It took six more days for me to get my explanation. Mae wanted to know why I couldn’t come out that Sunday. Something told me that telling her what was going on was not a good idea. I made a vague excuse and said I’d try to get out on the following Sunday.
Monday was D-Day. I knew it as soon as Mr. James showed up on the front doorstep. He’s a tall man, somewhere in his late forties, balding and much of the dark hair that is left has gray streaks in it. His shoulders are broad and he has a definite middle age spread. He also has the reddest face I’ve ever seen in my life.
I ushered him into Mr. Hackbirn’s office and didn’t quite shut the door. I stayed near the crack, too.
“Is this what I think this is?” Mr. Hackbirn asked, pleased.
“What the doctor ordered,” said Mr. James. “By the way, I got an interesting report from Highland when they closed down.”
“Yeah.” Mr. Hackbirn sounded caught. “Well. I didn’t have much choice. They sent it there, and Gannett’s been seen watching the place. I didn’t want to chance it. He knows me too well. She’s obviously clean. No harm done, right?”
“You’re just lucky it didn’t blow up. Shall we bring her in?”
Mr. Hackbirn chuckled. “Come on in, Miss Wycherly.”
Flushing, I slid open the door.
“She’s been..?” Mr. James looked at Mr. Hackbirn.
“I told you, she’s bright.” He grinned at me, then turned serious. “Please sit down, Miss Wycherly.”
Puzzled, I sat down on the edge of one of the chairs in front of the desk. Mr. James stood next to it.
“Miss Wycherly,” he said, pleasantly. “Sid has informed me that you have noticed a few oddities about his household.”
I glanced at Mr. Hackbirn. His face was passive and unreadable.
“I have,” I answered slowly.
“And has it occurred to you that Sid might be a little bit more than merely eccentric?”
“Well, I have thought that certain of his little oddities seemed a little too planned to be mere idiosyncrasy.”
“I see,” replied Mr. James. He looked at Mr. Hackbirn.
“She’s bright,” said Mr. Hackbirn.
I decided to be bold. “Am I bright enough to be let in on whatever it is that’s going on around here?”
Mr. James smiled and so did Mr. Hackbirn.
“That’s why you’re here, Miss Wycherly,” Mr. Hackbirn said, becoming serious once more.
“Miss Wycherly, you picked up a package for Mr. Hackbirn last Tuesday,” said Mr. James. “Do you know what was in it?”
“As far as I could tell, paper,” I replied. “I assumed that it was some sort of report.”
“The paper was a blind,” said Mr. Hackbirn. “What really made that ream important was a microdot containing top secret information.”
“It’s beginning to make sense,” I said. “That clearance.”
“Miss Wycherly,” said Mr. James. “Within the structures of the FBI and CIA are several smaller organizations. Organizations so secret that only their members know they exist. Mr. Hackbirn is a member of one called Operation Quickline.”
“He’s a spy.” I swallowed back my fear. “For the US?”
Mr. Hackbirn smiled and nodded. “Yes. I work secretly through the FBI, and now so do you.”
“Me?” The news hit me like a punch to the bread basket. Locked in. He’d warned me off. Something inside me snapped, and it was if I was watching everything that went on from another corner of the room.
“Your security clearance and adoption came through this morning,” said Mr. James.
“You mean you guys want me to be a spy, too.” My voice sounded distant as if another person were speaking.
“No,” said Mr. Hackbirn. “You are a spy.”
“What if I don’t want to?”
“You will just have to live with that. I’ve had to do the same. All I can do is offer my sympathies.”
Mr. James stepped forward. “You have to understand, Miss Wycherly, that the only reason Quickline is effective is because it is so secret. Therefore, when we must recruit new members, we cannot ask them without endangering the system, so we draft likely candidates.”
“I can’t believe this,” I gasped.
“It will take a day or two,” said Mr. Hackbirn.
I got up as well as I could. “I gotta get out of here. I’ve got to think.”
“As you wish,” Mr. Hackbirn replied. “But, Miss Wycherly, please keep in mind that my life, and now yours depends on your secrecy. It is that critical. I told you I am a dangerous person to know. This is why. I’m afraid you’ll be risking your life right along with me. I wanted to tell you what you were risking, but I couldn’t. I’m sorry.”
“I understand. Sort of.” I looked at him helplessly, then turned. “I’ll see you later.”
I left the house and ran down the streets to the bus stop. I was confused. I was a spy. They hadn’t even asked me, and, oh, that made me mad. But I was also excited. They had chosen me. But for what? Yes, I would be risking my life, but how did I know these guys were telling the truth? I only had Mr. Hackbirn’s word for it that Mr. James was from the FBI. The bus arrived, and I found myself making the long trip to West LA, and FBI headquarters.
I was scared as I paced the foyer, and I realized the thing that scared me the most was that I had no way of knowing if Quickline truly existed and if it really did work for the US. What if it was really an enemy operation?
Oh, was I naive then. That should have been the least of my fears. Of course, I had never laid my life on the line before, and risking my neck didn’t sound that bad in theory. I never really believed that I had no choice in the matter either. I’m not sure I do even now.
A buzzer sounded above the rattle of the young woman typing. She looked up at me.
“Go on back.”
The office was well appointed and comfortable. A woman about my mother’s age sat behind the desk and smiled professionally.
“May I help you?”
I took a deep breath and began the story I’d rehearsed on the bus.
“I’m a writer, doing a story on espionage in the US, and I’ve stumbled across something. I can’t reveal my sources. Is there a spy operation working for our government called Operation Quickline?”
The name phased her for a moment. “Not necessarily.”
“Look. I need to know.”
“You don’t necessarily have the right to know. Can you tell me why this is so important?”
“If I could tell you that, I wouldn’t be needing to ask you!” I felt my voice go shrill and took a deep breath to steady myself.
I don’t know if the woman guessed what was on my mind, or if God merely intervened and made her do something she wouldn’t have normally. I didn’t care then, and I don’t now.
“I can’t really say yes or no,” she said softly. “You should forget you ever heard the name. But I wouldn’t worry about Quickline being a threat to national security.”
I left the office feeling somewhat reassured. On a lark, I went to find Henry James’ office. It was there. The secretary seemed vaguely familiar, with brown hair, clipped into a barrette. She must have been expecting me because she sent me right into the inner office.
Henry James was there, too.
“Quite a shock, isn’t it?” he said smiling with paternal warmth.
“Yeah. I don’t know what to say.”
“Well, you’re probably feeling angry, and a little mixed up. Don’t worry. We all do. Any questions?”
“Not right now, Mr. James.”
“Please, call me Henry. We’re going to be seeing a lot of each other. I’d like to be friends.”
I smiled rather weakly at him.
“Sure.” Fumbling for something to say, I looked at him. There was something reassuring about him. “Uh, you can call me Lisa.”
“Thank you, Lisa.”
There was another awkward pause.
“I’d better get back,” I said finally.
“Before you go, Lisa, I’d better say something.”
“Operation Quickline is one of the most successful spying operations that the U.S. has. It is successful because it is so secret. Even my secretary doesn’t know it exists. Its continued success depends on your ability to maintain its secrecy. Lisa, absolutely no one can know about it except you, Sid and myself.”
“Not even my family?”
“Not even your family.”
“I’ve never held anything back from my family before. Well, I haven’t told them where I’m living right now. I haven’t gotten around to it. But I will.”
“That doesn’t matter. Quickline does, for their safety as well as yours.”
“I suppose. Is it really as deadly as Mr. Hackbirn says?”
“The risk is always there. That’s why you can’t tell your family, Lisa. No one must know about this but you and Sid.”
“Are there any restrictions on friends? I’m meeting some very nice people at church.”
“That’s fine. Just be careful, and don’t let them get too close. If you need support, I’m always here, and you’ve got Sid.”
I had to chuckle. “I don’t know if I’d trust him that way.”
Henry chuckled, too. “Maybe, maybe not. Lisa, he’s a very lonely man. He uses Quickline as an excuse not to reach out. Your life may have been turned upside down today, but so has his. The sad part is, he doesn’t even know it yet.”
“I guess.” I got up. “I’d better get back to the house.”
“Fine. See you around.”
I left his office deep in thought.
“Excuse me,” said the secretary. “Have we met before?”
I looked at her again and flushed pure vermillion.
“Oh, my god,” I groaned. “The clothes.”
“What? Oh!” She recognized me and laughed. “You’re Sid Hackbirn’s secretary. You didn’t recognize me with my clothes on, did you?”
“Boy, you sure put Sid off his paces.”
I turned to her. “I did?”
“Yeah. He couldn’t believe you’d never seen a naked man before. He kept saying you were a genuine innocent.”
“Oh.” I paused. “I hope I didn’t mess things up too much.”
She purred. “You can’t mess up Sid that badly.”
She held out her hand. “I’m Angelique Carter.”
“Lisa Wycherly.” We shook. “It was nice meeting you… Uh, again.”
She laughed. “Yeah. Again. To many more meetings. With our clothes on.”
I laughed also. “Right.”
I hurried out. Once on the street, I paused. No one seemed to be following me. I decided to test it. I walked up to Westwood and went into the first burger place I found. I knew lunch would be waiting for me at the house, but I’d had one heck of a morning. I deserved a real meal for a change. I got a double chili burger with fries, cole slaw, onion rings, a chocolate milkshake and a piece of cheesecake for dessert. [Oh, Lisa! – SEH]
I suppose I should have been more upset. Mr. Hackbirn had radically changed my life without doing me the courtesy of asking me. Well, he had tried to warn me, and he did give me a chance to back out.
At first, I was too numb from the shock to protest. As the shock wore off, I became caught up in the romance of being a spy. The danger seemed very unreal to me. Later, when I realized just how real the risks were, I was too caught up in other problems to feel much outrage at my fate, and I’m not the type to spend much time brooding about things I can’t change, anyway.
It was almost two when I got back to the house. Mr. Hackbirn was waiting for me in the living room.
“Well?” he asked.
“I guess I’m in,” I replied, brightly.
“That goes without saying. Any questions?”
I thought. “Why me? Why even have a secretary?”
“As I said before, you are a woman who sticks to her standards, even when it’s hard not to. That takes a lot of strength. When I told you I needed someone with guts, I meant it.”
“That’s not very reassuring.” I sank onto the couch.
“No, it isn’t.” He sighed as he sat in the easy chair. “Ours is a very dangerous business, I’m afraid. Anyway, as to why a secretary, that was my idea. I’ve always wanted someone who could handle those mundane little trivialities of life that are so time-consuming and dull, yet must be done. Because of the nature of my business, any secretary I’d hire had to have a security clearance. The people upline didn’t want any more people involved than necessary, so they put the krabbatz on that.”
“What made them give in?”
“Business got good. I’m not physically capable of making all the drops and pick ups they want made. So when they said they were going to give me an associate, I said I wanted a secretary. They, in turn, replied they didn’t have one and if I wanted one that badly, I could recruit the person myself. It’s policy to keep recruits under twenty-four-hour surveillance, which is why you’re living here.”
“And why you followed me to church that Sunday. And why you wouldn’t let me out of the house.”
“That was because you ditched your tail that Friday you went shopping.”
“You mean he was part of the surveillance?”
“Yes. They caught up with you at the church because of the list I had you give me. However, since you kept ditching them, I couldn’t keep you under surveillance, that’s why I kept you in.”
“Except for last Tuesday. Was that also surveillance?”
Mr. Hackbirn winced. “No. I was glad you ditched him. I wasn’t supposed to send you. You weren’t cleared yet, nor did you have any training.”
“You mean he really was a bad guy.”
“Yep. You handled it well, though.”
“Thanks.” Something else occurred to me. “I wasn’t followed to the FBI offices. Does this mean no more surveillance?”
“You’re on your own.”
“So I suppose I could move now if I wanted to.”
He made a face. “You could. I’d rather you stayed. It is convenient.”
“There’s that. I’ll have to think about it.” I leaned forward. “Tell me about Quickline.”
“We mostly pass information around, hence the name. However, we occasionally take real packages and sometimes act as a safe house.”
“We don’t do any of the actual spying?” Believe it or not, I actually felt disappointed.
“It depends on what you call actual spying. We do sometimes have to break into places to get things, and sometimes we handle investigations. But we are a domestic operation. Only under very rare circumstances will we do any foreign work.”
“How long have you been doing this?”
“I started in the army when I got drafted. Intelligence first got me in boot camp and kept me undercover. After my discharge, I was transferred to Quickline.”
“So what now? I assume you’ve got me in the self-defense class because of this.”
“Right.” His smile turned ominous. “Tomorrow your real training starts.”
I swallowed. “Oh dear.”
“By the way, Amalgamated Paper Company will be augmenting your salary from now on.”
“So that’s what those checks were.”
“Precisely. And you’ll be getting them, too.”
“You mean I get a raise?”
“It’s a promotion. You are now my associate.”
I grinned. “Not bad for two weeks work.”
“To all outward appearances, you are still my secretary, and you’ll still be performing all the same functions.”
“I was afraid of that.”
Mr. Hackbirn laughed. “Don’t worry. I’m still paying for the mundane trivialities.”
“You don’t have to.”
“That is my decision, and I will continue to pay.”
“Thanks. I appreciate it.”
We looked at each other. I was filled with that warm cozy after the storm feeling, the kind when you know everything is going to work out just fine. The kind when you know you’ve just found a very good friend.