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These Hallowed Halls – Chapter Fourteen

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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.

October 23-24, 1984

Sadly, I did not grade any papers that night. I did get home at a reasonable hour but was so exhausted and elated at the same time that all I wanted to do was sleep. I did get up an hour early, got my run in, then hurried over to the campus where I went to work, getting the bulk of the papers done between classes and the faculty meeting at five that afternoon.

Pull quote from romantic spy novel, These Hallowed Halls: I think she found something and wasn’t sure what to do about it

I briefly considered searching Eunice’s office instead of going to the meeting, but wasn’t sure how long the meeting would last, not to mention, it was expected that I would attend and probably raise eyebrows if I didn’t.

At least, Cunningham convened the meeting on time.

“It turns out,” he grumbled. “That the Provost’s Office wants us to participate in a workshop on Ethical Practices at the University.”

“Are they going to cover sexual harassment?” Eunice asked.

Cunningham cleared his throat. “It will cover harassment of any student or colleague. It will also cover academic integrity and NCAA recruiting.”

“We don’t have any sports teams here,” Ernie Lavalle said.

“It’s a national program,” Cunningham said. “Apparently, the trustees want to show that we’re a progressive institution or some such nonsense. What we must decide is whether we will all go at once, or force one among us to go and then repeat the material for the rest of us.”

“I think we should all go,” said Eunice. “That way, we’ll be better prepared should we be expected to answer for our various indiscretions, youthful or otherwise.”

I had no idea what she meant, but Cunningham, Ernie, Max, and Ted all squirmed uncomfortably. Since my back was to her, as usual, I couldn’t tell which of them, if any, she was looking at. Fred Wirth and Ryan Martin both chose to ignore Eunice.

Fortunately, the meeting adjourned quickly, despite the extended debate over whether we’d all go or send a representative. I was not surprised that it was decided to send a representative. Cunningham nominated me for the task, but Eunice volunteered. I was grateful and told her so when we went out to Barb’s Diner with Fran for dinner.

We returned to campus after eating, each of us heading to our respective offices. I worked away, listening for the footsteps of departing colleagues. By ten-thirty, I was feeling rather smug. I had not only finished grading the homework and quizzes from my Monday classes, but the Tuesday ones, as well. There was silence in the hall. I went to visit the restroom and noted that both Eunice and Max were still in their offices. I heard Max pacing in his.

Back in my office, I pulled out my yarn, needles, and pattern, and cast on the stitches for Sid’s sweater. As I knit, I scanned an academic journal, wondering if I really needed to. I was hoping that the case would be wrapped up by the time the quarter ended, the week before Thanksgiving, but I knew I couldn’t count on it. The journal article was as dry as dust, too, which didn’t help.

Finally, shortly after eleven, I heard a door in the hallway open. I went to my door and peeked out. It figured. Max was the one locking the door of his office and moving toward the stairs, briefcase in hand. It wasn’t the way I wanted it, but there is that old adage about gift horses and mouths. I went back into my office and got my gloves.

Max had, again, left his lights on and the blinds were drawn over the windows, as they usually were. I thanked God for that and went to work, starting with his desk. Except for the computer and the blotter pad on the top, it was bare. The drawers were neat and sparsely filled. The file cabinets mostly empty except for notes on various articles he had written. It was annoying. Papers had been strewn across the surface of the desk when I’d seen him that Saturday. Where were they?

I checked under the cushions on his couch, in all the books, everywhere. There were no papers of any kind. I sat back down at the desk and looked under the blotter pad, and under the sheet of blotter paper the pad held. Nothing. But then I saw something on the blotter sheet and ran my fingers over it. Faint ridges, as if Max had pressed down really hard as he wrote. I found a pencil and a blank sheet of paper. Gently, I laid the paper over the pad and shaded over it. As if by magic, little white lines appeared. When I saw what they formed, I smiled.

It wasn’t the evidence I needed, but it was going to make life a lot easier. The question was who would I tell that Max Beard was developing a chemical formula for, presumably, some sort of nerve gas?

The next morning, I handed Ed/Sid a note along with his homework asking him to stay after class.

“Can’t stay long,” Sid muttered as the other students left.

“I found the developer,” I said softly, then looked around again. “It’s Max Beard.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes. I’ll explain later.”

He thought for a second. “Why don’t you come visit Steve tonight and I’ll fix us dinner? I’ll set it up with him.”

“Thanks.”

I knew I should have stayed in my office and graded papers during the break between my Basic Comp sessions, but my stomach was growling loudly and I was so excited by my find that I just could not bear the Commons. It had been raining all morning, so I ran for my car, and headed out to Barb’s. I’d just parked and was about to go in when I thought I saw Ilona Swedburg. Or maybe it wasn’t. I debated following her, but Ted Curtis came up behind me.

“Janet, what are you doing here?” he asked, looking around nervously.

“Getting lunch,” I said.

“Oh. Great. Let’s eat together.”

We got a table near a window but couldn’t really see outside since the rain was coming down so hard.

“So, how are you liking it here?” Ted asked after the waitress had taken our orders.

“Fine. Are you okay, Ted?”

He sighed. “I’m just worried about that Academic Ethics Workshop.”

“Oh, dear,” I said as soothingly as I could. “Eunice hit a little too close to home with her youthful indiscretions remark?”

His face went pale. “What do you know about that?”

“Nothing,” I said with a laugh. “You’re just really upset. I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings. I’m sorry.”

“No. It’s okay.” He smiled weakly. “It really is. I mean, yeah, there might be a little fudged data in my background. But I fixed it soon enough. It’s just that you know how tenure committees are.”

“You don’t have tenure?”

“No. I haven’t been here long enough,” Ted said.

The waitress arrived with my hamburger and fries and a chef’s salad for Ted.

“I didn’t know that,” I said, grabbing a French fry and eating it.

“I’ve only been here five years. Fran’s next in line. That’s why I’m helping Eunice. The sooner Fran gets tenure, the sooner I will. If they pass her over for me, then two-thirds of the female faculty at the entire university will be screaming discrimination and burning Joe Cunningham in effigy.”

“I sure hope so.” I wiped my mouth. The hamburger was good and messy. “At least, you haven’t been teaching for twenty years and still ABD.”

Meaning All But Dissertation, as in doing all your course work, but never getting around to finishing the final part of your doctoral degree. It doesn’t happen often, but there have been people who have had long careers without anyone realizing that they never finished.

“That’s Ernie,” said Ted.

My eyes flew open. “Really?”

“Well, it’s technically a rumor.” Ted munched on his salad. “The story goes that his dissertation didn’t pass, but he’d already been teaching here for five years, so Joe let it slide as long as Ernie kept trying to re-write it.”

“I find it hard to believe Cunningham being that nice.”

Ted snorted. “Joe didn’t do it to be nice. He did it so that he can keep Ernie in his back pocket.”

Well, Ted did use a much cruder term.

“Wow. I had no idea.”

We nattered on for several minutes more and Ted did seem more relaxed. Still, when I checked my watch, I’d been gone longer than I’d intended.

“I’ve got to scoot,” I said, wiping my mouth one last time. “How much do I owe you?”

“I’ll buy this time.” Ted grinned, jovially.

I paused. “Okay. Thanks.”

At least, he hadn’t offered to walk me out to my car.

I got back in time to get my notes together for the Basic Comp B section and ran off to class. When I got back to my office from class, Eunice was waiting at my door.

“What’s up?” I asked as I unlocked it.

“Let’s talk inside,” Eunice said.

“Okay.” I let her go in first, then shut the door. “What’s going on?”

“I can’t say yet.” Eunice looked a little agitated. “I’m having a small meeting at my place tonight at ten. Can you come by?”

“Sure, but why?”

“I’ll let you know then.” She sighed. “Let’s just say that decisions have to be made.”

“Okay.”

Eunice left the office.

I tried not to think about it. I had two sections’ worth of homework to grade, plus notes to go over for the next day’s Shakespeare seminar. I did check the computer bulletin board and both Steve and Sid had posted a dinner meeting at their place for that night. Which meant I’d better stay focused on getting the grading done or I’d be a mess in no time.

When I got to the Victorian mansion that evening, the rain had stopped. I went straight to Sid’s. Steve was already there. The table had again been set with the china, burnished flatware, and crystal wine glasses.

“We’re having chicken stew tonight,” Steve whispered to me as Sid went into the kitchen to fetch it. “Thank God, no girly food.”

I sighed and decided not to remind him that I was not only a girl, I also liked really gourmet cooking.

The stew was gorgeous, and Sid served it with a lovely Burgundy. I do need to point out that it wasn’t an American wine labeled Burgundy. It was the real thing from Burgundy, France. Where he’d gotten it, I had no idea. [I’d found a way to get it shipped to me. – SEH] I do not know why or how the competitive thing had died down between the two men, but I was grateful.

However, as we finished eating, Steve looked at me.

“I hear you’ve found our developer,” he said.

I got the piece of paper I’d taken from Max’s office from my jeans’ back pocket.

“I’m pretty sure,” I said, spreading the paper on the table. “I got this off Max Beard’s desk. It was pressed into his blotter pad. I can’t figure out why else a history professor would have chemical formulae on his blotter pad unless he was working on them.”

Steve cursed as Sid laughed.

“You did it!” Sid chortled.

“Yeah, you did,” grumbled Steve. “Who would have thought Max?” He looked up at me. “You know, this doesn’t exonerate Eunice. If anything, it implicates her.”

“How so?” I asked.

“She and Max have been buddies for years. Even before Fran joined the department.” Steve also frowned. “And she is a lot better at computers and systems than you would think. I’m not sure how she’s getting the formula, but I wouldn’t put it past her.”

“So, why does she want me at her place tonight?” I asked.

“She asked you to be there?” Steve’s eyebrows rose. “At ten p.m., right? She asked me, too.”

“Yeah.” I frowned. “She said decisions had to be made.”

“I suspect a trap.” Steve looked at Sid. “Think you can hide in the bushes long enough to cover us?”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” I said. I looked at Sid. “You could probably do a good job, but is it realistic to think you can get out of here without your tail spotting you?”

Sid glared at me. “Possible, but not likely.”

Steve swore. “We need backup.”

“That would be nice,” I said. “But we’re not getting it, so we’ll make the best of what we have.”

Steve shifted unhappily. “I was told you two could be real cowboys.”

“We don’t get backup,” Sid said softly.

“We’ll be okay,” I said, looking at him.

Sid nodded. Steve was not satisfied and continued to argue that we needed Sid there. Finally, it was close enough to ten that Steve and I would have to leave to get to Eunice’s in time. As Steve left the apartment, Sid held me back.

“Can you sneak back here after the meeting?” he asked. “Or call me. I just want to know you’re okay.”

I smiled and kissed him. “Sure. No problem.”

I kissed him again and hurried out to my car.

I was a little surprised to see that Fran was already there when I parked my car in front of Eunice’s small house. It was made of the same light tan brick that I’d seen everywhere, and rather boxy. But it had a nice, raised porch in the front and a door with a stained-glass window at the top.

“Do you know what this is about?” Fran asked me as I came up the walk.

“I have no idea,” I said.

“Oh, hi, Steve,” Fran said.

I turned. Steve walked up the front walk behind me.

“Hey, Fran!” Dwight Atwater appeared on the sidewalk. “Oh, Janet, good to see you. Hey, Steve. So, what’s going on?”

“We don’t know,” Fran said. “And worse yet, I knocked, and she didn’t answer.”

“She didn’t?” Steve looked quickly at me.

“Maybe she’s waiting until it’s exactly ten o’clock,” I said.

We waited another five minutes, debating what Eunice wanted us there for, then knocked again. There was no response. I tried the door.

“It’s unlocked,” I said, opening it.

“That’s strange,” said Fran. “Eunice is almost compulsive about locking up.”

Fran crowded behind me as I went into the small living room. The place had been tossed. Furniture was overturned and out of place, papers strewn all over. I saw a pair of legs near the desk on the side wall and went to look, my stomach doing three kinds of flip-flops. I shouldn’t have. I barely saw Eunice’s wide-eyed stare and the cord around her neck before I ran from the room and heaved onto the bushes underneath the porch.

It was that thing with dead bodies I have. I had never been good with the idea, then got totally traumatized that first few months I was working for Sid. And, yeah, it is a problem, but prior to that night, I’d always had Sid nearby to run interference for me.

“Are you okay?” Fran asked as I caught my breath.

“I don’t know. Is she?”

Fran began sobbing. “Yes.”

I let myself break down in sobs, too. Dwight came up and put his arms around both me and Fran and held us gently.

It didn’t matter. I remained in a fog and wasn’t exactly conscious when Sergeant Renecke, of the Appleton PD, approached me.

I told him the simple truth of what Eunice had said to me, assuming she’d said the same or something similar to Dwight, Steve, and Fran. I don’t know how I was able to drive back to the Victorian mansion, but Steve had somehow beaten me there. I saw his car in the driveway.

I climbed the stairs to the third floor feeling each step in every fiber of my being. I barely knocked and Sid was there, enfolding me into his arms and whispering encouragement.

He shut the door and held me as I sobbed. Finally, I was able to catch enough of my breath for Sid to lead me to the couch.

“Are you going to be okay?” he asked gently as he sat me down.

“It’s bad enough losing Eunice,” I said. “But I feel so stupid, upchucking all over the front bushes. This is terrible. You’d think I’d be able to handle myself better after all this time.”

“It hasn’t been that long, honey.” Sid sat down and pulled me close to him. “And you manage.”

“I’ve always had you around to help me.”

“Well, you managed without me tonight, and you’ll manage it without me again some time.”

“I’m glad you think so. And Eunice. I really loved her.”

“I know. I liked her a lot, too.” Sid kissed the side of my head. “But Steve called when he got home. We need to conference. I told him I’d call if you came here. Think you can handle it?”

I sniffed and sat up straight. “I have to.”

Steve appeared moments later while I was in the bathroom trying to wipe off the streaks of mascara running down my cheeks without disturbing too much of the contouring that I did with my makeup.

“Hey,” Steve said as I came into the living room. “Good cover with the barfing.”

“Thanks,” I said, trying not to shudder.

“You okay?” Steve came over and gave me a hug.

I coughed at the smell of cigarette. “Well, I’m upset. Eunice was becoming a good friend.”

“I know.” Steve sighed and began pacing. “But why kill her?”

“I don’t think it was because she was stealing the formula,” Sid said.

“I found a KGB nerve agent ampule taped next to the light switch on her desk lamp,” Steve said. “And all her floppy disks were gone.”

“But if Max is still working on the formula, why take her out?” I sank onto the couch. “That doesn’t make sense. Besides, there’s what she told us today. There were decisions to be made. She invited, me, you, Fran, and Dwight. I think she found something and wasn’t sure what to do about it.”

“She didn’t invite Max,” Steve said.

“We don’t know that she didn’t,” I said. “He may simply not have shown.”

“Decent odds on that.” Steve pawed at his shirt pocket then shook a fist in frustration.

Sid sighed. “Look, I don’t think we’re going to get any further on this tonight. Let’s get some sleep and we’ll try and post something on the bulletin board tomorrow.”

Steve and I agreed, and I let Steve walk me out to my car. It was probably good for my cover, too.

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