Illusions of Safety

by Amy L. Hull

ooo

Written as episode 16 for the S&MK Virtual Season 7. This story follows the plot developments of the virtual Season 7 at http: // smk7 dot smkfanfic dot net/, please read the stories there to find out how Joe died, what happened with the boys, to Lee's car, when the baby came, etc.

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

ooo

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

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

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

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

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

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

ooo

Chaos ruled mornings in the Stetson-King household.

"Phillip, don't forget your bag lunch for the field trip!"

"Amanda, do you have the papers from the dealership?"

"Dorkface, what'd you do with my glasses?"

"Wouldn't you like to know?"

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

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

"I know. Thank you, sweetheart. Are you heading out?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I'll get you a bagel then run take a shower myself."

"Thanks, mother. And could I have--."

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

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

ooo

"Stetson!" Billy's voice ran through the bullpen. "We've got a report to go over!"

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

Billy's glower immediately morphed into a smile. "How's my newest goddaughter?"

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

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

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

"Better than you do?"

"Yeah. Better than I do...or did. Maybe we'll learn from each other." He shook his head.

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

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

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

"Informants? How many are there?"

"Three. Liang wanted to have a complicated trail. He was convinced he was in danger and--"

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

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

ooo

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

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

"Are you sure you don't want me to push?" Dotty asked, edging toward Amanda.

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

"Tell me about it," Dotty chuckled.

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

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

"Mother. What is it?"

"What? Oh, nothing, darling."

"You are a terrible liar. Out with it."

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

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

"What? Mother--"

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

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

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

"I love you, too, Mother."

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

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

ooo

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

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

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

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

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

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

ooo

"Whew. That's the most I've done since Emily was born."

Dotty was breathing hard. "Same for me. I've got to get more exercise."

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

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

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

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

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

"If you'll just sign here," he pointed with a beefy finger, "and here, and initial here and here."

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

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

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

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

"Did she take the whole bottle, Mother?"

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

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

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

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

"You were like that too." Dotty grinned. "Always curious."

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

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

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

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

"What was--"

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

There was a short shriek and another two pops.

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

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

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

ooo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Thanks, Gomez," Lee said, already out the door.

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

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

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

"Vogler?" Lee said. "That's where... Oh, God, Amanda's at that last one with her mother and the baby."

"Well, it may have nothing to do with anything?"

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

ooo

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

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

"Stop!" Amanda called.

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

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

"Move it! Faster!"

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

"We can't just leave him there," Dotty said, looking over her shoulder.

"Mother," Amanda said quietly, "do as they say. Just move."

"But--"

Amanda could barely hear herself over her heart pounding. "Mother. Emily is here. Do what they say. We'll figure out--"

"Silence!"

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

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

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

ooo

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

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

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

He gripped the steering wheel more tightly, clenched his teeth, and pressed on the gas pedal, speeding through a yellow light. Out of desperate hope, he dialed home let it ring nearly 30 times before he jabbed at the off button, barely resisting the urge to throw the phone against the far door. If Amanda was on her way home, or stopping to shop and tried to call when she got home, he'd never get the call on pieces of a phone.

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

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

"We'll do what we can. Just...don't do anything stupid."

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

ooo

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

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

Dotty blinked. Swallowed. "I... I..." She licked her lips and blinked several more times.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ooo

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

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

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

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

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

"No such luck, Scarecrow. No one was home, and the reports the department is willing to share indicate

ten to twelve hostages, including a baby."

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

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

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

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

"I know, Billy. Keep me informed. They're making a move. I've got to go."

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

ooo

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

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

"Make it quiet!" the woman ordered.

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

"She's hungry and I'm going to--"

"Then feed her!" The woman's voice had risen in pitch.

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

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

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

"No, Daddy, don't go!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Please answer the phone and..."

The phones in the showroom rang.

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

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

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

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

ooo

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

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

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

ooo

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

"Mother," Amanda said softly, "will you please take Emily."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I'm Amanda, and this is my mother Dotty. I already know you, Mr. Castillo," she began.

"Eduardo," he said.

"Eduardo." She nodded. "Quickly, the rest of you."

"I have three boys at home," Eduardo said.

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

"Mary Young. I'm the dealership accountant. I think the young pregnant woman may be Nancy...no...Natalie."

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

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

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

"Shh. They're coming back."

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

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

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

"Natalie?" Amanda said softly. "It is Natalie, right?"

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

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

"Can't you see she's upset?" Eduardo said.

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

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

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

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

"Your boys?"

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

"Fine-looking young men."

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

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

"You think Manny might be okay?" Eduardo asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Then you should have left."

Mikhail's voice grew even louder. "I cannot do that!"

"This is about you following orders!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ooo

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," 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.

ooo

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!"

ooo

"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.

ooo

"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," she said.

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."

ooo

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.

ooo

"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.

ooo

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.

ooo

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 .

ooo

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.

ooo

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.

ooo

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.

ooo

ooo