Welcome to From This Day Forward, book ten in the Operation Quickline series. It’s Sid and Lisa’s big day – their wedding. But in the weeks leading up to the event, something strange is going on. The only thing scarier will be their honeymoon. You can read the first episode here and see all the episodes that have run here.
Given that Sy Flournoy had studied in Vienna, it would have made sense that Sid and I would have mentioned that we were there to Stella that first afternoon after we arrived. I don’t know how much of the fact that we didn’t had to do with me knowing that Vienna had been kind of a sore point with them way back when or Sid’s and my general reluctance to let anyone know where we were. We told her eventually. We kind of had to. We did some shopping and had our purchases shipped, as we’d been doing, and she would have noticed the return addresses.
But that was after we’d arrived at the drop-off station, checked out each of the different caches, then found ourselves on a bus tour of the city. Dinner was a lot more fun, despite Dale introducing me as Lisa Hackbirn again. I looked at travel club members who had come to say hello and decided not to argue about it. Both Sid and I recognized Eduardo and Elena Montoya. Eduardo was Elena’s father. Elena was my usual Orange County contact, and she’d been hanging out there for some time, compensating for the missing hub and floater on the Red Line.
Both Eduardo and Elena were the floaters for the Seattle port of entry and the Blue Line. Elena would be headed back up that way once she and Eduardo got home, since Sid and I were now floaters for the Los Angeles port of entry and had a hub team.
The next morning Sid and I went running, then got ready for yet another bus tour, this time of the surrounding area. Marian, Andrew, Lillian, and the Montoyas joined us for that one. Marian and Andrew still weren’t too sure about leaving Sid and me alone after all the attacks we’d been subject to. That wasn’t such a bad thing. We were getting to know them and Lillian better and realizing that we really liked all three of them. After Sid and I had settled into our seats on the bus, I felt my mind wander again. I don’t know why I went back to the worst year of my life thus far.
Grandma Wycherly was tall and forbidding. I had always been a little scared of her. But when she’d come to stay with us when I was ten, there was a part of me that was grateful. After all, Mama, Daddy, and Grandma Caulfield had all gone to San Francisco that spring. I didn’t entirely understand what Mama was up against, just that it was really, really bad. She had breast cancer, and all I understood about it was that she could die. I don’t think it registered. The tension and the fear did, though, and me being who I was, well, I acted out.
Grandma Wycherly, who was German by birth, was not pleased when she pulled me out of the horse barn that afternoon.
“Why are you doing this?” she demanded.
“Doing what?” I asked.
“Jumping out of the hayloft onto the floor. Do you want to hurt yourself?”
“There’s lots of hay on the floor.”
“Lisa Jane, why can’t you be more like your sister? She is good and ladylike. She gets good grades. Why can’t you do that?”
“I don’t know.”
“You will never get a husband this way.”
“I don’t want a husband.”
“What are you saying? Of course, you do. And if you are going to get one, you need to be a good young woman. A quiet young woman. You need to be ladylike.”
I wasn’t entirely a troublemaker, and I knew what I was supposed to do. But being ladylike was a total bore.
“You’re looking pensive again,” Sid said with a playful nudge.
I grimaced. “Just thinking about my inglorious past.”
“What?” Sid laughed.
I shrugged. “I got into a fair amount of trouble for not being a nice little Kate, conformable with other household Kates.”
Sid nuzzled my ear. “And I’m glad you’re not. You wouldn’t be nearly as much fun.”
“I’m glad you think so.” I smiled, even though I didn’t entirely feel it.
The reality was Sid understood me better than any other man I’d ever known. But that didn’t mean he entirely understood the pressure I felt. Why would he? There was how he’d been raised, which was darned unconventional, and why he understood that the conventional social mores often bothered me.
I’m not saying he didn’t try to understand the rest. He most certainly did. He simply had no way of understanding what I had been taught. He hadn’t been taught the same things. Nor had he been subject to the same messages that I had because he was a man, and I wasn’t.
We got to see a concert that night, and it was a lovely one, too. Sid was so happy he got even more frisky than usual on the way back to the drop-off station. The other really nice thing about Vienna was that we were not attacked or even followed. Sid and I weren’t sure, but thought we had an idea why.
The next morning, we were on another flight, this time to Brussels.
“What was the name of that movie from the late sixties?” I asked Sid. “If it’s Tuesday, it’s Belgium?”
“I have no idea.” Sid blinked. The flight was too short for him to take out his lenses.
“It was about a bunch of American tourists on a bus tour of Europe.”
“You know. I think I did see that one. The tour guide had a different girlfriend in each city.” Sid chuckled. “I used to think that would be a fun way to see Europe. And please note, I said used to.”
“I know.” I smiled. “I think the idea behind the title is that the group was going so fast through so many countries, they couldn’t remember where they were. I’m almost feeling the same way.”
Sid laughed a little. “You could almost say that. We certainly got more than we bargained on.”
Brussels was gorgeous, filled with medieval buildings standing next to more modern ones. The drop-off station, though, was in a modern high-rise building, and it didn’t take Sid and me long to find all the hiding spots among the blue Danish modern furniture. Marian and Andrew, who were with us, rushed us out of the apartment to go have lunch with Lillian, Dale, and Adrienne, and yet another two travel club members.
The members turned out to be Marge Benson and Hattie Mitchell. Marge was a crusty old lady who lived in her RV in several different spots, but mostly in South Lake Tahoe. As in, she knew my parents, and I always got the weird feeling that she wanted to rat me out to them, never mind that she needed to keep her cover as much as Sid and I did. The weird thing was that I really liked her, even though she and Dale O’Connor were buddies. Sid agreed that wasn’t exactly a selling point on her behalf.
On the other hand, Hattie was a very dear friend. Sid and I had been writing for her magazine almost since I’d first come to work for Sid. Hattie has her fingers in a lot of different pies, but her primary work is with the defense industry. She owns a major defense electronics contractor and was probably involved in intelligence work in the early Sixties. We’re not sure, and Hattie has never said.
Both Hattie and Marge took us around Brussels and were exceedingly well-informed when it came to being tour guides.
“I’ve just traveled a lot,” Marge said, as we relaxed at a cafe on the Grande Place with Dale, Lillian, Marian, and Andrew.
Sid and I had called Nick. He was going to his friend Josh Sandoval’s place for a sleepover that night. Adrienne had gone shopping. Marge kept referring to everything in Brussels by the French names (except for Manneken Pis, the iconic statue of the little boy peeing). Hattie explained that she’d worked in Belgium for several years before getting married. That’s where she’d met Marge shortly after SHAPE (some sort of military alliance) had moved there and they had even worked at an air command facility in the French part of Belgium called Glons.
I plowed through a huge pile of frites, or French fries. Marge had recommended getting them with a tarragon mayonnaise on the side, and she was right. That mayonnaise was amazing. Sid got several fries, even though he usually avoids potatoes.
“Those are good,” he said, going after another fry.
He also enjoyed the Belgian beer. I preferred the wine. We were both pleasantly tiddly by the time we wandered over to the restaurant Marian had selected. Which may have been why things erupted as they did over dinner.
Marge made several suggestions for a day trip the next day. I wanted to go to Bruges. Sid wanted to see Antwerp and the diamond center there. We couldn’t really do both.
“We’ll go to Antwerp,” I said, finally.
“You don’t care about diamonds,” Sid retorted.
“I do.” I looked at him a little frantically.
Sid looked at the rest of the group, then got up from his chair. “Excuse us. Lisa and I need to settle something.”
He pulled me away to the plaza in front of the cafe.
“You didn’t need to do that,” I complained.
“Yeah, I did. Why are you caving in?”
“Why not? You want to see diamonds, we’ll see diamonds.”
“But you don’t want to.” He looked at me, a little worried.
“So what? I want you to have a good time. It’s your honeymoon, too.”
“It’s our honeymoon. Lisa, what’s going on?”
I looked at him, bewildered. “Nothing. I just want you to have what you want.”
“Bull puckey.” [That’s not what I said. – SEH]
“I can’t concede to your preference sometimes?”
“If that’s what I thought you were doing, I’d probably be fine with that.”
“Then what am I doing?” I glared at him.
“I have no idea. Normally, you’d be trying to find a way to do both. Or something. You wouldn’t just roll over.”
I glared. “Well, maybe I’m trying to be nice to you. Did that ever occur to you?”
“Except that’s not how you are nice to me.”
“Maybe I’m trying something new.” I snorted. “Why can’t I defer to you sometimes? I love you. I want you to be happy.”
“We both agreed a long time ago that being martyrs doesn’t work for us.”
“So, if I defer to you, that automatically makes me a martyr?”
Sid glared at me. “No. What makes you a martyr is that you’re not happy about it.”
“I’m happy enough.”
“No, you’re not.”
“And you get to decide whether I’m happy or not.”
“No.” Sid rolled his eyes. “I can tell when you’re happy or not. And you’re not happy this time.”
I winced. The problem was, I wasn’t happy about going to Antwerp. It just felt so selfish to want what I wanted. And, yet, I couldn’t say that. I wasn’t sure why, but I couldn’t.
“I want you to be happy,” I said finally. “That’s all.”
He looked at me and sighed. “And I want the same thing for you. Look. Antwerp. Bruges. Neither really makes that big a difference to me. On the other hand, I know how much you love lace. It’s not like we’ll never get back here. Why don’t we do Bruges? We’ll do diamonds some other time.”
“Sure. If that’s what you want.”
He shook his head. “What about what you want?”
“That’s what I want.”
His eyes narrowed, and I squirmed, not entirely comfortable with the way he was looking at me. Still, we went back to the others at the cafe and announced that we would spend the day in Bruges.
I’m sure Antwerp would have been lovely, but Bruges was incredible. Our entire group went, including Dale and Adrienne. The city was easily one of the most picturesque places I’d ever been. I took tons of photos. Hattie lectured on the differences between the different Gothic styles of architecture. Marian and Andrew watched passively. Lillian got into a debate with Marge and Hattie about whether it was worth ordering mussels at that time of year. We ate chocolate and pastries. We did the canal tour. We drank wine, beer, and coffee. We bought a series of pen and ink lithographs and some more watercolors. Sid bought me a bobbin lace making kit, as if I needed another needle craft hobby. But I had to admit, seeing the beautiful laces and the women making them, I was hooked.
Later that night, as we got ready for bed, I finally had to ask him.
“Sid, my darling, I’m curious. You’re usually so strict about your diet. Yet since we’ve been in Europe, you’ve been eating almost like I do.”
Sid chuckled. “Not in the same amounts, but yeah.”
“Why? Given how many lectures I’ve gotten on how our health is the only thing we have, I have to wonder.”
“Well.” He shrugged and winced a little. “It’s actually something you said a few years ago. Remember when you ate your way through lower Manhattan?”
I giggled. “You were disgusted.”
“Not quite. Yeah, the sheer amount of food you consumed that day was pretty frightening. But it was something else. You got mad at me and told me that you experience the world with all five of your senses.” He smiled softly and looked at me. “That’s when I began to realize just how passionate you really are. It’s like I’ve been telling you all along. You are a very passionate woman. Just because you said no to sex didn’t change that. You were simply just as passionate about your convictions was all. Anyway, I was thinking about that, and it occurred to me that maybe I should try living with all of my five senses, too. We can’t eat like this all the time. But this is a special occasion.” He reached over and kissed me, then softly moaned. “Oh, yeah. I do like living this passionately.”
I smiled back. “So do I.”
Of course, the downside of all that was that we’d gotten back quite late and had to be up early the next morning to catch a train to Wiesbaden, West Germany. I was feeling pretty dopey as Sid and I sat in the train compartment with Lillian next to us and Marian and Andrew in the seat facing us. Marian and Andrew were traveling forward, but I didn’t mind. It was kind of fun seeing where we’d been as things flashed past.
(March 18, 1974)
It was three days before my sixteenth birthday. All my friends were determined to get our driver’s licenses on the day of our birthday. I was the first of that group to turn sixteen that year. Only it didn’t look like I was going to get my trip to the DMV.
“Why not?” I practically screamed at Mama. “We’ve been planning this. You said I could.”
“I said I thought you could. But your father has decided differently, and that’s that.”
“But, Mama, I was the best in my driver’s training class. I passed the written test without one mistake.”
“I know. Your father is just a little worried about you driving by yourself until the ground’s a little more thawed out.”
“That’s ridiculous. I managed it when I hit that patch of black ice the other day. Daddy said he couldn’t have done any better.”
“And that’s with us in the car. By yourself is a different issue.”
“It’s not fair. Mae got her license on her birthday.”
“Perhaps Mae was just a little bit more mature than you are right now.”
I made a face. “What? I’m not immature!”
“Well, huffing around like you are right now isn’t helping.”
“But Daddy’s wrong. I’m a good driver.”
“That doesn’t make any difference. He’s the one who gets to decide.”
“Because he’s your father. His mind is made up, and that’s all there is to it.”
“Why can’t you talk to him?” I began to suspect Mama agreed more with Daddy than disagreed. She certainly knew how to get around him.
“Maybe you ought to try sweet-talking him yourself. You catch a lot more flies with sugar than vinegar.”
It took a day or so, but I did eventually convince my father that I was mature enough to get my driver’s license on my birthday. Still, it had been like that my entire life. We always deferred to Daddy. If Mama wanted her own way on something, she usually found a way around him. But more often than not, Daddy had the final word, and that was it.
I looked over at Sid. He’d been right those two nights before. Martyrdom had never worked for us, and we could always tell when the other was trying to make it work. Still, I wanted to please Sid. That was so important to me. I mean, I loved him. Why wouldn’t I want him to be happy?
After we’d crossed the border into West Germany and the conductor had stamped our passports, Sid glanced at me, then looked at Marian and Andrew.
“Does Gwen Flowers know we’re going to be Wiesbaden?” Sid asked them.
Marian made a face. “Not yet.”
Sid nodded. “Mrs. Flowers did not know we were in Vienna or Brussels, did she?”
“No, she did not,” Marian said.
Sid looked at her. “So, given that Gwen Flowers reportedly likes to talk, and that her son, Mark Flowers, appears to be up to his hips in whatever this plot is, then it is reasonably safe to say that when Gwen knows where we are, Mark does, and that he is taking an interest in that bit of news.”
Marian rolled her eyes. “We do not, in fact, know that to be the case. However, it seems likely. I will be calling Gwen this afternoon so that we might test that hypothesis.”
“Nice to know,” said Sid, glancing at me.
Lillian chuckled. “The good news is that we’ll have the ever-formidable Barb and Lita with us.”
“Oh, good,” said Marian. “They’re worth five of Dale.”
“And we won’t have to deal with covering for their children,” Lillian said. “Lita’s oldest is down with the chicken pox, which means odds are good the rest of them will be getting it, too, so Moishe – he’s Barb’s husband – said he and Pedro had better stay home just in case.”
“I don’t understand,” I said.
“Barbara Wasserman and Carlita Delgado are the Yellow floater team,” Lillian explained. “They took their training trip just a little over a year ago. They’ve been best friends since they were girls. I think Lita started out in intelligence in the late Seventies. Either way, we got her as a mover in Seventy-Nine. A year later, we realized that we were going to need a second mover in Miami, so she recruited her best friend, Barb. I’m not sure how they survived the attack on their line three years ago.”
“They probably were not recognized as the threats they are,” grumbled Andrew.
Lillian laughed. “Probably not. Both were married by the time Barb was recruited, and Lita was pregnant with her first. They have five children between them. Their husbands used to have only the vaguest idea that they don’t just have a chain of children’s clothing stores, but Barb and Lita recruited them and they’re the Miami Yellow hub team. The men also stay at home to raise the babies.” She smiled at me. “In a different way, they remind me a little of you, Lisa, in that no one would ever guess what they really do.”
“I assure you,” Marian said, her smile just a touch evil. “You do not wish to cross either of them. Not that I think you will.”
“They’re why Dale and Adrienne will not be joining us,” Lillian said, mischief in her eyes. “I believe I told you that some of us are an acquired taste. Well, let’s just say that Dale O’Connor is not going to acquire a taste for Lita and Barb any too soon.”
“What happened?” Sid asked.
“Do any of us actually know what it was that Dale said?” Marian asked.
Both Andrew and Lillian shook their heads.
Andrew cleared his throat. “It was, apparently, grossly offensive to Lita, who smashed his face into the table. When he came after her, Barb stopped him with a frightfully fast kick to his family jewels.”
I laughed. “I think I like these women already.”
Sid sighed. I was rather good at finding where it hurts on guys, too, much to his dismay.
When I finally got to meet the ladies over lunch in a little restaurant near the famous baths, I did sort of like them. I just was not in good shape to deal with them. They reminded me an awful lot of the women I knew at church, except that there was an edge to their chatter that was utterly absent from my friends.
“Oh, this is so exciting!” said Barb, who had blond curly hair and a full figure on a not very tall frame.
Lita was also short, with black hair and dark eyes, and a few curves. If she smashed Dale’s face into a table, then she had a lot more speed and reach than you would have thought to look at her.
“And congratulations!” Lita squealed. “You are so lucky your husband is your partner. My poor Pedro had the worst time until we recruited him and Moishe.”
“We have been wanting to meet the two of you since forever,” said Barb. “Well, since we heard you are the two who got those schmucks trying to take out our line three years ago. Why would somebody do such a thing?”
Lita rolled her eyes. “It doesn’t make any sense, does it? But we’re so glad you got them.”
“We were so scared we’d be next.”
“It was terrifying.”
“You did some other takedowns, too. We’ve heard you’re awesome investigators.”
“And now you’re part of our club!”
“This is, like, terrific!”
Had I been in any other circumstances, it would have been a lot easier to just let their chatter wash over me. I smiled, though, and only Sid really saw how much of a toll it was taking.
I got up from the table. “You know what? I really need a nap.” I looked at Marian. “Is there any reason I need to be available?”
She looked at me, clearly wondering. “Shall we see you two at dinner?”
“Yeah. Sounds great.”
Sid and I found our car just outside the restaurant and the driver, whose name we didn’t know, took us to the drop-off station, a small house on the outskirts of the city.
“What’s going on?” Sid asked softly as the car pulled away.
“I need quiet,” I said. “I’m sorry. I don’t know why. But I feel like if anyone else talks to me, I’m going to smash her face into a table.”
I suddenly quailed. “I’m not being selfish, am I?”
“Not in the least. In fact, I think I know what’s going on.”
He didn’t say anything more. We spent the rest of the afternoon at the drop-off station. Sid silently brought me my knitting. I went to work on the sweater and felt the knots in my shoulders slowly unwind. There was a phone in the station, and we called Nick at four, but held off leaving until Marian called around six to let us know where everyone was eating dinner.
“She’s fine,” Sid told Marian because he’d taken the call. “We both just needed a little quiet time.” He put his hand over the mouthpiece and looked at me. “You up for dinner, even with Barb and Lita?”
I nodded. “I’ll be fine.”
“We’ll be there…” He listened for Marian’s response. “No. Tell them they’re okay. Lisa just got a little overwhelmed is all… It’s exactly like what I was telling you before. Too many strangers and not enough butts to kick…” He laughed. “Right. We’ll see you in an hour.”
He hung up. I sniffed.
“She thinks I’m a basket case, doesn’t she?”
Sid slid up next to me on the couch where I was sitting. “She’s concerned, yes. But more that you’re not having a good time.”
I winced. “I’m sorry, Sid. I’m just not good at this social thing.”
“You’re good enough. Let’s face it, we’ve been doing parties and dinners and what not since the middle of last month. It’s no wonder you’re getting tired of it. I know I am.”
“Then why aren’t you freaking out?”
Sid laughed. “Because you’re beating me to it, and not by that much.” He shook his head. “I was ready to smash both Barb and Lita’s faces into the table.”
“The sad thing is, they are kind of nice.”
Sid chuckled. “They are who they are.”
I can’t say Barb and Lita had completely toned down their chatter, but they were more subdued over dinner. There was a lot about them that I found familiar and comfortable. They talked about their kids. They talked about their business. They talked about their husbands. Then I found something I could talk about, and it was really nice. I could brag about Nick in a way that I couldn’t with anybody else.
“He is amazing at tailing people,” I said. “Of course, he’ll get made doing a solo tail, but it takes the subject a lot longer to spot him.”
“How old is he?” Lita asked, sipping on a cola. Or what I’d thought was a cola.
Barb’s eyes grew wide. “And you’re training him?”
“Sure,” I said. “He was bound to find out about us when we took custody a year and a half ago, and he did pretty quickly. So, the safest thing to do was teach him how to handle himself.”
“Thirteen.” Lita shuddered. “That’s right on top of the teen years. I am not looking forward to that.”
“I like teens.” I laughed. “They’re way better than toddlers. I remember when my nephew Darby was two. He was horrible.”
Sid laughed. “Worse that the twins?”
“My sister’s youngest two,” I told Barb and Lita. “They were two when I met Sid and he met them. And, yeah, the only reason their terrible twos were worse than Darby’s was because there were two of them. Janey wasn’t as mouthy, but she was three times as stubborn. Trust me, I am so glad we missed Nick as a toddler.” I shuddered. “He is such a handful now, and that’s just because he’s so curious and hyper. At least we can reason with him. You cannot reason with a toddler.”
“But you can contain them,” Barb said. “And they’re so cute at that age.” She sighed. “I wish we could carry pictures.”
I snickered. “I don’t have to. Nick looks just like his dad, only with glasses and longer hair.”
“He is a little charmer,” Lillian said. “During the wedding reception, he asked me to dance with him after the little dust up I had with that fellow.”
I rolled my eyes. “My Uncle Leonard. He needed that one.”
Lillian laughed. “Anyway, your son wanted to know how to do what I’d done. We went out to the garden, and he had me in a headlock in record time.”
“That’s my boy,” I said with a grin. “He learns fast.”
“A perfect gentleman about it, too.” Lillian sighed. “And yes, I’m glad you are training him. He guessed that I was connected to our espionage operation. He didn’t say anything, but I saw the look in his eyes.”
Sid and I grinned at each other.
“I am so proud of him,” I said, sighing. “I miss my sweet guy.”
Lita looked at Sid and me. “Okay, I’m a little confused. The boy is your son, Sid, right? But not Lisa’s?”
I glared at her. “He’s my son.”
“Lisa adopted him,” Sid said quickly.
“Oh, duh.” Lita hit her forehead with the heel of her hand. “I’m so sorry. Of course, he’s your son. It’s just how he got that way that had me confused.”
I noticed Marian looking at me in speculation. I suspect I had her confused for some reason, but then Sid says I do that to people. [You, my dearest, are a fascinating study in contradictions to those who don’t know you. – SEH]
The only trouble was, Sid and I got back to the drop-off station quite late.
“How are you feeling, sweetie?” Sid asked as we got ready for bed.
“Tired, but okay. You?”
“Okay.” He looked at me. “How are you feeling about making love?”
“Um. Sure. If you want.”
He sighed. “Which means what?”
“I don’t know.”
“Lisa, you can say no.”
“I know. I just don’t necessarily want to.”
He shook his head. “Are you trying to keep up with me or something?”
“What do you mean, keep up with you?”
“I don’t want you to think you have to be some sort of sex goddess for me.”
I looked at him with a frown. “You weren’t worried about that before.”
“No.” He frowned. “Things were different. It wasn’t about you having to satiate me because we were working around the jeans and the no bodily fluids. Now…” He sighed. “You said you were worried about being enough for me. Honey, I gotta tell you, not only are you enough, you’re more than enough. If anything, you’re wearing me out.”
I blinked. “I’m sorry!”
“No. Don’t be. It’s been great. It’s just that we haven’t missed a night since the wedding, and sometimes twice. That’s a lot more sex than I’ve ever gotten.”
“But you were out four to six times a week.”
“And I struck out a lot. Usually, I only had sex two to three times a week. Yeah, there’d be times when I was going at it pretty heavily. But not like we’ve been going at it.” He gently ran his fingers through my hair. “Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been loving it. But if you’ve been going along because you think you need to satisfy my appetite, trust me, it’s been satisfied and then some.”
“Oh.” I winced. “That’s good to know.” I shrugged. “I guess we can get some sleep then.”
We finished undressing, got into bed, and kissed each other goodnight. There was only one problem.
“Sid?” I asked softly. “This doesn’t feel right.”
“What do you mean?” He lay on his back, staring at the ceiling.
“I want to make love. I mean, I’m tired and if you’re too pooped, that’s fine, too. It’s like I said. I don’t need Superman.”
“I’m glad. But you know what?” He chuckled. “I was thinking I want to make love, too.” He rolled over onto his side and looked at me. “I don’t believe it. You are every teen boy’s wet dream.”
I flushed. “That sounds gross, but what?”
“You’re a nymphomaniac.”
“I’m not that bad.”
Sid laughed and pulled me close to him. “No. You’re worse. You’re the first person I’ve ever met who loves sex as much as I do.”
“Well, you are really good at it.”
“So, are you.” He kissed me hard, then looked down at me. “We’re not going to say no to each other, are we?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Oh, well. Who needs sleep anyway?”
Actually, we both did. That next morning, we got a message to Marian that we were going to stay in until lunchtime, then meet everybody to go over whatever plans would be made. Marian had told Gwen exactly where she was going to be shopping, even asking Gwen if she wanted anything from the shop in question, so we had a decent idea of when the attack would come. If it did.
I have to admit, I was in a better frame of mind when we met Barb, Lita, Lillian, Andrew, and Marian at another little restaurant for lunch. Fortunately, Dale wasn’t around to try and bully us into seeing things his way. Although the one time his name came up, I got the feeling from Lita that she would have loved another chance to smash his face into a table. The big problem we all had was that we weren’t entirely sure who the specific target for the attack was. Sid watched as I took a final pull on my beer (which I enjoyed even though I don’t usually like beer), then he sighed.
“As much as I don’t like the idea of being set up for target practice,” Sid said. “The only people in this group that have been attacked have been Marian, Andrew, Lisa, and me. And Lisa and I are the only people who were attacked independently of anyone else. Why don’t we assume all four of us are the targets?”
Marian sighed. “That does make sense.”
He shrugged. “Then the next question is, do we want these guys to think we’re civilians or do we care?”
“Oh, that opens up quite the can of worms, doesn’t it?” Marian groaned.
We went back and forth for some time. After all, Andrew’s black belt was well-known, and as Barb and Lita pointed out, self-defense classes were all the rage in the U.S., so there was no reason not to believe that I could handle myself.
“You know,” I said slowly. “If we’re going to operate on the theory that civilians can do hand-to-hand, then why don’t we do the whole scream for help thing? That’s what all the experts kept saying to do when I did that article on self-defense for women a couple of years ago.”
“It does work.” Sid grinned proudly at me. “People almost always underestimate Lisa.”
Marian glanced at Lillian, who smiled and nodded. “So, we’ve been told.”
“It works for us, too,” Barb said. “You would not believe some of the situations we’ve gotten out of because somebody thought they’d gotten a civilian by mistake.”
“It seems like a rather novel approach,” Andrew said. He looked at Marian thoughtfully. “Although perhaps that’s why no one seems to suspect us of covert activity. We are, to all appearances, the worst of the rotting aristocracy, slothful and hedonistic.”
“That’s not how I care to think of us.” Marian snorted, then ate a bit of pastry and sighed happily. “We are known for our diplomatic work, as well, I should hope. Well, in certain circles, we are.” She sighed. “But Andrew is right. Most people don’t know we serve on the diplomatic corps, and that work is primarily entertaining foreign visitors before Mrs. Thatcher gets a hold of them.” She sighed. “It is an image which serves us well, I suppose. Now, shall we go on to the shops?”
I must give the attackers credit. They took their time to attack. There were three shops in a row along the tiny side street. Apartment buildings surrounded the shops and filled in the block across the street.
The first shop featured pens and fine writing paper. Our friends didn’t quite have to drag Sid and me out of there, but as Marian put it, it was a near thing. Sid got Lita hooked on fountain pens when he invited her to try a lovely Pelikan with a gray pearlescent barrel.
“Oh my god!” Lita squealed. “Barb, you have got to try this!”
Barb did and squealed, too. Sid bought them each a basic model. Then we added several more pens to our collection, including the one with the gray barrel, and bought several bottles of ink. I also bought a couple more brightly colored fountain pens for Nick, along with the converters that sucked the ink into the barrel rather than using cartridges.
We were expecting the attack to come as we headed for the second shop, which sold wines from the local wine region known as the Rheingau. Marian had asked Gwen Flowers if she’d wanted any of the wines there, so we were expecting something. Nothing happened except that Barb and Lita got Sid back for the fountain pens by introducing us to dry rieslings. Sid and I like riesling, only these were a whole new type of wine. Several bottles got shipped home. There was a touch of reluctance to leave, as we fully expected the attack to occur after we left. Nothing happened.
I tried to go into the third shop, which was a delicatessen, but the others dragged me away, promising more delicious sausages and other meats at a nearby cafe. Barb, Lita, and Lillian took the lead toward the main street ahead. Marian and Andrew walked behind Sid and me. They were the first to be pulled away after we’d crossed an alley. Marian got enough of a chirp out to alert Sid and me.
We turned, and I yelped loudly. Andrew was on the ground, with one man standing over him and holding Marian in a headlock. The other four had knives and ran at Sid and me. We didn’t have time to run, so we went into basic defensive postures. Barb and Lita, screaming like banshees, ran up and pounced on two of the men. Sid dodged as his opponent feinted. I twisted, slamming back first into mine, and grabbed his knife hand, bending back his wrist so that he dropped the knife. I elbowed him in the ribs. He backed off a little, and I whipped around. He clocked me in the side of the head, but I bounced back, then whacked him in the nose with the heel of my hand. He dove at me, only to land with my knee hard into his privates. Groaning, he slumped. I turned.
Sid rabbit punched his guy, then looked at me and sighed. Lillian scooped up the knife that my guy had dropped and slowly approached the man holding Marian. This was going to be tricky. The man holding Marian could very easily have snapped her neck, given the hold he had on her. Lita danced around her opponent. How she’d turned up a knife, I’ll never know. Barb disarmed her opponent and whacked his head up against the wall. He slid downward. Andrew suddenly kicked the man holding Marian, and she stumbled forward as he let go.
From down the main street, the alternating wail of police sirens approached. The men who could, bolted. Andrew got groggily to his feet.
“We’d best leave, as well,” he said, pointing to an alley across the street.
We hurried across and down the dark space. I’m guessing Andrew radioed ahead for our cars because they were there waiting for us. We didn’t worry about whose of the two cars was whose. We just got in. I landed with Barb, Lita, and Andrew. Andrew told the driver to go to the drop-off station. That driver radioed the second car, and we were soon sprawled around the living room of the station, comparing notes on our various aches, pains, and cuts. Marian and Lillian were relatively untouched and together assessed who was dealing with what.
Andrew had taken a good knock and had a goose egg forming under his ear. Sid had a small cut on his ribs and bruised hands. Barb’s hands weren’t in much better shape, and she had a skinned knee. Lita had gotten three cuts, one on her left arm and two more on her ribs, all more scrapes than anything. My head was achy, and my lower back was tight. It hadn’t exploded into the bad pain, but it felt like it could at any second.
I stretched and asked if there was an ice pack, then went over to Sid and helped him out of his sweater and shirt.
“Well, this one’s ruined,” I grumbled, looking at the blood-soaked tear in the white dress shirt. “I just hope I can save the sweater.”
“Damn. I hope so. I liked that one.” Sid frowned.
It was a blue argyle that I’d made for him, and he had really liked it.
“I’ll have to stitch it together right now before I lose any stitches, then see if I can re-weave it when we get home. At least I still have some yarn left from that project.”
“Did you knit that?” Barb asked.
“That is amazing.”
I shrugged, rolled my shoulders, then went upstairs to the bedroom where we were sleeping to see what I could use to stabilize the tear before it got any worse. Fortunately, I had my other knitting, and I pulled some yarn from one of the balls and went downstairs.
Not surprisingly, there was a complete first aid kit in the station. I helped Marian and Lillian bandage cuts, then settled onto the couch next to Sid, with the ice pack firmly against my lower back, and went to work on the sweater.
Marian sent the drivers to fetch dinner and drinks for us all – food being the one thing the stations were rather short on. There were several canned dinners and the like for emergencies, but an emergency would be the only reason to eat any of it.
Lillian waved a penlight in front of Andrew’s eyes. “Well, they’re dilating okay. Any nausea?”
“None,” he grumbled, adjusting the ice pack on the place he’d been hit. “Just a miserable headache.”
Once the food had arrived, we all staggered into the small dining area and passed plates around, poured shots of icy cold vodka and started eating. Well, Lita pulled a bottle from her purse and doctored some cola.
“Cuban rum,” she explained. “It’s the best there is.”
“Any impressions?” Sid asked, sipping from his shot.
Barb got an evil glint in her eyes, and her voice got low and growly. “Make him an offer he can’t refuse.”
That’s it. I lost it. Even Sid and Lillian laughed, and Lita shrieked hysterically.
“That is positively the worst Godfather impression I have ever seen,” said Marian, trying to keep a straight face.
“Alright,” said Lillian, getting control of herself. “Some analysis might help right now. How did this go down?”
“Andrew was attacked first,” Marian said. “From behind, and the intent certainly seemed to be to immobilize him.”
“Our crew is getting smarter about that black belt,” Sid said.
“The one just held me,” Marian continued, then looked at Sid and me. “However, they went after you two with knives. They didn’t really pay attention to the others.”
“Which makes no sense,” I said. “If they were trying to get rid of Sid and me and took you two down to get at us, why didn’t they go after Barb, Lita, and Lillian?”
“I think you just hit on something,” Sid said. “They were trying to get rid of us, as in kill us.” He looked at Marian and Andrew. “You two, they just knocked out or held.”
My mouth fell open. “Which could mean you two are the target of the plot and they think Sid and I are your protection.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Marian said. “How would capturing Andrew and me force your government to negotiate?”
Lillian sighed. “That’s a good question. Your government isn’t any more likely to negotiate with terrorists than ours is.”
“Nor has anyone tried to drag us off anywhere,” Andrew pointed out. “Although they may not have had much opportunity.”
Marian sighed. “At least we have established that Mark Flowers is involved in all of this.”
Sid shrugged. “He’s obviously letting the terrorists know where you guys are. That Lisa and I’ve been there each time probably has more to do with you two following us around so closely.”
“Hm.” Marian glared at a spot across the room. “I’m afraid you’re probably right on that one. The question is, how do we separate ourselves?” She sighed. “We leave for Paris tomorrow.”
“Mierda,” Lita said. “Barb and I have meetings in Milan through Friday.”
“That’s when we go to Copenhagen.” Marian turned thoughtful. “Lillian, would you be willing to take Sid and Lisa through? Andrew and I could certainly find a way to stay in Paris a few more days.”
“What about protection?” Lillian asked. “If you two are the target of the plot, no matter how little sense it makes, it might not be a bad thing to have.”
Marian sighed. “We’ll simply have to draw upon the resources of our extended staff, I suppose. That might throw Flowers off regarding Sid and Lisa. We’d beg off Paris, but we’ve already committed to meeting Gwen and family tomorrow for dinner, and I’m afraid Gwen is expecting Sid and Lisa to join us.”
Sid shook his head. “I’m guessing it’s safe to assume that if we’re not there, that might be suspicious.”
“I fear so,” Marian replied.
Sid and I both rolled our eyes.
The others did eventually leave for their hotel, although Barb and Lita wanted to stay at the drop-off station. There was a second bedroom. I think Marian convinced the two that even they would find Sid and me carrying on more embarrassing than they wanted. Okay, Sid and I try to keep it down when necessary. It just doesn’t always work.
Thank you for reading. For more information about the Operation Quickline series, click here.