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.
Sunlight filtered through the bars on the window as I awoke the next morning. I blinked my eyes. Terry stood at the door, listening. We’d been fed decently the night before, and we hadn’t been searched. They’d taken the blindfolds and hand cuffs off us right before they’d shoved us into the small room we were in.
We’d had to find the one twin bed in the dark, though. When we’d flipped the light switch no lights had come on.
It was very puzzling, although Terry and I hadn’t said much to each other. She had been very frightened, and I was glad. It made us look less like operatives.
“They bought it,” Terry whispered.
Terry put her finger to her lips, listened a minute more, then came over and sat next to be on the bed.
“They’re talking in Russian now,” she said softly. “But one of them just made a phone call. It was a ransom demand. The person on the other end is to turn over Max Beard or they’ll kill us. The weird thing is, they think we’re civilians.”
“Oh, thank God!” I made the sign of the cross. “We’ve got some time then.”
I looked out the window, but it overlooked a street. Most of the houses were the same yellow brick I’d been seeing everywhere, so I thought we were still in Wisconsin. We were also on a second floor with nothing between us and the pavement.
“How do you know?” Terry’s eyes were wide with fear.
“They’ll need us alive to exchange for Dr. Beard. And nobody likes killing civilians.”
I snorted. “It’s not fine feeling. Killing civilians calls attention to yourself. That’s what brought us in, remember? The two students?”
“But why us?” Terry swallowed.
I shrugged. “Wait. There was the party outside and we were the only ones in the building. They probably saw that the lights were on in my office. They needed hostages and figured we would be the easiest to get. How many on the other side?” I nodded at the door.
“Two. There was a third, but she left.”
I checked my watch. It was a quarter after seven. I pulled my bug finder from my pocket. Nothing was broadcasting. Then I did something that had Terry gaping. I opened up the sole of my running shoes.
“You can always hide something.” I looked at her. “You don’t faint at the sight of blood or anything like that, do you?”
“No,” she said, her voice shaking a little.
I pulled the small stiletto out of the chamber in the sole of my shoe, then got a small screwdriver out of the other sole and flipped both shoes shut.
“Here.” I handed her the stiletto. The smell of bacon wafted in through the door. “I think they’re going to feed us now. You ready?”
“Sure.” She trembled but set her chin in defiance.
I backed up against the wall next to the door. It swung open, covering me, and the university janitor came in with a plate of eggs and bacon. I shut the door behind him, and he turned toward me. Terry jumped on him and he howled as he got the stiletto in his kidneys. Spotting the handgun on his belt I grabbed it just as his partner came running in. I put a shot into his shoulder, then got his gun, as well.
I looked out the door. There was a big, furnished front room on the other side. I nodded and Terry followed me out of the little room we’d been in. I nodded and she shut the door and locked it. I didn’t think we had much time, but I took a quick look around anyway.
The phone was on an end table next to a brown sofa. Paper grocery sacks littered a dining room table just a bit further on. I picked up a binder and thumbed through the dot matrix paper inside. Not unlike the sheets I’d found in Eunice’s envelope, these sheets were filled with chemical formulae. I went over to the dining room table and noticed several emptied plastic produce bags laying there. I handed a couple to Terry.
“Keep these on your hands and do a quick search. I’ll call in the code nine.”
Code nine was the request for an arrest. After using two of the plastic bags to make the call, I put the binder and the guns I’d taken into one of the paper bags and grabbed a bag of potato chips for each of us.
“Let’s go. We’ve got to figure out where we are and how to get some money.” I opened the front door to the apartment slowly.
We slid out and down to the sidewalk, moving quickly but as casually as we could. A few blocks away, I found a gas station and went over to the phone booth. There was a phone book there, mostly decimated, but the cover was sufficiently intact.
“We’re in Madison,” I told Terry.
She looked around and pointed. “That must be the state house over there.”
The white dome and pinnacle towered over the other buildings. I gazed at it, my thoughts elsewhere. The address that I had found on Fran’s desk. It was in Madison. Suddenly, what had been so distinctive about it came to life. It had been written in pencil, and the point had made deep grooves in the paper. The way Max’s desk blotter had been grooved.
I blew out my breath and saw it fog in front of me. Terry shivered a little. The day was clear, but frosty.
“I think I know how we can get some money,” I told her.
“I have some in my pocket. About twenty dollars.”
“Well, let’s see what we can do with it,” I said, heading in the direction of the state house.
As I expected, the traffic was starting to grow, and I saw a couple taxis drive past. Looking back down the street, one approached with its light on. I waved it down and asked the driver how much it would cost to get to the address I’d seen on Fran’s desk.
“About fifteen bucks.”
“That’s fine.” I opened the back door and waved Terry in. “Let’s go.”
It took about twenty minutes to get there. Terry handed the driver her twenty and we got out of the cab in front of a medical building. The office I wanted was in the back on the second floor. Terry and I walked into the waiting room of an obstetrician’s office. Two women, one very pregnant, looked up curiously at us.
“Hi,” I told the receptionist. “We’re trying to find a friend of ours.”
“Name, please?” She was sweet looking, but with a jaw set like steel.
The phone buzzed next to her. Glaring briefly at us, she picked it up.
“Yes, sir,” she said into it, then hung up. She jerked a thumb over her shoulder. “Go down to the last door on the left.”
Terry was shocked to see Max Beard on the other side of the door. I was less so. The room had no windows and only a couple floor lamps lighting it up. It was filled with a bank of video monitors, including one showing the reception desk, along the far wall. Max was seated in an office chair next to the monitors.
“Why are you here?” Max asked, again more curious than anything.
“We were taken hostage last night,” I said. “By two KGB operatives. Terry, here, heard them making a ransom demand. Us for you.”
“As if that would work,” said Max.
“They thought we were civilians.” I sighed. “Look, we need to get back to Appleton as soon as possible, and I’m sure your friends in The Company will be happy to know that they don’t need to do any prisoner swaps. But…” I paused. “Fran Mercer is looking for Eunice’s killer. She said you told her to drop it, but that’s not stopping her.”
Max sighed. “I didn’t think it would.” He looked wistfully at me. “How is she?”
“Managing. She told me about the two of you.”
“She did?” Max suddenly looked positively animated. “Does she know your cover?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Did she tell you not to tell anyone else?”
“No.” I looked at him, completely puzzled.
“Hallelujah!” Max paced about the room. “It’s terrific.” He turned to me. “You see, she wanted to keep our relationship a secret, not me. She was afraid of giving Joe Cunningham another excuse to deny her tenure. If she told you about it and didn’t swear you to secrecy, then she doesn’t care about tenure anymore. She’s coming to me. I was so worried about that.”
I put the paper bag I still had on the floor. “She told me she’d talked to you but wouldn’t say how or what you said.”
“I called her at home that night. I told her that they were going to find my car in the river, but that I was all right.” Max sank into the desk chair happily. “I couldn’t explain much, but I did tell her that I had been doing work for the U.S. government. I had to escape because of what had happened to Ed Donaldson and Steve Carmona.” He grinned at me. “She doesn’t know Ed made it out okay. Anyway, I told her that I had to go into hiding, and that I wanted her to join me. She didn’t believe me, at first, but then I told her about the address I’d left on her desk that morning. I told her to send me a letter there when she was ready, and I’d set it up for her to come to me. She was worried about her students and finishing the quarter, so I said I’d wait. Which I am. I was just afraid she wouldn’t want to after all. But if she doesn’t care about tenure there, then she’s coming. She’s got to be.”
I had to smile. “Okay. I’m glad for you.” My stomach gurgled. I looked down at the paper bag and thought of something else. I pulled out the binder. “Max, does anything in this binder look familiar?”
He opened it and swore. “It’s the formula. But it’s not compiled into machine language. How the hell did that happen?”
Terry gulped. “Dr. Beard, did you have any of those files on the university system?”
“Yes. That’s how they get compiled into the machine language for the printouts. But I change my password every week, and it’s a strong random alpha-numeric one.”
I rolled my eyes. “Which doesn’t mean a thing if someone has gotten to the system administrator files with the passwords.” I looked at Terry. “You think somebody got one of those password programs?”
“What do you mean?” asked Max.
Terry sighed. “There are programs out there that will run every possible combination of alpha-numeric characters in a set number of digits which can basically try every possible password out there.”
Max swore. “But who?”
“That we don’t know,” I said. I thought about the dot matrix print outs from Eunice’s envelope. “Eunice probably did.”
“You don’t think…?” Max turned pale.
“No,” I said. “She was protecting you from what I’ve seen. I’m guessing it’s someone else on the campus, which is one of the reasons we need to get back to Appleton as fast as we can. And we need some cash to do it with.”
Max nodded. “That will be no problem.”
It did take about an hour, but by nine-thirty, Terry and I were in the back seat of a car heading up the interstate to Appleton. Max had seen to it that we’d gotten some breakfast, and we left with a couple hundred dollars in cash between us.
“I’m sorry,” Terry suddenly sobbed.
“For what?” I asked.
“It’s just that you were so scared last night, and that really scared me.”
“So?” I sighed. “They thought we were civilians. They wouldn’t have thought that if we hadn’t been acting scared.”
“But I really was.”
“So was I.” I put my arm around her shoulders. “But letting myself be scared has saved my butt more than once in this business. The key thing is, you didn’t let being scared cloud your thinking or make you afraid to act. I was impressed with the way you handled that stiletto. You’ll make a good operative yet.”
Terry sniffed. “I’m not sure I want to anymore.”
“We all feel that way sometimes.” I gave her a quick squeeze.
When we got back to Martin U., a hush had fallen over the campus. The bare trees waved their branches in the breeze. The lawn and walkways were empty of human life. The speakers from the night before had been removed, but there was a huge black hole in the center of the main lawn. Beer cans and bottles lay scattered here and there. I had the driver let Terry and me off near the computer center.
Now that we knew what we were looking for, it was a matter of looking at everyone’s accounts to see if we could find who had the formula files. Terry took one computer in the deserted center. I took one next to her. I logged into Eunice’s account first and was surprised to find the formula files there. Terry said she’d found some in Carson Osgood’s account. I got into Cunningham’s account and didn’t find any formula files but laughed out loud when I found a bunch of files with manuscripts by Leticia Petrie.
“What?” asked Terry.
“Oh, I think I’ve finally got Joe Cunningham by the short hairs,” I said. “Sadly, however, he doesn’t have the formula files.”
“Ted Curtis doesn’t, either.”
I logged into Ernie’s account. “Lavalle does.”
“So does Dwight Atwater.”
“Shavings.” I glared at the screen. “It looks like somebody uploaded the files into the accounts of several other people and deleted their copies.”
“Yeah.” Terry looked at me. “All the files with the formula were created today, about eight-thirty or so.”
“Right after we busted out of our prison.” I made a face, thinking. “All right, Terry. Why don’t you head back to your dorm? I’ll call you if I need anything.”
She sighed. “Okay. Are you going to be okay?”
I couldn’t help grinning. “I’m going to be fine. I haven’t had this much backup before, even with him.” I reached over and patted her arm. “You did a great job today. Thanks.”
Terry smiled, but still looked a little worried. Nonetheless, she left the computer center.
Once alone, I made my way back to Lawrence Hall and my office. I sighed when I saw Terry’s day pack in my desk, but that couldn’t be helped. The good news was that the envelope with Eunice’s evidence was undisturbed.
I pulled out the several sheets. There was a note buried in the mess.
“Fran,” it read. “I hope like hell we’ve already had our meeting, but just in case, I’ve blacked out my suspect’s name. It’s too dangerous right now. Once we have our plan in place, then all will be well. In the meantime, stay the hell away from Ilona Watts. As far away as you can.”
There was another sheet dot matrix sheet with a series of times and notes about how the subject had met with various people, including Ilona Swedburg. Okay, Ilona Watts. There was a photocopy of a news story about a KGB assassin who had been taken into custody about six years before. The picture gracing the article was of Ilona. But the most damning of all was a letter from a small university in Massachusetts, or rather a photocopy of the original letter.
“Dear Dr. Blakely,” it read. “Thank you for your enquiry into…” The name was blacked out. “We can confirm that he was a PhD candidate at our institution, finishing in 1975. However, shortly after his dissertation was passed, we discovered that he had falsified certain data that he had used to prove his thesis and rescinded his degree. We hope this answers your question. Sincerely…”
I looked at the sheet with the times and notes. One of the dates was September twenty-second, the evening after the canoeing party. It noted that Ilona Watts had shown up at the bar and the subject had disappeared shortly after. So, Eunice had been watching, too, that night.
At that point, I had a rather good idea of who our amateur under KGB control was. I only had one more question and the person who could answer it was in Los Angeles. It was just after three o’clock Wisconsin time, which meant one o’clock L.A. time. I probably shouldn’t have, but I used the phone on my desk to make the call. I did use one of our long-distance card codes to do it, though, which would make it harder to track.
He picked up after three rings.
“It’s me,” I told him.
“Hey. You doing okay?”
“Oh, fine. You?”
“Good enough. Not much going on around here, although I did touch base with a couple editors for more assignments. Looks like I’ll be pretty busy through the end of the month.”
“Nick’s coming in for the weekend tomorrow.”
“Oh, good. Tell him I love him, will you?”
“I do have a couple questions for you. Um. When Tim blew your cover, was there anyone else around besides what’s-his-name, Timorivich?”
“Yeah. That sociology professor. Come to think of it, I saw him a few times before the tailing team showed.”
“That does not surprise me. I think we’ve got some evidence, but this helps. I saw Max this morning.”
He chuckled. “Good. How’s he doing?”
“He was a little worried about his girlfriend.”
“Ah. Dr. Mercer.”
“He told you about that?”
“Oh, yeah. We had an extended conversation about being in love.” He sighed. “He and Terry Michaels both called me on it.”
“On my feelings for you.” He paused. “If it makes you feel any better, I’d like to put it that way, but it still feels like a line to me.”
“That’s okay. I mean that.”
“I know you do.” He paused again. “I miss you already.”
“I miss you, too.” I swallowed. “I may have this wrapped up, but I’ll probably have to stay through the end of the quarter. My students, you know, not to mention my cover.”
He laughed. “I love it. Students first, then your cover.”
“What can I say? I’ll call on Sundays. Will that work?”
“I’ll make it work.”
“Thank you, honey.”
“I’ll see you by Thanksgiving.”
“I’m looking forward to it.”
I hung up. I spent another hour or so mulling over ways to handle the situation, but then, eventually, picked up the phone and dialed Fran at home. She’d been worried when I hadn’t called her the night before. I told her I’d fallen asleep in my office and she bought it.
I must give Fran a lot of credit. Once she saw all the evidence that Eunice had gathered, she came up with an almost sensible plan for how to deal with it.
“Shouldn’t we call Sergeant Renecke?” I asked her the next morning as we waited in her apartment. We’d both called in sick that day and our classes had been canceled.
“I already did.” Fran snorted. “He didn’t entirely take me seriously. He just told me to not do anything dangerous.”
“Which is exactly what I think we’re about to do,” I said.
Fran shrugged. “I think we can handle it. You took down Ernie at Eunice’s funeral with no problem.”
I rolled my eyes. “Self-defense class. This is different.”
“Don’t be such a worry wart. We’ll be fine.”
“I sure hope so.”
The knock on Fran’s door came a little late, but when Fran opened it, Ted was there. I surreptitiously turned on the cassette recorder hidden under the coffee table.
“Come on in, Ted,” she said. “I’ve got tea ready. Would you like a cup?”
“Uh, sure.” Ted wandered into the living room.
Thanks to the many years Fran had been at Martin U., her apartment was much more nicely decorated than mine. There were some good prints on the walls. She had a lovely mix of antiques and modern furniture in her living room. Ted settled on the dark blue velvet couch, while I landed in the overstuffed chair on one end and Fran sat in the matching chair on the opposite end of the couch. Fran poured the tea from a pot that she’d set on the end of the coffee table in front of the couch and handed Ted the cup.
“Here’s the problem, Ted,” Fran said. “As you know, Eunice invited Janet and me and a couple other folks to a meeting the night she died.”
“Yeah.” Ted squirmed a little but didn’t give anything away.
“We didn’t know what the meeting was about,” Fran continued. “Until we found an envelope in my office yesterday. Turns out there was a pile of evidence that implicated you in stealing some sort of chemical formula from Max Beard.”
Ted turned pale, but laughed, nonetheless. “Me? What would I know about any sort of formula?”
“That is the question, Ted,” I said. “However, you had told me about some fudged data in your past and part of the evidence is a letter from your alma mater that says your degree was rescinded because you had falsified data.”
“It wasn’t.” Ted put the cup down. “I fixed it. I told you.”
“Then why would Eunice be tracking your every contact with Ilona Watts?” Fran asked. “The funny thing is, Ilona apparently works for the KGB. You do know what that is, don’t you, Ted?”
“Everyone knows what the KGB is,” Ted snorted. “Ilona has nothing to do with them.”
“Then explain this,” I said, handing him the photocopy of the news story about Ilona. “I’m sorry, Ted, but we have to believe that Eunice had figured out that you were stealing Max’s formula, whatever that was, and that was why you killed her.”
“I didn’t kill her!” Ted bounced up, then sank onto the couch. “I didn’t.”
I shook my head. “Then why were you there that night?”
“Who said I was there?” Ted gasped.
“Oh, come on, Ted,” Fran snapped. “Who else could it have been?”
“Anybody! Not me!” Ted looked frantic.
“Right.” I rolled my eyes. “Eunice was tracking your every contact with Ilona Watts. Why would she if she didn’t suspect you were up to no good?”
“And the letter we have from your alma mater says they rescinded your doctorate,” Fran continued without mercy. “They didn’t say anything about you fixing your data.”
“I didn’t want to kill her.” He started sobbing. “They made me. They made me do everything. They came after me when my dissertation was rescinded. Told me that they could make it all right if I would be willing to do the odd chore or two for them. They sent me here to spy on Max. I didn’t think it was that big a deal. I mean, it was Max, for God’s sakes. The ultimate space cadet. I have no idea what he was working on. I just knew they were in his system files and they were important.”
“But what about his students?” I asked.
“The students? I had to kill them. I really didn’t want to do it, but they said I had to.”
“Why Eunice?” Fran glared at him.
His shoulders collapsed. “She caught me setting up an ampule of nerve agent in her house. I’d never killed anybody directly before. But I had to. She knew about me and was going to tell everyone else. If my handlers found out, I’d be dead. I had to do it.”
I sighed. “What about Steve Carmona and Ed Donaldson?”
“Them, too.” Ted sniffed. “I mean, I didn’t mean to kill Steve. And I did call in the alarm on the fire. I didn’t want to hurt anybody else.” He got up suddenly. “I still don’t, but you’re forcing me to.”
He pulled a pistol from the back of his pants. Okay, I had one strapped to my shin, but wasn’t sure how I was going to get it pulled and ready with Fran there. Not to mention before Ted could shoot us both.
“Ted, we believe you,” I said in as calm a voice as I could manage. “It obviously wasn’t your fault.”
I approached him. He backed up toward the hallway to the back of the apartment.
“No!” he screamed. “Don’t make me use this!”
“We don’t want you to,” I said, again trying to force my voice to sound soothing. “We want you to come out of this alive. Really. We do.”
“I have to kill you,” Ted sobbed. “They’ll kill me.”
“We’ll find a way to keep you safe,” Fran said.
Ted continued backing up into the hallway, right into Sergeant Renecke’s arms. I concentrated on keeping my face blank until Renecke bumped into Ted. The gun went off and both Fran and I screamed. But the bullet went into the ceiling and before we knew it, Renecke had Ted in handcuffs.
I turned on Fran. “Renecke’s been here the whole time?”
“I couldn’t have you giving him away to Ted.” Fran shrugged.
I snorted and got the tape from the recorder and handed it to Renecke.
“Thanks,” the cop said. “This should help a lot.”
I glared at Fran as Renecke pulled Ted from the apartment. A minute later, we heard two gunshots. Fran and I ran to the window. Renecke was bent over Ted, who had fallen back-first onto the sidewalk. Another minute later, I saw Ilona Swedburg Watts walking away down the street with a musical instrument bag over her shoulder.