Chapter One

spy novel, serial fiction, cozy mysteryWelcome to the debut chapter of Deceptive Appearances, the third installment of the Operation Quickline series. Please come back and check out the rest of the series as it is posted on Fridays.

 

September 15, 1983

 

We hit the rain in Lone Pine, as we skirted up the backside of the Sierra Nevadas on our way to Lake Tahoe. It didn’t slow Sid down much, at first, except that U.S. 395 stopped being a freeway for a good chunk after that and being in the mountains and all, even Sid slowed down.

“I hope the passes aren’t frozen,” Sid grumbled as he finally switched on the windshield wipers.

“It’s way too early for snow,” I replied, trying to sound more reassuring than I felt.

Neither of us was in the best of moods, although for once, it wasn’t because we had been fighting. It was the job we were on. We don’t usually get a pick-up assigned to us over a week before we have to make it, and since they asked for both of us specifically, well, that meant the job was going to be more than a pick-up.

The worst of it was that we were doing the job as ourselves and not as our alter-egos, something we’d been requested to do, probably because somebody upline had seriously screwed up. You see, I grew up in South Lake Tahoe and the pick up was scheduled for the casinos in Stateline, literally just on the other side of the border in Nevada. Harrah’s parking lot is in California, to give you an idea of how close it all is.

I went back to the magazine I’d been reading from. “You want me to finish this? I mean there are only a couple sentences left.”

“I’m listening.”

“Okay. Where was I? Oh. ‘The ultimate problem with Moriarty’s is not unlike the problem with Shanda. The club has all the appearances of a truly great night spot, but it will get you in the end. Parenthesis  – I told you to watch out for us nice girls. We only look harmless, ljw, close parenthesis.”

“Hattie left that in?” Sid asked. Hattie is the editor of Sid’s singles column.

“I told you she was going to. She’s been leaving in all my parentheses and wants more.” I’d been adding them almost since Sid had started his column, but originally as a joke for Sid only. Then a few months before, this one had slipped through to Hattie and she’d thought it was hysterical.

“Oh. That’s right.”

I looked at him. “You okay with that?”

“I told you I was.”

I didn’t completely believe him but saw no reason to say so. Instead, I watched out the window for several minutes, listening to the beat of the windshield wipers. Slowly, a familiar melody slipped through my mind and I began humming.

“Windshield wipers keeping time,” I sang softly, then sang it again, trying to remember the rest.

“It starts with ‘Busted flat in Baton Rouge,’” Sid finally said. My humming tends to get on his nerves, especially when I can’t remember the whole song.

“Oh, right!” I went ahead and sang it from the beginning, with Sid feeding me the lines as needed. He doesn’t sing, well, not much.

“When did your folks say they’d be back?” Sid asked as I went into the la-dah-dahs, probably to shut me up. [Oh, yes. – SEH]

My parents still lived during the summers up at the resort they owned off of U.S. 50 and weren’t scheduled to head down to their place in Florida for another month yet. Fortunately, they were spending the week in New York visiting my great aunt.

Mama and Daddy think that Sid is merely an eccentric, but wealthy, freelance writer and that I’m merely his secretary. We are, but we’re also operatives for Operation Quickline, an ultra-top secret government organization, so secret, in fact, that even my family doesn’t know that it exists, let alone that Sid and I work for it.

“That’s just it, they didn’t say,” I said. “Mama said something about playing tourist in Boston while they were on the East Coast, but I don’t think Daddy’s going to go for it. They should be gone through the weekend, though.”

Sid swore under his breath as he eased onto the brakes again.

“I’m sorry, but I can’t tell my parents what to do,” I said, feeling a little defensive.

“It’s not your folks,” Sid said, braking again. “We’re just making lousy time.”

We had left later than we’d intended after a small dust-up over whether I was spending ten hours in a car fully dressed in business wear. Sid had agreed to let me go casual since I had conceded to driving up when we could have flown. Sid had said that since we were going as ourselves and odds were decent we’d need a car once there, we could at least take his 450 SL.

Sid does have a lead foot [So do you – SEH], and in spite of the rain, we actually made it to Stateline in just over eight hours, my best time ever. I have to admit, I was a little excited about staying in the casino where we were going to make our drop. I’d been to the casinos often enough, but who stays in the hotels in their hometown?

We had a two-bedroom suite, too. That had been the hotel’s idea. We were also there to interview the hotel manager for an article for a major airline’s in-flight magazine, and the manager insisted on setting us up in their best room instead of the two I’d requested. It wasn’t exactly discreet, but Sid and I figured that with me being a former local, discreet was not on the agenda, anyway.

We parked in the hotel’s main lot and carried our luggage in on our own. Sid checked in, got our keys, then held me back before I followed the bellman to the suite.

“I’m going to call in and set things up,” he said, taking off his tan overcoat and handing it to me. “Why don’t you get changed and wired up and meet me down here?”

“Dinner?” I asked hopefully. It was past six-thirty at that point and I was starving.

Sid’s eyes rolled. “You’ve been nibbling all day, not to mention how much you ate at lunch.”

I blinked twice.

“Oh, alright.” Sid pulled out his thin black leather billfold. “For the tip.”

He handed me a couple fives. He’d chosen to wear his usual three-piece suit, shirt, and tie. The way he held his suit jacket closed told me he’d already put his shoulder holster on, though when he had, I wasn’t sure. Driving in one isn’t exactly comfortable and we’d made our last pit stop in Bishop. I couldn’t see if he’d gotten his earpiece and transmitter on, but then, you can’t really see the earpiece unless you look really carefully for it.

“Go ahead and change, too,” he said. “It’ll give us more options for the pickup.”

“Okay.”

With a nod, Sid moved off into the casino, while I followed the bellman up to our suite.

It was huge, decked out in Southwestern pastels, with a sunken floor in the center of the main room, containing a huge circular sofa. The bedrooms were on either side of the main room. I put Sid’s trench coat on the rack next to the door as the bellman, who looked like he was barely out of high school, brought our two suitcases and carry-ons into the one bedroom.

“Uh, excuse me,” I called out, anxiously. “Two of those are mine and they belong in the other bedroom.”

“Oh. Sorry. Uh, which bags?”

“Happens all the time,” I sighed.

I do get very tired of people assuming Sid and I are lovers. We may live in the same house – long story how that happened – but we are strictly housemates.

I let the bellman wait while I decided which room I’d take. They were both pretty luxurious, with huge bathrooms each containing a sauna. But I let Sid have the one with the rock spa tub. I figured he might want to bring some company back to the suite somewhere along the line and was feeling generous.

I gave the bellman the tip, then went back to my room to change into a dark-blue paisley skirt and light blue velveteen Edwardian-style jacket with puffed sleeves and short peplum. I’d trimmed it with dark blue braid and it certainly stood out. I wear my hair fairly long and permed, and picked out the curls, then slid a small piece of spring steel behind my ear.

Unfortunately, the jacket was too fitted for me to carry a shoulder holster, but I had my S & W model thirteen revolver in my monster of a purse. The thing was huge, but it carried everything I needed and then some. I strapped a twenty-two automatic to my thigh, high up under my very full skirt. My transmitter, I clipped to the inside of my skirt, adjusted the microphone inside the jacket’s collar and slid the earpiece into my ear. I took one last look in the mirror, then turned the transmitter on.

Immediately, the noise of the casino filled my ear.

“I’m wired and ready,” I said, picking up my purse.

“Come on. Bust for me,” Sid grumbled, letting me know where he was without letting anyone else know he was wired.

Good thing, too, because the pit bosses are really looking for that sort of thing – you’d be surprised what people do to cheat.

Once I got downstairs it was easy to spot Sid. Okay, the man is particularly handsome, with dark wavy hair, bright blue eyes and a cleft in his chin. He’s not big, just three inches taller than me and I’m average. It also helped that he was playing at a twenty-five dollar minimum bet table. Those tables are almost never crowded, except on at peak weekend or holiday hours. In fact, there was only one other player there.

Sid looked up and smiled as I approached.

“Doing okay?” I asked.

“About even,” he replied. He signaled a hit to the dealer and winced as he busted. “Oh well. Time to move on.”

He gathered up his chips and a drink glass filled with something clear and ice.

“What do you want to do?” he asked, slipping gracefully off the stool.

“Dinner. I’m starving.”

“You’re always starving.”

Which is true. I am. I’m one of those lucky types that can eat like a horse and never get fat, a fact which mystifies Sid, who can’t.

“So when’s the pickup?” I asked softly as we made our way out of the casino.

“Between nine-fifteen and nine-thirty. You’re making it. Just put your purse on the bar in the Keno lounge.”

“Oh, good, we’ve got time for the buffet.”

Sid all but gagged. “On your own time, please. They have a nice seafood restaurant here.”

“Okay, that sounds good.”

Sid shook his head. But I will give him credit. He almost ate like a normal person. Sid is a complete health nut. No red meat, no refined sugar or starches, no fat, small portions all the time. Not that I don’t like healthy food. I do. I just like all the other stuff, too. He had grilled salmon, steamed vegetables, no potato, and salad with oil and vinegar on the side. I indulged in surf and turf, creamy dressing on my salad, and loaded up my baked potato with butter and sour cream, and dunked every bite of lobster into luscious drawn butter. Sid sighed but didn’t say anything.

We finished around eight-thirty and lacking anything better to do, went over to the Keno lounge. The casino was crowded with conventioneers – a trade association for manufacturers of recreation products was having its annual meeting at the casino that weekend. Sid and I were hard-pressed to find a place to sit but did manage to find a booth away from the betting window and across from the bar.

“I don’t think I’m ever going to figure this game out,” I grumbled, trying to read a brochure about Keno in the dimmed light.

“Hm.” Sid was checking out a woman in her mid-forties sitting a few tables away and trying to look as though he wasn’t checking her out – not Sid’s usual modus operandi.

Which was odd, because she was definitely checking Sid out and with considerably more interest than the other women in the bar, who believe me, were checking.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“Irony of ironies,” Sid said with a weak smile. “You know how worried you’ve been about running into someone you know?”

“Yeah, but I’ve never seen her before, assuming you mean that woman over there.”

“That’s because she’s someone I know. Or knew.”

Sid cussed softly as she got up and made her way over. There was something almost stunning about her, although she didn’t have that glamorous look. Her hair was cut short into a wedge and she was wearing a nice, but predictable, dark business suit. It must have been the way she carried herself.

“Oh, my lord, Sid Hackbirn!” she said, smiling happily as she got to the table.

“Della, well, I’ll be damned.” Sid scrambled to his feet. “What are you doing here?”

“I’m here for the meeting.” She held up the badge she was wearing. “I’m VP Finance for Sunland Products. You?”

“I’m here doing a story,” Sid said. He waved at the booth. “Please, join us.”

“Thank you.”

Sid glanced at me and I moved over on the bench as Della slid into the booth ahead of Sid.

“This is my secretary, Lisa Wycherly,” Sid said. “Lisa, this is Della Riordan.”

I was waiting for her to question Sid having a secretary – everyone tends to assume he’s made his money by writing, which is ridiculous because writing does not pay very well at all. But she didn’t.

“Wycherly?” she asked, looking at me carefully. “As in the sporting goods store across the state line?”

“Yeah, that’s my dad’s store,” I said, hesitantly. “He and my mom own the resort out here, too.”

“Your father is a good client,” Della said.

“Sunland Products. You guys make trail food,” I said, even though I was still puzzled. I knew the product line from running my dad’s store summers while I was in college. But the big chains carried Sunland, too, and Daddy didn’t carry all that much trail food.

“My goodness, Sid, you’ve done well for yourself,” Della said, ignoring me. “What happened to your glasses?”

That placed Della way back to Sid’s early college days, at least. He’d gotten his money around then. Sid is extremely near-sighted and hates wearing glasses, so the contact lenses were one of his first indulgences.

“I inherited some money,” Sid said, “and promptly got contacts. You seem to be doing rather well, too.”

“Well enough,” Della sighed. “I still miss teaching, but I can’t complain about the compensation for executives.”

“Yeah, I’d heard what had happened. So, are you married? Single?”

Della chuckled. “Still single. You?”

Sid laughed lecherously. “Very single and always open.”

“Still audacious, too, I see.” She glanced at me. “How long have you two been together?”

“I’ve been working for Sid for a year,” I said, my tone getting frostier than I’d intended.

There was something about the way Sid was looking at her. I had a feeling this wasn’t just any old past fling.

“Lisa is strictly my secretary,” Sid said with a teasing edge to it. “Not for lack of trying on my part.”

“You can say that again,” I grumbled.

“What?” asked Della.

Sid sighed loudly. “The woman has morals. Can you believe it? In this day and age?”

I put my hands up. “Okay. Got the hint. I’m leaving. Della, nice meeting you.”

I grabbed my purse from where it had been sitting under the table next to Della’s feet and scooted out of the booth and off toward the bar. I checked my watch and sure enough, it was coming on to nine-fifteen. I knew Sid was giving me an excuse to leave, but I was annoyed at how he chose to do it.

“Snippy little thing,” said Della’s voice in my ear.

“I wasn’t entirely fair,” said Sid. “I was baiting her.”

I did my best not to glare in his direction and plopped the monster purse on the bar next to me.

“And she does come in for a lot of grief because people keep assuming we’re sleeping together,” Sid continued.

“I don’t know whether to be impressed or horrified,” Della said.

“Be impressed. It’s not easy for her. Or me.”

“I’m surprised you’ve kept her around. That’s not like you, Sid. Or it wasn’t.”

Sid laughed. “It’s still not like me, and if you give me half a chance, I’ll prove it. But Lisa’s different. I don’t get it, but it seems to work out well for us and I’m content.”

“Well, bully for you, dear.” Della’s voice turned deeply sour. “People with morals are why I’m not teaching anymore.”

“Lisa’s not like that. She doesn’t judge, and lord knows, I’ve given her more than enough reason to.” Sid gently took her hand as I tried not to squirm. I knew it was about to get intimate and while we needed to stay wired, I wasn’t wild about listening in on his latest conquest.

Except this was different.

“I wish I could have been there when Crowley blew the whistle on you,” he continued.

“He was lying, you know,” Della sighed.

“That doesn’t surprise me.” Sid paused. “I, uh, hope it didn’t get out about us. I’d hate to think that what we had got you into trouble.”

“What we had was an illegal fling, Sid.”

“Yeah. I know. I kind of wish I’d thought about that now.”

“I should have. I was, technically, the adult.” Della put her hand on Sid’s cheek. “But you were special. Half man, half boy.”

“Della, I wouldn’t be half the lover I am today if it hadn’t been for you. I learned so much from you.”

“I was only supposed to be teaching you algebra.”

“Well, you know, Della, I am of age now. Unless your company has issues about consenting adults.”

Della chuckled. “At least you’ve gotten a little more subtle than your hand up my skirt.”

“I still remember the smell of your perfume.”

“And I remember how sweet and how giving you were.”

Sid moved in for a kiss, his hand sliding under the lapel of his jacket to remove the microphone hidden there. I checked my watch again. Nine-thirty.

“What’s with that couple over there?”

I looked up at the man sitting on the stool next to me. He had that tall and gangly look, with darkish hair cut sort of short and dark horned-rim glasses. His eyes were dark and he was kind of cute. He was dressed in a suit and boring blue-striped tie, but the tie had been loosened and his collar was open. A plastic badge was clipped to his chest pocket, but I couldn’t make out what it said.

“Oh,” I said. “Um, that’s my boss. I just work for him.”

“I believe you,” he said, glancing over at Sid and Della, who were in full embrace and about to enact a porn movie if they stayed in the bar any longer.

“I shouldn’t be so defensive,” I sighed. “People see us together and assume we’re sleeping together, and I just get tired of it, is all. I’m not that kind of girl.”

“Really? What kind of girl are you?”

My grin got a little strained. “Religious.” I stopped. “Sorry. I’m making a hash of this. I’ve never done the bar thing well, mostly because I don’t do one night stands and every time I go into a bar, it seems like that’s all anyone is interested in. Whatever happened to just having a good time being friends? I mean, I like dating. I just don’t want to jump into bed with every guy I go out with.”

My new friend laughed. “What a refreshing perspective. You know, I’m so tired of going on dates only to feel like I’ve got to perform or I’m some kind of mutant.”

“You don’t look like a mutant to me.” I glanced over at the booth. Sid and Della had gone. “Looks like I’m off duty for the night.”

“Hey, it’s not late. My name’s Fletcher Haddock. I’m here with the meeting. Um, I’ve got an extra ticket for the midnight show. Would you like to come with me?”

“Sure. That sounds like fun. I’m Lisa Wycherly.”

“As in the sporting goods store over the state line?”

“Yeah. That’s my parents’ place, along with the resort. I can’t believe it’s so popular.”

“Oh, yeah. We all know Wycherly’s. It’s a nice store.”

“That’s good to know.” It certainly explained Della knowing it.

“Well, shall we?”

We had a lovely time. Fletcher and I had a lot in common, including the church thing. Not only was he a Catholic and still practicing, he even sang in his church’s choir. We gambled a bit and Fletcher taught me how to play craps. You’d think growing up next to the casinos, I’d know these things. But one of the disadvantages of being a local kid in such a relatively small place as South Lake Tahoe is that the pit bosses knew us. In fact, I got carded that night by a boss who used to go to my old church.

The midnight show was entertaining. A comic named Gary Shandling was up first, then Juliet Prowse. Afterward, Fletcher walked me up to my room.

“I had a good time, Lisa,” he said as we reached the door. He kept his arm tight across my shoulder.

“Me, too, Fletcher.”

“You know, we don’t have to end the evening now,” Fletcher said, trying to sound casual and completely blowing it.

“Yeah, well, I do have to work tomorrow,” I replied.

Fletcher moved in for a kiss. I was okay with that until I found myself all but choking on his tongue. And it was really wet, too. I pulled back.

“Um, Fletcher, I think I’m going to go to bed now.”

“Why don’t you let me come with you?” He grinned, but it wasn’t working.

“No. I sleep alone. Remember? Thanks for a fun evening.”

I slid into the room as fast as I could and all but slammed the door shut behind me.

Sid had, fortunately, shut the door to his bedroom, but I could still hear him and Della fully involved. Blushing and thoroughly disgusted, I went to my room and slammed the door. Either Sid got the hint or the door did its job. It didn’t matter. The room was quiet and I went to bed.

Anne Louise Bannon

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