spy fiction, mystery fiction, cozy mystery,

Chapter Eleven

cozy spy novel, mystery fiction, fiction serial, spy fiction serialDecember 20 – 25, 1982

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?”

“Good.”

“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.”

“I see.”

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?”

“Yes.”

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.

“Lisa!”

“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.”

“But why?”

“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.”

“Thanks, Mae.”

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.

“Goodnight, Mom.”

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.”

“Mm.”

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.

“Dressing?”

“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?”

“No, Daddy.”

“I don’t know, Lisle. I know you’re just working for him, but, honey, that boy’s dangerous.”

“I know.”

“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.”

“Yes.”

“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?”

“I write.”

“Books?”

“Freelance, for magazines.”

“No kidding. Does it pay well?”

“Enough.”

“Great. I’m in the travel business, myself. Inflight Travel Agency. Doing real well.”

“Good.”

“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.”

“Whatever.”

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.”

“Good idea.”

I put Ned Harris out of my mind and let my thoughts drift.

Anne Louise Bannon

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