Welcome to the start of Book Eight in the Operation Quickline series. A pickup goes bad, but it pushes Lisa and Sid into choosing to get married. Then they have to take custody of Sid’s son Nick. Life is changing at the speed of light, all while tracking down an arms trading scheme. Figuring out being a couple was hard enough. Now, they’re a family. If you haven’t read the earlier stories, you can start here.
I knew that meeting was not a good idea. I told upline that it was not a good idea. But they needed somebody nobody would ever suspect of being an operative to meet with Cat’s Cradle. A youth group leader supervising a church camp outing? Who would suspect her of being an operative with an ultra-top-secret organization under the auspices of the FBI? And yet, I was both of those things.
Every year, during the last full week of July, my church hosts a week-long retreat for our teens at a Christian camp on Catalina Island, which is around twenty-five miles off the coast of Los Angeles. I’m one of the leaders. On Wednesdays, we hiked into Avalon, the main city on Catalina, spent a few hours letting the teens run around and hopefully, not get into trouble, then got on a boat or two back to the camp about two or three inlets north of the town. My Quickline superiors thought what a terrific opportunity. I did not agree, but I was stuck.
I had no idea what the meeting was for. I did not have Need to Know. That was one part of the whole espionage culture that truly peeved me. I mean, I get that espionage is based on secrecy. But it had happened more than once that Sid Hackbirn, my partner, and I had been told we didn’t have Need to Know only to find that if we had known, things would have been a lot safer for us and resolved a lot more easily. It didn’t matter. Someone over me had decided that I didn’t have Need to Know, so I wasn’t going to be told squat.
Needless to say, I was not in a good mood that Wednesday morning as we campers and leaders gathered near the beach to begin the hike. I’d volunteered with my friend Kathy Deiner to make sure the cabins were clear. I managed to get on the side where my cabin was and slid inside long enough to get my Smith and Wesson Model Thirteen revolver hidden in my daypack. However self-absorbed your average teen girl is, it would have been too hard to get the gun out of my suitcase and into the pack without being seen if the girls in my cabin had been there. And I sure as heck wasn’t going unarmed. I suppose it would have been easier to keep the gun in my daypack from the get-go, but I used the pack for too many other things besides toting armor and it might have been noticed.
I checked the rest of the cabins, which were clear, and hurried down to the beach. The first part of the trip was hiking up into the hills and scrub of the island. Now, I love to hike, and I was probably one of the few people in the group who thought it was actually fun to walk up the steep trail and over the switchbacks until we walked down the slope into Avalon.
The next challenge was to get away from everybody and find the narrow alley where the meeting was to take place. As the teens and leaders gathered around the sack lunches the camp staff had brought to the pier near the beach, I slid away. The sandwich wouldn’t have been enough to feed me, anyway. [Nothing is enough to feed you, my darling locust. – SEH]
In the alley, the man was there. He was balding and his face ash colored.
“Cat’s Cradle?” I asked. “I’m Little Red.
He nodded, then groaned.
“Take this,” he gasped, and shoved a piece of paper into my hand. “Get it to—”
I realized he was holding his side and blood seeped between the fingers of his hand. He crumpled. His head flopped back, and his eyes suddenly began staring, utterly unseeing. My stomach lurched, but I held it down and did what any normal person would do. I screamed bloody murder. As the crowd gathered, I faded into it, then ran like crazy for a pay phone. Sadly, the last thing I could do was stay and get interviewed by the police as a witness.
I found one at the back of a restaurant that I knew my friends liked. I dialed the phone card number and Sid’s pager, then hung up, and looked at the paper I’d been given.
A minute later, the phone rang, and I grabbed it.
“Hello?” I asked.
“Hey,” he said. “How did the meeting go?”
“It didn’t,” I said, trying not to cry. “He was wounded, shoved a piece of paper at me, then died.”
“Oh, honey,” Sid sighed soothingly.
“At least, I didn’t barf.”
“That’s an improvement.”
“I still feel terrible. He’s dead.”
“I’m so sorry you have to deal with it, lover.” He paused. “Have you looked at the paper yet?”
“Yeah. There’s some sort of code on it, but I can’t figure it out. I haven’t had a chance and don’t have much time before someone begins to wonder where I am. I told them this was a bad idea.”
“I know. I agree. Listen, I’ll call upline with the news. How’s your week been otherwise?”
We talked for several more minutes about what all had been going on since the previous Saturday when I’d left, and generally complained about not being together. Then I saw Kathy Deiner at the front of the restaurant looking around.
“They’re looking for me,” I grumbled. “I’d better get going.”
“Okay. I’ll see you Saturday.”
“See you then. I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
“There you are, Lisa,” Kathy said, coming up. She’s a tall woman with close-cropped hair, rich chocolate skin, and a completely elegant demeanor. “Where have you been?”
I glanced at the pay phone and decided to tell her part of the truth. “I went to call Sid.” I made a face. “I miss him.”
“Oh, Lisa.” She patted my shoulder, then grinned. “I’ll bet you do.”
Sid doesn’t go to camp with me because he’s an atheist.
“Let’s go get something to eat,” I said, trying to shake off the emotions roiling my stomach.
“Sure. Why not? Dan is never going to get all those kids rounded up to meet the boat back early.”
“What? We’ve got a couple hours, at least.”
Kathy sighed. “There was a murder over in an alley not far from here. Didn’t you hear the screaming?”
“No,” I lied. “How terrible. What happened?”
“I don’t know.” Kathy shrugged sadly.
I crossed myself. We found Father John in the front of the restaurant on the Avalon boardwalk and he asked us to join him. I wasn’t sure where Kathy’s husband, Jesse, was, although he usually stayed moving and took lots of pictures of the teens, photography being his passion as well as his career.
John is a tall man with salt and pepper hair and solemn brown eyes. He’s the pastor at the Catholic church I go to, and the one responsible for me being involved with the teens. He is also my confessor and one of the very few people who know what Sid and I really do when we’re not being freelance writers for magazines.
As Kathy and I slid into the booth on the patio, I could see Dan and Sarah Williams having what looked like a disagreement on the sidewalk.
“He’s still not going to get those kids rounded up anytime soon.” Kathy picked up a menu. “And I don’t see why he should.”
John made a face. “A man was killed.”
“I know.” Kathy’s brows knit together in pure pain. “And I don’t want to be callous, but there isn’t any connection to us. We just happened to be in the same place at the wrong time.”
John glanced at me, and I forced my face into a blank. Kathy didn’t notice.
“Darn it, John,” she continued. “You know we’ve got parents already upset because the camp is run by a bunch of fundamentalists. We do not need to give them any more reason to complain.”
“True.” John shifted. “But that is my problem, not yours.”
“If it weren’t for Dan…” Kathy grumbled.
Dan Williams is our youth minister, and while he is devoted to the kids, he can be a little on the conservative and controlling side. The problem is that a lot of the parents in our parish are fairly progressive. Dan’s fundamentalist bent doesn’t always play well with them, and some of those parents are really vocal and controlling, themselves.
A nice young waitress in a blue Hawaiian shirt ran up to our table and waited expectantly.
Kathy looked around. “Think I can get away with getting a glass of wine?”
A little over half the camp leadership was militantly dry and camp rules forbade alcohol except for sacramental purposes, so those of us who liked the occasional drink tended not to flaunt it when we were there.
“Probably not,” John half-smiled. “On the other hand, there just might be some rum in my cola.”
I swallowed. “Rum and cola it is. And I think I’ll have the chili burger, too.”
We put in our orders and watched as three of the teens went running past. Another four girls had rented a pedal car together.
John said something but was drowned out by the roar of a sea plane with bright red stripes along the side taking off from the bay on the other side of the boardwalk. Fat drops of waters splattered everywhere outside as the plane soared over us, seemingly close enough to graze the roof of the restaurant.
“What did you say?” Kathy asked John.
“I was just wondering what Lisa thought about the incident.”
John’s eyes focused on me. I shrugged slightly, feeling guilty even though I knew I wasn’t. I couldn’t help feeling as if I’d brought the killer to the island because of that meeting. I hadn’t told John about it, but he’d obviously noticed that I’d split off by myself pretty quickly.
“I’m kind of with Kathy on this one,” I said, wincing. “We should probably pray for the victim, but I think the less attention drawn to the incident, the better.”
John’s eyebrows rose briefly upward. Kathy, thank God, didn’t notice.
“Let’s see what the kids are saying when we get back,” he said, shifting a little.
After lunch, Kathy and I went shopping. Avalon is mostly about the tourist kitsch, and Kathy and I are not. But we frequently find some unusual goodies. I found this cute pair of backless sandals with carved wood high heels and soles and bought them. Kathy bought a really cute sarong-style skirt. We didn’t buy anything else but looking at all the t-shirts and mugs helped take the edge off my nerves, which were still jangling even if I wasn’t acting like they were.
As we all had expected, the kids were fully wired when we got back to camp, but that had little to do with the murder in the alley, thank God. It was actually normal for Wednesdays. One of the goals that we camp leaders had was to jolt the little stinkers out of their usual self-absorption into compassion and caring. Nonetheless, that day I found that same self-absorption a saving grace. I got the feeling that Dan sort of thought so as well.
Dan did insist on an all-camp tug of war, which helped settle the kids down a bit before dinner. John took a couple minutes to check in with me, and I told him part of what had happened, and reassured him that nobody had noticed me, nor were there any bad guys coming back to camp.
As we finished eating, Frank got up and did mail call. I wasn’t expecting any letters. The previous two years at camp, Sid had sent me at least one, plus a postcard of questionable propriety each year from where he’d been vacationing in the Bahamas. He wasn’t in the Bahamas that year. He was in Newport Beach, California, with my sister Mae, her husband Neil, their five kids, and Sid’s son, Nick. I’d gotten Sid’s letter the day before.
“Oh, I have one final postcard,” Frank announced happily. There were a few cheers. Several of the kids were repeat campers. “I don’t know, Lisa. I think your business partner has lost his edge. There isn’t one innuendo on this card. It just says, ‘With love.’“
There were several boos.
“On the other hand, it is from Las Vegas and there’s a picture of an Elvis impersonator on it.”
I laughed. It was an ongoing joke that Sid and I had to stave off nosy questions about when the wedding was going to happen. We told people several things, but our favorite was that we had gone to Vegas and gotten married by an Elvis impersonator. The kids cheered happily.
As for Sid, he hadn’t lost his edge. He and Frank’s best buddy, Esther Nguyen, could turn the air blue with their ribaldry in a New York second. However, what Sid had lost was his appetite for sleeping around and had only recently promised me his fidelity. Our commitment to each other was very solid.
Later that night, we had the big prayer service we always did on Wednesday evenings.
“This is a special chance to make a real commitment to the faith that you’ve been baptized in,” John told us. “Most of us were baptized as infants, a choice our parents made in our names. That doesn’t change what the Sacrament did for us. Sacrament is the tangible expression of the spiritual reality. But there does come a time when each of us must make a choice whether or not to live that reality. Some of you have made that choice already. Here’s a chance to pray for the deepening of your baptismal sacrament and pray for where God is leading you. For others, it’s an opportunity to make a commitment to living your baptismal sacrament.”
During the next part of the service, we leaders prayed with individual kids. As I prayed, my hands on various kids’ shoulders, in the back of my mind, all I could think about was that poor man who’d died that day and Sid.
Sid got the concept of commitment, and he always had. He simply hadn’t believed in marriage because he’d been taught that it was a crock, and he’d seen enough failures in that arena not to question what he’d been taught. Still, he didn’t mind marrying me.
It had shocked both of us, but I was the one who was having trouble with the idea of being married. My fears were centered on all the social expectations, which was why I had wanted to remain single. But then Sid came along, and we fell in love, and when you fall in love you’re supposed to get married, and I just couldn’t figure out what to do about that.
Marriage is a sacrament in the Catholic Church, and what John had said about sacrament got under my skin. It was one of those things that I thought Sid would never get (and to a degree, he didn’t). But it was important to me. I couldn’t say why or how, but it was.
Being confronted yet again by Death that day only added the urgency to my thinking. After all, Sid’s and my work could be quite dangerous, and we both had learned not to leave things unsaid or unresolved. We never knew if we’d have another chance to say or resolve them.
So, I made the decision I did later that night. I’d had this nightmare that I get when I’m stressed out. I’m sure it had been triggered by the murder earlier that day. For the first time since the previous spring, Sid was not there at my side. Yet, I could almost feel him next to me, his hand rubbing my back, his soft voice soothing me. He was part of me. I made up my mind, then pulled the decision out multiple times over the next few days and prayed over it.
Saturday was the day we all went home. There was always a bittersweetness to the end of camp. For most of the kids there, it was pretty emotional. Some had their first experience of real faith, some got a better grip on who they really were, a couple would literally turn their lives around. I knew one kid that year who was leaving a place of safety to go back to a truly ugly situation at home. Still, even with the emotions, most of us had had a perfectly wonderful time and would cherish those memories but were eager to get back home to the people we loved.
As the boat home docked in Long Beach, I knew Sid would be there with the other parents who had volunteered to drive the campers back to the church parking lot. He’d helped drive us down the week before, too. I got a good grip on my suitcase, sleeping bag, and daypack and left the boat, searching among the other adults on the quay. We saw each other at the same time.
Sid is not a large man, barely three inches taller than me and I’m average. He has dark, wavy hair, a cleft chin, and gorgeous, gorgeous blue eyes. The second I got onto the quay, he was there. I dropped my luggage and we kissed each other hungrily, with Sid’s hand sliding into the back pocket of my shorts.
“Hey, you two!” One of the parents nudged us. “There had better be a wedding happening soon.”
“Maybe we’re already married.” I grinned and looked at Sid.
We both rolled our eyes. Then Sid patted my upper arm and I yelped.
“Again?” he asked.
Okay, I frequently forgot to put on sunscreen, and it was the third year running that I’d come back from camp with a sunburn.
“I was only going to be out five minutes. Then one of the kids wanted to confess.”
That was the other interesting part of camp. Since the topic of my talk was “Sex and the Problem of Temptation,” when somebody wanted to talk about his or her lapse that way, they came to me, and it was seldom a short conversation.
Sarah Williams ran past. “Sid, how many?”
“I have room for three.”
This was the absolute worst part of the week for Sarah. She was terrified that a kid would be left behind and scurried around with her lists, checking and double checking, and woe to the parent that left without her say so. We had never left anybody, but that was probably because Sarah was so careful.
“Okay, Leslie, Gina, and Brittany!” Sarah made a note. “Go with Sid and Lisa! Sid, do not even think about leaving until I say so.”
“That’s really him!” Gina gasped as the three girls lugged their suitcases and sleeping bags to the space next to us.
“Yes!” Brittany screeched. They were all three fifteen. “And we’ve got ’em!”
“What?” Sid looked at me.
“The Talk,” I said. Sid’s prior randy behavior was a significant part of the talk. Well, he had offered himself as a bad example that first year. “My darling, you are infamous, you know.”
Many of the teens were getting used to seeing Sid around and had met him. But Gina was new that year.
Sid laughed. “Good afternoon, ladies.”
“Hi, Sid,” said Leslie, also giggling.
When Sarah had everybody grouped by carload, she began dismissing us. Our carload was in the middle of the pack.
The girls chattered incessantly about their week and everything else in their worlds. Sid and I kept our hands to ourselves since any time Sid looked in his rear-view mirror, or at me, or I looked at him, it brought on gales of giggles. There may have been four or five cars that left ahead of us, but our car got to the church first, thanks to Sid’s lead foot. Other parents were there waiting, and barbecues had been set up to feed the campers when they arrived. I verified that Leslie, Brittany, and Gina all had their families there and helped unload their luggage. Then I said goodbye.
“Aren’t you going to stay for the barbecue?” Leslie’s mom asked.
“Uh, no. We’re going to head out.” I said with a smile. “Thanks, anyway.”
I got back in the car.
“You sure you don’t want to stay long enough for a snack?” Sid asked, starting the car.
“No. I want to see Nick.”
The next day, Sid’s son, Nick, would be heading home to the Bay Area where he lived with his mom. That night we were going to celebrate my niece Janey’s ninth birthday.
“So, what’s been going on?” I settled into my seat.
“Rock Hudson announced that he has AIDS on Thursday.” Sid’s face looked a little grim.
“What? Heterosexual contact?”
Which, granted, was probably not the way most people reacted. But Sid and I had a different take on that. One of his former girlfriends had gotten AIDS, although she’d probably gotten it from a drug addict she’d met after sleeping with Sid. Sid’s first test had come back negative, but since his last sexual contact had only been that past spring, it was always possible that he’d picked it up from someone else and his doctor wanted him to assume he could spread it until he was tested again in October.
“No. Hudson’s gay.”
“Huh. I didn’t know that.”
“Actually, I was wondering more about whether you got any more information on that meeting from Wednesday.” I looked out the windows as Sid pulled onto the 405 freeway.
“Not much. Cat’s Cradle was from Division Thirty-Four-Alpha.”
“Deep undercover investigations.”
As in, so deep undercover, you were there for life.
“Yeah. Henry’s going to try to find out what he was working on.” Sid slowed as the traffic slowed near the airport.
“No. It’s been a nice quiet week. I did get your letters and thank you.”
“Thank you for mine. And the kids liked the post card. So, did you guys have fun?”
“We’ve had a great time.” Then Sid frowned. “Something’s really up with Nick, though. He swears he’s not being molested, and I believe him, but whatever’s been bothering him is getting worse. He absolutely refuses to talk about it, too. Even threw it in my face that we have something we can’t talk about to him.”
“What’s Mae been calling it? The onset of adolescence.”
Nick and my nephew Darby were both twelve at the time, and both were getting a little mouthy.
“It’s more than that.” Sid shook his head, keeping his eyes on the road ahead.
“Well, do we want to put him in counseling?”
“If we could keep him down here long enough. You know how he’s been this past month or two. Wants to come down, then goes right back up. I was shocked that he agreed to stay the whole week here. Said his mom wanted him to come. And he’s called his mom every single day.”
“He’s never done that before.”
“The only good thing was that I was able to tell him that we’d find a way to take care of him.” Traffic had loosened up and Sid pressed the accelerator.
“That’s what we discussed.” I glared at the freeway ahead. “Have you been able to talk to Rachel at all?”
Rachel was Nick’s mother.
“She absolutely refuses to talk to me.”
“Have you tried talking to Marlou?”
We had figured that Rachel’s friend Marlou was in on whatever was going on.
“Yesterday. She said she understood, but there really wasn’t anything she could do about it, and that Nick was happy that we’d agreed to take care of him.”
“We’re going to have to take custody, aren’t we?”
Sid sighed. “I don’t see how we can avoid it. But maybe we can push it off until the house is done.”
Sid wanted to take custody of his son. We both did. Only there was our little side business. Neither of us thought we could keep it secret from Nick, but dumping something like that on him, not to mention, the danger we were often in. It just didn’t seem right or fair to Nick.
We arrived at the beach house shortly afterward. The house was crowded and noisy with kids yelling. Nick was in the bedroom he was sharing with Sid and Darby, talking to his mother. Darby came down for a quick hug, then went right back upstairs. Janey, brown-haired, hazel-eyed, came up and tried whispering in my ear.
“What?” I asked.
“Uncle Sid bought us Cheetos and ate some!”
Sid laughed and hugged her. “You silly girl.”
“Cheetos, huh?” I laughed.
Sid rolled his eyes as Janey ran off. We both knew she’d been behind the Cheetos. Sid is totally down on junk food but can’t really refuse when Janey asks. I was a little surprised that he’d eaten some, too, but not entirely.
The twins, Marty and Mitch, who were almost five, burst into the room roaring like engines. They bumped into me, got their hugs, and went back to tearing around the beach house like little red-headed cars.
Ellen, age seven, came running up with a clear plastic box with a bright turquoise lid. “Aunt Lisa, we went to the tide pools and look what I found!”
I wasn’t sure what was in the box, but it didn’t matter. “That’s very interesting.”
Mae hugged me and I went through the small living room that opened out onto a patio that opened onto the walkway that stretched along the land side of the beach. Neil was there, grilling chicken breasts for dinner. I gave him a hug, then Mae and I settled onto the couch in the living room. Sid got a couple bottles of beer from the fridge and brought one to Neil. Mae handed me a glass of cold white wine.
“So how was your week?” I asked her. I could hear Darby practicing his violin upstairs.
“We’ve had a terrific time. Oh, let me show you some of the photos. I already got them developed.” Mae pulled out a stack of prints. “I had so much fun with your camera. Thank you for loaning it to me. That zoom lens was a blast.”
I looked at the print of Darby, Neil, Sid, and Nick sitting on the short wall between the walkway and the sand. All four of them had their eyes glued to the backside of a bikini-clad young woman. I laughed.
Mae laughed, too. “I got that from the balcony upstairs.”
“What’s this?” It was a photo of Sid with the older kids gathered around him. He was dressed in his Hawaiian print swim shorts and had the matching shirt over it, but open, and he was sitting on a bicycle. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen Sid on a bike.”
“That’s because before this week, Sid didn’t know how to ride one.” Mae giggled. “He’d never learned. Janey wormed it out of him when he kept dancing around it when the kids wanted to rent bikes and have him go riding with them. That’s them teaching him.”
Sure enough, in the next picture, Sid was wobbling. In later shots, he sailed along as perfectly cool as ever.
“Lisa!” Nick burst into the room and tackled me.
“Hey, how’s my sweet guy?” I hugged him back and kissed the side of his head for good measure.
“Careful, Nick,” Mae groaned. “You’re going to knock over the wine.”
“It’s okay, Aunt Mae.” Nick plopped down next to me. “I’m so glad to see you!”
“I’m glad to see you.”
And I was. I adore Nick. He’s sweet and bouncy and bright and looks just like his dad, only Nick wears glasses and has longer hair, with a lock that constantly falls over his forehead.
That’s when Neil called us to eat dinner. We had cake and sang to Janey, and she opened her presents. As the sun started to set, I gently pulled Sid away to walk with me down to the water’s edge.
“Cheetos?” I asked as we trudged through the sand.
Sid sighed and looked heaven-ward. “It was Janey’s idea.”
“No, duh.” I laughed. “And…?”
“Okay.” He shuddered then shrugged. “Time to confess. I used to have a junk food habit and I loved Cheetos.”
“Past tense re the Cheetos?” I grinned at him.
“Eh, maybe still present tense.” His eyes glittered in the dark. “And why do I get the feeling that you know about that?”
“Your former junk food habit? Conchetta told me about it when I found the cans of Dr. Pepper in the pantry.”
“That, too.” Sid swore. “I can’t do any of that anymore. You do understand, don’t you?”
“Yes, I do.”
The waves roared and Sid’s eyes glinted in the starlight.
“So, why did you pull me out here?” he asked, smiling.
“I have something I’d like to talk to you about and I didn’t want to do it in the car.” I faced him and put my hands on his chest, then took a deep breath. “I want to get married. In the church.”
Sid’s eyebrows rose. “Are you sure? I mean, that’s been a pretty scary thing for you.”
“I know.” I bit my lip. “I am going to keep my name. But it was that bad pickup. We see so much horrible stuff, and then John was talking about living our sacraments.” I shrugged. “It’s like you say. My faith is the glue that holds me together, and after that bad pickup, I kept thinking that we could use that extra glue, I guess. I want us to have that.”
“Fine. Sure.” Sid gave my shoulders a quick squeeze.
“Are you okay with it?”
Sid laughed. “I don’t care either way. I made my promise to you. That’s what counts to me.”
“It does to me, too. It just would be nice to have the sacrament, as well.”
“Then we’ll have it.” He paused. “Are we going to do a whole wedding?”
“I’d like to, sort of.” I frowned, then smiled. “It would be really nice to celebrate our life together with the people we love.”
Sid thought about it for a second. “You know, it would be. Let’s do it.”
“And if anybody gets obnoxious about it, I’ll cancel it and we’ll just have you, me, and Father John.” I looked back at the beach house. “We should probably tell the family while we’re all here.”
“Let’s do it tomorrow morning. I don’t want to steal Janey’s thunder.”
I was shaking as I leaned my forehead against the bridge of his nose. “So. We’re getting married.”
“Yeah.” Sid sounded bemused. “We are.”