Fugue in a Minor Key Debut

February 9 – 10, 1984

The rain poured down. Not thirty minutes before, when I was still in the UCLA library, it had been barely sprinkling. But now that I was standing burdened with a backpack and a leather satchel both filled to the brim with books, in front of the restaurant in Westwood waiting for a contact that probably wasn’t going to show, the water streamed out of the sky as if God had decided to heck with the rainbow, He was going to flood us out again anyway.

I have to admit, I like working for Operation Quickline as a secret counter-espionage agent for the U.S. Government most of the time. But standing, getting soaked, on a street corner on a cold Thursday afternoon, just waiting to get shot at, or whatever else some enemy had up his or her sleeve, was not my idea of a high spot.

I checked my watch one last time. The contact, code name Green Light, was twenty minutes late. I didn’t like not making the drop, but I wasn’t going to just leave it there, and twenty minutes was too long to be waiting as it was.

I sighed and trudged up the hill and across the campus to where my dark blue Nissan four by four pick up with expanded cab and shell was parked. It took forever to get home. As the garage door opened, I looked at Sid’s two cars with dismay. The Mercedes 450SL, recently retired, was parked next to the wall. Sid’s new dark grey BMW 633 CSi was parked in the middle, leaving almost no room for me. I had to squeeze to get out of my truck, yet again, and struggled to get the satchel and backpack out.

Sid was waiting at the garage door when I got in.

“Good, you’re back,” he said urgently. He’s a handsome man, with dark wavy hair, a cleft chin, and bright blue eyes.

I walked past him to the offices in the front of the house. He followed.

“Sid, whatever it is, I don’t care,” I grumbled. “I am sopping wet from waiting for Green Light, who didn’t show. I am tired and my back is tense from carting books all over the library because you, as usual, have bitten off more than you can chew. I cannot tell you how sick I am of hearing you say, ‘bring everything, we’ll isolate what we want later.’  Next time, you lug books all over, and spend hours in line for the copiers, and put up with all the dirty looks from the people behind you wondering why you’re Xeroxing War and Peace. And also, if you’re going to insist that I not leave my truck in the driveway or on the street, then leave me some room in the garage. I am only so thin, and I am tired of playing Houdini just to get out of my truck. Now. I am going to cancel my racquetball game, get out of these wet clothes, eat my dinner by myself, then fix myself a bowl of hot popcorn, a hot toddy, and sit in front of a nice hot fire in the living room and re-read Gaudy Night. You’ll just have to play in your bedroom. I know it’s rough, Sid, but them’s the breaks.”

I dropped the books next to my desk and unbuttoned my raincoat. Motley, my springer spaniel, yipped a quiet hello.

“I’m sorry, Lisa,” said Sid quietly. “We’ve got to go out to your sister’s tonight.”

“What?”

“Mae called while you were out. Darby’s been having trouble at school, and the school psychologist is coming over for a conference.”

“Darby?” I sat down, completely confused. My nephew is the last kid I’d expect to be in trouble. Motley put his head in my lap, and I scratched it absently. “He has been kind of off the past couple months, but I didn’t think it was that serious.”

Sid shrugged. “I don’t know. Anyway, the conference is at 7:30, and Mae wants us there.”

“Both of us?”

“Well, I volunteered to go also, and she said she could use all the help she could get.”

“Oh, great. She sounds really upset. What time is it?” I checked my watch. “Five thirty? I’ve got to call Margie and cancel our game, then I’m going to take a hot shower. I’m chilled to the bone. You’ve eaten already, haven’t you?”

“Yes. Your dinner’s in the oven, but I’d like to leave as soon as possible.”

“Oh, come on, Sid. The freeways are still packed, and it’s raining, so you know they’re going to be at a standstill.”

“Which is precisely why I want to leave right away. It’ll probably take us two hours to get there.”

Mae and family live in Orange County, which meant with current traffic conditions, Sid had a point. I pushed Motley away and pulled myself out of my chair.

“Alright,” I sighed. “I’ll just change. What did Conchetta make for dinner?”

Conchetta Ramirez is the housekeeper and cook.

“Chili and rice and spinach salad.”

I sighed. Conchetta’s chili is vegetarian, but it’s really good with lots and lots of beans and really hot chiles.

“Sid, please? Can I take some with me? We’ve still got some of those really big styrofoam cups from the slumber party last Saturday. I’ll be real careful.” I blinked twice.

Sid sighed. “Alright. You go get changed. I’ll take care of it. I packed an overnight bag for you, just in case.”

“Thanks. Will you please fill the cup all the way?”

Sid didn’t answer. Much to his dismay, I have an incredible appetite and I don’t gain weight. I went to my room and changed into jeans and an over-sized sized cotton sweater. Sid must have told Conchetta to take care of putting together my food because the really large cup was filled almost to the brim with chili, and there were home-made corn tortillas on the side, and a plastic sack full of cut vegetables. Sid did hand me about ten paper towels.

I didn’t say anything. Right before Christmas, I’d gotten into an accident in the 450SL, which is what motivated Sid to retire it after it got fixed. We’d traded words at the time, and our emotions were still a little raw regarding anything connected to Sid’s cars.

Sid’s lead foot didn’t get much of a work out that night because traffic was indeed as bad as we’d anticipated. We wriggled around and through the lines of cars snaking eastward in the dark and rain.

We got to Mae’s at seven fifteen. The kids are usually bouncing off the walls when we get there. But that night, they solemnly filed down the stairs to say hello. The twins, Marty and Mitch, who were three and a half, quietly hugged me, then Sid. Five-and-a-half-year-old Ellen did the same. Janey hugged Sid first and spent a long time whispering in his ear. For a seven-year-old, she’s got a lot of insight into human nature, and I was hoping she was telling Sid what the problem was. Sid just shrugged.

“We’ll try, honey,” he replied quietly.

Darby, who was getting close to his eleventh birthday, just mumbled “hi,” to both of us. Mae reached over to stroke his red hair, but Darby just pushed his glasses up on his nose and hung his head over his skinny form. A second later, he had run upstairs. His brothers and sisters followed.

Mae bit her lip as the tears started down her cheeks. Neil, her husband, put his arms around her and steered her into the family room.

“What’s going on?” I asked as we all sat down.

Neil pushed his glasses up on his nose. “Darby’s been getting very withdrawn lately. He’s been a little off since last Thanksgiving, but it’s been really bad for the past month. We took him to a counselor over at Catholic Social Services. He said it was just a phase. The school counselor says there’s something bothering him, but she can’t figure it out. We asked Janey. She just said he’s real upset. But the problem is, he won’t say a word about it. He swears he’s alright.”

“That’s not like Darby,” I said.

“We don’t understand it either,” said Neil.

“I’ve tried,” sobbed Mae. “I can’t figure out what we’ve done wrong.”

Neil pulled her closer. “We haven’t done anything wrong. We’re doing all we can. Whatever’s the matter will get taken care of.”

I leaned over and patted Mae’s hand. The doorbell rang and Sid got up.

“Oh, lord, that’s her.” Mae bounced up. “We’ll talk in the kitchen. I better get the water boiling.”

“I’ll get the door,” said Sid.

I followed him into the entry, shutting the family room doors behind me.

The woman at the door was in her middle forties and pretty, with short, light brown hair. She had a plastic raincoat on over a purple sweater and matching skirt.

“Isn’t this the O’Malley residence?” she asked, hesitantly.

“Yes, it is,” said Sid. He smiled warmly, a little too warmly. “Please, come in. I’m Sid Hackbirn, a friend of the family. You must be the counselor from the school.”

“Uh, yes.” She stepped into the entry and shook Sid’s hand.

“I’m Lisa Wycherly, Mrs. O’Malley’s sister,” I said, quickly stepping forward. I could see the well-practiced lechery in Sid’s eyes and wasn’t about to put up with it.

“How do you do?” She shook my hand, then unsnapped her coat.

“May I take your coat?” Sid offered.

“Thank you. It’s a miserable night out.”

“It is at that.” Sid got a hanger from the hall closet and neatly hung up the coat. “So, you’re into child psychology. Sounds like a fascinating field.”

“It is.” She smiled at him. “Do you have any children?”

“No. Nary a one. You?”

“Just the ones at school, thank God.”

Neil opened the doors to the family room. “Come on in. Mae’s setting up in the kitchen.”

The counselor followed Neil through the doors. Sid started after her, but I held him back.

“Will you please?” I hissed.

“Please what?”

“Do you have to pick up on every female you run into?”

“I’m not picking up anybody.” He stopped as he caught my skeptical glare. He shrugged. “May I at least prime the way and file for future reference?”

“Just remember where she works.” Which is the local Catholic school.

Mae was setting out mugs and herb tea in the kitchen.

“We’ll be sitting at the table,” she said. “Oh, Sid, Lisa, this is Sister Jerilyn Michaels.”

“Sister?” muttered Sid, startled.

I pressed my lips together. Neil noticed me, then glanced at Sid and rolled his eyes.

“So much for future reference,” I muttered.

“We got to know Sid right after Lisa started working for him.” Mae poured boiling water into the mugs and dropped the tea bags in. “He’s really a very good friend, and very close to the children, especially Darby and Janey.”

“Yes,” replied Sister with a twinkle in her eye. “They’ve mentioned you.”

I slid around the table to Darby’s place next to the wall. Sister Jerilyn sat at Mae’s place on the end, with Sid next to her, Mae on his other side, and Neil at the head.

“I understand Neil brought you two up to date on Darby’s problem,” Sister said to Sid and me. “What I’d really like to do is think about last fall and try and see if there’s anything that changed during that time.”

“Well, nothing, really,” said Mae. She frowned. “Soccer ended right after Halloween. Wait. I wonder if it’s pressure. Darby’s doing an awful lot. Every Tuesday and Wednesday, he goes and does yard work for Mr. Jefferson. He lives about two blocks over. Darby’s been doing that since October. He wanted to earn his own money for Christmas gifts. Monday afternoon, he has his violin lesson, Tuesday night is guitar, and there’s the orchestra on Thursday afternoons. And he’s always practicing when he’s home.”

“That’s interesting,” said Sister. “Some of the other boys in his class have been teasing him about playing the violin.”

“Oh, no,” sighed Mae. “I’ll bet it’s Stewart and Andy. They were on his soccer team. This was not a good year for Darby. He’s always loved playing, and he’s not bad at it, but this year, his coach was real competitive. Darby stuck it out, God bless him, but I really felt like he should have given it up.”

“Soccer was the first thing I asked him about,” said Neil. “And he’s been worse since it ended, not better.”

“With the teasing and all, there could be some masculinity issues involved,” said Sister. “Neil, do you play any musical instruments?”

“Well, a little guitar,” said Neil. “Mae is more musical than I am. I suppose Darby could be looking at music as a more female thing. But both Mae and I have always been very strong on the idea that it’s not what you do that makes you male or female.”

“And yet, your family situation is very traditional,” said Sister. “What about other influential males in Darby’s life? His grandfathers?”

Neil shrugged. “My dad lives in Nebraska, and we only see him once a year.”

“He’s always been very supportive of Darby,” said Mae. “And he’s pretty sentimental.

Neil shook his head. “Mae’s dad, on the other hand…”

Mae sighed. I bit my lip. Sid pressed his lips together and leaned them on his knuckles.

“Daddy’s definitely a real man,” said Mae. “But he’s been very supportive. He told Darby he should follow his heart.”

Sid cleared his throat. “He does tend to be somewhat homophobic, though.”

“Sid,” I groaned.

Mae sighed. “He’s right. On the other hand, my parents don’t live near us either, and we only see them three or four times a year.”

“And what about you, Sid?” asked Sister. “Darby has mentioned you as someone he looks up to.”

Sid squirmed a little. “Well, I do play piano, and Darby and I have worked on his music together at times.”

Sister smiled at him. “And your masculinity issues?”

Sid chuckled. “No problems there.”

“Are you sure?”

“Trust me, Sister, proving my manhood has been the least of my worries since I was a kid.”

Sister nodded and thought. “You know, Mae, you made a point earlier about Darby being involved in a lot, and that possibly he’s feeling pressured by it. I wonder if there’s a way we could take him out of the grind, so to speak, for a while. Maybe if he can relax a little, he’ll open up.”

“Well, Darby could come stay at my place,” said Sid.

“I don’t think that’s such a good idea,” I replied.

“Why not?” Sid asked.

“Oh, I can think of a lot of good reasons,” I said.

“I think you’re on the right track,” said Sister. “But wouldn’t Darby be more comfortable with his aunt?”

“It’s the same place,” I said slowly. “We’re housemates. That’s it. Well, I work for Sid.”

“And we work at home,” said Sid. “So there’s no babysitting problems.”

“That could be an ideal arrangement,” said Sister.

“Maybe not.” I got up. “Sid, before you commit yourself, can we talk privately for a minute?”

“Sure.” Sid got up and followed me into the dining room, shutting the kitchen door behind him.

“Two very good reasons not to have Darby around,” I said very softly. “One, our flourishing underground business.”

Which is so top secret nobody but Sid and a couple liaisons know we do it, not even my family and friends.

“We can work around it. One of us stays with Darby while the other runs the errands. I’ll even do most of the running.”

“Alright, but number two is the revolving door on your bedroom. I mean he probably knows what you’re up to, but I don’t think you need to be flaunting it, and you know what sometimes happens when you fall asleep on your girlfriends.”

“Indeed, which is why I’m not planning on bringing anybody home while he’s there. Is that a fair compromise?”

“I suppose.” I smiled at him. “You don’t have to do any of this, you know.”

“I know.” He looked over at the kitchen door. “But there are times when being alone in the world has its disadvantages. You guys are as close to family as I’ve got, and with that privilege comes responsibility. If I can help, I’m more than happy to do it.”

Mae seemed a little uncertain as we came back in. I had a feeling she was concerned about my number two objection also. Sid just smiled and told her that I was satisfied with all the arrangements. I later caught them talking quietly together. [She just said that while she respected my right to my own choices, she didn’t think my way of expressing my masculinity was particularly healthy and she really didn’t want Darby emulating it. I told her that I respected that and would make a point of not giving him anything in that way to emulate – SEH]

Neil brought Darby downstairs.

“Darby,” I said, smiling. “We know you’ve been a little off track lately.”

“I’m fine. Really.”

“We know, but Sid and I thought we’d take you to come stay with us for a while.”

Sister Jerilyn watched him carefully.

“I’ve got school,” he said, getting nervous.

“We’ll get your books and your homework,” I said.

“But there’s other stuff, Aunt Lisa,” he said. “I got stuff I gotta do. Mr. Jefferson’s lawns and my music lessons.”

“It’s not late,” said Mae. “You can call Mr. Jefferson and tell him you can’t come for a while.”

“And I can’t do much about your lessons,” said Sid. “But we can work on theory and keyboards at my place.”

“I don’t want Mr. Jefferson to be upset,” said Darby.

“I’m sure he won’t mind,” said Mae, dialing the phone. “Here. It’s ringing.”

She handed the phone to Darby, who swallowed as he took it.

“Uh, hi, Mr. Jefferson. It’s Darby… Um, well, I’ve got a problem. My aunt wants me to come stay with her for a while… I don’t know. She just does… Oh. Okay… Yeah, thanks… No problem… Good-bye.” He smiled as he handed the phone back. “He doesn’t care.”

We sent Darby on to bed and made arrangements with Sister Jerilyn for Sid and me to pick up Darby’s homework the next morning. Then we spent the night at Mae’s, with Sid in the guestroom and me in with the girls.

The next morning, Sister Jerilyn was ready and waiting for us at the school as promised. Sid still seemed pretty uncomfortable around Sister, so we got the books and Miss Robbins’ phone number pretty quickly and got out.

“What happened to those black outfits they used to wear?” Sid asked as we drove back to Mae’s house.

“They’re part of a by-gone era,” I replied smugly.

“They ought to bring them back. How are you going to identify one of those ladies?”

“Why do you have to identify them? So you don’t accidentally try to pick up on them?”

“Real cute, Lisa.”

“Come on, Sid. They’re just human beings like everyone else.”

“I wonder. Anybody who could pledge no sex for their entire lives.”

I snickered. “What about me?”

“You haven’t said no permanently.”

“Yet.”

Sid winced. “Lisa, please. I just can’t see you as a nun. You’re too passionate. At least as it stands now, the option is still open, and someday, maybe, I’ll get you to take me up on it.”

“It’ll be the same day I get you in front of the altar.”

“Good luck. If I ever get crazy enough to get married, I’m going to Las Vegas. There is no way you’re going to catch me involved in one of those three-ring circuses called a church wedding.”

“Sid, there is no way you’re going to get married, so it’s a moot point.”

“True.”

After we got Darby and got back to our home, Sid announced that we were going to play that day and go skiing before the rest of Southern California got to all that fresh powder from the rain the day before.

“Yeah!” Darby hollered.

“Oh?” I asked, skeptically. “I suppose we can rent equipment for Darby, but it’s already nine thirty. Between getting changed and loaded, we won’t get to the mountains until noon at the soonest.”

“We can do some night skiing,” said Sid.

“Yeah!” said Darby.

“Sid, we’re still trying to catch up on last month’s deadlines, and you haven’t even started research on your single’s column, not to mention all those books we’ve got to go through for that toxics article.”

Sid grimaced. “What have we got that’s still overdue?”

I went over to my desk. “My childcare article.”

“That should be right there. I finished going over it yesterday.”

“Here it is.” I went back to the list. “Your stock market piece.”

“I thought we didn’t have to worry about that until Wednesday.”

“But you promised me I’d have a draft to edit today.”

“Oh. It seems to me there’s something else.”

“Your final edits on the Lester Roberts profile, and I need that by noon so we can have our final conference on it and have it ready for overnight delivery by three.”

Darby flopped onto the office couch, looking totally bored. Sid looked at him, then at me.

“Alright. How about this?” He thought for a moment. “Why don’t you make your corrections on your article. It should only take a couple minutes. I’ll make the phone calls for the lift tickets, then double check Roberts and we can do a quick conference on it. We should be done by ten, and if I know you, you can be changed and loaded in five minutes.”

Tempted, I bit my lip. “And what about the stock market draft, your singles research, and those books?”

“If I have the draft on the computer for you by Monday morning, will that be good enough?”

“Alright.”

“Good. I can hardly do singles research now. I’ll get it done over the weekend, and we’ll go through the books Monday and Tuesday.”

Darby sighed.

“You’ll have plenty of schoolwork to keep you occupied,” I told him. “I’m sorry, but Sid and I do have work to do.”

“Can’t you just cheat?” Darby asked.

Sid chuckled. “Not too much. We’ve gotten behind.”

I was biting my tongue so hard, I almost bit it in half. One of Sid’s girlfriends had talked Sid into joining the digital age by showing him how to write on a computer, instead of writing everything out longhand and having me type it into WordStar. He had been taking to it slowly. [So I felt more comfortable thinking with a pen in my hand – SEH] Until the disaster. Neither of us really knows how he did it, but Sid somehow re-formatted the hard drive on my computer, which pretty much destroyed everything we’d been working on. Sid’s just lucky my good friend Esther Nguyen really likes him. She’s an electrical engineer and really good with computers. She couldn’t fix the hard drive problem, but she did convince Sid to get a computer of his own

And, to be fair, the computer meltdown wasn’t the only reason we were behind. We’d been caving in to the lure of uncrowded slopes. For all Sid is very disciplined about working during business hours, he hates the weekend crowds on the ski runs more than I do. We were sneaking out on a weekday at least once every other week. We go together because most of our friends work during the day. Some of Sid’s friends could get away, but they either want to chase girls or have Sid chase them, and Sid would actually rather ski.

I gave in. “Let’s get going. Maybe if we hurry, we can be done before ten.”

Darby hollered his approval as the phone rang on the daytime line.

I picked it up. “Hello?”

“Is this Sid Hackbirn’s place?” asked the woman on the other end.

“May I ask who’s calling?”

Sid waved at me to take a message.

“My name’s Rachel Flaherty. Sid and I are old friends.”

“Well, Ms. Flaherty, if you’d like to leave a number, I’ll have him call you.”

At the sound of her name, Sid’s head whipped around and he waved at me again.

“Would you excuse me for a moment?” I put her on hold.

“Is that Rachel Flaherty?” Sid asked.

“Yes.”

He chuckled. “I’ll be damned. I haven’t heard from her since…” He glanced at Darby. “Well, we were friends the end of my first year at Stanford.”

“Do you want to talk to her?”

“Yeah.” He noticed Darby again. “No. Find out what she wants, and if she wants to drop by… Use your discretion. I can meet her someplace, too. Any time this weekend I’m not booked.”

“Okay.” I pressed the line as Sid went into his office. “Ms. Flaherty…”

“It’s Dr. Flaherty.”

“Oh. Excuse me. Doctor, was there anything, in particular, you wanted to speak to Mr. Hackbirn about?”

“I was hoping to stop by and say hello. I’ve got somebody I’d like him to meet.” Her tone was just cagey enough.

I smirked to myself. “Well, he has several openings. When would you like to come by?”

“How about tomorrow afternoon?” She paused, apparently looking something up. “Let’s see. I could be there by one o’clock.”

“One o’clock it is, then. I’ll let Mr. Hackbirn know. Thank you.” I hung up.

“Lisa, what’s going on?” Sid appeared in the doorway to his office.

“I don’t think you’ll be going out with her, Sid,” I said, trying not to snicker. “She said she has somebody she’d like you to meet, and it was the `he’s not going to like this’ version.”

“I don’t get it,” said Darby.

Sid looked at me.

“Well,” I said. “Sometimes one of your Uncle Sid’s girlfriends will bring a baby to visit and say the baby belongs to Sid, and this Dr. Flaherty is acting like she’s about to do the same.”

Sid laughed. “Nah. Rachel wouldn’t pull a stunt like that.”

“Well, she certainly wasn’t gloating about this somebody.” I looked at Darby. “That usually means the girlfriend got married to someone else.”

“It’s probably another guy she married,” said Sid. “Trust me. Rachel wouldn’t try to pin a kid on me. We were very clear on the prevention issue.”

“Want to put some money on that?” I grinned. “On her setting you up. There’s no point in betting on the paternity issue.”

Sid’s been fixed for years and was religious about birth control before that. Well, all but religious. Sid’s an atheist.

Sid thought, then grinned. “Five to one, your favor?”

“I’ll put up ten dollars.”

“You’re on. And if there’s a kid on my doorstep tomorrow, you’re fifty dollars richer.”

February 9 – 10, 1984

The rain poured down. Not thirty minutes before, when I was still in the UCLA library, it had been barely sprinkling. But now that I was standing burdened with a backpack and a leather satchel both filled to the brim with books, in front of the restaurant in Westwood waiting for a contact that probably wasn’t going to show, the water streamed out of the sky as if God had decided to heck with the rainbow, He was going to flood us out again anyway.

I have to admit, I like working for Operation Quickline as a secret counter-espionage agent for the U.S. Government most of the time. But standing, getting soaked, on a street corner on a cold Thursday afternoon, just waiting to get shot at, or whatever else some enemy had up his or her sleeve, was not my idea of a high spot.

I checked my watch one last time. The contact, code name Green Light, was twenty minutes late. I didn’t like not making the drop, but I wasn’t going to just leave it there, and twenty minutes was too long to be waiting as it was.

I sighed and trudged up the hill and across the campus to where my dark blue Nissan four by four pick up with expanded cab and shell was parked. It took forever to get home. As the garage door opened, I looked at Sid’s two cars with dismay. The Mercedes 450SL, recently retired, was parked next to the wall. Sid’s new dark grey BMW 633 CSi was parked in the middle, leaving almost no room for me. I had to squeeze to get out of my truck, yet again, and struggled to get the satchel and backpack out.

Sid was waiting at the garage door when I got in.

“Good, you’re back,” he said urgently. He’s a handsome man, with dark wavy hair, a cleft chin, and bright blue eyes.

I walked past him to the offices in the front of the house. He followed.

“Sid, whatever it is, I don’t care,” I grumbled. “I am sopping wet from waiting for Green Light, who didn’t show. I am tired and my back is tense from carting books all over the library because you, as usual, have bitten off more than you can chew. I cannot tell you how sick I am of hearing you say, ‘bring everything, we’ll isolate what we want later.’  Next time, you lug books all over, and spend hours in line for the copiers, and put up with all the dirty looks from the people behind you wondering why you’re Xeroxing War and Peace. And also, if you’re going to insist that I not leave my truck in the driveway or on the street, then leave me some room in the garage. I am only so thin, and I am tired of playing Houdini just to get out of my truck. Now. I am going to cancel my racquetball game, get out of these wet clothes, eat my dinner by myself, then fix myself a bowl of hot popcorn, a hot toddy, and sit in front of a nice hot fire in the living room and re-read Gaudy Night. You’ll just have to play in your bedroom. I know it’s rough, Sid, but them’s the breaks.”

I dropped the books next to my desk and unbuttoned my raincoat. Motley, my springer spaniel, yipped a quiet hello.

“I’m sorry, Lisa,” said Sid quietly. “We’ve got to go out to your sister’s tonight.”

“What?”

“Mae called while you were out. Darby’s been having trouble at school, and the school psychologist is coming over for a conference.”

“Darby?” I sat down, completely confused. My nephew is the last kid I’d expect to be in trouble. Motley put his head in my lap, and I scratched it absently. “He has been kind of off the past couple months, but I didn’t think it was that serious.”

Sid shrugged. “I don’t know. Anyway, the conference is at 7:30, and Mae wants us there.”

“Both of us?”

“Well, I volunteered to go also, and she said she could use all the help she could get.”

“Oh, great. She sounds really upset. What time is it?” I checked my watch. “Five thirty? I’ve got to call Margie and cancel our game, then I’m going to take a hot shower. I’m chilled to the bone. You’ve eaten already, haven’t you?”

“Yes. Your dinner’s in the oven, but I’d like to leave as soon as possible.”

“Oh, come on, Sid. The freeways are still packed, and it’s raining, so you know they’re going to be at a standstill.”

“Which is precisely why I want to leave right away. It’ll probably take us two hours to get there.”

Mae and family live in Orange County, which meant with current traffic conditions, Sid had a point. I pushed Motley away and pulled myself out of my chair.

“Alright,” I sighed. “I’ll just change. What did Conchetta make for dinner?”

Conchetta Ramirez is the housekeeper and cook.

“Chili and rice and spinach salad.”

I sighed. Conchetta’s chili is vegetarian, but it’s really good with lots and lots of beans and really hot chiles.

“Sid, please? Can I take some with me? We’ve still got some of those really big styrofoam cups from the slumber party last Saturday. I’ll be real careful.” I blinked twice.

Sid sighed. “Alright. You go get changed. I’ll take care of it. I packed an overnight bag for you, just in case.”

“Thanks. Will you please fill the cup all the way?”

Sid didn’t answer. Much to his dismay, I have an incredible appetite and I don’t gain weight. I went to my room and changed into jeans and an over-sized sized cotton sweater. Sid must have told Conchetta to take care of putting together my food because the really large cup was filled almost to the brim with chili, and there were home-made corn tortillas on the side, and a plastic sack full of cut vegetables. Sid did hand me about ten paper towels.

I didn’t say anything. Right before Christmas, I’d gotten into an accident in the 450SL, which is what motivated Sid to retire it after it got fixed. We’d traded words at the time, and our emotions were still a little raw regarding anything connected to Sid’s cars.

Sid’s lead foot didn’t get much of a work out that night because traffic was indeed as bad as we’d anticipated. We wriggled around and through the lines of cars snaking eastward in the dark and rain.

We got to Mae’s at seven fifteen. The kids are usually bouncing off the walls when we get there. But that night, they solemnly filed down the stairs to say hello. The twins, Marty and Mitch, who were three and a half, quietly hugged me, then Sid. Five-and-a-half-year-old Ellen did the same. Janey hugged Sid first and spent a long time whispering in his ear. For a seven-year-old, she’s got a lot of insight into human nature, and I was hoping she was telling Sid what the problem was. Sid just shrugged.

“We’ll try, honey,” he replied quietly.

Darby, who was getting close to his eleventh birthday, just mumbled “hi,” to both of us. Mae reached over to stroke his red hair, but Darby just pushed his glasses up on his nose and hung his head over his skinny form. A second later, he had run upstairs. His brothers and sisters followed.

Mae bit her lip as the tears started down her cheeks. Neil, her husband, put his arms around her and steered her into the family room.

“What’s going on?” I asked as we all sat down.

Neil pushed his glasses up on his nose. “Darby’s been getting very withdrawn lately. He’s been a little off since last Thanksgiving, but it’s been really bad for the past month. We took him to a counselor over at Catholic Social Services. He said it was just a phase. The school counselor says there’s something bothering him, but she can’t figure it out. We asked Janey. She just said he’s real upset. But the problem is, he won’t say a word about it. He swears he’s alright.”

“That’s not like Darby,” I said.

“We don’t understand it either,” said Neil.

“I’ve tried,” sobbed Mae. “I can’t figure out what we’ve done wrong.”

Neil pulled her closer. “We haven’t done anything wrong. We’re doing all we can. Whatever’s the matter will get taken care of.”

I leaned over and patted Mae’s hand. The doorbell rang and Sid got up.

“Oh, lord, that’s her.” Mae bounced up. “We’ll talk in the kitchen. I better get the water boiling.”

“I’ll get the door,” said Sid.

I followed him into the entry, shutting the family room doors behind me.

The woman at the door was in her middle forties and pretty, with short, light brown hair. She had a plastic raincoat on over a purple sweater and matching skirt.

“Isn’t this the O’Malley residence?” she asked, hesitantly.

“Yes, it is,” said Sid. He smiled warmly, a little too warmly. “Please, come in. I’m Sid Hackbirn, a friend of the family. You must be the counselor from the school.”

“Uh, yes.” She stepped into the entry and shook Sid’s hand.

“I’m Lisa Wycherly, Mrs. O’Malley’s sister,” I said, quickly stepping forward. I could see the well-practiced lechery in Sid’s eyes and wasn’t about to put up with it.

“How do you do?” She shook my hand, then unsnapped her coat.

“May I take your coat?” Sid offered.

“Thank you. It’s a miserable night out.”

“It is at that.” Sid got a hanger from the hall closet and neatly hung up the coat. “So, you’re into child psychology. Sounds like a fascinating field.”

“It is.” She smiled at him. “Do you have any children?”

“No. Nary a one. You?”

“Just the ones at school, thank God.”

Neil opened the doors to the family room. “Come on in. Mae’s setting up in the kitchen.”

The counselor followed Neil through the doors. Sid started after her, but I held him back.

“Will you please?” I hissed.

“Please what?”

“Do you have to pick up on every female you run into?”

“I’m not picking up anybody.” He stopped as he caught my skeptical glare. He shrugged. “May I at least prime the way and file for future reference?”

“Just remember where she works.” Which is the local Catholic school.

Mae was setting out mugs and herb tea in the kitchen.

“We’ll be sitting at the table,” she said. “Oh, Sid, Lisa, this is Sister Jerilyn Michaels.”

“Sister?” muttered Sid, startled.

I pressed my lips together. Neil noticed me, then glanced at Sid and rolled his eyes.

“So much for future reference,” I muttered.

“We got to know Sid right after Lisa started working for him.” Mae poured boiling water into the mugs and dropped the tea bags in. “He’s really a very good friend, and very close to the children, especially Darby and Janey.”

“Yes,” replied Sister with a twinkle in her eye. “They’ve mentioned you.”

I slid around the table to Darby’s place next to the wall. Sister Jerilyn sat at Mae’s place on the end, with Sid next to her, Mae on his other side, and Neil at the head.

“I understand Neil brought you two up to date on Darby’s problem,” Sister said to Sid and me. “What I’d really like to do is think about last fall and try and see if there’s anything that changed during that time.”

“Well, nothing, really,” said Mae. She frowned. “Soccer ended right after Halloween. Wait. I wonder if it’s pressure. Darby’s doing an awful lot. Every Tuesday and Wednesday, he goes and does yard work for Mr. Jefferson. He lives about two blocks over. Darby’s been doing that since October. He wanted to earn his own money for Christmas gifts. Monday afternoon, he has his violin lesson, Tuesday night is guitar, and there’s the orchestra on Thursday afternoons. And he’s always practicing when he’s home.”

“That’s interesting,” said Sister. “Some of the other boys in his class have been teasing him about playing the violin.”

“Oh, no,” sighed Mae. “I’ll bet it’s Stewart and Andy. They were on his soccer team. This was not a good year for Darby. He’s always loved playing, and he’s not bad at it, but this year, his coach was real competitive. Darby stuck it out, God bless him, but I really felt like he should have given it up.”

“Soccer was the first thing I asked him about,” said Neil. “And he’s been worse since it ended, not better.”

“With the teasing and all, there could be some masculinity issues involved,” said Sister. “Neil, do you play any musical instruments?”

“Well, a little guitar,” said Neil. “Mae is more musical than I am. I suppose Darby could be looking at music as a more female thing. But both Mae and I have always been very strong on the idea that it’s not what you do that makes you male or female.”

“And yet, your family situation is very traditional,” said Sister. “What about other influential males in Darby’s life? His grandfathers?”

Neil shrugged. “My dad lives in Nebraska, and we only see him once a year.”

“He’s always been very supportive of Darby,” said Mae. “And he’s pretty sentimental.

Neil shook his head. “Mae’s dad, on the other hand…”

Mae sighed. I bit my lip. Sid pressed his lips together and leaned them on his knuckles.

“Daddy’s definitely a real man,” said Mae. “But he’s been very supportive. He told Darby he should follow his heart.”

Sid cleared his throat. “He does tend to be somewhat homophobic, though.”

“Sid,” I groaned.

Mae sighed. “He’s right. On the other hand, my parents don’t live near us either, and we only see them three or four times a year.”

“And what about you, Sid?” asked Sister. “Darby has mentioned you as someone he looks up to.”

Sid squirmed a little. “Well, I do play piano, and Darby and I have worked on his music together at times.”

Sister smiled at him. “And your masculinity issues?”

Sid chuckled. “No problems there.”

“Are you sure?”

“Trust me, Sister, proving my manhood has been the least of my worries since I was a kid.”

Sister nodded and thought. “You know, Mae, you made a point earlier about Darby being involved in a lot, and that possibly he’s feeling pressured by it. I wonder if there’s a way we could take him out of the grind, so to speak, for a while. Maybe if he can relax a little, he’ll open up.”

“Well, Darby could come stay at my place,” said Sid.

“I don’t think that’s such a good idea,” I replied.

“Why not?” Sid asked.

“Oh, I can think of a lot of good reasons,” I said.

“I think you’re on the right track,” said Sister. “But wouldn’t Darby be more comfortable with his aunt?”

“It’s the same place,” I said slowly. “We’re housemates. That’s it. Well, I work for Sid.”

“And we work at home,” said Sid. “So there’s no babysitting problems.”

“That could be an ideal arrangement,” said Sister.

“Maybe not.” I got up. “Sid, before you commit yourself, can we talk privately for a minute?”

“Sure.” Sid got up and followed me into the dining room, shutting the kitchen door behind him.

“Two very good reasons not to have Darby around,” I said very softly. “One, our flourishing underground business.”

Which is so top secret nobody but Sid and a couple liaisons know we do it, not even my family and friends.

“We can work around it. One of us stays with Darby while the other runs the errands. I’ll even do most of the running.”

“Alright, but number two is the revolving door on your bedroom. I mean he probably knows what you’re up to, but I don’t think you need to be flaunting it, and you know what sometimes happens when you fall asleep on your girlfriends.”

“Indeed, which is why I’m not planning on bringing anybody home while he’s there. Is that a fair compromise?”

“I suppose.” I smiled at him. “You don’t have to do any of this, you know.”

“I know.” He looked over at the kitchen door. “But there are times when being alone in the world has its disadvantages. You guys are as close to family as I’ve got, and with that privilege comes responsibility. If I can help, I’m more than happy to do it.”

Mae seemed a little uncertain as we came back in. I had a feeling she was concerned about my number two objection also. Sid just smiled and told her that I was satisfied with all the arrangements. I later caught them talking quietly together. [She just said that while she respected my right to my own choices, she didn’t think my way of expressing my masculinity was particularly healthy and she really didn’t want Darby emulating it. I told her that I respected that and would make a point of not giving him anything in that way to emulate – SEH]

Neil brought Darby downstairs.

“Darby,” I said, smiling. “We know you’ve been a little off track lately.”

“I’m fine. Really.”

“We know, but Sid and I thought we’d take you to come stay with us for a while.”

Sister Jerilyn watched him carefully.

“I’ve got school,” he said, getting nervous.

“We’ll get your books and your homework,” I said.

“But there’s other stuff, Aunt Lisa,” he said. “I got stuff I gotta do. Mr. Jefferson’s lawns and my music lessons.”

“It’s not late,” said Mae. “You can call Mr. Jefferson and tell him you can’t come for a while.”

“And I can’t do much about your lessons,” said Sid. “But we can work on theory and keyboards at my place.”

“I don’t want Mr. Jefferson to be upset,” said Darby.

“I’m sure he won’t mind,” said Mae, dialing the phone. “Here. It’s ringing.”

She handed the phone to Darby, who swallowed as he took it.

“Uh, hi, Mr. Jefferson. It’s Darby… Um, well, I’ve got a problem. My aunt wants me to come stay with her for a while… I don’t know. She just does… Oh. Okay… Yeah, thanks… No problem… Good-bye.” He smiled as he handed the phone back. “He doesn’t care.”

We sent Darby on to bed and made arrangements with Sister Jerilyn for Sid and me to pick up Darby’s homework the next morning. Then we spent the night at Mae’s, with Sid in the guestroom and me in with the girls.

The next morning, Sister Jerilyn was ready and waiting for us at the school as promised. Sid still seemed pretty uncomfortable around Sister, so we got the books and Miss Robbins’ phone number pretty quickly and got out.

“What happened to those black outfits they used to wear?” Sid asked as we drove back to Mae’s house.

“They’re part of a by-gone era,” I replied smugly.

“They ought to bring them back. How are you going to identify one of those ladies?”

“Why do you have to identify them? So you don’t accidentally try to pick up on them?”

“Real cute, Lisa.”

“Come on, Sid. They’re just human beings like everyone else.”

“I wonder. Anybody who could pledge no sex for their entire lives.”

I snickered. “What about me?”

“You haven’t said no permanently.”

“Yet.”

Sid winced. “Lisa, please. I just can’t see you as a nun. You’re too passionate. At least as it stands now, the option is still open, and someday, maybe, I’ll get you to take me up on it.”

“It’ll be the same day I get you in front of the altar.”

“Good luck. If I ever get crazy enough to get married, I’m going to Las Vegas. There is no way you’re going to catch me involved in one of those three-ring circuses called a church wedding.”

“Sid, there is no way you’re going to get married, so it’s a moot point.”

“True.”

After we got Darby and got back to our home, Sid announced that we were going to play that day and go skiing before the rest of Southern California got to all that fresh powder from the rain the day before.

“Yeah!” Darby hollered.

“Oh?” I asked, skeptically. “I suppose we can rent equipment for Darby, but it’s already nine thirty. Between getting changed and loaded, we won’t get to the mountains until noon at the soonest.”

“We can do some night skiing,” said Sid.

“Yeah!” said Darby.

“Sid, we’re still trying to catch up on last month’s deadlines, and you haven’t even started research on your single’s column, not to mention all those books we’ve got to go through for that toxics article.”

Sid grimaced. “What have we got that’s still overdue?”

I went over to my desk. “My childcare article.”

“That should be right there. I finished going over it yesterday.”

“Here it is.” I went back to the list. “Your stock market piece.”

“I thought we didn’t have to worry about that until Wednesday.”

“But you promised me I’d have a draft to edit today.”

“Oh. It seems to me there’s something else.”

“Your final edits on the Lester Roberts profile, and I need that by noon so we can have our final conference on it and have it ready for overnight delivery by three.”

Darby flopped onto the office couch, looking totally bored. Sid looked at him, then at me.

“Alright. How about this?” He thought for a moment. “Why don’t you make your corrections on your article. It should only take a couple minutes. I’ll make the phone calls for the lift tickets, then double check Roberts and we can do a quick conference on it. We should be done by ten, and if I know you, you can be changed and loaded in five minutes.”

Tempted, I bit my lip. “And what about the stock market draft, your singles research, and those books?”

“If I have the draft on the computer for you by Monday morning, will that be good enough?”

“Alright.”

“Good. I can hardly do singles research now. I’ll get it done over the weekend, and we’ll go through the books Monday and Tuesday.”

Darby sighed.

“You’ll have plenty of schoolwork to keep you occupied,” I told him. “I’m sorry, but Sid and I do have work to do.”

“Can’t you just cheat?” Darby asked.

Sid chuckled. “Not too much. We’ve gotten behind.”

I was biting my tongue so hard, I almost bit it in half. One of Sid’s girlfriends had talked Sid into joining the digital age by showing him how to write on a computer, instead of writing everything out longhand and having me type it into WordStar. He had been taking to it slowly. [So I felt more comfortable thinking with a pen in my hand – SEH] Until the disaster. Neither of us really knows how he did it, but Sid somehow re-formatted the hard drive on my computer, which pretty much destroyed everything we’d been working on. Sid’s just lucky my good friend Esther Nguyen really likes him. She’s an electrical engineer and really good with computers. She couldn’t fix the hard drive problem, but she did convince Sid to get a computer of his own

And, to be fair, the computer meltdown wasn’t the only reason we were behind. We’d been caving in to the lure of uncrowded slopes. For all Sid is very disciplined about working during business hours, he hates the weekend crowds on the ski runs more than I do. We were sneaking out on a weekday at least once every other week. We go together because most of our friends work during the day. Some of Sid’s friends could get away, but they either want to chase girls or have Sid chase them, and Sid would actually rather ski.

I gave in. “Let’s get going. Maybe if we hurry, we can be done before ten.”

Darby hollered his approval as the phone rang on the daytime line.

I picked it up. “Hello?”

“Is this Sid Hackbirn’s place?” asked the woman on the other end.

“May I ask who’s calling?”

Sid waved at me to take a message.

“My name’s Rachel Flaherty. Sid and I are old friends.”

“Well, Ms. Flaherty, if you’d like to leave a number, I’ll have him call you.”

At the sound of her name, Sid’s head whipped around and he waved at me again.

“Would you excuse me for a moment?” I put her on hold.

“Is that Rachel Flaherty?” Sid asked.

“Yes.”

He chuckled. “I’ll be damned. I haven’t heard from her since…” He glanced at Darby. “Well, we were friends the end of my first year at Stanford.”

“Do you want to talk to her?”

“Yeah.” He noticed Darby again. “No. Find out what she wants, and if she wants to drop by… Use your discretion. I can meet her someplace, too. Any time this weekend I’m not booked.”

“Okay.” I pressed the line as Sid went into his office. “Ms. Flaherty…”

“It’s Dr. Flaherty.”

“Oh. Excuse me. Doctor, was there anything, in particular, you wanted to speak to Mr. Hackbirn about?”

“I was hoping to stop by and say hello. I’ve got somebody I’d like him to meet.” Her tone was just cagey enough.

I smirked to myself. “Well, he has several openings. When would you like to come by?”

“How about tomorrow afternoon?” She paused, apparently looking something up. “Let’s see. I could be there by one o’clock.”

“One o’clock it is, then. I’ll let Mr. Hackbirn know. Thank you.” I hung up.

“Lisa, what’s going on?” Sid appeared in the doorway to his office.

“I don’t think you’ll be going out with her, Sid,” I said, trying not to snicker. “She said she has somebody she’d like you to meet, and it was the `he’s not going to like this’ version.”

“I don’t get it,” said Darby.

Sid looked at me.

“Well,” I said. “Sometimes one of your Uncle Sid’s girlfriends will bring a baby to visit and say the baby belongs to Sid, and this Dr. Flaherty is acting like she’s about to do the same.”

Sid laughed. “Nah. Rachel wouldn’t pull a stunt like that.”

“Well, she certainly wasn’t gloating about this somebody.” I looked at Darby. “That usually means the girlfriend got married to someone else.”

“It’s probably another guy she married,” said Sid. “Trust me. Rachel wouldn’t try to pin a kid on me. We were very clear on the prevention issue.”

“Want to put some money on that?” I grinned. “On her setting you up. There’s no point in betting on the paternity issue.”

Sid’s been fixed for years and was religious about birth control before that. Well, all but religious. Sid’s an atheist.

Sid thought, then grinned. “Five to one, your favor?”

“I’ll put up ten dollars.”

“You’re on. And if there’s a kid on my doorstep tomorrow, you’re fifty dollars richer.”

February 9 – 10, 1984

The rain poured down.  Not thirty minutes before, when I was still in the UCLA library, it had been barely sprinkling.  But now that I was standing burdened with a backpack and a leather satchel both filled to the brim with books, in front of the restaurant in Westwood waiting for a contact that probably wasn’t going to show, the water streamed out of the sky as if God had decided to heck with the rainbow, He was going to flood us out again anyway.

I have to admit, I like working for Operation Quickline as a secret counter-espionage agent for the U.S. Government most of the time.  But standing, getting soaked, on a street corner on a cold Thursday afternoon, just waiting to get shot at, or whatever else some enemy had up his or her sleeve, was not my idea of a high spot.

I checked my watch one last time.  The contact, code name Green Light, was twenty minutes late.  I didn’t like not making the drop, but I wasn’t going to just leave it there, and twenty minutes was too long to be waiting as it was.

I sighed and trudged up the hill and across the campus to where my dark blue Nissan four by four pick up with expanded cab and shell was parked.  It took forever to get home.  As the garage door opened, I looked at Sid’s two cars with dismay.  The Mercedes 450SL, in retirement, and was parked next to the wall.  Sid’s new dark grey BMW 633 CSi was parked in the middle, leaving almost no room for me.  I had to squeeze to get out of my truck yet again, and struggled to get the satchel and backpack out.

Sid was waiting at the garage door when I got in.

“Good, you’re back,” he said urgently.  He’s a handsome man, with dark wavy hair, a cleft chin, and bright blue eyes.

I walked past him to the offices in the front of the house.  He followed.

“Sid, whatever it is, I don’t care,” I grumbled.  “I am sopping wet from waiting for Green Light, who didn’t show.  I am tired and my back is tense from carting books all over the library because you, as usual, have bitten off more than you can chew.  I cannot tell you how sick I am of hearing you say ‘bring everything, we’ll isolate what we want later.’  Next time, you lug books all over, and spend hours in line for the copiers, and put up with all the dirty looks from the people behind you.  And also, if you’re going to insist that I not leave my truck in the driveway or on the street, then leave me some room in the garage.  I am only so thin, and I am tired of playing Houdini just to get out of my truck.  Now.  I am going to cancel my racquetball game, get out of these wet clothes, eat my dinner by myself, then fix myself a bowl of hot popcorn, a hot toddy, and sit in front of a nice hot fire in the living room and re-read Gaudy Night.  You’ll just have to play in your bedroom.  I know it’s rough, Sid, but them’s the breaks.”

I dropped the books next to my desk and unbuttoned my raincoat.  Motley, my springer spaniel, yipped a quiet hello.

“I’m sorry, Lisa,” said Sid quietly.  “We’ve got to go out to your sister’s tonight.”

“What?”

“Mae called while you were out.  Darby’s been having trouble at school, and the school psychologist is coming over for a conference.”

“Darby?”  I sat down, completely confused.  My nephew is the last kid I’d expect to be in trouble.  Motley put his head in my lap and I scratched it absently.  “He has been kind of off the past couple months, but I didn’t think it was that serious.”

Sid shrugged.  “I don’t know.  Anyway, the conference is at 7:30, and Mae wants us there.”

“Both of us?”

“Well, I volunteered to go also, and she said she could use all the help she could get.”

“Oh, great.  She sounds really upset.  What time is it?”  I checked my watch.  “Five thirty?  I’ve got to call Margie and cancel our game, then I’m going to take a hot shower.  I’m chilled to the bone.  You’ve eaten already, haven’t you?”

“Yes.  Your dinner’s in the oven, but I’d like to leave as soon as possible.”

“Oh, come on, Sid.  The freeways are still packed, and it’s raining, so you know they’re going to be at a standstill.”

“Which is precisely why I want to leave right away.  It’ll probably take us two hours to get there.”

Mae and family live in Orange County, which meant with current traffic conditions, Sid had a point.  I pushed Motley away and pulled myself out of my chair.

“Alright,” I sighed.  “I’ll just change.  What did Conchetta make for dinner?”

Conchetta Ramirez is the housekeeper and cook.

“Chili and rice and spinach salad.”

I sighed.  Conchetta’s chili is vegetarian, but it’s really good with lots and lots of beans and really hot chiles.

“Sid, please?  Can I take some with me?  We’ve still got some of those really big styrofoam cups from the slumber party last Saturday.  I’ll be real careful.”  I blinked twice.

Sid sighed.  “Alright.  You go get changed.  I’ll take care of it.  I packed an overnight bag for you, just in case.”

“Thanks.  Will you please fill the cup all the way?”

Sid didn’t answer.  Much to his dismay, I have an incredible appetite and I don’t gain weight.  I went to my room and changed into jeans and an over-sized sized cotton sweater.  Sid must have told Conchetta to take care of putting together my food because the really large cup was filled almost to the brim with chili, and there were home-made corn tortillas on the side, and a plastic sack full of cut vegetables.  Sid did hand me about ten paper towels.

I didn’t say anything.  Right before Christmas, I’d gotten into an accident in the 450SL, which is what motivated Sid to retire it after it got fixed.  We’d traded words at the time, and our emotions were still a little raw regarding anything connected to Sid’s cars.

Sid’s lead foot didn’t get much of a work out that night because traffic was indeed as bad as we’d anticipated.  We wriggled around and through the lines of cars snaking eastward in the dark and rain.

We got to Mae’s at seven fifteen.  The kids are usually bouncing off the walls when we get there.  But that night, they solemnly filed down the stairs to say hello.  The twins, Marty and Mitch, who were three and a half, quietly hugged me, then Sid.  Five-and-a-half-year-old Ellen did the same.  Janey hugged Sid first and spent a long time whispering in his ear.  For a seven-year-old, she’s got a lot of insight into human nature, and I was hoping she was telling Sid what the problem was.  Sid just shrugged.

“We’ll try, honey,” he replied quietly.

Darby, who was getting close to his eleventh birthday, just mumbled “hi,” to both of us.  Mae reached over to stroke his red hair, but Darby just pushed his glasses up on his nose and hung his head over his skinny form.  A second later, he had run upstairs.  His brothers and sisters followed.

Mae bit her lip as the tears started down her cheeks.  Neil, her husband, put his arms around her and steered her into the family room.

“What’s going on?” I asked as we all sat down.

Neil pushed his glasses up on his nose.  “Darby’s been getting very withdrawn lately.  He’s been a little off since last Thanksgiving, but it’s been really bad for the past month.  We took him to a counselor over at Catholic Social Services.  He said it was just a phase.  The school counselor says there’s something bothering him, but she can’t figure it out.  We asked Janey.  She just said he’s real upset.  But the problem is, he won’t say a word about it.  He swears he’s alright.”

“That’s not like Darby,” I said.

“We don’t understand it either,” said Neil.

“I’ve tried,” sobbed Mae.  “I can’t figure out what we’ve done wrong.”

Neil pulled her closer.  “We haven’t done anything wrong.  We’re doing all we can.  Whatever’s the matter will get taken care of.”

I leaned over and patted Mae’s hand.  The doorbell rang and Sid got up.

“Oh, lord, that’s her.”  Mae bounced up.  “We’ll talk in the kitchen.  I better get the water boiling.”

“I’ll get the door,” said Sid.

I followed him into the entry, shutting the family room doors behind me.

The woman at the door was in her middle forties and pretty, with short, light brown hair.  She had a plastic raincoat on over a purple sweater and matching skirt.

“Isn’t this the O’Malley residence?” she asked, hesitantly.

“Yes, it is,” said Sid.  He smiled warmly, a little too warmly.  “Please, come in.  I’m Sid Hackbirn, a friend of the family.  You must be the counselor from the school.”

“Uh, yes.”  She stepped into the entry and shook Sid’s hand.

“I’m Lisa Wycherly, Mrs. O’Malley’s sister,” I said, quickly stepping forward.  I could see the well-practiced lechery in Sid’s eyes and wasn’t about to put up with it.

“How do you do?”  She shook my hand, then unsnapped her coat.

“May I take your coat?” Sid offered.

“Thank you.  It’s a miserable night out.”

“It is at that.”  Sid got a hanger from the hall closet and neatly hung up the coat.  “So you’re into child psychology.  Sounds like a fascinating field.”

“It is.”  She smiled at him.  “Do you have any children?”

“No.  Nary a one.  You?”

“Just the ones at school, thank God.”

Neil opened the doors to the family room.  “Come on in.  Mae’s setting up in the kitchen.”

The counselor followed Neil through the doors.  Sid started after her, but I held him back.

“Will you please?” I hissed.

“Please what?”

“Do you have to pick up on every female you run into?”

“I’m not picking up anybody.”  He stopped as he caught my skeptical glare.  He shrugged.  “May I at least prime the way and file for future reference?”

“Just remember where she works.”  Which is the local Catholic school.

Mae was setting out mugs and herb tea in the kitchen.

“We’ll be sitting at the table,” she said.  “Oh, Sid, Lisa, this is Sister Jerilyn Michaels.”

“Sister?” muttered Sid, startled.

I pressed my lips together.  Neil noticed me, then glanced at Sid and rolled his eyes.

“So much for future reference,” I muttered.

“We got to know Sid right after Lisa started working for him.”  Mae poured boiling water into the mugs and dropped the tea bags in.  “He’s really a very good friend, and very close to the children, especially Darby and Janey.”

“Yes,” replied Sister with a twinkle in her eye.  “They’ve mentioned you.”

I slid around the table to Darby’s place next to the wall.  Sister Jerilyn sat at Mae’s place on the end, with Sid next to her, Mae on his other side, and Neil at the head.

“I understand Neil brought you two up to date on Darby’s problem,” Sister said to Sid and me.  “What I’d really like to do is think about last fall and try and see if there’s anything that changed during that time.”

“Well, nothing, really,” said Mae.  She frowned.  “Soccer ended right after Halloween.  Wait.  I wonder if it’s pressure.  Darby’s doing an awful lot.  Every Tuesday and Wednesday, he goes and does yard work for Mr. Jefferson.  He lives about two blocks over.  Darby’s been doing that since October.  He wanted to earn his own money for Christmas gifts.  Monday afternoon, he has his violin lesson, Tuesday night is guitar, and there’s the orchestra on Thursday afternoons.  And he’s always practicing when he’s home.”

“That’s interesting,” said Sister.  “Some of the other boys in his class have been teasing him about playing the violin.”

“Oh, no,” sighed Mae.  “I’ll bet it’s Stewart and Andy.  They were on his soccer team.  This was not a good year for Darby.  He’s always loved playing, and he’s not bad at it, but this year, his coach was real competitive.  Darby stuck it out, God bless him, but I really felt like he should have given it up.”

“Soccer was the first thing I asked him about,” said Neil.  “And he’s been worse since it ended, not better.”

“With the teasing and all, there could be some masculinity issues involved,” said Sister.  “Neil, do you play any musical instruments?”

“Well, a little guitar,” said Neil.  “Mae is more musical than I am.  I suppose Darby could be looking at music as a more female thing.  But both Mae and I have always been very strong on the idea that it’s not what you do that makes you male or female.”

“And yet, your family situation is very traditional,” said Sister.  “What about other influential males in Darby’s life?  His grandfathers?”

Neil shrugged.  “My dad lives in Nebraska, and we only see him once a year.”

“He’s always been very supportive of Darby,” said Mae.  “And he’s pretty sentimental. 

Neil shook his head.  “Mae’s dad, on the other hand…”

Mae sighed.  I bit my lip.  Sid pressed his lips together and leaned them on his knuckles.

“Daddy’s definitely a real man,” said Mae.  “But he’s been very supportive.  He told Darby he should follow his heart.”

Sid cleared his throat.  “He does tend to be somewhat homophobic, though.”

“Sid,” I groaned.

Mae sighed.  “He’s right.  On the other hand, my parents don’t live near us either, and we only see them three or four times a year.”

“And what about you, Sid?” asked Sister.  “Darby has mentioned you as someone he looks up to.”

Sid squirmed a little.  “Well, I do play piano, and Darby and I have worked on his music together at times.”

Sister smiled at him.  “And your masculinity issues?”

Sid chuckled.  “No problems there.”

“Are you sure?”

“Trust me, Sister, proving my manhood has been the least of my worries since I was a kid.”

Sister nodded and thought.  “You know, Mae, you made a point earlier about Darby being involved in a lot, and that possibly he’s feeling pressured by it.  I wonder if there’s a way we could take him out of the grind, so to speak, for a while.  Maybe if he can relax a little, he’ll open up.”

“Well, Darby could come stay at my place,” said Sid.

“I don’t think that’s such a good idea,” I replied.

“Why not?” Sid asked.

“Oh, I can think of a lot of good reasons,” I said.

“I think you’re on the right track,” said Sister.  “But wouldn’t Darby be more comfortable with his aunt?”

“It’s the same place,” I said slowly.  “We’re housemates.  That’s it.  Well, I work for Sid.”

“And we work at home,” said Sid.  “So there’s no babysitting problems.”

“That could be an ideal arrangement,” said Sister.

“Maybe not.”  I got up.  “Sid, before you commit yourself, can we talk privately for a minute?”

“Sure.”  Sid got up and followed me into the dining room, shutting the kitchen door behind him.

“Two very good reasons not to have Darby around,” I said very softly.  “One, our flourishing underground business.”

Which is so top secret nobody but Sid and a couple liaisons know we do it, not even my family and friends.

“We can work around it.  One of us stays with Darby while the other runs the errands.  I’ll even do most of the running.”

“Alright, but number two is the revolving door on your bedroom.  I mean he probably knows what you’re up to, but I don’t think you need to be flaunting it, and you know what sometimes happens when you fall asleep on your girlfriends.”

“Indeed, which is why I’m not planning on bringing anybody home while he’s there.  Is that a fair compromise?”

“I suppose.”  I smiled at him.  “You don’t have to do any of this, you know.”

“I know.”  He looked over at the kitchen door.  “But there are times when being alone in the world has its disadvantages.  You guys are as close to family as I’ve got, and with that privilege comes responsibility.  If I can help, I’m more than happy to do it.”

Mae seemed a little uncertain as we came back in.  I had a feeling she was concerned about my number two objection also.  Sid just smiled and told her that I was satisfied with all the arrangements.  I later caught them talking quietly together.  [She just said that while she respected my right to my own choices, she didn’t think my way of expressing my masculinity was particularly healthy and she really didn’t want Darby emulating it.  I told her that I respected that and would make a point of not giving him anything in that way to emulate – SEH]

Neil brought Darby downstairs.

“Darby,” I said, smiling.  “We know you’ve been a little off track lately.”

“I’m fine.  Really.”

“We know, but Sid and I thought we’d take you to come stay with us for a while.”

Sister Jerilyn watched him carefully.

“I’ve got school,” he said, getting nervous.

“We’ll get your books and your homework,” I said.

“But there’s other stuff, Aunt Lisa,” he said.  “I got stuff I gotta do.  Mr. Jefferson’s lawns and my music lessons.”

“It’s not late,” said Mae.  “You can call Mr. Jefferson and tell him you can’t come for a while.”

“And I can’t do much about your lessons,” said Sid.  “But we can work on theory and keyboards at my place.”

“I don’t want Mr. Jefferson to be upset,” said Darby.

“I’m sure he won’t mind,” said Mae, dialing the phone.  “Here.  It’s ringing.”

She handed the phone to Darby, who swallowed as he took it.

“Uh, hi, Mr. Jefferson.  It’s Darby…  Um, well, I’ve got a problem.  My aunt wants me to come stay with her for a while…  I don’t know.  She just does…  Oh.  Okay…  Yeah, thanks…  No problem…  Good-bye.”  He smiled as he handed the phone back.  “He doesn’t care.”

We sent Darby on to bed, and made arrangements with Sister Jerilyn for Sid and me to pick up Darby’s homework the next morning.  Then we spent the night at Mae’s, with Sid in the guestroom and me in with the girls.

The next morning, Sister Jerilyn was ready and waiting for us at the school as promised.  Sid still seemed pretty uncomfortable around Sister, so we got the books and Miss Robbins’ phone number pretty quickly and got out.

“What happened to those black outfits they used to wear?” Sid asked as we drove back to Mae’s house.

“They’re part of a by-gone era,” I replied smugly.

“They ought to bring them back.  How are you going to identify one of those ladies?”

“Why do you have to identify them?  So you don’t accidentally try to pick up on them?”

“Real cute, Lisa.”

“Come on, Sid.  They’re just human beings like everyone else.”

“I wonder.  Anybody who could pledge no sex for their entire lives.”

I snickered.  “What about me?”

“You haven’t said no permanently.”

“Yet.”

Sid winced.  “Lisa, please.  I just can’t see you as a nun.  You’re too passionate.  At least as it stands now, the option is still open, and someday, maybe, I’ll get you to take me up on it.”

“It’ll be the same day I get you in front of the altar.”

“Good luck.  If I ever get crazy enough to get married, I’m going to Las Vegas.  There is no way you’re going to catch me involved in one of those three-ring circuses called a church wedding.”

“Sid, there is no way you’re going to get married, so it’s a moot point.”

“True.”

After we got Darby and got back to our home, Sid announced that we were going to play that day and go skiing before the rest of Southern California got to all that fresh powder from the day before’s rain.

“Yeah!” Darby hollered.

“Oh?” I asked, skeptically.  “I suppose we can rent equipment for Darby, but it’s already nine thirty.  Between getting changed and loaded, we won’t get to the mountains until noon at the soonest.”

“We can do some night skiing,” said Sid.

“Yeah!” said Darby.

“Sid, we’re still trying to catch up on last month’s deadlines, and you haven’t even started research on your single’s column, not to mention all those books we’ve got to go through for that toxics article.”

Sid grimaced.  “What have we got that’s still overdue?”

I went over to my desk.  “My childcare article.”

“That should be right there.  I finished going over it yesterday.”

“Here it is.”  I went back to the list.  “Your stock market piece.”

“I thought we didn’t have to worry about that until Wednesday.”

“But you promised me I’d have a draft to edit today.”

“Oh.  It seems to me there’s something else.”

“Your final edits on the Lester Roberts profile, and I need that by noon so we can have our final conference on it and have it ready for overnight delivery by three.”

Darby flopped onto the office couch, looking totally bored.  Sid looked at him, then at me.

“Alright.  How about this?”  He thought for a moment.  “Why don’t you make your corrections on your article.  It should only take a couple minutes.  I’ll make the phone calls for the lift tickets, then double check Roberts and we can do a quick conference on it.  We should be done by ten, and if I know you, you can be changed and loaded in five minutes.”

Tempted, I bit my lip.  “And what about the stock market draft, your singles research, and those books?”

“If I have the draft on the computer for you by Monday morning, will that be good enough?”

“Alright.”

“Good.  I can hardly do singles research now.  I’ll get it done over the weekend, and we’ll go through the books Monday and Tuesday.”

Darby sighed.

“You’ll have plenty of schoolwork to keep you occupied,” I told him.  “I’m sorry, but Sid and I do have work to do.”

“Can’t you just cheat?” Darby asked.

Sid chuckled.  “Not too much.  That burglary last month really put us behind.”

We’d lost pretty much everything except the furniture and anything else that had been locked up.  On the bright side, I had talked Sid into getting an extra computer for his office, so he could write on that instead of handwriting all his articles and having me enter them.  He was taking to it slowly.  [So I felt more comfortable thinking with a pen in my hand – SEH]

The other reason we were behind was the lure of uncrowded slopes.  For all Sid is very disciplined about working during business hours, he hates the weekend crowds on the ski runs more than I do.  We were sneaking out on a weekday at least once every other week.  We go together because most of our friends work during the day.  Some of Sid’s friends could get away, but they either want to chase girls or have Sid chase them, and Sid would actually rather ski.

I gave in.  “Let’s get going.  Maybe if we hurry, we can be done before ten.”

Darby hollered his approval as the phone rang on the daytime line.

I picked it up.  “Hello?”

“Is this Sid Hackbirn’s place?” asked the woman on the other end.

“May I ask who’s calling?”

Sid waved at me to take a message.

“My name’s Rachel Flaherty.  Sid and I are old friends.”

“Well, Ms. Flaherty, if you’d like to leave a number, I’ll have him call you.”

At the sound of her name, Sid’s head whipped around and he waved at me again.

“Would you excuse me for a moment?”  I put her on hold.

“Is that Rachel Flaherty?” Sid asked.

“Yes.”

He chuckled.  “I’ll be damned.  I haven’t heard from her since…”  He glanced at Darby.  “Well, we were friends the end of my first year at Stanford.”

“Do you want to talk to her?”

“Yeah.”  He noticed Darby again.  “No.  Find out what she wants, and if she wants to drop by…  Use your discretion.  I can meet her someplace, too.  Any time this weekend I’m not booked.”

“Okay.”  I pressed the line as Sid went into his office.  “Ms. Flaherty…”

“It’s Dr. Flaherty.”

“Oh.  Excuse me.  Doctor, was there anything, in particular, you wanted to speak to Mr. Hackbirn about?”

“I was hoping to stop by and say hello.  I’ve got somebody I’d like him to meet.”  Her tone was just cagey enough.

I smirked to myself.  “Well, he has several openings.  When would you like to come by?”

“How about tomorrow afternoon?”  She paused, apparently looking something up.  “Let’s see.  I could be there by one o’clock.”

“One o’clock it is, then.  I’ll let Mr. Hackbirn know.  Thank you.”  I hung up.

“Lisa, what’s going on?”  Sid appeared in the doorway to his office.

“I don’t think you’ll be going out with her, Sid,” I said, trying not to snicker.  “She said she has somebody she’d like you to meet, and it was the `he’s not going to like this’ version.”

“I don’t get it,” said Darby.

Sid looked at me.

“Well,” I said.  “Sometimes one of your Uncle Sid’s girlfriends will bring a baby to visit and say the baby belongs to Sid, and this Dr. Flaherty is acting like she’s about to do the same.”

Sid laughed.  “Nah.  Rachel wouldn’t pull a stunt like that.”

“Well, she certainly wasn’t gloating about this somebody.”  I looked at Darby.  “That usually means the girlfriend got married to someone else.”

“It’s probably another guy she married,” said Sid.  “Trust me.  Rachel wouldn’t try to pin a kid on me.  We were very clear on the prevention issue.”

“Want to put some money on that?”  I grinned.  “On her setting you up.  There’s no point in betting on the paternity issue.”

Sid’s been fixed for years and was religious about birth control before that.  Well, all but religious.  Sid’s an atheist.

Sid thought, then grinned.  “Five to one, your favor?”

“I’ll put up ten dollars.”

“You’re on.  And if there’s a kid on my doorstep tomorrow, you’re fifty dollars richer.”

Essays, general essay

New Year and New(ish) Book

Well, I’m finally back from my holiday. We had a lovely time here at the Old Homestead. But that does mean I’m a little (okay, a lot) behind on posts.

So, just a quick reminder that A Nose for a Niedeman is now available as a book. Click here to get your copy.

Oh, and come back next week when I start a new serial, Fugue in a Minor Key. It’s the fourth Operation Quickline story, and if Sid Hackbirn ever thought Lisa Wycherly had turned his life upside, he’s about to get an even bigger shock: his son. Plus, Lisa’s nephew Darby is having some issues and all that spy stuff just gets nastier and nastier.

mystery fiction, mystery serial

Chapter Twenty

Did that one ever make the headlines. The search warrant turned up over five million dollars worth of stolen property in Willoughby’s apartment. According to the D.A.’s office, at least five different fraud and theft scams were accounted for by the loot, including one where the victim didn’t even know his stuff had been taken.

Mrs. Sperling managed to stay out of the newspapers, as usual. But my family figured out who the “private citizen” was and insisted on details when Phil and I went over there for dinner that Sunday. We diplomatically omitted the snake incident.

As for that, Willoughby just happened to be off duty that night and unable to prove his whereabouts all evening. They also dug up an old record that showed Willoughby had been in on the arrest of some guys who had stolen the snakes from a trainer. The trainer had never gotten them back, and it was assumed the snakes had been lost, until, of course, they showed in Glen’s bedroom. All I have to do is whisper snake, and Glen still turns pale.

Stein’s will got through probate without a hitch, fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you feel about Ramona Bistler. She didn’t really give a damn about Willoughby getting caught, but Edgar Hendricks was very relieved to know he was off the hook. It turned out that the night of the murder they were together in Ventura, which accounted for Bistler’s empty gas tank. They were trying to keep it a secret because of the money. They moved in together right away in spite of Montoinne’s objections. I understand Mrs. Sperling had a little chat with Ms. Bistler the day Willoughby was arrested.

The building that Stein’s gallery had been in was eventually sold. I heard later that the owner of Best Rentals had decided to work out of his house.

We never did find out what Devon and Stein had been arguing about. Devon was delighted that he didn’t have to pay for the broken pottery after all. He hadn’t even been aware that he’d been suspected. As for seeing him those two nights, well, he really is everywhere. Gillian quit and moved to New York. Devon tried to offer me her job, but I preferred the one I had.

Tina, Mickey and I all got cast in the video. We had a blast shooting it. Phil and Mickey are getting to be pretty good friends, too. Mickey’s stint at the Laugh Factory was a smash. He got held over and signed again for another stint later the next year. Tina keeps teasing Phil and asking when he’s shooting his next video. Phil’s casting one right now, but he doesn’t need any dancers. I told Tina I wasn’t even getting cast, and she said that didn’t matter.

I’ve been working. I did a guest star spot, and I’ve got a second lead in a film that starts shooting this spring in the Bahamas. Mrs. Sperling “just happened” to decide to visit her parents in Japan the five weeks I needed to do it.

I never did get another car. Phil kept joking around about buying me a new one, until my mother threatened to crown him. Other than that, my parents love Phil, even though they know he’s in showbiz. Dad heard about Phil’s real estate investments and was thrilled.

Glen got his HN6 eventually. Mrs. Sperling broke down and bought it for him for his birthday, which was right after Thanksgiving.

“Are you sure it’s real?” he asked her.

“Of course,” she replied. “The nose knows, doesn’t it?”

Here ends a Nose for a Niedeman. And, guess what? It’s now available as a book on Amazon, BarnesandNoble and other fine retailers. Please click here to get your copy. And books make great gifts. Buy a copy for your friends.

mystery fiction, mystery serial

Chapter Nineteen

Glen backed up against the wall across the hallway to his room, white faced and uttering the chilling screams. He half-pointed into his room. I saw something dark writhing on the floor. Without thinking, I ducked in and pulled the door shut.

“S-s-sna… S-s-s-snakes!” Glen squeaked out. With the immediate threat removed, his screams reduced themselves to gasps.

“Were you bit?” Mrs. Sperling asked with calm concern.

Glen shook his head, still gasping.

“He’s as white as a ghost!” exclaimed Phil. He slid under Glen’s right arm. “We’d better get him sat down.”

I slid under Glen’s other arm and we maneuvered him down the hall into the living room.

“He doesn’t look good, Aunt Delilah,” said Phil as we sat Glen, still gasping, on the couch. “You got some smelling salts?”

“I think a paper bag would be more effective,” answered Mrs. Sperling.

“I’ve got one in my room.” I jumped up and ran back.

As I switched on the light, I stopped. I didn’t see anything, but I went in cautiously. The bag was on the escritoire. I poked at it and snapped back. Nothing. I gingerly tugged at it. It came free without anything flashing at me. I took it and hurried back to the living room.

Mrs. Sperling sat on the couch next to Glen and rubbed his back as he gasped for air. I rolled the bag back and handed it to her. She put it to his face.

“It’s alright, Glen. You’re safe,” she whispered.

“How the hell should I know what kind?” Phil yelled into the phone. “We didn’t stick around to examine them… Frankly, I don’t think knocking on the door and asking is going to get much of an answer, and I’m sure as hell not opening that door… Just assume they’re poisonous, will you?”

Slowly, Glen got his breathing under control. Sobs replaced the gasps, and Glen buried his head in Mrs. Sperling’s shoulder.

“I’m scared to death of snakes,” he sniffed.

“How many did you see?” Mrs. Sperling asked.

“There were two of them.”

“What exactly happened? From the time you came home.”

“I said hi to Phil and said he could wait for Donna in the house. He said he’d wait for her in the driveway. I went in and went to the bathroom, then to my room. There was one on the desk and one on the floor. The floor one came at me. I don’t think he got me, though. I just got out of there fast as I could.”

“Snakes usually hibernate this time of year. He was probably slow and sleepy.” Mrs. Sperling’s hands examined Glen’s shoe. “There are two puncture holes here on the toe.”

I had the loafer and sock off in less than a second.

“His foot’s fine,” I sighed with relief.

“You’re very lucky,” said Mrs. Sperling.

“I don’t want to think about it,” Glen wailed. He swore. “I must look like an ass, crying like a baby.”

“Not at all, dear.” Mrs. Sperling rocked him. “It’s an understandable phobia, and with the shock and the narrow escape, tears are more than justified. Better to get it out than more firmly entrench the fear by holding your emotions in.”

“It takes a lot more guts to express it,” added Phil, who had just hung up. “The police will be here in a minute, with a poisonous snake crew as soon as they can find one. The jackasses. They wanted me to be sure the snakes were poisonous first.”

“Given the rarity of the specialty needed, I suppose it’s not entirely unwarranted,” sighed Mrs. Sperling. “It is rather incredible that poisonous snakes should be found loose in a house located in a crowded neighborhood. Glen, do you think any of your friends would go to such an extreme to play a joke on you?”

“No.”

“I don’t think so, either. This could be considered a warning.”

“But why Glen?” I asked.

“His is the only open window in the house.”

“Aunt Delilah, maybe you guys oughta go to a hotel tonight,” suggested Phil.

“We’ll see what happens when the police arrive. If this was a warning, then I expect the miscreant will give us some time not to act upon it. Furthermore, he’ll need time to develop a plan.”

The door bell rang. I got up to get it, but Mrs. Sperling held me back and sent Phil instead.

It was the police, two uniformed officers and a detective who knew Mrs. Sperling. They took our statements, and looked at the closed door to Glen’s room. Mrs. Sperling sent Phil and me into the kitchen to make herb tea for everyone to drink while we waited for the snake crew to arrive.

“Are you okay?” Phil asked as I filled a kettle with water.

“I suppose,” I sighed. “I am feeling a little creepy crawly, but I agree with Mrs. Sperling that running is pointless. I think it’s better to take a stand and show we won’t be cowed.”

“Not if it gets you killed. I think I’m going to spend the night. Someone ought to stand guard.”

“You’re crazy, Phil. Is there a teapot around here? I thought I saw a nice ceramic one… Oh, here it is. If you’re going to spend the night, you’d better ask Mrs. Sperling. It’s her house.”

“I will,” Phil replied belligerently.

“Fine. Will you help me get some cups out and on this tray. Oh, and let’s put these cookies out. Mrs. Sperling likes the arrowroot biscuits.”

It was another ten minutes before the water boiled. Phil and I brought two trays and the teapot into the living room just as the snake crew arrived. They were actually an animal control team, one of whose members specialized in handling snakes. He was dressed in heavy boots, gloves and a loose canvas jumpsuit, and carried a forked stick with a loop of rope hanging off the end. His partner handed him a burlap bag, and the two went back to Glen’s room. They came out a few minutes later with a squirming sack and few nice words.

“Diamondbacks,” said the snake handler.

“Those are rattlesnakes.” Mrs. Sperling looked surprised. “We didn’t hear anything.”

“They’ve had their rattles cut off.”

“Ah. The Synanon affair. That was some time ago. Our miscreant has some memory.”

“That’s not very encouraging,” I grumbled.

The snake handler gave his sack to his partner, then beckoned the two uniformed officers.

“We’d better search the house. One or two could have escaped the room.”

Glen let out a strangled little moan. I grabbed the paper bag lest he start hyperventilating again. He calmed himself and I relaxed. It was another hour before the search was over. It had been very thorough and nothing was found. Even Glen was reassured. By the time everyone had left, he was walking around and his color had returned.

“I say it’s high time we were in bed,” said Mrs. Sperling. “Glen, why don’t you sleep upstairs in the guest room tonight?”

“I’d totally like that,” he sighed in relief.

“Fine. Donna, would you please fetch his nightclothes and anything else he might need?”

“Sure. Glen?”

“Just my pajamas. They’re under my pillow.”

“Aunt Delilah, I think I’d better stick around,” said Phil. “I don’t have anything to do but sleep tomorrow, and I can keep an eye on things just in case.”

“It really isn’t necessary, Phillip. But if it will make you feel better, you may.”

I left to get Glen’s pajamas and was back in an instant. Shortly after, I was in my sleep t-shirt, heading for bed. I don’t like admitting it, but I was scared. I knew the animal control people had searched every nook and cranny. They’d even gone through my bed linens. But something in the back of my mind kept whispering “What if..?”

I heard Phil pacing in the living room. I shut my door and went to bed. Alright. I did leave my light on, and I did poke through the bed linens, and I searched under the bed, and I went through my closet. But I was scared.

I awoke around eight thirty the next morning. Silence reigned. It was eerie, given the night before. I couldn’t go back to sleep. I got up and took a shower and got dressed. I went past the living room to get to the kitchen. Phil’s black hit-tops sat next to the couch. A loud rumbling growl broke the calm of the morning.

I looked closer and saw Phil sprawled on his back along the length of the couch with his lower legs falling off the end. His mouth opened and another monstrous snore escaped. I giggled.

I went on to the kitchen. The rumble came again, softer but still distinct enough to be remarked upon, even in the kitchen.

Mrs. Osgood bustled in.

“Something is funny?” she asked. Phil rumbled again. “What in Heaven’s name is that? The pipes are bad again?”

I laughed. “It’s Phil DuPre. He’s asleep on the couch. We had quite a time here last night.”

Mrs. Osgood’s eyes twinkled. “So that is why you are smiling.”

“No!” I blushed, then told her about the snakes.

“In Jamaica, we say that is bad magic. But Mrs. Sperling, she is powerful good woman. No evil can harm us in her house.” She took off her coat and hung it in the broom closet as was her custom. Mrs. Sperling has suggested she use the hall closet, but Mrs. Osgood prefers the broom closet for reasons known only to her. Though usually merry and good-tempered, Mrs. Osgood has her temperamental side, and all of us in Mrs. Sperling’s house would fain cross her.

Glen appeared next, in good spirits in spite of the previous night’s trauma.

“How long before brunch, Mrs. Osgood?” he asked.

“Eleven, as usual.”

“That’s an hour from now.” Glen looked at me. I was at the table drinking orange juice and looking at Facebook on my phone. “Is it okay if I make some toast?”

“Certainly.” Mrs. Osgood made carrot bits faster than a Cuisinart.

Glen dodged her gracefully, fetching bread, butter and homemade jam from the refrigerator. A muffled obscenity emerged from the living room. A minute later, Phil wandered in, his hair tousled and eyes blinking.

“I fell asleep,” he grumbled.

“No kidding,” I replied. “They probably heard you snoring down at the Beverly Hills police station.”

Phil yawned. “I must have been beat. I don’t normally do that unless I’m really tired.”

“How would you know? You live alone.”

“I haven’t always. Splice-Man has some tales that could stand your hair on end. At least he claims that’s what I did to him a couple times. Is Aunt Delilah up yet?”

“I don’t know,” said Glen. “I didn’t hear anything when I got up, and I showered down here. And, Donna, could you please quit throwing your shavers into the sink when you’re done with them? You totally missed again and I almost sliced my foot up.”

“I don’t want to slice myself up in the shower. I’ll try and be more careful.”

“Maybe we’d better check on her,” said Phil.

Glen looked up at the ceiling. “There goes the shower now. She must be okay.”

“Must be,” sighed Phil.

“Would you like some orange juice and toast?” I asked. “It’ll be a while before the rest of it’s ready.”

“No thanks.” Phil stretched and got out his keys. “I want to get showered and changed myself. I’ll be back in a jiffy. Where are my shoes? Oh.”

He left for the living room and came back shod a minute later. He kissed me good bye and took off.

Carrot bran muffins, salmon souffle, steamed zucchini, and buttered new potatoes steamed on the table when Phil got back.

“You look a lot better,” I said as he walked in.

“I probably smell a lot better, too.” He sat down. “It looks terrific, Mrs. Osgood.”

“Thank you.”

“Where’s Aunt Delilah?”

“Right here.” Mrs. Sperling walked in wearing a dark brown shaggy sweater and black slacks.

“Oh no,” sighed Glen. “Did those policemen mess up your closet, Mrs. Sperling?”

“I don’t believe so. These are my black pants, aren’t they?” Her fingers slid around to her back, lifting up the sweater and feeling under the waistband.

“Yes. But you’re wearing your brown sweater. Black and brown don’t go together.”

Mrs. Sperling froze. “That’s right. They don’t. Glen, what color socks would you wear with brown pants?”

“Brown.”

“Not black?”

Glen made a disgusted face. “Yuck.”

“And what would you say about someone who wore black socks with brown pants?”

“I’d say he totally had no taste.”

“Phillip, would you say the same?”

“Perhaps not in those words, but yeah.”

“And yet we know that Mr. Stein was particular about his appearance and a stylish dresser. But Mr. Hoffman wasn’t. In fact, he wore white socks with a suit to Mr. Stein’s funeral.”

“I don’t get it,” I said.

“Well, I do, at long last.” Mrs. Sperling chuckled. “My subconscious was certainly at work when I got dressed this morning. That was the other glaringly stupid mistake that I was wondering about. Now the bird fits in perfectly, and my goodness, the pajamas, too!”

Glen gave up at that point, rolling his eyes heavenward.

“Donna, we’ll need to call that gentleman in that lone occupied office in the building that Mr. Stein’s gallery was in,” Mrs. Sperling said as she picked up the phone and started dialing. “Good morning, Sergeant, I’ve got it… Yes, definitely… I think two would be good. I’ve got to double check some of the records… You did? Excellent… Please… The box… A receipt with date and time? How utterly perfect… The dead bird, too. Good. You may want it autopsied. It’s pretty conclusive as it is, but it could cinch things in court… I’ll be having something double checked in a minute, but it’s far simpler than we originally thought, and yet more complicated… The case against him is still a little circumstantial, but it’s the best I can do. At the very least, we have enough to hold him then get a search warrant… Very good, then. We’ll see you at two.” She hung up with a very pleased look on her face.

I read her the number for the office she wanted. The call was relatively short, with most of the discussion taking place on the other end. Mrs. Sperling I see’d a lot, then hung up looking pretty well satisfied with herself.

She instructed me to pull the Rabbit around, with the top down.

“It’s pretty cloudy out there,” I warned.

“We’ll risk it,” she said, smiling.

She hurried off to get Eleanor’s harness.

Glen and Phil came along for the ride. Phil rode up front with me, while Glen squeezed in back with Mrs. Sperling and Eleanor. From Mrs. Sperling’s gay mood you would have thought we were off to a party.

Sergeant Michaelson was yet again waiting for us.

“I thought I’d save you the trouble,” he told Mrs. Sperling. “I checked those reports, and you were right. He made a stop on July seventh.”

“Which corresponds exactly with the date Hoffman left the Hendricks building. Perfect.”

“He also stopped on the day of the murder. I got that management company to send me a copy of Hoffman’s application. Guess who Hoffman named as a reference?”

“Even better. The District Attorney should be pleased.”

“Hi, Sergeant.” Willoughby came up, in civvies and looking rested.

“I’m glad you’re here, Officer Willoughby,” said Mrs. Sperling pleasantly. “I wanted to double check your story.”

“I thought you did.” Willoughby frowned.

“Not the Hoffman story. The one you wrote in your report on July seventh of this year. You stopped and left your car to investigate something suspicious in the alley behind the art gallery owned by Mr. Edgar Hendricks. You reported back ten minutes later, saying you hadn’t found anything except a nesting cat.”

“Yeah. I think I remember that. So?”

“I believe that nesting cat you saw was Mr. Kyle Hoffman removing art works from Mr. Hendricks gallery. It’s strange how Mr. Hendricks’ overload of back orders ceased to increase after that date, and even stranger how Mr. Hoffman suddenly quit and went to work for the company that manages Mr. Stein’s building. Would you care to elaborate?”

Willoughby remained cool, but I could see he was scared.

“No, I wouldn’t,” he replied, folding his arms in front of him.

“I didn’t think you would, so I will. Mr. Hendricks began getting full orders of prints. Mr. Stein also received full orders, but several of the prints he sold turned out to be counterfeit. They were mostly inexpensive serigraphs and lithos. That’s why they went unnoticed until my houseboy, Glen, here, purchased an HN6 by Hans Niedeman, and I discovered it was a fake. Phillip told me that Mr. Stein knew about the counterfeits. You had already engineered the counterfeiting scheme, being careful to make sure it was Kyle Hoffman who contacted Mr. Fred Gonzagos and purchased his work, and Mr. Hoffman who switched the serigraphs. It was quite simple to remain the brains behind the operation. Until Mr. Hoffman discovered Mr. Stein’s body in his studio. You see, there was a carbon monoxide leak in the forced air system late the day before that forced Mr. Hoffman to shut the building down while he tried to fix the problem. The owner of Best Rentals left promptly. We have to assume that Mr. Stein was not in his gallery when Mr. Hoffman shut the building down. And we have to assume that Mr. Hoffman was not aware that Mr. Stein was sleeping in the back room of the gallery, thanks to having left his wife but a few days before. Mr. Stein had apparently returned to his gallery with his evening’s dinner and finished most of it. He was probably beginning to feel woozy and sleepy. Carbon monoxide generally acts fast. He changed into his pajamas and fell, striking the back of his head. Early the next morning, Hoffman flagged you down, Officer Willoughby. He was panicking. Stein was dead, and Mr. Hoffman would lose his job, putting both himself and your schemes in peril. You decided to make it appear as though Mr. Stein been dumped there after having been killed in a car in someone’s garage, which is what we indeed thought. You had Mr. Hoffman air out the studio and set up the counterfeiting scene. Mr. Hoffman failed miserably there, setting up insufficient equipment and a genuine serigraph. That really didn’t matter in the long run. However, there were two problems. Either you or Mr. Hoffman apparently noticed that Mr. Stein’s parakeet had died, as it would be expected to do quite quickly when the carbon monoxide laden exhaust came into the room. I’m not sure when one of you retrieved the dead bird, but Mr. Hoffman did purchase another, unfortunately leaving the receipt, with date and time stamped on it, and the carry home box in his van for us to find later. There was also the pajama situation. You told Hoffman to change Mr. Stein into regular clothes. Hoffman, taking no chances took the pajamas and all of Mr. Stein’s other nightclothes, and disposed of them, assuming we’d notice that the one set of pajamas were missing, and thus discover what had really happened. Mr. Hoffman made one mistake, though. He knew that a stylish man like Mr. Stein would wear dark socks with dark pants, but he put black socks on with brown pants, something we know Mr. Stein would never have done.” She looked at Sergeant Michaelson. “That’s what took so long to come out for me. I had forgotten that black and brown are not generally compatible colors.”

“Something I believe we can’t fault you for,” Sergeant Michaelson replied with a grim smile.

“In any case, Mr. Hoffman also put the purchased bird into the birdcage, and not willing to make the same mistake again, put the cage next to the window, so as not to poison the new bird. All was ready in the studio, and Mr. Hoffman went up to the roof to finish the repairs to the vent system.”

“Okay,” said Willoughby. “I can see Hoffman doing that. But I don’t see where you come off saying I put him up to it.”

“Somebody had to be doing Hoffman’s thinking for him. The plan was too subtle, too refined, and it was generally acknowledged that Mr. Hoffman was not terribly bright, although handy with environmental systems. In addition, a young man sold an art dealer in Hollywood five genuine Niedeman serigraphs invoking Fred Gonzagos’ name, even though he was in Mexico at the time. The man was described as tall and light-haired, which you cannot deny you are.”

“No, but look at your houseboy, and Mr. Director there.”

“True, it’s a common description, but it does not fit any friends of Mr. Gonzagos, at least none that he’s recommended to Dolores Carmine. You obviously knew about Mr. Gonzagos, even if he did not know about you. You probably found his record and recommended that Mr. Hoffman seek him out. Then you sold the serigraphs when you decided that they might be damaging to you. It’s an interesting coincidence, too, that Mr. Stein’s locker at his health club was cleared out by a tall light-haired young man the day I handed in a report to Sergeant Michaelson, which you saw, and in which I mentioned a curiosity about Mr. Stein’s toiletries at the afore mentioned club. Then there was Hoffman’s death, which also occurred the same day. Your story of the punks in the apartment fit the evidence perfectly. Too perfectly. Everything was exactly as the police could expect to find it, as you’ve undoubtedly found it many times. But there were no physical traces left behind, such as a smudged print, or a torn button. The only people who leave the scene of the crime that clean are professional burglars, and they wouldn’t bother with a place like Hoffman’s. But what really tipped me off was Mrs. Parrish’s story. She said when she saw you, you just went in. Later she assumed you had broken the door in because it was broken, but not at first. Her eyes hadn’t fooled her the first time. Hoffman had admitted you. So I knew you had lied. I caught you again when you said the punks went down the fire escape. Perhaps Mr. Hoffman mentioned leaving it open. But you made the same mistake my chauffeur did. You assumed the fire escape was a balcony affair when it was actually a window that opened wide enough to facilitate escape. You also referred to the corpse, saying ‘there was Kyle.’ indicating you knew him much better than you claimed.”

Willoughby swallowed. “It’s circumstantial. It’ll never hold water in court.”

“I’m sorry, Willoughby,” said Sergeant Michaelson. “We’ve got enough evidence to swear out a search warrant for your apartment.”

“You can’t!” Willoughby’s face went white.

“Where he will find all the other stolen artworks from various galleries and homes in the area that you have managed to acquire through all your various schemes,” finished Mrs. Sperling.

Sergeant Michaelson sighed as he read. “Willoughby, you have the right to remain silent…”

Essays, general essay

Learning How To Write the Future

science fiction, time travel, how to write the future

Last year, as I was writing Time Enough, the sequel to my time travel novel, But World Enough and Time, I was writing along at a great clip. Was even ahead of where I was supposed to be when everything came to a screeching halt. I had hit the section that takes place in the future and was lost. The only way out was to teach myself how to write the future.

Now, that might not sound like that big a deal – and it sort of wasn’t. After all, what I essentially was doing was world building. But I had to build on our world today to make it make sense, and I had to do it in a way that was particularly conscious.

That was a little weird for me. Usually, I’m more of a natural writer. In fact, when I try to impose motivations on my characters or set up themes, it almost never works. If I let my characters do what they need to do, then ask why they did something, I get a much more organic result.

For example, I was working on the first draft of my upcoming spring release, Death of the City Marshal, and I had a scene where the bad guy attacks Maddie Wilcox in the dead of night to warn her off investigating. He’s got her in the dead of night with a knife to her throat. In my head, I realized it didn’t entirely make sense. Why doesn’t he just kill her? And in the asking why, the killer and his motivations became much clearer to me and the character came alive.

It didn’t work that way writing Time Enough. For some reason, not having a clear idea of how the future looked made the plot elements really hard to come together. I knew what I wanted to happen – to a degree. But it wasn’t enough to drive the story.

But how do I come up with a future that makes sense? In a way, being a history buff really helped. The thing with reading about history is that you see how things develop over time. So, if I was going to write a future that made sense, I had to look at where things are now.

I also thought about it and realized that our world tends toward evolution. So while there had to be some cataclysms, because that does happen, the essential problem driving the experiment in bringing a woman from the distant past to the future, had to be one that had evolved. 

What I came up with is far too complicated to go into here. And, yes, I had to tweak a few things in But World Enough and Time, which is why I left it as an ebook and didn’t put out a print version. I suspect that when I get to writing All the Time in the World (the last in the time travel trilogy), I’ll have to re-tweak things in Time Enough.

While I am a strong advocate of trusting your process, there are times when your process needs a metaphorical kick in the pants. And sometimes working against your process is exactly what your story needs.  I won’t necessarily do impose a world on my characters again. In fact, I pretty much abandoned detailed outlining and fussing with motivations for the third section of Time Enough. But learning how to write the future taught me as much about building a story as it did about building a world.

mystery fiction, mystery serial

Chapter Eighteen

“Why me?” Glen asked piteously when Mrs. Sperling presented him with her plan.

“Because of those of us immediately concerned with this case, only you and Phillip DuPre have not been seen by Mr. Gonzagos. Phillip is busy, and has already been in two fights. It’s your turn to do some work. After all, you were the one who got me involved when you purchased that forgery.” Mrs. Sperling was being unbearably reasonable.

“I’m no good at fighting,” sighed Glen.

“Phil isn’t either,” I said.

“Here is the address.” Mrs. Sperling handed him a piece of paper. “Go straight there. We’ll be waiting for you at the Beverly Hills police station.”

Glen left with all the enthusiasm of a former hippie signing up for selective service. I took a deep breath and looked at Mrs. Sperling.

“He’s awful scared,” I said. “Think he’ll be able to pull it off?”

“I wouldn’t have sent him if I didn’t.”

The phone rang and I went ahead answered it.

“Donna, just the person I want to talk to,” said Phillip’s merry voice.

“Is… Um… Your video cast?”

“Yep. The producer is haggling it out with the agents. How does dinner and a movie sound tonight?”

“How does waiting around for the boss to finish her dinner sound? Mrs. Sperling is booked to go to friends. I’m driving.”

“Hm. Let me think about this. Where’s she dining?”

“At the Delgados, at six-thirty.”

“Okay. Leave it to me. But fear not. I shan’t distract you from your duties.”

“You’d better not. I’ve got to get going. Mrs. Sperling has an appointment with Sergeant Michaelson in a little bit.”

“Fine. See you tonight.”

I hung up, wondering.

At the police station, I was a little surprised to see Officer Willoughby waiting with Sergeant Michaelson.

“He’s here, Mrs. Sperling,” said the sergeant.

“Officer Willoughby, I truly appreciate your taking your personal time to come in and talk to me.”

“My pleasure, ma’am.” He was lying through his teeth about that one. But then, considering what shift he worked, I couldn’t really blame him.

“As I believe the sergeant told you, there were a couple points about Wednesday’s incident that I believe the Hollywood police confused. Perhaps if you could tell me exactly what happened in your own words.”

“Well, as I was ending my shift, Hoffman came up to me and told me he knew something about the counterfeiting that had been going on at the Stein gallery. I thought it might be important, so I agreed to go over to his house later that afternoon, after I’d gotten some sleep, and he’d gotten off work. Now here’s where I goofed. I should have told Sergeant Michaelson about it, but well, I didn’t ’cause I wanted to be a hero.”

“That’s perfectly understandable. Do go on.”

“Well, I got there, and knocked on the door. That’s when I saw the landlady coming from the back. Then I heard this thud, like something falling over, and a groan. So I busted the door in. I was about to identify myself when this huge kid in a mask came at me. He had a friend a little to the back, also masked.”

“How did you know your attacker was a young man when he was masked?”

Willoughby squirmed. “I-I don’t know. You just do sometimes. I guess he sounded young.”

“Ah. That would be it. Please, continue.”

“Well, we grappled a bit. I landed a good one on his jaw, but he took it well. He came back even harder, and knocked me up against the wall. That’s when he and his friend ran for the back. I went after, but I didn’t get there fast enough. The last I saw of them, they were going down the fire escape. I went back into the front room, and there was Kyle under the front window.”

“What did you do then?”

“I checked him and he was gone. Then I went downstairs and called Hollywood from the landlady’s place. I figured I’d better not disturb anything in Kyle’s place.”

“How well did you know Mr. Hoffman?”

“I might have seen him around, but I never really spoke with him until that morning.”

“I see. Well, thank you, Officer. You’ve been most kind.”

“That’ll be all, Willoughby,” said Michaelson. He did not like the situation.

“Oh, there you are!” Glen came up, cardboard tube in hand. “I got it. It sure looks real.”

He pulled a HN6, or what looked like one, out of the tube. Mrs. Sperling sniffed.

“Excellent, Glen, you’ve done it again,” she announced.

“Huh?” Glen grimaced.

“Be seeing you folks,” said Willoughby, leaving.

We ignored him.

“You mean it’s another fake?” groaned Glen.

“Quite so. What happened?”

“I got there, and I told him I wanted a HN6. He said he had one. He asked how I found him. I said Kyle Hoffman sent me. He said Kyle ought to know. I looked at the print, and bought it.”

“So we can eliminate Mr. Gonzagos, except as the artist behind the counterfeits.” Mrs. Sperling was pleased.

“But how?” I asked.

“Our mysterious fair-haired boy had real ones to sell. Mr. Stein only had fakes. Therefore, all of Mr. Stein’s genuine serigraphs had already been exchanged, long ago, I would expect. Mr. Stein had recently obtained a new set of serigraphs, which is why Glen was able to get one. And those, too, were exchanged, with Mr. Gonzagos receiving the payment Wednesday, and deciding to go to visit his family with the cash while he had it. Then Dolores got a set of genuine Niedemans from a friend of Mr. Gonzagos, who knew nothing of him. Ergo, Mr. Gonzagos merely prints the serigraphs, for which he receives cash, and nothing else. Even if he knew Mr. Stein existed, and vice versa, which I seriously doubt, Mr. Gonzagos would have no reason to kill Mr. Stein, as he represented a form of income.”

“But what about Hoffman?” asked Sergeant Michaelson.

“You know Mr. Gonzagos didn’t kill Mr. Hoffman,” Mrs. Sperling replied. “Besides, Mr. Gonzagos referred to Mr. Hoffman in the present. It would appear Mr. Gonzagos does not yet know Mr. Hoffman is deceased.”

Michaelson shifted. “I suppose. But we still don’t have the evidence, and I still don’t like it.”

“I don’t blame you, Sergeant. It’s very disheartening. However, we cannot ignore the truth because we wish it were otherwise. The evidence is coming. It’s simmering on the back burner, so to speak, and the best I can do is let it find its own way out. I trust a good night’s rest will do it. In the meantime, you know what to do.”

“Oh, Mrs. Sperling, you wanted me to remind you about the bird,” I suddenly added.

“Oh, yes. Thank you, Donna. Sergeant, what became of the bird we found in Mr. Stein’s studio? It was a parakeet, was it not?”

“Yeah, a green one. One of the lab boys took it home for his kid. As far as I know, it’s alive and well.”

“Good.”

“Sergeant!” A young female clerk came up with a small piece of paper. “Hollywood called. They said you might want to know. Central recovered Kyle Hoffman’s van this morning near Union Station.”

Michaelson frowned. “I didn’t know it was stolen.”

“Neither did Hollywood. But Central said it had been hot-wired.”

“Sergeant,” interrupted Mrs. Sperling. “Would you please obtain a list of the van’s contents for me? There could be something significant.”

“Certainly,” he said.

“Thank you, Sergeant. Glen, you’d better leave that print here as evidence. I’ll see you back at the house.”

“Sure.” Glen dropped the tube and hurried out.

Mrs. Sperling and I followed at a more relaxed pace.

“That’s enough of this for today,” she sighed. “I’m going to forget about it, and rest. I’ve been working it too hard, that much is obvious.”

“I thought you said it was critical last night.”

“It is very critical, which is why I’ve overworked it. It happens to all of us sometimes, and the fastest way to get it done is to lay it aside for a while and forget it. The Delgados’ invitation is most timely.”

We went home, first, and Mrs. Sperling answered a few letters to friends while I cleaned my room. Mrs. Sperling and I didn’t change for dinner. It was to be a casual affair. At six-fifteen, I brought the De Ville around.

The Delgados are usually pretty cool about letting me hang around when they are entertaining Mrs. Sperling. But Mrs. Delgado’s mother had invited herself, and she isn’t quite so liberal. So after letting Mrs. Sperling and Eleanor off, I took the car around back and hung out in the kitchen with the cook and the butler, when he wasn’t serving dinner. They were both busy and gossiping amongst themselves, which left me a little out of things. They tried to include me, but I just wasn’t interested in the affair Mrs. Jones’ butler was having with Mrs. Smith’s gardener.

Around seven, someone knocked at the back door. Mimi, the cook, went and got it.

“Well, Mr. DuPre!” she said with pleased surprise. “What brings you back here?”

“Delilah Sperling’s chauffeur,” Phil answered. “We’re sharing a box dinner in the car. Would you be so kind as to let us know when Mrs. Sperling wants us?”

“Sure.” Mimi looked at me as if she couldn’t wait to tell the butler.

“Don’t worry about interrupting anything,” I told her as I left. “It’ll just be a friendly affair.”

Phil grinned as he swept me out the rest of the way.

“You haven’t eaten yet, I hope,” he said.

“Mimi was going to fix me a plate after the others were settled.”

“Perfect.” Phil got a picnic basket and a bottle of wine from the Maserati. “Why don’t we dine in the De Ville? It’s got more room.”

“I hope Mrs. Sperling doesn’t mind.”

“How is she going to know?”

“She’ll find a way.”

“I’ll take responsibility. If she doesn’t accept that, then I’ll have to hire you as my chauffeur.”

“Hm.” I unlocked the car, then opened the back door. “I must be nuts climbing into a back seat with you.”

I wasn’t really. Dinner came out of a basket that Phil had gotten from a restaurant. There was pate, and endive and spinach salad, then creamy vegetable soup, potatoes Lyonnaise, fresh steamed broccoli, and veal aux fines herbes provencal. He’d also picked up some vintage Chandon, brie and white chocolate chunk cookies from Trader Joe’s, a local discount wine and gourmet food store. Phil has a definite cheap streak. We ate, then cleared dishes and snuggled.

One factor we didn’t count on was that it had been a long week of late hours and early mornings for both of us, and that sitting in a nice warm car does induce drowsiness. I’m not sure when Phil dozed off. I know I’d been asleep for some time when Mimi came banging on the windows. Phil started and cussed. I yawned and blinked.

“She’s ready,” yelled Mimi.

“Who?” I grumbled. “Oh, damn!” I shook the remaining sleep from me.

Phil was already outside the car with the picnic basket. I crawled out.

“I’ll see you over at Aunt Delilah’s.” He kissed me and was gone.

I got in the driver’s seat and brought the De Ville around front. Mrs. Sperling talked with Mrs. Delgado on the drive. I got out and held open the back door. Eventually, they said goodnight, and Mrs. Sperling put Eleanor in the back seat.

“I hope your company wasn’t too bad,” she said as I opened the front passenger door.

“It was very pleasant.” I hurried around to my side.

“It was?” Mrs. Sperling got in, shut the door, then sniffed. I shut my door and busied myself with getting my seat belt buckled and the car started. “I can imagine it was very pleasant. I was wondering why you hadn’t found Mimi and Engle dreadful bores.”

“He surprised me, and after he went to all that trouble…”

“I had a feeling he would. You seem to have dined well.”

“I hope you don’t mind. We were very careful.”

“Why should I care? Eleanor has her paws all over that back seat all the time. What difference is a little food going to make? You’ve been doing an excellent job of keeping this car up, anyway. I’m sure I’d be the last person to notice a stain.”

I giggled. “So there’s no reason to bother you about the salad oil all over the seat.”

“The what?”

“Just teasing.”

Mrs. Sperling laughed.

“I wouldn’t try to put anything past you, anyway,” I said. “There’s no way I could get away with it.”

“That may or may not be encouraging.”

As he promised, Phil was waiting outside when I pulled into the driveway.

“Hi, Donna. Hello, Aunt Delilah.” He dutifully kissed Aunt Delilah’s cheek while I put the De Ville in the garage. “I just stopped by to visit with Donna after she got off duty.”

“After you already spent the evening with her?” Mrs. Sperling asked, and opened the back door.

“I told you she’d find out.” I walked past Phil into the house.

“It was worth a try,” Phil replied.

“Then next time I would recommend cold food and something with a less distinctive smell than fines herbes.” Mrs. Sperling smiled. “Is Glen home?”

“Yeah,” Phil answered. “He drove in just as I did.”

“Good. Donna, would you please put the burglar alarm on? I’m going to bed.”

I was stopped by a series of bloodcurdling screams.

mystery fiction, mystery serial

Chapter Seventeen

The tension was almost unbearable. Phil was meeting that day to cast the video, and I had no idea whether or not I had the job, or given our entanglement, whether I wanted it. Brooding wouldn’t help so I stomped into my bedroom and grabbed my tap shoes. On an impulse, I also grabbed a framed Harvey Edwards print I’d been thinking of hanging in my room.

I stomped into the T.V. room and tossed my shoes next to Glen’s stereo. The walls were covered with his art, mostly pictures of women, and two of his precious Niedemans. I took one down and replaced it with my Harvey Edwards.

It was a fair-sized room, with a wood floor, partially covered by an oriental rug. Along one wall was a series of bookshelves, and two windows. Pillows were scattered about, and there was a big pile in front of the T.V. located in a corner next to the bookshelves. Glen’s super system stereo, complete with digital turntable, radio, boosters, streaming computer and two four-foot-high speakers took up a good portion of the wall opposite the windows. Mirrored tiles had been stuck onto the adjoining wall in patches. A small stack lay on the floor next to it.

Glen had been taking down the tiles because he didn’t like them. I decided I was going to put them back up. I went over and stuck one in a hole. It stuck for about three seconds, then came tumbling out. I just barely caught it.

I sighed. I was going to have to get some glue. I’d ask my father. Dad knows all about all sorts of stuff like that.

I stomped over to the stereo, and got my phone connected. It took me a minute to find the song I wanted. While I was trying, I vented on the poor phone. I finally found the song, put it on pause, and put on my tap shoes.

I warmed up quickly. I wasn’t stressed enough to risk a pulled muscle. I rolled up the carpet, and slammed on the music. The beginning was slow, so I warmed up my ankles with toe taps.

I was ready when the main body of the song started. Facing the mirrors, I went into the relaxed time step. It was a routine I’d learned years and years before. I liked it because it had lots of stomping in it.

About a third of the way through the song, Glen appeared.

“Why are you dancing?” he asked.

“I’m tense about the video.”

“You’re going to ruin the floor with those.”

“I don’t care right now.” I made a mental note to get some masonite pieces to cover the floor when I was tap dancing. I paused for the section where the heavy stomping came in, accompanied by lots of fast shuffles.

Glen watched. Usually anything that isn’t completely modern doesn’t interest him. But I think he was impressed. He waited until the song was over. Breathing heavily, I turned the phone off.

“What was that?” Glen asked.

“‘Anything Goes’ by a genius named Cole Porter. It’s from the show by the same name.”

“I think I’ve heard of it. Where’s Mrs. S?”

“At the Braille Institute until one thirty. She’s giving Delsie Simmons an extended session.”

“Poor Delsie.” Glen started picking at one of the tiles.

“Don’t you touch those!” I snapped.

“I’ve been trying to get them down since I got here.”

“They’re going back up. I live here, too, and I reserve the right to put my influence in also.”

“But they’re awful. The person who put them up had no taste. You should have seen my room before I moved in.”

“Those tiles are practical. With this nice wood floor, and no furniture, I can practice my dancing. That’s why I need the mirror. We can make this room a little studio, and roll out the rug when we want to watch T.V.”

“That rug is going, too.”

“That rug is an antique and worth money.”

“Who’d want it? It’s ugly.”

“It’s a nice looking rug.”

Glen grimaced. “No, it isn’t. I was going to do this room up with director’s chairs to match the floor…”

“No chairs, unless we can fold them up. I need floor space.”

“But it’s totally ugly.”

“I happen to like it.”

“You have no taste.” Glen grinned with lofty airiness.

“I have excellent taste.”

“Not unless it’s mine.”

“Who are you, the arbiter of all taste?”

“Yes.”

I rolled my eyes, and sat down, stretching out.

“Well, Mr. Arbiter, keep in mind, you’re not the only one who lives here. If those tiles come down, and this room gets cluttered with furniture, there’s going to be hell to pay.”

“What are you going to do?”

I just grinned at him. Glen swallowed. I laughed.

He shrugged. “You mean do the room like a dance studio? Yeah, we could do that. It’d look totally rad.”

I took off my tap shoes. “I’d better get going. Mrs. Sperling sent me home to make a whole pile of phone calls.”

“Anything more on the murder?”

“I’m almost positive it was Bistler and Hendricks working together. We’ve just got to get the evidence.”

“How about my Niedeman?”

“I know somebody who’s selling them cheap.”

“Who?”

“Dolores Carmine.”

Glen’s face fell. “She’s out.”

“Speaking of her, Mrs. S. wants you to stick around today. She’s got a job for you.”

Glen shrugged. I went to make my calls.

The first was to the company that had employed Kyle Hoffman. I got handed around three times before I was able to ask my questions.

“This is Miss Browning,” I told Mr. Haggerty from personnel. “I’m calling to verify a credit application one of your employees made to us. His name is Kyle Hoffman.”

“Hoffman? He died two days ago.”

“Oh. Well, just so I can get the record straight, he was employed by your company to manage a building at this address.” I gave him the address of Stein’s gallery. “Is this right?”

“Yes. He’s been with us since July of this year.”

“You wouldn’t have his former place of employment, would you?”

“Let me pull up the file.” There was about a minute’s pause while Mr. Haggerty clicked the keys on his computer. He gave me the address, and the exact date of Hoffman’s departure from his former job and his date of hire there, which I wrote down.

“Thank you, Mr. Haggerty.”

“Um, Miss Browning, pardon me for asking, but your company isn’t going to make a loan to a dead man, is it?”

“I doubt it, Mr. Haggerty. It’d be very hard for him to pay it back. Thanks again.” I hung up fast.

I compared the address I’d written to the business card and smiled. My next call went through right away.

“Mr. Grisom, my name is Elizabeth Barrett, and I’m with Entertainment Plus. We’re a marketing firm for the entertainment industry, and I’m conducting a survey to help determine the mid-week activities of professional adults in the Los Angeles area. Would you mind answering a few questions for me?” I had written the speech down and gone through it with just enough boredom to suggest I’d made this call at least forty times already.

“I suppose.”

“Thank you, sir. I see you’re an attorney in the Beverly Hills area. May I ask your income range? Between thirty to forty thousand?”

“A hundred and fifty thousand last year.”

“Okay, that’s box D. Are you married right now?”

“Yes.”

“Is your wife employed also?”

“Self-employed.”

“Did you just quote me a combined income?”

“No. She’s pulling in another fifty thousand.”

“Okay. Now, could you tell me what you were doing last Wednesday night, the day before yesterday?”

“I was home with my wife.”

“Doing what?”

“Watching T.V.”

“And what were you watching?”

“I don’t remember. Something on P.B.S.”

“How about the Wednesday before that?”

“Oh, geez. What the hell was I doing? Oh. Yeah. Same thing, only I think we rented a movie.”

“Do you remember which one?”

“Uh. No. Sorry. I probably fell asleep halfway through it, anyway.”

“Alright. Is this a usual pattern, sir?”

“Yeah. Doris and I don’t go out much during the week.”

“And that answers my next question. Thank you very much for your time, Mr. Grisom.”

I wasn’t sure if it was necessary, but I called the local Bar Association, as Mrs. Sperling had requested. The information I got was pretty interesting.

“It was years ago,” I told Mrs. Sperling as we drove to Dolores Carmine’s. “And he’s maintained an excellent record since then.”

“Embezzling, eh?”

“But they were never able to prove it. The charges were dropped before it ever went to court. The lady at the Bar Association says she remembers the incident, and she thinks it might have been professional jealousy. She says Grisom’s a terrific lawyer, and not someone you want to be facing in a divorce trial.”

“Which perhaps explains Mr. Montoinne’s caution regarding Ms. Bistler.”

“That and he’s the jealous type.”

“And Grisom’s alibi is not very easily verified, or contested, for that matter. Relaxing at home is too common an occurrence. Sometimes a particularly strong lawyer can break the witness down, but not too often. We shouldn’t count on it.”

“The funny thing is, he didn’t sound flustered at all, or as if he even cared whether or not I knew. If they hadn’t told me about that embezzlement charge, I would have written him off, especially considering Hendricks and Bistler.”

Mrs. Sperling shook her head. “Don’t jump to conclusions, my dear. Something doesn’t quite fit, and it could be the fact that exonerates them. One must be very sure before fixing blame.”

I pulled into a parking space in front of Dolores’s Gallery. We got out and went in. For once, Dolores was in the front. She waited for us with an average sized man with strong Hispanic features, and a huge bushy moustache, and long fly-away hair.

“Here he is, Delilah. He got back in town Wednesday morning,” said Dolores.

Mrs. Sperling nodded. “Where have you been, Mr. Gonzagos?”

“In Mexico,” he answered defensively. “I got family in Mexico City.”

“Are you aware that your trip was rather poorly timed?”

“What you mean?”

“Mr. Gonzagos, the night you were last seen in Los Angeles, a man was murdered. He had been selling forgeries of prints done by the late artist, Hans Niedeman, forgeries I believe to be your work. If you arrived in back in town as Ms. Carmine here says, then you arrived just in time to be available for the murder of a second man who I believe to be the one who exchanged your prints for those of the first victim.”

“I don’t know nothing about no murders, lady.” Gonzagos was scared. “I get mad sometimes, but I don’t kill people.”

“I see.”

“Look, lady, you can say all you like, talk fancy and everything. But I don’t kill people.”

“What airlines were you on, Mr. Gonzagos?”

“Mexicana.”

“Very good, then. I might also add that the second victim was severely beaten in a manner that is suggestive of your drinking habits.”

Gonzagos eyes grew wide, and he darted out. I started after him, but Mrs. Sperling held me back.

“Now you done it, Delilah,” growled Dolores.

“I’m afraid so. I was hoping he would make an error in judgment, but that was not the one I had in mind. Obviously, I am still capable of making mistakes. That’s encouraging. Well, Dolores, thank you for getting him here.”

“Delilah, maybe I shouldn’t tell you this, but he says he doesn’t know anything about sending a friend to me with some Niedemans to sell.”

Mrs. Sperling pondered this. “Be that as it may, it still doesn’t clear him, I’m afraid. Kyle Hoffman’s death is too coincidental.”

“Kyle Hoffman?” Dolores was shocked. “He’s dead?”

“He was killed Wednesday, beaten, as I said before. You knew him?”

“Of course. He’s been peddling hot art for a long time. I was beginning to think he was a fence, cause I couldn’t see how he could be getting it that often for that long without getting caught.”

“He may have been, but he wasn’t caught due to some massive stupidity on the part of his victim.”

“Must have been. Kyle’s not exactly smart himself.”

“Just extremely lucky. I’ll be taking my leave, now, Dolores. Keep well.”

“You, too, Delilah.”

Mrs. Sperling was pensive as we hit the street.

“Where to now?” I asked.

“Let’s check the security company, then we shall have to go home. You’ll need to think up an excuse to confirm Mr. Gonzagos’ flight with the airlines.”

“Okey-dokey.”

We got Eleanor into the car, and took off. Mrs. Sperling remained distant.

“Is something wrong?” I asked.

“Yes. I just can’t think what. There were two glaring mistakes in that room, two things that appeared to be as they should be, but were in reality signs of an inadequate intellect. I keep running over your description of the room, and each time I come across the bird, something in my head says there’s a problem with that.”

“Well, you don’t normally put birds next to open windows because they get sick from draughts.”

“Then we must determine why that one was there.”

“Where is it now?”

“That is a good question. Remind me to ask Sergeant Michaelson when we go to the station this afternoon.”

“I’ll try.”

At the security company, the man we wanted was in, and even better for us, working day shift at the desk. He showed us why. The cast on his leg extended to his knee.

“I was playing football with the kids over the weekend,” he explained.

“That sounds quite enjoyable,” replied Mrs. Sperling. “I wish I could hear more about it, but I’m afraid I don’t have the time. Regarding the night, or morning, that Mr. Stein was killed…”

“Yeah, last Thursday morning.”

“Did you see anything at all in the alley at any time?”

“No. I would have noted it if I had.”

“I’m not talking about anything suspicious necessarily. What about things that are normally there?”

“Mr. Stein’s Ferrari was there all night. And Hoffman’s van, but that’s always there off and on.”

“What times were Mr. Hoffman’s van there?”

“Just in the morning. He’s there a lot in the mornings.”

“Well, he was. Mr. Hoffman is no longer of this world, I’m afraid.”

“That’s too bad. He wasn’t a bad egg. And pretty handy, too. He fixed my air conditioner last summer. Say, you don’t think he saw something, and someone bumped him off to shut him up, do you?”

“It’s possible.” Mrs. Sperling lapsed again. “That may be the connection.” She woke up. “Thank you, sir. You’ve been very helpful.”

“Anytime, ma’am.”

Mrs. Sperling was almost prickly when we got back to the car.

“It’s almost there,” she grumbled. “It’s within reach. I just need a little more. I’m positive the evidence is there.”

“You know who the killer is?”

“I’m fairly certain I know who Hoffman’s killer is, and I suspect he may be behind Stein’s murder also. He’s perfectly alibied for it, so he didn’t actually do it. I just need a connection between him and Hoffman. It’ll probably be a very loose one. He’s very clever.”

“He is? He must have gotten a friend to help.”

Mrs. Sperling nodded.

“Are you sure the two killings are related?” I asked. “I mean the one was so perfectly staged, and the other so brutal.”

“It was far more clever than that.”

“It was?”

But Mrs. Sperling refused to elaborate.

At home, I called a friend of mine who’s a travel agent when she’s not auditioning. I had to beg, plead and practically crawl, but she relented and let me have the phone number I wanted. Mrs. Sperling listened with a great deal of amusement.

“They have a special number they use,” I explained. “If I don’t call that number, I’ll lose a lot of credibility.”

“I am aware of that. Good thinking.”

I took a deep breath and misrepresented myself for the fourth time that day.

“Hello, Mexicana?” I asked. “I need a check on a passenger list, please.”

“Just a minute.”

Muzak floated into my ear while I waited for the right person to answer their phone.

“Yes, may I help you?” a pleasant female voice answered.

“Hi. This is Dorothy Wordsworth from William’s Travel. I have a client here who claims he was billed for a round trip passage to Mexico City that he never purchased. Could you check your list and see if a Federico, or Fred Gonzagos was on a Wednesday night flight there, a week ago this Wednesday past, and returning this Wednesday morning.”

“We don’t have a flight leaving Los Angeles on Wednesdays.”

“He said Wednesday night. Could it have been early Thursday morning?”

“Yes, it could. One moment, please. Mr. Gonzagos was on board flight 212, leaving L.A.X. at twelve-twenty A.M. He returned the following Wednesday, on flight 111, arriving L.A.X. at ten-fifteen A.M.”

“Well, I guess my Mr. Gonzagos has been a victim of credit card fraud. Thank you very much.” I hung up fast.

Mrs. Sperling chuckled.

“That doesn’t let him off the hook,” I said.

“No. But I have one more way of checking him out. Would you go find Glen for me, please?”

 

Frankie Bailey Channels Dame Agatha

Right about the time that Frankie Bailey’s novel Death’s Favorite Child inched its way to the top of Mount To Be Read (aka that ever-growing pile of books that I’m trying to get to), a publicist offered me a guest post by Frankie in honor of the book’s re-release. Naturally, I jumped on the opportunity. Then I met Frankie at Bouchercon this past September and found that she is possibly one of the nicest human beings on the planet. Somewhere in these interactions, I actually read the book and really loved it. So, here’s Frankie Bailey on how she channeled Dame Agatha Christie to write Death’s Favorite Child.

Like many mystery writers, my introduction to the genre began with Nancy Drew, Sherlock Holmes, and Agatha Christie. Agatha Christie has had more impact than I could have imagined on both my academic research and my mystery writing. A Christie novel inspired the title of my nonfiction book, Out of the Woodpile, not only because of the original title of her 1939 novel (now titled And Then There Were None), but because of a phrase used by two characters in the book. I used the story of the three titles of this Christie mystery to illustrate the take-for-granted racism in “Golden Age” crime fiction. And yet, the plot – ten people in an isolated setting being killed off one by one – was a tour de force.

When I began writing my first mystery novel, I was inspired by Christie because I was writing about an amateur sleuth. But my protagonist, Lizzie Stuart, is a criminal justice professor, a crime historian. She is also African American and a response to the stereotypes of Golden Age novels. Lizzie Stuart owes her existence to another crime writer, Richard Martin Stern. Although he was a white male, Stern wrote a series about Johnny Ortiz, a police lieutenant in Santa Rosa, New Mexico. In the first book in the series, Stern introduced Dr. Cassandra “Cassie” Enright, an anthropologist who became Ortiz’s love interest. Cassie Enright was the first black (in her case, biracial) professional female character I had ever encountered in a mystery novel. Teenager me wrote Stern a letter thanking him for Cassie. Years later, I interviewed him by mail when I was working on my nonfiction book about black characters. Stern was my inspiration when I peopled the first book and as the series evolved.

I had intended to set my first Lizzie Stuart novel in “Gallagher, Virginia,” a fictional city inspired by my hometown.  That book became the second in the series when I took Lizzie and the police detective in the book with me on a vacation to Cornwall, England. After years of writing and revising, I wanted to see if I could finish a book. Since I was going to be in England, an Agatha Christie-inspired mystery involving a murder among the guests staying at a private hotel (a bed and breakfast) seemed perfect.  During the week a friend, her six-year-old son, and I spent in a seaside town, I was busy scribbling. I had done much of my research about Cornwall before I arrived. One day I stopped a police officer to ask about the location of the police station. To my surprise, the officer had an American accent. He had retired to Cornwall with his Scottish wife. During high season, he was one of the special officers. And suddenly I had the reason John Quinn, the visiting American police detective in my book, was in Cornwall. He had come to see his former partner.

And I channeled Dame Agatha Christie as I was looking for a murder weapon. I needed a method of death that might have been employed by one of the guests at the private hotel or a couple of other suspects. I wanted something that didn’t require the killer to be present. As I was browsing through the shops on my first evening in Cornwall, the answer came to me.  Food in the form of what I decided to call “yummy balls” — delicious but lethal for someone with a severe peanut allergy. When my book, Death’s Favorite Child, was published, another friend concocted the recipe based on what the about-to-become-victim tells Lizzie: (https://www.frankieybailey.com/amateur-sleuth/recipes/alices-yummy-balls).

Death’s Favorite Child was followed by a revised and updated version of the book I had been working on for year (A Dead Man’s Honor). The series was published by a small, independent press. The five books are now being reissued by a new publisher in both ebook and print. Because “series time” has moved slowly, the books are now set in the recent past (2004). Lizzie has aged only two years. But much has happened since she left her hometown, Drucilla, Kentucky, on a vacation in Cornwall, and later moved to Gallagher, Virginia.

In the sixth book in the series, Lizzie will visit Richard Martin Stern country – Santa Fe, New Mexico. My tip of the hat to a writer who inspired me to think about not only the plot but the topics that crime fiction can explore.

You can find Death’s Favorite Child on BarnesandNoble.com or on Amazon.com.

 

.

 

 

 

 

mystery fiction, mystery serial

Chapter Sixteen

Two and a half hours and three bars later, Phil and I were finally calling each other by name, although as far as conversation was concerned, we seemed to be repeating Sally Field’s Oscar speech a lot. Ramona Bistler went home. By herself.

“What a washout,” I grumbled as Phil parked the BMW across the street and down a little, where it wouldn’t be obvious but there was still a good view.

“Tonight has not been a total loss,” he chuckled.

“No. Why are we stopping here?”

“To watch the house.”

“Are we going to stay here all night?”

“I doubt it.” Phil yawned. He had sent his friends on home. He stretched, then let his arm fall across my shoulders.

“So why are we watching?”

“I’m not sure. Maybe she’ll leave again.”

“Maybe.” It wasn’t that late, and I couldn’t complain about where I was. “She didn’t do a darn thing, and the only person she saw that could be connected to anything was Devon.”

“And Aunt Delilah didn’t seem terribly worried about our physical safety.” Phil mused. “However, she did seem very anxious that I take you with me, personally.”

I looked at him. “She wouldn’t.”

“I think she did. She knew how crazy I am about you. I spent enough time telling her.”

“I did my fair share of sighing about it, too. So that’s why she insisted you drive me out to Pasadena. That sneak.”

“I can’t complain.”

He moved in. I went to meet him.

“What’s that?” I yelped, pulling back at the last second.

A lone figure ran across Bistler’s lawn.

“I’ll go find out,” said Phil.

“No!” I held him back. “That place has got to have at least thirty alarms hooked up to the police.”

“We were necking when we saw this suspicious character and decided to see if we could get a better look at him. Aunt Delilah will back us up. Besides, why would I want to break into Ramona Bistler’s house? Or anybody else’s, for that matter? Why don’t you call the cops? I’ll be right back.”

Nervously, I picked up my phone and dialed. It took about three minutes to get through everything. It might have taken less time, but I got tongue-tied when I told the operator my friend was trying to get a better look at the intruder, and she asked for his name. She didn’t notice a thing. I even had to spell it for her.

Phil had yet to show up. I got worried and left the car. A tall, spare figure came around the corner of the house. Lamplight glinted on his light hair. He didn’t look quite right. I figured it was the dark.

“Phil!” I called softly.

The figure ran back where he’d come from. I chased after him. Just as I got to the corner of the house, I was grabbed. I screamed. A hand clamped over my mouth, cutting it short.

“You idiot!” Phil growled. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“He went that-a way!” I pointed.

“Can’t be. He’s breaking into the garage.”

“Tall and light-haired?”

“No. Short and dark, with a moustache.”

“Lansky?”

“The chauffeur. Right. What does he want here?”

“And who was that other guy? To hell with Lansky.”

I started around the corner, but Phil held me back again.

“It’s too dark and overgrown there,” he hissed. “We’ll go around the other way.”

“But what if he comes around this way?”

“Alright. You stay in front.”

I followed Phil to the other edge of the house. Phil made me wait at the corner.

“Sexist,” I grumbled.

A minute later I heard several thuds, shoes scraping across stucco, and a couple ominous oophs. I started back, but was pushed aside by a running figure. I ran after. I hadn’t grown up playing football for nothing. I tackled the man at the end of the driveway.

I made one fatal error. Once I had him down, I had no idea what to do with him. He heaved up. I fought for my grasp and hung on. He rolled over on top of me. I gasped as he sat up on my mid-section. He swore as he saw my legs. He knew I wasn’t very heavy, but I guess didn’t expect to find I was a woman. I pounded on his back. He jumped to his feet, and was blinded by a bright white light.

“Police! Freeze!”

I was so glad when he didn’t make a run for it. I waited until the officers had Lansky in their grasp before stirring. It startled the hell out of one young man about my age.

“You alright, lady?” he asked, as I got up.

“Yeah. Fine. Oh no! My friend!” I ran to the side of the house.

Phil slowly made his way out.

“Are you alright?” I asked, and slid under his arm.

“Oh. I’m okay. Where’s that damn Irishman when I need him?”

“Irishman?”

“You know. Your friend.”

“Mickey. He’s only half Irish. The other half’s Swedish.”

“No kidding. I’m half Swedish. On my mother’s side.”

The young officer came up. “It looks like we got him.”

Another patrol car pulled up, and two more officers fell out and prowled around the grounds.

“There’s a second one,” I said. “I think he went into the house.”

A female voice shrilled out, cursing in all manner of foul language.

“Hey!” an officer called from the back. “There’s a forced window back here. Goes into a bedroom.”

An infuriated Ramona Bistler appeared in a skimpy negligee from her front door.

“I demand to know what is going on here!” she shrieked.

“Lady, someone has been trying to break into your house,” said a big burly officer with a red moustache. “We think there may be another one still in there. You just stay put until we say it’s clear. Alf, get the broad a blanket.”

Bistler shivered. Well, it was cold and she wasn’t wearing that much. The young officer presented her with a grey woolly affair. Bistler snatched it and wrapped it around herself.

“Ramona!” said Phil, in feigned surprise. “Is this your house?”

She cursed again. “Phil, what the hell are you doing here?”

“We had just stopped to neck when we saw someone running across your lawn.”

“Neck? With who?” Bistler stopped when she saw me. “Her? I thought she was driving Delilah Sperling around. When did she start driving you?”

“I just drive him nuts,” I said with a little grin.

Bistler was too nervous to notice. She kept looking at the house. A few minutes later, the officers said it was all clear, but they wanted to have a lab team and detectives look at the forced window.

Bistler sighed with relief. Phil and I followed her inside as if we belonged there. Officers went back and forth between the front door and Bistler’s bedroom. I walked back and peeked in. By that time, the detectives had arrived with the lab truck. One man dusted for fingerprints, while another photographed the outside.

I walked all the way into the room. The bed was a mess, with one set of pillows on it, pushed to the left. On the right hand nightstand was a small brass lamp, pushed to the back of the table. It’s shade had been knocked askew. Under the lamp were two dimes. On the floor, next to the stand, a brass card case lay up-ended in a v-shape. Several white business card were scattered under the case, and three pennies and a nickel lay close by.

I bent down to look at the cards.

“Officer,” I asked. “May I have one of these?”

He came over and looked at the nightstand. “So her lover took off. Go ahead.”

I slid the card out carefully. Even if the officer was more interested in people getting in, I was interested in the man who had gotten out. I read the name on the card, and smiled.

Phil and I called Mrs. Sperling from his iPhone. It was only twelve fifteen, and she was still up. We went by the house and brought her and Eleanor to the police station. She had called Sergeant Michaelson, and he was there waiting for us, yawning and wearing a beat up velour sweat top and jeans with a bagging seat.

“You think this Lansky guy’s important?” Michaelson asked as we walked in.

“I won’t know until you question him, Sergeant,” Mrs Sperling said. “I regret getting you out of bed on mere speculation, but as I explained on the phone earlier this evening, it is a very ticklish situation, and best resolved as soon as possible.”

Phil looked at me, and I shrugged. I had missed that call. Michaelson yawned, and led us down to the questioning rooms. He looked at the detective standing at the door. In a most eloquent shrug, the detective said odds were fifty-fifty that Lansky would talk.

We went in. I don’t know if it was exactly legal. I’m pretty sure Mrs. Sperling wouldn’t have risked messing up the court case. Lansky sat huddled in a chair.

“Okay, Lansky,” said Sergeant Michaelson. “We’ve got you on breaking and entering charges. What have you got to say for yourself?”

No answer.

“Mr. Lansky,” said Mrs. Sperling. “I would recommend your full cooperation. Without it, the charges could be as serious murder one.”

“She’s not fooling, Lansky.” Michaelson added the official voice.

“Murder!” Lansky squeaked. “I haven’t done nothing like that. Honest.”

“What were you breaking into your former boss’s house for?” asked Michaelson.

“To get some stuff. It belonged to me. I needed it.”

“Then why didn’t you just ask her?”

“It’s perfectly understandable why not, Sergeant,” broke in Mrs. Sperling. “Even if Ms. Bistler did not disapprove of her former chauffeur’s drug use, she might have asked for her share of his stash, or even taken some without asking. Unfortunately, being unemployed put Mr. Lansky in a definite bind, as cocaine remains a very expensive habit to maintain. Isn’t that it, Mr. Lansky?”

“How’d you find out?” he snarled. “I said nothing about it to your driver. Or did you already know?”

“I knew nothing about it until just now. It was mere guesswork, Mr. Lansky. Why wouldn’t you have wanted to have Ms. Bistler fetch your possession, something you didn’t want to admit to the police was yours, unless it was contraband? You had also expressed a rather suspicious, though perhaps deserved, paranoia regarding me in that encounter with my chauffeur which you mentioned just now. It was also something you needed desperately enough to risk an electronic security system and the presence of people in the house. Given the symptoms of cocaine use, its addictive nature, and it’s prevalence, it was a fairly safe guess.”

Lansky backed down. “All right. She kicked me out so fast, I couldn’t get everything together. It was in the garage. I figured I’d wait a few days to let it die down, then go after it. I had to get it. These guys are into me for five hundred bucks. They wanted their shit or they wanted their money and fast. What am I s’posed to do? Look, I’ll give you their names. Pitch Corsky and Dick Rider. If they killed somebody, I don’t know nothing about it, honest!”

“Do you know Kyle Hoffman?” asked Michaelson.

“Who the hell’s he?”

“One other question, Mr. Lansky,” Mrs. Sperling asked. “On what kind of terms were you with Ms. Bistler’s late husband?”

“Oh, it’s that murder.” Lansky swore. “I got friends can vouch for me that night.”

“Answer the question, Lansky,” growled Michaelson.

“Mr. Stein? I don’t know. He drove himself most times, in the Ferrari. I hardly ever talked to him.”

“What do you know about rumors that he was counterfeiting?” asked Mrs. Sperling.

“Oh, hell, everybody knew that. I never seen him do it. But lots of people said so.”

“Who were they?”

“People. I don’t know. You go to parties, the maids bring back the noise to the drivers. You know how it goes.”

“I’m afraid I do.” Mrs. Sperling sighed. “I strongly suspect that’s the best we’re going to do, Sergeant. Nebulous rumors at parties are all too common, and impossible to trace. Besides, I already have a source for the rumors. I was hoping to find a connection.” She got up. “I’ve asked all the questions I needed answered.”

“I got no more, either.” Michaelson yawned. We left the room. “Damn it, Mrs. Sperling, that was a big fat zero.”

“On the contrary, it was extremely productive. We can now eliminate Mr. Lansky, and at this stage in the game, that is a major help.”

Officer Willoughby appeared from another questioning room.

“Evening, Sergeant,” he said, grinning. “Just brought a suspect in on the Morris burglary. Grant says he wants to question her. Oh, hello, Mrs. Sperling.”

“Good evening, Officer,” Mrs. Sperling smiled pleasantly.

“Evening, Willoughby,” Michaelson growled.

“Well, I’ve got to get back to my beat,” said Willoughby, and left.

Michaelson yawned again and nodded. He went his way, and we went ours.

“Was the capture of Mr. Lansky the total profit of your evening?” Mrs. Sperling asked Phil and me as we walked through the halls.

“Not quite,” I said. “I hit the jackpot. Get a load out of what I found in Bistler’s bedroom.” I gave her the business card. “It’s engraved. Can you read it?”

“It’s not a good typeset for my kind of reading, but…” She smiled. “This is most interesting. What do you suppose Mr. Hendricks was doing there?”

Phil burst into loud laughter. I shushed him, then told Mrs. Sperling about the bed and nightstand.

She nodded. “An excellent piece of deduction.”

“Not necessarily. The detective took one look at the scene and guessed the same thing.”

“All you need is the practice.”

“Oh, and we also saw Devon and Gillian at one of the places Bistler went.” I sighed. “I lost them, unfortunately, and we didn’t see hide nor hair of them after that.”

“Did either of them talk to Ms. Bistler?”

I shook my head. “Not that I saw.”

“Me, either,” said Phil.

“Still, you’re right. It is interesting that their paths crossed. How was your evening otherwise?”

“Bistler was a bore,” Phil answered. “Granted she did have someone at home waiting for her. But you knew that, didn’t you, Aunt Delilah?”

“What?”

“Your little matchmaking scheme. We know when we’ve been set up.” Phil gave me a little squeeze. “And we’re pretty glad.”

“Well, I’m glad things are working out so nicely for you. But matchmaking? Good heavens, Phillip. I wouldn’t dream of meddling in that way. It can have the most deleterious effects.”

Phil wasn’t listening, nor was I. Our eyes caught, and while it was not the most romantic moment, it was the right one. We kissed.

Mrs. Sperling paused. “Phillip? Donna?”

We ignored her.

“Oh, for heaven’s sakes. Granted we are in a police station, and it is the middle of the night. But when you two are with me, I would appreciate it if you would maintain a modicum of decorum.”

Phil grinned, and brushed my nose with his finger.

“Just a modicum,” he said.

mystery fiction, mystery serial

Chapter Fifteen

Phillip DuPre was waiting for us when we got back to the house. He was dressed up in a dark, shimmery jacket with a dark purple shirt, tie in gold, olive green and purple, and black dress slacks.

“Splice-Man’s got her covered,” He told Mrs. Sperling. “Iggy and Bernie are waiting elsewhere. I figured I’d better take restaurant detail, just in case she goes someplace where we’ll need some influence to get a last minute reservation.”

“Excellent, Phillip.” Mrs. Sperling smiled. “Donna, why don’t you get dressed and accompany Phillip? I’m sure he won’t want to eat dinner alone.”

Not to mention how much I wouldn’t mind being his guest.

“Won’t you need me?” I asked anyway.

“Not tonight. I’m staying in.”

“Well, I do have that money from my car.”

“My treat,” He said quickly.

“Oh. You don’t have to.”

“No problem.”

“Hurry, Donna.”

I dressed in record time. They were in the living room when I finished.

“I’m ready,” I announced a lot more casually than I felt.

“Well, Phillip,” said Mrs. Sperling. If I hadn’t known her better, I would have sworn she was smirking. “How does Donna look?”

His eyes went up and down my yellow polished cotton shirtwaist with the full skirt. I was wearing black patent sling back pumps and black chunky jewelry, too. I’d also left the bottom two buttons on the skirt undone. My legs are my best asset, and so what if nothing was going to happen. I had a black lacy cardigan in my hand in case it got cool.

“Very nice,” He said softly.

“Good. Now where were we?” Mrs. Sperling thought. “Ah. We talked with her attorney. He’d told her to avoid romantic liaisons until the will was settled. He seemed to be afraid it might be contested.”

“Montoinne would,” He said with a chuckle.

“You know him.”

“Sort of. He’s a funny old bird. Was basically straight and sober until his wife died a couple years ago. Then he went into a mid-life crisis for the books. Started hanging around some pretty interesting females, including Ramona.”

“He did indicate that their relationship was more than professional. However, strangely enough, Paul Grisom, Mr. Stein’s lawyer, said there was only a minimal chance that the will would be contested. I wonder if Montoinne knows that?”

He shrugged. “He could. He’s got pretty good hearing, if you know what I mean.”

“Then why would he be interested in restraining Ms. Bistler, so to speak? And why would he be concerned, when he knows Ms. Bistler doesn’t need Mr. Stein’s money to be comfortable? Although, I might add, Ms. Bistler doesn’t know it.”

He laughed. “It’s perfectly simple. Montoinne’s jealous.”

“Jealous? Of what?”

“Of dear Ramona’s many other boyfriends. Mid-life crisis or not, Montoinne’s still a stuffy old bird at heart, and firmly believes in one man per woman, even if she has to share. A sexist attitude, admittedly, but not surprising from one of his generation.”

“Not in the least.” Mrs. Sperling shook her head. “How do you know so much about him?”

“I’ve seen him at parties, things like that. And I hear things, too.”

“And how do you know what’s malicious gossip and what isn’t?”

“That’s just it. I don’t. But I heard them fighting a few weeks back. I didn’t catch much, but more than enough to know what it was about.”

“Hm.” Mrs. Sperling mused.

“Um, might I ask what we should be looking for?” He looked at her hopefully.

“Anything and everything, of course,” Mrs. Sperling replied blithely.

“What are we doing?” I asked.

Mrs. Sperling smiled again, that almost smirk. “You are going to be, as it is known in the jargon, tailing Ms. Ramona Bistler.”

“Why?” I asked.

“To see what happens.”

“Oh. We’d better get going.”

Mrs. Sperling shook her head. “Not yet. Phillip’s friend, Mr. Davies, hasn’t telephoned us with Ms. Bistler’s whereabouts.”

“What if she stays home?”

“I had Glen call and ask if a mutual acquaintance might drop by this evening, and she insisted she would be out.”

A cellular phone tweetered. He picked it up.

“Yo, Splice-Man.” He listened. “No kidding…. If I can’t, I’ll have Iggy get some chow for us…. Uh, yeah, Aunt Delilah’s new driver…. Don’t ask me…. Never mind. You meet up with Iggy, and we’ll call with the next location…. Yeah, bye.” He flashed a weak grin at me, then turned to Mrs. Sperling. “She went to Mr. G.’s.”

“Oh, dear. Will you be able to get a reservation?”

He shrugged. “It’s Thursday night, and they’re really Industry conscious.”

He looked up the number on his iPhone and dialed. He looked at me, and I swear, blushed as He made the reservation for twenty minutes later. He looked over at Mrs. Sperling.

“Geez, it’s so embarrassing when I have to play Industry heavyweight,” He told her.

“Well, darling, be thankful you are, and I’ll be thankful you don’t have the ego to go with it. Run along, now, both of you, and be careful.”

It was another quiet ride over to the restaurant that was currently “the place to be.” It was so hot, even People magazine hadn’t caught onto it yet. I tried to be blase about it. It was filled with “names.” Several came over to say hello. He was cool, and greeted them politely, and introduced me as a friend of a friend.

One producer, I forget his name, made some inane comment about blind dates. I thought I would sink through the floor. My sort of date just laughed and said even blind dates sometimes worked out.

Ramona Bistler was there, but didn’t see us. She was with another woman.

“You wouldn’t happen to know the woman she’s with?” I finally asked Him as we ate.

He looked over my shoulder, then back at his plate.

“Rita Cartlin. She’s married to Niles Cartlin.”

I grimaced. “I should know that name, shouldn’t I?”

He shrugged. “He produces a few sitcoms. Not a bad name to know, but not a real heavy hitter, either.”

“Oh.” There was silence. “What do you know about his wife?”

“Rita?” He chewed thoughtfully, then fidgeted with his fork. “I’ve heard she’s no stranger to other men’s beds. There’s another rumor floating around that she slept with some nameless network mucky-muck to get her husband’s first series on the schedule. His ratings are respectable, so it may or may not be true. She and Ramona seem to be soul mates.”

He looked over at Bistler and Cartlin speculatively, then looked at me and went back to His plate. He paid as soon as He ordered dessert.

“Got to be ready to move,” He explained.

“Right.” I, too, concentrated on eating. I couldn’t think of anything to say.

I figured He thought I was a total idiot. He only had me with Him to please Mrs. Sperling. I must have been boring Him silly.

He started. “They’re leaving.”

He ducked His head as they went past, then looked at me. I gave them half a second’s lead.

“They’re almost to the door,” I whispered.

“Good. Let’s go.”

We ambled out. He pretended He didn’t hear some big shot saying hi. Cartlin was getting into a limo, while Bistler waited for the valet to bring her car. We were self-parked on the street. We slid out behind her, and got into His BMW, just as Bistler got into a bright red Ferrari.

“That’ll be easy to follow,” He said, then smiled.

We followed her to Westwood. She had her car valet parked off of Westwood Blvd., and went into a bar there. He parked near there and grabbed the phone.

“Hey, Bernie, she’s at The White Elephant…. Okay, we’ll park it, and next stop, we’ll all rendezvous….” He wrote down a phone number. “I’ve got it…. See ya.”

He hung up.

“Wh-whose number?” I asked.

“Splice-Man’s new phone. I’ve already got Bernie and Iggy’s numbers.”

“Oh.”

“They’re friends of mine from film school.”

“Oh.”

I tried to figure out who they could be. Given Phillip DuPre’s status, they had to be some kind of hot shots. I didn’t want to embarrass myself by asking who they were.

Meeting them didn’t help. We rendezvoused in Santa Monica, at another fancy hot spot. Splice-Man turned out to be Edouard Davies, a short black man wearing black 501s and a red double breasted western shirt. Iggy, or Ignatius McMartin, was taller, quiet, with curly brown hair and glasses. He held onto Bernie, who was really Bernadette Bernstein. She wore a bulky sweater over dark, slim pants, and was a buxom lass indeed.

I was introduced as a dancer, moonlighting as Mrs. Sperling’s chauffeur and aide-de-camp. That’s when Bernie decided she did not like me. It was more of a mama-bear type reaction. She and Iggy were obviously very tight.

I hung back and let them talk. From the conversation, I guessed that Splice-Man and Iggy were both film editors, and Bernie was a sound engineer. Bernie and Iggy were finally getting married because Bernie was pregnant. During the cheering, I noticed Him looking at me. For no reason at all, I went purple, and gazed about the bar.

Bistler was busy dancing with anybody and everybody. She didn’t seem to know the guys, or even care. A tall, blonde figure that could have been a man or a woman, glared from the bar.

“Gillian,” I said suddenly.

“Who?” He asked.

“Gillian. She works for Devon, from Devonaire. She’s standing at the bar.”

Bernie shrugged. “Devonaire. That’s that boutique down on Melrose. The clothes are nice, but too pricey for me. That Devon sure is weird, though.”

Phillip DuPre laughed. “I’ve met him before.”

I pointed to the dance floor. “And he’s here, dancing.”

“So, Phil,” teased Splice-Man. “You’ve got a dancer with you. Why don’t you ask her to dance?”

He looked at me and got up. “Sure. If you want.”

“I guess.”

Not only was He gorgeous, He could really dance. I was in heaven. All I lacked was something to say to Him. Bistler left, and Splice-Man slipped out after her. He kept me dancing. The D.J. called a break. As we went back to our table, Devon took off. I hurried after, but by the time I hit the street, he was gone.

I went around the table to the restroom, sulked for a minute, then went back to see if Gillian was still around. She wasn’t.

With the music off, the rumble of voices filled the room. Bernie and Iggy were facing me, and He had His back to me as I came up to the table.

“I don’t know,” He was complaining. “I just don’t think Donna likes me.”

“I don’t like you?” I heard myself screech. “Where’d you get that crazy idea?”

He whirled and turned red. “But… But… You won’t talk to me.”

“Well, you won’t say anything to me.” Utterly frustrated, and embarrassed to death, I flopped into my chair. “Besides, what do you say to your favorite god?”

“Who? Phil?” asked Bernie.

“Shut up, Bernie,” he said. He turned back to me. “Am I that intimidating?”

I grew hotter, if that were possible. “I don’t know. I’ve never known any big names before, and I can’t imagine you being interested in a peon like me.”

The phone had to ring then. We took off to meet Splice-Man in Century City.

“I’m sorry,” I told him. “I didn’t mean to embarrass you in front of your friends.”

“You didn’t embarrass me.”

“I said some pretty stupid things.”

“What? Like I haven’t?” He checked his blind spot, then whipped into the next lane.

“You must think I’m an idiot.”

“I don’t think you’re an idiot.”

“But-”

“Will you please be quiet for a few minutes? I’ve got to think this out.”

Like I was going to say anything more? My head filled with visions of my career going down the drain, all because I opened my fat trap one time too many. I was certain he hated me and would see to it that I never worked in Hollywood again.

“Alright,” he said as we pulled onto the Avenue of the Stars. “You like me. That’s fine. You’re too intimidated to say anything. I can understand that, sort of. Hasn’t Aunt Delilah said I’m okay?”

“Yeah,” I sighed.

“Then what gives?”

I glanced at him nervously. He smiled gently. Oh well, He could only blacklist me once.

“I remember the first time I saw you, I joked with my friend, Tina, that I would love a chance to fall in love with you. Then Mrs. Sperling brought me to your door, and I went under. I was floored. It’s not just the name. You’re so good looking, and nice, except you didn’t say anything to me. Not that I was that brilliant.”

His hand softly took mine. “I remember White Heat. I loved your dancing, but I needed lusty, which is why I hired a girl with tits. When you turned up on my doorstep, I about died. You were even cuter then.” He pulled his hand away so he could get the car parked. “I guess I’m just like everyone else in Hollywood, completely neurotic and no self-esteem. I get around a woman I like, and I’m completely tongue-tied. I go back to being that nerdy fourteen-year-old whose only experience with women was reading Playboys stolen from my best friend’s father.” He looked at me again, a bemused smile lighting up his face. “You like me.”

He opened the door.

“Um,” I said.

He grinned. “Yeah. I like you. A lot.”