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FROM THE DESK OF S.E. HACKBIRN

This is a special post for a very special anniversary. Forty years ago, in September 1982, I first wrote That Old Cloak and Dagger Routine. I’m not sure which day I actually started it, but it was somewhere around that time. That’s a lot of years to have these characters talking to me. In fact, Sid Hackbirn recently weighed in on the whole experience, so I thought I’d let him have his say today – ALB

September 10, 2022

Tonight will mark 40 years since my path crossed with Lisa Wycherly’s. Neither of us could have imagined how drastically that meeting would change our lives. In fact, we still joke that if either of us had known, we both would have run screaming in the other direction. Not because things didn’t work out well, but because of who we were at the time.

Forty years. It still amazes me. I never expected to live to be 40 years old (which I am well past), let alone spend 40 years with the same woman. In 1982, I was alone, and thought I preferred it that way. I had, maybe, three or four friends, my immediate superior Henry James and his wife Lydia. Henry’s secretary, Angelique Carter, was not only one of my more regular lovers, she introduced me to the broad circle of swingers in Los Angeles that could be loosely defined as friends, even if they weren’t. Even with that circle, I got most of my sex from one-night stands. They were easier to deal with.

We used to say that I couldn’t sustain a relationship back then. However, over the years, I’ve come to see that it wasn’t that I couldn’t sustain a relationship. I’d had good friends in high school. It was that I didn’t want to sustain any relationships because of what happened in June 1969.

I got drafted into the U.S. Army. I became estranged from Stella, my aunt and the woman who raised me, then got roped into intelligence work two weeks into boot camp and sent to Vietnam. I still don’t like talking about it and I hate being thanked for my service. I spent two years in that shitshow. I wasn’t released after the usual one year because I’d tumbled onto something hot and had to finish it.

From Stopleak

When I got home, I was bitter, disgusted, and angry – especially angry – which only got worse when I discovered my nightmare wasn’t over and that I was still an undercover operative. I’d just be working stateside as a courier. When Stella tried to talk to me after I got back, I continued the estrangement. It was probably PTSD, not that we were calling it that back then.

I remained very reluctant to form connections. The funny thing is, by September ’82, I knew I wanted something more out of my life but couldn’t figure out what it was. A real relationship? That was the furthest thing from my mind, but it turned out to be what I needed the most.

I also needed a partner for the intelligence business. Now, I did not know why the right partner was so fucking important. That is the reality of the intelligence gig. If someone above you decides you do not have Need to Know, they’re not going to tell you squat. And I have to concede that I have played that game myself in a few instances. Sometimes, it is necessary.

Henry and I had been looking for my partner for two years at that point. In the group I was part of, Operation Quickline, we tried to recruit among our operatives’ friends. It usually works very well, since the same qualities that draw certain people together as friends are often the same qualities that make for good undercover operatives. The problem in my case was that I didn’t have any friends, except Henry, who was already up to his neck in intelligence work, and Angelique. Henry, being just as protective of her as he was of me, said no way.

The guys I called friends were only interested in getting laid. Yes, I get the irony. However, as much as I loved sleeping around, I did have other interests. And I also had principles. I cared about my partners. I respected the word no. I saw women as fellow human beings, not objects. Did I use women for my own gratification? In retrospect, I probably did, but my intent and focus were on the reciprocal. The other men in my set? Oh, yeah. It was all about their gonads and the boobs.

As for the women I knew, some of them had the right combination of principles and willingness to bend, not to mention other attributes. They just weren’t willing to put up with me for longer than two weeks, and I could hardly blame them. I wasn’t willing, either.

We set up meeting after meeting. Nothing hit. There was part of me that was feeling like a complete asshole and I couldn’t figure it out. To be fair, neither could Henry, and he usually got things like that. Which I hope explains my state of mind when I saw Lisa and her blind date go into that restaurant in Hollywood that night. {It mostly does. – LJW}

I have to say that Lisa is not one of those unutterably gorgeous types that leave you slack-jawed. And I am profoundly grateful she isn’t. But she is pretty and carries herself well. That may have been what caught my attention, at first. Or not.

I had arrived at the restaurant and bar in Hollywood maybe ten minutes before they showed. I surveyed the room and figured the pickings were going to be decidedly slim that night. It was a Friday, but neither the bar nor the restaurant was that crowded, and everyone in the bar appeared to be already paired-off. But then she was there.

She had soft brown hair that probably hadn’t been cut in months and wore a shiny polyester dress with a green and blue print. He was about five-eleven, with a round belly and dark hair, wearing a dress shirt and slacks, and quivering like a high school boy about to touch his first boob. Which was hysterical because I could tell this guy was so far away from scoring, he wasn’t even on the field. He kept pulling his date next to him and she kept putting distance between them.

I loved it. Yutzes like him made my life easier. I mean, I didn’t horn in on other guys’ dates. But I could tell she was going to ditch him, and that meant an opportunity for me.

I kept an eye on them as they got seated at a table. A waiter brought them a basket of bread rolls and she slid one into her purse. That raised my eyebrows. When she slid a second one into her purse after the waiter had taken their order, I knew why she was with the dork.

I was impressed that she didn’t knock the guy senseless and even more impressed that she stuck it out long enough for the salads to arrive. That’s when he “accidentally” grabbed her breast. A minute later, she smiled coolly, then got up, and taking her purse, headed for the front. I watched from the bar as the maître d’ pointed through the bar to the back, then slid back as she hurried toward the ladies’ room back there. She didn’t go in, though. Instead, she dialed the pay phone, waited a minute, then talked a little, then hung up looking like she was about to burst into tears.

As she found a booth in the back of the bar, I got some cash from my pocket and set things up with the maître d’. Then, after getting a bourbon and water from the bar, went over to her booth and sat down.

“Ditched your date?” I smiled, knowing damned well she had.

From Sad Lisa

“Yes,” she said, her voice cool. “And thank you, but I don’t care to be picked up by anyone else.”

A lot of times, when a woman ditched a date, she’d be happy to go with me as a way of rubbing the date’s nose in it. But not all of the time and it looked like that night was going to be one of those. Then I spotted her necklace and knew I still had a chance.

“Well, I suppose getting grabbed while starting your salad is enough to sour an evening.” I smiled and made as if I were getting up. “My apologies for presuming, Lisa.”

“Wait.”

Bingo. I settled back into the booth. “Yes?”

“How did you know my name?”

“You’re wearing it around your neck.”

It was a small pendant of block letters spelling her name vertically, with a tiny, light-blue stone set in the space of the A. She blinked quickly as she put her hand on it.

“Are you in trouble?” I asked softly.

“I’m alright!” she snapped, then looked away. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be rude.”

“But you are in trouble.”

“It’s nothing life-threatening.” Her eyes filled and she blinked back the tears. She finally looked at me. “I’ve been out of work for a year. My unemployment’s run out, and things are getting tight.” She touched the necklace. “This is the only thing I haven’t pawned.”

The poor kid.

“No money for a taxi, I presume.” I smiled as softly as I could.

“I’ll be alright. I can call my sister.”

“Who is not currently home, at least I assume that’s who you called earlier.”

“They won’t be home ‘til eleven, and they’re in Fullerton.”

“And we are in Hollywood.” I checked my watch. “Which means you’ve got a long wait. Why don’t I buy you dinner and take you home?”

She looked a little tempted, but she also gave me a look that said she didn’t entirely trust me. For which I could not blame her. But then I got the break of the night. Her date showed up at the booth.

“Wo, there you are, Lisa.” He laughed as if he were actually funny. “You were taking so long. I thought I’d better make sure you didn’t fall in.”

“I survived the restroom, Larry,” she said, utterly annoyed.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Larry.” I got up and shook Larry’s hand. “Lisa and I go way back. We haven’t seen each other in a while, and I just had to have a chat with her.”

Larry looked at Lisa. “Well, the waiter brought dinner.”

“Oh, that’s too bad,” I said, grinning on the inside. “Lisa’s coming to dinner with me.” I waved at the maître d’. “In fact, our table’s ready now.”

“Now, wait a minute!” protested Larry. “Lisa—”

Larry grabbed for her, but I got between. I put my arm around the yutz’ shoulders and told him that I’d take her off his hands, and pointed him toward a redhead at the end of the bar. I’d seen Sue Wilkins wander in a few minutes before and knew she’d be perfect for Larry.

“Happy hunting,” I said as I patted Larry on the back. I slid around and took Lisa’s hand. “Come on, Lisa. He won’t hold that table forever.”

Larry gaped, trying to figure out what had just happened, but then Sue winked briefly at me (we did not share the same tastes, but she loved it when I sent somebody her way), and grinned at Larry. I pulled Lisa into the restaurant.

I had already picked up Larry’s tab, just in case. I didn’t want the waiters and the restaurant to take that on the chin. As Lisa and I were seated at a nicely secluded booth to the back, but away from the kitchen door, I slipped some more cash to the maître d’.

He grinned. “Thank you, sir.”

“You’re welcome.” I grinned.

Oh, I had that one in the bag – or so I thought. I had no clue who I had just picked up. Tons of church bitches, yeah, I’d tried picking them up and soon learned there was no point. But Lisa. I was about to find exactly what kind of tiger I had by the tail. {Not my tail, not at that point. – LJW}

She groaned. “You didn’t have to do that.”

“It’s my pleasure.” Which, in fact, it was.

“What about Larry?” She looked worried.

I chuckled. “That desperate little dork is getting the fate he so richly deserves.”

“What do you mean?”

“The redhead at the end of the bar.”

She looked, but couldn’t see, then turned back to me. “She isn’t going to dump him, is she?”

As if that was the worst that Sue could do.

I couldn’t help laughing. “Hardly. In the first place, she’s so easy he won’t know what to do with her, and in the second, should he figure it out, she’s into S and M.”

“That’s… Oh no!” She tried to get up.

“Let him be.” I held her back.

“But—”

I looked at her, a little puzzled. “The jackass drove you from a salad you desperately wanted, felt you up in a public place, he’s crude, and he thinks he’s God’s gift to women.”

“Just because he’s a jerk doesn’t mean he deserves to get hurt.” She gaped a little.

“Are you serious?” The puzzlement only increased.

“Of course, I’m serious.”

“Well, relax,” I said. “She won’t hurt him. Unless he asks, and that’s a different matter, isn’t it?”

“I guess it is.” She made a face. “I don’t know. I’d always heard pleasure was the idea.”

“It’s not how I get my kicks, but who are we to judge?”

“True,” she said.

My interest exploded as it shifted from getting her into bed to that other need I had. She didn’t want to see that asshole hurt, and at the same time didn’t get all self-righteous about the S and M. Could I have found the partner for my side business?

From Just Because You’re Paranoid, currently in serial on the blog

She looked back at the bar. “Do you know if he’s left yet?”

I smiled, glad I’d taken care of Larry’s tab. “They left just as we were sitting down.”

“Good. I’d better be getting back to the bar.”

I held her back again. “Why? Don’t you want dinner?”

She blinked furiously. “Yes. But I don’t want to get any deeper in.”

“It’s nothing.” What else was I going to say, and at that point, it really wasn’t any big deal. Besides, I really wanted her to stick around.

“A maître d’ at a place like this does not grin at nothing.”

“You’re hungry,” I said. “I saw you attack that salad with the ferocity of a starving child.”

“How do you know that’s not the way I always eat?” And as I later found out, it was.

“I also saw you slide two dinner rolls into your purse.”

She winced, then rolled her eyes. “Alright. I’m hungry. Like I said, things are tight. But I’m not hungry enough to compromise my standards.”

“This is merely a philanthropic gesture.” Which, by the way, I genuinely meant.

“I’ve heard that before.”

“I don’t doubt it.” I couldn’t help grinning as I thought quickly about her and me going at it. “Well, I’ll confess to ulterior motives.”

She swallowed. Oh, yeah. I had her.

“Look, it’s not you,” she said. “You seem really nice, and I really appreciate your being honest about it, and the way you got rid of Larry, and it’s very sweet of you to offer, but I just don’t believe in sex outside of marriage.”

Okay. That startled me. “Don’t you want dinner?”

“Yes, but… Well, I just can’t. Larry was a blind date, and the friend who set me up knows how I feel, and I told him how I feel, and he ignored it, I guess. Anyway, I don’t have any money, and I can’t give you my body, so…”

That one got to me. I didn’t realize it at the time – although I had some sense of it – that when we’re recruiting, we are looking for people with strong principles, but who have the ability to bend. Those who are wedded to their principles, but can’t bend, are not going to be handle the gray areas that we deal with. Those whose grip on their principles isn’t that solid will usually side with whomever is paying them better, and too often that’s the other side.

Most women in her situation would have at least eaten dinner and then turned me down. This one was not only up front about not going to bed with me, but she wasn’t even going to string me along for the meal. I couldn’t help but be impressed.

I smiled at her. “I can accept that. Can you accept dinner and a ride? I promise I won’t touch you.”

“Sure, if you really want to.” She looked bemused but went with it.

I signaled the waiter.

“What’s your name?” I asked after she’d ordered. “I mean, your full name.”

“Lisa Wycherly. Yours?”

“Sid Hackbirn.”

“Oh. What do you do for a living?”

“As little as possible.” My usual line.

Did she ever glare at me. “Not funny.”

I winced. “I suppose not. Apologies. I do some occasional freelance writing and dabble in the stock market. Just enough work to maintain a comfortably high standard of living. And you?”

“Well, I was a teacher.”

That was very interesting.

“Was, huh? Hmm.” I smiled at her but couldn’t say what I was thinking – that I had indeed found a partner.

I sent her home, getting her address for the cab driver. I called Henry the next morning, bright and early, and while he wasn’t entirely skeptical, he was concerned. That Lisa turned out to be a natural at the business did not entirely surprise either of us. That she was willing to stick with me for longer than two weeks… It didn’t surprise me, mostly because there wasn’t any sex involved, but it did Henry and just about anyone who knew me. With no sex going on, I figured I didn’t need to think about a relationship. I was completely and utterly wrong, but by the time I realized that, Lisa and I already had one. Not anything romantic, at first. That happened later.

What got all of us, including Lisa, was that she and I were far more compatible than either of us had imagined. That she wasn’t going to put up with my bullshit, well, that was all to the better. And that I wouldn’t let her off the hook, either, played into it all. Then we both started to fall in love with each other. No surprise, Lisa figured that out long before I did.

We discovered that I had procreated, never mind my best efforts not to. Nonetheless, my son, Nick, has proven to be one of the greatest gifts of my life, second only to finding Lisa. Breanna, Nick’s wife, has only added to that gift.

Lisa and I got married. We’ve had the odd period or two where our emotional intimacy has dimmed, but we’ve remained faithful to each other and, on the whole, our relationship has been pretty solid.

We have survived any number of bad guys trying to kill us and have the scars to prove it. We’ve survived being put on overt status, meaning we can cop to the work we do instead of having to hide it. We have survived budget cuts taking out our jobs, only to get roped back into them. We have survived the usual loss of friends and loved ones, although, thank God, mostly to the ravages of old age. We survived a rather nasty financial set back a few years ago. We’ve lived through earthquakes and wildfires. Terrorist attacks.

The past twenty years or so, we’ve been doing mostly supervisory work and training, and, no, we can’t talk about it. It’s still classified. We do get in some investigation work every now and then, but frankly, I’m getting too old for that shit. Hell, I’m 72. Lisa is 64. We’re dealing with the usual aches and pains of getting older. Her back goes out on her more and more often and she has problems sleeping. My gut is increasingly irritable. But we’re still in mostly good shape.

The restaurant where Lisa and I met closed within a year of that night. The building is not even there anymore. The last time Lisa and I went down that way to Hollywood, we got into a tiff over where the place had been. Lisa thought she knew of a way to figure it out, except that we both realized that neither of us could remember the name of the place.

It all seems so unaccountable. My son and Lisa’s nephew will both turn 50 next spring. My other nieces and nephews are all adults and several of them have kids. I have two grandkids! Even more amazing, my granddaughter and my nephew’s girl both start college next week. My grandson is a senior in high school.

Would I have those grandkids if it hadn’t been for Lisa? Possibly, but when Nick’s first mother brought him to us, it was Lisa who got me to befriend the boy. It was Lisa who brought me into her family, which is why I have nieces and nephews. And it was Lisa who helped me see what a real relationship could be.

Forty years with her. Forty years of fighting with each other, loving each other, and just being who we are. I couldn’t have asked for a greater gift.

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