Welcome to the first chapter of 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.
On my own.
There I was, however many thousand miles over Wisconsin, and I was on my own. Well, Sid would be there somewhere. But for the first time since I’d become a member of Operation Quickline, the two of us would not be working side by side. I wasn’t even sure how much I was going to be seeing Sid.
I was nervous. We were going to be undercover and that’s always a scary thing. Yet, I was also excited. At last, a chance to prove myself. I mean, I knew Sid and I were good at this investigation and spy thing, but I didn’t know how much of that was Sid or how much I was adding to our little team.
Let me explain. Within the structure of the FBI are several smaller organizations that only the members know exist. Operation Quickline was one of these. Our core mission was to move information around, and that was mostly what we did. However, every so often something would come up that was too hot for regular law enforcement and we’d get called in to deal with it.
Which was why I was on an airplane flying into Green Bay airport. I looked out the window at the ground below. It was parceled off into bright green squares, which really looked strange to me. Back home in Los Angeles, everything that wasn’t hemmed in by concrete was brown. After baking all summer, Southern California was in the middle of its traditional September heat wave. I was glad to be leaving the blast furnace.
On this last little leg from the flight in Chicago, the pilot had announced warm weather in Green Bay. I couldn’t help laughing when he said the temperatures were in the low eighties. When I’d left Los Angeles that morning, it had already been ninety-five and getting hotter.
The seat belt sign flashed, and the pilot announced that we would be landing shortly. Sighing, I put away my commentary on Shakespeare’s sonnets. I’d been reading academic journals non-stop since late August when the assignment first came up. That was the one part I was terrified about. My cover was as an English professor at a tiny arts college in Appleton, Wisconsin. Now, I had taught English before, at a community college, but I’d been away from that job for over three years, and only had a master’s degree. My cover had a full PhD and more years teaching. I did not want to say something stupid or not know something I should have. [You wouldn’t have been the first PhD to do so, on both counts – SEH] I had even begun some research for a journal article, or maybe even a book.
The plane landed with a bump. I slid on a pair of large-framed glasses. The lenses didn’t help or hurt my vision any. They were just part of my cover. We’d been ordered to change our appearances. I used makeup to subtly change the contours of my face and had cut my hair and dyed it blond. As the plane docked at the gate, I drew a deep breath and waited until most of the other passengers had deplaned. Then I got my purse and backpack together and walked into my new role.
As I walked into the terminal, an announcement was going.
“…Janet Mayfield to the desk at gate six. Paging Dr. Janet Mayfield to the desk at gate six. Thank you.”
My alter ego. I swallowed. My real name is Lisa Wycherly. Fortunately, if I did fail to live up to my new identity, there were very few people who would see it as anything but a lapse in integrity. Unfortunately, the people who would question it were the very people I needed to convince if I wanted to stay alive, let alone be successful. It was too late to run, not that I would have. I stepped up to the desk.
“I’m Dr. Mayfield,” I said to the young man behind the counter.
“Oh, good.” He looked around, then waved at somebody. “Sir? Here she is.”
The man that approached was tall with a rounded belly. He seemed to be in his late thirties, with a round face and light-brown hair which was just beginning to recede. He wore a short-sleeved plaid shirt that was open at the neck and light-colored polyester dress slacks. He smiled pleasantly.
“Dr. Mayfield?” He held out his right hand. “I’m Dr. Ted Curtis, from Martin University. I heard you were coming in today, so I volunteered to come down and get you settled.”
“That’s very kind of you,” I said, shaking his hand. “They told me that one of the other faculty would meet me, but not who.”
“We only settled it last night.” Ted chuckled. “Ever been to Wisconsin before?”
We started down the hallway to the baggage claim.
“No, I haven’t,” I said, and stopped. “Wow.”
A wall proclaimed, “Welcome to Packerland” in big green letters on a gold surface.
“Yeah, that’s Wisconsin for you,” Ted said, shaking his head. “I was born and raised not far from here, but most of the faculty is from other places.”
“Oh. What do you teach?”
“Sociology. I’ve got two intro classes this quarter and two experimental techniques for the upper classmen.”
“So, what are you doing hobnobbing with the English Department?” I asked.
Dr. Curtis laughed again. “They did tell just how small Martin is, didn’t they?”
“Well, yeah. I guess it didn’t sink in,” I said.
It was a tiny college and an arts school, with a music conservatory, a theatre department, and fine arts. That’s where most of the faculty was. All of humanities had half the staff of the conservatory, alone, and that was with humanities covering six subject areas. The math/science department wasn’t any bigger. In fact, the humanities and math/sciences departments only existed to fulfill general education requirements for the underclassmen.
“Well, there isn’t much hobnobbing to be done if we don’t cross disciplines,” Dr. Curtis said jovially. “We’re a pretty tight-knit faculty and very eclectic. I hope you can talk about something besides Chaucer.”
“I hope so, too. Chaucer isn’t my specialty. I’m not much of a scientist, either.”
“Don’t worry. Most of your contact will be with the humanities people. You’ll get to know us pretty well.”
“That should be interesting,” I said, looking around the baggage claim for the conveyor that would have my luggage. “Back at UCLA, I didn’t even know the entire English faculty, let alone other departments.”
A minute later, the luggage from my flight began appearing on the conveyor belt and Dr. Curtis left to pull his car around. I found my two suitcases and one box and lugged them out to the curb where Dr. Curtis’ large, light blue Chevrolet had driven up.
“The dean set up housing for me,” I told Dr. Curtis after he’d gotten out of the car and opened the trunk.
He took the box from me. “That’s right. It was one of those weird bequests that the university got some fifty or so years ago. Basically, it’s an old house with two apartments. We mostly use it to house new staff members until they can find their own places. But Fran Mercer, she’s Communications, has been living there since she came, so she’s been managing the place. She’ll get you the keys and everything when we get there.”
“Great. Now, all I’ll need is a car.”
“Well, the apartment is within walking distance of Lawrence Hall, where the humanities classes are, but you’ll need a car.” Dr. Curtis proceeded to give me a few tips on who to go to and who to avoid.
While he talked, I looked out at the window at the green countryside flying by. Then I saw something that made me chuckle.
“What’s so funny?” Dr. Curtis asked.
I blushed. “This is going to sound pretty silly, but I keep seeing all these little red barns with silos. They remind me of a toy farm set I had as a child. I didn’t think people had them anymore.”
Dr. Curtis laughed. “Welcome to rural America. Those little red barns are the sign of one of this area’s major industries, family farming.”
“Really? I thought family farming had gone extinct. You have to understand, I was raised in California. There farming means the huge agribusinesses of the San Joaquin Valley.”
“Family farms are alive and well here. That, dairies, and paper mills make up the bulk of the jobs around here. It’s pretty much a blue-collar area. Good old Martin U. is something of an oasis.”
I bit my lip and didn’t say anything more. Sid had gotten decidedly snobby when he’d heard about the assignment. Appleton was a good-sized town, but as far as Sid was concerned, it was in the middle of nowhere. In fact, the term he used was obscene.
“What could possibly be going on out there?” he had asked. “The place sounds like something out of a TV show.”
“I’m not sure that place was in Wisconsin,” I’d said. “It could have been anywhere, which I believe was the point.”
“Nonetheless, there are no military installations, not even any secret missile silos.”
“It’s a university. Maybe it’s some sort of research going on.”
“It’s an arts school. In the middle of nowhere.”
As it turned out, there was some research going on. Someone was developing a nerve gas of some sort or doing the theoretical work on it. Someone else had stumbled onto part of the formula and had sold it to the Soviets. I still don’t know what made the formula so special, but it was clear that the U.S. did not want the Soviets to get it.
The trouble was the formula was a high-level secret. In addition, the person doing the research had made it clear that he did not want anyone to know who he was. Local law enforcement was not trained for undercover espionage investigations. Regular FBI was not considered secure enough. So, Operation Quickline got the job.
Sid’s cover was as a music student. Others were posing as students in the art and theatre departments. There was another faculty member in the computer science department, but he was from another agency (we apparently did not have the Need to Know which one). I was the only other faculty member on the team. Our mission was to find out who was stealing the formula and protect the researcher developing it, assuming we could figure out who that person was. Since I was faculty, my job also included collecting information from the other “students” and either sending it on or spreading it to the others, as needed.
I had thought that I would have been better posing as one of the students, being a lot closer to that age than Sid. But Martin U. had a whole program for “second-career” students, and I had actual experience teaching English composition.
We didn’t know who the other Quickline agents were. I figured they’d be people we’d seen time and again as we dropped off or picked up the information that was our core mission. The one thing we did know was that it was probably an amateur who had stumbled onto the formula then gotten himself under KBG control. It wasn’t much to go on, but it did help that, as Dr. Curtis had said, I was expected to get to know the rest of the faculty.
We pulled into Appleton around a quarter after four, and a few minutes later, Dr. Curtis drove past a white clapboard house with two stories and a peaked roof. It was longer than it was wide, barely two windows across on the top floor, with a small alcove on the right side of the bottom floor for the front door.
“We call it The Box,” Dr. Curtis said, pulling into the driveway. “Most of those old places were torn down in the 1950s and replaced with the tan brick boxes. This one survived because of the bequest. I have to warn you, there are those on the faculty who think the bequest may have actually been a sick joke.”
“But you said Dr., um, Mercer?”
“Fran Mercer.” Dr. Curtis braked and turned the engine off. “We’re all on a first-name basis here. She’s Fran. I’m Ted. None of this doctor crap.”
“Okay. I’m Janet.” I smiled weakly.
Ted nodded. “Yeah. Fran has stayed here, and we all think it’s a little strange. Most faculty find someplace else to stay within the first month or two.”
“It’s still cheaper than a motel.” Ted opened the car door and hefted his bulk out.
I followed suit. Ted went straight for the door in the alcove and rang the bell.
The door was answered right away by a petite woman in her early thirties. She had short, light-brown hair and she blinked a lot, as if she were permanently sleepy.
“Hello, Ted,” she said.
“Hi, Fran,” he replied. “This is Dr. Janet Mayfield, our new English person. Janet, Dr. Fran Mercer.”
“How do you do?” I asked, shaking her hand.
“Very well, thank you.” Fran stepped back from the door. “Come on in. Why don’t I just take you right on upstairs?”
“Sure,” I said, walking into the dark hallway. There was barely enough room for me and Fran. The worn tile was made up of tiny white hexagons, with black ones interspersed throughout. Dark wood paneling covered the walls and made the hallway even darker. The same dark wood made up the banister to the long, narrow, and steep staircase along the side of the house that led to another dark wood door at the top. Dim yellow light from a couple wall sconces lit up the fraying, threadbare carpeting on the stairs.
“Ted, can you bring Janet’s stuff up?” Fran asked, as she started up the stairs.
They creaked loudly, all the way up.
“Wow, that’s pretty noisy,” I said, following her.
“Best burglar alarm there is,” Fran said. “There isn’t a spot on those stairs that doesn’t creak.” She tossed a grin over her shoulder. “And people wonder why I like this place.”
The apartment was, indeed, furnished, but sparsely. The door opened into a large living room with light-colored, though very scuffed, wood floors. The blank walls were white lathe and plaster and the two windows from the front made the battered sofa look a little lonely in the middle of the room. Another long, dark hallway ran along the side of the house from the living room to the kitchen in the back, with a small bedroom and a tiny bathroom in between on the left. The bedroom had a bed and linens, a bureau, and no closet. The bathroom had a toilet, sink, tub with shower, but these took up most of the floor space.
The kitchen was small, too, with battered dark brown linoleum, and plywood cabinets that had been stained a dark brown. Inside were a set of pottery ware for four, a couple pots and pans, some glasses, and some cheap stainless flatware and some cooking utensils. At least, the refrigerator and stove were full-sized and reasonably new. A back door led to a narrow wooden staircase down the back of the house, where there was a graveled alley.
“You can park your car in the alley,” Fran said. “When you get one.”
“Yeah, that’s on my list,” I said, opening the refrigerator. “I guess I’d better get some groceries in, first, though.”
“Of course,” Fran said, heading back into the hallway.
“Hey! Hey!” Ted called from the living room. “I’ve got everything up here. Where do you want it all?”
I looked around the living room and noticed that there was a small desk and bookshelf on the wall near the front windows.
“The box can go there,” I said, pointing to the desk. “I’ll take the suitcases.”
I took them into the bedroom as Fran told Ted that I needed to get some groceries. We went out to dinner, first, at a steak house called the Whistling Cow some ways out of Appleton. The dining room was dark and not terribly full on a Monday evening. We had just gotten seated and were looking at the menus when I heard a hissing sound. Sure enough, a couple waitresses were bringing a family their dinners, including three steaks, still sizzling on their platters.
I bit my lip. I have a voracious appetite. Worse yet, I’m one of those lucky people who can eat like a horse and never gain weight. On the other hand, I was undercover and didn’t want to seem particularly memorable. So, I ordered a medium-sized rib-eye steak with a baked potato. Fortunately, the salad bar was not that appealing, so I didn’t heap my plate all that high, although Ted did. Fran nibbled on some of the lettuce with a little dressing on it.
When the steak arrived, it was utterly amazing. Perfectly tender, with a pool of butter on the top. I couldn’t help myself. I cleaned the plate. Ted was vastly amused. He’d had the same size steak but had only finished half of it.
“Where do you put it?” he asked.
I blushed and shrugged. “I don’t know. I’m just really energetic, I guess.”
Inside, my stomach was churning. My first day and already I’d screwed something up. Fran was busy dressing Ted down for teasing me about my appetite.
From the restaurant, Ted drove us to the local used car dealership. He made a point of inspecting any potential car for signs that the dealer had covered up a rust problem and that the engine was in order.
“You don’t want a piece of junk,” he told me. “And you have to be careful about the rust thing. Winters are pretty hard on cars around here.”
I found a Celica that was in decent shape, and Ted approved of it. I signed the papers and then took Fran with me to get groceries and Ted drove off on his own.
“I am so glad he was here,” I told Fran, as I pulled onto the highway. “I would never have known to check for the rust thing.”
“Ted just likes showing off,” Fran said, genially. “In fact, I’m sure he heard you were young and single and that’s why he came to pick you up. But Ted’s harmless. The person you really have to watch out for is Ernie Lavalle. He’s Poli Sci. Brilliant theorist, but what a lech. And not the only one I’m afraid.”
After getting groceries, Fran insisted we go straight home. I invited her to share a soda with me, but she begged off.
“You need to get settled,” she said. “Classes start next week. I don’t know why they took so long to hire you. It’s out and out rude in my mind.”
I showed Fran out, and listened to her progress down the stairs. She’d been right. Those stairs made an excellent burglar alarm. However, that would only help if I were in the apartment. I made sure all the blinds were down, then double checked the locks on my suitcases and the seal on my box and breathed a sigh of relief that they were all intact. From my purse, I pulled what looked like a face powder compact out. Well, it was a powder compact. It’s just that under the compressed face powder was a super powerful bug finder. I popped that layer open and flipped the switch. The display glowed and a needled wavered.
Someone was broadcasting some signal or other, but based on the needle movement, it wasn’t too close. I went through the apartment. The needle didn’t waver much until I got to the kitchen. Near the door, it indicated that the signal was stronger. I opened the door and looked outside into the dark alley below. There was no one there, but the signal was stronger when I pointed the bug finder to the south and the large tan brick apartment house next door.
I shut the door and locked it, then went back to the living room. I could faintly hear Fran below and did not doubt that she could hear me. That would be inconvenient, but hardly worrisome. I got some more equipment from the backpack. I put the ultra-thin wiring on every window and door in the place. It wouldn’t keep anybody out, but if someone went in, I’d know it.
After that, it was time to unpack and make the space my own for the time being.