"Amanda? Could you grab this?" Dotty called from the back door, arms filled to the brim with grocery bags.
"Sure, Mother," Amanda said as she jumped up from the couch and met her mother at the back door. She took one of the bags from her arms and carried it to the counter. "You should have gotten the fellas to help you with these."
"They offered, but it looked like they were having fun fighting with Lee, so I told them we'd handle it."
Amanda smiled and said, "Why don't you start putting these away and I'll go get the rest."
She walked outside and across the back yard. Lee was using Phillip to show Jamie what to do if someone were to grab him from behind. Jamie saw Amanda, said something to Lee and Phillip, and then trotted toward her.
"Hey Mom, You need some help with the groceries?"
"Sure, Jamie, but I don't want you to miss any of your lesson."
"Yeah…well…Phillip's really into it but…"
Amanda decided it was best not to push him. "Okay, maybe it's time for a little break. Here," she said, handing a bag to him, "take this and I'll grab the other one. Thanks." She closed the hatch on the Wagonneer and they headed back across the yard. Lee looked at Amanda questioningly. Amanda grimaced and shook her head slightly. Lee, clearly disappointed, resumed his work with Phillip.
They walked into the kitchen and placed the bags on the counter. Jamie shuffled into the family room while Dotty and Amanda looked on. He plopped down on the couch.
"Not going so well, huh?" Dotty asked softly.
Amanda sighed. "No, Mother. I'm kinda worried about him."
"Don't be. You know Jamie, just give him some space. He'll come around."
Amanda helped Dotty put the rest of the groceries away, then returned to the family room and sat back down on the couch. Jamie had picked up one of the pictures Amanda had placed on the coffee table. "Mom, who are these people? Some of your spy friends?"
"No. I'm not really sure who they are."
"Then why are you looking at them?"
"It's for work, Sweetheart." She watched Jamie looking at the picture, and an idea struck her. 'After all, this isn't classified', she thought. "Um…would you like to help me out?"
"I guess," Jamie answered, trying not to sound interested. "What do you want me to do?"
"Okay, you see this lady?" Amanda asked, pointing out a picture with Cindy Brown in it.
"Well, her name is Cindy. She's missing and I've been assigned to look for her. The last time she was seen was at a party where these pictures were taken. I'm looking for clues as to where she might be. Some of the people I work with have already been over these, so I'm looking for things that aren't really obvious."
"Hm," Jamie said. He looked at the picture a minute longer. "Hey Mom, would it be okay for me to get my photography stuff out? I have some magnifiers that might help. They're up in my room."
"Sure, Jamie. That would be very helpful."
Jamie bounded up the steps.
From the kitchen, Dotty said, "I think you might have gotten his attention."
Amanda turned and smiled at her mother. "May-be."
Jamie re-entered the family room with his box of photography equipment. He opened the box and pulled out a proof magnifier. He placed the picture in front of him and bent over, placing the magnifier on the print. Amanda smiled and took a magnifying glass from the kit. She picked up a picture and began to look as well.
"So what am I looking for?" Jamie asked.
"Just anything that gives us some kind of clue as to who the rest of these people might be. It's been my experience that you'll know it when you see it."
Jamie finished up with the first picture and set it aside. He chose another from the table and placed it in front of him. After a few minutes, he said, "Hey Mom, check this out."
"What is it, Jamie?" Amanda asked as she scooted closer to look at the picture.
"See this man? He's got his arm around the lady's shoulder."
"Look at that ring he's got on. It's really different-looking."
Amanda looked through the magnifier Jamie was using on the picture. The ring was large, and seemed to have some sort of insignia Amanda didn't recognize. Amanda leaned back. "Jamie, can you make out what those letters are?"
He bent over once again. "Looks like….a….um….B…and maybe an…L?" he said hesitantly. "With some sort of head between them."
"Yeah, it does." Amanda thought for a moment. She got up and walked to the phone. She pushed a few numbers and said, "Hello, Mr. Aquinas. It's Amanda King." She listened for a moment. "Oh, you heard, huh? Yes Sir, a lot of excitement last night but everybody's okay." She listened for a few seconds longer. "Yes, we finally got Gregory, and thank you for the compliment, Sir. Um, Mr. Aquinas, are you somewhere that I can bring something for you to see? It's to help me find Cindy Brown." She smiled. "Yes, she's missing again. So where are you?" She wrote down a name. "Thank you, Mr. Aquinas, see you in a few minutes." Amanda hung up the phone. "Hey Jamie, would you gather up those pictures and put them back in the envelope?"
"Sure thing, Mom."
Amanda walked to the back door then out into the yard, toward Lee and Phillip.
"Hey Lee, I'm going to meet T.P. and show him one of these pictures. I think Jamie might have found something that will give us a clue."
He let Phillip out of the headlock he had on him. "You want me to go along?"
"Nah, you and Phillip stay here and practice. Jamie and I have this one," she said with a wink and a smile.
Lee winked back. "Okay, be careful."
"We will. See you guys in a little while."
She walked back into the house. "C'mon, Jamie, there's someone I want you to meet."
"I'm going with you?"
"Sure! You found the ring, let's go figure out what it is and where it might lead us."
"Amanda," Dotty called from the kitchen. "Are you two going to be back in time for dinner?"
"Of course, Mother. This is just information-gathering."
Dotty rolled her eyes. Under her breath, Dotty muttered, "I know what 'just' usually means. It means you just won't be home for dinner."
Amanda turned to Jamie and said, "Gather up your photography supplies and take them back up to your room." She then turned to the kitchen and added, "What was that, Mother?"
"Can't this wait until tomorrow? I mean, you've been working for days on end, Amanda!"
"Mother, this young woman is missing. We don't think anything bad has happened to her because it's happened before. But we need to find her. When we're working a case, once we find a potential lead, we have to jump on it."
"Well, that makes sense. Are you sure it's…um…okay to take Jamie?"
"We're only going to meet with someone and show him a picture. This girl pulls a disappearing act every couple of months. It'll be all right. I promise."
Jamie came back down the steps. "I'm ready, Mom."
"Okay, then, let's go."
Amanda pulled into a parking space in front of T.P. Aquinas' usual hangout, Two Scoops Ice Cream. She turned off the Wagonneer's engine.
"Um, Mom, are you hungry?"
Amanda turned to Jamie and said, "Not really. Why?"
"Well, I was just wondering what we're doing here."
Amanda smiled. "This is where we're meeting Mr. Aquinas."
Jamie looked disappointed. "Oh. I was hoping we were going to your work. Phillip was telling me about it. I kinda wanted to see it," he added, trying not to sound interested.
"Mr. Aquinas doesn't work for the same people I do. He's more of a….consultant, I guess. Let's go see what he has to say about what you found in that picture."
Amanda and Jamie ordered some ice cream. Since it was a nice fall day, T.P. was sitting outside. Amanda and Jamie walked up to his table. "Hello, Mr. Aquinas."
"Well, good afternoon, Mrs. King," T.P. smiled. "I see you decided to leave Scarecrow to his own devices and have acquired a new partner today."
"This is my son, Jamie. Jamie, this is Mr. Aquinas."
T.P. held out his hand. "T. Percival Aquinas. A pleasure to make your acquaintance, young Master King."
Jamie shook his hand. "Nice to meet you, Sir."
T.P. chuckled. "A chip off the old block, indeed! Please, please, be seated. You will enjoy your delightful treats ever so much more once you are able to relax. Now, what did you bring for inspection?"
Amanda removed the picture from her purse. "As I mentioned on the phone, Mr. Aquinas, we're looking for Cindy Brown…again," Amanda said. "Jamie was helping me look through some pictures from the last place she was seen, and he found this," Amanda said as she pointed to the ring in the picture.
T.P. took the picture from Amanda and held it close to his face. His jovial expression changed to a scowl. "Hm."
"Do you recognize it?" Jamie asked.
Amanda placed a hand on Jamie's arm and said, "Sweetheart, let Mr. Aquinas study the picture for a minute."
T.P. set the picture down. "I don't have to study it. I know what it is." He looked at Jamie. "You say you found this?"
T.P. smiled and nodded. "Very good observation skills, young man. Very good." He turned to Amanda. "Mrs. King, this is the insignia of the Bryton Lyon Brotherhood."
"Who are they?" Amanda asked.
"No one is really certain. They're very secretive. The Brotherhood was formed in the 1960's as an alternative religious sect, led by one Caleb Bryton. Membership is very exclusive. They have supposed offshoots of the sect all over the world. But—" T.P. paused and gestured toward Jamie with an awkward glance.
Amanda smiled. "Go ahead, Mr. Aquinas."
"Well…there's been a rumor over the years that they have been tied to…um…human trafficking."
Jamie looked at his mom, puzzled. "What does that mean, Mom?"
"It's like modern-day slavery," Amanda replied quietly, remembering her own run-in several years ago with a sinister group who had captured and planned to sell her.
"Oh." Jamie paused, and then added, "Mr. Aquinas, how do they get people to agree to that?"
T.P. regarded Jamie, and then glanced at Amanda once again. She closed her eyes and nodded her consent. "They don't, my dear boy. It's rumored that the Brotherhood ingratiates themselves with impressionable young adults, usually women, under the auspices of enlightenment. Then they surreptitiously use brainwashing, and, more recently, mind-altering drugs, to subdue their targets. If the victim's family finds out about their loved one's association with the Brotherhood, they excuse their bizarre behavior away as new-found religious fervor. But it's all done so secretly, usually the victim's family doesn't find out until after the Brotherhood supposedly sends the new 'follower' out into the world to one of the other rumored sites, to 'spread the word', so to speak. Usually the young women are never heard from again. Over the years, attempts have been made to solidify these suspicions, but so far, no success. The Brotherhood is very good at hiding their activities."
"Do they have a headquarters, or something?"
"Yes, they do. Here in DC, as a matter of fact. Very difficult to get into, though. It's an unassuming house in Georgetown. You'd never know it, except for a larger version of that insignia next to the front door. You'd have no reason to go there unless you were invited or just happened upon it."
"Mr. Aquinas, could I use your phone? I want to call Lee and let him know about this."
"Oh, Mrs. King," T.P. said with disappointment, "I would love for you to, but your call was the last one I was able to take on this battery charge."
"Well," Amanda sighed, "I'll call him from the car. I just wanted you to be handy in case Lee had questions."
T.P. smiled. "Why don't you go make your call, then come back? It will give Jamie a chance to finish his gastronomic delight."
Amanda looked a Jamie. "You okay with that, Sweetheart?"
Jamie nodded. "Sure thing, Mom."
"I'll be right back."
Jamie and T.P. watched Amanda re-enter the ice cream shop, then emerge on the other side. Jamie took another bite of ice cream.
"So," T.P. started, "I hear you and your brother had quite the adventure yesterday, and that you discovered some heretofore unknown truths about your mother."
Jamie looked down into his ice cream. "Yes, Sir." They sat quietly for a moment. "Mr. Aquinas, how long have you known my mom?"
"Oh, I guess it's been almost two years, now. Lee began bringing her along on our meetings once he finally admitted she was his partner." T.P. paused. "So what are your thoughts on this newfound information?"
"Okay, I guess. She's not what I had in mind when I thought of what a spy would be like."
"Well, am I?"
Jamie regarded T.P. with a furrowed brow. "You aren't a spy. Are you?"
T.P. smiled. "Hardly. I merely supply information to intelligence operatives. But would I be someone you'd suspect might do work like this?"
Jamie smiled. "Not really."
"That is precisely what makes your mother so excellent at her job. No one suspects her. And her instincts and personality make a perfect foil for our dashing hero, The Scarecrow," T.P. finished with a dramatic flourish.
Jamie laughed. "That's funny."
"I'm glad you found it so."
"Mr. Aquinas, how did you know all that stuff about the ring? I mean, like, off the top of your head?"
T.P. laughed. "My boy, it's the fruits of a lifetime spent filling my head with a plethora of seemingly useless information that suddenly becomes very useful once asked the proper question."
"I like learning stuff," Jamie said.
"Well, now that we have made each other's acquaintance, we shall plan to meet again and share our knowledge."
"I'd like that," Jamie said as he dug a final scoop of ice cream from his depleted dish.
Just then, Amanda walked across the patio and sat back down at the table. "Mr. Aquinas, do you know the address of this headquarters?"
"I'm not certain of the exact house number, but it's on Benton Street, between 39th and 40th Streets."
"Thank you, Mr. Aquinas. As always, I really appreciate your help."
"Of course, Mrs. King." He smiled and motioned to Jamie. "And bring your new partner along with you anytime."
Jamie and Amanda closed the Wagonneer's doors and fastened their seatbelts. Amanda started the car and they pulled out into traffic.
"Now what are we gonna do?" Jamie asked.
Amanda tried to suppress a smile as she thought of Phillip's comment about him and Lee from the night before, 'We had it under control'.
"WE are going home. Then I'm going to call this information into my boss, and recommend they put a surveillance team on the street.
"Mom, let's go find the house. Don't you want an address to give your boss?"
Amanda glanced at Jamie, considering the risk level. Deciding there was no harm in a quick drive down the street, she said, "Well, I guess we could give it a try." Amanda pulled the Wagonneer into a parking lot and turned around.
They rode in silence for a moment. "I really liked Mr. Aquinas," Jamie said.
Amanda smiled. "He's a very nice man. And he's been a very good friend to Lee and me."
"He really likes you."
"Yeah? How do you know?"
"He told me. We talked about you while you went to call Lee."
"Oh, you did, did you?"
"Yeah. He said you're really good at your job," Jamie said, a little pride creeping into his voice.
"Well, that's very nice of him to say."
Amanda turned down the street T.P. had mentioned. "I think this is the street," Amanda said quietly. "Now, how do I go about figuring out which house it is?" Amanda saw a parking space and parallel parked the Wagonneer. She put the car in park and looked around at the visible houses. "The insignia will be so small, it will be virtually impossible to see from the street."
"We could get out of the car," Jamie suggested.
Amanda thought a moment, deciding if they should. She looked around again. Safe neighborhood, broad daylight. She determined that there was little, if any, danger. She smiled and looked at Jamie. "Would you like a lesson in surveillance?"
Jamie shrugged. "I guess."
"Well, the first step in a successful surveillance is blending in with the surroundings. So, then, what would be our first step in this surveillance?"
"Um…having a reason to be in the neighborhood?" Jamie offered.
"That's right. Now we just need to figure that out."
Jamie thought a moment. "Hey, Mom, I have an idea." He reached into the glove compartment and pulled out his Junior Trailblazers neckerchief and a thin catalog. "This street looks like it could really use some Junior Trailblazers Peanut Brittle."
Amanda smiled, then reached over and rubbed the top of Jamie's head. "Great plan, Sweetheart!"
Jamie put on the neckerchief while Amanda reached under her seat, feeling for the gun box she knew Lee kept there. She pulled the box out and removed a small firearm. Jamie stopped what he was doing and stared at his mom. Shakily, he said, "Do you think this is going to be dangerous?"
Amanda looked at him and smiled reassuringly. "No, Sweetheart, I don't. And normally I wouldn't take a gun with me on this type of surveillance. But since you're with me, I'm not taking any chances. It's okay."
Jamie nodded. "I understand. It's just different seeing you, like, with a gun, that's all."
"I know it is," she replied. "Sometimes it still feels different for me, too. But I'm sure we won't need it, okay? It's just to be safe."
Jamie smiled and nodded. "It's okay."
They got out of the car, and Amanda stuck the gun at the small of her back, in the waistband of her jeans. She and Jamie started down the sidewalk. At the first three houses, no one answered the door, and there was no visible insignia. Between houses, Amanda quietly said, "Now Jamie, it's important that we play our cover. If you see the insignia, don't act like you see it, okay? We're just out here selling peanut brittle".
"I understand, Mom."
They continued down the same side of the street, and saw no insignia for the Bryton Lyon Brotherhood, but did manage to sell four boxes of peanut brittle. Jamie finally saw the insignia as they approached the door of the fourth house on the opposite side of the street. He nudged his mom's arm as if he'd accidentally brushed against her. When he had her attention, he glanced to the right. She followed his glance and looked to the right of the door where the insignia was discretely nailed to the side of the house, then slightly nodded in confirmation. They rang the doorbell. No answer. They rang it again. After a moment, they heard footsteps, and then the door opened.
The woman who answered the door stopped them both cold. Standing in front of them was Cindy Brown. She looked from Amanda to Jamie, then said, "Peace be among us all." Her tone was flat and her eyes vacant.
'She's heavily drugged,' Amanda thought. 'She doesn't even recognize me.' She cleared her throat and said, "Hello, we're here on behalf of Junior Trailblazers Troop 3567." She nudged Jamie.
Jamie took it from there. "Uh, yeah, and it's Peanut Brittle time. You probably know that each year, we raise money by selling our famous Peanut Brittle. We use the money all year long for community projects, and for educational trips. No money is needed today. We place your order, and then collect when we deliver. Would you like a box?"
Through his portion of the pitch, Amanda watched Cindy closely. Cindy listened to Jamie talk, but she didn't really focus on him. 'She's completely out of it,' Amanda thought.
Cindy replied, "I'm sorry, my dear child, but I won't be here much longer. I'm leaving tomorrow to continue my spiritual journey and spread love into the world."
'Oh oh', Amanda thought. 'They have a buyer for her. I need to get her away from here. Soon.'
Jamie innocently replied, "Oh. Well, is there anyone else here who might like to buy some?"
"Not right now," Cindy said quietly. "Everyone has gone out to spread the love. Would you like to come in?" She reached for Jamie's hand.
Amanda broke in. "We'd love to, but we're…uh…not allowed to enter people's homes. But I'd sure like to hear more, and there's a coffee shop down the street. Why don't you come along with us for awhile, then we'll bring you back?"
Cindy's brow furrowed. "Oh, I don't think Brother Bryton would like that very much. He doesn't want me to leave the home until it's time."
'That's because he doesn't want anyone to recognize you,' Amanda thought. 'Think, Amanda, think.' Then aloud she said, "It's okay. I know Brother Bryton."
"Um….yeah….um….my…uh…sister is a disciple of Brother Bryton. She's out on her spiritual journey now."
Jamie picked up the story. "Yeah, Mom, you're talking about…uh…Aunt Sarah…yeah! I've really missed her. I loved hearing her stories about the Bryton Lyon Brotherhood. You think maybe you could tell me some stories, ma'am?"
Cindy smiled. "I sure could! Brother Bryton will be proud that I practiced spreading the love."
Jamie smiled at the young woman and reached out his hand. "Then let's go!"
Cindy's programming kicked in. 'I will do anything a man tells me to do.' "Okay." Cindy took Jamie's hand and she walked out of the house, not even bothering to close the door behind her.
Amanda looked around furtively as they walked away from the house then turned right toward their car. In the distance, she saw a van turn the corner. 'I don't know if that's them coming back, but I'm not going to wait to find out.' She grabbed Cindy's arm and started walking more quickly. They reached the Wagonneer and Amanda unlocked the doors. Cindy was clinging to Jamie's hand, so he climbed into the back seat with her. Amanda jumped in as well, turned the key and gunned the engine. She speeded down the street and took the next right. She looked into the rearview mirror to check on the van. It also made the turn. She speeded up, and the van accelerated also.
"Shoot," Amanda muttered under her breath.
"What's wrong?" Jamie asked.
"We're being followed," Amanda said, catching Jamie's eyes in the rearview mirror. "Help Cindy get her seat belt on, and let me know when you have it secured."
Jamie leaned over Cindy and grabbed the belt. She giggled and said, "Oh, I forgot to put on my seat belt. Thank you, kind sir!"
"You're welcome, ma'am," Jamie replied. He clicked the belt into the buckle. "Got it, Mom."
"Okay, hang on."
Amanda pressed harder on the accelerator, and the Wagonneer jumped forward. The van started to increase its speed as well, but was a little slower to accelerate. Amanda took a hard right. She slowed slightly and checked the rearview. Not seeing the van yet, she took another hard right into an alley she knew was there. Hoping that their pursuers were not experienced in tactics used to lose a tail, she gunned the engine again and sped down the alley. She looked in the mirror and saw the van speed by the mouth of the alley. She closed her eyes in a silent prayer of thanks, then said "It's okay, Jamie. We lost them." She proceeded to the end, then turned back in the direction they had come. She headed toward the Key Bridge which would take them back into Arlington. She had no intention of returning home, but wanted to get out of the Georgetown area for awhile and give the driver of the van time to stop looking for them before they took Cindy back to the Agency.
"Where are we going, Mom? Back home?"
"No, we're going to take Cindy to a safe place."
"I'm sure the coffee shop is very safe," Cindy said dreamily, staring out the window.
Amanda reached for her car's phone and pressed several buttons. She picked up the handset while the phone rang.
Francine answered, "International Federal Film."
"Hey Francine, it's me. Is Mr. Melrose available?"
"He's in a meeting right now. You sound a little out of breath." Concern crept into Francine's voice. "Is everything okay?"
"Well," Amanda sighed, "we found Cindy Brown. And we have a little problem."
"You and Lee? I thought you two weren't working today."
"No, Jamie and I found her."
"Never mind, it's a long story. Listen, she's heavily drugged and probably started on a brainwashing protocol. She needs to be hospitalized. This is a new one for me, so what's the procedure?"
"Bring her here to the Agency. We'll have Doc Kelford take a look at her while we contact her family."
"Okay, Francine. I'll let you know when we arrive." Amanda pressed the end button and placed the phone back on its stand.
"This doesn't look like a coffee shop," Cindy Brown said doubtfully as she, Amanda and Jamie entered the Georgetown foyer. She continued to cling to Jamie's hand.
Jamie, unsure himself, decided to roll with the ruse. "It's a…well…a different kind of coffee shop. C'mon in."
The threesome stopped in front of Mrs. Marston's desk. "Hello, Mrs. Marston. The word is 'baseball'."
"Hello, Mrs. King. Ms. Desmond called and said to expect you." She handed Amanda her pass along with two visitor's passes. "Shall I let her know you've arrived?"
"Thank you, Mrs. Marston, that would be great." She turned to Jamie and said, "Let's get her upstairs, okay?"
They entered the Q Bureau. "Why don't you go ahead and make yourself comfortable there on the couch, Cindy. Would you like something to drink?"
She looked around, still confused with her surroundings. "Where are we?"
Amanda sighed, and sat down next to Cindy. "You're safe, Cindy. You're a little confused, and we're here to help you."
Just then, the door opened and Francine entered. "Well, hello everyone. Ms. Brown, do you remember me?"
"Maybe? I don't know. What's going on?"
Francine looked at Amanda. "You're right. She is exhibiting signs of drugging." Francine bent down and looked into Cindy's eyes. "And maybe early brainwashing," she added. Francine pointed to Amanda. "Do you remember this lady?"
"I thought she looked familiar, but I just don't know. I'm so confused."
"I know you are," Amanda said softly, placing a hand on Cindy's arm. "This is Ms. Desmond. She's going to take you downstairs and have a doctor look at you. Okay?"
She looked over at Jamie, whose hand she still held tightly. "Can he come with me?"
Amanda shook her head and smiled. "Oh, Cindy, I don't think so. Your doctor's visit is going to take quite awhile. But you're safe. You go on with Ms. Desmond. We'll see you soon. Okay?"
"Okay, I guess." She turned to Jamie and smiled. "It is alright for me to go?"
"Sure, you'll be fine," Jamie replied.
Francine took Cindy's arm and led her toward the door. She looked back over her shoulder at Amanda and mouthed the words 'Wait here, I need to talk to you'. Amanda nodded.
The door closed behind them. Amanda looked a Jamie and said, "Thank you for your help, Sweetheart. I don't think she would have come along if it hadn't been for you."
Jamie shrugged. "I don't know what I did."
"Well, for some reason she responded to you. When people are confused, it helps if someone seems familiar to them. Maybe you reminded her of someone."
"Hm." Jamie sat for a moment in thoughtful silence as he took in his surroundings. Then he said, "So, is this your office, Mom?"
"Yeah, mine and Lee's."
"It doesn't look much like, um…well, it looks like I thought it might when I thought you worked for IFF."
"Doesn't look like a spy's office, huh?" Amanda said with a smile
"It's designed to be secret. The real office is downstairs."
Jamie nodded. "Phillip described it all to me. He says there's an elevator that looks like a closet."
"That's neat." He sat for a moment more. "Hey, Mom, I need to go to the restroom. Is there one I can use?"
"Sure, Sweetheart. Just turn right after you go out the door and it's down the hallway on the left."
"I'll be right back." He opened the door just as Francine approached.
"Jamie, thanks for your help with Cindy Brown. She talked about what a kind Junior Trailblazer you are all the way down to the doctor's office. She said her brother used to be one."
Jamie smiled and looked back at Amanda, who said, "See? I told you. You never know what's going to touch someone."
"I'll be back in a minute, Mom."
"Okay, Jamie." He shut the door behind him.
"So," Francine started, her trademark smirk firmly planted on her face, "now that you and Lee are married, is espionage going to become a family affair?"
Amanda rolled her eyes. "Of course not, Francine. Jamie just happened to find a clue in one of the pictures Mr. Melrose sent me. I took him along with me to meet Mr. Aquinas. I wanted to take some of the mystery out of my job. He's having a little bit of a hard time with all this."
"Aren't we all?" Francine muttered under her breath.
"What?" Amanda asked.
"Amanda, just how is it that you managed to land Lee Stetson? Practically every available woman in DC has tried to."
Amanda closed her eyes and shook her head. "You just never stop, do you?" She opened her eyes and glared at Francine. "Maybe it's because I was just myself with him, Francine. You, and 'every available woman in DC' should try that sometime. Maybe you'd have some luck for a change."
"Listen, we can't talk about this right now. No one in my family knows about it yet, except for Mother. And Jamie will be back in a second. But I will say this. You have given me grief since my first day here. I've tried to figure it out, and I don't know why. But I've had enough of it. I've spent a lot of time with you, and deep down I know you're not the snippy person you portray to the world. So what is it, Francine?"
Francine sighed, and thought a moment, weighing her next words. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. "I'm jealous of you," she blurted out as if the statement were a single word.
"Jealous? Of me?" Amanda asked dubiously. "Why?"
"Because from practically the first, I could tell you are comfortable with yourself, and confident in who you are. I've never had that. And, I could tell that you held a spell over Lee. Believe me, I have tried so hard with a bunch of men…including Lee. And my relationships always sour. But here you come, Little Miss Perfect, and land someone like Lee with no effort at all."
"Francine," Amanda said in a slightly embarrassed tone. "Just try being yourself. People will either accept you for who you are or not. And the ones who don't aren't worth fooling with. But if you try to be someone you're not, no one ever will accept you. Including yourself."
The door to the Q Bureau opened and Jamie walked in. Amanda smiled and said, "You ready to go, Sweetheart? I'll bet Grandma's wondering where we are."
"Yeah, I'm getting hungry!"
Amanda turned back to Francine and said, "Thanks for coordinating Cindy's care. Did you make contact with Senator Brown?"
"I did. He was at their home in Texas, but he's on his way here now."
"Great. I'll be back in on Thursday, but if you need me in the mean time, just call, okay?"
"I will. And Amanda?"
"Congratulations. On finding Cindy. And…well…you know."
Amanda smiled. "Thanks Francine," she said as she watched the woman walk through the doorway. She turned to Jamie and said, "Let's get home. Think how happy your grandmother will be when we get home just in time for dinner."
TWO WEEKS LATER
Jamie was in his Social Studies class, hanging on to every word the teacher was saying. They had just started studying the history of the Soviet Union. When the topic of the KGB came up, he wanted so badly to tell his fellow classmates that he had encountered the real deal. But he kept it to himself, remembering the 'Loose Lips Sink Ships' mantra his mom and Lee had emphasized. Just then, the classroom door opened and a student worker entered. She handed a note to the teacher. He paused a moment to read the note, then looked up and said, "Jamie King, your mother is here to pick you up."
He wasn't expecting to leave school midday, so he was immediately concerned that something might be wrong. He quickly gathered his belongings and headed for the door. He followed the student worker back down the hallway. Turning the corner, he saw his mom standing there, smiling.
"Hi, Mom. Why are you picking me up early? Is everything okay?"
"Everything's fine, Sweetheart. There's someone who wants to see you."
Amanda and Jamie entered the Q Bureau. Lee was sitting at his desk, visiting with Cindy Brown and an older man, who both stood from the couch when they entered. Surprised, Jamie said, "Hi."
Cindy walked over to Jamie and gave him a hug. "Hi, Jamie. I just wanted to have a chance to thank you for saving me."
"I really didn't do anything," Jamie quietly replied as he looked toward Lee, who was proudly smiling.
Cindy released Jamie from her grip. The older man who had been sitting with her walked over and extended his hand. "Hello, Jamie, I'm Senator Brown, Cindy's father." Jamie shook the man's hand, remembering to offer a firm handshake, just like his dad had taught him. "Your mother told us the story of how you two managed to find Cindy. Thank you so much for rescuing my daughter."
Jamie smiled. "You're welcome. But all I did was notice the ring in the picture."
Senator Brown smiled. "Son, many great things start with something very, very small. Detail is the cornerstone of any investigation."
Lee spoke up. "Cindy, you'll be willing to testify against Caleb Bryton, right?"
"Absolutely," Cindy replied firmly. "I want to see that creep put away for what he almost did to me. And before he has the chance to send another woman off into slavery."
Senator Brown glanced at his watch. "Cindy, you have an appointment at 3 o'clock with Dr. Craft, so I guess we'd better go." He turned to Amanda and Jamie. "Thanks again, both of you. I can't begin to express my gratitude."
"You're welcome, Senator Brown. And Cindy," Amanda added, grasping the young woman's shoulders. "You take care of yourself, and try to stay out of trouble. Please don't pull another disappearing act. This time we almost didn't find you."
"Believe me, I've learned my lesson, Mrs. King. No more trouble here."
"Good to hear." Amanda watched as the Senator and Cindy headed toward the Q Bureau door. "See you later."
Jamie called after them, "It was nice to see you, Cindy, and to meet you, Senator Brown."
They both turned at the sound of the young boy's voice. Senator Brown waved. Cindy smiled and replied, "It was good to see you too. Thanks again." They closed the door behind them.
Amanda put her hand on Jamie's back. "Come on over and sit with me for a minute, okay?" She guided him toward the couch. "Jamie," Amanda started as they sat, "Cindy and Senator Brown wanted to thank you today, and that's why I got you from school. But I wanted you to see, first hand, why I keep doing this job. I enjoy helping people. It's important work."
"And," Lee interjected, "you were instrumental in helping to find Cindy, Jamie. That was really good work."
"Like I said, all I did was notice the ring."
"Jamie, do you know how many trained professionals looked at those pictures before you and your mom reviewed them? All of them missed the ring. Not only did your attention to detail save Cindy from a horrible life, we were probably able to spare many other women from suffering the same fate."
Jamie smiled. "Thanks Lee." He paused for a moment, then turned to Amanda. "Mom?"
"I just want to say I'm sorry."
Amanda's brow furrowed. "For what, Sweetheart?"
"Well, I'm just sorry that I had a hard time at first with all this. But after you and I went out and found Cindy, I felt better. You were awesome, the way you got away from that van. Then seeing her today, I really do get why you and Lee work here."
"Thank you, Sweetheart," Amanda said softly as she pulled her son into an embrace. "That means a lot."
Jamie pulled back and added, "Today, in Social Studies, we were studying the Soviet Union. And I wanted to tell everyone about what happened to Phillip and me, but I knew I couldn't. And then I thought about how hard it must have been to not tell us any of the things that must've been happening. So…well…I just wanted you to know that I understand. And that I love you, Mom."
"Oh, Jamie," Amanda said, her eyes shining with unshed tears. "I love you too." They hugged once more.
Lee smiled as he watched the exchange. He felt as if a weight had been lifted from his shoulders.
Amanda stood. "Well, I guess I'd better get you home so you can start on your homework. Besides, Grandma's got her book club dinner tonight and I need to get some dinner together."
"Yeah, she will," Jamie said. "Hey Lee, when you come over tonight, can you show me how to do that instep attack again?"
Amanda cut in, "Um…well, Sweetheart…uh…I'm not sure whether Lee is coming over tonight. We haven't had a chance to talk about it."
Jamie looked puzzled. "Well, why wouldn't he be?" He turned to Lee and asked, "Lee, aren't you coming home for dinner?" Jamie caught himself and added, a little embarrassed, "Well, I mean, I guess it's not your home, but you know what I mean."
'Home.' Lee loved the sound of that word. Amanda shared a soft smile. "Sure thing, Sport. In fact, I'm pretty much done here, so I'll just follow you two right now." He stepped from around his desk and grabbed his jacket. He walked between Amanda and Jamie, putting one hand at the small of his wife's back and the other around Jamie's shoulder.
Jamie looked up at Lee. "Can I ride with you in the 'Vette?"
Lee smilled. "You can ride with me anytime, Sport."
THE NEXT DAY
Lee and Amanda had just settled into a day of paperwork when Lee's phone rang. "Stetson here," he said in a cheerful singsong. Amanda looked up and smiled at her husband, but her smile turned to a frown as she saw Lee sit up at attention, with a serious look on his face.
"Yes, Sir. She's here." A pause. "No, Sir, we only have paperwork today." Another pause. "Yes, Sir, we can be there in a half hour. May I ask the topic?" Lee closed his eyes. "Of course, Sir. See you at 10:30." Lee gently placed the phone back on its cradle.
"Who was that?" Amanda asked.
"It was…uh…the Vice President."
"The Vice President? Of the United States?"
"He wants to see us both in a half hour."
"I asked but he wouldn't say." Lee stood and began to pace. "This isn't good, Amanda. I have a sneaking suspicion this is about us."
"With the Vice President? Surely not, Lee. Wouldn't the issue of our marriage just be handled on the Agency level? Why would he be involved?"
"I don't know," Lee replied, running a frustrated hand through his hair. He grabbed his coat. "But I guess we'd better go find out."
Twenty minutes later, Lee pulled the Corvette up to the Eisenhower Building. Amanda and Lee showed their creds to the guards, who let them through immediately. They walked hand in hand into the building and to the Vice President's office. They waited for a moment, then were shown in by the Vice President's secretary. He met them at the door.
"Hello, Mr. Stetson. Mrs. King. Please, join us." He motioned toward a small conference table on the opposite side of the office. They were surprised to see Billy and Dr. Smyth seated at the table. Lee and Amanda took their seats, nodding a greeting to the two men.
"Well, if it isn't Mr. and Mrs. Scarecrow," Dr. Smyth purred around the filter of his unlit cigarette. The color drained from Lee and Amanda's faces.
The Vice President flashed a warning look at Dr. Smyth, who glared back but said nothing. The Vice President sat as he said, "Oh, I apologize for the slip-up on your name. I've just read so much about you over the years, I've gotten so used to knowing you as Mrs. King."
Amanda's eyes grew wide. "What slip-up?"
"Mrs. Stetson…do you prefer Mrs. Stetson?"
She looked to Lee, and then to Billy, who both gave her reassuring nods "I do, Sir," Amanda answered in a small voice.
"Mr. and Mrs. Stetson, my office has known about your marriage for several months now. We've been keeping an eye on you since March. We've been measuring your performance versus you case records prior to your marriage. And I have to say, your solve percentages have improved over the past few months. Congratulations."
"Thank you, Sir," Lee and Amanda answered almost simultaneously.
"I have been chatting with Melrose and Smyth here, letting them know my thoughts on your continued partnership. If you remember, I was the head of the CIA for several years before being chosen as my boss' running-mate."
"Yes, Sir, we remember," Lee answered quietly.
"You're not the first couple to pull this little trick, you know. And it really is a shame that our agents feel the need to keep personal relationships a secret. But," the Vice President sighed, "that is part of the game we play."
"I guess so," Lee answered cautiously.
"Some partnerships have met with success, such as yours. Others have not. But you must know that, in my opinion, the difference in this situation lies with you, Mrs. Stetson. You have become a formidable agent. You're even better than you know. Your work on the Matryoshka List was exemplary, especially given the personal nature of your family's unfortunate involvement. I was so pleased when everything turned out so well. Then your work with finding Cindy Brown…well…I appreciate that on many levels, the least of which is personal. Thank you."
"So what's going to happen?" Lee asked.
The Vice President smiled. "We will continue to monitor your performance, just as we do with all agent teams. And just like any other partnership, if we perceive a problem, we will address it." He pulled a piece of paper from a folder. "This is a copy of a document I signed earlier today. It acknowledges your personal relationship, and outlines the manner in which you will be evaluated. But as far as this office is concerned, we don't recognize nor do we anticipate any problems in your performance, and you may continue to work together."
Amanda broke out in a broad smile. "Thank you so much, Sir."
"No, Mrs. King…I mean, Mrs. Stetson. Thank you for your dedication to your work. It has not gone unnoticed by me or by the President. And on a personal note, congratulations." He stood and extended his hand, shaking Lee's, and then Amanda's. "Do you have any questions?"
"No, Sir," they both answered, again almost simultaneously.
"Well, then, I'm wanted over at the White House by 11:30. I'll fill the President in on our discussion. Melrose, Smyth, thank you for your input. I appreciate your help."
The small group filed out of the Vice President's office and headed toward the exit. "Well, well, well, Kiddies, I have a meeting upstairs. So I'll be sending you on your way to play as you see fit." In a rare show of affection, he shook Lee's hand, then took Amanda's. "I won't be revealing your clandestine marriage to anyone in or out of the Agency; I'll be leaving that up to you. Have a nice day, Children." Dr. Smyth disappeared up the steps.
Amanda and Lee turned to Billy. Lee grinned and punched Billy in the arm. "You sly devil, you cooked this up, didn't you? Put Dr. Smyth in a situation you knew he couldn't fight."
Billy scowled. "Of course not, Stetson. Dr. Smyth and I were summoned here for a regular meeting to discuss matters of national security. This just happened to be included on the agenda I sent over, under the heading of "Other Personal Business Regarding Agents Under my Supervision." The Vice President called me almost immediately. He already knew what I was talking about, and what the problems would be. He's known Dr. Smyth for years. So the VP was the 'sly devil who cooked this up'." At this, they all laughed.
Amanda chimed in, "Well, anyway, Sir, thank you so much. You'll never know how much we appreciate your friendship. And your support."
Billy smiled. "You're welcome, Mrs….Stetson." He looked back at Lee. "Now that this is resolved, what are your plans for letting everyone know you're married?"
"Another ceremony. This one public. I want everyone to know I'm the luckiest man in the world."
Amanda said, "You know, something simple."
"Simple? With you two? I'll believe it when I see it." Billy chuckled to himself as he walked off, then called back over his shoulder, "I have one more meeting here. See you at the Agency."
Lee and Amanda watched Billy head off to his next meeting. Then they walked, hand in hand, out of the Eisenhower Building and into their future.