DISCLAIMER: Characters belong to Warner Bros and Shoot The Moon Productions. I am only borrowing them for a short time. I expect to make no profit from this endeavor and promise to return the characters unsullied, though slightly damp.
TITLE: Fair Game
SUMMARY: Lee and Amanda are assigned to a case that threatens to strike very close to home – their home.
FEEDBACK: Well, DUH! Tell me you love me or rake me over the coals, either way, I can hack it.
AUTHOR'S NOTES: Well, people, this was a tough one. Parts of this story just flowed onto the screen, while other parts fought me tooth and nail. All things considered, I'm satisfied with it. I'd like to take a moment to thank the people without whom I never would have finished this story:
Tracey, who really tried to co-author this with me, but couldn't escape the demands of real life, you'll notice there are still some of your ideas in here.
Brenda, who kept me company the final night of writing, when I faced a couple of scenes and fought back with a vengeance, thanks for keeping the bar open late.
Sybil and Shelly, who found all my missing commas and rearranged my words, thanks for being patient through my struggle with the words. A good beta is worth far more than a thousand words.
Lastly, I have to thank my nine year-old son, who helped me plot out the actual action involved in a few scenes, if not the words themselves. Isn't that something? Just when you go and underestimate your kids, they go and surprise you.
Somewhere in Moscow, a man sat behind a desk in a nameless, faceless
Soviet office. He spent his time stamping forms that granted various Western businesses permission to operate in the USSR. With one click of his stamp, he gave one particular American businessman such permission. Little did he know the events that would follow from that brief meeting of paper, rubber, and ink.
Lee Stetson drank deeply from a glass of ice-cold water. He drew in a long breath as he set the glass on the kitchen counter and wiped at his sweat-drenched brow with the dishtowel that had been hanging by the sink. He glanced out the back window and shook his head; Phillip was getting far too good on the basketball court. Lee drew his unbuttoned shirt more closely around his torso, wondering if this afternoon's loss on the court had more to do with his own slightly thickening mid-section than his stepson's growing skill. The last few months of publicly married life had been a time of sometimes awkward adjustments and crazed scheduling. He found himself repeatedly amazed at how Amanda had balanced all the areas of her life so well for so long, when he couldn't even figure out how to squeeze in a regular work-out any more.
The doorbell rang, and he tossed the dishtowel onto the counter. He chuckled to himself as he realized that answering this door had quickly become one of his small daily joys. Even two years ago, he would have scarcely imagined he'd enjoy suburban life quite so well. He opened the door expecting the mailman or one of the boys' friends, only to be confronted with the absolute epitome of suburbia.
"Hello?" he queried, not recognizing the three women standing on his doorstep.
"Hel-lo," the blond woman standing at the front of the small group returned, eyeing Lee's partially bare chest appraisingly. "Now, you must be Amanda's new husband. Wherever has she been hiding you?"
The petite blond pushed Lee back gently, tickling him slightly with her well manicured, blood-red nails, and breezed into the foyer followed by her companions.
"In the flower bed," Lee replied dryly as he stumbled down the step from the door. "Look, umm . . .Amanda's not here, but if you need something, I could tell her you stopped by, Mrs. . . .?"
"In the flower bed! Oh, you are such a jokester, Lee," the blond continued effusively, leading her group into the family room. "May I call you Lee?"
Lee followed the women, buttoning up his shirt. "Sure, and you are?"
"Why I'm Marjorie Matthews! One of Amanda's oldest and dearest friends! She hasn't told you about me? I'm crushed, really I am. Did you know, when the Kings moved in here that I was the first one to come over and welcome them? I live just a couple of houses down. I would have been by sooner, but things have been so busy, and . . .well, I didn't know Amanda had such good taste."
"Oh, Mrs. Matthews!" Lee snapped his fingers as though just remembering something. "I'm sure Amanda must have mentioned you. I'm very sorry to have forgotten one of her 'oldest and dearest friends'."
"It's Ms. Matthews," she corrected him flatly. "I'm divorced."
"Oh, well then, OK," Lee fumbled. "Umm . . .Amanda's not here. Can I give her a message for you?"
"Oh, we're not here to see Amanda, Mr. Stetson," one of Ms. Matthews' companions interjected brightly. "We're here to see you. My name is Lois Halton and this is Jackie Farmer," she continued, indicating the last member of the group. "We need your help, Mr. Stetson."
"My help?" Lee asked quizzically.
"Lee, dear," Marjorie oozed. Having recovered from Lee's unintentional insult, she pushed him back onto the couch and settled in beside him; very beside him, Lee thought. "We're here representing the Spring Fair Committee and we really do need your help. Lois said she'd seen you coming and going and she said you would be just perfect. You will help, won't you?"
"Spring Fair Committee?" Lee asked, scooting a little further away as Marjorie slid one hand along his knee.
"It's a fund-raiser for the school," Lois offered. "We do it every year. The proceeds go to buy new textbooks and supplies."
"A fair?" Lee questioned, "Like a carnival?" He stood, feeling infinitely safer standing next to Lois Halton, than sitting anywhere with Marjorie the Barracuda, as he had already mentally tagged her.
"Exactly," Marjorie purred, standing to take his arm. "We have carnival rides set up in the parking lot, and all the parents help man the games and concession booths. It really is a lot of fun, Lee."
"I'm sure it is," Lee responded, gently removing his arm from hers and moving to look out the window. When there was no sign of Amanda and Dotty returning from their shopping trip, he turned back to the women. "It's just that I have a really awkward work schedule, and I get called out of town sometimes . . ."
"But, Mr. Stetson," Lois implored, "it's for the children." She shook her head sadly at his evasive behavior.
"Mr. Stetson," Jackie Farmer began to add her arguments to the case. "The school needs all it can get. Federal and state funding just isn't enough anymore. I've been teaching Social Studies at Arlington Middle School for fifteen years. I had Phillip in my class and I've got Jamie this year. The parents of this community have always been a huge support for the school. Please tell me we can count on you for at least a few hours?"
"All right," Lee relented; he raised his arms in defeat and let them fall heavily back to his sides. He most definitely did not want to see to what greater lengths Marjorie might go to earn his help. "What do I have to do?"
"Well," Lois began, shuffling through some papers in a leather bound portfolio she carried. "We need someone to man booth number . . . yes, there it is, booth number 31, right, Marj?" she glanced askance at her neighbor.
"Yes, that right, 31," Marjorie confirmed.
" . . .For two hours, Saturday morning," Lois finished.
"So what do I have to do?" Lee glanced quickly from Marjorie to Lois.
"Just show up next Saturday at 8 AM and ask for Richard Davis," Marjorie inserted, patting Lee's forearm. "He'll show you right where you'll need to go."
"OK," Lee nodded as he ran one hand through his hair, and, once again, maneuvered away from Marjorie Matthews. He moved toward the front door, herding the Fair Committee before him. Having reached the door, he leaned one arm against the doorjamb, watching the ladies walk to Lois' Mercury Sable station wagon.
"Didn't I tell you he was perfect?" Lee heard Lois' voice float back across the yard.
"I'll say it again, Amanda," Dotty smiled as she watched Lee come through the back door with the last load of groceries from their weekly Saturday shopping trip. "It is so nice to have a man around the house."
"I think so, too, Mother," Amanda agreed, immensely enjoying the view of a domesticated Lee Stetson.
"What do you think, too?" Lee asked as he began to rifle through the grocery bags, appraising their contents.
"I think you're pretty special," Amanda replied, ducking under his searching arms to give him a brief hug. "Stop that!" she swatted at his hand as he pulled a bag of tortilla chips from one sack. "You're as bad as the boys!"
"No," Lee insisted, "I've just learned that if I find something I want to eat around here, I have to move on it before the bottomless pits get wind of it. Is there any guacamole?"
"Here," Dotty handed him a plastic bowl from the refrigerator, removing the lid in the process of passing it to him.
"So did anything exciting happen around here this morning?" Amanda asked as she joined her mother in putting away the groceries.
"Well . . ." Lee began, only to be interrupted by the crashing entrance of two teenagers.
"Yeah, Mom, I totally annihilated Lee on the basketball court," Phillip boasted.
"Now, I wouldn't say 'annihilated'," Lee disagreed.
"How about destroyed, demolished, shattered, defeated, totally trounced?" Phillip rattled off his list of alternatives as he searched through the dwindling supply of grocery bags. He finally settled on the bag of tortilla chips in Lee's hands. "Thanks, Dude," he offered quickly, grabbing the bag out of his startled stepfather's hands and escaping into the den.
"You'd better mind your vocabulary, Buck-o!" Lee called after him. "And your manners!"
"You snooze, you lose, my friend," Phillip countered. "I can take you anytime, inside or outside."
"You just name the game, Phillip," Lee stepped into his role in the friendly, but competitive, banter he and his older stepson had settled into.
Dotty shook her head and glanced askance at her daughter. "I think the testosterone level in this house has risen to new heights. I'm not so certain that's a good thing."
When Lee smiled broadly in reaction to Dotty's quip, Amanda grinned. "No comment, Mother," she said softly, returning to her groceries.
"So, Lee?" Amanda quickly shifted the conversation from an area of her life she did not wish to discuss with her husband and her mother in the same room. "Did anything else happen around here today?"
"Mrs. Farmer was here," Jamie piped in. "With a couple of moms." At Lee's odd look, Jamie added, "We were working on the model rocket in Jason's yard and I saw them come in." Amanda looked questioningly from Lee to Jamie and back again.
"There were some representatives from the 'Spring Fair Committee' here today. I handled them," Lee stated with quiet pride.
"Oh, really?" Amanda looked at him archly, certain that Lee Stetson's domestication process had not progressed to a level at which he could truly 'handle' even one representative from the Spring Fair Committee, let alone three.
"Oh, that's my fault, Sweetheart," Dotty began. "Someone called the other day and I told them that, certainly, you'd contribute something for the bake sale for the fair. I mean, you always do, so I didn't think you'd mind."
"Mother, you could have told me; now we'll have to go back to the grocery store. I'm sure we don't have enough . . ."
"Amanda, stop!" Lee interrupted. "They weren't here to see you. They were here to see me. They asked for my help."
"They did?" Amanda and Dotty asked in unison, both equally surprised and suspicious.
"Yes. They did," Lee replied, slightly affronted. "She said I would be perfect. She said she was one of your oldest friends . . ." Lee's voice trailed off as his wife shook her head in resignation.
"It's all my fault. I should have anticipated this, Lee. I should have been here to protect you," Amanda smiled sadly at him, secretly enjoying the dumbfounded look on his face. "It was Marjorie Matthews, wasn't it?"
"Well, yeah, but they said it was to help the kids," Lee continued defensively, uncertain as to just why his guard was rising. "And I know how important all that is to you, so I thought, 'Hey, it's only a couple of hours,' and I said 'yes'."
"And Lois Halton, too, huh?" Amanda asked quietly, patting her husband's arm gently. "You were definitely out-flanked."
"The poor man really didn't stand a chance," Dotty sighed with a quick shrug of her shoulders. "Don't blame yourself, Amanda. I should have suspected something when Mrs. Farmer asked if you were going to be home today."
"Well," Amanda sighed, "I guess we'll just have to make the best of it. It's not like we can get out of it now." Amanda turned and placed the last of the folded paper grocery bags in a drawer. "Oh, Mother," she added, almost as an afterthought, "will you make sure that we have enough batteries for Jamie's camera?"
"I'll make sure that ALL the cameras have fresh batteries for Saturday, Dear." Dotty chuckled and patted Lee's arm as she brushed past him on her way to the stairs. "I'm pretty certain the school fair will earn a special place in your album."
"Mother, I may want to give this fair an album all to itself." Amanda threw a contemplative glance in Lee's direction.
"Have you two had enough fun?" Lee asked, looking uncertainly from his wife to her mother. "Will one of you please tell me just what I've gotten myself into? I just agreed to help out at one of the booths for a couple of hours. How tough can it be? I've seen you do it before. Just don't make me wear any goofy hats and I'll be fine."
"No, no hats needed for this, Lee," Dotty quipped. "In fact, the less . . .umm . . . accessories, the better."
"What?" Lee glared at his mother-in-law in confusion.
"Lee," Amanda spoke slowly and softly, "did they tell you which booth they wanted you to help with?"
"Yeah, they said booth number . . .31."
"31." Dotty and Amanda spoke the number in unison with him.
"How'd you know?" Lee questioned nervously.
"Because you're new, Sweetheart," Amanda placed her arms around his waist and squeezed. "And, obviously, pretty gullible."
"Since when?" Lee sputtered. "Just what, exactly, will I be doing at booth 31?" he added, now decidedly more suspicious.
"Booth 31 is the dunk tank, Lee," Amanda explained briefly, still holding him.
"And I'm sure there'll be a long line of women who'll pay to see you in a wet T-shirt!" Dotty called from the stairs. "I'm just going to make a few phone calls, Amanda!" she continued cheerfully.
Lee looked wryly at Amanda. He pulled out of her embrace and regarded her frankly. "And just how are you going to get us out of this?"
"Us, Stetson?" she replied innocently. "You promised, not me. Remember," she whispered, patting his cheek affectionately, "it's for the children."
"If I go through with this," Lee began hesitantly, "and I do mean IF . . . then no one at work ever needs to know about it . . .deal?" He offered his handshake to his wife.
"Oh, Scarecrow," Amanda whispered, taking his hand in hers, "you know all your secrets are safe with me."
"There you are!" Francine Desmond called across the bullpen as Lee and Amanda walked through the double glass doors. "What took you so long?"
The pair exchanged an innocent glance and continued their path to where Francine awaited them just outside Billy Melrose's office. Lee gripped Amanda's hand more tightly, appreciating that he could do so now with no more consequence than the gentle ribbing of his peers.
"Business, Francine," Amanda replied, shaking her head, "just business. We do work here, you know."
"Oh?" the blonde countered, one eyebrow arched. "Is that still what you're calling it?"
"Francine," Lee drew out her name with equal parts warning and exasperation.
"Come on." She tossed her teasing aside with a shake of her head. "Billy wants to see all of us. I think I'm going to need to ask for your help."
"Is that a first?" Amanda asked Lee in a stage whisper as the three entered Billy's office.
"What?" Lee responded in kind, "her thinking or her asking?"
"Enough, people!" Billy Melrose uttered curtly. He paused and popped two tablets from his stick of Tums into his mouth. He tossed the remaining antacids onto his desk and leaned forward, gesturing for his agents to sit. "We have a problem," he informed them.
"Billy, I told you we'd have that Bower report in before lunch today. Cut me some slack. Smyth doesn't go before the Security Council until Thursday afternoon. He'll still have a good twenty-four hours with it and . . ." Lee interjected his apology and rationalization before his boss could continue.
"Well, I'm glad to hear that, Scarecrow, but that's not why I called you two down here," Billy interrupted. His face was scrunched tight, the tension under which he had been working evident.
"Oh," Lee muttered in surprise and settled back in his chair. Amanda reached across and placed her hand on his forearm.
"Why did you call us down, Sir?" she inquired.
"We have a problem with an old friend of yours and I'm going to have to ask for a pretty big favor from the two of you," their superior stated, meeting each of the Stetsons eye to eye as though gauging their likely reactions.
"What's going on, Billy?" Lee asked.
"We've been keeping watch over a certain businessman," Francine began hesitantly. "There have been threats against him, but he tends to be the type to take matters into his own hands. Keeping him under close surveillance has been a challenge . . ."
"Cut the secrecy, Francine," Lee cut in. "Who is it? Why is he being threatened? And what do you need from Amanda and me?" He ticked off his questions on his right hand for emphasis.
Billy pursed his lips and exhaled heavily, nodding to Francine.
"Marvin Metz," she told the startled Stetsons.
"Why would anyone want to kill that sweet man?" Amanda asked. "His son is still in jail from that secret sauce thing." She shared a puzzled look with her husband. Lee shrugged and turned his attention back to Francine.
"This Sunday, Marvin leaves for the Soviet Union to oversee the opening of the first Marvelous Marvin's restaurant in Eastern Europe. Word around Moscow from Viper, our agent on the case there, is that some extremists plan to make an example of Mr. Metz. There are a lot of people who aren't particularly happy about the footholds Western capitalism has made behind the Iron Curtain," Francine explained. "They obviously haven't seen the spring fashions from New York," she added wryly.
Amanda grimaced at the attempt at humor and queried, "That tells us who and why; but what do you need from us?"
Billy slumped into his chair, eyeing Francine appraisingly. "Mr. Metz doesn't seem to grasp the seriousness of his situation. He won't stay put, and our team has had the devil of a time keeping him occupied," he answered wearily.
"And you want us," Lee began, taking Amanda's hand in his, "to keep him occupied?"
"I want you to take him in, Scarecrow," Billy stated clearly. "I want you to invite him to spend the next few days with you. Make him part of your lives for the next four days. Then, on Sunday, I want you to personally see him safely onto his plane for Moscow. Once he's in Moscow, Agent Viper will take over his safety. You remember Viper, don't you, Lee?" Billy added, hoping to distract his top agent as he noticed the color rising in Lee's face.
"In our house?" Lee countered incredulously, ignoring Billy's question. "Billy, you can't ask that of us. We barely have room for . . ."
"The close quarters will work in our favor, Lee. I want to make sure he can't slip away and take matters into his own hands." Billy clasped his hands together on his desk.
"But you can't really just expect us to drop everything and . . .I mean, work is work, and you know we're dedicated . . .but this is OUR home you're commandeering for Agency purposes, Billy," Lee sputtered. He looked from Billy to Francine and then to his wife, who seemed, to him, to be taking the whole situation far too calmly.
"You've sure got a short memory, Lee," Amanda said with a chuckle. "I lost count of the number of times my house was 'commandeered' by the Agency. Why should it be any different just because it's our house now?"
"Well, I guess I'll get you set up in here, Marvin," Lee said with forced cheer, setting their charge's overstuffed suitcase down beside the couch in the family room.
"Now, you know, it wasn't my idea to put you out like this," Marvin replied. "I do appreciate everything the government is doing to help, but I think I've proved myself pretty capable . . ."
"Mr. Metz . . ." Amanda began, crossing her arms and leaning against the wall. "Marvin," she amended, off his pointed look, "your being so capable is why the government, and The Agency, are so concerned. You're an important part of the future of the Soviet Union. We don't want anything to happen to you."
"It still just seems like a lot of trouble to go through for a guy that just sells hamburgers," Marvin muttered morosely as he settled onto one end of the couch. Lee took up a station at the other end, eyeing Amanda glumly.
"Well, you two are quite a pair!" Amanda scolded lightly. "Marvin, you should feel honored that your country thinks so highly of you. And, Lee, you should be grateful that there won't be any flash freezers or mad scientists trying to poison the world this time." Amanda moved into the kitchen and began rummaging through the freezer in search of ingredients for dinner. "So I guess hamburgers are out for dinner for the next few days, right, Marvin?"
Lee exchanged a bemused glance with their guest. Marvin was just about to respond when Jamie burst through the back door.
"Mom! Good, you're home early!" the boy exclaimed. "Angela's dad invited me to go to Marvelous Marvin's and a movie with them tonight. Can I go?"
"On a school night?" Lee replied in a shocked tone from the couch.
Jamie tossed a 'you're not my boss' look at Lee and then turned eagerly to his mother. "The movie starts in half an hour, Mom. I'd still be home before nine."
"Jamie," Amanda stated clearly, not having missed the glance in Lee's direction, "we have some pretty clear rules around here about activities on school nights. Besides, we have company and I was just about to start dinner."
"But, Mom, I . . ."
"I think we've made it pretty clear, Jamie," she continued more sternly. "Now, go on into the family room, and I'm sure Lee will introduce you to our guest."
Jamie made his way into the other room and threw himself into the chair, slouching.
As Lee introduced their guest, Jamie was astounded. "The Marvin Metz? The Marvelous Marvin is here in our house?"
"Jamie," Lee warned, "just one thing . . ."
The rather noisy entrance of Dotty and Phillip cut him off. Phillip swaggered in the front door, whistling the Marvelous Marvin's theme. Dotty all but flew into the living room to confront Lee.
"I thought you were teaching him, Lee!" she sputtered. "Phillip, please stop that infernal whistling! Isn't it bad enough I hear that little ditty every time we turn the TV or the radio on? It's not enough during the commercial, but now it's all over the news, too! Now, Lee," she turned her diatribe back to her son-in-law, "I may not be the most experienced driver, but I do know that that boy needs more instruction than he's been getting. He almost got us killed! Phillip, please," she turned and glared at her grandson, "stop that whistling!"
"OK, Grandma," he countered from the foyer, "I'll just sing it instead." He took a deep breath and burst into the jingle:
"Let's go to Marvin's and bite into a smile.
We know you love burgers, so we go that extra mile.
With juicy double patties, cheese, tomatoes, onions too,
served any way you like 'em,
'Cause we've made 'em just for you . . ."
"Shut up, Phillip," Jamie demanded as Phillip sauntered into the family room, interrupting the song, "this is really him . . . Marvelous Marvin." Jamie indicated the older man with a wave of his hand, stunning his older brother.
"Dude!" Phillip blurted out. "You're him. I mean, you're you, you're really you." He made his way to Marvin, offering his hand. As Marvin reached out to shake it, Phillip paused. "Why are you here?"
"How stupid are you, Phillip?" Jamie asked. "He's here because he's hiding out until he goes to Russia. Don't you know anything?"
Lee turned to Jamie, raising his eyebrows briefly.
"I watch the news, Lee," Jamie said sarcastically in response to Lee's unspoken question. "Mom told us how she met Marvin Metz a couple of years ago. It makes sense that he'd hide out someplace kinda outta the way. It's not too hard to figure the rest out."
"Have you also figured out that none of you can talk about this with your friends?" Lee glared at each boy in turn. "Mr. Metz is our guest, so we need to respect his privacy."
"Yeah, sure, Lee," Phillip intoned. "It's a bummer, but we understand. No blabbing. So, Mr. Metz," he continued, turning to Marvin, "what's it like to be the hamburger king?"
As Marvin began to regale the teens with stories of his burger business, Amanda motioned to Lee and Dotty to join her in the kitchen.
"Sweetheart," she said softly, taking Lee's hand, "I've been thinking about the last time we dealt with Marvin. And I've been thinking about the trouble he's been . . ."
"How could that sweet man be any trouble, Amanda?" Dotty queried.
"Mother, please," Amanda asked, pulling Lee closer to her and looking at her mother intently, "do you mind?"
Dotty responded with a knowing look of her own and waited patiently.
"Lee," Amanda started anew, running her hands lightly over Lee's chest, "it seems that if we put Marvin down here at night, he's likely to slip away and get into who knows what kind of trouble. I was thinking that if I slept with Mother, he could sleep with you in our room and then you could keep a closer eye on him."
"You're kidding," Lee stated flatly.
"No, I think it's the only way to make sure he stays here all night," Amanda wrapped her arms around Lee's waist and drew him still closer. "It's only for a few nights. You don't mind, do you, Mother?" she asked, turning her head.
"Amanda . . ." Lee drew her name out and offered her a soft pout.
"At least you still get to sleep in our bed," she offered in an attempt to soothe him.
"Somehow, I don't think it'll be quite the same," Lee countered drolly.
"Amanda, I'm telling you, you would not believe this guy!" Lee told her as they shared a private moment in the gazebo two days later. Through the kitchen window they could see Dotty and Marvin bent over a recipe book together, planning another evening's Epicurean delight. The family had quickly learned that Marvin was marvelous with more than just burgers; he and Dotty had taken a particular liking to one another, indulging in their shared interest at every meal.
"Lee," Amanda said as she gently brushed her hand over his forearm, "it's only for two more nights and then we ship him off to Moscow and he'll be Viper's responsibility. It really is important."
"I know it's important, but you're not the one sleeping with him!" Lee ran a hand through his hair, vexed. "He's up and down every hour. First there's not enough air, so he opens the window; then there's too much air, so he closes it. He's cold, so he gets out an extra blanket; then he gets hot, so he throws them all on top of me."
Amanda pulled his arms around her and settled back into his embrace. "How about if . . . after this case is over, we leave Mother and the boys here and we go to Aunt Lillian's for a few days?"
"And that would be better than a week with Marvin Metz . . .how?" Lee whispered, his breath tickling her cheek.
"Aunt Lillian's in Topeka visiting Uncle Iggy," Amanda replied, turning and giving him a quick kiss. "We'd have that great big house all to ourselves . . ."
"Yeah, well, for Viper's sake, I hope he's got a great big dacha lined up for Marvin's stay. I wouldn't wish that man's sleeping habits on anyone!" Lee interrupted as he pulled her closer. "Say, what are we going to do about tomorrow? We can't very well keep Marvin out of harm's way and work that silly fair at the same time," he added.
"Silly?" Amanda retorted. "But, Lee," she continued with an effusive sigh, "it's for the children."
"Very funny, Amanda."
"I've got it all worked out. Have you ever met Chuck Hogan?" At Lee's negative nod, she explained, "Chuck's kids go to Arlington Heights and he owns a Marvin's franchise. He has four or five locations and he's going to bring some of his equipment and set up a little miniature Marvelous Marvin's at the school fair. When I told Marvin about it he insisted on helping out."
"Amanda, that school is a big place. How are we supposed to keep an eye on him? Lee shifted on the bench and pushed his wife back to look her in the eye. "We are NOT calling in backup while I have to sit in that dunk tank!"
Amanda chuckled and took Lee's chin in her hand. "That was the easy part. I called Lois Halton and gave her the benefit of my many years of helping to organize school fairs. Thanks to my advice, the dunk tank will be right across from the Marvin's booth. You'll be able to keep watch on Marvin the whole time, and I'll just work the booth with him."
Lee smiled and bent forward to touch his forehead to Amanda's. "Sounds like you've got it all figured out," he said.
"Oh, yeah," she added in a light tone, "and while we're keeping watch on Marvin, I'll be able to keep a close watch on you, too."
As dusk settled over Arlington, a non-descript brown sedan pulled up to the curb several houses down on Maplewood Drive. One of two men in the car spoke into a hand-held radio.
"We have definitely found the vehicle again, Comrade." His thickly accented voice sounded as though he was spitting into the radio's microphone. "They were very clever the first day and eluded us, but we will not miss another opportunity at the target."
"See that you don't, Andrei," an equally accented voice spoke from the radio. "See that you don't."
"You know, Amanda," Dotty offered tentatively as they settled into bed for the night, "that Marvin Metz is such a nice man. It's such a shame about what happened to his wife and then how his son turned on him. And through all of that, he's built this amazing business . . ."
"Mother!" Amanda questioned. "You're not getting involved with Marvin, are you?"
"Oh, Amanda, don't be ridiculous!" Dotty defended herself. "He's just a very nice man, and I feel sorry that he has no one to share things with."
"Uh-huh," Amanda agreed as she fluffed her pillow, "that's the kind of comment that's usually led to me staying out until two in the morning."
"Really?" Dotty countered innocently. "I thought you stayed out until two in the morning because you were out sharing things with Lee."
"Mother! I . . .I . . ." Amanda turned her back to Dotty and flopped down on her fully fluffed pillow. "I'm going to sleep now. Goodnight, Mother."
"Goodnight, Dear," Dotty said as she eyed the bedroom door speculatively.
A few hours later, in the room down the hall, Lee was sweating under the double load of blankets that Marvin had thrown over him. He tossed the blankets back across the bed in a huff, grabbed his brown robe from its hook on the door, and headed downstairs for a late night snack.
Dotty arose moments later and made her way across the hall to the bathroom. She paused in the middle of the hall and glanced at the door to Amanda and Lee's room. With a quick shake of her head, she roused herself from her thoughts and entered the bathroom, quietly closing the door behind her.
No sooner had Dotty firmly shut herself into the bathroom, than Marvin opened the door to the room he had been sharing with Lee for the past few nights. He poked his head out into the hallway and contemplated the door to the room that Dotty West was sharing with her daughter. They really were a delightful family, he mused, the mother even more so than the daughter. He shook his head at the bad timing his present circumstances afforded and closed his door.
Amanda awoke to find her mother gone. She heard the sound of a door closing and stepped out into the hall. All the doors were closed and the house was still. She could hear the faint sounds of Phillip's radio still playing, and she could see the small sliver of light from Lee's small bedside lamp that shone from under their bedroom door. She stared at the door and the beckoning light for a brief moment, then returned to her bed when she heard the light sound of running water from the bathroom.
Lee crested the top of the stairs and surveyed the hallway. He was almost certain that he had heard doors opening and closing. After three days, he wasn't about to let Marvin make a midnight breakout. He paused in front of Dotty's room. He placed his hand on the doorknob, wondering if Amanda was still awake . . .
Dotty emerged from the bathroom and smiled at him indulgently. Lee quickly pulled his hand back from the doorknob and thrust it into his pocket. He nodded sheepishly at her and made his way to his own room.
"Remind me again why we're doing this," Lee asked Amanda as he sipped his coffee early the next morning.
"Do you want the line about how we're making the world safe for democracy, or how we're doing it 'for the children'?" Amanda quipped.
Lee gave her a wry grin and turned his attention to the clattering on the stairway. Phillip and Jamie entered the kitchen, each loaded down with a camera, an empty duffel bag, and a handful of tickets for the carnival rides.
"Lee, my friend," Phillip said as he clapped his stepfather on the shoulder, "I'm thinking about this camera here. And then I'm thinking that if I had just a little bit more money, I'd be way too busy to take any pictures of anything . . .well, anything incriminating . . .or embarrassing. Whaddya say?"
"I'd say that you've got a future in yellow journalism. Will twenty dollars do?" Lee asked with a rueful smile, reaching for his wallet.
"Better make it thirty," Phillip advised. "You wouldn't want me to get bored, would you?"
"What about you?" Lee looked toward his younger stepson.
"I can't be bought," Jamie replied. "Besides, I have to take pictures for the school paper, anyway."
"Can you be rented?" Lee asked the boy, opening his wallet suggestively. "There'll be a lot of things to take pictures of today, won't there? No reason to get to bogged down in any one area."
"I have to be responsive to what my readers want to see, Lee. Being a journalist is a big responsibility," Jamie informed him sagely. "But, as long as you're just handing out money . . ." Jamie grabbed the twenty dollar bill Lee had begun to pull from his wallet and quickly followed his brother out the door.
"We need to talk about your approach, Pal," Amanda said as she rinsed out their coffee cups. "Mother? Marvin?" she shouted up the stairs. "We're ready to go!"
"Here we go!" Andrei told his companion as the two watched the Stetsons and their family load their house guest and fair supplies into the Jeep Grand Wagoneer. "Wherever they go . . ." he paused, choosing the foreign words with care, "we will get to Metz and show . . . show world what we think of American 'free enterprise system'."
As the non-descript brown sedan pulled away from the curb to follow Amanda's Jeep, another even more non-descript tan sedan turned from a side street to follow, as well.
Behind the wheel of that car, Francine muttered to her fellow agent, "A nice little family outing, huh? Lee's supposed to be making this easier for us, not harder. Where the heck are they going?"
Richard Davis escorted Lee to his assigned post at the dunk tank, which occupied a prominent position just outside the gym doors at Arlington Heights Middle School. The elderly gentleman chuckled as Lee set his duffel bag full of dry clothes behind the tank, under the tarp which lined the back of the booth.
"Somehow, I'd think they'd figure out that their strategy almost always backfires," he told Lee.
"What do you mean?" Lee asked, tucking the duffel a bit further under the tarp.
"The 'Committee.' They always go after new parents, especially men. They all but trick guys into working this booth, and then they wonder why it's so difficult to get them to ever volunteer for anything again. I've been volunteering at this school since my son was a student. Now my grand-daughter goes here, and I'm still on hand." Davis reached for Lee's duffel and continued, "I could put that inside for you, if you like."
Lee reigned in his slight apprehension and placed his hand on Davis' forearm. "Ah, no thanks, Richard. I'd rather keep it close by, really." Lee relaxed inwardly as Davis pulled back. He didn't relish the idea of having to explain the gun rolled inside his jeans. Glancing at his watch, Lee added, "Listen, since we've got a bit of time before this party gets started, I'm going to take a look around, OK?"
Lee parted ways with Richard Davis and began to reconnoiter the area. There were booths set up inside the gym as well as just outside the gym doors. The remainder of the parking lot was filled with assorted carnival rides. Midway through his inspection of the grounds, he spotted the brown vehicle at the curb. He did not see the tan car around the corner. As he completed his circuit, he stopped at the Marvin's booth to visit with Amanda.
"Keep your eyes open," he instructed her. "I'm pretty sure we've got company."
"Here?" Amanda asked, slightly alarmed.
"Just keep Mr. Marvelous on a tight leash," Lee continued. "Once I'm finished fulfilling my responsibility to 'the children' I'll get him out of here and lead the bad guys off, too." He took Amanda's hand in his and squeezed, hoping to offer encouragement.
"And if the bad guys don't give us that much time?" Amanda cast a concerned glance toward the Tilt-o-Whirl, where Phillip and Jamie waited, with several other teens, for the rides to begin.
"Oh, ho," Francine observed as the two men in the brown sedan exited their vehicle, "looks like the game is ready to begin." They looked around furtively and made their way to the edge of the fair grounds.
Francine scooped up her car phone's receiver and left hurried instructions with Officer Harmon at the Agency's message desk. That task completed, she nodded to her colleague and followed the men into the fair.
Lee regarded the fairgoers from his perch in the dunk tank. At just over thirty minutes into his shift, he had become quite pleased at the fact that he was still completely dry. The line at the dunk tank was getting longer, however, and the sight of Marjorie the Barracuda at the end of that line was anything but encouraging. He lifted his gaze to the edge of the complex of booths and spotted an even more disconcerting sight – Francine mincing her way across the school lawn.
She came forward with a peculiar gait, and as she approached the blacktop, he noticed that her stiletto heels were sinking into the soft turf with each step. She looked down in disgust every time she tugged her left foot from the dirt. The remainder of the time, she was focused on two men several paces ahead of her. Not exactly 'father figure' types, Lee mused. The two had no apparent destination in mind, but seemed to be actively scanning the crowd. Lee saw Francine share a few words with her partner of the week, shake off a hamburger wrapper that had become impaled on her heel, and turn to make her way in his direction. He searched the Marvin's booth for Amanda, but she was huddled in the back with Marvin and another man and he couldn't catch her eye. As Francine came still closer to the dunk tank, Lee turned away, hoping to avoid identification.
Marjorie pulled the plug on that plan.
"Why, hello there, Lee!" she gushed. She was now at the front of the line and stood before him, tossing a baseball in the air menacingly. "It was so kind of you to help out our little fund raiser, but, somehow, you're still quite dry; and that's just NOT what we're paying to see, is it, ladies?" A few ladies near her smiled knowingly and shook their heads.
Marjorie took careful aim and hurled the ball with all her might. It landed three feet short of even hitting the target. Lee smiled at her briefly, then squirmed as, out if the corner of his eye, he saw Francine edge closer.
Francine paused at the mention of a familiar name and glanced up. The man sitting on the platform certainly could be Lee Stetson, she thought. He was turned away, so she couldn't see his face. She looked up and saw her partner trailing their targets. The two hadn't separated, so she chose to explore this new development. She moved closer to the dunk tank and quietly approached Marjorie. Yes, indeed, she observed to herself, taking a long look at the man on the bench, the once great and mighty Scarecrow was about to have the stuffing knocked out of him.
Lee avoided meeting Francine's gaze directly. He reasoned that if he didn't acknowledge her presence, then he still had a measure of deniability.
"I think," Francine said, taking another baseball from the surprised Marjorie's hands, "that I can help you with this." She hefted the ball a few times, quickly slipped out of her heels, and limbered slightly. "You don't mind, do you? I'm going to enjoy this."
Lee squinted, and looked aside from Francine to the target. He winced as she wound up to throw the ball. The last thing he saw was her self-satisfied smile before the water engulfed him. Despite his certainty in Francine's aim, he had neglected to take a breath before she threw; he inhaled as he hit the icy water below him and took in more water than air. He surged out of the water, coughing and spluttering, and hurled himself against the ladder at the side of the tank.
Climbing the ladder slowly, he glanced around for the two men Francine's partner had been tailing. All Lee could see was a growing throng of women around the dunk tank. As he reached the top rung, he grabbed a rail above him to steady himself, then slicked back his wet hair with one hand. His too thin T-shirt and shorts were drenched and they stuck to his body like a second skin. He paused at the top of the ladder briefly, tense, and scanning for any sign of foul play. He quickly realized that this sunny Saturday in May was much colder now, than when they had set out in the morning. He also became aware, from the appreciative murmurs of the crowd around him, that each and every one of his well-developed muscles was sharply delineated by his wet clothing.
He reached down to take the towel that Richard offered him and his admirers sighed and whispered among themselves. Lee was certain he heard the word 'perfect' murmured several times. As he dabbed at his face, Lee swung down the outside of the tank. Francine had already turned away.
"Lee, you need to get back up there," Richard Davis told him. "This isn't a one-shot deal."
"I'll be right back, Richard," Lee insisted, "I just need to go check on something." He reached under the tarp and pulled out his duffel bag.
Amanda heard the sounds of a gathering crowd and turned from the conference between Marvin and Chuck Hogan. There was only so much expertise she could offer about grill temperature settings, so she moved up front to the counter. She saw Lee splashing his way to the ladder and wondered who had managed to end his 'dry run.' When he emerged from the tank, she smiled appreciatively at his well-toned physique. As the look on his face turned from a searching gaze to a slightly pleased, but embarrassed smile, she knew he had become aware of his growing audience. She was distracted by a soft click beside her and turned to see Dotty advancing the film on her camera. Dotty smiled self-consciously and shrugged.
Amanda was just about to tease her mother when she heard a scuffle from the back of the booth. She spun around and saw Marvin being dragged through the curtain that was the booth's rear wall. Certain that time was of the essence, she grabbed Dotty's arm and issued a string of instructions.
"Mother," she spoke quickly and succinctly, "go find a pay phone and call the office. Tell them I said we need backup." She held Dotty's arm tightly and met her mother's eye squarely. "Do you hear me, Mother? Tell them that I said we need backup. Now go!"
Dotty nodded apprehensively and raced out of the booth. As she made her way down the concourse, she cast repeated glances back toward the Marvin's stall.
Amanda glanced around the small booth. She jostled the three college kids, who were working in the booth, out of her way and gathered the first thing that seemed like a possible weapon – two large plastic bags of the Chocko-Blocko shake mix Marvin had shown them how to load into the shake machine earlier.
She ducked through the curtain and found Marvin lying on the pavement. She bent to check his pulse and was relieved to find him still breathing.
"We intend to make an example of him," a thickly accented voice spoke from behind a stack of boxes. "We want him to be conscious when we kill him." He stepped toward her with his gun raised.
Amanda shifted the bags in her arms and eased one of them open. As the man stepped closer to her she flung its contents into his face. He rubbed at his eyes, now stinging from the brown powder. She rose to her feet and knocked the gun from his hand. It clattered over the blacktop to land near Marvin's inert body. Before the foreigner could recover, Amanda opened the other bag of shake mix and emptied it into the air.
Francine peeked into the Marvin's booth, but couldn't see either Amanda or Marvin Metz. She turned, looking in every direction, frustrated that she'd permitted herself to indulge in a little fun while her relatively green partner trailed their quarry. She glanced once more into the Marvin's booth. Concerned at not seeing Marvin or Amanda, she worked her way down the line of booths.
Three stands down she found her partner unconscious and tied up, his body shoved between several cases of stuffed pandas. She quickly freed his bonds and tried to rouse him. The young agent nodded groggily and promptly passed out, again.
Francine left him and continued her search for her missing friends.
"Oh, hello!" Dotty all but gushed into the receiver. "Finally! A real live person to answer my questions. Do you have any idea how long that message is just to find out I have to stay on the line for some real help?" She glanced furtively about, certain that gunfire, or worse, would break out all too soon.
"I'm sorry, ma'am," the flat, nasal voice at the other end of the line replied. "How can I help you?"
"You can put Mr. Melrose on the line; that's how you can help me." Dotty gripped the receiver more tightly.
"I beg your pardon, ma'am?" the voice sounded genuinely confused.
"Mr. Melrose, Dear," Dotty enunciated, drawing a calming breath between each word. "Mel-rose. He works there."
"Are you certain? Is anyone expecting your call?"
"Of course I'm certain," Dotty insisted. "I've met the man. My daughter has worked there for years. She and my son-in-law are protecting Marvin Metz and there are Russians or Bulgarians or Czechoslovakians here to kill him. Now, you people have got to do something! Marvin is being held captive, and my daughter is fighting the bad spies off with the Chocko-Blocko mix, but that can't last forever. There are supposed to be other spies here, but I don't see them. You do know that my tax dollars pay you people, don't you?"
"Ma'am," the voice interrupted curtly, "is anyone expecting your call?"
"Of course not!" Dotty closed her eyes and shook her head fiercely. "If they were expecting my call, they would have known to be here already." Dotty opened her eyes to see a familiar blond woman standing beside her.
"Ms. Desmond, thank goodness!" Dotty turned her attention to Francine, but still clutched the receiver. "You have got to help Amanda! When I looked up again, Lee was gone, and these men knocked out Marvin. What will they do to him?"
The nasal voice in her ear responded immediately. "Amanda? Amanda King? I'll put you right through, ma'am. All you had to do was provide a valid pass code."
"What?" Dotty started and nearly dropped the handset. Francine moved in quickly. She grabbed the telephone from the startled woman's grasp and issued a rapid string of instructions.
"Stay here," Francine ordered, as she ran back toward the Marvin's stand.
She arrived at the booth to find Amanda securing one of the enemy agents to the bicycle rack behind the back curtain. His bonds seemed to be made of plastic bags, but Francine didn't stop to inquire as the man's partner stepped from the shadow of the gym door and placed his gun in Amanda's back.
"Drop it." Francine ordered crisply. She advanced, gun drawn, and seeking to convey an unspoken message to Amanda.
The burly man shoved his weapon further into Amanda's back. "No," he said calmly, "I think that you will 'drop it' or this clever lady will die." Francine's eyes widened, then she grinned viciously at the enemy agent.
The gunman felt a tap on his shoulder. "I don't think so," Lee said firmly from behind. As the man glanced to his right to find Lee, Amanda ducked and spun around, diving for the gun at Marvin's side. Lee shoved the astounded attacker against the wall and drove his left fist hard into the man's stomach. His adversary doubled slightly. Lee followed with an equally forceful right hook to the man's jaw and grunted in satisfaction as the man sank to the ground.
"It's nice to see that you haven't completely gone soft, Lee," Francine said as she bound Amanda's captive more securely with a set of handcuffs.
"Cut it out, Francine," Lee replied wearily, fishing handcuffs from his duffel bag to perform the same operation on his victim.
Amanda knelt next to the now groaning Marvin and helped him to sit up. She patted his hand in comfort and edged to the corner of the curtained booth.
Children still waited, not so patiently, in line for carnival rides; young men still threw darts to win oversized pandas for their sweethearts, and young and old still lined up for the marvelous fare at the booth that hid the recent fight for democracy. The only activity affected by the agents' activities was the dunking booth. Amanda chuckled good-naturedly at the greatly reduced gaggle of women and girls gathered in front of the currently empty booth.
Lee noticed the direction of her gaze and turned to Francine. "Can you get these guys back to the Agency on your own?"
"I won't have to," she countered. "Amanda had her mother call for more backup; half the Agency should be here any minute."
Lee backed up a step in only partially affected discomfort. He glanced from Francine to Amanda and then to Dotty as she appeared from the side of the booth and rushed to Marvin's side.
"I told you to stay . . ." Francine began.
"It's no good, Francine," Lee told her wryly. "They never listen." He joined Amanda at the booth's edge and took in the lively, happy scene. "Ah, listen, Francine . . ." he paused and took a deep breath. "Name your price . . .but I'd, um, really appreciate it if you'd tell Billy that Amanda and I have some things to, uh, wrap up around here. We'll be in to make our reports later this afternoon."
He shrugged as he took Amanda's hand in his, winked, and whispered softly, "It's for the children, right?"
"Oh, I just knew it," Francine muttered, "I just knew it. You really are all washed up."
"Home, sweet home," Lee sighed as he made his way through the back door Monday evening. "And another stress-free night with my wife, instead of the hamburger king."
"Well, I think there was a compliment in there somewhere," Amanda replied from the family room. "How did your meeting with Billy go?"
"Great, just great," Lee answered as he joined her on the couch. "You'll be happy to know that Viper reported that Marvin landed safely, and the Moscow Marvelous Marvin's is due to open in three weeks. What's all this?" He indicated the large collection of photos spread across the table before them.
"Oh, Jamie brought home the photos he took at the fair, and Mother had hers developed at the one hour place at the mall. They were just going through these, trying to decide which ones to use." Amanda pulled one photo to the side and tapped it with her finger. She smiled wryly at her husband. "I think Mother's decided on this one. She flew out of here with the negative in one hand and her checkbook in the other."
Lee gingerly took the photo in hand. His eyes widened as he stared at the full-length shot of him standing stiffly, apparently staring right into the camera. He had obviously just emerged from the dunk tank and every well-defined muscle showed clearly through the thin fabric of the wet T-shirt and shorts that were plastered to his body.
"Amanda, she can't . . .I mean, she wouldn't . . .why did she tear out of her with the negative?" Lee sputtered.
"Oh, Lee," Amanda held back a laugh. "Mother and Jamie have quite a lucrative business going on here this afternoon. I've only been home for two hours, and that phone hasn't stopped ringing. It seems that almost every mother in the PTA wants one of these pictures; a good number of high school girls have called, too."
Lee held the picture more tightly between his fingers. "How long has she been gone?"
"Oh, even if you could catch Mother, it wouldn't matter. Jamie's already distributed several dozen around the neighborhood. Face it, Sweetheart, you've become a sex symbol. Your picture's gonna be pinned up in bedrooms and lockers all over Arlington." Amanda leaned back into the couch cushions and regarded Lee's gaping mouth in amusement.
"This . . .this doesn't bother you?" Lee asked hoarsely.
"Why should it?" Amanda replied, pulling him toward her, "I'm the only one that has the real thing."