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Amateur Theatricals – Chapter Seven

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.

Rehearsal that Saturday night went on and on. I will say, the director, Ainsley Winchell, was smart and ran through all the dances except for the fishes dance. She then dismissed all the other dancers, which would have made my life easier, except that the costumes for the fishes dance were a critical part of it since the harnesses for the fly lines were part of the costumes.

“Figure it’s going to be another couple hours, at least,” Tracy Schultz told us in the costume shop after the other dancers had gone.

“What’s the holdup?” I asked.

“What isn’t?” Tracy rolled her eyes. “The rigging is really confusing. The dunces holding the ropes can’t keep track of when they should pull or lower. The dancers have only been on the ropes since, like last week, so they’re not used to them yet.”

She ambled off to the theatre lobby to get a smoke in before she had to be backstage. No surprise, smoking was completely forbidden in most of the building. But except for show nights, it was okay to smoke in the lobby. Which made it a popular spot for both theatre students and faculty, many of whom smoked like an all-day barbecue. I called Sid. It wasn’t yet ten o’clock.

“We’re going to be here for a while,” I told him, then dropped my voice. “However, I’ve found a way to keep track of what’s going on and a place where we can get some privacy, if you’d like to enjoy some lovemaking then go straight to sleep when we get home.”

“I’m on my way.”

I set up my transmitter in my daypack so that it picked up what was coming through the speaker in the costume shop and pulled out my small flashlight. As I slid the earpiece receiver to the transmitter in my ear, Sid showed up in the hallway. I made sure the other girls didn’t see him, then we slid up the hallway to the stairs, and up to the third floor. I pulled the pass key I had for the entire building from my jeans pocket and let us into the Costume Warehouse.

It was not really a warehouse. Just a really, really large room with a two-story ceiling and racks and racks of clothing, accessories, and all sorts of costume pieces, like crowns and prosthetics and just about anything someone would wear in a play. Delia Lever had explained that they never threw anything away unless it was completely destroyed, and a good half of everything in there had been remade at least once, most of it multiple times.

I left the lights off. I didn’t want anyone seeing one under the doorsill and come investigating. Sid and I started necking almost immediately, but then I switched on my penlight and pulled him further into the room. I could hear the speaker downstairs, and while it was possible that the rehearsal would let out early, it sure didn’t seem like it would. There was a battered wing-back chair next to an equally battered desk. Sid slid into the chair. We were fully engaged when we heard the door open. The lights turned on. Sid kept going (he doesn’t stop for anything), but we both had to hold our breath so that we didn’t make any noise.

Whoever had come in paced in the doorway for a few minutes, then the door opened again. All we could hear was the low thrum of a voice, at first. It sounded like it was coming from the doorway, but it was hard to tell.

“You’re wasting your time,” said Earnest Kaspar. His voice came from deeper in the warehouse and I could just see the line of his hair through the floor to ceiling shelving.

The first voice mumbled something.

“They will not let you have the career you want. Trust me, I know.”

The door slammed shut. Kaspar cursed and then the door opened and shut. I had to assume he had left, which was a good thing because Sid and I were both at the point where we were going to make noise whether we wanted to or not.

Sid chuckled when we were done. “So, did the threat of discovery enhance the experience?”

“Not really.” I gasped and blinked. “Thank you, though. It was nice of you to come over.”

“I was happy to, and thank you, too.” He softly kissed me. “And at least we’ve got an option for any more late nights at school. Not counting my office, of course.”

“Anywhere we can,” I said. “What do you think about what we just overheard?”

“What’s to think? Somebody was having a conference of some sort.”

“The one voice was Earnest Kaspar.”

Sid mused. “That puts an interesting wrinkle on it.” He shook his head. “He must be coming up here to meet with his finishing students. I hope whoever is going after them isn’t watching this room.”

“I hope so, too.”

“We’ll have to see if our friend David can spend some late nights practicing up here.”

I turned out the lights as we left. We went downstairs, and I was able to get cleaned up quickly. Still, Leslie looked at me, then saw Sid, and she began laughing. I flushed and rolled my eyes. Mina, who was still in idol worship mode, just smiled beatifically at Sid and completely missed that he ignored her.

“How many sweet young things like her do you have in your classes?” I whispered in his ear.

He winced. “Roughly sixty percent. It’s a little annoying.”

“Why?”

“They’re idiots. If they’d stop drooling, they might actually learn something.”

I grinned. “That’s too bad. On the other hand, I feel for those poor, misbegotten little fools. They may dream, but they will never know.”

I squeezed his backside, and he laughed loudly.

We did not get home until after one that morning. By the next morning, we both overslept and just barely got Nick up and ourselves functioning in time to get to mass. We’d made our weekly phone calls the day before, but I still had laundry to finish. Not that I’d have the chance right away.

Back when I was still working on my undergrad degree and my master’s (which I hold in English Literature, with an emphasis on Shakespeare) my goal had been to become an English professor. I’d initially had to put my PhD program on hold while I made some money, so I’d taught for a year at a community college, then got laid off thanks to budget cuts. A year later, I ran into Sid in a bar after ditching a blind date and the rest, well, happened.

Then the case in Wisconsin happened. Both Sid and I were undercover, but my cover was as an English professor, and as part of that cover, I set up something I’d done back when I was teaching for real, namely Off-Campus Office Hours. Basically, I let all my students know that I’d be at such-and-such a place from this time to that, bought some pizzas and drinks, and let them come and ask questions and get to know each other. Before Sid, it was a great opportunity to help kids that would not show for regular office hours. In Wisconsin, it also provided a visible reason to connect to the rest of our team.

Sid had decided to do the same and invited Randall and Irene to join us. After all, Irene and I were old friends, and Randall was getting to be an even better one, thanks to Nick.

We landed at a nearby Italian restaurant called Angelo’s that served beer and wine, and ordered three large pizzas, a pitcher of beer, and a pitcher of soda. I ordered a glass of white wine that turned out to be just barely drinkable.

Mina and four other sweet young things were the first to show, then LeShawn Pile and Karen Crombie. I knew Karen as Kathy Deiner, a tall woman with dark chocolate skin. She’d taken to wearing a wig with a straightened do, and was also wearing a full, flowing, and brightly colored top over a full skirt.

Karen sat next to me, with Irene on her other side.

“How are you doing?” I asked softly.

“Just some morning sickness.”

One of the bigger problems we had when setting up our team was how to explain why all six of us had suddenly disappeared at the same time to the rest of our friends in our parish back home. Kathy’s pregnancy had proven useful. While they had told their families about the photo tour, she and Jesse simply left the parish and go to another parish where there were more Blacks. After all, they wanted their kids to know their culture. They were also selling their condo so that they could buy a house in Baldwin Hills, an area known for its upscale Black population.

I was a little surprised to see Terrence Peterson come in, and he was even more surprised to see me.

“What are you doing here?” he asked.

“Following my husband around.” I shrugged. “You?”

“I’m taking Dr. Devereaux’s Research class. It’s my first quarter as a grad student.” He looked around the table and frowned. “Who’s your husband?”

I laughed. “Dr. Devereaux. This is our son Ryan. Honey, come meet Terrence.”

Nick got up from where he was sitting next to Sid and grinned.

“Hi,” said Terrence. “Actually, I prefer Terry. Why does Ryan Devereaux sound so familiar?”

“He’s playing the young Prince of Wales,” I said. “Ryan, Terry is playing Richard the Third.”

“Awesome!” Nick laughed. “This is so cool.”

“So, Ryan’s your kid?” Terry looked at us. “Funny. You don’t look very much alike.”

“I look like my dad.” Nick jerked his thumb toward his father.

“Oh.”

Sid suddenly noticed that Terry was there. “Hey, Terry, what’s up?”

“Just trying to figure out some term paper topics.” Terry went over and sat next to Sid.

“Dad, he’s playing Richard the Third.”

Sid nodded. “That’s right. You said you were going for your master’s in acting.”

“Back up so I can teach.”

“Wise decision. Now, how can I help you?”

Nancy and Dave Lemon showed next, followed by more sweet young things. Sid had told me he’d picked up the mail from home from our friend while I’d been at the rehearsal the night before. Since Nick was bouncing around the table, he got the two envelopes we had to the right couples.

Nancy was Vietnamese, and we knew her as Esther Nguyen. Her husband, Dave, was really Frank Lonergan. Frank had dyed his hair red and put on glasses. Esther had settled for cutting her hair extra, extra short and wore glasses, as well. They’d told their families and everyone at church that they were thinking of getting their master’s degrees and wanted to get away some place cheaper to live than Los Angeles to test out whether grad school was a good idea or not.

Esther cursed relentlessly about the cold weather.

“She’s not used to it,” said Frank, laughed. He’s originally from the Chicago area.

I eventually checked my watch and saw that it was getting close to call time.

“I’ve gotta take off,” I sighed. “Mina, can I give you a ride back to school?”

“How are we getting home, Mom?” Nick asked.

“We’ll give you guys a ride,” said Randall, joining the conversation for the first time that afternoon.

School was technically within walking distance of Angelo’s, but everyone was moving in packs, it seemed. It had been a while since the Campus Killer had struck, still, no one wanted to take any chances.

Mina accepted the ride to school but was downcast as she got into the car with me.

“He’s married,” she sighed.

“Yep.”

“Married and with a kid.”

“Yep. And the kid isn’t even fourteen, so hands off there, too.”

She looked at me. “He is so gorgeous, and really smart, too.”

“He is, at that.”

“We had our first quiz on Friday.” She made a face. “I don’t think I did very well.”

“I’ll tell you a secret. You might do better if you listened to the lecture and did the reading.”

I could see her trying not to roll her eyes.

Lindsey was surprised to see Mina and I walk in together.

“Linda gave me a ride,” Mina said.

Lindsey laughed. “So, does this mean you’re not going to disappear when things get slow tonight?”

I shrugged. “I might take a walk or two around the building. As for whether or not Charles will show, we’ll see.”

I took a walk or two around the building during the first three dances and discovered there was a decided problem with the place, especially in terms of my real purpose in being there. It seemed like there were people around constantly, and it wasn’t just faculty working late. If anything, those people left early. It was the students who roamed the halls. Most of them were concentrated on the end of the building where the two theater spaces were, and were obviously working on the Dance Recital. But more than one classroom had students in them, mostly working on scenes.

I went ahead and got into the Nechts’ shared office and did a quick search. There was nothing there to trigger more interest. No hidden porn, no strange letters. Jeff Necht’s interest in my chest the week before, notwithstanding, he seemed to be quite loyal to his wife and focused on his students.

It was a little nerve-wracking sliding out of the office. I listened at the door, but given how soundproof the offices were, I couldn’t be one-hundred percent certain that there was no one in the hall when I slid out. There wasn’t anybody. That didn’t mean that would always be the case.

One thing I did not do, and I was glad I didn’t, was assume that the fishes dance would take forever. I returned to the costume shop just as the dance started. The music continued and didn’t stop. At the end, the five of us listened.

“Alright. That looked good,” called the choreographer’s voice. “Get your costumes checked in and notes in the ballet studio.”

The five of us in the costume shop didn’t exactly cheer, but we were relieved.

The ballet went smoothly, as well, and I was home before ten-thirty. Sid was thrilled and made sure I knew it.

Tuesday, however, we were not thrilled at all. We were pissed off. We’d gotten the bill that had most worried me, and it turned out I had good reason to worry.

“It’s three times what I budgeted for,” I wailed, waving the fuel oil bill around. “We can’t afford this!”

Sid grabbed the paper from me and cursed. “Why is it so expensive?”

“Because you keep turning the heat up.”

“It’s cold in here.”

I glared at him. “I know. But we agreed we were going to put on sweaters.”

“We’ve got sweaters on.”

I looked at the thermostat. “How are you cold? It’s seventy degrees in here.”

“It’s not that warm in the den. Our son has three blankets and an afghan on his bed, and he’s complaining.”

“You would never have survived my parents’ place. If the temperature went up over sixty-seven during the winter, we’d get our fannies tanned.”

“We’re not at your parents’ place. And it’s ridiculous that I have to wear earmuffs and mittens inside my house.”

I grabbed the bill back. “Fine. Then what are we going to cut to pay for this?”

“I don’t know. Maybe you could try eating a little less.”

“Our son, too?”

Sid glared at me. “He’s a growing boy. What’s your excuse?”

“High metabolism.” I sniffed. “And what are you going to give up? Lunch at the Socratic?”

“Those are important meetings that build our cover, plus give me a chance to consider suspects. You haven’t done a whole hell of a lot of investigating.”

“We’ve barely been here two weeks. I’m establishing my cover. And I’m trying to search offices in a building that does not shut down at night. I dare you to try.”

Sid sighed. “We’re getting off track here.”

I sniffed as I looked at the bill. “We’re going to have to use the emergency card.”

“I’m afraid so.” Sid cursed. “At least we have it.” He sighed deeply. “And I’ll turn down the thermostat. We can probably get away with sixty-five overnight, too.”

“We’ll need to make one more emergency purchase. It is cold in that den. Why don’t we see if we can get a small space heater? That should help.”

“I sure hope so.” Sid looked at me, haplessly. “I’m sorry I got on your case about the food.”

“Thanks. I’ll try not to worry so much about the money.”

Nick hurried into the house, slamming the front door.

“Are you guys done fighting yet?”

We looked at him, suddenly terrified.

“What did you hear?” Sid asked slowly.

“Just yelling.” Nick shrugged, then grew afraid. “I couldn’t tell about what. Come on. You guys fight all the time.”

I swallowed. “But we don’t usually have to worry about keeping a cover intact with a nosy neighbor listening outside our windows.”

“She hasn’t since that first time, has she?” Sid asked.

I grabbed my boots from the space next to the door. “I haven’t seen any tracks, but I haven’t looked in a while.”

There hadn’t been any more snow for several days, and the drifts all around the house were free of footprints.

“That was close,” Sid sighed as he made dinner.

“I guess we’re going to have to take our fights to the basement.”

Sid and I were still feeling a little raw that evening, but he turned down the thermostat, and didn’t groan too loudly when I turned it down still further for overnight. We’d explained to Nick about the fuel oil bill, and he reluctantly agreed that it was better to conserve.

Later, once we were sure he was asleep, Sid got frisky, as he often did after a fight. Okay, I was pretty frisky, too. I was glad Nick had his headphones on.

The next morning, there were tracks under our bedroom windows.

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

Please check out the Fiction page for the latest on all my novels. Or look me up at your favorite independent bookstore. Mine is Vroman’s, in Pasadena, California.

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