Disclaimer: The SMK characters and the Agency belong to Warner Brothers and Shoot the Moon Productions. I’m borrowing them for my own amusement, and I’m not profiting from doing so. This story and the new characters I have created belong to me; please don’t distribute or reproduce my story without permission.
Timeframe: The story is set in June 1987, shortly post-series. In chapters 2 through 6, following ####, there are flashbacks.
Summary: Past and present merge as Lee Stetson faces the scales of Agency justice.
Warning: While this story contains no graphic violence, it does explore a sensitive issue: How would the Agency handle a character’s death in the line of duty?
Author’s Notes: Thanks to Shelly for challenging me to complete this story and to a great beta team for helping to clarify and polish the rough draft. Thanks also to Ann for allowing me to borrow Eric Jarvis.
Archiving: Eman and Merel have blanket permission to archive anything I post. Anyone else, please ask first.
Feedback: Certainly! All feedback is welcome, on or off list.
The stuffy, windowless chamber could have passed for a courtroom. Not one of the large, ornate courtrooms typical of movies and television series, but the kind from real life: small and barren -- the prosecution and defense presenting cases from shabby, cluttered tables within arms’ reach of their opponents.
Lee Stetson shifted restlessly on an uncomfortable, hard-backed chair. Taking a slow, deep breath, he turned his attention from the battered tabletop to the man seated to his left. He found his section chief’s dark eyes studying him, the older man’s thoughts unreadable in the solemn face. Sitting shoulder to shoulder, he wondered how he had failed to notice the subtle signs of aging in his longtime friend and associate. Or had the gray appeared in the thinning hair and the deep creases in the dark complexioned skin only during the last few interminable days?
“Focus, Scarecrow. You know what’s at stake here.” Although Billy Melrose’s voice was almost monotone, Lee heard a distinct warning in the level words.
Biting back the reply that rose in his throat, Lee nodded. He lowered his gaze to his clenched hands and slowly relaxed his fingers, trying to mask some of his inner tension. Only with supreme effort would it be possible to clear his mind of everything except this place, this moment in time. He couldn’t afford to reveal the maelstrom of emotions churning within. He couldn’t let her down.
The sound of shuffling footsteps brought his head up once again, and he watched silently as four silver-haired men took their places at a table facing the one at which he and Billy were seated. With their plain, dark suits and somber demeanors, the men could have blended into the Board of Directors of most corporations in the country. They could have been meeting to listen to reports of profits and losses, sales projections and market forecasts. Instead they awaited accounts of violence and betrayal, of life and death.
Bile burned upward from Lee’s stomach as he watched the figure on the far right of the group. The man’s pale eyes flickered toward him, and the barest hint of a sardonic smile formed on the thin lips before Austin Smyth raised his ever-present cigarette. There was an unmistakable challenge in the cold visage as the Agency Director took a leisurely drag and then allowed the smoke to escape in a narrow column toward the ceiling.
Lee stared steadily into his superior’s countenance and felt a brief stab of satisfaction when Smyth broke eye contact, looking away with a haughty flare of his nostrils and a faint elevation of his narrow chin, as though the entire procedure was somehow unworthy of his notice. If not for the anger burning through him, Lee might have appreciated the irony in that attitude; after all, Smyth was solely responsible for the events of the past week. He had, as usual, directed his minions with the precision and ruthlessness of a chess master, never concerning himself over how many pawns were lost as long as the desired outcome was achieved.
As though reading his thoughts, Billy nudged Lee firmly in the side, prompting him to drag his gaze toward Dirk Fredericks, who was rising from the adjacent table. Smyth’s detachment clearly wasn’t shared by the Internal Affairs guru. Fredericks almost vibrated with zealous urgency as he stalked to the middle of the room and then turned to face the defense table.
“I want to remind you, Scarecrow, that this is an administrative hearing, not a criminal trial. While I will be presenting the case against you, each member of the panel has the right to request clarification or pose supplemental questions. You must answer all questions fully and truthfully, unless the chief hearing officer,” Fredericks turned to nod briefly toward Dr. Smyth, “strikes a question in response to an objection by your chosen representative.” Dirk glanced impassively at Billy Melrose before continuing. “You have no fifth amendment right to refuse to testify during this proceeding. I’m certain you understand; you’ve been through this process once before, haven’t you?”
Lee glared mutinously but kept a firm command over his temper. “Yes,” he replied stiffly.
“Very good. Please note that Ms. Black --,” Fredericks gestured toward a matronly woman seated near the panel, her fingers already flying across the keys of a stenograph machine, “is recording this proceeding, and will provide a full transcript for Agency records and for any criminal or civil actions that may arise from the incident.”
“It is the purpose of this Board of Inquiry to determine whether Lee Stetson was negligent in the death of his associate, Mrs. Amanda King.”
Dirk Fredericks’ eyes narrowed thoughtfully as they focused on Lee, and when the man spoke, his words were laced with scorn. “I believe we should open this hearing by reviewing the circumstances of the last occasion when Scarecrow found himself before a full administrative board, charged with negligence in the death of his partner.”
His control slipping, Lee was halfway out of his seat, ready to launch himself toward Fredericks’ mocking countenance, when he felt a firm grip on his left arm.
“I object.” Billy’s voice was calm and clear, only a pulsing muscle in the hand on Lee’s sleeve giving evidence of his own internal struggle. After a short pause, as though to reassure himself that Lee’s outburst had been quelled, he rose purposefully to his feet. “Lee was cleared of negligence in the death of Eric Jarvis. The facts of that case are irrelevant to this proceeding.”
“I disagree. Even though Stetson was cleared of criminal responsibility,” Fredericks’ voice amplified as he paced a short path across the carpeted floor. He emphasized his words with brisk hand motions, aiming one finger at Lee and then waving expansively. “The similarity of his actions -- the blatant disregard for Agency protocol in both situations -- clearly demonstrates a pattern of impulsive behavior and irresponsible decision-making.”
“Mr. Fredericks has a valid point,” Dr. Smyth interjected blandly as he contemplated Lee through partially hooded eyes. “Stetson has always had an unfortunate tendency to disregard the rules when they don’t suit his own purposes.”
On the far left of the panel, a tall man with a decided military bearing rose from his chair before speaking in dignified tones. “Excuse me, Gentlemen. Although my expertise is in medicine, not espionage, I understand that there are times when a field agent must be guided by circumstances; not every scenario can be fully anticipated by an operations manual.”
“But every field agent *must* be held accountable for the consequences of his or her actions,” Dirk argued passionately, pointing a quivering finger toward Lee while glancing back over his shoulder toward Dr. Jeremiah Hanson, Chief of BioMedical Operations at the Agency. “Without accountability, mavericks like Lee Stetson would be free to act as they please, recklessly endangering the lives of both their co-workers and innocent civilians!”
Harold Whiting, Chief of Internal Operations, cleared his throat deferentially from his seat beside Dr. Smyth. A rotund, round-faced man, he smiled benignly at the assembly before speaking. “May I suggest that we obtain the transcripts of the former hearing, so that they may be reviewed as necessary. It doesn’t seem quite fair to expect Mr. Stetson to recall all of the details of an incident that occurred . . . when was it?” He paused to shuffle the small stack of papers before him. “Ah, yes, well over five years ago.”
Clearly disappointed by the murmur of assent from the administrative board, Fredericks rounded on Lee again and straightened his shoulders. When he spoke, his words were no longer combative but smooth and pretentious. “All right, then, perhaps we should start with your association with Amanda King. You recruited her to work for the Agency in 1983, isn’t that correct?”
Lee forced himself to take several deep, steadying breaths. The eerie feeling of déjà vu he had experienced when his mind was wrenched back to that earlier loss had left him feeling slightly unbalanced. In a way, there was an odd sense of relief in the memory of that former version of himself, the Lee Stetson who had not been changed so completely and irrevocably, the Lee Stetson who could deal with unbearable pain by denying its existence. He took a sip of tepid water from the glass tumbler near his right elbow as he tried to wrap the persona of that other Lee Stetson around himself like a protective blanket. “I didn’t exactly recruit her. My initial contact with Ama -- uh, Mrs. King was purely coincidental, and I never expected to work with her again. Billy was the one who made the decision to offer her a job; at the time, I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about the idea.”
“So it’s true that you frequently objected to being asked to work with Mrs. King . . . .” Fredericks’ tone suddenly became accusatory. “You objected to being partnered with an untrained civilian, and you argued about being paired with her on assignments?”
Lee seemed to hear his own voice resonate from a great distance; it sounded unexpectedly steady and unemotional. “I did have some misgivings about exposing a civilian, especially a mother of two small boys, to the dangers inherent to working for the Agency.”
“And would it be accurate to say that your feelings changed over time?”
“My . . . what?” Lee was suddenly jerked out of the comforting fog surrounding him. “I’m . . . I’m not sure . . . what you mean,” he stammered.
“I think the question is perfectly clear. Did your feelings toward Amanda King change between your first meeting with her in 1983 and her death, two days ago.”
“A-man-da.” Lee groaned, the delicate fragrance of his wife’s perfume threatening his tenuous restraint. “Would you hurry? They’re gonna be here any minute.”
Amanda’s dark hair teased the sensitive skin of his neck as she raised her head, and he sucked his breath in sharply. He watched her purse her lips as she gazed up at him, a hint of exasperation mingling with the tenderness in her coffee brown eyes. Stolen moments alone together were few and far between, and he knew by the faint flush suffusing her cheekbones that she was affected every bit as much as he was by the intimate contact.
“You’re just lucky I came prepared.” Her voice held a familiar raspy quality, and the slight trembling of her hands belied her unhurried movements. “Although we could do this a lot faster if you’d hold still.” Her fingers brushed the smoothness of his chest as she slid one hand beneath the slightly wrinkled fabric of his shirt, and he heard a faint sigh arise from the depths of her throat. “It would be even better if you’d take your shirt off.”
“I took my shirt off once,” he reminded her with a roguish chuckle, snaking one arm around her waist and pulling her more tightly against him. “That’s how I got into this predicament.”
“Yeah, well, you should’ve taken the time to unbutton it.” She laughed softly, once more dropping the silky fabric to bat his hand away. Lowering her head again, she slipped a needle carefully through the material and then through the last tiny button.
“I couldn’t help myself.” Lee placed one finger under her chin to gently raise her face, while forming his lips into the pout he knew she found almost irresistible. “Technically, we’re still newlyweds.”
“Technically, we’re not even dating,” she corrected him severely, for once apparently immune to his plaintive expression. She shook off his hand, and for a moment she seemed totally engrossed in her task before she slowly raised her eyes again to his. “Lee,” she said cautiously, concern evident in her measured tones, “you don’t suppose that’s why they called this meeting . . . maybe they found out we’re married . . . . ” As her voice trailed off, two perfect, white teeth pressed into her lower lip.
“Nah.” Lee feigned a confidence he didn’t quite feel at Amanda’s mention of his own niggling worry. “If they’d have found us out, we wouldn’t be meeting here.” He waved one arm around the nondescript motel room, barely avoiding contact with the sewing needle in Amanda’s slackened grasp. “Dr. Smyth thinks it adds to his aura of power to summon agents down to his office to chew them out. He wouldn’t miss the opportunity to flaunt our situation in front of the entire Agency.”
“I suppose,” she said, sounding hopeful but unconvinced. “But why *would* they want to meet us nearly fifty miles outside of D.C.?”
Lee shrugged but offered no further comment or resistance as Amanda quickly attached the final button to his abused shirt and then returned the tiny sewing kit to her purse.
Waves of memory crashed over Lee as he stared at Dirk Fredericks. He was vaguely aware that the man was waiting for an answer, but his mind refused to form a coherent response. He was absolutely certain, whether he attempted to affirm or deny his feelings for Amanda, he would erupt in a cataclysm of anger and frustration.
Falling back on a technique he had learned years previously in counter-interrogation training, Lee shifted his attention to a spot over his tormentor’s left shoulder, and he tried to block out everything within his field of vision except the nondescript wall clock hanging there. By the sheer power of conscious will, he forced himself to breathe slowly and evenly until his heartbeat matched the rhythmic pulse of the timepiece’s second hand. So successful was his self-imposed trance that he barely noticed when Fredericks began to pace.
“Rather than assume that you are being intentionally obtuse, Scarecrow,” Fredericks finally said with an exaggerated sigh, ”I will try to be more precise. In her position as a civilian aide, Amanda King looked up to you, didn’t she?”
As he allowed the room to slowly come back into focus, Lee struggled to keep his voice level and his words ambiguous. “I suppose so.”
“You suppose so?” Fredericks raised a sarcastic eyebrow as he paused to contemplate Lee. “How could there be any doubt in your mind? Amanda King was an ordinary housewife, leading a humdrum suburban existence in Arlington before she met you. And you were the Great Scarecrow . . . a seasoned agent, a debonair man of the world, a man who not only provided her with her first taste of glamour and intrigue but who also saved her life on more than one occasion. How could she not look up to you?” Fredericks halted again. Placing both hands on the defense table, he leaned forward until his face was only inches from Lee’s. “But as she gained confidence and experience, things changed, didn’t they? Mrs. King began to feel more like an equal than a subordinate --”
“Objection!” Billy cut in sharply, drowning out the remainder of Fredericks’ statement. “You’re making presumptions as to the feelings of a person who isn’t here to confirm or deny your opinion. “
Fredericks shot a disgusted glance at the Field Section Chief before straightening. “Fine,” he said, smiling smugly as though convinced he had already made his point, “Ms. Black can strike my last sentence from the record. I am merely trying to establish how Stetson felt about Mrs. King’s advancement in status and responsibility level. Perhaps he could tell us that.”
Lee closed his eyes for a moment. Bringing both hands to his forehead, he rubbed his temples vigorously before answering with succinct and deliberate calm. “Amanda works . . . worked hard, and she had special qualities that made her a valuable asset to the Agency. Resourcefulness . . . loyalty . . . and a unique way of looking at cases that enabled her to see clues everyone else overlooked. She deserved any recognition she got.”
Fredericks appeared unimpressed by the speech Lee had so carefully rehearsed after his boss forewarned him of this probable line of questioning. “Come, come, Scarecrow. Your little protégé was slowly building her own reputation at the Agency. Are you telling the panel that you weren’t even the slightest bit jealous?”
‘You sound like a jealous person.’ Amanda’s words from a long-ago case echoed in Lee’s brain. As fleeting images of James Delano, Alan Chamberlain, and Joe King invaded his mind, he wondered bitterly whether Fredericks knew how close to the truth he had struck. In the other man’s eyes, however, the question must have been rhetorical, because he shot another question at Lee almost without pausing for breath.
“You felt the need to keep Amanda King in her place, to prove that you were the superior agent, didn’t you?”
“No!” Here, at least, Lee felt he was on safe ground. While there might have been a time, in the distant past, when that accusation would have rung true, he knew without question that his wife was superior in every way that truly mattered.
“No?” Fredericks tilted his head to one side as a malicious smile over spread his features. “So you never attempted to prevent her from handling cases on her own?”
Lee stood rigidly while Billy Melrose passed a small, black box in a sweeping motion across his torso and down his arms and legs. Despite his reassurances to Amanda just a few minutes previously, he had been worried that this meeting signaled the revelation of their clandestine marriage and possibly the end of their Agency careers. And while he was more certain now, due to Billy’s careful inspection of the premises and its four occupants, that their personal lives weren’t on the agenda this morning, the extraordinary security measures were setting his professional instincts on full alert. A briefing outside the stolid facade of I.F.F. usually meant one of two things: a case so controversial that the Agency Director wouldn’t admit to official involvement . . . or a mole.
Billy slipped the debugging device into his jacket pocket before turning to face the dour figure of his immediate superior. “Everything’s clean,” he stated with a curt nod. “From now on,” he added, looking to Lee and Amanda in turn, “we use full zephyr-level security measures.”
“Zephyr-level?” An involuntary whistle escaped Lee. If there had been any doubt remaining in his mind as to the purpose of this meeting, it would have dissipated as he studied the grim faces of the other two men. This was going to be an assignment. Probably deep undercover . . . and unquestionably critical. But even as his inner agent snapped to almost mechanical attention, his inner man was assailed by conflicting feelings. As much as he would have hated the threat of being separated from his wife by an information lockout, he was equally uncomfortable with the idea of her being involved, however peripherally, in a high risk mission so soon after her recovery from the injury she had sustained on their California honeymoon.
In characteristic style, Austin Smyth didn’t waste time with pleasantries, merely directing an emotionless smile and a calculating stare at the top agent. “Zephyr-level, Scarecrow,” he affirmed in his usual caustic tone, “and an ill wind that may well magnify to tornado proportions before you and Mrs. King find your way home again.” Eyes narrowing, his mood changed suddenly from cryptic to businesslike. “I’ll get straight to the point, kiddies,” he said, lowering himself stiffly into the room’s only chair and steepling his fingers before him. “You’re all familiar with the Strategic Defense Initiative?”
Lee saw Amanda’s gaze flicker toward him, and he knew, from the telltale smile tugging at the corners of her soft, red lips, that she was thinking the same thing he was. It was during their investigation, just over a year ago, into Tony Martinet’s involvement with Maria Von Klausen, Director of Laser Research for the S.D.I., that they had finally given in to their burgeoning feelings for each other. They had commemorated the successful conclusion of that case by sharing their first real kiss.
It was only with difficulty that Lee dragged his mind from that pleasant memory back to the present. “The first phase of the S.D.I. laser research project,” Smyth was saying, “was completed two months ago. Since we know that the Russians haven’t wavered in their determination to share Dr. Von Klausen’s expertise in laser technology, the S.D.I. specifications have been placed in Agency files for protection. In less than two weeks, the President will be attending the Intercontinental Missile Defense Symposium. He is counting on using Dr. Von Klausen’s research as leverage to encourage several of our less enthusiastic allies to throw their support behind our position on cooperative missile defense systems.” Smyth paused to ignite yet another cigarette and then replaced the gold-plated lighter in one of his inner jacket pockets. He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply before continuing. “It would take a great deal of the wind from the President’s sails if the S.D.I. specifications fell into the wrong hands before the symposium.”
Lee folded his arms across his chest as he cast an impatient look from Smyth to Billy and back. Despite Smyth’s annoying predilection for euphemisms and clichés, the implications of his speech were abundantly clear. “Then I assume we’ve clamped a tight lid on them.”
Smyth looked significantly at his Field Section Chief, and Lee was certain that some unspoken communication passed between the two men.
“The specifications have been split into three separate computer files in a C.C.S.P.,” Billy said briskly. “None of the files can be accessed without the password and a delta eighteen security clearance.”
Lee glanced again at Amanda; if he hadn’t been so tense, he would have smiled at her look of intense concentration. “C.C.S.P. means a crisscross security pattern,” he stated for her benefit. “The computer program printouts can be converted into transparencies, which would have be layered in the correct alignment to read the full specifications.”
Amanda’s brow furrowed as she processed this new information and worked through to the most logical conclusion. “Everything sounds secure to me, sir, but obviously there’s still a problem.”
“Very astute,” interjected Smyth, waving a long finger in her direction. “One point for the lady. Actually, we have reason to suspect that two of the three computer programs have been copied and removed from the Agency.”
So bland was the Agency Director’s tone that, for a moment, the meaning of his words didn’t register. When they finally did, Lee was rendered almost speechless from surprise. The theft of a delta eighteen file could only be executed by someone in the uppermost reaches of the Agency hierarchy. And even Smyth couldn’t accomplish it without leaving a trail a mile wide; access to such a high level file was too easy to trace. “Do we have any idea as to how the information is being moved?” he asked, more to give himself time to think than because he expected a positive reply.
Billy’s answer, however, was immediate and blunt. “It appears that the physical transmission is being done by members of our trainee pool.”
“Now, wait a minute!” Lee exploded, his initial suspicion fueled by the knowledge that Amanda had neither the experience nor the security clearance to be involved in a zephyr-level case. “If you’re implying that Amanda might be involved --”
Smyth raised a haughty brow, but Billy stared his agent into silence with one warning look. “Calm down, Scarecrow. No one is accusing Amanda. Even if we suspected her loyalty, which we don’t, there is only one way a trainee could gain access to those files. Someone else would have to provide the correct password *and* authorize a temporary increase in security clearance.”
“Then I don’t understand why you suspect one of the trainees, sir,” Amanda interjected reasonably.
“I didn’t say we suspected one of the trainees, Amanda,” Billy explained, his voice kind but his expression grave. ”We believe that members of our trainee pool have been tricked into acting as couriers.” Pausing for a moment, he appeared to be choosing his words carefully. “You knew a trainee agent by the name of John Franks?”
“Yes, sir,” Amanda replied, twisting the delicate chain of her necklace as she often did when distressed. “John and I were in several classes together, but he was killed in a traffic accident two months ago. Beaman said that his death was investigated by a field task force, but no Agency link was found.”
Billy thrust both hands into his trouser pockets, and he took several short steps across the worn carpet. “That’s the official story. What very few people know is that Franks was alive when he was pulled from the wreckage of his car, and he was able to say a few words to the paramedics before he died.” Billy paced back to his original position before continuing. “Dan Russert was the agent in charge of the task force, and he interviewed the paramedics personally. When he heard Franks’ final words, he came straight to me, and I threw a blanket over the investigation.”
“And I take it Franks’ final words were somehow connected to the S.D.I. laser research project,” Lee said quietly.
“Franks’ statement included the security clearance code and password for one of the S.D.I. files. It took some digging, but a thorough screen of computer activity that day showed someone had accessed that file.”
“Did he admit to stealing the information?” From the sparkle in his wife’s dark brown eyes, Lee knew that she was ready to jump to Franks’ defense.
“No.” Billy shook his head thoughtfully. “Franks apparently believed he was on a training assignment. He mentioned his ‘Covers and Contacts’ course and zulu blue. At the time, we weren’t even sure whether he was supposed to be killed or if something went wrong with the transfer--”
“So he could have recognized his contact?” Lee cut in.
Billy spread his hands in a gesture of frustration. “It’s possible, but he didn’t say.”
“Since the unfortunate incident with agent Franks,” Smyth said, “I have been running my own surveillance on zulu level computer transmissions. Last month, I detected a suspicious transmission to another agent trainee --”
“Brian Peterson,” whispered Amanda, some of the color draining from her cheeks.
“Your protégé catches on quickly.” Smyth glanced from Amanda to Lee and back. “Brian Peterson. We immediately suspected a link to Franks and the S.D.I. files. Peterson was put under 24 hour surveillance, but he managed to slip away from the team tailing him.”
Lee stared at the Agency Director as he realized what the older man was saying. “You didn’t warn him,” he spat out in disbelief.
Smyth waved an arm dismissively. “Doing so might have tipped whoever was trying to steal the laser plans.”
“Doing so might have saved a man’s life!” Lee barked, outraged -- not for the first time -- by his superior’s callous disregard for the welfare of his employees.
The Agency Director shrugged, as though a life or death decision were of no more significance than the choice of which necktie would best adorn his designer label suit. “It was a calculated risk -- one which, unfortunately, failed. Which gives us,” he added, pausing only long enough to crush the remainder of his cigarette into the cheap ashtray on a small table by his right elbow, “one last opportunity to plug this leak and, believe me, I intend to plug it. If I allow the laser research plans to be stolen from under the very noses of the Agency’s finest, I will be a laughing stock, and my standing will sink considerably on Capital Hill -- something I have no intention of allowing to happen. Therefore, Billy and I have devised a little counterattack.“
“And how do Amanda and I fit into this plan of yours?” Lee ground out, his temper barely under control. Nothing, however, would have prepared him for Smyth’s next words.
“We have determined that Mrs. King is the best candidate for this phase of the operation.”
A feeling of dread filled Lee at the idea that Smyth planned to place Amanda into the same position as the two trainees who had been killed. In contrast, and without even seeing her expression, Lee could tell that his wife was pleased. She stood perceptibly taller and straightened her shoulders before speaking. “Thank you, sir.”
Smyth’s eyes traveled casually up and down her slender form. “No thanks necessary, King,” he drawled, his tone as dry as sandpaper. “Without the third computer file, the first two are worthless. And in order to have a plan in place to stop the theft of the final file, it was imperative to know who would be selected as courier. Your injury status created the perfect opportunity for us to force the hand of the person making that selection.”
Smyth pulled a gold pocket watch from inside his jacket and flicked it open. As though he were addressing that inanimate object, rather than members of his elite field team, he continued. “At the time of your physical in mid-May, Dr. Kelford approved your return to full duty. However, he left a restriction on your file against the most strenuous levels of physical activity. As of seven o’clock this morning,” he closed the watch with a snap, “the remainder of the agent candidates have been ordered to report to Station Twelve for advanced survival training. Since the other trainees will be away for the entire week, and you will be here on regular field rotation, you are the only available courier. And the transfer must take place this week, before the final plans are sent to President’s National Security advisors and the C.C.S.P. ends.”
The implications of this tactic further infuriated Lee. They were going to force someone’s hand . . . push a desperate man against a wall and wait for him to strike back. “It’s too obvious,” he growled. “Ten to one he’ll know it’s a trap.”
“Which is one reason we’re telling both you and Amanda about this,” Billy said firmly. “We don’t want a repeat of the Peterson incident; we’ll be better prepared this time.”
It was suddenly clear to Lee that Billy was doing his best to protect Amanda. From his Section Chief’s subdued demeanor as Smyth had spoken about Brian Peterson, Lee had received the clear impression that he had argued Peterson’s right to be told the truth and that he regretted being overruled on the issue. Lee also felt the clear conviction that it had been Billy, not Smyth, who had demanded this morning’s disclosures.
As anger and dread spiraled toward panic, Lee met his wife’s determined eyes and knew it was futile to argue further. It was three against one. Despite the risk, Amanda had no intention of refusing the assignment.
Lee stared past Dirk Fredericks to the four men who were weighing his fate. Austin Smyth's aura of cool detachment certainly didn't extend to any of the others. Hanson was observing the proceeding with an expression of concerned reserve, periodically jotting a note on the legal pad before him, but most often studying Lee as though he were a subject in one of Medical Section's research projects. Whiting, on the other hand, seemed more prone to alarmed benevolence than scientific control. He hadn't, as far as Lee could tell, taken any notes but rather sat chewing absently on the end of his pencil while listening to the testimony -- at times leaning forward in silent encouragement and at others cringing back as though startled by the intensity of of the questioning.
Lee couldn't quite decipher the attitude of the Chief of Internal Security. Seated between Hanson and Whiting, Robert Beck was scrutinizing Fredericks nearly as critically as he was examining the defense table. As Lee saw a fleeting look pass between the two men, he realized that, in Fredericks’ eyes, this hearing was not merely a quest for justice; it was an opportunity to impress his own immediate supervisor. Whether he was succeeding was open to speculation. Lee had little personal experience with Beck, and the grapevine gossip was evenly divided. Some said he was a hard, but fair, man -- concerned mainly with ensuring that all operations within his sphere of authority were handled strictly according to written procedure. Others said his ambition to replace Smyth at some point in the nebulous future frequently led him to run roughshod over anything and anyone who got in his way.
Fredericks cleared his throat imperiously, and Lee returned his attention to the question at hand. “I’ve always felt responsible for Amanda," he stated evenly, "even more so since she became my official partner. If I objected to her taking an assignment, it was because I didn’t want her to get hurt.”
“So you doubted Mrs. King’s abilities?”
Lee swore under his breath. Like any skillful prosecutor, Fredericks seemed to possess an innate ability to twist a defendant’s words to suit his own purpose. “I didn’t say that,” he said through teeth clenched so tightly that they were beginning to ache. Remembering, just in time, Billy’s admonition to supply only information that was specifically asked of him, he suppressed the remainder of the tirade threatening to spill from him.
“It appears that someone, at least, thought highly enough of Mrs. King’s potential to give her an opportunity to prove her worth.”
Lee wanted to scream that everyone who knew Amanda thought highly of her, but he knew that wasn’t the way this game was played. Billy Melrose, his law degree supplemented by a dozen years’ experience in as Field Section Chief, had coached him well. Don’t lose your temper, Billy had drilled into him. State what you know, not what you think you know. Don’t be goaded into giving information Fredericks won’t think to ask for. And don’t answer until you’re asked. “I don’t think that’s a question,” Lee snapped as caustically as he dared.
Fredericks’ eyes drifted to Billy, and he cocked a supercilious brow. “Touché.” When he turned back to Lee, his voice was silky. "Even when Mrs. King had only civilian auxiliary status, she frequently participated in undercover investigations, isn't that true?"
"I guess that depends on your definition of 'frequently,'" Lee responded dryly.
"More than once?"
"More than ten times?"
"More than twenty times?"
Lee began to regret his rash challenge. The stuffy chamber was becoming uncomfortably warm, and his mind felt correspondingly sluggish. "Probably;" he finally said. "I'm really not sure."
Unlike Lee, Fredericks seemed to be enjoying himself. "More than fifty times?"
"No," Lee said, struggling again to maintain his temper.
"So" Fredericks drew the word out dramatically. "Let the record show that Scarecrow believes Mrs. King participated somewhere between twenty and fifty undercover investigations before she became an agent candidate. Would that be an accurate statement of your testimony?"
"And, as you were the senior agent -- actually, the only trained agent -- on those occasions, may I assume that you instructed Mrs. King on her role in these investigations?"
Suddenly wary of the direction the questioning was taking, Lee sat up straighter and forced himself to concentrate. "Yes," he answered cautiously.
"And did Mrs. King follow your instructions?"
Lee almost choked at the reminder of how often he had been frustrated by Amanda's blithe disregard of the simplest instructions. 'Amanda never does exactly what she's told' he recalled complaining to Billy on more than one occasion. Now, however, he wanted nothing so much as to defend her. He owed her that much, at least. "When working in the field, an agent -- or even a civilian -- has to make decisions based on the circumstances at hand, which may or may not have been discussed in the pre-case briefing," he replied stiffly.
Fredericks shook his head almost pityingly. "I asked a 'yes' or 'no' question, Scarecrow. Did Mrs. King always follow your instructions?"
"No," Lee hissed, clenching his hands tightly in front of him to subdue an almost overwhelming urge to wrap them around the other man's throat.
"And despite that fact, would you say, overall, her performance was satisfactory?"
This hadn't been at all what Lee was expecting. "Yes."
"Would you say that she contributed to the success of your joint missions?"
"And did she ever, to your knowledge, act recklessly, disregarding your safety, her own, or the outcome of the mission."
Torn between the oath to answer truthfully and the need to protect his wife, Lee focused on the first half of the question; he could honestly say that Amanda had never been reckless. "No."
Fredericks smiled like a cat who had swallowed a particularly tasty canary. "Then, returning to your earlier statement that you only objected to Mrs. King taking assignments if you were concerned for her safety, can you explain to the panel why you felt she was incapable of making such decisions on her own?"
Lee raised his head as the door to the Q Bureau swung open with a faint creak. Automatically straightening his tie and smoothing the wrinkles from his sport coat, he watched pensively as Amanda stepped over the threshold. Her air of natural elegance drew a stark contrast to his own rumpled appearance; more than two hours of pacing a circuitous path around the cramped confines of their personal sanctum had taken the expected toll on an image he had already recognized as tired and careworn in his bathroom mirror in the early hours of the morning. He could only assume from his wife’s cheery demeanor and bright expression that one of them, at least, had enjoyed a decent night’s sleep.
“You’re late this morning,” he said curtly, cringing inwardly as a puzzled frown replaced her welcoming smile. Bringing one finger to his lips, he signaled a silent warning before nodding faintly toward the pencil holder occupying the exact center of his desktop.
For a moment he thought her features registered mild astonishment, but she nodded almost imperceptibly and closed the door with a loud ‘whoosh’. Moving forward, she set her feet down so decisively that the sound of her footsteps seemed to echo in the stillness of the small office. “I thought I told you,” she said, positioning herself so that she was speaking almost directly to the collection of ball-point pens and half-used lead pencils. “I had to take Mother and the boys to the train station this morning.”
“Oh . . . yeah,” he muttered, assuming an air of lazy indifference. “I forgot. They’re going on some kind of nature hike, aren’t they?”
“Camping,” Amanda stated, the annoyed edge to her voice at odds with the enthusiastic sparkle in her eyes. “They’re on their way to Maine to go camping with my Aunt Minnie and her son, Tom’s, family.” She paused dramatically and infused her voice with the perfect mixture of resignation and regret. “I wish I’d known that this week’s ‘Covers and Contacts’ classes were going to be canceled; I would’ve asked Mr. Melrose for some time off so I could go with them. Tom says the north end of the Appalachian Trail is gorgeous at this time of year, and I’ve always wanted to camp along the Allagash Wilderness Waterway. I guess it’s for the best, though,” she added with a soft sigh, moving to her desk and dropping her purse on its surface with a muffled thump. “I’ve taken too much time off this Spring, and you’ve generated enough paperwork in the last few days to keep me busy here for the next month.”
“Just be glad you’re not going to Station Twelve this week,” Lee snorted. “By the second or third day, you’d be glad to trade fresh air and sunshine for stale coffee and a computer screen.”
“Oh, I don’t know; it might’ve been kinda fun,” Amanda countered, sliding into her chair and resting her chin in her hands, her elbows supported on her own desk’s surface. “I’ve had a head start on survival training, you know.” She wrinkled her nose as she cast him a look of mock challenge. “I’m the only Junior Trailblazer in my training section.”
Lee shook his head, barely repressing the chuckle that threatened to escape. “Junior Trailblazers is for kids from the suburbs, Amanda. Station Twelve isn’t just walking in the woods and roasting marshmallows around a campfire,” he said, trying to strike a careful balance between amusement and condescension. “I spent my last three days chewing on tree bark after my C-rations ran out.”
Amanda rolled her eyes, clearly unimpressed by this parry. “Junior Trailblazers don’t need C-rations. All of the kids learn how to catch and prepare fish and recognize edible berries and --”
“Which would do you a hell of a lot of good if you were stranded in the desert of North Africa,” he interrupted sarcastically, taking the sting from his words by winking and blowing her a kiss.
“Where you’d manage to find an abundant diet of tree bark, I suppose,” she shot back dryly, making an exaggerated show of catching his offering and pressing it to her own lips.
“Forget it,” Lee said sourly, grinning broadly and pointing one finger toward the open door of the records’ vault.
“Fine. I need to file these old case status summaries, anyway.” Amanda rose from her chair and reached for a small stack of folders on the right corner. Shaking them firmly to create a faint rattling, she set them down quietly in their original position.
”Would you take these, too?” Lee rustled his own sheaf of papers.
Amanda’s lips twitched with suppressed laughter “My hands are full. Can you at least carry them into the vault?”
“Yeah, come on. Maybe I’ll even help you file them,” Lee said with a wink, “to make up for giving you such a hard time about the Junior Trailblazers. I almost forgot what a good swamp rat you are.” Scrapping his chair on the floor as he rose, he motioned Amanda into the vault and followed close behind, admiring of the gentle swish of her skirt around her shapely legs.
As he entered the vault and pushed the door firmly closed, he noticed that Amanda had already flipped on the small cassette player they had set up to deter eavesdroppers. The lilting strains of a love ballad filled his ears as he pulled her against him. “You’re cute when you’re shrewish,” he murmured softly against her hair, before tilting her chin up to press a lingering kiss to her full lips.
She rubbed sensuously against him in the way that almost invariably made him lose his train of thought. “I think you’re just trying to make me forget that ‘swamp rat’ comment,” she teased.
“And you’re trying to make me forget what I wanted to say to you,” he countered, enfolding both of her hands in his and taking a half step backward. “Amanda, this is serious. I’ve been thinking, and . . . maybe you ought to reconsider this assignment. You don’t have to go through with it.”
“No. Just listen, please,” he begged, gently shaking the hands he was holding. “I’ve been going over and over this in my head, and there are too many things that we don’t know . . . too many things that could go wrong. It’s too dangerous.”
She closed her eyes, as though trying to organize her thoughts, and when she opened them they were full of quiet determination. “What kind of an agent am I going to be if I refuse any assignment that’s dangerous?”
“A live one.” Seeing her disappointed frown, Lee let out a deep sigh and dropped her hands. “I have a bad feeling about this, Amanda. And I don’t like that I’m not gonna be the one out there watching your back.”
“It’ll be all right,” she promised gravely, moving forward to rest her head gently against his shoulder, and tracing small circles on his back with the tips of her fingers. “Besides, you heard what Dr. Smyth said --”
“I don’t give a damn what the old man said,” he hissed, “I want to protect my wife.”
After a few seconds, she pushed herself away from him. “I have to do this, Lee.”
“I know,” he said, losing himself once again in the depths of her solemn brown eyes. “It’s a catch-22, isn’t it? I don’t want the woman I love to be in danger, but you wouldn’t be the woman I love if you refused.”
She took his hand and pressed a gentle kiss into the palm before she pulled him toward the door of the vault. “Thank you for understanding,” she whispered, just before she pulled it open.
Lee clenched his fists until his knuckles turned white as he glared at Dirk Fredericks. "I never said Amanda wasn’t capable of making her own decisions,” he growled, biting back the addendum that his opinion of those choices was immaterial. His wife’s ability to make almost instant decisions -- and stick to them in the face of strenuous opposition -- was a trait he found both admirable and frustrating. “I said I didn't want her to get hurt.”
“But if you were confident of her abilities . . . and if you believed her capable of evaluating an assignment and determining whether it was a good match for her own skills, why would you be expect her to be injured?”
On this question, at least, Lee felt he had the upper hand. "It's obvious you've never been a field agent,” he said scornfully. “Anything can happen out there. The most mundane milk-run can turn dangerous, even fatal."
Fredericks rubbed his chin, making an exaggerated show of considering Lee’s words. “Well, if every mission is hazardous, are you saying you objected to Mrs. King taking any assignments at all?”
Lee shifted uncomfortably. Once again, Fredericks had struck painfully close to the truth, at least the present truth. He had always felt a strong responsibility and protectiveness toward Amanda. But he also had to admit -- to himself, if to no one else -- that, for the first few years of their working relationship, he had been guilty of extending his own cocky delusion of invulnerability to her. That fantasy had been shattered four months ago. Ever since Amanda had recovered from the gunshot wound that had nearly taken her life, ever since her return to active duty at the Agency, Lee had been painfully cognizant of the fragility of a field agent’s existence. “Amanda almost died four months ago,” he said, his voice choking with emotion. “I guess I’ve been a little overprotective since then.”
“Perfectly understandable, I’m sure,” Fredericks said, his tone of forced compassion explained by the looks of distaste being directed at him by Hanson and Whiting. As though waiting for the heightened tension in the room to dissipate, he walked calmly to the prosecution table, picked up a clipboard, and turned a few pages, stopping several times to make notations with a red, felt-tipped pen. “Please excuse the interruption,” he apologized smoothly as he returned to his previous position, “I find it necessary to make periodic notes to myself, to keep an accurate record of of my progress.” Pausing, he raised a brow. “Would it be accurate to say that record-keeping is not your strong point, Scarecrow?”
The change of tactics temporarily disoriented Lee. A major admission had been forced from him, and he had expected Fredericks to turn it to his own advantage. Lee turned instinctively toward his boss, hoping for some sign that this line of questioning had been expected. At Billy’s perplexed shrug, he returned his attention to the man smirking down at him. “I don’t think that’s much of a secret,” he said with as much nonchalance as he could muster.
Fredericks slid his hands into his pockets and sauntered casually along the edge of the defense table. “And yet, accurate record-keeping is vital to Agency operations, wouldn’t you agree?”
Lee studied his opponent as he tried to determine where this query was headed. “I’m sure Billy would agree; I don’t usually think much about it.”
"Consider it now,” Fredericks invited, gesturing expansively. “Consider the vast amount of information vital to a government operation as complex as the Agency. Dr. Hanson’s section is responsible for the medical and psychological records of over five hundred employees as well as dozens of research projects. Mr. Whiting's section has the monumental task of handling not only all of the payroll for those employees but also the budget and expense of every operation within this organization. And Mr. Beck must maintain the precise system of checks and balances that keep all of us secure and incorruptible. I believe each of these gentlemen would agree with Mr. Melrose: without complete and accurate record-keeping, the Agency would fall into chaos in very short order.”
As Fredericks paused again, silence filled the tiny room. Since Lee knew it would be futile, even detrimental, to argue, he sat stone-faced, waiting for Fredericks to continue.
“Over the years, you became somewhat . . . dependent . . . on Mrs. King’s willingness to handle the more . . . mundane aspects of your responsibilities . . . case reports, typing, filing. Isn’t that true?”
“Yeah, I guess so,” Lee admitted with a noncommittal shrug.
“Mrs. King was accepted into formal agent-candidate training last fall, isn’t that correct?”
“And earlier, I did hear you refer to her as your partner, did I not?”
Once again, warning bells started chiming in Lee’s head. “Yes.”
“So.” Fredericks rambling steps came to an abrupt end, and he drew out the word as though expecting an earth-shattering revelation. “Since Mrs. King was taking a rigorous schedule of formal training classes, in addition to handling your paperwork and assisting you with whatever field investigations were assigned to the Q Bureau, what exactly did you do to hold up your end of this partnership?”
“You wanted to see me, Billy?” With only a cursory knock, Lee pushed open the door to his Section Chief’s office. Holding the silvery knob like a lifeline, he leaned his head and shoulders through the portal, uncharacteristically reluctant to enter. Usually a friendly bastion of tranquility, a calm refuge from the frenzied atmosphere of the bullpen, Field Section’s inner sanctum was now oppressive in its gloomy silence. There was an aura of desecration hanging in the still air -- as though the sanctity of an ancient temple had been violated.
“Close the door and have a seat; I’ll be with you in a minute,” the older man said, barely looking up from the stack of file folders in front of him on the solid wood desk. “I don’t know how this section is supposed to operate,” he grumbled loudly as he reached for his coffee. “Every year our budget decreases, and our case load increases.”
Lee’s nerves, already stretched taut in anticipation of this moment, tensed almost to the breaking point. The code phrase “budget decreases” signaled that Dr. Smyth’s covert scan of electronic transmissions had detected a zulu level dispatch to Amanda’s computer terminal in the Q Bureau. Any moment now, the second phase of Operation Deep-Six would swing into motion.
His feet frozen to the floor, Lee watched as his boss took a fortifying gulp from the ceramic mug and grimaced, as though surprised by the bitterness of the dark liquid. “If you’re busy . . . I can come back later,” he croaked, wondering whether his voice sounded even remotely normal as it squeezed past the large lump that had formed in his throat.
“Close the door and sit down,” Billy repeated, finally pushing the folders aside and directing a warning glare at his top agent. He wrapped both hands around the mug as if he, too, needed an anchor in this suddenly unfamiliar territory.
Since Lee already knew this room, like his own upstairs office, contained a well-concealed listening device, he assumed Billy’s steady gaze wasn’t cautioning him to guard his tongue. There was another reason for the other man’s disquiet. Moving to one of the leather armchairs and dropping into it, Lee stretched his long legs in front of him, trying to allay his supervisor’s unease with a show of, if not unconcern, at least resignation. “Whatever you say, boss,” he quipped with forced cheerfulness. “Although I probably should be out in the field earning my paycheck instead of sitting here enjoying the air-conditioning.”
Billy obviously wasn’t deceived; if anything, his frown deepened at his friend’s show of savoir-faire. “What you should do,” he stated tersely, picking up a pencil and tapping it to emphasize his words, “is go up to your office and document whatever field work you’ve managed to accomplish during the past four weeks.”
Hoping that this display was solely for the benefit of their hidden audience, Lee slumped further into the chair and affected a petulant sigh. “Oh, come on, Billy, I know I’m a little behind on paperwork, but --”
“But what you don’t seem to understand,” Billy cut in sharply, in the tone usually reserved for reprimanding slackers and raw recruits, “is that I can’t justify your salary if I can’t document that you ever close any cases.” He slapped his hand down on the desktop as he continued. “If you don’t give me reports on your case work, no one else within this organization has any idea of what you’re working on and whether you’re actually accomplishing anything.”
“Okay, I get it,” Lee said placatingly. “Look, Amanda’s had a really heavy class schedule since she got back from medical leave, but with the other agent trainees at Station Twelve, she should be able to spend most of the week helping me catch up. You know I’m all thumbs on a keyboard, but she’ll be able to get through a lot of the backlog.”
“You need to remember something, Scarecrow. Amanda isn’t now, and never was, solely responsible for your case reports. And she’s not civilian auxiliary anymore. As an agent candidate, she has her own responsibilities in addition to her work with you in the Q Bureau. It’s way past time for you to take on your fair share of the paperwork.”
Lee’s attention drifted as Billy continued his diatribe on the importance of timely reporting. He knew he should be listening, in case Billy’s words concealed some scrap of essential information -- but he was also certain the ill-timed if not totally unfounded lecture was not a penance for overdue paperwork. It was crystal clear that Billy wanted Lee in his office, under his own watchful eyes, until Amanda had left the building.
As if on cue, a soft rap sounded on the office window, and the door opened a crack. At Billy’s brusque “enter,” Amanda walked hesitantly into the room, making a great pretense of establishing that hers was an unexpected intrusion. “Excuse me, sir. I can see that you’re busy,” she began diffidently, “but could I interrupt for a just a minute?”
Lee studied his wife carefully. While most observers wouldn’t notice anything out of the ordinary in her appearance or bearing, he could detect a slight pallor to her cheeks and a magnified stiffness in her posture as she stood before them, her partially clasped hands fidgeting almost indiscernibly before her.
“Come in, Amanda,” Billy greeted her warmly while motioning for her to close the door and take a seat beside Lee . “Were you looking for Lee?”
“No, sir.” She walked gracefully to the chair and settled herself daintily on the edge, carefully smoothing her soft pink skirt. “Actually, I wanted to speak to you. I need a favor.”
“What can I do for you?” Billy asked, his casual tone at odds with the gravity of his expression.
Amanda’s gaze flitted around the room and finally came to rest on the credenza where the ‘bug’ was hidden. Straightening her shoulders, she continued in the same respectful tone. “Well, sir, you know that I’ve fallen behind in my coursework this Spring. I missed several weeks of class while I was on medical leave, and the Q Bureau has been really busy.” She turned toward Lee and gave him a smile that didn’t quite conceal the nervousness in her eyes. “I’m hoping to make up some of coursework while Effram and the rest my class are at Station Twelve this week.”
“Of course, Amanda, I understand perfectly,” Billy said encouragingly. “By coincidence, I was just discussing that issue with Lee. You go right ahead and take all the time you need.”
“Yes, well, the thing is, sir . . . “ When she paused and took a deep breath, it was impossible for even Lee to be certain whether the hesitation was part of her act. “The thing is, sir, that I have a casual surveillance assignment, but my jeep is in the shop. It’s been making a strange noise, and I left it with my mechanic yesterday. I don’t know when I’ll be getting it back.”
Lee had to clench the arms of his chair to prevent himself from reaching over and taking one of her hands. He was afraid, if he touched her, he wouldn’t be able to let go again when, all too soon, the time came. “Phillip has probably been playing around under the hood again,” he finally managed, his effort at flippancy sounding lame to his own ears.
His parry at least won another strained smile from his wife. “I don’t think so; I didn’t notice anything wrong before Mother and the boys left for Maine. But when I left home yesterday morning, it was going ‘grr . . . grr . . .whump . . . grr . . . grr . . . whump.”
“Grr ... grr... what?” Lee asked, momentarily diverted by the expressive gestures that accompanied her description of the fictitious mechanical problem.
Amanda tilted her head to one side thoughtfully. “No, it’s definitely a grr... grr... whump,” she said, her eyes sparkling for a moment with genuine amusement before she turned back toward Billy. “I was hoping I could use a car from the motor pool, since I’ll be on Agency business.”
The Field Section Chief, too, smiled faintly. “I don’t think that should be a problem, Amanda. Do you need the car today?”
Her gaze strayed to the listening device again as she nodded. “Yes, sir. This morning, if possible.”
“Fine. I’ll call down and authorize it.”
“Why don’t I go with you?” Lee leaned forward in his seat, anxious to complete this performance and escape. “I can give you a few pointers.”
“Oh.” Amanda seemed genuinely startled; her eyes widened, and a slight tremor appeared in her voice. “Well, thank you for offering. But I don’t need help; and, anyway, I’m supposed to do my coursework by myself.” As she spoke, she rose and took several halting steps toward the door.
“You’re not going anywhere, Scarecrow. You have an appointment with your computer and your keyboard,” Billy stated gruffly as Amanda slipped out of the office. Waiting only until she had closed the door quietly behind herself, he picked up his desk phone and punched in a sequence of numbers then quietly replaced the receiver.
Throwing himself out of his chair and stalking to the window, Lee lifted an edge of the narrow blind in time to see Amanda pause to pass a smile and a friendly greeting with the two military guards who had just come on duty. If he hadn’t expected it, he wouldn’t have noticed Dan Russert move unobtrusively through the bullpen and follow her silently through the double glass doors.
For a long moment, Lee stood almost immobile, flexing his fingers as he stared toward the hallway where his wife had disappeared. Glancing back to Billy, he read a combination of reassurance and concern in his boss’s dark eyes. Dan Russert was a good agent; he would risk his own life, if necessary, to ensure Amanda’s safety and the success of his mission. But there were no sure things in the world of espionage. Life or death could hinge on something as innocuous as the change of a traffic light or the excitability of a contact. As Billy’s phone rang, pulling the other man’s attention back into the day-to-day business of running his Section, Lee made his decision.
As Lee looked from Fredericks to Beck, he struggled to maintain a blank facade to hide his mounting suspicion. It could have been chance or guesswork that had led to this line of questioning. On the other hand, it seemed more than mere coincidence that Fredericks was mirroring the Wednesday morning discussion that had taken place in the Field Section Chief’s office.
He was about to risk a glance at Billy, to gauge whether his boss shared his suspicions, when there was an unexpected interruption.
“The panel has a fairly clear impression of Stetson’s working relationship with Mrs. King and his . . . imperfections as a partner and historian,” the Agency Director said languidly. “I think it’s time for us to move on to the facts of the incident in question.’
“I agree,” Dr. Hanson concurred, nodding his head solemnly. “While it is important for the members of the panel to have an understanding of Mr. Stetson’s psychological makeup, we don’t know whether any of the information presented thus far has a bearing on the circumstances leading up to Mrs. King’s death.”
It was apparent from Fredericks’ expression that he wanted to challenge Hanson’s skepticism. His face was slightly flushed and his narrowed eyes gave new meaning to the phrase ‘if looks could kill.’ When he spoke, though, his tone was cool. “Since most of the panel members know Stetson only by reputation,” he said, glossing past the reality that the Scarecrow was known as a topnotch operative who often succeeded where other agents had failed, “I think it’s important to lay a foundation for his actions on the morning in question. These questions bring to light character flaws which--”
“Which, I believe, have been sufficiently detailed,” Smyth stated in a tone that brooked no argument, for once abandoning his indolent pose and directing a withering stare at the Internal Affairs prosecutor.
Although Fredericks’ mouth remained set in a stubborn line, he swallowed visibly. He had no choice but to comply with the direct order to move forward. “Very well,” he said stiffly, as he walked back to the prosecution table. By the time he had exchanged the notes he had been using for a new stack of papers and turned to address the panel, he clearly had regained his cocky composure. “I believe you have all had an opportunity to review the initial briefing reports taken Wednesday afternoon -- including the statements made by Stetson and Field Section Chief William Melrose.” As he mentioned Billy’s name, Fredericks swiveled to nod curtly toward the defense table. “If there are no questions about the reports as submitted, I would like to walk Stetson through the events of Wednesday morning in order to clarify several details.”
“Actually, I have a concern,” Beck said, shuffling through the reports in front of him as though searching for a lost puzzle piece. “I understand from the briefing reports that Mrs. King was on a training assignment at the time of her death, yet there isn’t a report here from her training supervisor . . . . I believe Effram Beaman is the name that was briefly mentioned.”
“As you should have read,” Billy interjected smoothly, placing a hand on Lee’s arm to convey that he preferred to handle this topic, “Beaman and the rest of Mrs. King’s training section were at Station Twelve when this incident occurred. Since there are no telephone lines in that sector, I sent one of my field operatives, Dan Russert, to notify him. Beaman left immediately for Maine to track down Mrs. King’s family. I expect them all back in D.C. sometime this evening.”
Beck appeared aghast at the omission, despite the fact that it was almost unavoidable. “But surely the rules governing this proceeding require a report from the deceased’s immediate supervisor?”
Lee found himself smiling despite his inner turmoil. Billy’s air of calm assurance was much more impressive than Beck’s theatrical posturing. “Those rules also require that the preliminary inquest hearing be held within 48 hours,” the Field Section Chief said dryly, “in order that the incident remain clear in the minds of those giving testimony. We could have requested a continuance until next week in order to include a statement from Beaman, but doing so would have been counterproductive, being that he wasn’t directly involved in the incident.”
“We’ve already agreed that we should review the transcripts of the Jarvis inquest before making a final decision on this case,” Whiting piped up nervously, knocking over his stack of papers and grabbing ineffectually at several as they fluttered to the floor. “I doubt those documents will be available until next week, so perhaps William could make Mr. Beaman’s statement available at the same time?”
Lee coughed loudly in an attempt to disguise his involuntary snort of disdain at the little man’s jumpiness, but Billy spoke patiently, as though addressing an agitated child. “I’m sure that will be possible.”
“Fine,” cut in Fredericks, apparently anxious to regain control of the hearing. “If we have that small detail resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, we can move forward as Dr. Smyth has requested.” He directed a smile of obsequious charm at the Agency Director before focusing on Lee with glittering malice. “We have touched briefly on your feelings of . . . protectiveness toward your partner, Scarecrow, but I think the panel would like to know why, on Wednesday morning, you were following Mrs. King on a routine training mission.”
Lee kept one hand firmly on the steering wheel of his sleek sports car while he reached out to tweak a knob on the metallic box plugged into the cigarette lighter. Its electronic beeping rose slightly in pitch but maintained a steady, regular pattern as he executed a smooth right turn and accelerated.
Drumming his fingers on the dash, Lee mentally calculated how far he might be from Amanda. Russert was probably trailing her by about three blocks, to be sure that anyone observing the progress of her circuitous route through D.C. was unaware she had an Agency tail. The range of the tracking device installed inconspicuously behind the rear bumper of her Agency sedan was a quarter of a mile. Russert could safely keep almost that distance between them, since he knew Amanda wouldn’t make any effort to shake him off.
The identical device Lee had hidden on Russert’s plain blue coupe allowed him to stay well out of sight of the experienced agent, but it also meant that he could be as much as half a mile behind his wife at any given moment. And that half a mile gnawed at him. At his current rate of speed, it could take him a full minute to reach her -- and almost anything could happen in sixty seconds.
It had been over an hour since the small caravan had left the Agency. Amanda had made four stops, each lasting less than five minutes. Since the stops had been in well-populated shopping areas, he assumed that she had been directed to phone booths for further instructions.
Now, however, he felt that the meet was getting closer. They had left the bustling tourist sector and appeared to be winding their way toward the warehouse district along the Potomac River. With each passing block, his surroundings grew more drab and squalid while traffic became steadily thinner.
He was becoming concerned that he might have to drop out of range of the tracking device to prevent Russert from spotting the ‘Vette when the beeping changed to a low-pitched mechanical hum and then abruptly stopped, indicating that the other agent had come to a halt. Easing his foot from the accelerator, Lee slowed to a crawl until he caught sight of Russert’s car. It was only a short distance ahead, parked on a narrow street between two rows of huge, concrete block warehouses. As Lee pulled to the curb, he scanned the area, trying to determine which building seemed the most likely spot for the meet. The entire locale seemed unnaturally quiet, and he realized that most of the oppressive, gray buildings were vacant.
Exiting the car, he moved silently up the street, keeping as close as possible to the shadows of the tall warehouses. “Where are you, Amanda?” he muttered under his breath as he counted at least half a dozen steel doors through which she could have disappeared.
The words had barely left his mouth when he saw a small tangle of blue wire wrapped around a rusty railing on the right side of the street, halfway up the block. The iron bars framed a cement ramp leading to a partially open door. “It’s always the blue wire,” he whispered, shaking his head and smiling in spite of his apprehension.
Approaching at a half run, Lee slipped through the doorway and paused to allow his eyes to adjust to the dim interior. This was a perfect place for an ambush, he realized grimly. The high stacks of sturdy wooden shipping crates and more flimsy cardboard boxes created dozens of pathways for anyone intent on sneaking up on an unsuspecting victim. Reaching inside his jacket, he gripped his handgun. Its solid weight was familiar and comforting. He held it ready before him while moving soundlessly to his left and starting up one of the aisles.
He had moved about thirty feet when he heard his wife’s voice. Despite the faint echo in the cavernous warehouse, he was certain she was only a short distance ahead of him and to the right. And she was clearly playing for time, waiting for her backup to get into position.
“I can’t do that,” Amanda was calling to an unseen listener. “This is a class assignment. Effram will expect everything to be done by the book.”
“This Effram,” coaxed a deep and heavily accented male voice from Lee’s left. “He will wish you to complete your assignment, yes? To do so, you must give me the package.”
“I suppose,” returned Amanda’s voice, a perfect blend of suspicion and nervous indecision. “But how do I know you’re the person I’m supposed to give it to?”
The man sounded frustrated, a feeling Lee would have sympathized with under other circumstances. “This is where you were told to come, is it not?” he asked patiently. “There is no one else here; therefore, I must be the correct person.”
“I followed the directions I was given, so this should be the right place,” she called back, sounding unconvinced. “Something doesn’t seem right, though. I was told to meet my contact in an abandoned warehouse, but just look at all these crates and boxes and equipment. This warehouse obviously isn’t abandoned. And, you know, there’s another thing that bothers me. Isn’t it strange that no one else is here in the middle of the day?”
Lee had reached the end of his row of crates, and ahead of him was an open area. To his left, he saw what appeared to be a small office. To his right, where he assumed Amanda was hiding, were several parked forklifts. Hoping that Russert was working his way toward the office, Lee started to edge toward his wife’s position.
“The workers are on the dock, unloading a ship,” the man said after a short pause. His voice was still calm and persuasive, but Lee could hear an edge of impatience creeping into the words. “We must complete our transaction before they return.”
“But if there are usually other people here, how do I know you’re the one I’m supposed to give the package to?”
“If you will simply come into the office so we can discuss the matter, I am certain that I can put your mind at ease.”
“Section nineteen of the Agency tactical manual says that in a isolated or hazardous location I should engage in a recognition sequence with my contact before leaving a position of safety.”
“I have already told you, there is not a recognition sequence.” The contact was definitely getting testy, and he was no longer attempting to hide it.
“Well, I think that’s strange, too, don’t you? Because Effram always tells us to follow the manual, and the manual says there should be a recognition sequence when meeting with an unknown contact. So this could be a test. Maybe if I give you the information without properly verifying your identity, I’ll get a failing grade.”
Lee would never know how the man might have responded to Amanda’s last sally, because at that moment his right foot encountered a small puddle of oil. He slipped, his shoulder brushing a pile of cardboard boxes and sending several from the top of the stack tumbling to the ground. In the next instant, he heard a volley of muffled, angry words from the office. The verbal outburst was followed almost immediately by a flurry of gunshots from an automatic weapon as a small, wiry figure appeared, outlined in the brightness of the office’s florescent lighting. Even before Lee had fully regained his balance, he saw Russert pounce on the man from the cover of a stack of crates opposite Lee.
Confident that the other agent could easily subdue the lone gunman, Lee sprinted to the right, in the direction he had last heard his wife’s voice. Her name was wrenched from him in a strangled howl when he found her crumpled, face down, on the concrete floor, her dark hair fanned around her. As he sank to the ground and pulled her slender form onto his lap, her head lolled onto his shoulder and a small manilla envelope slipped from her limp fingers.
Lee swiveled to stare, stone-faced, at the Agency Director. As much as he disliked Fredericks, it was Smyth who had put him in the nearly impossible position of defending himself against an accusation of criminal negligence while omitting any mention of his assigned role in the underlying case. Despite the gravity of the allegations now lodged against him, he remained bound by his National Security Oath. Unauthorized disclosure of any details of a zephyr-level assignment could result in charges every bit as serious as the ones before him today -- and with a great deal more merit. No matter what the state of his emotions, he couldn’t look lightly on the commission of treason.
“I had a bad feeling,” Lee said, his words ringing lamely in his own ears. He didn’t need to glance toward the panel to know that he wasn’t impressing anyone; he certainly wouldn’t be convinced of the necessity of his actions if their positions were reversed.
“A bad feeling,” Fredericks repeated, the phrase rolling mockingly off his tongue. “And I suppose ‘a bad feeling’ was sufficient reason to interfere in an assignment, the details of which were unknown to you, and which, therefore, you could easily compromise . . . or worse.”
His own sarcastic comment from almost four years ago stirred in Lee’s memory. ‘Amanda, I think you ought to stay away from all of this . . . It could get dangerous. Even worse, you could screw things up.’ The briefing reports distributed to the panel members certainly created the impression he had screwed up -- big time. “I had no intention of interfering with one of Amanda’s class assignments,” he said, choosing his next words with care. “But I felt she needed someone watching her back. That’s what partners do for each other.”
“A noble impulse, I’m sure,” Fredericks said dryly, “but one which an experienced agent should have known could lead to serious, even fatal, consequences.” He turned away from Lee, as though disgusted, and addressed the men on the opposite side of the small room. “A trained operative, with Lee Stetson’s years of experience, should have known better than to interfere in a mission when he hadn’t been briefed on its specifics. Instead, he chose to stumble blindly and clumsily into a meeting between another agent and an unidentified contact.” Looking back to the defense table, he pounded his right fist into his left hand and then pointed an accusing finger at Lee. “Stetson should have known and fully considered the risks involved in alerting said contact to his own presence . . . causing a disturbance that panicked the man and escalated what should have been a harmless encounter into chaos and violence.”
Lee closed his eyes and buried his face in his hands as he listened to Fredericks’ diatribe. Once again, images from the dim warehouse flashed through his mind: a stack of sturdy boxes swaying away against his weight and then falling, almost in slow motion, toward the floor . . . a small man brandishing an automatic weapon, firing at random into the semidarkness . . . orange sparks, glittering like fireflies, as the bullets ricocheted off the heavy metal of the forklifts and the shadowed concrete of the walls . . . his wife’s pale face as he cradled her still, slender body against his chest.
As though from a great distance, Lee heard Fredericks continuing to rant. “. . . And then, after creating this pandemonium, Stetson didn’t even have the presence of mind to subdue and apprehend Mrs. King’s assailant. If Supervisor Beaman isn’t able to identify the man and more fully explain the circumstances of the rendezvous, we may never fully understand what occurred.”
Lee had to swallow hard to stifle the protest that threatened to erupt from him. He knew the briefing reports contained no mention of Dan Russert or the singularly uncommunicative and uncooperative Russian agent who Russert was currently guarding at Station Twelve’s base camp. As far as the panel members knew, Lee was guilty of exactly the acts that Fredericks was recapping: he had meddled in Amanda’s assignment, despite having no reasonable excuse for interfering; he had performed like a bungling amateur, causing an unnecessary bloodbath; and then he had allowed the perpetrator to escape, rushing to his fallen partner’s side instead of reacting like a seasoned professional. Still, it was nearly impossible to sit and listen to Fredericks caustically outlining those actions without losing control of his temper.
As Lee sat, slumped in his chair, Hanson motioned toward the Chief of Internal Security. “I have to agree with Robert’s earlier concern,” he said, sounding both somber and troubled. “Without Mr. Beaman’s statement, it will be impossible to evaluate the judiciousness of Mr. Stetson’s actions. We don’t know the purpose of Mrs. King’s assignment or whether there were risks which were known to her but unknown to Stetson. There is a notation in Melrose’s statement that Mrs. King told him she would be doing surveillance for one of her classes on Wednesday morning, and we also have a brief statement from agent Francine Desmond,” he paused to gesture toward the back of the room, “who talked to Mrs. King shortly before she left I.F.F. that day. According to her, Mrs. King’s assignment included a meeting with a contact and the transfer some kind of information. But none of this gives me a clear picture of the morning’s events.”
While Hanson was concluding his ponderous observation, Lee stole a glance to the back of the room and saw that Francine was now perched on the edge of a chair just inside the door. Although his friend gave all the outward appearance of waiting deferentially in case her testimony was needed, something about her bearing told Lee that she had another purpose.
“My point exactly,” said Beck, appearing pleased that someone had finally seen the merit in his earlier criticism. “In fact, it seems to me that this Beaman might share some culpability with Stetson. Even though there doesn’t seem to be a link to the present case, I recall that another trainee was killed on duty several months ago. Our agent candidate program is in need of serious study and restructuring if first year recruits are handling vital government projects in the guise of training missions. Not only would we be putting lives at unnecessary risk, but we could be entrusting critical operations to unqualified personnel.”
“That’s right,” Whiting agreed, bobbing his head like a trained seal. “Since Mrs. King’s assailant fled the scene, we don’t even know whether she completed her assignment or what became of the disk she was carrying.”
Lee jerked upright, slowly pivoting his head and shoulders toward Whiting. “How did you know Amanda was carrying a disk?” he asked, careful to keep any emotion from his voice.
Whiting’s eyebrows rose and his eyes widened in a look of almost comical alarm. “I’m sure a disk is mentioned here somewhere,” the man stuttered, lowering his gaze and shuffling aimlessly through his notes and reports. “One of these reports says something about a disk.”
“I’m afraid you’re wrong, Harold,” the Agency Director lazily disagreed as he reached out to pick up one of the tumblers from their end of the table. Filling the glass with water from the accompanying pitcher and raising it to his lips, he took a leisurely sip before turning to face the quivering man with narrowed eyes. “I’ve studied the briefing reports quite closely, and there is no mention of a disk. Perhaps, though, Fredericks said something about it this morning while my attention was wandering.”
“Yes, yes, I stand corrected,” Whiting blustered, fidgeting his his chair and crumpling several papers. “Mr. Fredericks said it.”
“Since Ms. Black is creating a transcript of this proceeding,” Smyth said smoothly, twirling the remaining water in his glass as he gestured toward the stenographer, “she can tell us whether a disk has been discussed.”
The gray-haired woman obediently unwound and examined the long roll of paper on which the morning’s dialogue was recorded. “The word ‘disk’ hasn’t been used this morning,” she finally said, shaking her head decisively.
“Someone said Mrs. King was transferring information to a contact,” Whiting said almost imploringly. “I must have assumed she was using a disk. It’s a logical assumption . . . .” A note of panic was rising in his voice as his eyes darted from face to face, apparently looking for support. He didn’t find any. While Hanson, Beck and Fredericks appeared puzzled, the others in the small room were regarding him with varying levels of appraisal and accusation. Just when Lee thought Whiting might simply break down and cry, the Operations Chief jumped unsteadily to his feet and pulled a handgun from under his jacket, holding it in shaking hands.
While some in the room didn’t have a full understanding of what was happening, all knew the danger of a loaded gun in the possession of a frightened and apparently inept marksman. Everyone froze as the Chief of Internal Operations began waving the weapon in front of him, aiming wildly from person to person, clearly neither confident nor proficient in its use. He backed away from the table and moved toward the door, announcing in an almost inaudible voice that if everyone stayed seated, no one would get hurt.
As Whiting passed the defense table, Lee saw the Agency Director pull back his arm and pitch his water glass into the nearest wall. Whiting, who was focused on the men closest to him, jumped visibly at the splintering crash. Seizing the opportunity provided by the distraction, Lee launched himself out of his chair and lunged at the older man, trying to force his gun hand upward as they both tumbled heavily to the floor.
The roar of the gunshot thundered in Lee’s ears as the weapon discharged, and as he struggled with the flailing man, he saw Francine fall to her knees, blood oozing from her shoulder.
“Miss Desmond is in room 512.” The petite, blonde nurse closed the duty register and smiled at Lee, her green eyes drifting from his face to the colorful bouquet of chrysanthemums, gripped loosely in his right hand, and back upward again. “The doctor hasn’t placed any restrictions on visitors, but she may still be a bit groggy from her medication.”
Lee was only vaguely aware of the young woman’s appreciative scrutiny. “Thanks,” he said, offering her a distracted smile before he set off down the hospital corridor, his eyes scanning the painted gold numbers as he sought his destination.
Finally coming to a halt, he paused to take a few deep breaths and run his fingers through his tousled hair. As he pushed open the thick door of the private room, his heart raced, beating against his ribs in painful anticipation.
She was facing the window, her respiration steady and shallow, and he spent a moment studying her profile. Billy had assured him she was fine, but he hadn’t been quite able to banish the nightmarish images without seeing her for himself, safe and well.
She didn’t stir when he took several slow steps into the room, his footsteps falling soundlessly on the tiled floor. “You didn’t think you could sneak up on me, did you?” Her voice resonated with suppressed emotion as she turned to regard him, her expression a mixture of sadness and relief.
“No.” He shook his head, a chuckle escaping him. “I can’t even sneak up on you when you’re not expecting me, and you knew I’d be here the minute it was over.” Drinking in her delicate features, he felt some of the tension finally drain from his body, leaving him almost lightheaded. “The last couple of days have been hell,” he added quietly.
“They haven’t exactly been fun for me, either. I don’t like hospitals any more than you do.”
Unable to restrain himself a moment longer, he crossed the remaining space between them in three long strides, dropping the flowers into a vinyl chair at the edge of the standard hospital bed. Gently pulling her upright, he wrapped his arms around her in a crushing embrace as he buried his face in her dark hair. “I know, but Billy couldn’t risk putting you in one of the Agency safe houses,” he murmured. “This was the only way to prevent a leak.”
“I’m just glad it’s over.” she sighed, her words muffled against his jacket as she relaxed against him.
“Yeah,” he agreed, his voice unsteady. Loosening his embrace, he put two fingers under her chin and raised her head to search the depths of her eyes. “Are you sure you’re okay?” he asked, holding her a short distance from him, his hands sliding upward to grip her shoulders and allow him to study every inch of her.
“Just a tiny bruise where that stray bullet hit my vest and knocked the wind out of me,” she said, unconsciously rubbing one palm across her rib cage, her eyes never leaving his.
The fingers of his right hand reached out to join hers, lightly brushing the sensitive area, and he frowned when she winced faintly at his touch.
“A little bruise?” he asked, one eyebrow quirking upward.
“Well, maybe a medium-sized bruise,” she conceded with a lopsided smile. “But it could have been a lot worse. Dr. Smyth’s plan sounded simple enough, but he couldn’t predict what was going to happen when you showed up at the warehouse. We didn’t know how many Russian agents might be there, and Russert didn’t even know that Dr. Smyth had told you to follow us. It could have been chaotic, and someone could have been killed.” She gave a small shrug, her lips forming into a tiny pout, as she waved toward a stack of dog-eared magazines on the night stand. “As it turned out, the only real pain I’ve been suffering is boredom. I’ve been going stir-crazy with nothing to do but sleep, read . . . and worry about you.”
Lee nodded his understanding as he pulled her back into his arms. “I’ve been going crazy, too. Billy promised me you were all right, but he warned me that if I came within two miles of this place, or tried to call, he’d have me locked up in one of the Agency holding cells until after the hearing.”
“Tell me about it,” she requested solemnly. “Billy told me Harold Whiting was arrested, but he didn’t give me any details.”
Lee shook his head, still feeling a tinge of disbelief over Whiting’s dereliction. “There’s not much to tell. He let it slip that he knew you were carrying the information on a disk, and then he panicked and pretty much fell apart. He’s been blubbering to Billy and Dr. Smyth for the past hour, trying to save his miserable skin.”
“Did he say why he did it?” Amanda asked, lifting her head from his shoulder and regarding him with a troubled frown. “He seemed like such a nice little man, always so polite and unassuming. He was the last person I would have suspected of selling out.”
Lee sighed, brushing his lips tenderly across his wife’s and then sinking down on the bed, pulling her onto his lap and folding his arms around her. “Apparently, he got into some gambling trouble years ago, when he was a clerk in the payroll section. He embezzled a few thousand dollars to cover his debts and then went on the straight and narrow. It probably would never have come back to haunt him if Dr. Smyth hadn’t appointed him Chief of Internal Operations fifteen months ago, after Karl Eagles was arrested during the King Cobra investigation. A low level mole in Internal Operations started blackmailing him, first asking for small bits of routine information and gradually working up to bigger and better things. By the time the S.D.I. project came up, Whiting was in so far he couldn’t refuse.”
“You didn’t come through this completely unscathed,” she said, a hint of concern shadowing her eyes as she reached up to touch a small abrasion on his cheek. “And the hearing had to be awful. I wish they hadn’t put you through that.”
“This little scrape is nothing.” Ducking away, he caught her hand and placed a tender kiss into the palm. “The hearing was bad,” he added with a shrug, “but it was almost worth two hours of torture to see the look on Dirk Fredericks’ face when Dr. Smyth told him the whole thing was a ruse and there weren’t any real charges against me.” He paused to relish that memory and smiled devilishly. “Besides which, Billy gave us the entire weekend off. Since your mother and the boys won’t be home from Maine until Sunday night, we should have plenty of time to recover from our ordeal.”
Amanda’s gaze flitted to the bouquet laying forgotten in the bedside chair. “I guess Francine got the worst end of this, getting stuck in the crossfire again.”
“The bullet barely grazed her,” he said, bending his head to nuzzle the sensitive skin of her neck, “but if you’d rather stick around the hospital to keep her company . . . .”
Amanda smiled mischievously, tilting her head to one side as though considering her course of action. “She gets the flowers, and I get almost forty-eight hours of being Mrs. Stetson. I guess that’s a compromise I can live with.”
“There really is justice in the world,” he agreed just before his lips captured hers.