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.
The read-out on my alarm clock read eight twenty-three. The phone had already rung twice. I do not wake up easily. I picked up the phone.
“Hello?” Okay, it was more of a grunt than an actual greeting.
“Janet, it’s Steve.” His voice sounded worried. “Ed has picked up a tail.”
“When he went running this morning, there was a team on him.”
“Oh.” I did feel like cursing, I must concede that much.
“You need to stay away from him. You don’t want anyone questioning you.”
“He’s my student,” I muttered. “But yeah. I’ll do what I can.”
I hung up, then got up and went running. If there was anybody tailing me, they did an amazing job of it. It wasn’t likely, but I wasn’t about to take a chance on changing my routine.
In Basic Comp A, Ed/Sid seemed to be taking the tail philosophically. He participated in the discussion on footnotes and bibliographies by asking how one cites an interview in an academic paper. I handed him our mail when I handed back his story, and he casually slid the papers into his day pack. He smiled when he saw the grade. He smiled again as he turned in his homework. I noticed that there was a small piece of paper on top of the page containing his thesis paragraph.
I palmed it, gathered the rest of the homework together, then went back to my office to read the note.
“I’ve got company but can’t miss our court date. See you there. Your ever-loving Proteus.”
I couldn’t help but laugh at the signature. Sid had taken me to see Two Gentlemen of Verona the previous spring. He’d thought the character of Proteus was unnecessarily fickle, then laughed when I’d launched into a lecture on changeability as a theme in Shakespeare’s comedies. [Of course, we didn’t know at the time that you’d be teaching it that coming fall. But stuff like was why I wasn’t worried about you posing as an English professor. – SEH]
As I ripped the note into tiny pieces, I thought about what Steve had said about staying away from Sid. The problem was, as Sid’s note indicated, too many people had seen us playing racquetball, usually on Mondays. Sid did not want us deviating from any of our established routines, and he was right.
I went to the Faculty Dining Room, as usual, but when I got there, I wondered why I had bothered. They were serving some insipid slop called Chili Con Carne that had more beans than anything resembling meat. Several of my Humanities colleagues were slurping it up.
I sat down next to David Watts, took a bite, and made a face.
“I don’t know why I bother,” I said.
“Come on,” said David. “It’s the same reason we all do. It’s free.”
“There is that.” I sighed and took another bite. “I don’t see you here too often.”
“I’m playing bachelor this week.” He grinned. “My wife’s traveling.”
“What does she do?”
He shrugged. “What everyone around here does. Works at the paper mill.”
“Oh. I heard you haven’t been married that long.”
“A little over a year.” He sighed happily. “Best year of my life so far. Ilona is wonderful. I really thought I was going to be a bachelor. But now ‘Let them signify under my sign, Here you may see Benedick the married man.’”
I chuckled. “You do remember that he’s saying he doesn’t want to get married in that speech.”
He laughed. “Shakespeare’s your thing, not mine. Now, Victorian poets, I’ll go toe to toe with you on them. But I am so glad you took over that Shakespeare seminar. All those crazy acting students.”
We chatted as I finished the small cup of pseudo-chili. I bought some tacos from the Commons and brought them back to my office to eat. They weren’t the best tacos I’d ever eaten, but they were surprisingly edible, and compared to most everything else at the Commons, rather tasty.
During my office hours, after the B section of Basic Comp, I paced the floor of my office. No one showed, and I knew I should have been grading quizzes and thesis paragraphs. But my mind kept flitting back to Steve and what he’d said about David Watts, and what Steve had said about staying away from Sid. He did have a point, but he should have known that Sid and I couldn’t change any patterns we’d established. I began to wonder if there was an ulterior motive behind Steve’s suggestion.
As soon as office hours were up, I hurried to the Sports Center. Tina coached me through my weight routine, then grinned salaciously. Ed/Sid had arrived.
“You guys going to play racquetball?” she asked him.
“I suppose.” He looked at me.
I shrugged. “Sure. Let me get my racket and stuff.”
We closed ourselves into the court and began playing. Well, we didn’t keep score. That was pointless. [On your part it was. – SEH] Sid signaled the rest first, though.
“How are you doing?” I asked softly.
He wiped his brow with the bottom of his muscle shirt. “Oh, fine. I was expecting it. It just probably took them some time to get the team together. I’ve tagged three of them, including Ilona Swedburg.”
“That’s interesting.” I told him what David Watts had said.
Sid nodded. “That’s right. She’s married to him. And he thinks she’s traveling? How does she think she’s going to get away with it?”
“I have no idea. She must have some way. And David is not the most alert person I’ve ever met.”
“Have you told Steve about this yet?” Sid adjusted his eye guard.
I shook my head. “Not yet. I was debating calling him later.”
“He and I are supposed to have dinner together tonight to talk things over. Our friends can’t get inside the house where we’re living, which means they can’t tell if I’m in his apartment or he’s in mine, so it’s safe. Why don’t you come over?”
“I should probably check with Steve first.”
Sid laughed. “Why? I’m the one making dinner.”
“Oh.” I smiled. “That sounds nice. I suppose I can for a little while. I’ve got papers to grade, though.”
“Yeah.” He grinned. “Thanks for the A on the story. That’s the first one I’ve gotten from you.”
I blushed. “I’m a hard grader.” I swallowed. “It was a cute story.”
He looked hard at me. “You’re really enjoying the teaching, aren’t you?”
“Well, it was kind of my life plan.” I smiled at him. “I was good at it, too.”
“I can see that.” He bounced the ball. “Would you rather still be doing it?”
“What do you mean?”
“As opposed to writing and spying.”
I laughed. “Actually, no. I like my life back home. What I’ve been doing here has been fun, but I don’t think I’d last very long at it.” I scrunched up my face. “The academic politics are pretty rank and I’m not exactly putting up with it. Besides, I’m teaching CCD classes at home, so I haven’t given up on teaching completely.”
Sid shook his head. “There’s got to be a difference between teaching college students and a bunch of teens who don’t want to be taking CCD.”
“Not really.” I shrugged. “Trust me. Nobody takes Basic Composition because they want to, and most of the kids in my classes aren’t that much older than the kids at home. I will admit that this has been fun, kind of like the best of all my worlds. And it is nice to see that I’ve still got it. But I can also see that I’d get really bored with it after a couple semesters.” I smiled at him. “I guess you can say this is no longer my life plan.”
“Well, you’ve always liked being in the spy biz more than me.”
“I did have some pretty romantic notions, didn’t I?” I frowned. “Are you saying you don’t like the biz?”
“I’ve never really thought about whether I liked it or not.” He bounced the ball some more. “It’s what I did, what I had to do. I resented the hell out of being put in intelligence, and even more that I wasn’t done with it when I got out of the Army. But I kept doing it and, really, it was probably a good thing that I did have something to focus on once I got back. And then last week. Funny how not being able to do my job put a whole new perspective on it.” He looked at me. “I’ve really missed working with you, but I’ve missed working a whole lot more. Play?”
As it turned out, I didn’t need to just show up to dinner. When I checked the computer bulletin board right before leaving for the day, I saw that Steve had already invited me and had sent the address. I drove straight there. It had just gotten dark when I pulled up in front of the old Victorian mansion. It sat on a corner, with a huge lawn in front and hedges along the back edges. There were three stories, at least that’s what it looked like based on the turret that took up one corner of the house. I later learned that it had been divided into six one-bedroom apartments, two on each floor. Sid, Steve, and the landlady, Mrs. Bielke, lived on the side with the turret. Steve’s apartment was on the second floor, and I went there first. Steve grinned as he ushered me into the wide living room. A dining room table sat in the alcove formed by the turret, with a large brass light fixture suspended from the ceiling above it.
I coughed. The place reeked of cigarettes. Ashtrays overflowed on the beat-up filing cabinets, what not tables and the coffee table in front of an overstuffed and beat up sofa. The dining table was littered with reams of print outs, and Steve had his computer set up there, as well.
“We’re gonna go upstairs,” Steve said as he turned off his computer. “I was going to bring in some hamburgers, but Ed said he’d rather cook for us.”
“I’m sure he would,” I said, trying not to cough again.
I was glad. It was getting hard to breathe in Steve’s place.
Sid’s apartment had the exact same layout, and he’d also put a dining table in the alcove where the turret was. But his furnishings were of better quality than Steve’s and better cared for, as well. Sid had gone with the Victorian style to match the house, except for an upright piano that had been backed up on the wall next to the door. Sid’s day pack sat next to it on the floor.
“Why don’t you drop your purse on the end of the couch?” he asked, as he let us in.
He was dressed in a light green polo shirt and very tight jeans and had a linen kitchen towel in his hands. Next to Steve’s shabby long-sleeved striped dress shirt and tan chinos, Sid looked completely gorgeous. The wind whistled outside the windows, but inside, it was nice and warm. I had to take off my sweater and dropped it next to my purse.
Steve started to bring up the case, but Sid called a moratorium on work talk until after we’d eaten. The table, covered by a white linen tablecloth, was set with china decorated with tiny blue flowers, silverware that had the subtle glow of age, linen napkins, and cut crystal wine glasses. Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds played softly in the background from a reel to reel tape deck attached to an expensive stereo system in the living room.
“So, what’s for dinner?” Steve asked.
“I thought we’d start with a nice little green salad,” Sid said. “Followed by Sole Meuniere, prepared tableside, and served with fresh broccoli and potatoes gratinees.”
Steve looked a little perplexed. Me, I worked insanely hard at not laughing. Eunice’s comment a few weeks before about full mating plumage ran through my brain. I could not figure out why Sid was acting like a very classy buck in full rut, but the results were quite nice. [Oh, dear God, you couldn’t? – SEH]
I was a little shocked when Sid prepared the floured white fish (real sole, by the way) with clarified butter. He sautéed it in two copper pans on a little gas burner that he’d set up on a cart next to the table. It was incredibly delicious, too, as were the broccoli and potatoes. Even Steve noticed how good it was.
Then Steve decided to assert himself, and as we finished, pointed out that we were there to work on the case.
“Unfortunately, the timing of when the team appeared does point to Eunice,” Steve said.
“Why?” asked Sid. “I slept with Eunice on Saturday. The team showed up on Monday. It takes more than two days to assemble a decent team.”
“But why would a virile young buck like you be sleeping with an old broad like her?” Steve demanded.
“A lot of reasons,” I jumped in loudly. “None of which are relevant.”
Steve glared at me. “Are you sure about that?”
“Sure enough,” I said. “I know how that little rendezvous happened.” I glared at Sid. “That being said, if someone was watching Eunice, I can see how he might see something weird in it.”
Sid rolled his eyes. “You’re right, Steve, we do have to keep an eye on Eunice. But there are other suspects.”
Which is when I told them about finding Max in his office, with his strange blocking of his desk, and the two syringes in Ernie Lavalle’s desk. And I also remembered to comment on Joe Cunningham’s odd paperbacks. Steve glared at me.
“So what?” he asked. “People leave all sorts of weird stuff in their desks.”
“Yes,” said Sid. “But weird stuff is what we’re looking for. It could be meaningless. It could be what breaks this case wide open.”
Steve turned his glare on Sid. “Do not tell me how to run an investigation.”
“Both of you!” I snapped. “Cut it out.”
At least, Steve and Sid had the grace to look abashed.
“I’m sorry,” said Steve. “I shouldn’t be so twitchy. I just do not want another dead student.”
“And I’m not happy about enforced inactivity,” Sid grumbled. “So, I’m sorry, too.”
“All right.” I looked at both. “We need to come up with some next steps. As much as I don’t like it, we should search Eunice’s office, and maybe her home.”
“I’ll take care of that,” said Steve.
“Why?” I glared at him. “I’m in the building all the time, and that is my area to cover.”
“But I’m in and out of those offices routinely, and if I accidentally barge in on someone, I have a reason to be there,” Steve countered.
“In the middle of the night?” I folded my arms across my chest. “Let’s face it. Neither of us can search offices during the day. It’s too risky to do it when they’re in class because classes let out early sometimes. Not to mention the odds of being seen going into an office. Then there are our own classes, office hours, and the fact that when people aren’t in class, they’re usually in their offices. It’s hard enough to do searches at night, with the way people work late around here.”
“But, Janet, you’re lead,” Steve said. “You can’t afford to take too many risks, yourself.”
I was glad that Sid didn’t audibly groan, but he knew Steve had slammed into one of my sore spots big-time. I pressed my lips together. There was no point in yelling at Steve, especially after I’d just yelled at him for squabbling with Sid. Besides, Steve didn’t know better, and he did almost have a point.
“I don’t need protecting,” I told him quietly. “Why don’t you hold off on the house until I’ve had a chance to go through her office? I can do it in the next few days. Depending on what I do or don’t find, then we’ll see if it’s worth searching her house later. After all, none of us needs to be exposed to the level of risk that entails.”
Steve nodded sullenly. After that, there wasn’t much more to discuss.
“Well, it’s probably time to head out,” Steve said, getting up. “Janet, you want me to walk you to your car?”
“Steve, we’ve got some home-related business to cover,” Sid said, which was good because by that point, I was ready to let Steve have it.
Steve looked at us sadly, then nodded. I walked Steve to the door as Sid began clearing the table.
“You’re not a couple, huh?” Steve said softly as the tape deck started playing some early Rolling Stones.
“No. We’re not. Just friends.”
He looked back at Sid, then at me. “Okay. See you whenever.”
He left. I shut the door then went over to the dining table to help Sid.
“Did all this stuff come with your apartment?” I asked him, as I carefully picked up the cut crystal glasses.
“Nothing in here did.” Sid finished putting all the dishes on the cart and began pushing it into the kitchen. “You want to dry?”
“I prefer washing. And you know where everything goes.”
“True.” Sid pushed the cart next to the sink.
The kitchen was modern but had almost no counter space. There was a dish drainer and drainboard set up next to the sink, which left only one other space between the stove and refrigerator. I turned on the hot water, found the dish detergent under the sink, and put in the plug.
“Anyway,” Sid said, answering my earlier question. “I rented the furniture. As for the rest of it, I’ve been using going antiquing and estate sales down near Madison as my excuse to get out for phone calls. I’ve been finding some great stuff, like the dishes and flatware. I got those glasses here in town for a song. Weekend before last, I picked up the stereo, along with a load of tapes. The guy had an incredible collection of albums he’d recorded and the tapes sound like they were made from first plays.”
“What’s a first play?”
“The first time you play a vinyl record is supposedly the purest sound.” Sid got another towel from a drawer. “Reel to reel fans would record that first play, usually off someone else’s record. You got the best sound, and it was a hell of a lot cheaper.”
I started in on the dishes. Sid rinsed and dried almost as fast as I washed.
“You okay?” he asked after a moment of silence.
“Yeah. Just bugged.”
“Well, I’m very proud that you didn’t bite Steve’s head off.”
“I wanted to.”
Sid looked at me thoughtfully. “Why are you so touchy about that? He was just showing concern.”
“Was he?” I glared at Sid. “I don’t know. It just seems like every time I want to go out and confront the evils of the world, there’s always been some man in my way, trying to protect me. First, my daddy, almost all my boyfriends, George, and sometimes even you.”
“I don’t want to see you hurt any more than you want to see me hurt.”
“Yeah, but I’m the one who gets walked to her car just in case.” I scrubbed one of the copper pans with more vigor than necessary. “I am so tired of the assumption that just because I’m a woman, I’m going to automatically attract more bad guys, not to mention, won’t be able to handle it if I do.”
“There is that.” Sid began wiping down the cart and checking the little gas burner. “But it’s not what I’m saying, especially about not being able to handle it.”
“Well, that’s the way it comes off.”
Sid thought it over. “You know. You’re right. I’m sorry. I never meant to imply that.”
“I know.” I unplugged the sink. “You can’t help it, really. It’s what Ted Curtis calls primary socialization. You and all the other guys are trained to do it. The problem is, to quote Dorothy L. Sayers, in the voice of Lord Peter Wimsey, ‘nine-tenths of chivalry is the desire to have all the fun.’ In other words, it’s probably about control.”
“And we both know how much I don’t like not being in control.” Sid sighed suddenly. “Do romantic gestures count as protective/controlling behaviors?”
“I was going to make us some dessert.”
He smiled. “For you. I can bend occasionally, you know. Plus, this should be fun.”
“Okay.” I smiled, too.
“Why don’t you go back to the dining room and get settled, while I get everything together?”
I went and sat down at the table and a minute later, Sid brought the cart out again. He dimmed the light fixture over the table, then set one of the copper pans on the burner and turned the burner on. While he waited for the pan to heat, he set small, chilled bowls of vanilla ice cream at our places.
“I know I’m going to hear about this eventually,” he said, his eyes glittering.
“In profound gratitude, I will try not to.”
“Fair enough.” He poured more clarified butter into the pan, waited a moment, then dumped some cherries in syrup in and sautéed them. Then, he added a solid splash of Grand Marnier. “Sadly, I had to use frozen cherries, but it should be okay. You ready?”
I laughed. “Yeah.”
“It’s show time.” With a deft twist, he tilted the pan and ignited the sauce.
“Oh, my god. Where did you learn to do that?”
“My errant youth.” He laughed as he spooned flaming cherries over my ice cream. “When I was sixteen, I lied about my age and got a job at a fancy French restaurant. I spent about six months bussing tables, then worked as a waiter apprentice, then finally worked as a full waiter for about five months before they realized I wasn’t eighteen yet.”
“They believed you about the age thing?”
“Must have been the mustache.” Sid had grown a full Sergeant Pepper mustache when he was in high school. “Not many kids my age could grow one.” He slid into his seat and looked expectantly at me. “Well?”
“Oh!” I picked up a spoon and took a taste. “Oh, my god, it’s delicious! Thank you.”
He smiled warmly at me. “You’re very welcome.”
He ate, mulling something over. [I was thinking that it wasn’t fair that I’d never done the flambe thing for you. I’d done it for lots of other women, but never you, who truly deserved it. – SEH]
“About the business from home,” I asked.
“Partially a ruse, but I did want to touch base with you about Nick. How did he sound when you last talked to him?”
“Pretty down. He’d been having nightmares. Why do you ask?”
Sid nodded and sighed. “I don’t know what Rachel’s game is, but Nick really wants to come live with us.”
Rachel was Nick’s mom. She had not been the easiest person to deal with. She’d never told Sid that she had gotten pregnant, then suddenly introduced Nick to Sid the previous spring. Sid had been pretty angry, but he and Nick had eventually gotten close since then.
“I’d love to have him,” I said, my eyes filling. “But it’s not the best idea.”
“I know. If it weren’t for the business, I’d take him in a New York second.” He sighed. “I just don’t want things with Rachel to get so bad that we’re the lesser of two evils. Thanks for keeping up on the calls, though.”
“Oh, I don’t mind. You know how much I love him.”
Sid paused. “Yeah. And I appreciate that, too.”
After that, we finished dessert talking about little things. It was cozy and warm, and I did not want to leave.
I sighed as I noticed the time. “Oh, dear. I still have papers to grade. I’d better take off.”
I got my purse and sweater. He walked me to the door, then slid his hand onto my cheek and kissed me warmly and passionately. I fell into the embrace. Grading papers suddenly lost its importance, and I couldn’t help continuing to kiss him.