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Silence in the Tortured Soul – Chapter Twenty

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.

Sid was seriously annoyed the next morning when another detective showed on the doorstep just after breakfast.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Flaherty,” Detective Walsh said. “Mrs. Prosser has accused you of exposing yourself to her daughter, and we do have to take that seriously.”

Sid glared at him. “In the first place, Detective, my name is Hackbirn. My son’s name is Flaherty. In the second, my wife and I sleep au naturel. As far as I know, there is no law against that and we were in the privacy of our own home, a home that was trespassed by this kid. In the third place, our security system alerted us to an intruder. We reacted as if this intruder presented a significant danger, which most intruders do. We had no way of knowing that this intruder was, in fact, a thirteen-year-old kid. In fact, as soon as we realized who the intruder was, the first thing I did, while my wife held the girl, was go put on some gym shorts. And finally, may I point out that the girl in question has been relentlessly chasing my son for weeks now and even almost got him hit by a car last week. So, yeah, we saw her as a credible threat.”

Conchetta was already upstairs, picking up and vacuuming up the broken glass. A handyman was on his way and Conchetta agreed to let him in while Sid and I were at the press conference.

Walsh swallowed. “I see. Well, thank you for your perspective. I hope you understand that we have to double check these things.”

“Of course,” I said quickly, before Sid could let loose. “You never know. But it was as Sid said. As soon as we saw who the intruder was, I had Sid get some clothes on and he brought me my robe.”

“Okay.” Walsh shrugged. “Thanks for talking to me.”

The detective left, but Sid was not mollified.

“This is not something we need right now,” he complained as he drove us to the hotel in Culver City where the satellite press conference was to be held.

“It never is,” I said.

He sighed. “My darling, you are right, as you so frequently are. However, that does not help at the moment.”

“Well, maybe we need to stay focused on getting through the press conference first.”

“And you are right again.” Sid grimaced. “You realize that we will be Esther’s primary protection at this thing.”

I shrugged. “Why would somebody attack a press conference? It’s a sure way to get attention.”

“Which might be exactly what this crew wants.”

“I’m willing to bet they don’t want to get arrested, though.”

“More than likely.”

Leslie had given me the contact for the conference, and Sid and I had gotten on the press list because of our connection to the magazine we’re editing.

Sid and I don’t do a lot of press conferences because we’re freelance writers as opposed to regular journalists. But we got sent out every now and then to cover something that would be part of a larger story we were writing. This conference had a lot more immediate interest. All seven TV stations in the area had sent cameras and a reporter, including Leslie and her cameraman. The video cameras were all set up at the back of the room in a tangle of tripods and wires. Several rows of chairs had been set up in front of the long table covered with white tablecloths. Four microphones dotted the surface of the table, and a podium and mike had been set up at the table’s end. Photographers from several newspapers and a couple news magazines milled along the side of the room, the guys and two women all wearing khaki-colored vests with tons of pockets and two or three camera bags apiece. I put the name badge I’d been given on my suit coat and went to sit up near the front, next to the podium. Sid stood in the back, next to Leslie and a private investigator who had been hired as security by the defense plant. Esther also sat in the front row, several chairs down from me.

The receptionist I’d seen at Esther’s office, Rhonda Swenson, walked in front of the table, putting tented name cards in front of the microphones. Ross Sorensen was one of them, as was Fred Merryweather. Jim Beacham was from NASA and Arnold Wyland was from the FBI.

The men wandered in, sat at their places, then Merryweather got up and stood at the podium. He was in his late fifties, with graying hair, glasses, and a tired look about him.

“Thank you all for coming today,” Merryweather said, blinking over his notes. “In light of all the misinformation out there about this satellite project, we want to reassure the public that there are no nuclear arms on the satellite. In fact, there are no arms of any kind. It is strictly a communications satellite. Each of my colleagues will give you a brief statement and then we will take questions.”

Gun shots cracked, and people screamed. Sorensen’s head landed on the table. I realized my chest had exploded in pain. I looked down at the blood seeping through my good silk blouse, then crumpled.

To Breanna, 9/8/00

Topic of the Day: The Car Breakdown

Okay. I admit it. I over-reacted. But, come on. You were three hours late. I got no phone call. Nothing. I had no idea where you were or what had happened. I can’t believe it took the CHP that long to find you.

The problem is, sweetheart, when my parents don’t answer their phones or don’t show up, it frequently means something’s gone really, really wrong. Trust me, there’s nothing worse than wondering why they’re not where they said they were going to be, then getting that call from the hospital. That’s why I panic. I can’t help it.

I respect that you don’t want me buying you expensive gifts. And, okay, it probably wasn’t appropriate for me to insist that you let me buy you a new car. I still wouldn’t mind and, God knows, I can afford to. But you’re right, that may have been too much.

On the other hand, would you please, please let me buy you a mobile phone and the plan to go with it? At least that way, if that stupid junker of yours breaks down again, you can let me know what’s going on. And who knows? Maybe I can get to you faster than the fucking CHP.

(Sid’s Voice)

I didn’t see the shooters. I don’t think anyone did, even Zack Peters. He was the private eye hired as security at the conference, and a tall man with filled out shoulders, medium brown hair, and an attitude. I spotted a Special Forces tattoo on the back of his wrist peeking out from underneath his shirt cuff. We said hello and chatted a little before Merryweather got up to the podium and started lying to us.

I heard the shots, but I think they came from another part of the room. I was too woozy to really tell, anyway, and was out a second later. Zack may have been given the knockout rag even before I was.

When I came to, I was blindfolded and cuffed with my hands in front of me in some sort of car, and I was seated between two other people. I debated working on the cuffs, but if the two people on either side of me were my guards, then popping the cuffs wouldn’t help. I had no idea how long we’d been traveling, nor did I know where we were when the car stopped. The doors opened and from the moan I heard, I figured someone else had been captured with me. We were walked into some building or other, but simply left there. I heard a metal door slam.

I still had my suit jacket and tie on, along with my shoulder holster, but the holster had been emptied. With all the FBI around, I’d brought an automatic instead of the Model Thirteen and was glad I had.

I pulled the blindfold off. The room was almost completely dark. One tiny shaft of light blazed through the door I’d heard, but it didn’t illuminate much.

“Where are we?” a female voice asked.

It was Leslie Bowman. Her blindfold hung around her neck. Not far from her, Zack Peters had his blindfold off and was working on his cuffs with something or other.

“I don’t know,” I said, swallowing.

This was going to be tricky. Peters obviously had some of my usual non-traditional skills. He had his cuffs popped in no time and whipped a penlight out of his jacket pocket. As it clicked on, I saw the tattoo on the back of his wrist again.

“Special Forces?” I asked.

“Yep.” He chuckled, one war vet to another. We’d never met. But there are times when you just know who you’re dealing with. “You were carrying today.”

I shrugged. “Force of habit.”

“I see.” He came over and started working on my cuffs. “When did you get out?”

“Seventy-one.” I kept my voice steady. I rarely like talking about my time in the service, but with this guy, I especially did not want to get into the usual banter about where I was stationed and what unit I was with. I had a bad feeling he’d been doing a lot of the same work I had, which was not the usual fighting or clerking. “I don’t talk about it.”

“Yeah. I understand.” The cuffs fell off, and he glanced over at Leslie. “I hate to ask, but I gotta. You see action?”

I nodded. “Plenty.”

“Will you be okay if you see some more today?”

“Um… Should be.” I swallowed for the effect.

Peters walked over to Leslie. “Okay, honey, we’re going to get you out of these cuffs.”

“Where are we?” Leslie asked again, then she noticed me. “Sid. What’s going on?”

“We were kidnapped,” Peters said. “They used ether on us. I’m guessing the gun shots were supposed to be a distraction.”

“But why kidnap us?” Leslie asked, as the cuffs fell off her wrists.

“That’s a good question,” Peters said. He flicked the penlight around the room.

It was huge and windowless, but at the end of the room were stacks of AK-47s and dynamite.

“What the hell?” Peters asked as Leslie gasped. He went over and examined one of the dynamite sticks and a gun. “Russian.” He thought as he looked at the stash. “I wonder…”

“So, do we want to use any of those?” I asked.

Peters tossed me a rifle. “Why not?”

“I don’t think…” Leslie gulped and shook her head.

“No problem.” Peters grabbed a rifle for himself and made sure he and I both had plenty of shells.

He took the lead, first listening at the door, then slowly opening it to let us get used to the light outside.

“Shouldn’t we wait until dark?” Leslie asked.

Peters nodded back at the explosives. “Do you want to risk them deciding to destroy the evidence and us along with it?”

Leslie swallowed. “What do I do?”

“Stay between us,” Peters said. He glanced at me. “Can you take the rear?”

I nodded and gasped a little as if I hadn’t been doing shit like this again and again since I left ‘Nam.

Peters peeked out, then nodded at us. We slid out the door and stayed close to the building, which turned out to be a large corrugated-steel shed. I realized I recognized the building in front, facing the street.

“We’re in Running Springs,” I said softly and pointed at the clinic. “We go skiing here all the time. That’s Levinsky’s clinic.”

Peters quickly ducked behind the shed. Leslie and I followed. Peters carefully poked his head around the edge of the shed and gazed at the clinic.

“This is too easy,” he grumbled.

“I don’t understand,” I said, even though I knew exactly what was worrying Peters. I was worrying about the same thing.

“We don’t have a guard on us. The clinic is empty. If they were going to blow up the joint, why haven’t they by now? And why even take us if they were going to blow the place?”

“Maybe they wanted some hostages,” said Leslie.

“Then why isn’t there a guard on us? They didn’t even lock the shed door.” Peters set his rifle down and looked at me. “Can you cover me?”

I took a deep breath. “Sure.”

But it turned out, Peters didn’t need covering. He walked right up to the back door of the clinic and opened it. He listened for a moment, then waved us over.

“It’s empty, alright,” he told Leslie and me when we’d hurried in the door. Peters led us through the hall to Levinsky’s office. “May as well do a little search or two.”

“That’s illegal,” Leslie said.

Peters laughed as he began going through the drawers of the desk. “It’s illegal if you’re a cop.”

“No,” Leslie pressed. “They can’t use evidence that would have been protected under search and seizure laws if the cops don’t have a search warrant when they enter.”

“But if they enter legally and a search warrant would have turned the evidence up, they can use it.” Peters’ grin grew even bigger. “And lookie here. A whole bunch of ID badges for that plant where Sorensen works. I’m going to put these out on the desk and give our local boys a call.”

“Are they going to arrest us for breaking and entering?” I asked.

“The door was open, and we were looking for help.” Peters shrugged as he picked up the phone.

I thought of something else. “I’m going to call my wife. She’s probably worried.”

It was getting close to two o’clock, and Lisa was probably very worried. I called our personal line, but it just rang. Then I called the business line, and the answering machine picked up.

“Shit,” I grumbled.

Something seemed really wrong. I called Kathy and Jesse’s place and got no answer there, either. My stomach twisted. There had been gun shots…

(Lisa’s Voice)

I didn’t lose consciousness, but there wasn’t much I could see from the floor where I’d fallen. I wanted to get up, but it hurt too badly. Esther was right there.

“It’s going nuts,” she told me.

She had a couple napkins from a pitcher of ice water that had been at the side of the room. She put one on my wound, and the wet, cold fabric made me yelp. People were still screaming, but from what I could see, several were getting onto their feet.

“You hurt?” I gasped. It hurt to breathe.

“Not a scratch.”

“Sorensen…?”

“He got hit, but he’s still alive. They’re doing first aid. Merryweather and Wyland went after the shooters.” Esther looked at the napkin she had. “You’re not in bad shape, I don’t think.”

“Hurts.”

“Well, yeah.”

“Anyone else?”

“Nope.”

A minute later, two paramedics pushed Esther out of the way and tore open my blouse. Apparently, I’d gotten more than a scratch, but I wasn’t coughing up blood or anything, which was a good sign. Esther stayed with me as they bundled me onto a gurney, then into an ambulance. Esther got into the front seat with the driver.

“Where’s Sid?” I hollered to Esther as the siren wailed above us and tried not to groan.

“That’s right. He was there, too.” Esther sat back and thought. “I don’t know.”

“You and the guy at the head table were the only two who got shot,” said the paramedic riding in the back with us.

“But my… my husband,” I gasped.

“Your friend will find out when we get to the hospital,” the paramedic said. “It was pretty chaotic back there. I could have sworn there were more casualties when I saw the gurneys coming down the hallway.”

“Gurneys?”

“Three of them. But they said you and that other guy were the only victims. Must have been some other conference. Probably food poisoning. Happens all the time.”

There wasn’t much I could say or do. The one good thing was that it took a while for the doctor to get to me when we got to the hospital. That meant my injury was not serious, no matter how much it hurt. I was put in an exam room and helped out of my clothes by a nurse. Esther hung close by, only leaving to make a couple of phone calls. Her face was grim when she returned.

“Sid’s missing,” she said. “There was a security guard and a TV reporter that they can’t find, either. They think they were kidnapped.”

I swallowed. “Put on gurneys and hauled out of the hotel. The paramedic saw them.”

“Yeah. The shooting was a distraction.”

“Why?” I asked, my eyes filling both with my physical pain and my worry over Sid.

“We don’t know yet. I called Frank. He’s trying to find out what happened. He called your friend Henry James. Henry said to call Angelique. It’s good that Sid was there as himself.”

I nodded.

When the doctor appeared, a medium-sized Black woman with a tough, but calming demeanor, she looked at the wound, then tsk’d.

“Ever been shot before?” she asked.

I had to think. “No.”

“Hurts, don’t it?”

“Yeah.”

“Looks like it just grazed you, maybe scraped your rib a little. Any trouble breathing?”

“It hurts to take a deep breath and talk.”

“All over or in one spot?”

“In the wound.”

“Well, we’ll get an x-ray to check that rib, then we’ll get you stitched up and on some of the really good drugs for that pain.”

“Thanks. Oh. Wait. Barbituates make me barf.”

The doctor laughed. “That’s not what we’re giving you.”

As it turned out, my rib was fine. It took a while for the stitches, but they’d gotten me some pain medication that put me to sleep. I was barely aware of Frank coming in and getting me into his car. I wasn’t sure where Esther had gone, but I’d given her my set of keys to Sid’s car. The next thing I knew, I had somehow gotten on a t-shirt and gym shorts, and Kathy was tucking me into the waterbed at home.

The phone rang and I picked it up, hoping for news.

“Hi, I’m looking for Nick Flaherty’s parents,” said a male voice on the other end.

“This is Lisa Wycherly.” I swallowed. I had no idea why I hadn’t hung up on the man. “I’m Nick’s mom.”

“I’m Dan Prosser. Josie’s dad. I need to apologize to you guys about last night.”

“Huh?” I blinked. Kathy handed me a glass of water. “Oh. Break-in.”

“Yeah. I appreciate you guys calling the cops. I know my ex-wife was pretty upset, but it was a good thing that you did.” He paused. “I’ve now got custody of Josie.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. The whole chasing the boys thing? Josie was crying for help. Her mom is manic depressive. We thought she was taking her medication but turns out not. Josie told me there was a problem, but there wasn’t anything we could do. Her mom had passed the court interview and everything. But getting in trouble last night, that blew everything open, and now I’ve got an emergency order and it looks good that I’ll have custody permanently.”

“Oh.” I swallowed. “I’m glad. Um. Thanks for calling.”

We hung up, and I blinked. Something about calling for help had me worried. It meant something, but I didn’t know what and couldn’t quite get through the fog in my brain.

“Time for your next pain pill,” Kathy said. It was a little after four.

“No!” I yelped. My side was still a little sore, but it wasn’t that bad, and I was talking without pain. “I’m feeling a lot better, and that pain pill is leaving me icky. Any aspirin or what’s that other stuff? Motrin?”

“Yes.” Kathy sighed. “But you’d better get some food on your stomach.”

“Toast would be nice.”

Kathy brought it to me.

“Where are Frank and Esther?” I asked.

“Frank’s downstairs. There may be some news about Sid and the others, but they don’t know what yet. They caught Levinsky, though, and he’s confessed to everything.”

“He’s a KGB mole?” I blinked, but there was that darned fog. “He sure didn’t seem like it.”

I finished the toast and took one of the super-sized Motrin pills I had for when my back went out.

The phone rang again, and it was Sid.

“Oh, honey, thank God!” I gasped, trying not to sob.

“I’m fine, sweetheart. The Feds are just keeping us here at Levinsky’s office for some reason.” He paused. “They told me you’d gotten hurt.”

“Just grazed. It hurts like the dickens, and I’m a little foggy from the stuff they gave me at the hospital, but I’m fine otherwise.” I swallowed. “I can even talk and take a deep breath.”

Sid’s voice lowered. “They found a bunch of defense plant IDs in Levinsky’s desk. The names matched that list that Esther brought us a couple weeks ago.”

“Why would he have them?”

“We have no idea, but they were not secured or anything. Neither were the three of us. They just dumped us in that big corrugated shed behind the clinic and didn’t even lock the door. Turns out it was loaded with Soviet guns and dynamite. It was almost as if they wanted us to find it and call the cops in.”

The penny dropped. “Levinsky’s not the mole.”

“That makes sense. They told us he’d confessed, but that seems a little off.”

“It’s way off, Sid.” I looked over at Kathy, whose one eyebrow had risen. “Levinsky was crying for help. The mole has gotten some sort of hold on him and the only way he could stop that person was to get himself caught.”

“Then who’s—” Sid stopped. “Um, honey, what’s the name of that receptionist on the floor of Esther’s office?”

“Rhonda Swenson. Why?”

“Because Danelle Parks, Levinsky’s receptionist, is meeting Rhonda at 4 p.m. at a restaurant, I think, in Santa Monica, according to a note on her calendar.”

“It’s after four now. I wonder if Rhonda still has her ID.”

Somebody was talking to Sid. “I’m sorry, honey, they were talking to me. Looks like they’re about to take us home. We should be there in a couple, three hours.”

“Can’t wait to see you. I love you so much.”

“I love you, too, and can’t wait to see you, either.”

We hung up. I looked at Kathy. “Where is Esther?”

“She went back to work. They’ve got that launch tomorrow.”

“No! She’s not safe there.” I grabbed the phone and called Angelique, who said she had to make a call first.

She called back, saying that the agent in charge said there wasn’t enough evidence.

“Crap!” I slammed the phone down, then wincing, got out of bed. “She’s not safe there.”

“Lisa! You need to stay in bed.”

“I can’t.” I staggered to my closet and got out a dress, jacket, and my blond wig. “Sid found the mole, and she’s getting her hands on a legitimate ID with access to Esther’s floor even now. I can get in as Agent Devereaux. They’re not going to send anyone else out with Levinsky’s confession and just a note on a calendar as evidence.”

It wasn’t easy getting dressed, but I did it. The Motrin was kicking in by that point and it helped. Jesse stayed at the house so that someone would be there when Sid got home. Kathy insisted on driving, and I made sure Frank was armed and ready, with a t-shirt over his jeans and an automatic in a back holster. Kathy got us down to the plant as quickly as she could, but it was still well after five when we got there. She let us off at the curb in front of the usual entrance facing the parking lot.

I limped in with Frank on my heels and whipped my ID out of my jacket pocket. I’d left my purse at home.

“Special Agent Linda Devereaux,” I told the security guard at the door. “I need to get to the top floor. Now. We’ve got a situation developing.”

“This is not usual procee—” The guard put his hand to his ear and gulped. “Shots fired.”

“Get us up there now!” I demanded.

The guard let Frank and me in and got us on the elevator with him.

“I don’t get it,” he complained. “We check for guns.”

“I’ve been getting one in here several times this past month,” I told him.

The guard glanced at Frank. “But you’re an agent. You’re supposed to have one.”

We burst onto the floor and almost immediately ducked several shots. I sank down behind Swenson’s desk.

“Who’s on the floor?” I hollered, gasping. The guard looked panicked.

“Two of the guys,” Esther hollered back. She cursed as a shot fired. “And Leon and me.”

More shots cracked. I looked over at Frank, who was kneeling next to me. “Did you hear where she is?”

“Yeah.”

I squeezed my eyes shut. My wound was aching, but there wasn’t much I could do. I pulled my Model Thirteen from the holster under my arm.

“I’ll cover you from here,” I told Frank. “You find Leon. He’s a Black guy, and the two of you flank Parks. Leon should be armed.”

Another gunshot cracked.

“Almost got you, witch!” Esther laughed. She didn’t say witch, however.

“I’m guessing our girl is, too,” Frank muttered.

I slid to my feet and saw the receptionist from Levinsky’s office, Danelle Parks, wandering among the burlap-covered partitions. Ducking, I looked at Frank, who gulped and nodded. I looked at the guard, then pointed at Parks.

“You’ve got to stay here and make sure she doesn’t get out,” I told the guard.

I slid up to the top of the receptionist’s wall and let off a few rounds. Frank scrambled away and toward Ross Sorensen’s office. I slipped back down and went the other direction toward the parking lot side of the floor.

Parks apparently heard me and let off a couple rounds that whizzed over my head. I slid a few cubicles further down, then looked up. Parks frowned and looked around her. She’d obviously figured out that the cavalry had arrived. I only wished I’d felt more like the cavalry.

Whispering floated out over that far corner of the floor. Parks looked straight at it. I fired a couple more rounds and realized my gun was empty. I had put a box of bullets into one of my jacket pockets and began fishing them out and re-loading. I dropped a couple shells. No surprise. I wasn’t at my best, and I knew it.

“We got her, boss lady!” Desmond/Leon yelled from yet another corner.

Parks whipped around and fired. I gasped and ran toward that end of the office. A moment later, I saw Parks drawing a bead on Esther and Frank behind Parks. In the half a second that followed, I realized there were decent odds Frank would hit me or Esther. Frank’s face turned to stone. He drew a breath and squeezed the trigger.

Parks fell forward, the back of her head bright red, and that was all I could take before sinking into the nearest chair and gasping, trying to keep the contents of my stomach in place.

Desmond, Frank, and Esther all ran up to me.

“You okay?” Esther asked.

I winced. “Hurting.” I waved them off. “I’ve got to make a phone call.”

I called in the code nine, which meant an arrest to be made or clean-up needed by aboveboard agents because covert ones were involved. I explained I needed to get my partner and myself out of there discreetly because there were civilians around, then hung up and looked at Desmond/Leon and Esther.

“You two, ditch your weapons and go hide. You’re civilians. Let’s keep that intact.”

Esther hesitated as she saw Frank, who was clearly slack jawed.

“I told you going slow would work when it needed to,” I gasped. I opened the button-front of my dress near where the stitches were. There wasn’t any blood on the bandage, but that didn’t mean there wouldn’t be later.

I steadfastly kept my eyes off the corpse. Frank did the same.

The FBI team that showed was pretty decent about getting me and Frank out of there with a minimum of fuss. We waved at Kathy, who came roaring up. Frank eased me into the front seat, then mechanically got into the back. Kathy called the house from her car phone and got Sid on the line. He was home and waiting for us.

“I can’t say I’m not glad I missed this one,” she told us as she sped up the freeway.

Neither Frank nor I had anything to say at that point.

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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