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]

Chapter Two

February 11, 1984

I won the bet. The kid on the doorstep was there, as I had expected. What I hadn’t expected were his features, which were more than a little familiar. True, he couldn’t have been older than twelve. The face was definitely rounder. The hair was longer and not nearly as neat. He had the beginnings of an overbite and wore glasses.

But behind the wire-rimmed lenses blinked two very familiar piercing blue eyes. The hair had the same dark luster and waviness. And the chin was dimpled. It was impossible, but there he was.

All I could think was that if I’d bet on the paternity issue I could have cleaned up royally.

“Is this Sid Hackbirn’s place?” asked his mother. She was a fairly tall woman, with long blonde hair and dark roots pulled back into a half ponytail. It was a cutesy do that didn’t diminish her imposing nature one bit.

“You must be Dr. Flaherty,” I said, finally finding my voice.

“Yes. This is my son, Nicholas.”

“It’s nice to meet you. Please, come in.” I smiled weakly as the boy walked past me. He gave me a funny look. “I’m Mr. Hackbirn’s secretary, Lisa Wycherly. Sid’s in his office. I’ll show you in.”

“If you don’t mind,” said Rachel. “I’d like to see him alone first.”

“You know, that might be a really good idea,” I said. I looked around frantically. Darby hung out of the office with his mouth open. “Darby, sweetheart. This is Nicholas. Why don’t you two go watch TV in the rumpus room? Nicholas, this is my nephew, Darby. You guys look like you’re about the same age.”

“I’ll be eleven Tuesday,” said Nicholas.

“I’ll be eleven in April,” said Darby. “Come on. Uncle Sid has a really great TV.”

The door in Sid’s office was closed. I knocked.

“Sid?” I called quietly.

The door opened.

“Rachel,” said Sid. “Come on in. It’s great to see you again.”

“Thanks, Sid,” she said warmly. “You’re looking really good. What happened to your glasses?”

“I got contact lenses.” He shut the door.

I shouldn’t have, but I wasn’t going to miss out on this one. I punched the intercom line on.

“I’m working emergency at Sunnyvale Community,” Rachel was saying. “I noticed you’ve been writing.”

“I’m doing okay at it. But Sunnyvale. So you’re still up north. What brings you down here?”

“Well, Sid, remember that last weekend we were together?”

Sid chuckled lecherously. “It wasn’t the sort you want to forget.”

“Mmm. No, it wasn’t, although that was why we went.”

“What do you mean?”

“My finals?”

“Oh, that’s right. You were in med school then, weren’t you?”

“My next to last year. Remember that box of condoms that kept breaking?”

Sid laughed. “Yeah. That was the biggest reason I got my surgery that fall.”

“Surgery?”

“It was the first thing I did when I got my money. I got fixed.” Sid chortled pleasantly.

“Not soon enough.”

Silence.

“Rachel, what is going on here?”

“You got me pregnant, Sid. It had to be you. I was so busy with finals, that weekend we went to Dad’s cabin was the only time I’d messed around the whole month.” Rachel chuckled. “I know it’s quite a shock. He’ll be eleven Tuesday.”

“He.”

“Yes. His name’s Nicholas. I probably should have said something sooner, but I really didn’t want a man in my life then, not that you were the type to stick around. But Dad got ugly on the marriage issue, and I thought it would be better. But Nicholas has been wondering where he came from, and I thought it was time he met you.”

“Rachel, how you got caught is your problem.” Sid’s voice got that low even edge that meant he was really angry. “I do not appreciate you trying to hang it on me.”

“I was afraid you’d react that way.” She sighed, the hurt ringing through. “Wouldn’t you at least like to meet him?”

“Not this way. If you wanted a father figure or some other male role model, fine. I would have been happy to cooperate. But this kind of nonsense I don’t need.”

“I’m not asking for anything. Believe me, I’m not hurting financially.” She stopped and sighed again. “Well, I guess that’s that.”

“Good day, Rachel.”

“I’m sorry, Sid. I was alone. I was frightened. But I wanted a child. I was hoping you’d understand that, and at least talk to him. I guess I was asking too much. Goodbye.”

I snapped off the intercom as she hurried through the office. I caught her in the hall.

“I didn’t want anyone to see me like this,” she said, sniffing and wiping her eyes.

“He didn’t take it too well, did he?”

“I should have told him.”

“Listen. Where are you staying? I don’t know if I can do anything, but I’ll try.”

“Thanks,” she said in a tiny voice. Then she gathered herself together and became her imposing self once more. “I haven’t got a place yet. We came in from the airport.”

“Well, there’s the Beverly Hills Hotel down on Sunset, but that’s really expensive.” I led her into my office. Sid’s door was shut so I knew I was safe. “Let me get the phone book out and we’ll find you one.”

I got them a room at the Holiday Inn on the other side of the San Diego Freeway. Rachel thanked me, then collected Nicholas and they took off in the car she’d rented at the airport.

Darby watched with me out the living room window as they left.

“What do you think of Nicholas?” I asked.

“He’s really nice. I like him. He sure looks like Uncle Sid, though. You think..?”

“I think.”

“What does Uncle Sid say?”

“Lisa?” Sid called from the office.

“In a minute,” I called back, then turned to Darby. “I think you’d better stay out of the way. He’s mad and I can’t really blame him. She never told him about Nicholas and was a little rough about telling him now.”

“Lisa!”

I patted Darby’s arm and went to the office. Sid was in his, pacing. I went in and shut the door.

He glanced up at me. “I owe you fifty dollars.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

“You didn’t happen to listen in, did you?”

“Well…”

Sid nodded. “This is steer manure.” [No, bullshit – SEH]

“Well, the way she handled it, yeah.”

“I suppose you believe her?” Sid glared at me accusingly.

I squirmed. “Sid, you didn’t see him.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“He, uh, didn’t get his looks from his mom.”

Sid stopped. “It can’t be,” he said softly. He began pacing again. “Damn it, it can’t be. I’ve always been careful. Always. Even with that damned box of condoms.” He stopped again. “Wait. You heard the conversation. You heard her say she didn’t want anything from me. I don’t have to acknowledge the little brat. That’s it. He’s not mine, unless Rachel files and gets the blood tests to prove it. It’s not my problem. He’s not my kid.”

I sighed and started out of the office.

“Alright, Lisa, out with it. You obviously don’t approve, so why don’t you just say so, and get it over with.”

I turned back. “I just seem to remember somebody else who didn’t appreciate not being wanted.”

Sid softly let out something really obscene.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“No. That’s really the bottom line, isn’t it?”

“Why don’t you just meet him? Maybe the two of you can talk and you can work something out. It doesn’t have to involve his mother.”

“Would that it were that simple, Lisa.”

“I know.”

He smiled softly. “You would. Alright. If you can get a hold of them, then arrange it for tomorrow. I’ll leave it in your hands.” He shifted then picked up the phone. “I’ve gotta get out of here.”

“Where are you going?”

“To get laid.” He turned to whoever had answered. “Yeah, Andrea. Sid Hackbirn…. Well, rough day. Listen, are you busy right now?… Oh, would I…. As soon as I can get there…. Great. See you in a few.”

He hung up and looked at me. There wasn’t anything I could say. Or he could say. Silently, he left the house.

I wandered into my office. Darby was there waiting.

“He sure seemed upset,” he said.

“He is.” I leaned on my desk.

“So what’s going to happen now?”

“Good question. I don’t think he’ll be back any too soon, so we may as well go to the movies tonight without him.”

“Okay.” Darby pushed his glasses back up on his nose. “What’s going to happen with Nicholas?”

“He’s coming over tomorrow.”

“When?”

“I don’t know. I’ve got to arrange it.”

In Sid’s office, the phone rang. It was the line we use solely for Quickline.

“I’ve got to get that,” I said, going into Sid’s office. “Darby, why don’t you go watch TV and I’ll come get you when I’m done.”

“Sure.” Darby hurried out.

I shut the door, locked it and picked up the phone.

A male voice gave the confirmation code and I returned the receiver.

“Where’s Big Red?” demanded the man.

“Out. This is Little Red.”

“Damn. I need both of you. Well, you’ll just have to explain it to him. You still got that drop for Green Light from Thursday?”

“Yes.”

“That’s the prelim info on part of a local investigation, and you guys are now stuck with it. We’ve got to meet immediately.”

“Oh, help. I can’t. I’ve got a civilian here and I can’t ditch him.” I looked over Sid’s desk, but he hadn’t left Andrea’s number.

The man cussed. “There’s got to be a way we can connect. I’ve got the final goods on that installation you’ve got coming up and the cash you’ll need for the investigation.”

“What’s the cash for?”

“We’ve got you two set up as information brokers. That gang from the aircraft plant is organized pretty tightly. The Feds are having a hard time keeping anybody undercover. We need you to set up a sting so we can figure out where they’re getting their stuff. The drop has all the phone numbers. But we’ve got to connect.”

“Wait a minute. Can you hold on a second? I’ve got to check something.” I put him on hold, then went to find that day’s newspaper. I’d seen Sid mark it for clipping, so I knew it was somewhere in the office. He’d left it on the couch. I found the Calendar section and opened it. The movie I wanted was in Hollywood. It was at a couple other places, but that seemed closest. “Alright. Make it a code 3. I’ll be at the Chinese Theater for the seven forty-five show. Look for me at the snack stand about fifteen minutes into the movie. I’ll be buying bonbons, Sprite, popcorn, and nachos with extra jalapenos. How will I spot you?”

He laughed. “You’ve seen me before. I’ll just stuff the goods in that monster of a purse you carry.”

“Okay. See you tonight.”

“Look, if anybody funny shows, get the hell out and don’t worry about the pickup. I may have been spotted. These guys have caught damn near everybody we’ve sent in. We’ll find some other way to make contact.”

“Fine.”

My hands shook as I hung up. I hoped like crazy Sid would be home before it came time to leave, but I knew I couldn’t count on it. There was also Nicholas to deal with, too. I went ahead and called Rachel.

“It’s still pretty sticky,” I told her, “but I got him to agree to meet Nicholas.”

“Oh, good.”

“I’m thinking it might be a good idea if we took Nicholas on an outing tomorrow, if that’s alright with you.”

“That will be fine. I’ve got some friends I can look up.”

“Oh.” I hadn’t meant to exclude her. “You’re invited, too.”

“That’s alright. I think it might be better. Sid’s probably not too anxious to talk to me.”

“You’re probably right.” I went over my schedule silently. “We should be able to pick Nicholas up at noon. Will that be okay with you?”

“Fine. In fact, if you want, you could take Nicholas tonight, or will you and Sid be busy?”

I stumbled at the insinuation. “Sid is, but I won’t be. I mean, I will. Would Nicholas like to come to the movies with my nephew and me?”

I still can’t figure out why I said that or how she had caught me off my guard.

“I’m sure he’d love it. Why don’t you pick him up here at five?”

“Uh, sure. We won’t be late. I’ll bring him back to the room by eleven.”

“Good.”

“Okay. See you at five.”

I hung up feeling very suspicious and very manipulated. Then I remembered the pick up that night and got scared. It was going to be tough enough with Darby there. All I could do was hope he would distract Nicholas.

There was also the drop from that past Thursday. I got the dial to the safe from the file drawer in my office, then struggled with the safe. It’s in the floor in Sid’s office, next to his desk. A waste can covers the almost imperceptible cut in the carpet. Eventually, the safe popped open.

I got the microdot viewer from Sid’s desk. It looks like one of those handheld doohickeys used for looking at slides, but the magnification is much stronger. I all but cussed. [So why didn’t you just go ahead? I know you felt like it – SEH]

According to the directions on the dot, Sid and I were to contact the suspected salesman by that day. I dialed, hoping I could set up the meeting for Monday. No such luck. The turkey, he called himself Tony, very nervously insisted that I meet him the next day at 3:00. I was able to talk him into meeting me at the zoo, only the spot he chose left me feeling more than a little uncomfortable.

It was a mess, but there wasn’t a darned thing I could do about it. So Darby and I made cookies, and come to think of it, ate almost all of them by the time we had to leave to get Nicholas.

We didn’t go into the room. Nicholas opened the door, said hello, then shut it. A minute later, he reappeared with his coat on.

“Doesn’t your mother want us to say hello to her?” I asked. On one hand, given how old Nicholas was, you could almost count on him to forget something like that. On the other hand, the way Rachel had been on the phone earlier, there was something just a little bit hinky about it all.

“No,” said Nicholas. “Hi, Darby.”

“Hi, Nicholas,” said Darby. “Aunt Lisa’s taking us to a really cool theater.”

“Bitchen.”

I decided not to get on Nicholas’s case over his language. Instead, I shepherded the boys out to the truck. I took them down to Santa Monica for dinner at a restaurant I knew of that had really slow service. I let them walk down the pier to kill more time, only Nicholas mostly ran. Darby trotted along behind. But I’d timed it just right. We pulled into the parking lot next to the Chinese Theater right about seven thirty.

Nicholas yelped when we got to the sidewalk.

“What?” I snapped, sliding my hand into my monster of a purse to grab the S and W model thirteen revolver inside.

“These stars in the sidewalk,” replied Nicholas. “They’re so bitchen. Hey, who’s he?”

I swallowed. Before I could look at the tile and tell Nicholas, he was off running to the corner away from the theater, stopping at each star, with Darby.

“Boys, get back here,” I hollered.

They ran back.

“You two stick close to me and do whatever I tell you,” I said. “This isn’t the nicest neighborhood to be in after dark. If we stay together, we’ll be fine, but there are too many weirdos running around not to. Do you understand?”

Nicholas sighed. “Okay.”

Darby nodded. I turned toward the theater and they ran ahead, only not quite so far. Nicholas went wild with joy over all the footprints in the concrete and ran off before I could tell him not to. I got in line at the ticket booth and pulled Darby close to me.

“Listen, I want you to get him and bring him over here,” I said softly. “I don’t want you calling his name or anything. Just quietly tell him to come here.”

Darby took off. A second later, a medium-sized man stumbled into me, nearly knocking me off my feet.

“I’m so sorry,” he said out loud, as he reached out to steady himself. “I hope I didn’t hurt you. I just feel terrible about this.”

I had seen him before. Lots of times, in fact. I think he was in charge of one of the different lines along which we send stuff.

“It’s okay,” I said. “I’m fine.”

“Get the hell out of here,” he muttered, then aloud said, “I’m really sorry. I was just looking around at all of this. It’s incredible.”

His impressed gaze pointed out two dark-haired men bending over a souvenir machine.

“Yeah, well, it’s no problem,” I said. I shifted my purse on my shoulder and turned back to the line.

My contact ambled into a couple dressed in short-sleeved shirts, probably from some snow-bound climate, then into a souvenir store. I noticed several other people glaring in the direction of the souvenir shop. The two dark-haired men were talking together anxiously. They’d probably figured out my contact had made his drop, but to whom, and would it be worth roughing all these people up?

Their eyes kept falling on me, but then Darby and Nicholas showed. Apparently, that canceled me out for the moment.

“You won’t believe what this one guy did,” crowed Nicholas. “He stuck his nose in the cement.”

“Yeah, I know,” I said. “Stay right with me, will you?”

Nicholas shrugged but stayed. I bought the tickets. The two dark-haired men got in line also. Darby looked back at them.

“Those two guys were looking at us a long time,” he said quietly.

“I saw them,” I said, pushing the boys ahead of me into the theater.

“They sure look mean,” said Darby.

“Maybe we ought to fight it out with them,” said Nicholas, about to dart off.

“No!” I just barely got his arm. “Violence is no way to solve things. We’ll ditch them. Just let me think for a second. We’ll go in, but we won’t see the movie.”

The boys groaned.

I shushed them. “We’ll see it someplace else.” I let my voice get a little shaky as we walked through the lobby. “We don’t want those guys attacking us. Just follow me and do exactly what I tell you to. If I push you, run like crazy outside and wait for me.”

“This is just like a spy movie,” said Nicholas with a grin.

“Not even close,” I grumbled. “I’ll bet anything those two guys are not after secret documents, hidden jewels or anything like that.”

Nicholas’s eyes opened wide as he realized I wasn’t kidding. The two men entered the lobby just as we went into the theater itself. Instead of sitting down, I pulled the boys back against the curtains behind the last row. The two men went right past us and down the aisle. One pointed to a threesome about midway into the house. The other nodded and they followed.

I got a grip on the boys’ hands and pulled them into the lobby. We walked quickly until we got outside. I checked behind us. The lobby was mostly filled with latecomers, but no dark-haired men.

“Okay, run, but stay close,” I said, sliding my hand into my purse.

We ran back to the truck. I had the boys get in, while I ducked behind cars and looked around. Apparently, the men hadn’t realized they’d been had or thought I’d gone some other way. They weren’t to be seen. I drove the truck out of the lot’s back entrance anyway.

“Thank God I did all that research on rape prevention,” I sighed as we hit Franklin.

“Mom says your boss is a writer,” said Nicholas. He was seated next to me, with Darby behind him in the jump seat.

“Yeah. Magazine articles.”

“Is that how he got so rich?”

I smiled. “No. Freelancing doesn’t pay that well. He inherited money and invested it.”

“I thought he didn’t have any relatives,” said Darby.

“There’s his aunt,” I said. “They haven’t spoken for years and years, but she’s still around.”

“Then how did he get his money?” Darby asked.

I shrugged. “According to him, he wasn’t supposed to know. He figures it was someone on his mother’s side, because his aunt got a part of the estate, too. His mother died when he was a baby, so he figured he got her part.”

“Wow,” said Nicholas. “Does he have a father?”

“He had to,” I said. “There’s no way of knowing who. But everybody has a father of some sort.”

“I don’t,” said Nicholas, sitting back in his seat.

I was confused. He didn’t seem angry or upset. If anything, not having a father seemed perfectly normal to him.

We just barely made another movie at a theater closer to the Westside. It let out early, so I took the boys for ice cream. They were all over the place, especially Nick.

It was spooky, in a way. Nick looked so much like Sid, and even had a couple of Sid’s mannerisms, like the way they both would lift one eyebrow when bemused, or the way they both chewed ice. Yet Nick could be completely unlike Sid. For one thing, Nick was hyperactive. The kid literally couldn’t sit still for three minutes together. Sid doesn’t even fidget.

When we finally got back to the hotel, Nick unlocked the door to the room and said good night.

“Shouldn’t we check in with your mother?” I asked.

“No. I’m cool.” He slid in the door and shut it.

I looked at Darby. “You wouldn’t happen to know what is going on, would you?”

Darby shrugged.

When we got back to the house, I thought I heard piano music. I put Darby straight to bed, then went to the library. Chopin’s Prelude #15 floated out of the room and when I went in, Sid was at the ebony grand. He ignored me and finished the prelude. But instead of going on to the next, he sighed.

“Sorry I missed the movie,” he said.

“When did you get in?” I asked.

“About half an hour ago.”

“You’re home early.” I waited. No reply. “Feeling any better?”

He shrugged. “What’s to feel? I can’t figure out why I’m so messed up by this. It doesn’t even seem real. I keep telling myself it can’t be my kid. It’s impossible.”

I tried not to sigh, but it escaped anyway. Sid glared at me.

“Look, I know you don’t like my attitude,” he growled.

“Sid, no. It’s not that.” I sank into one of the burgundy wingback chairs. “I don’t know what it is. In a way, I get the feeling Nick isn’t really ready to accept you any more than you are to accept him. It’s been a really weird night.”

Sid turned on the piano bench to face me. I told him about basically everything that had happened since he left that afternoon. Sid added the odd expletive in response.

“There’s something really fishy about that meeting,” he grumbled.

“Like maybe potential for observation? That guy, Tony, was so nervous on the phone, I’ll bet they’re trying to keep him where they can keep an eye on him.”

“And who he has contact with.”

I frowned. “I can’t go with my wig and makeup.”

Sid shrugged. “We’ll just have to take the chance, I guess. What other alternatives are there?”

I sighed. “You know what the weirdest thing of all is? I’m more worried about you and Nick getting together tomorrow than I am about that stupid meeting. And about Rachel. There’s something really funny going on there. I’ve got a bad feeling she wasn’t in that room when I picked Nick up, or when I dropped him off.”

“Is there anything you can do about it?” Sid asked.

“No. Not now, at any rate. I should have insisted on checking in with her.”

“So do it the next time.” Sid stretched.

“Well, I hope you don’t mind the way I arranged things.”

“You did good, Lisa.”

“Did well.”

“Whatever.”

I got up, went over and sat next to him on the bench.

“Would you like a back rub?” I asked softly.

He smiled gently. “Yeah. Thanks.”

I straddled the bench as he pulled the sweater off of his shoulders and laid it in his lap. I started in the middle, working outwards in a circular pattern.

Fugue in a Minor Key Debut

February 9 – 10, 1984

The rain poured down. Not thirty minutes before, when I was still in the UCLA library, it had been barely sprinkling. But now that I was standing burdened with a backpack and a leather satchel both filled to the brim with books, in front of the restaurant in Westwood waiting for a contact that probably wasn’t going to show, the water streamed out of the sky as if God had decided to heck with the rainbow, He was going to flood us out again anyway.

I have to admit, I like working for Operation Quickline as a secret counter-espionage agent for the U.S. Government most of the time. But standing, getting soaked, on a street corner on a cold Thursday afternoon, just waiting to get shot at, or whatever else some enemy had up his or her sleeve, was not my idea of a high spot.

I checked my watch one last time. The contact, code name Green Light, was twenty minutes late. I didn’t like not making the drop, but I wasn’t going to just leave it there, and twenty minutes was too long to be waiting as it was.

I sighed and trudged up the hill and across the campus to where my dark blue Nissan four by four pick up with expanded cab and shell was parked. It took forever to get home. As the garage door opened, I looked at Sid’s two cars with dismay. The Mercedes 450SL, recently retired, was parked next to the wall. Sid’s new dark grey BMW 633 CSi was parked in the middle, leaving almost no room for me. I had to squeeze to get out of my truck, yet again, and struggled to get the satchel and backpack out.

Sid was waiting at the garage door when I got in.

“Good, you’re back,” he said urgently. He’s a handsome man, with dark wavy hair, a cleft chin, and bright blue eyes.

I walked past him to the offices in the front of the house. He followed.

“Sid, whatever it is, I don’t care,” I grumbled. “I am sopping wet from waiting for Green Light, who didn’t show. I am tired and my back is tense from carting books all over the library because you, as usual, have bitten off more than you can chew. I cannot tell you how sick I am of hearing you say, ‘bring everything, we’ll isolate what we want later.’  Next time, you lug books all over, and spend hours in line for the copiers, and put up with all the dirty looks from the people behind you wondering why you’re Xeroxing War and Peace. And also, if you’re going to insist that I not leave my truck in the driveway or on the street, then leave me some room in the garage. I am only so thin, and I am tired of playing Houdini just to get out of my truck. Now. I am going to cancel my racquetball game, get out of these wet clothes, eat my dinner by myself, then fix myself a bowl of hot popcorn, a hot toddy, and sit in front of a nice hot fire in the living room and re-read Gaudy Night. You’ll just have to play in your bedroom. I know it’s rough, Sid, but them’s the breaks.”

I dropped the books next to my desk and unbuttoned my raincoat. Motley, my springer spaniel, yipped a quiet hello.

“I’m sorry, Lisa,” said Sid quietly. “We’ve got to go out to your sister’s tonight.”

“What?”

“Mae called while you were out. Darby’s been having trouble at school, and the school psychologist is coming over for a conference.”

“Darby?” I sat down, completely confused. My nephew is the last kid I’d expect to be in trouble. Motley put his head in my lap, and I scratched it absently. “He has been kind of off the past couple months, but I didn’t think it was that serious.”

Sid shrugged. “I don’t know. Anyway, the conference is at 7:30, and Mae wants us there.”

“Both of us?”

“Well, I volunteered to go also, and she said she could use all the help she could get.”

“Oh, great. She sounds really upset. What time is it?” I checked my watch. “Five thirty? I’ve got to call Margie and cancel our game, then I’m going to take a hot shower. I’m chilled to the bone. You’ve eaten already, haven’t you?”

“Yes. Your dinner’s in the oven, but I’d like to leave as soon as possible.”

“Oh, come on, Sid. The freeways are still packed, and it’s raining, so you know they’re going to be at a standstill.”

“Which is precisely why I want to leave right away. It’ll probably take us two hours to get there.”

Mae and family live in Orange County, which meant with current traffic conditions, Sid had a point. I pushed Motley away and pulled myself out of my chair.

“Alright,” I sighed. “I’ll just change. What did Conchetta make for dinner?”

Conchetta Ramirez is the housekeeper and cook.

“Chili and rice and spinach salad.”

I sighed. Conchetta’s chili is vegetarian, but it’s really good with lots and lots of beans and really hot chiles.

“Sid, please? Can I take some with me? We’ve still got some of those really big styrofoam cups from the slumber party last Saturday. I’ll be real careful.” I blinked twice.

Sid sighed. “Alright. You go get changed. I’ll take care of it. I packed an overnight bag for you, just in case.”

“Thanks. Will you please fill the cup all the way?”

Sid didn’t answer. Much to his dismay, I have an incredible appetite and I don’t gain weight. I went to my room and changed into jeans and an over-sized sized cotton sweater. Sid must have told Conchetta to take care of putting together my food because the really large cup was filled almost to the brim with chili, and there were home-made corn tortillas on the side, and a plastic sack full of cut vegetables. Sid did hand me about ten paper towels.

I didn’t say anything. Right before Christmas, I’d gotten into an accident in the 450SL, which is what motivated Sid to retire it after it got fixed. We’d traded words at the time, and our emotions were still a little raw regarding anything connected to Sid’s cars.

Sid’s lead foot didn’t get much of a work out that night because traffic was indeed as bad as we’d anticipated. We wriggled around and through the lines of cars snaking eastward in the dark and rain.

We got to Mae’s at seven fifteen. The kids are usually bouncing off the walls when we get there. But that night, they solemnly filed down the stairs to say hello. The twins, Marty and Mitch, who were three and a half, quietly hugged me, then Sid. Five-and-a-half-year-old Ellen did the same. Janey hugged Sid first and spent a long time whispering in his ear. For a seven-year-old, she’s got a lot of insight into human nature, and I was hoping she was telling Sid what the problem was. Sid just shrugged.

“We’ll try, honey,” he replied quietly.

Darby, who was getting close to his eleventh birthday, just mumbled “hi,” to both of us. Mae reached over to stroke his red hair, but Darby just pushed his glasses up on his nose and hung his head over his skinny form. A second later, he had run upstairs. His brothers and sisters followed.

Mae bit her lip as the tears started down her cheeks. Neil, her husband, put his arms around her and steered her into the family room.

“What’s going on?” I asked as we all sat down.

Neil pushed his glasses up on his nose. “Darby’s been getting very withdrawn lately. He’s been a little off since last Thanksgiving, but it’s been really bad for the past month. We took him to a counselor over at Catholic Social Services. He said it was just a phase. The school counselor says there’s something bothering him, but she can’t figure it out. We asked Janey. She just said he’s real upset. But the problem is, he won’t say a word about it. He swears he’s alright.”

“That’s not like Darby,” I said.

“We don’t understand it either,” said Neil.

“I’ve tried,” sobbed Mae. “I can’t figure out what we’ve done wrong.”

Neil pulled her closer. “We haven’t done anything wrong. We’re doing all we can. Whatever’s the matter will get taken care of.”

I leaned over and patted Mae’s hand. The doorbell rang and Sid got up.

“Oh, lord, that’s her.” Mae bounced up. “We’ll talk in the kitchen. I better get the water boiling.”

“I’ll get the door,” said Sid.

I followed him into the entry, shutting the family room doors behind me.

The woman at the door was in her middle forties and pretty, with short, light brown hair. She had a plastic raincoat on over a purple sweater and matching skirt.

“Isn’t this the O’Malley residence?” she asked, hesitantly.

“Yes, it is,” said Sid. He smiled warmly, a little too warmly. “Please, come in. I’m Sid Hackbirn, a friend of the family. You must be the counselor from the school.”

“Uh, yes.” She stepped into the entry and shook Sid’s hand.

“I’m Lisa Wycherly, Mrs. O’Malley’s sister,” I said, quickly stepping forward. I could see the well-practiced lechery in Sid’s eyes and wasn’t about to put up with it.

“How do you do?” She shook my hand, then unsnapped her coat.

“May I take your coat?” Sid offered.

“Thank you. It’s a miserable night out.”

“It is at that.” Sid got a hanger from the hall closet and neatly hung up the coat. “So, you’re into child psychology. Sounds like a fascinating field.”

“It is.” She smiled at him. “Do you have any children?”

“No. Nary a one. You?”

“Just the ones at school, thank God.”

Neil opened the doors to the family room. “Come on in. Mae’s setting up in the kitchen.”

The counselor followed Neil through the doors. Sid started after her, but I held him back.

“Will you please?” I hissed.

“Please what?”

“Do you have to pick up on every female you run into?”

“I’m not picking up anybody.” He stopped as he caught my skeptical glare. He shrugged. “May I at least prime the way and file for future reference?”

“Just remember where she works.” Which is the local Catholic school.

Mae was setting out mugs and herb tea in the kitchen.

“We’ll be sitting at the table,” she said. “Oh, Sid, Lisa, this is Sister Jerilyn Michaels.”

“Sister?” muttered Sid, startled.

I pressed my lips together. Neil noticed me, then glanced at Sid and rolled his eyes.

“So much for future reference,” I muttered.

“We got to know Sid right after Lisa started working for him.” Mae poured boiling water into the mugs and dropped the tea bags in. “He’s really a very good friend, and very close to the children, especially Darby and Janey.”

“Yes,” replied Sister with a twinkle in her eye. “They’ve mentioned you.”

I slid around the table to Darby’s place next to the wall. Sister Jerilyn sat at Mae’s place on the end, with Sid next to her, Mae on his other side, and Neil at the head.

“I understand Neil brought you two up to date on Darby’s problem,” Sister said to Sid and me. “What I’d really like to do is think about last fall and try and see if there’s anything that changed during that time.”

“Well, nothing, really,” said Mae. She frowned. “Soccer ended right after Halloween. Wait. I wonder if it’s pressure. Darby’s doing an awful lot. Every Tuesday and Wednesday, he goes and does yard work for Mr. Jefferson. He lives about two blocks over. Darby’s been doing that since October. He wanted to earn his own money for Christmas gifts. Monday afternoon, he has his violin lesson, Tuesday night is guitar, and there’s the orchestra on Thursday afternoons. And he’s always practicing when he’s home.”

“That’s interesting,” said Sister. “Some of the other boys in his class have been teasing him about playing the violin.”

“Oh, no,” sighed Mae. “I’ll bet it’s Stewart and Andy. They were on his soccer team. This was not a good year for Darby. He’s always loved playing, and he’s not bad at it, but this year, his coach was real competitive. Darby stuck it out, God bless him, but I really felt like he should have given it up.”

“Soccer was the first thing I asked him about,” said Neil. “And he’s been worse since it ended, not better.”

“With the teasing and all, there could be some masculinity issues involved,” said Sister. “Neil, do you play any musical instruments?”

“Well, a little guitar,” said Neil. “Mae is more musical than I am. I suppose Darby could be looking at music as a more female thing. But both Mae and I have always been very strong on the idea that it’s not what you do that makes you male or female.”

“And yet, your family situation is very traditional,” said Sister. “What about other influential males in Darby’s life? His grandfathers?”

Neil shrugged. “My dad lives in Nebraska, and we only see him once a year.”

“He’s always been very supportive of Darby,” said Mae. “And he’s pretty sentimental.

Neil shook his head. “Mae’s dad, on the other hand…”

Mae sighed. I bit my lip. Sid pressed his lips together and leaned them on his knuckles.

“Daddy’s definitely a real man,” said Mae. “But he’s been very supportive. He told Darby he should follow his heart.”

Sid cleared his throat. “He does tend to be somewhat homophobic, though.”

“Sid,” I groaned.

Mae sighed. “He’s right. On the other hand, my parents don’t live near us either, and we only see them three or four times a year.”

“And what about you, Sid?” asked Sister. “Darby has mentioned you as someone he looks up to.”

Sid squirmed a little. “Well, I do play piano, and Darby and I have worked on his music together at times.”

Sister smiled at him. “And your masculinity issues?”

Sid chuckled. “No problems there.”

“Are you sure?”

“Trust me, Sister, proving my manhood has been the least of my worries since I was a kid.”

Sister nodded and thought. “You know, Mae, you made a point earlier about Darby being involved in a lot, and that possibly he’s feeling pressured by it. I wonder if there’s a way we could take him out of the grind, so to speak, for a while. Maybe if he can relax a little, he’ll open up.”

“Well, Darby could come stay at my place,” said Sid.

“I don’t think that’s such a good idea,” I replied.

“Why not?” Sid asked.

“Oh, I can think of a lot of good reasons,” I said.

“I think you’re on the right track,” said Sister. “But wouldn’t Darby be more comfortable with his aunt?”

“It’s the same place,” I said slowly. “We’re housemates. That’s it. Well, I work for Sid.”

“And we work at home,” said Sid. “So there’s no babysitting problems.”

“That could be an ideal arrangement,” said Sister.

“Maybe not.” I got up. “Sid, before you commit yourself, can we talk privately for a minute?”

“Sure.” Sid got up and followed me into the dining room, shutting the kitchen door behind him.

“Two very good reasons not to have Darby around,” I said very softly. “One, our flourishing underground business.”

Which is so top secret nobody but Sid and a couple liaisons know we do it, not even my family and friends.

“We can work around it. One of us stays with Darby while the other runs the errands. I’ll even do most of the running.”

“Alright, but number two is the revolving door on your bedroom. I mean he probably knows what you’re up to, but I don’t think you need to be flaunting it, and you know what sometimes happens when you fall asleep on your girlfriends.”

“Indeed, which is why I’m not planning on bringing anybody home while he’s there. Is that a fair compromise?”

“I suppose.” I smiled at him. “You don’t have to do any of this, you know.”

“I know.” He looked over at the kitchen door. “But there are times when being alone in the world has its disadvantages. You guys are as close to family as I’ve got, and with that privilege comes responsibility. If I can help, I’m more than happy to do it.”

Mae seemed a little uncertain as we came back in. I had a feeling she was concerned about my number two objection also. Sid just smiled and told her that I was satisfied with all the arrangements. I later caught them talking quietly together. [She just said that while she respected my right to my own choices, she didn’t think my way of expressing my masculinity was particularly healthy and she really didn’t want Darby emulating it. I told her that I respected that and would make a point of not giving him anything in that way to emulate – SEH]

Neil brought Darby downstairs.

“Darby,” I said, smiling. “We know you’ve been a little off track lately.”

“I’m fine. Really.”

“We know, but Sid and I thought we’d take you to come stay with us for a while.”

Sister Jerilyn watched him carefully.

“I’ve got school,” he said, getting nervous.

“We’ll get your books and your homework,” I said.

“But there’s other stuff, Aunt Lisa,” he said. “I got stuff I gotta do. Mr. Jefferson’s lawns and my music lessons.”

“It’s not late,” said Mae. “You can call Mr. Jefferson and tell him you can’t come for a while.”

“And I can’t do much about your lessons,” said Sid. “But we can work on theory and keyboards at my place.”

“I don’t want Mr. Jefferson to be upset,” said Darby.

“I’m sure he won’t mind,” said Mae, dialing the phone. “Here. It’s ringing.”

She handed the phone to Darby, who swallowed as he took it.

“Uh, hi, Mr. Jefferson. It’s Darby… Um, well, I’ve got a problem. My aunt wants me to come stay with her for a while… I don’t know. She just does… Oh. Okay… Yeah, thanks… No problem… Good-bye.” He smiled as he handed the phone back. “He doesn’t care.”

We sent Darby on to bed and made arrangements with Sister Jerilyn for Sid and me to pick up Darby’s homework the next morning. Then we spent the night at Mae’s, with Sid in the guestroom and me in with the girls.

The next morning, Sister Jerilyn was ready and waiting for us at the school as promised. Sid still seemed pretty uncomfortable around Sister, so we got the books and Miss Robbins’ phone number pretty quickly and got out.

“What happened to those black outfits they used to wear?” Sid asked as we drove back to Mae’s house.

“They’re part of a by-gone era,” I replied smugly.

“They ought to bring them back. How are you going to identify one of those ladies?”

“Why do you have to identify them? So you don’t accidentally try to pick up on them?”

“Real cute, Lisa.”

“Come on, Sid. They’re just human beings like everyone else.”

“I wonder. Anybody who could pledge no sex for their entire lives.”

I snickered. “What about me?”

“You haven’t said no permanently.”

“Yet.”

Sid winced. “Lisa, please. I just can’t see you as a nun. You’re too passionate. At least as it stands now, the option is still open, and someday, maybe, I’ll get you to take me up on it.”

“It’ll be the same day I get you in front of the altar.”

“Good luck. If I ever get crazy enough to get married, I’m going to Las Vegas. There is no way you’re going to catch me involved in one of those three-ring circuses called a church wedding.”

“Sid, there is no way you’re going to get married, so it’s a moot point.”

“True.”

After we got Darby and got back to our home, Sid announced that we were going to play that day and go skiing before the rest of Southern California got to all that fresh powder from the rain the day before.

“Yeah!” Darby hollered.

“Oh?” I asked, skeptically. “I suppose we can rent equipment for Darby, but it’s already nine thirty. Between getting changed and loaded, we won’t get to the mountains until noon at the soonest.”

“We can do some night skiing,” said Sid.

“Yeah!” said Darby.

“Sid, we’re still trying to catch up on last month’s deadlines, and you haven’t even started research on your single’s column, not to mention all those books we’ve got to go through for that toxics article.”

Sid grimaced. “What have we got that’s still overdue?”

I went over to my desk. “My childcare article.”

“That should be right there. I finished going over it yesterday.”

“Here it is.” I went back to the list. “Your stock market piece.”

“I thought we didn’t have to worry about that until Wednesday.”

“But you promised me I’d have a draft to edit today.”

“Oh. It seems to me there’s something else.”

“Your final edits on the Lester Roberts profile, and I need that by noon so we can have our final conference on it and have it ready for overnight delivery by three.”

Darby flopped onto the office couch, looking totally bored. Sid looked at him, then at me.

“Alright. How about this?” He thought for a moment. “Why don’t you make your corrections on your article. It should only take a couple minutes. I’ll make the phone calls for the lift tickets, then double check Roberts and we can do a quick conference on it. We should be done by ten, and if I know you, you can be changed and loaded in five minutes.”

Tempted, I bit my lip. “And what about the stock market draft, your singles research, and those books?”

“If I have the draft on the computer for you by Monday morning, will that be good enough?”

“Alright.”

“Good. I can hardly do singles research now. I’ll get it done over the weekend, and we’ll go through the books Monday and Tuesday.”

Darby sighed.

“You’ll have plenty of schoolwork to keep you occupied,” I told him. “I’m sorry, but Sid and I do have work to do.”

“Can’t you just cheat?” Darby asked.

Sid chuckled. “Not too much. We’ve gotten behind.”

I was biting my tongue so hard, I almost bit it in half. One of Sid’s girlfriends had talked Sid into joining the digital age by showing him how to write on a computer, instead of writing everything out longhand and having me type it into WordStar. He had been taking to it slowly. [So I felt more comfortable thinking with a pen in my hand – SEH] Until the disaster. Neither of us really knows how he did it, but Sid somehow re-formatted the hard drive on my computer, which pretty much destroyed everything we’d been working on. Sid’s just lucky my good friend Esther Nguyen really likes him. She’s an electrical engineer and really good with computers. She couldn’t fix the hard drive problem, but she did convince Sid to get a computer of his own

And, to be fair, the computer meltdown wasn’t the only reason we were behind. We’d been caving in to the lure of uncrowded slopes. For all Sid is very disciplined about working during business hours, he hates the weekend crowds on the ski runs more than I do. We were sneaking out on a weekday at least once every other week. We go together because most of our friends work during the day. Some of Sid’s friends could get away, but they either want to chase girls or have Sid chase them, and Sid would actually rather ski.

I gave in. “Let’s get going. Maybe if we hurry, we can be done before ten.”

Darby hollered his approval as the phone rang on the daytime line.

I picked it up. “Hello?”

“Is this Sid Hackbirn’s place?” asked the woman on the other end.

“May I ask who’s calling?”

Sid waved at me to take a message.

“My name’s Rachel Flaherty. Sid and I are old friends.”

“Well, Ms. Flaherty, if you’d like to leave a number, I’ll have him call you.”

At the sound of her name, Sid’s head whipped around and he waved at me again.

“Would you excuse me for a moment?” I put her on hold.

“Is that Rachel Flaherty?” Sid asked.

“Yes.”

He chuckled. “I’ll be damned. I haven’t heard from her since…” He glanced at Darby. “Well, we were friends the end of my first year at Stanford.”

“Do you want to talk to her?”

“Yeah.” He noticed Darby again. “No. Find out what she wants, and if she wants to drop by… Use your discretion. I can meet her someplace, too. Any time this weekend I’m not booked.”

“Okay.” I pressed the line as Sid went into his office. “Ms. Flaherty…”

“It’s Dr. Flaherty.”

“Oh. Excuse me. Doctor, was there anything, in particular, you wanted to speak to Mr. Hackbirn about?”

“I was hoping to stop by and say hello. I’ve got somebody I’d like him to meet.” Her tone was just cagey enough.

I smirked to myself. “Well, he has several openings. When would you like to come by?”

“How about tomorrow afternoon?” She paused, apparently looking something up. “Let’s see. I could be there by one o’clock.”

“One o’clock it is, then. I’ll let Mr. Hackbirn know. Thank you.” I hung up.

“Lisa, what’s going on?” Sid appeared in the doorway to his office.

“I don’t think you’ll be going out with her, Sid,” I said, trying not to snicker. “She said she has somebody she’d like you to meet, and it was the `he’s not going to like this’ version.”

“I don’t get it,” said Darby.

Sid looked at me.

“Well,” I said. “Sometimes one of your Uncle Sid’s girlfriends will bring a baby to visit and say the baby belongs to Sid, and this Dr. Flaherty is acting like she’s about to do the same.”

Sid laughed. “Nah. Rachel wouldn’t pull a stunt like that.”

“Well, she certainly wasn’t gloating about this somebody.” I looked at Darby. “That usually means the girlfriend got married to someone else.”

“It’s probably another guy she married,” said Sid. “Trust me. Rachel wouldn’t try to pin a kid on me. We were very clear on the prevention issue.”

“Want to put some money on that?” I grinned. “On her setting you up. There’s no point in betting on the paternity issue.”

Sid’s been fixed for years and was religious about birth control before that. Well, all but religious. Sid’s an atheist.

Sid thought, then grinned. “Five to one, your favor?”

“I’ll put up ten dollars.”

“You’re on. And if there’s a kid on my doorstep tomorrow, you’re fifty dollars richer.”

February 9 – 10, 1984

The rain poured down. Not thirty minutes before, when I was still in the UCLA library, it had been barely sprinkling. But now that I was standing burdened with a backpack and a leather satchel both filled to the brim with books, in front of the restaurant in Westwood waiting for a contact that probably wasn’t going to show, the water streamed out of the sky as if God had decided to heck with the rainbow, He was going to flood us out again anyway.

I have to admit, I like working for Operation Quickline as a secret counter-espionage agent for the U.S. Government most of the time. But standing, getting soaked, on a street corner on a cold Thursday afternoon, just waiting to get shot at, or whatever else some enemy had up his or her sleeve, was not my idea of a high spot.

I checked my watch one last time. The contact, code name Green Light, was twenty minutes late. I didn’t like not making the drop, but I wasn’t going to just leave it there, and twenty minutes was too long to be waiting as it was.

I sighed and trudged up the hill and across the campus to where my dark blue Nissan four by four pick up with expanded cab and shell was parked. It took forever to get home. As the garage door opened, I looked at Sid’s two cars with dismay. The Mercedes 450SL, recently retired, was parked next to the wall. Sid’s new dark grey BMW 633 CSi was parked in the middle, leaving almost no room for me. I had to squeeze to get out of my truck, yet again, and struggled to get the satchel and backpack out.

Sid was waiting at the garage door when I got in.

“Good, you’re back,” he said urgently. He’s a handsome man, with dark wavy hair, a cleft chin, and bright blue eyes.

I walked past him to the offices in the front of the house. He followed.

“Sid, whatever it is, I don’t care,” I grumbled. “I am sopping wet from waiting for Green Light, who didn’t show. I am tired and my back is tense from carting books all over the library because you, as usual, have bitten off more than you can chew. I cannot tell you how sick I am of hearing you say, ‘bring everything, we’ll isolate what we want later.’  Next time, you lug books all over, and spend hours in line for the copiers, and put up with all the dirty looks from the people behind you wondering why you’re Xeroxing War and Peace. And also, if you’re going to insist that I not leave my truck in the driveway or on the street, then leave me some room in the garage. I am only so thin, and I am tired of playing Houdini just to get out of my truck. Now. I am going to cancel my racquetball game, get out of these wet clothes, eat my dinner by myself, then fix myself a bowl of hot popcorn, a hot toddy, and sit in front of a nice hot fire in the living room and re-read Gaudy Night. You’ll just have to play in your bedroom. I know it’s rough, Sid, but them’s the breaks.”

I dropped the books next to my desk and unbuttoned my raincoat. Motley, my springer spaniel, yipped a quiet hello.

“I’m sorry, Lisa,” said Sid quietly. “We’ve got to go out to your sister’s tonight.”

“What?”

“Mae called while you were out. Darby’s been having trouble at school, and the school psychologist is coming over for a conference.”

“Darby?” I sat down, completely confused. My nephew is the last kid I’d expect to be in trouble. Motley put his head in my lap, and I scratched it absently. “He has been kind of off the past couple months, but I didn’t think it was that serious.”

Sid shrugged. “I don’t know. Anyway, the conference is at 7:30, and Mae wants us there.”

“Both of us?”

“Well, I volunteered to go also, and she said she could use all the help she could get.”

“Oh, great. She sounds really upset. What time is it?” I checked my watch. “Five thirty? I’ve got to call Margie and cancel our game, then I’m going to take a hot shower. I’m chilled to the bone. You’ve eaten already, haven’t you?”

“Yes. Your dinner’s in the oven, but I’d like to leave as soon as possible.”

“Oh, come on, Sid. The freeways are still packed, and it’s raining, so you know they’re going to be at a standstill.”

“Which is precisely why I want to leave right away. It’ll probably take us two hours to get there.”

Mae and family live in Orange County, which meant with current traffic conditions, Sid had a point. I pushed Motley away and pulled myself out of my chair.

“Alright,” I sighed. “I’ll just change. What did Conchetta make for dinner?”

Conchetta Ramirez is the housekeeper and cook.

“Chili and rice and spinach salad.”

I sighed. Conchetta’s chili is vegetarian, but it’s really good with lots and lots of beans and really hot chiles.

“Sid, please? Can I take some with me? We’ve still got some of those really big styrofoam cups from the slumber party last Saturday. I’ll be real careful.” I blinked twice.

Sid sighed. “Alright. You go get changed. I’ll take care of it. I packed an overnight bag for you, just in case.”

“Thanks. Will you please fill the cup all the way?”

Sid didn’t answer. Much to his dismay, I have an incredible appetite and I don’t gain weight. I went to my room and changed into jeans and an over-sized sized cotton sweater. Sid must have told Conchetta to take care of putting together my food because the really large cup was filled almost to the brim with chili, and there were home-made corn tortillas on the side, and a plastic sack full of cut vegetables. Sid did hand me about ten paper towels.

I didn’t say anything. Right before Christmas, I’d gotten into an accident in the 450SL, which is what motivated Sid to retire it after it got fixed. We’d traded words at the time, and our emotions were still a little raw regarding anything connected to Sid’s cars.

Sid’s lead foot didn’t get much of a work out that night because traffic was indeed as bad as we’d anticipated. We wriggled around and through the lines of cars snaking eastward in the dark and rain.

We got to Mae’s at seven fifteen. The kids are usually bouncing off the walls when we get there. But that night, they solemnly filed down the stairs to say hello. The twins, Marty and Mitch, who were three and a half, quietly hugged me, then Sid. Five-and-a-half-year-old Ellen did the same. Janey hugged Sid first and spent a long time whispering in his ear. For a seven-year-old, she’s got a lot of insight into human nature, and I was hoping she was telling Sid what the problem was. Sid just shrugged.

“We’ll try, honey,” he replied quietly.

Darby, who was getting close to his eleventh birthday, just mumbled “hi,” to both of us. Mae reached over to stroke his red hair, but Darby just pushed his glasses up on his nose and hung his head over his skinny form. A second later, he had run upstairs. His brothers and sisters followed.

Mae bit her lip as the tears started down her cheeks. Neil, her husband, put his arms around her and steered her into the family room.

“What’s going on?” I asked as we all sat down.

Neil pushed his glasses up on his nose. “Darby’s been getting very withdrawn lately. He’s been a little off since last Thanksgiving, but it’s been really bad for the past month. We took him to a counselor over at Catholic Social Services. He said it was just a phase. The school counselor says there’s something bothering him, but she can’t figure it out. We asked Janey. She just said he’s real upset. But the problem is, he won’t say a word about it. He swears he’s alright.”

“That’s not like Darby,” I said.

“We don’t understand it either,” said Neil.

“I’ve tried,” sobbed Mae. “I can’t figure out what we’ve done wrong.”

Neil pulled her closer. “We haven’t done anything wrong. We’re doing all we can. Whatever’s the matter will get taken care of.”

I leaned over and patted Mae’s hand. The doorbell rang and Sid got up.

“Oh, lord, that’s her.” Mae bounced up. “We’ll talk in the kitchen. I better get the water boiling.”

“I’ll get the door,” said Sid.

I followed him into the entry, shutting the family room doors behind me.

The woman at the door was in her middle forties and pretty, with short, light brown hair. She had a plastic raincoat on over a purple sweater and matching skirt.

“Isn’t this the O’Malley residence?” she asked, hesitantly.

“Yes, it is,” said Sid. He smiled warmly, a little too warmly. “Please, come in. I’m Sid Hackbirn, a friend of the family. You must be the counselor from the school.”

“Uh, yes.” She stepped into the entry and shook Sid’s hand.

“I’m Lisa Wycherly, Mrs. O’Malley’s sister,” I said, quickly stepping forward. I could see the well-practiced lechery in Sid’s eyes and wasn’t about to put up with it.

“How do you do?” She shook my hand, then unsnapped her coat.

“May I take your coat?” Sid offered.

“Thank you. It’s a miserable night out.”

“It is at that.” Sid got a hanger from the hall closet and neatly hung up the coat. “So, you’re into child psychology. Sounds like a fascinating field.”

“It is.” She smiled at him. “Do you have any children?”

“No. Nary a one. You?”

“Just the ones at school, thank God.”

Neil opened the doors to the family room. “Come on in. Mae’s setting up in the kitchen.”

The counselor followed Neil through the doors. Sid started after her, but I held him back.

“Will you please?” I hissed.

“Please what?”

“Do you have to pick up on every female you run into?”

“I’m not picking up anybody.” He stopped as he caught my skeptical glare. He shrugged. “May I at least prime the way and file for future reference?”

“Just remember where she works.” Which is the local Catholic school.

Mae was setting out mugs and herb tea in the kitchen.

“We’ll be sitting at the table,” she said. “Oh, Sid, Lisa, this is Sister Jerilyn Michaels.”

“Sister?” muttered Sid, startled.

I pressed my lips together. Neil noticed me, then glanced at Sid and rolled his eyes.

“So much for future reference,” I muttered.

“We got to know Sid right after Lisa started working for him.” Mae poured boiling water into the mugs and dropped the tea bags in. “He’s really a very good friend, and very close to the children, especially Darby and Janey.”

“Yes,” replied Sister with a twinkle in her eye. “They’ve mentioned you.”

I slid around the table to Darby’s place next to the wall. Sister Jerilyn sat at Mae’s place on the end, with Sid next to her, Mae on his other side, and Neil at the head.

“I understand Neil brought you two up to date on Darby’s problem,” Sister said to Sid and me. “What I’d really like to do is think about last fall and try and see if there’s anything that changed during that time.”

“Well, nothing, really,” said Mae. She frowned. “Soccer ended right after Halloween. Wait. I wonder if it’s pressure. Darby’s doing an awful lot. Every Tuesday and Wednesday, he goes and does yard work for Mr. Jefferson. He lives about two blocks over. Darby’s been doing that since October. He wanted to earn his own money for Christmas gifts. Monday afternoon, he has his violin lesson, Tuesday night is guitar, and there’s the orchestra on Thursday afternoons. And he’s always practicing when he’s home.”

“That’s interesting,” said Sister. “Some of the other boys in his class have been teasing him about playing the violin.”

“Oh, no,” sighed Mae. “I’ll bet it’s Stewart and Andy. They were on his soccer team. This was not a good year for Darby. He’s always loved playing, and he’s not bad at it, but this year, his coach was real competitive. Darby stuck it out, God bless him, but I really felt like he should have given it up.”

“Soccer was the first thing I asked him about,” said Neil. “And he’s been worse since it ended, not better.”

“With the teasing and all, there could be some masculinity issues involved,” said Sister. “Neil, do you play any musical instruments?”

“Well, a little guitar,” said Neil. “Mae is more musical than I am. I suppose Darby could be looking at music as a more female thing. But both Mae and I have always been very strong on the idea that it’s not what you do that makes you male or female.”

“And yet, your family situation is very traditional,” said Sister. “What about other influential males in Darby’s life? His grandfathers?”

Neil shrugged. “My dad lives in Nebraska, and we only see him once a year.”

“He’s always been very supportive of Darby,” said Mae. “And he’s pretty sentimental.

Neil shook his head. “Mae’s dad, on the other hand…”

Mae sighed. I bit my lip. Sid pressed his lips together and leaned them on his knuckles.

“Daddy’s definitely a real man,” said Mae. “But he’s been very supportive. He told Darby he should follow his heart.”

Sid cleared his throat. “He does tend to be somewhat homophobic, though.”

“Sid,” I groaned.

Mae sighed. “He’s right. On the other hand, my parents don’t live near us either, and we only see them three or four times a year.”

“And what about you, Sid?” asked Sister. “Darby has mentioned you as someone he looks up to.”

Sid squirmed a little. “Well, I do play piano, and Darby and I have worked on his music together at times.”

Sister smiled at him. “And your masculinity issues?”

Sid chuckled. “No problems there.”

“Are you sure?”

“Trust me, Sister, proving my manhood has been the least of my worries since I was a kid.”

Sister nodded and thought. “You know, Mae, you made a point earlier about Darby being involved in a lot, and that possibly he’s feeling pressured by it. I wonder if there’s a way we could take him out of the grind, so to speak, for a while. Maybe if he can relax a little, he’ll open up.”

“Well, Darby could come stay at my place,” said Sid.

“I don’t think that’s such a good idea,” I replied.

“Why not?” Sid asked.

“Oh, I can think of a lot of good reasons,” I said.

“I think you’re on the right track,” said Sister. “But wouldn’t Darby be more comfortable with his aunt?”

“It’s the same place,” I said slowly. “We’re housemates. That’s it. Well, I work for Sid.”

“And we work at home,” said Sid. “So there’s no babysitting problems.”

“That could be an ideal arrangement,” said Sister.

“Maybe not.” I got up. “Sid, before you commit yourself, can we talk privately for a minute?”

“Sure.” Sid got up and followed me into the dining room, shutting the kitchen door behind him.

“Two very good reasons not to have Darby around,” I said very softly. “One, our flourishing underground business.”

Which is so top secret nobody but Sid and a couple liaisons know we do it, not even my family and friends.

“We can work around it. One of us stays with Darby while the other runs the errands. I’ll even do most of the running.”

“Alright, but number two is the revolving door on your bedroom. I mean he probably knows what you’re up to, but I don’t think you need to be flaunting it, and you know what sometimes happens when you fall asleep on your girlfriends.”

“Indeed, which is why I’m not planning on bringing anybody home while he’s there. Is that a fair compromise?”

“I suppose.” I smiled at him. “You don’t have to do any of this, you know.”

“I know.” He looked over at the kitchen door. “But there are times when being alone in the world has its disadvantages. You guys are as close to family as I’ve got, and with that privilege comes responsibility. If I can help, I’m more than happy to do it.”

Mae seemed a little uncertain as we came back in. I had a feeling she was concerned about my number two objection also. Sid just smiled and told her that I was satisfied with all the arrangements. I later caught them talking quietly together. [She just said that while she respected my right to my own choices, she didn’t think my way of expressing my masculinity was particularly healthy and she really didn’t want Darby emulating it. I told her that I respected that and would make a point of not giving him anything in that way to emulate – SEH]

Neil brought Darby downstairs.

“Darby,” I said, smiling. “We know you’ve been a little off track lately.”

“I’m fine. Really.”

“We know, but Sid and I thought we’d take you to come stay with us for a while.”

Sister Jerilyn watched him carefully.

“I’ve got school,” he said, getting nervous.

“We’ll get your books and your homework,” I said.

“But there’s other stuff, Aunt Lisa,” he said. “I got stuff I gotta do. Mr. Jefferson’s lawns and my music lessons.”

“It’s not late,” said Mae. “You can call Mr. Jefferson and tell him you can’t come for a while.”

“And I can’t do much about your lessons,” said Sid. “But we can work on theory and keyboards at my place.”

“I don’t want Mr. Jefferson to be upset,” said Darby.

“I’m sure he won’t mind,” said Mae, dialing the phone. “Here. It’s ringing.”

She handed the phone to Darby, who swallowed as he took it.

“Uh, hi, Mr. Jefferson. It’s Darby… Um, well, I’ve got a problem. My aunt wants me to come stay with her for a while… I don’t know. She just does… Oh. Okay… Yeah, thanks… No problem… Good-bye.” He smiled as he handed the phone back. “He doesn’t care.”

We sent Darby on to bed and made arrangements with Sister Jerilyn for Sid and me to pick up Darby’s homework the next morning. Then we spent the night at Mae’s, with Sid in the guestroom and me in with the girls.

The next morning, Sister Jerilyn was ready and waiting for us at the school as promised. Sid still seemed pretty uncomfortable around Sister, so we got the books and Miss Robbins’ phone number pretty quickly and got out.

“What happened to those black outfits they used to wear?” Sid asked as we drove back to Mae’s house.

“They’re part of a by-gone era,” I replied smugly.

“They ought to bring them back. How are you going to identify one of those ladies?”

“Why do you have to identify them? So you don’t accidentally try to pick up on them?”

“Real cute, Lisa.”

“Come on, Sid. They’re just human beings like everyone else.”

“I wonder. Anybody who could pledge no sex for their entire lives.”

I snickered. “What about me?”

“You haven’t said no permanently.”

“Yet.”

Sid winced. “Lisa, please. I just can’t see you as a nun. You’re too passionate. At least as it stands now, the option is still open, and someday, maybe, I’ll get you to take me up on it.”

“It’ll be the same day I get you in front of the altar.”

“Good luck. If I ever get crazy enough to get married, I’m going to Las Vegas. There is no way you’re going to catch me involved in one of those three-ring circuses called a church wedding.”

“Sid, there is no way you’re going to get married, so it’s a moot point.”

“True.”

After we got Darby and got back to our home, Sid announced that we were going to play that day and go skiing before the rest of Southern California got to all that fresh powder from the rain the day before.

“Yeah!” Darby hollered.

“Oh?” I asked, skeptically. “I suppose we can rent equipment for Darby, but it’s already nine thirty. Between getting changed and loaded, we won’t get to the mountains until noon at the soonest.”

“We can do some night skiing,” said Sid.

“Yeah!” said Darby.

“Sid, we’re still trying to catch up on last month’s deadlines, and you haven’t even started research on your single’s column, not to mention all those books we’ve got to go through for that toxics article.”

Sid grimaced. “What have we got that’s still overdue?”

I went over to my desk. “My childcare article.”

“That should be right there. I finished going over it yesterday.”

“Here it is.” I went back to the list. “Your stock market piece.”

“I thought we didn’t have to worry about that until Wednesday.”

“But you promised me I’d have a draft to edit today.”

“Oh. It seems to me there’s something else.”

“Your final edits on the Lester Roberts profile, and I need that by noon so we can have our final conference on it and have it ready for overnight delivery by three.”

Darby flopped onto the office couch, looking totally bored. Sid looked at him, then at me.

“Alright. How about this?” He thought for a moment. “Why don’t you make your corrections on your article. It should only take a couple minutes. I’ll make the phone calls for the lift tickets, then double check Roberts and we can do a quick conference on it. We should be done by ten, and if I know you, you can be changed and loaded in five minutes.”

Tempted, I bit my lip. “And what about the stock market draft, your singles research, and those books?”

“If I have the draft on the computer for you by Monday morning, will that be good enough?”

“Alright.”

“Good. I can hardly do singles research now. I’ll get it done over the weekend, and we’ll go through the books Monday and Tuesday.”

Darby sighed.

“You’ll have plenty of schoolwork to keep you occupied,” I told him. “I’m sorry, but Sid and I do have work to do.”

“Can’t you just cheat?” Darby asked.

Sid chuckled. “Not too much. We’ve gotten behind.”

I was biting my tongue so hard, I almost bit it in half. One of Sid’s girlfriends had talked Sid into joining the digital age by showing him how to write on a computer, instead of writing everything out longhand and having me type it into WordStar. He had been taking to it slowly. [So I felt more comfortable thinking with a pen in my hand – SEH] Until the disaster. Neither of us really knows how he did it, but Sid somehow re-formatted the hard drive on my computer, which pretty much destroyed everything we’d been working on. Sid’s just lucky my good friend Esther Nguyen really likes him. She’s an electrical engineer and really good with computers. She couldn’t fix the hard drive problem, but she did convince Sid to get a computer of his own

And, to be fair, the computer meltdown wasn’t the only reason we were behind. We’d been caving in to the lure of uncrowded slopes. For all Sid is very disciplined about working during business hours, he hates the weekend crowds on the ski runs more than I do. We were sneaking out on a weekday at least once every other week. We go together because most of our friends work during the day. Some of Sid’s friends could get away, but they either want to chase girls or have Sid chase them, and Sid would actually rather ski.

I gave in. “Let’s get going. Maybe if we hurry, we can be done before ten.”

Darby hollered his approval as the phone rang on the daytime line.

I picked it up. “Hello?”

“Is this Sid Hackbirn’s place?” asked the woman on the other end.

“May I ask who’s calling?”

Sid waved at me to take a message.

“My name’s Rachel Flaherty. Sid and I are old friends.”

“Well, Ms. Flaherty, if you’d like to leave a number, I’ll have him call you.”

At the sound of her name, Sid’s head whipped around and he waved at me again.

“Would you excuse me for a moment?” I put her on hold.

“Is that Rachel Flaherty?” Sid asked.

“Yes.”

He chuckled. “I’ll be damned. I haven’t heard from her since…” He glanced at Darby. “Well, we were friends the end of my first year at Stanford.”

“Do you want to talk to her?”

“Yeah.” He noticed Darby again. “No. Find out what she wants, and if she wants to drop by… Use your discretion. I can meet her someplace, too. Any time this weekend I’m not booked.”

“Okay.” I pressed the line as Sid went into his office. “Ms. Flaherty…”

“It’s Dr. Flaherty.”

“Oh. Excuse me. Doctor, was there anything, in particular, you wanted to speak to Mr. Hackbirn about?”

“I was hoping to stop by and say hello. I’ve got somebody I’d like him to meet.” Her tone was just cagey enough.

I smirked to myself. “Well, he has several openings. When would you like to come by?”

“How about tomorrow afternoon?” She paused, apparently looking something up. “Let’s see. I could be there by one o’clock.”

“One o’clock it is, then. I’ll let Mr. Hackbirn know. Thank you.” I hung up.

“Lisa, what’s going on?” Sid appeared in the doorway to his office.

“I don’t think you’ll be going out with her, Sid,” I said, trying not to snicker. “She said she has somebody she’d like you to meet, and it was the `he’s not going to like this’ version.”

“I don’t get it,” said Darby.

Sid looked at me.

“Well,” I said. “Sometimes one of your Uncle Sid’s girlfriends will bring a baby to visit and say the baby belongs to Sid, and this Dr. Flaherty is acting like she’s about to do the same.”

Sid laughed. “Nah. Rachel wouldn’t pull a stunt like that.”

“Well, she certainly wasn’t gloating about this somebody.” I looked at Darby. “That usually means the girlfriend got married to someone else.”

“It’s probably another guy she married,” said Sid. “Trust me. Rachel wouldn’t try to pin a kid on me. We were very clear on the prevention issue.”

“Want to put some money on that?” I grinned. “On her setting you up. There’s no point in betting on the paternity issue.”

Sid’s been fixed for years and was religious about birth control before that. Well, all but religious. Sid’s an atheist.

Sid thought, then grinned. “Five to one, your favor?”

“I’ll put up ten dollars.”

“You’re on. And if there’s a kid on my doorstep tomorrow, you’re fifty dollars richer.”

February 9 – 10, 1984

The rain poured down.  Not thirty minutes before, when I was still in the UCLA library, it had been barely sprinkling.  But now that I was standing burdened with a backpack and a leather satchel both filled to the brim with books, in front of the restaurant in Westwood waiting for a contact that probably wasn’t going to show, the water streamed out of the sky as if God had decided to heck with the rainbow, He was going to flood us out again anyway.

I have to admit, I like working for Operation Quickline as a secret counter-espionage agent for the U.S. Government most of the time.  But standing, getting soaked, on a street corner on a cold Thursday afternoon, just waiting to get shot at, or whatever else some enemy had up his or her sleeve, was not my idea of a high spot.

I checked my watch one last time.  The contact, code name Green Light, was twenty minutes late.  I didn’t like not making the drop, but I wasn’t going to just leave it there, and twenty minutes was too long to be waiting as it was.

I sighed and trudged up the hill and across the campus to where my dark blue Nissan four by four pick up with expanded cab and shell was parked.  It took forever to get home.  As the garage door opened, I looked at Sid’s two cars with dismay.  The Mercedes 450SL, in retirement, and was parked next to the wall.  Sid’s new dark grey BMW 633 CSi was parked in the middle, leaving almost no room for me.  I had to squeeze to get out of my truck yet again, and struggled to get the satchel and backpack out.

Sid was waiting at the garage door when I got in.

“Good, you’re back,” he said urgently.  He’s a handsome man, with dark wavy hair, a cleft chin, and bright blue eyes.

I walked past him to the offices in the front of the house.  He followed.

“Sid, whatever it is, I don’t care,” I grumbled.  “I am sopping wet from waiting for Green Light, who didn’t show.  I am tired and my back is tense from carting books all over the library because you, as usual, have bitten off more than you can chew.  I cannot tell you how sick I am of hearing you say ‘bring everything, we’ll isolate what we want later.’  Next time, you lug books all over, and spend hours in line for the copiers, and put up with all the dirty looks from the people behind you.  And also, if you’re going to insist that I not leave my truck in the driveway or on the street, then leave me some room in the garage.  I am only so thin, and I am tired of playing Houdini just to get out of my truck.  Now.  I am going to cancel my racquetball game, get out of these wet clothes, eat my dinner by myself, then fix myself a bowl of hot popcorn, a hot toddy, and sit in front of a nice hot fire in the living room and re-read Gaudy Night.  You’ll just have to play in your bedroom.  I know it’s rough, Sid, but them’s the breaks.”

I dropped the books next to my desk and unbuttoned my raincoat.  Motley, my springer spaniel, yipped a quiet hello.

“I’m sorry, Lisa,” said Sid quietly.  “We’ve got to go out to your sister’s tonight.”

“What?”

“Mae called while you were out.  Darby’s been having trouble at school, and the school psychologist is coming over for a conference.”

“Darby?”  I sat down, completely confused.  My nephew is the last kid I’d expect to be in trouble.  Motley put his head in my lap and I scratched it absently.  “He has been kind of off the past couple months, but I didn’t think it was that serious.”

Sid shrugged.  “I don’t know.  Anyway, the conference is at 7:30, and Mae wants us there.”

“Both of us?”

“Well, I volunteered to go also, and she said she could use all the help she could get.”

“Oh, great.  She sounds really upset.  What time is it?”  I checked my watch.  “Five thirty?  I’ve got to call Margie and cancel our game, then I’m going to take a hot shower.  I’m chilled to the bone.  You’ve eaten already, haven’t you?”

“Yes.  Your dinner’s in the oven, but I’d like to leave as soon as possible.”

“Oh, come on, Sid.  The freeways are still packed, and it’s raining, so you know they’re going to be at a standstill.”

“Which is precisely why I want to leave right away.  It’ll probably take us two hours to get there.”

Mae and family live in Orange County, which meant with current traffic conditions, Sid had a point.  I pushed Motley away and pulled myself out of my chair.

“Alright,” I sighed.  “I’ll just change.  What did Conchetta make for dinner?”

Conchetta Ramirez is the housekeeper and cook.

“Chili and rice and spinach salad.”

I sighed.  Conchetta’s chili is vegetarian, but it’s really good with lots and lots of beans and really hot chiles.

“Sid, please?  Can I take some with me?  We’ve still got some of those really big styrofoam cups from the slumber party last Saturday.  I’ll be real careful.”  I blinked twice.

Sid sighed.  “Alright.  You go get changed.  I’ll take care of it.  I packed an overnight bag for you, just in case.”

“Thanks.  Will you please fill the cup all the way?”

Sid didn’t answer.  Much to his dismay, I have an incredible appetite and I don’t gain weight.  I went to my room and changed into jeans and an over-sized sized cotton sweater.  Sid must have told Conchetta to take care of putting together my food because the really large cup was filled almost to the brim with chili, and there were home-made corn tortillas on the side, and a plastic sack full of cut vegetables.  Sid did hand me about ten paper towels.

I didn’t say anything.  Right before Christmas, I’d gotten into an accident in the 450SL, which is what motivated Sid to retire it after it got fixed.  We’d traded words at the time, and our emotions were still a little raw regarding anything connected to Sid’s cars.

Sid’s lead foot didn’t get much of a work out that night because traffic was indeed as bad as we’d anticipated.  We wriggled around and through the lines of cars snaking eastward in the dark and rain.

We got to Mae’s at seven fifteen.  The kids are usually bouncing off the walls when we get there.  But that night, they solemnly filed down the stairs to say hello.  The twins, Marty and Mitch, who were three and a half, quietly hugged me, then Sid.  Five-and-a-half-year-old Ellen did the same.  Janey hugged Sid first and spent a long time whispering in his ear.  For a seven-year-old, she’s got a lot of insight into human nature, and I was hoping she was telling Sid what the problem was.  Sid just shrugged.

“We’ll try, honey,” he replied quietly.

Darby, who was getting close to his eleventh birthday, just mumbled “hi,” to both of us.  Mae reached over to stroke his red hair, but Darby just pushed his glasses up on his nose and hung his head over his skinny form.  A second later, he had run upstairs.  His brothers and sisters followed.

Mae bit her lip as the tears started down her cheeks.  Neil, her husband, put his arms around her and steered her into the family room.

“What’s going on?” I asked as we all sat down.

Neil pushed his glasses up on his nose.  “Darby’s been getting very withdrawn lately.  He’s been a little off since last Thanksgiving, but it’s been really bad for the past month.  We took him to a counselor over at Catholic Social Services.  He said it was just a phase.  The school counselor says there’s something bothering him, but she can’t figure it out.  We asked Janey.  She just said he’s real upset.  But the problem is, he won’t say a word about it.  He swears he’s alright.”

“That’s not like Darby,” I said.

“We don’t understand it either,” said Neil.

“I’ve tried,” sobbed Mae.  “I can’t figure out what we’ve done wrong.”

Neil pulled her closer.  “We haven’t done anything wrong.  We’re doing all we can.  Whatever’s the matter will get taken care of.”

I leaned over and patted Mae’s hand.  The doorbell rang and Sid got up.

“Oh, lord, that’s her.”  Mae bounced up.  “We’ll talk in the kitchen.  I better get the water boiling.”

“I’ll get the door,” said Sid.

I followed him into the entry, shutting the family room doors behind me.

The woman at the door was in her middle forties and pretty, with short, light brown hair.  She had a plastic raincoat on over a purple sweater and matching skirt.

“Isn’t this the O’Malley residence?” she asked, hesitantly.

“Yes, it is,” said Sid.  He smiled warmly, a little too warmly.  “Please, come in.  I’m Sid Hackbirn, a friend of the family.  You must be the counselor from the school.”

“Uh, yes.”  She stepped into the entry and shook Sid’s hand.

“I’m Lisa Wycherly, Mrs. O’Malley’s sister,” I said, quickly stepping forward.  I could see the well-practiced lechery in Sid’s eyes and wasn’t about to put up with it.

“How do you do?”  She shook my hand, then unsnapped her coat.

“May I take your coat?” Sid offered.

“Thank you.  It’s a miserable night out.”

“It is at that.”  Sid got a hanger from the hall closet and neatly hung up the coat.  “So you’re into child psychology.  Sounds like a fascinating field.”

“It is.”  She smiled at him.  “Do you have any children?”

“No.  Nary a one.  You?”

“Just the ones at school, thank God.”

Neil opened the doors to the family room.  “Come on in.  Mae’s setting up in the kitchen.”

The counselor followed Neil through the doors.  Sid started after her, but I held him back.

“Will you please?” I hissed.

“Please what?”

“Do you have to pick up on every female you run into?”

“I’m not picking up anybody.”  He stopped as he caught my skeptical glare.  He shrugged.  “May I at least prime the way and file for future reference?”

“Just remember where she works.”  Which is the local Catholic school.

Mae was setting out mugs and herb tea in the kitchen.

“We’ll be sitting at the table,” she said.  “Oh, Sid, Lisa, this is Sister Jerilyn Michaels.”

“Sister?” muttered Sid, startled.

I pressed my lips together.  Neil noticed me, then glanced at Sid and rolled his eyes.

“So much for future reference,” I muttered.

“We got to know Sid right after Lisa started working for him.”  Mae poured boiling water into the mugs and dropped the tea bags in.  “He’s really a very good friend, and very close to the children, especially Darby and Janey.”

“Yes,” replied Sister with a twinkle in her eye.  “They’ve mentioned you.”

I slid around the table to Darby’s place next to the wall.  Sister Jerilyn sat at Mae’s place on the end, with Sid next to her, Mae on his other side, and Neil at the head.

“I understand Neil brought you two up to date on Darby’s problem,” Sister said to Sid and me.  “What I’d really like to do is think about last fall and try and see if there’s anything that changed during that time.”

“Well, nothing, really,” said Mae.  She frowned.  “Soccer ended right after Halloween.  Wait.  I wonder if it’s pressure.  Darby’s doing an awful lot.  Every Tuesday and Wednesday, he goes and does yard work for Mr. Jefferson.  He lives about two blocks over.  Darby’s been doing that since October.  He wanted to earn his own money for Christmas gifts.  Monday afternoon, he has his violin lesson, Tuesday night is guitar, and there’s the orchestra on Thursday afternoons.  And he’s always practicing when he’s home.”

“That’s interesting,” said Sister.  “Some of the other boys in his class have been teasing him about playing the violin.”

“Oh, no,” sighed Mae.  “I’ll bet it’s Stewart and Andy.  They were on his soccer team.  This was not a good year for Darby.  He’s always loved playing, and he’s not bad at it, but this year, his coach was real competitive.  Darby stuck it out, God bless him, but I really felt like he should have given it up.”

“Soccer was the first thing I asked him about,” said Neil.  “And he’s been worse since it ended, not better.”

“With the teasing and all, there could be some masculinity issues involved,” said Sister.  “Neil, do you play any musical instruments?”

“Well, a little guitar,” said Neil.  “Mae is more musical than I am.  I suppose Darby could be looking at music as a more female thing.  But both Mae and I have always been very strong on the idea that it’s not what you do that makes you male or female.”

“And yet, your family situation is very traditional,” said Sister.  “What about other influential males in Darby’s life?  His grandfathers?”

Neil shrugged.  “My dad lives in Nebraska, and we only see him once a year.”

“He’s always been very supportive of Darby,” said Mae.  “And he’s pretty sentimental. 

Neil shook his head.  “Mae’s dad, on the other hand…”

Mae sighed.  I bit my lip.  Sid pressed his lips together and leaned them on his knuckles.

“Daddy’s definitely a real man,” said Mae.  “But he’s been very supportive.  He told Darby he should follow his heart.”

Sid cleared his throat.  “He does tend to be somewhat homophobic, though.”

“Sid,” I groaned.

Mae sighed.  “He’s right.  On the other hand, my parents don’t live near us either, and we only see them three or four times a year.”

“And what about you, Sid?” asked Sister.  “Darby has mentioned you as someone he looks up to.”

Sid squirmed a little.  “Well, I do play piano, and Darby and I have worked on his music together at times.”

Sister smiled at him.  “And your masculinity issues?”

Sid chuckled.  “No problems there.”

“Are you sure?”

“Trust me, Sister, proving my manhood has been the least of my worries since I was a kid.”

Sister nodded and thought.  “You know, Mae, you made a point earlier about Darby being involved in a lot, and that possibly he’s feeling pressured by it.  I wonder if there’s a way we could take him out of the grind, so to speak, for a while.  Maybe if he can relax a little, he’ll open up.”

“Well, Darby could come stay at my place,” said Sid.

“I don’t think that’s such a good idea,” I replied.

“Why not?” Sid asked.

“Oh, I can think of a lot of good reasons,” I said.

“I think you’re on the right track,” said Sister.  “But wouldn’t Darby be more comfortable with his aunt?”

“It’s the same place,” I said slowly.  “We’re housemates.  That’s it.  Well, I work for Sid.”

“And we work at home,” said Sid.  “So there’s no babysitting problems.”

“That could be an ideal arrangement,” said Sister.

“Maybe not.”  I got up.  “Sid, before you commit yourself, can we talk privately for a minute?”

“Sure.”  Sid got up and followed me into the dining room, shutting the kitchen door behind him.

“Two very good reasons not to have Darby around,” I said very softly.  “One, our flourishing underground business.”

Which is so top secret nobody but Sid and a couple liaisons know we do it, not even my family and friends.

“We can work around it.  One of us stays with Darby while the other runs the errands.  I’ll even do most of the running.”

“Alright, but number two is the revolving door on your bedroom.  I mean he probably knows what you’re up to, but I don’t think you need to be flaunting it, and you know what sometimes happens when you fall asleep on your girlfriends.”

“Indeed, which is why I’m not planning on bringing anybody home while he’s there.  Is that a fair compromise?”

“I suppose.”  I smiled at him.  “You don’t have to do any of this, you know.”

“I know.”  He looked over at the kitchen door.  “But there are times when being alone in the world has its disadvantages.  You guys are as close to family as I’ve got, and with that privilege comes responsibility.  If I can help, I’m more than happy to do it.”

Mae seemed a little uncertain as we came back in.  I had a feeling she was concerned about my number two objection also.  Sid just smiled and told her that I was satisfied with all the arrangements.  I later caught them talking quietly together.  [She just said that while she respected my right to my own choices, she didn’t think my way of expressing my masculinity was particularly healthy and she really didn’t want Darby emulating it.  I told her that I respected that and would make a point of not giving him anything in that way to emulate – SEH]

Neil brought Darby downstairs.

“Darby,” I said, smiling.  “We know you’ve been a little off track lately.”

“I’m fine.  Really.”

“We know, but Sid and I thought we’d take you to come stay with us for a while.”

Sister Jerilyn watched him carefully.

“I’ve got school,” he said, getting nervous.

“We’ll get your books and your homework,” I said.

“But there’s other stuff, Aunt Lisa,” he said.  “I got stuff I gotta do.  Mr. Jefferson’s lawns and my music lessons.”

“It’s not late,” said Mae.  “You can call Mr. Jefferson and tell him you can’t come for a while.”

“And I can’t do much about your lessons,” said Sid.  “But we can work on theory and keyboards at my place.”

“I don’t want Mr. Jefferson to be upset,” said Darby.

“I’m sure he won’t mind,” said Mae, dialing the phone.  “Here.  It’s ringing.”

She handed the phone to Darby, who swallowed as he took it.

“Uh, hi, Mr. Jefferson.  It’s Darby…  Um, well, I’ve got a problem.  My aunt wants me to come stay with her for a while…  I don’t know.  She just does…  Oh.  Okay…  Yeah, thanks…  No problem…  Good-bye.”  He smiled as he handed the phone back.  “He doesn’t care.”

We sent Darby on to bed, and made arrangements with Sister Jerilyn for Sid and me to pick up Darby’s homework the next morning.  Then we spent the night at Mae’s, with Sid in the guestroom and me in with the girls.

The next morning, Sister Jerilyn was ready and waiting for us at the school as promised.  Sid still seemed pretty uncomfortable around Sister, so we got the books and Miss Robbins’ phone number pretty quickly and got out.

“What happened to those black outfits they used to wear?” Sid asked as we drove back to Mae’s house.

“They’re part of a by-gone era,” I replied smugly.

“They ought to bring them back.  How are you going to identify one of those ladies?”

“Why do you have to identify them?  So you don’t accidentally try to pick up on them?”

“Real cute, Lisa.”

“Come on, Sid.  They’re just human beings like everyone else.”

“I wonder.  Anybody who could pledge no sex for their entire lives.”

I snickered.  “What about me?”

“You haven’t said no permanently.”

“Yet.”

Sid winced.  “Lisa, please.  I just can’t see you as a nun.  You’re too passionate.  At least as it stands now, the option is still open, and someday, maybe, I’ll get you to take me up on it.”

“It’ll be the same day I get you in front of the altar.”

“Good luck.  If I ever get crazy enough to get married, I’m going to Las Vegas.  There is no way you’re going to catch me involved in one of those three-ring circuses called a church wedding.”

“Sid, there is no way you’re going to get married, so it’s a moot point.”

“True.”

After we got Darby and got back to our home, Sid announced that we were going to play that day and go skiing before the rest of Southern California got to all that fresh powder from the day before’s rain.

“Yeah!” Darby hollered.

“Oh?” I asked, skeptically.  “I suppose we can rent equipment for Darby, but it’s already nine thirty.  Between getting changed and loaded, we won’t get to the mountains until noon at the soonest.”

“We can do some night skiing,” said Sid.

“Yeah!” said Darby.

“Sid, we’re still trying to catch up on last month’s deadlines, and you haven’t even started research on your single’s column, not to mention all those books we’ve got to go through for that toxics article.”

Sid grimaced.  “What have we got that’s still overdue?”

I went over to my desk.  “My childcare article.”

“That should be right there.  I finished going over it yesterday.”

“Here it is.”  I went back to the list.  “Your stock market piece.”

“I thought we didn’t have to worry about that until Wednesday.”

“But you promised me I’d have a draft to edit today.”

“Oh.  It seems to me there’s something else.”

“Your final edits on the Lester Roberts profile, and I need that by noon so we can have our final conference on it and have it ready for overnight delivery by three.”

Darby flopped onto the office couch, looking totally bored.  Sid looked at him, then at me.

“Alright.  How about this?”  He thought for a moment.  “Why don’t you make your corrections on your article.  It should only take a couple minutes.  I’ll make the phone calls for the lift tickets, then double check Roberts and we can do a quick conference on it.  We should be done by ten, and if I know you, you can be changed and loaded in five minutes.”

Tempted, I bit my lip.  “And what about the stock market draft, your singles research, and those books?”

“If I have the draft on the computer for you by Monday morning, will that be good enough?”

“Alright.”

“Good.  I can hardly do singles research now.  I’ll get it done over the weekend, and we’ll go through the books Monday and Tuesday.”

Darby sighed.

“You’ll have plenty of schoolwork to keep you occupied,” I told him.  “I’m sorry, but Sid and I do have work to do.”

“Can’t you just cheat?” Darby asked.

Sid chuckled.  “Not too much.  That burglary last month really put us behind.”

We’d lost pretty much everything except the furniture and anything else that had been locked up.  On the bright side, I had talked Sid into getting an extra computer for his office, so he could write on that instead of handwriting all his articles and having me enter them.  He was taking to it slowly.  [So I felt more comfortable thinking with a pen in my hand – SEH]

The other reason we were behind was the lure of uncrowded slopes.  For all Sid is very disciplined about working during business hours, he hates the weekend crowds on the ski runs more than I do.  We were sneaking out on a weekday at least once every other week.  We go together because most of our friends work during the day.  Some of Sid’s friends could get away, but they either want to chase girls or have Sid chase them, and Sid would actually rather ski.

I gave in.  “Let’s get going.  Maybe if we hurry, we can be done before ten.”

Darby hollered his approval as the phone rang on the daytime line.

I picked it up.  “Hello?”

“Is this Sid Hackbirn’s place?” asked the woman on the other end.

“May I ask who’s calling?”

Sid waved at me to take a message.

“My name’s Rachel Flaherty.  Sid and I are old friends.”

“Well, Ms. Flaherty, if you’d like to leave a number, I’ll have him call you.”

At the sound of her name, Sid’s head whipped around and he waved at me again.

“Would you excuse me for a moment?”  I put her on hold.

“Is that Rachel Flaherty?” Sid asked.

“Yes.”

He chuckled.  “I’ll be damned.  I haven’t heard from her since…”  He glanced at Darby.  “Well, we were friends the end of my first year at Stanford.”

“Do you want to talk to her?”

“Yeah.”  He noticed Darby again.  “No.  Find out what she wants, and if she wants to drop by…  Use your discretion.  I can meet her someplace, too.  Any time this weekend I’m not booked.”

“Okay.”  I pressed the line as Sid went into his office.  “Ms. Flaherty…”

“It’s Dr. Flaherty.”

“Oh.  Excuse me.  Doctor, was there anything, in particular, you wanted to speak to Mr. Hackbirn about?”

“I was hoping to stop by and say hello.  I’ve got somebody I’d like him to meet.”  Her tone was just cagey enough.

I smirked to myself.  “Well, he has several openings.  When would you like to come by?”

“How about tomorrow afternoon?”  She paused, apparently looking something up.  “Let’s see.  I could be there by one o’clock.”

“One o’clock it is, then.  I’ll let Mr. Hackbirn know.  Thank you.”  I hung up.

“Lisa, what’s going on?”  Sid appeared in the doorway to his office.

“I don’t think you’ll be going out with her, Sid,” I said, trying not to snicker.  “She said she has somebody she’d like you to meet, and it was the `he’s not going to like this’ version.”

“I don’t get it,” said Darby.

Sid looked at me.

“Well,” I said.  “Sometimes one of your Uncle Sid’s girlfriends will bring a baby to visit and say the baby belongs to Sid, and this Dr. Flaherty is acting like she’s about to do the same.”

Sid laughed.  “Nah.  Rachel wouldn’t pull a stunt like that.”

“Well, she certainly wasn’t gloating about this somebody.”  I looked at Darby.  “That usually means the girlfriend got married to someone else.”

“It’s probably another guy she married,” said Sid.  “Trust me.  Rachel wouldn’t try to pin a kid on me.  We were very clear on the prevention issue.”

“Want to put some money on that?”  I grinned.  “On her setting you up.  There’s no point in betting on the paternity issue.”

Sid’s been fixed for years and was religious about birth control before that.  Well, all but religious.  Sid’s an atheist.

Sid thought, then grinned.  “Five to one, your favor?”

“I’ll put up ten dollars.”

“You’re on.  And if there’s a kid on my doorstep tomorrow, you’re fifty dollars richer.”