How to Bring Home the Groceries Without a Car

how to bring home the groceries without a carThere are two times when not having a car can be a real pain. One is when the buses or trains don’t go to where you want to go when you want to go. The other is when you’re trying to haul groceries and other stuff home from the shopping center. Both those times are why we’ll often choose to rent a car.

Now, we can and do fetch groceries without the car. There being only two of us humans, we don’t need huge amounts of food. And while we buy the dog food in 20-pound bags, we only need to buy it every other week. So, given the usual chaos of our lives, there are good odds we’ll be renting a car on the weekends we need to buy dog food.

Except for a few weekends ago. We had to replace some of our tech gear and the dogs needed food. And we’d decided against renting a car because of the cost. Did that stop us? As you can see from the photo to the left, of course not.

Even when the haul isn’t going to be this excessive, it does take some planning to grocery shop. I generally have to remember the granny cart or my other wheeled bag. Plus some extra bags. We like to try and include an insulated bag and some frozen packs since it does take longer to get the milk home.

And a good list is imperative. You really can’t just start tossing stuff in your cart willy-nilly because, at some point, you’re going to have to figure out how it’s all going to fit in what you have to carry. That may sound pretty obvious until you’ve actually gone and bought more stuff than you can carry. I’ve come pretty darned close, let me tell you. Having the granny cart with me is a big help because I use it as my regular shopping cart. That way, I know when I’ve got too much stuff.

Most times, only one of us will go out. As I noted above, we don’t generally need too much food at one time. But then there are those weeks when it helps to have two of us working together, like when we had the 20-pounds of dog food to buy, plus the extra tech gear, plus all the usual stuff we eat. We did it, as you can see. And it was kind of fun, too.


spy fiction, mystery fiction, cozy mystery,

Chapter Ten

spy novel, cozy mystery, mystery fictionNovember 29 – December 17, 1982

On Monday, two things happened which made me very happy. At breakfast, Sid gave me permission to decorate the house for Christmas.

“Waste of time and money,” said the professor.

“Shut up, Lipplinger,” said Sid.

He only drew the line on outside lights and with good reason. We would be the only house with them and we did not need to be conspicuous.

Then shortly after noon, I got the results of a project I had started in the middle of November.

“Is Sid around?” Henry James asked on the phone.

I checked. “Nope, the coast is clear.”

“Alright, here’s the information you wanted. She’s in Coral Gables, Florida.”

“Shoot, that’s near where all my family’s from.”

“You want the address and phone?”

“You got that?” I copied them down. “Thanks.”

“We aim to please,” continued Henry. “How’s it goin’ between you and Sid?”


“Are you sure?”

“Positive. Thanks for the info, Henry. You’re a doll.”

“Well, good luck, kid. I’ve got a feeling you’ll need it.”

But his warning couldn’t dampen my spirits. I slipped into the library and shut the door. It took me three tries to get through, but finally, the other phone rang and an elderly female voice answered.

“Is this Stella Hackbirn?” I asked.

“Yes, ’tis.” The voice had a rather light drawl for that part of the country.

“My name is Lisa Wycherly. I’m calling on behalf of someone you haven’t talked to in a while.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Well, Ms. Hackbirn. I work for your nephew.”

“I haven’t got a nephew.”

“Haven’t you got a nephew named Sid?”

“I had a nephew. But he decided that my politics weren’t good enough for him, so we no longer speak.”

“But haven’t you wondered at all about him?”

“No, I haven’t. It sounds to me like you’re trying to effect a reconciliation.”

“I’m not asking much. Just send him a card or something. Here’s the address.”

I gave it to her so quickly I don’t know if she got it down.

“You got that?”

“I don’t want it.”


“I haven’t spoken to Sid for fifteen years because I do not wish to speak to Sid and that’s final.”

The line went dead, and then the dial tone. I just sat there, utterly amazed.

“I could have told you she wouldn’t.” Sid shut the library door behind him.

“What? How..?”

“I had a feeling you’d try. So when I saw you sneaking in here, I listened in.”

“You weren’t supposed to know.”

“Just in case she said no, so it wouldn’t hurt my feelings?”

I nodded, my happy mood dashed.

“Stella is a very stubborn woman. She won’t change her mind. But I appreciate your trying.”

“I’m just sorry you found out.”

“Okay. So it hurts a little. Rejection always does. But when she ran me out, it wasn’t the first time she’d rejected me.”

“I’m sorry, Sid.”

“Don’t be. She’s obviously an old, embittered woman. That is her problem, and I propose we don’t make it ours.”

“You’re right.”

“There you are, Hackbirn.” Lipplinger’s voice shattered the moment. “We’ve got some talking to do.” He stopped when he saw me. “A little nookie behind the shelves, eh? I tell you, Hackbirn, you ought to let me have her. I’ll lay her and have it done with.”

“That is not why she’s in this house.”

“So what. Listen, Hackbirn, we’ve got to discuss this setup. I need space, room to work. This room would suit me just fine.”

When I thought of that old grouch taking over one of my favorite retreats, I got angry.

“Something else will have to do,” I said firmly. “This is a common recreational area.”

“She’s right,” said Sid. “You have your room. If there’s a problem, I’ll have the decorator in tomorrow.”

“Well, if that’s the best I’m going to get.” He shuffled off, muttering.

“That’s darned good, Lipplinger,” I shouted after him. I looked at Sid, who was chuckling. “There’s something about that man that brings out the worst in me.”

“I suspect you’re not the only one.”

“You’re not going to inflict him on that nice Mary Smith, are you?”

“You don’t know Mary like I do.”

“Obviously. I’m not a man.”

Sid chuckled again. “Don’t worry, Lisa. Mary’ll make mincemeat out of him.”

Whether or not she would have we never found out. When Sid called her, she told him she couldn’t come until the beginning of the following week. By Friday, Sid had had enough of Lipplinger. I was quite happy to come home from Mae’s on Monday morning and find him gone.

“You didn’t throttle him without telling me did you?” I asked Sid.


“Shoot him and not let me get any shots in?”

“Nope. I found another house for him.”

“People you’re not very fond of, I hope.”

“Don’t know them at all.”

“That’s good. Well, Praise the Lord, he’s gone!”

The days passed quickly. Christmas was well on its way, which put me in a very good mood, although I was busier than a one-armed paper hanger, what with all the various projects I had going for different people. Even though he wouldn’t say so, I could tell Sid was looking forward to spending Christmas day at Mae’s. Right after Lipplinger left, he questioned me extensively on presents for the family and insisted on taking me with him to buy them. After much debate, we settled on perfume for Mae, a classical record for Neil, a very nice souvenir book on Mercedes-Benz for Darby (I said it was too expensive, but Sid insisted), a copy of “The Wizard of Oz” for Janey, a picture dictionary for Ellen, and toy cars for the twins.

It was then, too, that we had the Great Present Fight, which has become a tradition around my birthday and any other holidays where presents are given. [One I could do without – SEH] I just didn’t want Sid to give me a present.

“Listen,” I told him. “You paid my back rent at my old apartment when I first started working here. That’s enough.”

“That was part of the initial employment agreement.”

“No, it wasn’t. So let’s just call that my Christmas present and leave it at that.”

“I don’t want to do that.”

“But you’re not letting me pay you back.”

“So what’s wrong with that?”

“I don’t want to be a kept woman.”

“For crying out loud, do we have to go through that again? I’m not asking for favors.”

“I never said you were. I just want to be independent.”

“And my buying you a Christmas present makes you dependent.”

“Sid, you don’t understand.”

“You’re right. I don’t, and I don’t think I’m going to anytime soon. So let’s make a deal. I won’t buy you anything if you won’t buy me anything.”

I paused. “Sid, it’s too late.”

“I thought so. Well, I’m not going to make any promises, then.” [Of course, it was too late for me, too. What else could I do? – SEH]

That closed the issue, of course. I would have made the deal, but I’d already finished the sweater and after all that work, I couldn’t bear not to give it to him.

If I had been happy to see Professor Lipplinger leave, you can imagine how I felt when, a week and a half before Christmas, I answered the door and found him on the doorstep, suitcases in hand.

“What are you doing here?” I asked.

He walked in and set down his suitcases. “I’m moving in.”

“Oh, no you’re not,” I said picking up his cases and putting them on the porch.

“I’m afraid he is,” said Sid, coming into the hallway. “I just got the call. His other house kicked him out.”

“I believe it.”

Lipplinger, with an air of triumph, picked his cases up and walked past me with a smug grin on his face.

“Always did like your place, Hackbirn. No noise, decent scenery, even if you can’t touch her.”

“You’re staying here on one condition,” warned Sid. “You stay in your room. I will not have you harassing my secretary or my housekeeper, nor do I want to listen to your tripe. Is that clear?”

“Perfectly. All I require is privacy and three hot meals a day.”

“You will get what you want, provided you stay out of our way. This is my house, remember.”

“Of course. Don’t bother showing me. I know the way, Hackbirn.” He shuffled off.

I shut the door and looked at Sid.

“Couldn’t we just ship him to the Soviets with a note that says ‘Here he is, you can have him if you can stand him’?”

“Nice idea,” Sid replied. “There’s just one problem.”


“They’d ship him right back and we’d be stuck with him again.”

We both laughed.

It was one week before Christmas.

“Sid!” I ran into the house bellowing that Friday. “Hurry up! Come here! Sid!”

He came out of the library with a worried frown on his face.

“What’s going on?” he asked.

“I got it! Hurry up and see!”

I grabbed his hand and started towards the front of the house.

“What are you talking about?”

“What you loaned me the car for. The Christmas tree. I got it. It’s out front. Come on. It’s a real beauty, too. I can’t believe I did it again.”

“Did you make that drop?”

“Of course I did. It went smooth as silk. I told you it would work. I was a little late. The guy was already at the lost and found counter asking for it. I just handed it over. No sweat.”


I pulled him outside. “There it is. What do you think?”

“I think there’s a tree tied to my car. I just had it waxed, too.”

“Quit fussing. I put a blanket down first. Help me get it inside. It’s just perfect. Another year and I did it again.”

I had to run inside first and get some scissors to cut the twine. After we got the tree off the car, I ran ahead to open the double front door all the way.

“Bring it in bottom first,” I called.

“I’ll bring it in whichever way I can get it!”

With much grunting and groaning, he got it into the hallway.

“Where do you want it?” he asked, sighing.

“I told you. In the living room, right in front of the bay window. It’s going to be so gorgeous! I can’t believe I did it again.”

“If I remember correctly, there is a very nice Queen Anne bench in front of that window.”

“Not anymore. Don’t panic, Conchetta and I did some rearranging this morning.”

“Miss Wycherly.” Sid heaved the tree along to the living room. “You have already dug deep inside me and turned me around, must you also rearrange my house?”

“Sure. But, relax, it’s only temporary, just through the holidays.”

We stood the tree up on its pine cross bars. The top branches scraped “snow” off the acoustical ceiling.

“Lisa, that tree is at least five inches too tall for this room.”

“And it’s not even in the stand.” I looked it up and down. “Yep. I did it again.”

We finally got it up and decorated, after first going out again to buy a stand, a saw (I couldn’t believe he didn’t have one) lights and the decorations. I guess Sid got caught up in the excitement in spite of himself, because I knew he’d planned on going out that night, but he stayed home to help me with the tree.

It was beautiful, too. Even Lipplinger admired it when we let him out of his room for the occasion.

“It’s decent,” he said. “Just the sort of thing you need a woman for, Hackbirn.”

“Hey, I helped too,” Sid replied, laughing.

Lipplinger snorted. “It only confirms my opinion of you. Nice piece like that and you’re not laying her. What a waste. Of course, I’ve always thought that about your kind.”

“Are you suggesting I’m gay?” Sid’s voice was calm, but it had that edge to it.

I tried to suppress a laugh. I could see where one could accuse him of it. He wasn’t swishy or had that kind of high-pitched voice (although I know a lot of gays don’t). But he was terribly clothes conscious and there was a gentleness about him that could be labeled effeminate.

Lipplinger just shuffled off, muttering.

“What are you laughing at?” Sid grumbled, picking up his cup of eggnog. Conchetta had made it before she left.

“You? Gay?”

“It’s not funny.” There was something strange about his discomfort.

“You haven’t…tried it, have you?” I was actually kind of curious.

“No. that would make me bi-sexual, and I’m not that, either.” He looked at me, trying to figure something out. “I don’t know how you feel about the whole gay thing, but I know gays and lesbians and it’s no big deal. I just don’t like it when a straight calls me gay because then he’s being as insulting as he can be.”

“Oh. That makes sense.”

I smiled and stacked the ornament boxes up so I could put them in the hall closet. Sid watched me for a moment, then chuckled softly.

“What are you laughing at?” I asked.

“You. You won’t spend twenty dollars on a blouse you need, and yet you spent a bundle today, and for what? A tree.”

I walked over to the tree, smiling at the softly twinkling lights.

“O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum,” I sang softly. “Wie treu sind deine Blaetter.”

“I don’t speak German.”

“The message of the evergreen, Sid. Its leaves are always green. They don’t change with the weather. The evergreen is unchanging, just like God’s love.” I looked at him. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to preach.”

He just shrugged. “I seem to remember reading somewhere that the Christmas tree was originally a pagan symbol of fertility.”

I laughed and picked up my eggnog.

“Well, then, a toast.” I raised my cup and so did Sid. “To fertility.”

“Fertility?” he laughed.

“A fertile mind, for new ideas and a fertile heart, for love.”

“To fertility, then, because I’m not and you probably are.”

How to cook, cooking for beginners, cooking without recipes

Surviving the Grocery Store

grocery store, grocery shopping tipsWe have a grocery store near us that we absolutely love, yet we generally refer to it as The Gates of Hell. Why? This place is chronically crowded, and deservedly so. They have excellent prices. The produce is good and not the same old you find at other stores. Oh, and the service deli. I don’t even want to think about how many inches on my hips that deli is directly responsible for. Or, more accurately, waiting in the service deli for my number to be called because I always find something else to add to my order while waiting.

And, often, while waiting around for my number to be called (and it is always a wait), I am often reminded how most advice about grocery shopping is pretty lousy. They tell you things like don’t shop with your kids but don’t tell you who’s going to watch the squids while you’re at the store. Go when it’s not crowded, and yet, the whole reason stores get crowded is that most of us are at work when they’re not. And I love the idea of mapping your store so that you have your list items grouped by aisle. You may be that organized, and if you are, I salute you. I most certainly am not. Besides, I usually go to at least two different stores because not all of my stores have the same items at the right prices. That’s a lot of mapping and I do have better things to do.

But there are some things you can do to make life easier at the grocery store. Such as keeping a running list with you at all times. I use a grocery list app on my phone, which believe me, helps a lot. That way, when I see that I’m running low on granulated sugar, I just pull out my phone and quickly type it in, instead of trying to remember later that I need to add sugar to my list. I’ve also had a notepad with a magnet on the back stuck to my fridge so that I can list things as I see them running out, like crackers or Worcestershire sauce. With the app, I can also add toothpaste and shampoo because I have my phone in the bathroom, or in the bedroom, and don’t have to cross the house in a state of undress so that I can get those items on the list before I forget.

You may prefer adding your items to what mystery author Donna Andrews refers to as The Notebook That Tells Me When to Breathe, and I’m reasonably sure you have one. Most of us do. Whether we use it or not, well, that’s another issue. But the nice thing about putting your list in your Notebook That Tells Me When to Breathe is that notebook tends to be something we keep with us all the time. It’s always there. You can put your menu in it, too. I have my menu on my phone as a Google calendar. Again, it’s always with me because my phone is and when I’m shopping and think I’ve forgotten something or can’t remember why I put tater tots on my list, I can check my menu to find out.

The advice folks recommend a list to help you control spending – and that does help. However, a list saves me boodles of time. Why? I’m not running back to the store after forgetting some key item nearly as often as when I don’t keep my list up to date. I’ll still forget things sometimes. That’s why keeping the menu with me helps me remember that I do need pork chops after all.

My other cardinal rule is to eat before I get to the grocery store. This is one of those bits of advice that is not always practical. But if you’re trying to control your spending or your waistline, an empty tummy and lots of ready-made junk right in front of you, placed there on purpose so you’ll buy it, is not a good combination. Grab that protein bar out of your purse or the glove compartment and eat it before shopping.

I also make a habit of tracking my spending as I put items in my cart. I used to have to do this just to make sure I could afford everything. I still do it because I don’t want a lot of food going to waste, and if I did forget to eat, it helps keep me in check. If I’m conscious of how much I spending, it’s easier to stop and ask myself if I really need that stick of goat cheese.

Because sometimes, the answer is yes. Which is my final tip. Don’t forget to get a small treat for yourself, whether it’s indulging in a cranberry goat cheese log (thank you, Trader Joe’s) or a bar of chocolate to be broken up and parsed out over the next week or two. You remember stuff for your kids or for your spouse. Don’t forget yourself, even if it’s indulging in a trashy romance on your phone while you’re waiting in line. Or for your number to be called at the service deli.

spy fiction, mystery fiction, cozy mystery,

Chapter Nine

spy novel, spy fiction, cozy mysteryNovember 27 – 28, 1982

Unfortunately, the story doesn’t end there. Relationship wise, Sid and I were doing very well. Lipplinger-wise, we weren’t out of the woods by a long shot.

Friday night, Sid called Henry James and made arrangements for the next day. The next morning I woke up with cramps, bad ones.

We drove to Hattie Mitchell’s estate in our third rented car. The first one, Sid had traded in after the alley incident and the second we’d left behind at the shootout. I’d asked Sid what we were going to do about that second car and he told me it was being taken care of. [The F.B.I. had it towed and Ed Donaldson paid for it all, out of my paycheck. Talk about government fleecing. It’s a good thing we don’t have to live on the pittance they pay us as it is – SEH]

I was nervous and holding my belly.

“We’ve had knives, guns,” I said as we drove along. “The only thing they’ve got left for us is bombs.”

“Will you cut that out?” Sid was still smiling. “You’re making me nervous.”

“You? Hah!”

“I have my moments.” Then he turned serious. “Is, uh, something wrong? You don’t seem to be in peak form this morning. You’re not still mad at me, are you?”

“No. Not in the least.” I winced as we hit a pothole.

“Well, something’s wrong.”

“Oh. It’s nothing.”

Sid glared at me. “I seem to remember getting yelled at pretty soundly yesterday for not owning up to my little infirmity.”

The flush spread over my face. “Sid, it’s real embarrassing.”

“And me getting caught with my pants down isn’t.”

“Alright,” I groaned. “I’m just cramped up, okay?”

“Ah hah! Something you ate.”

“Nice try.”

“Then what?”

I glared out the window. “That time of the month cramps.”

“Oh.” Sid chuckled. “My condolences.” He looked at me, mildly concerned. “Are you going to be up to it if things get rough?”

I shrugged. “I should be. Cramps have never slowed me down. It’s just uncomfortable.”

“Well, I hope you’ll be alright, and not just physically.”

“So do I. But I shouldn’t flip too badly. I’ve been through it before and the emotional strain I was under yesterday has been resolved.”

“Except for Lipplinger.”

“He won’t bother me.”

“Be careful. He knows how to push your button.”

“Uh-oh,” I said. But not about Lipplinger.

Hattie’s estate was just about a block away. Two cars were parked next to the gates.

“Looks like we might have some company,” replied Sid.

Yet we got through the gates without hindrance. Hattie met us at the door.

“He’s packed and ready to go,” she said. “But I want to talk to you two first.”

She led us into the room we’d been in two nights before. She shut the door and faced us.

“Miles told me something about a formula he’d developed.” She was calm, but I could tell she was feeling a little hurt.  “He doesn’t think I’m capable of understanding what it’s about, so he just told me it existed and it was dangerous. He also told me about you two.” She looked us over. Sid stayed cool while I squirmed. “Sid Hackbirn. Is that as in S.E. Hackbirn, the one that does the F.B.I. piece?”

Sid watched her carefully. “Why do you want to know?”

“Because Miles, however obnoxious he is, is my brother. I want to stay in touch with him.”

“Whatever my name is, staying in touch with me will not necessarily mean staying in touch with your brother.”

Hattie chuckled. “As owner of two major defense and electronics plants, one of which is involved in highly top secret projects, I have a top-level security clearance. I also have several friends on the House Committee on Intelligence. It will be more trouble to go through them, and I could possibly do some damage to your cover.”

Sid laughed also. “Hattie, I already know what your clearance is, and you’re not cleared on my level.”

“In other words, you’re not going to say so.” Hattie’s eyes glittered with just a touch of mischief. “Well, Mr. Hackbirn and Miss Wycherly, it doesn’t matter. I want to remain in contact. No secrets, of course, but it doesn’t hurt to have friends. Obviously, we’ll need some plausible way to continue. Well, I’ve been thinking about getting into editing.” She smiled at our surprised looks. “Don’t be so shocked. I’ve been accused of playing the dilettante before, and I’ve yet to fall on my face. Yesterday, I bought On Our Own, that singles magazine that was about to go under?”

Sid’s eyebrow lifted. “I’m surprised it lasted as long as it did.”

“Well, it has a new life now, but without the sophomoric content and bad layout. You see, I don’t enter these enterprises without some knowledge of what I’m doing. In any case, Mr. Hackbirn, or may I call you Sid?”

“Call me what you like,” he said with a mildly lecherous smile.

Hattie returned it. “I would like to confirm that your relationship with Miss Wycherly is not of the sort in which exploring the west coast singles scene would cause trouble between you.”

I shrugged. “I wouldn’t mind. It might be fun.”

Sid laughed. “Not the kind of fun you like, my dear. But don’t worry, Hattie, we each have our own lives.”

“Good. Then you’ll be my west coast correspondent. I like your angles on the F.B.I., however, I’ve been warned your spelling and grammar can be a little rough.”

“Not anymore,” I said.

“She’s been cleaning up after me,” said Sid.

“Excellent. I’ll expect your first column on the thirteenth. It’s for the April issue, fifteen hundred words, two hundred dollars.”

“Two fifty and you’ve got a deal.”

“Two fifty, it is.”

They grinned at each other.

“We do have to get out of here alive, first,” I pointed out.

“True,” said Sid.

I added, “I might also say, that while I’m not real good at setting odds, they don’t look too good, considering those two cars out front.”

“Oh dear,” said Hattie. “Maybe I’d better call the police.”

“Please don’t,” replied Sid, getting a little antsy. “We’ll have to make do without. They’ve been involved far too much already.”

“I don’t want to know.” Hattie thought a moment. “You know, there is a path that runs through the woods out back. It goes to the road. I’m sure we could get a car down it.”

“A back way out of here?” Sid’s face lit up. “Hattie, I could just kiss you.”

“Oh, Sid, please do.”

That old reprobate. Sid, I mean. He kissed her alright. Boy, did he kiss her. When they finally got around to pulling away from each other, he winked at her and she let out a prim little sigh.

“Well,” she said, smoothing her dress. “Let’s go get my brother.”

We got him, bad temper, lewd comments and all. The car did go down the path very easily. We got onto the highway without mishap. But to get back to the city and National airport, we had to go past the front of the estate. After we passed it, I heard tires squealing. I looked out the back window.

“Step on it, Sid! They’re coming after us!”

Sid stepped on the accelerator.

“Get on the floor, Professor,” said Sid. He looked at me quickly. “You’d better get down too.”

“I don’t see why,” growled Lipplinger. “It’s undignified and I’ll wrinkle my suit.”

A bullet glanced off the roof.

“It’s a lot safer, that’s why,” I yelled. I reached over the front seat and pushed him down as a second bullet embedded itself in the trunk.

“Get down, Lisa,” Sid yelled.

“I’m getting!”

I slumped down in my seat. I reached into my carry-on and pulled out my gun, then rolled down the window.

“What are you doing?” snapped Sid.

“I’m going to shoot their tires,” I said. I turned around in my seat and started out the window.

“Oh, no you’re not.” Sid grabbed me with one hand and pulled me back. The car swerved dangerously. “Do you want to get yourself killed?”

“You’ll get us all killed,” Lipplinger yelled from the back, “if you keep on driving like that.”

“Shut up, Lipplinger. Don’t worry, Lisa, they’ll stop shooting at us when we get into traffic. Not that there’s ever any around when you need it.”

I shoved my gun back into the special case that would get it past the metal detectors at the airport.

“Got anything you can’t replace in your suitcase?” Sid asked me softly.

“No, I put all my valuables in my carry-on like you said.”

“Good girl. How about you, Professor? Got anything in your suitcase you can’t replace?”

“Of course not. Too many thieves around to carry valuables.”

“Good. We’re ditching the luggage.”

“Why?” I asked.

“It’ll make it easier for us to change planes at the last minute. Maybe we’ll lose our tail.”

“Aren’t you going to ditch them before we get to the airport?”

“Not much point in it. They’re probably watching it anyway. With any luck at all, we can put them off our track.”

“Holy Jesus in Heaven, please,” I prayed, crossing myself.


At the airport, we dropped the car at the rental place and ran through three terminals before Sid found a flight he liked. Even then we had to run to catch it. Lipplinger complained every step of the way.

The flight was a puddle jumper to La Guardia airport.

“Think we’ll lose them in New York City?” I asked Sid as we were taking off.

“If you can’t lose someone in New York, you’re in big trouble.” Sid yawned. “Keep an eye on the Professor for me, will you?” And he dropped off.

In New York, Sid promised the cab driver a handsome tip if he could get us across Queens to Kennedy airport in under thirty minutes without anyone following us. I didn’t dare look. Sid was looking out the back window for tails, so I just kept my eyes fastened to the back of the seat.

We still switched planes two more times. We got in to Los Angeles shortly after midnight. I was never so glad to see that house in my life. I was also exhausted. Sid wasn’t. He’d slept most of the way. Cheerfully, he drove Lipplinger downtown to an all-night market to get some of the necessities of life left behind in Washington.

The next day, they went shopping and I went to Mae’s. It was so nice being there. I blithely forgot about Lipplinger and risking my neck in the spy business and happily spent the afternoon risking my neck running around on the roof helping Neil and Darby put up the Christmas lights.

I also told Mae about the fight Sid and I’d had and she agreed it was the best thing for him.

“He’s not going to make you go away for Christmas, is he?” she asked.

“He’d better not,” I said. “Of course it is a little hard for him to understand how I feel. He’s never celebrated holidays.”

“You’re kidding.”

“‘Fraid not, Mae.”

“Well, he knows he’s invited here.”

“You’d better confirm that. I told you how he reacted to that letter.”

“It’s not late, I’ll do it now.”

Mae had been back on her feet for some time, and it didn’t take her long to get Sid on the other end of the line.

“Sid?” I heard her say. “This is Mae O’Malley. You got any plans for Christmas Day?… Then I won’t take no for an answer. You’re spending it here and that’s final. You plan to be here at ten thirty a.m. sharp. Any later, and the kids’ll have to wait to open their presents and they’ll be mad… Alright, talk to you later.”

She hung up and smiled. “See? It’s all settled.”


Edging Toward Waste-Free Living

waste-free living

A nicer, cheaper and more relaxed way to eat dinner

When we started working on waste-free living a number of years ago, we weren’t really thinking about the massive problems of landfills filling up and the over-consumption of resources to make and ship things that are only used once. We were thinking paper plates and napkins cost a frickin’ fortune. We have perfectly nice dishes and cloth napkins, we should use them.

Which is what we do. I gotta concede, it can be a nuisance. After all, you have to wash ceramic or other dishes and launder napkins. They don’t necessarily last forever. Plates and glasses occasionally break, it doesn’t matter how careful you are. Napkins eventually wear out and/or get stained.

The bottom line is that there are always tradeoffs when it comes to doing anything that’s going to be better for our planet. But there are advantages to waste-free living. For one thing, it’s frequently cheaper. I’m not re-buying stuff all the time. I can make new clothes out of old ones (when I get around to it, admittedly, but I can), and the results are often more creative than what I can find in the stores. While the initial layout on cloth napkins is significantly more than picking up a package of paper ones from the supermarket, I only buy them once every few years. And using dishes with cloth napkins and nice glasses does make dinner nicer and more relaxing.

I’m not saying we’re perfect. We still occasionally use paper plates, mostly for our biggest parties simply because we don’t have enough china for everyone. I have a bit of a tech habit, although I do make whatever gadgets I buy last way longer than expected. We’ve got a couple laptops that have been relegated to specific uses, but they’re six years old and still running.

We’re edging into this. I suspect we’ll never get it one-hundred percent right (whatever that is). But it’s more about trying to do a little better each day. It’s being okay with not being perfect. Just because you forget to bring your reusable plates to the potluck doesn’t mean you won’t remember next time. I’m working on bringing reusable cups with me so that when I do get a soda or something, I can use my reusable cup and not a paper or plastic one.

Waste-free living is as much a process as it is an end. And it can be a nuisance. But it can also be fun.




spy fiction, mystery fiction, cozy mystery,

Chapter Eight

spy novel, cozy spy novel, cozy mysteryNovember 18 – 26, 1982

When two people work together as closely as Mr. Hackbirn and I do, there’s bound to be some friction. Actually, we get along very well. Aside from our individual value systems, which are radically opposed, we have a lot in common and we complement each other. We have managed to develop a very good relationship. But we both had some growing to do first and it wasn’t easy.

Part of the problem revolved around those various idiosyncrasies that each person has that drive another person nuts. Well, I shouldn’t say that they were part of the problem because they were more the catalyst for the unrest that got Mr. Hackbirn and me into the biggest fight I have ever had in my life, and I have had some doozies.

On my part, my singing bothered Mr. Hackbirn, although it was not my voice because even he admits I sing fairly well. What he objected to was that I did it constantly. I could see his point. He’d be in his office trying to work when he’d hear this soft snatch of music. Some days it’d be just the same refrain over and over again, other days whole songs. A couple of times, I sang whole shows. He tried turning on the radio to drown me out, but I just sang along with that and louder, too.

Then he never could understand why I was so cheap. To be truthful, I couldn’t either. I’d always been that way. I think that’s what helped me survive the year I was out of work. Anyway, it would drive him nuts every time I’d shake my head and say “But that’s too much!”

The thing that really got to him, though, was my appetite. When he first picked me up, he sort of understood. I’d been out of work for a year. I was starving. But when it never slowed down, it got on his nerves. Worse still, I never gained an ounce. That must have been what really bugged him, because although he won’t admit it, he has to keep an eye on his weight.

On the other side of the coin, I was hungry, and when I said so, I got a lecture. Those lectures were incredible. Mr. Hackbirn would go into every possible consequence of poor eating habits he could think of with anatomical precision. He even threatened to take me to the county morgue a couple of times so I could see for myself what I was doing to my insides.

When he wasn’t lecturing me about food, he was teasing me. He could turn anything I said into something smutty and often did, just to make me blush. Woe to me, if I tried to one up him, too. I was incredibly naive, so I didn’t stand a chance and I ended up twice as embarrassed.

The only thing that was worse was his habit of chewing ice. It made me laugh. I tried not to, but I couldn’t help it. He finally got fed up and asked me what was so funny.

“It’s really stupid,” I said, still giggling.

It was a chilly day and for some reason, he was drinking ice water and chomping away.

“I can imagine,” he said dryly. “So tell me.”

“Well, when I was in high school, there were certain things one didn’t do. They were stupid little things that were supposed to mean other things and it didn’t matter if they did or not because of that being the way things were. You may even have heard of some. Like green M&M’s.”

“Green M&M’s?”

“You know, the little candies.”

“I know. But what did they mean?”

“They were supposed to make you horny. We all knew it was ridiculous. But go to any party and by the middle of the evening, the M&M’s bowl would have nothing but green ones in it and everyone avoiding it like it had V.D. Until some stupid frosh got to it, or some guy trying to tell somebody something. It was like wintergreen Lifesavers. Guys carried them around all the time, but no girl would be caught dead with them.”

“They were supposed to spark against your teeth in the dark, right?”


“I outgrew that ploy when I was seven.”

“I’m sure you did.”

“So what was chewing ice?”

I giggled and blushed. “Sexually frustrated.”

He looked at me, then at his glass, then back at me. I could hear the ice crunching between his teeth.

“That is obviously not true,” he said and bit down on another ice cube.

After that, it began to get on my nerves, because I began to wonder if he was trying to tell me something. I was pretty sure it was unconscious, but with Mr. Hackbirn, one never knew.

The fight that all this aggravation led to started shortly before we left for Washington and lasted to its final cataclysm the day after Thanksgiving, just about a week. It sounds kind of funny, but it was Mr. Hackbirn who started it, and it was his fault it lasted so long.

About two weeks before we left, just before we’d gotten the ring, Mr. Hackbirn got a phone call from one of his girlfriends.

“Sid? I’ve got some bad news…” was all I heard (and wanted to hear) before I hung up. I figured she was pregnant and trying to hang it on Mr. Hackbirn. It was a short conversation because I heard him angrily bang down the phone in a rare display of emotion. So much for her baby.

Then a week and a half later, the pharmacy called and said Mr. Hackbirn’s prescription was ready. I was on my way out on an errand already, so I didn’t bother him. I just put it on my list and went out.

The prescription was for penicillin. I was puzzled. Mr. Hackbirn had been rather grumpy that morning, but he didn’t seem to be having any trouble swallowing, or anything else wrong with him for that matter. Then I remembered the bad news phone call. I put the pieces together and what I came up with wasn’t strep throat.

I snickered and then realized he needed my sympathy. However he got it, he probably wasn’t feeling very well.

I came sailing cheerfully into the house. Mr. Hackbirn stopped me in the office.

“What took you so long?” he growled.

“There was a sale at the sporting goods store, so I picked up some cold weather gear. The climate’s a little different in Washington, you know.” I opened up one of my bags and pulled out the leather fleece lined gloves. “You like?”

“Hm.” He barely even glanced at them and went into his office.

I picked up the bag from the pharmacy and followed him.

“I picked up your prescription,” I said, laying it on his desk.

“What did you do that for?” he snapped.

“Well, they called and I was going out, so I thought I’d save you a trip.”

“You didn’t save me anything.”

“I’m sorry.” There was a pause. “I can’t take the gloves back, but if you don’t want them, you don’t have to reimburse me.”

“Miss Wycherly, the gloves are fine. Now, will you leave?”

“You could say thank you.”

“For what? Thinking on your own? That’s what I pay you for.”

“I was just trying to surprise you. I thought you might appreciate it.”

“Just as much as you appreciate the chance to stuff your face behind my back.”

“Don’t you give me another lecture,” I snapped. “I’ve had it with anatomy. At least you don’t see me gaining any weight.”

Mr. Hackbirn’s voice got very tight and quiet. “That will be all, Miss Wycherly.”

Still steaming, I left, slamming the door behind me. If he couldn’t handle emotion, that was just too bad. Back in my office, I hoped we could clear the air before we left in three days.

Mr. Hackbirn refused to play ball. The next day we got word that Gannett had escaped. He’d been seen hanging around Georgetown University, and the best anyone could figure was that he was trying to find another buyer for his information.

The news just made Mr. Hackbirn grouchier. He sulked about the house, not saying one word to me more than he had to. Every time I tried to bring the subject up, he’d just say, “I don’t wish to discuss it, Miss Wycherly.”

“Well, I’m afraid we’re going to have to,” I finally said on Sunday, the day before we left. “We’ve got a job to do and we need to be able to communicate.”

“We are communicating good enough to do it.”

“Oh, we are? Well, I don’t call your sulking all day and night good communication. Let’s face it, I’m mad and you’re mad, so let’s get this thing settled.”

“There’s nothing to settle.”

“Then why are we so mad?”

“I have no idea. There must be no reason, so we shouldn’t be mad. There, all settled. Are you happy?”

“You’ve got to be kidding. That is the worst line of reasoning I have ever heard in my life.”

“That’s too bad.”

“I don’t believe you. Why can’t you admit that we’ve got a problem here and deal with it?”

“Because I see no problem. I refuse to get emotional just because you think you can’t talk to me.”

“Wait a minute, who’s the one who’s been saying ‘I don’t wish to discuss it’?”

“Who’s the one who’s letting her emotions interfere with her job?”

“That’s not fair!”

“See, Miss Wycherly? Now you know why I didn’t wish to discuss it.”

He walked off to his bedroom.

“You’re impossible!” I screamed, then immediately regretted it.

I decided if he could play his little detached game so could I. I sure as heck wasn’t getting anywhere confronting him.

The next five days were miserable, except for the time on the plane. Mr. Hackbirn got into his seat and promptly went to sleep.

At the hotel, if the bellhop noticed the tension, he didn’t say anything. Mr. Hackbirn had booked the room himself, a three room suite. It had a sitting room and two bedrooms, one on either side of the sitting room. It was very nice with quiet tasteful furniture, a raised area, two steps up, in the back in front of the windows and near the bedroom doors, and a wet bar on one side.

As soon as the bellhop left, we each picked up our individual suitcases and went to our bedrooms without saying a word. I don’t know what Mr. Hackbirn did that night. I assume he was making phone calls to contacts. I stayed in my room and pored over some maps and a visitors guide. Mr. Hackbirn hadn’t said a word about anything to do before Thanksgiving day, so I decided I’d go sightseeing. It’d get me away from him, at least. I’d never been to the nation’s capitol before, anyway, and I wanted to see it.

Mr. Hackbirn was in the sitting room the next morning reading a newspaper when I came out.

“Any plans for today?” I asked.

“Absolutely nothing,” he replied without looking up.

“Good.” I put on my dress coat, arranged a wool cap over my hair and ears, and slipped on some wool gloves.

“Where are you going?” Mr. Hackbirn finally looked up.

“Sightseeing.” I picked up my purse and the camera I’d finally bought. “I’m going to make the most of this fiasco.”

We’d been taking pot shots at each other the whole trip. The standard response was none, or at least to remain as unruffled as possible. So far, Mr. Hackbirn was winning in that respect.

“Remember to stay away from Georgetown,” he said.

“I wasn’t planning on going anywhere near there.”

“And don’t bring anyone back here.” He returned to his paper.

“You reprobate, you’re telling me that?”

“I meant a tail, Little Miss Ice Cube.”

I stormed out, slamming the door.

If I hadn’t been so angry, it would have been wonderful fun. The weather was cold with a nice crisp bite to the air, just the way I like it. Washington D.C. is a wonderful place and, corny as it sounds, very inspiring. If only I hadn’t been trying to escape Mr. Hackbirn. I got back to the hotel before dark and ate in the restaurant and went straight to my room.

Wednesday, I went out again. Late that afternoon, I realized that I’d gotten myself turned around and found myself walking right onto the Georgetown campus, the very last place I was supposed to be. After all, Gannett was supposedly in the neighborhood, and he had seen me and knew I was an operative.

Trying desperately to stay cool, I hurried back into the city, checking for tails all the way. Now, if you really want to keep someone tailed, you use a team, so the tailee doesn’t notice the same person behind all the time. Being as inexperienced as I was, I forgot about that possibility, so I wasn’t looking when I crossed the alley, which was stupid.

I didn’t see anything. I just felt the hand clamped over my mouth and the cold metal uncomfortably close to my jugular vein. I was dragged back into the alley, where my captor spun me around and shoved me, back first, against the wall.

“Well, well, well,” he said, his knife dancing perilously close to my face. “My chauffeur.”

I gasped.

“So you recognize me,” Gannett snickered maliciously and waved off the person who had just entered the alley, presumably his partner.


“I escaped. I had no choice. But you’re a long way from home.”

“I get around.”

“And you just happen to be in the same town where dear old Professor Lipplinger lives.”


He backhanded me hard across the face. I cried out in pain and tasted the blood where my teeth had cut open the inside of my cheek.

“Don’t tell me you don’t know about him. It’s just too convenient, having you pop up on campus this afternoon.”

I thought I saw a policeman at the entrance to the alley. I bolted for it, shoving hard against Gannett and running. I could feel my upper left arm sting as his knife bit through my coat to the skin.

“Rape!” I bellowed as loud as I could, then tripped and fell forward.

Gannett gripped my shoulder and started pulling me up. I felt the point of his knife press against my spine.

“That was real stupid, sister.”

“Police! Freeze!” The officer at the head of the alley had his gun pointed at us.

As the grip on my shoulder relaxed, I sank to my knees in relief. Gannett bolted, assuming, perhaps correctly, that with me between him and the cop his chances were reasonably good. In any case, he got away. The cop shot at him twice and then chased him, but not for long. I stayed where I had collapsed, trying to get myself together. It was just as well, I figured, to let myself be afraid. If it really had been attempted rape, I would have been pretty distraught.

“It’s alright, honey,” I heard the officer’s gentle voice say to me.

I gasped in pain as he took my left arm, helping me up.

“My arm,” I said softly.

“Here, let’s see.” He pulled out his handkerchief and opened the slash in my coat to inspect the wound. “It doesn’t look too bad. Here, hold this tight against it.”

I held the handkerchief to my arm. Gently, he escorted me out of the alley and down the street a block to a call box.

“I’m going to call a squad car,” he explained. “By the way, I’m Officer Marshall, Rob Marshall.”


“And what’s your name?”

“Janet. Janet Donaldson.” I fidgeted with the wedding set I was wearing.

Officer Marshall made the call quickly. I knew I was going to have to make some decisions fast. They were going to be asking a lot of questions, which was understandable. I knew I didn’t have to make a statement, but it occurred to me that I might be better off doing so. Not making a statement might arouse suspicion, and with a statement, they’d be looking for Gannett.

“Alright, Mrs. Donaldson, they’re on their way.” Officer Marshall smiled at me. “Why don’t you tell me about yourself.”

“Like what?”

“Where you live. How we can get a hold of your husband.”

“W- we don’t live here. We’re from California.”

“I see. Where are you staying?”

I gave him the name of the hotel.

Fortunately, the squad car pulled up.

I was taken first to the infirmary where the doctor looked at my cut and said it wasn’t bad enough to need stitches. The nurse was very kind and talked to me merrily about her children as she bandaged my arm. After that, I was taken to the squad room.

Mr. Hackbirn was there waiting. He seemed concerned and relieved to see I was alright. In fact, he was very much the loving husband. Giving gentle reassurances, he came up to me. But when he hugged me, he hissed “Relax, damn it, I’m supposed to be your husband,” into my ear.

I had calmed down considerably. I gave my statement accurately, except for the conversation. Mr. Hackbirn had driven to the station in a rented car and now drove me back to the hotel. We took a circuitous route, because of the tail he’d picked up. He didn’t say anything, but I could tell he was mad.

Back in our room, though, he said a lot.

“Beautiful. Just beautiful,” he growled, prowling around the room. “I don’t suppose it was a coincidence that we picked up a tail at the police station?”

I sank stiffly onto the couch. “Well, no. Gannett found me.”

“Gannett? How the hell did he do that?”

“Well…” I bit my lip and tried not to cry. “I was looking for a phone. I was lost. And I asked this man where one was, and he gave me directions, only they led me right onto the Georgetown campus, and I got out of there as fast as I could without calling attention to myself, but he saw me, I guess, and caught me in the alley.”

“And you called the cops in on top of it. Of all the stupid things to do.”

“Well, it was either that or get carved up. You’ve got to admit the alternatives weren’t exactly the greatest.”

“And what do you think is going to happen if they catch him and he spills his guts?”

“Do you honestly think they’re going to believe a crazy story like that? If anybody, I’m the one they’re going to believe, just so long as neither one of us gives the cops any reason to believe we’re not on the level. Heck, I’ve even got a knife wound to help. Not to mention the fact that my good winter coat is ruined. The sleeve’s slashed open and the front’s all shredded.”

“From what?”

“I tripped and fell spread-eagled.”

“On your knees?” Mr. Hackbirn looked concerned.


“I’d better take a look at them.” He sounded resigned.

“At what?”

“Your knees.”

“Anything to grab a feel, huh?”

He pressed his lips together then said in a tight angry voice, “Miss Wycherly, I have enough trouble with your weak knee-ed attitude. I don’t need any trouble with the real article.”

Unfortunately, he made sense.

“Alright, turn around.”


“I’ve got to take off my tights.”

“Oh, for the love of Pete.” He was completely exasperated, but he did turn around. I hurriedly slipped off the tights as he complained. “What do you think I’m going to see anyway? Your underwear? Big deal.”

“Well, pardon me. I happen to believe in common decency. I’m ready.”

He turned around and bent to look. His hands were warm and soft and very gentle, and, angry as I was, I caught my breath at his touch.

“Can you move okay?” he asked gruffly.

I flexed each leg a couple of times and nodded.

“They’re just a little bruised,” he said. “Put a heating pad on them tonight.”

“I don’t have one.”

“A hot-water bottle, then, and I hope it keeps you company.” Mr. Hackbirn started for his room.

“Look,” I snapped. “If you want me that badly, then why don’t you just rape me and get it over with.”

He stopped and turned to me. I was afraid he would.

“I wouldn’t give you the satisfaction,” he said in a low, controlled voice.

He turned back and left, shutting his door quietly behind him.

The next day was Thanksgiving. I spent the morning in my room, crying quietly because I felt so lonely and homesick. We drove to Hattie Mitchell’s place in Mount Vernon around one. Neither one of us broke the silence during the ride. But as we pulled into the estate, Mr. Hackbirn finally spoke.

“Try and be nice,” he said. “We are supposed to be a happily married couple visiting friends on a happy occasion.”

“Would you do me the same favor?”

He just snorted and parked the car.

“Stay put,” he growled.

I did as I was told, while he walked around the car. When he opened the door for me, he was smiling. The mask was on, the curtain had risen, and he was in character.

I smiled in return and got out.

“Thank you, darling,” I said, as he shut the door.

I stiffened when he put his arm around me as we walked up to the front door.

“Loosen up, lady,” he growled behind his teeth.

I took a deep breath and tried to relax. I nervously put my arm around him. I really did try to look natural. But being that close to him did things to me that had nothing to do with how angry I was, and I was scared.

The afternoon was spent congenially chatting with Hattie, who was a very sweet woman in her middle fifties, and her son James and his wife, Mary. They didn’t have any children, so it was a quiet afternoon. It would have been quite nice, but the lack of children only made me miss being at Mae’s more. Also, Professor Lipplinger wasn’t there. I could tell Mr. Hackbirn was worried by his absence, as I was. But there was nothing to be done.

As is always the case when you hear a lot about a person before actually meeting him or her, you form a mental image of what that person is like. My image of Professor Lipplinger was a kindly old gentleman with white hair and glasses, a gentle darling so devoted to his students he would rather risk his life than allow them to fail.

When he finally did show up (just in time for cocktails), he did conform to that image physically. He was a little shorter than Mr. Hackbirn with white hair and wire-rimmed glasses. He even stooped a little.

When introduced to us, he nodded curtly and asked Mr. Hackbirn what he did for a living. Mr. Hackbirn said he was a freelance writer. The professor looked at me a long moment then addressed Mr. Hackbirn again.

“That’s a fine piece of meat you got there. What’s she good for?”

“I also write,” My hackles were rising.


“Not yet.”

“You don’t write.” He turned and walked off, bellowing, “Hattie! Where are those drinks?”

“Coming, Miles.” Hattie walked over to us. “I’m afraid I must apologize for my brother. Unfortunately, there is no excuse for his behavior.” She sighed. “Oh well, what’ll you have, Ed?”

I was a little surprised when Mr. Hackbirn opted for bourbon and water. I made a point of asking for wine.

At dinner, things only got worse. To begin with, nobody said grace. Then everyone was stiffly polite, except Lipplinger. He complained about everything and made lewd comments. Hattie and her son and daughter-in-law had obviously long since given up being embarrassed for him. To be honest, it didn’t take me long either. I was too upset as it was and he just made things worse.

About an hour after dinner, Mr. Hackbirn got a chance to talk to Lipplinger alone long enough to let him know we had to talk to him privately.

“Hattie,” he yelled. “I’ve got to talk to these two privately. I’ll be in the library. Don’t bother us.”

“Whatever you like, Miles.” Hattie was long past being surprised at anything her brother did.

Once in the library, Mr. Hackbirn sharply told me to watch the door.

“So you want my formula,” said Lipplinger.

“Wrong,” replied Mr. Hackbirn. “I want you to see your next birthday. Somebody knows you’ve got something and they want it and they won’t make any bones about taking you to get it.”

“So what are you going to do about it?”

“We’re here to take you into hiding.”


“Initially, in Los Angeles.”

Lipplinger looked at both of us for a long time, but mostly at Mr. Hackbirn.

“You’re not Ed Donaldson,” he growled finally. “So, just who are you?”

Mr. Hackbirn looked at me, then back at the professor.

“Alright. I need you to trust me, but I’ve got to trust you.”

Lipplinger snorted. “Have I given out my formula?”

Mr. Hackbirn took a deep breath. “My name is Sid Hackbirn and I am a freelance writer. I also do government work on the side. This is my secretary and associate, Lisa Wycherly.”

“Convenient way to keep meat on the hoof,” the old man chuckled.

“I don’t do that,” I snapped.

“Unfortunately,” replied Mr. Hackbirn.

I just glared at him.

“Well, what if I don’t want to go?” asked Lipplinger.

“Professor, we are here to move you quickly and efficiently to safety.” Mr. Hackbirn remained calm. “We will be most efficient with your cooperation. But we do not need it. I want to make it perfectly clear that we are prepared to use force. Is that understood?”

“Well, I guess those two are failing badly enough not to need my help anymore. Give me tomorrow to get my affairs in order. I’ll be here Saturday.”

“Alright, and Professor, not a word to anyone.”

“Of course not. Good evening.”

He left. Mr. Hackbirn took a deep breath and let it out again.

“Let’s go,” he said finally.

We went and said goodbye to Hattie.

“It was an excellent dinner and we appreciate your having us,” Mr. Hackbirn said.

“Well, thank you for coming. It was wonderful having you, Ed. And, Janet, I have to tell you, it was so nice to see someone sit and really eat. I see so many people just pick, it’s a real treat to see you enjoy your food and not be afraid to ask for seconds.”

“Thank you, Hattie,” I replied with real warmth. “I can’t tell you how nice it was of you to say that.”

Mr. Hackbirn just smiled, but I knew I had one on him.

“To be completely honest,” Hattie continued, blushing a little, “I was beginning to wonder if you were pregnant.”

“She’s not pregnant,” Lipplinger said, coming up. “She’s frustrated.”

“Well, goodbye,” said Hattie, ignoring him. “It was wonderful having you.”

The ride back was silent, also, and again Mr. Hackbirn broke it when we were back in our suite.

“We’ve got contacts to make tomorrow,” he said on his way to his room. “Be ready to go early.”

I stopped my tears long enough to call Mae and family. Hearing their voices only made me feel worse. They say it’s the next best thing, but that night it was a lousy second best. I cried myself to sleep.

The next morning, as I got dressed, my depression deepened into a black fog so thick it seemed suffocating. I wasn’t about to let Mr. Hackbirn see it, though. I feigned cheerfulness until we traded angry words that morning over my coat. The slash in the sleeve and the holes in the front I’d more or less repaired and, as the coat was dark colored, didn’t show much. Mr. Hackbirn wanted to know why I didn’t just buy a new one and I wanted to know when I was supposed to have been able to do that. Needless to say, neither question had been answered.

An hour later found us in a low rent district, in another alley, this one spilling out onto a dead end street lined with parked cars. Mr. Hackbirn’s tan overcoat was hanging open so that he could get to the gun in his shoulder holster easily. I, also, had a shoulder holster on. Even so, I had buttoned my coat and tied it.

The tension in the air was incredible. The silent routine continued. Mr. Hackbirn remained cool even though he paced restlessly. Something had gone wrong. Our contact was fifteen minutes late.

I looked out at the street, then at my shoes. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed something light colored laying among some trash barrels a few yards away. I went over to look. It was a hand. The arm it was connected to disappeared behind the barrels. I pulled one away and two bulging sightless eyes stared up at me. I screamed.

“What’s the matter?” Mr. Hackbirn walked over.

I just pointed.

“Terrific,” he grumbled and started to move the other barrels away.

“I can’t look.” I turned away and leaned on a wall, facing it.

“It’s just a corpse,” Mr. Hackbirn said callously. “Hasn’t been one too long. It’s probably our contact. We’d better get out of here.”

The only way out of the alley was onto the street. Just as we got onto the sidewalk the shots rang out. I screamed.

“Get down, you idiot!” Mr. Hackbirn grabbed my belt and pulled me down next to where he was hiding behind a parked car.

I just sat there trembling.

“I thought you said you were used to guns,” Mr. Hackbirn growled.

“But none of them were shooting at me.”

There was another shot and the glass in the car we were hiding behind shattered, and with it what little calm I had.

“We’re gonna die,” I moaned.

“If you keep that up we will.” He had his gun drawn. “You stay put. I’m gonna see if I can find out where it’s coming from.”

He moved away. I could hear more gunshots and glass shattering.

“Well, well, here we are again.”

I looked up and saw Gannett. This time, instead of a knife, he had a gun trained on me.

“Oh my god,” I whimpered, then watched in horror as he jerked and fell backward with a hole in his chest.

Seconds later, Mr. Hackbirn was by my side.

“It’s a sniper, alright,” he muttered.

“You killed him.”

He looked at the corpse next to us and sighed.

“Yeah,” he said, shortly.


“Look, did you want him to kill you?” His eyes flashed. He wasn’t very happy about it either. “The sniper’s on the roof across from us. He’s got a lot of mobility. We’ve got to stay low and behind the cars. We can’t go that way, that’s the dead end. We can’t go in the alley, ’cause that’s a dead end. We’ve got to make it to the corner and across the street if we’re going to have a chance. He’s got a high powered rifle up there.”

I just nodded.

“Alright, you ready?”

I nodded again but didn’t follow him. Blocking my way was the corpse.

“Come on!” Mr. Hackbirn yelled from two cars down. I couldn’t move. I pointed at the body. “He’s dead. He can’t hurt you.”

I still couldn’t move. Mr. Hackbirn cursed angrily and shoved the body out of the way.

“Come on, now.” Just to make sure, he grabbed my hand and pulled me.

As we got to the corner, I could hear the police sirens. Several police cars pulled up at roughly the same time. They were followed closely by a SWAT truck.

There was a police car not far from us, maybe a hundred feet.

“See that car?” Mr. Hackbirn asked. “Get behind it and you’re safe. I’ll cover you. You stay low and run like hell. You got that?”

I nodded.

“Okay, go!”

He practically kicked me. I ran. I didn’t stop until I ran smack into Officer Marshall, of all people.

“Mrs. Donaldson!” he exclaimed.

“It’s not been my week,” I replied, sobbing.

Then Mr. Hackbirn slid up next to us.

“It’s alright now, honey,” he said, his hand on my back and then addressed Marshall. “Where’s your captain?”

“Over there.”

“Get him. I need to talk to him.”

Marshall left. Mr. Hackbirn reluctantly put his arms around me and let me cry on his shoulder.

Officer Marshall and the captain reappeared in record time.

“Captain Pete Laing,” he said tersely. “What do you want?”

“Ed Donaldson, F.B.I.” Mr. Hackbirn replied, pulling something from his suit coat. “I’m here on vacation, but it looks like the job followed me.”

I stopped crying and looked up. The captain was inspecting a small billfold which I assumed had the F.B.I. I.D.

“What happened?” the captain asked, handing back the billfold.

“A friend of ours asked us to meet him here. We found him dead in the alley, and that other guy on the sidewalk waiting for us.”

Captain Laing shifted to look at the body, then back to Mr. Hackbirn, who shook his head.

“He’s gone, and yes, I did. Self-defense.”

The captain nodded. “You said it’s connected to something you’re working on?”

“Back in L.A. It’s top secret, so I can’t talk about it. What I need from you is a lift out of here in an unmarked car.”

“That’s rather irregular.”

“Code 23. You can call Henry James, L.A. office. In the meantime, can you get me and my wife out of here?”

Laing nodded and in a short time we were bundled off in a dark green car. Mr. Hackbirn remained silent through the whole trip but kept checking behind us for a tail.

“Here we go again,” I grumbled as he shoved me into the suite.

“You really did it this time, Wycherly,” he growled. “You don’t know how lucky you are you’re alive!”

He headed for his room.

“Where are you going?” I demanded, thoroughly fed up.

“To change clothes.” The door shut behind him.

I took off my coat and laid it on a chair near the window. I kicked off my shoes. I’d had it. I was going to wait for him and we were going to thrash this out once and for all.

He came out dressed in brown tweed pleated pants, light shirt, and sweater and headed for the door.

“Where do you think you’re going?” I asked firmly.

“To the bar.”

“No, you’re not.”

He stopped, turned slowly and looked at me.

“And why not?” he asked quietly.

“Because I’ve had it.” My voice was shaking but still in control. “Because these past few days have been the pits.”

“Oh, they have?”

“Yes, they have. My patience, my calm, my entire emotional stability was already strained to the limit this morning. What with your potshots and your insinuations and your bad mood and Lipplinger with his ‘meat on the hoof’ and ‘she’s frustrated.’  And then on top of all that, we’ve got today.”

“I’ll admit, today was no picnic.” Mr. Hackbirn walked over to the wet bar and pulled out a bottle of bourbon and a glass. His hands shook a little as he reached into the ice bucket. “But who’s fault was that, may I ask?”

“Oh, I suppose it was mine. But have a little sympathy. I’ve never even been to a funeral. Now I’ve got my first corpse presented to me in a trash barrel, then I get shot at and to top it all off, you blithely make another corpse for me, fresh!”

“I don’t like killing people!”

“I can tell. You just agonize over it for an hour, then go plug a couple more.”

I winced as Mr. Hackbirn threw his glass at the bar. He turned on me.

“That was low, Wycherly, damned low!”

“Good. Because I don’t like the way things have been lately. I don’t like your evasionary tactics. I don’t like your snide comments. I don’t like being called an ice cube, and I’m beginning not to like you. I’m very angry right now, Sid Hackbirn, and what is making me angrier than anything else is that all the tension, all the potshots, all the bad mood is because you can’t admit you’ve got a lousy case of the clap!”

“If you know so much about it, then why can’t you just leave me alone?”

“Why can’t you just admit you’re not feeling well?”

“I feel fine.”

“There you go, denying it again.”

“I’m not denying anything. I feel perfectly alright. I do not feel sick because you don’t feel sick with gonorrhea.”

“Then what has all this bad mood been about?”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, think about it, Lisa. It’s been three weeks. I’m extremely horny. I tried to tell you there was nothing to settle. I’m going to be this way until I can get myself between a nice pair…”

“You can spare me all the graphic details. I know how it works.”

“You do? That’s a surprise.”

“See, you’re doing it again.”

“Then leave me alone.”

“It’s too late. It was too late the day you picked me up. You’re stuck with me now.”

“You’d better remember that.” He headed for the door.

“That’s right, Hackbirn, run away. Just like you always do. Any time you’ve got a problem with a relationship, you just ditch it. Well, you can’t ditch this one. Go ahead and run. But I’ll still be here and I’ll be here every time you try to run away.”

“Okay, we’re stuck.” He put his hand on the doorknob. “But I can make life pretty miserable for you if I want to.”

“That’s a two-way street.” I shot back coldly. He stopped. I took a deep breath and continued. “I don’t think we have to go that way. But that depends on whether or not you’re willing to take some risks, if and only if you’re willing to admit we’ve got a real problem here, and if and only if you’re willing to face it and fight it out. It’s a big risk, I’ll grant you. You’re going to have to do some digging. You might have to face yourself, and worse still, let me see it. It’s a pretty big gamble. But we’re already miserable, and personally, I’m willing to chance that it won’t get worse because I happen to like the odds on it getting a lot better.”

“What are you talking about?” he asked quietly. But at least he came away from the door.

“Human relationships. One thing your education was real short on. I may not know much about the spy business, but I’ve got relationships down real well.”

“Then what do you propose is wrong with our relationship?”

I sank down into the couch. “I don’t know.”

“Aw, geez. After all that you can’t tell me what’s wrong?”

“Even if I could, it wouldn’t do you a bit of good until you found it yourself.”

He paced the room, frustrated.

“You know what I think is wrong with you?” he said, finally. “It’s your snotty attitude towards my lifestyle.” That hurt, but I had to admit there was some truth in it. “I’ve run into it before. All you damned church types running around saying no and all the time you’re jealous of those of us who say yes.”

“I think you just hit the nail on the head.”


“Look, we’ve both got a list of petty grievances, etc. But I don’t think that’s the real issue here.”

“Then what is?”

“Neither one of us has a tremendous amount of respect for the other’s values.”

“I respect your values. Why do you think you’re still a virgin?”

“Because if you laid one hand on me, it’d be bye-bye Lisa, Quickline or not and you know it.”

He thought about that a minute. “I’ve always thought I did.”

“So did I. I thought I was being wonderfully accepting of you. But think about it. Haven’t most of the potshots we’ve been taking at each other the past week been direct attacks on the other’s values?”

“Yeah, I s’pose.” There was a pause. “I guess I just don’t understand. I’m not hurting anybody. I can’t even get a girl pregnant. So, why not?”

“Are you sure you’re not hurting anybody? What about your little social disease?”

“Well, I guess. But still…” He shrugged his shoulders.

“I can only speak for myself. But…” I paused. I couldn’t believe how hard it was to say it. “I say no because God said no. That probably sounds silly to you. I admit I took it on blind faith. But the more I look at the world around me, the more I think God is right. I look at Mae and Neil and what a good thing they’ve got, and then I look at you and it seems so empty.”

“I am content.”

“Maybe you’re lucky. But I know so many people who aren’t.”

There was a pause. “Lisa, I want you to know that I find you extremely attractive. But, at the same time, I do not want to violate you.”

“Why are you saying that?”

“Because of something that’s been bothering me about you for a long time.”

“Well, is it my cheapness, the singing, or the appetite?”

“No.” He shook his head. “Those are petty things. Yeah, they bother me, but that’s part of being alive and in close quarters. It’s that I get the feeling you’re scared of me. I come close to you, you draw away. I touch you, you stiffen up like a board. I’m not trying anything.”



I looked at him. He was being honest.

“I guess maybe you’re not.” I looked down at my hands, because all along I had known that he wasn’t. “You say you’re attracted to me. Well, it may surprise you, but the feeling is very, very mutual. You come close to me, and I’m aroused like I have never been aroused in my life. You touch me and I have to stiffen up, or I’ll give in and we both know the guilt would kill me. And the worst of it is, it’s purely physical. I’ve never met anyone who could do that to me. You think I’m scared of you? You bet I am, but I’m just as scared of myself.”

“There may come a time, Lisa, when we do find ourselves in each other’s arms. I wouldn’t be adverse to it.”

“Neither would I. But don’t count on it. For that time to come, one of us is going to have to do a complete one hundred and eighty-degree turn. I don’t think I can and I’m not sure you could either.”

“No. Not now, at any rate. In the meantime, can we both be a little more tolerant?”

“And open?”

“Sure. Friends?” He offered me his hand.

“Friends,” I said, taking it.

“Whew,” he said, pacing the room. “I don’t think I’ve ever been that angry in my life.”

“I’ve come close,” I said, then stopped.

He was looking at the glass he had broken. I guess he was remembering why he’d thrown it.

“I’m sorry about saying that,” I said, softly. “I didn’t realize how deep I was hitting.”

“You couldn’t have. I’d better clean this up.”

I could see his hands shaking, so I got up and put my hand over his.

“Let me do it,” I said.

“No. Like you say, I’ve got to face it.”

“Face what?”

“What I did today. Every time it happens, it brings to mind things I want to forget.”

“Viet Nam?”

He nodded. “In war, you do what you have to do. But you wouldn’t believe the rationalization. We told ourselves that they weren’t like us, they were less than human. One day, I stuck a knife into a man and watched his blood and his life slip away. It was him or me. Just like today. Only it was you also.”

“I think I would rather it were me.”

“So do I, sometimes. But you have to remember, Lisa, the next time it’ll be Lipplinger. And someone else, the time after that, and on it goes, until the next time it’s Neil and Mae and the kids.”

“It still won’t be easy for me to pull the trigger.”

“Let’s hope it’s never easy for either of us.”

I looked at him and then went for the wastebasket. Silently we picked up the broken glass, then he went and got a washcloth and wiped up the spilled bourbon.

“Anybody’d think we had one hell of a fight in here,” he joked.

“We did.”

“Yeah, I guess so. I hope we never fight again.”

“There’s nothing wrong with fighting. It’s the not resolving it and clearing the air that’s the problem. Heck, we could have had this all over before we left.”

He smiled sheepishly at me. “You tried to tell me, didn’t you?”

“Mmhm.” I put the wastebasket where it belonged and flopped down on the couch. He followed me and sat on the arm.

“You know, Lisa, I’ve told you things that I’ve never told anybody.”

“Even yourself, maybe?”

“Maybe. But you’ve gotten closer to me in three months than Henry James has in all the years he’s known me, and he’s closer than anybody. Heaven knows, he’s tried hard enough.”

“It’s funny what comes out of a resolved fight.”

“You know, Lisa…” Then he stopped as a thought struck him.

The same thought occurred to me. He’d been using my first name. It also dawned on me that I had never used his first name. He said so.

“Why don’t you?” he asked.

“Same reason I got bugged about you touching me. I had to keep the distance, I guess.”

“Do you still have to?” His eyes danced softly.

“I guess I don’t.”


He bent to kiss me and I almost did. There was nothing I wanted more than to feel his lips against mine. But I was only too aware of what would follow if he did. So at the last moment, I placed my fingers on his lips and shook my head.

“Please don’t misunderstand me,” I said. “I— I know you’re only trying to say thank you, I like you, all those nice things. But, please, not that way. You’re too strong for me.”

He pulled back and patted my shoulder.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“Don’t worry,” he chuckled. “You’re doing wonderful things for my ego.”

I gasped, then groaned, then clobbered him with a pillow. He laughed.

“I’ll ego you,” I yelped, laughing also, and hitting him repeatedly with my pillow. “If there’s anything that doesn’t need help, it’s your ego.”

“Hey! Hey!” He grabbed another pillow and launched a counter attack.

Poor Sid. He was new to pillow fights and I showed no mercy.

I still sing and he still chews ice. We both still bicker over the way the other eats or doesn’t eat. But he’s trying to stop the innuendoes and I’m trying to be a little easier about spending money. Like I said, we have a very good relationship. [A very, very good relationship – SEH]


Why I Sew

why I sew, mens shirt pattern, sewingI’m sitting here staring at the cut out pieces of a man’s shirt that are not getting sewn together. Admittedly, it’s been busier than usual on weekends, which is when I generally get my sewing done. But, but, but. I’m also wondering why I sew when, in fact, it’s a hell of a lot easier to just buy clothes. And cheaper, too.

The short answer is that my husband and I like to make the things most sane people buy. And it is true that I do get a kick out of that pioneering spirit and self-sufficient feeling that assures me that when the apocalypse comes, we’ll still be able to fend for ourselves. Then I look at the shirt pieces and think, “Do I really want to do this?”

I’m not sure if it’s because shirts really aren’t that big a novelty for me or if it’s because I’m still not that good at making them. Probably a bit of both. I do get bored easily and the construction phase isn’t all that interesting anymore. And it is more than a little frustrating when I know how things should look and they just don’t.

But I’ll work it out soon. That whole frustration issue is probably why I need to just go ahead and start working on the verdamnt thing. Because getting past stuff is also why I sew. For what it’s worth.

spy fiction, mystery fiction, cozy mystery,

Chapter Seven

cozy spy novel, serial mystery fiction, cozy mysteryOctober 31 – November 18, 1982


Mr. Hackbirn left early the next day. I drove him to the airport, then out to Mae’s, where I took the kids trick or treating that night. I drove home the next morning and went to All Saint’s Day mass at my new parish. Mr. Hackbirn didn’t leave me anything to do while he was gone, so I was a little at loose ends. I caught up on my work from the week before. Tuesday, I cleaned up the files. I got a little concerned when I hadn’t heard from him by Wednesday. But there really wasn’t anything I could do about it.

Conchetta had maintained the usual routine, explaining that she’d been cooking for just Mr. Hackbirn for a long time anyway. She wasn’t cooking the same things. She’d discovered on Monday my passion for food, in particular, Mexican food, and had been filling me up with all sorts of delectable goodies.

“It’s nice to cook for someone who likes to eat,” she said, handing me a plate filled with the most heavenly chili relleno I’d ever eaten in my life.

“It’s nice to be eating good food,” I said, leaning on the counter. We were in the kitchen where I’d been eating while the boss was gone. “And to be getting enough food for once.” [There is no such thing – SEH]

Small portions were the rule at the house and no seconds, which left a lot of chinks to fill, considering my appetite. I had tried nibbling between meals, but Mr. Hackbirn caught me and gave me an extended lecture on the importance of keeping fit in our business and how exactly the various substances I’d been nibbling on were poisoning my body. So I hid all sweet snacks away and only nibbled when the boss’s back was turned. I also compromised and bought an air popcorn popper, which Mr. Hackbirn still frowned upon, but conceded that if I had to snack, air popped popcorn with only a little salt was not going to do me in as fast as other things would.

I still hadn’t heard anything by Thursday. I decided that if I hadn’t heard anything by Friday noon, I would call Henry James. Thus resolved, I spent the day making a blouse for myself and wondering what I was going to do about Christmas presents.

I usually make at least one Christmas present for everyone in my family. It’s just the way I do things, that and it’s cheaper. But that year I had plenty of money. I still decided to make things but was kind of stuck when I thought about Mr. Hackbirn. He wasn’t the type to go for arts and crafts stuff. He had everything he could want. What to do?

I puzzled over the problem until noon when it dawned on me that he was very fond of pullover sweaters. I’ve been knitting since I was a kid and I make very nice sweaters. I tried to think if there was a type of sweater he didn’t have and he didn’t have one of those Aran Isles fisherman’s sweaters. I’d made one for Neil years ago, so I knew what I was up against. I bit my lip. That certainly seemed like the solution. I just hoped he would like it.

With that problem solved, I went to lunch and then back to my sewing.

It was a little after three when I thought I heard the front door open and close. I looked up at the small white box above my door. It had a little red light flashing that told me someone had come in. Nervously, I pulled my gun from my bedside table, checked the cylinder, and went to investigate.

Quietly, I slipped through the house to the front hall. Sitting next to the bench was Mr. Hackbirn’s suitcase. So he was home. I wondered why he hadn’t called to have me pick him up. Then I wondered if there was something wrong.

There was, but not anything immediately endangering my health and wellbeing. Well, maybe my health. As I approached the office I heard a coarse hacking cough from within. Still leery, I stayed clear of the doorway.

“Mr. Hackbirn?” I called.

“Yeah,” came the reply. It sounded a little hoarse.

I slid in. The door to his office was open and I saw him looking at a sheet of paper. He raised his fist to his lips and I heard that awful cough again. I set my gun on my desk and went into his office.

“Are you alright?” I asked.

“I’m fine,” he grumbled. “Just picked up a cold.”

“I’ll say.”

He sniffed, then coughed again. He dropped the paper onto his desk and sank into his chair. He looked very tired, his eyes and nose were red and his cheeks were a little flushed.

“Rough trip?” I asked.

“A complete waste of time,” he growled. “Lipplinger won’t budge until the end of the term. Says he’s got a couple of students that are failing and he wants to help them.”

“That’s sweet of him. But couldn’t you make him see the danger?”

“I didn’t even get to talk to him. I had to go through the guard team.” He put his face in his hands for a moment.

I noticed he was wearing a thin gold wedding band on his left hand.

“Did you stop over in Las Vegas?” I asked, completely puzzled.

“What?” He looked at me.

“Your ring.”

“Oh.” He pulled it off and dropped it onto the desk and coughed. “I was traveling under an assumed name and when Lipplinger wouldn’t move I decided to make it feasible for you to come with me next time. I hope you don’t mind traveling as my wife.”

“As long as I don’t have to act like one.”

“Fat chance.” He sounded miserable.

My heart softened.

“You look terrible,” I said gently.


“Why don’t you go to bed?”

“I’m fine,” he grumbled. “Where’s my mail?”

I walked over and put my hand on his forehead.

“You’ve got a fever.” My fingers probed behind his jaw. “I wonder if your glands are swollen.”

“Leave me alone,” he snapped angrily, catching my wrist and pulling it away.

We stared at each other for a tense moment. Then he gently let go of my wrist and looked away.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m not feeling very well.”

“Why don’t you go get undressed and into bed and I’ll bring your suitcase and your mail.”

Another cough racked his body.

“Alright,” he said meekly.

I watched him go, then gathered up the mail and my gun from my desk. I got the suitcase next. But instead of going to Mr. Hackbirn’s room, I stopped first at my own, dropped off the gun and gathered a couple of things from the medicine chest. Then I went to the kitchen to tell Conchetta that the boss was home, but we could still have enchiladas because he was sick.

“It’s just the flu, I think,” I told her. “If you’re up to it, he could handle some soup.”

“Sopo de pollo con arroz,” she said smiling. “I’ll make it.”

I knocked first.

“Are you in bed?” I called.

There was another cough, and then a weak “yes.”

His room was done in dark colors. The furniture was conservative and tasteful. On one wall was a sliding glass door to the side yard covered with dark drapes pulled back and lighter colored ones underneath. On the other side of the glass doors was a small patio with a large hot tub. The wall facing the doors had a long closet with sliding mirrored doors and another door to the bathroom. The long low dresser was next to the door I had come in. On the wall opposite was a king size bed. It had a valance over it with dark drapes tied back to the wall. I noticed it was a water bed.

I didn’t know what I’d been expecting, but I was glad to find there wasn’t anything to embarrass me. I put the suitcase down and the mail and other things on top of the dresser. I looked around again. The clothes that Mr. Hackbirn had been wearing had already been put away. Mr. Hackbirn was lying in bed, propped up by pillows. His blankets were pulled to halfway up his chest.

“What’s that thing around your neck?” he asked.

I looked down.

“It’s my tape measure,” I said, picking up the thermometer I had brought and shaking it down. “I was working on a blouse when you came in.”

“Miss Wycherly, I thought I as paying you well enough for you to avoid such economies.”

“You are,” I said, checking the mercury and shaking some more. “I can’t help it if I’m basically cheap. Besides, I like to sew. It’s great therapy.” I walked over and put the thermometer in his mouth. “And heaven knows, I need it around here.”


I put my hand under his chin. “Shut up. If you want me to unpack, just nod.”

He nodded sullenly.

A little looking around found two hampers in the bathroom. A quick peek inside told me one was for the dry cleaners, the other, for the laundry.

Mr. Hackbirn watched me as I picked the suitcase up and balanced it on one corner of the bed. I think he was waiting for me to turn purple when I saw his underwear. I got him, though. As easily as I get embarrassed, men’s underwear doesn’t bother me. While growing up on my parent’s resort I did a little bit of everything, including the guests’ laundry. I had handled all kinds of underwear, and plenty of it.

“Is everything dirty?” I asked, looking at the neatly packed clothes.

Mr. Hackbirn grunted.

“Oh, shoot.” I remembered the thermometer and ran over and pulled it out.

“Yes, it’s all dirty,” Mr. Hackbirn said.

“Ninety-nine point eight,” I replied. “That confirms it. You’ve got the flu.”

“I didn’t know you were a doctor.”

“I’m not. But after all those years of babysitting Mae’s kids, I’m an expert on the flu.”

I quickly emptied the suitcase, taking the clothes to the bathroom and dumping them in their respective hampers. I came back into the room puzzled. Something was missing. Mr. Hackbirn coughed again as I checked the suitcase.

“Something wrong?” he asked.

“I think you may have left your pajamas. I can’t seem to find any.”

“I don’t have any pajamas.”

I could feel my face turn scarlet as I turned my back to him.

“You don’t mean to tell me…”

“That I don’t have anything on underneath these covers? No, I don’t.”

He was enjoying it. I could tell. He loved embarrassing me.

“Mr. Hackbirn…”

“Come on. You’d have never known if you hadn’t asked me.”

“Then why do I get the feeling that you’ve just been laying there waiting for me to ask?”

He just laughed, then coughed really hard. Embarrassed or not, I was reminded he wasn’t feeling very well. I decided I was not going to let him get the better of me. Taking a deep breath, I turned around.

“We’d better take care of that cough,” I said, briskly.

“What do you have in mind?”

I unscrewed the top off a bottle I’d gotten from my medicine cabinet and picked up a spoon.

“This,” I replied, smiling and going over to him. “It’s the best thing for coughs.”

“What is in it?” He eyed the unlabeled bottle suspiciously.

“My grandmother makes it,” I poured a spoonful.

“Oh, no you don’t.”

“Oh, yes I do. Relax, Mae gives this to her kids and she’s just as finicky as you are.”

“What’s in it?” He didn’t quite trust it but he opened his mouth.

“Honey, lemon juice and corn liquor.” I spooned it in fast and poured another.

“Corn liquor?”

“A.K.A. white lightning, moonshine. My grandpa made his living on his own blend. When he died, I’m told you could hear G-men cheer in three counties. Of course, they neglected to make sure that his still was out of operation. But Grandma just makes the stuff for medicinal purposes.”

“Oh, really.”

“Mmhm. Open up.” I put the second spoonful in. “You can take two more in four hours. To continue, rest assured. Grandma’s a temperance lady except when she runs short of cash. Then she’s got a couple of good customers willing to oblige.”

“Sounds like an interesting lady.”

“She is. But you two wouldn’t get along. She takes a very dim view of you-know-what. Some folks say that’s why Grandpa died young.”

“Was it?”

“I doubt it. Grandpa got around quite a bit. There’s a whole bunch of families that, as Grandma would say, have babies with Caulfield features what have no right to have ’em.”

Mr. Hackbirn laughed. “So what did kill your grandfather?”

It was my turn to laugh. “A bad batch of corn liquor.”

He looked at the bottle. “That’s so reassuring.”

“Don’t worry. Mama told me it was because he was drunk when he mixed the mash. Grandma doesn’t drink, so you’re okay.”

He coughed, but already it was noticeably gentler. He sighed and laid his head back against the headboard.

“So what about my mail?” he asked.

I put the bottle back on the dresser and picked up the letters.

“Answers to two queries,” I said, picking out the envelopes.

“Good. Which ones?”

“From ‘Fortune’ on the banks and ‘GQ’ on how to buy a personal computer.”


“Both affirmative.”

“Terrific. Put the outlines on my desk.”

“They’re already there. But I’ll bring them in here first thing tomorrow. You are staying in bed.”

“I suppose. What else?”

“A check from ‘Cosmo’ that you need to endorse. The gas and phone bills, already paid. You just need to sign the checks. Several ads, one wishing to sell you the secret to a healthy, happy sex life…”

Mr. Hackbirn chuckled.

“Which I pitched,” I continued. “Three fan letters, which I’m putting on your nightstand for you to read at your leisure.” Fan letters were what I called the notes from Mr. Hackbirn’s various girlfriends. “And this.”

I dropped the legal size envelope on Mr. Hackbirn’s chest. It had come that morning, addressed to Mr. Hackbirn in care of me. I had immediately recognized both Darby and Mae’s handwriting, Darby having written the return address and Mr. Hackbirn’s name and Mae having written the rest. On the back, Darby had written, “Please don’t open this, Aunt Lisa”. Mr. Hackbirn coughed and looked at it, bewildered.

“What is it?” he asked.

I shrugged. “I have no idea. I was asked not to open it.”

He shook his head and opened the letter. Dying of curiosity, but equally determined not to pry, I took the rest of the mail back to the dresser.

“What on earth?” he muttered as I was screwing the top to the cough syrup back on. “Would you mind explaining this to me?”

“What’s the matter?” I walked over to him. “Can’t read Darby’s handwriting?”

“Oh, I can read it. It’s just… Here.”

I took the letter. The writing was Darby’s.

“Dear Uncle Sid,” it said. “We O’Malley’s got together Sunday night and had a family meeting. We talked about you and decided that you should be made an official family friend. This means that you are automatically invited to all family celebrations and holidays, and can come at anytime to visit and we hope you will. This means too that if you need us, we are here. We love you.”

It was signed by the whole family, even Mitch and Marty.

“Wow,” I exclaimed softly.

“They sent this, too.”

He handed me another piece of paper. This one was parchment, of sorts. It had a purple scrollwork border and it proclaimed that Mr. Sid Hackbirn (carefully printed in) was an official Friend of the O’Malley family, entitled to all privileges, etc. and signed again by the whole family.

“So that was what they were squabbling about,” I said.


“Darby and Janey. Don’t you remember? Last Saturday. They were fighting over something in the stationery store. This must have been it.”

“Hm. But what does it mean?”

“Just what it says, I expect. It looks like you’ve been adopted, boss.”

“Hm.” He sounded bemused.

I left him still looking over the letter and the certificate.

He wasn’t back to normal until Monday. Even then he was still a little drained and sniffling. I hadn’t said anything about Lipplinger the whole time he was sick, although I had a strong feeling there was more to be said on the subject. I waited until an hour after lunch when I brought in the printed drafts of the two articles he had written over the weekend.

“Looks good,” he said, flipping through them.

“Thanks,” I replied. There was a pause. “Um. May I ask you a question?”


“What’s going to happen with Lipplinger? I remember you said something about next time.”

“Yeah. We’re going to have to take him physically.”


“Not exactly. We just have to get to him and if necessary use force.”

I sighed.

“Don’t worry,” Mr. Hackbirn said. “I’m sure it won’t come to that.”

“I hope not. I don’t know if I could hit a nice old man over the head and drag him off.”

Mr. Hackbirn smiled. “We don’t do that anyway. The worst we’d do is stick a gun in his ribs. But I think I can talk him into seeing reason.”

“How are you going to talk to him when you couldn’t get through last time?”

“That’s what took so long. We’ll have to go through his sister, who is Ms. Hattie Mitchell.”

“Is that someone I’m supposed to know?” I asked with a nervous smile.

Mr. Hackbirn shrugged. “She’s made a name for herself among the Fortune 500 gang. Her husband was Damon Mitchell, founder and owner of Mitchell Electronics, Inc.”


“Less than twenty years ago it was just a one-man office. Thanks to government contracts, Mitchell built it into a defense electronics empire in seven years, then died, left it all to his wife, and she turned around and built a major conglomerate.”

“And the wife is Hattie Mitchell.”


“How’s she going to help?”

“Well, under my assumed name, on the pretext of interviewing her for an article, I spent a lovely afternoon chatting with Ms. Mitchell and managed to get an invitation for Mr. Ed Donaldson and his lovely wife to join Hattie and her brother for Thanksgiving dinner.”

“You being Ed Donaldson, with me as his lovely wife.”

“You got it.”

“You don’t.” I was very irritated by the way he had casually overlooked my feelings in the matter. “Did it ever occur to you that your lovely wife has a family and she wants to spend Thanksgiving with them?”

“For a brief moment. However, remember the objective is getting to Lipplinger. Thanksgiving is the next time he’ll be seeing Hattie and therefore is the only chance we’ll have to talk to him.”

“But I can’t miss Thanksgiving with my family!” I groaned.

“I’m afraid you’ll have to.”

I was shocked. “That’s asking too much.”

“Miss Wycherly,” Mr. Hackbirn sounded very tired. “We’ve already established that I cannot fire you and you cannot quit. So will you please accept the fact that you will not be spending Thanksgiving with your family and bear in mind that it is in the interest of helping to ensure that there will be other Thanksgivings to spend with them that you are doing so.”

I swallowed. He was right. But I still felt like crying. I blinked back the tears.

“I suppose.” I got up to go, very downcast.

“It can’t be all that bad,” said Mr. Hackbirn.

I looked at him. “Yes, it is.”

“You have dinner with them almost every Sunday. What’s so special about one Thursday?”

I stared at him, unbelieving. “Is that all it is to you? Just a Thursday?”

“In effect, yes.”

“But it’s Thanksgiving.”

“A part of Capitalistic propaganda to convince the people they are not oppressed and dedicated to a god that doesn’t exist.”

“Do you really believe that?”

“No. I gave up Communism, remember? But that was my aunt’s philosophy, and therefore how I was raised.”

“You never celebrated Thanksgiving?”

“Or Christmas, Easter, Mother’s Day, Fourth of July, Labor Day, Halloween. In fact, the only day I’ve ever celebrated was New Year’s Eve.”

“That’s awful.”

“Not really. Never having done it, I never missed it.”

“But when your friends did…”

Mr. Hackbirn was silent for a long moment.

“I don’t want you to feel sorry for me because there is nothing to feel sorry for.” He stopped and looked at me. “But I’ve never really had friends that were that close to me. I am what is commonly called a loner by my own choice and I prefer to stay that way. I have always been that way. I’m used to seeing people do things I’ve never done. I grew up that way and it never bothered me.”

I sank back into my chair. The tears I could no longer hold back ran down my cheeks.

“I was afraid you’d do that.” Mr. Hackbirn sighed and pushed the box of tissues on his desk towards me.

“I’m sorry.” I sniffed and took one. “I can’t help it.”

“Miss Wycherly, my lonely lot in life really doesn’t bother me.”

“I know. Why do you think I’m crying?”

As the week passed I found out a couple other things about Mr. Hackbirn that made me thank God for the miracle that had caused Mae and the family to attach themselves to him. One was that he was an atheist. Well, I had more or less figured that he was. But he actually admitted it over dinner one night.

The other thing was about his aunt. We were shopping for, believe it or not, wedding rings for Mrs. Donaldson. Mr. Hackbirn says it’s the details that can trip you up faster than anything when you’re undercover. I made some comment about getting my Christmas cards out. In the discussion that ensued it came out that Mr. Hackbirn had not spoken to his aunt in something like fifteen years. I stopped dead in my tracks.

“How could you,” I exclaimed.

“I’m not the one responsible,” replied Mr. Hackbirn calmly. “It was her idea to disown me, not I, her.”

“But something must have caused it. What happened?”

“I allowed myself to be drafted by the U.S. Army instead of going off to Canada. Aside from the fact that I did not share my aunt’s beliefs, Canada was too cold for me and I didn’t particularly want to be a fugitive.”

“And it wasn’t right to ditch.”

Mr. Hackbirn laughed. “I hate to disillusion you, innocent one, but that had very little to do with it. I didn’t really care about much in those days.”

“It must have been terrible.”

Mr. Hackbirn shook his head. “Afraid not. It wasn’t fun, but I’d gotten used to the idea that it was inevitable. Frankly, I think she used the whole issue as an excuse to get rid of me.”

“Why would she do that?”

“A lot of reasons.” Mr. Hackbirn spoke softly, yet in a matter of fact tone as if the words he was uttering didn’t really affect him. “In the first place, she had never wanted me. I was the result of my mother’s foolishness and even if Sheila hadn’t gotten herself killed, Stella still would have had to raise me. The only reason I wasn’t given up to the state was because then I would have been raised a capitalist and that was the only thing worse than her having to raise me herself.”

“And you turned out to be one, anyway. She must have felt like a horrible failure.”

“She was a raving success. She taught me rebellion and I did, unfortunately against her. It couldn’t have been that big of a shock. I never had her conviction. I suspect now my indifference was just another form of rebellion. But then I just didn’t care. I didn’t care about her. She didn’t care about me. So when she laid down her ultimatum, I said fine, goodbye, walked out and haven’t seen her since.”

“Oh, Mr. Hackbirn.”

“Now don’t start crying again.” He shifted uncomfortably. “You and I both know I don’t like it, but it’s a fact of my life and there’s no point in blubbering about it.”

“I’ll try, sir.”

“Alright. Let’s get that stupid ring bought and get going.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And don’t ‘sir’ me. This isn’t the army.”

I couldn’t squelch a giggle at his irritation. Mr. Hackbirn couldn’t handle emotion. He glared at me, then laughed.

“At least that’s a little closer to the role you’re playing,” he said.

“I’m sorry I can’t hang all over you,” I replied. “It just isn’t right for me.”

“Fine. But do me a favor and don’t blush when the salesperson asks to help us.”

Mr. Hackbirn held open the door to a jewelry store for me. I entered and cast a quick glance over the glass cases. That’s when I saw it. It wasn’t a ring. It was a necklace, a fine gold chain with a pendant. The pendant wasn’t more that three-quarters of an inch tall or wide. It was two open rectangles, one was brushed gold, the other polished. In the middle of the polished rectangle was oval opal surrounded by tiny diamonds. I was entranced. It was so delicate and beautiful.

“That necklace,” I whispered.

“We’re looking for rings,” said Mr. Hackbirn. I hadn’t noticed that he had his arm around my waist, I was so fascinated.

“I know. But that necklace is so beautiful. I really like it.”

“So buy it.”

I shook my head. “I don’t like keeping fine jewelry. It makes me nervous. I’m always afraid I’ll lose it. I wonder how much it is.”

“May I help you?” asked the salesclerk, a woman around Mr. Hackbirn’s age.

“How much is that necklace, the one with the opal?” I asked before Mr. Hackbirn could say anything.

“We’re not here for that,” he said, amused.

“I know. Just let me find out how much it is and then we’ll go look at rings.”

“It’s two hundred dollars,” replied the clerk

“That’s a lot,” I said, shaking my head.

“No, it isn’t,” said Mr. Hackbirn, and considering the store we were in, it wasn’t. “If you like it, buy it.”

“No,” I sighed. “I- I don’t think so. We’re not here for that.”

I forced my attention to the rings. Mr. Hackbirn made the actual selection. Fortunately, it fit as it was, so we could take it with us. As we left the store, I took one long parting look at the opal necklace. I sighed and went out.

Mr. Hackbirn rolled his eyes skyward.

“I’ve never met anybody before so tight with the bucks,” he sighed, as we walked to his car.

“You try scrounging sometime.”

“But that’s the point. You do not have to scrounge. That necklace would have barely dented your bank balance.”

“I know.”

“Then why are you so tight?”

“It’s just my nature, I guess.”

Tight with the bucks or not, that necklace haunted my thoughts. After about a week, I decided that maybe Mr. Hackbirn was right. I went back to the store to look at it. It was gone. I asked the salesclerk, and she assured me it had been sold. Downcast, I left the store.

How to cook, cooking for beginners, cooking without recipes

Menu Planning Made Easy

menu planning, how to plan a menuIt’s been a while since I’ve done a cooking blog post, but I’m still very interested in teaching folks how to cook, rather than simply follow recipes. Which is why I’m looking at menu planning today.

Here’s the thing – there are lots of reasons not to cook for yourself. Certainly, there are tons of good services out there, some that won’t expand your waistline too badly. But there are more reasons to do the cooking yourself. You reduce waste, you keep better control of what goes into your food and, hence, onto your hips, it’s a great family activity. I could go on. But let’s assume that you’ve already decided that you need to cook more at home. Where and how to begin?

That’s where menu planning comes in. Having a plan makes it a lot easier to come home and start cooking, maybe after a short rest or other decompression ritual. On the other hand, if you come home at a dead heat and find that all you have in your fridge is a pound of frozen chicken breasts and no clue what you were going to do with them, then it’s all too easy to hit the drive-thru again. Also, if you have a plan and you forgot to get the chicken breasts out of the freezer, you can still cook because tomorrow night’s dinner is a salad and all you have to do is put the chicken breasts in the fridge, then make the salad, instead.

A menu plan, basically, plots out a week or more worth of dinners (and lunches and breakfasts, if you want to go that far), so that you can go to the grocery store once a week or so, instead of daily. You don’t need anything fancier than a piece of paper and a pencil or pen. I have used calendar pages in the past – they worked great. But now I use a Google calendar, which means I can look up what’s for dinner before I get home, or if I see something at the supermarket that might work well with what I’ve chosen for a dinner. There are apps that will help you with this but in my experience, they’re very tied to using recipes – which we are trying not to use here – and you have to game them to get a simple list of items you want to prepare. Seriously, you don’t need a recipe for a basic side salad, and if the app is going to insist that you use one, why mess with it?

Menu planning steps

It always helps to start menu planning by looking through your fridge and pantry to see what’s already there. I’ll often write down a list of which veggies didn’t get used up the week before, and maybe thumb through the freezer compartment to see what meats I’ve already got and need using. I also think about the rhythm and flow of my week. For example, in the picture below, you’ll note there are no entries for Tuesday and Thursday nights. We’re not going to be home those nights, so no point in planning a meal. (I also tend just to plan dinners, though I should plan lunches, as well). Sunday nights, I like to have something a little more special and since we have a tradition of the Mid-Week Break, Wednesday nights are generally going to be a bit more involved and/or special.

menu planning, how to plan a menu

Next step is figuring out what goes where. Now, if I’m using a piece of paper that doesn’t already have the days of the week on it, I write them in. Sundays also have the advantage of generally being more open time-wise, so I’ll often cook a roast or a whole chicken or something fairly large so that I can use the leftovers during the week. Usually, that’s just sandwiches or chicken salad, but that also means another meal on the menu that I can schedule and not think about. Or a couple lunches. Most meals in our household involve a protein and two vegetables (side salads count as one veggie). For example, if I’m making lentil chili, I’ll either count the lentils as a protein and/or add some cheese. Then I’ll chop up a veggie or two to cook as part of the chili. Or we’ll have a bit of roasted pork tenderloin, with broccoli and salad, and maybe some sweet potato oven fries as an extra treat. You’ll note protein does not necessarily mean meat. I’ll often use high-protein grains or legumes instead, and I don’t often combine meat with high-protein grains. It’s not necessary.

Now, if you’re not certain what you want to cook, you can look through your cookbooks or online for ideas. There’s nothing wrong with using recipes, especially if you’re new to cooking. Just be aware that it’s a lot easier for something to go awry, such as forgetting to put a key ingredient on the shopping list.

After that, it’s just a matter of plugging in what goes where. So, say that bit of roasted pork tenderloin is scheduled for Sunday. There will be leftovers, which can become Cuban sandwiches on Thursday, along with some coleslaw and green beans. We try to practice Meatless Mondays and also abstain from meat on Fridays, and it looks like the weather is going to be fairly warm Monday, so I’ll throw together a gazpacho for that night, and gee, grilled cheese sandwiches sound good for Friday, maybe with a cucumber salads, since I’m doing coleslaw the night before. That leaves Wednesday… Hmm. Haven’t done a chicken piccata in a while. That sounds yummy and with my beloved and I working together, not nearly as much trouble. That leaves Tuesday. We’ve done chicken and pork. Maybe a skillet lasagna, with spinach and chopped kale (the two veggies) for Tuesday. Boom. We’re done.

Now, all I have to do is look over my menu, figure out what I need to buy, put it all on the grocery list and go shopping. But that’s next month’s post.


Essays, general essay

Labor Day

Thanks to all that hard work I did celebrating unions and workers in America this past weekend, I’m taking a week off from blogging.

See you next week!