Chapter Eight

Fugue in a Minor Key is the fourth book in the Operation Quickline series, featuring Lisa Wycherly and Sid Hackbirn. Like the others, I’m posting it as a serial first. You can catch up with the earlier chapters by visiting its archive page.

February 18 -19, 1984

A quote from Chapter Eight of Fugue in a Minor Key, a mystery fiction serial

The next morning, Sid was distant, a sure sign that he’s getting antsy for a female. Sure enough, right after lunch, I caught him at the door to the garage dressed in sport coat and tie, his version of Saturday date casual.

“Where are you going?” I asked.

“Out.”

“But where?”

Sid gave me his “isn’t it blatantly obvious?” look.

“Oh, you mean out out.”

He nodded. “I am going to drop off some film first.”

“I see.” I sighed, half afraid he was up to something a little more sordid than usual. “I didn’t realize you were quite that horny.”

“How horny do you mean?” he asked with a puzzled chuckle.

“Well, you know. It’s a little early for the meat markets to be open, isn’t it? Or are you going someplace besides a bar?”

“Why do you ask?”

I stopped. “I haven’t the faintest idea. Actually, I’m getting the feeling I really don’t want to know. Besides, it’s none of my business. How you meet your needs is up to you.”

Sid chuckled. “As long as I’m not buying it.”

“Sid!”

Smiling softly, he laid his hand on my shoulder. “Relax, Lisa. I have a friend who’s very willing and pretty much available whenever I want.”

“You’re not keeping her, are you?”

“Andrea?” Sid laughed loudly. “I seriously doubt she’d let me, and even if she would, I couldn’t afford it.”

“Even on your pile?”

“Even on my pile. Andrea’s got very expensive tastes, and I wouldn’t want to sacrifice mine to keep her happy.” He smiled gently. “The number’s in my phone book, just in case. Andrea Norton.”

“Oh. Okay.”

Sid stopped. “What’s wrong?”

“I’m sorry. I just can’t help wondering why you’re going out so early.”

“I have to stay with the boys tonight. You have a date, remember?”

“Well, of course. That’s why I was worried about you going out. And…”

“And what?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. You just seem to get hyperactive that way when you’re upset about things.”

“Upset about what things?”

“Well, Nick.”

He nodded, then shrugged. “He’s going home tomorrow.”

“But what are you going to do about him?”

“What’s to do?”

“Don’t you have things to work out with Rachel? Visitation rights, stuff like that?”

Sid looked away.

“Have you talked to Whiteman about it?” Paul Whiteman is Sid’s lawyer.

“I, uh, couldn’t get through.” Sid smiled weakly.

I glared at him. “You haven’t even called him, have you?”

“It’s been busy this week.”

“Not that busy.” Frustrated, I folded my arms and walked away from him. “This is ridiculous, Sid. You can’t leave your relationship with Nick at a permanent impasse.”

“Why not?”

I turned on him. “He’s your son!”

“That.” He let out a huge gulp of air and leaned against the wall.

“You are going to acknowledge him, aren’t you?”

Sid studied a spot a few feet from my left foot, where the wall met the floor.

“I don’t know.”

“Sid!”

“Now, don’t give me the how-could-you routine. I’ve befriended the boy. I’m putting together a trust fund for his education. I think I’ve done a hell of a lot.” He looked at me, waiting for me to yell back. I just glared. “Look, Lisa, it’s not that simple. You’ve seen how manipulative Rachel is. If I acknowledge Nick, we could be in big trouble. We can’t afford to have a kid hanging around here on an extended basis. And Rachel. Frankly, I don’t want her getting her hooks into me.”

I shook my head. “I don’t buy it. Okay, you’ve got a few legitimate concerns. But right now, you’re just making weak excuses.”

Sid sighed. “This isn’t easy for me.”

“I know.”

“Then do me a favor and let me deal with it in my own way.” He checked his watch. “I’ve got to take off. I’ll be late for the drop.”

“George will be here by five thirty.”

“I’ll be home by five.”

Sid actually got home at four thirty, just in time to take over for me at Monopoly. I got up to go get ready for my date.

I was dressed and picking out my hair when there was a knock on my door.

“Come on in. I’m decent,” I called.

Darby opened the door and slid in.

“You going out again?” he asked sadly.

“Yeah. I kind of have to. George wants me to meet his parents, and I’ve already canceled twice.” I put the hair pick down and looked at him.

“Is Uncle Sid going to stay with us?”

“Yes. Is something wrong with that?”

“No. I was just hoping to spend more time with you, Aunt Lisa.”

I sighed. “You poor thing. Everybody’s been making a fuss over Nick and you’ve been left out.”

“No. It’s fine.” He shrugged dismally. “I don’t like it when people look at me all the time.”

“Well, tomorrow you’re going to have all day to spend with your family. When your mom called today, she said they’d come in the morning, and you guys will go out and have fun.”

“Neat.” Darby suddenly smiled wistfully. “You know, I’m even beginning to miss Janey and Ellen and the twins.”

“I know. Come give me a hug.”

I held him for a good five minutes. It was really nice, and I was able to stop worrying about him, about Sid, about Nick. By the time George picked me up, fifteen minutes late, I was relaxed and happy, and we had a really good time at his folks’ place.

It must have been after midnight by the time we got home. I invited him in, and we spent another hour necking in the living room. George was so sweet and cuddly.

I eventually shut the door on him with a blissful sigh.

“He’d better be behaving himself,” said Sid from the end of the hall near my bedroom.

I rolled my eyes. “Of course, he is. He’s very sweet.”

“Have you let him tickle your tonsils yet?”

“He knows I don’t like French kissing and he respects that, unlike someone else we both know.”

Sid moved aside as I came up the hall towards him to go to my room.

“I respect the word no,” he said.

“But George isn’t always trying to push his limits. He doesn’t seem to feel this overwhelming need to get me into bed with him.”

“Like hell, he doesn’t. The only difference between George and me that way is George wants to trip that light fantastic down the aisle first.”

“Oh, for crying out loud.”

Sid spread his arms. “It’s all the same in the end.”

I folded my arms. “Not quite. There’s commitment, for starters.”

“Like the one you say you don’t want to make?”

“What?”

“I don’t know. I just wonder if you’re not leading him on. That man is dead serious about marrying you.”

“No, he isn’t.”

“Yes, he is.”

“Well, he knows I don’t want to get married. I’ve made that very clear.”

“Mm-hm. And you say I can’t face facts.”

“Good night, Sid.” Exasperated, I slammed the door shut behind me.

It was so stupid. I couldn’t figure out for the life of me why Sid was so jealous of George.

Both Nick and Darby went to early mass with me the next morning. Mae and Neil and company arrived at the house shortly before we got back. They took off with Darby, leaving Sid, Nick and me at the house. It was a quiet, but awkward day, with Sid and Nick avoiding anything related to the future like the plague.

Sid finally drove us to the airport around three that afternoon. I was flying up to the Bay area with Nick because Rachel had somehow manipulated me into it. There was no way I was going to let Sid go up there.

Just before we got on the plane, Sid handed Nick a piece of paper.

“That’s my phone number,” said Sid. “Feel free to call me at any time.”

“Thanks,” said Nick. He blurted out his. “That’s my number. Can you remember that?”

Sid smiled. “Sure.”

“Great.” There was a pause. “See ya.”

“See ya.”

I sighed. It was a start.

The flight was uneventful. But there was no one waiting for us at the gate. Nick sighed.

“Mom probably got called in to work,” he said.

“Does this happen often?” I asked.

He shrugged.

I rented a car and drove us to Sunnyvale. Nick lived with his mom in a decent-sized tract house with a half-timbered exterior in a gated community, definitely upper-middle class surroundings.

Nick had his own keys and let us in. No one was home. There was a note on the kitchen counter. Nick read it.

“She got called in,” he said. “Car accident.”

“So now what?” I asked.

“You can take off, I guess.”

“I can’t leave you alone.”

“It’s no big deal. Mrs. Coffey’s next door. I can call her if there’s a problem.”

“But…”

He shrugged. “I’ve stayed alone before. It’s no big deal.”

“It certainly is a big deal.” I pressed my lips together. I didn’t want to yell at Nick. I was certainly going to give Rachel a piece of my mind. “Do you know how to get to your mom’s hospital?”

“Yeah.”

“Let’s go.”

It was a fairly small community hospital, one story and all spread out like a ranch-style house. Nick took me straight past the admitting window to the back of the emergency room.

“Well, hello, Nicholas,” beamed one of the nurses. “How are you?”

“Great, Mavis.”

She looked at me. “May I help you?”

“She’s with me,” said Nick.

“I work for Nick’s father,” I said.

“Oh.” She turned to Nick. “Well, how do you like him?”

“He’s really cool.” He looked over at a curtained-off section.

“Your mom’s with a patient right now,” said Mavis.

A string of the foulest language I’d heard a long time burst out of the curtained area.

“Three-o silk!” hollered Rachel’s voice between cuss words. “Damn it, stat! Come on, baby, hold on. Clamp it! Clamp it!”

Rachel went on in that vein for some minutes longer until whatever bleeding was under control. Then she hooted and laughed loudly.

“Okay, let’s take him home, team.”

Mavis entered the area and spoke softly. Rachel laughed again.

“Great!” she said loudly. “Hey, Nicholas, how are you, honey?”

“Fine, Mom.”

“Hang on, sweetie. I’ll be done in a few.” There was a pause. “Nah. He was at his father’s. What a piece that guy is… Oh no, he’s okay. Loaded, too… Hell, no. The way he ran when he heard I was p.g.? He couldn’t take off fast enough… I figured it was time Nicholas knew where he came from… They seem to like each other. Nicholas sure liked that girlfriend of his. She supposedly works for him… Yeah, service industry. She can have him… I will say this for him, he is damn good in bed. Hooo, baby. About as hot as they come.”

Rachel managed to turn the volume down after that. I steamed. Nick seemed puzzled.

“Lisa, I thought you said you’re not his girlfriend.”

“I’m not. A lot of people think I am because we’re such good friends and they don’t understand that.”

Rachel finally emerged from the area, in surgical scrubs, masked and gloved. Blood covered everything. She yanked off the gloves, then pulled her mask down and untied her gown with one hand while she signed a clipboard on a nearby counter with the other. With the gown and gloves stuffed into a nearby barrel, she turned to Nick.

“Hey, it’s my main man,” she crowed.

Nick ran and bounded into her arms. She took the hug awkwardly at first, then returned it.

“I am so glad to see you,” she told him. “I can’t believe how much I missed you.”

“I missed you, too, Mom.”

“Did you have a good week?”

“It was great!”

A gurney emerged from the curtain area. With one arm around Nick, Rachel stopped the orderlies and softly touched the cheek of the young man asleep on the gurney.

“You’re gonna make it, kid,” she said.

“Yeah,” said Nick. His eyes were glowing, and it was funny because although he didn’t look anything like his mother, you could tell these two were cut of the same cloth in many ways.

Rachel looked up and saw me. “Well. Thanks for bringing him by.”

“I wasn’t going to leave him at home by himself,” I said acidly.

“I’m afraid I don’t have a lot of options that way,” she replied.

“You don’t look like you’re living in poverty. You could hire a nanny.”

“I did. Five times in the last three months. The longest one lasted three weeks and then I caught her stealing out of my medical bag. Two couldn’t speak English well enough to tell me that Nicholas had a fever at school and needed me to come pick him up. The other two didn’t want to work nights, and guess what? People don’t get hurt on a nine to five basis. I’m an ER doctor. Weird hours come with the territory, but just try to find childcare that can accommodate that.”

I stepped back and swallowed. “I see.”

“Took a little air out of you, Miss High and Mighty, didn’t I?  You’ve got it easy. You don’t know what I’ve been through.”

“No, maybe I don’t. But you’re the one that decided not to tell Sid he had a kid on the way. You’re the one who chose to go it alone.” My voice rose, almost echoing. “And I don’t care what you tell the people around here, you and I both know you didn’t tell Nick’s father you were pregnant. And you and I both know he didn’t have a clue Nick existed until last weekend. And I don’t care how many people need you, your son needs you, too.” I took a deep breath and turned to Nick. “Listen, I’ve got to go. You can call me, too.”

“Great.” Nick bounded over and gave me a big hug.

“You take care now.”

“You, too.”

I tried not to glare at Rachel as I left.

I was a mess by the time I got home. Mae and company were still out. I found Sid in the library, playing Chopin. He was pretty angry when I told all that had happened.

“The problem is, she’s got a point about that childcare thing,” I groaned.

“She’s a doctor, Lisa. She isn’t exactly hurting financially.”

“Sid, she’s an emergency room doctor. She’s probably on salary, and being a woman, she’s probably not getting as much as a man, anyway. Most women doctors don’t. And even if money weren’t an issue, the options just aren’t out there.”

“There are always options,” said Sid. “And I’m sure Rachel’s got the bucks to find them.”

“Sid, there aren’t. Remember that nanny I interviewed for my child care article? She’s making fifty thousand a year and could make more just because there aren’t more people out there like her. Child care is almost impossible to find, especially for kids Nick’s age or to cover the hours Rachel works.” I sighed and shook my head. “She’s just so confusing. One minute, it seems like she doesn’t want him around, the next it’s like he’s the total focus of her life. It was so weird. The way she touched that man’s face, you could tell she really cared about him, and she really cared about Nick. But she’s such a… a…”

“Bitch.”

“Yeah.” I sank into one of the overstuffed chairs. “Did I tell you she’s still spreading that lie about you running out on her?”

“Yes.” He sighed. “Unfortunately, there’s not a whole hell of a lot we can do about it.”

“What about Nick?’

He shrugged. “The ball’s in their court. We’ll just have to wait and see. It’s not as though we don’t have other things to worry about.” The doorbell rang. “Like your nephew. That’s probably them now.”

It was. They didn’t stay long. It was a school night and the little ones were getting cranky. Nobody seemed happy about leaving, especially Darby. I held onto my tears long enough to tuck him into bed, then went to my own room and cried myself to sleep.

Chapter Seven

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

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

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

Ma grinned when she saw me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sid was in his, talking to the boys.

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

“Yes, sir,” they mumbled.

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

“Yes, sir,” they repeated.

“Then get going on them.”

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

“What happened?” I asked.

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

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

“No.”

“Then what were they up to?”

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

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

Sid finally looked up. “Yeah.”

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

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

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

“What took so long?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sid, are you sure..?”

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

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

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

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

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

This time it was Frank Lonnergan.

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

“I sure do. What’s up?”

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

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

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

I put my finger to my lips.

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

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

“Bring them along.”

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

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

“Oh, Frank, would you? Please?”

“What about Esther?”

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

“Sure, why?”

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

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

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

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

“Time?” I asked.

Sid held up six fingers.

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

“See you then.”

“Don’t be late.”

“I won’t.”

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

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

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

“True. Where to now?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Looks good.”

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

“What?” I hissed.

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

“Look familiar?” he asked.

“They were checking me out.”

“Did you see anybody?”

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” I hissed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sid looked behind us. “See anybody?”

I looked. “Nope.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, help.”

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

“Get your butt in here!”

“Which way?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Careful! That almost hit home.”

“Sorry.”

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

“My leg,” I whispered.

“What’s wrong?”

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

Sid softly cussed and grabbed my sweatshirt from the back.

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

“How?”

“Rock up and down.”

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

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

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

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

“No, not now!” groaned Sid.

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

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

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

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

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

“How does your leg look?” he asked.

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

“You up to date on your tetanus shot?”

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

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

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

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

“George was here, waiting for you.”

“What?”

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

I laughed. “How sweet.”

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

“He’s harmless.”

“Yeah, right.”

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

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

“But you are.”

“I am not.”

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

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

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

“I’m not either.”

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

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

“Yeah, right.”

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

“Sid, what’s going on?”

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

“Oh.” I felt my face getting hot.

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

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

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

“Our what?” I interrupted.

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

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

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

“Are you alright?” I asked.

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

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

“Sid, I’m willing to listen.”

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

“Good night, Sid.”

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

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

Margaret Mizushima and Why We Write

Margaret Mizushima

I met Margaret Mizushima last fall at Bouchercon and we had a delightful chat about how lovely it is to have supportive husbands (hers was helping her that day). Then we gently teased him as a member of the Long-Suffering Spouses Club, a term coined by my husband, who has trailed after me to any number of events. Margaret is the author of the Timber Creek K-9 Series and she offered to write about the why of it all.

I once heard a story at a writers’ conference that might provide an answer as to why we writers are compelled to write. Although I can’t recall who told the story, it has stayed with me for over a decade. Here it is:

Once upon a time, a writer died and met St. Peter at the Pearly Gates. The good saint told the writer that he wanted to show her a view of heaven and of hell before he sent her on her way. The first stop was hell. She entered a room filled with row upon row of desks where writers were hunched over computers. Whips cracked overhead, mugs of steaming hot coffee spilled, splashing onto keyboards making them hiss and sizzle. Writers tore at their hair and stared at blank screens with tortured expressions on their faces.

The poor writer was appalled, thinking hell looked a lot like her own office. She shuddered and asked if she could get a glimpse of heaven.

St. Peter led her to the next room. There sat row upon row of desks where writers were hunched over computers. Whips cracked overhead, and mugs of steaming hot coffee spilled, splashing onto keyboards making them hiss and sizzle. Writers tore at their hair and stared at blanks screens, tortured expressions on their faces.

The writer gasped. “But this looks exactly like hell.”

St. Peter smiled. “Ah, but you see…these writers are published.”

So is getting published the answer to why we write? I thing the answer isn’t that simple, because many of us journal everyday, never expecting or wanting to share our words with anyone. Sometimes writing in a journal merely clears our heads; it’s therapeutic. Or we might write for a small group of family or close friends, such as when we want to share our memoirs or a cookbook of family recipes.

But overall, I would guess that most of us write because we have thoughts we want to share with others, including the public. For me, I write because I want to tell stories that entertain people, to give them a get-away from their daily routine or respite from the stresses of everyday living.

I write the Timber Creek K-9 mysteries, which feature Deputy Mattie Cobb, her K-9 partner Robo, and veterinarian Cole Walker. I like to weave a suspenseful mystery around themes that are important to me: family, the animal-human bond, relationships, and social issues. I love my characters and the story world they live in, and the messages included in each episode continue to motivate me, even when the writing gets hard.

Hemmingway once said, “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” It’s true—writing can be an arduous and lonely activity. Writers sit behind closed doors, alone at coffee shops, in office cubicles, or in other isolated places every day. Whether we’re driven to record our thoughts, inspired to share our ideas, or motivated to entertain others, it’s important to know the reason why we write. That reason can propel us through that tough first draft and keep us going through all the revisions that come afterward.

No matter what your reason…if you’re inspired to write, do it. Give yourself permission to write that awful first draft. Take writing classes or attend conferences. Seek out like-minded friends to form a critique group and to mingle with for encouragement.

Years ago, I pinned a quote on the wall beside my desk that has helped me through many rough times with my writing, and I hope it will help you as well. “Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now!” ~Goethe

Margaret’s latest, Burning Ridge, is available at Barnes and Noble, Kobo, and Amazon.

Chapter Six

February 15-16, 1984

Pull quote for the latest chapter of Fugue in A Minor Key, a cozy spy novel, or serialized mystery fiction.
Quote: The peace was shattered when I went to get ready for bed.

One of the ways Nick takes after Sid is that they are both very curious and very observant. Another is that neither of them is above a good practical joke.

Wednesday morning, the boys were giggling as I staggered to the front door for our run. Sid was watching them with a glare that said he knew darned well something was up and was only waiting until things blew up to give them hell.

Only first, the boys nearly fell over a vase of red roses on the porch. Darby looked at the card.

“They’re for you, Aunt Lisa.” He handed me the vase.

I blushed. “Sid, you didn’t.”

“You’re right,” he chuckled. “I didn’t.”

“What?” Puzzled, I opened the card and really blushed.

“El Amador?” Sid asked with a mischievous grin.

“Yes,” I replied.

“Who’s he?” asked Nick.

“Lisa’s boyfriend,” said Sid.

“You got a boyfriend, Aunt Lisa?” asked Darby excitedly.

“His name is George Hernandez, and we’re just dating.” I put the vase in a corner on the porch.

“Come on, let’s start stretching out, guys,” said Sid.

Later, at breakfast, the boys giggled every time I let out a yawn, which was more often than usual because I hadn’t slept very well the night before. As we finished, Sid neatly folded the paper, then glared at the boys.

“I’d like to know what you two have been up to,” Sid asked quietly. “And I wonder if it happens to have anything to do with why the intercom in my bedroom was on this morning.”

It finally sank in through all the fuzzy sleepiness.

“You little brats!” I snapped.

The boys roared with laughter.

“Gentlemen.” Sid’s voice, calm but sharp, silenced them. “What exactly did you do last night?”

Darby and Nick looked at each other.

“It was Nick’s idea,” said Darby.

“You’re the one who told me about him talking in his sleep,” said Nick.

“You’re the one that was playing with the intercom.”

“What did you do?” Sid pressed.

“They broadcast your nightly monologue into my bedroom,” I replied. “It woke me up at two fifteen this morning.”

“I see.” Sid turned to the boys. “That was extremely rude. You boys owe Lisa an apology.”

“I’m sorry,” mumbled Darby.

“I’m sorry,” Nick echoed.

“Apology accepted,” I said.

“Very well.” Sid took his napkin from his lap and put it next to his plate. “There will be no further disturbances of anybody’s rest in this house, aside from legitimate emergencies.”

“Or nightmares,” I added quickly.

“Or nightmares.” Sid looked at the boys. “Is that clear?”

“Yes, sir,” said Nick.

“Yes, sir,” said Darby.

Sid got up. “Good. Shall we get to work?”

The boys shuffled off to the rumpus room, where their schoolwork was, and Sid and I went to the office.

Around ten that morning, the doorbell rang and George was there.

“I was going to call,” I told him as he came into the hall. “But you sleep so late, I was afraid I’d wake you.”

“What’s been going on?” he asked. George was tall and broad-shouldered, kind of like an over-sized teddy bear with Aztec features. He didn’t have a regular job because he was from a wealthy family and was very invested in his art photography.

“All you-know-what has broken loose again. I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to call you about the other night.”

Nick came tearing through the hall from the rumpus room.

“Forgot something in my room,” he explained as he rushed past.

“Fat chance,” I muttered, blushing.

George’s mouth hung open. “You know who that kid looks like?”

“That’s a good part of the you-know-what,” I said. “It’s really been crazy, George.”

“I’ll bet.” He grinned his cute shy grin. “You haven’t forgotten about Saturday night, have you? Mom’s really looking forward to it. She was so disappointed Friday.”

I nodded. “Well, you know how things come up for me. By the way, thank you for the roses. They’re gorgeous.”

“They’re not as gorgeous as you.”

“George, you’re embarrassing me. Listen, I’ve got a ton of work to do.”

“Oh. I was hoping you could come to lunch.”

“It’s only ten and I’ve got work to do. I’ll see you later, okay?”

I reached up and gave him a warm, cuddly kiss, only to hear giggling in the background. As I whirled around, I caught a flash of dark hair ducking into the library.

“Nicholas! Into the rumpus room. Now.”

Slumping, he stomped out of the library, walked past me, then ran to the rumpus room. As soon as I was sure he was gone, I turned back to George.

“Is he..?” George asked.

“Sid’s? I’ll eat my hat if he isn’t.”

“I didn’t know Sid was married before.”

I chuckled weakly. “He wasn’t.”

“Oh.” George shrugged, then scooped me into a big hug and kiss.

I finally had to push myself away to get him out the front door. Back in my office, Sid was waiting.

“Don’t you have a rewrite on that stock market piece to do?” I grumbled.

“Mm-hmm. What was George here for?” Sid idly looked over a printout.

I shrugged. “He said he wanted to go to lunch. He was probably worried. We were supposed to go to dinner the other night before bible study and I forgot to cancel it. And he reminded me about going out to his folks’ place Saturday night. Speaking of that, can I count on you to watch the boys then?”

“Sure. He’s got wedding bells on the brain, you know.”

“So what? What about that stock market rewrite?”

Sid dropped the print out on my desk. “All done. Listen, I’ve got to go to lunch with Henry.”

“Lunch? That’s different.”

“He’s bugged about something.”

I motioned towards Sid’s office, then checked the hallway for spying boys.

“We’ve got to set up a second buy on that defense plant thing,” I said once Sid’s office door was shut.

“Well, we don’t want to be too eager. Why don’t we wait until after we plant those bugs? Who knows, we might even catch something.”

“True. What time are you going to be back?”

“Around one, one thirty. Why?”

“Mail. And you’ve got a check to sign if you want to keep the phones on. I should have it all together by the time you get back.”

“Great.” He paused, then headed out. “I’ve got a couple errands to run before lunch. I’ll see you later.”

[Now, a couple things happened on that lunch with Henry that have a direct bearing on later events, and… Okay, I forgot to tell you about them. Let’s see…

We met at a restaurant up in Westwood Village, kind of noisy and very trendy. More of a social gathering type place, which was the point.

“We’re going to have to be really careful about what kind of contact we have,” Henry told me as soon as our food was in front of us.

“What do you mean?”

“We’ve got a leak in the office somewhere.”

“Yeah, that.”

Henry frowned. “You mean you know about it?”

“All I know is that someone is selling out.” I told him about our little escapade with Oscar Wright.

“Oh, hell.” Henry twiddled his fork and shook his head. “At least, that much is making sense.”

“You mean like how they found our people so fast?”

“Yes. And what one of our operatives found out before her cover was blown.”

“What?”

“That the ring is using outside help to keep tails on their people, intimidate them and sometimes rough them up a little.”

“Huh.” I thought it all over. “You know, two of the guys we talked to at the plant accused Wright of causing accidents or even making people disappear. They were joking, but I got the feeling that they didn’t think it was all that funny.”

“Interesting. There’s a rumor going around one of the plants that some employees are being forced to sell secrets by their co-workers.” Henry glared at his plate, then took a bite of salad. “We confirmed that those thugs Lisa phoned in Monday night were definitely professional hit men. Turns out they’re wanted in five states. But how much outside help the ring has been using, we have no way of knowing.”

I mulled that over. “That rumor might account for the large size of this ring. They must have something really good on those guys to keep them in line, or it’s one hell of a security risk.”

“I know. But a lot of the people there are scared. Now some of it is that company’s being bought out.”

“Yeah, I remember reading about that. Some private concern.”

Henry nodded. “Well, there’s a lot of talk about heads rolling, which is where the rumor comes in. People are getting scared about their jobs, and if heads do start rolling, a few discreet dismissals won’t be noticed.”

“That’s possible, I suppose. It still seems pretty risky.” I took a sip of water.

“Who knows?” Henry frowned. “And just to make things more complicated, CID is poking their noses in.”

I all but dropped my glass. “What the hell do the British have to do with this?”

“Beats me, but I’ve been informed that they have a couple agents on the case.”

“Something tells me I’m glad Lisa and I are working this one from the outside.”

“Well, don’t get too cocky. Your game seems to be the only shot we have at cracking this baby.”

I stared down at my lunch. “By the way, did you, uh, happen to get anything on that civilian I asked you about Monday?”

“That Flaherty thing? Not yet. You know, Sid, I wouldn’t for the world tell you how to run your life, but you might want to consider settling down. All these women, it could be asking for trouble, you know.”

“Henry, Henry, Henry.” I chuckled. “How many times have you made that little suggestion since I’ve known you?”

“I’m just concerned. You’re a good friend, and you’re damned good at what you do.”

“Well, Henry, I may just do as you suggest.” I leaned back in my chair.

Henry’s jaw dropped. “What? You mean you’re actually thinking about getting married?”

“Married? Hell, no. But I am going to ask Lisa to move into my bedroom.”

Henry laughed. “You think she’s really going to go for that.”

“If I do it right. She’s open to compromise.”

“I thought there wasn’t anything going on between you two.”

“It depends on what you call going on. She’s special, Henry. There’s something there.”

“I won’t argue with that.” Henry snorted good-naturedly. “But I’ve got a feeling you’re going to have to give up a whole lot more than closet space to get her to move in with you.”

“Probably. But it’s going to happen, I can guarantee that.”

“Uh-huh.”

“I’m serious. It’s just a matter of time.”

Henry chuckled. “I think you’re right, Sid. Your days as a bachelor are numbered.”

I shifted. “Henry, I’m not getting married. Lisa and I will just be lovers, that’s all.”

“Whatever you say, Sid.”

Of course, Henry had been after me to get married almost as long as I’d known him. But he did not know the situation like I did, or more accurately, like I wanted to think I did – SEH]

I had the mail opened and ready by the time Sid got back. He seemed pretty preoccupied, so I shut his office door when I brought it all in to him.

“What happened with Henry?” I asked.

Sid shrugged. “He’s pretty worried about that leak, and he was not happy to hear our version of it.”

“Why should he be?”

“I think he has a pretty good idea where it’s coming from, but no way to prove it.”

“Then he’ll nail it that much faster. We can’t do anything about it.”

“True.”

I put a check in front of him. “The phone bill. Also, Eric Watson over at Fortune called. They want the foreign car piece and they want it by the end of next week.”

“Slave drivers.”

“Here’s the outline. I’ll need it by next Tuesday, sooner if you don’t want to pay overnight shipping on it.”

“You’re not much better.” Sid signed the check for the phone and handed it back.

“The stock market piece is ready to go, you just have to sign the cover letter. And here are the corrections on your singles column.”

“Great. Anything else sneaking up on us?”

“Not really. I’ve more or less got the outline on the toxics piece laid out, with a few suggestions for interviews.” I laid another sheet in front of him. “I’ll leave you to write the query letter on it. I’ll need your column back by tomorrow. Also, we’ve got to rough out the draft for the defense plant piece.”

Sid grimaced. “I guess it wouldn’t do to let Ed and Janet get a bad rep. When’s that due?”

“First of March, but you’re paying me to keep you from letting things slide ’til the last minute.” I bit my lip. “One last thing, Nigel Friedman called back about Rachel. He said he’d be at this number for the rest of the afternoon.”

“Great.” Sid all but pounced on the message slip.

I slipped out of the office, leaving the door open. A few minutes later, I heard him slam the phone down. I was back in front of his desk in a second.

“What happened?”

Sid glared at the blank computer screen. “According to Nigel, Rachel was part of the organizing committee. She got to the party before five to help Nigel and his friends set up and was there well past midnight.”

“That no good-”

“Not necessarily,” cut in Sid. “Apparently, Rachel’s been working on this trauma center thing for a couple years now. It’s her big cause.”

“And she’s sacrificing Nick?”

“Hold on. That’s the problem. Nigel says that trauma centers have saved a huge number of lives. But they’re expensive as hell to run, and because Rachel was at that party Saturday, schmoozing and giving a talk, Nigel’s group met their goal and will be able to finance a center down in Watts, where they desperately need one. Nigel called her a hero and a life-saver.”

I flopped into the chair in front of the desk. “You mean, they might not have if she hadn’t been there.”

“Yep.”

“But what about Nick? What if I hadn’t asked him to the movies? He would have been alone all night in that motel room.”

Sid nodded. “Precisely. On the other hand, I can’t condemn Rachel for what she did.”

“Well, I can.” I sighed. “Maybe I can’t. I don’t know.”

“In any case, I don’t think we need to discuss it with the boys. There’s really not much we can do about it.”

“Not now, at any rate.”

Depressed, I went back to my office.

There really wasn’t much to be done about the situation. Sid was still trying to avoid the responsibility issues, and I certainly didn’t have any authority. I had interviews to transcribe anyway, so I concentrated on that for the rest of the day.

Thursday, Sid and I concentrated on writing. Sid and Darby got into a very in-depth discussion on music. Right around four, Sid took off to run an errand, coming back just in time for dinner. Then Sid and I had racquetball leagues.

We got back to the house by eight o’clock. Sid and Darby went straight to the library and the piano. Nick and I wandered in after them. Nick had a book and flopped into one of the deep burgundy overstuffed chairs. I got out my knitting.

“All I could find was a violin part for an orchestra version,” said Sid, pulling some sheet music off the piano.

“Here it is.” Darby pulled a sheet out of the folding rack on the floor. “Little Fugue in G Minor, by J.S. Bach.”

“Yeah. It’s an adapted piano score from the original organ music, but it ought to be alright with this violin part.” Sid traded sheet music with Darby. “Can you read that okay?”

Darby frowned. “Yeah, I think so.”

“Great. Why don’t you get tuned up?”

Darby got out his violin. It took them forever to get it tuned, and even then, they weren’t satisfied.

“I think it’s the piano,” said Darby.

Sid ran his fingers across the keys.

“You’re right.” He played one note against the other. “That A’s a little flat. Let me get my tools.”

He propped open the lid on the ebony grand and went for the box of tuning forks and wrenches.

Sid was dirt poor as a kid. His aunt, a former Julliard student, taught him to play, and while they’d always had a piano, paying for a professional tuner was out of the question. So Sid had learned to do it himself. He could pay for a whole crew now, but can’t find anyone who will do it to his satisfaction.

Darby hovered, fascinated as Sid went to work.

“Our piano’s really out of tune.”

“I know.” Sid grunted. “Hit that A, will you?”

Darby played the key. “I wish I could tune pianos.”

“You ought to learn. It’s a good way to make some extra bucks.”

“But how? Do I take lessons?”

“I suppose I could teach you. But you’d better learn to play a little better first. Try that A again.”

“I guess I could ask Mom and Dad if I could take lessons again. But they were boring.”

“You just need practice, Darby. A again, now the B.”

“The songs they give you are so stupid.”

“Hm. Try A and B again. I think I know the book to get for you. It’s a bunch of beginner exercises written by good old J.S. Bach. I don’t know. I think that peg’s loose. I’ll have to get the repairman in. Think you can live with it as it is?”

“Sure. Can you?”

“I’ve lived with worse.”

Nick looked up from his book. “I can’t hear anything wrong.”

Sid and Darby looked at each other and shook their heads.

“Don’t worry, Nick,” I said. “Neither can I.”

“You’re not trying, either,” said Sid.

Nick put his book down. “This is boring.”

“It’s not so bad,” I replied, my needles clicking peacefully away as Sid and Darby slowly worked their way through the fugue.

“What are you making?” asked Nick.

“A baby afghan for a friend.”

“What’s a afghan?”

“A sort of blanket that’s either crocheted or knitted.”

Nick pushed his glasses up on his nose. “Darby says you make sweaters.”

“I make all sorts of things.”

“Why?”

“Because I like to. It’s very relaxing.”

“Is it hard?”

“It can be. But I’ve been knitting for a long time.”

“You got a lot of needles.”

“They’re all different sizes, so I can do different things.” I stopped working a moment. “Would you like me to show you how?”

“But isn’t knitting for girls?”

“Why?”

Nick shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“Anyone can knit, Nick. It’s a matter of liking it, not whether you’re a boy or a girl.”

“Yeah. But the guys I know, they’re not so nice about stuff like that.”

“So don’t tell them. They’re the ones missing out.” I put down my afghan and picked up an empty pair of needles and a stray ball of yarn.

Nick sat at my feet. I bent over and showed him how to cast on. Sid and Darby plodded on through the fugue, debating the merit of adding a third part. I smiled, enjoying the peace.

The peace was shattered when I went to get ready for bed. As I pulled my nightgown from underneath my pillow, four spiders fell out of it. My scream was short but high-pitched and it apparently carried because shortly after I noticed that the spiders were rubber, Sid came running in.

“You alright?” he gasped.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” I said, chuckling. “It’s just the boys again.” I held up the spiders. “They didn’t disturb my rest.”

Sid grumbled and shook his head.

“It’s just youth,” I said. “Why don’t we just ignore it?”

“It’s up to you,” he said skeptically.

“Why give them the satisfaction?”

Sid nodded, then paused. He shook his head and left.

Chapter Five

February 14, 1984

mystery fiction, cozy spy novel, mystery fiction serial

Tuesday morning the sky was overcast. Sid had us eat breakfast first thing. We went over to the gym, partly because Sid figured the odds of it raining were pretty good and partly so I could walk on the indoor track while he and the boys ran on the roof as long as it stayed dry. My back was feeling better, but there was no point in pushing it.

The boys were ecstatic about the plans for the day. They chattered noisily all the way to Orange County. Mae fussed because Sid and I were in business wear, but we told her we had a change of clothes in the car.

Sid’s and my appointment was at nine, so we only had about fifteen minutes to get over to the defense plant. Thanks to Sid’s lead foot, we made it with several minutes to spare. I was awed as we drove up.

“This place is humongous,” I said, as we cruised the parking lot looking for the building where our meeting was.

“Eleven thousand employees at this plant alone,” said Sid. “At least, that’s what our notes say.”

“Neil says at least a third of his patients work here.” Neil’s a dentist.

“No kidding.”

Sid and I were interviewing one of the suspects as Ed and Janet Donaldson, which was a little risky since we were from the area, but not as risky as letting a potential enemy know who we were. We also had a bona fide assignment from a national business magazine, which we’d gotten through normal channels. In the lobby, the security guard dialed Mr. Wright. Sid lounged against the desk watching the people coming into the plant, and the few coming out. They all wore badges with their pictures on them.

“Mr. Wright will be down in a minute,” said the guard, hanging up the phone. “Sir, can you come back here, please?”

This last was said to a man with a briefcase who was leaving. The man returned, yawning.

“Could you open your briefcase?” the guard asked.

“Oh, sorry. I forgot.” The man yawned again and opened up the case.

The guard looked at it quickly, then nodded. The man left.

“Mind if I ask a question?” said Sid. “How do you know if he’s removing secret documents or not?”

“I’m not looking for those. Just cameras and guns.” The guard looked at me. “I need to see inside your purse.”

I held up the monster and the guard glanced inside. As it happened, my model thirteen was in there somewhere, in a case that matched the purse’s lining. Sid chuckled. With all the junk I carry around, I could have hidden a cannon in there. [I have this deep suspicion your purse is that mysterious black hole to a different dimension whence go all the single socks that get lost in the washer, the ballpoint pens and paper clips that are never around when you need them and other such ephemera – SEH]

The guard went back to filling out paperwork from our alter egos’ driver’s licenses. He handed them back, then gave us each a bright red plastic badge about the size of a playing card.

“Wear these at all times in the plant,” said the guard. “The red means you can’t go anywhere without an escort.”

Sid and I glanced at each other with perfectly straight faces. Inside, we were both snickering. We have A-1 security clearances, which even the president can’t get. The highest clearance available at that plant was a C-1. Of course, the only problem with an A-1 clearance is that it’s for undercover espionage, and no one is supposed to know you have it.

As we clipped the badges to our suit jackets, Mr. Oscar Wright showed up. He was a pleasant looking fellow in his late forties, growing a belly and losing some hair. His suit was fairly expensive, but then he was an executive.

“It’s good to meet you folks,” he said as we shook hands.

At first, I thought I was imagining the shrewd once over he gave us. Being a spy, you get pretty paranoid. Then the guard handed Sid a clipboard.

“Need you two to sign in,” said the guard.

Mr. Wright dug a pen from his inside suit coat pocket.

“Here, why don’t you use mine?” he said, jovially.

“There’s one right here,” said Sid pleasantly as he took the pen off the clipboard. He signed and handed the clipboard and pen to me.

Mr. Wright pocketed his, chuckling. “What do you know?”

I signed and handed the clipboard and pen back to the guard. Wright gave Sid and me another funny look, sort of. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but there was something not quite right about him. He was a suspect, but I couldn’t think of any reason why he’d be suspicious of us. Since Sid and I had known for a while about the job to bug Wright’s office, we’d been working on the article we were writing for a couple weeks already and had even gotten in to see Wright through an executive from another company that we’d already interviewed.

“No touchies,” muttered Sid to me as we left the lobby.

Wright took us to his office. It was pretty nicely appointed, with a large modern wood desk, a couple bookshelves, and some nice prints on the walls. The metal secured file cabinet in the corner seemed a little tacky, but not surprising.

Wright went over to a coffee machine on a credenza next to the door and filled three porcelain mugs.

“Coffee?” he said, offering a mug to Sid.

“No thank you,” said Sid with a congenial smile. “I don’t drink coffee.”

“Oh. Mrs. Donaldson?”

“I’m afraid I’m not a coffee drinker, either, but thanks.”

“Why don’t we get down to business,” said Sid. “How long has this plant been operating?”

We talked for about half an hour, then Wright took us on a tour of the plant. I have a pretty good sense of direction, but I was pretty turned around in the labyrinth of hallways and buildings. There wasn’t too much manufacturing going on. The emphasis was on design work. There were lots of offices and laboratories filled with engineers who looked pretty busy.

We finished up with a demonstration of one of their less sensitive projects. It didn’t make any sense to me, and Sid’s eyes looked a little blank as he nodded in response. Michael Shepard, the young engineer giving the demo, was completely absorbed by his project and didn’t notice. I thought it a little odd that he was wearing a suit and tie. Hardly anyone else at the plant was besides Mr. Wright.

“Oscar?” asked a middle-aged woman as she hurried into the room. “I know you’re busy, but you’ve got to take care of this right away.”

Mr. Wright went over to her and they conferenced quietly in the doorway to the lab we were in. I noticed Michael watching them out of the corner of his eye.

Mr. Wright looked up. “Ed, Janet, why don’t you guys hang out here for a few minutes. I’ve got to take care of this, but I’ll be right back.”

He left. Michael audibly sighed in relief.

“Something wrong?” I asked.

“No. Not at all. Um. Any questions?”

Sid shook his head. “I don’t have any.”

“It went right over my head,” I said, grinning. “I’ve taken a couple classes, but anything more advanced than running the programs is beyond me.”

Michael laughed and went to another door. “Hey, Rick, come here.”

“What about those reporter people?” Rick wasn’t any older than Michael and dressed more casually in shirt and slacks.

“They’re here. Why don’t we tell them a little about what it’s really like to work here?”

“Wright will fry your butt!” Rick noticed us. “This is really a great place to work.”

“Keep an eye out for Wright,” said Michael. He laughed and flipped switches. “Watch this.”

Sure enough, he and the other engineers had designed a game for their project.

“It’s actually not a bad way to test it, and it’s sure a lot more fun,” said Rick.

“We like kicking back,” said Michael.

“I’m just curious,” said Sid. “I noticed everyone was pretty busy.”

Michael snorted. “That was Mr. Wright. He comes around, you look as busy as you can.”

“Wright’s not going to fire anybody,” said Rick. “But he can get you on some pretty sucky projects. Remember Lovett?”

Michael shook his head. “Wright caught him goofing off, and now all he does is heat testing. He lost six pounds his first week in the heat chambers.”

Rick swallowed. “Hey, you’re not going to use our names, or anything, are you? This isn’t for putting in your article.”

“Strictly off the record,” said Sid.

“We’re not writing about Mr. Wright, anyway,” I said.

The engineers relaxed.

“This place would be great if weren’t for Wright,” said Michael. “He’s always breathing down everybody’s neck.”

“And you never know when he’s going to change people around,” said Rick.

“You might even have an accident or disappear,” Michael said spookily.

The two men laughed, but there was a nervous edge to it.

“He’s a vice-president of project management,” said Sid. “What does that have to do with personnel?”

“He’s in charge of assigning who goes where,” said Rick. He straightened. “Here he comes!”

He dashed into the next room. Mr. Wright showed up, smiling apologetically.

“I’m terribly sorry about that,” he said. “We’ve had a little administrative problem.”

“What happened?” asked Sid.

“Nothing serious. My secretary didn’t come in today. I just found out she’s been in a car accident.”

“Oh, how awful,” I said.

“Yes, it is.” Mr. Wright ushered us out of the lab and back to his office. Sid and I made a mental note of the laboratory’s room number. “Is there anything else I can get either of you?”

“Not at the moment,” said Sid. “Do have you have any more questions, Janet?”

“No. Not now. We can call you if we have any others, can’t we?”

“Sure, sure. Be my guest.”

Sid checked his pocket watch. “I believe we have another appointment. I appreciate your time.”

“More than happy,” said Wright.

Smiling congenially, he escorted us back to the lobby. Wright watched as we gave our red badges to the security guard. The guard promptly handed them to a pair of salesmen waiting to get in. We shook hands with Mr. Wright and took off.

“Did you touch anything?” Sid asked as we got in his car.

“Nothing except my security badge.”

“You know, it’s interesting that he wanted our prints.”

“Or seemed to.”

Sid shook his head. “With that pen right on the clipboard and the way he poured the coffee, then offered it to us?”

“You’re probably right, but why would he want our prints?”

Sid chuckled. “That’s right. You haven’t been busted yet, have you?”

“I should hope not.”

“It happens. In any case, when our prints are run through, a little message comes up telling the officers to burn the file and cooperate fully with whatever we want, including letting us go. It doesn’t say anything about who we are, but it does peg us as undercover operatives. So, if Wright wants our prints, he has access to some official files, and that is how he found out so quickly about Wintergreen and whoever else was at that plant.”

“That’s right, and since he’s in charge of who’s assigned where, he knows who is new and where they are.”

“A big bingo for you.”

“Great.” I slumped in my seat. “Maybe we should have found a better cover for ourselves.”

“I think we’re okay. We didn’t make it obvious we were on to him, and we do have a legitimate assignment. He’s obviously pretty paranoid, but he can’t confirm anything. The worst he can do is wonder.”

“I suppose.” Sulking, I glanced out the car window as we passed a bank. “Good Lord, is it that late?”

“It’s not even ten thirty.”

“I wanted to meet Mae by eleven.”

“If I remember correctly, Disneyland is not all that far from here.”

“But we have to change clothes, then get parked and get to Sleeping Beauty’s castle, which is pretty much dead center in the park.”

“Alright.” Sid gunned the engine and missed running a red light by microseconds.

I held my breath. “Um, Sid, take Ball over to Harbor. It’s faster.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’ve been there tons of times and you haven’t been at all. Trust me for a change.”

I’ll never understand what this thing is that men have about directions. It’s one of the few times Sid behaves like a typical male, although he will own up to it. He says that it’s a control issue. How much in control can you be when you’re totally lost? [That’s not the point – SEH]

Anyway, we changed at a filling station and made it to the park in time to meet Mae and the girls at the castle drawbridge. Janey found us first, or rather, she found Sid first.

“Uncle Sid!” she hollered, running at him.

He bent and got his own special hug and kiss.

“How’s my favorite girlfriend?” he asked.

“Real good, Uncle Sid.” Janey grabbed his hand as he straightened and led him to where Mae and Ellen were sitting on a bench.

Ellen ran over and attached herself to Sid’s leg. I plopped down next to Mae as Sid tried to keep up with the girls’ chatter.

“Ellen’s too big for the leg routine,” I told Mae softly.

“I know, but I don’t know how to tell her.”

“I suppose we ought to let Sid find a way. He usually does.” I looked at her. “You seem tired.”

“I’m not bad. But I am so glad you guys are here. Don’t get me wrong. I like Nick. He’s a very sweet boy.”

“You noticed he’s active.” I grinned.

Mae looked at me. “He’s the first person I’ve ever met who could keep up with both of the twins together.”

I laughed. “Speaking of, where are they?”

“The bathrooms. The twins had to go. They should be back any time now.”

Janey ran up.

“Can me and Ellen go to the toy store with Uncle Sid, please?” she asked. “Can we?”

“Sid.” Mae sent him a meaningful glare.

“It wasn’t my idea,” said Sid, oh-so-innocently.

“I’ll bet.” Mae folded her arms. “I don’t want you-”

“I’m not making any promises, Mae.”

We all knew he couldn’t. Mae has this thing about Sid spoiling the kids. Part of it’s because she doesn’t want the kids turning into monsters and taking Sid for a ride. But the other part of it is that Sid is loaded and while Neil’s doing pretty well, he’s a ways from Sid’s tax bracket.

Sid’s problem that way is Janey. He has a serious weakness for the cow-eyed routine, and Janey’s eyes are huge and hazel. If she wants something, she gets it.

“Just remember,” warned Mae. “If you buy it, you carry it all afternoon.”

“No problem,” said Sid with a grin that said he’d already thought of a way around the portage problem.

“We’ll meet you over there when the boys get back,” I said.

“See you in a few.” Sid ambled off into the castle, holding each girl by the hand.

Mae shook her head.

“Well?” I asked with a grin.

“Well, what?” Mae asked.

“What do you think about Nick?”

Mae sniggered. “I told you. I think he’s very sweet.”

“And…”

“Did Sid get caught or what?” Mae laughed hard. “It’s incredible how much they’re alike, and it’s not just the looks. They’ve both got this… I don’t know, air about them.”

“Gentleness. They’re both very gentle.”

“Gentle, huh?” Mae smirked.

“Mae! I just work with him. We’re good friends. That’s it.”

“I’m sorry, baby sis. I keep forgetting you’re sensitive about that.”

“Wouldn’t you be?”

“Maybe. But I wouldn’t worry. You’ll get him to the altar yet.”

I glared. “Did it ever occur to you that maybe I do not want to marry him?”

“Why on earth not?”

“I don’t want to get married period. Not to Sid, not to anyone.”

“If you say so.”

“Mae, I do not want to get married. I’m very happy as a single person, and I intend to stay that way, and even if I change my mind, the very last person I would want to marry is Sid, if for no other reason than that he is not in the least bit interested in getting married himself.”

“I believe you.” The corners of Mae’s mouth twitched.

“Yeah, right. How’s it been going with Darby?”

Mae sighed. “He was pretty happy to see us, but at the same time, he was nervous and tense. He didn’t relax until we got on the freeway.” She sniffed. “I just feel like I’ve failed him somehow, and I haven’t the faintest idea what I’ve done wrong.”

“Mae, you haven’t done anything wrong.” I put my arm around her. “Whatever Darby’s grappling with, we’ll shake it loose sooner or later.”

“I just wish he trusted me more.”

“Maybe he’s afraid of hurting you. That’d be like him. But whatever it is, we’ll get it taken care of. Here they come now. It’ll be alright.”

“Thanks, Lisa.” Mae gave me a squeeze and put on a smile.

All four boys were happy to see me and demanded hugs and kisses.

“Where’s Uncle Sid?” asked Marty.

“In the toy store with the girls.”

Marty and Mitch shouted their approval, bouncing up and down with joy. Well, Uncle Sid and Janey is a better combination than Santa Claus and Christmas Eve. When Janey gets something, the other kids do too.

“Let’s go!” hollered Darby.

He tugged at Nick’s arm. Nick followed, puzzled. Mae and I sighed and followed, with the twins pulling us on.

Nick was quickly indoctrinated into the art of shaking Sid down for goodies. It can be a rather subtle song and dance. Janey, unlike her siblings, will not take advantage of Sid, and also unlike her siblings, she knows how far she can push him, which is probably why she gets away with as much as she does.

The toy store must have been part of the preliminary investigation because nobody got anything. Ellen wanted to go on the Snow White ride but was worried because it was scary. Janey blinked twice and got Uncle Sid to take them. When they got off, Mitch said he was hungry. Janey blinked again and got Uncle Sid to take them to the nearest hamburger stand. And that’s basically how things went the whole afternoon.

Nick made his fatal error around three by trying to get some popcorn directly from Sid.

“I don’t think so,” Sid replied.

“Why not?” demanded Nick.

“You don’t need it. You’ve eaten enough junk today.”

Nick pouted. “Aw, come on.”

“I said no.”

“That’s not fair.”

Sid stopped and glared at Nick. “That is not the issue.”

Nick went into a full-blown sulk and stomped off towards the line for Pirates of the Caribbean. Sid looked at me for help, but I didn’t know what to do either. Wouldn’t you know, Mae had taken the girls on the Mark Twain riverboat.

“Nick,” Sid called. “Come back here. We’ve got to wait for the others.”

Nick kept walking. Sid went after him.

“Young man, get back here now.”

Nick turned on him. “You can’t tell me what to do. You’re not my boss.”

Sid stepped back. The two pairs of bright blue eyes stared at each other.

“No, I’m not. But…” Sid took a deep breath. I couldn’t help wondering if he’d actually say he was Nick’s father. “But your mother left you in my care, and I most certainly can tell you what to do.”

I bit my lip, trying to hide my disappointment. Nick, on the other hand, seemed relieved. He stomped back and tried to stay sullen just to make his point. It lasted all of one minute. He pulled Darby and the twins to the rail next to the water as the big white boat came around and they waved at Janey, Mae, and Ellen.

When they got off the boat, Janey did her blinking routine and we all got popcorn. Then Darby tried to pull me to the shooting gallery. I balked.

I used to shoot skeet with my father, but since guns became weapons, I’ve lost my taste for recreational shooting.

“Come on, Aunt Lisa,” Darby begged. “You should see her, Nick. She’s really good.”

“You are? Wow. Can you show me how?” Nick’s eyes glowed.

I swallowed. “No, thanks. I’ll pass.”

“Why not?” asked Mae, puzzled.

“I don’t think I should be encouraging the kids that way. This isn’t Tahoe.”

Mae frowned. “Since when have you gotten so down on guns?”

“I suspect Lisa has picked up my distaste for firearms,” said Sid solemnly. He wasn’t looking too thrilled with the kids’ interest in the shooting gallery, either.

“For what?” asked Janey.

“Guns,” said Darby.

Janey glared at him.

“Why don’t you like guns?” Nick asked Sid.

Sid took a deep breath. “When you’ve had to shoot people, you get to dislike guns real fast.”

“Huh?”

“He was in Vietnam,” Darby hissed.

“Wow! Really?”

“Unfortunately.” Sid shifted. “Where to now?”

“Wow, that’s neat,” said Nick. “You got any-  Ow! Janey, what are you poking me for?”

I had to suppress my laughter. Sid seemed more unsettled than usual. His army days are something he almost never talks about. Mae caught it, too, and got that determined look on her face, as if she was going to pry him open.

I wanted to intervene but couldn’t figure out how. If I’d confronted her, she wouldn’t have admitted it and would only have gotten on my case about how withdrawn I was. I didn’t need that.

As it turned out, Mae didn’t get anywhere. Sid is a master of evasion when he doesn’t want to talk about something. But he and Mae did sort of stick together, possibly finding some unspoken comfort in each other’s emotional distress.

In Tomorrowland, as the sun was setting, Janey blinked and got Sid to ride with her on the “Adventure Through Inner Space.” She tried to get me to go with them, but I insisted the ride was a total bore and went shopping in the store where the ride lets out.

Sid came off with a mischievous grin.

“Okay, which is it?” he said softly to me as I looked over a pile of t-shirts. “Fond memories or you don’t trust me in the dark?”

I blushed. “His name was Fred Walsh. We met here at Grad Night. He was a Mater Dei graduate, he went on to the seminary that fall, and there’s no way I’d trust you in the dark.”

Sid nodded. “I’d like to cry slander, but there is a great deal of truth in what you say.”

His eyes and his smile caught me. Blushing even more furiously, I tried to move away and succeeded in toppling the stack of t-shirts. Sid laughed and helped me put things right.

The twins were getting cranky by the time six thirty rolled around, and a heavy mist fell around us. Still, the children protested loudly when Mae announced that it was time to go. We parted ways at the tram stop. Darby took a long time saying goodbye to his mother. Then the tram came. Mae had parked within walking distance and watched sadly as Darby boarded with Sid, Nick and me.

Real raindrops fell as we got onto the freeway. The car was warm and cozy with the defroster going. The boys chattered happily about their day as Sid wound his way through the traffic. We just barely made it to the gym in time for our league games.

Most of the women in my Tuesday night racquetball league were still there. I played Marlene Ramsey and lost the match in two games. I’d expected it. I’d only joined the C league because you’re supposed to play above your level to get better, and my friends, Karen Jones and Mindy Robertson, had joined. Thursday night, the three of us were tearing up the novice plus league.

After the match, Karen and Mindy talked Marlene into sticking around and we played doubles. The game went on a while, and by the time Mindy and Karen had lost, Karen decided she was exhausted. So, the four of us ambled into the courtside lounge.

There are two glass-walled courts along the one end which are generally reserved for the A and B level players. They’re called the challenge courts, and mostly guys hang around waiting their turn to play with whoever’s currently winning.

Karen checked out the courts, then nudged Marlene.

“The babe is here,” she teased.

Marlene, Mindy and I all checked out the A level court. Sure enough, Sid was in there, breathing heavily and shaking sweat all over the place. Marlene and Karen are both happily married and not interested in cheating. They just like teasing each other about checking out Sid, and he is good looking.

Sid was playing Steve Wilbur, who is my doubles partner on Saturday mornings. He and Sid were beating too many people in that league, so they were told to handicap themselves with less able players or not to play. Steve picked me because he has a crush on me, or so Sid says. Steve’s pretty cute, but he’s never said anything to me about liking me.

My three friends and I got drinks at the snack bar and settled at a table with a good view of the A court. Lorna Mornavian, the club pro, wandered by and Mindy asked her to join us. She flopped into a chair, then glanced at the court.

“You girls checking out Sid again?” she said, grinning.

The others blushed while I shrugged. People at the gym don’t know how close Sid and I are because they haven’t asked, and we’ve never volunteered the information.

Lorna shook her head. “His game’s off tonight. I kicked his butt in league.”

On the court, Sid sent a ceiling shot into the floor in front of the wall and angrily pounded the glass with the butt of his racket.

“I wonder why,” said Mindy thoughtfully.

Marlene let out a deep rolling laugh. “You’ll never believe what I saw in the kid’s room when I dropped Wallis off.”

“What?” The women were all ears.

“A kid that looks just like him.”

The others gasped. I sat back and held my tongue.

“I didn’t know he had kids,” said Karen. “I thought he was single.”

“That doesn’t mean he can’t have kids,” said Mindy.

“He’s been fixed,” said Lorna.

Karen pounced. “Are you serious? How do you know?”

“Guess,” sniggered Lorna.

Marlene’s jaw dropped. “Lorna, you haven’t!”

“Rumor has it, he’s pretty loose,” said Mindy.

Lorna snorted. “You said it, but so am I, so it’s okay.”

“Lorna,” groaned Marlene.

“So, is he as sexy as he looks?” giggled Karen.

“Is he?” Lorna laughed and panted. “Scream City, I swear. He is so good in bed.”

“How long have you been doing it?” Karen pressed.

“Geez, since I got here,” said Lorna. “Mick Dremmer had a party and we clicked. I mean, it’s not like we’re dating. The urge just hits sometimes and we go for it.”

“I’m shocked,” said Marlene.

Karen shoved her. “Don’t be such a prude.”

“Well, I prefer a relationship, myself,” said Mindy, gazing at the court. “But I could go for him, maybe.”

Karen grinned at me. “What about you, Lisa?”

I shrugged. “I’ll stay on the straight and narrow.”

Sid served the ball, a low, mean one to Steve’s backhand. Steve dove and missed it. The two men shook hands, then Steve left the court. Sid only went to the door, got a towel from his bag and wiped his face and neck. His hair glistened with moisture, but it was still perfectly neat.

“Who’s next?” he demanded.

“I am,” said Lorna, getting up. “Don’t you want to rest first?”

Sid shook his head and retreated into the court. Steve came over to our table.

“Watch out,” he told Lorna. “He is in one foul mood.”

Lorna twirled her racket. “I can handle him.”

Steve waited until Lorna was gone, then sank into her chair.

“What’s going on?” asked Karen.

“Beats me,” said Steve. “Lorna beats him all the time, so I don’t think it was that. He seemed fine until I showed him that singles article in the newspaper.”

“What article?” I asked.

“It was just this little blurb on this new club.” Steve shrugged. “I wanted to know if he’d been there. He said the club was okay.”

I looked at Sid again. He was in a foul mood. I wondered what had been in the paper that had upset him. I didn’t think it was the club he’d just done his article on. On Our Own and the newspaper are in two separate markets, so he wasn’t getting scooped.

Steve got up to get something from the snack bar and I followed.

“You got that paper still?” I asked softly.

“Sure.” Steve went over to his bag and handed me the section.

“Where’s the article that got Sid upset?” I asked.

Steve folded the paper back. “Right here. Why do you want to know?”

“Just curious.”

I scanned the page. The club article was benign. The picture next to it belonged to another article, and I saw why Sid was so angry. Dr. Rachel Flaherty and a couple other charity types were prominently displayed at a fundraiser for a trauma center that had taken place the previous Saturday night. So, Rachel had been out, and by that point, I was certain she hadn’t been in the room when I’d picked Nick up and left him off.

“Hm,” I said, but inside I was seriously steamed.

Inside the court, Sid lobbed one only to have it slammed into a corner by Lorna. He shook his head as she got ready to serve again. Some minutes later, he left the court. He nodded at me, then picked up his bag and stalked to the locker room. I got up, yawned and said goodnight.

The boys were still pretty excited about their day, but they were plenty tired, too. They didn’t notice Sid’s foul frame of mind as he said goodnight. I tucked them in, then headed for the library. Sid was at the piano, glaring at the keys.

“I saw Steve’s paper,” I said.

Sid nodded. “We don’t know anything for sure. Just because she was at that party doesn’t mean she wasn’t in the room when you were at the hotel. It’s possible she just took advantage of the fact that you were taking Nick.”

“But neither of us believes that, and how are we going to find out? I don’t want to question Nick. You can’t afford to get between him and his mother.”

“As usual, my dear, you have outlined the difficulty precisely.” Sid put his hands on the keys, then took them off. “Actually, I do know how to find out. Nigel Friedman was probably there. He’s been fundraising for that hospital for years. I’ll give him a buzz tomorrow.”

Sid glanced at me, then picked up a Beethoven sonata from the stack of sheet music on the top of the piano. He studied it for a moment, then began playing. I went to my room and found another problem waiting for me on my answering machine.

“Lisa, it’s George,” said the tape. “Where are you? I thought we were going to dinner tonight before bible study.”

I groaned and looked at my watch. It was too close to eleven to call. I got a book and got ready for bed.

Zero Waste: The Pragmatic View

A couple, three weeks ago, I saw a blog post entitled “Zero Waste in 30 Days.” So, I read it. I am, after all, working my way toward reducing waste as much as I can. And the plan will massively reduce the waste you generate.

There was only one problem. It was grossly impractical and difficult to implement. Take bread, for example. Your options were to bake your own or run all over town to find a bakery that will put your bread into your own re-useable bag. And that’s assuming you have a store near you where you can get your flour out of the bulk bins.

Now, I do bake my own bread and I am making an effort to bake it more often so that I don’t bring more single-use plastic into the house and into the waste stream. But the part they don’t tell you is that while baking your own bread isn’t that hard or even that time-consuming, it can be a real drag to do week in and week out. I know. I’ve done it. And it does become yet another drain on what time you do have.

I am very happy to see all the efforts to reduce waste, but things like Zero Waste (in caps) worry me. It’s too much all or nothing, and when it comes to things like reducing waste – a much needed part of environmentally sound living – absolute Zero Waste is not exactly realistic. Nor is it all that easy.

Reducing waste is hard. We have all that plastic and other throw-aways because they make life easier. People aren’t going to want to do things that make their lives harder – they have enough going on as it is. Also, people don’t like feeling guilty, and Zero Waste sets you up for guilt in a big way, because you’re going to throw something out.

I’m afraid people are going to see Zero Waste as too hard and/or too guilt-inducing and give up on even trying to reduce waste.

Another thing I’m seeing with the Zero Waste thing is elitism starting to happen. And that is a very bad thing for reducing waste. Consider, vegans are their own worst enemies when it comes to their cause because so many (not all) of them are so incredibly self-righteous (much like evangelical Christians, I might add). There’s a Buy Nothing group in our area, and I happened to overhear how some in the group were getting pissy because someone else had bought something. That is not a group I want to be involved in.

The problem is that it’s Zero Waste, it’s Buy Nothing. It’s the extremes that both those ideas imply, and the zealotry that extremes tend to generate. Yet neither is particularly practical – there are things I have to buy, such as the flour to make my bread. There will be some waste no matter what I do because jars break, note paper gets written on, paper tissues become necessary. And zealotry means if I’m not completely committed to Zero Waste, then I’m not committed. But when it’s all or nothing, guess what? I do nothing, as do most people.

Let’s try this instead. Let’s start looking at reducing waste as a process. You’re not going to be even mostly waste-free overnight. You’re not even going to do it in 30 days. It’s going to take time. And that’s okay.

Even better, rather than just a few of us going completely waste-free, wouldn’t we reduce a lot more waste if we encouraged people to reduce waste bit by bit? We’ve reduced plastic grocery bags by an enormous amount, and now, cities in California, at least, are banning plastic straws. Let’s just not forget that people with certain disabilities need them to drink stuff and not judge when we someone drinking with one. We can work on plastic tops and cups next.

I’m not saying stop your own efforts to get as close to Zero Waste as possible. I’m doing the same. But I also realize that I’m not going to do it as well as someone else, nor are you, and maybe we ought to focus on encouraging a larger group to do a little, rather than insist that everyone do a lot.

Chapter Four

Fugue in a Minor Key is the fourth book in the Operation Quickline series, featuring Lisa Wycherly and Sid Hackbirn. Like the others, I’m posting it as a serial first. You can catch up with the earlier chapters by visiting its archive page.

February 13, 1984

cozy spy novel, mystery fiction serial

I have to give Nick credit – he did keep pace with us Monday morning as we went on our run. He also behaved very nicely over breakfast, although he wasn’t happy when I insisted that he do the same school work that Darby had been assigned. It took some negotiation, but I got both boys working in the library.

By the time I got to the office, Sid was on his way out.

“The drop from the zoo,” he explained. “I shouldn’t be too long.”

I nodded. The green five branch was based in Pasadena, which wasn’t all that bad, as far as driving was concerned. Sid left and I went to work.

My first task, however, was to get Nick’s school work, which meant calling Rachel. She had already called Nick’s school and agreed to ship his books overnight. Fortunately, both Nick and Darby had mostly the same books and were in pretty much in sync as far as what they were doing. It still took another half hour getting the boys re-settled and each doing his own school work

Then there were Sid’s first drafts that had to be edited – he’s very good at organizing a story and his writing flows very nicely, but his grammar, spelling, and punctuation are pretty grim. I popped the floppy disk that Sid had left on my desk into my computer, pulled up his stock market story and went to work.

I wasn’t even half-way done when the boys came running into my office, squabbling about who would use which book to do what. I probably should have let them settle it, themselves, but instead, I wasted more time by working through a plan for them.

In the middle of all that, Sid came back, acknowledged the peace process and headed straight for his office. I must have taken longer than I thought with the boys because Sid was waiting for me when I got back to my desk

“We need to talk,” he announced from the door of his office.

I sighed. “Can I finish your draft, first?”

Sid winced, then shook his head.

I followed him into his office and shut the door behind me.

“You’ve got a meeting tonight,” he said.

“When did that come through?”

“Just now. You’re meeting Wintergreen at a bar in Brea.”

I mused. “That’s not far from that defense plant we’re visiting tomorrow.”

“And I’m guessing that’s what the meeting’s about. Green Acre said today that Wintergreen has had a job there for a lot of years. Apparently, she’s the one who found out about the ring at the plant. But she can’t do a lot without blowing her cover.”

“That figures.” I sighed and looked back at the library. “I know it’s my turn to go out, but what about the boys?”

“That.” Sid shook his head. “It turns out I’m the wrong gender.”

“Huh?”

“Wintergreen thinks she’s being watched by people who know who she really is, so she’s going to one of her regular hangouts. One that is known for its dating scene.”

“Sounds perfect for you.” The light dawned. “Except….”

“I’m the wrong gender.”

I blushed. “She’s not expecting me to – you know.”

“Nah. She said she rarely picks people up, but it would look funny if she were talking to a man.”

“Well, it doesn’t sound too bad.”

“A lesbian bar?” Sid looked at me. “You’re not shocked?”

“Why? I’m not going there to pick anyone up.”

“That’s true.” Sid shook his head. He knew that I wasn’t bothered by homosexuality, even if my experience with lesbians was limited. “Well, any time after nine.”

“Okay.”

I wasn’t thrilled. It would mean I’d probably have to skip the teen Bible study, but no one was depending on me to do anything specific, so skipping was more of a nuisance than it was a problem. That, and George was expecting to see me that night, which meant I’d have to find an excuse, too.

“Oh. One other thing.” I held my breath because I knew Sid wasn’t going to like what was coming.

“Yes?”

“Um, Mae called last night, and we came up with something very nice for Nick’s birthday tomorrow.”

Sid looked at me. “And based on your tone at the moment, I’m guessing it’s not something I’m going to like.”

“Disneyland.”

“What about our meeting in the morning?”

“Mae will take the kids and we’ll meet them there later.”

“What about Janey and the others?”

“Mae’s bringing all of them.”

“Hm.” Sid thought it over and I could tell having Janey there mitigated a lot. “Well, I suppose it could be worse. Okay.”

“I’ll set it up.”

After that, it was pretty much a normal day. I debated calling George, but then thought it would make more sense if I just didn’t show at bible study.  I could always say that I had a last-minute meeting, which was certainly the truth.

As for the boys, I just told them that I had a meeting and let them think it was church-related. Which meant I had to leave the house by seven, but there was a mall nearby where I was to meet Wintergreen, so I decided to get my Valentine’s shopping done while I was at it.

The bar was in the old part of Brea. It was the sort of area that had once been the center of civic life but had gotten progressively seedier over the years. One of Mae’s friends lived in the area and I remembered her saying that the neighborhood had always been a little off but had really gone downhill since the mall had gone in a few years before.

The room was dim and smoky, with a long bar decorated by fuschia neon lights feebly glowing around the bottles on the wall. At the far end of the room, a band was setting up. It was mostly empty when I came in, and for a place that supposedly catered to lesbians, there were several guys in there, as well.

A lone woman was at the bar, smoking lazily, with a half-full glass and an ashtray in front of her. Her light-colored hair was cut short and the top half of her was wearing a suit jacket and shiny blouse with a floppy bow tie collar that she’d opened and left the long ends hanging loosely.

I sat down at the bar, a few stools down from the woman. Next to the ashtray was a roll of Lifesavers candy. The wrapper glowed vaguely greenish in the dim light. The bartender ambled over.

“Help you?” He was a slender guy and balding.

“Yeah,” I said almost breathlessly as I heaved my monster purse onto the stool next to me. “Do you know how to make a Red Hot Mama?”

“Uh, nope. Never heard of that one.” They almost never did.

Truth be told, I wasn’t entirely sure what one was, myself, just that it involved rum, cranberry juice, and club soda. But it was a convenient way to let someone else know who I was without letting the rest of the bar know.

“Oh,” I sighed. “What the heck. A Bloody Mary, extra spicy.”

Sure enough, the other woman chuckled as the bartender ambled off to make the drink.

“I’m impressed,” she said, stubbing out her cigarette. “Jimmy’s not easy to stump.”

I shrugged and smiled. “A friend of mine said she liked them.”

“First time here?” She tamped her cigarette pack, then popped a candy in her mouth.

“Yeah. I had a late meeting.”

And so forth and so on. We chit chatted for a good half hour before Wintergreen made her move, and even then, it was to move closer to me by only one stool. It wasn’t until we raucously started tearing apart some movie that she finally landed in the stool next to me.

Her chuckle was low and warm, as was her voice as she bent her head close to mine.

“You know I’m being watched,” she said, then raised her head to exhale a stream of smoke.

I smiled for the effect. “We heard.”

“I have no idea how Wright’s doing it, but he’s been on top of pretty much anybody that got sent in there.”

“I heard they can’t get anyone in undercover.”

“It gets better. He’s catching them within days, no matter what project the operative is on.”

“That’s fast. But how?”

“I’m not sure, but it’s got to be someone from our side.” She laughed again.

I tittered along. “That would make sense.”

“I hear you’re planting a bug in his office.”

“We go in tomorrow. We’ve got a legit cover to be talking to him, so we’re going to do it that way.”

“No!” She leaned back, grinning, then moved in again and stubbed out her cigarette. “No. Don’t do it that way. He’s really spooky. I’ve only been working for him a couple weeks and he’s been wondering about me and I’ve been at that plant for over a decade and he knows it.”

“How?”

“I got transferred in as his secretary – normal channels, even. Believe me, I would have rather kept my distance.” She eased off the stool and collected her purse. “Well, I’ve got to be up early for work tomorrow. You coming back?”

I smiled warmly. “Sure. You here a lot?”

“Often enough.” She winked at me and patted my back as she passed by me to leave.

I stretched as I watched her leave. Three men, well-muscled, but not overly huge, got up and followed her out. I took my time finishing my drink, left some money on the bar, then left, myself.

I was startled but not terribly surprised to find a gun in my ribs as I stepped outside the door.

“Oh, dear God,” I whimpered, letting my real fear show through. “What do you want? I can give you my wallet. Please don’t hurt me.”

The man cursed then clamped his hand over my mouth and shoved me toward a white boxy van parked next to the curb. The back doors creaked open and I was shoved in. The only thing that broke my fall onto the splintered plywood of the floor was the prone form of Wintergreen. She moaned softly. The man who had been inside roughly picked me up and tied my hands behind my back as I sobbed and begged him not to hurt me.

“Shut up!” he finally snapped and backhanded me across the face.

I cried quietly as the van started up and drove off. The van’s two back windows had been blacked out, so we rode in complete darkness. Wintergreen moaned occasionally, but from the sound, it seemed like she’d managed to sit herself up. It was almost impossible to tell, but it seemed like a good hour, maybe less, that we drove. We took the freeway somewhere, then drove around a bit on surface streets. Finally, the van slowed and turned into a driveway. I thought I heard the grinding of a garage door opener, then van moved forward, and the engine turned off. The garage door opener ground again, then finally the back door opened. That the lights were on and I could see the men’s faces meant that they were going to kill Wintergreen and me. I was wondering why they hadn’t yet and could only come up with one terrifying conclusion.

The three men dragged us upstairs through the empty house to an upstairs bedroom. You could still smell the paint. The bedroom wasn’t carpeted and the floors were rough plywood. I tried looking out the windows, but they’d been blacked out.

The men handcuffed Wintergreen to a bar on the floor. Me, they just left tied and tossed me into the closet and closed the door. As soon as I hit the floor, my lower back exploded in pain so sharp it took my breath away. But there was good news. They had dumped my purse in with me without, apparently, looking in it. The other good news was that I could hear them yelling at each other in the next room. Actually, they were loud enough that Wintergreen heard them, too.

“Absolutely no civilians! He was very clear about that!” one voice yelled in between all manner of cuss words.

“You’re the one who told me to take her!”

“Yeah, but when she started whimpering the second you got the gun in her ribs, you could’ve just knocked her down and run. She hadn’t seen you.”

The other man grumbled. “I don’t see what the big deal is.”

“People look for civilians!” screamed the first voice.

“Look, we don’t want to get the boss pissed,” said the third man. “Why don’t we go check in and see what he wants done with her?”

The first man cursed some more about morons, then snarled, “Why are we taking him?”

“Because they’re locked down and he’s too stupid to be left behind,” answered the third man.

I smiled to myself. I’d already flipped the sole of my sandal open and had gotten out the small rope cutter. It wasn’t the fastest tool on the earth, but it was usually overlooked. I could hear the men moving downstairs, then the garage door opening, the van revving to life, then the garage door closing. The men were probably paid thugs, which was interesting. Most spies don’t like using paid thugs because they aren’t usually all that reliable. But if you need someone roughed up and don’t want to reveal yourself, then you hire on some help. Actually, there are several reasons to hire that kind of help, and I really didn’t have time to wonder about any of them at that moment.

Fortunately, the rope on my wrists was actually clothesline and the rope cutter chewed through it by the time the van had roared off down the street. As I stretched my back out to calm some of the pain, I listened with every fiber of my being. The house was silent, and given the lack of carpeting or other furniture, even breath sounds seemed to echo.

As I slid out of the closet, Wintergreen grinned at me.

“And to think I was going to get all over you for that crybaby stunt,” she whispered.

Her feet were bare and she had been searched and knocked around. Her nose was bleeding and her eyes looked puffy. I shrugged and pulled a lockpick out of my hair. She was free faster than it had taken me to cut through my ropes. Grimacing, she rolled her arms and shoulders.

“We’ve gotta get out of here,” I whispered. “Are you going to be okay?’

“Do I have a choice?”

I winced. She didn’t, really.

The door to the room had been locked from the outside. It was not your standard household doorknob lock, but one that could only be opened from the other side. It made sense. The house wasn’t entirely finished and was probably in a brand new housing tract that people had yet to move into. No one was going to hear any screams or see anyone coming or going. And as long as you cleaned up and got rid of any temporary locks and other amenities, who was to know? But it also meant that any bodies were going to have to be moved elsewhere since it’s not nearly as easy as you might think to hide a couple bodies, especially if the last thing you want is to have them found.

We could have probably taken the door off its hinges, but that would have taken too long. Instead, we slid through the window, making sure to close it behind us and replace the screen. The window opened onto a roof section that dipped low over the dirt yard. I was a little surprised that someone hadn’t considered this, but wasn’t going to question it, either.

Next, was the hard part, finding someplace where we could get help. It was slow going, but the new housing tract was on the edge of a community. There was a new shopping center. So, I found a pay phone and called a cab that took us to a brand, spanking new hospital with an emergency room. We were not the only people there that night, but it was reasonably quiet. After a hurried conference outside, Wintergreen and I came up with a story about her awful boyfriend. While we waited to be seen, I found a pay phone and called Sid, then called Henry James, who is technically our boss, about the housing tract and the thugs. Sid arrived shortly after Wintergreen was taken in to be seen.

“Well?” Sid asked softly, as he sat down next to me in the waiting room.

“They were waiting for her and got me by mistake,” I said softly. “I played stupid and scared and they bought it, thank God.”

“Hmm.” Sid did not look happy.

“How are the boys?” I asked.

“They’re in bed. Darby spent the evening in his room for some reason. Said he wanted to get some reading done.”

A short time later, a paternal looking man came into the waiting room. We’d seen him before and knew his code name – Green Acre. He asked after Wintergreen, presumably giving her real name and the nurse at the desk pointed us out. He came over.

“Thanks for helping out,” he told us quietly. “Why don’t you two take off? I’m pretending to be her father, so we’re good there.”

Sid nodded. I winced as got up from the chair. Sid didn’t say anything about it as he got me into his car. As he drove me to my car, I told him everything that Wintergreen had said in the bar.

“Terrific,” he grumbled about not being able to plant the bug the next day. “We’ll probably have to do a break in. That’s not going to be easy.”

“At least, we can case the joint. I think going in as Ed and Janet Donaldson will help a lot and possibly throw him off. I don’t think anybody in Quickline knows us that way, except maybe Henry.”

“True enough.” Sid glanced at me and sighed.

We got to where I’d left my truck and I winced as I got out of the car. But I was able to drive home on my own. Sid got there first and held open the door from the garage to the house. He shook his head as I walked in.

“You’re walking crooked again,” he grumbled.

“Yeah, my back’s out,” I sighed. “Flared up when they dumped me in the closet.”

He nodded. “Look, if it won’t embarrass you too much, I asked a physical therapist friend of mine for some help not too long ago.”

“I’ll take any help I can get,” I said, shutting my eyes against the pain.

“Let’s go into the rumpus room.”

There, Sid had me lay face down on the floor. He gently prodded my lower back until he knew what was flaring up.

“Now, this is probably going to hurt, but it will make things better,” he said.

“Okay.” I braced myself.

Sid drove his thumb hard into the worst of the pain. I howled but had to admit that once he was done, my back did feel a little better. He then put an ice pack on me and sat with me for a bit. Sometime later, he sent me to bed with a heating pad and some pain tablets.

He looked so sad as he did, though.

Chapter Three

Fugue in a Minor Key is the fourth book in the Operation Quickline series, featuring Lisa Wycherly and Sid Hackbirn. Like the others, I’m posting it as a serial first. You can catch up with the earlier chapters by visiting its archive page.

February 12, 1984

Spy novel, cozy mystery, romantic spy fiction

I took Darby with me to mass. We rushed through my errands and then rushed back to the house. Sid was waiting for us. He was dressed in black slacks with a dark grey sweater over a light grey shirt, and carried a black jacket sort of like the Members Only ones, but not quite. It was a safe bet his tailor had designed it especially for him.

While I was changing out of my church clothes, I noticed my tan wool felt fedora on my dressing table and got an idea. I hid the indoor/outdoor sunglasses in my purse and wore a black baggy jacket over a white t-shirt and jeans. I perched the fedora on my head at a jaunty angle, then grinned at my reflection.

Sid seemed less than enthused with my costume but wasn’t in the mood to comment. Darby had changed into jeans, a long-sleeved plaid shirt and an over-sized windbreaker with a junior soccer league emblem on the back. I stuffed the hat into my purse.

We packed Darby into the back of the BMW and off we went. I tried to tell Sid how to get to the hotel and he growled that he already knew. I sighed. Things were off to a flying start.

I made Sid and Darby wait in the lobby while I went to get Nick. Darby protested loudly, but I put my foot down. I was already nervous enough.

Rachel didn’t help either. At least she was there.

“Where’s Sid?” she asked, letting me into the room.

“Downstairs,” I said.

“Didn’t have the nerve to come up, or is he just…” Her voice trailed off, sounding hurt again.

“I told him to stay,” I said.

I suppose her pain was legitimate, but I was beginning to have trouble believing it.

“Nicholas, are you ready to go?” she called.

“Yeah.”

A toilet flushed in the bathroom and Nick came out, zipping up the fly to his jeans. His t-shirt proclaimed that it was the sole gift from his grandmother’s trip to Las Vegas, and a lousy one at that.

“Have you got your jacket?” I asked. “It’s chilly out.”

“Sure.” He grabbed it off the unmade bed.

“What time do you want Nick back?” I asked Rachel.

She shrugged. “Anytime. I don’t have to be back up north until tomorrow afternoon.”

“We’ll be back by six,” I said, a little coldly.

Grabbing Nick’s hand, I left. He squirmed in the elevator.

“Nervous?” I asked, giving his hand a reassuring squeeze.

“Yeah. I guess I am.”

“That’s okay. So is he.”

Downstairs, Darby sat curled up in one of the lobby chairs, glaring at a brochure. Sid looked out the front window. I suspect he’d been pacing because he turned away from the glass and started aimlessly for the chairs. He didn’t see Nick or me until we were almost on top of him.

Startled panic swept through Sid’s eyes as they fell on Nick. [Panic does not even begin to describe what I was feeling – SEH]  I doubt Nick noticed it because he gaped almost as badly.

“Sid, this is Nicholas,” I said, gently pushing the boy in front of me. “Nick, this is Sid.”

“You do look like me,” Nick blurted out.

Sid lifted an eyebrow. “Actually, you look like me would be more appropriate.”

Nick shrugged. “Whatever.”

“Well, why don’t we get going,” I said with forced cheerfulness. “Come on, Darby.”

The boys darted off to the car.

“Are you okay?” I asked Sid.

“Of course.” He tried to sound completely at ease and almost succeeded.

“Are you sure?”

“No.” He glanced at me. “I must concede points to your side.”

“What do you mean?”

“It looks like it’s going to be a little hard to deny I had anything to do with… That.”

“I wasn’t going to say I told you so.”

“No.” Sid grabbed for my hand, missed, then caught it. “I didn’t think you would.” He swallowed. “It’s still a little hard to accept, though.”

“Probably for both of you.”

He nodded. “I don’t know about formally acknowledging him, but besides that, what do you think I ought to do now?”

“Go to the zoo. Try to relax. Be a friend.”

“Be a friend.”

“Just try to like him for his own sake. He really is a nice kid.”

“Yeah.” He casually slipped his arm around my shoulders and gave me a quick squeeze. “Hell, he may not even like me.”

“Sid,” I groaned. “Don’t you dare make yourself unpleasant so he won’t.”

“I won’t.”

“Promise?”

Sid stopped and looked at me. He doesn’t give his word lightly, and he knew darned well I’d hold him to it.

“Alright,” he sighed, then smiled. “I promise I’ll be myself.”

“And be pleasant?” I glared at him.

“I promise I’ll be pleasant.”

“Okay.”

“Let’s get going.” He squeezed me again. “It’s a lucky thing for Nick that you’re around.”

We ate lunch at a fast food place that Sid halfway approves of. It has a salad bar. Nick was pretty squirmy and kept sliding out of the booth to run look at something.

“That kid is exhausting to watch,” Sid muttered to me as we headed back to the car.

“He is hyperactive,” I said.

Sid snorted. “That sure as hell didn’t come from me.”

Sid’s discomfort notwithstanding, things were going pretty well by the time three o’clock rolled around. I said I had to go to the restroom and ditched the guys. Once alone, I got the hat out of my purse, stuffed my hair under it, and put on the glasses I’d brought.

Tony was in the beer garden, just as he’d said. He was a thin man, about average height with brown hair that had flecks of silver in it. He’d told me I’d know him by the light blue cap he wore. It was one those baseball hats with the plastic net backs, with a picture of an eagle superimposed on a radar dish on the front and underneath the dish was the name of the project Tony was selling out. He sat at a picnic table looking utterly miserable. I leaned on the table next to him and checked my watch.

“Tony?” I asked softly and looked over his head into the trees.

“Y-y-yes.”

“Let’s make this fast.”

“S-sure.”

He took a five by seven manila envelope from inside his windbreaker and tried to put it on the table, but it slid from his fingers and fell to the ground.

“Leave it,” I ordered. “I’ll get it.”

I left a legal sized envelope filled with cash on the seat next to him, then bent and got the manila envelope.

“I’ll call you for the next buy,” I said, sliding the envelope into my purse.

Tony sputtered but I ignored him and hurried off, checking for tails. There were none. Some minutes later, with my hair down and hat and glasses stashed, I found Sid and the boys looking at the elephants.

“Boy, you were gone a long time,” said Nick loudly. “You fall in?”

He and Darby laughed hysterically. Sid glared at Nick.

“No,” I said quickly before Sid could say anything. “I’ve got better balance than that.”

“Everything come out alright?” giggled Nick.

“That will be enough,” said Sid firmly.

Nick shrugged, then spotted something and he and Darby tore off.

“Come on, Sid,” I teased. “There isn’t a kid in the world that doesn’t do bathroom jokes.”

Sid chuckled. “It wasn’t the content of his humor, it was merely its repetitive nature. That’s the third time I’ve heard it since you left.”

“Just be thankful Janey and Ellen aren’t here.”

Sid winced. “Those two don’t just run a joke into the ground, they sit on it ’til the cows come home. How’d your drop go?”

“Fine.” I rolled my eyes. “Tony’s an amateur. By the way, the goods go upline on the green five branch.”

“I’ll take care of it tomorrow.” Sid watched as the boys ran about, looking at the animals and chattering. “Darby seems a lot more relaxed.”

“I know. Nick certainly brings him out.”

“He does.”

I could see Sid mulling something over, but the boys ran up just then.

“Can we please get something to drink?” asked Darby. “I’m thirsty.”

“Me, too,” said Nick. “There’s a snack stand around that corner and over. I want a hot dog and an ice cream bar.”

“No,” said Sid. “You’ve already had a hamburger today. That’s far too much junk food as it is. Your health is all you’ve got. You don’t want to mess that up with a lot of junk.”

“Aw, come on,” groaned Nick.

“Why don’t we see what the snack stand has?” I suggested. “I’m getting thirsty, too.”

I blinked twice. Sid sighed and consented. But he had Nick and me hold a table while he took a reluctant Darby to get the drinks.

“I’m getting hungry,” grumbled Nick.

“So am I,” I said. “Don’t worry. We’ll find some way around him.”

“I know where there are some vending machines.”

“We’ll have to ditch both of them first. Darby’ll snitch.”

“Yeah.”

We looked at each other, then burst into giggles. Suddenly, we found ourselves hugging each other.

“Oooh, you give good hugs,” I sighed.

“Grandma always used to say that.” Nick looked downcast for a second, then grinned. “You give good hugs, too.”

“Thank you. Your mother is so lucky.”

“Why?”

“She gets hugs from you all the time.”

“Not really.” There was a deep sadness in his voice.

“Why not?” I asked softly.

He shrugged. “She doesn’t like that sort of stuff. But Grandma did. That’s all we did is hug.”

“Your Grandma?”

Nick became very quiet and stared at the table. “She died last November. She had a heart attack.”

I pulled him into my arms. “You must miss her a lot.”

“I don’t know. She used to make me go to church on Sunday. Mom doesn’t. She doesn’t like church. But she still makes me go to Catholic school.”

“Are you Catholic?”

“Yeah. Only ‘cause Grandma made me. Mom’s friend told me Mom was pretty mad when Grandma had me baptized. Only Mom says I gotta stay in Catholic school until the year is out. She says it’s not good to go switching schools all the time. Darby says you guys are Catholics.”

“Mm-hmm.”

“What about..?” Nick looked over at Sid.

“He’s an atheist.”

Nick thought that over. “You mean he doesn’t believe in God?”

“Nope.”

“That’s weird.”

“Not for him.”

“But why doesn’t he believe in God? Even I believe in God, even though I prayed and Grandma died, but I still believe in Him.”

“Well…” I gazed at Sid thoughtfully. “It’s what he was taught to believe when he was a child.”

“Boy, was he lucky.”

I laughed as Sid and Darby returned bearing lemonade for all of us. Nick stayed sitting just long enough to get a good pull on his drink, then dashed off with Darby on his heels.

“What were you two talking about?” Sid asked.

“Things. His grandmother. Religion. Would you believe he’s Catholic?”

“Hm.” Sid shook his head. “They’ve been coming out of the woodwork since I met you. But now that I think about it, I seem to remember Rachel mentioning something about having left the church.”

I sighed. Sid’s eyebrow lifted.

“Distressed by the thought of another lost lamb?” he asked, gently teasing.

“No. It’s just Nick. Poor thing.”

“He told you about his grandmother?”

“Yeah. He’s taking it pretty hard.”

“Small wonder.” Sid took a long drink of lemonade, then noticed the curious look on my face. “Nick hasn’t said so in so many words, but I’ve gotten the impression that his grandmother was the one who has been raising him. Rachel’s been around, but not all that involved.”

“Somehow, that doesn’t surprise me.” I fidgeted with my straw. “It’s sad, in a way. Nick’s a really affectionate kid but his mother isn’t.”

“Well, I got along okay without it.”

“Yeah, right.” I snickered.

Sid glared. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

I flushed, suddenly realizing what I’d meant. “I- uh, well… I’m sorry, Sid. I just couldn’t help thinking that maybe one of the reasons you spend so much time fooling around is that you’re trying to make up for all the affection you didn’t get as a kid.”

Sid laughed, then reached over and, with two fingers under my chin, gently shut my mouth.

“Don’t look so shocked,” he chuckled. “Believe me, you’re not the first to suggest that. You may even be right. But rest assured, my dearest ice maiden, the larger part of my interest ain’t just affection.”

He has this sexy little smile that without fail gets me going every time. I know he’s mentally doing it with me, but that doesn’t stop my heart from doing flip flops, or more likely it’s why. He smiled and I got a grip on myself.

“Anyway,” I said. “Nick got a lot of affection from his grandmother and he’s really missing it.” I looked down at my drink. “I, uh, hope you don’t get mad at me if I try to fill in some of the gaps. I mean, assuming you want to continue contact with him.”

Sid squirmed. “Yeah, there is that to consider.”

“Well, you don’t have to right now. I was just thinking, since his birthday’s Tuesday, maybe tonight we could have a little party for him. I told Rachel we’d have him back by six, but I’m sure we could call the hotel.” I snorted. “Rachel sure wasn’t worried about him coming back any too soon.”

Sid shrugged, then suddenly chuckled. “Nick’s birthday is Tuesday?”

“Yeah.”

“How ironic.”

“What do you mean?”

“Don’t you know what day Tuesday is?”

“It’s the fourteenth, isn’t it? We have that defense plant meeting.”

“True. But what day is the fourteenth of February?”

“Valentines. That’s right. I thought your fan mail was getting a little heavy.”

Fan mail is my name for the various notes and letters sent by Sid’s various girlfriends. It’s one of the few areas of his sex life that I have some contact with as it’s part of my job to open the mail. Only I pass the obviously personal stuff onto Sid unopened.

Sid gazed across the walkway to where the boys were chatting as they leaned over the railing separating them from some lions, I think.

“Nick certainly seems to bring Darby out,” said Sid thoughtfully.

“Sid, what are you thinking of doing?” I asked suspiciously.

“I’m not sure yet. However, Nick has been doing Darby a world of good, and while we may never find out just what Darby’s problem is, if Nick can help him resolve it, it would be worthwhile to have him around. Perhaps I will extend an invitation to have him stay with us for the week.”

“Oh.”

Sid squirmed again. “I know that tone.”

“I didn’t say anything.”

“Lisa, by now, you don’t have to. What, pray tell, is your objection?”

“Well, there’s our business. We’re taking a pretty big chance just having Darby around.”

“Actually, I think they’ll distract each other. You’re still not satisfied. Come on, ‘fess up.”

I squirmed. “I’m not really objecting, so much as… wondering why you don’t want to say you’d like to get to know Nick a little better, which I’ve got this feeling is your real reason for having him stay with us.”

“I haven’t the faintest idea, Lisa-pet.” He looked over at the boys. “It just doesn’t seem to have sunk in, even with it staring me in the face.” He looked at me, then put his hand over mine. “If I’m having trouble accepting this, it’s because I really don’t want to. I know that sounds cruel to you, but I can’t help it. I really thought I’d ditched it.”

“I guess I understand. At least Nick’s a nice kid.”

“He is, but a kid nonetheless.”

“Well, somewhere along the line, you’re going to have to make up your mind about your future relationship with him.”

“Maybe. Maybe not. For the moment, however, I’d just as soon play it by ear.”

“You’re not usually one to duck responsibility.”

“No. But in this case, I’m not even sure what it is. Why don’t we take off from here, and we’ll talk to Rachel about having Nick over?”

“Okay.”

The boys were not thrilled about leaving and said so noisily. Sid remained firm. As we walked to the front gate, Nick dropped the map of the zoo that he’d been consulting all afternoon. Sid bent to pick it up. Darby did, too, just a microsecond later and caught Sid pretty hard in the left eye. Sid straightened quickly, blinking, then held his hand over his right eye.

“Damn,” he muttered.

“I’m sorry,” gasped Darby. “Did you lose it?”

“Lose what?” asked Nick.

“No.” Sid poked at his left eye. “It’s just off-center. I can feel it in there. Lisa, you want to tell me where it is?”

“Where what is?” asked Nick.

“Oh, gross! No.” I dug into my purse. “I’ve got a mirror in here somewhere. I don’t how you can stand those things.”

“Stand what things?” screeched Nick.

“My contact lenses,” said Sid finally. He pulled a flat case from his inside jacket pocket and inspected his eye in the mirror in the top.

“Contacts?” groaned Nick.

“Unfortunately, I am extremely nearsighted,” said Sid. “Damn. It’s in the top.”

“You are?” Nick frowned as Sid pulled his upper eyelid up and away from his eyeball. I gagged and turned away.

“It is not an uncommon affliction, however,” said Sid.

“I guess not.” Nick looked over at Darby, who pushed his glasses up on his nose.

Sid pushed the errant lens into place over his cornea. Nick looked at Sid with an uncomfortable grimace, as if he were trying to come to grips with something, then brushed it aside and ran ahead with Darby chasing him. I looked at Sid. He shrugged.

Back at the hotel, the boys ran ahead to the lobby. I yelled at them to wait there for us. Sid hesitated.

“Do you want me to talk to Rachel for you?” I asked.

“No thanks. I’ll take care of it myself.” He looked at me and smiled. “But why don’t you come along for moral support.”

“Sure.”

“Good. I may need someone to keep me from throttling her.”

“What about the boys?”

“We’ll leave them in the lobby for the time being. Darby should keep Nick out of trouble.”

“You are an optimist.”

Nonetheless, we left the boys in the lobby with firm instructions not to leave the premises. Sid was somewhat tense riding up in the elevator. Fortunately, Rachel was in the room and answered our knock quickly.

“Hello, Sid. Come on in,” she said, smiling warmly. Then she saw me. “Oh, hello. Where’s Nicholas?”

“He’s downstairs,” said Sid, leading me into the room. “I’ve got a proposition for you that I’d like to discuss first.”

“Sid, I told you, I have no interest in your money.” Rachel shut the door behind me.

“Perhaps I phrased that badly. I’m… interested in Nick. He’s a nice kid, but he does seem lonely. I’ve thought it over and decided I’d like to have him spend this coming week here with me, with your permission, of course.”

Rachel nodded. “That’s a different tune than the one I heard yesterday.”

“I’m not necessarily acknowledging him.” Sid’s voice just barely got that angry edge.

“No, you wouldn’t,” she sighed.

Sid shifted. “I didn’t say I wasn’t going to.”

My eyes narrowed, and all of a sudden, it seemed like I knew what Rachel was up to. I quickly pressed my foot on Sid’s. He glanced over at me and I just barely shook my head. Fortunately, Rachel was too caught up in her sadness to see.

“Either way,” continued Sid. “It will take me some time to develop my position in all of this. Until then, I see no reason why I can’t continue to be friends with Nick.”

“It would be good for Nick to have a father figure,” I said. “Since my nephew is staying with us, it won’t be any trouble to have the two of them. They’re great friends already. And school shouldn’t be a problem. I can call and get his homework, and we’ll arrange to have his books shipped to us.”

Rachel looked at Sid. “And after this week?”

“We’ll see,” said Sid. “I see no obstacles to a friendship. Beyond that, I don’t really wish to say until after I’ve spoken to my lawyer, for Nick’s sake as much as anything. I don’t want him caught in the crossfire of a misunderstanding.”

Rachel leaned on the dresser, thinking. It was perhaps catty of me, but I got the feeling she was struggling with the temptation of being childless for a week versus keeping Nick with her and manipulating Sid that way. Okay, it was possible Nick’s welfare entered into it.

“Are you sure Nicholas would like to?” she asked finally.

“Why don’t I bring him up and we can ask him,” said Sid, suiting action to words.

Rachel started to protest, but he was gone before she could get the words out. We looked at each other awkwardly.

“Assuming Nick stays, we’ll need a medical release,” I said, digging through my purse for pad and pen. “Maybe now would be a good time to clue me in on allergies and things like that.”

“He has none,” replied Rachel sourly.

“Medications?”

“None.”

I pulled out my steno pad and handed it to her. “Why don’t you write it up? It will look better if it’s in your handwriting.”

“Hm.” Rachel took the pad and wrote.

“I’m trying to make this as easy as possible.”

“Easy?” Rachel snorted. “I’ll admit, Sid’s and my affair did not last all that long, but I’ve been living with a pretty potent reminder of it for over eleven years now. You don’t know how lucky you are that he’s gotten himself fixed.”

I glared. “It wouldn’t make any difference if he wasn’t. We’re not lovers.”

Rachel laughed. “Do you honestly expect me to believe that?”

“Yes, I do.”

She shook her head. Silence followed. There really wasn’t anything to say. I wondered where Sid had gotten off to, and if he’d chickened out of facing Rachel. When he eventually showed, he had both boys with him.

“What took so long?” I asked.

“Elevator races,” he said.

“We were on the premises,” said Nick. “You didn’t say we couldn’t leave the lobby. Hi, Mom. We had a totally bitchen day.”

“That’s great, Nicholas,” said Rachel.

“Nick,” said Sid. “I brought you up here to ask if you’d like to spend this week here in Los Angeles with me, Lisa and Darby.”

“You mean at your house?” Nick’s eyes lit up with joy.

“Yes.”

“Wow, would I!” He bounced into his mother. “Can I, Mom, can I? Please?”

Rachel sighed. “Yes, you may.”

“Alright!” Nick gave her a big hug, which she received awkwardly.

“Nick,” said Sid sternly. “This is with the understanding that I do have work to do and I will not have my normal routine disturbed. Is that clear?”

“Sure,” said Nick. “I’ll do whatever you do.”

“No, you won’t,” I said quickly.

“I’m beginning to wonder if this is such a good idea,” said Rachel.

“Mom,” groaned Nick.

“Darling, I just don’t want you cooped up in some jail.” For once, I got the impression Rachel was sincere.

“Uncle Sid’s house is really neat,” said Darby. “And he’s really nice.”

“We will take care of ironing out the details,” Sid said. “You boys go down to the lobby and stay there. In the lobby.”

“Yes, sir,” they mumbled, then ran out of the room.

“Sid, I do not want any harsh discipline,” said Rachel even before the door was shut.

“I don’t believe in hitting kids, Rachel,” said Sid. “And Nick will certainly not be on any forced marches. However, I will not accept any disruptions of my normal routine and that’s that.” He sighed. “Rachel, I have to admit, I really resent what you’ve done.”

“Oh, I had help, Sid. Remember?”

“I’m not talking about Nick. I’m talking about the way you handled it. If you were in trouble and needed help, the least you could have done is talked to me about it.”

“And you would have seen to getting rid of it? I didn’t want that.”

Sid took a deep breath. “Even if you wanted to keep it. That’s why the issue is called choice.”

Rachel started weeping. “You have no idea what I’ve been through.”

“I didn’t get a chance. Remember?” Sid put his hand on her shoulder. “I could have been there for you, Rachel.”

She moved away. “That’s so easy to say now.”

“Perhaps. I can’t say dumping a total stranger into Nick’s life and expecting the kid to call him dad is really easy to deal with either. Or very healthy, I might add.”

“As if your response is so healthy. You won’t even admit he’s yours.”

“It seems rather obvious.” Sid stopped and took a deep breath. “Look, we’re both getting angry and in about five seconds we’re going to be saying things we’ll regret later. I’d rather remain friends.”

“You’re right,” Rachel sighed. “I’m sorry, Sid. For everything. I was young and confused. I did the best I could.”

“I know. It’s just been one hell of a shock.” He smiled quietly.

“Um, I’d like to get Nick’s things together,” I said.

Rachel pointed to the other side of the room. “They’re right over there on the other side of the bed.”

She turned back to Sid. The overnight case was there, with dirty clothes spilling out. I jammed it all together and got it zipped up.

“Is this everything?” I asked.

“Should be,” said Rachel.

“If he needs anything, I’ll take care of it,” said Sid. He turned back to Rachel. “I don’t think it would be a good idea at this point.”

She spoke softly to him again.

He chuckled. “No thanks, Rachel. I’m actually very happy with the terms I’ve got. Lisa, you ready?”

“Yes.”

Rachel scowled as we left. Another second or so there, and I think we would have gotten yelled at. Once in the hall, Sid took the overnight case.

“What did she want?” I asked as we waited for the elevator.

“To spend the night with me.”

“She’s got nerve.”

“You don’t get to be an emergency room doctor without it.” Sid’s grin was smug. “She was offering me better terms than my ice cube.”

I sighed.

Sid put his arm around my shoulders. “Dear little ice maiden. I’ll take you over her any day. You wouldn’t pull a stunt like she did.”

“That’s what you said about her.”

Sid paused. “This is true. However, I can’t get you pregnant, even if it were possible for me to get you into bed.”

“That would be possible, you know,” I said, staring at the crack between the elevator doors.

“Is that an offer?” Sid’s eyes twinkled in delight. “Is it really? Please?”

“No.”

“Oh well.” He sighed exaggeratedly, then gently kissed the side of my head. “Can’t win ’em all.”

The elevator opened and we got on. Sid punched the button for the ground floor.

“It’s kind of funny,” he said. “If she had told me she was pregnant back then, I probably would have run the other direction.”

“I don’t think so,” I said. “You tend to take care of your girlfriends.”

He looked at me and smiled. The elevator opened and the boys were right there.

Let us pause now for a small digression on Sid’s eating habits. There is no getting around the fact that the man is finickier than Morris. He won’t touch red meat, salt, sugar, except small amounts of honey, or artificial anything. Sid and I are constantly arguing about this because I’ll eat just about anything and usually in quantity.

This does not mean, however, that Sid does not like to eat. He loves to eat. He just prefers healthy food, although he will fudge a little in the case of really upper-class fine dining. He does have two culinary weaknesses, and they just happen to be passions that I share. One is exceedingly spicy food, the hotter the better. Serrano chiles, Thai food, Tandoori, bring it on, we love it.

Then there is pizza. I first began to suspect he liked it a lot more than he let on when he took me to San Francisco the previous fall. There’s a pizza place just below Coit Tower, and I actually talked Sid into eating lunch there. Then a month or two later, I caught him red-handed, heating up some leftovers I’d brought home from an outing with my church’s youth group. He got it royally because it wasn’t the first time my leftover pizza had disappeared. [How was I to know they were yours? How often is there anything left after you eat? – SEH]

Sid conceded he hadn’t let on because he figured I’d never let him hear the end of it. I decided I was better than that and promised I wouldn’t. It turned out we like the same toppings: mushrooms and black olives. I like sausage, too, but not that much. Sid and I are also militantly opposed to green pepper (they take over a dish and are too benign to be worth it) and anchovies, which just taste bad.

Back to Sunday. The boys decided they wanted pizza, which was great by me. No arguing with Sid. The boys pointed out one of the chains. Sid said no. We went to this little dive down in Hollywood. There’s a guarded parking lot next door, which is the only reason Sid will chance taking his BMW down there.

Inside is dark and cozy with tacky vinyl tablecloths, rickety chairs, booths with the vinyl seat cracking and three video games beeping in the corner. The pizza they serve is some of the best in Southern California, and it comes with excellent Chianti and an absolutely delicious antipasto. Sid doesn’t like the meat on it, but since I give up sausage on my pizza, he doesn’t complain when I eat the salami and mortadella on the antipasto. We have the cook deep six the green pepper.

We tried to order no green pepper Sunday. Nick protested.

“I love green pepper. Can you leave it? Please?”

“On the salad,” said Sid.

“Thanks.” Nick bounced.

He kept up a running commentary on the day, his school, and life in general. The boys and Sid were full long before I was. Sid gave them change for the video games and they ran off and happily occupied themselves.

“We’d better get ourselves squared away on the week,” said Sid.

“Yeah. Nick’s birthday is Tuesday. We really ought to do something.”

“And we’ve got that defense plant meeting in the morning.”

“Plus that stock market draft I’ve got to go over, and those books for the toxics article, plus whatever’s in Friday and Saturday’s mail. And there’s your singles column.”

“Oh, damn.”

I grinned. “Didn’t do your research, did you?”

“I was going to do it last night, but I wasn’t exactly up to it.”

“I guess not. Did you get that stock market draft done?”

“Yep. I worked on it Friday night and got it done between the gym yesterday and Rachel showing. I’ve got a drop to set up tomorrow, too. Alright, why don’t I get my column research done tonight? I’m kind of in the mood to go out anyway.”

“You know, I’ve got some shopping to do tomorrow. I’ve got to get Nick a birthday present, and something for George, and a card for Frank, and Jesse and Kathy and Susie and Dan and Sarah. I’m glad you reminded me about Valentine’s Day. I almost forgot. And there’s my parents. I’d better make a list.”

I put down my pizza and went digging through my purse.

Sid chuckled. “I noticed you said something for George. Why not just a card?”

I blushed. “Sid, come on. He’s just a good friend.”

“You two have been dating pretty steadily since last month.”

“We didn’t go out this weekend.”

“You were going to. I heard you cancel Friday’s date.”

“So what’s the big deal?”

Sid gazed at the table’s candle. “He’s getting more and more serious.”

“He knows I don’t want to get married,” I snorted.

“Does he?”

“Well, I can change my mind if I want to.”

“Yeah, right.” Sid laughed. “You and George?”

“Yeah, me and George,” I growled. “What’s the matter with that?”

“Nothing. I just don’t believe it, is all. You’ve been raising hell about not wanting to get married for too darned long.”

“I never said I was.” I sighed. “George and I are just good friends.”

“Wasn’t he supposed to take you to meet his parents Friday?”

“We were just going to dinner there. It wasn’t any big deal. And I’m going next Saturday, so there.”

“And you say he’s not serious.”

“Sid, you’re changing the subject. We were talking about Nick’s birthday and what to do.”

Sid rolled his eyes. “I don’t care. Do whatever you like, within reason, of course, and it can’t interfere with our meeting.”

“It won’t.”

We took off shortly after that, getting home around seven thirty. Sid changed clothes and took off. In the meantime, I checked my answering machine. Mae had called. The boys were playing cards in the rumpus room, so I called Mae back from the library.

“How’s Darby doing?” she asked as soon as I said hello.

“Fine,” I said. “He hasn’t said anything about what’s bothering him, but he’s been in a really good mood.”

“Oh, Lisa, I was hoping.”

“It’s only been a couple days, Mae. Hang in there. He’s a lot more relaxed. He’ll open up sooner or later.”

“I guess. What have you guys been talking about?”

I laughed. “Anything but his problem, I’m afraid. It’s been a pretty weird weekend. You won’t believe what’s happened.”

“What?” Mae sounded really worried.

“It’s nothing terrible. One of Sid’s old girlfriends from when he was in college showed up yesterday with a kid.”

Mae laughed. “Trying to hang it on Sid, huh?”

“Well, for once, he got caught.”

“But he’s fixed.”

“He wasn’t always. The kid is just barely old enough, and you should see him. He looks just like Sid, right down to the dimple in his chinny, chin, chin.”

“Oh, my God!” Mae yelped, then giggled. “How’s Sid taking it?”

“Better. He hasn’t formally acknowledged Nick, but he agrees he can’t really deny it either. It has been one heck of a shock. Sid didn’t have the least idea, and Rachel, that’s the mother, she never even told Sid she was pregnant until yesterday, then she just dropped it on him.”

“Oh no. What did Sid do?”

“He wouldn’t even meet Nick at first. I talked him into meeting Nick today, and Sid likes him. He’s a really sweet kid.”

“How old is he?”

“Eleven. He and Darby have become best buddies.”

“Oh?”

“Relax, Mae. Nick’s an absolute sweetheart, pretty hyper, maybe, but in a way that’s good. He’s really drawing Darby out. That’s one of the reasons Darby’s a lot more relaxed. I mean, I don’t think they’re talking about Darby’s problem, but it sure took his mind off of it.”

“I’m glad, I guess.” Mae sighed. “You sure Nick’s a good kid?”

“Yes. I just wish I knew what to do about his birthday. It’s Tuesday. I was thinking of going somewhere special, but Sid and I have an interview that morning with this guy from some defense plant out your way.”

“Is it an all day thing?”

“I don’t think so, but you never know. The boys have been dropping hints about Disneyland, but that wouldn’t work. They close at seven this time of year, don’t they?”

“Something like that.”

“Well, even if the interview only lasted ’til noon, by the time we got back here for the boys and back to Orange County, we’d have hardly any time.”

“Has Nick ever been to Disneyland before?”

“He says this is the first time he’s ever left the Bay area.”

“Hm. It’d be a shame if he didn’t get a chance to go. I wonder. I’d really like to meet Nick, and I want to see Darby. How about if I take them in the morning, and you and Sid can meet us there when you’re done?”

“Mae, I couldn’t ask you to do that.”

“Why not? I need an excuse to get out. It’ll be fun.”

“Are you sure? We can bring the boys out for a visit.”

“No, no. We’ll do it this way. I’m looking forward to it. It’ll be a nice treat.”

“I’d better discuss it with Sid first. You know how he is about things like that. What are you going to do with the others?”

“I’ll bring them along. It’s not fair for Darby to have a treat and not them. Ellen’s pretty fried because he’s missing school and she still has to go.”

“Isn’t that getting any better for her?”

“I’m afraid not,” Mae sighed. “I should have put her straight into first grade instead of kindergarten. I don’t care if she was too young. She certainly has the skills. Would you believe she’s already reading on a second-grade level? And last week, she was helping Janey with her math homework. I talked to our church school, and they’ll put her on an accelerated track, with upper-grade tutors and all that. I wish they could take her now, but it’s too late in the year.”

“How are the other kids?”

“Real good, thank God. Janey got a perfect score on her science test, which thrilled Neil, and she’s been taking that fine arts class through the city, which she just adores. The twins have been behaving very well all of a sudden. I’m beginning to wonder if something’s up. At least their kind of trouble I can handle.”

“Would you like to talk to Darby?”

“I’d love to. So would his dad.”

“Great. I’ll get him. Give my love to Neil and everybody if I don’t get on again, and I’ll call you tomorrow about Tuesday.”

“Fine.”

I pushed the hold button and called Darby. He was very happy to talk to his family. I retreated and went to the rumpus room. Nick sat in the middle of the floor, looking utterly disgusted. Playing cards were scattered all over. Motley, my springer spaniel, sat and looked at Nick plaintively.

“What happened?” I asked.

“Fifty-two card pick up,” Nick grumbled.

I laughed. I had to. I’d taught Darby the joke.

“You fell for it,” I said. “You pick ’em up.”

“I know.” Sullenly, Nick gathered the cards together.

“Here. I’ll help you. Then it’ll be bedtime. You have to get up pretty early around here if you want breakfast. Sid wasn’t kidding about his normal routine.”

“What all do you do?”

“Up at five forty-five a.m. Meet at the front door at six to go running. Darby’s been coming with us, but I don’t know if you’ll have to.”

“I can.”

“I don’t know. We run for a full hour, and I know Sid’s not going to want you hanging back, and he’s not going to want to cut it short if you poop out.”

“It’s no problem. We run all the time for P.E. at school, and I have to walk five miles to school every morning.”

“Five miles?”

“Well, maybe not that much, but I have to run a lot of mornings to get there on time. What if it rains?”

“We eat breakfast first, then go to the gym, shower, and dress there and get back here to the office by eight.”

“What do you do after running?”

“Shower and dress, breakfast at seven thirty, in the office by eight. And then we work, and that all depends on what day it is and what needs doing.” I sat back on my knees. “Let’s see if they’re all here.”

I had the cards counted in a minute while Nick watched.

“All here,” I announced, putting them in their box.

“Lisa,” Nick asked slowly. “Do you think he likes me?”

I smiled. “Yes, he does. You have to remember, Nick, you’re quite a surprise. He really didn’t know about you before yesterday, and he found it pretty hard to believe at first. He’d figured your mother would have said something a long time ago.”

“I guess.” Nick frowned. “Grandma used to say that when my dad heard my mom was pregnant, he left her and told everyone he didn’t do it. I always figured my dad didn’t want me, and I decided I didn’t want him. Then last week, Mom said she was going to take me to meet my father, and I said I didn’t want to. Then she said she’d never told my dad about me, or that she was even pregnant. I didn’t believe her, ‘cause of what Grandma had said, and Mom said that was what she’d told Grandma and Grandpa so they wouldn’t force her to marry him because while my dad was an okay person, she didn’t want to get married, even though she really wanted me. I didn’t know what to believe after that.”

I put my arms around him. “What does your grandfather have to say about all this?”

Nick shrugged. “I don’t know. He left years ago. I just barely remember him. Grandma said he was probably living in some gutter. He was a drunk.”

“Oh, Nick. I’m sorry.”

I pulled one of the bean bag chairs over and crawled into it. Nick crawled into my lap. I held and cuddled him, and he hugged me back so gently and a lot like Sid, without being in the least bit sexual. I kissed the soft dark wavy hair.

Darby came in.

“What’s going on?” he asked, more puzzled than disturbed.

“Just some much-needed cuddling,” I replied, then to Nick, “Think we can let him join us?”

“Sure.”

Nick squirmed around and made room for Darby. I gave Darby a kiss and a squeeze. We sat for another ten minutes or so, then my arm fell asleep.

“Oh, well, it’s time for bed anyway,” I said. “You guys go get ready and I’ll be in in a few minutes to tuck you in. Okay?”

“Sure thing, Aunt Lisa,” said Darby.

They scrambled away and ran off. I looked at Motley, still sitting in the middle of the room, looking plaintive.

“You got left out, my little baby, didn’t you?” I said to him. “Come here, Motley.”

Motley trotted over and flopped into my lap. I scratched his belly, and his hind leg pawed the air in ecstasy.

“Go find your ball,” I told him.

With a happy bark, he dashed away. Seconds later, he dropped the old tennis ball in my lap.

“Go find the remote,” I told him.

Motley barked and dashed behind the bar.

The remote control was part of a running battle I had going with Sid. We are not big TV watchers, and except for a couple programs, we never watch commercial stations. When Sid does, he keeps the remote control at his side, and during commercials, flips through the different channels until the program he’s watching is back on. I hate that. He hates commercials. So, we each hide the remote control from the other whenever one of us can find it.

Motley was definitely an asset along those lines. He brought the remote control from behind the bar and dropped it in my lap.

“Okay, Motley,” I said looking around. “Where can I put it this time?”

It was an unspoken rule that it never left the rumpus room or was put someplace where it could be damaged. Looking up, I found my spot: the valence over the drapes covering the sliding glass doors. I piled up a couple bean bags and quickly stuck the remote control in one of the corners, balancing it inside the valence on the drapery rod. After I moved the bean bags back, I petted Motley.

“Okay, sweetheart,” I told him. “No ratting on me now.”

Big help that would be. Motley wouldn’t really rat on me. Sid would just tell him to find the remote and he would.

Motley followed me to the two guest rooms where the boys were. I went into Darby’s room first. He was in bed waiting for me.

“What are you thinking about?” I asked softly.

He shrugged. “Nothing.”

“Having a good time?” I sat down on the bed next to him.

“Yeah. I’m having a great time.”

“Darby,” I said slowly. “You’ve been having problems haven’t you?”

His face closed off immediately. “I’m fine. Really, Aunt Lisa, I’m fine.”

“Are you sure you don’t want to talk about it?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, if you do, just let me know. I’ll listen anytime you want to talk.”

“I know. Thanks.”

“I love you, Darby. I want to help.”

“I’m fine.”

“Alright. Goodnight.”

“Goodnight, Aunt Lisa.”

I bent down and kissed him.

Nick was in his pajamas, but not in bed. He was inspecting the intercom on the wall. The speaker was flush with the wall, with a plastic grate over it and about twenty buttons underneath. You could, by pressing the right buttons, listen in on any room in the house except Sid’s office, from any room. The eavesdrop button was one of five unlabeled ones, and you did have to press it in the correct sequence, so Sid and I didn’t worry about someone listening in on us.

“Into bed, Nick,” I said, smiling.

Nick scurried over and under the covers. I sat down next to him.

“Did you have a nice day?” I asked.

“It was terrific.”

“I’m glad. Goodnight, Nick.”

“That’s funny.”

“What is?”

“Everybody here keeps calling me Nick. Everybody at home calls me Nicholas.”

“Which do you like better?”

“I like Nick.”

“Alright, Nick. Goodnight.”

“Goodnight, Lisa.”

Nick insisted on a good long hug before his kiss.

As I softly shut the door to Nick’s room, I heard Sid singing “All Day, All Night, Marianne.” I checked my watch.

“What are you doing over here?” he asked. He was about to go into his room, and that wing of the house is one I’m rarely in.

“Tucking the boys in,” I replied. “You’re in a good mood.”

“Oh, just a very well misspent evening.”

“It’s not even ten o’clock. What happened to your research?”

“Nothing much happening there. I took my notes and was about to leave when I ran into an old friend of mine who had to get home early because she has to be up for work tomorrow. It was fast, furious and fun. All in all, a very convenient arrangement.”

“Something tells me I’d rather not know.”

“Too bad.” Sid had that smile on his face again. He chuckled. “How was your evening?”

“Very nice, thank you. Nick is definitely in the running as one of the all-time great sweethearts.” I paused. “He, uh, asked if you liked him. I said yes.”

Sid looked away. “Well, it’s the truth.” He looked at me. “It’s going to take time, Lisa. He is, in effect, a total stranger, and I’m certainly not up for this parenting thing.”

I reached over and squeezed his hand. “I know. Listen, I’ve got an idea for Nick’s birthday. We can talk about it tomorrow, though.”

“Fine.”

I started to move away, but he still had my hand. Gently, he tugged, trying to pull me closer. His eyes gleamed, and there was something in them. My heart pounded.

“Sid?” I asked.

He let go of my hand. “Sorry. Just this wild thought I had. Maybe…” He looked at me again, his eyes soft and searching. I swallowed. He forced a chuckle and turned back to his room. “I guess the time isn’t right yet.”

“Sid, what’s the matter?”

“Nothing’s the matter.” He looked back at me and smiled softly. “Really, Lisa. It was just this weird idea I had, and believe me, you’re not ready for it.”

I blushed. “You never give up, do you?”

“Persistence will out,” he said mischievously, then wiggled the tip of his tongue at me.

I stomped off, knowing darned well he’d made me mad at him on purpose, and I was very glad he had. [I don’t know. Sometimes I wish I hadn’t. Given what happened the following July, I think it would have been better if I’d just come clean. I wanted so much to make you my lover, and not just to make love to you. I knew we would be lovers, even if I missed my guess on when. As for my weird idea, well you heard that. It just took me five months to tell you. That night was the first time I truly considered it seriously. I really should have told you then – SEH]

Do Not Ask Debra H. Goldstein to Cook

Debra H. Goldstein

I met Debra H. Goldstein last fall at Bouchercon, where we had a lovely chat about not cooking. Lucky me, she was kind enough to write about not cooking for my blog.

Whether Anne Louise Bannon writes about cookbooks, properly cutting an onion, making wholesome and healthy food for her family, or simply spending time with her husband in the kitchen, her joy and love of cooking comes through in her words. I don’t feel that way. For me, as for my One Taste Too Many protagonist, Sarah Blair, the only thing worse than being in the kitchen or trying to make a dish from scratch is murder.

I’m not sure I know why the kitchen repulses me, especially because I like to eat, but I had an aversion to that room even when I was a child. Like Sarah, I came home from school, did my homework, and plopped on the couch in our den in front of our television at five. It was Perry Mason time. Fifteen minutes later, during the first commercial, I ran to our kitchen and emptied the dishwasher. At five-twenty-nine, when the long mid-way commercial came on, I set the table. During the third break, I greeted my father when he came in from work and as the credits rolled, I turned off the television and joined my family for dinner. While I was engrossed in Perry Mason, my younger sister shadowed my mother making dinner. Today, my sister is a gourmet chef and I am a cook of convenience.

As a cook of convenience, I prefer bringing take-out in or making something quickly from prepared ingredients. When I decided to write cozy mysteries, I realized I had a problem. Most cozy mysteries feature a main character who excels in the kitchen or at some craft. I can’t claim any proficiency, let alone expertise, in either of those areas. Bummed, I almost gave up the idea of writing a cozy, but it dawned on me there had to be a vast number of readers who were like me. Consequently, I created a character, Sarah Blair, who is anything but proficient in the kitchen.

In fact, Sarah was married at eighteen, divorced by twenty-eight. She knew starting over would be messy, but things fall apart completely when her ex drops dead, seemingly poisoned by her twin sister’s award-winning rhubarb crisp. Now, with RahRah wanted by the woman who broke up her marriage and her chef sister wanted by the police for murder, Sarah needs to figure out the right recipe to crack the case before time runs out. Unfortunately, for a gal whose idea of good china is floral paper plates, catching the real killer and living to tell about it could mean facing a fate worse than death—being in the kitchen!

Like Anne Louise, I collect cookbooks (but I didn’t steal my mother’s copy of Joy of Cooking). Besides enjoying their pretty pictures, I find them educational. For example, one I recently bought at The Biltmore House incorporates holiday recipes served at the Biltmore with pages of history about the house and its former occupants. Some of my favorite cookbooks are ones I share with Sarah. They include Peg Bracken’s The I Hate to Cook Cookbook and her Appendix to The I Hate to Cook Cookbook.

Thanks to my cookbooks, One Taste Too Many contains recipes that reflect being a cook of convenience like Jell-O in a Can and Spinach Pie made with Stouffers Spinach Souffle. I may not enjoy being in the kitchen in real life, but I’m certainly having fun sidestepping it in Kensington’s new Sarah Blair cozy mystery series.

Judge Debra H. Goldstein is the author of One Taste Too Many, the first of Kensington’s new Sarah Blair cozy mystery series. She also wrote Should Have Played Poker and 2012 IPPY Award winning Maze in Blue. Her short stories, including Anthony and Agatha nominated “The Night They Burned Ms. Dixie’s Place,” have appeared in numerous periodicals and anthologies including Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Black Cat Mystery Magazine, and Mystery Weekly. Debra is president of Sisters in Crime’s Guppy Chapter, serves on SinC’s national board, and is president of the Southeast Chapter of Mystery Writers of America. Find out more about Debra at www.DebraHGoldstein.com .

You can buy her book A Taste Too Many at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Chapter Two

February 11, 1984

I won the bet. The kid on the doorstep was there, as I had expected. What I hadn’t expected were his features, which were more than a little familiar. True, he couldn’t have been older than twelve. The face was definitely rounder. The hair was longer and not nearly as neat. He had the beginnings of an overbite and wore glasses.

But behind the wire-rimmed lenses blinked two very familiar piercing blue eyes. The hair had the same dark luster and waviness. And the chin was dimpled. It was impossible, but there he was.

All I could think was that if I’d bet on the paternity issue I could have cleaned up royally.

“Is this Sid Hackbirn’s place?” asked his mother. She was a fairly tall woman, with long blonde hair and dark roots pulled back into a half ponytail. It was a cutesy do that didn’t diminish her imposing nature one bit.

“You must be Dr. Flaherty,” I said, finally finding my voice.

“Yes. This is my son, Nicholas.”

“It’s nice to meet you. Please, come in.” I smiled weakly as the boy walked past me. He gave me a funny look. “I’m Mr. Hackbirn’s secretary, Lisa Wycherly. Sid’s in his office. I’ll show you in.”

“If you don’t mind,” said Rachel. “I’d like to see him alone first.”

“You know, that might be a really good idea,” I said. I looked around frantically. Darby hung out of the office with his mouth open. “Darby, sweetheart. This is Nicholas. Why don’t you two go watch TV in the rumpus room? Nicholas, this is my nephew, Darby. You guys look like you’re about the same age.”

“I’ll be eleven Tuesday,” said Nicholas.

“I’ll be eleven in April,” said Darby. “Come on. Uncle Sid has a really great TV.”

The door in Sid’s office was closed. I knocked.

“Sid?” I called quietly.

The door opened.

“Rachel,” said Sid. “Come on in. It’s great to see you again.”

“Thanks, Sid,” she said warmly. “You’re looking really good. What happened to your glasses?”

“I got contact lenses.” He shut the door.

I shouldn’t have, but I wasn’t going to miss out on this one. I punched the intercom line on.

“I’m working emergency at Sunnyvale Community,” Rachel was saying. “I noticed you’ve been writing.”

“I’m doing okay at it. But Sunnyvale. So you’re still up north. What brings you down here?”

“Well, Sid, remember that last weekend we were together?”

Sid chuckled lecherously. “It wasn’t the sort you want to forget.”

“Mmm. No, it wasn’t, although that was why we went.”

“What do you mean?”

“My finals?”

“Oh, that’s right. You were in med school then, weren’t you?”

“My next to last year. Remember that box of condoms that kept breaking?”

Sid laughed. “Yeah. That was the biggest reason I got my surgery that fall.”

“Surgery?”

“It was the first thing I did when I got my money. I got fixed.” Sid chortled pleasantly.

“Not soon enough.”

Silence.

“Rachel, what is going on here?”

“You got me pregnant, Sid. It had to be you. I was so busy with finals, that weekend we went to Dad’s cabin was the only time I’d messed around the whole month.” Rachel chuckled. “I know it’s quite a shock. He’ll be eleven Tuesday.”

“He.”

“Yes. His name’s Nicholas. I probably should have said something sooner, but I really didn’t want a man in my life then, not that you were the type to stick around. But Dad got ugly on the marriage issue, and I thought it would be better. But Nicholas has been wondering where he came from, and I thought it was time he met you.”

“Rachel, how you got caught is your problem.” Sid’s voice got that low even edge that meant he was really angry. “I do not appreciate you trying to hang it on me.”

“I was afraid you’d react that way.” She sighed, the hurt ringing through. “Wouldn’t you at least like to meet him?”

“Not this way. If you wanted a father figure or some other male role model, fine. I would have been happy to cooperate. But this kind of nonsense I don’t need.”

“I’m not asking for anything. Believe me, I’m not hurting financially.” She stopped and sighed again. “Well, I guess that’s that.”

“Good day, Rachel.”

“I’m sorry, Sid. I was alone. I was frightened. But I wanted a child. I was hoping you’d understand that, and at least talk to him. I guess I was asking too much. Goodbye.”

I snapped off the intercom as she hurried through the office. I caught her in the hall.

“I didn’t want anyone to see me like this,” she said, sniffing and wiping her eyes.

“He didn’t take it too well, did he?”

“I should have told him.”

“Listen. Where are you staying? I don’t know if I can do anything, but I’ll try.”

“Thanks,” she said in a tiny voice. Then she gathered herself together and became her imposing self once more. “I haven’t got a place yet. We came in from the airport.”

“Well, there’s the Beverly Hills Hotel down on Sunset, but that’s really expensive.” I led her into my office. Sid’s door was shut so I knew I was safe. “Let me get the phone book out and we’ll find you one.”

I got them a room at the Holiday Inn on the other side of the San Diego Freeway. Rachel thanked me, then collected Nicholas and they took off in the car she’d rented at the airport.

Darby watched with me out the living room window as they left.

“What do you think of Nicholas?” I asked.

“He’s really nice. I like him. He sure looks like Uncle Sid, though. You think..?”

“I think.”

“What does Uncle Sid say?”

“Lisa?” Sid called from the office.

“In a minute,” I called back, then turned to Darby. “I think you’d better stay out of the way. He’s mad and I can’t really blame him. She never told him about Nicholas and was a little rough about telling him now.”

“Lisa!”

I patted Darby’s arm and went to the office. Sid was in his, pacing. I went in and shut the door.

He glanced up at me. “I owe you fifty dollars.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

“You didn’t happen to listen in, did you?”

“Well…”

Sid nodded. “This is steer manure.” [No, bullshit – SEH]

“Well, the way she handled it, yeah.”

“I suppose you believe her?” Sid glared at me accusingly.

I squirmed. “Sid, you didn’t see him.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“He, uh, didn’t get his looks from his mom.”

Sid stopped. “It can’t be,” he said softly. He began pacing again. “Damn it, it can’t be. I’ve always been careful. Always. Even with that damned box of condoms.” He stopped again. “Wait. You heard the conversation. You heard her say she didn’t want anything from me. I don’t have to acknowledge the little brat. That’s it. He’s not mine, unless Rachel files and gets the blood tests to prove it. It’s not my problem. He’s not my kid.”

I sighed and started out of the office.

“Alright, Lisa, out with it. You obviously don’t approve, so why don’t you just say so, and get it over with.”

I turned back. “I just seem to remember somebody else who didn’t appreciate not being wanted.”

Sid softly let out something really obscene.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“No. That’s really the bottom line, isn’t it?”

“Why don’t you just meet him? Maybe the two of you can talk and you can work something out. It doesn’t have to involve his mother.”

“Would that it were that simple, Lisa.”

“I know.”

He smiled softly. “You would. Alright. If you can get a hold of them, then arrange it for tomorrow. I’ll leave it in your hands.” He shifted then picked up the phone. “I’ve gotta get out of here.”

“Where are you going?”

“To get laid.” He turned to whoever had answered. “Yeah, Andrea. Sid Hackbirn…. Well, rough day. Listen, are you busy right now?… Oh, would I…. As soon as I can get there…. Great. See you in a few.”

He hung up and looked at me. There wasn’t anything I could say. Or he could say. Silently, he left the house.

I wandered into my office. Darby was there waiting.

“He sure seemed upset,” he said.

“He is.” I leaned on my desk.

“So what’s going to happen now?”

“Good question. I don’t think he’ll be back any too soon, so we may as well go to the movies tonight without him.”

“Okay.” Darby pushed his glasses back up on his nose. “What’s going to happen with Nicholas?”

“He’s coming over tomorrow.”

“When?”

“I don’t know. I’ve got to arrange it.”

In Sid’s office, the phone rang. It was the line we use solely for Quickline.

“I’ve got to get that,” I said, going into Sid’s office. “Darby, why don’t you go watch TV and I’ll come get you when I’m done.”

“Sure.” Darby hurried out.

I shut the door, locked it and picked up the phone.

A male voice gave the confirmation code and I returned the receiver.

“Where’s Big Red?” demanded the man.

“Out. This is Little Red.”

“Damn. I need both of you. Well, you’ll just have to explain it to him. You still got that drop for Green Light from Thursday?”

“Yes.”

“That’s the prelim info on part of a local investigation, and you guys are now stuck with it. We’ve got to meet immediately.”

“Oh, help. I can’t. I’ve got a civilian here and I can’t ditch him.” I looked over Sid’s desk, but he hadn’t left Andrea’s number.

The man cussed. “There’s got to be a way we can connect. I’ve got the final goods on that installation you’ve got coming up and the cash you’ll need for the investigation.”

“What’s the cash for?”

“We’ve got you two set up as information brokers. That gang from the aircraft plant is organized pretty tightly. The Feds are having a hard time keeping anybody undercover. We need you to set up a sting so we can figure out where they’re getting their stuff. The drop has all the phone numbers. But we’ve got to connect.”

“Wait a minute. Can you hold on a second? I’ve got to check something.” I put him on hold, then went to find that day’s newspaper. I’d seen Sid mark it for clipping, so I knew it was somewhere in the office. He’d left it on the couch. I found the Calendar section and opened it. The movie I wanted was in Hollywood. It was at a couple other places, but that seemed closest. “Alright. Make it a code 3. I’ll be at the Chinese Theater for the seven forty-five show. Look for me at the snack stand about fifteen minutes into the movie. I’ll be buying bonbons, Sprite, popcorn, and nachos with extra jalapenos. How will I spot you?”

He laughed. “You’ve seen me before. I’ll just stuff the goods in that monster of a purse you carry.”

“Okay. See you tonight.”

“Look, if anybody funny shows, get the hell out and don’t worry about the pickup. I may have been spotted. These guys have caught damn near everybody we’ve sent in. We’ll find some other way to make contact.”

“Fine.”

My hands shook as I hung up. I hoped like crazy Sid would be home before it came time to leave, but I knew I couldn’t count on it. There was also Nicholas to deal with, too. I went ahead and called Rachel.

“It’s still pretty sticky,” I told her, “but I got him to agree to meet Nicholas.”

“Oh, good.”

“I’m thinking it might be a good idea if we took Nicholas on an outing tomorrow, if that’s alright with you.”

“That will be fine. I’ve got some friends I can look up.”

“Oh.” I hadn’t meant to exclude her. “You’re invited, too.”

“That’s alright. I think it might be better. Sid’s probably not too anxious to talk to me.”

“You’re probably right.” I went over my schedule silently. “We should be able to pick Nicholas up at noon. Will that be okay with you?”

“Fine. In fact, if you want, you could take Nicholas tonight, or will you and Sid be busy?”

I stumbled at the insinuation. “Sid is, but I won’t be. I mean, I will. Would Nicholas like to come to the movies with my nephew and me?”

I still can’t figure out why I said that or how she had caught me off my guard.

“I’m sure he’d love it. Why don’t you pick him up here at five?”

“Uh, sure. We won’t be late. I’ll bring him back to the room by eleven.”

“Good.”

“Okay. See you at five.”

I hung up feeling very suspicious and very manipulated. Then I remembered the pick up that night and got scared. It was going to be tough enough with Darby there. All I could do was hope he would distract Nicholas.

There was also the drop from that past Thursday. I got the dial to the safe from the file drawer in my office, then struggled with the safe. It’s in the floor in Sid’s office, next to his desk. A waste can covers the almost imperceptible cut in the carpet. Eventually, the safe popped open.

I got the microdot viewer from Sid’s desk. It looks like one of those handheld doohickeys used for looking at slides, but the magnification is much stronger. I all but cussed. [So why didn’t you just go ahead? I know you felt like it – SEH]

According to the directions on the dot, Sid and I were to contact the suspected salesman by that day. I dialed, hoping I could set up the meeting for Monday. No such luck. The turkey, he called himself Tony, very nervously insisted that I meet him the next day at 3:00. I was able to talk him into meeting me at the zoo, only the spot he chose left me feeling more than a little uncomfortable.

It was a mess, but there wasn’t a darned thing I could do about it. So Darby and I made cookies, and come to think of it, ate almost all of them by the time we had to leave to get Nicholas.

We didn’t go into the room. Nicholas opened the door, said hello, then shut it. A minute later, he reappeared with his coat on.

“Doesn’t your mother want us to say hello to her?” I asked. On one hand, given how old Nicholas was, you could almost count on him to forget something like that. On the other hand, the way Rachel had been on the phone earlier, there was something just a little bit hinky about it all.

“No,” said Nicholas. “Hi, Darby.”

“Hi, Nicholas,” said Darby. “Aunt Lisa’s taking us to a really cool theater.”

“Bitchen.”

I decided not to get on Nicholas’s case over his language. Instead, I shepherded the boys out to the truck. I took them down to Santa Monica for dinner at a restaurant I knew of that had really slow service. I let them walk down the pier to kill more time, only Nicholas mostly ran. Darby trotted along behind. But I’d timed it just right. We pulled into the parking lot next to the Chinese Theater right about seven thirty.

Nicholas yelped when we got to the sidewalk.

“What?” I snapped, sliding my hand into my monster of a purse to grab the S and W model thirteen revolver inside.

“These stars in the sidewalk,” replied Nicholas. “They’re so bitchen. Hey, who’s he?”

I swallowed. Before I could look at the tile and tell Nicholas, he was off running to the corner away from the theater, stopping at each star, with Darby.

“Boys, get back here,” I hollered.

They ran back.

“You two stick close to me and do whatever I tell you,” I said. “This isn’t the nicest neighborhood to be in after dark. If we stay together, we’ll be fine, but there are too many weirdos running around not to. Do you understand?”

Nicholas sighed. “Okay.”

Darby nodded. I turned toward the theater and they ran ahead, only not quite so far. Nicholas went wild with joy over all the footprints in the concrete and ran off before I could tell him not to. I got in line at the ticket booth and pulled Darby close to me.

“Listen, I want you to get him and bring him over here,” I said softly. “I don’t want you calling his name or anything. Just quietly tell him to come here.”

Darby took off. A second later, a medium-sized man stumbled into me, nearly knocking me off my feet.

“I’m so sorry,” he said out loud, as he reached out to steady himself. “I hope I didn’t hurt you. I just feel terrible about this.”

I had seen him before. Lots of times, in fact. I think he was in charge of one of the different lines along which we send stuff.

“It’s okay,” I said. “I’m fine.”

“Get the hell out of here,” he muttered, then aloud said, “I’m really sorry. I was just looking around at all of this. It’s incredible.”

His impressed gaze pointed out two dark-haired men bending over a souvenir machine.

“Yeah, well, it’s no problem,” I said. I shifted my purse on my shoulder and turned back to the line.

My contact ambled into a couple dressed in short-sleeved shirts, probably from some snow-bound climate, then into a souvenir store. I noticed several other people glaring in the direction of the souvenir shop. The two dark-haired men were talking together anxiously. They’d probably figured out my contact had made his drop, but to whom, and would it be worth roughing all these people up?

Their eyes kept falling on me, but then Darby and Nicholas showed. Apparently, that canceled me out for the moment.

“You won’t believe what this one guy did,” crowed Nicholas. “He stuck his nose in the cement.”

“Yeah, I know,” I said. “Stay right with me, will you?”

Nicholas shrugged but stayed. I bought the tickets. The two dark-haired men got in line also. Darby looked back at them.

“Those two guys were looking at us a long time,” he said quietly.

“I saw them,” I said, pushing the boys ahead of me into the theater.

“They sure look mean,” said Darby.

“Maybe we ought to fight it out with them,” said Nicholas, about to dart off.

“No!” I just barely got his arm. “Violence is no way to solve things. We’ll ditch them. Just let me think for a second. We’ll go in, but we won’t see the movie.”

The boys groaned.

I shushed them. “We’ll see it someplace else.” I let my voice get a little shaky as we walked through the lobby. “We don’t want those guys attacking us. Just follow me and do exactly what I tell you to. If I push you, run like crazy outside and wait for me.”

“This is just like a spy movie,” said Nicholas with a grin.

“Not even close,” I grumbled. “I’ll bet anything those two guys are not after secret documents, hidden jewels or anything like that.”

Nicholas’s eyes opened wide as he realized I wasn’t kidding. The two men entered the lobby just as we went into the theater itself. Instead of sitting down, I pulled the boys back against the curtains behind the last row. The two men went right past us and down the aisle. One pointed to a threesome about midway into the house. The other nodded and they followed.

I got a grip on the boys’ hands and pulled them into the lobby. We walked quickly until we got outside. I checked behind us. The lobby was mostly filled with latecomers, but no dark-haired men.

“Okay, run, but stay close,” I said, sliding my hand into my purse.

We ran back to the truck. I had the boys get in, while I ducked behind cars and looked around. Apparently, the men hadn’t realized they’d been had or thought I’d gone some other way. They weren’t to be seen. I drove the truck out of the lot’s back entrance anyway.

“Thank God I did all that research on rape prevention,” I sighed as we hit Franklin.

“Mom says your boss is a writer,” said Nicholas. He was seated next to me, with Darby behind him in the jump seat.

“Yeah. Magazine articles.”

“Is that how he got so rich?”

I smiled. “No. Freelancing doesn’t pay that well. He inherited money and invested it.”

“I thought he didn’t have any relatives,” said Darby.

“There’s his aunt,” I said. “They haven’t spoken for years and years, but she’s still around.”

“Then how did he get his money?” Darby asked.

I shrugged. “According to him, he wasn’t supposed to know. He figures it was someone on his mother’s side, because his aunt got a part of the estate, too. His mother died when he was a baby, so he figured he got her part.”

“Wow,” said Nicholas. “Does he have a father?”

“He had to,” I said. “There’s no way of knowing who. But everybody has a father of some sort.”

“I don’t,” said Nicholas, sitting back in his seat.

I was confused. He didn’t seem angry or upset. If anything, not having a father seemed perfectly normal to him.

We just barely made another movie at a theater closer to the Westside. It let out early, so I took the boys for ice cream. They were all over the place, especially Nick.

It was spooky, in a way. Nick looked so much like Sid, and even had a couple of Sid’s mannerisms, like the way they both would lift one eyebrow when bemused, or the way they both chewed ice. Yet Nick could be completely unlike Sid. For one thing, Nick was hyperactive. The kid literally couldn’t sit still for three minutes together. Sid doesn’t even fidget.

When we finally got back to the hotel, Nick unlocked the door to the room and said good night.

“Shouldn’t we check in with your mother?” I asked.

“No. I’m cool.” He slid in the door and shut it.

I looked at Darby. “You wouldn’t happen to know what is going on, would you?”

Darby shrugged.

When we got back to the house, I thought I heard piano music. I put Darby straight to bed, then went to the library. Chopin’s Prelude #15 floated out of the room and when I went in, Sid was at the ebony grand. He ignored me and finished the prelude. But instead of going on to the next, he sighed.

“Sorry I missed the movie,” he said.

“When did you get in?” I asked.

“About half an hour ago.”

“You’re home early.” I waited. No reply. “Feeling any better?”

He shrugged. “What’s to feel? I can’t figure out why I’m so messed up by this. It doesn’t even seem real. I keep telling myself it can’t be my kid. It’s impossible.”

I tried not to sigh, but it escaped anyway. Sid glared at me.

“Look, I know you don’t like my attitude,” he growled.

“Sid, no. It’s not that.” I sank into one of the burgundy wingback chairs. “I don’t know what it is. In a way, I get the feeling Nick isn’t really ready to accept you any more than you are to accept him. It’s been a really weird night.”

Sid turned on the piano bench to face me. I told him about basically everything that had happened since he left that afternoon. Sid added the odd expletive in response.

“There’s something really fishy about that meeting,” he grumbled.

“Like maybe potential for observation? That guy, Tony, was so nervous on the phone, I’ll bet they’re trying to keep him where they can keep an eye on him.”

“And who he has contact with.”

I frowned. “I can’t go with my wig and makeup.”

Sid shrugged. “We’ll just have to take the chance, I guess. What other alternatives are there?”

I sighed. “You know what the weirdest thing of all is? I’m more worried about you and Nick getting together tomorrow than I am about that stupid meeting. And about Rachel. There’s something really funny going on there. I’ve got a bad feeling she wasn’t in that room when I picked Nick up, or when I dropped him off.”

“Is there anything you can do about it?” Sid asked.

“No. Not now, at any rate. I should have insisted on checking in with her.”

“So do it the next time.” Sid stretched.

“Well, I hope you don’t mind the way I arranged things.”

“You did good, Lisa.”

“Did well.”

“Whatever.”

I got up, went over and sat next to him on the bench.

“Would you like a back rub?” I asked softly.

He smiled gently. “Yeah. Thanks.”

I straddled the bench as he pulled the sweater off of his shoulders and laid it in his lap. I started in the middle, working outwards in a circular pattern.