Chapter Seven

"If we get over the gate quickly enough, maybe they won't see us." Pull Quote for the latest chapter of mystery fiction serial Fugue in a Minor Key, a cozy spy novel.

Friday morning, I sailed into a coffee shop not far from LAX. The place is owned and run by a code five team who mostly handle the bureaucratic side of things, like equipment and paychecks. [Like we’re going to do this for free – SEH]  Nobody knows anybody’s name, of course. But we all know each other.

The restaurant was nearly empty when I arrived. There was a lady behind the counter, about my mother’s age. I’d nicknamed her Ma. She seemed to be in charge of the operation.

Ma grinned when she saw me.

“What are you doing here?” she asked quietly as I slid onto a stool. “Your team got paid this month.”

“I know. But aren’t you guys supposed to have a package for me?” I opened a menu. “Oo. Chicken fried steak on special.”

“That. Word came this morning that normal channels for what you need are down.”

“We’ve got to have those I.D.’s and badges or we won’t be able to pull that job tonight.”

Ma nodded. “You’ve got a meeting, twelve fifteen at a Denny’s in El Segundo. Just sit at the counter and leave your purse open. Don’t look around. It’s code 2.”

I sighed and checked my watch. “How much time have I got? An hour? How fast can you sling me a chicken fried steak?”

“The way you eat, honey?” Ma laughed and scribbled on the pad. “I’ll be able to peel the potatoes and mash them.”

Okay, it doesn’t show because my mother did pound good manners into me, but I do tend to wolf my food down, and this place does a terrific chicken fried steak, with spicy gravy and real mashed potatoes.

At the Denny’s, I ordered a bowl of clam chowder. I might have eaten a second full lunch, but I knew it would be waiting for me at the house and three lunches is a bit much even for me.

I sat at the counter, right next to the cash register. Just as I started my soup, someone bumped into me. I whirled around. There was a crowd of people trying to pay for lunch or get seated. Leaving me was a tall figure with a horsey profile that I knew I’d seen before.

I turned back to my soup, wondering. I couldn’t quite put my finger on where I’d seen that face before and it was bugging me. In fact, I was so engrossed in trying to place it, that I almost walked straight into Oscar Wright as he walked up to the door to the restaurant from outside. I beat it to the restroom in a hurry, I can tell you.

Peeping outside, I saw Mr. Wright go straight to a table in the smoking section. A lone man sat there. As he looked up, I saw that it was Tony, who seemed visibly nervous.

I slipped out and hurried around back to where I’d parked my truck. As I passed some trash bins, I thought I heard the chirp of a silencer. I started to turn.

“Keep going, love,” said a male voice with a definitely British accent. “And don’t turn around. You were about to be tailed. It’s better that you don’t know what happened to him.”

I did as he asked, with my stomach churning, because while I didn’t know what exactly had happened, I had a pretty good idea. How anybody expected to hide a body in an open parking lot during the middle of lunch rush was beyond me. I later heard on the news that they found the body of a known hit-man in the trash bin there. No clue, of course, as to who had killed him, but it was considered a professional hit.

Back to Friday. I arrived home around one thirty. Conchetta had saved lunch for me, no doubt over Sid’s protests. I ate quickly in the kitchen, then went to the office.

Sid was in his, talking to the boys.

“You have played enough tricks on her as it is,” he said firmly. “There will be no more. And that means any trick or joke played on anyone. Is that clear, gentlemen?”

“Yes, sir,” they mumbled.

“Good. Now, do you understand how to do those problems?”

“Yes, sir,” they repeated.

“Then get going on them.”

The boys shuffled out of Sid’s office, then ran to the rumpus room. I peeked into Sid’s office.

“What happened?” I asked.

“Oh. Nothing.” Sid’s eyes remained glued to the computer screen. His fingers rattled across the keys.

I came the rest of the way in and closed the door. “I heard you talking to the boys. Did you get on their cases about last night?”

“No.”

“Then what were they up to?”

“Something you don’t want to know about.”

I spotted the rubber snake on his desk and grinned. “Did this have something to do with it?”

Sid finally looked up. “Yeah.”

I chuckled. “I would have had the last laugh. Snakes don’t bother me.”

Sid shook his head, then turned serious. “Well?”

I pulled a rubber-banded package from my purse. “Two I.D.’s and badges.”

“What took so long?”

I told him what had happened. “The thing that gets me, though, is I think I know who that horsey-faced fellow was. Remember last June? That pair from that case that took us to Paris? But if it is him, why is CID involved?”

“I haven’t the foggiest. Henry mentioned they were around when we went to lunch the other day, but he doesn’t know what they’re doing either. We’ve got other things to concentrate on anyway.”

“Like one break in tonight?” Sighing, I flopped into the chair in front of the desk. “I can’t say I’m looking forward to this one.”

Sid swung away from the computer and leaned back in his chair.

“Neither am I. According to the plant’s security plan, we should get there a little before eleven.”

“That means we have to leave here before ten. Do you think the boys will be asleep in time?”

“That’s going to be a problem. There’s been too much nocturnal game playing to risk leaving them alone.”

“I guess one of us should stay here, then.”

Sid snorted and shook his head. “No way in hell. We’ve got two bugs to plant and I want to go through that secured file cabinet Wright’s got in his office.”

“Sid, are you sure..?”

“Can you think of a better opportunity? With the way he’s been able to get the jump on all the operatives we’ve sent in, I’ll bet he’s feeling more than a little secure. We’ll just have to send the boys to your sister’s.”

I grimaced. “I don’t think that’s such a good idea, Sid. Darby was acting pretty funny when we dropped him off there before Disneyland.”

“I suppose. Could one of your friends help out?”

Just then the phone rang once, lighting up on my private line. I waited another minute for the next ring then picked it up.

My parents don’t know I live at Sid’s house, mostly because my sister won’t let me tell them. Okay, I’m not real thrilled either about the fit my father will have when he finds out. So if my friends call me during the day when I’m supposedly at work, they let the phone ring once, then hang up and call a minute later. Otherwise, I let the answering machine get it just in case it’s my folks calling.

This time it was Frank Lonnergan.

“I hear you’ve got a couple kids over there,” he chortled.

“I sure do. What’s up?”

“Dump them on the boss and come with Esther and me tonight. We don’t know what we’re doing yet, but it’ll be fun.”

“Oh.” I bit my lip, then inspiration hit. “Gee, Frank, I’d love to but the boss is going out. It’s been a few days and he’s crawling the walls.”

Sid glared. “I went out Wednesday and I’m fine.”

I put my finger to my lips.

“Well, we could bring the boys, I guess,” Frank was saying.

“That’s just it, I can’t. Wait, maybe you could help. With Sid going out, I’m caught between a rock and a hard spot. I’m supposed to meet some old friends of mine from school tonight. We’ve been planning this for a month. They’re coming from out of town and they’ll only be here tonight.”

“Bring them along.”

“I can’t. It’s one of those things. You know. We’ve been planning this and planning this. It’s their big night out, and it was supposed to be just the three of us. But I can’t leave Darby and Nick by themselves. You don’t think you could…”

“Babysit?” Frank was less than enthused but open.

“Oh, Frank, would you? Please?”

“What about Esther?”

“Oh, shoot. Hang on a second.” I put Frank on hold and turned to Sid. “Sid, do you still have that pirate video of the Star Wars Trilogy?”

“Sure, why?”

“I need bribes. Esther’s a sucker for those movies, and Return of the Jedi isn’t out on video yet.”

“Fine. I’ll even set out a bottle of my New Zealand wine for Frank.”

“You’re a doll.” I pushed the hold button. “Listen, Frank, if you and Esther babysit, you can watch Sid’s pirate tape of the Star Wars Trilogy and then sip that New Zealand white wine after the boys are asleep.”

“Oooo. Hard to resist. Esther’s told me about that pirate. I’ll twist her arm. What time do you need us there?”

“Time?” I asked.

Sid held up six fingers.

“How about six?” I told Frank. “Sid’s probably going to take off right after dinner, and I’m meeting my ride at the gym at six thirty.”

“See you then.”

“Don’t be late.”

“I won’t.”

Frank was, of course, late, which Sid, of course, knew he was going to be. Sid had taken off, as planned, wearing the black jacket that looks like the Members Only ones over a white shirt with his break in pants, black twill with lots of extra pockets.

I was wearing my version of the pants with a light pink turtleneck and carried a black zip front hooded sweatshirt. I grumbled at Frank, then introduced him and Esther to Darby and Nick, and went scurrying off to the corner, where my ride, Sid, was waiting for me.

“Only twenty minutes,” said Sid. “That’s not bad for Frank.”

“True. Where to now?”

We drove out to Orange County right away and killed time at a mall that was fairly close to the plant. Then we sat around in an all-night coffee shop until ten thirty.

At the plant, Sid parked his BMW off the road underneath a willow tree just outside of the gates surrounding the parking lot. He clipped on the phony badge and slid the I.D. into his wallet. I did the same and went to another entrance.

We met at Wright’s office. Sid was just finishing with the lock when I got there. I pulled a pair of black leather gloves from one of my many pockets. Sid already had his on.

“Any trouble?” he asked, opening the door.

“I got barely a first glance, let alone a second. You?”

“The same.” He replaced the lock pick he’d been using in one of his pockets and followed me into the office.

I checked the blinds. The window was blacked out, and I knew there was a light in the yard outside. Smiling, I rolled some fabric across the bottom of the door.

“Let there be light,” I said, hitting the switch on the desk lamp.

Sid chuckled, then grunted as he played with the lock on the file cabinet. He went through three pockets, looking for the right pick.

“Looks like a tough one,” I said, trying to find a good place for the bug.

Sid forced it. “Yep. But that’s the nice thing about these pants. I can bring the whole hardware store with me. On the other hand, they are still too loose.”

“Any tighter, you’ll be singing soprano. What about the window?”

“Looks good.”

Sid pulled a file and went to work. We were about halfway done when he cussed.

“What?” I hissed.

He held up a hand full of black and white photos of me with my hair under a light fedora and wearing glasses. They were grainy and full body shots, so it wouldn’t be that easy to recognize me again, but still not a good thing for an enemy to have.

“Look familiar?” he asked.

“They were checking me out.”

“Did you see anybody?”

“Plenty of people. Would you have noticed someone with a camera at the zoo?”

“Point taken.” He looked through the file. “It would appear your cover is intact. There’s a note here that their contact can’t get prints off the envelope or the cash because getting latents off paper is a special lab process that he doesn’t have access to.”

It took over an hour and a half for Sid and me to go through all the files and photograph them. On one hand, it was nerve-wracking because that was an awfully long time to be someplace we weren’t supposed to be. On the other, we did get through four drawers in record time. We cleaned up and got out of there.

We ambled through the halls to the lab where we’d seen the demo.

“Damn,” Sid muttered as we came up to the door.

“What?” I hissed.

“Cipher lock.” He pointed to the four buttons above the handle, then went through his pockets again. “I’ve got the codes. Let’s just hope they haven’t changed them since this list went out.”

Well, we got in okay and got the bug planted. Then we heard the cipher lock chirping as someone pressed in the code. We dashed to the wall next to the door, sliding on all over ski masks and closing our jackets. The guard just stuck his head in and withdrew. We let out a sigh of relief and waited a few minutes before we left.

But the guard was hanging out in the hallway, enjoying a cigarette when we came out. Thank God, we hadn’t taken off our masks. He gaped at us, then Sid rushed him and knocked him out with an elbow to the neck.

“Come on,” hissed Sid, nodding at the guard.

He lifted the guard around his chest and nodded at the feet. I picked them up. Together, we carried the guard down a couple corridors to another lab and dumped him there.

“What good is that going to do?” I hissed at Sid as we removed our masks and left the building. “He saw where we came out.”

“No, he didn’t,” replied Sid. “There are, what, three or four doors right there. By the time he saw us, we could have come from any one of them.”

We crossed the plant complex unhindered until we neared the gate. An alarm sent us into the cover of the nearest building. In the light of the guard station, we could see the guard stop an employee from leaving. A guard rail slammed down, and three other guards ran up and pulled a chain link gate across the opening in the fence.

Sid swore and put on his mask again. Sighing, I put mine on also. The building in whose shadows we were hiding extended beyond the gate by a hundred feet or so. The only problem was that the fence separating the building and complex from the parking lot had four rows of barbed wire strung along the top. It was slanted outwards towards the parking lot, which meant that once Sid and I got up the fence, we could pick our way over the wire and jump.

Which we did, right onto a small slope covered with ice plant. We dashed across the narrow road and over another chain link fence surrounding a big area under construction, which provided more cover and was actually easier to get through than to go around. We picked our way over the rubble, then scrambled over another fence. Keeping low, we followed the road leading from the parking lot to find another closed gate and more chain link fence with barbed wire on top, only this time, the wire was slanted towards us. The gate didn’t have any barbed wire, just a bright light shining on it.

Sid looked behind us. “See anybody?”

I looked. “Nope.”

“Me neither. Let’s take a good running jump. If we get over the gate quickly enough, maybe they won’t see us.”

We ran. Sid got over faster than I did. We both hit the ground running, heading away from the car until the darkness covered us. Then we doubled back and didn’t stop running until we got to the willow tree.

Sid was unlocking the passenger side of the BMW when I stopped him and pointed. The small spots of flashlights bounced along the top of the hill and were headed our way.

“We’ll never get the car out of here fast enough,” I said. “Why don’t we go someplace else and neck?”

“Hell with that.” Sid opened the door. “We can neck in the car.”

He ripped off his jacket and tossed it into the back seat. My sweatshirt landed on top of his. He was already in the passenger seat.

“Come on,” he hissed. “Get on my lap.”

“Oh, help.”

We’d hidden ourselves by necking before, but Sid was going to carry the illusion considerably further, and I wasn’t sure how I felt about that.

“Get your butt in here!”

“Which way?”

“We’ll worry about that later. Just get in. I want to fog up the windows.”

The lights were getting closer. I took a deep breath and got in, facing the front of the car. Sid quietly shut the door. We were breathing heavily from our run and within seconds, the windows were opaque.

“Let’s see if we can get you turned around,” Sid whispered.

I lifted myself over the hand brake and gear shift. “I’m sorry, Sid, I’m really embarrassed.”

“I know,” he said gently. “But brace yourself. It’s going to get worse. Try and kneel over me, okay?”

Timidly, I swung myself into the passenger seat. My knee slid on his leg. Sid swallowed a yelp and pushed me back.

“Careful! That almost hit home.”

“Sorry.”

His hands gently guided me into place. As I knelt, I became aware that my thigh was throbbing.

“My leg,” I whispered.

“What’s wrong?”

“It hurts.” I touched it. My pants were torn and wet and sticky. “I’m bleeding.”

Sid softly cussed and grabbed my sweatshirt from the back.

“Here, hold this against it.” He looked out the window towards the lights. We could hear the voices. “Can you move okay?”

“How?”

“Rock up and down.”

I did. “It hurts, but I can do it. Oh, lord, this is embarrassing.”

“You can keep sobbing like that. Here they come.”

Sid pulled my head next to his on the window side, then covered my face with his hand. I never thought I was going to live through the next few minutes. My leg burned, I was scared to death and Sid sounded like the soundtrack from an X-rated film. Finally, someone banged on the outside of the car.

“Daddy,” I screamed, jumping up and hitting my head on the ceiling.

“No, not now!” groaned Sid.

“Alright, you kids,” growled an official voice. “We’ll be back in fifteen minutes, and you’d better be gone.”

The lights moved off, accompanied by disgruntled mutterings about horny teenagers. Sid waited a minute, then let my head up.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered, looking into my eyes.

I sat up as high as I could. He slid out from underneath me and into the driver’s seat. I turned, sat down the right way and buckled my seat belt. Sid turned the key in the ignition.

We drove in silence until we reached an all-night supermarket. Sid parked underneath one of the lights in the parking lot.

“How does your leg look?” he asked.

I shifted and leaned over. “Well, it’s more than a scratch, but the bleeding’s stopped already. I must have caught it on the barbed wire.”

“You up to date on your tetanus shot?”

“Yeah. They gave me one last June when I got cut up in Paris. They’re supposed to last a long time, aren’t they?”

“I think so. I’ll call Doctor Reyes tomorrow.” He started the car again and off we went.

At the house, Sid made me stay put in the car while he went in to get rid of Frank and Esther. It took forever. When he got back, he helped me into my sewing room.

“What took so long?” I asked as I shut the door.

“George was here, waiting for you.”

“What?”

“He said he didn’t have anything else to do. I went to my room, then came back and told him you left a message on my machine that you and your friends ended up in San Diego and were staying the night. If Frank and Esther weren’t there, I think he might have kept waiting.”

I laughed. “How sweet.”

“He’s a pest,” Sid grumbled, vehemently. “And if he keeps this stuff up, he could be out and out dangerous.”

“He’s harmless.”

“Yeah, right.”

My jaw dropped, then I laughed. “You are jealous of George.”

“Oh, for crying out loud, Lisa. That is ridiculous.” He paced.

“But you are.”

“I am not.”

“Oh ho. So now the shoe is on the other foot.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“How about all the times you’ve accused me of being jealous.” I snorted. “Which I’m not.”

“I’m not either.”

“Well, it’s not like you’ve got reason to be. I’m certainly not going to go out and marry the man.”

Sid laughed bitterly. “It wouldn’t mean a damn thing to me if you did.”

“Yeah, right.”

Sid’s eyes bore into me. I swallowed and looked for something to cover myself with.

“Sid, what’s going on?”

He looked away. “I’m just wondering about tonight. In the car.”

“Oh.” I felt my face getting hot.

“I don’t know, Lisa.” He came over and softly laid his hand on my cheek. “I guess I’m just afraid that I’ve put you off sex forever, or at least for a few years.”

I smiled and shrugged. “It was embarrassing, but I have heard it before. Maybe it’s just as well.”

“Oh no. I waste too much time overcoming other peoples’ hang-ups. The last thing I want to do is give you any. Lisa, when our time comes, I want it-”

“Our what?” I interrupted.

Sid stepped back, suddenly aware of what he’d said. “Well, I…”

“Aren’t we being a little presumptive here?”

Sid opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out. I looked at him, puzzled. I don’t think I’d ever seen him this lost for words.

“Are you alright?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said very softly. “Please, Lisa, just hold me.”

We held each other for some minutes, then he whispered good night and pulled away.

“Sid, I’m willing to listen.”

He nodded. “I know, and I thank you for that. Goodnight, Lisa.”

“Good night, Sid.”

I kept trying to figure out what was bugging him as I stumbled into my bedroom and got ready for bed. I knew he wasn’t happy about seeing my photo in an enemy’s file, but it wasn’t that big a deal. It just didn’t make sense.

[Of course not. But twice I had the perfect opportunity, and twice I couldn’t find the words to ask you to be my lover. I spent the rest of the night kicking myself – SEH]

Anne Louise Bannon

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