Illusions of Safety

by Amy L. Hull

***

Thanks to the beta time and skills of Tammy; unfailing encouragement from Jennifer C; reminders to “kill my darlings” along with excellent suggestions for expansion and enrichment and a full-on deep beta from the amazing Ayiana; edits and suggestions from Constance; and proofreading, prodding, advice, and listening from Anne. Thanks to Husband for the consult on Tactical Teams and weaponry.

***

The earthy smell of the wet soil wafted up as the dew on the grass at the fence line soaked through his pants. He listened, perfectly still. Gravel crunched in the distance. Banners and flags flapped in the wind. There were no more voices, and he decided those had only been from passersby.

If he was going to get away, now was the time.

He looked around him at the misshapen shadows cast by the streetlights and ducked behind another car. Keeping his head well down, he crept toward the darkest corner, glanced over his shoulder, and began to climb.

Gravel scattered as loud barking headed his way, followed by a shout and more footsteps on the gravel, moving quickly. The noise converged on him as he scaled the chain link fence. The metal of the fence ricocheted off the poles as the dogs flung themselves at it, and he felt a tug at his pant leg accompanied by a determined growl.

A shout sounded above the other noises and the wire cut into his fingers as he pulled, while his weight, gravity, and a growling dog yanked him toward the ground. He kicked out, tugging his leg and shoving his other toe against the wires. For a moment it seemed he was gaining purchase, then a final yank freed his pant leg and his face rebounded into the fence.

The dogs skittered away, barking half-heartedly, and the footsteps stopped, then there was a gunshot and he felt, vaguely, an impact with the gravel before another shot sounded.

***

Chaos ruled mornings in the Stetson-King household.

“Phillip, don’t forget your bag lunch for the field trip!”

“Amanda, do you have the papers from the dealership?”

“Dorkface, what’d you do with my glasses?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know?”

Only Emily was quiet, brown eyes staring intently into Amanda’s as she nursed.

“Here you go, Mom,” Jamie said, tucking a pillow under Amanda’s elbow then cupping his sister’s head in his hand. “I can’t believe how big she is already.”

“I know. Thank you, sweetheart. Are you heading out?”

“Yeah. Chem test first period so I want to be early.” He leaned forward and kissed her, then bent down and kissed his sister’s forehead. “Bye, Mom. Bye, Grandma.”

Amanda watched him take the stairs from the family room to the door in two steps, leaving the front door open.

“Leaving!” Phillip called just before the front door latched behind him.

Amanda smiled at Emily, stroking a round cheek with one finger. “Which of them are you going to be like, little one? Or are you just going to be yourself?” And how are they going to be when there’s another little brother or sister? All this turmoil for them, and it’s not even over yet.

Hands squeezed her shoulders then brushed down her arm to stroke their daughter’s dark curls, Lee’s gesture unknowingly mimicking Jamie’s. His chin rested on her shoulder and his smooth cheek touched hers, and she turned toward him, kissing his jaw, then the corner of his mouth as he continued to stare at Emily for a moment before turning enough to press his lips tenderly to hers.

“Are you sure you want to pick up the Corvette? I can just do it later if you’d rather stay home.”

“At this point I’d be excited about dropping off and picking up dry cleaning, Lee. Anything to get out of the house. Mother and I are going to walk, so I’ll get some activity out of it. I’m turning soft just sitting around here all day.”

“But you’re soft in all the right places,” he said, kissing her again as his other hand reached down to cup the breast not feeding their daughter. He nipped at her neck and Amanda sighed, tilting her chin up to kiss him more thoroughly.

“Should I take Emily and leave you two alone?” Dotty was leaning against the door frame, arms crossed, eyebrows raised, and wearing a wry smile that quirked her lips.

He smiled against her neck. Amanda reached back, cupped his cheek in her hand and kissed him before pushing him lightly. “Lee, go to work. I’ll see you tonight.”

He leaned over to kiss Emily, whispered, “See you later, Baby-girl,” and kissed Amanda again.

“Take your coffee.” Dotty handed him a travel mug, brushed at his coat, straightened his tie, and kissed his cheek. Amanda grinned as his eyes wandered to her, looking a bit trapped. Dotty took his arm and walked him to the riser stairs, patting his back encouragingly. “We’ll be fine, and the weather’s perfect for a little outing.”

“You just want to be the first one to drive the Corvette, Mother.”

“Well, I would, but your husband had to go and get one of those stick things. First to ride in it though, yes. It’s a lucky thing you finally learned to drive one. You know, your father told me once that, much as he adored us both, he just knew we’d never—”

“Have a good day, sweetheart. I love you.” She blew a kiss, Lee raised his coffee cup, and the door closed behind him.

“Don’t get into any trouble,” Dotty called. She turned, smiling widely. “What time should we pick up the car?”

“Well, I think I’d like to finish feeding Emily, have some breakfast and a shower…we’ll probably be out by nine or nine-thirty. You’ll have plenty of time to read the obituaries.”

“I’ll get you a bagel then run take a shower myself.”

“Thanks, mother. And could I have—”

“Some orange juice? Pouring it right now. Anything for the mother of my only granddaughter.”

Amanda smiled at her daughter, tracing a cheek with one finger. “I think Grandma likes you.”

***

“Stetson!” Billy’s voice ran through the bullpen. “We’ve got a report to go over!”

Lee jogged into the conference room and set down the folder he was carrying. “Sorry, Billy. Too many people and not enough bathrooms.”

Billy’s glower immediately morphed into a smile. “How’s my newest goddaughter?”

“Gorgeous, of course.” Lee felt his face ache slightly as he smiled back. He’d never grinned so much and so broadly in his life, and the muscles were still getting used to it.

“How about the boys and Mrs. West? Are they coping all right with the abduction, their father’s death, and all the aftermath?”

Lee hesitated and felt his brow furrow. The muscles were familiar with this role. “They…. It’s up and down,” he said finally. “Jamie’s always been hard to connect with, but he’s a sweet kid. He seems to be putting all his energy into Emily and hovering over Amanda. Phillip is just angry. He seems to be letting go of the guilt a little—”

“Better than you do?”

“Yeah. Better than I do…or did. Maybe we’ll learn from each other.” He shook his head.

“Maybe you will at that.” Billy settled himself into the chair at the head of the table where several agents had settled while they were talking and Lee sat as well. “All right, people. We just got a report that a body has turned up in the Potomac, and it matches one of ours.”

“Jerry Liang,” Francine contributed. “He’s been in deep cover for eight months, passing information to us regularly, and he missed the last two drops. We were about to trace his steps when the body was found.”

“Francine is going to go through the information he’s brought us and see if there are patterns that will give us a lead. Scarecrow, I want you to check out the informants who’ve been passing the information along.”

“Informants? How many are there?”

“Three. Liang wanted to have a complicated trail. He was convinced he was in danger and–”

“Also a little paranoid,” Francine over-pronounced the word.

Billy rolled his eyes at her, then continued. “The rest of you, trace back Liang’s steps and find out who’s seen him, where he’s spent time, see what leads you can find. Let’s get to it.”

***

“It is a gorgeous day.” Dotty looked around, her sunglasses large under a floppy straw hat she held to her head with one hand.

“It is. Sunny, perfect temperature, breezy. I’m glad we decided to walk.” Amanda peered into the stroller where Emily was kicking her feet and waving her arms under the canopy that shaded her head. “What do you think, little girl? Do you like the fresh air? There are just all kinds of things to see, aren’t there?”

“Are you sure you don’t want me to push?” Dotty asked, edging toward Amanda.

“Not for now. I need the exercise. My clothes may fit, but they’re tight, and just getting ready this morning wore me out a bit. I’m not bouncing back quite like I did almost twenty years ago!”

“Tell me about it,” Dotty chuckled.

“And, anyway, I like watching her. I’m going to have to go back to work soon, and I’m going to miss so much that I had with the boys. Every moment seems precious.”

Dotty glanced at her sideways, reached to put the pacifier into Emily’s mouth, adjusted the tie on her hat.

“Mother. What is it?”

“What? Oh, nothing, darling.”

“You are a terrible liar. Out with it.”

Dotty looked at the sidewalk, around the neighborhood, up at the sky. Amanda looked around as well, enjoying being outdoors. She took in the sweet perfume of the hyacinths blowing past the bright flowerbeds, the dozens of shades of green in the trees’ swaying leaves, the gentle brush of the cool breeze against her face, the feathered clouds against a blue sky, the pink in Emily’s cheeks and feet and hands. All that beauty.

“Amanda,” Dotty fidgeted a bit more, then set a hand on the stroller and, stopping them, looked straight into Amanda’s face. “I don’t think you should go back to work.”

“What? Mother–”

“Hear me out, Amanda. I’m not just…I don’t want…” She pressed her fingertips to her lips, turned to look at Emily, and took a slow, visible breath. “I don’t want the boys to lose both parents to this crazy business you’ve got yourself into. I don’t want Emily to grow up without her parents like Lee did.”

“Oh, Mother,” Amanda said, the tears in her eyes matching Dotty’s. She reached out and they held onto each other, the stress and grief of the past weeks adding desperation to the hug.

Dotty pulled back, still gripping Amanda’s shoulders tightly and looking her squarely in the face. “I’m sorry. I just…I don’t want you to get killed, and no matter how careful you are, and how good you are at what you do…it’s dangerous. You—” Dotty’s voice started to break and she shook her head slightly. “You’re my baby, and you always will be.”

“I love you, too, Mother.”

They snuffled, smiled watery, fond smiles, and reached simultaneously to hand each other a tissue, then laughed.

“Let’s get going and get your husband’s new hot rod,” Dotty said and they continued along the tree-lined sidewalk. “I was thinking of making a pot roast for dinner.”

***

Lee glanced down the hallway as he shifted the last tumbler to turn the knob and slipped through the door, checking the other end of the hallway before closing the door behind him.

The apartment was meticulous. Only a bowl and plate in the sink, no crumbs on the tiny counter, mail neatly stacked in two piles on the coffee table across the room and in front of the threadbare brown couch.

He searched through the mail, the drawers, the bathroom, the television, the magazines, in the refrigerator. Two hours of searching later, he stood in the middle of the bedroom, at a loss. There was nothing taped to the bottom of the drawers, nothing under the mattress, and nothing behind the two photos or frames on the walls.

He sat heavily on the bed, frustration weighing on his shoulders and vibrating in his chest. When other agents were killed it was just a reminder of everyone’s mortality, but especially of his parents’ deaths, of the possibility of following them in leaving his own child behind. The only consolation was in doing his job well, in proving that he could take down the bad guys and potentially keep his colleagues, himself, and his wife that much safer.

Something caught his peripheral vision down and to the right, and he saw that the vent cover near the floor showed a millimeter of gray against the off-white wall and cover. As he knelt to peer into the duct, he saw a notebook and began to turn the already-loosened screw.

Jerry’s list of contacts, observations, information, and locations were written in some kind of code that Lee assumed he had created for himself, so, gathering the papers, he headed back to the Wagoneer to take them to Crypto.

***

“Whew. That’s the most I’ve done since Emily was born.”

Dotty was breathing hard. “Same for me. I’ve got to get more exercise.”

A few salesmen in their white shirts and ties, smiles fixed on their features, walked amongst the cars toward the morning shoppers. As they stepped onto the asphalt, Emily squeaked and Amanda looked down to see her daughter’s face turning red and wrinkling up. “Let’s get inside and get her changed. After that we’ll find that salesman and get the papers signed.”

A clean and dry Emily took a bottle from Dotty while they waited at the salesman’s desk. There were a few odd sounds, a dragging, a few clatters, and while Amanda’s stomach clenched for a moment, instincts saying that something seemed off near the repair bays, she reminded herself that automobile repair was not a quiet thing and shrugged it off.

The tall and broad man in his white shirt and checkered tie soon sat down with a sheaf of papers and began to go over the contracts.

“So you’re taking ownership of a steel blue metallic, 6-speed manual with power seats, air conditioning, CD stereo, performance package–”

“You’ve got it all right on the papers, Mr. Castillo,” Amanda said, smiling as she glanced up at him from paging through the contracts, “and the financing seems to be in order. I think we’re set to get the keys and head out with the car.”

“If you’ll just sign here.” He pointed with a beefy finger. “And here, and initial here and here.”

Out of the corner of her eye, Amanda saw an older woman approach an immaculately dressed man. Her jaw was tight and her movements brusque and urgent. The man who seemed to be a manager stood up abruptly and followed her toward the back. That tickle fluttered at her stomach again. Something didn’t feel right, and she reached out a hand to stroke Emily’s foot. “Mr. Castillo, is there a problem?”

“Oh, no, no. I think there was some confusion in the service area, but it’s nothing to worry about.”

Amanda signed the papers, glancing around between sections. Something felt wrong enough that the hairs on her neck kept twitching. She shook her head. Seeing danger in a car dealership in Arlington…she really had been home bored for too long. Maybe this exaggerated over-vigilance was a desire for work, that addiction to action and excitement Lee kept teasing her she’d caught. Having someone hunting her family hadn’t helped either, she supposed. She shook her head and signed the last section next to where Lee had signed when the order had been placed two weeks before.

“There we go,” Castillo said, signing next to Amanda’s name and initials and tapping the papers on his desk before standing. “I’ll just get the manager to sign off and we can start processing the licensing and title papers. We should be able to get you out of here in about twenty minutes.”

“Did she take the whole bottle, Mother?”

“She did. She’s a good eater.” Dotty was holding Emily up, letting her bounce gently with feet against Dotty’s thighs. “She’s getting strong fast, too. She’s already pushing with her feet.”

“I think Jamie was standing for seconds at a time when he was just two weeks old, and Phillip…it seemed like he would never gain that strength. It’s amazing how things change, isn’t it? Can I take her for a bit?” Amanda took her daughter, hefting her into the air then bringing her back down gently, snuggling her against a shoulder and patting her back where there were pink umbrellas on soft white cotton. The prickling at the back of her neck warred with the warmth that spread through her chest from having her girl nestling against her. “You’re a snuggler like Jamie was,” she said softly, kissing the baby curls.

“You were like that too.” Dotty gave Emily a finger to hold.

Emily’s head came up off of Amanda’s shoulder and she looked around, still moving with the jerkiness of newfound muscles but showing clear strength and determination as she leaned back and pushed, examining the large room full of cars and desks. “And that…that’s Phillip all over, having to see everything.”

“You were like that too.” Dotty grinned. “Always curious.”

“I wish there were someone to tell us stories of what Lee was like as a baby, as a little kid. We’ll never know which of these mannerisms were his until she’s old enough for the colonel to remember.”

Castillo’s big chair squeaked as he sat down. “All right. I think we’ve got you about ready.”

At that moment there was a loud crash and then a pop.

“Mother, get down,” Amanda said, already crouching on the floor against Castillo’s desk, her stomach clenching and muscles tightening out of instinct and the pent-up anxiety she’d been tamping down.

“What was—”

Castillo’s voice came from above them, the sharp and high pitched-edge belying the attempt at allaying fears, “It was just a car backfiring—”

There was a short shriek and another two pops.

“Hit the deck!” came Castillo’s voice from the other side of the wooden desk, muffled now from his large frame folding into the small space.

“Everybody!” a deep and accented voice roared. “If you do exactly as I say, no one will get hurt.”

Amanda’s breath came quickly as she clutched Emily to her chest with one arm, trying to ignore the baby’s squirming and the fussing that was threatening to turn into a squall. She cupped Emily’s head in one trembling hand, her other arm around Dotty’s shoulders to keep her down and against the desk.

***

Lee paced back and forth. Nothing about this felt right. Liang was dead, his papers were coded, and the Crypto guys were still struggling to make any sense of it. They had no idea who Liang’s contacts were, where his drop point was, what kind of information he had been trafficking, or where to go to try and manage the leak.

He ran a hand through his hair. “How long is this going to take, Williams?”

“As long as it takes,” the man muttered, his face two inches from the text in Liang’s notebook.

“I think we might have something here,” said the woman at the computer.

Lee immediately was at her side, looking over her shoulder at the monitor. “What have you got, Gomez?”

“I’m not entirely sure, but the words ‘dashboard,’ ‘glove,’ and the words ‘GM’ keep showing up. I’m not sure yet what it means, but it makes me think I’m on the right track.”

“Good. That’s good. Do we have any records of contacts or drop points that would match with those?”

“Not here in Crypto, Scarecrow. Take it up to Tactics. Bob has those databases.”

“Thanks, Gomez,” Lee said, already out the door.

“Yeah, thanks, Gomez,” Williams echoed. “Anything to get him out of here while we work. That pacing was making me crazy.”

Lee realized on the third pass that they were right about him pacing. Amanda and Billy occasionally commented on it too, but he didn’t know what else to do while he was stuck waiting, not knowing. When he could do something, it was fine. Otherwise it felt like energy was cycling through his body, gaining speed and strength with each round.

Bob Dobson tapped at his terminal and amber letters scrolled past. Finally he leaned back in his chair. “All right, Scarecrow.” He pointed to the screen. “Looks like we have three drop points that have to do with cars. One is in Silver Springs at a taxi stand. Another is at the kiss ‘n’ ride at the Shade Grove Metro station. And the last one looks like it is in the service area at Vogler Brothers Luxury Chevrolet in Arlington.”

“Vogler?” Lee said. “That’s where… Oh, God, Amanda’s at that last one with her mother and the baby.”

“Well, it may have nothing to do with anything?”

“You want to bet on that with her luck, Dobson? Tell Billy I’ve headed over there, will you?” He took off down the hallway. It might be nothing. Might be nothing. He repeated that to himself, but he had a bad feeling about it and lengthened his stride to just short of running.

***

“Lock the doors!” the man shouted, and Castillo climbed out from under his desk, walking to the doors, keys jangling in hand and locking the doors in clockwise sequence.

The only other salesman worked back from the other side of the room, but near the middle, shoved against the glass doors by the display sedan, moving to slip outside.

“Stop!” Amanda called.

Another shot rang out and she ducked protectively over Emily’s head, though not far enough to miss seeing him hit the shiny tile floor, a red stain spreading across the back of his white shirt. His whimpers sounded like those of a wounded animal and could be heard throughout the showroom.

A petite woman with short-cropped brown hair stepped forward from the other side of the sales floor, pistol drawn. “Do as Mikhail says and no one else gets hurt,” she ordered in a deep voice. With one foot, she shoved the salesman’s body away from the door. He cried out sharply and then there was a sharp metallic click as she threw the bolt in the door and broke off the key with a single, sharp yank before pocketing the rest of the ring. “Everyone move toward the back.” She waved her pistol in the general direction of where a blond man stood, the repair coveralls incongruous against the handgun he was training on the people left in the showroom. The group began to shuffle along, looking around at one another with confused frowns on their faces.

“Move it! Faster!”

There was a moan from the salesman, and Amanda heard Dotty’s breath catch on a sob.

“We can’t just leave him there,” Dotty said, looking over her shoulder.

“Mother,” Amanda said quietly. “Do as they say. Just move.”

“But—”

Amanda could barely hear herself over her heart pounding. “Mother. Emily is here. Do what they say. We’ll figure out—”

“Silence!”

She concentrated on breathing, chin still tucked into Emily’s curls while she breathed a steady, “Shh, shush-shush, shh,” and tugged at her mother’s sleeve.

As they reached the corner where Mikhail was standing, he shoved Amanda and Dotty whirled on him, “How dare you treat my daughter and granddaughter—”

Even Dotty was silenced as Mikhail brought his weapon up and pointed it directly at her chest.

***

The call went out on the police scanner as Lee was pulling out of the Agency garage.

“Shooting at Vogler Brothers Chevrolet. Hostage situation suspected. Local units, please respond.”

Lee felt his stomach drop. Over half his family could be in that building. His breath shuddered as the road faded before his eyes, replaced by images of Amanda protesting by a frightened Dotty and a squalling Emily . He jumped at the sounds of shots and smell of gunpowder in his scenario and shook his head to clear it, though not before the image shifted to a bloody one of the women pale on the floor with an unmoving baby.

He gripped the steering wheel more tightly, clenched his teeth, and pressed on the gas pedal, speeding through a yellow light. Out of desperate hope, he dialed home let it ring nearly thirty times before he jabbed at the off button, barely resisting the urge to throw the phone against the far door. If Amanda was on her way home, or stopping to shop and tried to call when she got home, he’d never get the call on pieces of a phone.

Five minutes and four calls later, Lee dialed the Agency and asked Billy to send someone to the house to see if Amanda was there, and to backtrack her steps to the dealership. “You got it, Scarecrow,” Billy said. “We’ll check with the police department for intel, but we can’t tell them this is one of our drop points.”

“I know, Billy, but we both know it’s probably no coincidence Liang was poking around here and ended up dead and then this goes down. Just…I need to know who’s inside, okay?”

“We’ll do what we can. Just…don’t do anything stupid.”

Lee clicked the phone off and slammed it into its cradle.

***

Dotty quivered with anger and her chin came up as she looked him in the eye. Amanda felt she could barely breathe and stood frozen, unable to step between her mother and the gunman, unable to get her daughter away from the weapons and danger, unable to do anything but try to swallow around the lump in her throat and try to hold back her anger and try to wait for more information and an opening. Her instincts said that speaking right now would only antagonize the man towering over her mother.

Mikhail took one step toward Dotty. “You are going to be trouble?” he asked, staring down at her.

Dotty blinked. Swallowed. “I… I…” She licked her lips and blinked several more times.

Mikhail moved slowly and Dotty’s eyes followed the gun, widening as its aim settled squarely on Amanda and Emily. His gaze never moved from her face. “Do I need to remove this trouble?” he asked, the threat rumbling through his voice.

Dotty turned to meet his eyes again, then her shoulders slumped and she looked down quickly, but not before Amanda saw the tears pooling. “No. No. I’m…I’ll…no trouble. Please…” One hand brushed at her eyes and pressed against her lips. “Please don’t,” she whispered.

Mikhail shoved her toward the door he’d indicated and Dotty went without a protest. Amanda followed, still shielding Emily with her body.

“Everyone sit on the floor!” the woman shouted. “No one moves, no one talks.”

They were in the repair and service waiting area, sitting on the floor. With their backs against the walls, vending machines, and sofa, their outstretched legs almost touched. The two canvassed the room and kept the hostages covered by turns, efficiently removing anything that could be used as a weapon, including the ubiquitous little coffee pot with bad coffee.

Dotty sniffed softly, her arm pressed up against Amanda’s. Mr. Castillo, a largely pregnant young woman in a black jumpsuit, and the young Asian girl pressing her heart-shaped face into the jacket front of a man who seemed to be her father all cried, making what seemed valiant efforts to keep the sound of the sobs stifled. No one made eye contact.

Amanda watched. They were pros. They were good. They lapsed into what she was pretty sure was Russian a few times, particularly when the woman was angry. Whether they were KGB or not, they were definitely operatives.

There did not seem to be immediate intention of violence, so she watched, gathered information, and tried to retreat into being an Agent, all the while holding her baby and leaning against her mother. She chanced a look at the other hostages in the room. Their safety, all of them, was going to depend on her.

***

By the time Lee arrived at Vogler’s, the police had cordoned off the area. There were at least ten squad cars and an ambulance there already, their lights flashing in a dizzying display of red and blue reflecting off the new cars and glass and every shiny surface in the area. A half dozen officers were standing near the yellow Police Line tape, managing the gathering crowds. Others talked into their radios.

He parked half a block away and watched the car lot. Through his binoculars, he spotted two decently-hidden snipers, their rifles aimed steadily toward the most southerly door of the main building. Lee watched as a Tac Team wove among the cars, helmeted heads down, rifles held close, one carrying a rescue pack. The muscles between his shoulder blades tensed and his grip tightened. He should be part of that Tac team. He should be involved. The clenching of his gut said he was gearing up for a mission, and yet, two miles from his family’s home, he could not come forward as a Federal Agent, nor did he have jurisdiction. It made him restless and he tightened his muscles into stillness for the wait.

The four men in black had reached the door without incident, and a glint showed in a black-gloved hand just before it reached for the door, turned the lock, and pulled the door open. That officer stopped it with his boot, weapon at the ready and his team leader covering from the other side. The other two worked in tandem, one rolling out the tarp from his pack as the other grabbed the arms of the man lying face down on the floor and moved him onto the tarp. Grabbing the edges and pulling, they retreated. In one motion, the man at the door taped down the deadbolt, retrieved the keys, and covered them as he moved back from the building in unison with the team leader.

Lee let out a breath and frowned in grudging respect. For civilian law enforcement, their Tactical guys were good; the whole retrieval had lasted less than a minute.

A piercing ring came from the Wagoneer and he reached through the window and grabbed the phone. “Amanda?”

“No such luck, Scarecrow. No one was home, and the reports the department is willing to share indicate ten to twelve hostages, including a baby.”

Lee pounded his fist into the top of the Wagoneer. “Dammit!” he shouted.

“Lee? Lee, you have got to stay back. Arlington PD is a good department.”

“I see that. Their Tac Team is excellent. I just don’t trust anyone but myself; if they do it wrong…” He felt his throat tighten and took a deep breath, running a hand through his hair as he blew the air out. “Billy, what am I going to do? That’s my wife and my little girl.” He cringed as his voice almost broke.

“Let them do their jobs, Lee! We’ll see what we can work out, and if it fits our jurisdiction in any way we can claim, I promise you, we’ll be there. But remember, you and Amanda have to live there, and there is more at stake even than your family.”

“I know, Billy. Keep me informed. They’re making a move. I’ve got to go.”

An officer whose white shirt showed his higher rank spoke through bullhorn in the direction of the offices. “This is Lieutenant Blackburn. We just want to talk to talk with you to negotiate the safe release of the hostages. Please answer the phone and discuss your demands.”

***

“Make that baby quiet!” The boots that had been clicking across the concrete floor as the woman paced were stopped directly in front of Amanda.

She felt her chest contract as she instinctively tightened her hold on Emily, whose quiet fussing was turning into hiccuping sobs. She looked up the brown pants to the leather jacket over a white blouse and the close-cropped hair that were behind the handgun pointed at her and her daughter. She nodded once and snuggled Emily closer, rubbing circles on her back and whispering “Shhh,” as she brushed her lips along the baby’s neck. “Shh, sweet girl.”

“Make it quiet!” the woman ordered.

Amanda took deep breaths, trying to relax her shoulders where they were trying to climb into her ears, trying to exude comfort and love and calm. Emily only cried harder, clearly not buying the pretense, and Amanda felt her heart rate jump. She bounced Emily, patting her bottom, trying to muffle the cries in her own neck and she snuggled, and Emily began to turn her red face back and forth, mouth open, bumping against Amanda’s shoulder.

“She’s hungry and I’m going to—”

“Then feed her!” The woman’s voice had risen in pitch.

Amanda felt her stomach drop, felt the free-fall of terror that always took her back to that white room with Addi Birol standing in front of her. She clamped down on the memory, bit her lip, and tried to force air past the tightness in her chest as she tripped over her words. “She won’t eat unless she’s just been changed. The…her diaper bag is by the desk out there.”

The woman turned to the man with his arm around the crying teenaged girl. “You!” She pointed with her gun. “Go out there. Bring back the baby’s bag. If you communicate with the politzia or take more than two minutes, I will shoot her.” She shifted the gun’s aim to the girl, whose quiet sobs stopped abruptly, her eyes widening.

The man shifted away from his daughter, removing her hands from his clothing.

“No, Daddy, don’t go!”

“Christina!” he said sharply. “Be silent. I will be back.” He stood, then let go of her hand and walked through the door with his shoulders squared.

There was not a sound in the room, and it felt like no one was breathing. Amanda continued to pat Emily, her own breath coming raggedly. She had to force her eyes away from the floor—another habit from her time with Birol—to look at Christina. Though still silent, she had tears rolling down her cheeks and was shaking, and Amanda could only think of the boys and their reaction after they’d been kidnapped and Joe had been killed. If she or Mother were not to be…. She refused to follow that line of thought, and similarly short-circuited the mental image of Christina’s face if her father were to die.

When he returned, he gave the diaper bag to the woman with the gun. She grabbed it and threw it in Dotty’s face, then shoved him so he tripped as he sat down by his daughter. She buried her face in his shoulder, still trying to stifle her sobs as they held each other.

“Are you all right, Mother?” Amanda asked, her jaw tight and lips pressed together, eyes not moving from the pistol aimed back at them.

“I’m fine.” Dotty handed her the diaper and wipe, and Amanda changed the wailing baby’s diaper, the scent of urine reaching her nose briefly before Mother took the disposable diaper and wrapped it into a tidy ball. Amanda tugged the hem of her shirt out of her pants and unhooked her nursing bra. The sobs became more staccato as Emily turned her head back and forth, searching for food. Then there was a quick gasp and then the greedy slurping of nursing and Emily looked up, dark eyes fixed on Amanda’s. Her entire body relaxed into Amanda’s chest, her breathing evened, and her hand reached up and twisted into the fabric of Amanda’s shirt. The prickling around her areola that signaled the let-down of her milk was accompanied by a pricking along the backs of her arms and down her back. Those muscles considered relaxing in the let-down of the adrenaline rush, but Amanda held herself back, marshalling her attention and focus.

The woman had smirked and walked away and was conferring with Mikhail. Amanda looked around the room, assessing the hostages and their possible skills and readiness. “Thank you for getting Emily’s bag,” she said softly to Christina’s father. He simply nodded.

She leaned into her mother’s arm, feeling the quaver there, hearing Dotty’s shuddering breaths, and held her daughter to her. As she watched the movements of the two gunmen, she felt her jittery nerves fade into the distance, to the other side of the curtain that was years of Agency work, years of acting now and feeling later. It had been coming to recognize that feeling that had ultimately helped her to understand the Lee she had met seven years ago, the Lee who had locked away all his emotions behind that curtain and stayed on the other side of it, far away from anything that would pull him out of that zone. Amanda had never achieved Lee’s proficiency, but she had learned. She reminded herself that she was the ace in the hole of all the hostages, that she was solely responsible for getting her mother, her daughter, and everyone else out safely. Taking deep breaths, she tucked away her feelings, pulled into herself, assessing, watching, waiting.

A distant voice, distorted by amplification, penetrated the space, and several people gasped as nearly everyone jumped.

“Please answer the phone and…”

The phones in the showroom rang.

The gunmen burst out in an angry stream of argument, gesticulating with their off hands. The woman was still attentive to the hostages, while the man’s face was red and he turned away, fist clenched.

“Mikhail!” The woman’s tone this time was scornful, and she pointed her gun at the group.

Mikhail glared at her, then walked over and grabbed the pregnant woman’s arm, yanking her to her feet. She screamed and the smooth dark skin of her face paled visibly. Several of the others shuffled, leaning forward and the woman’s gun came up.

“Shut up and stay in your places!” she ordered as Mikhail dragged the woman out of the room muttering. Her gaze and gun passed over each of them, face blank, and she stepped through the door and slammed it with a resounding metallic clang.

***

Lee grabbed his binoculars again and saw Lt. Blackburn speaking into a phone. He trained the binoculars on the showroom and saw two guns, one in the hands of a woman on the phone, one aimed at a woman’s head. The woman’s arm seemed to be twisted behind her back and she appeared to be pregnant.

Lee’s throat tightened almost too much to squeak out, “Those bastards.” How could Emily and Amanda be safe if these people threatened pregnant women? Maybe that was the point they were trying to make. Lee gripped the binoculars tightly, thinking of what would happen when he could get his hands on the two criminals. Two or three minutes ticked by before the woman slammed down the phone and the gunmen retreated into the hallway, dragging the woman with them.

Lee was immediately in the Wagoneer, calling Billy. “The negotiator just talked to the gunmen. I need to know what just got said, Billy, as quick as you can.” He hung up before there was even an answer.

***

Amanda listened closely and heard the woman take a couple of steps from the door. She hugged Emily, who was now nursing unconsciously in her sleep, and gently disengaged her. There was a tiny whimper, and she settled back in and Amanda kissed her curls and her round cheek, breathing in her daughter’s scent. She took a deep breath and leaned into Dotty.

“Mother,” Amanda said softly, “will you please take Emily.”

“Of course. Come here, sweet girl.” Dotty shifted Emily onto her own shoulder and tucked the blanket up around her. Emily turned her face into Dotty’s neck but did not fully wake.

Amanda focused on adjusting her clothes, using each hook, each straightened wrinkle, to move more out of mother mode and more into agent mode. She could not afford to think about anyone in the room as someone’s precious child, could not let fear or empathy or concern cause her to hesitate or stop. To do so could any one of them or all of them killed. Agent first, woman second, mother last, she thought.

When she finally looked around the room again she spoke quietly, her voice carefully controlled. “We don’t know how long they’ll be gone, but we need to make some plans. First, we need names. We know the gunman is Mikhail, and in their argument, I’m pretty sure I heard him call her Katje.”

“What are they?” asked a balding man who kept wiping his forehead with a handkerchief. “A bunch of Ruskies?”

“Shhh. I’m not sure. They were speaking Russian to each other, but Mikhail seemed to be muttering to himself in a different language. What’s your name?”

“I’m Gordon Carlson. I’m the finance manager here.” He dabbed at his forehead again, making his double chin move in a way that reminded Amanda of a turkey’s wattles.

The man who had retrieved the diaper bag said, “Wei-yin Moy. This is my daughter Christina. He was doing the financing for us. We were just here to buy a used Buick.”

“I’m Amanda, and this is my mother Dotty. I already know you, Mr. Castillo,” she began.

“Eduardo,” he said.

“Eduardo.” She nodded. “Quickly, the rest of you.”

“I have three boys at home,” Eduardo said.

Amanda shook her head slightly, trying to be gentle but pointing to the next woman. She was older, her gray hair neatly pinned back, and she sat with her knees bent and legs off to the side, a tweed skirt pulled to her knees; everything about her said stereotypical librarian.

“Mary Young. I’m the dealership accountant. I think the young pregnant woman may be Nancy…no…Natalie.”

The big man in coveralls sported bruises around his eye and nose, and just pointed at his breast pocket, grunting, “Joe.”

“Joe, Eduardo said there was a little dispute in the service area. What do you know?”

“I know that Hector didn’t come in to work today. That guy, Mikhail, he was wearing Hector’s coveralls and keeping to himself, poking around all the cars, and when I asked him what the hell he was doing, he punched me. We fought–he’s got a mean left hook–and that attracted attention, and by the time the third person had showed up, he pulled the gun–”

“Shh. They’re coming back.”

The door was yanked open and Natalie was shoved in, tears streaking her face. She almost fell, but Mary caught her and put an arm around her, checking her over as she began crying. “Are you all right, dear?”

Katje’s voice came from the hallway and Mikhail roared, “Shut up! And someone make her shut up, too!” He waved his gun at them again just before he stepped out and slammed the door.

“It’s all my husband’s fault. He just had to test drive a convertible, his ‘last taste of freedom’ before the baby comes and before we buy a practical car, and now he’s out there and I may never see him–” She turned into Mary’s shoulder and cried.

“Natalie?” Amanda said softly. “It is Natalie, right?”

“We should give her some time,” Mary said, patting Natalie’s shoulder and glaring at Amanda. Amanda felt the same guilt, though only in passing, that she always felt with late book returns. Mary had missed her calling.

“We don’t have time.” Amanda felt her jaw clench in time to the pulse she could hear in her ears. “Natalie, you’re our only source of information. We need you to tell us what is out there and what you know about what they want.”

“Can’t you see she’s upset?” Eduardo said.

“Yeah, and who put you in charge?” Gordon demanded, mopping his forehead again with a shaking hand.

Amanda kept her gaze firmly on Natalie, “We need to know what’s out there, what the situation is. Natalie, you can do more for your baby right now than all of the rest of us can if you can just tell us what you saw.”

Natalie slowly nodded, wiping at her face as she leaned back. “There–” She sniffled, gulping air. “There were maybe a dozen police cars.” She blew her nose on the tissue Christina produced from her pocket, offering thanks in the form of a half smile, then continued in a breathy and still-shaking voice. “He grabbed me and he drags me out there…my husband will be so mad if there’s a bruise…and he twists my arm behind me and points…points the gun at my head. Then the women he calls Katje answers the phone and says they won’t step closer, but they will shoot me and my baby.” She paused, breathing deeply and holding a hand to her mouth. “She says they’ll kill me and everyone if the police don’t stay back, and she tells them that getting close enough to take out the guy they shot was a mistake, and she’s going to shoot someone else if they get that close again. Then they dragged me back here. I don’t know how that helps.” She sniffled again and Mary put an arm around her shoulders.

The men made no further objections. Gordon leaned heavily against the soda machine and Eduardo surreptitiously pulled a photo from his pocket and stared at it.

“Your boys?”

“Yeah.” Eduardo pointed. “They’re three, seven, and eight. The oldest looks just like me, and the second just like his mother.”

“Fine-looking young men.”

“Yeah.” Eduardo traced his finger across their faces and swiped at his eyes.

Amanda looked around the room. “Natalie brought us some good news. The police have a good enough Tac Team that they got the salesman who was shot out.”

“You think Manny might be okay?” Eduardo asked.

“I don’t know. But they got him out. And it sounds like the gunmen didn’t know that till they went back out with Natalie, so that makes it even more likely there are only the two of them, and that the police are good at this. The other good news is that Mikhail and Katje are fighting. I don’t think this was their plan, and that means they’re making this up as they go.”

“Doesn’t that make them more dangerous?” Wei-yin said, weaving his fingers into his daughter’s.

“It can. But it also means that if we’re planning at the same time, our chances are better. Natalie, do you know if there was any talk about releasing hostages?”

“I don’t know. But the woman–Katje?–seemed really angry at some of the suggestions on the phone and kept saying no, so, um…I don’t know.” Natalie gasped slightly then stroked a spot on her belly. “He always knows when I’m upset.”

“This one did too.” Amanda touched the smooth skin on Emily’s hand then turned quickly away, deliberately thinking about the situation rather than her baby. “I think our best chances are to wait and cooperate. There is a good force out there working to help us. I still want to keep our eye open–” She stopped, listening, then put a finger to her mouth. “Shh.” The voices beyond the door had risen to audible levels and they were speaking English this time.

“This was your stupid idea! You were supposed to get in, get the data tape, and get out.”

“And there were ten cars to check! I only got through three before that mechanic noticed me!”

“Then you should have left.”

Mikhail’s voice grew even louder. “I cannot do that!”

“This is about you following orders!”

“No! It is about your interference, and about the safety of everyone on that tape!”

Katje’s voice reached a fever-pitch. “We feared you were not to be trusted. Clearly we were correct!”

“If you had never come, there would be no problem,” Mikhail roared back.

“I am in command now. Get the mechanic and find this. You have thirty minutes before we abandon this information and just shut down the compromised operation.”

When Katje pushed the door open, Amanda could see a sneer on the woman’s face as she stood toe-to-toe, looking up at Mikhail. His face was red as he stared down at her, and then he stomped into the room, grabbed Joe’s coveralls, yanked him unceremoniously to his feet, and shoved him out the door.

Katje, propping the door open so she could see into the room and down the hallway in both directions, stood guard, pistol in hand.

Amanda monitored the situation, assessing assets, breathing carefully and avoiding looking into the frightened faces around her—especially Wei-yin with his daughter and Mother with Emily—because to do so would draw her back into the hostage mentality. If she was going to follow her own edict to be the agent first, she could not risk her control of her own fears and emotions crumbling. She could feel in the turning of her stomach that if she saw frightened children and desperate parents, she would become one or other.

She ran scenarios in her head, calculating the pros and cons of each, the likely casualties from each, whether the best plan was just to wait for the police to make their move or if that would end in more blood. If she chose wrong, that blood would be on her hands. She pushed that thought away, weighing options. Agent first, agent first, she repeated to herself.

Continued

WordPress Themes

Disclaimer: Scarecrow and Mrs. King and its characters belong to Warner Brothers and Shoot the Moon Enterprises. No infringement is intended. This is written for entertainment purposes only.