why don’t you spare me? I’ll meet you over there after check in.”

I wondered what was up, but decided to take advantage of it. While in line to Space Mountain I ate a bacon cheeseburger. [So that was what I smelled on your breath – SEH] As it happened, I did feel for him, but there just wasn’t much I could do about it, besides the obvious, and no matter how I tried to justify it, I couldn’t.

Sid just got grumpier and grumpier. We flew to New Orleans the next day. As usual, Sid slept the whole way, so I didn’t say anything about the problem.

In New Orleans, we found a nice little motel in the French Quarter. At the desk, the clerk said all they had was a double (a room with two queen sized beds).

“That’s it?” Sid asked.

“Oh, darling, let’s take it,” I butted in quickly. “I know it’s more expensive, but it’s Memorial Day weekend. I don’t want to take a chance on not finding a place to stay.”

“Alright,” replied Sid, quietly.

He paid for the room and gloomily followed behind the bellhop and me. It was a very nice little room with a private bath and a balcony overlooking a courtyard and, of course, the two beds. I waited until the bellhop had gone before I bounced onto the bed closest to the balcony.

“No sleeping on the floor,” I crowed, flopping backward and gazing at the ceiling. “How wonderful.”

I thought I heard a faint sigh. I looked at Sid, who was sitting down with his back to me on the far edge of the other bed.

“Isn’t this just perfect?” I asked.

“Yeah, “ grumbled Sid. “Too bad I can’t have company.”

“Well, I could make myself scarce.”

“I’m not bringing anyone here, anyway. It’s too dangerous.”

I rolled over onto my stomach and looked at him.

“Are you sure there’s not something else bothering besides you know what?”

“I’m fine. Just leave me alone will you?”

“Come on, what’s eating you?”

Sid let out a short high-pitched sarcastic laugh, and I thought I heard him mutter the Lord’s name, but I chose to let it pass.

“I’m sorry. I just find it a little hard to believe you are this upset because you’ve missed a few nights.”

He turned around and glared at me.

“I am not upset, but I am that horny. I’m also trying very hard to remain civil and pleasant, but it’s not easy.”

“Well, hang on, Sunday’s coming. Better yet, I’ll go do something by myself today.”

“No, I don’t want you wandering around on those streets by yourself. I’ll make it til tomorrow.”

“You could always try running twenty laps around the French Quarter and then a cold shower.”

“Very funny.”

“I thought so. Maybe you ought to pretend you’ve got V.D., something drastic, like Herpes.”

“Mention not that dread name, even in jest.” Sid was deadly serious.

“Sorry.” I rolled over onto my back again.

“Will you cut that out,” Sid snapped turning away from me.

“What?” I folded my hands underneath my head.

“What you’re doing.”

“I’m not doing anything. I’m just laying here, looking at the ceiling.”

“I only have so much control.”

“What do you mean?”

“You laying on your back. Don’t you have any idea how inviting that is?”

“Oh, Sid,” I gasped as the light dawned. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to. Look, I’m not even laying down anymore. I’m really sorry. I didn’t even think…”

“I know.” Sid turned to me. “That’s the problem.”

“I can’t help it. I just don’t think that way.”

“Maybe it’s better that you don’t.”

There was a pause.

“That bad, huh?” I asked.

Sid nodded. “Your presence isn’t helping any, either.”

“Well, that settles it.” I stood up and grabbed my purse. “I’m taking off, and by myself, too. You do what you want.”

“No, I’ll go with you. I don’t want you out there by yourself.”

“Enough with the chauvinism. It’s broad daylight, I can take care of myself and I’m not going to take any stupid chances. I’ll be fine.”

“So will I. Let’s go.”

“No. Sid, I don’t want to make it any harder on you than it already is. I’ll go. You can do whatever and I’ll be back by four. Okay? See you.”

“Alright.”

I had to pass him to get to the door. As I did, he goosed me. I turned on him angrily.

“Do you want me to sock you in the jaw?”

“Might help.” He shrugged, helplessly.

“Don’t tempt me.” I shut the door. The poor thing.

There was another reason I didn’t want Sid around that day. While on the plane, I had remembered his birthday was the following Wednesday. Now, obviously, Sid isn’t exactly the type to appreciate being reminded that he is getting older. But I felt I had to do something. He had been very generous to me on my birthday earlier that spring.

So, happily rid of him for several hours, I explored the French Quarter stores, searching for just the right gift. It wasn’t easy. If Sid wants something he just buys it. Back home, in Los Angeles, I had a sweater half-way knitted for him, but Sid hadn’t thought to bring my knitting. I don’t knit fast enough to have started from scratch again. There was also the problem of carrying it.

Most of the stores carried tourist-oriented goods. The stores on Bourbon Street carried a lot of items that were along the lines of Sid’s extracurricular activities, but I decided I didn’t know enough about what I was doing. I was too embarrassed anyway.

Towards mid-afternoon, I went into a little antique shop off of Andrew Jackson Square. They had a lovely collection of antique jewelry. I found Sid’s gift sitting in a case with some china. It was a gold pocket watch with a chain and fob attached. It was open, and I could see the time was the same as on my watch.

“How much is this watch?” I asked the shopkeeper.

“Hundred and fifty dollars, ma’am.”

I bit my lip. On one hand, it was a lot of money for me to be spending on Sid and we were supposedly on a budget. On the other hand, Sid wouldn’t like anything cheap and a hundred and fifty dollars wouldn’t seem like a lot to him.

“Um, could I see it?”

“Certainly, ma’am. Nice little piece.” The shopkeeper opened the case and pulled it out. He wound it up and gentle music came tinkling out of it. “Has a music box.”

“How enchanting. I know that piece.”

I was entranced, but the money it cost made me hesitate.

“I’ll have to think about it.”

I knew as I left the store that I wouldn’t find anything better. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I was convinced that Sid should have it. I continued shopping but was utterly preoccupied with the watch, until a sharp female voice jolted me alert.

“How’d you like to see yourself as a blonde, honey?” she screeched.

I stopped. She leaned in the doorway of a wig shop, a heavy set blonde with a style like Dolly Parton’s. I had a feeling she was wearing her stock.

“Excuse me?” I asked.

“How’d you like to see yourself as a blonde?” she repeated. “Got a piece of hair’d suit you right nicely.”

“Oh,” I giggled. “I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to try it on.”

“Course not.”

The effect was incredible. I couldn’t believe the stranger with the ash blonde shag cut I saw facing me in the mirror was me. So, impulsively, I bought the wig. After all, what’s a spy without one good disguise? Still in that frame of mind, I also bought a pair of indoor/outdoor sunglasses with nice contemporary frames.

Then I went right back to the antique shop. As I entered, my heart stopped. I heard the gentle music of the watch and saw another couple looking at it and smiling. I didn’t breathe again until they sadly shook their heads and started out.

“I want that watch,” I told the shopkeeper before the couple had even left. I dug frantically through my purse for my wallet. “Chain and all. You have a box for it?”

“Yes, I do, ma’am.”

“Great. What do you want? Master, Visa, American express?”

“Whatever you wish, ma’am.”

I don’t know which card I gave him. I was just glad I’d left my real I.D. in Washington. Knowing me, I’d have given him a card with the wrong name. While he wrote up the sale, I inspected the watch once more.

“Do you gift wrap?” I asked.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Could you wrap the watch for me? How much extra will it cost?”

“Not a cent, ma’am.”

“I’m going to tell my friends about this place. Thanks.”

Checking my watch, I saw that it was getting close to four. I hid the gift-wrapped box in my purse and hurried back to the motel.

“I’m back,” I called, coming in the door. I shut it firmly.

The room was empty. The bathroom door was shut, and I heard the whine of the blow dryer coming from behind it. Underneath the blow dryer, I thought I heard singing. Puzzled, I slowly put down my bags. The blow dryer clicked off, but the singing continued. It was Sid’s voice, alright. But I’d never heard him sing before. He was singing “All Day, All Night, Marianne.” At least that was the melody. He’d rearranged the lyrics and they were filthy. It figured.

I noticed his suit jacket and vest laid out neatly on the bed. On the dresser was the matching tie, a pair of cuff links and tie pin.

“Sid?” I called again, more hesitantly. “I’m back.”

“Great,” he called back, over the sound of water running. There was a pause then, “Enjoy yourself?”

“Yeah.”

“Terrific.” Pause. “Why don’t you get on your black dress? I’ve got reservations for us at…” pause “…one of the nicest restaurants in the French Quarter.”

“Do you think that’s wise?” I asked.

“Sure…” Pause. “…We can afford to splurge a little.”

“Alright.”

I got out the dress, wondering a little. He seemed to be in a lot better mood. The bathroom door opened and he came out humming “Marianne” and buttoning the top button on his dress shirt. Flipping up the collar, he crossed over to the dresser, picked up the tie and began tying it around his neck.

“I get the feeling you went out also today,” I said leaning on the doors to the balcony.

Sid snickered. “This city’s reputation is well deserved, I’m happy to say.” The tie finished, he inserted the pin into the collar underneath the knot.

“I don’t know. I can’t tell if you’re easier to deal with when you’re horny or when you’re satisfied.”

“Satisfied? Me? Never.” Sid grinned and faced me. “Like the song says, I can’t get no… And how are you, my little ice cube?”

“Confused.”

“About what?”

“You. I’m sorry, Sid, I’m really trying, but I just can’t understand what the big deal is.”

“What big deal?”

“Sex.”

Sid couldn’t have been more astonished.

“What do you mean you don’t understand what the big deal is?” He sat down on the dresser. “It’s…uh…my god, child, I know you’re untouched, but haven’t you ever been horny?”

“Of course, I have. I’m normal.”

“I wasn’t saying you weren’t.” Sid got up and started prowling about the room. “How can I explain it?”

“I know sort of what’s supposed to happen. I guess part of the problem is that I’ve been hearing some conflicting reports.”

“Such as..?”

“What my Grandma Caulfield told Mae right before she got married.”

“And..?”

“She told Mae to close her eyes and lay still and it wouldn’t take long.”

“That’s rubbish and you know it.”

“I know, but what about all the horror stories I’ve heard from my aunts?”

“They’re probably a bunch of gossipy frigid ladies with husbands who are only interested in slam, bam, thank you, ma’am. A decent sex life does take a certain amount of sensitivity.”

“I’m sure it does, but…”

Sid settled on his bed. “How can I tell you? If I try to show you, I’ll get my teeth knocked out. If I use graphic detail, you’ll probably crawl under the bed and stay there.”

“Sid, please. I guess what I don’t understand is I’ve gone all my life without sex and you can’t go a week without it.”

Sid looked at me thinking.

“Well, I am hornier than most,” he said, finally. “I guess it’s largely because I never say no, except for the occasions when I pick up a little V.D., and that’s rare, believe it or not. When I do and I see a likely woman I start reacting like I would normally. I start thinking about how it would feel. Under normal circumstances, I either move in, if the time’s right or forget about her. But there’s something about not being able to have her, for whatever reason, that locks her into my mind. I work at thinking about other things. But you know how it is when there’s something you don’t want to think about, inevitably that’s what you find yourself thinking about. And when I think about it, I get horny. Having to say no only aggravates it. Worse still, I rarely run across just one woman. Anyway, that’s why I get so grumpy. I like to think I’ve got better control over my thoughts than I do.” Sid sighed, looked at me intently and then looked down at his feet. “Of course, you add a whole new dimension to the problem. Not only have I got you in my brain, I’m working with you, closely. Normally, I get hot, I transfer it to some other woman.”

“You mean you think about me when..?”

“No. It’s just when I look at you and the urge hits, I work it out with someone else. But now it’s a lot harder to do that because there’s supposedly no need for another woman, which makes her harder to come by. So I get horny. Do you realize you are the only woman I have really wanted that I have not made love to?”

“Oh, dear, I knew it.” I bit my lip, trying not to cry. “I knew I was making it worse.”

“It’s not your fault.”

“It’s not? Come on. If I wasn’t such a prude, you wouldn’t need to be that way. When the urge hit, you could just have me.”

“That part of it might be easier, but I think we’re still better off as we are. One of the reasons you and I work so well together is because we’re forced to take the time to talk with each other because we do believe so differently. If we were sleeping together, I don’t know that we’d take that time.”

“I still feel responsible, and guilty. I’ve always felt that teasing a guy was incredibly cruel. And here I am driving you nuts because I can’t say yes.”

“Be careful. You sound like you might be rationalizing yourself into a position I can tell you don’t want to be in.”

“And you’re cheering me on.”

“Oh no. If I was, I wouldn’t have warned you. I’d have let you dig your hole and crawled in after you.”

I looked at him, surprised, then smiled.

“Who’d have though my virtue would be safe with you?”

Sid chuckled. “I’d like to think it isn’t entirely safe. I do have my pride, you know.”

“Well, it does get shaky, sometimes, but I have a pretty firm grip on my resolve.”

“Good.” Sid’s smile was tender and warm, then he looked at his watch. “Uh, oh, it’s getting late. You’d better hurry, or we’ll miss our reservation.”

“Oh dear, yes. Let me see, here are my nylons. I’ll need my…where’s my makeup bag?”

“In the bathroom, in your carry on. I hope you don’t mind, but I borrowed your shampoo.”

“You got dandruff?”

“No. I ran out of my own.”

“That figures. You wouldn’t allow dandruff.”

“Very funny.”

“I thought so. Where’s my dress?”

Sid handed it to me and I retreated with it into the bathroom. I was a little mad at myself for not remembering that Sid already had a watch. Then I wasn’t so mad because I remembered that he had several different watches that he coordinated with what he was wearing and not one of them was a pocket watch. Then I got depressed because that probably meant he didn’t like pocket watches. Then again, it was possible it just hadn’t occurred to him. I bit my lip. I really hoped he would like it.

“By the way,” I heard Sid call as I slid into my dress. “By any chance, did you buy anything today?”

“You can be proud of me. I did.”

“What did you buy?”

“Now, don’t laugh. You promise?”

“No way.”

“Sid.”

“I’m not making any promise unless I know I can keep it.”

“Well, it was very impulsive. The second most impulsive thing I’ve done in my life.”

“What was the first?”

“Coming to work for you.”

“Real cute. What is this thing?”

“It’s in the tall round box.”

“I was wondering about that.”

Then I heard him laugh, very loudly and very hard.

“What on earth?” he gasped.

“The lady practically dragged me off the street to try it on. I was fascinated. I looked completely different. I thought it might come in handy.”

“Come on, disguises are for Inspector Clouseau and B-rate spy thrillers.”

“Well, you never know.”

“Are you ready yet?” He was still laughing.

“I’m not coming out of this bathroom until you stop laughing. I don’t care if our reservations are at the White House.”

“Alright, alright. I’m not laughing.”

“I still hear a little snicker.”

“No, you don’t. I’m as straight and sober as can be.”

I opened the door a crack. He wasn’t even smiling. I came out. He didn’t crack. I went to get my purse. He started breaking up.

“That does it.” I fled towards the bathroom but Sid caught me before I got there and held me by the upper arms. “Will you please stop laughing? I admit it was a little silly, but for heaven’s sake.”

“Okay, I’ll try.” Sid’s eyes sparkled merrily. “It’s just so unlike you and at the same time very much like you. I love it, I really do.”

He reached over and kissed my forehead.

“Come on,” he said, sympathetically. He turned me around, put his arm around my shoulders and started walking me out of the room. “We shall now go and be terribly sophisticated and dine in elegance at our leisure. Then you can show me how to be utterly frivolous and childlike.”

“Oh, Sid.”

 

Dinner was marvelous, and oh, we laughed together. Then when we went walking and window shopped. A dress in a children’s boutique stopped me.

“That dress.” I pointed it out to Sid. “I made one almost like it for Janey when she was a baby.” We moved on. “I was so excited when she was born.”

“Why?”

“I was there. It was Friday and Mama and I drove down because Mae was due that Sunday. I was still working at Daddy’s store in Tahoe, but I came down with Mama to bring some of my stuff because I was moving in that fall to go to college. Mama and I pulled up at the house at three o’clock that afternoon, but there was no one there. Darby was at the neighbor’s. Mae had been in labor all night and Neil had forgotten to call us. We went right over to the hospital. Mae’s doctor was real progressive, and he had us put on scrubs and go right in. Half an hour later, Janey was born.” My eyes filled. “Mae held her, then Neil, then they plopped her in my arms. I asked what her name was and Mae said Lisa Jane.”

“They named her after you.”

“Yeah. But we call her Janey to prevent confusion since I was living there. Actually, we’re both named after Grandma Wycherly. I was supposed to be Lisle Frobischer, cause Grandma was German, but Mama didn’t want me to have a funny name. She hated growing up as Althea.”

“I can sympathize.”

“So she and Daddy compromised on anglicizing the first name and hadn’t decided about Grandma’s maiden name when I was born. So when I had to be baptized right away cause they were afraid of losing me, Mama couldn’t think of what to do and the nun suggested Jane after St. Joan, who was a strong fighting woman, and Mama said that sounded good, so that’s my name. There wasn’t time to ask Daddy.”

“What did they do, whisk you off to the church right away?”

“Oh no. I was baptized right in the delivery room. In fact, I think Sister did it. They didn’t want to waste time digging up a priest.”

“But I thought only priests did that sort of thing.”

“Under normal circumstances, sure. But in my case, it was a life and death emergency. Heck, in an emergency, any Catholic can baptize somebody.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Well, if there’s an accident or something and somebody’s dying and wants to be baptized, but there’s a good chance he’s going to peg out before a priest can get there, I, or any other Catholic, could baptize him.”

“What if he doesn’t die?”

“He’s still baptized. Baptism’s baptism. Even in the old days, the church didn’t re-baptize someone who was joining up if he’d been baptized in another faith.”

“I don’t understand. Isn’t that how you guys initiate somebody?”

“In one sense yes. But baptism is a sacrament and that means it goes a lot deeper than the ritual you see. When a person is baptized, he’s washed clean from original sin, which in the case of babies, is their sinful nature and in the case of adults also includes all their other sins.”

“In other words, you have to be baptized to get into heaven.”

“Basically.”

“What if you don’t get around to it?”

“There are provisions for those who believe but haven’t had a chance to be baptized for whatever reason. One of them is martyrdom.”

“Oh.”

“The key is faith. You have to believe in it, first. So I wouldn’t count on having me around when you cash in. Without faith, it won’t do you any good. And besides, I’ll probably get bumped off a lot sooner than you will, anyway. The idea is not to wait to the last minute, because you may not have a chance.”

“Ah, yes. You realize that’s the argument you religious types have in your favor. Death and what comes after.”

“That undiscovered bourn from which no traveler returns.”

“Precisely.” Sid paused, then we walked on. “Back talking about death again, aren’t we?”

“It must be the circumstances surrounding why we’re here.”

Sid smirked. “Maybe I ought to get myself baptized.”

“What?” I asked laughing. “You?”

“Well, that point you made about not waiting to the last minute because you may not have a chance is well taken. You might even want to consider it, as a matter of fact.”

“What do you mean?”

“Earlier this evening you expressed an intense curiosity regarding sexual intercourse.”

My heart racing, I stepped up my pace. The problem was, I was curious and horny, and I realized all of a sudden just how hard he was to resist.

He caught my shoulder. “Hey, don’t worry. I’m not asking. You’re obviously not ready, any more than I am to believe in God. And I refuse to make love to you until you are.”

I looked into his beautiful blue eyes. “It might surprise you, but sometimes I really think I am ready.”

“I’m not in the least surprised.” His fingers touched my cheek. “But until we can overcome the fear within you, it’s not going to happen.”

We went back to the motel from there. I almost took the cold shower. Sid didn’t shower at all, but he sure spent an awfully long time in the bathroom. [You’re kidding. Didn’t you smell it? I was going nuts. I was going to die. That’s what I thought. Either I was going to get myself between your legs, or I was going to die – SEH]

Author Sally Wright and Her Archivist Character Ben Reese

I met Sally Wright online via an email list for mystery fans called DorothyL. Her first series features an archivist. I’m married to one. We both went to Northwestern University (at different times). We both studied Oral Interpretation, the art of reading aloud, although she did her degree at NU and I did my oral interp degree at California State University, Fullerton. I sent her a few questions and she answered. In fact, she gave me such great stuff, I’m having to break her interview into two posts. Here’s Part One. 

 

 

How hard was it to explain Ben Reese’s job when you were sending your first book out?

 

– I definitely had to work on the cover letter, but it probably wasn’t as hard explaining Ben’s job as it was getting agents and editors to consider taking on the work of an unknown author back when I was getting started. Everybody faces that, and the rejection and the hard work it leads to teaches you a lot.

I described how, in the early 1960s, Ben Reese (who’d been an Army Ranger and behind-the-lines Scout in WWII) was a jack-of-all-trades university archivist who identified, dated, restored and conserved, whatever artifacts had been given to his university over the previous hundred and fifty years. He rescued abandoned artifacts from the college’s basements and attics, organized and maintained the archives, and displayed all sorts of materials in the library so that students and faculty could appreciate them. His archives contained a wide array of materials – paintings, tapestries, a chandelier that had once hung in the Whitehouse, letters, diaries, rare books, rare coins, early Native American pottery – which gave Ben an opportunity to travel and research those materials in Europe and the U.S. The artifacts that I describe above were, in fact, actual materials that the “real” Ben Reese (John Reid, now-deceased, the archivist/ex-Ranger I worked with on the Ben Reese books) had organized in the archives of Ohio Wesleyan University.

 

Do you have a favorite archive that you like to visit? Or a fave resource for research? I always joke that I married my favorite resource.

 

– That was very good planning on your part!

When I was writing the Ben Reese books I worked in the archives at Ohio Wesleyan University, the science library at Bowling Green State University, The Library of Congress, The National Archives in Washington, The British Museum (the famous round reading room in London, not the recently built replacement), the Bodleian Library in Oxford, plus many local libraries in England, Scotland, Fernandina Beach, Florida, St. Mary’s, Georgia, Charleston, South Carolina, primarily for local history, and several museums and libraries in Tuscany, Italy, most of them in Florence. John Reid worked with me at the Ohio Historical Society (where he was a volunteer after he retired), but generally we worked at his home, which was an incredible resource of all sorts of materials he and his wife had collected.

Now, as I write the Jo Grant mysteries, which take place in Kentucky horse country and have to do with family-owned horse related businesses – a hands-on broodmare care farm, an equine pharmaceutical company, a horse van and trailer manufacturer – I’ve done most of my on-site research in the archives of the Keeneland Racecourse Library in Lexington, which is an excellent resource for all things having to do with the history of the horse, particularly Thoroughbreds, American and world racing, equine medicine (historical and contemporary), equine art, jockeys throughout history, the early days of Kentucky, and much more. And yet – as with all the Ben Reese books as well – the most inspiring research I do comes from interviewing people who are experts in whatever I need to know.

For the Jo Grant books I’ve interviewed law enforcement people (a former Woodford County, Kentucky Sheriff named Squirrel, who’s now a US Marshall, helped me immeasurably), lawyers in Kentucky, and Ohio where I live, five equine vets (practicing and retired, in Kentucky and Ohio) for the book I’m writing now (which will introduce a family owned equine vet practice), a chemical engineer who gave me pivotal parts of two plots, Mackensie Miller, now deceased (a very well respected Thoroughbred trainer who trained for years for Paul Mellon), the author of several non-fiction works on Midway and Versailles, Kentucky, which helped as much as our interviews to introduce me to a widely differing social and work-related group of very compelling people who were part of what gave Woodford County the character it had in the ’60s, life-long owners of a broodmare care business much like Jo Grant’s – to list only those I’ve interviewed who first came to mind.

The memories and the anecdotes and the perspectives I get from talking to people who know what I need to know work mysteriously in the back of my brain to make my imaginary world real to me, and help me create believable characters and plots that hold together.

 

Sally Wright’s latest book is the Jo Grant mystery Behind the Bonehouse. You can find it at Barnes & Noble or Amazon.

cozy mystery, spy novel, serial mystery fiction

Chapter Four

May 20 – 23, 1983

The flight from Washington was short. Sid seemed tense but stayed awake for a change. I, on the other hand, dozed. Sid woke me as we circled over Manhattan.

“We forgot something,” he grumbled.

“Huh?”

“We forgot something,” he repeated. “Something critical.”

“Oh, help.” I dove under my seat for my carry on and the huge tan leather purse Sid had talked me into buying the day before.

“It’s something we forgot to get yesterday,” said Sid.

I yawned. “I can’t imagine what.”

“A camera. We’re tourists.”

“I’ve got mine.” I got out my purse and pulled out the black case containing my Canon SLR. “I even remembered the flash.”

Sid all but gaped. “When did you get that?”

“I’ve had it since last November. Jesse helped me get it wholesale.”

“Figures. But how did it get here?”

“I had it on the retreat with me.”

“Oh, great. Don’t tell me you have film with your friends on it.”

“Nope. I’m not that stupid. I shot off that roll in Washington and left it. Hattie said she’d send it back with the rest of my fabric and stuff. Oh my, those skyscrapers are so close. What a great shot.”

I pulled the case off my camera and squeezed off a few.

We landed about ten minutes later at La Guardia. We were on one of those early commuter flights, and so it was only nine o’clock when we got on the bus to Manhattan. We settled into our seats, and I checked my copy of Frommer’s New York City.

“Good lord, look at these prices!” I gasped.

“Welcome to New York,” said Sid.

“Hey, get this, the Algonquin is moderately priced. That’s moderate? Good Lord. Here’s one on 42nd and 8th.”

Sid grimaced. “That’s right off of Times Square. It’s not a nice neighborhood.”

“This says it’s right in the middle of the theater district. Can’t be that bad.”

“True. Alright.”

“It’s the cheapest one there is.” I shook my head. “My daddy would be a millionaire at these prices.”

Sid just chuckled.

At the hotel, we had to store our suitcases and carry-ons. Our room wasn’t ready, but the desk said he’d send our stuff up as soon as it was. In the meantime, Sid and I hit the phones. I didn’t know what he was up to, but I had a drop to arrange.

“So what do we do now?” I asked him when we met again in the lobby.

“Go sight-seeing,” he said. “We’ll come back and change for dinner.”

“Okay.”

As far as I was concerned, he was dressed for dinner in one of the casual slacks I’d hemmed the night before. They were a tweed-like synthetic linen, with a pleated front. The yarns were mixed white and light blue with navy blue slubs here and there. They just happened to match the shirt I had made for him, which he just happened to be wearing, along with the light blue sweater he’d bought the day before, which also just happened to match.

The shirt, itself, was short sleeved with square patch pockets and epaulets. Instead of just throwing his sweater over his shoulders and tying it in front, as usual, he’d buttoned the epaulets over the sweater’s sleeves. The whole effect was stunning, far more so than I wanted to think about.

“You got your sweater?” he asked. “It’s a little chilly out there.”

“Yeah, but maybe I should put it with our stuff.” I looked at the beige shetland wool in my hands. “It’s going to warm up, and this purse is bad enough. I don’t want to be dragging a sweater all over, too.”

I had put on my lavender shirtwaist again, with tan sandals that tied around my ankles. The heels were a modest wedge, and in them were pieces of assorted hardware.

“Wear it around your shoulders,” said Sid.

“They always fall off when I do that.”

“Maybe you’re not wearing it right. Put it on.”

Rolling my eyes skyward, I flipped the sweater around my shoulders. Sid just smiled and shook his head.

“No wonder it falls,” he said, plucking it off. He deftly folded the neckline over. “Here, see how I fold this?” I took my purse in my hands and he swung the sweater over my shoulders. “Then you just lay it on, so that all of the sleeves are over your shoulders, then tie it like so.” He did. “And you’re ready to go.”

There was a strange, but not awkward, pause, as we stood and looked at each other. His lips parted. I felt my heart stutter.

“Uh, yeah, well.” Sid turned from me to one of the mirrors decorating the lobby and ran a reassuring hand over his perfectly arranged hair. “You got plenty of film?”

“Yeah,” I replied softly and gathered my things together.

There is an energy to Manhattan that when you’re in the middle of it, fills you with an exhilaration that goes beyond words. Times Square was ugly, without a doubt, trash all over the place, tacky stores, and crowds like I had never seen before, but I loved it. The only other time I had been in New York City, I was in a cab going through Queens from La Guardia to Kennedy. No matter what the danger was, I couldn’t help filling up with the incredible life of the city around me.

“New York, New York, it’s a wonderful town,” I sang. “The Bronx is up and the Battery’s down.”

“The people ride in a hole in the ground,” said Sid. He doesn’t sing. [Under certain circumstances I do, just not in public. They arrest people for that – SEH]  “Come on.”

He gently took my elbow and steered me into the hole in the ground. It was dark, dirty, graffiti everywhere, and it stank.

“This is great,” I giggled as we stood on the platform.

Sid laughed.

“Cut that out,” I said. “I can’t help it. I mean this is the New York subway. I’ve heard about it all my life and I’m really here.”

“You get excited by the strangest things, woman.”

We got off at the Battery. At the edge of the park was a wagon vendor. I got out my wallet.

“A hot pretzel, please,” I asked the vendor. Sid cleared his throat. I turned on him. “Don’t start. Don’t even think of starting. I experience the world with all five of my senses, and I’m not about to stop now.” I turned back to the vendor. “I’d like a bag of peanuts, too, and… a strawberry soda.”

Sid winced as I squirted mustard over the pretzel. That was only the start. I basically ate my way through lower Manhattan. From the Battery, we walked up to Wall Street, then over to the World Trade Center, where Sid decided the line was too long for the ride to the top. I got a bagel and cream cheese downstairs.

Then we went up Broadway, past City Hall Park, and walked around the shops in Chinatown where I got take out – marvelous mu shu pork, exquisite egg foo young and a yummy spare rib, then on up through Little Italy where I ate two slices of pizza from two different places, a half pint of tortellini that I’m certain God Himself made, and a quarter pound of an incredibly delicious salami.

“Fats and salt,” said Sid, morosely shaking his head.

“And lots of garlic to thin out my blood.” I stuffed in another slice.

“I know. I can smell it.”

“You can? Maybe I’d better get a breath mint.”

“Oh no. Not one of those revolting peppermints. Please. The only thing worse than garlic on your breath is peppermint and garlic on your breath.”

From Little Italy, we walked through SoHo and up into Greenwich Village where I stopped eating long enough to take some pictures of Washington Square Park.

“So this is the infamous Village,” I said.

“Mm-hm.” Sid nodded. “It’s gotten a lot nicer since I was a kid. I was born not too far from here, you know.”

“That’s right. But you were pretty young when you left. Do you remember a lot?”

“I was only three when we moved.” He frowned, digging up the memory. “We lived over this little Italian grocery. My earliest memory is of the grocer. He was an old guy, with ice blue eyes. I don’t remember much else from when I lived here. Stella and I came back a lot, though. It was a pretty interesting place.”

“I’ll bet.” Then something I’d been looking for caught my eye and I headed for it. “Alright.”

“Where are you going?”

“That hot dog wagon. I’ve been looking for one of those since I got here.”

“You can get one later.” Sid caught my arm and pulled me away. “You may not believe this, but I am actually hungry and would like to eat a responsible, healthy lunch.”

Read boring, but actually, it wasn’t bad. The little restaurant served a variety of organic salads and something called tofu. I had an avocado sandwich with tomato and lettuce on whole grain bread. The salad they put in front of Sid had all sorts of weird things growing out of it. I managed to cop a taste from him, and it was pretty good.

“There, you see,” he said. “Healthy living does not have to be deprivation. This food is as delicious as anything I’ve watched you put in your face today.”

“I never said it wasn’t. I just like the other stuff, too.”

Sid sighed in surrender. We spent the rest of the afternoon ambling up Broadway. I got cookies, more pizza, falafel, gyros, Lindy’s cheesecake and the most heavenly pastrami sandwich it has ever been my pleasure to sink my teeth into.

“This is the pastrami I have been waiting all my life to eat,” I announced, licking the mustard from my thumb.

“Are you finally getting full?”

“You’re just jealous.”

“Not a bit. In fact, I’m rather enjoying the thought of the incredible indigestion that’s headed your way.”

“Not my way.” I patted my tummy. “It’s cast iron. Can handle anything.”

As we neared Times Square again, I spotted another hot dog wagon.

“No,” said Sid. “Don’t you want to save some room for dinner?”

“It depends on whether or not I get to pick out where we’re eating.”

“I’ve already selected a place and made reservations.”

“I’m not eating dinner at any restaurant that serves alfalfa sprouts. I’ve done that once today and that’s enough, so if you’ll excuse me, I’ll get my kraut dog now.”

He caught my elbow. “In deference to your gluttony, we’re going to a very nice little French restaurant that I know of.”

“It’s not that nouvelle cuisine that’s supposed to be good for you, is it?”

“No. It’s traditional French cooking in all its glory.”

“Really?” That sounded a lot better. “Maybe I will wait on that kraut dog.”

It was almost three o’clock then, and time for me to check in, which I did at the first pay phone I could find that worked.

“Well?” asked Sid as I hung up.

“The drop’s set up for tomorrow.”

“Good.”

When we got back to the hotel, Sid grabbed his clothes and the bathroom.

“Put on that black backless dress you got yesterday,” he called.

“Okay.” I also got out my makeup and redid my face. If the place was that fancy, I wanted to look good.

It took me a few more minutes to find my black nylons. I got undressed, put on the black nylons, and had just slipped the black dress up over my hips when the bathroom door opened.

“Sid!” I yelped, pulling the top up over my bare chest.

His face was damp, his five o’clock shadow was gone, and he was equally bare-chested, with a light tan that highlighted his muscles, just enough to suggest power without all that exaggerated bulkiness.

“Oh, sorry,” he said, going over to his carry on. “I thought you’d be dressed by now.”

“But, Sid-”

“Watch that name stuff. You never know.”

“You did that on purpose!” My face was purple with rage and embarrassment.

Sid, who was on his way back to the bathroom, turned back to me with his very bored look.

“Why? I’ll confess to some curiosity, but in the first place, there just aren’t that many variations on the theme, and we both know it would go nowhere, so in the final analysis, looking is utterly pointless. And in the second place, nude bodies in all circumstances aside from immediate sexual pleasure just don’t get me that excited.”

“Huh?”

“I don’t give a damn whether your breasts have clothes on them or not. Your bare breasts are not going to get me all fired up. As far as I’m concerned, they’re just mammary glands, unless I happen to have my hands or my mouth on them, which is a very pleasant thought, indeed, but not too damned likely to happen. I just came out to get my brush, and I’m sorry I caught you.” [Okay, I wasn’t being entirely honest. I found your topless body quite pleasant to look at and was very happy to have had the chance. But it was an accident that I got it – SEH]

I didn’t believe him. He went back into the bathroom and I finished getting dressed. When he came out, we were both dressed.

“Did you shave again?” I asked.

“Mm-hmm. I always shave twice a day. My beard is unfortunately too dark and grows too fast for me not to.”

The topless incident remained unmentioned.

Dinner was excellent. Sid almost ate like a normal person. He stuck with chicken and oil and vinegar on the side for his salad and requested no salt when he ordered. He also refused dessert. I didn’t. While I was happily consuming my pastry, he told me what those other phone calls were.

“Tickets to the theater and the ballet?” I actually stopped eating. “You’re kidding.”

“Not in the least. We’ve got American Ballet Theatre tomorrow, and a nice little off-Broadway show tonight.”

“On a weekend? How’d you do it?”

“I have my ways.”

I leaned over and spoke softly. “You didn’t blow our cover did you?”

He also spoke softly, mocking my tone. “Not even close. I just know who to call.”

I settled back in my seat.

“Wow,” I giggled. “That’s terrific.”

Between dinner and the play, I got down a Hagen Daz ice cream cone. During the play, which was very good, I ate a chocolate bar. After the play, I finally got my kraut dog (perfection).

“I’ve never seen any one person eat so much in one day in my entire life,” Sid said when we finally got back to our room.

“There’s a lot of good food around.” I came in from the bathroom, dressed for bed in nightgown and robe, stirring bicarbonate of soda into a glass of warm water. I handed it to him. “Maybe if you didn’t baby your system so much, it wouldn’t be so hard on you.”

Sid winced at the taste of the mixture. He heaved himself out of the chair and headed for the bathroom to change for bed. I noticed his pajama bottoms and robe folded neatly on top of his suitcase.

“You forgot something,” I called out. I picked them up and handed them through.

“Sorry.”

That was one of the most awkward things about us rooming together. Sid doesn’t normally wear anything to bed. He was very nice about volunteering the pajama bottoms but got a little testy about the robe until I reminded him he didn’t have to sleep in the robe. It was just for between the changing room and bed, as the bottoms were rather sheer and the flies on those things were always popping open. Sid promptly retorted in that case, he could dispense with the bottoms once in bed. I said I didn’t want to know about it.

“I’ll sleep on the floor tonight,” I called. “Since you’re not feeling well.”

“Thanks.”

We had gotten an extra blanket from the hotel. I took the bedspread off the bed, laid it down on the floor, grabbed the second pillow, and taking it and the blanket, made myself comfortable. After taking off my robe, I laid down, trying to silently release the excess gas in my stomach.

The next morning, Sid let me sleep until seven thirty before he nudged me awake with his foot.

“Leave me alone,” I mumbled, pulling the blanket over my head.

“We’re going running.” He was ready to go.

“We’re supposed to be on vacation.”

“In the first place, we are in fact not on vacation, and in the second place, people on vacation do go running in the morning. Don’t you want to be able to say you went running in Central Park?”

“No.”

“Get up.”

I did, growling and grumbling and fumbling my way around. I wake up very slowly. As I became more alert, I made several pointed remarks about the possibilities of encountering the muggers, rapists, and other assorted violent types generally associated with Central Park. Sid pointedly ignored me. I also complained about running the twenty blocks up to the park through all the crowds of people trying to get to work when we could have taken the bus or subway. Sid ignored that too.

Two hours later, over breakfast, Sid briefed me on the small, coded dossier on our suspect that we’d found in the envelope with the drops.

“His name is Merle Wadkins, Jr.,” said Sid. “He’s caucasian, six one, brown hair, green eyes, no distinguishing marks. Cover is a freelance salesman in the greeting card and novelty business. He lives in a fourth floor walk-up in SoHo. He was adopted in 1969, has a good solid record, including several investigations, but nothing spectacular. He’s considered the least likely source of our leak, but you know how that goes.”

“I can imagine.” I was nervous. Sid and I were wired, but that was small consolation.

We took a cab to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Sid ditched me just after we got in the entrance. Around eleven, I found myself in the European Artist’s Gallery looking for someone looking at Rembrandt’s “Aristotle Looking at a Bust of Homer.” Wadkins arrived precisely on time at five after. He wore a dark tacky spring overcoat. I casually came over to inspect the Rembrandt. Standing close to him, I quickly glanced around. People milled about the room but paid no attention to us. I slipped an envelope out of my purse and into the pocket of the overcoat.

“Thanks,” muttered Wadkins and then moved off.

I stayed looking at the painting a minute longer, then sauntered off to meet Sid in Arms and Armour.

“Mission accomplished,” I said slipping up to him.

“Great. Let’s make tracks out of here.”

“Do we have to?”

Sid looked at me and shrugged. “I suppose we could stay if you want to. I was thinking of taking in the Statue of Liberty, myself. It may be our last chance before all you know what breaks loose.”

“Oh. That’s right.” I sighed. “Alright, let’s go.”

We had a lovely day. The Statue was great but extremely crowded. Sid absolutely refused to stand in line to walk to the top. The Dragon had nothing for us when we checked in, so we goofed off and window shopped at the South Street Seaport and just barely got back to the hotel in time to change for dinner and the ballet. Then I almost made us late by insisting on checking the times for mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

The next morning, I told Sid he could stay at the hotel if he wanted to, while I was at church. He insisted on walking with me.

“It’ll look better if I go with you,” he said, as we started off.

“Well, you don’t have to stay.”

“So I’m bored for an hour.”

“You’re not bored, you’re bugged. Why the sudden interest?”

“Strictly for appearances.” His tone told me he’d been bracing himself for this. Attending mass was the last thing he wanted to do. I took pity on him.

“If that’s the only reason you’re going, then don’t. Mixed marriages aren’t all that uncommon. Nobody would think twice about a man dropping his wife off at church.”

“You sure?”

“Positive.”

“How long will you be?”

“About an hour. Tell you what. Sak’s is right there. I’ll meet you there in two-and-a-half hours.”

I was surprised when he didn’t argue or insist that we go wired.

I was looking at a dress in Sak’s Fifth Avenue when it happened. I didn’t have to meet Sid for another half hour, and so I was more absorbed in whether or not I should try the dress on than I should have been. A pair of hands slipped from behind to cover my eyes. I didn’t scream but rammed my knuckles into the tendons above the wrists. The hands gave way, and I whirled around with my elbow looking for a place to connect. One of the hands stopped me.

“Hold on,” Sid said wincing and chuckling at the same time. “It’s just me.”

I turned on him, utterly furious.

“You,” I gasped, then continued in a low angry voice. “You of all people ought to know better than to pull a stupid stunt like that.”

“Did I scare you?”

“I only tried to jump right out of my skin.”

“Well, you got yours back.” Grinning, he held up his wrists, then rubbed the spot where my knuckles had hit home. There was something funny about the way he was acting.

“You seem to be in an awfully good mood,” I said.

“I am. I just resolved a problem that I thought was going to make things difficult for us, especially if this fiasco turns out to be a long-running affair.”

“I don’t get it.”

Sid grinned and brushed my nose with his forefinger.

“You’re not thinking again, my dear. What’s a supposedly happily married man supposed to do when he’s horny and his wife won’t co-operate and nobody can know why she won’t?”

I blushed. “I think I know what you were doing while I was at church.”

“Each of us to our own first loves.”

“That is disgusting.” I stopped and looked at him. He laughed. “But apt.”

“So what are you looking at?”

“This dress. I was debating trying it on.”

“Go ahead.”

“I don’t know. It’s very expensive.”

“Oh no.” Sid groaned. “Must you..?’ “

“That is why I wanted to meet you out front, to prevent this argument.”

“How much is it? It’s probably not that bad.”

“Details…”

Sid looked at the price tag.

“It’s not that bad,” he said. “You could afford it.”

“I suppose,” I sighed. “But I don’t know if it’s my style.”

I took it off the rack and walked over to the three-way mirror. Sid followed me over.

“I don’t know,” I said again putting it up to myself and looking into the mirror. “What do you think?”

“Looks nice.” He nodded.

“Maybe.” Without thinking, I put the dress up to him. “Here, hold this.”

“What?” He took the hanger as I stepped back a few paces and looked at it.

“I can’t tell.”

“I should hope not, up against me.” He handed the dress back. “Here, go try it on. Please?”

“Alright. Will you take my purse?”

Sid feebly took the strap, gazing skyward and asking, “Why me?”

Needless to say, we bought the dress. As the salesgirl was wrapping it, I sniffed at my wrists, trying to make up my mind about the two perfumes I’d tried on them. I noticed Sid raise an eyebrow at me, so I asked his opinion. I stiffened and tried to calm my racing heart as his soft, gentle hands took each wrist. He sniffed expertly at one, then the other and pronounced judgment. Our next stop was the perfume counter, where we bought the approved scent.

“We should get something for you,” I said as we left the store.

“Maybe we will.” Sid held the door open for me. “Why don’t we make this our shopping day? I’d just as soon keep moving.”

“Why?”

“We’ll be harder to hit.”

We spent the day walking up and down Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue. We didn’t buy much. We knew we’d have to carry it. Sid spent a lot of time smiling and shaking his head at what he called my “childlike delight” over anything I liked.

“It’s utterly fitting for you, innocent one.”

We were in front of Tiffany’s and I had more or less glowed at finding myself peering into its windows. We’d already been to Cartier, which I know is a classier store. But there was something special about Tiffany’s.

“Please,” I replied, blushing. “I prefer to think of myself as a more sophisticated woman.”

“But you are in your own way. That’s part of your charm. You, my dear, are a fascinating woman of contrasts.”

“Oh, I am?” I blushed even harder. “I suppose you’re waiting for me to tell you what a dashingly clever, charming, and handsome fellow you are.”

“I already know I am.”

“Then I won’t tell you.”

Sid laughed. “Come on, let’s go inside.”

“Better not.” I looked at the door longingly. “I’ll fall in love with something and you’ll get mad at me because I won’t buy it.”

Sid leaned back against the building, with his arms folded and looked out at the traffic.

“Maybe… I think I will.” He nodded and looked at me. “This is a promise. I don’t know how yet, but someday, I am going to find a way to put you in a position where you cannot protest and I am going to drag you in here and I am going to twist your arm until you tell me exactly what it is you want and I shall buy it for you.”

He was smiling and his tone was light, but he was serious. I don’t know why it made me feel so uncomfortable.

“Well,” I said, desperately trying to break the moment. “The only position you’ll be able to get me in is standing or sitting.”

Sid’s eyebrow lifted and his hot little smile sent my heart racing.

“I can do that.” There was not the least trace of lechery in his voice, and yet those four words were the most sensual and steamy that I had ever heard.

My face went vermillion.

“I should know better than to say things like that to you,” I said, walking off.

Sid chuckled. “And I should probably have let it pass, but a set up like that is just too tempting.”

“I suppose.” We walked in silence for a minute. “You know, I really am not saying anything.”

“Believe me, I’m well aware of how innocent you really are. I guess I do it because A- It is funny. Even you laugh.”

“Yeah, I do.”

“And B-” He looked out at the cars and people. “There’s a certain safety in keeping you mad at me.”

I had to admit there was that.

Then there was the problem of all the stuff I saw for my five nieces and nephews back home.

“Anything we buy that we cannot personally use represents clues that an enemy might use against us,” said Sid.

“We can’t send it, I suppose.”

“And give an enemy an address to latch onto?” Sid shook his head. “I’ll admit the odds are pretty low that we’re being watched right now, but we’re not going to stay alive by being careless.”

“I’m going to have to call Mae sometime. She’s going to start wondering, and that could be dangerous, too.”

Sid sighed. “You’ve got a point. Let me think about it and I’ll figure something out. But we’ve got to stay on our toes every step of the way.”

“You certainly know how to set a person at ease.”

Sid softened. “Let’s not worry about it too much. I don’t want us to be miserable, just alert.”

I tried cheering up, but it took more of Sid’s teasing to jolt me out of it. It was my idea to stop at the t-shirt shop.

“This looks nice,” said Sid, holding up a beige one with the city’s skyline silk screened onto it.

“Yeah.” I managed a half smile, then a thought hit me. “You know we could get matching shirts.”

“No way in hell. I wouldn’t be caught dead.”

“Thanks.” I sulked.

His hand softly landed on my shoulder. “Hey, matching you isn’t the problem. It’s matching.” His face scrunched up in disgust. “It’s so cutesy and juvenile.”

“It might help our cover.”

Sid rolled his eyes. “We’re not a couple of junior high kids going steady.”

“True. Why don’t I get this other one, and you can have that.”

“I don’t particularly want it.”

“You have no problem with me getting it.”

“You have more up front to fill it out with.”

I glared at him. “That was tacky.”

He grinned. “You walked right into it.”

By that point I knew he was pushing my button deliberately to get me out of my depression, so I decided to play along. I looked at the t-shirt again.

“Of course,” I said slowly. “If you keep working out like you do, you could have more than me. I mean some of those guys at the gym could wear D-cups.”

Sid laughed. “I, however, am not about to take the steroids to do it.”

“Are you serious? They do that?”

“Hell, yes.”

It was my turn to make a face. “Who would want to take drugs to get all distorted looking? Yuck.” I looked at the t-shirt again. “You’d still look good in this. Or I could cut out the arms and neck for you and make it a tank top.”

“Don’t bother. There’s a rack full of tanks right here. I guess I could use a couple new t-shirts to play racquetball in.”

“You only change shirts three times a game.”

Sid sweats like a horse when he plays.

“I didn’t think you’d noticed.” Sid looked up at me with one of his sly smiles.

We belong to the same gym because that’s where Sid signed me up when I first started working for him. But when we’re there together, we don’t really cross paths much. Most people would be surprised we even know each other.

I’m only a beginner at racquetball and Sid’s a thousand times better, and I’m on a different weight program again because Sid’s been there a lot longer and is more advanced and because I’m a woman. Strangely enough, Sid doesn’t go to the gym to pick up women, although he doesn’t turn down offers. He says it’s his time to be with the guys.

“Well, Karen and Mindy have spotted you,” I said referring to the gals I hang out with. “They talked me into watching that tournament last month.”

“Really.” Sid’s eyebrow lifted.

“Don’t waste your time. Karen is happily married and Mindy is too busy with law school to bother. We just like ogling the meat, that’s all.”

“Meat. Hmmm. Alright. As the current representative of the male sex, I accept your point and concede that it is well put.”

Laughing, I licked the end of my finger and chalked up my point on the air.

At check in time, the Dragon told me to make a pick up near the U.N. and drop it with our suspect the next morning. I got the pickup, then Sid and I took advantage of where we were and toured the facility. We were not happy about the drop. Sid called us cheese for the mousetrap. But that was why we were there.

Later, I talked Sid into tickets for that night for one of the big musicals. We got back late, completely exhausted. It was my night for the floor, and I was so tired, I didn’t care. It was the only reason I slept.

We were both tense the next morning. We went to the drop wired. Sid scoped out the set up first. Of course, I didn’t think anybody would be crazy enough try a hit in the toy department at Macy’s, but after that restaurant in Washington, we weren’t taking any chances. We’d made it a code one, which meant no contact at all, to make it even harder for someone to get in close enough for a knife, or even a small pistol.

I’d been told about a doll in a doll bed, and sure enough, it was there.

“You’re clear,” said Sid’s voice in my ear. He was within reach, but not where he could be seen. “Anyone hiding would have to be a leprechaun.”

“I don’t want to chance them, either,” I grumbled, going over to the doll bed.

I put the drop under the doll and retreated quickly.

Nothing happened. I browsed through the games. No one went near the bed. I waited for five minutes.

Sid came out from behind the luggage department.

“Keep an eye out,” his voice said in my ear. “But I’ll watch here.”

He looked over the stuffed animals. A woman in a business suit wandered through. She picked up a toy gun and eyed Sid. I moved in quickly, but she went back to the register. Sid moved out of range. The toy clerk came out from the stockroom. The woman bought the gun and left. The toy clerk went over to Sid.

“Help you today?” asked the clerk.

“Not today.” Sid backed off quickly and slid around the corner.

We waited another five minutes, then I went over to the doll bed, got the drop and we got out of there fast.

“Something’s wrong,” I gasped as we hit the street.

“Keep moving,” said Sid. His eyes were everywhere. Suddenly, he darted onto a bus, pulling me with him. The bus pulled away downtown. I watched out the door as Sid paid our fares.

“Well?” he asked as we made our way to the back.

“Nobody noticed or cared,” I said. “Typical New York.”

“Lucky for us,” said Sid. The bus took us down Broadway and we got off in SoHo. We found the brownstone where Merle Wadkins lived without problem. The front door was locked and had a buzzer on it. We lucked out and someone left the building and all we had to was slip in after.

“Gloves,” said Sid softly. I dug the two pairs of black kid leather gloves out of my purse, and we put them on as we went upstairs. Sid had drilled it into me that anytime I was someplace I wasn’t supposed to be, I wore gloves.

We knocked on the door to Wadkins’ apartment. There was no answer.

“I don’t like this,” said Sid. “I hate daytime jobs.”

But he scratched his hair and pulled out of it a small piece of spring steel.

“Keep your eyes open,” he said working on the door. “And get your hand on your gun.”

I already had my hand on the S and W model thirteen revolver in my purse. The bolts slid back with a clunk and the door creaked open. Sid stepped back. We checked the landing for people. I drew my gun and, with my back to the door, eased myself into the apartment. Behind me, Sid bent down and retrieved the twenty-two automatic he keeps strapped to his left shin.

Utter quiet blanketed the destruction in the tiny room. Papers and greeting cards were everywhere. Cushions and pillows had been torn apart, chairs had lost their seats and drawers were upended.

“Damn,” muttered Sid.

“What now?” I whispered.

“Better see if somebody found something.” Sid moved past me towards the back.

I went over to the turned over couch and righted it and gasped loudly.

“What?” Sid was at my side in a second.

He doesn’t swear often, but when he does, it can peel paint off walls. In rare form, he pulled papers away from the corpse and checked it. I turned away, feeling nauseous.

“Damn it. What’s the matter with you?”

“Is he dead?”

“As stiff as they come. Jesus, will you pull yourself together?”

“Don’t use that name in vain.”

Sid groaned. “Go check the kitchen.”

I stumbled into that room, but couldn’t get through the door. Every cupboard had been emptied as had the refrigerator, and the floor was completely covered with pots, pans, broken glassware, limp vegetables and thawing tv dinners and meat. I hesitated but pushed my way in. Even the safe at the back of the cupboard had been broken into and cleaned out.

“Well, well,” said Sid. He came to the kitchen door and showed me a used syringe.

“Was Wadkins a junkie?” I asked.

“No, but that’s who we’re supposed to think did this. Come on. Let’s go.”

“What about…?”

“It’s just a dead body. It can’t hurt you.”

I took a deep breath and scrambled through the front room.

“You are going to have to do something about that,” Sid said as we hit the street.

“About what?” I grumbled.

“You and corpses.” He headed uptown.

“I’m sorry. But you’ve got to admit my experience with them hasn’t exactly been the best.”

He sighed. “No. It hasn’t, damn it. But past trauma or no, you’ve got to find a way to stop panicking every time you see a stiff or you’re going to end up one.”

I shuddered. “Are you sure it wasn’t a junkie who tore up that place?”

“Positive. There were no forced entry marks on the door, and that place was too clean. No junkie would have found that safe, or taken the time to crack it. That was a professional job.”

“Terrific. What killed Wadkins?”

“Probably the ever-popular blunt instrument. There was a nasty soft spot at the back of his skull.”

“Do you think the police will be fooled?”

“Not likely, but it won’t do them any good. Even if Wadkins didn’t keep his tracks covered, a job like that is going to be mighty hard to crack, and it just might throw someone off.”

Sid hailed a cab and told him to take us back to our hotel.

“We’re leaving,” he told me in the elevator. “Don’t waste time trying to figure whose stuff is whose. Just jam it in the first open spot and let’s get out.”

“But what about check in?”

“We’ll stay in town long enough for that, but not here. A moving target’s harder to hit.”

Sid took the bathroom while I removed bags from purchases and started cramming. We were out in ten minutes with nothing left behind. It took us longer to pay up at the desk.

We stored our bags at Grand Central Station, then went to find lunch.

That afternoon we had the first of a series of remarkable talks that popped up periodically throughout the trip. After lunch, we went to Central Park. We ambled along the path, heading for the zoo, each of us lost in our own thoughts. It was a pleasant, comfortable silence, and much needed given all the tension we were working under.

“Do you ever think about dying?” I asked suddenly, without even thinking about what I was asking.

“I try not to,” Sid replied, casually. “Generally, I’m successful.”

“And when you’re not?”

“I try to think of something else.”

I stopped walking, turned and looked at him.

He shrugged. “It’s not one of my favorite topics to dwell on.” There was a pause as we continued our walk. “How about you?”

“I never used to, at least not much. I’ve been thinking about it a lot more recently.”

“That’s one thing that’s always puzzled me about you.”

“What?”

“You say you believe in God and all his promises about going to Heaven when you die, and you’re afraid of dying. I would think you’d have thrown yourself under the wheels of some car long ago.”

“Well, I believe life is a gift from God, like a sacred trust and you don’t go around throwing gifts back in people’s faces.”

“No.”

“Besides, I believe there’s a purpose for my life and when I’ve fulfilled it, God’ll take me.”

“Then why are you so scared?”

That was a hard one to answer. I knew Sid just wanted to know. I don’t think I wanted to convert him. I knew that was almost impossible. But I was anxious that he not get a bad impression. I stopped walking and looked at his face. There was something about the look in his eyes that made me decide to just be myself and not worry about bad impressions.

“Sometimes, it’s the process itself that scares me, the actual act of my soul leaving my body.” I paused. “Most of the time though I’m scared I won’t measure up somehow.”

“It’d have to be a pretty cruel God, not to let you in. I’m surprised you still believe.”

“I believe because intellectually I know it’s not God, nor my perception of him that’s the problem. It’s my perception of myself. Most of the time, I’m aware of my goodness, if you will, but there are times when I’m not terribly convinced emotionally. I guess it’s the sin in my life.”

“Sin?” Sid smiled. “I don’t see how your occasional petty misdeeds could be classified as sin.”

“I suspect my so-called petty misdeeds are worse than your so-called grand scale sinning. I know better.”

“You shouldn’t be so hard on yourself.”

“Maybe not. I may be a Christian, but like the bumper sticker says, I’m not perfect.”

“Just forgiven.” Sid chuckled. “That’s always sounded like a cop-out to me.”

“For a lot of people, it is. That’s why I don’t like it. It’s too easy to just sit back and forget about growing. I don’t want to live that way. If I’m not growing, I’m dying.” I paused and blushed. “Oh, geez, listen to me. I sound so holy.”

“I wish more people were holy like you.”

I swallowed and blinked back the tears that had come rushing to my eyes.

“Thanks. That was the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me.”

“You’re welcome,” Sid said, softly.

We stood there silently for a moment, looking at each other, stymied by the one barrier left between us. A breeze wafted by, carrying on it a light friendly scent that delighted my nose and gave me the graceful escape I was looking for.

“Popcorn,” I said, sniffing and turning. “Where is it? I can smell it popping. Where is it? I’m hungry.”

Sid burst out laughing. “You’re hopeless, woman. Utterly hopeless.”

I spotted the bright red wagon some ways away. I grabbed Sid’s hand and pulled him after me.

“Come on. I want to get it while it’s fresh out of the popper.”

“I shouldn’t be supporting this, you know.” Sid pulled his hand away to save himself the indignity of being dragged more than anything else. I smiled as he hung his thumbs in his belt loops and sauntered after me.

Sid checked in that afternoon. The Dragon said she’d find what she could on Wadkins’ murder and told Sid we were not to go to Orlando until the next day. Sid told her in no uncertain terms that we were not staying in New York that night.

So we went to Kennedy airport and to Atlanta, Georgia. We stayed at a small motel near the airport. I decided to take a shower and shave, so I let Sid have the bathroom first. While he was changing, I made up the “bed” on the floor and then gathered together the toiletries I was going to need that I could find.

“It’s all yours,” said Sid, coming out of the bathroom.

“Thanks,” I mumbled, and then to myself, “Where is that blasted thing?”

“What are you looking for?”

“Oh, you’d know. You packed the stuff in the bathroom. I can’t find my shaver.”

“That little cheap white supermarket job?”

“Yeah, where is it?”

“I left it.”

“How am I going to shave my legs?”

“Go ahead and use mine. Just make sure you change the blades when you’re done.”

“Thanks, where is it?”

“It’s in my kit. I left it on the toilet tank.”

“Um, there’s nothing embarrassing in it, is there?”

“Shouldn’t be.”

I retreated to the bathroom. Sid’s black leather shaving bag was where he said it was. I rummaged through it.

“I can’t find it,” I called. “Oh, never mind.”

I saw the top of the razor and opened the section. All sorts of necessities were strapped onto the wall of the kit.

“Oh, my god,” I groaned.

“Honest,” I heard Sid call. “Whatever it is, I promise I did not know it was there.”

“Oh, you knew about this.” I opened the bathroom door and leaned in the doorway. “Honestly, Sid, a gold-plated tortoise shell razor?”

It was his night for the floor and he was already under the covers. He rolled over onto his stomach and squinted at me, grinning. Sid’s very near-sighted and had already taken his contacts out.

“I have expensive tastes,” he said, propping himself up on his elbows. “Besides, it’s weighted very nicely, has a good comfortable feel to it.”

“I’ll bet. How ostentatious can you get?”

“Plenty. Don’t forget to change the blades.”

“I won’t.”

I didn’t forget. I just couldn’t figure out how to do it. I left the refill right on top of the razor where he could see it and went to bed.

It’s Time to Do It

Wow. I’ve been working on my training for what I’ve been calling a distance walking challenge for over a year now. But it’s time to go ahead and say what I’m actually doing. The plan, I hope, is to walk El Camino Real from San Diego to Sonoma, visiting each of the 21 California missions.

There are tons of reasons why I’m doing this, but mostly it’s one of those bucket list sorts of things that I’ve always wanted to do.

But I also want to do good. To do something that will leave my world a somewhat better place and I’ve been feeling for a while now that this walk could be the way to do it.

I just have no idea how. I suppose I could raise money for some worthy cause. But that doesn’t quite seem right.

The one thing that has resonated is the idea of Giving Voice to the Voiceless. It’s a feeling I know well. Also, one of the things making me crazy and that I suspect was at the bottom of Hillary Clinton losing the election last fall is that our popular media remains almost completely dominated by men, and White men, at that. I’m not saying White guys can’t make good movies and TV shows. Only that it’s time to start sharing the spotlight, as it were.

So how is walking the missions going to accomplish that? I have no idea. But maybe you do.

So please comment and let the dialog begin. And check this space out every so often to see what I’ve gotten myself into. Sigh.

 

cozy mystery, spy novel, serial mystery fiction

Chapter Three

May 18 – 19, 1983

 

 

I poked my head into the drawing room where Sid sat staring at a blank notepad in a padded leather cover. Surrounding him were pages of statistics. He twiddled his favorite Mont Blanc fountain pen in his hand.

“Um, what time are we making that pickup?” I asked.

“We’ll leave right after lunch.” He looked up at me. “Why?”

“Well, I was just wondering if I’d have time to give this to Hattie.” I went in the rest of the way and sat down on the piano bench.

“You’re finished with that sidebar already?” Sid did not look happy.

“It was only two hundred and fifty words, and I didn’t have to do any research.”

Sid was writing the main article on the different choices women were making for their lives, namely to stay at home or work. We’d had a lively debate over the issue with Hattie the night before, and she decided she wanted an article on it. Disgusted, Sid capped his pen and put it away in his suit coat.

“I can’t even get an outline down,” he grumbled. “How am I supposed to do interviews if I don’t know what to ask?”

“Maybe you ought to start with how they feel.”

“Maybe Lisa ought to be doing the main article,” said Hattie, coming into the room.

“I’m happy with the sidebar,” I said. I was thrilled. This was the closest I’d ever come to being really published, and to get paid for it? “I just finished it.”

Hattie took the sheet and put on her reading glasses, which she had on a cord around her neck.

“Hm.” She looked over at Sid. “Sid, have you got your angle on this?”

“I’m getting there,” said Sid gloomily.

Hattie looked down at the blank notepad. “You’re not very far. Perhaps you don’t have the right feel for it. Sid, I want you to reduce the stats to the sidebar. Lisa, you do the main article.”

“What?” yelped Sid.

“The piece needs a woman’s voice.”

“I couldn’t,” I gasped. “Hattie, I’ve never really done anything like this.”

Sid glared at me. “Lisa, you are being offered an opportunity on a silver platter. Grab it, woman.”

“Lisa, your writing is excellent,” said Hattie. “I’m sure Sid will be glad to help you develop the reporting, then it’s just a matter of getting the words on the paper.”

“Okay.”

“I’ll see you two at lunch.” Hattie left.

Sid glared at his notepad.

“You’re mad, aren’t you?” I said.

“I can’t say I’m happy about it.” He looked at me. “Actually, you’re right. I’m pretty teed off. But it’s not your fault, Lisa. Hattie’s right. It needs to be written by a woman.”

“But you’d rather she wasn’t me.”

Sid looked me over. “I don’t get it.”

“It’s the younger sibling syndrome,” I grumbled. “Mae would do something, like drama or choir, and I’d have to get involved too, and sometimes I was better than she was, like skeet. It really bugged her to work so hard on something only to be pre-empted by her baby sister.”

Sid laughed. “Yeah, that about describes how I’m feeling. At the same time, I want to be noble about this. After all, Lisa, if you want to write yourself, I really do want to support you.”

“It would be nice,” I said with a small smile. “But I don’t want to get into competition with you.”

“I doubt that will happen. Even on the same subject, I think you and I would write two very different articles.” Sid got up and stretched. “At least we’re not on deadline with this.” He paused. “I don’t want you to feel like you have to ask me to help you just to make me feel better. But if you do want it, I’ll be there for you.”

“Thanks. I’ll probably need it.”

He smiled at me. “Why don’t we get this mess cleaned up and go to lunch?”

We drove into Washington in a rented car. Sid was still acting a little funny. He was not happy about having to hand the article over to me, but he kept bringing it up, asking me about the outline, what interviews I planned, and generally discussing various plans of attack.

“Sid, are you still trying to write this article?” I finally asked.

He winced. “I hope not. I’m making a very genuine effort to be supportive and share a little of my journalistic experience. I’ve got the background academically and I did sell stuff before you came along.”

“How often?” I asked out of curiosity.

“Well, only about two or three articles a year, but I did have to do everything myself, and there was an awful lot of Quickline business that I had to take care of.”

I laughed. “Sid, the only reason you didn’t get published more often was that editors didn’t want to take the time to fix your lousy sentence structure and spelling. Since we got that cleared up, you’ve been going gangbusters. I’d be a fool not to listen to you, especially since my writing experience is all academic.”

“Still, it’s your article. I have no right to be butting into it.” He looked at me and grinned. “I’ll find some other way to get even.”

I stiffened. “You’d better be careful.”

“Very careful,” he snickered.

I would have slugged him but he was driving, and he pulled into a parking garage anyway.

The drop was at a music store filled with all sorts of pianos and a long wall of sheet music with more bins next to them. Sid and I browsed casually for a few minutes, he through the bins, and me through the racks on the wall. A title caught my eye and I pulled the music out.

“Doesn’t that about say it all?” I told Sid, handing him the music. He handed me the book he was holding, then looked at the title of mine and laughed. The song was “You and Me Against the World.”

“How are we doing today?” asked a young preppy salesman.

“Oh, fine,” said Sid. He handed the song back to me and meandered over to a cherry wood upright piano.

“That’s a nice little starter instrument,” said the salesman. “Do you play?”

Sid winked at me. “Sometimes.”

I grinned back. Sid was setting the poor guy up. We both love doing that to salespeople who try to sell us stuff we don’t want.

“Here, let me play a little for you,” said the salesman. “So you can hear how good it sounds.”

Of course, the last thing he wanted was for us to find out how hard it is to make music until we’d heard how easy it is first. Sid beat him onto the bench and tapped out a tentative “Chopsticks”

“I don’t know, honey,” he asked me. “What do you think?”

“We have an excellent lesson program,” said the salesman as Sid continued playing “Chopsticks.” “And lessons do come with the purchase of your piano.”

“Lessons, huh?” Sid asked. “So I can play like this?”

Sid launched into the two-handed version, then improvised, getting more and more complicated as he went.

The salesman laughed. “I thought you said you played sometimes.”

“I didn’t say how well,” said Sid. He looked over at me. “Sweetheart, would you give me that book I handed you a moment ago?”

I gave it to him. He thumbed through it to the page he wanted, flattened it on the music holder, counted and burst into “The Flight of the Bumble Bee.” The salesman gaped, then nervously looked at us.

“You’re them. I- I’ll ring this up for you.” He grabbed the song I was holding and fled.

“Our drop?” I asked Sid softly.

Sid nodded, still concentrating on his music. A minute later, a tall, matronly woman wandered over with my sheet music in hand.

“Good timing,” she said softly. She handed me the song.

There was a thick manilla envelope inside. I slid it into my purse. The woman looked at us sadly.

“I’m the Dragon, 53-Q, code level 12-A,” she said. The code meant she darned near ran the organization. “This is going to be a dirty one.”

“So we’ve been given to understand,” said Sid. He stopped playing and turned to face her.

“I must warn you that the tree you’re working has been flaky for a long time. We’ve already tried sending marked drops through. Whoever the leak is, they’re very clever, and they’re quick, and as the girl we sent to San Francisco found out, they’re deadly.”

“Well, we’re going in with our eyes open,” said Sid.

“You’ll be calling me for check-ins and to arrange the drops and me only. I’m code Strawberry 5150. If the Strawberries have wilted, bail out and go to standard identity change format. You’ll be cleared to leave the country. If you can’t make a pickup, you can buy passports through the Company, or any other supplier. For check-ins, I’m only giving you fifteen minutes on either side of your assigned hour. If you can’t get me, call the next day, regular time. If I don’t answer a second time, bail out and leave the country immediately, however you can, and get passports through the first Company station you can find.”

Sid nodded, his face unreadable. I tried to keep mine blank, but it wasn’t easy. A standard identity change meant completely changing your identity, often for the rest of your life, and starting over someplace else. As for leaving the country, we normally had to clear even day trips to Tijuana a week in advance. We were headed for some real trouble if we were cleared ahead of time without a specific plan and set up to buy fake passports from the C.I.A.

The Dragon looked us over. “The biggest danger for you will be carelessness. It’s reasonably safe to assume that your first few stops or so will produce no response at all. But when things do break, they’ll happen quickly. I’ll try to warn you where I can.”

“Thanks,” said Sid softly.

The Dragon smiled at us, then left. Sid took the sheet music from my hand.

“Do you know this song?” he asked.

“A little. I’ve heard it before.”

“Hm.” Sid looked over the music as he turned back to the piano keys.

I sang softly. As we finished, Sid looked up at me.

“It says it all,” he said with a wistful smile.

We were quiet in the car back to Hattie’s. About halfway there, I sighed.

“We’re really looking into the gun barrel on this one, aren’t we?” I asked nervously.

Sid shifted. “It’s not a suicide mission. They’ve given us too many escape routes.”

“Yeah, but.”

“That’s it precisely.” He glanced over at me. “You know, I think our best chance at coming out of this alive is to be aware of the danger, but not to let it get to us. Caution is in order, paranoia will kill us.”

“You’re probably right. But could it be you’re not owning up to your own fear?”

“Who me?” Sid tried to chuckle and failed. “Maybe.” Pause. “Probably.” He sighed. “Lisa, right now there’s a job to be done, and I can’t deal with that kind of paralysis. Let’s get the job taken care of, and then we’ll deal with the emotions.”

“Assuming we get that far.”

“We’ve got to stay positive and believe that we’re going to stay alive. Period.”

“Okay. That makes sense.” I was still pretty scared and I could tell Sid was too. But there wasn’t anything we could do about it.

Well, I did something. I called my parents after dinner from the phone in the drawing room. My parents own a resort in South Lake Tahoe, and that’s where I grew up. They also own a place in Homestead, Florida, which is where they’re from. Daddy bought it just after I left for college. Grandma Caulfield was raising Cain about not seeing Mama enough, and my parents were getting a little tired of eight feet of snow seven months out of every year. So they live in Homestead from the end of October to around Easter. The night I called, they’d been back in Tahoe for a month.

“Well, how are you, Lisle,” said Mama in her soft southern drawl. “I was just thinking about calling you.”

“Oh, well, I’m not at home. Sid and I are doing research. I just happened to be waiting around, so I thought I’d call and say hi.”

“From a pay phone?”

“No. A friend of ours. Don’t worry. I’ve got the money thing all worked out.”

“Oh, really. Well, that’s awful nice of your friend.”

“Is Daddy there?”

“I’m ‘fraid not, honey. He had to go into town. You remember Bill and Dottie Shakespeare?”

“Oh yeah.” Actually, I remembered their really awful sons better. Bill was a commercial real estate agent.

“You know Bill was behind that time share company that bought the Bowers’ motel.”

“I didn’t know the Bowers had sold it.”

“Oh, Lisle, they had to. Martin got so sick, and Ernestine just was not up to all that work by herself, and with the kids grown and moved off, there was no way they could keep it. And the time share people were real anxious to get it. You know how that place had all those huge suites and all. Bill fixed them one sweet deal.”

“That’s good, but what does that have to do with Daddy?”

“Well, that time share company is going in everywhere, and they were so happy with Bill that they invited him to get into it, putting money behind it, I mean, and Bill thought your Daddy might be interested in investing also. In fact, we’re supposed to go out to Yellowstone to look over the operation sometime next month.”

“Is Daddy interested?”

“Oh, yes, and I’m looking forward to the trip. It’ll be fun to get someplace besides Florida and here for a change.”

“How are things down south?”

“Oh, the relatives are just being as tiresome as usual.”

She launched into some tale about my Aunt Marie, who is pretty tiresome as a rule. I didn’t hear much of it because Sid wandered in and made it clear that he was not happy that I was on the phone. Fearing the worst, I broke in on Mama.

“Oops, there’s Sid now, Mama. I’ve got to take off. I’ll talk to you soon.” I hung up fast.

“What the hell were you doing?” Sid demanded.

I opted for the best defense. “I was calling my mother. I have a right to do that.”

“Not when it could get her and you killed.”

“Hattie swears her phones are clean, and nobody knows about our business, so nobody is going to tap my mother’s phone.”

“It’s still taking chances. Why on earth would you do that?”

I blinked back tears. “Why do you think?”

Sid paced for a moment longer, then sat down at the piano and began the first of the Twenty-Four Preludes.

The next morning at breakfast, Sid got called to the phone. He didn’t seem too ruffled up by it until we left the dining room. Hattie took off to take care of whatever business she had. Sid motioned for me to follow him upstairs.

“What’s up?” I asked as I followed him to Hattie’s room.

“That phone call. It was from the Dragon.”

“She called you here? How did she know?”

“She told me to come here in the first place. Anyway, one of the Washington operatives who has been watching this tree got called to meet with one of the suspects at three o’clock this afternoon. We’re to watch the meeting, and tail the suspect.”

“That doesn’t sound too bad.” I waited in the doorway while Sid went in and got our transmitters and receivers out of his suitcase. “We might even break this thing right up front.”

Sid smiled and shook his head. “We can but hope. Unfortunately, our shopping trip is going to make it hard to wear jackets.”

He meant our shoulder holsters. We couldn’t wear suit jackets to cover the holsters because a three piece or even a two-piece suit is a real nuisance to get in and out of when you’re trying on clothes. Also, Sid’s suits and shirts are all custom made, which is why we were shopping in the first place. We were supposed to be your average middle-class couple, and Sid always says it’s the details that trip you up faster than anything when you’re undercover. It would have looked pretty funny if he were dressed in one of his super expensive suits and shopping at the Gap.

He was wearing khaki slacks and a light orange Polo shirt, which was the least conspicuous outfit he had with him. Since he was wearing that, it would have looked funny if I were wearing a suit, so I wore the lavender shirtwaist dress that I’d finished the night before. Except for Wednesday morning when I was writing, I’d been sewing pretty steadily and had another sundress and short sleeved shirt in progress. I learned a long time ago that I can get a lot more done if I work on batches of outfits instead of just one item at a time.

I had stuff to buy as well. While my vacation clothes were compatible with our cover, Sid hadn’t packed any of them, just my business wear. All I had were the three t-shirts and pair of jeans I’d worn on the retreat. We knew we’d be gone at least three weeks, so what I had wasn’t going to get me very far.

Shopping with Sid is, in a word, interesting. He’s the only man I’ve ever met who doesn’t mind browsing, although when he’s buying for himself, he does have the male habit of getting what he wants and getting out. Things were a little difficult that day because off the rack clothes don’t fit him too well. He is a little on the short side, so all the pants were too long. He isn’t stocky or square-shaped at all, but his chest and arms are pretty muscular because he works out on weights, so most of the shirts and sport coats that were big enough for him were also way too long. Anything that fit, he bought on the spot.

“That’s going to be an awful lot to carry,” I pointed out as he stacked up six pairs of Jordache jeans. They came in specific lengths, so we didn’t have to worry about shortening them. We already had two pairs of casual slacks and another pair of dress slacks that I was going to hem for him. We’d taken a chance and paid for emergency alterations on the navy blazer and tan sport coat. And then there were all the different sport shirts and sweaters we’d bought. Sid is a clothes horse.

He shrugged. “I need the clothes, and as you can see, I can’t just walk into a store and buy them.”

“Well, what about packing lightly? It’s a little more realistic.”

“No, it isn’t.”

I lowered my voice. “Maybe not for a rich kid like you, but for the rest of us, it is.”

His voice dropped also. “Believe it or not, there was a time in my life when I didn’t have any money and I still managed to keep a decent wardrobe.”

“But we have to carry all this stuff.”

“I’ll carry it, and gladly, too. My days of packing lightly are over.”

I snorted. “What? Managing with only one suitcase was a little rough?”

“Try hitchhiking cross country with one pair of jeans, two t-shirts and three pairs of jockey shorts. I swore never again and I meant it.”

“Well, five suitcases is just a bit too far in the other direction.”

“I suppose,” he sighed. “We’ll just get four of these.”

He put back two pairs of jeans as I shook my head. He nearly went nuts watching me. I was the exact opposite. Everything fit, but I didn’t want to spend the money. And if that wasn’t bad enough, Sid kept pushing me to buy long, full-skirted sundresses instead of the shorts and jeans I prefer.

“But I like shorts,” I protested as he put yet another pair back. “I’m comfortable in them.”

“You can’t hide a gun in them,” he said through gritted teeth.

“Oh.”

“You can hide all sorts of stuff under this.” He handed me a blue chambray skirt with a white eyelet petticoat.

I took it. “I have a pattern like this.” I examined the side seams. “And the pattern has pockets.”

“Just buy it, will you?”

The only other problem was getting a swim suit. Sid had left mine. It was pretty ratty. He’d brought his.

“You don’t mean your birthday suit, do you?” I said, teasing.

“No. It’s a genuine, bona fide swim suit.” He looked me up and down. “You’ve got the figure for a bikini.”

I blushed. “Would you mind terribly if I did this by myself?”

“Why?” he asked innocently. Yet as he did, one eyebrow lifted and he smiled that really hot little smile.

I swallowed and forced myself to smile back. “I think you know.”

Sid chuckled. “I’ll meet you back here in twenty minutes.”

I got a black one piece and told Sid when he met me that he’d see it soon enough.

We left the stores from there and went to a restaurant near the Watergate Hotel. In the restrooms, we each hid a small micro transmitter and receiver on ourselves. I slid my transmitter onto my bra strap, and parked the receiver behind my ear, brushing my hair over it. Almost immediately, I heard a toilet flush and the raucous laughter of two men. I switched my transmitter on.

“Coming in,” I said softly.

“Loud and clear on this end,” said Sid’s voice in my ear.

I left the ladies room. Sid went to wait in the car, which was parked on the street out front. The restaurant was a nice, if trendy, place, with lots of hanging plants, and booths topped by more planters. I wandered around the dining room, looking for a young man with a purple tie reading Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. He had sandy hair and tortoiseshell glasses and wore a gray pinstriped suit with a purple tie and matching color in his breast pocket. I took a table across the room from his booth to the consternation of the hostess.

“Excuse me, miss,” she said, smiling through gritted teeth. “It would be better if we could get you a table in the other section.”

“I’m waiting for someone,” I told her. “I want to be where I can see the door.”

“We can arrange that,” she said.

“I’ll stay here, thank you.”

A minute later, I heard her behind me. I couldn’t see her through all the plants topping my booth.

“We’ve got another one that won’t budge. Table twelve.”

“Aw hell, and that jackass on fifty-three. Why do they always have to spread out on the days we’re short-handed?”

Just then, the Washington operative jerked. The book tumbled out of his hands as he fell forward, the back of his head a red mess. My stomach tied itself into knots. A waitress approached the table and screamed bloody murder, literally.

I looked everywhere but at that table.

“It doesn’t sound good in there?”

“It’s not,” I whispered. Terror settled into my limbs and kept me pinned. “Um, has anyone left the place in the last thirty seconds?”

“Yeah, about five people. You’d better get out of there. Go the back way.”

Trembling, I got up and slipped back and around towards the bar. There was a closed section next to where the operative had been sitting, and in it, a booth that backed up to the booth where the operative was. On the table was a glass of water, half empty, and a crumpled napkin.

I got to the car just as the police pulled up. Sid took his time getting going.

“What the hell happened?” he asked.

“He just went over,” I said. “I didn’t hear anything, but he must have been shot. Someone was in the booth behind him.”

“Did you see who?”

I shook my head. “The planters blocked the view.”

“And a silencer, too.” Sid shook his head. “That’s a professional job if ever I’ve seen one.”

“I wonder who set it up there. Not one of the booths backs up against a wall, and everything is screened by planters.”

“But who’d try a hit like that in broad daylight? Whoever’s behind this has guts.”

Apparently, the Dragon concurred when Sid checked in with her from Hattie’s. I just wanted to put it all out of my mind, so I concentrated on finishing my projects. It worked. I not only finished them but got Sid’s pants hemmed and pressed. I just didn’t get to bed until three a.m., not that I would have been better off going to bed earlier. Something told me I wouldn’t have slept much.

[I didn’t sleep much either. You were right about the fears I didn’t want to acknowledge, and the worst fear was that you or I would die before we had a chance to know each other’s love, the physical kind, of course. I had no idea there was any other. That night, I made love to Hattie and felt terrible because in my mind I had made love to you. I vowed then and there that sometime on that trip I would make it right for you and we would make love. I eventually banished you from my mind and made love to Hattie, only to have it happen all over again – SEH]

Introducing My First Guest – Carol Louise Wilde

Carol Louise Wilde is a dear friend of mine whose first book, Gift of Chance, was just recently released. It’s an awesome book, by the way. But one of the things that make this book really rock is the fantasy world that she has created in it. So that’s what I asked her to write about.

World Building Nuts and Bolts

I’ve been asked to write about world-building, a prominent feature of Gift of Chance, the first book in my fantasy series The Nagaro Chronicle. Since the world I’ve used in the Chronicle has been “alive” in my head for decades, I’m frankly at a bit of a loss to describe its origins. However, the experience of writing Gift of Chance, as well as working on another project that I’ve recently started to write, have given me a couple of ideas of a how-to nature on the subject, which I can offer here.

I’ve come to realize that while the “bones” of the Chronicle’s world – the core structural elements – are very old, much of the “flesh” on those bones is more recent. These are the finer details, the visible trappings of the world’s everyday reality, and many of them only came to me after I actually started writing the story and began to put myself into the day-to-day life of my characters. So this is one key to successful world-building, as I see it: the need to put yourself into your world and imagine it from the inside, out, not just from the outside, in. Your characters are living in your world. What is that like, moment by moment?

The experience, as you describe it, needs to be organic and believable, which requires detail. And here is another key regarding those details: It’s important to imagine both what is the same and what is different in your world compared to ours. The differences, of course, are what make your world unique, but the things that are the same are what allow your readers to relate to your imagined world, to its characters, and the events of the story that you’re telling. These details help to make your world real for the reader, in spite of its strangeness.

You need to consider every detail you write, because any detail at all might be either the same or different. The basics of making bread – in terms of yeast and kneading and rising and so forth – might be the same, but ovens can differ considerably. And if the bread isn’t ordinary bread – or it’s baked by dragon fire – what would be the same, and what would be different in the process? Or perhaps your character works in a factory that makes androids. What would be unique about working in such a factory, and what would be similar to working in a factory that made cars or microwave ovens? On a broader level, human emotions may be a constant, but the social structures and interactions that elicit those emotions could be so different as to require a whole new perspective. And what if one or more of your characters isn’t human? What might then be the same, and what might be different?

Of course, although I’m suggesting that you put yourself into your world as you write, I’m not saying you should use all the details you might imagine as you immerse yourself in each scene. Be selective. Don’t overload your readers. Just make sure that the details you choose to include serve a useful function. I’m suggesting that besides the obvious functions of setting the scene or advancing the action, you should also consider the world-building functions of your details: either helping to further define the uniqueness of your imagined world, or making it more real by giving your readers things they can relate to, based on their own experience.

And that, for what it’s worth, is my “take” on the nuts and bolts of world-building.

Gift of Chance is available through Amazon.com.