Chapter 3: November 15 - Washington, D.C.
Lee stood at the entryway to "Randy's" - his favorite bar and grill. Seeing Billy, he waved in greeting and made his way through the Friday night crowd. God, he was glad to have a break from the home front.
"How's the new father?" The section chief stood and gave his agent a hearty slap on the back. "You look tired, man. I take it family leave is tougher on you than field section."
"You got that right," Lee said as he slid into the booth. "I'm afraid my daughter has her days and nights mixed-up. Please tell me it gets better."
Seating himself across from his friend, Melrose tried unsuccessfully to stifle a laugh. "Lee, your daughter is only two weeks old. Give her three months, and your baby will be sleeping through the night. Take it from a pro - this, too, shall pass."
"I should be so lucky." Lee blew out a ragged breath, grateful to vent his frustration to another adult male. "So what have you got for me?"
Melrose leaned in closer, lowering his voice considerably. "Francine tracked down some of your informants. Things are pretty quiet."
"Did she talk to Ronda?"
"Yes, and your bilingual pump jockey has been keeping tabs on her Soviet customers. While pumping gas, Ronda overheard two Russians talking about Yuri Valov. Apparently, some of the higher ups think the old gentleman has become too friendly with the West. Yuri isn't hard-nosed enough to suit many of his comrades. He favors more cooperation between the superpowers and more leniency toward the Soviet bloc countries."
"Well, chalk one up for Yuri," Lee said with relief. "At least we know he still holds a dim view of total Soviet domination."
Melrose nodded. "Valov does keep a cool head when faced with Soviet extremists. However, he's ruffled a few feathers among his colleagues. I don't think he'll be dropping off anymore baby gifts to western operatives." Melrose smiled, his eyes twinkling with the special warmth he always reserved for his favorite agents. "Although, in your case, Yuri probably couldn't resist. You know the man was quite impressed by the team of Scarecrow and Mrs. King. It seems logical that he'd want to congratulate you on the birth of a child."
"I still don't buy it," Lee said. "Soviet spies don't work for the 'Welcome Wagon' on the maternity wing of Galilee General Hospital. Nor is the KGB big on holiday cheer. Come on, Billy, why would Valov give my daughter a book of Christmas poetry?"
Melrose offered Lee a sympathetic smile. "You're too new at fatherhood to realize most men have a soft spot for babies - even Soviet spies. And, as for the Christmas book, it's a favorite gift. My girls were summer babies and they received several holiday books."
"Humph, I bet the KGB didn't show up when your girls were born."
"Lee, I think you're reading too much into this. Tensions are easing in the Soviet Union. I can't imagine a grave threat to our national security. Besides, Yuri would have told you if there was another Soviet extremist hell-bent on a first strike against the United States."
"Well, yes, if he could. However, we still don't know the identity of the woman who probably witnessed the exchange."
"Unfortunately, she is the wild card," Billy said. "However, without evidence to the contrary, there's no reason to assume she represents a menace to our country. She didn't approach you, right?"
"Correct - the woman turned away." Battling his emotions, Lee nervously drummed his fingers on the tabletop. "Maybe Valov's appearance had nothing to do with national security. What if Yuri had reason to believe Amanda and the kids are in danger. Valov clearly told me to "take care of the family."
"Yes, but we all say 'take care' in normal conversation." Billy exhaled loudly, apparently just as confounded as his operative. "Lee, the Agency has kept a team on your house, scrutinized airport surveillance tapes, and scored nearly zero from your contacts. I'm sorry, Scarecrow, but without a security issue to hang our hats on, Dr. Smyth says it's time to turn our attention to other business. At this point, Yuri's appearance at the hospital seems purely innocent."
Lee sighed in resignation. "Okay, I get it. However, I intend to dig for evidence on my own time."
Billy shrugged. "Officially my hands are tied, but, unofficially, I'll do what I can." Melrose pulled back as the waiter approached the table with a big tray. "I took the liberty of ordering our usual."
"Steak and beer - perfect."
"So, how's Amanda?" Billy asked as he cut a sizable chunk of meat.
Lee took a long swig of beer and grinned. "Amanda's in her element. While the baby wears the rest of us out, she seems to energize my wife. The invincible Mrs. Stetson is enjoying every minte of her maternity leave."
"Are you ready to end your family leave and return to work on Monday?"
"I'm more than ready - desperate is more like it. At this point, even paperwork will seem like a vacation."
"My God, now Scarecrow wants to do paperwork? Would you swear an oath to that effect?" Billy's brushy eyebrows rose in question.
Lee held up a hand in warning. "Don't you ever tell Amanda." Reaching in his shirt pocket, he pulled out a picture. "I don't want to give the wrong impression about my daughter. Believe me, I'm totally smitten."
"I knew you would be." Fingering the photograph, Billy couldn't help but laugh. "She's a daddy's girl all right," he said as he studied the photo of Jenny nestled in the crook of her father's arm. "What's that clutched in the baby's fist?"
"It's a football rattle. See, it says 'Redskins'. Phillip gave it to her." Lee puffed out his chest with paternal pride. "Jenny stayed awake for Monday Night Football with the guys. You should have seen her, Billy. The baby perked up when the boys and I cheered. I think our girl is going to be a real sports fan."
"So much for Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Ballet," Billy said with a gleam in his eyes. "I think Amanda was looking forward to Jenny's first dance recital."
Lee's face dissolved into a big grin. "Well, I am, too," he hastened to add. "Our daughter will be an all-around girl."
"Speaking of all-around girls, did you solve the mystery of the play equipment?"
"Yeah, it was legit. Can you believe it? The Colonel went out and bought his grandniece a yard full of toys. He said Jennifer was the first girl born to the Stetson family in four generations. He felt it was his duty to mark the occasion of her birth with something special."
"I'm impressed. Your uncle must have changed considerably."
"Humph, we'll see about that. The old man is coming for Thanksgiving. We haven't lived under the same roof since the day I turned eighteen and escaped his guardianship."
Billy cringed at the comment, but quickly changed the subject. "So is everything copasetic with your wife? I know she was upset when the Agency sent a bomb squad to check out the toys in your garage."
"Yeah, she's even satisfied with the Agency's background check on the delivery company?" Lee ran a nervous hand through his hair, not ready to dismiss his perceived threat to the family. "However, it still baffles me. The driver seems as clean as Kenilworth Gardens, but the coin trick he performed in front of Jamie still haunts me. It's reminiscent of an old Russian nemesis."
"Makarov is dead, Scarecrow. You can safely put him to rest."
SMK, SMK, SMK
Thanksgiving Day: Arlington, Virginia
Phillip and Jamie peered through the dining room curtains. "He's here," they yelled in tandem, their voices loud enough to inform the entire neighborhood. Spruced up in their geometric design, pullover sweaters, the boys were dressed to impress the Thanksgiving Day guest.
Noting the taxi out front, Lee grumbled to himself. "I told the Colonel I'd pick him up." Taking a deep breath, he straightened his tie and braced to greet the hard-nosed, bachelor uncle. Even though three years had elapsed since his father's half brother came to town, the old intimidation still gnawed at his gut. For some unfathomable reason, the passage of three decades had failed to mellow the man responsible for raising little Lee Stetson.
Swallowing hard at the haunting childhood memories, Lee watched Robert Clayton square his shoulders and proudly march toward the house. Even in his senior years, the old man had a bravado that made him seem larger than life. Dressed in striking Air Force blue, with ribbons, medals, and spit shined shoes, the Colonel's rigid bearing commanded respect. As a child and as an adult, Lee found it best to give the career military officer a wide berth.
Opening the door, Lee virtually stood at attention as his uncle approached. "Sir," he said, with sober deference. "It's good of you to come."
"Hello, Skip." The Colonel nodded and headed across the threshold in his usual brusque manner. Toting a suitcase and a large shopping bag, he set them down with practiced precision and then turned to shake hands with his nephew. "You look more mature, Skip. Marriage must settle a man down."
"Yes, sir, it has a way of changing priorities." Lee beckoned to the boys and draped his arms over their shoulders as they cautiously approached the visitor. Then reverting to his uncle's strict training, Lee formally introduced his stepsons. "Sir, allow me to present the King brothers. Phillip's fifteen and Jamie's thirteen."
The eldest boldly stepped forward and held out his hand. "Hi, Colonel Clayton."
"Hello Phil." The Colonel sized him up as if inspecting a new recruit. Then with a tight smile in place, he shook the teen's hand. "I'm pleased to make your acquaintance. Why don't you call me Uncle Bob? We're family now."
Lee practically choked. My God, the Colonel never allowed his flesh and blood nephew to call him Uncle Bob. Valiantly recovering his equilibrium, Lee gently nudged the youngest King forward. "Sir, this is our son, Jamie."
"Hello," the boy said. Proffering his right hand, the kid blushed under the intense gaze of their guest. "I'm glad to meet an Air Force officer."
Thank you, James." The Colonel pumped the small hand with gusto. "The Air Force has its share of action and adventure. I highly recommend it as a career." Then studying the teens, he waited for a response that wasn't forthcoming. "Well," he said, clearing his throat, "I imagine you two want to follow in your parents' cloak and dagger profession."
"Huh?" the boys asked in unison.
Shaking his head slightly, Lee shot his uncle a clear warning as Phillip and Jamie exchanged confused looks.
The Colonel caught on quickly. "Of course, you boys still have plenty of time to discern your life work."
"Our sons are already dreaming about the future." Amanda stepped from the kitchen in time to save the day. "Phillip would like to play basketball for the Boston Celtics and Jamie leans toward manning a spaceship to Mars."
"Mo-om!" the boys protested.
"I'm teasing, of course." Walking up to the Colonel, she breached his personal space and lightly pressed her lips against his ruddy cheek. "We're delighted to have you join us."
Lee felt a smile tug at his lips. No one could defuse his uncle's bluster faster than Amanda. Even during their first encounter in 1984, she had the Colonel purring like a kitten in five seconds flat.
Flustered by her affection, the old man fumbled for control as he wiped at his kissed cheek with the brush of a handkerchief. "Amanda, it's so good to see you again. I'm pleased and impressed that you managed to tame my young scamp."
"Young scamp?" Phillip asked, bursting with curiosity. "Jeez, Lee's not a kid anymore."
"You got that right, chief," Lee whispered. Quickly his hand collared the teen and turned him toward the family room.
Amanda took the Colonel's arm and steered him toward the kitchen. "If you'll come with me, I'll introduce you to Mother. She's putting the finishing touches on the gravy. When everything is ready, maybe you'd like to carve the turkey."
"My pleasure, Amanda."
Jamie caught up to his stepfather and tugged on his sleeve. "Lee, would you tell the Colonel to use our real names? We don't want to be called Phil and James."
Lee bent near the boy's ear. "Son, he probably won't listen to me. After decades of trying to change his mind, my uncle still calls me Skip. He pretty much sets the rules for everyone."
Jamie rolled his eyes. "That's lousy. I'm glad you don't take after your Uncle Bob."
"We'll work on him, sport. Maybe the whole family can wear him down."
SMK, SMK, SMK
After the family polished off the last of the feast and the coffee was served, Dotty appeared with the baby in her arms. "Look who woke up, just in time to join us at the table. Colonel, this is your grandniece, Jennifer Grace - Jenny for short." Without further preamble, she thrust the infant into Robert Clayton's arms.
Momentarily stunned, he managed to rise to the occasion. Quickly his large hands cradled the tiny girl. Without complaint, the baby intently studied the new face. As the two took each other's measure, they seemed to find a connection. Jenny gurgled and the Colonel spoke. "Coochy coo," he said, bouncing her lightly.
Slack-jawed, Lee watched his uncle jabber inane baby talk while Jennifer followed every word. It was a side of the Colonel he'd never imagined. Leave it to Dotty to unearth a hidden gentleness. "I'm impressed, sir. When did you learn to engage an infant?"
Robert Clayton looked up in surprise. "I held you when you were a newborn."
"Really? It must have been the first and last time. You were definitely "hands-off" when I was growing up."
The Colonel nervously cleared his throat. "Well, it's different with babies. They need human touch, but you were a big boy when your parents died."
Lee shot him an incredulous look. "I was a traumatized five year old; that's pretty needy in my book."
"I couldn't coddle you, Skip. It was my duty to make a man of you."
"And what a wonderful man he is," Amanda said, interceding before their bickering could escalate. Brushing her hand along Lee's thigh, she reminded her husband to temper his remarks.
Squeezing his wife's fingers, Lee acknowledged the message. "I'm okay," he whispered.
Amanda smiled warmly at their guest. "Colonel, would you like another slice of pie?"
"No, no thank you. Everything was delicious, but I couldn't possibly eat another bite." Rising to his feet, he passed Jenny to Dotty. "Give me a minute to retrieve my packages. I brought a few presents."
"More presents?" Dotty asked, after Colonel Clayton hurried from the room. "He already sent the baby enough toys to open a nursery school."
"He must have gotten religion or remorse or something," Lee said as an old hurt came to consciousness. "The man I remember didn't want to spoil kids with gifts."
Amanda's finger traced a line down the sleeve of his shirt. "Oh, come on, Lee. Your uncle gave you a little roan mare when you were a boy."
"Yes, and he gladly sold her when we moved again. It was just one more blow to my childhood." Lee shook his head at the memory, his uncle's harsh words still ringing in his ears. 'Buck up, Skip. Good soldiers don't cry.'
Dotty reached across the table and patted his hand. "Perhaps all the recent gift-giving is the Colonel's way of making amends. I believe he wants to play an important role in the family."
"Yeah, you could be right," Lee said, giving Robert Clayton the benefit of the doubt. "Maybe my uncle is growing tired of his lone wolf status."
"You, of all people, should appreciate his change of heart." Amanda placed a calming hand on her husband's back. "Sooner or later, you solitary men embrace the comforts of home and family. I think the Colonel is trying to break the ice with his gifts."
"Maybe he brought something for us this time," Phillip said eagerly. "We could sure use a new basketball hoop and backboard."
Jamie poked his brother in the ribs. "He has a bag, meathead. You'd better think small."
"Boys, stop it," Amanda warned with a look that made them squirm. "Please be on your best behavior."
With brisk strides, the Colonel returned, carrying his shopping bag and looking very perturbed.
Lee's chair scraped across the hardwood floor as he quickly rose to his feet. "Is there something wrong, sir?"
"I'm afraid so. While this looks like my bag, it doesn't contain the presents I bought. Apparently my purchases were switched with someone else's merchandise."
"Oh, no, here we go again," Lee said, already envisioning foul play. "Sir, did you set your things down in the airport?"
"Of course not," the Colonel defended loudly, his straight face turning red with anger.
Amanda pleaded for calm. "Now, let's not jump to conclusions."
Lee had already made the leap. "Sir, you took a taxi. I wanted to pick you up myself, so I could watch your back, but, oh no, you had to do it your way. The cab driver may have deliberately changed the items in your bag."
"Skip, watch your tone," the Colonel said. "I don't want you playing James Bond and butting into my business. Not everything that happens in D.C. is another threat to national security."
"What are they talking about?" Jamie asked in a stage whisper.
Lee clamped his mouth shut. Too late, he remembered the boys, now staring at him with wide eyes. He shouldn't be having this conversation - not here. "Excuse us, please," he said to the family. "The Colonel and I will take our discussion outside." Nodding at each other, the two men did an about face and, in lockstep, exited the room.
Reining in his frustration, Lee decided to take the high road. As they chose neutral corners on the patio, he began with an apology. "Sir, I'm sorry for my outburst."
The Colonel's response was curt. "Apology accepted." Still angry, the old man clasped his hands behind his back and began to pace in cramped circles.
Lee cut his own path across the patio. "Sir, would you fill me in on your shopping trip?"
"Certainly. I flew into National yesterday and checked into a downtown hotel, so I could do some shopping in D.C. I bought the gifts at an antique shop, after browsing in a sporting goods store and the 'Lord and Taylor' department store. This morning I had breakfast at the officers' club, visited with some friends, and took a cab here."
Lee blew out a harsh breath. "Well, you've covered a lot of ground since you arrived. I wished you'd told us your plans."
"My agenda is my personal business. There was no need to involve you."
"Sir, allow me to be blunt. Your packages may have been switched at a store, the hotel, a taxi cab, or some other spot in between. Maybe it means nothing, but I suspect the Soviets are stalking my family. You could very well be a target, too."
The Colonel paused, studying him with a critical eye. "Are you serious?"
"Ahem," Amanda cleared her throat as she stepped onto the patio. "I'm sorry to interrupt. Maybe you didn't hear the doorbell."
"No, I didn't," Lee said with annoyance. "Now what?"
"Sweetheart, Joe's here. Carrie had her baby this evening - a little boy."
"That's great." Lee managed a half smile, but wondered if Joe King could be a better father for his third son than he was for the first two. "Tell him congratulations."
Amanda nodded and then cast her husband a doubtful look. "Joe wants to take the boys to Sibley Memorial Hospital. Given tonight's concerns, are you okay with them heading out to see Carrie and the baby?"
"No," he said emphatically. "I'm not okay with them going anywhere tonight, but I don't see how we can stop Joe from taking his sons to see their new brother. Ask him to be careful and stay in touch. I'd like him to call us when they arrive at the hospital and before they start home."
"All right." Amanda hesitated, standing her ground. "Sweetheart, asking Joe to check-in always raises his suspicions. He'll have questions."
"Be vague, but tell him to stay alert. If he insists on more information, we'll discuss it with him later." Watching his wife turn to leave, Lee called her back. "Listen, Amanda, when the boys are gone, I'd like you to join us. The Colonel should show both of us what he has in his bag."
"Give me a moment," she said. "But let's take the conversation back in the house. It's cold out here."
Lee and the Colonel followed her inside and began to set up shop in the family room. Wordlessly, they unwrapped the items from their tissue paper and handled them with utmost care.
Amanda returned with Dotty and Jenny in tow. "Mother insisted on joining us. If she has to worry about the family, she wants to know why."
"And I'm perfectly within my rights," Dotty said with firm resolve. "If your uncle has a need to know, then so do I."
Lee started to object, but thought better of it. Dotty's piercing gaze brooked no arguments. There'd be no changing her mind. "Ladies, have a seat," he said with a calm he didn't feel.
Amanda joined him on the sofa, settling the baby in her lap. "Our daughter insisted on being with us, too."
"Terrific, now all my women are getting in the act." Lee lightly brushed his fingers through the silky strands of Jenny's hair and wrapped an arm around his wife's waist. "We're starting her off rather young, don't you think?"
"I think our baby can keep a secret." Amanda gave him a heart stopping smile that enticed a grin in return.
The Colonel was all business as he took charge. "Here's what we found. There's a box of tree ornaments, a Russian Nesting Doll, and a book about Russian Tsar Nicholas II and his family."
Dotty pointed at the ornaments. "They're very pretty, but not exactly Christmas tree decorations. "Most of them look like something from outer space."
Lee grasped a colorful figure by the hook and dangled it in front of his audience. "The weird space creature is from the Soviet Union; he's hand blown and hand painted. When Christmas celebrations were officially banned, many ornaments were designed to look like cosmonauts, space rockets, and orbital satellites."
Amanda nodded. "The Soviets wanted to change the emphasis from Christmas to the New Year, so winter decorations also became popular." Carefully, she pointed out delicate glass figures in the box. "They made Grandfather Frost, snowmen, and colorful icicles. I see this particular set even includes some barnyard animals."
Lee took apart the Russian Nesting Doll and lined up each figure by decreasing size.
"Oh, how lovely," Dotty said, clapping her hands in delight. "It's a nativity scene - Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, a shepherd, and a wise man."
Amanda carefully studied the figures. "The set may pre-date the Soviet Union. Somehow the Christmas Nesting Doll has apparently survived communism. This must be priceless."
The Colonel pointed to the book. "I assume you're all aware of the tragic deaths of Tsar Nicholas II and his family. If the pages contain some kind of message, it's a pretty dire one."
Dotty seemed more interested than perturbed. "I've read a lot about the Romanov dynasty. I just love the books and movies about Nicholas and Alexandra. Did you know their daughter, Anastasia, has been quite a topic of speculation? Some believe she survived when the Bolsheviks murdered her family."
"Yes, Mother, we heard that, too, but no one knows for sure." Amanda locked eyes with her husband, a flash of concern passing between them. "Sweetheart, do you see any connection between the Colonel's bag of Russian treasures and the poetry book you were given in the hospital?"
"A Russian delivered the book to me; that's one hell of a connection. In my mind, the Colonel's merchandise clearly elevates the level of risk to our family." Lee tightened his hold on his wife, willing her to affirm his escalating fear.
Amanda didn't take the bait, opting instead to downplay any concern, at least in front of her mother. "You know, sweetheart, all of the items on the table may simply be lovely gifts, intended for a family of Russian ancestry. Maybe the clerk accidentally switched the bags before your uncle even left the store."
"My sentiments entirely." Dotty dismissed any conspiracy theories with a wave of her hand. "The ornaments seem perfectly harmless to me. Of course, I only read spy novels; I don't live them - well, not until my daughter brought home the spy that loves her." Dotty peered over her reading glasses at the guilty parties as they squirmed in their seats. "Anyway, in my humble opinion, a history book and holiday decorations appear to be charming Christmas presents."
The Colonel seemed taken aback by Dotty's rosy assessment. "I'm with Skip on this one. There could be any number of dangerous scenarios in play. The book about Tsar Nicholas certainly speaks to revolution and murder. However, if someone deliberately switched the bags for a sinister purpose, all you really have is a very cryptic message."
"You're correct, Colonel." Lee shook his head at the dilemma. "The collection is very puzzling. I'll need to take the Russian items to the Agency and look for leads. I'm afraid we'll need more time to unravel the mystery. Maybe in the process, we'll track down the person who has your gifts."
With a grunt, Robert Clayton rejected the remark. "The gifts don't matter. I'd rather have each of you pick out items you want. Writing a check is far more practical." Rising to his feet, the Colonel stood before them with the full authority of his military rank. "Maybe I should pull some strings and postpone my overseas trip. I don't like leaving when there may be a threat to the family."
"Sir, we appreciate your concern, but there's no need to change your plans." Lee rose, his tall frame towering over his uncle. "In all due respect, we've managed fine for many years."
"Suit yourself." The Colonel abruptly began to pace, apparently wrestling with some inner demon. Then pausing in front of his nephew, he gently grasped Lee's arm, in a rare show of affection. "I recognize that you're your own man, and I can respect your position. However, there's something you don't seem to realize, and I feel it's my duty to bring it to your attention."
"Go ahead, sir." Lee steeled his features, determined not to take offense.
"Skip, I think you're making a huge mistake with your stepsons. They shouldn't be left in the dark about your work with the Agency."
"Sir, I think the decision rests with Amanda and me."
"Lee, for what it's worth, I agree with your uncle," Dotty added. "The boys are already asking questions."
Amanda patted her mother's hand in understanding. "Colonel, ah, Uncle Bob, we share your concern. Lee and I go round and round with the topic on a regular basis. At this point, Phillip and Jamie aren't ready to accept two new siblings, let alone two parental spies. The timing is all wrong for a big announcement, but we do plan to tell the boys soon. In fact, we've talked to our boss about getting them into a special introductory program for children of agents."
Colonel Clayton looked at them, long and hard. "The timing may never be right. Believe me, I remember when Matthew and Jennifer struggled with their secrets. They had endless discussions on how to protect their son, when to get out of the spy business, and what to do if the unthinkable happened. They also went round and round and never came up with clear solutions. Then, boom, it was too late. Don't make the same mistake with your children."
"No, sir," Lee said solemnly. "Amanda and I are doing our best to keep the kids out of harm's way, and, believe me, we're not going to allow history to repeat itself."