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Sad Lisa – Chapter Thirteen

Banner for Sad Lisa, an Operation Quickline story

When Sid offered to go with me to mass the next morning, I nearly bit his head off. I also relented and was glad that he was there. It was just so awkward, with so many people coming up to me and telling me how terribly sorry they were. Jesse came up during the Sign of Peace and gave me a big hug, which helped a lot.

“You okay?” I asked him softly.

“As okay as I can be,” he said. “At least, the Hernandez’s aren’t asking me to move out of the condo.”

“He told me he wanted you to have it,” I said.

Jesse nodded. “His sister, Marisela, told me that, too.”

Marisela was George’s sister that was closest to him in age.

Sid hung back. He’d gotten a couple evil glares. I later heard that there’d been a rumor that Sid had taken advantage of George being dead to finally seduce me. Given how guilty I was feeling then, I’m glad that I didn’t know about that part. Still, it was frustrating to see the tight smiles as people greeted me, then Sid.

“You don’t deserve it,” I complained as Sid drove us to a nearby restaurant. Frank and Esther had invited us and Kathy and Jesse to go to lunch after mass.

“So what?” Sid answered. “They’re petty, obnoxious people. I do not give a damn what they think of me and cannot for the life of me understand why you do.”

He had a point, so I did not say anything more.

It turned out to be a nice lunch, then Sid and I had to get home before Mae got there. We had a quiet afternoon, then she and Sid put together a salad for our dinner. I still wasn’t eating much and soon we headed out to Hollywood and the funeral home where George was. As we waited for the rosary service to begin, I paced in the lobby outside the viewing room. I had already seen that it was an open casket, and that had me a little freaked. You see, I have this thing about corpses. I’m terrified of them, which sounds a little weird, considering the business I’m in. But it’s actually because of that business. I got traumatized early on, and it’s never gotten any better.

I was hoping that by waiting, we could sit in the back, but as soon as we entered the viewing room, we were ushered right up to the front row of pews. Kathy and Jesse were already there. The Hernandez family sat in the same row, across the aisle. Mrs. Hernandez wore a long black veil but managed to smile at me. Mr. Hernandez remained stiff and unemotional.

I tried looking everywhere but at the coffin ahead of me. Being right up front, I could see a little of George’s nose and forehead. When Father John got up to the podium near the foot of the casket, I kept my eyes focused on him.

He looked so terribly sad as he cleared his throat.

“I want to thank Monsignor Cuestas for allowing me to be here and speak tonight,” he said slowly, nodding at the priest sitting next to Mrs. Hernandez. He paused. “It is never easy burying someone who has left us before his time. It’s worse when violence is what took him from us. I’ve done enough of those funerals in my time and will probably do more before I’m done. But George was also a friend of mine, as were many of the other kids I buried. I tell you right now, it does not get easier. I am here as a partner in your grief. I loved George.”

Father coughed, then continued. “I met him as a young freshman at UCLA, where I was doing some campus ministry. He was eager, passionate, diving in deep into whatever was needed, and at the same time, always worried that whatever he was doing wasn’t enough.”

I felt my gut twisting again. Worse yet, out of the corner of my eye, I saw one of George’s sisters glaring at their father.

“He used to ask me how could taking silly pictures help the poor?” John continued. “Then he did that series on skid row, which got us the funding we needed to build the Rossmore Family Shelter.”

That had happened long before I’d met George. I’d heard about the series, but not from him.

“True, George could be stubborn, especially when he’d made up his mind about something.”

I flushed.

“But he was one of the biggest-hearted men I’ve ever known, and that heart was permanently on display on his sleeve at all times.” John cleared his throat again. “So we are here. We are here in our hurt and in our love for George. But we are here for more than that. We come to pray, to cry out, to yell at God, but mostly we come because we believe in something more than we have here down on earth. Yes, we are in pain because one of ours has been taken away, but we take comfort in that Christian promise of life after death, that we will one day be reunited with George. And so we begin. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

The prayers went by quickly, and I was glad of that. We were hardly through the first decade of Hail Marys before Sid shifted in utter boredom. Still, it was all too soon before John was offering us the opportunity to come forward and pay our last respects. I balked. Kathy and Jesse needed me to move so that they could view the body.

“Come on,” hissed Mae, giving me a little shove.

“I can’t,” I whispered.

“Lisa, please. It’s rude not to.”

“Mae,” Sid growled. “Don’t push her.”

“I can’t,” I sniffed.

“Lisa, don’t make a scene.” Mae was good and annoyed.

I bolted from the viewing room, sobbing. I hit the lobby and stopped for a moment, uncertain which way to go.

“Lisa.” Sid touched my arm.

The panic filled me again and I tried to run, but Sid held me close.

“It’s alright, honey. It’s alright,” he whispered. “Go ahead and cry. You’ll be fine.”

It took a while to get myself back under control. I was still trembling when the viewing room doors opened. I pulled away from Sid and tried to find a tissue. He had one and I took it.

The crowd of teens, relatives, and other people slowly filtered into the lobby. I slid back to the wall and waited for Mae to come out of the viewing room. Sid went in to get my purse.

“I don’t understand it, either,” Mae was telling somebody as she left the room. “But she has gotten this phobia of looking at dead bodies.”

“Hey, here she is!” called Frank Lonnergan’s voice. He swept up and pulled me from the wall. “You doing okay? Sid told us about your phobia.”

“Just feeling a little silly, is all,” I said with a subdued sniff.

“Happens to the best of us. Come on. We’re going to go to Jefferson’s for a drink.”

“Sure. Except that Sid drove.”

“He’s coming with us.” Frank squeezed me around the shoulders. “You’ll drop your sister off back home, then meet us there. Okay?”

“Okay.”

I was looking for Sid when Father John approached.

“Got a second?” he asked.

“Yeah. You okay?” I smiled weakly at him. “I forgot that you and George were that close.”

He shrugged. “It comes with the job. I’ve got a pretty good support system, though.” He looked at me and winced, then checked to see if anyone could overhear us. “I, uh, wonder if you know anything about what happened to George. I want to know if I should be raising hell about the FBI or not.”

I chuckled sadly. “I was there. We were doing a prisoner exchange. George saw my truck and came to investigate, and that’s how he got shot. The prisoner popped his cuffs and stole Sid’s gun. Ours are FBI issue, so that’s how that happened.”

“Crap.” John blinked his eyes for a moment, then looked at me. “Don’t tell me. You’re feeling really guilty about now.”

I shrugged. “A little. But Sid pointed out that there was no way we could have expected George to be there, let alone to come out and face off a couple of armed strangers. We were wearing masks, you see. Anyway, if you want to protest the supposed coverup, go ahead. It’s not going to change anything.”

John sighed. “Well, will I see you at Jefferson’s?”

“Yeah. I’m glad you’re coming.”

It was a somber party, and I noticed Sid and John spending some time talking to each other. It didn’t seem to be anything deep and they were both smiling by the end.

I wish things could have gone nearly as well the next day. The funeral mass was beyond dreary. There was almost no singing. An organist played the hymns rather badly, according to Sid and Frank. Monsignor Cuestas officiated and gave possibly one of the longest and most boring sermons I had ever heard. It was supposed to be comforting. All it did was make me fidgety. You’d have thought, given how long the Monsignor had known the family, that he could have made things more personal. The graveside service wasn’t any better. Worse yet, at the end, Mrs. Hernandez screamed and threw herself over the casket. The weird thing is that it wasn’t the most convincing performance I had ever seen. I mean, I want to be charitable, here, and she was grieving the loss of her only son. I’ll leave it at that.

We did stop in at the Hernandez place afterward for the catered buffet lunch. But the food that was supposed to be hot was icy cold. The cold food items were limp and warm. None of it looked edible at all, and I set a pretty low standard for what constitutes edible. Sid and I were both relieved when our pagers began vibrating.

We made our goodbyes quickly and hurried out of there.

“I feel like such a heel,” I said to Sid.

“Why? That was a disaster,” Sid said.

“But they’re grieving. You have to cut them some slack.”

Sid rolled his eyes. “Cutting them some slack would be ignoring some mismatched place settings. Maybe a burnt crust or two. That was nothing short of a fiasco.”

I sighed. Sid was right. Still, it seemed rather churlish to complain.

It took a few minutes to get to a payphone. Sid made the call. His eyebrows rose. He said yes and that we’d be there as soon as we could, but that we were looking at a good thirty minutes. Well, that’s what it looked like he said from where I sat in the passenger seat of his BMW.

“What’s going on?” I asked, looking at him anxiously.

“We’ve got a meeting,” he said, sliding into the driver’s seat and turning on the ignition. “And not just a meeting, but a meeting at one of the toniest restaurants in L.A.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.” Sid stayed focused on getting us around the curves of Mulholland Drive, but just barely. “Honey, this place is so exclusive, even on my pile, I have to wait six months for my reservation.”

“That’s weird,” I said, frowning. “Could this meeting have been planned that far in advance?”

“I have no idea,” Sid said.

The restaurant was rather humble looking from the outside. It was on Melrose Avenue, just before it got to the really trendy end. Inside, the tablecloths were white, and the plates were black, and the decor minimalist, at best. The room was open, and unlike other places, the tables were all well apart from each other. Two men in suits sat at a table, in an intense conference as they ate. Nearby, three men sat with an actress I recognized. She smiled but looked vaguely disgusted with them.

I saw Henry first, at a table in the far corner of the room but stopped short when I saw the pair sitting next to him. The top was set for five. She was fairly small, with fluffy short blonde hair. He was much taller and had a rather horsey face.

“Them,” Sid grumbled.

I glanced at him. “Yeah.”

Henry saw us and waved us over. She smiled at the waiter and we were barely seated before menus appeared in front of us, as well as glasses of water with a slice of cucumber, and individual bread plates, each with a perfect, light brown roll and a rosette of butter next to it.

“Sid, Lisa,” Henry began, his voice and face neutral. “May I present–”

“Oh, let’s do keep it informal,” she said. “I’m Marian. This is Andrew.”

When I’d last seen her, her name had been Mrs. Ellis. That had obviously not been her real name. I shivered because it seemed as though Marian and Andrew were, in fact, their real names.

“Nice to meet you,” I said. I glanced at my menu and paled. Not because of the selection but because there were no prices on it.

“And it is our pleasure to act as hosts today,” Andrew said, giving me the once over.

“That is very kind of you,” Sid said.

Sid and I passed a puzzled glance between us. We started with cocktails. Sid opted for bourbon and water. I chose a martini. I don’t usually like them unless I can get really good gin. I figured this place would have passable gin. Andrew whispered to the water, and when the cocktails appeared, the bourbon was in a snifter and a good bit darker than usual. The martini glass was frosted and icy. Andrew and Marian had large glasses of gin and tonic, and Henry also had a snifter, but with scotch.

Sid picked up his glass and sniffed.

“It’s a lovely single barrel out of Bardstown, Kentucky,” Marian told him. “I do hope you like it.”

Sid’s eyebrows rose and he sipped.

“It’s amazing,” he said. “Thank you for your kindness.”

I sipped my martini. “Wow. That’s really good.”

“Yes, well, Henry told us you’ve had quite the trying morning,” Marian said.

“I’m afraid so,” said Sid. He looked at Henry.

“I told them about the funeral,” Henry said. “And about Lisa’s relationship to the victim.”

“Our deepest condolences, dear,” Marian said, then looked Sid over, then smiled at me. “Now, may I suggest we table more serious matters until we’ve enjoyed our lunch?” She smiled at me again. “In spite of this place’s dreadful pretension, the food is very good.”

It was, indeed. We had lovely radish salads as starters, then a clear bouillon with bits of crab and green onion in it. I had ordered the roasted duck breast with apricot sauce. Sid had chicken of some sort. I forget what the others had ordered. I know Marian enjoyed what she’d ordered because she sighed with exquisite pleasure when she tasted it. My duck was incredible, tender and rich.

The chatter was mostly about Los Angeles, what to do, what venues would be the most crowded for the Olympics, which were less than two weeks away, what would happen to all the traffic in the area. Finally, Sid asked the question that both of us had been wondering.

“So, what brings you two to Los Angeles?” He smiled as if he’d only asked as part of the pleasant banter.

“The Olympics, of course,” said Marian. “You couldn’t expect us not to come for that.” She suddenly sighed, then put down her knife and fork and delicately dabbed at her lips with her napkin. “In any event, there are obviously enterprises of great pith and moment to discuss.”

Andrew cleared his throat.

Marian tittered. “He does hate it when I quote Shakespeare.”

“My dearest,” Andrew said with bored affection. “I do not mind in the least if you quote Shakespeare. It is your misquoting of the good bard to which I object. It is enterprises of great pitch and moment. Not pith.”

“Oh, dear. How careless of me,” Marian said, her tone utterly lacking in contrition.

“The bottom line,” said Henry quickly, “is that thanks to Andrew and Marian, we know where Len Powers is.”

“Who?” I asked.

Sid looked at Henry. “Len Powers? You mean the guy in San Diego who was heading up the National Security Team?”

“Unfortunately,” Henry said.

The National Security Team was kind of an inter-agency group that handled arrests by undercover agents and people who worked for groups like Quickline.

“How long have you known it was him?” I asked, feeling more than a little irritated.

“Only since we went to Mission Viejo together and you asked that sales agent about his description,” Henry said. “That’s when I knew who he was and why Upline had been keeping me in the dark. I’d worked with him too often. We’d had good reason to believe, based on some of the evidence you two dug up last winter, that we were dealing with someone in the agency.”

“On our end, we had found out that there was a person in your FBI who was likely to be the source of our trouble,” Marian continued. “The problem was that he was working both sides.”

Henry glared at her briefly. “Which meant was that we had to be certain that he was genuinely selling us out.”

“The problem with walking the fence,” Marian interrupted. “Is that at some point or other, one side is going to expect you to prove your loyalty. It turns out that Powers pest had agreed to hand over your entire courier operation.”

Sid frowned and looked at Henry. “Quickline?”

“Yes,” said Henry. “The other side has been trying to bring that down since before last year.”

“We’re just couriers,” I said. “Wouldn’t they want a harder target, like missile sites?”

“They know where the missile sites are,” Andrew said.

“And intelligence is only useful if it gets into the right hands at the right time,” Marian said. “That courier network of yours is vital to all our interests.”

Henry shifted. “Marian and Andrew and their people have seen to bugging the Rumanian consulate.”

“We did that last winter,” Marian said.

“We didn’t get that much from it, though,” said Henry.

“We all thought they found the bugs,” Marian said with a laugh. “Very disappointing. They were very good ones. It turns out, however, that Mr. Mihaili, our Rumanian friend, is simply that cautious. More to the point, he is harboring our fence-walking pest.”

“In addition,” Andrew said. “It appears that they are going to ship him to Rumania very soon, probably before the end of the week. They are only waiting until Mr. Powers collects his dossier from where he’s hidden it.”

“Do we know where?” Sid asked.

“I’m afraid not,” Marian said. “And Mr. Powers is not going to tell them.”

“Why not?” I asked. “It would make it a lot easier for them to get what they want.”

“Yes, one would think,” Marian replied. “But there seems to be an appalling lack of trust all around. Mr. Powers does not want to simply tell Mr. Mihaili where the dossier is, as Mr. Mihaili will simply grab it, then do away with Mr. Powers. Mr. Mihaili, for his part, does not want to enable Mr. Powers to pick up the dossier, as he does not trust Mr. Powers to return with it. Nor will he let Mr. Powers retrieve the dossier under guard. We’re guessing that Mr. Mihaili does not have the resources for a sufficient guard, and as we all know, to our sorrow, that Mr. Powers is quite the escape artist.”

“One thing that is clear,” said Henry. “It’s that Powers does not want to be returned to Europe without that dossier. If he does, he’s dead.”

Andrew nodded. “We, and presumably Mr. Mihaili, are hoping that he will find a way to go after the dossier on his own.”

“The problem is what if he doesn’t?” Marian added. “We’ve got a potentially very damaging dossier laying around somewhere and no idea of where to find it.”

“We have some idea,” said Henry, reaching into his inside jacket pocket. “We found this in a corner of his desk in the San Diego office.”

It was a large corner off of a piece of office paper with a line drawing of what looked like a lot of housing plats around cul-de-sacs. One was circled.

“A housing development,” said Sid. He shrugged. “We know he liked using them.”

“But why would he leave a valuable file someplace where he was squatting?” I asked.

Henry shrugged. “We’re guessing that he didn’t want the file on him, and left it someplace thinking he’d be able to get back to it in a short time.”

That made sense.

“It seems like a pretty long shot,” Sid said.

“It is,” said Henry. “But it’s the best lead we’ve got.”

“It’s the only lead we’ve got,” Marian grumbled. “Besides trying to keep tabs on our slippery friend.”

“Which we will do, of course,” said Andrew.

“In the meantime, we get to go house hunting,” Sid said and then looked at Henry. “How much support do we have on our end?”

“Strictly Quickline crews,” Henry said. “We can’t afford to let anyone else see that damn dossier.”

We finished lunch shortly afterward. Henry followed Sid and me back to Sid’s place, where we got out a couple of Triple-A maps and the real estate section from the day before’s paper.

I checked the answering machines while Sid and Henry started marking up the maps with what they found in the newspapers.

“All reporters,” I announced when I was done. “But it seems like it’s easing up. I don’t think we got nearly as many calls today as we did yesterday.”

“Good,” said Sid. He turned back to Henry. “Alright, we can probably eliminate the Mission Viejo and Pomona tracts.”

I stared at the maps. “Henry, last winter, when those two NST guys came after me when I was trying to make that secrets buy. That sting we were setting up?”

“Yeah?”

“Len Powers was their boss.”

Henry looked over at me. “That’s right. So?”

“Well, could it have been Powers that leaked the story about the FBI cover-up to the press?”

“Why would you say that?” Henry asked.

“Do we know who did?”

Henry thought. “Actually, no. I did talk to a couple of the guys. They’re usually pretty straight with me. I did ask them if LAPD was the leak, and they said it wasn’t. In fact, one told me that the Hernandez family got the tip through an anonymous phone call and they went after us and the LAPD.”

“What’s that got to do with what we’re trying to figure out?” Sid asked.

“What if Len Powers was the person who tipped the Hernandez family?” I asked. “By creating a stir, it would make it harder for us to find him unless we made it public that we were looking for him. And us having to go public was exactly what he wanted.”

Henry growled. “Lisa’s got a point, Sid. He’s always been pretty cocksure of himself. Wouldn’t call in backup. Always knows what he’s doing.”

“Fine,” said Sid. “But how does that affect what we’re doing?”

“If he’s that cocksure,” I said. “Then we shouldn’t eliminate the places we know he’s already used. He could have gone back to them, assuming that we wouldn’t check them twice.”

Both Sid and Henry groaned. But they had to agree I had a point. We all went back to work, debating how far out to go and who would do what. The plan was pretty simple, but as it fell into place, a cold, nagging fear settled into my stomach. There was so much territory to cover, and no way of knowing if we were even guessing right about the housing developments. If we were wrong, it would be devastating.

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