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.
My plan had been to spend Sundays as a rest day. But since I’d goofed off the day before, I stayed in my apartment and graded Basic Comp papers. Fortunately, the Shakespeare students were being graded on class participation and exams, with only three major essays – one for each play. That brought down the workload.
The other good thing was that the assignment that had been turned in on Friday was writing sentences, which were easy to grade. The quizzes were even easier since they were shorter and there were few judgment calls on a right or wrong answer. I was thrilled when I marked up my last paper and it was just after two in the afternoon. Off Campus Office Hours didn’t start until five. There was a load of laundry in the basement that I needed to retrieve, but other than that I was free.
I got the laundry, put it away and was ready to go before three. Elation filled me as I stepped out onto the back landing and locked my door. Elation which immediately dissipated when I saw Ernie Lavalle sitting on the bottom of the steps.
I suppose I could have, should have, unlocked the door and gone out the front. I’ve never been good at avoidance and there was the slim possibility that I could crack our case wide open with a confrontation. No such luck.
“Ernie, why are you here?” I asked as I came down the stairs.
“I-I wanted to talk to you.” He slowly got up.
“Shavings. I’m sorry about last night.”
He shook his head. “I’m a big boy. I can take some teasing. Besides, I was joking about doing it in the parking lot.”
“Good.” Not that I believed him.
“But I would like to get together with you. It would be really nice.”
I winced. “Ernie, I’m really not interested. Look, it’s not you.”
“It never is,” he sighed.
I shrugged. “Maybe it’s a little bit you. But not in a bad way. We’re simply different is all. Political science bores me to tears and I’d hate it if you felt bad because I didn’t share your passion.”
His eyes rolled. “It’s well past passion for me. I can’t tell you how many mornings I wake up wondering why I got into this racket. The hours are good, and I can’t think of anything else to do, so, here I am.”
The epitome of the burned out academic and everything I hated about that dark side of academia.
I sighed. “Please, Ernie. You and I are not going to happen. There are lots and lots of reasons. You’re not a bad guy, but this is not right. I’m sorry.”
I waited, but he didn’t leave. I prayed he wouldn’t start begging.
“Um, I’ve got to go?” I said.
He finally moved out of the way. But he didn’t leave to go back to his building. I headed out, carefully checking behind me.
If he followed, he was one heck of a better tail than I’d ever seen. I didn’t see any evidence of a team but took the usual evasive actions as I walked toward the downtown area. It was a pleasant strand of small shops, and I happily browsed the antiques, praying I wouldn’t find anything to fall in love with, which would make getting it home tough.
I did find a pay phone and called Mae. It was somewhat risky, but I also needed to keep my cover intact at home, as well. Mae kept trying to weasel out of me what I was really doing, but it was rather easy to dodge her questions.
My watch read five minutes to five when I arrived at Giannotti’s pizza place and found a good-sized table. I ordered three large pizzas, one with mushroom and black olives, one with everything, and one with cheese. I decided that if I ended up with a low turnout, I’d have lunch for a few days. Given the Faculty Dining Room, that was possibly one of the better decisions I’d made. I also ordered a pitcher of beer, a pitcher of cola, and a glass of white wine for me. I’d invited Steve Carmona in the hopes that our team members would all be there, and we could map out some strategies.
However, Jason de Boeur was the first to show, followed quickly by Sherry Van Wettering. Dennis White also wandered in with Tim Hannaford close behind. Ed Donaldson (aka Sid) showed next, then Terry Michaels arrived. Rita Farley showed next. Marge Haver swept in.
“Beer?” she asked loudly. “Oh, may the gods be praised. I have suffered through possibly the worst week of my life. I need beer.”
“Then here you go,” I said, handing her the pitcher.
Terry winced. I suspected that she was, in real life, over-age, but since she was pretending to be under-age, public alcohol was a no-no. I had to give Kathy Richards credit. One moment, she was not there, then suddenly she was.
It was a fun gathering. Jason was still complaining about the Basic Comp workload until Ed/Sid pointed out that I still had to grade all those papers.
“Who,” Marge asked, adding a particularly vile epithet, “decided to study Coriolanus? My god, that play sucks.”
I laughed. “I’m probably being far too nice, but it was not my idea. Still, it has its pluses.”
Admittedly, I couldn’t think of one and Marge, bless her, did not press it. Instead, she did an incredibly funny rendition of Dr. Ermengarde encouraging her students to join her for aerobics classes at the campus sports center.
“Your body is your instrument,” Marge declaimed in an eerily accurate voice. “You must ensure its care.”
Marge was thrilled that she had been chosen to be included in Dr. Ermengarde’s Elect (aka favored students) but was dismayed that being among the Elect included twice-weekly aerobics classes.
Steve didn’t show until close to seven o’clock. At that point, Marge, Ed, and Kathy had gone through another pitcher of beer (although I had good reason to believe that Tim had scored some, as well). The fourth and fifth pizzas had been decimated. Most of the civilians had left except Marge and Jason, although Jason took Steve’s arrival as an excuse to take off.
For all Marge had proclaimed that she was having far too much fun with the younger kids to spend time with the other Second Career students, I could tell that she really enjoyed being with people closer to her own age. She finally took off of her own volition and the rest of us sighed in relief.
The music playing on the restaurant’s loudspeaker was loud enough to cover conversation, which is why we were there.
“Should we be checking her out?” Tim Hannaford asked. His western shirt hung on a scrawny frame topped by straw-colored hair.
“Possibly,” I said. I looked at Steve, then Sid/Ed. “Couldn’t hurt. Do you want to do it, Tim?”
Tim sighed, as if such a chore were beneath him, but I let it go.
“Right now,” I said. “We’re not in full investigative mode. We need to focus on establishing our covers. That being said, do any of you have anything to report?”
“I found a code!” Tim whipped out a piece of paper.
I knew the style of the paper well. It was the lightweight paper that Sid and I used in our dot matrix printer for rough drafts. You could practically see through the stuff and the cuts to separate the pages and the holed edges that fed the paper through the printer were rough and widely space apart. Sid also had a letter quality printer, and the paper for that was heavier with micro-cuts between the pages and the tractor rows on the edges, so you couldn’t tell that the printing had been done on a computer as opposed to the individual sheets one would use on a typewriter.
The sheet Tim produced had three columns of numbers and letters all printed out in tiny dots. Each column was evenly spaced and filled with six digits of numbers and letters, although none of the letters went further in the alphabet than F.
Kathy Richards looked at it and frowned. “I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
Terry snatched up the paper and groaned loudly. “Hannaford, you idiot. This is machine language. All you’ve found is someone’s Comp Sci homework.”
“Not necessarily,” said Steve.
We all looked at him.
“It’s how our developer is getting his work to me,” Steve said. He picked up the page that Tim had flourished. “As I have told some of you, I do not know who the developer is. It was part of his agreement to work on the nerve gas formula that no one would know that he’s doing it.” He looked over the sheet. “He… Well, it could be a she. Anyway, I get a message that the next installment is about to be printed. So, I go down to the system printer in the computer center and hope like hell the command went through to that printer. Mostly, it does, and I pack it up and set up a Chicago drop. But the other night, the run went to the Fine Arts department printer, which is where, I’m guessing, you picked this up.”
He glared at Hannaford, who nodded.
“That doesn’t sound terribly secure,” I said.
“It’s a lot more secure than you might think,” Steve said. “There’s no way to tell which campus computer generated the print run, and the output looks like someone’s comp sci homework. The problem is, if the computer center printer is busy, the system kicks it to another system printer, usually the music department one. And at least twice the printout got run, the comp center printer was online and free, and it still ended up in the music department.”
Sid frowned. “How do you know it’s not someone’s homework?”
“No headers,” Steve said. “Just the printer number and time/date stamp on the bottom. Plus, I only have three students doing anything with machine language.”
“So, what happens when the run goes to another printer?” I asked Steve.
“Hopefully, I catch it. Sometimes, someone else gets it off the printer, can’t find a name attached to it, and tosses it in the scrap paper pile.” Steve shook his head. “There are bits of that formula all over campus.”
“Is that how it’s being stolen?” Sid asked.
“I don’t think so.” Steve shifted and frowned. “I’m usually pretty quick to get to the other printers, and if it does get tossed into the scrap, I find pages of it.”
Terry’s eyes widened. “If you don’t know who the developer is, then how do you let him know that you didn’t get the printout?”
Steve shifted and signaled the waiter. “I post a confirmation code on the faculty system bulletin board.” He looked at me. “You should be checking that out, Janet.”
The waiter came over and Steve ordered another pitcher of beer and a small cheese and onion pizza.
“All right,” I said. “Is there anything else we need to go over?”
Terry dug a small set of nine by twelve manilla envelopes from her pack. “Mail call.”
“Isn’t that dangerous?” Sid asked, taking the envelope she had.
“It’s more dangerous to blow our covers back home,” Terry said. “Too many of us have people in our lives who would question it if we don’t come up for air every now and then.”
Sid glanced over at me. He’d never had that problem before he’d hired me as his secretary. He’d been told that he needed an associate and talked the Powers That Be into letting him recruit someone who could take over the mundane trivialities of life. He’d recruited me after my year of unemployment when we’d met in a bar and I’d ditched my blind date, even though I sorely needed the meal. When I’d gone to work for him, I’d had no idea that he was recruiting me for the spy biz. He’d had no idea how deeply our two lives would become enmeshed. As he’d told me earlier, we really were more of a team than boss and secretary.
Sid perused the small slips containing phone messages, shook his head over one, then looked over the three letters.
“We’ve got an editor with an emergency,” he leaned over and told me softly.
I shrugged. “Unless it’s something really easy to turn around, I don’t see how we can.”
Nodding, he stuffed the letters back into the envelope. “Oh, and the kid would like to hear from you.”
The kid was Nick, Sid’s belatedly discovered son.
“I’ll try to call him tonight, then,” I said.
I sighed as I saw the one message I had. Given what it said, I got the impression we were only going to get the most urgent mail and messages.
“What’s wrong?” Steve asked.
“Oh, a friend of mine.” I looked up at Sid. “He has AIDS.”
Sid put his hand on my shoulder. “I’m so sorry.”
He knew which friend it was, although I knew more than one gay man at the time.
“What’s AIDS?” Terry asked.
“Oh, I know,” Tim said, brightening up. “It’s that disease that’s killing all the gays.”
Well, he used the pejorative term. Tim wilted under both Kathy’s and Sid’s glares.
“And hemophiliacs,” I pointed out. “Not to mention people using needle drugs. But, yes, it seems to be mostly affecting gay men, one of whom happens to be a good friend of mine.” I looked away and got my composure back. “All right, why don’t we close this meeting? I’ve got a couple phone calls to make.”
Tim left first, no surprise there. Terry and Kathy left together. Sid hung around for a couple more minutes, then took off, leaving Steve to finish his pizza and the pitcher of beer.
“Want some?” He picked up the pitcher.
“No thanks. I’m not a beer drinker.” I smiled weakly. “I know, anathema around here.”
Steve shrugged. “It’s whatever you like.” He paused as he chewed, then swallowed. “I’m sorry about your friend.”
“Thanks.” I nodded and folded my envelope into my purse.
“You know, I was pretty skeptical about this whole team thing.”
“It’s something new for us, too.” I snorted. “They’re still not sharing as much as they could. I just found out that I’m the lead on the investigation.”
Steve laughed and shook his head. “You sound so surprised.”
“I’m not used to being lead on anything. Ed tends to run things. I’ve only been doing this for a couple years, and he’s been at it forever.”
“That’s not the way I heard it.”
“That case you two ran last summer when one of your lines went down. You two went rogue, and you, specifically, ran roughshod over a couple of CID’s best.”
“What?” I gaped. “That’s ridiculous. We didn’t go rogue. We were supposed to get out of the country, and I didn’t ride roughshod over anyone. Where did you hear this? How did you hear this? We’re supposedly top secret.”
“And that doesn’t mean we don’t like to gossip?” Steve grinned and took a hit off his beer. “Big Red has had a rep for a long time. None of us knew who you were, but every now and then, we’d hear about how he’d get something done that someone else couldn’t. And then Little Red came along…”
“And the stories only grew in the telling.” I felt my face getting warm. “This is ridiculous. Look, if I’m any good, Ed is why. He trained me.”
“Okay,” said Steve.
“Listen, do you mind if I take off? I do have those calls I want to make.”
Steve nodded. “Be seeing you.”
It took a good twenty minutes to get out of town and find a gas station with a pay phone that worked. I called Nick, Sid’s son, first. He was so happy to hear from me and chattered about his friends at school for several minutes. I didn’t want to put him off, but I still had to call Rick.
I let Nick go a while, then finally called Rick.
“Hey, it’s me,” I said.
“Lisa!” Rick sounded rather good. “I’m so glad to hear from you.”
“I’m so sorry not to call sooner, but I only just now got your message. This crazy job I’m on.”
“Yeah.” He sighed.
“How are you doing?”
“Well, it’s pretty awful news, but there’s nothing I can do about it. Dave’s been great. It’s been hard on him, though.”
“Has he got it, too?”
“Not yet, but he still could. It’s just that he’s worried about me.”
Rick and I talked for a good thirty minutes. His health hadn’t deteriorated that badly yet, but he’d seen enough of what was to come. Still, he was keeping as positive an attitude as he could.
“‘For there’s no blue Monday in your Sunday clothes,’” I suddenly sang.
He laughed. “‘Put on your Sunday clothes when you feel down and out.’”
The next thing I knew, we both were singing our favorite tune from Hello Dolly at the tops of our lungs.
We’d each been in the show when we were in high school, Rick in his hometown in Nebraska, me in South Lake Tahoe. Rick had played Cornelius and I’d been in the chorus. Neither of us knew why we both loved Put on Your Sunday Clothes so much, but we’d been known to burst into a chorus or two at the strangest times.
We gasped with laughter and then it was time for me to hang up.
“I’ll be praying for you, Rick,” I told him.
“Thanks. I appreciate it.”