Welcome to the start of Book Seven in the Operation Quickline series. If you haven’t read the earlier books, you can find out more about them here. If you have, then read on. It’s going to get really intense.
My eyes blurred as I looked at yet another article on Ivan Danschenko, a nice importer of Russian goods and known KGB operative. He was supposedly meeting with Sid down in Westwood Village while I looked up articles on the microfilm reader in the UCLA library. Sid and I had sold an article to one of the major business magazines on Russian immigrants working on building businesses here in the U.S., but it was also our cover for checking into Danschenko.
“Sid, this can’t possibly work. She’s got to be onto us.”
“Don’t worry, Frank. It will.”
Sid Hackbirn, and I, Lisa Wycherly, are not just freelance writers. Within the structures of the FBI and CIA are several organizations so top secret that people don’t know they even exist. Sid and I belong to one called Operation Quickline, which is under the FBI. We usually do courier work. But someone in the CIA had decided that the last thing The Company needed was an agent that the Soviets might be able to track to check up on some known KGB operatives who were supposedly trying to defect. The Company was what we called the CIA when we weren’t using ruder terms. Henry James, our immediate supervisor for Quickline, had asked us to take the job on, warning us that Danschenko was not only trying to defect, he’d been working as a double agent, as well. So, since I usually take on the background research and Sid does the interviews (he’s a lot better at those than I am), I was stuck in the library on a rainy day making my eyes water staring at the microfilm reader.
It was my birthday, too. Sid and I had celebrated the night before because Sid was concerned that the interview might run long and Danschenko had insisted on scheduling it for late the afternoon of my birthday. That Saturday, we were going to celebrate again with my sister and her family in Fullerton.
“Calm down, Frank. She won’t show early. I told her six-thirty and that’s when she’ll be here.
“You gave it away? She’ll know something’s up.”
“She doesn’t suspect a thing. I took her out last night, even gave her a present. She probably thinks I have a tight connection with a stewardess.”
I glared at the microfilm reader. There was no hint in the article that Danschenko was anything other than what he claimed to be, namely a nice guy who ran an import business and was attempting to claim his share of “The American Dream.” Which was rather annoying, not so much because I wanted to believe that Danschenko was a bad guy, but because I felt like I was spinning my wheels researching him. At least, I’d gotten one of the readers that also printed. I checked to see how much change I had left. I was running low. I printed the article, anyway. My purse already bulged with a ton of other copies I’d made, not only on Danschenko, but several other Russian businesspeople.
“Sid, who are all these people?”
“Mae, I’m not entirely sure. The teens are from the church youth group. Some of the others are from that Singles Bible Study. Henry, Lydia, and Angelique are friends of ours through our writing. The rest, Frank and Esther found, and I have no idea.”
Sid used to be my boss. That winter, we’d formed a business partnership because as Sid put it, we were, in fact, a team. He’d hired me as his secretary, originally, and that’s how most people know us. I did not know he had recruited me into his espionage business until it was too late, but I hadn’t minded as much as you might think. I got a decided kick out of being a spy.
Sid’s not a large man, only about three inches taller than me, and I’m average height. But he is, well, gorgeous, with dark, wavy hair, intense blue eyes, and a cleft chin.
I also live in his house, which does give rise to all sorts of rumors, although Sid and I aren’t… Well, you know. Sid was known for being loose as the proverbial goose, and me, I’m still a virgin. We simply have different values is all. Sid was raised to believe in free love. I was raised to believe that sex belongs to the marital state. We were having a few problems that way, but the relationship that we’d built over the time we’d been working together was still better than being without each other.
“Think she’ll be surprised, Dad?”
“I’m sure she will, Nick.”
I scuffed the toe of my armored running shoes against the table leg. They were black running shoes with a screwdriver, wires, spring steel to pick locks and other stuff hidden in the soles. I also wore an older pair of jeans and a pink Oxford shirt. Sid had questioned my attire, pointing out that it was still business hours. I had pointedly returned that with the weather being as rainy as it was and the fact that I was going to be out way past business hours, I was darned well going to be comfortable. I checked my watch again. 6:05. It was close enough. Sid had asked me to meet him at a nice little Italian restaurant that we both liked in the Village. It would be tight, but I figured I could probably get my car from the university parking lot, then get a new space not far from the restaurant in time to get there at six-thirty.
“This is never going to work.”
“In the first place, Frank, it was your brilliant idea that it would. And in the second place, the only person who could have given it away is you.”
I drove past the restaurant. I saw Sid standing in front, just beyond where a black van sat at the curb. I parked my truck in a nearby lot and decided to leave my purse in the car. The rain had stopped, but I still picked up my raincoat. I hurried around the corner, idly noticing that the van had, apparently, already gone around the block, and was getting ready to drive past the restaurant again.
Sid saw me and grinned. When he got close enough, he took my hands and gave me a quick kiss.
“Not that I’m complaining, but what’s that for?” I asked, my eyes following the van.
Sid’s eyes followed, as well. “Just felt like it.” He paused. “You saw the van, too.”
“Yeah. It’s probably nothing.”
“Probably.” His smile returned. “Did you get any good stuff?”
“That’s why my purse is in my truck, but it’s pretty benign. I’d suspect some of the other guys you’re interviewing sooner than I would Danschenko, based on what I’ve read. You get anything?”
He led me into the restaurant. “Not really. Come on. I’ve got us a private room.”
“It’s your birthday.”
“We celebrated last night.”
He grinned. “Why not celebrate again?”
He pushed me toward the door and opened it.
The next thing I knew, I was jumping out of my skin. A whole crowd of people screamed “Surprise!” and “Happy birthday!”
“Oh, my god,” I gasped, backing into Sid. “What on earth…?”
“Happy birthday, Lisa!” Frank Lonnergan, my dear friend gave me a big hug. “This is your birthday party.”
“What?” I looked over at Sid, who grinned.
“It was a team effort,” Sid said. He was perfect, as always, in a three-piece suit and pin under the knot of his tie.
“Exactly!” hollered Esther Nguyen. “You can’t take all the credit, Frank. We deserve some!”
Kathy Deiner and her fiancé, Jesse White, just grinned as I screamed when I saw my sister, Mae, and her husband, Neil.
“And you brought the kids!” I yelped as I went to hug my nieces and nephews. “And Nick! Oh, I’m so glad you’re here, sweetie!”
Nick, who was then twelve, is Sid’s belatedly discovered son, and a dead ringer for his father, even with his glasses. Sid and I had barely known him a year, but he’d become so very close to us. I gave him a big hug, then looked around the room.
“Who else is here?” I asked, then yelped as I saw my friend and confessor, Father John, who smiled quietly and backed off.
“That’s what we’d like to know,” said Mae.
“You’re telling me,” said Frank. “Your address book is a mess.”
“You raided my address book?” I couldn’t help glaring at him.
“We had to,” said Sid. “Half your friends wouldn’t be here otherwise. Good gravy, woman, you should have told us what all you’re up to.”
“I agree,” said Mae, with a grin. “I didn’t know you were a Eucharistic Minister.”
I blushed. “Darby did. He went with me a couple times to deliver the Sacrament.”
My eyes filled as I realized that the four old women and two old men who I visited as many Sundays as I could were scattered about the room.
Sid and Frank had done their work well. There were three friends from the St. Vincent de Paul Society, several from the Friends of the Los Angeles Public Library, Marlene Ramsey and Karen Jones from the racquetball club. Sid’s and my friend Henry James was there with his wife, Lydia. Most people knew Henry as Sid’s contact for a regular column on the FBI. Henry was the Public Information Officer for the Los Angeles office. Sid and I had both gotten rather attached to him and Lydia. But then, there was also Angelique Carter, who was Henry’s secretary. She had been one of Sid’s more regular girlfriends, but I had good reason to believe that was no longer the case.
I gasped when I saw my friend Rick there. He was standing, but just barely. His cheeks had sunken in and there were deep bags under his eyes. He smiled, nonetheless.
“Rick, you came.” I hugged him.
He nodded. “I had to. I just won’t be able to stay long.”
Rick was dying of AIDS.
“That you’re here at all is wonderful,” I told him.
“Even the Dragon has sent her regards,” Sid whispered to me.
The Dragon was probably one of the top agents in Quickline.
“Really?” I asked him.
He shrugged. “I also have a telegram from Marian and Andrew.”
“You have got to be kidding,” I said.
Marian and Andrew were a couple of British CID agents that Sid and I had come across.
Sid held up his hands in wonderment. But it didn’t matter. I shortly found myself at a table in the back corner of the room with any number of delicious things to eat in front of me. Sid, despite his healthy eating habit, refrained from lecturing me about what I was doing to my insides. [Oh, come on. It was your birthday. I wasn’t that inflexible. – SEH]
Father John led us all in a quick grace, then the party really took off. After we’d mostly eaten, Frank insisted that I kiss all the males in the room. Charlie Fields, one of the teens, got in line twice. I heard Sid chuckling after I kissed Mr. Ramon, one of my old men.
“What?” I asked.
Sid snickered. “You did a lot for the old guy. I hope I’m in as good a shape when I’m his age.”
Sid just laughed.
Neil and Father John got brotherly pecks on the cheek. My youngest nephews, twins Marty and Mitch, who were four, both wiped their kisses off. I laughed. They would have been furious if I’d left them out.
I saved Frank and Sid for the last. Frank dipped me. Sid gently placed his hand on my cheek and caressed my lips with his. I loved him so much, which was kind of a problem. He couldn’t say the words and he couldn’t promise to be faithful sexually to me. But neither of us could handle being without the other. I pulled away, blushing, as a chorus of catcalls broke out. He chuckled.
Time slipped by. My seniors left early, although Mrs. Salcido made a point of giving me a big hug from her wheelchair, then pointed at Sid.
“You,” she commanded. “You be sure to marry this girl. She deserves someone good.”
I flushed and Sid chuckled nervously. Father John coughed as if he were holding in his laughter. It was one of those things that would have been awkward under the best of circumstances, but was made worse because of… Well, let’s just say the whole marriage thing had gotten to be a sore point.
Sid recovered first. “I’ll see what I can do.”
“I’m sorry, Sid,” I hissed at him a moment later. “I’m sure she didn’t know.”
[Like hell, the old bat didn’t. – SEH]
“It’s okay,” he said softly. “It’s bound to come up.”
It was getting to be ten o’clock. My almost seven-year-old niece Ellen had fallen asleep in one of the booths, and Marty and Mitch were getting cranky. Mae’s older two, Darby and Janey, were looking a little dopey-eyed, as well. Several of the teens had left. We moved out of the room to the street. Neil took off to get the family car while Sid held Ellen, still sound asleep, and chatted with Mae. Mae’s kids all adore Uncle Sid. Frank and Esther were still in the room, rounding up all the gaily wrapped presents that people had brought.
I held my raincoat and chatted pleasantly with one of the new teens, Eliana Martinez. She was a sweet young woman, about sixteen. She’d only moved to the U.S. from Colombia in January. She and her mother were living with her aunt not far from Sid and me in Beverly Hills. The two of us had bonded because I could see that she was carrying some sort of secret, and I certainly knew what that felt like. Jesse White stood nearby talking to someone else.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a black van, possibly the one Sid and I had seen earlier, pull up. I smiled, but all my senses were on alert. Three men in black fatigues and masks burst out of the back of the van. I screamed, and so did several other people. I also put myself between them and Eliana.
After that, I knew no more.