I poked my head into the drawing room where Sid sat staring at a blank notepad in a padded leather cover. Surrounding him were pages of statistics. He twiddled his favorite Mont Blanc fountain pen in his hand.
“Um, what time are we making that pickup?” I asked.
“We’ll leave right after lunch.” He looked up at me. “Why?”
“Well, I was just wondering if I’d have time to give this to Hattie.” I went in the rest of the way and sat down on the piano bench.
“You’re finished with that sidebar already?” Sid did not look happy.
“It was only two hundred and fifty words, and I didn’t have to do any research.”
Sid was writing the main article on the different choices women were making for their lives, namely to stay at home or work. We’d had a lively debate over the issue with Hattie the night before, and she decided she wanted an article on it. Disgusted, Sid capped his pen and put it away in his suit coat.
“I can’t even get an outline down,” he grumbled. “How am I supposed to do interviews if I don’t know what to ask?”
“Maybe you ought to start with how they feel.”
“Maybe Lisa ought to be doing the main article,” said Hattie, coming into the room.
“I’m happy with the sidebar,” I said. I was thrilled. This was the closest I’d ever come to being really published, and to get paid for it? “I just finished it.”
Hattie took the sheet and put on her reading glasses, which she had on a cord around her neck.
“Hm.” She looked over at Sid. “Sid, have you got your angle on this?”
“I’m getting there,” said Sid gloomily.
Hattie looked down at the blank notepad. “You’re not very far. Perhaps you don’t have the right feel for it. Sid, I want you to reduce the stats to the sidebar. Lisa, you do the main article.”
“What?” yelped Sid.
“The piece needs a woman’s voice.”
“I couldn’t,” I gasped. “Hattie, I’ve never really done anything like this.”
Sid glared at me. “Lisa, you are being offered an opportunity on a silver platter. Grab it, woman.”
“Lisa, your writing is excellent,” said Hattie. “I’m sure Sid will be glad to help you develop the reporting, then it’s just a matter of getting the words on the paper.”
“I’ll see you two at lunch.” Hattie left.
Sid glared at his notepad.
“You’re mad, aren’t you?” I said.
“I can’t say I’m happy about it.” He looked at me. “Actually, you’re right. I’m pretty teed off. But it’s not your fault, Lisa. Hattie’s right. It needs to be written by a woman.”
“But you’d rather she wasn’t me.”
Sid looked me over. “I don’t get it.”
“It’s the younger sibling syndrome,” I grumbled. “Mae would do something, like drama or choir, and I’d have to get involved too, and sometimes I was better than she was, like skeet. It really bugged her to work so hard on something only to be pre-empted by her baby sister.”
Sid laughed. “Yeah, that about describes how I’m feeling. At the same time, I want to be noble about this. After all, Lisa, if you want to write yourself, I really do want to support you.”
“It would be nice,” I said with a small smile. “But I don’t want to get into competition with you.”
“I doubt that will happen. Even on the same subject, I think you and I would write two very different articles.” Sid got up and stretched. “At least we’re not on deadline with this.” He paused. “I don’t want you to feel like you have to ask me to help you just to make me feel better. But if you do want it, I’ll be there for you.”
“Thanks. I’ll probably need it.”
He smiled at me. “Why don’t we get this mess cleaned up and go to lunch?”
We drove into Washington in a rented car. Sid was still acting a little funny. He was not happy about having to hand the article over to me, but he kept bringing it up, asking me about the outline, what interviews I planned, and generally discussing various plans of attack.
“Sid, are you still trying to write this article?” I finally asked.
He winced. “I hope not. I’m making a very genuine effort to be supportive and share a little of my journalistic experience. I’ve got the background academically and I did sell stuff before you came along.”
“How often?” I asked out of curiosity.
“Well, only about two or three articles a year, but I did have to do everything myself, and there was an awful lot of Quickline business that I had to take care of.”
I laughed. “Sid, the only reason you didn’t get published more often was that editors didn’t want to take the time to fix your lousy sentence structure and spelling. Since we got that cleared up, you’ve been going gangbusters. I’d be a fool not to listen to you, especially since my writing experience is all academic.”
“Still, it’s your article. I have no right to be butting into it.” He looked at me and grinned. “I’ll find some other way to get even.”
I stiffened. “You’d better be careful.”
“Very careful,” he snickered.
I would have slugged him but he was driving, and he pulled into a parking garage anyway.
The drop was at a music store filled with all sorts of pianos and a long wall of sheet music with more bins next to them. Sid and I browsed casually for a few minutes, he through the bins, and me through the racks on the wall. A title caught my eye and I pulled the music out.
“Doesn’t that about say it all?” I told Sid, handing him the music. He handed me the book he was holding, then looked at the title of mine and laughed. The song was “You and Me Against the World.”
“How are we doing today?” asked a young preppy salesman.
“Oh, fine,” said Sid. He handed the song back to me and meandered over to a cherry wood upright piano.
“That’s a nice little starter instrument,” said the salesman. “Do you play?”
Sid winked at me. “Sometimes.”
I grinned back. Sid was setting the poor guy up. We both love doing that to salespeople who try to sell us stuff we don’t want.
“Here, let me play a little for you,” said the salesman. “So you can hear how good it sounds.”
Of course, the last thing he wanted was for us to find out how hard it is to make music until we’d heard how easy it is first. Sid beat him onto the bench and tapped out a tentative “Chopsticks”
“I don’t know, honey,” he asked me. “What do you think?”
“We have an excellent lesson program,” said the salesman as Sid continued playing “Chopsticks.” “And lessons do come with the purchase of your piano.”
“Lessons, huh?” Sid asked. “So I can play like this?”
Sid launched into the two-handed version, then improvised, getting more and more complicated as he went.
The salesman laughed. “I thought you said you played sometimes.”
“I didn’t say how well,” said Sid. He looked over at me. “Sweetheart, would you give me that book I handed you a moment ago?”
I gave it to him. He thumbed through it to the page he wanted, flattened it on the music holder, counted and burst into “The Flight of the Bumble Bee.” The salesman gaped, then nervously looked at us.
“You’re them. I- I’ll ring this up for you.” He grabbed the song I was holding and fled.
“Our drop?” I asked Sid softly.
Sid nodded, still concentrating on his music. A minute later, a tall, matronly woman wandered over with my sheet music in hand.
“Good timing,” she said softly. She handed me the song.
There was a thick manilla envelope inside. I slid it into my purse. The woman looked at us sadly.
“I’m the Dragon, 53-Q, code level 12-A,” she said. The code meant she darned near ran the organization. “This is going to be a dirty one.”
“So we’ve been given to understand,” said Sid. He stopped playing and turned to face her.
“I must warn you that the tree you’re working has been flaky for a long time. We’ve already tried sending marked drops through. Whoever the leak is, they’re very clever, and they’re quick, and as the girl we sent to San Francisco found out, they’re deadly.”
“Well, we’re going in with our eyes open,” said Sid.
“You’ll be calling me for check-ins and to arrange the drops and me only. I’m code Strawberry 5150. If the Strawberries have wilted, bail out and go to standard identity change format. You’ll be cleared to leave the country. If you can’t make a pickup, you can buy passports through the Company, or any other supplier. For check-ins, I’m only giving you fifteen minutes on either side of your assigned hour. If you can’t get me, call the next day, regular time. If I don’t answer a second time, bail out and leave the country immediately, however you can, and get passports through the first Company station you can find.”
Sid nodded, his face unreadable. I tried to keep mine blank, but it wasn’t easy. A standard identity change meant completely changing your identity, often for the rest of your life, and starting over someplace else. As for leaving the country, we normally had to clear even day trips to Tijuana a week in advance. We were headed for some real trouble if we were cleared ahead of time without a specific plan and set up to buy fake passports from the C.I.A.
The Dragon looked us over. “The biggest danger for you will be carelessness. It’s reasonably safe to assume that your first few stops or so will produce no response at all. But when things do break, they’ll happen quickly. I’ll try to warn you where I can.”
“Thanks,” said Sid softly.
The Dragon smiled at us, then left. Sid took the sheet music from my hand.
“Do you know this song?” he asked.
“A little. I’ve heard it before.”
“Hm.” Sid looked over the music as he turned back to the piano keys.
I sang softly. As we finished, Sid looked up at me.
“It says it all,” he said with a wistful smile.
We were quiet in the car back to Hattie’s. About halfway there, I sighed.
“We’re really looking into the gun barrel on this one, aren’t we?” I asked nervously.
Sid shifted. “It’s not a suicide mission. They’ve given us too many escape routes.”
“That’s it precisely.” He glanced over at me. “You know, I think our best chance at coming out of this alive is to be aware of the danger, but not to let it get to us. Caution is in order, paranoia will kill us.”
“You’re probably right. But could it be you’re not owning up to your own fear?”
“Who me?” Sid tried to chuckle and failed. “Maybe.” Pause. “Probably.” He sighed. “Lisa, right now there’s a job to be done, and I can’t deal with that kind of paralysis. Let’s get the job taken care of, and then we’ll deal with the emotions.”
“Assuming we get that far.”
“We’ve got to stay positive and believe that we’re going to stay alive. Period.”
“Okay. That makes sense.” I was still pretty scared and I could tell Sid was too. But there wasn’t anything we could do about it.
Well, I did something. I called my parents after dinner from the phone in the drawing room. My parents own a resort in South Lake Tahoe, and that’s where I grew up. They also own a place in Homestead, Florida, which is where they’re from. Daddy bought it just after I left for college. Grandma Caulfield was raising Cain about not seeing Mama enough, and my parents were getting a little tired of eight feet of snow seven months out of every year. So they live in Homestead from the end of October to around Easter. The night I called, they’d been back in Tahoe for a month.
“Well, how are you, Lisle,” said Mama in her soft southern drawl. “I was just thinking about calling you.”
“Oh, well, I’m not at home. Sid and I are doing research. I just happened to be waiting around, so I thought I’d call and say hi.”
“From a pay phone?”
“No. A friend of ours. Don’t worry. I’ve got the money thing all worked out.”
“Oh, really. Well, that’s awful nice of your friend.”
“Is Daddy there?”
“I’m ‘fraid not, honey. He had to go into town. You remember Bill and Dottie Shakespeare?”
“Oh yeah.” Actually, I remembered their really awful sons better. Bill was a commercial real estate agent.
“You know Bill was behind that time share company that bought the Bowers’ motel.”
“I didn’t know the Bowers had sold it.”
“Oh, Lisle, they had to. Martin got so sick, and Ernestine just was not up to all that work by herself, and with the kids grown and moved off, there was no way they could keep it. And the time share people were real anxious to get it. You know how that place had all those huge suites and all. Bill fixed them one sweet deal.”
“That’s good, but what does that have to do with Daddy?”
“Well, that time share company is going in everywhere, and they were so happy with Bill that they invited him to get into it, putting money behind it, I mean, and Bill thought your Daddy might be interested in investing also. In fact, we’re supposed to go out to Yellowstone to look over the operation sometime next month.”
“Is Daddy interested?”
“Oh, yes, and I’m looking forward to the trip. It’ll be fun to get someplace besides Florida and here for a change.”
“How are things down south?”
“Oh, the relatives are just being as tiresome as usual.”
She launched into some tale about my Aunt Marie, who is pretty tiresome as a rule. I didn’t hear much of it because Sid wandered in and made it clear that he was not happy that I was on the phone. Fearing the worst, I broke in on Mama.
“Oops, there’s Sid now, Mama. I’ve got to take off. I’ll talk to you soon.” I hung up fast.
“What the hell were you doing?” Sid demanded.
I opted for the best defense. “I was calling my mother. I have a right to do that.”
“Not when it could get her and you killed.”
“Hattie swears her phones are clean, and nobody knows about our business, so nobody is going to tap my mother’s phone.”
“It’s still taking chances. Why on earth would you do that?”
I blinked back tears. “Why do you think?”
Sid paced for a moment longer, then sat down at the piano and began the first of the Twenty-Four Preludes.
The next morning at breakfast, Sid got called to the phone. He didn’t seem too ruffled up by it until we left the dining room. Hattie took off to take care of whatever business she had. Sid motioned for me to follow him upstairs.
“What’s up?” I asked as I followed him to Hattie’s room.
“That phone call. It was from the Dragon.”
“She called you here? How did she know?”
“She told me to come here in the first place. Anyway, one of the Washington operatives who has been watching this tree got called to meet with one of the suspects at three o’clock this afternoon. We’re to watch the meeting, and tail the suspect.”
“That doesn’t sound too bad.” I waited in the doorway while Sid went in and got our transmitters and receivers out of his suitcase. “We might even break this thing right up front.”
Sid smiled and shook his head. “We can but hope. Unfortunately, our shopping trip is going to make it hard to wear jackets.”
He meant our shoulder holsters. We couldn’t wear suit jackets to cover the holsters because a three piece or even a two-piece suit is a real nuisance to get in and out of when you’re trying on clothes. Also, Sid’s suits and shirts are all custom made, which is why we were shopping in the first place. We were supposed to be your average middle-class couple, and Sid always says it’s the details that trip you up faster than anything when you’re undercover. It would have looked pretty funny if he were dressed in one of his super expensive suits and shopping at the Gap.
He was wearing khaki slacks and a light orange Polo shirt, which was the least conspicuous outfit he had with him. Since he was wearing that, it would have looked funny if I were wearing a suit, so I wore the lavender shirtwaist dress that I’d finished the night before. Except for Wednesday morning when I was writing, I’d been sewing pretty steadily and had another sundress and short sleeved shirt in progress. I learned a long time ago that I can get a lot more done if I work on batches of outfits instead of just one item at a time.
I had stuff to buy as well. While my vacation clothes were compatible with our cover, Sid hadn’t packed any of them, just my business wear. All I had were the three t-shirts and pair of jeans I’d worn on the retreat. We knew we’d be gone at least three weeks, so what I had wasn’t going to get me very far.
Shopping with Sid is, in a word, interesting. He’s the only man I’ve ever met who doesn’t mind browsing, although when he’s buying for himself, he does have the male habit of getting what he wants and getting out. Things were a little difficult that day because off the rack clothes don’t fit him too well. He is a little on the short side, so all the pants were too long. He isn’t stocky or square-shaped at all, but his chest and arms are pretty muscular because he works out on weights, so most of the shirts and sport coats that were big enough for him were also way too long. Anything that fit, he bought on the spot.
“That’s going to be an awful lot to carry,” I pointed out as he stacked up six pairs of Jordache jeans. They came in specific lengths, so we didn’t have to worry about shortening them. We already had two pairs of casual slacks and another pair of dress slacks that I was going to hem for him. We’d taken a chance and paid for emergency alterations on the navy blazer and tan sport coat. And then there were all the different sport shirts and sweaters we’d bought. Sid is a clothes horse.
He shrugged. “I need the clothes, and as you can see, I can’t just walk into a store and buy them.”
“Well, what about packing lightly? It’s a little more realistic.”
“No, it isn’t.”
I lowered my voice. “Maybe not for a rich kid like you, but for the rest of us, it is.”
His voice dropped also. “Believe it or not, there was a time in my life when I didn’t have any money and I still managed to keep a decent wardrobe.”
“But we have to carry all this stuff.”
“I’ll carry it, and gladly, too. My days of packing lightly are over.”
I snorted. “What? Managing with only one suitcase was a little rough?”
“Try hitchhiking cross country with one pair of jeans, two t-shirts and three pairs of jockey shorts. I swore never again and I meant it.”
“Well, five suitcases is just a bit too far in the other direction.”
“I suppose,” he sighed. “We’ll just get four of these.”
He put back two pairs of jeans as I shook my head. He nearly went nuts watching me. I was the exact opposite. Everything fit, but I didn’t want to spend the money. And if that wasn’t bad enough, Sid kept pushing me to buy long, full-skirted sundresses instead of the shorts and jeans I prefer.
“But I like shorts,” I protested as he put yet another pair back. “I’m comfortable in them.”
“You can’t hide a gun in them,” he said through gritted teeth.
“You can hide all sorts of stuff under this.” He handed me a blue chambray skirt with a white eyelet petticoat.
I took it. “I have a pattern like this.” I examined the side seams. “And the pattern has pockets.”
“Just buy it, will you?”
The only other problem was getting a swim suit. Sid had left mine. It was pretty ratty. He’d brought his.
“You don’t mean your birthday suit, do you?” I said, teasing.
“No. It’s a genuine, bona fide swim suit.” He looked me up and down. “You’ve got the figure for a bikini.”
I blushed. “Would you mind terribly if I did this by myself?”
“Why?” he asked innocently. Yet as he did, one eyebrow lifted and he smiled that really hot little smile.
I swallowed and forced myself to smile back. “I think you know.”
Sid chuckled. “I’ll meet you back here in twenty minutes.”
I got a black one piece and told Sid when he met me that he’d see it soon enough.
We left the stores from there and went to a restaurant near the Watergate Hotel. In the restrooms, we each hid a small micro transmitter and receiver on ourselves. I slid my transmitter onto my bra strap, and parked the receiver behind my ear, brushing my hair over it. Almost immediately, I heard a toilet flush and the raucous laughter of two men. I switched my transmitter on.
“Coming in,” I said softly.
“Loud and clear on this end,” said Sid’s voice in my ear.
I left the ladies room. Sid went to wait in the car, which was parked on the street out front. The restaurant was a nice, if trendy, place, with lots of hanging plants, and booths topped by more planters. I wandered around the dining room, looking for a young man with a purple tie reading Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. He had sandy hair and tortoiseshell glasses and wore a gray pinstriped suit with a purple tie and matching color in his breast pocket. I took a table across the room from his booth to the consternation of the hostess.
“Excuse me, miss,” she said, smiling through gritted teeth. “It would be better if we could get you a table in the other section.”
“I’m waiting for someone,” I told her. “I want to be where I can see the door.”
“We can arrange that,” she said.
“I’ll stay here, thank you.”
A minute later, I heard her behind me. I couldn’t see her through all the plants topping my booth.
“We’ve got another one that won’t budge. Table twelve.”
“Aw hell, and that jackass on fifty-three. Why do they always have to spread out on the days we’re short-handed?”
Just then, the Washington operative jerked. The book tumbled out of his hands as he fell forward, the back of his head a red mess. My stomach tied itself into knots. A waitress approached the table and screamed bloody murder, literally.
I looked everywhere but at that table.
“It doesn’t sound good in there?”
“It’s not,” I whispered. Terror settled into my limbs and kept me pinned. “Um, has anyone left the place in the last thirty seconds?”
“Yeah, about five people. You’d better get out of there. Go the back way.”
Trembling, I got up and slipped back and around towards the bar. There was a closed section next to where the operative had been sitting, and in it, a booth that backed up to the booth where the operative was. On the table was a glass of water, half empty, and a crumpled napkin.
I got to the car just as the police pulled up. Sid took his time getting going.
“What the hell happened?” he asked.
“He just went over,” I said. “I didn’t hear anything, but he must have been shot. Someone was in the booth behind him.”
“Did you see who?”
I shook my head. “The planters blocked the view.”
“And a silencer, too.” Sid shook his head. “That’s a professional job if ever I’ve seen one.”
“I wonder who set it up there. Not one of the booths backs up against a wall, and everything is screened by planters.”
“But who’d try a hit like that in broad daylight? Whoever’s behind this has guts.”
Apparently, the Dragon concurred when Sid checked in with her from Hattie’s. I just wanted to put it all out of my mind, so I concentrated on finishing my projects. It worked. I not only finished them but got Sid’s pants hemmed and pressed. I just didn’t get to bed until three a.m., not that I would have been better off going to bed earlier. Something told me I wouldn’t have slept much.
[I didn’t sleep much either. You were right about the fears I didn’t want to acknowledge, and the worst fear was that you or I would die before we had a chance to know each other’s love, the physical kind, of course. I had no idea there was any other. That night, I made love to Hattie and felt terrible because in my mind I had made love to you. I vowed then and there that sometime on that trip I would make it right for you and we would make love. I eventually banished you from my mind and made love to Hattie, only to have it happen all over again – SEH]