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.
It was Halloween. Halloween on the campus of an arts school was… Okay, it was surreal. I mean, I like to think that I am reasonably culturally savvy, but these kids blew me away. The Dungeons and Dragons references were in the minority. Yes, we did get a few Star Trek costumes. But I saw at least twelve costumes referencing the whole Dune universe – apparently the film was coming out later that year. The rest of them, well, they went way beyond the usual witches and ghouls.
There was part of me that felt rather left out. I usually love dressing up for Halloween. But I realized that I’d had other things taking up space in my brain that week. I wore my Shetland wool sweater over a pair of jeans and my armored running shoes.
“Hey, Dr. Mayfield,” Mark Ayers crowed as I walked into the first section of Basic Comp. At least, I was reasonably certain that it was him underneath the various growths that had sprouted all over his face. “Where’s your costume?”
“Still trying to get the campus zeitgeist,” I said, hoping I sounded more casual than I felt.
“Mark!” groaned Rita Farley. She, at least, had chosen not to dress up.
The rest of the class also shuffled uncomfortably.
I looked over the group. Even though two-thirds of them wore some elaborate costume, there was a sadness that overlaid everything.
“How many of you are a little messed up that one of your classmates is dead?” I asked.
No surprise, they weren’t admitting it, but the way they shuffled and shifted told me what I’d guessed.
“I’ll admit I’m behind on the grading,” I said. “Why don’t we talk about our feelings about what happened to Ed?”
There was more shuffling and shifting, but it wasn’t long before the feelings and the fears started coming out. Most of them felt strange about what the police were saying about Ed.
“Like, a government agent?” Jason de Boeur said. “That’s just, like, too weird.”
“It doesn’t mean he didn’t like us,” said Terry with a rather militant expression on her face. “And it doesn’t mean he wasn’t a really good person.”
There wasn’t much more for me to do than sit back and let things happen. Which they did. About mid-way through the class, enough noise erupted in the halls that I went to check out what was going on.
When I came back into the classroom, I sank back against the desk.
“Okay, class. We’ve had yet another incident,” I told them, playing into the shock I would have felt had I not known what was going on. “Apparently, sometime last night, Professor Max Beard’s car landed in the Fox River. I don’t know much more than that, but if you want to stay around and talk about it, we can. Otherwise, class is dismissed.”
There was a shocked silence, then the class fled. Terry stayed behind just long enough to agree to meet with me around five so that we could check out Steve Carmona’s account. I went first to the department office to find out what I could. Classes were, indeed, canceled for the rest of the day, however, no faculty meeting had been scheduled.
“He refuses to come out of his office,” Mrs. Spinetti said, with a nod toward Cunningham’s door. “And he won’t even talk to me. With luck, he’s trying to figure out how he’s going to live on his pension.”
“Have they found out anything about Max?” I asked.
Mrs. Spinetti shook her head. “Not so far. They’ve been dragging the river all morning. Last I heard, they found his glasses and a shirt. His body probably got caught in an undertow and is halfway to the Illinois River by now.” She put her hand on my shoulder. “Why don’t you go home? Everyone else has left, except Joe and, I think, Fran. I’ll be leaving in a few minutes, myself.”
“I’m going to go up to my office, first.” I said, as listlessly as I felt.
It was time to do some searches, but my heart wasn’t in it. I got out my leather gloves, then locked my purse in my desk and started up the stairs to the third floor, anyway. The lights were on in Fran’s office. She’d been so broken up about Eunice, I couldn’t help but wonder how Max’s disappearance was affecting her. I stuffed the gloves in my back pocket and knocked on her door.
“Please leave,” Fran called.
“It’s Janet,” I said.
“Oh, Janet. Come on in. It’s open.”
She sat at her desk, glumly staring at nothing.
“Are you okay?” I asked, shutting the door behind me.
“I…” Fran shrugged. “I don’t know. I really don’t.” She looked at me. “Eunice trusted you. Do you know why?”
“Not really.” I kept my face puzzled and tried to hide my fear as I sat down on the couch. “I liked her a lot, probably even loved her.”
Fran smiled. “You know what she told me after the Faculty Luncheon at the beginning of the quarter? That we had another ally. That’s why I thought the meeting was about getting rid of Joe Cunningham. But earlier today, when I heard about Max’s car, I remembered a couple of things.” She took a deep breath. “About a year and a half ago, one night after Joe had been acting particularly badly, Eunice and I got fed up. We sat in her office and drank ourselves silly. We staggered downstairs to go home and Eunice stole the department pass key. Mrs. Spinetti keeps it in the top drawer of her desk in case somebody loses their office key. The next thing I knew, I had a copy of it. How Eunice had gotten it, I don’t know. I do know she had a copy. Then, about a week before she died, she told me that we were finally going to need our pass keys. I asked her if this meant we were going to get Joe, and she said, no, it was more serious than that. I let it go. It wasn’t that unusual for Eunice to get cryptic.”
“Okay. But why are you telling me this?”
“Eunice trusted you and I need help. Max said to let it go, but I can’t.”
“Because he’s gone now?”
“Because he’s up to his neck in it.” Fran chuckled. “I don’t know how. He wouldn’t tell me, and I’m fairly certain Eunice didn’t know, either.” She looked at me. “Max and I are lovers.”
I raised my eyebrows. “I never guessed.” Then something occurred to me. “You’re speaking about him in the present tense.”
“He’s not dead,” Fran’s blinking grew even worse. “Don’t ask me how I know and please keep that under your hat. I need to find Eunice’s killer. It’s connected to something Max was doing. It must be. That’s why she didn’t ask him to the meeting. She wanted to protect him, I’m sure.”
“Do you think Max could have killed her?”
“Absolutely not. He was completely shocked to hear.” Fran’s eyes flitted my way. “I went over there after the police let us go that night. I didn’t know what else to do. I also asked Steve the next day if Max had been signed into his account that night, and Steve said that Max had signed out around ten thirty. I wanted to be sure that Max wasn’t a suspect.”
I made a mental note to check the sign in logs for that night when I got back into Steve’s account.
“So, who do you think is?” I asked.
“Well, that’s what I need the help for,” Fran said. “Practically everyone else in this department could be. I’ve got a pass key. We need to search some offices. Maybe we can find some evidence or something.”
“Um,” I tried to think of something to say. “Shouldn’t we leave this to the police?”
“We can’t. Whatever Max was working on, he needed to keep it a secret.”
“You can’t be planning on taking out Eunice’s killer by yourself.” I gulped.
“Oh, no. But depending on what evidence we find, we’ll figure what to do with it then.” Fran got up. “Come on. I want to get as much done today as I can.”
“Now?” I swallowed. I wanted to talk her out of it, but I knew I couldn’t. I needed to do the searches, anyway, and maybe working with her, I could keep her out of trouble.
“It’s for Eunice,” Fran said.
I sighed. “All right. Let’s go.”
We started on the third floor, Fran only wanted to go through the desks, but I checked a few of the bookshelves. David Watts’ office was clean. Ernie Lavalle had a complete collection of Playboy Magazines on his shelves. Somehow, I thought his interest in the articles was limited. His desk was clean, even of syringes. Carson Osgood’s desk was also clean, but he did have a dirty little secret on his shelf. He’d pasted an incredible collection of pornographic pictures in between the pages of his academic journals.
Fran was disgusted. “I always thought he found those more interesting than they warranted.”
We moved on. Perry Addington’s, then downstairs, Dwight Atwater’s and Ted Curtis’ offices were all clean. Ryan Martin had a couple bottles of Jack Daniels in his desk, but nothing incriminating. Fran didn’t think it would be worth searching Eunice’s or Max’s offices, so we went on to the first floor. Cunningham was still sulking in his office, so we were extra quiet as we went through Robert Farnsworth’s office (clean), the Zaners’ office (also clean) and Fred Wirth’s (clean, but more pornography).
“What is it with men and porn?” Fran grumbled as we went back up to my office.
“I have no idea,” I said. “Beyond the whole objectification thing.”
Fran snorted. “So now, what do we do?”
I looked at my watch. “Actually, I’m meeting with a student in a couple. Terry Michaels. She was close to Ed, so I’m letting her cry on my shoulder. How about we set up a plan tonight when I get home?”
“That’s a good idea.” Fran headed for her office. “I’ll go get my purse and you’ll lock up?”
I did keep watch until I saw her coming down the stairs. She passed Terry, who was coming up the stairs. I waved at Terry to keep watching what Fran did. Terry paused and looked back, then hurried over to me.
“Good. Let’s keep our ears open, okay?”
We got into Steve’s account quickly. Terry spotted the password file. We saved it to a floppy disk on my computer, then opened it up. It was a spreadsheet that hadn’t been sorted, but Terry found Max’s account near the bottom. I wrote the password down, then found Eunice’s.
Outside, college students began to make party noises, and it sounded like someone had set up a loudspeaker system on the lawn.
“It’s going to be a really big party,” Terry said. “They’ve even got a pit dug for a bonfire.”
“Good.” I signed out of Steve’s account and into Max’s.
It was empty. Every single file was gone, and I didn’t doubt that Max had been the one to empty it. I signed out and signed into Eunice’s account. Most of the files there related to her course work. There were also a couple journal articles. I pulled out the box of floppy disks that I’d found in her desk. The labels corresponded to the file names on her computer account.
“That’s funny,” said Terry, who was looking over my shoulder.
Terry pointed to the screen. “The last file was created on October first. She’s been creating files at least once a week up until that time. She must have erased a bunch of files. I wonder why.”
“Evidence,” I said. “She told Max that someone was spying on him and that she had some evidence. But why would she erase the files? She’d need them to back herself up.”
“Because she made backups.” Terry’s face fell. “Oh, no! The floppies that were missing from her house.”
“Wait a minute.” I looked at the box of floppy disks on my desk. “She left these out and they were untouched. I wonder if this is a second box of backups. I have a friend who always talks about making backups of backups. So, if Eunice erased the files from the university system, she wouldn’t have made just one backup.”
“You’re right.” Terry glowed. “Why didn’t I think of that? But where would the second backup be?”
“She wouldn’t tell Max who she thought was doing the spying. If she was that skittish, then she probably hid them. But where?”
“Kathy was pretty sure it wasn’t in her house.”
I shook my head. “It wasn’t in her office, either.” I thought about all the offices I’d searched and realized that I hadn’t searched Fran’s since Eunice was killed. “I wonder if it’s in Fran’s. Eunice was already getting ready to ask her help.” I opened my desk drawer. “Stuff your pack in here and I’ll lock it.”
Terry did and we left my office for Fran’s. Fortunately, Fran had left her lights on again. I found the manila envelope stuck between a couple of People Magazines that Fran had on her shelf. There was a note on the front asking Fran not to open it until after their meeting.
I took the envelope and pushed Terry back to my office. Outside, music started playing and the students cheered loudly.
“I hope those kids will be in shape for class tomorrow,” I grumbled as I opened the envelope.
“Tomorrow’s a day off,” Terry said. “Remember?”
I thought, then realized it was. “It’s a faculty in-service day or something.”
“They call it that.” Terry giggled. “One of the sophomores in my other classes said it’s because so many of the students are hung over, no one comes to class anyway.”
“You’re right. I had heard that.” I turned back to the contents of the envelope.
There were several sheets of paper, including two dot matrix printouts, and a floppy disk. The printouts had chemical formulae on them. One was marked “Max.”
I didn’t get a chance to read more. We could hear someone in the hall coming toward the office. I shoved everything back into the envelope, slid it into my desk drawer and relocked the desk.
I was just in time. The door rattled, then splintered. Two men wearing black clothes and masks burst into the office. I screamed loudly, which made one of them laugh.
“No one is going to hear you.”
He and the other man pulled their guns. Terry was rooted in place and utterly terrified.
“Now, come along nicely,” the first man said.
I eased my way around the desk.
“Please don’t hurt us,” I whimpered.
“If you are good, we don’t.” He grabbed my arm and shoved me forward.
I stomped on his foot. He let go, howling. I charged the second man. Terry finally woke up and ran out the door. The second man didn’t back down and finally got me pinned and shoved out the door. I kept struggling until I saw Terry. A third man held her with a gun to her head.