It’s Launch Day for Death of the City Marshal!

Cover art fpr the historical mystery Novel Death of the City Marshal by Anne Louise Bannon, the second in the Old Los Angeles series

Think I’m a little excited? This is the second in the Old Los Angeles series. The first is Death of the Zanjero.

In Death of the City Marshal, Maddie Wilcox gets drawn into trying to find out who really killed Marshal William Warren. Okay, I massaged the history a touch. Marshal William Warren was L.A.’s first official police chief. He was also the first officer to be killed in the line of duty. I kid you not, he was shot by his own deputy Joseph Dye in a fight over the bounty on a prostitute.

Even though in real life, Warren did die of his wound from the gun battle, I did need a mystery, so in the book (it is fiction), Warren is actually killed by someone else. But I really worked hard to get all the facts straight surrounding the gun battle and the events of the next few days.

The book is available through Barnes and Noble, Apple, Google Books, Smashwords, Amazon, and Kobo.

Anthology Fun with Alison McMahan

This is kind of a fun post for me since my guest is one of the authors whose short story is in the new anthology, Fatally Haunted, from the Sisters in Crime/Los Angeles chapter. I happen to be the chapter president at the moment. Fatally Haunted was officially released just yesterday and we’re really excited about it. And a big thank you to Alison McMahan, who wrote the story King Hanuman, for sharing the experiences that led her to write her story.

Cover art for the mystery anthology Fatally Haunted, short stories of revenge and obsession in Los Angeles, put out by the Los Angeles Chapter of Sisters in Crime

In 2004 I made the first of several trips to Cambodia to produce a train-the-trainer film for an NGO. We filmed in a remote jungle village called Veal Thom, carved out of the jungle by landmine survivors. As Chhem Sip, a Khmer-American lawyer and social worker said to us, “they created this village with their bare hands and wooden limbs.”

Gradually we understood something even more special about Veal Thom: it was half made up of people connected to the former Lon Nol government, and half former Khmer Rouge. In other words, the two groups that had been killing each other for the previous several decades had set their enmities aside. Rather than fight each other, they work together to eradicate and survive the landmines (placed by every party involved in the war) that made them amputees.

In addition to the educational film we’d been hired to make, we made our own documentary that highlights their challenges and their struggles toward economic, emotional, and psychological recovery: Bare Hands and Wooden Limbs, narrated by Sam Waterston, now available on Amazon. https://barehandswoodenlimbs.com/

It took me years to complete the documentary, but finally Veal Thom’s example of how to heal and reconcile was out there for all the world to see.

I moved out of film production and wrote screenplays and fiction. I stayed friends with Chhem Sip, who had returned to the US to raise his family. Every time I visited him I learned a little more about the Khmer-American communities in Rhode Island, Florida, and Long Beach, CA.

I was born in Los Angeles. My maternal great-grandfather brought his family from Missouri in a covered wagon and settled in Long Beach in 1908. I’d toured the Queen Mary with my tenth grade class. Now I was learning about things that had happened in Long Beach after I’d moved away.

The Khmer-American community in Long Beach inspired me. Some built Buddhist temples and opened Cambodian restaurants and grocery stores. Some brought their guerilla savvy with them and formed gangs that competed with the already established gangs.

I wanted to write about someone who, like Chhem, who had experienced the war in Cambodia as a child, the forced labor and refugee camps as a teenager, then somehow made it to America. Someone, who, like Chhem, wants to give back but also has to work through her own war trauma. But unlike Chhem, my hero would have to do that emotional work in a Long Beach ripped apart by gang wars. A devout Buddhist who carries a gun.

That’s how Thavary Keo was born. The theme of FATALLY HAUNTED pushed me to clarify my thoughts, do more research, get a clearer picture of Thavary. My story, “King Hanuman,” is test, to see if I can pull it off, to see if readers want more before I commit to a series. I’m very grateful to the editors for the opportunity.

You can pick up your own copy of Fatally Haunted by going to our chapter’s website and clicking through to the Anthology page.

Fugue in a Minor Key is Now a Book

book cover for mystery serial Fugue in a Minor Key, #4 in the Operaition Quickline series

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading the serial version of Fugue in a Minor Key. If you missed out on some of the earlier episodes, or if you really just liked it a lot, you can buy it as a book.

Coming up next in this space is the beginning of White House Rhapsody, the popular romantic fiction blog. I’m reprising Book One to celebrate moving the blog to my site. I’ll be interspersing sections of that story with other Operation Quickline stories.

Chapter Twelve

February 25 – 27, 1984

Pull quote: I didn’t think it was possible to get any colder. From Fugue in a Minor Key, a cozy spy novel

The next day, Sid left early to pick up Nick at the airport. When the two got home, it was clear Nick had picked up on the tension Sid and I were both still feeling from the day before. So, I had Sid join me in the living room and we told him what had happened to Darby. Nick seemed reasonably sympathetic but mostly unconcerned. Then Sid explained that if anyone did anything similar to Nick…

“I got it!” Nick groaned. “I’ll be sure to tell you.”

“Nick, this is important,” Sid growled.

“What is it with you grown-ups?” Nick shot back. “Every time some kid comes into the emergency room after doing something stupid, my mom gets out the big lecture about wearing my bike helmet and looking both ways before going into the street. Sheesh! I’m not stupid.”

I bit back my laughter, as did Sid. Neither of us looked at each other.

“No, you’re not,” said Sid, after swallowing. “But kids your age can get careless, which is how they end up in the emergency room. Besides, Darby’s parents and Lisa and I, we really care about him, and we thought we were watching for what happened to him. But it got by all of us. And we don’t want that to happen to you. So, we want to be extra sure that you know that if someone threatens us or your mom or somebody you care about to buy your silence, they can’t really hurt us. Or if someone tells you no one will believe you, it’s not true. We will believe you. The bottom line is that no one, but no one, should touch you sexually unless you want them to. Nor should you touch anyone else that way.”

Nick sighed deeply.

I smiled. “We’re only lecturing because we care.”

“I know,” he said, rolling his eyes.

We let the matter rest, and spent the rest of the day hanging out at the mall. Sid was clearly still feeling the effects of the day before, and instead of going out as he usually did on Saturday nights, he went to dinner with George, Nick and me. I got the feeling George wasn’t too thrilled, but he refused to say so. [Are you kidding? He was pissed to hell. – SEH]

Sunday, we went to the La Brea Tar Pits, which was a lot of fun, then I drove Sid and Nick to the airport since Sid had decided he wanted to talk to Rachel in person. He and Nick had obviously found some time alone to come to terms. I waited at the gate with them until they called the flight. Nick bounced up.

“Come on, Dad,” he said, grabbing his overnight bag. “That’s us.

I looked at Sid, who shrugged. I was not going to hear what happened until the next morning. I still don’t know what time Sid got home, but he apparently decided to make up for not going out Saturday night.

The next morning, we didn’t say much during our morning run, which we seldom do. Nor did we talk during breakfast. We both read the newspaper, silently handing off the different sections in turn. As it happens, neither of us are real communicative first thing in the morning.

The next step was a quick conference on what needed to be done that day in Sid’s office, with a look at upcoming deadlines and such. Life was pretty much back to normal.

“I’m just curious,” I said, shifting in the chair in front of Sid’s desk. “What happened with Rachel yesterday?”

Sid shrugged. “The lawyers should be working it out as we speak.” He looked at me with an odd frown. “I am acknowledging Nick, so you got what you wanted there.”

“I was more worried about Nick.”

“I know.” He sighed. “I just don’t entirely trust Rachel. I mean, I can tell that she genuinely loves Nick and he loves her, as he should. But, at the same time, I get the feeling that she sees him as an inconvenient reality. He’s all right to have around if someone else is doing most of the work and she can just do whatever she wants.”

“That’s the way she’s always had it until her mom died,” I pointed out.

“That’s the way she’s had it her entire life, I’d bet.” Sid shook off the thought. “In any case, I thought I’d better make it very clear that she can’t just foist Nick off on me whenever it’s not convenient to have him around. If we have to go on an investigation for an extended period of time, I don’t want Nick left hanging in the wind.”

“No, we don’t want that.”

“At the same time, I want to be sure that Nick gets the care he needs and that will probably mean more time with us. Which is a good thing.” He made an odd face. “It’s just trying to find a balance is all.”

I sighed and rolled my eyes. “Oh, that’s all.”

“So, that’s why the lawyers are involved. Got to get everything in writing and ironclad.”

“Yeah. That makes sense. I guess I was more curious about Nick calling you Dad yesterday.”

Sid chuckled. “Yeah, that. It was Nick’s idea. He told me that he didn’t want another parent any more than I wanted a kid.”

“Oh, dear,” I said.

“That helped, actually.” Sid looked a little smug. “As Nick pointed out, it wasn’t anything personal. It’s just the way things happened, so we might as well just deal with it. And if I was going to get all bossy and lecture him like a parent, then he should call me Dad.”

I laughed. “Okay. How are you feeling about that?”

Sid shrugged. “It was probably inevitable. And it did give me some significant leverage with Rachel.”

If there was anything to be said beyond that, it didn’t get said. At that moment, the Quickline phone rang. Sid picked it up almost immediately, listened, then gave the receiver code, then listened for some time more.

“Alright,” he finally said, scrambling for a pen and paper. “Yeah. Got it.”

He hung up.

“Well?” I asked.

“We’re not out of it.”

“What?” I yelped. “We can’t make another buy. That pegs us as agents.”

“We’re not,” Sid said. “We’re doing an evidence swap. They’re moving in on Tony and the rest of the gang tonight.”

An evidence swap was essentially a break-in where we got the more sensitive evidence out of wherever the Feds were expected to raid and substituted less sensitive evidence.

“Whew,” I said. “That’s no big deal.”

“Except that we don’t know whether we’re swapping the goods”

I looked at Sid. “I don’t understand.”

“According to some of the agents who have been keeping Wright and Tony under surveillance, they seem to be getting ready to bolt. They’ve got someone doing the swap on Wright’s office, but Tony’s already stashed his share of the goods somewhere or he’s keeping them on him.”

“That is so totally not going to be easy.”

“And they don’t know which conveyance Tony’s going to use tonight. He apparently has a plane and a boat. We’re staking out the boat. If Tony comes our way, then we get on board, give it a quick sweep, plant the goods, and get the heck off. We’ll be monitored, mostly to keep us out of everyone’s way.”

“What about Wright?”

Sid shrugged. “Don’t know. With that other team doing the swap on his office, I’m assuming someone else is watching him. We, apparently, don’t have need to know on that one.”

I got up and started pacing. “I do not want to think about all the ways this could go bad.”

“Nor do I,” grumbled Sid. “Not a lot we can do about it, though. And it could be worse.”

It could have been a lot worse, I had to concede.

Henry came by late that afternoon with extra small and strong tracking radios and to help strategize, not that there was much strategy to consider.

“I don’t understand how they expect us to come out on top if they don’t tell us anything,” I complained as Sid and I ate dinner with Henry.

“I wouldn’t worry about it too much, Lisa,” Henry said. “There’s almost always someone at the top keeping an eye on all the chess pieces.”

“Any news on that leak in your office?’ Sid asked, more casually than he felt.

“None that anyone is going to share with me,” Henry said glumly. “They’ve apparently decided that it’s someone close to me and they don’t want me acting funny around him.”

“You’re kidding,” said Sid.

“If only I were.” Henry shook his head and sighed. “I’ve been pretty much shut down for the last week or two. Haven’t heard a word about what you two have been up to, except what you’ve told me.”

I frowned. “But wouldn’t knowing who they’re suspicious of make it easier for you to dig up the proof on this person?”

“In most cases, yes,” Henry said. “But my guess is that it’s someone with an undercover persona and they don’t want to risk blowing his cover until they’re sure.”

“They don’t suspect us, do they?” I asked.

Both Sid and Henry laughed.

“No, Lisa,” Henry said. “You guys are too busy. If they suspected you, you’d have noticed by now.”

“Then do they suspect you?” I asked, feeling very afraid all of a sudden.

“He wouldn’t be monitoring us if they did,” said Sid, with a glance at Henry.

Henry chuckled. “I wouldn’t have told you as much as I have if I were a suspect.”

We finished dinner talking about other things, like the current season at the L.A. Philharmonic, some movies we’d recently seen and other stuff like that. Still, that ugly thought about Henry kept nagging at me.

Sid and I got into our break-in clothes and then we took my truck to Marina Del Rey, where Tony’s boat was. Henry was behind us somewhere. We would check the monitoring equipment closer to the harbor. At a stoplight, I got out my bug finder and checked to be sure no one was transmitting from my truck. Sid had a funny look on his face.

“What’s that about?” he asked.

“Just wanted to be sure no one is listening in at the moment,” I said.

“Why?”

The light changed to green and I put the truck in gear.

“I’m bugged about Henry,” I said, trying not to cry. “What if he is the leak?”

“I’d say it’s pretty darned unlikely.” Sid gazed forward. I could tell he was wondering, just like I was.

“I know he’s our friend,” I continued. “But that doesn’t mean he hasn’t done something terrible.”

“I know.” Sid shook his head as if trying to rid it of the thought. “I’ve known Henry a lot of years and he’s the last person I want to suspect. But it’s always possible. There are all kinds of reasons why someone goes bad in this business.” He sighed. “That being said, I don’t think he’s the leak. Usually, there’s some sign or other. If Henry were up to something, he’d be closing himself off to us, not being as open as he is. Not to mention the fact that we would have been warned off him in some way.”

I shuddered. “I sure hope not.”

“Lisa-pet, I know how hard it is to trust anybody in our business. It’s the nature of the beast. But we can’t live that way. It’s too crazy-making. Yes, I’m keeping an eye out, but I have a hard time believing that Henry James is selling us out.”

I nodded. Sid was right and I certainly had no good reason to doubt him, as he’d been in the business for over ten years by that point. I’d only been in for a year and maybe a half at that point. And I really hated suspecting Henry. He’d been a rock for me when I really needed him.

Sid patted my knee, trying to be reassuring. I appreciated it but didn’t really say anything more. We had a job to focus on and I had only so much mental space for paranoia. Well, it was possible we had a job. We wouldn’t know what was going to happen until it did. Which did not help my paranoia one little bit.

I parked the truck in the marina lot at the far end from any buildings and in the dark. A heavy drizzle left tiny drops lit by the marina lights on my windshield. The drops began getting heavier.

“Was rain in the forecast?” Sid grumbled.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I didn’t watch the news last night.”

He fiddled with his earpiece and I fiddled with mine.

“This is Big Red,” Sid announced to whomever. “We are on the air.”

“We got you, Big Red,” said a voice in my ear. It sounded like Henry’s. “Is Little Red there?”

“Little Red checking in,” I said.

“Red Four, this is Base Unit One, do you copy?” Another voice, backed by a lot of static, broke in.

“Base Unit One, I copy,” said Henry’s voice. “Red team is in place.”

“Red Team, subject is in motion.”

“Copy that, Base Unit One,” said Sid.

I glanced over at him, feeling somewhat heartened that Tony appeared to be on the move. There was no guarantee that he would leave that evening. He could have waited weeks, even months and that would mean endless nights, parked in the marina lot waiting for him.

“So, what do we have on the docket for tomorrow?” Sid asked, settling into the seat.

I shrugged. “I don’t remember, offhand. But we probably need to get some queries out to get some more work in. And I think there was something on cars that someone okayed. I don’t have the schedule with me.”

Sid glanced over at me. My memory for the status of our various writing projects was usually pretty good. But I just wasn’t up to thinking about it at that moment.

“You’re right about those queries,” Sid said. “Why don’t we do a brainstorming session?”

It was as good a way to pass the time as any, so we did. Until Base Unit One broke into our ears.

“Red Team, stand down. Subject is heading to the airport.”

Sid and I looked at each other and smiled. Tony was not going to be our problem that night and we did not mind that at all.

“We copy that, Base Unit One,” said Sid. “Subject heading to the airport. We are standing down.”

I stretched and grinned. We were not technically released but we were close. It was not to be.

“Red Team,” the Base Unit called. “Subject has changed direction and is now heading toward the marina.”

Actually, the subject changed directions a few more times after that, probably trying to ditch whatever tail he thought he had. He hadn’t figured out that he had some sort of tracking device on him.

“Red Team, go ahead and move in,” Base Unit One finally said. “We are not going to wait for the subject to make up his mind.”

Sid and I glanced at each other and swallowed. That meant we were going to have to search the boat with no idea of how much time we had to get it done, drop the lesser evidence and get off. We got out of the truck and sauntered down toward the docks as if we belonged there. We did have fake FBI ID cards, but no one challenged us.

We got to the right slip in record time. Tony’s boat was one of the smaller ones, but still big enough to make it to Catalina Island. Sid and I slid on our all over ski masks, zipped up our black sweatshirts and got our gloves on. We started our search from the top of the deck, went through the pilot’s area, and found nothing. Everything was wet from the rain, but fortunately, it had stopped for the time being, so we weren’t wet.

Then we went below to the hold area. It was a small living space with two seats along the sides of the boat. Forward, underneath the pilot’s area and into the nose of the boat was a small galley and in the back was a closet. Sid pulled up the long seats while I searched the galley. The place could have been riddled with microdots and we’d have never seen them, but you can’t really do anything about that.

“Red Team, this is Base Unit One. Subject is on the marina now. Do you copy?”

My heart froze and Sid and I looked at each other.

“Copy,” said Sid.

I held my hands out. Sid pointed at the closet. It was actually a tiny bathroom, but we managed to squeeze ourselves into it. Soon, we heard footsteps above us as two people got onto the boat. We could hear two voices arguing about something, one of which stuttered. That had to be Tony. The stuttering got louder as his steps came down below.

“…Heading N-n-north,” he was saying. “And that’s f-f-f-final!”

The steps retreated up top and soon we heard the motor start up. It was too dark to see anything, but I heard Sid cussing under his breath and I could just imagine the look of dismay on his face. My face probably looked the same way. It wasn’t a disaster. With the Coast Guard presumably on the lookout for the boat and the tracking devices aboard, it would only be a matter of time before they picked us up and figured out we were on the same side.

Until our communications died. There was a great crashing of static in our ears, then dead silence. Sid pulled the earpiece from his ear and shone a light on it from his pocket flashlight. He signaled me to listen from my piece, then spoke directly into the body mike he had on. I shook my head.

“Everything’s working,” he said. “They must have a signal jammer turned on.”

“On a night like tonight?” I groaned. “That’s suicide.”

“Only another reason to get off this boat as soon as we can.”

We slid out of the closet. The boat rocked as it left the harbor. I swallowed, but as the boat turned, we could see the lights of the shoreline as it passed. For whatever reason, Tony was hugging the coastline. Actually, it made sense. If he was jamming signals, he wouldn’t be able to use his radar to see where he was, not to mention being able to avoid the Coast Guard, who were more likely further out. Sid spotted something on one of the row seats and grabbed it, sliding it under his sweatshirt.

We pulled our guns, then carefully poked our heads up and looked at the helm. Tony stood next to a young man steering the boat. Tony had night vision binoculars and was busy scanning the waters to the front and sides. The younger man concentrated on what was ahead. The water was very choppy and the boat was not moving very quickly. Fortunately, it also rode fairly low to the water surface. The roar of the boat’s engine filled my ears and made it pretty easy to sneak around without attracting attention.

I found the life raft first. Sid nodded, his gun on the two men, as I got it roped, then inflated it. I had the raft roped fore and aft to the boat we were on, so Sid and I could get on without getting too much water in the raft. It wasn’t easy, but we managed it before Tony noticed. As we pushed off, we heard a yell, then the ping of gunshots. But the boat was moving too quickly and the current was already pulling us toward the beach. Sid and I started paddling for all we were worth.

It was freezing cold, miserable work. We were about a mile out from the shore, maybe less, but the current alternated between pulling in closer and pulling us out. Every minute or so, Sid would try to get a signal out. It only took four tries, and I can tell you, I was ecstatic to hear Henry’s voice in my ear.

“Big Red, Little Red, we copy,” he told us through the static. “We thought we’d lost you.”

“We’re on a life raft, rowing for shore,” Sid hollered. “We’re about a half-, three-quarter-miles out.”

“We’ve got you, Big Red, Little Red,” Base Unit One cut in. “You’re a quarter-mile north of the Santa Monica Pier. Can you see it?”

I looked to my right and saw the lights. “Yes, Base Unit One. Thanks.”

Gasping, Sid dug in with his paddle. “Subject boat is heading north, hugging the coastline. They’re moving slowly, and they have night vision binoculars.”

“Copy that.”

Gasping, we kept paddling. It felt like my arms were going to give out, but paddling was warmer than resting.

“Doing okay?” Sid gasped, as the shore inched nearer.

“I can make it. You?”

“I’m okay.”

“Big Red, Little Red, this is Red Four,” came Henry’s voice. “I have eyes on you.”

That was the best news I’d heard in some time.

We had just broken the wave line when I paused to flex my fingers. A second later, a wave caught us and flipped the raft. I didn’t think it was possible to get any colder as the wave slammed me into the sand, then threw me up to the surface. Choking, I somehow got oriented, spat out some salt water, then headed for the shore. A smaller wave helped me along and I was able to get to my feet before it pulled me back out.

I couldn’t see Sid anywhere. Panicked, I turned back toward the ocean. I was breathing so hard and coughing, I could barely stand up straight. But the sound of coughing several feet to my left energized me like nothing else. I ran in that direction as Sid ran toward me.

We fell into each other’s arms, gasping and coughing.

“I thought I’d lost you,” I gasped.

“I thought I lost you.”

He coughed, then suddenly we were kissing like we had never kissed before. We only broke apart when Henry ran up.

“There you two are!” he hollered over the surf.

He plopped warm, dry blankets over our shoulders, then all but dragged us up the sand to where his car was parked. We got into the back seat, while Henry got the engine on and the heater going. He passed back a Thermos of hot coffee. I hate coffee, but that night that hot liquid tasted better than anything I had ever tasted before.

Henry drove us straight to a covert medical facility, where doctors were waiting with heating pads and clean, dry scrubs. They put oxygen masks on us with heated air, then IV drips of warm saline. It took a bit, but we both finally stopped shaking and began to feel normal.

I fell asleep somewhere in there. When I awoke, shortly after six a.m., Sid was asleep, as well. The nurse let me go to the bathroom after taking my temperature yet again. When I got back, Henry and Sid were chatting in the curtained cubicle. It sounded like Henry was teasing Sid about something because Sid chuckled.

“I told you it was only of time,” he told Henry.

“What’s only a matter of time,” I said, parting the curtain.

Henry flushed even redder and Sid had the grace to smile at me fondly.

“Oh, Henry just thinks he has one on me,” Sid said. “Ready to go?”

The doctor told us to take it easy for a couple days. But Sid made a point of driving me to the marina to get my truck before someone had it towed.

There was good news/bad news when we got back. The good news was that the Coast Guard had picked up Tony and the younger man, who turned out to be his son. They’d also caught Wright trying to pull evidence from his office. So, the defense plant ring was completely shut down. Both Tony and Wright ratted out everyone they could. The only person they couldn’t say anything about was the leak from the FBI. As we’d guessed, this person was providing information on raids, plus checking fingerprints for federal agents and things like that. And Wright and Tony couldn’t tell the Feds who that leak was because they didn’t know. They didn’t even have a description.

And that proved to be very bad news, indeed. We spent into that coming summer chasing down leads and trying not to tell Henry anything. We’d been ordered not to and Henry said he didn’t want to know. I wish we had, though. Things ended up getting very messy, but that’s another story.

Mr. Jefferson, the man who was abusing Darby, saved everyone a lot of grief by pleading guilty and got a lot of jail time. I don’t know what happened to his family. I did try to do some research, but they went deep underground, apparently, and while I could have pressed it, I decided not to. Darby and his family got lots of counseling, which helped, but the scars would be there forever. Darby does come over every other weekend or so, and he, Frank, and Sid play music for hours together.

Nick is a regular feature. He comes almost every weekend and he and Sid are getting really close. Life went back to normal, not that there is anything normal about life around here. Which, as I think about it, is how I like it.

Essays, general essay

Death of the City Marshal is Coming Soon!

I am seriously excited to announce my May release, Death of the City Marshal. It’s the second in the Old Los Angeles series, featuring Maddie Wilcox.

City Marshal is based on the real shooting of City Marshal William Warren by his deputy Joseph Dye. At least, that part is real. I may have massaged the actual history just a bit to get a story out of it.

It’s October, 1870, and once again, violence erupts on the streets of Los Angeles. City Marshal William Warren gets into a gunfight with his deputy Joseph Dye, and is severely wounded. Fortunately, winemaker and physician Maddie Wilcox is on the scene to take care of the marshal. But the next day, she finds that the marshal has been smothered in his bed. The morning after the marshal’s death, red paint is splashed all over the front porch of his home, and a list of his sins posted on the front. The list of people with grievances against the fiery-tempered marshal is long. But then another prominent citizen has his sins posted and house front splattered. Maddie takes an interest in the vandalism in the hopes of finding Marshal Warren’s killer. But she soon finds out that she is up against a killer driven by a profound longing, and who is prepared to do the worst to keep that most basic of human desires: a home.

And now, here it is, the cover for Death of a City Marshal.

You can find out more about the novel and pre-order it on its landing page.

Chapter Eleven

February 24, 1984

Pull Quote: "Lisa, you'd find a way to feel sorry for Adolf Hitler." From cozy spy novel Fugue in a Minor Key

I was perfectly happy to be out of the investigation. It was a little frustrating that I was not going to know how things eventually fell out. Then again, there had been plenty of times when I did not “need to know,” and then did, and I would have been happier not knowing.

In any case, I was in a much better mood that morning. I sent Mae off, reassuring her that we would get to the bottom of what was bothering Darby. Then I went to my office and caught up on work, rode herd on Sid to get his work done, then got Darby focused on school work. In all, it turned out to be a particularly productive morning. So productive that Sid and Darby decided to work on music that afternoon.

I still had one project going when three o’clock arrived and it was time for music.

“You guys go on,” I said. “I’ve just got some edits to do.”

“Come on, Aunt Lisa,” Darby said.

“You may as well join us,” Sid said with a chuckle. “You might learn something.”

“Please?” Darby asked.

I sighed and followed them into the library. They got busy at the piano and I got out my knitting. But those last few edits kept niggling at my brain, and after a bit, I realized Sid and Darby were so focused, they’d never know I was gone. So, I snuck out and went back to work.

Sometime later, Darby began screaming. I hurried to the office door in time to see Darby bolting for his room. I started after him, but Sid pulled me back. Sid’s face was ashen and he was trembling slightly.

“What’s going on?” I demanded.

“I think I know what’s going on with Darby.” Sid swallowed and faded back into the library.

“What?” I followed him.

Sid sank onto the piano bench. “He’s being abused.”

“How?”

“Sexually abused.” Sid put his hand to his mouth. “And probably by a man he once trusted.”

I sank onto a chair, trying to make sense of what Sid was saying.

“Neil?”

Sid shook his head. “He’s not afraid of Neil. But he has been afraid to be alone with me. That night I was alone with the boys, Darby spent the entire time in his room.”

“But he knows you would never hurt him,” I said.

“Maybe he doesn’t.” Sid shuddered. “We were working on his scales, and I put my hand on his back. He snapped at me not to touch him, then he noticed that you weren’t there and that’s when he came unglued. If he originally trusted the person abusing him, I can see where what I did would scare the snot out of him.”

“Yeah. It would.” I got up, my legs shaking as I did. “I’d better go talk to him.”

“Yeah.” Sid swallowed again, then looked at me. “Would you make sure he knows I’m not mad at him?”

I smiled weakly at Sid. “Yeah. I will. Thanks.”

At the door to Darby’s room, I took a deep breath, then knocked and went in. Darby was sitting on his bed, tears streaming down his face.

“I’m sorry,” he cried.

“For what?” I sat down next to him and held him. “For being afraid because somebody’s been hurting you?”

“I can’t talk about it, Aunt Lisa.” His shoulders shook. “I really can’t. He’ll hurt the girls.”

“Nobody can hurt your sisters,” I told him. “We’ll take care of them.”

“He hit Mandy Watkins with a car last year. He told me. He needed to warn somebody. And nobody’s going to believe me, anyway.”

“I believe you. And so does Sid.” I squeezed him even tighter. “And we will make sure that whoever is doing this to you can’t hurt your sisters or anyone else. Okay?” I sniffed and tried to hold back my own tears. “I will not let anybody hurt you. I promise.”

Darby nodded and cried even harder. By the time the two of us were choking on our sobs, I had half a plan formed.

“First off, Sid wants you to know that he is not mad at you. Got that?”

Shaking Darby nodded. I gave him a tissue from the bedside table and took one myself.

I took a deep breath. “The next thing we have to do is tell your parents. That’s only fair. They’ve been worried sick about you. And nobody is going to do more to help you and keep your sisters safe than they will. You know how your mom gets when somebody says something mean to you or your sisters.”

Darby was forced to laugh. Mae does have a pretty strong mama bear streak.

“All right. Let’s get you packed. We’re going to take you home and talk to your mom and dad and get everything settled so that you and your sisters are safe. Of course, it will help if you can tell us who’s doing this to you. You don’t have to do it right now. But if we know where the fire is coming from, it will be a lot easier to keep you guys safe.”

Shaking, Darby nodded.

“Now, do you want me to stay with you, or do you mind if I go tell Sid what’s up?”

“You can go,” Darby said, swallowing. “Can he come with us? I mean, I still like him. I don’t want him to think I’m mad at him. I was just scared.”

“He understands. And, yes, I’ll see if he can come.”

By the time I got back to the library, Sid had gotten over his shock and was well into his rage phase. He didn’t say anything, but his face had taken on a really grim cast.

He agreed to my plan. I called Mae while he packed an overnight bag for me. Darby came out from his room with his bag and we were on the freeway within minutes, Sid driving his car. We got to Orange County in record time.

Mae had called Neil home. The other kids surrounded us happily, then Mae insisted they all go upstairs. I nodded at Darby and he ran upstairs with his siblings.

Then we broke the news to Mae and Neil, sitting in the living room.

“Sexual abuse?” Mae gasped. “Of course. It’s obvious. Why didn’t we see it?”

“Because nobody wants to think about it happening to them,” Sid said. “Besides, from what I’ve read, these predators make it pretty hard to suspect them.”

“Do you know who it is?” Neil asked.

I shook my head. “Darby hasn’t said. He’s been pretty invested in protecting his sisters. That’s how the monster got his cooperation and probably his silence. He threatened Janey and Ellen and was darned convincing. I think Darby’s still processing that we’ve figured out what’s going on.”

“Well, he’s going to tell me right now,” Mae snapped and started to get up.

“Wait!” hissed Neil, holding her back.

Mae sank back on the couch and burst into tears. “My brave little man. Carrying all this around so that his sisters wouldn’t get hurt.” Then all of a sudden, her rage exploded. “I’m going to kill whoever did this to him. I swear to God, I will!”

Both Sid and Neil had to hold her down.

“Mae, you don’t want to mess up the court case,” Sid told her.

Mae sank back again, shaking.

“Look, Mae,” I said. “We’re all upset and really angry. But let’s try and get a grip on it so that we can take care of Darby. Okay?”

Still crying, Mae nodded. “I should have known.”

“You had no way of knowing,” I growled. “So feeling guilty is not going to help either.”

“Mom?” Darby called from the top of the stairs. “Can we talk?”

“Yes, darling!”

Darby flew down the stairs and into his mother’s arms. Neil wrapped his arms around them as they all cried. I saw Sid blinking back tears and I found the last tissues in my purse and held them ready, even as I mopped up my own tears.

A few minutes later, Darby pulled back and looked at all of us.

“It’s Mr. Jefferson,” he said quietly. “He told me he’d hurt Ellen and Janey if I didn’t do what he wanted. He touched me and made me touch him. On his, you know.”

It was as if a heavy pall of suppressed rage fell on all of us, except Darby. He, finally, looked so relieved to have let down his burden.

Mae swallowed. “Darby, you were right to tell us. If we are mad right now, we are not mad at you. You did the best you could and I’m proud of you. But I am really, really mad at Mr. Jefferson, and I can’t help feeling that way. He hurt you and I will be damned before I let him anywhere near you or anyone in this family again.”

Darby hugged his mother. We eventually got enough control to call Sister Jerilyn. She showed up within minutes and helped Mae and Neil call the police. Then she helped us tell the younger ones what had happened and what was going on.

The police arrived and had to question Darby alone. They almost had to hold both Mae and me back again. At least, they’d found a social worker to bring with them. But Darby did pretty well, apparently. Two of the detectives left. The social worker stayed behind to talk to the other kids. Sister Jerilyn told us it was probably a relief for Darby to finally be able to talk about what had happened.

Then the phone started ringing with neighbors calling to let us know that there were all these police cars at the Jefferson place and asking if we knew what was going on. Sid took over the phone and told everyone he didn’t know. A while later, things really got buzzing as people began hearing about Mr. Jefferson’s stash of child pornography. The neighbors started suspecting that it wasn’t just a coincidence that Mae’s sister and their friend were visiting at that moment. Sid didn’t tell them anything.

We found out later that evening that at least a couple more kids had come forward, one a college junior. There was plenty of shock and dismay going around, too.

“You know,” I sighed as Sid and I finally drove home that night. “The person I really feel sorry for is Mrs. Jefferson. And her kids. There’s no way they can continue to live here. And I’ll be they didn’t even know what was going on.”

Sid chuckled. “Lisa, you’d find a way to feel sorry for Adolf Hitler.”

“Well, who wouldn’t? I mean, anyone carrying that much hate around is seriously hurting.” I sat back and thought. “Kind of like Tony.”

“You’re buying his story all of a sudden?”

I frowned. “Not entirely. I mean, I think he’s playing more stupid than he is. But I wouldn’t be surprised if he really did have a son who needs an operation.”

“Well, we’re out of that one. So, it doesn’t matter, does it?”

“No, I guess it doesn’t.”

And, no, duh, we weren’t out of it. But we wouldn’t find that out for another couple days. In the meantime, Sid had one more hurdle to get over.

Chapter Ten

February 22 – 23, 1984

Pull Quote: "I think they were there to take us out." From Fugue in a Minor Key, a cozy spy novel or mystery

The next morning, I managed to keep a straight face when Sid told me that he’d called Rachel the night before and had agreed to have Nick down for the coming weekend. [Not by half, kiddo. You pulled a smirk for the ages – SEH]

Shortly after that, we got a call from the Dragon directly, asking us to set up a meeting for the next night. She explicitly told us not to set it up as a sting. Just to make the purchase quietly and try to get a look at the other side’s big boss. So, I made the calls, then got worried because Dragon had also insisted that both Sid and I go together. Since I wanted to call Mae, anyway, I went ahead and asked if she’d mind watching Darby while Sid and I went on our separate appointments. Mae agreed to come late that afternoon, then spend the night.

The rest of the day passed quietly. Sid wanted to go out that night, so I talked George into coming over and watching a movie with Darby and me. Darby went to bed after the movie. George and I were going to watch another, but we got caught up in a little necking. Finally, George got up, flushing a deep red.

“You okay?” I asked.

“Uh, yeah,” he said. “I just…” He laughed guiltily. “It’s nothing. I guess it’s time for me to get home. Are we going out on Saturday?”

“Unless something comes up,” I said, following him through the front of the house. “You know how that goes. Nick’s supposed to be here. Maybe we can take the boys out to a movie.”

“Sure.” George didn’t look all that enthused about the idea.

“Well, if you don’t want to,” I said.

“No. If you want to, we’ll do it,” he replied.

I kissed him good night and went to bed.

Mae and I had a good chat when she arrived the next day. I told her about my suspicion that Darby felt that he had a good reason for keeping his problem a secret.

“That seems to make more sense than anything,” she said. “But how do we get it out of him? It’s clearly not something that he should be carrying around.”

“I know.” I sighed and chose my next words very carefully. I did not want Mae trying to pry my secrets out of me. “But I have no idea what to do next. Maybe Sister Jerilyn would have an idea. It is her area of expertise.”

“You know, you’re right,” Mae said. “I should have thought of that.”

“Maybe not,” I said.

Sid stepped in to say that he was leaving, and Mae, Darby and I all ate dinner together shortly after. Then I went off to my meeting.

Sid had parked his car at the gym, and I met him there. We both played some racquetball, then showered. I got on my wig and makeup. Sid met me in the parking lot and we took my truck. The meeting was in Century City, so we parked the truck under the Shubert Theater, then walked to the garage at the Century Plaza Hotel. Sid had put on a fedora and held it on in the brisk wind. As we approached the garage, he pulled the hat down low over his face. We’d gotten there somewhat early, certain that the people we were meeting had gotten there early, too.

I spotted Tony standing nervously near a pillar, deep in the middle of the ground floor. I looked at Sid. He nodded and we moved into a shadowed recess closer to the entrance.

“Tony?” I called. “I can see you, but I’d really rather we met over here.”

“I- I- I was told to meet you at this pillar,” he whined looking for us.

“And what makes you think we’re that stupid?” I said. “We’ll meet where we’ve both got clear sight lines and a fast way out.”

“I w-w-w-was hoping you t-t-trusted me,” Tony said, slowly coming near the entrance. He couldn’t quite see us, but it was interesting that he wasn’t looking around for other bad guys.

As he neared the entrance, I slid out of the shadows. He was trembling.

“I hate this,” he said sniffing. “I only d-d-d-did it so that my son could have an operation. He n-needed it t-t-to save his life, b-b-b-but the insurance wouldn’t c-cover it. They said it was experimental. We c-couldn’t afford it otherwise.”

My heart melted, but fortunately, I didn’t let down my guard. Tony may have been an amateur, but he was being handled by some established professionals.

“Is your b-b-b-boss here?” Tony asked.

“I am,” said Sid, stepping out of the shadows behind me. “And I don’t like doing business with rank amateurs who have the Feds on their backsides every five minutes. It’s almost not worth doing business with you. You’re just lucky that my client wants what you have so badly.”

“The F-F-Feds aren’t m-m-m-my fault,” Tony whined.

“I don’t give a crap,” Sid growled. “I’m not going to risk my backside because you’re an idiot. Now, what have you got that’s worth so damn much?”

“Uh, uh, full g-guidance systems specs. Your c-c-c-client will know what we’ve got c-cooking for the next t-t-t-ten, no, t-twenty years.” Tony swallowed.

I rolled my eyes for effect.

“Federal agents,” barked a voice at the far end of the garage. “We’ve got you covered!”

Tony ducked and hid behind a car as Sid and I slid into the shadows and crept our way through the bushes planted next to the garage. There didn’t seem to be any agents behind us, and there were only two men advancing toward us. One held a rifle and was sweeping the area. The other had his revolver out, with his arms braced.

Sid and I soon hit a wall but spotted a door into the hotel. We hurried inside, then walked through the lobby. Sid stashed his fedora in a trash bin along the way. We put on our most casual faces and smiles then had the doorman at the entrance summon a cab for us. Fortunately, the cab took the long way around to the Shubert. Sid paid the driver, then we headed out across the plaza in front of the theater. We waited just long enough for the show inside to end, then blended in with the crowd.

Finally, in my truck, we joined the crowd of cars winding their way out of the garage. Sid and I looked at each other but neither of us felt comfortable talking yet, even though we were probably safe. As we finally got out of the garage, Sid directed me to drive by the Century Plaza. I was a little surprised but did without arguing.

“There’s nothing going on,” I said.

“Exactly,” Sid said. “That’s what’s wrong. Why aren’t there vans and swarms of guys sweeping the snot out of that place? Where are the cops? This defense plant leak is a huge deal and they send only two guys to make the bust?”

I frowned as I made the left on Olympic to head back to the gym. “That’s true.”

“Those two guys in the garage weren’t Federal agents,” Sid said. “I’d stake my life on it.”

“The guys in the airport most certainly were,” I said. “Or they had really, really good IDs.”

“Then why hasn’t Tony gotten busted?” Sid asked.

“Maybe he’s not such an amateur,” I said slowly.

“As in he’s playing your game.” Sid’s eyebrow lifted. “Which means if those guys were Feds, a) they don’t believe he’s got that much going or b) they’re using him to land us. But that doesn’t make sense. They should know we’ve got a sting operation going on.”

“Or maybe they are Feds, but they’re the leaks,” I said.

“They could be,” said Sid. He closed his eyes for a moment. “Either way, I don’t think they had a bust in mind. I think they were there to take us out.”

“How comforting,” I grumbled.

Sid shrugged. “We’re out of it now. If we were for real secrets brokers, we wouldn’t be dumb enough to set up another buy with Tony. So, setting up another buy would tag us as Federal agents.”

“From your lips to God’s ear,” I said.

Linda O. Johnston on Being Flexible

Linda O. Johnston has been one of my Sisters in Crime buddies since I got active with the group a few years ago. Today, she’s writing about how being flexible has helped her career.

Image of author Linda O. Johnston, who is writing about being flexible as a writer
Linda O. Johnston

I’m a fiction writer.  I’ve been a fiction writer for a long time, and I’m almost entirely traditionally published, although that’s changing somewhat and may change even more. 

In fact, a lot about my writing is subject to change, depending on which publisher is interested in what.

 I’ve had fifty novels published so far, with more to come.  My genres are generally mystery or romantic suspense, and no matter what the main genre is, nearly all of them contain elements of romance and suspense or mystery.  That’s what I love to read.  That’s what I love to write.

 Oh, and I nearly always include dogs, too.

 But what I want to talk about here is flexibility in writing… mine, and yours. 

Of course there are writers who prefer choosing one genre or subgenre and sticking with it, using it as their entire writing career.  And for some writers, that works out fine, whether they’re traditionally published or self-published.  But that’s not me.  Is it you? 

I started out with mystery short stories (and won the Robert L. Fish Memorial Award for best first mystery short story of the year with the first one!), then added time travel romances, then moved into romantic suspense, mysteries and paranormal romance.  That has worked out well over time since my time travel romance publisher, Dorchester, went out of business long ago, one of my mystery publishers, Midnight Ink, is no longer going to be publishing mysteries after this year, and the publisher of my paranormal romances, Harlequin, stopped publishing the Nocturne paranormal romance line. 

Is that going to happen to every traditionally published writer?  Hopefully not, but one never knows.  And flexibility in what I write has allowed me to continue on. 

Does a writer have to be that flexible?  Nope.  If there’s a particular genre you love above all others and want to write only in it, go for it.  Especially these days.  There are a lot of publishers out there now, both large and small.  If you get something published by one of them, you’ll hopefully develop a relationship with them that will result in your publishing a lot of books in the same genre with them.   Or not.  But if you like that genre above all others, you can hopefully find a different publisher if that first one doesn’t continue to buy from you. 

Or you can write in multiple genres as I do, and therefore write for different publishers at the same time, if that’s what you choose.  

And then there’s self-publishing!  When I started out, editors and writers looked down their noses at self-published authors, as if they turned to that because they weren’t good enough for traditional publishing.  Not today!  Today, self-publishing is respected and revered, and it’s a different form of successful publishing.  Plus, those who are self-published can certainly earn a lot more per book than those who are traditionally published. 

Oh, and by the way.  I mentioned that my self-publishing is changing now, and that’s mostly because I got my rights back to my first two mystery series, the Kendra Ballantyne, Pet-Sitter Mysteries and its spinoff Pet Rescue Mysteries, and I’m currently working on having them published again as bundled e-books. 

Image of book cover For a Good Paws, but Linda O. Johnston

So–should you be flexible in your writing?  Only if you choose to.  But there are a lot of options out there for writing in one genre only, or in multiple genres–whatever works best for each author. 

Me?  At the moment romantic suspense and I are best friends… and in the future I hope to branch out yet again, particularly into mystery. But for right now–well, I’m celebrating the May release of my fifth and last Barkery & Biscuits Mystery for Midnight Ink:  For A Good Paws.  It’s obviously a mystery, and the whole series features dogs and baking.  And yes, romance is included, too–my protagonist Carrie Kennersly has been developing a romantic interest throughout the series.

So please check out my website: http://www.LindaOJohnston.com   and friend me on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/LindaOJohnston

I’m somewhat remiss in other social media, though I do blog elsewhere.  Maybe that will change one day, too.

Do check out Linda’s website. Frankly, I’m impressed. I thought I was prolific!

Chapter Nine

February 20-21, 1984

Pull quote "I almost got busted by two of your guys this afternoon." From cozy spy novel, Fugue in a Minor Key by Anne Louise bannon

Monday morning, I noticed Darby heading into the library with his guitar. It was the perfect opportunity. I slid into Sid’s office and locked the door.

“What’s up?” he asked, turning towards me from the computer.

“That second buy,” I said, picking up his phone. “I’ve got to set it up and I’d rather do it on the secure line. Darby’s in the library practicing.”

Sid nodded, then started writing again. There are actually four phone lines coming into the house, Sid’s and my private lines, the business line, and the one we use for Quickline. That one is only hooked up to the phone in Sid’s office.

While waiting for the other end to pick up, I watched Sid as he stopped writing. Grimacing, he went over the papers spread out on his desk, then pulled a sheaf of binder paper to him. I chuckled as he unscrewed the top to his fountain pen.

“So I’m more comfortable,” he snarled.

I would have answered, but Tony picked up.

“You got anything new for us?” I asked.

“Y-yes,” he replied. “I-I-I can bring it to you tomorrow. There’s a hotel on-on Century Boulevard.” He named it.

“What are you trying to do? Set me up for a bust?”

“No! No. No. I-I just thought it would b-b-be easier to t-talk.”

Sid, all of a sudden, put aside his project and started scribbling in big block letters.

“Talk about what?” I asked.

“About d-doing more business.”

“Oh, really.”

Sid held up the paper he’d been working on.

“You’re too nice,” it said. “Cuss, damn it.”

A string of obscenities followed. I blushed, but he was right.

“L-look, I’ve got g-good stuff. It can’t hurt your b-b-bottom line.”

“Getting arrested can,” I said as Sid pointed, then added the epithet he’d suggested. “I’ve got a better idea, we’ll meet in the lobby, near the concierge’s desk. I know what you look like. Unless you’ve got any other surprises for me.”

“F-f-fine. Twelve- twelve thirty.”

“Twelve thirty, tomorrow,” I added the name of the hotel and hung up.

Sid leaned back in his chair with his arms folded. He was smiling, but he wasn’t that happy.

“Lisa, Lisa, Lisa.”

“I’m sorry. I wasn’t raised that way. It’s not in my nature.”

“I’m just as happy it’s not. But it doesn’t make you very convincing in this sort of situation.”

I giggled. “I guess it doesn’t. It just seems so strange, after hearing all my life that you just don’t use that sort of language, being told I have to.”

“Yeah, well, we’ll have to hold the obscenity workshop later. What are you going to do about that photograph business?”

I sighed. “I do have my wig. I’ll re-do my make up with all the different contours and stuff.”

“What if Darby sees you?”

“That.” I thought. “Wait. That hotel’s right near the airport. I can do my make up there. Nobody will think twice about it.”

Sid shrugged. “Probably not. I don’t like it, but it’s probably our best shot. See if you can set up a meeting with his boss. Maybe we can set up a sting.”

“Okay, but I don’t want to push it too fast. It might scare him off.”

“Well, we’ll see.” Sid went back to the computer.

I went back to my office. Outside, hanging on the sliding glass door, was Frank Lonergan. I stuck my tongue out at him and he went back to work.

Frank’s a musician trying to make it, and in the meantime, he has to do other things to eat and pay rent, like gardening. He works for a contract company and is pretty much able to come and go as he pleases or picks up gigs.

Well, last fall, Sid’s gardener retired, and I got the job of finding a new one. It worked out really well. The company turned in a nice low bid, Frank got a bonus for picking up a new client, and Sid doesn’t have to think about his yard, which is why he has a gardener.

Frank makes a point of grabbing Sid’s place when the job assignments go out. He usually eats lunch with us, and as often as not, dinner, after which he and Sid get together and play flute and piano works. Frank plays guitar, mostly as a matter of economics he says, but he’s primarily a floutist, which is why he’s also a gardener.

At lunch, Frank, Darby, and Sid, of course, talked about music, and the next thing I know, Darby’s all excited, and the guys are talking fugue. Frank agreed to finish up by three.

The hall clock had barely chimed the hour when Darby dragged me into the library to listen. I concentrated on my knitting instead.

Frank stayed to dinner. I usually do my weights on Monday, between dinner and the teen bible study Frank and I help lead. I tried to talk Darby into staying with Frank and Sid so they could keep playing, but Darby insisted he wanted to stay with me. So I took him to the gym with me, and then on to bible study.

The next day, I left early for the airport, wearing slacks with heels. In one of the restroom stalls, I changed to a dress with flat pumps and put on my wig. I did my make up over one of the sinks. It wasn’t easy, but no one paid any attention to me. After sliding on my glasses, I put the duffel bag I was carrying into one of the lockers next to the restroom and headed out.

I took a cab over to the hotel. Tony was at the concierge’s desk, looking out at the bar. I slid up behind him and squeezed his elbow. He jumped.

“We’ll talk in the lobby,” I said quietly.

“B-b-but, we c-c-c-can get a d-drink in the b-b-bar,” he said, then he saw me. “You’re not-”

“Yes, I am. I’m just not interested in giving certain people a description to pin on me.” I nodded at some sofas around the corner from the check-in desks. “We’ll talk over here. Now, what have you got?”

“C-c-complete schematics, radar, g-guidance systems, you name it.”

“And how much are you asking?”

“Th-that depends. We-we need a regular b-b-b-buyer.”

“Really.” I stayed calm even though my brain was racing. On one hand, it was almost too easy. We could set up a meeting with our respective bosses and spring the trap. Then again, trap was the key word. What if they were setting a trap for us? On the other hand, this guy was so obviously an amateur, what if he didn’t know about the implications?

“It would m-m-make things a lot easier.”

“True. I don’t know. I’d have to get it okayed first, then you have to show good faith.”

“We-we can set up a m-m-meeting. Y-your people and ours.”

“And what can you give me now to prove it’s worth our while?”

Tony slid a five by seven envelope into my hands. “L-l-look that over. It’s only one p-part, b-but I think you’ll f-f-find it interesting.”

“Fine. See you later.” I turned and headed for the exit, jamming the envelope into my purse. It wasn’t my regular monster, but a smaller briefcase style affair in tan leather.

Tony sputtered behind me. Something was definitely up. As I passed the concierge desk, I stopped momentarily. Two men in dark suits were headed my way.

I wanted to head for the door, but Tony was there by then, and I didn’t want him following me. I headed for the back of the lobby and the service doors. The two dark suits trotted up.

One, a sandy-haired fellow about my age, flashed an FBI ID. It said Rick Tanner.

“FBI, ma’am,” he said.

I smiled at them. “Yes, gentlemen?”

A waiter with a cart full of wine glasses came out of the service door. I smiled again as the cart rattled my way, then ducked behind it and through the door. The two agents bolted after me.

I had one advantage besides a small but decided lead on those guys. I grew up in South Lake Tahoe on the resort my parents own up there. All my friends’ parents were in the tourist trade one way or another. I’ve spent plenty of time in the bowels of hotels. While every hotel is different, there is a certain feel to the layout of the service halls, one that I’m fairly familiar with.

“Freeze! You’re under arrest!” called Tanner’s partner.

I slid around a corner just in time to miss the crash of gunfire that followed me. I grabbed my gun and fired back randomly, praying I wouldn’t hit anyone. Then I ran for the kitchen figuring that with all those innocent bystanders around, they wouldn’t be as likely to start shooting again.

I found it easily enough and hid behind a stack of produce boxes. The agents came through, and I ducked out of there, unfortunately taking a stack of pans with me.

The clatter alerted my pursuers, but the pans also stalled them some. As they dodged around them, I ran full out. I lost them in the corridor, but as luck would have it, they entered the lobby barely minutes after I did.

I was already in the cab. As we pulled out, I could see the agents spot me.

“I’m late for my flight,” I gasped at the driver. “Please hurry.”

He stepped on the gas. “Which terminal?”

“Uh, Western.” My hands were shaking as I slid my gun into the shield for the metal detector at the airport.

Good old LAX was jam-packed, and all the construction they were doing for the Olympics wasn’t helping any. The traffic kept my pursuers at bay but also trapped me.

We were near the first terminal when I spotted the blue light of a police car flashing.

“I’ll get out now,” I told the driver, handing him a couple bills.

I opened the door, and keeping low, I slipped out of the cab and between the cars. I made it across the parking lot okay but Tanner and his partner were moving through the cars, looking.

I swallowed and tried to be calm and casually walked towards the terminal. As I hit the door, I glanced behind me to see Tanner in the middle of the parking lot suddenly point at me and take off running.

I took off for the planes, thanking God there hadn’t been a line at the metal detectors. I ran down the moving walkway, then cut through the crowd on the escalator to the gates.

At the top, I looked back. Tanner and his partner had just reached the bottom and were fighting their way through the people. My key snagged in the locker, but I got it open before the Feds reached the top of the escalator. I yanked my duffel bag free and ran for the bathroom. I took one last look around before sliding through the door and didn’t see anybody looking for me.

I changed in the stall, cold creaming my face and taking off my wig in there, too. I was afraid I was going to stop up the toilet with all the toilet paper I used, but it flushed okay when I was finally ready to go. I went to the sink and finished washing my face and casually re-applied my normal make-up, basically just lipstick, mascara and blush.

I was giving my cheeks a final dusting when Tanner and his partner came in. He was so embarrassed.

“What are you doing in here?” I asked, letting my voice shake as I backed away from them.

“We’re FBI, ma’am,” said Tanner’s partner, an Earl Weisman according to his ID.

I made a point of examining both ID’s.

“Well, these look like they’re on the level.” I swallowed and backed up again. “I don’t mean to be rude, but you know how it is with airports. All sorts of weirdos running around.”

“Yeah, well, we understand,” said Weisman. “Um, we’re looking for a blonde lady, a little shorter than you. She was wearing a blue dress with a gray tweed jacket over it. We think she may have come in here.”

“Oh. She may have. There’ve been a couple ladies in and out. I wasn’t watching. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” sighed Tanner.

The men left. I gave my face a final once over, sighed in relief, then left the bathroom. Weisman and Tanner got on the down escalator just ahead of me but apparently didn’t see me. I heard them.

“She’s got to be on that plane,” grumbled Tanner. “Don’t ask me how, but that’s the only place she could be.”

“Okay, okay. But you call Chicago,” said Weisman.

“Why don’t I get Powers to do it? He’s got the pull.”

“You really want to tell Len we lost her?”

“What else are we going to tell him? Geez, how the hell did she get past the metal detectors with that cannon she had?”

“She must have ditched it. I say we get a search detail out on the trash cans in the ticketing area.”

“You want to get that past Powers?” Tanner laughed.

“Well, the cab was clean.”

“That driver sure was happy. Forty bucks for a five-minute ride.”

Weisman chuckled. “I thought that was the going rate.”

They got off the escalator and walked quickly through the crowd. They didn’t see me as I walked past them out of the terminal and to my truck.

As I swung my duffel bag into the back, I decided I wasn’t going to go home just yet. I went straight to the Federal Building in Westwood first.

Since everyone knows I’m just as much Henry James’ friend as Sid is, no one gave me a second glance as I went past security and upstairs to Henry’s office.

In the outer office, Angelique Carter was behind her desk with a stack of flyers and a bottle of Liquid Paper.

Angelique is also a good mutual friend of Sid’s and mine. She and I go to lunch and chat whenever I’m there to see Henry. I would imagine she and Sid chat, but they also, you know. She’s one of Sid’s very few re-occurring girlfriends. Every now and then she moves in with him and moves out two weeks later.

“Hey, kid, where you been?” she asked, grinning as she tossed her dark brown full hair back from her face. She’s confessed to a stint as a model some years back and still keeps in shape.

“Running, what else?” I looked over at the door to Henry’s office behind her. It was closed as usual. “Is your boss busy?”

“Of course. When isn’t he? But he should be done in a few minutes, so why don’t you go ahead and sit down and keep me company.”

“Sure.” I plopped down into the chair next to her desk. “What on earth are you doing?”

“Corrections.” Angelique made a face at the pile of papers. “Some dope down in printing messed up the date, so now I have to correct every single one of these by hand.”

“Can’t they reprint them?”

“Budget cuts. It’d cost too much. Personally, I think my time is more valuable, but this is the Federal Government we’re dealing with.”

“You can say that again.” I smiled casually, but inside I was steaming about getting shot at by the guys on my side.

“So, how’s your boss? Keeping you busy as usual?”

“Naturally. Except you wouldn’t believe what we’ve got going on now.”

“Yes, I would. I’ve known Sid longer than you.” Angelique smirked.

“Why don’t you call him? He could use someone to stroke his ego right now.”

“Or just to stroke him.”

“He always needs that.”

Angelique sighed lustfully. “He does indeed. And you won’t provide. You’re so cruel, Lisa.”

I shrugged. “So I’ve got morals.”

“Frankly, I’m glad you do. You’re enough competition as it is.”

“What?”

Angelique looked me straight in the eye. “Darling Lisa, Sid is hung up on you. Should you ever consent to sleeping with him, he will, for the most part, not be sleeping with anyone else.”

“Oh, come on.”

“I’m not saying he’ll be completely faithful. We both know him better than that. But there are a lot of women in this city, myself included, hoping against hope that you never move into his bedroom.”

“I suppose if I was available all the time…”

“Availability has nothing to do with it,” Angelique snorted a little bitterly. “It would be by preference.”

“Yeah, right. Ange, you haven’t got a thing to worry about. It’s not going to happen.” I stopped. “What makes you so sure he would?”

“Little things.” She sighed, looked at me, then back down at her papers. “A lot of little things, but they add up.” She looked at me again. “It’s okay, Lisa. It’s not like it’s your fault. You know what a fool I am over him. Just do me a favor and stay upright and true to your morals, will you? If sex is all I can get from Sid, I can live with that. It’s plenty, believe me.”

I squirmed. “Well, you can have it. And don’t worry about me. If Sid has more than the hots for me, it won’t make any difference because that’s the only way he can express it and I need more than that in a relationship.”

Angelique just laughed softly.

“What?” I asked.

She shook her head. “I’m even more worried about you.”

I would have demanded an explanation, but the door to Henry’s office and a young man stepped out, followed by Henry, himself. He’s a tallish man and balding with a very red face. The young man said goodbye, then Henry turned to me.

“Is this a lunch date or are you here to see me?” he asked pleasantly.

I looked at Angelique. “Both, actually. I came to say hello to you, then, Ange, you want to go?”

She frowned. “Lisa, it’s already two-fifteen.”

“Just hoping. I’ll just have to say hi to you, Henry.” I got up. “Let’s go talk.”

Henry followed me into the office, shutting the door behind us.

“This is not a good idea,” he said sternly. “Didn’t Sid tell you?”

“About the leak in the office? Yeah, of course. But no communication at all isn’t going to help, Henry. I almost got busted by two of your guys this afternoon.”

“When?”

“When I was making a second buy from that defense plant contact. I took off and sure enough, here come the suits. They must have been following my guy, which with all due respect, I think is a little stupid considering how antsy these guys are.”

“Something’s not right here,” Henry grumbled, bothered about something.

Still steamed, I wasn’t paying attention. “I’ll say it’s not right. It’s downright ridiculous. Good Lord, we were shooting at each other and we’re on the same side!”

“Did you return fire?” he asked anxiously.

“Well, yeah,” I said, suddenly sheepish. “I’m sorry, Henry, but darn it, they shot first.”

“You think you got one of them?”

“No, thank God. There were only two of them and I ran into them later, and that’s pretty complicated, too.”

“Damn.”

“What?”

“Well, if you’d gotten one of them, it’d be easier for me to track down who they are, or even have an interest in them without spooking anyone.”

“I can tell you who they were. Rick Tanner and Earl Weisman.” I explained the whole mess and included the badge numbers just to show off.

Henry wrote them down. “Len Powers, too, huh. That makes a little more sense.”

“Why?”

“He’s N.S.T.” (National Security Team, sort of like the uniform cops of counter-espionage because everybody knows about them.)  “Used to work out of this office, but he got promoted to running the San Diego team a couple months ago, and not a minute too soon, if you ask me.”

“I’m asking. Why?”

“He’s a hot dogger. Damn good man, but one of these days, he’s going to push his luck too far and somebody’s going to get killed.”

“Yeah, like me.”

“I’ll take care of it, Lisa.”

“Maybe you’d better not, what with that leak and all. We can’t afford to let anybody get a hint about me.”

“That might be taking a chance you don’t want to. Powers can get a little overzealous at times.” Henry frowned. “So be very careful about any meetings. Make sure they’re in a public place with multiple exits.”

I swallowed. “You don’t think we’re being set up for a bust, do you? Why would they do that?”

“I don’t know. It’s doesn’t make sense.” Henry shrugged. “Unless somebody’s trying to eliminate some competition.”

“But then it would be someone else besides the defense plant guys.”

“I know and that’s the part that doesn’t make sense. Just play it cool and let me deal with the stuff in the agency.” He sighed. “I’d pull you guys off this one, but Dragon says we can’t.”

Dragon was the agency head. We heard from her now and again and had even worked with her, but she mostly stayed in the background. Dragon knew things we didn’t, which meant that we didn’t tend to question her.

I sighed as well, then got up. “Alright. I’ll head back to the house.”

Henry glared down at his desk. “Oh, wait. I was going to send this some other way, but now that you’re here. I’ve got something for Sid.”

He handed me a big manila envelope. I debated opening it but decided that Henry would have told me what it was if it was okay for me to look at it. Besides, I’d probably know what it was soon enough, anyway.

I got back to the house to find Darby hidden in his room.

“He wouldn’t come out,” Sid told me. “I decided not to press it. He got his schoolwork done.”

“Okay,” I said, looking down the hall with a worried frown. I looked down at my purse and pulled out the envelope Henry gave me. “This is for you and we need to conference. It’s getting even uglier.”

“Wonderful,” Sid replied, glancing at the envelope.

“Do you mind if I check on Darby first?” I asked.

Sid nodded, and I hurried down the hall to his room and knocked softly on his door.

“Darby, it’s Aunt Lisa,” I called.

He opened the door. “I’m glad you’re home.”

“Are you alright?”

“I’m fine. I’m done with my schoolwork. Can I watch TV?”

I looked him over. He seemed to be acting normally again.

“Sure,” I said.

He ran off to the rumpus room and I went back to Sid’s office and shut and locked the door.

“He seems normal,” I told Sid.

“Hm.” Sid was scowling.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing I didn’t entirely expect.” He picked up a small set of papers. “I had Henry run a profile on Rachel and Nick. I had to.”

“Did you tell him why?”

“Uh, no.” Sid winced. “But he’s probably already figured it out.”

“Oh?”

“Take a look at Nick’s birth certificate.”

I took the piece of paper from him. Under father, it listed Sid Hackbirn.

“Yikes,” I said. “How are you feeling about it?”

Sid shrugged. “People have lied on birth certificates before.”

Something inside me just snapped. I don’t know what, exactly, but his attitude really made me angry.

“Why can’t you just accept it?” I snarled at him. “For Heaven’s sakes, Sid. You know what it’s like to not be wanted and don’t give me any nonsense about him not wanting a father. He wants you. And there’s no good reason you can’t just own up to being his father. None! If Nick really doesn’t want a father, then he’ll get used to having one, just like you’ll get used to being one.”

“It’s not that simple, Lisa.”

“Yes, it is! You don’t need a blood test to prove that he’s your kid. He looks just like you! So quit pretending that you don’t have to acknowledge him and get it taken care of. You’re his father. Get used to it.”

I was about to storm out of the office when I realized the door was locked and then why it was locked.

“Shavings!” I groaned and sniffed.

“I take it there’s something else to discuss?” Sid’s tone was acerbic at best.

I sniffed then nodded. “Yeah. And none of it is good.”

I repeated my conversation with Henry, which did not help Sid’s mood in the least.

“It doesn’t make sense,” Sid grumbled.

“No kidding.” I flopped into the chair in front of his desk. “But what are we going to do about it?”

“Be very careful, I guess. Let’s get that next buy set up.”

“I’ll do it tomorrow. Don’t want to seem too anxious.”

Sid nodded. I looked at him sadly for a moment, then got up, unlocked the office door and left.

I tried to focus on my usual work but didn’t get very far. I couldn’t tell what was bothering me more. Sid’s attitude toward Nick was frustrating, but I had good reason to believe he’d come around eventually. The case was getting pretty scary. On the other hand, Sid and I had survived some pretty tight situations before. So, while I wasn’t happy about the way things were going, I wasn’t freaking out or brooding.

No, I was mostly worried about Darby. It really wasn’t like him to hold onto secrets. But he was holding onto something. It wasn’t something he was happy about, more like he couldn’t tell, even if he wanted to. In fact, I suddenly realized he was acting a lot like me when my family or friends wanted me to be more open about the things I cannot talk about for their safety, let alone mine.

That was not a comforting thought. It meant Darby was holding onto his secret because he thought someone else’s welfare depended on it. Which, in turn, meant that he was not going to share it. Period. That definitely made things a whole lot more ticklish.

Chapter Eight

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

February 18 -19, 1984

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

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

“Where are you going?” I asked.

“Out.”

“But where?”

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

“Oh, you mean out out.”

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

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

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

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

“Why do you ask?”

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

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

“Sid!”

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

“You’re not keeping her, are you?”

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

“Even on your pile?”

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

“Oh. Okay.”

Sid stopped. “What’s wrong?”

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

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

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

“And what?”

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

“Upset about what things?”

“Well, Nick.”

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

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

“What’s to do?”

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

Sid looked away.

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

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

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

“It’s been busy this week.”

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

“Why not?”

I turned on him. “He’s your son!”

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

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

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

“I don’t know.”

“Sid!”

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

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

Sid sighed. “This isn’t easy for me.”

“I know.”

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

“George will be here by five thirty.”

“I’ll be home by five.”

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

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

“Come on in. I’m decent,” I called.

Darby opened the door and slid in.

“You going out again?” he asked sadly.

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

“Is Uncle Sid going to stay with us?”

“Yes. Is something wrong with that?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I know. Come give me a hug.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Have you let him tickle your tonsils yet?”

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

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

“I respect the word no,” he said.

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

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

“Oh, for crying out loud.”

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

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

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

“What?”

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

“No, he isn’t.”

“Yes, he is.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sid smiled. “Sure.”

“Great.” There was a pause. “See ya.”

“See ya.”

I sighed. It was a start.

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

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

“Does this happen often?” I asked.

He shrugged.

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

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

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

“So now what?” I asked.

“You can take off, I guess.”

“I can’t leave you alone.”

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

“But…”

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

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

“Yeah.”

“Let’s go.”

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

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

“Great, Mavis.”

She looked at me. “May I help you?”

“She’s with me,” said Nick.

“I work for Nick’s father,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay, let’s take him home, team.”

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

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

“Fine, Mom.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, it’s my main man,” she crowed.

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

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

“I missed you, too, Mom.”

“Did you have a good week?”

“It was great!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I stepped back and swallowed. “I see.”

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

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

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

“You take care now.”

“You, too.”

I tried not to glare at Rachel as I left.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bitch.”

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

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

“What about Nick?’

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

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