The next morning after breakfast, I took the long way to the front door, going past Lipplinger’s room.
“Good morning, Professor,” I called after pounding on the door.
No answer. That wasn’t surprising. Lipplinger never said anything to me unless he absolutely had to. I went on to Sunday mass without thinking about it.
When I got back, I found Sid hadn’t lost any time calling Henry James.
“Well, I’d appreciate it, Henry,” he told the living room phone as I entered the house. There was a pause as Henry spoke. “No, she’s doing real good. We had some tense moments, but she came out okay… What do you mean you can reassign her if she wants?”
“I don’t,” I said, going into the living room.
Sid looked at me.
“I see… When was this..?” Sid sighed in response. “That’s been settled. She’ll stay with me… No, she’s standing right here.” He handed me the phone. “He wants to talk to you.”
“Hello, Henry,” I said into the receiver.
“Sid says you’ve patched things up.”
“A long time ago. Really. I’m fine.”
“Well, the option’s there. Getting rid of Quickline you won’t be able to do, but if Sid’s a problem I can get you reassigned.”
“You haven’t done anything yet?”
“Please don’t, then. I’m very happy where I’m at.”
“That’s a different song than the one you were singing last November.”
“I know, Henry. But we settled it.”
I handed the phone back to Sid, who hung it up.
“I didn’t know you called Henry during that fight,” he said, hurt.
“I was pretty upset. It didn’t matter. He couldn’t do anything anyway.”
“It looks like we’re not as stuck as we thought.” He looked like he wished we were.
“Maybe not by the business.”
He looked at me and smiled.
“Even then it won’t be that easy.” He paused, then looked away. “Which, perhaps, is just as well.”
I just smiled and left the living room. Sid and my daddy were very much alike in that neither one could admit emotion.
Later that afternoon a call came through on the business line. (The other two lines are Sid’s and my private lines.) I didn’t listen in, being busy with a new dress I was putting together. When I saw that Sid had hung up, my curiosity got the better of me. After all, people hardly ever called us on the business line on Sundays. I went looking for Sid and found him in his office. He sat behind his desk with his chin in one hand. He glanced at me briefly and went back to staring into space.
“Something’s up,” he said. “Harris is being a little too chummy.”
“Is that who called just now?”
“Couldn’t he be wanting to bury the hatchet?”
“That’s what he says. But I seriously doubt it. Last fall when we were at that mall with the kids, I saw him there. I’m pretty sure he didn’t see me. I thought he might have been talking into a radio. I tailed him just out of curiosity, then saw you in trouble, so I dropped him. At the time I thought I was just being paranoid. But now I’m really wondering.”
“I’m more than wondering. I ran into him just outside of the toy store.” I frowned. “Wait. He knows me. He wouldn’t have had any reason to think I was up to anything.”
“Unless he saw us together,” said Sid. “That, in itself would be enough to arouse suspicion.”
Sid snickered. “What would a nice girl like you be doing hanging around a guy like me? Ned and whoever he’s working with must have pegged the drop at the toy store. The hard part is knowing whether or not Ned knows you weren’t using your real name when you picked up those keys. I’m inclined to think not.”
“I don’t get it.”
“If they know you, then they know me, and they would also be watching us and that means they would have to have seen Lipplinger. But nobody has come for him, and we haven’t had any tails.”
“That makes sense. But what about Ned?”
“That is indeed the crucial question. We’ll have to keep an eye on him. That’s another thing that bothers me. He practically paved the way.”
“We were talking about city government and he suggested it might be a good magazine article. I said it would take some research and he said he’d be happy to help me.”
Sid lifted an eyebrow. “It would make a good piece if I can get the right angle on it. I think I will play Harris’s game.”
“What if it’s a trap?”
“It’s quite possible. But I get the impression Harris is trying to feel me out more than anything else. He had no reason to suspect I was an operative back in ‘Nam. He’s definitely wondering about me, but if he was certain, he’d be more likely to set up an attack or just watch us and try to blow up our operation. Which is why I’m taking his bait. If I were only a freelance writer, I’d think Ned’s being a little pushy and trying to grandstand, but I’d still do the article.”
“Well, be careful. I don’t want to end up in the unemployment lines again.” Then a thought hit me. “You mind if I do some research, too?”
“Uh-huh. I don’t know what she could tell me, but it couldn’t hurt.”
“I think it could. We don’t want her to get suspicious.”
“If she’s going to get suspicious, then she already is by now. She noticed you were a little put off track when you met him. I wrote it off by telling her it was Viet Nam. With all the current concern over about Viet Nam vets, she won’t think twice about Ned Harris bothering you.”
Sid frowned, then sighed. “That does make sense.”
“Good. I’ll call her in a little while. No sense in pushing it.”
A little while turned out to be the next day. Mae was very happy I called.
“Any chance I can get to sit down,” she sighed.
“Knee bothering you?”
“Just a little. So what’s up? Did Ned Harris get a hold of Sid?”
“Unfortunately. Sid’s been real moody since he did.”
“The Viet Nam thing?”
“I think so. Listen, Mae, what can you tell me about Ned?”
“Well, I don’t know. He’s a very nice, very active man. What more can I say?”
“He’s a travel agent, isn’t he?”
“How does he strike you, as a person?”
“Just a good All-American type, I guess. A little pushy sometimes. He seems a little closed, too, like he’s not quite willing to let you see him. Hold on a second, Lisa.” Then more softly, “Ellen, you stay out of that or I’ll paddle your seat.”
I heard a soft chuckle. Sid was listening in.
“What was that?” asked Mae. So she had heard it, too.
“Just some interference on the line, I expect.” I got up from my desk and walked over to the doorway where I could see Sid with the phone to his ear. I felt a little like my privacy was being invaded, but decided he had a right to listen this time. “Do you know much about Ned’s business?”
“Not really, except that it’s doing very well. They’ve got plenty of money and a nice place up in Sunny Hills.”
“He’s on the city council, right?”
“When’s the next meeting?”
“Sometime the week after New Years. Why do you want to know?”
“Ned kind of hinted that Sid should do an article on city government and Sid’s thinking about it. He also thinks Ned’s grandstanding a little.”
“That may be. I wonder why Sid’s so bugged about him.”
“I have no idea.” I looked away from Sid. “Bad wartime memories, I guess. Sid absolutely refuses to talk about it. The only reason I found out he was in Vietnam was that I was cleaning out his files and found his army papers.”
I said goodbye to Mae shortly after and hung up. Sid came into my office.
“So, now what?” I asked.
“We wait.” He seemed bugged.
“Sid, did I say anything wrong?”
He paused. “Not per se. If anything, you were a little too accurate. I, uh, really don’t like remembering that time in my life.”
“That bad, huh?”
“There are no words to describe it, Lisa.”
He looked back at his office, then ambled out into the hall. A few minutes later, I heard piano music from the library. I later found out that the piece was the first of Chopin’s Twenty-Four preludes, Opus 28. Sid played all twenty-four.
The next day, Harris took second place for a while to a greater concern: Lipplinger. He’d been very good about staying in his rooms before Christmas, so neither Sid nor I thought anything of it when we didn’t see him after. Until Conchetta came into the office.
“You have sent the old man away again?” she asked.
“Not ’til after New Years,” I said. “Why?”
“I haven’t seen him.”
“He has been staying in his room since he came back.”
“No he hasn’t. I see him different places. But I haven’t seen him since Christmas. No food is gone either.”
“Well, then…” I thought, then called out, “Sid. We’ve got a problem.”
“What?” He came out of his office.
I was on my way out. “Conchetta thinks Lipplinger’s missing.”
“I haven’t seen him since Christmas,” she said, as she and Sid followed me to Lipplinger’s room.
I opened the door. The room looked alright except for the fact that Lipplinger wasn’t in it. Sid came in past me and went straight to the bathroom.
“He’s not there,” he said coming back in.
I noticed a piece of paper lying on the dresser. I picked it up.
“That idiot,” I grumbled, and handed it to Sid.
“’I’ll be back after the holidays.’ What does he think he’s doing?” Sid slipped the note into his pocket. “He must have gone to Hattie’s. I’d better call her.”
In the office, I listened in. The butler answered.
“Yes, may I speak to Hattie Mitchell?” said Sid. “It’s rather important.”
“Just a minute.”
There was a delay before Hattie’s voice came over the wires.
“Hello?” She sounded particularly cheerful.
“Hi, it’s me, is your brother there?”
“Oh, hello, Sid. I thought Miles was with you.”
“Not at the moment. Have you heard from him at all?”
“Actually, I haven’t. I was a little surprised when he didn’t call Christmas, but I didn’t think anything of it. You know Miles.” Her voice caught. “Sid, if you don’t know where he is…”
“We’re on top of it. Don’t worry. In the meantime, you are under surveillance by the other side. I’d be careful.”
Hattie laughed. “Oh, don’t worry. My phones are clean, and so is my house. I’m very certain of that.”
“There are other ways to listen in.”
“Sid, it’s sweet of you to be concerned, but believe me, half my business is electronic surveillance. I know what’s out there and how to thwart it.”
“Alright. We’ll get back to you as soon as we know anything.”
He wasn’t happy as he hung up. I walked into his office.
“What do you think?” he asked me.
“There goes Mammoth.” I’d been planning on spending New Years skiing at Mammoth Lakes with my church group.
“I think you’ll make it.”
The phone rang. This time, it was Henry. I went back to my office and debated what to do next.
“Lisa,” Sid called.
I went back to his office. He scribbled something on a notepad.
“Yeah, thanks a lot, Henry.” He hung up.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“Sit down. We’ve got a hot one this time.” Sid dropped his pen on the desk and leaned back in his chair. “Henry was digging up whatever they had on that operative in Fullerton. They know he or she is brokering information, basically, putting people who want to sell out into contact with people who want to buy. Who that person is, we have no idea, but he or she stays very clean, and may even be fairly visible in the community.”
“Is it my imagination, or does that sound like Ned Harris?”
“It does indeed.”
“But Fullerton?” I shook my head. “It’s a nice little suburban city. There’s nothing there.”
“There is one major defense plant in the city and several others nearby. Lisa, Southern California is a veritable hotbed of covert activity. The better part of the defense industry is based here. Henry’s friends have been trying to pin down a number of transmissions beamed to the North Orange County area and they’ve got it pinned down to Fullerton, but where they don’t know. And just to make things interesting, another transmission was received not half an hour ago from Washington, D.C.”
“They haven’t got the code completely broken yet, but there was something about a special traveler in two weeks.”
“You know, Ned Harris is a travel agent.”
“Mighty convenient, don’t you think?”
I sighed. “It is. It just seems so weird. I mean we’re only guessing at this point. How can we know for sure?”
Sid smiled. “That, my dear, is the difference between knowing what has happened and proving it in court.”
“I don’t know, Sid. Why two weeks? If they’ve got Lipplinger now, why don’t they ship him right away?”
“Traveling with a prisoner, especially when you don’t want anyone to know he’s a prisoner, is not an easy thing to do. And then there are arrangements to be made. You don’t just charter a Soviet plane or boat on a moment’s notice.”
I nodded. “I guess this really puts the clamps on Mammoth.”
“Why? We’ve got two weeks.”
“They could have gotten it wrong, or they might move it up.”
“We’re making arrangements. If Ned leaves Fullerton or has any guests, we’ll know.”
“And what about Lipplinger?”
“They’ve got him, for the moment. Let them deal with him.” He looked at me for a moment, thinking something over. “I think you’d better go to Mammoth as originally planned. It’s possible we’re being watched and I want us to stay as clean as possible, which means we’re shutting down business. Any plans we’ve made I don’t want to change unless something legitimate comes up. It might arouse suspicion if we do.”
There was something fishy about that. Shutting down business, I could see. But letting me go running off to Mammoth..?
“Are you trying to get rid of me that weekend for some reason?” I asked.
“Well.” Sid’s grin was guilty as all get out. “I have been planning a small party here.”
“Not the kind I’d like, I take it. Okay. I’ll lock all my doors before I go. Don’t get too drunk.”
“I won’t be drinking that much. Alcohol doesn’t do much for lovers either.”
“And heaven forbid you should not always be in peak form.” Then another thought hit me. “There won’t be any illegal substances floating around, will there?”
Sid shrugged. “It’s not unlikely. That’s one thing you can’t always control. I don’t think there’ll be much pot. It’s out of style. I try to discourage it. It doesn’t do much for the sex drive, besides being hard on the lungs. But coke is a whole other kettle of fish. This town is loaded with it and you can’t get around it, even though the stories are exaggerated.”
Sid snorted. “Lisa, you know better than that. It’s far too dangerous in our business, and I probably wouldn’t anyway. Sex is my only vice.”
I looked at him, my curiosity getting the better of me again.
“Did you ever do drugs?”
“A little marijuana. It was as common as tobacco among the people I grew up with. When I was in high school nobody could understand why I was so bored about it. A few kids thought I was doing the hard stuff. But I wasn’t. I’d seen too much of what that does to people. I just smoked an occasional joint to be part of the gang.”
Sid’s reminiscent mood infected me also.
“I was just the opposite. I knew there were drugs around, but I never really believed it. In a resort city, you get all kinds of people. I was still very sheltered. I remember once this girl I knew told me drugs were to be had as easily as asking for them. I never believed her. I was in college before I saw my first joint.”
“Such innocence.” He chuckled, then got serious. “You know, there are times when I could kick myself for getting you involved in this business. You’re too good. You don’t deserve guys shooting at you.”
“So what do I deserve?” I asked smiling.
“Something like what Mae’s got. A husband and family, a nice peaceful life.”
“Did it ever occur to you I don’t want that?”
Sid was surprised. “You don’t?”
“No. Sure I like being at Mae’s, and, sure, I love the kids. But I’ve got a good thing going. When those kids get cranky, Mae and Neil get them. When diapers had to be changed, Mae and Neil did it. When the kids have to be disciplined, that’s Mae and Neil’s job. I get to share all the good times and only rarely do I have to deal with the bad. That week I spent babysitting only reinforced that. In some ways, I’d like to get married and settle down, and maybe there’ll come a time when I will. I’m not ready to close the door on that option yet. But the more I think about it, the more I want to stay single. That’s mostly the reason why I didn’t want to work for my dad. If I had gone back to Tahoe, or even to Florida, I would have worked for a while. But it wouldn’t have been a career. It would have been just marking time until I found a husband, and I don’t want one. I like my freedom. Of course, I couldn’t tell that to my parents. Even as independent as Mama is, she’s in the resort business because Daddy is. With them, it’s either the convent or the home, and I won’t be settled to them until I’ve chosen one or the other. Even if I’m eighty.”
“I hope you don’t choose the convent.”
“Don’t think I haven’t thought about it. It would be nice and there’s certainly a great deal of job security in it. But I really don’t think I am, if you’ll pardon the expression, called to it.”
The jangling of the phone totally shattered the mood. It was Mae, calling to give me the date of the next Fullerton city council meeting. It was approximately two weeks away.
New Years Day, I entered the house very cautiously. Well, it was closer to the day after New Years at that point. The lights were still on, so I knew Sid wasn’t in bed yet, or rather asleep for the night.
“Sid?” I called loudly. “I’m home.”
There was no answer, but that wasn’t surprising. As I dropped my luggage in my room, I thought I heard glassware jangling from the rumpus room. The door was open, so I went to investigate.
He was straightening up the bar. There was a pile of dirty glasses on one end and next to it a dust pan with a broom on the floor.
I yawned and flopped down into a bean bag.
“Have a good time?” Sid asked without looking up.
“Uh-huh, and yourself?”
“Quite nice, thank you. Any casualties?”
“Just a couple of sunburns. Myself included. Dummy me forgot my sunscreen.”
Sid looked at me and smiled. “You look like a raccoon.”
“I know. They changed my nickname from Teacher to Bandit.”
“My past has been haunting me. I used to be, among other things, a ski instructor in Tahoe. There were several people with us who had never skied before, so guess who got elected to teach them.”
“Elected? If I know you, you told them not to spend the money on lessons as you could teach them just as well.” His blue eyes glittered with mischief.
“Better than the twit they had. I have my pride.”
“Oh, well, my condolences on not getting to the good slopes.”
“Oh, I did. How do you think I got sunburned so badly? Even got a little night skiing in.”
Sid yawned and came around the front of the bar for the broom. I noticed that not only was he just wearing a shirt and dark pants, he was in his stocking feet. His hair was still perfect, though. I shook my head and smiled.
“I take it your party was a success.”
Sid nodded and began sweeping behind the bar. I yawned again and stretched. I noticed something with lace on it sticking out from underneath the beanbag next to me. I reached over and pulled it out. It was a pair of women’s bikini underpants.
“One of your friends left something.” I tossed them at him. He caught them and looked at them, lifting an eyebrow.
“Whosever these are, I’ll bet it’s not the first time it’s happened to her,” he said. He looked at me. “If I had them washed, would you want them?”
I think he was being tacky just to tease me.
“No thanks,” I said, for once playing it cool. “Lace itches me.”
Sid dumped them in the waist can and went on sweeping. I got up, walked to the door and turned back to him.
“It might amuse you to know, “ I said, languidly leaning against the door jamb. “That yours truly has a genuine real live date, scheduled for the end of this month, provided my boss doesn’t cart me off on one of his infamous capricious whims.”
“Congratulations. With who, may I ask?”
“I don’t ask who your dates are. Of course, it’s impossible to keep track. His name is George Hernandez and he’s a class A-one sweetheart. He’s part of my church group.”
“Well, if I have to behave, he darned well better.”
“I’m sure he will. Good night, Sid.”
“Good night, Lisa.”