Illusions of Safety – Continued

Lee grabbed the phone before the ring had finished. “What have you got, Billy?”

“Our liaison at the police station told us the hostage takers are refusing to talk or negotiate. They spoke to the negotiator once. They have no demands, but brought out a pregnant hostage, made threats, and told the police to keep back—and keep the Tac Team that retrieved the injured man back—or they’d start killing hostages, starting with the pregnant woman and—”

Lee waited a moment then snapped, “What?”

“And the baby.”

“I swear, if anything happens to them…” Lee fell quiet, feeling a deadly calm wash over him along with resolve. He didn’t even feel the desire to punch anything since he needed to be at his best to help. Taking a deep breath, he tried to unclench his teeth and fists. The knots in his chest and stomach were making it hard to breathe. “Why didn’t their snipers–I can see them crystal clear from here—try to take a shot?”

“You know why.”

Lee felt his shoulders sag. Neither gunman had stepped near enough to the windows for the angle to be right for a clear shot. Dammit! He bounced the heel of his hand off the steering wheel several times—more lightly this time, Amanda would have his hide if he broke the Jeep—and took another deep breath. “What can we do, Billy?”

“Nothing yet, Scarecrow. I’m sorry. The only thing we’ve got to work with is that the woman on the phone had an accent, maybe Russian. We’re trying to get better intel, see if somehow they might be in our jurisdiction. It just doesn’t seem likely that someone in the business would blow an operation so badly and then take hostages.”

Lee frowned. “Yeah. I never even thought of them being ours. I can’t imagine what it would take for someone to turn a covert operation into such a public—”

A loud voice from behind his shoulder and Lee started violently, hand on his gun before he registered a work.

“Drop the phone and keep your hands where we can see them.”

Lee felt his heart pounding from the adrenaline, said tersely, “Billy, I have to go.” He then set the phone down and put his hands on the wheel.

Two guys outfitted in Tac gear had approached from both sides and opened his doors.

The one to his left pointed with his gun. “Step out of the car, keeping your back to me.”

Lee stepped out, his pulse pounding in his ears and jaw, and placed his hands on the top of the Wagoneer, and cooperated as the man kicked his feet farther apart. Idiot, was all he could think. This was just proof of the Agency’s policy about emotional entanglements taking away an agent’s edge. He should have seen them coming, should have been more careful not to give away his location and now who knew if he’d be able to help Amanda at all, especially if they arrested him.

While the first was frisking him, the second said, “Sir, you need to explain your involvement in this situation and why you’re keeping surveillance up here.

***

Occasional shouts and metal clanks came from down the hallway, and Katje fidgeted more and more, glancing ever more frequently toward the repair bays.

“Mikhail!” she shouted. “Hurry up!”

They sat in silence, only shifting when muscles demanded. When Amanda risked glances at them, she saw their faces had shifted from fear to the blank gaze of shock. Mary, Gordon, and Dotty had leaned their heads back and closed their eyes. Dotty was still gently stroking Emily’s back.

“Stay put. I will kill all of you if I need to, including that baby.” Katje slammed the door again. “Mikhail!?”

Amanda grabbed a piece of paper she’d been eyeing and scribbled on it, ears tuned to any sound from the hallway, chest and throat tightly clenched. The clanks and shouts still seemed to be coming from the repair bays, and Amanda finished quickly and set down the pencil. When she glanced up, she saw wide-eyed terror on Christina and Natalie’s faces, and lowered her palms, hoping they’d understand the “calm down” gesture.

She listened again and leaned to the side. “Mother? I love you very much.”

“I love you too, Darling,” Dotty replied, turning toward her. Dotty’s eyes narrowed and she sat up straighter. “You’re not going to do anything stupid, are you?”

“No, Mother. It’s all right. I …I just love you.” She kissed Mother’s cheek and Emily’s head, leaned her head onto Mother’s shoulder, and stroked Emily’s back. She felt like she was falling, and she fought against the lightheadedness of terror. No matter how hard she tried, she could not keep her shoulders from scrunching up against her neck, and her heart pounded. There were so many ways this could all go wrong and any one of them could mean she would lose everything. She blinked hard. Agent first, she reminded herself again.

The door was flung open again and Dotty stiffened.

“You!” Katje pointed at Eduardo. “Get out here and help!”

Eduardo stood gingerly, glancing at the others, and headed toward the door.

“Be careful,” Natalie said, dropping her gaze and curling in on herself when Katje leveled the gun at her.

Dotty took a shuddering breath and coughed.

Katje shoved Eduardo down the hall without looking away from the hostages.

“Amanda.” Dotty reached rubbed her neck and arm. “Amanda?”

“Shut up, you!” Katje warned.

Dotty’s breathing became rapid and shallow, and her eyes were wide. “I can’t,” she gasped. “Amanda…take…”

Amanda grabbed Emily as Dotty gasped for air.

“Stop it!” Katje ordered, taking a step into the room.

“Hurts,” Dotty whispered, left hand over her heart as she slid to the floor.

Amanda held Emily in one arm, the other reaching for Dotty’s face, neck, wrist. “Mother!”

***

“Well. A Smith nine mil in a shoulder holster.” The officer handed it to his partner, who cleared it and set it on the hood of the Wagoneer.

“There’s a Walther PPK on my left ankle,” Lee said, clenching his teeth to keep his calm. They were just doing their job. Losing it and getting arrested wasn’t going to help Amanda, and maybe he could talk to someone in charge.

The officer handed that to his partner and the click of the handcuffs going on synched with the clack of the gun being cleared. Then they tugged on his elbow. “This way. I’m not even going to ask if you have permits, but we’re going to want to know why you’ve been up here with binoculars and armed so near a crime scene.”

“I can explain. My wife is in there and—”

“Tell it to the chief,” the second officer said and dragged toward the row of police cars.

***

“Mother! Breathe.” Amanda shifted Emily and helped Dotty lie down.

Dotty continued to drag air in with a whistling sound, almost panting.

“Mother, where does it hurt?”

“Arm. Chest.” She whimpered with the next breath.

“Is anyone here a doctor?” Amanda looked around at the even-paler faces of the hostages.

“What is going on here?” Katje demanded. “Make her stop!”

“It’s her heart. She’s had episodes before. Mother!” Amanda patted Dotty’s face, then took her hand. “Mother, did you bring your medicine?”

Dotty pointed weakly and whispered, “Bag.”

Amanda glanced at Katje, who nodded impatiently. Amanda adjusted Emily across her forearm, gripping one chubby thigh, and dug in the diaper bag, grabbing a small pill bottle. “Oh, thank heavens,” she gasped, shaking it so a pill rattled out into her hand. “Someone get her head, please.”

Mary moved forward, settling Dotty’s head onto her lap, stroking her hair and forehead gently. “Hush, now. You’re going to be all right.”

“Here, Mother. Put this under your tongue,” Amanda said, holding the pill to Dotty’s lips.

“Just breathe and try to relax,” Mary said softly. “My friend Joyce has angina like this. You’re going to be fine.” Mary took Dotty’s hand and continued stroking her head.

Dotty moaned.

Amanda stroked her cheek with the back of her fingers. “Mother?”

Dotty’s labored breathing seemed to slow slightly, becoming more regular. “Amanda, darling?”

“I’m here, Mother.”

“Emily…”

“She’s right here, Mother.”

“What…”

“You just had one of your episodes. Is the pain better?”

“Pain…yes…better.” Dotty’s eyes barely stayed open.

Amanda turned to Katje. “Please, can we send my mother out? She’s very ill.”

“No!” Katje barked.

“It would be a solid sign of good faith. That way the police will know we’re still alive. They’ll be more willing to negotiate if you let someone go.”

Katje stepped closer. “Who are you?”

“Me? I’m nobody. I’m just a housewife from Arlington. My mother and I were here to pick up my husband’s car and then you and Mikhail came in with guns and, well, we’ve been here ever since and…oh, my gosh–” Amanda leaned back, slanting her body to hide Emily mostly behind her torso.

Katje had stepped closer and raised her gun, eyes narrowed. “Then how do you know so much about police?”

“Oh, well, I, you know, watch a lot of TV, I mean, with a new baby.” She gestured to Emily. “And she’s my third, actually. My boys are older. They like to watch police shows with me and they always have a SWAT team storm the building. Have you seen James Bond and Die Hard? My boys love them. And we’ve seen the Lethal Weapon movies I don’t even know how many times—”

“Shut up.” Katje’s lip curled in disgust. “You Americans, so soft with your constant, hypnotic entertainment. The sad thing is, like you, so many believe it is real.”

“Oh, but we watch the police show too, with the real cops on patrol? And they always want a hostage sent out as a show of good…um…faith.” Amanda looked away from Katje’s icy glare.

“Feh.” She paced back to the door, then turned. “You are annoying, but may be right. Fine. We will let the old woman leave.”

“Old!” Dotty protested.

Amanda nudged her with a knee.

“Mikhail!” Katje called out the door, gun still trained steadily on Amanda.

“What?”

“Come here!”

Mary and Amanda helped Dotty to her feet, and Amanda settled Emily in her mother’s arms with a light flannel blanket wrapped around her. Her chest and throat felt so tight she could barely breathe, and her stomach was in free fall. She was determined not to cry, despite the prickling around her eyes, and she avoided Dotty’s eyes, which she knew would be watery as well. She couldn’t look at them and do what she had to do.

Mikhail appeared in the doorway, dragging a somewhat-more-bruised Joe by a handful of coverall sleeve.

“What?”

“The old woman almost had a heart attack. She is too much trouble—” Katje turned and saw Emily in Dotty’s arms. “Wait. I said nothing about the infant.”

“Mother seems strong enough to carry her, and if she’s out of the building, the police will be less worried…and she won’t cry anymore in here and disrupt your work.” Amanda looked at her steadily, but kept one hand on Emily’s soft head, unable to break physical contact quite yet.

“She is very annoying. Go, then. Mikhail, walk them to the door, but stay out of range!”

“Amanda, be careful,” Dotty said in a pinched voice.

Amanda planted one quick kiss on Dotty’s cheek and one on Emily’s forehead as they moved to the door.

“Come now!” Mikhail ordered.

Once Dotty was through the door, Katje shoved Joe back in and slammed the door shut again.

Amanda stood still for a moment, counting breaths, then on the third deep one said, “Okay, here’s what we need to do.”

***

One of the Tac officers held Lee’s elbow and walked him briskly along, the tug at his shoulder letting Lee know exactly how patient they would be with any slowness.

They crossed behind the largest police vehicle, and Lee again had to respect their tactics. The squads were strategically angled to provide maximum coverage and visibility for the department while obscuring the number of officers present.

For a city Lee hadn’t chosen to live in for its own sake, Arlington was impressing the hell out of him. He was certainly going to feel safer about the boys going out with their bikes—and cars for Phillip and, all too soon, Jamie—knowing what a tight ship the chief ran. The tension in his jaw and shoulders didn’t abate, but he did have a better feeling about the chances that the local law enforcement would be helpful in getting his family out safely. At least they weren’t going to be making things worse.

The larger vehicles blocked the view of additional support the department had put in place, including an ambulance and an on-site dispatch/information table. The dispatcher wore two separate headsets and had a laptop in front of her. Beside it were spread city blueprints of the dealership building and a duty roster. Lee stared at the blueprints as they went past, adding to his memory of the interior of the building. Any little detail could make the difference in Amanda and Emily’s safety

The hand at his right elbow tugged again. “Keep your eyes to yourself and move.”

They’d taken only a dozen more steps when there was a steady drone of a warning siren and the officers pulled Lee down into a crouch with them. “Get down. Don’t move.”

“What’s going on?” he asked. The officer gestured for silence and Lee protested, “That’s my wife in there-”

He fell silent at the officer’s glare and the realization that the steadily repeating call through the now-quieter bullhorn was, “This way. Keep coming. Keep coming. Bring her in, men!”

He heard rustling and movement, footsteps and bustle, orders being barked in the distance. Anything he did now would only disrupt anything the team was doing. He held his breath, waiting to see what the action was.

There was a tangible shift in the stance of the officers Lee could see ahead of them. Their heads came up and most seemed to be looking in a single direction. The officers holding him rose and pulled him forward again. “Lieutenant Blackburn, sir, we have our suspect from the hill. Over.”

The tinny voice came over the radio, “Keep him toward the back for now while I speak to this hostage, then I’ll meet you. Over.”

“They got a hostage out?” Lee asked, his heart suddenly pounding at the same rate as the flutter he could feel in his belly. He tried to get a glimpse of whoever it was.

The officer tugged him back down. “Keep quiet.” They guided him toward Tactical van parked under some of the trees that shaded the road alongside the dealership.

He continued to examine the setup, trying to be as inconspicuous about it as possible, the more he knew and could feed Billy, the better the Agency could work either with or around the police. He craned his neck up a bit and near where the bullhorn had sounded he glimpsed a shock of blond hair amidst a flurry of movement. Then he heard a familiar sound and the flutters expanded up to his chest.

“My daughter…pretended to have a heart attack…quite good acting if I do say so…got them to let me bring my granddaughter…LEE!”

He scanned for the voice and saw his mother-in-law shrug off three young officers and run toward him with a bundle in her arms. Before he’d entirely understood even what he was seeing, Dotty was in front of him, showing him Emily. “Look, she’s just fine—”

He could not remember feeling such relief and his voice came out breathy. “Are you all right? Amanda? Emily?” Dotty looked fine—if frazzled—and his daughter was still the absolute perfection that had captured his heart even before he’d ever seen her.

“We’re all fine. No one’s hurt and, oh, it’s just…” She took a breath and then words were spilling out at a rate he’d never heard from anyone but the West women. He couldn’t help but smile as warmth spread through him at the endearing habit. “Lee, we went to sign the paperwork on the Corvette and we were almost done when, well there was this gunman and he shot at people—that was before we even saw him! Then he shouted at everyone and a woman showed up and she had a gun too and they made us all go into a back room, but they shot one of the salesmen because he tried to run and, oh, Lee, it was awful, they just left him lying there, bleeding, in pain, left him there to die! I’ve never seen–”

“Ma’am. Ma’am!” The officer who had been trying to get her attention since she broke away from his men put an arm around her shoulders.

Lee kept smiling at Dotty, at Emily, at the lieutenant, and he could feel his cheeks cramping from the strain. His head spun at the conflict between his relief that Dotty and Emily were safe and his his fear for Amanda. The muscles in his thighs tightened as he struggled against running toward the building and his throat constricted with rough tears.

“Dotty, this officer is trying to get your attention.”

“Well, I don’t see why I should talk to him at all until I’ve talked to you. I mean, it’s not like they did anything to help. Amanda got me out and sent Emily to safety while these— Lee, why are you in handcuffs?”

“That’s why we’ve been trying to get your attention, Ma’am. I’m Lieutenant Blackburn. I’m the hostage negotiator here, and the more you can tell us, the better able we’ll be to help the hostages still inside.”

“That’s what Amanda said to Natalie—she’s the pregnant woman—after they brought her back,” Dotty said absently. “Lee, I’ve never seen Amanda like this. She is really amazing. So calm and in charge. All the men in there, they barely questioned that she was completely in charge of the situation. And you,” she turned to Blackburn with the expression that deemed the man an idiot. “If you’re in charge here, then can you tell me why you have my son-in-law in handcuffs? He’s an a— He’s…he could help you. You should listen to—”

“Dotty. You need to calm down. Let’s get you somewhere to sit.” Lee shrugged sympathetically at Blackburn and the other officers.

As they guided Dotty to sit, one of the officers put a cup of water in her hand, and she sipped from it absently.

“What is your name, Ma’am?” Blackburn asked.

“Dorothea West,” she said mechanically, looking again down at Emily.

“And, Mrs. West, can you tell us who this is?”

“That’s my son-in-law, Lee Stetson. This is his daughter Emily and my daughter Amanda is still inside with those crazy Russians! You have to do something. If you just sit here, there’s no telling what will happen!” She explained this again , more slowly this time.

“Mrs. West, can you confirm how many hostages there still are?”

“Well, there’s my daughter. And Mr. Castillo, though he told us to call him Eduardo. There are Gordon and Mary and Joe, who work there. Natalie is that poor pregnant woman, and there’s a man with a teenage daughter…her name is Christina, and…yes, that’s everyone. So…eight. Now are you going to tell me why my son-in-law is under arrest?

“He’s not under arrest, Mrs. West. He was on the nearest hill and had our entire operation under surveillance. He had binoculars and was armed– Why am I telling you this?”

Lee grinned, but tried to swallow the expression. How many times had he asked himself the same thing about information he never should have shared with anyone, let alone a housewife from Arlington?

“Well, Lee is on your side. He’s one of you. Haven’t you called to check on him?”

“We haven’t had time yet, Mrs. West, and–”

A uniformed officer walked up and said, “Lieutenant Blackburn, sir, we just got information back on the ID the suspect had. The film company he works for confirmed that they sent him to cover this event as part of a documentary on police action. I’m betting they just want to cash in on that COPS fad from that new network–” He cleared his throat at a glare from the lieutenant, glancing away and swallowing hard before continuing. “They’ve confirmed his identity and that he’s been working with them for over fifteen years, so his story checks out. He came up with the proper conceal-carry permits and registrations on the guns, too, right down to the serial numbers, though why a filmmaker needs to go around armed….”

“And that’s why we’ll still keep those so he doesn’t go all vigilante on us. He can retrieve them from the station after we’ve confirmed one hundred percent he has no involvement here.

The lieutenant nodded and gestured to his men, who unlocked the cuffs. He rubbed his wrists, nodding his thanks to the officers with an only slightly smug smile. He sat beside Dotty, put an arm around her, kissed her cheek and cupped his daughter’s head in his hand, kissing it then stroking her soft curls. The very idea that he could never have seen her again–that Amanda might still not make it back to them–was beyond imagining.

Blackburn returned his attention to Dotty. “Mrs. West, we need to know what’s going on inside that building.”

“Dotty,” Lee interjected. “What’s most important to Amanda’s safety is answering their questions. They need to know all the information you can give them…details, numbers, tactics, everything.” Lee smiled again at Dotty, squeezing her shoulder.

Dotty’s gaze had dropped when the officer had begun speaking, her burst of energy seeming to ebb. She looked paler as she let Emily take hold of a shaking finger, stroking the littler fingers absently with her thumb. Then she jerked back into focus. “Tactics. Lee, that’s right. Amanda wrote you a note. It’s right here.” She reached into the cover on Emily’s diaper and pulled out a scrap of paper, holding it to Lee.

Blackburn took it, showed it to another officer, shrugged, then handed it to Lee. “Any idea what it says?”

Lee stared at the scrawl of letters. A metallic tang filled his mouth and it felt like someone was squeezing his chest. He struggled not to crumple the note in a fist. “Just what Dotty said. Eight hostages, two gunmen, and the ‘cagey’ in the first line means they’re smart but sneaky. Say, I’ll bet Dotty could show you what room everyone’s in if you show her the floor plan.”

He helped Dotty to her feet and ushered her toward the Tac table, holding back but still watching.

Emily stretched and yawned, turning her head toward Dotty’s chest so that one tiny ear peeked out of the blanket as it slipped off her arm and leg. Lee took a deep breath as he stared at the perfect little pink toes and fingers, trying not to think about how easily he could have lost her, how easily he could still lose Amanda.

***

“When are we going to do this?” Gordon asked.

“You need to keep your voice down,” Amanda said softly.

“Oh, do I?” Gordon challenged.

“Shhh!” Christina hissed past the fingernail she was chewing, leaning closer into her father’s shoulder.

“You know what I want to know,” Joe said slowly. His lip had swollen from the earlier beatings, and it was clear that he was trying to avoid aggravating it. “I want to know why they’ve left us in here for so long. It’s been at least twenty minutes since your mother went out, and they haven’t come to get me to help them search those cars.”

“Joe, what did they say you were looking for?” Amanda asked.

“They said a little box, probably black, about yea-big.” Joe held up his fingers about two inches apart. “They kept arguing about it, too.”

“Yeah,” Amanda said slowly. They’ve been fighting almost non-stop. I’m hoping that’ll work to our advantage.”

Eduardo looked up from the photo he’d been fondling. “Either that, or they’ll get pissed off and kill us all in their crossfire.”

“Way to be positive, there,” Natalie chipped in.

“I still say we need to do something,” Gordon insisted. “I mean, other than getting her family out while we’re still stuck in here.”

“Did you notice that she’s still here with us?” Joe demanded, using his deepest voice and leaning his considerable bulk a bit forward.

“We need to keep calm,” Amanda said, keeping her voice carefully even. “Getting mad at each other will only help them. I know it’s hard to sit and wait, but remember, in the best case scenario, we end up doing nothing at all. Mother is giving our information to the police, and they’ll probably send their SWAT team in and get us out of here. Our plan is a backup. That’s all.”

“I still wanna know who put her in charge,” Gordon muttered, his chins wobbling as he wiped his forehead again.

“I’d think that would be obvious by now,” Natalie hissed. “She’s level-headed and knows what she’s doing. I’d think you would shut up and cooperate since clearly you don’t have a better plan.”

The others nodded, and Gordon leaned back against the vending machine, frowning.

Amanda smiled at Natalie, nodding in thanks. Natalie smiled, chin dipping toward her chest as she resumed stroking the side of her swollen stomach, occasionally tapping her fingers against a spot her baby was kicking.

As Amanda assessed the others in the room, it was clear that fatigue and resignation were setting in. Everyone’s shoulders were sagging and their bodies were slumped back, arms lying on laps or the floor, and everyone’s eyes were either closed or half-lidded. Anxiety began to fuel her thinking and her thoughts and fears ran on a repeating loop in her head. She couldn’t quite get a full, deep breath, and she was fidgeting, her fingertips on one hand circling others.

The others’ lethargy and shockiness and her own fear were dragging down her determination and beginning to make her question the possibility of success. Something needed to happen soon or their will to act was not going to kick in to make the plan work, if they had to use it.

***

Lee watched as Dotty showed the police the location of the waiting room where Amanda was with the other hostages, then, with one backward glance at Emily, he backed quietly away, slipping back until he was blending in with the crowd of onlookers and then off the other side to where he could find a phone.

“Melrose.”

“Billy. We’ve got trouble.”

“Oh, you think, Scarecrow? Do you know how much fast-talking I had to do after one of my best agents got caught spying on a police situation?”

“Not now, Billy. Look, Amanda got them to send Dotty out with Emily.”

“Thank God.”

“And she managed to send a note. The gunmen in there are KGB.”

“What? How? And…why? Since when do agents take hostages?”

Lee rubbed a hand over his face. “I know. It makes no sense. But it’s Amanda, and if anyone can find Russian spies at a Chevy dealership, it’s Amanda.”

“What else did she say?”

“Just eight-H, two-G, cagey + other = unrest, and she wrote the word ‘info’ through the name ‘otto.’ I’m pretty sure that’s eight hostages left and two gunmen, which Dotty confirmed. The ‘other’ is why I think that one of the gunmen is an operative from an agency other than the KGB, and it sounds like they’re fighting over the way to get the info that’s been hidden in the automobiles.” The knot in his stomach tightened. “I can’t imagine this as anything but an end-game scenario, Billy. Can you–”

“Right away. I’ll have one of our teams there in twenty to thirty minutes. You’ll meet them around the back?”

“Got it. Thanks, Billy.”

“Be careful, Scarecrow.”

Lee stared at the phone for a moment, then began to pick a way around the police blockade that would keep him unnoticed and get him to the back of the dealership.

***

Shouting came from just outside the door, then the loud banging of bodies being thrown against walls, then two shots, almost simultaneous. There were more thumps, then another shot.

Every person in the room was sitting up straight, eyes wide.

“Wait for it,” Amanda said softly.

The door flew open and Mikhail stood there, glowering and holding two guns. “On your feet,” he ordered. “Time is running out.”

Amanda met Mary’s gaze, and the older woman’s eyes narrowed in understanding. Amanda responded in kind and stood, hands held up in front of her, and walked toward Mikhail. As she reached the door, she took in the sight of Katje lying unconscious in the hallway, blood on her chest, arm, and beginning to pool beside her.

She glanced back. The other seven were on their feet and clustered. She walked slowly toward Mikhail, following him as he backed down the hallway to the repair bay. She was almost to the door when she tripped herself, falling toward Mikhail. She knocked one of his guns away as she fell against him and heard it skid across the concrete floor of the bay. Her focus narrowed to a single point: the gun in his other hand, and she grabbed his wrist with one hand and turned, ducking under his arm and grabbing his elbow as she shoved his hand into the middle of his back.

That gun fell to the floor, and she pushed off from the wall with one foot, knocking him into the repair bay, where his shoulder impacted the cinder block wall that separated the viewing area from the main repair bays. Her hand slipped from his elbow as he turned toward her and shoved her backward. She landed a kick to his stomach, then one to the side of his knee, and he grunted and fell, sprawling.

From behind her, Amanda heard the snick of a lock sliding into place and she felt herself breathe a touch more easily even as adrenaline pumped into her muscles, priming her for a further fight. She took a step toward where she had heard the first gun stop then froze as a shot went off.

“Don’t move another step,” Mikhail said, still on the floor but training his gun directly at her .

***

Lee crept around the back of the dealership, respect making him wary of the Arlington PD’s possible surveillance. He evaded notice of the one officer they had posted overlooking that angle, and crept toward the building, assessing it for entrances, weaknesses, and possible escape points.

The repair bay doors were closed and stood about twenty feet away from a chain link fence that stretched the length of the back of the property. Lee could see the beginning of a group of parked cars at the end of the fence farthest from him, and behind the building on this end, there was a kennel and run tucked up behind the building by the repair garage.

Great, he thought. Barking dogs make for such a quiet approach.

He couldn’t see dogs in the kennel, though, so maybe they were boarded somewhere else for the day or maybe it was a vet day. Regardless, Amanda was still in there with two Eastern Bloc spies and was going to need backup. He searched the length of fence for an entry point. In less than five minutes he determined that it wasn’t electrified, but that their only way in would be over or would involve wire cutters.

A shot sounded from inside the bay, and his stomach clenched, any contemplation of tactics cast aside as he launched himself at the fence and began scaling it.

***

Amanda raised her hands, eyes fixed on Mikhail.

“Do not move,” he said flatly, climbing to his feet. His gaze and the aim of the gun never wavered from her. He stepped toward her, “Who are you?”

“My name is Amanda and–”

“You are no simple housewife and mother. You are Agency, no?”

“No.” Amanda hesitated. There was no telling how soon the Tac Team would make its move, and she might have a chance to keep him talking if she approached him professional to professional, might be able to keep his attentions distracted from the others. She raised her chin. “I mean, yes. And the Agency is on its way. Wouldn’t you rather have a professional here? There are no hysterical civilians this way, you have someone calm who can help you, and if I get hurt, well, it’s part of my job, and you’re less likely to be charged as seriously if you’re captured by the intelligence community.”

“Shut up!”

Amanda stood stock-still.

“The mechanic—Joe—he said these cars are the most recent to come in. There is information in one, information that will betray the location of the surveillance team that includes my beloved. I would die for her. You will help me find and destroy this data.”

“That would be treason. If it’s critical information or the team’s work would endanger Americans, I can’t help you, Mikhail.” She kept her mouth ever so slightly open to keep the quivering in her jaw from making her teeth chatter audibly. Her entire body felt like it was vibrating.

“You will help me. She is not a danger. Her team is not a danger. They record data that is, as you say, a matter of public record. School attendance, salaries of public officials, law enforcement procedures, government policy.”

“Then why are they a secret?”

“We are Bulgarian,” Mikhail said, as if it were the most obvious possible answer. “We cannot get that information easily. Information into our country is tightly controlled, and unlike some of your universities, we have no ‘world wide web’ to begin to look. Books are printed in Russian, by the KGB. Katje was KGB. She was sent here to observe me. The KGB is suspicious of the work that we do.”

“Why is that?” Amanda had long since given up trying to still the quaver in her voice when she was facing down a gun.

“Because they fear that, like East Germany, like Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria will try to break away from the control of the Soviet Union.” Mikhail leaned forward, as if sharing a secret. “They are right. Soon we will become our own country again. And to do that, we will need models for public works.”

“Then why not just come…oh.” Amanda nodded slowly. “If you approach us directly, the KGB will know, so your team’s work is secret from the KGB and the U.S.”

“Now you understand.” Mikhail smiled.

“What if I help you find the data, and then we have a covert ops team approach your team and work with them in secret? I can’t guarantee that, but we could certainly suggest it.”

“That would be very good,” Mikhail said. “The data is recorded on a small space–it is in a box, no more than five centimeters.”

“And it was in one of the cars that came in recently?”

“Yes. Your man hid it and the mechanic would have passed the team names and location on to the Agency. We must work quickly.”

Amanda climbed into the first car and started searching while Mikhail stood guard. She looked in the glove compartment, the center console, under the seats and was checking the ashtray when Mikhail shouted, “Do you think we are stupid? We have checked those places a dozen times.”

Amanda thought, then reached through the bucket seats and pulled on the bench seat cushion of the back seat. It tilted up and there, underneath, was a small, dark gray box, a bit smaller than a ring box. Amanda picked it up.

“Give that to me!” Mikhail ordered, gun raised.

Amanda handed it over.

Mikhail began to back away, heading for the door near the large bay doors. He arrived at the door, and, still covering Amanda, pulled it open and turned to leave.

Amanda saw Lee step into the doorway and her stomach turned over as he said, “Hi, there,” grabbed Mikhail’s gun hand, and forced it into the air. Lee slammed the hand against the bay door until the gun fell, then shoved Mikhail backward.

They all scrambled for tools to use as weapons. Mikhail grabbed a tire iron in one hand and a socket wrench in the other. He crouched slightly, at the ready for Lee’s approach. Amanda grabbed a hose and squeezed the lever, blowing pressurized air into Mikhail’s face. As he staggered backward, Lee grabbed a pry bar and Amanda scooped up the box from where it had fallen and stuffed it in her pocket. The two men engaged in a surreal fencing battle with automotive tools, and the clangs came fast and furious, accompanied by the squeak and swish of shoes moving against pavement.

Amanda saw a crank near the far wall, looked up, and smiled. She ran to the crank, spun it, then moved to the huge metal hook that had lowered from the ceiling. She watched the two men fighting, tracked their movements, pulled back on the hook, and aimed. As they moved, she aimed again, adjusted again. Her stomach clenched. She bit her lip and let go, shouting, “Lee, look out!”

The iron hoisting mechanism hit Mikhail square in the back, knocking him face down onto the concrete. Lee planted a knee in the spy’s back, and Amanda picked up the stray gun from the floor and held it steady over their adversary. “Don’t move, Mikhail.”

Lee grinned up at her, breathing hard.

“Emily and Mother?” she asked, her chest and throat drawing tight again.

“They’re fine.”

Amanda felt tears spring to her eyes, and one hand flew to her mouth to muffle a sob. She brushed at her eyes and steadied her stance, still covering Mikhail. Then the door to the repair bay opened. One by one, Agency operatives entered, weapons at the ready.

“About time you got here,” Lee called. “Anyone have a pair of cuffs I can use?”

The first agent tossed him a pair, and soon Mikhail was subdued.

Amanda gave a summary of the situation to the newly-arrived agents, handed over the tiny box of data, and suggested they check out Mikhail’s claims.

One agent called from the row of closets, “I think I’ve found our missing information fence, a little worse for wear.” He pointed to a half-naked man, tied up and gagged in the bottom of the closet.

The agent holding Mikhail looked at his coveralls. “I’m betting that’s Hector. We’d better let the police rescue him.” There were nods, and the Agency team supervised Mikhail’s removal, saying they’d claim jurisdiction of Katje at the hospital. They cleared the area, removing the second firearm, erasing evidence of their presence as rapidly as they marched Mikhail out.

Lee reached from behind Amanda, gathered her to him and kissed her neck. “Emily and Dotty got out just fine. I think Dotty’s explanation of what was going on may have been what delayed the police, though.” He squeezed her tightly. “I was so scared for all of you. That fake heart attack? That was a pretty gutsy move you pulled there. You were amazing.”

“You weren’t so bad yourself, big guy.” Amanda turned and pressed herself against him, circled his waist with her arms, and tilted her head, smiling at him, then kissing him soundly.

“You plan to follow up on that promise you’re making?”

She spread a hand across his ass and squeezed, then kissed his lips, the side of his neck, and the hollow of his throat before saying in a throaty voice, “I do indeed.”

“I’m going to hold you to that, Mrs. Stetson.”

“You’d better.” She lingered against him, then stepped back. “I’d better join the others so that the Tac rescue doesn’t find they’re missing a hostage.”

“And I’ve got to make it look like they escaped out the back way. See you later at the station.” He kissed her knuckles one more time, squeezed her hand.

Amanda returned to the waiting room where they’d spent most of their time and seated herself on the floor moments before the Tac Team arrived, stepping over Katje’s still form, guns at the ready. Amanda held her hands up, deliberately widening her eyes as the officers entered the room in full gear.

“Are you all right, ma’am?” one barked.

Amanda nodded.

He held up a hand for her to be silent as his team moved down the hall and checked each room, then the repair bay.

“Clear,” one called.

“Where are the others?” the first demanded, helping Amanda to her feet.

She let her breathing become uneven, allowing the officers to see the fear she’d been hiding for hours. “They…they locked themselves in the bathroom,” Amanda said, pointing. “And there’s a mechanic tied up in one of the closets in the repair bays.”

The team leader nodded. “We need two medical teams. Over,” he said into his radio.

Amanda touched one officer’s arm, then crossed her arms tightly in front of her. “Is my baby okay? My mother?”

“They’re fine.”

“You in the bathroom,” called another officer. “This is the Arlington Police. You are safe to come out. I repeat, you are safe to come out.”

The bolt was thrown from the inside, and the door was cracked open. Amanda could see Mary peering through, one hand still on her key ring in the double-keyed lock, and she smiled broadly, gesturing for them to come into the hallway.

They emerged blinking and pale, as if they’d been in a cave.

When Natalie crossed the threshold, she threw herself at Amanda. “You’re all right! We heard the shot, and I was so scared. I mean, you have that beautiful little baby, and you can’t afford to–” a sob burst from her throat, and she paused and breathed, then hugged Amanda again. “You’re just amazing. I mean, you’re a mom, and you did all that and saved us all. I’m going to tell my husband everything. And he is not getting himself some sports car. We are going to get a family car for our family.”

Amanda’s throat clenched again. Every moment this dragged on, she felt farther from Emily. She needed to touch her, kiss her, examine her herself, make sure she was still fine.

The Tac leader cleared his throat. “Come on, let’s get these people out of here.”

The leader spoke into his radio, “Chief. Hostages and interior secured. Sending hostages out. One hostage, one gunman down, need medical teams. Repeat, need medical teams in rear hallway. Team will proceed to the back for second gunman. Over.”

“Let’s move, people,” another officer said.

The former hostages didn’t have to be told twice and stepped over Katje, moving quickly with the supervision of the Tac Team. Several of them patted Amanda on the shoulder, and she heard a muddled collection of “Thank you,” “You saved us,” “I don’t know what we would have done without you,” “Thank you so much,” though in her focus on Emily and the let-down from the adrenaline of the fight she couldn’t track which voice said what.

They were met at the door to the dealership by a team of uniformed officers who escorted them toward the rear of the surveillance line. As Amanda exited at the rear of the group, the medical team arrived with a stretcher. She watched as Eduardo broke into a run and joined his wife and three boys, who climbed him like a jungle gym, holding on for dear life. Mary was greeted with a fierce hug from a woman near her age, but rounder and more eccentrically dressed, her close-cropped gray hair sticking up in several directions. Wei-yin and Christina wrapped themselves around a small woman who had the same heart-shaped face as Christina and their three foreheads met.

In the commotion, Amanda lost track of the others, scanning the line of people for blond hair, for a little white dress with pink umbrellas, for tiny fingers and toes. She didn’t even see Dotty until she heard the gasp of “Amanda, darling!” and felt Emily being pressed against her as Dotty hugged her. It was then that she realized her knees felt rather wobbly, and she sat, leaning against Dotty and holding Emily to her as she felt someone wrap a blanket around her shoulders. She brought Emily up to her shoulder and rested her cheek against her daughter’s perfectly smooth, brand-new skin. She breathed in the scent of baby products and tears spilled into Emily’s hair as Amanda felt her breathing become ragged and her arms begin to shake violently. Dotty’s arm went around her shoulders, and they leaned together, the chaos around them receding until their world was just the extraordinary truth that all three of them were all right.

***

It seemed to Amanda like a day later by the time she and Dotty had made their statements and Lee picked them up from the police station. By the time they got home it was far too late to cook, and the bustle of the boys greeting them in relief, Emily wailing for her dinner, and telling the whole story was like being caught in a whirlwind for nearly a quarter of an hour.

“Amanda, darling, what should we do for dinner?” Dotty asked, leaning her head back on the sofa cushion with her feet already up on the coffee table.

“Don’t worry about it, Grandma,” Phillip said. “Lee called us while he was waiting for you, and we’ve got it covered.”

“What is that supposed to mean?” Amanda asked, also leaning back on the sofa, one arm propped up where Emily was nursing quietly.

The doorbell chimed, and Phillip hopped the steps to get it.

“That’s what we mean,” Jamie said, grinning. He slipped away and returned carrying a stack of plates and napkins at the same time that Phillip set down two large pizzas and a bag.

As they served up salad for everyone from the container in the bag, Lee gently reached from behind Amanda and took Emily, who had drifted to sleep without Amanda even noticing.

“You get started on food, nursing mom,” he said, giving her a peck on the cheek before carrying Emily up to her crib.

Amanda smiled as, with a little food in her, Dotty got a second wind and regaled Phillip and Jamie with stories of the Russian spies and their mother’s bravery and how scary and exhilarating the whole experience had been.

“I swear, I won’t sleep a wink tonight, I’m so wound up. I never want to do that again, but I must admit, it was amazing, and when it was over…” She paused, patted her chest, and let out a breath. “Well, it was quite a rush. I doubt I’ll stop shaking for a week!”

The boys were fascinated and subdued by turns through dinner and Dotty’s ramblings. Lee had returned and sat beside her, making sure a piece of pizza made its way to her plate. There was a distinct advantage to having opposite dominant hands, Amanda thought as their shoulders and arms maintained contact while they ate. The spicy tang of the sauce and pepperoni on her tongue was soothingly familiar, adding to the comfort of being in her house with her family, safe. She watched her sons, who kept glancing at her every few minutes as if to remind themselves that everyone had made it safely home again, and she thought of Dotty’s plea to her not to go back to work at the Agency. After all the close calls they’d had recently, she wondered if she had the right to raise Emily from the cradle with that daily uncertainty.

“What will happen to them, Lee?” Jamie asked.

Lee looked at his clasped hands. “I’m not sure. It sounds like Katje is going to recover, and she’ll probably be questioned. Once the Agency is sure they’ve gotten everything they can out of her, she’ll either be locked up here or shipped back to the Soviets for the KGB to deal with. Either way…well, I wouldn’t want to be her. Mikhail will be questioned, and we’ll check out his claims, but the laws he broke trying to protect that team mean that this is probably it for him.”

There was a long silence at the reminder that not everyone that day got a happy ending.

Amanda leaned forward to start cleaning up.

“Oh, no, Mom.” Jamie hopped up from the floor. “Remember what we said? We’ve got it covered.” He and Phillip gathered dishes and boxes and disappeared into the kitchen faster than she’d ever seen.

“And, on that note,” Dotty said, standing, “I’m going to go take a hot bath, then lie down with an Agatha Christie mystery where I already know the end.” She leaned her head between theirs, hugged them, and kissed both their cheeks. “Thank you. Thank you for making sure this ended safely.” She drew back, looked at them, and shook her head just as Amanda saw her eyes grow watery. “Bath. See you in the morning.”

Lee put his arm around Amanda’s shoulders and she closed her eyes and relaxed back into the warmth it provided. Nothing felt as much like home as being with him, in their house, surrounded by family. She leaned her head against his shoulder, drawing up her knees and snuggling into his side.

“Whatcha thinking?” he whispered into her hair after a couple of minutes.

“I’m just thinking how Mother said that things ended safely today.”

“They did.”

“They did,” she agreed. “But that level of unsafe, it seems to follow us everywhere. It’s bad enough that our jobs are dangerous every day, but…it doesn’t seem to matter where we are. What have we done, having Emily? I mean, we’re parents. It’s our job to keep our kids safe. But ‘safe’ has such a different meaning now than it did with Phillip and Jamie when they were little…and even what I meant with them I’ve been unable to do.”

Lee kissed the top of her head, his thumb absently stroking her arm as it always did. There was a long silence before he replied. “You know what? I think we promise ourselves to keep our kids ‘safe’ so we’ll feel better. But your mother couldn’t keep you safe today, and you’re not upset about that.”

“Of course not.”

“We do our best, but it’s not a promise we can keep, any more than my parents, or yours, could. There are just too many variables. We can’t protect our kids. Not from everything.”

“Don’t you wonder sometimes if we aren’t tempting fate, though, walking into even more danger when there’s so much out there already?”

“Possibly. But no matter what our jobs are, we can’t protect our kids or even ourselves, no matter how hard we promise.”

“A pie-crust promise.”

“What?”

“Mary Poppins. A pie-crust promise: easily made, easily broken.” Amanda looked up at him, frowning. “You haven’t seen Mary Poppins?”

“Nope. But since we have a little girl upstairs, I’m sure I’m going to get my chance.”

Amanda chuckled and smiled at him. “I love you.” She reached up and kissed him.

“I love you, too. You want to come upstairs to bed with me?” he asked, his voice rumbling in her ear.

“I think that can be arranged.” She unfolded herself, took his hand, and stood.

Lee kissed her, and put an arm around her waist as they walked up the stairs. He turned and grinned at her. “After all, you’ve got a non-pie-crust promise to follow through on, and then you need your sleep so you can pick up our new car tomorrow.”

She swatted his chest, and they laughed, closing their bedroom door behind them.

***
***

13 Comments

  • By Jennifer Cannon, June 26, 2009 @ 9:30 pm

    Very absorbing story, Amy–an enjoyable read and a good addition to Season Seven :)

  • By Ragged, June 27, 2009 @ 8:06 am

    Great story, worth the wait!

  • By Ruth, June 27, 2009 @ 11:21 am

    Great story I really liked it

  • By Ermintrude, June 27, 2009 @ 7:33 pm

    This was an exciting episode! I was also impressed at how Lee and the Agency team was able to extract Mikhail without alerting the police, and Amanda was able to keep her cover. Pretty slick! Another great episode, and well worth the wait!

  • By Weston Housewife, June 29, 2009 @ 4:28 am

    Great Story. I thought the season was over and was pleasantly surprised by another story.

  • By Mary R., June 29, 2009 @ 7:32 am

    What a great read. I loved the storyline of Amanda, Dotty and Emily innocently going to the car dealership to pick up Lee’s car. I will never visit another show room of cars, without watching my back.

    The suspense kept me on the edge of my seat and the desciptive passages were vivid. I could see Emily’s pink toes and feel the fear of the hostages. Great job!

  • By charlie, June 29, 2009 @ 10:22 pm

    Great story – lots of suspense and well written. I loved the description – made it easy to visual. Great way to end the season!

  • By Loretta, July 2, 2009 @ 5:00 pm

    great story. enjoyed the faking of the heart attack to get dotty and the baby out.

  • By Brittany, July 5, 2009 @ 8:19 pm

    Amazing story!! Really shows how much Amanda has changed since starting working at the Agency

  • By Sue, July 7, 2009 @ 7:06 am

    Super story. I just love Dotty’s fake heartattack. Leave it to Amanda to find trouble in the simplest things. Poor Lee, standing helpless on the sidelines. He showed great restraint. Guess our boy is finally growing up a bit.

  • By Terry Kay, August 5, 2009 @ 11:28 pm

    Wow! Fantastic writing; held me to the end. Thank you.

  • By Heather, August 7, 2009 @ 1:47 pm

    I’ve been so busy lately that I haven’t had a chance to read this until now, but so glad I finally did! Really great story. I’m always happy to see Amanda doing Agent “stuff.”

  • By berniej, August 22, 2009 @ 1:00 am

    It was so like watching an episode congratulations
    Amanda always keeps her cool and it was great to have Dottie in on it too..fancy Lee getting caught by the local cops…tut tut…loosing his touch? hah just needs someone to always watch his back!

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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.