Title: Song of the Mockingbird
Word Count: About 38,000 (Roughly 100 pages in MSWord)
A/N: I've played fast and loose with certain statistical facts to make this work. Please apply a liberal application of reality repellent before reading. Also, this story deals with teen pregnancy and adoption, so if those are hot button issues for you, you might want to give this one a pass.
A/N 2: My heartfelt thanks go out to my beta readers: TK, who kept me company through the ever challenging brainstorming/rough draft stages, Amy, who helped me tear the draft to shreds, pluck out the loose threads, and then sew it back together even better, and Laurie, who gave it its lovely wax job.
A/N 3: This story is finished, but still being tweaked (mostly because I can't keep my hands off). The plan is to post a new chapter every other day or so.
"Everything you need to know about Operation Lullaby is in here."
Amanda took the manila folder he offered and opened it on her lap, scanning the cover page while Billy talked.
"If all goes according to plan, you'll be getting a job at a place called Beacons of Hope. It's a maternity home and adoption agency here in D.C.. I want you to check out the residential side of things. Look for anything unusual, anything that makes the hairs at the back of your neck sit up and take notice. I'll have Lee and Francine look into the adoption end."
"If all goes according to plan, sir?" It wasn't like Billy to lead with qualifiers.
"Normally on an operation like this we'd have somebody on the inside who'd be able to get you in, give you a cover, that sort of thing. This time you'll be on your own. You'll need to go through their hiring process. We'll set you up with a resume, of course, and solid references, but you'll be on your own for the actual interview."
"Assuming I do get in, what exactly am I looking for?"
"To be honest, I'm not really sure. All we've got is an anonymous tip. Some kind of connection between Beacons of Hope and the StB."
Puzzled, Amanda tilted her head. "What's the StB?"
"Czechoslovakia's version of the KGB."
"I don't understand, sir. What could the secret police possibly have to do with a maternity home here in D.C.?"
"That's a very good question, and it's one I'm hoping you'll be able to answer for us." A tap on the window drew his attention. Francine. After glancing at his watch, he lifted a hand, asking her to wait. Then he turned back to Amanda. "Now this is all just preliminary, so you'll be the only full time agent on the case until we have more to go on. Lee and Francine will be handling their piece on top of their regular case loads, so you may not even see them. Amanda . . . " He leaned forward in his chair. "I've seen a lot of agents come through this place over the years, but not many of them have your instincts. That's why I want you on this. If anybody can figure out what's going on over there, it'll be you."
Amanda nodded, flattered. "You can count on me, sir."
A twinkle appeared in Billy's eyes, and the corners of his mouth turned up in a faint smile. "I know I can." He picked up his pen and rolled it between his palms. "This'll be your first solo, Amanda. I'm looking forward to seeing how you handle it."
"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir." Amanda stood to go, eager to get started.
"Amanda . . . "
She stopped and turned, her hand on the door knob. "Sir?"
"If you're going to be running your own operation, you'll need a code name."
Amanda bit back a smile even as her heart soared. "What sort of code name?"
He studied her for a moment, head tilted to one side. "How do you feel about mockingbirds?"
"Oh, they're my favorites, sir. They come into my garden every spring and they sing and they sing . . . Did you know they can imitate just about any kind of bird there is? But they're hard to find. You can hardly see them in the bushes. They blend in so well, you see. And they're smart. Really smart. And brave, too. We once had a nesting mother in the backyard that terrorized the neighbor's cat." She shook her head, still impressed by the way that little bird had harried the poor cat until it had given up and left. "That cat still won't come into my yard."
There was a hint of a smile in Billy's eyes when she finally ran down. "Precisely."
"Oh." Amanda stumbled to a stop and stifled a sigh. She'd been chattering like a run-away freight train. Again. "You meant for my code name, didn't you, sir."
"Yes, I did."
"Oh. Well. That'd be fine." In fact, the more she thought about it, the more she liked it. "Mockingbird." With a quick nod she left, closing the door quietly behind her.
Back in the Q Bureau, Amanda sat down at her desk and opened the folder Billy had given her. It was a slim file, with little more than basic background information, an employee listing with a few pictures, and a brief summary. After calling the home to set up an initial interview, she set to work studying the personnel data in the file, memorizing the names and faces of the staff she'd be working with. She was concentrating so hard that she didn't hear the door open, and when Lee touched her shoulder, she jumped.
"Sorry about that." He squeezed lightly. "Didn't mean to startle you."
"No, it's okay. I just didn't hear you come in." She leaned into him, giving a little hum of approval when he kneaded the spot where her shoulder met her neck. "That feels good."
"Good" Without stopping the massage, he leaned over to look at the file she'd been reading. "What's this?"
Amanda closed her eyes and let her head fall forward. "Operation Lullaby."
"Oh?" His fingers left her neck, and she opened her eyes in time to see him pick up the file. "Did I miss a meeting?"
"Nope. This one's mine." Oddly protective, she had to resist the urge to snatch it back.
Lee raised his eyebrows. "A solo, huh?" He looked like an anxious parent loaning out the car keys for the first time. "Congratulations."
"Thanks. I'm a little nervous. It's my first real investigation. I don't even have Beaman looking over my shoulder to make sure I dot my i's and cross my t's."
"You'll do fine," he said, without looking up from the cover page. "When do you start?"
"I have an interview Thursday afternoon." She plucked the folder out of his hand and felt instantly better. "Now if you don't mind, I need to study."
He hooked a finger under her chin and tilted her face up to his. "Study fast," he murmured against her lips. "I've got plans for tonight."
"Oh?" Her brain always went all fuzzy when he did that.
"Mmm" He pulled back just enough to look into her eyes. "Dinner with my wife, a bottle of wine, some candlelight . . . "
She wrapped her hand around his neck and pulled him back down. "I'll be sure to study hard," she said. "Very. Very. Hard." She punctuated the last three words with little nibbling kisses, but when he leaned in for more she pushed him back. "Study first," she said firmly. "Play later."
He sighed and straightened. "How about play now and play later?" Still, he started toward his desk. Then he paused, turned back to her. "Your first solo assignment," he said thoughtfully. "You should have a code name."
"Already got one." And it felt good, as if she'd finally earned a membership to an exclusive club.
She nodded. "Billy gave it to me just before I left his office." She grinned at his uplifted eyebrow, and sat up a little straighter in her chair. "Mockingbird."
He studied her for a long moment in silence. "Mockingbird."
She waited for the wisecrack, but it never came. Instead he only nodded. "Good choice."
Amanda smiled to herself as she went back to studying the file. For once nobody was telling her to wait in the car. And it felt pretty damned good.
Everywhere Amanda looked she saw photographs of happy couples cradling pink-and-blue wrapped babies. The pictures reminded her of how she'd felt when she'd held Phillip for the first time, and again later when it was Jamie. Did adoptive parents feel that same emotional rush? For that matter, what had drawn Alex Benakov, who looked more like a banker than a maternity home administrator, into such an emotionally charged career?
On the other side of the large antique desk the object of her thoughts nodded his silvered head, closed the folder he'd been looking at, and leaned back in his chair, steepling long fingers under a narrow chin. He had unusual green eyes that made Amanda feel a little like she was being watched by a hungry tiger, but his smile was kind, and there was something about him, a kind of lurking sadness, that made her wonder about his past.
"Everything appears to be in order, Mrs. King." His voice was cultured, with just a hint of an accent.
"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir." When faced by a man like Alex Benakov, a man who wore hand-tailored suits and silk ties like he was born to them, deference came easily.
"You'll be taking quite a pay cut to come here," he said. He tapped his fingertips together as he studied her across the desk, a tiger flexing its claws. "Do you mind if I ask why you want to leave your current position?"
Amanda shrugged. "Well, sir, it's all that travel. My boys are growing up fast. In a couple of years they'll be off to college, then they'll have lives of their own . . . I just want to spend more time with them before it's too late."
"I understand." He sat forward again and opened her file. "It says here that your work with IFF required you to get along with a wide variety of people while adapting to rapidly changing situations."
"Yes, sir. That's right." She bit back a smile at the careful wording for the work she did with IFF. Whoever had put the resume together had done a fine job. She'd have to remember to thank them.
"And you like children."
"Very much so."
Those unusual eyes focused on hers again, and there was a measuring look to them now. "We get all different types here. Some of the girls come from wealthy families; others are referred to us by churches and community outreach programs. Some are angry, some are dealing with drug and alcohol addictions, and some of them just don't have anywhere else to turn. But they're all pregnant, and they're all scared."
His gaze dropped to a silver-framed photograph on his desk, then flickered back to her. "They've made choices, and are continuing to make choices, that will affect them for the rest of their lives. They will do their best to break your heart, and some will succeed." He was sizing her up. She could see it in his eyes and in the way he held his head tilted slightly to one side, the chin tucked back. "Do you think you can handle it?"
It sounded almost as if he was trying to convince her not to take the job, which made her wonder what he wasn't telling her. But he seemed open enough, even interested in what she had to say, so maybe this was just his standard interview method. At any rate, she couldn't do worse than answer him honestly.
She leaned forward, hands clasped in her lap. "Sir, what those girls need is somebody to talk to, somebody who'll listen to their problems without judging them, and I'm pretty good at that sort of thing."
Something about her answer must have satisfied his curiosity, because his shoulders relaxed, the tension around his eyes easing. He got to his feet. "All right, then. Let me give you the grand tour. After that, if you're still interested-" He paused to give her a slow smile. "I think we can probably work something out."
An hour later Amanda took her leave with the understanding that she'd start work the following Monday. She needed to let Billy know, but it was getting late. He'd be leaving the office pretty soon. Still, she waited until she'd put several blocks between herself and Beacons of Hope before turning into a grocery store parking lot. The number she needed was in her wallet, scribbled on the back of an old grocery receipt, and she took it with her to the pay phone. When the line was answered on the other end she ran through the standard identification sequence, then left a simple coded message.
"Mockingbird has landed."
Mission accomplished, she hung up and returned to the car. With a little luck she'd have dinner on the table by six-thirty and be at Lee's by eight.