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.