Chapter Five

The three young gentlemen soldiers were gone before the sun rose the next morning. Robin wasn’t sure how it happened, but by noon, the entire village knew of the attack on Elizabeth the night before. Perhaps not as surprising was the way the number of attackers grew as the tale was told.

And with each telling Robin’s and Dean’s stock in the village grew. The villagers weren’t ready to embrace the pair as their own. But they were more willing to accept them.

A little over a week after the attack, Robin accompanied Elizabeth to the church to deliver some cheese to the pastor. As they approached the square, where the village well was located, Robin heard the familiar hiss of children whispering behind her.

She whirled, hollering “Boo!”

Screaming, the children scattered, giggling as they pushed each other out of the way.

“You’ve gotten quite popular,” Elizabeth teased.

“And how many men did I fight off?” Robin sighed. “Isn’t the number up to twenty by now?”

Elizabeth laughed. The sound of another young woman’s laughter echoed.

It belonged to Mistress Mary Smith, the tinker’s daughter. Standing next to the well, the pleasantly plump young woman was just dropping the last of a bit of laundry into her basket.

“Good day, Master Parker, Mistress Wynford,” she said.

“Good day, Mistress Smith,” Elizabeth replied. “How fares Mistress Blethen?”Continue reading

Chapter Four

There was barely a flush in the eastern sky when Dean felt Robin prodding him awake the next morning. He grumbled, but it was quickly clear that his sister was in no mood to put up with his complaints. Not sure what was bugging her, he followed her out of the barn and on to their first task of the day, setting the rabbit traps along the nearby stream that flowed between the fields and a small glade of trees.

Robin kept muttering about the time, and sure enough, the King’s messenger and Master Black were already awake and waiting by the time Dean and Robin got back. But it didn’t take long to set up the table for their breakfast. In the meantime, Master Black took some bread and his horse and left quickly.

Robin and Dean joined Mistress Ford and Elizabeth in the kitchen to eat the porridge that Elizabeth had prepared. Then Dean was sent to bring out the King’s messenger’s horse, Elizabeth to tend to the now empty rooms, and Robin to take down the table in the common room. Mistress Ford went to milk the cow, which apparently refused to milk for anyone else.

Dean had the horse saddled and ready by the time the messenger had eaten but got no thanks as the man mounted and rode off. Mistress Ford had also told Dean to clean the stables once the messenger was gone, and so Dean turned to his task.

The mess that was the stable overwhelmed him as he stood in the doorway. His stomach grumbled with hunger and he grumbled about how miserable it all was. He was still grumbling when Elizabeth came out to the stable, looking for an extra broom.

“Doesn’t anybody, like, rest or something around here?” he said, tossing straws from the bench he was reclining on.

Elizabeth pursed her lips and avoided looking at him.

“And I’m really hungry here,” Dean continued, oblivious. “If you want to keep me working, you got to feed me. I mean, I need fuel.”

Finally, Elizabeth could bear no more.Continue reading

Chapter Three

It took almost two weeks to get all the information and clothes that Robin wanted before she felt satisfied that she and Dean were ready to make the jump into the past.

The clothes had been the hardest part. Robin made contact with a historical re-enactor through an e-mail friend of hers. The re-enactor helped her find outfits through her group but was remarkably picky about authenticity. Oddly enough, Elizabeth wasn’t, and in fact pronounced several doublets and breeches as workable that the re-enactor turned her nose up at.

Dean, for his part, complained incessantly and tried again and again to interest Elizabeth in modern life. Again and again, Elizabeth reacted in fear or distaste. She refused to flush a toilet, although she liked toilet paper once she got the hang of it. Dean’s favorite alternative rock and hip-hop groups made her shudder. She refused to wear any less than three layers of clothes and clung tenaciously to her stays. Daily showers were a struggle. Robin and Dean had to be very sure to keep her away from television sets because the “elves in the box” would start her screaming. And while getting her on the Underground was difficult enough, the only thing worse was driving the magic carriage.

Even eating was difficult. Elizabeth would not eat anything that came in a Styrofoam container because she hated the feel of the foam. That made ordering food in almost impossible. But getting her through the streets to restaurants was pretty much running the poor girl through a gantlet of terrors.

The worse part was that Robin insisted the three stay moving to make it harder for Roger to track them. Furthermore, Elizabeth begged not to be left alone in whatever hotel room they were in after the first day because the phone had rung and scared her.

Still, Dean persisted, but as the two weeks wore on, his protests became less strident.

Finally, Robin was satisfied. The night before the three were to leave, she had hers and Dean’s luggage shipped to her office. All they had that night was what they could carry in the two homespun bags they would bring with them into the past.

The next morning, Dean made one last pro forma protest as he tested his saber.

“Are you sure about this, Robin?” he asked, swishing the sword through the air as he lunged forward.

“Put that damn thing down before you hurt one of us.” Like her brother, Robin wore a shirt, breeches, doublet, boots, wide belt and plain, dark cavalier hat.

“I’m not going to hurt anybody,” Dean grumbled, sheathing his sword nonetheless.

Robin tried not to groan. “Look, Dean, the only reason we’re carrying weapons is that we’d get slaughtered without them. With any luck at all, we won’t have to use them. Better yet, let’s try not to.” She looked over at Elizabeth and back at Dean. “Are you two ready?”

“I am,” said Elizabeth, her eyes shining with joy.

“I s’pose,” Dean grumbled as he picked up his bag.

Robin put the room key on the bureau, then, taking a deep breath, picked up the time machine and her bag. “Okay. We should all be touching.”

She waited for Dean and Elizabeth put their hands on each of her shoulders, then focused her mind on the geographic coordinates and date in early spring 1642 that she wanted.Continue reading

Chapter Two

“Oh, dear,” sighed the matron as she looked Elizabeth up and down.

Robin held her breath as she and Dean stood in the doorway to the castle. She glanced over at Elizabeth, who looked more curious than frightened at the moment. Dean was putting on his best “bluff ’em out” look.

“The seventeenth-century group is meeting in York this weekend,” the matron continued. “I do hope you haven’t been terribly inconvenienced.”

“No,” said Robin with a quick grin. “As a matter of fact, we’re just on our way there. Thought we’d drop in and see the castle first.”

“Oh, good.” The matron smiled in relief. “It really doesn’t do to say so, but some of your colleagues are rather disorganized. I was quite afraid I was going to be bombarded with Cavaliers and their ladies.” She smiled again at Elizabeth. “Lovely job, dear, but I do believe ties at the neck are not quite period.”

Elizabeth looked puzzled, but before she could say anything, Robin gently took her arm and turned her toward the parking lot.

“Well, who knows,” Robin told the matron as she pushed Elizabeth past. “Not a lot of portrait evidence among the lower classes, you know.”

“Huh?” asked Dean, following close behind.

Robin glanced behind them. “We’ve got an explanation for Elizabeth for the moment.”

“Explanation?” Elizabeth asked.

“I don’t get it,” Dean said.

Robin stopped to catch her breath. “Historical re-enactors, Dean. You know, like the Renaissance Faire back home? There are clubs all over the place that dress up in historical costumes and make like they live in the past. They’ve got them for all different time periods. That woman just thought we were dressed up for a seventeenth-century group.”Continue reading

Chapter One

IT’S A NEW SERIAL! But World Enough and Time is the first of a trilogy of time travel novels – and the serial starts today. Join Robin and Dean Parker, a sister and brother who travel back to return Elizabeth Wynford back to her native time. Oh, would that it were that simple. Roger York is busy trying to figure out how to get one step ahead of the trio, but he’s not the person to worry about. Donald Long is even more persistently chasing the three with definite intent to inflict harm. Visit this space every Friday for a new episode!

Desperation made people do some strange things. Roger York looked at the sleeping girl, then gently checked her pulse yet again. Endless days mapping DNA strings on the fastest machines in existence. Even more, months carefully searching for the perfect hiding place as others developed the tools to keep prying eyes away. All for an experiment that could take an innocent life that had no reckoning of the risk she was taking. Worse yet, Roger had little hope that it would succeed.

Roger ran his hands through his soft brown hair, not short nor long, cut so he could go as many whens as possible. He looked around the room, double-checking everything, especially the power sources. They would be all right. But what effect would the suspend an have on Elizabeth? Nobody had tried it over a hundred years, and Roger was bringing the girl forward five hundred and fifty plus.

The only thing more dangerous would be to bring her forward through the time drop. He’d drop in and wake her up every fifty years as it was. She seemed a strong, intelligent woman, in spite of her ignorance. Hopefully, her mind would be strong enough.

As he picked up his hand unit, he checked everything once more, then focused his mind on the coordinates for fifty years ahead. It was odd, but the timetron landed him within seconds of the coordinates he entered. It had never done that before. Must have been the power source so close. He brushed Elizabeth’s lips with his own. Her eyes flickered open. She smiled at him. He was smiling back. At least that part of this fool’s enterprise was working.

Each fifty-year jump felt better than before. Elizabeth showed no visible effects from her time asleep, nor did what few instruments Roger had show any. The special locks that prevented anyone from even thinking about entering the room were working perfectly. He left the 1990s almost bursting with joy.

Just a few years into the 21st century, a small ion retainer on the door fizzled and sputtered. The rest of the card flared up and died as quickly. A minute later, the door creaked open.Continue reading

That Old Cloak and Dagger Routine is Now a Book!

 If you’ve enjoyed this serial, but came in late or missed a few episodes, you can now buy the whole thing as either a print or ebook from a wide variety of retailers.

Click here for links to Amazon, Barnes&Noble and others, not to mention some fun facts about how I came to write this story, which is the beginning of a thirteen-book series. Really. And you’re in on the ground floor.

spy fiction, mystery fiction, cozy mystery,

Chapter Fourteen – Finale

January 17, 1983

A week later, I finally got a chance to get the last word on Sid and I was taking it. I wasn’t being completely fair. Sid was suffering the indignity of being in the dentist’s chair and had the disadvantage of dental equipment and Neil’s fingers in his mouth. But Sid had already had his chance at me and had made several snide comments about bad eating habits when Neil had found a cavity and filled it. Of course, Sid didn’t have a cavity in his head, except the ones that belonged there.

Neil had talked Sid into the appointment on Christmas day when I’d mentioned it was time for me to get in. Neil won’t touch Mae’s or the children’s teeth. But he doesn’t mind working on me and he was quite happy to have another patient in Sid.

“Sid, have you been fighting lately?” Neil asked while he was poking around. “The inside of your cheeks are all chewed up.”

“Probably one of his girlfriends,” I said from where I was standing in the doorway. I slurred a little from the Novocaine.

Sid grunted.

“Uh oh,” said Neil.

“Has he got one?” I asked, hopefully.

“Nope, just another crack. And speaking of bad eating habits, you’d better quit chewing ice. That’s what’s cracking your teeth.”

I laughed. Mae came into the office and said hi to the receptionist.

“Oh hi, Lisa,” she said seeing me. “That’s right, today was when you and Sid were coming in.”

“Hi, honey,” called Neil.

Mae went into the examination room and kissed Neil’s forehead.

“Hello, sweetheart,” she said. “How are you doing, Sid?”

Sid grunted.

“Good. You finding any guilty secrets, Neil?”

“Just that he chews ice.”

Mae and I looked at each other and burst out laughing.

“What is so funny about that?” Neil asked.

“It’s a long story,” I said.

Neil shook his head and put his probe down on the tray. After squirting some water into Sid’s mouth, he fit the polishing bit onto his drill and slid the little pan of tooth polish onto his thumb. I chuckled maliciously. Neil’s tooth polish was peppermint flavored, and Sid hates peppermint. Maybe I should have said something, but I decided to enjoy my revenge. [Thank you, Lisa. I’ll remember that – SEH]

“How was the funeral?” Neil asked Mae over the whine of the drill.

“Funeral?” I asked.

“Ned Harris’s,” Mae replied. “It was this morning.”

“Yeah, I’d heard he got killed.”

There had been a small piece in the paper a few days before about the mysterious desert auto accident of a prominent Fullerton businessman. According to the papers, the mystery was why he was out there and didn’t say anything about how the accident occurred. Nor had it mentioned the raid on Harris’s office. I wasn’t surprised. We had also found out that the Feds had gotten another transmission asking for any information on Harris’s suspect, including the name, so Harris hadn’t been lying that night.

“It was a nice funeral,” Mae continued. “Kind of sad, with his wife being pregnant and all. But she’s doing real well. She’s taking over the agency. I got a chance to talk to her and you know what she told me? She was kind of relieved about the accident. She was still sad about losing Ned, but she’d found out there was some funny business going on out of the agency, stuff the government was interested in, and if Ned had lived, he would have been in real trouble, but since he’s dead, the government’s overlooking it.”

Which, of course, they were because the last thing the government wants is attention on any covert action, even if it’s the good guys bringing in the bad guys.

“No kidding,” said Neil. “You think Janey was right?”

“I’m beginning to think so, Neil.”

“You two should know better than not to trust Janey,” I said. “Sid told me he got busted for drugs in the army. Right, Sid?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Well, I’ll be,” said Mae. “Did you get your article on the city council finished, Sid?”

“Just the outline,” I answered for him. “He won’t write it out until somebody says they want to look at it. We’ve got a query in to Ladies’ Home Journal, I think.” [Did that ever sell? – SEH]

“A query?”

“A letter asking an editor if he wants to look at a given manuscript.”

“Oh.” Mae looked a little puzzled. “I thought you just sent it in.”

“Some magazines work that way. But most want to see if what you’re writing about is something they’re looking for first.”

“Okay,” Neil said to Sid, hanging up the drill and squirting water into his mouth. “Rinse and spit it out. You’re done.”

Sid did so, wiping his mouth on the napkin around his neck. Neil took it off and rolled back on his stool so Sid could get up.

“Well, that’s that,” Neil said.

Sid ran his tongue over his teeth.

“Thanks a lot, Neil.” He got out of the chair and straightened his suit jacket. “Say hi to the kids for me.”

“I will. Be seeing you two.”

“Bye-bye,” said Mae.

Neil and Mae stayed behind in the examination room. As Sid and I passed the receptionist, he winked at her and told her he’d see her Saturday. I waited until we were outside.

“You picked up on Neil’s receptionist?”

“He isn’t.” Sid shrugged.

“That’s beside the point. Have you no shame?”

“Absolutely none.”

“You reprobate.”

“Ice cube.”

“Reprobate.”

“Ice cube.”

“Repro…”

 

Here ends That Old Cloak and Dagger Routine. Check in next week for a special announcement and look for the sequel Stopleak on January 6, 2017.

spy fiction, mystery fiction, cozy mystery,

Chapter Thirteen

Spy novel, cozy spy novel, cozy mysteryJanuary 11, 1983

I suppose jeans, even nice dress jeans, are not really appropriate for a city council meeting, even if the city is a smallish Southern California suburb. But I was dressing for comfort and mobility that night. We’d learned, through Henry, that Ned Harris had met twice since New Years with a man who had contacts among known Soviet operatives and that preparations were underway to pick up a passenger the night of the council meeting.

Along with my dress jeans, I was wearing an oxford shirt and a camel colored blazer. Unseen underneath the blazer, I was also wearing a shoulder holster and a miniature transmitter and microphone. I also had on my armored running shoes, the ones with the false soles. Mae wasn’t much more dressed up, though definitely unarmed. She would have died if she’d known what I was really up to.

I was supposed to be attending the meeting as part of Sid’s research on the city government article. Sid had gone ahead full steam on it and found himself genuinely interested. He’d already talked to all of the council members. I was at the meeting more or less incognito because Sid wanted as natural a meeting as possible and he was afraid his presence would cause the council members to start grandstanding. Or that’s what he said. Frankly, I think Sid knew it was going to be a dreadful bore and didn’t want to go.

Mae had decided to go also because she was mad again at the overnight parking law (you can’t park your car overnight on the streets in Fullerton). She picked me up at the train station and drove us to City Hall.

“Well, Ned’s here already,” she said as we walked through the parking lot to the council chambers.

“How do you know?” I asked.

“That’s his car.” She pointed to a white Cadillac with a tan top about three cars down from us.

“You sure?”

Mae laughed. “You can’t miss it, or that license plate.”

I began digging through my purse. “Now where’s that pen?”

Sure enough, the Caddy’s license plate read “INFLIT 1.” I stopped, and continued digging, not looking for my pen, but for a round leather case that looked like a compact, but actually held a micro transmitter.

“Can’t you get your pen out inside?” Mae asked impatiently.

“I’ve almost got it. Nope. Besides, I’ve got to be ready before I get in that door. You never know when somebody will say something.” I slid the transmitter into my hand, then dropped a notebook and three pens. “Shavings.”

Two of the pens obligingly rolled under the Caddy’s bumper. Mae groaned and scrambled for the other pen and the notepad.

“Lisa, you are so disorganized.”

I ignored her and quickly stuck the transmitter’s magnet to the inside of the bumper. Mae just rolled her eyes as we got up and got going.

We sat together in the middle, on an aisle. I set my purse on the floor and left it open. Inside was a very good cassette recorder. I was taking notes also, but more on the people than what they were saying since that was being taped. All that was for the article.

The meeting dragged on and on and on. It finally broke up about ten. Sighing with relief, I turned off the tape recorder and put my pad and pen back in my purse. Mae was fussed because she hadn’t had a chance to have her say. She went after Ned Harris, but he had gone. We got outside the chambers just in time to see him get in his car and drive off.

My hand slid under my shirt and tapped out a code on the transmitter I wore. I couldn’t hear it or see it, but somewhere in the sky, a helicopter waited to follow the micro transmitter’s signal. Static filled my right ear.

“This is G-2,” said a voice. I looked over at Mae, certain that she had heard. [I told you no one would — SEH] “We read you, Little Red. Tracer’s working just fine. Over.”

“I’ll just have to call him tomorrow,” complained Mae. “Lisa, are you alright?”

“Oh. I… I’m fine. Did you hear anything funny just now?”

“No. What did you hear?”

“Just somebody’s radio.”

“That’s another thing I’ve got to talk to Ned about. Those stupid ghetto blasters. There must be some ordinance they can enforce on those things.”

Mae drove us back to her house because I was supposedly spending the night.

“What’s Sid doing here?” Mae asked as we drove up. His car was parked in front of the house.

“I have no idea,” I said, although I did. “Probably has some problem for me. I swear he’s just like a little kid sometimes.”

“Wanna trade?” Mae asked, then set the brake.

“Not on your life.”

I took my overnight bag out of the car and followed Mae into the house. Sid was there waiting for us. He was wearing jeans (as always dark blue and discreetly, but very tight) a white shirt, black running shoes, and light blue tweed blazer, which meant he was armed to the teeth, and to the soles. I also knew he had hidden on his person somewhere a transmitter and mike similar to mine, and probably some other stuff. I couldn’t see the receiver parked behind his ear, but I knew it was there.

“Okay, boss,” I groaned. “What’s the problem?”

“Hattie Mitchell called and moved up a deadline.”

“And I thought she was a friend,” I sighed. “Well, so much for spending the night.”

I kissed Mae and Neil good night and followed Sid out of the house.

At the car, we checked before we got in to make sure no one was looking. Sid nodded and we quickly exchanged our blazers for ski jackets. We weren’t terribly sure of where we were headed, but it was probably going to be a long night and January nights are chilly in Southern California.

“Here we go,” said Sid, starting the engine.

I opened the glove compartment and turned on the radio equipment there. I took a deep breath and glanced at Sid as I picked up the microphone.

“This is Big Red/Little Red to G2. Do you read me? Over.” I said into it.

“G2 here, Big Red/Little Red. I read you loud and clear. Over.”

“We are in motion, G2. Over.”

“Affirmative. Your friend is heading east on California 91. Over.”

“We copy G2. Over and out.”

I put the microphone back but left the equipment on.

“The Riverside freeway,” I said. “He’s headed for the desert.”

“It figures. Nice, quiet, flat place to land a plane. It was either that or the beach.”

Once on the freeway, Sid drove fast, eighty miles an hour, dodging between the other cars. The freeway was fairly clear but there are always plenty of people driving somewhere in Southern California, even late on a Tuesday night. The further out we got, though, the less traffic there was.

“I hope the C.H.P. doesn’t pull us over,” I said.

“They won’t,” Sid replied. The way he said it implied that that had been arranged. He looked at me nervously. “It’s going to be rough tonight.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because if and when Harris sees us, he’s not going to let us live unless we get him first.”

“That shouldn’t be any problem.”

“It’s going to be harder than you think, Lisa.” Sid took a deep breath. “The reason I couldn’t go to that meeting tonight was that I had a break-in to do.”

“Oh.” I was hurt that he hadn’t taken me.

“Lisa, break-ins are tough, and you’ve never done one. You don’t want your first to be a high risk, early evening job.”

“I suppose not. So what went down?”

“Harris’s office. Hit the jackpot big time and I had to trigger the alarm. The Feds are all over it by now.”

“What did you find?”

“Satellite equipment, code books and files. In particular, files on each of us.”

“So he did know about us.”

Sid chuckled. “Not quite. He re-opened the file on me in October when he saw us together at the mall. He’d figured that I had courted you because of Mae’s connection to him. He wrote you off as a civilian because of the way you panicked when his henchman attacked you.”

I had to snicker. “And you yelled at me because I didn’t defend myself.”

“That and he didn’t find anything on you.” Sid smiled at me. “The best I can figure is that they were watching everyone who talked to the manager that day. Anyway, Harris couldn’t question Mae about me until Christmas when he met me, and even then, he still wasn’t sure. I was right about him setting me up for that article. Fortunately, with business shut down, there was nothing for him to find on me.”

“That doesn’t mean things are going to be more difficult tonight.”

“Except that while I was in the office, Harris got a transmission which said that if he wanted to ship an extra package or two tonight, there was room.”

“You mean if he had an extra prisoner.”

“Or two.”

“Oh.”

I really didn’t like the sound of that, but there wasn’t much I could do about it. I just shrugged and gazed out at the darkness around us.

G2, the helicopter monitoring the tracer’s signal, broke in periodically to tell us our “friend” had changed freeways. From 91 he changed to 60, and then I-10. Sid drove as fast as the traffic and road would let him, hitting over 100 a couple of times. But there’s a very narrow curvy place on the 60 between Riverside and Beaumont where Sid was forced to slow to 65. Still, each time G2 reported we could tell we were gaining on our friend.

It was getting close to midnight when G2 reported that Harris had turned onto highway 62. We had just passed the turnoff to Palm Springs about five miles back.

“Should be picking him up any time now,” said Sid.

I nodded. A few minutes later, just after we turned onto 62, to Joshua Tree, a small red light flashed on one of the consoles in the glove compartment. I flipped the switch and a small monitor came to life with a line drawing of the road ahead, a compass in the upper left-hand corner and a small green flashing blip near the top of the screen. The tracking equipment was basically a combination radar and signal receiver that was tuned to the micro transmitter on Harris’s car.

I picked up the microphone. “This is Big Red/Little Red. We have our friend. See you at the rendezvous. Over and out.”

I put the microphone up. Sid had slowed down considerably, remaining about a half a mile behind Harris’s car. We drove on for another thirty minutes. Neither one of us were tired, having slept most of that afternoon in preparation. The tension and the naps kept us alert.

The small green blip left its place between the lines.

“He’s leaving the road,” I said “Heading south.”

“There’s where he’s going.” Sid pointed to a small orange light burning on the horizon to our right.

I could barely make out Harris’s headlights in the pitch black. Sid slowed the car some. I aimed the light magnifying binoculars at the distant light.

“I can see a campfire and a plane there, but not much else,” I said. “We should probably get in closer.”

“There’s no way we can get closer from here without our headlamps being spotted, and I’m not driving in the dark.”

We drove past the dirt road Harris had taken. A tall hill rose up and blocked the campfire. Sighing, Sid turned off the road and followed the edge of the hill around for about half a mile.

“We’ll hide the car here,” said Sid, stopping and killing the engine.

As silently as possible, we walked around the hill to the side where we’d seen the campfire. We could see its glow but nothing else. Above and behind us, the hill had long ago crumbled, leaving a sheer, rocky face. Sid looked through the binoculars and frowned.

“I can’t see a thing from here,” he grumbled. “The angle’s wrong.”

“We must be lower than the road. What are we going to do?”

He headed for the face of the bluff. “Climb up there and look.”

“That’s awful steep, Sid. Do you know what you’re doing?”

“How hard can climbing a rock be?”

“Plenty. I’ve done a lot of rock climbing in my time. Let me go.”

“Alright, if you really want to. Your wiring on?”

“Yeah.” I pulled out a pair of knit gloves with leather faces and put them on. Sid handed me the binoculars and I was on my way.

“Am I coming in okay?” I heard Sid’s voice in my ear.

“Loud and clear,” I said a little breathlessly. “Am I?”

“Clear as a bell. Don’t go too high up.”

“I won’t.” I grunted and pulled myself a little higher.

It took me about ten minutes to climb to a small ledge where I was reasonably secure. Looking down I could barely make out Sid leaning casually against a rock. I lifted the binoculars to my eyes.

“I can see three men,” I said. “One of them is getting on the plane. There’s another one there, and yeah, it’s Lipplinger. He’s bound and gagged.”

“Good for them,” Sid replied.

“I don’t see Harris, though. His car’s there but I can’t see him. The plane’s moving. It’s taking off. Lipplinger’s still there.”

The plane roared away above me.

“I still can’t see Harris,” I continued. “I don’t think he’s in the car. The men are sitting around, waiting, I think.”

“Someone’s coming,” Sid announced quietly.

I could just barely make out the sound of an engine and wheels turning over rocks. I turned the binoculars on where Sid was. The sound died out. Sid stiffened and I could see his right hand reaching into his open ski jacket.

“Where are they coming from?” I asked.

“About two o’clock.”

The night was moonless, but the stars were out in force in the clear desert air. I maxed the magnification on the binoculars and scanned the desert in front and to the right of Sid. Ned Harris and another man, both carrying handguns, slid around brush and rocks and over the rise that had blocked our view of the campfire. Behind them, several yards away in the gully, was an open white Jeep 4×4.

“It’s Harris and another guy.” Gasping, I slung my binoculars around my neck and started down the bluff. “I’m on my way.”

“Stay put.”

“But—”

“Damn it, stay put. Aah!”

My heart in my throat, I looked down at Sid. He recoiled, blinded by a bright, white, light. I could just barely make out Harris behind the flashlight.

“…that hand slowly out,” said Ned Harris’s voice. Sid had managed to turn up the transmitter so I could hear what was going on. “Now, Corporal, nice and easy, get those hands on your head. I’ll be damned. I had just written you off as legitimate. Didn’t even bother turning your name in. You’re slick, Corporal, I’ll give you that.”

I held my breath. On one hand, I wasn’t sure what Sid would do if I disobeyed orders, but I knew it wouldn’t be pleasant. On the other hand, it didn’t look too good for him. On the other hand, he’d probably had a very good reason for telling me to stay put and it probably had a lot to do with my inexperience. [Yes and no – SEH]

“Get him frisked and cuffed,” ordered Harris.

The second man did the honors quickly, pulling the gun from Sid’s shoulder holster and another smaller handgun that Sid had strapped to his left shin. The man cussed when he found Sid’s transmitter.

“He’s wired!”

“Damn it.” Harris scanned the sky. “I thought I heard a chopper.”

I heard a ripping noise as the man pulled the transmitter off Sid’s shirt, then a crunch, then silence. The man finished grinding the transmitter into the dirt, then grabbed Sid’s ear for the receiver. A minute later, Sid’s hands were cuffed behind his back. I couldn’t just sit there and do nothing, but I didn’t think I could plug both of them quickly enough to keep them from killing Sid, not with a revolver from that height and with Harris either behind the light or right next to Sid. With a rifle, maybe, but not with a revolver.

Below me, Harris gestured and pointed to the other side of the hill. I strained for their voices. It was faint, but I made out Harris.

“It’s got to be around here someplace,” he said. “He didn’t walk here.”

So they were looking for Sid’s car. I reached out along the ledge to find a foothold that would take me towards the Mercedes. On the ground, Harris’s companion had also gotten a flashlight and scrambled along the rocks around the other side of the hill from the car. Harris knocked Sid onto his seat and kicked him.

It was slow going on the bluff’s face, but I wouldn’t have thought Harris’s friend could get around that hill faster than I could get up it. He did. I had just crested it when I heard the man holler that he’d found the car.

I heard scuffling behind and below me and guessed that Harris was having a hard time getting Sid to his feet. [I was out of the cuffs and jumped him. He lost the gun, and I kicked it away. Then it was just your basic fist fight — SEH] Silently, I made my way down the hill, creeping behind the rocks. The man went through the car.

“Damn it,” he yelped, dragging out the two blazers. I ducked behind a bush as he swept the light over the hill. The light passed over me, then returned and stayed. Drawing my gun, I blinked several times, trying to adjust to the new brightness. He was about twenty feet from me when I jumped out and aimed right at the source of the light.

The revolver cracked, and the man howled. I dove for the bush, my hand stinging with the kickback. All was darkness again. The flashlight rolled down the hill, somehow still on. It rested near the front tire of the Mercedes, lighting up the edge of the bluff. Still blinking, I listened.

The scuffle on the other side of the bluff had turned into a brawl if the sounds were any indication. [They were – SEH] The man glanced that way, then back towards me, searching for me. Nearby, a rabbit scurried away. The man whirled at the noise and shot. Dirt flew where the rabbit had been.

Near the edge of the bluff, Harris staggered backward into the light. He dove forward, only to run into Sid, who beat him back. They wrestled for a moment, then Harris dove behind the bluff again. Sid dove with him.

The man looked anxiously around for me again, then back at the fight. Behind the bluff, a gun went off. Sid dashed around the hill right into the light. In a second, the man had his gun raised, but a split second before, I had squeezed the trigger. He howled as the bullet sparked against his gun. Sid shot at the spark and the man collapsed.

Just in case, I stayed put. Sid ran for the light. He swept it across the hill. Slowly, I stood up. He saw me and quickly jerked the light away. I hurried down the hill.

“I don’t think there’s any more,” I hissed as I reached his side. “How’d you get out of those handcuffs?”

Sid gasped and leaned against the side of the car.

“You can always hide something,” he said, wincing. “I had a piece of quarter inch spring steel in my hair. Got it out when they frisked me.”

“Oh, my god, are you shot?”

“Nah. Just roughed up.”

Harris’s friend groaned.

“We’d better get over to that campfire,” said Sid. “With all the shooting, they’ll be wondering what’s up. Did Harris have a car?”

“Yeah, a white Jeep over in the gully.”

Sid stumbled over to the wounded man and checked him.

“He’s not going anywhere any too soon,” said Sid. “Let’s go.”

I pointed at the wounded man. “What about him?”

“He won’t peg out before help gets here, and dragging him around won’t do him any good.” Sid started off for the bluff.

“And Harris?” I scrambled after him, then stopped.

There in the glare of Harris’s flashlight lay his corpse. The shadows emphasized his wide open eyes and his tongue stuck out around the dark blood that had spilled from his mouth. The sob leaped from my throat as I stood transfixed.

Swearing, Sid trudged back. Gently, he covered my eyes and led me away from the grisly spectacle.

“Again,” I whispered, trying not to weep.

“The gun went off while we were struggling with it,” said Sid softly. “I couldn’t even tell who pulled the trigger.”

We found the keys still in the Jeep’s ignition. As I started the engine, Sid opened the sole to his right shoe and signaled G-2 with the transmitter he pulled out. I drove because I’d driven offroad before and I didn’t think Sid felt like it anyway. He was silent as we drove, and had a hard look on his face as he sat with a rifle he’d found in the back of the Jeep on his lap. I had the lights on as we pulled out of the gully and towards the camp. Sid pulled one of those ski caps that covers the whole face out of his pocket and put it on.

“When I tell you to, turn on the brights and cover me. If you stay behind the lights, they won’t be able to see you. But if you have to come out, try to keep your face hidden.”

We were just on the edge of the ring of firelight when Sid told me to stop and turn on the brights.

“Police. Freeze,” he yelled in that deep tone unique to cops. “We’ve got you covered.”

The two men jumped up, startled. Between them sat Lipplinger, bound and gagged. Both had rifles in their hands. Sid had his seat belt off and his rifle trained on them but didn’t move.

“Drop those rifles. Now.” The men dropped them. “Kick them away.” They did. “Face down on the ground. Move it. On your bellies.”

Sid waited until they were completely down before moving. Handing me his rifle, he took a roll of duct tape from his jacket pocket. One of the men started crawling. I fired and the bullet glanced off a rock next to his head. The man froze.

“My partner only misses on purpose,” Sid announced as he walked over to the men. “I wouldn’t try anything else.”

He gave each man a quick pat down search, then bound them with the tape.

“Sorry, gentlemen, but I lied,” he said calmly. “I’m not the police.”

I heard a helicopter approach. As Sid smoothed down the last bit of tape, he looked up and signaled. The chopper set down on the other side of the campfire. The noise drowned everything out, but I watched as Sid handed Lipplinger over to one of the two men who had come out of the chopper. Sid talked to the other man and motioned toward the hill. After a moment, Sid swung into the Jeep next to me.

“Okay, kiddo, let’s make tracks,” he said grimly buckling his seat belt.

“What about the wounded guy?” Slowly, I started the engine.

“We’ll park the Jeep next to him, and they’ll get to him as soon as we get out.”

It didn’t take long to get back to the Mercedes. As we drove past the face of the bluff, I sighed.

“In a way, he did get what was coming to him,” said Sid.

I shrugged, keeping my eyes straight ahead. “I was just thinking about his wife and kids. She’s pregnant, you know.”

“I know.”

I pulled up next to Harris’s friend. We sat there silently for a moment. Then Sid undid his seat belt.

“Let’s get back to L.A.” He groaned as he got out of the Jeep.

“Sid, why don’t you let me drive back. I don’t think you’re feeling up to it.”

“No, I’m not. Thanks.” He handed me the keys, then walked stiffly to the passenger seat. “Boy, am I going to be sore tomorrow.”

“You’d better take a hot bath when we get home.” I climbed in behind the wheel.

“Sounds like a good idea.”

Daylight was just breaking when I pulled into the garage. We both yawned at the same time, too tired to move.

“You did a good job tonight, Lisa,” Sid said quietly. “I was afraid after they knocked out my transmitter that you would stay put on that cliff, but you did exactly what I was going to tell you to do, and you did it smart.”

“Thanks, Sid.”

He opened the door and groaned as he tried to get out.

“Hold on, I’ll help you.” I ran around the car and helped him out and into the house.

We stumbled to his room in the semi darkness. Once there, I removed his arm from my shoulder.

“Sorry,” I said. “This is as far as I go.”

“It’s far enough.” Sid took off his ski jacket, laid it on the bed and started unbuttoning his shirt. “Don’t worry about running this morning.”

“Thanks. Don’t forget your shoulder holster.”

He looked down and chuckled. I left, shutting the door quietly.

spy fiction, mystery fiction, cozy mystery,

Chapter Twelve

16-1104-cdr_pullquoteDecember 26, 1982 – January 1, 1983

The next morning after breakfast, I took the long way to the front door, going past Lipplinger’s room.

“Good morning, Professor,” I called after pounding on the door.

No answer. That wasn’t surprising. Lipplinger never said anything to me unless he absolutely had to. I went on to Sunday mass without thinking about it.

When I got back, I found Sid hadn’t lost any time calling Henry James.

“Well, I’d appreciate it, Henry,” he told the living room phone as I entered the house. There was a pause as Henry spoke. “No, she’s doing real good. We had some tense moments, but she came out okay… What do you mean you can reassign her if she wants?”

“I don’t,” I said, going into the living room.

Sid looked at me.

“I see… When was this..?” Sid sighed in response. “That’s been settled. She’ll stay with me… No, she’s standing right here.” He handed me the phone. “He wants to talk to you.”

“Hello, Henry,” I said into the receiver.

“Sid says you’ve patched things up.”

“A long time ago. Really. I’m fine.”

“Well, the option’s there. Getting rid of Quickline you won’t be able to do, but if Sid’s a problem I can get you reassigned.”

“You haven’t done anything yet?”

“No.”

“Please don’t, then. I’m very happy where I’m at.”

“That’s a different song than the one you were singing last November.”

“I know, Henry. But we settled it.”

“Alright, goodbye.”

I handed the phone back to Sid, who hung it up.

“I didn’t know you called Henry during that fight,” he said, hurt.

“I was pretty upset. It didn’t matter. He couldn’t do anything anyway.”

Sid sighed.

“It looks like we’re not as stuck as we thought.” He looked like he wished we were.

“Maybe not by the business.”

He looked at me and smiled.

“Even then it won’t be that easy.” He paused, then looked away. “Which, perhaps, is just as well.”

I just smiled and left the living room. Sid and my daddy were very much alike in that neither one could admit emotion.

Later that afternoon a call came through on the business line. (The other two lines are Sid’s and my private lines.)  I didn’t listen in, being busy with a new dress I was putting together. When I saw that Sid had hung up, my curiosity got the better of me. After all, people hardly ever called us on the business line on Sundays. I went looking for Sid and found him in his office. He sat behind his desk with his chin in one hand. He glanced at me briefly and went back to staring into space.

“Something’s up,” he said. “Harris is being a little too chummy.”

“Is that who called just now?”

“Mm-hmm.”

“Couldn’t he be wanting to bury the hatchet?”

“That’s what he says. But I seriously doubt it. Last fall when we were at that mall with the kids, I saw him there. I’m pretty sure he didn’t see me. I thought he might have been talking into a radio. I tailed him just out of curiosity, then saw you in trouble, so I dropped him. At the time I thought I was just being paranoid. But now I’m really wondering.”

“I’m more than wondering. I ran into him just outside of the toy store.” I frowned. “Wait. He knows me. He wouldn’t have had any reason to think I was up to anything.”

“Unless he saw us together,” said Sid. “That, in itself would be enough to arouse suspicion.”

“Why?”

Sid snickered. “What would a nice girl like you be doing hanging around a guy like me? Ned and whoever he’s working with must have pegged the drop at the toy store. The hard part is knowing whether or not Ned knows you weren’t using your real name when you picked up those keys. I’m inclined to think not.”

“I don’t get it.”

“If they know you, then they know me, and they would also be watching us and that means they would have to have seen Lipplinger. But nobody has come for him, and we haven’t had any tails.”

“That makes sense. But what about Ned?”

“That is indeed the crucial question. We’ll have to keep an eye on him. That’s another thing that bothers me. He practically paved the way.”

“How?”

“We were talking about city government and he suggested it might be a good magazine article. I said it would take some research and he said he’d be happy to help me.”

“Oh.”

Sid lifted an eyebrow. “It would make a good piece if I can get the right angle on it. I think I will play Harris’s game.”

“What if it’s a trap?”

“It’s quite possible. But I get the impression Harris is trying to feel me out more than anything else. He had no reason to suspect I was an operative back in ‘Nam. He’s definitely wondering about me, but if he was certain, he’d be more likely to set up an attack or just watch us and try to blow up our operation. Which is why I’m taking his bait. If I were only a freelance writer, I’d think Ned’s being a little pushy and trying to grandstand, but I’d still do the article.”

“Well, be careful. I don’t want to end up in the unemployment lines again.” Then a thought hit me. “You mind if I do some research, too?”

“Your sister?”

“Uh-huh. I don’t know what she could tell me, but it couldn’t hurt.”

“I think it could. We don’t want her to get suspicious.”

“If she’s going to get suspicious, then she already is by now. She noticed you were a little put off track when you met him. I wrote it off by telling her it was Viet Nam. With all the current concern over about Viet Nam vets, she won’t think twice about Ned Harris bothering you.”

Sid frowned, then sighed. “That does make sense.”

“Good. I’ll call her in a little while. No sense in pushing it.”

A little while turned out to be the next day. Mae was very happy I called.

“Any chance I can get to sit down,” she sighed.

“Knee bothering you?”

“Just a little. So what’s up? Did Ned Harris get a hold of Sid?”

“Unfortunately. Sid’s been real moody since he did.”

“The Viet Nam thing?”

“I think so. Listen, Mae, what can you tell me about Ned?”

“Well, I don’t know. He’s a very nice, very active man. What more can I say?”

“He’s a travel agent, isn’t he?”

“Mmhm.”

“How does he strike you, as a person?”

“Just a good All-American type, I guess. A little pushy sometimes. He seems a little closed, too, like he’s not quite willing to let you see him. Hold on a second, Lisa.” Then more softly, “Ellen, you stay out of that or I’ll paddle your seat.”

I heard a soft chuckle. Sid was listening in.

“What was that?” asked Mae. So she had heard it, too.

“Just some interference on the line, I expect.” I got up from my desk and walked over to the doorway where I could see Sid with the phone to his ear. I felt a little like my privacy was being invaded, but decided he had a right to listen this time. “Do you know much about Ned’s business?”

“Not really, except that it’s doing very well. They’ve got plenty of money and a nice place up in Sunny Hills.”

“He’s on the city council, right?”

“Yeah.”

“When’s the next meeting?”

“Sometime the week after New Years. Why do you want to know?”

“Ned kind of hinted that Sid should do an article on city government and Sid’s thinking about it. He also thinks Ned’s grandstanding a little.”

“That may be. I wonder why Sid’s so bugged about him.”

“I have no idea.” I looked away from Sid. “Bad wartime memories, I guess. Sid absolutely refuses to talk about it. The only reason I found out he was in Vietnam was that I was cleaning out his files and found his army papers.”

I said goodbye to Mae shortly after and hung up. Sid came into my office.

“So, now what?” I asked.

“We wait.” He seemed bugged.

“Sid, did I say anything wrong?”

He paused. “Not per se. If anything, you were a little too accurate. I, uh, really don’t like remembering that time in my life.”

“That bad, huh?”

“There are no words to describe it, Lisa.”

He looked back at his office, then ambled out into the hall. A few minutes later, I heard piano music from the library. I later found out that the piece was the first of Chopin’s Twenty-Four preludes, Opus 28. Sid played all twenty-four.

The next day, Harris took second place for a while to a greater concern: Lipplinger. He’d been very good about staying in his rooms before Christmas, so neither Sid nor I thought anything of it when we didn’t see him after. Until Conchetta came into the office.

“You have sent the old man away again?” she asked.

“Not ’til after New Years,” I said. “Why?”

“I haven’t seen him.”

“He has been staying in his room since he came back.”

“No he hasn’t. I see him different places. But I haven’t seen him since Christmas. No food is gone either.”

“Well, then…” I thought, then called out, “Sid. We’ve got a problem.”

“What?” He came out of his office.

I was on my way out. “Conchetta thinks Lipplinger’s missing.”

“I haven’t seen him since Christmas,” she said, as she and Sid followed me to Lipplinger’s room.

I opened the door. The room looked alright except for the fact that Lipplinger wasn’t in it. Sid came in past me and went straight to the bathroom.

“He’s not there,” he said coming back in.

I noticed a piece of paper lying on the dresser. I picked it up.

“That idiot,” I grumbled, and handed it to Sid.

“’I’ll be back after the holidays.’  What does he think he’s doing?” Sid slipped the note into his pocket. “He must have gone to Hattie’s. I’d better call her.”

In the office, I listened in. The butler answered.

“Yes, may I speak to Hattie Mitchell?” said Sid. “It’s rather important.”

“Just a minute.”

There was a delay before Hattie’s voice came over the wires.

“Hello?” She sounded particularly cheerful.

“Hi, it’s me, is your brother there?”

“Oh, hello, Sid. I thought Miles was with you.”

“Not at the moment. Have you heard from him at all?”

“Actually, I haven’t. I was a little surprised when he didn’t call Christmas, but I didn’t think anything of it. You know Miles.” Her voice caught. “Sid, if you don’t know where he is…”

“We’re on top of it. Don’t worry. In the meantime, you are under surveillance by the other side. I’d be careful.”

Hattie laughed. “Oh, don’t worry. My phones are clean, and so is my house. I’m very certain of that.”

“There are other ways to listen in.”

“Sid, it’s sweet of you to be concerned, but believe me, half my business is electronic surveillance. I know what’s out there and how to thwart it.”

“Alright. We’ll get back to you as soon as we know anything.”

He wasn’t happy as he hung up. I walked into his office.

“What do you think?” he asked me.

“There goes Mammoth.” I’d been planning on spending New Years skiing at Mammoth Lakes with my church group.

“I think you’ll make it.”

The phone rang. This time, it was Henry. I went back to my office and debated what to do next.

“Lisa,” Sid called.

I went back to his office. He scribbled something on a notepad.

“Yeah, thanks a lot, Henry.” He hung up.

“What’s up?” I asked.

“Sit down. We’ve got a hot one this time.” Sid dropped his pen on the desk and leaned back in his chair. “Henry was digging up whatever they had on that operative in Fullerton. They know he or she is brokering information, basically, putting people who want to sell out into contact with people who want to buy. Who that person is, we have no idea, but he or she stays very clean, and may even be fairly visible in the community.”

“Is it my imagination, or does that sound like Ned Harris?”

“It does indeed.”

“But Fullerton?” I shook my head. “It’s a nice little suburban city. There’s nothing there.”

“There is one major defense plant in the city and several others nearby. Lisa, Southern California is a veritable hotbed of covert activity. The better part of the defense industry is based here. Henry’s friends have been trying to pin down a number of transmissions beamed to the North Orange County area and they’ve got it pinned down to Fullerton, but where they don’t know. And just to make things interesting, another transmission was received not half an hour ago from Washington, D.C.”

“Lipplinger?”

“They haven’t got the code completely broken yet, but there was something about a special traveler in two weeks.”

“You know, Ned Harris is a travel agent.”

“Mighty convenient, don’t you think?”

I sighed. “It is. It just seems so weird. I mean we’re only guessing at this point. How can we know for sure?”

Sid smiled. “That, my dear, is the difference between knowing what has happened and proving it in court.”

“I don’t know, Sid. Why two weeks? If they’ve got Lipplinger now, why don’t they ship him right away?”

“Traveling with a prisoner, especially when you don’t want anyone to know he’s a prisoner, is not an easy thing to do. And then there are arrangements to be made. You don’t just charter a Soviet plane or boat on a moment’s notice.”

I nodded. “I guess this really puts the clamps on Mammoth.”

“Why? We’ve got two weeks.”

“They could have gotten it wrong, or they might move it up.”

“We’re making arrangements. If Ned leaves Fullerton or has any guests, we’ll know.”

“And what about Lipplinger?”

“They’ve got him, for the moment. Let them deal with him.” He looked at me for a moment, thinking something over. “I think you’d better go to Mammoth as originally planned. It’s possible we’re being watched and I want us to stay as clean as possible, which means we’re shutting down business. Any plans we’ve made I don’t want to change unless something legitimate comes up. It might arouse suspicion if we do.”

There was something fishy about that. Shutting down business, I could see. But letting me go running off to Mammoth..?

“Are you trying to get rid of me that weekend for some reason?” I asked.

“Well.” Sid’s grin was guilty as all get out. “I have been planning a small party here.”

“Not the kind I’d like, I take it. Okay. I’ll lock all my doors before I go. Don’t get too drunk.”

“I won’t be drinking that much. Alcohol doesn’t do much for lovers either.”

“And heaven forbid you should not always be in peak form.” Then another thought hit me. “There won’t be any illegal substances floating around, will there?”

Sid shrugged. “It’s not unlikely. That’s one thing you can’t always control. I don’t think there’ll be much pot. It’s out of style. I try to discourage it. It doesn’t do much for the sex drive, besides being hard on the lungs. But coke is a whole other kettle of fish. This town is loaded with it and you can’t get around it, even though the stories are exaggerated.”

“You don’t…”

Sid snorted. “Lisa, you know better than that. It’s far too dangerous in our business, and I probably wouldn’t anyway. Sex is my only vice.”

I looked at him, my curiosity getting the better of me again.

“Did you ever do drugs?”

“A little marijuana. It was as common as tobacco among the people I grew up with. When I was in high school nobody could understand why I was so bored about it. A few kids thought I was doing the hard stuff. But I wasn’t. I’d seen too much of what that does to people. I just smoked an occasional joint to be part of the gang.”

Sid’s reminiscent mood infected me also.

“I was just the opposite. I knew there were drugs around, but I never really believed it. In a resort city, you get all kinds of people. I was still very sheltered. I remember once this girl I knew told me drugs were to be had as easily as asking for them. I never believed her. I was in college before I saw my first joint.”

“Such innocence.” He chuckled, then got serious. “You know, there are times when I could kick myself for getting you involved in this business. You’re too good. You don’t deserve guys shooting at you.”

“So what do I deserve?” I asked smiling.

“Something like what Mae’s got. A husband and family, a nice peaceful life.”

“Did it ever occur to you I don’t want that?”

Sid was surprised. “You don’t?”

“No. Sure I like being at Mae’s, and, sure, I love the kids. But I’ve got a good thing going. When those kids get cranky, Mae and Neil get them. When diapers had to be changed, Mae and Neil did it. When the kids have to be disciplined, that’s Mae and Neil’s job. I get to share all the good times and only rarely do I have to deal with the bad. That week I spent babysitting only reinforced that. In some ways, I’d like to get married and settle down, and maybe there’ll come a time when I will. I’m not ready to close the door on that option yet. But the more I think about it, the more I want to stay single. That’s mostly the reason why I didn’t want to work for my dad. If I had gone back to Tahoe, or even to Florida, I would have worked for a while. But it wouldn’t have been a career. It would have been just marking time until I found a husband, and I don’t want one. I like my freedom. Of course, I couldn’t tell that to my parents. Even as independent as Mama is, she’s in the resort business because Daddy is. With them, it’s either the convent or the home, and I won’t be settled to them until I’ve chosen one or the other. Even if I’m eighty.”

“I hope you don’t choose the convent.”

“Don’t think I haven’t thought about it. It would be nice and there’s certainly a great deal of job security in it. But I really don’t think I am, if you’ll pardon the expression, called to it.”

The jangling of the phone totally shattered the mood. It was Mae, calling to give me the date of the next Fullerton city council meeting. It was approximately two weeks away.

New Years Day, I entered the house very cautiously. Well, it was closer to the day after New Years at that point. The lights were still on, so I knew Sid wasn’t in bed yet, or rather asleep for the night.

“Sid?” I called loudly. “I’m home.”

There was no answer, but that wasn’t surprising. As I dropped my luggage in my room, I thought I heard glassware jangling from the rumpus room. The door was open, so I went to investigate.

He was straightening up the bar. There was a pile of dirty glasses on one end and next to it a dust pan with a broom on the floor.

I yawned and flopped down into a bean bag.

“Have a good time?” Sid asked without looking up.

“Uh-huh, and yourself?”

“Quite nice, thank you. Any casualties?”

“Just a couple of sunburns. Myself included. Dummy me forgot my sunscreen.”

Sid looked at me and smiled. “You look like a raccoon.”

“I know. They changed my nickname from Teacher to Bandit.”

“Teacher?”

“My past has been haunting me. I used to be, among other things, a ski instructor in Tahoe. There were several people with us who had never skied before, so guess who got elected to teach them.”

“Elected? If I know you, you told them not to spend the money on lessons as you could teach them just as well.” His blue eyes glittered with mischief.

“Better than the twit they had. I have my pride.”

“Oh, well, my condolences on not getting to the good slopes.”

“Oh, I did. How do you think I got sunburned so badly? Even got a little night skiing in.”

Sid yawned and came around the front of the bar for the broom. I noticed that not only was he just wearing a shirt and dark pants, he was in his stocking feet. His hair was still perfect, though. I shook my head and smiled.

“I take it your party was a success.”

Sid nodded and began sweeping behind the bar. I yawned again and stretched. I noticed something with lace on it sticking out from underneath the beanbag next to me. I reached over and pulled it out. It was a pair of women’s bikini underpants.

“One of your friends left something.” I tossed them at him. He caught them and looked at them, lifting an eyebrow.

“Whosever these are, I’ll bet it’s not the first time it’s happened to her,” he said. He looked at me. “If I had them washed, would you want them?”

I think he was being tacky just to tease me.

“No thanks,” I said, for once playing it cool. “Lace itches me.”

Sid dumped them in the waist can and went on sweeping. I got up, walked to the door and turned back to him.

“It might amuse you to know, “ I said, languidly leaning against the door jamb. “That yours truly has a genuine real live date, scheduled for the end of this month, provided my boss doesn’t cart me off on one of his infamous capricious whims.”

“Congratulations. With who, may I ask?”

“I don’t ask who your dates are. Of course, it’s impossible to keep track. His name is George Hernandez and he’s a class A-one sweetheart. He’s part of my church group.”

“Well, if I have to behave, he darned well better.”

“I’m sure he will. Good night, Sid.”

“Good night, Lisa.”

spy fiction, mystery fiction, cozy mystery,

Chapter Eleven

cozy spy novel, mystery fiction, fiction serial, spy fiction serialDecember 20 – 25, 1982

Monday morning, I was surprised I was lighting the fourth candle on my advent wreath and told Sid so. He just shrugged. He was mostly amused by my advent wreath but didn’t object when I put it on the table in the breakfast room, where we ate all our meals.

He did finally break down and came home from an errand that afternoon with his own contribution to the Christmas spirit. Of course, it was mistletoe.

“It figures,” I said, shaking my head.

“Admittedly, it’s pagan,” said Sid, “but that’s okay because I’m a pagan.”

I thought about it. “I don’t think you are, technically. Pagans believed in multiple deities, and you’ve said you don’t believe in any.”

“This is true.” Sid looked around my office. “Now, where to put it. Ah, the sliding glass door.”

He reached up and attached the twigs to the top of the mini blinds. Suddenly, he stopped and pulled the blinds apart.

“Oh no,” he grumbled.

“What’s the matter?” Worried, I got up from my desk and joined him.

His arm landed across my shoulder.

“Gotcha!” His eyes twinkled as he glanced at the mistletoe above us.

“You stinker,” I groaned. Sid moved in, his mouth open. I put on my best Madeleine Kahn voice. “No tongues.”

“No fun.” He sighed heavily, then gently, so gently, his lips pressed against mine. I was drawn in and found myself returning it in good measure. As he pulled away, I scrambled free.

“One of these days, I’m going to end up slugging you,” I said, going back to my desk. But my lips were still warm and tingling, and come to think of it, I was tingling all over. [You were tingling. I’ll give three guesses what you’d done to me – SEH]

I managed to get all my projects done early that evening, so I wandered, and decided to try singing some carols on the piano. I don’t play, but I can read the treble clef. I had the sheet music to “Oh Holy Night,” and tried to sing it in the key it was written in, which is soprano (I’m an alto). Apparently, Sid had been listening to my efforts because the next day on the piano was an old staff paper notebook with a note on it asking “Is this better?” I opened it up and, sure enough, he had transposed the entire arrangement into a key I could sing.

Three days before Christmas we got the good news that a new holding place for Lipplinger had been found. It was much more secret and better protected. The only hitch was he couldn’t go there until after the holidays. No matter. He’d been keeping to his room, although he’d harassed Conchetta so badly when she brought him his tray, that Sid had told him to get his own food and to make sure he cleaned up after himself and to stay out of our way.

Sid couldn’t wait to be rid of the old man, especially when he found out that Lipplinger had been calling his friends almost daily and telling them he was in Los Angeles. Lipplinger swore he hadn’t said where he was in Los Angeles and with whom he was staying, but after what he’d told Hattie, Sid didn’t trust him.

Then Hattie called. Sid was out making a pickup, so I got it.

“Miles is begging to come home,” she said. “He says he wants to spend the holidays with his family, though why he does, I haven’t the faintest idea. He does nothing but complain when he’s here.”

“Well, I don’t know that there’s anything I can do about it,” I said. “We sure wouldn’t mind sending him, but there’s no way of knowing if it would be safe.”

“That’s the most important part,” said Hattie. “If he can come home for Christmas, it would be nice, but unless it’s one hundred percent safe for him, keep him there, I don’t care how much he howls.”

Sid was real thrilled when he heard that. Worse yet, the latest intelligence we had said that Hattie’s was the worst place Lipplinger could go. She’d been under heavy observation since Lipplinger left. Lipplinger agreed to stay put without too much fuss. We should have known.

However, at the time, I was more concerned about my parents. They were also going to be spending Christmas at Mae’s. I should have thought of that when Mae called Sid to have him come over for Christmas. But it was too late, and the thought of Sid and my daddy getting together had me more than a little tense.

I love my father. He is the sweetest, most wonderful father a girl could ever have. He’s very much the he-man type, strong and silent. He taught me how to backpack, fly fish, ride horses, rock climb, all sorts of things. He’s usually very open minded and always taught me that all human beings are God’s creatures and deserving of respect, regardless of sex, age, race or creed, unless the man happened to be dating Mae or me. I think the only reason he got along with Neil was because Neil had worked for him for so long (Neil had put himself through college and dental school working summers and breaks at the resort in Tahoe.

Personally, I enjoyed my boss’s smooth cosmopolitan sophistication. But I knew Daddy wouldn’t. I wasn’t sure if Daddy would be suspicious of Sid. Either way, it was not going to be easy on Sid. As much as I looked forward to Christmas, I began to dread the inevitable confrontation.

My parents flew in from Florida on the Monday before Christmas. I would have gone to the airport to meet them with Mae and family, but I figured it would have been just too crowded in that station wagon. Sid generously offered to loan me his car, but I said no, I had work to do anyway. I didn’t tell him that if Daddy saw me driving the boss’s car it would only arouse his suspicions and make things difficult for the boss.

For the same reason, I didn’t want Sid to drive me into Orange County on Christmas Eve. But Sid insisted, saying that Mae had invited him to lunch.

We pulled up in front of Mae’s house a little after ten in the morning. As we got out of the car, the front door opened and the kids came streaming out, yelling. In spite of the noise, I still heard a sweet female voice with a wonderfully familiar southern drawl to it.

“Lisa Jane! Lisa Jane!”

“Mama!” I ran to her.

I admit I tend to rave a bit about my parents. But Mama is an exceptional woman. She’s small and pert, the perfect southern lady. She reminds me of a tiny brown sparrow with a southern drawl. I hugged her.

“It’s so good to see you, Mama,” I said, kissing her.

“Well, now, Lisle, just let me get a look at you.” Lisle is my parents’ pet name for me. She stepped back to admire me. “Aren’t you looking pretty as a picture.”

I was wearing a nice pair of jeans, an oxford shirt and a rust tweed sports coat with leather on the elbows, and of course, my beloved deck shoes. Sid still sighs every time he sees them.

“Thank you, Mama.”

“Well, now, you go unload your stuff, then come on in and we’ll talk.”

“Oh, Mama, come meet my boss.”

Sid was loading Janey and Darby up with the presents we had brought. Because he was planning on returning to Los Angeles, he was decked out in his standard three-piece suit, complete with pin under the tie. When he looked up and smiled, Mama just looked at him with a puzzled frown.

“Mama, this is my boss, Sid Hackbirn,” I said, not quite aware of what was happening to her.

“How do you do, Mrs. Wycherly.” Sid extended his hand.

“I’m Althea,” she replied, mechanically shaking his hand. “Pardon me, but have we met before?”

Sid looked at her, then away, trying to think if he had.

“I don’t believe so.”

“Well, I guess it’s just silly me. Still… Oh, never mind. Lisle, you get yourself settled and then we can talk. I’ll be in the kitchen.”

She walked back in the house, shaking her head.

“What’s with Grandma?” Darby asked, struggling underneath several wrapped boxes and trying to pick up my overnight case.

“Beats me,” I replied. “Darby, can you carry all that? Let me take my case.”

“No way, Aunt Lisa, that’s my job!”

“I’ll take these,” said Sid, removing a couple of boxes from Darby’s load. “Now, scoot.” Darby hurried in. Sid turned to me. “Why don’t you go talk to your mother. I’ll supervise the unloading.”

“And you’ve got to see the tree,” said Janey. “It’s beautiful.”

“And presents,” replied Ellen quietly, still attached to Sid’s leg. “Lots of presents. But we can’t open them ’til tomorrow.”

“Nope,” said Janey, running after the twins, who were screaming “Jingle Bells” repeatedly.

“Alright,” I said and headed in. I figured that unloading the car, seeing the tree and inspecting the largess underneath would keep Sid occupied for a while.

“Well, maybe he’s been up to Tahoe,” Mae said as I walked into the kitchen.

“Where’s Daddy?” I asked.

“Him and Neil went up to the market,” replied Mama, more concerned with another problem.

“Mama’s been having fits over your boss,” explained Mae.

“I have not been havin’ fits, Mae Alice. I just know I seen that face before and I can’t think where.”

“I have no idea, Mama. It could be Tahoe,” I said, although I doubted it. Sid had said he’d never been to my parents’ place or store.

“No, it wasn’t Tahoe. It was Dade County for sure. I keep thinking Homestead, but that don’t seem likely.”

I shrugged. It didn’t seem likely. Homestead, Florida was where my folks were raised. Right next to the Everglades, it wasn’t exactly Sid’s kind of place.

“The thing that keeps throwin’ me is that’s he’s so young,” Mama continued. “I keep thinking it was years and years ago.” She slammed her hand down on the kitchen table. “John! John Caponetti. Went steady with him for three months in high school, would you believe? Had money too. Mama said I shoulda married him for it when he asked me. But I was bound and determined not marry a man from Dade County.” She laughed.

Mae and I smiled. It was an old story, how Mama and Daddy met. They’d both come from the same town but didn’t know each other until they met in college in New York. Grandma Caulfield had never liked the idea of her girl going to college, let alone a Yankee one. But Mama had gotten a scholarship and there was no stopping her determination to get out of Homestead and Dade County. Of course, Daddy brought her back for a little while. Then just after I was born, the opportunity to buy the resort in Tahoe came up and they took it.

Mama laughed a little. “My, my, John Caponetti. Haven’t thought about him in years. But I tell you, Lisle, your Sid Hackbirn is the spit and image of John Caponetti.”

Mae and I looked at each other with guilty grins. We were both wondering if we’d stumbled on Sid’s missing father. Mama had to catch us.

“Now, I know what you two are thinking, but if there’s any relation, you can bet it’s on the wrong side of the blankets, hear? So I don’t want you two saying anything. ‘Tisn’t nice. There was all sorts of cleft-chinned babies in families what had no right to have ’em, just as there was Caulfield babies. Remember that, now.”

“Sure, Mama,” I said.

“Mommy!” called Janey running in, followed by Darby and Ellen and, further behind and slower, by Sid. “Mommy, can Uncle Sid sleep over tonight? Can he, please?”

“Pretty please, Mom?” begged Darby. “He can sleep in my bed. I won’t mind a sleeping bag. Can he, please?”

Mae and I were both laughing at the uproar.

“Settle down,” said Mae. “He can—” The kids yelled. “Hush up! He can if he wants to.” She turned to Sid. “Really, Sid, you’re more than welcome, but I don’t want you to feel obligated. If there’s anything you need, I’m sure Lisa won’t mind running you down to the store.”

“She won’t have to.” Sid paused. “I, uh, am in the habit of carrying an overnight case in the car.”

I bit my lip. I didn’t want to laugh. I could see Mae biting hers, too.

“Now, why on earth would you carry an overnight case?” Mama asked innocently. She hadn’t heard that much about Sid.

I put my hand to my mouth and held it. I didn’t dare look at Mae. Sid, mercifully, ignored us.

“I like to maintain a flexible lifestyle,” he replied.

“Well, now as a writer, I s’pose you would,” Mama said.

“I guess I’m staying, then.” Sid was drowned out by cheers. “Come on, Darby, let’s get my case.”

He left with Darby and Ellen.

“Now, what is your problem, you two?” Mama’s eyes were flashing as she turned to us. “I admit it seems a little silly, carrying a bag, but it’s certainly convenient.”

“Oh, no! I can’t hold it!” I was laughing. So was Mae.

“Mama, you did it again,” gasped Mae. “Walked right into it.”

“What are you on about?”

“The overnight case,” I said. “It is real convenient for him.”

“Well, honey, if he doesn’t know where’s he going to be at night.”

“Or in whose bed,” giggled Mae. I giggled with her.

“Girls!” Mama glared at us. “’Tisn’t nice!”

“What’s so funny about an overnight case?” asked Janey, bewildered. She was too young to know about Sid.

I picked her up and set her on my lap.

“Janey,” I said, squeezing her. “Sometime, when you are older and a lot wiser in the ways of the world, I’ll explain.”

“Just nobody say anything to Grandpa,” warned Mae.

At that moment, Sid and Darby came in. Darby was carrying a garment bag. As I thought about it, I realized I’d seen it behind Sid’s seat and wondered what it was for.

“Darby, please go hang that up in your room,” said Mae, then to Sid, “I just put fresh sheets on his bed this morning.”

“Is there anything in there that the kids can’t see?” I whispered in his ear.

“Not if they don’t look,” he whispered back.

“Darby, put the latch on the door when you leave,” I yelled, then explained, “He’s not going to want the twins going through his stuff, and you know if it’s not locked up, it’s fair game.”

“They’re not old enough to know better,” added Mae, who was wishing they were. “Well, I’d better get lunch started.”

Darby came running downstairs.

“All locked up!” he reported and then went out back, taking his sisters with him.

“Sid,” asked Mae. “Are you going to be comfortable all dressed up like that?”

“Sure,” he shrugged, then thought a moment. “Maybe I will change.”

“Lisa, why don’t you show him Darby’s room.”

As we came into the front hall, Neil and Daddy came in from the store.

“Hi, Daddy!” I came up and hugged him.

“Hi, Lisle. How’s my baby?”

“Real good, Daddy. How are you?”

“Good.”

“Oh, Daddy, this is my boss, Sid Hackbirn.”

They stood there for a minute, like two dogs on the street, sizing the other up, only it was like a terrier and a German shepherd. Daddy is a big man. His face is a little on the stern side, but both Janey and I have his huge round eyes. He used to play football in college and he looks like he could have gone pro. Sid isn’t that small, but he’s not more than three inches taller than me and I’m average.

Sid broke the silence first.

“How do you do, sir,” he said putting out his hand.

Daddy took it, shook it firmly and nodded his head.

“How de do,” he mumbled, then walked into the family room.

Sid raised an eyebrow, while I breathed a sigh of relief. He smiled at me.

“You seem relieved,” he said.

I started up the stairs.

“He doesn’t dislike you.” I paused. “Yet.”

“I see.”

When we got to Darby’s room, I undid the latch, then paused.

“Sid, are you planning on wearing a sweater?” I asked in a low voice.

“I usually do.”

“Then I’d strongly suggest wearing it all the way or not at all.”

“What do you mean?”

“You know how you usually do, around the shoulders?”

“Yes.”

I winced. “Daddy doesn’t think that much of that kind of style.”

“Ah. I see. Well, this is going to be interesting.”

“You said it.”

There wasn’t much he could have done about the blue tweed pleated-front pants. But he was wearing the sweater all the way when he came downstairs. He sat quietly at the kitchen table listening to the rest of us gossip about the family.

I wouldn’t have believed it was possible. Daddy was not only suspicious of Sid, but Mae and I agreed by lunchtime, he was certainly jealous of Sid. It did make lunch a little strained.

“You poor thing,” Mae whispered to me after lunch.

We were cleaning up in the kitchen while the other adults lingered in the dining room and the kids were outside playing.

“Poor Sid, you mean,” I whispered back.

“Isn’t Daddy awful?” Mae giggled. “Remember that one boy you brought home from college? The one who had his hands all over you?”

“Rory? Oh my, do I.” I laughed, though at the time Daddy had hit the roof. “I was amazed Daddy let me finish my degree.”

“Thank God I talked you out of moving into Rory’s house with him and his friends.”

“And thank God you didn’t talk me out of moving to Sid’s place.” I was amazed I’d said it but not half as amazed as Mae. I mean, I had been meaning to tell her, but I just never got around to it.

“Are you joking?” she gasped.

I glanced at the closed dining room door, then quickly shook my head.

“Lisa!”

“Sh. It’s completely kosher, I promise. His room is on one side of the house and mine’s on the other. There’s a whole big house between us. He hasn’t touched me.”

“But why?”

“I’m on twenty-four-hour call. I told you the guy was eccentric.” I was shaking, although I was tremendously relieved at finally having told her.

“So why didn’t you tell me in the first place?”

“I don’t know. I guess I was desperate and I was afraid you’d try to talk me out of it.”

“I probably would have, so I suppose it’s just as well now.”

“Mae, I don’t even know why I signed on with him. I could have worked at the resort.”

“Well, it’s a good thing you did, Lisa. He needs us.”

“There really isn’t anything going on, Mae. I promise.”

“I believe you.”

I swallowed. “It’s just that he wishes there was and a lot of times, so do I.”

“Of course you do. He’s had my heart racing a couple of times, too.”

“It scares me, Mae. I’ve been horny before, but this is different.”

“Well, you just stand firm. He’ll come around.”

“It’ll be a long time before that happens, if at all.”

“Don’t worry. I’m here. It’ll be like AA. You just call when temptation hits. I’ll be praying for you, too.”

“Thanks, Mae.”

Sid wandered in at that point.

“It may be my imagination,” he said to us slowly. “But I get the impression that your father does not like me.”

“Oh, don’t worry, Sid,” replied Mae. “It’s not you. He doesn’t like anybody that comes near his little girl.”

Sid noticed I’d been blushing since he came in. He smiled mischievously.

“Is there a reason why your face is so red, Lisa?” he asked.

“Oh, we were just talking about you, Sid,” Mae giggled. “I hear you got my little sister shacked up at your place.”

Sid looked surprised for a moment then burst out laughing.

“You, shut up!” I backhanded him in the arm.

He only laughed harder. “You mean you never did tell your own sister where you were living?”

“No,” I groaned. “I just didn’t. I haven’t even told my parents, really.”

“You can’t,” gasped Mae. She had stopped laughing and was deadly serious.

“Mae, I’m going to have to sooner or later.”

She glanced back at the dining room. “Are you kidding? What do you think Daddy’s gonna do? He’ll be furious, and if he loses his temper…”

“Well, Sid can handle himself.” I looked over at him.

“I really don’t care to be involved in physical violence,” he said.

“Lisa, you can’t tell them where you’re living, unless you want Daddy getting into one nasty fight, then physically dragging you back to Tahoe.”

“What on earth is going on in here?” asked Mama as she came in.

“Just joking around, Mama,” said Mae, with a quick laugh.

“I wish,” I muttered as I turned on the faucet.

“Sid, you’d better go back and join the men,” said Mama. “We’ll take care of the mess. This is woman’s work.”

“That’s okay,” replied Sid. “I’m liberated.”

“No, Sid,” I said. “Daddy thinks it’s woman’s work.”

“I think I’ll go join Neil and your father.”

“He’s certainly trying,” said Mae when he had gone.

“I just hope Daddy doesn’t make any insinuations,” I sighed.

“Like nocturnal activity?” Mae giggled.

“Mae, what are you getting on about?” Mama asked in that voice that said she knew darned well what Mae was getting on about and didn’t like it one bit.

“Mama,” I replied. “Remember the overnight case? Sid fools around a lot.”

“Oh, dear,” Mama sighed. “He seems like such a nice man, too.”

“He is,” I said. “What he does with his time is his business and I’ve no right to judge. Just don’t worry. He’s not fooling around with me. I only work for him.”

“I never doubted that for a minute, Lisle, honey. And don’t you worry about your daddy either. I told him to behave himself.”

I have to give Daddy credit. He did behave himself. But it was obvious Sid and he were not going to be great friends. There was one tense moment that afternoon. Sid was relaxing and chatting with Neil in the living room. Janey came in, holding her grandfather’s hand. Seeing Sid, she dropped Grandpa and ran over to him. She climbed into his lap and gave him a big hug and a kiss on the cheek. Sid naturally hugged her back and cuddled her while he went on talking to Neil. He didn’t even see Daddy.

But I did and I groaned silently. Janey is the apple of Daddy’s eye and the joy of his middle age. Now Daddy would be jealous of Sid over two females.

In spite of five wired kids, Christmas Eve with my family is the most peaceful, contented time of the whole year for me. I could see Sid was enjoying it, too. We spent the evening in the living room. The tree lights were turned on, giving everything a nice soft glow. Darby was being as adult as he could. The four younger children were taking turns in everybody’s laps.

Then Darby decided we should be singing Christmas carols. I tried to talk Darby into playing the piano for us. He said he wasn’t good enough. Then I suggested he find someone else. Sid glared at me but succumbed to Janey’s pleading to hear “Fur Elise”, her favorite.

The kids kept him busy after that. He finally put his foot down and told them to ask me to sing “Oh Holy Night.” He had to have his revenge. He did play it in my key, without the music. I have to admit I was impressed. By the time the song ended, the twins and Ellen had fallen asleep and Janey was nodding. Darby soon followed them upstairs. He knew about Santa Claus and had been promoted to look out the year before.

While we waited for his clearance, Mama unwittingly asked an awkward question that nearly started a scene.

“How’d you and Sid meet? Did he run an ad in the paper or something?”

Mae, Neil, Sid and I looked at each other nervously. We knew we were on thin ice.

I looked at Sid.

“Shall I..?” I asked, hoping he’d see I was trying to give him a chance to save face. Of the two of us, he had the most to lose.

“I picked her up in a bar,” Sid said, grinning mischievously.

“You, Lisa?” Mama couldn’t believe her ears.

I saw his strategy.

“Oh, he’s just trying to shock you,” I said with feigned disgust. “I was out on a blind date. The guy turned out to be a jerk, so I ditched him. Mae and Neil weren’t home when I called. Sid popped up, eventually sent the jerk on his way, bought me dinner and that’s all. Two days later he called up and offered me a job.”

“You never went out with men you didn’t know before, Lisa,” Daddy spoke deliberately.

“Well, Daddy, I was hungry. Heck, it had been a year since I’d worked and things were tight.”

“You could have had a job.”

“Now, Bill,” Mama interrupted sternly. “I thought you weren’t going to bring that up.”

“It’s alright, Mama,” I said gloomily. I hadn’t wanted to hurt Daddy’s feelings when I’d decided not to go to Tahoe, but it appeared he’d still been hurt. “I’m sorry, Daddy. But I guess I figured I’d be stuck in Tahoe for good if I went then. I like Tahoe and I really did like working for you. I just wanted to be on my own. Besides, you would have had to fire someone to put me in and all those people have kids to support and I don’t.”

“Well,” grumbled Daddy. “I always said it was your life.”

“I really like what I’m doing now, Daddy. It’s different.”

Sid smiled at me. He alone knew just how different it was.

“Hey,” hissed Darby from the top of the stairs. “It’s all clear.”

“Alright, Darby. Goodnight,” said Mae.

“Goodnight, Mom.”

We waited five seconds in silence. After that quiet chaos reigned. Poor Sid sat and watched, bewildered, as we all sprang to our appointed tasks. Daddy and I worked on putting toys together while Neil and Mama concentrated on stuffing stockings. Mama finally took Sid under her wing and had him helping her. Mae tried assembling a dollhouse. Daddy and I are the only ones who are any good at putting things together. Well, we were the only ones. At one point Mae groaned in utter frustration. Sid automatically reached over and set her straight. I put him on assembly detail.

Thanks to Sid’s help, we were done in record time. Even so, it was well after midnight when we finished. Thoroughly exhausted, but happy, I went to bed.

On Christmas morning, the kids are allowed to take down their stockings and play with the presents Santa has brought them, which are the ones left unwrapped. The wrapped presents have to wait until after church.

I got to sleep until shortly before seven, when I was awakened by the girls, whose room I was sharing. I wake up slowly, and I was still half asleep when I followed Janey and Ellen downstairs, after putting their robes on them and donning my own.

“My ice skates!” crowed Janey with delight.

“Nice,” I mumbled and headed for the kitchen.

I was a little surprised to see Sid coming in the front door, wearing a running suit and even more surprised to see Darby, also.

“We went running,” Darby said and ran to his sisters in the living room.

“You would,” I grumbled with tired disgust, then yawned. “You gonna shower?”

“I was planning on it,” replied Sid.

“Then do it now and be quick. Towels are under the sink.”

“You wouldn’t happen to have a blow dryer would you?”

“In my case, in the girls’ room.”

“Thanks, and uh, Merry Christmas.”

“Mm.”

Twenty minutes later, I was sipping hot herb tea and somewhat more alert. Daddy came down in his robe and pajamas and sat down next to me.

“Any coffee?” he asked without much hope.

“Just instant. You know Mae.”

“I went past Darby’s room. Know what he was doing in there?”

I assumed “he” meant Sid.

“Dressing?”

“Blow drying his hair.”

“Oh come on, Daddy. It’s the thing now. Even Neil does sometimes.”

He just snorted. “He coming to church?”

I paused, realizing Sid’s religious beliefs, or rather lack of them, would just cause more conflict. But then there wasn’t much I could do about it.

“I don’t know,” I said finally. “I haven’t asked him.”

“He ain’t Catholic, is he?”

“No, Daddy.”

“I don’t know, Lisle. I know you’re just working for him, but, honey, that boy’s dangerous.”

“I know.”

“Then why’re you still with him?”

“I like him. Don’t worry, I’ll be alright. He knows how I feel and he respects that.”

“Well, Lisle, I just don’t want to see you get hurt.”

“I know, Daddy.” I reached out and patted his hand. “You gonna come early to church with me and save seats?”

“Wouldn’t miss it for nothing.”

Janey came running in with a box. “Merry Christmas, Grandpa. I got ice skates.”

He took her in his lap. “Well, now, let’s see ’em.”

Sid chose that moment to walk in, fully dressed in the suit he’d been wearing the day before.

“Uncle Sid, you’re ready for church,” proclaimed Janey.

“Well, I..,” he started to protest. But then he saw all three pairs of our big eyes staring at him expectantly. “I thought I might take it in.”

A few minutes later as I went upstairs, Sid followed me.

“Lisa, I have never been to a church service before in my life,” he whispered rather frantically. “What do I do?”

“It’s no sweat,” I replied, a little moodily. “Just stand when we stand, sit when we’re not standing and try to look like you’re paying attention. They’ve got little books in the pews that’ll help you follow along.”

I yawned and went to change.

Sid went early with Janey, Daddy and me to help save seats for the slower moving ones at home. He did look a little uncomfortable when we all genuflected before entering the pew but wisely decided against trying it. Otherwise, he made it through mass okay. Janey had managed to sit between him and me and stayed in the pew with him when we all went for communion.

After mass, chaos broke loose. Mae and Neil’s friends are mostly people they know from church and there were quite a few there. Janey and Darby both go to the parish school, so they had friends, also. Even I was delighted, though not terribly surprised, to see a couple of old friends from college there.

There was a great deal of helloing and hugging and talking. Sid would have gotten lost in the shuffle, but every few seconds he was being introduced to somebody. Mama and Daddy had left right away with the younger three, so Mae and Neil took their time.

Almost twenty minutes after Mass had ended, people for the next mass were coming in, and we were still in the vestibule talking and saying hi.

I turned to see Sid standing next to me.

“Well?” I asked.

“They’re talking,” he replied, noncommittally.

“Uncle Sid, I want you to meet my teacher,” piped up Janey.

We turned to face Sister Francine.

From the look on Sid’s face, I think he’d “heard about” nuns before. But things have changed a lot since most of those stories got started. Sister Francine was not a face in a long heavy black habit.

She was a fresh, pretty, young woman dressed in a conservatively cut navy blue suit that had a wooden pin of the Sacred Heart order on the lapel. She wasn’t even wearing a veil.

Sid recovered himself to say “How do you do” to her and shake her hand.

“Janey’s very fond of you,” Sister Francine said, smiling.

“Well, I’m very fond of her,” Sid replied, as Janey grabbed his hand and leaned against him.

“Oh, Sid!” called Mae. “I’ve got somebody here I want you to meet.”

I don’t know if Sid really wanted to meet whoever it was Mae was talking about. But I know he wanted away from Sister Francine.

“Nice to meet you,” he said, politely. “Excuse me.”

He walked towards Mae, still holding on to Janey. I followed behind.

“Sid, I want you to meet one of Fullerton’s premier citizens,” Mae said.

Ned Harris was carrying one of his children, a one-year-old girl when Mae collared him. When he first saw Sid, he looked startled for a second, then broke into a huge grin.

“Well, if it isn’t Sid Hackbirn,” he said, with happy surprise.

“How are you, Ned?” Sid replied quietly.

He was smiling, but there was something about his reserve that told me he wasn’t nearly as happy to see Ned as Ned was to see him. At the same time, Janey was a sight to see. Her lips were drawn into a tight thin line and her eyes had a fierce look in them. Obviously, she did not like Ned Harris, which I thought was strange, because everybody I knew liked him a lot.

“You two know each other?” Mae was amazed.

“Sure,” said Ned. “We were in the army together. So how are you, Sid?”

“Very well, and yourself?”

“Couldn’t be happier. Got a beautiful wife and kids, good business. Doing terrific. I’ll bet you’re still single.”

“Yes.”

“You’ve still changed. Look at where you are. The last place I would have ever expected to find you would be in a church.”

“Actually, I just came along for the ride.”

“Yeah, still cool as a cucumber. So what are you doing for a living?”

“I write.”

“Books?”

“Freelance, for magazines.”

“No kidding. Does it pay well?”

“Enough.”

“Great. I’m in the travel business, myself. Inflight Travel Agency. Doing real well.”

“Good.”

“Listen, I gotta get inside. Say, look me up real soon, will you? I’d love to have a chance to chew over old times.”

“Whatever.”

Ned left, after shaking hands with Sid.

“He’s a bad man, Uncle Sid,” said Janey. “He does good things, but he’s real bad.”

Sid just lifted an eyebrow.

“Hm,” was all he would say.

On the way to the car, Mae held me back a little.

“Sid sure reacted strangely to Ned Harris,” she said softly to me.

“Sid was in Viet Nam. He doesn’t like to be reminded of it.”

“That’s right. Ned was, too. That must be it.”

“I don’t know. Janey doesn’t like him.”

Mae sighed. “I know. That’s why I didn’t vote for him for city council. Still, he is a very sweet man and his wife is just as nice. Janey likes her well enough.”

We both shrugged.

“Hurry up, you two,” called Neil.

Mama already had the turkey in the oven when we got home. The next order of business was to unwrap the huge mound of presents underneath the tree. Of course, the kids got most of it. But I cleaned up pretty nicely myself and Sid was surprised when there were several packages for him.

I admit I was a bit nervous when Daddy handed Sid a box from me.

“Very nice,” he said, smiling and nodding when he saw the sweater.

“Lisle, is that one you knitted?” asked Mama.

I could have kissed her. Sid looked at me, surprised.

“Did you make this?” he asked.

“Every stitch,” I replied, blushing as usual.

“That’s beautiful. Thank you.”

Several packages later, I got a long, thin one from Sid.

“I told you not to,” I complained.

He just smirked and went back to thumbing through a book Neil and Mae had given him. But I noticed he kept one eye on me.

“Go on, you ingrate. Open it.” Mama was used to my protests over receiving presents.

Trembling, I slid the ribbon off, carefully undid the tape, pulled the paper away and opened the box. Laying on the cotton, suspended from a fine gold chain was a pendant of two rectangles, one polished, one brushed. In the middle of the brushed one was an opal encircled by tiny diamonds. The diamonds sparkled in the morning light.

“My necklace,” I said quietly and looked at him.

He smiled gently and nodded. I looked at it again.

“I went back a week later and it was gone.” I returned my gaze to him. “I guess you bought it.”

“Let’s see, Aunt Lisa,” begged Janey.

“Why don’t you put it on?” said Mae. “That way we can all see.”

“Alright.” I lifted it out. My fingers fumbled on the catch. “Oh dear, my hands are shaking.”

“Here, I’ll put it on you.” Mae took it and had it on in seconds. “Oh, Lisa, it’s beautiful.”

“Thanks.” Still shaking, I turned to Sid. “Thank you, Sid.”

“You’re welcome.” He went back to the book.

Opening presents seemed to last forever. It didn’t, but it was almost one by the time the last one had been opened and duly admired. I helped Mae clean up the paper in the living room, while Mama checked the turkey.

Neil and Mae must have conferenced about Daddy and Sid the night before, because Neil shooed Mama out of the kitchen and took over, drafting Daddy and Sid to help. Even Darby got to help peel the potatoes.

But when dinner time came, Neil, Sid, and Darby dropped the liberated bit and became perfect gentlemen; Darby seating Mae, Sid my mother, and Neil me.

I confess, I was a little nervous about how everything would taste. But Neil’s a fairly good cook and Sid’s very good at finding his way around the kitchen, although he’s usually too lazy. Daddy’s basically hopeless, but he can follow directions.

He followed them very well because everything tasted wonderful. I pigged out. I caught Sid glaring at me when I asked for seconds. I just smiled happily, cleaned my plate, and asked for thirds.

We were all finishing up and debating whether or not we should eat dessert just yet when the phone rang. Mae answered.

“Hello..? Oh, hi Ned… Merry Christmas to you too… We’re just eating… No, you’re not interrupting a thing… Well, my sister works for him. He came down when she was babysitting while I was in the hospital with my knee… Oh, the kids just love him… Well, I expect he was pretty surprised too… It’s a small world, Ned. He’s still here, do you want to talk to him- It’s no trouble. Sid, it’s Ned Harris. Hello? Hello? That’s funny.” Mae hung up. “Never mind, Sid. We got cut off.”

“Hm.” Sid had obviously heard the conversation and was now mulling it over in his mind.

All too soon it was time to say goodbye. It was dark when we left.

“What a time,” I sighed as we pulled onto the freeway.

“It’s been a very enjoyable two days,” Sid replied.

“I want to thank you for my necklace.”

“I thought it would surprise you.”

“It certainly did.”

Sid chuckled and was silent.

“What are you thinking about?” I asked after a bit.

“Hm? Oh.” He shrugged. “A lot of things. The sweater. It’s a very nice piece of work.”

“I made that one ’cause it was the only kind you didn’t have.”

“It’s the only kind I don’t wear.”

“Oh no.” My heart sank to the floor.

“However.” He started to pat my knee, thought better of it, and put his hand back on the steering wheel. “I am going to make a point of wearing this one.”

“You don’t have to if you don’t want to.”

“That’s just it. I want to, very much. There’s something about the work that makes it a very valuable thing.”

“It’s one heck of a pattern. It’s funny, but it’s as close as I’ve gotten to knitting a perfect sweater.”

“I didn’t see any mistakes.”

“I see them, but I know they’re there.”

There was another silence.

“What do you think of Ned Harris?” Sid asked suddenly.

“I don’t know. I think he’s a nice guy. I’ve only met him a couple of times. He seems alright, but…”

“Janey doesn’t like him.”

“I noticed. Why did you ask about him?”

“Back in ‘Nam, I was investigating him for selling secrets. We never proved it, so someone else set him up for a drug bust. He managed to get out from underneath those charges, too.”

“That’s interesting. It must have been quite a surprise to see him at church this morning.”

“It is and it isn’t.” Sid gazed out at the traffic, dodging cars without really seeing them. “I’ve always figured I’d run into him again, and actually, catching him at church makes perfect sense. Ned was always very good at appearances. That’s how he got out of that drug bust. He’d been a volunteer aide for the Catholic chaplains and they stuck up for him. That phone call’s bothering me. Getting cut off was a little too convenient. I think I’ll talk to Henry about it tomorrow.”

“Good idea.”

I put Ned Harris out of my mind and let my thoughts drift.