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
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.
becomes the diversion in a KGB plot to kidnap a scientist.
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
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.”
Thursday, November 20, 1985.
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.
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
“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
“I suppose,” Dotty replied,
sounding unconvinced. “But I don’t know why you have to be gone for so
“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
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
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
“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
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
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
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,
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.
Friday, November 21, 1985
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
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
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.
Friday, November 21, 1985
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 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
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.
Saturday, November 22, 1985
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
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.
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
“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
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
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.’
Saturday, November 22, 1985
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
Looking closer, Amanda’s heart
began to thump a little faster. The other woman was surrounded by holiday
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
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 --”
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
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 . . . .
Wednesday, November 26, 1985
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
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
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
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
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
Lee exhaled loudly, more
perplexed than ever. “No, she doesn’t.”
The Princess appeared mildly
disappointed. “Then, perhaps you know someone called ‘Skip’?” she
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
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
Wednesday, November 26, 1985
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
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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.”