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.

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.

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.

Chapter Seven

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

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

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

Ma grinned when she saw me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sid was in his, talking to the boys.

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

“Yes, sir,” they mumbled.

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

“Yes, sir,” they repeated.

“Then get going on them.”

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

“What happened?” I asked.

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

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

“No.”

“Then what were they up to?”

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

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

Sid finally looked up. “Yeah.”

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

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

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

“What took so long?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sid, are you sure..?”

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

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

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

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

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

This time it was Frank Lonnergan.

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

“I sure do. What’s up?”

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

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

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

I put my finger to my lips.

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

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

“Bring them along.”

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

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

“Oh, Frank, would you? Please?”

“What about Esther?”

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

“Sure, why?”

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

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

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

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

“Time?” I asked.

Sid held up six fingers.

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

“See you then.”

“Don’t be late.”

“I won’t.”

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

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

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

“True. Where to now?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Looks good.”

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

“What?” I hissed.

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

“Look familiar?” he asked.

“They were checking me out.”

“Did you see anybody?”

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” I hissed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sid looked behind us. “See anybody?”

I looked. “Nope.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, help.”

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

“Get your butt in here!”

“Which way?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Careful! That almost hit home.”

“Sorry.”

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

“My leg,” I whispered.

“What’s wrong?”

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

Sid softly cussed and grabbed my sweatshirt from the back.

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

“How?”

“Rock up and down.”

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

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

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

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

“No, not now!” groaned Sid.

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

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

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

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

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

“How does your leg look?” he asked.

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

“You up to date on your tetanus shot?”

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

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

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

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

“George was here, waiting for you.”

“What?”

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

I laughed. “How sweet.”

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

“He’s harmless.”

“Yeah, right.”

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

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

“But you are.”

“I am not.”

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

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

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

“I’m not either.”

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

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

“Yeah, right.”

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

“Sid, what’s going on?”

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

“Oh.” I felt my face getting hot.

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

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

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

“Our what?” I interrupted.

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

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

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

“Are you alright?” I asked.

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

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

“Sid, I’m willing to listen.”

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

“Good night, Sid.”

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

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

Chapter Six

February 15-16, 1984

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

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

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

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

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

I blushed. “Sid, you didn’t.”

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

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

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

“Yes,” I replied.

“Who’s he?” asked Nick.

“Lisa’s boyfriend,” said Sid.

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

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

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

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

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

It finally sank in through all the fuzzy sleepiness.

“You little brats!” I snapped.

The boys roared with laughter.

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

Darby and Nick looked at each other.

“It was Nick’s idea,” said Darby.

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

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

“What did you do?” Sid pressed.

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

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

“I’m sorry,” mumbled Darby.

“I’m sorry,” Nick echoed.

“Apology accepted,” I said.

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

“Or nightmares,” I added quickly.

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

“Yes, sir,” said Nick.

“Yes, sir,” said Darby.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nick came tearing through the hall from the rumpus room.

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

“Fat chance,” I muttered, blushing.

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

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

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

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

“They’re not as gorgeous as you.”

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

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

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

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

“Nicholas! Into the rumpus room. Now.”

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

“Is he..?” George asked.

“Sid’s? I’ll eat my hat if he isn’t.”

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

I chuckled weakly. “He wasn’t.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lunch? That’s different.”

“He’s bugged about something.”

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

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

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

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

“Around one, one thirty. Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean?”

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

“Yeah, that.”

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Uh-huh.”

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

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

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

“Whatever you say, Sid.”

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

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

“What happened with Henry?” I asked.

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

“Why should he be?”

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

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

“True.”

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

“Slave drivers.”

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

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

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

“Great. Anything else sneaking up on us?”

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

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

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

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

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

“What happened?”

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

“That no good-”

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

“And she’s sacrificing Nick?”

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

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

“Yep.”

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

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

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

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

“Not now, at any rate.”

Depressed, I went back to my office.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Darby frowned. “Yeah, I think so.”

“Great. Why don’t you get tuned up?”

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

“I think it’s the piano,” said Darby.

Sid ran his fingers across the keys.

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

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

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

Darby hovered, fascinated as Sid went to work.

“Our piano’s really out of tune.”

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

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

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

“But how? Do I take lessons?”

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

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

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

“The songs they give you are so stupid.”

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

“Sure. Can you?”

“I’ve lived with worse.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you making?” asked Nick.

“A baby afghan for a friend.”

“What’s a afghan?”

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

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

“I make all sorts of things.”

“Why?”

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

“Is it hard?”

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

“You got a lot of needles.”

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

“But isn’t knitting for girls?”

“Why?”

Nick shrugged. “I don’t know.”

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

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

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

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

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

“You alright?” he gasped.

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

Sid grumbled and shook his head.

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

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

“Why give them the satisfaction?”

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

Chapter Five

February 14, 1984

mystery fiction, cozy spy novel, mystery fiction serial

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No kidding.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh. Mrs. Donaldson?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He left. Michael audibly sighed in relief.

“Something wrong?” I asked.

“No. Not at all. Um. Any questions?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We like kicking back,” said Michael.

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

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

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

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

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

“Strictly off the record,” said Sid.

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

The engineers relaxed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What happened?” asked Sid.

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

“Oh, how awful,” I said.

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

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

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

“Sure, sure. Be my guest.”

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

“More than happy,” said Wright.

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

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

“Nothing except my security badge.”

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

“Or seemed to.”

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

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

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

“I should hope not.”

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

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

“A big bingo for you.”

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

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

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

“It’s not even ten thirty.”

“I wanted to meet Mae by eleven.”

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

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

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

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

“Are you sure?”

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

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

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

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

He bent and got his own special hug and kiss.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You noticed he’s active.” I grinned.

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

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

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

Janey ran up.

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

“Sid.” Mae sent him a meaningful glare.

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

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

“I’m not making any promises, Mae.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mae shook her head.

“Well?” I asked with a grin.

“Well, what?” Mae asked.

“What do you think about Nick?”

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

“And…”

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

“Gentleness. They’re both very gentle.”

“Gentle, huh?” Mae smirked.

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

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

“Wouldn’t you be?”

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

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

“Why on earth not?”

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

“If you say so.”

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

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

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

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

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

“I just wish he trusted me more.”

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

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

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

“Where’s Uncle Sid?” asked Marty.

“In the toy store with the girls.”

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

“Let’s go!” hollered Darby.

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

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

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

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

“I don’t think so,” Sid replied.

“Why not?” demanded Nick.

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

Nick pouted. “Aw, come on.”

“I said no.”

“That’s not fair.”

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

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

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

Nick kept walking. Sid went after him.

“Young man, get back here now.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I swallowed. “No, thanks. I’ll pass.”

“Why not?” asked Mae, puzzled.

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

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

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

“For what?” asked Janey.

“Guns,” said Darby.

Janey glared at him.

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

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

“Huh?”

“He was in Vietnam,” Darby hissed.

“Wow! Really?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sid came off with a mischievous grin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Karen checked out the courts, then nudged Marlene.

“The babe is here,” she teased.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I wonder why,” said Mindy thoughtfully.

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

“What?” The women were all ears.

“A kid that looks just like him.”

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

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

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

“He’s been fixed,” said Lorna.

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

“Guess,” sniggered Lorna.

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

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

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

“Lorna,” groaned Marlene.

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

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

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

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

“I’m shocked,” said Marlene.

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

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

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

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

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

“Who’s next?” he demanded.

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s going on?” asked Karen.

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

“What article?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just curious.”

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

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

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

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

“I saw Steve’s paper,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Four

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

February 13, 1984

cozy spy novel, mystery fiction serial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sid winced, then shook his head.

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

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

“When did that come through?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Huh?”

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

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

“I’m the wrong gender.”

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

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

“Well, it doesn’t sound too bad.”

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

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

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

“Okay.”

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

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

“Yes?”

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

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

“Disneyland.”

“What about our meeting in the morning?”

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

“What about Janey and the others?”

“Mae’s bringing all of them.”

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

“I’ll set it up.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah. I had a late meeting.”

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

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

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

I smiled for the effect. “We heard.”

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

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

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

“That’s fast. But how?”

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

I tittered along. “That would make sense.”

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

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

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

“How?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do I have a choice?”

I winced. She didn’t, really.

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

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

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

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

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

“Hmm.” Sid did not look happy.

“How are the boys?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let’s go into the rumpus room.”

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

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

“Okay.” I braced myself.

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

He looked so sad as he did, though.

Chapter Three

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

February 12, 1984

Spy novel, cozy mystery, romantic spy fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Downstairs,” I said.

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

“I told him to stay,” I said.

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

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah. I guess I am.”

“That’s okay. So is he.”

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

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

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

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

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

Nick shrugged. “Whatever.”

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

The boys darted off to the car.

“Are you okay?” I asked Sid.

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

“Are you sure?”

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

“What do you mean?”

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

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

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

“Probably for both of you.”

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

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

“Be a friend.”

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

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

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

“I won’t.”

“Promise?”

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

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

“And be pleasant?” I glared at him.

“I promise I’ll be pleasant.”

“Okay.”

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

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

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

“He is hyperactive,” I said.

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

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

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

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

“Y-y-yes.”

“Let’s make this fast.”

“S-sure.”

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

“Leave it,” I ordered. “I’ll get it.”

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

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

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

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

He and Darby laughed hysterically. Sid glared at Nick.

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

“Everything come out alright?” giggled Nick.

“That will be enough,” said Sid firmly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I know. Nick certainly brings him out.”

“He does.”

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

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

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

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

“Aw, come on,” groaned Nick.

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

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

“I’m getting hungry,” grumbled Nick.

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

“I know where there are some vending machines.”

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

“Yeah.”

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

“Oooh, you give good hugs,” I sighed.

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

“Thank you. Your mother is so lucky.”

“Why?”

“She gets hugs from you all the time.”

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

“Why not?” I asked softly.

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

“Your Grandma?”

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

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

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

“Are you Catholic?”

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

“Mm-hmm.”

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

“He’s an atheist.”

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

“Nope.”

“That’s weird.”

“Not for him.”

“But why doesn’t he believe in God? Even I believe in God, even though I prayed and Grandma died, but I still believe in Him.”

“Well…” I gazed at Sid thoughtfully. “It’s what he was taught to believe when he was a child.”

“Boy, was he lucky.”

I laughed as Sid and Darby returned bearing lemonade for all of us. Nick stayed sitting just long enough to get a good pull on his drink, then dashed off with Darby on his heels.

“What were you two talking about?” Sid asked.

“Things. His grandmother. Religion. Would you believe he’s Catholic?”

“Hm.” Sid shook his head. “They’ve been coming out of the woodwork since I met you. But now that I think about it, I seem to remember Rachel mentioning something about having left the church.”

I sighed. Sid’s eyebrow lifted.

“Distressed by the thought of another lost lamb?” he asked, gently teasing.

“No. It’s just Nick. Poor thing.”

“He told you about his grandmother?”

“Yeah. He’s taking it pretty hard.”

“Small wonder.” Sid took a long drink of lemonade, then noticed the curious look on my face. “Nick hasn’t said so in so many words, but I’ve gotten the impression that his grandmother was the one who has been raising him. Rachel’s been around, but not all that involved.”

“Somehow, that doesn’t surprise me.” I fidgeted with my straw. “It’s sad, in a way. Nick’s a really affectionate kid but his mother isn’t.”

“Well, I got along okay without it.”

“Yeah, right.” I snickered.

Sid glared. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

I flushed, suddenly realizing what I’d meant. “I- uh, well… I’m sorry, Sid. I just couldn’t help thinking that maybe one of the reasons you spend so much time fooling around is that you’re trying to make up for all the affection you didn’t get as a kid.”

Sid laughed, then reached over and, with two fingers under my chin, gently shut my mouth.

“Don’t look so shocked,” he chuckled. “Believe me, you’re not the first to suggest that. You may even be right. But rest assured, my dearest ice maiden, the larger part of my interest ain’t just affection.”

He has this sexy little smile that without fail gets me going every time. I know he’s mentally doing it with me, but that doesn’t stop my heart from doing flip flops, or more likely it’s why. He smiled and I got a grip on myself.

“Anyway,” I said. “Nick got a lot of affection from his grandmother and he’s really missing it.” I looked down at my drink. “I, uh, hope you don’t get mad at me if I try to fill in some of the gaps. I mean, assuming you want to continue contact with him.”

Sid squirmed. “Yeah, there is that to consider.”

“Well, you don’t have to right now. I was just thinking, since his birthday’s Tuesday, maybe tonight we could have a little party for him. I told Rachel we’d have him back by six, but I’m sure we could call the hotel.” I snorted. “Rachel sure wasn’t worried about him coming back any too soon.”

Sid shrugged, then suddenly chuckled. “Nick’s birthday is Tuesday?”

“Yeah.”

“How ironic.”

“What do you mean?”

“Don’t you know what day Tuesday is?”

“It’s the fourteenth, isn’t it? We have that defense plant meeting.”

“True. But what day is the fourteenth of February?”

“Valentines. That’s right. I thought your fan mail was getting a little heavy.”

Fan mail is my name for the various notes and letters sent by Sid’s various girlfriends. It’s one of the few areas of his sex life that I have some contact with as it’s part of my job to open the mail. Only I pass the obviously personal stuff onto Sid unopened.

Sid gazed across the walkway to where the boys were chatting as they leaned over the railing separating them from some lions, I think.

“Nick certainly seems to bring Darby out,” said Sid thoughtfully.

“Sid, what are you thinking of doing?” I asked suspiciously.

“I’m not sure yet. However, Nick has been doing Darby a world of good, and while we may never find out just what Darby’s problem is, if Nick can help him resolve it, it would be worthwhile to have him around. Perhaps I will extend an invitation to have him stay with us for the week.”

“Oh.”

Sid squirmed again. “I know that tone.”

“I didn’t say anything.”

“Lisa, by now, you don’t have to. What, pray tell, is your objection?”

“Well, there’s our business. We’re taking a pretty big chance just having Darby around.”

“Actually, I think they’ll distract each other. You’re still not satisfied. Come on, ‘fess up.”

I squirmed. “I’m not really objecting, so much as… wondering why you don’t want to say you’d like to get to know Nick a little better, which I’ve got this feeling is your real reason for having him stay with us.”

“I haven’t the faintest idea, Lisa-pet.” He looked over at the boys. “It just doesn’t seem to have sunk in, even with it staring me in the face.” He looked at me, then put his hand over mine. “If I’m having trouble accepting this, it’s because I really don’t want to. I know that sounds cruel to you, but I can’t help it. I really thought I’d ditched it.”

“I guess I understand. At least Nick’s a nice kid.”

“He is, but a kid nonetheless.”

“Well, somewhere along the line, you’re going to have to make up your mind about your future relationship with him.”

“Maybe. Maybe not. For the moment, however, I’d just as soon play it by ear.”

“You’re not usually one to duck responsibility.”

“No. But in this case, I’m not even sure what it is. Why don’t we take off from here, and we’ll talk to Rachel about having Nick over?”

“Okay.”

The boys were not thrilled about leaving and said so noisily. Sid remained firm. As we walked to the front gate, Nick dropped the map of the zoo that he’d been consulting all afternoon. Sid bent to pick it up. Darby did, too, just a microsecond later and caught Sid pretty hard in the left eye. Sid straightened quickly, blinking, then held his hand over his right eye.

“Damn,” he muttered.

“I’m sorry,” gasped Darby. “Did you lose it?”

“Lose what?” asked Nick.

“No.” Sid poked at his left eye. “It’s just off-center. I can feel it in there. Lisa, you want to tell me where it is?”

“Where what is?” asked Nick.

“Oh, gross! No.” I dug into my purse. “I’ve got a mirror in here somewhere. I don’t how you can stand those things.”

“Stand what things?” screeched Nick.

“My contact lenses,” said Sid finally. He pulled a flat case from his inside jacket pocket and inspected his eye in the mirror in the top.

“Contacts?” groaned Nick.

“Unfortunately, I am extremely nearsighted,” said Sid. “Damn. It’s in the top.”

“You are?” Nick frowned as Sid pulled his upper eyelid up and away from his eyeball. I gagged and turned away.

“It is not an uncommon affliction, however,” said Sid.

“I guess not.” Nick looked over at Darby, who pushed his glasses up on his nose.

Sid pushed the errant lens into place over his cornea. Nick looked at Sid with an uncomfortable grimace, as if he were trying to come to grips with something, then brushed it aside and ran ahead with Darby chasing him. I looked at Sid. He shrugged.

Back at the hotel, the boys ran ahead to the lobby. I yelled at them to wait there for us. Sid hesitated.

“Do you want me to talk to Rachel for you?” I asked.

“No thanks. I’ll take care of it myself.” He looked at me and smiled. “But why don’t you come along for moral support.”

“Sure.”

“Good. I may need someone to keep me from throttling her.”

“What about the boys?”

“We’ll leave them in the lobby for the time being. Darby should keep Nick out of trouble.”

“You are an optimist.”

Nonetheless, we left the boys in the lobby with firm instructions not to leave the premises. Sid was somewhat tense riding up in the elevator. Fortunately, Rachel was in the room and answered our knock quickly.

“Hello, Sid. Come on in,” she said, smiling warmly. Then she saw me. “Oh, hello. Where’s Nicholas?”

“He’s downstairs,” said Sid, leading me into the room. “I’ve got a proposition for you that I’d like to discuss first.”

“Sid, I told you, I have no interest in your money.” Rachel shut the door behind me.

“Perhaps I phrased that badly. I’m… interested in Nick. He’s a nice kid, but he does seem lonely. I’ve thought it over and decided I’d like to have him spend this coming week here with me, with your permission, of course.”

Rachel nodded. “That’s a different tune than the one I heard yesterday.”

“I’m not necessarily acknowledging him.” Sid’s voice just barely got that angry edge.

“No, you wouldn’t,” she sighed.

Sid shifted. “I didn’t say I wasn’t going to.”

My eyes narrowed, and all of a sudden, it seemed like I knew what Rachel was up to. I quickly pressed my foot on Sid’s. He glanced over at me and I just barely shook my head. Fortunately, Rachel was too caught up in her sadness to see.

“Either way,” continued Sid. “It will take me some time to develop my position in all of this. Until then, I see no reason why I can’t continue to be friends with Nick.”

“It would be good for Nick to have a father figure,” I said. “Since my nephew is staying with us, it won’t be any trouble to have the two of them. They’re great friends already. And school shouldn’t be a problem. I can call and get his homework, and we’ll arrange to have his books shipped to us.”

Rachel looked at Sid. “And after this week?”

“We’ll see,” said Sid. “I see no obstacles to a friendship. Beyond that, I don’t really wish to say until after I’ve spoken to my lawyer, for Nick’s sake as much as anything. I don’t want him caught in the crossfire of a misunderstanding.”

Rachel leaned on the dresser, thinking. It was perhaps catty of me, but I got the feeling she was struggling with the temptation of being childless for a week versus keeping Nick with her and manipulating Sid that way. Okay, it was possible Nick’s welfare entered into it.

“Are you sure Nicholas would like to?” she asked finally.

“Why don’t I bring him up and we can ask him,” said Sid, suiting action to words.

Rachel started to protest, but he was gone before she could get the words out. We looked at each other awkwardly.

“Assuming Nick stays, we’ll need a medical release,” I said, digging through my purse for pad and pen. “Maybe now would be a good time to clue me in on allergies and things like that.”

“He has none,” replied Rachel sourly.

“Medications?”

“None.”

I pulled out my steno pad and handed it to her. “Why don’t you write it up? It will look better if it’s in your handwriting.”

“Hm.” Rachel took the pad and wrote.

“I’m trying to make this as easy as possible.”

“Easy?” Rachel snorted. “I’ll admit, Sid’s and my affair did not last all that long, but I’ve been living with a pretty potent reminder of it for over eleven years now. You don’t know how lucky you are that he’s gotten himself fixed.”

I glared. “It wouldn’t make any difference if he wasn’t. We’re not lovers.”

Rachel laughed. “Do you honestly expect me to believe that?”

“Yes, I do.”

She shook her head. Silence followed. There really wasn’t anything to say. I wondered where Sid had gotten off to, and if he’d chickened out of facing Rachel. When he eventually showed, he had both boys with him.

“What took so long?” I asked.

“Elevator races,” he said.

“We were on the premises,” said Nick. “You didn’t say we couldn’t leave the lobby. Hi, Mom. We had a totally bitchen day.”

“That’s great, Nicholas,” said Rachel.

“Nick,” said Sid. “I brought you up here to ask if you’d like to spend this week here in Los Angeles with me, Lisa and Darby.”

“You mean at your house?” Nick’s eyes lit up with joy.

“Yes.”

“Wow, would I!” He bounced into his mother. “Can I, Mom, can I? Please?”

Rachel sighed. “Yes, you may.”

“Alright!” Nick gave her a big hug, which she received awkwardly.

“Nick,” said Sid sternly. “This is with the understanding that I do have work to do and I will not have my normal routine disturbed. Is that clear?”

“Sure,” said Nick. “I’ll do whatever you do.”

“No, you won’t,” I said quickly.

“I’m beginning to wonder if this is such a good idea,” said Rachel.

“Mom,” groaned Nick.

“Darling, I just don’t want you cooped up in some jail.” For once, I got the impression Rachel was sincere.

“Uncle Sid’s house is really neat,” said Darby. “And he’s really nice.”

“We will take care of ironing out the details,” Sid said. “You boys go down to the lobby and stay there. In the lobby.”

“Yes, sir,” they mumbled, then ran out of the room.

“Sid, I do not want any harsh discipline,” said Rachel even before the door was shut.

“I don’t believe in hitting kids, Rachel,” said Sid. “And Nick will certainly not be on any forced marches. However, I will not accept any disruptions of my normal routine and that’s that.” He sighed. “Rachel, I have to admit, I really resent what you’ve done.”

“Oh, I had help, Sid. Remember?”

“I’m not talking about Nick. I’m talking about the way you handled it. If you were in trouble and needed help, the least you could have done is talked to me about it.”

“And you would have seen to getting rid of it? I didn’t want that.”

Sid took a deep breath. “Even if you wanted to keep it. That’s why the issue is called choice.”

Rachel started weeping. “You have no idea what I’ve been through.”

“I didn’t get a chance. Remember?” Sid put his hand on her shoulder. “I could have been there for you, Rachel.”

She moved away. “That’s so easy to say now.”

“Perhaps. I can’t say dumping a total stranger into Nick’s life and expecting the kid to call him dad is really easy to deal with either. Or very healthy, I might add.”

“As if your response is so healthy. You won’t even admit he’s yours.”

“It seems rather obvious.” Sid stopped and took a deep breath. “Look, we’re both getting angry and in about five seconds we’re going to be saying things we’ll regret later. I’d rather remain friends.”

“You’re right,” Rachel sighed. “I’m sorry, Sid. For everything. I was young and confused. I did the best I could.”

“I know. It’s just been one hell of a shock.” He smiled quietly.

“Um, I’d like to get Nick’s things together,” I said.

Rachel pointed to the other side of the room. “They’re right over there on the other side of the bed.”

She turned back to Sid. The overnight case was there, with dirty clothes spilling out. I jammed it all together and got it zipped up.

“Is this everything?” I asked.

“Should be,” said Rachel.

“If he needs anything, I’ll take care of it,” said Sid. He turned back to Rachel. “I don’t think it would be a good idea at this point.”

She spoke softly to him again.

He chuckled. “No thanks, Rachel. I’m actually very happy with the terms I’ve got. Lisa, you ready?”

“Yes.”

Rachel scowled as we left. Another second or so there, and I think we would have gotten yelled at. Once in the hall, Sid took the overnight case.

“What did she want?” I asked as we waited for the elevator.

“To spend the night with me.”

“She’s got nerve.”

“You don’t get to be an emergency room doctor without it.” Sid’s grin was smug. “She was offering me better terms than my ice cube.”

I sighed.

Sid put his arm around my shoulders. “Dear little ice maiden. I’ll take you over her any day. You wouldn’t pull a stunt like she did.”

“That’s what you said about her.”

Sid paused. “This is true. However, I can’t get you pregnant, even if it were possible for me to get you into bed.”

“That would be possible, you know,” I said, staring at the crack between the elevator doors.

“Is that an offer?” Sid’s eyes twinkled in delight. “Is it really? Please?”

“No.”

“Oh well.” He sighed exaggeratedly, then gently kissed the side of my head. “Can’t win ’em all.”

The elevator opened and we got on. Sid punched the button for the ground floor.

“It’s kind of funny,” he said. “If she had told me she was pregnant back then, I probably would have run the other direction.”

“I don’t think so,” I said. “You tend to take care of your girlfriends.”

He looked at me and smiled. The elevator opened and the boys were right there.

Let us pause now for a small digression on Sid’s eating habits. There is no getting around the fact that the man is finickier than Morris. He won’t touch red meat, salt, sugar, except small amounts of honey, or artificial anything. Sid and I are constantly arguing about this because I’ll eat just about anything and usually in quantity.

This does not mean, however, that Sid does not like to eat. He loves to eat. He just prefers healthy food, although he will fudge a little in the case of really upper-class fine dining. He does have two culinary weaknesses, and they just happen to be passions that I share. One is exceedingly spicy food, the hotter the better. Serrano chiles, Thai food, Tandoori, bring it on, we love it.

Then there is pizza. I first began to suspect he liked it a lot more than he let on when he took me to San Francisco the previous fall. There’s a pizza place just below Coit Tower, and I actually talked Sid into eating lunch there. Then a month or two later, I caught him red-handed, heating up some leftovers I’d brought home from an outing with my church’s youth group. He got it royally because it wasn’t the first time my leftover pizza had disappeared. [How was I to know they were yours? How often is there anything left after you eat? – SEH]

Sid conceded he hadn’t let on because he figured I’d never let him hear the end of it. I decided I was better than that and promised I wouldn’t. It turned out we like the same toppings: mushrooms and black olives. I like sausage, too, but not that much. Sid and I are also militantly opposed to green pepper (they take over a dish and are too benign to be worth it) and anchovies, which just taste bad.

Back to Sunday. The boys decided they wanted pizza, which was great by me. No arguing with Sid. The boys pointed out one of the chains. Sid said no. We went to this little dive down in Hollywood. There’s a guarded parking lot next door, which is the only reason Sid will chance taking his BMW down there.

Inside is dark and cozy with tacky vinyl tablecloths, rickety chairs, booths with the vinyl seat cracking and three video games beeping in the corner. The pizza they serve is some of the best in Southern California, and it comes with excellent Chianti and an absolutely delicious antipasto. Sid doesn’t like the meat on it, but since I give up sausage on my pizza, he doesn’t complain when I eat the salami and mortadella on the antipasto. We have the cook deep six the green pepper.

We tried to order no green pepper Sunday. Nick protested.

“I love green pepper. Can you leave it? Please?”

“On the salad,” said Sid.

“Thanks.” Nick bounced.

He kept up a running commentary on the day, his school, and life in general. The boys and Sid were full long before I was. Sid gave them change for the video games and they ran off and happily occupied themselves.

“We’d better get ourselves squared away on the week,” said Sid.

“Yeah. Nick’s birthday is Tuesday. We really ought to do something.”

“And we’ve got that defense plant meeting in the morning.”

“Plus that stock market draft I’ve got to go over, and those books for the toxics article, plus whatever’s in Friday and Saturday’s mail. And there’s your singles column.”

“Oh, damn.”

I grinned. “Didn’t do your research, did you?”

“I was going to do it last night, but I wasn’t exactly up to it.”

“I guess not. Did you get that stock market draft done?”

“Yep. I worked on it Friday night and got it done between the gym yesterday and Rachel showing. I’ve got a drop to set up tomorrow, too. Alright, why don’t I get my column research done tonight? I’m kind of in the mood to go out anyway.”

“You know, I’ve got some shopping to do tomorrow. I’ve got to get Nick a birthday present, and something for George, and a card for Frank, and Jesse and Kathy and Susie and Dan and Sarah. I’m glad you reminded me about Valentine’s Day. I almost forgot. And there’s my parents. I’d better make a list.”

I put down my pizza and went digging through my purse.

Sid chuckled. “I noticed you said something for George. Why not just a card?”

I blushed. “Sid, come on. He’s just a good friend.”

“You two have been dating pretty steadily since last month.”

“We didn’t go out this weekend.”

“You were going to. I heard you cancel Friday’s date.”

“So what’s the big deal?”

Sid gazed at the table’s candle. “He’s getting more and more serious.”

“He knows I don’t want to get married,” I snorted.

“Does he?”

“Well, I can change my mind if I want to.”

“Yeah, right.” Sid laughed. “You and George?”

“Yeah, me and George,” I growled. “What’s the matter with that?”

“Nothing. I just don’t believe it, is all. You’ve been raising hell about not wanting to get married for too darned long.”

“I never said I was.” I sighed. “George and I are just good friends.”

“Wasn’t he supposed to take you to meet his parents Friday?”

“We were just going to dinner there. It wasn’t any big deal. And I’m going next Saturday, so there.”

“And you say he’s not serious.”

“Sid, you’re changing the subject. We were talking about Nick’s birthday and what to do.”

Sid rolled his eyes. “I don’t care. Do whatever you like, within reason, of course, and it can’t interfere with our meeting.”

“It won’t.”

We took off shortly after that, getting home around seven thirty. Sid changed clothes and took off. In the meantime, I checked my answering machine. Mae had called. The boys were playing cards in the rumpus room, so I called Mae back from the library.

“How’s Darby doing?” she asked as soon as I said hello.

“Fine,” I said. “He hasn’t said anything about what’s bothering him, but he’s been in a really good mood.”

“Oh, Lisa, I was hoping.”

“It’s only been a couple days, Mae. Hang in there. He’s a lot more relaxed. He’ll open up sooner or later.”

“I guess. What have you guys been talking about?”

I laughed. “Anything but his problem, I’m afraid. It’s been a pretty weird weekend. You won’t believe what’s happened.”

“What?” Mae sounded really worried.

“It’s nothing terrible. One of Sid’s old girlfriends from when he was in college showed up yesterday with a kid.”

Mae laughed. “Trying to hang it on Sid, huh?”

“Well, for once, he got caught.”

“But he’s fixed.”

“He wasn’t always. The kid is just barely old enough, and you should see him. He looks just like Sid, right down to the dimple in his chinny, chin, chin.”

“Oh, my God!” Mae yelped, then giggled. “How’s Sid taking it?”

“Better. He hasn’t formally acknowledged Nick, but he agrees he can’t really deny it either. It has been one heck of a shock. Sid didn’t have the least idea, and Rachel, that’s the mother, she never even told Sid she was pregnant until yesterday, then she just dropped it on him.”

“Oh no. What did Sid do?”

“He wouldn’t even meet Nick at first. I talked him into meeting Nick today, and Sid likes him. He’s a really sweet kid.”

“How old is he?”

“Eleven. He and Darby have become best buddies.”

“Oh?”

“Relax, Mae. Nick’s an absolute sweetheart, pretty hyper, maybe, but in a way that’s good. He’s really drawing Darby out. That’s one of the reasons Darby’s a lot more relaxed. I mean, I don’t think they’re talking about Darby’s problem, but it sure took his mind off of it.”

“I’m glad, I guess.” Mae sighed. “You sure Nick’s a good kid?”

“Yes. I just wish I knew what to do about his birthday. It’s Tuesday. I was thinking of going somewhere special, but Sid and I have an interview that morning with this guy from some defense plant out your way.”

“Is it an all day thing?”

“I don’t think so, but you never know. The boys have been dropping hints about Disneyland, but that wouldn’t work. They close at seven this time of year, don’t they?”

“Something like that.”

“Well, even if the interview only lasted ’til noon, by the time we got back here for the boys and back to Orange County, we’d have hardly any time.”

“Has Nick ever been to Disneyland before?”

“He says this is the first time he’s ever left the Bay area.”

“Hm. It’d be a shame if he didn’t get a chance to go. I wonder. I’d really like to meet Nick, and I want to see Darby. How about if I take them in the morning, and you and Sid can meet us there when you’re done?”

“Mae, I couldn’t ask you to do that.”

“Why not? I need an excuse to get out. It’ll be fun.”

“Are you sure? We can bring the boys out for a visit.”

“No, no. We’ll do it this way. I’m looking forward to it. It’ll be a nice treat.”

“I’d better discuss it with Sid first. You know how he is about things like that. What are you going to do with the others?”

“I’ll bring them along. It’s not fair for Darby to have a treat and not them. Ellen’s pretty fried because he’s missing school and she still has to go.”

“Isn’t that getting any better for her?”

“I’m afraid not,” Mae sighed. “I should have put her straight into first grade instead of kindergarten. I don’t care if she was too young. She certainly has the skills. Would you believe she’s already reading on a second-grade level? And last week, she was helping Janey with her math homework. I talked to our church school, and they’ll put her on an accelerated track, with upper-grade tutors and all that. I wish they could take her now, but it’s too late in the year.”

“How are the other kids?”

“Real good, thank God. Janey got a perfect score on her science test, which thrilled Neil, and she’s been taking that fine arts class through the city, which she just adores. The twins have been behaving very well all of a sudden. I’m beginning to wonder if something’s up. At least their kind of trouble I can handle.”

“Would you like to talk to Darby?”

“I’d love to. So would his dad.”

“Great. I’ll get him. Give my love to Neil and everybody if I don’t get on again, and I’ll call you tomorrow about Tuesday.”

“Fine.”

I pushed the hold button and called Darby. He was very happy to talk to his family. I retreated and went to the rumpus room. Nick sat in the middle of the floor, looking utterly disgusted. Playing cards were scattered all over. Motley, my springer spaniel, sat and looked at Nick plaintively.

“What happened?” I asked.

“Fifty-two card pick up,” Nick grumbled.

I laughed. I had to. I’d taught Darby the joke.

“You fell for it,” I said. “You pick ’em up.”

“I know.” Sullenly, Nick gathered the cards together.

“Here. I’ll help you. Then it’ll be bedtime. You have to get up pretty early around here if you want breakfast. Sid wasn’t kidding about his normal routine.”

“What all do you do?”

“Up at five forty-five a.m. Meet at the front door at six to go running. Darby’s been coming with us, but I don’t know if you’ll have to.”

“I can.”

“I don’t know. We run for a full hour, and I know Sid’s not going to want you hanging back, and he’s not going to want to cut it short if you poop out.”

“It’s no problem. We run all the time for P.E. at school, and I have to walk five miles to school every morning.”

“Five miles?”

“Well, maybe not that much, but I have to run a lot of mornings to get there on time. What if it rains?”

“We eat breakfast first, then go to the gym, shower, and dress there and get back here to the office by eight.”

“What do you do after running?”

“Shower and dress, breakfast at seven thirty, in the office by eight. And then we work, and that all depends on what day it is and what needs doing.” I sat back on my knees. “Let’s see if they’re all here.”

I had the cards counted in a minute while Nick watched.

“All here,” I announced, putting them in their box.

“Lisa,” Nick asked slowly. “Do you think he likes me?”

I smiled. “Yes, he does. You have to remember, Nick, you’re quite a surprise. He really didn’t know about you before yesterday, and he found it pretty hard to believe at first. He’d figured your mother would have said something a long time ago.”

“I guess.” Nick frowned. “Grandma used to say that when my dad heard my mom was pregnant, he left her and told everyone he didn’t do it. I always figured my dad didn’t want me, and I decided I didn’t want him. Then last week, Mom said she was going to take me to meet my father, and I said I didn’t want to. Then she said she’d never told my dad about me, or that she was even pregnant. I didn’t believe her, ‘cause of what Grandma had said, and Mom said that was what she’d told Grandma and Grandpa so they wouldn’t force her to marry him because while my dad was an okay person, she didn’t want to get married, even though she really wanted me. I didn’t know what to believe after that.”

I put my arms around him. “What does your grandfather have to say about all this?”

Nick shrugged. “I don’t know. He left years ago. I just barely remember him. Grandma said he was probably living in some gutter. He was a drunk.”

“Oh, Nick. I’m sorry.”

I pulled one of the bean bag chairs over and crawled into it. Nick crawled into my lap. I held and cuddled him, and he hugged me back so gently and a lot like Sid, without being in the least bit sexual. I kissed the soft dark wavy hair.

Darby came in.

“What’s going on?” he asked, more puzzled than disturbed.

“Just some much-needed cuddling,” I replied, then to Nick, “Think we can let him join us?”

“Sure.”

Nick squirmed around and made room for Darby. I gave Darby a kiss and a squeeze. We sat for another ten minutes or so, then my arm fell asleep.

“Oh, well, it’s time for bed anyway,” I said. “You guys go get ready and I’ll be in in a few minutes to tuck you in. Okay?”

“Sure thing, Aunt Lisa,” said Darby.

They scrambled away and ran off. I looked at Motley, still sitting in the middle of the room, looking plaintive.

“You got left out, my little baby, didn’t you?” I said to him. “Come here, Motley.”

Motley trotted over and flopped into my lap. I scratched his belly, and his hind leg pawed the air in ecstasy.

“Go find your ball,” I told him.

With a happy bark, he dashed away. Seconds later, he dropped the old tennis ball in my lap.

“Go find the remote,” I told him.

Motley barked and dashed behind the bar.

The remote control was part of a running battle I had going with Sid. We are not big TV watchers, and except for a couple programs, we never watch commercial stations. When Sid does, he keeps the remote control at his side, and during commercials, flips through the different channels until the program he’s watching is back on. I hate that. He hates commercials. So, we each hide the remote control from the other whenever one of us can find it.

Motley was definitely an asset along those lines. He brought the remote control from behind the bar and dropped it in my lap.

“Okay, Motley,” I said looking around. “Where can I put it this time?”

It was an unspoken rule that it never left the rumpus room or was put someplace where it could be damaged. Looking up, I found my spot: the valence over the drapes covering the sliding glass doors. I piled up a couple bean bags and quickly stuck the remote control in one of the corners, balancing it inside the valence on the drapery rod. After I moved the bean bags back, I petted Motley.

“Okay, sweetheart,” I told him. “No ratting on me now.”

Big help that would be. Motley wouldn’t really rat on me. Sid would just tell him to find the remote and he would.

Motley followed me to the two guest rooms where the boys were. I went into Darby’s room first. He was in bed waiting for me.

“What are you thinking about?” I asked softly.

He shrugged. “Nothing.”

“Having a good time?” I sat down on the bed next to him.

“Yeah. I’m having a great time.”

“Darby,” I said slowly. “You’ve been having problems haven’t you?”

His face closed off immediately. “I’m fine. Really, Aunt Lisa, I’m fine.”

“Are you sure you don’t want to talk about it?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, if you do, just let me know. I’ll listen anytime you want to talk.”

“I know. Thanks.”

“I love you, Darby. I want to help.”

“I’m fine.”

“Alright. Goodnight.”

“Goodnight, Aunt Lisa.”

I bent down and kissed him.

Nick was in his pajamas, but not in bed. He was inspecting the intercom on the wall. The speaker was flush with the wall, with a plastic grate over it and about twenty buttons underneath. You could, by pressing the right buttons, listen in on any room in the house except Sid’s office, from any room. The eavesdrop button was one of five unlabeled ones, and you did have to press it in the correct sequence, so Sid and I didn’t worry about someone listening in on us.

“Into bed, Nick,” I said, smiling.

Nick scurried over and under the covers. I sat down next to him.

“Did you have a nice day?” I asked.

“It was terrific.”

“I’m glad. Goodnight, Nick.”

“That’s funny.”

“What is?”

“Everybody here keeps calling me Nick. Everybody at home calls me Nicholas.”

“Which do you like better?”

“I like Nick.”

“Alright, Nick. Goodnight.”

“Goodnight, Lisa.”

Nick insisted on a good long hug before his kiss.

As I softly shut the door to Nick’s room, I heard Sid singing “All Day, All Night, Marianne.” I checked my watch.

“What are you doing over here?” he asked. He was about to go into his room, and that wing of the house is one I’m rarely in.

“Tucking the boys in,” I replied. “You’re in a good mood.”

“Oh, just a very well misspent evening.”

“It’s not even ten o’clock. What happened to your research?”

“Nothing much happening there. I took my notes and was about to leave when I ran into an old friend of mine who had to get home early because she has to be up for work tomorrow. It was fast, furious and fun. All in all, a very convenient arrangement.”

“Something tells me I’d rather not know.”

“Too bad.” Sid had that smile on his face again. He chuckled. “How was your evening?”

“Very nice, thank you. Nick is definitely in the running as one of the all-time great sweethearts.” I paused. “He, uh, asked if you liked him. I said yes.”

Sid looked away. “Well, it’s the truth.” He looked at me. “It’s going to take time, Lisa. He is, in effect, a total stranger, and I’m certainly not up for this parenting thing.”

I reached over and squeezed his hand. “I know. Listen, I’ve got an idea for Nick’s birthday. We can talk about it tomorrow, though.”

“Fine.”

I started to move away, but he still had my hand. Gently, he tugged, trying to pull me closer. His eyes gleamed, and there was something in them. My heart pounded.

“Sid?” I asked.

He let go of my hand. “Sorry. Just this wild thought I had. Maybe…” He looked at me again, his eyes soft and searching. I swallowed. He forced a chuckle and turned back to his room. “I guess the time isn’t right yet.”

“Sid, what’s the matter?”

“Nothing’s the matter.” He looked back at me and smiled softly. “Really, Lisa. It was just this weird idea I had, and believe me, you’re not ready for it.”

I blushed. “You never give up, do you?”

“Persistence will out,” he said mischievously, then wiggled the tip of his tongue at me.

I stomped off, knowing darned well he’d made me mad at him on purpose, and I was very glad he had. [I don’t know. Sometimes I wish I hadn’t. Given what happened the following July, I think it would have been better if I’d just come clean. I wanted so much to make you my lover, and not just to make love to you. I knew we would be lovers, even if I missed my guess on when. As for my weird idea, well you heard that. It just took me five months to tell you. That night was the first time I truly considered it seriously. I really should have told you then – SEH]