spy fiction, mystery fiction, cozy mystery,

Chapter Two

cozy mystery, spy fiction, spy novel, cozy spy novelSeptember 14 – 28, 1982

For the rest of that week, I was pretty busy. Monday afternoon I spent playing with the computer, and most of Tuesday morning. He had a database program he wasn’t even using. Just for the fun of it, I indexed his clippings on it, then cross referenced it all to the file folders. Mr. Hackbirn can’t find a thing without me. Talk about making yourself indispensable.
Tuesday afternoon I got my first article to word process, a piece on the F.B.I. The sheets of binder paper were a mess. Not only was the handwriting cramped and angled funny, any crossed out words were completely blacked out. At least there weren’t any arrows. When I finally deciphered it, I saw why he didn’t do a lot of writing. The points were logical and flowed well, but his grammar and spelling stank. I knocked on his office door and entered.
“Uh, Mr. Hackbirn, would you mind terribly if I cleaned this up a little?” I asked.
“What do you mean?” he asked back.
“Just little things like spelling corrections.”
He let out a rueful chuckle. “It’s not so good, is it?”
I winced. “Your grammar’s pretty bad, too. It’s mostly just sentence structure. You state your case well, and it flows together beautifully.”
“That’s right. You got your degrees in English.”
“Well, literature. But… Yeah.”
The phone rang. There was something funny about the way the line on his phone lit up.
“Miss Wycherly, would you please excuse me?” Mr. Hackbirn put his hand on the phone but waited to pick it up. “And make sure the door is shut on the way out.”
I left, shutting the door. Sitting back down at my desk, I looked at my phone. None of the lines were lit. And there were only three hooked up. I picked up the fourth line. Nothing. Yet a fourth line had lit up on Mr. Hackbirn’s phone.
Mr. Hackbirn came out of his office in a hurry.
“I don’t know how long I’ll be gone,” he told me as he rushed past. “Go ahead and eat dinner without me.”
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“Out.” And he was gone.
I shouldn’t have. It was his office, and how he chose to live wasn’t really my business. On the other hand, I was dying to know. I told myself that it could affect me. I went into his office and picked up the phone, and pressed the button for that fourth line. I got a dial tone.
That was as far as my nerve got me. The next day I noticed something else that was funny about the phones. It was Wednesday night, really. Mr. Hackbirn has the same three line phone that I have on my desk in every room in the house. I was in my sitting room and picked up to call my sister without noticing which button I’d pushed. The conversation I heard was intimate. I slammed the phone down, then fretted because he had to have heard me slam it, and then had to explain, and…
The next morning at breakfast, I apologized.
“For what?” Mr. Hackbirn asked.
“Well, I accidentally picked up your line, and you were talking. I didn’t listen very long.”
He chuckled. “I can imagine. Don’t worry about it. I had no idea you were on.”
“You must have heard me slam the phone down.”
“No.” He went back to his paper.
“You mean you can’t tell if an extension is picked up?”
“Can’t hear a thing. Unless you speak, of course.”
I mused. “Makes it real easy to spy on someone. Hey, you’re not listening in on my calls, are you?”
He flipped down a corner of his paper to look at me.
“What do you think?” he asked in a bored, but amused tone, and went back to reading.
It was odd, but, hey, the guy was an eccentric. I let it pass. That morning, I stumbled onto all his personal papers, like his birth certificate. He was born in New York City to Sheila Hackbirn and an unknown father. A death certificate had been filed for his mother when he was two. She’d died of massive cranial injuries. There were papers giving Stella Hackbirn, aunt and only living relative, custody of him. Those all had been filed in New York.
There was a report card from a kindergarten in San Francisco. Mr. Hackbirn was a bright little kid, and definitely had a mind of his own, much to his teacher’s chagrin. I found a few notes from what I guessed were schools. They were all called Free-something-or-other and were not too interested in structure. Well, that accounted for the lousy grammar and spelling. Then there was four years’ worth of report cards from San Francisco High School. His grade point average was none too shabby. The comments, for the most part, decried his inappropriate behavior. [Gee, I wonder what that could have been – SEH]
Then I found his draft notice. He served two years in Viet Nam, which surprised me. He made corporal and was honorably discharged. There were some more grade reports, this time from Stanford, with a diploma. He graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. in business and a minor in journalism. I don’t know how he did it with his grammar and spelling. [There were several girls who didn’t mind helping me – SEH] And finally, the deed to the house in Beverly Hills.
Was it nosy? I figured it was my right to gather basic information on my employer. Not that it told me much about the man, himself. He kept me at arm’s length, responding to my questions without answering them.
Friday morning, Mr. Hackbirn asked me for a detailed list of my plans for my shopping trip.
“Why?” I asked.
“I might be able to drop you and meet you some places,” he said. “It’ll be faster than taking the bus.”
“Okay.”
We set out at about twelve thirty, right after a fabulous gazpacho, with wheat toast and melon for lunch. Good food, just not enough of it. We stopped first at his bank so I could open my accounts. Then we went to a discount office supply store. Mr. Hackbirn was appalled until we went to the regular price place to get the stuff we couldn’t get at the first place. He remained appalled but admitted it was kind of silly to pay full price for the same items offered at the discount store.
Then we went to Adray’s on Wilshire, where I bought a sewing machine. I tried using my Master Card to get it on installments, but they wouldn’t take it. Mr. Hackbirn offered to buy it for me, which I refused. I did let him co-sign, though, threatening dire consequences if he even tried to pay it off.
Next stop was the Beverly Center. It was Mr. Hackbirn’s idea to go there. He groaned when I went straight to the Broadway sale racks.
“You don’t have to stick around,” I told him. “I’d just as soon shop by myself.”
“I can stay,” he said, then saw something. “On second thought, I think I will take off.”
I looked in the direction he had but didn’t see anyone, male or female. He went in the opposite direction, anyway, so he wasn’t chasing someone. I couldn’t figure out what he’d seen that had changed his mind.
The man was pretty unobtrusive, sandy hair, glasses, sport shirt and jeans. In fact, I couldn’t be sure he was the same guy I’d seen at the food court. I left the mall and went across the street to the fabric store. I was so absorbed there, I didn’t notice him. But I did as I paid.
I walked up the block to the bus stop. He watched the shop windows. I changed my mind and walked down Beverly Boulevard. He just happened to be coming my way. I did an about face and went back to La Cienega. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him scramble into a doorway. At the corner, I put on a sudden burst of speed and just barely caught the bus. Through the window, I saw my shadow running up, looking for me.
I changed buses twice. I had planned to visit some shops I knew of in Westwood but changed my mind. Instead, I ended up at a strip center in Brentwood, and there was no way I was going to pay those prices. That left only one more errand.
It was a nice, conventional little church, with a school and a hall. The sort of church your parents grew up at. It was also several blocks in from Sunset, and some of the hills there are steep. I was gasping and sweating as I registered.
I didn’t see him that time. Just an odd glimpse or two, but someone was again following me as I left. I could have cried. I had that big, heavy bag from the fabric store, and a couple others from the mall, too. I all but ran down to Sunset.
I had to wait for the bus. No one approached me. I still couldn’t shake the feeling that I was being watched. Mr. Hackbirn’s house is a good hike in from Sunset, also, with really steep hills. I was so tired, I didn’t care if I was being followed. I promised to save my next paycheck for a car.
Mr. Hackbirn was in the front hall, waiting for me as I entered.
“Where have you been?” he demanded.
“I gave you a list this morning,” I gasped. I dropped my bag and stumbled into the living room. I could see the street from the window. It was empty.
“What are you looking for?”
I flopped onto the couch. “It’s weird. Ever since I met you, people have been following me. All last Saturday and Sunday, I kept seeing something that looked like you. Then today, at the Beverly Center, someone else starts in. I ditched him, go to register at church, and then someone else again is following me. Either I’m getting paranoid, or something strange is going on.”
“You seem awful short of breath.” Mr. Hackbirn looked me over thoughtfully.
“It’s a hike up that hill.”
“What kind of exercise program do you have?”
I looked at him. “Me? I attribute my excellent health to a complete avoidance of physical exercise and a steady diet of junk food.”
Mr. Hackbirn winced. “I was afraid of that. Well, Miss Wycherly, that changes tomorrow morning. After breakfast, I will drive you over to my health club and sign you up. Monday, you will start martial arts training.”
“What? Don’t I get any say in this?”
“No. It’s a condition of your employment. I need you in top shape.”
“Why?”
He paused. “So you can keep up with me. Dinner is ready. Let’s eat.”
True to his words, Saturday morning found us first at the sporting goods store for workout clothes and shoes, then at the health club. I was in pretty bad shape. I used to hike a lot, and camp, and ride horses when I lived in Tahoe. While I was in college, I worked up there during the summer and did all that stuff then. I hadn’t done much of anything since my first year teaching. I was pretty stiff Sunday morning.
I made it to mass on time. Walking home, I got that creepy shadowed feeling again. I turned a corner, then hid. Sure enough, around the corner came Mr. Hackbirn. I whirled around and almost smashed into him.
“Alright. This is too much,” I shouted. “What are you doing, following me?”
“Uh…” He fumbled for an answer. “You said you were followed Friday. I was just seeing if you had reason to be concerned.”
“You are so lucky that the last thing I want to do is go back to Tahoe.” I stalked off towards his house. “What is going on with you? I mean eccentric is one thing, but this is ridiculous.” He walked next to me and didn’t answer. “Don’t you trust me? What am I going to do to you? Am I supposed to be setting you up for a robbery?” He still didn’t answer. “Well?”
“It seems to me that is a rhetorical question.”
“Hmm.”
“Perhaps it would be better if you just remained at the house. I appreciate the inconvenience. But in the first place, you won’t have to worry about being followed, and in the second, I won’t have to worry about you being followed.”
“For how long?”
He sighed. “I wish I knew, Miss Wycherly, but it shouldn’t be too much longer.”
Monday morning I started running with him. Mr. Hackbirn runs for an hour every morning. I walked. He shook his head, and walked with me, pushing me to a run every so often.
After breakfast, we visited Mr. Fukaro at his dojo on Melrose. That seemed ridiculous, too. So did getting a mace can for my key ring, including the certification. Mr. Hackbirn insisted. It beat stifling in Tahoe, and it was nice to know I could fend Mr. Hackbirn off, should he try anything. He wasn’t about to.
That afternoon, he hovered over me at the UCLA research library. Wonder of wonders, someone wanted to look at an article he’d offered them. He told me a friend of his had typed the query letter and cleaned it up.
Wednesday morning Mr. Hackbirn showed up for our run very stiff and with a nasty bruise on his left cheekbone.
“What happened to you?” I asked, very concerned.
“Never mind,” he grumbled.
“Are you alright?”
“I’m fine.”
“What did you do? Run into a door or something?”
“No,” he replied curtly.
“It wasn’t one of your girlfriends, was it?”
“No such luck.” He stopped as he saw my shocked look. “I told you, I’m not into S and M.”
“I wasn’t thinking that. I just figured you must have been mugged. Did you call the police?”
“Miss Wycherly, enough. I do not care to discuss it.”
“But…”
“No more.” He took off.
And he meant no more. I’d learned that much. Right after lunch, we were working on the article he’d written the day before.
“I’ve never heard it before,” I told him. We had the article laid out on his desk, and I leaned over him. “And I can’t tell what it means from the context unless there’s a word missing in there. Either your pen leaked or you didn’t write in the word you decided to use instead.”
“Mont Blanc makes the finest writing instruments and inks in the world,” he said. “Nor is there a word missing. It’s a basic concept when it comes to funds.”
“Yeah, but would your audience know it?”
He thought. “Good point. How to define it…”
He leaned back in his chair. The phone rang. It was that fourth line. I dove for it. His hand got there first.
“Miss Wycherly, you are not to answer that line, under any circumstances, even if I am not here.”
“What is it?”
“A private line. Now, leave, and shut the door.”
I left. He didn’t seem angry, but there was something deadly serious in his voice. It scared me. I wanted to know, and I didn’t want to ask.
I did my best not to think about it. I had a job. It paid well. The food was good, if sparse. And it was a nice place to live. The rumpus room had a large screen TV, and a VCR, and a superlative stereo system that could be piped throughout the house, thanks to the intercom system. There was a full wet bar in there, too, which I didn’t mess with. My rooms were lovely. The library was great. The living room had a fireplace and cozy overstuffed furniture.
I did spend a lot of time sewing. Patterns and pieces of fabric don’t get you much cash, so I’d hung onto those. Friday night, it was getting late. I stopped sewing, and got into my nightgown, then poked around in one of the boxes I had yet to unpack. I found several cassette tapes and an old Panasonic cassette recorder. Laughing, I put in the tape I’d made of the Sergeant Pepper’s album way back when I was in high school. It was my best friend’s record, and we taped it on her dad’s hi-fi set.
I danced as the guitars twanged, and beat on air drums. I took the tape recorder with me into the bedroom, only to find that the Nero Wolfe novel I was reading was not on my bedside table. I’d left it in the living room. I didn’t want to stop my tape. I was having too much fun regressing. I found the ear plug, and plugged it in, so I wouldn’t disturb Mr. Hackbirn if he were hanging around somewhere.
It wasn’t likely. He was out most evenings. I assumed he was off chasing women. I didn’t expect to find him in the living room, and I really didn’t expect to find him naked as a jay bird with his hands all over an equally naked woman with really full brown hair. See, the living room is open, with a really wide doorway and no door.
I yelped and scrambled into the hallway. Mr. Hackbirn’s date also screamed.
“What the hell?” yelped Mr. Hackbirn. “What are you doing up?”
“What are you doing in there?”
The woman laughed.
“What does it look like?” asked Mr. Hackbirn.
“I meant why are you there? There’s no door.”
“I thought you were asleep. Why the hell aren’t you? It’s after midnight.”
“I came to get my book.”
“It’s no wonder you’re so dead in the mornings.”
“Can I have my book? It’s on the coffee table.”
“Come on in. We’re not doing anything.”
“You’re in your birthday suit!”
“You’re a grown woman. Haven’t you ever seen a naked man before?”
“No. And I don’t want to.” I put my hand in the doorway. “Will you just hand it out?”
I didn’t look. The book ended up in my hand.
“I’m sorry I surprised you. I hope I didn’t stop anything.”
Mr. Hackbirn snickered. “You wouldn’t have.”
My face flushed fire hot as I fled.
I spent most of Saturday afternoon trying to convince Mr. Hackbirn to let me go to Fullerton to visit my sister and her family. He wouldn’t budge.
“Miss Wycherly, please,” he said finally. “It’s just for a little while longer. Why would you want to go to your sister’s, anyway?”
“To relax.”
“How can you relax around five small children?”
He had a point, but I wasn’t going to let on. Besides, I enjoy my nieces and nephews.
“I manage,” I replied. “I get the feeling you don’t like children.”
“Not really.”
I sent him a snide glare. “Surprise. You spend so much time starting them. I can’t believe you haven’t produced a few by now.”
He didn’t seem in the least perturbed. “I had that fixed a long time ago.”
“Fixed?”
“A vasectomy, Miss Wycherly.”
My face went red. Mr. Hackbirn just chuckled and sauntered off to his room.
Sunday, instead of following me, he drove me to and from church. Monday morning, he threw (figuratively) his household accounts at me. The stocks and stuff that made his money were all handled by his broker and accountant. Getting it into his bank account and keeping track of what happened to it from there was my job. I’d been wondering where his money came from, i.e. was it legal? Everything in the shoe box he handed me seemed legit. Did it all make sense?
The checks from Amalgamated Paper Company didn’t. All the other check stubs were quarterly, and the amounts varied. The APC stubs were all monthly, and payroll checks at that. Admittedly, that wasn’t much to worry about, except for all the other stuff.
At lunch, I told Mr. Hackbirn there wasn’t any way I could get the information he wanted over the phone, so he insisted on driving me to the library. He hovered over me, claiming he was interested in how I did my research. He wasn’t. I finally sent him to get some microfilm reels.
The moment he was gone, I slipped out of the viewing room, and downstairs to the reference floors. I checked all the business abstracts. No Amalgamated Paper Company. I checked through the Yellow Pages for the city in which it was supposedly located. It wasn’t listed, nor was it in the BusinesstoBusiness supplement. I thumbed through Dun and Bradstreet once more.
“Why the hell did you sneak off like that?” Mr. Hackbirn’s voice snapped behind me.
I slammed the book shut. “I, uh, wanted to double check something.”
“Dun and Bradstreet has nothing to do with drug smuggling.”
“Well, not that. I’m sorry, Mr. Hackbirn. I’ve just been noticing things, and you’ve got a whole bunch of check stubs from a company that, as far as I can tell, doesn’t exist.”
“Oh.” Mr. Hackbirn pressed his lips together and thought. “Miss Wycherly, there is a logical explanation for that. Give me a few more days.”
“It’s not only those check stubs. There’re all sorts of other things.”
“I know. Now is not the time to discuss it. Please, Miss Wycherly, in a few more days you will have a full explanation.”
“Are you involved in something criminal? Because if you are”
“Miss Wycherly,” he interrupted, “now is not the time. You will know in a few days.”
When we got home, he went straight to his office and shut the door. The line on my phone lit up a second later. I went to the door and put my ear against it. I couldn’t hear a thing. It’s a sliding door, too, on a track, so nothing could escape through a crack at the bottom. For all intents and purposes, that office was soundproof.
I went to my desk and picked up the phone, and pressed the lit up line.
“Sid, what can I do for you?” Henry James’ voice asked. A director at the F.B.I., he called fairly often.
“Hasn’t that paperwork come through yet?” Mr. Hackbirn complained.
“Sid, have patience,” replied Mr. James. “The adoption has been approved. The clearance should be through any day now. We’re dealing with a bureaucracy, remember?”
“I know. But Wycherly is pretty bright and she’s asking questions. Not to mention that business is booming. I need the help and she’s sitting there completely impotent.”
“I’ll try to redirect a little of your business.”
“I’d rather have that clearance. What’s taking so long?”
“Who knows? Can you just hang tight?”
“I’m hanging fine. It’s Wycherly I’m worried about.”
“Well, worry about Lipplinger, too.”
“Aw, hell. Is that finally breaking?”
“Gannett’s putting the feelers out.”
“Push it some other way. Gannett saw me.”
“We’ll need you for the other phases, so stay ready.”
“When aren’t I? I’ll talk to you later. Call me the second that clearance comes through.”
“I will. Bye, Sid.”
“Bye, Henry.”
I put the phone down quickly and spread my notes out over my desk. Not that it mattered. Mr. Hackbirn didn’t leave his office until dinner. I decided not to say anything about what I’d heard. He was definitely up to something. Still, it could have been related to his writing. Mr. Hackbirn did do a regular feature on the F.B.I. for a newsweekly magazine. That could be why I needed a clearance. Which really didn’t make sense, but I was too worried about going back to Tahoe to question it until it was obvious Mr. Hackbirn was doing something illegal.
I was surprised the next morning when Mr. Hackbirn sent me by myself on an errand. That mysterious fourth line had rung again, and he’d kicked me out of his office. Five minutes later, I was called in.
Mr. Hackbirn wanted me to pick up a package for him at an address on Highland Avenue.
“Tell them you want the package for Big Red,” he told me.
“Big Red?” I asked, trying not to laugh.
“It’s an old joke,” he replied without any sign of humor.
I made the hike down to Sunset and picked up an eastbound bus, connecting to a southbound one at Highland. I got off at Santa Monica and went half a block south.
As I approached the building where the package was, I noticed a man leaning up against the building watching the door. He was the sort you see every now and then. He had longish stringy dirty hair and a half-grown beard with patches of gray in it. His denim pants and bomber jacket had both faded but not at the same rate. Something about him bothered me. By that point, I was convinced I was paranoid, so I ignored the feeling and went into the building.
The package turned out to be a ream of eight and a half by eleven paper in a brown wrapper without any markings. At least that’s what it looked like. I assumed the paper inside had some information on it. It seemed rather unlikely even for Mr. Hackbirn to go to so much trouble just for plain paper.
I left the building carrying the package and headed south again for a different bus stop. I wanted to go to the bank to deposit my check, which I hadn’t done Friday because Mr. Hackbirn hadn’t let me out of the house. I stopped at a window to look at something and noticed the man in denim about half a block away staring at the traffic. I wasn’t paranoid. I was being followed again.
I ducked in front of a stopped bus, then dashed across the street to a northbound bus, and got on board. How I wasn’t hit, God only knows. My guardian angel must have been working overtime. I changed buses three times, then stood for an hour at the bank. Well, it seemed like it. I didn’t see anyone in denim, let alone potential vagrants, although I kept looking. I was exhausted by the time I got back to the house.
“What took so long?” Mr. Hackbirn asked as I handed him the ream.
“Call me paranoid. I was followed again.”
Mr. Hackbirn became deadly serious.
“When?” he asked quickly.
“After I picked up the package.”
“Terrific!” He took off for the living room. “Did he follow you all the way here?”
“No. I grabbed a bus and it left before he could get on.” I followed him. He glared out the bay window to the street below. “I didn’t see him after that.”
“Tell me exactly what you did.”
So I told him. I even described the man.
“Who was he?” I asked when I was finished.
Mr. Hackbirn turned from the window and shrugged.
“I don’t know,” he said.
“Why would he be following me?”
“He was probably just some weirdo.”
“Then why are you so bugged about it?”
“Miss Wycherly, why don’t we just forget it happened?”
“No,” I snapped. “Something pretty darned strange is going on around here, and if you don’t tell me what it is, I’m leaving.”
“Miss Wycherly, please. I promise. Just a few more days.”
“Not good enough. See you.” I started for my rooms.
He grabbed my shoulders and turned me to face him.
“I can’t tell you now. Please. Trust me. I will tell you the very second I can.”
Man, his eyes were gorgeous. Dumb, I know. For all I knew, this guy could be signing me up for the Mafia, and there I was getting hot and bothered over his eyes. Definitely hot and bothered. I pulled away quickly, my face blazing.
“The very second you get that clearance?” I blurted out and regretted it. “Yeah, I can listen, too.” Terrified, I burst into tears. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have. But there’s too much weird stuff going on. But if it’s something criminal, you’ll kill me before you let me go, so I don’t testify against you, and I gotta find a chance to escape before I know too much, cause you know too much about me.”
“It’s nothing criminal,” he said softly. He was upset, also, but not angry at me. If anything, he looked guilty. “If you want to escape, go now. You already know more than you should, but if you want out, trust me, get out now, and forget you ever knew me.”
“I didn’t mean to do anything wrong.”
“Oh, hell.” His laugh was short and cost him. “Lisa, you’ve done more right than you could possibly know. That’s why you’re so confused, damn it. But I can’t clear it up without locking you in. I’m sorry I got you into this.”
“Do you really want me to leave?”
He turned away. “No. I want you. You’re good.” He looked at me sadly. “But in some ways, I want to warn you off, and I can’t tell you why.”
I bit my lip. “You’re not like into murder or something?”
“I promise you, it’s nothing criminal. I don’t give my word lightly.”
“I won’t find myself undressed, or… You know.”
He laughed. “No. I don’t go around trespassing upon the virtue of innocents unless they ask me to.”
“But you’d like to talk me into it.”
“I can’t say the thought hasn’t crossed my mind.” He came over and laid his hand on my cheek. “However, I do respect the word no.”
His touch was so light, so gentle and caring. My breath was coming shorter than after running. I pulled away and started for the office.
“Mr. Hackbirn, I-”
“Call me Sid.”
“Mr. Hackbirn, I think… I don’t know what to think.”
“Lunch is ready.”
I turned to him. “You say I’ll be locked in. I have to admit that’s pretty scary.”
“Then why don’t you think about it. You can take off any time tonight. Assuming you want to.”
I shook my head. “Thinking about it isn’t going to change anything. This might sound pretty crazy to you, but I’m not afraid of taking risks. You’ve given me your word. That’s good enough for me. I’ll stay, that is if you really want to put up with me.”
He smiled. “I think I can take my chances.”

Anne Louise Bannon

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