How to cook, cooking for beginners, cooking without recipes

Menu Planning Made Easy

menu planning, how to plan a menuIt’s been a while since I’ve done a cooking blog post, but I’m still very interested in teaching folks how to cook, rather than simply follow recipes. Which is why I’m looking at menu planning today.

Here’s the thing – there are lots of reasons not to cook for yourself. Certainly, there are tons of good services out there, some that won’t expand your waistline too badly. But there are more reasons to do the cooking yourself. You reduce waste, you keep better control of what goes into your food and, hence, onto your hips, it’s a great family activity. I could go on. But let’s assume that you’ve already decided that you need to cook more at home. Where and how to begin?

That’s where menu planning comes in. Having a plan makes it a lot easier to come home and start cooking, maybe after a short rest or other decompression ritual. On the other hand, if you come home at a dead heat and find that all you have in your fridge is a pound of frozen chicken breasts and no clue what you were going to do with them, then it’s all too easy to hit the drive-thru again. Also, if you have a plan and you forgot to get the chicken breasts out of the freezer, you can still cook because tomorrow night’s dinner is a salad and all you have to do is put the chicken breasts in the fridge, then make the salad, instead.

A menu plan, basically, plots out a week or more worth of dinners (and lunches and breakfasts, if you want to go that far), so that you can go to the grocery store once a week or so, instead of daily. You don’t need anything fancier than a piece of paper and a pencil or pen. I have used calendar pages in the past – they worked great. But now I use a Google calendar, which means I can look up what’s for dinner before I get home, or if I see something at the supermarket that might work well with what I’ve chosen for a dinner. There are apps that will help you with this but in my experience, they’re very tied to using recipes – which we are trying not to use here – and you have to game them to get a simple list of items you want to prepare. Seriously, you don’t need a recipe for a basic side salad, and if the app is going to insist that you use one, why mess with it?

Menu planning steps

It always helps to start menu planning by looking through your fridge and pantry to see what’s already there. I’ll often write down a list of which veggies didn’t get used up the week before, and maybe thumb through the freezer compartment to see what meats I’ve already got and need using. I also think about the rhythm and flow of my week. For example, in the picture below, you’ll note there are no entries for Tuesday and Thursday nights. We’re not going to be home those nights, so no point in planning a meal. (I also tend just to plan dinners, though I should plan lunches, as well). Sunday nights, I like to have something a little more special and since we have a tradition of the Mid-Week Break, Wednesday nights are generally going to be a bit more involved and/or special.

menu planning, how to plan a menu

Next step is figuring out what goes where. Now, if I’m using a piece of paper that doesn’t already have the days of the week on it, I write them in. Sundays also have the advantage of generally being more open time-wise, so I’ll often cook a roast or a whole chicken or something fairly large so that I can use the leftovers during the week. Usually, that’s just sandwiches or chicken salad, but that also means another meal on the menu that I can schedule and not think about. Or a couple lunches. Most meals in our household involve a protein and two vegetables (side salads count as one veggie). For example, if I’m making lentil chili, I’ll either count the lentils as a protein and/or add some cheese. Then I’ll chop up a veggie or two to cook as part of the chili. Or we’ll have a bit of roasted pork tenderloin, with broccoli and salad, and maybe some sweet potato oven fries as an extra treat. You’ll note protein does not necessarily mean meat. I’ll often use high-protein grains or legumes instead, and I don’t often combine meat with high-protein grains. It’s not necessary.

Now, if you’re not certain what you want to cook, you can look through your cookbooks or online for ideas. There’s nothing wrong with using recipes, especially if you’re new to cooking. Just be aware that it’s a lot easier for something to go awry, such as forgetting to put a key ingredient on the shopping list.

After that, it’s just a matter of plugging in what goes where. So, say that bit of roasted pork tenderloin is scheduled for Sunday. There will be leftovers, which can become Cuban sandwiches on Thursday, along with some coleslaw and green beans. We try to practice Meatless Mondays and also abstain from meat on Fridays, and it looks like the weather is going to be fairly warm Monday, so I’ll throw together a gazpacho for that night, and gee, grilled cheese sandwiches sound good for Friday, maybe with a cucumber salads, since I’m doing coleslaw the night before. That leaves Wednesday… Hmm. Haven’t done a chicken piccata in a while. That sounds yummy and with my beloved and I working together, not nearly as much trouble. That leaves Tuesday. We’ve done chicken and pork. Maybe a skillet lasagna, with spinach and chopped kale (the two veggies) for Tuesday. Boom. We’re done.

Now, all I have to do is look over my menu, figure out what I need to buy, put it all on the grocery list and go shopping. But that’s next month’s post.

 

Essays, general essay

Labor Day

Thanks to all that hard work I did celebrating unions and workers in America this past weekend, I’m taking a week off from blogging.

See you next week!

spy fiction, mystery fiction, cozy mystery,

Chapter Six

spy novel, serial mystery fiction, cozy mysteryOctober 29 – 30, 1982

“Absolutely not!” I was trying to stay calm. But I was furious.

Dinner had been cleaned up and Neil and the kids were gone.

“It’s priority one, code one,” Mr. Hackbirn said with that incredibly aggravating calm manner of his. “There is nothing else that can be done about it.”

Anything that passes through the “business” is given a separate priority and code rating. The scales are on a one to five range. For priority, one is the most urgent, namely drop everything and get it moving now. Five means whenever there’s time to deal with it. Code implies how secret it is. Technically, no one in Quickline is supposed to know anyone else in the business. Also, anything we get is already given the highest level top secret rating possible, which is why we get to handle it. A code five means you can put the information into an associate’s hands and all but ask his name, making it easier to pick up a tail. So you can tell they’re not as worried about a code five as they are about a code one, which means no contact at all allowed short of a quick phone call. Priority one, code one means extremely urgent and extremely secret, and in my mind that night, dangerous.

But it wasn’t the danger to myself that was bothering me. Mr. Hackbirn wanted me to make the pickup while we were out with the kids the next day. Needless to say, I didn’t want them involved. I don’t think Mr. Hackbirn wanted them involved either, but there didn’t seem to be any other way.

What had happened was that the information had been hidden on a key chain full of keys. The keys were supposed to have been dropped at a time and place mutually agreeable to Mr. Hackbirn and whoever was carrying the keys. But the carrier had picked up a tail and had temporarily ditched the keys in a toy store at a mall in Brea. When he ditched the tail, he went back to the toy store only to find that someone else had already found the keys and turned them into the manager of the store, who in turn locked them in her desk. By the time the carrier had returned, the manager had gone home with the key to the desk.

Assured of the keys’ safety, the carrier decided the toy store was as good as any place for the pickup and called Mr. Hackbirn. The only problem was that the assistant manager had seen the carrier, in fact, talked with him about the keys, and would probably say something if a man other than the carrier picked up the keys. So after conferring with Mr. Hackbirn, the carrier had called up the toy store and arranged for his “wife” (me) to pick up the keys. Apparently, Mr. Hackbirn had assumed Neil would be home to take care of the kids. To do him justice, it wasn’t all that bad an assumption.

But Neil would be occupied with bringing Mae home, and Mr. Hackbirn had decided that having the kids along wouldn’t be so bad as long as he could distract them while I made the actual pickup. I did not want the kids involved.

“It’s too dangerous,” I insisted.

“Actually, it’s the safest kind of pickup to make.”

“I don’t care. It’ll just have to wait.”

“It can’t wait. It’s been waiting too long already.”

“Well, I’m not going to do it. I’m sorry, but I can’t. Not even to save my job.”

“I’m not going to fire you. I can’t anyway.”

“Then I’ll quit.”

“You can’t quit. Remember? Face it, you’re stuck.”

“Wonderful. We’ve reached an impasse.” I could feel my control starting to slip. I bit my lip. “You say I will and I say I won’t.”

“Will you listen to reason?” There was an edge to his voice that I later learned meant he was getting mad. “There is very little that could go wrong, provided you don’t lose your head.”

“That was a cheap shot,” I snapped.

I looked him right in the eye. He seemed startled at first. Then the bright piercing blue softened and he actually looked a little ashamed.

“You’re right. It was,” he said quietly. “I apologize.”

“Apology accepted.” The fury suddenly left me, leaving me very drained.

Mr. Hackbirn sank into the couch (we were in the living room). He put his fingers to his eyes as if he was going to rub them, but didn’t. When he removed his fingers, he blinked a few times and looked at me. I noticed his eyes were rather red.

“Look, I don’t want to endanger the children,” he said slowly. “And frankly, I don’t think it will. Consider, in the first place, the tail was successfully ditched and obviously didn’t know about the toy store. In the second place, if you’ll pardon the cliché, there’s safety in numbers. People in our business generally work alone and only rarely in tandem. We’ll be seven people total. And in the third place, their very presence will be a type of protection. I mean, who would be crazy enough to bring children on a thing like this?”

I sighed. Unfortunately, he made sense. I had sunk into a chair. I disconsolately gazed at the battered toe of my deck shoe.

“I don’t know,” I said, not quite ready to give in. I looked at Mr. Hackbirn. “I love those kids. I don’t know if you’d understand, but I’m better than Santa Claus to them. They mean the world to me.”

“I do understand. If you’d said that to me yesterday, maybe I wouldn’t have. But what else are we going to do?”

“I don’t know. I guess we’ll have to do it. Janey’s got her heart set on you coming anyway.”

“What an amazing girl.” Mr. Hackbirn smiled gently.

I chuckled. “You certainly seem to be rather fond of her.”

He shrugged. “I’m a sucker for big eyes.” He got up. I rose with him. “I’ll see you tomorrow at nine.”

“Okay. Why don’t you try dressing casually?”

“Of course.”

While trying to get around the piano, the chair and a soccer ball someone had left, I stumbled into Mr. Hackbirn.

“Oops,” he said, catching me.

I looked into his eyes and blushed.

“I’m sorry,” I mumbled. Then I frowned.

“Something wrong?” Mr. Hackbirn asked, concerned.

“You’ve got something in your eye,” I said.

He looked away and blinked a couple of times.

“No, I don’t.”

“Yes, you do. I can see it. It’s an eyelash, kind of near the center.”

“You got a mirror?”

I was already heading for the kitchen.

“In the bathroom. Hang on, I’m getting a tissue.”

“Never mind.”

“You got it?” I came back into the hallway. He was looking at something between his forefinger and thumb.

“I didn’t think I had anything in there.” He walked past me into the bathroom, leaving the door open.

“I know I saw something,” I said, standing in the doorway. He pulled a small, flat plastic bottle out of the inside breast pocket of his suit jacket. “It was a little line.”

“This is what you saw.” Mr. Hackbirn held out his hand. On his forefinger was a light blue curved plastic lens.

“You wear contact lenses?” I couldn’t help giggling a little.

“I am extremely nearsighted.” He rubbed a few drops of the liquid from the bottle onto the lens, then rinsed it under the faucet (he’d already pulled the plug). “I admit I got them for pure vanity. But…”

He stopped as he inserted the lens underneath his eyelid.

“Oh, gross.” I looked away.

He just chuckled.

“But,” he continued. “They have slowed down my eyes from getting worse.”

“I’m glad.” My stomach was doing mild flipflops.

I left the doorway and he left the house.

The next morning I was in the family room French braiding Janey’s hair. Right at nine, I heard Darby yell, “He’s here!” and the sound of his feet pounding down the stairs. I was doing two braids on Janey. I had the first one done and was midway through the second. Ellen sat on the floor next to us, still in her pajamas with pink sponge rollers in her hair. Neil was upstairs dressing the twins.

“Janey, please hold still,” I said as the doorbell rang. “Darby will answer the door.”

I have said before that Mr. Hackbirn is an impeccable dresser. To be more specific, he’s the type of person that always looks dressed up even in the most casual clothes. That morning he was wearing very tight dark blue dress jeans with a light blue shirt and the inevitable sweater around his shoulders. Over his arm, he carried a blue and off white herringbone twill sport coat with suede patches on the elbows.

“Good morning,” he said, smiling. “Why aren’t you ready?”

“You are obviously unaware of the logistics involved in getting six people ready to go somewhere,” I replied, also smiling.

“They must be incredible.” Mr. Hackbirn laid his sport coat on the back of the couch.

“What’s logistics?” asked Janey.

“Look it up in the dictionary,” I answered automatically.

“I can’t. You’re doing my hair.”

“Then hold still, and you can look it up later.”

“Kind of chilly out here,” remarked Mr. Hackbirn. “It was sunny in L.A.”

In Orange County the sky was overcast and the air had a definite bite to it.

“Twenty percent chance of rain, I heard,” I said.

“I don’t think it will.” He walked into the hallway, pulling the sweater from his shoulders.

After putting it on, he opened the bathroom door and checked himself in the mirror. He straightened his collar and ran a reassuring hand over his hair. It didn’t need it. Even with all its waves, Mr. Hackbirn’s hair is always perfect. He doesn’t use hairspray either. He’s just so disgustingly full of self-control that not one hair on his head would even think of being out of place.

“You didn’t have to get so dressed up,” I said as he came back into the room. “I did say casual.”

“I am.”

Darby laughed. He was wearing blue jeans with a bright yellow t-shirt that had the Mercedes-Benz logo on it and scuffed running shoes. Janey also had on jeans. But she was wearing a V-necked sweater over a plaid blouse with an eyelet-trimmed collar. She was barefoot, however.

I had opted for a similar outfit, this one including my deck shoes. My deck shoes are my favorite pair of shoes. They were originally white, but now they’re a dirty gray. The toes are scuffed up and the heels are starting to wear down. But they don’t have any holes in them. Yet.

I finished Janey’s braid.

“Ellen, please give me the ponytail band. No, not the dental floss. Thank you.” I looped the band around the end of the braid. “Okay, you’re done. Go get your shoes on.”

Janey got up and ran upstairs. As I stood up, I noticed Mr. Hackbirn subtly but restlessly prowling about the room.

“Why don’t you sit down,” I said. “I’ve still got to dress Ellen and get things together. There’s no rush anyway. The stores don’t open ’til ten.”

“Stores?” groaned Darby with shocked disgust. “We’re not going shopping, are we?”

“I’ve got errands to run,” I said firmly.

“But I thought we were going someplace neat.”

“I want to go to the zoo,” said Ellen.

“Some other time, honey,” I said, pulling her to her feet. “We haven’t got time today.”

“I don’t want to go shopping,” complained Darby. “Couldn’t we go to Craig Park at least?”

“Maybe later,” I answered. “We’ll see what the weather does.”

“Stupid weather.”

“Please, Darby, no complaints.” I felt for him. He hated shopping. “We’re going to a nice mall. They have an arcade there, and if you’re good, I just might…”

Darby’s eyes lit up.

“A surprise?” he asked, grinning and pushing his glasses up on his nose.

“Entirely contingent upon your good behavior.”

“What’s contingent?”

“Look it up in the dictionary. Come on, Ellen.”

I took Ellen upstairs while Darby pulled the big dictionary off of the bookshelf.

I put Ellen in a pink dress with a lot of ruffles and black and white oxfords with white ankle socks. Then I brushed out her fine hair and put matching ribbons in it. She looked like a little cherub. I wondered how long it would last. As much as Ellen loves pretty dresses with all the frills, she also loves making messes. How long she stays clean depends a lot on how much supervision she has. That’s why she’s always the last to be dressed.

Janey had not only put on her running shoes but had found some ribbons for her pigtails and had tied them on, albeit crookedly. I handed Ellen over to her with firm instructions to keep her clean.

I was heading to the twins’ room when I heard two small but powerful voices screaming “no shoes!” repeatedly.

“Then you don’t go,” Neil said firmly, leaving the room and shutting the door behind him.

He winked at me and handed me the diaper bag I had packed earlier with a few toys, diapers, plastic pants and extra overalls. The twins were in training pants, but accidents were still fairly common.

“Get this downstairs before they catch on,” he whispered.

As I headed downstairs, I heard the door open and a small voice ask for shoes.

When I got to the family room, I dropped the diaper bag next to the couch by my purse. Mr. Hackbirn got up and, putting on his sport coat, followed me into the hall. I opened the hall closet and pulled out the twins’ stroller. Even folded up, it was large and unwieldy with two seats each facing the other.

“What’s that?” he asked, helping me set it against the wall.

“The twins’ stroller.”

“Why are you bringing it? They can walk.”

“That’s exactly why I’m bringing it,” I explained. Mr. Hackbirn gave me a puzzled frown. “I can strap them down in the stroller. Believe me, Mr. Hackbirn, you don’t want to go chasing those two all over the place. Not to mention their talent for getting into trouble.” I walked back into the family room.

“Darby,” I asked,  “Will you help load the stroller in the station wagon, please? The keys are on the couch.”

Darby grabbed the keys and ran out. I grabbed my purse and the diaper bag and was about to follow when I saw Mr. Hackbirn carrying the stroller.

“Okay, everybody, time to go!” Neil called, coming down the stairs behind the twins.

Janey and Ellen appeared from the living room where they had been playing and we all went out front to the car. Mr. Hackbirn had just put the stroller in the back. Darby climbed in over it, swiftly followed by Janey. I put Ellen in the middle of the back seat between the twins’ car seats and put her seat belt on. Neil was putting Marty in the right-hand car seat. I had to chase Mitch who had run off halfway down the block.

“Naughty Mitch,” I scolded when I caught him.

“I run fast.” he said happily.

“No kidding,” I said and put him in his car seat.

As I straightened up and shut the car door, Neil came up and gave me a big hug.

“Thanks, Lisa,” he said warmly. Then he turned to Mr. Hackbirn. “And thank you for going with them.”

“It’s my pleasure,” Mr. Hackbirn said.

“We’ll see,” replied Neil with a mischievous grin.

“Neil,” I groaned, laughing.

Mr. Hackbirn just laughed and got into the car on the passenger side.

We got to the mall without mishap. We spent the morning mostly window shopping. At lunch time we went to the fast food terrace.

Mae is what I call a health nut. Well, she’s not as bad as some, but she won’t use salt or refined sugar, refuses to fry anything, and only allows red meat once a week. Her kids are the only kids I know that will eat their vegetables. They have to. They’d go hungry otherwise. Not that Mae underfeeds them. She just doesn’t allow snacks and it’s a long time between meals if you don’t make a point of filling up.

I am the opposite of Mae. If I have one weakness, it’s junk food. Actually, I love food in general, but several of my favorite foods are supposedly going to kill me. By rights, I should be very fat and chronically ill. But I’m one of those hated types that never gains weight and almost never gets sick.

Mae knows I feed the kids junk food when I’m out with them. But it’s gotten to be a kind of joke that whenever I buy lunch, I swear the kids to secrecy.

After their solemn vow never to tell Mother what Aunt Lisa poisoned them with, I asked them what they wanted. Janey and Ellen are easy to please.

“Hamburgers!” they yelled.

“Hamburgers!” the twins echoed.

“Darby?” I asked.

“I don’t know.”

“Here,” I slipped him a five, “You’re old enough to get it yourself.”

“Gee, thanks, Aunt Lisa.” He ran off happily.

“I’ll hold the table,” said Mr. Hackbirn.

“You want me to get you something?” I asked.

“No thank you.”

“Alright.” I swept off with the kids before Janey could ask any questions. I knew Mr. Hackbirn was in sympathy with Mae, and I didn’t want his good health to throw a damper on the party.

I returned with the hamburgers, a huge pile of fries, lots of ketchup, five lemon-lime sodas (I would have gotten cola, but I didn’t want the kids wired up on the caffeine), and a double chili burger for myself.

Ellen, of course, promptly dribbled ketchup down her front. I sent Janey for a cup of cold water and extra napkins. Darby returned with a large sandwich and a carton of milk. He gave me my change and attacked his sandwich. The twins, as usual, tore up their hamburgers before eating them. To the uninitiated, watching toddlers eat is pretty revolting, but Mr. Hackbirn took it calmly.

“Aunt Lisa,” said Janey, handing me the napkins, “They want ten cents for the cup.”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” I growled.

Janey was working on getting her fair share of the fries before they were all gone.

“Go ahead and eat, Janey,” I said. “I’ll get it later.”

“Can we go ice skating after lunch, Aunt Lisa?” Darby asked, looking longingly at the rink adjacent to the terrace.

“That’d be fun,” I conceded, very tempted. “But what are we going to do with the twins?”

“I don’t particularly care to go anyway,” said Mr. Hackbirn.

“You could stay with the twins,” suggested Darby.

“Darby,” said Janey seriously. “That isn’t very nice.”

“Well, if he doesn’t care…” Darby glared at his sister.

“Darby, we’re not going skating,” I said firmly. “Janey’s right. It wouldn’t be fair.”

“Stupid girl,” he grumbled.

“I’m not stupid,” Janey yelled.

“Alright, you two,” I scolded. “If you’re going to bicker, do it someplace else.”

Darby finished his sandwich and gulped down his milk.

“Can I go watch the skaters?” he asked, wiping his mouth.

“Would you please get a cup of cold water for me first?” I asked.

“Sure, Aunt Lisa.”

“Here.” I bent over and grabbed one of the soft drink cups that the twins had spilled. “Rinse this out and get the water from the bathroom.”

“Alright.”

Darby returned promptly. I washed off Ellen’s face and hands, then got as much of the ketchup off her dress as I could. Then I cleaned up the twins and, after removing them, the stroller. Darby was getting impatient, so I gave him charge of Mitch and Marty and Janey charge of Ellen and sent them all to watch the skaters.

“Now would be the time to slip off and go get a salad or something,” I said to Mr. Hackbirn.

“I’m not hungry,” he said, shaking his head.

“I’ll bet.”

“When are you going to make that pickup?”

“I was kind of saving the toy store for last, if you get my drift. But I suppose we could go when the kids get back.”

“I’d just as soon.”

“Well, maybe it’ll keep them quiet through my other stops.”

“Other stops?”

“I figured if I was ‘running errands’ I might as well have some errands to run.”

“Whatever. Do you have any strategy in mind for the toy store?”

“No. Do you?”

“Not really. But I would advise having the children as far away as possible.”

“No kidding.” I thought for a moment. “Maybe we could find someplace to leave the kids. I know. The arcade. You can keep an eye on them while I do my errands.”

“I hope it works,” he replied with a sigh.

“So do I.”

Darby came back with the twins, saying they had to go to the bathroom. Somehow, Mr. Hackbirn got cornered into helping him and off they went.

“It’s not hard,” I heard Darby say. “They just can’t wait all the time, and sometimes…”

His voice was lost in the crowd.

In due time all members of the party were reassembled and on we went. In the camera shop, Darby and I looked over the 35mm S.L.R.’s, trying to decide which one I should buy to replace the one I’d pawned when I was out of work. We concluded that I should go elsewhere because of the price. While we argued I could hear Janey and Mr. Hackbirn discuss good and bad people.

“They’re good or bad,” she said solemnly. “They fool you. The ones you gotta watch out for are the bad people who do good things. Like I know this one man. He’s really bad, but he does real good things so he fools a lot of people. Not me. I know him.”

“Oh,” replied Mr. Hackbirn.

“I know you, too.”

“I’m a bad person?”

“No! I don’t let bad people into my house. You’re a good person. But you do bad things.”

“Oh, do I?”

“Uh-huh. I can tell. ‘Course Mommy said you did, but I could tell anyway.”

“Well, nobody’s perfect, Janey.”

“I know. They’re either good or bad.”

After that, I made a stop at a dress shop to find a blouse. Almost as if they were cued, the twins began grabbing everything within reach. Mr. Hackbirn was waiting outside with Darby and Ellen. Janey had come in with me.

“This is ridiculous,” I grumbled, removing the sleeve of a sweater from Marty’s hand. “Come on, Janey.”

As we crossed the store’s threshold, a loud beeper went off. I groaned and pulled the stroller back into the store. One of the sales clerks and a mall security man ran up. I bent and pulled a dark blouse from Mitch’s hands. Mr. Hackbirn appeared next to me with a worried frown on his face, and Darby and Ellen at his side.

“Would you remove the children from the stroller,” said the security man. It was not a question.

“Certainly.” I unstrapped Mitch first.

“What’s going on?” asked Mr. Hackbirn.

“A two-year-old kleptomaniac,” I replied, shoving Mitch into his arms.

“What’s a kleptomaniac?” asked Darby.

Ellen started to cry.

“Are you in trouble, Aunt Lisa?” asked Janey. “Maybe I’d better talk to that man.”

“Janey, no!” I grabbed her arm, all too afraid of what her opinion might be. “Listen, you too, Darby. I want the two of you and Ellen to go over to that planter and stay there, do you understand?”

“Yes, ma’am,” they mumbled.

I lifted Ellen’s chin. “It’ll be alright, honey. Really, it will.”

The three children left the store and stood by the planter as they were told.

“I’m sorry,” I said to Mr. Hackbirn.

“This may work to our advantage,” he said very quietly.

“May I see your purse,” demanded the security man.

“Here,” I shifted Marty to my other arm and handed over the purse.

He had already emptied the diaper bag but had not put anything back. A small crowd had gathered. I blushed when he pulled out a certain personal item I’m in the habit of carrying. He looked at the little pouch made of stiff leather attached to my key ring with interest. He opened it and pulled out the can of mace.

“You got a permit for this?” the officer asked.

“In my wallet,” I said.

He looked through the wallet, then found the permit and looked at it. He put it back and looked at the rest of the wallet.

“Why do I feel like I’m standing here, stark, staring naked?” I grumbled quietly.

Mr. Hackbirn just smiled his sensual smile and I felt my heart race and blushed even more.

“Want down,” whined Marty, squirming.

“No,” I said, sharply.

I looked over at Mitch. He was getting restless also, but at least was sucking his thumb.

“Down,” whined Marty again.

“May I put the children back in the stroller, please?” I asked.

“Alright,” replied the officer reluctantly. He had finished with my purse and looked at me like he wanted to search me also. He turned to the clerk. “She’s clean, and she didn’t technically leave the store…” He sounded as if he was sorry I hadn’t.

Mr. Hackbirn finished strapping the boys in while I addressed the officer.

“What probably happened was that the blouse was on a lower rack. One of the boys got a hold of it and I didn’t see it.”

“It is on a lower rack.” The clerk eyed me suspiciously as if she didn’t believe me.

I started refilling the diaper bag.

“Well, there’s no charges to press,” said the officer.

The clerk just rolled her eyes skyward and went back further into the store.

I finished with the bag and started putting my things back into the purse.

“The blouse in question is a size sixteen,” I said irritatedly. The officer just looked at me. “I wear a size ten.”

I swung the diaper bag and the purse onto my shoulder and marched out, pushing the twins in front of me.

“I’ve never been so humiliated in my life.” I was seething.

“What’s hu…” began Janey.

“Embarrassed,” said Darby.

“Well one thing’s for sure,” I continued. “I can’t keep the twins with me and I’ve got errands to run.”

“Can we go to the arcade?” asked Janey.

I could have kissed her. We went directly there. I gave Darby charge of the twins and told Janey to hold onto Ellen. Mr. Hackbirn lounged in the doorway, keeping one eye on the kids and the other on the young women entering the theater across the way.

I went straight to the toy store. I almost bumped into Ned Harris on the way in.

“Oh! Hello, Mr. Harris.”

“Well, hello. You’re Mae O’Malley’s sister, Lisa, isn’t it?”

“Yes.” I grinned nervously.

“I hear Mae’s getting home today.”

“Yeah. I’ve got the kids. Well, they’re at the arcade. I’m picking up some surprises.”

Harris held up a bag. “I just did.”

“Well. Nice talking to you again.”

“Nice talking to you.”

I waited until he had wandered off before going in. I asked the girl behind the front register if I could see the manager.

“She’s in back,” the girl said.

I knocked on the stockroom door.

A young sturdy woman answered. “Yes?”

“Are you the manager?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“My name is Mrs. Smith. I believe my husband dropped his keys here the other day.”

“Oh, yes, just a minute.” She disappeared and came back a minute later with a large bunch of keys on a key ring that had an almost teardrop shaped piece of suede hanging on it. The suede was about two inches long by one inch wide. On the suede was a plastic coated medallion that had an image of a cannabis leaf on it.

“That’s them,” I said, smiling and taking them. I slid them into my pants pocket. “Thank you so much.”

I ended up buying each of the children a stuffed animal. Before I headed back to the arcade, I went upstairs to a clothes shop and bought myself a blouse. Leaving that store, I started for the escalators. I stopped for a moment to look in the window of a men’s store. I saw a jacket there I liked.

I became aware of the breath on my neck first, then what I guessed to be the barrel of a gun against my spine. I strangled back a scream.

“I wouldn’t make any noise, sister,” said the voice. “Now, nice and slowly, come with me.”

I was pushed slowly along around a corner to a door between two shops. It was labeled for authorized personnel only, but the man had me open the door and pushed me through. The corridor was softly lit. The light brown walls were unfinished with panels of masonite attached. Several gray doors were interspersed along the walls. Each bore the name of a different shop.

The man twisted my left arm behind me. I dropped the bag containing my blouse. I’d lost the stuffed toys somewhere on the way.

“Alright, where is it?” he demanded.

“Where’s what?” I whimpered, then yelped as he twisted harder.

“What you got at the toy store!”

“I don’t know. I dropped the bag when you brought me here.”

He twisted again. “I’m not talking about toys. I saw you get something from the manager.”

“Oh no.”

He tossed me onto the ground, then grabbed my purse. Keeping one eye on me, he dumped the contents on the floor, then pawed through them with his foot.

“Alright. Where is it?”

I couldn’t answer, I was so scared. He bent and pulled me up by my shoulders. I summoned up what nerve I could and screamed. He backhanded me across the face.

I’m not exactly sure how it happened, but suddenly Mr. Hackbirn was there. He spun the man around and landed a fist on the man’s jaw. The man was dazed only for a second. He charged Mr. Hackbirn. Mr. Hackbirn ducked and swung for the man’s belly. The man danced back, then let Mr. Hackbirn have it in the eye. Mr. Hackbirn retreated a couple paces and waited. The man flew at him. Mr. Hackbirn ducked and the man went flying over him.

Somewhere, a door opened. The man scrambled to his feet and went running. The door closed as the man disappeared into the mall.

Mr. Hackbirn, breathing heavily, looked over at me. I was crying.

“Well?” he asked.

“What?” I sniffed.

“Did he get the keys?”

I slid my hand into my pants pocket and drew them out. The keys rattled with the shaking of my hand. His hand gently covered mine. The next thing I knew, he was holding me.

“It’s alright, Lisa,” he whispered.

I suddenly pulled away, feeling yet another kind of fear.

“Th- the kids,” I asked, still shaking. “Where are they?”

“At the arcade, I presume.”

“Why’d you leave them?”

“I saw someone I didn’t like the looks of, and decided I’d better tail him. It’s a good thing I did. I saw that other scum run off with you, and you can figure out the rest. By the way, I found your toys at the door. At least, I assume they’re yours. You did buy five stuffed animals, didn’t you?”

“Yes.” I bent and gathered together the contents of my purse. I began to get angry. “You said there wouldn’t be any trouble.”

“I said it was unlikely. There’s no way I can guarantee things like that. Are you alright?”

“Yes.”

“Lisa, you do know how to defend yourself. Why didn’t you?”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Hackbirn. I was scared.”

He sighed. “I understand, Miss Wycherly. But you will have to learn to overcome that.”

“I will,” I said defensively. “Just give me time.”

“I hope you’ve got it.” He softened. “I’m sure you’ll get there. Are you ready?”

I stood and slung my purse onto my shoulder. Mr. Hackbirn picked up my blouse bag, then at the door to the mall, he retrieved my stuffed toys. He started to put his arm on my shoulders and stopped. He sighed softly.

The kids were waiting for us at the arcade. They had run out of money. They didn’t seem to notice my distress as they begged for more quarters. Another half an hour and two dollars to Darby and Janey later, we were headed for home.

As excited as they were, Darby and Janey helped get the others out of the car before running inside. I caught Mr. Hackbirn heading for his Mercedes.

“Come inside,” I said. “Mae’s already mad that she’s the last to meet you. She’ll kill me if I let you get away now.”

He sighed and nodded, and followed me inside.

The house was full of people. Besides the kids, three couples, friends of Mae and Neil’s from church were there. Mae had been settled on the family room couch with her leg propped up on the hassock.

“Thanks so much, Lisa,” she said to me as I hugged her and kissed her cheek.

“It’s alright,” I replied, smiling.

“Well, don’t get mad at me, but I’m throwing you back to the wolf.”

“What?”

“Your boss, honey. I’m sending you back to work.”

“But can you manage?”

Mae jerked her head at the couples sitting around talking.

“They insisted,” she said. “I’ve got the twins and Ellen farmed out. Darby and Janey are old enough to fetch and carry for me, and I’ve got a meal train coming for the next two weeks. If my knee didn’t hurt so bad, I’d have it made.”

“Oh, Mae.”

“It’s not that bad. I can handle it. I take it that’s the infamous one hanging back in the doorway, isn’t it?”

It was. I turned and waved him over.

“Mae, this is my boss, Mr. Sid Hackbirn.”

“Hi Sid,” said Mae, genially. “I’ve heard a lot about you.”

“So I’ve been told.” He looked at me briefly.

Mae laughed. “Those kids of mine. Couldn’t keep a secret for love nor money. It was really sweet of you to go out with them today. I hope they weren’t too bad.”

Mr. Hackbirn shook his head and smiled. “They’re good kids.”

“I’d better go pack,” I said, heading upstairs.

I packed in less than fifteen minutes. I brought my suitcase downstairs and set it by the door with my purse. I went to the family room where Mr. Hackbirn was chatting with Neil.

“I’m ready,” I said to him.

“Well,” said Mr. Hackbirn, “I’d like to get going then.”

“Alright.”

“Kids,” Neil called. “Aunt Lisa’s leaving now!”

They all gathered around and followed Mr. Hackbirn and me to the front door. I gave them each a hug and a kiss, then turned to pick up my suitcase.

“Goodbye, Uncle Sid,” said Janey.

“Uncle what?” Mr. Hackbirn was utterly shocked.

He looked at me for help. I just shrugged and shook my head. He turned to the children.

“Goodbye,” he said, still shaken.

Ellen came up and hugged his legs, while Darby shook his hand. Janey motioned for him to bend down to her. He bent politely. She kissed his cheek and hugged him.

“I love you, Uncle Sid,” I heard her say.

Deeply touched, he just hugged her back. I think that was the first time somebody had said that to him, at least somebody not in the throes of passion. Quietly, he released her and went to the door. Suitcase in hand, I followed, stopping first to give the okay sign. They cheered.

I let Mr. Hackbirn drive in silence until it got to me.

“You survived that pretty well,” I said cautiously.

“Yeah, I did.” His voice sounded rather far away.

“So what now?”

“Hm? Oh.” He took the keys out of his coat pocket and handed them to me. “See if you can find out what the fuss was about.”

I looked at the suede teardrop and noticed that it was two pieces sewn together. Underneath the medallion, a white piece of paper showed through a hole cut in the top layer. I pulled it out and deciphered the code written on it.

“Professor Lipplinger’s in danger,” I said after a few minutes. “You’ve got to go to Washington D.C. to get him and hide him immediately.

“Wonderful,” Mr. Hackbirn replied.

“I’ll call the airlines when we get home.”

“Good, and book me a room, too, will you? You’ve got my Mastercard number right?”

“Yeah.”

“By the way, I travel first class.”

“It figures.”

There was a silence for ten minutes more.

“So what do you think?” I asked.

“About what?”

“The past two days.”

“Interesting.” His voice sounded far away again. “Very interesting.”

Essays, general essay

Time for Dog Pictures (or Not Bashing Who I’d Really Like To)

Seriously. When you’re annoyed with the world and don’t want to run around bringing everyone down by calling out all the idiots, then you need dog pictures. Dog pictures are soothing. And it just so happens that there’s a new dog here at the Old Homestead.

We started out fostering Toby, a 3-year-old mostly basset hound mix. But the little stinker got into our hearts and we couldn’t let him go. It’s been a while since we’ve had a dog that didn’t qualify for senior citizen status, so it’s been a bit of an adjustment. He is a curious little guy, too, and has earned his official name: Toby Wan Is Nosy.

So for your viewing enjoyment, some dog pictures of Toby:

Dog pictures, basset hound, pet adoption

Toby Wan Is Nosy – a rare treat, he’s actually sitting.

 

Dog pictures, basset hound, pet adoption

Rocking his pretty new harness

 

 

Dog pictures, basset hound, pet adoption

We haven’t forgotten Clyde. He’s in the foreground with Toby Wan in the back of the bathroom. It was a hot day and the bathroom floor was the coolest spot in the house.

 

I’ll be back next week with more Stray Thoughts. However, I am avoiding the elections and all of that unpleasantness. I think it’s pretty clear that I back Hillary Clinton because I find her an unbelievably excellent candidate. I might post more, should the situation warrant. But at this point, it’s really about… How to say this? Getting away from the ugliness, the misogyny, the general meanness. One simply must, and having some sweet dogs and cute pictures of them to celebrate. Well, that’s a good thing, isn’t it?

spy fiction, mystery fiction, cozy mystery,

Chapter Five

spy novel, serial mystery, serial fiction, cozy mysteryOctober 24 – 29, 1982

 

It had taken some doing, but I had finally convinced Mae that my earlier qualms about Mr. Hackbirn and my new job were resolved. Of course, as far as she was concerned, that opened up a whole new line of speculation regarding his nocturnal prowling. We pretty much came to the conclusion that while Mr. Hackbirn was a nice guy, he was no candidate for sainthood either.

This is important, because Mae and I wondered what would happen if he ever met Janey. To most people, Janey is a normal kid, and in most respects, she is. But she is also an incredible judge of character. She has two basic categories: good or bad, and people are either one or the other. Janey has yet to be wrong.

She started when she was about three and a half or four. About the only people then that Janey had any real contact with were babysitters. Finding someone to sit with three kids, one a toddler, as Ellen was at the time, was hard enough. But then, all of the sudden, it seemed, Janey wouldn’t stay quietly with anyone she’d decided was bad. There was one girl, in particular, I can’t remember her name, that Janey would not tolerate at all. Mae found out later that the girl was caught stealing from someone who had hired her.

Janey’s perception increased with age. Unfortunately, her tact didn’t, at least not for a while. By the time she was six she had gotten into the habit of telling anyone what she thought of them, in spite of Mae’s efforts to teach her discretion. Worse still, every time the doorbell rang there was a race to beat Janey to the door. If Janey opened it, whoever was on the other side got Janey’s own peculiar brand of the third degree and was only admitted upon her approval.

Mae and I both wondered what her reaction to Mr. Hackbirn would be. Neither of us really thought she would be able to label him good. But how exactly would she react to him? And I had to wonder how he would react to her. While Mr. Hackbirn admitted he didn’t particularly dislike children, he didn’t really like them, either. He was bemused by my weekly visits to my sister’s, and couldn’t imagine how I could find it relaxing to spend time with five children under the age of ten.

The Sunday after my little escapade with Gannett, Neil picked me up at the train station by himself. We didn’t say much, but that wasn’t all that unusual. Neither, really, was the tension inside the house.

“They’re fighting again, huh?” I said to Darby, after a few minutes.

“Yeah,” he mumbled miserably.

“It won’t last long,” I said reassuringly. “They’ll resolve it soon.”

“I guess,” said Darby. “The Finsters down the street are getting a divorce.”

“They are? Well, they probably never fought with each other.”

“They were always fighting.”

“Then they never resolved their fights. And you know your parents always do.”

I put my arm around him. Neil popped his head in the front door (he’d been waiting in the car).

“Mae?” he bellowed. “Are you coming or not?”

“It would have been nice if you’d have let me know you were here,” Mae’s voice came down from upstairs. “I’m saying goodbye to the children!”

Neil slammed the door. A few minutes later Mae came running down the stairs.

“Oh, there you are, Darby,” she said breathlessly. She came over and hugged him. “I’ll see you tonight, honey. And don’t worry. Daddy and I will have it settled by tonight, okay?”

His reply was lost in another squeeze. Mae let go of her son and tackled me next.

“Thanks for coming, Sis.” She let go. “We’ll talk tonight.”

“Sure. See you later.”

“Okay. Bye bye.” Mae scurried out.

It was about three thirty when Neil called.

“Yeah, Neil, what’s up?” I asked into the phone.

“I’m at the hospital,” he replied.

“Oh no!”

“It’s not that serious.”

“But what happened?”

“Well, we’d just patched things up between us, when this clown turned right in front of us, and we hit him.”

“Oh my god, are you alright?”

“We weren’t hurt by the accident. But Mae’s emotions were a little raw still and she went over to the other car to give them a piece of her mind and on the way, slipped somehow and messed up her knee completely.”

“Oh no! The poor thing.”

“They’ve got her pretty well doped up right now. But she’ll be having surgery tomorrow or the next day.”

“I thought you said it wasn’t serious.”

“Well, it’s not life and death.”

“Oh my god, you guys are going to need a sitter!”

“Yeah, I know. Is the phone book right there?”

“Neil, who can you call?”

He sighed. “I haven’t the foggiest.”

“Look, let me make a phone call first.”

“I hate to ask you, Lisa, but with Janey…”

“I know. Give me the number where you’re at.”

“Never mind. Mae’s asleep, so I’ll be heading home.”

“Okay, see you in a bit.”

I hung up, took a deep breath, and dialed again. Fortunately, the boss was home and answered after one ring.

“Yes?” said the familiar voice.

“It’s Miss Wycherly, Mr. Hackbirn. I’m afraid there’s been an emergency.”

“Are you alright?”

“I’m fine. But my sister has to have surgery and will be in the hospital for a while.”

“And…?”

“They need someone to stay with the kids while Neil’s at work or the hospital.”

“I assume you’re the poor unfortunate.”

“I’m afraid so.”

“What about your work here?”

“Well if there’s anything that really needs getting out, there’s a typewriter here I can use.”

“This is very awkward. Can’t they get someone else?”

“Well, Mr. Hackbirn, they’re not rich and when you come right down to it, do you know anybody else in their right mind, who’d look after five kids under ten years of age besides a relative?” Actually, I did but I knew he wouldn’t.

“I’d question the sanity of the relative.”

“Ever hear of family duty?”

“On occasion.” He let out a sigh. “I suppose I’ll have to let you take care of them. How long will you be gone?”

“I don’t know. As soon as my brother-in-law gets back I’ll be driving in to get some stuff, and I suppose I could come in some evenings and work.”

“I’m not a slave driver, Miss Wycherly.”

“I know, but it’s not fair that you have to make all the sacrifices. You won’t have to pay me while I’m gone.”

“We’ll see. I’ll talk to you this evening.”

“I’m not fired, am I?”

“Of course not. Goodbye,” he grumbled sullenly.

“Goodbye.”

I hung up and breathed a sigh of relief. Then I gasped when I realized I’d be taking Mae’s place.

It wasn’t all that bad. The kids were extra good and Neil helped out where he could. Cooking dinner was the big thing I was afraid of and Mae had already done the week’s shopping and left a menu. Of course, I still had to cook it. But I’m not a bad cook, so it wasn’t very hard.

The only problem I had was Wednesday. The day did not start out at all well. Neil’s alarm didn’t go off and I slept through mine. We were wakened only five minutes late because the twins had woken up early and decided they wanted to make cookies in the kitchen. Flour was everywhere, and on the floor next to the sink shards of broken honey jar stood up in the golden goo. While I was cleaning the honey up, Ellen discovered that milk beaded up on the dry flour and poured out almost the whole half gallon trying to figure out why it wasn’t absorbed immediately. Then Janey couldn’t find one of her shoes, and Darby realized at the last minute he hadn’t done about five homework problems, and he had math first thing in the morning. I was so happy when Neil took the older two to school.

That still left me with the younger three. Marty and Mitch ran me ragged that morning, playing with them. Ellen tagged along, quietly, but persistently, asking me why the milk acted so funny on the flour. I had no idea, and she didn’t want to wait until her father got home. After lunch the twins started throwing blocks at each other, so I sent all three children to their rooms for naps. I knew they wouldn’t sleep, but at least they were quarantined for a while, and I could get my head back on.

At three, ominous thumping sounds from the twins’ room convinced me it was time to let them out. Darby and Janey arrived home right then, and I figured they could keep Marty and Mitch occupied. But Darby wanted to practice piano and Janey had just gotten three new books from the school book club. Ellen still wanted to know about the flour. I left them all in the living room and hid in the kitchen trying to figure out what I was going to do with a package of thawed chicken breasts.

I could hear the bickering rising above the pounded out beginner exercises. I let it go until it escalated into full-scale shouting.

“Janey! Quit poking me.”

“I’m not poking you. It’s Ellen.”

“Janey! I saw you!”

“Aunt Lisa!” Janey came running in with Darby on her heels, and Ellen pouting behind them. The twins were screaming in the living room.

“Aunt Lisa, she’s poking me and blaming it on Ellen!”

“He’s lying, Aunt Lisa. I want to read and he’s making noise on that stupid piano.”

I ignored them and headed to the living room. “What’s the matter with your brothers?” The doorbell rang, and I switched directions immediately. “Darby, hold Janey!”

“Let me go, you big brat!”

“Ellen, cut it out!”

I opened the door to a man about average height with light brown hair neatly trimmed, and an equally well-trimmed mustache. I had met Ned Harris before. He was a very congenial, nice man, on the city council and a member of the Chamber of Commerce. He was also on the parish board at Mae’s church, which is how she knew him. I sometimes wondered if, after all the time he spent doing all these things and running his very successful travel agency, he had any time left for his wife. I suppose he found some. They did have two small children and another on the way.

“Janey, come back here!” Darby yelled.

“Hello, Mr. Harris,” I said. “What can I do for you?”

“I’m sorry.” He smiled apologetically. “I’m afraid I’m having trouble placing you.”

“I’m Mae’s sister.” I turned inside. “Darby, go stop your brothers from screaming.”

“Ellen, stop that!”

I turned back to Harris. “What can I do for you?”

“My wife wanted to know if there was anything we could do while Mae’s in the hospital.”

Ellen screamed. “Aunt Lisa! Darby hit me!”

“Darby!” I yelped.

“This doesn’t seem to be a good time,” Harris said smiling.

“I’ll have Mae or Neil call you. Thanks.” I shut the door.

“Aunt Lisa, Ellen kept messing up my music, and she keeps poking me!”

“But, Aunt Lisa, he won’t…”

“I don’t care. I’ve had it! To your rooms, all of you. I don’t want to see you until your father comes home. Where’s Janey?”

“Upstairs,” grumbled Darby.

“Good. Now go!”

Neil took over when he got home. I called up an old girlfriend and went to a movie.

The rest of the week passed without a hitch. I had driven into L.A. twice besides Sunday to make sure all was in order and it was. Late Friday afternoon, I got a little worried. Friday was the last day on the menu. Fortunately, Mae called and after talking to each of the kids, she spent time conferring with me. Her recovery was quite rapid and she figured she’d be home the next day, although she’d asked me not to tell the children just yet. And at the same time, she wouldn’t be up and around for a while yet. We were just about to decide on what to have Saturday night when Darby yelled from upstairs, where he was cleaning his room.

“Hold on, Mae,” I said as Darby’s feet pounded down the stairs. “Something’s up with Darby.” Then I yelled, “What’s going on?”

Darby appeared in the kitchen where I was on the phone.

“There’s a 450 SL out front!” he exclaimed and left.

Darby had, and still does have, a strong affection for Mercedes cars and the 450 SL was the top as far as he was concerned.

I peeked out the window and saw a metallic slate blue fender and groaned.

“What’s going on?” asked Mae.

“The boss just pulled up. I’d better call you back.” The doorbell rang. “Oh, shoot! Janey! Bye!”

I slammed the phone down and ran. I was too late. At the end of the hall where I stopped, I could hear Janey’s voice.

“We don’t have a Miss Wycherly here,” she was saying.

I couldn’t see the door, and assumed Mr. Hackbirn couldn’t see me. There was no point in trying to interrupt Janey. She hung on to her victims like a pit bull.

“Isn’t this the O’Malley residence?”

I thanked God that Mr. Hackbirn had the sense not to talk down to her.

“Yes.”

“I was told she was staying here. Is this your house?”

Janey giggled. “It’s my mommy and daddy’s. Only my daddy says it’s the bank’s.”

“I don’t doubt it. Is your aunt staying here?”

“My aunt?”

“Yes.”

“She’s here.”

“May I talk to her?”

“But you wanted Miss Wycherly.”

“I believe that’s your aunt.”

“I don’t have an Aunt Wycherly.”

“But you do have an Aunt Lisa.”

“Yeah.”

“Well, Wycherly is her last name. Like your last name is O’Malley.”

“Then why do you call her Miss Wycherly?”

“I suppose for the same reason you call your teacher Miss or Mrs. whatever her last name is.”

“I call my teacher Sister Francine.”

“Oh.”

“But Darby calls his teacher by her last name. She’s not a nun, you know.”

“Oh, I see.”

I was about to rescue Mr. Hackbirn when Janey did the last thing I ever thought she’d do.

“You’re a good person,” she said blithely. “You can come in.”

“Thank you.” I heard the door shut. “Would you please get your Aunt Lisa?”

“Aunt Lisa!” Janey bellowed, as loudly as she could, which was pretty loud.

“I’m right here,” I said stepping around the corner. “Good afternoon, Mr. Hackbirn, please come in. I see you’ve already met my niece Janey. Janey, this is my boss, Mr. Hackbirn.”

“Hi.” She smiled and flashed her huge hazel eyes.

Mr. Hackbirn smiled, more warmly than I would have thought.

“Nice to meet you, Janey.”

“Janey, why don’t you go finish cleaning your room?”

“Darby isn’t cleaning his.”

“Where is he?”

“At the car.”

“What’s that kid doing with my car?” Mr. Hackbirn turned anxiously towards the door.

I somehow beat him there and opened it.

“He’s just looking at it,” I said, looking to make sure. “He wouldn’t touch it.”

Mr. Hackbirn looked at me not quite sure.

“Darby!” I yelled. “Come on in and finish cleaning your room. You can look at the car later.”

Darby tore himself away and trotted in.

“Darby,” I said, shutting the door. “This is my boss, Mr. Hackbirn. Mr. Hackbirn, my nephew, Darby.”

I was so proud of Darby. He stepped right up and shook Mr. Hackbirn’s hand.

“Pleased to meet you, sir,” he said, the excitement shining in his eyes. “That’s one real neat 450 SL you got. I’ve never seen one that color. You got the hard top for it?”

“At home,” said Mr. Hackbirn, smiling.

“If Mr. Hackbirn agrees, you can chat with him later,” I said firmly. “Finish your room, first.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He ran upstairs.

I waited until he had gone, then headed into the family room.

It was littered with the twins’ toys. Almost mechanically, I bent and started picking them up.

“So why are you here? Need a manuscript done?” I asked dropping some plastic blocks into a toy box.

“A pickup.”

I glanced at the ceiling and shook my head. “I wouldn’t talk about that here. The walls are paper thin and those kids are sharp. You’d have been better off phoning.”

“Not on a code one.”

I didn’t really hear him. At that moment one of the twins started shrieking.

“Crisis,” I explained, as I shoved a beat up doll and bright purple plastic doughnut into Mr. Hackbirn’s hands.

What happened next, I wasn’t around to see or hear.

[This is what happened – I was in shock, wondering what the hell I was supposed to do with a bald, naked doll and a… whatever that purple thing was. I heard the front door open and in walked what had to be Darby’s father.

“Hello,” he said as if there wasn’t anything odd about a total stranger standing in his family room. “I’m Neil O’Malley.”

“Afternoon. I’m Sid Hackbirn.” I started to shake hands but I still had the doll.

Neil smiled and set down his briefcase.

“Here let me take those for you,” he said, the ice broken. “You’re Lisa’s boss. I’m her brother-in-law.”

“Nice to meet you,” I said.

“You probably want to talk to her.”

“Daddy!” Janey came running into the room and tackled her father.

“How’s my girl?” said Neil.

“Real good, Daddy.”

“Where’s your Aunt Lisa?”

“Cuddling Mitch. He tried to take Ellen’s book and she hit him real hard with it.” She sighed and shook her adorable little head. “Little kids.”

She walked over to me, cocked her head to one side, blinked those huge cow-eyes of hers twice, and said, “Aunt Lisa will talk to you as soon as she’s done with Mitch. Maybe you’d better stay for dinner. Can he, Daddy?”

“Well,” said Neil. “It’s alright with me. But you should see if Mr. Hackbirn would like to.”

Janey looked at me again and blinked twice. Just two times.

“He’ll stay,” she said and wandered out of the room.

I wondered how she knew.

“Janey’s our little mystic,” said Neil apologetically.

At that point, there was more of that god-awful shrieking, and Neil was assaulted by Ellen, followed quickly by the twins, then Darby – SEH]

I heard Neil come in, but opted to avoid being trampled and waited to come after the kids.

After greeting each child, Neil sent them back upstairs.

“I’ve got good news,” he said when they had gone. “Mae’s coming home tomorrow.”

“I know. I just talked to her on the phone,” I said, then thought of something. “I guess I’d better plan on sticking around for a while yet, ’til she’s in better shape.”

Mr. Hackbirn frowned.

“We’ll see,” said Neil. “I don’t want to tell the kids just yet. They’ll be too excited. In fact, maybe if you could take them somewhere tomorrow. I could get Mae settled in peace and they could get some energy run off.”

“Sure, Neil,” I said and looked at my watch. It was a little after 4:30. I turned to Mr. Hackbirn. “I’ve got to get dinner ready…”

“I believe I’ve already been invited, ” replied Mr. Hackbirn.

“Great.” Then another thought hit me. “Oh, shavings. I forgot to defrost the turkey meat.”

“Is there anything else?” asked Neil.

“Not enough,” I replied, glumly. “Why don’t we not tell Mae, and hit the chicken place?”

“Sounds okay to me,” Neil replied.

“Whatever.” Mr. Hackbirn sounded a little resigned, but I decided to let it go.

“Look,” I said, “I’ll fix a salad and some green beans, and you won’t have to buy all that other stuff.”

“Sure,” said Neil, noncommittally.

“Daddy, can we come down now?” asked Darby at the top of the stairs.

“Please, Daddy?” asked Ellen.

“Alright, come down,” answered their father.

The children noisily trooped down into the family room.

“Dolly,” said Marty. “Where dolly?”

I looked at Neil who shrugged.

“I believe it’s on the television,” said Mr. Hackbirn, unexpectedly. He walked over and handed to doll to Marty. “Here you are.”

“What do you say, Marty?” reminded Neil.

“Tank you.”

“You’re welcome,” Mr. Hackbirn replied, then looked down at his legs in astonishment.

Ellen had grabbed a hold of him and was hugging him.

“You’re nice,” she said looking up at him and smiling.

“You’re nice too,” replied Mr. Hackbirn, laughing.

I was trying not to laugh. How or why these children had decided to attach themselves to my boss, I couldn’t guess, but there was no denying it. I could tell Janey wanted Mr. Hackbirn to sit down, but Darby had already moved in and had engaged him in a conversation about Mercedes Benz. Barely minutes later they were going outside to look at the car. Janey and Ellen followed.

“Can you believe it?” I said, laughing, as soon as I heard the front door.

“I can’t believe Janey even let him in,” Neil chuckled. “Yet there she is, batting her eyes at him.”

“And he says he hates kids.”

At that moment Darby burst in.

“He says he’ll take me for a ride!” he all but screamed. “Can I, Dad, can I, please?”

“Alright,” Neil said reluctantly. “Don’t be too long and say…”

“I know!” Darby was already out the door.

Janey came in with Ellen, who was crying.

“Ellen wanted to go,” Janey explained. “But I told her there’ll be other treats for us, huh, Aunt Lisa?”

“It’s not up to me,” I said taking Ellen into my arms.

“I know of a treat for Ellen,” said Neil. “Would you like to sit at the table with the rest of us?”

Ellen’s face lit up with smiles.

“Can I, Daddy?” she asked, sniffling.

“Yes, you can. Now, why don’t you go blow your nose, like Daddy’s big girl.”

Ellen scrambled out of my lap and went running for the tissues.

I was a little nervous about dinner. No, I was a lot nervous. I kept thinking about Mr. Hackbirn’s quiet existence in that well-organized house in Beverly Hills and wondering if he was ever going to get over the shock of family life. Worse still, Neil had promised the kids earlier that week that he’d take them to the movies that night so not only were they excited about that, but there was the additional excitement of having a guest for dinner. The fact that he was the much celebrated Mr. Hackbirn only added to it.

The twins were fed first and sent up to their room to play. Ellen, sitting on a telephone book, just glowed. Of course, I wasn’t worried about her. She’s the shy one in the family and not too squirmy.

She sat next to Neil at the head of the table and on her other side was Darby. On Neil’s other side was Mr. Hackbirn and next to him was Janey, who had insisted on sitting next to him. I sat across from Neil.

I kept my head reverently bowed while we said grace, although I was dying to see Mr. Hackbirn’s reaction. Almost right on top of the “amen” Janey started talking about school and pretty much kept the conversation rolling. She was fascinated by the way Mr. Hackbirn separated the chicken meat from the bones with his knife and fork, instead of eating it with his fingers like the rest of us were doing. Darby noticed something else, though.

“He’s a picky eater,” he mumbled to me at one point in the meal.

I didn’t say anything, but Darby was right. Mr. Hackbirn had pulled all the skin and coating off his chicken and set it aside. His salad had no dressing on it and he hadn’t taken any of the mashed potatoes and gravy that Neil had also bought.

At that point, Neil said he had an announcement to make.

“I talked to Mommy’s doctor today,” he said. “And he said Mommy’s coming home tomorrow.”

I saw Mr. Hackbirn jump as the kids let out an ecstatic yell.

“And that’s not all,” Neil’s voice rose above the cheering. “To make it easier on Mommy, because her knee still hurts her, Aunt Lisa’s going to take you out tomorrow, while I get Mommy from the hospital. So when you come home she’ll be here.”

“Are you gonna come too?” Janey asked Mr. Hackbirn.

“Well, I do have…” I could see the light dawn as he changed his mind. “Sure, I will.”

The kids yelled again, but I didn’t hear it. There was something fishy about that “Sure, I will,” and there was something about a code one pick up.

The Smells of Walking

walking, benefits of walking

A jacaranda in spring bloom

When we first gave up car ownership and I started walking more, I discovered something that I’d been missing. My sense of smell.

Okay, the sense, itself, was never any worse than it’s ever been. But when you’re in a car all the time, you forget that there are smells all over the city.

I know what you’re thinking – that most of those smells are pretty grim. Okay, some are. But a lot aren’t. A lot of smells, like the scent of a flowering jacaranda tree, are pretty nice. Then there’s my fave and it’s everywhere in Southern California – star jasmine. It’s a shrub that’s very, very hardy and so it winds up in a lot of planters around here. It’s not technically a jasmine, but when its small white flowers bloom, oh, the smell is exquisite.

Then, of course, there’s another human-made smell: street food. I love street food. There’s a guy with a small little rig he pulls behind his truck, called El Ultimo Tren. He makes burgers and tacos and they’re delicious. And the smell… Oy, it’s gorgeous!

I sometimes wonder if my deadened sense of smell got that way because there was nothing to smell. If anything is going to get through the airflow of a car, it’s going to be pretty strong, like a skunk or diesel fumes. The more subtle scent of flowers? Not happening. So with nothing to smell, I stopped smelling.

So now, I’m out on the streets, letting my under-used sense of smell get a work-out and it’s been pretty good.

spy fiction, mystery fiction, cozy mystery,

Chapter Four

spy novel, spy fiction, cozy mystery, cozy spy novelOctober 5 – 20, 1982

 

As Mr. Hackbirn drove us to Mr. Fukaro’s dojo the next morning, he seemed perplexed. He didn’t say anything about it until we were headed for our next stop.

“You seem very up,” he said. “Are you sure you’re not in denial?”

“About what?” I asked.

“About being drafted. Don’t you have any feelings of anger? Outrage? Anything like that?”

I thought. “Maybe a little. I suppose I should be angrier, but I’m really kind of excited. I’ve always felt like I had such a boring life, and now I’m a spy. It’s pretty neat, really.”

“I might have known,” Mr. Hackbirn grumbled. “Miss Wycherly, you had better get those happy, romantic little notions out of your head right now. This business isn’t James Bond, and it isn’t a neat, painless undertaking. Most of it is deathly dull, and when it isn’t, it’s ugly.”

“Well, it can’t be totally awful. You don’t seem like you’re that miserable.”

“I’m not, and I can’t say that there are no fringe benefits. However, I don’t want you lulled into a false sense of security. You and I are in perpetual mortal danger, and will be for the rest of our lives.”

“I know. I just refuse to let it get me down is all.”

He didn’t say anything to that. I think he knew that the danger part hadn’t sunk in for me. What I found at the deserted warehouse in Long Beach helped make his point. It was a shooting range for a variety of operatives, all of whom needed a place to practice without being seen. Actually, the shooting range itself didn’t phase me. The target did. It was a police silhouette of a man. I made a face.

“I don’t like shooting at them either,” said Mr. Hackbirn. “But that’s what you’re facing.”

“Right.” I reached for the revolver he had.

He pulled it back. “Miss Wycherly, this is not a toy.”

“I know.”

“It’s a Smith and Wesson model thirteen, three fifty-seven magnum revolver. I know it’s a big gun, but believe me, you don’t want a pea shooter. Now, you’ve got to stand and brace your arm so that you can absorb the recoil. I’m warning you, this baby packs a wallop.”

I let him show me the proper position.

“Do you want me to stand behind you?” he asked. “It’s got quite a kick. And maybe I’d better move that target closer.”

“Don’t waste your time.” I slipped on the ear guards and put a shot into the target’s left shoulder.

Mr. Hackbirn squinted. “Not bad for a first try. Just remember to aim for the chest. It’s the easiest to hit.”

“You can kill someone that way.” I squeezed off four more shots to the left shoulder.

Mr. Hackbirn pushed a button, and the target floated towards us. He looked at the five holes, then at me. I smiled weakly.

“I got fourth place in the Tahoe Region Skeet Championship,” I told him. “The first three went on to international competition.”

“That’s pretty good.” He looked me over again. “I guess I owe you an apology. You just don’t seem the type.”

“Well, sewing and knitting are about as domesticated as I get. Daddy and I nailed a lot of ducks and pigeons together.”

“Ah. Well. We’ll go right into shooting on the run. Now, remember, aim for the chest. You won’t have time to finesse a shot.”

We worked for an hour. I have to admit, I didn’t put everything into a shoulder, but I hit the target every time. Mr. Hackbirn was impressed.

“I just put it between Donna Reed’s eyes,” I said, as I reloaded.

“You what?”

“Oh.” I blushed. “It’s an old joke. My best friend always said that. She’s a hardcore feminist, and there was this TV show.”

“I’m familiar with it.”

“I’ve never seen it. Anyway, neither of us were big on traditional housewiving. I mean, it’s alright if that’s what a woman really wants to do. I just don’t think a woman should have to.”

“I’m liberated myself,” said Mr. Hackbirn with a bemused chuckle. He shook his head. “I just didn’t expect it from a church-going type like you.”

“Look, I believe in God, and I try to live my life in a way that’s consistent with what I know about Him. But that doesn’t mean I turn my brain off just because some Bible thumping conservative thinks women belong in the kitchen. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about my values, and I know what I believe and why I believe it. Okay?”

He backed off. “Okay. I’m sorry I assumed.”

“I didn’t mean to get so defensive,” I sighed. “I just get so tired of people treating me like a mutant because I believe sex belongs in marriage.”

“Actually, I know how you feel.”

“What do you mean?”

“I get tired of people assuming I’m some depraved monster because I’m sexually active.”

“Oh. I guess you would.”

I hadn’t really thought he was a monster. But I considered him depraved. He was pretty busy most evenings.

We were just as busy during the days. Getting his office together was put on hold. In the meantime, I had to learn how to administer certain drugs, how to locate hidden microphones, how to install hidden microphones, how to ditch a tail (well, how to do it even better) how to tail someone, how to make microdots and how to read them, and codes.

There was a new code every day to break and I also had to learn how to encode things. It was miserable. I spent so much time working on those codes I wondered if I’d start mumbling keywords in my sleep.

The only thing worse than the codes was Mr. Hackbirn’s safe. What few records we had on the business were stored there and they were relatively innocent at that. The safe was in Mr. Hackbirn’s office under the floor next to his desk. His waste can covered the almost imperceptible cut in the carpet. The dial was behind a false back in a drawer of one of the file cabinets.

Getting to the dial and to the safe was easy compared to opening it. Each number of the combination had to be dialed exactly, having been passed a specific number of times. If you didn’t do everything just so, the safe wouldn’t open. To make matters worse, the safe was finicky and I often suspected that it sometimes wouldn’t open out of plain orneriness. Mr. Hackbirn took it all in stride and pointed out that it was better that the safe was so hard to open. I think he was just glad he didn’t have to do it anymore.

Then there was all the technical equipment, including listening devices, surveillance devices, tracking devices. Most of the stuff you see in spy movies is out and out ridiculous, but we do get to use some pretty sophisticated stuff. It’s all very small, too, to make it easier to hide.

And speaking of hiding, Friday was spent on all the different places and things I could hide on myself to get me out of a tight situation.

“You can always hide something,” said Mr. Hackbirn. “In fact, I think you ought to get your hair permed. It’s long enough, with a little extra body, you’ll be able to hide all sorts of things in there.”

“Like what?” I asked.

“Like one of these.” Mr. Hackbirn pulled something small and dark out of his hair. It was a quarter inch wide and about two inches long. “Spring steel. You’d be amazed at all the things this little goodie will unlock, and it can cut strapping tape, too.”

“Strapping tape?”

“Used to bind hands instead of handcuffs. It and duct tape are carried because handcuffs can arouse suspicion.”

“Oh.” I shuddered. “I don’t know if I want to carry a piece of metal in my hair all the time.”

Mr. Hackbirn shrugged. “I don’t, except when I’m working. But even then, it probably wouldn’t be a bad idea. You could be attacked or captured at any time. Anything you can keep on you to help you just might save your life. In fact, I would be surprised if you’re not carrying a bit of spring steel on you right now that no one will ever think to look for.”

“Really?” I looked over my jacket and clothes, then flushed when I noticed Mr. Hackbirn studying my breasts. He was perfectly clinical about it, but I was still embarrassed and closed my jacket over my chest.

“You’re wearing an underwire bra, aren’t you?”

“Mr. Hackbirn, isn’t that my business?”

“Spring steel, Miss Wycherly, that’s the wire. You could get out of a pair of handcuffs with it.”

“Well, maybe.” I put my hands behind my back and tried to reach my bra strap. “Except I’d never be able to get the bra off my arms if I was cuffed.”

“True.” Mr. Hackbirn studied me a moment longer, mulling over the problem instead of my breasts. “Ah. The solution is simple. Wear bras with detachable straps.”

“I wonder where I’d get one.”

“The lingerie department might be a start. In any case, I know they exist. I’ve seen them.”

I smirked. “Oh, really.”

“I’ve seen a lot of bras in my time. But don’t just get one. Wear them all the time.”

I snorted. “This is getting a little ridiculous. It’s bad enough you’re telling me how to wear my hair, now you’re dictating the style of my underwear? I’ve had it.”

“Miss Wycherly, I understand your irritation.” Mr. Hackbirn glared at me. “But you need to understand just how deadly serious this is. You are entering a new way of life. You are a spy, and everything you are as a person is affected by it. How you act, make friends, what you eat, even your damned underwear. Secrecy is the word you live by now, and being prepared is how you’ll stay alive. I’m giving you every trick, hint, whatever that I know to keep you that way.”

I hung my head. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s alright.” He smiled softly. “I know what you’re going through. I went through it, too. But I’m alive because I accepted it.”

“Well, I guess I’d better make that appointment for my perm.”

“Good. But first, I want you to try these on.”

He pulled a box off the file cabinets. He had brought it in that morning when he returned from making a pickup. The box held a pair of black running shoes. Mr. Hackbirn gave me a pair of tube socks, which I put on over my nylons.

“They feel great,” I said after lacing the shoes up. I walked around. “Sheesh. I’ve never had shoes this comfortable before. Are these why you did that plaster cast of my feet the other day?”

“Mm-hm. I have a pair just like them. They’ve saved my butt more than once.”

I giggled. “Don’t tell me. I click my heels and a knife will pop out.”

“Not quite. Sit down and slide your fingernail between the sole and the shoe on the inside.”

I did. “Hey, there’s a groove. Oh, my god.”

The sole popped open. Inside was a stiletto, a flat handle,  two screwdrivers and more spring steel.

“There’s wire, a wire cutter, a transmitter and batteries in the other,” said Mr. Hackbirn. “It’s a pity platform dress shoes aren’t in style anymore. You’d be surprised at all the stuff I could stick in those. We won’t be able to hide much beyond some spring steel in your dress shoes, and there’s always the last. That can be sharpened, and makes a very effective weapon.”

I looked at him. “What about your dress shoes?”

“I have a similar set up in all my heels. Most of the time, I have no need for it, but you never know.”

I put the sole back on and tested the shoe again.

“Armored running shoes.” I tried to smile. “What will they think of next?”

Saturday, I asked Mr. Hackbirn to let me go out to Mae’s the next day.

“You did say I was on my own,” I said at breakfast that morning.

“Of course.” He put his paper down. “Isn’t she in Fullerton?”

“Yeah. I get there on the train. I can take a bus to Union Station.”

“That’s fine. I was more interested in Fullerton. There’s an enemy operative out there working as an information broker for the Soviets. It’s odd that your sister just happens to be out there, too.”

“She’s no spy.”

Mr. Hackbirn laughed. “Nobody with five kids would have the time. I was merely bemused by the coincidence. Are you planning on taking the bus back tomorrow night?”

“Yes.”

Mr. Hackbirn shook his head. “Why don’t you come back Monday morning instead? I’d rather not worry about you on the bus after dark.”

“I can always wear my armored shoes.”

“It’s better to avoid trouble. Come back Monday morning.”

“If you insist.” I didn’t like the worrying nonsense, but coming back the Monday meant no running, so I wasn’t about to argue.

Mae’s whole family picked me up at the train station in Fullerton. I could see that Mae was dying to give me the third degree about my new job, and why I hadn’t been able to visit the previous Sundays. Even though she’s six years older than me, people sometimes think I’m older because I’m taller than she is. She’s got more padding than I do, too, with brown hair, which she keeps short and permed to stay out of her way.

Neil was calm, as usual. It takes a lot to flap him. He’s tall and skinny, with bright red hair. His son, Darby, looks a lot like him. Darby was nine at the time. He manfully picked up my overnight case. Janey, age seven, and Ellen, age four, both attached themselves to me. They have their mother’s coloring, only Janey has big hazel cow eyes, and Ellen’s eyes are blue, like her father’s. The twins, Marty and Mitch, were whooping up their greeting noises from their stroller. They were two and looked more like Darby and their dad.

“Is there surprise?” asked Ellen shyly.

“Of course,” I told her with a squeeze.

There always was. Mae’s a health nut and Neil’s a dentist, so the only time those kids see candy is when I or the grandparents bring it. It’s one of the advantages of being an aunt, and one of the few times I press it.

Mae didn’t get to her interrogation right away. She and Neil had to go to some Marriage Encounter shindig, and they didn’t get home until ten that night. That was why I had come, to babysit. Mae and Neil have a little problem that way. Janey won’t stay quietly with just anyone.

“So?” Mae asked me the moment she had come downstairs after checking on the kids.

“So… What?” I asked.

Neil sat back in the kitchen chair with his arms folded and chuckled.

“Tell me about your job,” Mae pressed.

I swallowed. I wasn’t used to lying to my family. Still, Mr. Hackbirn had been right, and, strangely enough, I didn’t want to tell Mae what he had gotten me into.

“He just takes some getting used to,” I explained slowly.

“But you sounded so worried before,” said Mae. “And you said something strange was going on.”

I forced a laugh. “Oh, that. It was nothing. My boss, he just… you know, gets around.”

“You already told us that,” said Neil.

“Well, he really gets around,” I replied. “And he was trying to cover it up. Only I kept catching little things, and he finally came clean with it.”

Mae snorted. “Are you sure?”

“I accidently walked in on him in his living room, and he was butt naked with a naked woman.”

Neil laughed.

“In the middle of the day?” shrieked Mae.

I shrugged. “He wasn’t asking me to.”

“I don’t know, Lisa,” said Mae. “Something’s not right about all of this.”

“Leave her be, Mae,” said Neil. “Lisa’s a big girl. She can take care of herself.”

Mae didn’t believe that for a second, but she did let up. The next morning, everything went as smooth as silk, except that Mr. Hackbirn drove me to the gym that night to make sure I worked out, seeing as though I had missed running that morning.

I finally got my hair permed at the end of my two weeks of training. I got home from the beauty parlor late that afternoon. As I walked in the front door, I heard piano music coming from the library. I didn’t know the piece, but it was something classical and complicated. [It was the rondo allegro from Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata, number 8, opus 13 – SEH]  My interest was aroused. I’d been trying to play the piano for years, in spite of lessons. Whoever was playing that afternoon was certainly fairly accomplished. [Accomplished? I hadn’t played in two years and I made a mess of it! – SEH]

It was Mr. Hackbirn. He stopped when he saw me.

“I thought you said you only played sometimes,” I said coming over to him. “That sounds like pretty often to me.”

He just shrugged.

“Where in your unstructured background did you pick up something as structured as playing like that?” I asked.

“It was the only disciplined thing my aunt had me do. Although, strangely enough, I practiced pretty much by my own choice. When you’re in a private school, your friends don’t live near you.”

“And the parents who lived near you didn’t want their kids playing with a commie.”

“In a couple of cases.” He stopped and looked at me. “How’d you know about that?”

“Observation and research.” I smiled, glad that my guess was accurate. “So you had a lonely childhood.”

“Yes and no. I was a loner. I didn’t have many friends because I didn’t want them. And it was my aunt who was the commie, by the way.”

“Why didn’t you take up music? In college I mean.”

“Didn’t want to.”

“So what motivated you to play now? Something bothering you?”

“Not really. Why do you ask?”

“You kind of hinted that you hit the music when you were lonely.”

He looked at me intently for a moment.

“That is often the case,” he replied slowly as if he wasn’t sure he could trust me. “Not this time, though. I just felt like it.”

Something told me he wasn’t hiding anything.

“Ready to go?” he asked, abruptly changing the subject.

“Go where?” I asked.

“To the bar at La Brisa restaurant on Sunset. You’re going to make a pickup.”

“A pickup!” I was shocked. “I’m not going out with any strange guy.”

“No,” groaned Mr. Hackbirn. “You’re picking up a piece of information to be sent up the line.”

“Oh. That’s almost as bad.”

“It’ll go as smooth as silk. Your contact will ask you where he can find a pineapple tree. You’ll ask him if he wants an upside-down cake.”

“An upside-down cake,” I repeated. “I’m going to really botch this one up.”

“What could you possibly botch?”

“I don’t know, but something will present itself.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll be there just in case the Soviet army shows up. Just don’t come near me unless there’s a genuine catastrophe.”

“That’s so reassuring.”

The bar was crowded and dark. I sat on a bar stool at the bar quietly sipping ginger ale and trying to make small talk with the various people there. There was a small combo at the other end of the room playing songs from the 30’s and 40’s. I had waited for over an hour with no hint of any fruit at all. I hadn’t seen Mr. Hackbirn come in, but I saw him now, sitting in a booth not far from me. I also saw him smiling in my direction.

The band dedicated the next song to the lady at the end of the bar, where I was sitting. The song was called “Let’s Misbehave.” I saw Mr. Hackbirn smile and raise his glass to me. I was certain something had gone wrong and he needed to talk to me.

“What’s wrong?” I whispered as I sat down next to him.

“What are you doing here?” he hissed back.

“You meant me, didn’t you?”

“No, I was signaling to the blonde behind you!”

“Well, I never!” I said loudly, getting up.

I all but stomped back to my place at the bar.

“He wanted you,” I growled to the blonde.

“He did?” She smiled at Mr. Hackbirn, who smiled back.

“You’re nuts if you do,” I told her as she left the bar.

Her place was taken a minute later by a rather handsome young man.

“It gets pretty embarrassing when you read the signals wrong doesn’t it?” he said warmly.

I just snorted.

“By the way,” he continued, “Know where I can find a pineapple tree?”

Every nerve in my body instantly awoke and started tingling.

“You want an upside-down cake?” I asked, hoping he couldn’t hear my heart pounding.

“Why don’t we get a table and talk about it?” he suggested.

At the table, we traded small talk for about five minutes. During that time, he slipped me a small envelope under the table, which I promptly put in the pocket of my jacket. I waited a couple of minutes then stood up.

“I’ve got to get up really early tomorrow,” I said. “So I’ve got to go. Nice talking to you.”

It took all the control I had to not run out of the bar.

When I got home, I dropped the envelope on Mr. Hackbirn’s desk and headed for the kitchen. There I found everything ready to make a mug of peppermint herb tea, a particular favorite. I knew Conchetta had some idea something was going on but didn’t know about Quickline itself. I wondered what Mr. Hackbirn had told her when he asked her to set out the tea. I was pretty sure he hadn’t set it out himself. That’s not like him and even if it had been, I doubted he would have set out the peppermint, which he loathes. Conchetta had set out the tea, no doubt about that. [No. I’d set it out – SEH]

As I cleaned up what little mess there was in the kitchen, I debated waiting up for Mr. Hackbirn, but only briefly. Considering the blonde, if he were to return home at a decent hour, he would probably not be alone. Sighing, I took my tea with me to my room and went to bed.

The next morning, Mr. Hackbirn briefly congratulated me on a job well done. Later that afternoon I overheard him on the phone.

“Not Gannett, damn it,” he was saying to the person on the other end. “Are you sure there’s no one else?” There was a pause while the other party answered. “Look, Gannett has seen me… In a couple months, no problem… She’s great, but she’s only made the one pick up. You can’t send someone with no experience on something like this… There’s got to be…” He sighed. “Alright. Set it up… Gee, thanks. Talk to you later.”

I walked the rest of the way into the office as he hung up.

“What was that all about?” I asked.

“You’re going to make a major pick up tonight,” Mr. Hackbirn grumbled.

“You don’t sound as if you have a lot of confidence in me.”

“In you, yes. You’re doing very well, but you need experience. This assignment… I don’t know.”

“What is it?”

“A certain gentleman has let it be known that he has some very important top secret U.S. information that he’s willing to sell.”

“Gannett.”

“Right. Another agency, on our side, has been setting up a sale with him. It’s up to us to grab him, get the information, and send him upline to be taken care of.”

“I don’t like the sound of that, but it doesn’t sound terribly complicated.” I sounded more confident than I was.

“Except for the fact that the agency isn’t the only buyer Gannett has been entertaining. You might have some competition tonight.”

“Terrific.” All pretense of confidence fled.

“That’s not the worst of it.”

“Gannett’s seen you, so I’m going solo.”

“I’m afraid so.”

But Mr. Hackbirn wasn’t going to let me out of it. We discussed every possible thing that could happen, then exactly what our plan of action would be. At 3:30, he gave me an article to enter into the computer and left to run an errand or two.

He didn’t get back until 5, just as dinner was ready. As we sat down to eat, he pulled something out of his pocket and tossed it on the table. It was a round gold brooch about 2″ in diameter made of a ring of gold wires twisted together.

“That’s how Gannett will spot you,” said Mr. Hackbirn. “He’ll be asking for a one-way ticket to the zoo. Just say you have one.”

I had to laugh. “Where do you come up with all these crazy lines?”

Mr. Hackbirn just smiled and shrugged. “A vivid imagination, I guess.”

“I guess.”

I felt rather better about the whole affair as I drove Mr. Hackbirn’s Mercedes to the bar where I was to meet Gannett. During dinner, Mr. Hackbirn had drilled me on what I was going to do. By the end of the meal, he seemed relieved and told me he thought I was going to be fine and that he’d underestimated me. I looked at him closely and saw that he meant it.

After dinner and before I left, Mae called. The kids were getting to her. Somehow the conversation got around to our own childhoods.

“Do you remember how we used to tell each other stories?” Mae said wistfully. “Especially you.”

“You told some pretty good ones yourself.”

“Yeah, but you told the best. You should have written them down. You could have made a fortune in adventure stories.”

I laughed. If only she had known about the adventure I was living. As a child, I had longed for adventure. I don’t think that I actually wanted to be a spy, myself, but cloak and dagger stories had always enthralled me. Now I was living one.

I thought about that as I walked into the meeting place. I walked up to the bar and ordered a ginger ale. Though I didn’t need to be told, Mr. Hackbirn had drilled it into me that one drink a night was a lot for a person whose livelihood depended on absolute secrecy. Drunkenness was a great risk and even one drink was too much when you were working.

I wasn’t there half an hour before I was asked for a one-way ticket to the zoo.

“I’ve got it,” I replied to the man who had addressed me. “Let’s go get a table and talk about it.”

Gannett was about average height. As far as I could tell, he had light brown hair and was basically as nondescript as they come.

“Have you got the money?” he asked anxiously.

“What have you got that’s so good?” I replied a lot more coolly than I felt.

“Not so fast. Money first.”

“I have it at my place.”

“Then go get it.”

“Not so fast yourself. I hear there are other bidders.”

“So?”

“So you can come to my place and we’ll see what you’ve got.”

My left hand rested casually on the table in front of us. My right hand was on my lap. Trembling, it reached into my purse and pulled out the revolver Mr. Hackbirn had insisted I carry.

“What if I choose not to go to your place?” my guest asked.

Underneath the table, I pressed the gun’s barrel into the guest’s side. I watched him stiffen at the contact.

“Do you feel that?” I asked. He nodded. “You no longer have a choice. Now we’re going to get up and leave here. You’ll do as I say and just because you don’t see my gun, doesn’t mean that it’s not pointed at you or that I don’t have friends with me. Is that clear?” He nodded again. “Alright, let’s go.”

When we got to the parking lot I thanked heaven it was empty of people. At the car I blindfolded Gannett and after putting on the seat belt, taped his hands. It had been my own idea about my “friends,” and I was glad he’d believed me. After seeing that he was secure, I stashed the gun under the front seat and for some reason my brooch also. As I turned to get in, two men came up to me.

“Yes?” I asked.

“We’re interested in the gentleman you just picked up,” said the man closest to me. The other remained in the background.

“It’s my business who I pick up.” I tried to sound sophisticated, but I think I just sounded hard.

“That’s an interesting way to treat a pickup.” He glared at Gannett.

“So I’m kinky,” I shot back.

“I want that man and now!”

At that moment, something clicked and it seemed like what I was doing, I wasn’t doing, instead I was standing outside myself and watching a stranger do it. The man grabbed me and started pulling me away. Instead of resisting, I fell into him, throwing him off balance. He let go and I landed two good punches in his belly. He fell backward into his companion.

I jumped into the car and backed out of the parking space. I almost hit a large car. I could see the two men getting into it.

I stepped on the accelerator and shot out onto the street. It was a miracle I didn’t hit anyone. I had turned right and right again onto another street. Looking into my rear view mirror I saw a car right behind me. I got into the left lane. It did the same, all but kissing my bumper. I was going to turn left but a signal stopped me.

I knew the only way I could lose them was to make a lot of quick turns. But that was almost impossible with the way traffic is in on Hollywood Boulevard. A residential neighborhood would have been ideal, except that I didn’t know the streets in L.A. once I was off the main bus routes. Losing my tail wouldn’t have done much good if I lost myself in the process.

I saw a sign for U.S. 101, south to Santa Ana. I knew the streets in Fullerton pretty well, so if I couldn’t lose them on the freeway… I nearly creamed a car trying to get in the right lane for the onramp. Once on the freeway, I checked my mirror. My tail was still there.

They say stress can help us perform in a heightened manner. Well, the stress I was feeling and the grace of God are all that got me through that night. I believe I already mentioned that I was working on automatic pilot. I had to. I hate freeway driving. It scares me. When I can’t avoid using the freeway, I stay in one lane and drive fifty-five.

That night I rarely drove under seventy. I changed lanes constantly, dodging around cars. My tail stayed tight on me. I hardly dared breathe. My guest remained silent. I thanked God. I found myself caught behind a slow car and the lane beside me blocked. I hit the brakes and checked the mirror. The car was still there. If Gannett heard my continual litany of Our Fathers and Hail Marys, he didn’t say anything. I pulled around the slow car. I made it to Orange County in less than thirty minutes. I turned off the freeway at the last second from the middle lane. My tail hung on.

I swallowed and headed for the housing tract where my sister lived. I knew the area, although it had been two years since I had lived with Mae while going to college. The tract was a veritable labyrinth.

I suddenly turned off the main street. The tires squealed in protest. I remembered that Mae had told me something recently about cops cracking down on reckless drivers. I made another rapid turn. Cops were all I needed. I turned again and accelerated. Even if they didn’t pull me over, they’d send somebody after me. The tires screamed as I turned again.

I drove like that for about half an hour. Somewhere in the last five minutes of that time, I lost the tail. I drove on, relieved but afraid it was too good to be true.

For once it was true. I stopped at a stop sign. Around the corner to my left, a large car was parked by the corner. Behind it I could see the flashing lights of a police car and the silhouette of a policeman talking to the man who’d tried to stop me. I smiled and breathed a thank you to God.

Three minutes later, I was on another freeway, taking an alternate route back to L.A. No one tailed me, though I had one eye in the mirror all the way. I didn’t even slow down until I hit the Babylonian castle that I’d always used as my almost there landmark.

I sighed as I pressed the button for the garage door opener back at the house. I drove in, braked and turned off the ignition. Then I summoned everything I had left for one last surge of energy.

“End of the line,” I said, reaching under the seat for the gun.

I got Gannett loose from the seatbelt and out of the car. Mr. Hackbirn was at the garage door and held it open as I led the man into the house. Silently, Mr. Hackbirn took the lead. He guided us to the room where we were going to put our guest for the night. At the door to the room, I removed the tape and shoved the guest in. Mr. Hackbirn shut the door and locked it. Numb, I headed for the office.

It’s at this point that things get pretty fuzzy. I do remember hearing Mr. Hackbirn ask what took so long. I remember dropping the gun on the desk and I remember sinking into the chair. But that’s all I remember until I woke up the next day.

The sun was shining. It seemed exceptionally bright. I was in my bed. My jacket had been neatly hung up and my shoes were in the closet, but otherwise I was still fully dressed. My tongue felt like it had swollen three times its original size and there was a dry taste in my mouth.

Foggy, I groped my way to the mirror over the dresser. I still don’t know what I was looking for, but I stood there a long time. The phone rang. I stumbled my way to the bedside table where it was, picked up the receiver and grunted into it.

“I figured you’d wake up about now,” said Mr. Hackbirn’s voice.

“Yeah.”

“How do you feel?”

I thought a moment. “Nauseous.”

“That’s to be expected. You’ll probably feel a little groggy for a while. Why don’t you take a shower? It’ll wake you up some. Then I need you in the office promptly.”

“Breakfast?”

“My dear, it’s past lunchtime.”

As I hung up I looked at my clock. It was 12:30. Groaning, I realized that if I thought any more about food, my nausea would come to fruition.

It took over an hour for me to shower and dress. I was still drowsy as I headed for the office, but awake enough to wonder what had hit me. I was also trying to remember going to bed, but couldn’t. I didn’t have a headache, so I doubted I’d been drinking.

“I don’t understand it,” I replied when Mr. Hackbirn asked if I was still feeling groggy. “I know I’m not that swift in the mornings, but I’ve never been this bad. I feel awful. I wonder if I’m coming down with something.”

“I doubt it,” said Mr. Hackbirn. I had sunk into the chair in front of his desk. He sat on the edge closest to me, looking at me intently.

“The funny thing is,” I continued, “I don’t remember anything after we locked up Gannett.”

“Anything?” Mr. Hackbirn lifted an eyebrow.

I thought for a moment. “I think I remember coming in here. I wanted to get rid of that gun. And I think I remember crying.”

“You were hysterical.”

“Hysterical? That’s ridiculous. I’ve never been hysterical in my life.”

“You were last night.”

“I was?”

“It took two barbiturate tablets to calm you down. By that time you were knocked out.”

“You fed me dope?” I was halfway out of my chair in fury.

“A sedative, Miss Wycherly.” Mr. Hackbirn remained infuriatingly calm. “Which you sorely needed.”

“So that’s why I feel like a wrung out wash rag,” I grumbled.

“That’s an interesting image. I’ll have to write that down.” He paused as I glared at him. “Well, maybe later. In any case, the side effect will be gone by tonight. What I need to know now is what happened to cause your reaction.”

“I was scared.”

“That is obvious. What scared you?”

So I told him in detail what had happened. Mr. Hackbirn listened without interruption.

“I have two questions,” he said when I had finished. “First, did you see the license plate of the car tailing you?”

I shook my head. “It was too dark, and the lights were shining.”

“Perhaps it’s just as well. Secondly, did they shoot at you at all?”

“No,” I replied. “I guess it was too crowded.”

“Then what frightened you so badly?”

“Wasn’t that enough? Good heavens! Haven’t you ever been scared?”

“Well, of course…”

“Then try to think of me. I’m new at this. I come from a basically sheltered background. Nobody’s ever even wanted to physically hurt me and now I’ve got to deal with two men who want to kill me just for some jerk I’ve never seen before, and they’re willing to chase me all over to do it. Wouldn’t that have put you a little off track at one time? You might also consider the fact that I’m basically an optimist. I’m used to trusting people. I find it very hard to believe that anyone could willingly want to hurt someone else. Oh, I know intellectually, it happens, but deep down it doesn’t make sense and, therefore, it’s hard to believe. At least it was ’til last night. Was that ever a cold slap in the face. You want to talk about a shock to the system? Mine got a major jolt. Okay, maybe I did overreact. I don’t know, I wasn’t really there. All I know is that man was utterly malicious and that frightened me like nothing has ever frightened me before.”

Mr. Hackbirn sighed. “Miss Wycherly, I don’t want you to take this as a rebuke. It isn’t. You are to be commended for keeping your head and waiting until you did to break down. I might add it was probably waiting that caused the hysteria. However, that reaction could get you into big trouble if you panic at the wrong time. As a result, I am very concerned. What’s going to happen to you when real violence occurs? I can’t have you becoming a basket case every time you find yourself endangered.”

“I know,” I groaned.

“Miss Wycherly, you are going to have to get used to the fact that A there is a great deal of evil in this world and there are quite a few people in this world that have no qualms about taking a human life; and B this is a very dangerous business we have here. Most of it is rather dull. But the U.S. is, in effect, involved in an underground war with the Soviets and a few other countries. We are part of that war so that the vast majority of our country can lead peaceful, productive lives.”

“You make it sound as if we’re on the brink of disaster.”

“We are.” Mr. Hackbirn removed a piece of paper from the inside breast pocket of his suit coat. “This is the information Gannett wanted to sell.”

On the paper was a written mathematical equation, only there were no numbers except exponents and it contained a symbol I’d never seen before.

“Looks fairly innocuous.” I shrugged. “Of course, I only got as far as precalculus in college.”

“It’s called the Lipplinger Formula. It was developed by Doctor Miles Lipplinger. He teaches physics at Georgetown University. That formula is probably the most dangerous piece of information in the world.”

“Why?”

“It makes possible limited nuclear war.”

“Oh, my god. Surely, the Soviet Union wouldn’t…”

“The only reason we are at peace now is because nuclear war would destroy the world. If that formula were made possible, we would be plunged into the worst war humankind has ever known. As it stands now, I’d say only 50 people know of its existence. Fortunately, they’re on our side, and out of that 50 less than 10, including our guest, have actually seen it.”

I swallowed. “How could it stay so secret?”

“Professor Lipplinger discovered it by accident. He thought it could be used for peaceful purposes, but quickly realized what it would be used for. He promptly contacted the CIA, who eventually concurred with his belief. But they also felt that destroying the formula would only endanger the U.S. in the likely event that the Soviets also developed the formula and did not hesitate to use it. Professor Lipplinger graciously agreed to monitor information provided by the CIA to see if he could detect the formula in the development and so cue the CIA who would arrange to sabotage the work.”

“So how did Gannett get a hold of it?”

“He was one of the engineers working with the professor monitoring the Soviet work.”

“So now what do we do?”

“I doubt anything. There is a cause for concern because of Gannett’s disloyalty, but he’s already been sent upline and will soon be dealt with.”

“I don’t like the sound of that.”

“Like I said, Miss Wycherly, we are at war and betrayal is a crime.”

Sewing Men’s Pants

sewing men's pants

Pretty welts on my husband’s new pants

Yeah, I get it. Crazy is one thing, but sewing men’s pants? WTF am I thinking?

I’m thinking my husband needs trousers and I’m not finding any I like and there was this cheap fabric I’d picked up, so what the heck?

Truth be told, it’s not any harder than sewing pants for women. The biggest difference is that I have to put belt loops on my husband’s pants because he always wears a belt, and I can leave belt loops off of mine since I seldom wear a belt. Oh, and the center back seam is wider at the waist to make it easier to adjust the fit later as someone’s waist expands or not. Since we women are more likely to expand and deflate, you’d think you’d see that on women’s pants, but no.

Yes, there is a little more tailoring… Well, I wouldn’t call it tailoring, but you can get fancier with your finishes on the inside. But I’m not going to. It’s not going to show and it doesn’t affect the fit. Why bother?

Besides the belt loops, the big lesson here? If you know a better way to do something than what the pattern instructions say, dump the pattern instructions. That being said, it doesn’t hurt to read them first.

Sewing Men’s Pants Photos:

And here they are:

men's pants

There’s the extra wide seam at the back

men's pants

Waistband interfacing – It did make things easier.

Men's pants

Tah-dah! Men’s pants. And they fit him, too.

 

spy fiction, mystery fiction, cozy mystery,

Chapter Three

spy fiction, cozy mystery, mystery fiction serialOctober 4

It took six more days for me to get my explanation. Mae wanted to know why I couldn’t come out that Sunday. Something told me that telling her what was going on was not a good idea. I made a vague excuse and said I’d try to get out on the following Sunday.

Monday was D-Day. I knew it as soon as Mr. James showed up on the front doorstep. He’s a tall man, somewhere in his late forties, balding and much of the dark hair that is left has gray streaks in it. His shoulders are broad and he has a definite middle age spread. He also has the reddest face I’ve ever seen in my life.

I ushered him into Mr. Hackbirn’s office and didn’t quite shut the door. I stayed near the crack, too.

“Is this what I think this is?” Mr. Hackbirn asked, pleased.

“What the doctor ordered,” said Mr. James. “By the way, I got an interesting report from Highland when they closed down.”

“Yeah.” Mr. Hackbirn sounded caught. “Well. I didn’t have much choice. They sent it there, and Gannett’s been seen watching the place. I didn’t want to chance it. He knows me too well. She’s obviously clean. No harm done, right?”

“You’re just lucky it didn’t blow up. Shall we bring her in?”

Mr. Hackbirn chuckled. “Come on in, Miss Wycherly.”

Flushing, I slid open the door.

“She’s been..?” Mr. James looked at Mr. Hackbirn.

“I told you, she’s bright.” He grinned at me, then turned serious. “Please sit down, Miss Wycherly.”

Puzzled, I sat down on the edge of one of the chairs in front of the desk. Mr. James stood next to it.

“Miss Wycherly,” he said, pleasantly. “Sid has informed me that you have noticed a few oddities about his household.”

I glanced at Mr. Hackbirn. His face was passive and unreadable.

“I have,” I answered slowly.

“And has it occurred to you that Sid might be a little bit more than merely eccentric?”

“Well, I have thought that certain of his little oddities seemed a little too planned to be mere idiosyncrasy.”

“I see,” replied Mr. James. He looked at Mr. Hackbirn.

“She’s bright,” said Mr. Hackbirn.

I decided to be bold. “Am I bright enough to be let in on whatever it is that’s going on around here?”

Mr. James smiled and so did Mr. Hackbirn.

“That’s why you’re here, Miss Wycherly,” Mr. Hackbirn said, becoming serious once more.

“Miss Wycherly, you picked up a package for Mr. Hackbirn last Tuesday,” said Mr. James. “Do you know what was in it?”

“As far as I could tell, paper,” I replied. “I assumed that it was some sort of report.”

“The paper was a blind,” said Mr. Hackbirn. “What really made that ream important was a microdot containing top secret information.”

“It’s beginning to make sense,” I said. “That clearance.”

“Miss Wycherly,” said Mr. James. “Within the structures of the FBI and CIA are several smaller organizations. Organizations so secret that only their members know they exist. Mr. Hackbirn is a member of one called Operation Quickline.”

“He’s a spy.” I swallowed back my fear. “For the US?”

Mr. Hackbirn smiled and nodded. “Yes. I work secretly through the FBI, and now so do you.”

“Me?” The news hit me like a punch to the bread basket. Locked in. He’d warned me off. Something inside me snapped, and it was if I was watching everything that went on from another corner of the room.

“Your security clearance and adoption came through this morning,” said Mr. James.

“You mean you guys want me to be a spy, too.” My voice sounded distant as if another person were speaking.

“No,” said Mr. Hackbirn. “You are a spy.”

“What if I don’t want to?”

“You will just have to live with that. I’ve had to do the same. All I can do is offer my sympathies.”

Mr. James stepped forward. “You have to understand, Miss Wycherly, that the only reason Quickline is effective is because it is so secret. Therefore, when we must recruit new members, we cannot ask them without endangering the system, so we draft likely candidates.”

“I can’t believe this,” I gasped.

“It will take a day or two,” said Mr. Hackbirn.

I got up as well as I could. “I gotta get out of here. I’ve got to think.”

“As you wish,” Mr. Hackbirn replied. “But, Miss Wycherly, please keep in mind that my life, and now yours depends on your secrecy. It is that critical. I told you I am a dangerous person to know. This is why. I’m afraid you’ll be risking your life right along with me. I wanted to tell you what you were risking, but I couldn’t. I’m sorry.”

“I understand. Sort of.” I looked at him helplessly, then turned. “I’ll see you later.”

I left the house and ran down the streets to the bus stop. I was confused. I was a spy. They hadn’t even asked me, and, oh, that made me mad. But I was also excited. They had chosen me. But for what? Yes, I would be risking my life, but how did I know these guys were telling the truth? I only had Mr. Hackbirn’s word for it that Mr. James was from the FBI. The bus arrived, and I found myself making the long trip to West LA, and FBI headquarters.

I was scared as I paced the foyer, and I realized the thing that scared me the most was that I had no way of knowing if Quickline truly existed and if it really did work for the US. What if it was really an enemy operation?

Oh, was I naive then. That should have been the least of my fears. Of course, I had never laid my life on the line before, and risking my neck didn’t sound that bad in theory. I never really believed that I had no choice in the matter either. I’m not sure I do even now.

A buzzer sounded above the rattle of the young woman typing. She looked up at me.

“Go on back.”

The office was well appointed and comfortable. A woman about my mother’s age sat behind the desk and smiled professionally.

“May I help you?”

I took a deep breath and began the story I’d rehearsed on the bus.

“I’m a writer, doing a story on espionage in the US, and I’ve stumbled across something. I can’t reveal my sources. Is there a spy operation working for our government called Operation Quickline?”

The name phased her for a moment. “Not necessarily.”

“Look. I need to know.”

“You don’t necessarily have the right to know. Can you tell me why this is so important?”

“If I could tell you that, I wouldn’t be needing to ask you!” I felt my voice go shrill and took a deep breath to steady myself.

I don’t know if the woman guessed what was on my mind, or if God merely intervened and made her do something she wouldn’t have normally. I didn’t care then, and I don’t now.

“I can’t really say yes or no,” she said softly. “You should forget you ever heard the name. But I wouldn’t worry about Quickline being a threat to national security.”

“Thank you.”

I left the office feeling somewhat reassured. On a lark, I went to find Henry James’ office. It was there. The secretary seemed vaguely familiar, with brown hair, clipped into a barrette. She must have been expecting me because she sent me right into the inner office.

Henry James was there, too.

“Quite a shock, isn’t it?” he said smiling with paternal warmth.

“Yeah. I don’t know what to say.”

“Well, you’re probably feeling angry, and a little mixed up. Don’t worry. We all do. Any questions?”

“Not right now, Mr. James.”

“Please, call me Henry. We’re going to be seeing a lot of each other. I’d like to be friends.”

I smiled rather weakly at him.

“Sure.” Fumbling for something to say, I looked at him. There was something reassuring about him. “Uh, you can call me Lisa.”

“Thank you, Lisa.”

There was another awkward pause.

“I’d better get back,” I said finally.

“Before you go, Lisa, I’d better say something.”

“Yes, sir?”

“Operation Quickline is one of the most successful spying operations that the U.S. has. It is successful because it is so secret. Even my secretary doesn’t know it exists. Its continued success depends on your ability to maintain its secrecy. Lisa, absolutely no one can know about it except you, Sid and myself.”

“Not even my family?”

“Not even your family.”

“I’ve never held anything back from my family before. Well, I haven’t told them where I’m living right now. I haven’t gotten around to it. But I will.”

“That doesn’t matter. Quickline does, for their safety as well as yours.”

“I suppose. Is it really as deadly as Mr. Hackbirn says?”

“The risk is always there. That’s why you can’t tell your family, Lisa. No one must know about this but you and Sid.”

“Are there any restrictions on friends? I’m meeting some very nice people at church.”

“That’s fine. Just be careful, and don’t let them get too close. If you need support, I’m always here, and you’ve got Sid.”

I had to chuckle. “I don’t know if I’d trust him that way.”

Henry chuckled, too. “Maybe, maybe not. Lisa, he’s a very lonely man. He uses Quickline as an excuse not to reach out. Your life may have been turned upside down today, but so has his. The sad part is, he doesn’t even know it yet.”

“I guess.” I got up. “I’d better get back to the house.”

“Fine. See you around.”

“Sure, Henry.”

I left his office deep in thought.

“Excuse me,” said the secretary. “Have we met before?”

I looked at her again and flushed pure vermillion.

“Oh, my god,” I groaned. “The clothes.”

“What? Oh!” She recognized me and laughed. “You’re Sid Hackbirn’s secretary. You didn’t recognize me with my clothes on, did you?”

“I’m sorry.”

“Boy, you sure put Sid off his paces.”

I turned to her. “I did?”

“Yeah. He couldn’t believe you’d never seen a naked man before. He kept saying you were a genuine innocent.”

“Oh.” I paused. “I hope I didn’t mess things up too much.”

She purred. “You can’t mess up Sid that badly.”

“Oh.”

She held out her hand. “I’m Angelique Carter.”

“Lisa Wycherly.” We shook. “It was nice meeting you… Uh, again.”

She laughed. “Yeah. Again. To many more meetings. With our clothes on.”

I laughed also. “Right.”

I hurried out. Once on the street, I paused. No one seemed to be following me. I decided to test it. I walked up to Westwood and went into the first burger place I found. I knew lunch would be waiting for me at the house, but I’d had one heck of a morning. I deserved a real meal for a change. I got a double chili burger with fries, cole slaw, onion rings, a chocolate milkshake and a piece of cheesecake for dessert. [Oh, Lisa! – SEH]

I suppose I should have been more upset. Mr. Hackbirn had radically changed my life without doing me the courtesy of asking me. Well, he had tried to warn me, and he did give me a chance to back out.

At first, I was too numb from the shock to protest. As the shock wore off, I became caught up in the romance of being a spy. The danger seemed very unreal to me. Later, when I realized just how real the risks were, I was too caught up in other problems to feel much outrage at my fate, and I’m not the type to spend much time brooding about things I can’t change, anyway.

It was almost two when I got back to the house. Mr. Hackbirn was waiting for me in the living room.

“Well?” he asked.

“I guess I’m in,” I replied, brightly.

“That goes without saying. Any questions?”

I thought. “Why me? Why even have a secretary?”

“As I said before, you are a woman who sticks to her standards, even when it’s hard not to. That takes a lot of strength. When I told you I needed someone with guts, I meant it.”

“That’s not very reassuring.” I sank onto the couch.

“No, it isn’t.” He sighed as he sat in the easy chair. “Ours is a very dangerous business, I’m afraid. Anyway, as to why a secretary, that was my idea. I’ve always wanted someone who could handle those mundane little trivialities of life that are so time-consuming and dull, yet must be done. Because of the nature of my business, any secretary I’d hire had to have a security clearance. The people upline didn’t want any more people involved than necessary, so they put the krabbatz on that.”

“What made them give in?”

“Business got good. I’m not physically capable of making all the drops and pick ups they want made. So when they said they were going to give me an associate, I said I wanted a secretary. They, in turn, replied they didn’t have one and if I wanted one that badly, I could recruit the person myself. It’s policy to keep recruits under twenty-four-hour surveillance, which is why you’re living here.”

“And why you followed me to church that Sunday. And why you wouldn’t let me out of the house.”

“That was because you ditched your tail that Friday you went shopping.”

“You mean he was part of the surveillance?”

“Yes. They caught up with you at the church because of the list I had you give me. However, since you kept ditching them, I couldn’t keep you under surveillance, that’s why I kept you in.”

“Except for last Tuesday. Was that also surveillance?”

Mr. Hackbirn winced. “No. I was glad you ditched him. I wasn’t supposed to send you. You weren’t cleared yet, nor did you have any training.”

“You mean he really was a bad guy.”

“Yep. You handled it well, though.”

“Thanks.” Something else occurred to me. “I wasn’t followed to the FBI offices. Does this mean no more surveillance?”

“You’re on your own.”

“So I suppose I could move now if I wanted to.”

He made a face. “You could. I’d rather you stayed. It is convenient.”

“There’s that. I’ll have to think about it.” I leaned forward. “Tell me about Quickline.”

“We mostly pass information around, hence the name. However, we occasionally take real packages and sometimes act as a safe house.”

“We don’t do any of the actual spying?” Believe it or not, I actually felt disappointed.

“It depends on what you call actual spying. We do sometimes have to break into places to get things, and sometimes we handle investigations. But we are a domestic operation. Only under very rare circumstances will we do any foreign work.”

“How long have you been doing this?”

“I started in the army when I got drafted. Intelligence first got me in boot camp and kept me undercover. After my discharge, I was transferred to Quickline.”

“So what now? I assume you’ve got me in the self-defense class because of this.”

“Right.” His smile turned ominous. “Tomorrow your real training starts.”

I swallowed. “Oh dear.”

“By the way, Amalgamated Paper Company will be augmenting your salary from now on.”

“So that’s what those checks were.”

“Precisely. And you’ll be getting them, too.”

“You mean I get a raise?”

“It’s a promotion. You are now my associate.”

I grinned. “Not bad for two weeks work.”

“To all outward appearances, you are still my secretary, and you’ll still be performing all the same functions.”

“I was afraid of that.”

Mr. Hackbirn laughed. “Don’t worry. I’m still paying for the mundane trivialities.”

“You don’t have to.”

“That is my decision, and I will continue to pay.”

“Thanks. I appreciate it.”

We looked at each other. I was filled with that warm cozy after the storm feeling, the kind when you know everything is going to work out just fine. The kind when you know you’ve just found a very good friend.

How to cook, cooking for beginners, cooking without recipes

Organizing Your Kitchen

kitchen organization, cooking, how to cookIt has been a while since I’ve done a Dark Side of the Fridge (how to cook) post. But I’m working on a whole new scheme to post regularly and…

I’ve got my fingers crossed, too.

In any case, if we are going to talk about learning to cook, rather than simply read recipes, then we’ve got to think about the space in which we do it. Okay, even if we mostly prepare recipes, how our kitchens are organized will have a massive impact on how easily things get done. Which if we’re not wild about cooking, in the first place, is not generally something we want to be thinking about, let alone spending money on.

But, but, but. A reasonably well-organized kitchen can make it a lot easier to get in and get out before you go nuts or die of hunger. Seriously. Some folks come to this conclusion quite naturally. Some folks ain’t me. I have to think about these things, such as realizing the reason the damn circuit breaker keeps blowing in the mornings is because the toaster oven and the coffee maker are on the same circuit and both draw a lot of power.

Now, the thing the so-called experts recommend is to look at your kitchen layout and imagine the Food Prep Triangle. That’s the triangle made by your fridge (where most of your food is kept), your sink, and your stove. You want to line things up so that they’re included in this magic triangle to reduce steps. Sounds really nice and can help get you started thinking about how you move in your kitchen. But it doesn’t always take into account how kitchens are really laid out. Or that maybe it makes more sense for your pantry items to be in the pantry, which is just outside of your kitchen. Or that, as the diagram of my kitchen shows, the stove needs to be in the far corner because there are a bunch of kitchen cabinets in positions 1 through 6 and the port for the gas line is in that far corner. Or that directly across the kitchen from the door to the dining room is the door to the utility room and pantry and the back door to the house.

Movement in my kitchen is profoundly affected by that back door because we have to go through the kitchen to let the dogs out, get the laundry hung out on the line, hang out in the back yard, things like that.

The fridge is in the opposite corner because there’s nowhere else to put it.

That being said, even with the supposedly bad layout, my kitchen is pretty darned efficient. Why? I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about where and when I use things and putting the appropriate tools and/or dishes near those locations. For example, I have a stand-up mixer which I keep on my counter at position 5. All my baking ingredients are in the cupboard underneath. My pots and pans are on the baker’s rack next to the stove. My dinner dishes are in the top cupboard at position 1, where I can grab them and head straight to the dining room, where I will use them.

Not everything is perfectly placed. I had to put the toaster oven on a different circuit and that ended up being on the counter at position 1 because the coffee maker, at position 4, is next to where the water for it is. But most things are where I can get them easily. Knives in blocks on the counter at position 6, close to the fridge, where the veggies I will chop are. I also have my cutting boards next to my knives. Wooden spoons and whisks are in a jar on the baker’s rack, next to the stove where I will use them to stir soups and sauces. The microwave is next to the fridge, so I can pull something out and heat it quickly.

So, when you have an off day and a lot of extra time, look at your kitchen and ask  yourself if the tools you use all the time are out next to where you use them. Ask whether the ingredients you use are stored near the place where they are prepped. Can you shift something around on your counters so that you can get to it when you need it, rather than having to shuffle through a drawer or two first?

These may seem like minor things, but making your kitchen as efficient as possible does make it a lot easier to get the cooking done. I promise.