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