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.
Friday afternoon, with the weekend ahead of me, I debated taking some time off from grading papers. I’d spent every night that week in my office working. After racquetball the evening before, I had gotten my dinner to go from Barb’s and went right back to my office and stayed there past midnight.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t the only one who liked to work late. In fact, the only person on the Humanities staff who didn’t was Joe Cunningham. Fran Mercer and Max Beard were the real die-hards, though. Every night that week, as I finally left my office, lights still glowed from theirs.
So, that Friday evening, I asked Fran why she kept working so late. We were both in a philosophical mood, as we sat in her office. I was entering my grades on her computer since it was hooked up to the college system and I still didn’t even have one yet. Fran was also grading papers.
It had been a busy, slightly rushed day. After my classes, Fran and I had gone to lunch at Barb’s Diner because the Faculty Dining Room was serving fish sticks that day. Apparently, the fish sticks’ only virtue was that the portions were so small, you didn’t have that much of them to eat. But lunch out almost made us late to the faculty meeting that afternoon. The only good part of the meeting was that I managed to avoid getting Joe Cunningham mad at me, although he was looking my way when he reminded us that we were to enter our grades for the week in the computer system by that night.
“What else have I got to do besides work late?” Fran said in reply to my question. “I don’t have much family to speak of. My friends are all here at Martin U., and just as likely to be working late, themselves.” She seemed vaguely annoyed. “At the rate I’m going, I’ll be next in the running for department old maid.” Blinking, she shrugged. “As choices go, I’ve made worse in my life.”
There was a knock on the door.
“It’s Ted,” he called.
“Come in,” Fran said.
Ted entered with Eunice close behind.
“Ah!” He grinned. “You’re here, too, Janet. Terrific. Eunice and I have come up with a great idea for our start of quarter get together this weekend.”
“It’s strictly unofficial,” Eunice said to me. “Those of us who are still single usually get together and be social for a day right after the start of the quarter.”
“That sounds like fun,” I said.
“Ted and I are the committee this quarter and we’ve decided to do an expedition down the Crystal River.”
“It’s a nice little, paddle-yourself, canoe trip they have,” said Ted. “We thought we’d try it while this heat wave is still holding out.”
“Heat wave?” I laughed. “The weather has been gorgeous! We haven’t had a day over eighty-five.”
Eunice shook her head. “Janet, we’re in Wisconsin and it’s September and the start of fall today, at that. Eighty degrees constitutes a heat wave.”
“I suppose,” I said, shrugging. “In California, eighty degrees is nice and balmy, and this time of year, we’ve had at least a couple weeks of hundred-plus temps and might be hitting the low-nineties.”
“And speaking of, you poor, benighted urbanite,” Eunice continued. “Are you up for this kind of outdoor activity?”
“Of course. I love canoeing.”
“I’ll be driving,” Ted said. “By virtue of the fact that I’m the only one with a big enough car for the five of us. Ernie and I will be at your place, Fran, at seven a.m. Swimming apparel and shorts suggested. Shoes are required. Apparently, the bottom’s rather rocky.”
“Sounds great,” I said.
“We’ll see you then,” said Fran.
“Can I see you ladies home tonight?” Ted asked.
I thought of the pile of papers in my purse. “Probably not. If I’m going canoeing tomorrow, I should stay and grade papers.”
“Oh, tush,” Eunice said. “You can do that on Sunday. Seriously, do you want more grades to enter?”
Ted wandered over to the desk and looked at my grade sheets.
“You are crazy, lady! Why are you assigning so much work?”
Fran snorted. “Ted, some of us actually care if our students learn something.”
I rolled my shoulders again. Between weight training and playing racquetball, I was a little sore.
“Ted, you’ll see them tomorrow,” Eunice said, pushing Ted out the door. She turned back. “I’ll see the two of you in the morning.”
The next morning dawned bright and clear, and it looked like the local version of a heat wave was going to continue. Fran warned me that the rivers in that part of the world could be quite chilly, and I did not doubt it. However, what I did not tell her was that I had grown up in South Lake Tahoe and, having learned to swim in an icy mountain lake, I liked cold water.
Ted and Ernie showed up exactly on time, which according to Fran, was not all that difficult for them to do. Ernie had an apartment in the tan building to the south of us, and Ted’s apartment was in the building immediately to the south of Ernie’s.
Ernie was clearly not a morning person and yawned loudly from Ted’s front seat. Eunice pulled into the driveway behind Fran’s car at almost the same time. The only other single person on the Humanities faculty was Max Beard, but Fran explained that he did not attend faculty gatherings of any kind unless they were required.
Fran had a large thermos of coffee ready, along with paper coffee cups and a bunch of single serving creams and sugars. Coffee is not my favorite beverage, but I accepted a warm cup and doctored it heavily.
“Ted, don’t forget to pull in to Silverfield’s when we get there,” Fran called from the back seat where she, Eunice and I were sitting.
“We need snacks,” Fran told me.
We’d been on the interstate for less than twenty-minutes when Ted pulled into the parking lot of the small cheese outlet. Ernie, still too sleepy, stayed in the car while the rest of us went into the small store filled with refrigerator cases and shelves stocked with cheese spreads and gift items.
While we were inside and out of the earshot of Ted, Eunice and Fran explained that they only asked Ernie on these outings to be nice, although Eunice insisted that Ernie was not bad company when he wasn’t trying to get something started.
Fran looked over the cases with the air of a connoisseur.
“What is this?” I asked, pulling a plastic-wrapped bundle of little orange nuggets out of a case.
Ted, Eunice, and Fran all stared at me.
“You’ve never had cheese curds before?” Ted asked, almost incredulous.
“I’ve never heard of them,” I said.
Eunice sighed with a great deal of drama. “I am reminded of my ignorant state as a young woman eager to find something she liked about being in the middle of nowhere.” She smiled at me. “A decent shot at tenure is one thing. But cheese curds can make a lot seem worthwhile.”
“What are they?”
“They’re the leftovers from the cheese making process,” Ted said. “After they pour off the whey and pull together the rest of the curd to finish and age, there are these little bits left behind. And while they may be simply green, or unaged, cheese, they are amazing.”
Fran oversaw the purchase of several snacks, including a package of cheese curds for me. Back in the car, as Ted drove us onto the interstate, Fran got the package open and handed me one of the light-orange rounded chunks.
“They’re good,” I said, chewing the spongy snack. “A little on the salty side, but good.”
Two chunks later, I was hooked. It was a good thing that Fran had control of the package. I would have devoured the whole package in minutes.
The expedition, itself, was a lot of fun. Eunice and Fran made sure that Ted and Ernie had one of the two-seater canoes. I volunteered to take the single canoe because I had some experience, although both Eunice and Fran did, too. The guys had a lot of trouble shooting the very mild rapids and tipped over twice. Near the end of the trip, they got tired of seeing we women dry, so they dunked us. Eunice objected, with all manner of foul language, to their lack of sportsmanship, but it was all in good fun.
We all returned to our respective apartments to rinse off and get some clean, dry clothes on. I did keep wearing my beloved deck shoes, along with the jeans and sweater I put on. The shoes’ dirty gray was even more pronounced because they were damp, but they were still the most comfortable shoes I owned. Plus, they had a couple tools hidden along the sides of the soles. I didn’t even think about the piece of spring steel I had hidden under my hair clip. As Sid says, you can always hide something.
We took our time with dinner at a restaurant off the interstate, then, when we got back to Appleton, found our way to The Cider Keg, and settled in. Well, the two men stood around the bar, hoping to score, it appeared.
Eunice, Fran, and I found a table in a back corner. There was a bit of shuffling as both Eunice and I tried to get the seat with our back to the wall. I somehow managed to snag it. Eunice found the other corner seat and it turned out we both had an excellent view of the rest of the room. Fran just shook her head.
“Honestly, you two.” She sat to the side of the table and could still see the door.
Eunice and I looked at each other and laughed.
A young woman in tight jeans and carrying a tray appeared.
“Oh, hi, Dr. Blakely,” she said.
“Good evening, Sara,” Eunice said, smiling warmly. “When did you start working here?”
“Last quarter. What will it be tonight?”
“Is Doreen on?” Eunice asked.
“Oh, this complicates things,” Eunice replied. “Tell Doreen it’s me. Then, while she’s chilling the snifter, have her make a round of Bloody Marys for all of us.”
Fran giggled. “I’ll have a Seven and Seven after the Bloody Mary.”
Sara looked at me.
“I was just going to have a glass of white wine,” I said.
“Something you will surely regret,” Eunice said. “Have Doreen chill a second snifter and we’ll both have the Lagavulin for our second round. But, first, the Bloody Marys.”
“You got it, Dr. Blakely.”
As Sara went back to the bar, I frowned.
“You know, I don’t do a lot of hard liquor,” I told Eunice and Fran.
And, in truth, I didn’t. When your life depends on secrecy, you tend to avoid alcohol.
“All the more reason to get you drunk, dear,” Fran said.
“There she is,” Eunice nodded at the bar with an odd sense of reverence.
The woman behind the bar was wearing a bright blue top, which emphasized her cleavage, with white hot pants and white granny boots. Her impossibly blond hair was piled on top of her head, and also fell about her face in curly ringlets that almost reached her waist.
“She’s seventy if she’s a day,” Fran hissed. “But she makes possibly the best Bloody Mary ever made.”
“Really?” I was getting excited.
When the Bloody Marys arrived, they were as advertised. Plenty of vodka, the mix was mild but not too tomato-y, and the spicy pickle, instead of the traditional celery, was divine. I couldn’t help but miss Sid. He would have loved Doreen’s kitsch and the spicy pickle.
Fortunately, I wasn’t too absorbed with my drinking buddies to not notice when a woman that I recognized came in. Ted and Ernie were still yukking it up at the bar. I found myself laughing at some tale Fran was telling, even as I watched the room. Sara returned with two brandy snifters of Scotch whiskey, the glass frosted over, and Fran’s Seven and Seven.
“I wonder what she’s doing here?” Eunice asked, nodding toward the woman I’d been watching.
She was a KGB agent popularly known as Ilona Swedburg Watts and she had shortish brown hair and a slender figure. I had a feeling pretty much everybody in the bar would have been shocked to find that a known Russian operative and assassin was doing the typing at the local paper mill.
Technically, Ilona was a suspected operative, but someone had noticed how bodies filled with nerve agent tended to turn up wherever she’d been. There are those operatives who are known to the other side. Often, a government won’t arrest or stop them in the hopes that they’ll lead someone to their colleagues. Other times, the operative simply doesn’t care if she’s been tagged as a spy. Those were the dangerous ones, since their jobs didn’t involve ferreting out secrets, but taking out targets. Ilona was the latter.
“Ilona?” Fran asked. “Funny. David isn’t around, either.”
“David who?” I asked.
Fran turned around to get a better look. “David Watts, the other English professor. They got married last fall.”
“Perhaps the bloom is off the romance,” Eunice said.
“No surprise there,” Fran said. “I’ve always thought she was rather cold.”
It didn’t surprise me, either, knowing her real trade.
“Anyway, David is gaga over her,” Fran continued. “And she seems happy enough.”
“Maybe she’s just meeting a friend,” I said.
“I think we need another round,” Eunice said, signaling Sara.
I declined another drink. Fran got another Seven and Seven and Eunice got another scotch.
“I remember one night,” Eunice told us when Sara had brought the drinks. “It was back when I was working on my M.A., I put down three boilermakers and drove home my three drinking buddies.”
“What’s a boilermaker?” I asked.
“Beer with a shot of whiskey,” Eunice replied. “You can drink it as a chaser or just drop the shot right into the beer.”
Fran giggled. “Eunice was a wild one before she got her PhD and decided she had to be dignified. At least, by her own accounts, she was.”
“I had to do something.” Eunice snorted. “I was the only woman PhD candidate at the school. It was bad enough having to work twice as hard to impress anybody.” She looked at me. “Those were the bad, old days, Janet. We women were expected to produce babies, not dissertations. To get anywhere, I had to prove myself better than the men, and one way I could was to drink them under the table. Which was insanely easy. Thank God we historians are nothing like Indiana Jones.”
“He’s an archaeologist,” Fran said.
“Similar fields.” Eunice shrugged.
Fran yelped and laughed. “Oh, my God, I think Ernie is actually scoring.”
Ernie had moved off to a standing table near the door, where he had his arm around a woman wearing a University of Wisconsin sweatshirt. Ted had already disappeared.
Behind them, the door opened, and Fran yelped again.
“It’s him!” she hissed and ducked her head over her drink.
Ed Donaldson’s eyes swept the bar with practiced ease. He looked like he was on the prowl, but something was off. I wondered if he’d been tailing Ilona Swedburg. With a panicked flinch, I looked for her. Somehow, she had disappeared.
“That’s right, Janet.” Fran looked back at the bar. “You have him, too.”
“Oh, Ed. He’s in one of my Basic Comp sections. You’ve got him in what?”
“Intro to Communications. You should see the girls in my class. They are drooling all over him.”
Eunice looked Ed over. “Hmm. He definitely has his full mating plumage on.”
“What?” I asked as Fran shook her head in warning.
“You are aware, of course,” Eunice went on, “that male birds, during their mating seasons, will go through elaborate courtship rituals, and many will grow more extravagant plumage, all in the hopes of attracting a mate. Females, in most species on this planet, usually have the role of selection.”
“Janet, I should have warned you earlier,” Fran groaned. “Do not ever get Eunice talking about biology and mating rituals. Especially when she’s been drinking.”
Eunice had long since finished her Bloody Mary and her snifter of Scotch. I, by comparison, still had half a glass of Bloody Mary, and while I had taken a small sip of the Scotch, it had a slightly burnt taste (that Eunice said was peat moss), that I didn’t care for. Eunice had taken over that glass, as well, and the third glass was half-empty.
“It’s how things are continued on this planet,” Eunice said.
Fran rolled her eyes. “But we’re here to have a good time, not listen to a biology lecture.”
Eunice sat up straight in umbrage. “Since when is a biology lecture not a good time?”
I couldn’t help laughing long and loud, then sighed as I saw Ed Donaldson pick up the hand of a young brunette and kiss her palm.
“Looks like you might be receptive to the plumage,” Eunice said.
I blushed and looked down. “He’s a student. I think that means he’s off-limits.”
“More’s the pity,” Fran said with a sigh.
Eunice shrugged. “I, personally, have no interest either way.”
“You’re getting old, Eunice,” Fran said, looking around the bar again. “Uh-oh. Look who’s back.”
Ernie Lavalle wandered back into the bar. Ed, however, had disappeared, and oddly enough, the brunette remained, looking decidedly peeved. [I know I’d told you that things were off that fall. I don’t know if I ever told you just how badly they’d gone off. That brunette was hardly the first time I’d started something only to realize I didn’t want to follow through. I had no idea what was happening to me, but it was unsettling. I had no idea you were there, and, yes, I’d been following Swedburg. – SEH]
“Guess Ernie struck out after all.” Fran toyed with her drink.
“Or his date was disappointed,” I said.
Fran burst into laughter. Ernie spotted us and came over.
“Hello, ladies.” He grinned. “The night is young. Who wants to go dancing? Maybe a little parking lot mambo?”
His hips supposedly wriggled, but there was so little rhythm, it looked more like spasms of some sort.
“Ernie, you’re drunk,” Eunice said, her own voice a little thick, as well.
“Well, that explains the fast turn-around,” I told Fran, who laughed even harder.
“Come on,” Ernie said, looking directly at me. “Let’s have some real fun. We can go back to my apartment, get comfortable.”
“Watch things peter out,” I said.
Ernie’s face fell as Fran laughed some more. I suddenly yawned.
“And speaking of, I think it’s time for me to head home.” I stretched and stood up. “How much do I owe you, Eunice?”
“You didn’t drink anything. It’s on me.” She got up as well.
Ernie took what little remained of his pride and stalked out of the bar.
“I don’t get it,” Eunice said, as she helped Fran out of her chair. “Obviously, you are talking in sexual innuendos, but I haven’t the faintest clue to what you are referring.”
I only sort of did, myself. “The doorkeeper scene in Macbeth. Drink ‘sets him on and takes him off, makes him stand to and not stand to.’ In short, guys can’t perform when they’ve had too much to drink.”
“Oh.” Eunice steadied Fran, who was still giggling. “Well, that might explain my un-breeched state. I thought they just didn’t want to. Hmm. Why don’t you help me with Fran?”
“Are you safe enough to drive?”
“It’s not that far away and I’ve made it in worse condition.”
“Where did you learn to talk dirty?” Fran asked.
“I have a very good friend who does,” I took her other arm, and Eunice and I pointed her toward the door.
I was not thinking about Sid, however. My friend Esther Nguyen has possibly the dirtiest mind anywhere. She’s been known to top Sid, and he, not surprisingly, can come up with some doozies.
Fran and Eunice managed to walk home with a minimum of staggering. The night was cool and clear, and it helped both Fran and Eunice sober up a little. It was automatic, but I kept an eye out for potential tails or enemies. Twice I saw Ernie Lavalle’s slight form behind us. I wondered but was more occupied with getting Fran and Eunice off the streets.
By the time we got to the house, Fran was, fortunately, sober enough to convince Eunice to stay in her apartment and not drive home. As soon as the two of them went inside, Eunice wondering loudly why what I had said about Ernie was so funny, I made my way up the creaky staircase. My trip wires were all in place, but after I got in and shut the door, I felt a buzzing in my pocket. I pulled out my bug finder, and the compact’s rim glowed a faint pink. There was somebody broadcasting something, but probably not in my apartment. The signal was so low, I doubted it was in my building.
Leaving the kitchen lights off, I went out onto the back landing and pointed the bug finder toward the building to the south. Wherever the transmission was, it was coming from that direction.