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.
Tuesdays and Thursdays, I had the Shakespeare seminar and the final Basic Comp section (aka Basic Comp C). The Shakespeare seminar had three Second Career students in the class among the eight total. Rick Waters was a small man, with thinning hair and glasses, and a declared playwriting major. An only child, he’d worked at his parents’ dairy, taking college classes as he could. Once his parents had both died, he’d sold the dairy and went to follow his dreams. Marge Haver, a real live wire with graying brown hair and a full figure, announced that she was a theatre major. She had put a husband through school, raised three kids, been dumped by said husband for a younger model, and had decided it was finally time to do what she’d originally wanted to do instead of getting married.
The third Second Career student, however, startled me. The name that she answered to was Kathy Richards, and with dark brown hair that was feathered in the front and long in the back, she looked like any other college student. Her story was that she’d been taking community college courses until she’d saved enough in her job as an office worker to go to school full-time and was majoring in theatre production. I’d met her the summer before as Blue Shield, and the office she’d been working was a high-level code breaking and development facility. She’d looked older, then, too.
I gazed at her when I announced Off Campus Office Hours, and she smiled and nodded. She also stayed after as the other students sauntered out of the room.
“Good to see you,” I said softly.
“Likewise.” She grinned. “I’m guessing you know I’m here for any code-breaking duties, right?”
“I figured that out.”
She glanced at the classroom door. “I just want you to know that we also got some intensive training.”
“Me, Hannaford, and Michaels.” She rolled her eyes. “They don’t even have code names yet, so they decided we should just use our cover names. Give us a chance to get used to them. Anyway, those two may be pretty wet behind the ears, but there shouldn’t be any problems with any take downs.”
I couldn’t help laughing. When we’d met the summer before, it was to apprehend a suspect that had gotten away, thanks to one of her colleagues.
“That was not your fault,” I told her.
“Maybe, but I was embarrassed to death. When I heard there was going to be field training for this operation, I jumped on it.”
“Oh,” I said. “You guys got field training.”
Kathy shrugged. “None of us had any field experience. My crew at the Factory mostly ride desks, maybe a little courier duty here and there.”
“Well, that would explain why I hadn’t seen you before last summer. What about the other two?”
“Infants.” Kathy rolled her eyes. “Michaels is, obviously, a lot older than she looks, but she’s still pretty green. She’s in Systems and really wanted to go out in the field, and they really needed somebody who could believably pose as a freshman. Same with Hannaford.” She made a face. “Fresh out of college and six months at Quantico.”
“He’s a loaner from The Company?” Or what we called the CIA, when we weren’t calling it other, less kind names.
“Not a loaner. He was just trained there. He’ll be a permanent courier if he doesn’t get his butt killed first. We don’t usually pull recruits out of college, so I suspect The Company sent him to us for revenge on somebody.”
“That would be like them, from what little I’ve seen.”
“Yeah. Anyway, they could only get one person on faculty, and not too many in the Second Career program, so we’re stuck with the infants.”
I tried not to sigh.
Kathy hoisted her backpack to her shoulder. “Anything I can give to Little Red tomorrow night?”
“Big Red,” I said, frowning. “I’m Little Red.”
“Oh. Right.” Kathy shrugged. “I can never keep you two straight. You’re kind of a package deal.”
“Nice to know,” I grumbled.
“Well, you are the same address on the line. Do you have anything for him? We’ll be catching up at a Second Career party tomorrow. At our orientation, they really encouraged us Second Career students to socialize. They said it helps offset all the discomfort being with kids who are so much younger than us. Personally, I think they want to keep us older folks from leading the young’uns astray.”
“Good luck to them.” I shook my head. “I don’t have anything, but thanks for offering.”
“You’re welcome.” Kathy waved as she left the room. “Ta-ta!”
I waved weakly back. As Kathy left the room, I couldn’t help wondering how much “catching up” Kathy and Sid had done. Knowing Sid, the odds were decent that they’d been together. The man was randier than a British royal. It wasn’t Sid’s fault, I reminded myself. He had been raised to see sex as something to be indulged in, not as something sacred, which is how I saw it. There was part of me that believed him when he said that other liaisons didn’t mean anything, they really didn’t. That didn’t help. I still felt as if I wasn’t enough for him.
I shook my head. That line of thinking was not going to help me function, let alone resolve the impasse our relationship was in.
My final section of Basic Comp was that afternoon, and it was basic. The students were all in one of the arts departments, had little to no interest in writing and were simply suffering through. My mentor teacher had pointed out that some classes are like that and there’s little to be done about it. It was almost like teaching Confirmation classes at church back home, where the kids have little interest in learning and are only going because Mom and Dad made them.
I wasn’t sure if I was glad that the Faculty Dining Room was closed by the time I got that last class squared away. At least, the Commons was fully open, and there were several food stands serving different styles of food, most of it not that good. I’d tried eating a hamburger earlier that day and swore never again. So, I got some insipid macaroni and cheese, and with a nod to trying to eat healthier, a salad of wilted iceberg lettuce drenched in bad blue cheese dressing.
I took my food back to my office and stayed late, grading Basic Comp papers, and reviewing my lecture for the next day. The idea was to solidly establish our covers before beginning any real investigative work, with a focus on behavior that would make it look normal to be doing things like searching offices and stealing people’s papers.
That Wednesday, I had all my papers graded and my fingers crossed that I could stay on top of them all. I started the A section of Basic Comp by calling roll, then handing back the papers from the Monday before. I noticed Ed looking at his paper, then smiling softly.
As I handed back the last paper, Jason De Boeur raised his hand.
“Yes, Jason,” I said.
“Why do we have to do an assignment for every class period?”
I grinned. “Jason, aren’t you an actor?”
“How do you learn your part in a play?”
His eyes didn’t quite roll. “I rehearse it.”
“Yes, but how do you rehearse it? Don’t you do it over and over again?”
I looked around. “Ed, you’re a pianist, right?”
He looked a little startled. “Yes.”
“How do you learn a new piece?”
“Well.” He shifted and scratched his beard. “I read the music, then play it.”
“No.” He smiled as the light dawned. “I play it several times.”
“Right.” I smiled at Jason and then the rest of the class. “All of you have learned how to do many different things. None of you did any of those things perfectly the first time you did them. Some things may have come more easily than others, but you still had to do things over and over again. Writing is the same thing. You must practice it. And I know, and you know, none of you are going to go out and practice writing correctly on your own. You need motivation. That’s what this class is for and that’s why you’re turning in an assignment every period. Now, will you all open your textbooks to page twenty-three. We’re going to start with sentence structure.”
I had the class turn in their homework at the end of the period. Ed dropped his paper on the desk and left with the bulk of the group, his day pack slung over one shoulder. But as I stacked the papers together to get them into my purse, a small bit of lined notepaper fell out.
“Point taken,” read Sid’s handwriting. “But please do try to take care of yourself. I only say it because I care.”
I held my eyes shut against the tears. He did care, drat him. He cared more than just about anyone in my life. Worse yet, he had a point, at least about the exercising. At home, we ran every morning except Sundays. I hated it. Or, maybe, I really liked complaining about it. Either way, I knew darned well it was a necessary part of staying fit, which would keep me alive. Which was why Sid had left his note.
The next morning, instead of sleeping for another hour, then heading to the shower, I got up and put on my running suit and took off. Later, after Basic Comp C, I brought my racquetball racket to the campus sports club and signed in. The amenities were genuinely nice, indeed, and keep in mind, the club where Sid and I work out at home is pretty much top of the line. Strangely, the place was almost empty.
“I think it’s because the students have to pay to use it,” said the young blond woman in the weight room who pulled me as her client. “We got a couple faculty who use the facilities, and a few students. But you gotta figure most people aren’t interested in keeping their bodies up.”
“That’s too bad,” I said, and shrugged. “At least, I won’t have to wait in line for a machine.”
“And I’ve got so little to do, I get to coach you directly. I’m Tina, by the way.”
Tina turned out to be a great coach and got me through a full-body weight workout in under thirty minutes. I was just sliding off the sit up bench when an all-too familiar voice greeted me.
I turned and smiled. “Hello, Ed.”
“Did you just join?” He was dressed in black shorts and white warm up top with a sleeveless t-shirt underneath. His fancy special shoes for playing racquetball were gleaming white, and he had his racket in a black gym bag that I knew also carried his eye guards, two towels and several cans of balls.
“Faculty get free memberships.” Tina’s eyes glowed with lust, but for some reason he ignored her.
“Oh.” He looked around. “You don’t happen to play racquetball, do you?”
“I’m not very good,” I said.
“Courts are empty,” he sighed. “Sadly, there’s no one else to play with.”
Tina glanced up at the clock. “I’d play, but I’ve got to lead aerobics in a few minutes. It’s the Queen Bee’s time, you know.”
She hurried off with one last look of longing.
“Queen Bee?” I asked him.
“Dr. Ermengarde,” he replied. “She’s, uh…”
“Head of the acting department.” I quickly racked my brain for what Eunice had said about her at the luncheon. It had probably been something grossly impolite.
“Right.” He looked around again and held up his racket. “Wanna play?”
“Sure.” I got my racket and eye guards from where I’d left them on the weight room desk and followed him to the courts.
The weird thing about a racquetball court is that it’s a completely closed two-story high long room. There’s usually a tiny window in the door, but these courts had lights above the doors instead. The walls are concrete, which means you can’t hear what anybody is saying inside the court unless the door is open, or someone is really screaming. So, as soon as we closed ourselves into the court, we dropped our covers.
“How about if we just bat the ball around?” I asked, rolling my shoulders to loosen them.
Sid chuckled. “You’re never going to get better if you don’t play full on.”
“Every time I play full on with you, I end up with bruises all over me.”
“I’ll spot you five points.”
“Make it ten and you’re on.”
Playing with Sid is not easy. He is intensely competitive and insanely good, which is why I generally end up with bruises when I do, and that’s with him going easy on me. He even let me serve first. It was the last time I served. Sid had me soundly beaten within fifteen minutes. At least, we were both a little winded and sweating.
“Got anything for me?” he asked.
“Not really.” I winced. “Kathy Richards said that she’d be catching up with you last night.”
“She didn’t have anything.” Sid sighed. “I’m hearing some jealousy there.”
“I didn’t say so.”
“By now, you don’t have to.” Sid bounced the ball absently. “Well, you have no cause when it comes to Kathy.”
“No. You absolutely have no cause. She’d rather be dating you than me.”
I had to laugh. “Yeah. I guess so. I’m sorry. I just assumed…”
“It’s not like you don’t have reason not to.” Sid dropped the ball and whacked it hard with his racket.
The ball flew around the court, with its trademark thunk.
“I still shouldn’t. It’s not fair to you.”
He shrugged, then looked at me. “What else is going on?”
“Well.” I made a face. “It’s kinda stupid, but both Kathy and Steve Carmona mixed our code names up.”
“Kathy knows our code names?”
“Kathy’s Blue Shield. I met her last summer on that trip to Vegas, so she knows me as Little Red. Only she thought I was Big Red. Anyway, she must have tagged you as my partner because the other two were in training with her, and we weren’t. Kathy said we were a package deal.”
Sid sighed. “I suppose we are. But why does that upset you?”
“It does and it doesn’t.” I made a face. “I mean, I was really looking forward to being on my own, testing myself, seeing what I can do. Only we’re getting lumped together again.”
“It’s not being together with you. That’s the nice part.” I picked up the ball and rolled it in my fingers. “It’s just not knowing how much of us is what you do and how much is what I do. You’ve had time on your own. You know what you can do.”
Sid snorted in a bemused way. “And I’ve always thought we were both stronger together. But I get what you’re saying. Working with me is all you know.”
“Exactly.” I smiled at him. “You know, I really appreciate how you listen to me.”
He smiled back. “That’s the easy part.” He frowned. “I am glad we have a team for this one and that we know who they are. I’ve done a few where I was either the only operative or wasn’t but had no clue who else I was working with. Trust me. That’s the pits.”
“Tell me about it. I was the one who was almost arrested by our own that time.”
Sid laughed. “Yeah. That was grim. In any case, you’re still going to be on your own a lot. We all will. And since you’re the lead on this case, you’ll get your chance to discover what you’re made of.”
“Thanks.” I bumped into him, then realized something. “What did you say? I’m the lead?”
“That’s what Steve said.” Sid pulled back and thought. “Come to think of it, he called you Big Red, and I didn’t think anything of it.”
“Oh, wait. They must be thinking Big Red is the lead.”
“Which makes sense. I’ve been around a lot longer than you have.”
“And if I’m the lead, then I must be Big Red.” I laughed suddenly. “Which means I’m now your boss.”
Sid laughed, then paused and looked at me thoughtfully.
“Lisapet, when we get back home, can we ditch calling me your boss? I know that’s how we started. But it doesn’t make sense anymore. We’ve been a team for well over a year.”
“I guess so with the writing.”
“And the spy biz.”
I looked at him, puzzled. “Are you serious?”
“Yeah. Just because I take lead more often, that has nothing to do with your skill level. I simply have more experience. And lately, you’re as likely to be running something as me.”
“I never really thought of it that way.” I blinked. “Are you okay with that? I mean, I’m not the pesky little sister outdoing her older brother?”
Sid laughed. We’d had that conversation before.
“Okay, I have been in sympathy with your sister Mae more than once. But I am not your brother and that does help. Besides, I love seeing you succeed.”
“A team. Sid, that has got to be one of the nicest things you’ve ever said to me.” I blinked again.
Yes, he was still sweating heavily, and that usually turns me off big time. Then, all I could do was slide into his arms and kiss him for all I was worth.
[Yeah, that was the problem with those kisses, however utterly delicious they were. I know we played a while longer, but it wasn’t near enough to cool me down. I’d been putting off Tina, the weights coach, part of my grand plan to be what you needed. I couldn’t help it. That night, I gave in and Tina finally got what she’d been angling for since I’d arrived. – SEH]