cozy mystery, spy novel, serial mystery fiction

Chapter Four

May 20 – 23, 1983

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

“We forgot something,” he grumbled.

“Huh?”

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

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

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

I yawned. “I can’t imagine what.”

“A camera. We’re tourists.”

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

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

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

“Figures. But how did it get here?”

“I had it on the retreat with me.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Welcome to New York,” said Sid.

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

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

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

“True. Alright.”

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

Sid just chuckled.

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

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

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

“Okay.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Wear it around your shoulders,” said Sid.

“They always fall off when I do that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sid laughed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I know. I can smell it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where are you going?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you finally getting full?”

“You’re just jealous.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well?” asked Sid as I hung up.

“The drop’s set up for tomorrow.”

“Good.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But, Sid-”

“Watch that name stuff. You never know.”

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

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

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

“Huh?”

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

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

“Did you shave again?” I asked.

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

The topless incident remained unmentioned.

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

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

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

“On a weekend? How’d you do it?”

“I have my ways.”

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

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

I settled back in my seat.

“Wow,” I giggled. “That’s terrific.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Sorry.”

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

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

“Thanks.”

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

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

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

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

“We’re supposed to be on vacation.”

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

“No.”

“Get up.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks,” muttered Wadkins and then moved off.

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

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

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

“Do we have to?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, you don’t have to stay.”

“So I’m bored for an hour.”

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

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

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

“You sure?”

“Positive.”

“How long will you be?”

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

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

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

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

I turned on him, utterly furious.

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

“Did I scare you?”

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

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

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

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

“I don’t get it.”

Sid grinned and brushed my nose with his forefinger.

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

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

“Each of us to our own first loves.”

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

“So what are you looking at?”

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

“Go ahead.”

“I don’t know. It’s very expensive.”

“Oh no.” Sid groaned. “Must you..?’ “

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

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

“Details…”

Sid looked at the price tag.

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

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

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

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

“Looks nice.” He nodded.

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

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

“I can’t tell.”

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

“Alright. Will you take my purse?”

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

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

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

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

“Why?”

“We’ll be harder to hit.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I already know I am.”

“Then I won’t tell you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My face went vermillion.

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, I do.”

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

I had to admit there was that.

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

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

“We can’t send it, I suppose.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks.” I sulked.

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

“It might help our cover.”

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

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

“I don’t particularly want it.”

“You have no problem with me getting it.”

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

I glared at him. “That was tacky.”

He grinned. “You walked right into it.”

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

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

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

“Are you serious? They do that?”

“Hell, yes.”

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

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

“You only change shirts three times a game.”

Sid sweats like a horse when he plays.

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

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

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

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

“Really.” Sid’s eyebrow lifted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I put the drop under the doll and retreated quickly.

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

Sid came out from behind the luggage department.

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

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

“Help you today?” asked the clerk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Damn,” muttered Sid.

“What now?” I whispered.

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

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

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

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

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

“Is he dead?”

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

“Don’t use that name in vain.”

Sid groaned. “Go check the kitchen.”

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

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

“Was Wadkins a junkie?” I asked.

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

“What about…?”

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

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

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

“About what?” I grumbled.

“You and corpses.” He headed uptown.

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

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

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

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

“Terrific. What killed Wadkins?”

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

“Do you think the police will be fooled?”

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

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

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

“But what about check in?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And when you’re not?”

“I try to think of something else.”

I stopped walking, turned and looked at him.

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

“No.”

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

“Then why are you so scared?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I wish more people were holy like you.”

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

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

“You’re welcome,” Sid said, softly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you looking for?”

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

“That little cheap white supermarket job?”

“Yeah, where is it?”

“I left it.”

“How am I going to shave my legs?”

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

“Thanks, where is it?”

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

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

“Shouldn’t be.”

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

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

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

“Oh, my god,” I groaned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I won’t.”

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

It’s Time to Do It

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

cozy mystery, spy novel, serial mystery fiction

Chapter Three

May 18 – 19, 1983

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” yelped Sid.

“The piece needs a woman’s voice.”

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

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

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

“Okay.”

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

Sid glared at his notepad.

“You’re mad, aren’t you?” I said.

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

“But you’d rather she wasn’t me.”

Sid looked me over. “I don’t get it.”

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

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

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

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

“Thanks. I’ll probably need it.”

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

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

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

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

“How often?” I asked out of curiosity.

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

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

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

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

“Very careful,” he snickered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sid winked at me. “Sometimes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Our drop?” I asked Sid softly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks,” said Sid softly.

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

“Do you know this song?” he asked.

“A little. I’ve heard it before.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, but.”

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

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

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

“Assuming we get that far.”

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

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

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

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

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

“From a pay phone?”

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

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

“Is Daddy there?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is Daddy interested?”

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

“How are things down south?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, it isn’t.”

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

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

“But we have to carry all this stuff.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh.”

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

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

“Just buy it, will you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We left the stores from there and went to a restaurant near the Watergate Hotel. In the restrooms, we each hid a small micro transmitter and receiver on ourselves. I slid my transmitter onto my bra strap, and parked the receiver behind my ear, brushing my hair over it. Almost immediately, I heard a toilet flush and the raucous laughter of two men. I switched my transmitter on.

“Coming in,” I said softly.

“Loud and clear on this end,” said Sid’s voice in my ear.

I left the ladies room. Sid went to wait in the car, which was parked on the street out front. The restaurant was a nice, if trendy, place, with lots of hanging plants, and booths topped by more planters. I wandered around the dining room, looking for a young man with a purple tie reading Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. He had sandy hair and tortoiseshell glasses and wore a gray pinstriped suit with a purple tie and matching color in his breast pocket. I took a table across the room from his booth to the consternation of the hostess.

“Excuse me, miss,” she said, smiling through gritted teeth. “It would be better if we could get you a table in the other section.”

“I’m waiting for someone,” I told her. “I want to be where I can see the door.”

“We can arrange that,” she said.

“I’ll stay here, thank you.”

A minute later, I heard her behind me. I couldn’t see her through all the plants topping my booth.

“We’ve got another one that won’t budge. Table twelve.”

“Aw hell, and that jackass on fifty-three. Why do they always have to spread out on the days we’re short-handed?”

Just then, the Washington operative jerked. The book tumbled out of his hands as he fell forward, the back of his head a red mess. My stomach tied itself into knots. A waitress approached the table and screamed bloody murder, literally.

I looked everywhere but at that table.

“It doesn’t sound good in there?”

“It’s not,” I whispered. Terror settled into my limbs and kept me pinned. “Um, has anyone left the place in the last thirty seconds?”

“Yeah, about five people. You’d better get out of there. Go the back way.”

Trembling, I got up and slipped back and around towards the bar. There was a closed section next to where the operative had been sitting, and in it, a booth that backed up to the booth where the operative was. On the table was a glass of water, half empty, and a crumpled napkin.

I got to the car just as the police pulled up. Sid took his time getting going.

“What the hell happened?” he asked.

“He just went over,” I said. “I didn’t hear anything, but he must have been shot. Someone was in the booth behind him.”

“Did you see who?”

I shook my head. “The planters blocked the view.”

“And a silencer, too.” Sid shook his head. “That’s a professional job if ever I’ve seen one.”

“I wonder who set it up there. Not one of the booths backs up against a wall, and everything is screened by planters.”

“But who’d try a hit like that in broad daylight? Whoever’s behind this has guts.”

Apparently, the Dragon concurred when Sid checked in with her from Hattie’s. I just wanted to put it all out of my mind, so I concentrated on finishing my projects. It worked. I not only finished them but got Sid’s pants hemmed and pressed. I just didn’t get to bed until three a.m., not that I would have been better off going to bed earlier. Something told me I wouldn’t have slept much.

[I didn’t sleep much either. You were right about the fears I didn’t want to acknowledge, and the worst fear was that you or I would die before we had a chance to know each other’s love, the physical kind, of course. I had no idea there was any other. That night, I made love to Hattie and felt terrible because in my mind I had made love to you. I vowed then and there that sometime on that trip I would make it right for you and we would make love. I eventually banished you from my mind and made love to Hattie, only to have it happen all over again – SEH]

Introducing My First Guest – Carol Louise Wilde

Carol Louise Wilde is a dear friend of mine whose first book, Gift of Chance, was just recently released. It’s an awesome book, by the way. But one of the things that make this book really rock is the fantasy world that she has created in it. So that’s what I asked her to write about.

World Building Nuts and Bolts

I’ve been asked to write about world-building, a prominent feature of Gift of Chance, the first book in my fantasy series The Nagaro Chronicle. Since the world I’ve used in the Chronicle has been “alive” in my head for decades, I’m frankly at a bit of a loss to describe its origins. However, the experience of writing Gift of Chance, as well as working on another project that I’ve recently started to write, have given me a couple of ideas of a how-to nature on the subject, which I can offer here.

I’ve come to realize that while the “bones” of the Chronicle’s world – the core structural elements – are very old, much of the “flesh” on those bones is more recent. These are the finer details, the visible trappings of the world’s everyday reality, and many of them only came to me after I actually started writing the story and began to put myself into the day-to-day life of my characters. So this is one key to successful world-building, as I see it: the need to put yourself into your world and imagine it from the inside, out, not just from the outside, in. Your characters are living in your world. What is that like, moment by moment?

The experience, as you describe it, needs to be organic and believable, which requires detail. And here is another key regarding those details: It’s important to imagine both what is the same and what is different in your world compared to ours. The differences, of course, are what make your world unique, but the things that are the same are what allow your readers to relate to your imagined world, to its characters, and the events of the story that you’re telling. These details help to make your world real for the reader, in spite of its strangeness.

You need to consider every detail you write, because any detail at all might be either the same or different. The basics of making bread – in terms of yeast and kneading and rising and so forth – might be the same, but ovens can differ considerably. And if the bread isn’t ordinary bread – or it’s baked by dragon fire – what would be the same, and what would be different in the process? Or perhaps your character works in a factory that makes androids. What would be unique about working in such a factory, and what would be similar to working in a factory that made cars or microwave ovens? On a broader level, human emotions may be a constant, but the social structures and interactions that elicit those emotions could be so different as to require a whole new perspective. And what if one or more of your characters isn’t human? What might then be the same, and what might be different?

Of course, although I’m suggesting that you put yourself into your world as you write, I’m not saying you should use all the details you might imagine as you immerse yourself in each scene. Be selective. Don’t overload your readers. Just make sure that the details you choose to include serve a useful function. I’m suggesting that besides the obvious functions of setting the scene or advancing the action, you should also consider the world-building functions of your details: either helping to further define the uniqueness of your imagined world, or making it more real by giving your readers things they can relate to, based on their own experience.

And that, for what it’s worth, is my “take” on the nuts and bolts of world-building.

Gift of Chance is available through Amazon.com.

cozy mystery, spy novel, serial mystery fiction

Chapter Two


spy fiction, fiction serial, cozy mysteryMay 18 – 19, 1983

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” yelped Sid.

“The piece needs a woman’s voice.”

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

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

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

“Okay.”

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

Sid glared at his notepad.

“You’re mad, aren’t you?” I said.

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

“But you’d rather she wasn’t me.”

Sid looked me over. “I don’t get it.”

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

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

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

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

“Thanks. I’ll probably need it.”

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

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

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

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

“How often?” I asked out of curiosity.

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

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

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

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

“Very careful,” he snickered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sid winked at me. “Sometimes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Our drop?” I asked Sid softly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks,” said Sid softly.

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

“Do you know this song?” he asked.

“A little. I’ve heard it before.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, but.”

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

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

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

“Assuming we get that far.”

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

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

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

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

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

“From a pay phone?”

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

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

“Is Daddy there?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is Daddy interested?”

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

“How are things down south?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, it isn’t.”

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

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

“But we have to carry all this stuff.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh.”

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

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

“Just buy it, will you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We left the stores from there and went to a restaurant near the Watergate Hotel. In the restrooms, we each hid a small micro transmitter and receiver on ourselves. I slid my transmitter onto my bra strap, and parked the receiver behind my ear, brushing my hair over it. Almost immediately, I heard a toilet flush and the raucous laughter of two men. I switched my transmitter on.

“Coming in,” I said softly.

“Loud and clear on this end,” said Sid’s voice in my ear.

I left the ladies room. Sid went to wait in the car, which was parked on the street out front. The restaurant was a nice, if trendy, place, with lots of hanging plants, and booths topped by more planters. I wandered around the dining room, looking for a young man with a purple tie reading Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. He had sandy hair and tortoiseshell glasses and wore a gray pinstriped suit with a purple tie and matching color in his breast pocket. I took a table across the room from his booth to the consternation of the hostess.

“Excuse me, miss,” she said, smiling through gritted teeth. “It would be better if we could get you a table in the other section.”

“I’m waiting for someone,” I told her. “I want to be where I can see the door.”

“We can arrange that,” she said.

“I’ll stay here, thank you.”

A minute later, I heard her behind me. I couldn’t see her through all the plants topping my booth.

“We’ve got another one that won’t budge. Table twelve.”

“Aw hell, and that jackass on fifty-three. Why do they always have to spread out on the days we’re short-handed?”

Just then, the Washington operative jerked. The book tumbled out of his hands as he fell forward, the back of his head a red mess. My stomach tied itself into knots. A waitress approached the table and screamed bloody murder, literally.

I looked everywhere but at that table.

“It doesn’t sound good in there?”

“It’s not,” I whispered. Terror settled into my limbs and kept me pinned. “Um, has anyone left the place in the last thirty seconds?”

“Yeah, about five people. You’d better get out of there. Go the back way.”

Trembling, I got up and slipped back and around towards the bar. There was a closed section next to where the operative had been sitting, and in it, a booth that backed up to the booth where the operative was. On the table was a glass of water, half empty, and a crumpled napkin.

I got to the car just as the police pulled up. Sid took his time getting going.

“What the hell happened?” he asked.

“He just went over,” I said. “I didn’t hear anything, but he must have been shot. Someone was in the booth behind him.”

“Did you see who?”

I shook my head. “The planters blocked the view.”

“And a silencer, too.” Sid shook his head. “That’s a professional job if ever I’ve seen one.”

“I wonder who set it up there. Not one of the booths backs up against a wall, and everything is screened by planters.”

“But who’d try a hit like that in broad daylight? Whoever’s behind this has guts.”

Apparently, the Dragon concurred when Sid checked in with her from Hattie’s. I just wanted to put it all out of my mind, so I concentrated on finishing my projects. It worked. I not only finished them but got Sid’s pants hemmed and pressed. I just didn’t get to bed until three a.m., not that I would have been better off going to bed earlier. Something told me I wouldn’t have slept much.

[I didn’t sleep much either. You were right about the fears I didn’t want to acknowledge, and the worst fear was that you or I would die before we had a chance to know each other’s love, the physical kind, of course. I had no idea there was any other. That night, I made love to Hattie and felt terrible because in my mind I had made love to you. I vowed then and there that sometime on that trip I would make it right for you and we would make love. I eventually banished you from my mind and made love to Hattie, only to have it happen all over again – SEH]

Essays, general essay

The Lie of All Happy, All the Time

Last week, I looked at how I have to face and work through my anger to get to the point of being able to forgive. And one of the things I pointed out is that we, as a culture, are really uncomfortable with anger. We don’t have any really solid ways of dealing with it, which is really a problem because anger drives a lot of negative thinking.

I’m not a big fan of negative thinking and struggle with it constantly. It’s not fun. I assume people hate me. I mentally call people names who don’t deserve it.  I assume the worst motives in everyone who crosses me. This is not healthy or good or anything like the person I want to be. But how to stop it? Aye, there’s the rub.

So, I’m reading this article by someone I won’t name, a) because I tossed it already and b) the author was a freaking idiot (which I will explain). The good points this person made were that negative thoughts have a nasty way of happening, whether you want to think them or not, and that one of the best ways we can deal with them is to confront and analyze them. And he suggested asking whether the thought is true and then reframing the thought if it isn’t.

The first problem is that he insisted that at the moment a negative thought occurs (and he was very insistent about this next bit), the reader should stop immediately and write it down, along with the analysis. I don’t know about you, but negative thoughts don’t hit me when I’m at my desk with pen, paper and several minutes to spare to think them through. They come at me in the shower, in bed in the middle of the night, while I’m driving or walking. In short, when stopping to write the frickin’ thought down is next to impossible, let alone analyze it. And it didn’t occur to the author of the article that this might be the case for most people? How stupid is that?

The second problem is that in the examples he gave, the thoughts were all untrue. Well, gang, there are some people out there who really don’t like me. There are plenty of people who by their actions give me good reason to assume that their motives are the worst. There are certain social situations (thank God, not many anymore) that if I didn’t go into them mentally armed to the teeth, I was going to get kicked and kicked but good. And there are people out there who do deserve the names I think up. Like the idiot who wrote the article.

The author wrote multiple times in one article that if we keep thinking negative thoughts, they will ruin our lives. I admit, negative thinking is not fun. I want to dump a good bit of it. But my life is not ruined by a long shot and I do have good relationships. If you have to use that kind of hyperbole to make your point, my first thought is that you don’t have much of a point to make.

But, see, this is where the author and a lot of the other folks out there who want to help us form happier thoughts fall into a trap. They create the impression that we’re supposed to be happy all of the time. That if we’re feeling sad, fearful or especially angry, that there’s something wrong with us. That we shouldn’t feel these things or that we should be able to control it and get back to happy.

Folks, All Happy, All the Time is a big, fat, freaking LIE. When somebody hurts you, you are supposed to feel angry and sad. In the real world, shit happens and you don’t have to rationalize your angry feelings. In fact, rationalizing those feelings can lead to you being hurt even worse. For example, women in abusive relationships will often explain away their hurt and anger by excusing their abusers. Instead, they need to be angry so that they can get the fuck out of the relationship. Sometimes the problem really is that your boss is a control-freak sociopath and your angry feelings are a vital clue that you need to do something about getting out of that workplace or reporting the jackass or whatever.

The bitch is that there are far more people who genuinely like me than who hate me. Most people I meet are fairly intelligent and at the very least do not deserve to be called idiots. The vast majority of people out there are not trying to actively cause me harm, even if, occasionally, their behavior is pretty trying. I don’t need to be obsessing on the few people who are a real problem. I just need to find a way to deal with them effectively. Or, if there is nothing to be done, then find a way to use the resulting angry feelings to fuel something else good and holy.

Because even if it were good for me to scream at people call them names, which it isn’t, calling someone an idiot, no matter how much that person personifies the label, is not going to get that person to change the behavior. However, there is one thing that can and that’s forgiveness. I just have to get through the anger, first, and that is not easy.

cozy mystery, spy novel, serial mystery fiction

Chapter One

May 14, 1983

 

The sky was overcast, a little unusual for that time of year in Southern California. I zipped up my ski jacket against the bite of the cool mountain air and headed away from the cabin in search of a quiet place to think, which is the point of going on a retreat. We were somewhere near Big Bear Lake. The area was a crowded one for the mountains, but certainly not as crowded as L.A. It had that special stillness, with the constant whisper of the wind in the pines.

“Hi. Going for a walk?” asked a voice behind me.

I jumped and turned to face Father John Reynolds. He was a tall man with salt and pepper hair and solemn brown eyes.

“Yeah,” I replied quietly.

“Mind if I join you?”

“Mind if I be honest?”

He smiled. “Go ahead.”

“Well, I did want to get away from the group for a while,” I replied, shrugging helplessly. “I need to get some perspective on a couple of things.”

“Maybe I can help.”

“I appreciate the offer, but I don’t think so.”

Father John gently took my elbow and steered me down the road.

“I’d like to talk to you, Lisa,” he said. “I think it’s important.”

“Alright,” I sighed.

We walked in silence for a moment, as Father John mentally put his words together.

“Your small group asked me to talk to you,” he said finally. “They think you’re holding out on them.”

I thought back to that morning. They had been trying to draw me out, Frank Lonnergan in particular.

“Maybe I am,” I said slowly. “But sometimes you just can’t say things to people.”

“Something about your boss?”

“Not that,” I said. My boss, Sid Hackbirn, is an eccentric freelance writer. I’m his secretary. I also happen to live in his house. Of course, everyone who knows about it jumps to the obvious, however erroneous, conclusion.

“Well, if you’re not living in sin, some other kind?”

“Father, I know you’re just trying to be helpful, but please don’t ask. For once, I’m not guilty. I’m not in trouble or anything like that.”

“You’re carrying something around, Lisa. It looks pretty heavy to me.”

“Even if it is, it’s just something I’ve got to carry.”

“Confession isn’t just for sin.”

I looked at him and thought about that a moment. All of a sudden, my secret felt just too big and burdensome.

“Father,” I began slowly, not at all sure I should be saying anything. “If I were to tell you, it’d have to be you only and you’d have to guard it as if this were a confession.”

“Alright, I will.”

“This is going to sound crazy.” I thought back to how it had been explained to me. “But within the structures of the FBI and CIA are several smaller organizations so secret people don’t even know they exist. They are involved in espionage and counter-espionage. My boss is a member of one called Operation Quickline and so am I.”

“Ah hah.”

“You don’t believe me.” My heart sank.

“No, no. I believe you. I was just trying to imagine you as Mata Hari.”

“I’ve heard she was a lousy spy.”

“And you are a very good one. I never suspected.”

“Well, now you know why I’m holding back. I have to.” I looked down at my feet. “I can’t even tell my family.”

“It’s better you don’t. Your kind of knowledge is dangerous.” Father John smiled quietly.

“Tell me about it. I’ve been afraid so much.” I could feel the tears forming but held them back. “When we were talking about fear of death today, all I could think of was being shot at in Washington, D.C. and watching a man die, and I couldn’t say a word about it.”

He nodded. “That’s a heck of a thing to carry around by yourself.”

“Sid tries to help me. We’re really very close. But he doesn’t quite understand where I’m coming from a lot of the time. His background’s so different from mine and our value systems are diametrically opposed anyway.”

“You must have some common ground.”

“Some. In some ways, quite a lot. But where it counts…”

“I know. It’s very difficult for you.” John put his arm around me and gave me a gentle squeeze.

I heard a car go by. Looking up, I thought I saw a familiar dark slate blue fender disappear around the bend. I started.

“Something wrong?” John asked.

“I thought I saw Sid’s car.” I let out a nervous chuckle. “I’ve been so afraid he’s going to pop up here with some problem. I must be letting my imagination run away with me, seeing his car everywhere.”

“Lisa, if it’s that big a strain for you…”

“But it isn’t.” I shook him off. “Most of it’s desperately dull. I just need to get some perspective on those times that aren’t so dull, like when someone dies as a result of my actions. The time I’m thinking of, he was the enemy and he was going to kill us. Sid says it’s a lot like war. I suppose he ought to know.”

“I’m afraid I don’t have an answer for that. There’s the concept of the lesser of two sins, but I don’t think that makes it any easier.”

“It doesn’t. I don’t know. I keep hoping there’s an answer.”

Father John thought about it, then shrugged. “ ‘Now we see as through a glass, then we shall see face to face.’  First Corinthians thirteen. I suspect that’s all the answer you’re going to get.”

“I was afraid of that.”

Father John stopped walking and put his hands on my shoulders. “Lisa, yours is an important job. I truly believe you were chosen for it and not by Sid Hackbirn. God is very good at putting us where we’re most effective and He doesn’t throw things at us we can’t handle. You are in your admittedly unusual position because someone else would not be able to handle it.”

I looked down the road.

“You know,” I said, slowly. “I really like my job, all of it, not just Quickline.”

“Do you like Sid?” He stepped to my side and we began walking again.

“Of course, I do. I like him a lot. We’re very good friends.”

“And yet, you’re so different where, as you say, it counts.”

“I know. But we’ve learned to respect each other’s beliefs. I don’t agree with Sid’s fooling around any more than he does with my celibacy, but we respect that it’s our choice and leave it at that.”

“Maybe you shouldn’t.” Father John looked up at the pine trees surrounding us.

“What do you mean?”

He stopped walking. “As closely as you two work together, maybe you should try to understand each other and where you’re coming from.”

That was a new idea. I thought about it for a moment.

“You’re going to end up challenging each other,” John continued. “You, most of all, might have to think about some things you’ve always just accepted.”

“Sounds dangerous.” I let out a wary chuckle.

“Yes, but more dangerous for Sid perhaps, than you.”

“Why?”

“You have the power and protection of Almighty God on your side. Who does Sid have to call on?”

I laughed. Sid’s a confirmed atheist.

“Come on,” John said, turning around. “It’s time we got back.”

I almost missed it as we approached the cabin. But parked next to Carl and Erin MacArthur’s dark blue Nissan four by four pickup was the slate blue Mercedes 450SL that belonged to my boss.

“Oh, no,” I groaned. “I was afraid it was him.”

John just smiled.

“It can’t be that bad,” he said.

“Oh, yeah? I told him he’d better not come up here for anything less than World War Three starting.”

“Let’s hear it for Armageddon. Come on.”

I hesitated. “I’ve got too much to sort out yet. I’d rather not talk to him. It’s probably just a moved-up deadline anyway.”

A small, dark figure appeared in the cabin’s doorway, Esther Nguyen.

“Oh, there you are, Lisa,” she called, and then inside. “She’s back.”

“Too late,” John chuckled.

Esther stepped back to allow Sid to get through the door. He was immaculate, as usual, in a dark pinstriped three-piece suit. He’s not a tall man, barely three inches taller than me and I’m about average height. His dark wavy hair is always precision trimmed and never out of place. His face is handsome, in fact quite striking with bright piercing blue eyes and a cleft chin. He’s slender with a well-proportioned figure. In short, he’s a very attractive man with a sensual air about him, very handy for him since his hobby is sleeping around. I’ll admit I’ve been tempted, but I happen to believe sex is for marriage and that’s that.

That day, his manner was urgent, even grim.

“Will you excuse us, please?” he asked Father John without waiting to be introduced.

I swallowed.

“When are the missiles coming?” I asked wearily as John left.

“What missiles?” asked Sid. “Oh. Your World War Three condition.”

“The sole circumstance under which you were to come up here.”

He sighed. “Alright, it’s not W W III. But it could be something equally bad for us. We’ve got to get out of here.”

“Why?”

“I’ll explain in the car. Let’s go.” He started towards the Mercedes.

“No.”

He turned and glared at me. “Lisa, I don’t want to argue about it.”

“Well, I don’t want to leave without a darned good reason. This weekend is important to me.”

“How about your life?”

“My life? Sid, what’s happened? Come on, we can talk on the road.”

Sid looked around quickly then went with me in the direction I’d just come from.

“There’s been a leak,” he said quietly. “The news came this morning. We’ve been ordered to pull out fast and report to Washington D.C. by Tuesday morning.”

“Do they know where it is?”

“No. That’s why we’re reporting to D.C. We’ve been elected to find it.”

“How? We don’t know anybody else in the business.”

“We’ll find out Tuesday morning. But I’ve got a bad feeling we’re going to end up bait for a trap.”

I swallowed. “Wonderful.”

“In the meantime, we’ve got to get out of L.A. We’re flying to Washington tonight. We’ll be staying with Hattie Mitchell.”

“Correction. You’ll be flying out tonight. I’m staying here ‘til this retreat is over. I’ll meet you at Hattie’s”

“Are you out of your mind?” Sid glared at me, his piercing blue eyes sparking with worry.

“No. I am for all practical purposes out of L.A. The only people that know I’m here are Mae, Henry James and you. Heck, I didn’t even tell Mae where the place was to prevent you from badgering her into giving her the address.”

“I know,” Sid grumbled.

“Look, Sid, I really need this time.”

“Alright, you can stay. I don’t like it. Henry told me they found a female operative dead in San Francisco yesterday. She’d been raped and strangled, but it was a little too clean to be just your standard thug.”

“I’ll be careful. I promise.”

“I’m sure you will.” He sighed. “Just in case, have you told anyone about the business? Even Mae and Neil?”

Mae is my sister, Neil is her husband. They live in Fullerton with their five kids. I’m really close to them. So is Sid, strangely enough. They kind of attached themselves shortly after I started working for them.

“I haven’t said a word to Mae or Neil. I wish I could.”

“It’s better for them if you don’t. Anybody else?”

“Not anybody that could be the source of a leak.”

“What?” Sid looked shocked.

“I just told him this afternoon, just as you drove up, so it’s impossible.”

“You told somebody?”

“I told Father John Reynolds, a priest and he promised me the secrecy of the confessional.”

“The what?”

“The secrecy of the confessional. It’s a vow priests take never to divulge what a person tells them in the course of a confession, currently known as the Sacrament of Reconciliation. It’ll sound insane to you, but most priests, John among them, would literally rather die than tell somebody some ten-year-old lied to his mother three times last week.”

“Lisa, why?”

“Because I can’t take it anymore.” Turning away, I wiped my eyes dry. “Sid, I really do like the business and I don’t want to quit, even if I could. But even you admit there’s a lot of pressure, and things happen that I have trouble justifying. I just need somebody to talk to whose beliefs are more in tune with my own.”

“I see.” He didn’t.

“And don’t worry about him being the leak. I only just told him. Heck, I saw your car go past us.”

“I thought that was you. You mean that guy with his arm around you was a priest?” Sid was really shocked. “Why wasn’t he in black?”

“He’s wearing his civvies this weekend.”

“But the arm…”

“Sid, there is such a thing as affection without sex. He was just offering me a little comfort and support, a little paternalistic squeeze if you will.”

We started back with Sid shaking his head.

“So, when are you done here?” he asked finally.

“Tomorrow afternoon. I’m not sure when.”

“I’ll find out exactly before I leave. I took the liberty of packing for you. I also included Janet Donaldson’s I.D. and credit cards and ring. They’re in a wallet at the bottom of the suitcase. Carry both your I.D.’s on the plane, and wear the ring. I told Hattie I wasn’t sure who we were coming as and that I was going to check out the situation there before I decided.”

“Alright. Why don’t you leave my ticket also? I can change it at the airport.”

“I haven’t got it. They’re both waiting at the reservations desk. I’ll change it and call you from the airport to give you the time. You got any cash?”

“A little.”

Sid pulled out his slim snakeskin wallet from his inside breast pocket and opened it.

“Just a loan,” he said before I could protest and handed me a fifty and two twenties. “You’ll need it for meals and taxis. Keep an eyeball out for tails. I don’t know how you’ll get your shoulder holster on around here but wear it. It’s in the carry-on, plus the shield for the metal detectors at the airport. Put some steel in your hair, and you might want to wear jeans and your running shoes. I packed those also. I don’t want you running around unarmed, is that clear?”

“Alright,” I grumbled. Sid knew I didn’t like carrying weapons. He didn’t like carrying them, either. But the way automatically held his suit jacket closed as he put away his wallet told me he was wearing his shoulder holster. He probably had hidden about his person a variety of spring steel lockpicks, transmitters, and other potential weapons. [To the teeth, my dear. You can always hide something ‑ SEH]

As we came up on the cabin, Kathy Deiner, a tall slender black woman with her hair cut close to her head, broke away from a small group at the door.

“Hey, Lisa,” she said pulling me away from Sid. “The rest of the group and I want to talk to you before you leave.”

“I’m not leaving,” I said.

“You’re not? But what about the boss’s interview?”

I headed over to the Mercedes where Sid was taking my suitcase out of the trunk.

“It’s not ‘til Tuesday,” I said. “He just thinks he can’t handle the background work himself. I’ll be flying out Sunday as it is.”

As I reached down to pick up the suitcase, Sid slipped the luggage tag he’d taken off into my hand.

“Be careful,” he whispered. “It’s not yours.”

I slipped the tag belonging to my alter ego into my coat pocket.

Frank Lonnergan, a tall pleasant looking man with dark hair, appeared in the doorway.

“Kathy, Lisa, hurry up,” he yelled. “They’re calling ten minutes.”

“She’s not leaving,” Kathy called back. “She talked the boss out of taking her.”

“We’ve still got to talk. Come on, Miss Wycherly.”

I looked at Sid, shrugged my shoulders and followed Kathy into the cabin carrying my suitcase.

It was rather odd that the six of us had ended up in the same small group at the retreat. Kathy, Esther, Frank, Jesse White, George Hernandez and I were already close friends. I had even been dating Frank and George, and usually on retreats, they’re trying to get you to meet other people. We met upstairs in the “girls’ dorm.”

“Lisa,” Frank began. “John talked to us and, well, we kind of owe you an apology.”

“What did John tell you?” I asked, puzzled and a little scared.

“Just that there’s sometimes things you can’t share with us,” Kathy said. “He said that he talked to you about it and agreed that you had a good reason and we have to respect that.”

“We just want you to know we care about you.” George put his arm around me and squeezed. He’s average height, with features that remind you of Montezuma and still seems like a cuddly teddy bear.

“I know and I appreciate it. I love you guys.”

“We love you too,” said Jesse, who’s about average size with dark black skin. It was good to get a hug from him. I’d kind of embarrassed him a couple months before by asking him out. Jesse’s liberated. He just wasn’t used to white girls asking him for dates. I think he has a crush on Kathy, too.

We were tangled in a group hug, when Susie Talbot came up, giggling.

“Oh, Lisa,” she said. “You should see your boss.”

“What’s he doing?” I asked, afraid that he was trying to pick someone up. [Why would I have wasted my time? ‑ SEH]

“Father John’s trying to talk him into staying through mass and dinner.”

“I don’t think Sid’s interested,” I said nervously. “He’s not exactly religious.”

“That’s not stopping John,” Susie giggled. “Sid told John he’s a confirmed atheist and John just said at least he was committed. Of course, everyone else wants him to stay, too.”

“Shavings!” I was downstairs in seconds to rescue Sid.

Frankly, I would love it if Sid would convert. But at the same time, there is nothing worse than a bible thumping zealot trying to win your soul. I hate it when it happens to me, and I’m already converted. My friends at church aren’t all that bad, but I did want Sid to like them, and I didn’t think the odds of them hitting it off were too good if they found the sorry state of Sid’s soul too tempting.

Sure enough, Sid was surrounded when I got downstairs.

“Come on, you guys. Lay off,” I said.

“Lay off what?” asked Carl MacArthur. “We’re just trying to be friendly.”

“Right.” I looked at Sid. He was starting to get angry. Suddenly, very much I wanted him to understand. “You don’t have to stay if you don’t want to. I don’t want you to feel pressured. But, please, try to understand, they only want to share something with you that means a lot to them, and to me, too.”

Sid’s eyes pierced me, then slowly, they softened.

“Would you like me to stay?” he asked with surprising tenderness.

“I don’t want you to feel obligated. It would be nice if you did. It might help you to understand where I’m coming from.”

“I can only stay through dinner,” he said softly. “I don’t want to miss my plane. Hattie’s expecting me.”

“Dinner’s enough.” I was very touched. I knew how hard it was for him to stay. He’s very comfortable with his atheism but feels out of place in religious settings, and he doesn’t like it.

Mae’s oldest daughter, Janey, had conned Sid into going to mass with us on Christmas and Easter, so he wasn’t totally new to it. But mass on a retreat is certainly a more casual affair than the high masses of Christmas and Easter. We had a couple of tense moments that night.

The first was during the “sermon.” Actually, it was a discussion. Sid had to make the comment that he thought Jesus’s actions in the gospel reading were rather snotty. The room was stunned. I buried my burning face in my hands, thinking decidedly un-Christian thoughts. Father John came to the rescue, however, saying that Sid did have a good point and then proceeded to put the situation in a completely different light so that even Sid had to agree there was justification for the acts.

During the prayer of the faithful, we just made spontaneous requests instead of the usual pre-written prayers. Kathy prayed that Sid and I would have a safe trip, little realizing how unsafe it was likely to be.

The second tense moment was during the sign of peace. In a regular church situation, we just shake hands and say “peace be with you” to the people around us. On Christmas and Easter Sid had merely stood and smiled politely. He was pretty startled that night when we suddenly all got up and started hugging each other. He backed off into a corner pretty quickly.

I went ahead and went over to him, even though I was very nervous about it. I guess I didn’t want him to reject me, but I couldn’t see not doing it.

“Thanks for staying,” was all I could say.

He smiled and then I put my arms around him and he put his arms around me and just held me like a friend.

“Thanks for being here,” he said softly into my ear.

After communion, we had a spontaneous round of thanksgivings. I was almost as surprised as Sid when I thanked God for him being there.

“And thank you, Lord, for the friendship Sid and I have built,” I continued, still blushing. “And, dear Jesus, take care of him and watch over him.”

Sid did a minimum of teasing through dinner. For a minute, I actually thought he was behaving for my sake, but then I noticed he seemed very thoughtful.

“Do you spend a lot of time doing that?” he asked later as I was seeing him off.

“Doing what?” I asked.

“Praying for me.”

I blushed.

“All the time,” I whispered, and braced myself.

With Sid, the rejoinder could have been as caustic as the one I got was tender.

“Thanks.” He smiled warmly. “I’d better get going. See you in Washington.”

He got into the car, inserted the key in the ignition and buckled his seat belt.

“I’ll see you there,” I replied. “You take care now.”

“You too.”

He drove off and I went back to sort things out.

 

Essays, general essay

The Path to Forgiveness – Through the Anger

This started because I got sick last fall. Literally. And if our bodies’ illnesses reflect our emotional states and/or needs, then it became readily apparent to me that I was hanging onto shit that I need to let go of. With me, it’s easy to figure that part out. I’m angry. I’m pissed off, enraged, fed up, you name it.

So why write about being angry here? Well, I suspect I’m not the only person on this planet who is dealing with anger issues, even if we’re reluctant to admit it. Most women I know are. We’re trained to be nice and being angry is not nice. Which gives a lot of us tremendous incentive to hold onto and suppress our anger until it turns inward on us and becomes depression.

Also, as I began to sort out the issue of anger (not necessarily what’s pissing me off), it occurred to me that one of the healthiest ways to get past the anger is to forgive. But how many of us really know how to forgive someone? We know how to say the words, but it doesn’t always play out in our lives. We are freshly wounded again. We don’t believe it’s possible. I’ve heard and read all kinds of different things. So, maybe, if I share my own struggle to learn to forgive, really forgive, then maybe we can struggle along together. Maybe we can build each other up, even when we’re so angry, we’d love to do some serious tearing down.

And that’s kind of where I’m at right now. There is a whole boatload of people in my life right now that I’d just love to slap around. Yeah, I know the standard advice is to keep those people out of my life. Well, that’s not going to work here. Some of them I’m related to, and they’re not so bad that I’d want to take that drastic a step, at least, not yet. A lot of them I have no direct relationship with – as in they are the masses of fucking idiots out there whose combined stupidity is conspiring to fuck me and mine up royally. You know, self-righteous, knee-jerk reactionaries (liberal or conservative – they come in both flavors); tech support people; doctors who can’t take their noses out of their formularies long enough to see me as a whole human being and understand that I don’t always conform to their medical cookbooks. (Seriously, three months of telling them I don’t react well to psyllium and they kept telling me to take it.)

Actually, it’s not the stuff that I can do something about that tends to get me all riled. It’s the stuff I’m powerless against. I can’t even write about some of it because of certain people, who will assume I’m writing about them when I’m actually writing about someone else. Of course, I won’t hear about it until years later after a suspicious silence and since they’re not going to admit anything is wrong, I can’t do anything to fix it.

This is about me learning to deal with things. I am not interested in outing anyone else’s neuroses. So, if I write about something, kindly assume it’s not you that I’m writing about. And if you do think I’ve misunderstood something, for God’s sake, TALK TO ME!!!

Because here’s the thing that makes forgiveness so insanely hard. You have to deal with the anger, first. You can’t gloss over it. You can’t pretend that whatever didn’t hurt. You have to stare it in the eye and admit you’re pissed.

The problem is, I do not believe that in our culture, we have any good ways to deal with this most unpleasant of emotions. Ranting doesn’t work. Hurting other people back doesn’t work – trust me, I’ve tried that one. Brooding about it doesn’t help. It doesn’t really matter how many times I admit I’m angry, there has to be something I can do with this boiling up of emotions.

In fact, maybe it’s not letting go of the anger that I need to do. Maybe I need to find a way to let it fuel something good, something Holy. Oh, by the way, I will be coming at this from my perspective and a Catholic and a Christian, or someone who is trying to live out those ideals. That does not mean that I believe that’s the only perspective, just that it’s mine and that I find a great deal to appreciate in this tradition. Not necessarily in the way a lot of folks practice it, but that’s yet another thing that I am angry about and powerless to fix.

Uh, back to the problem of anger. I hope this helps in some small way. As it happens, I can only write what is in my heart. I want good to happen. And I want to find a healthy, purpose-filled way to move through this crap, forgive the assholes and focus on building up my fellows.

That Old Cloak and Dagger Routine is Now a Book!

 If you’ve enjoyed this serial, but came in late or missed a few episodes, you can now buy the whole thing as either a print or ebook from a wide variety of retailers.

Click here for links to Amazon, Barnes&Noble and others, not to mention some fun facts about how I came to write this story, which is the beginning of a thirteen-book series. Really. And you’re in on the ground floor.

How to cook, cooking for beginners, cooking without recipes

I Have a Lot of Cookbooks

cookbooks, cooking, eatingEvery time I want to get a new cookbook, I can almost always predict my husband’s response: “You don’t use the cookbooks you have.”

Yes, I do. I use them all the time to get ideas and to learn new techniques.

And my husband does have a point when he reminds me that I don’t follow recipes. Of course, I don’t, at least, not in the heat of getting dinner on the table night after night. I don’t have time to start and stop as I check amounts, measure out and otherwise make sure I’m doing what the writer intended. Not to mention, there are plenty of times when I don’t care what the writer intended, I want something that’s a little different.

That doesn’t mean I don’t learn from cookbooks or that I don’t enjoy having them. Which is why I have quite a few. Some are old classics that I stole from my mother. (Yeah, Mom, that’s what happened to your copy of The Joy of Cooking.) Others are books that I’ve either picked up through the years or received as swag from various TV networks, back when I was doing the TV critic thing. Some I’ve even bought.

Dring my Thanksgiving vacation, while I and my folks  waiting for our lunch reservation, we were hanging out a bookstore. I found a new cookbook on sale. I talked my husband into buying it by making a new suggestion. Each week, we would choose a cookbook off the shelf and cook one or two recipes from it.

This is more hobby cooking – stuff we do for the fun of it. But the results have been very good. I’m also taking notes – something I’m not generally good at. The bottom line is that my husband and I are having fun. And we’re getting new ideas and trying new foods. Can’t do worse than that.