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.
Fran looked nervous when I came down the stairs on Friday afternoon. We were again dressed casually. I had my purse, which doubled as a briefcase. She had an actual briefcase.
“Is everything okay?” I asked as we walked out the door and Fran locked it.
She blinked several times. “I just don’t want you to get discouraged.”
We both shuddered a little as we walked to Lawrence Hall.
“It’s a faculty meeting. It’s meant to be discouraging,” I said.
“Well, I’m told ours aren’t any worse than anyone else’s. We’d better make a point of not sitting anywhere near Eunice, though. She tends to misbehave and it’s impossible to keep a straight face.”
I agreed. When we got to Lawrence, I made a point of going to Cunningham’s office first. He was just coming out of his office when I arrived.
“Ah, Janet, I asked you to turn that course outline in yesterday morning and I haven’t seen it yet.” He puffed himself up. That day, he was wearing a yellow carnation, possibly in honor of the meeting.
“It’s right here,” I said, handing him the papers. “I said Friday afternoon and it’s Friday afternoon. Now, I don’t want to be late for the meeting.”
I turned and found Fran in the hallway. She silently laughed as she led me to the conference room.
The meeting was terrible. Cunningham reminded the faculty that grades were to be entered into the computer system weekly during the course of the quarter, which brought on a debate about why it was necessary to do it that way and why couldn’t someone hire a work study student to do it? This, in turn, brought complaints that not all the offices were connected to the computer system. Fran commented that my office didn’t have any sort of computer at all. Cunningham explained that there wasn’t enough money in the department budget to wire all of the offices, which inspired another extended discussion about getting a grant from the endowment, punctuated by complaints about whether people really needed computers in the first place. And it did not get any better.
“Dr. Cunningham, this doesn’t help,” Ernie Lavalle whined every time Cunningham tried to shut him down on getting a student worker.
Robert Farnsworth, the elder statesman of the department and the primary English professor, snoozed through the entire meeting. Fran and I had made sure to sit well away from Eunice and with our backs to her, just to be safe. I fidgeted, making inane notes about the other faculty members. Fred Wirth, a corpulent fellow who taught political science, showed off pictures of his latest grandchild in between wondering why the endowment couldn’t do something about the small portions in the Faculty Dining Room. This inspired yet another debate about the endowment and budget and Lester Zaner jumped in complaining that he and his wife Marianne had been promised new tape cassettes for their various foreign language classes. I have no idea what Eunice was doing, but I saw Cunningham glare at her several times, and heard muffled laughter more than once from Ted Curtis, who was sitting next to her.
Eventually, even Cunningham couldn’t find something to complain about, and everyone got up and left as fast as they could. I and a few others weren’t quite fast enough.
“Uh, Janet,” Cunningham called. “About your Shakespeare outline.”
I turned to him and folded my arms across my chest. “Yes, Joe?”
The remaining faculty members stopped their rush to the exit and openly stared at the two of us.
Cunningham swallowed. “Uh. It will do.”
“Thanks, Joe,” I replied and sauntered off.
Eunice and Fran were beside themselves with holding in their laughter. Fortunately, they waited until we were outside the building to start whooping it up. Dwight Atwater, a bespectacled psychology professor with a dark beard streaked with gray, came up to us.
“Dr. Mayfield, may I congratulate you on a splendid piece of brinkmanship,” he said.
I shrugged. “Ted Curtis told me we were all on a first-name basis here.”
That set off a gale of giggles from Fran.
Dwight chuckled. “Well, if he gives you any trouble, I will be happy to support any claim you make. With any luck at all, we’ll be rid of him for good.”
Eunice drove Fran and me to dinner at Barb’s Diner, a traditional kind of place near the interstate. They were still laughing.
“I just hope I haven’t gotten myself into trouble,” I sighed after we’d ordered.
“You probably have,” Fran said. “But with Dwight on our side, maybe we can get rid of him.”
“I just want to know how they found somebody with some backbone,” Eunice asked.
“She was hired by the chancellor,” Fran said.
“That explains it. Joe wouldn’t have hired anybody he couldn’t control.”
“Oh, great,” I grumbled. I suddenly realized why I had stood up to Cunningham. It was because I was not hungry for tenure. I wasn’t even going to be there that long. I had another life and family that I loved.
“Oh, don’t worry about it, Janet,” Eunice said. “Sometimes the best way to get what you want is to act like you don’t give a damn. Fran, here, is a perfect example.”
“It hasn’t worked so far,” Fran said.
“It hasn’t failed yet, either,” Eunice said.
Fran didn’t seem entirely convinced.
“Eunice, you’re probably right,” I said. “But it’s a very fine line between not caring and shooting yourself in the foot.”
Eunice would not be swayed, but we did not argue the point much. Our dinners arrived, and from there we went to a dark bar called The Cider Keg not far from the university. Eunice got a snootful, so I ended up driving the three of us to her house in her car. Fran and I walked to our building from there. It wasn’t far, but Fran was more than a little winded as we unlocked the outside door.
“Next time we go out,” she said and gasped. “Let’s one of us drive.”
“Sure, Fran.” I laughed and waited while she got into her apartment.
She was in better shape than Eunice, but not by much.
I ran up the stairs, letting the squeaking and creaking go on. It wasn’t going to be bothering Fran. However, when I got to my door, my front pants pocket vibrated. I got the powder compact from the pocket. The rim glowed a dull pink. In addition to telling me if anyone was broadcasting on a low-level frequency almost exclusively used by bugs, the compact was connected to the trip wires I’d installed. The pink meant that one or more had been broken, which meant someone was or had been in my apartment.
I swallowed. I did have a gun in my purse, a Smith and Wesson Model Thirteen revolver. The last time I’d shot it, less than two months before, I’d killed someone. That it was absolutely self-defense, or actually, saving Sid’s life, didn’t really help. Sid had saved me, holding me close as I worked through the trauma. But Sid wasn’t there.
I shut my eyes. On one hand, entering my apartment without a gun at the ready was asking for trouble. On the other, entering my apartment fully armed and ready to take somebody down didn’t really work for my cover as a nice English professor, especially since I wasn’t supposed to know that somebody was in my apartment. I settled for slinging the purse over my right shoulder and going in with one hand on my gun.
The faint light from the streetlights showed the silhouette of a tall man with a pronounced stoop sitting on the couch. I turned on the lights. The man had reddish hair and wore horn-rimmed glasses.
“Good to see you,” Dr. Steve Carmona said as I shut the door.
“Nice of you to break in,” I said, withdrawing my hand from the purse. I was playing tough. It was what he would expect.
“Sorry about that.”
“I’ll bet.” I dropped the purse on the small table I’d bought and placed next to the door.
“We need to talk.”
“And you couldn’t have just made a phone call? Left a message for me at the department office?”
He pulled a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket. “Mind if I smoke?”
“Yes, I do mind.” It was, perhaps, not the nicest thing to say, but I was so glad it wasn’t considered rude anymore to say no.
“Oh. Sorry.” He stuffed the pack back into his shirt. “I’m here to brief you.” He grimaced. “Not that I have much to tell you.”
I nodded. In that split second, I decided to drop the defenses. The poor guy was worn out and probably frustrated.
He looked up at me. “I’d heard you and Little Red were assigned to this case.”
“I’m Little Red.” Which was my code name. I couldn’t help feeling nettled. “He’s Big Red.”
Steve shrugged. “Okay.” He looked at me again. “Look, I’m sorry to be such a grouch. But this one has gone nasty. We lost two students last spring.” He paused. “One of them was mine. Brilliant kid. Could have gone far.”
I found the chair to my desk and sat down. Steve was a bit of a mess and it was easy to see why. Technically, in the spy biz, you’re supposed to check your emotions at the door, so to speak. I had never been able to, and Sid had hinted over the couple of years that I’d been at the game, that those who could be that divorced from their emotions were not people you wanted to be dealing with.
“Do we have police reports on them?” I asked.
“Yeah. I gave them to Little, I mean, Big Red. He got the apartment on top of mine. Posing as a rich Second Career guy.”
“I know. So, why are you talking to me?”
“I’m talking to the whole team. You all are covering different parts of the campus.”
He closed his eyes, then opened them with a sigh.
“So, who is this scientist we’re trying to protect?” I asked.
Steve let out a sharp bark of laughter. “I have no idea.”
“What? Aren’t you his handler? You’re faculty. I was told the other faculty member on the team was the handler.”
“And I am. The guy, or maybe even gal, is spooky as hell. Refuses to complete the job if anyone knows who he is. We’ve only communicated by notes and phone messages.”
“How is the formula being stolen?”
He held up his hands. “I wish I knew. But, like you, I don’t know who the developer is, which makes it pretty damned hard to figure out who’s doing the stealing.”
I groaned and glared at the ceiling. “Okay. What do we know?”
“We’ve got two dead students. One was a music student. A bomb was planted in her car. The other, my kid, was comp sci. He got injected with some nerve agent. They ID’d the substance as one favored by the KGB. We’ve got one person that’s been confirmed as an agent here in town, and two others suspected of being agents or with ties to suspected agents here on campus, so someone has figured out that our guy is here. But like us, they don’t know who he is, either.”
“But why kill students? It doesn’t seem like they’d be secretly developing some formula.”
Steve snorted. “Which is why I believe we’re dealing with an amateur under KGB control.”
“I’d heard that.”
“Nice of them to let you know that much.” He yawned and stretched. “I think the music kid got it because I’m fairly sure our developer is someone in the music department. My kid got it because there’s probably a connection with the university’s computer system. It’s a closed system, but some folks modem out to the ARPANET. We don’t have a strong science department,” He stopped. “I’m talking gibberish to you, aren’t I?”
I frowned. “Not entirely. I have a friend who sometimes talks about ARPANET, and I understand that it’s a way for computers to talk to each other. But I don’t know how that affects the average person.”
Steve chuckled. “I suspect it will eventually. People are already using it to send messages to each other. And there’s other stuff.”
“Which really doesn’t have much to do with our specific problem.”
“True.” He yawned again. “You count as a hub, right?”
“If you mean someone who has contact with our other operatives, then yes.”
“You’re also covering the Humanities Department. From what I’ve seen it’s ideal for a hub. Not a lot going on there, but lots of contact across departments. Believe me, if you think Humanities gets short shrift around here, you should try being in the math/sciences division. The only reason comp sci gets some respect is that there is some money and art involved in computer games.”
“Okay. There’s a little internecine skullduggery, too.”
He laughed. “Yeah. There’s that between departments, but it wouldn’t be a university without it.”
He shook his head, then pulled a small piece of paper from his shirt pocket. “I’m briefing each one of the team. I’m covering math/sciences for obvious reasons. You’ll figure out the others. Here’s what I’ve been able to come up with on Humanities, which is pretty much zilch. Your department chair, Joe Cunningham, is basically a blowhard.”
“That much I’ve figured out.”
“Fred Wirth, he’s…”
“Political Science.” I nodded.
“Tends to slip away from campus at odd times. Might be worth looking into.”
I closed my eyes trying to visualize the person I’d been introduced to. He was Fran’s colleague, teaching Communications, that much I’d recalled. I could see his slightly Saturnine face peering at me through wire-rimmed glasses, but little more.
“Okay,” I said slowly.
“Has a record as a Communist sympathizer. Then there are the Zaners.”
“They teach foreign languages.”
“Right.” Steve rubbed hie eyes. “As far as I can tell, they’re not interested in anything outside of school besides their kids, and they’re up to…”
“Four, last I heard.”
Steve raised his eyebrows. “Good work.
“It’s not that hard, for Heaven’s sakes.”
“Maybe, maybe not.” Steve squeezed his eyes shut, then opened them and gazed at his paper. “David Watts, one of the other English professors, is married to a known KGB operative. He checks out, though. No suspicious activity. The few times I’ve talked to him, he doesn’t seem to have a clue about what his wife really does for a living.”
“Sounds like a great marriage.”
Steve chuckled. “Yeah. Finally, Dwight Atwater and Perry Addington, just because they’re psych.”
“That’s evidence that will hold up in court.”
“I’m not giving you evidence. I’m giving you places to look.” He looked at his paper again. “Atwater tends to be rather reclusive, though, so think about it.”
“Okay. Speaking of reclusive, what about Max Beard?”
“That space cadet?” Steve laughed. “He is brilliant, I’ll give him that. But you want to talk about lost in his own little world?”
“I got that impression. Anyone else you want me to look at? Robert Farnsworth? Ernie Lavalle?”
Steve closed his eyes and thought. “At this point, everybody is a possible. But you could probably put them on the bottom of the list.”
“Always nice to know,” I said.
Steve pulled himself up from the battered couch. “I should probably make myself scarce. Umm. Why don’t we, um, you know, meet every now and then?”
“Sure.” I shrugged. “You mean, like, we’re friends or something?”
“Yeah. That would be fun.”
Steve headed for the kitchen.
“The door’s that way,” I said.
“Yeah. With all those noisy stairs? I’m coming in and out the back, thank you.”
“Good point.” I followed him to the back of the apartment and watched as he made his way down the wooden fire escape.
I wasn’t sure what to make of Steve Carmona. Just because he was supposedly briefing me didn’t mean he hadn’t sold out. But I didn’t get that vibe from him. That he was tired and frustrated, there was no question. It did occur to me that anyone who had not been on campus the previous spring was unlikely to be our thief. But it was not conclusive. After all, we had a poisoning and a bombing, which would hint at two different killers. The trick would be to eliminate everyone who had been on campus the previous spring first, and that was not going to be easy.
I spent Saturday in my apartment holed up with my books, trying to make sure my class syllabi were in as perfect a shape as I could manage. Sunday morning, I had another challenge to face – whether or not I would go to church.
I am deeply religious. Although, if I’m really honest, the reason I’m a practicing Catholic is because that’s how I was raised, and for some reason, I didn’t do the whole rebellion against my parents and seek out other religions thing. Catholicism works for me. But, as Sid had pointed out the previous summer, it was also one of the barriers between us.
Sid is an atheist and for much the same reason that I’m a Catholic. It’s how he was raised. He was taught about free love and that sex was about being open and whatever. Me, well, sex is about commitment and lifelong love. It has always been an issue for us, but it had gotten to be a real problem the summer before when Sid asked me to move into his bedroom and offered me a lifetime commitment. I almost went for it. But Sid couldn’t promise the fidelity that I really needed.
I was okay with Sid not being able to make that commitment. I really was. I mean, I’d kind of figured the two of us would get together at some point, and I was genuinely in love with him. It would just take time.
That being said, Sid had also, quite accurately, pointed out that my religious beliefs were the glue that held me together and that he didn’t want to cross those because it would mess everything up. But he’d also written to me that my beliefs were also the last barrier to our true happiness together, which was also true.
His randiness was a big problem. Sid would pretty much sleep with anyone at anytime, anywhere. I was still a virgin.
Which is the long way around for saying that when I decided that Janet Mayfield should not be religious and go to church, it probably wasn’t that I was worried about being religious making me too memorable. I wanted to see if I could get past that last barrier. [Please. You were already past that barrier. I was already past that barrier. It was barely an excuse at that point. I’m just lucky that you were willing to hold out for the right reason. – SEH]
The one thing I did do that Sunday was drive into Madison, the state capitol, had lunch there, then found a pay phone.
“Hello?” asked my sister’s voice.
“It’s me,” I said. “We finally got a couple hours off and I was able to sneak into town.”
“So, are you having fun being a ghost writer?”
That was the story Sid and I had told our friends and family to explain our extended absence. Our work with Quickline is so top secret no one knows about it, including our friends and family. How Sid and I were going to maintain our business relationships as freelance writers worried me a bit. But Sid said they’d found a way to help us. After all, the top brass in the organization had a lot invested in us keeping our real personae viable, as well.
“It’s been interesting,” I told Mae. “How is everybody?”
Everybody was fine. Mae’s youngest kids, a pair of twins, were in nursery school and terrorizing the teacher with their antics. Darby was adjusting well to his new school. Janey didn’t like her teacher that year but was learning to deal with it. Ellen had started first grade reading at a second-grade level. Mae was annoyed because Ellen was supposed to be on an accelerated track, but that didn’t mean she was being challenged.
I let Mae’s voice waft over me, a touchstone to the things I valued and cared about. I asked about our parents, and they were doing well, as usual.
Mae asked how things were going, and I said they were fine and chose not to elaborate, reminding Mae that Sid and I were under contract not to. She didn’t like it but had to agree I had a point.
I hung up a good hour later, feeling somewhat better, and drove back to Appleton. The reality was that I did have a life away from Martin U. and I did not have to worry about tenure, department cliques, and interdepartmental skullduggery. I just had to pretend that I cared about all that stuff.