The SMK5 Round Robin Group
Synopsis: Lee and Amanda investigate a threat to the entire intelligence network of D.C. including many key agents in the Agency, FBI, and CIA. Meanwhile on the home front every one has a Christmas secret. But could what they don’t know hurt them?
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Part 1: Did you miss the first part? Just want to read it again? Click here
As soon as he was inside, Lee directed Amanda and Aunt Lillian to crouch behind the sofa. Several shots rang out. After five minutes of complete silence, Amanda asked, "Lee, do you think it's safe for us to get up now?"
"I'll go take a look first. You and Lillian stay where you are until I say it's okay. They might still be out there." Lee looked anxiously toward the door.
"Be careful," Amanda told Lee as he rose from behind the sofa.
Lee scanned the house. The front windows were shattered; broken glass was scattered all over the floor. Bullet holes had splattered and cracked the plaster of the wall. Some of the Christmas tree ornaments were lying broken on the floor. Luckily, the Christmas presents appeared spared from any damage. Lee wished Amanda didn't have to see the destruction that was done to the house, but knew he couldn't hide the devastation from her. Suddenly the doorbell rang.
"What was that noise?" A scared and confused Aunt Lillian asked.
"The doorbell," Lee answered. "You two stay there, while I go see who it is."
Lee quickly drew his gun from its holster. He went to the door and, using it as a shield, slowly opened it. As the mystery guest entered, Lee quickly shut the door and pointed his gun in his face.
"Put that gun down," Colonel Robert Clayton ordered his nephew. "Is this how people in your business greet their company?"
Lee straightened his posture, placed his gun back in it's holster, and answered, "No, sir. Only when they are shot at a few minutes before they arrive, sir." He took a breath and turned toward the couch. "Amanda, it's safe for you and Lillian to come out, now. Watch your step. There's broken glass all over the floor."
As Amanda got up, and helped Aunt Lillian to her feet, Lee asked his uncle, "If you don't mind me asking, what the hell are you doing here?"
"I was invited to spend the holidays with you, Amanda, and her family. Amanda's mother called me about a month ago to suggest a Christmas surprise for you. I was supposed to meet her, here, before I went to my hotel." Colonel Clayton took a look around the house. "What happened to this place? Is everyone all right?"
"A drive by shooting," Lee answered as he glanced at Amanda. He saw her assessing the damage done to her home. She cringed as she looked at the windows and the Christmas tree.
"Oh, my gosh," Amanda cried. "Look what they did to my house. How am I going to explain this to mother and the boys? Christmas is going to be ruined."
Lee went to Amanda and took her into his arms. He hugged her, and tried to reassure her. "Everything's going to all right. I won't let Christmas be ruined," he said in an attempt to comfort her. "I'll make sure that a team of agents is assigned to clean up the mess."
"Are you sure?" she gulped, trying to hold back her tears.
"Amanda, I'm not going to allow Salameh's group to ruin our family's Christmas. We'll get this place cleaned up and Phillip and Jamie will never know that anything happened."
"Lee, you said 'our' family's Christmas," an observant Colonel Clayton noted. "What did you mean by that?"
Lee realized he had made a slip, and quickly tried to cover it. "Amanda's family has made me feel like a member of the family. They've included me so much that I feel like I belong, and…" he smiled broadly, "…well, it was an easy mistake to make."
"Do you honestly think that I'll buy that? Now tell me the truth."
Amanda tensed, but closed her eyes and gathered her strength. "You and Aunt Lillian, both, have to promise not to tell anyone what we're about to tell you. Mother and the boys don't even know, yet." Amanda looked at them anxiously. "Do you both promise?"
Aunt Lillian and the Colonel nodded their heads in agreement.
Lee took over and explained, "On February 13, Amanda and I were married."
"You did what?" Colonel Clayton exploded.
"Amanda and I got married."
"Why didn't you tell me?" He demanded. "I'm your uncle."
Lee, feeling like a child before the Colonel, smiled sheepishly. "We decided that it would be too dangerous for anyone to know about our marriage, so we kept it a secret."
"May I ask something?" Aunt Lillian asked, hesitantly.
"Go ahead, Aunt Lillian," Amanda said gently.
"Why would it be dangerous for people to know about your marriage?"
"Aunt Lillian, Lee and I aren't really film makers. We work for the government as federal agents. Lee aimed that gun at you for a reason, but I don't want to go into the details until I talk to mother."
A shocked Aunt Lillian nodded her head in disbelief.
Slipping back into agent mode, Lee took charge. "We'd better get the Colonel and Aunt Lillian to a hotel. It'd work best if it was the same hotel Dotty and the boys are staying at. Amanda, why don't you go get something to carry the presents in while I call Billy and give him an update." He turned to his uncle, "Colonel, why don't you help Lillian carry her luggage to Amanda's car."
"Here are the keys." Amanda said as she handed them to the Colonel. "Follow me."
Amanda led Colonel Clayton and Aunt Lillian to the garage. Lee walked to the phone and dialed Billy's number. "Billy, it's Lee. We've had some trouble- there's been a shooting. Amanda's living room is a total mess. We're going to need a special clean-up crew."
Lee paused, listening as Billy called for Francine to begin mobilizing the workers. "Amanda and I have something we need to do, first. On top of the shooting, we had a couple of surprises…seems her Aunt Lillian and my uncle are joining us for Christmas. We're going to take them to a hotel and try to explain what's happening to Amanda's mother." Lee shook his head, trying to imagine any way they might explain the events of the last half-hour. "We'll be back, shortly, to help with the search. Amanda and I going to drop the presents off at the Agency on the way to the hotel."
Lee paused again. "Okay, yeah, we can wait until Francine gets here. See you later."
Lee hung up the phone as Amanda entered the living room carrying a huge box.
"We can put the presents in here. The Colonel and Aunt Lillian are waiting in the car."
"Amanda, I talked to Billy. Francine will be here in a few to let the other agents in and oversee things." Lee looked at Amanda. She was about to cry again. "Are you okay?"
"I will be soon." She gave Lee a weak smile. "Why don't you put the presents in the box? I need to go to my room for a couple of minutes," Amanda mumbled as she went up the stairs.
"So, that's the whole story," Lee said as he finished explaining everything to Aunt Lillian, Colonel Clayton, and Dotty. Amanda had taken Phillip and Jamie to get some food while he had fill the other adults in on the situtation.
"Lee, is the house going to be done in time for Christmas?" Dotty wanted to know.
"Let's hope so for Amanda's sake. She's really taking this hard," Lee replied running his hand roughly through his hair.
"Christmas is one of Amanda's favorite holidays. She always wants it to be so perfect." Dotty sighed.
"I'd better get going to my room," Colonel Clayton said as he stood.
Lee opened the door for his uncle and caught his eye. "Be careful."
"I will." Colonel Clayton nodded as he left the room.
"Dotty, are you sure that it's okay for me to stay here?" Aunt Lillian asked.
"Of course it is. The only room they had available besides Lee's uncle's room was this suite. Since the boys have their own room, I think I'd like some company."
Just then, Amanda walked in with Phillip and Jamie. "Boys, be good for your grandmother and Aunt Lillian. Lee and I need to stop back at the house and pick something up and then we have to work tonight. We're filming a documentary about the homeless and where they sleep at night, we won't be back until morning."
"We'll be good." Jamie told his mother, giving his brother a sharp jab in the ribs. "Won't we Phillip?"
"Yes, we will," Phillip replied, giving Jamie a dirty look. "Don't worry about us."
"I'm a mother. It's my job to worry," Amanda said as she slipped an arm around each son and hugged them.
Early the next day, Leatherneck entered Amanda's house and took a look around. The crew had worked hard, and the living room looked as good as new. The ornaments had been either fixed or replaced, the walls patched up and painted, and the windows all repaired. Agents had searched the house completely, and found nothing that appeared suspicious or out of place.
Lee and Amanda had been aiding in the search of the second floor, while the work downstairs was finished. Francine met Lee and Amanda at the top of the stairs, and escorted a blindfolded Amanda into the living room with Lee following behind.
"What's going on?" A curious Amanda wanted to know. "Why was I blindfolded? Lee, do you know what's happening?"
"I don't know any more than you do," Lee answered. "Francine, what's this all about?"
"You'll see in a few seconds," Francine replied with a sly smile.
"Amanda, all the agents assigned to search, and clean, and restore your house got together and decided to do something nice for you. You've always done nice things for us and we decided the return the favor," Leatherneck said as Francine slowly removed the blindfold from Amanda's eyes.
Amanda took a look around the room. Tears began forming in her eyes. "Oh, my gosh." Her living room was back to its normal condition. "You all did this overnight? I know you guys work fast, but I didn't think you could get it done this fast."
"We all stayed and worked all night to get this finished…even me." Francine said. An almost forgotten warmth filled her as she realized it had been a long time since she she had done something like this- something extra to help a friend. "The guys worked without pay because they wanted you, and your family, to have a good Christmas," Francine added as an aside.
"I hate to interrupt this, but I need to talk to Lee and Amanda for a few minutes," Billy said as he came from the kitchen.
Francine and Leatherneck went upstairs to tell the other agents about Amanda's reaction.
"Did you find anything?" Billy asked.
"There's nothing out of the ordinary in the house. The only things we have to investigate are the bullets from the shooting. They must have worn gloves when they broke in," an exasperated Lee told him.
"Then there must be something wrong with the presents. Are you done searching the house?"
"We've searched the house top to bottom three times. I doubt if anything will show up if we go over it a fourth time," Amanda said. "Can I move my family back in now?"
"I don't see why not," Billy smiled. "I doubt Salameh's group will attempt a drive by shooting again. There are too many agents around for them to try. We're going to have to hang on to the presents until the boys in the lab have a chance to go over them with a fine tooth comb."
Amanda nodded her head and, with a little sadness, asked, "How am I going to explain the missing presents to the boys? I can tell mother the truth, but what am I going to tell Phillip and Jamie?"
"I'm sure you'll come up with something," Billy attempted to console her. "At least they can come back home. The Agency rented the unoccupied house across the street and we have a team of agents there posing as a married couple. No one can do anything without an agent in their way."
"Thanks for beefing up the security," Lee said as he patted Billy on the back. "I feel better that the family will be looked after."
"Why don't you go have breakfast with them? I'll get the agents out of the house." Billy suggested.
"Sounds like a plan," Amanda beamed. "I'll go upstairs and clean up. Then we'll stop at Lee's apartment, so he can change clothes. We can grab some breakfast at the hotel restaurant. Then, after we eat, we'll head back to the Agency." Amanda informed him
"That's fine," Billy said with a nod. "I better go check and make sure the men have everything tidied up."
"Thank you, sir. I really appreciate everything you've done for us," Amanda said warmly.
Five minutes later, Amanda and Lee left. Thinking that everything was repaired and under control, Billy, Francine, Leatherneck, and the crew of agents followed them out of the house. Unbeknownst to them, upstairs, in Amanda's bedroom, under the bed, there remained a hidden package…the one Salameh had placed there. Wrapped in festive Santa paper, completely concealed beneath the carpet and under a loose floorboard, it now began to tic.
Hearing a knock on the Q-Bureau door, Lee and Amanda raised their heads from the computer printouts they had been reading.
Francine opened the door and entered the room, holding out another sheaf of papers.
"Here's the latest," she said, handing the papers to Amanda.
Amanda took the papers and shot a defeated glance at Lee.
Lee shook his head in disbelief. "At this rate it'll be after New Year's before we even get close to Salameh."
"Francine, has Mr. Melrose been able to find anyone to help go through all these printouts?" Amanda asked.
"He already has a roomful of rookie agents scouring the initial reports," Francine replied. "This is what they think is important."
Lee stood and said, "We aren't getting anywhere like this. Amanda, let's get back out on the street. Someone *has* to know something."
Amanda rose from her chair and reached for her purse. As she and Lee made their way to the door, Lee turned to Francine.
"Let Billy know we've gone out," he said. "We'll check in at the two hour mark."
"Right," Francine replied.
Amanda huddled deeper into the phone booth, trying to block the cold wind from her face. She was careful to keep an eye on her partner, who was talking to one more 'family' member.
"Yes, Sir," Amanda said into phone. "He was the only possible connection we could come up with…Yes, Sir…We will…Thank you, Mr. Melrose…Goodbye"
As Amanda hung up the phone, Lee approached.
"Anything?" Amanda asked him.
"No," he responded. "What did Billy have to say?"
"He's going to run a check on Hassim and see what they can come up with," she answered.
Amanda smiled. "He said for us to go home and have dinner with our family."
"He did?" Lee asked, surprised.
"Yup. He said he'd call if he got any new leads."
Lee stepped to Amanda's side and began to lead her back to the car. He leaned over and whispered in her ear, "Well then, Mrs. Stetson, let's go home."
She smiled up at him and said, "Good idea, Mr. Stetson."
Amanda entered her bedroom and softly closed the door on the noise radiating from downstairs. Lee had gone back to the Agency to follow up on another lead Billy and Francine had unearthed. Phillip seemed sullen, and Jamie kept giving his brother mean looks. Every time Phillip saw his brother looking at him, an argument broke out between the two. Her mother and Aunt Lillian were arguing over the menu for Christmas Eve dinner. Again. The Colonel had left just after Lee, citing business as his reason.
Amanda walked to her bed and sat down, thankful for the peace and quiet her room allowed. The only thing that could have made it better was if Lee been there to give her one of his 'magic finger' neck rubs.
Amanda leaned back on the bed, stretching the tension out of her muscles as she did. She lay there wondering why every year she insisted on having Christmas at home, and why she invited family to visit and stay.
She thought back to the danger her family had been in just yesterday. As her thoughts wandered, she began to doze.
Amanda woke abruptly, feeling disoriented.
"It was a dream," she whispered to herself. In the dream, she had been sitting in the family room downstairs. Phillip and Jamie brought a present and put it in her lap. Before she could open the box, it began ticking like a clock. She thought that was strange but assumed the boys were giving her a new clock. When she opened the box, inside was a loudly ticking alarm clock attached to a ridiculous looking, multi-colored bomb.
Amanda laughed softly at herself. She had to admit, the dream scared her. She wanted Lee to be home; she wanted to feel his strong arms around her.
Glancing at the clock on her bedside table, she realized she needed to get downstairs. She'd been asleep for almost an hour. Lee was due home any minute. Amanda was worried about the state in which she had left her family. She wasn't sure if there would be any decorations left considering the arguing and fighting that had ensued before she ventured here to her room.
As she took a deep breath and sat up, Amanda realized she could hear a faint ticking noise. Looking at the clock again, she picked it up and placed it next to her ear. Nothing. So where was the sound coming from?
Amanda's heart began to beat faster, her breath coming in shallow gasps as she struggled to calm herself enough to locate the source of the ticking.
She stood and frantically began searching the room.
Amanda jumped when the door swung open, her breath caught in her throat. Her husband stood in the doorway, grinning.
"I thought I heard…" Lee paused when he saw the look on Amanda's face and the state of disarray of the room. "Amanda, what are you doing?"
She resumed her frantic searching. "I hear ticking."
"I hear ticking, in the bedroom, and it's not the clock. Help me find it, Lee."
"Ok," Lee said calmly. "Just be quiet for a second and let's see where it's coming from."
Both agents paused, straining to hear the ticking noise. Amanda heard the sound, but was afraid to move for fear that it would keep Lee from hearing. After a few long, tense seconds, Lee nodded that he, too, heard the ticking.
Cocking his head to the side and moving around the room stealthily, Lee was able to track the sound to the middle of the room. As he looked up at the ceiling over the bed, Amanda dropped to her knees beside the bed and looked underneath.
She froze when she saw a tiny piece of the carpet sticking up where it should have been flush to the floor.
"Lee, I think it's under here," she said bluntly.
Lee dropped to his knees beside his wife and leaned down to look under the bed.
Lee stood and helped Amanda to her feet.
"Get the family out of here," Lee ordered.
Amanda started for the door, then stopped and turned back to face Lee. "What are you going to do?" she asked him.
"Call Billy and get a bomb squad over here," Lee replied, moving to the bedside table and the phone.
"You're coming with us," Amanda stated firmly.
"Lee," Amanda interrupted, pleading with her eyes for her husband to listen. "Call Billy, then meet me downstairs. We'll tell everyone we're going out for dinner tonight."
"All right," Lee smiled as he agreed. "Go. Get everyone into the cars. I'll be right down."
"It was definitely a bomb," Billy told the two agents as they sat at their desks in the Q-Bureau. "The guys on the squad had seen that type before. It's become a trademark of Salameh's group. It's very destructive; a bomb the size of the one in your house could wipe out almost a whole city block."
Amanda was stunned. She glanced at Lee, imagining what *could have* happened had they not found the 'present'. She also wondered what else might be hidden in her house.
Billy saw the look pass between Lee and Amanda. "We had the dogs go through the rest of the house," he said, hoping to allay some of their fears. "They didn't find anything. I also sent them to the houses of everyone else who had received any kind of card, including mine. There was a bomb under the bed in the main bedroom of each house."
Lee stood and said determinedly, "Billy, he's got to be stopped. There's no telling how many more they could have planted around D.C."
"You're right." Billy paused and released a deep sigh. "I know it's after midnight, but I need you two on this *now*. 'Operation Christmas Card' has become Priority One. Whatever you need to find Salameh and his group, you've got it for the asking."
"What about Hassim?" Amanda asked.
Billy smiled tersely. "We were able to track him down and bring him in. Francine is with him now."
Lee began, "Billy--"
"Lee." The tone in Amanda's voice stopped Lee cold. He looked at her and followed her gaze to the Christmas tree and the presents underneath.
Amanda slowly rose from her chair and pointed at a present. "Did you put that one under the tree?" she asked him.
Lee shook his head 'no' and walked over to the tree. "There's no nametag. Amanda, get Leatherneck up--"
"Hold it, you two," Billy interrupted. "I know who that particular present is from."
The agents looked quizzically at their boss.
Billy smiled somewhat sheepishly and said, "It's from me. With everything that's been going on lately, I thought the two of you might like some downtime. As soon as this case is over, consider yourselves on a one week vacation."
Lee and Amanda looked at Billy in surprise, then at each other and smiled.
At that moment, the door swung open and Francine entered. She smiled arrogantly and said, "Well, he's singing like a canary."
Lee smiled at her and remarked, "And you look like the cat that ate the canary."
Francine's response was a self-satisfied smile.
"What did you get, Francine?" Billy asked eagerly.
"Everything," she replied, handing a folder to Billy. "He told me every card they sent. He told me where they planted every bomb and present. We missed two, by the way. *And* a harmless present in the kitchen at your place, Amanda."
Billy picked up the phone and Francine stopped him.
"Don't bother," she said smugly. "I've already got teams on the way to disarm the bombs and bring them back here to our guys in the lab."
"Good work, Francine," Billy acknowledged.
"Did you happen to find out where Salameh is right now?" Lee asked.
Francine rolled her eyes. "Of course."
Phillip crept quietly into the room he was sharing with Jamie. He knelt next to his younger brother and shook him.
"Jamie, wake up." When the younger boy didn't move, Phillip shook him harder. "Wake up, Jamie!"
"Go away," Jamie mumbled as he tried to burrow further under his covers. "It's not time to get up yet."
"The presents are gone," Phillip whispered.
Jamie lifted his head. "What?"
"The presents, doofus, they're gone," Phillip replied. "All of them."
Jamie rolled his eyes at his brother and put his head back on the pillow. "Maybe Mom and Grandma just hid them better."
Phillip shook his head and pulled on Jamie's arm. "No, I looked everywhere. They're all gone." Phillip hesitated, then asked, "Do you think we were robbed?"
"No," Jamie answered. "Nothing else is missing."
"Man, I think I messed up this time," Phillip said forlornly. "Mom didn't seem that upset when she caught me looking."
Jamie leaned up on his arms and looked at his older brother. "I can't believe you got caught. Now the presents are gone."
"What are we gonna do?" Phillip asked desperately.
Jamie shook his head. "Not me. You," he said, pointing a finger at his brother's chest. "I didn't get caught snooping in the presents."
"Your presents are gone, too," Phillip responded. "Mom and Grandma wouldn't just get rid of the presents, would they?"
"You better hope not," Jamie replied as he started to snuggle back under the covers. "Now leave me alone, I want to get some sleep."
Phillip sighed heavily, then moved to his own bed. For a long time, he couldn't sleep. He wondered how badly he had messed things up this time.
The plan had been for Lee and Amanda to head over to Salameh's hideout and watch the comings and goings, while a backup team was assembled. That *was* the plan, anyway.
Currently, Lee and Amanda sat in two straight-backed wooden chairs set back-to-back. Their hands were tied together, and their fingers worked deftly to untie the knots.
Lee paused in his attempts and sighed. "Well, we've managed to do it again."
"What's that?" Amanda asked, keeping her fingers working on the bonds.
"Get trapped in a nest of killers during Christmas."
"At least it's not Christmas Eve," she responded.
"Is that supposed to be the silver lining?" Lee asked.
Amanda smiled. "You did say this wasn't a job for pessimists. Besides, we *have* to get out of here. I think Mother may do bodily harm to Aunt Lillian if we aren't there to referee."
Lee laughed and grasped his wife's fingers. "Well then, let's find a way out."
Their hands diligently resumed their task.
The ropes that had formerly held Scarecrow and his partner now lay uselessly on the floor.
Searching the basement, Lee and Amanda stopped as they realized there was no easy way out.
"Well, now what?" Amanda asked.
Lee shrugged. "I'd say wait for backup, but they don't know where we are.
Amanda nodded in agreement. "Yeah, it was smart of Salameh to keep this place secret. No one but he and a few close members of his group knew about this second building."
Lee paced as he tried to think of a way out of the room. "If only he hadn't moved us so quickly, Billy could have followed us."
Amanda chuckled. "You know, next time, maybe we should wait for backup before we try to take any more terrorists by surprise?"
Lee stopped pacing and faced her, giving her an abashed smile. "That wouldn't be a bad idea."
Amanda stood facing the only window in the room; it was set into the wall at eye level. "Maybe we could pick the lock on this window? It looks like it's only locked right here at the handle. Do you have any kind of lock pick on you? Maybe we could--"
Lee grabbed Amanda by the waist and spun her around. His hands grasped at her belt, fumbling to get it open.
"Lee?" Amanda began uncertainly. "As much as I love you, I don't think now is the time--"
Lee stopped, frustrated. "Take your belt off."
"Take your belt off. It's stuck, and I can't get it open." Lee ran his hand through his hair in aggravation. "Take off your belt," he growled.
"Amanda, we can use your belt to pick the lock on the window." He gestured to the window, then to his own waist. "The prong on mine is too big to fit in the lock. Yours should be just right. Now don't make me ask you again. Take your belt off."
Casting Lee a wary glance, Amanda proceeded to open her belt and slide it out of the belt loops on her pants. She handed it to her husband, who winked at her as he took the belt.
Lee stepped to the window and pushed the prong of the belt into the lock. Carefully, he maneuvered the makeshift lock pick until he heard a satisfying click. Grinning, he turned to Amanda and handed her the belt.
As she put it back on, Lee eyed her intensely. When she glanced up at him, he smiled.
"Later, we'll take it off again," he suggested slyly.
Amanda took a step closer to him. "It better not be to pick a lock, Stetson."
"Wouldn't dream of it," he breathed.
Both turned to the window; Lee lowered his hands to give Amanda a boost to the window.
"When you get out, find a pay phone and call Billy," Lee instructed. "Tell him where we are."
Amanda hesitated before putting her foot in his hands. "What about you?"
"Salameh should be coming in to gloat anytime now. I'll try to stall him while you get help."
Amanda locked eyes with Lee. "Right."
She placed her foot in his hands and scooted out the window.
"Amanda." Lee's voice stopped her before she could sneak away.
"I will. You, too."
Lee sat on the couch in Billy's office with his arm around Amanda. Billy sat perched on the corner of his desk.
"Amanda, if you left the building, how did you get back in?" Billy asked.
Amanda shrugged and looked at Lee. "Well, after I called you, I couldn't just leave Lee in there to fend for himself, so I went back to the window. I was going to go back in, so that maybe Salameh wouldn't know I'd left. Just as I got back to the window, I saw him enter the room."
Lee laughed. "Billy, was he *mad* when he saw that Amanda wasn't there. When she saw him come in, she went around to the front of the building and created a ruckus."
"I had to distract everyone and stall until the rest of you got there," Amanda said.
"She was like a cat burglar." Lee smiled proudly at Amanda. "They could hear her when she wanted to be heard, but they never saw her."
Amanda smiled at Lee and blushed at his comment. Although he complimented her more often now than when they first met, it still made her feel special every time he did.
Amanda shrugged again, and looked at Billy. "You weren't very far away, so you got there pretty quickly."
"Well," Billy smiled at them, "Salameh and his whole group are in custody, waiting to be deported back to the Turkish prison."
An uneasy silence settled over the office.
Lee cleared his throat. "Ah, Billy?"
"Yes, Lee?" Billy answered expectantly.
"Ah, Amanda and I have finished our reports on 'Operation Christmas Card,'" Lee continued.
Lee hesitated, so Amanda jumped into the conversation. "Well, Sir, we just thought we would take you up on your 'gift'."
Billy paused, a stern look on his face as he regarded the partners. Breaking into a big grin, he said, "I agree. You two, get out of here, and I'll see you in a week." As they walked to the door he continued, "Oh, and Merry Christmas."
Lee and Amanda paused at the door.
"Merry Christmas, to you, too, Sir," Amanda responded as she walked out the door.
Lee stopped before following Amanda. "Yeah, Billy, Merry Christmas."
Although the weather was cold and snowflakes were falling, the house at 4247 Maplewood Drive seemed warm and inviting. The lights shone through the windows and faint laughter could be heard inside.
In the kitchen, Lee and Amanda were finishing the dishes from the Christmas Eve dinner they had just enjoyed with their family. As Lee washed the plates and Amanda dried, they were silent, listening to the laughter and conversation filtering in from the family room.
Lee handed another plate to his wife and paused as she put her hand on it. He didn't let go, forcing her to look him in the eyes.
He smiled at her and said, "I'm glad we're here. And I'm sorry we missed this last year."
Amanda returned her husband's smile and replied, "I'm glad we're here, too. I'm also glad we managed to avoid our little Christmas *Eve* tradition."
Lee winked at her. "Me, too."
The sound of someone behind them clearing their throat startled the pair. They turned to see Aunt Lillian waiting expectantly.
"What is it, Aunt Lillian?" Amanda asked curiously.
"Well," the older woman began in a loud whisper. "I was just wondering when you were going to tell the rest of your family about your little 'secret.'"
Amanda and Lee glanced at each other, then Lee answered.
"We still don't think it's very safe for everyone to know."
Aunt Lillian harrumphed. "Seems to me, after what happened this week, safety doesn't play into it anymore." With a pointed glance at Lee, then one at Amanda, Aunt Lillian stomped from the room.
After a second, Lee turned back to the dishes. He washed a plate and handed it to Amanda, but she didn't take it. She stood deep in thought, staring at the floor.
"She's right you know," she said simply.
Jamie and Phillip rushed into the kitchen.
"Come on, Mom, Lee, it's time to open presents," Jamie exclaimed.
"Yeah," Phillip chimed in excitedly. "Even the Colonel brought presents."
Amanda smiled at her eager young men. "All right, fellas. We'll be right in."
"Cool!" she heard them both exclaim as they returned to the family room.
She smiled at her husband as he dried his hands. "You ready for this?" she asked him.
"Amanda, I'm a trained intelligence operative. I can handle *anything,*" he said confidently as he turned and strode from the room.
Amanda chuckled and murmured, "Don't count on it, Stetson."
Christmas wrapping paper lay in shreds all over the room even though there were still presents under the tree. The boys sat on the floor chatting excitedly about the gifts from Aunt Lillian and the Colonel.
"Phillip, Jamie, what about the rest of the presents?" Dotty asked.
The two boys looked at each other and both dove for the same present, pushing and shoving each other in their haste to be the first. As their hands grasped the box, a pulling match ensued. Dotty reached out and took the present.
"I'll take this. You two sit down," she said sternly.
"Yes, Grandma," they replied dejectedly.
Dotty looked at the tag on the present and said, "This one is for Lee, from Phillip and Jamie."
As Lee took the present he smiled at the boys. "You guys didn't have to get me anything."
"Just open it, Lee," Phillip said with his brother nodding emphatically at his side.
Lee tore open the paper and laughed when he saw what was inside. Phillip and Jamie looked at each other, puzzled.
"There's a couple more presents under the tree for the two of you," Lee said to them.
The boys again dove for the tree, coming up with presents addressed from Lee. They enthusiastically tore into the paper.
"Cool!" Jamie yelled. "Mom, look, three different lenses for the camera. And a book on how to develop your own pictures. Thanks, Lee!"
"You're welcome, Jamie," Lee replied. He turned his attention to Phillip.
When Phillip caught a glimpse of what was inside the paper, he said, "Oh, no."
Jamie leaned over to see what it was. He repeated his brother's, 'Oh, no'.
Lee and Phillip looked at each other and held up the boxes for everyone else to see. They both held the same Corvette model. The rest of the family laughed as they realized what had happened.
Dotty broke up the laughter when she handed Lee another present. Lee was stunned.
"Dotty, I didn't expect you to get me anything," Lee said.
"I just wanted to get you a little something," Dotty replied with a smile. "Something to welcome you to the family."
Lee grinned like a little boy on Christmas morning as he began to tear open the paper. Dispensing with the wrapping, he opened the box…and was speechless. He held up the slippers for all to see.
Phillip and Jamie broke out in a fit of giggles.
"Ah, thank you, Dotty," he stammered. "Now I can get rid of my old slippers back at my place."
"Nonsense, Lee, Darling," Dotty said. "Those shoes stay here."
"Here?" he asked.
"Here?" Amanda repeated from the arm of the chair where Lee was sitting.
"Yes, Darling, here. Lee is a part of the family." Dotty directed a piercing glance at Lee. "Aren't you, Dear?"
"Ah, yes, thank you…for saying so."
Aunt Lillian, sensing the discomfort in the room, pointed out the other presents still under the tree.
"Right. Let's move on, shall we?" Dotty asked as she picked up another present. "Oh, this one is for me. Lee, aren't you sweet?"
Lee's reply was a weak smile. He was still trying to fathom the meaning of the slippers and Dotty's comments.
When Dotty had the package opened, she pulled a silk scarf from the box. Amanda looked at Lee and raised a questioning eyebrow. He shrugged.
"Oh, Lee," she cooed, "it's beautiful. Look, Lillian, isn't it gorgeous?"
Aunt Lillian reached out and felt the smooth material. "It will go perfectly with the new blue outfit you just bought," she said.
"Oh, it will. Thank you, Lee. I love it."
"You're welcome." Lee paused and peered under the tree. He pointed to a lone box that still remained. "I think there's one more present under the tree."
Dotty reached down and pulled out a small blue box tied with a white ribbon. She read the nametag and handed the box to Amanda with an expectant smile and a gleam in her eye.
Amanda took the box and looked wide-eyed at Lee. Her husband returned her glance with a wink.
Everyone else was silent as they watched Amanda and Lee. Dotty seemed to be holding her breath.
Slowly, Amanda untied the ribbon and lifted the small lid. She pulled out a dark blue jewelry box. She glanced again at Lee, who nodded.
Apprehensively, Amanda lifted the lid. She sighed in relief as she saw the most exquisite pair of emerald stud earrings. She turned the box for the rest of her family to see as she leaned down and gave Lee a kiss on the check.
"They're beautiful," she whispered in his ear.
"I've found my Emerald City," he returned softly.
Dotty, a definite look of disappointment on her face, stood and declared, "Well, let's get this place cleaned up now."
Seeing Dotty's reaction, Lee smiled at Amanda and mouthed, 'Soon.'
Amanda nodded her agreement as she stood and pulled her husband to his feet.
Phillip and Jamie both checked under the tree again, disappointment evident on their faces.
"What's the matter, fellas?" Amanda asked.
"Nothing," Jamie responded unhappily.
"We were expecting something else," Phillip added forlornly.
Just as Amanda was about to explain the meaning of Christmas and how to be thankful for what you get, the doorbell rang.
"I'll get it," Lee said quickly.
The family could hear muffled voices, and then Lee walked back into the family room followed by a man in an Air Force uniform carrying a small box. The man saluted Colonel Clayton as he entered the room.
"Sir," he said.
"Captain," the Colonel replied as he returned the salute.
The Captain looked at Amanda and her mother and aunt, nodding politely at each. "I'm sorry to interrupt your evening, but I have a delivery for Phillip and Jamie King."
The boys quickly jumped up from the floor exclaiming that they were Phillip and Jamie. The Captain handed the package to the boys. They frantically tore into the brown paper wrapping. Phillip let out a yowl when he held up the thing they had been expecting: 'The Legend of Zelda.'
"Yes!" both boys shouted.
"Mom, how'd you get it?" Phillip asked.
"I didn't, Phillip," Amanda as she watched her husband, who was beaming with pride. "I have a feeling I know who did, though."
The boys followed her gaze to Lee, who grinned even bigger.
"I had some help," he said looking to his uncle, who was also smiling.
"Thanks a lot! C'mon Jamie, let's go play," Phillip said, and he and Jamie raced from the room.
The Captain nodded at Lee and the Colonel and headed for the door.
"Oh, wait," Amanda said. "Let me get you a plate of cookies to take."
"Thank you, ma'am," the soldier replied. "That would be nice."
Amanda disappeared into the kitchen for a moment, then came out carrying a plate overflowing with cookies. "I'll walk you to the door."
When they reached the door, Amanda opened it and handed the plate to the Captain. "Thank you so much for bringing the present."
"It was my pleasure, ma'am. Merry Christmas," he told her as he walked away.
"Merry Christmas!" she called after him before shutting the door.
Amanda stood for a minute enjoying the sounds of Christmas in her house. She saw Lee poke his head around the corner, and then he joined her.
"You do realize you're standing under the mistletoe," he said slyly. He stood in front of her and wrapped his arms around her waist as she placed her hands on his chest.
"I do. I was hoping a handsome man would come along." She leaned up and gave him a quick kiss. "You scared me, you know."
"What do you mean?" he asked innocently.
"That box," she replied poking him forcefully in the chest with her finger. "We hadn't made that decision, yet."
"I know," he said with a smirk. "I just wanted to see the look on your face…and your mother's."
Amanda chuckled. "I thought she was going to hit you when she saw the earrings. She keeps hinting, and lately, she's been very vocal about the whole thing."
Dotty's voice carried into the foyer. "Amanda, would you and Lee like some hot chocolate?"
"We'd love some, Mother," Amanda called back. She gave Lee another quick kiss, then took his hand to lead him into the family room. "I can't believe you gave her a scarf," she said, teasing her husband.
Lee allowed her to lead him up the steps. "Hey! It took me three days to find that particular scarf…"