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.
Wednesday at camp is one of my favorite parts of the week. The walk into Avalon, the main city on Catalina Island. The entire camp goes. Kathy, Jesse, Sid, Nick, and I were all wearing our transmitters. All of us except Nick were carrying small automatic pistols in our back waistbands and had made sure our t-shirts draped over them.
A couple members of the camp staff lead the hike up the steep hill and over the trail through the island scrub. It’s not the easiest hike in the world, but it’s not that bad, either. We haven’t lost a kid yet, never mind all the complaining. I walk at the head of the group, partly because I’m more into hiking and can go fast enough to stay ahead of those few kids who are athletes, and, that year, partly because I was the front guard for Frank and Esther. Jesse took the rear guard.
Jesse and I are the best shots in our little group, which is why we ended up where we did. Sid and Kathy hung with Frank and Esther in the middle of the pack. Nick chose to walk with me, and Ming decided she could keep up as well.
There wasn’t much chatter as we went up the hill. It is pretty steep. The march over the island is still hilly, but I kept a moderate pace and Ming walked with me for a bit.
“Nick told me you adopted him,” she said, after Nick had fallen back a bit.
“I’m adopted, too. My parents got me from an orphanage in China when I was a baby.”
“Nick is so nice.”
“Yes, he is.” Something in my gut froze.
I looked back at my son. He didn’t seem particularly focused on Ming, and I realized that was a relief.
“It’s kind of a bummer that he’ll only be in eighth grade next year. I’m starting high school, you know.”
“It’s really neat talking to somebody who knows what it’s like to be adopted.”
I sighed. “I’ll bet it is.”
Ming fell back. I was tempted to give her the stink eye, but really didn’t have a reason to. I couldn’t fault her that she liked my son. And she had a point about the being adopted thing.
Once in Avalon, we all meet on one of the main piers off the boardwalk. Bag lunches are provided by the camp staff (which they bring around by boat), and Dan goes over the rules for the third time.
That day it was around eleven-thirty when everyone got to the pier. Dan warned them to be back at two, no exceptions. Then the kids were dismissed to enjoy some time on their own. The rest of us who are leaders dispersed as well. Sid had already invited John to have lunch with us at John’s favorite restaurant in town and convinced Frank and Esther to join us. Kathy and Jesse already knew they were coming with us and why, but pretended to accept the invite as if it had been freshly offered.
Nick had his transmitter on, and I had to tune out his, Ming’s, and Armando’s chatter. It was mostly Ming’s and Armando’s chatter. Nick didn’t really say much, which kind of surprised me. He talked up a storm at home.
Sid got us a table on the outside terrace of the diner facing the boardwalk. The nice thing about this place is that it had a bar. Not that any of us were heavy drinkers, but most of us liked a glass of wine or occasionally a cocktail. The problem was a good chunk of the rest of the retreat leadership, especially Dan Williams. He was militantly opposed to alcohol, which I finally understood, given what he’d told us that Saturday. Several of the other leaders were anti-booze, too.
So, those of us who liked a drink tended not to flaunt it. Which meant that there were several rum and colas and gin and tonics at our table, all in regular soda glasses, of course. As we perused the menu, I noticed Frank glancing at the street again and again. I tried to see what he was looking at but couldn’t quite. John noticed, too.
“What’s going on, Frank?” he asked as soon as we’d ordered our food.
“Nothing!” Frank gulped.
But he kept looking at something across the street. John shot me a glance, and I shrugged. I was taking the lead on the operation that day because it was my turn. We’d already set up some hand signals among the four of us who were on protection duty. It had been Nick’s idea before we’d left, based on watching base coaches at the baseball games, and he and Jesse had put them together. I bit my thumbnail. We needed to know what Frank was looking at.
“Esther, you guys look so worried,” Kathy said, picking up the ball first. She was good at that kind of subtle questioning.
Esther rolled her eyes. “I can’t talk about it!”
“You mean, it’s that list again?” Kathy asked.
“You weren’t supposed to know about that,” Frank yelped.
“Everybody knows about the list, Frank,” I said. “And lots of people know Esther is on it.”
Esther looked over at John, and I knew darned well he was one of them.
“Esther, we don’t have to know what you’re doing to be concerned about your welfare,” John said quietly. “So, Frank, if you’re worried about something, why don’t you tell us?”
I thanked God. Apparently, John had figured out that Sid and I were at camp to help Frank and Esther. Well, besides being there anyway.
Frank sighed. “We’re being watched. There’s a guy across the street who keeps wandering by and stopping and looking at us. There he goes again.”
“You mean the guy in the yellow Hawaiian shirt, dark slacks, and white straw hat?” Sid asked.
I heard a quiet groan in my ear, then a cough. Nick was not far away and had made the suspect.
“Yeah, that’s him.”
I was impressed. How Frank had picked the man out among the hundreds on the boardwalk, I had no idea, but he had.
The waitress brought our food.
“Well,” said John. “Unless he does something more threatening, I propose we don’t pay him any attention.”
I smiled. “Kathy, why don’t we take Esther with us after lunch and go get the flowers? The guys can do something else.”
“Sounds good,” Kathy said.
Esther nodded, but she didn’t look convinced.
“Are you getting nervous about tonight?” I asked her.
“No.” She smiled at Frank. “That’s no big deal.”
John chuckled. “You only think it isn’t.”
Sid and I couldn’t help rolling our eyes. We had gotten married because I wanted the Sacrament, and neither of us had thought it would make that much of a difference. We’d made our commitment to each other the year before, had mingled our assets in a business partnership, started raising a kid, sharing a bathroom and then the bedroom. Funny, but being officially married had made a massive difference, largely in how much stronger our commitment felt.
We finished lunch soon after. I almost wished Frank could come with us, but I wanted to split the two up to see who, if either of them, would get followed. I got up and went to the bathroom.
“Big Red, Red Dawn,” I whispered. “Make sure you stick with target two and don’t let him avoid telling you if someone is tailing you. Tiny Red, you follow me and Red Sky and watch for tails.”
Nick coughed again to signal that he’d heard. When I got back to the table, both Sid and Jesse glanced my way, and I knew they’d heard me as well. Esther was gone.
“Where’d she go?” I asked as I sat back down.
“Making a phone call,” said Frank.
I frowned. I hadn’t seen her. Kathy got up and went to the back of the restaurant, ostensibly to go to the bathroom as well. Suddenly, I heard sobbing.
“Esther! What’s the matter?” Kathy’s worried voice rang in my ear.
“I called work,” she said through her sobs. “My boss. He was killed yesterday. Someone put a bomb in his car.”
I really had to fight to keep my face neutral, as did the others. John, however, caught on that something was going on. Actually, so did Frank, but he couldn’t figure out what. Kathy brought Esther back to the table.
“What’s wrong?” I gasped, getting up.
Esther blinked and sniffed. “One of my bosses was killed yesterday.” She looked at Frank. “It was a car bomb.”
“Who?” asked Frank.
John looked at her, worried. “Was he on that list that you’re on?”
I could almost hear John cursing. We somehow finished lunch and Sid paid the bill. As Kathy and I gathered Esther to us so that we could run our errand, John looked at me, then Sid. I’m not sure how, but the priest got Sid pulled away from Jesse and Frank.
“Are you and Lisa involved in this?” John hissed at him through my earpiece.
Sid sighed. “What do you think?”
John cursed, which was a little unusual, but not unheard of.
“I’ve got a bunch of kids, not to mention leaders, that could be affected here.”
“I get that,” Sid growled. “Trust me, she’s safer at camp with the kids around her than at home. We’re on top of it. Okay?”
“No, it’s not okay.”
“John, just because you know what Lisa and I do does not mean you know how good we are at it. And we have help.”
John growled. “And I think I know who.”
“Do us a favor. Don’t assume until you know. Look. I don’t want anything happening to those kids either, and Lisa feels even more strongly about that than I do. Trust us. Okay?”
“You’re not who I need to trust.” John paused. “But thanks.”
Kathy looked at me. She’d heard the same conversation.
“I told you he was safe to talk to,” I hissed at her.
Kathy just sighed quietly. Esther, still understandably upset, didn’t notice. The three of us headed to the florist Kathy had called the week before. As we left the boardwalk, Nick’s voice broke in.
“Suspect one is on Little Red and Red Sky.”
I glanced back behind us. Sure enough, the man in the yellow Hawaiian shirt was behind us.
I turned away. “Big Red? Red Dawn?”
“Bupkes,” said Sid’s voice.
“Little Red.” Nick’s voice sounded a little more anxious. “Suspect one is dropping back. We have a second suspect approaching. Male Caucasian, wearing a white shirt and tan pants.”
I saw who Nick had meant, but couldn’t see Nick or his friends, who were still chattering in the background. I had no idea how Nick was hiding what he was telling us, but from the background chatter, neither Ming nor Armando seemed to have noticed.
I turned away again. “Stay on suspect two, and thanks, Tiny Red.”
“I hate that name,” he grumbled.
I couldn’t help chuckling and heard Sid doing the same. Still, Nick’s observations had been critical. The second suspect stayed fairly close to us while his colleague didn’t appear again. I was thrilled that Esther didn’t seem to notice that we were being followed. Then Nick muttered that the second suspect was backing off.
“Anyone replacing him?” I asked, looking in the window of a nearby shop.
I went back to walking with Esther and Kathy on the narrow sidewalk toward the florist.
The next couple minutes were possibly the most terrifying I had spent in some time. The thing is, to describe what happened doesn’t sound in the least bit scary. A woman walked past us toward the boardwalk. The part that alerted me was that I was hard-pressed to say what she actually looked like. She wore sunglasses, a scarf around her hair, and a big, floppy hat. Her blouse was gauzy and full, and just barely covered her curves and the brightly colored bikini bottom underneath. Then there was the ring on her left hand. It was huge and spiked. Kathy had spotted her, too, and swallowed.
I, Esther, and Kathy walked in file to leave room for the woman to pass.
“Excuse me,” the woman said with a smile.
She leaned in toward Esther, then Kathy stumbled, “accidentally” pushing the woman’s arm away.
“I’m so sorry,” said Kathy. “My shoe caught on the sidewalk. Are you alright?”
The woman smiled blankly. “Fine. Thanks.”
She moved on. We got to the florist shop without further hindrance. As Esther looked out the window, I pulled Kathy back.
“Did you get stuck?” I asked.
I heard both Sid and Jesse cursing in my ear.
“No. I wasn’t getting anywhere near that ring.” Kathy swallowed. “I saw the needle pop out of it.”
I swallowed. “I thought I did, too.”
“Was it?” Kathy looked scared.
“KGB nerve agent? I’d say yes.”
There was more subdued cursing from the guys. They also confirmed that no one had been following them.
Then a friend of ours from Washington, DC, “just happened” to stumble across Sid. That Lillian Ward was there was anything but a coincidence, but she and Sid made it look like one and chatted briefly before moving on.
Close to two o’clock, I looked at Kathy and we both nodded. We’d be on the first water taxis back to the camp and would do a search on the cabins to be sure nobody had tried something nasty, although the odds were against it. Which, after turning Esther over to the guys, is exactly what we did. Having some idea of what to look for did help. However, there wasn’t the least sign of any foul play, let alone KGB dynamite, when we finished.
Kathy looked at me as we headed to the volleyball courts after our search.
“I gotta say, this year has not been very relaxing at all,” she grumbled at me.
“I know.” I sighed. “At least, Esther’s okay.”
Esther’s and Frank’s families had not met us in Avalon after all, and weren’t due for another few hours. Sid pulled me back into our room and we shut off our transmitters, but he was not interested in fooling around.
“Lillian?” I asked.
He nodded. “Frank’s clearance is through, and his and Esther’s adoption is official.”
“Goody.” I sighed. “How do we start training here?”
“I think we can let it wait until we get back.” Sid glanced at the room’s window. “But it should make things a little easier otherwise.”
“Sure, it will.”
“Oh, and that device we found on Frank’s car was definitely KGB.”
There were a couple hours of the waterfront being open. Sid, Nick, and I took advantage and brought the biodegradable shampoo down with us and spent some time playing and washing each other’s hair. The other boys groaned when they saw Sid was in the water, but finally found Tod Wilkins and got him dunked. It wasn’t quite five-thirty when Sid, Nick, and I rinsed ourselves off with the freshwater hose. Sid went to do his second shave and chat with the guys. I’m not sure where Nick went. I got dressed for the leadership meeting.
John, however, cornered me just before it was supposed to begin.
“I talked to Sid this afternoon, but how bad is it?”
“Pretty much what Sid said.” I smiled.
John’s eyes opened wide. “What?”
“We were wired.” I shrugged. “I heard what you said to him, and he’s right. Esther’s safer here. Look at this place, John. How is anybody going to approach without one of us seeing him or her?”
John looked up the gully that led into the hills above us, then at the beach. “I guess not.”
“John, I’m not going to take a chance on the kids getting hurt.”
“That I believe.” He looked around. “There are others helping?”
“I’ve told them you’re safe to talk to. Whether or not they do, that’s not my business.” I sighed. “It wasn’t our idea. Nobody is our idea. But it seems to work out rather well.” I smiled weakly.
John shook his head. “I can’t help worrying.”
“Neither can I.” I shrugged. “In the meantime, we do have to get Frank and Esther married.”
John suddenly laughed. “That is my job.”
Sid sauntered into the meeting shortly after it began. There were two significant issues for the leadership that evening, and the good news was, both were under control.
“The commitment ceremony is in place,” Dan told us. “Adriana Pacheco will play the piano instead of Sid, so he can help get things ready for later.”
“We’ve got the wedding part set,” Kathy said as Sid joined us.
Frank laughed. “You will not believe who showed for that. Esther’s father is here.”
Frank’s mother and his brother had already arrived on the water taxis just before the meeting. That Esther’s father was on one of those taxis was saying something.
Esther smiled as Kathy and I gaped happily.
“He’s okay with this?” I gasped.
“No.” Esther shrugged. “But he loves me. So, what else is he going to do?”
“Be that as it may,” said John. “We have one other issue to stay on top of. The reality is weddings lend themselves to a certain amount of off-color humor. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but we all know how easily that can get out of control, especially with kids who don’t understand where the boundaries are. So, our job is to be on top of those boundaries.” He looked at Sid and me. “And we have at least one couple here who has been pushing those boundaries in the afternoons.”
“Just two,” said Sid with an evil grin.
“Oh, come on,” said Erin MacArthur with an equally evil grin. “Why can’t you two do it at night like normal people?”
“But they do,” groaned Jesse. “They haven’t missed a night yet.”
Sid laughed. “Your bed creaks, too, guys.”
Kathy laughed as Jesse ducked his head.
“Come on,” John groaned. “Neither I nor anyone else really needs to know this. We just need to stem the tide. So, can we all put a lid on off-color jokes? Please?”
Both Sid and Esther sighed loudly.
“It’s going to be another boring wedding,” Esther grumbled.
“For you, maybe.” Sarah glared and grinned at her. “The rest of us will be relieved that we don’t have to listen to you and Sid embarrassing us.”
“There is no justice,” sighed Sid.
Esther’s and Frank’s families joined us for dinner. Most of the teens didn’t notice, but that can be the saving grace of teens. They are wonderfully self-absorbed.
As soon as KP was done, the bell rang for the evening session. John started us off explaining that this was a night of commitment.
“For some of you, it will be your first commitment to a belief system you thought you knew.” John smiled at the group. “For others, it will be a call to a deeper commitment to the faith you have already claimed.”
He explained that we leaders would be available to pray with individuals while everyone else also prayed and sang as a group. No one seemed to notice that Frank was not leading the singing. He’d left that chore to Jeff Childs, who was pretty competent on the guitar. Sid had already left to collect Frank’s and Esther’s belongings from the cabins where they’d been staying and move them to that third room in the cabin where we’d been staying. I had asked Sid to promise not to play any jokes with their belongings, and he did. I was a little suspicious of how easily he promised, but there was nothing I could do about it.
In the meantime, Esther and I prayed together over the teens that approached us, as did Frank and Jesse. As always, it was deeply moving, but I couldn’t help sniffling worse than usual when I saw Nick approach John to pray with him. Then Tim Johnson came up to pray with Esther and me, and I almost broke down in sobs. Still, by eight-thirty, Sarah came up and took the rest of the kids in mine and Esther’s line and I pulled Esther away to Kathy’s room. Jesse followed with Frank, and we could hear them in Sid’s and my room.
“I don’t need help to get dressed,” Esther grumbled.
“You’re getting it anyway,” said Kathy, turning on a portable fluorescent lamp.
“We’ll just get your hair looking nice and do a little make-up,” I said.
Esther glared amiably. “Only a little make-up. I want Frank to recognize me.” She looked at the two of us. “I tell you, this is the only way to get married.”
Kathy pulled Esther’s dress off the hangar it had been on since we’d arrived on the island.
I laughed. “If only we could have told that to my mother.”
Esther suddenly sniffed and blinked. Her family had gotten separated as they’d escaped from Vietnam shortly before the end of the war. Esther didn’t know if her mother was even alive, let alone where she was.
I groaned. “I’m sorry, Esther. I shouldn’t have said that.”
“You can’t help it.” Esther took a deep breath. “Normally I don’t mind. I mean, it’s hard, but I can’t change what happened.”
“At least your father’s here,” Kathy said. “It’s not going to compensate for missing your mother. But it’s something.”
“It’s a lot,” Esther sighed. “He still hates Frank. But too bad.”
I got out a backless sundress that I’d planned on wearing and pulled it over my head and shoulders. As Kathy zipped Esther into her dress, Esther turned on me.
“Wait a minute.” Esther grinned. “How are you going to wear that with a bra?”
I sighed. “I’m taking my bra off.”
I pulled the bra off and let Kathy and Esther see the nice, even tan I had over my breasts.
“We do have a private sun deck, you know,” I grumbled.
Kathy laughed as she got into her dress.
Hoots of laughter from the next room barely covered the giggles in ours as we focused on getting Esther’s hair and makeup done. Kathy looked out the room door, then signaled that it was safe to leave. We brought Esther around to the back of the hall. The guys hovered in the doorway near the front. John was getting into his vestments for mass, as was Frank’s brother James, who is also a priest.
“As I told you earlier,” John told the rest of the group. “Tonight is a night of commitment. Which is why we have some special guests here tonight.” He gently moved some of the kids back from the table we used as an altar. “Frank and Esther’s families have come to join us to celebrate yet another special commitment, that of the Sacrament of Matrimony.” The kids broke into cheering. “Yes, Frank and Esther are getting married, and they chose to share that with us because this is the community that means the most to them.”
He nodded at Jeff and Adriana Pacheco. The two played a simple hymn, and Kathy and I brought Esther to the front of the hall as Sid and Jesse brought Frank to meet her. Nick did the first reading, and Doreen Lonnergan led the psalm. John read the gospel, then grinned as he looked at Frank and Esther.
“I don’t have a lot to say to the two of you. We’ve been talking quite a bit lately.” John looked over at the campers and family gathered. “But I’d better say something for the rest of us. This marriage may seem like a surprise, but it’s hardly that. Frank and Esther have been working on it for some time now. They may not be the romantic type. But they are committed to each other. It’s important to understand that just because we haven’t seen the work they’ve been doing, doesn’t mean that work hasn’t been going on. I’ve talked before about making judgments about others when we do not know the facts. This is a prime example of that. Here are two people, committed to building a life-giving relationship under our very noses, and no one knew. But now that we do, our job starts. We are here as a community to pray for and support Frank and Esther. As for the two of you…” John’s grin grew mischievous. “Time to make good on what you’ve told me.” He looked at James. “Would you like to do the honors?”
James shook his head. “I don’t think Frank trusts me. I spent too many years beating the crap out of that weenie.”
“James!” Mrs. Lonnergan started out of the chair where she’d been sitting.
“Okay, Mom.” James laughed and took the rituals book from John.
As Frank and Esther made their vows, Sid and I couldn’t help watching each other. It hadn’t been all that long since we’d reaffirmed ours at our wedding. Mass went on quickly, in spite of a marathon Sign of Peace. Everyone had to hug Frank and Esther. At the end, both John and James gave the final blessing. Then, for the first time anybody could tell, we saw Frank and Esther kiss each other. The cheers went through the roof.
We adjourned to the dining hall from there. The camp staff had made a wedding cake and put out punch. Sid didn’t make it terribly obvious, but he had some Champagne in a Thermos to pour into the glasses that Mrs. Lonnergan had brought from her own wedding.
“Frank,” Sid began casually after pouring some wine into the glasses. “I owe you one. Actually, I owe you several ones. My good friend, you have pulled many a dirty trick on me. Like the time you converted the girl I was hitting on right out from under my arm. Then there was the grass clippings on my bed. The way you changed all the covers on my sheet music. Or the time you blew air bubbles into the waterbed. Yeah, I’ve gotten you back for some of those. But then there was fooling my aunt into playing a Billy Joel tune with a mildly salacious title for communion meditation at my wedding just because it also happened to be Beethoven. Or that amusing little message you painted on the bottoms of my shoes that same day.”
“I didn’t do that!” Frank yelped with a laugh.
“Uh-huh.” Sid shook his head. “And I’m not even talking about that big bet you rigged on me last fall. But I am feeling generous right now. As of tonight, I am counting everything as paid up.”
“That’s very gracious of you, Sid.” Frank may have been grinning, but he did not trust Sid for one second.
Nor should he have. It is not like Sid to give up his revenge.
Sid raised his cup. “To Frank and Esther. May their lives be truly happy.”
“Oh, that is good!” Frank sighed.
“I know.” Sid grinned. “Here. Let me top you off.”
As he reached over to refill Frank’s glass, he knocked Esther’s into her lap. Several of us jumped up to mop up the mess. However, in all the confusion, I was fairly sure I saw Sid palm something into a paper napkin.
I didn’t get a chance to ask Sid about it, though. The gaiety accelerated. Many of the usual traditions, such as the cake cutting, the bouquet and garter toss, were foregone in favor of general eating and laughing. It was past ten o’clock when everyone trooped down to the beach and the waiting water taxi to say good night to Frank and Esther’s families. Then the campfire was lit, and the kids shared about their experiences during the commitment ceremony and the wedding. Finally, we all followed Frank and Esther to the third room in our cabin.
Dan called lights out and he and Sarah took over the bed check run. Inside our room, I couldn’t help kissing Sid and enjoying him kissing me. I went to unbutton his shirt, but he caught my hands.
“I wouldn’t do that just yet,” he whispered, mischief glinting in his eyes.
I couldn’t help glaring. “What did you do to Frank and Esther?”
“Hackbirn!” Frank hollered from the room next to us.
“Nothing serious.” Sid grinned.
“Hackbirn! This isn’t funny!” Frank may have added several expletives.
“Sid.” I left our room to the wood terrace that ran the length of the cabin.
Kathy and Jesse were already out of their room, and Frank was outside ours, getting ready to pound on our door.
Sid followed me. “Problem, Frank?”
Several of the kids had heard the hollering and wandered down from their cabins. Dan and Sarah were on the terrace of their cabin, with Carl and Erin close behind. Frank let out a few more obscenities.
“What’s going on here?” Dan yelled.
“He Crazy-Glued my pants shut!” Frank screamed, pointing at Sid.
Okay. Even Dan had trouble not laughing. We all knew it had to have happened when Sid had knocked the Champagne into Esther’s lap.
“Has anyone got any nail polish remover?” I asked, swallowing back my giggles.
Maria was still laughing but nodded. “One of the girls must.”
“How is that going to help?” Sarah asked, trying to soothe baby Sandra, who was screaming.
“It’s acetone,” I said. “It’s the one thing that dissolves Crazy Glue.”
Sure enough, there were several girls with nail polish remover. Maria got a bottle and some cotton balls and surrendered them to Esther, who had also called Sid any number of foul names in two languages. Peace eventually settled on the camp again. Until the bed started creaking in Kathy and Jesse’s room. Another started creaking in Frank and Esther’s. At that point, Sid and I let our bed creak, too.
Thank you for reading. For more information about the Operation Quickline series, click here.