cozy mystery, spy novel, serial mystery fiction

Chapter One

May 14, 1983

 

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

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

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

“Yeah,” I replied quietly.

“Mind if I join you?”

“Mind if I be honest?”

He smiled. “Go ahead.”

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

“Maybe I can help.”

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

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

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

“Alright,” I sighed.

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

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

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

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

“Something about your boss?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Confession isn’t just for sin.”

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

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

“Alright, I will.”

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

“Ah hah.”

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

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

“I’ve heard she was a lousy spy.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You must have some common ground.”

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

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

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

“Something wrong?” John asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I was afraid of that.”

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

I looked down the road.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?”

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

I laughed. Sid’s a confirmed atheist.

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

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

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

John just smiled.

“It can’t be that bad,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

“Too late,” John chuckled.

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

That day, his manner was urgent, even grim.

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

I swallowed.

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

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

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

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

“Why?”

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

“No.”

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

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

“How about your life?”

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

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

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

“Do they know where it is?”

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

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

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

I swallowed. “Wonderful.”

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

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

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

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

“I know,” Sid grumbled.

“Look, Sid, I really need this time.”

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

“I’ll be careful. I promise.”

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” Sid looked shocked.

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

“You told somebody?”

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

“The what?”

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

“Lisa, why?”

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

“I see.” He didn’t.

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

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

“He’s wearing his civvies this weekend.”

“But the arm…”

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

We started back with Sid shaking his head.

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

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

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

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

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

“A little.”

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m not leaving,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sure enough, Sid was surrounded when I got downstairs.

“Come on, you guys. Lay off,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Doing what?” I asked.

“Praying for me.”

I blushed.

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

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

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

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

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

“You too.”

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

 

Anne Louise Bannon

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