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Silence in the Tortured Soul – Chapter Thirteen

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.

We took Frank and Esther to our martial arts dojo the next morning instead of the gym, then Sid took Esther to work, and I took Frank with me back to the house. There was a mildly unpleasant surprise waiting for us in Josie Prosser and two of her pre-teen friends. Well, I still wasn’t sure who was who yet, but I was reasonably sure one of them was Josie.

They scattered when they saw the garage door open as I pulled up, but they came right back once I had pulled into the garage and closed the door.

“What’s that about?” Frank asked as I checked out the front windows.

“Something we don’t need.” I shook my head and went over to my desk. “The girls are chasing Nick. It’s why he’s over at Sy and Stella’s for the time being.”

I checked the answering machine just as my pager went off. I paged Sid first to let him know that I’d take the call, since our pagers tended to go off together. The call was for a pickup addressed to us from the Green line. I set it up, then decided to bring Frank with me. We needed to go to the shooting range, anyway. There weren’t any urgent calls on the answering machine, either.

The weather outside was warm, and I was wearing a pair of lightweight mint green linen Bermuda shorts with sandals and a sleeveless polo shirt in a flowered print. The pickup was a priority three, code three, and I’d set it up for a donut stand that was not only well known, it was a favorite of mine and Frank’s. In fact, he’d taken me on a date there shortly after we’d met.

I explained the priority and code system to Frank as I drove us there.

“Priority is pretty obvious,” I said. “One doesn’t happen that often, but you know it’s hot if you get one. Code is the level of contact we can have with the other courier. Code one is no contact at all. Code five means you can hang around and maybe even talk to each other. This pick up is a code three, which means we’ll probably see the other courier, but not really talk to him.”

“Him?” Frank asked. “I thought we weren’t supposed to know anybody.”

“Well, after a while, you can’t help but recognize people.”

In fact, I had seen Green Lantern, the mover on the San Francisco stop of the Green line, any number of times, and the nondescript man had seen me, as well. I ordered several donuts and coffee for both Frank and me, then we sat outside at one of the cement tables. Green Lantern wandered past us on his way to the parking lot. Some minutes later, Frank and I had finished our donuts and took the remains of our coffee back to the truck.

“That’s it?” Frank asked as I started the engine.

“Be thankful that’s it,” I said. “When it isn’t, it’s ugly. And speaking of, we need to spend some significant time at the shooting range today.”

Frank grimaced. According to Sid, the previous day’s session had not gone well. The range we went to was a special one for undercover operatives and others who needed a discreet place to practice. The targets were the human silhouettes one associates with law-enforcement. That didn’t seem to bother Frank.

I let him squeeze off a few rounds and saw that Esther had been exactly right. He was rushing his shots. It was probably not one of my finer bits of inspiration, but there was the movie The Karate Kid. I’d seen it several times with Nick, who really loved the film. Wax on, wax off.

“Alright, Frank, we’re going to try something different,” I told him. “Before you shoot, I want you to take a deep breath, hold it, take your time sighting down the barrel at the target, let out your breath, then slowly squeeze off the shot.”

“That’s not going to help if somebody’s shooting at us.”

“Just do as I say.”

Frank shook his head, put his ear protection on, then followed my prompts, and hit the target right in the chest. He gaped.

“Wow.”

“Let’s try that again. Slowly.”

He kept trying to rush my prompts, but I wouldn’t let him.

“But what are we going to do if we’re in real trouble?” he asked as we finally left the range. “I can’t shoot that slowly and expect us to come out alive.”

“I’m not worrying about that right now,” I said, starting my truck.

“You don’t understand, Lisa.”

“What do you mean, I don’t understand?” I couldn’t help glaring at him. “How many gunfights have you been in, Frank?”

“I haven’t, but—”

“Frank, I’ve been in plenty.” I wasn’t sure why I was so irritated by him at that moment. I looked over at him and finally saw that there was something else gnawing at him. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be so cranky, but this is something I really know, and it feels like you don’t believe that I know what I’m doing.”

“That’s not it.” Frank’s face grew even more pained. “I’m just scared, Lisa. I need to be there for Esther, and what if I’m not?”

“That’s not the way to be thinking about this.” I sighed. “Look, Frank, I worry about the same thing. What if I’m not there to save Sid, or worse, Nick? Sid, at least, has years and years of experience. But my son. He’s just a kid. The worst of it is, no matter how much training or experience you have, things can still go wrong. Which is why you can’t be worrying too much about being there for Esther. There are no guarantees that things won’t go bad in spite of your best efforts.”

Frank snorted. “Oh, I know that. I really know that.” He looked at me, then blinked. “My dad was a cop, you know.”

“That’s right.” I frowned as I remembered. “Didn’t you say he was killed in the line of duty?”

“I did.”

“That sucks.”

“You have no idea.”

“I’m sure I don’t.” I glanced over at him, then focused on the freeway ahead of us.

“It’s not just about being there for Esther.” Frank took a deep breath. “My brother Patrick thinks I’m a major screwup.”

“I thought your brother’s name is James.”

“James is the second oldest. Our older brother is Patrick. He’s a special agent for the FBI. He always says I should have gone into law enforcement, that it would straighten me out.” Frank sighed and shook his head. “He never got me wanting to play the flute. None of my family does. Doreen sort of gets the music thing, and Mom doesn’t understand it, but she’s okay with it. But the rest of them, James, Sean, Colleen, Joseph, and especially Patrick, they love me, but they just do not understand. That’s why I came out here for school, then stayed.”

“Frank, you’re not a screwup. You’ve got some impressive talent, especially spotting tails.”

He gazed out the window ahead, then at me. “You know, Lisa, I did sort of have you and Sid figured out. I knew you were doing something for the FBI. At least, I was pretty sure you were. The way you ditched people following you, and the way you’d clam up about things. I’m good at figuring things out. I just don’t say anything about them because I used to get in trouble when I did. But I’d seen your gun, too, and I knew what it was. A Smith and Wesson Model Thirteen, standard FBI issue. It’s the one Patrick carries. That’s why I choked when you brought me that one week before last. The funny thing is, I could never figure out that thing you have about corpses.”

“My little phobia.” I sighed. “It was the business that did it to me.”

Frank shrugged. “Okay.” He waited a moment, then realized I was not going to say any more about it. “Anyway, if you can have a phobia of corpses, then I don’t have to be the best marksman out there.” He put his hand up as I started to protest. “I have to get better. I’m not saying I don’t. But I don’t have to be Dead-Eye Dick. Which means I’m not a major screwup.”

“I already said you’re not.” I sighed. “If I’m being a hard nose about the shooting thing, it’s because right now, you’re more of a danger than a help. I’m sorry. That’s the hard truth, and it’s not helping you to say otherwise. But darn it, I will get you shooting straight if it’s the last thing I do. I owe you that much and I owe it to Esther, too. And it will happen before we’re both senile.”

Frank closed his eyes and started chuckling. “I’m not that bad.”

“You’re not and you showed some significant improvement today. We’ll just keep on working on things slowly and the next thing you know, it will speed up and you’ll be hitting the target without even thinking about it.”

“I sure hope so.”

I didn’t say anything, but there was part of me that was hoping the same thing, preferably before Frank got his backside killed.

Nick called the car phone to say he wanted to come home that night and asked if I’d mind if Kathy and Jesse gave him a ride over since they were coming over to the house. I said yes. Frank looked at me funny.

“Sy and Stella are staying in that condo Sid and I bought last year when we were remodeling the house,” I explained. “The one right across from Kathy and Jesse’s.”

“Oh, right.”

Nick, Kathy, and Jesse were already at the house when Frank and I pulled into the garage. Sid showed up with Esther soon after. I told Sid about the pickup I’d made earlier that day, which confirmed that the bomb that had killed Gil Woltz had been of KGB origin and pretty sophisticated, not unlike the bomb we’d taken off of Frank’s car before camp. Esther and Sid both had some interesting news, too.

“Leon Thomas will be the new hire on the Cat’s Paw project,” Sid said with a grin as we all gathered in the living room.

I was thrilled. Leon was really Desmond Moore, our Red Line mover in Phoenix, and, yes, keeping all the aliases straight could be insanely confusing.

Esther grinned. “And I found out what happened to Gil Woltz’s ID last spring. He filed it as missing on May thirteen, then found it again on May sixteen. He got into the plant the night of May thirteen and stayed several hours, and also in the security logs were the sign offs on IDs for about eight different people, five men and three women.” She plopped a piece of paper into Sid’s hand. “Here are the names, but it won’t make much difference. I disabled all of the IDs and added a warning to hold anybody who has one of them.”

“How did you get this?” Sid asked.

Esther shrugged. “Gil was stupid. He put his passwords under the desk pad. Everyone knew they were there. And I have to get into the security admin files every so often because the guys play games with them. They think they’re being funny. I have to go through personnel files pretty often, too.”

Sid looked thoughtful. “If you weren’t so busy with that launch, I’d have you go through those personnel files. We might find something.”

Conchetta had left a nice taco salad for dinner, and Kathy and Sid saw to filling it out so that there was enough for all of us. After we ate, we started in on code work, never mind that there was Bible Study that night. We probably did more talking than code work. As Kathy put it later, we all needed some time to deal with the sudden change in Frank and Esther’s lives.

If I held Nick somewhat closer to me than usual that night, well, there was the conversation I’d had with Frank earlier. Not that Nick entirely noticed. Bless him, he was absorbed in his usual pre-teen fog of doting grandparents, adventures with his buddies, and how to get away from annoying girls. For that, I was immensely grateful, and squeezed him yet again.

Sid and I sent Nick to bed around nine-thirty with the usual kisses and hugs. Kathy and Jesse went home shortly after that, and Esther was in the guest room somewhat before ten. Leaving Sid and Frank talking in the living room, I went upstairs to Sid’s and my bedroom.

I love to read in bed. I wasn’t sure what time it was when Sid finally made his way into our bedroom that night, but I was well into the book I was reading when he did. He went into our bathroom and dressing room to get undressed and otherwise ready for bed. The waterbed rocked a little as he finally slid underneath the covers.

He squinted at me and the book I was reading. Sid is very nearsighted, but wears contact lenses, so most people don’t really notice.

He grinned. “Is that from the dirty books bag?”

I chuckled. “Uh, yeah.”

Library book sales are one of my Achilles’ Heels. I’d been to the Beverly Hills Library sale about a month or so before and somehow ended up with a bag of books filled with sexy best-sellers from the nineteen-seventies, including Fear of Flying, by Erica Jong (which I’d really liked), Jaws, by Peter Benchley, the Godfather, by Mario Puzo, and several Harold Robbins books (which were boring me to tears, although the sex scenes were decent), and the book I was currently reading.

“And…?” Sid asked.

Okay, he was a little hopeful. Some of the books I’d read had… Well, led to some intense connections.

I sighed. “I’m not liking it.”

“Which one is it?”

“Once is Not Enough. Jacqueline Susann.”

“Ah. I’ve read it. Once was too much.”

“You’re right. Good lord, this girl is pathetic.”

Sid rolled onto his back, then blinked. “How close are you to done?”

“Almost.” I flipped through the last few pages. “They’re doing LSD and there are a bunch of hippies… Sid, did you ever try doing it during a people pass?”

Sid groaned. “That scene is a joke.”

“Oh.”

“Folks who are that strung out are probably not standing.” He sighed. “But, yes, there was a party, and we tried to reenact that scene.”

“And…?”

“Sweetie, you know how hard it is to pass people who are keeping still along a line. What are the odds two people are going to be able to hump in that situation, even without being passed?”

“Um, it didn’t happen?”

“Let’s just say I damned near broke my neck, and the folks holding us were mostly sober.”

I read a few more lines, then threw the book across the room. “Okay. I’m done with this one.”

He looked at me, then pulled me next to him. “Are you okay?”

I winced. “I got cranky with Frank today. It wasn’t entirely fair. He was panicking a little about the shooting thing.”

“Hm.” He sighed. “Your mood has been a little off for a while now. Are you happy?”

I put my hand on his cheek. “Yes. I love being with you, Sid. More than anything.”

“And you don’t have any regrets about getting married.”

“It was totally the right thing to do.” I looked at him. “Do you miss your old life?”

“Not in the least.” He gave me a quick squeeze. “How about you? Do you miss your old life?”

I winced. “Maybe a little. I liked being able to schedule a lunch date without worrying about what you’re doing or whether I have to pick up Nick somewhere. Maybe I wasn’t all that independent because of working, but it was nice just being on my own.”

“Ah.” Sid rolled onto his back. “My darling, when was the last time you had any significant time to yourself?”

“Ummm.” I counted back. “Well, there was camp. That was pretty much wall to wall social contact. Then the craziness watching Frank and Esther the week before, and the week before that, not to mention Henry’s retirement party.”

“Then there was the Fourth of July, and the reunion. And before that was getting over the jet lag from the Travel Club meeting.”

The Travel Club was visibly a group of people who liked to travel and visit with each other, and there were several civilians who were part of it. However, the meeting, apart from various spouses, was actually about the operatives in the group having a small conference on what was going on in their various parts of Europe and South America so that we could be sure to get the right intelligence to the right agency.

“And the Travel Club meeting itself. Good lord, Sid. I don’t think either of us has had any real downtime since before we left for England.”

“At least, I’ve had morning practice time up until camp happened.” He shuddered. “No wonder you’re cranky. I’m just about there, myself.”

I flopped onto my pillow. “And we’re not going to get any quiet time for the foreseeable future.”

“Honey, we’ve got to take some time. If we don’t, we won’t be good for anything.”

“When are we going to do it? We’ve got Janey’s birthday party tomorrow night.”

Janey is not only my niece, she’s very close to Sid.

He sighed. “We can’t miss that.”

“And it will not be a nice, quiet little party. We’re way behind on code work with Frank and Esther, let alone all the other training they need.” I sighed. “We’ll just have to gut through. At least, I know what’s getting to me. That’s a big help.”

“Yeah, it is.” He rolled onto his side and smiled at me. “How do you feel about the two of us making some noise right now?”

I grinned. “I always love that.”

The next morning, Sid insisted I sleep in while he took Frank and Esther to the gym.

“I’ll need to take Frank to the shooting range,” I muttered.

“Fine. I’ll bring Frank back here after we take Esther to work.”

“You’re leaving her there?”

Sid shrugged. “With the extra security and the way she killed those IDs, there’s not much risk. And Desmond starts there today. Besides, Esther knows to call us if anything weird turns up. In the meantime, get some extra sleep and quiet time. I’ll leave a note for Nick not to bother you. Okay?”

I blinked and smiled. “Thanks, lover. What are you doing for yourself?”

“I’ll figure something out after you take Frank to the shooting range.”

We did still have work to do for the October issue of the magazine, some of which was primarily mine because while Sid was getting better at the grammar and spelling thing and he was very good at working through any logical lapses in an article, I am the better editor.

The extra rest, though, helped a lot. I was up and dressed by the time Sid got back with Frank. We all ate breakfast together with Nick, who was still inhaling plenty of extra food. I think we went through a whole loaf of whole grain bread that morning between Nick, Frank, and me, and Frank and I did not get the lion’s share.

I took Frank to the shooting range after that. Slowing him down was helping a lot. I didn’t rush anything but let him make several shots on the same deep breath and they all hit the body area of the target. We worked until lunchtime, when Sid and Esther showed up. I worked with Esther while Sid took Frank back to the house.

“So, anything going on at the office?” I asked Esther as I drove her back to her office.

Esther rolled her eyes. “Just a bunch of managers wetting their pants over whether the systems will be functioning by the launch date. They will. They always do. But that doesn’t stop the managers.”

“How much time do you have?”

“It’s supposed to go up the twentieth.”

“Of August?”

“Yeah. Everything will come together at the last second. It does every time we do a satellite.”

I made a point of going through a drive-through so that Esther could have something to eat. She finished her lunch before we got to the defense plant. I had gotten my wig on and flashed my ID at the guard at the gate before dropping Esther off at the door to her office building. I waited just long enough to be sure she was inside.

Back at the house, Sid had Frank working on codes. My sister Mae called to ask me a favor.

“I can’t believe I’m doing this,” she told me. “I’m stuck here at work until five. Neil’s going to pick up the cake and the food. But we could use an extra salad or two. Do you mind?”

“It shouldn’t be a problem. What kind of salad?”

“We’re getting tamales and enchiladas, so maybe a cole slaw and maybe some green salad. I should have ordered them from the restaurant, but I didn’t think ahead.”

“Oh, shavings! I didn’t think ahead, either. What am I going to feed Frank and Esther?”

“Why are you feeding them?”

“They’re staying with us. There’s a plumbing problem at their duplex and they don’t have any water.” Okay, we’d planned that excuse, never mind that the plumbing was working just fine at their place.

“Darby loves Frank. Bring them along, too. And add a potato salad. I know how Frank eats. Is Nick still chowing down?”

“Like nobody’s business,” I sighed. “I’ll see if I can convince Esther to leave work early or we’re going to be really late. I’ll call you once I know.”

I called Esther and convinced her to be ready to leave work at three-thirty. Sid heard about the salad request and immediately called another restaurant to order enough for everybody. The expected articles for the October issue had finally arrived, and I went over them with my red pen. By the time I was done, it was time to gather Janey’s presents together and Frank and Nick, and swing by the restaurant, then Esther’s office. It felt like it took forever to get to Mae and Neil’s place in Pasadena, but in truth, we got there right around five-thirty. No surprise, Sy and Stella had beaten us there. Of course, they’d been invited. Sy was mentoring Darby on the violin and Stella loves Janey almost as much as Sid does.

Once we pulled into the narrow driveway, Darby, a redhead who was about Nick’s age, came running out. He and Nick chatted for a second. Darby gave me a hug, shook Sid’s hand, and said hi to Frank and Esther, then he and Nick disappeared into the house and Darby’s room. Janey, a brunette celebrating her tenth birthday, was already on the porch, ready to give Uncle Sid his own special hug. Ellen, who was eight and looked like her older sister, bounced just inside the living room, dying to tell me and Uncle Sid about her latest science experiment. Twins Marty and Mitch, two other red heads who would turn six in September, were intent on doing some rough housing with Uncle Sid, only they couldn’t because Sid and I were bringing salads into the house.

Ellen glommed onto Esther, who was all ears about the latest experiment. After hugging Sid, Janey hung next to me, telling me all about her summer thus far, especially about all the books she’d read. Lissy, like any decent one-month-old, was sort of awake as Stella held her. Stella, we’d discovered, really liked babies.

In short, it was the usual noisy chaos that prevailed when my family got together. We ate dinner, sang Happy Birthday to Janey. She opened her presents. Mae asked me to tell her about the trip to England at the end of June. I couldn’t tell her that the trip was about connecting with a variety of other operatives and Quickline colleagues. But it had still been a very nice time, and I was able to share that and the wonderful dinner we’d had while in the Lake District in Northern England.

Sid and Stella traded off time on the family piano as we listened and sang. And, of course, Sy and Darby played violin together. Frank had brought his flute, too, and the music just went on. It was lovely, but also very wearing.

Nick wanted to talk about the day in the car on the way home, but I shook my head and insisted on silence. It was what I really, really needed.

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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