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.
My plan was to spend most of the week hunkered down in my apartment preparing for my classes. But there were two events that I was going to have to come up for air to attend.
Tuesday morning, I woke up late and had to scramble to get dressed for my meeting with Dr. Joseph Cunningham, the Humanities Department Chair. I’d been assured it was mostly a formality, but I still put on the one nice skirt suit I’d brought. I drove to the campus and promptly regretted it.
Martin University was a small collection of brick buildings with white columns in the fronts, surrounding lush lawns and huge, old trees of different sorts. The music conservatory was the one exception. It was modern and huge, with a glass dome and steel walls. It sat on the far eastern end of the campus. The rest of the buildings were grouped around a large white, Greek Revival building that was Petrie Hall, or the administration building.
Parking there was a nightmare. The one road that wove around the campus slid in and out of wooded nooks that screened tiny lots, all filled with cars. The only lot that wasn’t full was festooned with signs warning of the dire consequences if one even thought about parking there without the appropriate sticker in the window. I sighed. The quarter hadn’t even begun.
I muttered a prayer to St. Anthony, and on my second go-round, a car pulled out of a slot in the visitor parking next to Petrie. I grabbed my purse and hurried inside to get all the appropriate paperwork signed and my parking pass paid for before my meeting with Cunningham.
I got to Cunningham’s office on the first floor of Lawrence Hall right on time for our meeting. Cunningham’s secretary, Eliza Spinetti, a waspish looking woman with dark hair and glasses on a chain, informed me that the Chair was not in yet, and told me to take a seat to wait for him. I waited twenty minutes, thanking God that we didn’t have to deal with these kinds of petty politics in the spy business, mostly because we almost never worked with our colleagues.
Dr. Cunningham finally swept into the office. He was a portly man, with brown hair that had gone gray at the temples, dressed in a dark wool three-piece suit with a white carnation in his lapel, a blue and gold tie, and a matching color in his top pocket. I stood and smiled, trying not to think about how much more gracefully Sid would have and did pull that look off. [A carnation? No. Far too over the top. – SEH]
Cunningham addressed Ms. Spinetti first, then finally deigned to notice me.
“Janet,” he said with a fake smile. “You’ve completed your paperwork?”
“I have. I was told you’ll give me a tour of the facilities, then get me my keys, course lists, and grade sheets.”
Cunningham cleared his throat. “Miss Spinetti will take care of you.” He looked at the secretary. “Won’t you, dear?”
“Yes, Dr. Cunningham.” Ms. Spinetti fidgeted with her wedding ring.
He turned back to me. “Good to have you on board, Janet. But before I forget, we do need to amend your course outline for the Shakespeare seminar. The course description specifically lists the plays Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, and Titus Andronicus as the topics of study. I would appreciate a copy of your new outline on my desk by Thursday morning.”
I forced another smile, wondering how far I wanted to push my new boss. I seriously doubted the course description had mentioned those plays and the only textbook that had been ordered that I knew of was a Complete Works of Shakespeare. On the other hand, some battles were simply not worth fighting.
“I’ll do what I can,” I said. “Given that I was planning on teaching Hamlet, Richard the Third, and The Tempest—”
“Surely you’re comfortable with the listed plays.”
“Of course, I am. But I will have to re-familiarize myself with the nuances of each. Will Friday afternoon be good enough?”
He sniffed. “It will have to do.”
He swept into his office and shut the door.
Ms. Spinetti sighed as she got up, then looked at me. “Sorry to be such a grump on your first day here, but working with him…”
“I can well imagine,” I said.
She pulled a split ring containing five brass keys from the top of her desk and motioned me out into the hallway.
“Your office is upstairs on the second floor.” She held up a key. “This is the key to the building, so that you can get in at night and be sure you lock up after you. It’s been a real problem around here.”
She led me upstairs, explaining how to get to the faculty dining room in the Commons Building, reminding me that grades were to be entered into the computer system weekly during the course of the quarter and that the computer would see to averaging them out at the end and assigning a class grade to each student.
“Classrooms are on the left,” she said as we turned into the long corridor filled with wooden doors with frosted glass windows, some lit, others not. Small bulletin boards were posted next to the doors on the side of the building that overlooked the front.
Ms. Spinetti went on. “Offices are on the right. Here’s the key to yours. There will be a fifty-dollar charge if you lose it.”
I smiled. She didn’t know that I already had pass keys to every building on campus. But then, she wasn’t supposed to know.
She opened the door into an airy space with three casement windows along one side. It was huge, bigger than my bedroom at the apartment. The bookshelves were half-full of volumes left behind by my various predecessors. The ancient wood desk’s edges had been rounded smooth by years of use and was filled with office supplies and all sorts of ephemera. The plaster walls held prints of Shakespeare and Wordsworth. Thomas Hardy glared at me from the wall in front of the desk. In between shelves and prints, notices of campus events and deadlines from years before had been taped to the walls.
“We can get you a computer, but it will not be hooked up to the campus system. Cunningham wants to be sure you survive a couple quarters before coughing up to wire this office.”
I looked around in awe. “Yeah, I’ve heard you guys have a turnover problem.”
Ms. Spinetti snorted. “And the reason why is downstairs. Come on. I’ve gotta get you your course lists and grade sheets.”
She locked the door again and started back down the hallway.
“This last key goes to your locker at the campus sports club. It’s a full luxury facility, complete with basketball, squash, and racquetball courts, two inside tracks, swimming pool, weight room, saunas and steam rooms, stationary bikes and treadmills.” She couldn’t have sounded more bored. “One of the donors had it built a couple years ago because he was worried the students weren’t getting enough exercise. They decided to make a membership a perk for faculty members. A complete waste of time and money if you ask me. No one ever uses it, not even the people who should.”
We’d gotten back to Cunningham’s suite and she glared at Cunningham’s closed door.
“Oh, and it’s Mrs. Spinetti.”
I smiled at her. “Well, thank you for the tour, Mrs. Spinetti. It was very nice of you.”
She handed me my course lists and grade sheets and the keys and went back to her desk without another word.
I went back to the administration building to find that my ID card was ready for me, so from there, I went to the library and stayed there until after dark. I did leave for about a half hour in the middle of the afternoon to visit the Faculty Dining Room in the Commons. Another perk for faculty was that they could eat at the dining room for free. It wasn’t much of a perk. The portions were insanely small. Even portions at home, which were always small by Sid’s decree, were bigger. I was going to buy something extra at the Commons, but they were only set up for student meal plans.
I was starving by the time I left the library and stopped at the nearest burger place to load up on a double cheeseburger, onion rings, and a shake. I brought it all home and went back to work.
The next morning, Fran was at my door by ten to help me move into my office before the Faculty Luncheon. I told her my nerves were about fitting in and not ruffling feathers. In truth, I was terrified that I’d be found out as a complete fraud among all the other scholars. Fran insisted I’d be fine and told me not to get any more dressed up than I would for class. She was wearing khakis and a mint-green polo shirt, so I opted for a similar outfit, although I did wear my armored running shoes. They looked like ordinary running shoes, but the soles could be popped open to reveal a variety of small tools and weapons. Fran and I walked to the university, with me carrying a good-sized load of books in my backpack for my new office.
“That’s Petrie Hall, the first building built when the college was founded in 1879,” Fran explained as we walked to Lawrence. “Not only has it got the university admin offices, but it also houses the computer science department because that’s where the main computers are. Did you get any time to go through Lawrence Hall?”
“Not much,” I said. “Mrs. Spinetti showed me my office, then dismissed me.”
“I thought Cunningham was supposed to give you the tour.”
“He was twenty minutes late for our meeting, then dumped everything on Mrs. Spinetti.”
Fran sighed. “I hope you don’t get too discouraged by them. Martin U. is a lovely place, and most of the faculty is genuinely nice. But you’re right, Cunningham is a little bent out of shape about how you got hired. The chancellor insisted that he take you.”
“Really?” I swallowed. I wondered if Cunningham also knew why I was there.
“Cunningham is a dyed-in-the-wool chauvinist pig.” Fran said, then blinked. “Oh, and he is to be addressed as Dr. Cunningham at all times. The chancellor, however, knows that we stand to lose a boat-load of grant funding if we don’t hire according to Affirmative Action principles.”
So that was how my hiring had been manipulated. I had wondered. After all, someone in the school administration had to know I was there under cover. But I trusted my bosses. They knew how to make these things happen, and what they did, I didn’t have Need to Know.
I was gasping a little as I opened my office door. I couldn’t help but smile as I saw it.
Fran blinked and glared. “They didn’t even get you a computer?”
“Apparently, they want to see if I’m going to stick around before wiring this office.” I put my bag down on the desk. “I think the first thing I’m going to do is get rid of that print of Thomas Hardy.”
“I wouldn’t,” said Fran.
“The ghost of Sherman Pendergast.”
“He’s the only Humanities faculty that’s been here longer than Bob Farnsworth. Or was.”
My eyes opened wide. “I’m only an associate professor. How did I get the office of a full-tenured prof?”
“Because Pendergast died in this office.” Fran laughed. “The story goes that it took a week to find him. Since then, every new English prof gets the Pendergast office and woe to him if he gets rid of Thomas Hardy.”
“I loathe the work of Thomas Hardy.” The words slipped out before I could check myself, although I knew at least two of my English professors had felt the same way.
The worst of it was my stomach was roiling. The previous summer, things had gotten, well, traumatic doesn’t even begin to describe it. [That’s right. We weren’t calling it PTSD yet. – SEH] It sounds weird, but I have this thing about dead bodies. I can’t handle them. I know, given the business I’m in, you’d think I’d be able to handle them. But I’d always had Sid around to help me when the stiffs had shown up. I couldn’t count on that this time.
I took a deep breath. “Do you think Professor Pendergast would object if I simply shifted Mr. Hardy to another place in the office? Maybe someplace that still shows respect, but where I don’t have to look at him glowering at me?”
Fran grinned. “Probably the most diplomatic solution yet.”
We swapped around the various prints until my view from the desk included William Shakespeare and Mr. Hardy glowered at the room from a spot next to the door. I’m not normally superstitious. In fact, my religious beliefs don’t, technically, allow me to be. So, I justified it by telling myself that I didn’t want that kind of distraction, and given that I didn’t need those kinds of distractions, it was probably just as well.
Unfortunately, the wall adjustments did make Fran and me somewhat late for the luncheon. Fran insisted that it wasn’t a problem, that we would hardly be the only ones late, and that most of the faculty would be trying to get out of there as soon as they could.
“I’d better warn you, portions are really small around here,” Fran whispered. “We’ll go get a real lunch after the speeches.”
Fran was right. Most of the other faculty were still milling about the Faculty Dining Room chatting when we arrived, and we were hardly the last to. My arrival did raise a couple eyebrows. After all, I was one of three new faculty members. The other two were in the music conservatory and art department, respectively, and I was fairly certain they’d been hired through normal channels.
Fran, bless her, made a point of sticking close to me and introducing me around to the sciences and math staff. Only one of the professors stood out, Dr. Steve Carmona. He was a tall man, with reddish hair, horn-rimmed glasses, and a decided tendency to stoop. But the real reason he’d stood out was that I’d seen him before back in Los Angeles, only without the stoop or the glasses.
“Are you new as well?” I asked him.
He laughed. “Nah. I’ve been here at least ten-something years.” He shook my hand. “Good to have you aboard, though.”
I moved on. A small man, somewhere in his middle forties, slid up next to me, and ran his hand through dark hair that had the flat dullness of a bad dye job.
“May I have the honor of sitting next to you at lunch today?” he asked with a leer.
The back of my neck tingled.
“She’s already sitting with Fran and me,” said a tall, imposing woman with gray hair and a twinkle in her eye.
She stood next to Fran and the two laughed softly as the smaller man sniffed and moved off.
“And that was Ernie Lavalle, Poli Sci,” Fran said. “He thinks he’s the department Don Juan.”
I smiled. “I take it he’s not.”
“That is painfully obvious,” said the older woman.
“To everyone but him.” I replied.
The older woman looked at me with a warm smile. “Your repartee is quite good. You’ll do well here. I’m Eunice Blakely, History, and the department old maid.”
Fran rolled her eyes. “You’re not even fifty-two.”
“But I am the oldest single person on the staff,” Eunice said. “It’s a distinction I’m coming to enjoy, especially since it keeps Ernie at bay.”
A little bell rang, and the room filled with the sound of chairs scraping the wood floor as people went to their department tables. Fran and Eunice directed me to the Humanities table. It was one of the smaller ones. Fran and Eunice introduced me to everyone, but I only caught the two names of the other two history professors, possibly because they were sitting next to Eunice, on the other side from me, and Fran, who had taken a place across from me. Max Beard had landed next to Fran, but the medium-sized, balding man, seemed to barely notice that she was there. Eunice, for her part, kept her focus on me rather than the man on her other side, Ryan Martin, mostly because Martin kept laughing loudly and too long at stuff that wasn’t funny.
Dr. Cunningham came up and put his hands on Fran’s shoulders.
“Ah, Janet.” He took a deep breath, filling out his round form even fuller. “I should warn you about these two troublemakers.” He fake-smiled at Eunice and squeezed Fran’s shoulders. “They are not the best examples to follow if you want to make tenure here.”
“Blow it out your ass, Joe,” Eunice said. “It’s been years since anybody has stuck around here long enough to for the tenure committee to notice.”
“There’s Fran,” Max said suddenly. He glared at Cunningham, then went back to contemplating his food.
Cunningham smiled and removed his hands from Fran’s shoulders. “All the same, Janet, it doesn’t hurt to be discerning when it comes to choosing one’s companions.”
“That’s why we warned her about you,” Eunice’s tone was blithe, but her eyes snapped at the older man, who huffed off. Eunice looked at Fran. “You did warn her, didn’t you?”
“I couldn’t,” said Fran.
But then the president of the university got himself to his feet and called for order. He introduced the department heads, some with more reverence than the others, with Eunice commenting softly. As the president spoke on the honor of serving the arts, Eunice muttered the same speech right along with him. It was no small trick to keep a straight face, and I didn’t dare look over at Fran. At the same time, I couldn’t help but worry. For all Cunningham tried to pretend to be jovial, there was pure malice behind his teasing.
I asked Eunice about it later that afternoon as she, Fran and I ate our second lunch at Gianotti’s, a nearby pizza parlor.
“Joe Cunningham is a wart,” Eunice said. “A carbuncle.”
“Eunice,” Fran groaned. “Does anybody even know what a carbuncle is anymore?”
She shrugged. “The easy answer is Joe Cunningham.”
“Yeah, but why the animosity?” I asked. “He was really nasty to you two today. And you asked Fran if she’d warned me about him.”
Eunice glared at Fran. “And you said you couldn’t.”
“The chancellor asked me not to. He must be writing grants again.
Fran nibbled at a piece of pizza. “I did tell Janet that he’s a male chauvinist pig.”
Eunice snorted. “He is a blight, a stain upon the hallowed halls of academia.”
“I noticed,” I said. “But why?”
“He has tried to ruin the career of every woman academic who has come to Martin. Poor Fran, here, would have gotten tenure anywhere else two years ago.”
“I’m supposedly on the tenure track.” Fran’s blinking grew worse. “I feel like I’m not even in the station, thanks to him. And all because I turned him down when he wanted a little fun and games.”
“Fortunately, I already had tenure when Joe became the department head.” Eunice held up her glass of iced tea. “To Sherman Pendergast, another male chauvinist pig, but one who could recognize brilliance when he saw it.”
“Maybe I should just go to U-Dub.” Fran wiped her eyes with her napkin.
“And start all over again?” Eunice asked. “Joe Cunningham is hanging on by a thread and he knows it. One more harassment complaint and he’s toast.”
“Really?” I asked. “He wasn’t exactly nice to me yesterday, but I wouldn’t call it harassment.”
“Trust me, he’s only biding his time,” said Eunice.
“No,” snorted Fran. “He doesn’t want to get in trouble with the chancellor after he sent what’s-her-name screaming three days before classes started.”
“Believe me.” Eunice leaned in close. “The turnover in young academics around here is phenomenal. Most of them are just trying to polish up the resume and get some easy teaching credits before going seriously tenure-track at a more prestigious institution. But the lovely young ladies, like you, they rarely last more than a quarter.”
“Why hasn’t the university gotten sued?” I asked, my mouth open.
“Oh, but they have,” said Eunice. “I have personal confirmation on that one, at least twice. They settled and hushed it up to keep the enrollment numbers up. That’s why they can’t get rid of him. If they own up to what he’s been doing, all those nice rich girls are going to go someplace else with Daddy’s nice, green money. And do you want to know the worst part of all this? Cunningham is a terrible historian. History was his game before he became administration. Sloppy end notes. He comes to conclusions that are trite and were discredited years before. He can’t even be bothered to verify the primary documents!” Eunice jabbed the table with her forefinger.
“I think she gets it, Eunice.” Fran rolled her eyes at me.
“I could understand if he were studying pre-Conqueror England,” Eunice went on, nonetheless. “That documentation is scarce, and the grad students don’t always know where to look. But he’s an American Civil War man! There is absolutely no excuse not to check and verify your primary documents.”
Fran looked apologetically at me. “She’s even worse when she’s drunk.”
I couldn’t help laughing. “Oh, dear.”
“And do not be afraid of him.” Eunice sat up straight. “I can and will protect you, just like I protect Fran. She will get tenure here if she wants it. And if you like it here, I will see to it that you do, too.” Eunice paused. “Assuming, of course, that you publish on schedule, your scholarship is sound, and you keep up on the teaching. Those are, after all, the appropriate criteria for tenure.”
I grinned. “I’ll do my best, Eunice.”
Eunice drove us home the long way, lecturing me in a genial way about the town’s history and the people that had settled there.
“Are you a Nineteenth Century person?” I asked.
“Pshaw. No. Obviously, I teach it all, especially Northern European History.”
“What most places call World History,” Fran said.
Eunice snorted again. “Utterly typical of the Northern European male mindset. I mostly publish on the English Civil War era. In fact, I’m getting some traction on women’s daily life during the Jacobean and Civil War periods. That’s my real interest, but it’s hell getting the journals to take that one on. And I’ve been dabbling in late Medieval Lowlands. You know, the area that would become Belgium. We have a large Belgian population in Wisconsin, and late Medieval, early Renaissance was certainly the area’s heyday.” She looked at me. “And you?”
I was prepared for that question. “I did my dissertation on feminist tropes in Hamlet.” I shuddered. “I’m sorry, I’m still too traumatized by the oral defense to even think about it.”
It worked. Both Eunice and Fran laughed loudly and went on to share their own horror stories about having to defend their dissertations, then the ridiculous nonsense that they’d chosen to write about.
“How did we get away with such chicanery?” Eunice asked as we pulled into the driveway at Fran’s and my place.
“I don’t know about you,” Fran said. “But when I think about what the boys got away with. Good lord, what B.S. And David Watts. He’s still talking up his dissertation on… What benighted poet is he so excited about?”
“Gerard Manley Hopkins.” Eunice’s eyes rolled. “It’s not bad stuff, and certainly has a ring to it within the context of his Jesuit origins. But the way David goes on about the sexual metaphors says a hell of a lot more about David’s relationship with the Catholic Church than Hopkins’ relationship.”
I shrugged. “Hopkins had a few issues, but then, I’ve yet to read a Victorian poet who didn’t.”
That got another good laugh. Eunice grinned at me.
“Yes, darling. You’ll do very well here. Would you do me the enormous favor of avoiding Ernie Lavalle and Joe Cunningham like the plague and stick around? We could use another good broad, and I mean that in the kindest way.”
“Of course, Eunice.” I smiled at her, my heart filling in spite of myself. “I’ll do my best.”
Fran cocked her head. “What brought you out here, anyway? If I read your CV right, you were at UCLA.”
“I was an adjunct at UCLA and not even able to make rent without a roommate,” I said, again ready for that question. Adjuncts were generally part-time staff and at the bottom of the academic food chain. “The broken heart didn’t help, either.”
Fran winced and blinked. “I completely understand that one. Eunice, do you want to stretch this into dinner?”
“I would dearly love to. Alas, I’m teaching a new course on Elizabeth I and have barely gotten the syllabus together. And I don’t doubt that Janet, here, is in similar trouble.”
“I am,” I said. “My Basic Comp outline is in good shape. But I’ve had to completely redo the outline for the Shakespeare seminar. According to Joe Cunningham, the course description includes Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, and Titus Andronicus, and he told me yesterday to stick to those plays.”
Both women recoiled in horror.
“That would be one of Joe’s tricks,” Eunice sighed. “Well, good night ladies. Flights of angels sing thee to thy sleep.”
I sniggered as Fran and I got out of the car. “I don’t know if you realize it, but you’re using the singular familiar for the second pronoun.”
“What?” asked Eunice.
“Thee and thou,” I said. “They’re basically the singular familiar form of you. How the two got blended I don’t know, but back in Shakespeare’s time, they were separate, like tu and vous in French, and tu and usted in Spanish.”
Eunice laughed loudly and waved as she pulled out.
“Really?” Fran asked, still laughing.
“Yep. Little known fact,” I said.
“Eunice is right. You’ll do very well here.”
Fran waved at me as she went into her apartment. I mounted the stairs. I did try to be as quiet as I could, but three steps up, I realized there was no hope of avoiding any noise. So, I just went upstairs.