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These Hallowed Halls – Chapter Eighteen

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Welcome to my latest fiction serial These Hallowed Halls. It’s the sixth in the Operation Quickline series featuring Sid Hackbirn and Lisa Wycherly as counter-espionage agents who have a thing for each other if only they can make their divergent values work out. When we last left them in Sad Lisa, their relationship was at an impasse. Now, they’ve been split up to go undercover at a small arts college in Wisconsin. To start from the beginning, you can click here. Or you can click on the archives here.

The phone rang just after six a.m. I could hear Sid moving about in the bathroom. Neither of us had slept that well. I picked up the phone.

Pull Quote from These Hallowed Halls: There is only one way that I am not coming back to you.

It was the Dragon. She gave the caller code, and I gave the receiver. It was the usual routine for calls.

“I know it’s early, but we’ve been pulling an all-nighter on this one,” she said.

“Okay.”

“Well, the explosion definitely took out your contact.”

“Steve.” I couldn’t help choking a little. “He was a nice guy.”

“I’m sure he was. They didn’t find any remains in Big Red’s apartment, which we knew. But I’ve convinced the locals to release it that Ed Donaldson died in the explosion. He’ll have to find a way to get home discreetly, but I think you guys can manage that.”

“Sure.”

The Dragon paused. “Our connection with The Company says that you found the developer.”

“We did.”

“If you want, I can send another team in to protect him.”

“Oh.”

“Don’t you want to go home?”

I winced as I thought about it. “No. I don’t. I want to find out who killed Eunice and Steve.”

“If it was a KGB operative, you’ll never be able to prove it, and there are good odds, they’ll be out of the country before you can try.”

“I don’t think it was. I mean, they’re involved. But most of what’s been happening, I think it’s the amateur they have in their control. I don’t know for sure yet, but I want to find out.”

The Dragon chuckled. “That’s my woman. I’m glad. Best of luck to you, then. Oh, one other thing that I hope will draw some of the attention away from you. We gave the locals permission to release it that Ed Donaldson was an undercover operative who was killed by a KGB assassin.”

“He is not going to like that.”

“Well, his cover was already blown with the KGB.”

“Damn that Hannaford kid.”

The Dragon sighed. “We should never have sent him in. He really doesn’t have the temperament for teamwork.”

“No kidding.”

“Do you want a substitute?”

“I’m fine with the other two. It’ll take too much time to set someone else up. And Hannaford isn’t a complete liability.”

“All right. Carry on then. Call me if you need anything.”

“I will.”

I hung up. Sid came into the bedroom.

“Was that…?”

I rolled onto my back. “The Dragon? Yes. You’re going home.”

“Oh.”

“The locals have been asked to release that Ed Donaldson died in the explosion and that he was an operative killed by a KGB assassin.”

Sid cursed.

“I know. It stinks.”

Sid shrugged. “Not much we can do about it and I was practically impotent anyway with that tail on me.”

The phone rang again. I picked it up.

“Hello?” I grunted.

“It’s Max. Is this Janet?”

“Yes. What’s up?”

“I need to be extracted and I need it now. After what happened last night, I can’t afford to stick around.”

“Your cover is still intact.”

“They’re stealing my formula, so no, it’s not. And you know The Company. I’m only so much meat to them.”

“What about your friend?”

“We’ll have to figure something out.”

I closed my eyes, the noticed Sid standing next to the bed. “Hold on a second.” I covered the mouthpiece with my hand. “On your way out of town, do you mind doing an extraction?”

“Who?”

“Max. He’s a little worried that he’s next on the hit list.”

“Not an entirely bad assumption, especially if the Soviets have enough of his formula to figure out the rest.” Sid looked at me. “But how did he know to call you?”

“We had a little chat yesterday afternoon. Can you help?”

“Sure.”

“Good.” I uncovered the mouthpiece. “All right, Max. I can help.” I closed my eyes. “We’ll need to get a car first, but we should be able to get that by this evening. Will that be soon enough?”

“Yeah. We should probably do this under cover of darkness.”

“Okay. There’s that park by the river.”

“Yeah, I know it.”

“You’re going to meet Ed Donaldson there at…” I looked at Sid. “Seven okay?”

Sid nodded.

“Seven,” said Max. “But wait. The word’s out that Donaldson’s dead.”

“Let’s just say we want people to believe that. Meet him by the swings. How you two handle the rest of it, that’s up to you.”

“Good.” Max hung up.

I rolled onto my back. “This is just too much trauma for this time of the day.”

“I agree.” Sid chuckled and sat down next to me on the bed. “You had a nightmare last night.”

“A couple of them.” I looked up at him. “I’ve got a feeling you did, too.”

He looked away. “Oh?”

“When you were talking in your sleep, you sounded pretty anxious about a Robinson somebody.”

Sid blew out his breath, then picked up my hand. “My dearest friend, as much as I would like to tell you all about that miserable incident, I don’t think right now is the time.” He kissed my fingers. “You’ve got a long day ahead of you, and so do I. Why don’t you get a little more sleep?”

“That sounds nice. Would you like me to get you some underwear or a toothbrush or something?”

“Uh, I already had those in my day pack, which made it out of the house with me.”

“Oh.”

Given Sid’s tendency to end up in someone else’s bed at night, it made sense for him to keep a few personal items with him.

“At least, they came in handy this morning,” he said apologetically.

“They did.” I reached up and touched his cheek. “Do you mind holding me a little longer?”

“Given that I don’t know when I’ll be able to again, I think that would be a good idea.”

I awoke for good around eight. While I showered and got my make up on, Sid made breakfast out of the few pieces of fruit I had, the last of the peanut butter, and some whole wheat bread I’d forgotten I’d bought. Luckily, I’d put the bread in my freezer, which may also have been why I forgot it was there.

I also called Terry and told her what I needed, then asked her to meet me at my office after the Shakespeare seminar. While Sid and I ate, we talked over several scenarios for getting Max out of Appleton in a way that would keep the KGB from looking for him. Then I had to go to class. Sid kissed me soundly, and sent me on my way, looking at me sadly as I closed the front door to the apartment.

I made it to Lawrence Hall a little early. Classes there were still on, but math/science classes had been canceled. Mrs. Spinetti stopped me as I got my mail from the inbox.

“Um, Janet, I just wanted to say that I’m sorry about Dr. Carmona. I’d heard you two were on the way to becoming, well, I guess you’d call it involved.”

“Not really,” I said, sniffing a little. “We were just friends, but he was a good one.”

“Oh. Well, I’m sorry.”

“Thanks.”

I went upstairs and updated my notes for the Shakespeare seminar. I’d come up with a plan of action on Sunday night, when I’d forced myself to read Eunice’s syllabus and notes, but I still felt woefully under-prepared. Oh, well. My mentor teacher had said that teaching was as much about improvisation as it was planning.

Admittedly, none of the students were thrilled when I announced the homework for the week. The Shakespeare seminar students would have to do a two-page essay, with quotes from the play, for their Julius Caesar take-home exam. The real exam was to have taken place the Thursday before, but hadn’t because of classes being canceled. I also had the Elizabethan students write up a two-page summation of what they’d covered in their class to that point and reminded them that I did have Eunice’s syllabus. Then we had a lively discussion on the overlaps between literature and history, and how each shed light on the other.

Kathy followed me to my office, where we found Tim Hannaford waiting for me, never mind that I didn’t have office hours that day. He was a mess. I ushered both inside the office and turned on a radio I’d found on the shelf. The emotionless voice of a news reporter came out.

“Appleton P.D. has confirmed that the two dead men were Dr. Steve Carmona, a computer science teacher at Martin University, and Ed Donaldson, a student at the same university.”

Tim wailed.

“Sh!” I hissed at him and turned the dial to a Top-forty station.

“But it’s my fault,” Tim said, weeping. “I blew his cover and I killed him.”

I glared at him. “Then learn from it.”

Tim stepped back, a look of shock on his face.

There was a knock on the door. Kathy peeked out, then opened the door just wide enough to let Terry slip through.

“I have to pick it up this afternoon,” Terry said. “But I’ve got the car.”

“Can you get it by four?”

Terry nodded.

“Perfect. Leave it in the alley behind my place, keys in the glove compartment.” I looked at the three of them. “Okay, gang, we’ve got an extraction to make happen.”

Kathy’s eyes opened wide with hope. “Ed?”

“No.” I swallowed. “You’ll figure it out soon enough. Tim, you know that park by the river?”

“Yeah.”

“You’ll need to meet the target near the swings at seven. Don’t worry. You’ll know him.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“All right. Now get out of here.”

Tim left the office quickly. I suppose I should have told him about Ed/Sid, but he’d find out that evening. Letting him stew in his guilt a little longer might just drive home the lesson that much better. I was just sorry that I wouldn’t get to see Tim’s face when he saw Sid. [It was priceless. – SEH]

I looked down at my desk, then at Terry and Kathy.

“Kathy, what did you find in that book I gave you?”

“Besides a really badly written romance?”

I laughed and Terry chuckled.

Kathy shrugged. “I don’t think it’s a code, or even a key map. If anything, it looks like textual analysis. I might be able to make more sense of it if I knew to what it was being compared to.”

“Could there be a pass code or something in it?” I asked.

“Possibly. You think it could be somebody’s computer password?” Kathy asked.

“Password!” I jumped up and turned on my computer. “I think you’ve got something.” I looked at the two of them. “I’ve heard there’s some sort of software that will help you find someone’s computer password.”

“Sure,” said Terry. “But they take, like, days to work. What they do is enter every alpha-numeric combination of however many digits into the computer until the account opens.”

“If you know the person whose account it is, it’s usually faster to try guessing the password,” Kathy said. “People generally use personal information, like their dog’s name, or their kids’ birthdates.”

“But once you’re in the account, you can see all their files, right?” I bit the nail on my thumb.

“Sure,” said Terry. “You can open them, delete them, copy them onto a floppy drive. It would be just like being in your own account.”

“Okay.” I frowned. “All right. Eunice Blakely. She’d told someone that she had some evidence that our developer was being spied on. Maybe it’s in her account. What would her password be?” I looked at Kathy. “Is it in that book, you think?”

“I don’t know,” Kathy said.

Terry snorted. “Why don’t you break into the system administrator’s account instead? That way, you’ll get everybody’s passwords.”

“That’s a good idea,” I said, then looked at her. “Do you know who the system administrator is?”

“Probably Dr. Carmona.”

“Crud.” I sank back into my chair. “If I’d known this two days ago, I could have just asked him.”

“Well, what do you know about him?” Kathy asked.

“Not much. He doesn’t have a pet or kids, that I know of.” I fiddled with my keyboard. “I don’t even know his birthdate.”

“That’s easy enough to look up.” Terry gave me a shy grin. “So, I already got into the university system. I just can’t get to the passwords, because I’m sure Dr. Carmona has them under his account.”

I sighed. In my mind, I could see Steve getting slowly more plastered as he looked balefully at me. I sat up.

“Let’s try getting into Steve’s account,” I said.

“I’ve got an idea,” said Terry. “Kathy, do you think you can get over to the computer center and find Dr. Carmona’s floppy disks? He’d have backed up the passwords. He might have password protected the file, but he’d have it.”

“I’m on it.” Kathy hurried out of the office.

I keyed through the directory to the university’s system, found Steve’s account and hit return.

“You can use your mouse,” Terry pointed out.

“It doesn’t always work, and I’m used to the keys, anyway. Okay.” On the screen, the cursor blinked next to a request for a password. “Here goes.”

I typed in “littlered.” It was rejected. I tried again with “LittleRed.” That didn’t work, either. I sat back, thinking over all the conversations I’d had with Steve. Smiling, it hit. I typed in “BigRed.”

The account opened. Terry giggled. I looked at the time on the computer screen.

“Shavings,” I said, shutting the system down. “I’ve got to get lunch and get to class. See if you can get to Kathy. Let her know we got into the account, so she shouldn’t take too many risks getting those floppies, okay?”

“Wait,” said Terry.

“What?” I was a little irritated. I was hungry and I only had about thirty minutes to get to the Commons, eat, and get back.

“Ed’s not dead.”

I sighed. “It’s best if he is.”

“No. You’re not that broken up. If he really were dead, you’d be a mess. You can’t tell me you wouldn’t.”

I thought back to the night before. Terry had a point.

“It doesn’t matter. I should, technically, be more upset about Dr. Carmona. Ed was just one of my students. Let’s leave it at that. Okay?”

Terry snorted but left the office right before I did.

I managed to get through Basic Comp C without too much trouble. I knew I should have stayed and graded papers, but I didn’t care. I got home as fast as I could. Sid was there. He’d somehow found enough ingredients in my kitchen to improvise a lasagna for me.

“Don’t you want some?” I asked, lifting the corner of the foil-wrapped pan to sniff.

“I already ate.” He smiled at me. “You keep that and a couple other goodies I left in your freezer. That way, you won’t have to go out to eat so much.” He looked a little abashed. “I had time on my hands today, so I hope you don’t mind.”

“No.” I blinked away more tears. “That’s really sweet of you to do it.”

The kitchen practically sparkled, so I figured he’d cleaned it.

“I also reorganized your cupboards in here,” he said, sheepishly, as he put the lasagna in the fridge.

“Good lord, you were bored.”

He shrugged. “It was very therapeutic. May just make a new hobby.”

“Sure. Um, please stay away from the files, though?”

He laughed and we held each other. When I’d first come to work for him, I’d redone the files so that they made more sense and put them in a database to keep track of them. It had taken Sid a while before he’d been able to find anything.

We didn’t say or do much for the next hour and a half, just sat on the couch and held each other. There wasn’t much to be said. Sid was going home. I was staying.

Finally, about twenty after six, the apartment was fully dark. Sid lifted his head.

“I should think about getting going,” he said softly.

“Okay. The car is in the back alley. Keys are in the glove compartment. I checked before coming up.”

“Good. Thanks.” He shifted so that he could look me in the face. “Listen, I am fully confident that you will knock this case right out of the park, but will you do me one favor?”

“What?”

“Knock it out very carefully. Please?”

I laughed and held him. “I will.” I put my hand on his face. “You be careful, too.”

“I will.”

We got up slowly and walked to the back of the apartment without turning on the lights. At the back door, we held each other tightly.

“Sid,” I said softly. “I’ll probably have to stay through the end of the term, assuming we wrap things up before then. And if we don’t, I’ll definitely be home for Thanksgiving and probably Christmas.”

He squeezed me. “I hope so.”

I pulled away just enough to gaze into his eyes. “There is only one way that I am not coming back to you. And if that happens, then remembering will have to do.”

“Yeah.” He shuddered and squeezed me even tighter.

The line was from “You and Me Against the World.” It was pretty much our song, mostly because that’s how we felt a lot of the time, thanks to our business.

We kissed, long and slow. Neither of us really wanted to think about the possibility that we would not see the other again, but even at home, the potential was always there. The good thing was that we seldom took each other for granted.

Sid finally pulled away and opened the door. The wind whipped into the apartment in an icy blast. I found his day pack on the floor next to the door and handed it to him. He slung it over his shoulder and slid quietly down the stairs. I waited in the dark as he walked to the car. He opened the passenger side, got the keys, and quietly shut the door. As he opened the driver’s side, he paused and looked up at me. I kissed my fingers, then he kissed his. I waited just long enough for him to get the car started and rolling down the alley.

I shivered slightly as I went back into the kitchen. Oddly enough, I wasn’t hungry. It was probably the mixed stew of feelings roiling around my gut. There was an empty place in me where I was missing Sid already. I felt excited that I was really going to find out what I could do on my own, and at the same time, I was utterly terrified because I was on my own and in charge of three others. I flipped on the lights and went to the front of the apartment to hopefully distract myself by grading papers.

That’s when I heard the creaking on the stairs. I went straight to the peephole. A minute later, Sergeant Renecke’s balding head heaved into view. I waited for him to knock, gave it a minute, then opened the door.

“Can I help you, Sergeant?” I asked.

“I’d like to ask you a few more questions,” he said.

“Sure. Come in. Can I get you some water?”

He followed me into the living room, and I shut the door behind him.

“I’m fine, thanks.”

I pulled the desk chair over. “Why don’t you take the couch?”

“Thanks.” He eased his bulk down and got out his notebook. “How’s it been going for you?”

“Pretty rocky,” I said. “I’ve lost two friends in less than a week. What do you expect?”

“I can imagine. So, you’re still calling Dr. Carmona a friend? I’d heard he’d spent the reception at Dr. Blakely’s memorial getting drunk and looking all hang dog at you.”

I flushed. “He had expressed an interest in being more than a friend. I had to say no. Bad relationship back home. I’m still a little raw.” It was part of my original cover story. “I was hoping we could stay friends long enough for me to heal. Yesterday, he seemed to be willing to keep talking.”

“So, that’s why you were there last night.”

I shuddered. “Yeah. We were going to have dinner.”

“Your student Ed Donaldson lived there, too.”

“Yes.”

Renecke looked at his notebook. “Rumor has it you were quite attracted to Mr. Donaldson.”

I laughed in spite of myself. “Of course, I was. Have you ever seen him? I mean, saw.” I blinked back more tears. “He was gorgeous. You’d have to be dead not to be attracted to him.”

“You ever do anything about it?”

“Of course not. He was a student. That would be utterly unethical.”

“Doesn’t stop some folks.” Renecke shifted.

“It stopped me.” I tried not to glare at him. He was only doing his job.

“You’ve heard about the spy thing, right?”

I nodded. “It totally surprised me.”

“Really?” Renecke watched me.

“Who wouldn’t be shocked to find out one of your students is James Bond?” I shook my head. “Okay, he looked the part, and I hear, slept around as if he was. But why would he even be here? This is an arts school. Unless they’ve hidden some missiles or something.”

“Or something.” Renecke grimaced and leaned back for a minute. He really wanted to share something but couldn’t. “The funny thing is, the Feds haven’t told me to back off the case.” He noticed me and cursed. “I wasn’t planning on saying that. Open investigation.”

“You look tired,” I said, smiling softly.

He stretched his back for a second. “It’s how the job goes. Did you see anything in Donaldson’s papers that might tell us what he was working on?”

I thought about it. “No. It was basic stuff. The assignments are fairly structured. We did do a creative writing assignment, but that was about some high school kid trying to protect another. He got that paper back. The only thing of his that I have right now was Monday’s assignment, which was an outline for his term paper. It was going to be on…” I bit my lip. I really hadn’t remembered. “Oh, right. On how Johann Sebastian Bach developed the fugue.”

“Oh.” Renecke sighed. He flipped his notebook closed, then looked at me closely again. “You know, there is something going on around here. I don’t know what it is, and I can’t help but wonder if you do.”

I shrugged my shoulders. “I don’t know what to tell you. I’ve only been here since September.”

Renecke got up. “That’s right. Okay. Thanks for talking to me. If you think of anything, let me know.”

I let him out and looked at my watch. It was just past seven. Sid and Max would have met up. Tim, hopefully, was well and truly shaken. I looked at my purse, then decided to heck with it. I went back to the university to work there.

But as I was going into Lawrence Hall, I met Fran in the department office.

“Oh, Janet, I was just leaving you a note,” she said. “How are you?”

I shrugged. “Managing. How about you?”

“The same.” She glanced back at Joe Cunningham’s darkened office. “Say, have you got a few minutes? I’d like to talk about taking care of our women here.”

“Sure.”

“Let’s go up to my office.”

We walked up in silence to the third floor, where Fran’s office was. Fran opened the door, then paused.

“You know what? I think I need to use the restroom. Why don’t you go on in?”

I shut the door behind me and looked over the papers on her desk without touching them. There was one small scrap with an address on it. I didn’t recognize the handwriting, but there was something distinctive about it that made me think I should have. It was an address in Madison, but no name or other identification. Out of force of habit, I memorized it, then heard Fran coming back (the plumbing in the building being quite loud).

We started taking Cunningham’s name in vain and didn’t get much further than that. Fran started yawning, and I did, too, and then we both agreed it was probably time to go home. We left the building together and went to our separate cars. I still hadn’t graded any papers.

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