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Silence in the Tortured Soul – Chapter Seven

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.

Sy and Stella brought Sid, Nick, and me to the church that Saturday morning. Frank’s mother, who was staying at the duplex to take care of Frank’s dogs, brought Esther and Frank. Kathy and Jesse just parked their car in the church lot and left it for the week, as did Carl and Erin MacArthur. It was time for camp, and it all started in the parking lot at church.

Sid was a little perturbed that we couldn’t put on shoulder holsters, or even back waistband holsters. But the hugging starts early, and that’s not just the goodbye hugs that Sy and Stella got. I’d barely gotten out of their car when several teen girls ran up and hugged me.

That didn’t mean we weren’t armed. We both had shin holsters and snub nose revolvers on us, under our jeans, and we were wearing our armored running shoes. Kathy and Jesse were likewise armed. All of us, including Nick, had on radio transmitters under our clothes with almost invisible earpieces stuck in our ears.

Still, even with the concern about Frank and Esther, Sid was in a good mood. I suppose the collective glee of over seventy teenagers about to spend a whole week away from their parents is infectious. [Not really. For me, it was the blissful realization that I was not going to go without sex for a full week. – SEH]

The parents carpool down to the slip in Long Beach where the chartered boat waits to bring us to camp. Dan, who is well aware of the ambivalence most teens feel toward their parents, had made sure that Nick was in a car with one of the other parents. Sid and I were assigned to Don Haslip’s car, which was kind of interesting. His wife, Pat, wasn’t there, so I sat in the back with Haslip’s older daughter, Renee, and Esme Garcia, and Sid sat up front with Don. The Haslips were another parish school family. Renee had graduated from that school and was at a girl’s high school in Brentwood. Their son, Don, Jr., was a couple years behind Nick, who would be in eighth grade when school started that fall.

Generally, Sister Maria, Lety, and I try to keep Sid away from the other parents. Not having been conventionally raised, Sid is not your conventional parent, which doesn’t go over well with some of the well-meaning but rather controlling parents one finds at a parish school. Don and Pat were among the cool parents. Don was also on the school’s Board of Trustees, which made life a lot easier for Sid and me.

So, the ride down to Long Beach was filled with gossip about the big Casino Night fundraiser, which was not only insanely popular, it was more profitable than just about anything else the school had tried to raise money. Sid had gotten moved to the Casino Night committee to fulfill the required volunteer hours after he got bounced off the newsletter. He’d been put in charge of alcohol sales. Don had loved the way Sid had scored some significant deals on some decent booze. Not only had Sid paid less than in years before, people bought a lot more drinks because the liquor was better tasting.

Of course, there was a group of mothers trying to shut down the Casino Night because it was, gasp, gambling and drinking, gasp. I must give this latest crew some credit. They were trying to say the event wasn’t profitable.

“They need to be audited then,” Sid told Don. “I know the bar concession was profitable. I counted the drink tickets myself.”

Renee and Esme nattered on between themselves and I mostly ignored it. Whatever their issues were, it was not unlikely that I’d be hearing about them later.

At the pier, it was more seeming chaos as carloads of teens and luggage were dropped off. Don pulled his car to the drop off area, then got out and opened the trunk to empty it. He grabbed my suitcase, pulled, then stopped.

“What the hell is in this bag?” he yelped. “Armor?”

“Close enough,” I said, grabbing the bag and giving it a solid tug.

“I gave up packing light years ago,” Sid said, pulling another couple suitcases from the trunk.

Okay, there were two high-powered rifles, night goggles, a couple more handguns, and plenty of ammo in my suitcase, under all my clothes.

Kathy and Jesse were already on the quay, but I couldn’t see Frank and Esther. They pulled up in the car behind us. Almost without having to be told, the teens spilled into a line from the quay to the boat, and the suitcases and sleeping bags began moving along it. Yes, there were more than a few complaints about the weight of my suitcase, but it still got stowed on board the boat.

Don and several of the other parents hung around long enough to see us off. I made my way to the top deck of the boat and Sid followed. He insisted I put a hat on and rubbed sunscreen on the lower half of my face. I got to rub sunscreen on his face, as well. The wind was blowing hard enough that it made it worthwhile to put on windbreakers.

“Nick!” Sid called as the boy ran past. “Sunscreen!”

Nick didn’t hear. Sid was about to go after him when I pulled Sid back.

“Let him learn the hard way,” I said. “Dan is right. If we treat him like our kid, it will be harder for him to blend in.”

Sid made a face, but let it go.

The trip took just over two hours. We watched dolphins jump in the boat’s wake. A few sea birds dove and caught fish. Frank and Esther spent most of the trip up on the deck with us. A cheer went up when the island finally rose on the horizon.

Still, it seemed like it took forever for the boat to pull up to the wooden dock in the middle of the tiny bay in front of the camp.

“You gotta see this,” I told Sid. I pointed over the side of the boat.

On the camp’s beach, another large group of teens waited, many hugging each other, some sniffling, their suitcases and sleeping bags in a pile next to a crew of about twelve camp staffers lined up along a rope tied to the end of a small barge sitting on the edge of the beach. The second the boat had docked, the staffers pulled the rope as a team. Pulleys groaned on the dock and on the beach, and the empty barge slid through the water to a cut-out space on the wooden dock.

“I’ve gotta go,” I told Sid, and ran down below and to the outside door of the boat. Kathy and I needed to be on the first barge trip onto the island. We got on the barge, along with about twelve other kids and Father John, our parish pastor and our retreat’s spiritual director.

John and I have a special relationship. He’s what they used to call my confessor. Basically, he helps me deal with the occasionally nastier parts of what I do as an operative. I have no idea if he knows that Kathy and Jesse are part of the side business, but I had told them it was okay to talk to him.

The camp staff pulled together, and the barge headed for shore. Once there, John looked a little puzzled when Kathy and I started up the hill into the camp. I waved at him that I’d explain later. As we made our way around the main hall, I looked at Kathy.

“Which side do you want? Boys or girls?” I asked.

“Boys, I guess.”

The cabins were grouped on two sides of a little gully. It wasn’t a foolproof way to keep the two genders separate, but then, with horny teens, there is no such thing. The vast majority of our kids were pretty good, though, and among those who weren’t behaving, they were, at the very least, discreet about it. We hadn’t had to send anybody home yet.

Kathy and I went through each cabin and used a flashlight to check underneath. They were all clear, so we hurried back down to the beach, where Sarah called out cabin assignments and teens collected their suitcases and sleeping bags while the camp staffers sent the outgoing teens and their luggage to the boat. There were two finished cabins with three rooms, each near the main hall. Sid and I got assigned to the end room of one, with Kathy and Jesse in the next room. When she saw that, Kathy shook her head and put Sid and me in the middle room.

“More of a noise barrier,” she grumbled.

“We’ll be keeping it down.”

“Your idea of keeping it down registers on the Richter scale.”

I sighed. She had a point.

Dan and Sarah, with baby Sandra, and Carl and Erin were in the other cabin. Father John usually liked to bunk in with the teen boys. Frank and Jeff Childs, who was a new leader that year, were supervising another cabin. Sister Maria had a girls’ cabin and Doreen Lonnergan (Frank’s sister who was also serving as our nurse) supervised with Esther. The reason Esther and Frank had to share supervision, even though it was getting a little tight on that front, was that there was going to be a point where they were going to move to one of the finished cabins. Susie Talbot had re-joined us from wherever she’d landed up north, plus a couple other college kids who had been campers in previous years.

We started with mass in the main hall around four-thirty that afternoon. Frank played guitar and Sid played the aging piano. He already played organ for Frank’s guitar choir on Sunday mornings. However, Sid had an ugly look on his face as he played that afternoon. The piano was not in tune.

Mass ran really long, so there wasn’t much free time before dinner. I chatted with various kids while Sid went to get his tuning tools. He’d been warned about the piano. Once the dinner bell rang, I went to my usual table. John and Frank were already there, and Tod Wilkins and Jeff Childs both hurried up. Tod had also graduated to leadership status that year, being a freshman at some college back east. Sid went to join us.

“You don’t want to sit at that table,” Esther told him. “You won’t get any food.”

Sid looked at her.

Susie laughed. “That’s the scarfers’ table. It’s become a tradition.”

“I don’t understand,” said Sid.

“It’s been going for about three or four years now,” Susie explained. “I think it was the year before Lisa did her first camp. Tod and Jeff were just regular campers then. But John, Frank, Tod, and Jeff landed at this one table that year and inhaled everything within reach. Lisa came the next year and almost bested them. Now, they always eat together. They tried to split up, but that upset everybody.”

Sid sighed. “I am well aware of how fast and how much Lisa eats.”

Esther laughed. “Good luck. And you’re going to need it.”

“We don’t go for seconds until everyone has had firsts,” I said. “Even at our table.”

Which we didn’t. That meant Sid got as much food as he was going to eat. He was rather appalled. [Appalled? No. That wasn’t it. In shock, yes. I had seen you eat a lot and quickly. Yet I had never seen you chow down like that. But it wasn’t just you. All five of you were like black holes. I had never seen so much food disappear so quickly in my life. I couldn’t help but wonder if you’d even tasted anything you’d inhaled. And the fact that you guys were on thirds and fourths before most of the tables even took their seconds. It was mind-boggling, and oddly enough, I understood why the rest of the camp cheered you on. It was just that weird. – SEH]

There were seldom seconds on dessert, so by the time that came around, my table mates and I were relaxing over some awful coffee or punch. The camp was pretty strict about alcohol.

“Looks like you’ve got the best start on the beard growing contest,” Tod Wilkins told Sid. Tod, being fair-haired, was at a distinct disadvantage that way.

Sid scratched his five o’clock shadow. “I’m not competing.”

“You’re not?” asked John. His hair is brown, with gray liberally sprinkled throughout. “Come on. You’ve got this one in the bag.”

Sid shook his head. “I intensely dislike facial hair on myself.”

Dan got on the microphone and started the usual announcements about not touching the fire extinguishers, not leaving food in the cabins, and remembering to keep the pig gates up.

“Pig gates?” Sid asked.

“To keep the wild pigs out of the cabins,” Frank explained. “They’re all over the island. They don’t come around here that much, though, except at night.”

Sid nodded and sighed. As soon as KP started, he left and got his shaving kit from our cabin and made his way to the sinks next to the guys’ outhouses. Finished with shaving, he went back to the piano even though he had less than an hour. The sound of cheering rose from the beach. It was a tradition that the campers dumped each of the male leaders fully clothed into the ocean. I had a feeling they’d gotten their first victim, and sure enough, Frank Lonnergan squelched up from the beach a few minutes later.

“Well, it’s better,” Sid sighed about the piano as the bell rang to gather everyone to the main hall. As usual, the camp director talked about the camp rules, like not touching the fire extinguishers and keeping the pig gates up. Then the leadership was introduced. Dan introduced Sid, but Sid pointed out that he wasn’t really a leader. He was just along for the ride. Then there was the usual chaos as everyone was split up into small groups. Maria and I had a group of about eight high school juniors. Nick landed in a group of freshmen led by Tod and Jeff.

At this point, Dan usually put on a pretty stupid “getting to know the leaders” game, but somehow Frank had helped him come up with a good one. Each of the different small groups was told to send up a representative. Nick’s group sent up a young girl named Ming. The representatives were taken outside to wait while the four married couples were set up in chairs at the front of the room. There were eight cards with the different things all of us had done to make money in high school and four cards with how each couple had met. The goal of the game was to hand the right card to the right person or couple.

I felt for the kids. Not one of them got a perfect score. Most of them figured out that I had worked in a souvenir store, that Sid had waited tables at a fancy French restaurant, and that Sarah hadn’t worked. But they couldn’t figure out who had worked at McDonald’s (Dan), who had delivered papers (Kathy), who had cleaned windows (Carl), who had worked in the auto parts store (Erin), and who had babysat (Jesse).

The how we met was even worse. Since most of the kids knew that I’d started out working for Sid, we repeatedly got the card that read, “Met through an ad in the paper.” They believed that Dan and Sarah had met at Bible Study. Jesse and Kathy got “Met in class,” and Carl and Erin got “Picked her up in a bar.”

Frank laughed like a hyena when the last camper bombed out.

“It’s impossible!” Beth Ramsey groaned.

“You guys are forgetting to think logically,” Frank said. “There is only one man here who was into picking women up in bars.”

“Yeah, but…” someone said.

“But nothing,” said Sid, taking that card. “That’s how Lisa and I met. She’d ditched a date, then turned me down, and that’s why I hired her.”

Dan and Sarah claimed the ad in the paper.

“I got fed up dating girls who didn’t want to get married,” Dan explained. “So, I put an ad in a Christian paper looking for a woman interested in marriage and Sarah answered it.”

Carl and Erin had met in calculus class in college, and Kathy and Jesse had met at the Single Adults Bible study at our church.

Dan gave the first talk. The theme for the week was The Journey to Faith, which I thought was a good one. Even if you believe, you can always grow in your faith. And I have to give Dan credit. It was a very touching story about how he had fallen away from the church, thanks to a less than happy family life, but had found peace when he had come to believe in Jesus.

The squirrely kids usually end up at the back of the hall for obvious reasons, which is why we always station a few extra leaders back there. Sid and I were among them that night. It was a good thing. Three boys, Tim Johnson, Tobias Muñoz, and Dean Hartinsky were more than squirrely. They were looking for trouble. You could tell their parents had sent them against their will. Dean had a pocketknife and kept pulling it out and carving things in the air while Tim and Tobias laughed softly. The other kids edged away from the three. Sid quietly stepped up behind them.

“Gentlemen,” he said in the tone you do not argue with. “Will you three come with me, please?”

The boys crawled over the half wall and followed Sid outside. I slipped out too. There was a knife, and I did not want to take any chances. I stayed in the shadows, however.

“Let me guess,” Sid told the boys. “You three are not here because you want to be.”

“So?” Tim glared at him.

“Why not?” Sid asked.

The boys looked at each other.

“Whaddya mean?” Tobias asked.

“Why don’t you want to be here?”

The boys looked at each other, confused. That was not the response they’d expected.

Dean recovered first. “’Cause this religion stuff is stupid.” Okay, he did not say stuff.

“Yeah,” said Tobias. “God is a bunch of B.S.”

Sid nodded. “Well, you’re certainly entitled to your own opinion.”

“So, you gonna make us believe?” Tim stood up, growing still harder.

“Like you’re gonna be able to,” snorted Dean.

Sid smiled. “I can’t make you believe anything you don’t want to, and, frankly, I don’t even want to try. If you don’t want to believe in God, then you have every right not to. And they do respect that here.”

Tim snorted a curse word.

“Of course, you have to earn that respect,” Sid said. “It might help if you gave them the respect of hearing them out. If you still don’t believe, respect the fact that they do and don’t go around making life difficult for yourselves and everyone else.”

“Yeah, right.” Tobias added a couple extra curse words. “And how are we supposed to do that?”

“The same way I do.”

“Huh?” All three boys gaped.

“I’m not an official leader because I am not a believer. But I respect their faith, and as a result, they respect my lack of faith. Get it?”

The boys looked confused but nodded.

“Let’s get back.” Sid nodded at the back of the hall. “Part of the respect thing.”

I waited until all four of them were back in the hall before I slid out of the shadows.

The talk wound down around nine-thirty. There was a campfire until eleven, then it was lights out. Sid and I had the first bed check run. I kissed Nick goodnight. He approached Sid and hesitated for a moment, then said something softly to his father.

“If I thought it was that unmanly, do you think I’d do it?” Sid asked.

Nick thought. “No.”

“Do you feel like you want to?”

“Yeah, but I don’t want to look like a little kid.”

“I can understand that.” Sid smiled at him. “But ultimately, you’re the one who’s going to have to decide whether it’s childish or not. I don’t think so. I’m very proud of our relationship, and I don’t mind expressing my affection for you.”

Nick smiled. Then the man and almost man kissed each other’s cheeks and squeezed each other. Sid looked up and saw me smiling at them.

“Want to join us?” he asked.

We held each other warmly, then pulled apart. I saw one of the boys about to tease Nick and gave him the stink eye.

A little bit later, Sid and I laughed as we really, really worked on keeping the noise level down. We would have succeeded, but the bed creaked. The laughter got worse as the bed in the room next to us began creaking.

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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