Skirting the Design with a Single Seam

So I’d had this piece of fabric in my stash that looked like rip-stop nylon, but wasn’t, for a very long time. It was 60 inches wide but less than a yard long. There was a time when I could have made a pair of shorts from that piece – and such was my intent. Alas, no more.

But the piece wrapped around my backside with plenty of room to spare and it was long enough for a skirt, with some extra for pockets. I could have made a pencil skirt, but the extra space for contours might not have fit on the piece. Plus there was something even easier – just sew up the back seam and add an elasticized waistband, with some patch pockets, and hem.

Which is what I did.

Lesson # 1

It doesn’t matter how much it looks like there’s no difference between the right side and the wrong side, there’s a difference between the right side of a fabric and the wrong side. It doesn’t matter which side you choose as your right side. Just make sure that you lay out, cut and sew with everything facing the right way. Like this pocket didn’t. Sigh.

Lesson # 2

When measuring or cutting elastic for a waistband, make it way tighter than you think you’ll need. It’s a real PITA to overlock on the elastic, stitch the fold-over, then put on the skirt and realize that the skirt is going to fall off your backside the second you take your first step. 

Using the overlock (aka serger) to stretch and sew on your elastic, then folding over the waistband and stitching it down is a massive time saver. Unless you cut the elastic too big. Hence all the threads in the photo. The skirt is still a little loose, but otherwise, it came out pretty nice.

Chapter Three

spy novel, serial fiction, serial mystery, cozy mysterySeptember 17, 1983

 

If Sid slept in the next morning, he wasn’t about to let me know it. He got me to go running at seven again. We went to the lakefront and hid lockpicks and guns in the trunk of the car. I told him over breakfast what had happened the night before.

“Essentially,” I said as I finished. “It all went as smooth as silk.”

He nodded. “I figured it would. After all, I trained you.”

“Very funny.”

“I thought so.”

“You won’t think this is.” I went over to my ski jacket and pulled out the box. “It wasn’t part of the pickup.”

“Then where did it come from?”

“Good question.” I tossed it to him.

He opened one end and pulled out a sealed plastic bag filled with white powder.

“Let me guess,” I said. “That’s some illegal substance?”

“I’d say that’s as good a guess as any.” Sid got up and paced.

“Aren’t you supposed to dip your finger in and taste it?”

Sid laughed. “Are you kidding? Who knows what that stuff is laced with? It could even be straight poison like cyanide or something. Just a taste of that’d have me pining for the fjords in no time.” He paused, thinking. “I wonder if I brought it.”

He went to his room.

“What?” I asked following him into the bathroom.

“Henry got me a chemical analysis kit a couple years ago when I had a case with a lot of different substances floating around. I put some fresh test chemicals in my kit last July before I went to the Bahamas.”

“Sounds like some interesting parties.”

“Not that trip.” Sid got the leather kit off the counter and opened it. “And they are still here.”

He pulled out the little sample bottles labeled shampoo, conditioner, hand lotion, and a couple others.

“I need some more glasses,” he said, unwrapping the three on the counter.

I got two more off the dresser in the bedroom.

Sid filled each with a different clear liquid and put the corresponding bottle next to the glass.

“Are we ready?” he asked, with a mischievous grin.

“Go for it,” I said.

The first glass clouded up, then cleared, leaving a tiny bit of residue on the bottom. Sid shook his head and dropped some powder into the next glass. The liquid turned bright blue in a second.

“Woh. That’s coke.”

“Cocaine?” I asked.

“Very pure cocaine.” He looked at the first glass. “This precipitate is probably just talcum powder. Must have been cut only once.” He picked up the bag. “Want a snort?”

I pulled back. “I hope you’re joking.”

“Mostly.” He looked at the bag. “It’s one hell of a high. I got a hold of a couple lines when I first got to ‘Nam, and nearly got myself killed as a result. It was just too dangerous for someone doing intelligence work. I decided I liked staying alive more.”

“You did drugs?”

“Some. Mostly the occasional joint to be part of the crowd. But I’d been around it all my life and knew too many people who were dying from it to be really interested.”

Sid’s Aunt Stella, who raised him, was a Communist, and he grew up with a bunch of radicals and hippies before they were called hippies, which is why he doesn’t see anything wrong with free love. He was taught that it was normal and natural, and that’s all.

I wandered back into the sitting room. “It just seems so weird that your brain isn’t fried. I know a girl from high school who’s so out of it, and it had to be drugs. She wasn’t like that in school.”

“That’s why I wasn’t interested.” Sid followed me out.

I noticed some papers on the coffee table. “What are these?”

“Autopsy report on Della.”

“That fast?”

“Not a lot of corpses in Douglas County.”

I picked the report up. “Where did you get it?”

“Marcia asked me if I wanted it, and I said yes, and she brought it up last night. She thought there might be some morbid curiosity, which at that point it was.”

“Three fifty-seven, three shots to the chest,” I read aloud. “Had recently had sexual intercourse, probably more than once. How many times did you two do it?”

Sid winced. “Only twice. I’m afraid I’m not seventeen anymore.”

My face felt hot. “I had to ask.” I turned back to the report. “Shots were at close range, but no other signs of a struggle. That’s odd.”

“Not if she knew her killer. There weren’t any signs of a struggle in her room either.”

I looked over the report. “It doesn’t say anything about the room.”

“I searched it this morning. It was clean. However, an interesting point, a pro had gone over it before me.”

“Tom Collins. No, it can’t have been him. He would have said something last night, and I’m certain he intends to stay out of this.”

Sid just shrugged.

“So how are we going to find the killer?” I asked.

“We could try asking the Sunland people.”

I sighed. “I’m sure they’ll tell us a lot.”

“If we ask the right questions, probably more than they want to. They’re all in their meeting right now. Why don’t I try later?”

I picked up my purse. “Sure. For now, I think I’ll take a walk. I’ve been wanting to since I got here.”

“Fine with me. Just take care of yourself.”

His smile was soft and gentle. I smiled back and beat it out of there in a hurry.

There’s a little clearing near the Heavenly ski area that I call my “by myself” place. Murray Waters, the manager at my father’s store, showed it to me the summer I was sixteen. Murray and I weren’t really close or anything like that. He’d just caught me sobbing in the stockroom over the usual adolescent woes, and showed me his favorite place to go when he was bugged. It was his way of reaching out.

It took me an hour to hike there. It’s surrounded by tall pines, except on one side, where a huge boulder forms a flat table overlooking the valley. The granite was rough and sparkled in the morning sun, and was freezing cold to the touch. I only spent a few minutes breathing in the still, then checked my watch and hiked back into town.

As I passed Daddy’s store, I stopped short. It was closed. I looked at my watch. Eight minutes after eleven. Even on Saturday mornings, as it was, the store opened at nine on the dot. Only on Sundays did the store open at eleven. It wasn’t like Murray to be that irresponsible.

Puzzled and frowning, I went around to the back. It was locked, too. I hefted out my key ring and unlocked the door.

“Hello?” I called, stepping into the dark stockroom.

No answer. I shut the door and turned on the light.

“Anybody here? Murray?”

I stepped through the shelves. The place was deserted. Near the door to the front of the store was a small desk attached to the wall. Above it was the wall phone, and next to the phone was a yellowed sheet of paper with names and phone numbers on it. It was so old, my name was still on it, from when I worked there in high school and during the summers when I was in college.

Murray’s number had been crossed out and had a new number next to it. I dialed the new number. No answer. I tried the old number, but that had been disconnected. On the list, several names had been crossed out and a couple news ones added. There was one name that I knew, Rita Hodges. She’s worked part time there ever since I can remember. I called her.

“Rita?” I asked when she answered. “This is Lisa Wycherly.”

“Lisa. I heard you were back in town.”

“Yeah, it’s business. I’m at the store right now, and it hasn’t been opened.”

“Where’s Murray?”

“I haven’t the faintest. I called him, but got no answer.”

“Oh dear. That’s just not like Murray. I guess I’d better come in. Just give me a few minutes to turn the roast off. Oh dear. I hope my kids haven’t left yet. They were coming over today.”

The guilt got me. Sid usually lets me have my weekends to myself. The meeting wasn’t due to let out until later that evening, anyway, and Sid had more or less said he was going to take care of talking to the Sunland people.

“Rita, don’t worry. I’ll work it. I’ve still got the keys. They haven’t made any big changes, have they?”

“Well, there’s that new computerized register.”

I looked into the store. “That one. I was still here when they put it in. Do you know who’s working tomorrow? I don’t see the schedule.”

“It’s on the back of the door like usual, and I always do open to close on Sundays.”

“That’s right. Great. It’ll give me some time to find Murray. I’ll talk to you later.”

“Bye-bye, Lisa.”

I hung up, then turned on the lights and went through the store. Everything was in perfect shape and ready to open. Even the stock room had been straightened. There was one shelf next to the desk that was pretty sloppy, with boxes upside down and skewed, but that certainly wasn’t anything unusual. Several cardboard cases were scattered among the shelves waiting to be unpacked, nothing strange about that. The store safe still had the previous night’s deposit bag, which was a little odd. The change bag for the register drawer was as it was supposed to be. I counted it out: one hundred and fifty dollars down to the penny.

I shut the register drawer, took a deep breath, unlocked the front door and turned around the closed sign. There were only a few people on the street, pretty much as could be expected for that time of year. I called Sid from the stockroom phone, leaning in the doorway. A couple wandered in and browsed.

“Hello?” asked Sid’s voice. It had a thick, funny feel to it. I figured he was asleep, although now that I think about it, I should have known better.

“It’s me. Something’s come up-”

“Mm. Is it urgent?”

“Well… I don’t know.”

“Can it wait an hour or two?”

“I suppose.”

“Oh, honey, watch the teeth!” This was obviously not directed at me, but it startled the heck out of me nonetheless. “That’s better, much better, oh yes.”

My face flushed red hot. “Um, you’re not alone, are you?”

“Not at all.” He chortled, then let out a happy sigh. “Is there a number where I can call you?”

I gave it to him and we hung up. I didn’t get much chance to grumble about it. The couple decided they wanted to buy some postcards, and three teenage girls walked in. It continued just busy enough to keep me from wondering about Sid until around one fifteen. He called about two minutes later, just as I located the work schedule taped to the back side of the stockroom door.

“Sorry about taking so long to get back to you,” he said, his voice back to normal. “She’s not taking off.”

“Oh. But…”

“She’s in the shower. What’s up?”

“I’m at my parents’ store. The guy that runs it isn’t here. I dropped by at eleven, and the store was still closed, and there’s no trace of Murray. I figure I may as well take over for the moment.”

“Given what’s been going on, something feels funny about that.”

“The same thought crossed my mind. But nothing’s messed up here. I gave the store a good once over before I opened. There is another possible explanation. Murray’s always been very trustworthy, but there’ve been an awful lot of rumors that he has a gambling problem, and I’ve gotten just enough hints from him to believe it might be true. Something could have pushed him over the deep end and he took off.”

“That’s just plausible enough that we can’t overlook it. How long do you think you’ll be there?”

“Good question.” I looked at the schedule. An Alice Martin was scheduled to show at two. “We’ve got a girl coming in, but I’m going to have to give her a break before I leave.”

“I suppose you should.”

A young man wandered up to the counter with a pan for gold kit and two souvenir mugs. I propped the phone against my shoulder and rung him up.

“That is, of course, assuming the girl shows. That’ll be twenty-three twenty- seven,” I told my customer.

“Why wouldn’t she?” asked Sid as I made change.

“Have a nice day,” I said to the young man. “I have no idea. Just the way things are going at the moment.”

Sid chuckled. “You may have a point. Why don’t I meet you down there?”

“Sure. Can you bring me some food? We’ve got nothing here but trail mix, and I’ve missed lunch.”

“Given your appetite, that’s tantamount to a catastrophe. I’ll see what I can do.”

“I can’t wait,” I grumbled blandly. “I’ll talk to you later.”

I hung up, pondering Alice Martin. The name sounded vaguely familiar. Then it hit. My girlfriend, Leslie Bowman, had babysat for the Martins when we were in high school. She’d always complained about how unreliable the parents were, always coming home hours later than they said they would, and what a precocious brat the little girl, Alice, was. I did some figuring and realized Alice had to be around sixteen.

It seemed strange that Murray would hire someone so young, but there seemed to be a lot of strangeness surrounding Murray at that moment. I checked the schedule again. Both Alice and Ruth were almost working full time for the next two weeks. That made sense, especially with those cases in the stockroom. It was time for winter changeover when all the summer sporting goods were packed away and the winter stuff put out. It was a royal pain, too. I decided that the front needed watching more than the cases needed unpacking.

I did go ahead and call the hospital, hoping to find Murray. He wasn’t there, and the nurse I talked to not only knew him but said that no unidentified patients had been admitted either. I called the police. They went over and checked his place. His car was there, but he wasn’t. The officers said there wasn’t anything they could do until he’d been missing seventy-two hours or I had good reason to suspect foul play. I did, but my reasons were too closely linked to Quickline, so I let it go.

By the time two o’clock rolled around, Sid still hadn’t shown. Neither had Alice. Around two twenty, I was helping a customer dig out some blueberry muffin mix from among the trail food when the door banged open with a loud jangle.

“Murray!” bellowed the youthful female voice. “Murray, I’ve got a big problem. I’ve got to take Friday off. You’ve gotta let me have it.”

“Excuse me,” I told my customer, then went over to the counter. “Murray’s not here. You must be Alice.”

She stepped back. She was blonde with long full hair that had been feathered back from her face and glued in place with hair spray. Her eyes were blue and framed with too much mascara. Tight jeans emphasized her round, but slender seat, while a tight, low cut v-necked sweater made the most of her ample chest.

“Who are you?” she demanded as I went to the register to ring up the customer.

“Hold on,” I said, then rang up the muffin mix.

Alice waited impatiently while I gave the guy his change.

“Who do you think you are?” she exploded as soon as the customer had left. “You can’t just walk in here and work like you own the place.”

“But I do, more or less. I’m Lisa Wycherly.”

“Oh. Like he’s your dad or something?”

“He’s my father.”

“Awesome.” She thought that one over with both brain cells. “Where’s Murray?”

I shrugged. “I was hoping you’d know.”

“Fat chance. You knew about the divorce.”

“I’d heard something about it.”

“Darla totally wiped him out. She, like, got everything, the house, the kids, the furniture, his dogs even, except for one.”

“How sad.” Somewhere in the back of my mind it registered that Murray and Darla were dog breeders, or had been.

“He’s totally broken up about it.”

“Maybe that has something to do with why he’s not here.”

Alice gaped. “Oh man, you don’t mean, like, he might have killed himself or something?”

“Let’s hope it was the something. In the meantime, there’s not much we can do about it.”

“But what am I going to do about Friday?”

“We’ll see. Maybe Rita can work it. You’ll have to talk to her, though. I’m not even supposed to be here. Why don’t you watch the front while I get some of that stock put away?”

Moping, Alice dumped her purse under the register and slumped onto the stool behind the counter. I checked my watch. There was no telling when Sid was going to show.

“Alice, I’m going to go get something to eat,” I said, picking up my purse. “I’m expecting my boss to come by. When he gets here, will you ask him to wait, please?”

“Is he single and cute?”

“He’s over eighteen, and you’re not.”

“What makes you so sure?” She smirked.

She did look older than she was.

“Remember your old babysitter, Leslie?”

“Yeah.”

“She was my best friend. She told me all about that time you and your cousin stayed up after you were supposed to be in bed and did nude cheesecake poses for each other.”

Alice groaned in pure adolescent agony. Smirking myself, I tossed my purse over my shoulder and went in search of lunch. I got a double burger, chili fries and black cherry malted to go from a hamburger stand down the street.

I returned to the store through the back and shut the door quietly. Neither Sid nor Alice noticed my entrance. They stood in the doorway to the front of the store, Alice leaning casually against the doorjamb, with Sid leaning on a hand placed above her and moving in for a kiss.

“She’s jailbait, Sid,” I said loudly.

Still smooth, Sid pulled back, chuckling and shaking his finger at her.

“Nice try, little girl,” he said.

Alice shifted her chest. “Maybe she’s, like, jealous.”

“Really?” replied Sid, with a bemused grin. “You got the I.D. to prove it?”

“Yeah.” Alice went after her purse.

“Trust me, Sid,” I said. “She is, without a doubt, a minor.”

Sid chuckled. “No fooling. She looks like she could be old enough, but I was going to card her.”

“Here,” said Alice, putting the card in Sid’s face.

Still smiling, Sid examined the surface, then held it up to the light. He laughed.

“Where’d you buy this?” he chuckled, handing it back.

“Reno,” said Alice in a small voice. “My friend got it for me.”

“Tell your friend to find a forger with the right paper,” said Sid.

“Well, I’m still eighteen.”

“Then why give me a phony I.D.?” Sid shook his head. “I’m sorry, honey, but I’m afraid not.”

“Come on. Why not?”

“When an overage guy plays with an underage girl, if they get caught, much anguish ensues.”

“That’s if they get caught.” Alice presented her chest again. “I’m not, like, telling anyone.”

Sid smiled. “There’ll be nothing to tell. Like my good friend said, you’re jailbait, honey, and frankly, I’m not looking to get busted. After you’re eighteen, I’m all yours. Until then, them’s the breaks. I’m sorry.”

Moping, Alice slumped off into the front.

“You don’t know how sorry,” Sid muttered, then turned to me.

“You can quit drooling now,” I snipped, dumping my lunch on the little desk. I looked at him. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be such a grouch. This whole thing with Murray has got me bugged. I was going through the stock out front to find out what we had so I could help the customers. We’ve got a lot of Sunland Products in.”

I opened the bag.

“I have a very nice tuna sandwich for you,” said Sid.

“Thanks. Why don’t you put it in the fridge there? I’ll eat it later.” I spread out the paper the hamburger had been wrapped in and put the carton of fries next to it.

Sid shook his head. “I’m not sure which is more appalling, the amount of food you have there, or its fat content.”

“It’s good stuff,” I said with my mouth full. “Want a fry?”

Sid grimaced and pulled back. “No thank you.”

I swallowed. “Your, uh, friend with the teeth.”

“Who?”

“You know. When I called you.”

“Oh, her.”

“She wouldn’t happen to have been a Sunland Products employee, would she?”

“Nope.” Sid sighed as I shoveled a huge bite of chili, cheese, chopped onion and french fry into my mouth. “They’re all gone.”

“What?”

“They took off this morning. My, uh, friend this afternoon told me that they felt they didn’t feel right about staying, given the murder, an altogether shocking display of sentiment over corporate spirit. Either that or someone decided a lack of sentiment wouldn’t score any points for the company’s image.”

“That’s a very cynical way of looking at it.” I mused as I sucked down some shake. “Then again, it would also be very convenient if someone wanted a way out of here in a hurry that wouldn’t look suspicious.”

“Indeed. That thought crossed my mind also, but there’s no real way of confirming it for the moment. I did confirm the departure of the Sunland people with the hotel staff. Our next chance to talk with them will be at Della’s funeral.”

“When’s that?”

“Monday, in San Francisco. That’s where her parents are.”

“You want me to go with you?”

“It could be useful, but I think not. Showing up as her last lover and possible killer will be bad enough. Having another woman with me would be too tacky. You know what people always assume.”

“Too well.” I paused to swallow. “Have you found anything else out about the murder?”

“Nope. I haven’t even seen Lehrer today.”

“I knew something was going right.” I smiled and looked at him. “Are you alright?”

“Fine. Why do you keep asking me that?”

I shrugged. “Della was quite a loss for you.”

“It was the shock. I hadn’t seen her in fifteen years, then to stumble onto her, not to mention the rude awakening by Lehrer.”

“Yeah, right. There are all those memories, and what you said about… being with her. You can’t pretend those don’t get to you.”

“Well…” Sid squirmed a little. “Yes, she meant a lot. But I got that out of my system Thursday night.”

“Hm.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I don’t buy it. You’ve been acting a little funny since it happened. Nothing big, just a little off. Like with the cocaine this morning. You looked like you really wanted some.”

“I did.” Sid shrugged at my gape. “I told you, it’s one powerful high.”

“I wouldn’t know. But you’ve also been exceptionally active, even for you. I mean two girls yesterday, another this afternoon. Keep this up, and you’ll set a record.”

“I’m not interested in scorekeeping.”

“I know. That’s what’s bugging me. It’s like you’re trying to make up for Della or forget her.”

Sid studied the floor. “Not so much forget as…” The moment passed. He chuckled. “Either way, you wouldn’t believe the offers I’m getting.”

“I suppose refusing them never crossed your mind.”

“I’ve refused several. Believe it or not, even I can only do so much. I’m not a bull from Montana.”

“Then to what do you attribute your immediate popularity?”

Sid laughed lecherously.

“I mean besides that,” I snapped.

“I know. I’m sorry. The more immediate attraction must be the glamor and thrill of living dangerously.”

“I don’t get it.”

“How healthy can sleeping with a murder suspect be?”

“I don’t know. Have you picked up any diseases lately?”

Sid laughed. “I’ve been taking precautions. How about you?”

“Me?”

“It’s part of what took me so long to get over here. Marcia called. She said Lehrer has decided you have as good a motive as any, and he’s pushing the theory that you killed Della out of jealousy.”

“That’s ridiculous. He knows we’re not sleeping together. What have I got to be jealous of?” I took a huge bite of my burger.

“It’s your secret desire to sleep with me and you can’t bear that another woman is.”

“Make that plural, and it’s no secret I’d like to sleep with you. But I’m certainly not jealous. Heck, I’m your friend. That’s infinitely better than being a one night stand in my book.”

“Not necessarily in everyone else’s.”

“That’s why there are one night stands.”

“Fortunately for me.”

I wiped my mouth. “Well, at least there’s no evidence.”

“I doubt that will stop Lehrer from manufacturing some. We’ll have to really keep an eye on him and our noses clean.”

“To be sure.” I stretched then gathered together the wrappings from my lunch. “What are you going to do for the rest of the day?”

He shrugged. “Not much really. With the Sunland people gone and Lehrer on the prowl, I don’t know that there’s much I can do. Why don’t I stick around here, if I’m not in the way.”

“Why not?” I looked at the cases all over the stockroom. “You could even help.”

“Doing what, pray tell? They’re not exactly lining up out there.”

I pointed to the wall displays. “See all those rafts and beach towels and all that water ski equipment? They have to be taken down and packed away, then all these boxes here in the stock room opened, checked in, priced and put out, along with the winter displays.”

“And do I get paid for this?”

“The same as I’m getting paid.” I grinned.

“Let’s see, that’s contributing to your eventual inheritance, but nothing beyond that. Am I right?”

“You’ll also get my undying gratitude.”

“Oh, goody. Better than minimum wage.” He slid out of his jacket.

“Hey, don’t. I was just teasing.”

“I may as well.”

“Why not go back to the hotel and catch up on some of the sleep you’ve been missing?”

Sid grinned sheepishly. “Actually, I already did that. I was pretending to be asleep to get rid of Lynn and really did conk out. I didn’t wake up until Marcia called at two thirty.”

“I mean it, Sid,” I said, putting my hand on his arm. “Don’t do anything you don’t want to do. If you want to hang out here, fine. Just do me a favor and keep your hands off the customers.”

“Might be good for business.”

“It would ruin my father’s professional image.”

Sid slid his watch chain into his vest pocket and opened his vest.

“Alright, I’ll be nice and conventional. Where do we start?”

“You really don’t have to. I mean, at least it’ll come back to me sooner or later.”

“Lisa, I don’t mind. I’m serious. Maybe I’ll do a behind the scenes piece on the retail industry. This counts as research. I should be able to find a way to take it off on my taxes.”

“Alright.” I looked at the shelf next to the desk and sighed. “We probably should get the shelves cleared and organized first.”

Starting next to the desk, we went to work. By six, we’d cleared a good third of the stockroom. I sent Alice on her break, while Sid kept working.

Five minutes later, Fletcher Haddock walked in, just what I didn’t need.

“What are you doing here?” he asked, startled. “Where’s-  I mean, didn’t you say you were a secretary?”

“Yeah, I’m just helping out. My dad owns the place, remember?”

“Right. Yeah.”

“Can I help you find something?”

Fletcher looked around. “No, actually. I, uh, came in to talk to the manager.” He flashed his name badge. “You’re one of our customers.”

“He’s not here.”

“No, huh?” Fletcher thought that one over. For a second, he seemed worried, but I couldn’t be sure. All of a sudden, he smiled. “Well, that’s that. Say, when do you get off?”

“Late.” I fidgeted with the register keys.

“I’ll bet I can get us into a midnight show tonight.”

“No thanks, Fletcher. I figure I’ll be pretty tired.”

He hesitated. “Look, you’ve still got my card, right?”

“Yes, I do.” I wasn’t sure where it was, but I didn’t want to give him an excuse to give it to me again.

“You be sure and call me, okay?”

“We’ll see. I’m usually pretty busy.”

“No hard feelings about Thursday night?”

“No.”

“I just want to talk, I swear. Promise you’ll call me?”

“Fletcher, I don’t even know when I’m going to get home at the rate things are going.”

“Anytime you’ve got problems and want to talk, I’ll be there. I’m serious.” And strangely enough, he seemed sincere.

“Fine. I’ll do that.”

“Alright. I’ll talk to you later.”

I slumped onto the stool. Sid had the decency to wait until Fletcher was gone before coming to the stockroom door.

“Who was he?”

“Fletcher Haddock.” I shook my head.

“Someone from your distant past?”

“Not unless you want to count Thursday night. He seemed really nice.”

“I take it he wasn’t.”

I kicked at a spot on the floor. “We had a really nice time. We walked around. He tried to show me how to bet odds at craps. We talked. He’s even Catholic. Said he sings in the choir.”

“So what happened?”

“He walked me to the room, stuck his tongue down my throat, then tried to con me into letting him in.”

“With the intent of having you for a nightcap.”

“Where do these guys get the idea that we’re going to fall for their lines? I’m so sick of it. I lay it all out, right up front, and they still assume I’ll say yes. And the thing that really annoys me is that Fletcher says he goes to church. Why the heck isn’t he practicing it? I really hate that half way attitude. It’s what gives Catholics a bad name. I mean what’s wrong with just dating? Why does every guy I meet think of me as a potential wife or a one night stand? I’m so sick of it. Fletcher says he just wants to talk. If I’ve got problems, he’ll be there. Sure, he will. He’s after only one thing, but do you think he’ll admit it? No. The jerk is practically howling at the moon, and he thinks I haven’t figured out his game plan. It’s bad enough I fell for it Thursday night. And of course, just to make things really perfect, I walk into the suite and what do I get? The sounds of passion, live and in concert from your bedroom.”

“I’m sorry,” said Sid.

It suddenly dawned on me what I’d said.

“Oh, Sid!” I blinked back the tears. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have been so thoughtless. I shouldn’t even be bothering you with this.”

“It’s not bothering me, Lisa. This guy obviously hurt you.”

“Not as badly as you’re hurting now.”

“I’m not hurt so bad that I can’t be there for you.” He came over, lifted me from the stool and held me. “Come on. It’s your turn to lean on me.”

I slid my arms around his waist. “Sid, I…”

“Sh. It’s alright.” He pressed his lips to my hair.

The door jangled. I scrambled away from Sid just in time to see Lehrer come straight for the counter.

“Well, well, well,” he growled. “And what do we have here?”

“Can I help you, Investigator?” I asked coldly.

Lehrer hesitated, looking us over, then nodded. “You two are coming with me down to the station.”

Sid sighed. “Just one moment, while I get my jacket.”

“Hold it, Sid,” I said. “We don’t have to go anywhere with him. He’s out of his jurisdiction. We’re in California, remember?”

Lehrer snorted. “Yeah, well, I need some questions answered, and you two had better cooperate, or I’ll get a California warrant.”

“So ask,” said Sid.

Alice had to come back from her break just then. I sent her behind the counter and moved the rest of us to the stockroom.

Lehrer dug out a notepad and pen. “Alright, Hackbirn, where do you live?”

“In Beverly Hills,” said Sid, adding the street address.

“And you, Wycherly?”

I hesitated. “It’s the same address.”

Lehrer looked me over and smirked.

“We’re not lovers!” I snapped.

“Oh really,” replied Lehrer. “How long have you two known each other?”

“A little over a year,” said Sid.

“You say you write for magazines.”

“Yes,” said Sid. “As a matter of fact, you can find my column in On Our Own. I believe I saw this month’s issue in the gift shop back at the hotel.”

“This month’s Forbes has that budget piece,” I added.

“Really?” Lehrer looked me over again.

“Lisa is my secretary and only my secretary,” said Sid with that edge to his voice that means he’s getting really angry.

“How long you known Della Riordan?” Lehrer asked.

“It’s hard to say,” said Sid. “We hadn’t seen each other in a lot of years when we met again by chance Thursday night.”

“What do you know about how she made her living?”

“I knew she was an accountant.”

“Did she say anything about any side businesses?”

“No.”

“Didn’t ask you to hold anything for her?”

“No. What are you leading up to?” Sid looked Lehrer over carefully.

“Well, a California police department asked to keep an eye out for Ms. Riordan. It seems she was here to make a little drug delivery, and we are cooperating with the Sunnyvale P. D.”

I held my breath. Sid shrugged.

“If Della was interested in anything besides catching up on old times, she certainly didn’t tell me about it,” he said without batting an eye.

“That’s good, Hackbirn,” said Lehrer, puffing himself up. “That’s real good. You just keep watching your step. Things don’t look too good for either of you, especially what I saw when I came in.”

He sauntered out. I just barely kept my mouth shut until I was sure Lehrer was gone.

“Of all the no-good, lousy…” I screamed in frustration.

Sid smiled softly. “Rats. For a second there, I thought you were actually going to swear.”

I kicked the shelf. “Why does he have to be so obnoxious?”

“I think what he said about Della is a lot more interesting.” Sid leaned on the desk.

“What do you mean?”

“That little drug delivery?”

“You mean that cocaine was Della’s?”

“Must be. It accounts for that pro who went over her room. Della must have spotted a tail and dropped the box in your purse.”

“And it was right next to her, too.” I sat down in the desk chair. “Oh great. I hope we don’t get searched again.”

“Don’t worry. I put the goods in the false bottom for the moment. What do you want, Alice?”

She leaned in the doorway. “What was that all about?”

“That woman that was murdered the other night,” I said.

“Ooo.” Alice’s face scrunched up in disgust. “Does Lehrer think you guys did it, or something? He’s, like, such a jerk.” The door jangled. “Gotta go.”

“We should probably destroy that box,” I said as soon as I heard Alice talking to the customer.

“Possibly. We still have an operative to dispose of. A couple counts of possession wouldn’t hurt.”

“True.” I sighed and looked at my watch. “Sheesh. It’s after seven. I thought I was getting hungry.”

Sid snickered.

I glared. “We are two hours late for dinner. That’s a long time even for you.”

“It is at that.” He smiled. “I’ve got an idea. Why don’t we get changed? You get a dress on. I’ll clean up. Then we’ll go get dinner and hit the tables.”

I shrugged. “Don’t you want to engage in your usual extra-curricular activity?”

“Nope.” He rolled down his sleeves and put the cufflinks back in. “To be honest, if you’ll pardon the expression, I’m pretty much petered out for the moment.”

[It went right past you. You didn’t even blink – SEH]

“Oh. Why don’t we just play cards in the suite?”

Sid looked me over as he buttoned up his vest. “Why don’t you want to go out?”

“Well…” My face felt hot. “It’s going to sound really stupid, but it’s your reputation. I mean people are already talking, and with Lehrer trying to push me killing Della in a fit of jealous passion…”

Sid nodded. “That is a point. However, I doubt staying in the suite is going to do anything to put those rumors to rest. If anything, an early evening could make it worse.”

“Yeah, I guess it would.”

Sid put his fingers on my chin. “Lisa, people are going to talk no matter what we do. I say to hell with them. Talk can’t do a thing to us, so we’ve got nothing to lose by it, and like the song says, that’s freedom.”

“You’re right.” I got up. “I guess I’m a little worried about my parents finding out, but really, if they can’t handle it, it’s their problem.”

I grabbed my purse and we sauntered out. On the sidewalk, Sid’s arm floated down across my shoulders.

“I hope you don’t expect me to play high stakes,” I said. “I refuse to bet more than I’m prepared to lose.”

“I can front you, if you like, for a cut of the proceeds, of course.”

“What if I lose?”

“But, my dear, you forget I am one lucky man.” He smiled and gave me a quick squeeze. “An incredibly lucky man. So relax. We’ll go blow some bucks and have a good time.”

We did, too, furtive stares notwithstanding. And gambling with Sid was a blast. He is incredibly lucky and it rubbed off on me for a change. I actually left the casino with three times my original stake.

 

Chapter Two

spy novel, cozy mystery, serial fictionSeptember 16, 1983

 

The sound of a buzzer pulled me awake. Silence reigned. I looked at the room’s clock radio. Three forty-one glowed back at me. The buzzer went off again, and I realized it was someone at the door of the suite. Yawning, I got my robe and went to answer it.

I wake up slow, and I really hate having my sleep interrupted, so maybe I was a little surly, to begin with.

“Yeah?” I grunted as I opened the door.

A short portly man in a badly cut suit flashed a badge at me.

“I’m Investigator Lehrer, Douglas County Sheriff’s,” he announced, walking in. “I’d like to ask you some questions.”

“It’s a quarter til four in the morning,” I said.

“We’ve gotta get on this thing fast. You been here all evening?”

“I got in at one-thirty. Why?”

The coat closet door was open and Lehrer looked closely at Sid’s overcoat.

“This your coat?” he demanded.

“No. It’s my boss’s.”

“Where’s he?”

“In his room, asleep.”

“Has he been here all evening?”

“He was here when I got in. What is this all about?”

“Did you see him?”

“No, I heard him. Why are you here?”

“I’m investigating a crime, lady. Trot your boss out here. I gotta talk to him.”

There didn’t seem any point in antagonizing the jerk. I went over to the bedroom and rapped on the door.

“Sid? You want to wake up?”

I heard faint mumbling inside, but that didn’t mean anything. Sid talks incessantly in his sleep.

“He’s a very deep sleeper,” I told Lehrer.

“So go in and wake him up.”

I tried to remember if there was any due process that Lehrer was violating, but was too tired and fuzzy to think. The last thing I wanted to do was go into that bedroom. I knocked harder.

“Sid, wake up,” I yelled. I turned to Lehrer. “I’m sorry. He’s not going to wake up.”

“Lady, go in and wake him. In the meantime, I’ll have a little look around.”

“Do you have a search warrant?”

“Not yet.”

“Then wait until you do.”

Taking a deep breath, I cracked the door and peeked in. Della had gone, but that wasn’t the only reason I hesitated. Sid sleeps in the raw, and I wasn’t interested in getting an education.

He was laying on his stomach on one side of the bed, with the blankets up to his shoulders. I went in and turned on the lights, leaving the door cracked open.

“Sid? Will you wake up?” I asked.

“It was worth it,” he muttered, still out.

I went over and prodded his shoulder. “Come on, Sid, wake up.”

He giggled. I shook him. “Sid, wake up.”

I shook him again. It was no use. He was out cold. I debated pulling him out of bed and presenting him to Lehrer that way, but it would have humiliated Sid, not to mention me having to face him in his birthday suit.

I went into the bathroom and got a glass of water. In the bedroom, Sid rolled over onto his back. I sprinkled a few drops onto his chest.

“Try it again,” he mumbled, not knowing what he was saying.

I did.

“Where is she? Where is she?”

I flicked water into his face. He grimaced, rubbed at it, then slowly opened his eyes and sat up.

I turned my back quickly.

“Della?” he mumbled fuzzily.

“It’s me, Lisa.”

“I must have fallen asleep.” He yawned, then sounded a lot more alert. “Why am I wet? And turn around. I’m covered.”

And not one hair on his head was out of place. Even when he sleeps, it stays perfect.

I turned around. “I’m sorry. There’s a sheriff’s investigator out there who wants to talk to you. He insisted I wake you up.” I put the glass of water on the nightstand.

“Cops?” He picked his pocket watch up off the nightstand and squinted at it. “It’s almost four a.m. What the hell is he doing here?”

“I don’t know. I asked, but he won’t answer.”

“Alright. Tell him I’ll be out as soon as I get something on.”

I nodded and left.

“He’ll be out in a minute,” I announced shutting the room.

“Lisa!” gasped a tall sandy-haired uniform officer.

Jimmy Roth had been one of the seven or so kids I mostly hung out with in high school. We’d lost touch shortly after graduation.

“Jimmy,” I gasped back. “You’re a cop?”

He rolled his eyes. “It’s called making a living with a sociology degree. What are you doing here?”

“Shacking up,” sniggered Lehrer.

“I’m sleeping in the other room,” I snapped. Blushing, I looked at Jimmy. “I’m here with my boss.”

“Why aren’t you staying at your folks’ place?”

“They’re out of town.”

Lehrer looked more closely at me. “You’re local.”

“Was,” I said.

“Bill Wycherly’s her dad,” said Jimmy.

“Well, I’ll be,” muttered Lehrer.

Sid came out of the bedroom in a robe provided by the hotel, and it was a safe bet, nothing else. It had probably taken him all that time to find it.

“What can I do for you?” he asked calmly.

“You Sid Hackbirn?” demanded Lehrer.

“Yes.”

“Investigator Lehrer, Officer Roth, Douglas County Sheriff’s Department. What time did you get back to your room tonight?”

“Roughly ten p.m.”

“I understand you were not alone.”

“No.” Sid was acting completely bored.

“Who was she?”

Sid smiled. “I’m afraid I’m not at liberty to say.”

“Real cute,” Lehrer sneered. “I’m investigating a crime here.”

“Obviously. Which crime?”

“The murder of Ms. Della Riordan.”

I crossed myself. Sid stared at Lehrer.

“Della?” he whispered. “What happened?”

Completely satisfied, Lehrer read from his notebook. “At approximately two a.m., a room service waiter and some of the other guests heard a gun shot. The waiter saw someone leaving Ms. Riordan’s room in a big hurry. The waiter investigated and found Ms. Riordan’s body in her room. One of her co-workers, who had an adjacent room and also heard the shot, said Ms. Riordan accompanied you to this room around ten. That’s why we’re here.”

Sid sank slowly onto the couch.

“You’ve confirmed the times,” I said coolly. “Now will you please excuse us?”

“Not so fast,” snapped Lehrer. “The suspect was wearing a tan overcoat, and I just happened to notice a tan overcoat hanging in that closet there. I’d like to look around here a little more closely.”

“If a tan overcoat is the only probable cause you’ve got, then you’re on very shaky ground,” I growled, hanging onto my temper with both fists. “That overcoat has been hanging there since six thirty this evening. As for searching the room, we will be happy to let you once we have been duly served with a search warrant.”

“Listen, lady, I can make life plenty tough for you.”

“That goes two ways, Investigator.”

Lehrer glared at me, then left. Jimmy looked after him then back at me.

“Lisa,” he said, worried. “It doesn’t pay to get on Lehrer’s bad side. He’s a real S.O.B., and he plays tough.”

“So do I, Jimmy.”

Jimmy looked at me funny. “You’ve really changed, Lisa.”

“In some ways. Haven’t we all?”

“I’d better get going. Listen, uh, call me, huh? I just got married two months ago.”

“Congratulations. Anyone I know?”

“Nah. A girl I met at Sacramento State.” Jimmy swallowed. “You’d like her. See you.”

He hurried out. Sighing, I turned to Sid, still sitting in shock on the sofa.

“Sid?” I asked softly.

He glanced at me, then shook his head.

“She’s dead,” he said quietly. “We made love. God, it was better than anything I remember, and…”

He swallowed. I sat down next to him and put my hand on his shoulder.

“Sid, go ahead and let your grief out. I’m here.”

He looked at me and laid his hand on my knee.

“Thanks, but I’ll be fine. I know you’re just trying…” His voice broke, then he recovered. “Just trying to help, but I’ll be okay. Really. I will.”

“It’d be a shame if you didn’t shed a few tears for the one woman you really loved.”

He shook his head. “I don’t cry, Lisa. I just don’t.” His eyes closed and he swallowed. “Oh, Christ, I just rolled over and fell asleep.”

I put my arms around him and held him as the grief took over. His arms found their way around me and he laid his head on my shoulder. The tears came slowly and the sobs that shook him were silent. I kissed the soft, dark wavy hair.

“Let it out,” I whispered softly and rocked him. “I’m here. Just let it out. It’s alright.”

It was a good long cry. Finally, Sid lifted his head from my shoulder. He sniffed once and wiped the tears from his face.

“I haven’t cried since I was a small child,” he said, embarrassed by the emotion.

“It’s about time you did then.”

“I don’t know. It’s such a shock.” He paused. “They suspect me, don’t they?”

“I wouldn’t worry about it. I don’t think Jimmy does, and Lehrer’s just too taken with his own self-importance. I’m going to file a complaint tomorrow.”

Sid took a deep breath. “We’ve also got some equipment to dispose of.”

“That’s right. All those guns we have won’t look too good.”

“We’ll have to be very careful about how we sneak them out. We can’t get caught with them on us. Damn it. I hate working unarmed.”

“Let’s not worry about it now. The courts don’t open ‘til ten, and the nearest one is in Carson City, I think. Lehrer won’t be able to do anything until after that. We’d better get back to bed. It’s been a long day, and sure as shooting, tomorrow will be just as long.”

Sid yawned. “You mean today.”

I got up and stretched. “Come on.”

I pulled him up off the couch and pushed him to his room. He stopped at the door.

“Lisa, will you just hold me?”

I did. He shook ever so slightly, then rested. I almost didn’t want him to let me go. When he did, he put his hand on my cheek.

“Lisa, I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

“I don’t know what I’d do without you, Sid. Goodnight.”

“Goodnight, Lisa.”

I reached over and kissed his cheek, then went back to bed.

Sid let me sleep until seven thirty before banging on my door to get me to go running. Sid runs for an hour every morning and it’s only on rare occasions that he lets me out of running with him. He was waiting for me when I finally stumbled out of my room in my warm up suit. I yawned and stretched.

“How are you feeling?” I asked softly.

“Better,” he replied. “Fortunately, I’ve got other things to concentrate on. Let’s get going.”

His warm up suit looked pretty bulky, but I wasn’t going to say anything.

“You know any place on the California side where we can run along the lakefront?” he asked as we went down the elevator.

“Not really. We could try the marina, but you don’t really get any long stretches.”

“Damn. I was hoping we could do this in California.”

Downstairs, we found the Mercedes ourselves and drove up Highway 50 a ways further into Nevada. Sid parked near a stand of pines.

“I don’t get it,” I said, following him to the back of the car. “Where are we going to put everything?”

“In the car.” He opened the trunk.

“But the search warrant will probably cover that, too.”

Sid smiled. “That doesn’t mean he’ll find anything.”

He felt for a minute under the rim.

“Got it.” The floor of the trunk popped up. “Behold, my dearest ice maiden, a very good false bottom.”

“That’s pretty neat,” I said smiling.

Sid double checked for passersby. There were none. He removed the warm up top. Underneath was all our equipment: two model thirteen revolvers with shoulder holsters, two twenty-two automatics with leg straps, lock picks, a miniature camera, two pairs of night binoculars, the transmitters and receivers, even a roll of silver duct tape.

“I left the strapping tape in your purse,” said Sid handing it all to me. “And the viewer and the bug finder. We can explain those. Get this put away while I get my top back on. We don’t want someone to see me like this.”

“That and it’s cold out here.”

Our breath made little clouds, while in the sky, big clouds, some dark and threatening, floated across. Sid zipped up the front of his top and put his keys in his pocket.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “We won’t run too long.”

We were both a little tense as we stretched out. Neither of us is very fond of guns or using them. But being without them and on a job was pretty unnerving. We weren’t completely unarmed. Both of us had a fair amount of equipment stashed in the soles of our shoes, and we both hid things in our hair, but it didn’t have quite the same security firepower did.

There was also that pick up to check out. It was still in my purse. I had checked for it the night before and hadn’t seen anything. That didn’t mean it wasn’t there. I hadn’t looked very hard, and my purse is huge and things get lost in it. I figured Sid must have seen it when he got my gun and had decided that it wasn’t anything suspicious. I decided to wait until he brought it up.

Back at the hotel, Sid called room service while I was in the shower. I know because the door buzzed just as I finished dressing and there was the waiter with breakfast. The tip was on the coffee table. The waiter put it all on the conference table and left with a smile on his face.

“Is that breakfast?” Sid called as I said grace in five seconds.

“Yep.” I helped myself to fresh fruit salad.

“I’ll be there in a minute. Do me a favor and don’t start eating without me.”

“Too late.” I took advantage of Sid’s absence to spread the butter extra thick on the whole wheat toast.

“Lisa, must you inhale everything within reach?”

“Not everything.” I drained my glass of orange juice. “I’m leaving you your prune juice.”

“Very funny.”

“I thought so.”

“Just leave me something to eat, will you?”

“Don’t worry. I will. What I wouldn’t do for a bowl of Lucky Charms right now.”

The door to Sid’s bedroom opened, and he stood in the doorway wearing a dark pinstriped three-piece suit with a white shirt and dark tie. The only thing marring his appearance was the look of utter disgust on his face.

“In the first place, Lisa, if you are going to make an offer like that, the least you could do is make it for something a lot more worthwhile, or at minimum, more palatable. In the second, must you turn my stomach so early in the morning?”

I shrugged and picked up my glass of milk. “Yuck! This is warm.”

It was also non-fat, which I’ll drink, but I don’t like it.

“With all the fussing you do over waste, I’d think twice about leaving it.”

I held my breath and swallowed. “This stuff is bad enough cold. Warm, it’s positively vile.”

I checked my watch. It was a little after nine. We had an appointment with the hotel manager at nine thirty.

Sid ate, completely distracted.

“You okay?” I asked.

“Fine,” he replied, coming alert.

“Anything special you want to focus on during the meeting?”

He squeezed his eyes shut and rubbed his temple.

“I suppose I’d better start thinking about that.”

“You want to reschedule it?”

“There’s no point in it.” He opened his eyes.

“Thinking about Della?”

“Yes and no. I’m thinking about that pickup. I can’t help wondering if Della’s murder isn’t somehow connected to that job we’re supposed to do.” He got out his pocket watch and popped it open. A soft smile crept onto his lips as he checked the time to the quiet tinkling of the music box. “Why don’t we go over the notes for the interview one more time? And remember, if you have any questions or ideas, I want you to make sure you ask.”

“Right.”

I was pretty nervous about the whole thing. Sid usually does his interviews by himself, although I get stuck transcribing the tapes. But this time was different. When the Tahoe job came up the week before, he mentioned that having a legitimate reason to be up there wouldn’t be a bad idea. So we brainstormed out some article ideas, and I came up with one on how the casino was doing a lot to support arts and other community projects in the area. Sid really liked it, made a couple calls and had the article sold within an hour.

Then he insisted that I work on it, too, partly to make my presence more legitimate and partly because it was my idea, and well, I’d been doing some writing myself and was doing okay. [You were doing very well – SEH]  Sid had been helping me a lot, but this was the first time we were technically collaborating.

I got out the file and the cassette recorder from my purse. I handed the file to Sid, then went rooting around for the batteries. Instead, I found an index card and a box about the same size wrapped in brown paper. I pulled them out.

“Sid, don’t you think these look a little suspicious?”

He looked over at the box. “Where did that come from?”

“My purse. Didn’t you see it when you got my gun this morning?”

“There are some things no man in his right mind will do, and one of them is examine the contents of a woman’s purse. I grabbed the gun and got out.” He took the card and box. “There’s a cipher on this. Looks like you’ve got a meeting tonight. He says he can’t afford to play guessing games, so it’s got to be you. It’s at one forty-five a.m. at a place called Road Show.”

“Oh, help.”

“You know it?” He tore the card into tiny pieces and stuck them in his pants pocket.

“Everybody knows the Road Show. No one would be caught dead there, but we all know it.”

“What is it?”

“It’s a bar down in Meyers, basically Tahoe’s version of the wrong side of the tracks. A lot of truckers hang out there.”

Sid grimaced. “Sounds lovely. Well, we’ll have to table the logistics on this until later. We’ve got some interviews to do.”

“What about the package? We can’t leave it with Lehrer coming.”

“We’ll just have to find a place to hide it.”

“But where?”

“For the moment, where you found it. We’ll find someplace else as we go.”

“Terrific.” I put the box in my purse, my enthusiasm at a very low ebb.

Mr. Fred Jackson, the hotel manager, was middle-aged with sandy hair, a nice tan, and a trim figure. He greeted us congenially and made no objection to taping the interview.

“I just wish I could give you a little more time,” he said. “Something came up with the office staff last night.”

“Really? What?” asked Sid.

“Oh, nothing big. The cleaning staff is supposed to be out of here by ten at night, and they were goofing off again. It throws the security people off.”

Sid mused. “Must be pretty tight up here.”

Jackson chuckled. “Tight enough. But we’re a lot more worried about all the cash downstairs. Mostly, the guards just have to wait for the cleaning staff to get out so they can lock up the offices. Listen, why don’t you two make yourselves comfortable? Would you like some coffee? Tea? Mineral water?”

“Mineral water sounds good,” said Sid. “Thank you.”

“Miss Wycherly?”

I swallowed a yawn. “A cup of tea would be great. Thanks.”

“Great. I’ll be right back.”

He left quickly. I took the box out of my purse and looked for a good place to hide it.

“Lisa, caffeine is a drug,” Sid said, scowling as he dumped the pieces of the card he’d torn up into Jackson’s waste basket.

“At the moment, I need it. I don’t know how you’re managing with so little sleep. Behind here?” I pointed to a small Native American statue on a shelf next to a window.

“Sure. Let’s just hope Lehrer serves us quickly and we can get back here today.” He turned out his pocket to be sure he’d gotten all of the torn-up pieces out.

“If we can’t, I only saw a couple surveillance cameras, and they were pointed at the file cabinets.”

“Let’s keep an eye out for any others.”

Jackson came back at that point, and we did our interview. It was close to ten thirty when Lehrer showed with the search warrant.

“Now hold on here, Carl,” said Jackson. “I don’t want you harassing my guests.”

“I’ve got the warrant,” said Lehrer. “Due process is being served. Come on, you two.”

We went down to our suite. Two uniform cops, one a young woman, were already going through the sitting room.

“I want these two patted down,” ordered Lehrer. He went into Sid’s room.

“Okay, hands on your head,” said the young man.

Bored, Sid did as he was told, and the young officer went over him. The woman came up to me. I nervously put my hands on my head. Sid smiled at the woman.

“Aren’t you going to pat me down?” he asked her, his eyes twinkling.

“Only on my own time,” she replied with an amiable grin.

“You’re clean,” said the young man to Sid.

“What’s your name?” Sid asked the young woman.

“Marcia Alwitz.”

Lehrer came back into the sitting room. “You two take the room apart. I want to look at his car.”

“I’ll take you down,” said Sid. He winked at Marcia. “Let me know when you’re off.”

She chuckled, then went over me quickly.

“Doesn’t that bother you?” she asked as she finished. “Purse.”

I handed it to her. “What?”

“Him picking up on me like that. I mean, I know he was only joking.”

“Oh, he was serious.”

Shaking her head, Marcia emptied the purse out onto the conference table.

“Sheez. If my boyfriend did that to me, I’d drop him on his can so fast his eyeballs’d spin right out of their sockets.”

Her partner laughed. “That’s if he was lucky.”

I checked the name on his badge. It was Shockney.

“He’s not my boyfriend,” I sighed. “I just work for him.”

“That’s not what Lehrer says,” snickered Shockney.

“Hey,” growled Marcia. “It’s bad enough the guy’s suspected of murder.”

“He didn’t do it,” I said. “He loved Della.”

“Don’t worry,” said Marcia. “Lehrer’s just got some ax to grind is all. They haven’t got a thing on your boss. The waiter said the suspect was tall and dressed real ratty.”

“Great, Marcia,” said Shockney. “Discuss the case with the suspects.”

“Have you found anything?” she returned. “Do you honestly think we’re going to?”

She had her hand on my bug finder, only it looks like a beeper, so she paid it no mind. Shockney tossed a pillow back onto the couch.

“This is pointless,” he grumbled and went into my room.

Marcia swept all my stuff back into my purse. A few minutes later, Lehrer and Sid returned. Lehrer was not happy.

“Find anything on her?” he snarled at Marcia.

“‘Fraid not, sir,” she replied.

“Where’s Shockney?”

Marcia pointed. Lehrer went into my room. Marcia smiled at Sid.

“I’m told you weren’t joking,” she said.

“I do and I don’t,” he said, his smile lecherous.

“Sid, must you?” I groaned.

He sighed, then smiled at Marcia. “We’ll talk later.”

Lehrer stomped out of my room grumbling. He glared at Sid and me.

“You’re clean. I don’t know how the hell you did it, but you’re clean.”

“It might be because we didn’t do anything,” said Sid.

“You’re not off the hook yet,” said Lehrer. “And I’d watch the smart remarks, Hackbirn. You’ll only make trouble for yourself.”

He nodded at Shockney and Marcia, and they left. Sid took a deep breath in the silence that followed. He pulled his pocket watch out and popped it open. The tinkling of Bach’s Minuet in G slowly eased the tension in the room. He smiled softly, letting it play, then popped it shut.

“We’ve got just enough time to make our next interview,” he said. “Let’s go.”

We spent the rest of the morning interviewing the president of the Lake Tahoe Cultural Arts Alliance, then various other civic group leaders. All of them knew my parents, and several knew me.

“What I want to know, Lisa,” asked my old drama teacher, who also ran the community theater company, “is what is all this nonsense I’m hearing about you and that murder in Stateline last night?”

I looked over at Sid. He shifted but remained calm.

“It’s a long story,” I said. “Sid and I really didn’t have anything to do with it. It was just bad luck that the victim was… Well, she and Sid had been visiting.”

Mrs. Roberts gave Sid the once over and smiled. “Oh.”

“Why don’t we start with how the casino has been helping your group?” said Sid.

That, more or less, kept her distracted, and the subject didn’t come up again.

We tried meeting up with Mr. Jackson at the hotel around one, but he swept us out of his office and took us to lunch in his private dining room. After we finished eating, Jackson shook our hands and explained he had other business and went running off. We went back to the suite.

“Just great,” grumbled Sid.

“I guess we’ll just have to break in and get the box,” I said.

“Yeah. That’s only one more thing to worry about.”

“We’ve got it pretty well staked out. It shouldn’t be too bad, and I brought my break in pants.”

“But there’s always that element of risk, and on top of that, there’s that dive where the meeting is.”

“Now that’s going to be problematic. I’m going to have to drive there, but if you still want your Mercedes, I don’t recommend parking it in that lot.”

“Is it that rough?” Sid frowned, and I wasn’t sure if he was more worried about me or his car. [You could defend yourself, the Mercedes couldn’t – SEH]

I shrugged. “It is, in a way. It’s a dirt parking lot, and with the rain we’ve had, it’s probably mud now. And the clientele, if they don’t drive eighteen wheelers, they drive four by four’s. A slick foreign machine like that four fifty SL is just begging to get hit.”

“And even if it wasn’t, it would undoubtedly attract attention. Why don’t you rent a car?”

I shook my head. “Why would I? I have yours, and we’ve been driving all over the place, so there’s no way I could say we don’t. Even if they don’t recognize me at the rental place, they know my name.”

“Which has been all over the place with Della’s murder.” Sid paced. “But where are we going to get a second set of wheels?”

“I’d suggest saying your car isn’t starting, but then everyone would wonder why we don’t take it to one of the local garages. They’re already wondering why I’m not staying at my folks’ place as it is. Wait.” I sat up and got my keys out of my purse. “I am, at long last, vindicated.”

“What?” Sid looked at me.

I jangled the fully loaded ring at him. “You have made your final cut on all my keys. On this ring are the keys to my parents’ store, house, garage, truck, and jeep, namely, our second set of wheels.”

“Wouldn’t people recognize your parents’ cars?”

“Not necessarily.” I grinned. “There must a couple hundred white jeeps in this valley alone. And it’s got to be there. Mama and Daddy flew out according to Mae.”

Sid mused. “Can you get it without anyone knowing?”

“No sweat. Neff and Mary are the closest neighbors, and they live on the other side of the horse barns. One of the guests might hear something, but I doubt they’d do anything, and the house is set a good ways off from them anyway.”

“I guess you’re on then.” Sid paced. “I’ll help you break into the office, but then you’ll have to go the rest of the way by yourself.”

“Why don’t I just pull the break in by myself? If you’re there, it’s just another person to get caught.”

“I suppose. I’ll take care of getting your guns and the lockpicks. I don’t want you unarmed.”

I sighed.

“I know you don’t like it,” said Sid. “But I don’t want anything to happen to you, Lisa. You be very careful.”

“You be careful, too. I don’t want to end up filing for unemployment again.”

Sid smiled at me. “You’ll never have to worry about that again.”

“I suppose the business can keep me, but I’ll have to find some sort of visible job. I can’t very well work for you if you’re dead.”

Sid started pacing again.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean to be so blunt. I know you don’t like thinking about it.”

“I have to occasionally.” He stopped and sat down next to me. “Lisa, if something happens to me, I’ve seen to it that you will be provided for, so you’ll never have to worry about unemployment or a visible job again.”

I got up. “Sid, I was just joking. What I meant was that I care about you and that I don’t want to see anything happen to you. So, don’t go and do something silly.”

“A- It’s not something silly. I’ve got to leave it to somebody, and B-…” He looked away. “It’s already done. It’s been done for a long time. You’re not getting all of it. I’ve got a couple charities and a friend or two, and you will be required to pay for educating your sister’s kids so they won’t have to worry. But you are the primary beneficiary.”

“I don’t want to be, Sid.”

“Well, you are. Admittedly, it’s not until after I’m gone.”

“I don’t want it. Sid, if something happened to you, I’d be crushed. But I don’t want your will hanging over me while you’re alive. I appreciate the thought, really, I do. I just don’t feel right taking your money.”

“Who else am I going to leave it to? I don’t have any relatives.”

“What about your aunt?”

“Stella? Hell, no. I’m not going to leave my money to someone who A- doesn’t need it because I found out she received a similar bequest, B- never wanted me in the first place, C- absolutely refuses to see or talk to me; you wouldn’t believe what a time I had just getting her lawyer to let me know when she dies; and D- could very well die before I do anyway, our business notwithstanding.” Sid got up and laid his hand on my shoulder. “Lisa, I’m not saying you should be dancing on my grave. But if you’ll excuse the Republican attitude, if you don’t get it, the government will, and they’re already taking too much now, not to mention the chunk they’ll take when you do get it. Besides, you’re the only person I’ve ever really been close to. Even Della, who got closer than anyone, wasn’t as close to me as you are. I care about you tremendously. Things happen too easily in our business. I don’t want to see you left out in the cold, especially when you could be comfortable.”

I flopped onto the couch. “You don’t understand, Sid. I don’t want to be a kept woman. If I’m going to have a fortune, I want to earn it myself.”

“I didn’t earn mine.”

“Maybe when the time comes, I’ll feel differently. Right now, I feel like I’m taking advantage of you.”

He smiled softly. “Sometimes I wish you would.”

“Are you insinuating again?”

“No.” Mischief lit up his face. “But I could.”

Relieved that the more serious moment had passed, I decided to try something I’d been thinking about doing for some time.

“You could try sitting next to me,” I suggested coyly, or what I hoped was coyly.

“Why?” Sid was suspicious, and well he should have been. But he walked over.

“Because.”

“This is not a come on.”

“Never.”

“And you say you don’t believe in teasing.”

“It depends on what kind.”

“So, what do you want?”

“A little something.” I patted the couch next to me.

He sat down really close. “Maybe a little something that I promise will go no further.”

He moved in, his head tilted, his lips just barely parted.

“Maybe not!” I yelled, messing up his hair.

Sid bounced back. “What? What the hell did you just do?”

He got up and went straight for the mirror. “Lisa, what in heaven’s name is this? I don’t get it. Where’s my brush, damn it.”

“Here, use mine.” I got my vent brush out of my purse and tossed it to him.

He caught it, looking at me like a wounded puppy.

“Are you mad at me?” I asked, suddenly uncertain.

He slid his little piece of spring steel out, then brushed everything into place.

“No,” he said finally. He tossed the brush back to me and replaced the steel, with a sneaky little smile. “I don’t get mad. I get even.”

I nodded and got up. “I think I’ll take a nap.”

I went to my room, making sure I had all my personal belongings in there with me and bolted the door. Sid’s ability with locks is such that it was technically pointless, but I was hoping he’d respect the gesture.

I woke up around five, really hungry. [The sound you hear is me biting my tongue – SEH]  After putting on some jeans and a sweater and grabbing my purse, I went into the sitting room to look for Sid. I found him in front of the door to the suite, necking with some woman I’d never seen before. At least they were dressed.

“Uh, Sid?” I asked.

She jumped and yelped. Sid, the slob, took it all in stride.

“Hello, Lisa,” he said smiling. “This is Doreen. Doreen, Lisa, my secretary.”

“Nice to meet you,” I said.

“Same,” said Doreen, still recovering from her shock.

“Is there anything you need, Lisa?” asked Sid.

“Yeah. Dinner.”

Sid bit his tongue. We have an agreement that we don’t make fun of each other in front of his girlfriends.

“Um, I’m sorry, but I wasn’t sure when you were getting up, and…” He glanced at Doreen.

“I’ll go by myself,” I said, then nodded at the door and Sid and Doreen in front of it. “If you guys will just excuse me.”

“Oh.” Sid gently escorted Doreen out of the way. “By all means. Excuse us.”

I couldn’t help being disgusted by Sid’s super smooth persona, but I had to admit it was one of the things I had originally liked about him. I guess I knew him too well to buy it anymore.

There’s a coffee shop next door to the hotel that offers dirt cheap meals in the hopes that patrons will leave lots of change in their slot machines. I paid for the more expensive chili burger, partly because I love them and partly because I wanted to get Sid back.

I had just tucked in when Fletcher Haddock slid into the booth across from me.

“I’ve been looking for you all day,” he said.

“I’ve been working.”

“Well, of course. Look, I want to apologize for last night.”

I didn’t answer.

“I understand if you don’t want to talk to me anymore,” he continued, just this side of pathetic. “I really am a nice guy. You know how these places can get to you. I really wasn’t going to try anything.”

I shook my head. “Fletcher, do we have to go through this B.S.?”

“I’m serious. I’m not trying to put the moves on you.”

“You know, if I had a dime for every time I’ve heard that line from a guy, I’d have more money than my boss.” I glared at him. “Did it ever occur to you guys that you might get a little respect if you were just upfront about the whole thing? You’re not going to get any, anyway.”

Fletcher got out a business card from his sports jacket.

“I’d like to start over again,” he said, scribbling on the back. “That’s my home phone on the back. If you ever want to just talk. Maybe you’re in trouble or something. Give me a call.”

He put the card next to my plate. I glared at it. But inside, I was puzzled. Why had he said that bit about being in trouble? He left. I put the card in my purse.

I slummed around the casino for a bit, but I knew I was going to have to go back to the room and change for the break in. I got there around eight, and the radio was on in the other room. I turned on the TV in my bedroom and turned it up loud.

I don’t know what time Doreen left. Sid knocked on my door at eleven thirty and helped me get together everything I needed for the break in. I wore the special black pants I’d made with lots of extra pockets, which carried the case of lock picks and a miniature flashlight, and a long sleeved white shirt, with a dark ski jacket. I also had on my shoulder holster and my twenty-two strapped to my shin. In the pockets of my jacket were black kid leather gloves, a dark all over ski mask, and my key ring. My feet were clad in my armored running shoes, the ones with all sorts of goodies hidden in the soles.

“Go get ’em,” said Sid as I opened the suite door.

He paused for a second, then lightly punched my arm.

Sliding around the view of the surveillance cameras was more nerve-wracking than difficult. Getting the door to Mr. Jackson’s office open was not easy, but then I’m not that good with locks. I slid in and found the room faintly lit by the lights outside. The little box was right where I’d left it. I stashed it in my pants and left.

I got the Mercedes out of the parking lot and headed for California. The streets were still pretty crowded, which wasn’t surprising. I checked for a tail and found none.

It only took a few minutes to get to my parents’ resort. I parked the Mercedes in a dark corner of the guest lot, next to the creek. I circled around the horse barn, keeping my distance. The horses still nickered and raised a mild fuss, the sort we usually blamed on cats. I had to pass pretty close to several guest cabins. A late arrival in number three was just bedding down. Number one had a party going, with people spilling out the door. I made another wide circle. The moment I stepped into my parents’ yard, Murbles and Richmond, my parents’ two over-sized mutts started barking like crazy. I slid to the front door.

“Murbles, Richmond, quiet!” I commanded.

They yipped and whined, and I could hear them sniffing at the door. I went over to the garage, digging out my keys. It took a minute to find the padlock key, and by that time, I could see two flashlights coming my way. I ran back to the house.

Murbles and Richmond started up again as I unlocked the door. I slid in and got pounced on. They were delighted to see me.

“Down!” I hissed. “Shut up! Quiet.”

They quieted. I scratched their heads trying to listen out front. It was Neff and Mary, alright. They’re the elderly couple who have been caretaking for my parents since they first bought the place. Daddy’s offered them retirement, but they keep saying no. They prefer working.

“What do you think, Neff?” Mary’s voice asked.

A flashlight’s beam passed across the front windows.

“The dogs are quiet. I don’t see any sign of a break-in,” said Neff. “It was probably one of those kids in number one.”

“But the horses were spooked. I think we ought to check inside.”

“What for? Nobody’s gotten in that I can see. You’re just being skittish, honey.”

“I don’t mean to be, but with all that trouble in Nevada.”

“That can be explained.”

“I just don’t understand…”

Their voices faded out as they returned to their place. I waited, disgusted. It figured Mary would have heard the dogs. She’s a nervous woman to begin with, which is why I usually avoid her and Neff. She always makes me feel like I’m about to break something, and complains constantly when I’m around. Of course, when I don’t make a point of visiting her right away, she acts hurt until I do.

I waited about ten minutes before leaving the house. It was getting very close to one fifteen, which didn’t leave much time for getting down to Meyers. I got the garage open, and let the jeep roll down the drive. I had originally planned on starting the jeep in the garage to make sure it was running, but I didn’t want Mary getting her back up again. After closing the garage door, I tried the engine. It roared to life without a problem.

I have to admit, my mouth was dry and my hands were all but shaking as I pulled up to the Road Show. In other communities, kids terrorize each other with haunted houses. With all the gold mining ghosts, those were no big deal to us. We had the Road Show for horror stories, and there was no doubt that it was real.

It looks like any roadside dive you’ve ever seen, with a cheap white lighted sign in front, and big rigs and four by fours in the lot. There may be a sedan or two, but you can bet they’re American made or they don’t have windows.

I found a straw cowboy hat in the backseat of the jeep and put it on, pulling the brim down over my face. Inside, was dim, with red lights, and noisy and filled with cigarette smoke. Two heavy guys wearing flannel plaid shirts were playing pool, the cracks in their behinds showing every time they bent over for a shot. What few women were there wore western shirts open to expose their cleavage and tight jeans. The men wore their toughness like a red flag. I caught more than a few furtive, calculating stares.

They were mostly white with a few Hispanics, so I was surprised when my arm was tapped by a young black man, also in a flannel shirt and jeans. He was also the bartender in the Keno Lounge.

“Out back,” he muttered at me and went to the bar.

I looked around once more, then left and headed around to behind the building, stepping over another flannel-shirted man face down in the mud. A friend of his groaned and wretched.

The bartender was waiting for me.

“You Little Red?” he asked.

“Yeah.”

“Tom Collins, Division 11B.” Which was a CIA division.

I swallowed. “Why aren’t you overseas?”

He chuckled. “You got need to know on this?”

“No,” I sighed.

“It’s a domestic division. We coordinate with our overseas operatives when something starts over there and winds up here.”

“Then why are we being pulled in?”

“I may have been spotted.”

I nodded. “That’s what we heard. What’s going down?”

“There’s an enemy transponder up here. Somebody, probably local, is getting in secrets from the Bay area and uploading the info to a Soviet spy satellite. The problem is that the signal is real random and the transponder is mobile, so we can’t pin it down. He’s getting the stuff in through some hired help, and we figured we could use the recreation goods group that’s meeting here this weekend as cover. That’s why you’re here now.”

“Let me guess. Our job is to flush the sender and his people out.”

“Exactly. We’ve tracked the secrets to Sunland Products.”

“Oh, my god. The murder.”
“Yeah, it may not have been so coincidental. Which means we need to know who killed Della Riordan and why. And it gets better. The transponder was ours.”

“Oh. So someone’s selling out.”

“Was selling out. We got her, just not before she’d passed the transponder and a bunch of other equipment on. We just don’t know to who, just that it was up in this area.”

“Great. So, what do you want done with the box you dropped last night?”

He looked at me. “What box?”

“The box I found in my purse with the card.”

“I just dropped the card.”

“I see.” About as well as Stevie Wonder. “Alright. You got anything else for us?”

“Not at the moment. You can make contact with me at the Keno Lounge.”

“It’ll have to be code two. This job’s going to be tricky enough, with me being a local.”

He gaped. “What?”

“I grew up here. Someone up top goofed, either that or they figured my nice girl image would cover up a lot. You said an operative no one will begin to suspect.”

“That stinks.” [Is that really what he said? – SEH]  “Alright. We’ll avoid contact as much as possible, and I’m stepping out of the picture completely.”

“Fine. Um. Later.”

I went back to the parking lot. The bar was just emptying, and not a few of the patrons were fighting with each other. It was tricky getting the jeep out of the lot and up the highway in one piece around all those drunks, but I did and replaced it in my parents’ garage without trouble. The dogs started barking again, but the party in number one was still going, so Neff and Mary didn’t show.

The radio was going in the other room when I let myself back into the suite. The coat closet was open, too, and next to Sid’s overcoat hung a green bomber jacket with a patch on the shoulder that read Douglas County Sheriff’s Deputy.

Ilene Schneider on What Mysteries Can Do

Rabbi Ilene Scheidler

Rabbi Ilene Schneider, EdD, was one of the first women to be ordained in the United States. So after a lifetime of working in Jewish education administration, then as a hospice chaplain and coordinating a Jewish hospice program, she wrote a short series of mysteries featuring Rabbi Aviva Cohen, who in between leading a congregation, offering advice and dealing with synagogue politics, stumbles into murders and solves them. You can find out more about Rabbi Scheidler on her website RabbiAuthor.com, or check out her Facebook page, Rabbi Author.

When I asked my gracious blog host Anne Louise Bannon about suggestions for my post, she mentioned, “How about the use of the murder mystery to share our values, maybe as a mitzvah? Not necessarily as a way of beating people over the head to agree with us, but as a way to present another way of thinking about something?” Her question got me thinking (as all good questions should) about how much of an author’s views are reflected in the fictional characters. And, conversely, how hard is it to incorporate opinions the opposite of the author’s into a book?

I know that an author does not have to be a murderer or a rapist or a sadist or a crook to write convincing villains. I admire authors who can write convincing thrillers, yet I wonder how some are able to squelch their own distaste or squeamishness to compose actions I have trouble reading. I find it very hard to write scenes that depict graphic violence, which is why I write cozies. Everything is off the page. I find it is easier to describe a character’s reactions to an event than to write the event.

(As an aside, I write a first person narrative, and my protagonist, Rabbi Aviva Cohen, looks a lot like me. In fact, she looks like me. I’ve commented on panels that as good an imagination as I may have, I do have difficulty writing from the first person point of view of someone who is tall and svelte and athletic, has straight, silky hair, and complains she can’t find a bathing suit that fits because the tops are too roomy.)

One advantage of writing fiction is being able to put unpopular or racist or other objectionable opinions into the mouths of characters the readers aren’t supposed to like. It’s a great form of therapy to ascribe such views to the bad guys, particularly if they’re based on real people I dislike. But it does not mean I ascribe to those views. But I also find it cathartic to explore what may consider esoteric or philosophic or theoretical ideas. The trick, as Anne alluded to, is to find a balance between lecturing and discussing, to teach without indoctrinating. And to do it without diverting from the plot or boring the reader.

In my latest book, Yom Killer, I have a scene in which Aviva and a colleague, who works as a chaplain, have a discussion about how to be a spiritual counselor when one has questions about the validity of the theology patients and their families want or need to hear. I used the scene to explore issues that have bothered me as a rabbi and rationalist, particularly when I worked as a hospice chaplain. Aviva voiced the hesitations I had, while her friend supplied the answers I also espouse.

Now it was my turn to shake my head. “Wow. I wish I could have your faith, but I feel like such a fraud sometimes.” 

“Don’t. Just remember that you have to be where your patients are, even if you believe what you’re saying is no more than a banality. You’re helping them, and that’s all that matters. If they think they’ll see their parents in the afterlife, don’t lecture them about how there’s no such thing. If they start talking to their dead husband, don’t tell them it’s a hallucination caused by reduced blood flow to the brain.” 

I quickly backtracked. “Oh, I never would. I always agree with whatever they believe. It’s just that I feel like such a hypocrite, betraying my own belief system.” 

“I’m repeating myself here, Aviva, but it’s not a betrayal to soothe others.”

So, yes, Anne, I do add elements to my books “as a way to present another way of thinking about something.” Is it a mitzvah? Only my readers can answer whether they benefit from these ramblings. I like to think I am giving them a new insight.

As for Anne’s other possible topics for my guest blog, perhaps next time I will take her suggestion to “riff on the glory of the Krispy Kreme.”

Schneider’s latest book is Yom Killer, which you can buy in paperback at Barnes and Noble or in ebook and paper at Amazon.

 

 

 

Chapter One

spy novel, serial fiction, cozy mysteryWelcome to the debut chapter of Deceptive Appearances, the third installment of the Operation Quickline series. Please come back and check out the rest of the series as it is posted on Fridays.

 

September 15, 1983

 

We hit the rain in Lone Pine, as we skirted up the backside of the Sierra Nevadas on our way to Lake Tahoe. It didn’t slow Sid down much, at first, except that U.S. 395 stopped being a freeway for a good chunk after that and being in the mountains and all, even Sid slowed down.

“I hope the passes aren’t frozen,” Sid grumbled as he finally switched on the windshield wipers.

“It’s way too early for snow,” I replied, trying to sound more reassuring than I felt.

Neither of us was in the best of moods, although for once, it wasn’t because we had been fighting. It was the job we were on. We don’t usually get a pick-up assigned to us over a week before we have to make it, and since they asked for both of us specifically, well, that meant the job was going to be more than a pick-up.

The worst of it was that we were doing the job as ourselves and not as our alter-egos, something we’d been requested to do, probably because somebody upline had seriously screwed up. You see, I grew up in South Lake Tahoe and the pick up was scheduled for the casinos in Stateline, literally just on the other side of the border in Nevada. Harrah’s parking lot is in California, to give you an idea of how close it all is.

I went back to the magazine I’d been reading from. “You want me to finish this? I mean there are only a couple sentences left.”

“I’m listening.”

“Okay. Where was I? Oh. ‘The ultimate problem with Moriarty’s is not unlike the problem with Shanda. The club has all the appearances of a truly great night spot, but it will get you in the end. Parenthesis  – I told you to watch out for us nice girls. We only look harmless, ljw, close parenthesis.”

“Hattie left that in?” Sid asked. Hattie is the editor of Sid’s singles column.

“I told you she was going to. She’s been leaving in all my parentheses and wants more.” I’d been adding them almost since Sid had started his column, but originally as a joke for Sid only. Then a few months before, this one had slipped through to Hattie and she’d thought it was hysterical.

“Oh. That’s right.”

I looked at him. “You okay with that?”

“I told you I was.”

I didn’t completely believe him but saw no reason to say so. Instead, I watched out the window for several minutes, listening to the beat of the windshield wipers. Slowly, a familiar melody slipped through my mind and I began humming.

“Windshield wipers keeping time,” I sang softly, then sang it again, trying to remember the rest.

“It starts with ‘Busted flat in Baton Rouge,’” Sid finally said. My humming tends to get on his nerves, especially when I can’t remember the whole song.

“Oh, right!” I went ahead and sang it from the beginning, with Sid feeding me the lines as needed. He doesn’t sing, well, not much.

“When did your folks say they’d be back?” Sid asked as I went into the la-dah-dahs, probably to shut me up. [Oh, yes. – SEH]

My parents still lived during the summers up at the resort they owned off of U.S. 50 and weren’t scheduled to head down to their place in Florida for another month yet. Fortunately, they were spending the week in New York visiting my great aunt.

Mama and Daddy think that Sid is merely an eccentric, but wealthy, freelance writer and that I’m merely his secretary. We are, but we’re also operatives for Operation Quickline, an ultra-top secret government organization, so secret, in fact, that even my family doesn’t know that it exists, let alone that Sid and I work for it.

“That’s just it, they didn’t say,” I said. “Mama said something about playing tourist in Boston while they were on the East Coast, but I don’t think Daddy’s going to go for it. They should be gone through the weekend, though.”

Sid swore under his breath as he eased onto the brakes again.

“I’m sorry, but I can’t tell my parents what to do,” I said, feeling a little defensive.

“It’s not your folks,” Sid said, braking again. “We’re just making lousy time.”

We had left later than we’d intended after a small dust-up over whether I was spending ten hours in a car fully dressed in business wear. Sid had agreed to let me go casual since I had conceded to driving up when we could have flown. Sid had said that since we were going as ourselves and odds were decent we’d need a car once there, we could at least take his 450 SL.

Sid does have a lead foot [So do you – SEH], and in spite of the rain, we actually made it to Stateline in just over eight hours, my best time ever. I have to admit, I was a little excited about staying in the casino where we were going to make our drop. I’d been to the casinos often enough, but who stays in the hotels in their hometown?

We had a two-bedroom suite, too. That had been the hotel’s idea. We were also there to interview the hotel manager for an article for a major airline’s in-flight magazine, and the manager insisted on setting us up in their best room instead of the two I’d requested. It wasn’t exactly discreet, but Sid and I figured that with me being a former local, discreet was not on the agenda, anyway.

We parked in the hotel’s main lot and carried our luggage in on our own. Sid checked in, got our keys, then held me back before I followed the bellman to the suite.

“I’m going to call in and set things up,” he said, taking off his tan overcoat and handing it to me. “Why don’t you get changed and wired up and meet me down here?”

“Dinner?” I asked hopefully. It was past six-thirty at that point and I was starving.

Sid’s eyes rolled. “You’ve been nibbling all day, not to mention how much you ate at lunch.”

I blinked twice.

“Oh, alright.” Sid pulled out his thin black leather billfold. “For the tip.”

He handed me a couple fives. He’d chosen to wear his usual three-piece suit, shirt, and tie. The way he held his suit jacket closed told me he’d already put his shoulder holster on, though when he had, I wasn’t sure. Driving in one isn’t exactly comfortable and we’d made our last pit stop in Bishop. I couldn’t see if he’d gotten his earpiece and transmitter on, but then, you can’t really see the earpiece unless you look really carefully for it.

“Go ahead and change, too,” he said. “It’ll give us more options for the pickup.”

“Okay.”

With a nod, Sid moved off into the casino, while I followed the bellman up to our suite.

It was huge, decked out in Southwestern pastels, with a sunken floor in the center of the main room, containing a huge circular sofa. The bedrooms were on either side of the main room. I put Sid’s trench coat on the rack next to the door as the bellman, who looked like he was barely out of high school, brought our two suitcases and carry-ons into the one bedroom.

“Uh, excuse me,” I called out, anxiously. “Two of those are mine and they belong in the other bedroom.”

“Oh. Sorry. Uh, which bags?”

“Happens all the time,” I sighed.

I do get very tired of people assuming Sid and I are lovers. We may live in the same house – long story how that happened – but we are strictly housemates.

I let the bellman wait while I decided which room I’d take. They were both pretty luxurious, with huge bathrooms each containing a sauna. But I let Sid have the one with the rock spa tub. I figured he might want to bring some company back to the suite somewhere along the line and was feeling generous.

I gave the bellman the tip, then went back to my room to change into a dark-blue paisley skirt and light blue velveteen Edwardian-style jacket with puffed sleeves and short peplum. I’d trimmed it with dark blue braid and it certainly stood out. I wear my hair fairly long and permed, and picked out the curls, then slid a small piece of spring steel behind my ear.

Unfortunately, the jacket was too fitted for me to carry a shoulder holster, but I had my S & W model thirteen revolver in my monster of a purse. The thing was huge, but it carried everything I needed and then some. I strapped a twenty-two automatic to my thigh, high up under my very full skirt. My transmitter, I clipped to the inside of my skirt, adjusted the microphone inside the jacket’s collar and slid the earpiece into my ear. I took one last look in the mirror, then turned the transmitter on.

Immediately, the noise of the casino filled my ear.

“I’m wired and ready,” I said, picking up my purse.

“Come on. Bust for me,” Sid grumbled, letting me know where he was without letting anyone else know he was wired.

Good thing, too, because the pit bosses are really looking for that sort of thing – you’d be surprised what people do to cheat.

Once I got downstairs it was easy to spot Sid. Okay, the man is particularly handsome, with dark wavy hair, bright blue eyes and a cleft in his chin. He’s not big, just three inches taller than me and I’m average. It also helped that he was playing at a twenty-five dollar minimum bet table. Those tables are almost never crowded, except on at peak weekend or holiday hours. In fact, there was only one other player there.

Sid looked up and smiled as I approached.

“Doing okay?” I asked.

“About even,” he replied. He signaled a hit to the dealer and winced as he busted. “Oh well. Time to move on.”

He gathered up his chips and a drink glass filled with something clear and ice.

“What do you want to do?” he asked, slipping gracefully off the stool.

“Dinner. I’m starving.”

“You’re always starving.”

Which is true. I am. I’m one of those lucky types that can eat like a horse and never get fat, a fact which mystifies Sid, who can’t.

“So when’s the pickup?” I asked softly as we made our way out of the casino.

“Between nine-fifteen and nine-thirty. You’re making it. Just put your purse on the bar in the Keno lounge.”

“Oh, good, we’ve got time for the buffet.”

Sid all but gagged. “On your own time, please. They have a nice seafood restaurant here.”

“Okay, that sounds good.”

Sid shook his head. But I will give him credit. He almost ate like a normal person. Sid is a complete health nut. No red meat, no refined sugar or starches, no fat, small portions all the time. Not that I don’t like healthy food. I do. I just like all the other stuff, too. He had grilled salmon, steamed vegetables, no potato, and salad with oil and vinegar on the side. I indulged in surf and turf, creamy dressing on my salad, and loaded up my baked potato with butter and sour cream, and dunked every bite of lobster into luscious drawn butter. Sid sighed but didn’t say anything.

We finished around eight-thirty and lacking anything better to do, went over to the Keno lounge. The casino was crowded with conventioneers – a trade association for manufacturers of recreation products was having its annual meeting at the casino that weekend. Sid and I were hard-pressed to find a place to sit but did manage to find a booth away from the betting window and across from the bar.

“I don’t think I’m ever going to figure this game out,” I grumbled, trying to read a brochure about Keno in the dimmed light.

“Hm.” Sid was checking out a woman in her mid-forties sitting a few tables away and trying to look as though he wasn’t checking her out – not Sid’s usual modus operandi.

Which was odd, because she was definitely checking Sid out and with considerably more interest than the other women in the bar, who believe me, were checking.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“Irony of ironies,” Sid said with a weak smile. “You know how worried you’ve been about running into someone you know?”

“Yeah, but I’ve never seen her before, assuming you mean that woman over there.”

“That’s because she’s someone I know. Or knew.”

Sid cussed softly as she got up and made her way over. There was something almost stunning about her, although she didn’t have that glamorous look. Her hair was cut short into a wedge and she was wearing a nice, but predictable, dark business suit. It must have been the way she carried herself.

“Oh, my lord, Sid Hackbirn!” she said, smiling happily as she got to the table.

“Della, well, I’ll be damned.” Sid scrambled to his feet. “What are you doing here?”

“I’m here for the meeting.” She held up the badge she was wearing. “I’m VP Finance for Sunland Products. You?”

“I’m here doing a story,” Sid said. He waved at the booth. “Please, join us.”

“Thank you.”

Sid glanced at me and I moved over on the bench as Della slid into the booth ahead of Sid.

“This is my secretary, Lisa Wycherly,” Sid said. “Lisa, this is Della Riordan.”

I was waiting for her to question Sid having a secretary – everyone tends to assume he’s made his money by writing, which is ridiculous because writing does not pay very well at all. But she didn’t.

“Wycherly?” she asked, looking at me carefully. “As in the sporting goods store across the state line?”

“Yeah, that’s my dad’s store,” I said, hesitantly. “He and my mom own the resort out here, too.”

“Your father is a good client,” Della said.

“Sunland Products. You guys make trail food,” I said, even though I was still puzzled. I knew the product line from running my dad’s store summers while I was in college. But the big chains carried Sunland, too, and Daddy didn’t carry all that much trail food.

“My goodness, Sid, you’ve done well for yourself,” Della said, ignoring me. “What happened to your glasses?”

That placed Della way back to Sid’s early college days, at least. He’d gotten his money around then. Sid is extremely near-sighted and hates wearing glasses, so the contact lenses were one of his first indulgences.

“I inherited some money,” Sid said, “and promptly got contacts. You seem to be doing rather well, too.”

“Well enough,” Della sighed. “I still miss teaching, but I can’t complain about the compensation for executives.”

“Yeah, I’d heard what had happened. So, are you married? Single?”

Della chuckled. “Still single. You?”

Sid laughed lecherously. “Very single and always open.”

“Still audacious, too, I see.” She glanced at me. “How long have you two been together?”

“I’ve been working for Sid for a year,” I said, my tone getting frostier than I’d intended.

There was something about the way Sid was looking at her. I had a feeling this wasn’t just any old past fling.

“Lisa is strictly my secretary,” Sid said with a teasing edge to it. “Not for lack of trying on my part.”

“You can say that again,” I grumbled.

“What?” asked Della.

Sid sighed loudly. “The woman has morals. Can you believe it? In this day and age?”

I put my hands up. “Okay. Got the hint. I’m leaving. Della, nice meeting you.”

I grabbed my purse from where it had been sitting under the table next to Della’s feet and scooted out of the booth and off toward the bar. I checked my watch and sure enough, it was coming on to nine-fifteen. I knew Sid was giving me an excuse to leave, but I was annoyed at how he chose to do it.

“Snippy little thing,” said Della’s voice in my ear.

“I wasn’t entirely fair,” said Sid. “I was baiting her.”

I did my best not to glare in his direction and plopped the monster purse on the bar next to me.

“And she does come in for a lot of grief because people keep assuming we’re sleeping together,” Sid continued.

“I don’t know whether to be impressed or horrified,” Della said.

“Be impressed. It’s not easy for her. Or me.”

“I’m surprised you’ve kept her around. That’s not like you, Sid. Or it wasn’t.”

Sid laughed. “It’s still not like me, and if you give me half a chance, I’ll prove it. But Lisa’s different. I don’t get it, but it seems to work out well for us and I’m content.”

“Well, bully for you, dear.” Della’s voice turned deeply sour. “People with morals are why I’m not teaching anymore.”

“Lisa’s not like that. She doesn’t judge, and lord knows, I’ve given her more than enough reason to.” Sid gently took her hand as I tried not to squirm. I knew it was about to get intimate and while we needed to stay wired, I wasn’t wild about listening in on his latest conquest.

Except this was different.

“I wish I could have been there when Crowley blew the whistle on you,” he continued.

“He was lying, you know,” Della sighed.

“That doesn’t surprise me.” Sid paused. “I, uh, hope it didn’t get out about us. I’d hate to think that what we had got you into trouble.”

“What we had was an illegal fling, Sid.”

“Yeah. I know. I kind of wish I’d thought about that now.”

“I should have. I was, technically, the adult.” Della put her hand on Sid’s cheek. “But you were special. Half man, half boy.”

“Della, I wouldn’t be half the lover I am today if it hadn’t been for you. I learned so much from you.”

“I was only supposed to be teaching you algebra.”

“Well, you know, Della, I am of age now. Unless your company has issues about consenting adults.”

Della chuckled. “At least you’ve gotten a little more subtle than your hand up my skirt.”

“I still remember the smell of your perfume.”

“And I remember how sweet and how giving you were.”

Sid moved in for a kiss, his hand sliding under the lapel of his jacket to remove the microphone hidden there. I checked my watch again. Nine-thirty.

“What’s with that couple over there?”

I looked up at the man sitting on the stool next to me. He had that tall and gangly look, with darkish hair cut sort of short and dark horned-rim glasses. His eyes were dark and he was kind of cute. He was dressed in a suit and boring blue-striped tie, but the tie had been loosened and his collar was open. A plastic badge was clipped to his chest pocket, but I couldn’t make out what it said.

“Oh,” I said. “Um, that’s my boss. I just work for him.”

“I believe you,” he said, glancing over at Sid and Della, who were in full embrace and about to enact a porn movie if they stayed in the bar any longer.

“I shouldn’t be so defensive,” I sighed. “People see us together and assume we’re sleeping together, and I just get tired of it, is all. I’m not that kind of girl.”

“Really? What kind of girl are you?”

My grin got a little strained. “Religious.” I stopped. “Sorry. I’m making a hash of this. I’ve never done the bar thing well, mostly because I don’t do one night stands and every time I go into a bar, it seems like that’s all anyone is interested in. Whatever happened to just having a good time being friends? I mean, I like dating. I just don’t want to jump into bed with every guy I go out with.”

My new friend laughed. “What a refreshing perspective. You know, I’m so tired of going on dates only to feel like I’ve got to perform or I’m some kind of mutant.”

“You don’t look like a mutant to me.” I glanced over at the booth. Sid and Della had gone. “Looks like I’m off duty for the night.”

“Hey, it’s not late. My name’s Fletcher Haddock. I’m here with the meeting. Um, I’ve got an extra ticket for the midnight show. Would you like to come with me?”

“Sure. That sounds like fun. I’m Lisa Wycherly.”

“As in the sporting goods store over the state line?”

“Yeah. That’s my parents’ place, along with the resort. I can’t believe it’s so popular.”

“Oh, yeah. We all know Wycherly’s. It’s a nice store.”

“That’s good to know.” It certainly explained Della knowing it.

“Well, shall we?”

We had a lovely time. Fletcher and I had a lot in common, including the church thing. Not only was he a Catholic and still practicing, he even sang in his church’s choir. We gambled a bit and Fletcher taught me how to play craps. You’d think growing up next to the casinos, I’d know these things. But one of the disadvantages of being a local kid in such a relatively small place as South Lake Tahoe is that the pit bosses knew us. In fact, I got carded that night by a boss who used to go to my old church.

The midnight show was entertaining. A comic named Gary Shandling was up first, then Juliet Prowse. Afterward, Fletcher walked me up to my room.

“I had a good time, Lisa,” he said as we reached the door. He kept his arm tight across my shoulder.

“Me, too, Fletcher.”

“You know, we don’t have to end the evening now,” Fletcher said, trying to sound casual and completely blowing it.

“Yeah, well, I do have to work tomorrow,” I replied.

Fletcher moved in for a kiss. I was okay with that until I found myself all but choking on his tongue. And it was really wet, too. I pulled back.

“Um, Fletcher, I think I’m going to go to bed now.”

“Why don’t you let me come with you?” He grinned, but it wasn’t working.

“No. I sleep alone. Remember? Thanks for a fun evening.”

I slid into the room as fast as I could and all but slammed the door shut behind me.

Sid had, fortunately, shut the door to his bedroom, but I could still hear him and Della fully involved. Blushing and thoroughly disgusted, I went to my room and slammed the door. Either Sid got the hint or the door did its job. It didn’t matter. The room was quiet and I went to bed.

cozy mystery, spy novel, serial mystery fiction

The Serial is Done, Stopleak is Now a Book

Yep. Stopleak is now only available in book form.

Thanks for sticking it out all those weeks. If you missed a couple or want to share the fun with a friend, please check out the book page on my site here.

The next Operation Quickline story, Deceptive Appearances, will debut in this space on Friday, June 2. Sid and Lisa get sent to her hometown of South Lake Tahoe to try and find an enemy operative. Only they end up in the middle of a murder and a shipment of illegal drugs that hit both of them far too close to home.

 

 

 

How to cook, cooking for beginners, cooking without recipes

Making Lentil Chili

A friend of mine recently hosted a large number of her relatives at her place thanks to a death in the family. So to help her out, I sent over some lentil chili. It’s a dish I make fairly often. It’s hearty, healthy (for the most part) and it tastes really good. Plus I often make it vegan for those folks of that persuasion.

Apparently, my friend’s relatives really loved it and she asked me to get the recipe for them. Um. Oops.

That is the downside to not cooking with recipes. Sometimes, folks want to know how you made something and it can be tough explaining it. That’s assuming I remember. The other downside to not cooking with recipes.

Oddly enough, my lentil chili did begin with another recipe, in this case, a copycat recipe for canned chili, such as Dennison’s or Hormel. I’d had a yen for some and when the copycat recipe came pretty durned close, I analyzed it. According to the person who posted that recipe, what made the chile taste the most like the canned stuff was Fritos corn chips. I looked at the ingredients on the corn chip bag and there were only three: corn meal, salt, and safflower oil. So I tried the recipe again, adding corn meal. Not even close. Turns out, it was the salt that made the copycat work. There’s a boatload of salt in Fritos, which makes you wonder just how much there is in canned chili.

So I started wondering how I could make a similar version that would be healthier and come up with the idea of adding mushrooms (for meatiness) and collard greens (for the health benefits) to lentils, which cook quickly and are pretty good protein-wise. I added mostly the same spices and came up with my lentil chili.

It’s a pretty straightforward process. Chop half an onion, then get your collards and mushrooms chopped. Instead of the collards, you can use any leafy green you like (or don’t like – the good thing about this chili is that it hides the nasty flavor of kale).

Add some oil to a saucepan, and get the onions cooking until translucent. About this time, you add the chopped greens and mushrooms. Then you want to add one to two tablespoons of a chili powder you like, about a teaspoon of garlic powder, another half to full tablespoon of ground cumin, plenty of salt, and some pepper.

 

Get it all stirred up, then add the lentils. I’ll sometimes add a pat of butter or two if it’s only going to be me and the Beloved Spouse eating it. Butter makes it not vegan, so leave it out if you’re feeding any. Give the lentils a good stir, then add a couple cups or so of water to the pot and bring it to a boil. Don’t worry about it not being thick enough at this stage. The lentils will thicken the chili as they cook, which takes about fifteen to twenty minutes at a soft boil. I’m about to add the second part of what makes this taste so good.

Yep. That’s corn meal. Once the lentils are almost cooked, I start sprinkling in corn meal by the handfuls.

You can sort of see it above. The idea is to keep stirring as you do so that the corn meal doesn’t lump up, but thickens the chili up evenly. Not thick enough, stir in more corn meal. Too thick? Add a little bit of water and stir. Give it a taste before you serve it and see if it needs any extra spice or salt. And that’s pretty much it.

cozy mystery, spy novel, serial mystery fiction

Chapter Twelve

July 28, 1983

 

My church’s youth group holds a week-long retreat at a Christian camp on Catalina Island every summer. Most of the leadership comes from the single adult bible study that did the retreat I was on when Sid came to get me back in May. Father John decided I should be a camp leader too. Sid “just happened” to take off for the Bahamas this week, and doesn’t need me around.

It’s Thursday evening. The sun is slowly sliding behind the hill. The ocean laps peacefully on the rock where I sit, writing my journal. Maybe I shouldn’t have brought it with me. The fact that it’s ciphered won’t reveal any secrets, but it could make me look a little strange in that planned way that once made me very suspicious of Sid. That was before I knew about Quickline.

But perspective is why I wrote down the first one, and it’s why I’m here finishing this bit up. I’ve been working pretty steadily on it since we got home almost a month ago.

We stayed on a week yet in Paris to recover. Sid’s eyes were still a sick shade of green, and the scar on my forehead was a sight. And the cigarette burn got infected. But no one questioned us. Mae just raised cain with me for not calling her and wondered where I’d been. I told her we’d been in and out and all over the place, and never really answered her questions. I didn’t even tell her about Catalina. Like Sid says, we can’t call attention to our traveling.

The week we got back, Sid picked up a package from A12 and A45. It was a package of study tapes of French, Italian, and German. We had a good laugh over it. After all, being strictly domestic, the odds of us ever needing to speak those languages is pretty remote.

This morning I gave a talk on sex and the problem of temptation, another one of Father John’s ideas. When I told Sid I was giving it, he laughed and said I should use him as a bad example. I did, too. The kids loved it, but I don’t think they really believed me about him until lunch.

I sat at the scarfer’s table: Father John, Frank, three high school football players, and me. We all have phenomenal appetites and are on fourth and fifth servings before the rest of the camp has finished firsts. [It’s not a pretty sight, Lisa dear, and you are the worst of them – SEH] However, today we lingered over dessert. There weren’t seconds available.

“Is your boss really that bad?” asked Todd Wilkins, one of the football players.

“Like, you’ve got to be exaggerating,” said Jeff Childs.

“Not a bit,” I said. “If anything, I toned it down some.”

“She’s not kidding,” added Frank. “Every time I’ve taken her home from something, he’s got a different woman there. Which reminds me.” He got up. “I’ve got mail duty today.”

He picked up the bag of letters and called out names on the dining hall microphone. I didn’t get anything, which I expected.

“That’s it for today,” Frank announced. “Except for one postcard.”

“Read it!” someone yelled.

“Oh, I’m going to,” Frank snickered. “And this will be uncensored.”

Something about the way he said that caught my attention. I looked around. The card was blue, maybe an ocean.

“This hot little number is addressed to our own Lisa J. Wycherly.”

Cat calls erupted from the kids.

“He didn’t,” I groaned, though why I was surprised, I don’t know. “He didn’t.”

“It goes like this: My dearest ice maiden…” Frank was without mercy.

Some more cat calls.

“He did!” I sank my burning face into my hands.

“No offense, but glad you’re not here. Getting a great tan and lots of great dot, dot, dot.” The kids roared. “How are the horny juveniles?” Roundabout booing. “Still trying hard to understand. Please, don’t eat too much.” Cheers, which were accepted by the football players. “And stay away from the junk food.”

“Too late!” someone hollered to a big laugh. I’m told my candy bar habit is the stuff legends are made of.

“Your favorite reprobate.” More laughter and cheers. Frank held up his hand. “P.S. Don’t forget your sunscreen.”

The kids laughed really hard and cheered. I did not get slapped on the back because that would have hurt my sunburn.

“Now, Lisa,” teased Frank. “You wouldn’t happen to know who that was from?”

“He’s going to regret this, and so are you, Frank,” I called. Silently, I wished sand in Sid’s equipment. [So that’s how it happened – SEH]

Later, Father John caught me alone, sitting with my journal on my rock.

“Well?” he asked.

“What?”

“You seem to be doing a lot of thinking.”

“I guess I am.”

“About Sid?”

“Yeah.” I looked at Father. “Things got pretty wild on that trip we took.”

“Would it be fair to guess that scar on your forehead did not come from a fall on a coffee table?”

“Not quite.” I lifted my hair. “That was a cigarette burn. The whites of Sid’s eyes had just barely cleared up before he left. He got winged. I got beaten up twice.” I looked out over the ocean. “The funny thing is, the violence doesn’t seem to bug me. I mean I don’t like it, but I’m not scared of it anymore. And I’m not scared of Sid anymore. We tried making love. He asked me, and I couldn’t say no or yes. It didn’t work. But it really took the pressure off. I mean he still wants to.”

“And do you?”

“Yeah,” I said softly. “I really want to. And I really don’t.”

“Why not?”

“Because I’d have to be married to him for it to work, and more than anything, I don’t want to be married. It’s like I’m finally finding out who I am and what I can do. This trip completely tested all my limits. I don’t want to submerge that in a man, and that’s what’s expected in a marriage. I like being independent and able to make my own decisions without consulting someone else.” I chuckled.

“What about Sid?”

“What about him?”

“Someday you might decide that you want to be part of his life in a way that does not submerge who either of you are, but does call for a deep, loving commitment from both of you.”

I smiled. “I might, but he can’t. I don’t think he ever will.”

“I guess at the moment, it’s much safer for you that way. I’ll talk to you later.”

I fished Sid’s postcard out of my cover up pocket, then pulled out my pen and started writing. Sid says there’s a kind of safety in keeping me mad at him.

I keep getting funny looks from the kids as they walk past my rock out here. Lots of people sit out here alone, and quite a few write, so that’s not it. I guess I’m the only one who comes out here and whistles “All Day, All Night, Marianne.”

Essays, general essay

My Latest Novel Came Out…

Actually, it came out two weeks or so ago. I was going to do an ad campaign. A special post with a big cover reveal (ooh-aah). I was going to be all over social media.

I was going to be a good little author and do the whole Blatant Self Promotion Thing. I was going to be confident but pleasant, letting folks know without being annoying about it. I did do a couple author events, which fortunately cropped up right around release time. But otherwise, I dropped the ball and let it roll into the street and under a bus.

I know – the wags say that if you’re not confident in your work, no one’s going to be for you. And everytime someone does, I realize just how utterly screwed I am.

It’s not that I’m not proud of The Last Witnesses. It’s the third in my mystery series set in the 1920s and featuring Freddie Little and Kathy Briscow. Freddie’s sister, Honoria, finds a body in her apartment and plunges all three of them into a conspiracy so unbelievable it almost gets them killed.

I’m actually very pleased with how it turned out. There’s enough action. The story is interesting. The characters came to life really nicely. The history is sound, well, except for the parts I played with for the sake of the story. And the conspiracy is based on a real conspiracy theory going around at the time.

But, see, that’s bragging. And the last thing on earth that I want to be is a braggart. Seriously, this is one of those childhood shame-based lessons foisted on me by the rotten little monsters I went to school with. Which was plenty long ago, and certainly long enough ago that I should be over it. Except that the only difference between grown-ups and kids is how we express those same attitudes. Because, trust me, the attitudes don’t change as we get older.

Worse yet, I’ve run across some pretty aggressive self-promoters and I really, really don’t want to be like them. They are so annoying.

So I’m out here trying to find a balance. If I still don’t have it right here, would you mind doing me a favor, please? Forgive me and buy my book anyway?

cozy mystery, spy novel, serial mystery fiction

Chapter Eleven

June 14 – 18, 1983

 

We had one tense day, killing time in Manhattan until our plane left for Paris. We slept as late as we could and still be on the streets before we were charged an extra day at the hotel. Sid can be pretty extravagant, but even he’s not that crazy. We checked our luggage at Grand Central again, then found a guided bus tour that would finish before we needed to be at the airport.

It’s a good thing we slept on the plane. It landed in Paris the next morning at six a.m. Sid slid his hand into mine as we took off and didn’t really let go until we landed. Well, I did have to go to the bathroom once, but I took his hand back as soon as I returned to my seat. We waited a long time at the baggage claim, then customs took forever, but only because of the long lines. The guards didn’t even ask us to open our luggage.

Then Sid made what we discovered was the ultimate mistake in Paris. He hired a cab to take us into the city from Orly airport. The highway wasn’t too bad until we hit the city and joined everyone else trying to get in to work. We crawled, then spent, I swear, thirty minutes stopped waiting for some truck that was unloading merchandise in the middle of the narrow street. The cab driver told us in his broken English that sort of delay was not unusual. Of course, the fare was adding up as we waited.

We’d gotten francs at Kennedy (another mistake, we found out later). When we finally got to our hotel off the Place de la Concorde, Sid found he had to shell out a good chunk of our cash to pay for the cab.

“How much was that American?” I asked nervously.

“Enough to make even me wince,” he said. “I’ve been told France is expensive. At least the dollar’s been doing better lately.”

The hotel had a nice room available right away, with a private bath.

“Boy, I hear these aren’t too easily gotten here,” I said, admiring the bathroom.

“This is a three-star hotel, that’s why,” explained Sid. “They aren’t hard to get, you just pay for them.”

“What’s this?”

It was a funny little toilet bowl without a tank or seat. In fact, where a toilet seat reaches your knees, the top of this thing only came mid-shin on me, and it had two little nozzles that aimed up.

Sid chuckled. “That is a bidet.”

“Oh. I’ve heard of those.” I looked at him. “What are they for?”

“You use them instead of toilet paper.”

“That sounds kind of messy.” I went back into the room and sat on the bed. “Have you ever been to Europe before?”

“Besides ‘Nam, this is only time I’ve ever left the country.” Sid prowled.

“Gee, you know so much about it.”

He chuckled. “I have a couple friends back home who have bidets, and while you had your nose in that woman’s magazine, I read the guidebook.”

“I was going to read it on the plane, but I fell asleep.” I gazed out the window to the cars rushing around the fountains in the circle below. “What are the odds we’ll get some sightseeing in?”

“Pretty good. The last thing we’re going to want to do is give our quarry any reason to believe we’re not who we say we are.”

I picked up a brochure off the bureau. “Hey, this is in English. And German, and Italian, even Japanese. They’ve got all the bases covered.”

“What does it say?”

“It’s bus tours.”

“That might be just the ticket to orient ourselves.”

We had to move quickly, but we caught a general city tour by the skin of our teeth and spent most of the day on it. Our tour guide gave us a lot of pointers on how to get around, too.

“But it doesn’t give us a lot of information on how we’re going to get the Beldons,” said Sid as we relaxed at the sidewalk cafe near our hotel.

“Where did you say that office was, the Rue St. Denis?”

“Mm-hmm.”

“Would they even go there?” I looked up from my map of the Metro. “I mean, if our theory’s right that they’re the ones responsible for the leak, they’d have to know they’re under suspicion and figure that someone is watching them.”

“Possibly. Then again, they were cleared without problem to come here, and the note that they were down came in after they’d left, so it’s also possible they don’t realize that they’ve been tracked this far.”

“When are we going to stake it out?”

Sid checked his pocket watch. We’d changed for dinner already only to find there weren’t any restaurants open.

“Well, we’re not going to get dinner before seven thirty,” he said. “Why don’t we head on over that way? There’s enough tourist stuff in the near vicinity that I think we can get away with ambling through.”

Sid swears it was just luck. I say it was God, Himself. We turned onto the Rue St. Denis several blocks away from where the office was located. Walking toward the office, Sid happened to look up a side street and saw what could only be Harry and Carol Beldon heading away from us. She was average height, with fluffy, streaked hair, and a nice motherly look about her. He looked like your basic, slightly paunchy American businessman.

Sid and I slid around the corner. I grabbed the transmitters and receivers from my purse. Sid stopped me.

“We may as well stay together,” he said. “It’s too obvious we’re Americans. If we split up, they’ll know we’re tailing them.”

Fortunately, they went straight to a bistro that was around the next corner and down a block.

“Make contact?” I asked, a little nervous.

“Yep.”

We took a chance and went around the block, entering the bistro from the other way. The Beldons were still there, conferring over a small table. Sid and I threaded our way through the tables. As we passed theirs, Sid stopped.

“You guys are Americans,” he said jovially.

Carol’s eyes narrowed for a second, then the mask fell, transforming her into the warm, cozy matron. Harry gave us both the once over and likewise adopted a “glad to meetcha” demeanor.

“Well, howdy,” said Harry, standing up. “Why don’t you join us?”

“Why not?” said Sid, pulling over a couple chairs. “I can’t tell you how good it is to hear some good old American English.”

“How long have you been in Paris?” asked Carol.

Sid chuckled. “Not long, but it’s a real freaky feeling when people don’t sound like you’re used to.”

“I’m Harry Beldon,” he said, offering his hand. “This is my wife, Carol.”

“Ed and Janet Donaldson,” said Sid. “We’re here on vacation. My wife twisted my arm. She’s always wanted to come.”

“Ed,” I said quietly. Sid had slipped into his salesman persona, and it was a little unnerving to see the quiet dignified man I knew acting like he had several used cars to sell.

“So you folks here on vacation, too?” Sid asked.

“Business,” said Harry. “I’ve got a women’s wear company in the States. If it’s going to sell, it’s got to come from here.”

“No kidding,” said Sid. “You in the business, too, Carol?”

“Oh, no,” she said. “I just come along for the ride. What business are you in, Ed?”

“Office supplies.” Sid reached into his back pocket and his wallet. “Golden State Office Supplies. Janet and I own the company. Let me get you a card.” Sid thumbed through the wallet. “Damn. I’m out. Honey, you got any cards in your purse?”

“No,” I said. “I left them at home. We are on vacation.”

Sid laughed. “You are so right, sweetie. So, where are you guys from?”

“Chicago,” said Harry. “We also have a home and outlet store in Santa Fe. Where do you folks hail from?”

“Los Angeles area,” replied Sid. “Orange County, actually. You know where Disneyland is?”

The conversation went on. Small talk and Sid did most of it. Neither Carol nor Harry were particularly quiet, but I got the awkward feeling that they had more than a casual interest in us. They invited us to dinner, and we accepted. We went to a lovely place on the Champs Elysee, a few blocks down from the L’Arc de Triomphe. I had lamb. Sid had fish. Both of us drank water. The Beldons split a bottle of red wine.

Sid and Harry were really great pals by the end of dinner. As we left the restaurant, Harry had his arm around Sid’s shoulders as they laughed and carried on about who was worse: the Cubs or the Angels. They shook hands and we agreed to meet again the next day at the Place St. Germain, a common meeting spot. Sid slid his arm around my shoulders and hailed a cab.

It was just barely getting dark even though it was close to ten at night. The city showed no signs of closing either.

“Speak English?” asked Sid, still the salesman.

“Yes,” answered the driver.

“Eiffel Tower. You know?”

“Yes. Eiffel Tower.” The accent wasn’t French.

“Hey, an Arab,” chuckled Sid as we got in. “We might as well be in New York.” We got settled in. “Well, Janet, what do you think of the Beldons? Great folks, huh?”

“I suppose. They seem nice.” I was puzzled.

The Beldons weren’t anywhere around, and we’d been with them the whole time, so they hadn’t had a chance to call for a tail, and it didn’t look like we had one. Sid rummaged around in my purse.

“Yep, top of the line. I sure can pick them, can’t I? This may work out better than I thought. You got any of those antacids in here?”

“I think so. If not, they’re back at the hotel.”

“How do you find anything in here?” Sid pulled out what looked like a beeper.

It was actually a signal receiving device that, when turned on, would flash if there was a listening device in operation within five hundred feet. We could also use it to track a bug. Sid showed me the glowing red light with a disgusted look on his face. He dropped it back in the purse and left it there until we got to the tower. We walked around, heading toward the river. Sid made loud fun of the French all the way while I tried to isolate the bug unobtrusively.

It didn’t seem to be in my purse, which seemed strange. That would have been the first place I would have dropped something. I teased Sid by tickling him. Well, I tried tickling him. He’s not ticklish in the least. But I did find the bug in the upper breast pocket of his suit jacket.

At the top of a bridge, Sid stopped.

“Hey, look at all those gawkers on those tour boats,” he chortled. He pulled the silk color from his pocket. Sure enough, in the folds was what looked like a button off a suit jacket. I looked at it more closely. Tiny mesh covered the holes. Sid knocked it from my hand. “Honey, get a picture of me waving my hanky at the boats.”

“I don’t think so,” I said.

I doubt the Beldons heard my reply. Sid just happened to walk on the bug at that moment. I surreptitiously showed Sid the bug finder. No light.

“We’re safe for the moment,” he said with an invisible sigh of relief. “I don’t think we have a tail, but let’s not go back to the hotel until we’re sure.”

There was no tail.

“But why?” I asked.

“When did they have a chance to call one?” replied Sid as we got on the Metro train. “They were probably counting on us not noticing the bug and telling a cab driver where to go.”

“And on us not having the means to find a bug, and not suspecting we’d have one. That’s just too much to swallow. I’ve got a really bad feeling they recognized us from somewhere.”

“If they were watching the drops at all, they could have, which is probably why I was bugged in the first place. There couldn’t have been any planning involved.”

“Maybe you shouldn’t have gotten rid of it.”

Sid shrugged. “I hope I accounted for it.”

“Yeah, but wouldn’t you be a little bit suspicious?”

“I’d be a lot suspicious, especially as paranoid as those two must be by now.” Sid thought. “I move we search their office tonight, and let’s just hope they decide to move it legitimately to keep their butts covered.”

If wishes were horses, we should have had a herd of them. And Sid wonders why I believe. Paris nightlife being what it was, we had to wait until three a.m. to leave the hotel. That wouldn’t leave us much time before sunrise at four thirty. Sid had us put on light colored shirts with dark jeans and black zip front sweatshirts.

“I don’t get it,” I asked as we laid out our equipment. “Don’t we want to be all in black so we’re not seen?”

“That’s what the sweatshirts are for,” he answered, more preoccupied with the lockpicks and flashlights. “But if we have to make a run for it, we can ditch the sweatshirts and bluff our way through because nobody will be looking for burglars wearing white. Damn. We’ve got to hide the masks and the gloves, and still find someplace to carry a gun or two.”

It was tight, but we managed. I vowed to do something about the problem the first chance I had with a sewing machine, preferably my own back in California.

Around the corner from the Rue St. Denis, we faded into the shadows and put on our sweatshirts, gloves and the all-over ski masks. We slid around the buildings to the office. Sid ran a beam from his flashlight all along the door jamb, looking for alarm wires, then picked the lock.

We weren’t worried about the police. They were the last people the Beldons would call. But we didn’t want the Beldons alerted either.

The office was at the top of a narrow flight of stairs. Sid got us in within seconds and shut the door. I went for the file cabinets while he checked the desk and shelves. Orange light from the street gave the room an odd glow.

I found the file in the bottom drawer of the end cabinet. It contained a host of surveillance photos, but I saw a picture of Amanda Whitefoot and knew I had something. Sid and I heard the footsteps on the stairs at the same time.

I shoved the file drawer shut and followed Sid under the desk. I crossed myself. Sid lifted his pant leg and drew his gun. I got my twenty-two, also.

“Somebody’s been in here,” grumbled Harry’s voice as they entered.

“You’d just better hope they didn’t find that file,” said Carol, as she pushed past him.

Awkwardly, I jammed the file into my sweatshirt. Sid nodded at me and slid away from the desk on the side where the Beldons weren’t. I started after, but in the next second, the office door burst open and bright light circled the Beldons.

There were two figures silhouetted in the doorway, one very short, one rather tall, both lean, and both had .45 (at least) automatics trained on the Beldons.

“Don’t you Americans take this overtime business a bit too far?” said the larger figure, a male, in a smooth educated British voice. His face had a rather horsey profile.

Sid nodded at me, and I followed him silently to the wall away from the light.

“Since when does it make any difference to you what time we come here?” said Carol.

“Let’s just kill them and be done with it,” said the short figure. She was also educated and British.

Harry looked over at Sid and me and laughed and pointed. Before the two Brits could swing the light our way, Sid charged with me on his heels. The Beldons charged also. The Beldons broke first from the ensuing tangle, with Sid and me close behind. On the sidewalk, the Beldons went one way, Sid and I went the other. I glanced back to see the short figure running after us.

We had a good lead on our tail and bettered it, charging around the first corner and down the street to a wide avenue lined with trees. Sid and I ducked into an alcove between two sidewalk cafes. The short Brit came running past.

We stripped masks, gloves, and sweatshirts in seconds.

“Let’s neck,” Sid whispered, stashing everything behind us.

I ended up with my back to the street and gasped as Sid undid my shirt. I didn’t have time to complain. The Brit was on her way back. Sid exposed my shoulder as I covered his face with my hands. He let out soft little moans as we kissed, his tongue everywhere but beyond my teeth. I still wasn’t up to that.

Heavy footsteps and breathing announced the return of the large Brit. He met his partner not far from where we stood.

“Lost them, damn it,” he complained. “How’d you make out?”

“Not any better. I checked the Metro. The train was just leaving.”

He chuckled. “Have you tried asking them?”

She laughed also. “I doubt they saw anything. We’re for it, you know. They won’t be going back to that office now that they know we’re watching it.”

“Can’t be helped. Let’s be off.”

Sid peeked around my hair as the two disappeared into the night.

“We should be safe now,” he whispered, pulling my shirt back into place and buttoning it. “Sorry about that. I wanted it to look good.”

“I’ll live.”

We gathered our belongings and the file and headed back to the hotel, checking for tails every step of the way.

I barely remember going to bed, I was so tired. It was full daylight when I awoke. Still heavy with sleep, I rolled over. Sid lay on his side, fully awake and watching me. I stared back for a minute.

“What are you looking at?” I asked finally.

“What does it look like?” Sid rolled away, and grabbing his robe, got up. [Let’s hear it for denial – SEH] He squinted at his pocket watch. “It’s already nine thirty.”

I flopped onto my back. “Do we have to run today?”

There was a park, the Jardin de Tuilleries, just off the same circle as the hotel, with a straight, broad unpaved walkway down the middle which was just perfect as a running course.

“Much as I hate giving in to your sloth, we’re not,” said Sid. “It would make us too conspicuous as Americans. Do you have any compelling desire to shower first?”

“Uh-uh.” I yawned and closed my eyes.

Sid was out, fully dressed in designer jeans and sport shirt, within twenty minutes, which isn’t bad for someone as fussy about his appearance as he is. I dragged myself in, and eventually put on a full-skirted strapless sundress and petticoat with eyelet trim that peeked out from under the skirt.

It was already a habit. I didn’t even feel the straps anymore. But I made sure my twenty-two automatic handgun was in its holster on the top of my thigh, as high up as possible.

As I left the bathroom, Sid had the pictures from the file spread out over the dresser top.

“You were right,” he said, holding one up for me. “They recognized us from the drops.”

It was pretty grainy, having been shot with a light magnifier and all, but you could see Sid leaning over Blaine Winters’ body in that alley in New Orleans, with me facing the wall.

“Terrific,” I said.

“They caught me making the first drop in Chicago,” said Sid. He picked up the picture to hand it to me, then stopped. “What’s this? Get the micro magnifier, will you please?”

I dug the viewer out of my purse. It looked like one of those handheld doohickeys for viewing slides and basically served the same purpose except the magnification power was considerably stronger. Sid scraped something off the photo. I handed him the magnifier and looked at the pictures.

“It looks like they’ve got shots of their entire line. There’s even the guy from Washington, D.C. in here.”

“Yep.” Sid switched the magnifier on. “Well, I’ll be damned. Looks like we’ve stumbled onto the Beldons’ record keeping system.”

“What?”

Sid handed me the magnifier. “That’s all the information on the Chicago killing, right down to the return of the deposit money found in the killer’s apartment. It’s the same accounting code we use for our expenses.”

“Except theirs are for killing people.” I thought. “If they recognized us, then the Beldons had to figure we would be watching them and their office.”

“Yeah, and they probably went back at the same time we did for the same reason.”

“What if the file they came back for is this file?”

Sid nodded. “Given the evidence in here, it would be worth the risks to get it.”

“And they never got a chance to look for it.”

“You’re right. They’ll have to go back for it one way or another.”

“Could they have already?”

“They have no way of knowing that we, or anyone else, have called off the search, and they were caught within seconds of entering.” Sid thoughtfully gathered the pictures together. “The trick now will be in capturing them. I don’t want to meet at the Place St. Germain. It’ll be too easy for them to hit us.”

I grinned. “That’s it. We draw an attack on us in a public place, then scream for the police.”

Sid snorted. “That’s the last thing we should do. Local law enforcement just makes things more complicated…” He stopped. “And it’s the last damned thing the Beldons will expect. It seems to me that there is a hotel across the street from their office. We’ll get a room and monitor them from there, and let them catch us monitoring them. That should do it, especially if we let them know we have their file.”

“And with the hotel room, we’re not set up for an obvious sniper attack.”

“Bingo. We’ll leave the file in this hotel’s safe, too. It’ll be just that much more secure.”

We emptied a couple suitcases and only packed our guns and a couple changes of underwear. We wore our transmitters. At the second hotel, Sid got a single room overlooking the street and the Beldons’ office. We sat in the window watching, or rather, Sid did most of it. He thought he spotted the Beldons once, but couldn’t be sure.

I read for a little while, then Sid and I made up a list of article ideas I could query on when we got home. After a while, Sid got progressively more antsy and distant. He made his second shave around five and took his time doing it.

At seven thirty, he broke away from the window.

“Why don’t you watch?”

“Sure.” I took his place.

He paced restlessly. “Listen, I hope you don’t mind, but I’d like to go out for an hour or two.”

“Let me guess,” I said softly. “You’re horny.”

“Hey, it’s been four days. I think I’ve been doing pretty good.”

“Pretty well.” I sighed. “I was thinking the same thing, but I didn’t want to bring it up.”

“I’m glad.” He came over to me. “I don’t know why, but last night when we were necking, it really turned me on. It wasn’t the open shirt. It was probably the fear element. But it was all I could think about this morning. And there you are in that lovely little sundress.”

I turned my gaze out of the window. His hands gently cupped my shoulders, and his nose cleared my hair away so his lips could softly grasp my ear. His kisses, sweet and gentle, slipped down my neck. I leaned into it, even as the fear and guilt crept in.

“I can’t tell you to get the hell out and get yourself laid,” I said. “And I just don’t feel right about taking care of you myself.”

“No.” He pulled back a little. “I can’t dump the decisions I have to make on you.” He took a deep breath. “I’ve got to do something. I’m obsessing on this. I can’t think straight.”

“It’s an awful risk.”

“We have no reason to believe the Beldons know we’re here, and I can’t help but think we’re better off if I clear my head.” His finger turned my chin to face him. He pressed a kiss to my forehead. “It’s only for an hour or so. I’ll leave my receiver on. You can tap in a message if you see anything.”

I didn’t say anything as he left. Not ten minutes later, I saw him leave the hotel with a blonde woman. They went up the street and turned the corner. Tears filled my eyes.

A minute later, the door burst open. Two huge and ugly men swarmed inside with guns drawn. I reached for my model thirteen on the dresser, then quickly drew back.

“The hands in air,” growled one with a very strong French accent.

Slowly, I raised mine. The one held me at gunpoint while the other tore the room apart. There was nothing to find. I’d even left my purse back at the other hotel. Angry, the two eventually pulled me from the room, holding me close to hide the gun in the small of my back.

They took me down the street to a warehouse. I stumbled and tried nudging my twenty-two more between my legs. Once inside, I was greeted with a fist to my ear. The receiver went flying. One of my captors held me as his partner pounded my stomach. I tried to relax, but it hurt and I couldn’t breathe. The pounding stopped, but before I could get my breath, my scalp flamed as the man grabbed my hair and yanked my head close to his face.

“You have pictures,” he demanded, his breath as sour and foul as anything I’d ever pulled out of a toilet, and I’ve pulled plenty in my time.

I gasped.

“Pictures!”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I sobbed.

He backhanded me three times, or maybe it was more.

“Where are pictures?” he demanded.

“What pictures? I don’t have my camera.”

I got another cuff in the ear. My head spun and rang, and by that point, I was so disoriented, I really didn’t know anything about pictures. The man holding me growled in French.

His partner replied, lighting a cigarette.

“Tell me,” he said, pulling my hair again. “Where are the pictures, or this makes the fat marks on your pretty face.”

I whimpered. The cigarette came closer.

“Tell me.”

I could feel the heat of the glowing end on my cheek. Ignoring the pain in my scalp, I jerked my head away. The cigarette pressed into my neck, just below my ear. The pain was incredible. I screamed and screamed, and even being backhanded however many times couldn’t get me to stop.

My hands were jerked behind me and bound very tight. The one who spoke English patted me down fairly thoroughly but missed the gun completely. I’m guessing he couldn’t feel the straps through my nice full skirt and petticoat, and the gun was safely tucked between my legs as high as it would go. [There are more concise ways of describing its location, albeit cruder – SEH]

I was dragged up four or more flights of stairs and tossed into a small room. At first, all I could do was reel with the pain. My entire body ached, and my hair tickled the burn, irritating it and making it hurt worse. Slowly, my wits settled. If I was alive, it was only because someone believed I knew where the pictures we’d stolen from the Beldons were.

I didn’t know how much time I had. Listening would do no good because nobody was speaking in English. Sid’s instructions from my training days slowly filtered in. The first thing would be to get my hands free.

They were bound with bright orange strapping tape. I couldn’t reach the little piece of spring steel hidden in my hair, but I could get to my shoes. Groaning, I sat myself up and wiggled my feet around. I slid my thumbnail between the insole and top of the heel on my right shoe. Like magic, it popped open. It hurt like hell, but I twisted so I could see what I was doing.

I wriggled the small serrated blade out of the heel and went to work on the tape. It only took a minute or so to cut it open, and another minute to get braced so I could tear it off. It took my wrist hairs with it, leaving bright red welts across my wrists. But I was free.

I rescued my gun first. Peashooter or not, I wasn’t going to make that mistake again. I put my heel back together, then slowly got up. The room had two windows, one overlooking a tiny alley festooned with clothes drying on lines, and the other facing the street. Through it, I could see the hotel facing the Beldons’ office and the open window where Sid’s and my room was. So that was how they knew we were there. There was also a skylight, but no way to reach it. Climbing down would be far too slow.

I listened at the door. There was silence on the other side. I tried the handle. It was locked.

Sid swears by spring steel. I have decided it is handy stuff. I pulled the piece from my hair and went to work on the lock. It took me a few minutes, but I popped it open.

The hallway was empty. I silently shut the door behind me and slipped across to the stairs. I could hear the thud, thud of feet climbing, and a second later, my captors spotted me. The pea shooter did a good job on their guns. The men dropped the weapons and grabbed their hands.

They also got mad. I popped the English speaking one in the shoulder. He fell backward onto his partner, and they tumbled down the stairs. I grabbed the two automatics they’d dropped. There wasn’t any other way to go, so I ran after them. They landed in the middle of a flight. One reached up for me and I kicked him in the face. I crawled over the banister and jumped to the next flight.

I hit the ground floor running. The door to the warehouse was barred with a huge metal arm. I could hear shouting above me. Summoning whatever little strength I had left, I slid under the arm and shoved. It scraped on the catch but went over. I danced out of the way, then leaned on the door. Feet pounded behind me. I tripped over the threshold but scrambled out.

I ran as fast as I had ever run, cursing and thanking Sid for dragging me out of bed every morning. I found a newspaper in the gutter, swiped it up and wrapped the three guns in it. I dodged cars, then ran the long way back to the hotel on the Place de la Concorde, checking for tails and finding none.

I had been tapping messages to Sid since I broke free. With no receiver, I had no way of knowing if he’d gotten them. When I got to our room, I checked the transmitter. It had died in the rough treatment. I hoped Sid would find the destruction in the other room and come back to the first hotel. He wasn’t there. I checked the time: eleven fifteen.

I bandaged myself as best I could, then took a hot bath. Sid didn’t come. I slept restlessly, fully dressed. No Sid. Dawn broke and the sun rose slowly into the sky, filling the room with light. Sid didn’t come.

There was no doubt in my mind that Sid was in trouble. Just how much, was the question. The best I could figure, he had gone back to the other room and had been caught by the Beldons or whoever else had figured we were there.

Maybe it was a silly chance, but that’s where I went. I had dressed carefully in jeans and jacket with my armored running shoes. In my shoulder holster was one of the stolen automatics. I put the other in my jacket pocket. The twenty-two was strapped to my shin, and I had various other pieces of hardware stashed all over. In my other jacket pocket were the bug finder and a small roll of duct tape. I also wore my blonde wig and phony glasses. The wig periodically jabbed my burn, but I wasn’t up to taking chances.

Frankly, I was terrified, and felt very lost and alone in a huge city I didn’t know and where I couldn’t speak the language. I dreaded going back to that second hotel, but there was nothing else to do. I checked out the lobby first, then found the stairs and went up that way. The room was shut. I unlocked it. Everything was as it had been the day before. I even found my model thirteen still on the dresser. I removed the automatic in my holster and replaced it with the revolver. I jammed the automatic in the back of my pants.

I checked out the window. I couldn’t see who, but there was definitely movement in the Beldons’ office. I dashed downstairs. Slipping out of the hotel, I looked up. Whoever was still in there. I slid in the building’s door and into the shadows of the tiny foyer.

A woman left the office and came down the stairs. I couldn’t quite see her in the shadows. She wasn’t Carol Beldon, but I wasn’t going to assume that she was on our side. As she reached the door, I put the muzzle of the model thirteen in her neck.

“Move and you die,” I told her as coldly as I could manage.

She froze.

“Hands up and turn slowly.”

She did. I almost dropped the gun.

“Dragon,” I gasped. She looked at me, cool but unsure. “I’m Little Red, Division 53Q, code 6-A. Come on, you saw me in Washington. I’m wearing a wig.”

“You also have a gun in my face,” she pointed out.

“I’m sorry.” I lowered the gun but hung on just in case.

The Dragon headed out the door with me following.

“What are you doing here?” I gasped. “We thought you’d gotten it.”

“No. I had to intercept Yellow Ribbon and Yellow Knife before they left.” She went across the street.

“The Beldons you mean?”

She smiled. “Very good. How did you find that?”

“We searched Amanda Whitefoot’s place before we left the Canyon. It was in her phone book. We recognized their number.”

The Dragon led me into the hotel and went straight to the elevator.

“We got background on them from the Company when we got our passports,” I continued.

“Excellent. I was hoping you’d come here.” The elevator opened and we got on. “Where’s Big Red?”

I swallowed. “Missing.” I tried not to sniff. “He left the room here, and I got captured and got away, but he never returned to the room where we’re staying or the room here. Something’s wrong, and I can’t get through on my transmitter because it died.”

“And it seems our friends have slipped through our fingers again. They know we’re watching the office. They’ve got a second hiding place, but we haven’t been able to find it.”

“It’s a warehouse down the street. That’s where they took me, and you can see this hotel, and their office just fine from there.”

We got off the elevator on the fourth floor.

“That makes sense.” The Dragon got her room key out and unlocked the door.

She let me in first. I kept a good grip on the model thirteen, which was a good thing because in the room was a largish man with a horsey profile and a small almost fluffy woman – the Brits from the night before. I braced and aimed.

“What in heaven’s name is going on here?” demanded the woman.

“Enough,” the Dragon told me. “They’re with us.”

I lowered the gun, still wary. “They crashed in on the Beldons last night in their office.”

“That was you in the mask?” asked the man.

“We were there to capture them,” said the woman.

“You were there to kill them,” I said.

The Dragon glared at the couple. “We have the assurances. They won’t be back.” She waited as the couple basically ignored her. She looked at me. “Little Red, this is A12 and A45. They’re CID, and have an interest in this case.”

A12 was the woman and A45 her partner.

“We’ve been watching that office since we heard the Yellows were on their way,” said A12, looking me over shrewdly. “I can’t imagine why they chose last night to return. They had to have been here a few days.”

I squirmed. “Big Red and I made contact with them the day before yesterday. We found them in the neighborhood. They bugged us, and when we got rid of it, they must have figured that we were the ones watching them and that they’d better get to the office and get their records.”

“That can’t be it,” said A45. “We searched that office. There weren’t any records.”

“There was a file of surveillance photos on their line,” I said.

“There’s nothing unusual about that,” said the Dragon.

“We found microdots on the photos with the payoffs to the hired assassins listed.” I bit my lip.

“They are clever, aren’t they?” said A12 with a lady-like chortle.

“The question is, where are they now?” said the Dragon, going over to a table spread with more photographs. “We can try staking out that warehouse, but I doubt that will do any good.”

“I suppose we’ll have to continue identifying and interrogating their acquaintances,” said A45.

I went over to the table.

“That’s rather awkward security-wise,” said A12.

I picked up a series of photos of Harry Beldon and a blonde woman that looked vaguely familiar. They were in various attitudes on the streets of Paris, including some rather passionate ones.

“Have you identified her?” I asked the Dragon.

She looked bored. “She’s a hooker. Owns a stable not far from here.”

“Oh no.” My mouth went dry as my heart stopped. I looked at the back of a single shot of the madam. “Is this her address?”

“Yes.” The Dragon picked up another photo. “This fellow bothers me.”

“That’s where he is.” I tossed the hooker photos onto the table and headed for the door.

“Who?” asked the Dragon. “And where are you going?”

“Big Red,” I said, leaving. “He’s got to be at the brothel. I’m going after him.”

The Dragon hurried after me, followed by A12 and A45.

“You don’t know that,” the Dragon said.

I pounded the elevator button. “The last time I saw him, he was with that woman.”

“Sounds like it might be under control then,” said A12.

“It’s been too long,” I groaned. “Come on, you stupid machine.” I ran for the stairs, then stopped. “It’s… He was horny. He wasn’t thinking straight. He’s in trouble and I’ve got to get him out of there.”

I flew down the stairs with the others after me. They nearly ran me over as I stopped short on the final landing. Downstairs, Carol Beldon handed a note to the desk clerk.

“My, isn’t she the brazen one,” said A12.

“It’s rather encouraging, actually,” said A45. “She must have a hostage, and if it’s your Big Red, he must still be alive.”

“That’s our room number,” I said as the clerk filed the note in a pigeon hole. I looked over at the Dragon. “Why don’t you follow her?” I pointed to A45, then A12. “You can keep an eye out in the lobby, and you can keep the desk clerk occupied so I can get a look at that note without anyone knowing it’s been seen.”

“Of all the ruddy-” began A12.

“Marian, do it,” said the Dragon as she took off.

A12 and A45 ambled down the stairs together. While A12 addressed the clerk in rapid-fire French, I also ambled down. A12 directed the clerk to a room in the back. As soon as they had disappeared, I scrambled over the desk to the pigeon holes and the note.

“If you want to see your lover again, bring the file to the Place St. Germain at 6:00 tonight.”

Disgusted by the assumption, however valid, I replaced the note, hurried over the counter and to the front door. A45 held me back.

“Where do you think you’re going?” he demanded.

“That was a ransom note for my partner,” I said. “I know where he is and I’m going after him.”

I headed for the sidewalk. A12 came back into the lobby. She joined A45 as he followed me out.

“What on earth?” she asked.

“It was a ransom note,” explained A45. “For her partner.”

“They want us to take the file we have to the Place St. Germain at six o’clock,” I said. “It’s ten forty-five now, but that doesn’t mean they won’t hurt him in the meantime.”

A12 caught my arm. She had quite a grip for such a small woman.

“Why not just wait until six and get them at the Place St. Germain?” she asked.

“It’s a setup,” I said. “Wednesday night, they arranged to meet us there yesterday morning. After that, we found we were bugged. They recognized us from some drops we’d made in the States. That’s why they went to their office that night, to get their file before we got it.”

The Dragon quietly walked up. “Good work, Little Red. She went right to the whorehouse.”

I thought quickly. “We’ve got to find a way in there. If there’s an alley near there, I could climb a wall and get in through the roof.”

A45 smiled. “Actually, there’s a vacant building two doors down. We can get to the roof from there.”

“Great.” I turned to the Dragon. “Why don’t you and A12 go check out the Place St. Germain? If we miss them at the brothel, we can still get them there.”

“What is it about Americans?” asked A12, but she tapped the Dragon on the shoulder and turned. “Let’s be off, Lillian. Are all your people like this?”

I looked at A45. “Come on.”

“Perhaps we should cover ourselves better,” he suggested as we headed down the street.

“Perhaps, but I’m wearing a wig, and it wasn’t in any of the surveillance photos.”

A45 held me back before turning the corner. We slipped into the doorway of an old, old building of gray brick, long gone black with soot. Inside was layered with centuries of dust, it seemed. We got to the roof without a problem, and made our way over it to a building two roofs down. The buildings were literally side by side, so it was no trouble.

A45 stopped at a small dormer window and forced it open. He crawled in first, then helped me into a nice little bedroom, complete with sink and worn towels. We slid out and down a flight of stairs.

Near the next floor, A45 waved me back into the shadow of the stairwell. He went ahead casually and tried to embrace a young woman in drab gray clothes carrying a pile of towels. They went back and forth in French for a couple jovial minutes, then she went on her way and A45 waved me into the hall.

“Well?” I asked. “I don’t understand French.”

“I didn’t get much,” he said. “The girls are angry with Madame because she has locked them out of her room, and there’s a new favorite in there.”

“Which room?” I asked anxiously.

“It’s a customer. Quite a man, too. The girl said they haven’t heard Madame scream like that in quite some time.”

“That’s him,” I sighed, somewhat chagrined. It figured Sid would find a way to get relief before he got captured.

“Dark haired fellow? Rather handsome?”

“Yes. Which room?”

“This way.”

It was down the hall. A45 listened at the door and shook his head. I pulled a piece of spring steel from my hair and went to work on the lock.

It was a fairly small room, and not at all what I expected for a madam. There was a sink, and a huge wardrobe that I’m certain was an antique, and a brass bed with a flowered spread and Sid, barechested, laying face down on it. His hands were bound behind his back.

Fighting tears, I rushed to the bed and carefully turned Sid over. He groaned. His eyes were huge and black and puffy, and what I could see of the whites were blood red. There was dried blood all over his upper lip, and fresh bruises on his arms and chest. He groaned again and sort of squinted.

“Who..?” he asked.

“It’s me,” I said quickly. “Are you alright? I mean how bad are you?”

“Li-” He stopped and swallowed and sighed. “You found me.”

A45 broke open the wardrobe and began a methodical search.

“It’s okay. I’m here now,” I told Sid. I looked at his wrists. “Good lord, there’s this big heavy cable on you.”

Sid nodded. “I heard a church bell ring ten o’clock, and a little after that, they came in and put it on me, as if I was in any shape to do anything.”

“It sounds about the right time,” I said, picking at the heavy coated wire to untie it. “I cut through some tape, must have been an hour or two before that.”

“They got you?”

“Not for long. Here it comes.” I pulled the cable away, then popped open the sole on my left running shoe. “You’ve got duct tape on you, too.”

“Goody.” He grunted as I helped him sit up.

I slashed it. “Listen, I’m going to have to pull this off now. It’s going to hurt.”

Sid snorted. “That’s like telling the Ancient Mariner he’s walking under a ladder.”

I yanked and Sid swallowed his yelp. I put the knife back in my shoe and closed it. Groaning, Sid slowly moved his arms around front. I rubbed his shoulders. Sid groaned some more.

I stopped. “Am I hurting you?”

“Yeah, but it’s what I need. Got to get the circulation going again.”

“I believe I’ve found your things,” said A45 suddenly.

Sid stiffened and tried to make him out.

“He’s CID,” I explained, still rubbing. “A45. He’s helping the Dragon.”

“The Dragon?” asked Sid.

“She’s here.”

A45 brought over Sid’s running shoes and shirt. Sid groaned as he lifted and rotated his arms, then leaned into my hands as I massaged his shoulders.

“Think you can walk?” I asked softly.

“Do I have a choice?” he returned. I slid around and looked at him. He gazed softly back. “I’ll make it.”

Sniffing, I bent forward and carefully kissed his lips. He returned it generously, carefully wrapping his arms around me.

“Hep,” hissed A45 suddenly.

He stood with his ear next to the door. On the other side, we could hear Harry Beldon yelling in French and a young woman crying. It came closer.

Sid put his hands behind his back and laid down on them. I grabbed his shirt and shoes and dove under the bed. Harry burst into the room and went straight for Sid, swearing like a Marine. He reached for Sid’s arm and got a good solid kick in the chest instead.

Harry recovered quickly, and I rolled out from under the bed right into his legs as he started for Sid again. Harry fell onto the bed. Sid dodged, then jumped on him. Harry threw him. I charged Harry from the side while Sid recovered, and the two of us caught Harry in a squeeze play. I swung my elbow up and into Harry’s nose. His head jerked back and the blood flowed freely. Sid shoved his elbow into Harry’s stomach, then pulled Harry forward onto the floor. Together, Sid and I got Harry’s hands behind his back.

I got the duct tape from my jacket, and ripped off a piece big enough to cover Harry’s mouth, then handed the roll to Sid. Sid whipped the roll around Harry’s wrists, then held his head still so I could tape his mouth.

Gasping, Sid and I got up. I groaned and doubled over.

“You alright?” Sid asked his hand on my shoulder.

“I got knocked around yesterday, too,” I whispered. “I guess I’m not entirely recovered.”

Sid nodded. He looked at A45. “Can we count on CID to help us take care of him?”

“There’s a simpler way to deal with it,” said A45.

Taking a switchblade from his pocket, he walked over to Harry, popped the blade open, lifted Harry’s head, and I didn’t see the rest.

The room started spinning and I slipped into the hall. Swearing, Sid joined me.

“You might consider that he won’t be haunting you now,” said A45 calmly, handing Sid the shoes and shirt I’d left behind.

“Let’s be thankful for small favors,” grumbled Sid. He eased into his shirt. “How do we get out of here?”

“His partner should still be in the building,” said A45. “I recommend we find her.”

“I’m not big on your tactics, buddy,” growled Sid, getting into his shoes.

A45 shrugged. “Nonetheless, unless you are more seriously injured than you appear, it would not be a good idea to forgo the opportunity.”

I handed Sid the automatic I had in my jacket pocket.

“Why don’t we keep going through the house?” I suggested. “At the rate things are going, she’ll find us soon enough.”

Sid checked the clip and took off the safety. “Sounds good. Let’s just be careful.”

“Do you speak French?” A45 asked him as we moved down the hall.

“I only kiss,” said Sid.

A45 shook his head. “Why don’t you two have any language skills?”

“It’s a fluke we’re here,” said Sid, getting irritated. “We’re strictly domestic.”

“Seriously? Well. You’ll need to stay with me, then.”

“Sh,” I hissed.  I nodded at a nearby stairwell.

We faded into a doorway, but the steps on the stairs continued up. It was just one of the girls. She paid us no mind and went into one of the rooms.

We found Carol on the bottom floor. The three of us peered out of the stairwell and across a hall at her as she paced alone in a well-appointed living room. A45 raised a small automatic.

I put my hand on it and shook my head. He withdrew. Upstairs, a woman screamed. Carol tensed, listening. The hysteria grew. She marched into the hall, right into three handguns.

“It’s over, my dear,” said A45. “You couldn’t expect to keep it up forever, could you?”

Behind us, more screaming erupted, and the hall filled with young women and a few men in various states of undress. Seeing the guns, one drunk fellow decided we were the source of the trouble and jumped us. In the confusion, I lost my model thirteen. I reached for Carol and got one of the hookers.

The fighting escalated into a full-scale brawl. I elbowed my way through the crowd and suddenly found myself in a headlock. I tried to flip the one who had me and nearly choked myself. She gripped tighter. I stopped struggling.

The fight slowed and stopped as everyone watched Carol drag me to the hall table. Keeping a tight grip on me, she opened the drawer and removed a knife.

She loosened the choke hold, but with the knife against the skin of my neck, I wasn’t too inclined to do much beyond what she wanted. She turned me toward A45 and Sid.

“I want cash,” she told them coldly. “Fifty million in francs and I want a plane ticket to Argentina.”

A45 raised his gun. “My dear, you know the policy. I dislike losing such a good operative, but I will not bargain with a terrorist.”

I can’t say my life flashed before my eyes. Things went down too quickly. Sid slammed into Carol’s side. My forehead stung as I pushed myself away and toward the front door. Carol slammed Sid in the breadbasket, knocking him back, and dashed after me. A45 grabbed her knife hand and forced the blade from her. He tried spinning her back but got kicked where it counts by one of the young women, who wasn’t convinced that we were the good guys.

As I opened the door, Carol grabbed me by the hair. I yelped but plunged forward. The wig gave, and Carol stumbled back. I landed on my face. I started up but got tackled.

I screamed for the police as loud as I could. Passersby stopped and stared at the little drama. Blood dripped into my eyes. I wiped it and struggled forward on the sidewalk. Carol desperately tried to pull me back.

“Police! Gendarmes!” I screamed. “Gendarmes!”

I heard a whistle in the distance. It got closer and I blacked out.

I awoke to darkness.

“You are alright,” said a woman with a French accent. “Calm now.”

“No,” I moaned. I felt something brushing my nose, but couldn’t feel the rest of my face.

“Lie still. You are fine.”

I still struggled.

“She has no head injury. We’ll give her something to make her sleep.”

“No,” I protested. “I don’t want it. I don’t.”

Something pricked my arm. I tried fighting it, but soon I was out.

The light seemed incredibly bright when I awoke. My forehead burned and I felt really nauseous. I didn’t feel like getting up, but my stomach left me no choice. I struggled upright. The Dragon sat down next to me.

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

“Barf,” I got out through gritted teeth.

“Oh, here.”

She pulled a waste can to my face and I tossed it. By the time I was done, Sid was there with a glass of water and a washcloth. He held me as I rinsed out my mouth and wiped up.

“I thought that doctor said she didn’t have a head injury,” Sid growled at the Dragon.

“Are you better?” the Dragon asked me. I nodded. “How does your head feel?”

“Fine. My forehead burns.” I reached up and touched gauze. “My stomach feels better, too. I still feel pretty fuzzy, though.”

“It must be the after-effects of the sedative,” said the Dragon. “The doctor gave you one when you came to and panicked while she was stitching you up.”

“A sedative?” I thought back. “Was it a barbiturate?”

“Why?”

I looked at Sid. “Wasn’t that what you gave me when I panicked that time, and I almost threw up when I woke up?”

“I gave you a barbiturate tablet,” said Sid.

“Don’t ever give me a sedative again,” I said.

Sid gave me a gentle squeeze. If I didn’t notice his puffy eyes right away, it was because he was wearing his glasses.

“Did something happen to your contacts?” I asked.

“Yeah. I lost them almost immediately,” he said. “I went back to our hotel after they patched you together and got our stuff, including that file.”

“Where am I?”

“In a safe house,” said the Dragon. “We thought it might be a little more comfortable, and it’s certainly more discreet.”

It was more comfortable. The bed was soft and covered with lavender silk sheets. The room was decorated with purple and lavender flowers.

“What about Carol Beldon?” I asked. “I mean with Harry upstairs, why didn’t we get arrested?”

“Our friends from CID,” said Sid. “They have some pull, apparently.”

“They do indeed,” said the Dragon. “Carol’s been arrested.”

“But Harry. I mean, he just killed him.”

“He doesn’t like traitors.” The Dragon fidgeted with the lavender flowered quilt I was under. “Those two can be very Medieval. It’s understandable, given who they are.”

I knew better than to ask. The door suddenly swung open and the Medieval pair walked in.

“Well, the extradition papers have been signed,” she announced. “They’re being delivered Air Express. Should be here first thing tomorrow morning. She’ll be shipped out then.”

“We can’t thank you enough,” said the Dragon.

“No thanks needed,” said A45. “If it hadn’t been for your team here, we wouldn’t have gotten them at all.”

“It was getting very nasty at our end,” explained A12. “But Arthur tells me you two work strictly in the States. What division?”

“53Q,” said Sid. “Code 6-A.”

“Couriers?” gasped A12. Even A45 seemed taken aback. “Lillian, do you mean to tell me you sent couriers on a job like this?”

“The division frequently handles counter-espionage investigations,” said the Dragon. “They haven’t been together long, but they’re already one of our best teams. In fact, they’re the ones that made sure you got that care package we sent you last January.”

“Well, if that’s the caliber of people you hire for your couriers, it’s no wonder.” A12 ran an appraising eye over us.

I flushed. A12’s gaze lingered on Sid, however. He turned to me, sliding his hand into mine. The Dragon got up.

“I think it’s time we let you two alone,” she said.

“Quite right,” said A12. “Mustn’t intrude on two lovers.”

“But we’re not,” I said.

“I should be so lucky,” said Sid.

The others laughed and left the room. Sid leaned back on the bed.

“Now where did they get the idea that we’re lovers?” he asked, puzzled.

“You didn’t say anything…”

“No.” He shrugged.

“How are you feeling?” I asked softly.

“Stiff and achy, but much better, thank you.” He reached over and kissed the end of my nose. “We sure make a pretty pair, don’t we?”

I laughed, then looked at the door, feeling rather puzzled. “I wonder why they decided to kill their operatives. You’d think they’d have just run like heck when it got obvious someone was onto them.”

“I don’t think we’ll ever know,” Sid said. “Just like we won’t know who they were waiting for here and why they decided they needed that file. I’m guessing they were trying to raise some cash to disappear. And by the way, the Dragon confirmed it. With the way we cleaned things up here, we can go back to being ourselves.”

“Oh, wonderful. I can see my family again.”

“And we’re not married either.”

“Yeah.” I sighed unexpectedly. “I was kind of getting used to the idea.”

“Me, too.” He looked at me. “It’s probably better that we’re not, but however relieved I am, I’m also a little sorry, too.”

“So am I.” I smiled at him. “We could still get married, I suppose.” I shivered. “I don’t want to.”

“Me, neither.”

We laughed, then he reached over and kissed my mouth.