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.
Tippy-tap, tippy-tap. It thundered through my brain, but all I could see was the splatter of bright red blood against a white interior wall. My stomach roiled and I heard myself crying.
A second later, I awoke. The tapping sound was still there, but in the fuzziness of waking, I was able to identify it as rain beating down on the roof above me. The window was light enough that I knew the sun had risen. Papers were scattered all over the bed and my red marking pen had left large round stains on the comforter.
I gasped, still shaking from the nightmare. The clock on the nearby dresser said eleven-oh-five.
Which is about as foul as I get. It’s probably my mother’s fault. There were few things Mae and I could do that would get our fannies tanned faster than uttering a naughty word, and keep in mind, even “stupid” and “darn” were asking for it.
I blinked. I had fallen asleep crying over Sid’s short story.
“Crap,” I muttered again.
I had made up my mind that I was not going to suffer over the man. However difficult things were because of his fooling around, our relationship was still strong enough that it was worth staying around. I stumbled out of bed, gathered all the papers together, and staggered out to the living room, where I had a small desk. That’s where I put the papers.
It was almost noon by the time I’d showered, dressed, and eaten breakfast. My heart thudding in my chest, I made the phone call. He picked up after two rings.
“Hi, it’s me,” I said.
“Hey, good to hear from you. What’s up?”
“You sound cheerful.”
“Uh, let’s just say I had a decidedly good night.”
“Yeah. I figured.”
He chuckled. “Hey, I got laid in my own bed for the first time in weeks. Yes, I am a happy man.”
“You know that I am nothing if not discreet.”
“Shavings. Is this going to cause trouble on the team?”
He paused. “I don’t think so. I was clear on the expectations and she was happy with that. In fact, she said further encounters would only cause trouble for her back home.”
“I’m not sure I wanted to know that much.” I blinked. “Anyway, the reason I’m calling… Well, this isn’t easy for me, but, um…”
“What?” He sounded very hopeful.
“Not me,” I snapped, then drew a deep breath. “It’s one of the other faculty. Eunice Blakely.”
“Oh. I liked her.”
“Yeah, well, she wants to lose her virginity this weekend and asked me to set the two of you up.”
Sid laughed. “Really? I’m honored.”
“She’s fifty-two years old.”
“Huh. A first-time experience at fifty-two? That sounds like a blast.”
I couldn’t help groaning. “Only you.”
“Why don’t you have her meet me at The Cider Keg at, say, seven-thirty?”
He sighed. “I am detecting a strong note of jealousy there.”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“I’d still rather be sleeping with you.”
“I know.” I bit my lip. “I just don’t want Eunice to get hurt. By the way, she is not looking for a relationship, so you should be clear on that end.”
“That’s good news. Don’t worry about it. Let her know about the meeting spot and I’ll take it from there.”
“Thanks.” I swallowed. “You know, I do appreciate that. My conscience is really screaming at me right now.”
“Well, you know how I feel about that, but I understand. It’s a little hard for you. You did the right thing.”
“I’m glad you think so. Anyway, I’ll talk to you later.”
I hung up with a half-hearted sigh, then dialed Eunice. She seemed quite pleased with the arrangements. Hanging up again, I looked around the apartment. It almost glowed, it was so clean. I groaned. I couldn’t believe I was upset enough to clean. I hate housework.
Hanging around the apartment was only making things worse. I stuffed the papers and grade book into my purse and took off on foot. The skies had cleared, and it was chilly. But in my Shetland wool sweater, I was just warm enough.
The downtown wasn’t that far away, and I went there first, ambling around looking at the shops. I found a yarn shop offering some nice worsteds on sale. I sank my hand into the balls, enjoying the feel of the wool. They’d been dyed the full range of colors, but I couldn’t help being attracted to a combination of two blues, a white and a light gray.
The next thing I knew, I was going through the pattern rack and found the perfect one: a man’s V-neck pullover with an argyle pattern. Sid loves sweaters, usually wearing them tied precisely about his shoulders. I looked back at the worsteds that had called me into the shop. The blue would play off his eyes beautifully. I slammed the pattern back onto the rack.
I did not want to be thinking about Sid. I forced myself to look at another pattern, but that argyle kept whispering to me.
I tried to tell myself that knitting a sweater for Sid could be a dangerous hint that I wasn’t who I claimed. After all, when you’re undercover, it’s those little details that can give you away. But that was ridiculous because my cover did include a family with male relatives back home. Nor did anyone have to know who I was making the sweater for. It could even have been for me. I’d certainly knitted up menswear for myself before.
The worst of it was, I knew I needed a project. Back home, I sew and knit all the time, and most of my clothes are homemade. I call it my therapy, and at that moment, I realized that having something to work on would probably help my mood. Sid was my best friend and Christmas wasn’t all that far away.
So, I picked up the pattern, bought all the balls I would need, plus a little bit more, needles, stitch markers, and a couple other tools. I left the store feeling much lighter in spirit while thinking of a way to explain why I hadn’t brought any knitting with me. Of course, the easiest answer was the best one. I’d already told Fran and Eunice that I’d left a lot of my books and furniture in storage back home until I knew where I wanted to land. Why not my knitting and sewing?
I headed back to the university. There was a hint of smoke in the air and I realized someone was burning leaves. That was the one downside of living in Los Angeles. You didn’t get a real sense of the seasons changing. Sid disagreed. He said the changes were simply more subtle. Perhaps, but I loved spring and fall back in Tahoe.
In my office, I got my papers out and set to work. The creative writing assignment was one of the easier ones to grade, too. Unless someone made a major boo-boo and it wasn’t obviously intentional, then he or she got full credit. Aside from exposing the students to different forms of writing, the assignment also gave most of them a boost.
I worked away happily, entering my grades into the computer as I marked the papers. No re-typing them. That was going to save a lot of time. Until I got to Ed Donaldson’s story. My gut still twisted as I looked at it. There was no way for me to look at it objectively. I’d always enjoyed Sid’s stories about his high school days, and I wondered if that had been why he’d chosen this particular one to write about. [Sort of. Mostly it was that I couldn’t think of anything else to write. – SEH] There were a couple minor misspellings and one sentence where the grammar was a little rocky, but it certainly qualified for full credit. So, I put an A on the page and into the computer and moved on.
It only took a couple more hours and the spelling quizzes were done and entered. The light from the windows grew orange with the sinking sun and the hall outside my office was in shadow. The light shone underneath the door to Max’s office. I knew that didn’t mean he was inside. I thought of a good excuse to bother him if he was there, put on my leather gloves, and knocked on his door.
No answer. I knocked again more loudly. Still nothing. Satisfied, I slipped the passkey into the lock, opened the door and slid in.
Max Beard looked up from his desk at the other end of the room and blinked.
“Max!” I yelped.
“Why are you here?” he asked, his voice sounding more curious than angry. “The door was locked.”
“I know.” I swallowed, feeling my face grow red.
Max stood up and came around to the front of the desk.
“How did you get in?” He was still more curious than anything, but I began to get a weird feeling.
“My key,” I said, lamely. “Um, you’re not going to believe this.” Smiling awkwardly, I moved toward the desk. “I think they gave me a passkey. I was going to Fran’s office the other day to enter grades and got in, then found out I didn’t have hers. I’d used mine. I hope you don’t mind. I thought you were gone, so I figured I’d just try it and see. I did knock first.”
He shrugged. “I don’t always answer because I don’t always want to be disturbed.”
“Oh.” I shifted, trying to subtly get a look at the papers on his desk. “Well, I’m really sorry.” I headed for the door. “And, uh, could you not mention the key? I don’t want Joe Cunningham to get mad at me again.”
“Wasn’t planning on it.” Max watched me leave.
I was trembling a little as I stood in the hall. Max did have a computer on his desk, and the back looked like it was wired to the university system, but I hadn’t been able to tell if it was on or not. I got my breath back and debated going home and getting dinner. But then I remembered that Ernie Lavalle had gone home for the weekend to Indianapolis to visit his mother. He’d been complaining about it all week.
I went upstairs to the third floor and found Ernie’s office. It was dark. I listened extra hard, but there was silence within. It was also empty when I opened the door. I made a point of pulling all the blinds and got out my small flashlight. The books were empty, his papers strictly related to his classes. I did find a couple small, empty syringes in the top drawer of his desk, which was a little odd. I looked through the trash can. There were no syringes among the scraps of paper and candy wrappers.
I went back to my office to get my purse, then went home. As I was coming in through the front, Fran came out of her apartment and invited me to have dinner with her at her place. We both agreed that we did not want to go into town and chance running into Eunice and Ed. Fran had rented Romancing the Stone and Splash from the video store and we watched both, munching on popcorn and eating ice cream.
By Sunday afternoon, I had recovered from my night of no sleep and my bad mood. I drove south this time and called Mae first. Then I called Nick. He sounded so down.
“Everything all right?” I asked.
“I’m okay. When are you and Dad getting back?”
I sighed. “We don’t know. As soon as we can, of course.”
“Okay. It’s just that…”
“I’m having bad dreams.”
“Oh, no! What’s the matter?”
“I had them when Grandma was dying and now, they’re back.”
“What are you dreaming, honey?”
Nick paused. “It’s just one dream, but I keep having it. I’m all alone, like I’m the very last person on the earth. And I’m running around trying to find somebody, but everybody’s gone.”
“You poor thing. Oh, honey. I’m sorry that I can’t be there in person. But you know what? I’ll always be around for you one way or another.”
“Are you and Dad getting married?”
I rolled my eyes. “We’ll have to see.”
“I wish you would. Or just move into his bedroom. I don’t care.”
“I wish it were that simple, kiddo. I know it’s not the way you want it. It’s not the way I want it, either. Life is like that sometimes. But we get through it and we’re better and stronger for it in the long run.”
“I know it’s hard to see it, but it’s true. Trust me.” I couldn’t help smiling, grateful that he couldn’t see me. Nick was utterly impulsive and only eleven years old, at that.
“I’ll call you next week, my sweet guy.”
I hung up and drove back to Appleton, thinking hard about Nick and Sid. I made it to Off Campus Office Hours almost an hour early.
Kathy Richards arrived early, as well.
“How are you doing?” I asked, keeping an eye on the door so that we could change the subject, if needed.
“Great!” Kathy said. “I swear, it is so wonderful being out of the closet.”
“What do you mean?”
“Not having to pretend I’m straight. We’re an arts school and a theatre department. Trust me, the concentration of lesbians and gays is way higher than normal. Nobody cares if I like girls, and several of them like me.” Kathy made a face. “I love the Code Factory, but I think when this is over, I’m going to ask for a transfer to San Francisco. Or maybe New York.”
I smiled. “I hope you get it.”
Then Rita Farley showed up, holding hands with Mark Ayers. The two of them practically glowed.
“Hi, everyone!” Mark announced. He was a slender young man with dark hair and big round brown eyes. It was easy to see why Rita was so taken with him.
“Looks like you two have had a good weekend,” I said.
“Yeah!” said Rita. “Where’s Terry? I want to say thank you.”
However, Ted Curtis was the next to show.
“Hey, Janet, what are you doing here?” he asked.
“Off Campus Office Hours,” I said. “It’s a more casual way for students to get help.”
Ted nodded and grinned. “What a great idea.”
“Good,” I said, grinning myself. “Then you can buy the next pizza.”
Terry and Steve both showed up at roughly the same time. Ed/Sid came in shortly after that, along with several kids from the other two Basic Comp sections. Marge Haver and Rick Waters, from the Shakespeare seminar showed up around half an hour late. Tim Hannaford did not show.
It was a lively meeting. Terry accepted Rita’s and Mark’s thanks blushing furiously. But she, too, had acquired a new confidence.
“Cover me,” she whispered at one point.
I wasn’t sure how or why, but then noticed some beer foam on her upper lip. Ed left with the other Basic Comp kids. Marge and Rick soon left, as well, leaving half a pitcher of beer on the table. Ted and Steve had gotten into some extended discussion on something or other. I figured if it were important, Steve would tell me. The two of them left together and soon the only people left at our table were Kathy, Terry, and me.
“Is there anybody here who knows us?” Terry asked.
“Nope,” said Kathy, after looking around the restaurant.
“Good. I need a drink.” Terry grabbed one of the few empty plastic glasses and the beer pitcher and poured herself one. “That is the worst part of pretending to be eighteen. Sneaking around for booze.”
“It’s the details that will get you killed,” I said, smiling in spite of the grim words.
“We’ll pretend this is Kathy’s, then, and I’m stealing it.” Terry took a long swallow. “Oh. Nirvana.”
“I’ve tasted better,” said Kathy.
“You haven’t been forced to be underage,” Terry said. She wiped her mouth. “I’ve got mail call. Lisa, can you get the guys theirs?”
“Sure,” I said.
Kathy swore. “Terry, why did you just call her Lisa?”
Terry and I just looked at each other and groaned loudly. I couldn’t believe I’d just responded to my real name.
“Terry?” I asked, my heart about to pound out of my chest.
Terry melted into herself. “Kathy, do you mind taking off?”
“No problem.” Kathy grabbed the manila envelope Terry had given her and hurried out of the restaurant.
“How do you…?” I looked at her.
“Know your real name?” Terry winced. “I’m systems. My job has been setting up payroll, things like that. I know everyone’s real names and their addresses.” She grinned. “He called me the most dangerous woman in Quickline.”
I winced at the name. “He would. Okay. But you just slipped. Do we need to take you off the case?”
Terry blinked and sat up straight. “No. I think there’s a reason I did. It was Friday night.”
“I do not want to know about Friday night.”
“It’s okay.” Terry smiled warmly and gently grabbed my hand. “Look, I know you two are not technically a couple. He made that clear.”
“As he should.” I tried not to start crying. “We’re not.”
Terry snorted. “He loves you.”
“So?” I was working hard at being casual, but every bit of my insides was squeezing the breath out of me.
Terry gaped. “You haven’t told him how you feel.”
“It doesn’t matter how I feel,” I said, then regretted it. I took a deep breath. “Look. In many ways, we have told each other how we feel. Maybe not in those specific words, but we have. Terry, there’s more going on than you could possibly know. This isn’t a freaking romance novel, where we say we love each other, and everything becomes moonlight and roses. I’m not going to say more because it’s none of your damned business, let alone, any need to know.”
Terry shrugged dismally. “I know. It’s just that…” She sighed. “I don’t know how to say this, because I don’t want you to feel like I got something you didn’t. But he gave me an amazing gift Friday night. Trust me, that’s all it was. I don’t want anything more. I really don’t. I just want to say thanks by helping him to what he really wants, and what he really wants is you.”
I squeezed my eyes shut. “I know. I wish it were that simple.” I opened my eyes and looked at her. “And I appreciate that you’re trying to help. I really do.”
“I told him to tell you he loves you.”
I sighed. “Thanks, Terry.”
The poor kid. Part of me wanted to pound the living daylights out of her for interfering. The other part of me couldn’t help but feel warmed by her desire to help, no matter how ineffectual it was.
“Seriously,” I said. “It’s sweet of you to put your hand in. But we’ll all be better off if you leave it out.”
She shrugged and handed me two manila envelopes. One had some mail for both Sid and me. The other had a letter for Tim Hannaford.
I got up, paid the bill for the pizzas and drinks, and left the restaurant.
Poor Terry. She had no idea. I looked back at the restaurant. Maybe part of the problem was me. Maybe holding out for fidelity was asking too much. There was no easy answer to that question, and for the moment, I wasn’t entirely sure I needed one. But I did need Sid. That much I knew.
[As I needed you. When Terry told me that I should tell you I loved you, I was not happy, to say the least. What really killed me though was that I later tried and couldn’t. – SEH]