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These Hallowed Halls – Chapter Eleven

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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 rest of the week was quiet. Steve got me his list of his colleagues, and I searched a few of their offices, but found nothing. As for Tim, he was avoiding me. I’m fairly sure he thought I was still mad at him, which was rather astute on his part because I most certainly was. Sid was dancing around contact with me, trying to find the balance between normal contact with a teacher with whom one was friendly and anything suspicious.

Pull quote from romantic spy novel These Hallowed Halls: I realized after a couple sentences that he wasn't writing fiction.

The campus trees had turned a riot of fall colors, and the wind blew leaves everywhere. There had been showers dampening things here and there, but Thursday, the sky was perfectly blue with a few puffy clouds here and there. I filled my lungs with the fresh, nippy air and felt surprisingly good, considering how the case was going.

I lost that feeling about twenty minutes into the Shakespeare seminar. Joe Cunningham slid into the classroom through the back door.

“Can I help you?” I asked him.

“Oh, no.” Cunningham said with a fake smile. “Just ignore me. I’m only here to observe.”

“Good to have you,” I said with my own fake smile. “Please, have a seat.” I turned to the rest of the class. “Linda, you had a comment?”

“Well, it’s just that if we’re going be down on Cassius because he seduces Brutus, we can’t let Marc Antony off the hook, either.” Linda leaned forward. “Come on, he totally seduces Caesar into going after the crown and doing exactly what has Brutus all ticked off. And then Antony goes and dumps on Brutus with the crowd with a wink, wink, and a nudge, nudge.”

“That’s an excellent point,” I said. “Anyone have a counter to that?”

Cunningham loudly cleared his throat. “Why aren’t you lecturing?”

“This is our discussion period,” I told him. “It’s clearly listed as such on the course outline that I gave you. Rick, what do you think?”

Rick mulled it over. “It’s true that Antony is being manipulative, and if we look at the original monarchistic context of the play, one could argue that he’s encouraging Caesar to be what he should be – a king.”

“But even Shakespeare understood the concept of the Roman Republic,” Marge cut in.

“Excuse me,” Cunningham said, getting up. “I’m afraid you are all missing the classical understanding of this great work.”

He glared at me, then went to the front of the room and proceeded to lecture us on a classical understanding that had fallen out of favor in academic circles before I’d started school. I waited to cut in until he’d gone on for a good half hour, and even Rick Waters had gone to sleep.

“Well, thank you for your perspective.” I turned to the class. “I think that wraps it up for today. Please remember that your exam on Julius Caesar will be next Thursday, and you’ve got an essay due on Tuesday. Thank you.”

The students got up quickly.

“What an asshole!” Marge’s voice boomed from the hallway.

“I wonder if he’s even read the play,” Rick asked.

I pressed my lips together as Cunningham glared at me.

“It would probably help your students if you were a little more professional,” he said, drawing himself up.

That did it. I turned on him.

“You come into my classroom and undermine me in front of my students, and you are calling me unprofessional?” I slammed my notes onto the desk. “I think I’m going to have to file a complaint with the Provost’s office.”

He winced. “You may want to consider what that will do for your chances of achieving tenure here.”

“If this is how you treat your staff, I may not want it,” I snapped. “Good lord, no wonder you guys have a problem keeping faculty.”

He turned white briefly, then left the room. Trying to calm myself, I began pulling together my papers. Fran slid into the room.

“Was that Joe Cunningham that you just yelled at?”

I blushed. “You mean you heard me?”

“The entire floor heard you.”

I moaned. Just when I most needed to be circumspect.

“I’m sorry. He just got me so mad.”

“Some of the students said he took over your class with a really bad lecture.”

“And then called me unprofessional when Marge Haver left calling him an asshole.” I looked at my watch. “Listen, I’ve got to get to the Provost’s office before my next class and file that complaint.”

Fran sniffed. “Janet, please don’t.”

“Why not? Someone should have written him up years ago.”

“But I’m afraid you’re going to leave us. We need you, Janet.”

I looked at her. “If it’s that awful, why are you staying?”

“I love—” She blinked rapidly. “I love Eunice, and everyone else.”

Eunice arrived in the classroom.

“Oh, great,” I said. “You’ve heard.”

“Yes, and I’ve come to celebrate with you.”

I laughed. “Can we wait ‘til tomorrow night? I’ve got to get to the Provost’s office to file that complaint.”

“Perfect.” Eunice’s eyes lit up as Fran tried not to cry. “You definitely must. The more, the better, and from someone besides me. I’m there so often, Dean Lacey says he can write the complaints up for me.”

“But, Eunice…”

“Tush, Fran. It will be all right. Janet filing that complaint will be the best insurance against her leaving. With someone besides me complaining, they’ll have to take notice and send Joe on his smarmy little way.”

So, I spent my lunch hour filing a complaint, then stuffing my sandwich into my face before Basic Comp C. That evening, I only worked late enough to make sure the larger part of the faculty had gone home. Cunningham had left hours before. The trick was going to be searching the office without any lights showing through the windows. Fortunately, Joe had the blinds pulled on all his windows, including the one on the door to the department office. So, I used my small flashlight. It was unlikely the tiny beam would be seen under the door. I was extra thorough. I did feel a little guilty that it wasn’t because I had any real reason to suspect Cunningham. I was just still mad and hoping that this would be one of those rare occasions when the real jerk happened to be the bad guy.

I mean, people who engage in international espionage aren’t generally what you’d call nice people, especially KGB or CIA assassins. But they’re not unnecessarily mean. In fact, they’re mostly business-like. They have a job to do and they do it, no matter what I or anyone else might think about the ethics of it. Jerks, on the other hand, are far more common, impossible, and unpleasant to deal with, and far too often aren’t guilty of anything worse than being jerks.

I didn’t find much. There was a thick file filled with the print outs of the formula code, or what looked like it. More suspicious and very odd were the two cheap paperback novels I found underneath the paper. They were a couple of romances from one of the lesser romance publishers, the kind that are cranked out under contract to specific formulas. The author was Leticia Petrie.

I fanned through the two books. There was nothing stuck between the pages or written anywhere. It was possible that Cunningham was using the books as a way of hiding stuff for another courier or as the key to a code. Or it was possible that he simply had lousy taste in recreational reading.

By the time I finally finished and got back to my apartment, it was almost one-thirty. The next morning, I overslept badly and had to scramble to get to Basic Comp A. I was profoundly glad that the Creative Writing unit was one of the easier ones to run. I read off the spelling words, then blinked, trying to wake up.

As soon as I’d read off the last word, I had the students pass the pages forward and yawned.

“Sorry, gang, I was working late last night.”

“I’ll bet,” someone sniggered.

As I looked around the room for the person who’d said that, I caught Ed/Sid’s beautiful blue eyes. Playing on his lips was an all-too familiar, but special smile. I caught my breath because that smile meant he was thinking about making love to me. I blushed, then swallowed.

“Enough nonsense,” I said. “I’m not going to do a lecture today. As I pointed out last week, the point of this exercise is to understand when and how to break the rules of grammar in an appropriate way. All right. Who wants to read their paper first?”

“Can Sherry and I do my scene?” Jason asked.

“Sure.”

It was a cute little scene and rather funny. The class laughed appropriately. Then Rita Farley read her short story and we discussed that briefly. Then Terry Michaels put up her hand. That surprised me.

Terry, it turned out, really was incredibly shy and not just using that as her cover. But, as she’d told me the previous Sunday, she wanted to work on coming out of her shell. That day she not only came out of her shell, she might as well have been buck naked. The poem she read was incredibly erotic. Every boy in the class was drooling, including Ed.

“Um, those are some interesting images, Terry,” I said when she’d finished.

“It’s about dancing,” she said, then flushed a deep red as it suddenly occurred to her how the rest of the class was interpreting it. “It really is about dancing.”

“I can see that,” I said. “Why don’t we move on to the next paper.”

Mark Ayers read his paper, with one eye on Terry. I saw Ed, who was sitting next to her, slip her a note. I couldn’t help thinking he’d be sure to get to take advantage of her first. It wasn’t a worthy thought, and I knew darned well that Ed would treat her better than anyone else in the class. Still, it hurt.

After class let out, I hurried to the Commons to get something to eat. I’d never seen Sid/Ed there, probably because they didn’t serve anything healthy enough for him. That was fine with me. The last thing I wanted to see was Sid with Terry. I skipped the Faculty Dining Room because they were serving fish sticks again. At least, I was awake enough to do that. I ended up buying two of those horrible hamburgers that they served, along with a couple tacos. I’d been avoiding trying the tacos, not expecting to find decent Mexican food in the heartland of America. I took everything back to my office. Surprisingly, the tacos were not half bad. Either that I was so upset I’d lost my sense of taste.

After Basic Comp B, Tim Hannaford stayed after.

“I want to apologize,” he said, softly.

“Good move,” I growled. “But I’m not the one who needs one.”

“Well, I can’t just go up to Ed. He’ll kill me.”

I had to concede his point. “All right. I’ll see what I can do.”

Eunice was waiting for me at the door to my office.

“What’s up?” I asked, opening the door.

She followed me inside. “I thought we might go over some strategies in case Joe gets petty at today’s faculty meeting.”

“He is already getting petty.” I dumped my purse on the desk and sank into my chair. “I did not get notice of this meeting.”

“And Joe called it this morning.” Eunice plopped down on the couch next to the desk. “Even Bob Farnsworth was pissed, and he usually supports Joe.”

“I’d say this day couldn’t get any worse, but you know what happens when you do.” I propped my elbows on the desk and sank my head into my hands.

“It gets worse.” She paused. “I do have one favor to ask you.”

“Sure.”

“I want to lose my virginity this weekend.”

“What?” I gaped at her.

“I’ve been thinking about doing this for a while now. I’m fifty-two years old. I’ve never been with a man before. I think it’s time I found out what all the fuss is about.”

“Eunice, that’s, that’s nuts!”

She shrugged. “That may be. Still, I’d like to do it with Ed Donaldson, if possible.”

The bottom dropped out of my stomach. “He’s a student.”

“He’s not my student and he’s older, not to mention experienced and apparently quite accomplished.” Eunice got an odd smile on her face. “And I like him. Although I don’t think there will be any issues with having to maintain a relationship.”

“I agree on that last point.” I sighed. Sid’s girlfriends seldom lasted more than two weeks. Even our good friend Angelique Carter was more of a repeat live-in than an actual steady.

“Anyway, I’m hoping you have some way of contacting him for some time this weekend. I’m between exams right now, and if it gets any later in the quarter, I’ll also have term papers to grade.”

“Are you sure you want to do this?”

“Of course. Why wouldn’t I? And don’t worry if you can’t get him to cooperate. I’ll find somebody.”

“No!” I gasped, Sid’s various warnings ringing in my ears. “You can get really hurt that way.” I took a deep breath. “I’ll see what I can do. I’ll get his phone number from the class list.”

“Good. Thank you.” Eunice got up. “And I see that it’s just about time for the faculty meeting? Shall we go confront Professor Petty?”

“Sure,” I said in a small voice.

The meeting hadn’t started when we got there. Eunice went to her usual place at the conference table, and I pulled Fran aside.

“What’s going on?” Fran asked.

“Eunice wants me to set her up with Ed Donaldson so that she can lose her virginity this weekend,” I whispered.

“Oh, she’s finally going to do it.” Fran shuddered and let out a curse word. “She’s been talking about it for months now. I told her I did not want anything to do with it.”

Unfortunately, that’s when Cunningham walked in. The look of surprise on his face when he saw me would have been a lot more gratifying if I’d been in a better mood. As soon as he’d called the meeting to order, he went on about how some of the faculty were getting lax with the rules, particularly leaving the lights on in their offices.

“Some of us are working late,” Fran objected.

“That’s what you say,” said Ryan Martin with a rather yeasty guffaw.

“What are you saying?” Fran held herself upright in high dudgeon.

“That you’re doing a little twilight two-step in your office after hours.” Ryan laughed loudly.

“I am not!” Fran shrieked, and with a liberal assortment of curse words, continued shrieking that Ryan was a mean-spirited, filthy-minded jerk.

“It was just a joke,” Ryan said.

“It was not a joke!”

I looked over at Eunice as Fran continued dressing down Ryan and mouthed, “It got worse.”

She nodded. There seemed little likelihood that Cunningham would re-gain control of the meeting, so he adjourned. There was darned near a stampede to get out the doors of the room. Eunice and I waited for Fran, who had collapsed in tears.

“What’s going on?” Eunice asked soothingly.

Fran sniffed and began blinking back her tears. “I do not want to talk about it. I absolutely do not want, under any circumstances, to talk about it.”

“Very well, then.” Eunice gently helped Fran to her feet. “Come on. Let’s get some food in our stomachs. I am assuming you skipped the fish sticks today. It’s not good to go to a faculty meeting on an empty stomach.”

Ted wandered back into the room. “Hey, Fran. Are you okay?”

Fran sniffed one last time and wiped her eyes. “Okay enough. I’m sorry, Ted.”

“We’re going to get something to eat,” Eunice told him. “Why don’t you join us?”

“Sure.”

“Janet, are you coming?”

“Uh, yeah.” I grabbed my purse and followed them out.

Eunice insisted that we needed stronger reinforcements than usual, so we went to the Whistling Cow, the steak house that Ted had brought Fran and me to the night I’d arrived. The steaks were still phenomenal, and Fran visibly calmed down as soon as she’d had some food.

“I get emotional when my blood sugar gets low,” she said.

We all agreed that Joe Cunningham and faculty meetings were not to be faced on empty tummies.

Having been well fed, I was in a somewhat better frame of mind, myself. But as I mounted the stairs to my apartment, I knew that the very last thing I wanted to do was set Sid up with another woman. It was part of our original agreement when he first hired me that I would not be involved in his fooling around in any way. But Sid had told me any number of times that good sex didn’t just happen, that it was a skill, one that too many guys thought they had.

Once inside, I decided to get the dirty deed over with. My watch said that it was a quarter to ten. There was a chance that Sid was still up. I dialed the phone. It rang three times.

“Hello?” asked the familiar, but sleepy voice.

“Who is it?” asked a breathless female in the background before I could say anything.

I hung up. It was the coward’s way out, but I just couldn’t help it. I was tired, but I didn’t feel sleepy. I prowled the apartment, looking for something to do. The broom beckoned. I got out a dust rag, too, and dusted and swept the entire place. It was after midnight at that point. I got ready for bed, but sleep would not come. So, I scrubbed the sink, counters, and the floor in the kitchen. By two-thirty, I was still awake. I scrubbed the bathroom, even getting up the hard water stains on the bathtub floor.

At three-fifteen, I realized I had cleaned the entire apartment. There was nothing left to do except grade papers. I pulled the Basic Comp papers from my purse, got out my red pen and grade book, and took everything to my bed. I arranged the pillows so that I could sit up comfortably and looked at the first paper in the pile.

It had Ed Donaldson’s name at the top and was titled, “The Virgin.”

I didn’t recognize the exact story, but I certainly recognized the high school setting. Sid had changed his name and set the high school in Chicago, but I realized after a couple sentences that he wasn’t writing fiction.

It was his junior year. A new girl had arrived at the school at the same time two of Sid’s female classmates decided that they needed to get him back for something. So, the two girls talked about how loose the new girl, Denise, was within earshot of Sid. Sid asked her out, and it turned out that Denise was a nice girl, bent on behaving herself. But because Denise let it get out that she’d gone on a date with Sid, the other guys figured she was as loose as Sid was. In desperation, he’d given Denise his class ring, the ring he’d practically sold himself for to get the money to buy it.

“Wear this outside your blouse,” he told her. “Tell all the guys we’re going steady. Tell the girls what Mia and Nancy did to you.”

It worked. Denise had been protected. Right before Sid left for Vietnam, she gave him a double-tailed quarter for good luck. Sid got the ring back after he’d been back home for about six months. Denise’s husband had found him. Denise had finally taken the ring off, at her husband’s request, only to be killed in a car accident three months later.

I couldn’t help sniffling. It was so typically Sid. As much as I resisted him protecting me, he had always been there when I’d needed him. The few times I’d had to walk out on a date, he’d come right away. He’d even had a girlfriend over one time and walked out on her to go get me. Protecting me was how we met. I’d ditched a blind date and had to go wait in the restaurant bar until my sister and her husband came home. Sid sent my date on his way and bought me dinner.

And there was another woman in his bed even at that moment. That hurt. I had to figure it was Terry. Sid talks a lot in his sleep, and he’d agreed that he wasn’t going to bring anybody back to where he was staying just in case. Terry was one of us, so she was safe. And her own safety, I suddenly realized, was also why she was there. Okay, there was sex going on. I wasn’t that naive. But Sid hadn’t reached out with his note to get first in line. He’d reached out to protect her because that’s what Sid did.

I looked down at the story. It was bare of red marks, and I knew it needed them. A teardrop left a big wet spot on the page. I brushed it away, but more were falling.

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