When Sid came to get me in the pre-dawn hours of that Thursday morning, I was pretty shaky. It wasn’t Sid, though. We’d settled in the afternoon before and cranked out a lot of work, including a pretty darned good article for the miracle. Things weren’t quite back to normal. In some ways, they were better. In other ways, a touch more awkward. But working together was fun again, and that made me happy like nothing else.
No. My problem was George. I’d fortunately been on the phone doing an interview when George left a message on my answering machine. In typical George fashion, he was calling to let me know that he’d made an appointment for us with a counselor, and then he went on to reassure me that these sorts of things were normal for engaged couples, and that he stilled loved me and that we would be so very happy together.
Later, George had come over to pick me up for teen bible study, and Sid had convinced him that I was stuck at the library doing research and then was going to meet a friend who’d dropped in from out of town. I was actually in bed. Our prisoner swap was scheduled for four a.m. and I needed to get some sleep before spelling Sid at prisoner watch around eleven. That’s when Sid told me that George had asked me to call him in his studio that night. It should have registered, but it didn’t quite.
Instead, I spent my hours on watch writing notes, with one eye on the tiny TV set on Sid’s desk. The video surveillance camera had been installed in the holding room a year before after we’d been bamboozled by another such house guest. The houseguest slept, moving just often enough. I tried to keep my mind on my notes but couldn’t help brooding about George. It was a relief when Sid showed just after three, yawning, but freshly shaved and every hair on his head perfectly in place.
He wore a dark, long-sleeved polo shirt over his jeans, his shoulder holster with an FBI Model Thirteen revolver in it and held an all-over ski cap in his hand. I was similarly dressed and got my cap off the desk. Each of us was wearing a transmitter under our shirts, with tiny earpieces in our ears.
“How are you doing?” Sid asked softly, as we made our way through the hall to where the prisoner was.
“Okay,” I said. “Let’s get this done.”
We put our masks on and got the prisoner from the room. He was wearing surgical scrubs and nothing else. Sid cuffed his hands behind his back and blindfolded him, then we took him out to the garage. Sid rode in the back of my truck with the prisoner. We pulled up in the alley where the transfer would take place. A short way down was a spot between two larger buildings where the middle building wasn’t as deep. Just before I turned my headlamps off, they picked up the black sheen of a carbine.
I slid my mask back on (I’d taken it off to drive), then tapped the transmitter.
“Red Team to Team Five, we are in position with the prisoner, over,” I said into it.
“Team Five to Red Team, we have eyes on you. Proceed with the transfer.”
I got out of the truck, went around to the back and raised the shell’s back door, then lowered the truck bed gate. Sid had nudged the prisoner down the bench seats I have in the back there. I drew my gun, and taking the prisoner’s arm, pulled him out of the truck.
“Hey! What’s going on!” yelled an all-too-familiar voice.
Before I could wonder how or why George Hernandez was there, the prisoner suddenly crashed into me, knocking me to the ground.
“He’s popped the cuffs!” said Sid’s voice in my ear.
The prisoner whipped off the blindfold.
“Hey! Stop that!” George hollered again.
It seemed as if George was running in slow motion toward us as the prisoner lifted what had to be Sid’s gun and fired. George crumpled.
“No!” I screamed.
The prisoner was off and running as the Team Five leader continued cussing and directing his agents. Sid helped me up and pushed me into the truck’s front passenger seat.
“You hurt?” he asked.
“Don’t think so,” I gasped. I turned, but Sid was already scrambling around the front of the truck to the driver’s side.
Sid tossed something in my lap, turned the engine over and peeled out of the alley.
“We’re clear!” he hollered into his transmitter and whipped off his mask.
He looked at me and I slowly removed my mask, too.
“He’ll get help just as fast,” Sid said softly.
“We’ve got a civilian down!” one of the Team Five members, called into his transmitter.
I could hear them calling for an ambulance, then Sid signed out for us and the transmitters went silent.
“I’m sorry, Lisa.” Sid glanced at me, then pressed his lips together. “What the hell was he doing down there?”
“Oh, hell.” I suddenly started sobbing. “He has a studio and darkroom downtown. I didn’t know where it was, but he and Jesse apparently spotted a prisoner transfer a couple months ago and the two of them have been watching off and on ever since. Oh, my God. This is my fault! George told me the night before you went missing and I was going to message it Upline, but then you didn’t come home and I forgot.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” Sid glared at the freeway in front of us. “Prisoner transfers happen all over the place. You had no reason to believe we were in the same alley as George’s studio. Besides, you don’t even know if that’s what George and Jesse saw, and even if you did, you had no way of knowing that George would be there or stupid enough to confront armed people in masks.”
“You said he wanted me to call him in the studio tonight.”
I looked over at him and knew that he’d been thinking the same thing as me. I looked down at my hands and noticed what was on my lap.
“Is this?” I asked.
“George’s camera.” Sid glanced over at me. “I didn’t think I’d want to risk it.”
“I wonder if he got any shots.”
“Doesn’t matter. That’s why we do these things in masks.”
When we got home, Sid and I went into the office. Sid called Henry and I tried to clean up my notes. Sid put the camera in safe underneath his wastepaper basket. It’s hidden under the carpet and really hard to see that it’s there. Sid cursed as he twisted the combination dial. It was not an easy safe to open. Dawn light slid in through the windows. Motley whined from my bedroom.
I went and sat in my desk chair. A minute later, my sweet dog was in my lap, begging for some petting.
“When do you think we’ll know how he’s doing?” I asked Sid, finally noticing that he was pacing in front of my desk.
“I have no idea. Probably before lunch.”
I nodded. “Where’s the mail?”
“Lisa, it’s not even six. It’s way too early.”
I stared blankly at the computer screen. “I’ve gotta get some work done. We’re already way too behind.”
“Lisa.” Sid pulled me up from my chair and held me close to him. I hung on, not daring to let go.
“I’m so scared, Sid. What’s going to happen to him?”
“Probably nothing. They ran a security check on him a long time ago and he came out okay. It depends on what he saw or thought he saw.”
“If he saw something that IDs me, then at least he’ll know why I was holding out on him.”
“Does that mean you want to marry him now?”
“No, Sid. I couldn’t.” As I held him even tighter, I almost told him why.
The waiting was agony. Sid never left me the whole time. He tried to get me to take a nap on the living room couch. We were both exhausted, but neither of us could sleep. We picked at breakfast around seven-thirty, then I insisted on trying to get some work done. The only thing we managed was to get the miracle article ready for the postman when he came by at ten.
After that, Sid took me into the library and gave me my knitting while he worked through Chopin’s Twenty-Four Preludes. At a quarter to twelve, there was a phone call. It was just a salesman. I hung up angrily.
Conchetta made lunch and we ate in silence. There was nothing to be said. For once, my appetite had left me and I barely finished half a tuna salad sandwich. After lunch, Sid took me back to the living room sofa, only this time, he gave me a back rub.
One-thirty and there was still no word. We tried watching TV, but even PBS was too inane. One-forty, the phone rang. It was Mae wanting to know if George, Sid and I would like to come for dinner that Sunday. I told her I didn’t know and would call her back later. George definitely would not be coming, but I couldn’t tell her that yet.
At two o’clock, Sid got fed up with watching me prowl restlessly around the house. He sat me down at the piano and tried teaching me to read bass clef. I think he was trying to jolt me into thinking about anything but George. Ten minutes into the lesson, the doorbell rang. I checked through the one-way glass on the door. It was Jesse.
Sid squeezed my shoulder, then headed for the office, leaving me alone for the first time that day. I put on a smile and tried to look as if everything was normal.
“Hi, Jesse. Come on in.” My voice felt strained with the feigned cheerfulness.
Jesse didn’t notice. He stumbled into the hallway, just barely in control.
“Lisa. We gotta talk,” he said.
“What’s wrong?” I asked. Coldness gripped me as I began to realize the news would be worse than I thought. “Come on into the living room.”
Jesse followed me and numbly sat on the couch.
“It’s… It’s George, Lisa.” Jesse’s hands were shaking. “He was at the studio last night, pulling an all-nighter. The cops don’t know how, but he got shot.”
“Oh, my God. How is he?”
Jesse looked at me, the tears spilling onto his cheeks. “He’s dead, Lisa.”
I tried to catch my breath. I hadn’t expected that. Or maybe I had but was trying not to face it. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t hear. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t cry. All I could see was George running in slow motion toward me and the prisoner lifting that gun and firing.
“Dead,” I whispered. The sobs began slowly and I grabbed at any thought that even seems like it made sense. “George… I… His parents. What about his parents?”
“They were with him,” Jesse said. “I mean, they were in the hospital waiting room. He was in surgery all morning. I guess it happened around four or something. He only died a couple hours ago. The hospital contacted his family. His sister just called me. I came right over. I mean, I called Kathy first. I’m sorry. I was so shocked, I didn’t know what else to do. She’s calling everybody else. I think we’re supposed to go to his folks’ place tonight.”
We got up. Jesse started out. I stopped him. We fell into each other’s arms, sobbing uncontrollably. Somehow, Jesse pulled himself together first. He sniffed and took some tissues from his pocket. He gave me a clean tissue and used one, himself.
“Listen,” he said softly. “George is with God now. He’s happier there.”
“That’s right,” I said. “We ought to be happy for him.”
“I’m just gonna miss him.” The tears slid once again down Jesse’s cheeks.
“That’s plenty to cry over,” I said. “But we’ll be okay. God knows what He’s doing. It’s better this way.’
Jesse nodded and wiped his face and nose with his tissue.
“I gotta get back to Kathy,” he said. “You gonna go out to the Hernandez’s tonight?”
“Yeah. I’d better. What time?”
“I think six or so. I’ll call you. Or Kathy will.” Jesse looked at me. “I’m so sorry, Lisa.”
“I’m sorry for you, too,” I said.
Jesse left. I closed the door behind him, not making much sense of what was going on. Sid was there, standing quietly behind me.
“I know,” he said, reaching over to hold me. “I heard.”
He held me as I cried.
“I’m here, Lisapet,” he whispered and kissed my hair. “I’ll always be here.”
My sobs eventually abated. Sid led me into the library and gave me my bible. I thumbed through the Psalms while Sid played. There was some comfort there, although not as much as I wanted.
“Sid,” I said slowly. “I don’t how to say this.”
Sid stopped playing. “You’re concerned about the state of my immortal soul.”
“Kinda.” I winced. “Not entirely. I have to believe that there’s some plan in place for truly good people who don’t happen to believe. It’s just that…” I sighed. “It could just as easily have been you this morning instead of George.”
“And it could just as easily have been you,” said Sid, turning back to the keys. “You and I face that all the time. It’s the reality of our work.”
“I know. It’s just that George is with God and he’s happy now.”
Sid shook his head. “Amazing how easy it is for you to assume he made the grade when he was such a pain in the butt to you.”
I shrugged. “It’s what I believe in. Life after death. Heaven.”
“Yeah. I know.”
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have brought it up.”
Sid sighed, then turned on the bench toward me. “I think I’d be worried if you hadn’t. Lisa, please don’t ever apologize for being who you are. You’re bugging me right now because you care. You wouldn’t be you if you weren’t concerned about whether I’m going to Heaven or Hell.”
“I didn’t say I was worried about that,” I said. “I just don’t know what I’d do if it had been you this morning.”
“And I don’t know what I’d do if it had been you. So, we’re even on that score.”
I almost blurted out how I felt about him. He looked at me thoughtfully.
“Are you ruing lost opportunities?” he asked.
Normally, this would have been said with a slyly lecherous smile, one that never failed to arouse me. But not this time. He seemed genuinely concerned.
I thought. “Not really. You?”
“Always.” He chuckled lightly, then looked down at his hands. “Sorry. That came out wrong.”
“Sid, you shouldn’t apologize for being who you are any more than I should.”
He smiled at me. “You’re right. But while I would love it if you did, I really do not want you talking yourself into doing something that will make you feel guilty later.”
“I know. It’s what Daddy said he’s most afraid of happening to me.”
“He told me the same. I told him that I refuse to do that.”
“By the way. He likes you better than he liked George.”
Sid’s eyebrows rose.
Frank and Esther came by around four to offer support, however, dubious it turned out to be at first.
“It’s like everyone is paying attention to George’s parents and completely forgetting about you,” Frank grumbled. “And you’re the grieving widow.”
“Me?” I looked at him puzzled.
“Well, you were going to marry him. Just because it hadn’t happened yet doesn’t mean you’re not grieving,” Frank snarled.
Something caught at my throat and I burst into tears. I heard Esther cursing Frank out for being an idiot.
“You okay?” Sid asked.
“I’m such a fraud,” I sobbed. “I was going to dump him. Now, what do I do?”
“No kidding,” said Frank, bemused, as Esther whacked him. “Come on. Jesse thought she might be getting ready to.”
“That doesn’t mean she didn’t love George,” Esther snarled. “How is it you’re so smart and you act so stupid sometimes?”
“I do love George,” I said softly.
Sid put his hand on mine. “Then that’s what you go with. You didn’t take dumping him lightly.”
“I wanted to be sure he understood that I was,” I said.
“I know that one,” said Esther. “George don’t always listen so good.”
“And I knew it was going to really hurt him, so I wanted to be as fair and kind about it as I could,” I said. “But I do not want to be the grieving almost widow. It’s just not right.”
“So don’t say anything,” said Esther. “George’s family is not going to care.”
“But what about the Bible Study and the Teen Group?” I asked.
“They’re not going to care,” Esther said. “And do you really care that much about what they think?”
“Sort of.” I looked at Sid. “What do you think?”
“I like how she asks him,” Esther hissed at Frank.
“Sheez, Esther, and you talk about me being insensitive,” Frank retorted.
Sid laughed. “I think Esther’s got a point, honey. I mean, you probably don’t want to advertise that you were about to dump George. But you did love him, and you are definitely grieving, so I would say that means you’re not a fraud.”
Sid ended up asking Frank and Esther to stay to dinner, which they did, and then the four of us drove out in Sid’s BMW to Malibu to the Hernandez house.
It was a miserable visit. Mrs. Hernandez immediately fell on me, proclaiming me her last chance at grandchildren. While I strongly suspected that she was using that as a cover for her real grief, it felt very uncomfortable. It was as though I were merely a prop for her scene. Mr. Hernandez was distant and angry and George’s siblings bickered bitterly amongst themselves.
The worst was how they treated Jesse and Kathy, or, rather didn’t treat them. They basically ignored Jesse and Kathy.
“You are George’s best friend,” I gasped at Jesse as I handed him and Kathy each a glass of wine. “How can they ignore you like this?”
“It happens,” said Jesse grimly.
“They have never treated Jesse well,” said Kathy, sending an ugly glare at one of the uncles, who seemed pretty bent on getting drunk.
Kathy and Jesse left shortly after that, and Sid and I gathered up Frank and Esther and left, as well. We let Frank and Esther out of the car on the driveway, then Sid pulled into the garage. As the two of us went into the house, Sid shook his head.
“Well, that put a new perspective on George,” he said.
“I guess so,” I said.
Sid gently stroked my cheek. “I know it won’t be easy, but do try to sleep,” he said. “Our bad guy is still out there and I’ll bet anything we’re going to get called in on finding him.”
“Probably.” I sighed. “Sid, I do want to thank you for being here. It means a lot to me.”
“You’re welcome.” He reached over and gently kissed my forehead. “Goodnight, Lisa.”