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.”
“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.
“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.”
“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?”
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.”
“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.”
“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 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 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.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”