The next morning, I was awakened by my phone ringing. As I fumbled for the phone by my bed, I noticed that it was the office line ringing. It was also nine a.m. I suppose I should have let the answering machine get it, but it could have been an editor with a story for us. I cleared my voice and tried to sound alert.
“Is this Lisa Wycherly?” the woman on the other end of the line asked.
“May I ask who’s calling?” I replied, blinking my eyes.
“This is Ventura County Hospital. We have you listed as the contact for a Sid Hackbirn.”
I sat up, my heart pounding. “This is Lisa. Is Sid okay?”
“He’s with the doctors now,” the woman said.
“Oh, no,” I sniffed.
There was a slight pause. “He’s not in any immediate danger, Miss Wycherly.”
“Oh, thank God.” I swallowed and started breathing. “What happened?”
“He appears to have been the victim of an assault. The ambulance brought him a short while ago. He does have some head trauma, but he is conscious and lucid.”
“Thank God,” I whispered. “Okay. I suppose I should go there. You’re in Ventura, right?”
“Yes, Miss Wycherly.”
I got directions to the hospital, then called Henry to let him know that Sid had been found.
“What happened? Where is he?” Henry asked.
“At Ventura County Hospital,” I said. “They said he’d been assaulted. I’ll be heading up there as soon as I can get out of the shower and dressed.”
“For sure. Keep me posted, okay?”
I showered as fast as I could, and quickly put on some jeans and an Oxford shirt. Grabbing a couple tote bags, I shoved some clean underwear into one, some shorts and tops and another pair of jeans. Then I went into Sid’s bedroom. I seldom went in, but it’s not as though there was anything terribly embarrassing in there. It was just his room and I didn’t trespass. Nonetheless, I grabbed some fresh underwear from his dresser and some sweats and t-shirts, and put those in the other tote. I wasn’t sure what else he’d need.
I was about to head out to the garage when I realized I’d better call George.
Jesse answered the phone.
“Jesse, it’s Lisa.”
“Hi, Lisa. What’s up?”
“Is George there?”
“He’s asleep. You want me to wake him?”
George was even more of a night owl than I am.
“No, don’t. Just tell him we found Sid.”
“Well, thank God for that.”
“Anyway, I’ve got to go out to Ventura to the county hospital there. I’ll call George later when I have a better fix on what’s going on.”
I debated calling Nick, but there wasn’t anything I could tell him and he didn’t really know there was anything wrong, to begin with. I rushed out to the garage, stopping only to get the toiletries bag out of the overnight case that Sid kept packed in his car. It took over an hour to get through traffic to the hospital.
When I got to the hospital, Sid was still in the emergency room, even though the nurse told me that they were going to admit him.
“What happened?” I asked her.
“We don’t really know,” the nurse said. “The paramedics on the ambulance said that he’d been assaulted. Apparently, the cops took the report on the scene. He got knocked around pretty badly, but he doesn’t have any broken bones. Just assorted bruises and a concussion. The doctor wants to keep him for a couple days for observation.”
“Can I see him?” I asked.
“Sure. Right this way.”
She led me to a curtained area. Sid was laying on his back, with a hospital gown covering his chest, staring at the ceiling. The dark stubble on his chin and cheeks made his skin look almost ashy.
“Hi,” I said quietly.
He gingerly turned his head and squinted at me. “Hi.”
“How are you feeling?”
“I ache all over and I have one hell of a headache.”
“I can imagine. Can you tell me what happened?”
“Not right now.”
I glanced around at the curtained alcove. “No, I suppose not. I hear they want to keep you around for observation.”
“Yep.” Sid looked miserable.
“If it will make you feel any better, I’ll stay here in Ventura while you’re here.”
“What about your fiance?”
“George will have to do without me or come up here. Unless you don’t want him to come.”
Sid shifted and winced. “It doesn’t make any difference to me.”
“And God didn’t make little green apples.”
Sid blinked and sighed. “I have no right to say no.”
I left it at that. I probably shouldn’t have, but he was feeling so bad that I didn’t have the heart to argue.
“When’s the big day?” Sid asked suddenly.
“Your wedding, honey. You were supposed to pick a date last Thursday and you never told me what day.”
“Oh. It’s April twentieth. Mama found where she wants to have the reception and the first opening was in April.”
“Nick called yesterday. He wants to come down.”
Sid winced again. “This is not a good time for that.”
“I know, but I think he’s at home alone again.”
“Damn her.” Sid tried shifting again, then squeezed his eyes shut. “I’ll take care of calling him.”
“I told him I’d let him know about next week by Friday. And I only called Henry and George before coming up here, so Nick doesn’t know you’ve been hurt.”
Sid grunted and winced.
“You look pretty uncomfortable. You want me to fluff up your pillow or adjust your bed or something?”
“Nah. I’m just hoping the pain pills start kicking in.”
“Mr. Hackbirn.” The nurse swiftly pulled the curtain open. A pair of orderlies stood behind her with an open gurney. “We’re going to move you to your room now.”
“Can you give us a moment?” I asked, then turned to Sid. “I’ll go get myself settled while they’re moving you and make a couple phone calls. Can I get you anything while I’m gone?”
“How about a woman?” Sid smiled at me.
“You’re in no shape for that and besides, that’s in direct violation of our original work agreement.”
“Can’t hurt to ask.”
“I’m not going back to L.A., so can I get you anything from the store?”
The nurse glared at me but I ignored her.
“A razor and soap might be nice. My beard is itching like hell and scratching it makes my headache worse.”
“Oh!” I held up the tote I’d brought in with me. “I brought you some fresh underwear and sweats. And your toiletries bag is in there.”
“Thank you,” Sid sighed, grabbing the tote. “Now, if only I have a spare pair of contacts in here.”
“Later, Mr. Hackbirn,” said the nurse firmly.
“I’ll see you in a bit,” I told Sid and turned to go.
“Lisa,” Sid called. “I know I’m pretty grumpy right now, but I want you to know that I really appreciate you sticking around.”
“Thanks, Sid,” I said. “I’m glad to do it.
As I left the hospital, I reflected that I really was.
[I guess now’s as good a place as any to lay out what happened to me when I got captured. We were using a three-person team with two switching off sticking close, and a look-out observing with a pair of binoculars from a distance. It’s a tough tail to spot, let alone ditch.
That Saturday morning, I was on look-out duty, observing from my car. There wasn’t much going on. We were on Santa Monica Boulevard, not far from where the street would cross into Beverly Hills. The subject was going through his usual routine. The two close-in tails had just switched off when the second tail spotted the contact walking past the subject. There was no way to tell if anything had passed between them. It didn’t matter. We wanted the contact.
He was pretty average looking, brown hair parted on one side, wearing a tan sport-shirt and jeans. Once the alarm went up, even I could see the white scar running along the top of his left hand. I kept my glasses trained on him while the first tail went after him and the second went for her car. Sure enough, the contact walked down the street, turned a corner and found his car, a Toyota sedan. Since I was on wheels, I had first shot at tailing him. The other two tails radioed in and we took turns switching off as the Toyota slid through traffic to Robertson, and from there to the Santa Monica freeway.
He headed west to the 405, and from there down to Mission Viejo. It was my turn to stick close as he pulled into a brand new housing tract. We all had a pretty good idea what was going on at that point. I went ahead and parked in the lot for the sales office and went on the model tour. The other two tails held back, although while I was on the tour, the contact left the tract and the tails went after him. My job was to check out the houses where the contact had gone.
I wasn’t entirely expecting three paid thugs when I got to the house. They jumped me and knocked me on the head. When I came to, I had been locked into a fairly large bedroom. The windows were blacked out and locked. They’d taken my jacket and shoes and somewhere in all that, I’d lost my contacts. I tried the locks with the pick from my hair, but that didn’t help. So, I scratched a message on the baseboard, one I knew Lisa would get. At least three times, I was brought hamburgers and water. I couldn’t figure out why they wanted me alive, so I decided to play the civilian kidnap victim, offering each thug all kinds of money to let me go.
I had completely lost track of time, so I have no idea when they decided to move me. All three of them showed up this time, one with a gun on me. I held up my hands.
“What’s going on?” I yelped. “My family will pay. I promise they will. You just have to let me go!”
I could see the thugs look at each other. They were definitely not trained agents, which was also very telling. The one with the gun gestured at the other two. I’m not sure what happened, but I think they injected me with something. Or maybe there was another hit on the head which joggled my memory. Either way, the next thing I knew, I was in yet another new house. The bedroom was considerably smaller, although just as unfinished as the other one.
The weird thing was that my jacket and shoes were heaped in a pile in the corner. The thug who’d had the gun at the other house sat in the corner with the gun trained on me. My head was a mess and I upchucked all over the floor. The thug yelled and a different fellow came in to clean up the mess.
Once the mess was cleared and the new fellow gone, the thug with the gun got up and stood over me.
“What do you want?” I asked, sounding as panicky as I could. “I’ve promised you money.”
“Where’s your yellow card?” the thug demanded.
“My what?” I swallowed because I really didn’t know what he was asking for.
“Your yellow card. You’re supposed to have one.”
“All I got are my charge cards. You can have them.”
The thug raised his hand as if he were going to hit me. “I’m not going to waste my time with phony IDs.”
That was even weirder. It was almost as if they knew what to expect, since I did not, in fact, have my real ID on me.
“Huh?” I asked.
“Where’s your yellow card?” the thug yelled.
“I don’t have one!”
The thug frowned. He knocked me down and left the room. I was a little surprised that he had given up so easily, though hardly complaining about it. I went through my jacket and shoes. Sure enough, the pager was still there, so I triggered it. I kept triggering it every hour or so, and it eventually paid off. It was a pretty small task force, I’m guessing there were a couple Navy Seals. Those guys know extraction like no one else, and this was a quick and relatively painless operation. Well, painless for me and the agents. The thugs were hurting even worse than I was by the end of it. I didn’t get to see that part. Me, they hustled into an ambulance, which was fine.
I’m not sure whose idea it was to send me to Ventura. It was a long enough ride that someone from Upline was able to debrief me as we went. She seemed puzzled when I mentioned the yellow card. She clearly knew what it was, but it didn’t seem to make sense. Yes, I was tempted to ask, but knew better.
And that’s pretty much what happened. – SEH]
I found a motel reasonably close to the hospital, but couldn’t check in quite yet, so I stopped for lunch at a nearby cafe. By the time I got back to the motel, it was after one-thirty, and I was able to check in. I called Sid at the hospital to let him know that I was running behind and he told me he needed his spare pair of glasses because the nurses wouldn’t let him wear his contacts. Sid, who is very near-sighted, must have been pretty desperate to see something.
I next called George.
“Lisa, what happened?”
“He got mugged,” I said. “He’ll be alright, but he’s going to be in the hospital for a few days.”
“That’s good. When are you coming home?”
“When Sid gets out of the hospital.”
“Then I’ll go up there.”
I bit my lip. “I’d rather you didn’t, George.”
“But I can help you.”
“I don’t need the help.”
“Oh, come on, Lisa.” George was almost whining. “Why don’t you want me there?”
“Because I don’t think it will make Sid feel any better.”
“He won’t have to see me. Please, Lisa?”
“I suppose,” I said. It was a terrible idea, but I was so tired, I didn’t feel like arguing.
I gave George the name of the motel and asked him to wait until the evening to come up.
“I’ll probably be at the hospital,” I told him. “So there won’t be anything for you to do.”
“Don’t worry, Lisa,” George said. “I’ll take care of it.”
I called Henry next.
“I don’t have any details on what happened yet,” I told him. “The good news is that Sid’s going to be alright. The worst of it is a concussion, so they’re going to keep him in the hospital for a few days just to be on the safe side.”
“They must have wanted something,” Henry said, his voice getting grim.
“Well, I’m glad they did,” I said. “That’s the only reason he’s still alive.”
“I’m not complaining.” Henry sighed. “But I’m going to send Angelique up to see you this afternoon. Upline sent something addressed to Sid, and it must be pretty urgent if they’re sending it through me.”
“Must be. Can I talk to Angelique then?”
Henry connected me. Angelique was more than willing to come up to Ventura, not to mention swinging by the house to get Sid’s glasses. After talking to her, I made one more call to Conchetta to let her know that Angelique would be by, and that was that.
Calls made, I went back to the hospital. As I came down the hallway, a nurse left Sid’s room with a tray in her hands and shaking her head. She was Black, a little on the short side and well-padded, and laughing to herself.
“Don’t tell me,” I said as I walked up. “He made a pass at you.”
“Did he ever.” She laughed. “It’s a good thing I’m married.”
“That doesn’t make any difference to him.”
She laughed again, even harder. “That’s what he said. He’s a charmer, alright.”
“I know. You might want to warn your co-workers. He won’t violate mutual consent by any stretch, but he’ll be getting desperate soon, and he can make himself really, really tempting.”
“I’ll warn them,” she said, her eyes glittering. “Or maybe not. You never know when a little bit of temptation might be just what the doctor ordered, so to speak.”
I had to laugh. “It may just be.”
“You’re not going in there, are you?”
I grinned. “He knows better than to try it with me.”
“Well, I just hope he doesn’t get any of my girls pregnant.”
“Don’t worry about that. He’s fixed.”
She laughed and I went into the room.
It was a private one. I did not want to ask how much Sid would be paying for it. [You did not, but it was worth it. – SEH] Fortunately, Sid is independently wealthy. Believe me, espionage does not pay that well, and freelance writing even less.
“Well, well, well,” I said, going over to his bed. “Up to your old tricks again, huh?”
He shrugged as well as he could. “What can I say? She’s a good looking woman.”
“And you are a dirty old man.”
“Watch that old stuff.”
I chuckled. “Alright, you lecherous fiend. I’ve got some good news for you. Within another hour or two, you’ll have glasses and a willing woman. Okay, I won’t vouch for the willing. That’s up to her, but she does have a history of it.”
“Who are you talking about?” His eyes lit up.
“Angelique Carter, my dear reprobate. Henry got something for you from Upline, so he’s sending it with her, and I asked her to swing by the house and get your glasses.”
“Oh, great. I’ll be able to see again. They won’t let me wear my contacts. Listen, could you make a note to call the ophthalmologist for a new pair? I’ll need a new back up.”
“Sure thing.” I dug through my purse for my notebook and added the note. Then I bit my lip. “George insisted on coming up. I’m hoping he’ll meet me at the motel. In any case, he won’t be here for a while.” I looked at him. “Think we’ve got enough privacy to tell me what happened to you?”
Sid rolled his eyes but proceeded to tell me about how he’d been captured and moved.
“Actually,” he said as he finished. “I’m still not sure how much time passed.”
“Today is Tuesday,” I said. “Henry had your car towed from the Mission Viejo tract and I got it back last night.” I looked at him, feeling very worried. “We figured they wanted something from you. That’s why they didn’t kill you right away.”
“I have no idea what,” Sid said. “Why would they be asking about a yellow card? It doesn’t make sense.”
“It doesn’t yet, as you are so fond of reminding me,” I said with a shrug. “We go could go around and around on this or I could just get a deck of cards out.”
“You don’t have to stay glued to my bedside,” Sid grumbled.
“I’ll leave when Angelique gets here.”
He chuckled. “Trying to protect the nurses from me?”
I rolled my eyes. “Sid, if they’re willing, that’s their business. Just do me a favor and don’t press too hard and try and keep the shenanigans to when they’re off-duty.”
He let out an exaggerated sigh. “I’ll try, mommy.” Then he smiled warmly. “Why don’t you get out that deck of cards?”
Angelique arrived around four and happily announced that she was free until Sid was ready to come home. I have no idea if Henry had given her that long or if she was taking it. I didn’t care. Admittedly, that left me free to return to Los Angeles, which I nearly did, but I had told Sid I’d stick around, so I decided to stay. I had two keys for my motel room, and it had two beds. I told Angelique that she could share my room. She liked the idea. I gave her the extra key and went back to the motel.
Sure enough, George was there waiting for me. As he wrapped me into a warm hug, I began to think it wasn’t such a bad thing that he’d come. We wandered around Ventura, had dinner, and George finally dropped me off at my room around nine.
Angelique was already there.
“You’re back early,” I said.
“I could say the same for you,” Angelique said with a grin.
I yawned. “I’m really tired. I didn’t sleep very well last night.”
“I bet. As for me, visiting hours were over and I got chased out.”
“How’s Sid doing?”
“Better.” Angelique shook her head and laughed. “He’s an amazing guy. You can tell that he’s feeling lousy with that concussion, but that doesn’t stop him.”
“Hm.” My thoughts began wandering.
I’d been mulling over what Sid had told me all afternoon. The yellow card was strange enough, but what I thought was more worrisome was that the thug assumed that any ID Sid was carrying was fake. We’d found out earlier that year that the target suspect was using paid thugs, so it was no surprise that Sid had been captured by a group of them. The problem was that paid help wasn’t always the most competent, which is why most operatives preferred to avoid using them, even for the dirty work. We weren’t entirely sure why this particular suspect was using them, but it was clear that he had told his “employees” about some of our basic protocols, including not carrying our actual ID when we were working a case. That begged the question of how much the contact (or suspect) knew about Operation Quickline.
“Lisa?” Angelique asked.
“You’ve been in outer space all evening. What are you doing? Planning your wedding?”
“No.” I blushed. “I should be, shouldn’t I?”
“So I’m told. Sid said it was in April.”
I felt a quick pang of jealousy, which surprised me. I pushed the feelings aside. Sid had every right to tell Angelique. It was just weird that he was still talking to her about things.
“Yeah,” I said. “George was asking me about it again today. We’ve got to go look at the reception site where Mama made the deposit. He’s so excited about it. He wants to know what colors we’re going to have and which flowers.” I sighed suddenly. “And I can’t think of anything I want.”
“You’re kidding. I’ve had my dream wedding planned since I was a kid.”
“Oh, I planned mine, too.” I shook my head. “It was just a long time ago and… I don’t know. It just doesn’t seem right anymore. George wants a big wedding, and I suppose he should have it. I just hope Mama’s got enough money in her special account.”
“Nice how they’re expecting us to get married,” Angelique grumbled. Her mother had been pressuring her to get married for years and it drove Angelique nuts.
I winced. “It’s not like that. Mama does expect me to get married because that’s what people do. But she started the wedding account for a different reason altogether. When my sister and I were each born, she started two savings accounts. One was for college and the other was for our weddings. Her daddy was a drunk and there just wasn’t much money. She’d gotten a scholarship for college, but there was nothing left for her own wedding and she was so embarrassed that she swore she would never let that happen to her daughters.”
“Is your mom still on your back?”
Angelique sighed. “Not as much, but not for a good reason. I mean, it’s a good reason, but not a very happy one. You know how I kept joking that my sister-in-law Sadie was psychotic? Well, it turns out, she probably is. They think it’s manic depression. Jeff’s not entirely sure because her family is acting like it’s all his fault and cutting him out of everything. The good news is that he’s got custody of the kids and will probably get to keep them after the divorce is final. It’s just that as it was all blowing up last month, Jeff and Mom got into this massive fight, and Jeff blamed her for pressuring him into marrying Sadie. And Mom was so upset, she asked me if I thought she had pressured Jeff, and I couldn’t say no. So, she’s mad at me for not telling her what she wanted to hear, but she can’t really get on my back about not being married because of Jeff.”
That led me to ask about Angelique’s nephew and niece and we compared notes on babysitting nieces and nephews and how incredibly fun, but exhausting it is, and it was actually pretty late before we ended up going to bed. And while we may have stopped talking, I didn’t stop thinking, mostly about how George wanted six kids and wanted them right away and how much I did not want six kids and definitely not any of them right away. I had no idea how I was going to get George to go along with me on that. George was not very good at hearing me sometimes.