Fugue in a Minor Key is the fourth book in the Operation Quickline series, featuring Lisa Wycherly and Sid Hackbirn. Like the others, I’m posting it as a serial first. You can catch up with the earlier chapters by visiting its archive page.
February 13, 1984
I have to give Nick credit – he did keep pace with us Monday morning as we went on our run. He also behaved very nicely over breakfast, although he wasn’t happy when I insisted that he do the same school work that Darby had been assigned. It took some negotiation, but I got both boys working in the library.
By the time I got to the office, Sid was on his way out.
“The drop from the zoo,” he explained. “I shouldn’t be too long.”
I nodded. The green five branch was based in Pasadena, which wasn’t all that bad, as far as driving was concerned. Sid left and I went to work.
My first task, however, was to get Nick’s school work, which meant calling Rachel. She had already called Nick’s school and agreed to ship his books overnight. Fortunately, both Nick and Darby had mostly the same books and were in pretty much in sync as far as what they were doing. It still took another half hour getting the boys re-settled and each doing his own school work
Then there were Sid’s first drafts that had to be edited – he’s very good at organizing a story and his writing flows very nicely, but his grammar, spelling, and punctuation are pretty grim. I popped the floppy disk that Sid had left on my desk into my computer, pulled up his stock market story and went to work.
I wasn’t even half-way done when the boys came running into my office, squabbling about who would use which book to do what. I probably should have let them settle it, themselves, but instead, I wasted more time by working through a plan for them.
In the middle of all that, Sid came back, acknowledged the peace process and headed straight for his office. I must have taken longer than I thought with the boys because Sid was waiting for me when I got back to my desk
“We need to talk,” he announced from the door of his office.
I sighed. “Can I finish your draft, first?”
Sid winced, then shook his head.
I followed him into his office and shut the door behind me.
“You’ve got a meeting tonight,” he said.
“When did that come through?”
“Just now. You’re meeting Wintergreen at a bar in Brea.”
I mused. “That’s not far from that defense plant we’re visiting tomorrow.”
“And I’m guessing that’s what the meeting’s about. Green Acre said today that Wintergreen has had a job there for a lot of years. Apparently, she’s the one who found out about the ring at the plant. But she can’t do a lot without blowing her cover.”
“That figures.” I sighed and looked back at the library. “I know it’s my turn to go out, but what about the boys?”
“That.” Sid shook his head. “It turns out I’m the wrong gender.”
“Wintergreen thinks she’s being watched by people who know who she really is, so she’s going to one of her regular hangouts. One that is known for its dating scene.”
“Sounds perfect for you.” The light dawned. “Except….”
“I’m the wrong gender.”
I blushed. “She’s not expecting me to – you know.”
“Nah. She said she rarely picks people up, but it would look funny if she were talking to a man.”
“Well, it doesn’t sound too bad.”
“A lesbian bar?” Sid looked at me. “You’re not shocked?”
“Why? I’m not going there to pick anyone up.”
“That’s true.” Sid shook his head. He knew that I wasn’t bothered by homosexuality, even if my experience with lesbians was limited. “Well, any time after nine.”
I wasn’t thrilled. It would mean I’d probably have to skip the teen Bible study, but no one was depending on me to do anything specific, so skipping was more of a nuisance than it was a problem. That, and George was expecting to see me that night, which meant I’d have to find an excuse, too.
“Oh. One other thing.” I held my breath because I knew Sid wasn’t going to like what was coming.
“Um, Mae called last night, and we came up with something very nice for Nick’s birthday tomorrow.”
Sid looked at me. “And based on your tone at the moment, I’m guessing it’s not something I’m going to like.”
“What about our meeting in the morning?”
“Mae will take the kids and we’ll meet them there later.”
“What about Janey and the others?”
“Mae’s bringing all of them.”
“Hm.” Sid thought it over and I could tell having Janey there mitigated a lot. “Well, I suppose it could be worse. Okay.”
“I’ll set it up.”
After that, it was pretty much a normal day. I debated calling George, but then thought it would make more sense if I just didn’t show at bible study. I could always say that I had a last-minute meeting, which was certainly the truth.
As for the boys, I just told them that I had a meeting and let them think it was church-related. Which meant I had to leave the house by seven, but there was a mall nearby where I was to meet Wintergreen, so I decided to get my Valentine’s shopping done while I was at it.
The bar was in the old part of Brea. It was the sort of area that had once been the center of civic life but had gotten progressively seedier over the years. One of Mae’s friends lived in the area and I remembered her saying that the neighborhood had always been a little off but had really gone downhill since the mall had gone in a few years before.
The room was dim and smoky, with a long bar decorated by fuschia neon lights feebly glowing around the bottles on the wall. At the far end of the room, a band was setting up. It was mostly empty when I came in, and for a place that supposedly catered to lesbians, there were several guys in there, as well.
A lone woman was at the bar, smoking lazily, with a half-full glass and an ashtray in front of her. Her light-colored hair was cut short and the top half of her was wearing a suit jacket and shiny blouse with a floppy bow tie collar that she’d opened and left the long ends hanging loosely.
I sat down at the bar, a few stools down from the woman. Next to the ashtray was a roll of Lifesavers candy. The wrapper glowed vaguely greenish in the dim light. The bartender ambled over.
“Help you?” He was a slender guy and balding.
“Yeah,” I said almost breathlessly as I heaved my monster purse onto the stool next to me. “Do you know how to make a Red Hot Mama?”
“Uh, nope. Never heard of that one.” They almost never did.
Truth be told, I wasn’t entirely sure what one was, myself, just that it involved rum, cranberry juice, and club soda. But it was a convenient way to let someone else know who I was without letting the rest of the bar know.
“Oh,” I sighed. “What the heck. A Bloody Mary, extra spicy.”
Sure enough, the other woman chuckled as the bartender ambled off to make the drink.
“I’m impressed,” she said, stubbing out her cigarette. “Jimmy’s not easy to stump.”
I shrugged and smiled. “A friend of mine said she liked them.”
“First time here?” She tamped her cigarette pack, then popped a candy in her mouth.
“Yeah. I had a late meeting.”
And so forth and so on. We chit chatted for a good half hour before Wintergreen made her move, and even then, it was to move closer to me by only one stool. It wasn’t until we raucously started tearing apart some movie that she finally landed in the stool next to me.
Her chuckle was low and warm, as was her voice as she bent her head close to mine.
“You know I’m being watched,” she said, then raised her head to exhale a stream of smoke.
I smiled for the effect. “We heard.”
“I have no idea how Wright’s doing it, but he’s been on top of pretty much anybody that got sent in there.”
“I heard they can’t get anyone in undercover.”
“It gets better. He’s catching them within days, no matter what project the operative is on.”
“That’s fast. But how?”
“I’m not sure, but it’s got to be someone from our side.” She laughed again.
I tittered along. “That would make sense.”
“I hear you’re planting a bug in his office.”
“We go in tomorrow. We’ve got a legit cover to be talking to him, so we’re going to do it that way.”
“No!” She leaned back, grinning, then moved in again and stubbed out her cigarette. “No. Don’t do it that way. He’s really spooky. I’ve only been working for him a couple weeks and he’s been wondering about me and I’ve been at that plant for over a decade and he knows it.”
“I got transferred in as his secretary – normal channels, even. Believe me, I would have rather kept my distance.” She eased off the stool and collected her purse. “Well, I’ve got to be up early for work tomorrow. You coming back?”
I smiled warmly. “Sure. You here a lot?”
“Often enough.” She winked at me and patted my back as she passed by me to leave.
I stretched as I watched her leave. Three men, well-muscled, but not overly huge, got up and followed her out. I took my time finishing my drink, left some money on the bar, then left, myself.
I was startled but not terribly surprised to find a gun in my ribs as I stepped outside the door.
“Oh, dear God,” I whimpered, letting my real fear show through. “What do you want? I can give you my wallet. Please don’t hurt me.”
The man cursed then clamped his hand over my mouth and shoved me toward a white boxy van parked next to the curb. The back doors creaked open and I was shoved in. The only thing that broke my fall onto the splintered plywood of the floor was the prone form of Wintergreen. She moaned softly. The man who had been inside roughly picked me up and tied my hands behind my back as I sobbed and begged him not to hurt me.
“Shut up!” he finally snapped and backhanded me across the face.
I cried quietly as the van started up and drove off. The van’s two back windows had been blacked out, so we rode in complete darkness. Wintergreen moaned occasionally, but from the sound, it seemed like she’d managed to sit herself up. It was almost impossible to tell, but it seemed like a good hour, maybe less, that we drove. We took the freeway somewhere, then drove around a bit on surface streets. Finally, the van slowed and turned into a driveway. I thought I heard the grinding of a garage door opener, then van moved forward, and the engine turned off. The garage door opener ground again, then finally the back door opened. That the lights were on and I could see the men’s faces meant that they were going to kill Wintergreen and me. I was wondering why they hadn’t yet and could only come up with one terrifying conclusion.
The three men dragged us upstairs through the empty house to an upstairs bedroom. You could still smell the paint. The bedroom wasn’t carpeted and the floors were rough plywood. I tried looking out the windows, but they’d been blacked out.
The men handcuffed Wintergreen to a bar on the floor. Me, they just left tied and tossed me into the closet and closed the door. As soon as I hit the floor, my lower back exploded in pain so sharp it took my breath away. But there was good news. They had dumped my purse in with me without, apparently, looking in it. The other good news was that I could hear them yelling at each other in the next room. Actually, they were loud enough that Wintergreen heard them, too.
“Absolutely no civilians! He was very clear about that!” one voice yelled in between all manner of cuss words.
“You’re the one who told me to take her!”
“Yeah, but when she started whimpering the second you got the gun in her ribs, you could’ve just knocked her down and run. She hadn’t seen you.”
The other man grumbled. “I don’t see what the big deal is.”
“People look for civilians!” screamed the first voice.
“Look, we don’t want to get the boss pissed,” said the third man. “Why don’t we go check in and see what he wants done with her?”
The first man cursed some more about morons, then snarled, “Why are we taking him?”
“Because they’re locked down and he’s too stupid to be left behind,” answered the third man.
I smiled to myself. I’d already flipped the sole of my sandal open and had gotten out the small rope cutter. It wasn’t the fastest tool on the earth, but it was usually overlooked. I could hear the men moving downstairs, then the garage door opening, the van revving to life, then the garage door closing. The men were probably paid thugs, which was interesting. Most spies don’t like using paid thugs because they aren’t usually all that reliable. But if you need someone roughed up and don’t want to reveal yourself, then you hire on some help. Actually, there are several reasons to hire that kind of help, and I really didn’t have time to wonder about any of them at that moment.
Fortunately, the rope on my wrists was actually clothesline and the rope cutter chewed through it by the time the van had roared off down the street. As I stretched my back out to calm some of the pain, I listened with every fiber of my being. The house was silent, and given the lack of carpeting or other furniture, even breath sounds seemed to echo.
As I slid out of the closet, Wintergreen grinned at me.
“And to think I was going to get all over you for that crybaby stunt,” she whispered.
Her feet were bare and she had been searched and knocked around. Her nose was bleeding and her eyes looked puffy. I shrugged and pulled a lockpick out of my hair. She was free faster than it had taken me to cut through my ropes. Grimacing, she rolled her arms and shoulders.
“We’ve gotta get out of here,” I whispered. “Are you going to be okay?’
“Do I have a choice?”
I winced. She didn’t, really.
The door to the room had been locked from the outside. It was not your standard household doorknob lock, but one that could only be opened from the other side. It made sense. The house wasn’t entirely finished and was probably in a brand new housing tract that people had yet to move into. No one was going to hear any screams or see anyone coming or going. And as long as you cleaned up and got rid of any temporary locks and other amenities, who was to know? But it also meant that any bodies were going to have to be moved elsewhere since it’s not nearly as easy as you might think to hide a couple bodies, especially if the last thing you want is to have them found.
We could have probably taken the door off its hinges, but that would have taken too long. Instead, we slid through the window, making sure to close it behind us and replace the screen. The window opened onto a roof section that dipped low over the dirt yard. I was a little surprised that someone hadn’t considered this, but wasn’t going to question it, either.
Next, was the hard part, finding someplace where we could get help. It was slow going, but the new housing tract was on the edge of a community. There was a new shopping center. So, I found a pay phone and called a cab that took us to a brand, spanking new hospital with an emergency room. We were not the only people there that night, but it was reasonably quiet. After a hurried conference outside, Wintergreen and I came up with a story about her awful boyfriend. While we waited to be seen, I found a pay phone and called Sid, then called Henry James, who is technically our boss, about the housing tract and the thugs. Sid arrived shortly after Wintergreen was taken in to be seen.
“Well?” Sid asked softly, as he sat down next to me in the waiting room.
“They were waiting for her and got me by mistake,” I said softly. “I played stupid and scared and they bought it, thank God.”
“Hmm.” Sid did not look happy.
“How are the boys?” I asked.
“They’re in bed. Darby spent the evening in his room for some reason. Said he wanted to get some reading done.”
A short time later, a paternal looking man came into the waiting room. We’d seen him before and knew his code name – Green Acre. He asked after Wintergreen, presumably giving her real name and the nurse at the desk pointed us out. He came over.
“Thanks for helping out,” he told us quietly. “Why don’t you two take off? I’m pretending to be her father, so we’re good there.”
Sid nodded. I winced as got up from the chair. Sid didn’t say anything about it as he got me into his car. As he drove me to my car, I told him everything that Wintergreen had said in the bar.
“Terrific,” he grumbled about not being able to plant the bug the next day. “We’ll probably have to do a break in. That’s not going to be easy.”
“At least, we can case the joint. I think going in as Ed and Janet Donaldson will help a lot and possibly throw him off. I don’t think anybody in Quickline knows us that way, except maybe Henry.”
“True enough.” Sid glanced at me and sighed.
We got to where I’d left my truck and I winced as I got out of the car. But I was able to drive home on my own. Sid got there first and held open the door from the garage to the house. He shook his head as I walked in.
“You’re walking crooked again,” he grumbled.
“Yeah, my back’s out,” I sighed. “Flared up when they dumped me in the closet.”
He nodded. “Look, if it won’t embarrass you too much, I asked a physical therapist friend of mine for some help not too long ago.”
“I’ll take any help I can get,” I said, shutting my eyes against the pain.
“Let’s go into the rumpus room.”
There, Sid had me lay face down on the floor. He gently prodded my lower back until he knew what was flaring up.
“Now, this is probably going to hurt, but it will make things better,” he said.
“Okay.” I braced myself.
Sid drove his thumb hard into the worst of the pain. I howled but had to admit that once he was done, my back did feel a little better. He then put an ice pack on me and sat with me for a bit. Sometime later, he sent me to bed with a heating pad and some pain tablets.
He looked so sad as he did, though.