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, most of us stumbled through our classes. I’d gotten my report done and slid it to Terry with her homework. Terry looked a little worried and stayed after to make sure she understood. I told her to make the pick-up on the police reports when those came through. I also got an interesting invite from Steve.
He picked me up that Saturday morning at close to eleven.
“So, what have you got for me?” I asked as he pulled the car out of the driveway at my apartment.
“Absolutely nothing.” Steve grinned, nonetheless.
“Then where are we going?”
“On an old-fashioned picnic.”
“Look. We have been beating our heads against this wall for days, if not weeks. It’s time to do something strictly for the fun of it and relax a little.”
“And hopefully, our subconscious minds will come up with a solution.” I sat back in the car seat with a satisfied smile. “Thanks. That’s a great idea.”
I rolled the window down a crack, despite the chill in the air. Steve’s car had been cleaned, but the stench of cigarette was still under the reek of the artificial sweetness of a chemical air freshener.
The park was small and mostly deserted. No surprise. Dark clouds covered the sky, and the temperatures were in the low fifties. Steve had picked up a cue or two from Sid, because he did cover the picnic table with a red-checked cloth tablecloth, and there was a decent bottle of cabernet sauvignon in the basket. Sadly, the menu also featured peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and Twinkies. Not that I don’t like either, but not with a good, solid red wine.
I let it go. Steve and I ate and talked about university politics and the generally hell-bound state of the world. He told me about all the cool things I could read on the ARPANET, and I had to admit, that was fascinating. But then I spotted something. I jumped up and ran to the playground.
“What are you doing?” Steve yelped.
“Swings!” I ran over and slid onto one and started pumping. “I love swings.”
Steve laughed, but still looked perplexed. “Aren’t you afraid some student is going to see you?”
“Who cares? I hate teachers who can’t be human.”
The chain was starting to jerk as I soared higher and higher. I eased off and let the swing carry me back and forth until I decided to jump off it.
“You’re nuts, lady,” Steve said.
I couldn’t tell if he was amused or appalled or both.
“It’s who I really am.” I said.
Steve looked at me and smiled. “Yeah. I think I get that. That first night when I broke into your apartment. You were cool, like you should have been, then, I don’t know. You saw something in me and became all nice.”
I shrugged. “Also, who I am.”
Steve stepped up closer to me. “I’m starting to see that. I gotta tell you, I’m really liking what I see.”
I stepped back. “Steve, we’re friends.”
“Yeah. Like you’re friends with Ed.”
I flushed. “That’s different.”
“How? You guys keep saying you’re not a couple, but it sure doesn’t look like that.”
I closed my eyes. “The problem is we’re not. It’s complicated. We’re probably headed that way. We’re just not there yet.”
“Because he keeps running around.”
“Which he’s probably doing because I won’t sleep with him.” I blinked back tears. “It’s all about our values. They just don’t mesh right now. We’re getting there.” I looked at him. “I’m sorry. You and I, all we’ll ever be is friends. I really like being friends with you. You’re a really great guy.”
“But there’s this other guy, who’s acting like a complete ass and breaking your heart—”
“He’s not!” I looked Steve in the eyes. “He really isn’t. Neither of us can help being who we are. He was raised to believe in free love. I was raised to believe in marriage. Yeah, things are at an impasse right now.” I took a deep breath. “The funny thing is, I’m happier with the impasse than I am being without him. I’ve really thought about it. I’ve had to. He’s my best friend. And he’s more than that.”
Steve looked away. “I was hoping I could be more than that.”
I chuckled sadly. “I’m sorry. I do like you. It’s just that someone else beat you to me. Not much consolation, I know. But it’s the best I’ve got.”
A big, fat raindrop landed on my nose. More followed within seconds.
We ran for the picnic table. The drops turned into a downpour.
Steve swore. “I can’t do anything right!”
“It’s okay,” I yelled.
I moved the basket and the bottle of wine aside and gathered everything else on the table into the center of the tablecloth and gathered it together.
“It’s freezing out here!” Steve said.
“I’m fine.” I laughed.
“What are you laughing at?”
“This would be insanely romantic if I were actually in love with you.”
“What’s romantic about freezing our asses?”
“Which is the inherent difference between us.”
It was. Sid might not have been excited about being so cold, but he would have laughed and maybe even been charmed that I found it romantic. Steve very clearly did not get that.
I told Steve he could drive us back to his place. He wasn’t thrilled but did anyway. As we struggled into the hallway of the mansion, he held me back.
“You know. For a while there, I thought this nerd had a shot at the gorgeous girl.”
I put my hand on his face. “Maybe not this girl, and I am very honored that you think I’m gorgeous. But you’ve got more than a shot at the next one. You’re a great guy, Steve. Really.”
I kissed his cheek and ran all the way up to Sid’s apartment. I had no reason to believe that he was home and couldn’t help being gratified when I heard the piano music coming from the other side of his door. I knocked, then knocked again, a little more loudly.
The music stopped. I could almost feel him checking me out through the peephole in the door, and then he opened it.
“You’re wet,” he said.
“Yeah. Steve took me on a picnic. Can I come in?”
“Uh, yeah. Let me get a couple towels.”
The apartment was nice and toasty, and Sid’s towels were very fluffy and nice.
“What the hell happened?” Sid asked as I blotted my clothes off.
“Steve wanted to do something relaxing and took me on a picnic. It was, alas, a gesture doomed to failure and not because of the rain.”
“I told you the casual dating thing wasn’t going to work.”
Sid sighed. “I suppose I should be grateful for that.”
I shrugged. “That’s up to you.”
“I’ve got a t-shirt and some sweatpants in the other room. I’ll put them in the bathroom, and you can go change.”
“You’re dribbling on my floor.”
“I’ll wipe it up.” I smiled at him. “Thanks.”
He went into the bedroom, then ushered me into the bathroom and left me alone. I changed quickly, laying out my t-shirt, sweater, and jeans over the edge of his bathtub, and my deck shoes alongside.
“So, what happened?” Sid asked as I came into the living room. “I get the rain part, but what about the rest of it?”
“Well, he’s been having trouble figuring us out and thought he had a shot at me. He’s a nice guy. He just isn’t you.”
“I see.” Sid smiled, looking somewhat relieved. “I guess now you’re going to have to accept it when I tell you how attractive and sensual you really are. You can’t just call it a quirk on my part or friendship.”
He smiled his hot little smile, and I caught my breath, then flushed.
“Okay,” I said, turning away. “Given Steve, I’ll let you have attractive. But how sensual can I be when I’m always saying no?”
Sid laughed loudly. “You have no idea, my dear little ice maiden.”
“Exactly my point.”
Sid grabbed my hands. “No. You’re not getting it. That’s the joke. You are anything but an ice maiden. You are a very, very sensual, sexy woman. When the time comes, and I finally unlock that mental chastity belt of yours, pray forgive me for putting it this way, but you are going to make for one hot little lay.”
I swallowed. “I’m glad you think so. But what difference does it make?”
“If it makes you feel better about yourself, maybe a lot.”
I winced. He had, as he so often did, got me to my core.
“Which is why I’m here and not downstairs,” I said. “You get me. You always have. He doesn’t.”
“I wasn’t worried about that.”
Sid winced. “Okay. We’re even. You get me like no one else.”
I sighed and slid onto the couch. “I do think Steve had the right idea about the picnic. We’ve been going around and around and around on this case and have gotten nowhere. I’ve been reading my brains out on Merry Wives of Windsor. It’s time to turn all that off and let our subconscious do its thing.” I sat up. “Do you want me to make dinner?”
Sid laughed. “You can help. Once I figure out what we’re going to have.”
“Yeah. I did kind of barge in on you, didn’t I? I can leave.”
“Please don’t. I’d rather spend the evening with you than just about anybody.” He took one of my arms and pulled me up. “Now, come on, my darling little locust, and let’s see what I can feed you.”
Sid’s refrigerator and pantry were better stocked than he’d hinted. We ended up throwing together a chicken and vegetable stir fry over brown rice, and Sid opened a nice, imported Riesling to go with it. We’d had to make do with dried pepper flakes, however. We hadn’t found any fresh chiles in Wisconsin.
After dinner, Sid put a tape full of John Denver tunes on the reel to reel. We snuggled on the couch and he laughed as I sang along to Rocky Mountain High.
“Pretty bad, huh?” I said.
“No. You’ve got a nice voice and a decent ear. You just need to listen to yourself better and do better breath support.”
I felt him nuzzling into my hair and I sighed happily.
“I’m glad I’m here,” I said some minutes later. “It’s been a really terrible week.”
“I know. It’s been pretty awful on my end, too.”
“Hey, but I’m here now.”
“Yeah.” His eyes glowed and he bent his head.
It was a glorious kiss. I melted into his arms. It didn’t stop either. I let myself slide backwards onto the couch and he followed me down, his lips kissing my eyes, my nose, and back to my lips again and again. He stroked my hair, then moaned softly when I kissed the inside of his wrist. He dropped kiss after gentle kiss along my jawline to my ear, and then down the back of my neck and I moaned. I reached under his chin and lifted his head to look into his beautiful eyes. My heart nearly pounded itself out of my chest as we gazed at each other, then kissed some more.
The warmth and excitement spread through me. I loved this man like I had never loved anyone else, and all I wanted was to give myself to him, to be with him. I knew I was special. I knew I was unlike anyone else in his life. But that was the problem. I wasn’t the only person in his life. I felt myself cooling and tried to focus on the excitement I’d felt.
I could be his only person. I knew it. The only reason he ran around was because I wouldn’t give him what he needed. And I was ready at that point. I wanted to be ready. I needed to be ready. I kissed him harder.
He drew back.
“Getting a little carried away, are we?” he asked gently.
“I wish we were.”
He chuckled sadly and stroked my face. “Lisapet, you’re not ready. And I don’t want you forcing yourself. It would ruin everything.”
“I just wish I could be what you need.”
“You are what I need.” He sighed. “I promised you, when we come together, it will be in joy or it will not happen.”
“I thought we had joy just now.”
“Close, too damned close in some respects, but not entirely.” He sat up. “And that’s okay.”
He made a face. “Yeah. You can’t change who you are any more than I can change who I am. But we’ll find a way. Somehow. I just don’t know how yet.”
“I don’t either.”
He pulled me up. “Then let’s try not to worry about it.”
Sid took me home rather later, when it was well after midnight and it wasn’t likely anyone would notice him doing it. I was kind of stuck since Steve had driven me there. The rain had slowed to a mist. I still had on Sid’s t-shirt and sweats and my clothes were in a plastic bag. He let me off in the alley behind my apartment with a solid, sweet kiss. If the KGB saw us, all they saw was an illicit romance.
The rain continued well into the next day. It was as if some screenwriter was setting the scene for Eunice’s memorial. The trees were almost bare and damp leaves littered streets and sidewalks.
I took off early to make my phone calls. Nick was happier, but still a little antsy. Mae was just sick and tired of dealing with five kids and a husband. I listened but had to cut Mae off to get back to Appleton in time for the memorial service.
It was an emotional service. The stone walls of the gothic-style chapel still echoed loudly even with the hushed voices. Dozens of students from all the different majors turned up, many of them young women, weeping openly. Steve Carmona sat near the front across the center aisle from me and gave me the occasional baleful stare. Ed/Sid sat in the back with Jason de Boeur, Rita Farley, Mark Ayers, Terry, and Sherry Van Wettering. The entire Humanities staff was there, as were the wives of those who had them. Ernie, Cunningham, and Ted all looked particularly pale and shaky. I sat in the first row next to Fran and held her hand. Max was on her other side, and Dwight and his wife on my other side.
The Madrigal Choir sang two lovely motets from a requiem mass, then a lively and slightly ribald madrigal that had all of us laughing and crying at the same time. Then they wound up with, of all things, The Philosopher’s Song, from the Monty Python movie that had come out a couple years before.
Max took the podium at that moment. Even with the slightly chilly air, his balding scalp glistened with perspiration.
“Some of you may think that a Monty Python tune might not be the most appropriate for a funeral,” he said slowly. His hands twisted on the sides of the podium top. “But if anyone exemplified the ability to think you under a table, it was Eunice Blakely. Not to mention her ability to drink us all under the table without a sweat. She was vastly curious about everything, and while her passion was history, she loved exploring the sciences, as well. Any new technology, she wanted it. My god, she had a personal computer back in 1977, when most of us didn’t even know what one was. But to me, she was more than a friend. She was like my big sister, who hounded me and gave me grief, but let anyone give me trouble, and she’d be all over him.” Max took a deep breath. “In many ways, she was like a big sister to all of us, one we loved, even as she made us crazy with her exacting standards and wild sense of humor.”
I tried not to cry. I didn’t want mascara all over my cheeks and have to risk messing up my contouring to get it off. But I was hardly the only one wiping my nose at Max’s words. Then Fran took her place at the podium.
The tears streamed down her face. “I don’t have much to say. Eunice was my mentor and champion, and now she’s gone.”
A soft wail rose through the chapel and I realized that Eunice had been a mentor and champion for so many of the young women there.
“Eunice was also the best friend I’ve ever had,” Fran continued. “She was closer to me than my own mother. Okay, maybe that’s not saying much, but it made all the difference in the world to me. I loved her so dearly.”
At that point, Fran broke down completely and Dwight Atwater helped her from the podium and returned her to the pew where we’d all been sitting. Max got up to let her in, then I put my arms around her as she cried.
The Madrigal Choir sang again, then the university president got up, read John Donne’s Death be Not Proud, and gave a benediction. The choir sang two more motets, and then we all filed out of the chapel into the rain.
I was standing near Fran and Max when Jason and Sherry came up.
“Dr. Mayfield?” Jason asked tentatively, his umbrella bumping mine. “Is there going to be Off Campus Office Hours today?”
I sighed and nodded. “Sure. Why not?” I turned to Fran and Max. “Would you two like to join us?”
“No,” said Max quickly. “But, Fran, why don’t you go? It might do you some good to get with the young people.”
“Thanks.” Fran blinked. “Both of you. But no.” Her mouth took on a grim set. “I’ve got some things of my own to do. Janet, we need to have a meeting. Maybe later this week, after we’ve had some time to get ourselves together.” Fran blinked and wept. “We now have to take up where Eunice left off in terms of protecting the women here.”
“Of course. Let me know when you’re ready.” I dabbed at my eyes.
There was a small reception in the Faculty Dining Room, which had apparently been catered by some outside company. Not only was there enough food, it was good. There was wine, beer, and even shots of whiskey. I had no idea who was paying for it but was grateful.
Cunningham was trying to look as if he was deeply grieved. I’m not sure if anybody bought it. The Madrigal Choir and some of the other music students gathered in one corner of the room and began singing Renaissance drinking songs. I saw Terry Michaels with a shot of whiskey in her hand and wondered why the catering staff wasn’t being more careful about checking IDs. Steve Carmona seemed to be dedicated to getting drunk on someone else’s dime. Given the way he kept looking sadly at me, I realized why and sighed.
As such parties do, things got louder as the afternoon wore on. Ted Curtis was the first to leave, with Cunningham following closely on his tail. Ryan Martin had found a chair in the corner and was already asleep, his wife glaring at him in fury in between chatting with Fred Wirth’s wife. David Watts never showed up at all. I’d seen him in the crowd at the chapel with Ilona Swedburg by his side. I had finished my last plate of hors d’oeuvres and was debating getting some more when Ernie Lavalle sidled up next to me.
“Such a sad day,” he said, as I stepped away from him. He stepped closer, bumping up next to me. “You must be feeling pretty bad right now.”
“Back off, Ernie, or you’ll be feeling worse.”
“I could comfort you.” He grabbed me with a surprisingly strong grip.
I tried to wriggle away, but he held on, his boozy breath hot on my neck.
“We both need comforting,” he whined. “Come on!”
He started to pull me away, but I twisted and caught his hand and bent it back. He wailed in pain.
“I said no.” I bent some more, and he wailed again. People were staring.
I flushed and let go, then shoved Ernie toward the wall.
“Where did you learn to do that?” Dr. Ermengarde bellowed from across the room.
“Self-defense class.” I gulped. “Doesn’t everybody take one?”
“No, but we shall.” Dr. Ermengarde raised her glass to me, and I nodded.
The room returned to their conversations and I decided it was time to leave. Fran had already left, and Max was getting on his raincoat. Inside, I tried not to worry about my cover, about Ernie being surprisingly strong and adept at handling me, about bursting into tears and wiping way my contouring. Ed/Sid winked at me from across the room.
I was late for Off Campus Office Hours. Marge Haver and Rick Waters were already there and had ordered pizzas, beer, and cola. Marge had a shapely brunette with her and introduced her as Stephanie O’Connor. I’d seen her at the chapel weeping freely.
“I was in Dr. Blakely’s Elizabethan seminar,” Stephanie said, offering me a watery smile. “I’m told we’re going to be in your Shakespeare class now?”
“Yes. It should be interesting.” I smiled, even though I knew I was woefully under-prepared.
“Okay.” Stephanie frowned. “Are we really going to be reading Titus Andronicus?”
I patted her hand. “Don’t worry. I’ve changed that. We’re doing Merry Wives of Windsor. More tie-ins to Elizabeth I.”
“Huzzah!” yelped Marge. “I was not looking forward to reading that miserable blood bath.”
“It is pretty miserable,” I said.
Ed/Sid and Jason arrived next. Jason was not entirely sober.
“Way to put Dr. Lavalle down, Dr. Mayfield!” he crowed. “He is such a slimeball, man.”
I flushed, then caught a slightly angry cast to Ed’s grin, as if he’d wanted a turn at Lavalle, too. He helped Jason to a chair and himself to a glass of beer.
Terry and Sherry showed up, with Kathy close behind. I thought I saw Tim Hannaford outside, but he’d apparently seen Ed and decided he’d better not show. Terry was a little tiddly and still managed to stuff several manilla envelopes into my purse without anyone noticing. I reached under the table and slid Kathy the Leticia Petrie novel I’d found. She slid me a note. The group got noisy and even maudlin. Soon the only sober people at the table were me, Kathy, and Ed. Terry had already left, taking Sherry with her, as Sherry had gotten sick. Jason passed out soon after, which was why Ed was hanging around. I took a chance and nodded slightly toward the door. He nodded, yes, he was still being tailed, and I saw a man sitting at the bar, casually glancing our way every now and then. Fortunately, the table was backed into the corner, so I don’t think the man had seen Terry, Kathy, and I trading stuff around.
I suddenly sighed, the weight of the day finally getting unbearable.
“I’m going home, guys,” I announced getting up.
Jason snorted and Marge gave me a very sloppy and beery hug. The man at the bar watched me leave, but as I drove home, there was no sign of a tail. The trip wires on my apartment were all sound and no one was broadcasting anything. In fact, the only sound I heard as I stood in the foyer was sobbing from behind Fran’s door. I knocked.
“Fran, you okay?”
“Please. I need to be by myself.”
“I’ll be upstairs if you need anything.”
The stairs creaked as I walked up them, and hopefully drowned out the sound of my own crying.