Fugue in a Minor Key Debut

February 9 – 10, 1984

The rain poured down. Not thirty minutes before, when I was still in the UCLA library, it had been barely sprinkling. But now that I was standing burdened with a backpack and a leather satchel both filled to the brim with books, in front of the restaurant in Westwood waiting for a contact that probably wasn’t going to show, the water streamed out of the sky as if God had decided to heck with the rainbow, He was going to flood us out again anyway.

I have to admit, I like working for Operation Quickline as a secret counter-espionage agent for the U.S. Government most of the time. But standing, getting soaked, on a street corner on a cold Thursday afternoon, just waiting to get shot at, or whatever else some enemy had up his or her sleeve, was not my idea of a high spot.

I checked my watch one last time. The contact, code name Green Light, was twenty minutes late. I didn’t like not making the drop, but I wasn’t going to just leave it there, and twenty minutes was too long to be waiting as it was.

I sighed and trudged up the hill and across the campus to where my dark blue Nissan four by four pick up with expanded cab and shell was parked. It took forever to get home. As the garage door opened, I looked at Sid’s two cars with dismay. The Mercedes 450SL, recently retired, was parked next to the wall. Sid’s new dark grey BMW 633 CSi was parked in the middle, leaving almost no room for me. I had to squeeze to get out of my truck, yet again, and struggled to get the satchel and backpack out.

Sid was waiting at the garage door when I got in.

“Good, you’re back,” he said urgently. He’s a handsome man, with dark wavy hair, a cleft chin, and bright blue eyes.

I walked past him to the offices in the front of the house. He followed.

“Sid, whatever it is, I don’t care,” I grumbled. “I am sopping wet from waiting for Green Light, who didn’t show. I am tired and my back is tense from carting books all over the library because you, as usual, have bitten off more than you can chew. I cannot tell you how sick I am of hearing you say, ‘bring everything, we’ll isolate what we want later.’  Next time, you lug books all over, and spend hours in line for the copiers, and put up with all the dirty looks from the people behind you wondering why you’re Xeroxing War and Peace. And also, if you’re going to insist that I not leave my truck in the driveway or on the street, then leave me some room in the garage. I am only so thin, and I am tired of playing Houdini just to get out of my truck. Now. I am going to cancel my racquetball game, get out of these wet clothes, eat my dinner by myself, then fix myself a bowl of hot popcorn, a hot toddy, and sit in front of a nice hot fire in the living room and re-read Gaudy Night. You’ll just have to play in your bedroom. I know it’s rough, Sid, but them’s the breaks.”

I dropped the books next to my desk and unbuttoned my raincoat. Motley, my springer spaniel, yipped a quiet hello.

“I’m sorry, Lisa,” said Sid quietly. “We’ve got to go out to your sister’s tonight.”

“What?”

“Mae called while you were out. Darby’s been having trouble at school, and the school psychologist is coming over for a conference.”

“Darby?” I sat down, completely confused. My nephew is the last kid I’d expect to be in trouble. Motley put his head in my lap, and I scratched it absently. “He has been kind of off the past couple months, but I didn’t think it was that serious.”

Sid shrugged. “I don’t know. Anyway, the conference is at 7:30, and Mae wants us there.”

“Both of us?”

“Well, I volunteered to go also, and she said she could use all the help she could get.”

“Oh, great. She sounds really upset. What time is it?” I checked my watch. “Five thirty? I’ve got to call Margie and cancel our game, then I’m going to take a hot shower. I’m chilled to the bone. You’ve eaten already, haven’t you?”

“Yes. Your dinner’s in the oven, but I’d like to leave as soon as possible.”

“Oh, come on, Sid. The freeways are still packed, and it’s raining, so you know they’re going to be at a standstill.”

“Which is precisely why I want to leave right away. It’ll probably take us two hours to get there.”

Mae and family live in Orange County, which meant with current traffic conditions, Sid had a point. I pushed Motley away and pulled myself out of my chair.

“Alright,” I sighed. “I’ll just change. What did Conchetta make for dinner?”

Conchetta Ramirez is the housekeeper and cook.

“Chili and rice and spinach salad.”

I sighed. Conchetta’s chili is vegetarian, but it’s really good with lots and lots of beans and really hot chiles.

“Sid, please? Can I take some with me? We’ve still got some of those really big styrofoam cups from the slumber party last Saturday. I’ll be real careful.” I blinked twice.

Sid sighed. “Alright. You go get changed. I’ll take care of it. I packed an overnight bag for you, just in case.”

“Thanks. Will you please fill the cup all the way?”

Sid didn’t answer. Much to his dismay, I have an incredible appetite and I don’t gain weight. I went to my room and changed into jeans and an over-sized sized cotton sweater. Sid must have told Conchetta to take care of putting together my food because the really large cup was filled almost to the brim with chili, and there were home-made corn tortillas on the side, and a plastic sack full of cut vegetables. Sid did hand me about ten paper towels.

I didn’t say anything. Right before Christmas, I’d gotten into an accident in the 450SL, which is what motivated Sid to retire it after it got fixed. We’d traded words at the time, and our emotions were still a little raw regarding anything connected to Sid’s cars.

Sid’s lead foot didn’t get much of a work out that night because traffic was indeed as bad as we’d anticipated. We wriggled around and through the lines of cars snaking eastward in the dark and rain.

We got to Mae’s at seven fifteen. The kids are usually bouncing off the walls when we get there. But that night, they solemnly filed down the stairs to say hello. The twins, Marty and Mitch, who were three and a half, quietly hugged me, then Sid. Five-and-a-half-year-old Ellen did the same. Janey hugged Sid first and spent a long time whispering in his ear. For a seven-year-old, she’s got a lot of insight into human nature, and I was hoping she was telling Sid what the problem was. Sid just shrugged.

“We’ll try, honey,” he replied quietly.

Darby, who was getting close to his eleventh birthday, just mumbled “hi,” to both of us. Mae reached over to stroke his red hair, but Darby just pushed his glasses up on his nose and hung his head over his skinny form. A second later, he had run upstairs. His brothers and sisters followed.

Mae bit her lip as the tears started down her cheeks. Neil, her husband, put his arms around her and steered her into the family room.

“What’s going on?” I asked as we all sat down.

Neil pushed his glasses up on his nose. “Darby’s been getting very withdrawn lately. He’s been a little off since last Thanksgiving, but it’s been really bad for the past month. We took him to a counselor over at Catholic Social Services. He said it was just a phase. The school counselor says there’s something bothering him, but she can’t figure it out. We asked Janey. She just said he’s real upset. But the problem is, he won’t say a word about it. He swears he’s alright.”

“That’s not like Darby,” I said.

“We don’t understand it either,” said Neil.

“I’ve tried,” sobbed Mae. “I can’t figure out what we’ve done wrong.”

Neil pulled her closer. “We haven’t done anything wrong. We’re doing all we can. Whatever’s the matter will get taken care of.”

I leaned over and patted Mae’s hand. The doorbell rang and Sid got up.

“Oh, lord, that’s her.” Mae bounced up. “We’ll talk in the kitchen. I better get the water boiling.”

“I’ll get the door,” said Sid.

I followed him into the entry, shutting the family room doors behind me.

The woman at the door was in her middle forties and pretty, with short, light brown hair. She had a plastic raincoat on over a purple sweater and matching skirt.

“Isn’t this the O’Malley residence?” she asked, hesitantly.

“Yes, it is,” said Sid. He smiled warmly, a little too warmly. “Please, come in. I’m Sid Hackbirn, a friend of the family. You must be the counselor from the school.”

“Uh, yes.” She stepped into the entry and shook Sid’s hand.

“I’m Lisa Wycherly, Mrs. O’Malley’s sister,” I said, quickly stepping forward. I could see the well-practiced lechery in Sid’s eyes and wasn’t about to put up with it.

“How do you do?” She shook my hand, then unsnapped her coat.

“May I take your coat?” Sid offered.

“Thank you. It’s a miserable night out.”

“It is at that.” Sid got a hanger from the hall closet and neatly hung up the coat. “So, you’re into child psychology. Sounds like a fascinating field.”

“It is.” She smiled at him. “Do you have any children?”

“No. Nary a one. You?”

“Just the ones at school, thank God.”

Neil opened the doors to the family room. “Come on in. Mae’s setting up in the kitchen.”

The counselor followed Neil through the doors. Sid started after her, but I held him back.

“Will you please?” I hissed.

“Please what?”

“Do you have to pick up on every female you run into?”

“I’m not picking up anybody.” He stopped as he caught my skeptical glare. He shrugged. “May I at least prime the way and file for future reference?”

“Just remember where she works.” Which is the local Catholic school.

Mae was setting out mugs and herb tea in the kitchen.

“We’ll be sitting at the table,” she said. “Oh, Sid, Lisa, this is Sister Jerilyn Michaels.”

“Sister?” muttered Sid, startled.

I pressed my lips together. Neil noticed me, then glanced at Sid and rolled his eyes.

“So much for future reference,” I muttered.

“We got to know Sid right after Lisa started working for him.” Mae poured boiling water into the mugs and dropped the tea bags in. “He’s really a very good friend, and very close to the children, especially Darby and Janey.”

“Yes,” replied Sister with a twinkle in her eye. “They’ve mentioned you.”

I slid around the table to Darby’s place next to the wall. Sister Jerilyn sat at Mae’s place on the end, with Sid next to her, Mae on his other side, and Neil at the head.

“I understand Neil brought you two up to date on Darby’s problem,” Sister said to Sid and me. “What I’d really like to do is think about last fall and try and see if there’s anything that changed during that time.”

“Well, nothing, really,” said Mae. She frowned. “Soccer ended right after Halloween. Wait. I wonder if it’s pressure. Darby’s doing an awful lot. Every Tuesday and Wednesday, he goes and does yard work for Mr. Jefferson. He lives about two blocks over. Darby’s been doing that since October. He wanted to earn his own money for Christmas gifts. Monday afternoon, he has his violin lesson, Tuesday night is guitar, and there’s the orchestra on Thursday afternoons. And he’s always practicing when he’s home.”

“That’s interesting,” said Sister. “Some of the other boys in his class have been teasing him about playing the violin.”

“Oh, no,” sighed Mae. “I’ll bet it’s Stewart and Andy. They were on his soccer team. This was not a good year for Darby. He’s always loved playing, and he’s not bad at it, but this year, his coach was real competitive. Darby stuck it out, God bless him, but I really felt like he should have given it up.”

“Soccer was the first thing I asked him about,” said Neil. “And he’s been worse since it ended, not better.”

“With the teasing and all, there could be some masculinity issues involved,” said Sister. “Neil, do you play any musical instruments?”

“Well, a little guitar,” said Neil. “Mae is more musical than I am. I suppose Darby could be looking at music as a more female thing. But both Mae and I have always been very strong on the idea that it’s not what you do that makes you male or female.”

“And yet, your family situation is very traditional,” said Sister. “What about other influential males in Darby’s life? His grandfathers?”

Neil shrugged. “My dad lives in Nebraska, and we only see him once a year.”

“He’s always been very supportive of Darby,” said Mae. “And he’s pretty sentimental.

Neil shook his head. “Mae’s dad, on the other hand…”

Mae sighed. I bit my lip. Sid pressed his lips together and leaned them on his knuckles.

“Daddy’s definitely a real man,” said Mae. “But he’s been very supportive. He told Darby he should follow his heart.”

Sid cleared his throat. “He does tend to be somewhat homophobic, though.”

“Sid,” I groaned.

Mae sighed. “He’s right. On the other hand, my parents don’t live near us either, and we only see them three or four times a year.”

“And what about you, Sid?” asked Sister. “Darby has mentioned you as someone he looks up to.”

Sid squirmed a little. “Well, I do play piano, and Darby and I have worked on his music together at times.”

Sister smiled at him. “And your masculinity issues?”

Sid chuckled. “No problems there.”

“Are you sure?”

“Trust me, Sister, proving my manhood has been the least of my worries since I was a kid.”

Sister nodded and thought. “You know, Mae, you made a point earlier about Darby being involved in a lot, and that possibly he’s feeling pressured by it. I wonder if there’s a way we could take him out of the grind, so to speak, for a while. Maybe if he can relax a little, he’ll open up.”

“Well, Darby could come stay at my place,” said Sid.

“I don’t think that’s such a good idea,” I replied.

“Why not?” Sid asked.

“Oh, I can think of a lot of good reasons,” I said.

“I think you’re on the right track,” said Sister. “But wouldn’t Darby be more comfortable with his aunt?”

“It’s the same place,” I said slowly. “We’re housemates. That’s it. Well, I work for Sid.”

“And we work at home,” said Sid. “So there’s no babysitting problems.”

“That could be an ideal arrangement,” said Sister.

“Maybe not.” I got up. “Sid, before you commit yourself, can we talk privately for a minute?”

“Sure.” Sid got up and followed me into the dining room, shutting the kitchen door behind him.

“Two very good reasons not to have Darby around,” I said very softly. “One, our flourishing underground business.”

Which is so top secret nobody but Sid and a couple liaisons know we do it, not even my family and friends.

“We can work around it. One of us stays with Darby while the other runs the errands. I’ll even do most of the running.”

“Alright, but number two is the revolving door on your bedroom. I mean he probably knows what you’re up to, but I don’t think you need to be flaunting it, and you know what sometimes happens when you fall asleep on your girlfriends.”

“Indeed, which is why I’m not planning on bringing anybody home while he’s there. Is that a fair compromise?”

“I suppose.” I smiled at him. “You don’t have to do any of this, you know.”

“I know.” He looked over at the kitchen door. “But there are times when being alone in the world has its disadvantages. You guys are as close to family as I’ve got, and with that privilege comes responsibility. If I can help, I’m more than happy to do it.”

Mae seemed a little uncertain as we came back in. I had a feeling she was concerned about my number two objection also. Sid just smiled and told her that I was satisfied with all the arrangements. I later caught them talking quietly together. [She just said that while she respected my right to my own choices, she didn’t think my way of expressing my masculinity was particularly healthy and she really didn’t want Darby emulating it. I told her that I respected that and would make a point of not giving him anything in that way to emulate – SEH]

Neil brought Darby downstairs.

“Darby,” I said, smiling. “We know you’ve been a little off track lately.”

“I’m fine. Really.”

“We know, but Sid and I thought we’d take you to come stay with us for a while.”

Sister Jerilyn watched him carefully.

“I’ve got school,” he said, getting nervous.

“We’ll get your books and your homework,” I said.

“But there’s other stuff, Aunt Lisa,” he said. “I got stuff I gotta do. Mr. Jefferson’s lawns and my music lessons.”

“It’s not late,” said Mae. “You can call Mr. Jefferson and tell him you can’t come for a while.”

“And I can’t do much about your lessons,” said Sid. “But we can work on theory and keyboards at my place.”

“I don’t want Mr. Jefferson to be upset,” said Darby.

“I’m sure he won’t mind,” said Mae, dialing the phone. “Here. It’s ringing.”

She handed the phone to Darby, who swallowed as he took it.

“Uh, hi, Mr. Jefferson. It’s Darby… Um, well, I’ve got a problem. My aunt wants me to come stay with her for a while… I don’t know. She just does… Oh. Okay… Yeah, thanks… No problem… Good-bye.” He smiled as he handed the phone back. “He doesn’t care.”

We sent Darby on to bed and made arrangements with Sister Jerilyn for Sid and me to pick up Darby’s homework the next morning. Then we spent the night at Mae’s, with Sid in the guestroom and me in with the girls.

The next morning, Sister Jerilyn was ready and waiting for us at the school as promised. Sid still seemed pretty uncomfortable around Sister, so we got the books and Miss Robbins’ phone number pretty quickly and got out.

“What happened to those black outfits they used to wear?” Sid asked as we drove back to Mae’s house.

“They’re part of a by-gone era,” I replied smugly.

“They ought to bring them back. How are you going to identify one of those ladies?”

“Why do you have to identify them? So you don’t accidentally try to pick up on them?”

“Real cute, Lisa.”

“Come on, Sid. They’re just human beings like everyone else.”

“I wonder. Anybody who could pledge no sex for their entire lives.”

I snickered. “What about me?”

“You haven’t said no permanently.”

“Yet.”

Sid winced. “Lisa, please. I just can’t see you as a nun. You’re too passionate. At least as it stands now, the option is still open, and someday, maybe, I’ll get you to take me up on it.”

“It’ll be the same day I get you in front of the altar.”

“Good luck. If I ever get crazy enough to get married, I’m going to Las Vegas. There is no way you’re going to catch me involved in one of those three-ring circuses called a church wedding.”

“Sid, there is no way you’re going to get married, so it’s a moot point.”

“True.”

After we got Darby and got back to our home, Sid announced that we were going to play that day and go skiing before the rest of Southern California got to all that fresh powder from the rain the day before.

“Yeah!” Darby hollered.

“Oh?” I asked, skeptically. “I suppose we can rent equipment for Darby, but it’s already nine thirty. Between getting changed and loaded, we won’t get to the mountains until noon at the soonest.”

“We can do some night skiing,” said Sid.

“Yeah!” said Darby.

“Sid, we’re still trying to catch up on last month’s deadlines, and you haven’t even started research on your single’s column, not to mention all those books we’ve got to go through for that toxics article.”

Sid grimaced. “What have we got that’s still overdue?”

I went over to my desk. “My childcare article.”

“That should be right there. I finished going over it yesterday.”

“Here it is.” I went back to the list. “Your stock market piece.”

“I thought we didn’t have to worry about that until Wednesday.”

“But you promised me I’d have a draft to edit today.”

“Oh. It seems to me there’s something else.”

“Your final edits on the Lester Roberts profile, and I need that by noon so we can have our final conference on it and have it ready for overnight delivery by three.”

Darby flopped onto the office couch, looking totally bored. Sid looked at him, then at me.

“Alright. How about this?” He thought for a moment. “Why don’t you make your corrections on your article. It should only take a couple minutes. I’ll make the phone calls for the lift tickets, then double check Roberts and we can do a quick conference on it. We should be done by ten, and if I know you, you can be changed and loaded in five minutes.”

Tempted, I bit my lip. “And what about the stock market draft, your singles research, and those books?”

“If I have the draft on the computer for you by Monday morning, will that be good enough?”

“Alright.”

“Good. I can hardly do singles research now. I’ll get it done over the weekend, and we’ll go through the books Monday and Tuesday.”

Darby sighed.

“You’ll have plenty of schoolwork to keep you occupied,” I told him. “I’m sorry, but Sid and I do have work to do.”

“Can’t you just cheat?” Darby asked.

Sid chuckled. “Not too much. We’ve gotten behind.”

I was biting my tongue so hard, I almost bit it in half. One of Sid’s girlfriends had talked Sid into joining the digital age by showing him how to write on a computer, instead of writing everything out longhand and having me type it into WordStar. He had been taking to it slowly. [So I felt more comfortable thinking with a pen in my hand – SEH] Until the disaster. Neither of us really knows how he did it, but Sid somehow re-formatted the hard drive on my computer, which pretty much destroyed everything we’d been working on. Sid’s just lucky my good friend Esther Nguyen really likes him. She’s an electrical engineer and really good with computers. She couldn’t fix the hard drive problem, but she did convince Sid to get a computer of his own

And, to be fair, the computer meltdown wasn’t the only reason we were behind. We’d been caving in to the lure of uncrowded slopes. For all Sid is very disciplined about working during business hours, he hates the weekend crowds on the ski runs more than I do. We were sneaking out on a weekday at least once every other week. We go together because most of our friends work during the day. Some of Sid’s friends could get away, but they either want to chase girls or have Sid chase them, and Sid would actually rather ski.

I gave in. “Let’s get going. Maybe if we hurry, we can be done before ten.”

Darby hollered his approval as the phone rang on the daytime line.

I picked it up. “Hello?”

“Is this Sid Hackbirn’s place?” asked the woman on the other end.

“May I ask who’s calling?”

Sid waved at me to take a message.

“My name’s Rachel Flaherty. Sid and I are old friends.”

“Well, Ms. Flaherty, if you’d like to leave a number, I’ll have him call you.”

At the sound of her name, Sid’s head whipped around and he waved at me again.

“Would you excuse me for a moment?” I put her on hold.

“Is that Rachel Flaherty?” Sid asked.

“Yes.”

He chuckled. “I’ll be damned. I haven’t heard from her since…” He glanced at Darby. “Well, we were friends the end of my first year at Stanford.”

“Do you want to talk to her?”

“Yeah.” He noticed Darby again. “No. Find out what she wants, and if she wants to drop by… Use your discretion. I can meet her someplace, too. Any time this weekend I’m not booked.”

“Okay.” I pressed the line as Sid went into his office. “Ms. Flaherty…”

“It’s Dr. Flaherty.”

“Oh. Excuse me. Doctor, was there anything, in particular, you wanted to speak to Mr. Hackbirn about?”

“I was hoping to stop by and say hello. I’ve got somebody I’d like him to meet.” Her tone was just cagey enough.

I smirked to myself. “Well, he has several openings. When would you like to come by?”

“How about tomorrow afternoon?” She paused, apparently looking something up. “Let’s see. I could be there by one o’clock.”

“One o’clock it is, then. I’ll let Mr. Hackbirn know. Thank you.” I hung up.

“Lisa, what’s going on?” Sid appeared in the doorway to his office.

“I don’t think you’ll be going out with her, Sid,” I said, trying not to snicker. “She said she has somebody she’d like you to meet, and it was the `he’s not going to like this’ version.”

“I don’t get it,” said Darby.

Sid looked at me.

“Well,” I said. “Sometimes one of your Uncle Sid’s girlfriends will bring a baby to visit and say the baby belongs to Sid, and this Dr. Flaherty is acting like she’s about to do the same.”

Sid laughed. “Nah. Rachel wouldn’t pull a stunt like that.”

“Well, she certainly wasn’t gloating about this somebody.” I looked at Darby. “That usually means the girlfriend got married to someone else.”

“It’s probably another guy she married,” said Sid. “Trust me. Rachel wouldn’t try to pin a kid on me. We were very clear on the prevention issue.”

“Want to put some money on that?” I grinned. “On her setting you up. There’s no point in betting on the paternity issue.”

Sid’s been fixed for years and was religious about birth control before that. Well, all but religious. Sid’s an atheist.

Sid thought, then grinned. “Five to one, your favor?”

“I’ll put up ten dollars.”

“You’re on. And if there’s a kid on my doorstep tomorrow, you’re fifty dollars richer.”

February 9 – 10, 1984

The rain poured down. Not thirty minutes before, when I was still in the UCLA library, it had been barely sprinkling. But now that I was standing burdened with a backpack and a leather satchel both filled to the brim with books, in front of the restaurant in Westwood waiting for a contact that probably wasn’t going to show, the water streamed out of the sky as if God had decided to heck with the rainbow, He was going to flood us out again anyway.

I have to admit, I like working for Operation Quickline as a secret counter-espionage agent for the U.S. Government most of the time. But standing, getting soaked, on a street corner on a cold Thursday afternoon, just waiting to get shot at, or whatever else some enemy had up his or her sleeve, was not my idea of a high spot.

I checked my watch one last time. The contact, code name Green Light, was twenty minutes late. I didn’t like not making the drop, but I wasn’t going to just leave it there, and twenty minutes was too long to be waiting as it was.

I sighed and trudged up the hill and across the campus to where my dark blue Nissan four by four pick up with expanded cab and shell was parked. It took forever to get home. As the garage door opened, I looked at Sid’s two cars with dismay. The Mercedes 450SL, recently retired, was parked next to the wall. Sid’s new dark grey BMW 633 CSi was parked in the middle, leaving almost no room for me. I had to squeeze to get out of my truck, yet again, and struggled to get the satchel and backpack out.

Sid was waiting at the garage door when I got in.

“Good, you’re back,” he said urgently. He’s a handsome man, with dark wavy hair, a cleft chin, and bright blue eyes.

I walked past him to the offices in the front of the house. He followed.

“Sid, whatever it is, I don’t care,” I grumbled. “I am sopping wet from waiting for Green Light, who didn’t show. I am tired and my back is tense from carting books all over the library because you, as usual, have bitten off more than you can chew. I cannot tell you how sick I am of hearing you say, ‘bring everything, we’ll isolate what we want later.’  Next time, you lug books all over, and spend hours in line for the copiers, and put up with all the dirty looks from the people behind you wondering why you’re Xeroxing War and Peace. And also, if you’re going to insist that I not leave my truck in the driveway or on the street, then leave me some room in the garage. I am only so thin, and I am tired of playing Houdini just to get out of my truck. Now. I am going to cancel my racquetball game, get out of these wet clothes, eat my dinner by myself, then fix myself a bowl of hot popcorn, a hot toddy, and sit in front of a nice hot fire in the living room and re-read Gaudy Night. You’ll just have to play in your bedroom. I know it’s rough, Sid, but them’s the breaks.”

I dropped the books next to my desk and unbuttoned my raincoat. Motley, my springer spaniel, yipped a quiet hello.

“I’m sorry, Lisa,” said Sid quietly. “We’ve got to go out to your sister’s tonight.”

“What?”

“Mae called while you were out. Darby’s been having trouble at school, and the school psychologist is coming over for a conference.”

“Darby?” I sat down, completely confused. My nephew is the last kid I’d expect to be in trouble. Motley put his head in my lap, and I scratched it absently. “He has been kind of off the past couple months, but I didn’t think it was that serious.”

Sid shrugged. “I don’t know. Anyway, the conference is at 7:30, and Mae wants us there.”

“Both of us?”

“Well, I volunteered to go also, and she said she could use all the help she could get.”

“Oh, great. She sounds really upset. What time is it?” I checked my watch. “Five thirty? I’ve got to call Margie and cancel our game, then I’m going to take a hot shower. I’m chilled to the bone. You’ve eaten already, haven’t you?”

“Yes. Your dinner’s in the oven, but I’d like to leave as soon as possible.”

“Oh, come on, Sid. The freeways are still packed, and it’s raining, so you know they’re going to be at a standstill.”

“Which is precisely why I want to leave right away. It’ll probably take us two hours to get there.”

Mae and family live in Orange County, which meant with current traffic conditions, Sid had a point. I pushed Motley away and pulled myself out of my chair.

“Alright,” I sighed. “I’ll just change. What did Conchetta make for dinner?”

Conchetta Ramirez is the housekeeper and cook.

“Chili and rice and spinach salad.”

I sighed. Conchetta’s chili is vegetarian, but it’s really good with lots and lots of beans and really hot chiles.

“Sid, please? Can I take some with me? We’ve still got some of those really big styrofoam cups from the slumber party last Saturday. I’ll be real careful.” I blinked twice.

Sid sighed. “Alright. You go get changed. I’ll take care of it. I packed an overnight bag for you, just in case.”

“Thanks. Will you please fill the cup all the way?”

Sid didn’t answer. Much to his dismay, I have an incredible appetite and I don’t gain weight. I went to my room and changed into jeans and an over-sized sized cotton sweater. Sid must have told Conchetta to take care of putting together my food because the really large cup was filled almost to the brim with chili, and there were home-made corn tortillas on the side, and a plastic sack full of cut vegetables. Sid did hand me about ten paper towels.

I didn’t say anything. Right before Christmas, I’d gotten into an accident in the 450SL, which is what motivated Sid to retire it after it got fixed. We’d traded words at the time, and our emotions were still a little raw regarding anything connected to Sid’s cars.

Sid’s lead foot didn’t get much of a work out that night because traffic was indeed as bad as we’d anticipated. We wriggled around and through the lines of cars snaking eastward in the dark and rain.

We got to Mae’s at seven fifteen. The kids are usually bouncing off the walls when we get there. But that night, they solemnly filed down the stairs to say hello. The twins, Marty and Mitch, who were three and a half, quietly hugged me, then Sid. Five-and-a-half-year-old Ellen did the same. Janey hugged Sid first and spent a long time whispering in his ear. For a seven-year-old, she’s got a lot of insight into human nature, and I was hoping she was telling Sid what the problem was. Sid just shrugged.

“We’ll try, honey,” he replied quietly.

Darby, who was getting close to his eleventh birthday, just mumbled “hi,” to both of us. Mae reached over to stroke his red hair, but Darby just pushed his glasses up on his nose and hung his head over his skinny form. A second later, he had run upstairs. His brothers and sisters followed.

Mae bit her lip as the tears started down her cheeks. Neil, her husband, put his arms around her and steered her into the family room.

“What’s going on?” I asked as we all sat down.

Neil pushed his glasses up on his nose. “Darby’s been getting very withdrawn lately. He’s been a little off since last Thanksgiving, but it’s been really bad for the past month. We took him to a counselor over at Catholic Social Services. He said it was just a phase. The school counselor says there’s something bothering him, but she can’t figure it out. We asked Janey. She just said he’s real upset. But the problem is, he won’t say a word about it. He swears he’s alright.”

“That’s not like Darby,” I said.

“We don’t understand it either,” said Neil.

“I’ve tried,” sobbed Mae. “I can’t figure out what we’ve done wrong.”

Neil pulled her closer. “We haven’t done anything wrong. We’re doing all we can. Whatever’s the matter will get taken care of.”

I leaned over and patted Mae’s hand. The doorbell rang and Sid got up.

“Oh, lord, that’s her.” Mae bounced up. “We’ll talk in the kitchen. I better get the water boiling.”

“I’ll get the door,” said Sid.

I followed him into the entry, shutting the family room doors behind me.

The woman at the door was in her middle forties and pretty, with short, light brown hair. She had a plastic raincoat on over a purple sweater and matching skirt.

“Isn’t this the O’Malley residence?” she asked, hesitantly.

“Yes, it is,” said Sid. He smiled warmly, a little too warmly. “Please, come in. I’m Sid Hackbirn, a friend of the family. You must be the counselor from the school.”

“Uh, yes.” She stepped into the entry and shook Sid’s hand.

“I’m Lisa Wycherly, Mrs. O’Malley’s sister,” I said, quickly stepping forward. I could see the well-practiced lechery in Sid’s eyes and wasn’t about to put up with it.

“How do you do?” She shook my hand, then unsnapped her coat.

“May I take your coat?” Sid offered.

“Thank you. It’s a miserable night out.”

“It is at that.” Sid got a hanger from the hall closet and neatly hung up the coat. “So, you’re into child psychology. Sounds like a fascinating field.”

“It is.” She smiled at him. “Do you have any children?”

“No. Nary a one. You?”

“Just the ones at school, thank God.”

Neil opened the doors to the family room. “Come on in. Mae’s setting up in the kitchen.”

The counselor followed Neil through the doors. Sid started after her, but I held him back.

“Will you please?” I hissed.

“Please what?”

“Do you have to pick up on every female you run into?”

“I’m not picking up anybody.” He stopped as he caught my skeptical glare. He shrugged. “May I at least prime the way and file for future reference?”

“Just remember where she works.” Which is the local Catholic school.

Mae was setting out mugs and herb tea in the kitchen.

“We’ll be sitting at the table,” she said. “Oh, Sid, Lisa, this is Sister Jerilyn Michaels.”

“Sister?” muttered Sid, startled.

I pressed my lips together. Neil noticed me, then glanced at Sid and rolled his eyes.

“So much for future reference,” I muttered.

“We got to know Sid right after Lisa started working for him.” Mae poured boiling water into the mugs and dropped the tea bags in. “He’s really a very good friend, and very close to the children, especially Darby and Janey.”

“Yes,” replied Sister with a twinkle in her eye. “They’ve mentioned you.”

I slid around the table to Darby’s place next to the wall. Sister Jerilyn sat at Mae’s place on the end, with Sid next to her, Mae on his other side, and Neil at the head.

“I understand Neil brought you two up to date on Darby’s problem,” Sister said to Sid and me. “What I’d really like to do is think about last fall and try and see if there’s anything that changed during that time.”

“Well, nothing, really,” said Mae. She frowned. “Soccer ended right after Halloween. Wait. I wonder if it’s pressure. Darby’s doing an awful lot. Every Tuesday and Wednesday, he goes and does yard work for Mr. Jefferson. He lives about two blocks over. Darby’s been doing that since October. He wanted to earn his own money for Christmas gifts. Monday afternoon, he has his violin lesson, Tuesday night is guitar, and there’s the orchestra on Thursday afternoons. And he’s always practicing when he’s home.”

“That’s interesting,” said Sister. “Some of the other boys in his class have been teasing him about playing the violin.”

“Oh, no,” sighed Mae. “I’ll bet it’s Stewart and Andy. They were on his soccer team. This was not a good year for Darby. He’s always loved playing, and he’s not bad at it, but this year, his coach was real competitive. Darby stuck it out, God bless him, but I really felt like he should have given it up.”

“Soccer was the first thing I asked him about,” said Neil. “And he’s been worse since it ended, not better.”

“With the teasing and all, there could be some masculinity issues involved,” said Sister. “Neil, do you play any musical instruments?”

“Well, a little guitar,” said Neil. “Mae is more musical than I am. I suppose Darby could be looking at music as a more female thing. But both Mae and I have always been very strong on the idea that it’s not what you do that makes you male or female.”

“And yet, your family situation is very traditional,” said Sister. “What about other influential males in Darby’s life? His grandfathers?”

Neil shrugged. “My dad lives in Nebraska, and we only see him once a year.”

“He’s always been very supportive of Darby,” said Mae. “And he’s pretty sentimental.

Neil shook his head. “Mae’s dad, on the other hand…”

Mae sighed. I bit my lip. Sid pressed his lips together and leaned them on his knuckles.

“Daddy’s definitely a real man,” said Mae. “But he’s been very supportive. He told Darby he should follow his heart.”

Sid cleared his throat. “He does tend to be somewhat homophobic, though.”

“Sid,” I groaned.

Mae sighed. “He’s right. On the other hand, my parents don’t live near us either, and we only see them three or four times a year.”

“And what about you, Sid?” asked Sister. “Darby has mentioned you as someone he looks up to.”

Sid squirmed a little. “Well, I do play piano, and Darby and I have worked on his music together at times.”

Sister smiled at him. “And your masculinity issues?”

Sid chuckled. “No problems there.”

“Are you sure?”

“Trust me, Sister, proving my manhood has been the least of my worries since I was a kid.”

Sister nodded and thought. “You know, Mae, you made a point earlier about Darby being involved in a lot, and that possibly he’s feeling pressured by it. I wonder if there’s a way we could take him out of the grind, so to speak, for a while. Maybe if he can relax a little, he’ll open up.”

“Well, Darby could come stay at my place,” said Sid.

“I don’t think that’s such a good idea,” I replied.

“Why not?” Sid asked.

“Oh, I can think of a lot of good reasons,” I said.

“I think you’re on the right track,” said Sister. “But wouldn’t Darby be more comfortable with his aunt?”

“It’s the same place,” I said slowly. “We’re housemates. That’s it. Well, I work for Sid.”

“And we work at home,” said Sid. “So there’s no babysitting problems.”

“That could be an ideal arrangement,” said Sister.

“Maybe not.” I got up. “Sid, before you commit yourself, can we talk privately for a minute?”

“Sure.” Sid got up and followed me into the dining room, shutting the kitchen door behind him.

“Two very good reasons not to have Darby around,” I said very softly. “One, our flourishing underground business.”

Which is so top secret nobody but Sid and a couple liaisons know we do it, not even my family and friends.

“We can work around it. One of us stays with Darby while the other runs the errands. I’ll even do most of the running.”

“Alright, but number two is the revolving door on your bedroom. I mean he probably knows what you’re up to, but I don’t think you need to be flaunting it, and you know what sometimes happens when you fall asleep on your girlfriends.”

“Indeed, which is why I’m not planning on bringing anybody home while he’s there. Is that a fair compromise?”

“I suppose.” I smiled at him. “You don’t have to do any of this, you know.”

“I know.” He looked over at the kitchen door. “But there are times when being alone in the world has its disadvantages. You guys are as close to family as I’ve got, and with that privilege comes responsibility. If I can help, I’m more than happy to do it.”

Mae seemed a little uncertain as we came back in. I had a feeling she was concerned about my number two objection also. Sid just smiled and told her that I was satisfied with all the arrangements. I later caught them talking quietly together. [She just said that while she respected my right to my own choices, she didn’t think my way of expressing my masculinity was particularly healthy and she really didn’t want Darby emulating it. I told her that I respected that and would make a point of not giving him anything in that way to emulate – SEH]

Neil brought Darby downstairs.

“Darby,” I said, smiling. “We know you’ve been a little off track lately.”

“I’m fine. Really.”

“We know, but Sid and I thought we’d take you to come stay with us for a while.”

Sister Jerilyn watched him carefully.

“I’ve got school,” he said, getting nervous.

“We’ll get your books and your homework,” I said.

“But there’s other stuff, Aunt Lisa,” he said. “I got stuff I gotta do. Mr. Jefferson’s lawns and my music lessons.”

“It’s not late,” said Mae. “You can call Mr. Jefferson and tell him you can’t come for a while.”

“And I can’t do much about your lessons,” said Sid. “But we can work on theory and keyboards at my place.”

“I don’t want Mr. Jefferson to be upset,” said Darby.

“I’m sure he won’t mind,” said Mae, dialing the phone. “Here. It’s ringing.”

She handed the phone to Darby, who swallowed as he took it.

“Uh, hi, Mr. Jefferson. It’s Darby… Um, well, I’ve got a problem. My aunt wants me to come stay with her for a while… I don’t know. She just does… Oh. Okay… Yeah, thanks… No problem… Good-bye.” He smiled as he handed the phone back. “He doesn’t care.”

We sent Darby on to bed and made arrangements with Sister Jerilyn for Sid and me to pick up Darby’s homework the next morning. Then we spent the night at Mae’s, with Sid in the guestroom and me in with the girls.

The next morning, Sister Jerilyn was ready and waiting for us at the school as promised. Sid still seemed pretty uncomfortable around Sister, so we got the books and Miss Robbins’ phone number pretty quickly and got out.

“What happened to those black outfits they used to wear?” Sid asked as we drove back to Mae’s house.

“They’re part of a by-gone era,” I replied smugly.

“They ought to bring them back. How are you going to identify one of those ladies?”

“Why do you have to identify them? So you don’t accidentally try to pick up on them?”

“Real cute, Lisa.”

“Come on, Sid. They’re just human beings like everyone else.”

“I wonder. Anybody who could pledge no sex for their entire lives.”

I snickered. “What about me?”

“You haven’t said no permanently.”

“Yet.”

Sid winced. “Lisa, please. I just can’t see you as a nun. You’re too passionate. At least as it stands now, the option is still open, and someday, maybe, I’ll get you to take me up on it.”

“It’ll be the same day I get you in front of the altar.”

“Good luck. If I ever get crazy enough to get married, I’m going to Las Vegas. There is no way you’re going to catch me involved in one of those three-ring circuses called a church wedding.”

“Sid, there is no way you’re going to get married, so it’s a moot point.”

“True.”

After we got Darby and got back to our home, Sid announced that we were going to play that day and go skiing before the rest of Southern California got to all that fresh powder from the rain the day before.

“Yeah!” Darby hollered.

“Oh?” I asked, skeptically. “I suppose we can rent equipment for Darby, but it’s already nine thirty. Between getting changed and loaded, we won’t get to the mountains until noon at the soonest.”

“We can do some night skiing,” said Sid.

“Yeah!” said Darby.

“Sid, we’re still trying to catch up on last month’s deadlines, and you haven’t even started research on your single’s column, not to mention all those books we’ve got to go through for that toxics article.”

Sid grimaced. “What have we got that’s still overdue?”

I went over to my desk. “My childcare article.”

“That should be right there. I finished going over it yesterday.”

“Here it is.” I went back to the list. “Your stock market piece.”

“I thought we didn’t have to worry about that until Wednesday.”

“But you promised me I’d have a draft to edit today.”

“Oh. It seems to me there’s something else.”

“Your final edits on the Lester Roberts profile, and I need that by noon so we can have our final conference on it and have it ready for overnight delivery by three.”

Darby flopped onto the office couch, looking totally bored. Sid looked at him, then at me.

“Alright. How about this?” He thought for a moment. “Why don’t you make your corrections on your article. It should only take a couple minutes. I’ll make the phone calls for the lift tickets, then double check Roberts and we can do a quick conference on it. We should be done by ten, and if I know you, you can be changed and loaded in five minutes.”

Tempted, I bit my lip. “And what about the stock market draft, your singles research, and those books?”

“If I have the draft on the computer for you by Monday morning, will that be good enough?”

“Alright.”

“Good. I can hardly do singles research now. I’ll get it done over the weekend, and we’ll go through the books Monday and Tuesday.”

Darby sighed.

“You’ll have plenty of schoolwork to keep you occupied,” I told him. “I’m sorry, but Sid and I do have work to do.”

“Can’t you just cheat?” Darby asked.

Sid chuckled. “Not too much. We’ve gotten behind.”

I was biting my tongue so hard, I almost bit it in half. One of Sid’s girlfriends had talked Sid into joining the digital age by showing him how to write on a computer, instead of writing everything out longhand and having me type it into WordStar. He had been taking to it slowly. [So I felt more comfortable thinking with a pen in my hand – SEH] Until the disaster. Neither of us really knows how he did it, but Sid somehow re-formatted the hard drive on my computer, which pretty much destroyed everything we’d been working on. Sid’s just lucky my good friend Esther Nguyen really likes him. She’s an electrical engineer and really good with computers. She couldn’t fix the hard drive problem, but she did convince Sid to get a computer of his own

And, to be fair, the computer meltdown wasn’t the only reason we were behind. We’d been caving in to the lure of uncrowded slopes. For all Sid is very disciplined about working during business hours, he hates the weekend crowds on the ski runs more than I do. We were sneaking out on a weekday at least once every other week. We go together because most of our friends work during the day. Some of Sid’s friends could get away, but they either want to chase girls or have Sid chase them, and Sid would actually rather ski.

I gave in. “Let’s get going. Maybe if we hurry, we can be done before ten.”

Darby hollered his approval as the phone rang on the daytime line.

I picked it up. “Hello?”

“Is this Sid Hackbirn’s place?” asked the woman on the other end.

“May I ask who’s calling?”

Sid waved at me to take a message.

“My name’s Rachel Flaherty. Sid and I are old friends.”

“Well, Ms. Flaherty, if you’d like to leave a number, I’ll have him call you.”

At the sound of her name, Sid’s head whipped around and he waved at me again.

“Would you excuse me for a moment?” I put her on hold.

“Is that Rachel Flaherty?” Sid asked.

“Yes.”

He chuckled. “I’ll be damned. I haven’t heard from her since…” He glanced at Darby. “Well, we were friends the end of my first year at Stanford.”

“Do you want to talk to her?”

“Yeah.” He noticed Darby again. “No. Find out what she wants, and if she wants to drop by… Use your discretion. I can meet her someplace, too. Any time this weekend I’m not booked.”

“Okay.” I pressed the line as Sid went into his office. “Ms. Flaherty…”

“It’s Dr. Flaherty.”

“Oh. Excuse me. Doctor, was there anything, in particular, you wanted to speak to Mr. Hackbirn about?”

“I was hoping to stop by and say hello. I’ve got somebody I’d like him to meet.” Her tone was just cagey enough.

I smirked to myself. “Well, he has several openings. When would you like to come by?”

“How about tomorrow afternoon?” She paused, apparently looking something up. “Let’s see. I could be there by one o’clock.”

“One o’clock it is, then. I’ll let Mr. Hackbirn know. Thank you.” I hung up.

“Lisa, what’s going on?” Sid appeared in the doorway to his office.

“I don’t think you’ll be going out with her, Sid,” I said, trying not to snicker. “She said she has somebody she’d like you to meet, and it was the `he’s not going to like this’ version.”

“I don’t get it,” said Darby.

Sid looked at me.

“Well,” I said. “Sometimes one of your Uncle Sid’s girlfriends will bring a baby to visit and say the baby belongs to Sid, and this Dr. Flaherty is acting like she’s about to do the same.”

Sid laughed. “Nah. Rachel wouldn’t pull a stunt like that.”

“Well, she certainly wasn’t gloating about this somebody.” I looked at Darby. “That usually means the girlfriend got married to someone else.”

“It’s probably another guy she married,” said Sid. “Trust me. Rachel wouldn’t try to pin a kid on me. We were very clear on the prevention issue.”

“Want to put some money on that?” I grinned. “On her setting you up. There’s no point in betting on the paternity issue.”

Sid’s been fixed for years and was religious about birth control before that. Well, all but religious. Sid’s an atheist.

Sid thought, then grinned. “Five to one, your favor?”

“I’ll put up ten dollars.”

“You’re on. And if there’s a kid on my doorstep tomorrow, you’re fifty dollars richer.”

February 9 – 10, 1984

The rain poured down.  Not thirty minutes before, when I was still in the UCLA library, it had been barely sprinkling.  But now that I was standing burdened with a backpack and a leather satchel both filled to the brim with books, in front of the restaurant in Westwood waiting for a contact that probably wasn’t going to show, the water streamed out of the sky as if God had decided to heck with the rainbow, He was going to flood us out again anyway.

I have to admit, I like working for Operation Quickline as a secret counter-espionage agent for the U.S. Government most of the time.  But standing, getting soaked, on a street corner on a cold Thursday afternoon, just waiting to get shot at, or whatever else some enemy had up his or her sleeve, was not my idea of a high spot.

I checked my watch one last time.  The contact, code name Green Light, was twenty minutes late.  I didn’t like not making the drop, but I wasn’t going to just leave it there, and twenty minutes was too long to be waiting as it was.

I sighed and trudged up the hill and across the campus to where my dark blue Nissan four by four pick up with expanded cab and shell was parked.  It took forever to get home.  As the garage door opened, I looked at Sid’s two cars with dismay.  The Mercedes 450SL, in retirement, and was parked next to the wall.  Sid’s new dark grey BMW 633 CSi was parked in the middle, leaving almost no room for me.  I had to squeeze to get out of my truck yet again, and struggled to get the satchel and backpack out.

Sid was waiting at the garage door when I got in.

“Good, you’re back,” he said urgently.  He’s a handsome man, with dark wavy hair, a cleft chin, and bright blue eyes.

I walked past him to the offices in the front of the house.  He followed.

“Sid, whatever it is, I don’t care,” I grumbled.  “I am sopping wet from waiting for Green Light, who didn’t show.  I am tired and my back is tense from carting books all over the library because you, as usual, have bitten off more than you can chew.  I cannot tell you how sick I am of hearing you say ‘bring everything, we’ll isolate what we want later.’  Next time, you lug books all over, and spend hours in line for the copiers, and put up with all the dirty looks from the people behind you.  And also, if you’re going to insist that I not leave my truck in the driveway or on the street, then leave me some room in the garage.  I am only so thin, and I am tired of playing Houdini just to get out of my truck.  Now.  I am going to cancel my racquetball game, get out of these wet clothes, eat my dinner by myself, then fix myself a bowl of hot popcorn, a hot toddy, and sit in front of a nice hot fire in the living room and re-read Gaudy Night.  You’ll just have to play in your bedroom.  I know it’s rough, Sid, but them’s the breaks.”

I dropped the books next to my desk and unbuttoned my raincoat.  Motley, my springer spaniel, yipped a quiet hello.

“I’m sorry, Lisa,” said Sid quietly.  “We’ve got to go out to your sister’s tonight.”

“What?”

“Mae called while you were out.  Darby’s been having trouble at school, and the school psychologist is coming over for a conference.”

“Darby?”  I sat down, completely confused.  My nephew is the last kid I’d expect to be in trouble.  Motley put his head in my lap and I scratched it absently.  “He has been kind of off the past couple months, but I didn’t think it was that serious.”

Sid shrugged.  “I don’t know.  Anyway, the conference is at 7:30, and Mae wants us there.”

“Both of us?”

“Well, I volunteered to go also, and she said she could use all the help she could get.”

“Oh, great.  She sounds really upset.  What time is it?”  I checked my watch.  “Five thirty?  I’ve got to call Margie and cancel our game, then I’m going to take a hot shower.  I’m chilled to the bone.  You’ve eaten already, haven’t you?”

“Yes.  Your dinner’s in the oven, but I’d like to leave as soon as possible.”

“Oh, come on, Sid.  The freeways are still packed, and it’s raining, so you know they’re going to be at a standstill.”

“Which is precisely why I want to leave right away.  It’ll probably take us two hours to get there.”

Mae and family live in Orange County, which meant with current traffic conditions, Sid had a point.  I pushed Motley away and pulled myself out of my chair.

“Alright,” I sighed.  “I’ll just change.  What did Conchetta make for dinner?”

Conchetta Ramirez is the housekeeper and cook.

“Chili and rice and spinach salad.”

I sighed.  Conchetta’s chili is vegetarian, but it’s really good with lots and lots of beans and really hot chiles.

“Sid, please?  Can I take some with me?  We’ve still got some of those really big styrofoam cups from the slumber party last Saturday.  I’ll be real careful.”  I blinked twice.

Sid sighed.  “Alright.  You go get changed.  I’ll take care of it.  I packed an overnight bag for you, just in case.”

“Thanks.  Will you please fill the cup all the way?”

Sid didn’t answer.  Much to his dismay, I have an incredible appetite and I don’t gain weight.  I went to my room and changed into jeans and an over-sized sized cotton sweater.  Sid must have told Conchetta to take care of putting together my food because the really large cup was filled almost to the brim with chili, and there were home-made corn tortillas on the side, and a plastic sack full of cut vegetables.  Sid did hand me about ten paper towels.

I didn’t say anything.  Right before Christmas, I’d gotten into an accident in the 450SL, which is what motivated Sid to retire it after it got fixed.  We’d traded words at the time, and our emotions were still a little raw regarding anything connected to Sid’s cars.

Sid’s lead foot didn’t get much of a work out that night because traffic was indeed as bad as we’d anticipated.  We wriggled around and through the lines of cars snaking eastward in the dark and rain.

We got to Mae’s at seven fifteen.  The kids are usually bouncing off the walls when we get there.  But that night, they solemnly filed down the stairs to say hello.  The twins, Marty and Mitch, who were three and a half, quietly hugged me, then Sid.  Five-and-a-half-year-old Ellen did the same.  Janey hugged Sid first and spent a long time whispering in his ear.  For a seven-year-old, she’s got a lot of insight into human nature, and I was hoping she was telling Sid what the problem was.  Sid just shrugged.

“We’ll try, honey,” he replied quietly.

Darby, who was getting close to his eleventh birthday, just mumbled “hi,” to both of us.  Mae reached over to stroke his red hair, but Darby just pushed his glasses up on his nose and hung his head over his skinny form.  A second later, he had run upstairs.  His brothers and sisters followed.

Mae bit her lip as the tears started down her cheeks.  Neil, her husband, put his arms around her and steered her into the family room.

“What’s going on?” I asked as we all sat down.

Neil pushed his glasses up on his nose.  “Darby’s been getting very withdrawn lately.  He’s been a little off since last Thanksgiving, but it’s been really bad for the past month.  We took him to a counselor over at Catholic Social Services.  He said it was just a phase.  The school counselor says there’s something bothering him, but she can’t figure it out.  We asked Janey.  She just said he’s real upset.  But the problem is, he won’t say a word about it.  He swears he’s alright.”

“That’s not like Darby,” I said.

“We don’t understand it either,” said Neil.

“I’ve tried,” sobbed Mae.  “I can’t figure out what we’ve done wrong.”

Neil pulled her closer.  “We haven’t done anything wrong.  We’re doing all we can.  Whatever’s the matter will get taken care of.”

I leaned over and patted Mae’s hand.  The doorbell rang and Sid got up.

“Oh, lord, that’s her.”  Mae bounced up.  “We’ll talk in the kitchen.  I better get the water boiling.”

“I’ll get the door,” said Sid.

I followed him into the entry, shutting the family room doors behind me.

The woman at the door was in her middle forties and pretty, with short, light brown hair.  She had a plastic raincoat on over a purple sweater and matching skirt.

“Isn’t this the O’Malley residence?” she asked, hesitantly.

“Yes, it is,” said Sid.  He smiled warmly, a little too warmly.  “Please, come in.  I’m Sid Hackbirn, a friend of the family.  You must be the counselor from the school.”

“Uh, yes.”  She stepped into the entry and shook Sid’s hand.

“I’m Lisa Wycherly, Mrs. O’Malley’s sister,” I said, quickly stepping forward.  I could see the well-practiced lechery in Sid’s eyes and wasn’t about to put up with it.

“How do you do?”  She shook my hand, then unsnapped her coat.

“May I take your coat?” Sid offered.

“Thank you.  It’s a miserable night out.”

“It is at that.”  Sid got a hanger from the hall closet and neatly hung up the coat.  “So you’re into child psychology.  Sounds like a fascinating field.”

“It is.”  She smiled at him.  “Do you have any children?”

“No.  Nary a one.  You?”

“Just the ones at school, thank God.”

Neil opened the doors to the family room.  “Come on in.  Mae’s setting up in the kitchen.”

The counselor followed Neil through the doors.  Sid started after her, but I held him back.

“Will you please?” I hissed.

“Please what?”

“Do you have to pick up on every female you run into?”

“I’m not picking up anybody.”  He stopped as he caught my skeptical glare.  He shrugged.  “May I at least prime the way and file for future reference?”

“Just remember where she works.”  Which is the local Catholic school.

Mae was setting out mugs and herb tea in the kitchen.

“We’ll be sitting at the table,” she said.  “Oh, Sid, Lisa, this is Sister Jerilyn Michaels.”

“Sister?” muttered Sid, startled.

I pressed my lips together.  Neil noticed me, then glanced at Sid and rolled his eyes.

“So much for future reference,” I muttered.

“We got to know Sid right after Lisa started working for him.”  Mae poured boiling water into the mugs and dropped the tea bags in.  “He’s really a very good friend, and very close to the children, especially Darby and Janey.”

“Yes,” replied Sister with a twinkle in her eye.  “They’ve mentioned you.”

I slid around the table to Darby’s place next to the wall.  Sister Jerilyn sat at Mae’s place on the end, with Sid next to her, Mae on his other side, and Neil at the head.

“I understand Neil brought you two up to date on Darby’s problem,” Sister said to Sid and me.  “What I’d really like to do is think about last fall and try and see if there’s anything that changed during that time.”

“Well, nothing, really,” said Mae.  She frowned.  “Soccer ended right after Halloween.  Wait.  I wonder if it’s pressure.  Darby’s doing an awful lot.  Every Tuesday and Wednesday, he goes and does yard work for Mr. Jefferson.  He lives about two blocks over.  Darby’s been doing that since October.  He wanted to earn his own money for Christmas gifts.  Monday afternoon, he has his violin lesson, Tuesday night is guitar, and there’s the orchestra on Thursday afternoons.  And he’s always practicing when he’s home.”

“That’s interesting,” said Sister.  “Some of the other boys in his class have been teasing him about playing the violin.”

“Oh, no,” sighed Mae.  “I’ll bet it’s Stewart and Andy.  They were on his soccer team.  This was not a good year for Darby.  He’s always loved playing, and he’s not bad at it, but this year, his coach was real competitive.  Darby stuck it out, God bless him, but I really felt like he should have given it up.”

“Soccer was the first thing I asked him about,” said Neil.  “And he’s been worse since it ended, not better.”

“With the teasing and all, there could be some masculinity issues involved,” said Sister.  “Neil, do you play any musical instruments?”

“Well, a little guitar,” said Neil.  “Mae is more musical than I am.  I suppose Darby could be looking at music as a more female thing.  But both Mae and I have always been very strong on the idea that it’s not what you do that makes you male or female.”

“And yet, your family situation is very traditional,” said Sister.  “What about other influential males in Darby’s life?  His grandfathers?”

Neil shrugged.  “My dad lives in Nebraska, and we only see him once a year.”

“He’s always been very supportive of Darby,” said Mae.  “And he’s pretty sentimental. 

Neil shook his head.  “Mae’s dad, on the other hand…”

Mae sighed.  I bit my lip.  Sid pressed his lips together and leaned them on his knuckles.

“Daddy’s definitely a real man,” said Mae.  “But he’s been very supportive.  He told Darby he should follow his heart.”

Sid cleared his throat.  “He does tend to be somewhat homophobic, though.”

“Sid,” I groaned.

Mae sighed.  “He’s right.  On the other hand, my parents don’t live near us either, and we only see them three or four times a year.”

“And what about you, Sid?” asked Sister.  “Darby has mentioned you as someone he looks up to.”

Sid squirmed a little.  “Well, I do play piano, and Darby and I have worked on his music together at times.”

Sister smiled at him.  “And your masculinity issues?”

Sid chuckled.  “No problems there.”

“Are you sure?”

“Trust me, Sister, proving my manhood has been the least of my worries since I was a kid.”

Sister nodded and thought.  “You know, Mae, you made a point earlier about Darby being involved in a lot, and that possibly he’s feeling pressured by it.  I wonder if there’s a way we could take him out of the grind, so to speak, for a while.  Maybe if he can relax a little, he’ll open up.”

“Well, Darby could come stay at my place,” said Sid.

“I don’t think that’s such a good idea,” I replied.

“Why not?” Sid asked.

“Oh, I can think of a lot of good reasons,” I said.

“I think you’re on the right track,” said Sister.  “But wouldn’t Darby be more comfortable with his aunt?”

“It’s the same place,” I said slowly.  “We’re housemates.  That’s it.  Well, I work for Sid.”

“And we work at home,” said Sid.  “So there’s no babysitting problems.”

“That could be an ideal arrangement,” said Sister.

“Maybe not.”  I got up.  “Sid, before you commit yourself, can we talk privately for a minute?”

“Sure.”  Sid got up and followed me into the dining room, shutting the kitchen door behind him.

“Two very good reasons not to have Darby around,” I said very softly.  “One, our flourishing underground business.”

Which is so top secret nobody but Sid and a couple liaisons know we do it, not even my family and friends.

“We can work around it.  One of us stays with Darby while the other runs the errands.  I’ll even do most of the running.”

“Alright, but number two is the revolving door on your bedroom.  I mean he probably knows what you’re up to, but I don’t think you need to be flaunting it, and you know what sometimes happens when you fall asleep on your girlfriends.”

“Indeed, which is why I’m not planning on bringing anybody home while he’s there.  Is that a fair compromise?”

“I suppose.”  I smiled at him.  “You don’t have to do any of this, you know.”

“I know.”  He looked over at the kitchen door.  “But there are times when being alone in the world has its disadvantages.  You guys are as close to family as I’ve got, and with that privilege comes responsibility.  If I can help, I’m more than happy to do it.”

Mae seemed a little uncertain as we came back in.  I had a feeling she was concerned about my number two objection also.  Sid just smiled and told her that I was satisfied with all the arrangements.  I later caught them talking quietly together.  [She just said that while she respected my right to my own choices, she didn’t think my way of expressing my masculinity was particularly healthy and she really didn’t want Darby emulating it.  I told her that I respected that and would make a point of not giving him anything in that way to emulate – SEH]

Neil brought Darby downstairs.

“Darby,” I said, smiling.  “We know you’ve been a little off track lately.”

“I’m fine.  Really.”

“We know, but Sid and I thought we’d take you to come stay with us for a while.”

Sister Jerilyn watched him carefully.

“I’ve got school,” he said, getting nervous.

“We’ll get your books and your homework,” I said.

“But there’s other stuff, Aunt Lisa,” he said.  “I got stuff I gotta do.  Mr. Jefferson’s lawns and my music lessons.”

“It’s not late,” said Mae.  “You can call Mr. Jefferson and tell him you can’t come for a while.”

“And I can’t do much about your lessons,” said Sid.  “But we can work on theory and keyboards at my place.”

“I don’t want Mr. Jefferson to be upset,” said Darby.

“I’m sure he won’t mind,” said Mae, dialing the phone.  “Here.  It’s ringing.”

She handed the phone to Darby, who swallowed as he took it.

“Uh, hi, Mr. Jefferson.  It’s Darby…  Um, well, I’ve got a problem.  My aunt wants me to come stay with her for a while…  I don’t know.  She just does…  Oh.  Okay…  Yeah, thanks…  No problem…  Good-bye.”  He smiled as he handed the phone back.  “He doesn’t care.”

We sent Darby on to bed, and made arrangements with Sister Jerilyn for Sid and me to pick up Darby’s homework the next morning.  Then we spent the night at Mae’s, with Sid in the guestroom and me in with the girls.

The next morning, Sister Jerilyn was ready and waiting for us at the school as promised.  Sid still seemed pretty uncomfortable around Sister, so we got the books and Miss Robbins’ phone number pretty quickly and got out.

“What happened to those black outfits they used to wear?” Sid asked as we drove back to Mae’s house.

“They’re part of a by-gone era,” I replied smugly.

“They ought to bring them back.  How are you going to identify one of those ladies?”

“Why do you have to identify them?  So you don’t accidentally try to pick up on them?”

“Real cute, Lisa.”

“Come on, Sid.  They’re just human beings like everyone else.”

“I wonder.  Anybody who could pledge no sex for their entire lives.”

I snickered.  “What about me?”

“You haven’t said no permanently.”

“Yet.”

Sid winced.  “Lisa, please.  I just can’t see you as a nun.  You’re too passionate.  At least as it stands now, the option is still open, and someday, maybe, I’ll get you to take me up on it.”

“It’ll be the same day I get you in front of the altar.”

“Good luck.  If I ever get crazy enough to get married, I’m going to Las Vegas.  There is no way you’re going to catch me involved in one of those three-ring circuses called a church wedding.”

“Sid, there is no way you’re going to get married, so it’s a moot point.”

“True.”

After we got Darby and got back to our home, Sid announced that we were going to play that day and go skiing before the rest of Southern California got to all that fresh powder from the day before’s rain.

“Yeah!” Darby hollered.

“Oh?” I asked, skeptically.  “I suppose we can rent equipment for Darby, but it’s already nine thirty.  Between getting changed and loaded, we won’t get to the mountains until noon at the soonest.”

“We can do some night skiing,” said Sid.

“Yeah!” said Darby.

“Sid, we’re still trying to catch up on last month’s deadlines, and you haven’t even started research on your single’s column, not to mention all those books we’ve got to go through for that toxics article.”

Sid grimaced.  “What have we got that’s still overdue?”

I went over to my desk.  “My childcare article.”

“That should be right there.  I finished going over it yesterday.”

“Here it is.”  I went back to the list.  “Your stock market piece.”

“I thought we didn’t have to worry about that until Wednesday.”

“But you promised me I’d have a draft to edit today.”

“Oh.  It seems to me there’s something else.”

“Your final edits on the Lester Roberts profile, and I need that by noon so we can have our final conference on it and have it ready for overnight delivery by three.”

Darby flopped onto the office couch, looking totally bored.  Sid looked at him, then at me.

“Alright.  How about this?”  He thought for a moment.  “Why don’t you make your corrections on your article.  It should only take a couple minutes.  I’ll make the phone calls for the lift tickets, then double check Roberts and we can do a quick conference on it.  We should be done by ten, and if I know you, you can be changed and loaded in five minutes.”

Tempted, I bit my lip.  “And what about the stock market draft, your singles research, and those books?”

“If I have the draft on the computer for you by Monday morning, will that be good enough?”

“Alright.”

“Good.  I can hardly do singles research now.  I’ll get it done over the weekend, and we’ll go through the books Monday and Tuesday.”

Darby sighed.

“You’ll have plenty of schoolwork to keep you occupied,” I told him.  “I’m sorry, but Sid and I do have work to do.”

“Can’t you just cheat?” Darby asked.

Sid chuckled.  “Not too much.  That burglary last month really put us behind.”

We’d lost pretty much everything except the furniture and anything else that had been locked up.  On the bright side, I had talked Sid into getting an extra computer for his office, so he could write on that instead of handwriting all his articles and having me enter them.  He was taking to it slowly.  [So I felt more comfortable thinking with a pen in my hand – SEH]

The other reason we were behind was the lure of uncrowded slopes.  For all Sid is very disciplined about working during business hours, he hates the weekend crowds on the ski runs more than I do.  We were sneaking out on a weekday at least once every other week.  We go together because most of our friends work during the day.  Some of Sid’s friends could get away, but they either want to chase girls or have Sid chase them, and Sid would actually rather ski.

I gave in.  “Let’s get going.  Maybe if we hurry, we can be done before ten.”

Darby hollered his approval as the phone rang on the daytime line.

I picked it up.  “Hello?”

“Is this Sid Hackbirn’s place?” asked the woman on the other end.

“May I ask who’s calling?”

Sid waved at me to take a message.

“My name’s Rachel Flaherty.  Sid and I are old friends.”

“Well, Ms. Flaherty, if you’d like to leave a number, I’ll have him call you.”

At the sound of her name, Sid’s head whipped around and he waved at me again.

“Would you excuse me for a moment?”  I put her on hold.

“Is that Rachel Flaherty?” Sid asked.

“Yes.”

He chuckled.  “I’ll be damned.  I haven’t heard from her since…”  He glanced at Darby.  “Well, we were friends the end of my first year at Stanford.”

“Do you want to talk to her?”

“Yeah.”  He noticed Darby again.  “No.  Find out what she wants, and if she wants to drop by…  Use your discretion.  I can meet her someplace, too.  Any time this weekend I’m not booked.”

“Okay.”  I pressed the line as Sid went into his office.  “Ms. Flaherty…”

“It’s Dr. Flaherty.”

“Oh.  Excuse me.  Doctor, was there anything, in particular, you wanted to speak to Mr. Hackbirn about?”

“I was hoping to stop by and say hello.  I’ve got somebody I’d like him to meet.”  Her tone was just cagey enough.

I smirked to myself.  “Well, he has several openings.  When would you like to come by?”

“How about tomorrow afternoon?”  She paused, apparently looking something up.  “Let’s see.  I could be there by one o’clock.”

“One o’clock it is, then.  I’ll let Mr. Hackbirn know.  Thank you.”  I hung up.

“Lisa, what’s going on?”  Sid appeared in the doorway to his office.

“I don’t think you’ll be going out with her, Sid,” I said, trying not to snicker.  “She said she has somebody she’d like you to meet, and it was the `he’s not going to like this’ version.”

“I don’t get it,” said Darby.

Sid looked at me.

“Well,” I said.  “Sometimes one of your Uncle Sid’s girlfriends will bring a baby to visit and say the baby belongs to Sid, and this Dr. Flaherty is acting like she’s about to do the same.”

Sid laughed.  “Nah.  Rachel wouldn’t pull a stunt like that.”

“Well, she certainly wasn’t gloating about this somebody.”  I looked at Darby.  “That usually means the girlfriend got married to someone else.”

“It’s probably another guy she married,” said Sid.  “Trust me.  Rachel wouldn’t try to pin a kid on me.  We were very clear on the prevention issue.”

“Want to put some money on that?”  I grinned.  “On her setting you up.  There’s no point in betting on the paternity issue.”

Sid’s been fixed for years and was religious about birth control before that.  Well, all but religious.  Sid’s an atheist.

Sid thought, then grinned.  “Five to one, your favor?”

“I’ll put up ten dollars.”

“You’re on.  And if there’s a kid on my doorstep tomorrow, you’re fifty dollars richer.”

Anne Louise Bannon

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