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Silence in the Tortured Soul – Chapter Eleven

Welcome to the next episode of Silence in the Tortured Soul, book eleven in the Operation Quickline series. The KGB has infiltrated a group protesting a satellite launch. Lisa and Sid need to find out how to protect their friends Frank and Esther – and to train them as their new recruits. You can read the first chapter here, or click here to read all of the episodes that have run.

The last day of camp is bittersweet. The campers are usually ready to go home, no matter how much they protest otherwise. Most of them have been touched by the experience. A couple, at least, have turned their lives around. I have always been ready to go home.

That year, if I could have stayed the rest of the summer and kept Esther there, I would have. Esther, for her part, really wanted to get back to work, although I didn’t know exactly why. Saturday morning was devoted to cleaning up, packing, then final discussions and sharing, then the big group photo. Somewhere in there, I was on the veranda of the main hall and Sid was walking along in front, when five of the senior boys snuck up on him.

“Hey, Sid!” one called.

Sid turned and got five buckets of sea water in his face.

“We couldn’t get you into the ocean, so we brought the ocean to you!” another boy called.

“Touché,” Sid said calmly.

I was laughing, as was pretty much everyone else.

“Sweetheart?” Sid looked up at me. “Do we have a plastic bag?”

“Yes, darling. Let’s get you into some dry clothes.”

I was still giggling when we got into our room. “Is your transmitter still working?”

“I think so. Turn yours off.” Sid unbuttoned his sport shirt. “What a mess.”

“Well, maybe you should have let them dunk you early on,” I said.

“Still broadcasting,” said Jesse’s voice in our ears.

Sid got redressed in a new sport shirt and jeans.

Soon, we were the group gathered on the beach watching the camp staff pull the barge in and out to the charter boat. A new camp came in, filled with teens nervously giggling, a couple looking for trouble, and leaders carefully checking lists. Our camp got on the boat, kids singing, many of them arm in arm. Sid made sure he kept his arm around my waist and not my burned shoulders. Well, it wouldn’t be camp if I didn’t get a sunburn.

Back in Long Beach, Sarah Williams was everywhere, checking lists and re-checking them, terrified that a camper would get left behind. But she got us all into the various cars the parents were driving. At the church, other parents had barbecues set up, meats grilling, and plenty of salads and other tasty things. Sid made a couple of phone calls from the church office. Frank and Esther’s place was clear, and the recon van was in place with the local Yellow line hub team.

“The only problem is the van has to be back in the FBI parking lot before Monday morning,” Sid told me as we ate and waited for Sy and Stella to come pick us up.

“Why?”

“As Lillian put it, we don’t have unlimited resources. Looks like we get to worry about budgets, too.” Sid rolled his eyes.

“At least we get a little downtime. So, when are we going to spring it on them?”

“Haven’t thought that far ahead, and we do have to consider Sy and Stella.”

Both Sy and Stella arrived shortly after and hung around long enough to get something to eat, but then bundled Nick, Sid, and me into the car Stella had bought that week. She’d picked out a steel blue Honda Civic sedan that was only a couple years old. At least, it had four doors.

“You’re really settling in,” Sid said as she drove us to our house.

“Oh, yes. I even have a couple students set to start in September. Now, how much longer before you have your master’s degree?”

Stella had been pleased to find that Sid was working on a master’s degree in music at a small arts college in the area. The program was for working adults, which helped, because Sid had a little problem with attendance, thanks to our side business.

Sid sighed. “I have no idea. I was lucky I was able to pass the course I took last semester, what with the honeymoon and all.”

“You might just consider focusing on your degree for a year or two. I’m sure you could afford it.”

“Why do you care?” Sid suddenly shook his head. “You’re not assuming I’m going to just jump in and start teaching with you, are you?”

“I’m not assuming anything. But it would be nice. Besides, when you chose music education as your emphasis, what else were you intending?”

“Not having to worry about attendance because Lisa and I travel so much. We’ll see about the teaching.”

“You always were stubborn.”

“Gee, where did I learn that from?”

Sy chuckled as I tried not to sigh. Sid’s relationship with Stella had never been an easy one. Stella was getting better about not putting Sid down, but she’d never learned how to be kind from her family, so it was not entirely surprising that she was pretty hard on Sid. It was going to be interesting to see how well living so near was going to go.

However, as Sid later put it, Stella’s expectations were the least of our problems. Since we had the personnel and the van through Sunday evening, we decided not to make any plans regarding Frank and Esther until Sunday afternoon. That way, all of us could get some rest. At least, we hoped we could. It would depend on whether things stayed quiet at the duplex.

Sy and Stella only stayed late enough at our place to invite Nick and Darby to go camping with them in the next few weeks and to listen to Nick talk about his week.

“Did you meet any girls?” Stella asked.

Nick giggled and flushed. “Yeah. I mean, they were all in high school, but Ming was really nice. Mom, why are you making that face for?”

Sid laughed. “You and your dad.”

“I just want to be sure she didn’t hurt your feelings this morning.” I sighed.

Nick grinned. “No! I was relieved.” He looked over at Stella. “Ming told me that she didn’t want me to call her after we got home because she’s in high school and I’m not yet. I was trying to figure out how to tell her I didn’t want to call her.” He sighed. “She was getting boring.”

Still, there was something about the way Nick had flushed when Ming’s name came up that had both Sid and me wondering. In fact, as soon as Sy and Stella left, Sid went and talked with him.

Sid came back upstairs to our room with an utterly befuddled look on his face.

“Oh, my god!” I gasped. “Did he…?”

Sid laughed weakly. “It would actually make sense if he had. But no. Our boy is still a virgin. I’m not sure what exactly happened, but he confirmed that much.” Sid sat down on the bed’s edge. “He said we’ll know when he takes that step because he has no idea how to have sex and he’s going to have to ask me when it’s time.”

“That’s odd. Good, but odd.” I sat down next to Sid.

“He says he doesn’t want to sleep around, either. He doesn’t know why, but he doesn’t.”

“I can’t complain about that.”

Sid snorted. “Neither can I, really.”

“But what happened?”

“He didn’t say.” Sid shrugged. “I mean, when you think about it, how much of that is his business and not ours?”

I winced. “I suppose that’s true.” I flopped back onto the bed. “But how do we know how much is his business and how much we need to be on top of?”

“You’re asking me?” Sid sighed. “I can’t help thinking there’s got to be some point where we get a handle on this.”

“Not according to Mae. She told me she keeps thinking Lissy is going to be an easy kid because she’s done this already four times, and with twins that last time. Only Lissy wasn’t even two weeks old and was still doing stuff none of the others did.”

Sid shook his head. “How the hell did I end up here?”

“The condom broke, dearest.”

“Overall, I have to say that was a good thing. Still…” Sid looked down at me. “I suppose I could continue lamenting the intricacies of being a good parent. On the other hand, seeing you laying there like that is quite pleasantly distracting.”

I grinned. “I could use some distraction.”

Sid just chuckled.

The next morning, we were pretty tired and overslept, but somehow Sid, Nick, and I made it to church in plenty of time. Frank was there early, too, with Esther along for the ride. Frank directed the choir at ten-thirty mass and Sid played organ and piano for them. Nick and I left them in the choir loft. Nick got his seat in a pew near the front, next to Kathy. Jesse and I were both serving as Eucharistic Ministers that day, so we went to the sacristy to meet with the other ministers.

“I’ve got my shut-ins,” I whispered to Jesse. “But after that, we’ll have lunch to figure out what we’re doing about Frank and Esther.”

“What if they don’t go home?” Jesse asked.

I shrugged. “We’ve got a team on them. If Frank ditches them, he’s ditching the bad guys, too.”

Jesse nodded.

Jesse and Kathy took Nick over to see Sy and Stella while Sid rode with me to take communion to the several seniors I visited when I could. Then Jesse, Kathy, Sid, and I went to lunch at our preferred Mexican restaurant, where we decided that delaying things was only going to make life harder for all of us. Fortunately, Frank and Esther had gone back to their duplex after mass, which we knew because we’d called the team watching them.

Frank answered the door when we rang the doorbell, accompanied by continued high-pitched yapping. Frank’s mother and brother had returned to Chicago earlier that morning. Frank and Esther were a little surprised to see all four of us, but offered us a seat in their living room. Coco and Reilly, Frank’s two dogs, yapped for a couple minutes more.

I honestly think the reason the Ladies Night Out poker game has stayed at Esther’s place is that the decor resembles that of a frowzy bachelor pad. Nothing in that place matches and much of it looks like it was handed down from someone else. Sid stayed standing while Jesse, Kathy, and I sat on the frayed couch. Esther stood, as well, and Frank sank into one of the two beat-up recliners facing the side wall and the TV. Coco and Reilly jumped into the other recliner.

Sid took a deep breath. “Frank, Esther, there is no easy way to start this, but the four of us know about the Cat’s Paw satellite.”

“How could you know?” Esther glared at us. “You’re not cleared for that.”

Sid smiled. “Actually, we are.”

Frank started chuckling.

“How?” Esther demanded.

“Because,” I said. “Within the structures of the FBI and the CIA are several smaller organizations so secret only their members know they exist.”

“In other words,” said Frank. “You, Sid and Lisa, are spies.”

I looked at him, a little puzzled. He didn’t seem the least bit surprised.

“You two?” Esther gaped. “You gotta be kidding me.”

“So are Kathy and Jesse.” Sid glowered at Frank. “We four have been watching out for you two since the beginning of this month.”

Esther exploded. “You’re the best that Henry has to offer?”

Kathy was on her feet in seconds. “Hell, yes! We’ve been busting our asses keeping you two safe! You get a little bit of trouble, and you think we’re not doing our jobs? Well, excuse me! I almost got my butt killed last Wednesday trying to keep you from getting shot up with nerve agent.”

“Kathy!” I grabbed her arm and pulled her back to the couch. I looked at Frank and Esther. “Yeah, Frank, you may have made a tail or two. You are obviously good that way. But we scared off that guy in your garage right before camp and dismantled the bomb in your car. And that operative with the nerve agent. We also took care of that boat you were so worried about.”

Frank frowned. “So, those were gunshots the boys heard Thursday night.”

“They were,” Sid said. “The thing is, this isn’t just about us protecting you. You two have officially been adopted into Operation Quickline as of earlier this week. We’re here to set up your training schedule so that you can protect yourselves.”

“What?” yelped Frank. “Us? No!”

Esther laughed and cursed. “Are you serious? Us, too?”

I sighed. “For better or worse, yes. Esther, your previous security clearance has been upgraded. Frank, you now have one. Our organization mostly does courier work, but little chores like protecting you and that satellite are all part of it.”

“What if I don’t want to do this?” Frank glared at me.

“That is the problem,” said Sid. “Because we can’t tell people the organization exists, we can’t really ask people if they want to be recruited. Which means you’re stuck. However, you wouldn’t have been recruited if we didn’t think you were at least amenable to the idea.”

Esther laughed. “This will be awesome.”

I glared at her. “You only think that now, Esther. You have no idea what you’re really up against.”

“Yeah, I do,” said Esther. “I’ve been doing top secret work for years.”

Kathy smiled. “But now you got some folks you can talk to about it.”

“She’s right,” I said. “I know how hard it is to keep those kinds of secrets. I’ve been doing it, except for Sid, for years, too. It was tough sharing it when Kathy and Jesse got recruited, but it is easier to deal with.”

Esther’s eyes penetrated mine. “You always had something you couldn’t talk about.”

“This is it,” I said. I looked at Sid.

“Tomorrow we will start your training,” he said. “It’s going to be tough with Esther’s work schedule, but we’ll get it together.”

“I still haven’t said that I want to do this,” Frank said.

Esther grinned at him. “It’ll be cool, Frank. Come on. We’ll have a good time.”

Frank looked at her, then sighed. “Probably.”

Esther looked at Sid. “When did you start?”

“Almost seventeen years ago,” he said softly. “And, yes, it was while I was stationed in Saigon and elsewhere.”

Esther nodded. She was one of the few people we knew who really understood about the war in Vietnam. Still, both she and Sid danced around it and never really touched on that connection they had.

Frank shook his head, then shrugged. “I guess I’m in.”

“That goes without saying,” said Sid.

Frank glared at him. “Now what?”

“We start with physical fitness training in the morning,” said Sid. “Given the threat you’re dealing with, we’ll start you at the gym at six a.m.”

Both Frank and I groaned.

“I have to go to work tomorrow,” Esther said.

“That’s why we’re meeting at six,” said Sid. “We’ve got to get you two into prime physical condition as fast as possible.”

Esther made a face. “I work at a desk.”

“But you won’t always be,” I said. “As much as I complain about the early morning run and doing the weights and all, trust me, it’s saved my backside more than once.”

“We’ll have code work in the evenings,” said Sid.

“We can’t tomorrow night,” I said. “Camp follow up.”

Sid sighed. “We’ll also need to get you guys working on spotting tails and tailing others, weapons, hand to hand self-defense, drops and pickups.”

“And more codes,” grumbled Jesse. Like me, codes were not his strength.

“And how to do break-ins,” Kathy sighed. She was good at break-ins. She just had some trouble because they were sort of illegal.

I looked at Sid. “We also have to figure out security on these two for tonight.”

Esther jerked her thumb at the front window. “We’ve got that van outside.”

“We have to have it back where it belongs before tomorrow morning.” I winced.

“What?” Frank gaped. “What about our protection?”

Sid sighed. “That was just until we could teach you two to protect yourselves. Esther, we’ll have to get time on the shooting range on your lunch breaks. Frank, you and Lisa will practice during the days.”

“I already know how to shoot,” Frank said. “Lisa, you took me out right before camp.” He stopped. “You knew this was coming.”

“I’m afraid I did, Frank,” I said. “But you’re going to need a lot more time on the shooting range before I’m comfortable with you and a firearm.”

Kathy looked at me. “He’s that bad?”

“What’s the cliché?” I looked at Frank. “Can’t hit the broad side of a barn.”

“I hit that target a few times,” Frank grumbled.

“What’s the broad side of a barn?” Esther asked.

“Something completely irrelevant at the moment,” said Sid. He looked over at me. “You okay if we take them home tonight?”

“What about my dogs?” Frank asked.

I sighed. “We’ll bring them. They’ve met Motley before.”

“Then we’re keeping the cats out of the bedroom,” grumbled Sid.

We still weren’t sure which of the three cats was the guilty party, but when they got peeved, one of them tended to poop in Sid’s dress shoes. Strange dogs would not make any of the cats happy, even dogs almost smaller than they were.

“The other thing we need to do tonight is for Esther to tell us everything about the Cat’s Paw project,” I said.

Esther frowned. “I’m surprised you even know the official name.”

“We’re cleared,” I said. “Sid and I have been hearing about it since late June. We’re not sure how it leaked, though.”

“I don’t know.” Esther sighed. “Probably the usual chatter. That’s why nobody cared when the protests started. That group got it all wrong. There’s no nuclear arms on that satellite. There’s no arms at all on it. We can’t do that yet. We can change its orbit, but the real payloads are its ability to triangulate a position with one of the other satellites already in orbit. And data compression.”

“What’s data compression?” Kathy asked.

“It’s how you get pictures from space to the earth.” Esther smiled and sat down on the arm of the recliner Frank was sitting in. “You see, most of the satellites up there can take some really good photos of what’s on the ground. The problem is those pictures are made up of a lot of data. That’s really hard to send from space. Well, anywhere, really. I mean, think about it. One picture is like twenty or thirty Sunday newspapers all bundled up and we’re trying to stuff that bundle through the mail slot on our front door.”

Jesse frowned. “But they got us video from the moon, and that was back in the sixties.”

“Yeah, but it was all grainy and hard to see. And it took a really long time to get here.” Esther was just warming up. “But data compression means that we can compact all those newspapers so that they fit better through the mail slot. People have been working on it for years and years. Only now we have a better way to do it, and that’s why the Cat’s Paw is so special. I mean, it’s not as sexy as nuclear warheads, but it’s a lot more dangerous to bad guys because it’s a lot easier to see what they’re doing.”

“You mean bad guys like the KGB,” I said.

“What?” Esther looked at us.

“The Soviets seem to be backing that group that’s protesting the satellite,” Sid said.

“What makes you so sure they are?” Kathy asked. “They could have gotten that equipment someplace else.”

Sid shook his head. “Trust us. This is not the first time we’ve seen the KGB use local amateurs. And we’re probably doing the same thing over in the USSR.”

“What equipment?” asked Esther.

“The bomb that they planted on Frank’s car,” I said. “The guns those guys on the boat were carrying. They were also wearing night goggles. You don’t just pick those up at Kmart. And I’m willing to bet the bomb they used to kill your co-worker was KGB, too. We just haven’t gotten the official report on it yet.”

“But you two do not have to worry about that part,” said Sid. “You just have to focus on training. Lisa and I will worry about the investigation part of it.”

“And we’ll be here, too,” Jesse said.

Kathy gestured to include Sid and me as well as Jesse. “All of us will. We know what you’re going through.”

“Trust me,” Sid said, looking at Frank. “I know how it feels to get roped into this business. It happened to me twice.”

We got Frank and Esther packed, reminding both of them that they really, really had to keep the business an even bigger secret than the satellite.

“What about my folks?” Frank asked, as we rode with Kathy back to Sid’s and my house.

Jesse and Esther were riding with Sid in his car.

“You can’t tell them, Frank.” I looked at him. “My family doesn’t know I do this.”

“Neither does mine,” said Kathy. “And I don’t want them to know. I don’t want to think what could happen if they let something out and got hurt because of it.”

“We’re safe because no one knows about us,” I said. “And our families are safe because they don’t know.”

Frank sighed and nodded.

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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