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Amateur Theatricals – Chapter Eight

Welcome to Amateur Theatricals, book twelve in the Operation Quickline series. The stage is set for a major operation as Lisa, Sid, and Nick go undercover at a university to find who’s killing KGB moles in training. You can read the first episode here, and catch up on the series here.

Thursday night, the Dance Recital officially opened. The air outside the costume shop was electric, and the noise of an audience filtered through the costume shop speaker.

“What’s she doing back here?” Delia growled and left the shop.

I walked to the door and looked out. Raylene Howard was headed toward the backstage area of the main theater when Delia caught up with her. I hid in the shop as Delia escorted Raylene toward the front of the building.

“I understand you’re concerned,” Delia said soothingly, “But it really isn’t safe for the dancers to have audience members wandering around back here.”

Delia returned to the shop, rolling her eyes.

“What’s the witch after now?” Lindsey asked.

“She heard there’s been some nudity backstage and wanted to be sure we were protecting the students.”

Lindsey groaned. “Why does she do stuff like that?”

Delia shrugged. “From what I’ve heard, the college president’s wife is worried about school morals. It’s gotten worse with that killer on the loose. Apparently, enrollment this quarter went down, with a bunch of kids transferring out.”

“I’d heard Raylene is best friends with Isabel Lovegood,” I said.

“Who’s Isabel?” Lindsey asked.

“The college president’s wife,” said Delia. She shook her head. “Campus politics. The only thing worse is working in a professional theater.” She sighed, then bit her lip. “Oh, I’m sorry, Linda. I forgot you’re a faculty wife, too.”

“That doesn’t mean I enjoy campus politics,” I said. “And I am no friend of Raylene Howard. I just have to be nice to her since her husband is my husband’s boss.”

Tracy’s voice came over the speaker, calling the dancers for the first dance to the backstage area. Several minutes later, the audience chatter stilled, then the music poured out. Sid and Nick were somewhere in the audience, partly out of interest and partly because of more campus politics. It turned out Carl Howard and University President Sebastian Lovegood were big supporters of the arts, especially if they attracted a significant paying audience. Fortunately, Collins’ theatre department did, pulling subscription members from Topeka and even Kansas City.

I had dressed in my nice blouse and dark slacks. There would be a reception in the other theater for subscription members, faculty, and the dancers after the performance. Crew members weren’t supposed to go, but I was a faculty wife, and should have been in the audience.

In fact, by the time the Dance Recital was finished, and the costumes checked in, the party was in full swing on the tiny stage. Mimi Dearing made a point of sliding up to me before I could find Sid or Nick.

“Why didn’t I see you earlier?” she asked, simpering.

“I was backstage.” I smiled. “I’m taking a costume class this quarter and it’s required to work a crew.”

“Taking a class?” Mimi’s eyes rose.

Raylene and a tall, stately woman with dark gray hair, joined us.

“You’re taking classes?” Raylene asked. “Are you sure that’s wise?”

“Well, it is part of the deal I have with Charles.”

“Charles?” asked the stately woman.

“I’m so sorry,” said Raylene. “Isabel, this is Linda Devereaux. Her husband is the visiting history professor. Linda, this is Isabel Lovegood, our president’s wife.”

Isabel’s eyes flitted over to where Sid and Nick were chatting with Dominic Purslaine, of all people, and she gazed appreciatively. I shook her hand.

“It’s a pleasure meeting you, Mrs. Lovegood.”

She wrenched her gaze back to me. “Oh, Isabel, please. Sebastian and I truly try to keep a pleasant and friendly atmosphere here at Collins.”

“But taking classes,” Raylene said.

“Oh, that was Charles’ idea.” I smiled. “You see, I supported him and Ryan while he got his degrees, and the only reason he let me do that was if I promised to do my graduate work when he got a post. So, I’m working on undergrad prerequisites for my master’s. Charles insisted.”

That took some air out of them. Nice wives that they were, they couldn’t question me doing what my husband wanted me to, even if it was something they didn’t approve of.

“Will you ladies excuse me?” Smiling, I nodded at Sid and Nick. “I haven’t had a chance to say hi to Charles or Ryan yet.”

I went over to where Sid and Nick were still chatting with Dominic. Actually, Nick and Dom were doing most of the chatting. Dom was also in Richard III, playing both Clarence and Richmond, which I thought was going to be a little awkward since there is one spot where the two characters are on stage together.

“Hey, Lover,” I said happily.

“Hey, yourself, my beloved.” Sid grinned and gave me a delicious little kiss.

“Mom!” Nick plowed into me with a hug. “This is Dominic. He’s going to be in the play, too.”

“I know.” I looked at Dom. “How long have you been dancing, Dom?”

“Since grade school,” he said. “I didn’t really start ballet, though, until high school, which is too late if you’re going to join a big company. The program here is good because it does have a strong emphasis on ballet, but that’s so you can do more as a dancer on Broadway or other theatre.”

“Yes, I’d heard that.” I leaned into Sid’s body as he slid his arm around my shoulders.

Dom looked at me a little funny, but then Katie Hughes came up to say hi, ostensibly to me, but I could tell she wanted to meet Sid. Sid squeezed me and we laughed about it later that night.

That Sunday, Irene and Kathy were already seated together and chatting like old friends when Sid, Nick, and I showed up at Angelo’s for Off-Campus Office Hours. Randall had stayed home.

“He’s working on his first midterm exams,” Irene said.

I groaned. “I’ve got at least two coming up, and one project.”

Jesse came in with Mina and her friends. Terry Peterson followed with one of the other grad students in the Research class. Esther and Frank came in as well.

“We probably shouldn’t stay long,” Esther told us, punctuating her rant with curse words. “There’s a big blizzard coming in tonight. The weatherman says a couple feet of snow, at least. We’re going to be trapped. I hope you have lots of extra food and toilet paper.”

Frank patted her hand. “We’ll be fine, sweetheart. This is not the first blizzard I’ve lived through.”

Terry laughed. He was getting to like Esther. I wasn’t surprised. The two were amazingly good at dirty double-entendres. Sid had backed off, trying to keep the family man image.

Nick saw to discreetly getting the mail distributed while Irene, Kathy, and I chatted.

“The condo closed last week,” Kathy whispered to me, after looking at the particularly thick envelope she had. “How do we get the paperwork returned?”

“We’ll call our friend,” I whispered back. “If this blizzard is as bad as they say, he’ll probably be stuck here if he hasn’t flown out already.”

Right before five, I asked Mina if she wanted a ride to school. We had an earlier call time because the show would start an hour earlier that night. Irene volunteered to take Sid and Nick home. When Mina and I got to school, I pulled a loaded laundry basket from the trunk.

“What’s that?” asked Mina.

“I’ve just got some ironing to do.”

What I had was a whole bunch of Sid’s dress shirts. They were all cotton, although not the fine Egyptian cotton Sid usually wears, and had come out of the dryer reasonably wrinkle-free. However, Sid really likes a nice, stiffly starched collar, cuffs, and front, which meant I needed to iron them. Sid had volunteered to do it, but I’m a lot better at ironing than he is. While I couldn’t get the collars as stiff as he preferred with the spray starch I’d been using, I could still do it better than he could.

Things were going smoothly enough with the Dance Recital that I was able to get most of the shirts done. I would have gotten all of them done, but Delia saw what I was doing, asked about it, and showed me how to use the really heavy liquid starch.

“I may as well show you,” Delia said. “We’ve got both Top Girls and Richard costumes to work on, and there are starched wimples for both shows.”

“Goody, goody, gumdrops,” I grumbled.

Nonetheless, Sid was ecstatic when he saw his freshly ironed and starched shirts when I got home right around ten.

“You are amazing.” He held me close to him. “These are perfect!”

I pulled away somewhat reluctantly and put the shirts in our closet.

“I’m glad you’re happy,” I said with a smile. “However, I missed the team part of our meeting today and I’d really like to know what’s going on.”

“Oh. Right.” Sid pulled me close to him again, then got us sat down on the edge of the bed. “Frank has been hitting the practice rooms most nights of the week but hasn’t seen anything. Jesse is thinking about doing some surveillance on Mimi. He just has to figure out how. Kathy got us a profile on Steve Weber.”

“Who’s he?”

“One of the other history guys.” Sid shrugged. “He seems to be the least invested in his marriage and has even joked about getting violent with his wife.”

“That doesn’t make him a rogue agent out to get KGB agents.”

“No kidding. But the tendency toward violence might be a hint.”

“It might. Do we have any background on Mimi yet? Oh, and I’d love to find out if that story about Raylene giving up a fellowship to marry Carl is true.”

“Damn. Forgot to ask about Raylene.” Sid looked at me and sighed. “I wish you’d been able to stay.”

“I wish I had been able to.” I frowned. “It’s tough getting things this way.”

The wind began whistling around the house. I looked out the window only to see white flakes dancing sideways.

“I think the blizzard is here.”

Sid looked at the window and had to agree.

Nick somehow slept through the howling of the wind but was awake first that next morning. The snow was still coming down heavily.

“Mom! Dad! Check this out!”

I groaned and put my pillow over my head. Sid got up and grabbed a robe. It had gotten pretty cool in the house.

“Don’t let him go outside,” I said. “It looks like white-out conditions.”

“I’ll take your word for it. Can I put the heat on?”

“Please.”

“I’ll get the radio on, too. Irene told me last night that they’ll broadcast a list of closures, if there are any.”

I yawned. “Good odds.”

Sure enough, the radio announcer droning out the schools and other closures included the Evelyn Casey Educational Center and all of Collins State University.

“What’s that mean?” Nick asked.

“It means we’re not going anywhere today,” I replied, wrapping my heavy terry-cloth robe even more tightly around me.

“Cool.” As much as Nick liked his current school, a day off was always welcome. “Hey, maybe we can have a snowball fight.”

“Not until the snow stops,” I told him. “The way it looks out there right now, you could get five steps away from the door and get totally lost.”

Nick was impressed, but, fortunately, he believed me. Sid and I spent the day getting caught up on our respective schoolwork. Nick finished all the homework he had from his school back home before noon and pronounced himself bored. I finally handed him my Complete Works of Shakespeare and put him to work reading all of Richard the Third.

Shortly after noon, Tracy Schultz called.

“I’m the Richard stage manager,” she grumbled. “Rehearsals are canceled for tonight.”

“I’m not surprised.” I said.

“I’ll call tomorrow if they’re still canceled.”

The next day, we were still snowbound, which meant everything was still closed and rehearsals were canceled. It had stopped snowing by mid-day, but there was so much snow, the snowplows didn’t get to us until almost dark. Sid, Nick, and I had taken turns shoveling all afternoon, only to have the plows bury our driveway again. Gasping, we took turns going at it. I fervently prayed we’d be clear the next morning. We were all getting a little on the punchy side.

It was still dark when Sid nudged me awake.

“What?” I groaned.

“Our son is already in the shower. Apparently, it’s on the radio that everything has re-opened.”

I couldn’t get out much more than a mumble. We were at the school by seven. I’m still not sure why I went over to the theatre department, but I discovered something. The place was as close to deserted as I’d ever seen it. I sighed deeply. I am not a morning person. But this was my area. It was still close enough to eight that I decided to wait on any searches.

The Fitness Center was open and somewhat deserted. Sid was already on one of the treadmills. I got on the one next to him. He finished his hour before I did and went to shower and dress. We crossed paths and kissed as he left to go to his office, and I headed for the showers. It was starting to look like a normal Wednesday.

It wasn’t entirely, but that was mostly because Nick was on the ceiling. Richard rehearsals were to start that night at six-thirty. Sid had dinner ready at five on the dot. I was grateful. It was one thing that felt truly normal. At home, the three of us eat dinner together most nights. In Kansas, we’d had even more opportunity to stay home since dinner out was a luxury and my schedule had gotten so full.

Sid drove us to school that night and went to his office to work on writing up his Research midterm and grading the Western Civ ones from that day. He was giving all his classes two midterm exams, as were most of my teachers. The Richard cast gathered in the tiny director’s theater that we’d also be using as our rehearsal space. There were around twenty of us, plus Dr. Dorfmann and Tracy Schultz.

Now, if you’re going to do a full production of Richard III, with every line in the original play and each actor having only one role, then you’re looking at a five-hour play with a cast of over sixty people. Like most Shakespeare produced in this day and age, the script had been cut down and several characters eliminated. Other characters were also double cast, such as Clarence and Richmond, who I’d already noted, were both going to be played by Dominic Purslaine. Mark Debich was also double cast as a murderer and Tyrell, of the wrenching monologue about killing the young princes.

The five female roles, no surprise, were mostly intact and none of us were double cast. I sat in the little lecture seat next to Casey Limberg, who had gotten the part she’d wanted, that of the unlucky Anne.

“I was so mad when I heard you read,” she told me softly while the photocopied scripts and rehearsal schedules were distributed. Someone had gone to an awful lot of trouble and had re-typed the entire play as it would be produced. “I was so sure you’d get Anne.”

“I’m glad I didn’t, then,” I said.

Dr. Dorfmann got up and stood at a small podium. “To quote the Bard in another play, ‘Is all our company met?’”

“Everyone’s here,” Tracy said.

“Well, then, we are looking at Richard the Third, one of Shakespeare’s greatest villains, perhaps only eclipsed by Iago in Othello. Before anyone objects.” Dorfmann grinned at me. “I think we should remember that we are not dealing with the historical King Richard the Third, who probably got his evil reputation because of this play. We are dealing with the image of him as preferred by the Elizabethans. Richard is called a spider multiple times in the text, and that is the image I have chosen as our touchstone. He ensnares all the other characters in his web of deceit and is eventually ensnared by his own deeds. Even though we are not dealing with a historical Richard, I am putting the play in its Fifteenth Century setting. We will use dance as a visual element, hence Ms. Hughes will be joining us to choreograph our other six women. There will also be a musical element, as well, and I am working that out with the music department. Once we get blocked, we will have several rehearsals with our musicians. I do have some bad news. Normally, we will have Saturdays and Sundays off from rehearsals until tech. However, thanks to our recent inclement weather, we will work this weekend. I know some of you have conflicts thanks to the Dance Recital, but we will work around them. Now, our first task is to do our read-throughs. Language is a key element of Shakespeare, so we will focus on that tonight and tomorrow night and however often we need to. Now, let us begin. Terry?”

Terry took a deep breath, and his voice filled the space from the front row. It was clear why he’d gotten the role. I had brought my knitting and Nick had brought his. It was a good thing. I could see Nick getting a little antsy.

I was also thrilled when we were done by nine-forty-five. The production would probably run somewhat longer, but the read-through clocked in at just under two-hours, not counting a couple breaks. Nick practically ran to his father’s office. Sid was pleased, too, though a little bleary-eyed.

“How did you stay on top of your grading in Wisconsin?” he asked after Nick had gone to bed. “I’m not handing out a third of what you assigned us, and I feel like I’m drowning. And those midterms.” He cursed. “The handwriting is impossible, and none of them can write a coherent thought. I should have made it all multiple guess.”

“Instead, you asked two essay questions and a bunch of short answers.”

“At least, they’re mostly getting the salient points.” He sighed.

The next morning, I went in early to the costume shop. Delia Lever was in a panic. It was getting awfully close to the Top Girls tech rehearsals and there was still a lot to be done on those costumes, plus the Richard costumes were going to take a lot of work. If I got there by nine, Delia would be able to get me measured for my costume, I’d be able to measure Terry for his and possibly get the plaster cast made of his back so that she could create a hump for him since he would need to rehearse with it. I’d bring Nick by the next day after school and before Lab Rats to get measured.

Terry was waiting for me, and pretty comfortable being measured, wearing a t-shirt and tights since he wouldn’t be able to wear traditional underwear. He stood patiently while I measured all his body parts and filled out the form. Delia had the plaster of Paris ready by the time I was done. Terry laid down in the ooze, and we waited while it set, which it did quickly. He got up and there was a big block of plaster attached to his back.

“It’s not coming off,” I grumbled. “I’m going to have to cut your t-shirt off.”

“No!” Terry yelped. Fear shone in his eyes.

“I’ll get you a new one,” I said. Delia had left the shop for a cigarette break and the two of us were alone.

Terry glanced back at his shoulder, and I suddenly realized what the problem was, the tattoo of a swastika on his shoulder.

“Um, Terry, remember right before school started, we saw each other in the Health Center? You had that horrible cough?”

He frowned, then nodded.

“Well, as they were taking me in, the nurse in your treatment cubicle opened the curtains and I saw what was on your shoulder.”

Terry swallowed and closed his eyes. “I don’t believe in that. I really don’t.” He looked at me pleadingly. “I come from this small town in southern Indiana. There were a lot of Klan people there. One night, I got drunk with some friends. Or guys I thought were friends. We went to a tattoo parlor. I don’t know why they helped us since we were all underage. I passed out, and they did that to me. They thought it was funny. And it’s permanent.”

“Have you seen a dermatologist? I’ve heard it’s pretty painful, but it’s possible to remove something like that.”

“I’d like to.” He sighed. “Maybe I’ll ask them at the Health Center.”

“Alright. Let’s get this cut off and you can get your shirt back on before anyone else comes in.”

It didn’t take long, and Terry gave me a big hug for being so nice about it. Later, in Beginning Directing, I watched Mark do the scene I was directing him in for the rest of the class. Kaspar ripped it to shreds with an extended lecture on respecting Shakespeare by treating it honestly. Whatever that meant.

I was not in a good mood at dinner, and it didn’t help that dinner ran late. Sid took us back to school again and again hid in his office grading exams and Research Techniques homework. Nick and I rushed to the directing room straight from the car and got there just barely in time.

Many of the students paid for lockers in the dressing rooms to hold their coats and other stuff. I hadn’t because I’m cheap and I had a place to drop my parka and other stuff, namely, Sid’s office. That night, I laid the coat down in the back row of the directing room, next to another parka that looked an awful lot like mine. Nick kept his parka next to him. At the end of the read-through, I had to stay behind to work out when I was going to be at rehearsal over the next few days since I was also working costumes for the Dance Recital that was still on. I was hardly the only one who had to. So, I sent Nick on ahead to get his father and said that I’d meet them at the car.

As soon as I worked out the times, I grabbed what I thought was my parka and hurried out of the back of the building to cross the small field behind to the parking lot.

The blow came out of nowhere. I was in the middle of open space, and I swear I did not hear anyone crunching through the snow behind me. After landing face-down in the snow, I felt a heavy hand pushing my face down into the drift.

I tried to roll over, but the hold on me was firm.

“Linda!” called somebody from the performing arts building.

The hold released and the next thing I knew, I could get up. Mark Debich came running up.

“Are you alright?”

Gasping, I nodded. “Thank God. Did you see who that was?”

“No.” He looked around. “But he must have hidden behind that drift.” He pointed, then helped me up. “You have my coat.”

I looked down. “Oh. It’s almost like mine.”

Sid and Nick ran up.

“Honey? Are you alright?”

“Fine.” I took my parka from Mark and handed him his. “Mark, are you walking home?”

He pointed at the lot. “I have a car.”

“We’ll walk you to it,” said Sid. “Apparently, there’s some madman on the loose.”

“I know.” Mark swallowed. “He was coming for me.”

“You? What makes you so sure?” I asked.

“I can’t say.” Mark sighed. “I don’t know who the Campus Killer is, but I know why he’s attacking. I can’t say why that is, but I do.”

“We should call the police,” Sid said.

“No.” Mark shook his head. “It won’t do any good. We didn’t see anything.”

Sid disagreed and took me back inside the building to call. Mark disappeared.

Sid and I went around and around, speculating about what had happened. We’d called the cops because we needed to look like civilians. The cops had been darned evasive, but we still were pretty certain that I’d been attacked by the killer. It fit too closely to what had happened to Rod Stinsky. Then there was Mark’s assessment that he was the target. It wasn’t conclusive by any stretch, but it sure seemed like there was at least one more KGB agent doing his finishing training than we’d known about.

The other thing that bothered me, though, was Terry. Just that morning, I’d revealed that I knew his secret. Now, I knew that White Supremacists were not necessarily anti-Communist. We knew of one, specifically, that was perfectly happy talking to the Soviets about taking down the U.S. government. On the other hand, the timing was suspicious, at best, and no one had seen Terry since rehearsal had let out.

Then there was that report on Dr. Steve Weber that Sid had gotten from Karen the week before. There wasn’t much to go on. Weber had no criminal record and no visible connection to anyone in the Intelligence Community, nor did his wife, Susan. He had a father who was being treated for paranoid schizophrenia. The older man was convinced that the KGB had infiltrated the greater Kansas City area and was poisoning the water there. It didn’t seem likely that Weber shared his father’s delusions, but even if he didn’t, he could have similar feelings about the Soviets and the KGB.

Finally, that Friday afternoon, I happened to overhear Jeff Necht complaining that Raylene Howard had been snooping around the building the night before.

I was surprised Saturday afternoon when we got a phone call from Raylene herself.

“It’s all over school that you met up with the Campus Killer the other night.” Raylene sounded excited.

“We don’t know for sure,” I said. “The police wouldn’t say.”

“It must have been terrifying,” she said. “How did you stand it?”

“It was scary, to be sure. How did you hear about it? I didn’t really tell anyone.”

“Well, darling, I’m on campus every day.”

“I heard someone saw you in the Performing Arts building that night.”

Raylene tittered. “Oh, I might have been. Carl has a late class on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I sometimes go over there to wait for him to get out.”

“Did you see anything unusual in that field behind Performing Arts?”

“I’m so sorry, but I didn’t.”

“Oh, dear. I was hoping. Raylene, I’m so sorry, but I really don’t want to talk about what happened. It just makes me more scared. I hope you understand.”

“Of course. I’m glad that you’re alright.”

I was not thrilled to find out when I got to the costume shop that the story of my encounter with the Campus Killer was, in fact, making the rounds. The interesting thing was that Mark’s involvement had completely escaped notice.

Delia was cool about me taking off for rehearsal. She just wanted me back in time to help with the Rodeo fast change. I’d already talked to Dr. Dorfmann about that one. He wasn’t thrilled, but he was already blocking later scenes because Dominic was in the ballet and not available.

One of the scenes we blocked that night was one of Nick’s two scenes. I’d explained to Nick the whole blocking process, which was going line by line through the script and the director telling us how we’d move on stage. I even showed him the usual shorthand. Dr. Dorfmann was impressed by how fast Nick picked it up and I couldn’t help but be proud.

Tyler Noble, the kid playing the younger of the two doomed princes, had it down already, even though he was only eleven. But then, this was hardly the first play Tyler had done. The kid even had a little bit of an attitude, and part of me really wanted to do something about it. Sid was hanging around to supervise Nick while I helped with the fast change for the ballet and did not have nice things to say about Tyler’s mother, who was also there. Dorfmann was firm that any underage actor had to have at least one parent at the rehearsal at the same time. [Tyler’s mother was a piece of work. She had his entire Hollywood career mapped out. I was not surprised when he showed up on that kid’s show that everyone was so excited about, and even less when he crashed and burned a few years later. – SEH]

Sunday, we went to mass, then eventually Off-Campus Office Hours. Mina didn’t show for some reason, although some of the other sweet young things did. Kathy/Karen and Jesse/LeShawn didn’t show, either.

“We’ll be at your place tonight,” Esther/Nancy whispered to me. “We thought it would look funny if we all showed up every week, and we’ve got something for you.”

It was just as well. I had to take off early for the final performance of the Dance Recital, and Sid was going to have to leave soon after to take Nick to rehearsal since they were blocking the last scenes that night and I wasn’t in any of them. Which meant there wouldn’t be any time for a team meeting after all the civilians had gone.

There had been a cast party for the recital the night before, and I was not surprised to see that half the dancers were not as lively as usual. Dominic was reportedly suffering a monster hangover, not to mention a broken heart.

“Look, this is going to sound totally weird, but can we talk sometime?” he asked me softly as he picked up his first costume. “I’m confused. I mean, girls are usually impressed by my size. But there’s one who isn’t. Besides you, I mean.”

I smiled. “Sure, Dom. Maybe during a break at a rehearsal.”

“Okay. Thanks.” He winced and headed back to the dressing rooms.

I didn’t bring any laundry that night. It was time to get into full investigation mode. I searched Maggie Leitner’s office, not because I had any reason to suspect the acting teacher, but it would make life easier if I could eliminate her. If only I’d been able to. The ammo box filled with bullets was no big deal, given how many people carried guns on the campus. But I found a relatively full roll of strapping tape in one of her desk drawers and another in one of her file cabinets.

Now, that probably doesn’t sound that odd. There are lots of perfectly innocent reasons for having two rolls of strapping tape. It can be enormously useful stuff, especially if you send a lot of packages. There was no hint that Leitner did, however, nor was she interested in stagecraft and other technical parts of theatre. She’d even laughed about how she’d flunked stagecraft when she was an undergrad. There is another use for strapping tape that I’m more familiar with, namely binding up bad guys’ hands and feet to hold them so that the aboveboard Federal agents or the cops can arrest them without me or any of my fellow undercover operatives having to be around.

The fact that Leitner had two rolls of something that she didn’t appear to have any use for was not conclusive evidence by any shot. If anything, it was little more than a hint that she might be something besides what she appeared to be. But it meant one more person to check out. I hurried back to the costume shop.

Sighing as I saw the light out in Kaspar’s office, I debated searching it. Not because he was a suspect. After all, he was a potential victim. On the other hand, Kaspar would likely spot a search. The thing is, if a reasonably competent operative searches your home or office and you’re not expecting it, you probably wouldn’t notice that you’d been searched. If you’re an operative and on the lookout for that kind of thing, even the best search artist’s efforts are going to be noticed.

Sid and Nick met me at the costume shop right after the fast change for the ballet. The rest of the crew and I got the last of the costumes checked in, then Delia thanked us. Sid and I drove the other girls to their dorm, even though it was a tight fit. Once home, Sid made a phone call, and some minutes later, Jesse and Esther showed up.

“I installed the actual equipment yesterday,” Jesse said. “We just have to activate it and connect it to your bug finders.”

“Sounds good.” Sid glanced back toward Mimi’s house. “You said yesterday. Did she see you?”

Jesse shook his head. “I made sure she was gone before I did. Everyone else just saw a workman on a ladder. Your neighbor, though. She goes in and out at some pretty weird hours. I couldn’t keep that tight a surveillance on her, but I saw her come and go sometimes during the day, sometimes at night. I was just lucky she was gone long enough for me to finish.”

“Might be worth setting up a tail on her.” Sid looked at me.

I shrugged. “Or I could try being more friendly. Probably wouldn’t hurt your issue with the local politics.”

“Glad I don’t have to worry about that,” Esther said with a grin. “Now, where are your bug finders?”

I’m not sure what all Esther did, but she fidgeted with my compact and Sid’s and Nick’s keychains. The wiring also fed into the television in the den. Esther cursed as she walked into the room.

“It’s cold in here!”

Sid just looked at me. I tried not to glare back.

Nick ran outside to test the cameras, and they were, indeed, triggering an alert on the bug finders, and the VCR under the TV turned on and we could see Nick in the snow.

Sid and Jesse went back to the kitchen to make some cocoa, and I sat in the living room with Esther. Nick got sent to bed.

“We haven’t had a chance to talk at all since Christmas,” I said.

“Frank and I have been having a good time here.” Then Esther rolled her eyes. “I wish we hadn’t gone to Chicago, though.”

She and Frank had left Christmas day to spend that week with Frank’s family before heading to Kansas.

“I thought you liked his family.”

“I love his mother. She’s great. But his stupid brother, the oldest one? He’s an asshole. Kept calling Frank a screw-up and asking him how he’s going to raise a family directing choirs. Poor Frank couldn’t say anything about the side business. His brother’s not cleared for it. And it gets worse. His brother even asked Frank how he’s going to handle having kids that don’t look like him.”

My jaw dropped. “He what?”

“Patrick’s not bigoted. He’s just worried that people won’t accept us.” Esther cursed again, both in English and Vietnamese, then sighed. “The worst of it is what it does to Frank. I’m afraid he’s going to start trying to prove himself again.”

“Oh, crap.”

That was Frank’s weak spot. Frank was a brilliant operative and really seemed to like the work. The problem was that when he felt he had to prove himself, he tended to take chances he shouldn’t.

“He’s already spending nights in the practice room, watching for that Kaspar guy. Hasn’t seen him, but that costume place seems to be a pretty popular place for couples wanting to have sex.” Okay, Esther used the really obscene term for it.

I flushed a little. “I’m not surprised. But how do they get in?”

“I’m guessing someone made a lot of copies of the key.”

“That would make sense.”

“Linda? Nancy?” Sid stood at the table with cups of cocoa appropriately distributed.

It didn’t matter that we probably couldn’t be overheard. Sid still used our cover names. We all sat down. Sid had spiked the cocoa with some of the bourbon we had in the cupboard.

“LeShawn, we’ve got several people for Karen to check out,” Sid said. “We need to check out Carl Howard’s class schedule. His wife, Raylene, was supposed to have given up some fellowship to marry him, so it would be interesting to see if that rumor checks out.” He looked at me.

“We also have Terrence, or Terry, Peterson,” I said. “He supposedly grew up among a bunch of White Supremacists, and they can be pretty anti-Communist. Terry says he’s disavowed all that, but he is an incredibly good actor. And it’s probably nothing, but we need a dossier on Maggie, or Margaret, Leitner.”

“Okay, do I have permission to ask our two friends to do some of the legwork?” LeShawn asked.

“You’ll have to,” sighed Sid. “We can’t go to Indiana or New York. But see what Karen can dig up first.”

“I’ve got a suspect, too,” Esther/Nancy said. “George Wildman. He’s an engineering grad student, keeps complaining about Soviets infiltrating the U.S. My guess is that he’s just neurotic but can’t hurt to check.”

Sid looked at Jesse/LeShawn. “Got all that?”

“Of course.” Jesse did, too.

Out of all of us, he was the only one who had sought out a career in espionage, only to be turned down by the CIA. We had to believe it was because he’s Black. He’d passed every test they’d thrown at him with flying colors and failed the interview. Sadly, it was only one of the reasons we referred to The Company in less than kind terms.

“We also probably have a fourth finishing student,” I said. “Mark Debich. He’s an acting major. Or, at least, I think he is. I got attacked the other night, and it was right off the police reports. I’d picked up Debich’s coat by mistake and when he called out, the attacker ran off. Debich said he was one of the targets, that he knew why the others had been killed, but couldn’t say.”

“I’ve already talked to Randall about it,” Sid said. “And he’s not surprised. There may even be a couple more on campus.”

Esther’s eyebrows rose. “That makes sense. The really good ones would be hard to spot.”

“Have you gotten anything on Steve Weber?” Jesse asked.

Sid shook his head. “Nothing yet.”

“Why can’t we bug his place?” Esther asked.

I winced. “We don’t really have cause. Let’s face it, the searches we do and all that are technically not admissible in court.”

Esther was not put off. “Do we need a court case?”

“Not entirely.” Sid shrugged. “Our primary objective is to find the rogue and put a stop to him. Or her. Theoretically, getting the rogue arrested and convicted would achieve that effectively. But that’s not necessarily our goal. On the other hand, bugging Weber and maybe even several other folks would take an enormous amount of resources that we don’t have. Monitoring the tapes from even one subject would be a full-time job for a three-person crew, and that’s a lot of time to spend on possibilities, especially when we all have covers to keep intact. We may get to that point with a suspect or two, but we’re not there yet.”

Esther cursed again. “You’re right. And I have to say, I do believe in due process.”

“Okay.” I smiled at her. “Why don’t you give Dave our love? And tell him he doesn’t need to spend so much time in the practice rooms. If he hasn’t seen anything by now, decent odds he’s not going to catch something.”

We sent the two of them on their way and went to bed. As Sid and I usually did, we got involved in connubial bliss, and as we did, the alert went off. Once we’d finished, we both got on robes against the chill in the den and checked the VCR. Sure enough, Mimi Dearing stood outside the side of the house with her ear close to the window. She left suddenly for her place. We looked at the time on the video. It was darned closed to when Sid and I had finished. We looked at each other. It was very weird.

The next morning, I really did not want to haul my backside out of bed at five-thirty. But I did. I had the offices of several faculty members to search, not to mention the scene shop, make-up room, and Delia’s office. Not that I was going to get all that searched that morning. Sid had agreed to walk Nick to the gym, then school that morning so that I could drive.

I started with the office belonging to the theatre department head, Andrew Kelleher. I didn’t find anything incriminating. I will give him points. He had his porn magazines right out in the open instead of hiding them. He did not have a gun, though. I was done right before seven, which was a good thing, because the light had gone on in Dr. Dorfmann’s office while I was searching Dr. Kelleher’s.

I hurried to the Fitness Center and found an open treadmill. Sid and Nick showed even before I could get on and we ran together until Nick had to go get ready for school at eight.

“Find anything?” Sid asked me softly, still running.

“Not really.” I gasped a little and picked up my pace. “What is it with men and pornography?”

“Have no idea.” Sid glared ahead. “Something about the objectification of women is what I’ve heard. Which may explain why I never got off on it.”

“That and you had plenty of access to the real thing is what you told me one time.”

Sid chuckled, then winced. “There’s a big difference between watching people have sex and pornography. There’s no joy in porn, and a lot of it’s downright abusive. I do not understand why guys like it, but a lot of them do.”

We both got off the treadmills at the same time, but had to shower separately. I followed Sid to his office to drop off my coat and my gym clothes, told him I’d meet him at five, then reminded him that I had rehearsal that night at six-thirty. He left shortly after, and I yawned. I stayed in the Performing Arts building during my two breaks between my classes. I had a scene for directing to work on, plus another scene for my acting class. In Theatre History, we’d had a short-answer quiz on Friday on Medieval theatre. I’d gotten a B, having biffed the question, “Most Medieval artists are…” Dr. Necht told us that some smart-ass had put down “dead,” which made it a true statement. However, the answer Dr. Necht had been looking for was “anonymous.”

In the costume shop, the rush was on to finish the Top Girls costumes. Nonetheless, Delia told me that on nights I had rehearsal, she was okay with me leaving at four, so I didn’t have to rush so much to go home and get dinner.

“Linda, you are one of the most productive people I’ve had working here.” She sighed. “In fact, you’ve probably made up your hours.”

“Not until next Wednesday,” I said. “Unless I come in early tomorrow and Thursday again. I’ve only got fourteen and I need twenty.”

Delia cursed and looked at her calendar. “Don’t even think about coming in again until the twenty-third. Top Girls is close enough to done, and I’m really going to need you for Richard. If I need you sooner, I’ll post a note on the green room door.” She smiled weakly at me. “I can’t keep you for more than your twenty hours. The other teachers get pissed and you are in a show.”

“Okay. Thanks.”

I left at four and Sid was thrilled that I no longer had costume shop hours to work around. We picked up Nick at Randall’s lab, then hurried home. I dusted while Sid made dinner. We had just enough time to help clean up, then Sid drove me back to school and made a point of walking me into the building. Given that everyone knew about the week before, it made more sense that I wouldn’t want to be alone.

While Dom and I were waiting for our scenes to come up, I told Tracy that we’d be just outside the director’s room door, working lines. Okay, I fibbed about working lines, although Dr. Dorfmann was pushing us to get our lines memorized as soon as possible to minimize the chance of forgetting one or more. You can’t really ad lib your way out of a dropped line with Shakespeare.

“So, what’s going on?” I asked Dom.

He sighed heavily. “Katie Hughes. She hates me and I love her.”

“Well, you did stick your tongue down her throat even after she told you not to.”

“But girls like that.”

“What makes you so sure?”

Dom swallowed. “They seem like they do.”

“Dom, French kissing a woman is invading her space. You really don’t want to do it until she invites you. If she says no, you’ve got to respect it. If she’s playing games, you’ll find out fast enough, and, really, do you want to be dating someone playing those kinds of games?”

“I guess not.” He frowned. “Is it really true about the size thing?”

“Oh, yeah.” I grinned, then softened. “But that doesn’t mean you don’t have any magic yourself. It’s just not about anatomy. It’s about love and commitment and treating a woman with respect and kindness.”

“Huh.”

I chuckled, wondering if he got it. But then I saw Raylene Howard wandering along the back hall of the building.

“What’s she doing here?”

Dom turned and looked. “That’s Mrs. Howard. She’s on some sort of crusade against bad morals or something. She’s always wandering around, looking for people necking or having sex. It’s kind of creepy, if you ask me.”

“Yeah, it is.”

I couldn’t say more, though. Tracy called Dominic into the director’s room.

Thank you for reading. For more information about the Operation Quickline series, click here.

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