Chapter 5 - December 24 - Mid-morning - Maplewood Drive

Amanda gingerly settled the sleeping baby in the bassinet. "Quiet at last," she said with palpable relief. Today, of all days, it took a lot of rocking before Jenny succumbed to her overdue morning nap. Despite the endless demands of cookie baking, tree trimming and gift wrapping, the infant made it perfectly clear that she wanted her mommy's undivided attention.

The beautiful white crib in the nursery seemed to stand idle more often than not. Keeping Jenny nearby was a small price to pay when one realized the little girl would race through babyhood and childhood in the blink of an eye. How the boys grew into teenagers so fast was incomprehensible. Wasn't it only yesterday when she rocked them to sleep, too?

Walking to the window, Amanda peered at the snow flakes dancing in midair. Despite the mild December, Arlington may get a white Christmas after all. A cold front was moving in, bringing scattered snow flurries in its wake. Hopefully there'd be no slippery slopes to navigate today - neither inside nor outside the homey Cape Cod on Maplewood Drive.

Sighing softly, Amanda resisted a tiny kernel of doubt that crept into consciousness. She didn't want to start worrying again. Her husband had done enough of that for both of them. However, with no additional clues or threats, the cause of the runaway stroller remained an unknown. A clumsy stranger was hardly sufficient evidence to prove a crime. Thankfully, Jenny and Lee were fine.

As for Yuri Valov and his surprise baby gift, no news seemed to be good news. Amanda was relieved that the distinguished Russian never reappeared to signal any kind of trouble. Even the mystery of Uncle Bob's switched packages may never be solved.

However, with Christmas upon them, the unanswered questions plagued her mind. Maybe the season's holiest day was the last hurdle in putting the whole protracted affair behind them. They'd all have to stay alert tonight, even Phillip and Jamie. Lee was right to caution them about the strange happenings, but their awareness came with a heavy price. Bit by bit, the boys' carefree adolescence was being sacrificed on the altar of harsh reality.

Pushing the troubling thoughts aside, Amanda turned to the task at hand. Securing the lock on the bedroom door, she prepared to wrap presents on the high four poster bed. It hardly seemed real that she was home on Christmas Eve. For the first time since she met Lee, there was no last minute assignment to pull her away from the family. Amazingly, her husband also agreed to take the holiday week off, albeit reluctantly.

Caught up in the season of great expectations, Amanda hoped the household's abundance of holiday cheer would overcome Lee's aversion to Christmas. She was only kidding herself. Already he was chomping at the bit to check-in at work, despite her determined efforts to distract him. However, every task she suggested only heighten his grumpiness. Sending him out to deliver cookies in their neighborhood of busybodies, lonely widows and scheming divorcees tested the limits of his patience. Offering him strings of lights to untangle produced his most colorful language to date. And handing him the hedge clippers to trim the Christmas tree resulted in some badly misshapen branches when he hacked them off in haste. Thankfully the bare spots could be turned toward the wall.

A sudden knock on the bedroom door disrupted her thoughts. "Go away," she warned, hoping it wasn't important.

"A-man-da, let me in," Lee called, his gravelly voice tinged with annoyance.

She barely counted to five before she heard the tumblers click into place. "Hey, lock picks are against the rules in this house, buster." Her words evaporated into thin air when her husband's large frame filled the doorway. Once he flashed his Cheshire grin, her resolve waned. "Sweetheart, you agreed to help Mother."

"Plans change," he said with a hearty laugh. "I've been evicted from the kitchen. Dotty thinks I snitch too many cookies."

"Shhh," you'll wake Jenny," she cautioned, her finger pressed against his lips.

He kissed her delicate offering and turned to peek in the bassinet. "She's down for the count," he whispered as he tucked the blanket more securely around their daughter. "Once she finally wears herself out, our baby can sleep through a sonic boom."

"It's a good thing, too," Amanda countered. "Our house is the noisiest one on Maplewood Drive." She gave him a firm shove toward the door. "Now go; I have work to do."

"Hey, it's my room, too." His arms encircled her waist, and his lips found the ticklish spot behind her ear. "May I be of help?" he asked with a growl. "I offer a full range of services."

"Lee, stop," she pleaded, ducking away from his next amorous move.

He finally released the hold and turned his focus to the pile of presents. "Hmmm, who's the lucky recipient of this mess?" he asked, holding up a box overflowing with hosiery.

"That's Phillip's idea of gnarly gifts for his grandmother and Aunt Lillian - ten pairs each of 'No Nonsense' pantyhose." Amanda raised an eyebrow in question. "Have you been lecturing the boys on the merits of practical Christmas presents?"

"Don't blame me," Lee said with a twinkle in his eye. "I seem to remember a part-time seasonal employee at the Agency who gave me several pairs of argyle socks - all the same color."

"That was different. I didn't know you very well at the time."

"You said the socks would be easy to match when I pulled them from the dryer. How practical was that?" Laughing, he tweaked her nose. "At least Phillip didn't buy scarves."

"No, but Jamie did. I think his exact words were 'everybody needs one, and one size fits all'." Amanda glared at him until he coughed nervously. "Lee, I don't want our baby's first Christmas to turn into the 'No Nonsense' Christmas."

"Oh, Amanda, your mother will be pleased with the boys' choices. Besides, the scarves are already wrapped." Clearing a space, he sat on the bed, spilling the contents of a bag in the process. As the items fell to the floor, Lee quickly retrieved them. "My God, these things look like coiled snakes." A dubious look crossed his face as he studied the stretchy, tube-like objects.

Amanda untangled the items in question. "I'm afraid they're Phillip's gifts to you and Joe. When we open presents, you will both be the proud recipients of handy dandy steering wheel covers. Our oldest child doesn't want your fingers to get hot in the summer or lose their grip when you race your Corvette around the track."

"How practical," he said, with a pained expression. "I'm beginning to see your point."

"Don't be disappointed, sweetheart. Phillip also bought you something he's dreamed of getting for himself someday. You'll just have to wait and see." Amanda leaned over and kissed his cheek. "Now there is one favor you can do for me."

"Let me guess. You want me to climb on the roof to spell out 'Merry Christmas' with colored lights."

"Nope. I've heard enough swearing from you today. However, I would like you to get the boys out of the house for a few hours. They've been arguing for the entire morning, ever since Phillip discovered his MacGyver video was taped over with an episode of 'ALF'. Jamie is the likely culprit, but he pleads the fifth amendment and refuses to comment."

"Oh, great, and you think I can keep the peace? Please don't expect me to take them shopping on Christmas Eve."

"Of course not," she said, noting the horror on his face. "The mall salespeople have enough problems without adding you to the mix. However, I'd like you to take Phillip and Jamie to the movies."

His face brightened immediately. "Sure, what's playing?"

"You'll love it," she said with a teasing smile. "It's right down your alley."

"And the title please." He quirked an eyebrow as he waiting expectantly.

She laughed lightly. "The name of the movie is 'Scrooged'."

"Very funny," he said, his voice lowering to a deep bass. Wrapping his arms around his wife, he pretended to consider her request. "I'll go on one condition."

"Oh," she said indignantly, "what did you have in mind?"

"Ah, just a short visit to the Agency."

Amanda sighed with resignation. "Honestly, Lee, I knew you couldn't resist temptation. You won't be satisfied until you're sitting on a bar stool, priming the pump of some inebriated suspect. Or maybe you'd rather get shot, so you can spend Christmas in the hospital again."

"A-man-da," he said, drawing out her name with exasperation. "I only want to check-in at work."

She bit her lip, doing her best to avoid an argument. "Well, fine, Lee, have it your way. However, you'd better refuse any assignment the Agency tries to drop in your lap?"

"Absolutely," he said with a wink. "I don't want to spend Christmas Eve trapped in a nest of killers."

SMK, SMK, SMK

The Agency - Noon on Christmas Eve

Lee threaded his way through the crowded bullpen on his way to Billy's office. The timing was dreadful. Much to his chagrin, he'd inadvertently walked in on the annual Christmas party, already in full swing.

"Well, well, well, look who's here," Francine said, as she sidled up next to him. "Does Amanda know you escaped from Maplewood Drive? I thought you were stuck in suburbia through New Year's day. Amazingly your name failed to appear on the holiday duty roster this year."

Lee groaned. "Merry Christmas to you, too, Francine. Since when does field section start its celebration before high noon? It appears everyone is already under the influence of too much holiday cheer."

"Come on, Stetson. Lighten up and join the fun. You can pass around the latest photos of your little darling."

At the mention of his daughter, Lee couldn't help but smile. "As a matter of fact," he said, reaching for his wallet, "Jamie shot some cute pictures . . . . "

"Stetson, old man," Beaman slurred as he rudely interrupted. "Did you hear the good news? Frannie invited me to join her for Christmas dinner."

"Really?" Lee watched Francine shake her head in vehement denial. "Has Jonathan agreed to your intrusion?"

"Of course," Beaman replied with a hiccup. "I offered him the use of my Coleman pop-up camper at Deep Creek Lake. He can take it out of storage, set it up in the campground, and fish from the public access."

"In the winter? I hope the camper has a good heater." Lee reached out to steady the tipsy agent who crowded Francine's personal space.

She forcefully removed Beaman's hand from her hip. "And, there's more good news. Ephraim wants to escort me to the 'Ice Capades' next week."

"The what?"

"You know," Francine replied with biting sarcasm. "As in ice rink, elevator music, and skaters wearing tights."

"Oh, yeah, as in boring." Lee winced. "You have my sincerest sympathy."

"Don't be so smug, hot shot. Your day is coming." Ephraim tried and failed to poke the senior agent with an elbow. "Mark my words, Stetson, in two years you'll be showing up at a Disney ice show with a toddler in tow. I hope you like cotton candy, lollipops, and pink lemonade."

Lee shuddered at the thought. The image of a sucker entangled in his hair and a puddle of drink in his lap certainly gave him pause about fatherhood. Even worse, he couldn't fathom spending an evening watching Mickey Mouse and Pluto on ice skates.

Fred Fielder materialized next to Beaman. "Have some punch, Scarecrow," he said with a burp. "You'd better be careful; it might give you a little buzz."

"No thanks." Pinching the bridge of his nose, Lee waved him off. Damn it, a headache was already starting. "If you'll excuse me, I'm here to see Billy."

With a deliberate stride, Lee crossed the room, pausing when he accidentally bumped shoulders with a slightly tipsy older woman. "Sorry," he said, catching her elbow. "I hope I didn't hurt you."

"My pleasure," the woman gushed. Her dour face broke into a wide smile as she eyed him over the top of her reading glasses. "How nice to see you, Mr. Stetson."

"Mrs. Marston," he gasped. Lee couldn't believe the Agency receptionist would greet him warmly, let alone set foot in a field section office party. The usually stern gatekeeper of the Georgetown foyer was behaving totally out of character.

Apparently feeling no pain, Mavis giggled. "Mr. Stetson, did I ever mention that you're an incredibly charming man?"

"Ah, no," Lee said, trying to back away. "You never did."

Mavis only trailed after him.

Suddenly the partiers erupted with applause. "Kiss, kiss, kiss," yelled the crowd, all pressing in on the twosome.

Lee looked up in alarm. Oh no, he was standing under the mistletoe with Mrs. Marston. Now he'd really stepped on a land mine. Smiling weakly he offered her an out. "Let's just ignore the rowdy bunch." With a slight bow, he tried to put some distance between the two of them.

Mrs. Marston's smile only grew wider. "Or, we could humor them," she volunteered hopefully.

He couldn't humiliate her. Leaning down, he politely kissed her cheek as cameras flashed from all directions.

The Agency antique blushed with delight. "Merry Christmas, Mr. Stetson."

"Mavis, it's nice to see you finally made it to a field section Christmas party," Billy said as he rescued the pair. "Francine, would you assist Mrs. Marston? Maybe she'd like to lie down." To Lee, he whispered, "she'll never remember this in the morning."

Ushering his agent into the inner sanctum, Melrose closed the door to the commotion. "I'm surprised to see you, Lee. I thought you were finally serious about taking a few days off at Christmas."

"Yeah, well, you know me. My good intentions fizzled fast, especially in a household overdosed on Christmas."

Billy laughed. "I can well imagine their enthusiasm, Scarecrow, but you can't escape holiday traditions."

"Tell me about it. I didn't expect to collide with the Agency Christmas party."

"I hope you aren't here to beg for an assignment."

"No, I'm just checking in. Is there any further word on our mystery packages or Jenny's stroller incident?"

Billy eased his bulk into the executive chair. "Give me some credit, man. You know I'd call if there was more information to share."

Lee sighed and began to pace the confines of the office. "Are you positive there were no secret messages uncovered in Valov's book?"

"Absolutely zilch." Offering a weak smile, Billy held out Yuri's gift of Christmas poetry. "I'm sorry the boys in crypto managed to misplace your book for several weeks. Even worse, they returned it with a broken spine. You might as well give the collection of poems to Amanda for Jenny. It's perfectly safe."

"Thanks," Lee said, pausing in mid-stride to accept the proffered book. "Amanda's been anxious to get Yuri's present back in time for Christmas." He shook his head at the cover's benign manger scene. There was nothing sinister in the picture of a sweet baby, peasant parents, and friendly barnyard animals.

Billy pulled more items from his desk drawer. "Oh, and about the Russian ornaments, I'm afraid the handlers managed to break a few. However, we still have the Czar Nicholas II book and the Russian Nesting Doll in tact. I think, for now, they'd better remain under wraps. The antique shop may still have a customer come forward to claim the purchases. If so, we'll need to question that person."

Lee nodded and refocused his attention on the nesting doll. Slowly taking apart the toy, he pondered any hidden implication. "You know, I can't shake the feeling that Yuri somehow set the Colonel up with the gifts as another warning. I just bet he was in the shop with my uncle."

"Maybe so. It's too bad the shop's security camera wasn't working." Melrose reached for the nesting figures and maneuvered them into a nativity scene. "If there's a message here, it could be pointing toward Christmas Eve. The churches will soon be packed with worshipers, without any security to protect the masses."

"That's my worst fear. In a few hours, my whole family will be lining a pew at the neighborhood Presbyterian Church."

Billy stared out the office window, his eyes fixed with laser intensity on the room full of loud partiers. Then turning back to his agent, he seemed to come to a conclusion. "Scarecrow, maybe you should convince your family to stay home tonight. Jeanne and I decided a long time ago that it's safer to watch a midnight mass on television."

Lee vehemently shook his head. "I've already suggested skipping church to Amanda, but she's not buying it. Her holiday traditions are practically written in stone. She thinks I'm just trying to wiggle out of the Christmas Eve service."

"Your wife knows you too well, Scarecrow. When it comes to Christmas celebrations, avoidance is your usual mode of operation."

"Yeah, I hear you."

Billy's frown deepened. "Amanda must be worn out with the baby. I hope she's keeping an eagle eye on everyone, too."

"She doesn't talk about it much, but I know my wife is taking every necessary precaution."

"Unfortunately, babies change everyone's focus. I'm sure you're both very distracted, right now, and that makes you extra vulnerable." Melrose looked thoughtful as he drummed his knuckles on the desk. "Listen, Scarecrow, if there's anything suspicious tonight, you let me know immediately. I'll keep a team on stand-by."

"Thanks." Lee lowered himself to the sofa, propping his elbows on widespread knees and holding his head in his hands. "God, does it ever get easier? I mean, do you ever just relax when you're off-duty, like normal people?"

Melrose moved toward his agent and placed a fatherly hand on the younger man's shoulder. "No, I never completely let my guard down. I'm sorry to say the worries keep me in agent mode, regardless of where I am."

"Yeah," Lee said with a heavy sigh. "And I assume as the family gets bigger, the anxieties increase."

"Hey, cheer up, man. Worries aside, it's family that keeps you sane in this crazy business." Nodding toward the rowdy bunch in the bullpen, Billy motioned toward the door. "Maybe we should relax for a few minutes and go join the festivities."

"No thanks, I pass." Lee waved a dismissive hand. "I need to save all my energy for the Stetson-King celebration. Besides, with Amanda on family leave, there's no one at the Agency who can make me feel guilty about my lack of holiday cheer. Not even you."

"So you still insist on playing the part of Scrooge." Billy grinned at his agent. "Believe me, the 'Bah Humbug' should disappear with a baby in the house. Why don't you do a little shopping on your way home and buy Jenny her first Raggedy Ann doll?"

"Please, spare me." Lee shot his boss a pained look.

A knock on the door interrupted the exchange. "Come," Melrose called.

Francine maneuvered through the doorway, juggling a giant stuffed Panda Bear and a large shopping bag filled with brightly wrapped packages.

"What's this?" Lee asked, knowing damn well Amanda wouldn't want a twin for the Panda he'd given her on their third case together. She never could bring herself to part with the bear, even though it now held court with other treasured stuffed animals in the attic of their home.

Francine dropped the gifts at his feet and plopped the Panda in his lap. "Field section brought presents for your daughter. Now pull out your baby pictures, Stetson, and come join the office party."

TBC