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Silence in the Tortured Soul – Chapter Five

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.

Doing the surveillance on Esther and Frank wasn’t that big a deal in that they weren’t likely to start shooting at Kathy, Jesse, Nick, Sid, and me. We were more worried that they’d spot one or more of us following them around and realize that something was up.

Quickline is made up of four different routes across the country named by color. Each route has eight different cities, called stops, and no stop is more than a two-hour flight away from one of the other stops, no matter which color it is. Each line is supervised by a floater team, which is the position Sid and I had recently been promoted to.

Sid and I had called in reinforcements from some of the members on our line, which is the Red line, then also called the other three floater teams and got about six other people to take shifts, as well. Which helped a lot with the being spotted problem. And Sid and I had other things to do besides watch Frank and Esther, such as celebrating Henry James’ retirement that Thursday.

Lety Sandoval offered to take her son Josh, Nick, and Rob to the beach that day, then let the three boys sleep over, and Sid and I accepted with pleasure.

The retirement party started as an early luncheon at a restaurant in Westwood, with boatloads of cronies and members of the press telling impossibly wild (but probably at least partly true) tales, and the usual speeches. The real shock was in the middle of the afternoon when we got to Henry’s house in Encino. Lydia hadn’t been at the other party, and Sid and I could see why when we saw her. Her face was pale and drawn and she sat in a wheelchair. Her two daughters-in-law scurried about, keeping the buffet table full and making sure there were enough plates and silverware, even though it was a relatively small party. Angelique sat with Lydia, introducing people where necessary. Lydia, however, knew Sid and me and was thrilled to see us.

The only thing marring the event was Henry’s younger son, Colton. He sneered at everyone, was out and out mean to Angelique, and especially angry at his father.

“He thinks his dad should have retired when I got cancer the first time,” Lydia explained to Sid and me. “He doesn’t understand that his dad couldn’t.”

We spent as much time as we could at the house, then promised Lydia we’d come by to visit the next week. Ange walked us out and gave us the wine bottles she’d saved for us. We had to leave early because Frank and Esther had asked us and Kathy and Jesse to meet them for dinner.

The six of us all arrived at roughly the same time at the restaurant on Santa Monica Boulevard, which meant Sid could wave off the team tailing Esther and Frank for the time being.

There were lots of reasons why the six of us had become close friends, but that restaurant kind of exemplified those reasons. For one thing, it was on the eastern, less trendy end of Santa Monica Boulevard. For another, the food was Thai. Sid and I had never eaten Thai food before. Now, among the six of us, Sid, Esther, and I are the ones who really love the kind of spicy experience that sears our sinuses. Kathy and Jesse don’t mind spicy food, although they don’t like it that spicy. Frank is learning to like it. All of us love trying new things.

The final thing that cemented this place as a new favorite was that it was one of those small, slightly ratty joints where the emphasis was on the food and not so much on the atmosphere. This was our kind of place and then some.

We went to town. Do I remember all the dishes we ordered? I’m afraid not. We drank cold Thai beer and sniffed and burped and had a wonderful time. As we finished, Frank looked at Esther.

“We’ve got to tell them,” he said. Frank has dark hair and is fairly tall.

Esther, who had cut her black hair short again, sighed, her round face creased in a frown. She’s closer to me in size, although her figure is rounder.

“I don’t know,” she grumbled.

“Aw, come on, sweetie pie.” Frank’s voice was cajoling and almost irresistible. “John said we should.”

She sighed. “Frank and I are getting married.”

The rest of us cheered, albeit quietly.

“It’s about time!” Kathy chortled.

“I know.” Esther sort of glared at her. “It’s just that we’re getting married at camp this year.”

Camp is a week-long retreat for our teen group that our church puts on at a Christian camp on Catalina Island.

“What?” I gasped. “How did you set that up?”

Frank laughed. “We told Father John that we wanted to elope. Esther does not want a big wedding and I wouldn’t mind skipping the mess my family would want to get going.”

Esther cursed. “It’s about my father. He is not happy that I am marrying Frank. He wants me to marry Vietnamese. I would, but I fell in love with Frank. So, what do I do? Besides, weddings are stupid.”

Sid laughed. “We’ve had a good time at a few.”

Everyone at the table except Sid and Esther rolled their eyes.

“Yours was a bore,” Esther snapped. “Then I realized it was the first time in a couple years that I went to a wedding without us sitting together and making dirty jokes at the reception.”

Sid laughed even harder. He and Esther had quite the reputation for turning the air blue around them.

“Most people would not be proud of that,” Kathy said.

“Who cares?” Esther said, adding yet another foul epithet.

Frank laughed and slung his arm across Esther’s shoulders. “Look. Esther and I are not your conventional couple. Why should we have a conventional wedding? John loves the idea. We’re going to do it after the big commitment ceremony on Wednesday. My sister will already be there.” Frank’s sister, Doreen, usually volunteered as our camp nurse. [That’s right. She didn’t marry Pete until the next year. – SEH] “My mom and my brother are coming in from Chicago. Mom and James will stay at the duplex and watch my dogs, then she and James and, hopefully, some of Esther’s family are going to meet us in Avalon when the group goes into town that day. It’ll be great.”

“Besides, Janet Weinstock and Sylvia Perez will never know until after it’s happened.” Esther managed a grin for that.

I looked at Sid. “I wish we’d thought of that.”

“And you were going to tell your mother?” Sid grinned, knowing darned well that my mother would not have settled for anything less than a full matrimonial blow out.

Janet and Sylvia were an ongoing problem in the Single (but most of us were married) Adults Bible Study on Tuesday nights. Frank and Esther were the last couple who weren’t married in that group, so Janet and Sylvia had taken over the baby showers for everyone else, whether or not the shower was wanted. Kind of like they had for those of us who’d gotten married over the past couple years.

“Alright,” Kathy said slowly. “What about flowers and things? Esther, have you even thought about a dress?”

“Why?” Esther asked. “Yeah. I know I worked in a bridal salon, but that’s the biggest reason why I don’t care. Who would want to be in that kind of mess?”

I sighed. “We’ve got a little over a week. I suppose I could put something together.”

Esther groaned. “You are not making me a wedding dress. I’ll wear whatever. It doesn’t matter.”

“You will not!” Kathy snapped. She looked at me, then Esther. “We will find a nice dress for you. We just have to find a time to go shopping, that’s all.”

“And Jesse and I will see to it that Frank looks good,” said Sid.

There might have been an undercurrent of mischief there.

“Look,” said Frank. “We want all of you guys to stand up with us. I’m not having a best man, so it doesn’t matter if Jesse or Sid is next to me. But, Sid, do you mind coming in with our families on Wednesday?”

Sid grinned. “For you, Frank, I’ll do it.”

Sid, being an atheist, does not come to camp with me.

“The same goes for me,” Esther said emphatically. “I don’t care if Kathy or Lisa is next to me. We just want you part of our wedding. That’s all.”

“We’ll be there,” I said. “And it will be a nice, simple wedding.”

“With some flowers and a nice dress,” said Kathy.

The hard part was finding time to go shopping for that dress since Esther worked weekdays. Kathy and I got her to agree to go on Sunday afternoon, which would give us a couple of extra evenings the following week if we didn’t find anything. Kathy also agreed to find a florist in Avalon and order a few flowers. We left the restaurant soon after that.

Sid and I took a different route, but we ended up near Frank and Esther’s duplex. The recon van was back in place with the Los Angeles hub team for the yellow line inside. Sid and I checked in. Yellow Knife and Dark Yellow were Hispanic and another husband-and-wife team. They were average-sized, with dark, graying hair, solemn brown eyes, and looked almost alike.

Dark Yellow looked at the monitors, then at his wife, and laughed. “I hear you know these folks.”

“Yeah. So?” Sid asked.

“Good thing you brought in some help.” Yellow Knife giggled. “Your target can make a tail like nobody I’ve seen and get away from it.”

She meant Frank, who was technically our secondary target.

“He made Red Light in less than three minutes this morning,” Dark Yellow said. “You should have heard Red Light curse.”

Red Light was not one of Sid’s favorite people for a lot of reasons. But even Sid admitted he was darned good at tailing targets and staying unseen.

“So, our secondary has been taking our primary target to work and back?” I asked.

“Yeah. Every day,” said Yellow Knife. “That’s the only reason Red Light was able to pick him up again this morning, for all the good it did.”

“Huh.” Sid looked at the monitors and mused. “Good to know.”

We headed back to our car. Sid’s mind was focused on Frank’s ability to make and evade a tail. Then he looked at me.

“I wonder how long it would take Frank to make Nick.” Sid turned his attention back to the traffic.

Nick is an extraordinarily good tail. In fact, he could give Red Light a run for his money.

“Well, Nick is familiar to him. Still…” I suddenly thought of something else and sent my hand running along Sid’s thigh. “You know, Nick is not at home, either.”

Sid’s chuckle filled with lechery. We got inside before the clothing went flying and landed in the library.

The next morning, we were back at our desks. Sid was preoccupied.

“What’s going on?” I asked him as he got up and paced for the third time that morning.

“I’m just thinking. You know, our condo?”

We owned a small condo across from the one where Kathy and Jesse live on Wilshire Boulevard. We’d bought it the year before when we’d needed a place to stay while our house was being remodeled.

“What about it?” I asked.

“It’s been sitting empty since last December.”

That was when we’d moved back into our house.

“I know,” I said.

“What if we let Stella have it?”

“I suppose.” I thought it over. “We can’t have her living with us.”

“Not with our side business.” Sid shook his head. “She doesn’t want to, anyway. At least, that’s what she said when I talked to her on Wednesday. You okay with not selling it?”

I shrugged. “I’m not worried about it. Having the condo sitting empty might be more of a problem.”

“Good. We’ll talk about it when they get here.”

The sound of a skateboard clattering on the front porch announced Nick’s arrival home.

“Mom!” he hollered as he came into the house. “Mom, can I have Josh over to watch the baseball game tonight?”

Sid looked at me. “Why does he always ask you these things?”

“I have no idea.” I looked up as the boy came running into the office. “We’ll see. Stella and Sy are coming in this afternoon. If they want to go out to dinner, then no.”

Nick’s eyes widened. “Hey, think we can get them to go to a game this weekend? I mean, it’s just the Cubs.”

“We’ll see,” said Sid. “There’s a lot going on right now, like keeping an eye on Frank and Esther. On the other hand, a game might be a good diversion for Sy and Stella.”

“And they like Josh, too,” Nick said.

With that settled for the time being, Nick went to go read in his bedroom. Sid, however, was still pacing, which I pointed out.

He made a face. “I’m also trying to figure out how we’re going to keep Frank and Esther under surveillance while you’re at camp.”

“Kathy, Jesse, and I will be there.”

“What if Nick and I were, too?” Sid did not look happy.

There were two reasons he did not want to go with me. One was that he’d seen the camp and how rustic it was. Not his cup of tea at all. The other was more to the point – it was a retreat, meaning religious event, and he did not care for that either, never mind how much he was already doing at my church. [No little thanks to Frank. And John Reynolds. And you. – SEH]

I bit my lip. “That would help, to be sure. And Dan has been fussing that I was going alone. I need to be with my spouse and son, you know.”

Sid tried not to roll his eyes and utterly failed. “Even money he was hoping you wouldn’t go if I refused to.”

“Oh, please. He’s not that bad.” I looked at Sid. “Are you sure you want to? I mean, you were pretty adamant when you saw the place.”

Sid’s sigh was truly profound. “I never said I wanted to, but I have to admit, it’s possibly the safest place for Frank and Esther. Given where the camp is, it’s going to be really hard to sneak up on us. And there are lots of places where we can begin training if we need to. Besides, I agreed to be there Wednesday night, at the very least.”

“One final potential problem. Can you keep Nick busy and out of trouble during the seminars and reflection times?”

Sid shrugged. “I should.”

“Then I’d better call Dan.”

I was a little surprised when Dan was perfectly happy to have Sid and Nick along. He even suggested that Nick participate like a regular camper.

“We’ve got incoming freshmen who are more squirrely than he is,” Dan said when I’d gotten him on the phone. “He’ll be fine.”

“What about Sid?”

“He won’t be part of the leadership, but he’ll be okay.”

[Even odds Williams was hoping to convert me. – SEH]

“Okay. Thanks, Dan. I’ll get the check for them to you on Monday.”

We ate lunch just after noon, per usual, only again there was extra because of Nick. The boy wolfed down the larger part of the chicken salad Conchetta had made. Even Sid was a little hungry after the fact.

Stella and Sy did not show until well after two that afternoon. Stella was out of sorts about the terrible traffic on the freeways, but Sy took it all in stride. She’s somewhat shorter than Sid and has dark gray hair, but she has the same bright blue eyes and dimpled chin that Sid and Nick both have. Sy is significantly taller, with a rounded belly and dark gray hair and beard.

“I’ve got an appointment Monday morning to sign the papers on the building for the school,” Stella told us. “And the movers are going to come, I hope, later next week. That’s assuming I have someplace to move into by then.”

“We might have something for you,” Sid told her.

We took Nick with us to see the condo. Sy thought it was quite charming. Stella said it would do. That was high praise for Stella. To be honest, I do not know what terms Sid and Stella worked out. I’d already told Sid that I didn’t really care and that I trusted him. He’d rolled his eyes since the condo was very much a part of our joint holdings. I would have let Stella and Sy live there for free. Sid would have, too, but didn’t think Stella would go for that. He was right. He made that offer and she didn’t accept. I think they worked out some terms on renting it for the time being. [And, of course, she eventually bought it, maybe a year or so later. – SEH]

Nick did not get to have Josh over to watch the ball game on TV that night because Sy wanted to take us all to dinner. But Sy and Stella happily agreed to take both boys to the stadium the next night and supervise the resulting sleep over so that Sid and I could have a nice night out together. Okay. Sy and Stella did count as adult supervision. The problem was that they also loved indulging Nick. My guess was that they’d keep the boys from burning the house down, but little more.

The restaurant Sy chose was some older steak house he’d read about. Sid wasn’t thrilled but went along with it. Nick ordered one of the larger steaks, maybe a full pound of meat.

“Can you eat all that?” I asked when our plates arrived. I would have been challenged and I can eat a lot at one sitting.

Nick shrugged. “I’m hungry, Mom. If I can’t, we can take it home in a doggie bag, right?”

“Right.”

Stella laughed. “I thought he’d gotten a bit taller than when we saw him last month.”

“He’s growing,” I sighed.

“With an appetite like that, I would think so.” Stella chuckled and looked at Sid. “Right on time, too, I might add.”

Sid sighed. “Did I?”

“Oh, my goodness!” Stella flat out laughed. “I thought it was the sex, at first, because you’d just lost your virginity. But no. You were growing. You’d go through two or three cans of Spaghetti Os at one sitting.”

“Ugh!” Sid was clearly trying not to retch. “I’ll never eat that crap again.”

“You liked it back then.” Stella looked puzzled.

“No!” Sid glared at her. “Those cans were the only edible food in the apartment.”

“I could have cooked you something.”

“You would have burned me something.” Sid shuddered. “Please excuse me, but I did not like subsisting on carbon.”

Stella shrugged and shook her head. Sy laughed softly.

“My darling,” he said, somewhat ponderously. “The boy has a point. Cooking has never been your strong suit.” Sy looked at the rest of us. “I do the cooking when necessary.”

“I like my food well-cooked,” Stella said.

“Then why did you order a rare steak?” Sid glared at her.

Stella sighed. “There may be some exceptions.”

I didn’t say anything and shot Nick a solid glare meant to tell him not to say anything, either. The boy didn’t. Sadly, Sid had grown up not entirely sure Stella had wanted him, never mind that she’d wanted him a lot. In fact, Sid had suggested at one point or another that he was certain Stella was trying to poison him, the food was so bad. As we were coming to see the reality, it was that Stella had no interest in cooking and even less skill. Sid had come to accept that Stella had wanted him. There were still issues with the food. [Stella scarred me for life with her cooking. – SEH]

We got through dinner okay. However, there was an urgent message from Kathy on the answering machine. It was just late enough that I hesitated, but I called anyway. We were in the office because that’s where the answering machine is. Sid shut the door and locked it.

“What’s going on?” I asked when I got her.

“It’s Esther,” Kathy said. “She’s thinking about canceling the wedding and not going to Catalina this year.”

“Cold feet?”

“I don’t think so. I heard Frank in the background saying that Henry thought she’d be safer at camp.”

I sighed. “She must have gotten another threat.”

“Lisa.” Kathy swallowed. “Maybe she would be better off not going. What about the kids?”

Sid waved at me and pointed to the speaker.

“Kathy, Sid’s here. I’m going to put you on the speaker.”

“Okay.”

“Esther told Kathy she’s thinking about canceling,” I told Sid as I put the speaker on. “And Kathy’s worried about the kids getting hurt.”

“Kathy,” said Sid. “That camp is exactly where Esther needs to be. Hell, if I could arrange it, I’d have her there now.”

“But why, Sid?”

“Because there’s no way for anybody to approach that place without being seen. You can’t drive in. You can walk above it, but you’ll probably be seen, and if you try to fire from the ridge above, there are several good spots where a sniper can return fire. If you come in by boat, you’ll be seen and, again, lots of good spots a sniper can go after you from.”

“How do you know?”

“I’ve seen the place. Don’t ask how.”

“But what happens after dark?” Kathy was not ready to give up. “There is no light there.”

“Which means anybody coming in can’t see, either. And we’ll have military grade night vision goggles.”

Kathy fired her last salvo. “What about the kids? That’s what’s really worrying her, I’ll bet.”

“If we can keep Esther safe, the kids will be, too.”

I sighed. “Do we have any idea what the actual threat is?”

“We’re not going to get it out of her,” Kathy grumbled. “She won’t even say that it’s happened.”

I frowned. “Henry said that they weren’t that worrisome. You know what? I’ll make a call on Monday, see if we can get some background on the group that sent out the list. What is it?”

“Stop Nukes Now,” said Kathy.

“I’ll touch base with the recon team,” Sid said. “If they contacted her at her place, decent odds they’ll have picked up whatever threat she got.”

We hung up and Sid opened a cabinet on the far end of the office. It held a radio and monitors and other bits of weaponry and equipment that most people would have been shocked to find out that we had. He radioed the recon team, runners from two different stops on our line, and they had figured out that Esther had gotten some sort of threat in the mail but didn’t know what it was because she told Frank about it in Vietnamese. Sid signed off and groaned.

“It would be really nice if we knew what we were up against.” He shook his head.

“It would.” I shrugged. “But it wouldn’t be the first time we’ve had no idea.”

He sighed. “Nope. We’ve just got to make sure she goes to camp.”

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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