A Spy By Any Other Name

Author:  Vikki

Disclaimer:  The usual disclaimers apply.  The SMK characters and the Agency belong to Warner Brothers, Shoot the Moon Productions, and a bunch of other lucky folks.  I’m borrowing them for my own enjoyment, and I’m not profiting from doing so.  This story is mine, however, so please don’t reproduce it without my permission.

Archive:  Emily Ann and Merel have blanket permission to archive anything I post.  Anyone else, please ask first.

Rating:  PG -- and that’s probably too cautious

Timeframe:  The week before Thanksgiving, 1985 -- which would place the story just before “Wrong Way Home,” although doing so might nudge “Flight To Freedom” earlier in time by a week, to make room for this story.

Synopsis:  Amanda becomes the diversion in a KGB plot to kidnap a scientist.

Feedback:  Yes, please.  Any and all feedback is greatly appreciated.

Note:  The following is the result of a personal challenge.  When I started, I simply wanted to write something with some semblance of a plot, but eventually the desire grew to write an “episode like” SMK story.  Please bear the “episode like” part in mind if you come across elements that seem a tad far-fetched or rely a bit heavily on coincidence or luck.

Many thanks to the lovely ladies who provided beta assistance for this story.  You are the best!!



“I don’t know why we need her,” the tall, thin man muttered as he directed a sullen look at one of the photographs in his hand.  After studying the picture for several seconds, he tossed it disdainfully onto a small metal desk.

“That is why I am here, Klaus,” his superior replied, a hint of sarcasm in her heavily accented words.  “I know exactly what we need in order to complete our mission successfully.”  The woman’s sensual, almost seductive, voice contrasted sharply with her icy expression.

Both men shifted uncomfortably under her gaze, before Klaus spoke again.  “If you think she’ll be in our way, we can kill her.  It would be simpler than bringing her here.”  He gestured around the dim, sparsely furnished room.

Malice flickered in the woman’s dark eyes.  “Killing her now would not suit our purpose.  She must disappear without a trace.  While he is searching for her, he will not interfere with our plans.”  She nodded toward the second photograph, apparently well satisfied with her scheme.  “When I am on the plane to Russia with . . . our prize . . . you may kill her -- in any way you please.”  Without waiting for further argument, she turned away, ending the discussion.

After the woman walked through the office door and closed it forcefully behind her, the two men studied the second photograph before Klaus tossed it, too, onto the desk.

“Lee Stetson and Amanda King,” the heavier man stated with a harsh laugh.  “Whatever you did to earn that woman’s hatred, you will live to regret it.”


 Chapter 1

Thursday, November 20, 1985.
1 p.m.

With a final yank, Amanda dislodged her suitcase from the entry closet and quickly closed the door, wincing slightly as the jumble of contents resettled into the place where the luggage had been.  This tiny space was a personal nemesis.  Despite her efforts to keep it neat, more clutter accumulated between its four walls than anywhere else in the house.  With a determined nod of her head, she decided to give it a thorough cleaning as soon as Mother and the boys left for New York.  Since she had the day off, there would be plenty of time before she needed to start preparing for her own trip.

Leaving her suitcase by the stairs, she opened the front door and stepped onto the porch, staring at the sky as she tried to decide what to pack.  The weather didn’t appear promising.  Dark clouds had been gathering all morning, a dismal precursor to a cold, late autumn storm.  Gusts of wind sent the last withered leaves from nearby trees swirling down onto the wilted lawn, and Amanda unconsciously gathered her cardigan sweater more tightly around herself as she retreated into the house and headed toward the laundry room.

For a moment, the gray outdoor scene threatened to cast a pall over her mood, but her usual, sunny spirit rallied quickly.  At least she would be working inside for the next few days, she reminded herself, which would make it easier to select a suitable wardrobe.  During the past two years, she had frequently found herself in unexpected situations, often to the detriment of her clothing.  But this would be a simple security detail.  While the coming days might be long and tedious, she hoped she wouldn’t find herself tramping through swamps or snooping around seedy bars and warehouses.

For daytime wear, she shouldn’t need anything different than what she usually wore while handling clerical duties at the Agency.  Of course, there was another consideration for evening and after-hours apparel -- one who stood over six foot tall with teasing hazel eyes and boyish dimples.

During the coming week, she would be spending most of her time with Lee.  They had been together a great deal recently, both on the job and after hours, and their relationship was undergoing subtle changes.  And while she sometimes had doubts about --

“I’m beginning to have my doubts, Amanda.”  Dotty’s words startled her out of her reverie as she passed through the kitchen.

“Doubts?”  Amanda whirled around to face her mother, who was sitting on one of the padded barstools.  The counter was strewn with numerous stacks of colorful booklets, which Dotty appeared to be sorting.

“About that film company you work for,” Dotty clarified with an appraising stare that gave Amanda the uncomfortable sensation her mind was being read.  “It’s bad enough you have to work so many nights and weekends,” she finally added, “but sending you out of town the week before Thanksgiving . . . .  Surely your boss knows you have a family.”  The disapproving words trailed into a soft huff.

“Of course he knows, Mother,” Amanda attempted to soothe her disgruntled parent, relieved that a complaint about her work schedule had superseded what she feared would turn into a general inquisition about her job and her ‘boss.’  “But the timing can’t be helped.  IFF is filming an international scientific convention in Baltimore next week.  I was really lucky to get this assignment.  The speakers are experts in supernatural phenomenon; it’s going to be fascinating.”

“I suppose,” Dotty replied, sounding unconvinced.  “But I don’t know why you have to be gone for so long.”

“There are a lot of technical details to handle before the participants arrive,” Amanda said, relieved that at least part of her explanation could be truthful.  “We need tomorrow and Saturday to set up, and the lectures will be Monday through Wednesday.”  Amanda felt a familiar surge of guilt over taking advantage of her mother.  In fact, this time she was more conscience-stricken than usual because Dotty was bearing the brunt of their holiday preparations, as well as chaperoning Phillip and Jamie’s overnight trip to New York -- a role that clearly belonged to a mother, not a grandmother.  Only the knowledge that Dotty loved visiting art museums -- a passion that couldn’t be dampened even by the responsibility of supervising a group of rambunctious teenagers -- had persuaded her to yield her place on the field trip.  “I know I’m leaving most of the Thanksgiving preparations to you, but I’ll be home Wednesday night, and I’ll take care of all the cooking and cleanup.”

“Well, I have to admit the conference does sound interesting,” Dotty conceded, removing her glasses and waving them in a small arc.  “And who knows, maybe you’ll be swept off your feet by a handsome scientist.”

“I don’t think I’m going to have time to be swept off my feet, Mother,” Amanda replied with an amused chuckle.

Dotty jabbed her glasses in Amanda’s direction in a chiding motion.  “Do you know what your problem is, dear?” she asked, her mouth tightening into a slight frown and her tone gently reproving.  “You have no sense of adventure.  It wouldn’t hurt you to have a little excitement in your life once in a while, to plunge into a new experience and see where it takes you.”

Amanda leaned down, wrapped one arm around Dotty’s shoulders, and gave her a tiny squeeze.  “I’m not going to be able to go anywhere if I don’t finish the laundry,” she stated mildly.  As she straightened, the papers on the counter caught her attention, and she looked closer.  “What is all this?” she asked, reaching out to pluck an item off one of the piles.

“More holiday catalogs,” Dotty answered derisively.  “Can you imagine how much these companies spend on printing and postage?  And you wouldn’t believe  . . . “  As she spoke, Dotty replaced her glasses, scooped up a small pile, lifted the top offering, and and shook her head.  “Holiday clothing,”  she said in disgust before tossing it into a wastebasket near her feet.  “Holiday candy.”  Another issue dropped into the trash.  “Holiday gifts.  You know, Amanda, the people who buy from these catalogs probably never step into a store.”  She flung down the gift catalog with more force than strictly necessary as she reached for another victim.  “Holiday meals!”  Her tone becoming indignant, she waved the latest publication in the air.   “And the prices!  Would you look at this:  ‘Home For The Holidays.’”  Adjusting her glasses carefully on her nose, she thumbed through the glossy pages and then pushed the offending item toward Amanda, tapping it accusingly with a forefinger.   “Meatloaf!  Who in their right mind would spend $35 on meatloaf from a catalog?  You can make six meatloafs for that price.  And poppy seed cake!  $40 for a poppy seed cake, and I *know* it couldn’t possibly compare to --”  Dotty stopped abruptly, her eyebrows coming together as though struck by an idea.  “Amanda, you could quit that film company and start one of these food catalog businesses -- you’d make a fortune.”

Amanda grinned in amusement at her mother’s rapid change of heart.  “You’re forgetting how much it would cost to print and mail the catalogs, Mother.”

“That’s true,“ Dotty muttered, clearly not ready to give up on the scheme. “Although, if anyone could make a go of it, you could.  You put so much effort into anything you try.  What in the world?”  Dotty changed gears yet again, as she extricated a white, legal sized envelope from the nearest pile and waved it toward Amanda.

Amanda reached out and snatched the envelope from her mother’s hand, glanced at the return address, and tore it open.  “I got my Mastercard, Mother,” she answered, unable to keep a hint of triumph out of her voice.  “You don’t know how hard it is for a divorced woman to get one of these.”

“Well, I wouldn’t want one,” Dotty stated firmly.  “Your daddy and I always agreed that if we couldn’t afford to buy something, we weren’t meant to have it,” she lectured.  “Credit cards just encourage people to live beyond their means.  When your Aunt Minnie --”

"I’m not going to live beyond my means, Mother,” Amanda cut in before Dotty could go off on another tangent.  “You know how careful I am with money.  Besides which,” she added, looking closely at the small print and smiling wryly,  “I don’t have a high enough credit limit to live beyond my means.”

Dotty didn’t appear satisfied with this promise. “What if someone else gets their hands on it?” she asked in a tone that implied this disaster was a virtual certainty.

Amanda dismissed the concern.  “I’m not going to carry it with me, Mother.  I’m just going to memorize the account number and the expiration date, and I’ll have them for emergencies.”

“Of course, dear.  Who knows when you might need an emergency meat loaf . . . ?” Dotty quipped drily as Amanda moved toward the laundry room, her new charge card gripped tightly in one hand.


Eight hours later, Amanda was nestled on the family room sofa, a soft wool afghan wrapped around her slender shoulders, a dog-eared book in one hand and a mug of hot chocolate in the other.

She felt a shiver of apprehension as, not quite disguised by the noise of the turbulence outside, one particular sound carried to her ears.  ‘It’s just the wind,’ she told herself firmly as she identified the unmistakable scratch of branches against the family room windows and the creak of the gazebo as it was buffeted by the storm.  ‘And too many of Mother’s mystery novels,’ she added, glancing down at the paperback in her hand and and taking a sip of her comforting drink.

A moment later, however, the same “thump, thump, thump” caused her to glance to the kitchen door in growing consternation.  That wasn’t a branch.  Setting her mug and book on the coffee table, she rose and walked slowly toward the kitchen, pausing in the entryway to take Phillip’s baseball bat out of the now tidy closet.  Gripping the wooden implement before her like a weapon, she crept toward the door and slowly turned the handle.

As she stepped into her back yard, a cold wind whipped around her, and the first icy drops of rain stung her cheeks.  The light from the kitchen window barely illuminated the area, but nothing looked out of the ordinary as she slowly scanned the yard.  She was about to turn back into the warmth of the house, when she saw him, and she shook her head in amusement at her overactive imagination as relief washed through her.  “What are you doing here?” she asked in exasperation as she set the bat on the ground and moved toward the leafless rosebushes beneath the trellis.

A small brown terrier whimpered piteously and strained toward her before falling back as though on springs.  Stepping closer, Amanda saw that his collar was entangled in the straggling branches of the bush.  As he again started toward her, only to be pulled backward by the tangle of leather, thorns and gardiner’s twine, his movements caused the trellis to thump against the house in a rhythmic staccato.

As Amanda knelt down beside the dog, he licked her fingers and whined a greeting.  “You know, if you stayed in your own yard, you wouldn’t get into scrapes like this,” she scolded gently as she extricated him from the bush.  He thanked her by wriggling against her chest and licking her face.

“You’re welcome,” Amanda laughed as she pushed him away and swiped dirt off the front of her shirt.  “Now you go straight home.  Mrs. Ferguson is probably worried sick, not knowing where you are in this storm.”

Straightening, Amanda watched the small animal disappear into the hedge.  A lopsided smile appeared on her face as she slowly shook her head.  The poor little thing deserved a few adventures in her yard, as many times as he was blamed for damage to her mother’s flowers -- damage for which he was entirely, or at least mostly, innocent.

Another gust of wind blew around her and she turned back to the kitchen door, only to come up against a dark, hulking shape.  Before she had time to react, two large, muscular arms enfolded her, causing her to kick and struggle in an instinctive, but vain, attempt to free herself.  A beefy hand smothered her face with a smelly cloth, and she was dimly aware of the sound of two masculine voices blending with the howl of wind and patter of raindrops as darkness overcame her.


 Chapter 2

Friday, November 21, 1985
7 a.m.

Lee Stetson navigated his Corvette through the quiet Arlington streets, reflexively skirting puddles and tree branches left by the previous night’s storm.  As his mind swept rapidly over the mundane details of the upcoming mission, his thoughts drifted to the woman waiting for him at 4247 Maplewood Drive.

When he had suggested to his section chief that Amanda accompany him to Baltimore, Lee had expected resistance.  After all, she’d had little training in security systems, and Billy had been keeping her busy with several complex reports he didn’t trust to anyone else.  Lee had even prepared an argument, citing her brief experience with Byron Jordan and her familiarity with one particularly volatile conference participant, to justify his request.  He hadn’t been called on to use it, though.  Billy had acquiesced with only a raised eyebrow, a thoughtful pause and a faint twitch of his lips.

Heading the security team for this convention was the kind of assignment that Lee abhorred, but Amanda’s presence would make the tedious job more palatable.  She often made him explode in anger or grind his teeth in frustration, but he couldn’t maintain a sour mood when she was around.  In fact, he was gradually coming to accept that it wasn’t Amanda who irritated him -- it was his own reaction to her.  He could no longer deny that he was attracted to Amanda; his desire to be near her was like nothing he had ever experienced.

Of course, admitting these disturbing thoughts to himself was far different from admitting them to her.  He was in uncharted emotional territory.  He wanted to move slowly and carefully -- and to avoid making mistakes.

The previous evening, the urge to call her had been almost overwhelming.  Dotty, Phillip and Jamie were out of town for the night, and knowing she was home alone made it impossible to focus on anything else.  The harder he had tried to put her out of his mind, the more stubbornly she had remained.  The idea of driving over to her house had taken possession of him, and twice he had stopped indecisively on his own threshold, car keys in hand.

The deciding factor had been the brewing storm.  He had cringed inwardly at the mental image of himself, looking like a half drowned puppy, standing at her kitchen window.

So he had put away his car keys, reminding himself that he would be picking her up in less than twelve hours.  After repressing the impulse to call her until it was far too late to do so, he had spent the remainder of the night restlessly pacing between bouts of fitful sleep.

Lee was so lost in thought that he was almost surprised to find himself pulling to a stop in front of her house.  He gripped the steering wheel and took several deep breaths, shaking his head to clear it.  There was no reason for the agitation he was feeling.  This was a work day like any other work day.  There would be plenty of time, at some hazy point in the future, for facing these feelings.

He waited a few minutes for Amanda to come out to meet him before deciding that she must be running late.  Exiting the car, he considered walking up to the front door, but instead followed his usual route behind the house toward the kitchen.  A few feet from his destination, he noticed a baseball bat lying in the wet grass.  Stooping to pick it up, he felt an unexpected stab of annoyance that Phillip or Jamie had been so careless.  The bat could have been ruined from leaving it out in the rain.  He knew that Amanda’s budget would make replacing it difficult, and she would have to deprive herself of some small pleasure to do so.

Moving forward, he wiped his damp shoes on the mat and then raised his fist to knock, but stopped abruptly when he realized the door was ajar.  Frowning, he shifted the bat from hand to hand as he wondered why Amanda hadn’t picked it up if she had already been out this morning.  The tiny hairs on the back of his neck prickled as he pushed the door open and slipped inside.  “Amanda,” he called softly, as his mind assimilated the fact that the kitchen lights were on, despite the sunshine pouring through the windows.  The house was so quiet that he could hear his breathing escalate.  There was no sign of recent activity in the kitchen, odd since Amanda was such a morning person.  The familiar scent of fresh, brewed coffee was absent, and a knot began to tighten in his stomach as he realized she hadn’t cooked herself breakfast.

As he stepped through to the family room, he continued to call her name, louder and more urgently.  A feeling of panic gripped him as he took in the scene.  The lamp closest to the sofa was on, casting odd shadows on a crumpled afghan.  There was an overturned book on the coffee table beside a half consumed mug of some murky liquid.  Picking up the mug with a hand that wasn’t quite steady, he realized it might have been hot chocolate, but it was now stone cold.  There was a tiny smudge of red lipstick on one side, and he absently ran his thumb over it before setting it back on the table.  He ran toward the stairs, taking them two at a time as he shouted her name, past caring that the neighbors might hear the commotion.

In her bedroom, he found her purse and her partially packed suitcase, but no sign of his partner.  A quick but thorough check of the rest of the house confirmed his growing fear:  she was gone.


 Chapter 3

Friday, November 21, 1985
8 a.m.

As Amanda came to her senses, she was aware of only two things: her head was throbbing, and she was in trouble.  The first circumstance urged her to sink back into the foggy bliss of unconsciousness, but the second soon fueled a resolve to open her eyes.  She did so slowly.  The light felt uncomfortably bright even though she realized, after a few painful blinks, that her surroundings were quite dim.

Stretching each arm and leg in turn, she concluded she was neither bound nor seriously injured.  The lack of restraints puzzled her almost as much as the fact that she seemed to be alone.  Raising her head with effort, she determined she was lying on a rumpled cot in a small, dreary room.

She shifted her legs over the edge of the cot and forced herself into a sitting position, fighting down the wave of nausea that washed over her.  After closing her eyes and taking several deep breaths, she cautiously refocused and gazed around.  Other than the cot, the only visible furnishings were a gray metal desk and a gray vinyl chair.  The threadbare carpet and peeling paint were the same dismal color.  A small lamp on the desk was switched off; the light was filtering through grimy plastic blinds covering the room’s only window.  There were two doors, both of which were closed.

After waiting a moment to regain her equilibrium, she stood and walked unsteadily toward one of the doors, reaching out to test the handle.  It was unlocked, and she carefully pulled it open.

It proved to be the entry to a small bathroom.  A plastic tumbler and a dirt-streaked bar of soap rested on the edge of the sink.  Nearby, a musty but reasonably clean looking towel and washcloth were draped across a wooden bar.

Her eyes rested uncertainly on the sink for several seconds before she made her first decision.  She turned the cold water faucet sufficiently to allow a trickle of water to escape and then paused, listening intently.  The fixture didn’t squeak, and she detected no activity from beyond the other door.  Soaking the washcloth with cool water, she held it against her face and took another deep breath.  Twice more she wetted the washcloth and repeated this process.  Then she hung the damp cloth neatly beside the towel, dried her hands, and prepared to face the unknown.

Slowly and soundlessly she walked catty-corner across the room to the other door.  A quick check showed that this one wasn’t locked either.  She eased it open, revealing a room not much larger, and as almost as sparsely furnished, as the one she was standing in.  The floor and walls were decorated with the same institutional gray.  A dark hallway, apparently leading to other parts of the building, was opposite what she guessed to be the entrance -- and her pathway to freedom.

She glanced back and forth across the room and then began to steal toward the door.  Testing the handle, she discovered it, like the others she had encountered, was unlocked.  Slowly,  she twisted the knob, mentally bracing herself for whatever she might find outside.

“I wouldn’t open that door if I were you,” a heavily accented voice warned, in conversational tones, from somewhere behind her.

The unexpected words startled Amanda, and she jerked her head too quickly, causing the room to spin dizzily around her.  As she turned toward the voice, she closed her eyes again in an effort to quell her nausea.

Amanda forced a smile to her lips as she tried to mimic her captor’s casual mien.  “I think I should leave now,” she said, keeping one hand on the door knob to steady herself as she straightened her shoulders and reopened her eyes.  “I’m not sure how I got here, but I’m supposed to be --”

The words died on Amanda’s lips as she looked into the face of a familiar dark-haired woman.  Although she tried to cover her shock, she was certain her eyes had widened and her jaw had dropped before she was able to regain her composure.

The woman before her was somewhat thinner than she remembered but was otherwise unchanged.  The dark, exotic features had been called beautiful and even seductive, but Amanda personally found them rather cold.  Eva Spinelli’s smile held no warmth, just bitterness and a hint of condescension.

“I hope you don’t find your accommodations unpleasant, Mandy?” Eva drawled, looking Amanda up and down with languid indifference to her prisoner’s obvious physical distress.  “But I had forgotten,” she added mockingly.  “You don’t care to be called ‘Mandy,’ do you?”

“No, I don’t,” Amanda responded with an outward calm she was far from feeling, as her mind grappled with the meaning of this unexpected encounter.  Unable to think of anything productive to say, and unwilling to give Eva the satisfaction of hearing her break into a nervous ramble, she stood silently.

Eva gracefully pulled a cigarette case and lighter from the black leather purse hanging across her shoulder.  Lighting a cigarette, she inhaled deeply before blowing a cloud of acrid smoke toward Amanda.  “I do have a gun, and I assure you that, this time, it is loaded,” she jeered.

Amanda shrugged, electing to ignore the taunt.  “I thought you were in prison,” she commented lightly, deciding to keep Eva talking as long as possible in hope of gleaning information she could use to escape.

The answering laugh was mirthless. “I could have been, of course.  Fortunately for me, your government wished my husband’s cooperation in certain projects, and he did not wish me to be imprisoned.”  Eva made a languid gesture of indifference with one slender hand.  “Perhaps he felt some lingering affection for me, or perhaps he simply wanted the evidence of his gullibility removed to a different hemisphere.  Whatever the reason, I was deported.  As you can see, however, I have returned.”

“Why?” Amanda asked bluntly, although she was certain she already knew.

“Don’t pretend to be stupid, Mandy,” Eva scolded, flicking the ashes carelessly off her smoldering cigarette  “My superiors were quite displeased when I didn’t succeed in returning Angelo to Moscow two years ago.  They have given me another chance, and I don’t intend to fail again.”

Amanda recalled her surprise at seeing Angelo Spinelli’s name on the list of lecturers for the Baltimore conference.  Knowing how determined the Russians were to capture him, she had assumed his last relocation had included an entire new identity.  His file indicated, however, that he had been stubbornly opposed to the suggestion.  He had lost his country and his wife;  he refused to give up anything else to the KGB.  “Lee won’t let you get away with it,” she stated, her voice full of conviction.

“Lee will not be a problem,” Eva countered, beginning to pace a short path across the worn carpet, as though the mention of her former lover’s name had caused her to unconsciously assume one of his habits.  “You see, I know Lee very, very well.”  Eva looked Amanda up and down disdainfully.  “His tastes may have changed, but his loyalty and his . . . intensity . . . have not.  He won’t get in my way while you are missing.”

There was no sense in arguing with this assessment, Amanda reflected wryly.  Lee’s loyalty to his friends, which often pushed him into brash and reckless actions, was one of his most endearing and sometimes most worrisome, qualities.  Deciding that further discussion of Lee would be pointless, she glanced around the austere room.  “Where are we?”

“Somewhere your friends at the Agency will not think to look,” Eva answered vaguely.  “This place is rather dreary, but it has served the KGB well for many years as a communications outpost. It is close enough to your major metropolitan areas to be useful, but remote enough that it attracts no attention.”  Eva stopped pacing and looked Amanda up and down again, as though trying to decide how much she could afford to torment her rival.  “We have planned this mission very carefully.  Angelo will be under surveillance from the time that he arrives in Baltimore, and we will spirit him away just after his last lecture, when he is least likely to be missed.  You will have to endure our company until then.”

Looking into the other woman’s cold eyes, Amanda knew Eva wouldn’t have given her this much information if she was going to live past Wednesday.  She had five days -- to be rescued or to find her own means of escape.


Chapter 4

Saturday, November 22, 1985
9 a.m.

Lee was halfway across the nearly deserted bullpen when the duty clerk caught his attention.  His expression was forbidding, and she shrank back as he pivoted toward her desk and stalked in her direction.  “I have a call for you on the IFF line, Mr. Stetson.  Would you like me to transfer it up to the Q Bureau, or should I take a message?” she asked, the nervous tremor in her voice becoming more pronounced with each successive word.

Lee felt a twinge of guilt as he studied her young, apprehensive face.  The petite blonde was new at the Agency, and she didn’t seem particularly well-suited to the general atmosphere of tension and urgency.  Still, it wasn’t right to take out his frustrations on a defenseless target.

At the moment, this particular defenseless target looked as though she were fighting the urge to dive under her desk. “It’s a woman,” she offered hesitantly, her wide green eyes flitting from the telephone receiver to her pink message pad and then back to Lee’s face.

Hope fluttered in Lee’s chest, and he had to stop himself from reaching out to snatch the phone from the clerk’s grasp.  “I’ll take it here, if you don’t mind,” he said, flashing her a forced smile.

Perching on the edge of her desk, he took the receiver from her outstretched hand and raised it to his ear.  Swallowing the sudden lump in his throat, he spoke with deliberate calm.  “Stetson.”

He could have howled in frustration at the response.  “Lee, darling,” an all too familiar voice purred in his ear.  “I’m beginning to feel neglected.  You promised me a good time on my next visit to D.C., and I’ve left four messages on your machine since I got in Thursday.”

As Lee slid off the desk and stepped as far away from the attentive clerk as the phone cord would allow, an image of the glamorous raven-haired beauty darted through his mind.  He found the intrusion more annoying than alluring.  “I’m working,” he stated gruffly, not caring he might offend the pampered socialite on the other end of the line, “and I don’t have time to --”

Britta Holmes was either more determined or more obtuse than he expected.  “I’m sure you can spare time for me, Lee,” she interrupted confidently, her tone low and seductive.  “In fact, I distinctly recall you telling me last fall that you worked best under pressure.  I’ll only be in town for a few more days; I know you wouldn’t disappoint me,” she breathed.

“Sorry, but I’m going to be busy for the next few days,” Lee ground out tersely.  “I’m sure you can find some other form of entertainment.”

He turned back to the desk and dropped the phone onto its base with substantially more force than necessary -- and without bothering to say good-bye.  Raking a hand through his mussed hair, he muttered an unintelligible curse.

The clerk jumped.  “Is there a problem, Mr. Stetson?” she asked timidly from the other side of the desk.

“No,” he muttered as his gaze roved around the bullpen and then toward the glass doors to the corridor.  As if on cue, he spotted a welcome figure walking briskly up to the Marine guards who stood watch over the innermost sanctum of the Agency.

Britta Holmes forgotten, Lee rushed to intercept Billy Melrose, reaching past him to open the door to the section chief’s office.  “Anything?” he asked anxiously and without preamble as he followed his superior inside.

“Not yet.”  Billy set his coffee cup and a small stack of files onto his desk and turned to face Lee.  “We’ve run checks at the local police stations, hospitals . . . and the morgue.”  He paused to look searchingly at his top agent before moving to his chair and sitting down.  “Ernie’s gone through all the surveillance tapes from Dulles for the past 48 hours, and I have a team making inquiries at the train stations and bus stations.  Did the tech crew find anything at Amanda’s house?”

Lee shook his head, his expression a mixture of anger, frustration, and despondency.  “Nothing.  The house and yard were clean.”  Ignoring the leather chairs, he began to pace a familiar path across the the office carpet.  “The lab boys brought in Amanda’s suitcase and purse and a few other questionable things from her house, and they’re going over those, just in case, but . . . .”  Lee abruptly stopped moving and placed both hands on the desk, leaning toward his boss.  “Dammit, Billy, you know they aren’t going to find anything.  She was snatched from her yard.”

Ignoring the outburst, Billy picked up a pencil and made a notation on one of the reports in front of him.  When he looked back up, his dark eyes warned the agent to stay focused.  “Did we get a tap on the phone?”

Lee pushed off from the desk and resumed his restless pacing.  “Yeah, but there have only been four calls since Amanda’s family got home yesterday afternoon.  Three were from teenage girls wanting to talk to Phillip, and one was from her mother’s garden club.”

Billy’s relentlessly calm stare bored into Lee, and he finally slumped into a chair.  “That’s better,” the section chief said.   “You know the drill, Scarecrow.  I’ve sent Fielder to Baltimore;  he should be able to handle security there from the specs and plans you and Amanda worked up.  You need to start going through your case files, looking for clues.”

Reading the understanding in the older man’s eyes, Lee let out a deep sigh and nodded.  ‘Stick to what you know,’ he reminded himself silently.  ‘Cover the basics; there are always clues if you look hard enough.  There have to be.’


Chapter 5

Saturday, November 22, 1985
11 a.m.

The floorboards beneath the worn carpet creaked faintly as Amanda stepped closer to the small window.  Separating the slats of the blinds, she squinted through the dirty glass at the road barely visible through a line of trees in the distance.

Only once had she seen a vehicle on that road.  The previous afternoon, a mail carrier had pulled his truck up to the large black box on the far side of the compound fence, but he had been too far away to hear a cry for help or notice a distress signal.

Dropping the blinds back into place, Amanda walked across the room, absently swiping her dusty hands on her jeans.  Pausing beside the desk, she drummed her fingers on the metal surface, her brow furrowed in concentration.  After a moment, however, a dejected sigh escaped her lips.  She had studied her situation from every possible angle without finding a viable means of escape.

The road was the most obvious escape route.  However, in order to reach it, she would have to cross at least a hundred yards of rough earth and climb an eight foot fence topped with barbed wire -- without being mauled by the vicious dogs roaming the compound.  She wasn’t certain how many of the animals there were, but at one point she had counted six from the living room window, and they seemed to take their responsibilities very seriously.  A heavyset Russian man guarded the perimeter from a tiny building just inside the fence, and Amanda had watched the barking, snarling animals chase his dilapidated sedan to the house several times.  Even armed, the guard seemed genuinely afraid of the beasts.

Once or twice she had considered leaving the house, taking the chance the dogs wouldn’t notice her, but ultimately she had decided that doing so would be foolhardy.  Even her headstrong partner wouldn’t be rash enough to attempt it.

A wistful smile formed on Amanda’s lips as she thought of Lee.  He always came to her rescue, and this time would be no different . . . if he found a clue to lead him to her -- or if she created one.  She wasn’t going to give up.

“There has to be a way,” she muttered to herself, slapping her hand down on the desk.  “What does Mr. Melrose always say? Stick to what you know . . . so what do I know?”

Amanda snorted softly as she considered the question. “I know I’m not in D.C.,” she decided wryly, bringing her two index fingers together.  Of course, she didn’t know where she actually was.  The surrounding landscape was rural, but that didn’t substantially narrow the possibilities.

“I know there isn’t a phone in this house,” she added to her small store of facts.  There did appear to be a phone line to the small guard station if she could only reach it.

Through the thin walls, Amanda could hear Marta Popnakov, the caretaker and clerk of the KGB outpost, shuffling across the rough tiles of the kitchen floor.  “Mrs. Popnakov doesn’t pay much attention to me,” she said, ticking off a third finger.  Beyond providing stale sandwiches and bitter, lukewarm tea at regular intervals, the middle-aged Russian woman appeared totally uninterested in her prisoner, spending most of her time huddled over encoded papers in a makeshift office off the kitchen -- leaving Amanda free to move about as she pleased.  “I can walk out the front door if I want to,” she informed the desk with a lopsided smile and a slight shrug of her slender shoulders.  “But I won’t make it across the compound in one piece.”

As far as Amanda could tell the main purpose of the outpost was to gather, encode, and redistribute messages from various KGB operatives working in the States -- using the U.S. Postal Service as a medium.  That explained the large stack of mail the guard had picked up from Mrs. Popnakov the previous afternoon and the similar stack he had delivered an hour later.

As she thought about the mail, an idea occurred to Amanda.  There were several pens and some paper in the desk;  if she wrote a note, perhaps she could slip it into a stack of the outgoing letters.  With another shake of her head, she decided the guard would be unlikely to hand an s.o.s. over to the mail carrier . . .  unless she was able to disguise it in some way.

Amanda sighed again.  It wasn’t much of a plan, but it was better than anything else she had come up with.  Deciding to look for something to conceal her message, she started up the hallway toward the kitchen.  As she approached, she could hear Mrs. Popnakov grumbling to herself.

Forcing a cheerful smile onto her lips, Amanda poked her head around the doorway into the Russian woman’s office and knocked lightly on the frame.

“This is lunacy,” the Russian woman said, looking up and shaking her gray head in disgust.  “Even here, in the middle of nowhere, the capitalist pigs manage to spread their propaganda.”  She waved an arm over the stacks of items strewn across her small desk.  “You Americans are soft,” she accused as she cast a disdainful glance at Amanda. “You cannot even travel to the local commissary to purchase food and clothing; you must have it delivered to your doors.”

Looking closer, Amanda’s heart began to thump a little faster. The other woman was surrounded by holiday catalogs.

Schooling her features into an expression of passive interest, Amanda stepped into the office.  “Would you mind if I looked through a few of those?” she asked gesturing toward the colorful booklets. “I mean, if you don’t need them for anything.”

Marta Popnakov’s steely eyes narrowed in suspicion as she studied her prisoner.  “Why?”

Amanda shrugged, forcing herself to speak in offhand tones.  “No reason, really.  It’s just a little boring here, with nothing to do.  I thought I might start my Christmas shopping.”

A faint sneer curled the Russian woman’s lips.  “I don’t think you need to worry about Christmas shopping,” she retorted scornfully -- returning her attention to the missives in front of her.

“Oh, well, if you’d rather not let me have them, I can just sit and keep you company,” Amanda suggested, pulling a chair up to the other side of the desk.  “You probably get lonely out here, without anyone to talk to,” she added in sympathetic tones as she sat down and folded her hands in front of her.  “You and I probably don’t have much in common, but my mother always says I have the gift of gab. I can talk to anyone, anytime, anywhere.  I can only remember one time in my entire life when I was at a loss for words, and that was because I --”

“Enough!”  Mrs. Popnakov took off her wire-rimmed spectacles, her lined face contorted into a grimace.  “Take them,” she said, pushing a stack of the catalogs toward Amanda.  “And leave my office.  I have work to do.”

“Well, if you’re sure,” Amanda agreed, gathering up an armful of the colorful booklets.  “Thank you. I’ll just take these back to the other room and let you finish whatever you’re doing.”

Amanda quickly carried the catalogs back to her tiny room and dropped them on the desk.  Shuffling through them, she found what she had hoped for: “Home For The Holidays.”

Pulling out the preprinted order card, she tapped it thoughtfully against her chin.  She couldn’t write directly to Lee or to IFF.  She needed to make contact with someone who would recognize the significance of the communication and pass it on to Lee.  And she needed a message that Lee -- but not her captors --would understand.  After a moment, her eyes brightened as an idea formed, and she pulled a pen from the desk and sat down to write . . . .


Chapter 6

Wednesday, November 26, 1985
10 a.m.

As Lee entered IFF’s Georgetown foyer, his shoulders sagged and his feet drug.  If he had endured a more disheartening week, he couldn’t recall it.  By day he had crisscrossed D.C. and the surrounding communities, moving from trusted contacts to paid informants and finally to sleazy scandalmongers.  By night, he had pored over case files until his eyes burned and the words blurred on the page.  And he had absolutely nothing to show for his efforts.  Amanda was still missing, and he wasn’t one step closer to finding her.

Approaching Mrs. Marsten’s desk to retrieve his badge, he read the sympathy in her staid expression, and his professional facade automatically reasserted itself.  He straightened, resettled his jacket on his shoulders, and forced a smile to his lips.

“Mr. Melrose is waiting for you,” the receptionist informed him blandly as she handed him his identification.  He had taken only one stride toward the closet elevator when she cleared her throat loudly, and he looked back.  In response to his inquiring gaze, she shook her head and gestured upward to his office in the Q Bureau.

The seemingly insignificant actions deftly punctured Lee’s defensive shield;  he exhaled deeply as the smile melted.  It was rare that Billy sought him out in the Q Bureau rather than summoning him down to the bullpen.  Waiting for him upstairs was almost unprecedented.

A knot forming in his stomach, Lee nodded silently before turning toward the stairs.  He slowly covered the distance to his office door, all the while fighting an irrational urge to retreat in the direction he had come.  Taking a deep breath, he pushed the door open and started toward his desk, his eyes trained on the rigid back of the man standing before the window.

Billy turned, and deep brown eyes locked with hazel ones.  “Sit down, Scarecrow.”  The older man’s words were gruff but compassionate.  “You look like hell.”

Lee opened his mouth to protest his supervisor’s assessment but snapped it closed again.  There wasn’t any point in dissembling in front of his mentor and friend.  He had barely slept in days, and he knew he looked as exhausted as he felt.

He slumped into his chair and leaned forward until both elbows rested on the cluttered surface of the desk.  Dropping his head into his hands, he wrenched his fingers through his hair.  “There isn’t a clue in any of these damn files, and none of my contacts have heard a thing,” he groaned.  “Billy, Amanda’s family is expecting her home tonight.  Her mother has already called a few times, and we’ve made excuses for why Amanda hasn’t called home, but we’re going to have to tell them something.”

Lee wasn’t certain what he expected his section chief to say, but he wasn’t prepared for the toneless response.  “We can leave that to the police.”

His head jerked up, and he studied his boss in growing apprehension.  He didn’t like what he saw.  Billy had moved to a position on the opposite side of the desk; his face was grim, and he had the unmistakable look of a man who was about to impart bad news.  His throat suddenly dry, Lee swallowed and asked cautiously,  “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Billy rested his hands on the desk, and his eyes met Lee’s unflinchingly.  “It’s been almost a week, Lee.  I wish we had an unlimited budget . . . unlimited manpower . . . but we don’t.  We can’t keep using Agency resources to search for a missing civilian aide.”

The frustration of the past five days exploded as the meaning of the words sank in.  “Oh, come on, Billy!”  Lee barked, rising to his feet and leaning across the desk until he was almost nose to nose with his boss.   “Amanda may be a civilian, but she’s been exposed to more high level cases than half the agents in this section.”

Billy stiffened, and Lee could see him struggling to remain objective.  “Sit down,” the older man ordered quietly.

After Lee dropped back into his chair, Billy continued. “You know how I feel about Amanda, but there’s no proof her disappearance is Agency related.”  After a long pause, he let out a deep sigh.  “This is out of my hands,” he admitted.  “Dr. Smyth has ordered me to turn the matter over to the Arlington police to handle as a missing person case.”

Lee blinked, for a moment too stunned to say a word.  “The Arlington police?” he finally ground out, pushing away from the desk and pacing across the office.  “Billy, they aren’t equipped for something like this.  Without any physical evidence that Amanda was kidnapped, they’ll write her off as a divorced woman who caved to the pressure of raising her kids alone and bailed.”  Turning back to the desk, Lee’s voice shook with suppressed fury.  “Dammit, you know Amanda King didn’t just walk away from her family in the middle of the night.  Someone grabbed her -- and it has to be related to the Agency!”

“Calm down, Lee,” Billy demanded, his tone brooking no argument.  “For what it’s worth, I think you’re right.  I’ll give you all the unofficial help that I can, and if you give me one shred of evidence, and I’ll argue this case all the way to the top.”

Before Lee had an opportunity to respond, there was a sharp rap on the office door, and Francine Desmond’s perfectly coifed head peered around the threshold.  Appearing satisfied that she wasn’t entering a war zone, Francine stepped in and addressed her boss.  “Billy, those stat sheets you’ve been waiting for are on your desk,” she announced briskly, “and Thompson from European Operations has called three times in the last thirty minutes.”  She waited for the section chief’s curt nod before turning her focus on Lee.  “I picked up a few messages for you on my way upstairs, and the top one looks important.”  As Francine looked down at several small pink notes in her hand, one brow rose.  “It’s from Sophia Valosky,” she said, a hint of reverence in her normally supercilious tone,  “and you shouldn’t keep royalty waiting.”

Moving quickly across the office, Lee snatched the message slips from his co-worker’s hand and read the top offering aloud. “Please come to see me as soon as possible.  I have information about a mutual friend who’s in trouble.”

His eyes met Billy’s again, pleadingly this time.  He was through the door and halfway to the stairs before the word “go” had died on the older man’s lips.


Fifteen minutes later, Lee was following a stately butler into an ornately decorated sitting room of Princess Valosky’s D.C. home.

“Mr. Stetson, how good of you to come so quickly,” the princess said in low, cultured tones as he approached.  Rising gracefully from a brocade sofa, she greeted him with her right hand outstretched.

Lee took the proffered fingers and pressed them to his lips with a slight bow.  “I came as soon as I got your message, Your Highness,” he replied courteously, before proceeding straight to the purpose of his visit.  “You said you had information about a mutual friend who’s in trouble.”

The princess smiled graciously.  “Yes, I have heard that your associate, Amanda, is missing.”  Before Lee had time to interject a question, she raised an elegant hand.  “Do not ask how I know this.  Let us merely say that I have ears in many places, and I keep track of my friends.  When I first heard about Amanda’s disappearance, I did not think there was any way I could be of assistance, but I received an interesting package this morning, and I felt I should bring it to your attention.”

“A package?” Lee asked, his eyes narrowing inquiringly.

“Yes, it was quite unexpected.”  She gestured to an antique sofa table.  On it rested an open cardboard box, a small pile of styrofoam pellets, and two smaller parcels wrapped in decorative foil.  “Meatloaf and poppy seed cake.”

Lee’s brow furrowed for a moment, and then his eyes widened.  “Meatloaf and poppy seed cake,” he repeated.  “That’s what Amanda brought you when . . . ”  His words trailed off as he tried to decipher the improbable clues.

The Princess inclined her head.  “Yes.  I shall never forget Amanda’s great kindness to a stranger she believed to be in financial distress.  So, naturally, when I received this package, I thought of her.”

Lee shoved both hands into his jacket pockets as he considered the unlikely possibility that someone else had sent a dissident royal from the Eastern Bloc such a plebeian offering.  “It’s from Amanda?”

“I am not certain.  There is a note, however.”  The princess picked up two items from the table; one appeared to be a shipping invoice, and the other was a small square of pasteboard.  She read aloud from the latter:  “’We’re back from our cruise and hope to see you soon, Love, Skip and Mandy.’”  Looking up with questioning eyes, the princess gave a delicate shrug.  “The message seems quite innocuous, but I thought . . . . Does Amanda perhaps use the sobriquet ‘Mandy?’”

Lee exhaled loudly, more perplexed than ever.  “No, she doesn’t.”

The Princess appeared mildly disappointed.  “Then, perhaps you know someone called ‘Skip’?” she suggested.

Lee opened his mouth to reply, but no words came immediately to his lips.  The only person who had ever called him Skip was his uncle, but the Colonel couldn’t be involved in Amanda’s disappearance.  His irascible relative might be arrogant and aloof, but he wasn’t a criminal.

Shaking his head, Lee tried to focus on the first part of the message.  He and Amanda had been on a cruise the previous year; was Amanda telling him she was in San Angelo?  But the signature line still made no sense.  Amanda hated the appellation ‘Mandy’ almost as much as he hated ‘Skip.’  In fact, he only knew of one person who had ever called her . . . .

An arrested look came over Lee’s face as the meaning of Amanda’s message became clear.  “May I have those?” he asked, indicating the papers in Princess Valosky’s hands.


“Well, find him -- now!!!” Billy Melrose slammed the phone into its receiver without further comment.  He looked across his desk at Lee, his expression grave.  “Spinelli’s last lecture ended almost an hour ago, and the security team hasn’t seen him since.”

Lee smacked his left fist into his right palm.  “Damn!  They’ve got him, Billy.  We should have seen this coming when Amanda disappeared.”  Prowling restlessly across his section chief’s office, he silently berated himself for not seeing the connection.  “That’s what Amanda is trying to tell us with that reference to the cruise.  Angelo was the real target all along.”

The door opened and Francine strode purposefully into the room, a sheaf of papers across one arm.  “Okay,” she said crisply.  “I spoke to the chief operations officer at ‘Home For The Holidays.’  The shipment to Princess Valosky was charged to a Mastercard issued to Amanda about 10 days ago.”  The blonde paused to shuffle her papers before continuing.  “Luckily, all of the company’s catalogs have coded order forms, and they keep computer records cross-matching the codes to mailing addresses.”  Francine stepped to Billy’s desk and laid a map onto the surface.  “The order form Amanda used was from a catalog mailed to a rural route in Maryland, about thirty miles northeast of Baltimore.  Right about here,” she added, tapping the map with one slender red-tipped finger.

“All right,” Billy said.  “If they already have Spinelli, we’d better act fast.  I want a chopper ready to leave in five minutes.  Francine, see if you can find a good landing spot within a mile or two of that location -- and have Fielder send two security teams from the Baltimore conference to meet us there.  Let’s move, people!”


Chapter 7

Wednesday, November 26, 1985
2 p.m.

Amanda fidgeted with the thin blanket covering her cot as she watched the four enemy agents in the adjoining room finalize their escape route.  Although their words were muffled, she had been able to make out part of the plan.  Eva and the taller Russian were going to take Angelo Spinelli north to the Philadelphia airport, while the shorter, heavier man had been assigned to eliminate the American prisoner.

With no way to determine whether Lee had received her message, and with only minutes before her captors set the final stage of their scheme into motion, Amanda knew her time was running out.  If she was going to thwart their getaway and preserve her own life, she needed to act quickly.

Glancing toward the desk, she caught Angelo Spinelli’s mutinous scowl as he focused on the woman he had married four years earlier.  After a moment, the Italian turned his head in Amanda’s direction, and his dark eyes immediately became apologetic.  “I am sorry, Amanda,” he offered sincerely.  “My stupidity has caused this fiasco.”

Although the same thought had briefly crossed her own mind, Amanda couldn’t help but sympathize with his pain and disillusionment.  “Don’t blame yourself,” she told him with an encouraging smile.  “You were trying to help someone you loved.”

Angelo snorted as he glared once again through the doorway.  “One would think that a reasonably intelligent man would learn from his mistakes.”  Looking back to Amanda with a lopsided smile, his voice lowered an octave.  “It appears, at least, that Lee has done so.”

Feeling a faint blush rise in her cheeks, Amanda dropped her gaze to the floor.  “Oh, well, everyone makes mistakes, you know” she said, absently twisting a finger through a strand of her chestnut hair.  “Lee wouldn’t have lasted long as an agent if he kept making the same mistakes over and over.  He has a lot of common sense.”

“At the moment, I wish that he had e.s.p.,” Angelo countered dryly.  “It would be a definite advantage in this situation.”  After watching Amanda closely for several seconds, he added,  “I believe Lee has a great deal of confidence in you.  Do you have any suggestions?”

“Not really,” she admitted, rising from the cot and drifting to the window.  She absently lifted a section of the blinds to peer into the compound, her features thoughtful.  “Although, if I have to decide between facing the dogs or facing a gun, I guess I’ll take my chances with the --”

Amanda’s words stopped abruptly as she found herself staring through the dirt-streaked glass into the hazel eyes of her partner.  Startled, she gave a small gasp and dropped the blinds back into place, causing all four of the Russian agents to turn in her direction.

She whirled around with an exaggerated shrug and a self conscious smile.  “Sorry,” she said loudly while rocking slightly on the balls of her feet.  “Those dogs always scare me when they come so close to the house.  You know, my boys have been trying to talk me into getting a dog, and a Doberman is high on their wish list.  They think having a big, fierce dog would be cool, but I just can’t get used to the idea.”

As the four Russians rolled their eyes and returned their attention to the map and papers they were examining, Amanda cautiously turned back to the window.  Moving the blinds a tiny bit, she didn’t see anyone, and she momentarily feared she had imagined Lee’s visage there.

When his face reappeared an instant later, it registered an odd mixture of intense relief and comical annoyance.  Her heart racing, she watched him place a finger to his lips and make series of gestures which she interpreted to mean the house was surrounded and she needed to take cover.

Nodding faintly, she turned her back to the window again and scuffed one sneaker along the worn carpet until she felt a rough tear she had discovered earlier in the week.  She lodged the tip of her shoe under the edge of the opening and started forward, faking a tumble to the floor as the carpet ripped.  The agents again looked disdainfully her direction as Angelo jumped up from the desk chair and rushed to kneel by her side.

“Are you all right, Amanda?” he asked in concern as she pulled herself up into a sitting position.

“Yeah, I just caught my foot in the carpet,” she assured him.  “I think I twisted my wrist when I landed, though.”  She held her right arm limply before her and grimaced dramatically.  “Can you help me into the bathroom to put a cold compress on it?

Angelo immediately placed one hand under her left arm and the other around her shoulders.  After helping her to her feet, he walked her the short distance to the bathroom.

As soon as they reached the threshold to the tiny room, Amanda pushed Angleo inside.  Following quickly, she closed and locked the door.  “Get down,” she hissed at the startled scientist.

The two had barely dropped to the floor, when the sound of shouts erupted.  She heard rapid footsteps, several muffled thumps, two gunshots, and then silence.

She was evaluating the wisdom of peeking out of the bathroom when she heard Lee’s voice call her name.  Jumping to her feet and pushing the door open, she found herself face to face with her partner.  He was slightly disheveled and, as  she watched, he swiped a streak of blood from the corner of his lip with the back of his hand.

“Amanda . . . Are you all right?” Lee asked, his eyes boring down at her with an intensity that caused her throat to constrict by several sizes.

“I am now,” she rasped as he pulled her into a bear hug and held her tightly against his chest.



Thanksgiving, Thursday, November 27, 1985
5 p.m.

As Lee crept soundlessly toward the kitchen window of the house on Maplewood Drive, he was more vigilant than usual.  Even though it was almost dark, the normally quiet area was bustling with holiday activity.  He had already skirted one ragtag group of men and boys engaged in a boisterous game of touch football as well as a cluster of ladies arguing the relative merits of nutmeg, ginger and cloves in creating the perfect pumpkin pie.  He didn’t want to find himself explaining his presence to Amanda’s sons or neighbors.

As he moved closer to his goal, he could hear two familiar voices wafting through the cool autumn air.  Positioning himself beside the kitchen window, he paused to listen.

“I still don’t understand why you didn’t call home, Amanda.”  Dotty West was clearly chiding her daughter, and Lee could almost picture the spirited lady wagging an admonishing finger under his partner’s pert nose.  “I was worried.  And I honestly think they give those telephone operators at that film company lessons in evasive responses; every time I called, they just went around in circles until I finally gave up.”

“I’m sorry, Mother,” Amanda’s response was both soothing and slightly exasperated.   “But I’ve already explained;  I wasn’t allowed to call.”

“You weren’t allowed to call.”  Dotty’s voice was flatly incredulous as she repeated her daughter’s claim;  the tone reminded Lee of his uncle’s reaction when, as a teenager, he would recount some tall tale as an excuse for breaking curfew.

“Well, you see, one of the researchers was an expert in extra sensory perception.  He was sure I could send a telepathic message.  If I had called home, it would have ruined the karma.”

Lee smiled to himself as he listened to Amanda’s efforts to satisfy her mother.  Somehow, she found a way to interweave so much truth into her version of events that it was difficult to separate fact from fiction.

Dotty, however, apparently had a more pragmatic interpretation of the lack of contact.  “Karma?” she repeated.  “Karma, Amanda, is a chance encounter with a handsome stranger who turns out to be your soul-mate.  It isn’t working twelve hour days for a company that’s too cheap to pay for a long distance phone call to your family when you’re working out of town.”

“You’re right, Mother,” Amanda replied meekly.  “I’ll talk to my boss about company policy on phone calls.  Now, why don’t you go relax with that new mystery you bought yesterday, and I’ll get this mess cleaned up.”

Stifling a chuckle as he listened to the older lady’s footsteps receding from the vicinity, Lee cautiously peered through the window.  Seeing that Amanda was alone, he tapped on the glass.  When she looked up and smiled softly, he gestured toward the door and backed away to wait for her.

Amanda stepped out to the yard a few moments later, carefully balancing a large, foil wrapped plate.  Closing his eyes and inhaling deeply, he relished the mingled scents of cinnamon and sage as she pressed the offering into his hands.

“Thanks,” he said as he opened his eyes to smile down at her.  “So,” he added after a moment of companionable silence, “is everything okay?”

“Perfectly normal,” she assured him.  However, a look of uncertainty passed over her features, as she twisted her fingers nervously and looked away.  “Although, actually,” she continued hesitantly after a short pause, “there is something I need to ask you.”  She met his eyes again, her expression uncharacteristically diffident.

Looking into her serious, chocolate brown gaze, he was assailed with the memory of her slender body held tightly in his arms, and he wondered whether she was going to question him about their changing relationship.  “What?” he asked, his voice a dry whisper.

“Do you think the Agency would pay my charge card bill, for the meat loaf and poppyseed cake?  I mean, it is work-related, and you might not have been able to rescue Angelo if --”

The sudden tension in his chest dissipated as quickly as it had appeared.  “I think that can be arranged,” he interrupted.

Amanda let out a deep breath.  “Really?  Because, you know, I normally wouldn’t buy something that expensive. I only got the charge card for emergencies, and that order took a big chunk out of my credit limit.”

“Amanda,” he said, drawing out her name as he reached across to lay a gentle finger against her soft lips.  “Don’t worry about the bill, okay?  I know Billy will approve it.”

She tilted her head to one side and looked at him questioningly.  “How can you be so sure?”

“I have e.s.p.,” he quipped, rocking back on his heels as he watched her digest this assertion.

A smile tugged at the corners of her mouth.  “Oh, yeah?”

“Yeah,” he returned with a boyish grin and an exaggerated wink.  “Extra special partner.”

The end