Summary: Billy resumes his cover as a jazz musician to help a Russian pianist seeking asylum, but what begins as a routine defection ends up being considerably more complicated than anyone bargained for.
Timeline: Late fourth season, occurring sometime after "One Flew East", but before "A Matter of Choice". Amanda has fully recovered from her gunshot wound and is back in the field.
Author's notes: I wanted to contribute a late fourth season story that includes a great deal more of Amanda, and further explores Jamie's reluctance to accept Lee. Thanks to Patty for assistance with details. Feedback is always welcome.
Rating: PG, for violence.
It was Sunday afternoon, and the weather was finally changing. Amanda Stetson had been hoping it would. So far, the spring had been warm and dry, and the mid-Atlantic states needed moisture badly. As she pulled into her driveway, Amanda reached up and rubbed her chest, where she had been critically wounded more than two months before. She parked next to the house and turned off the engine. She squirmed in the driver's seat, in an effort to scratch a corresponding scar on her back, where Norton Scott's bullet had exited her body.
Although she had to deal with it on a regular basis, she didn't particularly enjoy being reminded of her injury. The dry weather, though, made her scars itch like crazy, and she was very aware of them at that particular moment. She was ready for some of her vitamin E ointment, and she was more than ready for some rain. She looked through her windshield at the sky. A big storm was on the way, and the forecast had said the rain might last all week. As a few fat drops began to splatter against the windshield, Amanda quickly got out of the Jeep. Grabbing her keys and purse and a big bag of groceries, she locked the Wagoneer and hurried into the house.
As Amanda came in with her armload of groceries, she spotted Jamie on the sofa, surrounded by several loose pages of blank notebook paper, and seemingly engrossed in a thick novel. "Hi, Sweetheart," she greeted him. "Where is everybody?"
"Hi, Mom. Grandma's upstairs. She said to tell you she's going out later. Phillip's over at Lee's."
Amanda was a little surprised. "At Lee's?"
"Yeah, they're watching a basketball game. Lee's going to bring him home after the game's over. Grandma said it was okay for him to go."
"Of course it was okay for him to go. But, Jamie, why didn't you go, too?" She put the groceries down and raised an eyebrow at him. "Are you still having problems with Lee?"
"No, Mom, I'm not. What I am having problems with is this stupid book report for English. It's due tomorrow, and I really need to work on it."
She looked at him skeptically. Combined years of experience as a mother and an agent told her that her son wasn't being entirely honest with her, but her instincts also told her that now wasn't the time to push him. "Well, I guess it's just going to be you and me for supper, then. I've got some stuff here for burgers. How does that sound?"
"That'll be okay, I guess. Need any help?"
"No, just keep working on your book report. I'll call you when everything's ready."
Phillip and Lee arrived a couple of hours later, shaking glistening raindrops from their hair. They were laughing as they came through the door, engaged in a playful banter about the game they'd been watching, and the upcoming playoffs. Amanda couldn't help smiling to herself as her husband walked into the house. She wondered if she'd ever become accustomed to seeing Lee use the front door.
"It'll be the Pistons and the Lakers," Phillip was saying.
"The Celtics and the Lakers," Lee corrected him.
"No way Boston can beat Detroit! The Celtics are a bunch of old guys!" Phillip countered, as he gave Lee a friendly punch in the arm.
"Old guys!?" Lee said, playfully grabbing Phillip around the neck and scrubbing the top of his head with his knuckles. "You sure you want to talk about old guys?"
"Okay, okay, I give!" Phillip laughed. "But it's another month till the playoffs. I guess we'll find out then . . . Hey, you know what?" he began as he ducked out from under Lee's arm and stepped out of easy reach. "They'll be a whole month older by then!"
Lee shot him a look, then laughed after him as he ran up the stairs. He took off his damp jacket and dropped it onto the coffee table. Noticing the expression on Amanda's face, he quickly retrieved the wet coat and took it to the kitchen where he hung it on the back of a chair. "Hi," he said, leaning over to greet his wife with a kiss.
"Hi, yourself," she said, setting aside her magazine and pulling him down next to her on the sofa. "Did you two have a good time?"
"Yeah, it was fun. He's a great kid."
"He's your kid," Amanda reminded him.
"Yeah." Lee laughed softly and shook his head. "Pretty amazing, huh?"
"Yes, it is," she agreed, pulling him close and kissing him again. "So did you get your kid something to eat?"
"We had a pizza delivered. I hope that was okay . . ."
"Oh, sure, that's fine." Amanda picked up her magazine again and began to flip through the pages.
"What happened to Jamie?" Lee wondered.
"He went upstairs after we ate. Something about a book report for English."
"Yeah, that's the story I got, too."
Amanda looked at him. "Sounds like you don't believe him, either."
"Phillip knows some of the other kids in Jamie's English class. He said that their book reports aren't due for another two weeks. You know, if Jamie didn't want to come with us, he could have just said so." Lee sat forward dejectedly, his forearms resting on his knees. "It's me again, isn't it?"
"I honestly don't know, Lee. He isn't talking."
"Amanda, I can't figure it out." He turned to face her. "I've bent over backwards trying to get to know Jamie, trying to get to be friends with him . . . I get along great with Phillip; why can't I get through to Jamie? I thought we were doing okay, and now this happens. I must be doing something wrong; I just don't know what it is."
Amanda leaned forward, putting her hands on her husband's shoulders. "Lee, don't beat yourself up over this. It's not your fault. I know this is hard for you, but I know Jamie, and I'm sure he'll come around. It's just going to take some time."
Lee nodded slowly, hoping that Amanda was right. "Okay," he conceded. "But doesn't it bother you that he's lying to you? To us, I mean?"
"Lee," she began. "He's a child, not a criminal. Yes, it bothers me when either one of the boys tells a lie. But I don't think Jamie's broken any laws, other than that one, so I'm not going to interrogate him just yet. Besides, I'm getting the impression that the only reason he told that story was because he didn't want to hurt your feelings. He's upset about something, and when he's ready to talk about it, he will. Okay?"
Lee looked at Amanda strangely. He'd heard her use that tone of voice with the boys before, and he wondered if he'd just gotten a lecture.
"What?" she asked innocently.
"Nothing," he said, chuckling and shaking his head. Lee leaned back against the sofa, pulling Amanda with him, as they listened to the storm increase in intensity. He smiled as Amanda snuggled contentedly against him, and he held her a little tighter. He thought again about the situation with Jamie. He shook his head, nuzzling the top of Amanda's head with his chin in the process. Family life was an enigma to Lee Stetson, and he wondered if he'd ever get used to it. The Agency was the only home he'd ever really known, and some of his colleagues there were like family to him. Now, though, he had a real home life, sort of, even if he didn't live there yet . . . and a real family, sort of, even if they didn't know about it yet . . .
Lee reluctantly let go of Amanda as she reached again for her magazine. He thought of the irony of their situation. At the Agency, Lee was the senior agent, and Amanda was his junior partner. On the home front, though, the tables were turned. Not just turned. Completely flipped. A hundred and eighty degrees. Maybe even dismantled. He was a complete rookie when it came to family life and parenting, and Amanda was the pro. He had to admit that she was awfully good at it. He realized she was probably right, and that Jamie's current crisis, whatever it was, would eventually come to the surface. When it did, he hoped it would blow over as quickly as this springtime storm surely would.
The following morning, Lee and Francine had been summoned to Billy's office immediately following the senior agent staff meeting. "Lee, get Amanda down here," Billy said. "I want her in on this, too."
"She's not here yet," Lee replied. "I had a message from her after the meeting. She had a flat tire. Picked up a nail. She's getting it fixed." He felt a little guilty that he hadn't been there to help her with it, but he was glad she'd made it to a garage before the tire went completely flat. The weather was terrible.
"Hmm. Well, we'll have to get started without her. Scarecrow, as soon as she gets here, fill her in on what you can, and then send her down to see me for some specifics."
"No problem. So what's up?"
"I got a call from State first thing this morning. They want us to help a visiting Russian musician defect. This fellow is touring in the U.S., and he's going to try to slip away while he's here in DC, sometime within the next few days. Somehow, State found out about me working with King Edmund, and they want me to get to know the guy. Then they want us to grab him while the KGB's not looking."
"What difference does it make to the KGB if a musician defects?" Francine wanted to know.
"A lot, if it's this particular musician. His name is Ivan Kotranovich. His brother, Yuri Kotranovich is one of the Soviet Union's top nuclear scientists. They're afraid he may have told Ivan some secrets."
"If they're worried about him, why did they let him come over in the first place?" Francine asked.
"It's supposedly a goodwill mission. Who knows what they're thinking? Anyway, we're going to stick to this guy like glue from the minute he steps off the plane, until the KGB's not looking, and we get a chance to grab him. Now, I'm going to have Amanda go undercover as a representative of the DC Jazz Society. You two will be in the shadows, for now, anyway, and I'll be . . . um . . ." He cleared his throat as he hesitated, a little embarrassed. "I'll be on stage with Ivan."
"On stage?" Lee repeated. "Are you still playing, Billy? I figured you'd given it up again after Edmund left town."
"For your information, Scarecrow, I've been practicing quite a bit lately. I converted a corner of my basement into a little studio, and I've got some tapes that I play along with. Sometimes I sit in with some friends. Jeannie is convinced that it's my midlife crisis, but thankfully, she's tolerating it." Billy sipped his coffee and thumbed through the Kotranovich file. "Okay, let's get down to business. First of all, I need you two to help me think of a stage name."
"What happened to Billy Blue Note?" Lee teased, anticipating his boss's reaction.
"I'll tell you what happened to Billy Blue Note. I hate Billy Blue Note. I absolutely hate it! It's stupid. It's corny. And besides, it wasn't really a stage name. It was a code name. Edmund just thought it was a stage name. I was thinking of something shorter. More like a nickname."
"Shorter than Billy?" Lee asked, without thinking. "No, no, that's not what I meant," he hastily added, as Billy shot him a look. Francine rolled her eyes at Lee, who looked away to hide his smirk. Billy shifted his weight and sat up a little straighter in his chair.
"How about Mel? That works like a nickname." Francine suggested.
"Mel?" Billy repeated.
"Sure, as in Melrose." Francine was trying hard to be helpful, but she knew it was going to be nearly impossible. How could anyone be serious when Lee Stetson was in his teasing mode?
"Come on, Francine," Lee put in. "He doesn't look like a Mel."
Billy glared at both of them. He was beginning to be sorry he had ever brought this up.
Lee thought for a few seconds, then grinned. "How about Rose?"
"Rose!?" Billy bellowed.
"Sure, as in Melrose. You know, a rose by any other name . . ."
"Okay, that's enough!" Billy exploded. "Out! Both of you! Scarecrow, you go find Amanda, and bring her back here ASAP. Francine, get everything you can on Yuri Kotranovich and whatever he's been working on. No doubt it's top secret, but surely we've got something on him. I want the three of you back in my office in an hour, and by then, children, let's try to be in the mood to get some work done! Understood?"
Francine inclined her head and Lee gave a mock salute as they quickly returned to the relative safety of the bullpen. As soon as the door closed behind them, they both began to chuckle. "He sure is sensitive about that Billy Blue Note stuff." Francine observed.
"Not nearly as sensitive as he is about that Rose-by-any-other-name stuff," Lee laughed.
"Well, you'd better get it out of your system, Lee. He's not going to put up with another round of it an hour from now."
"You're right," he grinned. "I'd better go find Amanda. See you later."
Exactly fifty-seven minutes later, Lee and Amanda rounded the corner into the bullpen. Lee had seen the Wagoneer pulling into the parking lot just as he was leaving to look for her. Amanda was a little wet from the rain, but no worse for the wear. Her tire was fixed, she had a mug of steaming coffee in her hand, and thankfully, her scars weren't bothering her nearly as much today. She had been right about the weather affecting them.
Lee hadn't been able to tell her much about their new case, as he'd been kicked out of Billy's office before he'd really learned anything, but he had filled her in on the basics, including the cracks about Billy Blue Note and Rose-by-any-other-name. Amanda was anxious to learn about the new assignment and the role she was to play, but she was planning on treading lightly until she was able to determine whether or not Billy was in a better mood. She hoped Lee had enough sense to do the same.
Lee tapped on the partially open door and stepped aside to let Amanda enter in front of him. Francine and Billy were going through a stack of print-outs. "Good morning, sir," Amanda said, as she entered Billy's office. "Hello, Francine."
"Hello, Amanda," Francine replied, with saccharine in her voice. "Going for the drowned rat look this morning?"
"Yes, Francine, I was. It always looks so good on you, I thought I'd try it myself."
"Good morning, Amanda," Billy smiled, stepping prudently between the two women. He deliberately ignored Lee, who was uncomfortably reminded of how far he'd exceeded his bounds an hour before. "I'm glad you're here. I assume your partner has told you something about why we're meeting this morning?"
"Yes, sir, some of it. A Russian musician is going to defect?"
"That's right. Actually, there have been some more developments within the past hour. Now, unfortunately, or not, Dr. Smyth is in London this week, so we're dealing with State ourselves. In fact, the Secretary contacted me directly about 45 minutes ago. He wants to make sure we get this done right, and I do, too, so I've decided to put together a bigger team. And . . ." Billy's face took on a serious expression. "Something else has come up."
Amanda glanced at Lee with a questioning look, but he could only shrug and shake his head. Billy cleared his throat and gathered up the files that he'd been reading earlier that morning. "Let's all go into the conference room," he said. "We'll have some more room in there, and I'll bring you up to date."
Billy led the way to the conference room, as Francine gathered up her stack of materials and followed him. Amanda fell into step beside Francine, who smiled at her condescendingly. Amanda caught the look and smiled back at her, mimicking her expression. Lee chuckled and shook his head at the exchange, all the while maintaining a safe distance from Billy.
As they entered the conference room, Lee and Amanda said hello to Frank Duffy, whom they knew well and worked with frequently. They were a little surprised to see two other men in the room, a team from another sector, Ken Cagney and Thomas Reade. Cagney and Reade were big fellows, much taller than Lee, and they were often assigned duties that took advantage of their size and muscle. Amanda didn't know them very well, but Lee did. He looked at them nervously and offered a weak smile. About three years before, in a moment of frustration, he had referred to the pair as Cagney and Lacey, and much to their chagrin, the moniker had stuck. Lee wasn't sure they had ever forgiven him for it, and he thought they'd probably like to take his head off over it, if they ever got the chance.
"Well, people," Billy began. "We've got a job to do, and we've got the Secretary of State looking over our shoulders this time. Scarecrow, will you get the lights? Francine?" He indicated to her to start the slide projector, and an image filled the screen.
"This is Ivan Kotranovich," Billy said. "Fifty-seven years old, and a full professor of piano at the Moscow Conservatory. He was trained in the classics, specializing in, of course, the Russian masters, but his lifelong passion has been studying and performing American jazz. He's the reason we're here, people. Professor Kotranovich wants to become an American, and our job is to help him."
Amanda studied the photograph. The man in the picture was distinguished, even attractive for his age. He had a full head of hair, mostly gray, but his features were still smooth. His gray eyes shone with intelligence, and Amanda found herself liking him immediately.
"Next," Billy said, as Francine forwarded the projector.
The next photograph seemed to be an image of the same man, in different clothing, and looking perhaps just a bit heavier. "This is Yuri Kotranovich," Billy told the agents. "Ivan's brother."
"Twins?" Frank Duffy asked, voicing what everyone in the room had been thinking.
"Identical," Billy confirmed. "And he's the main reason the Russians are so interested in our friend, Ivan. We've been able to gather considerable biographical information about Yuri, but the data about his career has been pretty well obscured by the KGB. Apparently he is, or was, a nuclear researcher. He was one of their top men during the 60's and 70's, and then at some point, his theories evidently began to seem a little stale. The Soviets have put him out to pasture, so to speak, by providing him with a lecture circuit at some of the major universities. He knows a lot of their secrets, though, and the Russians want to be sure his brother doesn't bring any of those secrets over here. Next, please."
Francine forwarded the projector again, and Amanda was startled, as Lee and the other agents sat forward in their chairs. "Petrov!?" Lee exclaimed. He knew immediately that this was the 'something else' to which Billy had referred earlier. "What's he got to do with this?"
"Who's Petrov?" Amanda wanted to know. She looked at the screen. The man in the picture seemed to be of average height, stocky build, and had fairly plain features, with the exception of his eyes. Peering out under bushy brows, his eyes were the blackest she'd ever seen. They looked like two shiny pieces of cold, dead coal. She shivered involuntarily at the evil she saw reflected there.
"Anton Petrov," Lee told her. "Code name, Ursa."
"The Bear?" Amanda asked.
"That's right." Lee continued his explanation as Francine clicked the remote control. Several different pictures of Petrov flashed across the screen. "The KGB's number one man in most of Eastern Europe. He's slippery. And he's mean. He's everywhere and nowhere at the same time. The CIA has been trying to capture or kill him for the past fifteen years, with no luck. Ursa, on the other hand, has single-handedly assassinated more than twenty Western agents in that same amount of time." He turned in his chair. "Billy, why are we talking about Petrov? Is he here?"
"We think there's a pretty good chance of it, Scarecrow. We got a tip from a reliable source in Romania that he left the eastern-bloc last week. Two days ago, our man in Amsterdam thought he saw Petrov in the red-light district there. He followed him for several hours and watched him get on a plane to New York. We weren't able to pick him up there, but about 30 minutes ago, someone matching Petrov's description got off a plane at Dulles. If our sources are correct, he's right here in DC. Now, we have no reason to think he's interested in Kotranovich, or if he even knows anything about this defection. But if he's here, it's for a reason. Could be a political assassination; could be anything. I'm putting the entire Agency on alert, and I want all of you to be extremely careful. Especially you, Amanda. Ursa won't know you, but your assignment in this Kotranovich case will put you right at the front door of the Soviet embassy."
"Billy, maybe Amanda shouldn't be involved. Maybe a more experienced agent . . ." Lee knew he was going to be in trouble, but he didn't want Amanda anywhere near Anton Petrov.
"Lee . . ." Amanda began angrily, but Billy cut her off.
"That's exactly why Amanda has this assignment. Because she's fairly new at this, Petrov's not going to know her. But he does know you and probably everyone else here at the Agency, everyone except our most recent class of freshman candidates. And let me remind you again, we have no reason to believe that Ursa has any involvement with Kotranovich."
"Then why is he here, Billy? To catch the NBA playoffs?"
"I don't know, Scarecrow. But we've got a job to do, and we're going to do it, Ursa or no Ursa. Understood?"
"No, it's not understood! This is too dangerous . . ."
"Stetson, if you have any reason to believe your partner can't handle herself . . ."
"Excuse me, sir," Amanda interrupted hotly. "If the two of you are going to talk about my capability regarding this assignment, I would like to request two things. Number one, I would like to be included in the conversation, and number two, I would prefer it be held in private. Is that too much to ask?"
Lee clamped his mouth shut. He was furious with Billy for putting Amanda in a potentially deadly situation, but he knew his supervisor was absolutely right. Amanda had completed her training at the head of her class. She had been working under full-agent status for several weeks, and she was better at solving problems than anybody else he knew. More importantly, with the exception of Gregory and a few of his underlings, nobody in the KGB knew what she looked like. As much as he hated to admit it, Amanda was right for the job. And Billy had every right to assign it to her. But Billy hadn't been the one watching her fight for her life in a California hospital two months before . . .
"All right," Billy said, interrupting Lee's thoughts. "You'll all get dossiers this afternoon outlining your assignments. We have tentative plans to take Kotranovich this Friday night. He'll be playing at a local nightclub called The Woodshed. I'll get more details to you throughout the week. Questions?" He looked around, knowing no one would have dared ask a question at that moment. "Fine. You're dismissed. Stetson, King, in my office. Now."
Lee clenched his jaw. It hadn't been a good day, and it wasn't even close to lunchtime yet. He followed Amanda back into Billy's office and flopped into a chair as Billy slammed the door. Lee rubbed his hand across the back of his neck. He knew what was coming, and he wasn't looking forward to it. He was going to get it from Billy and Amanda both.
Having survived Billy's most recent tirade, Lee reluctantly climbed the stairs to the Q Bureau. Amanda hadn't said a word in Billy's office, other than "yes, sir," or "no, sir," and "thank you, sir," when they had been dismissed. Lee suspected she was saving it for when they were alone.
He unlocked the door and led the way into the room, removing his jacket and gun belt before sitting down at his desk. Amanda followed him in and locked the door behind her. She turned to face him, making sure she had his attention, but she looked at the floor before she spoke. "Lee, don't do this to me," she said quietly.
He was surprised she wasn't yelling. He knew he deserved it.
"I don't want to fight about this, Lee," she continued. "I'm taking the assignment. I'm well-prepared, and I know how to take care of myself."
"Amanda, you don't know Petrov . . . " he began.
She looked up at him, directly into his eyes. "And Petrov doesn't know me. That's Billy's whole point."
He didn't answer. Instead, he found a speck of something stuck to the corner of his desk, and he began to dig at it with his thumbnail.
"It's California, isn't it?" she pressed. It was more of a statement than a question. Amanda was angry with Lee, and she had been embarrassed by his outburst in the conference room, but she understood his reaction, and she found it hard to blame him for it. Although she was the one who had been shot, she knew Lee still bore scars from that ordeal, as well.
"I guess so," he admitted finally. "Look, Amanda. I know I can't stop you from taking this assignment. And I already made a horse's tail out of myself in front of the whole team . . . "
"You sure did." She started to smile. She couldn't stay mad at him for long.
"Well, you don't have to agree with me about it." He was relieved to see her expression soften, and he tried to remind himself that the best part of arguing was making up. "It's just that I can't help worrying about you." He held out his arms, inviting her to sit in his lap.
"I know," she replied, accepting his invitation. "I worry about you, too."
"Just be careful out there, huh?" He kissed her softly.
"I will," she said, returning his kiss. "I promise."
Wednesday afternoon, Amanda was scheduled to meet Ivan Kotranovich's flight at Dulles. She had spent Monday afternoon and all day Tuesday with Billy, listening to recordings and poring over jazz history volumes, in an effort to establish a convincing cover as a jazz devotee. Billy had been pleasantly surprised to learn that Amanda already had a considerable amount of familiarity with some of his favorite artists. Their sessions had seemed to pass quickly, and they had enjoyed each other's company. Billy had some connections with the DC Jazz Society, and he was able to pave a smooth path for Amanda to step in as the Society's liaison with Ivan Kotranovich.
Amanda waited patiently in the terminal at Dulles. Kotranovich was flying in from New York, but storms along the East Coast had delayed his flight by more than two hours. She had brought some jazz magazines that Billy had loaned her, and she made use of her time in the airport reviewing articles about current artists. She looked around at the dozens of travelers waiting in the gate area, and wondered about their destinations. She allowed herself to daydream briefly, reflecting on some of the remarkable trips that she had taken since she had become associated with the Agency. She made brief eye contact with Frank Duffy, who was sitting in the shoe shine booth, before returning her attention to her magazines.
Finally Amanda heard an announcement for the arrival of Kotranovich's flight. She stood up, stretched her legs, and unfolded a piece of poster board on which she had printed the words, DC Jazz Society. She recognized Kotranovich immediately from the photograph she had seen in Monday's briefing. She smiled to herself, thinking he had put on a little weight since that picture had been taken. She pretended not to know the pianist, instead allowing him to come to her. He was followed closely by two burly men, who stood beside him as he greeted her.
"Hello," he began. "I believe someone from your Society is to meet me here? My name is Ivan Kotranovich."
"Hello, Professor Kotranovich, and welcome to Washington. It's such a pleasure to meet you. My name is Amanda Karnes, and I'll be your host this week."
"The pleasure is mine, Mrs. Karnes," he said politely, as he shook her hand.
Amanda was truly delighted to make his acquaintance. His English was wonderful, and his manners were impeccable. "Will your companions be joining us?" she asked, hoping not to appear too wary.
"These gentlemen are representatives of the Soviet embassy in New York. They will return there after I have been brought to the embassy here in Washington. I am to report there as quickly as possible."
"All right, then. Let's get your bags, and I'll take all three of you to the embassy. Perhaps we can meet later for dinner."
"I would be delighted."
Amanda led the way to the baggage claim. Out of the corner of her eye, she was just able to see Frank Duffy paying for his shoe shine and falling into step behind her.
Amanda had returned to the Soviet embassy at 7:30 that evening to pick Kotranovich up for dinner. His traveling companions from New York had been replaced with two equally burly men from the local embassy, and the two new bodyguards now sat silently in the back seat of the Wagoneer. Amanda glanced at them in the rear-view mirror, then looked in her side mirror at Tom Reade, who was about a half block behind her in traffic.
They had dinner reservations for four at Emelio's. Amanda had made the reservations for two tables of two, hoping to have some time alone with Kotranovich to discuss his itinerary, and if he brought it up, his imminent defection. During the drive to the restaurant, Amanda and her guest conversed pleasantly about his studies. She was a little surprised at the easy access to recordings of American jazz artists he seemed to have had in Moscow. He was extremely knowledgeable, especially about American pianists, and he seemed impressed with her level of familiarity, as well. She learned that his favorite pianist had been the bebop artist, Thelonious Monk. "Oh, we have a nightclub here in DC, well, actually in Georgetown, by that name," she told him. "Monk's. Perhaps you can visit it while you're here."
Arriving at Emelio's, Amanda and Kotranovich were escorted to their table, and she was pleased that the two embassy watchdogs were seated at a different table about fifteen feet away. Looking around the room, she saw Ken Cagney at the bar, with a bottle of Italian beer in his hand. He nodded imperceptibly at her.
"Please order anything you would like, Professor," Amanda said as they opened their menus. "The Society is picking up the tab."
"How generous," Kotranovich smiled. "Would you care to share a bottle of wine?"
"That would be nice."
They placed their orders, and chatted pleasantly over bread, wine, and salads until their main courses were served. They discussed the stormy weather and possible sightseeing opportunities. Kotranovich wanted to see as much of Washington as possible, but he seemed primarily interested in visiting the Smithsonian. Amanda also used the opportunity to go over their itinerary for the next couple of days, and Kotranovich seemed pleased with his schedule. "The Woodshed!" he exclaimed, laughing, when Amanda mentioned the name of his performance venue. "What an appropriate name for an American jazz club!"
Amanda didn't understand the joke, but she didn't want to blow her cover by showing her ignorance, so she laughed a little along with her companion. She assumed it was something a jazz musician would understand, so she made a mental note to ask Billy about it when she got a chance.
The waiter brought their entrees to the table, and Amanda had just begun to twirl a few strands of pasta onto her fork, when Kotranovich leaned across the table and spoke with uncharacteristic intensity. "Mrs. Karnes, I am going to say something which may surprise you. Please continue to enjoy your meal, and try not to react in such a way that would draw the attention of our friends from the embassy."
She nodded at him, her eyes widening. She took a bite of spaghetti and watched him attentively as she chewed.
Kotranovich glanced nervously over his shoulder before he spoke. "Mrs. Karnes, my visit to your city is not exactly as it appears. Yes, I am here to perform . . . but also, I . . ." He rushed through his next words. "I wish to seek political asylum here in the United States. I realize that you are not in a position to assist me, but perhaps you can arrange for me to meet with a representative from your State Department? "
Amanda looked around the room. Satisfied that the two Russians were engrossed in their meal, and that no one else was paying any attention to them, she answered carefully. "As a matter of fact, Professor, I am in a position to assist you. Our government has already been informed of your desire to defect, and we have every intention of helping you do so." She glanced around again. "Now, you've been scheduled for rehearsals all day tomorrow with the group you'll be playing with Friday night." She lowered her voice to a whisper. "One of the members of that group is a federal agent, who has been assigned by the State Department to arrange your defection. You'll meet him tomorrow morning, and he'll tell you all about it."
"Mrs. Karnes, I am so relieved," he admitted, wiping his brow with his napkin. "Thank you very much. So you are also a . . ."
She cut off his question with a look intended to neither confirm nor deny. "I'm glad to be able to help, Professor Kotranovich, but this isn't over yet. We'll both have to be very careful. I think you're probably aware that the KGB has more than a passing interest in you, because of your brother."
"Yes, of course," he said, suddenly unable to meet her eyes. "Of course. My brother."
She looked at him warily, as her instincts kicked into high gear. "Professor, is there something you're not telling me?"
"No, no. You are very helpful. You have been very kind."
She knew he was lying. "Professor Kotranovich, if you want my government to help you, you're going to have to tell me the truth. Now, is there something I should know about your brother?"
Kotranovich hesitated, but he knew she was right. He was placing his new friend and her colleagues in an extremely volatile situation, and they had a right to know what they were getting into. Again, he glanced around the room before answering. He lowered his voice conspiratorially. "Mrs. Karnes, the KGB is not interested in my brother. They are interested in me. I am Yuri Kotranovich."
"Yuri Kotranovich? The scientist?" Amanda asked in surprise. Again, she lowered her voice. "I'm sorry sir, I don't understand. I was under the impression that you were Ivan Kotranovich, the musician. Are you telling me that you and your brother have switched places?"
"That is correct. I am Yuri. Ivan remains in the Soviet Union."
"But won't your brother be killed if the KGB learns that you're here?"
"Ivan is a hero to me. He is prepared to die in my place. But I do not think he will. He also has training in the sciences, and I have left for him my entire library. I am . . . we are . . . within only a few years of retirement. I am no longer active in research and weapons development. All Ivan will be expected to do is prepare and deliver lectures at the universities for a few more years. No one beyond our family knows it, but I also am an accomplished pianist. We can switch places easily. No one will suspect, and even if they should, well, the KGB has never been known for their gift of discernment. I doubt they will ever discover us."
"But, sir, what about fingerprints?"
"As long as Ivan plays his part well, they will have no reason to check. If they do, you are right, he will be killed. As I say, he is a hero to me."
Amanda glanced over her shoulder to be sure Ken Cagney was still there. He was. He had hardly even shifted position on his bar stool. "Professor Kotranovich, could you excuse me for a moment? I need to make a phone call."
"I would feel better remaining in your company."
"It's all right, sir. Do you see the tall gentleman at the bar? The dark-haired man in the dark sport coat?"
"He's with me. He won't take his eyes off of you. Now, please, I really need to make a call."
Amanda quickly made her way to a payphone, deposited a coin, dialed the Agency, and waited for the familiar greeting. Looking over her shoulder, she was careful not to let Kotranovich out of her sight. Cagney was still at the bar, but it was obvious he realized something had happened. He had set his bottle down and seemed ready to spring into action at a moment's notice.
"International Federal Films."
Amanda recognized Francine's voice. "Francine, it's Amanda. Has Mr. Melrose gone home? Something's come up, and I need to talk to him. It's urgent."
"He's still here, Amanda. He's been waiting for you to check in. Hold on, I'll put you through to his office."
Billy came on the line a moment later. "Melrose here."
"Sir, it's Amanda. I think we've got a problem. This thing just got a whole lot bigger, and I need to know what to do."
"What's happened, Amanda?"
"It's the professor. He's Yur . . .
Amanda noticed Ken Cagney coming toward her. She wondered what would have made him leave his post. He seemed to be gesturing just beyond her. She turned to see a stocky figure in an overcoat pick up the telephone receiver in the booth next to hers. The man's back was turned to her, but Amanda instinctively felt he was listening to her conversation.
"Hello? Amanda? Are you there?"
". . . guest. Your guest has arrived, sir."
"All right, Amanda. I understand that you can't talk. Are you in trouble?"
"No, I'm not. Oh, and Ken's here. He says to tell you hello. Well, I'd better let you go . . ."
"I understand. Now, listen, Amanda. I want to hear from either you or Cagney as soon as one of you is able to get back to the phone. Got it?"
"Yes, of course. We'll call you later. Goodbye."
At that moment, lightning flashed brightly enough to be seen through the curtained windows, and the thunderclap that accompanied it was enough to make Amanda jump. The lights flickered, and she saw Kotranovich looking at her worriedly. She nodded at him reassuringly, and hung up the telephone. The lights flickered again, staying off a moment longer this time, and when they came back on for the second time, Amanda noticed that the man in the adjacent booth had replaced his receiver, as well. Just as she started to step away, he turned to face her, and Amanda found herself looking into the cold, black eyes of Anton Petrov. Startled, she hurried toward the ladies' room, brusquely apologizing for nearly bumping into him. She remained near the entrance to the restroom and watched Petrov make his way toward the front door. After she was sure the KGB agent had exited the restaurant, Amanda returned to her table, intentionally brushing against Ken Cagney on the way. "Call Billy," she told him softly. "Ivan is Yuri. And tell him who else is here."
The Woodshed was a rather small club with a capacity of only about 75 people. It had opened only recently, and live music performances on Friday and Saturday nights were devoted exclusively to jazz. Amanda had remembered to ask Billy about the significance of the club's name, and he had told her that the term 'woodshed', to jazz musicians, meant to practice, and to practice hard. He explained that many years ago, players had literally gone into their woodsheds to practice, just like he went into his basement. Today, when a jazz musician needed to work on something, he would say he was going to 'woodshed' his music, or that he was going to 'the woodshed'.
The club was in a converted storefront in a quiet part of town. It was a long narrow venue, with a fully-stocked bar running along the wall to the right of the front door. A low stage, complete with a 7-foot grand piano, stood in the back left corner of the room. A hallway ran from the corner of the stage to the back of the building, where a delivery entrance opened into the alley. The kitchen was along the right side of the hallway, past the bar, and a storage room filled the opposite space past the stage. It had formerly been a hardware store, and a local developer had bought that property along with two other now-defunct businesses in the same block. He had converted each of the businesses into small clubs and had sold them to individual owners. The clubs hadn't really been open long enough for anyone to know if they would be successful, but as long as The Woodshed stayed open through Friday night, Yuri Kotranovich would have a good chance of eventually becoming an American citizen.
By Friday afternoon, a completely workable plan had been formulated, and by 8:00 p.m., Project Woodshed, as they had begun calling it, was in place. The club owner was more than willing to cooperate with a federal agency, especially after Billy had dropped the name of a good friend at the IRS. The owner had readily agreed to vacate the premises for the evening, and to give his entire staff the night off, as well.
The performance was to start at 9:00 p.m. and end at midnight, with Kotranovich's defection scheduled to occur shortly thereafter. Amanda would escort Kotranovich to the venue, again representing the DC Jazz Society. She would then sit with the two embassy watchdogs they knew would be accompanying the pianist, and encouraging them to have plenty to drink. Francine would be working as a bartender, and Cagney and Reade would work the door. They would be taking the cover charge, checking ID's, and if the situation arose, working as bouncers. They already knew the situation would arise. Lee would arrive at the venue near the end of the show. His job was to get into an argument with the two Russians, and get them both kicked out of the club. Cagney and Reade would then drive the Soviets around rural Virginia for a couple of hours, before dropping them off at their embassy gate. Cagney had asked jokingly if they could leave them there in their underwear, and Reade had wanted to know if they could drop Stetson off there, too. Billy hadn't thought any of that was funny.
Billy, of course, was deeply entrenched as a member of the band. The drummer and bassist, Marine Corps band members who were looking forward to an unprecedented undercover assignment, had accepted him readily, as had Kotranovich. They were all excellent players, and Billy was pleased that he was able to hold his own with them. His many months of hard practicing had paid off. Thursday's rehearsals had gone pretty well, but Billy honestly didn't expect to enjoy the gig. Too much was at stake, and with Petrov in town, too much could go wrong.
Frank Duffy was assigned to wait in the alley, outside the club's loading entrance, in the band's equipment truck. Amanda would temporarily join him after her companions from the embassy had been ejected from the club. The actual defection was to take place at the end of the concert. After the band members packed their equipment, Kotranovich and the two Marines were to carry two loads each to the truck, leaving half of the band's equipment on the stage. The Marines would be able to come back the next day to get the rest of their gear. After the second load, Kotranovich and one of the Marines would jump into the back of the truck. The other Marine would join Frank in the cab. Amanda was to pull down the sliding door and lock it, and then Frank would deliver his three passengers to the State Department, while Amanda rejoined the others still inside the club. A medical van, along with a surveillance van containing two back-up teams, were positioned around the corner from The Woodshed, in case their assistance was needed. At the point Frank drove away from the club, the back-up and medical vehicles were to follow his truck to State.
If Kotranovich was the least bit nervous about his defection, it didn't show in his playing. The show was going very well, and the audience seemed to appreciate the Russian artist. The band played a fifty-minute set, which included two of Kotranovich's original compositions, as well as a half-dozen jazz standards. Billy, assured that his team was in place, was finally able to relax and play. Amanda was impressed. It had been about a year since she had heard Billy, and although he hadn't played badly then, he had obviously improved considerably.
Billy had brought his small P.A. from his basement studio, and over the microphone, he announced that the band would be taking a fifteen-minute break. From behind the bar, Francine started a cassette machine, providing filler music over the house sound system. The two Marines went to the bar to request a couple of beers, and Billy and Kotranovich joined Amanda and the two Russians at their table.
"It's going very well, Professor," Amanda smiled at Kotranovich.
"Yes, I am pleased," he replied. "My new friend, Billy Shakespeare, is a wonderful saxophonist, is he not? Very poetic." Kotranovich laughed at his own joke.
Billy laughed, too. He liked his new stage name. Billy Shakespeare . . . He wouldn't have admitted it to Lee or Francine, but he had actually gotten the idea from Lee's joke about Rose-by-any-other-name. Billy excused himself from the table. He walked to the bar and asked Francine for a club soda, as his eyes wandered the room. So far, so good, he told himself. There was no sign of Anton Petrov. Maybe he would be able to enjoy the evening after all.
Shortly after the third and final set had begun, Lee made his entrance. He was dressed casually, and he was wearing his heavy leather jacket, as the weather was still unseasonably cool and wet. Wiping raindrops from his coat, he made his way to the bar and ordered a beer. As Francine opened the bottle and handed it to him, she nodded toward a table about halfway between the bar and the stage. Lee followed her glance with a look of dismay. Amanda had told him the two guards from the Russian embassy were big men, but he hadn't counted on them being quite that big. He wasn't looking forward to making them mad, and he sincerely hoped that Cagney and Reade would intercept the two before they decided to get physical. He wondered where Amanda was; he knew she was supposed to be seated with the Soviets. He spotted her near the restroom and took advantage of the fact that she was temporarily out of the way.
Lee started toward a vacant table near the edge of the stage. On his way, he bumped into one of the big Russians hard enough to make him slosh his glass of vodka all over the table. In a convoluted effort to apologize, Lee managed to pour his beer all over both of the burly men.
Both Russians stood up and began moving toward Lee, who muttered something about the Kiev Ballet as he backed toward the bar. Just as the larger of the two men reached out with a thick finger and began to poke Lee in the chest, Cagney and Reade appeared and took each of them by the collar. Lee set his empty bottle down and smoothed his clothing as his colleagues escorted the Soviets to the door. The minute they were out the door, the American agents slapped handcuffs onto the surprised and slightly drunk Russians and pushed them toward a nondescript brown Dodge. The whole thing was over before anyone else in the audience had even realized what had happened.
A minute or two later, Amanda returned from the restroom. She looked at the watery mess on the table at which she had been seated, and she knew Lee had already been successful in getting the embassy guards out of the way. Now, she would be able to leave the venue unobserved and meet Frank Duffy at the loading entrance. She nodded at Lee and Francine, and exited through the front door of the club.
Amanda had brought a change of clothes for later, knowing she might need to move quickly, once Kotranovich was in the alley. She loved being in the field, but not in a dress and high heels, especially when she was carrying a gun. She didn't see how Francine did it.
Amanda retrieved a duffel bag and her red goose-down jacket from the Jeep, and she grabbed a flashlight from the glove compartment. She looked around to see if she was being watched, but no one was on the street. She honestly would have been surprised to see anyone. The weather had kept most people indoors that evening, and the audience in The Woodshed had been disappointingly small. She knew, though, that the size of the crowd would work to their advantage. The club would be vacated quickly at the end of the show, allowing Kotranovich an even cleaner opportunity to slip away.
She made her way around the corner of the building and tapped on the window of the equipment truck to let Frank Duffy know she was there. She let herself into the back of the truck, and using her flashlight, changed into the things she had brought. She stashed her purse and her dress clothes in the duffel bag, which she planned to lock in the truck and pick up later at the Agency. She carefully checked her gun, then checked it again. Satisfied that she was ready, Amanda put on her warm down jacket, and joined Frank in the cab of the truck.
The two agents sat listening to the gentle rain drumming on the roof, and watching the oily drops roll lazily down the windshield. They chatted a little about the Kotranovich case and about the cool, wet weather, as they kept watch in the alley and waited for the performance to end. After several minutes, though, the rain began to come down harder, reducing visibility considerably. Neither of them noticed a stocky figure enter the alley from the other direction and slide silently past them into the back of the building.
Fifteen minutes after midnight, the back door of the nightclub opened. The small audience had completely cleared the venue, and Kotranovich and the Marines came out with their first load of gear. According to plan, after they brought out their second load, the three climbed into their assigned places in the truck. Amanda hastily wished Kotranovich well, and he thanked her for her help, as she pulled down the sliding door. She locked the door and stepped quickly to the driver's side window to hand Frank Duffy the key to the padlock. "They're in. Good luck. See you back at the Agency," she said, as Frank put the truck into gear and rolled away. Despite the rain, Amanda followed the truck to the end of the alley and watched with satisfaction as the back-up vehicles left their posts to escort it.
As she returned to the loading entrance, however, Amanda noticed with a start that the lights inside the club had gone off. At first she thought the storm must have caused a power failure, but she realized there hadn't been any lightning for several hours. She knew the agents inside the club wouldn't have turned off the lights; there was still at least an hour of cleanup to be done, before they all returned to the Agency for debriefing. Her skin prickled as another possibility occurred to her . . . Ursa.
She tried to tell herself that it could be nothing. Maybe they had turned out the lights in the back rooms and the hallway. Maybe they had closed an inside door, shutting out the light from the stage and the bar. She knew it was wishful thinking. Every instinct inside of her screamed that there was trouble, and she knew without a doubt that the source of the trouble was Anton Petrov. Amanda drew her gun and backed up against the door frame, trying to decide what to do.
If she had access to a radio, she could call for back-up, but Amanda knew the nearest transmitter was inside the club. Francine would probably have it in her pocket or her purse. Looking up and down the alley, Amanda noticed the electric company's meter box on the outside of the building. She knew from the position of the box that it was outside the kitchen, and she thought there was probably some sort of utility closet housing the interior fuse box on the other side of the wall. Petrov must have hidden in the kitchen and thrown the master switch. She wondered when and how he had done it. He must have been in the audience, in some sort of disguise, or perhaps he had slipped past them in the rain. She knew he couldn't have come in early. They had swept the place thoroughly.
She wondered, then, if Petrov had been there all along, why he hadn't tried to stop the defection. She caught her breath as it occurred to her suddenly that he hadn't been interested in Kotranovich at all, but in the Agency operatives he knew would be brought aboard to assist with the defection. In all likelihood, she realized, Anton Petrov was inside that nightclub right now, with two American agents and their administrator. With Lee, she thought fearfully. And with Francine and Billy. Ursa was there to assassinate them, and the three of them had remained in the club like sitting ducks.
Amanda tilted her head back against the door frame and closed her eyes for a moment. She unconsciously transferred her gun to her left hand as she reached across her chest and rubbed at her scar. She could hardly remember the last time she had been this scared, but after a moment, she was able to push her fear away and let her training and experience take over. By the time she opened her eyes, she had formulated a plan. Releasing the safety on her gun, she returned it to her right hand, and reached into her left pocket for her flashlight. Keeping the beam low, and covering it as well as she could with the sleeve of her coat, she crept inside the open door. She followed the wall around to the kitchen, being careful not to kick anything or make any noise that would alert Petrov to her presence. She knew he wouldn't be in the kitchen. She knew he'd be back out in the club, possibly already holding her husband and their friends. She refused to let herself wonder whether or not they were already dead.
Still muting the glow from her flashlight, Amanda shone it along the back wall of the kitchen, and quickly discovered the utility closet she knew would contain the fuse box. Tiptoeing inside, she closed the door behind her and let her light shine full on the labels identifying the various circuits. Her guess had been correct. The main breaker had been thrown. As quietly as possible, she threw all of the smaller switches, and sincerely hoping her plan would work, turned the main breaker back on. She looked at the crack under the door of the closet and was relieved to see no light from the kitchen.
Studying the list of switches, Amanda tried to determine which one would be the best choice to turn back on. She assumed that, in the darkness, none of the agents inside the club could see each other. The situation would be at an indefinite standoff. Turning on all the lights would be a mistake, but maybe one or two low lights would give Lee and the others the brief advantage they needed to get away from Petrov. Making a decision, she selected a switch called 'stage blues', and flipped it on. Three seconds later, she heard gunfire. Taking a deep breath and steeling herself against the thought of whatever might have already happened in the other room, Amanda left the protection of the utility closet and made her way through the kitchen. Silently she turned the corner and headed down the hallway toward the stage.
A few minutes earlier, Lee had been helping Billy pack his P.A. equipment, when suddenly they were cast into total darkness. Even the exit lights went out. The blinds had been drawn all evening, and very little light was coming in from the street. "Billy?" Lee said softly, reaching for his gun. "You still there?"
"Francine?" he called a little louder, knowing she had been across the room at the bar.
"Find some cover, children," Billy told them. "We may have company."
"It may just be a power failure," Francine noted.
"I didn't see any lightning," Lee observed, feeling his way toward the bar.
"You two hold it down," Billy ordered. "Until we find out what's going on."
They waited quietly for a couple of minutes, and their eyes began to adjust to the darkness. "Billy, nothing's happening," Francine said finally. "There must have been a power surge or something. Does anybody know where the breaker box is?"
"I do," a deep voice replied.
Billy cursed under his breath. It was Ursa. Anton Petrov.
"You're too late, Petrov," Billy announced to the voice, even though he couldn't see its source. "Kotranovich is gone."
"It's not Kotranovich I want, William Melrose. Itís you. And any of your subordinates who might wish to die with you. I don't need a tired old Russian to take back to Moscow with me. I need . . . How do you say it in your television Westerns? A few more notches in the barrel of my gun. I need American agents. Dead ones."
"Well, you're going to have to work pretty hard to find us, Petrov," Lee put in. "If I can't see you, I'm pretty sure you can't see me. Seems to me we're at a stalemate. Only, there are three of us, and one of you. That would mean we have the advantage. So why don't you just give it up?"
"Perhaps you have the advantage. Perhaps you do not." Petrov stepped stealthily toward Lee's voice.
At that moment, a track of dim blue lights came on over the stage. Lee saw Petrov slipping around the end of the bar and fired at him. Petrov ducked, and Lee's shot struck the mirrored wall behind the bar, causing glass shelves and bottles to fall to the floor. Lee flipped a table onto its side and dove behind it as Petrov returned his fire. He jumped as Petrov's bullet struck the overturned table with a thud.
Remaining in a crouched position, Lee slowly lifted his head over the edge of the table and swept the bar area with his eyes. The stage lights weren't providing much illumination, but the visibility was better than it had been just seconds before. There was no sign of Petrov, but Lee knew the Russian hadn't been hit. He assumed Francine was still on the other side of the bar, and he hoped she hadn't been caught in the crossfire. He realized with dismay that Petrov was probably back there with her. In the faint glow of the lights, Lee could see Billy peering at him from behind an overturned table near the edge of the stage. Billy nodded at him and moved cautiously across the room.
Suddenly, Lee heard a scuffling sound from behind the bar, and he knew instinctively that Petrov had taken Francine. He turned in the direction of the noise and stood up to his full height. He held his gun in both hands, arms extended and elbows locked, hoping he would be ready for Petrov's next move. Billy joined him, matching his stance.
Behind the bar, the KGB agent had his fist clenched around a handful of Francine's blond hair. He jerked it violently, pulling her head back and to the side, sharply and painfully. "Try nothing," he hissed at her. "Stand up slowly." She rose to her feet, and Petrov stood with her. "Drop your weapon and kick it away," he ordered Francine, pointing his gun at her temple. She hesitated, as she made eye contact with Lee. "Don't be stupid," Petrov told her. "Drop it. Now." Reluctantly, she complied. Working her hair in his hand like reins, he steered her out from behind the bar, and they joined Lee and Billy in the center of the room.
"Now the two of you," he addressed the men. "Same thing. Put them down and kick them away."
Looking at the weapon in Petrov's hand, Lee and Billy knew they had no choice but to obey him. Petrov's powerful Bulgarian-made handgun was the switchable kind, capable of firing either automatic single rounds, or multiple three-round bursts. They knew it had been set in single mode when Petrov had fired at Lee moments before, but either way, Francine wouldn't have a chance. They lowered their weapons to the floor and pushed them away.
"Now," Petrov said. "Tell me who else is here. Who turned on those lights?"
Francine thought quickly. She knew it had probably been Amanda, and she was sure Billy and Lee were thinking the same thing. But if Petrov didn't know that . . . "I did," Francine told him. "I found a fuse box behind the bar."
Petrov jerked Francine's head around to face him. He tried to determine from her expression whether or not she was lying. She met his gaze coolly and evenly, and it was hard to be sure. He glared at the three Americans. Although he didn't want to hesitate too long, he took a few moments to consider his options. He knew he had the upper hand in the situation, and he intended to keep it. Should he execute all three of them? Probably. Should he take them to his safe-house first, and torture them for information that might benefit his country? Yes, perhaps that was an even better idea. He would become an even greater hero in Moscow. He wondered what had become of his comrades from the embassy. The Americans must have taken them shortly before he had arrived, or perhaps while he was hiding in the kitchen. Petrov was accustomed to working alone, but he knew these three Americans could be dangerous, particularly the one code-named Scarecrow. If he was to take even one of them prisoner, he was going to need some help.
Lee clenched his jaw as he read Petrov's face. There was no doubt in his mind that the KGB agent intended to kill them all; it was only a matter of time. How had things gotten so bad so quickly? The whole thing had begun as a routine defection. It appeared now that it was going to end in a series of executions, his own, and those of his friends. Although he tried to stay alert to the situation, Lee couldn't help turning his thoughts toward Amanda. He had assumed she had been the one who switched on the stage lights, but then Francine had admitted turning them on. Unless Francine had been lying to Petrov . . . So where was Amanda? She should have been back in the club by now. Maybe she had left with Duffy or one of the back-up teams. Or . . . maybe Petrov had found her in the alley. Maybe he had found all of them in the alley. No, he told himself firmly. He couldn't think that way. Besides, he would have heard gunfire. Amanda was okay. She had to be . . .
Lee realized the hopelessness of the situation, but he wasn't ready to quit. He wasn't ready to leave Amanda, or to give up his life with her, if he didn't have to. He looked around, searching the room for . . . something. Anything. He didn't know what he was looking for . . . anything that would serve as a distraction, anything that would allow one of them to disarm or disable Petrov. As his eyes roamed the dimly lighted room, a slight motion near the back of the stage caught his eye. Someone was behind the grand piano. Lee held his breath and quickly shifted his gaze back to Petrov. Maybe Francine had been lying about the stage lights, after all. Maybe Amanda had been there the whole time. If it had been Amanda that he had seen, Lee hoped not to give her position away.
It was too late. Petrov narrowed his eyes at Lee. The Russian looked around, alerted to the presence of someone else in the room. He saw no one, but he instinctively knew someone was there. He quickly made his decision. There would be no interrogation tonight. No prisoners. Just bodies. He would still be a hero in Moscow. He already was. He jerked hard on Francine's hair, forcing her to her knees. He stepped away from her and pointed his gun at the back of her head. Just as he was about to pull the trigger, Amanda made her move.
"Francine!" she shouted. "Down!" Francine obeyed without hesitation, diving and flattening herself against the floor. Leaping from behind the piano, Amanda leveled her gun at Petrov and squeezed the trigger. Her shot struck him in the left shoulder, but he was able to regain his balance quickly. He remained standing, and switching his handgun to multi-mode, returned her fire.
The three-shot burst from Petrov's weapon struck Amanda diagonally across the chest and sent her reeling backwards. Tiny feathers flew everywhere, as her down jacket seemed to explode with the force of the bullets. Another burst caught her full in the mid-section and lifted her into the air. She spun ninety degrees and met the wall with her right shoulder. Bouncing off the wall, her body completed its rotation, and she landed sprawled on her back near the edge of the stage.
"Noooo!" In horror and rage, Lee flew at Petrov, delivering a vicious roundhouse kick to the KGB agent's throat. In almost the same motion, and before Petrov's body had even hit the floor, he was at Amanda's side. He knelt and used his left hand to gently lift her head and shoulders from the hard wooden surface of the stage. With his right hand, he tilted her chin up and looked into her face. Her features were still, her eyes closed. Her hair and skin were damp from the rain, and Lee carefully brushed a wet curl from her forehead. He ran his hand down the front of her coat and lightly fingered the deep holes he found in the fluffy down. He swallowed hard, choking on the lump in his throat. He couldn't bring himself to check for the pulse that he knew he wouldn't find. "No," he said again, softly this time. He pulled her limp body up into his lap, then crushed her into his chest. Holding her tightly, he buried his face in her hair. He began to rock back and forth on his knees, cradling her against him.
Francine was on the radio immediately. "We need back up and medics in here now! We have an agent down! Repeat! Agent down!" She knew that both the surveillance van and the medical team had been assigned to follow the truck containing Kotranovich, and that they were probably already several minutes away. There was no way they could have known there was still a threat inside the nightclub. She kept broadcasting, hoping feverishly that the vehicles weren't already out of radio range.
Billy ran to Petrov, ready to subdue him, but he quickly realized that it wouldn't be necessary. He watched as the KGB agent's body twitched convulsively a couple of times, in a reflexive attempt to draw air through his crushed windpipe. Petrov's body stiffened, then relaxed, as his unseeing eyes began to glaze over. Billy carefully removed the dead man's weapon from his hand.
Having finally received a reply from the Agency van, Francine returned the small transmitter to her pocket and walked slowly toward the edge of the stage, surveying the surreal scene before her. In the hazy blue pyramids cast by the stage lights, tiny pieces of goose-down floated and lingered, occasionally landing on Lee's coat or in his hair. The blue domes of light and the fluffy bits of down gave Francine the strange sensation that she was watching a scene in a snow globe. She remembered, as a child, shaking a plastic bubble and watching pieces of painted white glitter drift down upon a wintry scene. She realized with a sense of irony that someone had shaken the plastic bubble that was her world, and had shaken it violently. It occurred to Francine, as she took in Amanda's still form, that some of the glitter in all of their lives, as if from a shattered snow globe, had silently slipped away. Normally stoic, Francine allowed a small tear to trickle down her cheek.
Francine checked her watch as she waited impatiently for help to arrive. She realized in surprise that only a few seconds had passed, and she reflected on how much could change in such a short amount of time. Shaking herself from her thoughts, she climbed the two low steps to the stage. She didn't expect to be able to help, but she had to try. "Lee . . ." she began, as she came up behind him and hesitantly placed a hand on his shoulder.
He didn't respond. He continued to rock back and forth, holding Amanda tightly against his chest, his arms enveloping her slender frame almost completely. Lee had every intention of shutting out the rest of the world and letting his senses experience Amanda for as long as he could. He wanted to remember her scent. He wanted to remember the texture of her hair and skin. He wanted to feel her warmth for as long as it would last.
"Lee, let me see," Francine urged quietly. Again, he refused to acknowledge her. Francine wondered if he was in shock. She looked at Billy, who was still kneeling near Petrov's body, and tilted her head uncertainly.
He shook his head. "You saw the same thing I did, Francine. You know there's nothing we can do." Billy spoke softly, in answer to Francine's unspoken question. He looked sadly at Lee, his heart breaking for his friend. "Let him have a minute with her, before the others get here."
"But, Billy . . ."
He looked up at her and saw the desperation and the helplessness in her eyes. He knew her expression was a mirror of his own.
"She saved my life."
"I know, Francine. She saved us all."
Francine became insistent. "Lee, you need to let me look. Right now." She tried to pull Amanda from his grasp, but he wouldn't let go. Francine didnít know what to do. Where were those medics? "Lee, please. I might be able to help her."
Suddenly, Lee felt a slight movement in his arms, as a muffled voice came from against his chest. "Lee, let go. You're squishing me."
Visibly startled, Lee raised his head, but instead of letting go, he only held on tighter.
Amanda began pushing against him. "Lee, I can't breathe. Let go!"
This time, he did, dumping her unceremoniously onto the hardwood floor. "Ow!" she said, sitting up and rubbing the back of her head.
In his surprise, Lee lost his balance when he let go of Amanda. He rocked back onto his heels for a split second, then kept going over until he landed on his backside, cracking his scalp on the leg of the grand piano. "Ow!" he said, sitting up and rubbing the back of his head.
Billy looked at the pair in disbelief. It was all he could do to keep from laughing out loud, and he probably would have, if things hadn't seemed so grim only moments before. These were two of the Agency's top operatives? They looked more like Laurel and Hardy.
Francine managed to keep a level head and gently pushed Amanda back down onto the floor. "Hold still, Amanda," she said. "Let me see." She opened Amanda's coat and immediately found what she was looking for. A telltale layer of thick white material was visible just above the collar of her sweatshirt. "She's wearing a vest," Francine informed the two men, confirming what had already become obvious.
Overwhelmed with relief, Lee pulled in a huge breath and expelled it through puffed cheeks. He leaned back against the piano and closed his eyes, trying to convince his heart to return to its normal rhythm.
"Amanda, are you all right?" Billy asked.
"I don't know," she replied honestly. "It really hurts."
"She wasn't hit," Francine told them, finishing her cursory examination. "I guess she just had the wind knocked out of her. Don't worry, Amanda, you're going to be fine," she said, helping her sit up again.
"I didn't know you'd been using a vest," Billy said, his relief evident in his voice. "But I'm certainly glad you were."
"Leatherneck gave it to me," she confessed. "I've been wearing it in the field since I . . . well, since California. I was too embarrassed to say anything."
"You shouldn't be. It wouldn't be a bad idea if we all started wearing them, at least in situations like this," Billy observed. He went behind the bar and found a bottle of whiskey and four clean glasses. Hell, he thought as he poured, he'd been working here all night. They all had. If the club owner had a problem with it, he could put it on Billy's tab. Or the Agency's. After downing his own shot, Billy distributed the others.
Lee was still badly shaken. He sat back against the piano, breathing heavily and unable to speak, as Billy handed him a glass. As he sipped the strong liquid, he finally found his voice. "Amanda," he rasped. "You need to not do that to me."
"Tell me about it," she replied shakily. "I need to not do that to me, either."
The door behind them burst open suddenly, as four more agents ran in with weapons drawn. An Agency medical team followed them. "Who's down?" one of the medics asked as he looked around in confusion.
"These two." Billy indicated Lee and Amanda. "Check them out."
"Oh, man!" the other medic exclaimed, as he noticed the front of Amanda's coat and sweatshirt. It looked like someone had played a perverse game of tic-tac-toe across her chest and torso.
"I'm okay," she insisted, as one of the medics checked her vital signs and prodded her ribs.
"You need to get your ribs x-rayed," he informed her, before turning to Billy. "Other than that, she's going to be fine, Mr. Melrose."
Billy nodded. "What about Stetson?"
The other medic had turned his attention toward Lee, who was still rubbing the back of his head. "He's got a nasty bump back here. It's cut a little, but I don't think it's deep enough for stitches." The medic frowned. "His pulse is pretty rapid, though."
"Do you think?" Lee snapped at him.
"Yeah, I do think. You need to settle down." The medic continued monitoring Lee's vital signs. "Okay, that's better," he said after a minute.
"Okay," Billy said. "Can you two walk out of here?"
As Billy gave clean-up instructions to the other agents, the medics helped Lee and Amanda to their feet. Unsteadily, they stepped down from the stage as they held onto one another. For the first time, Amanda noticed the prone body of the KGB agent sprawled among several overturned chairs. She was surprised that it hadn't occurred to her to ask what had happened to him, but she realized that she had known instinctively that the man was no longer a threat. "Did I kill him?" she asked tentatively.
"No," Lee replied thickly. "I did. Come on. Let's get out of here."
Three hours later, Lee unlocked the door to his apartment and held it open for Amanda to enter. She took off her ruined coat and led the way to the sofa, where she sat down gingerly. She was still wearing the vest, simply for the sake of modesty, as the front of her sweatshirt had been almost completely destroyed. The x-rays had shown no damage to her ribs, but the emergency room doctor had told her she'd be sore for several days. Her sternum and ribcage had caught most of the impact, so fortunately, other than bruising, there had been no damage to any of her soft tissues, or to her previous scar. Lee locked the door behind them, and without bothering to shed his coat, followed Amanda to the sofa and plopped down next to her. "Oh, sorry!" he said quickly, realizing that his weight must have jostled her.
"That's okay." Amanda settled against the back of the sofa and reached up to play with the small shaved spot on the back of his head. "So much for your perfect hair," she began, but she realized instantly that neither of them was in a teasing mood. She leaned against her husband and slipped both arms inside his coat and around his waist.
"I guess it'll grow back," Lee replied, as he fingered the surgical tape the doctor had placed on his scalp. Gently, he put both his arms around Amanda's shoulders and held her protectively. "Are you hurting very much?" he wanted to know.
"It's really not bad as long as I'm staying still."
He nodded his understanding. He'd been injured similarly before, and he knew what it felt like. "It's late," he said after a minute. "I thought the debriefing was going to last all night. Do you want me to take you home?"
"No. I'd rather stay with you. Mother's not expecting me till morning, anyway."
They sat quietly for a while, then Lee spoke again. "Amanda, about what happened tonight . . . If you hadn't been wearing that vest . . ." He touched the thick material, clearly visible through her tattered sweatshirt. His voice cracked a little, as he spoke again. "Thank God you were."
"Lee, we don't have to talk about this . . ." she began.
"Yes, we do. Amanda, I want you to make me a promise."
Remembering their discussion from the past Monday morning, Amanda thought she knew what was coming, and she was immediately ready to argue with him. "Lee, I'm not coming in from the field. I wasn't even on duty when I got hurt in California, and I didn't get hurt this time. I've worked too long and too hard for this, and I'm not going to let you take it away from me. Of course what we're doing is dangerous, but so is walking down the street or driving to the grocery store. I want to keep working! I want to keep working with you!"
Lee shook his head. "No, Amanda. Listen to me. I wasn't going to ask to you come in. I know you couldn't do that now, any more than I could. What I want you to promise me, is that . . . well, I want you to keep wearing a vest. Any time you're in the field. On any assignment, no matter how routine it seems. I know it's not foolproof, but at least you'd have a little protection. That vest saved your life tonight, just as surely as you saved all of ours." He kissed her forehead. "Have I thanked you for that, by the way?"
Amanda regretted having spoken so quickly. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have tried to put words in your mouth. I just . . ."
"Amanda, listen. I would never ask you to come in from the field. It's taken me a long time to be able to say this, but I have too much professional respect for you, to make a suggestion like that. Maybe not too long ago, I would have felt differently, but not now. Not after what you did for us tonight."
A little surprised at his admission, she started to reply, but Lee interrupted her.
"Please, Amanda, let me finish." He shifted his position, so he could look directly into her eyes. "I love you, Amanda Stetson. I want you to be safe. I want you to be around, so that we can spend forever together. All I'm asking is that you take every precaution you can, to make sure that happens. Will you do that for me? For us?"
"Okay," she agreed, her eyes shining at the love she felt for him at that moment. "I promise. But on one condition. If I have to wear a vest, I want you to wear one, too. Every time you're in the field. Every assignment. No matter how routine it seems. Will you do that?"
"Yes," he said quietly. "I will."
"So it's settled, then," she said. "We both wear a vest in the field, all the time."
"It's settled," he replied, kissing her forehead again. Lee was exhausted, both physically and emotionally, but he had one more issue to resolve. "Umm . . . Amanda?"
"Could I ask you to do one more thing?"
"I guess. What?"
"Could you change out of those clothes? I don't think I can stand to look at those bullet holes for one more minute."
Late the following morning, Lee sat at the kitchen table in Amanda's house, sipping coffee and trying to read the classifieds. Normally he would have enjoyed the Saturday paper's automotive section, but he found himself unable to concentrate. He was exhausted, having had little sleep. He had been unable to close his eyes without reliving those terrible few moments when he had held Amanda's limp body in his arms. The image of her lying there, pale and still, her coat riddled with bullet holes, had haunted him incessantly. He had reached across the bed for her frequently, to assure himself that she was still there, but every time he had touched her bruised ribcage, she had gasped in pain. She was generally uncomfortable lying down, and the pain medication they had given her at the emergency room hadn't helped.
After a couple of hours, they had given up on trying to sleep. Lee had made a pot of coffee, and they showered together before heading back to Arlington. Even the gentle pressure from the hot water was uncomfortable on Amanda's bruised body. They had arrived at Amanda's house before the boys and Dotty had gotten up, and Amanda had headed upstairs to change out of her borrowed clothes before anyone noticed the shirt and jacket she wore were several sizes too big. She came back down just as the rest of the family was waking up.
After the boys had eaten breakfast, Phillip left the house to shoot baskets with his friends. The air was still cool, but the rain had stopped, and the sun was out. It looked like it was going to be a beautiful spring day. Dotty had breezed through the kitchen on her way out the door to do some shopping, and Lee assumed that Jamie was holed up in his room. He knew that none of them had any idea how close they had come to losing Amanda the night before, and he was grateful for the normalcy they were all, albeit unknowingly, able to provide.
Lee was toying with the idea of an afternoon nap, but he was almost afraid to try to sleep; he was afraid the horrible images from the night before would return to trouble him. Billy had told them both to take a few days off, but Lee wondered if he shouldn't go in on Monday morning anyway. He thought it might not be a bad idea to schedule some time with Dr. Pfaff.
Lee looked at his watch. The phone had rung about half an hour before, and Amanda had mouthed to Lee that it was Francine, who evidently felt like she had some talking to do. Amanda had gone upstairs to take the call. Lee smiled to himself. He had always hoped Amanda and Francine would become friends someday, even though they were as different as night and day. Francine had occasionally shown a grudging respect for Amanda's abilities, but after last night, Lee knew that Francine's assessment of Amanda's talents would have escalated drastically. Amanda's quick action had saved Francine's life, and Lee knew his old friend was grateful. He thought she probably wanted to do a little more than say thanks, though. By his calculation, Francine had about three and a half years' worth of nastiness to make up for, and that might take some time. He couldn't help but chuckle at the thought. No wonder they'd been on the phone for half an hour. His mood sobered again quickly, though, as he silently said a prayer of thanks that Amanda was still around to take the call.
Lee looked up from his newspaper when Jamie came into the kitchen a few minutes later. After going to the refrigerator and helping himself to a glass of milk, Jamie sat at the kitchen table, opposite from Lee. He looked as if he were trying to decide whether or not to say something.
"Your mom still on the phone?" Lee asked, trying to make conversation.
"Yeah. I think she's going to be a while."
Lee nodded, and went back to his paper.
"Mr. Stetson," Jamie said, finishing his milk. "Could you do me a favor?"
"Sure, I guess. What do you need?" Lee suddenly forgot how tired he was. He was pleasantly surprised that Jamie was even speaking to him in complete sentences, much less asking him for a favor. "And, Jamie, you know you can call me Lee."
"Yeah, I know. I guess I forgot."
"That's okay. So what's the favor?"
"I need to go to the library. I've got to get a book for my book report. They close at noon, and I'm afraid Mom's not going to be off the phone in time."
"Your book report?"
"Yeah. I . . . I wasn't exactly working on it before," Jamie confessed. "I was reading Stephen King, and Mom caught me. She thinks I'm not old enough." He stared at his empty glass. "I . . . uh . . . Mom said I should tell you I'm sorry I lied."
Lee supposed that a forced apology was better than no apology at all, and he was amused at the thought of Amanda finding her younger son with inappropriate reading material. He didn't know which Stephen King novel Jamie had been reading, and he wasn't going to ask, but he agreed with Amanda that the kid probably was too young for that stuff. He made a mental note to check his apartment for anything Amanda wouldn't want the boys to find, and he reddened a little as he remembered a couple of old magazines he still had around somewhere that he wouldn't want Amanda to know about, either.
"What?" Jamie asked, noticing the color in his face.
"Uh . . . nothing. Come on. We'd better get going if we're going to make it to the library by noon."
As Jamie perused the classic novels with the help of a librarian, Lee sat in a comfortable chair with the current week's issue of Time. He was dozing just a little, when Jamie came up with a book in either hand. "Lee? Have you ever read these?"
Lee looked at his selections, Tom Sawyer and Treasure Island. He was a little surprised Jamie hadn't read them before. The kid had always struck him as a bit of a bookworm. Lee couldn't remember for sure about Treasure Island, but he knew he'd been a lot younger than Jamie the first time he'd read Tom Sawyer. "They're both good," Lee told him. "They're both adventures, and they're both about guys not too far from your age."
"Well . . . which one would you pick?"
"Why don't you get both of them? Spend a little time with each one, and figure out which one you'd rather do your book report on. When you're done, you can read the other one just for kicks."
"Yeah, I guess I could do that."
As he waited while Jamie checked out his books, Lee wondered if he should take his stepson directly home. They seemed to be getting along pretty well, and Lee thought it might do some good to spend some more time with the boy, especially without Phillip around. Even from his unlikely position on the outside looking in, Lee knew that the brothers had been good friends when they were younger, but that their relationship had begun to change as they had entered their teenage years. They were no longer fairly evenly matched, as they had been for years, and they no longer held the same interests. Phillip was older and more confident. His sunny disposition and outgoing personality were more than enough to cast a shadow on his quiet little brother. Jamie, on the other hand, was just entering that awkward time in a young man's life when everything seems to be changing. Lee remembered being that age. He had hated it. But he had grown out of it, and he knew Jamie would, too.
Lee thought again about spending some more time with his stepson. He knew Amanda wouldn't care, as long as Jamie was with him. Maybe they could grab a burger for lunch. He could call her from the car and let her know, assuming she was off the phone with Francine. He looked out the window at his Corvette. It was a mess from the past week's thunderstorms. Maybe after lunch, he could talk Jamie into helping him wash it.
As they finished their meal, Jamie looked at Lee with a serious expression on his face. They had talked a little while they ate, mostly about Jamie's new camera and his interest in photography. Lee tried to read his stepson's expression, knowing the conversation was about to change direction. He hoped he could get Jamie to admit what was troubling him. If the problem was out in the open, at least they could work on getting it solved. As he studied the boy's face, it occurred to him, as it had many times before, how much Jamie resembled Amanda.
Jamie interrupted his thoughts. "Lee, do you love my mom?" he asked abruptly.
Lee was surprised at the question, but he answered without hesitation. "I sure do. More than anything."
"Are you going to marry her?"
Lee worded his response carefully. "Being married to your mother would be the most wonderful thing in the world. But I want it to be okay with you and your brother, too."
Jamie stared at his mug of cola. With his fingertip, he drew some designs into the condensation on the side of the glass. He seemed to be trying to decide what to say. Finally, he spoke. "Lee, I know you probably think I don't like you very much."
Lee did think that. He had overheard Jamie say as much to Phillip one day. "It's okay, Jamie. You don't have to explain . . . "
"Yeah, I do." He cleared his throat, in an effort to keep his changing voice from cracking. "It's not that I don't like you, Lee. Actually, I think you're a pretty cool guy. Phillip does, too, but I guess you already know that. I guess I'm just worried about what might happen if you and Mom get married." He picked up the salt shaker and tapped it against the surface of the table a few times, then he set it down hard. "See, I know that my mom and dad were in love. In a way, I think they still are. But they got divorced, anyway. I guess what I'm worried about is, well, how do I know that's not going to happen again?"
"Jamie . . ."
"Lee, I want my mom to be happy. But I want to be happy, too. I want to be part of a family. If you're part of it, too, that's fine. I just don't want you or anybody else to hurt my mom. Or me."
"Jamie, I would never hurt your mom. Never in a million years. Or you, or your brother. You have my word on it. And for what it's worth, I already consider you and Phillip to be part of my family. I . . . I hope that's okay with you. And I'd really like for you to consider me part of yours."
Jamie nodded, but then he fell silent. Lee was sure there was more. He studied his own empty glass. He didn't want to put any pressure on the boy. He knew Jamie would resume the conversation when he was ready.
Jamie fiddled with his straw for a while before he continued. "I guess there's something else I want to talk about. This isn't very easy for me to say, but for some reason, I think I can say it better to you than to Mom or Dad."
Lee looked up at him, surprised. Jamie was going to confide in him? The boy was looking directly at him. "Lee, I'm scared," Jamie blurted suddenly, before quickly looking away.
Not knowing what to say, Lee just sat there. He hoped he was wearing an expression that would encourage the boy to go on, but Jamie was staring at the table again. "Scared?" Lee prodded gently.
"Yeah," Jamie admitted. "You know. When Mom went to California in February, she . . . she almost didn't come back."
"I know," Lee said solemnly. The events of the past February were almost as fresh in his memory as the events of the previous evening. It occurred to Lee suddenly that Jamie hadn't really been unfriendly to him until after he and Amanda had gotten back from California. Now that he thought about it, Jamie had been uncharacteristically cool to the rest of the family since then, too. Even to Amanda. Lee hoped Jamie wasn't going to blame him for Amanda's injury. He had already gone around and around with himself over that, finally agreeing with Amanda that none of it had been his fault. It had been pure chance that they had driven into the line of fire at exactly the wrong moment. Norton Scott hadn't known who Lee was at the time, and he probably hadn't even been aiming at Amanda when he pulled the trigger.
Jamie spoke again, interrupting Lee's train of thought. "And even though Dad's around, it's not like he's really around. You know what I mean?"
"I think so." Lee wondered what Joe had to do with this. Maybe Jamie wasn't going to blame him for what had happened in California, after all.
"So it scares me that something might happen to one of them. Or to Grandma, or Phillip. Or to you, even. I never thought about it before Mom got hurt, but now, I think about it all the time."
"It scares me, too, Jamie." Lee admitted. He finally understood what his stepson was trying to say, and he was struck with the similarity between Jamie's outlook on life and his own. Like Lee, before he had been able to admit his love for Amanda, Jamie was afraid of getting too close. He was afraid of losing the people he loved. "Look, Jamie. It took me a long time to learn this, and I could never have learned it without your mom's help . . . but yeah, life's too short. You've already got that part of it figured out. The thing is, you've got to make the most of it while you can. And that means spending it with the people you love. You're right. Those people might not always be around. But that's no reason not to love them while they're here. In fact, it's a pretty good excuse to love them all you can, don't you think?" Lee tilted his head as he looked across the table, trying to make contact with Jamie's downcast eyes. He hoped some of what he'd said had gotten through. "Jamie? Does that help?"
"Yeah. It does," Jamie answered after a moment. With a thoughtful expression on his face, he sipped his cola. Lee watched, as his stepson's expression seemed to take on a twinge of remorse. "I'm sorry if I've been a jerk," Jamie said finally.
"You haven't been a jerk, Jamie," Lee told him. "I think you've just been growing up. It happens to everybody."
"You won't tell Mom about this, will you?"
"Well, I'm pretty good at keeping secrets. But I don't like lying to your mom. I'll tell you what. I promise that I won't bring it up, and if she does, I'll tell her it's just between us men. Okay?"
"Okay." Jamie seemed relieved, as he finished his cola. "Lee, can I ask you one more question?"
"Sure, I guess." Lee wondered what could possibly still be on Jamie's mind. It seemed like the air had been pretty well cleared.
"What do you do?"
"Do?" Lee frowned. Maybe the air wasn't quite as clear as he thought. "I work for IFF. With your mom. You know that."
"And IFF is a documentary film company, right?"
"Right . . ."
"And you're like a producer or something, right?"
"Um, something like that."
"So, Lee, how come a film producer doesn't know how the picture gets on the film?" Jamie asked, reminding him, not very subtly, of a conversation they'd had a couple of weeks before.
Lee had opened his mouth to answer, when he suddenly realized he didn't know what to say. He didn't know exactly what question he'd been expecting, but this certainly wasn't it. As his mind searched for a plausible response, he noticed Jamie's brown eyes twinkling behind his glasses. The corners of the boy's mouth were starting to turn up into a smile. Lee began to laugh. He had seen the same expression on Amanda's face a thousand times, and he knew exactly what was coming.
"Gotcha!" They said simultaneously, pointing at each other, and erupting in laughter. They stood up and grabbed their jackets. As they stepped away from the table, Lee placed his hand on Jamie's shoulder, and he was delighted when the boy didn't shy away.
"Hey, look at all that sunshine! How about helping me wash the 'Vette?" Lee asked, as they headed out the door.
"Is that anything like helping you whitewash the fence?" Jamie asked, immediately realizing his slip. "Uh-oh."
"You've read that book," Lee accused him, laughing.
"Well, maybe . . . But I don't think I've read Treasure Island . . . " He grinned sheepishly at the expression on Lee's face. "More than once or twice."
"Yeah, right," Lee said, playfully collaring Jamie by the back of the
neck. "I think the library's open again tomorrow afternoon." They made
their way around several parked cars and climbed into the filthy Corvette.
"Come on, kiddo," he said, still laughing happily. "If you help me wash
this car a few hundred times, I just might let you drive it someday."