Chapter 4 - December 19 - Washington D.C.

Amanda breathed in the invigorating air as she pushed the baby stroller along the busy city sidewalk. Despite the wind gusts and the wintry sky, rays of hazy sunshine promised warmer temperatures for Jenny's first shopping trip. Even better, Mother had joined them, livening the occasion with her running commentary on the seasonal decorations.

Indeed, it was beginning to look a lot like Christmas. Rosy cheeked toddlers waved at the jolly street corner Santa and pressed their small noses to toy store windows. Salvation Army volunteers greeted shoppers and smiled appreciatively as donors dropped coins in a bright red kettle. Nearby, a brass ensemble tooted a rousing rendition of "Good King Wenceslas" while an enthusiastic audience of bench warmers tapped their feet and hummed along.

The rush of holiday cheer seemed to heighten Dotty's enthusiasm. "Isn't this wonderful, darling," she exclaimed. "Did you ever image in your wildest dreams that someday you'd be Christmas shopping with your mother and daughter on the streets of Washington, D.C."

"No, Mother, not at my age. That particular fantasy faded long ago. After two sons and a divorce, I gave up hope of ever having a baby girl."

"Yes, and for a time, I was afraid you'd given up on men." Dotty placed an arm around her daughter. "Honestly, dear, after your marriage to Joe ended, you found it hard to commit again. You discouraged many desirable suitors."

"Really, Mother, men weren't lining up at my door."

Dotty splayed her gloved fingers as she counted off her examples. "Dean McGuire was caring and dependable. Alan Squires was handsome and charming. And that little Englishman was positively delightful. I never understood why you resisted all their stellar qualities."

"Well, they definitely had some faults, too." Amanda cringed, remembering the trouble Alan Squires created with his so-called friendship ring and the nasty little listening device he'd planted under the gem. "Besides, Mother, in those days I wasn't ready for another serious relationship."

"Yes, I suppose it was a too soon after your divorce, but I also suspected you were intrigued by someone at work. Little did I realize that a tall, handsome spy had caught your fancy." Dotty gave Amanda a knowing look. "Lee certainly played hard-to-get. I don't know why he waited three years before finally joining the family for dinner."

"Mother, he was a little shy in the early years of our association."

"Shy? From what the Colonel told me, Lee changed women as often as he changed his underwear."

"Moth-er!" Amanda felt a blush creep into her cheeks. "Oh my gosh, Robert Clayton discussed Lee's dating history with you?"

"Yes, darling. Bob mentioned several flaky blondes and redheads - airheads, I think he called them. Apparently Lee had a different woman on his arm for each occasion he shared with his uncle. You were the first date that met with the Colonel's approval."

"And that wasn't a real date," Amanda confessed. "Lee was desperate. I happened to be the woman standing the closest when Colonel Clayton called and ordered his nephew to meet him for dinner."

Dotty shot her daughter a doubtful look. "Lee was certainly not desperate, darling. I'm sure he felt your classic beauty and lovely manners would impress his uncle. In fact, the Colonel paid you a very high compliment. In his eyes, you turned Lee's life around."

"Truthfully, it didn't happen overnight," Amanda said with a laugh. "However, once we became close friends, Lee reformed his bachelor lifestyle. Then when he finally pursued a romantic relationship with me, he never looked back."

"I can see that, darling. Lee just adores you and the children. He's a lucky man, and he knows it."

"And I'm a lucky woman. He was worth the wait, don't you think?"

"Absolutely. The man is a rare breed. Not many confirmed bachelors would take on a ready-made family. On the other hand, his dangerous career keeps me awake at night, especially since he pulled my innocent daughter into espionage."

"Mother, I chose the profession willingly. Lee did everything possible to discourage me."

"Yes, I know, dear, but his efforts to dissuade you came too late. You were already dazzled by the work and the man. Thankfully the love of your life is very responsible. Having Lee in the house is like living with some kind of superman. He may not leap tall buildings with a single bound, but your mild mannered husband has more capabilities than any ten men put together."

"Mother, you don't have to sell me on Lee Stetson. I know I picked a winner." Anxious to change the subject, Amanda pointed to a group of benches. "Let's sit awhile. I told Lee to meet us here at noon. Then we can all go to lunch together."

"Fine with me, darling. My feet need a breather. I don't know why I wore my high heels today."

Amanda claimed a bench and pulled the carriage alongside. Mindful that the pavement sloped toward the street, she carefully secured the brake. Then shielding Jenny from the elements, she tucked the blankets more snuggly around the baby and adjusted the stroller's protective hood. Satisfied that her daughter was secure, Amanda finally sat down to enjoy the brass ensemble.

Dotty rested her feet, but not her vocal cords. "Oh, Amanda, it's going to be such fun shopping for a granddaughter. After years of buying blue jeans, team jerseys and clunky sneakers, we can now indulge our little girl with ruffled dresses, lacy socks and patent leather shoes."

"Let's not get carried away, Mother. For now, the baby has enough frilly outfits for three little girls. Jenny has many adorable dresses that she'll be lucky to wear once or twice before she outgrows them."

Dotty was single minded when it came to her only granddaughter. "At the very least, I want to buy her a pink winter coat with a matching bonnet. Oh, and a muff would be precious. You have to grant me one extravagant gift, darling."

"Moth-er, I'm afraid our tiny Jenny would get lost in a winter coat, and a muff is definitely out of the question. Maybe when spring rolls around, you can buy her a coat and bonnet."

"Suit yourself, darling." Dotty looked a little deflated but didn't press the issue any further.

Feeling a headache taking hold, Amanda rummaged through her purse for some aspirin. Unfortunately, sitting idle allowed troubling thoughts to come to consciousness. Once again, she found herself mulling over the questions that still plagued her husband. No matter how many leads fizzled out, Lee tenaciously clung to his concerns. However, despite a vigorous investigation, the Colonel's strange Christmas presents seemed to be nothing more than benign curiosities, mistakenly given to him at the antique shop.

Whoever really purchased the gifts had paid cash and possibly failed to examine the wrapped items to discover the error. Some poor soul may be in for a huge surprise on Christmas morning.

"Aaah!" Her mother's sudden gasp jolted Amanda from her worries. "What's wrong?"

Dotty frantically shoved her feet into her shoes. "Darling, the stroller is getting away."

"Oh my gosh." They both started running, desperate to reach the baby before she rolled off the curb at the intersection. No one else seemed to notice. Scores of spectators kept their eyes glued to the musicians. Even pedestrians were oblivious as the stroller picked up speed on its collision course with traffic.

Then "oomph," mother and daughter were knocked off their feet by a burly oaf rushing in the opposite direction. Falling hard against the concrete, Amanda only saw the man's wing tip shoes and dark pinstripe suit before he merged into the crowd. "Help my baby," she pleaded to others rushing by.

Footsteps pounded the pavement and long legs sprinted past them. "Stay put," a familiar voice called. With his black overcoat flapping in the wind, the tall figure raced down the sidewalk.

"Lee!" Amanda cried. In horror, she watched her husband lunge for the stroller, just as it reached the street. His fingers barely brushed the handle before the carriage bounced off the curb and tipped on its side. Jumping into the moving traffic, Lee waved his arms in warning. A Dodge Durango screeched to a halt, it's front fender nearly plowing him under as it bumped against his torso.

Amanda ran toward them, her heart thumping wildly in her chest. More brakes squealed, but the sea of vehicles suddenly parted, like mighty waves deflected by an unseen bulwark. Miraculously, father and daughter were protected as a safe harbor formed around them.

Apparently unharmed, Lee quickly hoisted the stroller to the sidewalk. Reaching inside, he released the crying baby from her safety straps and gently secured her against his chest. "It's okay, Jenny girl," he soothed as he gave her a cursory examination. "Shhh, I've got you, sweetie."

"Oh my God." Joining her family, Amanda wrapped her arms around them. Thankfully the baby quieted at the sound of their voices. Trembling with relief, Amanda clung to her husband as he swayed their daughter back and forth. "Sweetheart, are you both all right?"

"Yeah, I think so." Lee laid the infant in her arms and placed a comforting hand on his wife's back. "Apparently the stroller's hood and blankets protected Jenny, but I'll feel better if we have Doc Kelford check her out."

"I want you checked, too." Amanda reached to inspect the torn pocket of his overcoat.

In typical Scarecrow fashion, he pulled away from her touch. "Save it, Amanda. I'm fine. Let's get to the Agency, before we're detained by the police."

"Oh my darlings." Breathless, Dotty emerged from a gathering crowd. "Thank God, you were here, Lee. You have an uncanny knack of being in the right place at the right time."

"Just barely." Brushing long fingers through his tousled hair, Lee studied his wife and mother-in-law. "Are you two, okay? What the hell happened?"

"We're a little scraped up and rattled," Amanda said as she noted their torn stockings. "Oh, Lee, it must have been my fault. We sat down to take a little breather. Mother's feet hurt, and I had a headache. I'm sure I locked the stroller brake, but I'm afraid I took my eyes off of Jenny to hunt for an aspirin. You know how hard it is to find anything in my purse."

"Amanda, please." Impatiently, he motioned for her to get to the point.

She took a shuddering breath. "While I was digging through my bag, the brake must have come loose. All of a sudden, Mother saw the stroller rolling down the street. We were hurrying to catch up when someone collided with us. It was just an accident."

"Don't be so sure." The muscle in his jaw twitched as he wrapped his arms around his family. "I saw some brute run interference and forcefully knock you over. Maybe he tampered with the brake, too."

"Oh, sweetheart, you don't think . . . "

"I most certainly do, Amanda. Despite the lack of conclusive evidence, I'm convinced Russians are stalking our family."

SMK, SMK, SMK

December 23 - Maplewood Drive - After school.

Phillip tossed his backpack on the kitchen counter and stuck his hand in the cookie jar. "It looks like Mom and Grandma didn't return from Jenny's doctor appointment yet," he said to his brother. "The baby was scheduled to have her shots today."

"Immunizations, Bozo. Jenny's not a puppy." Jamie grabbed an orange from the fruit bowl and punched the message button on the answering machine. "Boys, we're running a late," his mother's voice informed in its decidedly scratchy tone. "Please start your homework and stay in the house until we return. Love you."

"Stay in the house," Phillip grumbled. "Jeez, Mom and Lee have been acting like prison wardens ever since Uncle Bob left. You'd think we committed a felony."

Jamie met his brother's scowl with equal displeasure. "Lee's been acting like he's the senior parent around here. Even Mom thinks he's too strict with us."

"Well, it's gotten out of hand," Phillip said. "Lee wants to know where we are every minute of every day. It's high time we find out what's going on."

"How?"

"For starters, listening skills are helpful." Phillip crossed his arms over his chest and smirked "Several nights ago, while you and Grandma were sleeping, Mom and Lee had a rather heated argument."

"Don't tell me you eavesdropped."

"Well, yeah, sort of." Phillip jutted out his jaw in proud defiance. "Actually I snuck outside and climbed up the trellis."

"You what?"

"You heard me, geek. It's no big deal; we've been up and down that baby dozens of times. Lee and Mom even reinforced the trellis after the two of them wrecked it."

"Yeah, but they didn't fix it so you could spy on them." Jamie glared at his brother with disgust.

Phillip shrugged. "It was my best option. Mom always leaves the window open a couple of inches when she goes to bed. I figured if they were fighting over us, I had the right to hear the specifics."

"God, Phillip, that was invasion of privacy. What if they were undressed or, well, you know. . . ."

"Don't worry, I'm not stupid. I didn't climb high enough to peek in the window - just close enough to hear better. Besides, with all the shouting, they were definitely making war, not love."

"Jeez, Phillip, don't even say it." Collapsing on the island stool, Jamie held his head in his hands. Taking a deep breath, he tried to blot out images of his parents that no kid ever wanted to think about. "What if you were caught?" he finally blurted out. "You'd probably be grounded for a month or, even worse, you'd forfeit getting your driver's license. Do you want to end up riding your bike to your high school prom?"

"That's my whole point; the way things are going around here, it feels like we're grounded. I want to know why." Ducking into the laundry room, Phillip grabbed his basketball and began dribbling it across the kitchen. He even made a perfect two pointer with a dunk shot to the trash can.

The youngest opened his mouth to protest, but thought better of it. Breaking Mom's "no ball playing in the house" rule couldn't begin to compare with the teen's latest offense. However, despite Phillip's recklessness, Jamie decided to play on his brother's team. "So, are you going to tell me what happened while you were on the trellis?"

"Oh, so now you want the details; I knew you'd cave." Phillip shot a pass over the island, nearly knocking his brother off the stool as he caught the ball. "Believe it or not, junior, Mom and Lee were arguing over Christmas. He wants everyone to stay home during the holidays - no hanging around the mall with our friends or goofing off at the park with other kids. He even suggested that the family skip church on Christmas Eve."

Jamie's mouth dropped open in shock. Gosh, who was Lee to try to control their Christmas vacation? "Mom didn't agree, did she?"

"Not entirely." Phillip abandoned the basketball and snagged another cookie. "She informed him that our Christmas Eve was non-negotiable. Mom also told Lee he was acting paranoid. She said at the rate he was going, he'd soon be signing us up for a safe house."

"Do you mean protective custody?" Jamie felt his stomach clench with alarm. "Are we in danger?"

"Don't be so dramatic, Bozo. Mom was only punching Lee's buttons. Apparently Jenny's stroller rolled off a curb into traffic. She wasn't hurt, but Lee thought a pedestrian deliberately released the brake. Mom said it was probably just an accident."

"Wow, I bet that was a close call." Jamie slouched on the stool, contemplating the family tension. He hated it when his parents fought. First Dad and Mom, and now Lee and Mom. Would his stepfather end up leaving, too? "I don't know, Phillip; maybe Lee has good reasons to be worried. He's a smart man. If he suspects trouble, we should pay attention."

Phillip rolled his eyes with total disdain. "You're overreacting. Lee is new to all this fatherhood stuff. Mom just needs more time to train him. However, I don't think we should accept his bossiness like a couple of wimps. There's no harm in doing a little investigating." The teen grabbed a can of soda from the fridge and headed toward the front hall. "Come on, Zorba the Geek, let's do some snooping."

Jamie didn't budge. "If you're planning to look for Christmas presents, forget it dork face. Mom locked our gifts in Grandma's trunk."

Phillip paused to press his case. "I'm not interested in finding Mom's presents, but I'd like to know what packages Uncle Bob had in his bag. Lee was sure ticked. By the look on the Colonel's face you'd think something illegal was being smuggled into the country."

"The packages are probably long gone," Jamie said, wondering how his brother could be so dense. "Lee and Uncle Bob probably took them to the police station or, at least, back to the store."

"Maybe or maybe not. Come on bro; it doesn't hurt to look." Heading for the second floor, the boys took the stairs two at a time and raced down the hall to the master bedroom. "Keep watch," Phillip commanded as he set his soda can on the nightstand and poked his head in the closet. "Let me know if you see a car pull into the driveway."

Jamie yanked on his brother's shirt. "Don't disturb anything. Mom has a sixth sense when it comes to anyone tampering with their personal possessions. You'd think they had a surveillance camera in here."

"You watch too many spy shows." Phillip pushed aside his stepfather's suits and dug around in the back of the closet. "That's funny, I never saw this before. It must be something Lee brought with him when he moved in."

"What?" Jamie pressed against his brother's back, trying to see over his shoulder.

Phillip dropped to his knees. "There's some kind of safe bolted to the floor. It's got a combination lock on it."

"What do you suppose he keeps in there?" Jamie crouched and crawled closer.

"I don't know. Maybe large amounts of money." Phillip flattened himself on his stomach as he tried to work the lock. "Have you ever noticed when Lee comes home, he goes straight upstairs?"

"Sure, I guess the guy just wants to change out of his work clothes and hang up his suit."

Phillip snorted. "Are you kidding? Lee never hangs up his clothes. Mom constantly reprimands him for using the floor as a hamper."

Jamie bit his lip as he pondered the weird situation. "So, every evening Lee comes up here to hide something?"

"Yeah, our stepfather must be sneaking home important items right under our noses. Maybe he carries secret government documents from IFF. God, who knows what he has hidden under his coat."

"Ah hem!" The sudden clearing of a throat caught the boys' attention. "May I help you guys?"

"Lee!" they cried in unison. Rising quickly, they stumbled from the closet, tripping over each other in the process.

"What are you doing in here?" Intense hazel eyes pinned the boys in place.

Jamie straightened his glasses and studied his shoes, while Phillip thrust his hands into the pockets of his jeans. The eldest spoke first. "We were just looking, ah, for Christmas presents."

"Really?" Lee shot them a doubtful look, obviously not buying the excuse. "And what did you find?"

Jamie felt a flush spread across his face. "We found the secret safe."

"I see." Pointing to the bed, Lee motioned for the teens to sit down. "Boys, lots of homes have a safe."

"Not ours." The words were out before Jamie could stop them.

Phillip shot their stepfather an accusatory look. "We've never had the need to hide anything around here, at least not until you moved in."

Lee's face hardened, giving away nothing. A muscle in his jaw twitched as he stared back at them. Finally exhaling a loud breath, he continued. "Guys, there's nothing in the safe that your mother doesn't know about. In fact, the safe was her idea."

"So," Phillip demanded, "what's the big secret?"

Lee walked over to the closet and knelt down on one knee. Turning the dial on the safe, he made fast work of opening the door. "At the moment there are just a few documents - our marriage license, birth certificates, copies of wills, health proxies, and my Ty Cobb and Harmon Killebrew baseballs - both signed. Are you satisfied?"

Phillip relaxed his clenched fists. "Yeah, I guess."

Jamie wasn't so sure. "If you and Mom were worried about the family, would you tell us?"

Lee hesitated and then nodded. "Are you guys concerned about something in particular?"

"Damn straight," Phillip said in language he never spoke around his mother and grandmother. "You've been getting upset over every little thing - a delivery truck full of toys, your uncle's switched packages, and now Jenny's runaway stroller."

"Oh?" Lee pointed an accusatory finger at his eldest stepson. "How did you find out about Jenny?"

"Ah, well." Phillip hemmed and hawed, but finally confessed. "I heard you and Mom arguing in your bedroom several nights ago."

"And you decided to listen at the door?"

"Yeah, something like that." Phillip reddened, but he failed to elaborate.

Pulling himself up to his full six feet, two inches of height, Lee stared down at the boys. "Okay, guys, you're right. There have been some bizarre occurrences that worried your Mom and me. However, the situations have been scrutinized, and nothing appears to be out of the ordinary."

"So, why are you still on our case?" Phillip asked. "Hell, we don't need babysitters."

"We're being cautious, son."

Jamie observed the exchange with growing alarm. Whatever was happening had to be more than creepy coincidences.

Lee swept a large hand through his hair, obviously frustrated. "Boys, I'm sorry for crowding your space. However, your mother and I need to keep tabs on you for awhile. We also want you to stay alert and pay attention to your surroundings - which, by the way, is good advice in all circumstances."

"We can watch out for ourselves," Phillip said with teenage bravado. "You don't need to be our bodyguard."

Jamie offered a noncommittal shrug. In his mind the jury was still out. He preferred to reserve judgment for now. "Jeez, Lee, if I didn't know better, I'd think you were some kind of detective. You notice every little detail and investigate things most people would ignore. Maybe you missed your calling."

"Maybe so, sport." Lee managed a faint smile, with a hint of amusement barely hidden behind his eyes.

Phillip's brow wrinkled as he studied his stepfather. "You really surprised me when you opened the safe. I was beginning to suspect you had guns in there."

"Humph," Lee grunted. Unmoving, he stood as rigid as a statue, only the tic of his jaw pulsating in an otherwise straight face.

Jamie watched him closely, conscious of Lee's hazel eyes morphing from green to gray. They were as changeable as the Stetson moods. "Mom would never allow guns in the house," the boy finally said, anxious to dispel any thoughts of weapons.

Phillip laughed. "You got that right. Besides why would Lee need a gun? He's a government film maker, not a government secret agent. There's a huge difference."

Lee winced. "Yeah, cameras work best for making movies."

"I bet." Jamie studied his stepfather, assessing the somber demeanor. Lee was certainly an enigma. With an easy smile and a friendly bearing, it was startling to realize he had a darker side, too. Beneath his caring nature, something more ominous was lurking. Whatever secrets he harbored, Jamie was certain the guy embodied good and not evil. It may have taken him a long time to accept Lee, but the youngest boy knew, beyond a doubt, the man was fiercely committed to his family.

Obviously aware of the scrutiny, Lee's eyes darted toward the door. Squaring his shoulders, he quickly changed the focus. "Come on, guys," he said, grabbing their arms and tugging them from the bed. "Let's round up something for dinner. Your mother and grandma are running late."

Jamie brightened. "How about ordering a pizza?"

"Sure, anything you want," Lee said with a grin, "if you boys promise to quit spying on your mom and me."

"Deal," Phillip shouted as he ran for the door. "I want extra cheese with pepperoni."

Jamie remained mute. He wasn't trading his right to spy, not for a slice of pizza. There was something mysterious about his stepfather, and, sooner or later, he intended to uncover Lee Stetson's closely guarded secrets.

TBC