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.
I honestly don’t know how I managed to teach two sections of Basic Comp that next day, but I did. I got the mail sorted before classes and handed it to Ed and Tim with their homework. The police reports that Terry had also slipped me noted the ampule in Eunice’s house and it had not been sprung, nor had the coroner’s screen for toxins shown any trace of nerve agent or even alcohol in her body. The prints in the house all belonged to Eunice, although the crime scene techs had picked up some glove smudges on the desk.
Kathy’s note said that she and Tim had searched the house thoroughly but had found nothing. Any floppy disks that had been there had been taken and it looked like some files were missing, as well. It was probably safe to assume that Eunice’s killer had taken them, although not certain. Steve posted on the bulletin board that he, Sid, and me should probably meet that night for a conference, and he suggested that I get there around six. That was going to make things tight for weights and racquetball, and I decided that I was not in the mood anyway.
In fact, with no one showing up for my regular office hours, I decided to put a note on my office door and gathered up my purse and sweater. As I passed Max’s office, I saw that he was in.
I probably shouldn’t have used my pass key and walked in, given how skittish he was, but I needed some answers.
He looked up at me curiously. “Janet.”
“We need to talk.” I shut the door and made sure it was locked, then checked my bug finder. Nothing was transmitting.
Max got up and stood in front of his desk, which was again littered with papers.
“Relax, Max,” I said, putting the bug finder back in my jeans’ pocket. “Not only do I know what you’re working on, I’ve got the clearance to look at it.”
His eyebrows went up. “What division?”
“That’s under FBI auspices.”
“Yep. We got called in because of the formula theft.”
“You weren’t supposed to know about me.”
“I didn’t. Luckily for me, you bear down pretty hard when you write, and I picked it up off your desk blotter.”
“Oh.” Max looked deflated, but he went around to his desk chair and sat down. “You’re good. I never suspected you.”
“Thanks.” I flopped into the chair in front of the desk. “The problem is, I need some answers, and I think you’re the only one who has them.”
“I don’t know how it’s being stolen.” Max looked at me sadly. “I do keep some of the files on the university system. I must because that’s how I get them converted to machine language, and they’re protected by a password that I change weekly. The print outs are meaningless to pretty much everyone, and even if someone compiles the program, it’s incomplete unless you have the machine key on the other end. And, even then, there’s a password to open the file.”
“What did Eunice know?”
Max sighed and blinked. “Not much. I’d asked her to run the print outs to Chicago once or twice without telling her what they were, and even if she’d seen the formula, I don’t think she would have been able to figure out what it was. It was all theoretical work, anyway. Eunice was good, but not that advanced, if you know what I mean.”
“Did she invite you to her meeting that night?”
“No. I think she may have been trying to protect me. She did that a lot.”
I shut my eyes. “Yeah. Do you have any idea what that meeting was about?”
Max thought. “She’d told me the day before that she thought somebody was spying on me. She had some evidence, but she didn’t want to say who it was right away in case she was wrong. She said she needed a solid plan because it was pretty ticklish. I pointed out that it didn’t matter who it was, it was ticklish because what I was working on was top secret. That’s pretty much where it ended.”
I looked at him. “So, how does a history professor end up working on a nerve gas formula?”
“It’s an antidote,” Max snarled. “I’m not doing any of that other stuff.” Okay. He didn’t say stuff. “I was a chemistry whiz kid. Had my PhD in chem by the time I was nineteen and The Company caught up with me. They sent me overseas to do my post-doc in West Germany. I got totally disenchanted with everything I was doing. On the other hand, it was fun being around all those old buildings, and I got interested in history. So, I also took some undergraduate classes, and the next thing I knew, I was working on a second PhD.” He looked up at me. “I got caught by the KGB. Got out with my life, but I’m now a known operative. Fortunately, that limited my usefulness, and I was able to finish my coursework here in the States, did my dissertation and got on here at Martin U. almost twenty years ago.” He shook his head. “Steve Carmona came on as an adjunct about ten years ago. I didn’t know they’d set him up here to protect me. I thought I’d put that behind me.” He snorted with disdain. “You know as well as I do that we don’t retire from this business. About six years ago, The Company sucked me in to work on this antidote formula. I only agreed because no one, not even any handlers they assigned, were to know I was working on it. We still don’t know how the KGB figured out that I was. They knew I was here. We weren’t hiding it. Funny thing is, we’re fairly sure the Soviets didn’t get their hands on it until about a year ago.”
“That’s interesting. What about the two students that were killed? They were in your classes.”
“Best I can figure, they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Max closed his eyes. “They were good kids, damn it. And, as far as I knew, had no connection to anything but their own interests.”
“And no clue who Eunice suspected.”
Max shook his head. “None. Could be anyone at the university. I’m inclined to think it’s probably faculty, given what Eunice said about it being ticklish.”
“Like Joe Cunningham?”
Max snorted. “Not likely, but then again, no one would think that I’m writing chemical equations.” He looked over at me. “I’m almost done. I’m hoping to make it to the end of the quarter for the students’ sakes, but I’ve already called to have us extracted.”
“Don’t say anything about it, please. It’s touchy. Anyway, I made up several phony bits, and sent them out with the good parts, just in case. Once I’m done, my life won’t be worth two cents, so I’m taking the last part with me and getting out as soon as I can. It’s just tricky. Who knew this business could be such a barrier to the people we care about?”
“Who knew, indeed.” I looked at the floor in front of me, then got up. “Okay. You know how to get a hold of me.”
“I did tell part of the team about you. They needed to know.”
“You’ll be safer that way.”
“Just find that thief and get him. He probably killed Eunice.” Max looked angry.
“I’ll do my best. If you think of anything, let me know.”
As I left the office, a deep sadness filled me. The business was a barrier between me and my sister, between me and Nick, between Sid and Nick. Sid really did want to take custody of his son, but couldn’t, and worse yet, couldn’t tell the poor kid why. Nick was left to wonder how much his father and I really loved him.
The autumn twilight had faded into dark by the time I pulled up to the Victorian mansion where Sid and Steve lived. There was no place to park in front, so I went down the street a little, parked there and walked back. As I came down the sidewalk, both Steve’s and Sid’s cars were in the driveway. Lights turned on behind the drawn blinds of the third-floor turret windows. I felt my bug finder buzz with a transmission. Then the turret blew up.
I stood gaping at the flames for I don’t know how many minutes. Sirens wailed in the distance and grew closer. The other tenants hurried out of the building, one young couple helping an older woman, who I realized was the landlady. Neighbors gathered on the sidewalk. I kept hoping, but nowhere among the crowd did I see Sid or Steve.
The firefighters showed and went to work. I don’t know how long it took to put out the fire, but it didn’t seem to take that long. Still, they stayed around. As Sergeant Renecke pulled up, one of the firefighters called to the battalion chief.
“We’ve got a body!”
My heart in my throat, I ran over to the firefighter.
“What floor?” I shrieked.
“Second floor. Why?”
“Well, Dr. Mayfield.” Sergeant Renecke came up. “What are you doing here?”
“I was going to dinner with Steve Carmona,” I whimpered. “He’s on the second floor. And one of my students, Ed Donaldson. He’s on the third. And that’s what blew up.”
Renecke cursed. He went over to talk to the firefighters, and I slid away. I hid behind the hedge surrounding the back of the house, my eyes transfixed by the red lights flashing and the firefighters going back and forth. A coroner’s van pulled up, with a county crime scene crew right behind it.
Suddenly, a hand clamped over my mouth and strong arms pulled me further behind the hedge. I started struggling until I realized that the arms were so familiar, and his lips were kissing my hair.
“I’m sorry I had to do that,” he whispered into my ear. “I didn’t want you to scream.”
“You’re alive!” I broke down. “I was so scared. I saw your car and the lights go on. Then the bug finder went off.”
“It went off?” Sid cursed. “Must have been radio detonated.”
He suddenly kissed me hard on the mouth. I grabbed him and squeezed him as tightly as I could.
“I thought you were in there,” he whispered. “I knew you were coming over to Steve’s, and when I saw your car parked over there, and I didn’t see you, I thought you were in there.”
“I saw the lights in the window,” I cried again. “That had to be you. And then they said there was a body.”
Sid looked over where the lights flickered through the hedge leaves.
“Whose?” he asked.
“I think Steve.”
Sid cursed again. “Now what?”
“Maybe we shouldn’t let people know you made it out.” I looked at where my car was. “I don’t think anybody’s looking.”
Sid picked up his day pack. “Let’s go.”
I went ahead and unlocked the passenger door, then looked around. The street was empty except for the crowd surrounding the fire engines and the mansion. I waved and Sid sauntered over to the car.
“How did you get out of there?” I asked as I started the engine.
“My bug finder went off. The trip wires had been tampered with. So, I went in slowly, turned on the lights, saw the box on the table, and slammed the door and ran like hell down the stairs.” He shuddered. “The blast hit as I got to the second-floor landing. I damn near fell down the rest of the way. But I went out the back and stayed in the hedges until I saw you.”
It didn’t take long to get to my apartment. I pulled around to the back alley, got out of the car and looked around for signs that someone was watching. No shadows, nothing. I waved at Sid and we hurried up the back stairs.
“I’m calling the Dragon,” I said. “She needs to know about this.”
“Good,” he said, gasping a little.
He followed me into the front room. The Dragon was the head of Quickline. I wasn’t sure what support she’d be able to give us largely because I didn’t know how much she knew about the case. But someone had just tried to kill one of our people. She needed to know.
I got through right away on the living room phone and the Dragon agreed that we shouldn’t tell anyone that Sid was alive.
“I’ll see what I can find out from the local law enforcement,” she told me. “Can you keep him hidden in the meantime?”
“Yeah. I’ll be here until I hear from you.”
I put the phone into its cradle and turned. Sid had collapsed onto my couch and was still breathing heavily.
“You’re alive,” I whispered, my eyes overflowing.
“Yeah. So are you.”
A second later, I had flown into his arms, and we nearly bruised each other with our kisses. It was as if we wanted to swallow each other in the hopes of reassuring ourselves that we really were still there.
The intensity grew as we kissed. I loved the feel of his hands all over me, his rich, gentle kisses. I wanted to be with all of him, have him all to myself.
I could feel myself cooling but kept kissing him anyway. It didn’t help. He caught the coolness and pulled away with a curse.
“I’m sorry.” The tears sprang to my eyes. “I’ll try again.”
“No.” Sid growled and looked away. “Don’t force it.”
“But it’s what you need.”
He closed his eyes and got up. “Yes. No. Not this way, damn it all.”
“It’s who you are. You can’t help it.” He looked back at me. “But, damn it, Lisa, I’m getting tired of waiting.”
“So, am I,” I said.
His eyes bore into me. “It’s the fidelity thing, isn’t it?”
I nodded and looked down at my hands. “It just feels like I’m not enough for you.”
He came over and softly lifted my chin. “You are more than enough for me. How do I make you see that?”
I looked at the living room curtains, trying to find something to say.
“In a way, I do know that,” I said, finally admitting it to myself, as well.
“Look, I can’t promise I won’t slip,” he said softly.
“I know. That’s the problem.” I turned away, my tears getting the better of me again.
Sid cursed. “I am not going to make a promise to you unless I know damned well I can keep it.” He swallowed and took a deep breath. “Believe it or not, I want to be faithful to you. I just don’t think I can.”
“So, it’s not time yet.” I shrugged and looked at my hands.
“What if it’s never time?” Sid asked. His eyes were filled with fear. “What if I can’t change?”
I got up and went over to him. “It’s okay.”
“No, it’s not!” He pulled away. “There’s nothing okay about this.”
“Yes, it is! We have a good relationship. We have a terrific relationship. We’re better than friends. There is so much here, that I can manage. Yeah, the way things are is making me crazy. But putting up with it and being with you is still better than being without you.”
“Oh, god, don’t even hint at that.” Sid sank onto the couch again. “That’s my worst fear, you know. That you’ll get fed up and move on.”
I sat down next to him. “I’m not going to.”
“You did last summer.”
“Not really.” I sighed. “I mean, there probably was a little of me being fried at you when I told George I’d marry him. You were kind of a pain in the butt that week. But I was coming to my right senses, and right now, there is no way I’m going anywhere.”
Sid’s arm slid around my shoulders and he took my breath away, he held me so tight.
“How do I know you won’t?”
“Because I love you, Sid.”
He jumped up and away, cursing. “How…?” He saw me as I started weeping and winced. “Damn it! That’s…” He cursed again as he began frantically pacing. “Lisa, why did you have to say that?”
“Because it’s how I feel,” I snapped.
“No! I mean, I get that.” He looked at me. “I don’t want to go tromping on your feelings. It’s just that whenever I hear that, things get ugly.” He paused. “I know when you say it, it’s something different.”
“I know. Kind of like how when you say I’m enough, it’s true.”
He looked at me and took a deep breath. “Lisa, I…” He cursed. “I just can’t say it. You’re everything to me, but I can’t say it.” He started pacing again. “To me, it’s just a line, something to say to get someone into bed. Damn you, I can’t do that to you.”
“Good, because I don’t want you to.”
Sid paced toward the door and stopped. “Would it be so terrible if I slipped?”
“I don’t know why, but it would,” I said softly. I tried not to sob. “Thinking about you with another woman, it just hurts. You’d think I’d be used to it, and in some ways I am. It’s part of who you are. But I hate the thought of you making love to someone else as much you hate the thought of losing me.”
“I see.” Still gazing at the door, he shook his head. “I don’t know what else to do.” He turned to me. “Okay. As soon as we get home, we’re getting married.”
The anger rose in me. “What’s that going to fix?”
“I don’t know. You keep saying it changes things.”
“Not if you’re going into it like this!”
“Then what the hell else am I supposed to do? I can’t take this much longer. And, yes, I will be faithful, somehow or other, damn it, I will.”
“That’s not the point. I mean, yes, it is.” I groaned as the words jammed in my mouth. I took a deep breath. “If we get married now, you’ll only be doing it to appease me.”
“Why is that a problem?”
“Because you’re eventually going to resent it and resent me, and the friendship, the caring, the relationship will all go to hell.”
“The one thing neither of us wants to lose.” Sid gazed up at the ceiling, then let out another string of curses. “What do we do?”
I walked over to him. “Hang on?”
Sid softly pulled me into his arms. “As long as I can hang onto you.” He pressed his lips against my forehead.
I squeezed him. “Sid, you promised there will be joy when we come together. I believe in that promise.”
“And I keep thinking I should never have made it.”
“That’s because you’re trying to force yourself right now. Just like I keep going along with it when we get hot and heavy.” I squeezed my eyes shut.
Sid let out a cross between a snort and a sigh. “Yeah, you have been doing that a lot, lately.” He pulled away just enough to look at me. “This is killing me. It’s killing both of us. But strangely enough, for the first time in a long time, I’m beginning to feel some hope.”
“Good. Sid, I want you to know that I’m in this for keeps.”
“I know, but please don’t make that a promise now.” He put his forehead against mine. “There are just too many things that could go wrong yet.”
“You’re probably right.”
Actually, I knew he was, which is why I let it go at that. We held each other a while longer, then finally, our exhaustion consumed us and we went to bed fully clothed, but still holding each other.