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.”