Chapter Three

Fugue in a Minor Key is the fourth book in the Operation Quickline series, featuring Lisa Wycherly and Sid Hackbirn. Like the others, I’m posting it as a serial first. You can catch up with the earlier chapters by visiting its archive page.

February 12, 1984

Spy novel, cozy mystery, romantic spy fiction

I took Darby with me to mass. We rushed through my errands and then rushed back to the house. Sid was waiting for us. He was dressed in black slacks with a dark grey sweater over a light grey shirt, and carried a black jacket sort of like the Members Only ones, but not quite. It was a safe bet his tailor had designed it especially for him.

While I was changing out of my church clothes, I noticed my tan wool felt fedora on my dressing table and got an idea. I hid the indoor/outdoor sunglasses in my purse and wore a black baggy jacket over a white t-shirt and jeans. I perched the fedora on my head at a jaunty angle, then grinned at my reflection.

Sid seemed less than enthused with my costume but wasn’t in the mood to comment. Darby had changed into jeans, a long-sleeved plaid shirt and an over-sized windbreaker with a junior soccer league emblem on the back. I stuffed the hat into my purse.

We packed Darby into the back of the BMW and off we went. I tried to tell Sid how to get to the hotel and he growled that he already knew. I sighed. Things were off to a flying start.

I made Sid and Darby wait in the lobby while I went to get Nick. Darby protested loudly, but I put my foot down. I was already nervous enough.

Rachel didn’t help either. At least she was there.

“Where’s Sid?” she asked, letting me into the room.

“Downstairs,” I said.

“Didn’t have the nerve to come up, or is he just…” Her voice trailed off, sounding hurt again.

“I told him to stay,” I said.

I suppose her pain was legitimate, but I was beginning to have trouble believing it.

“Nicholas, are you ready to go?” she called.

“Yeah.”

A toilet flushed in the bathroom and Nick came out, zipping up the fly to his jeans. His t-shirt proclaimed that it was the sole gift from his grandmother’s trip to Las Vegas, and a lousy one at that.

“Have you got your jacket?” I asked. “It’s chilly out.”

“Sure.” He grabbed it off the unmade bed.

“What time do you want Nick back?” I asked Rachel.

She shrugged. “Anytime. I don’t have to be back up north until tomorrow afternoon.”

“We’ll be back by six,” I said, a little coldly.

Grabbing Nick’s hand, I left. He squirmed in the elevator.

“Nervous?” I asked, giving his hand a reassuring squeeze.

“Yeah. I guess I am.”

“That’s okay. So is he.”

Downstairs, Darby sat curled up in one of the lobby chairs, glaring at a brochure. Sid looked out the front window. I suspect he’d been pacing because he turned away from the glass and started aimlessly for the chairs. He didn’t see Nick or me until we were almost on top of him.

Startled panic swept through Sid’s eyes as they fell on Nick. [Panic does not even begin to describe what I was feeling – SEH]  I doubt Nick noticed it because he gaped almost as badly.

“Sid, this is Nicholas,” I said, gently pushing the boy in front of me. “Nick, this is Sid.”

“You do look like me,” Nick blurted out.

Sid lifted an eyebrow. “Actually, you look like me would be more appropriate.”

Nick shrugged. “Whatever.”

“Well, why don’t we get going,” I said with forced cheerfulness. “Come on, Darby.”

The boys darted off to the car.

“Are you okay?” I asked Sid.

“Of course.” He tried to sound completely at ease and almost succeeded.

“Are you sure?”

“No.” He glanced at me. “I must concede points to your side.”

“What do you mean?”

“It looks like it’s going to be a little hard to deny I had anything to do with… That.”

“I wasn’t going to say I told you so.”

“No.” Sid grabbed for my hand, missed, then caught it. “I didn’t think you would.” He swallowed. “It’s still a little hard to accept, though.”

“Probably for both of you.”

He nodded. “I don’t know about formally acknowledging him, but besides that, what do you think I ought to do now?”

“Go to the zoo. Try to relax. Be a friend.”

“Be a friend.”

“Just try to like him for his own sake. He really is a nice kid.”

“Yeah.” He casually slipped his arm around my shoulders and gave me a quick squeeze. “Hell, he may not even like me.”

“Sid,” I groaned. “Don’t you dare make yourself unpleasant so he won’t.”

“I won’t.”

“Promise?”

Sid stopped and looked at me. He doesn’t give his word lightly, and he knew darned well I’d hold him to it.

“Alright,” he sighed, then smiled. “I promise I’ll be myself.”

“And be pleasant?” I glared at him.

“I promise I’ll be pleasant.”

“Okay.”

“Let’s get going.” He squeezed me again. “It’s a lucky thing for Nick that you’re around.”

We ate lunch at a fast food place that Sid halfway approves of. It has a salad bar. Nick was pretty squirmy and kept sliding out of the booth to run look at something.

“That kid is exhausting to watch,” Sid muttered to me as we headed back to the car.

“He is hyperactive,” I said.

Sid snorted. “That sure as hell didn’t come from me.”

Sid’s discomfort notwithstanding, things were going pretty well by the time three o’clock rolled around. I said I had to go to the restroom and ditched the guys. Once alone, I got the hat out of my purse, stuffed my hair under it, and put on the glasses I’d brought.

Tony was in the beer garden, just as he’d said. He was a thin man, about average height with brown hair that had flecks of silver in it. He’d told me I’d know him by the light blue cap he wore. It was one those baseball hats with the plastic net backs, with a picture of an eagle superimposed on a radar dish on the front and underneath the dish was the name of the project Tony was selling out. He sat at a picnic table looking utterly miserable. I leaned on the table next to him and checked my watch.

“Tony?” I asked softly and looked over his head into the trees.

“Y-y-yes.”

“Let’s make this fast.”

“S-sure.”

He took a five by seven manila envelope from inside his windbreaker and tried to put it on the table, but it slid from his fingers and fell to the ground.

“Leave it,” I ordered. “I’ll get it.”

I left a legal sized envelope filled with cash on the seat next to him, then bent and got the manila envelope.

“I’ll call you for the next buy,” I said, sliding the envelope into my purse.

Tony sputtered but I ignored him and hurried off, checking for tails. There were none. Some minutes later, with my hair down and hat and glasses stashed, I found Sid and the boys looking at the elephants.

“Boy, you were gone a long time,” said Nick loudly. “You fall in?”

He and Darby laughed hysterically. Sid glared at Nick.

“No,” I said quickly before Sid could say anything. “I’ve got better balance than that.”

“Everything come out alright?” giggled Nick.

“That will be enough,” said Sid firmly.

Nick shrugged, then spotted something and he and Darby tore off.

“Come on, Sid,” I teased. “There isn’t a kid in the world that doesn’t do bathroom jokes.”

Sid chuckled. “It wasn’t the content of his humor, it was merely its repetitive nature. That’s the third time I’ve heard it since you left.”

“Just be thankful Janey and Ellen aren’t here.”

Sid winced. “Those two don’t just run a joke into the ground, they sit on it ’til the cows come home. How’d your drop go?”

“Fine.” I rolled my eyes. “Tony’s an amateur. By the way, the goods go upline on the green five branch.”

“I’ll take care of it tomorrow.” Sid watched as the boys ran about, looking at the animals and chattering. “Darby seems a lot more relaxed.”

“I know. Nick certainly brings him out.”

“He does.”

I could see Sid mulling something over, but the boys ran up just then.

“Can we please get something to drink?” asked Darby. “I’m thirsty.”

“Me, too,” said Nick. “There’s a snack stand around that corner and over. I want a hot dog and an ice cream bar.”

“No,” said Sid. “You’ve already had a hamburger today. That’s far too much junk food as it is. Your health is all you’ve got. You don’t want to mess that up with a lot of junk.”

“Aw, come on,” groaned Nick.

“Why don’t we see what the snack stand has?” I suggested. “I’m getting thirsty, too.”

I blinked twice. Sid sighed and consented. But he had Nick and me hold a table while he took a reluctant Darby to get the drinks.

“I’m getting hungry,” grumbled Nick.

“So am I,” I said. “Don’t worry. We’ll find some way around him.”

“I know where there are some vending machines.”

“We’ll have to ditch both of them first. Darby’ll snitch.”

“Yeah.”

We looked at each other, then burst into giggles. Suddenly, we found ourselves hugging each other.

“Oooh, you give good hugs,” I sighed.

“Grandma always used to say that.” Nick looked downcast for a second, then grinned. “You give good hugs, too.”

“Thank you. Your mother is so lucky.”

“Why?”

“She gets hugs from you all the time.”

“Not really.” There was a deep sadness in his voice.

“Why not?” I asked softly.

He shrugged. “She doesn’t like that sort of stuff. But Grandma did. That’s all we did is hug.”

“Your Grandma?”

Nick became very quiet and stared at the table. “She died last November. She had a heart attack.”

I pulled him into my arms. “You must miss her a lot.”

“I don’t know. She used to make me go to church on Sunday. Mom doesn’t. She doesn’t like church. But she still makes me go to Catholic school.”

“Are you Catholic?”

“Yeah. Only ‘cause Grandma made me. Mom’s friend told me Mom was pretty mad when Grandma had me baptized. Only Mom says I gotta stay in Catholic school until the year is out. She says it’s not good to go switching schools all the time. Darby says you guys are Catholics.”

“Mm-hmm.”

“What about..?” Nick looked over at Sid.

“He’s an atheist.”

Nick thought that over. “You mean he doesn’t believe in God?”

“Nope.”

“That’s weird.”

“Not for him.”

“But why doesn’t he believe in God? Even I believe in God, even though I prayed and Grandma died, but I still believe in Him.”

“Well…” I gazed at Sid thoughtfully. “It’s what he was taught to believe when he was a child.”

“Boy, was he lucky.”

I laughed as Sid and Darby returned bearing lemonade for all of us. Nick stayed sitting just long enough to get a good pull on his drink, then dashed off with Darby on his heels.

“What were you two talking about?” Sid asked.

“Things. His grandmother. Religion. Would you believe he’s Catholic?”

“Hm.” Sid shook his head. “They’ve been coming out of the woodwork since I met you. But now that I think about it, I seem to remember Rachel mentioning something about having left the church.”

I sighed. Sid’s eyebrow lifted.

“Distressed by the thought of another lost lamb?” he asked, gently teasing.

“No. It’s just Nick. Poor thing.”

“He told you about his grandmother?”

“Yeah. He’s taking it pretty hard.”

“Small wonder.” Sid took a long drink of lemonade, then noticed the curious look on my face. “Nick hasn’t said so in so many words, but I’ve gotten the impression that his grandmother was the one who has been raising him. Rachel’s been around, but not all that involved.”

“Somehow, that doesn’t surprise me.” I fidgeted with my straw. “It’s sad, in a way. Nick’s a really affectionate kid but his mother isn’t.”

“Well, I got along okay without it.”

“Yeah, right.” I snickered.

Sid glared. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

I flushed, suddenly realizing what I’d meant. “I- uh, well… I’m sorry, Sid. I just couldn’t help thinking that maybe one of the reasons you spend so much time fooling around is that you’re trying to make up for all the affection you didn’t get as a kid.”

Sid laughed, then reached over and, with two fingers under my chin, gently shut my mouth.

“Don’t look so shocked,” he chuckled. “Believe me, you’re not the first to suggest that. You may even be right. But rest assured, my dearest ice maiden, the larger part of my interest ain’t just affection.”

He has this sexy little smile that without fail gets me going every time. I know he’s mentally doing it with me, but that doesn’t stop my heart from doing flip flops, or more likely it’s why. He smiled and I got a grip on myself.

“Anyway,” I said. “Nick got a lot of affection from his grandmother and he’s really missing it.” I looked down at my drink. “I, uh, hope you don’t get mad at me if I try to fill in some of the gaps. I mean, assuming you want to continue contact with him.”

Sid squirmed. “Yeah, there is that to consider.”

“Well, you don’t have to right now. I was just thinking, since his birthday’s Tuesday, maybe tonight we could have a little party for him. I told Rachel we’d have him back by six, but I’m sure we could call the hotel.” I snorted. “Rachel sure wasn’t worried about him coming back any too soon.”

Sid shrugged, then suddenly chuckled. “Nick’s birthday is Tuesday?”

“Yeah.”

“How ironic.”

“What do you mean?”

“Don’t you know what day Tuesday is?”

“It’s the fourteenth, isn’t it? We have that defense plant meeting.”

“True. But what day is the fourteenth of February?”

“Valentines. That’s right. I thought your fan mail was getting a little heavy.”

Fan mail is my name for the various notes and letters sent by Sid’s various girlfriends. It’s one of the few areas of his sex life that I have some contact with as it’s part of my job to open the mail. Only I pass the obviously personal stuff onto Sid unopened.

Sid gazed across the walkway to where the boys were chatting as they leaned over the railing separating them from some lions, I think.

“Nick certainly seems to bring Darby out,” said Sid thoughtfully.

“Sid, what are you thinking of doing?” I asked suspiciously.

“I’m not sure yet. However, Nick has been doing Darby a world of good, and while we may never find out just what Darby’s problem is, if Nick can help him resolve it, it would be worthwhile to have him around. Perhaps I will extend an invitation to have him stay with us for the week.”

“Oh.”

Sid squirmed again. “I know that tone.”

“I didn’t say anything.”

“Lisa, by now, you don’t have to. What, pray tell, is your objection?”

“Well, there’s our business. We’re taking a pretty big chance just having Darby around.”

“Actually, I think they’ll distract each other. You’re still not satisfied. Come on, ‘fess up.”

I squirmed. “I’m not really objecting, so much as… wondering why you don’t want to say you’d like to get to know Nick a little better, which I’ve got this feeling is your real reason for having him stay with us.”

“I haven’t the faintest idea, Lisa-pet.” He looked over at the boys. “It just doesn’t seem to have sunk in, even with it staring me in the face.” He looked at me, then put his hand over mine. “If I’m having trouble accepting this, it’s because I really don’t want to. I know that sounds cruel to you, but I can’t help it. I really thought I’d ditched it.”

“I guess I understand. At least Nick’s a nice kid.”

“He is, but a kid nonetheless.”

“Well, somewhere along the line, you’re going to have to make up your mind about your future relationship with him.”

“Maybe. Maybe not. For the moment, however, I’d just as soon play it by ear.”

“You’re not usually one to duck responsibility.”

“No. But in this case, I’m not even sure what it is. Why don’t we take off from here, and we’ll talk to Rachel about having Nick over?”

“Okay.”

The boys were not thrilled about leaving and said so noisily. Sid remained firm. As we walked to the front gate, Nick dropped the map of the zoo that he’d been consulting all afternoon. Sid bent to pick it up. Darby did, too, just a microsecond later and caught Sid pretty hard in the left eye. Sid straightened quickly, blinking, then held his hand over his right eye.

“Damn,” he muttered.

“I’m sorry,” gasped Darby. “Did you lose it?”

“Lose what?” asked Nick.

“No.” Sid poked at his left eye. “It’s just off-center. I can feel it in there. Lisa, you want to tell me where it is?”

“Where what is?” asked Nick.

“Oh, gross! No.” I dug into my purse. “I’ve got a mirror in here somewhere. I don’t how you can stand those things.”

“Stand what things?” screeched Nick.

“My contact lenses,” said Sid finally. He pulled a flat case from his inside jacket pocket and inspected his eye in the mirror in the top.

“Contacts?” groaned Nick.

“Unfortunately, I am extremely nearsighted,” said Sid. “Damn. It’s in the top.”

“You are?” Nick frowned as Sid pulled his upper eyelid up and away from his eyeball. I gagged and turned away.

“It is not an uncommon affliction, however,” said Sid.

“I guess not.” Nick looked over at Darby, who pushed his glasses up on his nose.

Sid pushed the errant lens into place over his cornea. Nick looked at Sid with an uncomfortable grimace, as if he were trying to come to grips with something, then brushed it aside and ran ahead with Darby chasing him. I looked at Sid. He shrugged.

Back at the hotel, the boys ran ahead to the lobby. I yelled at them to wait there for us. Sid hesitated.

“Do you want me to talk to Rachel for you?” I asked.

“No thanks. I’ll take care of it myself.” He looked at me and smiled. “But why don’t you come along for moral support.”

“Sure.”

“Good. I may need someone to keep me from throttling her.”

“What about the boys?”

“We’ll leave them in the lobby for the time being. Darby should keep Nick out of trouble.”

“You are an optimist.”

Nonetheless, we left the boys in the lobby with firm instructions not to leave the premises. Sid was somewhat tense riding up in the elevator. Fortunately, Rachel was in the room and answered our knock quickly.

“Hello, Sid. Come on in,” she said, smiling warmly. Then she saw me. “Oh, hello. Where’s Nicholas?”

“He’s downstairs,” said Sid, leading me into the room. “I’ve got a proposition for you that I’d like to discuss first.”

“Sid, I told you, I have no interest in your money.” Rachel shut the door behind me.

“Perhaps I phrased that badly. I’m… interested in Nick. He’s a nice kid, but he does seem lonely. I’ve thought it over and decided I’d like to have him spend this coming week here with me, with your permission, of course.”

Rachel nodded. “That’s a different tune than the one I heard yesterday.”

“I’m not necessarily acknowledging him.” Sid’s voice just barely got that angry edge.

“No, you wouldn’t,” she sighed.

Sid shifted. “I didn’t say I wasn’t going to.”

My eyes narrowed, and all of a sudden, it seemed like I knew what Rachel was up to. I quickly pressed my foot on Sid’s. He glanced over at me and I just barely shook my head. Fortunately, Rachel was too caught up in her sadness to see.

“Either way,” continued Sid. “It will take me some time to develop my position in all of this. Until then, I see no reason why I can’t continue to be friends with Nick.”

“It would be good for Nick to have a father figure,” I said. “Since my nephew is staying with us, it won’t be any trouble to have the two of them. They’re great friends already. And school shouldn’t be a problem. I can call and get his homework, and we’ll arrange to have his books shipped to us.”

Rachel looked at Sid. “And after this week?”

“We’ll see,” said Sid. “I see no obstacles to a friendship. Beyond that, I don’t really wish to say until after I’ve spoken to my lawyer, for Nick’s sake as much as anything. I don’t want him caught in the crossfire of a misunderstanding.”

Rachel leaned on the dresser, thinking. It was perhaps catty of me, but I got the feeling she was struggling with the temptation of being childless for a week versus keeping Nick with her and manipulating Sid that way. Okay, it was possible Nick’s welfare entered into it.

“Are you sure Nicholas would like to?” she asked finally.

“Why don’t I bring him up and we can ask him,” said Sid, suiting action to words.

Rachel started to protest, but he was gone before she could get the words out. We looked at each other awkwardly.

“Assuming Nick stays, we’ll need a medical release,” I said, digging through my purse for pad and pen. “Maybe now would be a good time to clue me in on allergies and things like that.”

“He has none,” replied Rachel sourly.

“Medications?”

“None.”

I pulled out my steno pad and handed it to her. “Why don’t you write it up? It will look better if it’s in your handwriting.”

“Hm.” Rachel took the pad and wrote.

“I’m trying to make this as easy as possible.”

“Easy?” Rachel snorted. “I’ll admit, Sid’s and my affair did not last all that long, but I’ve been living with a pretty potent reminder of it for over eleven years now. You don’t know how lucky you are that he’s gotten himself fixed.”

I glared. “It wouldn’t make any difference if he wasn’t. We’re not lovers.”

Rachel laughed. “Do you honestly expect me to believe that?”

“Yes, I do.”

She shook her head. Silence followed. There really wasn’t anything to say. I wondered where Sid had gotten off to, and if he’d chickened out of facing Rachel. When he eventually showed, he had both boys with him.

“What took so long?” I asked.

“Elevator races,” he said.

“We were on the premises,” said Nick. “You didn’t say we couldn’t leave the lobby. Hi, Mom. We had a totally bitchen day.”

“That’s great, Nicholas,” said Rachel.

“Nick,” said Sid. “I brought you up here to ask if you’d like to spend this week here in Los Angeles with me, Lisa and Darby.”

“You mean at your house?” Nick’s eyes lit up with joy.

“Yes.”

“Wow, would I!” He bounced into his mother. “Can I, Mom, can I? Please?”

Rachel sighed. “Yes, you may.”

“Alright!” Nick gave her a big hug, which she received awkwardly.

“Nick,” said Sid sternly. “This is with the understanding that I do have work to do and I will not have my normal routine disturbed. Is that clear?”

“Sure,” said Nick. “I’ll do whatever you do.”

“No, you won’t,” I said quickly.

“I’m beginning to wonder if this is such a good idea,” said Rachel.

“Mom,” groaned Nick.

“Darling, I just don’t want you cooped up in some jail.” For once, I got the impression Rachel was sincere.

“Uncle Sid’s house is really neat,” said Darby. “And he’s really nice.”

“We will take care of ironing out the details,” Sid said. “You boys go down to the lobby and stay there. In the lobby.”

“Yes, sir,” they mumbled, then ran out of the room.

“Sid, I do not want any harsh discipline,” said Rachel even before the door was shut.

“I don’t believe in hitting kids, Rachel,” said Sid. “And Nick will certainly not be on any forced marches. However, I will not accept any disruptions of my normal routine and that’s that.” He sighed. “Rachel, I have to admit, I really resent what you’ve done.”

“Oh, I had help, Sid. Remember?”

“I’m not talking about Nick. I’m talking about the way you handled it. If you were in trouble and needed help, the least you could have done is talked to me about it.”

“And you would have seen to getting rid of it? I didn’t want that.”

Sid took a deep breath. “Even if you wanted to keep it. That’s why the issue is called choice.”

Rachel started weeping. “You have no idea what I’ve been through.”

“I didn’t get a chance. Remember?” Sid put his hand on her shoulder. “I could have been there for you, Rachel.”

She moved away. “That’s so easy to say now.”

“Perhaps. I can’t say dumping a total stranger into Nick’s life and expecting the kid to call him dad is really easy to deal with either. Or very healthy, I might add.”

“As if your response is so healthy. You won’t even admit he’s yours.”

“It seems rather obvious.” Sid stopped and took a deep breath. “Look, we’re both getting angry and in about five seconds we’re going to be saying things we’ll regret later. I’d rather remain friends.”

“You’re right,” Rachel sighed. “I’m sorry, Sid. For everything. I was young and confused. I did the best I could.”

“I know. It’s just been one hell of a shock.” He smiled quietly.

“Um, I’d like to get Nick’s things together,” I said.

Rachel pointed to the other side of the room. “They’re right over there on the other side of the bed.”

She turned back to Sid. The overnight case was there, with dirty clothes spilling out. I jammed it all together and got it zipped up.

“Is this everything?” I asked.

“Should be,” said Rachel.

“If he needs anything, I’ll take care of it,” said Sid. He turned back to Rachel. “I don’t think it would be a good idea at this point.”

She spoke softly to him again.

He chuckled. “No thanks, Rachel. I’m actually very happy with the terms I’ve got. Lisa, you ready?”

“Yes.”

Rachel scowled as we left. Another second or so there, and I think we would have gotten yelled at. Once in the hall, Sid took the overnight case.

“What did she want?” I asked as we waited for the elevator.

“To spend the night with me.”

“She’s got nerve.”

“You don’t get to be an emergency room doctor without it.” Sid’s grin was smug. “She was offering me better terms than my ice cube.”

I sighed.

Sid put his arm around my shoulders. “Dear little ice maiden. I’ll take you over her any day. You wouldn’t pull a stunt like she did.”

“That’s what you said about her.”

Sid paused. “This is true. However, I can’t get you pregnant, even if it were possible for me to get you into bed.”

“That would be possible, you know,” I said, staring at the crack between the elevator doors.

“Is that an offer?” Sid’s eyes twinkled in delight. “Is it really? Please?”

“No.”

“Oh well.” He sighed exaggeratedly, then gently kissed the side of my head. “Can’t win ’em all.”

The elevator opened and we got on. Sid punched the button for the ground floor.

“It’s kind of funny,” he said. “If she had told me she was pregnant back then, I probably would have run the other direction.”

“I don’t think so,” I said. “You tend to take care of your girlfriends.”

He looked at me and smiled. The elevator opened and the boys were right there.

Let us pause now for a small digression on Sid’s eating habits. There is no getting around the fact that the man is finickier than Morris. He won’t touch red meat, salt, sugar, except small amounts of honey, or artificial anything. Sid and I are constantly arguing about this because I’ll eat just about anything and usually in quantity.

This does not mean, however, that Sid does not like to eat. He loves to eat. He just prefers healthy food, although he will fudge a little in the case of really upper-class fine dining. He does have two culinary weaknesses, and they just happen to be passions that I share. One is exceedingly spicy food, the hotter the better. Serrano chiles, Thai food, Tandoori, bring it on, we love it.

Then there is pizza. I first began to suspect he liked it a lot more than he let on when he took me to San Francisco the previous fall. There’s a pizza place just below Coit Tower, and I actually talked Sid into eating lunch there. Then a month or two later, I caught him red-handed, heating up some leftovers I’d brought home from an outing with my church’s youth group. He got it royally because it wasn’t the first time my leftover pizza had disappeared. [How was I to know they were yours? How often is there anything left after you eat? – SEH]

Sid conceded he hadn’t let on because he figured I’d never let him hear the end of it. I decided I was better than that and promised I wouldn’t. It turned out we like the same toppings: mushrooms and black olives. I like sausage, too, but not that much. Sid and I are also militantly opposed to green pepper (they take over a dish and are too benign to be worth it) and anchovies, which just taste bad.

Back to Sunday. The boys decided they wanted pizza, which was great by me. No arguing with Sid. The boys pointed out one of the chains. Sid said no. We went to this little dive down in Hollywood. There’s a guarded parking lot next door, which is the only reason Sid will chance taking his BMW down there.

Inside is dark and cozy with tacky vinyl tablecloths, rickety chairs, booths with the vinyl seat cracking and three video games beeping in the corner. The pizza they serve is some of the best in Southern California, and it comes with excellent Chianti and an absolutely delicious antipasto. Sid doesn’t like the meat on it, but since I give up sausage on my pizza, he doesn’t complain when I eat the salami and mortadella on the antipasto. We have the cook deep six the green pepper.

We tried to order no green pepper Sunday. Nick protested.

“I love green pepper. Can you leave it? Please?”

“On the salad,” said Sid.

“Thanks.” Nick bounced.

He kept up a running commentary on the day, his school, and life in general. The boys and Sid were full long before I was. Sid gave them change for the video games and they ran off and happily occupied themselves.

“We’d better get ourselves squared away on the week,” said Sid.

“Yeah. Nick’s birthday is Tuesday. We really ought to do something.”

“And we’ve got that defense plant meeting in the morning.”

“Plus that stock market draft I’ve got to go over, and those books for the toxics article, plus whatever’s in Friday and Saturday’s mail. And there’s your singles column.”

“Oh, damn.”

I grinned. “Didn’t do your research, did you?”

“I was going to do it last night, but I wasn’t exactly up to it.”

“I guess not. Did you get that stock market draft done?”

“Yep. I worked on it Friday night and got it done between the gym yesterday and Rachel showing. I’ve got a drop to set up tomorrow, too. Alright, why don’t I get my column research done tonight? I’m kind of in the mood to go out anyway.”

“You know, I’ve got some shopping to do tomorrow. I’ve got to get Nick a birthday present, and something for George, and a card for Frank, and Jesse and Kathy and Susie and Dan and Sarah. I’m glad you reminded me about Valentine’s Day. I almost forgot. And there’s my parents. I’d better make a list.”

I put down my pizza and went digging through my purse.

Sid chuckled. “I noticed you said something for George. Why not just a card?”

I blushed. “Sid, come on. He’s just a good friend.”

“You two have been dating pretty steadily since last month.”

“We didn’t go out this weekend.”

“You were going to. I heard you cancel Friday’s date.”

“So what’s the big deal?”

Sid gazed at the table’s candle. “He’s getting more and more serious.”

“He knows I don’t want to get married,” I snorted.

“Does he?”

“Well, I can change my mind if I want to.”

“Yeah, right.” Sid laughed. “You and George?”

“Yeah, me and George,” I growled. “What’s the matter with that?”

“Nothing. I just don’t believe it, is all. You’ve been raising hell about not wanting to get married for too darned long.”

“I never said I was.” I sighed. “George and I are just good friends.”

“Wasn’t he supposed to take you to meet his parents Friday?”

“We were just going to dinner there. It wasn’t any big deal. And I’m going next Saturday, so there.”

“And you say he’s not serious.”

“Sid, you’re changing the subject. We were talking about Nick’s birthday and what to do.”

Sid rolled his eyes. “I don’t care. Do whatever you like, within reason, of course, and it can’t interfere with our meeting.”

“It won’t.”

We took off shortly after that, getting home around seven thirty. Sid changed clothes and took off. In the meantime, I checked my answering machine. Mae had called. The boys were playing cards in the rumpus room, so I called Mae back from the library.

“How’s Darby doing?” she asked as soon as I said hello.

“Fine,” I said. “He hasn’t said anything about what’s bothering him, but he’s been in a really good mood.”

“Oh, Lisa, I was hoping.”

“It’s only been a couple days, Mae. Hang in there. He’s a lot more relaxed. He’ll open up sooner or later.”

“I guess. What have you guys been talking about?”

I laughed. “Anything but his problem, I’m afraid. It’s been a pretty weird weekend. You won’t believe what’s happened.”

“What?” Mae sounded really worried.

“It’s nothing terrible. One of Sid’s old girlfriends from when he was in college showed up yesterday with a kid.”

Mae laughed. “Trying to hang it on Sid, huh?”

“Well, for once, he got caught.”

“But he’s fixed.”

“He wasn’t always. The kid is just barely old enough, and you should see him. He looks just like Sid, right down to the dimple in his chinny, chin, chin.”

“Oh, my God!” Mae yelped, then giggled. “How’s Sid taking it?”

“Better. He hasn’t formally acknowledged Nick, but he agrees he can’t really deny it either. It has been one heck of a shock. Sid didn’t have the least idea, and Rachel, that’s the mother, she never even told Sid she was pregnant until yesterday, then she just dropped it on him.”

“Oh no. What did Sid do?”

“He wouldn’t even meet Nick at first. I talked him into meeting Nick today, and Sid likes him. He’s a really sweet kid.”

“How old is he?”

“Eleven. He and Darby have become best buddies.”

“Oh?”

“Relax, Mae. Nick’s an absolute sweetheart, pretty hyper, maybe, but in a way that’s good. He’s really drawing Darby out. That’s one of the reasons Darby’s a lot more relaxed. I mean, I don’t think they’re talking about Darby’s problem, but it sure took his mind off of it.”

“I’m glad, I guess.” Mae sighed. “You sure Nick’s a good kid?”

“Yes. I just wish I knew what to do about his birthday. It’s Tuesday. I was thinking of going somewhere special, but Sid and I have an interview that morning with this guy from some defense plant out your way.”

“Is it an all day thing?”

“I don’t think so, but you never know. The boys have been dropping hints about Disneyland, but that wouldn’t work. They close at seven this time of year, don’t they?”

“Something like that.”

“Well, even if the interview only lasted ’til noon, by the time we got back here for the boys and back to Orange County, we’d have hardly any time.”

“Has Nick ever been to Disneyland before?”

“He says this is the first time he’s ever left the Bay area.”

“Hm. It’d be a shame if he didn’t get a chance to go. I wonder. I’d really like to meet Nick, and I want to see Darby. How about if I take them in the morning, and you and Sid can meet us there when you’re done?”

“Mae, I couldn’t ask you to do that.”

“Why not? I need an excuse to get out. It’ll be fun.”

“Are you sure? We can bring the boys out for a visit.”

“No, no. We’ll do it this way. I’m looking forward to it. It’ll be a nice treat.”

“I’d better discuss it with Sid first. You know how he is about things like that. What are you going to do with the others?”

“I’ll bring them along. It’s not fair for Darby to have a treat and not them. Ellen’s pretty fried because he’s missing school and she still has to go.”

“Isn’t that getting any better for her?”

“I’m afraid not,” Mae sighed. “I should have put her straight into first grade instead of kindergarten. I don’t care if she was too young. She certainly has the skills. Would you believe she’s already reading on a second-grade level? And last week, she was helping Janey with her math homework. I talked to our church school, and they’ll put her on an accelerated track, with upper-grade tutors and all that. I wish they could take her now, but it’s too late in the year.”

“How are the other kids?”

“Real good, thank God. Janey got a perfect score on her science test, which thrilled Neil, and she’s been taking that fine arts class through the city, which she just adores. The twins have been behaving very well all of a sudden. I’m beginning to wonder if something’s up. At least their kind of trouble I can handle.”

“Would you like to talk to Darby?”

“I’d love to. So would his dad.”

“Great. I’ll get him. Give my love to Neil and everybody if I don’t get on again, and I’ll call you tomorrow about Tuesday.”

“Fine.”

I pushed the hold button and called Darby. He was very happy to talk to his family. I retreated and went to the rumpus room. Nick sat in the middle of the floor, looking utterly disgusted. Playing cards were scattered all over. Motley, my springer spaniel, sat and looked at Nick plaintively.

“What happened?” I asked.

“Fifty-two card pick up,” Nick grumbled.

I laughed. I had to. I’d taught Darby the joke.

“You fell for it,” I said. “You pick ’em up.”

“I know.” Sullenly, Nick gathered the cards together.

“Here. I’ll help you. Then it’ll be bedtime. You have to get up pretty early around here if you want breakfast. Sid wasn’t kidding about his normal routine.”

“What all do you do?”

“Up at five forty-five a.m. Meet at the front door at six to go running. Darby’s been coming with us, but I don’t know if you’ll have to.”

“I can.”

“I don’t know. We run for a full hour, and I know Sid’s not going to want you hanging back, and he’s not going to want to cut it short if you poop out.”

“It’s no problem. We run all the time for P.E. at school, and I have to walk five miles to school every morning.”

“Five miles?”

“Well, maybe not that much, but I have to run a lot of mornings to get there on time. What if it rains?”

“We eat breakfast first, then go to the gym, shower, and dress there and get back here to the office by eight.”

“What do you do after running?”

“Shower and dress, breakfast at seven thirty, in the office by eight. And then we work, and that all depends on what day it is and what needs doing.” I sat back on my knees. “Let’s see if they’re all here.”

I had the cards counted in a minute while Nick watched.

“All here,” I announced, putting them in their box.

“Lisa,” Nick asked slowly. “Do you think he likes me?”

I smiled. “Yes, he does. You have to remember, Nick, you’re quite a surprise. He really didn’t know about you before yesterday, and he found it pretty hard to believe at first. He’d figured your mother would have said something a long time ago.”

“I guess.” Nick frowned. “Grandma used to say that when my dad heard my mom was pregnant, he left her and told everyone he didn’t do it. I always figured my dad didn’t want me, and I decided I didn’t want him. Then last week, Mom said she was going to take me to meet my father, and I said I didn’t want to. Then she said she’d never told my dad about me, or that she was even pregnant. I didn’t believe her, ‘cause of what Grandma had said, and Mom said that was what she’d told Grandma and Grandpa so they wouldn’t force her to marry him because while my dad was an okay person, she didn’t want to get married, even though she really wanted me. I didn’t know what to believe after that.”

I put my arms around him. “What does your grandfather have to say about all this?”

Nick shrugged. “I don’t know. He left years ago. I just barely remember him. Grandma said he was probably living in some gutter. He was a drunk.”

“Oh, Nick. I’m sorry.”

I pulled one of the bean bag chairs over and crawled into it. Nick crawled into my lap. I held and cuddled him, and he hugged me back so gently and a lot like Sid, without being in the least bit sexual. I kissed the soft dark wavy hair.

Darby came in.

“What’s going on?” he asked, more puzzled than disturbed.

“Just some much-needed cuddling,” I replied, then to Nick, “Think we can let him join us?”

“Sure.”

Nick squirmed around and made room for Darby. I gave Darby a kiss and a squeeze. We sat for another ten minutes or so, then my arm fell asleep.

“Oh, well, it’s time for bed anyway,” I said. “You guys go get ready and I’ll be in in a few minutes to tuck you in. Okay?”

“Sure thing, Aunt Lisa,” said Darby.

They scrambled away and ran off. I looked at Motley, still sitting in the middle of the room, looking plaintive.

“You got left out, my little baby, didn’t you?” I said to him. “Come here, Motley.”

Motley trotted over and flopped into my lap. I scratched his belly, and his hind leg pawed the air in ecstasy.

“Go find your ball,” I told him.

With a happy bark, he dashed away. Seconds later, he dropped the old tennis ball in my lap.

“Go find the remote,” I told him.

Motley barked and dashed behind the bar.

The remote control was part of a running battle I had going with Sid. We are not big TV watchers, and except for a couple programs, we never watch commercial stations. When Sid does, he keeps the remote control at his side, and during commercials, flips through the different channels until the program he’s watching is back on. I hate that. He hates commercials. So, we each hide the remote control from the other whenever one of us can find it.

Motley was definitely an asset along those lines. He brought the remote control from behind the bar and dropped it in my lap.

“Okay, Motley,” I said looking around. “Where can I put it this time?”

It was an unspoken rule that it never left the rumpus room or was put someplace where it could be damaged. Looking up, I found my spot: the valence over the drapes covering the sliding glass doors. I piled up a couple bean bags and quickly stuck the remote control in one of the corners, balancing it inside the valence on the drapery rod. After I moved the bean bags back, I petted Motley.

“Okay, sweetheart,” I told him. “No ratting on me now.”

Big help that would be. Motley wouldn’t really rat on me. Sid would just tell him to find the remote and he would.

Motley followed me to the two guest rooms where the boys were. I went into Darby’s room first. He was in bed waiting for me.

“What are you thinking about?” I asked softly.

He shrugged. “Nothing.”

“Having a good time?” I sat down on the bed next to him.

“Yeah. I’m having a great time.”

“Darby,” I said slowly. “You’ve been having problems haven’t you?”

His face closed off immediately. “I’m fine. Really, Aunt Lisa, I’m fine.”

“Are you sure you don’t want to talk about it?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, if you do, just let me know. I’ll listen anytime you want to talk.”

“I know. Thanks.”

“I love you, Darby. I want to help.”

“I’m fine.”

“Alright. Goodnight.”

“Goodnight, Aunt Lisa.”

I bent down and kissed him.

Nick was in his pajamas, but not in bed. He was inspecting the intercom on the wall. The speaker was flush with the wall, with a plastic grate over it and about twenty buttons underneath. You could, by pressing the right buttons, listen in on any room in the house except Sid’s office, from any room. The eavesdrop button was one of five unlabeled ones, and you did have to press it in the correct sequence, so Sid and I didn’t worry about someone listening in on us.

“Into bed, Nick,” I said, smiling.

Nick scurried over and under the covers. I sat down next to him.

“Did you have a nice day?” I asked.

“It was terrific.”

“I’m glad. Goodnight, Nick.”

“That’s funny.”

“What is?”

“Everybody here keeps calling me Nick. Everybody at home calls me Nicholas.”

“Which do you like better?”

“I like Nick.”

“Alright, Nick. Goodnight.”

“Goodnight, Lisa.”

Nick insisted on a good long hug before his kiss.

As I softly shut the door to Nick’s room, I heard Sid singing “All Day, All Night, Marianne.” I checked my watch.

“What are you doing over here?” he asked. He was about to go into his room, and that wing of the house is one I’m rarely in.

“Tucking the boys in,” I replied. “You’re in a good mood.”

“Oh, just a very well misspent evening.”

“It’s not even ten o’clock. What happened to your research?”

“Nothing much happening there. I took my notes and was about to leave when I ran into an old friend of mine who had to get home early because she has to be up for work tomorrow. It was fast, furious and fun. All in all, a very convenient arrangement.”

“Something tells me I’d rather not know.”

“Too bad.” Sid had that smile on his face again. He chuckled. “How was your evening?”

“Very nice, thank you. Nick is definitely in the running as one of the all-time great sweethearts.” I paused. “He, uh, asked if you liked him. I said yes.”

Sid looked away. “Well, it’s the truth.” He looked at me. “It’s going to take time, Lisa. He is, in effect, a total stranger, and I’m certainly not up for this parenting thing.”

I reached over and squeezed his hand. “I know. Listen, I’ve got an idea for Nick’s birthday. We can talk about it tomorrow, though.”

“Fine.”

I started to move away, but he still had my hand. Gently, he tugged, trying to pull me closer. His eyes gleamed, and there was something in them. My heart pounded.

“Sid?” I asked.

He let go of my hand. “Sorry. Just this wild thought I had. Maybe…” He looked at me again, his eyes soft and searching. I swallowed. He forced a chuckle and turned back to his room. “I guess the time isn’t right yet.”

“Sid, what’s the matter?”

“Nothing’s the matter.” He looked back at me and smiled softly. “Really, Lisa. It was just this weird idea I had, and believe me, you’re not ready for it.”

I blushed. “You never give up, do you?”

“Persistence will out,” he said mischievously, then wiggled the tip of his tongue at me.

I stomped off, knowing darned well he’d made me mad at him on purpose, and I was very glad he had. [I don’t know. Sometimes I wish I hadn’t. Given what happened the following July, I think it would have been better if I’d just come clean. I wanted so much to make you my lover, and not just to make love to you. I knew we would be lovers, even if I missed my guess on when. As for my weird idea, well you heard that. It just took me five months to tell you. That night was the first time I truly considered it seriously. I really should have told you then – SEH]

Anne Louise Bannon

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