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A week later, I finally got a chance to get the last word on Sid and I was taking it. I wasn’t being completely fair. Sid was suffering the indignity of being in the dentist’s chair and had the disadvantage of dental equipment and Neil’s fingers in his mouth. But Sid had already had his chance at me and had made several snide comments about bad eating habits when Neil had found a cavity and filled it. Of course, Sid didn’t have a cavity in his head, except the ones that belonged there.
Neil had talked Sid into the appointment on Christmas day when I’d mentioned it was time for me to get in. Neil won’t touch Mae’s or the children’s teeth. But he doesn’t mind working on me and he was quite happy to have another patient in Sid.
“Sid, have you been fighting lately?” Neil asked while he was poking around. “The inside of your cheeks are all chewed up.”
“Probably one of his girlfriends,” I said from where I was standing in the doorway. I slurred a little from the Novocaine.
“Uh oh,” said Neil.
“Has he got one?” I asked, hopefully.
“Nope, just another crack. And speaking of bad eating habits, you’d better quit chewing ice. That’s what’s cracking your teeth.”
I laughed. Mae came into the office and said hi to the receptionist.
“Oh hi, Lisa,” she said seeing me. “That’s right, today was when you and Sid were coming in.”
“Hi, honey,” called Neil.
Mae went into the examination room and kissed Neil’s forehead.
“Hello, sweetheart,” she said. “How are you doing, Sid?”
“Good. You finding any guilty secrets, Neil?”
“Just that he chews ice.”
Mae and I looked at each other and burst out laughing.
“What is so funny about that?” Neil asked.
“It’s a long story,” I said.
Neil shook his head and put his probe down on the tray. After squirting some water into Sid’s mouth, he fit the polishing bit onto his drill and slid the little pan of tooth polish onto his thumb. I chuckled maliciously. Neil’s tooth polish was peppermint flavored, and Sid hates peppermint. Maybe I should have said something, but I decided to enjoy my revenge. [Thank you, Lisa. I’ll remember that – SEH]
“How was the funeral?” Neil asked Mae over the whine of the drill.
“Funeral?” I asked.
“Ned Harris’s,” Mae replied. “It was this morning.”
“Yeah, I’d heard he got killed.”
There had been a small piece in the paper a few days before about the mysterious desert auto accident of a prominent Fullerton businessman. According to the papers, the mystery was why he was out there and didn’t say anything about how the accident occurred. Nor had it mentioned the raid on Harris’s office. I wasn’t surprised. We had also found out that the Feds had gotten another transmission asking for any information on Harris’s suspect, including the name, so Harris hadn’t been lying that night.
“It was a nice funeral,” Mae continued. “Kind of sad, with his wife being pregnant and all. But she’s doing real well. She’s taking over the agency. I got a chance to talk to her and you know what she told me? She was kind of relieved about the accident. She was still sad about losing Ned, but she’d found out there was some funny business going on out of the agency, stuff the government was interested in, and if Ned had lived, he would have been in real trouble, but since he’s dead, the government’s overlooking it.”
Which, of course, they were because the last thing the government wants is attention on any covert action, even if it’s the good guys bringing in the bad guys.
“No kidding,” said Neil. “You think Janey was right?”
“I’m beginning to think so, Neil.”
“You two should know better than not to trust Janey,” I said. “Sid told me he got busted for drugs in the army. Right, Sid?”
“Well, I’ll be,” said Mae. “Did you get your article on the city council finished, Sid?”
“Just the outline,” I answered for him. “He won’t write it out until somebody says they want to look at it. We’ve got a query in to Ladies’ Home Journal, I think.” [Did that ever sell? – SEH]
“A letter asking an editor if he wants to look at a given manuscript.”
“Oh.” Mae looked a little puzzled. “I thought you just sent it in.”
“Some magazines work that way. But most want to see if what you’re writing about is something they’re looking for first.”
“Okay,” Neil said to Sid, hanging up the drill and squirting water into his mouth. “Rinse and spit it out. You’re done.”
Sid did so, wiping his mouth on the napkin around his neck. Neil took it off and rolled back on his stool so Sid could get up.
“Well, that’s that,” Neil said.
Sid ran his tongue over his teeth.
“Thanks a lot, Neil.” He got out of the chair and straightened his suit jacket. “Say hi to the kids for me.”
“I will. Be seeing you two.”
“Bye-bye,” said Mae.
Neil and Mae stayed behind in the examination room. As Sid and I passed the receptionist, he winked at her and told her he’d see her Saturday. I waited until we were outside.
“You picked up on Neil’s receptionist?”
“He isn’t.” Sid shrugged.
“That’s beside the point. Have you no shame?”
Here ends That Old Cloak and Dagger Routine. Check in next week for a special announcement and look for the sequel Stopleak on January 6, 2017.
I suppose jeans, even nice dress jeans, are not really appropriate for a city council meeting, even if the city is a smallish Southern California suburb. But I was dressing for comfort and mobility that night. We’d learned, through Henry, that Ned Harris had met twice since New Years with a man who had contacts among known Soviet operatives and that preparations were underway to pick up a passenger the night of the council meeting.
Along with my dress jeans, I was wearing an oxford shirt and a camel colored blazer. Unseen underneath the blazer, I was also wearing a shoulder holster and a miniature transmitter and microphone. I also had on my armored running shoes, the ones with the false soles. Mae wasn’t much more dressed up, though definitely unarmed. She would have died if she’d known what I was really up to.
I was supposed to be attending the meeting as part of Sid’s research on the city government article. Sid had gone ahead full steam on it and found himself genuinely interested. He’d already talked to all of the council members. I was at the meeting more or less incognito because Sid wanted as natural a meeting as possible and he was afraid his presence would cause the council members to start grandstanding. Or that’s what he said. Frankly, I think Sid knew it was going to be a dreadful bore and didn’t want to go.
Mae had decided to go also because she was mad again at the overnight parking law (you can’t park your car overnight on the streets in Fullerton). She picked me up at the train station and drove us to City Hall.
“Well, Ned’s here already,” she said as we walked through the parking lot to the council chambers.
“How do you know?” I asked.
“That’s his car.” She pointed to a white Cadillac with a tan top about three cars down from us.
Mae laughed. “You can’t miss it, or that license plate.”
I began digging through my purse. “Now where’s that pen?”
Sure enough, the Caddy’s license plate read “INFLIT 1.” I stopped, and continued digging, not looking for my pen, but for a round leather case that looked like a compact, but actually held a micro transmitter.
“Can’t you get your pen out inside?” Mae asked impatiently.
“I’ve almost got it. Nope. Besides, I’ve got to be ready before I get in that door. You never know when somebody will say something.” I slid the transmitter into my hand, then dropped a notebook and three pens. “Shavings.”
Two of the pens obligingly rolled under the Caddy’s bumper. Mae groaned and scrambled for the other pen and the notepad.
“Lisa, you are so disorganized.”
I ignored her and quickly stuck the transmitter’s magnet to the inside of the bumper. Mae just rolled her eyes as we got up and got going.
We sat together in the middle, on an aisle. I set my purse on the floor and left it open. Inside was a very good cassette recorder. I was taking notes also, but more on the people than what they were saying since that was being taped. All that was for the article.
The meeting dragged on and on and on. It finally broke up about ten. Sighing with relief, I turned off the tape recorder and put my pad and pen back in my purse. Mae was fussed because she hadn’t had a chance to have her say. She went after Ned Harris, but he had gone. We got outside the chambers just in time to see him get in his car and drive off.
My hand slid under my shirt and tapped out a code on the transmitter I wore. I couldn’t hear it or see it, but somewhere in the sky, a helicopter waited to follow the micro transmitter’s signal. Static filled my right ear.
“This is G-2,” said a voice. I looked over at Mae, certain that she had heard. [I told you no one would — SEH] “We read you, Little Red. Tracer’s working just fine. Over.”
“I’ll just have to call him tomorrow,” complained Mae. “Lisa, are you alright?”
“Oh. I… I’m fine. Did you hear anything funny just now?”
“No. What did you hear?”
“Just somebody’s radio.”
“That’s another thing I’ve got to talk to Ned about. Those stupid ghetto blasters. There must be some ordinance they can enforce on those things.”
Mae drove us back to her house because I was supposedly spending the night.
“What’s Sid doing here?” Mae asked as we drove up. His car was parked in front of the house.
“I have no idea,” I said, although I did. “Probably has some problem for me. I swear he’s just like a little kid sometimes.”
“Wanna trade?” Mae asked, then set the brake.
“Not on your life.”
I took my overnight bag out of the car and followed Mae into the house. Sid was there waiting for us. He was wearing jeans (as always dark blue and discreetly, but very tight) a white shirt, black running shoes, and light blue tweed blazer, which meant he was armed to the teeth, and to the soles. I also knew he had hidden on his person somewhere a transmitter and mike similar to mine, and probably some other stuff. I couldn’t see the receiver parked behind his ear, but I knew it was there.
“Okay, boss,” I groaned. “What’s the problem?”
“Hattie Mitchell called and moved up a deadline.”
“And I thought she was a friend,” I sighed. “Well, so much for spending the night.”
I kissed Mae and Neil good night and followed Sid out of the house.
At the car, we checked before we got in to make sure no one was looking. Sid nodded and we quickly exchanged our blazers for ski jackets. We weren’t terribly sure of where we were headed, but it was probably going to be a long night and January nights are chilly in Southern California.
“Here we go,” said Sid, starting the engine.
I opened the glove compartment and turned on the radio equipment there. I took a deep breath and glanced at Sid as I picked up the microphone.
“This is Big Red/Little Red to G2. Do you read me? Over.” I said into it.
“G2 here, Big Red/Little Red. I read you loud and clear. Over.”
“We are in motion, G2. Over.”
“Affirmative. Your friend is heading east on California 91. Over.”
“We copy G2. Over and out.”
I put the microphone back but left the equipment on.
“The Riverside freeway,” I said. “He’s headed for the desert.”
“It figures. Nice, quiet, flat place to land a plane. It was either that or the beach.”
Once on the freeway, Sid drove fast, eighty miles an hour, dodging between the other cars. The freeway was fairly clear but there are always plenty of people driving somewhere in Southern California, even late on a Tuesday night. The further out we got, though, the less traffic there was.
“I hope the C.H.P. doesn’t pull us over,” I said.
“They won’t,” Sid replied. The way he said it implied that that had been arranged. He looked at me nervously. “It’s going to be rough tonight.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because if and when Harris sees us, he’s not going to let us live unless we get him first.”
“That shouldn’t be any problem.”
“It’s going to be harder than you think, Lisa.” Sid took a deep breath. “The reason I couldn’t go to that meeting tonight was that I had a break-in to do.”
“Oh.” I was hurt that he hadn’t taken me.
“Lisa, break-ins are tough, and you’ve never done one. You don’t want your first to be a high risk, early evening job.”
“I suppose not. So what went down?”
“Harris’s office. Hit the jackpot big time and I had to trigger the alarm. The Feds are all over it by now.”
“What did you find?”
“Satellite equipment, code books and files. In particular, files on each of us.”
“So he did know about us.”
Sid chuckled. “Not quite. He re-opened the file on me in October when he saw us together at the mall. He’d figured that I had courted you because of Mae’s connection to him. He wrote you off as a civilian because of the way you panicked when his henchman attacked you.”
I had to snicker. “And you yelled at me because I didn’t defend myself.”
“That and he didn’t find anything on you.” Sid smiled at me. “The best I can figure is that they were watching everyone who talked to the manager that day. Anyway, Harris couldn’t question Mae about me until Christmas when he met me, and even then, he still wasn’t sure. I was right about him setting me up for that article. Fortunately, with business shut down, there was nothing for him to find on me.”
“That doesn’t mean things are going to be more difficult tonight.”
“Except that while I was in the office, Harris got a transmission which said that if he wanted to ship an extra package or two tonight, there was room.”
“You mean if he had an extra prisoner.”
I really didn’t like the sound of that, but there wasn’t much I could do about it. I just shrugged and gazed out at the darkness around us.
G2, the helicopter monitoring the tracer’s signal, broke in periodically to tell us our “friend” had changed freeways. From 91 he changed to 60, and then I-10. Sid drove as fast as the traffic and road would let him, hitting over 100 a couple of times. But there’s a very narrow curvy place on the 60 between Riverside and Beaumont where Sid was forced to slow to 65. Still, each time G2 reported we could tell we were gaining on our friend.
It was getting close to midnight when G2 reported that Harris had turned onto highway 62. We had just passed the turnoff to Palm Springs about five miles back.
“Should be picking him up any time now,” said Sid.
I nodded. A few minutes later, just after we turned onto 62, to Joshua Tree, a small red light flashed on one of the consoles in the glove compartment. I flipped the switch and a small monitor came to life with a line drawing of the road ahead, a compass in the upper left-hand corner and a small green flashing blip near the top of the screen. The tracking equipment was basically a combination radar and signal receiver that was tuned to the micro transmitter on Harris’s car.
I picked up the microphone. “This is Big Red/Little Red. We have our friend. See you at the rendezvous. Over and out.”
I put the microphone up. Sid had slowed down considerably, remaining about a half a mile behind Harris’s car. We drove on for another thirty minutes. Neither one of us were tired, having slept most of that afternoon in preparation. The tension and the naps kept us alert.
The small green blip left its place between the lines.
“He’s leaving the road,” I said “Heading south.”
“There’s where he’s going.” Sid pointed to a small orange light burning on the horizon to our right.
I could barely make out Harris’s headlights in the pitch black. Sid slowed the car some. I aimed the light magnifying binoculars at the distant light.
“I can see a campfire and a plane there, but not much else,” I said. “We should probably get in closer.”
“There’s no way we can get closer from here without our headlamps being spotted, and I’m not driving in the dark.”
We drove past the dirt road Harris had taken. A tall hill rose up and blocked the campfire. Sighing, Sid turned off the road and followed the edge of the hill around for about half a mile.
“We’ll hide the car here,” said Sid, stopping and killing the engine.
As silently as possible, we walked around the hill to the side where we’d seen the campfire. We could see its glow but nothing else. Above and behind us, the hill had long ago crumbled, leaving a sheer, rocky face. Sid looked through the binoculars and frowned.
“I can’t see a thing from here,” he grumbled. “The angle’s wrong.”
“We must be lower than the road. What are we going to do?”
He headed for the face of the bluff. “Climb up there and look.”
“That’s awful steep, Sid. Do you know what you’re doing?”
“How hard can climbing a rock be?”
“Plenty. I’ve done a lot of rock climbing in my time. Let me go.”
“Alright, if you really want to. Your wiring on?”
“Yeah.” I pulled out a pair of knit gloves with leather faces and put them on. Sid handed me the binoculars and I was on my way.
“Am I coming in okay?” I heard Sid’s voice in my ear.
“Loud and clear,” I said a little breathlessly. “Am I?”
“Clear as a bell. Don’t go too high up.”
“I won’t.” I grunted and pulled myself a little higher.
It took me about ten minutes to climb to a small ledge where I was reasonably secure. Looking down I could barely make out Sid leaning casually against a rock. I lifted the binoculars to my eyes.
“I can see three men,” I said. “One of them is getting on the plane. There’s another one there, and yeah, it’s Lipplinger. He’s bound and gagged.”
“Good for them,” Sid replied.
“I don’t see Harris, though. His car’s there but I can’t see him. The plane’s moving. It’s taking off. Lipplinger’s still there.”
The plane roared away above me.
“I still can’t see Harris,” I continued. “I don’t think he’s in the car. The men are sitting around, waiting, I think.”
“Someone’s coming,” Sid announced quietly.
I could just barely make out the sound of an engine and wheels turning over rocks. I turned the binoculars on where Sid was. The sound died out. Sid stiffened and I could see his right hand reaching into his open ski jacket.
“Where are they coming from?” I asked.
“About two o’clock.”
The night was moonless, but the stars were out in force in the clear desert air. I maxed the magnification on the binoculars and scanned the desert in front and to the right of Sid. Ned Harris and another man, both carrying handguns, slid around brush and rocks and over the rise that had blocked our view of the campfire. Behind them, several yards away in the gully, was an open white Jeep 4×4.
“It’s Harris and another guy.” Gasping, I slung my binoculars around my neck and started down the bluff. “I’m on my way.”
“Damn it, stay put. Aah!”
My heart in my throat, I looked down at Sid. He recoiled, blinded by a bright, white, light. I could just barely make out Harris behind the flashlight.
“…that hand slowly out,” said Ned Harris’s voice. Sid had managed to turn up the transmitter so I could hear what was going on. “Now, Corporal, nice and easy, get those hands on your head. I’ll be damned. I had just written you off as legitimate. Didn’t even bother turning your name in. You’re slick, Corporal, I’ll give you that.”
I held my breath. On one hand, I wasn’t sure what Sid would do if I disobeyed orders, but I knew it wouldn’t be pleasant. On the other hand, it didn’t look too good for him. On the other hand, he’d probably had a very good reason for telling me to stay put and it probably had a lot to do with my inexperience. [Yes and no – SEH]
“Get him frisked and cuffed,” ordered Harris.
The second man did the honors quickly, pulling the gun from Sid’s shoulder holster and another smaller handgun that Sid had strapped to his left shin. The man cussed when he found Sid’s transmitter.
“Damn it.” Harris scanned the sky. “I thought I heard a chopper.”
I heard a ripping noise as the man pulled the transmitter off Sid’s shirt, then a crunch, then silence. The man finished grinding the transmitter into the dirt, then grabbed Sid’s ear for the receiver. A minute later, Sid’s hands were cuffed behind his back. I couldn’t just sit there and do nothing, but I didn’t think I could plug both of them quickly enough to keep them from killing Sid, not with a revolver from that height and with Harris either behind the light or right next to Sid. With a rifle, maybe, but not with a revolver.
Below me, Harris gestured and pointed to the other side of the hill. I strained for their voices. It was faint, but I made out Harris.
“It’s got to be around here someplace,” he said. “He didn’t walk here.”
So they were looking for Sid’s car. I reached out along the ledge to find a foothold that would take me towards the Mercedes. On the ground, Harris’s companion had also gotten a flashlight and scrambled along the rocks around the other side of the hill from the car. Harris knocked Sid onto his seat and kicked him.
It was slow going on the bluff’s face, but I wouldn’t have thought Harris’s friend could get around that hill faster than I could get up it. He did. I had just crested it when I heard the man holler that he’d found the car.
I heard scuffling behind and below me and guessed that Harris was having a hard time getting Sid to his feet. [I was out of the cuffs and jumped him. He lost the gun, and I kicked it away. Then it was just your basic fist fight — SEH] Silently, I made my way down the hill, creeping behind the rocks. The man went through the car.
“Damn it,” he yelped, dragging out the two blazers. I ducked behind a bush as he swept the light over the hill. The light passed over me, then returned and stayed. Drawing my gun, I blinked several times, trying to adjust to the new brightness. He was about twenty feet from me when I jumped out and aimed right at the source of the light.
The revolver cracked, and the man howled. I dove for the bush, my hand stinging with the kickback. All was darkness again. The flashlight rolled down the hill, somehow still on. It rested near the front tire of the Mercedes, lighting up the edge of the bluff. Still blinking, I listened.
The scuffle on the other side of the bluff had turned into a brawl if the sounds were any indication. [They were – SEH] The man glanced that way, then back towards me, searching for me. Nearby, a rabbit scurried away. The man whirled at the noise and shot. Dirt flew where the rabbit had been.
Near the edge of the bluff, Harris staggered backward into the light. He dove forward, only to run into Sid, who beat him back. They wrestled for a moment, then Harris dove behind the bluff again. Sid dove with him.
The man looked anxiously around for me again, then back at the fight. Behind the bluff, a gun went off. Sid dashed around the hill right into the light. In a second, the man had his gun raised, but a split second before, I had squeezed the trigger. He howled as the bullet sparked against his gun. Sid shot at the spark and the man collapsed.
Just in case, I stayed put. Sid ran for the light. He swept it across the hill. Slowly, I stood up. He saw me and quickly jerked the light away. I hurried down the hill.
“I don’t think there’s any more,” I hissed as I reached his side. “How’d you get out of those handcuffs?”
Sid gasped and leaned against the side of the car.
“You can always hide something,” he said, wincing. “I had a piece of quarter inch spring steel in my hair. Got it out when they frisked me.”
“Oh, my god, are you shot?”
“Nah. Just roughed up.”
Harris’s friend groaned.
“We’d better get over to that campfire,” said Sid. “With all the shooting, they’ll be wondering what’s up. Did Harris have a car?”
“Yeah, a white Jeep over in the gully.”
Sid stumbled over to the wounded man and checked him.
“He’s not going anywhere any too soon,” said Sid. “Let’s go.”
I pointed at the wounded man. “What about him?”
“He won’t peg out before help gets here, and dragging him around won’t do him any good.” Sid started off for the bluff.
“And Harris?” I scrambled after him, then stopped.
There in the glare of Harris’s flashlight lay his corpse. The shadows emphasized his wide open eyes and his tongue stuck out around the dark blood that had spilled from his mouth. The sob leaped from my throat as I stood transfixed.
Swearing, Sid trudged back. Gently, he covered my eyes and led me away from the grisly spectacle.
“Again,” I whispered, trying not to weep.
“The gun went off while we were struggling with it,” said Sid softly. “I couldn’t even tell who pulled the trigger.”
We found the keys still in the Jeep’s ignition. As I started the engine, Sid opened the sole to his right shoe and signaled G-2 with the transmitter he pulled out. I drove because I’d driven offroad before and I didn’t think Sid felt like it anyway. He was silent as we drove, and had a hard look on his face as he sat with a rifle he’d found in the back of the Jeep on his lap. I had the lights on as we pulled out of the gully and towards the camp. Sid pulled one of those ski caps that covers the whole face out of his pocket and put it on.
“When I tell you to, turn on the brights and cover me. If you stay behind the lights, they won’t be able to see you. But if you have to come out, try to keep your face hidden.”
We were just on the edge of the ring of firelight when Sid told me to stop and turn on the brights.
“Police. Freeze,” he yelled in that deep tone unique to cops. “We’ve got you covered.”
The two men jumped up, startled. Between them sat Lipplinger, bound and gagged. Both had rifles in their hands. Sid had his seat belt off and his rifle trained on them but didn’t move.
“Drop those rifles. Now.” The men dropped them. “Kick them away.” They did. “Face down on the ground. Move it. On your bellies.”
Sid waited until they were completely down before moving. Handing me his rifle, he took a roll of duct tape from his jacket pocket. One of the men started crawling. I fired and the bullet glanced off a rock next to his head. The man froze.
“My partner only misses on purpose,” Sid announced as he walked over to the men. “I wouldn’t try anything else.”
He gave each man a quick pat down search, then bound them with the tape.
“Sorry, gentlemen, but I lied,” he said calmly. “I’m not the police.”
I heard a helicopter approach. As Sid smoothed down the last bit of tape, he looked up and signaled. The chopper set down on the other side of the campfire. The noise drowned everything out, but I watched as Sid handed Lipplinger over to one of the two men who had come out of the chopper. Sid talked to the other man and motioned toward the hill. After a moment, Sid swung into the Jeep next to me.
“Okay, kiddo, let’s make tracks,” he said grimly buckling his seat belt.
“What about the wounded guy?” Slowly, I started the engine.
“We’ll park the Jeep next to him, and they’ll get to him as soon as we get out.”
It didn’t take long to get back to the Mercedes. As we drove past the face of the bluff, I sighed.
“In a way, he did get what was coming to him,” said Sid.
I shrugged, keeping my eyes straight ahead. “I was just thinking about his wife and kids. She’s pregnant, you know.”
I pulled up next to Harris’s friend. We sat there silently for a moment. Then Sid undid his seat belt.
“Let’s get back to L.A.” He groaned as he got out of the Jeep.
“Sid, why don’t you let me drive back. I don’t think you’re feeling up to it.”
“No, I’m not. Thanks.” He handed me the keys, then walked stiffly to the passenger seat. “Boy, am I going to be sore tomorrow.”
“You’d better take a hot bath when we get home.” I climbed in behind the wheel.
“Sounds like a good idea.”
Daylight was just breaking when I pulled into the garage. We both yawned at the same time, too tired to move.
“You did a good job tonight, Lisa,” Sid said quietly. “I was afraid after they knocked out my transmitter that you would stay put on that cliff, but you did exactly what I was going to tell you to do, and you did it smart.”
He opened the door and groaned as he tried to get out.
“Hold on, I’ll help you.” I ran around the car and helped him out and into the house.
We stumbled to his room in the semi darkness. Once there, I removed his arm from my shoulder.
“Sorry,” I said. “This is as far as I go.”
“It’s far enough.” Sid took off his ski jacket, laid it on the bed and started unbuttoning his shirt. “Don’t worry about running this morning.”
“Thanks. Don’t forget your shoulder holster.”
He looked down and chuckled. I left, shutting the door quietly.
The next morning after breakfast, I took the long way to the front door, going past Lipplinger’s room.
“Good morning, Professor,” I called after pounding on the door.
No answer. That wasn’t surprising. Lipplinger never said anything to me unless he absolutely had to. I went on to Sunday mass without thinking about it.
When I got back, I found Sid hadn’t lost any time calling Henry James.
“Well, I’d appreciate it, Henry,” he told the living room phone as I entered the house. There was a pause as Henry spoke. “No, she’s doing real good. We had some tense moments, but she came out okay… What do you mean you can reassign her if she wants?”
“I don’t,” I said, going into the living room.
Sid looked at me.
“I see… When was this..?” Sid sighed in response. “That’s been settled. She’ll stay with me… No, she’s standing right here.” He handed me the phone. “He wants to talk to you.”
“Hello, Henry,” I said into the receiver.
“Sid says you’ve patched things up.”
“A long time ago. Really. I’m fine.”
“Well, the option’s there. Getting rid of Quickline you won’t be able to do, but if Sid’s a problem I can get you reassigned.”
“You haven’t done anything yet?”
“Please don’t, then. I’m very happy where I’m at.”
“That’s a different song than the one you were singing last November.”
“I know, Henry. But we settled it.”
I handed the phone back to Sid, who hung it up.
“I didn’t know you called Henry during that fight,” he said, hurt.
“I was pretty upset. It didn’t matter. He couldn’t do anything anyway.”
“It looks like we’re not as stuck as we thought.” He looked like he wished we were.
“Maybe not by the business.”
He looked at me and smiled.
“Even then it won’t be that easy.” He paused, then looked away. “Which, perhaps, is just as well.”
I just smiled and left the living room. Sid and my daddy were very much alike in that neither one could admit emotion.
Later that afternoon a call came through on the business line. (The other two lines are Sid’s and my private lines.) I didn’t listen in, being busy with a new dress I was putting together. When I saw that Sid had hung up, my curiosity got the better of me. After all, people hardly ever called us on the business line on Sundays. I went looking for Sid and found him in his office. He sat behind his desk with his chin in one hand. He glanced at me briefly and went back to staring into space.
“Something’s up,” he said. “Harris is being a little too chummy.”
“Is that who called just now?”
“Couldn’t he be wanting to bury the hatchet?”
“That’s what he says. But I seriously doubt it. Last fall when we were at that mall with the kids, I saw him there. I’m pretty sure he didn’t see me. I thought he might have been talking into a radio. I tailed him just out of curiosity, then saw you in trouble, so I dropped him. At the time I thought I was just being paranoid. But now I’m really wondering.”
“I’m more than wondering. I ran into him just outside of the toy store.” I frowned. “Wait. He knows me. He wouldn’t have had any reason to think I was up to anything.”
“Unless he saw us together,” said Sid. “That, in itself would be enough to arouse suspicion.”
Sid snickered. “What would a nice girl like you be doing hanging around a guy like me? Ned and whoever he’s working with must have pegged the drop at the toy store. The hard part is knowing whether or not Ned knows you weren’t using your real name when you picked up those keys. I’m inclined to think not.”
“I don’t get it.”
“If they know you, then they know me, and they would also be watching us and that means they would have to have seen Lipplinger. But nobody has come for him, and we haven’t had any tails.”
“That makes sense. But what about Ned?”
“That is indeed the crucial question. We’ll have to keep an eye on him. That’s another thing that bothers me. He practically paved the way.”
“We were talking about city government and he suggested it might be a good magazine article. I said it would take some research and he said he’d be happy to help me.”
Sid lifted an eyebrow. “It would make a good piece if I can get the right angle on it. I think I will play Harris’s game.”
“What if it’s a trap?”
“It’s quite possible. But I get the impression Harris is trying to feel me out more than anything else. He had no reason to suspect I was an operative back in ‘Nam. He’s definitely wondering about me, but if he was certain, he’d be more likely to set up an attack or just watch us and try to blow up our operation. Which is why I’m taking his bait. If I were only a freelance writer, I’d think Ned’s being a little pushy and trying to grandstand, but I’d still do the article.”
“Well, be careful. I don’t want to end up in the unemployment lines again.” Then a thought hit me. “You mind if I do some research, too?”
“Uh-huh. I don’t know what she could tell me, but it couldn’t hurt.”
“I think it could. We don’t want her to get suspicious.”
“If she’s going to get suspicious, then she already is by now. She noticed you were a little put off track when you met him. I wrote it off by telling her it was Viet Nam. With all the current concern over about Viet Nam vets, she won’t think twice about Ned Harris bothering you.”
Sid frowned, then sighed. “That does make sense.”
“Good. I’ll call her in a little while. No sense in pushing it.”
A little while turned out to be the next day. Mae was very happy I called.
“Any chance I can get to sit down,” she sighed.
“Knee bothering you?”
“Just a little. So what’s up? Did Ned Harris get a hold of Sid?”
“Unfortunately. Sid’s been real moody since he did.”
“The Viet Nam thing?”
“I think so. Listen, Mae, what can you tell me about Ned?”
“Well, I don’t know. He’s a very nice, very active man. What more can I say?”
“He’s a travel agent, isn’t he?”
“How does he strike you, as a person?”
“Just a good All-American type, I guess. A little pushy sometimes. He seems a little closed, too, like he’s not quite willing to let you see him. Hold on a second, Lisa.” Then more softly, “Ellen, you stay out of that or I’ll paddle your seat.”
I heard a soft chuckle. Sid was listening in.
“What was that?” asked Mae. So she had heard it, too.
“Just some interference on the line, I expect.” I got up from my desk and walked over to the doorway where I could see Sid with the phone to his ear. I felt a little like my privacy was being invaded, but decided he had a right to listen this time. “Do you know much about Ned’s business?”
“Not really, except that it’s doing very well. They’ve got plenty of money and a nice place up in Sunny Hills.”
“He’s on the city council, right?”
“When’s the next meeting?”
“Sometime the week after New Years. Why do you want to know?”
“Ned kind of hinted that Sid should do an article on city government and Sid’s thinking about it. He also thinks Ned’s grandstanding a little.”
“That may be. I wonder why Sid’s so bugged about him.”
“I have no idea.” I looked away from Sid. “Bad wartime memories, I guess. Sid absolutely refuses to talk about it. The only reason I found out he was in Vietnam was that I was cleaning out his files and found his army papers.”
I said goodbye to Mae shortly after and hung up. Sid came into my office.
“So, now what?” I asked.
“We wait.” He seemed bugged.
“Sid, did I say anything wrong?”
He paused. “Not per se. If anything, you were a little too accurate. I, uh, really don’t like remembering that time in my life.”
“That bad, huh?”
“There are no words to describe it, Lisa.”
He looked back at his office, then ambled out into the hall. A few minutes later, I heard piano music from the library. I later found out that the piece was the first of Chopin’s Twenty-Four preludes, Opus 28. Sid played all twenty-four.
The next day, Harris took second place for a while to a greater concern: Lipplinger. He’d been very good about staying in his rooms before Christmas, so neither Sid nor I thought anything of it when we didn’t see him after. Until Conchetta came into the office.
“You have sent the old man away again?” she asked.
“Not ’til after New Years,” I said. “Why?”
“I haven’t seen him.”
“He has been staying in his room since he came back.”
“No he hasn’t. I see him different places. But I haven’t seen him since Christmas. No food is gone either.”
“Well, then…” I thought, then called out, “Sid. We’ve got a problem.”
“What?” He came out of his office.
I was on my way out. “Conchetta thinks Lipplinger’s missing.”
“I haven’t seen him since Christmas,” she said, as she and Sid followed me to Lipplinger’s room.
I opened the door. The room looked alright except for the fact that Lipplinger wasn’t in it. Sid came in past me and went straight to the bathroom.
“He’s not there,” he said coming back in.
I noticed a piece of paper lying on the dresser. I picked it up.
“That idiot,” I grumbled, and handed it to Sid.
“’I’ll be back after the holidays.’ What does he think he’s doing?” Sid slipped the note into his pocket. “He must have gone to Hattie’s. I’d better call her.”
In the office, I listened in. The butler answered.
“Yes, may I speak to Hattie Mitchell?” said Sid. “It’s rather important.”
“Just a minute.”
There was a delay before Hattie’s voice came over the wires.
“Hello?” She sounded particularly cheerful.
“Hi, it’s me, is your brother there?”
“Oh, hello, Sid. I thought Miles was with you.”
“Not at the moment. Have you heard from him at all?”
“Actually, I haven’t. I was a little surprised when he didn’t call Christmas, but I didn’t think anything of it. You know Miles.” Her voice caught. “Sid, if you don’t know where he is…”
“We’re on top of it. Don’t worry. In the meantime, you are under surveillance by the other side. I’d be careful.”
Hattie laughed. “Oh, don’t worry. My phones are clean, and so is my house. I’m very certain of that.”
“There are other ways to listen in.”
“Sid, it’s sweet of you to be concerned, but believe me, half my business is electronic surveillance. I know what’s out there and how to thwart it.”
“Alright. We’ll get back to you as soon as we know anything.”
He wasn’t happy as he hung up. I walked into his office.
“What do you think?” he asked me.
“There goes Mammoth.” I’d been planning on spending New Years skiing at Mammoth Lakes with my church group.
“I think you’ll make it.”
The phone rang. This time, it was Henry. I went back to my office and debated what to do next.
“Lisa,” Sid called.
I went back to his office. He scribbled something on a notepad.
“Yeah, thanks a lot, Henry.” He hung up.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“Sit down. We’ve got a hot one this time.” Sid dropped his pen on the desk and leaned back in his chair. “Henry was digging up whatever they had on that operative in Fullerton. They know he or she is brokering information, basically, putting people who want to sell out into contact with people who want to buy. Who that person is, we have no idea, but he or she stays very clean, and may even be fairly visible in the community.”
“Is it my imagination, or does that sound like Ned Harris?”
“It does indeed.”
“But Fullerton?” I shook my head. “It’s a nice little suburban city. There’s nothing there.”
“There is one major defense plant in the city and several others nearby. Lisa, Southern California is a veritable hotbed of covert activity. The better part of the defense industry is based here. Henry’s friends have been trying to pin down a number of transmissions beamed to the North Orange County area and they’ve got it pinned down to Fullerton, but where they don’t know. And just to make things interesting, another transmission was received not half an hour ago from Washington, D.C.”
“They haven’t got the code completely broken yet, but there was something about a special traveler in two weeks.”
“You know, Ned Harris is a travel agent.”
“Mighty convenient, don’t you think?”
I sighed. “It is. It just seems so weird. I mean we’re only guessing at this point. How can we know for sure?”
Sid smiled. “That, my dear, is the difference between knowing what has happened and proving it in court.”
“I don’t know, Sid. Why two weeks? If they’ve got Lipplinger now, why don’t they ship him right away?”
“Traveling with a prisoner, especially when you don’t want anyone to know he’s a prisoner, is not an easy thing to do. And then there are arrangements to be made. You don’t just charter a Soviet plane or boat on a moment’s notice.”
I nodded. “I guess this really puts the clamps on Mammoth.”
“Why? We’ve got two weeks.”
“They could have gotten it wrong, or they might move it up.”
“We’re making arrangements. If Ned leaves Fullerton or has any guests, we’ll know.”
“And what about Lipplinger?”
“They’ve got him, for the moment. Let them deal with him.” He looked at me for a moment, thinking something over. “I think you’d better go to Mammoth as originally planned. It’s possible we’re being watched and I want us to stay as clean as possible, which means we’re shutting down business. Any plans we’ve made I don’t want to change unless something legitimate comes up. It might arouse suspicion if we do.”
There was something fishy about that. Shutting down business, I could see. But letting me go running off to Mammoth..?
“Are you trying to get rid of me that weekend for some reason?” I asked.
“Well.” Sid’s grin was guilty as all get out. “I have been planning a small party here.”
“Not the kind I’d like, I take it. Okay. I’ll lock all my doors before I go. Don’t get too drunk.”
“I won’t be drinking that much. Alcohol doesn’t do much for lovers either.”
“And heaven forbid you should not always be in peak form.” Then another thought hit me. “There won’t be any illegal substances floating around, will there?”
Sid shrugged. “It’s not unlikely. That’s one thing you can’t always control. I don’t think there’ll be much pot. It’s out of style. I try to discourage it. It doesn’t do much for the sex drive, besides being hard on the lungs. But coke is a whole other kettle of fish. This town is loaded with it and you can’t get around it, even though the stories are exaggerated.”
Sid snorted. “Lisa, you know better than that. It’s far too dangerous in our business, and I probably wouldn’t anyway. Sex is my only vice.”
I looked at him, my curiosity getting the better of me again.
“Did you ever do drugs?”
“A little marijuana. It was as common as tobacco among the people I grew up with. When I was in high school nobody could understand why I was so bored about it. A few kids thought I was doing the hard stuff. But I wasn’t. I’d seen too much of what that does to people. I just smoked an occasional joint to be part of the gang.”
Sid’s reminiscent mood infected me also.
“I was just the opposite. I knew there were drugs around, but I never really believed it. In a resort city, you get all kinds of people. I was still very sheltered. I remember once this girl I knew told me drugs were to be had as easily as asking for them. I never believed her. I was in college before I saw my first joint.”
“Such innocence.” He chuckled, then got serious. “You know, there are times when I could kick myself for getting you involved in this business. You’re too good. You don’t deserve guys shooting at you.”
“So what do I deserve?” I asked smiling.
“Something like what Mae’s got. A husband and family, a nice peaceful life.”
“Did it ever occur to you I don’t want that?”
Sid was surprised. “You don’t?”
“No. Sure I like being at Mae’s, and, sure, I love the kids. But I’ve got a good thing going. When those kids get cranky, Mae and Neil get them. When diapers had to be changed, Mae and Neil did it. When the kids have to be disciplined, that’s Mae and Neil’s job. I get to share all the good times and only rarely do I have to deal with the bad. That week I spent babysitting only reinforced that. In some ways, I’d like to get married and settle down, and maybe there’ll come a time when I will. I’m not ready to close the door on that option yet. But the more I think about it, the more I want to stay single. That’s mostly the reason why I didn’t want to work for my dad. If I had gone back to Tahoe, or even to Florida, I would have worked for a while. But it wouldn’t have been a career. It would have been just marking time until I found a husband, and I don’t want one. I like my freedom. Of course, I couldn’t tell that to my parents. Even as independent as Mama is, she’s in the resort business because Daddy is. With them, it’s either the convent or the home, and I won’t be settled to them until I’ve chosen one or the other. Even if I’m eighty.”
“I hope you don’t choose the convent.”
“Don’t think I haven’t thought about it. It would be nice and there’s certainly a great deal of job security in it. But I really don’t think I am, if you’ll pardon the expression, called to it.”
The jangling of the phone totally shattered the mood. It was Mae, calling to give me the date of the next Fullerton city council meeting. It was approximately two weeks away.
New Years Day, I entered the house very cautiously. Well, it was closer to the day after New Years at that point. The lights were still on, so I knew Sid wasn’t in bed yet, or rather asleep for the night.
“Sid?” I called loudly. “I’m home.”
There was no answer, but that wasn’t surprising. As I dropped my luggage in my room, I thought I heard glassware jangling from the rumpus room. The door was open, so I went to investigate.
He was straightening up the bar. There was a pile of dirty glasses on one end and next to it a dust pan with a broom on the floor.
I yawned and flopped down into a bean bag.
“Have a good time?” Sid asked without looking up.
“Uh-huh, and yourself?”
“Quite nice, thank you. Any casualties?”
“Just a couple of sunburns. Myself included. Dummy me forgot my sunscreen.”
Sid looked at me and smiled. “You look like a raccoon.”
“I know. They changed my nickname from Teacher to Bandit.”
“My past has been haunting me. I used to be, among other things, a ski instructor in Tahoe. There were several people with us who had never skied before, so guess who got elected to teach them.”
“Elected? If I know you, you told them not to spend the money on lessons as you could teach them just as well.” His blue eyes glittered with mischief.
“Better than the twit they had. I have my pride.”
“Oh, well, my condolences on not getting to the good slopes.”
“Oh, I did. How do you think I got sunburned so badly? Even got a little night skiing in.”
Sid yawned and came around the front of the bar for the broom. I noticed that not only was he just wearing a shirt and dark pants, he was in his stocking feet. His hair was still perfect, though. I shook my head and smiled.
“I take it your party was a success.”
Sid nodded and began sweeping behind the bar. I yawned again and stretched. I noticed something with lace on it sticking out from underneath the beanbag next to me. I reached over and pulled it out. It was a pair of women’s bikini underpants.
“One of your friends left something.” I tossed them at him. He caught them and looked at them, lifting an eyebrow.
“Whosever these are, I’ll bet it’s not the first time it’s happened to her,” he said. He looked at me. “If I had them washed, would you want them?”
I think he was being tacky just to tease me.
“No thanks,” I said, for once playing it cool. “Lace itches me.”
Sid dumped them in the waist can and went on sweeping. I got up, walked to the door and turned back to him.
“It might amuse you to know, “ I said, languidly leaning against the door jamb. “That yours truly has a genuine real live date, scheduled for the end of this month, provided my boss doesn’t cart me off on one of his infamous capricious whims.”
“Congratulations. With who, may I ask?”
“I don’t ask who your dates are. Of course, it’s impossible to keep track. His name is George Hernandez and he’s a class A-one sweetheart. He’s part of my church group.”
“Well, if I have to behave, he darned well better.”
“I’m sure he will. Good night, Sid.”
“Good night, Lisa.”
Monday morning, I was surprised I was lighting the fourth candle on my advent wreath and told Sid so. He just shrugged. He was mostly amused by my advent wreath but didn’t object when I put it on the table in the breakfast room, where we ate all our meals.
He did finally break down and came home from an errand that afternoon with his own contribution to the Christmas spirit. Of course, it was mistletoe.
“It figures,” I said, shaking my head.
“Admittedly, it’s pagan,” said Sid, “but that’s okay because I’m a pagan.”
I thought about it. “I don’t think you are, technically. Pagans believed in multiple deities, and you’ve said you don’t believe in any.”
“This is true.” Sid looked around my office. “Now, where to put it. Ah, the sliding glass door.”
He reached up and attached the twigs to the top of the mini blinds. Suddenly, he stopped and pulled the blinds apart.
“Oh no,” he grumbled.
“What’s the matter?” Worried, I got up from my desk and joined him.
His arm landed across my shoulder.
“Gotcha!” His eyes twinkled as he glanced at the mistletoe above us.
“You stinker,” I groaned. Sid moved in, his mouth open. I put on my best Madeleine Kahn voice. “No tongues.”
“No fun.” He sighed heavily, then gently, so gently, his lips pressed against mine. I was drawn in and found myself returning it in good measure. As he pulled away, I scrambled free.
“One of these days, I’m going to end up slugging you,” I said, going back to my desk. But my lips were still warm and tingling, and come to think of it, I was tingling all over. [You were tingling. I’ll give three guesses what you’d done to me – SEH]
I managed to get all my projects done early that evening, so I wandered, and decided to try singing some carols on the piano. I don’t play, but I can read the treble clef. I had the sheet music to “Oh Holy Night,” and tried to sing it in the key it was written in, which is soprano (I’m an alto). Apparently, Sid had been listening to my efforts because the next day on the piano was an old staff paper notebook with a note on it asking “Is this better?” I opened it up and, sure enough, he had transposed the entire arrangement into a key I could sing.
Three days before Christmas we got the good news that a new holding place for Lipplinger had been found. It was much more secret and better protected. The only hitch was he couldn’t go there until after the holidays. No matter. He’d been keeping to his room, although he’d harassed Conchetta so badly when she brought him his tray, that Sid had told him to get his own food and to make sure he cleaned up after himself and to stay out of our way.
Sid couldn’t wait to be rid of the old man, especially when he found out that Lipplinger had been calling his friends almost daily and telling them he was in Los Angeles. Lipplinger swore he hadn’t said where he was in Los Angeles and with whom he was staying, but after what he’d told Hattie, Sid didn’t trust him.
Then Hattie called. Sid was out making a pickup, so I got it.
“Miles is begging to come home,” she said. “He says he wants to spend the holidays with his family, though why he does, I haven’t the faintest idea. He does nothing but complain when he’s here.”
“Well, I don’t know that there’s anything I can do about it,” I said. “We sure wouldn’t mind sending him, but there’s no way of knowing if it would be safe.”
“That’s the most important part,” said Hattie. “If he can come home for Christmas, it would be nice, but unless it’s one hundred percent safe for him, keep him there, I don’t care how much he howls.”
Sid was real thrilled when he heard that. Worse yet, the latest intelligence we had said that Hattie’s was the worst place Lipplinger could go. She’d been under heavy observation since Lipplinger left. Lipplinger agreed to stay put without too much fuss. We should have known.
However, at the time, I was more concerned about my parents. They were also going to be spending Christmas at Mae’s. I should have thought of that when Mae called Sid to have him come over for Christmas. But it was too late, and the thought of Sid and my daddy getting together had me more than a little tense.
I love my father. He is the sweetest, most wonderful father a girl could ever have. He’s very much the he-man type, strong and silent. He taught me how to backpack, fly fish, ride horses, rock climb, all sorts of things. He’s usually very open minded and always taught me that all human beings are God’s creatures and deserving of respect, regardless of sex, age, race or creed, unless the man happened to be dating Mae or me. I think the only reason he got along with Neil was because Neil had worked for him for so long (Neil had put himself through college and dental school working summers and breaks at the resort in Tahoe.
Personally, I enjoyed my boss’s smooth cosmopolitan sophistication. But I knew Daddy wouldn’t. I wasn’t sure if Daddy would be suspicious of Sid. Either way, it was not going to be easy on Sid. As much as I looked forward to Christmas, I began to dread the inevitable confrontation.
My parents flew in from Florida on the Monday before Christmas. I would have gone to the airport to meet them with Mae and family, but I figured it would have been just too crowded in that station wagon. Sid generously offered to loan me his car, but I said no, I had work to do anyway. I didn’t tell him that if Daddy saw me driving the boss’s car it would only arouse his suspicions and make things difficult for the boss.
For the same reason, I didn’t want Sid to drive me into Orange County on Christmas Eve. But Sid insisted, saying that Mae had invited him to lunch.
We pulled up in front of Mae’s house a little after ten in the morning. As we got out of the car, the front door opened and the kids came streaming out, yelling. In spite of the noise, I still heard a sweet female voice with a wonderfully familiar southern drawl to it.
“Lisa Jane! Lisa Jane!”
“Mama!” I ran to her.
I admit I tend to rave a bit about my parents. But Mama is an exceptional woman. She’s small and pert, the perfect southern lady. She reminds me of a tiny brown sparrow with a southern drawl. I hugged her.
“It’s so good to see you, Mama,” I said, kissing her.
“Well, now, Lisle, just let me get a look at you.” Lisle is my parents’ pet name for me. She stepped back to admire me. “Aren’t you looking pretty as a picture.”
I was wearing a nice pair of jeans, an oxford shirt and a rust tweed sports coat with leather on the elbows, and of course, my beloved deck shoes. Sid still sighs every time he sees them.
“Thank you, Mama.”
“Well, now, you go unload your stuff, then come on in and we’ll talk.”
“Oh, Mama, come meet my boss.”
Sid was loading Janey and Darby up with the presents we had brought. Because he was planning on returning to Los Angeles, he was decked out in his standard three-piece suit, complete with pin under the tie. When he looked up and smiled, Mama just looked at him with a puzzled frown.
“Mama, this is my boss, Sid Hackbirn,” I said, not quite aware of what was happening to her.
“How do you do, Mrs. Wycherly.” Sid extended his hand.
“I’m Althea,” she replied, mechanically shaking his hand. “Pardon me, but have we met before?”
Sid looked at her, then away, trying to think if he had.
“I don’t believe so.”
“Well, I guess it’s just silly me. Still… Oh, never mind. Lisle, you get yourself settled and then we can talk. I’ll be in the kitchen.”
She walked back in the house, shaking her head.
“What’s with Grandma?” Darby asked, struggling underneath several wrapped boxes and trying to pick up my overnight case.
“Beats me,” I replied. “Darby, can you carry all that? Let me take my case.”
“No way, Aunt Lisa, that’s my job!”
“I’ll take these,” said Sid, removing a couple of boxes from Darby’s load. “Now, scoot.” Darby hurried in. Sid turned to me. “Why don’t you go talk to your mother. I’ll supervise the unloading.”
“And you’ve got to see the tree,” said Janey. “It’s beautiful.”
“And presents,” replied Ellen quietly, still attached to Sid’s leg. “Lots of presents. But we can’t open them ’til tomorrow.”
“Nope,” said Janey, running after the twins, who were screaming “Jingle Bells” repeatedly.
“Alright,” I said and headed in. I figured that unloading the car, seeing the tree and inspecting the largess underneath would keep Sid occupied for a while.
“Well, maybe he’s been up to Tahoe,” Mae said as I walked into the kitchen.
“Where’s Daddy?” I asked.
“Him and Neil went up to the market,” replied Mama, more concerned with another problem.
“Mama’s been having fits over your boss,” explained Mae.
“I have not been havin’ fits, Mae Alice. I just know I seen that face before and I can’t think where.”
“I have no idea, Mama. It could be Tahoe,” I said, although I doubted it. Sid had said he’d never been to my parents’ place or store.
“No, it wasn’t Tahoe. It was Dade County for sure. I keep thinking Homestead, but that don’t seem likely.”
I shrugged. It didn’t seem likely. Homestead, Florida was where my folks were raised. Right next to the Everglades, it wasn’t exactly Sid’s kind of place.
“The thing that keeps throwin’ me is that’s he’s so young,” Mama continued. “I keep thinking it was years and years ago.” She slammed her hand down on the kitchen table. “John! John Caponetti. Went steady with him for three months in high school, would you believe? Had money too. Mama said I shoulda married him for it when he asked me. But I was bound and determined not marry a man from Dade County.” She laughed.
Mae and I smiled. It was an old story, how Mama and Daddy met. They’d both come from the same town but didn’t know each other until they met in college in New York. Grandma Caulfield had never liked the idea of her girl going to college, let alone a Yankee one. But Mama had gotten a scholarship and there was no stopping her determination to get out of Homestead and Dade County. Of course, Daddy brought her back for a little while. Then just after I was born, the opportunity to buy the resort in Tahoe came up and they took it.
Mama laughed a little. “My, my, John Caponetti. Haven’t thought about him in years. But I tell you, Lisle, your Sid Hackbirn is the spit and image of John Caponetti.”
Mae and I looked at each other with guilty grins. We were both wondering if we’d stumbled on Sid’s missing father. Mama had to catch us.
“Now, I know what you two are thinking, but if there’s any relation, you can bet it’s on the wrong side of the blankets, hear? So I don’t want you two saying anything. ‘Tisn’t nice. There was all sorts of cleft-chinned babies in families what had no right to have ’em, just as there was Caulfield babies. Remember that, now.”
“Sure, Mama,” I said.
“Mommy!” called Janey running in, followed by Darby and Ellen and, further behind and slower, by Sid. “Mommy, can Uncle Sid sleep over tonight? Can he, please?”
“Pretty please, Mom?” begged Darby. “He can sleep in my bed. I won’t mind a sleeping bag. Can he, please?”
Mae and I were both laughing at the uproar.
“Settle down,” said Mae. “He can—” The kids yelled. “Hush up! He can if he wants to.” She turned to Sid. “Really, Sid, you’re more than welcome, but I don’t want you to feel obligated. If there’s anything you need, I’m sure Lisa won’t mind running you down to the store.”
“She won’t have to.” Sid paused. “I, uh, am in the habit of carrying an overnight case in the car.”
I bit my lip. I didn’t want to laugh. I could see Mae biting hers, too.
“Now, why on earth would you carry an overnight case?” Mama asked innocently. She hadn’t heard that much about Sid.
I put my hand to my mouth and held it. I didn’t dare look at Mae. Sid, mercifully, ignored us.
“I like to maintain a flexible lifestyle,” he replied.
“Well, now as a writer, I s’pose you would,” Mama said.
“I guess I’m staying, then.” Sid was drowned out by cheers. “Come on, Darby, let’s get my case.”
He left with Darby and Ellen.
“Now, what is your problem, you two?” Mama’s eyes were flashing as she turned to us. “I admit it seems a little silly, carrying a bag, but it’s certainly convenient.”
“Oh, no! I can’t hold it!” I was laughing. So was Mae.
“Mama, you did it again,” gasped Mae. “Walked right into it.”
“What are you on about?”
“The overnight case,” I said. “It is real convenient for him.”
“Well, honey, if he doesn’t know where’s he going to be at night.”
“Or in whose bed,” giggled Mae. I giggled with her.
“Girls!” Mama glared at us. “’Tisn’t nice!”
“What’s so funny about an overnight case?” asked Janey, bewildered. She was too young to know about Sid.
I picked her up and set her on my lap.
“Janey,” I said, squeezing her. “Sometime, when you are older and a lot wiser in the ways of the world, I’ll explain.”
“Just nobody say anything to Grandpa,” warned Mae.
At that moment, Sid and Darby came in. Darby was carrying a garment bag. As I thought about it, I realized I’d seen it behind Sid’s seat and wondered what it was for.
“Darby, please go hang that up in your room,” said Mae, then to Sid, “I just put fresh sheets on his bed this morning.”
“Is there anything in there that the kids can’t see?” I whispered in his ear.
“Not if they don’t look,” he whispered back.
“Darby, put the latch on the door when you leave,” I yelled, then explained, “He’s not going to want the twins going through his stuff, and you know if it’s not locked up, it’s fair game.”
“They’re not old enough to know better,” added Mae, who was wishing they were. “Well, I’d better get lunch started.”
Darby came running downstairs.
“All locked up!” he reported and then went out back, taking his sisters with him.
“Sid,” asked Mae. “Are you going to be comfortable all dressed up like that?”
“Sure,” he shrugged, then thought a moment. “Maybe I will change.”
“Lisa, why don’t you show him Darby’s room.”
As we came into the front hall, Neil and Daddy came in from the store.
“Hi, Daddy!” I came up and hugged him.
“Hi, Lisle. How’s my baby?”
“Real good, Daddy. How are you?”
“Oh, Daddy, this is my boss, Sid Hackbirn.”
They stood there for a minute, like two dogs on the street, sizing the other up, only it was like a terrier and a German shepherd. Daddy is a big man. His face is a little on the stern side, but both Janey and I have his huge round eyes. He used to play football in college and he looks like he could have gone pro. Sid isn’t that small, but he’s not more than three inches taller than me and I’m average.
Sid broke the silence first.
“How do you do, sir,” he said putting out his hand.
Daddy took it, shook it firmly and nodded his head.
“How de do,” he mumbled, then walked into the family room.
Sid raised an eyebrow, while I breathed a sigh of relief. He smiled at me.
“You seem relieved,” he said.
I started up the stairs.
“He doesn’t dislike you.” I paused. “Yet.”
When we got to Darby’s room, I undid the latch, then paused.
“Sid, are you planning on wearing a sweater?” I asked in a low voice.
“I usually do.”
“Then I’d strongly suggest wearing it all the way or not at all.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know how you usually do, around the shoulders?”
I winced. “Daddy doesn’t think that much of that kind of style.”
“Ah. I see. Well, this is going to be interesting.”
“You said it.”
There wasn’t much he could have done about the blue tweed pleated-front pants. But he was wearing the sweater all the way when he came downstairs. He sat quietly at the kitchen table listening to the rest of us gossip about the family.
I wouldn’t have believed it was possible. Daddy was not only suspicious of Sid, but Mae and I agreed by lunchtime, he was certainly jealous of Sid. It did make lunch a little strained.
“You poor thing,” Mae whispered to me after lunch.
We were cleaning up in the kitchen while the other adults lingered in the dining room and the kids were outside playing.
“Poor Sid, you mean,” I whispered back.
“Isn’t Daddy awful?” Mae giggled. “Remember that one boy you brought home from college? The one who had his hands all over you?”
“Rory? Oh my, do I.” I laughed, though at the time Daddy had hit the roof. “I was amazed Daddy let me finish my degree.”
“Thank God I talked you out of moving into Rory’s house with him and his friends.”
“And thank God you didn’t talk me out of moving to Sid’s place.” I was amazed I’d said it but not half as amazed as Mae. I mean, I had been meaning to tell her, but I just never got around to it.
“Are you joking?” she gasped.
I glanced at the closed dining room door, then quickly shook my head.
“Sh. It’s completely kosher, I promise. His room is on one side of the house and mine’s on the other. There’s a whole big house between us. He hasn’t touched me.”
“I’m on twenty-four-hour call. I told you the guy was eccentric.” I was shaking, although I was tremendously relieved at finally having told her.
“So why didn’t you tell me in the first place?”
“I don’t know. I guess I was desperate and I was afraid you’d try to talk me out of it.”
“I probably would have, so I suppose it’s just as well now.”
“Mae, I don’t even know why I signed on with him. I could have worked at the resort.”
“Well, it’s a good thing you did, Lisa. He needs us.”
“There really isn’t anything going on, Mae. I promise.”
“I believe you.”
I swallowed. “It’s just that he wishes there was and a lot of times, so do I.”
“Of course you do. He’s had my heart racing a couple of times, too.”
“It scares me, Mae. I’ve been horny before, but this is different.”
“Well, you just stand firm. He’ll come around.”
“It’ll be a long time before that happens, if at all.”
“Don’t worry. I’m here. It’ll be like AA. You just call when temptation hits. I’ll be praying for you, too.”
Sid wandered in at that point.
“It may be my imagination,” he said to us slowly. “But I get the impression that your father does not like me.”
“Oh, don’t worry, Sid,” replied Mae. “It’s not you. He doesn’t like anybody that comes near his little girl.”
Sid noticed I’d been blushing since he came in. He smiled mischievously.
“Is there a reason why your face is so red, Lisa?” he asked.
“Oh, we were just talking about you, Sid,” Mae giggled. “I hear you got my little sister shacked up at your place.”
Sid looked surprised for a moment then burst out laughing.
“You, shut up!” I backhanded him in the arm.
He only laughed harder. “You mean you never did tell your own sister where you were living?”
“No,” I groaned. “I just didn’t. I haven’t even told my parents, really.”
“You can’t,” gasped Mae. She had stopped laughing and was deadly serious.
“Mae, I’m going to have to sooner or later.”
She glanced back at the dining room. “Are you kidding? What do you think Daddy’s gonna do? He’ll be furious, and if he loses his temper…”
“Well, Sid can handle himself.” I looked over at him.
“I really don’t care to be involved in physical violence,” he said.
“Lisa, you can’t tell them where you’re living, unless you want Daddy getting into one nasty fight, then physically dragging you back to Tahoe.”
“What on earth is going on in here?” asked Mama as she came in.
“Just joking around, Mama,” said Mae, with a quick laugh.
“I wish,” I muttered as I turned on the faucet.
“Sid, you’d better go back and join the men,” said Mama. “We’ll take care of the mess. This is woman’s work.”
“That’s okay,” replied Sid. “I’m liberated.”
“No, Sid,” I said. “Daddy thinks it’s woman’s work.”
“I think I’ll go join Neil and your father.”
“He’s certainly trying,” said Mae when he had gone.
“I just hope Daddy doesn’t make any insinuations,” I sighed.
“Like nocturnal activity?” Mae giggled.
“Mae, what are you getting on about?” Mama asked in that voice that said she knew darned well what Mae was getting on about and didn’t like it one bit.
“Mama,” I replied. “Remember the overnight case? Sid fools around a lot.”
“Oh, dear,” Mama sighed. “He seems like such a nice man, too.”
“He is,” I said. “What he does with his time is his business and I’ve no right to judge. Just don’t worry. He’s not fooling around with me. I only work for him.”
“I never doubted that for a minute, Lisle, honey. And don’t you worry about your daddy either. I told him to behave himself.”
I have to give Daddy credit. He did behave himself. But it was obvious Sid and he were not going to be great friends. There was one tense moment that afternoon. Sid was relaxing and chatting with Neil in the living room. Janey came in, holding her grandfather’s hand. Seeing Sid, she dropped Grandpa and ran over to him. She climbed into his lap and gave him a big hug and a kiss on the cheek. Sid naturally hugged her back and cuddled her while he went on talking to Neil. He didn’t even see Daddy.
But I did and I groaned silently. Janey is the apple of Daddy’s eye and the joy of his middle age. Now Daddy would be jealous of Sid over two females.
In spite of five wired kids, Christmas Eve with my family is the most peaceful, contented time of the whole year for me. I could see Sid was enjoying it, too. We spent the evening in the living room. The tree lights were turned on, giving everything a nice soft glow. Darby was being as adult as he could. The four younger children were taking turns in everybody’s laps.
Then Darby decided we should be singing Christmas carols. I tried to talk Darby into playing the piano for us. He said he wasn’t good enough. Then I suggested he find someone else. Sid glared at me but succumbed to Janey’s pleading to hear “Fur Elise”, her favorite.
The kids kept him busy after that. He finally put his foot down and told them to ask me to sing “Oh Holy Night.” He had to have his revenge. He did play it in my key, without the music. I have to admit I was impressed. By the time the song ended, the twins and Ellen had fallen asleep and Janey was nodding. Darby soon followed them upstairs. He knew about Santa Claus and had been promoted to look out the year before.
While we waited for his clearance, Mama unwittingly asked an awkward question that nearly started a scene.
“How’d you and Sid meet? Did he run an ad in the paper or something?”
Mae, Neil, Sid and I looked at each other nervously. We knew we were on thin ice.
I looked at Sid.
“Shall I..?” I asked, hoping he’d see I was trying to give him a chance to save face. Of the two of us, he had the most to lose.
“I picked her up in a bar,” Sid said, grinning mischievously.
“You, Lisa?” Mama couldn’t believe her ears.
I saw his strategy.
“Oh, he’s just trying to shock you,” I said with feigned disgust. “I was out on a blind date. The guy turned out to be a jerk, so I ditched him. Mae and Neil weren’t home when I called. Sid popped up, eventually sent the jerk on his way, bought me dinner and that’s all. Two days later he called up and offered me a job.”
“You never went out with men you didn’t know before, Lisa,” Daddy spoke deliberately.
“Well, Daddy, I was hungry. Heck, it had been a year since I’d worked and things were tight.”
“You could have had a job.”
“Now, Bill,” Mama interrupted sternly. “I thought you weren’t going to bring that up.”
“It’s alright, Mama,” I said gloomily. I hadn’t wanted to hurt Daddy’s feelings when I’d decided not to go to Tahoe, but it appeared he’d still been hurt. “I’m sorry, Daddy. But I guess I figured I’d be stuck in Tahoe for good if I went then. I like Tahoe and I really did like working for you. I just wanted to be on my own. Besides, you would have had to fire someone to put me in and all those people have kids to support and I don’t.”
“Well,” grumbled Daddy. “I always said it was your life.”
“I really like what I’m doing now, Daddy. It’s different.”
Sid smiled at me. He alone knew just how different it was.
“Hey,” hissed Darby from the top of the stairs. “It’s all clear.”
“Alright, Darby. Goodnight,” said Mae.
We waited five seconds in silence. After that quiet chaos reigned. Poor Sid sat and watched, bewildered, as we all sprang to our appointed tasks. Daddy and I worked on putting toys together while Neil and Mama concentrated on stuffing stockings. Mama finally took Sid under her wing and had him helping her. Mae tried assembling a dollhouse. Daddy and I are the only ones who are any good at putting things together. Well, we were the only ones. At one point Mae groaned in utter frustration. Sid automatically reached over and set her straight. I put him on assembly detail.
Thanks to Sid’s help, we were done in record time. Even so, it was well after midnight when we finished. Thoroughly exhausted, but happy, I went to bed.
On Christmas morning, the kids are allowed to take down their stockings and play with the presents Santa has brought them, which are the ones left unwrapped. The wrapped presents have to wait until after church.
I got to sleep until shortly before seven, when I was awakened by the girls, whose room I was sharing. I wake up slowly, and I was still half asleep when I followed Janey and Ellen downstairs, after putting their robes on them and donning my own.
“My ice skates!” crowed Janey with delight.
“Nice,” I mumbled and headed for the kitchen.
I was a little surprised to see Sid coming in the front door, wearing a running suit and even more surprised to see Darby, also.
“We went running,” Darby said and ran to his sisters in the living room.
“You would,” I grumbled with tired disgust, then yawned. “You gonna shower?”
“I was planning on it,” replied Sid.
“Then do it now and be quick. Towels are under the sink.”
“You wouldn’t happen to have a blow dryer would you?”
“In my case, in the girls’ room.”
“Thanks, and uh, Merry Christmas.”
Twenty minutes later, I was sipping hot herb tea and somewhat more alert. Daddy came down in his robe and pajamas and sat down next to me.
“Any coffee?” he asked without much hope.
“Just instant. You know Mae.”
“I went past Darby’s room. Know what he was doing in there?”
I assumed “he” meant Sid.
“Blow drying his hair.”
“Oh come on, Daddy. It’s the thing now. Even Neil does sometimes.”
He just snorted. “He coming to church?”
I paused, realizing Sid’s religious beliefs, or rather lack of them, would just cause more conflict. But then there wasn’t much I could do about it.
“I don’t know,” I said finally. “I haven’t asked him.”
“He ain’t Catholic, is he?”
“I don’t know, Lisle. I know you’re just working for him, but, honey, that boy’s dangerous.”
“Then why’re you still with him?”
“I like him. Don’t worry, I’ll be alright. He knows how I feel and he respects that.”
“Well, Lisle, I just don’t want to see you get hurt.”
“I know, Daddy.” I reached out and patted his hand. “You gonna come early to church with me and save seats?”
“Wouldn’t miss it for nothing.”
Janey came running in with a box. “Merry Christmas, Grandpa. I got ice skates.”
He took her in his lap. “Well, now, let’s see ’em.”
Sid chose that moment to walk in, fully dressed in the suit he’d been wearing the day before.
“Uncle Sid, you’re ready for church,” proclaimed Janey.
“Well, I..,” he started to protest. But then he saw all three pairs of our big eyes staring at him expectantly. “I thought I might take it in.”
A few minutes later as I went upstairs, Sid followed me.
“Lisa, I have never been to a church service before in my life,” he whispered rather frantically. “What do I do?”
“It’s no sweat,” I replied, a little moodily. “Just stand when we stand, sit when we’re not standing and try to look like you’re paying attention. They’ve got little books in the pews that’ll help you follow along.”
I yawned and went to change.
Sid went early with Janey, Daddy and me to help save seats for the slower moving ones at home. He did look a little uncomfortable when we all genuflected before entering the pew but wisely decided against trying it. Otherwise, he made it through mass okay. Janey had managed to sit between him and me and stayed in the pew with him when we all went for communion.
After mass, chaos broke loose. Mae and Neil’s friends are mostly people they know from church and there were quite a few there. Janey and Darby both go to the parish school, so they had friends, also. Even I was delighted, though not terribly surprised, to see a couple of old friends from college there.
There was a great deal of helloing and hugging and talking. Sid would have gotten lost in the shuffle, but every few seconds he was being introduced to somebody. Mama and Daddy had left right away with the younger three, so Mae and Neil took their time.
Almost twenty minutes after Mass had ended, people for the next mass were coming in, and we were still in the vestibule talking and saying hi.
I turned to see Sid standing next to me.
“Well?” I asked.
“They’re talking,” he replied, noncommittally.
“Uncle Sid, I want you to meet my teacher,” piped up Janey.
We turned to face Sister Francine.
From the look on Sid’s face, I think he’d “heard about” nuns before. But things have changed a lot since most of those stories got started. Sister Francine was not a face in a long heavy black habit.
She was a fresh, pretty, young woman dressed in a conservatively cut navy blue suit that had a wooden pin of the Sacred Heart order on the lapel. She wasn’t even wearing a veil.
Sid recovered himself to say “How do you do” to her and shake her hand.
“Janey’s very fond of you,” Sister Francine said, smiling.
“Well, I’m very fond of her,” Sid replied, as Janey grabbed his hand and leaned against him.
“Oh, Sid!” called Mae. “I’ve got somebody here I want you to meet.”
I don’t know if Sid really wanted to meet whoever it was Mae was talking about. But I know he wanted away from Sister Francine.
“Nice to meet you,” he said, politely. “Excuse me.”
He walked towards Mae, still holding on to Janey. I followed behind.
“Sid, I want you to meet one of Fullerton’s premier citizens,” Mae said.
Ned Harris was carrying one of his children, a one-year-old girl when Mae collared him. When he first saw Sid, he looked startled for a second, then broke into a huge grin.
“Well, if it isn’t Sid Hackbirn,” he said, with happy surprise.
“How are you, Ned?” Sid replied quietly.
He was smiling, but there was something about his reserve that told me he wasn’t nearly as happy to see Ned as Ned was to see him. At the same time, Janey was a sight to see. Her lips were drawn into a tight thin line and her eyes had a fierce look in them. Obviously, she did not like Ned Harris, which I thought was strange, because everybody I knew liked him a lot.
“You two know each other?” Mae was amazed.
“Sure,” said Ned. “We were in the army together. So how are you, Sid?”
“Very well, and yourself?”
“Couldn’t be happier. Got a beautiful wife and kids, good business. Doing terrific. I’ll bet you’re still single.”
“You’ve still changed. Look at where you are. The last place I would have ever expected to find you would be in a church.”
“Actually, I just came along for the ride.”
“Yeah, still cool as a cucumber. So what are you doing for a living?”
“Freelance, for magazines.”
“No kidding. Does it pay well?”
“Great. I’m in the travel business, myself. Inflight Travel Agency. Doing real well.”
“Listen, I gotta get inside. Say, look me up real soon, will you? I’d love to have a chance to chew over old times.”
Ned left, after shaking hands with Sid.
“He’s a bad man, Uncle Sid,” said Janey. “He does good things, but he’s real bad.”
Sid just lifted an eyebrow.
“Hm,” was all he would say.
On the way to the car, Mae held me back a little.
“Sid sure reacted strangely to Ned Harris,” she said softly to me.
“Sid was in Viet Nam. He doesn’t like to be reminded of it.”
“That’s right. Ned was, too. That must be it.”
“I don’t know. Janey doesn’t like him.”
Mae sighed. “I know. That’s why I didn’t vote for him for city council. Still, he is a very sweet man and his wife is just as nice. Janey likes her well enough.”
We both shrugged.
“Hurry up, you two,” called Neil.
Mama already had the turkey in the oven when we got home. The next order of business was to unwrap the huge mound of presents underneath the tree. Of course, the kids got most of it. But I cleaned up pretty nicely myself and Sid was surprised when there were several packages for him.
I admit I was a bit nervous when Daddy handed Sid a box from me.
“Very nice,” he said, smiling and nodding when he saw the sweater.
“Lisle, is that one you knitted?” asked Mama.
I could have kissed her. Sid looked at me, surprised.
“Did you make this?” he asked.
“Every stitch,” I replied, blushing as usual.
“That’s beautiful. Thank you.”
Several packages later, I got a long, thin one from Sid.
“I told you not to,” I complained.
He just smirked and went back to thumbing through a book Neil and Mae had given him. But I noticed he kept one eye on me.
“Go on, you ingrate. Open it.” Mama was used to my protests over receiving presents.
Trembling, I slid the ribbon off, carefully undid the tape, pulled the paper away and opened the box. Laying on the cotton, suspended from a fine gold chain was a pendant of two rectangles, one polished, one brushed. In the middle of the brushed one was an opal encircled by tiny diamonds. The diamonds sparkled in the morning light.
“My necklace,” I said quietly and looked at him.
He smiled gently and nodded. I looked at it again.
“I went back a week later and it was gone.” I returned my gaze to him. “I guess you bought it.”
“Let’s see, Aunt Lisa,” begged Janey.
“Why don’t you put it on?” said Mae. “That way we can all see.”
“Alright.” I lifted it out. My fingers fumbled on the catch. “Oh dear, my hands are shaking.”
“Here, I’ll put it on you.” Mae took it and had it on in seconds. “Oh, Lisa, it’s beautiful.”
“Thanks.” Still shaking, I turned to Sid. “Thank you, Sid.”
“You’re welcome.” He went back to the book.
Opening presents seemed to last forever. It didn’t, but it was almost one by the time the last one had been opened and duly admired. I helped Mae clean up the paper in the living room, while Mama checked the turkey.
Neil and Mae must have conferenced about Daddy and Sid the night before, because Neil shooed Mama out of the kitchen and took over, drafting Daddy and Sid to help. Even Darby got to help peel the potatoes.
But when dinner time came, Neil, Sid, and Darby dropped the liberated bit and became perfect gentlemen; Darby seating Mae, Sid my mother, and Neil me.
I confess, I was a little nervous about how everything would taste. But Neil’s a fairly good cook and Sid’s very good at finding his way around the kitchen, although he’s usually too lazy. Daddy’s basically hopeless, but he can follow directions.
He followed them very well because everything tasted wonderful. I pigged out. I caught Sid glaring at me when I asked for seconds. I just smiled happily, cleaned my plate, and asked for thirds.
We were all finishing up and debating whether or not we should eat dessert just yet when the phone rang. Mae answered.
“Hello..? Oh, hi Ned… Merry Christmas to you too… We’re just eating… No, you’re not interrupting a thing… Well, my sister works for him. He came down when she was babysitting while I was in the hospital with my knee… Oh, the kids just love him… Well, I expect he was pretty surprised too… It’s a small world, Ned. He’s still here, do you want to talk to him- It’s no trouble. Sid, it’s Ned Harris. Hello? Hello? That’s funny.” Mae hung up. “Never mind, Sid. We got cut off.”
“Hm.” Sid had obviously heard the conversation and was now mulling it over in his mind.
All too soon it was time to say goodbye. It was dark when we left.
“What a time,” I sighed as we pulled onto the freeway.
“It’s been a very enjoyable two days,” Sid replied.
“I want to thank you for my necklace.”
“I thought it would surprise you.”
“It certainly did.”
Sid chuckled and was silent.
“What are you thinking about?” I asked after a bit.
“Hm? Oh.” He shrugged. “A lot of things. The sweater. It’s a very nice piece of work.”
“I made that one ’cause it was the only kind you didn’t have.”
“It’s the only kind I don’t wear.”
“Oh no.” My heart sank to the floor.
“However.” He started to pat my knee, thought better of it, and put his hand back on the steering wheel. “I am going to make a point of wearing this one.”
“You don’t have to if you don’t want to.”
“That’s just it. I want to, very much. There’s something about the work that makes it a very valuable thing.”
“It’s one heck of a pattern. It’s funny, but it’s as close as I’ve gotten to knitting a perfect sweater.”
“I didn’t see any mistakes.”
“I see them, but I know they’re there.”
There was another silence.
“What do you think of Ned Harris?” Sid asked suddenly.
“I don’t know. I think he’s a nice guy. I’ve only met him a couple of times. He seems alright, but…”
“Janey doesn’t like him.”
“I noticed. Why did you ask about him?”
“Back in ‘Nam, I was investigating him for selling secrets. We never proved it, so someone else set him up for a drug bust. He managed to get out from underneath those charges, too.”
“That’s interesting. It must have been quite a surprise to see him at church this morning.”
“It is and it isn’t.” Sid gazed out at the traffic, dodging cars without really seeing them. “I’ve always figured I’d run into him again, and actually, catching him at church makes perfect sense. Ned was always very good at appearances. That’s how he got out of that drug bust. He’d been a volunteer aide for the Catholic chaplains and they stuck up for him. That phone call’s bothering me. Getting cut off was a little too convenient. I think I’ll talk to Henry about it tomorrow.”
I put Ned Harris out of my mind and let my thoughts drift.
On Monday, two things happened which made me very happy. At breakfast, Sid gave me permission to decorate the house for Christmas.
“Waste of time and money,” said the professor.
“Shut up, Lipplinger,” said Sid.
He only drew the line on outside lights and with good reason. We would be the only house with them and we did not need to be conspicuous.
Then shortly after noon, I got the results of a project I had started in the middle of November.
“Is Sid around?” Henry James asked on the phone.
I checked. “Nope, the coast is clear.”
“Alright, here’s the information you wanted. She’s in Coral Gables, Florida.”
“Shoot, that’s near where all my family’s from.”
“You want the address and phone?”
“You got that?” I copied them down. “Thanks.”
“We aim to please,” continued Henry. “How’s it goin’ between you and Sid?”
“Are you sure?”
“Positive. Thanks for the info, Henry. You’re a doll.”
“Well, good luck, kid. I’ve got a feeling you’ll need it.”
But his warning couldn’t dampen my spirits. I slipped into the library and shut the door. It took me three tries to get through, but finally, the other phone rang and an elderly female voice answered.
“Is this Stella Hackbirn?” I asked.
“Yes, ’tis.” The voice had a rather light drawl for that part of the country.
“My name is Lisa Wycherly. I’m calling on behalf of someone you haven’t talked to in a while.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Well, Ms. Hackbirn. I work for your nephew.”
“I haven’t got a nephew.”
“Haven’t you got a nephew named Sid?”
“I had a nephew. But he decided that my politics weren’t good enough for him, so we no longer speak.”
“But haven’t you wondered at all about him?”
“No, I haven’t. It sounds to me like you’re trying to effect a reconciliation.”
“I’m not asking much. Just send him a card or something. Here’s the address.”
I gave it to her so quickly I don’t know if she got it down.
“You got that?”
“I don’t want it.”
“I haven’t spoken to Sid for fifteen years because I do not wish to speak to Sid and that’s final.”
The line went dead, and then the dial tone. I just sat there, utterly amazed.
“I could have told you she wouldn’t.” Sid shut the library door behind him.
“I had a feeling you’d try. So when I saw you sneaking in here, I listened in.”
“You weren’t supposed to know.”
“Just in case she said no, so it wouldn’t hurt my feelings?”
I nodded, my happy mood dashed.
“Stella is a very stubborn woman. She won’t change her mind. But I appreciate your trying.”
“I’m just sorry you found out.”
“Okay. So it hurts a little. Rejection always does. But when she ran me out, it wasn’t the first time she’d rejected me.”
“I’m sorry, Sid.”
“Don’t be. She’s obviously an old, embittered woman. That is her problem, and I propose we don’t make it ours.”
“There you are, Hackbirn.” Lipplinger’s voice shattered the moment. “We’ve got some talking to do.” He stopped when he saw me. “A little nookie behind the shelves, eh? I tell you, Hackbirn, you ought to let me have her. I’ll lay her and have it done with.”
“That is not why she’s in this house.”
“So what. Listen, Hackbirn, we’ve got to discuss this setup. I need space, room to work. This room would suit me just fine.”
When I thought of that old grouch taking over one of my favorite retreats, I got angry.
“Something else will have to do,” I said firmly. “This is a common recreational area.”
“She’s right,” said Sid. “You have your room. If there’s a problem, I’ll have the decorator in tomorrow.”
“Well, if that’s the best I’m going to get.” He shuffled off, muttering.
“That’s darned good, Lipplinger,” I shouted after him. I looked at Sid, who was chuckling. “There’s something about that man that brings out the worst in me.”
“I suspect you’re not the only one.”
“You’re not going to inflict him on that nice Mary Smith, are you?”
“You don’t know Mary like I do.”
“Obviously. I’m not a man.”
Sid chuckled again. “Don’t worry, Lisa. Mary’ll make mincemeat out of him.”
Whether or not she would have we never found out. When Sid called her, she told him she couldn’t come until the beginning of the following week. By Friday, Sid had had enough of Lipplinger. I was quite happy to come home from Mae’s on Monday morning and find him gone.
“You didn’t throttle him without telling me did you?” I asked Sid.
“Shoot him and not let me get any shots in?”
“Nope. I found another house for him.”
“People you’re not very fond of, I hope.”
“Don’t know them at all.”
“That’s good. Well, Praise the Lord, he’s gone!”
The days passed quickly. Christmas was well on its way, which put me in a very good mood, although I was busier than a one-armed paper hanger, what with all the various projects I had going for different people. Even though he wouldn’t say so, I could tell Sid was looking forward to spending Christmas day at Mae’s. Right after Lipplinger left, he questioned me extensively on presents for the family and insisted on taking me with him to buy them. After much debate, we settled on perfume for Mae, a classical record for Neil, a very nice souvenir book on Mercedes-Benz for Darby (I said it was too expensive, but Sid insisted), a copy of “The Wizard of Oz” for Janey, a picture dictionary for Ellen, and toy cars for the twins.
It was then, too, that we had the Great Present Fight, which has become a tradition around my birthday and any other holidays where presents are given. [One I could do without – SEH] I just didn’t want Sid to give me a present.
“Listen,” I told him. “You paid my back rent at my old apartment when I first started working here. That’s enough.”
“That was part of the initial employment agreement.”
“No, it wasn’t. So let’s just call that my Christmas present and leave it at that.”
“I don’t want to do that.”
“But you’re not letting me pay you back.”
“So what’s wrong with that?”
“I don’t want to be a kept woman.”
“For crying out loud, do we have to go through that again? I’m not asking for favors.”
“I never said you were. I just want to be independent.”
“And my buying you a Christmas present makes you dependent.”
“Sid, you don’t understand.”
“You’re right. I don’t, and I don’t think I’m going to anytime soon. So let’s make a deal. I won’t buy you anything if you won’t buy me anything.”
I paused. “Sid, it’s too late.”
“I thought so. Well, I’m not going to make any promises, then.” [Of course, it was too late for me, too. What else could I do? – SEH]
That closed the issue, of course. I would have made the deal, but I’d already finished the sweater and after all that work, I couldn’t bear not to give it to him.
If I had been happy to see Professor Lipplinger leave, you can imagine how I felt when, a week and a half before Christmas, I answered the door and found him on the doorstep, suitcases in hand.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
He walked in and set down his suitcases. “I’m moving in.”
“Oh, no you’re not,” I said picking up his cases and putting them on the porch.
“I’m afraid he is,” said Sid, coming into the hallway. “I just got the call. His other house kicked him out.”
“I believe it.”
Lipplinger, with an air of triumph, picked his cases up and walked past me with a smug grin on his face.
“Always did like your place, Hackbirn. No noise, decent scenery, even if you can’t touch her.”
“You’re staying here on one condition,” warned Sid. “You stay in your room. I will not have you harassing my secretary or my housekeeper, nor do I want to listen to your tripe. Is that clear?”
“Perfectly. All I require is privacy and three hot meals a day.”
“You will get what you want, provided you stay out of our way. This is my house, remember.”
“Of course. Don’t bother showing me. I know the way, Hackbirn.” He shuffled off.
I shut the door and looked at Sid.
“Couldn’t we just ship him to the Soviets with a note that says ‘Here he is, you can have him if you can stand him’?”
“Nice idea,” Sid replied. “There’s just one problem.”
“They’d ship him right back and we’d be stuck with him again.”
We both laughed.
It was one week before Christmas.
“Sid!” I ran into the house bellowing that Friday. “Hurry up! Come here! Sid!”
He came out of the library with a worried frown on his face.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
“I got it! Hurry up and see!”
I grabbed his hand and started towards the front of the house.
“What are you talking about?”
“What you loaned me the car for. The Christmas tree. I got it. It’s out front. Come on. It’s a real beauty, too. I can’t believe I did it again.”
“Did you make that drop?”
“Of course I did. It went smooth as silk. I told you it would work. I was a little late. The guy was already at the lost and found counter asking for it. I just handed it over. No sweat.”
I pulled him outside. “There it is. What do you think?”
“I think there’s a tree tied to my car. I just had it waxed, too.”
“Quit fussing. I put a blanket down first. Help me get it inside. It’s just perfect. Another year and I did it again.”
I had to run inside first and get some scissors to cut the twine. After we got the tree off the car, I ran ahead to open the double front door all the way.
“Bring it in bottom first,” I called.
“I’ll bring it in whichever way I can get it!”
With much grunting and groaning, he got it into the hallway.
“Where do you want it?” he asked, sighing.
“I told you. In the living room, right in front of the bay window. It’s going to be so gorgeous! I can’t believe I did it again.”
“If I remember correctly, there is a very nice Queen Anne bench in front of that window.”
“Not anymore. Don’t panic, Conchetta and I did some rearranging this morning.”
“Miss Wycherly.” Sid heaved the tree along to the living room. “You have already dug deep inside me and turned me around, must you also rearrange my house?”
“Sure. But, relax, it’s only temporary, just through the holidays.”
We stood the tree up on its pine cross bars. The top branches scraped “snow” off the acoustical ceiling.
“Lisa, that tree is at least five inches too tall for this room.”
“And it’s not even in the stand.” I looked it up and down. “Yep. I did it again.”
We finally got it up and decorated, after first going out again to buy a stand, a saw (I couldn’t believe he didn’t have one) lights and the decorations. I guess Sid got caught up in the excitement in spite of himself, because I knew he’d planned on going out that night, but he stayed home to help me with the tree.
It was beautiful, too. Even Lipplinger admired it when we let him out of his room for the occasion.
“It’s decent,” he said. “Just the sort of thing you need a woman for, Hackbirn.”
“Hey, I helped too,” Sid replied, laughing.
Lipplinger snorted. “It only confirms my opinion of you. Nice piece like that and you’re not laying her. What a waste. Of course, I’ve always thought that about your kind.”
“Are you suggesting I’m gay?” Sid’s voice was calm, but it had that edge to it.
I tried to suppress a laugh. I could see where one could accuse him of it. He wasn’t swishy or had that kind of high-pitched voice (although I know a lot of gays don’t). But he was terribly clothes conscious and there was a gentleness about him that could be labeled effeminate.
Lipplinger just shuffled off, muttering.
“What are you laughing at?” Sid grumbled, picking up his cup of eggnog. Conchetta had made it before she left.
“It’s not funny.” There was something strange about his discomfort.
“You haven’t…tried it, have you?” I was actually kind of curious.
“No. that would make me bi-sexual, and I’m not that, either.” He looked at me, trying to figure something out. “I don’t know how you feel about the whole gay thing, but I know gays and lesbians and it’s no big deal. I just don’t like it when a straight calls me gay because then he’s being as insulting as he can be.”
“Oh. That makes sense.”
I smiled and stacked the ornament boxes up so I could put them in the hall closet. Sid watched me for a moment, then chuckled softly.
“What are you laughing at?” I asked.
“You. You won’t spend twenty dollars on a blouse you need, and yet you spent a bundle today, and for what? A tree.”
I walked over to the tree, smiling at the softly twinkling lights.
“O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum,” I sang softly. “Wie treu sind deine Blaetter.”
“I don’t speak German.”
“The message of the evergreen, Sid. Its leaves are always green. They don’t change with the weather. The evergreen is unchanging, just like God’s love.” I looked at him. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to preach.”
He just shrugged. “I seem to remember reading somewhere that the Christmas tree was originally a pagan symbol of fertility.”
I laughed and picked up my eggnog.
“Well, then, a toast.” I raised my cup and so did Sid. “To fertility.”
“Fertility?” he laughed.
“A fertile mind, for new ideas and a fertile heart, for love.”
“To fertility, then, because I’m not and you probably are.”
Unfortunately, the story doesn’t end there. Relationship wise, Sid and I were doing very well. Lipplinger-wise, we weren’t out of the woods by a long shot.
Friday night, Sid called Henry James and made arrangements for the next day. The next morning I woke up with cramps, bad ones.
We drove to Hattie Mitchell’s estate in our third rented car. The first one, Sid had traded in after the alley incident and the second we’d left behind at the shootout. I’d asked Sid what we were going to do about that second car and he told me it was being taken care of. [The F.B.I. had it towed and Ed Donaldson paid for it all, out of my paycheck. Talk about government fleecing. It’s a good thing we don’t have to live on the pittance they pay us as it is – SEH]
I was nervous and holding my belly.
“We’ve had knives, guns,” I said as we drove along. “The only thing they’ve got left for us is bombs.”
“Will you cut that out?” Sid was still smiling. “You’re making me nervous.”
“I have my moments.” Then he turned serious. “Is, uh, something wrong? You don’t seem to be in peak form this morning. You’re not still mad at me, are you?”
“No. Not in the least.” I winced as we hit a pothole.
“Well, something’s wrong.”
“Oh. It’s nothing.”
Sid glared at me. “I seem to remember getting yelled at pretty soundly yesterday for not owning up to my little infirmity.”
The flush spread over my face. “Sid, it’s real embarrassing.”
“And me getting caught with my pants down isn’t.”
“Alright,” I groaned. “I’m just cramped up, okay?”
“Ah hah! Something you ate.”
I glared out the window. “That time of the month cramps.”
“Oh.” Sid chuckled. “My condolences.” He looked at me, mildly concerned. “Are you going to be up to it if things get rough?”
I shrugged. “I should be. Cramps have never slowed me down. It’s just uncomfortable.”
“Well, I hope you’ll be alright, and not just physically.”
“So do I. But I shouldn’t flip too badly. I’ve been through it before and the emotional strain I was under yesterday has been resolved.”
“Except for Lipplinger.”
“He won’t bother me.”
“Be careful. He knows how to push your button.”
“Uh-oh,” I said. But not about Lipplinger.
Hattie’s estate was just about a block away. Two cars were parked next to the gates.
“Looks like we might have some company,” replied Sid.
Yet we got through the gates without hindrance. Hattie met us at the door.
“He’s packed and ready to go,” she said. “But I want to talk to you two first.”
She led us into the room we’d been in two nights before. She shut the door and faced us.
“Miles told me something about a formula he’d developed.” She was calm, but I could tell she was feeling a little hurt. “He doesn’t think I’m capable of understanding what it’s about, so he just told me it existed and it was dangerous. He also told me about you two.” She looked us over. Sid stayed cool while I squirmed. “Sid Hackbirn. Is that as in S.E. Hackbirn, the one that does the F.B.I. piece?”
Sid watched her carefully. “Why do you want to know?”
“Because Miles, however obnoxious he is, is my brother. I want to stay in touch with him.”
“Whatever my name is, staying in touch with me will not necessarily mean staying in touch with your brother.”
Hattie chuckled. “As owner of two major defense and electronics plants, one of which is involved in highly top secret projects, I have a top-level security clearance. I also have several friends on the House Committee on Intelligence. It will be more trouble to go through them, and I could possibly do some damage to your cover.”
Sid laughed also. “Hattie, I already know what your clearance is, and you’re not cleared on my level.”
“In other words, you’re not going to say so.” Hattie’s eyes glittered with just a touch of mischief. “Well, Mr. Hackbirn and Miss Wycherly, it doesn’t matter. I want to remain in contact. No secrets, of course, but it doesn’t hurt to have friends. Obviously, we’ll need some plausible way to continue. Well, I’ve been thinking about getting into editing.” She smiled at our surprised looks. “Don’t be so shocked. I’ve been accused of playing the dilettante before, and I’ve yet to fall on my face. Yesterday, I bought On Our Own, that singles magazine that was about to go under?”
Sid’s eyebrow lifted. “I’m surprised it lasted as long as it did.”
“Well, it has a new life now, but without the sophomoric content and bad layout. You see, I don’t enter these enterprises without some knowledge of what I’m doing. In any case, Mr. Hackbirn, or may I call you Sid?”
“Call me what you like,” he said with a mildly lecherous smile.
Hattie returned it. “I would like to confirm that your relationship with Miss Wycherly is not of the sort in which exploring the west coast singles scene would cause trouble between you.”
I shrugged. “I wouldn’t mind. It might be fun.”
Sid laughed. “Not the kind of fun you like, my dear. But don’t worry, Hattie, we each have our own lives.”
“Good. Then you’ll be my west coast correspondent. I like your angles on the F.B.I., however, I’ve been warned your spelling and grammar can be a little rough.”
“Not anymore,” I said.
“She’s been cleaning up after me,” said Sid.
“Excellent. I’ll expect your first column on the thirteenth. It’s for the April issue, fifteen hundred words, two hundred dollars.”
“Two fifty and you’ve got a deal.”
“Two fifty, it is.”
They grinned at each other.
“We do have to get out of here alive, first,” I pointed out.
“True,” said Sid.
I added, “I might also say, that while I’m not real good at setting odds, they don’t look too good, considering those two cars out front.”
“Oh dear,” said Hattie. “Maybe I’d better call the police.”
“Please don’t,” replied Sid, getting a little antsy. “We’ll have to make do without. They’ve been involved far too much already.”
“I don’t want to know.” Hattie thought a moment. “You know, there is a path that runs through the woods out back. It goes to the road. I’m sure we could get a car down it.”
“A back way out of here?” Sid’s face lit up. “Hattie, I could just kiss you.”
“Oh, Sid, please do.”
That old reprobate. Sid, I mean. He kissed her alright. Boy, did he kiss her. When they finally got around to pulling away from each other, he winked at her and she let out a prim little sigh.
“Well,” she said, smoothing her dress. “Let’s go get my brother.”
We got him, bad temper, lewd comments and all. The car did go down the path very easily. We got onto the highway without mishap. But to get back to the city and National airport, we had to go past the front of the estate. After we passed it, I heard tires squealing. I looked out the back window.
“Step on it, Sid! They’re coming after us!”
Sid stepped on the accelerator.
“Get on the floor, Professor,” said Sid. He looked at me quickly. “You’d better get down too.”
“I don’t see why,” growled Lipplinger. “It’s undignified and I’ll wrinkle my suit.”
A bullet glanced off the roof.
“It’s a lot safer, that’s why,” I yelled. I reached over the front seat and pushed him down as a second bullet embedded itself in the trunk.
“Get down, Lisa,” Sid yelled.
I slumped down in my seat. I reached into my carry-on and pulled out my gun, then rolled down the window.
“What are you doing?” snapped Sid.
“I’m going to shoot their tires,” I said. I turned around in my seat and started out the window.
“Oh, no you’re not.” Sid grabbed me with one hand and pulled me back. The car swerved dangerously. “Do you want to get yourself killed?”
“You’ll get us all killed,” Lipplinger yelled from the back, “if you keep on driving like that.”
“Shut up, Lipplinger. Don’t worry, Lisa, they’ll stop shooting at us when we get into traffic. Not that there’s ever any around when you need it.”
I shoved my gun back into the special case that would get it past the metal detectors at the airport.
“Got anything you can’t replace in your suitcase?” Sid asked me softly.
“No, I put all my valuables in my carry-on like you said.”
“Good girl. How about you, Professor? Got anything in your suitcase you can’t replace?”
“Of course not. Too many thieves around to carry valuables.”
“Good. We’re ditching the luggage.”
“Why?” I asked.
“It’ll make it easier for us to change planes at the last minute. Maybe we’ll lose our tail.”
“Aren’t you going to ditch them before we get to the airport?”
“Not much point in it. They’re probably watching it anyway. With any luck at all, we can put them off our track.”
“Holy Jesus in Heaven, please,” I prayed, crossing myself.
At the airport, we dropped the car at the rental place and ran through three terminals before Sid found a flight he liked. Even then we had to run to catch it. Lipplinger complained every step of the way.
The flight was a puddle jumper to La Guardia airport.
“Think we’ll lose them in New York City?” I asked Sid as we were taking off.
“If you can’t lose someone in New York, you’re in big trouble.” Sid yawned. “Keep an eye on the Professor for me, will you?” And he dropped off.
In New York, Sid promised the cab driver a handsome tip if he could get us across Queens to Kennedy airport in under thirty minutes without anyone following us. I didn’t dare look. Sid was looking out the back window for tails, so I just kept my eyes fastened to the back of the seat.
We still switched planes two more times. We got in to Los Angeles shortly after midnight. I was never so glad to see that house in my life. I was also exhausted. Sid wasn’t. He’d slept most of the way. Cheerfully, he drove Lipplinger downtown to an all-night market to get some of the necessities of life left behind in Washington.
The next day, they went shopping and I went to Mae’s. It was so nice being there. I blithely forgot about Lipplinger and risking my neck in the spy business and happily spent the afternoon risking my neck running around on the roof helping Neil and Darby put up the Christmas lights.
I also told Mae about the fight Sid and I’d had and she agreed it was the best thing for him.
“He’s not going to make you go away for Christmas, is he?” she asked.
“He’d better not,” I said. “Of course it is a little hard for him to understand how I feel. He’s never celebrated holidays.”
“‘Fraid not, Mae.”
“Well, he knows he’s invited here.”
“You’d better confirm that. I told you how he reacted to that letter.”
“It’s not late, I’ll do it now.”
Mae had been back on her feet for some time, and it didn’t take her long to get Sid on the other end of the line.
“Sid?” I heard her say. “This is Mae O’Malley. You got any plans for Christmas Day?… Then I won’t take no for an answer. You’re spending it here and that’s final. You plan to be here at ten thirty a.m. sharp. Any later, and the kids’ll have to wait to open their presents and they’ll be mad… Alright, talk to you later.”
She hung up and smiled. “See? It’s all settled.”
When two people work together as closely as Mr. Hackbirn and I do, there’s bound to be some friction. Actually, we get along very well. Aside from our individual value systems, which are radically opposed, we have a lot in common and we complement each other. We have managed to develop a very good relationship. But we both had some growing to do first and it wasn’t easy.
Part of the problem revolved around those various idiosyncrasies that each person has that drive another person nuts. Well, I shouldn’t say that they were part of the problem because they were more the catalyst for the unrest that got Mr. Hackbirn and me into the biggest fight I have ever had in my life, and I have had some doozies.
On my part, my singing bothered Mr. Hackbirn, although it was not my voice because even he admits I sing fairly well. What he objected to was that I did it constantly. I could see his point. He’d be in his office trying to work when he’d hear this soft snatch of music. Some days it’d be just the same refrain over and over again, other days whole songs. A couple of times, I sang whole shows. He tried turning on the radio to drown me out, but I just sang along with that and louder, too.
Then he never could understand why I was so cheap. To be truthful, I couldn’t either. I’d always been that way. I think that’s what helped me survive the year I was out of work. Anyway, it would drive him nuts every time I’d shake my head and say “But that’s too much!”
The thing that really got to him, though, was my appetite. When he first picked me up, he sort of understood. I’d been out of work for a year. I was starving. But when it never slowed down, it got on his nerves. Worse still, I never gained an ounce. That must have been what really bugged him, because although he won’t admit it, he has to keep an eye on his weight.
On the other side of the coin, I was hungry, and when I said so, I got a lecture. Those lectures were incredible. Mr. Hackbirn would go into every possible consequence of poor eating habits he could think of with anatomical precision. He even threatened to take me to the county morgue a couple of times so I could see for myself what I was doing to my insides.
When he wasn’t lecturing me about food, he was teasing me. He could turn anything I said into something smutty and often did, just to make me blush. Woe to me, if I tried to one up him, too. I was incredibly naive, so I didn’t stand a chance and I ended up twice as embarrassed.
The only thing that was worse was his habit of chewing ice. It made me laugh. I tried not to, but I couldn’t help it. He finally got fed up and asked me what was so funny.
“It’s really stupid,” I said, still giggling.
It was a chilly day and for some reason, he was drinking ice water and chomping away.
“I can imagine,” he said dryly. “So tell me.”
“Well, when I was in high school, there were certain things one didn’t do. They were stupid little things that were supposed to mean other things and it didn’t matter if they did or not because of that being the way things were. You may even have heard of some. Like green M&M’s.”
“You know, the little candies.”
“I know. But what did they mean?”
“They were supposed to make you horny. We all knew it was ridiculous. But go to any party and by the middle of the evening, the M&M’s bowl would have nothing but green ones in it and everyone avoiding it like it had V.D. Until some stupid frosh got to it, or some guy trying to tell somebody something. It was like wintergreen Lifesavers. Guys carried them around all the time, but no girl would be caught dead with them.”
“They were supposed to spark against your teeth in the dark, right?”
“I outgrew that ploy when I was seven.”
“I’m sure you did.”
“So what was chewing ice?”
I giggled and blushed. “Sexually frustrated.”
He looked at me, then at his glass, then back at me. I could hear the ice crunching between his teeth.
“That is obviously not true,” he said and bit down on another ice cube.
After that, it began to get on my nerves, because I began to wonder if he was trying to tell me something. I was pretty sure it was unconscious, but with Mr. Hackbirn, one never knew.
The fight that all this aggravation led to started shortly before we left for Washington and lasted to its final cataclysm the day after Thanksgiving, just about a week. It sounds kind of funny, but it was Mr. Hackbirn who started it, and it was his fault it lasted so long.
About two weeks before we left, just before we’d gotten the ring, Mr. Hackbirn got a phone call from one of his girlfriends.
“Sid? I’ve got some bad news…” was all I heard (and wanted to hear) before I hung up. I figured she was pregnant and trying to hang it on Mr. Hackbirn. It was a short conversation because I heard him angrily bang down the phone in a rare display of emotion. So much for her baby.
Then a week and a half later, the pharmacy called and said Mr. Hackbirn’s prescription was ready. I was on my way out on an errand already, so I didn’t bother him. I just put it on my list and went out.
The prescription was for penicillin. I was puzzled. Mr. Hackbirn had been rather grumpy that morning, but he didn’t seem to be having any trouble swallowing, or anything else wrong with him for that matter. Then I remembered the bad news phone call. I put the pieces together and what I came up with wasn’t strep throat.
I snickered and then realized he needed my sympathy. However he got it, he probably wasn’t feeling very well.
I came sailing cheerfully into the house. Mr. Hackbirn stopped me in the office.
“What took you so long?” he growled.
“There was a sale at the sporting goods store, so I picked up some cold weather gear. The climate’s a little different in Washington, you know.” I opened up one of my bags and pulled out the leather fleece lined gloves. “You like?”
“Hm.” He barely even glanced at them and went into his office.
I picked up the bag from the pharmacy and followed him.
“I picked up your prescription,” I said, laying it on his desk.
“What did you do that for?” he snapped.
“Well, they called and I was going out, so I thought I’d save you a trip.”
“You didn’t save me anything.”
“I’m sorry.” There was a pause. “I can’t take the gloves back, but if you don’t want them, you don’t have to reimburse me.”
“Miss Wycherly, the gloves are fine. Now, will you leave?”
“You could say thank you.”
“For what? Thinking on your own? That’s what I pay you for.”
“I was just trying to surprise you. I thought you might appreciate it.”
“Just as much as you appreciate the chance to stuff your face behind my back.”
“Don’t you give me another lecture,” I snapped. “I’ve had it with anatomy. At least you don’t see me gaining any weight.”
Mr. Hackbirn’s voice got very tight and quiet. “That will be all, Miss Wycherly.”
Still steaming, I left, slamming the door behind me. If he couldn’t handle emotion, that was just too bad. Back in my office, I hoped we could clear the air before we left in three days.
Mr. Hackbirn refused to play ball. The next day we got word that Gannett had escaped. He’d been seen hanging around Georgetown University, and the best anyone could figure was that he was trying to find another buyer for his information.
The news just made Mr. Hackbirn grouchier. He sulked about the house, not saying one word to me more than he had to. Every time I tried to bring the subject up, he’d just say, “I don’t wish to discuss it, Miss Wycherly.”
“Well, I’m afraid we’re going to have to,” I finally said on Sunday, the day before we left. “We’ve got a job to do and we need to be able to communicate.”
“We are communicating good enough to do it.”
“Oh, we are? Well, I don’t call your sulking all day and night good communication. Let’s face it, I’m mad and you’re mad, so let’s get this thing settled.”
“There’s nothing to settle.”
“Then why are we so mad?”
“I have no idea. There must be no reason, so we shouldn’t be mad. There, all settled. Are you happy?”
“You’ve got to be kidding. That is the worst line of reasoning I have ever heard in my life.”
“That’s too bad.”
“I don’t believe you. Why can’t you admit that we’ve got a problem here and deal with it?”
“Because I see no problem. I refuse to get emotional just because you think you can’t talk to me.”
“Wait a minute, who’s the one who’s been saying ‘I don’t wish to discuss it’?”
“Who’s the one who’s letting her emotions interfere with her job?”
“That’s not fair!”
“See, Miss Wycherly? Now you know why I didn’t wish to discuss it.”
He walked off to his bedroom.
“You’re impossible!” I screamed, then immediately regretted it.
I decided if he could play his little detached game so could I. I sure as heck wasn’t getting anywhere confronting him.
The next five days were miserable, except for the time on the plane. Mr. Hackbirn got into his seat and promptly went to sleep.
At the hotel, if the bellhop noticed the tension, he didn’t say anything. Mr. Hackbirn had booked the room himself, a three room suite. It had a sitting room and two bedrooms, one on either side of the sitting room. It was very nice with quiet tasteful furniture, a raised area, two steps up, in the back in front of the windows and near the bedroom doors, and a wet bar on one side.
As soon as the bellhop left, we each picked up our individual suitcases and went to our bedrooms without saying a word. I don’t know what Mr. Hackbirn did that night. I assume he was making phone calls to contacts. I stayed in my room and pored over some maps and a visitors guide. Mr. Hackbirn hadn’t said a word about anything to do before Thanksgiving day, so I decided I’d go sightseeing. It’d get me away from him, at least. I’d never been to the nation’s capitol before, anyway, and I wanted to see it.
Mr. Hackbirn was in the sitting room the next morning reading a newspaper when I came out.
“Any plans for today?” I asked.
“Absolutely nothing,” he replied without looking up.
“Good.” I put on my dress coat, arranged a wool cap over my hair and ears, and slipped on some wool gloves.
“Where are you going?” Mr. Hackbirn finally looked up.
“Sightseeing.” I picked up my purse and the camera I’d finally bought. “I’m going to make the most of this fiasco.”
We’d been taking pot shots at each other the whole trip. The standard response was none, or at least to remain as unruffled as possible. So far, Mr. Hackbirn was winning in that respect.
“Remember to stay away from Georgetown,” he said.
“I wasn’t planning on going anywhere near there.”
“And don’t bring anyone back here.” He returned to his paper.
“You reprobate, you’re telling me that?”
“I meant a tail, Little Miss Ice Cube.”
I stormed out, slamming the door.
If I hadn’t been so angry, it would have been wonderful fun. The weather was cold with a nice crisp bite to the air, just the way I like it. Washington D.C. is a wonderful place and, corny as it sounds, very inspiring. If only I hadn’t been trying to escape Mr. Hackbirn. I got back to the hotel before dark and ate in the restaurant and went straight to my room.
Wednesday, I went out again. Late that afternoon, I realized that I’d gotten myself turned around and found myself walking right onto the Georgetown campus, the very last place I was supposed to be. After all, Gannett was supposedly in the neighborhood, and he had seen me and knew I was an operative.
Trying desperately to stay cool, I hurried back into the city, checking for tails all the way. Now, if you really want to keep someone tailed, you use a team, so the tailee doesn’t notice the same person behind all the time. Being as inexperienced as I was, I forgot about that possibility, so I wasn’t looking when I crossed the alley, which was stupid.
I didn’t see anything. I just felt the hand clamped over my mouth and the cold metal uncomfortably close to my jugular vein. I was dragged back into the alley, where my captor spun me around and shoved me, back first, against the wall.
“Well, well, well,” he said, his knife dancing perilously close to my face. “My chauffeur.”
“So you recognize me,” Gannett snickered maliciously and waved off the person who had just entered the alley, presumably his partner.
“I escaped. I had no choice. But you’re a long way from home.”
“I get around.”
“And you just happen to be in the same town where dear old Professor Lipplinger lives.”
He backhanded me hard across the face. I cried out in pain and tasted the blood where my teeth had cut open the inside of my cheek.
“Don’t tell me you don’t know about him. It’s just too convenient, having you pop up on campus this afternoon.”
I thought I saw a policeman at the entrance to the alley. I bolted for it, shoving hard against Gannett and running. I could feel my upper left arm sting as his knife bit through my coat to the skin.
“Rape!” I bellowed as loud as I could, then tripped and fell forward.
Gannett gripped my shoulder and started pulling me up. I felt the point of his knife press against my spine.
“That was real stupid, sister.”
“Police! Freeze!” The officer at the head of the alley had his gun pointed at us.
As the grip on my shoulder relaxed, I sank to my knees in relief. Gannett bolted, assuming, perhaps correctly, that with me between him and the cop his chances were reasonably good. In any case, he got away. The cop shot at him twice and then chased him, but not for long. I stayed where I had collapsed, trying to get myself together. It was just as well, I figured, to let myself be afraid. If it really had been attempted rape, I would have been pretty distraught.
“It’s alright, honey,” I heard the officer’s gentle voice say to me.
I gasped in pain as he took my left arm, helping me up.
“My arm,” I said softly.
“Here, let’s see.” He pulled out his handkerchief and opened the slash in my coat to inspect the wound. “It doesn’t look too bad. Here, hold this tight against it.”
I held the handkerchief to my arm. Gently, he escorted me out of the alley and down the street a block to a call box.
“I’m going to call a squad car,” he explained. “By the way, I’m Officer Marshall, Rob Marshall.”
“And what’s your name?”
“Janet. Janet Donaldson.” I fidgeted with the wedding set I was wearing.
Officer Marshall made the call quickly. I knew I was going to have to make some decisions fast. They were going to be asking a lot of questions, which was understandable. I knew I didn’t have to make a statement, but it occurred to me that I might be better off doing so. Not making a statement might arouse suspicion, and with a statement, they’d be looking for Gannett.
“Alright, Mrs. Donaldson, they’re on their way.” Officer Marshall smiled at me. “Why don’t you tell me about yourself.”
“Where you live. How we can get a hold of your husband.”
“W- we don’t live here. We’re from California.”
“I see. Where are you staying?”
I gave him the name of the hotel.
Fortunately, the squad car pulled up.
I was taken first to the infirmary where the doctor looked at my cut and said it wasn’t bad enough to need stitches. The nurse was very kind and talked to me merrily about her children as she bandaged my arm. After that, I was taken to the squad room.
Mr. Hackbirn was there waiting. He seemed concerned and relieved to see I was alright. In fact, he was very much the loving husband. Giving gentle reassurances, he came up to me. But when he hugged me, he hissed “Relax, damn it, I’m supposed to be your husband,” into my ear.
I had calmed down considerably. I gave my statement accurately, except for the conversation. Mr. Hackbirn had driven to the station in a rented car and now drove me back to the hotel. We took a circuitous route, because of the tail he’d picked up. He didn’t say anything, but I could tell he was mad.
Back in our room, though, he said a lot.
“Beautiful. Just beautiful,” he growled, prowling around the room. “I don’t suppose it was a coincidence that we picked up a tail at the police station?”
I sank stiffly onto the couch. “Well, no. Gannett found me.”
“Gannett? How the hell did he do that?”
“Well…” I bit my lip and tried not to cry. “I was looking for a phone. I was lost. And I asked this man where one was, and he gave me directions, only they led me right onto the Georgetown campus, and I got out of there as fast as I could without calling attention to myself, but he saw me, I guess, and caught me in the alley.”
“And you called the cops in on top of it. Of all the stupid things to do.”
“Well, it was either that or get carved up. You’ve got to admit the alternatives weren’t exactly the greatest.”
“And what do you think is going to happen if they catch him and he spills his guts?”
“Do you honestly think they’re going to believe a crazy story like that? If anybody, I’m the one they’re going to believe, just so long as neither one of us gives the cops any reason to believe we’re not on the level. Heck, I’ve even got a knife wound to help. Not to mention the fact that my good winter coat is ruined. The sleeve’s slashed open and the front’s all shredded.”
“I tripped and fell spread-eagled.”
“On your knees?” Mr. Hackbirn looked concerned.
“I’d better take a look at them.” He sounded resigned.
“Anything to grab a feel, huh?”
He pressed his lips together then said in a tight angry voice, “Miss Wycherly, I have enough trouble with your weak knee-ed attitude. I don’t need any trouble with the real article.”
Unfortunately, he made sense.
“Alright, turn around.”
“I’ve got to take off my tights.”
“Oh, for the love of Pete.” He was completely exasperated, but he did turn around. I hurriedly slipped off the tights as he complained. “What do you think I’m going to see anyway? Your underwear? Big deal.”
“Well, pardon me. I happen to believe in common decency. I’m ready.”
He turned around and bent to look. His hands were warm and soft and very gentle, and, angry as I was, I caught my breath at his touch.
“Can you move okay?” he asked gruffly.
I flexed each leg a couple of times and nodded.
“They’re just a little bruised,” he said. “Put a heating pad on them tonight.”
“I don’t have one.”
“A hot-water bottle, then, and I hope it keeps you company.” Mr. Hackbirn started for his room.
“Look,” I snapped. “If you want me that badly, then why don’t you just rape me and get it over with.”
He stopped and turned to me. I was afraid he would.
“I wouldn’t give you the satisfaction,” he said in a low, controlled voice.
He turned back and left, shutting his door quietly behind him.
The next day was Thanksgiving. I spent the morning in my room, crying quietly because I felt so lonely and homesick. We drove to Hattie Mitchell’s place in Mount Vernon around one. Neither one of us broke the silence during the ride. But as we pulled into the estate, Mr. Hackbirn finally spoke.
“Try and be nice,” he said. “We are supposed to be a happily married couple visiting friends on a happy occasion.”
“Would you do me the same favor?”
He just snorted and parked the car.
“Stay put,” he growled.
I did as I was told, while he walked around the car. When he opened the door for me, he was smiling. The mask was on, the curtain had risen, and he was in character.
I smiled in return and got out.
“Thank you, darling,” I said, as he shut the door.
I stiffened when he put his arm around me as we walked up to the front door.
“Loosen up, lady,” he growled behind his teeth.
I took a deep breath and tried to relax. I nervously put my arm around him. I really did try to look natural. But being that close to him did things to me that had nothing to do with how angry I was, and I was scared.
The afternoon was spent congenially chatting with Hattie, who was a very sweet woman in her middle fifties, and her son James and his wife, Mary. They didn’t have any children, so it was a quiet afternoon. It would have been quite nice, but the lack of children only made me miss being at Mae’s more. Also, Professor Lipplinger wasn’t there. I could tell Mr. Hackbirn was worried by his absence, as I was. But there was nothing to be done.
As is always the case when you hear a lot about a person before actually meeting him or her, you form a mental image of what that person is like. My image of Professor Lipplinger was a kindly old gentleman with white hair and glasses, a gentle darling so devoted to his students he would rather risk his life than allow them to fail.
When he finally did show up (just in time for cocktails), he did conform to that image physically. He was a little shorter than Mr. Hackbirn with white hair and wire-rimmed glasses. He even stooped a little.
When introduced to us, he nodded curtly and asked Mr. Hackbirn what he did for a living. Mr. Hackbirn said he was a freelance writer. The professor looked at me a long moment then addressed Mr. Hackbirn again.
“That’s a fine piece of meat you got there. What’s she good for?”
“I also write,” My hackles were rising.
“You don’t write.” He turned and walked off, bellowing, “Hattie! Where are those drinks?”
“Coming, Miles.” Hattie walked over to us. “I’m afraid I must apologize for my brother. Unfortunately, there is no excuse for his behavior.” She sighed. “Oh well, what’ll you have, Ed?”
I was a little surprised when Mr. Hackbirn opted for bourbon and water. I made a point of asking for wine.
At dinner, things only got worse. To begin with, nobody said grace. Then everyone was stiffly polite, except Lipplinger. He complained about everything and made lewd comments. Hattie and her son and daughter-in-law had obviously long since given up being embarrassed for him. To be honest, it didn’t take me long either. I was too upset as it was and he just made things worse.
About an hour after dinner, Mr. Hackbirn got a chance to talk to Lipplinger alone long enough to let him know we had to talk to him privately.
“Hattie,” he yelled. “I’ve got to talk to these two privately. I’ll be in the library. Don’t bother us.”
“Whatever you like, Miles.” Hattie was long past being surprised at anything her brother did.
Once in the library, Mr. Hackbirn sharply told me to watch the door.
“So you want my formula,” said Lipplinger.
“Wrong,” replied Mr. Hackbirn. “I want you to see your next birthday. Somebody knows you’ve got something and they want it and they won’t make any bones about taking you to get it.”
“So what are you going to do about it?”
“We’re here to take you into hiding.”
“Initially, in Los Angeles.”
Lipplinger looked at both of us for a long time, but mostly at Mr. Hackbirn.
“You’re not Ed Donaldson,” he growled finally. “So, just who are you?”
Mr. Hackbirn looked at me, then back at the professor.
“Alright. I need you to trust me, but I’ve got to trust you.”
Lipplinger snorted. “Have I given out my formula?”
Mr. Hackbirn took a deep breath. “My name is Sid Hackbirn and I am a freelance writer. I also do government work on the side. This is my secretary and associate, Lisa Wycherly.”
“Convenient way to keep meat on the hoof,” the old man chuckled.
“I don’t do that,” I snapped.
“Unfortunately,” replied Mr. Hackbirn.
I just glared at him.
“Well, what if I don’t want to go?” asked Lipplinger.
“Professor, we are here to move you quickly and efficiently to safety.” Mr. Hackbirn remained calm. “We will be most efficient with your cooperation. But we do not need it. I want to make it perfectly clear that we are prepared to use force. Is that understood?”
“Well, I guess those two are failing badly enough not to need my help anymore. Give me tomorrow to get my affairs in order. I’ll be here Saturday.”
“Alright, and Professor, not a word to anyone.”
“Of course not. Good evening.”
He left. Mr. Hackbirn took a deep breath and let it out again.
“Let’s go,” he said finally.
We went and said goodbye to Hattie.
“It was an excellent dinner and we appreciate your having us,” Mr. Hackbirn said.
“Well, thank you for coming. It was wonderful having you, Ed. And, Janet, I have to tell you, it was so nice to see someone sit and really eat. I see so many people just pick, it’s a real treat to see you enjoy your food and not be afraid to ask for seconds.”
“Thank you, Hattie,” I replied with real warmth. “I can’t tell you how nice it was of you to say that.”
Mr. Hackbirn just smiled, but I knew I had one on him.
“To be completely honest,” Hattie continued, blushing a little, “I was beginning to wonder if you were pregnant.”
“She’s not pregnant,” Lipplinger said, coming up. “She’s frustrated.”
“Well, goodbye,” said Hattie, ignoring him. “It was wonderful having you.”
The ride back was silent, also, and again Mr. Hackbirn broke it when we were back in our suite.
“We’ve got contacts to make tomorrow,” he said on his way to his room. “Be ready to go early.”
I stopped my tears long enough to call Mae and family. Hearing their voices only made me feel worse. They say it’s the next best thing, but that night it was a lousy second best. I cried myself to sleep.
The next morning, as I got dressed, my depression deepened into a black fog so thick it seemed suffocating. I wasn’t about to let Mr. Hackbirn see it, though. I feigned cheerfulness until we traded angry words that morning over my coat. The slash in the sleeve and the holes in the front I’d more or less repaired and, as the coat was dark colored, didn’t show much. Mr. Hackbirn wanted to know why I didn’t just buy a new one and I wanted to know when I was supposed to have been able to do that. Needless to say, neither question had been answered.
An hour later found us in a low rent district, in another alley, this one spilling out onto a dead end street lined with parked cars. Mr. Hackbirn’s tan overcoat was hanging open so that he could get to the gun in his shoulder holster easily. I, also, had a shoulder holster on. Even so, I had buttoned my coat and tied it.
The tension in the air was incredible. The silent routine continued. Mr. Hackbirn remained cool even though he paced restlessly. Something had gone wrong. Our contact was fifteen minutes late.
I looked out at the street, then at my shoes. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed something light colored laying among some trash barrels a few yards away. I went over to look. It was a hand. The arm it was connected to disappeared behind the barrels. I pulled one away and two bulging sightless eyes stared up at me. I screamed.
“What’s the matter?” Mr. Hackbirn walked over.
I just pointed.
“Terrific,” he grumbled and started to move the other barrels away.
“I can’t look.” I turned away and leaned on a wall, facing it.
“It’s just a corpse,” Mr. Hackbirn said callously. “Hasn’t been one too long. It’s probably our contact. We’d better get out of here.”
The only way out of the alley was onto the street. Just as we got onto the sidewalk the shots rang out. I screamed.
“Get down, you idiot!” Mr. Hackbirn grabbed my belt and pulled me down next to where he was hiding behind a parked car.
I just sat there trembling.
“I thought you said you were used to guns,” Mr. Hackbirn growled.
“But none of them were shooting at me.”
There was another shot and the glass in the car we were hiding behind shattered, and with it what little calm I had.
“We’re gonna die,” I moaned.
“If you keep that up we will.” He had his gun drawn. “You stay put. I’m gonna see if I can find out where it’s coming from.”
He moved away. I could hear more gunshots and glass shattering.
“Well, well, here we are again.”
I looked up and saw Gannett. This time, instead of a knife, he had a gun trained on me.
“Oh my god,” I whimpered, then watched in horror as he jerked and fell backward with a hole in his chest.
Seconds later, Mr. Hackbirn was by my side.
“It’s a sniper, alright,” he muttered.
“You killed him.”
He looked at the corpse next to us and sighed.
“Yeah,” he said, shortly.
“Look, did you want him to kill you?” His eyes flashed. He wasn’t very happy about it either. “The sniper’s on the roof across from us. He’s got a lot of mobility. We’ve got to stay low and behind the cars. We can’t go that way, that’s the dead end. We can’t go in the alley, ’cause that’s a dead end. We’ve got to make it to the corner and across the street if we’re going to have a chance. He’s got a high powered rifle up there.”
I just nodded.
“Alright, you ready?”
I nodded again but didn’t follow him. Blocking my way was the corpse.
“Come on!” Mr. Hackbirn yelled from two cars down. I couldn’t move. I pointed at the body. “He’s dead. He can’t hurt you.”
I still couldn’t move. Mr. Hackbirn cursed angrily and shoved the body out of the way.
“Come on, now.” Just to make sure, he grabbed my hand and pulled me.
As we got to the corner, I could hear the police sirens. Several police cars pulled up at roughly the same time. They were followed closely by a SWAT truck.
There was a police car not far from us, maybe a hundred feet.
“See that car?” Mr. Hackbirn asked. “Get behind it and you’re safe. I’ll cover you. You stay low and run like hell. You got that?”
He practically kicked me. I ran. I didn’t stop until I ran smack into Officer Marshall, of all people.
“Mrs. Donaldson!” he exclaimed.
“It’s not been my week,” I replied, sobbing.
Then Mr. Hackbirn slid up next to us.
“It’s alright now, honey,” he said, his hand on my back and then addressed Marshall. “Where’s your captain?”
“Get him. I need to talk to him.”
Marshall left. Mr. Hackbirn reluctantly put his arms around me and let me cry on his shoulder.
Officer Marshall and the captain reappeared in record time.
“Captain Pete Laing,” he said tersely. “What do you want?”
“Ed Donaldson, F.B.I.” Mr. Hackbirn replied, pulling something from his suit coat. “I’m here on vacation, but it looks like the job followed me.”
I stopped crying and looked up. The captain was inspecting a small billfold which I assumed had the F.B.I. I.D.
“What happened?” the captain asked, handing back the billfold.
“A friend of ours asked us to meet him here. We found him dead in the alley, and that other guy on the sidewalk waiting for us.”
Captain Laing shifted to look at the body, then back to Mr. Hackbirn, who shook his head.
“He’s gone, and yes, I did. Self-defense.”
The captain nodded. “You said it’s connected to something you’re working on?”
“Back in L.A. It’s top secret, so I can’t talk about it. What I need from you is a lift out of here in an unmarked car.”
“That’s rather irregular.”
“Code 23. You can call Henry James, L.A. office. In the meantime, can you get me and my wife out of here?”
Laing nodded and in a short time we were bundled off in a dark green car. Mr. Hackbirn remained silent through the whole trip but kept checking behind us for a tail.
“Here we go again,” I grumbled as he shoved me into the suite.
“You really did it this time, Wycherly,” he growled. “You don’t know how lucky you are you’re alive!”
He headed for his room.
“Where are you going?” I demanded, thoroughly fed up.
“To change clothes.” The door shut behind him.
I took off my coat and laid it on a chair near the window. I kicked off my shoes. I’d had it. I was going to wait for him and we were going to thrash this out once and for all.
He came out dressed in brown tweed pleated pants, light shirt, and sweater and headed for the door.
“Where do you think you’re going?” I asked firmly.
“To the bar.”
“No, you’re not.”
He stopped, turned slowly and looked at me.
“And why not?” he asked quietly.
“Because I’ve had it.” My voice was shaking but still in control. “Because these past few days have been the pits.”
“Oh, they have?”
“Yes, they have. My patience, my calm, my entire emotional stability was already strained to the limit this morning. What with your potshots and your insinuations and your bad mood and Lipplinger with his ‘meat on the hoof’ and ‘she’s frustrated.’ And then on top of all that, we’ve got today.”
“I’ll admit, today was no picnic.” Mr. Hackbirn walked over to the wet bar and pulled out a bottle of bourbon and a glass. His hands shook a little as he reached into the ice bucket. “But who’s fault was that, may I ask?”
“Oh, I suppose it was mine. But have a little sympathy. I’ve never even been to a funeral. Now I’ve got my first corpse presented to me in a trash barrel, then I get shot at and to top it all off, you blithely make another corpse for me, fresh!”
“I don’t like killing people!”
“I can tell. You just agonize over it for an hour, then go plug a couple more.”
I winced as Mr. Hackbirn threw his glass at the bar. He turned on me.
“That was low, Wycherly, damned low!”
“Good. Because I don’t like the way things have been lately. I don’t like your evasionary tactics. I don’t like your snide comments. I don’t like being called an ice cube, and I’m beginning not to like you. I’m very angry right now, Sid Hackbirn, and what is making me angrier than anything else is that all the tension, all the potshots, all the bad mood is because you can’t admit you’ve got a lousy case of the clap!”
“If you know so much about it, then why can’t you just leave me alone?”
“Why can’t you just admit you’re not feeling well?”
“I feel fine.”
“There you go, denying it again.”
“I’m not denying anything. I feel perfectly alright. I do not feel sick because you don’t feel sick with gonorrhea.”
“Then what has all this bad mood been about?”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake, think about it, Lisa. It’s been three weeks. I’m extremely horny. I tried to tell you there was nothing to settle. I’m going to be this way until I can get myself between a nice pair…”
“You can spare me all the graphic details. I know how it works.”
“You do? That’s a surprise.”
“See, you’re doing it again.”
“Then leave me alone.”
“It’s too late. It was too late the day you picked me up. You’re stuck with me now.”
“You’d better remember that.” He headed for the door.
“That’s right, Hackbirn, run away. Just like you always do. Any time you’ve got a problem with a relationship, you just ditch it. Well, you can’t ditch this one. Go ahead and run. But I’ll still be here and I’ll be here every time you try to run away.”
“Okay, we’re stuck.” He put his hand on the doorknob. “But I can make life pretty miserable for you if I want to.”
“That’s a two-way street.” I shot back coldly. He stopped. I took a deep breath and continued. “I don’t think we have to go that way. But that depends on whether or not you’re willing to take some risks, if and only if you’re willing to admit we’ve got a real problem here, and if and only if you’re willing to face it and fight it out. It’s a big risk, I’ll grant you. You’re going to have to do some digging. You might have to face yourself, and worse still, let me see it. It’s a pretty big gamble. But we’re already miserable, and personally, I’m willing to chance that it won’t get worse because I happen to like the odds on it getting a lot better.”
“What are you talking about?” he asked quietly. But at least he came away from the door.
“Human relationships. One thing your education was real short on. I may not know much about the spy business, but I’ve got relationships down real well.”
“Then what do you propose is wrong with our relationship?”
I sank down into the couch. “I don’t know.”
“Aw, geez. After all that you can’t tell me what’s wrong?”
“Even if I could, it wouldn’t do you a bit of good until you found it yourself.”
He paced the room, frustrated.
“You know what I think is wrong with you?” he said, finally. “It’s your snotty attitude towards my lifestyle.” That hurt, but I had to admit there was some truth in it. “I’ve run into it before. All you damned church types running around saying no and all the time you’re jealous of those of us who say yes.”
“I think you just hit the nail on the head.”
“Look, we’ve both got a list of petty grievances, etc. But I don’t think that’s the real issue here.”
“Then what is?”
“Neither one of us has a tremendous amount of respect for the other’s values.”
“I respect your values. Why do you think you’re still a virgin?”
“Because if you laid one hand on me, it’d be bye-bye Lisa, Quickline or not and you know it.”
He thought about that a minute. “I’ve always thought I did.”
“So did I. I thought I was being wonderfully accepting of you. But think about it. Haven’t most of the potshots we’ve been taking at each other the past week been direct attacks on the other’s values?”
“Yeah, I s’pose.” There was a pause. “I guess I just don’t understand. I’m not hurting anybody. I can’t even get a girl pregnant. So, why not?”
“Are you sure you’re not hurting anybody? What about your little social disease?”
“Well, I guess. But still…” He shrugged his shoulders.
“I can only speak for myself. But…” I paused. I couldn’t believe how hard it was to say it. “I say no because God said no. That probably sounds silly to you. I admit I took it on blind faith. But the more I look at the world around me, the more I think God is right. I look at Mae and Neil and what a good thing they’ve got, and then I look at you and it seems so empty.”
“I am content.”
“Maybe you’re lucky. But I know so many people who aren’t.”
There was a pause. “Lisa, I want you to know that I find you extremely attractive. But, at the same time, I do not want to violate you.”
“Why are you saying that?”
“Because of something that’s been bothering me about you for a long time.”
“Well, is it my cheapness, the singing, or the appetite?”
“No.” He shook his head. “Those are petty things. Yeah, they bother me, but that’s part of being alive and in close quarters. It’s that I get the feeling you’re scared of me. I come close to you, you draw away. I touch you, you stiffen up like a board. I’m not trying anything.”
I looked at him. He was being honest.
“I guess maybe you’re not.” I looked down at my hands, because all along I had known that he wasn’t. “You say you’re attracted to me. Well, it may surprise you, but the feeling is very, very mutual. You come close to me, and I’m aroused like I have never been aroused in my life. You touch me and I have to stiffen up, or I’ll give in and we both know the guilt would kill me. And the worst of it is, it’s purely physical. I’ve never met anyone who could do that to me. You think I’m scared of you? You bet I am, but I’m just as scared of myself.”
“There may come a time, Lisa, when we do find ourselves in each other’s arms. I wouldn’t be adverse to it.”
“Neither would I. But don’t count on it. For that time to come, one of us is going to have to do a complete one hundred and eighty-degree turn. I don’t think I can and I’m not sure you could either.”
“No. Not now, at any rate. In the meantime, can we both be a little more tolerant?”
“Sure. Friends?” He offered me his hand.
“Friends,” I said, taking it.
“Whew,” he said, pacing the room. “I don’t think I’ve ever been that angry in my life.”
“I’ve come close,” I said, then stopped.
He was looking at the glass he had broken. I guess he was remembering why he’d thrown it.
“I’m sorry about saying that,” I said, softly. “I didn’t realize how deep I was hitting.”
“You couldn’t have. I’d better clean this up.”
I could see his hands shaking, so I got up and put my hand over his.
“Let me do it,” I said.
“No. Like you say, I’ve got to face it.”
“What I did today. Every time it happens, it brings to mind things I want to forget.”
He nodded. “In war, you do what you have to do. But you wouldn’t believe the rationalization. We told ourselves that they weren’t like us, they were less than human. One day, I stuck a knife into a man and watched his blood and his life slip away. It was him or me. Just like today. Only it was you also.”
“I think I would rather it were me.”
“So do I, sometimes. But you have to remember, Lisa, the next time it’ll be Lipplinger. And someone else, the time after that, and on it goes, until the next time it’s Neil and Mae and the kids.”
“It still won’t be easy for me to pull the trigger.”
“Let’s hope it’s never easy for either of us.”
I looked at him and then went for the wastebasket. Silently we picked up the broken glass, then he went and got a washcloth and wiped up the spilled bourbon.
“Anybody’d think we had one hell of a fight in here,” he joked.
“Yeah, I guess so. I hope we never fight again.”
“There’s nothing wrong with fighting. It’s the not resolving it and clearing the air that’s the problem. Heck, we could have had this all over before we left.”
He smiled sheepishly at me. “You tried to tell me, didn’t you?”
“Mmhm.” I put the wastebasket where it belonged and flopped down on the couch. He followed me and sat on the arm.
“You know, Lisa, I’ve told you things that I’ve never told anybody.”
“Even yourself, maybe?”
“Maybe. But you’ve gotten closer to me in three months than Henry James has in all the years he’s known me, and he’s closer than anybody. Heaven knows, he’s tried hard enough.”
“It’s funny what comes out of a resolved fight.”
“You know, Lisa…” Then he stopped as a thought struck him.
The same thought occurred to me. He’d been using my first name. It also dawned on me that I had never used his first name. He said so.
“Why don’t you?” he asked.
“Same reason I got bugged about you touching me. I had to keep the distance, I guess.”
“Do you still have to?” His eyes danced softly.
“I guess I don’t.”
He bent to kiss me and I almost did. There was nothing I wanted more than to feel his lips against mine. But I was only too aware of what would follow if he did. So at the last moment, I placed my fingers on his lips and shook my head.
“Please don’t misunderstand me,” I said. “I— I know you’re only trying to say thank you, I like you, all those nice things. But, please, not that way. You’re too strong for me.”
He pulled back and patted my shoulder.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Don’t worry,” he chuckled. “You’re doing wonderful things for my ego.”
I gasped, then groaned, then clobbered him with a pillow. He laughed.
“I’ll ego you,” I yelped, laughing also, and hitting him repeatedly with my pillow. “If there’s anything that doesn’t need help, it’s your ego.”
“Hey! Hey!” He grabbed another pillow and launched a counter attack.
Poor Sid. He was new to pillow fights and I showed no mercy.
I still sing and he still chews ice. We both still bicker over the way the other eats or doesn’t eat. But he’s trying to stop the innuendoes and I’m trying to be a little easier about spending money. Like I said, we have a very good relationship. [A very, very good relationship – SEH]
Mr. Hackbirn left early the next day. I drove him to the airport, then out to Mae’s, where I took the kids trick or treating that night. I drove home the next morning and went to All Saint’s Day mass at my new parish. Mr. Hackbirn didn’t leave me anything to do while he was gone, so I was a little at loose ends. I caught up on my work from the week before. Tuesday, I cleaned up the files. I got a little concerned when I hadn’t heard from him by Wednesday. But there really wasn’t anything I could do about it.
Conchetta had maintained the usual routine, explaining that she’d been cooking for just Mr. Hackbirn for a long time anyway. She wasn’t cooking the same things. She’d discovered on Monday my passion for food, in particular, Mexican food, and had been filling me up with all sorts of delectable goodies.
“It’s nice to cook for someone who likes to eat,” she said, handing me a plate filled with the most heavenly chili relleno I’d ever eaten in my life.
“It’s nice to be eating good food,” I said, leaning on the counter. We were in the kitchen where I’d been eating while the boss was gone. “And to be getting enough food for once.” [There is no such thing – SEH]
Small portions were the rule at the house and no seconds, which left a lot of chinks to fill, considering my appetite. I had tried nibbling between meals, but Mr. Hackbirn caught me and gave me an extended lecture on the importance of keeping fit in our business and how exactly the various substances I’d been nibbling on were poisoning my body. So I hid all sweet snacks away and only nibbled when the boss’s back was turned. I also compromised and bought an air popcorn popper, which Mr. Hackbirn still frowned upon, but conceded that if I had to snack, air popped popcorn with only a little salt was not going to do me in as fast as other things would.
I still hadn’t heard anything by Thursday. I decided that if I hadn’t heard anything by Friday noon, I would call Henry James. Thus resolved, I spent the day making a blouse for myself and wondering what I was going to do about Christmas presents.
I usually make at least one Christmas present for everyone in my family. It’s just the way I do things, that and it’s cheaper. But that year I had plenty of money. I still decided to make things but was kind of stuck when I thought about Mr. Hackbirn. He wasn’t the type to go for arts and crafts stuff. He had everything he could want. What to do?
I puzzled over the problem until noon when it dawned on me that he was very fond of pullover sweaters. I’ve been knitting since I was a kid and I make very nice sweaters. I tried to think if there was a type of sweater he didn’t have and he didn’t have one of those Aran Isles fisherman’s sweaters. I’d made one for Neil years ago, so I knew what I was up against. I bit my lip. That certainly seemed like the solution. I just hoped he would like it.
With that problem solved, I went to lunch and then back to my sewing.
It was a little after three when I thought I heard the front door open and close. I looked up at the small white box above my door. It had a little red light flashing that told me someone had come in. Nervously, I pulled my gun from my bedside table, checked the cylinder, and went to investigate.
Quietly, I slipped through the house to the front hall. Sitting next to the bench was Mr. Hackbirn’s suitcase. So he was home. I wondered why he hadn’t called to have me pick him up. Then I wondered if there was something wrong.
There was, but not anything immediately endangering my health and wellbeing. Well, maybe my health. As I approached the office I heard a coarse hacking cough from within. Still leery, I stayed clear of the doorway.
“Mr. Hackbirn?” I called.
“Yeah,” came the reply. It sounded a little hoarse.
I slid in. The door to his office was open and I saw him looking at a sheet of paper. He raised his fist to his lips and I heard that awful cough again. I set my gun on my desk and went into his office.
“Are you alright?” I asked.
“I’m fine,” he grumbled. “Just picked up a cold.”
He sniffed, then coughed again. He dropped the paper onto his desk and sank into his chair. He looked very tired, his eyes and nose were red and his cheeks were a little flushed.
“Rough trip?” I asked.
“A complete waste of time,” he growled. “Lipplinger won’t budge until the end of the term. Says he’s got a couple of students that are failing and he wants to help them.”
“That’s sweet of him. But couldn’t you make him see the danger?”
“I didn’t even get to talk to him. I had to go through the guard team.” He put his face in his hands for a moment.
I noticed he was wearing a thin gold wedding band on his left hand.
“Did you stop over in Las Vegas?” I asked, completely puzzled.
“What?” He looked at me.
“Oh.” He pulled it off and dropped it onto the desk and coughed. “I was traveling under an assumed name and when Lipplinger wouldn’t move I decided to make it feasible for you to come with me next time. I hope you don’t mind traveling as my wife.”
“As long as I don’t have to act like one.”
“Fat chance.” He sounded miserable.
My heart softened.
“You look terrible,” I said gently.
“Why don’t you go to bed?”
“I’m fine,” he grumbled. “Where’s my mail?”
I walked over and put my hand on his forehead.
“You’ve got a fever.” My fingers probed behind his jaw. “I wonder if your glands are swollen.”
“Leave me alone,” he snapped angrily, catching my wrist and pulling it away.
We stared at each other for a tense moment. Then he gently let go of my wrist and looked away.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m not feeling very well.”
“Why don’t you go get undressed and into bed and I’ll bring your suitcase and your mail.”
Another cough racked his body.
“Alright,” he said meekly.
I watched him go, then gathered up the mail and my gun from my desk. I got the suitcase next. But instead of going to Mr. Hackbirn’s room, I stopped first at my own, dropped off the gun and gathered a couple of things from the medicine chest. Then I went to the kitchen to tell Conchetta that the boss was home, but we could still have enchiladas because he was sick.
“It’s just the flu, I think,” I told her. “If you’re up to it, he could handle some soup.”
“Sopo de pollo con arroz,” she said smiling. “I’ll make it.”
I knocked first.
“Are you in bed?” I called.
There was another cough, and then a weak “yes.”
His room was done in dark colors. The furniture was conservative and tasteful. On one wall was a sliding glass door to the side yard covered with dark drapes pulled back and lighter colored ones underneath. On the other side of the glass doors was a small patio with a large hot tub. The wall facing the doors had a long closet with sliding mirrored doors and another door to the bathroom. The long low dresser was next to the door I had come in. On the wall opposite was a king size bed. It had a valance over it with dark drapes tied back to the wall. I noticed it was a water bed.
I didn’t know what I’d been expecting, but I was glad to find there wasn’t anything to embarrass me. I put the suitcase down and the mail and other things on top of the dresser. I looked around again. The clothes that Mr. Hackbirn had been wearing had already been put away. Mr. Hackbirn was lying in bed, propped up by pillows. His blankets were pulled to halfway up his chest.
“What’s that thing around your neck?” he asked.
I looked down.
“It’s my tape measure,” I said, picking up the thermometer I had brought and shaking it down. “I was working on a blouse when you came in.”
“Miss Wycherly, I thought I as paying you well enough for you to avoid such economies.”
“You are,” I said, checking the mercury and shaking some more. “I can’t help it if I’m basically cheap. Besides, I like to sew. It’s great therapy.” I walked over and put the thermometer in his mouth. “And heaven knows, I need it around here.”
I put my hand under his chin. “Shut up. If you want me to unpack, just nod.”
He nodded sullenly.
A little looking around found two hampers in the bathroom. A quick peek inside told me one was for the dry cleaners, the other, for the laundry.
Mr. Hackbirn watched me as I picked the suitcase up and balanced it on one corner of the bed. I think he was waiting for me to turn purple when I saw his underwear. I got him, though. As easily as I get embarrassed, men’s underwear doesn’t bother me. While growing up on my parent’s resort I did a little bit of everything, including the guests’ laundry. I had handled all kinds of underwear, and plenty of it.
“Is everything dirty?” I asked, looking at the neatly packed clothes.
Mr. Hackbirn grunted.
“Oh, shoot.” I remembered the thermometer and ran over and pulled it out.
“Yes, it’s all dirty,” Mr. Hackbirn said.
“Ninety-nine point eight,” I replied. “That confirms it. You’ve got the flu.”
“I didn’t know you were a doctor.”
“I’m not. But after all those years of babysitting Mae’s kids, I’m an expert on the flu.”
I quickly emptied the suitcase, taking the clothes to the bathroom and dumping them in their respective hampers. I came back into the room puzzled. Something was missing. Mr. Hackbirn coughed again as I checked the suitcase.
“Something wrong?” he asked.
“I think you may have left your pajamas. I can’t seem to find any.”
“I don’t have any pajamas.”
I could feel my face turn scarlet as I turned my back to him.
“You don’t mean to tell me…”
“That I don’t have anything on underneath these covers? No, I don’t.”
He was enjoying it. I could tell. He loved embarrassing me.
“Come on. You’d have never known if you hadn’t asked me.”
“Then why do I get the feeling that you’ve just been laying there waiting for me to ask?”
He just laughed, then coughed really hard. Embarrassed or not, I was reminded he wasn’t feeling very well. I decided I was not going to let him get the better of me. Taking a deep breath, I turned around.
“We’d better take care of that cough,” I said, briskly.
“What do you have in mind?”
I unscrewed the top off a bottle I’d gotten from my medicine cabinet and picked up a spoon.
“This,” I replied, smiling and going over to him. “It’s the best thing for coughs.”
“What is in it?” He eyed the unlabeled bottle suspiciously.
“My grandmother makes it,” I poured a spoonful.
“Oh, no you don’t.”
“Oh, yes I do. Relax, Mae gives this to her kids and she’s just as finicky as you are.”
“What’s in it?” He didn’t quite trust it but he opened his mouth.
“Honey, lemon juice and corn liquor.” I spooned it in fast and poured another.
“A.K.A. white lightning, moonshine. My grandpa made his living on his own blend. When he died, I’m told you could hear G-men cheer in three counties. Of course, they neglected to make sure that his still was out of operation. But Grandma just makes the stuff for medicinal purposes.”
“Mmhm. Open up.” I put the second spoonful in. “You can take two more in four hours. To continue, rest assured. Grandma’s a temperance lady except when she runs short of cash. Then she’s got a couple of good customers willing to oblige.”
“Sounds like an interesting lady.”
“She is. But you two wouldn’t get along. She takes a very dim view of you-know-what. Some folks say that’s why Grandpa died young.”
“I doubt it. Grandpa got around quite a bit. There’s a whole bunch of families that, as Grandma would say, have babies with Caulfield features what have no right to have ’em.”
Mr. Hackbirn laughed. “So what did kill your grandfather?”
It was my turn to laugh. “A bad batch of corn liquor.”
He looked at the bottle. “That’s so reassuring.”
“Don’t worry. Mama told me it was because he was drunk when he mixed the mash. Grandma doesn’t drink, so you’re okay.”
He coughed, but already it was noticeably gentler. He sighed and laid his head back against the headboard.
“So what about my mail?” he asked.
I put the bottle back on the dresser and picked up the letters.
“Answers to two queries,” I said, picking out the envelopes.
“Good. Which ones?”
“From ‘Fortune’ on the banks and ‘GQ’ on how to buy a personal computer.”
“Terrific. Put the outlines on my desk.”
“They’re already there. But I’ll bring them in here first thing tomorrow. You are staying in bed.”
“I suppose. What else?”
“A check from ‘Cosmo’ that you need to endorse. The gas and phone bills, already paid. You just need to sign the checks. Several ads, one wishing to sell you the secret to a healthy, happy sex life…”
Mr. Hackbirn chuckled.
“Which I pitched,” I continued. “Three fan letters, which I’m putting on your nightstand for you to read at your leisure.” Fan letters were what I called the notes from Mr. Hackbirn’s various girlfriends. “And this.”
I dropped the legal size envelope on Mr. Hackbirn’s chest. It had come that morning, addressed to Mr. Hackbirn in care of me. I had immediately recognized both Darby and Mae’s handwriting, Darby having written the return address and Mr. Hackbirn’s name and Mae having written the rest. On the back, Darby had written, “Please don’t open this, Aunt Lisa”. Mr. Hackbirn coughed and looked at it, bewildered.
“What is it?” he asked.
I shrugged. “I have no idea. I was asked not to open it.”
He shook his head and opened the letter. Dying of curiosity, but equally determined not to pry, I took the rest of the mail back to the dresser.
“What on earth?” he muttered as I was screwing the top to the cough syrup back on. “Would you mind explaining this to me?”
“What’s the matter?” I walked over to him. “Can’t read Darby’s handwriting?”
“Oh, I can read it. It’s just… Here.”
I took the letter. The writing was Darby’s.
“Dear Uncle Sid,” it said. “We O’Malley’s got together Sunday night and had a family meeting. We talked about you and decided that you should be made an official family friend. This means that you are automatically invited to all family celebrations and holidays, and can come at anytime to visit and we hope you will. This means too that if you need us, we are here. We love you.”
It was signed by the whole family, even Mitch and Marty.
“Wow,” I exclaimed softly.
“They sent this, too.”
He handed me another piece of paper. This one was parchment, of sorts. It had a purple scrollwork border and it proclaimed that Mr. Sid Hackbirn (carefully printed in) was an official Friend of the O’Malley family, entitled to all privileges, etc. and signed again by the whole family.
“So that was what they were squabbling about,” I said.
“Darby and Janey. Don’t you remember? Last Saturday. They were fighting over something in the stationery store. This must have been it.”
“Hm. But what does it mean?”
“Just what it says, I expect. It looks like you’ve been adopted, boss.”
“Hm.” He sounded bemused.
I left him still looking over the letter and the certificate.
He wasn’t back to normal until Monday. Even then he was still a little drained and sniffling. I hadn’t said anything about Lipplinger the whole time he was sick, although I had a strong feeling there was more to be said on the subject. I waited until an hour after lunch when I brought in the printed drafts of the two articles he had written over the weekend.
“Looks good,” he said, flipping through them.
“Thanks,” I replied. There was a pause. “Um. May I ask you a question?”
“What’s going to happen with Lipplinger? I remember you said something about next time.”
“Yeah. We’re going to have to take him physically.”
“Not exactly. We just have to get to him and if necessary use force.”
“Don’t worry,” Mr. Hackbirn said. “I’m sure it won’t come to that.”
“I hope not. I don’t know if I could hit a nice old man over the head and drag him off.”
Mr. Hackbirn smiled. “We don’t do that anyway. The worst we’d do is stick a gun in his ribs. But I think I can talk him into seeing reason.”
“How are you going to talk to him when you couldn’t get through last time?”
“That’s what took so long. We’ll have to go through his sister, who is Ms. Hattie Mitchell.”
“Is that someone I’m supposed to know?” I asked with a nervous smile.
Mr. Hackbirn shrugged. “She’s made a name for herself among the Fortune 500 gang. Her husband was Damon Mitchell, founder and owner of Mitchell Electronics, Inc.”
“Less than twenty years ago it was just a one-man office. Thanks to government contracts, Mitchell built it into a defense electronics empire in seven years, then died, left it all to his wife, and she turned around and built a major conglomerate.”
“And the wife is Hattie Mitchell.”
“How’s she going to help?”
“Well, under my assumed name, on the pretext of interviewing her for an article, I spent a lovely afternoon chatting with Ms. Mitchell and managed to get an invitation for Mr. Ed Donaldson and his lovely wife to join Hattie and her brother for Thanksgiving dinner.”
“You being Ed Donaldson, with me as his lovely wife.”
“You got it.”
“You don’t.” I was very irritated by the way he had casually overlooked my feelings in the matter. “Did it ever occur to you that your lovely wife has a family and she wants to spend Thanksgiving with them?”
“For a brief moment. However, remember the objective is getting to Lipplinger. Thanksgiving is the next time he’ll be seeing Hattie and therefore is the only chance we’ll have to talk to him.”
“But I can’t miss Thanksgiving with my family!” I groaned.
“I’m afraid you’ll have to.”
I was shocked. “That’s asking too much.”
“Miss Wycherly,” Mr. Hackbirn sounded very tired. “We’ve already established that I cannot fire you and you cannot quit. So will you please accept the fact that you will not be spending Thanksgiving with your family and bear in mind that it is in the interest of helping to ensure that there will be other Thanksgivings to spend with them that you are doing so.”
I swallowed. He was right. But I still felt like crying. I blinked back the tears.
“I suppose.” I got up to go, very downcast.
“It can’t be all that bad,” said Mr. Hackbirn.
I looked at him. “Yes, it is.”
“You have dinner with them almost every Sunday. What’s so special about one Thursday?”
I stared at him, unbelieving. “Is that all it is to you? Just a Thursday?”
“In effect, yes.”
“But it’s Thanksgiving.”
“A part of Capitalistic propaganda to convince the people they are not oppressed and dedicated to a god that doesn’t exist.”
“Do you really believe that?”
“No. I gave up Communism, remember? But that was my aunt’s philosophy, and therefore how I was raised.”
“You never celebrated Thanksgiving?”
“Or Christmas, Easter, Mother’s Day, Fourth of July, Labor Day, Halloween. In fact, the only day I’ve ever celebrated was New Year’s Eve.”
“Not really. Never having done it, I never missed it.”
“But when your friends did…”
Mr. Hackbirn was silent for a long moment.
“I don’t want you to feel sorry for me because there is nothing to feel sorry for.” He stopped and looked at me. “But I’ve never really had friends that were that close to me. I am what is commonly called a loner by my own choice and I prefer to stay that way. I have always been that way. I’m used to seeing people do things I’ve never done. I grew up that way and it never bothered me.”
I sank back into my chair. The tears I could no longer hold back ran down my cheeks.
“I was afraid you’d do that.” Mr. Hackbirn sighed and pushed the box of tissues on his desk towards me.
“I’m sorry.” I sniffed and took one. “I can’t help it.”
“Miss Wycherly, my lonely lot in life really doesn’t bother me.”
“I know. Why do you think I’m crying?”
As the week passed I found out a couple other things about Mr. Hackbirn that made me thank God for the miracle that had caused Mae and the family to attach themselves to him. One was that he was an atheist. Well, I had more or less figured that he was. But he actually admitted it over dinner one night.
The other thing was about his aunt. We were shopping for, believe it or not, wedding rings for Mrs. Donaldson. Mr. Hackbirn says it’s the details that can trip you up faster than anything when you’re undercover. I made some comment about getting my Christmas cards out. In the discussion that ensued it came out that Mr. Hackbirn had not spoken to his aunt in something like fifteen years. I stopped dead in my tracks.
“How could you,” I exclaimed.
“I’m not the one responsible,” replied Mr. Hackbirn calmly. “It was her idea to disown me, not I, her.”
“But something must have caused it. What happened?”
“I allowed myself to be drafted by the U.S. Army instead of going off to Canada. Aside from the fact that I did not share my aunt’s beliefs, Canada was too cold for me and I didn’t particularly want to be a fugitive.”
“And it wasn’t right to ditch.”
Mr. Hackbirn laughed. “I hate to disillusion you, innocent one, but that had very little to do with it. I didn’t really care about much in those days.”
“It must have been terrible.”
Mr. Hackbirn shook his head. “Afraid not. It wasn’t fun, but I’d gotten used to the idea that it was inevitable. Frankly, I think she used the whole issue as an excuse to get rid of me.”
“Why would she do that?”
“A lot of reasons.” Mr. Hackbirn spoke softly, yet in a matter of fact tone as if the words he was uttering didn’t really affect him. “In the first place, she had never wanted me. I was the result of my mother’s foolishness and even if Sheila hadn’t gotten herself killed, Stella still would have had to raise me. The only reason I wasn’t given up to the state was because then I would have been raised a capitalist and that was the only thing worse than her having to raise me herself.”
“And you turned out to be one, anyway. She must have felt like a horrible failure.”
“She was a raving success. She taught me rebellion and I did, unfortunately against her. It couldn’t have been that big of a shock. I never had her conviction. I suspect now my indifference was just another form of rebellion. But then I just didn’t care. I didn’t care about her. She didn’t care about me. So when she laid down her ultimatum, I said fine, goodbye, walked out and haven’t seen her since.”
“Oh, Mr. Hackbirn.”
“Now don’t start crying again.” He shifted uncomfortably. “You and I both know I don’t like it, but it’s a fact of my life and there’s no point in blubbering about it.”
“I’ll try, sir.”
“Alright. Let’s get that stupid ring bought and get going.”
“And don’t ‘sir’ me. This isn’t the army.”
I couldn’t squelch a giggle at his irritation. Mr. Hackbirn couldn’t handle emotion. He glared at me, then laughed.
“At least that’s a little closer to the role you’re playing,” he said.
“I’m sorry I can’t hang all over you,” I replied. “It just isn’t right for me.”
“Fine. But do me a favor and don’t blush when the salesperson asks to help us.”
Mr. Hackbirn held open the door to a jewelry store for me. I entered and cast a quick glance over the glass cases. That’s when I saw it. It wasn’t a ring. It was a necklace, a fine gold chain with a pendant. The pendant wasn’t more that three-quarters of an inch tall or wide. It was two open rectangles, one was brushed gold, the other polished. In the middle of the polished rectangle was oval opal surrounded by tiny diamonds. I was entranced. It was so delicate and beautiful.
“That necklace,” I whispered.
“We’re looking for rings,” said Mr. Hackbirn. I hadn’t noticed that he had his arm around my waist, I was so fascinated.
“I know. But that necklace is so beautiful. I really like it.”
“So buy it.”
I shook my head. “I don’t like keeping fine jewelry. It makes me nervous. I’m always afraid I’ll lose it. I wonder how much it is.”
“May I help you?” asked the salesclerk, a woman around Mr. Hackbirn’s age.
“How much is that necklace, the one with the opal?” I asked before Mr. Hackbirn could say anything.
“We’re not here for that,” he said, amused.
“I know. Just let me find out how much it is and then we’ll go look at rings.”
“It’s two hundred dollars,” replied the clerk
“That’s a lot,” I said, shaking my head.
“No, it isn’t,” said Mr. Hackbirn, and considering the store we were in, it wasn’t. “If you like it, buy it.”
“No,” I sighed. “I- I don’t think so. We’re not here for that.”
I forced my attention to the rings. Mr. Hackbirn made the actual selection. Fortunately, it fit as it was, so we could take it with us. As we left the store, I took one long parting look at the opal necklace. I sighed and went out.
Mr. Hackbirn rolled his eyes skyward.
“I’ve never met anybody before so tight with the bucks,” he sighed, as we walked to his car.
“You try scrounging sometime.”
“But that’s the point. You do not have to scrounge. That necklace would have barely dented your bank balance.”
“Then why are you so tight?”
“It’s just my nature, I guess.”
Tight with the bucks or not, that necklace haunted my thoughts. After about a week, I decided that maybe Mr. Hackbirn was right. I went back to the store to look at it. It was gone. I asked the salesclerk, and she assured me it had been sold. Downcast, I left the store.
“Absolutely not!” I was trying to stay calm. But I was furious.
Dinner had been cleaned up and Neil and the kids were gone.
“It’s priority one, code one,” Mr. Hackbirn said with that incredibly aggravating calm manner of his. “There is nothing else that can be done about it.”
Anything that passes through the “business” is given a separate priority and code rating. The scales are on a one to five range. For priority, one is the most urgent, namely drop everything and get it moving now. Five means whenever there’s time to deal with it. Code implies how secret it is. Technically, no one in Quickline is supposed to know anyone else in the business. Also, anything we get is already given the highest level top secret rating possible, which is why we get to handle it. A code five means you can put the information into an associate’s hands and all but ask his name, making it easier to pick up a tail. So you can tell they’re not as worried about a code five as they are about a code one, which means no contact at all allowed short of a quick phone call. Priority one, code one means extremely urgent and extremely secret, and in my mind that night, dangerous.
But it wasn’t the danger to myself that was bothering me. Mr. Hackbirn wanted me to make the pickup while we were out with the kids the next day. Needless to say, I didn’t want them involved. I don’t think Mr. Hackbirn wanted them involved either, but there didn’t seem to be any other way.
What had happened was that the information had been hidden on a key chain full of keys. The keys were supposed to have been dropped at a time and place mutually agreeable to Mr. Hackbirn and whoever was carrying the keys. But the carrier had picked up a tail and had temporarily ditched the keys in a toy store at a mall in Brea. When he ditched the tail, he went back to the toy store only to find that someone else had already found the keys and turned them into the manager of the store, who in turn locked them in her desk. By the time the carrier had returned, the manager had gone home with the key to the desk.
Assured of the keys’ safety, the carrier decided the toy store was as good as any place for the pickup and called Mr. Hackbirn. The only problem was that the assistant manager had seen the carrier, in fact, talked with him about the keys, and would probably say something if a man other than the carrier picked up the keys. So after conferring with Mr. Hackbirn, the carrier had called up the toy store and arranged for his “wife” (me) to pick up the keys. Apparently, Mr. Hackbirn had assumed Neil would be home to take care of the kids. To do him justice, it wasn’t all that bad an assumption.
But Neil would be occupied with bringing Mae home, and Mr. Hackbirn had decided that having the kids along wouldn’t be so bad as long as he could distract them while I made the actual pickup. I did not want the kids involved.
“It’s too dangerous,” I insisted.
“Actually, it’s the safest kind of pickup to make.”
“I don’t care. It’ll just have to wait.”
“It can’t wait. It’s been waiting too long already.”
“Well, I’m not going to do it. I’m sorry, but I can’t. Not even to save my job.”
“I’m not going to fire you. I can’t anyway.”
“Then I’ll quit.”
“You can’t quit. Remember? Face it, you’re stuck.”
“Wonderful. We’ve reached an impasse.” I could feel my control starting to slip. I bit my lip. “You say I will and I say I won’t.”
“Will you listen to reason?” There was an edge to his voice that I later learned meant he was getting mad. “There is very little that could go wrong, provided you don’t lose your head.”
“That was a cheap shot,” I snapped.
I looked him right in the eye. He seemed startled at first. Then the bright piercing blue softened and he actually looked a little ashamed.
“You’re right. It was,” he said quietly. “I apologize.”
“Apology accepted.” The fury suddenly left me, leaving me very drained.
Mr. Hackbirn sank into the couch (we were in the living room). He put his fingers to his eyes as if he was going to rub them, but didn’t. When he removed his fingers, he blinked a few times and looked at me. I noticed his eyes were rather red.
“Look, I don’t want to endanger the children,” he said slowly. “And frankly, I don’t think it will. Consider, in the first place, the tail was successfully ditched and obviously didn’t know about the toy store. In the second place, if you’ll pardon the cliché, there’s safety in numbers. People in our business generally work alone and only rarely in tandem. We’ll be seven people total. And in the third place, their very presence will be a type of protection. I mean, who would be crazy enough to bring children on a thing like this?”
I sighed. Unfortunately, he made sense. I had sunk into a chair. I disconsolately gazed at the battered toe of my deck shoe.
“I don’t know,” I said, not quite ready to give in. I looked at Mr. Hackbirn. “I love those kids. I don’t know if you’d understand, but I’m better than Santa Claus to them. They mean the world to me.”
“I do understand. If you’d said that to me yesterday, maybe I wouldn’t have. But what else are we going to do?”
“I don’t know. I guess we’ll have to do it. Janey’s got her heart set on you coming anyway.”
“What an amazing girl.” Mr. Hackbirn smiled gently.
I chuckled. “You certainly seem to be rather fond of her.”
He shrugged. “I’m a sucker for big eyes.” He got up. I rose with him. “I’ll see you tomorrow at nine.”
“Okay. Why don’t you try dressing casually?”
While trying to get around the piano, the chair and a soccer ball someone had left, I stumbled into Mr. Hackbirn.
“Oops,” he said, catching me.
I looked into his eyes and blushed.
“I’m sorry,” I mumbled. Then I frowned.
“Something wrong?” Mr. Hackbirn asked, concerned.
“You’ve got something in your eye,” I said.
He looked away and blinked a couple of times.
“No, I don’t.”
“Yes, you do. I can see it. It’s an eyelash, kind of near the center.”
“You got a mirror?”
I was already heading for the kitchen.
“In the bathroom. Hang on, I’m getting a tissue.”
“You got it?” I came back into the hallway. He was looking at something between his forefinger and thumb.
“I didn’t think I had anything in there.” He walked past me into the bathroom, leaving the door open.
“I know I saw something,” I said, standing in the doorway. He pulled a small, flat plastic bottle out of the inside breast pocket of his suit jacket. “It was a little line.”
“This is what you saw.” Mr. Hackbirn held out his hand. On his forefinger was a light blue curved plastic lens.
“You wear contact lenses?” I couldn’t help giggling a little.
“I am extremely nearsighted.” He rubbed a few drops of the liquid from the bottle onto the lens, then rinsed it under the faucet (he’d already pulled the plug). “I admit I got them for pure vanity. But…”
He stopped as he inserted the lens underneath his eyelid.
“Oh, gross.” I looked away.
He just chuckled.
“But,” he continued. “They have slowed down my eyes from getting worse.”
“I’m glad.” My stomach was doing mild flipflops.
I left the doorway and he left the house.
The next morning I was in the family room French braiding Janey’s hair. Right at nine, I heard Darby yell, “He’s here!” and the sound of his feet pounding down the stairs. I was doing two braids on Janey. I had the first one done and was midway through the second. Ellen sat on the floor next to us, still in her pajamas with pink sponge rollers in her hair. Neil was upstairs dressing the twins.
“Janey, please hold still,” I said as the doorbell rang. “Darby will answer the door.”
I have said before that Mr. Hackbirn is an impeccable dresser. To be more specific, he’s the type of person that always looks dressed up even in the most casual clothes. That morning he was wearing very tight dark blue dress jeans with a light blue shirt and the inevitable sweater around his shoulders. Over his arm, he carried a blue and off white herringbone twill sport coat with suede patches on the elbows.
“Good morning,” he said, smiling. “Why aren’t you ready?”
“You are obviously unaware of the logistics involved in getting six people ready to go somewhere,” I replied, also smiling.
“They must be incredible.” Mr. Hackbirn laid his sport coat on the back of the couch.
“What’s logistics?” asked Janey.
“Look it up in the dictionary,” I answered automatically.
“I can’t. You’re doing my hair.”
“Then hold still, and you can look it up later.”
“Kind of chilly out here,” remarked Mr. Hackbirn. “It was sunny in L.A.”
In Orange County the sky was overcast and the air had a definite bite to it.
“Twenty percent chance of rain, I heard,” I said.
“I don’t think it will.” He walked into the hallway, pulling the sweater from his shoulders.
After putting it on, he opened the bathroom door and checked himself in the mirror. He straightened his collar and ran a reassuring hand over his hair. It didn’t need it. Even with all its waves, Mr. Hackbirn’s hair is always perfect. He doesn’t use hairspray either. He’s just so disgustingly full of self-control that not one hair on his head would even think of being out of place.
“You didn’t have to get so dressed up,” I said as he came back into the room. “I did say casual.”
Darby laughed. He was wearing blue jeans with a bright yellow t-shirt that had the Mercedes-Benz logo on it and scuffed running shoes. Janey also had on jeans. But she was wearing a V-necked sweater over a plaid blouse with an eyelet-trimmed collar. She was barefoot, however.
I had opted for a similar outfit, this one including my deck shoes. My deck shoes are my favorite pair of shoes. They were originally white, but now they’re a dirty gray. The toes are scuffed up and the heels are starting to wear down. But they don’t have any holes in them. Yet.
I finished Janey’s braid.
“Ellen, please give me the ponytail band. No, not the dental floss. Thank you.” I looped the band around the end of the braid. “Okay, you’re done. Go get your shoes on.”
Janey got up and ran upstairs. As I stood up, I noticed Mr. Hackbirn subtly but restlessly prowling about the room.
“Why don’t you sit down,” I said. “I’ve still got to dress Ellen and get things together. There’s no rush anyway. The stores don’t open ’til ten.”
“Stores?” groaned Darby with shocked disgust. “We’re not going shopping, are we?”
“I’ve got errands to run,” I said firmly.
“But I thought we were going someplace neat.”
“I want to go to the zoo,” said Ellen.
“Some other time, honey,” I said, pulling her to her feet. “We haven’t got time today.”
“I don’t want to go shopping,” complained Darby. “Couldn’t we go to Craig Park at least?”
“Maybe later,” I answered. “We’ll see what the weather does.”
“Please, Darby, no complaints.” I felt for him. He hated shopping. “We’re going to a nice mall. They have an arcade there, and if you’re good, I just might…”
Darby’s eyes lit up.
“A surprise?” he asked, grinning and pushing his glasses up on his nose.
“Entirely contingent upon your good behavior.”
“Look it up in the dictionary. Come on, Ellen.”
I took Ellen upstairs while Darby pulled the big dictionary off of the bookshelf.
I put Ellen in a pink dress with a lot of ruffles and black and white oxfords with white ankle socks. Then I brushed out her fine hair and put matching ribbons in it. She looked like a little cherub. I wondered how long it would last. As much as Ellen loves pretty dresses with all the frills, she also loves making messes. How long she stays clean depends a lot on how much supervision she has. That’s why she’s always the last to be dressed.
Janey had not only put on her running shoes but had found some ribbons for her pigtails and had tied them on, albeit crookedly. I handed Ellen over to her with firm instructions to keep her clean.
I was heading to the twins’ room when I heard two small but powerful voices screaming “no shoes!” repeatedly.
“Then you don’t go,” Neil said firmly, leaving the room and shutting the door behind him.
He winked at me and handed me the diaper bag I had packed earlier with a few toys, diapers, plastic pants and extra overalls. The twins were in training pants, but accidents were still fairly common.
“Get this downstairs before they catch on,” he whispered.
As I headed downstairs, I heard the door open and a small voice ask for shoes.
When I got to the family room, I dropped the diaper bag next to the couch by my purse. Mr. Hackbirn got up and, putting on his sport coat, followed me into the hall. I opened the hall closet and pulled out the twins’ stroller. Even folded up, it was large and unwieldy with two seats each facing the other.
“What’s that?” he asked, helping me set it against the wall.
“The twins’ stroller.”
“Why are you bringing it? They can walk.”
“That’s exactly why I’m bringing it,” I explained. Mr. Hackbirn gave me a puzzled frown. “I can strap them down in the stroller. Believe me, Mr. Hackbirn, you don’t want to go chasing those two all over the place. Not to mention their talent for getting into trouble.” I walked back into the family room.
“Darby,” I asked, “Will you help load the stroller in the station wagon, please? The keys are on the couch.”
Darby grabbed the keys and ran out. I grabbed my purse and the diaper bag and was about to follow when I saw Mr. Hackbirn carrying the stroller.
“Okay, everybody, time to go!” Neil called, coming down the stairs behind the twins.
Janey and Ellen appeared from the living room where they had been playing and we all went out front to the car. Mr. Hackbirn had just put the stroller in the back. Darby climbed in over it, swiftly followed by Janey. I put Ellen in the middle of the back seat between the twins’ car seats and put her seat belt on. Neil was putting Marty in the right-hand car seat. I had to chase Mitch who had run off halfway down the block.
“Naughty Mitch,” I scolded when I caught him.
“I run fast.” he said happily.
“No kidding,” I said and put him in his car seat.
As I straightened up and shut the car door, Neil came up and gave me a big hug.
“Thanks, Lisa,” he said warmly. Then he turned to Mr. Hackbirn. “And thank you for going with them.”
“It’s my pleasure,” Mr. Hackbirn said.
“We’ll see,” replied Neil with a mischievous grin.
“Neil,” I groaned, laughing.
Mr. Hackbirn just laughed and got into the car on the passenger side.
We got to the mall without mishap. We spent the morning mostly window shopping. At lunch time we went to the fast food terrace.
Mae is what I call a health nut. Well, she’s not as bad as some, but she won’t use salt or refined sugar, refuses to fry anything, and only allows red meat once a week. Her kids are the only kids I know that will eat their vegetables. They have to. They’d go hungry otherwise. Not that Mae underfeeds them. She just doesn’t allow snacks and it’s a long time between meals if you don’t make a point of filling up.
I am the opposite of Mae. If I have one weakness, it’s junk food. Actually, I love food in general, but several of my favorite foods are supposedly going to kill me. By rights, I should be very fat and chronically ill. But I’m one of those hated types that never gains weight and almost never gets sick.
Mae knows I feed the kids junk food when I’m out with them. But it’s gotten to be a kind of joke that whenever I buy lunch, I swear the kids to secrecy.
After their solemn vow never to tell Mother what Aunt Lisa poisoned them with, I asked them what they wanted. Janey and Ellen are easy to please.
“Hamburgers!” they yelled.
“Hamburgers!” the twins echoed.
“Darby?” I asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Here,” I slipped him a five, “You’re old enough to get it yourself.”
“Gee, thanks, Aunt Lisa.” He ran off happily.
“I’ll hold the table,” said Mr. Hackbirn.
“You want me to get you something?” I asked.
“No thank you.”
“Alright.” I swept off with the kids before Janey could ask any questions. I knew Mr. Hackbirn was in sympathy with Mae, and I didn’t want his good health to throw a damper on the party.
I returned with the hamburgers, a huge pile of fries, lots of ketchup, five lemon-lime sodas (I would have gotten cola, but I didn’t want the kids wired up on the caffeine), and a double chili burger for myself.
Ellen, of course, promptly dribbled ketchup down her front. I sent Janey for a cup of cold water and extra napkins. Darby returned with a large sandwich and a carton of milk. He gave me my change and attacked his sandwich. The twins, as usual, tore up their hamburgers before eating them. To the uninitiated, watching toddlers eat is pretty revolting, but Mr. Hackbirn took it calmly.
“Aunt Lisa,” said Janey, handing me the napkins, “They want ten cents for the cup.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” I growled.
Janey was working on getting her fair share of the fries before they were all gone.
“Go ahead and eat, Janey,” I said. “I’ll get it later.”
“Can we go ice skating after lunch, Aunt Lisa?” Darby asked, looking longingly at the rink adjacent to the terrace.
“That’d be fun,” I conceded, very tempted. “But what are we going to do with the twins?”
“I don’t particularly care to go anyway,” said Mr. Hackbirn.
“You could stay with the twins,” suggested Darby.
“Darby,” said Janey seriously. “That isn’t very nice.”
“Well, if he doesn’t care…” Darby glared at his sister.
“Darby, we’re not going skating,” I said firmly. “Janey’s right. It wouldn’t be fair.”
“Stupid girl,” he grumbled.
“I’m not stupid,” Janey yelled.
“Alright, you two,” I scolded. “If you’re going to bicker, do it someplace else.”
Darby finished his sandwich and gulped down his milk.
“Can I go watch the skaters?” he asked, wiping his mouth.
“Would you please get a cup of cold water for me first?” I asked.
“Sure, Aunt Lisa.”
“Here.” I bent over and grabbed one of the soft drink cups that the twins had spilled. “Rinse this out and get the water from the bathroom.”
Darby returned promptly. I washed off Ellen’s face and hands, then got as much of the ketchup off her dress as I could. Then I cleaned up the twins and, after removing them, the stroller. Darby was getting impatient, so I gave him charge of Mitch and Marty and Janey charge of Ellen and sent them all to watch the skaters.
“Now would be the time to slip off and go get a salad or something,” I said to Mr. Hackbirn.
“I’m not hungry,” he said, shaking his head.
“When are you going to make that pickup?”
“I was kind of saving the toy store for last, if you get my drift. But I suppose we could go when the kids get back.”
“I’d just as soon.”
“Well, maybe it’ll keep them quiet through my other stops.”
“I figured if I was ‘running errands’ I might as well have some errands to run.”
“Whatever. Do you have any strategy in mind for the toy store?”
“No. Do you?”
“Not really. But I would advise having the children as far away as possible.”
“No kidding.” I thought for a moment. “Maybe we could find someplace to leave the kids. I know. The arcade. You can keep an eye on them while I do my errands.”
“I hope it works,” he replied with a sigh.
“So do I.”
Darby came back with the twins, saying they had to go to the bathroom. Somehow, Mr. Hackbirn got cornered into helping him and off they went.
“It’s not hard,” I heard Darby say. “They just can’t wait all the time, and sometimes…”
His voice was lost in the crowd.
In due time all members of the party were reassembled and on we went. In the camera shop, Darby and I looked over the 35mm S.L.R.’s, trying to decide which one I should buy to replace the one I’d pawned when I was out of work. We concluded that I should go elsewhere because of the price. While we argued I could hear Janey and Mr. Hackbirn discuss good and bad people.
“They’re good or bad,” she said solemnly. “They fool you. The ones you gotta watch out for are the bad people who do good things. Like I know this one man. He’s really bad, but he does real good things so he fools a lot of people. Not me. I know him.”
“Oh,” replied Mr. Hackbirn.
“I know you, too.”
“I’m a bad person?”
“No! I don’t let bad people into my house. You’re a good person. But you do bad things.”
“Oh, do I?”
“Uh-huh. I can tell. ‘Course Mommy said you did, but I could tell anyway.”
“Well, nobody’s perfect, Janey.”
“I know. They’re either good or bad.”
After that, I made a stop at a dress shop to find a blouse. Almost as if they were cued, the twins began grabbing everything within reach. Mr. Hackbirn was waiting outside with Darby and Ellen. Janey had come in with me.
“This is ridiculous,” I grumbled, removing the sleeve of a sweater from Marty’s hand. “Come on, Janey.”
As we crossed the store’s threshold, a loud beeper went off. I groaned and pulled the stroller back into the store. One of the sales clerks and a mall security man ran up. I bent and pulled a dark blouse from Mitch’s hands. Mr. Hackbirn appeared next to me with a worried frown on his face, and Darby and Ellen at his side.
“Would you remove the children from the stroller,” said the security man. It was not a question.
“Certainly.” I unstrapped Mitch first.
“What’s going on?” asked Mr. Hackbirn.
“A two-year-old kleptomaniac,” I replied, shoving Mitch into his arms.
“What’s a kleptomaniac?” asked Darby.
Ellen started to cry.
“Are you in trouble, Aunt Lisa?” asked Janey. “Maybe I’d better talk to that man.”
“Janey, no!” I grabbed her arm, all too afraid of what her opinion might be. “Listen, you too, Darby. I want the two of you and Ellen to go over to that planter and stay there, do you understand?”
“Yes, ma’am,” they mumbled.
I lifted Ellen’s chin. “It’ll be alright, honey. Really, it will.”
The three children left the store and stood by the planter as they were told.
“I’m sorry,” I said to Mr. Hackbirn.
“This may work to our advantage,” he said very quietly.
“May I see your purse,” demanded the security man.
“Here,” I shifted Marty to my other arm and handed over the purse.
He had already emptied the diaper bag but had not put anything back. A small crowd had gathered. I blushed when he pulled out a certain personal item I’m in the habit of carrying. He looked at the little pouch made of stiff leather attached to my key ring with interest. He opened it and pulled out the can of mace.
“You got a permit for this?” the officer asked.
“In my wallet,” I said.
He looked through the wallet, then found the permit and looked at it. He put it back and looked at the rest of the wallet.
“Why do I feel like I’m standing here, stark, staring naked?” I grumbled quietly.
Mr. Hackbirn just smiled his sensual smile and I felt my heart race and blushed even more.
“Want down,” whined Marty, squirming.
“No,” I said, sharply.
I looked over at Mitch. He was getting restless also, but at least was sucking his thumb.
“Down,” whined Marty again.
“May I put the children back in the stroller, please?” I asked.
“Alright,” replied the officer reluctantly. He had finished with my purse and looked at me like he wanted to search me also. He turned to the clerk. “She’s clean, and she didn’t technically leave the store…” He sounded as if he was sorry I hadn’t.
Mr. Hackbirn finished strapping the boys in while I addressed the officer.
“What probably happened was that the blouse was on a lower rack. One of the boys got a hold of it and I didn’t see it.”
“It is on a lower rack.” The clerk eyed me suspiciously as if she didn’t believe me.
I started refilling the diaper bag.
“Well, there’s no charges to press,” said the officer.
The clerk just rolled her eyes skyward and went back further into the store.
I finished with the bag and started putting my things back into the purse.
“The blouse in question is a size sixteen,” I said irritatedly. The officer just looked at me. “I wear a size ten.”
I swung the diaper bag and the purse onto my shoulder and marched out, pushing the twins in front of me.
“I’ve never been so humiliated in my life.” I was seething.
“What’s hu…” began Janey.
“Embarrassed,” said Darby.
“Well one thing’s for sure,” I continued. “I can’t keep the twins with me and I’ve got errands to run.”
“Can we go to the arcade?” asked Janey.
I could have kissed her. We went directly there. I gave Darby charge of the twins and told Janey to hold onto Ellen. Mr. Hackbirn lounged in the doorway, keeping one eye on the kids and the other on the young women entering the theater across the way.
I went straight to the toy store. I almost bumped into Ned Harris on the way in.
“Oh! Hello, Mr. Harris.”
“Well, hello. You’re Mae O’Malley’s sister, Lisa, isn’t it?”
“Yes.” I grinned nervously.
“I hear Mae’s getting home today.”
“Yeah. I’ve got the kids. Well, they’re at the arcade. I’m picking up some surprises.”
Harris held up a bag. “I just did.”
“Well. Nice talking to you again.”
“Nice talking to you.”
I waited until he had wandered off before going in. I asked the girl behind the front register if I could see the manager.
“She’s in back,” the girl said.
I knocked on the stockroom door.
A young sturdy woman answered. “Yes?”
“Are you the manager?” I asked.
“My name is Mrs. Smith. I believe my husband dropped his keys here the other day.”
“Oh, yes, just a minute.” She disappeared and came back a minute later with a large bunch of keys on a key ring that had an almost teardrop shaped piece of suede hanging on it. The suede was about two inches long by one inch wide. On the suede was a plastic coated medallion that had an image of a cannabis leaf on it.
“That’s them,” I said, smiling and taking them. I slid them into my pants pocket. “Thank you so much.”
I ended up buying each of the children a stuffed animal. Before I headed back to the arcade, I went upstairs to a clothes shop and bought myself a blouse. Leaving that store, I started for the escalators. I stopped for a moment to look in the window of a men’s store. I saw a jacket there I liked.
I became aware of the breath on my neck first, then what I guessed to be the barrel of a gun against my spine. I strangled back a scream.
“I wouldn’t make any noise, sister,” said the voice. “Now, nice and slowly, come with me.”
I was pushed slowly along around a corner to a door between two shops. It was labeled for authorized personnel only, but the man had me open the door and pushed me through. The corridor was softly lit. The light brown walls were unfinished with panels of masonite attached. Several gray doors were interspersed along the walls. Each bore the name of a different shop.
The man twisted my left arm behind me. I dropped the bag containing my blouse. I’d lost the stuffed toys somewhere on the way.
“Alright, where is it?” he demanded.
“Where’s what?” I whimpered, then yelped as he twisted harder.
“What you got at the toy store!”
“I don’t know. I dropped the bag when you brought me here.”
He twisted again. “I’m not talking about toys. I saw you get something from the manager.”
He tossed me onto the ground, then grabbed my purse. Keeping one eye on me, he dumped the contents on the floor, then pawed through them with his foot.
“Alright. Where is it?”
I couldn’t answer, I was so scared. He bent and pulled me up by my shoulders. I summoned up what nerve I could and screamed. He backhanded me across the face.
I’m not exactly sure how it happened, but suddenly Mr. Hackbirn was there. He spun the man around and landed a fist on the man’s jaw. The man was dazed only for a second. He charged Mr. Hackbirn. Mr. Hackbirn ducked and swung for the man’s belly. The man danced back, then let Mr. Hackbirn have it in the eye. Mr. Hackbirn retreated a couple paces and waited. The man flew at him. Mr. Hackbirn ducked and the man went flying over him.
Somewhere, a door opened. The man scrambled to his feet and went running. The door closed as the man disappeared into the mall.
Mr. Hackbirn, breathing heavily, looked over at me. I was crying.
“Well?” he asked.
“What?” I sniffed.
“Did he get the keys?”
I slid my hand into my pants pocket and drew them out. The keys rattled with the shaking of my hand. His hand gently covered mine. The next thing I knew, he was holding me.
“It’s alright, Lisa,” he whispered.
I suddenly pulled away, feeling yet another kind of fear.
“Th- the kids,” I asked, still shaking. “Where are they?”
“At the arcade, I presume.”
“Why’d you leave them?”
“I saw someone I didn’t like the looks of, and decided I’d better tail him. It’s a good thing I did. I saw that other scum run off with you, and you can figure out the rest. By the way, I found your toys at the door. At least, I assume they’re yours. You did buy five stuffed animals, didn’t you?”
“Yes.” I bent and gathered together the contents of my purse. I began to get angry. “You said there wouldn’t be any trouble.”
“I said it was unlikely. There’s no way I can guarantee things like that. Are you alright?”
“Lisa, you do know how to defend yourself. Why didn’t you?”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Hackbirn. I was scared.”
He sighed. “I understand, Miss Wycherly. But you will have to learn to overcome that.”
“I will,” I said defensively. “Just give me time.”
“I hope you’ve got it.” He softened. “I’m sure you’ll get there. Are you ready?”
I stood and slung my purse onto my shoulder. Mr. Hackbirn picked up my blouse bag, then at the door to the mall, he retrieved my stuffed toys. He started to put his arm on my shoulders and stopped. He sighed softly.
The kids were waiting for us at the arcade. They had run out of money. They didn’t seem to notice my distress as they begged for more quarters. Another half an hour and two dollars to Darby and Janey later, we were headed for home.
As excited as they were, Darby and Janey helped get the others out of the car before running inside. I caught Mr. Hackbirn heading for his Mercedes.
“Come inside,” I said. “Mae’s already mad that she’s the last to meet you. She’ll kill me if I let you get away now.”
He sighed and nodded, and followed me inside.
The house was full of people. Besides the kids, three couples, friends of Mae and Neil’s from church were there. Mae had been settled on the family room couch with her leg propped up on the hassock.
“Thanks so much, Lisa,” she said to me as I hugged her and kissed her cheek.
“It’s alright,” I replied, smiling.
“Well, don’t get mad at me, but I’m throwing you back to the wolf.”
“Your boss, honey. I’m sending you back to work.”
“But can you manage?”
Mae jerked her head at the couples sitting around talking.
“They insisted,” she said. “I’ve got the twins and Ellen farmed out. Darby and Janey are old enough to fetch and carry for me, and I’ve got a meal train coming for the next two weeks. If my knee didn’t hurt so bad, I’d have it made.”
“It’s not that bad. I can handle it. I take it that’s the infamous one hanging back in the doorway, isn’t it?”
It was. I turned and waved him over.
“Mae, this is my boss, Mr. Sid Hackbirn.”
“Hi Sid,” said Mae, genially. “I’ve heard a lot about you.”
“So I’ve been told.” He looked at me briefly.
Mae laughed. “Those kids of mine. Couldn’t keep a secret for love nor money. It was really sweet of you to go out with them today. I hope they weren’t too bad.”
Mr. Hackbirn shook his head and smiled. “They’re good kids.”
“I’d better go pack,” I said, heading upstairs.
I packed in less than fifteen minutes. I brought my suitcase downstairs and set it by the door with my purse. I went to the family room where Mr. Hackbirn was chatting with Neil.
“I’m ready,” I said to him.
“Well,” said Mr. Hackbirn, “I’d like to get going then.”
“Kids,” Neil called. “Aunt Lisa’s leaving now!”
They all gathered around and followed Mr. Hackbirn and me to the front door. I gave them each a hug and a kiss, then turned to pick up my suitcase.
“Goodbye, Uncle Sid,” said Janey.
“Uncle what?” Mr. Hackbirn was utterly shocked.
He looked at me for help. I just shrugged and shook my head. He turned to the children.
“Goodbye,” he said, still shaken.
Ellen came up and hugged his legs, while Darby shook his hand. Janey motioned for him to bend down to her. He bent politely. She kissed his cheek and hugged him.
“I love you, Uncle Sid,” I heard her say.
Deeply touched, he just hugged her back. I think that was the first time somebody had said that to him, at least somebody not in the throes of passion. Quietly, he released her and went to the door. Suitcase in hand, I followed, stopping first to give the okay sign. They cheered.
I let Mr. Hackbirn drive in silence until it got to me.
“You survived that pretty well,” I said cautiously.
“Yeah, I did.” His voice sounded rather far away.
“So what now?”
“Hm? Oh.” He took the keys out of his coat pocket and handed them to me. “See if you can find out what the fuss was about.”
I looked at the suede teardrop and noticed that it was two pieces sewn together. Underneath the medallion, a white piece of paper showed through a hole cut in the top layer. I pulled it out and deciphered the code written on it.
“Professor Lipplinger’s in danger,” I said after a few minutes. “You’ve got to go to Washington D.C. to get him and hide him immediately.
“Wonderful,” Mr. Hackbirn replied.
“I’ll call the airlines when we get home.”
“Good, and book me a room, too, will you? You’ve got my Mastercard number right?”
“By the way, I travel first class.”
There was a silence for ten minutes more.
“So what do you think?” I asked.
“The past two days.”
“Interesting.” His voice sounded far away again. “Very interesting.”