spy fiction, mystery fiction, cozy mystery,

Chapter Nine

spy novel, spy fiction, cozy mysteryNovember 27 – 28, 1982

Unfortunately, the story doesn’t end there. Relationship wise, Sid and I were doing very well. Lipplinger-wise, we weren’t out of the woods by a long shot.

Friday night, Sid called Henry James and made arrangements for the next day. The next morning I woke up with cramps, bad ones.

We drove to Hattie Mitchell’s estate in our third rented car. The first one, Sid had traded in after the alley incident and the second we’d left behind at the shootout. I’d asked Sid what we were going to do about that second car and he told me it was being taken care of. [The F.B.I. had it towed and Ed Donaldson paid for it all, out of my paycheck. Talk about government fleecing. It’s a good thing we don’t have to live on the pittance they pay us as it is – SEH]

I was nervous and holding my belly.

“We’ve had knives, guns,” I said as we drove along. “The only thing they’ve got left for us is bombs.”

“Will you cut that out?” Sid was still smiling. “You’re making me nervous.”

“You? Hah!”

“I have my moments.” Then he turned serious. “Is, uh, something wrong? You don’t seem to be in peak form this morning. You’re not still mad at me, are you?”

“No. Not in the least.” I winced as we hit a pothole.

“Well, something’s wrong.”

“Oh. It’s nothing.”

Sid glared at me. “I seem to remember getting yelled at pretty soundly yesterday for not owning up to my little infirmity.”

The flush spread over my face. “Sid, it’s real embarrassing.”

“And me getting caught with my pants down isn’t.”

“Alright,” I groaned. “I’m just cramped up, okay?”

“Ah hah! Something you ate.”

“Nice try.”

“Then what?”

I glared out the window. “That time of the month cramps.”

“Oh.” Sid chuckled. “My condolences.” He looked at me, mildly concerned. “Are you going to be up to it if things get rough?”

I shrugged. “I should be. Cramps have never slowed me down. It’s just uncomfortable.”

“Well, I hope you’ll be alright, and not just physically.”

“So do I. But I shouldn’t flip too badly. I’ve been through it before and the emotional strain I was under yesterday has been resolved.”

“Except for Lipplinger.”

“He won’t bother me.”

“Be careful. He knows how to push your button.”

“Uh-oh,” I said. But not about Lipplinger.

Hattie’s estate was just about a block away. Two cars were parked next to the gates.

“Looks like we might have some company,” replied Sid.

Yet we got through the gates without hindrance. Hattie met us at the door.

“He’s packed and ready to go,” she said. “But I want to talk to you two first.”

She led us into the room we’d been in two nights before. She shut the door and faced us.

“Miles told me something about a formula he’d developed.” She was calm, but I could tell she was feeling a little hurt.  “He doesn’t think I’m capable of understanding what it’s about, so he just told me it existed and it was dangerous. He also told me about you two.” She looked us over. Sid stayed cool while I squirmed. “Sid Hackbirn. Is that as in S.E. Hackbirn, the one that does the F.B.I. piece?”

Sid watched her carefully. “Why do you want to know?”

“Because Miles, however obnoxious he is, is my brother. I want to stay in touch with him.”

“Whatever my name is, staying in touch with me will not necessarily mean staying in touch with your brother.”

Hattie chuckled. “As owner of two major defense and electronics plants, one of which is involved in highly top secret projects, I have a top-level security clearance. I also have several friends on the House Committee on Intelligence. It will be more trouble to go through them, and I could possibly do some damage to your cover.”

Sid laughed also. “Hattie, I already know what your clearance is, and you’re not cleared on my level.”

“In other words, you’re not going to say so.” Hattie’s eyes glittered with just a touch of mischief. “Well, Mr. Hackbirn and Miss Wycherly, it doesn’t matter. I want to remain in contact. No secrets, of course, but it doesn’t hurt to have friends. Obviously, we’ll need some plausible way to continue. Well, I’ve been thinking about getting into editing.” She smiled at our surprised looks. “Don’t be so shocked. I’ve been accused of playing the dilettante before, and I’ve yet to fall on my face. Yesterday, I bought On Our Own, that singles magazine that was about to go under?”

Sid’s eyebrow lifted. “I’m surprised it lasted as long as it did.”

“Well, it has a new life now, but without the sophomoric content and bad layout. You see, I don’t enter these enterprises without some knowledge of what I’m doing. In any case, Mr. Hackbirn, or may I call you Sid?”

“Call me what you like,” he said with a mildly lecherous smile.

Hattie returned it. “I would like to confirm that your relationship with Miss Wycherly is not of the sort in which exploring the west coast singles scene would cause trouble between you.”

I shrugged. “I wouldn’t mind. It might be fun.”

Sid laughed. “Not the kind of fun you like, my dear. But don’t worry, Hattie, we each have our own lives.”

“Good. Then you’ll be my west coast correspondent. I like your angles on the F.B.I., however, I’ve been warned your spelling and grammar can be a little rough.”

“Not anymore,” I said.

“She’s been cleaning up after me,” said Sid.

“Excellent. I’ll expect your first column on the thirteenth. It’s for the April issue, fifteen hundred words, two hundred dollars.”

“Two fifty and you’ve got a deal.”

“Two fifty, it is.”

They grinned at each other.

“We do have to get out of here alive, first,” I pointed out.

“True,” said Sid.

I added, “I might also say, that while I’m not real good at setting odds, they don’t look too good, considering those two cars out front.”

“Oh dear,” said Hattie. “Maybe I’d better call the police.”

“Please don’t,” replied Sid, getting a little antsy. “We’ll have to make do without. They’ve been involved far too much already.”

“I don’t want to know.” Hattie thought a moment. “You know, there is a path that runs through the woods out back. It goes to the road. I’m sure we could get a car down it.”

“A back way out of here?” Sid’s face lit up. “Hattie, I could just kiss you.”

“Oh, Sid, please do.”

That old reprobate. Sid, I mean. He kissed her alright. Boy, did he kiss her. When they finally got around to pulling away from each other, he winked at her and she let out a prim little sigh.

“Well,” she said, smoothing her dress. “Let’s go get my brother.”

We got him, bad temper, lewd comments and all. The car did go down the path very easily. We got onto the highway without mishap. But to get back to the city and National airport, we had to go past the front of the estate. After we passed it, I heard tires squealing. I looked out the back window.

“Step on it, Sid! They’re coming after us!”

Sid stepped on the accelerator.

“Get on the floor, Professor,” said Sid. He looked at me quickly. “You’d better get down too.”

“I don’t see why,” growled Lipplinger. “It’s undignified and I’ll wrinkle my suit.”

A bullet glanced off the roof.

“It’s a lot safer, that’s why,” I yelled. I reached over the front seat and pushed him down as a second bullet embedded itself in the trunk.

“Get down, Lisa,” Sid yelled.

“I’m getting!”

I slumped down in my seat. I reached into my carry-on and pulled out my gun, then rolled down the window.

“What are you doing?” snapped Sid.

“I’m going to shoot their tires,” I said. I turned around in my seat and started out the window.

“Oh, no you’re not.” Sid grabbed me with one hand and pulled me back. The car swerved dangerously. “Do you want to get yourself killed?”

“You’ll get us all killed,” Lipplinger yelled from the back, “if you keep on driving like that.”

“Shut up, Lipplinger. Don’t worry, Lisa, they’ll stop shooting at us when we get into traffic. Not that there’s ever any around when you need it.”

I shoved my gun back into the special case that would get it past the metal detectors at the airport.

“Got anything you can’t replace in your suitcase?” Sid asked me softly.

“No, I put all my valuables in my carry-on like you said.”

“Good girl. How about you, Professor? Got anything in your suitcase you can’t replace?”

“Of course not. Too many thieves around to carry valuables.”

“Good. We’re ditching the luggage.”

“Why?” I asked.

“It’ll make it easier for us to change planes at the last minute. Maybe we’ll lose our tail.”

“Aren’t you going to ditch them before we get to the airport?”

“Not much point in it. They’re probably watching it anyway. With any luck at all, we can put them off our track.”

“Holy Jesus in Heaven, please,” I prayed, crossing myself.

“Whatever.”

At the airport, we dropped the car at the rental place and ran through three terminals before Sid found a flight he liked. Even then we had to run to catch it. Lipplinger complained every step of the way.

The flight was a puddle jumper to La Guardia airport.

“Think we’ll lose them in New York City?” I asked Sid as we were taking off.

“If you can’t lose someone in New York, you’re in big trouble.” Sid yawned. “Keep an eye on the Professor for me, will you?” And he dropped off.

In New York, Sid promised the cab driver a handsome tip if he could get us across Queens to Kennedy airport in under thirty minutes without anyone following us. I didn’t dare look. Sid was looking out the back window for tails, so I just kept my eyes fastened to the back of the seat.

We still switched planes two more times. We got in to Los Angeles shortly after midnight. I was never so glad to see that house in my life. I was also exhausted. Sid wasn’t. He’d slept most of the way. Cheerfully, he drove Lipplinger downtown to an all-night market to get some of the necessities of life left behind in Washington.

The next day, they went shopping and I went to Mae’s. It was so nice being there. I blithely forgot about Lipplinger and risking my neck in the spy business and happily spent the afternoon risking my neck running around on the roof helping Neil and Darby put up the Christmas lights.

I also told Mae about the fight Sid and I’d had and she agreed it was the best thing for him.

“He’s not going to make you go away for Christmas, is he?” she asked.

“He’d better not,” I said. “Of course it is a little hard for him to understand how I feel. He’s never celebrated holidays.”

“You’re kidding.”

“‘Fraid not, Mae.”

“Well, he knows he’s invited here.”

“You’d better confirm that. I told you how he reacted to that letter.”

“It’s not late, I’ll do it now.”

Mae had been back on her feet for some time, and it didn’t take her long to get Sid on the other end of the line.

“Sid?” I heard her say. “This is Mae O’Malley. You got any plans for Christmas Day?… Then I won’t take no for an answer. You’re spending it here and that’s final. You plan to be here at ten thirty a.m. sharp. Any later, and the kids’ll have to wait to open their presents and they’ll be mad… Alright, talk to you later.”

She hung up and smiled. “See? It’s all settled.”

spy fiction, mystery fiction, cozy mystery,

Chapter Eight

spy novel, cozy spy novel, cozy mysteryNovember 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.”

“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?”

“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.”

I gasped.

“So you recognize me,” Gannett snickered maliciously and waved off the person who had just entered the alley, presumably his partner.

“Uh…”

“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.”

“Lipplinger?”

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.”

“Hi.”

“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.”

“Like what?”

“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.”

“From what?”

“I tripped and fell spread-eagled.”

“On your knees?” Mr. Hackbirn looked concerned.

“Yes.”

“I’d better take a look at them.” He sounded resigned.

“At what?”

“Your knees.”

“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.”

“Why?”

“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.

“Published?”

“Not yet.”

“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.”

“Where?”

“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.

“But…”

“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?”

I nodded.

“Okay, go!”

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?”

“Over there.”

“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.”

“What?”

“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.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

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?”

“And open?”

“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.”

“Face what?”

“What I did today. Every time it happens, it brings to mind things I want to forget.”

“Viet Nam?”

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.

“We did.”

“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.”

“Good.”

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]

spy fiction, mystery fiction, cozy mystery,

Chapter Seven

cozy spy novel, serial mystery fiction, cozy mysteryOctober 31 – November 18, 1982

 

Mr. Hackbirn left early the next day. I drove him to the airport, then out to Mae’s, where I took the kids trick or treating that night. I drove home the next morning and went to All Saint’s Day mass at my new parish. Mr. Hackbirn didn’t leave me anything to do while he was gone, so I was a little at loose ends. I caught up on my work from the week before. Tuesday, I cleaned up the files. I got a little concerned when I hadn’t heard from him by Wednesday. But there really wasn’t anything I could do about it.

Conchetta had maintained the usual routine, explaining that she’d been cooking for just Mr. Hackbirn for a long time anyway. She wasn’t cooking the same things. She’d discovered on Monday my passion for food, in particular, Mexican food, and had been filling me up with all sorts of delectable goodies.

“It’s nice to cook for someone who likes to eat,” she said, handing me a plate filled with the most heavenly chili relleno I’d ever eaten in my life.

“It’s nice to be eating good food,” I said, leaning on the counter. We were in the kitchen where I’d been eating while the boss was gone. “And to be getting enough food for once.” [There is no such thing – SEH]

Small portions were the rule at the house and no seconds, which left a lot of chinks to fill, considering my appetite. I had tried nibbling between meals, but Mr. Hackbirn caught me and gave me an extended lecture on the importance of keeping fit in our business and how exactly the various substances I’d been nibbling on were poisoning my body. So I hid all sweet snacks away and only nibbled when the boss’s back was turned. I also compromised and bought an air popcorn popper, which Mr. Hackbirn still frowned upon, but conceded that if I had to snack, air popped popcorn with only a little salt was not going to do me in as fast as other things would.

I still hadn’t heard anything by Thursday. I decided that if I hadn’t heard anything by Friday noon, I would call Henry James. Thus resolved, I spent the day making a blouse for myself and wondering what I was going to do about Christmas presents.

I usually make at least one Christmas present for everyone in my family. It’s just the way I do things, that and it’s cheaper. But that year I had plenty of money. I still decided to make things but was kind of stuck when I thought about Mr. Hackbirn. He wasn’t the type to go for arts and crafts stuff. He had everything he could want. What to do?

I puzzled over the problem until noon when it dawned on me that he was very fond of pullover sweaters. I’ve been knitting since I was a kid and I make very nice sweaters. I tried to think if there was a type of sweater he didn’t have and he didn’t have one of those Aran Isles fisherman’s sweaters. I’d made one for Neil years ago, so I knew what I was up against. I bit my lip. That certainly seemed like the solution. I just hoped he would like it.

With that problem solved, I went to lunch and then back to my sewing.

It was a little after three when I thought I heard the front door open and close. I looked up at the small white box above my door. It had a little red light flashing that told me someone had come in. Nervously, I pulled my gun from my bedside table, checked the cylinder, and went to investigate.

Quietly, I slipped through the house to the front hall. Sitting next to the bench was Mr. Hackbirn’s suitcase. So he was home. I wondered why he hadn’t called to have me pick him up. Then I wondered if there was something wrong.

There was, but not anything immediately endangering my health and wellbeing. Well, maybe my health. As I approached the office I heard a coarse hacking cough from within. Still leery, I stayed clear of the doorway.

“Mr. Hackbirn?” I called.

“Yeah,” came the reply. It sounded a little hoarse.

I slid in. The door to his office was open and I saw him looking at a sheet of paper. He raised his fist to his lips and I heard that awful cough again. I set my gun on my desk and went into his office.

“Are you alright?” I asked.

“I’m fine,” he grumbled. “Just picked up a cold.”

“I’ll say.”

He sniffed, then coughed again. He dropped the paper onto his desk and sank into his chair. He looked very tired, his eyes and nose were red and his cheeks were a little flushed.

“Rough trip?” I asked.

“A complete waste of time,” he growled. “Lipplinger won’t budge until the end of the term. Says he’s got a couple of students that are failing and he wants to help them.”

“That’s sweet of him. But couldn’t you make him see the danger?”

“I didn’t even get to talk to him. I had to go through the guard team.” He put his face in his hands for a moment.

I noticed he was wearing a thin gold wedding band on his left hand.

“Did you stop over in Las Vegas?” I asked, completely puzzled.

“What?” He looked at me.

“Your ring.”

“Oh.” He pulled it off and dropped it onto the desk and coughed. “I was traveling under an assumed name and when Lipplinger wouldn’t move I decided to make it feasible for you to come with me next time. I hope you don’t mind traveling as my wife.”

“As long as I don’t have to act like one.”

“Fat chance.” He sounded miserable.

My heart softened.

“You look terrible,” I said gently.

“Thanks.”

“Why don’t you go to bed?”

“I’m fine,” he grumbled. “Where’s my mail?”

I walked over and put my hand on his forehead.

“You’ve got a fever.” My fingers probed behind his jaw. “I wonder if your glands are swollen.”

“Leave me alone,” he snapped angrily, catching my wrist and pulling it away.

We stared at each other for a tense moment. Then he gently let go of my wrist and looked away.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m not feeling very well.”

“Why don’t you go get undressed and into bed and I’ll bring your suitcase and your mail.”

Another cough racked his body.

“Alright,” he said meekly.

I watched him go, then gathered up the mail and my gun from my desk. I got the suitcase next. But instead of going to Mr. Hackbirn’s room, I stopped first at my own, dropped off the gun and gathered a couple of things from the medicine chest. Then I went to the kitchen to tell Conchetta that the boss was home, but we could still have enchiladas because he was sick.

“It’s just the flu, I think,” I told her. “If you’re up to it, he could handle some soup.”

“Sopo de pollo con arroz,” she said smiling. “I’ll make it.”

I knocked first.

“Are you in bed?” I called.

There was another cough, and then a weak “yes.”

His room was done in dark colors. The furniture was conservative and tasteful. On one wall was a sliding glass door to the side yard covered with dark drapes pulled back and lighter colored ones underneath. On the other side of the glass doors was a small patio with a large hot tub. The wall facing the doors had a long closet with sliding mirrored doors and another door to the bathroom. The long low dresser was next to the door I had come in. On the wall opposite was a king size bed. It had a valance over it with dark drapes tied back to the wall. I noticed it was a water bed.

I didn’t know what I’d been expecting, but I was glad to find there wasn’t anything to embarrass me. I put the suitcase down and the mail and other things on top of the dresser. I looked around again. The clothes that Mr. Hackbirn had been wearing had already been put away. Mr. Hackbirn was lying in bed, propped up by pillows. His blankets were pulled to halfway up his chest.

“What’s that thing around your neck?” he asked.

I looked down.

“It’s my tape measure,” I said, picking up the thermometer I had brought and shaking it down. “I was working on a blouse when you came in.”

“Miss Wycherly, I thought I as paying you well enough for you to avoid such economies.”

“You are,” I said, checking the mercury and shaking some more. “I can’t help it if I’m basically cheap. Besides, I like to sew. It’s great therapy.” I walked over and put the thermometer in his mouth. “And heaven knows, I need it around here.”

“But…”

I put my hand under his chin. “Shut up. If you want me to unpack, just nod.”

He nodded sullenly.

A little looking around found two hampers in the bathroom. A quick peek inside told me one was for the dry cleaners, the other, for the laundry.

Mr. Hackbirn watched me as I picked the suitcase up and balanced it on one corner of the bed. I think he was waiting for me to turn purple when I saw his underwear. I got him, though. As easily as I get embarrassed, men’s underwear doesn’t bother me. While growing up on my parent’s resort I did a little bit of everything, including the guests’ laundry. I had handled all kinds of underwear, and plenty of it.

“Is everything dirty?” I asked, looking at the neatly packed clothes.

Mr. Hackbirn grunted.

“Oh, shoot.” I remembered the thermometer and ran over and pulled it out.

“Yes, it’s all dirty,” Mr. Hackbirn said.

“Ninety-nine point eight,” I replied. “That confirms it. You’ve got the flu.”

“I didn’t know you were a doctor.”

“I’m not. But after all those years of babysitting Mae’s kids, I’m an expert on the flu.”

I quickly emptied the suitcase, taking the clothes to the bathroom and dumping them in their respective hampers. I came back into the room puzzled. Something was missing. Mr. Hackbirn coughed again as I checked the suitcase.

“Something wrong?” he asked.

“I think you may have left your pajamas. I can’t seem to find any.”

“I don’t have any pajamas.”

I could feel my face turn scarlet as I turned my back to him.

“You don’t mean to tell me…”

“That I don’t have anything on underneath these covers? No, I don’t.”

He was enjoying it. I could tell. He loved embarrassing me.

“Mr. Hackbirn…”

“Come on. You’d have never known if you hadn’t asked me.”

“Then why do I get the feeling that you’ve just been laying there waiting for me to ask?”

He just laughed, then coughed really hard. Embarrassed or not, I was reminded he wasn’t feeling very well. I decided I was not going to let him get the better of me. Taking a deep breath, I turned around.

“We’d better take care of that cough,” I said, briskly.

“What do you have in mind?”

I unscrewed the top off a bottle I’d gotten from my medicine cabinet and picked up a spoon.

“This,” I replied, smiling and going over to him. “It’s the best thing for coughs.”

“What is in it?” He eyed the unlabeled bottle suspiciously.

“My grandmother makes it,” I poured a spoonful.

“Oh, no you don’t.”

“Oh, yes I do. Relax, Mae gives this to her kids and she’s just as finicky as you are.”

“What’s in it?” He didn’t quite trust it but he opened his mouth.

“Honey, lemon juice and corn liquor.” I spooned it in fast and poured another.

“Corn liquor?”

“A.K.A. white lightning, moonshine. My grandpa made his living on his own blend. When he died, I’m told you could hear G-men cheer in three counties. Of course, they neglected to make sure that his still was out of operation. But Grandma just makes the stuff for medicinal purposes.”

“Oh, really.”

“Mmhm. Open up.” I put the second spoonful in. “You can take two more in four hours. To continue, rest assured. Grandma’s a temperance lady except when she runs short of cash. Then she’s got a couple of good customers willing to oblige.”

“Sounds like an interesting lady.”

“She is. But you two wouldn’t get along. She takes a very dim view of you-know-what. Some folks say that’s why Grandpa died young.”

“Was it?”

“I doubt it. Grandpa got around quite a bit. There’s a whole bunch of families that, as Grandma would say, have babies with Caulfield features what have no right to have ’em.”

Mr. Hackbirn laughed. “So what did kill your grandfather?”

It was my turn to laugh. “A bad batch of corn liquor.”

He looked at the bottle. “That’s so reassuring.”

“Don’t worry. Mama told me it was because he was drunk when he mixed the mash. Grandma doesn’t drink, so you’re okay.”

He coughed, but already it was noticeably gentler. He sighed and laid his head back against the headboard.

“So what about my mail?” he asked.

I put the bottle back on the dresser and picked up the letters.

“Answers to two queries,” I said, picking out the envelopes.

“Good. Which ones?”

“From ‘Fortune’ on the banks and ‘GQ’ on how to buy a personal computer.”

“And..?”

“Both affirmative.”

“Terrific. Put the outlines on my desk.”

“They’re already there. But I’ll bring them in here first thing tomorrow. You are staying in bed.”

“I suppose. What else?”

“A check from ‘Cosmo’ that you need to endorse. The gas and phone bills, already paid. You just need to sign the checks. Several ads, one wishing to sell you the secret to a healthy, happy sex life…”

Mr. Hackbirn chuckled.

“Which I pitched,” I continued. “Three fan letters, which I’m putting on your nightstand for you to read at your leisure.” Fan letters were what I called the notes from Mr. Hackbirn’s various girlfriends. “And this.”

I dropped the legal size envelope on Mr. Hackbirn’s chest. It had come that morning, addressed to Mr. Hackbirn in care of me. I had immediately recognized both Darby and Mae’s handwriting, Darby having written the return address and Mr. Hackbirn’s name and Mae having written the rest. On the back, Darby had written, “Please don’t open this, Aunt Lisa”. Mr. Hackbirn coughed and looked at it, bewildered.

“What is it?” he asked.

I shrugged. “I have no idea. I was asked not to open it.”

He shook his head and opened the letter. Dying of curiosity, but equally determined not to pry, I took the rest of the mail back to the dresser.

“What on earth?” he muttered as I was screwing the top to the cough syrup back on. “Would you mind explaining this to me?”

“What’s the matter?” I walked over to him. “Can’t read Darby’s handwriting?”

“Oh, I can read it. It’s just… Here.”

I took the letter. The writing was Darby’s.

“Dear Uncle Sid,” it said. “We O’Malley’s got together Sunday night and had a family meeting. We talked about you and decided that you should be made an official family friend. This means that you are automatically invited to all family celebrations and holidays, and can come at anytime to visit and we hope you will. This means too that if you need us, we are here. We love you.”

It was signed by the whole family, even Mitch and Marty.

“Wow,” I exclaimed softly.

“They sent this, too.”

He handed me another piece of paper. This one was parchment, of sorts. It had a purple scrollwork border and it proclaimed that Mr. Sid Hackbirn (carefully printed in) was an official Friend of the O’Malley family, entitled to all privileges, etc. and signed again by the whole family.

“So that was what they were squabbling about,” I said.

“Who?”

“Darby and Janey. Don’t you remember? Last Saturday. They were fighting over something in the stationery store. This must have been it.”

“Hm. But what does it mean?”

“Just what it says, I expect. It looks like you’ve been adopted, boss.”

“Hm.” He sounded bemused.

I left him still looking over the letter and the certificate.

He wasn’t back to normal until Monday. Even then he was still a little drained and sniffling. I hadn’t said anything about Lipplinger the whole time he was sick, although I had a strong feeling there was more to be said on the subject. I waited until an hour after lunch when I brought in the printed drafts of the two articles he had written over the weekend.

“Looks good,” he said, flipping through them.

“Thanks,” I replied. There was a pause. “Um. May I ask you a question?”

“Yes.”

“What’s going to happen with Lipplinger? I remember you said something about next time.”

“Yeah. We’re going to have to take him physically.”

“Kidnap?”

“Not exactly. We just have to get to him and if necessary use force.”

I sighed.

“Don’t worry,” Mr. Hackbirn said. “I’m sure it won’t come to that.”

“I hope not. I don’t know if I could hit a nice old man over the head and drag him off.”

Mr. Hackbirn smiled. “We don’t do that anyway. The worst we’d do is stick a gun in his ribs. But I think I can talk him into seeing reason.”

“How are you going to talk to him when you couldn’t get through last time?”

“That’s what took so long. We’ll have to go through his sister, who is Ms. Hattie Mitchell.”

“Is that someone I’m supposed to know?” I asked with a nervous smile.

Mr. Hackbirn shrugged. “She’s made a name for herself among the Fortune 500 gang. Her husband was Damon Mitchell, founder and owner of Mitchell Electronics, Inc.”

“Oh.”

“Less than twenty years ago it was just a one-man office. Thanks to government contracts, Mitchell built it into a defense electronics empire in seven years, then died, left it all to his wife, and she turned around and built a major conglomerate.”

“And the wife is Hattie Mitchell.”

“Uh-huh.”

“How’s she going to help?”

“Well, under my assumed name, on the pretext of interviewing her for an article, I spent a lovely afternoon chatting with Ms. Mitchell and managed to get an invitation for Mr. Ed Donaldson and his lovely wife to join Hattie and her brother for Thanksgiving dinner.”

“You being Ed Donaldson, with me as his lovely wife.”

“You got it.”

“You don’t.” I was very irritated by the way he had casually overlooked my feelings in the matter. “Did it ever occur to you that your lovely wife has a family and she wants to spend Thanksgiving with them?”

“For a brief moment. However, remember the objective is getting to Lipplinger. Thanksgiving is the next time he’ll be seeing Hattie and therefore is the only chance we’ll have to talk to him.”

“But I can’t miss Thanksgiving with my family!” I groaned.

“I’m afraid you’ll have to.”

I was shocked. “That’s asking too much.”

“Miss Wycherly,” Mr. Hackbirn sounded very tired. “We’ve already established that I cannot fire you and you cannot quit. So will you please accept the fact that you will not be spending Thanksgiving with your family and bear in mind that it is in the interest of helping to ensure that there will be other Thanksgivings to spend with them that you are doing so.”

I swallowed. He was right. But I still felt like crying. I blinked back the tears.

“I suppose.” I got up to go, very downcast.

“It can’t be all that bad,” said Mr. Hackbirn.

I looked at him. “Yes, it is.”

“You have dinner with them almost every Sunday. What’s so special about one Thursday?”

I stared at him, unbelieving. “Is that all it is to you? Just a Thursday?”

“In effect, yes.”

“But it’s Thanksgiving.”

“A part of Capitalistic propaganda to convince the people they are not oppressed and dedicated to a god that doesn’t exist.”

“Do you really believe that?”

“No. I gave up Communism, remember? But that was my aunt’s philosophy, and therefore how I was raised.”

“You never celebrated Thanksgiving?”

“Or Christmas, Easter, Mother’s Day, Fourth of July, Labor Day, Halloween. In fact, the only day I’ve ever celebrated was New Year’s Eve.”

“That’s awful.”

“Not really. Never having done it, I never missed it.”

“But when your friends did…”

Mr. Hackbirn was silent for a long moment.

“I don’t want you to feel sorry for me because there is nothing to feel sorry for.” He stopped and looked at me. “But I’ve never really had friends that were that close to me. I am what is commonly called a loner by my own choice and I prefer to stay that way. I have always been that way. I’m used to seeing people do things I’ve never done. I grew up that way and it never bothered me.”

I sank back into my chair. The tears I could no longer hold back ran down my cheeks.

“I was afraid you’d do that.” Mr. Hackbirn sighed and pushed the box of tissues on his desk towards me.

“I’m sorry.” I sniffed and took one. “I can’t help it.”

“Miss Wycherly, my lonely lot in life really doesn’t bother me.”

“I know. Why do you think I’m crying?”

As the week passed I found out a couple other things about Mr. Hackbirn that made me thank God for the miracle that had caused Mae and the family to attach themselves to him. One was that he was an atheist. Well, I had more or less figured that he was. But he actually admitted it over dinner one night.

The other thing was about his aunt. We were shopping for, believe it or not, wedding rings for Mrs. Donaldson. Mr. Hackbirn says it’s the details that can trip you up faster than anything when you’re undercover. I made some comment about getting my Christmas cards out. In the discussion that ensued it came out that Mr. Hackbirn had not spoken to his aunt in something like fifteen years. I stopped dead in my tracks.

“How could you,” I exclaimed.

“I’m not the one responsible,” replied Mr. Hackbirn calmly. “It was her idea to disown me, not I, her.”

“But something must have caused it. What happened?”

“I allowed myself to be drafted by the U.S. Army instead of going off to Canada. Aside from the fact that I did not share my aunt’s beliefs, Canada was too cold for me and I didn’t particularly want to be a fugitive.”

“And it wasn’t right to ditch.”

Mr. Hackbirn laughed. “I hate to disillusion you, innocent one, but that had very little to do with it. I didn’t really care about much in those days.”

“It must have been terrible.”

Mr. Hackbirn shook his head. “Afraid not. It wasn’t fun, but I’d gotten used to the idea that it was inevitable. Frankly, I think she used the whole issue as an excuse to get rid of me.”

“Why would she do that?”

“A lot of reasons.” Mr. Hackbirn spoke softly, yet in a matter of fact tone as if the words he was uttering didn’t really affect him. “In the first place, she had never wanted me. I was the result of my mother’s foolishness and even if Sheila hadn’t gotten herself killed, Stella still would have had to raise me. The only reason I wasn’t given up to the state was because then I would have been raised a capitalist and that was the only thing worse than her having to raise me herself.”

“And you turned out to be one, anyway. She must have felt like a horrible failure.”

“She was a raving success. She taught me rebellion and I did, unfortunately against her. It couldn’t have been that big of a shock. I never had her conviction. I suspect now my indifference was just another form of rebellion. But then I just didn’t care. I didn’t care about her. She didn’t care about me. So when she laid down her ultimatum, I said fine, goodbye, walked out and haven’t seen her since.”

“Oh, Mr. Hackbirn.”

“Now don’t start crying again.” He shifted uncomfortably. “You and I both know I don’t like it, but it’s a fact of my life and there’s no point in blubbering about it.”

“I’ll try, sir.”

“Alright. Let’s get that stupid ring bought and get going.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And don’t ‘sir’ me. This isn’t the army.”

I couldn’t squelch a giggle at his irritation. Mr. Hackbirn couldn’t handle emotion. He glared at me, then laughed.

“At least that’s a little closer to the role you’re playing,” he said.

“I’m sorry I can’t hang all over you,” I replied. “It just isn’t right for me.”

“Fine. But do me a favor and don’t blush when the salesperson asks to help us.”

Mr. Hackbirn held open the door to a jewelry store for me. I entered and cast a quick glance over the glass cases. That’s when I saw it. It wasn’t a ring. It was a necklace, a fine gold chain with a pendant. The pendant wasn’t more that three-quarters of an inch tall or wide. It was two open rectangles, one was brushed gold, the other polished. In the middle of the polished rectangle was oval opal surrounded by tiny diamonds. I was entranced. It was so delicate and beautiful.

“That necklace,” I whispered.

“We’re looking for rings,” said Mr. Hackbirn. I hadn’t noticed that he had his arm around my waist, I was so fascinated.

“I know. But that necklace is so beautiful. I really like it.”

“So buy it.”

I shook my head. “I don’t like keeping fine jewelry. It makes me nervous. I’m always afraid I’ll lose it. I wonder how much it is.”

“May I help you?” asked the salesclerk, a woman around Mr. Hackbirn’s age.

“How much is that necklace, the one with the opal?” I asked before Mr. Hackbirn could say anything.

“We’re not here for that,” he said, amused.

“I know. Just let me find out how much it is and then we’ll go look at rings.”

“It’s two hundred dollars,” replied the clerk

“That’s a lot,” I said, shaking my head.

“No, it isn’t,” said Mr. Hackbirn, and considering the store we were in, it wasn’t. “If you like it, buy it.”

“No,” I sighed. “I- I don’t think so. We’re not here for that.”

I forced my attention to the rings. Mr. Hackbirn made the actual selection. Fortunately, it fit as it was, so we could take it with us. As we left the store, I took one long parting look at the opal necklace. I sighed and went out.

Mr. Hackbirn rolled his eyes skyward.

“I’ve never met anybody before so tight with the bucks,” he sighed, as we walked to his car.

“You try scrounging sometime.”

“But that’s the point. You do not have to scrounge. That necklace would have barely dented your bank balance.”

“I know.”

“Then why are you so tight?”

“It’s just my nature, I guess.”

Tight with the bucks or not, that necklace haunted my thoughts. After about a week, I decided that maybe Mr. Hackbirn was right. I went back to the store to look at it. It was gone. I asked the salesclerk, and she assured me it had been sold. Downcast, I left the store.

spy fiction, mystery fiction, cozy mystery,

Chapter Six

spy novel, serial mystery fiction, cozy mysteryOctober 29 – 30, 1982

“Absolutely not!” I was trying to stay calm. But I was furious.

Dinner had been cleaned up and Neil and the kids were gone.

“It’s priority one, code one,” Mr. Hackbirn said with that incredibly aggravating calm manner of his. “There is nothing else that can be done about it.”

Anything that passes through the “business” is given a separate priority and code rating. The scales are on a one to five range. For priority, one is the most urgent, namely drop everything and get it moving now. Five means whenever there’s time to deal with it. Code implies how secret it is. Technically, no one in Quickline is supposed to know anyone else in the business. Also, anything we get is already given the highest level top secret rating possible, which is why we get to handle it. A code five means you can put the information into an associate’s hands and all but ask his name, making it easier to pick up a tail. So you can tell they’re not as worried about a code five as they are about a code one, which means no contact at all allowed short of a quick phone call. Priority one, code one means extremely urgent and extremely secret, and in my mind that night, dangerous.

But it wasn’t the danger to myself that was bothering me. Mr. Hackbirn wanted me to make the pickup while we were out with the kids the next day. Needless to say, I didn’t want them involved. I don’t think Mr. Hackbirn wanted them involved either, but there didn’t seem to be any other way.

What had happened was that the information had been hidden on a key chain full of keys. The keys were supposed to have been dropped at a time and place mutually agreeable to Mr. Hackbirn and whoever was carrying the keys. But the carrier had picked up a tail and had temporarily ditched the keys in a toy store at a mall in Brea. When he ditched the tail, he went back to the toy store only to find that someone else had already found the keys and turned them into the manager of the store, who in turn locked them in her desk. By the time the carrier had returned, the manager had gone home with the key to the desk.

Assured of the keys’ safety, the carrier decided the toy store was as good as any place for the pickup and called Mr. Hackbirn. The only problem was that the assistant manager had seen the carrier, in fact, talked with him about the keys, and would probably say something if a man other than the carrier picked up the keys. So after conferring with Mr. Hackbirn, the carrier had called up the toy store and arranged for his “wife” (me) to pick up the keys. Apparently, Mr. Hackbirn had assumed Neil would be home to take care of the kids. To do him justice, it wasn’t all that bad an assumption.

But Neil would be occupied with bringing Mae home, and Mr. Hackbirn had decided that having the kids along wouldn’t be so bad as long as he could distract them while I made the actual pickup. I did not want the kids involved.

“It’s too dangerous,” I insisted.

“Actually, it’s the safest kind of pickup to make.”

“I don’t care. It’ll just have to wait.”

“It can’t wait. It’s been waiting too long already.”

“Well, I’m not going to do it. I’m sorry, but I can’t. Not even to save my job.”

“I’m not going to fire you. I can’t anyway.”

“Then I’ll quit.”

“You can’t quit. Remember? Face it, you’re stuck.”

“Wonderful. We’ve reached an impasse.” I could feel my control starting to slip. I bit my lip. “You say I will and I say I won’t.”

“Will you listen to reason?” There was an edge to his voice that I later learned meant he was getting mad. “There is very little that could go wrong, provided you don’t lose your head.”

“That was a cheap shot,” I snapped.

I looked him right in the eye. He seemed startled at first. Then the bright piercing blue softened and he actually looked a little ashamed.

“You’re right. It was,” he said quietly. “I apologize.”

“Apology accepted.” The fury suddenly left me, leaving me very drained.

Mr. Hackbirn sank into the couch (we were in the living room). He put his fingers to his eyes as if he was going to rub them, but didn’t. When he removed his fingers, he blinked a few times and looked at me. I noticed his eyes were rather red.

“Look, I don’t want to endanger the children,” he said slowly. “And frankly, I don’t think it will. Consider, in the first place, the tail was successfully ditched and obviously didn’t know about the toy store. In the second place, if you’ll pardon the cliché, there’s safety in numbers. People in our business generally work alone and only rarely in tandem. We’ll be seven people total. And in the third place, their very presence will be a type of protection. I mean, who would be crazy enough to bring children on a thing like this?”

I sighed. Unfortunately, he made sense. I had sunk into a chair. I disconsolately gazed at the battered toe of my deck shoe.

“I don’t know,” I said, not quite ready to give in. I looked at Mr. Hackbirn. “I love those kids. I don’t know if you’d understand, but I’m better than Santa Claus to them. They mean the world to me.”

“I do understand. If you’d said that to me yesterday, maybe I wouldn’t have. But what else are we going to do?”

“I don’t know. I guess we’ll have to do it. Janey’s got her heart set on you coming anyway.”

“What an amazing girl.” Mr. Hackbirn smiled gently.

I chuckled. “You certainly seem to be rather fond of her.”

He shrugged. “I’m a sucker for big eyes.” He got up. I rose with him. “I’ll see you tomorrow at nine.”

“Okay. Why don’t you try dressing casually?”

“Of course.”

While trying to get around the piano, the chair and a soccer ball someone had left, I stumbled into Mr. Hackbirn.

“Oops,” he said, catching me.

I looked into his eyes and blushed.

“I’m sorry,” I mumbled. Then I frowned.

“Something wrong?” Mr. Hackbirn asked, concerned.

“You’ve got something in your eye,” I said.

He looked away and blinked a couple of times.

“No, I don’t.”

“Yes, you do. I can see it. It’s an eyelash, kind of near the center.”

“You got a mirror?”

I was already heading for the kitchen.

“In the bathroom. Hang on, I’m getting a tissue.”

“Never mind.”

“You got it?” I came back into the hallway. He was looking at something between his forefinger and thumb.

“I didn’t think I had anything in there.” He walked past me into the bathroom, leaving the door open.

“I know I saw something,” I said, standing in the doorway. He pulled a small, flat plastic bottle out of the inside breast pocket of his suit jacket. “It was a little line.”

“This is what you saw.” Mr. Hackbirn held out his hand. On his forefinger was a light blue curved plastic lens.

“You wear contact lenses?” I couldn’t help giggling a little.

“I am extremely nearsighted.” He rubbed a few drops of the liquid from the bottle onto the lens, then rinsed it under the faucet (he’d already pulled the plug). “I admit I got them for pure vanity. But…”

He stopped as he inserted the lens underneath his eyelid.

“Oh, gross.” I looked away.

He just chuckled.

“But,” he continued. “They have slowed down my eyes from getting worse.”

“I’m glad.” My stomach was doing mild flipflops.

I left the doorway and he left the house.

The next morning I was in the family room French braiding Janey’s hair. Right at nine, I heard Darby yell, “He’s here!” and the sound of his feet pounding down the stairs. I was doing two braids on Janey. I had the first one done and was midway through the second. Ellen sat on the floor next to us, still in her pajamas with pink sponge rollers in her hair. Neil was upstairs dressing the twins.

“Janey, please hold still,” I said as the doorbell rang. “Darby will answer the door.”

I have said before that Mr. Hackbirn is an impeccable dresser. To be more specific, he’s the type of person that always looks dressed up even in the most casual clothes. That morning he was wearing very tight dark blue dress jeans with a light blue shirt and the inevitable sweater around his shoulders. Over his arm, he carried a blue and off white herringbone twill sport coat with suede patches on the elbows.

“Good morning,” he said, smiling. “Why aren’t you ready?”

“You are obviously unaware of the logistics involved in getting six people ready to go somewhere,” I replied, also smiling.

“They must be incredible.” Mr. Hackbirn laid his sport coat on the back of the couch.

“What’s logistics?” asked Janey.

“Look it up in the dictionary,” I answered automatically.

“I can’t. You’re doing my hair.”

“Then hold still, and you can look it up later.”

“Kind of chilly out here,” remarked Mr. Hackbirn. “It was sunny in L.A.”

In Orange County the sky was overcast and the air had a definite bite to it.

“Twenty percent chance of rain, I heard,” I said.

“I don’t think it will.” He walked into the hallway, pulling the sweater from his shoulders.

After putting it on, he opened the bathroom door and checked himself in the mirror. He straightened his collar and ran a reassuring hand over his hair. It didn’t need it. Even with all its waves, Mr. Hackbirn’s hair is always perfect. He doesn’t use hairspray either. He’s just so disgustingly full of self-control that not one hair on his head would even think of being out of place.

“You didn’t have to get so dressed up,” I said as he came back into the room. “I did say casual.”

“I am.”

Darby laughed. He was wearing blue jeans with a bright yellow t-shirt that had the Mercedes-Benz logo on it and scuffed running shoes. Janey also had on jeans. But she was wearing a V-necked sweater over a plaid blouse with an eyelet-trimmed collar. She was barefoot, however.

I had opted for a similar outfit, this one including my deck shoes. My deck shoes are my favorite pair of shoes. They were originally white, but now they’re a dirty gray. The toes are scuffed up and the heels are starting to wear down. But they don’t have any holes in them. Yet.

I finished Janey’s braid.

“Ellen, please give me the ponytail band. No, not the dental floss. Thank you.” I looped the band around the end of the braid. “Okay, you’re done. Go get your shoes on.”

Janey got up and ran upstairs. As I stood up, I noticed Mr. Hackbirn subtly but restlessly prowling about the room.

“Why don’t you sit down,” I said. “I’ve still got to dress Ellen and get things together. There’s no rush anyway. The stores don’t open ’til ten.”

“Stores?” groaned Darby with shocked disgust. “We’re not going shopping, are we?”

“I’ve got errands to run,” I said firmly.

“But I thought we were going someplace neat.”

“I want to go to the zoo,” said Ellen.

“Some other time, honey,” I said, pulling her to her feet. “We haven’t got time today.”

“I don’t want to go shopping,” complained Darby. “Couldn’t we go to Craig Park at least?”

“Maybe later,” I answered. “We’ll see what the weather does.”

“Stupid weather.”

“Please, Darby, no complaints.” I felt for him. He hated shopping. “We’re going to a nice mall. They have an arcade there, and if you’re good, I just might…”

Darby’s eyes lit up.

“A surprise?” he asked, grinning and pushing his glasses up on his nose.

“Entirely contingent upon your good behavior.”

“What’s contingent?”

“Look it up in the dictionary. Come on, Ellen.”

I took Ellen upstairs while Darby pulled the big dictionary off of the bookshelf.

I put Ellen in a pink dress with a lot of ruffles and black and white oxfords with white ankle socks. Then I brushed out her fine hair and put matching ribbons in it. She looked like a little cherub. I wondered how long it would last. As much as Ellen loves pretty dresses with all the frills, she also loves making messes. How long she stays clean depends a lot on how much supervision she has. That’s why she’s always the last to be dressed.

Janey had not only put on her running shoes but had found some ribbons for her pigtails and had tied them on, albeit crookedly. I handed Ellen over to her with firm instructions to keep her clean.

I was heading to the twins’ room when I heard two small but powerful voices screaming “no shoes!” repeatedly.

“Then you don’t go,” Neil said firmly, leaving the room and shutting the door behind him.

He winked at me and handed me the diaper bag I had packed earlier with a few toys, diapers, plastic pants and extra overalls. The twins were in training pants, but accidents were still fairly common.

“Get this downstairs before they catch on,” he whispered.

As I headed downstairs, I heard the door open and a small voice ask for shoes.

When I got to the family room, I dropped the diaper bag next to the couch by my purse. Mr. Hackbirn got up and, putting on his sport coat, followed me into the hall. I opened the hall closet and pulled out the twins’ stroller. Even folded up, it was large and unwieldy with two seats each facing the other.

“What’s that?” he asked, helping me set it against the wall.

“The twins’ stroller.”

“Why are you bringing it? They can walk.”

“That’s exactly why I’m bringing it,” I explained. Mr. Hackbirn gave me a puzzled frown. “I can strap them down in the stroller. Believe me, Mr. Hackbirn, you don’t want to go chasing those two all over the place. Not to mention their talent for getting into trouble.” I walked back into the family room.

“Darby,” I asked,  “Will you help load the stroller in the station wagon, please? The keys are on the couch.”

Darby grabbed the keys and ran out. I grabbed my purse and the diaper bag and was about to follow when I saw Mr. Hackbirn carrying the stroller.

“Okay, everybody, time to go!” Neil called, coming down the stairs behind the twins.

Janey and Ellen appeared from the living room where they had been playing and we all went out front to the car. Mr. Hackbirn had just put the stroller in the back. Darby climbed in over it, swiftly followed by Janey. I put Ellen in the middle of the back seat between the twins’ car seats and put her seat belt on. Neil was putting Marty in the right-hand car seat. I had to chase Mitch who had run off halfway down the block.

“Naughty Mitch,” I scolded when I caught him.

“I run fast.” he said happily.

“No kidding,” I said and put him in his car seat.

As I straightened up and shut the car door, Neil came up and gave me a big hug.

“Thanks, Lisa,” he said warmly. Then he turned to Mr. Hackbirn. “And thank you for going with them.”

“It’s my pleasure,” Mr. Hackbirn said.

“We’ll see,” replied Neil with a mischievous grin.

“Neil,” I groaned, laughing.

Mr. Hackbirn just laughed and got into the car on the passenger side.

We got to the mall without mishap. We spent the morning mostly window shopping. At lunch time we went to the fast food terrace.

Mae is what I call a health nut. Well, she’s not as bad as some, but she won’t use salt or refined sugar, refuses to fry anything, and only allows red meat once a week. Her kids are the only kids I know that will eat their vegetables. They have to. They’d go hungry otherwise. Not that Mae underfeeds them. She just doesn’t allow snacks and it’s a long time between meals if you don’t make a point of filling up.

I am the opposite of Mae. If I have one weakness, it’s junk food. Actually, I love food in general, but several of my favorite foods are supposedly going to kill me. By rights, I should be very fat and chronically ill. But I’m one of those hated types that never gains weight and almost never gets sick.

Mae knows I feed the kids junk food when I’m out with them. But it’s gotten to be a kind of joke that whenever I buy lunch, I swear the kids to secrecy.

After their solemn vow never to tell Mother what Aunt Lisa poisoned them with, I asked them what they wanted. Janey and Ellen are easy to please.

“Hamburgers!” they yelled.

“Hamburgers!” the twins echoed.

“Darby?” I asked.

“I don’t know.”

“Here,” I slipped him a five, “You’re old enough to get it yourself.”

“Gee, thanks, Aunt Lisa.” He ran off happily.

“I’ll hold the table,” said Mr. Hackbirn.

“You want me to get you something?” I asked.

“No thank you.”

“Alright.” I swept off with the kids before Janey could ask any questions. I knew Mr. Hackbirn was in sympathy with Mae, and I didn’t want his good health to throw a damper on the party.

I returned with the hamburgers, a huge pile of fries, lots of ketchup, five lemon-lime sodas (I would have gotten cola, but I didn’t want the kids wired up on the caffeine), and a double chili burger for myself.

Ellen, of course, promptly dribbled ketchup down her front. I sent Janey for a cup of cold water and extra napkins. Darby returned with a large sandwich and a carton of milk. He gave me my change and attacked his sandwich. The twins, as usual, tore up their hamburgers before eating them. To the uninitiated, watching toddlers eat is pretty revolting, but Mr. Hackbirn took it calmly.

“Aunt Lisa,” said Janey, handing me the napkins, “They want ten cents for the cup.”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” I growled.

Janey was working on getting her fair share of the fries before they were all gone.

“Go ahead and eat, Janey,” I said. “I’ll get it later.”

“Can we go ice skating after lunch, Aunt Lisa?” Darby asked, looking longingly at the rink adjacent to the terrace.

“That’d be fun,” I conceded, very tempted. “But what are we going to do with the twins?”

“I don’t particularly care to go anyway,” said Mr. Hackbirn.

“You could stay with the twins,” suggested Darby.

“Darby,” said Janey seriously. “That isn’t very nice.”

“Well, if he doesn’t care…” Darby glared at his sister.

“Darby, we’re not going skating,” I said firmly. “Janey’s right. It wouldn’t be fair.”

“Stupid girl,” he grumbled.

“I’m not stupid,” Janey yelled.

“Alright, you two,” I scolded. “If you’re going to bicker, do it someplace else.”

Darby finished his sandwich and gulped down his milk.

“Can I go watch the skaters?” he asked, wiping his mouth.

“Would you please get a cup of cold water for me first?” I asked.

“Sure, Aunt Lisa.”

“Here.” I bent over and grabbed one of the soft drink cups that the twins had spilled. “Rinse this out and get the water from the bathroom.”

“Alright.”

Darby returned promptly. I washed off Ellen’s face and hands, then got as much of the ketchup off her dress as I could. Then I cleaned up the twins and, after removing them, the stroller. Darby was getting impatient, so I gave him charge of Mitch and Marty and Janey charge of Ellen and sent them all to watch the skaters.

“Now would be the time to slip off and go get a salad or something,” I said to Mr. Hackbirn.

“I’m not hungry,” he said, shaking his head.

“I’ll bet.”

“When are you going to make that pickup?”

“I was kind of saving the toy store for last, if you get my drift. But I suppose we could go when the kids get back.”

“I’d just as soon.”

“Well, maybe it’ll keep them quiet through my other stops.”

“Other stops?”

“I figured if I was ‘running errands’ I might as well have some errands to run.”

“Whatever. Do you have any strategy in mind for the toy store?”

“No. Do you?”

“Not really. But I would advise having the children as far away as possible.”

“No kidding.” I thought for a moment. “Maybe we could find someplace to leave the kids. I know. The arcade. You can keep an eye on them while I do my errands.”

“I hope it works,” he replied with a sigh.

“So do I.”

Darby came back with the twins, saying they had to go to the bathroom. Somehow, Mr. Hackbirn got cornered into helping him and off they went.

“It’s not hard,” I heard Darby say. “They just can’t wait all the time, and sometimes…”

His voice was lost in the crowd.

In due time all members of the party were reassembled and on we went. In the camera shop, Darby and I looked over the 35mm S.L.R.’s, trying to decide which one I should buy to replace the one I’d pawned when I was out of work. We concluded that I should go elsewhere because of the price. While we argued I could hear Janey and Mr. Hackbirn discuss good and bad people.

“They’re good or bad,” she said solemnly. “They fool you. The ones you gotta watch out for are the bad people who do good things. Like I know this one man. He’s really bad, but he does real good things so he fools a lot of people. Not me. I know him.”

“Oh,” replied Mr. Hackbirn.

“I know you, too.”

“I’m a bad person?”

“No! I don’t let bad people into my house. You’re a good person. But you do bad things.”

“Oh, do I?”

“Uh-huh. I can tell. ‘Course Mommy said you did, but I could tell anyway.”

“Well, nobody’s perfect, Janey.”

“I know. They’re either good or bad.”

After that, I made a stop at a dress shop to find a blouse. Almost as if they were cued, the twins began grabbing everything within reach. Mr. Hackbirn was waiting outside with Darby and Ellen. Janey had come in with me.

“This is ridiculous,” I grumbled, removing the sleeve of a sweater from Marty’s hand. “Come on, Janey.”

As we crossed the store’s threshold, a loud beeper went off. I groaned and pulled the stroller back into the store. One of the sales clerks and a mall security man ran up. I bent and pulled a dark blouse from Mitch’s hands. Mr. Hackbirn appeared next to me with a worried frown on his face, and Darby and Ellen at his side.

“Would you remove the children from the stroller,” said the security man. It was not a question.

“Certainly.” I unstrapped Mitch first.

“What’s going on?” asked Mr. Hackbirn.

“A two-year-old kleptomaniac,” I replied, shoving Mitch into his arms.

“What’s a kleptomaniac?” asked Darby.

Ellen started to cry.

“Are you in trouble, Aunt Lisa?” asked Janey. “Maybe I’d better talk to that man.”

“Janey, no!” I grabbed her arm, all too afraid of what her opinion might be. “Listen, you too, Darby. I want the two of you and Ellen to go over to that planter and stay there, do you understand?”

“Yes, ma’am,” they mumbled.

I lifted Ellen’s chin. “It’ll be alright, honey. Really, it will.”

The three children left the store and stood by the planter as they were told.

“I’m sorry,” I said to Mr. Hackbirn.

“This may work to our advantage,” he said very quietly.

“May I see your purse,” demanded the security man.

“Here,” I shifted Marty to my other arm and handed over the purse.

He had already emptied the diaper bag but had not put anything back. A small crowd had gathered. I blushed when he pulled out a certain personal item I’m in the habit of carrying. He looked at the little pouch made of stiff leather attached to my key ring with interest. He opened it and pulled out the can of mace.

“You got a permit for this?” the officer asked.

“In my wallet,” I said.

He looked through the wallet, then found the permit and looked at it. He put it back and looked at the rest of the wallet.

“Why do I feel like I’m standing here, stark, staring naked?” I grumbled quietly.

Mr. Hackbirn just smiled his sensual smile and I felt my heart race and blushed even more.

“Want down,” whined Marty, squirming.

“No,” I said, sharply.

I looked over at Mitch. He was getting restless also, but at least was sucking his thumb.

“Down,” whined Marty again.

“May I put the children back in the stroller, please?” I asked.

“Alright,” replied the officer reluctantly. He had finished with my purse and looked at me like he wanted to search me also. He turned to the clerk. “She’s clean, and she didn’t technically leave the store…” He sounded as if he was sorry I hadn’t.

Mr. Hackbirn finished strapping the boys in while I addressed the officer.

“What probably happened was that the blouse was on a lower rack. One of the boys got a hold of it and I didn’t see it.”

“It is on a lower rack.” The clerk eyed me suspiciously as if she didn’t believe me.

I started refilling the diaper bag.

“Well, there’s no charges to press,” said the officer.

The clerk just rolled her eyes skyward and went back further into the store.

I finished with the bag and started putting my things back into the purse.

“The blouse in question is a size sixteen,” I said irritatedly. The officer just looked at me. “I wear a size ten.”

I swung the diaper bag and the purse onto my shoulder and marched out, pushing the twins in front of me.

“I’ve never been so humiliated in my life.” I was seething.

“What’s hu…” began Janey.

“Embarrassed,” said Darby.

“Well one thing’s for sure,” I continued. “I can’t keep the twins with me and I’ve got errands to run.”

“Can we go to the arcade?” asked Janey.

I could have kissed her. We went directly there. I gave Darby charge of the twins and told Janey to hold onto Ellen. Mr. Hackbirn lounged in the doorway, keeping one eye on the kids and the other on the young women entering the theater across the way.

I went straight to the toy store. I almost bumped into Ned Harris on the way in.

“Oh! Hello, Mr. Harris.”

“Well, hello. You’re Mae O’Malley’s sister, Lisa, isn’t it?”

“Yes.” I grinned nervously.

“I hear Mae’s getting home today.”

“Yeah. I’ve got the kids. Well, they’re at the arcade. I’m picking up some surprises.”

Harris held up a bag. “I just did.”

“Well. Nice talking to you again.”

“Nice talking to you.”

I waited until he had wandered off before going in. I asked the girl behind the front register if I could see the manager.

“She’s in back,” the girl said.

I knocked on the stockroom door.

A young sturdy woman answered. “Yes?”

“Are you the manager?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“My name is Mrs. Smith. I believe my husband dropped his keys here the other day.”

“Oh, yes, just a minute.” She disappeared and came back a minute later with a large bunch of keys on a key ring that had an almost teardrop shaped piece of suede hanging on it. The suede was about two inches long by one inch wide. On the suede was a plastic coated medallion that had an image of a cannabis leaf on it.

“That’s them,” I said, smiling and taking them. I slid them into my pants pocket. “Thank you so much.”

I ended up buying each of the children a stuffed animal. Before I headed back to the arcade, I went upstairs to a clothes shop and bought myself a blouse. Leaving that store, I started for the escalators. I stopped for a moment to look in the window of a men’s store. I saw a jacket there I liked.

I became aware of the breath on my neck first, then what I guessed to be the barrel of a gun against my spine. I strangled back a scream.

“I wouldn’t make any noise, sister,” said the voice. “Now, nice and slowly, come with me.”

I was pushed slowly along around a corner to a door between two shops. It was labeled for authorized personnel only, but the man had me open the door and pushed me through. The corridor was softly lit. The light brown walls were unfinished with panels of masonite attached. Several gray doors were interspersed along the walls. Each bore the name of a different shop.

The man twisted my left arm behind me. I dropped the bag containing my blouse. I’d lost the stuffed toys somewhere on the way.

“Alright, where is it?” he demanded.

“Where’s what?” I whimpered, then yelped as he twisted harder.

“What you got at the toy store!”

“I don’t know. I dropped the bag when you brought me here.”

He twisted again. “I’m not talking about toys. I saw you get something from the manager.”

“Oh no.”

He tossed me onto the ground, then grabbed my purse. Keeping one eye on me, he dumped the contents on the floor, then pawed through them with his foot.

“Alright. Where is it?”

I couldn’t answer, I was so scared. He bent and pulled me up by my shoulders. I summoned up what nerve I could and screamed. He backhanded me across the face.

I’m not exactly sure how it happened, but suddenly Mr. Hackbirn was there. He spun the man around and landed a fist on the man’s jaw. The man was dazed only for a second. He charged Mr. Hackbirn. Mr. Hackbirn ducked and swung for the man’s belly. The man danced back, then let Mr. Hackbirn have it in the eye. Mr. Hackbirn retreated a couple paces and waited. The man flew at him. Mr. Hackbirn ducked and the man went flying over him.

Somewhere, a door opened. The man scrambled to his feet and went running. The door closed as the man disappeared into the mall.

Mr. Hackbirn, breathing heavily, looked over at me. I was crying.

“Well?” he asked.

“What?” I sniffed.

“Did he get the keys?”

I slid my hand into my pants pocket and drew them out. The keys rattled with the shaking of my hand. His hand gently covered mine. The next thing I knew, he was holding me.

“It’s alright, Lisa,” he whispered.

I suddenly pulled away, feeling yet another kind of fear.

“Th- the kids,” I asked, still shaking. “Where are they?”

“At the arcade, I presume.”

“Why’d you leave them?”

“I saw someone I didn’t like the looks of, and decided I’d better tail him. It’s a good thing I did. I saw that other scum run off with you, and you can figure out the rest. By the way, I found your toys at the door. At least, I assume they’re yours. You did buy five stuffed animals, didn’t you?”

“Yes.” I bent and gathered together the contents of my purse. I began to get angry. “You said there wouldn’t be any trouble.”

“I said it was unlikely. There’s no way I can guarantee things like that. Are you alright?”

“Yes.”

“Lisa, you do know how to defend yourself. Why didn’t you?”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Hackbirn. I was scared.”

He sighed. “I understand, Miss Wycherly. But you will have to learn to overcome that.”

“I will,” I said defensively. “Just give me time.”

“I hope you’ve got it.” He softened. “I’m sure you’ll get there. Are you ready?”

I stood and slung my purse onto my shoulder. Mr. Hackbirn picked up my blouse bag, then at the door to the mall, he retrieved my stuffed toys. He started to put his arm on my shoulders and stopped. He sighed softly.

The kids were waiting for us at the arcade. They had run out of money. They didn’t seem to notice my distress as they begged for more quarters. Another half an hour and two dollars to Darby and Janey later, we were headed for home.

As excited as they were, Darby and Janey helped get the others out of the car before running inside. I caught Mr. Hackbirn heading for his Mercedes.

“Come inside,” I said. “Mae’s already mad that she’s the last to meet you. She’ll kill me if I let you get away now.”

He sighed and nodded, and followed me inside.

The house was full of people. Besides the kids, three couples, friends of Mae and Neil’s from church were there. Mae had been settled on the family room couch with her leg propped up on the hassock.

“Thanks so much, Lisa,” she said to me as I hugged her and kissed her cheek.

“It’s alright,” I replied, smiling.

“Well, don’t get mad at me, but I’m throwing you back to the wolf.”

“What?”

“Your boss, honey. I’m sending you back to work.”

“But can you manage?”

Mae jerked her head at the couples sitting around talking.

“They insisted,” she said. “I’ve got the twins and Ellen farmed out. Darby and Janey are old enough to fetch and carry for me, and I’ve got a meal train coming for the next two weeks. If my knee didn’t hurt so bad, I’d have it made.”

“Oh, Mae.”

“It’s not that bad. I can handle it. I take it that’s the infamous one hanging back in the doorway, isn’t it?”

It was. I turned and waved him over.

“Mae, this is my boss, Mr. Sid Hackbirn.”

“Hi Sid,” said Mae, genially. “I’ve heard a lot about you.”

“So I’ve been told.” He looked at me briefly.

Mae laughed. “Those kids of mine. Couldn’t keep a secret for love nor money. It was really sweet of you to go out with them today. I hope they weren’t too bad.”

Mr. Hackbirn shook his head and smiled. “They’re good kids.”

“I’d better go pack,” I said, heading upstairs.

I packed in less than fifteen minutes. I brought my suitcase downstairs and set it by the door with my purse. I went to the family room where Mr. Hackbirn was chatting with Neil.

“I’m ready,” I said to him.

“Well,” said Mr. Hackbirn, “I’d like to get going then.”

“Alright.”

“Kids,” Neil called. “Aunt Lisa’s leaving now!”

They all gathered around and followed Mr. Hackbirn and me to the front door. I gave them each a hug and a kiss, then turned to pick up my suitcase.

“Goodbye, Uncle Sid,” said Janey.

“Uncle what?” Mr. Hackbirn was utterly shocked.

He looked at me for help. I just shrugged and shook my head. He turned to the children.

“Goodbye,” he said, still shaken.

Ellen came up and hugged his legs, while Darby shook his hand. Janey motioned for him to bend down to her. He bent politely. She kissed his cheek and hugged him.

“I love you, Uncle Sid,” I heard her say.

Deeply touched, he just hugged her back. I think that was the first time somebody had said that to him, at least somebody not in the throes of passion. Quietly, he released her and went to the door. Suitcase in hand, I followed, stopping first to give the okay sign. They cheered.

I let Mr. Hackbirn drive in silence until it got to me.

“You survived that pretty well,” I said cautiously.

“Yeah, I did.” His voice sounded rather far away.

“So what now?”

“Hm? Oh.” He took the keys out of his coat pocket and handed them to me. “See if you can find out what the fuss was about.”

I looked at the suede teardrop and noticed that it was two pieces sewn together. Underneath the medallion, a white piece of paper showed through a hole cut in the top layer. I pulled it out and deciphered the code written on it.

“Professor Lipplinger’s in danger,” I said after a few minutes. “You’ve got to go to Washington D.C. to get him and hide him immediately.

“Wonderful,” Mr. Hackbirn replied.

“I’ll call the airlines when we get home.”

“Good, and book me a room, too, will you? You’ve got my Mastercard number right?”

“Yeah.”

“By the way, I travel first class.”

“It figures.”

There was a silence for ten minutes more.

“So what do you think?” I asked.

“About what?”

“The past two days.”

“Interesting.” His voice sounded far away again. “Very interesting.”

spy fiction, mystery fiction, cozy mystery,

Chapter Five

spy novel, serial mystery, serial fiction, cozy mysteryOctober 24 – 29, 1982

 

It had taken some doing, but I had finally convinced Mae that my earlier qualms about Mr. Hackbirn and my new job were resolved. Of course, as far as she was concerned, that opened up a whole new line of speculation regarding his nocturnal prowling. We pretty much came to the conclusion that while Mr. Hackbirn was a nice guy, he was no candidate for sainthood either.

This is important, because Mae and I wondered what would happen if he ever met Janey. To most people, Janey is a normal kid, and in most respects, she is. But she is also an incredible judge of character. She has two basic categories: good or bad, and people are either one or the other. Janey has yet to be wrong.

She started when she was about three and a half or four. About the only people then that Janey had any real contact with were babysitters. Finding someone to sit with three kids, one a toddler, as Ellen was at the time, was hard enough. But then, all of the sudden, it seemed, Janey wouldn’t stay quietly with anyone she’d decided was bad. There was one girl, in particular, I can’t remember her name, that Janey would not tolerate at all. Mae found out later that the girl was caught stealing from someone who had hired her.

Janey’s perception increased with age. Unfortunately, her tact didn’t, at least not for a while. By the time she was six she had gotten into the habit of telling anyone what she thought of them, in spite of Mae’s efforts to teach her discretion. Worse still, every time the doorbell rang there was a race to beat Janey to the door. If Janey opened it, whoever was on the other side got Janey’s own peculiar brand of the third degree and was only admitted upon her approval.

Mae and I both wondered what her reaction to Mr. Hackbirn would be. Neither of us really thought she would be able to label him good. But how exactly would she react to him? And I had to wonder how he would react to her. While Mr. Hackbirn admitted he didn’t particularly dislike children, he didn’t really like them, either. He was bemused by my weekly visits to my sister’s, and couldn’t imagine how I could find it relaxing to spend time with five children under the age of ten.

The Sunday after my little escapade with Gannett, Neil picked me up at the train station by himself. We didn’t say much, but that wasn’t all that unusual. Neither, really, was the tension inside the house.

“They’re fighting again, huh?” I said to Darby, after a few minutes.

“Yeah,” he mumbled miserably.

“It won’t last long,” I said reassuringly. “They’ll resolve it soon.”

“I guess,” said Darby. “The Finsters down the street are getting a divorce.”

“They are? Well, they probably never fought with each other.”

“They were always fighting.”

“Then they never resolved their fights. And you know your parents always do.”

I put my arm around him. Neil popped his head in the front door (he’d been waiting in the car).

“Mae?” he bellowed. “Are you coming or not?”

“It would have been nice if you’d have let me know you were here,” Mae’s voice came down from upstairs. “I’m saying goodbye to the children!”

Neil slammed the door. A few minutes later Mae came running down the stairs.

“Oh, there you are, Darby,” she said breathlessly. She came over and hugged him. “I’ll see you tonight, honey. And don’t worry. Daddy and I will have it settled by tonight, okay?”

His reply was lost in another squeeze. Mae let go of her son and tackled me next.

“Thanks for coming, Sis.” She let go. “We’ll talk tonight.”

“Sure. See you later.”

“Okay. Bye bye.” Mae scurried out.

It was about three thirty when Neil called.

“Yeah, Neil, what’s up?” I asked into the phone.

“I’m at the hospital,” he replied.

“Oh no!”

“It’s not that serious.”

“But what happened?”

“Well, we’d just patched things up between us, when this clown turned right in front of us, and we hit him.”

“Oh my god, are you alright?”

“We weren’t hurt by the accident. But Mae’s emotions were a little raw still and she went over to the other car to give them a piece of her mind and on the way, slipped somehow and messed up her knee completely.”

“Oh no! The poor thing.”

“They’ve got her pretty well doped up right now. But she’ll be having surgery tomorrow or the next day.”

“I thought you said it wasn’t serious.”

“Well, it’s not life and death.”

“Oh my god, you guys are going to need a sitter!”

“Yeah, I know. Is the phone book right there?”

“Neil, who can you call?”

He sighed. “I haven’t the foggiest.”

“Look, let me make a phone call first.”

“I hate to ask you, Lisa, but with Janey…”

“I know. Give me the number where you’re at.”

“Never mind. Mae’s asleep, so I’ll be heading home.”

“Okay, see you in a bit.”

I hung up, took a deep breath, and dialed again. Fortunately, the boss was home and answered after one ring.

“Yes?” said the familiar voice.

“It’s Miss Wycherly, Mr. Hackbirn. I’m afraid there’s been an emergency.”

“Are you alright?”

“I’m fine. But my sister has to have surgery and will be in the hospital for a while.”

“And…?”

“They need someone to stay with the kids while Neil’s at work or the hospital.”

“I assume you’re the poor unfortunate.”

“I’m afraid so.”

“What about your work here?”

“Well if there’s anything that really needs getting out, there’s a typewriter here I can use.”

“This is very awkward. Can’t they get someone else?”

“Well, Mr. Hackbirn, they’re not rich and when you come right down to it, do you know anybody else in their right mind, who’d look after five kids under ten years of age besides a relative?” Actually, I did but I knew he wouldn’t.

“I’d question the sanity of the relative.”

“Ever hear of family duty?”

“On occasion.” He let out a sigh. “I suppose I’ll have to let you take care of them. How long will you be gone?”

“I don’t know. As soon as my brother-in-law gets back I’ll be driving in to get some stuff, and I suppose I could come in some evenings and work.”

“I’m not a slave driver, Miss Wycherly.”

“I know, but it’s not fair that you have to make all the sacrifices. You won’t have to pay me while I’m gone.”

“We’ll see. I’ll talk to you this evening.”

“I’m not fired, am I?”

“Of course not. Goodbye,” he grumbled sullenly.

“Goodbye.”

I hung up and breathed a sigh of relief. Then I gasped when I realized I’d be taking Mae’s place.

It wasn’t all that bad. The kids were extra good and Neil helped out where he could. Cooking dinner was the big thing I was afraid of and Mae had already done the week’s shopping and left a menu. Of course, I still had to cook it. But I’m not a bad cook, so it wasn’t very hard.

The only problem I had was Wednesday. The day did not start out at all well. Neil’s alarm didn’t go off and I slept through mine. We were wakened only five minutes late because the twins had woken up early and decided they wanted to make cookies in the kitchen. Flour was everywhere, and on the floor next to the sink shards of broken honey jar stood up in the golden goo. While I was cleaning the honey up, Ellen discovered that milk beaded up on the dry flour and poured out almost the whole half gallon trying to figure out why it wasn’t absorbed immediately. Then Janey couldn’t find one of her shoes, and Darby realized at the last minute he hadn’t done about five homework problems, and he had math first thing in the morning. I was so happy when Neil took the older two to school.

That still left me with the younger three. Marty and Mitch ran me ragged that morning, playing with them. Ellen tagged along, quietly, but persistently, asking me why the milk acted so funny on the flour. I had no idea, and she didn’t want to wait until her father got home. After lunch the twins started throwing blocks at each other, so I sent all three children to their rooms for naps. I knew they wouldn’t sleep, but at least they were quarantined for a while, and I could get my head back on.

At three, ominous thumping sounds from the twins’ room convinced me it was time to let them out. Darby and Janey arrived home right then, and I figured they could keep Marty and Mitch occupied. But Darby wanted to practice piano and Janey had just gotten three new books from the school book club. Ellen still wanted to know about the flour. I left them all in the living room and hid in the kitchen trying to figure out what I was going to do with a package of thawed chicken breasts.

I could hear the bickering rising above the pounded out beginner exercises. I let it go until it escalated into full-scale shouting.

“Janey! Quit poking me.”

“I’m not poking you. It’s Ellen.”

“Janey! I saw you!”

“Aunt Lisa!” Janey came running in with Darby on her heels, and Ellen pouting behind them. The twins were screaming in the living room.

“Aunt Lisa, she’s poking me and blaming it on Ellen!”

“He’s lying, Aunt Lisa. I want to read and he’s making noise on that stupid piano.”

I ignored them and headed to the living room. “What’s the matter with your brothers?” The doorbell rang, and I switched directions immediately. “Darby, hold Janey!”

“Let me go, you big brat!”

“Ellen, cut it out!”

I opened the door to a man about average height with light brown hair neatly trimmed, and an equally well-trimmed mustache. I had met Ned Harris before. He was a very congenial, nice man, on the city council and a member of the Chamber of Commerce. He was also on the parish board at Mae’s church, which is how she knew him. I sometimes wondered if, after all the time he spent doing all these things and running his very successful travel agency, he had any time left for his wife. I suppose he found some. They did have two small children and another on the way.

“Janey, come back here!” Darby yelled.

“Hello, Mr. Harris,” I said. “What can I do for you?”

“I’m sorry.” He smiled apologetically. “I’m afraid I’m having trouble placing you.”

“I’m Mae’s sister.” I turned inside. “Darby, go stop your brothers from screaming.”

“Ellen, stop that!”

I turned back to Harris. “What can I do for you?”

“My wife wanted to know if there was anything we could do while Mae’s in the hospital.”

Ellen screamed. “Aunt Lisa! Darby hit me!”

“Darby!” I yelped.

“This doesn’t seem to be a good time,” Harris said smiling.

“I’ll have Mae or Neil call you. Thanks.” I shut the door.

“Aunt Lisa, Ellen kept messing up my music, and she keeps poking me!”

“But, Aunt Lisa, he won’t…”

“I don’t care. I’ve had it! To your rooms, all of you. I don’t want to see you until your father comes home. Where’s Janey?”

“Upstairs,” grumbled Darby.

“Good. Now go!”

Neil took over when he got home. I called up an old girlfriend and went to a movie.

The rest of the week passed without a hitch. I had driven into L.A. twice besides Sunday to make sure all was in order and it was. Late Friday afternoon, I got a little worried. Friday was the last day on the menu. Fortunately, Mae called and after talking to each of the kids, she spent time conferring with me. Her recovery was quite rapid and she figured she’d be home the next day, although she’d asked me not to tell the children just yet. And at the same time, she wouldn’t be up and around for a while yet. We were just about to decide on what to have Saturday night when Darby yelled from upstairs, where he was cleaning his room.

“Hold on, Mae,” I said as Darby’s feet pounded down the stairs. “Something’s up with Darby.” Then I yelled, “What’s going on?”

Darby appeared in the kitchen where I was on the phone.

“There’s a 450 SL out front!” he exclaimed and left.

Darby had, and still does have, a strong affection for Mercedes cars and the 450 SL was the top as far as he was concerned.

I peeked out the window and saw a metallic slate blue fender and groaned.

“What’s going on?” asked Mae.

“The boss just pulled up. I’d better call you back.” The doorbell rang. “Oh, shoot! Janey! Bye!”

I slammed the phone down and ran. I was too late. At the end of the hall where I stopped, I could hear Janey’s voice.

“We don’t have a Miss Wycherly here,” she was saying.

I couldn’t see the door, and assumed Mr. Hackbirn couldn’t see me. There was no point in trying to interrupt Janey. She hung on to her victims like a pit bull.

“Isn’t this the O’Malley residence?”

I thanked God that Mr. Hackbirn had the sense not to talk down to her.

“Yes.”

“I was told she was staying here. Is this your house?”

Janey giggled. “It’s my mommy and daddy’s. Only my daddy says it’s the bank’s.”

“I don’t doubt it. Is your aunt staying here?”

“My aunt?”

“Yes.”

“She’s here.”

“May I talk to her?”

“But you wanted Miss Wycherly.”

“I believe that’s your aunt.”

“I don’t have an Aunt Wycherly.”

“But you do have an Aunt Lisa.”

“Yeah.”

“Well, Wycherly is her last name. Like your last name is O’Malley.”

“Then why do you call her Miss Wycherly?”

“I suppose for the same reason you call your teacher Miss or Mrs. whatever her last name is.”

“I call my teacher Sister Francine.”

“Oh.”

“But Darby calls his teacher by her last name. She’s not a nun, you know.”

“Oh, I see.”

I was about to rescue Mr. Hackbirn when Janey did the last thing I ever thought she’d do.

“You’re a good person,” she said blithely. “You can come in.”

“Thank you.” I heard the door shut. “Would you please get your Aunt Lisa?”

“Aunt Lisa!” Janey bellowed, as loudly as she could, which was pretty loud.

“I’m right here,” I said stepping around the corner. “Good afternoon, Mr. Hackbirn, please come in. I see you’ve already met my niece Janey. Janey, this is my boss, Mr. Hackbirn.”

“Hi.” She smiled and flashed her huge hazel eyes.

Mr. Hackbirn smiled, more warmly than I would have thought.

“Nice to meet you, Janey.”

“Janey, why don’t you go finish cleaning your room?”

“Darby isn’t cleaning his.”

“Where is he?”

“At the car.”

“What’s that kid doing with my car?” Mr. Hackbirn turned anxiously towards the door.

I somehow beat him there and opened it.

“He’s just looking at it,” I said, looking to make sure. “He wouldn’t touch it.”

Mr. Hackbirn looked at me not quite sure.

“Darby!” I yelled. “Come on in and finish cleaning your room. You can look at the car later.”

Darby tore himself away and trotted in.

“Darby,” I said, shutting the door. “This is my boss, Mr. Hackbirn. Mr. Hackbirn, my nephew, Darby.”

I was so proud of Darby. He stepped right up and shook Mr. Hackbirn’s hand.

“Pleased to meet you, sir,” he said, the excitement shining in his eyes. “That’s one real neat 450 SL you got. I’ve never seen one that color. You got the hard top for it?”

“At home,” said Mr. Hackbirn, smiling.

“If Mr. Hackbirn agrees, you can chat with him later,” I said firmly. “Finish your room, first.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He ran upstairs.

I waited until he had gone, then headed into the family room.

It was littered with the twins’ toys. Almost mechanically, I bent and started picking them up.

“So why are you here? Need a manuscript done?” I asked dropping some plastic blocks into a toy box.

“A pickup.”

I glanced at the ceiling and shook my head. “I wouldn’t talk about that here. The walls are paper thin and those kids are sharp. You’d have been better off phoning.”

“Not on a code one.”

I didn’t really hear him. At that moment one of the twins started shrieking.

“Crisis,” I explained, as I shoved a beat up doll and bright purple plastic doughnut into Mr. Hackbirn’s hands.

What happened next, I wasn’t around to see or hear.

[This is what happened – I was in shock, wondering what the hell I was supposed to do with a bald, naked doll and a… whatever that purple thing was. I heard the front door open and in walked what had to be Darby’s father.

“Hello,” he said as if there wasn’t anything odd about a total stranger standing in his family room. “I’m Neil O’Malley.”

“Afternoon. I’m Sid Hackbirn.” I started to shake hands but I still had the doll.

Neil smiled and set down his briefcase.

“Here let me take those for you,” he said, the ice broken. “You’re Lisa’s boss. I’m her brother-in-law.”

“Nice to meet you,” I said.

“You probably want to talk to her.”

“Daddy!” Janey came running into the room and tackled her father.

“How’s my girl?” said Neil.

“Real good, Daddy.”

“Where’s your Aunt Lisa?”

“Cuddling Mitch. He tried to take Ellen’s book and she hit him real hard with it.” She sighed and shook her adorable little head. “Little kids.”

She walked over to me, cocked her head to one side, blinked those huge cow-eyes of hers twice, and said, “Aunt Lisa will talk to you as soon as she’s done with Mitch. Maybe you’d better stay for dinner. Can he, Daddy?”

“Well,” said Neil. “It’s alright with me. But you should see if Mr. Hackbirn would like to.”

Janey looked at me again and blinked twice. Just two times.

“He’ll stay,” she said and wandered out of the room.

I wondered how she knew.

“Janey’s our little mystic,” said Neil apologetically.

At that point, there was more of that god-awful shrieking, and Neil was assaulted by Ellen, followed quickly by the twins, then Darby – SEH]

I heard Neil come in, but opted to avoid being trampled and waited to come after the kids.

After greeting each child, Neil sent them back upstairs.

“I’ve got good news,” he said when they had gone. “Mae’s coming home tomorrow.”

“I know. I just talked to her on the phone,” I said, then thought of something. “I guess I’d better plan on sticking around for a while yet, ’til she’s in better shape.”

Mr. Hackbirn frowned.

“We’ll see,” said Neil. “I don’t want to tell the kids just yet. They’ll be too excited. In fact, maybe if you could take them somewhere tomorrow. I could get Mae settled in peace and they could get some energy run off.”

“Sure, Neil,” I said and looked at my watch. It was a little after 4:30. I turned to Mr. Hackbirn. “I’ve got to get dinner ready…”

“I believe I’ve already been invited, ” replied Mr. Hackbirn.

“Great.” Then another thought hit me. “Oh, shavings. I forgot to defrost the turkey meat.”

“Is there anything else?” asked Neil.

“Not enough,” I replied, glumly. “Why don’t we not tell Mae, and hit the chicken place?”

“Sounds okay to me,” Neil replied.

“Whatever.” Mr. Hackbirn sounded a little resigned, but I decided to let it go.

“Look,” I said, “I’ll fix a salad and some green beans, and you won’t have to buy all that other stuff.”

“Sure,” said Neil, noncommittally.

“Daddy, can we come down now?” asked Darby at the top of the stairs.

“Please, Daddy?” asked Ellen.

“Alright, come down,” answered their father.

The children noisily trooped down into the family room.

“Dolly,” said Marty. “Where dolly?”

I looked at Neil who shrugged.

“I believe it’s on the television,” said Mr. Hackbirn, unexpectedly. He walked over and handed to doll to Marty. “Here you are.”

“What do you say, Marty?” reminded Neil.

“Tank you.”

“You’re welcome,” Mr. Hackbirn replied, then looked down at his legs in astonishment.

Ellen had grabbed a hold of him and was hugging him.

“You’re nice,” she said looking up at him and smiling.

“You’re nice too,” replied Mr. Hackbirn, laughing.

I was trying not to laugh. How or why these children had decided to attach themselves to my boss, I couldn’t guess, but there was no denying it. I could tell Janey wanted Mr. Hackbirn to sit down, but Darby had already moved in and had engaged him in a conversation about Mercedes Benz. Barely minutes later they were going outside to look at the car. Janey and Ellen followed.

“Can you believe it?” I said, laughing, as soon as I heard the front door.

“I can’t believe Janey even let him in,” Neil chuckled. “Yet there she is, batting her eyes at him.”

“And he says he hates kids.”

At that moment Darby burst in.

“He says he’ll take me for a ride!” he all but screamed. “Can I, Dad, can I, please?”

“Alright,” Neil said reluctantly. “Don’t be too long and say…”

“I know!” Darby was already out the door.

Janey came in with Ellen, who was crying.

“Ellen wanted to go,” Janey explained. “But I told her there’ll be other treats for us, huh, Aunt Lisa?”

“It’s not up to me,” I said taking Ellen into my arms.

“I know of a treat for Ellen,” said Neil. “Would you like to sit at the table with the rest of us?”

Ellen’s face lit up with smiles.

“Can I, Daddy?” she asked, sniffling.

“Yes, you can. Now, why don’t you go blow your nose, like Daddy’s big girl.”

Ellen scrambled out of my lap and went running for the tissues.

I was a little nervous about dinner. No, I was a lot nervous. I kept thinking about Mr. Hackbirn’s quiet existence in that well-organized house in Beverly Hills and wondering if he was ever going to get over the shock of family life. Worse still, Neil had promised the kids earlier that week that he’d take them to the movies that night so not only were they excited about that, but there was the additional excitement of having a guest for dinner. The fact that he was the much celebrated Mr. Hackbirn only added to it.

The twins were fed first and sent up to their room to play. Ellen, sitting on a telephone book, just glowed. Of course, I wasn’t worried about her. She’s the shy one in the family and not too squirmy.

She sat next to Neil at the head of the table and on her other side was Darby. On Neil’s other side was Mr. Hackbirn and next to him was Janey, who had insisted on sitting next to him. I sat across from Neil.

I kept my head reverently bowed while we said grace, although I was dying to see Mr. Hackbirn’s reaction. Almost right on top of the “amen” Janey started talking about school and pretty much kept the conversation rolling. She was fascinated by the way Mr. Hackbirn separated the chicken meat from the bones with his knife and fork, instead of eating it with his fingers like the rest of us were doing. Darby noticed something else, though.

“He’s a picky eater,” he mumbled to me at one point in the meal.

I didn’t say anything, but Darby was right. Mr. Hackbirn had pulled all the skin and coating off his chicken and set it aside. His salad had no dressing on it and he hadn’t taken any of the mashed potatoes and gravy that Neil had also bought.

At that point, Neil said he had an announcement to make.

“I talked to Mommy’s doctor today,” he said. “And he said Mommy’s coming home tomorrow.”

I saw Mr. Hackbirn jump as the kids let out an ecstatic yell.

“And that’s not all,” Neil’s voice rose above the cheering. “To make it easier on Mommy, because her knee still hurts her, Aunt Lisa’s going to take you out tomorrow, while I get Mommy from the hospital. So when you come home she’ll be here.”

“Are you gonna come too?” Janey asked Mr. Hackbirn.

“Well, I do have…” I could see the light dawn as he changed his mind. “Sure, I will.”

The kids yelled again, but I didn’t hear it. There was something fishy about that “Sure, I will,” and there was something about a code one pick up.

spy fiction, mystery fiction, cozy mystery,

Chapter Four

spy novel, spy fiction, cozy mystery, cozy spy novelOctober 5 – 20, 1982

 

As Mr. Hackbirn drove us to Mr. Fukaro’s dojo the next morning, he seemed perplexed. He didn’t say anything about it until we were headed for our next stop.

“You seem very up,” he said. “Are you sure you’re not in denial?”

“About what?” I asked.

“About being drafted. Don’t you have any feelings of anger? Outrage? Anything like that?”

I thought. “Maybe a little. I suppose I should be angrier, but I’m really kind of excited. I’ve always felt like I had such a boring life, and now I’m a spy. It’s pretty neat, really.”

“I might have known,” Mr. Hackbirn grumbled. “Miss Wycherly, you had better get those happy, romantic little notions out of your head right now. This business isn’t James Bond, and it isn’t a neat, painless undertaking. Most of it is deathly dull, and when it isn’t, it’s ugly.”

“Well, it can’t be totally awful. You don’t seem like you’re that miserable.”

“I’m not, and I can’t say that there are no fringe benefits. However, I don’t want you lulled into a false sense of security. You and I are in perpetual mortal danger, and will be for the rest of our lives.”

“I know. I just refuse to let it get me down is all.”

He didn’t say anything to that. I think he knew that the danger part hadn’t sunk in for me. What I found at the deserted warehouse in Long Beach helped make his point. It was a shooting range for a variety of operatives, all of whom needed a place to practice without being seen. Actually, the shooting range itself didn’t phase me. The target did. It was a police silhouette of a man. I made a face.

“I don’t like shooting at them either,” said Mr. Hackbirn. “But that’s what you’re facing.”

“Right.” I reached for the revolver he had.

He pulled it back. “Miss Wycherly, this is not a toy.”

“I know.”

“It’s a Smith and Wesson model thirteen, three fifty-seven magnum revolver. I know it’s a big gun, but believe me, you don’t want a pea shooter. Now, you’ve got to stand and brace your arm so that you can absorb the recoil. I’m warning you, this baby packs a wallop.”

I let him show me the proper position.

“Do you want me to stand behind you?” he asked. “It’s got quite a kick. And maybe I’d better move that target closer.”

“Don’t waste your time.” I slipped on the ear guards and put a shot into the target’s left shoulder.

Mr. Hackbirn squinted. “Not bad for a first try. Just remember to aim for the chest. It’s the easiest to hit.”

“You can kill someone that way.” I squeezed off four more shots to the left shoulder.

Mr. Hackbirn pushed a button, and the target floated towards us. He looked at the five holes, then at me. I smiled weakly.

“I got fourth place in the Tahoe Region Skeet Championship,” I told him. “The first three went on to international competition.”

“That’s pretty good.” He looked me over again. “I guess I owe you an apology. You just don’t seem the type.”

“Well, sewing and knitting are about as domesticated as I get. Daddy and I nailed a lot of ducks and pigeons together.”

“Ah. Well. We’ll go right into shooting on the run. Now, remember, aim for the chest. You won’t have time to finesse a shot.”

We worked for an hour. I have to admit, I didn’t put everything into a shoulder, but I hit the target every time. Mr. Hackbirn was impressed.

“I just put it between Donna Reed’s eyes,” I said, as I reloaded.

“You what?”

“Oh.” I blushed. “It’s an old joke. My best friend always said that. She’s a hardcore feminist, and there was this TV show.”

“I’m familiar with it.”

“I’ve never seen it. Anyway, neither of us were big on traditional housewiving. I mean, it’s alright if that’s what a woman really wants to do. I just don’t think a woman should have to.”

“I’m liberated myself,” said Mr. Hackbirn with a bemused chuckle. He shook his head. “I just didn’t expect it from a church-going type like you.”

“Look, I believe in God, and I try to live my life in a way that’s consistent with what I know about Him. But that doesn’t mean I turn my brain off just because some Bible thumping conservative thinks women belong in the kitchen. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about my values, and I know what I believe and why I believe it. Okay?”

He backed off. “Okay. I’m sorry I assumed.”

“I didn’t mean to get so defensive,” I sighed. “I just get so tired of people treating me like a mutant because I believe sex belongs in marriage.”

“Actually, I know how you feel.”

“What do you mean?”

“I get tired of people assuming I’m some depraved monster because I’m sexually active.”

“Oh. I guess you would.”

I hadn’t really thought he was a monster. But I considered him depraved. He was pretty busy most evenings.

We were just as busy during the days. Getting his office together was put on hold. In the meantime, I had to learn how to administer certain drugs, how to locate hidden microphones, how to install hidden microphones, how to ditch a tail (well, how to do it even better) how to tail someone, how to make microdots and how to read them, and codes.

There was a new code every day to break and I also had to learn how to encode things. It was miserable. I spent so much time working on those codes I wondered if I’d start mumbling keywords in my sleep.

The only thing worse than the codes was Mr. Hackbirn’s safe. What few records we had on the business were stored there and they were relatively innocent at that. The safe was in Mr. Hackbirn’s office under the floor next to his desk. His waste can covered the almost imperceptible cut in the carpet. The dial was behind a false back in a drawer of one of the file cabinets.

Getting to the dial and to the safe was easy compared to opening it. Each number of the combination had to be dialed exactly, having been passed a specific number of times. If you didn’t do everything just so, the safe wouldn’t open. To make matters worse, the safe was finicky and I often suspected that it sometimes wouldn’t open out of plain orneriness. Mr. Hackbirn took it all in stride and pointed out that it was better that the safe was so hard to open. I think he was just glad he didn’t have to do it anymore.

Then there was all the technical equipment, including listening devices, surveillance devices, tracking devices. Most of the stuff you see in spy movies is out and out ridiculous, but we do get to use some pretty sophisticated stuff. It’s all very small, too, to make it easier to hide.

And speaking of hiding, Friday was spent on all the different places and things I could hide on myself to get me out of a tight situation.

“You can always hide something,” said Mr. Hackbirn. “In fact, I think you ought to get your hair permed. It’s long enough, with a little extra body, you’ll be able to hide all sorts of things in there.”

“Like what?” I asked.

“Like one of these.” Mr. Hackbirn pulled something small and dark out of his hair. It was a quarter inch wide and about two inches long. “Spring steel. You’d be amazed at all the things this little goodie will unlock, and it can cut strapping tape, too.”

“Strapping tape?”

“Used to bind hands instead of handcuffs. It and duct tape are carried because handcuffs can arouse suspicion.”

“Oh.” I shuddered. “I don’t know if I want to carry a piece of metal in my hair all the time.”

Mr. Hackbirn shrugged. “I don’t, except when I’m working. But even then, it probably wouldn’t be a bad idea. You could be attacked or captured at any time. Anything you can keep on you to help you just might save your life. In fact, I would be surprised if you’re not carrying a bit of spring steel on you right now that no one will ever think to look for.”

“Really?” I looked over my jacket and clothes, then flushed when I noticed Mr. Hackbirn studying my breasts. He was perfectly clinical about it, but I was still embarrassed and closed my jacket over my chest.

“You’re wearing an underwire bra, aren’t you?”

“Mr. Hackbirn, isn’t that my business?”

“Spring steel, Miss Wycherly, that’s the wire. You could get out of a pair of handcuffs with it.”

“Well, maybe.” I put my hands behind my back and tried to reach my bra strap. “Except I’d never be able to get the bra off my arms if I was cuffed.”

“True.” Mr. Hackbirn studied me a moment longer, mulling over the problem instead of my breasts. “Ah. The solution is simple. Wear bras with detachable straps.”

“I wonder where I’d get one.”

“The lingerie department might be a start. In any case, I know they exist. I’ve seen them.”

I smirked. “Oh, really.”

“I’ve seen a lot of bras in my time. But don’t just get one. Wear them all the time.”

I snorted. “This is getting a little ridiculous. It’s bad enough you’re telling me how to wear my hair, now you’re dictating the style of my underwear? I’ve had it.”

“Miss Wycherly, I understand your irritation.” Mr. Hackbirn glared at me. “But you need to understand just how deadly serious this is. You are entering a new way of life. You are a spy, and everything you are as a person is affected by it. How you act, make friends, what you eat, even your damned underwear. Secrecy is the word you live by now, and being prepared is how you’ll stay alive. I’m giving you every trick, hint, whatever that I know to keep you that way.”

I hung my head. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s alright.” He smiled softly. “I know what you’re going through. I went through it, too. But I’m alive because I accepted it.”

“Well, I guess I’d better make that appointment for my perm.”

“Good. But first, I want you to try these on.”

He pulled a box off the file cabinets. He had brought it in that morning when he returned from making a pickup. The box held a pair of black running shoes. Mr. Hackbirn gave me a pair of tube socks, which I put on over my nylons.

“They feel great,” I said after lacing the shoes up. I walked around. “Sheesh. I’ve never had shoes this comfortable before. Are these why you did that plaster cast of my feet the other day?”

“Mm-hm. I have a pair just like them. They’ve saved my butt more than once.”

I giggled. “Don’t tell me. I click my heels and a knife will pop out.”

“Not quite. Sit down and slide your fingernail between the sole and the shoe on the inside.”

I did. “Hey, there’s a groove. Oh, my god.”

The sole popped open. Inside was a stiletto, a flat handle,  two screwdrivers and more spring steel.

“There’s wire, a wire cutter, a transmitter and batteries in the other,” said Mr. Hackbirn. “It’s a pity platform dress shoes aren’t in style anymore. You’d be surprised at all the stuff I could stick in those. We won’t be able to hide much beyond some spring steel in your dress shoes, and there’s always the last. That can be sharpened, and makes a very effective weapon.”

I looked at him. “What about your dress shoes?”

“I have a similar set up in all my heels. Most of the time, I have no need for it, but you never know.”

I put the sole back on and tested the shoe again.

“Armored running shoes.” I tried to smile. “What will they think of next?”

Saturday, I asked Mr. Hackbirn to let me go out to Mae’s the next day.

“You did say I was on my own,” I said at breakfast that morning.

“Of course.” He put his paper down. “Isn’t she in Fullerton?”

“Yeah. I get there on the train. I can take a bus to Union Station.”

“That’s fine. I was more interested in Fullerton. There’s an enemy operative out there working as an information broker for the Soviets. It’s odd that your sister just happens to be out there, too.”

“She’s no spy.”

Mr. Hackbirn laughed. “Nobody with five kids would have the time. I was merely bemused by the coincidence. Are you planning on taking the bus back tomorrow night?”

“Yes.”

Mr. Hackbirn shook his head. “Why don’t you come back Monday morning instead? I’d rather not worry about you on the bus after dark.”

“I can always wear my armored shoes.”

“It’s better to avoid trouble. Come back Monday morning.”

“If you insist.” I didn’t like the worrying nonsense, but coming back the Monday meant no running, so I wasn’t about to argue.

Mae’s whole family picked me up at the train station in Fullerton. I could see that Mae was dying to give me the third degree about my new job, and why I hadn’t been able to visit the previous Sundays. Even though she’s six years older than me, people sometimes think I’m older because I’m taller than she is. She’s got more padding than I do, too, with brown hair, which she keeps short and permed to stay out of her way.

Neil was calm, as usual. It takes a lot to flap him. He’s tall and skinny, with bright red hair. His son, Darby, looks a lot like him. Darby was nine at the time. He manfully picked up my overnight case. Janey, age seven, and Ellen, age four, both attached themselves to me. They have their mother’s coloring, only Janey has big hazel cow eyes, and Ellen’s eyes are blue, like her father’s. The twins, Marty and Mitch, were whooping up their greeting noises from their stroller. They were two and looked more like Darby and their dad.

“Is there surprise?” asked Ellen shyly.

“Of course,” I told her with a squeeze.

There always was. Mae’s a health nut and Neil’s a dentist, so the only time those kids see candy is when I or the grandparents bring it. It’s one of the advantages of being an aunt, and one of the few times I press it.

Mae didn’t get to her interrogation right away. She and Neil had to go to some Marriage Encounter shindig, and they didn’t get home until ten that night. That was why I had come, to babysit. Mae and Neil have a little problem that way. Janey won’t stay quietly with just anyone.

“So?” Mae asked me the moment she had come downstairs after checking on the kids.

“So… What?” I asked.

Neil sat back in the kitchen chair with his arms folded and chuckled.

“Tell me about your job,” Mae pressed.

I swallowed. I wasn’t used to lying to my family. Still, Mr. Hackbirn had been right, and, strangely enough, I didn’t want to tell Mae what he had gotten me into.

“He just takes some getting used to,” I explained slowly.

“But you sounded so worried before,” said Mae. “And you said something strange was going on.”

I forced a laugh. “Oh, that. It was nothing. My boss, he just… you know, gets around.”

“You already told us that,” said Neil.

“Well, he really gets around,” I replied. “And he was trying to cover it up. Only I kept catching little things, and he finally came clean with it.”

Mae snorted. “Are you sure?”

“I accidently walked in on him in his living room, and he was butt naked with a naked woman.”

Neil laughed.

“In the middle of the day?” shrieked Mae.

I shrugged. “He wasn’t asking me to.”

“I don’t know, Lisa,” said Mae. “Something’s not right about all of this.”

“Leave her be, Mae,” said Neil. “Lisa’s a big girl. She can take care of herself.”

Mae didn’t believe that for a second, but she did let up. The next morning, everything went as smooth as silk, except that Mr. Hackbirn drove me to the gym that night to make sure I worked out, seeing as though I had missed running that morning.

I finally got my hair permed at the end of my two weeks of training. I got home from the beauty parlor late that afternoon. As I walked in the front door, I heard piano music coming from the library. I didn’t know the piece, but it was something classical and complicated. [It was the rondo allegro from Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata, number 8, opus 13 – SEH]  My interest was aroused. I’d been trying to play the piano for years, in spite of lessons. Whoever was playing that afternoon was certainly fairly accomplished. [Accomplished? I hadn’t played in two years and I made a mess of it! – SEH]

It was Mr. Hackbirn. He stopped when he saw me.

“I thought you said you only played sometimes,” I said coming over to him. “That sounds like pretty often to me.”

He just shrugged.

“Where in your unstructured background did you pick up something as structured as playing like that?” I asked.

“It was the only disciplined thing my aunt had me do. Although, strangely enough, I practiced pretty much by my own choice. When you’re in a private school, your friends don’t live near you.”

“And the parents who lived near you didn’t want their kids playing with a commie.”

“In a couple of cases.” He stopped and looked at me. “How’d you know about that?”

“Observation and research.” I smiled, glad that my guess was accurate. “So you had a lonely childhood.”

“Yes and no. I was a loner. I didn’t have many friends because I didn’t want them. And it was my aunt who was the commie, by the way.”

“Why didn’t you take up music? In college I mean.”

“Didn’t want to.”

“So what motivated you to play now? Something bothering you?”

“Not really. Why do you ask?”

“You kind of hinted that you hit the music when you were lonely.”

He looked at me intently for a moment.

“That is often the case,” he replied slowly as if he wasn’t sure he could trust me. “Not this time, though. I just felt like it.”

Something told me he wasn’t hiding anything.

“Ready to go?” he asked, abruptly changing the subject.

“Go where?” I asked.

“To the bar at La Brisa restaurant on Sunset. You’re going to make a pickup.”

“A pickup!” I was shocked. “I’m not going out with any strange guy.”

“No,” groaned Mr. Hackbirn. “You’re picking up a piece of information to be sent up the line.”

“Oh. That’s almost as bad.”

“It’ll go as smooth as silk. Your contact will ask you where he can find a pineapple tree. You’ll ask him if he wants an upside-down cake.”

“An upside-down cake,” I repeated. “I’m going to really botch this one up.”

“What could you possibly botch?”

“I don’t know, but something will present itself.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll be there just in case the Soviet army shows up. Just don’t come near me unless there’s a genuine catastrophe.”

“That’s so reassuring.”

The bar was crowded and dark. I sat on a bar stool at the bar quietly sipping ginger ale and trying to make small talk with the various people there. There was a small combo at the other end of the room playing songs from the 30’s and 40’s. I had waited for over an hour with no hint of any fruit at all. I hadn’t seen Mr. Hackbirn come in, but I saw him now, sitting in a booth not far from me. I also saw him smiling in my direction.

The band dedicated the next song to the lady at the end of the bar, where I was sitting. The song was called “Let’s Misbehave.” I saw Mr. Hackbirn smile and raise his glass to me. I was certain something had gone wrong and he needed to talk to me.

“What’s wrong?” I whispered as I sat down next to him.

“What are you doing here?” he hissed back.

“You meant me, didn’t you?”

“No, I was signaling to the blonde behind you!”

“Well, I never!” I said loudly, getting up.

I all but stomped back to my place at the bar.

“He wanted you,” I growled to the blonde.

“He did?” She smiled at Mr. Hackbirn, who smiled back.

“You’re nuts if you do,” I told her as she left the bar.

Her place was taken a minute later by a rather handsome young man.

“It gets pretty embarrassing when you read the signals wrong doesn’t it?” he said warmly.

I just snorted.

“By the way,” he continued, “Know where I can find a pineapple tree?”

Every nerve in my body instantly awoke and started tingling.

“You want an upside-down cake?” I asked, hoping he couldn’t hear my heart pounding.

“Why don’t we get a table and talk about it?” he suggested.

At the table, we traded small talk for about five minutes. During that time, he slipped me a small envelope under the table, which I promptly put in the pocket of my jacket. I waited a couple of minutes then stood up.

“I’ve got to get up really early tomorrow,” I said. “So I’ve got to go. Nice talking to you.”

It took all the control I had to not run out of the bar.

When I got home, I dropped the envelope on Mr. Hackbirn’s desk and headed for the kitchen. There I found everything ready to make a mug of peppermint herb tea, a particular favorite. I knew Conchetta had some idea something was going on but didn’t know about Quickline itself. I wondered what Mr. Hackbirn had told her when he asked her to set out the tea. I was pretty sure he hadn’t set it out himself. That’s not like him and even if it had been, I doubted he would have set out the peppermint, which he loathes. Conchetta had set out the tea, no doubt about that. [No. I’d set it out – SEH]

As I cleaned up what little mess there was in the kitchen, I debated waiting up for Mr. Hackbirn, but only briefly. Considering the blonde, if he were to return home at a decent hour, he would probably not be alone. Sighing, I took my tea with me to my room and went to bed.

The next morning, Mr. Hackbirn briefly congratulated me on a job well done. Later that afternoon I overheard him on the phone.

“Not Gannett, damn it,” he was saying to the person on the other end. “Are you sure there’s no one else?” There was a pause while the other party answered. “Look, Gannett has seen me… In a couple months, no problem… She’s great, but she’s only made the one pick up. You can’t send someone with no experience on something like this… There’s got to be…” He sighed. “Alright. Set it up… Gee, thanks. Talk to you later.”

I walked the rest of the way into the office as he hung up.

“What was that all about?” I asked.

“You’re going to make a major pick up tonight,” Mr. Hackbirn grumbled.

“You don’t sound as if you have a lot of confidence in me.”

“In you, yes. You’re doing very well, but you need experience. This assignment… I don’t know.”

“What is it?”

“A certain gentleman has let it be known that he has some very important top secret U.S. information that he’s willing to sell.”

“Gannett.”

“Right. Another agency, on our side, has been setting up a sale with him. It’s up to us to grab him, get the information, and send him upline to be taken care of.”

“I don’t like the sound of that, but it doesn’t sound terribly complicated.” I sounded more confident than I was.

“Except for the fact that the agency isn’t the only buyer Gannett has been entertaining. You might have some competition tonight.”

“Terrific.” All pretense of confidence fled.

“That’s not the worst of it.”

“Gannett’s seen you, so I’m going solo.”

“I’m afraid so.”

But Mr. Hackbirn wasn’t going to let me out of it. We discussed every possible thing that could happen, then exactly what our plan of action would be. At 3:30, he gave me an article to enter into the computer and left to run an errand or two.

He didn’t get back until 5, just as dinner was ready. As we sat down to eat, he pulled something out of his pocket and tossed it on the table. It was a round gold brooch about 2″ in diameter made of a ring of gold wires twisted together.

“That’s how Gannett will spot you,” said Mr. Hackbirn. “He’ll be asking for a one-way ticket to the zoo. Just say you have one.”

I had to laugh. “Where do you come up with all these crazy lines?”

Mr. Hackbirn just smiled and shrugged. “A vivid imagination, I guess.”

“I guess.”

I felt rather better about the whole affair as I drove Mr. Hackbirn’s Mercedes to the bar where I was to meet Gannett. During dinner, Mr. Hackbirn had drilled me on what I was going to do. By the end of the meal, he seemed relieved and told me he thought I was going to be fine and that he’d underestimated me. I looked at him closely and saw that he meant it.

After dinner and before I left, Mae called. The kids were getting to her. Somehow the conversation got around to our own childhoods.

“Do you remember how we used to tell each other stories?” Mae said wistfully. “Especially you.”

“You told some pretty good ones yourself.”

“Yeah, but you told the best. You should have written them down. You could have made a fortune in adventure stories.”

I laughed. If only she had known about the adventure I was living. As a child, I had longed for adventure. I don’t think that I actually wanted to be a spy, myself, but cloak and dagger stories had always enthralled me. Now I was living one.

I thought about that as I walked into the meeting place. I walked up to the bar and ordered a ginger ale. Though I didn’t need to be told, Mr. Hackbirn had drilled it into me that one drink a night was a lot for a person whose livelihood depended on absolute secrecy. Drunkenness was a great risk and even one drink was too much when you were working.

I wasn’t there half an hour before I was asked for a one-way ticket to the zoo.

“I’ve got it,” I replied to the man who had addressed me. “Let’s go get a table and talk about it.”

Gannett was about average height. As far as I could tell, he had light brown hair and was basically as nondescript as they come.

“Have you got the money?” he asked anxiously.

“What have you got that’s so good?” I replied a lot more coolly than I felt.

“Not so fast. Money first.”

“I have it at my place.”

“Then go get it.”

“Not so fast yourself. I hear there are other bidders.”

“So?”

“So you can come to my place and we’ll see what you’ve got.”

My left hand rested casually on the table in front of us. My right hand was on my lap. Trembling, it reached into my purse and pulled out the revolver Mr. Hackbirn had insisted I carry.

“What if I choose not to go to your place?” my guest asked.

Underneath the table, I pressed the gun’s barrel into the guest’s side. I watched him stiffen at the contact.

“Do you feel that?” I asked. He nodded. “You no longer have a choice. Now we’re going to get up and leave here. You’ll do as I say and just because you don’t see my gun, doesn’t mean that it’s not pointed at you or that I don’t have friends with me. Is that clear?” He nodded again. “Alright, let’s go.”

When we got to the parking lot I thanked heaven it was empty of people. At the car I blindfolded Gannett and after putting on the seat belt, taped his hands. It had been my own idea about my “friends,” and I was glad he’d believed me. After seeing that he was secure, I stashed the gun under the front seat and for some reason my brooch also. As I turned to get in, two men came up to me.

“Yes?” I asked.

“We’re interested in the gentleman you just picked up,” said the man closest to me. The other remained in the background.

“It’s my business who I pick up.” I tried to sound sophisticated, but I think I just sounded hard.

“That’s an interesting way to treat a pickup.” He glared at Gannett.

“So I’m kinky,” I shot back.

“I want that man and now!”

At that moment, something clicked and it seemed like what I was doing, I wasn’t doing, instead I was standing outside myself and watching a stranger do it. The man grabbed me and started pulling me away. Instead of resisting, I fell into him, throwing him off balance. He let go and I landed two good punches in his belly. He fell backward into his companion.

I jumped into the car and backed out of the parking space. I almost hit a large car. I could see the two men getting into it.

I stepped on the accelerator and shot out onto the street. It was a miracle I didn’t hit anyone. I had turned right and right again onto another street. Looking into my rear view mirror I saw a car right behind me. I got into the left lane. It did the same, all but kissing my bumper. I was going to turn left but a signal stopped me.

I knew the only way I could lose them was to make a lot of quick turns. But that was almost impossible with the way traffic is in on Hollywood Boulevard. A residential neighborhood would have been ideal, except that I didn’t know the streets in L.A. once I was off the main bus routes. Losing my tail wouldn’t have done much good if I lost myself in the process.

I saw a sign for U.S. 101, south to Santa Ana. I knew the streets in Fullerton pretty well, so if I couldn’t lose them on the freeway… I nearly creamed a car trying to get in the right lane for the onramp. Once on the freeway, I checked my mirror. My tail was still there.

They say stress can help us perform in a heightened manner. Well, the stress I was feeling and the grace of God are all that got me through that night. I believe I already mentioned that I was working on automatic pilot. I had to. I hate freeway driving. It scares me. When I can’t avoid using the freeway, I stay in one lane and drive fifty-five.

That night I rarely drove under seventy. I changed lanes constantly, dodging around cars. My tail stayed tight on me. I hardly dared breathe. My guest remained silent. I thanked God. I found myself caught behind a slow car and the lane beside me blocked. I hit the brakes and checked the mirror. The car was still there. If Gannett heard my continual litany of Our Fathers and Hail Marys, he didn’t say anything. I pulled around the slow car. I made it to Orange County in less than thirty minutes. I turned off the freeway at the last second from the middle lane. My tail hung on.

I swallowed and headed for the housing tract where my sister lived. I knew the area, although it had been two years since I had lived with Mae while going to college. The tract was a veritable labyrinth.

I suddenly turned off the main street. The tires squealed in protest. I remembered that Mae had told me something recently about cops cracking down on reckless drivers. I made another rapid turn. Cops were all I needed. I turned again and accelerated. Even if they didn’t pull me over, they’d send somebody after me. The tires screamed as I turned again.

I drove like that for about half an hour. Somewhere in the last five minutes of that time, I lost the tail. I drove on, relieved but afraid it was too good to be true.

For once it was true. I stopped at a stop sign. Around the corner to my left, a large car was parked by the corner. Behind it I could see the flashing lights of a police car and the silhouette of a policeman talking to the man who’d tried to stop me. I smiled and breathed a thank you to God.

Three minutes later, I was on another freeway, taking an alternate route back to L.A. No one tailed me, though I had one eye in the mirror all the way. I didn’t even slow down until I hit the Babylonian castle that I’d always used as my almost there landmark.

I sighed as I pressed the button for the garage door opener back at the house. I drove in, braked and turned off the ignition. Then I summoned everything I had left for one last surge of energy.

“End of the line,” I said, reaching under the seat for the gun.

I got Gannett loose from the seatbelt and out of the car. Mr. Hackbirn was at the garage door and held it open as I led the man into the house. Silently, Mr. Hackbirn took the lead. He guided us to the room where we were going to put our guest for the night. At the door to the room, I removed the tape and shoved the guest in. Mr. Hackbirn shut the door and locked it. Numb, I headed for the office.

It’s at this point that things get pretty fuzzy. I do remember hearing Mr. Hackbirn ask what took so long. I remember dropping the gun on the desk and I remember sinking into the chair. But that’s all I remember until I woke up the next day.

The sun was shining. It seemed exceptionally bright. I was in my bed. My jacket had been neatly hung up and my shoes were in the closet, but otherwise I was still fully dressed. My tongue felt like it had swollen three times its original size and there was a dry taste in my mouth.

Foggy, I groped my way to the mirror over the dresser. I still don’t know what I was looking for, but I stood there a long time. The phone rang. I stumbled my way to the bedside table where it was, picked up the receiver and grunted into it.

“I figured you’d wake up about now,” said Mr. Hackbirn’s voice.

“Yeah.”

“How do you feel?”

I thought a moment. “Nauseous.”

“That’s to be expected. You’ll probably feel a little groggy for a while. Why don’t you take a shower? It’ll wake you up some. Then I need you in the office promptly.”

“Breakfast?”

“My dear, it’s past lunchtime.”

As I hung up I looked at my clock. It was 12:30. Groaning, I realized that if I thought any more about food, my nausea would come to fruition.

It took over an hour for me to shower and dress. I was still drowsy as I headed for the office, but awake enough to wonder what had hit me. I was also trying to remember going to bed, but couldn’t. I didn’t have a headache, so I doubted I’d been drinking.

“I don’t understand it,” I replied when Mr. Hackbirn asked if I was still feeling groggy. “I know I’m not that swift in the mornings, but I’ve never been this bad. I feel awful. I wonder if I’m coming down with something.”

“I doubt it,” said Mr. Hackbirn. I had sunk into the chair in front of his desk. He sat on the edge closest to me, looking at me intently.

“The funny thing is,” I continued, “I don’t remember anything after we locked up Gannett.”

“Anything?” Mr. Hackbirn lifted an eyebrow.

I thought for a moment. “I think I remember coming in here. I wanted to get rid of that gun. And I think I remember crying.”

“You were hysterical.”

“Hysterical? That’s ridiculous. I’ve never been hysterical in my life.”

“You were last night.”

“I was?”

“It took two barbiturate tablets to calm you down. By that time you were knocked out.”

“You fed me dope?” I was halfway out of my chair in fury.

“A sedative, Miss Wycherly.” Mr. Hackbirn remained infuriatingly calm. “Which you sorely needed.”

“So that’s why I feel like a wrung out wash rag,” I grumbled.

“That’s an interesting image. I’ll have to write that down.” He paused as I glared at him. “Well, maybe later. In any case, the side effect will be gone by tonight. What I need to know now is what happened to cause your reaction.”

“I was scared.”

“That is obvious. What scared you?”

So I told him in detail what had happened. Mr. Hackbirn listened without interruption.

“I have two questions,” he said when I had finished. “First, did you see the license plate of the car tailing you?”

I shook my head. “It was too dark, and the lights were shining.”

“Perhaps it’s just as well. Secondly, did they shoot at you at all?”

“No,” I replied. “I guess it was too crowded.”

“Then what frightened you so badly?”

“Wasn’t that enough? Good heavens! Haven’t you ever been scared?”

“Well, of course…”

“Then try to think of me. I’m new at this. I come from a basically sheltered background. Nobody’s ever even wanted to physically hurt me and now I’ve got to deal with two men who want to kill me just for some jerk I’ve never seen before, and they’re willing to chase me all over to do it. Wouldn’t that have put you a little off track at one time? You might also consider the fact that I’m basically an optimist. I’m used to trusting people. I find it very hard to believe that anyone could willingly want to hurt someone else. Oh, I know intellectually, it happens, but deep down it doesn’t make sense and, therefore, it’s hard to believe. At least it was ’til last night. Was that ever a cold slap in the face. You want to talk about a shock to the system? Mine got a major jolt. Okay, maybe I did overreact. I don’t know, I wasn’t really there. All I know is that man was utterly malicious and that frightened me like nothing has ever frightened me before.”

Mr. Hackbirn sighed. “Miss Wycherly, I don’t want you to take this as a rebuke. It isn’t. You are to be commended for keeping your head and waiting until you did to break down. I might add it was probably waiting that caused the hysteria. However, that reaction could get you into big trouble if you panic at the wrong time. As a result, I am very concerned. What’s going to happen to you when real violence occurs? I can’t have you becoming a basket case every time you find yourself endangered.”

“I know,” I groaned.

“Miss Wycherly, you are going to have to get used to the fact that A there is a great deal of evil in this world and there are quite a few people in this world that have no qualms about taking a human life; and B this is a very dangerous business we have here. Most of it is rather dull. But the U.S. is, in effect, involved in an underground war with the Soviets and a few other countries. We are part of that war so that the vast majority of our country can lead peaceful, productive lives.”

“You make it sound as if we’re on the brink of disaster.”

“We are.” Mr. Hackbirn removed a piece of paper from the inside breast pocket of his suit coat. “This is the information Gannett wanted to sell.”

On the paper was a written mathematical equation, only there were no numbers except exponents and it contained a symbol I’d never seen before.

“Looks fairly innocuous.” I shrugged. “Of course, I only got as far as precalculus in college.”

“It’s called the Lipplinger Formula. It was developed by Doctor Miles Lipplinger. He teaches physics at Georgetown University. That formula is probably the most dangerous piece of information in the world.”

“Why?”

“It makes possible limited nuclear war.”

“Oh, my god. Surely, the Soviet Union wouldn’t…”

“The only reason we are at peace now is because nuclear war would destroy the world. If that formula were made possible, we would be plunged into the worst war humankind has ever known. As it stands now, I’d say only 50 people know of its existence. Fortunately, they’re on our side, and out of that 50 less than 10, including our guest, have actually seen it.”

I swallowed. “How could it stay so secret?”

“Professor Lipplinger discovered it by accident. He thought it could be used for peaceful purposes, but quickly realized what it would be used for. He promptly contacted the CIA, who eventually concurred with his belief. But they also felt that destroying the formula would only endanger the U.S. in the likely event that the Soviets also developed the formula and did not hesitate to use it. Professor Lipplinger graciously agreed to monitor information provided by the CIA to see if he could detect the formula in the development and so cue the CIA who would arrange to sabotage the work.”

“So how did Gannett get a hold of it?”

“He was one of the engineers working with the professor monitoring the Soviet work.”

“So now what do we do?”

“I doubt anything. There is a cause for concern because of Gannett’s disloyalty, but he’s already been sent upline and will soon be dealt with.”

“I don’t like the sound of that.”

“Like I said, Miss Wycherly, we are at war and betrayal is a crime.”

spy fiction, mystery fiction, cozy mystery,

Chapter Three

spy fiction, cozy mystery, mystery fiction serialOctober 4

It took six more days for me to get my explanation. Mae wanted to know why I couldn’t come out that Sunday. Something told me that telling her what was going on was not a good idea. I made a vague excuse and said I’d try to get out on the following Sunday.

Monday was D-Day. I knew it as soon as Mr. James showed up on the front doorstep. He’s a tall man, somewhere in his late forties, balding and much of the dark hair that is left has gray streaks in it. His shoulders are broad and he has a definite middle age spread. He also has the reddest face I’ve ever seen in my life.

I ushered him into Mr. Hackbirn’s office and didn’t quite shut the door. I stayed near the crack, too.

“Is this what I think this is?” Mr. Hackbirn asked, pleased.

“What the doctor ordered,” said Mr. James. “By the way, I got an interesting report from Highland when they closed down.”

“Yeah.” Mr. Hackbirn sounded caught. “Well. I didn’t have much choice. They sent it there, and Gannett’s been seen watching the place. I didn’t want to chance it. He knows me too well. She’s obviously clean. No harm done, right?”

“You’re just lucky it didn’t blow up. Shall we bring her in?”

Mr. Hackbirn chuckled. “Come on in, Miss Wycherly.”

Flushing, I slid open the door.

“She’s been..?” Mr. James looked at Mr. Hackbirn.

“I told you, she’s bright.” He grinned at me, then turned serious. “Please sit down, Miss Wycherly.”

Puzzled, I sat down on the edge of one of the chairs in front of the desk. Mr. James stood next to it.

“Miss Wycherly,” he said, pleasantly. “Sid has informed me that you have noticed a few oddities about his household.”

I glanced at Mr. Hackbirn. His face was passive and unreadable.

“I have,” I answered slowly.

“And has it occurred to you that Sid might be a little bit more than merely eccentric?”

“Well, I have thought that certain of his little oddities seemed a little too planned to be mere idiosyncrasy.”

“I see,” replied Mr. James. He looked at Mr. Hackbirn.

“She’s bright,” said Mr. Hackbirn.

I decided to be bold. “Am I bright enough to be let in on whatever it is that’s going on around here?”

Mr. James smiled and so did Mr. Hackbirn.

“That’s why you’re here, Miss Wycherly,” Mr. Hackbirn said, becoming serious once more.

“Miss Wycherly, you picked up a package for Mr. Hackbirn last Tuesday,” said Mr. James. “Do you know what was in it?”

“As far as I could tell, paper,” I replied. “I assumed that it was some sort of report.”

“The paper was a blind,” said Mr. Hackbirn. “What really made that ream important was a microdot containing top secret information.”

“It’s beginning to make sense,” I said. “That clearance.”

“Miss Wycherly,” said Mr. James. “Within the structures of the FBI and CIA are several smaller organizations. Organizations so secret that only their members know they exist. Mr. Hackbirn is a member of one called Operation Quickline.”

“He’s a spy.” I swallowed back my fear. “For the US?”

Mr. Hackbirn smiled and nodded. “Yes. I work secretly through the FBI, and now so do you.”

“Me?” The news hit me like a punch to the bread basket. Locked in. He’d warned me off. Something inside me snapped, and it was if I was watching everything that went on from another corner of the room.

“Your security clearance and adoption came through this morning,” said Mr. James.

“You mean you guys want me to be a spy, too.” My voice sounded distant as if another person were speaking.

“No,” said Mr. Hackbirn. “You are a spy.”

“What if I don’t want to?”

“You will just have to live with that. I’ve had to do the same. All I can do is offer my sympathies.”

Mr. James stepped forward. “You have to understand, Miss Wycherly, that the only reason Quickline is effective is because it is so secret. Therefore, when we must recruit new members, we cannot ask them without endangering the system, so we draft likely candidates.”

“I can’t believe this,” I gasped.

“It will take a day or two,” said Mr. Hackbirn.

I got up as well as I could. “I gotta get out of here. I’ve got to think.”

“As you wish,” Mr. Hackbirn replied. “But, Miss Wycherly, please keep in mind that my life, and now yours depends on your secrecy. It is that critical. I told you I am a dangerous person to know. This is why. I’m afraid you’ll be risking your life right along with me. I wanted to tell you what you were risking, but I couldn’t. I’m sorry.”

“I understand. Sort of.” I looked at him helplessly, then turned. “I’ll see you later.”

I left the house and ran down the streets to the bus stop. I was confused. I was a spy. They hadn’t even asked me, and, oh, that made me mad. But I was also excited. They had chosen me. But for what? Yes, I would be risking my life, but how did I know these guys were telling the truth? I only had Mr. Hackbirn’s word for it that Mr. James was from the FBI. The bus arrived, and I found myself making the long trip to West LA, and FBI headquarters.

I was scared as I paced the foyer, and I realized the thing that scared me the most was that I had no way of knowing if Quickline truly existed and if it really did work for the US. What if it was really an enemy operation?

Oh, was I naive then. That should have been the least of my fears. Of course, I had never laid my life on the line before, and risking my neck didn’t sound that bad in theory. I never really believed that I had no choice in the matter either. I’m not sure I do even now.

A buzzer sounded above the rattle of the young woman typing. She looked up at me.

“Go on back.”

The office was well appointed and comfortable. A woman about my mother’s age sat behind the desk and smiled professionally.

“May I help you?”

I took a deep breath and began the story I’d rehearsed on the bus.

“I’m a writer, doing a story on espionage in the US, and I’ve stumbled across something. I can’t reveal my sources. Is there a spy operation working for our government called Operation Quickline?”

The name phased her for a moment. “Not necessarily.”

“Look. I need to know.”

“You don’t necessarily have the right to know. Can you tell me why this is so important?”

“If I could tell you that, I wouldn’t be needing to ask you!” I felt my voice go shrill and took a deep breath to steady myself.

I don’t know if the woman guessed what was on my mind, or if God merely intervened and made her do something she wouldn’t have normally. I didn’t care then, and I don’t now.

“I can’t really say yes or no,” she said softly. “You should forget you ever heard the name. But I wouldn’t worry about Quickline being a threat to national security.”

“Thank you.”

I left the office feeling somewhat reassured. On a lark, I went to find Henry James’ office. It was there. The secretary seemed vaguely familiar, with brown hair, clipped into a barrette. She must have been expecting me because she sent me right into the inner office.

Henry James was there, too.

“Quite a shock, isn’t it?” he said smiling with paternal warmth.

“Yeah. I don’t know what to say.”

“Well, you’re probably feeling angry, and a little mixed up. Don’t worry. We all do. Any questions?”

“Not right now, Mr. James.”

“Please, call me Henry. We’re going to be seeing a lot of each other. I’d like to be friends.”

I smiled rather weakly at him.

“Sure.” Fumbling for something to say, I looked at him. There was something reassuring about him. “Uh, you can call me Lisa.”

“Thank you, Lisa.”

There was another awkward pause.

“I’d better get back,” I said finally.

“Before you go, Lisa, I’d better say something.”

“Yes, sir?”

“Operation Quickline is one of the most successful spying operations that the U.S. has. It is successful because it is so secret. Even my secretary doesn’t know it exists. Its continued success depends on your ability to maintain its secrecy. Lisa, absolutely no one can know about it except you, Sid and myself.”

“Not even my family?”

“Not even your family.”

“I’ve never held anything back from my family before. Well, I haven’t told them where I’m living right now. I haven’t gotten around to it. But I will.”

“That doesn’t matter. Quickline does, for their safety as well as yours.”

“I suppose. Is it really as deadly as Mr. Hackbirn says?”

“The risk is always there. That’s why you can’t tell your family, Lisa. No one must know about this but you and Sid.”

“Are there any restrictions on friends? I’m meeting some very nice people at church.”

“That’s fine. Just be careful, and don’t let them get too close. If you need support, I’m always here, and you’ve got Sid.”

I had to chuckle. “I don’t know if I’d trust him that way.”

Henry chuckled, too. “Maybe, maybe not. Lisa, he’s a very lonely man. He uses Quickline as an excuse not to reach out. Your life may have been turned upside down today, but so has his. The sad part is, he doesn’t even know it yet.”

“I guess.” I got up. “I’d better get back to the house.”

“Fine. See you around.”

“Sure, Henry.”

I left his office deep in thought.

“Excuse me,” said the secretary. “Have we met before?”

I looked at her again and flushed pure vermillion.

“Oh, my god,” I groaned. “The clothes.”

“What? Oh!” She recognized me and laughed. “You’re Sid Hackbirn’s secretary. You didn’t recognize me with my clothes on, did you?”

“I’m sorry.”

“Boy, you sure put Sid off his paces.”

I turned to her. “I did?”

“Yeah. He couldn’t believe you’d never seen a naked man before. He kept saying you were a genuine innocent.”

“Oh.” I paused. “I hope I didn’t mess things up too much.”

She purred. “You can’t mess up Sid that badly.”

“Oh.”

She held out her hand. “I’m Angelique Carter.”

“Lisa Wycherly.” We shook. “It was nice meeting you… Uh, again.”

She laughed. “Yeah. Again. To many more meetings. With our clothes on.”

I laughed also. “Right.”

I hurried out. Once on the street, I paused. No one seemed to be following me. I decided to test it. I walked up to Westwood and went into the first burger place I found. I knew lunch would be waiting for me at the house, but I’d had one heck of a morning. I deserved a real meal for a change. I got a double chili burger with fries, cole slaw, onion rings, a chocolate milkshake and a piece of cheesecake for dessert. [Oh, Lisa! – SEH]

I suppose I should have been more upset. Mr. Hackbirn had radically changed my life without doing me the courtesy of asking me. Well, he had tried to warn me, and he did give me a chance to back out.

At first, I was too numb from the shock to protest. As the shock wore off, I became caught up in the romance of being a spy. The danger seemed very unreal to me. Later, when I realized just how real the risks were, I was too caught up in other problems to feel much outrage at my fate, and I’m not the type to spend much time brooding about things I can’t change, anyway.

It was almost two when I got back to the house. Mr. Hackbirn was waiting for me in the living room.

“Well?” he asked.

“I guess I’m in,” I replied, brightly.

“That goes without saying. Any questions?”

I thought. “Why me? Why even have a secretary?”

“As I said before, you are a woman who sticks to her standards, even when it’s hard not to. That takes a lot of strength. When I told you I needed someone with guts, I meant it.”

“That’s not very reassuring.” I sank onto the couch.

“No, it isn’t.” He sighed as he sat in the easy chair. “Ours is a very dangerous business, I’m afraid. Anyway, as to why a secretary, that was my idea. I’ve always wanted someone who could handle those mundane little trivialities of life that are so time-consuming and dull, yet must be done. Because of the nature of my business, any secretary I’d hire had to have a security clearance. The people upline didn’t want any more people involved than necessary, so they put the krabbatz on that.”

“What made them give in?”

“Business got good. I’m not physically capable of making all the drops and pick ups they want made. So when they said they were going to give me an associate, I said I wanted a secretary. They, in turn, replied they didn’t have one and if I wanted one that badly, I could recruit the person myself. It’s policy to keep recruits under twenty-four-hour surveillance, which is why you’re living here.”

“And why you followed me to church that Sunday. And why you wouldn’t let me out of the house.”

“That was because you ditched your tail that Friday you went shopping.”

“You mean he was part of the surveillance?”

“Yes. They caught up with you at the church because of the list I had you give me. However, since you kept ditching them, I couldn’t keep you under surveillance, that’s why I kept you in.”

“Except for last Tuesday. Was that also surveillance?”

Mr. Hackbirn winced. “No. I was glad you ditched him. I wasn’t supposed to send you. You weren’t cleared yet, nor did you have any training.”

“You mean he really was a bad guy.”

“Yep. You handled it well, though.”

“Thanks.” Something else occurred to me. “I wasn’t followed to the FBI offices. Does this mean no more surveillance?”

“You’re on your own.”

“So I suppose I could move now if I wanted to.”

He made a face. “You could. I’d rather you stayed. It is convenient.”

“There’s that. I’ll have to think about it.” I leaned forward. “Tell me about Quickline.”

“We mostly pass information around, hence the name. However, we occasionally take real packages and sometimes act as a safe house.”

“We don’t do any of the actual spying?” Believe it or not, I actually felt disappointed.

“It depends on what you call actual spying. We do sometimes have to break into places to get things, and sometimes we handle investigations. But we are a domestic operation. Only under very rare circumstances will we do any foreign work.”

“How long have you been doing this?”

“I started in the army when I got drafted. Intelligence first got me in boot camp and kept me undercover. After my discharge, I was transferred to Quickline.”

“So what now? I assume you’ve got me in the self-defense class because of this.”

“Right.” His smile turned ominous. “Tomorrow your real training starts.”

I swallowed. “Oh dear.”

“By the way, Amalgamated Paper Company will be augmenting your salary from now on.”

“So that’s what those checks were.”

“Precisely. And you’ll be getting them, too.”

“You mean I get a raise?”

“It’s a promotion. You are now my associate.”

I grinned. “Not bad for two weeks work.”

“To all outward appearances, you are still my secretary, and you’ll still be performing all the same functions.”

“I was afraid of that.”

Mr. Hackbirn laughed. “Don’t worry. I’m still paying for the mundane trivialities.”

“You don’t have to.”

“That is my decision, and I will continue to pay.”

“Thanks. I appreciate it.”

We looked at each other. I was filled with that warm cozy after the storm feeling, the kind when you know everything is going to work out just fine. The kind when you know you’ve just found a very good friend.

spy fiction, mystery fiction, cozy mystery,

Chapter Two

cozy mystery, spy fiction, spy novel, cozy spy novelSeptember 14 – 28, 1982

For the rest of that week, I was pretty busy. Monday afternoon I spent playing with the computer, and most of Tuesday morning. He had a database program he wasn’t even using. Just for the fun of it, I indexed his clippings on it, then cross referenced it all to the file folders. Mr. Hackbirn can’t find a thing without me. Talk about making yourself indispensable.
Tuesday afternoon I got my first article to word process, a piece on the F.B.I. The sheets of binder paper were a mess. Not only was the handwriting cramped and angled funny, any crossed out words were completely blacked out. At least there weren’t any arrows. When I finally deciphered it, I saw why he didn’t do a lot of writing. The points were logical and flowed well, but his grammar and spelling stank. I knocked on his office door and entered.
“Uh, Mr. Hackbirn, would you mind terribly if I cleaned this up a little?” I asked.
“What do you mean?” he asked back.
“Just little things like spelling corrections.”
He let out a rueful chuckle. “It’s not so good, is it?”
I winced. “Your grammar’s pretty bad, too. It’s mostly just sentence structure. You state your case well, and it flows together beautifully.”
“That’s right. You got your degrees in English.”
“Well, literature. But… Yeah.”
The phone rang. There was something funny about the way the line on his phone lit up.
“Miss Wycherly, would you please excuse me?” Mr. Hackbirn put his hand on the phone but waited to pick it up. “And make sure the door is shut on the way out.”
I left, shutting the door. Sitting back down at my desk, I looked at my phone. None of the lines were lit. And there were only three hooked up. I picked up the fourth line. Nothing. Yet a fourth line had lit up on Mr. Hackbirn’s phone.
Mr. Hackbirn came out of his office in a hurry.
“I don’t know how long I’ll be gone,” he told me as he rushed past. “Go ahead and eat dinner without me.”
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“Out.” And he was gone.
I shouldn’t have. It was his office, and how he chose to live wasn’t really my business. On the other hand, I was dying to know. I told myself that it could affect me. I went into his office and picked up the phone, and pressed the button for that fourth line. I got a dial tone.
That was as far as my nerve got me. The next day I noticed something else that was funny about the phones. It was Wednesday night, really. Mr. Hackbirn has the same three line phone that I have on my desk in every room in the house. I was in my sitting room and picked up to call my sister without noticing which button I’d pushed. The conversation I heard was intimate. I slammed the phone down, then fretted because he had to have heard me slam it, and then had to explain, and…
The next morning at breakfast, I apologized.
“For what?” Mr. Hackbirn asked.
“Well, I accidentally picked up your line, and you were talking. I didn’t listen very long.”
He chuckled. “I can imagine. Don’t worry about it. I had no idea you were on.”
“You must have heard me slam the phone down.”
“No.” He went back to his paper.
“You mean you can’t tell if an extension is picked up?”
“Can’t hear a thing. Unless you speak, of course.”
I mused. “Makes it real easy to spy on someone. Hey, you’re not listening in on my calls, are you?”
He flipped down a corner of his paper to look at me.
“What do you think?” he asked in a bored, but amused tone, and went back to reading.
It was odd, but, hey, the guy was an eccentric. I let it pass. That morning, I stumbled onto all his personal papers, like his birth certificate. He was born in New York City to Sheila Hackbirn and an unknown father. A death certificate had been filed for his mother when he was two. She’d died of massive cranial injuries. There were papers giving Stella Hackbirn, aunt and only living relative, custody of him. Those all had been filed in New York.
There was a report card from a kindergarten in San Francisco. Mr. Hackbirn was a bright little kid, and definitely had a mind of his own, much to his teacher’s chagrin. I found a few notes from what I guessed were schools. They were all called Free-something-or-other and were not too interested in structure. Well, that accounted for the lousy grammar and spelling. Then there was four years’ worth of report cards from San Francisco High School. His grade point average was none too shabby. The comments, for the most part, decried his inappropriate behavior. [Gee, I wonder what that could have been – SEH]
Then I found his draft notice. He served two years in Viet Nam, which surprised me. He made corporal and was honorably discharged. There were some more grade reports, this time from Stanford, with a diploma. He graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. in business and a minor in journalism. I don’t know how he did it with his grammar and spelling. [There were several girls who didn’t mind helping me – SEH] And finally, the deed to the house in Beverly Hills.
Was it nosy? I figured it was my right to gather basic information on my employer. Not that it told me much about the man, himself. He kept me at arm’s length, responding to my questions without answering them.
Friday morning, Mr. Hackbirn asked me for a detailed list of my plans for my shopping trip.
“Why?” I asked.
“I might be able to drop you and meet you some places,” he said. “It’ll be faster than taking the bus.”
“Okay.”
We set out at about twelve thirty, right after a fabulous gazpacho, with wheat toast and melon for lunch. Good food, just not enough of it. We stopped first at his bank so I could open my accounts. Then we went to a discount office supply store. Mr. Hackbirn was appalled until we went to the regular price place to get the stuff we couldn’t get at the first place. He remained appalled but admitted it was kind of silly to pay full price for the same items offered at the discount store.
Then we went to Adray’s on Wilshire, where I bought a sewing machine. I tried using my Master Card to get it on installments, but they wouldn’t take it. Mr. Hackbirn offered to buy it for me, which I refused. I did let him co-sign, though, threatening dire consequences if he even tried to pay it off.
Next stop was the Beverly Center. It was Mr. Hackbirn’s idea to go there. He groaned when I went straight to the Broadway sale racks.
“You don’t have to stick around,” I told him. “I’d just as soon shop by myself.”
“I can stay,” he said, then saw something. “On second thought, I think I will take off.”
I looked in the direction he had but didn’t see anyone, male or female. He went in the opposite direction, anyway, so he wasn’t chasing someone. I couldn’t figure out what he’d seen that had changed his mind.
The man was pretty unobtrusive, sandy hair, glasses, sport shirt and jeans. In fact, I couldn’t be sure he was the same guy I’d seen at the food court. I left the mall and went across the street to the fabric store. I was so absorbed there, I didn’t notice him. But I did as I paid.
I walked up the block to the bus stop. He watched the shop windows. I changed my mind and walked down Beverly Boulevard. He just happened to be coming my way. I did an about face and went back to La Cienega. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him scramble into a doorway. At the corner, I put on a sudden burst of speed and just barely caught the bus. Through the window, I saw my shadow running up, looking for me.
I changed buses twice. I had planned to visit some shops I knew of in Westwood but changed my mind. Instead, I ended up at a strip center in Brentwood, and there was no way I was going to pay those prices. That left only one more errand.
It was a nice, conventional little church, with a school and a hall. The sort of church your parents grew up at. It was also several blocks in from Sunset, and some of the hills there are steep. I was gasping and sweating as I registered.
I didn’t see him that time. Just an odd glimpse or two, but someone was again following me as I left. I could have cried. I had that big, heavy bag from the fabric store, and a couple others from the mall, too. I all but ran down to Sunset.
I had to wait for the bus. No one approached me. I still couldn’t shake the feeling that I was being watched. Mr. Hackbirn’s house is a good hike in from Sunset, also, with really steep hills. I was so tired, I didn’t care if I was being followed. I promised to save my next paycheck for a car.
Mr. Hackbirn was in the front hall, waiting for me as I entered.
“Where have you been?” he demanded.
“I gave you a list this morning,” I gasped. I dropped my bag and stumbled into the living room. I could see the street from the window. It was empty.
“What are you looking for?”
I flopped onto the couch. “It’s weird. Ever since I met you, people have been following me. All last Saturday and Sunday, I kept seeing something that looked like you. Then today, at the Beverly Center, someone else starts in. I ditched him, go to register at church, and then someone else again is following me. Either I’m getting paranoid, or something strange is going on.”
“You seem awful short of breath.” Mr. Hackbirn looked me over thoughtfully.
“It’s a hike up that hill.”
“What kind of exercise program do you have?”
I looked at him. “Me? I attribute my excellent health to a complete avoidance of physical exercise and a steady diet of junk food.”
Mr. Hackbirn winced. “I was afraid of that. Well, Miss Wycherly, that changes tomorrow morning. After breakfast, I will drive you over to my health club and sign you up. Monday, you will start martial arts training.”
“What? Don’t I get any say in this?”
“No. It’s a condition of your employment. I need you in top shape.”
“Why?”
He paused. “So you can keep up with me. Dinner is ready. Let’s eat.”
True to his words, Saturday morning found us first at the sporting goods store for workout clothes and shoes, then at the health club. I was in pretty bad shape. I used to hike a lot, and camp, and ride horses when I lived in Tahoe. While I was in college, I worked up there during the summer and did all that stuff then. I hadn’t done much of anything since my first year teaching. I was pretty stiff Sunday morning.
I made it to mass on time. Walking home, I got that creepy shadowed feeling again. I turned a corner, then hid. Sure enough, around the corner came Mr. Hackbirn. I whirled around and almost smashed into him.
“Alright. This is too much,” I shouted. “What are you doing, following me?”
“Uh…” He fumbled for an answer. “You said you were followed Friday. I was just seeing if you had reason to be concerned.”
“You are so lucky that the last thing I want to do is go back to Tahoe.” I stalked off towards his house. “What is going on with you? I mean eccentric is one thing, but this is ridiculous.” He walked next to me and didn’t answer. “Don’t you trust me? What am I going to do to you? Am I supposed to be setting you up for a robbery?” He still didn’t answer. “Well?”
“It seems to me that is a rhetorical question.”
“Hmm.”
“Perhaps it would be better if you just remained at the house. I appreciate the inconvenience. But in the first place, you won’t have to worry about being followed, and in the second, I won’t have to worry about you being followed.”
“For how long?”
He sighed. “I wish I knew, Miss Wycherly, but it shouldn’t be too much longer.”
Monday morning I started running with him. Mr. Hackbirn runs for an hour every morning. I walked. He shook his head, and walked with me, pushing me to a run every so often.
After breakfast, we visited Mr. Fukaro at his dojo on Melrose. That seemed ridiculous, too. So did getting a mace can for my key ring, including the certification. Mr. Hackbirn insisted. It beat stifling in Tahoe, and it was nice to know I could fend Mr. Hackbirn off, should he try anything. He wasn’t about to.
That afternoon, he hovered over me at the UCLA research library. Wonder of wonders, someone wanted to look at an article he’d offered them. He told me a friend of his had typed the query letter and cleaned it up.
Wednesday morning Mr. Hackbirn showed up for our run very stiff and with a nasty bruise on his left cheekbone.
“What happened to you?” I asked, very concerned.
“Never mind,” he grumbled.
“Are you alright?”
“I’m fine.”
“What did you do? Run into a door or something?”
“No,” he replied curtly.
“It wasn’t one of your girlfriends, was it?”
“No such luck.” He stopped as he saw my shocked look. “I told you, I’m not into S and M.”
“I wasn’t thinking that. I just figured you must have been mugged. Did you call the police?”
“Miss Wycherly, enough. I do not care to discuss it.”
“But…”
“No more.” He took off.
And he meant no more. I’d learned that much. Right after lunch, we were working on the article he’d written the day before.
“I’ve never heard it before,” I told him. We had the article laid out on his desk, and I leaned over him. “And I can’t tell what it means from the context unless there’s a word missing in there. Either your pen leaked or you didn’t write in the word you decided to use instead.”
“Mont Blanc makes the finest writing instruments and inks in the world,” he said. “Nor is there a word missing. It’s a basic concept when it comes to funds.”
“Yeah, but would your audience know it?”
He thought. “Good point. How to define it…”
He leaned back in his chair. The phone rang. It was that fourth line. I dove for it. His hand got there first.
“Miss Wycherly, you are not to answer that line, under any circumstances, even if I am not here.”
“What is it?”
“A private line. Now, leave, and shut the door.”
I left. He didn’t seem angry, but there was something deadly serious in his voice. It scared me. I wanted to know, and I didn’t want to ask.
I did my best not to think about it. I had a job. It paid well. The food was good, if sparse. And it was a nice place to live. The rumpus room had a large screen TV, and a VCR, and a superlative stereo system that could be piped throughout the house, thanks to the intercom system. There was a full wet bar in there, too, which I didn’t mess with. My rooms were lovely. The library was great. The living room had a fireplace and cozy overstuffed furniture.
I did spend a lot of time sewing. Patterns and pieces of fabric don’t get you much cash, so I’d hung onto those. Friday night, it was getting late. I stopped sewing, and got into my nightgown, then poked around in one of the boxes I had yet to unpack. I found several cassette tapes and an old Panasonic cassette recorder. Laughing, I put in the tape I’d made of the Sergeant Pepper’s album way back when I was in high school. It was my best friend’s record, and we taped it on her dad’s hi-fi set.
I danced as the guitars twanged, and beat on air drums. I took the tape recorder with me into the bedroom, only to find that the Nero Wolfe novel I was reading was not on my bedside table. I’d left it in the living room. I didn’t want to stop my tape. I was having too much fun regressing. I found the ear plug, and plugged it in, so I wouldn’t disturb Mr. Hackbirn if he were hanging around somewhere.
It wasn’t likely. He was out most evenings. I assumed he was off chasing women. I didn’t expect to find him in the living room, and I really didn’t expect to find him naked as a jay bird with his hands all over an equally naked woman with really full brown hair. See, the living room is open, with a really wide doorway and no door.
I yelped and scrambled into the hallway. Mr. Hackbirn’s date also screamed.
“What the hell?” yelped Mr. Hackbirn. “What are you doing up?”
“What are you doing in there?”
The woman laughed.
“What does it look like?” asked Mr. Hackbirn.
“I meant why are you there? There’s no door.”
“I thought you were asleep. Why the hell aren’t you? It’s after midnight.”
“I came to get my book.”
“It’s no wonder you’re so dead in the mornings.”
“Can I have my book? It’s on the coffee table.”
“Come on in. We’re not doing anything.”
“You’re in your birthday suit!”
“You’re a grown woman. Haven’t you ever seen a naked man before?”
“No. And I don’t want to.” I put my hand in the doorway. “Will you just hand it out?”
I didn’t look. The book ended up in my hand.
“I’m sorry I surprised you. I hope I didn’t stop anything.”
Mr. Hackbirn snickered. “You wouldn’t have.”
My face flushed fire hot as I fled.
I spent most of Saturday afternoon trying to convince Mr. Hackbirn to let me go to Fullerton to visit my sister and her family. He wouldn’t budge.
“Miss Wycherly, please,” he said finally. “It’s just for a little while longer. Why would you want to go to your sister’s, anyway?”
“To relax.”
“How can you relax around five small children?”
He had a point, but I wasn’t going to let on. Besides, I enjoy my nieces and nephews.
“I manage,” I replied. “I get the feeling you don’t like children.”
“Not really.”
I sent him a snide glare. “Surprise. You spend so much time starting them. I can’t believe you haven’t produced a few by now.”
He didn’t seem in the least perturbed. “I had that fixed a long time ago.”
“Fixed?”
“A vasectomy, Miss Wycherly.”
My face went red. Mr. Hackbirn just chuckled and sauntered off to his room.
Sunday, instead of following me, he drove me to and from church. Monday morning, he threw (figuratively) his household accounts at me. The stocks and stuff that made his money were all handled by his broker and accountant. Getting it into his bank account and keeping track of what happened to it from there was my job. I’d been wondering where his money came from, i.e. was it legal? Everything in the shoe box he handed me seemed legit. Did it all make sense?
The checks from Amalgamated Paper Company didn’t. All the other check stubs were quarterly, and the amounts varied. The APC stubs were all monthly, and payroll checks at that. Admittedly, that wasn’t much to worry about, except for all the other stuff.
At lunch, I told Mr. Hackbirn there wasn’t any way I could get the information he wanted over the phone, so he insisted on driving me to the library. He hovered over me, claiming he was interested in how I did my research. He wasn’t. I finally sent him to get some microfilm reels.
The moment he was gone, I slipped out of the viewing room, and downstairs to the reference floors. I checked all the business abstracts. No Amalgamated Paper Company. I checked through the Yellow Pages for the city in which it was supposedly located. It wasn’t listed, nor was it in the BusinesstoBusiness supplement. I thumbed through Dun and Bradstreet once more.
“Why the hell did you sneak off like that?” Mr. Hackbirn’s voice snapped behind me.
I slammed the book shut. “I, uh, wanted to double check something.”
“Dun and Bradstreet has nothing to do with drug smuggling.”
“Well, not that. I’m sorry, Mr. Hackbirn. I’ve just been noticing things, and you’ve got a whole bunch of check stubs from a company that, as far as I can tell, doesn’t exist.”
“Oh.” Mr. Hackbirn pressed his lips together and thought. “Miss Wycherly, there is a logical explanation for that. Give me a few more days.”
“It’s not only those check stubs. There’re all sorts of other things.”
“I know. Now is not the time to discuss it. Please, Miss Wycherly, in a few more days you will have a full explanation.”
“Are you involved in something criminal? Because if you are”
“Miss Wycherly,” he interrupted, “now is not the time. You will know in a few days.”
When we got home, he went straight to his office and shut the door. The line on my phone lit up a second later. I went to the door and put my ear against it. I couldn’t hear a thing. It’s a sliding door, too, on a track, so nothing could escape through a crack at the bottom. For all intents and purposes, that office was soundproof.
I went to my desk and picked up the phone, and pressed the lit up line.
“Sid, what can I do for you?” Henry James’ voice asked. A director at the F.B.I., he called fairly often.
“Hasn’t that paperwork come through yet?” Mr. Hackbirn complained.
“Sid, have patience,” replied Mr. James. “The adoption has been approved. The clearance should be through any day now. We’re dealing with a bureaucracy, remember?”
“I know. But Wycherly is pretty bright and she’s asking questions. Not to mention that business is booming. I need the help and she’s sitting there completely impotent.”
“I’ll try to redirect a little of your business.”
“I’d rather have that clearance. What’s taking so long?”
“Who knows? Can you just hang tight?”
“I’m hanging fine. It’s Wycherly I’m worried about.”
“Well, worry about Lipplinger, too.”
“Aw, hell. Is that finally breaking?”
“Gannett’s putting the feelers out.”
“Push it some other way. Gannett saw me.”
“We’ll need you for the other phases, so stay ready.”
“When aren’t I? I’ll talk to you later. Call me the second that clearance comes through.”
“I will. Bye, Sid.”
“Bye, Henry.”
I put the phone down quickly and spread my notes out over my desk. Not that it mattered. Mr. Hackbirn didn’t leave his office until dinner. I decided not to say anything about what I’d heard. He was definitely up to something. Still, it could have been related to his writing. Mr. Hackbirn did do a regular feature on the F.B.I. for a newsweekly magazine. That could be why I needed a clearance. Which really didn’t make sense, but I was too worried about going back to Tahoe to question it until it was obvious Mr. Hackbirn was doing something illegal.
I was surprised the next morning when Mr. Hackbirn sent me by myself on an errand. That mysterious fourth line had rung again, and he’d kicked me out of his office. Five minutes later, I was called in.
Mr. Hackbirn wanted me to pick up a package for him at an address on Highland Avenue.
“Tell them you want the package for Big Red,” he told me.
“Big Red?” I asked, trying not to laugh.
“It’s an old joke,” he replied without any sign of humor.
I made the hike down to Sunset and picked up an eastbound bus, connecting to a southbound one at Highland. I got off at Santa Monica and went half a block south.
As I approached the building where the package was, I noticed a man leaning up against the building watching the door. He was the sort you see every now and then. He had longish stringy dirty hair and a half-grown beard with patches of gray in it. His denim pants and bomber jacket had both faded but not at the same rate. Something about him bothered me. By that point, I was convinced I was paranoid, so I ignored the feeling and went into the building.
The package turned out to be a ream of eight and a half by eleven paper in a brown wrapper without any markings. At least that’s what it looked like. I assumed the paper inside had some information on it. It seemed rather unlikely even for Mr. Hackbirn to go to so much trouble just for plain paper.
I left the building carrying the package and headed south again for a different bus stop. I wanted to go to the bank to deposit my check, which I hadn’t done Friday because Mr. Hackbirn hadn’t let me out of the house. I stopped at a window to look at something and noticed the man in denim about half a block away staring at the traffic. I wasn’t paranoid. I was being followed again.
I ducked in front of a stopped bus, then dashed across the street to a northbound bus, and got on board. How I wasn’t hit, God only knows. My guardian angel must have been working overtime. I changed buses three times, then stood for an hour at the bank. Well, it seemed like it. I didn’t see anyone in denim, let alone potential vagrants, although I kept looking. I was exhausted by the time I got back to the house.
“What took so long?” Mr. Hackbirn asked as I handed him the ream.
“Call me paranoid. I was followed again.”
Mr. Hackbirn became deadly serious.
“When?” he asked quickly.
“After I picked up the package.”
“Terrific!” He took off for the living room. “Did he follow you all the way here?”
“No. I grabbed a bus and it left before he could get on.” I followed him. He glared out the bay window to the street below. “I didn’t see him after that.”
“Tell me exactly what you did.”
So I told him. I even described the man.
“Who was he?” I asked when I was finished.
Mr. Hackbirn turned from the window and shrugged.
“I don’t know,” he said.
“Why would he be following me?”
“He was probably just some weirdo.”
“Then why are you so bugged about it?”
“Miss Wycherly, why don’t we just forget it happened?”
“No,” I snapped. “Something pretty darned strange is going on around here, and if you don’t tell me what it is, I’m leaving.”
“Miss Wycherly, please. I promise. Just a few more days.”
“Not good enough. See you.” I started for my rooms.
He grabbed my shoulders and turned me to face him.
“I can’t tell you now. Please. Trust me. I will tell you the very second I can.”
Man, his eyes were gorgeous. Dumb, I know. For all I knew, this guy could be signing me up for the Mafia, and there I was getting hot and bothered over his eyes. Definitely hot and bothered. I pulled away quickly, my face blazing.
“The very second you get that clearance?” I blurted out and regretted it. “Yeah, I can listen, too.” Terrified, I burst into tears. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have. But there’s too much weird stuff going on. But if it’s something criminal, you’ll kill me before you let me go, so I don’t testify against you, and I gotta find a chance to escape before I know too much, cause you know too much about me.”
“It’s nothing criminal,” he said softly. He was upset, also, but not angry at me. If anything, he looked guilty. “If you want to escape, go now. You already know more than you should, but if you want out, trust me, get out now, and forget you ever knew me.”
“I didn’t mean to do anything wrong.”
“Oh, hell.” His laugh was short and cost him. “Lisa, you’ve done more right than you could possibly know. That’s why you’re so confused, damn it. But I can’t clear it up without locking you in. I’m sorry I got you into this.”
“Do you really want me to leave?”
He turned away. “No. I want you. You’re good.” He looked at me sadly. “But in some ways, I want to warn you off, and I can’t tell you why.”
I bit my lip. “You’re not like into murder or something?”
“I promise you, it’s nothing criminal. I don’t give my word lightly.”
“I won’t find myself undressed, or… You know.”
He laughed. “No. I don’t go around trespassing upon the virtue of innocents unless they ask me to.”
“But you’d like to talk me into it.”
“I can’t say the thought hasn’t crossed my mind.” He came over and laid his hand on my cheek. “However, I do respect the word no.”
His touch was so light, so gentle and caring. My breath was coming shorter than after running. I pulled away and started for the office.
“Mr. Hackbirn, I-”
“Call me Sid.”
“Mr. Hackbirn, I think… I don’t know what to think.”
“Lunch is ready.”
I turned to him. “You say I’ll be locked in. I have to admit that’s pretty scary.”
“Then why don’t you think about it. You can take off any time tonight. Assuming you want to.”
I shook my head. “Thinking about it isn’t going to change anything. This might sound pretty crazy to you, but I’m not afraid of taking risks. You’ve given me your word. That’s good enough for me. I’ll stay, that is if you really want to put up with me.”
He smiled. “I think I can take my chances.”

spy fiction, mystery fiction, cozy mystery,

Chapter One

cozy mystery, serial mystery fiction, spy novelSeptember 10 – 13, 1982

My name is Lisa Wycherly. I live with my boss. I’m not sleeping with him. He’s got enough girls in and out of his bedroom. He doesn’t need me.

Oh, Lord, that sounds defensive.

It’s just that, thanks to my boss, my life has radically changed, and I still don’t know how to make sense of it all. Things got just plain scary last weekend, not to mention that horrible fight, and I’m still more freaked out because I’m sharing a house with a man. Okay, maybe not that I’m living with a man, but this man, a guy whose values are so totally opposed to my own when it comes to sex and relationships.

Maybe I should just start at the beginning. It started because I was hungry.

Neither of us knew what we were getting into that night. [And let’s be thankful we didn’t – SEH] We were in a bar, the absolute last place you’d find me under normal circumstances. He sat down across from me.

“Ditched your date?” he asked, pleasantly casual.

He was very nice for someone so obviously on the make, and good looking with dark wavy hair, a cleft chin, and very bright blue eyes. He wore a silk shirt with a sweater neatly tossed over his shoulders. Later, I found he was on the small side of average, about three inches taller than me, but just barely.

“Yes,” I replied, as coolly and politely as possible. “And thank you, but I don’t care to be picked up by anyone else.”

He glanced into the restaurant of which the bar was a part.

“Well, I suppose getting grabbed while starting your salad is enough to sour an evening.” He started to get up. “My apologies for presuming, Lisa.”

“Wait.”

He sat. “Yes?”

“How did you know my name?”

“You’re wearing it around your neck.”

My hand flew to the necklace as I let out a sniff.

He gazed at me softly. “Are you in trouble?”

“I’m alright!” I snapped, then blushed. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be rude.”

“But you are in trouble.”

“It’s nothing life-threatening.”

I felt the tears well up again. And I’d thought I was past crying about it. I blinked them back and looked at the man across from me. There was something about him…

“I’ve been out of work for a year,” I heard myself say. “My unemployment’s run out, and things are getting tight.” I touched my necklace. “This is the only thing I haven’t pawned.”

He nodded. “No money for a taxi, I presume.”

“I’ll be alright. I can call my sister.”

“Who is not currently home, at least I assume that’s who you called earlier.”

“They won’t be home ’til eleven, and they’re in Fullerton.”

“And we are in Hollywood.” He checked his watch. “Which means you’ve got a long wait. Why don’t I buy you dinner and take you home?”

I sighed. It was certainly my night to fend off aspiring Don Juans. Except the current one was anything but sleazy. In fact, he was the first genuine threat to my honor that I’d ever known. Wouldn’t you know, that’s the moment my date decided to show up.

“Wo, there you are, Lisa.” Larry was not wearing a leisure suit, but he might as well have been. “You were taking so long. I thought I’d better make sure you didn’t fall in.”

“I survived the restroom, Larry,” I said.

Even though I wanted to fend off the man across from me, I still felt embarrassed by Larry.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Larry,” said my nameless friend. He got up smoothly and shook Larry’s hand. “Lisa and I go way back. We haven’t seen each other in a while, and I just had to have a chat with her.”

“Well, the waiter brought dinner,” Larry said to me.

“Oh, that’s too bad,” said the nameless one. “Lisa’s coming to dinner with me.” He signaled the maitre d’. “In fact, our table’s ready now.”

“Now, wait a minute!” protested Larry. “Lisa-”

Larry made a grab at me. My benefactor stepped between us and put his arm around Larry’s shoulders. They spoke together quietly for a minute. I couldn’t hear over the music. [I told him blind dates were a drag, and that I’d take you off his hands, and put him onto Sue Wilkins if I remember correctly – SEH]

“Happy hunting,” my friend said, and slapped Larry on the back, then slid around and took my hand. “Come on, Lisa. He won’t hold that table forever.”

I went with him. I don’t know why I did, but I went with him. Larry gaped at me, then at some redhead. I didn’t see what happened next. The maitre d’ seated us in a nice, secluded booth, and my friend slipped him something.

The maitre d’ grinned. “Thank you, sir.”

“You’re welcome.”

I put my face in my hand. “You didn’t have to do that.”

“It’s my pleasure.”

“What about Larry?”

“That desperate little dork is getting the fate he so richly deserves.”

“What do you mean?”

“The redhead at the end of the bar.”

I peeked around the booth. I couldn’t see the bar.

“She isn’t going to dump him, is she?”

My friend laughed. “Hardly. In the first place, she’s so easy he won’t know what to do with her, and in the second, should he figure it out, she’s into S and M.”

“That’s… Oh no!” I started to get up.

“Let him be.”

“But…”

“The jackass drove you from a salad you desperately wanted, felt you up in a public place, he’s crude and he thinks he’s God’s gift to women.”

“Just because he’s a jerk doesn’t mean he deserves to get hurt.”

He looked at me. “Are you serious?”

“Of course, I’m serious.”

He shook his head. “Well, relax. She won’t hurt him. Unless he asks, and that’s a different matter, isn’t it?”

I slumped back into my seat. “I guess it is. I don’t know. I’d always heard pleasure was the idea.”

“It’s not how I get my kicks, but who are we to judge?”

“True.” My face felt fever hot. “Do you know if he’s left yet?”

“They left just as we were sitting down.”

“Good. I’d better be getting back to the bar.”

“Why? Don’t you want dinner?”

I swallowed. “Yes. But I don’t want to get any deeper in.”

“It’s nothing.” His smile was genuine and warm.

“A maitre d’ at a place like this does not grin at nothing.”

“You’re hungry. I saw you attack that salad with the ferocity of a starving child.”

“How do you know that’s not the way I always eat?” Which, in truth, it is.

“I also saw you slide two dinner rolls into your purse.”

I blushed again. “Alright. I’m hungry. Like I said, things are tight. But I’m not hungry enough to compromise my standards.”

He shrugged. “This is merely a philanthropic gesture.”

“I’ve heard that before.”

“I don’t doubt it. Well, I’ll confess to ulterior motives.”

His manner was relaxed, his grin casual. But his eyes had an intensity that made me catch my breath. I could see he would not trespass without my permission, but he would be happy to convince me to give it.

“Look, it’s not you,” I stammered. “You seem really nice, and I really appreciate your being honest about it, and the way you got rid of Larry, and it’s very sweet of you to offer, but I just don’t believe in sex outside of marriage.”

“Don’t you want dinner?” He seemed genuinely surprised.

“Yes, but… Well, I just can’t. Larry was a blind date, and the friend who set me up knows how I feel, and I told him how I feel, and he ignored it, I guess. Anyway, I don’t have any money, and I can’t give you my body, so…”

“I can accept that.” He looked at me again. He was considering something, unrelated to the messing around, for once. “Can you accept dinner and a ride? I promise I won’t touch you.”

“Sure, if you really want to.” I shrugged and he nodded at the waiter.

“What’s your name?” he asked after I’d ordered.

“Lisa Wycherly. Yours?”

“Sid Hackbirn.”

“Oh. What do you do for a living?”

“As little as possible.”

I grimaced. “Not funny.”

“I suppose not. Apologies. I do some occasional freelance writing and dabble in the stock market. Just enough work to maintain a comfortably high standard of living. And you?”

“Well, I was a teacher.”

“Was, huh? Hmm.” He considered again.

I don’t why, but it made me nervous.  After I’d eaten, he put me in a taxi, gave the driver my address, and I thought that was the last I would ever see of him.

I was wrong. Still, I didn’t regret it when Mr. Hackbirn showed up on my doorstep three days later.

“What are you doing here?” I asked, with the door opened only as far as the chain would let it. I wasn’t particularly surprised that he was there. I’d thought I’d seen heads of dark wavy hair following me in the previous days. I continued to write it off to my imagination, but it did make his appearance less of a shock. Besides, I had other problems just then.

“I’d like to talk to you,” he said.

“Right.”

“I’m serious. I have a business proposition for you, and nothing more.”

“Alright.” I shut the door, removed the chain, and let him in. “The worst you can do is kill me.”

He chuckled. “I like that attitude.”

“The place is a mess,” I said, sighing over the boxes and stuff all around.

“You’re packing.” He shifted the vest of the discreet three-piece suit he was wearing.

“I’m being evicted.” I choked and grabbed for a tissue.

“Going to your sister’s?”

“For a couple days. Then, Neil, he’s my brother-in-law, he’s going to help me move to Tahoe. I’m fleeing to the security of the womb.”

“Not your preferred option.”

I fought back the tears. “Well, Mae and Neil don’t have the room. They’ve got five kids. It won’t be so bad. I’ll be working. My dad has a business up there.”

“A resort and a souvenir store, I believe.”

“You’ve been there?” I was a little more surprised at that, but I’d met people who’d been to my parents’ place before.

“Not really. I stay on the Nevada side when I’m there.”

I turned on him. “You’ve been poking into my private affairs!”

“I prefer to call it research.”

“I call it nosy.”

“I reserve the right to gather basic background information on a prospective employee.”

That caught me. “Mr. Hackbirn, are you offering me a job?”

“Yes. I need a personal secretary to take over the mundane trivialities of life.” He smiled. “You impressed me last Friday with your backbone.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You are a person who sticks to her convictions even when there’s strong temptation not to. That’s a very difficult quality to find in people.”

“I don’t type very well.”

His eyebrow lifted. “A master’s degree, and you don’t type?”

“Not very fast. I stayed up late a lot of nights.” I looked him over again. “Just how much do you know about me?”

He shrugged. “Basic facts. Your college background, your year of community college teaching, things like that. You got excellent references from your former employer, by the way.”

“Let’s hear it for budget cuts.” I sighed. “What makes you think I’m going to take a chance working for you?”

“I’m offering an excellent salary and a place to live, neither of which you have at the moment.”

“I do so.”

“Independent of your parents?” He shook his head. “That is what you find most galling about going back there, and don’t think I don’t know it.”

I looked away. “So where is this place to live?”

“My house. I will need you to live in.”

“Sure.” I snorted. “Now, I get it.”

“Miss Wycherly, I assure you, I have no time to waste on virgins with standards. This is a business proposition, nothing more.”

“I still feel like it’s an elaborate plan to seduce me.”

“If you really want to think so.”

He smiled a truly sensual smile. I blushed and swallowed and tried to control the way my heart was racing. He was mulling over the possibilities of bedding me by sundown. He could have done it. But he wouldn’t unless I said yes. And the really strange thing about it was that I knew I could trust him.

I smiled. “Alright, it’s not. Why don’t we talk some terms?”

They were attractive, to say the least, and included my own rooms and guaranteed time off to go to church on Sundays. We dickered for an hour. Finally, I shook his hand.

“I guess I can take my chances with you,” I said, happily.

Mr. Hackbirn sighed. “Miss Wycherly, before we call this final, I’d better tell you. I wanted you in particular because I need someone with guts. I can be a dangerous person to know.”

“Mr. Hackbirn, I’m not a thrill-seeker. But danger beats stifling hands down. Don’t get me wrong. I love my parents, and they wouldn’t hold me back intentionally, and I’ll probably end up running their businesses when they retire, or whatever. But with them… Well, you get the idea.”

He got it. I was the one who didn’t have a clue. I called my sister and told her about the eleventh hour save.

“What are you going to do about your landlord?” Mae asked.

“Well, I’m moving.” I looked over at Mr. Hackbirn. “I found a new place right away.”

“What about first and last months’ rent?”

“Um. My new boss said he’d loan me the money. He’s taking it out of my check.”

Mr. Hackbirn smirked. Maybe he had a right to. All I knew was that I didn’t want Mae talking me out of it. I told her I’d phone her with the address and phone number as soon as I was settled in, and hung up.

“Mae’s a nice person,” I explained awkwardly. “But she gets judgmental sometimes, and you never know when.”

“I see. Well. Why don’t I call the moving company? We’ll get them straightened out, and then you can come over to my place and start today.”

I took a deep breath. “Okay.”

There really wasn’t much left in the apartment except my clothes, my books and other odds and ends. Anything of value I’d pawned or sold, even my trusty old sewing machine. The movers arrived a half hour after Mr. Hackbirn called them. While we waited, I tried to find out about my new employer. He was pleasant but evasive. I didn’t realize it until some days later when it dawned on me he hadn’t answered one question I’d asked him about himself.

His car is a dark slate blue Mercedes Benz 450SL, one of the first ones they ever built. I had expected something a little newer, although not necessarily flashier. One thing that was obvious about Mr. Hackbirn, he had excellent taste.

He also has plenty of money to spend. His house is in Beverly Hills. I was in awe as we rolled up the steep driveway to the gray ranch-style house at the top of an ice plant covered slope. The place had been built in the early sixties and looked like it. There was a Japanese garden in the tiny front yard.

We went in through the bare garage. Inside looked like a model home or something out of a magazine. Mr. Hackbirn, or his decorator, really likes period furnishings. The formal dining room was Eighteenth Century, the rest of the place tended towards Victorian and lots of oak. The library was sheer heaven. Books lined all four walls, and there were two red velvet wing-backed chairs, each with a good reading lamp next to it. There was also an ebony baby grand piano.

“Do you play?” I asked Mr. Hackbirn.

“Sometimes,” he said.

The offices were also oak paneled. I think they must have been one room in the past because to get to Mr. Hackbirn’s, you have to go through mine. My desk was modern, and it had a computer to one side, with two printers next to it. There was also a green leather couch on the opposite wall, sliding glass doors to the front yard on the side, and four oak filing cabinets with five drawers each.

The phone rang. Without hesitation, I went over and picked it up.

“Mr. Hackbirn’s residence, Miss Wycherly speaking,” I told the caller.

“Already?” answered the man on the other end. “Is Sid in?”

“I’ll see. May I tell him who’s calling?”

“Mr. Henry James.”

There was a hold button, and I pressed it. It was a multi-line phone, and it looked like Mr. Hackbirn had three lines hooked up.

“It’s a Mr. Henry James,” I told him.

He sighed in relief. “Miss Wycherly, I appreciate the way you screened that call, but in the future, under no circumstances are you to identify yourself, or this place as my residence.”

“Should I call it your business?”

“Don’t identify it at all. A simple hello will do. I’ll take the call in my office. Why don’t you start getting the files in order, then I’ll show you how to work the computer.”

The file cabinets were empty except for the first one. That was loaded with papers randomly tossed in. Almost all of them were clippings of articles from magazines and newspapers. Mr. Hackbirn was certainly well read, and given the number of different newspapers I found, got around. Traveled a lot, I mean. He gets around a lot the other way, too. But that has nothing to do with the clippings.

After his call, it was lunch time. Mr. Hackbirn introduced me to Conchetta Ramirez, his housekeeper and cook. She doesn’t live in. She works from ten to six, Monday through Friday and that’s it. My rooms were technically hers, or would have been if she lived there. I have a small suite off the breakfast room, with a sitting room, full bath, and bedroom.

Lunch was chicken salad with butter lettuce, whole wheat toast made from homemade bread and a fruit compote. The portions were on the small side, but I was in no position to complain. We ate in the breakfast room, a bright, cheerful space off the kitchen, furnished in white French Provincial. We also ate dinner there at five o’clock, grilled mahi-mahi, salad with vinaigrette, fresh steamed zucchini, brown rice and small portions. Mr. Hackbirn, it seemed, was on a diet.

Not that he said so. Nor did he comment on the fact that I was done eating in a few short minutes. It’s not really obvious because my mother did pound good manners into me, but I tend to wolf my food down.

“You should feel free to watch television in the rumpus room if you like,” said Mr. Hackbirn, trying not to notice how fast my food was disappearing. “Or if you prefer, I can arrange to have a television put in your room.”

“I don’t watch much TV,” I said between bites. “I was wondering about the library, though.”

“Help yourself. To any of the common areas. I’d just as soon consider you a housemate outside of business hours.” He paused. “Although, you might be more comfortable if you make a habit of knocking first before opening any closed doors.”

“Well, of course. I-”  I stopped. “Oh. Yeah, you might be right.”

Mr. Hackbirn chuckled, then looked at me. “One more thing. I would appreciate if you’d not leave the house for a week or two. Just until we’re settled in with the arrangement and all.”

“Oh.” I frowned. “I was going to go shopping on payday. All I have is one suit, and you did say business wear during office hours.”

“That’s right. I did. I think I can arrange that. Why don’t you go Friday afternoon? We can put together a more detailed plan that morning.”

I nodded. It seemed a little weird. So the guy was kind of eccentric. I didn’t have anyplace to go, anyway. I agreed to stick around.

Later that night, I found a Complete Works of Shakespeare in the library and thumbed through just for the heck of it. In the second scene of Julius Caesar, a line jumped out at me. It was Cassius’: “Therefore it is meet that noble minds keep ever with their likes, for who so firm that cannot be seduced?”

Well, me, for one. Then I thought back to that morning and that really hot little smile of Mr. Hackbirn’s. Alright. Maybe it was possible. But I wouldn’t go down without a fight. And what the heck was I doing there in the first place?

spy fiction, mystery fiction, cozy mystery,

That Old Cloak and Dagger Routine – Prologue

I’m trying something new on the blog today – a fiction serial. That Old Cloak and Dagger Routine was a novel I wrote in the early 1980s. I’ve kept it in its original time period. It’s not your usual spy novel, but I hope you enjoy it.

Prologue

spy novel, spy fiction, mystery fiction, cozy mystery‘Twas Glasnost what done us in. That and a CIA mucky-muck with a chip on his shoulder. All those years of guarding our secret, and now we’re on overt status. Quickline has folded, a victim of the thawing cold war.

At least my journals can see the light of day. I started them shortly after I was first adopted by Quickline. It was a dangerous and perhaps even stupid thing to do. But my life had suddenly and profoundly changed. I needed some way to make sense of it, to understand it and the person I was becoming. The things I was doing were so unlike the person I’d always thought I was and the values I’d spent so much time working out. As it turned out, my values weren’t challenged. Just me.

Anyway, all the names have been changed, and some of the places. Secrecy remains a habit with us. Still, as I look over the pile of tattered notebooks and binders stuffed with pages scrawled over with cipher, I’m glad I wrote it all down. [Dear Lisa, so am I – SEH]