November 18 – 26, 1982
When two people work together as closely as Mr. Hackbirn and I do, there’s bound to be some friction. Actually, we get along very well. Aside from our individual value systems, which are radically opposed, we have a lot in common and we complement each other. We have managed to develop a very good relationship. But we both had some growing to do first and it wasn’t easy.
Part of the problem revolved around those various idiosyncrasies that each person has that drive another person nuts. Well, I shouldn’t say that they were part of the problem because they were more the catalyst for the unrest that got Mr. Hackbirn and me into the biggest fight I have ever had in my life, and I have had some doozies.
On my part, my singing bothered Mr. Hackbirn, although it was not my voice because even he admits I sing fairly well. What he objected to was that I did it constantly. I could see his point. He’d be in his office trying to work when he’d hear this soft snatch of music. Some days it’d be just the same refrain over and over again, other days whole songs. A couple of times, I sang whole shows. He tried turning on the radio to drown me out, but I just sang along with that and louder, too.
Then he never could understand why I was so cheap. To be truthful, I couldn’t either. I’d always been that way. I think that’s what helped me survive the year I was out of work. Anyway, it would drive him nuts every time I’d shake my head and say “But that’s too much!”
The thing that really got to him, though, was my appetite. When he first picked me up, he sort of understood. I’d been out of work for a year. I was starving. But when it never slowed down, it got on his nerves. Worse still, I never gained an ounce. That must have been what really bugged him, because although he won’t admit it, he has to keep an eye on his weight.
On the other side of the coin, I was hungry, and when I said so, I got a lecture. Those lectures were incredible. Mr. Hackbirn would go into every possible consequence of poor eating habits he could think of with anatomical precision. He even threatened to take me to the county morgue a couple of times so I could see for myself what I was doing to my insides.
When he wasn’t lecturing me about food, he was teasing me. He could turn anything I said into something smutty and often did, just to make me blush. Woe to me, if I tried to one up him, too. I was incredibly naive, so I didn’t stand a chance and I ended up twice as embarrassed.
The only thing that was worse was his habit of chewing ice. It made me laugh. I tried not to, but I couldn’t help it. He finally got fed up and asked me what was so funny.
“It’s really stupid,” I said, still giggling.
It was a chilly day and for some reason, he was drinking ice water and chomping away.
“I can imagine,” he said dryly. “So tell me.”
“Well, when I was in high school, there were certain things one didn’t do. They were stupid little things that were supposed to mean other things and it didn’t matter if they did or not because of that being the way things were. You may even have heard of some. Like green M&M’s.”
“You know, the little candies.”
“I know. But what did they mean?”
“They were supposed to make you horny. We all knew it was ridiculous. But go to any party and by the middle of the evening, the M&M’s bowl would have nothing but green ones in it and everyone avoiding it like it had V.D. Until some stupid frosh got to it, or some guy trying to tell somebody something. It was like wintergreen Lifesavers. Guys carried them around all the time, but no girl would be caught dead with them.”
“They were supposed to spark against your teeth in the dark, right?”
“I outgrew that ploy when I was seven.”
“I’m sure you did.”
“So what was chewing ice?”
I giggled and blushed. “Sexually frustrated.”
He looked at me, then at his glass, then back at me. I could hear the ice crunching between his teeth.
“That is obviously not true,” he said and bit down on another ice cube.
After that, it began to get on my nerves, because I began to wonder if he was trying to tell me something. I was pretty sure it was unconscious, but with Mr. Hackbirn, one never knew.
The fight that all this aggravation led to started shortly before we left for Washington and lasted to its final cataclysm the day after Thanksgiving, just about a week. It sounds kind of funny, but it was Mr. Hackbirn who started it, and it was his fault it lasted so long.
About two weeks before we left, just before we’d gotten the ring, Mr. Hackbirn got a phone call from one of his girlfriends.
“Sid? I’ve got some bad news…” was all I heard (and wanted to hear) before I hung up. I figured she was pregnant and trying to hang it on Mr. Hackbirn. It was a short conversation because I heard him angrily bang down the phone in a rare display of emotion. So much for her baby.
Then a week and a half later, the pharmacy called and said Mr. Hackbirn’s prescription was ready. I was on my way out on an errand already, so I didn’t bother him. I just put it on my list and went out.
The prescription was for penicillin. I was puzzled. Mr. Hackbirn had been rather grumpy that morning, but he didn’t seem to be having any trouble swallowing, or anything else wrong with him for that matter. Then I remembered the bad news phone call. I put the pieces together and what I came up with wasn’t strep throat.
I snickered and then realized he needed my sympathy. However he got it, he probably wasn’t feeling very well.
I came sailing cheerfully into the house. Mr. Hackbirn stopped me in the office.
“What took you so long?” he growled.
“There was a sale at the sporting goods store, so I picked up some cold weather gear. The climate’s a little different in Washington, you know.” I opened up one of my bags and pulled out the leather fleece lined gloves. “You like?”
“Hm.” He barely even glanced at them and went into his office.
I picked up the bag from the pharmacy and followed him.
“I picked up your prescription,” I said, laying it on his desk.
“What did you do that for?” he snapped.
“Well, they called and I was going out, so I thought I’d save you a trip.”
“You didn’t save me anything.”
“I’m sorry.” There was a pause. “I can’t take the gloves back, but if you don’t want them, you don’t have to reimburse me.”
“Miss Wycherly, the gloves are fine. Now, will you leave?”
“You could say thank you.”
“For what? Thinking on your own? That’s what I pay you for.”
“I was just trying to surprise you. I thought you might appreciate it.”
“Just as much as you appreciate the chance to stuff your face behind my back.”
“Don’t you give me another lecture,” I snapped. “I’ve had it with anatomy. At least you don’t see me gaining any weight.”
Mr. Hackbirn’s voice got very tight and quiet. “That will be all, Miss Wycherly.”
Still steaming, I left, slamming the door behind me. If he couldn’t handle emotion, that was just too bad. Back in my office, I hoped we could clear the air before we left in three days.
Mr. Hackbirn refused to play ball. The next day we got word that Gannett had escaped. He’d been seen hanging around Georgetown University, and the best anyone could figure was that he was trying to find another buyer for his information.
The news just made Mr. Hackbirn grouchier. He sulked about the house, not saying one word to me more than he had to. Every time I tried to bring the subject up, he’d just say, “I don’t wish to discuss it, Miss Wycherly.”
“Well, I’m afraid we’re going to have to,” I finally said on Sunday, the day before we left. “We’ve got a job to do and we need to be able to communicate.”
“We are communicating good enough to do it.”
“Oh, we are? Well, I don’t call your sulking all day and night good communication. Let’s face it, I’m mad and you’re mad, so let’s get this thing settled.”
“There’s nothing to settle.”
“Then why are we so mad?”
“I have no idea. There must be no reason, so we shouldn’t be mad. There, all settled. Are you happy?”
“You’ve got to be kidding. That is the worst line of reasoning I have ever heard in my life.”
“That’s too bad.”
“I don’t believe you. Why can’t you admit that we’ve got a problem here and deal with it?”
“Because I see no problem. I refuse to get emotional just because you think you can’t talk to me.”
“Wait a minute, who’s the one who’s been saying ‘I don’t wish to discuss it’?”
“Who’s the one who’s letting her emotions interfere with her job?”
“That’s not fair!”
“See, Miss Wycherly? Now you know why I didn’t wish to discuss it.”
He walked off to his bedroom.
“You’re impossible!” I screamed, then immediately regretted it.
I decided if he could play his little detached game so could I. I sure as heck wasn’t getting anywhere confronting him.
The next five days were miserable, except for the time on the plane. Mr. Hackbirn got into his seat and promptly went to sleep.
At the hotel, if the bellhop noticed the tension, he didn’t say anything. Mr. Hackbirn had booked the room himself, a three room suite. It had a sitting room and two bedrooms, one on either side of the sitting room. It was very nice with quiet tasteful furniture, a raised area, two steps up, in the back in front of the windows and near the bedroom doors, and a wet bar on one side.
As soon as the bellhop left, we each picked up our individual suitcases and went to our bedrooms without saying a word. I don’t know what Mr. Hackbirn did that night. I assume he was making phone calls to contacts. I stayed in my room and pored over some maps and a visitors guide. Mr. Hackbirn hadn’t said a word about anything to do before Thanksgiving day, so I decided I’d go sightseeing. It’d get me away from him, at least. I’d never been to the nation’s capitol before, anyway, and I wanted to see it.
Mr. Hackbirn was in the sitting room the next morning reading a newspaper when I came out.
“Any plans for today?” I asked.
“Absolutely nothing,” he replied without looking up.
“Good.” I put on my dress coat, arranged a wool cap over my hair and ears, and slipped on some wool gloves.
“Where are you going?” Mr. Hackbirn finally looked up.
“Sightseeing.” I picked up my purse and the camera I’d finally bought. “I’m going to make the most of this fiasco.”
We’d been taking pot shots at each other the whole trip. The standard response was none, or at least to remain as unruffled as possible. So far, Mr. Hackbirn was winning in that respect.
“Remember to stay away from Georgetown,” he said.
“I wasn’t planning on going anywhere near there.”
“And don’t bring anyone back here.” He returned to his paper.
“You reprobate, you’re telling me that?”
“I meant a tail, Little Miss Ice Cube.”
I stormed out, slamming the door.
If I hadn’t been so angry, it would have been wonderful fun. The weather was cold with a nice crisp bite to the air, just the way I like it. Washington D.C. is a wonderful place and, corny as it sounds, very inspiring. If only I hadn’t been trying to escape Mr. Hackbirn. I got back to the hotel before dark and ate in the restaurant and went straight to my room.
Wednesday, I went out again. Late that afternoon, I realized that I’d gotten myself turned around and found myself walking right onto the Georgetown campus, the very last place I was supposed to be. After all, Gannett was supposedly in the neighborhood, and he had seen me and knew I was an operative.
Trying desperately to stay cool, I hurried back into the city, checking for tails all the way. Now, if you really want to keep someone tailed, you use a team, so the tailee doesn’t notice the same person behind all the time. Being as inexperienced as I was, I forgot about that possibility, so I wasn’t looking when I crossed the alley, which was stupid.
I didn’t see anything. I just felt the hand clamped over my mouth and the cold metal uncomfortably close to my jugular vein. I was dragged back into the alley, where my captor spun me around and shoved me, back first, against the wall.
“Well, well, well,” he said, his knife dancing perilously close to my face. “My chauffeur.”
“So you recognize me,” Gannett snickered maliciously and waved off the person who had just entered the alley, presumably his partner.
“I escaped. I had no choice. But you’re a long way from home.”
“I get around.”
“And you just happen to be in the same town where dear old Professor Lipplinger lives.”
He backhanded me hard across the face. I cried out in pain and tasted the blood where my teeth had cut open the inside of my cheek.
“Don’t tell me you don’t know about him. It’s just too convenient, having you pop up on campus this afternoon.”
I thought I saw a policeman at the entrance to the alley. I bolted for it, shoving hard against Gannett and running. I could feel my upper left arm sting as his knife bit through my coat to the skin.
“Rape!” I bellowed as loud as I could, then tripped and fell forward.
Gannett gripped my shoulder and started pulling me up. I felt the point of his knife press against my spine.
“That was real stupid, sister.”
“Police! Freeze!” The officer at the head of the alley had his gun pointed at us.
As the grip on my shoulder relaxed, I sank to my knees in relief. Gannett bolted, assuming, perhaps correctly, that with me between him and the cop his chances were reasonably good. In any case, he got away. The cop shot at him twice and then chased him, but not for long. I stayed where I had collapsed, trying to get myself together. It was just as well, I figured, to let myself be afraid. If it really had been attempted rape, I would have been pretty distraught.
“It’s alright, honey,” I heard the officer’s gentle voice say to me.
I gasped in pain as he took my left arm, helping me up.
“My arm,” I said softly.
“Here, let’s see.” He pulled out his handkerchief and opened the slash in my coat to inspect the wound. “It doesn’t look too bad. Here, hold this tight against it.”
I held the handkerchief to my arm. Gently, he escorted me out of the alley and down the street a block to a call box.
“I’m going to call a squad car,” he explained. “By the way, I’m Officer Marshall, Rob Marshall.”
“And what’s your name?”
“Janet. Janet Donaldson.” I fidgeted with the wedding set I was wearing.
Officer Marshall made the call quickly. I knew I was going to have to make some decisions fast. They were going to be asking a lot of questions, which was understandable. I knew I didn’t have to make a statement, but it occurred to me that I might be better off doing so. Not making a statement might arouse suspicion, and with a statement, they’d be looking for Gannett.
“Alright, Mrs. Donaldson, they’re on their way.” Officer Marshall smiled at me. “Why don’t you tell me about yourself.”
“Where you live. How we can get a hold of your husband.”
“W- we don’t live here. We’re from California.”
“I see. Where are you staying?”
I gave him the name of the hotel.
Fortunately, the squad car pulled up.
I was taken first to the infirmary where the doctor looked at my cut and said it wasn’t bad enough to need stitches. The nurse was very kind and talked to me merrily about her children as she bandaged my arm. After that, I was taken to the squad room.
Mr. Hackbirn was there waiting. He seemed concerned and relieved to see I was alright. In fact, he was very much the loving husband. Giving gentle reassurances, he came up to me. But when he hugged me, he hissed “Relax, damn it, I’m supposed to be your husband,” into my ear.
I had calmed down considerably. I gave my statement accurately, except for the conversation. Mr. Hackbirn had driven to the station in a rented car and now drove me back to the hotel. We took a circuitous route, because of the tail he’d picked up. He didn’t say anything, but I could tell he was mad.
Back in our room, though, he said a lot.
“Beautiful. Just beautiful,” he growled, prowling around the room. “I don’t suppose it was a coincidence that we picked up a tail at the police station?”
I sank stiffly onto the couch. “Well, no. Gannett found me.”
“Gannett? How the hell did he do that?”
“Well…” I bit my lip and tried not to cry. “I was looking for a phone. I was lost. And I asked this man where one was, and he gave me directions, only they led me right onto the Georgetown campus, and I got out of there as fast as I could without calling attention to myself, but he saw me, I guess, and caught me in the alley.”
“And you called the cops in on top of it. Of all the stupid things to do.”
“Well, it was either that or get carved up. You’ve got to admit the alternatives weren’t exactly the greatest.”
“And what do you think is going to happen if they catch him and he spills his guts?”
“Do you honestly think they’re going to believe a crazy story like that? If anybody, I’m the one they’re going to believe, just so long as neither one of us gives the cops any reason to believe we’re not on the level. Heck, I’ve even got a knife wound to help. Not to mention the fact that my good winter coat is ruined. The sleeve’s slashed open and the front’s all shredded.”
“I tripped and fell spread-eagled.”
“On your knees?” Mr. Hackbirn looked concerned.
“I’d better take a look at them.” He sounded resigned.
“Anything to grab a feel, huh?”
He pressed his lips together then said in a tight angry voice, “Miss Wycherly, I have enough trouble with your weak knee-ed attitude. I don’t need any trouble with the real article.”
Unfortunately, he made sense.
“Alright, turn around.”
“I’ve got to take off my tights.”
“Oh, for the love of Pete.” He was completely exasperated, but he did turn around. I hurriedly slipped off the tights as he complained. “What do you think I’m going to see anyway? Your underwear? Big deal.”
“Well, pardon me. I happen to believe in common decency. I’m ready.”
He turned around and bent to look. His hands were warm and soft and very gentle, and, angry as I was, I caught my breath at his touch.
“Can you move okay?” he asked gruffly.
I flexed each leg a couple of times and nodded.
“They’re just a little bruised,” he said. “Put a heating pad on them tonight.”
“I don’t have one.”
“A hot-water bottle, then, and I hope it keeps you company.” Mr. Hackbirn started for his room.
“Look,” I snapped. “If you want me that badly, then why don’t you just rape me and get it over with.”
He stopped and turned to me. I was afraid he would.
“I wouldn’t give you the satisfaction,” he said in a low, controlled voice.
He turned back and left, shutting his door quietly behind him.
The next day was Thanksgiving. I spent the morning in my room, crying quietly because I felt so lonely and homesick. We drove to Hattie Mitchell’s place in Mount Vernon around one. Neither one of us broke the silence during the ride. But as we pulled into the estate, Mr. Hackbirn finally spoke.
“Try and be nice,” he said. “We are supposed to be a happily married couple visiting friends on a happy occasion.”
“Would you do me the same favor?”
He just snorted and parked the car.
“Stay put,” he growled.
I did as I was told, while he walked around the car. When he opened the door for me, he was smiling. The mask was on, the curtain had risen, and he was in character.
I smiled in return and got out.
“Thank you, darling,” I said, as he shut the door.
I stiffened when he put his arm around me as we walked up to the front door.
“Loosen up, lady,” he growled behind his teeth.
I took a deep breath and tried to relax. I nervously put my arm around him. I really did try to look natural. But being that close to him did things to me that had nothing to do with how angry I was, and I was scared.
The afternoon was spent congenially chatting with Hattie, who was a very sweet woman in her middle fifties, and her son James and his wife, Mary. They didn’t have any children, so it was a quiet afternoon. It would have been quite nice, but the lack of children only made me miss being at Mae’s more. Also, Professor Lipplinger wasn’t there. I could tell Mr. Hackbirn was worried by his absence, as I was. But there was nothing to be done.
As is always the case when you hear a lot about a person before actually meeting him or her, you form a mental image of what that person is like. My image of Professor Lipplinger was a kindly old gentleman with white hair and glasses, a gentle darling so devoted to his students he would rather risk his life than allow them to fail.
When he finally did show up (just in time for cocktails), he did conform to that image physically. He was a little shorter than Mr. Hackbirn with white hair and wire-rimmed glasses. He even stooped a little.
When introduced to us, he nodded curtly and asked Mr. Hackbirn what he did for a living. Mr. Hackbirn said he was a freelance writer. The professor looked at me a long moment then addressed Mr. Hackbirn again.
“That’s a fine piece of meat you got there. What’s she good for?”
“I also write,” My hackles were rising.
“You don’t write.” He turned and walked off, bellowing, “Hattie! Where are those drinks?”
“Coming, Miles.” Hattie walked over to us. “I’m afraid I must apologize for my brother. Unfortunately, there is no excuse for his behavior.” She sighed. “Oh well, what’ll you have, Ed?”
I was a little surprised when Mr. Hackbirn opted for bourbon and water. I made a point of asking for wine.
At dinner, things only got worse. To begin with, nobody said grace. Then everyone was stiffly polite, except Lipplinger. He complained about everything and made lewd comments. Hattie and her son and daughter-in-law had obviously long since given up being embarrassed for him. To be honest, it didn’t take me long either. I was too upset as it was and he just made things worse.
About an hour after dinner, Mr. Hackbirn got a chance to talk to Lipplinger alone long enough to let him know we had to talk to him privately.
“Hattie,” he yelled. “I’ve got to talk to these two privately. I’ll be in the library. Don’t bother us.”
“Whatever you like, Miles.” Hattie was long past being surprised at anything her brother did.
Once in the library, Mr. Hackbirn sharply told me to watch the door.
“So you want my formula,” said Lipplinger.
“Wrong,” replied Mr. Hackbirn. “I want you to see your next birthday. Somebody knows you’ve got something and they want it and they won’t make any bones about taking you to get it.”
“So what are you going to do about it?”
“We’re here to take you into hiding.”
“Initially, in Los Angeles.”
Lipplinger looked at both of us for a long time, but mostly at Mr. Hackbirn.
“You’re not Ed Donaldson,” he growled finally. “So, just who are you?”
Mr. Hackbirn looked at me, then back at the professor.
“Alright. I need you to trust me, but I’ve got to trust you.”
Lipplinger snorted. “Have I given out my formula?”
Mr. Hackbirn took a deep breath. “My name is Sid Hackbirn and I am a freelance writer. I also do government work on the side. This is my secretary and associate, Lisa Wycherly.”
“Convenient way to keep meat on the hoof,” the old man chuckled.
“I don’t do that,” I snapped.
“Unfortunately,” replied Mr. Hackbirn.
I just glared at him.
“Well, what if I don’t want to go?” asked Lipplinger.
“Professor, we are here to move you quickly and efficiently to safety.” Mr. Hackbirn remained calm. “We will be most efficient with your cooperation. But we do not need it. I want to make it perfectly clear that we are prepared to use force. Is that understood?”
“Well, I guess those two are failing badly enough not to need my help anymore. Give me tomorrow to get my affairs in order. I’ll be here Saturday.”
“Alright, and Professor, not a word to anyone.”
“Of course not. Good evening.”
He left. Mr. Hackbirn took a deep breath and let it out again.
“Let’s go,” he said finally.
We went and said goodbye to Hattie.
“It was an excellent dinner and we appreciate your having us,” Mr. Hackbirn said.
“Well, thank you for coming. It was wonderful having you, Ed. And, Janet, I have to tell you, it was so nice to see someone sit and really eat. I see so many people just pick, it’s a real treat to see you enjoy your food and not be afraid to ask for seconds.”
“Thank you, Hattie,” I replied with real warmth. “I can’t tell you how nice it was of you to say that.”
Mr. Hackbirn just smiled, but I knew I had one on him.
“To be completely honest,” Hattie continued, blushing a little, “I was beginning to wonder if you were pregnant.”
“She’s not pregnant,” Lipplinger said, coming up. “She’s frustrated.”
“Well, goodbye,” said Hattie, ignoring him. “It was wonderful having you.”
The ride back was silent, also, and again Mr. Hackbirn broke it when we were back in our suite.
“We’ve got contacts to make tomorrow,” he said on his way to his room. “Be ready to go early.”
I stopped my tears long enough to call Mae and family. Hearing their voices only made me feel worse. They say it’s the next best thing, but that night it was a lousy second best. I cried myself to sleep.
The next morning, as I got dressed, my depression deepened into a black fog so thick it seemed suffocating. I wasn’t about to let Mr. Hackbirn see it, though. I feigned cheerfulness until we traded angry words that morning over my coat. The slash in the sleeve and the holes in the front I’d more or less repaired and, as the coat was dark colored, didn’t show much. Mr. Hackbirn wanted to know why I didn’t just buy a new one and I wanted to know when I was supposed to have been able to do that. Needless to say, neither question had been answered.
An hour later found us in a low rent district, in another alley, this one spilling out onto a dead end street lined with parked cars. Mr. Hackbirn’s tan overcoat was hanging open so that he could get to the gun in his shoulder holster easily. I, also, had a shoulder holster on. Even so, I had buttoned my coat and tied it.
The tension in the air was incredible. The silent routine continued. Mr. Hackbirn remained cool even though he paced restlessly. Something had gone wrong. Our contact was fifteen minutes late.
I looked out at the street, then at my shoes. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed something light colored laying among some trash barrels a few yards away. I went over to look. It was a hand. The arm it was connected to disappeared behind the barrels. I pulled one away and two bulging sightless eyes stared up at me. I screamed.
“What’s the matter?” Mr. Hackbirn walked over.
I just pointed.
“Terrific,” he grumbled and started to move the other barrels away.
“I can’t look.” I turned away and leaned on a wall, facing it.
“It’s just a corpse,” Mr. Hackbirn said callously. “Hasn’t been one too long. It’s probably our contact. We’d better get out of here.”
The only way out of the alley was onto the street. Just as we got onto the sidewalk the shots rang out. I screamed.
“Get down, you idiot!” Mr. Hackbirn grabbed my belt and pulled me down next to where he was hiding behind a parked car.
I just sat there trembling.
“I thought you said you were used to guns,” Mr. Hackbirn growled.
“But none of them were shooting at me.”
There was another shot and the glass in the car we were hiding behind shattered, and with it what little calm I had.
“We’re gonna die,” I moaned.
“If you keep that up we will.” He had his gun drawn. “You stay put. I’m gonna see if I can find out where it’s coming from.”
He moved away. I could hear more gunshots and glass shattering.
“Well, well, here we are again.”
I looked up and saw Gannett. This time, instead of a knife, he had a gun trained on me.
“Oh my god,” I whimpered, then watched in horror as he jerked and fell backward with a hole in his chest.
Seconds later, Mr. Hackbirn was by my side.
“It’s a sniper, alright,” he muttered.
“You killed him.”
He looked at the corpse next to us and sighed.
“Yeah,” he said, shortly.
“Look, did you want him to kill you?” His eyes flashed. He wasn’t very happy about it either. “The sniper’s on the roof across from us. He’s got a lot of mobility. We’ve got to stay low and behind the cars. We can’t go that way, that’s the dead end. We can’t go in the alley, ’cause that’s a dead end. We’ve got to make it to the corner and across the street if we’re going to have a chance. He’s got a high powered rifle up there.”
I just nodded.
“Alright, you ready?”
I nodded again but didn’t follow him. Blocking my way was the corpse.
“Come on!” Mr. Hackbirn yelled from two cars down. I couldn’t move. I pointed at the body. “He’s dead. He can’t hurt you.”
I still couldn’t move. Mr. Hackbirn cursed angrily and shoved the body out of the way.
“Come on, now.” Just to make sure, he grabbed my hand and pulled me.
As we got to the corner, I could hear the police sirens. Several police cars pulled up at roughly the same time. They were followed closely by a SWAT truck.
There was a police car not far from us, maybe a hundred feet.
“See that car?” Mr. Hackbirn asked. “Get behind it and you’re safe. I’ll cover you. You stay low and run like hell. You got that?”
He practically kicked me. I ran. I didn’t stop until I ran smack into Officer Marshall, of all people.
“Mrs. Donaldson!” he exclaimed.
“It’s not been my week,” I replied, sobbing.
Then Mr. Hackbirn slid up next to us.
“It’s alright now, honey,” he said, his hand on my back and then addressed Marshall. “Where’s your captain?”
“Get him. I need to talk to him.”
Marshall left. Mr. Hackbirn reluctantly put his arms around me and let me cry on his shoulder.
Officer Marshall and the captain reappeared in record time.
“Captain Pete Laing,” he said tersely. “What do you want?”
“Ed Donaldson, F.B.I.” Mr. Hackbirn replied, pulling something from his suit coat. “I’m here on vacation, but it looks like the job followed me.”
I stopped crying and looked up. The captain was inspecting a small billfold which I assumed had the F.B.I. I.D.
“What happened?” the captain asked, handing back the billfold.
“A friend of ours asked us to meet him here. We found him dead in the alley, and that other guy on the sidewalk waiting for us.”
Captain Laing shifted to look at the body, then back to Mr. Hackbirn, who shook his head.
“He’s gone, and yes, I did. Self-defense.”
The captain nodded. “You said it’s connected to something you’re working on?”
“Back in L.A. It’s top secret, so I can’t talk about it. What I need from you is a lift out of here in an unmarked car.”
“That’s rather irregular.”
“Code 23. You can call Henry James, L.A. office. In the meantime, can you get me and my wife out of here?”
Laing nodded and in a short time we were bundled off in a dark green car. Mr. Hackbirn remained silent through the whole trip but kept checking behind us for a tail.
“Here we go again,” I grumbled as he shoved me into the suite.
“You really did it this time, Wycherly,” he growled. “You don’t know how lucky you are you’re alive!”
He headed for his room.
“Where are you going?” I demanded, thoroughly fed up.
“To change clothes.” The door shut behind him.
I took off my coat and laid it on a chair near the window. I kicked off my shoes. I’d had it. I was going to wait for him and we were going to thrash this out once and for all.
He came out dressed in brown tweed pleated pants, light shirt, and sweater and headed for the door.
“Where do you think you’re going?” I asked firmly.
“To the bar.”
“No, you’re not.”
He stopped, turned slowly and looked at me.
“And why not?” he asked quietly.
“Because I’ve had it.” My voice was shaking but still in control. “Because these past few days have been the pits.”
“Oh, they have?”
“Yes, they have. My patience, my calm, my entire emotional stability was already strained to the limit this morning. What with your potshots and your insinuations and your bad mood and Lipplinger with his ‘meat on the hoof’ and ‘she’s frustrated.’ And then on top of all that, we’ve got today.”
“I’ll admit, today was no picnic.” Mr. Hackbirn walked over to the wet bar and pulled out a bottle of bourbon and a glass. His hands shook a little as he reached into the ice bucket. “But who’s fault was that, may I ask?”
“Oh, I suppose it was mine. But have a little sympathy. I’ve never even been to a funeral. Now I’ve got my first corpse presented to me in a trash barrel, then I get shot at and to top it all off, you blithely make another corpse for me, fresh!”
“I don’t like killing people!”
“I can tell. You just agonize over it for an hour, then go plug a couple more.”
I winced as Mr. Hackbirn threw his glass at the bar. He turned on me.
“That was low, Wycherly, damned low!”
“Good. Because I don’t like the way things have been lately. I don’t like your evasionary tactics. I don’t like your snide comments. I don’t like being called an ice cube, and I’m beginning not to like you. I’m very angry right now, Sid Hackbirn, and what is making me angrier than anything else is that all the tension, all the potshots, all the bad mood is because you can’t admit you’ve got a lousy case of the clap!”
“If you know so much about it, then why can’t you just leave me alone?”
“Why can’t you just admit you’re not feeling well?”
“I feel fine.”
“There you go, denying it again.”
“I’m not denying anything. I feel perfectly alright. I do not feel sick because you don’t feel sick with gonorrhea.”
“Then what has all this bad mood been about?”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake, think about it, Lisa. It’s been three weeks. I’m extremely horny. I tried to tell you there was nothing to settle. I’m going to be this way until I can get myself between a nice pair…”
“You can spare me all the graphic details. I know how it works.”
“You do? That’s a surprise.”
“See, you’re doing it again.”
“Then leave me alone.”
“It’s too late. It was too late the day you picked me up. You’re stuck with me now.”
“You’d better remember that.” He headed for the door.
“That’s right, Hackbirn, run away. Just like you always do. Any time you’ve got a problem with a relationship, you just ditch it. Well, you can’t ditch this one. Go ahead and run. But I’ll still be here and I’ll be here every time you try to run away.”
“Okay, we’re stuck.” He put his hand on the doorknob. “But I can make life pretty miserable for you if I want to.”
“That’s a two-way street.” I shot back coldly. He stopped. I took a deep breath and continued. “I don’t think we have to go that way. But that depends on whether or not you’re willing to take some risks, if and only if you’re willing to admit we’ve got a real problem here, and if and only if you’re willing to face it and fight it out. It’s a big risk, I’ll grant you. You’re going to have to do some digging. You might have to face yourself, and worse still, let me see it. It’s a pretty big gamble. But we’re already miserable, and personally, I’m willing to chance that it won’t get worse because I happen to like the odds on it getting a lot better.”
“What are you talking about?” he asked quietly. But at least he came away from the door.
“Human relationships. One thing your education was real short on. I may not know much about the spy business, but I’ve got relationships down real well.”
“Then what do you propose is wrong with our relationship?”
I sank down into the couch. “I don’t know.”
“Aw, geez. After all that you can’t tell me what’s wrong?”
“Even if I could, it wouldn’t do you a bit of good until you found it yourself.”
He paced the room, frustrated.
“You know what I think is wrong with you?” he said, finally. “It’s your snotty attitude towards my lifestyle.” That hurt, but I had to admit there was some truth in it. “I’ve run into it before. All you damned church types running around saying no and all the time you’re jealous of those of us who say yes.”
“I think you just hit the nail on the head.”
“Look, we’ve both got a list of petty grievances, etc. But I don’t think that’s the real issue here.”
“Then what is?”
“Neither one of us has a tremendous amount of respect for the other’s values.”
“I respect your values. Why do you think you’re still a virgin?”
“Because if you laid one hand on me, it’d be bye-bye Lisa, Quickline or not and you know it.”
He thought about that a minute. “I’ve always thought I did.”
“So did I. I thought I was being wonderfully accepting of you. But think about it. Haven’t most of the potshots we’ve been taking at each other the past week been direct attacks on the other’s values?”
“Yeah, I s’pose.” There was a pause. “I guess I just don’t understand. I’m not hurting anybody. I can’t even get a girl pregnant. So, why not?”
“Are you sure you’re not hurting anybody? What about your little social disease?”
“Well, I guess. But still…” He shrugged his shoulders.
“I can only speak for myself. But…” I paused. I couldn’t believe how hard it was to say it. “I say no because God said no. That probably sounds silly to you. I admit I took it on blind faith. But the more I look at the world around me, the more I think God is right. I look at Mae and Neil and what a good thing they’ve got, and then I look at you and it seems so empty.”
“I am content.”
“Maybe you’re lucky. But I know so many people who aren’t.”
There was a pause. “Lisa, I want you to know that I find you extremely attractive. But, at the same time, I do not want to violate you.”
“Why are you saying that?”
“Because of something that’s been bothering me about you for a long time.”
“Well, is it my cheapness, the singing, or the appetite?”
“No.” He shook his head. “Those are petty things. Yeah, they bother me, but that’s part of being alive and in close quarters. It’s that I get the feeling you’re scared of me. I come close to you, you draw away. I touch you, you stiffen up like a board. I’m not trying anything.”
I looked at him. He was being honest.
“I guess maybe you’re not.” I looked down at my hands, because all along I had known that he wasn’t. “You say you’re attracted to me. Well, it may surprise you, but the feeling is very, very mutual. You come close to me, and I’m aroused like I have never been aroused in my life. You touch me and I have to stiffen up, or I’ll give in and we both know the guilt would kill me. And the worst of it is, it’s purely physical. I’ve never met anyone who could do that to me. You think I’m scared of you? You bet I am, but I’m just as scared of myself.”
“There may come a time, Lisa, when we do find ourselves in each other’s arms. I wouldn’t be adverse to it.”
“Neither would I. But don’t count on it. For that time to come, one of us is going to have to do a complete one hundred and eighty-degree turn. I don’t think I can and I’m not sure you could either.”
“No. Not now, at any rate. In the meantime, can we both be a little more tolerant?”
“Sure. Friends?” He offered me his hand.
“Friends,” I said, taking it.
“Whew,” he said, pacing the room. “I don’t think I’ve ever been that angry in my life.”
“I’ve come close,” I said, then stopped.
He was looking at the glass he had broken. I guess he was remembering why he’d thrown it.
“I’m sorry about saying that,” I said, softly. “I didn’t realize how deep I was hitting.”
“You couldn’t have. I’d better clean this up.”
I could see his hands shaking, so I got up and put my hand over his.
“Let me do it,” I said.
“No. Like you say, I’ve got to face it.”
“What I did today. Every time it happens, it brings to mind things I want to forget.”
He nodded. “In war, you do what you have to do. But you wouldn’t believe the rationalization. We told ourselves that they weren’t like us, they were less than human. One day, I stuck a knife into a man and watched his blood and his life slip away. It was him or me. Just like today. Only it was you also.”
“I think I would rather it were me.”
“So do I, sometimes. But you have to remember, Lisa, the next time it’ll be Lipplinger. And someone else, the time after that, and on it goes, until the next time it’s Neil and Mae and the kids.”
“It still won’t be easy for me to pull the trigger.”
“Let’s hope it’s never easy for either of us.”
I looked at him and then went for the wastebasket. Silently we picked up the broken glass, then he went and got a washcloth and wiped up the spilled bourbon.
“Anybody’d think we had one hell of a fight in here,” he joked.
“Yeah, I guess so. I hope we never fight again.”
“There’s nothing wrong with fighting. It’s the not resolving it and clearing the air that’s the problem. Heck, we could have had this all over before we left.”
He smiled sheepishly at me. “You tried to tell me, didn’t you?”
“Mmhm.” I put the wastebasket where it belonged and flopped down on the couch. He followed me and sat on the arm.
“You know, Lisa, I’ve told you things that I’ve never told anybody.”
“Even yourself, maybe?”
“Maybe. But you’ve gotten closer to me in three months than Henry James has in all the years he’s known me, and he’s closer than anybody. Heaven knows, he’s tried hard enough.”
“It’s funny what comes out of a resolved fight.”
“You know, Lisa…” Then he stopped as a thought struck him.
The same thought occurred to me. He’d been using my first name. It also dawned on me that I had never used his first name. He said so.
“Why don’t you?” he asked.
“Same reason I got bugged about you touching me. I had to keep the distance, I guess.”
“Do you still have to?” His eyes danced softly.
“I guess I don’t.”
He bent to kiss me and I almost did. There was nothing I wanted more than to feel his lips against mine. But I was only too aware of what would follow if he did. So at the last moment, I placed my fingers on his lips and shook my head.
“Please don’t misunderstand me,” I said. “I— I know you’re only trying to say thank you, I like you, all those nice things. But, please, not that way. You’re too strong for me.”
He pulled back and patted my shoulder.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Don’t worry,” he chuckled. “You’re doing wonderful things for my ego.”
I gasped, then groaned, then clobbered him with a pillow. He laughed.
“I’ll ego you,” I yelped, laughing also, and hitting him repeatedly with my pillow. “If there’s anything that doesn’t need help, it’s your ego.”
“Hey! Hey!” He grabbed another pillow and launched a counter attack.
Poor Sid. He was new to pillow fights and I showed no mercy.
I still sing and he still chews ice. We both still bicker over the way the other eats or doesn’t eat. But he’s trying to stop the innuendoes and I’m trying to be a little easier about spending money. Like I said, we have a very good relationship. [A very, very good relationship – SEH]