Title: Catching the Wave
Disclaimer: I refuse to answer, on the grounds that I may incriminate . . . . Oops, wrong disclaimer. The SMK characters and the Agency are copyrighted to Warner Brothers and Shoot the Moon Productions. I'm borrowing them for my own amusement, and I'm not profiting from doing so. This story and any new characters I have created are copyrighted to me; please don't distribute or reproduce my story without permission.
Timeframe: Season One, shortly after "Dead Ringer"
Feedback: Always appreciated
Thanks to Pam for the read-through.
Amanda King swiped her shoes on a woven mat and pushed the back door open with one elbow. Depositing her burden on the kitchen table, she hurried across the linoleum to the sink. After vigorously scrubbing the grime from her hands, she grabbed a dish towel from the counter and turned to find her mother less than twelve inches away.
"Mother!" she said, pressing a damp hand dramatically to her sweatshirt-clad chest. "Don't sneak up on me like that!"
Dotty West studied her daughter over the top frame of her glasses, her eyes drifting slowly from the cobwebs clinging to the chestnut curls to the grease stained sneakers. "What on earth have you been doing, Amanda? You look like you've spent an entire day Spring cleaning, and it's only . . . ." Her words trailed off as she used her left hand to push her glasses back up the bridge of her nose and then rotated her wrist to glance meaningfully at her watch. " . . . 9:15 . . . . And Spring is almost a month away."
Amanda resisted the urge to brush herself off, certain that a thick layer of dust would immediately settle onto the clean kitchen floor. "The toaster finally died," she said, motioning toward two slices of charred bread and a smoldering appliance on the counter to her right.
"Well, it certainly appears to have gone out in a blaze of glory, but that doesn't explain why you look like you've been drug backward through a vacuum cleaner." Dotty tilted her head to one side as she continued the motherly perusal that never failed to reduce her only child to the status of a grubby five-year old.
Summoning a cheerful smile, and hoping to avoid a discussion of the woeful state of her bank account, Amanda struggled to return a light response. "I was going to run over to Arlington Appliance, on the chance they might be having a sale, but then I started thinking. Joe and I got that one," she said, with look of disdain at the traitorous toaster, "as a wedding present -- "
"From your Aunt Minnie," Dotty cut in, a slight frown creasing her normally smooth brow. "Or was it Edna? No, it was definitely Minnie . . . I distinctly remember, because she was wearing the most hideous silver tulle dress. The color made her look positively haggish . . . that woman has absolutely NO sense of style! I kept wishing she would put the toaster on the gift table; she was carrying it under her arm, and it was reflecting those huge, shiny earrings she always wore. The entire ensemble made her look like an escapee from --" Dotty paused abruptly, with a light laugh and a shake of her head. "Well, never mind, dear. But I still don't see what any of this has to do with your sudden decision to become a dust bunny."
Keeping the smile pinned firmly on her lips, Amanda swiveled to point at the crumpled box resting on the table. "I remembered this old one was in the garage. I kept it in my room at college before Joe and I moved into married student housing. It was still working when I stored it away; I just need to clean it up a little."
"A little?" Dotty swept across the room and peered into the box. She gingerly extracted a bedraggled coil of cord, dropped it with a muffled thump onto the table surface, and looked with exaggerated distaste at her soiled fingers. Raising an incredulous eyebrow in Amanda's direction, she tapped one high-heeled shoe on the floor. "I'll be surprised if you don't find mice have been nesting in this box."
"It can't be that bad." Amanda could feel her determined smile becoming increasingly strained.
"Amanda, don't waste your time trying to clean this thing. You should have thrown it away years ago." Dotty again picked up the frayed cord to reveal tiny tooth marks, copper wire glinting between the shreds of black plastic. "Let's drive over to Arlington Appliance this morning," she said, dropping the cord again and clasping her hands together in a sudden burst of enthusiasm. "I've been dying to look at microwave ovens. Edna Gilstrap just got one, and she swears it can bake a potato in less than twelve minutes!"
"But, Mother!" Amanda surrendered the final remnants of her smile as she watched her mother's slender form whirl around and disappear in the direction of the stairs. A new toaster would strain her budget to its limit. A microwave oven was out of the question.
"Now what am I going to do?" she muttered, casting a disgusted glare at the defunct toaster. "I hope you realize it's your fault I'm going to have to explain to my mother -- oh . . . my . . . gosh." She closed her eyes, rubbing her fingertips in tiny circles on her forehead. "Get a grip, Amanda. You're talking to a small appliance."
Pinching the bridge of her nose between the finger and thumb of her right hand, she shook her head, then opened one eye to glance toward the kitchen window. This was exactly the kind of situation when Lee Stetson was likely to appear, as if by magic, in her back yard. The man had an uncanny tendency to intrude into her life's more embarrassing moments.
She stood for a moment listening to the peaceful sounds of late winter emanating from the other side of the glass. A gentle wind rustled the lifeless branches of the trees; a lonely jay called out to his neighbors; and, in the distance, Mrs. Ferguson's terrier made known his urgent desire to trade the cool outside air for the warmth of the house. There was no insistent rap on her kitchen window to disturb the normalcy of the morning.
Thinking about the dashing federal agent gave her the same unsettled feeling she always experienced when her attention was suddenly wrenched from a well-written novel. A feeling encompassing both gratification and frustration, exhilaration and unfulfilled promise. Any life in which Lee Stetson played even a peripheral role might vacillate between nerve-tingling excitement and nerve-grating exasperation, but it could never be boring.
Absorbed in her thoughts, focused on the possibility of a summons from the rear of the house, Amanda jumped at the chime of the front door bell. Hurrying up the short hallway, she pulled open the door, half expecting to see Lee's boyish grin.
The figure on her front step was the polar opposite of the leading man of her momentary daydream. Of less than average height, he wore a steel gray uniform that stretched taut across his generous stomach. A profusion of unkempt dark hair escaped the matching cap. His eyes were almost hidden behind the thick lenses of his dark-rimmed glasses, and his visible facial features were bland and unremarkable. Both his shirt and hat proclaimed "Arlington Appliance" in large white print.
Peering around the man's considerable bulk, she saw a small panel truck parked at the curb. The same letters were emblazoned on its side in fading red paint.
Amanda's eyes flickered downward to the name tag pinned to the man's chest. "Hello, Charlie. Can I help you?"
"Delivery for . . . " The man consulted a metal clipboard, rustling through several dog-eared papers before finding the one he needed. "Mrs. Amanda King."
"I think there's been some mistake," Amanda said, trying to sound helpful rather than annoyed at the intrusion.
"This 4247 Maplewood?" Charlie took a step back and squinted suspiciously at the front of the house, as though evaluating its potential for retail subterfuge.
"You Amanda King?" He gave her an equally critical scrutiny, his gaze traveling slowly from her tousled curls downward over her rumpled and slightly ragged clothing and finally coming to rest on her worn sneakers. It was clear from his expression that he doubted her ability to pay for an expensive purchase.
Amanda brushed the dust from the sleeves of her sweatshirt. "Well, yes," she said, giving him what she hoped was an apologetic smile, "but I'm not expecting a delivery."
He shrugged. "You'll have to call the store about scheduling. If this is 4247 Maplewood, and you're Amanda King, I have a box for you."
Amanda watched in growing puzzlement as Charlie walked back down her sidewalk and through the gate of her white picket fence. Moving to the back of the truck, he raised the tailgate and pulled out a hand cart. After setting its wheels firmly on the concrete and extending the handle, he slid a large carton from the truck and lowered it tenderly onto the cart before retracing his steps to the front door.
As the handcart rolled closer, the word "Sharp" came into focus on the carton, followed by "Carousel" and a large picture of a rectangular black and white machine.
A microwave she hadn't ordered . . . and she certainly couldn't afford.
Her name and address were on the delivery order. It was clear from their discussion a few minutes ago that her mother had been unaware of the microwave's imminent arrival. Christmas was only a few months past, and it was nowhere close to her birthday.
Only one other possibility occurred to her. Lowering her voice to a whisper, she leaned toward Charlie as he passed through the doorway and hissed out of the corner of her mouth. "Is this a drop?"
Freezing in place, the delivery man slowly turned his head to glare at her, indignation evident in his steely tone and stiff posture. "If there's something wrong with the oven, don't blame me," he said, bristling at the implied insult. "I've been with AA for close to twenty-five years, and I've never dropped anything. Look at that box," he added, caressing it with one hand and clearly daring her to claim it was in less than pristine condition. "There's not a mark on it anywhere."
"No, no, I didn't mean . . . ." Amanda swallowed, reluctantly surrendering the idea that this mix-up might be Agency related. "What I mean is, I'm sure the microwave is perfect, but I didn't order --"
"Oh, Amanda!" The two words, drawn out in a sigh of awe and longing, broke in to her discussion with Charlie.
Dotty was at the foot of the stairs, staring wide-eyed at the new appliance. "It's exactly what I've been wanting," she said in the same breathless tone. "Just think how much time it's going to save!"
"But, mother . . . ." As though in a trance, Amanda trailed down the hallway behind the delivery man, only half listening to Dotty's nonstop burst of excited chatter. By the time she reached the kitchen, Charlie was depositing the box on the kitchen table, and Dotty was already pulling at the tape wrappings.
"Mother, wait!" she said urgently but with no real expectation of diverting Dotty's attention from the oven.
"I need you to sign here," Charlie said. He turned and thrust his clipboard into her hands, apparently having decided to leave his precious cargo in Dotty's enthusiastic care.
"Amanda, there are over two hundred recipes!" Dotty called from a few steps away, hugging the oven's owner's manual to her chest as though it was the embodiment of her heart's desire.
Tap-tap-tap, another sound barely penetrated the sudden hubbub in the kitchen.
Amanda's eyes flew to the window, where she barely caught sight a mop of golden brown hair and a pair of hazel eyes before they disappeared from view.
Mechanically scrawling her signature on the delivery receipt as she kept a wary eye on the window, Amanda wondered how she could escape to the yard.
"I'll show this gentleman out, dear," Dotty said, with a coquettish smile at the delivery man. "I'm sure he can give me some wonderful tips about microwave cooking." Still clutching the manual to her chest with one hand, she looped her other arm around Charlie's free one and began to guide him in the direction of the front door. Charlie stumbled unresistingly beside her, a bedazzled expression on his round face, dragging his handcart behind him.
As soon as Dotty and Charlie were out of sight, Amanda hurried across the room and slipped out the back door. After glancing around the deserted yard, she started toward the bushes at the side of the house. She had barely reached them when a hand shot out, grabbed her arm, and twirled her around so rapidly she almost collided with its owner's chest.
"I wish you'd stop doing that!" she said, regaining her balance and taking a quick step backward. She wouldn't be so flustered every time she saw Lee Stetson if he didn't startle her half out of her wits!
"Aren't you going to say "hello" like a normal person?" he asked, his eyes twinkling as he echoed one of her frequent complaints. "I just dropped by to tell you about the microwave."
"You sent it!" Just as she'd suspected! Lee Stetson had to be the force behind any unexpected disruption of her normally placid routine.
"Not exactly . . . although in a way I'm responsible," Lee said with the teasing smile that always made even the most ludicrous statement seem more reasonable. "If I hadn't handed you a package at the train station, you wouldn't even know about the Agency or the defector relocation program or Magda --"
"Magda Petrak?" she said, shaking her head as though doing so might help her sort through Lee's tangled explanation.
Lee quirked on eyebrow. "Do you know any other Magda?"
"Of course not," she said, determined to get to the bottom of the mystery. "Are you saying Magda Petrak sent me a microwave oven?"
"It was a condition of her relocation agreement." Lee grinned even more broadly at her obvious confusion. "She gave us reams of information about the Hungarian government's involvement in certain covert activities, and in exchange she got the full relocation package: a furnished apartment, a job, new clothes, the works. You never want to negotiate against her," he added reminiscently. "She drives a hard bargain. She insisted on two microwaves, one for herself and one for you. You should have heard her:" Lee altered his normal baritone into a passable imitation of Magda Petrak's clipped accents, "I wish to do this for Mrs. King; I owe her much for her assistance."
For a moment, Amanda could only stare at Lee, dumbfounded. It was nearly impossible to reconcile the memory of her frigidly aloof visitor with such a generous impulse. "That was very nice of her."
"Nice?" Lee frowned, clearly having expected a more enthusiastic reaction. "Is that all you can say?"
"There is one more thing . . ." Amanda glanced around the yard to make sure no one was listening to her conversation with the handsome agent. "Do you have a defector I could baby-sit this afternoon in exchange for a new toaster?"