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.
It was not easy getting up to get Frank and Esther to the gym by six in the morning, but I did. Kathy and Jesse met us there. Frank’s mood was pretty lousy, but he, even more than Esther, appreciated the need for the exercise.
Nick was still at Sy and Stella’s and likely to stay there for the next few days, as were his friends Josh and Rob. The four girls were still chasing them.
We got dressed for our workday at the gym. Esther was surprised when I piled on the makeup, then put on a blond wig and slid a pair of glasses onto my nose. I checked the smaller black purse that I’d be using that day to be sure the appropriate ID was where it needed to be and that my gun was in it.
I smiled at her. “I’m your new FBI escort investigating this case. Do not use my name. Period. Special Agent will do.”
I drove Esther to work that morning in my little Datsun pickup with the expanded cab and shell on the back, although we stopped at a McDonald’s to have breakfast.
“How are you doing?” I asked Esther after we’d eaten and gotten back into my truck.
“Alright, I guess.” She made a face. “Why’d you guys pick us?”
“We didn’t.” I sighed. “It was someone else’s idea.”
“You think we can’t do it?” Esther glared at me.
“I know you guys can. Frank has no training and can still spot and ditch a tail better than a couple of old hands I know.” I sighed, then checked my blind spot and changed lanes. “I just don’t like the idea of you having to risk your necks right alongside us. I don’t like risking Kathy’s and Jesse’s necks, either.”
“Then why did you recruit us?”
“It wasn’t my idea, but that’s how the orders came down. And it makes sense in an odd way. The same qualities that draw us together as friends a lot of times are the same qualities that make us good operatives. So, when the higher-ups decide they need more personnel, the first place they look is our friends.”
“Okay. But Frank can’t shoot straight.”
“He rushes his shots. It’s how I beat him at the arcade all the time.”
“You know, you’re right.” I frowned and changed lanes again, gunning my little truck onto the freeway. “I hadn’t even noticed that. Maybe I should send Sid to the shooting range with Frank. I mean, I can teach the basics of how to aim, but it’s just something I do.”
“Frank said you had pretty good aim.”
I couldn’t help smirking. “I’m a lot better than pretty good. But that’s kind of the problem. It’s not something I think about how to do. I just do it.” I glanced over at her. “It’s true I’m not happy about roping you and Frank into this. But apart from your expected aptitude, there’s another good reason why I’m not that worried about you. Sid and I are really good at staying alive, and we will teach you every trick we know to make sure you do, too. Yes, this is a risky business, but we’ve survived because we’re good at it. And you will be, too.”
“I sure hope so.” Esther blinked. “I’m tired of being scared and feeling like someone is using me for target practice.”
I shook my head sadly. “Esther, you’re going to be feeling scared a lot.”
“Yeah. But now I’ll be able to fight back.” She looked angry.
“Speaking of, is there any way you can take some days off over the next few weeks?”
“No way.” She shook her head. “This is the worst time to be gone. The launch is coming up in less than a month and my group is doing all the testing to make sure all the systems on the bird work together.” She suddenly sniffed. “And now that Gil is gone, I have to be there. The system that turns everything on is locked by voice print and I’m the backup voice. Only Gil’s voice or mine will start it. The only reason I got off for camp is that I had that week reserved before I got made the backup and because Gil was going to be there.”
We both lapsed into silence as I drove. Esther broke it only to direct me to the place where she worked.
I think the reason there is a certain sameness to defense company offices is that the buildings were largely constructed in the late Fifties, early Sixties. They’re mostly rectangular boxes, some with rows of windows, some without. Esther’s company was no exception, except that there were more windows than less in the complex of three rectangular box buildings.
Once we pulled up outside the complex, a long line of cars waited to drive into the parking lot. Guards stopped each car before it drove in.
Esther looked bemused. “That’s different.”
“What is?” I tried to see.
“The guard in the driveway. Didn’t used to be there.”
“Seems like they’ve tightened up security.” I ran my thumb along the steering wheel, searching out the smooth spot I liked. “It’s probably about time.”
When we got to the guard gate, both Esther and I flashed our IDs. I have no idea what the guard thought about an FBI agent driving around one of the engineers, but we were waved through promptly. Some minutes later, I found a parking space and Esther and I made our way to the building where her office was housed.
I was not surprised to see guards in the building foyer checking IDs. I’d seen that before at other defense plants, although these guards were being a bit more thorough. Most of the employees could run their ID cards through a scanner at the door, as did Esther. Me? I had to wait for the guard in the lobby to look at my FBI ID and sign me in. He also gave me a yellow badge to wear, which meant that I could walk around some parts of the building unescorted but would need an escort for other parts.
Once through the door, Esther pulled me aside.
“I thought you said you had clearance,” she hissed softly.
“I do.” I said just as softly while making sure there was no one around to hear me. “But I’m undercover, the whole point of which is that no one is supposed to know I’m undercover.”
“Now, where do we go?”
“We’re upstairs.” We got onto an elevator filled with other engineers and office workers. Esther ran her card through a scanner again and pressed the button for the top floor. “I’ll have to escort you through my offices.”
We were the last people still on the elevator when it got to the top, and when we got off, we walked into a huge open area broken down into little cubicles with movable walls covered in gray burlap. Offices with closed doors and walls of glass lined the outside edges of the area. A slightly pudgy brunette with glasses looked up from the reception desk at the edge of the lobby leading to the elevators. The nameplate on the desk said Rhonda Swenson.
“Oh, Esther!” Rhonda sighed in relief. “I’m so glad you’re here. Sorensen is looking for you and he’s not happy.”
“So, what else is new?” Esther grumbled. She nodded at me.
Esther and I walked along the edge of the open area, only to be stopped by a large man with a full tummy, gray-blond hair, glasses, and an attitude of utter annoyance. He wore a blue and white striped dress shirt over dark polyester slacks, and his badge was on the outside of his shirt pocket. The topstitching on the pocket was coming apart on one side, probably thanks to the three pens the pocket also held.
“Nguyen! Where the hell have you been?”
“Trying to get in here,” Esther said.
The man stopped and looked at me. “Who are you?”
His badge identified him as Ross Sorensen.
I flipped open my ID. “Special Agent Linda Devereaux, FBI. I’m here as Ms. Nguyen’s escort.”
“What?” snapped a scrawny blond young man, his head popping up over the wall of his cubicle.
Several others like him crowded the space around us.
“Hey, how does she rate an FBI escort?” someone else snarled. “I’m on that list, too.”
I looked through the crowd, trying to find the source of the voice.
“I’m not allowed to comment on an open investigation,” I said to Sorensen. “However, it would be interesting to know how many of Ms. Nguyen’s colleagues were also attacked this past week, besides Mr. Woltz.”
“Attacked?” The crowd of men murmured some more, then slowly slid away.
Sorensen glared at Esther and frowned. He looked at me, then nodded toward the back of the open area.
“Nguyen, get to work.”
“Sure thing, Ross.”
I decided to take a chance that Esther was safe enough in that environment, then followed Sorensen to his office in the back corner. As I walked past one of the offices along the outside wall, I felt my bug finder vibrate in the pocket of my skirt. I stopped Sorensen.
“Whose office is that?” I asked, pointing at the closed door, which was the only office door that was closed.
Sorensen blinked and sighed. “Gil Woltz’s.”
“Thank you.” I gestured that he should lead on.
When we got to his office, Sorensen went right to his desk. I closed the door and covered a cough. Sorensen obviously smoked, although he chose not to light up. I briefly debated remaining standing, but decided it wasn’t time to antagonize the jackass.
He cleared his throat as I sat down. “You know, the guys have a legit complaint about Nguyen having an escort and they don’t, at least the ones who are also on that list.”
“And you haven’t answered my question.” I smiled. “Who else among your employees got attacked over the past week or so?”
Sorensen shifted. “Just Gil.” His eyebrows suddenly rose. “Not Nguyen too?”
“Draw what conclusions you wish. However, you clearly have a leak on the Cat’s Paw project, and while protecting Ms. Nguyen is part of why I’m here, it’s only the visible reason. My main objective is finding how that leak occurred and getting it plugged.”
Sorensen rose out of his chair. “How do you know the name of the project? It’s highly classified.”
I shook my head. “Mr. Sorensen, do you honestly believe that the Federal Bureau of Investigation is going to send out a Special Agent to investigate this who does not have the appropriate clearance?”
“Oh.” Sorensen slid back into his chair.
“Exactly.” I pulled my ID case from my purse. “And just so you know, I am what I say I am.”
I flipped open the case and plopped it in front of him. I’ll give him points. He did look at it, then looked at me.
“I also know that Ms. Nguyen is the backup on the voice security system to turn on the satellite.”
“She told you that?” Sorensen sort of glowered.
I smiled at him. “Wishful thinking, Mr. Sorensen?”
“Of course not.”
I believed that. Okay, I didn’t.
“And how many of your employees are on that list? Besides Ms. Nguyen.”
“About five or six.” Sorensen sighed deeply.
I pulled a notepad from my purse. “And they are…?”
Sorensen sighed and gave me the names.
“How many of them have received threats since the list came out?”
“Randy and Tom.”
“And which of those guys are actually working on the satellite?” Yes, they were all guys.
“Randy and Tom.”
I sighed. “I see. I will need to search Mr. Woltz’s office.”
Sorensen frowned. “One of your guys already did.”
“I have a different objective, Mr. Sorensen, and I’m looking for different things.” I also had a better idea of what to look for, but then I couldn’t tell him that.
Sorensen led me to Woltz’s office, then, after I glared at him, left me alone to search. It didn’t really help. With the glass walls, the others in the cubicles could see what I was doing. I wondered how obvious I should make it that I knew what I was looking for. That was a distinct problem I had. Being strictly undercover counterespionage, I didn’t have the training regular FBI agents had. So, I only had a vague notion of how they approached a crime scene or did their investigations. I had to hope most of the other people in the office didn’t know much more than I did.
I had one major advantage, though. I was not going to have to rush through this search while worrying about getting caught. Usually, the types of searches I did were under the cover of darkness in places I was not, technically, supposed to be. I had to concede it was going to be nice to do one right out in the open.
I dropped my purse on one of the chairs in front of the desk and took a second to look around the office. The window looked out over the parking lot. The file cabinets were an ugly shade of green, with long metal strips fastened over the drawers, and the desk was the same shade of green as were the chairs. Woltz had apparently tried to jazz up the place with drawings done by preschoolers, presumably his, and some framed photos of war planes. I glanced out the glass wall at the cubicles. It looked a little odd to see how many of the guys were standing as they worked. It was also odd that there were almost no other women in the cubicles, except for the one at the office entrance.
Covering myself as I opened some of the file cabinets, I hoped it looked like I had the keys. I didn’t expect to find anything, and I didn’t. If necessary, I’d send Esther in later. I went through the tan metal credenza and bookshelf unit behind the desk. I couldn’t tell what all the black binders referred to, but they weren’t likely to contain what I was really looking for. I checked anyway on the off chance Woltz had been selling out and the evidence was in one of the binders. It wasn’t.
I went through the drawers in his desk extra thoroughly. No evidence there, either. All of his passwords were on a small sheet of paper under his desk pad, which was stupid but not selling out. I finally pulled a penlight out of my purse and looked under the desk. That’s when I found exactly what I’d expected to find. A small circular listening device had been stuck to the underside of the top center drawer.
When I’m trying to look like a civilian, I’ll leave such devices in place. At that moment, however, I couldn’t imagine a real Federal agent… Okay, I am a real Federal agent. I mean, an aboveboard agent leaving the device in place. It took some doing, but I got it unstuck from the drawer. I next looked at the wires from the phone on the desk. Another similar device was attached. I pulled it off the phone wires, too.
The good news was that I had some answers about why it seemed like Esther and Woltz had been targeted. I was reasonably sure the two had discussed the voice print thing in that office and if someone had been listening in, then it was no surprise they’d known who to target, not to mention the other two guys on the list who were working on the project. The only problem was that I had no idea who had been listening in. The setup of the bugs seemed way too sophisticated for Dr. Levinsky’s crew, from what we’d seen of them. But, on the other hand, there had been the car bomb and that one agent in Avalon. If we hadn’t been there to defuse the bomb and block Esther, she would have died. Which probably meant that whatever KGB agent was targeting Esther and her colleagues, the agent was using Levinsky’s group as cover.
I stepped out of the office and waved at the young man in the cubicle nearest me.
“I need an escort down to Mr. Sorensen’s office,” I told him.
He sighed, but led me down to the corner of the floor. Sorensen paced and grumbled until he saw me.
“What do you need now?” he demanded.
“Not a lot, but we need to talk and pretty quickly.” I went over and sat in the chair in front of his desk.
“Look, I’m busy here. I’ve got a launch coming up, and a lead engineer to replace, and possibly a new hire to make.”
“Plus find a backup for your voice print lock, and all of that is what I need to talk to you about.”
He sighed and sat down. “What?”
“I found a bug in Mr. Woltz’s office. His phone was tapped, too. That’s how the enemy is finding out who to target with actual threats and attacks.”
“A what? Here? We’re a secure facility.”
“Apparently not that secure.” I shrugged. “And it’s not that hard to break into a defense plant.”
I knew that part from experience but didn’t think it would help much telling him that.
Sorensen frowned. “But you can’t just walk into this place off the street. You need ID.”
“True, but IDs can be forged, even for magnetic stripe readers, and once someone is inside, there’s all sorts of mischief they can achieve.” I smiled at him.
“Why should I believe you?”
I sighed and got the bug out of my suit jacket pocket. “This is why. I found it stuck to the underside of Mr. Woltz’s desk.” I gave Sorensen just long enough to look at it, then slid it back into my pocket. “I need to figure out how this particular enemy got access, and we need to figure out how to protect the rest of your team so that we don’t end up with any more dead engineers. I understand wanting to believe that your plant is secure, but it’s not and, truth be told, can’t be.”
Sorensen glared at me. “Of course it is! You can’t just waltz in here and accuse us of not securing our facility. You know nothing about it.”
“Mr. Sorensen, I’m sure you are just as concerned about the safety and well-being of your employees as I am, not to mention making sure that a critical piece of hardware makes it into space on time. Now, how can we do that?”
“That’s my job. You don’t need to be part of this.”
I sighed. “Do you really want it to get out that you are refusing to cooperate with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and endangering the lives of your employees in the process?”
Mr. Sorensen sank into himself. “Fine. What do you want me to do?”
“It’s more what I don’t want you to do. When you select the person who will be the backup for the voice print security, do not tell anyone who that person is.”
“There are only two other guys on that project.”
I nodded. “Does the backup have to be on the project as well?”
Mr. Sorensen’s eyebrows lifted. “No. I guess not.”
“Good. You mentioned a potential new hire.” I knew I was pushing my luck in several ways, but I knew of one other person who might make things a lot more secure. “Would a software person work?”
“I can’t say just yet. Just do not make any decisions regarding a new hire until I’ve talked to you. It won’t take long. We both have a vested interest in getting your team stabilized as soon as possible.”
“If you insist.” Sorensen looked wary, and if I’m honest, he had good reason.
“I insist. It’s for the safety of your entire team. I’m sure that’s your first priority, right?”
“Yes. Of course.”
I got up and checked my watch. “Can you escort me to where Ms. Nguyen is working? It is getting close to lunchtime, and I am here to protect her.”
Esther and I didn’t say much as we ate in the complex cafeteria. I hung close for the rest of the day. It felt awkward, though, mostly because I was acutely aware that Esther and I were almost the only women there. What few women were around were all support staff, like Rhonda, the receptionist. In addition, Esther was one of relatively few Asians there, and there were no Blacks or Hispanics, even among the support people.
As I drove us home, I told Esther about the bug in Woltz’s office.
“A bug? That, at least, makes sense.” Esther shook her head. “I heard from the other guys that Woltz is the only one who got attacked.”
“You did, too, Esther.”
“I know. But they don’t know about that.” She frowned.
“I’m going to have to show you the bug finder when we get home. I took the one bug out, but if our bad guy has access to your offices, then that won’t stop him or her from installing a new one.”
“How would he have access?”
I shrugged. “I have no idea. My guess is that they found a way to get the appropriate ID. That’s how Sid and I got in the last time we had to break into a defense plant.”
Esther laughed. “You broke into a defense plant?”
“Trust me, it’s not that hard.”
“You know,” Esther’s eyebrows rose. “If you have an ID, it’s not hard at all. And here’s the weird thing. About two, three months ago, Gil Woltz got all upset that his ID got stolen. Only it turned up in his office two days later.”
“Really?” I checked my blind spot and changed lanes. “That would explain how the bug got there. I wonder if there’s any way to check the security logs to see if anyone got in while his ID was missing.”
“That’s easy. I can do it from my desk.” Esther cleared her throat. “Um, you may not want to mention that to Ross, though.”
I chuckled. “When did you get picked to be the backup voice print?”
“Last spring sometime. But we probably talked about it lots of times since then.”
“So, how did you get picked to be the backup?”
Esther laughed. “I lost the drawing.”
“Nobody wanted to be backup. Even Gil didn’t want to be the voice print. So, he drew names and mine came up.”
“Lucky for you.” My voice got a little sardonic.
Esther shrugged. “So what?”
I sighed. “I just have to wonder how much luck entered into it. Did you see the actual drawing?”
“No.” Esther frowned. “Gil just told us he did it.”
I snorted. “Surprise. Surprise.”
Esther sighed. “And you’re saying he picked me because I’m the only woman Vietnamese in the department.”
“Nobody wanted it.” I glared at the traffic on the 405 ahead of us.
“You’re being discriminated against. That’s horrible.”
“That’s life.” Esther rolled her eyes. “You think I haven’t been dealing with that crap from the start?”
“But you shouldn’t have to.”
“Nothing I do is going to change anything. At least, I’ve got work that I really like and I’m mostly able to do it. Sorensen’s an asshole and so are most of the rest of them. But I know how good I am. That’s the important part. And, really, I’ve dealt with worse than Sorensen. Like Gil. Oh, my god. What a pain in the ass he was. I don’t like that he got killed. That’s terrible.” She shrugged again. “But now that he’s gone, my life is a little easier. That sucks, but I can’t complain.”
“That’s not right,” I groaned.
Esther laughed. “You’re right. It isn’t. But the world isn’t going to be the happy place you want it to be just because that’s what you want.”
“We’re supposed to stand up against injustice.”
“Go right ahead. In the meantime, I’ve got a job to get done. I don’t care about the rest of it.”
I looked at her, then focused my attention on the packed freeway ahead of us.
Dinner was late, but there wasn’t much we could do about that. At least, I’d been able to call Sid from the car and let him know how bad the traffic was. Frank, Esther, and I just barely made it to Bible Study on time.
Later that night, Sid and I talked, and Sid thought my idea about getting Desmond Moore installed as a new hire at the plant was a great idea. He agreed to set the wheels in motion on that one and decided to drive Esther to work the next morning.
Esther really liked the bug finder we gave her. We figured as long as she had it, she was reasonably safe at the defense plant, especially with the increased security. Beyond that, there really wasn’t that much we could do.
Thank you for reading. For more information about the Operation Quickline series, click here.