spy fiction, mystery fiction, cozy mystery,

Chapter Five

spy novel, serial mystery, serial fiction, cozy mysteryOctober 24 – 29, 1982

 

It had taken some doing, but I had finally convinced Mae that my earlier qualms about Mr. Hackbirn and my new job were resolved. Of course, as far as she was concerned, that opened up a whole new line of speculation regarding his nocturnal prowling. We pretty much came to the conclusion that while Mr. Hackbirn was a nice guy, he was no candidate for sainthood either.

This is important, because Mae and I wondered what would happen if he ever met Janey. To most people, Janey is a normal kid, and in most respects, she is. But she is also an incredible judge of character. She has two basic categories: good or bad, and people are either one or the other. Janey has yet to be wrong.

She started when she was about three and a half or four. About the only people then that Janey had any real contact with were babysitters. Finding someone to sit with three kids, one a toddler, as Ellen was at the time, was hard enough. But then, all of the sudden, it seemed, Janey wouldn’t stay quietly with anyone she’d decided was bad. There was one girl, in particular, I can’t remember her name, that Janey would not tolerate at all. Mae found out later that the girl was caught stealing from someone who had hired her.

Janey’s perception increased with age. Unfortunately, her tact didn’t, at least not for a while. By the time she was six she had gotten into the habit of telling anyone what she thought of them, in spite of Mae’s efforts to teach her discretion. Worse still, every time the doorbell rang there was a race to beat Janey to the door. If Janey opened it, whoever was on the other side got Janey’s own peculiar brand of the third degree and was only admitted upon her approval.

Mae and I both wondered what her reaction to Mr. Hackbirn would be. Neither of us really thought she would be able to label him good. But how exactly would she react to him? And I had to wonder how he would react to her. While Mr. Hackbirn admitted he didn’t particularly dislike children, he didn’t really like them, either. He was bemused by my weekly visits to my sister’s, and couldn’t imagine how I could find it relaxing to spend time with five children under the age of ten.

The Sunday after my little escapade with Gannett, Neil picked me up at the train station by himself. We didn’t say much, but that wasn’t all that unusual. Neither, really, was the tension inside the house.

“They’re fighting again, huh?” I said to Darby, after a few minutes.

“Yeah,” he mumbled miserably.

“It won’t last long,” I said reassuringly. “They’ll resolve it soon.”

“I guess,” said Darby. “The Finsters down the street are getting a divorce.”

“They are? Well, they probably never fought with each other.”

“They were always fighting.”

“Then they never resolved their fights. And you know your parents always do.”

I put my arm around him. Neil popped his head in the front door (he’d been waiting in the car).

“Mae?” he bellowed. “Are you coming or not?”

“It would have been nice if you’d have let me know you were here,” Mae’s voice came down from upstairs. “I’m saying goodbye to the children!”

Neil slammed the door. A few minutes later Mae came running down the stairs.

“Oh, there you are, Darby,” she said breathlessly. She came over and hugged him. “I’ll see you tonight, honey. And don’t worry. Daddy and I will have it settled by tonight, okay?”

His reply was lost in another squeeze. Mae let go of her son and tackled me next.

“Thanks for coming, Sis.” She let go. “We’ll talk tonight.”

“Sure. See you later.”

“Okay. Bye bye.” Mae scurried out.

It was about three thirty when Neil called.

“Yeah, Neil, what’s up?” I asked into the phone.

“I’m at the hospital,” he replied.

“Oh no!”

“It’s not that serious.”

“But what happened?”

“Well, we’d just patched things up between us, when this clown turned right in front of us, and we hit him.”

“Oh my god, are you alright?”

“We weren’t hurt by the accident. But Mae’s emotions were a little raw still and she went over to the other car to give them a piece of her mind and on the way, slipped somehow and messed up her knee completely.”

“Oh no! The poor thing.”

“They’ve got her pretty well doped up right now. But she’ll be having surgery tomorrow or the next day.”

“I thought you said it wasn’t serious.”

“Well, it’s not life and death.”

“Oh my god, you guys are going to need a sitter!”

“Yeah, I know. Is the phone book right there?”

“Neil, who can you call?”

He sighed. “I haven’t the foggiest.”

“Look, let me make a phone call first.”

“I hate to ask you, Lisa, but with Janey…”

“I know. Give me the number where you’re at.”

“Never mind. Mae’s asleep, so I’ll be heading home.”

“Okay, see you in a bit.”

I hung up, took a deep breath, and dialed again. Fortunately, the boss was home and answered after one ring.

“Yes?” said the familiar voice.

“It’s Miss Wycherly, Mr. Hackbirn. I’m afraid there’s been an emergency.”

“Are you alright?”

“I’m fine. But my sister has to have surgery and will be in the hospital for a while.”

“And…?”

“They need someone to stay with the kids while Neil’s at work or the hospital.”

“I assume you’re the poor unfortunate.”

“I’m afraid so.”

“What about your work here?”

“Well if there’s anything that really needs getting out, there’s a typewriter here I can use.”

“This is very awkward. Can’t they get someone else?”

“Well, Mr. Hackbirn, they’re not rich and when you come right down to it, do you know anybody else in their right mind, who’d look after five kids under ten years of age besides a relative?” Actually, I did but I knew he wouldn’t.

“I’d question the sanity of the relative.”

“Ever hear of family duty?”

“On occasion.” He let out a sigh. “I suppose I’ll have to let you take care of them. How long will you be gone?”

“I don’t know. As soon as my brother-in-law gets back I’ll be driving in to get some stuff, and I suppose I could come in some evenings and work.”

“I’m not a slave driver, Miss Wycherly.”

“I know, but it’s not fair that you have to make all the sacrifices. You won’t have to pay me while I’m gone.”

“We’ll see. I’ll talk to you this evening.”

“I’m not fired, am I?”

“Of course not. Goodbye,” he grumbled sullenly.

“Goodbye.”

I hung up and breathed a sigh of relief. Then I gasped when I realized I’d be taking Mae’s place.

It wasn’t all that bad. The kids were extra good and Neil helped out where he could. Cooking dinner was the big thing I was afraid of and Mae had already done the week’s shopping and left a menu. Of course, I still had to cook it. But I’m not a bad cook, so it wasn’t very hard.

The only problem I had was Wednesday. The day did not start out at all well. Neil’s alarm didn’t go off and I slept through mine. We were wakened only five minutes late because the twins had woken up early and decided they wanted to make cookies in the kitchen. Flour was everywhere, and on the floor next to the sink shards of broken honey jar stood up in the golden goo. While I was cleaning the honey up, Ellen discovered that milk beaded up on the dry flour and poured out almost the whole half gallon trying to figure out why it wasn’t absorbed immediately. Then Janey couldn’t find one of her shoes, and Darby realized at the last minute he hadn’t done about five homework problems, and he had math first thing in the morning. I was so happy when Neil took the older two to school.

That still left me with the younger three. Marty and Mitch ran me ragged that morning, playing with them. Ellen tagged along, quietly, but persistently, asking me why the milk acted so funny on the flour. I had no idea, and she didn’t want to wait until her father got home. After lunch the twins started throwing blocks at each other, so I sent all three children to their rooms for naps. I knew they wouldn’t sleep, but at least they were quarantined for a while, and I could get my head back on.

At three, ominous thumping sounds from the twins’ room convinced me it was time to let them out. Darby and Janey arrived home right then, and I figured they could keep Marty and Mitch occupied. But Darby wanted to practice piano and Janey had just gotten three new books from the school book club. Ellen still wanted to know about the flour. I left them all in the living room and hid in the kitchen trying to figure out what I was going to do with a package of thawed chicken breasts.

I could hear the bickering rising above the pounded out beginner exercises. I let it go until it escalated into full-scale shouting.

“Janey! Quit poking me.”

“I’m not poking you. It’s Ellen.”

“Janey! I saw you!”

“Aunt Lisa!” Janey came running in with Darby on her heels, and Ellen pouting behind them. The twins were screaming in the living room.

“Aunt Lisa, she’s poking me and blaming it on Ellen!”

“He’s lying, Aunt Lisa. I want to read and he’s making noise on that stupid piano.”

I ignored them and headed to the living room. “What’s the matter with your brothers?” The doorbell rang, and I switched directions immediately. “Darby, hold Janey!”

“Let me go, you big brat!”

“Ellen, cut it out!”

I opened the door to a man about average height with light brown hair neatly trimmed, and an equally well-trimmed mustache. I had met Ned Harris before. He was a very congenial, nice man, on the city council and a member of the Chamber of Commerce. He was also on the parish board at Mae’s church, which is how she knew him. I sometimes wondered if, after all the time he spent doing all these things and running his very successful travel agency, he had any time left for his wife. I suppose he found some. They did have two small children and another on the way.

“Janey, come back here!” Darby yelled.

“Hello, Mr. Harris,” I said. “What can I do for you?”

“I’m sorry.” He smiled apologetically. “I’m afraid I’m having trouble placing you.”

“I’m Mae’s sister.” I turned inside. “Darby, go stop your brothers from screaming.”

“Ellen, stop that!”

I turned back to Harris. “What can I do for you?”

“My wife wanted to know if there was anything we could do while Mae’s in the hospital.”

Ellen screamed. “Aunt Lisa! Darby hit me!”

“Darby!” I yelped.

“This doesn’t seem to be a good time,” Harris said smiling.

“I’ll have Mae or Neil call you. Thanks.” I shut the door.

“Aunt Lisa, Ellen kept messing up my music, and she keeps poking me!”

“But, Aunt Lisa, he won’t…”

“I don’t care. I’ve had it! To your rooms, all of you. I don’t want to see you until your father comes home. Where’s Janey?”

“Upstairs,” grumbled Darby.

“Good. Now go!”

Neil took over when he got home. I called up an old girlfriend and went to a movie.

The rest of the week passed without a hitch. I had driven into L.A. twice besides Sunday to make sure all was in order and it was. Late Friday afternoon, I got a little worried. Friday was the last day on the menu. Fortunately, Mae called and after talking to each of the kids, she spent time conferring with me. Her recovery was quite rapid and she figured she’d be home the next day, although she’d asked me not to tell the children just yet. And at the same time, she wouldn’t be up and around for a while yet. We were just about to decide on what to have Saturday night when Darby yelled from upstairs, where he was cleaning his room.

“Hold on, Mae,” I said as Darby’s feet pounded down the stairs. “Something’s up with Darby.” Then I yelled, “What’s going on?”

Darby appeared in the kitchen where I was on the phone.

“There’s a 450 SL out front!” he exclaimed and left.

Darby had, and still does have, a strong affection for Mercedes cars and the 450 SL was the top as far as he was concerned.

I peeked out the window and saw a metallic slate blue fender and groaned.

“What’s going on?” asked Mae.

“The boss just pulled up. I’d better call you back.” The doorbell rang. “Oh, shoot! Janey! Bye!”

I slammed the phone down and ran. I was too late. At the end of the hall where I stopped, I could hear Janey’s voice.

“We don’t have a Miss Wycherly here,” she was saying.

I couldn’t see the door, and assumed Mr. Hackbirn couldn’t see me. There was no point in trying to interrupt Janey. She hung on to her victims like a pit bull.

“Isn’t this the O’Malley residence?”

I thanked God that Mr. Hackbirn had the sense not to talk down to her.

“Yes.”

“I was told she was staying here. Is this your house?”

Janey giggled. “It’s my mommy and daddy’s. Only my daddy says it’s the bank’s.”

“I don’t doubt it. Is your aunt staying here?”

“My aunt?”

“Yes.”

“She’s here.”

“May I talk to her?”

“But you wanted Miss Wycherly.”

“I believe that’s your aunt.”

“I don’t have an Aunt Wycherly.”

“But you do have an Aunt Lisa.”

“Yeah.”

“Well, Wycherly is her last name. Like your last name is O’Malley.”

“Then why do you call her Miss Wycherly?”

“I suppose for the same reason you call your teacher Miss or Mrs. whatever her last name is.”

“I call my teacher Sister Francine.”

“Oh.”

“But Darby calls his teacher by her last name. She’s not a nun, you know.”

“Oh, I see.”

I was about to rescue Mr. Hackbirn when Janey did the last thing I ever thought she’d do.

“You’re a good person,” she said blithely. “You can come in.”

“Thank you.” I heard the door shut. “Would you please get your Aunt Lisa?”

“Aunt Lisa!” Janey bellowed, as loudly as she could, which was pretty loud.

“I’m right here,” I said stepping around the corner. “Good afternoon, Mr. Hackbirn, please come in. I see you’ve already met my niece Janey. Janey, this is my boss, Mr. Hackbirn.”

“Hi.” She smiled and flashed her huge hazel eyes.

Mr. Hackbirn smiled, more warmly than I would have thought.

“Nice to meet you, Janey.”

“Janey, why don’t you go finish cleaning your room?”

“Darby isn’t cleaning his.”

“Where is he?”

“At the car.”

“What’s that kid doing with my car?” Mr. Hackbirn turned anxiously towards the door.

I somehow beat him there and opened it.

“He’s just looking at it,” I said, looking to make sure. “He wouldn’t touch it.”

Mr. Hackbirn looked at me not quite sure.

“Darby!” I yelled. “Come on in and finish cleaning your room. You can look at the car later.”

Darby tore himself away and trotted in.

“Darby,” I said, shutting the door. “This is my boss, Mr. Hackbirn. Mr. Hackbirn, my nephew, Darby.”

I was so proud of Darby. He stepped right up and shook Mr. Hackbirn’s hand.

“Pleased to meet you, sir,” he said, the excitement shining in his eyes. “That’s one real neat 450 SL you got. I’ve never seen one that color. You got the hard top for it?”

“At home,” said Mr. Hackbirn, smiling.

“If Mr. Hackbirn agrees, you can chat with him later,” I said firmly. “Finish your room, first.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He ran upstairs.

I waited until he had gone, then headed into the family room.

It was littered with the twins’ toys. Almost mechanically, I bent and started picking them up.

“So why are you here? Need a manuscript done?” I asked dropping some plastic blocks into a toy box.

“A pickup.”

I glanced at the ceiling and shook my head. “I wouldn’t talk about that here. The walls are paper thin and those kids are sharp. You’d have been better off phoning.”

“Not on a code one.”

I didn’t really hear him. At that moment one of the twins started shrieking.

“Crisis,” I explained, as I shoved a beat up doll and bright purple plastic doughnut into Mr. Hackbirn’s hands.

What happened next, I wasn’t around to see or hear.

[This is what happened – I was in shock, wondering what the hell I was supposed to do with a bald, naked doll and a… whatever that purple thing was. I heard the front door open and in walked what had to be Darby’s father.

“Hello,” he said as if there wasn’t anything odd about a total stranger standing in his family room. “I’m Neil O’Malley.”

“Afternoon. I’m Sid Hackbirn.” I started to shake hands but I still had the doll.

Neil smiled and set down his briefcase.

“Here let me take those for you,” he said, the ice broken. “You’re Lisa’s boss. I’m her brother-in-law.”

“Nice to meet you,” I said.

“You probably want to talk to her.”

“Daddy!” Janey came running into the room and tackled her father.

“How’s my girl?” said Neil.

“Real good, Daddy.”

“Where’s your Aunt Lisa?”

“Cuddling Mitch. He tried to take Ellen’s book and she hit him real hard with it.” She sighed and shook her adorable little head. “Little kids.”

She walked over to me, cocked her head to one side, blinked those huge cow-eyes of hers twice, and said, “Aunt Lisa will talk to you as soon as she’s done with Mitch. Maybe you’d better stay for dinner. Can he, Daddy?”

“Well,” said Neil. “It’s alright with me. But you should see if Mr. Hackbirn would like to.”

Janey looked at me again and blinked twice. Just two times.

“He’ll stay,” she said and wandered out of the room.

I wondered how she knew.

“Janey’s our little mystic,” said Neil apologetically.

At that point, there was more of that god-awful shrieking, and Neil was assaulted by Ellen, followed quickly by the twins, then Darby – SEH]

I heard Neil come in, but opted to avoid being trampled and waited to come after the kids.

After greeting each child, Neil sent them back upstairs.

“I’ve got good news,” he said when they had gone. “Mae’s coming home tomorrow.”

“I know. I just talked to her on the phone,” I said, then thought of something. “I guess I’d better plan on sticking around for a while yet, ’til she’s in better shape.”

Mr. Hackbirn frowned.

“We’ll see,” said Neil. “I don’t want to tell the kids just yet. They’ll be too excited. In fact, maybe if you could take them somewhere tomorrow. I could get Mae settled in peace and they could get some energy run off.”

“Sure, Neil,” I said and looked at my watch. It was a little after 4:30. I turned to Mr. Hackbirn. “I’ve got to get dinner ready…”

“I believe I’ve already been invited, ” replied Mr. Hackbirn.

“Great.” Then another thought hit me. “Oh, shavings. I forgot to defrost the turkey meat.”

“Is there anything else?” asked Neil.

“Not enough,” I replied, glumly. “Why don’t we not tell Mae, and hit the chicken place?”

“Sounds okay to me,” Neil replied.

“Whatever.” Mr. Hackbirn sounded a little resigned, but I decided to let it go.

“Look,” I said, “I’ll fix a salad and some green beans, and you won’t have to buy all that other stuff.”

“Sure,” said Neil, noncommittally.

“Daddy, can we come down now?” asked Darby at the top of the stairs.

“Please, Daddy?” asked Ellen.

“Alright, come down,” answered their father.

The children noisily trooped down into the family room.

“Dolly,” said Marty. “Where dolly?”

I looked at Neil who shrugged.

“I believe it’s on the television,” said Mr. Hackbirn, unexpectedly. He walked over and handed to doll to Marty. “Here you are.”

“What do you say, Marty?” reminded Neil.

“Tank you.”

“You’re welcome,” Mr. Hackbirn replied, then looked down at his legs in astonishment.

Ellen had grabbed a hold of him and was hugging him.

“You’re nice,” she said looking up at him and smiling.

“You’re nice too,” replied Mr. Hackbirn, laughing.

I was trying not to laugh. How or why these children had decided to attach themselves to my boss, I couldn’t guess, but there was no denying it. I could tell Janey wanted Mr. Hackbirn to sit down, but Darby had already moved in and had engaged him in a conversation about Mercedes Benz. Barely minutes later they were going outside to look at the car. Janey and Ellen followed.

“Can you believe it?” I said, laughing, as soon as I heard the front door.

“I can’t believe Janey even let him in,” Neil chuckled. “Yet there she is, batting her eyes at him.”

“And he says he hates kids.”

At that moment Darby burst in.

“He says he’ll take me for a ride!” he all but screamed. “Can I, Dad, can I, please?”

“Alright,” Neil said reluctantly. “Don’t be too long and say…”

“I know!” Darby was already out the door.

Janey came in with Ellen, who was crying.

“Ellen wanted to go,” Janey explained. “But I told her there’ll be other treats for us, huh, Aunt Lisa?”

“It’s not up to me,” I said taking Ellen into my arms.

“I know of a treat for Ellen,” said Neil. “Would you like to sit at the table with the rest of us?”

Ellen’s face lit up with smiles.

“Can I, Daddy?” she asked, sniffling.

“Yes, you can. Now, why don’t you go blow your nose, like Daddy’s big girl.”

Ellen scrambled out of my lap and went running for the tissues.

I was a little nervous about dinner. No, I was a lot nervous. I kept thinking about Mr. Hackbirn’s quiet existence in that well-organized house in Beverly Hills and wondering if he was ever going to get over the shock of family life. Worse still, Neil had promised the kids earlier that week that he’d take them to the movies that night so not only were they excited about that, but there was the additional excitement of having a guest for dinner. The fact that he was the much celebrated Mr. Hackbirn only added to it.

The twins were fed first and sent up to their room to play. Ellen, sitting on a telephone book, just glowed. Of course, I wasn’t worried about her. She’s the shy one in the family and not too squirmy.

She sat next to Neil at the head of the table and on her other side was Darby. On Neil’s other side was Mr. Hackbirn and next to him was Janey, who had insisted on sitting next to him. I sat across from Neil.

I kept my head reverently bowed while we said grace, although I was dying to see Mr. Hackbirn’s reaction. Almost right on top of the “amen” Janey started talking about school and pretty much kept the conversation rolling. She was fascinated by the way Mr. Hackbirn separated the chicken meat from the bones with his knife and fork, instead of eating it with his fingers like the rest of us were doing. Darby noticed something else, though.

“He’s a picky eater,” he mumbled to me at one point in the meal.

I didn’t say anything, but Darby was right. Mr. Hackbirn had pulled all the skin and coating off his chicken and set it aside. His salad had no dressing on it and he hadn’t taken any of the mashed potatoes and gravy that Neil had also bought.

At that point, Neil said he had an announcement to make.

“I talked to Mommy’s doctor today,” he said. “And he said Mommy’s coming home tomorrow.”

I saw Mr. Hackbirn jump as the kids let out an ecstatic yell.

“And that’s not all,” Neil’s voice rose above the cheering. “To make it easier on Mommy, because her knee still hurts her, Aunt Lisa’s going to take you out tomorrow, while I get Mommy from the hospital. So when you come home she’ll be here.”

“Are you gonna come too?” Janey asked Mr. Hackbirn.

“Well, I do have…” I could see the light dawn as he changed his mind. “Sure, I will.”

The kids yelled again, but I didn’t hear it. There was something fishy about that “Sure, I will,” and there was something about a code one pick up.

Anne Louise Bannon

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