The Rocket's Red Glare
Disclaimer: Scarecrow & Mrs. King and all related characters are the property of Warner Brothers and Shoot the Moon Productions. This story is for entertainment purposes only. No infringement is intended. The story itself is the property of the author.
Summary: When a terrorist threatens to destroy a rocket carrying a military satellite, Lee and Amanda are sent to Florida to investigate.
Timeframe: May 1988 - Virtual Season 5 - Episode 18 Lee and Amanda are, of course, married.
Feedback: Expected, please!
Author's notes: Through thick and thin and a few rewrites along the way, I want to gratefully thank Sybil - my beta goddess. Without her, I would be lost. Special thanks to everyone on the Season 5 team. Go Season 6!!!
The guard walked slowly down the sterile tiled hallway, past the offices and research labs that stood empty and quiet. Most of the time, he disliked working the night shift, but that had changed when he'd been reassigned to the research and missile launch facility. Walking the vacant, air-conditioned halls was much nicer than standing sentry on a muggy May night.
He rounded a corner and started down the west corridor. During the day, this hallway was a bustle of activity, especially with a launch scheduled. Tonight, however, it was as quiet as all the others. The guard puckered his lips, and was about to start whistling a tune, when he heard a sound. It was faint at first, but as he continued down the hall, it became steadily louder.
He paused and cocked his head. Keystrokes. Someone was typing. Slowly, he reached down to his waistband and unsnapped the clasp on his hip-holster. With one hand on the butt of his sidearm, he inched his way closer to the origin of the sound.
As he neared the office from which the noise seemed loudest, he slid his sidearm out of the holster and released the safety. He positioned himself at the edge of the doorway and took a deep breath. His mind zoomed in several directions at once, and he wished, with all his heart, that he was back outside, where all he had to worry about was chasing surfers off the restricted property. He had checked the log at the front guard station; no one was allowed in this area after hours.
With that thought at the forefront of his mind, he sucked in a breath, and whipped around the corner, leveling his sidearm in the direction he guessed the intruder would be sitting. The interloper let out a yelp and raised his hands high above his head, knocking his glasses off in the process.
"Cripes, Gene! You scared the bejeezus out of me!" the intruder scolded as the guard lowered his weapon. The startled engineer leaned over and picked up his glasses.
"Sorry, Scott. I didn’t expect anyone to be here," the guard apologized as he holstered his weapon. "What are you doing here, anyway? It's after midnight. And why aren't you signed in?"
Scott Bower took a handkerchief out of his lab coat, wiped his lenses, and dabbed the moisture from his forehead. "Is it really that late?" he asked.
"Sure is," Gene replied. He leaned against the desk and looked Scott up and down, his previous line of questioning already forgotten. "You feeling okay? You look a little pale."
Scott replaced his glasses and leaned back in his chair. "Having a gun pointed at my head tends to rattle me just a tad," he forced a laugh while Gene continued to check him over. "I'll be finishing up here in a bit. I'll probably be gone by the time you come back around."
"Okay." Gene stood and patted the desk. "Say, I'm sorry about barging in like a whole SWAT team with guns blazing." He turned to look at Scott, but he was already hunched over his keyboard, immersed in his work. Gene smiled to himself, knowing he'd done a good job tonight. He walked away and started to whistle, certain that his boss would be pleased with the report he was going to give him in the morning.
As Gene's footsteps faded down the hall, Scott looked up and breathed a sigh of relief. He was nearly finished and wanted to get the hell out of there. He slid a piece of paper from beneath the keyboard, and entered the last of the coordinates, when the telephone rang shrilly. He jumped and breathed a silent curse. "If I don't have a heart attack…" he began, then cleared his throat and picked up the receiver. "Hello?"
"Aren't you done, yet?"
Scott instantly recognized the heavily accented voice on the other end of the line. He swallowed hard before responding. "Yes, Sir. It's finished."
"Are you sure there were no mistakes?"
"Absolutely, Sir. No mistakes what-so-ever." While he spoke, he turned off the computer terminal and started collecting his things.
"Hope, for your sake, that you are correct. I will send my second threat tonight; it is one they won't be able to ignore. It should have them chasing phantoms until it's too late."
"Yes, Sir, I understand," Scott replied. He had never met the man on the other end of the line, but he imagined him an evil looking sort. His thick Arabic accent drew mental images straight from '1,001 Arabian Nights.' He was called 'The Scarab,' but Scott had never been brave enough to call him anything, but 'Sir.' "Sir, now that it's complete, am I free to go?"
The Scarab laughed, a sound that made Scott's skin crawl. "Little man, I will release you from your indenture when, and only when, my scheme is complete. Now, go. And be sure no one sees you."
"Yes, Sir," the scientist answered, but quickly realized he was talking to dead air. The Scarab had hung up. Scott sighed and replaced the receiver. Disappointment hung heavily in his heart, but at least, the worst was over. He had managed to revise the program, so that would alter the rocket's trajectory after launch, but only slightly. Now, for five more days, he needed to make sure no one figured it out.
He stood and walked out of the room, turning off the light behind him, and wondering if he should have mentioned Gene's intrusion. He failed to notice the slip of paper that had fluttered to the floor and slid, nearly hidden, under the credenza.
The sun rose over the quiet house and Amanda stood, eyes closed, soaking up the peace while she could. It was moments like this that she treasured. The house was still, the boys asleep, breakfast only a thought. The French doors were open to allow in the cool morning breeze, and she leaned against the jamb, staring out into the backyard when she felt a presence behind her.
Amanda held perfectly still. She didn’t turn, not wanting to let on that she'd become aware that she was no longer alone. She waited until he was almost upon her. When she could hear the steady sound of his breathing close to her ear, she whirled around, catching him off guard.
"Good morning, Lee. Losing your touch?" She laughed at the shocked expression on his face and wrapped her arms around him.
He quickly regained his composure and kissed her on the nose. "Nope, I've got my touch, right here." His eyes sparkled as he lightly ran his hands across Amanda's back, raising his eyebrows suggestively as she shivered. "You're awfully alert for the early hour," he remarked, secretly pleased that it was getting a bit harder to sneak up on her these days.
"And you're up unusually early, aren't you?" Amanda retorted as she released him and started toward the kitchen.
"The bed was lonely without you." He followed her and pulled two coffee cups out of the cabinet as she filled the filter with grounds.
"The bed was? Or you were?" Amanda teased while she filled the coffeepot with water.
"Me, definitely," he replied through a yawn, watching as she pulled out the pans she needed for breakfast. "Why were you up so early?"
Amanda paused for a moment, considering her answer while Lee made himself comfortable on a stool. "I guess I like the quiet," she finally said and looked at Lee. His brow was knit in confusion, so she continued. "I mean, we're always running around, all day, never knowing what's going to happen next. The boys are rushing here and there, with school and getting ready for summer break, and it's like two hurricanes spinning around me all the time. This is the one time of the day when I can just listen to…well…nothing."
No sooner had she finished speaking, than the thump of teenage feet could be heard barreling down the stairs. Within seconds, Jamie and Phillip were pushing their way past each other in a mad rush to be the first into the kitchen.
"Out of my way, Doofus," Phillip said, elbowing Jamie in the arm.
"Ow! Cut it out." Jamie swung a punch at Phillip, but caught only air as Phillip twisted out of the way.
The fight was quickly forgotten as the boys began their assault on the kitchen in earnest; a piece of bread dropped in the toaster, a glass of juice poured, a banana grabbed from the fruit bowl. In unison, Phillip and Jamie explained where they were going after school, and then rushed toward the door.
Amid the onslaught, the phone rang. Amanda answered, had a quick conversation that Lee couldn't hear, hung up, and waved goodbye to the boys as they walked by. She looked at Lee as if to say, 'see what I mean?' He could only nod.
"Breakfast's on hold," she said, shrugging. "That was Billy. We're expected in his office ten minutes ago."
"Wonderful," Lee mumbled. He poured himself a cup of coffee and looked at his wife. "Next time you decide to come downstairs for some quiet time, please, take me with you."
William Melrose sat at his desk, looking at the computer printout he'd been handed just moments before. An expression of pure frustration emblazoned his face. Two threats in two days and no leads. His telephone buzzed; he reached over and pressed the intercom button.
"Scarecrow and Mrs. King are on their way down, Sir."
"Thank you, Mrs. Marston." Billy settled back in his chair and took a deep breath. Maybe Amanda could see something in this that everyone else was missing. She seemed to have a knack for that.
Lee and Amanda entered the Bullpen and met up with Francine on her way to Billy's office. She was carrying an armload of reports in blue colored binders. Amanda took half of the reports as Lee opened the door for the women. Billy motioned them all in, and Lee shut the door behind them.
"Good morning, Sir," Amanda smiled and took her seat.
"Good morning, Amanda, Lee." He nodded a thank you to Francine who stacked the reports on the corner of his desk, retrieved the remaining folders from Amanda, and then stood to Billy's left. "We have a situation here. Two terrorist threats have been received within the last two days." As he spoke, Francine handed each agent a manila folder. "As you can see, the threats are quite specific. Problem is, each one has proven false. We're chasing our tails, only to find that there's no tail to chase."
"Someone's crying wolf," Amanda mumbled as she thumbed through the papers in her folder.
"Exactly right, Amanda. At least, that's what we think," Billy replied.
Lee looked up from his folder. "This is down in Florida? At NASA?"
"Yes," Francine piped in. "There's a rocket launch scheduled in four days, and the rocket's carrying a highly sensitive military satellite. Security is tighter than usual, but everyone's still on edge from the last incident."
Amanda looked up. "Last incident?"
"Two years ago? January?" Francine replied.
Amanda frowned for a second, then recognition dawned. Francine nodded. Her unspoken assumption was correct. "But that was an accident." She looked to Lee in confusion. He shook his head 'no' and her eyes grew wide. "It wasn't?"
"No, it wasn't," Billy answered. "That was a terrorist bombing, pure and simple. It was covered up, though, for the public good. Security's been increased and new procedures are in place, but there's still that small chance…and it's not one that the military is willing to take. They want to make sure that this rocket goes up without a hitch. They've requested our help in tracking down the source of these threats. More specifically, they've requested you," he said, pointing to Lee and Amanda.
"Us, Sir?" Amanda was still flipping through the files when Lee slapped his folder down on his lap. Amanda jumped and looked at him.
"The Colonel." Lee closed his eyes and clenched his teeth. "He's on this satellite project, isn't he?"
"I'm afraid so, Lee. He requested…" Billy fished through the papers on his desk until he found the message. "Let's see, he requested 'that no good nephew of mine who never calls and his exquisite wife.' Now, if you know anyone else who fits that description, I'll gladly send them, but…" Francine stifled a laugh, and Lee shot her a look.
Amanda smiled and reached for Lee's hand. "I love Florida. Won't this be exciting?"
Lee managed to force a smile. "Oh, yeah…exciting is definitely the word I'd pick to describe this assignment."
Air Force Colonel Robert Clayton sat at his temporarily assigned desk and looked out the window at the ocean. The brilliant azure sky and the clear blue-green of the water seemed sharper through the thick pane of glass. "Classic case of 'the grass is always greener,'" he whispered to himself.
Clayton jumped internally, but his aide saw only cool confidence as he turned his attention away from the scenery.
"Nothing, Jim. Nothing at all." Clayton straightened his jacket and placed his hands squarely on the desk in front of him. He looked carefully at the red folder in Jim's hands. "Another one?" he asked.
"Yes, Sir. I'm afraid so." Jim handed the file to his superior and waited to be dismissed.
Clayton opened the folder, skimmed the report, and sighed. "Three days to launch, Jim, and we're still no closer to catching this nut than we were three days ago. Each time it's something different, some other system he says has been tampered with. Each time we come up empty." Clayton slammed his fist into his hand. Jim jumped. "We've had every inch of the rocket and the satellite checked, double checked, and triple checked. What are we missing?"
"I don't know, Sir," Jim replied, shrugging and swallowing hard.
Clayton turned to his aide and forced a smile. "It's nearly lunch time. Why don’t you head on over to the mess hall and get yourself something to eat. I'm going to stick around here for a while."
"Yes, Sir." Jim saluted, turned, and left.
Clayton swiveled his chair away from his desk and, again, looked out the window. Thoughts of retirement crossed his mind. Images of him on a sailboat, cruising the Caribbean with a tropical drink in one hand and a tropical beauty in the other, flickered, briefly, then dimmed. He shook his head and ruefully smiled. He couldn't retire. What would the United States do without him?
The 737 touched down at the Orlando International Airport, right on schedule. The Captain, in his end of flight speech, indicated that the local forecast called for bright sunshine and a temperature of 87 degrees. Amanda was glad she'd thought to bring her bathing suit. It wasn't every day that the Agency sent her to Florida on assignment, and she intended to take at least one extra day for her own enjoyment. Lee had laughed at her insistence, but had finally acquiesced and packed his trunks as well.
As the plane taxied to the gate, Amanda thought back over the past twenty-four hours. When the boys had found out about their new assignment, to say that they had been disappointed about not going along, would have been an understatement. Their cover was easy enough. They were doing a documentary on the Space Center and the military use of launch pads. Lee had explained that the film required them to visit restricted areas at the Space Center and at Patrick Air Force Base. This piqued the boys' interest even more, but Amanda had put her foot down. Finally, however, to get them to back off, Lee had promised another family trip to Florida, before the end of summer.
Lee had been quiet for most of the flight. When Amanda had leaned in to ask if he was okay, he'd smiled reassuringly and patted her hand. She knew his mind was on the Colonel. Even after Christmas and the renewal of their vows, Lee still felt like a kid around his uncle. On some level, Amanda thought it was cute. There were very few things that could fluster the infamous Scarecrow. She had discovered a few of those, herself, after their marriage, most of them behind closed bedroom doors. But the one person who could cause Lee to snap to attention with a simple phone call was his uncle, the Colonel.
They disembarked and walked through the airport to collect their bags. While they were waiting for the baggage carousel to lurch to life, Amanda decided it was time to get Lee talking.
"Cat got your tongue?" she asked as she slipped her hand into his.
He grasped her fingers, intertwining them with his own. "Nope, just thinking."
"About what?" She noticed that he was staring ahead, not really focused on anything. When he didn't answer her right away, she squeezed his hand. He turned to look at her, his eyes still distant. "Are you in there?" she asked, her tone playful, but still carrying a hint of worry.
His eyes locked on hers and then seemed to come into focus. "If he calls me 'Skip,' just once, I swear I'll…"
"You'll what?" Finally, he was breaking. "You'll pick up your toys and go home? For goodness sake, Lee, it's a nickname. I'll give you that it's not a very flattering one, but do you think I behave like this when someone calls me Mandy? Oh, no. Not me."
Lee smiled, dropped her hand, wrapped his arm around her, and pulled her close. "You did when Eva called you Mandy."
She prickled at the memory. "Well, she's different."
"Oh, yes, different. I see, now," Lee mocked. "You've made it all so clear." He placed a kiss on her nose as he raised his eyebrows. "What would I do without you?"
Amanda looked over his shoulder at the now moving carousel. "You'd lose your luggage," she said and pointed at their suitcases, which had circled around, past them.
Lee took a step back, and hoisted their bags onto the floor. "Shall we?" he asked, gesturing toward the car rental pavilion.
"Certainly," Amanda replied, sending him a wink. She turned and started walking, Lee following close behind. Without a backward glance, she shot over her shoulder, "By the way, don't think this conversation is over. We'll continue it in the car." She couldn’t see him, but knew he was rolling his eyes.
Scott checked, double-checked, then triple-checked the launch coordinates and his trajectory program. Satisfied that no one had changed them since he had made the alterations, he picked up his folders and confidently walked out of the Launch Control Center, passing several guards on the way .
He had no reason to think that anyone would alter the coordinates after he left. He was in sole charge of that particular phase of the launch, and no one had any reason to doubt him. After all, The Scarab was making absolutely sure that everyone's attention focused solidly on a more tangible threat. Still, he worried that, after all was said and done, the Government would be able to trace the disaster back to him. Oh, yes, The Scarab made promises. Promises of a new life. A new identity. Protection…but, still…
Amanda sat in the passenger seat, watching the scenery whiz past as they headed east on State Road 520 to Cocoa Beach. Lee was staring straight ahead, both hands on the wheel.
"You know," Amanda started, keeping her gaze on the flat landscape, "this is a lot different from the Florida I remember when I was little." Outside the car, the Palmetto bushes dotted the open fields while tall Slash Pines shot arrow straight toward the bright, clear blue sky.
"How so?" Lee glanced at her, smiling.
"I guess, I remember it being more tropical. We went to Miami and the Keys when I was eight, and I distinctly remember more palm trees." She looked back toward Lee and reached for his hand.
Lee took hold of her hand and absentmindedly caressed her fingers while he continued to drive down the flat expanse of highway. "You'll see more palm trees once we get closer to the coast. What most people don't realize is that Florida is mostly cattle ranches and orange groves. It's not all the tropical paradise you see in the travel brochures. You didn't get to see much of this back in March."
"You're right. I guess you could say that about any vacation spot." Amanda paused and glanced at her watch. "It's almost five. What time is the Colonel expecting us?"
"He's going to meet us at the hotel at six, give us a briefing, and take us to dinner."
"How did he sound when you talked to him?"
Lee looked at Amanda and could see the concern in her eyes. It occurred to Lee that Amanda now considered the Colonel a part of her family, and was genuinely concerned about his well being. He chose his words carefully. "Worried…and angry. Any threat against the United States is a threat against him, you know. He takes these things personally."
"Well, then, I see that you come by it honestly." She grinned as Lee shrugged, unable to disagree. "I still can't shake the feeling that someone's crying wolf."
Lee shot a glance in Amanda's direction. "You mentioned that in Billy's office, what did you mean?"
"You know, 'The Boy Who Cried Wolf?'" Lee, turning his eyes back to the road, shook his head 'no,' and Amanda continued. "It's a classic children's story. The little boy wants attention from the townspeople, so he cries 'wolf,' and all the people come running to help him. Except, there is no wolf. They leave, and he does it again, and again, and still the townspeople come to help him. But there is no wolf. Finally, they get tired of being tricked and decide that if he cries out again, they aren't going to run to him. Then, a wolf does show up. This time, the boy cries wolf and he hollers, and he screams, but no one comes because no one believes him. I think he winds up getting eaten at the end."
"Lovely story for small children." He looked sideways at Amanda, sitting with her arms crossed, in the passenger seat
"It's a classic," she defended.
"I see. So you think someone is sending these false threats in the hope that the real threat will slip under the radar?" Lee nodded to himself as he let the idea creep in. It made perfect sense, even if it was a fairy tale.
"Maybe," she turned back to the window and sighed. "Like I said, it's only a feeling. I could be way off base."
Lee squeezed her hand in reassurance. "Somehow, I doubt that."
"Crying wolf, eh?" The Colonel placed his fork in the center of his plate and motioned for the waiter. "Carafe of coffee and three cups, please." The waiter turned on one heel and headed for the kitchen, their empty dessert plates in his hands. "Not a bad thought, Amanda. This…person…does seem to like to keep us running in circles."
"Exactly, Sir." Amanda leaned forward a bit in her chair, resting her hands on the table. "May I ask, what's so important about this particular launch? The portions of the report we saw had blank areas where the cargo descriptions had been."
"Blanked out? Well, it's nice to know there are still some things that are considered secret." He let out a small laugh while Lee rolled his eyes. Amanda shot him a 'behave' look, and he sarcastically smiled back at her. "It's a global positioning satellite. There's really nothing too special about it, except that it was designed to last for years. Its power source is different that the other satellites we've launched, just about tripling its life span."
The waiter had arrived with their coffee, and Amanda slowly stirred sugar into her cup while the Colonel spoke. "But, Sir, that doesn't seem like something a terrorist would be intent on destroying."
Lee took a sip of his coffee and placed the cup back on the table. "That's the problem with terrorists, Amanda. Sometimes, they do things just to cause trouble. There doesn't always have to be a reason."
"That's right, Skip, and that's what worries me." Lee bristled, and Amanda covered her mouth with her free hand. "They've got nothing to gain, and nothing to lose. That's what makes them lethal and hard to catch. Now, why don't I get you kids back to your hotel room? It's going to be an early day tomorrow, and you've had a long trip."
Lee nodded and they all stood. The Colonel took Amanda's hand and placed it in the crook of his arm. As they walked together from the restaurant through the parking lot, Amanda leaned close to the Colonel.
"Sir, if you don't mind me asking, what is the power source for the satellite?"
"Plutonium?" Amanda stood in front of the bathroom mirror brushing her hair. "That seems awfully dangerous, don't you think?" Lee looked up at her, his mouth full of toothpaste, and shrugged. "I mean, it's radioactive. What if something happened?"
Lee rinsed, and wiped his face with the towel. "I'm sure they wouldn't use anything they thought might be dangerous."
"You're probably right, but…" Her thought was halted when a strong pair of arms enveloped her from behind.
Lee pulled her close. "Amanda, worry about that in the morning. Let's take advantage of this one uninterrupted evening." His breath was warm and tickled her ear. The result was hypnotic. Amanda leaned back and nodded, the terrorists, the threats, and, most of all, the plutonium, forgotten.
Patrick Air Force Base bustled with activity, just like Lee remembered. They were supposed to meet the Colonel after breakfast, and then, ride over to the Space Center, together, for a 'tour.' Amanda watched Lee as he looked around the air base, wondering what memories, if any, he might have here. She was about to ask, when a Jeep pulled up beside them.
"Beautiful morning for a road trip, don't you think?" Colonel Clayton lowered his aviator sunglasses to the tip of his nose and winked at Amanda. "Hop in and we'll get moving."
Lee helped Amanda in, and had barely settled into his own seat, when the Jeep took off and headed North on A-1-A, toward the Space Center.
"Tell me again why you want to check out the launch facilities?" the Colonel hollered over his shoulder.
Amanda leaned forward, one hand on Lee's knee and the other on the passenger headrest. "Well, Sir, it seems that, so far, all of the threats have been to equipment, or parts of the satellite, or the rocket itself. We decided that, since these threats are easy to double check and dismiss, and it seems that they've all been false alarms, that it wouldn't be a bad idea to focus our search in a different direction."
The Colonel nodded his agreement. "Good thinking. It makes sense to look where they aren't leading us."
"Precisely," Lee shouted over the rush of the wind. "We don't have a lot of time to work with, and want to nail down all the possibilities as quickly as possible."
Amanda leaned back in her seat, her hand still resting on Lee's knee. He placed his hand over hers and squeezed. She smiled at him as he played with the wedding band on her finger. The Jeep began to slow as they turned onto a single lane side road. They traveled only a few minutes, before coming to a gate, manned by a single guard. The guard, recognizing the Colonel, flipped a switch, and the gate lurched, then slid quietly to the side, allowing them to pass.
Hours later, they were walking the hallways of the building that housed the offices and research labs. Amanda's head spun with information. She knew that a lot went into making sure that a rocket launch was successful and safe, but she now realized that she really had no idea of exactly how much it all entailed.
The Colonel had introduced them to an endless cadre of scientists and aeronautical engineers, all with different responsibilities. They all seemed drawn to Amanda, and started talking her ear off the instant they were informed that she was doing some preliminary research on the men and women behind the space program. Lee had enjoyed the distraction this afforded him, and made good use of his unheeded state by doing some light snooping.
As they rounded the corner to the west corridor, Amanda let out a long sigh. "What a morning," she whispered to Lee.
"We're not done, just yet," he pointed to a man who had just entered an office ahead of them. Amanda caught sight of the tail of his lab coat fluttering behind him.
"Lee, I'm tired, I'm hungry, and I need to put on some sneakers," she looked down at her feet and the pumps that had seemed like such a good idea that morning. "This is it. After this one, we head back to the Base and eat. It doesn't look like we're getting anywhere, anyway."
The Colonel turned around and smiled at Amanda. "Oh, I think we accomplished one thing this morning."
"What's that, Sir?" Lee asked.
"Amanda's gathered a whole new set of admirers with the 'coats.'" He winked at her, and continued down the hall.
Amanda rolled her eyes and shook her head. "Great," she mumbled. "Do me a favor and you take this one? I'm just about out of charm." Lee smiled and nodded as they took off after the Colonel.
They caught up with him as he reached the office door. He rapped on the frame and peeked around the corner. The man in the lab coat was standing with his back to the door and jumped visibly at the noise.
"Scott, can we bother you for a moment?" The Colonel walked through the door as Scott turned around to face his visitors. "This is Lee Steadman and Amanda Keene. They're here doing some research, getting ready to film a documentary about the space program. I'm showing them around the facility this morning, and introducing them to all the men behind the scenes."
Amanda watched as a nervous smile crossed Scott's face. Lee took a step forward and held an outstretched hand in greeting. "Hi, there," Lee turned on the 'film-maker' charm and vigorously pumped Scott's arm. "So, Scott, what kind of magic do you do here?" Lee placed an arm around Scott's shoulders and led him around the room as he talked non-stop.
Amanda stepped into high gear and, as inconspicuously as possible, started to walk around the laboratory, looking for anything remotely suspicious. As she rounded the corner of Scott's desk, a small piece of paper caught her eye. Slowly, she reached into her purse and took out a pen. She wandered closer to the scrap and dropped the pen next to it.
Looking at Lee, who was still talking Scott's ear off, she nodded. Lee turned Scott to face away from Amanda, and she bent over, picking up the pen and the scrap of paper in the process. She put both items into her purse and nodded, again, to Lee.
"So, Scott, would you be willing to be in the documentary? You've got a face that just begs to be on film." Lee turned away from Scott and started walking out of the office. He gestured over his shoulder, in Amanda's general direction. "Take your time and think about it. I'll have Amanda bring by the release forms later this week. 'Kay?"
Scott turned toward Amanda, who smiled and shrugged at him. "I'll be by on Monday. Don't worry, we won't make you sign anything you don't want to." She left Scott's office and walked out into the hallway, followed closely by the Colonel. Lee was leaning against the wall, smiling broadly.
"Lee, you scared that man half to death," Amanda scolded, though, grinning at his obvious amusement.
"I know." Lee waggled his eyebrows, and Amanda sighed. His smile, however, erased when the Colonel cleared his throat.
"Come on, let's head back to the base and pow-wow." The Colonel took Amanda's arm in his, and they headed down the hallway, followed by Lee, whose smile had returned.
Lee, Amanda, the Colonel, and his aide, Jim, all sat around a small table in the Colonel's makeshift office. They were comparing notes about the various people that they had met at the Space Center, and how they could connect to the various threats that had been made.
"I don't understand," Lee ran his hand through his hair and leaned back in his chair. "Each of these threats is to a different mechanical system on the rocket itself. The first one was the navigation system, then, the fuel lines, followed by the computers. They have nothing to do with one another."
"Except the explosion," Amanda offered. She was leafing through the sheets of paper spread out in front of her. As she read each page, she nibbled on the eraser of a pencil. When no one spoke, she looked up, mid-nibble, to find all three men watching her intently. Slowly, she put the pencil down and smiled.
"What explosion?" Lee asked.
Amanda again began to leaf through the pieces of paper, and pulled out four sheets. "See?" She pointed to the first piece of paper, "This is the first threat and it says that the navigational systems have been tampered with. At the end, the person says that…" Her eyes scanned the page, searching for the correct phrase. "Here it is, 'the rocket will be destroyed in an explosion unequaled in magnitude.'" She set that page down and picked up the second sheet. "This one is the same, just the wording's a little different."
"So?" Lee took the pages from Amanda and looked them over. "This guy's got an explosion complex. What does that tell us."
"It's the one thing that doesn't change from threat to threat. Maybe that's his plan, after all." Amanda shrugged and put her hands on the table. "That's all I can come up with."
The Colonel had been leaning back in his chair, his arms crossed in front of his chest. "Not a bad observation, Amanda."
"He's right, Amanda. It's the only thread of a connection we have, right now." Lee placed the pages back on the table and rubbed his eyes. "It's late. We should get back to the hotel and get some sleep."
Amanda nodded and the Colonel stood up. "Good idea, let's plan on meeting back here at o-seven-hundred hours."
Lee and Amanda returned to their hotel room. Once inside, Amanda promptly took off her shoes and changed into a pair of jeans and a red and white plaid blouse. She sat on the edge of the bed, looking out the glass door to the balcony and the ocean beyond. Lee sat down next to her and placed an arm around her shoulders.
"What are you thinking?" he whispered into her ear, causing her to shiver.
Amanda didn't answer, but stood up and took Lee's hand. "Let's take a walk."
Lee looked at her, a question in his eyes. He glanced at the clock, and thought about how soon seven o'clock was going to arrive, but stood with Amanda, anyway. "Where are we going?"
"To the beach." She led Lee out the door and around the building. They walked through the Pampas Grass, and slid down the dunes to the damp, hard packed sand. The tide was on its way out and the shoreline was scattered with shells. Sandpipers chased the waves back and forth, dipping their beaks into the sand, picking out mussels.
They walked in silence for a while, their hair and clothes becoming damp from the sea spray. The setting sun caused the shadows to grow long and reach out toward the ever-darkening water. On the horizon, they could just make out the lights from one of the many cruise ships that docked at the nearby port.
"This is beautiful," Amanda whispered. They sat down on one of the dunes, and watched the waves lap the shore. She looked away from the water and turned her attention to Lee. He was staring at her, a small smile on his face.
"No, you're beautiful," he replied. He leaned toward her and placed a gentle kiss upon her lips. She shivered, whether from the kiss, or from the breeze combining with her damp clothes, she wasn't sure.
"You're biased," she retorted as he wrapped his arms around her, pulling her close against him.
Lee nuzzled into Amanda's hair, placing a kiss on her neck, just behind her ear. "Perhaps," he whispered.
Suddenly, Amanda sat bolt upright. "Lee!"
Lee jumped and looked around, instantly on guard.
"The paper!" Amanda stood up and brushed the sand from her jeans. "I forgot all about the paper I found in that engineer's office."
Lee shook his head and smiled. "All alone, on a tropical beach, romantic lighting, the sound of waves, and she's thinking about the case." He chuckled and looked at the sandpipers. "Why me?" he asked. They had no answer for him.
Amanda had already starting walking back toward the hotel. She turned to find Lee sitting on the dune, still, laughing. "Well? Are you going to sit out here all night? Come on!"
He raised his hands in surrender and stood. "Only Amanda," he muttered.
"What?" Amanda turned, again, pleased to see that he was finally coming.
"Nothing." Lee wheeled around to face the horizon. The full moon rising slowly, cast its glow over the ocean, causing it to sparkle like a thousand diamonds. "Nothing at all."
Amanda had Lee up and out of bed early, and they were now waiting for the Colonel to arrive. Amanda clutched a tiny scrap of paper tightly in her hand. She was positive this was something important. Lee had pointed out that a slip of paper with numbers on it, found in an engineer's office, was not considered suspicious, but she would hear nothing of it. She had pointed out to him that a certain ticket stub, conveniently left behind under a certain set of front porch steps had been a useful piece of information a few weeks ago. Unable to argue that point, Lee had conceded.
When the Colonel arrived at six fifty-five, Amanda was pacing the hallway in front of his office door.
"Good morning, you two," he greeted as he unlocked the door. "Have you been waiting long?"
"Since six-thirty, Sir," Lee replied as he entered and found a seat. "Amanda thinks she's found something."
The Colonel's eyes lit up. "Really? What?"
"It's a slip of paper, Sir, with numbers on it. Can you take a look at it and see if you think it might be something important?" Amanda handed the slightly worn piece of paper to the Colonel. He looked it over for a moment, then nodded, handing the slip back to her.
"It's coordinates," he said, shrugging his shoulders in indifference. "Where did you find this?"
"In the last office we were in yesterday," Lee said. "Amanda found it on the floor behind his desk."
"Under the credenza," Amanda corrected.
"Excuse me," he rolled his eyes and smiled condescendingly at Amanda, then turned back to the Colonel, "under the credenza. I tried explaining to her that not all evidence is conveniently laid out under things to be found by the first lucky agent to come along, but she won't listen to me."
Amanda sighed and frowned at Lee. "I thought it might be important, that's all."
The Colonel leaned back in his chair, his fingers tented in front of his chest. "You found this in Scott Bower's office?" Amanda nodded. "This might be worth looking into. Let me see those coordinates again. I'm gonna have Jim run them, and find out what path they map out."
Amanda handed the Colonel the piece of paper, and he walked out, shutting the door behind him. She looked at Lee who was staring out the window at the ocean view.
"I really don't see why you think this is nothing," she said, under her breath. Her arms were defiantly crossed in front of her chest and her eyes were piercing.
Lee turned his attention to her and flinched. "I don't want you to think that it's always that easy. Evidence is not always left lying around like that. Sometimes, you just don’t find anything. And not all the bad guys are that stupid."
Amanda frowned at him and was about to respond when the door opened and the Colonel walked in with Jim on his heels.
"Bingo!" The Colonel shouted.
Lee looked up in surprise. "Bingo?" Amanda only smiled.
Jim spoke up. "These coordinates would launch a vehicle off the cape, then, turn it's trajectory, so instead of going east, over the ocean, it would turn west, over the state." He paused for a moment, making sure everyone was with him. "The problem with this is that the rockets are programmed with a fail-safe mechanism. If they stray off a predetermined course, the one going east, the rocket will self-destruct."
"This one has plutonium on board," Amanda stated. She was staring straight ahead, speaking to no one in particular. "If this rocket were destroyed, it would be a radioactive nightmare." No one spoke for a moment, the reality of the situation sinking in.
"We need to get back over to the Space Center and double check the trajectory coordinates," the Colonel said. He turned to Amanda. "You found this in Scott Bower's office?" She nodded. "He's responsible for programming the launch trajectory. This could be a problem."
Lee sat in silence, realizing that he would soon be eating his words.
Scott looked around his office for what he hoped would be one of the last times. The launch was scheduled for the following morning. He'd checked the coordinates again, but was still worried.
Everything was set. The rocket would lift off on the correct trajectory, then, ten seconds into liftoff, his program would take over, and the trajectory would change. At that point, the fail-safe would kick in, giving mission control five seconds to intervene, before the rocket would self-destruct. If mission control did over-ride the fail-safe, the rocket would continue over the state, then, arc downward and impact near Orlando. Either way, it would be devastating.
He slid back his chair, and was starting to rise, when his phone rang.
"Hello," he sighed as he settled back into his chair.
"It is almost time," The Scarab growled. "Are you certain there will be no mistakes?"
Scott straightened when he recognized the voice on the other end of the receiver. "I just checked again, and everything is set, Sir."
"One more day and you will have repaid your debt to me," he said. "Do not fail me now, or you will live to regret it."
"I understand, Sir," Scott replied. "The trajectory is fixed. Once the rocket has launched, no matter what they do, it will be a disaster." The Scarab didn't respond. Scott sat in silence for a moment, then heard The Scarab hang up. He took a deep breath, leaned back in his chair, and rubbed his eyes.
Lee and Amanda quietly walked down the west corridor toward Scott Bower's office. As they neared the door, Lee held out a hand, stopping Amanda in her tracks. He raised a finger to his lips and nodded toward the door. Amanda heard a faint voice inside. They inched closer to the door, and Scott's voice grew clearer.
"…The trajectory is fixed. Once the rocket has launched, no matter what they do, it will be a disaster."
Amanda's eyes widened and she poked Lee's side. He turned to face her and shrugged. "I owe you one," he mouthed. As he moved to confront Scott, Amanda grabbed his arm and stopped him. She pulled him back a few feet.
"We should wait for your uncle to get here with the MP's," she urged in a whisper. "You don't know what he might do."
"I'm just gonna talk to him," Lee argued. "Besides, the Colonel will be here any minute." He turned and walked back toward the office door. Amanda shook her head in frustration and followed.
Lee knocked on the doorframe and walked in. Scott lowered his hands from his eyes and let out a breath.
"Mr. Steadman, I thought you weren't coming back until Monday," he started to stand and Lee raised a hand.
"Please, Scott, sit." Amanda walked through the door behind Lee and stood beside him. "I want to talk to you about the phone call you just made."
Panic struck Scott and he turned pale. "What…what phone call?"
"Don't play around, Scott. We know what you have planned, and we want to know why." Lee took a step forward and leaned on the desk. "I want to know who you were talking to."
Scott fidgeted in his chair for a moment, then seemed to deflate. Knowing there was no way out, he began to talk, "I don't know who he is. He calls himself 'The Scarab.' I've never seen him; I don't even know how to get hold of him. He always called me. He told me what he wanted me to do and I did it."
Amanda shook her head at the man in front of her. "Why, Scott?" She walked around the desk and placed a hand on his arm, Lee watching her closely. "Why didn't you tell someone?"
Scott started to open his mouth when a shot rang out. Amanda ducked behind the desk, and Lee leaped to the left, positioning himself against the wall. Gun in hand, he silently counted to three, then whirled around, leveling, and firing at the assailant. The man dropped to the ground.
"Lee!" Amanda called out. Lee turned to find her holding Scott upright. He had been shot in the chest and was quickly losing consciousness.
"Are you okay?" Lee called out. He glanced back toward the man in the hallway. He was lying still, having sustained a shot at near point blank range.
"I'm fine, but I don't think Scott is," Amanda replied with a shaky voice.
Lee heard footsteps running down the corridor and looked up. The Colonel was running toward them followed by five MP's. When they reached Lee, he stood and walked back to Amanda.
She looked up at him, her eyes misty. "It's too late for him." She stood and Lee wrapped his arms around her. "Who shot him?" she asked.
"I don't know," he whispered.
"It's Gene, a guard," one of the MP's offered.
The Colonel stepped around Gene, and looked at Scott sitting limply in his chair. "We checked the trajectory programs, and found an additional program hidden in the codes. It was set to take over ten seconds into launch. We were able to change and erase it. The launch should go off as scheduled, tomorrow morning."
Amanda nodded as Lee and The Colonel led her out of the room.
Amanda spread her beach towel on the sand and sat down. The waves were gentle and the ocean looked like blue-green glass. A seagull cried out as it flew overhead, looking for someone with a snack it could steal. A gentle breeze blew in, off the water. Amanda closed her eyes for a moment, allowing herself to be lulled by the rhythmic sound of the waves. Her reverie was broken when Lee, in his swim trunks, huffed down beside her.
"Only two more minutes until launch. The Colonel says this is a great spot to check it out." He leaned over and kissed her cheek and she smiled.
"At least, we get this one morning of peace before we have to head back to the Base and make our final report." Amanda picked up a seashell and examined it.
"He knew how upset you were about what happened yesterday. We both thought it would be best to let you unwind a little, before we got back to business." Lee leaned back onto the sand, and nodded to the north. "Only about a minute to go."
Amanda scooted next to Lee, so they both faced north. After a few seconds, they could feel a slight rumble coming up from the sand. A moment after that, Lee pointed. The rocket was headed straight up and out, to the east, trailed by a line of fire from the booster engine, and then, by a line of smoke.
Lee let out a low whistle. "Now, I know what Francis Scott Key meant by 'the rocket's red glare.' I don't think I've ever seen anything so amazing."
Amanda nodded and leaned against Lee's shoulder. "Thank goodness there's no 'bombs bursting in air' this time."
He chuckled and shifted, wrapping his arm around her and pulling her close. "What's really bothering you?" he asked softly.
"We didn't catch the bad guy this time, Lee." Amanda sat up and turned to him. "We found out who was crying wolf, but we never found the wolf. That worries me."
"Something tells me we haven't heard the last of The Scarab," Lee agreed. "But he's not going to show up on this beach, this morning. So I say we enjoy it while we can."
Amanda smiled and leaned in for a kiss. "That's the best idea I've heard all week."