Chapter Three

spy novel, serial fiction, serial mystery, cozy mysterySeptember 17, 1983

 

If Sid slept in the next morning, he wasn’t about to let me know it. He got me to go running at seven again. We went to the lakefront and hid lockpicks and guns in the trunk of the car. I told him over breakfast what had happened the night before.

“Essentially,” I said as I finished. “It all went as smooth as silk.”

He nodded. “I figured it would. After all, I trained you.”

“Very funny.”

“I thought so.”

“You won’t think this is.” I went over to my ski jacket and pulled out the box. “It wasn’t part of the pickup.”

“Then where did it come from?”

“Good question.” I tossed it to him.

He opened one end and pulled out a sealed plastic bag filled with white powder.

“Let me guess,” I said. “That’s some illegal substance?”

“I’d say that’s as good a guess as any.” Sid got up and paced.

“Aren’t you supposed to dip your finger in and taste it?”

Sid laughed. “Are you kidding? Who knows what that stuff is laced with? It could even be straight poison like cyanide or something. Just a taste of that’d have me pining for the fjords in no time.” He paused, thinking. “I wonder if I brought it.”

He went to his room.

“What?” I asked following him into the bathroom.

“Henry got me a chemical analysis kit a couple years ago when I had a case with a lot of different substances floating around. I put some fresh test chemicals in my kit last July before I went to the Bahamas.”

“Sounds like some interesting parties.”

“Not that trip.” Sid got the leather kit off the counter and opened it. “And they are still here.”

He pulled out the little sample bottles labeled shampoo, conditioner, hand lotion, and a couple others.

“I need some more glasses,” he said, unwrapping the three on the counter.

I got two more off the dresser in the bedroom.

Sid filled each with a different clear liquid and put the corresponding bottle next to the glass.

“Are we ready?” he asked, with a mischievous grin.

“Go for it,” I said.

The first glass clouded up, then cleared, leaving a tiny bit of residue on the bottom. Sid shook his head and dropped some powder into the next glass. The liquid turned bright blue in a second.

“Woh. That’s coke.”

“Cocaine?” I asked.

“Very pure cocaine.” He looked at the first glass. “This precipitate is probably just talcum powder. Must have been cut only once.” He picked up the bag. “Want a snort?”

I pulled back. “I hope you’re joking.”

“Mostly.” He looked at the bag. “It’s one hell of a high. I got a hold of a couple lines when I first got to ‘Nam, and nearly got myself killed as a result. It was just too dangerous for someone doing intelligence work. I decided I liked staying alive more.”

“You did drugs?”

“Some. Mostly the occasional joint to be part of the crowd. But I’d been around it all my life and knew too many people who were dying from it to be really interested.”

Sid’s Aunt Stella, who raised him, was a Communist, and he grew up with a bunch of radicals and hippies before they were called hippies, which is why he doesn’t see anything wrong with free love. He was taught that it was normal and natural, and that’s all.

I wandered back into the sitting room. “It just seems so weird that your brain isn’t fried. I know a girl from high school who’s so out of it, and it had to be drugs. She wasn’t like that in school.”

“That’s why I wasn’t interested.” Sid followed me out.

I noticed some papers on the coffee table. “What are these?”

“Autopsy report on Della.”

“That fast?”

“Not a lot of corpses in Douglas County.”

I picked the report up. “Where did you get it?”

“Marcia asked me if I wanted it, and I said yes, and she brought it up last night. She thought there might be some morbid curiosity, which at that point it was.”

“Three fifty-seven, three shots to the chest,” I read aloud. “Had recently had sexual intercourse, probably more than once. How many times did you two do it?”

Sid winced. “Only twice. I’m afraid I’m not seventeen anymore.”

My face felt hot. “I had to ask.” I turned back to the report. “Shots were at close range, but no other signs of a struggle. That’s odd.”

“Not if she knew her killer. There weren’t any signs of a struggle in her room either.”

I looked over the report. “It doesn’t say anything about the room.”

“I searched it this morning. It was clean. However, an interesting point, a pro had gone over it before me.”

“Tom Collins. No, it can’t have been him. He would have said something last night, and I’m certain he intends to stay out of this.”

Sid just shrugged.

“So how are we going to find the killer?” I asked.

“We could try asking the Sunland people.”

I sighed. “I’m sure they’ll tell us a lot.”

“If we ask the right questions, probably more than they want to. They’re all in their meeting right now. Why don’t I try later?”

I picked up my purse. “Sure. For now, I think I’ll take a walk. I’ve been wanting to since I got here.”

“Fine with me. Just take care of yourself.”

His smile was soft and gentle. I smiled back and beat it out of there in a hurry.

There’s a little clearing near the Heavenly ski area that I call my “by myself” place. Murray Waters, the manager at my father’s store, showed it to me the summer I was sixteen. Murray and I weren’t really close or anything like that. He’d just caught me sobbing in the stockroom over the usual adolescent woes, and showed me his favorite place to go when he was bugged. It was his way of reaching out.

It took me an hour to hike there. It’s surrounded by tall pines, except on one side, where a huge boulder forms a flat table overlooking the valley. The granite was rough and sparkled in the morning sun, and was freezing cold to the touch. I only spent a few minutes breathing in the still, then checked my watch and hiked back into town.

As I passed Daddy’s store, I stopped short. It was closed. I looked at my watch. Eight minutes after eleven. Even on Saturday mornings, as it was, the store opened at nine on the dot. Only on Sundays did the store open at eleven. It wasn’t like Murray to be that irresponsible.

Puzzled and frowning, I went around to the back. It was locked, too. I hefted out my key ring and unlocked the door.

“Hello?” I called, stepping into the dark stockroom.

No answer. I shut the door and turned on the light.

“Anybody here? Murray?”

I stepped through the shelves. The place was deserted. Near the door to the front of the store was a small desk attached to the wall. Above it was the wall phone, and next to the phone was a yellowed sheet of paper with names and phone numbers on it. It was so old, my name was still on it, from when I worked there in high school and during the summers when I was in college.

Murray’s number had been crossed out and had a new number next to it. I dialed the new number. No answer. I tried the old number, but that had been disconnected. On the list, several names had been crossed out and a couple news ones added. There was one name that I knew, Rita Hodges. She’s worked part time there ever since I can remember. I called her.

“Rita?” I asked when she answered. “This is Lisa Wycherly.”

“Lisa. I heard you were back in town.”

“Yeah, it’s business. I’m at the store right now, and it hasn’t been opened.”

“Where’s Murray?”

“I haven’t the faintest. I called him, but got no answer.”

“Oh dear. That’s just not like Murray. I guess I’d better come in. Just give me a few minutes to turn the roast off. Oh dear. I hope my kids haven’t left yet. They were coming over today.”

The guilt got me. Sid usually lets me have my weekends to myself. The meeting wasn’t due to let out until later that evening, anyway, and Sid had more or less said he was going to take care of talking to the Sunland people.

“Rita, don’t worry. I’ll work it. I’ve still got the keys. They haven’t made any big changes, have they?”

“Well, there’s that new computerized register.”

I looked into the store. “That one. I was still here when they put it in. Do you know who’s working tomorrow? I don’t see the schedule.”

“It’s on the back of the door like usual, and I always do open to close on Sundays.”

“That’s right. Great. It’ll give me some time to find Murray. I’ll talk to you later.”

“Bye-bye, Lisa.”

I hung up, then turned on the lights and went through the store. Everything was in perfect shape and ready to open. Even the stock room had been straightened. There was one shelf next to the desk that was pretty sloppy, with boxes upside down and skewed, but that certainly wasn’t anything unusual. Several cardboard cases were scattered among the shelves waiting to be unpacked, nothing strange about that. The store safe still had the previous night’s deposit bag, which was a little odd. The change bag for the register drawer was as it was supposed to be. I counted it out: one hundred and fifty dollars down to the penny.

I shut the register drawer, took a deep breath, unlocked the front door and turned around the closed sign. There were only a few people on the street, pretty much as could be expected for that time of year. I called Sid from the stockroom phone, leaning in the doorway. A couple wandered in and browsed.

“Hello?” asked Sid’s voice. It had a thick, funny feel to it. I figured he was asleep, although now that I think about it, I should have known better.

“It’s me. Something’s come up-”

“Mm. Is it urgent?”

“Well… I don’t know.”

“Can it wait an hour or two?”

“I suppose.”

“Oh, honey, watch the teeth!” This was obviously not directed at me, but it startled the heck out of me nonetheless. “That’s better, much better, oh yes.”

My face flushed red hot. “Um, you’re not alone, are you?”

“Not at all.” He chortled, then let out a happy sigh. “Is there a number where I can call you?”

I gave it to him and we hung up. I didn’t get much chance to grumble about it. The couple decided they wanted to buy some postcards, and three teenage girls walked in. It continued just busy enough to keep me from wondering about Sid until around one fifteen. He called about two minutes later, just as I located the work schedule taped to the back side of the stockroom door.

“Sorry about taking so long to get back to you,” he said, his voice back to normal. “She’s not taking off.”

“Oh. But…”

“She’s in the shower. What’s up?”

“I’m at my parents’ store. The guy that runs it isn’t here. I dropped by at eleven, and the store was still closed, and there’s no trace of Murray. I figure I may as well take over for the moment.”

“Given what’s been going on, something feels funny about that.”

“The same thought crossed my mind. But nothing’s messed up here. I gave the store a good once over before I opened. There is another possible explanation. Murray’s always been very trustworthy, but there’ve been an awful lot of rumors that he has a gambling problem, and I’ve gotten just enough hints from him to believe it might be true. Something could have pushed him over the deep end and he took off.”

“That’s just plausible enough that we can’t overlook it. How long do you think you’ll be there?”

“Good question.” I looked at the schedule. An Alice Martin was scheduled to show at two. “We’ve got a girl coming in, but I’m going to have to give her a break before I leave.”

“I suppose you should.”

A young man wandered up to the counter with a pan for gold kit and two souvenir mugs. I propped the phone against my shoulder and rung him up.

“That is, of course, assuming the girl shows. That’ll be twenty-three twenty- seven,” I told my customer.

“Why wouldn’t she?” asked Sid as I made change.

“Have a nice day,” I said to the young man. “I have no idea. Just the way things are going at the moment.”

Sid chuckled. “You may have a point. Why don’t I meet you down there?”

“Sure. Can you bring me some food? We’ve got nothing here but trail mix, and I’ve missed lunch.”

“Given your appetite, that’s tantamount to a catastrophe. I’ll see what I can do.”

“I can’t wait,” I grumbled blandly. “I’ll talk to you later.”

I hung up, pondering Alice Martin. The name sounded vaguely familiar. Then it hit. My girlfriend, Leslie Bowman, had babysat for the Martins when we were in high school. She’d always complained about how unreliable the parents were, always coming home hours later than they said they would, and what a precocious brat the little girl, Alice, was. I did some figuring and realized Alice had to be around sixteen.

It seemed strange that Murray would hire someone so young, but there seemed to be a lot of strangeness surrounding Murray at that moment. I checked the schedule again. Both Alice and Ruth were almost working full time for the next two weeks. That made sense, especially with those cases in the stockroom. It was time for winter changeover when all the summer sporting goods were packed away and the winter stuff put out. It was a royal pain, too. I decided that the front needed watching more than the cases needed unpacking.

I did go ahead and call the hospital, hoping to find Murray. He wasn’t there, and the nurse I talked to not only knew him but said that no unidentified patients had been admitted either. I called the police. They went over and checked his place. His car was there, but he wasn’t. The officers said there wasn’t anything they could do until he’d been missing seventy-two hours or I had good reason to suspect foul play. I did, but my reasons were too closely linked to Quickline, so I let it go.

By the time two o’clock rolled around, Sid still hadn’t shown. Neither had Alice. Around two twenty, I was helping a customer dig out some blueberry muffin mix from among the trail food when the door banged open with a loud jangle.

“Murray!” bellowed the youthful female voice. “Murray, I’ve got a big problem. I’ve got to take Friday off. You’ve gotta let me have it.”

“Excuse me,” I told my customer, then went over to the counter. “Murray’s not here. You must be Alice.”

She stepped back. She was blonde with long full hair that had been feathered back from her face and glued in place with hair spray. Her eyes were blue and framed with too much mascara. Tight jeans emphasized her round, but slender seat, while a tight, low cut v-necked sweater made the most of her ample chest.

“Who are you?” she demanded as I went to the register to ring up the customer.

“Hold on,” I said, then rang up the muffin mix.

Alice waited impatiently while I gave the guy his change.

“Who do you think you are?” she exploded as soon as the customer had left. “You can’t just walk in here and work like you own the place.”

“But I do, more or less. I’m Lisa Wycherly.”

“Oh. Like he’s your dad or something?”

“He’s my father.”

“Awesome.” She thought that one over with both brain cells. “Where’s Murray?”

I shrugged. “I was hoping you’d know.”

“Fat chance. You knew about the divorce.”

“I’d heard something about it.”

“Darla totally wiped him out. She, like, got everything, the house, the kids, the furniture, his dogs even, except for one.”

“How sad.” Somewhere in the back of my mind it registered that Murray and Darla were dog breeders, or had been.

“He’s totally broken up about it.”

“Maybe that has something to do with why he’s not here.”

Alice gaped. “Oh man, you don’t mean, like, he might have killed himself or something?”

“Let’s hope it was the something. In the meantime, there’s not much we can do about it.”

“But what am I going to do about Friday?”

“We’ll see. Maybe Rita can work it. You’ll have to talk to her, though. I’m not even supposed to be here. Why don’t you watch the front while I get some of that stock put away?”

Moping, Alice dumped her purse under the register and slumped onto the stool behind the counter. I checked my watch. There was no telling when Sid was going to show.

“Alice, I’m going to go get something to eat,” I said, picking up my purse. “I’m expecting my boss to come by. When he gets here, will you ask him to wait, please?”

“Is he single and cute?”

“He’s over eighteen, and you’re not.”

“What makes you so sure?” She smirked.

She did look older than she was.

“Remember your old babysitter, Leslie?”

“Yeah.”

“She was my best friend. She told me all about that time you and your cousin stayed up after you were supposed to be in bed and did nude cheesecake poses for each other.”

Alice groaned in pure adolescent agony. Smirking myself, I tossed my purse over my shoulder and went in search of lunch. I got a double burger, chili fries and black cherry malted to go from a hamburger stand down the street.

I returned to the store through the back and shut the door quietly. Neither Sid nor Alice noticed my entrance. They stood in the doorway to the front of the store, Alice leaning casually against the doorjamb, with Sid leaning on a hand placed above her and moving in for a kiss.

“She’s jailbait, Sid,” I said loudly.

Still smooth, Sid pulled back, chuckling and shaking his finger at her.

“Nice try, little girl,” he said.

Alice shifted her chest. “Maybe she’s, like, jealous.”

“Really?” replied Sid, with a bemused grin. “You got the I.D. to prove it?”

“Yeah.” Alice went after her purse.

“Trust me, Sid,” I said. “She is, without a doubt, a minor.”

Sid chuckled. “No fooling. She looks like she could be old enough, but I was going to card her.”

“Here,” said Alice, putting the card in Sid’s face.

Still smiling, Sid examined the surface, then held it up to the light. He laughed.

“Where’d you buy this?” he chuckled, handing it back.

“Reno,” said Alice in a small voice. “My friend got it for me.”

“Tell your friend to find a forger with the right paper,” said Sid.

“Well, I’m still eighteen.”

“Then why give me a phony I.D.?” Sid shook his head. “I’m sorry, honey, but I’m afraid not.”

“Come on. Why not?”

“When an overage guy plays with an underage girl, if they get caught, much anguish ensues.”

“That’s if they get caught.” Alice presented her chest again. “I’m not, like, telling anyone.”

Sid smiled. “There’ll be nothing to tell. Like my good friend said, you’re jailbait, honey, and frankly, I’m not looking to get busted. After you’re eighteen, I’m all yours. Until then, them’s the breaks. I’m sorry.”

Moping, Alice slumped off into the front.

“You don’t know how sorry,” Sid muttered, then turned to me.

“You can quit drooling now,” I snipped, dumping my lunch on the little desk. I looked at him. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be such a grouch. This whole thing with Murray has got me bugged. I was going through the stock out front to find out what we had so I could help the customers. We’ve got a lot of Sunland Products in.”

I opened the bag.

“I have a very nice tuna sandwich for you,” said Sid.

“Thanks. Why don’t you put it in the fridge there? I’ll eat it later.” I spread out the paper the hamburger had been wrapped in and put the carton of fries next to it.

Sid shook his head. “I’m not sure which is more appalling, the amount of food you have there, or its fat content.”

“It’s good stuff,” I said with my mouth full. “Want a fry?”

Sid grimaced and pulled back. “No thank you.”

I swallowed. “Your, uh, friend with the teeth.”

“Who?”

“You know. When I called you.”

“Oh, her.”

“She wouldn’t happen to have been a Sunland Products employee, would she?”

“Nope.” Sid sighed as I shoveled a huge bite of chili, cheese, chopped onion and french fry into my mouth. “They’re all gone.”

“What?”

“They took off this morning. My, uh, friend this afternoon told me that they felt they didn’t feel right about staying, given the murder, an altogether shocking display of sentiment over corporate spirit. Either that or someone decided a lack of sentiment wouldn’t score any points for the company’s image.”

“That’s a very cynical way of looking at it.” I mused as I sucked down some shake. “Then again, it would also be very convenient if someone wanted a way out of here in a hurry that wouldn’t look suspicious.”

“Indeed. That thought crossed my mind also, but there’s no real way of confirming it for the moment. I did confirm the departure of the Sunland people with the hotel staff. Our next chance to talk with them will be at Della’s funeral.”

“When’s that?”

“Monday, in San Francisco. That’s where her parents are.”

“You want me to go with you?”

“It could be useful, but I think not. Showing up as her last lover and possible killer will be bad enough. Having another woman with me would be too tacky. You know what people always assume.”

“Too well.” I paused to swallow. “Have you found anything else out about the murder?”

“Nope. I haven’t even seen Lehrer today.”

“I knew something was going right.” I smiled and looked at him. “Are you alright?”

“Fine. Why do you keep asking me that?”

I shrugged. “Della was quite a loss for you.”

“It was the shock. I hadn’t seen her in fifteen years, then to stumble onto her, not to mention the rude awakening by Lehrer.”

“Yeah, right. There are all those memories, and what you said about… being with her. You can’t pretend those don’t get to you.”

“Well…” Sid squirmed a little. “Yes, she meant a lot. But I got that out of my system Thursday night.”

“Hm.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I don’t buy it. You’ve been acting a little funny since it happened. Nothing big, just a little off. Like with the cocaine this morning. You looked like you really wanted some.”

“I did.” Sid shrugged at my gape. “I told you, it’s one powerful high.”

“I wouldn’t know. But you’ve also been exceptionally active, even for you. I mean two girls yesterday, another this afternoon. Keep this up, and you’ll set a record.”

“I’m not interested in scorekeeping.”

“I know. That’s what’s bugging me. It’s like you’re trying to make up for Della or forget her.”

Sid studied the floor. “Not so much forget as…” The moment passed. He chuckled. “Either way, you wouldn’t believe the offers I’m getting.”

“I suppose refusing them never crossed your mind.”

“I’ve refused several. Believe it or not, even I can only do so much. I’m not a bull from Montana.”

“Then to what do you attribute your immediate popularity?”

Sid laughed lecherously.

“I mean besides that,” I snapped.

“I know. I’m sorry. The more immediate attraction must be the glamor and thrill of living dangerously.”

“I don’t get it.”

“How healthy can sleeping with a murder suspect be?”

“I don’t know. Have you picked up any diseases lately?”

Sid laughed. “I’ve been taking precautions. How about you?”

“Me?”

“It’s part of what took me so long to get over here. Marcia called. She said Lehrer has decided you have as good a motive as any, and he’s pushing the theory that you killed Della out of jealousy.”

“That’s ridiculous. He knows we’re not sleeping together. What have I got to be jealous of?” I took a huge bite of my burger.

“It’s your secret desire to sleep with me and you can’t bear that another woman is.”

“Make that plural, and it’s no secret I’d like to sleep with you. But I’m certainly not jealous. Heck, I’m your friend. That’s infinitely better than being a one night stand in my book.”

“Not necessarily in everyone else’s.”

“That’s why there are one night stands.”

“Fortunately for me.”

I wiped my mouth. “Well, at least there’s no evidence.”

“I doubt that will stop Lehrer from manufacturing some. We’ll have to really keep an eye on him and our noses clean.”

“To be sure.” I stretched then gathered together the wrappings from my lunch. “What are you going to do for the rest of the day?”

He shrugged. “Not much really. With the Sunland people gone and Lehrer on the prowl, I don’t know that there’s much I can do. Why don’t I stick around here, if I’m not in the way.”

“Why not?” I looked at the cases all over the stockroom. “You could even help.”

“Doing what, pray tell? They’re not exactly lining up out there.”

I pointed to the wall displays. “See all those rafts and beach towels and all that water ski equipment? They have to be taken down and packed away, then all these boxes here in the stock room opened, checked in, priced and put out, along with the winter displays.”

“And do I get paid for this?”

“The same as I’m getting paid.” I grinned.

“Let’s see, that’s contributing to your eventual inheritance, but nothing beyond that. Am I right?”

“You’ll also get my undying gratitude.”

“Oh, goody. Better than minimum wage.” He slid out of his jacket.

“Hey, don’t. I was just teasing.”

“I may as well.”

“Why not go back to the hotel and catch up on some of the sleep you’ve been missing?”

Sid grinned sheepishly. “Actually, I already did that. I was pretending to be asleep to get rid of Lynn and really did conk out. I didn’t wake up until Marcia called at two thirty.”

“I mean it, Sid,” I said, putting my hand on his arm. “Don’t do anything you don’t want to do. If you want to hang out here, fine. Just do me a favor and keep your hands off the customers.”

“Might be good for business.”

“It would ruin my father’s professional image.”

Sid slid his watch chain into his vest pocket and opened his vest.

“Alright, I’ll be nice and conventional. Where do we start?”

“You really don’t have to. I mean, at least it’ll come back to me sooner or later.”

“Lisa, I don’t mind. I’m serious. Maybe I’ll do a behind the scenes piece on the retail industry. This counts as research. I should be able to find a way to take it off on my taxes.”

“Alright.” I looked at the shelf next to the desk and sighed. “We probably should get the shelves cleared and organized first.”

Starting next to the desk, we went to work. By six, we’d cleared a good third of the stockroom. I sent Alice on her break, while Sid kept working.

Five minutes later, Fletcher Haddock walked in, just what I didn’t need.

“What are you doing here?” he asked, startled. “Where’s-  I mean, didn’t you say you were a secretary?”

“Yeah, I’m just helping out. My dad owns the place, remember?”

“Right. Yeah.”

“Can I help you find something?”

Fletcher looked around. “No, actually. I, uh, came in to talk to the manager.” He flashed his name badge. “You’re one of our customers.”

“He’s not here.”

“No, huh?” Fletcher thought that one over. For a second, he seemed worried, but I couldn’t be sure. All of a sudden, he smiled. “Well, that’s that. Say, when do you get off?”

“Late.” I fidgeted with the register keys.

“I’ll bet I can get us into a midnight show tonight.”

“No thanks, Fletcher. I figure I’ll be pretty tired.”

He hesitated. “Look, you’ve still got my card, right?”

“Yes, I do.” I wasn’t sure where it was, but I didn’t want to give him an excuse to give it to me again.

“You be sure and call me, okay?”

“We’ll see. I’m usually pretty busy.”

“No hard feelings about Thursday night?”

“No.”

“I just want to talk, I swear. Promise you’ll call me?”

“Fletcher, I don’t even know when I’m going to get home at the rate things are going.”

“Anytime you’ve got problems and want to talk, I’ll be there. I’m serious.” And strangely enough, he seemed sincere.

“Fine. I’ll do that.”

“Alright. I’ll talk to you later.”

I slumped onto the stool. Sid had the decency to wait until Fletcher was gone before coming to the stockroom door.

“Who was he?”

“Fletcher Haddock.” I shook my head.

“Someone from your distant past?”

“Not unless you want to count Thursday night. He seemed really nice.”

“I take it he wasn’t.”

I kicked at a spot on the floor. “We had a really nice time. We walked around. He tried to show me how to bet odds at craps. We talked. He’s even Catholic. Said he sings in the choir.”

“So what happened?”

“He walked me to the room, stuck his tongue down my throat, then tried to con me into letting him in.”

“With the intent of having you for a nightcap.”

“Where do these guys get the idea that we’re going to fall for their lines? I’m so sick of it. I lay it all out, right up front, and they still assume I’ll say yes. And the thing that really annoys me is that Fletcher says he goes to church. Why the heck isn’t he practicing it? I really hate that half way attitude. It’s what gives Catholics a bad name. I mean what’s wrong with just dating? Why does every guy I meet think of me as a potential wife or a one night stand? I’m so sick of it. Fletcher says he just wants to talk. If I’ve got problems, he’ll be there. Sure, he will. He’s after only one thing, but do you think he’ll admit it? No. The jerk is practically howling at the moon, and he thinks I haven’t figured out his game plan. It’s bad enough I fell for it Thursday night. And of course, just to make things really perfect, I walk into the suite and what do I get? The sounds of passion, live and in concert from your bedroom.”

“I’m sorry,” said Sid.

It suddenly dawned on me what I’d said.

“Oh, Sid!” I blinked back the tears. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have been so thoughtless. I shouldn’t even be bothering you with this.”

“It’s not bothering me, Lisa. This guy obviously hurt you.”

“Not as badly as you’re hurting now.”

“I’m not hurt so bad that I can’t be there for you.” He came over, lifted me from the stool and held me. “Come on. It’s your turn to lean on me.”

I slid my arms around his waist. “Sid, I…”

“Sh. It’s alright.” He pressed his lips to my hair.

The door jangled. I scrambled away from Sid just in time to see Lehrer come straight for the counter.

“Well, well, well,” he growled. “And what do we have here?”

“Can I help you, Investigator?” I asked coldly.

Lehrer hesitated, looking us over, then nodded. “You two are coming with me down to the station.”

Sid sighed. “Just one moment, while I get my jacket.”

“Hold it, Sid,” I said. “We don’t have to go anywhere with him. He’s out of his jurisdiction. We’re in California, remember?”

Lehrer snorted. “Yeah, well, I need some questions answered, and you two had better cooperate, or I’ll get a California warrant.”

“So ask,” said Sid.

Alice had to come back from her break just then. I sent her behind the counter and moved the rest of us to the stockroom.

Lehrer dug out a notepad and pen. “Alright, Hackbirn, where do you live?”

“In Beverly Hills,” said Sid, adding the street address.

“And you, Wycherly?”

I hesitated. “It’s the same address.”

Lehrer looked me over and smirked.

“We’re not lovers!” I snapped.

“Oh really,” replied Lehrer. “How long have you two known each other?”

“A little over a year,” said Sid.

“You say you write for magazines.”

“Yes,” said Sid. “As a matter of fact, you can find my column in On Our Own. I believe I saw this month’s issue in the gift shop back at the hotel.”

“This month’s Forbes has that budget piece,” I added.

“Really?” Lehrer looked me over again.

“Lisa is my secretary and only my secretary,” said Sid with that edge to his voice that means he’s getting really angry.

“How long you known Della Riordan?” Lehrer asked.

“It’s hard to say,” said Sid. “We hadn’t seen each other in a lot of years when we met again by chance Thursday night.”

“What do you know about how she made her living?”

“I knew she was an accountant.”

“Did she say anything about any side businesses?”

“No.”

“Didn’t ask you to hold anything for her?”

“No. What are you leading up to?” Sid looked Lehrer over carefully.

“Well, a California police department asked to keep an eye out for Ms. Riordan. It seems she was here to make a little drug delivery, and we are cooperating with the Sunnyvale P. D.”

I held my breath. Sid shrugged.

“If Della was interested in anything besides catching up on old times, she certainly didn’t tell me about it,” he said without batting an eye.

“That’s good, Hackbirn,” said Lehrer, puffing himself up. “That’s real good. You just keep watching your step. Things don’t look too good for either of you, especially what I saw when I came in.”

He sauntered out. I just barely kept my mouth shut until I was sure Lehrer was gone.

“Of all the no-good, lousy…” I screamed in frustration.

Sid smiled softly. “Rats. For a second there, I thought you were actually going to swear.”

I kicked the shelf. “Why does he have to be so obnoxious?”

“I think what he said about Della is a lot more interesting.” Sid leaned on the desk.

“What do you mean?”

“That little drug delivery?”

“You mean that cocaine was Della’s?”

“Must be. It accounts for that pro who went over her room. Della must have spotted a tail and dropped the box in your purse.”

“And it was right next to her, too.” I sat down in the desk chair. “Oh great. I hope we don’t get searched again.”

“Don’t worry. I put the goods in the false bottom for the moment. What do you want, Alice?”

She leaned in the doorway. “What was that all about?”

“That woman that was murdered the other night,” I said.

“Ooo.” Alice’s face scrunched up in disgust. “Does Lehrer think you guys did it, or something? He’s, like, such a jerk.” The door jangled. “Gotta go.”

“We should probably destroy that box,” I said as soon as I heard Alice talking to the customer.

“Possibly. We still have an operative to dispose of. A couple counts of possession wouldn’t hurt.”

“True.” I sighed and looked at my watch. “Sheesh. It’s after seven. I thought I was getting hungry.”

Sid snickered.

I glared. “We are two hours late for dinner. That’s a long time even for you.”

“It is at that.” He smiled. “I’ve got an idea. Why don’t we get changed? You get a dress on. I’ll clean up. Then we’ll go get dinner and hit the tables.”

I shrugged. “Don’t you want to engage in your usual extra-curricular activity?”

“Nope.” He rolled down his sleeves and put the cufflinks back in. “To be honest, if you’ll pardon the expression, I’m pretty much petered out for the moment.”

[It went right past you. You didn’t even blink – SEH]

“Oh. Why don’t we just play cards in the suite?”

Sid looked me over as he buttoned up his vest. “Why don’t you want to go out?”

“Well…” My face felt hot. “It’s going to sound really stupid, but it’s your reputation. I mean people are already talking, and with Lehrer trying to push me killing Della in a fit of jealous passion…”

Sid nodded. “That is a point. However, I doubt staying in the suite is going to do anything to put those rumors to rest. If anything, an early evening could make it worse.”

“Yeah, I guess it would.”

Sid put his fingers on my chin. “Lisa, people are going to talk no matter what we do. I say to hell with them. Talk can’t do a thing to us, so we’ve got nothing to lose by it, and like the song says, that’s freedom.”

“You’re right.” I got up. “I guess I’m a little worried about my parents finding out, but really, if they can’t handle it, it’s their problem.”

I grabbed my purse and we sauntered out. On the sidewalk, Sid’s arm floated down across my shoulders.

“I hope you don’t expect me to play high stakes,” I said. “I refuse to bet more than I’m prepared to lose.”

“I can front you, if you like, for a cut of the proceeds, of course.”

“What if I lose?”

“But, my dear, you forget I am one lucky man.” He smiled and gave me a quick squeeze. “An incredibly lucky man. So relax. We’ll go blow some bucks and have a good time.”

We did, too, furtive stares notwithstanding. And gambling with Sid was a blast. He is incredibly lucky and it rubbed off on me for a change. I actually left the casino with three times my original stake.

 

Anne Louise Bannon

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