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.
There is something incredibly special about Venice. The ancient buildings, the smelly canals. Art is everywhere. And there aren’t any cars, although the motorboats make up for it.
We took the water taxi in from the airport, then ate lunch at a small trattoria just off the Piazza San Marco. The next stop was the drop-off station. It was at the top of a small apartment complex not far from the piazza. We had to walk up three floors, then cross an enclosed bridge over a canal to get to the apartment in question.
The decor had a very Eighteenth-Century look, with ornate woodwork on the sofa and chairs in the front room. Everything was white and gilt gold, with dark burgundy velvet upholstery. A dark gilt frame on the side wall surrounded an oil still life painting of fruit and a gold pitcher, with the light purple forget-me-nots strewn around.
We found the hiding places quickly. An ornate clock on a what not table under the front window had a back that opened. The table lamp was crystal and split apart at the side. The inside panel on the chair hid that hiding spot. The back panel of a painting of Venice at sunrise came apart. The waste can had big knobs on the side that twisted off.
We’d barely found everything when the knock on the door came, and our luggage was brought in by a young woman who promptly took it to the back bedroom.
Marian checked her watch. “We need to get back to the plaza. Lillian is going to meet us there at St. Mark’s so that we can spend the afternoon touring the cathedral. Then we’ll have tea with Dale and Adrienne and meet another of our club members.”
I looked at Sid.
“Sounds good,” he said.
Lillian was happy to see us, and the tour was fascinating, even the relics, which Sid thought were pretty strange. The thing was, as we left the cathedral for one of the many little trattorias surrounding the Piazza, I got the feeling that we were being followed. I glanced at Sid, who nodded.
Lillian, Marian, and Andrew sent the two of us off on a gondola tour of the canals and were waiting for us when we got back. Covert glances behind them told Sid and me that someone was, indeed, following them, but had not followed us.
The man sitting with Dale at the trattoria was not whoever had been following us. That person was still somewhere behind. I was not happy to see Dale’s companion, though. Neither was Sid. The man was average-sized, balding, with his remaining hair neatly clipped and brown. He did not look happy to see us.
“Hello again,” he grumbled as we walked up.
“It’s a pleasure to see you, too,” Sid said, a fake smile on his lips.
Dale stood. “Sid, Lisa, this is Clint Foster, Central Intelligence Agency, and our South America liaison. Clint, Sid and Lisa Hackbirn.”
I glared at Dale but decided not to say anything, then shook Clint’s hand.
Lillian pushed Dale on the shoulder. “Dale, can’t you keep it straight? Lisa’s name is Wycherly. She’s not changing it.”
Adrienne wandered up carrying a large shopping bag with several boxes in it.
Dale laughed and shook his head. “And how big a dent have you put in my bank balance?”
She smiled and kissed the top of his head. “The shoes here are divine.”
I couldn’t help grinning. I love shoes.
We ate pastries and drank coffee. Well, I did heavily doctor mine, but I was getting used to it. Sid really enjoyed the coffee, although he only had one cup. He hadn’t been getting any headaches, but if he drank more than one cup at a time, it would upset his stomach a little. Clint and Dale were having quite a good time, with Sid on the edge of the conversation. I chatted with Lillian about what we were going to do the next day, then saw Dale glare at Sid, who shrugged. Clint, for his part, looked at me funny.
Adrienne convinced Lillian and Marian that we women should go shopping. I agreed to meet them because it was getting close to four and Sid and I needed to call Nick before he went to school. Marian arranged with the cafe’s owner to let us use his telephone.
It was a quick conversation. Nick was annoyed that he’d forgotten to do several math problems over the weekend.
“They’re easy ones, but I gotta get them done before school,” he complained to me.
I handed him over to his father, who knew immediately what was going on and asked Nick what he’d done to get assigned math homework over the weekend. Sid took a couple more minutes to talk to Stella, then hung up.
“So, what did Nick do?” I asked.
“He was bored in math again and got caught reading a Spiderman comic book under his desk.” Sid shook his head, then smiled and pushed a roll of money into my hand.
“What?” I asked.
Sid grinned. “I finally collected on that bet from Friday. That’s five hundred bucks in lira. Go buy some shoes on Dale.”
Sid folded my hand over the cash. “You won the race. You get the whole thing.”
“Okay.” I smiled weakly.
Sid smiled, then sighed. “I gotta get back and listen to the macho men. Believe me, I’d rather be shoe shopping.”
“Maybe tomorrow.” I looked around. “Marian said they’d be next door, so…”
“I’ll see you at dinner.” He gave me a warm kiss and sent me on my way.
The shoes were nice. But I didn’t find anything that really got me excited, so I passed. We moved on to a dress shop. Adrienne was quite happy, but either I didn’t like what I saw, or I knew I could make it for cheaper and so it would better fit me. In fact, I didn’t buy anything at all.
Sid was a little surprised when we met the men for dinner. I handed him the money he’d given me.
“What’s going on?” he asked, pulling me aside in the foyer of the restaurant.
I shrugged. “I just didn’t find anything I liked.”
“We’re in Italy. Home of Ferragamo. You not finding anything you like is like you turning down food.”
“I just didn’t want to buy anything. Okay?”
Sid looked at me and I squirmed.
“It’s a couple of things,” I finally said. “I really, really don’t want to play into O’Connor’s stupid comments about Adrienne spending all his money.”
Sid sighed. “I get that. But we are equal partners. It is, technically, our money.”
We had set up a business partnership and mingled our assets over a year before.
“I know. Still. I’m not really feeling good about the money you gave me.”
“Why?” he asked. “You earned it.”
“You set him up.”
“Big deal.” Okay, he added an obscene epithet in the middle.
“That wasn’t right.”
“He deserved it. Lisa, I am up to my eyebrows with his sexist nonsense and his B.S. about not remembering that you’re keeping your name. And I’m guessing you are, too.”
“So? Normally, you’d be looking to show him up faster than me.”
“Possibly. Probably. And there’s Clint, too. He keeps looking at me like I’m about to come unglued.”
Sid laughed. “We scared him last year, didn’t we? Good.” He patted my shoulder. “You’ll be fine, Lisa. Clint will get over you or he’ll get clobbered. Just like you took on Dale and won us some money.”
“I don’t know. I just don’t feel right keeping it.”
Sid smiled and shook his head. “Lisapet, you would find a way to forgive Hitler. Alright. I’ll take custody of the cash for the time being. But in the next day or two, we are going shoe shopping. For both of us. I could use a pair or two of nice Italian loafers.”
I giggled. “Or a nice Italian cut suit. We just have to figure out how we’re going to get the alterations done.”
“You know. We could get them done after we get home.” He grinned. Sid has an exceptionally good tailor.
“As long as I don’t have to do them. I hate alterations. All that unsewing.” I shuddered.
Sid laughed, and we returned to the others. Although Lillian and Marian pulled me aside while we were having an aperitivo in the bar before going to our table.
“Are you and Sid okay?” Lillian asked. “It looked like you two were not happy a few minutes ago.”
I flushed. “Yeah. We were having a disagreement.” I shrugged. “We settled it.” I looked at the two of them. “Look, Sid and I disagree all the time, and sometimes it gets a little heated. But we always settle it.”
Marian’s eyebrows rose. “Indeed. Well, I suppose that’s all to the better.”
I shrugged again. “It always is.”
Dinner that night was a complete feast, and then some. It certainly rivaled the amazing meal we’d had at Marian and Andrew’s townhouse on our first night in London. Okay, it surpassed it. We had perfectly chilled prawns, a gorgeous creamy mushroom soup, sole that had been poached in fish broth, veal cutlets breaded with ham and cheese then covered in buttery tarragon sauce, a salad of bitter greens, then four different and utterly delicious cheeses with dried figs. Not to mention a different fabulous wine to go with each course.
During the middle of the meal, I saw Sid and Marian talking seriously and softly about something, but since they were at the other end of the table from where I was sitting with Adrienne, Clint, Lillian, and Andrew, I had no idea what they were saying.
Dinner was followed by delicate pastry filled with cream and bits of perfectly candied citrus rinds, and coffee. Then grappa, an Italian brandy made from the leftovers of the wine-making process. The potent brew pretty much blew my stabilizers out of whack.
Sid was, no surprise, in quite a mood by the time we got back to the drop-off station. Still, I was curious about that conversation he’d had with Marian over dinner.
“What about it?” he asked, nuzzling my ear.
I turned and faced him. “It looked pretty serious, and you both looked my way a couple times.”
“She and Andrew just don’t know you all that well yet.” Sid winced. “And you have been a little off since we caught up with them.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“For what?” Sid lifted my chin and looked me in the eye. “It has been overwhelming, and you are not in your usual element.”
“You can say that again.” I blinked my eyes. “Remember last year when we were feeling so off? It’s beginning to feel a little like that.”
“That actually makes sense. No matter how married we’ve been over the past year, doing it formally has got to be having some effect on us.” He smiled and stroked my face.
“And having to be social on top of it is not helping.”
“No, it’s not.” Sid chuckled. “But we have to remember that the only times we’ve had contact with most of the others, we’ve been working. You’re a lot more confident then, because you do know how good you are. Even I forget sometimes how shy you get around new people.” He cupped my face and kissed me, oh, so softly. “Now. I propose that we forget about Marian and indulge ourselves in a little connubial bliss.”
“But are you up for anything?” I asked, smiling. “We’ve had an awful lot to drink tonight.”
Sid laughed and pressed himself up against me. “I don’t think I’m having a problem with that.”
“I don’t know.” I grinned, even though it was more than obvious he was not having any problems. “Drink ‘provokes the desire but takes away the performance.’”
“As long as I have my tongue and my fingers, performance will never be an issue.” Sid still groaned happily. “However, tonight, I think the traditional performance will win out.”
We spent most of the next day on a bus tour of the immediate region, with the O’Connors and Lillian alongside. It was fun, but not terribly exciting, although we found a painting we really liked. Sid got a little wistful on the bus as we watched the surrounding landscapes pass by late that afternoon, after we’d called Nick and Stella.
“What are you thinking about?” I asked as we headed back toward Venice itself.
“Something Stella just told me. Her father’s family was supposedly from this region before they came to the United States.” Sid shrugged. “Might be interesting to do some research along those lines.”
“You’re interested in your own genealogy?” I grinned.
“I wasn’t before, but now I am.”
I chuckled. “That could be fun. I suppose I should do some research on my side of the family, too.”
“We’ll see. It’s not as though we don’t have other things to keep us busy.”
The five of us met up with Marian and Andrew in time to do a little shopping and enjoy an aperitivo at a trattoria before yet another feast that started with artichoke hearts stuffed with crabmeat, through a salad, then a timbalo, or drum, of pasta with layers of rice, vegetables, and salamis. Shrimp steamed in vermouth, followed, and after that veal in lemon sauce, more cheeses, then spumoni ice cream for dessert. Clint Foster joined us. Adrienne demurred and went back to hers and Dale’s hotel room. Given the risk to her figure, I almost understood. I was a little surprised to see Sid eating, but he’d picked up on how best to pace himself during these monster meals. However, as we ate, Marian and Andrew had some news that cast a bit of a pall on the proceedings.
“Mark Flowers is not only here in Venice, he’s been talking to some of the Croatians,” Andrew told us.
Sid sighed. “It might help if we set up an opportunity for an attack.”
“I can’t say I like that idea,” I grumbled.
“Still,” Lillian said. “It would be one way of ferreting out what Flowers and the Croatians are up to. Marian, can you call Gwen tonight and let her know when Sid and Lisa are going to be someplace that we set up?”
“Quite easily,” Marian said. “I’m just not entirely sure we should assume that Sid and Lisa are the targets. I grant you, there’s a fair amount that suggests they are. But I get the odd feeling we shouldn’t assume that.”
“Then let’s split them up,” Dale said. “I’ll take Sid and Clint with me, and we’ll set up a sniper vantage point.”
Sid snorted. “If you want a sniper, take Lisa. She’s the dead-eye in our operation.”
He grinned with pride, and I flushed. Dale and Clint did not look happy, but had to concede lacking other opposition.
The plan was relatively simple. There was an area of exclusive shops that was also surrounded by a variety of apartments. I’m still not sure how Marian and Andrew set it up, but by one o’clock that afternoon, after Sid and I had done a walking tour of Venice and eaten lunch, I found myself assembling a high-powered rifle as Dale and I looked over the piazza, I mean, plaza, surrounded by high-end shops, from an apartment overlooking the area. Clint had taken another lookout position on the plaza itself.
Sid, Marian, and Andrew wandered in and out of the stores. I had a feeling that Sid had made more than one purchase but didn’t know. I was too busy looking for Croatians or other thugs getting ready to jump my beloved.
I must concede I was a little startled when the Croatians finally did show, even though I should have probably figured they’d do it next to an alley where they could get away. When the men jumped, they seemed intent on dragging Marian and Andrew off. They mostly ignored Sid. Andrew went into action, as he’d done in London, but there were six men, and that was a bit much even for Andrew. I squeezed off a few shots just close enough to the attackers’ feet to get them worried. They backed off, then ran.
Then Mark Flowers wandered into the plaza.
“Take him out,” O’Connor growled.
“Who?” I asked.
“That’s a direct order, Hackbirn.”
I glared at him. “In the first place, my name is not Hackbirn. That’s Sid’s name. In the second, I do not kill people on purpose.”
“He’s an enemy.”
“I don’t care. I don’t kill people.”
“He’s out to get us.”
I pressed my lips together. “We don’t know that for certain and even if we did, that is not who I am or what I do. You want an assassin, pay for one.”
I began disassembling the rifle. Frankly, I wanted out of that apartment as fast as I could. I didn’t know Italian gun laws, but I was willing to bet they were a lot stricter than they were in the U.S.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” O’Connor yelled at me.
“I’m getting out of here. You want to get caught in a European nation with a gun, that’s up to you. Me? I don’t want to.”
O’Connor cursed. “What is it with you two? Do you get off on insubordination?”
“What?” I yelped. “Are you out of your freaking sexist mind? We are undercover. I do not want my cover blown. I’m leaving. See you around.”
I left the rifle, too. Somehow, O’Connor got out of there without problem. I didn’t want to know. Sid, on the other hand, did want to know what had happened. I told him over an afternoon snack that Marian called tea, never mind that we were drinking coffee. Then Marian and Andrew followed Sid and me as we went shoe shopping. Okay. The shoes were pretty awesome, and I found several pairs that I really liked and bought a few. Sid also got several pairs of shoes himself. I’d been right that he’d been actively shopping earlier. There were several Italian cut suits that arrived at our house in Beverly Hills after we got back.
The big problem was when we made our daily call to Nick. Drat that kid. He always knew when we were doing something dangerous, and it worried him to no end. I always felt guilty about worrying him, too.
“Honey,” Sid said after we’d hung up. “It’s part of who we are, right?”
“Yeah. I know.” I sighed. “I just hate getting him upset.”
“I do, too, but it’s part of our lives.” Sid sighed. “He’s surrounded by people who love him. He’ll be okay.”
“I sure hope so.”
I felt a little guilty going back to buying shoes and other goodies for Nick and my nieces and nephews. But they were what was important, not sexist operatives asking me to kill people for no good reason. Heck, even Marian and Andrew had told me that Flowers was worth more alive than dead, and I knew they had no problem with killing people.
Thank you for reading. For more information about the Operation Quickline series, click here.