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Silence in the Tortured Soul – Chapter Seventeen

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.

That Saturday proved to be one of those days. It had started the night before when Esther’s carping about her boss, Ross Sorensen, led to the conclusion that one of us should search his office just to be on the thorough side, and to the conclusion that I should be that one.

Normally, a Saturday in summer means that I’ve got an entire day to enjoy sewing or reading or whatever. Having to put on a wig in the heat of August, put on business wear so that I look like the aboveboard FBI agent I am not, and go break into a defense plant where all the employees are on high alert was not my idea of a nice way to spend my weekend. Nonetheless, that’s how I spent my morning.

Sid drove to the plant. He, Nick, and Frank would stay in the car while Esther and I went into the plant from a back entrance. Nick was with us because we were going to go clothes shopping after the search was done. All five of us were wired. I limped a little because my foot was still a little sore and the nylons and pumps didn’t help.

As Esther and I got up to the top floor, Sid’s voice in my ear told me where he’d parked a couple blocks away. There was a side entrance to the building that could not be seen from the parking lot, and we decided we’d leave through there and walk back to the car, on the theory that no one would expect us to take that route. The fact that whoever didn’t was probably what saved us.

It took a while to search Sorensen’s office. Esther was meticulous about it, and I have to admit, I was impressed. Alas, we didn’t find anything. Esther hadn’t found anything in Gil Woltz’s office, either.

I told Sid through the wire when we were heading out the side door. The three buildings that made up Esther’s plant all fronted onto the street, with a variety of bushes and plants in between them and on either side of the two outside buildings. Esther’s building was at the end of the complex. More plants and bushes filled narrow spaces in front of the buildings, and the sidewalk was broken up by trees planted every so often along the curb.

Across the street was a series of generic office buildings, and none of them were particularly secure. As Esther and I walked to the street, movement caught my eye, and I pulled Esther back just as bullets rained down on us. Esther screamed. She struggled against me and tried to run in front of the building, unfortunately, away from where the car was.

“Big Red, we’re under fire,” I yelped, pulling Esther into some bushes.

“Copy, Little Red. Tiny, can you see where it’s coming from?”

“Yeah,” said Nick’s voice in my ear. “It’s that building directly across from the side entrance.”

Esther slid out of my grasp and started running for the front of the building. I dove after her as the gunfire started up again.

“Red Gate, you’re panicking!” I hissed at her as I shoved her into the bushes. “You almost ran right into the line of fire.” I pulled my Model Thirteen from my purse. “Tiny, where is the sniper?”

“On the roof.”

“Tiny, stay in the car,” Sid’s voice said. “Red Door, we’re going to stay close to the buildings and see if we can’t provide some crossfire. Little Red, can you cover us?”

“Can do,” I said.

I looked between the fronds of a small palm tree and fired at the top of the building across from us.

“Red Door, move. Now.” Sid’s voice was tight.

“Don’t we have a rifle?” Frank squeaked.

“Not at the moment. Now, let’s go!”

I heard two car doors slam and sent another couple rounds at the top of the building, hoping I had some extra ammo in my purse. I don’t always. It’s heavy and I seldom need it. Another couple minutes later, I heard gunshots across the street and saw Sid and Frank firing at the top of the roof. The sniper seemed to back off.

“Little Red, can you get Red Gate across the street?”

“How much extra ammo do you have on you?”

“Plenty. Ready?”

I got a solid grip on Esther’s arm. “Ready.”

“Move out firing.”

I did, emptying the gun. Esther almost beat me across the street, but then I was firing and had a slightly gimpy foot. When we got to the cover of the other building, Sid nodded, and I pushed Esther ahead of me to where Sid’s Beemer was. Sid let off several more rounds and kicked Frank into a run behind us. A minute later, we were all in the car and Sid pulled out as fast as he could, even before we’d all gotten our seat belts on.

Esther sobbed in the middle of the back seat, while Frank shook and gasped for air.

“Is everyone okay?” I asked.

“I think so,” Frank gasped. “Man, I messed up.”

Okay, he used another word for messed.

“It’s your first brush with violence, Frank,” Sid said. “Everyone freaks.”

“I didn’t freak,” Nick said.

“No. You were stupid.” Sid glared at him in the rear-view mirror. “Something I am very glad you’ve gotten past.”

“What did you get us into?” Esther screamed, adding her usual vile epithet.

I turned on her. “We didn’t get you into this scenario. The KGB did and your job did. And you might want to be thankful we did get you into this business. If we hadn’t, you’d be dead by now.”

Both Esther and Frank turned pale and swallowed.

“How’s your foot?” Sid asked, whipping the car around the others on the 405 freeway.

“It hurts,” I grumbled and lifted the nylon stocking away from the scab. “But there’s no bleeding.”

“All right.” Sid glanced at me. “We’ll go get some lunch and bring it home. Think we should call Kathy and Jesse?”

“Can’t hurt,” I said.

“What about my clothes?” Nick came perilously close to whining.

“We’ll go out after church and errands tomorrow,” Sid said.

“The deli okay?” I asked Sid, then looked back at Frank and Esther.

“Deli’s good,” said Frank, listlessly.

Fortunately, I had the number to the delicatessen I was thinking of in my purse and used the car phone to call in an order. It wasn’t that far out of our way and was well worth it when we got home. I’d also called Kathy and Jesse, and they were waiting for us when we pulled up.

Both Frank and Esther were still very shaky. Bless her, Kathy had gotten Jesse to make a stop before getting to the house. Sid took one look at the bottle of bourbon they’d brought and got the water glasses from the kitchen. I sighed and went upstairs to Sid’s and my closet. In the far corner is a stack of notebooks and binders filled with cipher. I got the first couple sets of wire-bound notebooks and brought them downstairs with me. The dining table was cluttered with paper wrappings, boxes of potato, macaroni, and green salad, and stacks of sandwiches. The bottle of bourbon was almost emptied. Even Nick got a small snort, which he made a face at. We let Nick have a little bit of alcohol with food, hoping that he’ll learn to respect it and not see it as tempting forbidden fruit. He really likes wine, but in small doses and so far, is not enthused by spirits.

“How do you deal with it?” Esther asked, adding multiple curse words. “I’ve never been so scared in my life. We had to sneak out of Vietnam in the middle of the war and I wasn’t as scared as I was today.”

“You were fourteen, Esther,” said Frank. “Even you said you felt invulnerable.”

Esther let out a string of curses, both in English and Vietnamese.

“It is scary,” said Kathy with her own special calm. “You should have seen me when I first got shot at. I was a basket case and scared to death that I wasn’t going to be able to do this when Jesse really wanted to.”

“I was just as much a mess.” I plopped the notebooks in front of Frank and Esther. “You wonder about that thing I have with stiffs. Read that and you’ll know why.”

I blinked back the tears. I hated sharing those journals. But they’d helped Kathy and Jesse get through that first shooting episode. I had to hope the journals would help Frank and Esther.

“Being scared is part of the job,” Sid said softly. “But we learn to deal with it, and in a healthy way, I hope.”

Esther opened the first notebook. “R-four cipher. Oh, that’s an easy one.” She read the first few lines. “Woh.” She looked at me. “Okay. We’ll read this tonight.”

“I’m sorry I got so hard on you today,” I said.

Esther sighed. “You were probably right.” She cocked her head. “You know. I think we can do this. I mean, it was scary today. But you guys are okay. Why not us?”

Jesse grinned. “Absolutely, why not you? You guys have something. And we all have something. This is going to be good.”

We continued talking, even explaining why Nick had been so stupid the first time he’d encountered people shooting. We eventually ordered in some pizzas and spaghetti for dinner. Sid got out a couple of Angelique’s better bottles of wine. As the night finally drew on, Frank and Esther went to their room and Jesse and Kathy hugged us and went home. Sid and I followed Nick into his bedroom to say goodnight.

“Was I really that stupid that first time?” The look on his face was quite pained.

“Yes, you were,” I said. “We were really worried that you were not going to be able to follow a command when it was that crucial.”

Sid pulled him close and hugged him. “The good news is you learned. A lot of people don’t. I was proud of you today. You kept your head, and you stayed out of trouble. That made it a lot easier for me to deal with Frank. I love you, Nick.”

“I love you, Dad.”

They kissed each other’s cheeks.

My hug was next. “I love you, my sweet guy.”

“I love you, Mom.”

I suddenly realized that the top of his head was really close to my cheek. Still, I kissed him good night without comment, and Sid and I went upstairs.

“You’re looking awfully pensive,” Sid said as we got undressed.

I made a face. “A lot going on, I guess.” I gestured on my cheek. “Nick’s up to here now.”

“I thought he seemed a little taller.” Sid shook his head.

“That’s how it’s supposed to work,” I said, sighing. “It still feels weird.”

Sid nodded. “How’s your foot? Still sore?”

I looked down at it. “No, it’s fine.”

The only problem was that I noticed my lone deck shoe on the shelf in the closet. We got washed up and got into bed.

“So, what are you thinking about now?” Sid asked as he pulled me next to him.

“My deck shoes.”

“They’re just shoes, Lisa. We’ll get another pair tomorrow.”

I shook my head. “This pair wasn’t.” I sighed. “Sid, do you realize that pair of shoes was one of the few things I have from my life before you?”

“You have several stacks of books and records.”

“That are now our books and records and are intermingled with yours and whatever we’ve acquired since then.”

“What about clothes?”

“Believe it or not, I gave all those clothes away that first spring after we met. They didn’t fit anymore. They were too big.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.” I rolled onto my back and sighed. “I had no idea what I was doing then. Between having to sell everything because I was out of work, then getting rid of the extra because I didn’t need it anymore, I really don’t have much of anything from before when I met you. There’s that necklace with my name pendant, which I can’t wear because of the side business.” We didn’t use monograms or anything like that lest we give someone a clue that would lead them to our real selves. “Then there are the Christmas ornaments that Mama gave me last Christmas from our old tree. But those are it. And the deck shoes, and those are gone, now, too.”

“Oh, honey.” He snuggled up against me and nuzzled my ear.

I blinked back tears. “It’s not like things aren’t better now. They are. It just feels weird losing that last bit of my life.”

“I think I understand that.” He brushed my cheek with his hand. “Do you want a new pair?”

“Yeah, I think I do, but they won’t be the same.” I shrugged. “It’s kind of like seeing Nick grow. On one hand, that’s what I hope will happen because he should be growing. But at the same time, I kind of miss the boy we had.”

Sid’s chuckle was both rueful and sad. “Yeah. I do, too.”

I sighed again. “You know, the other night, after I first lost the shoe, you asked me why I was upset.”

“Of course.”

“It’s not just the shoes. I’m missing a lot of things right now. Lydia. Our life before.” I rolled over and faced him. “You know what I really miss? It just being the two of us. You and me against the world. Now, we’ve got a team and team members and everything.” I sighed again. “It’s just so much more complicated. It was so nice when it was just us.”

“It was also a lot more dangerous and a lot more difficult.”

“True.” I smiled at him. “How do you feel about it all?”

His eyebrows rose. “The same way you do. It is better now, but there’s that twinge. Nick’s supposed to grow, but damn, he was cute as a kid. It’s good having backup and team members, but there was something about it being just the two of us.” He caressed my cheek. “If I haven’t been thinking about how life was, it’s because this is our life now. I’m happier now than I’ve ever been, and I hope you are, too.”

I rolled onto my back and thought about it. “Yeah. I am. The funny thing about the past is remembering all the nice parts and forgetting the nasty bits. It’s better being here with you than it ever was.”

Yeah, it was one of those moments and led where you might expect. And I was glad that it had, especially the following Monday. That was the day of Lydia James’ funeral. Oh, it was sad. It wasn’t the kind of sad that meant regrets and anger. It was just people feeling bad that they hadn’t had more time with her.

Truth be told, I hadn’t known Lydia all that well. We were friends, of course, but I hadn’t had the chance to get to know her the way Sid or a lot of people at the funeral had. It was a graveside service. Lillian Ward, aka The Dragon, was there because she was a good friend of Henry’s and Lydia’s through our Travel Club, which, while it had civilians in it, was our primary contact within Quickline and with other agencies. So were Clint Foster and his wife, Dierdre. Clint was the CIA liaison in the club. Marian and Andrew, the driving forces behind the Travel Club, hadn’t been able to get away for the funeral, but had sent a huge wreath of flowers on a stand.

 Thank God, the funeral people had erected a large canopy over the chairs and the grave. The sun was murderously hot that day, and even in the canopy’s shade, it was broiling. Sid and I left Nick at home. Nick barely knew who Lydia was and given how he was feeling after the anniversary of his mother’s death, he was not in the mood for a funeral.

Sid’s forehead glistened with sweat as he went to the podium for the eulogy. For once, he didn’t seem to mind. He used his pocket color to wipe the sweat from his forehead, then shuffled his notes, and swallowed.

“When Colton asked me to give the eulogy today, he said he figured I had the best chance of not breaking down.” Sid swallowed again and blinked. “I’m afraid, Colton, that may have been more optimistic than not. There are a lot of stories to share. I’ve heard many of them over the past few days. The time Lydia yelled at the Little League coach for not putting all his team in the game, never mind that it was the league finals. The time Lydia went after Henry’s boss about the hours he was putting in and not getting paid for. Lydia’s standard response to any unplanned guest for dinner, that she just put another potato in the pot.” Sid chuckled. “Of course, if it was my Lisa coming for dinner, Lydia always teased her that it was more like four or five potatoes because of how much food my darling can consume in one sitting. It was never mean. Lydia simply knew Lisa and appreciated how my sweetheart loves to eat.” Sid paused again and blinked. “The thing is, I would not have Lisa if not for Lydia. When I first met Lisa almost four years ago, I had nothing resembling good relationship skills. I have to give Lisa the credit for forcing me to communicate with her. However, if it weren’t for Lydia, Lisa would not have been able to. You see, there was a fight that was sort of happening a couple months after I’d hired Lisa as my secretary. Lisa wanted to talk about it and settle it. I avoided it, as I did most such conflicts. It was easier that way. The only problem was, I really needed Lisa’s skills, and letting her go would make my life infinitely more difficult. So, one night during that time, I ended up at Henry and Lydia’s for dinner, and complained to Henry about how difficult some women could be. Lydia laughed at me, long and loud, then said that if this woman was such a pain in the ass, then she must be good for me and that I should listen to her. I am so grateful for that dig. Less than a week or so later, the fight between Lisa and I had escalated. Lisa delivered a body-slam for the ages, but still thought that we could work it out. I came this close to walking out. But Lydia’s words came back to me, and I gave Lisa a chance.” Sid looked straight at me, and I started weeping. He took a deep breath. “I cannot tell you how glad I am that I did. Lydia literally paved the way for that confrontation. If I have any regrets, it’s that I never told Lydia how much she had to do with my relationship with Lisa. I sometimes think Lydia knew. She would look at the two of us and grin, and I have to wonder. The funny thing is, I don’t think it mattered to her. She was who she was, loving, reaching out, finding the good in everyone she touched.” He took another deep breath. “So, here is the challenge I offer to every one of us today. Lydia chose to love deeply and broadly. The broad part of it may have been a little hard for some of her family, but it has meant the world to the rest of us. If she could do it, why can’t we? Let us make loving others her legacy. It is what she did. Why can’t we do the same? Let us see others, especially those in need of a loving hand, as part of our families. Let us reach out in acceptance and joy, not settling for B.S., but choosing to care, to love. If Lydia could make me, who had no frame of reference for love, see how to be loving, then we all can. I will miss Lydia. I know that Henry, Conrad, Colton, their wives and kids will miss her far more than I will. But thanks to her, we can make this world a better place, and I believe that would make Lydia glad.”

Several people came up after Sid to share their memories, although Angelique chose not to. Eventually, the minister presiding over the event led us through The Lord’s Prayer, and the crowd slowly filtered away. There was to be a small reception back at the house, but it was for family members only. Sid offered to take Angelique and Tom to lunch, but they declined.

“Colton invited us to the reception,” Ange said, swallowing. “I’ll call you later this afternoon?”

“Sure,” I said.

Sid and I ended up agreeing to lunch with Lillian. Clint and Dierdre paid their respects to Henry right away and left the cemetery quickly. When it was our turn to talk to the family, Colton thanked Sid for the eulogy. Henry and Sid just held each other for several minutes, then Henry held me.

“Thank you, guys,” Henry whispered, then turned to Lillian, who was behind us.

We moved on, pausing only to confirm which restaurant we were going to.

It was a quiet lunch and while it was pleasant enough, Lillian said that she had to get back to DC, and Sid and I agreed we had work to do back at the house.

Ange called around four that afternoon.

“It’s no big deal,” she said. “But it could be a problem. Tom’s not excited about the top-secret part of my job.”

“Oh, no,” I said. “Just when things were going so well.”

“We’re fine.” Ange laughed a little. “Really. It’s just something Tom said. He can’t help wondering which of the people I’m working with are doing the top-secret stuff.”

“As in, he might be wondering about us.”

“Yeah. I think I put him off. I told him he doesn’t want to be wondering too much or he’ll be suspecting everyone and getting paranoid. At least, he knows not to ask questions.”

It was small comfort, but there wasn’t much to be done about it.

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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