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Chapter Six

spy fiction, mystery fiction, cozy mystery,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s too dangerous,” I insisted.

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

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

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

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

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

“Then I’ll quit.”

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

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

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

“That was a cheap shot,” I snapped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course.”

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

“Oops,” he said, catching me.

I looked into his eyes and blushed.

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

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

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

He looked away and blinked a couple of times.

“No, I don’t.”

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

“You got a mirror?”

I was already heading for the kitchen.

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

“Never mind.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

He stopped as he inserted the lens underneath his eyelid.

“Oh, gross.” I looked away.

He just chuckled.

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

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

I left the doorway and he left the house.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s logistics?” asked Janey.

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

“I can’t. You’re doing my hair.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I am.”

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

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

I finished Janey’s braid.

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

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

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

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

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

“But I thought we were going someplace neat.”

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

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

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

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

“Stupid weather.”

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

Darby’s eyes lit up.

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

“Entirely contingent upon your good behavior.”

“What’s contingent?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The twins’ stroller.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I run fast.” he said happily.

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

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

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

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

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

“Neil,” I groaned, laughing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hamburgers!” they yelled.

“Hamburgers!” the twins echoed.

“Darby?” I asked.

“I don’t know.”

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

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

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

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

“No thank you.”

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

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

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

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

“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” I growled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Stupid girl,” he grumbled.

“I’m not stupid,” Janey yelled.

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

Darby finished his sandwich and gulped down his milk.

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

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

“Sure, Aunt Lisa.”

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

“Alright.”

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

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

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

“I’ll bet.”

“When are you going to make that pickup?”

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

“I’d just as soon.”

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

“Other stops?”

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

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

“No. Do you?”

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

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

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

“So do I.”

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

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

His voice was lost in the crowd.

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

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

“Oh,” replied Mr. Hackbirn.

“I know you, too.”

“I’m a bad person?”

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

“Oh, do I?”

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

“Well, nobody’s perfect, Janey.”

“I know. They’re either good or bad.”

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

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

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

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

“Certainly.” I unstrapped Mitch first.

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

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

“What’s a kleptomaniac?” asked Darby.

Ellen started to cry.

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

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

“Yes, ma’am,” they mumbled.

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

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

“I’m sorry,” I said to Mr. Hackbirn.

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

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

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

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

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

“In my wallet,” I said.

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

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

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

“Want down,” whined Marty, squirming.

“No,” I said, sharply.

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

“Down,” whined Marty again.

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

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

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

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

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

I started refilling the diaper bag.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s hu…” began Janey.

“Embarrassed,” said Darby.

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

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

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

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

“Oh! Hello, Mr. Harris.”

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

“Yes.” I grinned nervously.

“I hear Mae’s getting home today.”

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

Harris held up a bag. “I just did.”

“Well. Nice talking to you again.”

“Nice talking to you.”

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

“She’s in back,” the girl said.

I knocked on the stockroom door.

A young sturdy woman answered. “Yes?”

“Are you the manager?” I asked.

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Alright, where is it?” he demanded.

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

“What you got at the toy store!”

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

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

“Oh no.”

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

“Alright. Where is it?”

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

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

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

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

“Well?” he asked.

“What?” I sniffed.

“Did he get the keys?”

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

“It’s alright, Lisa,” he whispered.

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

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

“At the arcade, I presume.”

“Why’d you leave them?”

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

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

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He sighed and nodded, and followed me inside.

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

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

“It’s alright,” I replied, smiling.

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

“What?”

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

“But can you manage?”

Mae jerked her head at the couples sitting around talking.

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

“Oh, Mae.”

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

It was. I turned and waved him over.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m ready,” I said to him.

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

“Alright.”

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

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

“Goodbye, Uncle Sid,” said Janey.

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

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

“Goodbye,” he said, still shaken.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So what now?”

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

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

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

“Wonderful,” Mr. Hackbirn replied.

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

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

“Yeah.”

“By the way, I travel first class.”

“It figures.”

There was a silence for ten minutes more.

“So what do you think?” I asked.

“About what?”

“The past two days.”

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

1 thought on “Chapter Six”

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