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.
You know how it goes. Life goes along on a perfectly even keel and then everything decides to go to hell on the same day. That was that Monday. It started early.
I will spot some points to the little tarts who had been stalking Nick and his buddies. They showed up on the end of our driveway at the ungodly hour of eight-something-or other, because they were there when Sid, Nick, and I finished our morning run, accompanied by my liver-colored springer spaniel Motley. There were four of them and if I only remember one of their names, well, that had to do with what happened later.
“Hi, Nick,” giggled one of them, a little redhead, as I recall.
Nick ignored her, part of the advice his father and I had given him, and hurried for the front door. The girls called after him.
Sid rolled his eyes and faced the girls. “Ladies, at what point has Nick shown the least interest in any of you?”
The girls looked at Sid, startled.
They all started sniffing and blinking.
Sid shook his head. “Please, ladies, I say this as much for your sakes as my son’s. Chasing boys like this will not get them to like you. Develop some respect for yourselves. Nick and his buddies are not the only boys out there. They’re not even the only cute boys out there. If one boy doesn’t like you, there are other boys who will and you don’t have to chase them, and you don’t have to put out to attract them. For crying out loud, you’re not even through middle school yet. You’ve got all of eighth grade, then four years of high school, even four years of college to find a boy or two who will treat you with respect and like you for it. But you’ve got to respect yourselves first. Think about it.”
He stalked off into the house. Okay, I may have given them the stink eye before I followed Sid. I was pretty sure that at least three of them were blubbering, but I didn’t care. And I was also proud of Sid. It wasn’t just protecting Nick. He cared enough to tell the girls what they really needed to hear. [Oh, for crying out loud. Why weren’t those parents teaching their girls to respect themselves? With all the schmucks and assholes out there, you would think lesson number one would be, “You’re better than that.” Kinda like your parents taught you. Best protection those girls could have gotten. – SEH]
Sid was still in a bit of a state as we got showered and dressed for the day. I put on a flowered skirt and knit top and sandals. Another blessing of the marriage thing. I had pointed out to Sid that what I wore had no bearing on how much work I got done. If he was more comfortable in business-wear, that was fine. I wasn’t. Oddly enough, he’d been dressing down a little, too, choosing a sport coat and slacks that morning instead of a full three-piece suit. [Three-piece suits were starting to go out of style. – SEH]
“Those girls really got to you,” I said, as we headed downstairs to breakfast.
“Sort of.” He frowned. “I’m just questioning a few things I used to take for granted.”
“I don’t understand.”
He sighed, then looked to see if Nick was within earshot, which he wasn’t.
“I know I was sexually active at thirteen.” Sid winced. “At the time, it didn’t seem like it was that young, especially since I knew younger kids who were active. But then, I look at those little ding-a-lings chasing Nick, and thirteen is starting to seem really, really young. I like to think I wasn’t quite that stupid when I was a kid, but now I have to wonder.”
I patted his arm. The reason Sid had lost his virginity so early was that he’d been raised among a group of communists, beatniks, and (later) hippies who all believed in free love and that sex was just something you did.
“The good news is, I don’t think Nick is going to be quite that stupid,” I said.
“That can change pretty quickly.”
I looked over at the breakfast room. Nick was probably in the kitchen, or possibly still in his bedroom.
“It may yet. But it’s the way he talks about the girls. It’s not that they’re gross or icky. It’s that they’re stupid.” I chuckled. “It would appear that our son wants some substance from his female companions. Which, by the way, is not that much unlike his dear old dad.”
“I’m not that old.”
I kissed him. “But you are that dear.”
“Mom! Dad!” Nick came out of the kitchen with a huge bowl of fruit salad and what looked like half a loaf’s worth of toast.
Sid’s jaw dropped. “Who’s going to eat all that?”
“I’ll put a good dent in it.” I grinned.
“Besides you.” Sid turned to his son. “Nicholas, what in the world…?”
“I’m hungry, Dad.” Nick put the bowl on the table, then dished out half of it onto his plate. “Besides, Grandma Wycherly says the amount you eat wouldn’t feed a baby bird, let alone a growing boy.”
Sid looked at me and sighed deeply. He’d put on a few pounds during our honeymoon, and they weren’t coming off that easily. The weight didn’t show, but Sid felt it and had really re-committed to healthy eating, apart from one rather spectacular fall off the wagon earlier that June. Shaking his head, he went into the kitchen to fetch the coffee. Nick had gotten the water boiling in the kettle, so all Sid had to do was put the filter in the cone, grind the beans, then pour the water over it all so that it dripped into the coffee pot we’d bought in Italy.
Nick had already brought the mugs to the table, along with the milk and sugar for me. That was another thing that had changed since the wedding. Sid had formerly banned caffeine, and it was understandable. He used to be hooked on the stuff, coffee especially, and would get terrible headaches if he didn’t get more. However, he had discovered that he could drink a cup or two a day and it wouldn’t upset his stomach or give him a headache if he skipped it the next day. Which was great because he really loves good coffee. Nick wasn’t sure if he liked it that much but refused to doctor his with milk and sugar like I did. I had never really liked coffee until the honeymoon, but I was getting to like it.
I waited for Sid to take however much of the toast and fruit that he wanted and tried not to wilt under his annoyed glare as I piled the rest on my plate. The reality is that I can (and often do) eat like a horse and never gain an ounce. I gained a pound or two on the honeymoon, but not quite as much as he had. One thing I didn’t tell him was that I’d already lost the gain and a couple more pounds.
Things didn’t get any better in the office. Sid slid out of his sport coat and put it over the back of his chair while I laid out the queries we’d gotten on his desk. Long John Silver leaped into his lap, her preferred napping place. Her offspring (now full-grown) were in various places. Fritz was probably outside hunting lizards and mice. I wasn’t sure where Blueberry was, but she usually liked to sleep on the library fireplace mantle. We’d lost a vase or two that way.
“These three are the best ones,” I told Sid, putting that pile of queries next to his left hand. “Then this pile is the idea’s good, but the idiot can’t write. This pile is workable, but with some significant massaging. And this pile is why did the main office send it?”
Someone at the magazine’s main office had weeded out the worst of the queries and sent on the queries we had.
Sid flipped through the three I’d liked and shook his head. “These are the best, huh? Did any of these idiots even read the magazine?”
I shrugged and picked up the messages on the answering machine because it was my turn that morning. Leslie had called the night before to let me know she’d made it to Los Angeles okay and to invite me to lunch sometime that week.
“Oh, that’s right,” I groaned. “We’ve got to call Henry about what Leslie said about that leak on the satellite.”
“Your day for the phone.” Sid didn’t even look up from the piles.
“You sure it won’t disturb you?”
Sid sighed. “If it does, I can move.”
Henry was in and picked up right away. He knew about the leak on the satellite and that the names of the engineers had been released to the press.
“My last week on the job and this has to happen,” Henry grumbled. “Every network and newspaper has been trying to get us to confirm that the satellite exists and that it’s nuclear-armed.”
“Well, if you don’t mind too much, could you add one more? My girlfriend, Leslie Bowman, just got on with one of the local TV stations. You may have met her at the wedding.”
“Was she your friend from high school?”
“Yeah, that’s her.”
“Have her call me and give her my direct number,” Henry growled again. “I’ll have to introduce her to my replacement, Fred Merryweather, but she will not be happy to hear from him.”
“What do you mean?”
“He’s an idiot!” Henry barked so loudly Sid looked up from the queries. “Gives me and the rest of the press this big song and dance about transparency and good communication, then lied about the freaking satellite. Said it didn’t exist.”
“Does he know that it does?”
“Probably not, and he doesn’t need to. He neither confirms nor denies.” The reason Henry knew the satellite existed was because he knew a good many other secrets, too. Besides being a public information officer, Henry had also been Sid’s and my supervisor for Quickline. “If you don’t know what it is, you neither confirm nor deny. That way, if whatever damned thing does exist, you’ve got an out because it’s top secret. And if it doesn’t exist, nobody cares.”
I had a bad feeling that it wasn’t just the satellite and his replacement making Henry angry. He’s usually pretty easy going. Worse yet, I didn’t really want to ask, but I had to.
“How’s Lydia doing?”
Lydia was Henry’s wife. She was dealing with cancer. Her prognosis had been fair to good earlier that spring. As soon as I mentioned her name, Sid looked up from the queries.
Henry sighed deeply. “The cancer’s metastasized. It was looking good after that last round of chemo in April. But it’s not only back, it’s all over. Mostly in her bones. We could have weeks. We could have months. There’s no way of knowing. That’s why I want out of here so badly. Except for that idiot.”
Well, he didn’t say idiot. The term he used for Fred Merryweather was exceptionally obscene.
Henry sighed again. “Listen, Lisa. Don’t let me get you down. There is some good news. Angelique is in her new position and even in her new office. I know she’d love to show off her new digs. Why don’t you set up a lunch date with her?”
“I’ll do that. And I can swing by and say hi to Lydia, too. Is she at home?”
“Yeah. She’d like that. Why don’t you and Sid come by after the retirement party on Thursday. You’re coming to the party, aren’t you?”
“We wouldn’t miss it, Henry.”
“Good.” He cursed again. “Another call. I’ll see you two Thursday.”
We hung up. Sid’s eyebrow was raised, so I told him what Henry had said. I choked a little when I got to Lydia’s cancer.
Sid sighed as well. “There’s nothing we can do about it, Lisa.”
I shook my head. “I can pray.”
“Then do that.” Sid smiled warmly. He’s an atheist, so my praying doesn’t entirely make sense to him, but he sees it as the glue that holds me together.
I also called Leslie at the number she’d left. It was her new office number. I told her to talk to Henry and about the problem that the new guy was going to be. Leslie was less than enthused but appreciated the direct number for Henry. We didn’t quite get around to scheduling lunch, though.
Then Sid and I made our decisions on which two articles we could assign. Sid printed out the rejection letters, based on the different queries, and then the acceptance letters. We were assembling all the different letters when the phone rang.
After a quick glance and nod from Sid, I put it on the speakerphone so that I could keep working.
“Hello?” I asked.
“Is Mr. or Mrs. Flaherty there?” asked a woman’s voice.
Sid stopped tearing tractor paper off the return letters and looked at me. After all, Flaherty was Nick’s last name, not Sid’s or mine.
“May I ask who’s calling?” I said.
“This is Josie Prosser’s mother. I need to speak with Nick Flaherty’s parents.”
“This is Lisa Wycherly,” I said. “I’m Nick’s mother. And your name is…?”
“Good to meet you, Ms. Prosser. How can I help you?”
“It’s about Nick’s father.”
“That would be Sid Hackbirn, yes.”
“I thought you two were married.”
I sighed. “We are.”
I could almost hear her biting her tongue. Okay, it was a little odd that Sid, Nick, and I all had different last names, but we did for reasons that were important to us. Why that upset people, I do not understand.
“You need to speak to your husband. He brought my poor daughter to tears this morning.”
“By suggesting that she needed to feel more respect for herself?”
“My daughter has plenty of respect for herself.”
“Then why is she chasing my son and two other boys who have no interest in her?”
Ms. Prosser coughed. “It’s harmless nonsense. And if your son and those other two boys have no interest, you might have something to worry about.”
I took a deep breath. “I have nothing to worry about. There are lots of reasons why Nick and his friends are not interested in her or her friends, and being followed around might just be one of them. If my husband suggested to them that their behavior was less than attractive and showed poor self-esteem, he had a good point.”
“And what gives him the right to decide that?”
“Excuse me,” Sid cut in. “This is Sid Hackbirn. I’m Nick’s father. I also have a past and let me tell you something else you don’t want to hear, but you really might want to think about. Girls like your daughter were who I preyed on when I was in high school. Because they needed a male to make them feel good about themselves, I got a lot of fast, easy lays without having to deal with going steady or any of that other crap. A lot of those girls got married too young. Some even got abortions as soon as it was legal. Now, if that’s the future you want for your daughter, that’s up to you. Me? I don’t want that for my son. I want him to respect the word no and to spend his time with girls who respect it when he says no. So, I do think your daughter could do with a lot more self-respect. Because what she and her friends are doing is not harmless. It won’t hurt my kid because he has his head on his shoulders. But it will hurt yours. Think about it.”
Sid reached over and slapped the phone off. I sighed.
“What?” Sid glared at me.
“Yes, you were right.” I bit my lip. “But you were pretty hard on her.”
“You were trying to be nice, and it didn’t do a thing.” Sid looked away. “She didn’t understand. How else to get through to her?”
“You’re probably right. We just have enough trouble with the other parents at Nick’s school.”
Sid shrugged. “Maybe it will get us off volunteer service.”
He fervently hoped so. We’d already had one dust up over the parents’ newsletter, which had resulted in being shifted to another committee. [And a really crappy newsletter. – SEH]
The phone rang again, also on the personal line. I popped it onto the speakerphone.
“Hello, Lisa,” said Stella, Sid’s aunt who raised him. “Is Sid there? I’ve got some news for the two of you.”
“I’m right here, Stella,” said Sid. “What’s up?”
“Well, all the pieces have finally fallen into place. I’ve sold my music school. I’m moving to Los Angeles this week.”
“What?” Sid gaped.
Stella had been living in South Florida, where she was originally from. It was a long story, but she didn’t particularly like being there.
“I have considerable incentive to be in the Los Angeles area, namely a grandson.” She paused. Since she hadn’t given birth to any children of her own, she meant Nick. “And a son.” Which meant Sid. “Sy and I are flying in on Friday to finalize the location for my new school and to find a place to live.”
Sy was Stella’s lover. Their relationship was another long story.
“Why aren’t you going to New York?” I asked. That was where Sy lived and worked as the head of the strings department at Juilliard.
“For a lot of reasons. Sy wants to retire someplace warm. He’s got a year or two, but he likes Los Angeles. He likes being a grandpa. And he is fed up to his back teeth with administration. He’s going to spend the rest of the summer out here with me to see if we can make it work. He’s also got a couple guest lecturer jobs around town for the fall. If he can keep that up, it will be easier to leave Juilliard sooner rather than later. In the meantime, I’ve been meeting with several Los Angeles school district officials, so there may be something we can do on that level.”
“Do you want to stay here at the house until you get your place?” Sid asked, swallowing. “You’re more than welcome.”
“That will do for the time being.” That was, actually, high praise on Stella’s part. “Sy and I are going to rent a car, so you won’t need to pick us up at the airport. The plane lands at one. We should be there sometime after two.”
“We’ll make a point of being home,” said Sid.
“Good. I’ll see you Friday.”
I looked at Sid, who looked a little flummoxed.
“It’s not even lunchtime yet, is it?” he said.
“I’m afraid not.”
The phone rang again. This time, it was our good friend Jesse White. He and his wife, Kathy Deiner, wanted to meet us for lunch. Jesse and Kathy had been recruited into our side business the previous fall, and Jesse said he had a pickup for us. Sid and I agreed to meet them at one of our preferred Mexican restaurants in Westwood. We went over the rules again with Nick regarding staying alone, let our housekeeper, Conchetta, know that she only had to feed Nick, and hurried out.
Jesse and Kathy were waiting for us in the restaurant’s foyer when we arrived. Jesse was a little taller than average, with his black hair cut round, and skin the color of cocoa. Kathy’s skin was more dark chocolate, and she was almost as tall as Jesse and kept her hair clipped close to her head. The four of us were shown to a booth at the back almost immediately and the waitress brought us a basket of chips and two bowls of salsa, even before she brought us glasses of water. Sid glared longingly at the chips, then took one and dipped it in the extra spicy salsa. We chit-chatted until the waitress had taken our order, then brought the food. Sid spooned as much spicy salsa as he could over his tostada salad.
“So, what’s going on?” Sid asked.
“Besides the usual nonsense at church?” Kathy asked, mischief in her dark eyes.
Church is where I’d met Kathy and Jesse. Sid got to know them as he got more involved in my life.
Jesse handed Sid a manila envelope. “Had to run to Vegas yesterday for this. It’s addressed to you two.”
“Goody,” I said. Information addressed to us usually meant more work.
Sid opened the envelope, read the letter inside, hmm’d a couple times, then cursed.
“What?” I asked.
He handed me the sheet and whispered the keyword in my ear. It took me several minutes longer to decipher the code, but when I did, I almost cursed.
“They’ve got to be kidding,” I said.
Jesse and Kathy were both concentrating on their food in a way that strongly suggested they were dying to know. But, hey, it’s the spy biz. They understood they didn’t necessarily have Need to Know. Sid looked at me. I shrugged.
“They’re going to find out,” I said.
“True.” Sid sighed and looked at Kathy and Jesse. “Alright, for once, you’re going to be on the ground floor on something.”
“It’s about time,” said Kathy, slapping the table with an eager grin.
“You know we can’t help it,” I told her.
“So, what’s up?” Jesse asked.
“Our current assignment,” said Sid. “There’s a spy satellite due to go up later this summer. The problem is, there’s been a leak on the project and the anti-nuke group protesting the launch has not only released some of the information to the press, they’ve released a list of the engineers that they believe are on the project.”
Kathy’s eyes narrowed. “Esther is an engineer doing top secret stuff. I mean, no reason to assume she’s involved.”
“But she is.” I crossed myself. “She’s one of the engineers on the list. And since Sid and I first heard about the satellite, we noticed that the division at her company working on it is on her work badge. Our orders are to protect her and Frank, and when Frank’s security clearance comes through, start training them as couriers.”
Kathy gaped. “What?”
“They’re being adopted?” Jesse swallowed. “What did they do to get signed on?”
“Know us, apparently.” Disgusted, Sid folded the sheet of paper and slid it into his sport coat’s inside pocket. “Our group likes to recruit friends. It would seem that friends of good spies tend to have the same qualities that make them good spies, too.”
“Esther does have an advanced clearance,” I said. “She has to, so that she can do what she does. Frank’s too close to her not to be involved, and he has a lot of freedom to move around.”
“But is he going to be responsible enough?” Kathy asked.
She had a point. As much as I loved Frank, he could be pretty wild.
Sid smiled. “Frank? No problem. He’s where he needs to be when he needs to be there. He can be a little crazy, but never at the expense of anything important.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” I grumbled. “What about our wedding pictures?”
Jesse and Kathy started breaking up. Jesse had gotten the close-up, so there was no doubt. But, yeah, Frank had pulled one of his more infamous stunts for our wedding. We still had no idea how he’d managed it, but he’d somehow painted “HI” on the soles of Sid’s shoes, so that when Sid and I kneeled at the kneeler in front of the altar, that’s what everyone saw. That didn’t even count the games he’d played with the wedding music. [The shoes weren’t Frank. I know that’s what we thought then. But it was Mae and Neil who pulled that one off, although we didn’t find that out until, what, our fifth anniversary? – SEH]
“I will get him back for that,” said Sid. He shook his head. “In the meantime, we need to do some reconnaissance on their place, plus set up monitoring shifts, get the surveillance cameras and mikes in place. All that fun stuff.”
I looked at Sid. “I’ll take care of the recon vehicle tomorrow. I have a meeting anyway.”
Sid nodded. We finished lunch going over a few more details, then went our separate ways for the time being.
Thank you for reading. For more information about the Operation Quickline series, click here.