Lee and Amanda Stetson sat on the sofa in their family room, wrapped in each other’s arms. They gazed into the fireplace and rested comfortably in the warmth of the flames. From the kitchen came the sounds of their sons and their girlfriends cleaning the aftermath of the Thanksgiving meal. It had been a very pleasant day. They woke early and went as a group to pick out a Christmas tree. It as a tradition they had started soon after they had begun living openly together as man and wife. Lee had never been sure who enjoyed the outings more, him or the boys. This year had been a bit different with the addition of Natasha and Jamie’s new girl, Amy, but still a joyous event. Chuckling, he recalled the first time they took that outing as a family.
“What’s so funny?” Amanda looked at her husband with curious amusement.
“Oh nothing. I was just thinking about the first time we went tree hunting as a family. Do you remember?”
“Oh yes, Phillip found the biggest tree on the lot and insisted that we take it.”
“But just as we were leaving, Jaime saw that little one in the corner. He had a fit for us to take that one instead.”
Coming out of the kitchen, Jamie picked up the story as he recalled it. “Well, that tree was so lonely all be itself. I just couldn’t leave it there all alone.”
Phillip had approached from behind his brother and laughed as he realized what they were discussing. “That was the ugliest, most pitiful tree I ever saw.”
Amanda smiled fondly at her grown sons, “But it looked pretty good when we got it home and all decorated.”
Standing to cross to where this year’s tree waited to be draped in the lights and decorations of the season, Lee rubbed his hands together and asked, “Well, are we ready to get this show on the road?”
Amanda assisted her handsome husband to drag the boxes out of the corner where they had been placed earlier in preparation for tonight’s festivities. She couldn’t help but marvel every year about the change in his attitude. He loved the season now as much as she did. She could still remember the first conversation they had about Christmas. ‘Twenty four hours long and the next day is the 26th.’ My, how times had changed.
It was a jovial group that gathered around the tree. Lee and Amanda were always happiest when they were with their family. Dotty had spent the holiday with Aunt Lillian and they missed her but with the boys and their girls here it had been a good day nonetheless.
While Lee, Phillip and Jamie strung the lights, Amanda led the girls to the boxes filled with ornaments. Together they sorted through them, laughing over the stories that accompanied each one. Seeing Natasha rub her lower back prompted Amanda to ask after her health.
“Natasha, are you feeling well?”
Ruefully, the young woman nodded, “Yes, I feel fine. I just have a backache tonight. My doctor assures me that is normal.”
“It seems a bit early to me, Natasha. You’re only four months along. I didn’t have those nagging aches until about six months. But you are showing a bit more than I did at four months. It must be that you are so petite. You have be careful not to put on too much weight. I gained 50 pounds with Phillip and didn’t think I was ever going to get it off!”
“Oh, I think that must be it, Amanda. Especially after that meal you prepared!”
Accepting Natasha’s answer, Amanda steered her attention to the other girl and attempted to pull Amy into the conversation. This was her first visit in the Stetson home and Amanda was determined to know as much about the girl as possible. Seeing that the older woman was occupied, Natasha allowed her mind to wander.
Natasha sighed at her near miss. She would have to be more careful not to give away her true gestational progress again. Phillip didn’t notice things like that but apparently his mother did.
The next hour passed uneventfully and just as they were plugging in the lights to get the full effect, the phone rang once then twice then went silent. Recognizing the signal to call Billy on the secured phone line downstairs, Lee and Amanda excused themselves and went to the office.
“Billy Melrose, please.”
“Yes sir, Mr. Melrose, it’s Amanda. Yes, Lee is here.” Lee stood next to his partner, who positioned the phone so that they could both hear, and together they listened to what their boss had to say.
“We have a big problem. James Harbor was killed today. He was at the Cumberland overseeing the securing of the rooms for the Russian delegation. One minute he was with the Agency security team, the next he was dead!”
“Now wait a minute Billy. You’re telling me that the liaison between us and them is dead and no one saw anything?” Lee took the phone from Amanda’s hand.
“Lee, it looks like he went to answer a phone call and never came back! The maid found him in the hall closet near the front desk. He had been injected with some kind of drug that apparently sped his heart up until he had a heart attack. We’re checking it out now but so far nothing. We’ve never seen this drug before.”
“So we have no leads?”
“Just one. There was a note in Harbor’s pocket. The killer must have planted it. It says, ‘Stop now. Mother Russia does not need help from the arrogant US. More will die if you do not heed.’ It was written on the back of one of his cards. He even signed it this time. P.R. at the bottom.”
Hanging up the phone after agreeing to come in the next morning, despite the holiday weekend, Lee slapped the desk in anger.
“How? How did they know? No one knew but Harbor, us and Billy!”
“Maybe they just got a lucky break and decided to check the Cumberland?”
“No, no way. We haven’t used the Cumberland in years. It should have been secure. The security team didn’t even know why they were there!”
“Look, Lee. We can’t second-guess him all day. He knew where the party was going to be housed, and he got in. He has an inside source and we have to find out who it is.”
“Okay, Amanda, I agree. But how do we do that? No one knew but us. We don’t even have a clue about who our leak is or how he’s getting his information!”
“So let’s set him up. Let’s put him where we want him then grab him.”
“We’ve tried that twice already. Both times he knew not to show up for the meetings with Comrede. Not only that but Comrede didn’t show either. Now we know that they met regularly at the Russian teahouse on the square. What we don’t know is how they knew that we were going to be watching them, at those times. Or where they meet now!”
“No Lee, not like that. I mean, let’s give him what he wants. Let’s tell him where the delegation is going to be, then be there first.”
“Leak false information?”
“We’ve done it before. If we have an inside leak, Rominav knows where to go and if we control who gets the false information then we know where to start looking for our leak.”
“Okay, agreed. Where do we start?”
“We tell Billy in the morning that we want to put the delegation up in the safe houses in the Betsy Ross subdivision. We go to the safe houses, be seen going in and out then leak that the delegation is arriving early. They are expected at Christmas instead of New Years.”
Lee nodded his understanding and picked up the dialogue of her plan as if she had transmitted it to him via ESP, “Then we arrange for a false delegation to arrive and see what happens. It just might work.”
“It has to work. We’re running out of options. Dr. Smyth is bound to be infuriated with this latest problem.”
Lee pulled Amanda into his arms and kissed her softly. He knew that Smyth was looking for any way possible to split them up. He also knew that neither he nor Amanda would ever work with any one else.
“Hey, we’ll catch him. We’ll get him and we’ll put him away. And then Smyth will get the message to back off once and for all.”
Picking up his upbeat attitude, Amanda leaned into his embrace and kissed him firmly. “Of course we will. We’re going to put that delegation at the Betsy Ross estates come Christmas and we’re going to catch Rominav and put him away!”
Upstairs in the family room, the four young people were lounging around the tree drinking cider and munching on a plate of cookies. Realizing that Lee and Amanda must have went to the office, Natasha stretched and excused herself for bed, “I’m very tired, Phillip. I am going to turn in.”
“Oh sure. I’ll walk you down.” He jumped up and assisted her off the floor. Her growing abdomen hampered her mobility more than she wanted to let on. Thankfully Phillip was always very conscientious and helping her off the floor was what he automatically did, whether she needed help or not.
“No! I mean there is no need for you to miss visiting with your family. I just get tired so easy with the baby and all. Stay and enjoy yourself. I’ll see you in the morning.”
She kissed him shyly and left the room. Phillip watched her go then rejoined the remaining party on the floor. Sensing his concern Jamie asked, “Is she okay?”
“Yes, I guess. She is just tired. I think it’s normal. I meant to ask Mom if she should be sleeping so much. It seems like that is all she does anymore. It’s like she’s hiding something from me. Whenever I get too close she gets tired or needs to run an errand. I love her but she just doesn’t seem to be the same anymore.”
“Ask Mom. I bet it is pregnant hormones or something. Amy’s mom just had a baby and she was real weird for a while, right Amy?”
The girl nodded her agreement and soon they were discussing other matters like school and exams.
Meanwhile, downstairs Natasha had crept to the cracked door of the home office and was listening to the conversation inside. She heard Amanda’s voice filtering through the narrow opening.
“Of course we will. We’re going to put that delegation at the Betsy Ross estates come Christmas and we’re going to catch Rominav and put him away!”
Betsy Ross Estates was the new destination for the delegation! She filed that information away for later and was about to move to her room when a sharp pain raced across her abdomen and she gasped aloud.