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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A light snow covered the yard of 4247 Maplewood Drive in Arlington. It was early morning and the rising sun cast warm tones over the white-coated bushes and cheery decorations gracing the lawn. A grinning elf stood at attention by the front door holding a sign that proclaimed ‘Santa, please stop here!’ On the door was a lovely green wreath with a large red bow at the top. Bells hung from the doorknob. They jingled lightly in the soft breeze. Small white lights graced the roof of the house and outlined the door.
Inside the white frame house, more ornaments held precedence over the usual neatness of the King household. A large Christmas tree held court in the family room, while smaller trees stood on the kitchen counter and in the front entrance to the home. Five stockings hung from the mantle in descending order.
Originally there were four and they read, Dotty, Amanda, Phillip, and Jamie. They were grouped in pairs on either side of the mantle, Dotty and Amanda on one side, Phillip and Jaime on the other. This morning a third hung from the adults’ side of the mantle, right beside Amanda’s. The red, felt stocking trimmed with white fluff read ‘Lee’. Phillip and Jamie had suggested that Lee would like a stocking since he would be spending Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with the family. Amanda whole-heartedly agreed and the stocking had been presented the night before after the family dinner Lee had attended.
Lee, obviously touched by the boys’ sentiment, had hung the gift from the accompanying ceramic holder while pride and love shone in his eyes. He felt better about the holiday season this year than ever before and he knew it was because of his wife and family. Even if they didn’t know it, he was their stepfather and son-in-law and he was so proud to be a part of this wonderful family.
Amanda King Stetson descended the stairs from her bedroom and looked out the window in the kitchen at the new fallen snow. Everything seemed so peaceful at this time of the day. It was like a fresh new start for everyone involved. She poured her first cup of coffee and went to the family room to wake up properly.
Her gaze fell on the stockings hung from the mantle. She smiled as she remembered the pleasure she saw on her husband’s face when her boys had presented him with the gift. She recalled the love on his face as he hung the stocking. Her boys, no their boys, were so lucky to have Lee in their lives. Maybe soon they could know just how lucky they were. She gazed into the shimmering lights of the tree and counted her blessings.
A sudden thump overhead reminded her that the boys had one more day of school before they were on winter break. They were up and would soon want breakfast and her day would be officially underway.
One hour later...
“Phillip, do you think we should get Lee a present this year?” Jamie and his older brother are huddled together at the breakfast table and spoke in whispers while looking over their shoulders for their mother’s appearance.
“Of course we should, jerk face! He’s real cool. I think we should get him something really nice. How much money you got?” Phillip pulled out his own wallet and began to count. “I got ten dollars.”
Jamie responded with, “I’ve got my allowance and my paper route money. About fifteen dollars I think.” He narrowed his eyes suspiciously at his brother. “Hey, where is your money from washing Mom’s truck last week? I thought you were going to save it for gifts.”
Phillip shrugged, “I did, dummy. I bought Linda’s present. She wanted Madonna’s new tape.”
“Well I’m not going to buy all the presents again this year! You’re gonna help some more.” The brothers began to scuffle at that point and were sharply reprimanded by their Grandma as she entered the room.
“Boys, stop that right now! This is the season for love and giving. But not the giving of black eyes and bruises. Now what are you fighting about?” Dotty had, by now, grasped both boys by the arms and pulled them apart. They stood side by side and faced her with shamed faces.
Jamie offered the first explanation. “Sorry, Grandma. We were talking about Christmas and how I’m not going to buy all our presents this year. Last year, Phillip spent all his money on stupid girls and I had to pay for Mom’s gift and he made me put his name on the tag. It’s not fair that I have to do that again.”
“But boys, we already have your mom’s gift, remember? We all went together and got her that nice briefcase, organizer for her work.” Dotty looked at her grandsons in bewilderment for an answer. This time Phillip chimed in.
“We know that, Grandma but we want to get Lee a gift this year, too. That’s all right, isn’t it? I mean he isn’t family but we really like him and he’s gonna be here and all.”
Dotty smiled, “Oh, I think that would be absolutely wonderful. He’s family…err, I mean he’s just like family and he would be so pleased that you wanted to get him something. How about if we get this one together, too? I would like to get Lee a gift myself. Let’s make it something really nice.” Dotty smiled again as she thought of how her secret son-in-law would appreciate the boy’s thoughtfulness.
Jamie and Phillip agreed and asked, “Grandma, can we keep this a secret just between us? You know Mom can’t keep a secret and we want to surprise Lee.” Dotty almost laughed at the idea that her daughter couldn’t keep a secret. She had done a good job for quite a while now!
Instead Dotty just agreed and they all quickly turned to their food just as Amanda appeared in the door. The trio looked up with all possible innocence. Immediately suspicious, Amanda asked, “OK guys, what’s up?” She glanced at her watch and then toward the front door as the doorbell rang.
“Why, nothing dear. What ever are you talking about?” Dotty responded dryly.
“Yea, Mom what are you talking about?” Both boys had best behavior written all over their faces.
Amanda laughed as she went to let Lee in the front door. She called back over her shoulder. “All right. I get it. Secrets abound at Christmas, huh?”
She opened the door to admit Lee and greeted him with a peck on the cheek. His face was cold from the wind and she shivered dramatically. “Oh my gosh, it must be really cold out there. You’re frozen. Sit down and I’ll pour you a cup of hot coffee.”
Lee rubbed his hands together and pulled off his coat. He went through the hall and into the kitchen and sat down at the table next to Jamie. “Thanks, Amanda. That would be great. It must be ten degrees out there. So are you guys ready for winter break?” He had turned his attention to his stepsons. “Have you got any plans for your time?”
Phillip began, “Yep, we got a lot of shopping to do…..umph…hey Jamie what did you hit me for?” He rubbed his leg under the table and realization dawned. “Oh I mean we’re not doing anything special.”
Lee looked at Amanda with raised eyebrows. She shrugged in return and commented wryly, “Don’t ask me. You’d have to be a spy to get information out of this group today.”
Lee choked on the coffee she had just handed him and sputtered, “Um, ok…”as Amanda excused herself to get her coat and gloves. Lee, checked to see that his wife and partner was out of hearing range, faced Phillip and Jamie and whispered, “Hey guys, how about helping me with a secret of my own this year?” When they both nodded eagerly he continued in hushed tones. “I want to get your Mom something real special but she’s not talking about what she wants. I need you guys to ask questions and find out what she wants.” Lee stood hurriedly as Amanda returned and told the boys that they needed to hurry or they would be late for tests.
Lee stood at the backdoor and watched as Phillip and Jamie grab lunch bags, book bags and fruit for snacks. They ran around opposite ends of the island and managed to trip each other only once as they filed past Amanda and Dotty and received kisses from both. They then passed by Lee and gave hi fives to the bemused spy. Phillip whispered in passing, “We’ve got you covered, Lee. No problem.” With those words the oldest of the boys ran out the door, bestowing a smack on Jamie’s head as he passed. Yelling in indignation, Jamie gave chase. Shaking his head at their antics, Lee called after them, “Hey, you guys be careful. The ground is icy in spots. You’ll fall.”
He thought to himself, ‘How does she do this every day and stay sane? Maybe soon I’ll be able to help her.’ He called after the rambunctious boys, “Have a good day. I’ll call later tonight about our ‘talk’.” Lee looked at Amanda and only smiled in response to her raised eyebrows. He chuckled and said, “What are you, a spy? You won’t get anything out of me!” He then dodged the mock punch she threw and pulled her into his arms for a quick hug.
Dotty interrupted his advances by attempting to brush past them with a large box of clothes for Goodwill. “Ah, here Dotty, let me help you with that.” He easily took the box and carried it to the Wagoneer for her. Dotty turned to her daughter and mouthed, “What a catch!” She followed Lee to the driveway and Amanda locked the door and joined her husband who now stood beside the ‘Vette. The pair exchanged rueful looks at having been caught necking and climbed into the car to go to work. Halfway down the block, unable to contain themselves any longer, the pair busted into laughter.
“Did you see your mother’s face?”
“Oh yes, she looks like the cat that ate the canary every time she catches us together!”
“I think she likes us together.”
“It’s a good thing. So do I.”
“Yea, me too.”
The drive to the Agency was quite merry that morning. Lee inquired quite innocently about what to buy the boys for Christmas and soon became engrossed in the tale of sorrow concerning the lack of supply of The Legend of Zelda, the hottest game for their Nintendo system. They laughed all the way to the office over the recounting of Dotty’s antics to try and obtain the game by any means necessary.
The pair entered the Georgetown foyer of IFF, gave the current password to the staid Mrs. Marston and proceeded to the elevator. Upon seeing the doors close them in, Lee ducked between the rows of coats, pulling Amanda with him. He quickly pressed his lips to hers.
“Aren’t you taking quite a chance with the camera?”
“Yes, but I just need a little preview until we get back to the Q Bureau. Besides, it can’t see through the coats.”
The handsome spy then pulled her closer and pressed his lips to hers more fully. She resisted briefly but quickly melted against his hard chest. She ran her hands over the planes of his torso and opened her mouth to his probing tongue. She moaned in response to the desire that was sparked by his warm mouth and broke the kiss before they went too far to stop. Glancing at him in warning, she slid her arms around his waist and grabbed his rear end just as the bell sounded and the doors opened to reveal the bullpen. They jumped apart and out from under the coats and demurely tucked hands into pockets just as Leatherneck rounded the corner to enter the lift. He took in their positions and raised one hand in warning as if to say ‘Don’t bother to try and explain.’ The Agency jack-of-all trades shook his head over the oddity of that pairing once again.
“Why good morning, Lee, Amanda. What’s new?” He raised one eyebrow in unspoken amusement. When they only exchanged dramatized innocent glances, Leatherneck chuckled and said, “Have a good day. Oh by the way, you might find this useful.” The quirky inventor handed Lee a sprig of mistletoe as he stepped into the elevator.
Lee asked, “What does it do? Is it poison or do the berries explode?”
“Nope, it’s just mistletoe. But you might find it useful.” With a wink he was gone and after securing the mistletoe in Lee’s pocket, the couple proceeded to the boardroom for briefing.
Billy Melrose stood at the front of the room and finished briefing his team of agents. “All right team, you know everything I know, which isn’t much at this point. Lee, you are in charge of Operation Christmas Card. I expect twice-daily updates from you. And Amanda, keep him on time please. Dr. Smyth is jumping up and down for results on this one. And remember, with the holidays approaching, this is taking top priority. For the first time ever, the White house is hosting foreign dignitaries for Christmas dinner. The next one of the threats may be aimed at the first family and their visitors. We have to stop these people before they manage to infiltrate White House security."
The rest of the team cleared out and Billy intercepted Lee and Amanda before they got out the door. Francine also lingered for the final comments. Lee waited for the rest of the story so to speak. He was sure there was more to the case than originally thought and Billy’s next words proved him correct.
“Lee, I think you should know that this may become very personal before it is over. Smyth, myself, and two other agents from the FBI and the CIA have been targeted. They share the same security clearance as you and have all worked on many of the same projects. I think you may be the next agent on their list. Watch yourselves. Some of the cards were delivered to home addresses. Amanda, due to your, uhm, ‘partnership’ your family may be a target."
Noting the interested glance from Francine at the emphasis on their partnership, he sent a meaningful look to Lee. “ Bring me any cards you receive from unknown sources. We have to find out who is sending these cards and what exactly they plan to do.” He opened the door and barked gruffly for the benefit of the others listening, “Now get busy, Scarecrow!”
The pair of agents proceeded to their office to check the computer and were soon off to look into several hunches. They never noticed the new addition of a gaily-wrapped box under the decorated desktop tree Amanda had insisted on bringing in. There was no tag on the outside and it rested among the other boxes quite innocently.
Meanwhile at 4247 Maplewood Drive, two men entered the home via the back door and quickly searched the house. They were slim, dark men. They wore dark business suits and dark turbans covering their hair. Full beards concealed most of their faces. They found nothing useful and began to place parcels of all sizes in hidden areas of the house. Two boxes were placed deep under the tree. One was labeled simply, “Scarecrow” and the other was labeled “Mrs. King”. Similar small packages were placed in closets and under the kitchen counter deep in the back. Under the bed in the master bedroom, a long thin cylinder wrapped in Santa paper was concealed. Five packages in all were delivered. Before leaving the pair of intruders left a white and red envelope on top of a stack of papers near the back door.
They left as quietly as they came, but never noticed when the backdoor failed to catch securely. They drove away in a dark gray four-door sedan. Suddenly, a cold blast of winter air pushed the back door open and the assorted papers flew in all directions.
A few hours later...
Dotty entered the house through the back entrance. She mumbled, “Amanda, you must have really been distracted by Lee this morning. You didn’t even shut the door.” She shook her head at her currently absent daughter and set her packages down to gather up the papers. Seeing the red and white envelope addressed simply to ‘King’, she set it aside to open later and pushed the rest of the papers into a drawer. Dotty then recollected her shopping finds and took the lot of them into the living room to examine more fully.
She eyed the few gifts and morosely shook her head once more, “Still, no Zelda! Whatever will we do?” She wrapped the gifts and added them to her stash of gifts in the hall closet. Seeing the new addition of a small, flat square package addressed to ‘Stetson’ she considered peeking but contained herself. After all, Phillip was just now learning to stay out of the presents. She wouldn’t want to set a bad example. She gave the box one last shake then replaced it in the closet. Dotty reminded her self to ask Amanda about the box this evening when Lee brought her home. Why would she hide Lee’s present? He wouldn’t look, surely. But boys will be boys. Even grown boys might be tempted. But still addressing it as ‘Stetson’ instead of Lee? How odd! The thought of Lee reminded her of her promise to help the boys feel him out for the perfect present. Maybe she could get some clues from him about his wish list before he left tonight.
Entering the kitchen to begin supper preparations her eye fell once again on the mysterious envelope. She reasoned that the card must be intended for the whole household and therefore opened the seal and read its contents.
Dotty could only sigh and shake her head. Amanda really was cultivating a strange group of friends these days. What odd humor. “Oh well, I guess that it really is the thought that counts.” With those muttered words, Dotty hung the card with the others on the doorway arch and continued with her afternoon routine.
The banging of the door against the wall announced that Phillip and Jamie were home and the usual ruckus ensued. Dotty quickly squelched the flames and set the boys to their chores.
“Phillip, I happen to know that your room is a total disaster.” Dotty pointed up the stairs and Phillip ascended the stairs and loudly began to accomplish his task.
“Jamie, didn’t your mom ask you to sweep the patio this afternoon?” She handed him the broom and opened the door to push him along.
Thirty minutes later the pair of aggravated teens were through with their chores and were gathered around the kitchen table with their grandmother. With Dotty’s help, they managed to narrow the choices down to two items, a model Corvette just like the one Lee drove or a pair of new slippers.
“But boys, how do you know that Lee needs new slippers?”
“Grandma, they’re for when he stays overnight here.”
“But, I mean, he doesn’t stay here! Why would he stay here?” Obviously flustered, Dotty attempted to interrupt this line of conversation.
“Of course he does, Grandma! They are serious you know!” Phillip stated what, to him, was painfully obvious. Exchanging grins that said ‘Adults can be so dense.’ the boys continued to torment their grandmother.
Jamie took his turn next, “You know what? I bet she even stays with him some nights! No one can work all night that often!”
Dotty, now completely discomfited by the turn of the conversation, admonished the pair. “Now you just stop right there. This is not a topic for you to discuss!” After all, she certainly knew the truth behind their remarks but they didn’t need to know how close they were. She still didn’t know why Lee and Amanda were hiding the truth from them but she felt sure they must have a good reason. Didn’t they?
Phillip made one last request of Dotty before she went to finish dinner. “Grandma, will you ask Lee which gift he likes better? I don’t mean just ask him but you know, like drop hints or something.” Dotty agreed to play devil’s advocate and left the boys alone to finish their plotting.
Together, the young people also decide that in order to help Lee accomplish his Christmas mission that they would simply ask their Mother to make a wish list. Always the voice of logic Jamie declares, “That will work Phillip, but won’t mom be suspicious if she is the only one doing it?”
“So we get everyone to fill out a list, nerd head. No big deal.” Phillip rolled his eyes and left his kid brother in favor of their newest video game. Peeking at Dotty from the family room, Phillip loudly called, “I sure hope we get the Legend of Zelda for Christmas!”
At the counter, Dotty sighed in near defeat and mentally reviewed her list of untried resources for the elusive game. Maybe that nice Mr. Delmonico from the breakfast club had some ideas. After all, he was Italian, and Zelda was an Italian name wasn’t it?
Soon the Corvette was heard pulling into the driveway and Dotty announced, “Boys, your Mother and Lee are here!”
Both boys ran to the car eager to see and hear from both adults. After hugs from Amanda and pats on the back from Lee they entered the home and the would-be ‘elves’ set their manipulations into motion. Phillip began, “Mom, we need a favor please!”
“Sure sweetheart, you name it.” She smiled her cheery smile at her oldest son.
“Well, we need you to make a wish list.” Jamie had now taken up the act.
“Wish list? What for? You know anything you get me will be great.” She glanced at her Mother in question.
Dotty replied, “Well, they asked me too and they want Lee to make one as well.”
Lee interrupted at that point, “Me? Why me? You guys don’t need to do that for me?”
Frustrated with his misunderstanding Phillip and Jamie sent him meaningful looks and slowly he understood. He thought briefly, ‘Well, they come by it honest. Sounds like an Amanda scheme to me.’ He stated, “Oh sure guys. How about we do that now before I have to go?” He rubbed his gloved hands together in anticipation.
“But Lee, I thought you were staying for dinner. I’ve made enough for an army anyway. I always overdo when I make my stew.” Dotty protested, waving her spoon for emphasis. Both the boys and Amanda agreed and Lee soon removed his jacket, suitcoat and tie and rolled up his sleeves to help set the table for the meal. They all sat down to a filling meal and jovial conversation concerning the last day of school and upcoming plans for the school holiday.
Lee was soon caught up in the activity and before he knew it, he was trailing Amanda up the stairs to the boy’s rooms. He watched as she checked on each of them briefly, asking if both boys had brushed their teeth and washed their faces. She turned out their lights and pulled the doors closed partway.
As Lee walked down the steps again he had to swallow hard past the lump in his throat when he heard Phillip call, “Good night Lee. Good night Mom.” Jamie chimed in with “Night, see ya later.” At the foot of the stairs, he turned to catch his wife around the waist as she descended behind him. Being one level down he had to look up into her face as he said, “Thank you.”
Amanda appeared puzzled, “What for?”
Lee smiled, “For sharing them with me.” He pulled her close and she leaned down into his kiss.
After a few breathless moments she pulled away and caressed his face with her fingertips. She smiled and softly breathed in the smell of him. “No, Lee. Thank you for loving them. They’re very lucky to have you. I hope some day they can know how lucky they are.”
They parted and she escorted him to the door. One last kiss and he left, armed with both Amanda’s and Dotty’s lists secreted in his pocket. So distracted was he by thoughts of what might be the best Christmas he had ever had, that he never noticed the gray sedan that fell in behind him and followed him to his apartment. Nor did he notice that the car pulled into the parking lot and that its occupants watched as he entered the building.
Inside the car the two intruders from earlier in the day speak in low undertones. The first, a tall, thin man with a rather aristocratic bearing, spoke to the other. “Well, the Scarecrow is in for the night it seems. I’m surprised, actually, that he didn’t just stay with his wife.”
His partner, a short bulky man with a thick MidEastern accent answered, “You know that our source says that their marriage is, what you say, hush hush? I think we must assume that he didn’t get his greeting from St. Nick, eh? We will leave him another.”
With that he crept from the sedan and walked in a crouch to the corvette and placed another card under the windshield wiper blade.
Hope your Christmas is a Big BANG!
Though not normally a morning person, Phillip King made his way cautiously down the stairs of his family’s comfortable home at 4 A.M.. Christmas always seemed to bring out the early riser in him, and with only a few days yet to go and still no evidence of The Legend of Zelda anywhere in the house, he had a mission that could not wait for dawn.
His goal was the closet in the foyer. He had already checked most of the typical gift hiding locales frequented by the ladies of the house and come up depressingly empty handed. All that remained were the garage shelves, the cabinet next to the stove, under Mom’s bed, and the closet that was now his immediate goal.
Treading lightly, hoping to avoid the tell-tale creak of the third step, Phillip gathered up the trailing ends of his robe’s belt so as not to trip over them and zeroed in on his objective. Last minute gifts were not an uncommon occurrence in his experience, so repeated checking was in order every Christmas and birthday. He thought briefly that maybe he was getting just a little bit too old to be sneaking around looking for gifts, but just as quickly discarded those musings. It was too entertaining to watch Mom and Grandma try to figure out if he had seen the gifts before he actually opened them on Christmas Eve.
Phillip opened the closet door, regarding the gifts stacked neatly in the corner. All wrapped and waiting to be delivered to their recipients were a sweater for Jamie from their mother, the new Robert Ludlum book for his dad from Grandma, a photo album for Jamie from Grandma, and some weird smelling bath salts for his grandmother from Mom. Phillip had opened them all at some point and carefully re-wrapped them. Over the years his gift-wrapping skills had improved considerably.
There was a time when he never could have gotten away with fooling the adults in his life that he hadn’t snooped, but lately he felt he wrapped gifts almost as neatly as the mall people did. He couldn’t quite match his mother, so he was extra careful whenever he performed and advance opening on gifts from her.
Lying next to the stack of known gifts was a hastily wrapped box extremely close in size to a Nintendo game box. Phillip hunkered down on the floor in front of the open closet door and took the small package in his lap. It was definitely wrapped very quickly in stereotypical red and green paper. There was a stick-on white bow on top. The gift tag read simply ‘Stetson.’ Phillip wondered why anyone would address a gift to Lee that way. He knew his mother called him by his last name sometimes, but putting it on a gift tag made no sense. Phillip turned the box over in his hands several times. He glanced quickly toward the stairs, silently willing his mother and grandmother to stay asleep.
As his thoughts settled on his grandmother, an interesting idea occurred to him. Perhaps this gift was intended to throw him off track. Perhaps it wasn’t really for Lee at all, but for him. After all, it was the right size for a Nintendo box. That would be so like Grandma to try and sneak a gift past him. As if she didn’t know he opened everyone else’s gifts, too.
He carefully peeled the tape back from the ends of the box, making sure no paper was ripped and the bow remained in place. Untaping a package was the most time consuming portion of his current mission, but it was certainly the most vital. One little tear in the paper could give his game away completely, especially if the gift was for someone else. Not to mention that his mother could hear gift wrap ripping from a mile away, even in her sleep.
After some time, the paper was removed revealing a plain brown cardboard box sealed with more tape. Slightly disappointed, Phillip nevertheless continued. Grandma could have put the game in a different box, he reasoned. The tape on the box itself was much more difficult. A few sections of tape came away with fuzzy cardboard residue still stuck to them, but that would certainly not be noticeable once the gift was restored to its original condition.
Opening the box, Phillip found it filled with shredded paper. That was a good sign. None of those horrible styrofoam peanuts that Aunt Lillian always used in her gifts. Those things always went everywhere and had often been his undoing. One year a trail of styrofoam had followed him from the garage to his bedroom. He had struggled to provide his mother with a believable explanation that time. Of course, Grandpa King always sent gifts packed in bubble wrap. Those were the most fun to open again on Christmas Eve. Holding back from popping those bubbles was almost as difficult as gathering up all the peanuts.
Phillip parted the shredded paper with one hand and felt for the game cartridge surely contained inside. He removed his hand to find something entirely different. A small bundle of cloth and straw rested in his palm. It looked like some Jamaican voodoo doll, or a little like the scarecrows his mother decorated with around Halloween. There was a string tied around the mock-ups neck. Phillip held the thin rope between his thumb and forefinger and allowed the little scarecrow to dangle in front of him.
As the figure twisted at the end of its rope, Phillip eyed a small yellow post-it note stuck to the back. The note read: YOU’D BETTER WATCH OUT!
The note was written as hastily as the gift had been wrapped. Phillip wondered why either his mother or grandmother would give Lee a gift like this. Unless, he thought further, this really was something to throw him off the track. A trick like this was definitely not beyond his grandmother’s sense of humor. Phillip continued to stare at the tiny totem, wondering if it would offer any clues.
He was so engrossed in his study of the scarecrow that he didn’t notice anyone descending the stairs until the third step groaned slightly.
“Phillip King!” Amanda King whispered harshly. “What are you doing getting in to those gifts?”
“Mom!” Phillip exclaimed, trying to shield the evidence of his transgression within his robe. “What are you doing up? I mean, umm, good morning!”
Phillip flashed his mother his most engaging smile, the one that always got Lauren Parker to do his Algebra homework for him, but Mom was no Lauren Parker. She descended on him with an outstretched hand clearly communicating her intent. Reluctantly, Phillip surrendered the pilfered present and stood to face the maternal music. Amanda examined the little bundle of cloth and straw as intently as Phillip had. Her eyes widened as she read the scribbled post-it note.
“Oh my gosh!” she said, gently placing the scarecrow in the pocket of her robe. Amanda snatched her purse and the packaging from the floor of the closet and made her way out the back door.
“Tell your grandmother I’ll be back later, Phillip,” she tossed over her shoulder. “And no more snooping.”
Twenty minutes later, Amanda opened the door to the apartment she occasionally shared with her husband, still dressed in her bathrobe and little else. As she made her way through the apartment, she methodically turned on every light and lamp. It was a signal she and Lee had worked out over the last year after having ended up on the wrong end of his gun barrel too many times in the wee hours of the night.
On the other side of the closed bedroom door, Lee Stetson relaxed against the frame as he saw the increasing amount of light seeping underneath. He grinned as the aroma of coffee filled the air. Placing his gun carefully on the bedside table, he adjusted his boxers, stopped briefly in the bathroom for a shot of mouthwash, and went to greet his wife.
“Now this is my idea of a Christmas present,” Lee said as he took in the vision of his wife sitting on his couch, one bare leg exposed to the thigh. “Can I open it early?” He sat beside her and gathered her close with one arm as his other hand reached for the knot at her belt. He ducked his head to gently ravish her ear and neck with his lips.
“Not now, Scarecrow,“ Amanda admonished as she reluctantly tried to push him away. “I’m here on business.”
“I have some business of my own to attend to right now,” he breathed across her collar bone, refusing to be dissuaded.
“Lee,” Amanda said sternly as she gripped his bare shoulders, reflexively rubbing her thumbs in small circles over his skin. Lee grinned at her unintentional response to his actions and leaned in to capture her lips with his.
“Umpf, Lee, I, umpf,” Amanda struggled to break off the kiss as Lee pulled her closer. He deepened the kiss as she relaxed into his arms and allowed his left hand to resume untying the knot of her robe’s belt. Taking advantage of Lee’s reaction to her apparent submission, Amanda quickly rose to her feet, sending him reeling back into the couch cushions.
“I am serious, Stetson,” she spoke from the other side of the coffee table. “Look at what Phillip found this morning. “
Lee ran one hand through his hair, scowling at her in mock annoyance, and turned his attention to the motley collection on his table. He picked up the small scarecrow and let it dangle from his fingers by the string. He read the note stuck to its back.
“I take it this isn’t from Santa Claus,” he remarked wryly to his wife.
"No, this is not from Santa. Phillip found it this morning while snooping around the house for Christmas presents."
"So, where did he find this one?" Lee asked as he looked up and saw his wife pacing back and forth. He smiled slightly at the sight of her doing something he would normally do.
"I couldn't sleep so I went down to the kitchen to get a drink of water. I caught Phillip sitting in front of the closet door with wrapping paper at his feet." Amanda stopped her pacing and finally looked at Lee.
He stood and placed the scarecrow back on top of the table and then engulfed Amanda in a warm embrace. He placed his right hand on her back and his left stroked her hair. She in turn wrapped both arms around his waist and rested her head against his shoulder.
"Amanda," he whispered gently in her ear. "Everything will be okay, I promise. I love you."
She pulled back and looked into his eyes. She could tell by his look, that he wanted her to know he thought everything would be okay. Still, with a small amount of apprehension in her voice, she asked, "Lee, do you remember what Billy said? You may be the next agent on their list. I know this isn't a card like all the rest have received, but still..."
Lee nodded. "I know. Why don't I call Billy?" As Lee released her, she started to go sit down when he embraced her again. "I'll call him in just a minute, but first this..." Leaning forward, he gave her one more reassuring hug and planted a kiss on her forehead.
After a few minutes of holding each other, Lee walked over to make the phone call. "Billy? Listen, I'm sorry to wake you up so early."
"What is it, Scarecrow?" His boss answered, groggy from the earlier interruption of sleep." Amanda came over here this morning with something interesting. Phillip was snooping through the Christmas presents and found a scarecrow. It had a string tied around his neck with a note attached. It said, 'You'd better watch out!'
Lee could hear Billy's grunts and groans as he climbed out of his bed. "I'll meet you two at the Agency in 20minutes."
"Um, we need a little bit longer." Lee turned his head towards Amanda and couldn't resist looking down at her exposed leg again. She was just staring off into space. He knew he shouldn't be thinking about her like that right now. 'But hey, I am only human,' he mused. He turned back around and continued his conversation." I want to go over to Amanda's house and look around. I'll call you if we find anything."
"Okay, I'm going to send a team over to keep an eye on the house. Let Amanda know everything will be okay."
"I will, Billy. Thanks." Lee sat the phone back on its cradle and returned back to his wife's side. He propped his left arm across her shoulders giving her a reassuring hug. "Amanda, Billy is sending a team over to your house." He paused and rested his head against hers, "Why don't we both get dressed and head over to the house? I want to look around and make sure there's nothing else suspicious."
Amanda reached out her hand to caress his face. "That sounds like a good idea. Let me go take a shower and get dressed.
"Teasingly, he reached for the tie of her robe and resumed his earlier exploration. "Do you need some help? I know someone who knows how to tame that magically untying robe!" He said while kissing his way down her neck.
"Lee..." she reprimanded as she pushed herself away from him.
He gave her a big smile. "I know, I know. Why don't you go shower and I'll get myself a cup of coffee."
Amanda stood up and walked into the bedroom, while Lee strolled into the kitchen. As he placed his cup on the counter, reaching for the pot, he stood there for a few minutes thinking about their situation. "This is Christmas time. I would love to be at our house, instead of at this apartment. Can’t I just have a normal life instead of dealing with terrorists, the KGB and all the other unusual crackpots?”
Lee was shaken out of his thoughts by the weight of the pot in his hand. He had stood there for a while and the pot in his left hand had gotten heavier and heavier. So he filled his cup with coffee and set the pot back onto the coffee maker. After pouring just a little bit of cream, he made his way into the bedroom to prepare for the day.
Thirty minutes later...
Lee opened the passenger door for Amanda to exit the Wagoneer. Placing his hand on her back, they walked to the front door together. Given the early morning hour, Amanda was surprised to see lights on in the house, which reflected that the family was up and in the kitchen. As they walked inside, she could hear her mother.
"Jamie, Phillip, more pancakes?"
"Sure!" Jamie answered, as he rose from the table with his plate in his hand.
"Mmmm. Yes, mmmm, Grandma." Phillip added while putting more food in his mouth.
Lee looked over at Amanda, eyebrows raised. "Those boys are going to eat us out of house and home."
She let out a soft chuckle, "Lee, dear, they already are. And I see no end in sight."
They continued their journey into the kitchen, "Good morning, boys, morning, Mother." Amanda leaned in to give her mother a kiss on the cheek.
"Mom!" Both boys greeted her at the same time.
"Good morning, Lee," Jamie said. Phillip looked up and nodded his head.
Morning Jamie, Phillip." He turned and with his trademark Stetson grin said, “Good morning Dotty. How are you today?"
"Fine, Lee," Dotty answered as she turned back towards her daughter. In a hushed tone, "All right, you two, what's going on? I woke up this morning to find Phillip downstairs with wrapping paper around him. He told me that you found him holding a scarecrow and then you ran out the door to Lee's place."
"I'm not too sure what this is all about, Mother. Have you seen anything else with Lee's name on it? Like a Christmas card?" Amanda was trying hard to not show any concern towards her mother. She wanted to avoid any more questions.
"No, there wasn't anything. But, we did get one yesterday addressed to 'King'." Dotty shook her head. "Amanda, those people you work with have such a strange sense of humor."
Amanda didn't pay attention to her mother once she mentioned the card. Instead, she went to the display of cards on the arch of the doorway, and found the one her mother mentioned. She reached up and pulled it down and read the inside. Lee, who had been watching her movements with interest, walked over to her as she raised a hand to her mouth.
Unable to face Lee, Amanda handed him the card. As Lee read it, he put his arm around her shoulders and whispered in her ear, "Let's head into the Agency now so we can show Billy this."
Amanda regained her composure and told her mother that she and Lee were going into work and they would be back soon.
The drive to the Agency was quiet until Lee broke the silence. "Amanda, everything will be alright. Maybe when we get into the office, Billy will have a lead."
Amanda looked over at Lee; she couldn't believe him. His words were so comforting. Even in the worst situations, he tried to make her smile.
Mrs. Marston looked up from her desk as the couple entered the foyer. "Good morning, Lee and Amanda. Mr. Melrose is in a meeting with Dr Smyth. He said he'll meet you in the Q- Bureau in 20 minutes."
"Thank you, Mrs. Marston." Amanda answered, as she and Lee clipped on their agency badges and walked up the stairs that led to their office.
Twenty minutes later…
"So, what happened when you two looked around the house?" Billy inquired, trying to understand the unnerving feeling he got from his two agents.
Lee was sitting on the edge of Amanda's desk. Shifting his body slightly, he reached for the card on her desk. "This showed up at Amanda's house the other day. We didn't know about it until Dotty mentioned it this morning." Lee reached for Amanda's hand and intertwined their fingers, giving her a small smile.
Billy read the card out loud.
"Was there anything else?" he asked. The concern was evident on his face.
“We didn't look around, Sir. Once we found the card, we came straight here." Amanda had a slight quiver in her voice.
"Well, I'll take this down to Crypto and let you know if anything comes up." After Billy left, Lee got up from Amanda's desk and began to pace. Amanda remained at her desk, watching Lee. She wished that she was at home enjoying a day with her family, instead of being stuck at work. 'I would just love a day with no worries', she thought to herself.
She was brought out of her musing when Lee cleared his throat. She looked up to find him staring at their small tabletop Christmas tree. There were a couple of presents that they had brought in, but one caught his eye. "Amanda, did you put this package under the tree?
"She walked over to the tree to better see what he was pointing at. "No, I didn't." She said, raising her eyebrows. Lee shook his head. "Well, if you didn't bring this inhere, and I didn't. I wonder where it came from? It has no name on it."
Lee and Amanda walked down the hallway into the room labeled Cryptology. Passing a beehive of cubicles they came to Leland’s desk. Billy was already there.
Lee threw the contents of the latest package down on the desk. “Leland, we have a couple more puzzles for you.”
Leland, dressed in his usual bow tie and inquisitive expression, picked up the envelope with his gloved hands.
Leland turned to Billy. “This just further confirms it Mr. Melrose. They’re definitely planning a move on all, or some of you.”
“I was afraid of that,” Billy mused. Turning to Amanda, “Amanda. You might want to have your mother and boys stay at someone else’s house tonight, or we could set you up with a hotel room. We need to get some people inside your house to do a search.”
“My house, sir?” Amanda’s expression was one of shock and dismay. “Why do you need to search my house?”
Billy took a deep breath and leaned against Leland’s desk for support. “We ran a finger print and trace evidence analysis on the other envelopes and the scarecrow that you brought us. It seems that these may very well come from a group headed by Ali Hassan Salameh.”
“Salameh?” The word exploded from Lee. “Isn’t he supposed to be behind bars in a Turkish Prison?”
“He and a group of 7 others escaped 10 days ago.”
“Sir, why does this mean my family should leave the house?”
“Amanda,” Lee said. “The Agency was involved in bringing down an arms deal that Salameh’s group had engineered. It ended badly for his side and Salameh was sentenced to life in a Turkish Prison. There were a group of us involved in the operation. It seems that we’re all being targeted. You should make the call now.”
Amanda, with a worried face retreated down to a free cubicle and picked up the phone.
Billy turned to Lee, his voice just above a whisper. “We need to know if there is anything else over at Amanda’s house that might help us in figuring out what exactly Salameh’s group has planned. It’s also a possibility that he has hidden a few dangerous packages at her house. We have to clear all of the possibilities.”
Lee could hear bits and pieces of the conversation drifting beyond the flimsy divider.
“Hi Mother… yes I’m sorry about running out like that… No, mother… I need to ask you to take the boys to Joe’s house… oh I forgot about that… well what about a hotel… yes… I’ll be at the house shortly… not more than a day or two at the most… I know, mother… it’s very important, mother… I’ll tell you about it as soon as I can… yes, mother… right now, mother… okay…. I love you too.”
Amanda hung up the phone and walked back to the group. “Mother is taking the boys to a hotel. They will be out of there in a few minutes.”
Billy gave Amanda a reassuring glance. “Amanda we already have some people watching your place, but we need to search your house. Since it’s your house it would be best if you and Lee go along, so you can let us know if anything seems out of the ordinary. You’ll need to bring back all of the packages that you might have. Even ones that you wrapped yourself. We have no idea what Salameh’s group might be up to.”
Amanda opened the front door with some trepidation. This was HER house. Work wasn’t supposed to interfere with her family. She had tried so hard to keep them separate. Now, the darkness of the Christmas lights only served as a reminder that all was not well.
She unlocked the front door and pushed it open slightly, and then stepped back to let Lee enter first.
Lee gingerly opened the front door and then peered around the hallway to make sure it was secure. As soon as he felt there was no immediate danger he motioned for Amanda to enter. “Where should we start?”
Amanda gestured upstairs and at the hall closet. “The boys probably have gifts in their rooms, mother usually hides some in her room and the closet, and I have some in my bedroom. There are a couple from neighbors and friends under the tree.”
“Let’s get the ones upstairs first.” Lee took Amanda’s hand in his and they both headed up the stairs.
Amanda pointed to her room. “Lee my gifts are on the top right shelf in my closet behind the blankets. I’ll go get the gifts from Mother’s room.”
Lee disapeared behind the door and Amanda went to her mother’s room. She felt the hollow pang of guilt as she peered under her mother’s bed, and pulled out a couple of packages addressed to the boys. It didn’t feel right going through her mother’s private stuff, but she knew it had to be done. Scooping up the packages she took them out into the hall.
The packages from her room were lying in a neat pile at the end of the hallway. Noticing the door to the boys’ bedroom was slightly ajar, she peeked in.
She found Lee sitting on Jamie’s bed looking at a box. She knew the box he held was addressed, ‘To Lee, from Philip and Jamie’ but she had no idea of the box’s contents. Lee was rubbing his hand over the label as if to prove to himself that it was real. Amanda cherished the small moment before clearing her throat to get his attention.
“Where should we put all of these?”
The sound of her voice brought Lee out of his reverie and he stood up, box in hand. “Let’s take all of these downstairs and we’ll take them to the agency.” Making his way down the hall he gathered up the pile of presents he had retrieved from Amanda’s room.
He piled them on Amanda’s coffee table and went to retrieve the gifts that lay under the tree. “We’ll need some boxes or bags to carry these in. Do you have any?”
“There may be some out back in the garage,” Amanda called, as she placed her mother’s gifts on the table. “I’ll go get some.”
Just then there was a scraping and a dull thud outside the front door. Amanda froze in place and nearly jumped out of her skin when Lee touched her shoulder, “Quick. Behind the couch.”
Amanda rushed over and hid between the couch and the end table, where she could keep a watch on Lee and whatever lay behind the door.
Lee slowly walked closer to the door, pulling his gun out of its holster. Again there was a sound of scraping, something heavy being dragged across Amanda’s front walk. There was a shuffling of feet and another thud.
Wanting to catch the perpetrator off guard, Lee slowly began to turn the front door knob and then he threw open the front door, aiming his gun at the mystery guest.
“Aunt Lillian!” Amanda called as she jumped out from behind the couch.
Lee hastily drew back his gun, and re-holstered it. It was too late, however, and the blood drained from the woman’s face. “Oh… my… goodness.” Aunt Lillian began to fan herself, as if searching for a way to get more oxygen to her rapidly beating heart. “I was wondering… if anyone was home. But I wasn’t expecting…” her voice trailed off as she gestured with her hand toward Lee.
“Lillian, let me help you with those bags.” Trying to deflect attention from what had just happened, Lee reached down to pick up the luggage sitting next to the front door. As he leaned over he noticed movement out of the corner of his eye. Looking up he was astonished to see a black car with tinted windows driving down the street. As if in slow motion, the back window rolled down to reveal a man in a turban and the glint of a gun barrel. He grabbed Aunt Lillian and pulled her into the house.
“Everyone down!” He yelled out as the first gunshots echoed into the night.