Disclaimer: The characters herein are the property of Shoot the Moon and Warner Brothers Productions. The story, however, is the property of the author as related to the SMK Season Five Project.
Summary: A prominent research chemist is kidnapped and Amanda and Francine are assigned to investigate.
Author's Notes: I wrote this story for Virtual Season Five ages ago... I thought I'd polish it up and post it to ff.n, finally!
*~* Indicates a change of scene or point of view.
Dr. Devon Stankirk stared fixedly from his cage at the young woman who was guarding him. Sitting in a metal folding chair across the sparsely furnished room, she stared back at him with unsympathetic green eyes.
"Can I have some water, please?" he asked her in a raspy voice. He clutched the steel bars of his cage with hands reddened from the chilly air.
"No," she replied coldly.
"And it's freezing in here. Don't you care?" he pleaded, shivering. He rubbed his arms vigorously in a futile attempt to warm himself.
"Don't you care about all of the helpless animals you experiment on and torture, Doctor?" she responded with a sneer. She wrapped her jacket more snugly around herself at his mention of the low temperature.
"I do care," he insisted, his brown eyes pleading. "They're treated very well. We never torture..."
"Shut up!" a tall young man with a frazzled brown beard bellowed from across the room. Looming in the doorway, he presented an intimidating figure. "Stacey, I thought I told you not to talk to him."
"Sorry, Steve," she told him contritely, staring at her shoes. "This is kind of boring, just sitting here," she added in a sudden spurt of defiance. "And he's so whiny, I'm sick of listening to him."
"Why don't you take a break," he suggested, his ice-blue eyes piercing hers. "I'll keep the good doctor company."
Stacey quickly rose from her chair and rushed from the room, casting an anxious glance at the incensed bearded man as she did.
Lee Stetson ambled into the bedroom he shared with his wife to find her staring into her closet, deep in thought. Dressed in a pair of baggy striped pajama bottoms and a fitted white tank top, she studied her wardrobe and sighed, shaking her dark head.
"I really need to find time to go shopping," she mumbled under her breath.
Lee sauntered across the room at a leisurely pace, never taking his eyes off his wife's exposed shoulders. For years, he had dated one woman after another, tiring of each one as he would tire of eating the same food every day. But he knew that he would never tire of Amanda - it simply wasn't possible.
The object of his affection shook her head again in disgust, sighing loudly. Suddenly, she was engulfed from behind in her husband's muscular arms, his hands caressing the exposed skin of her stomach as he pushed her shirt upward.
"Why don't you give yourself a few minutes to think about what to wear? I'll occupy you with... other things," he suggested seductively. "No one else is awake, yet."
Amanda turned to face him, a delighted smile lighting up her freshly washed face. "And just what did you have in mind, Scarecrow?"
"Oh - tactical maneuvers, covert operations, undercover surveillance," he drawled, playing with her ponytail. His face drew closer and closer to hers. "You know. Your basic..."
She finished the sentence with him, their words muffled by an ardent kiss. "Field experience."
Hands roamed familiar yet exciting territory as their kisses and touches intensified. All thoughts of preparation for the day vanished as they completely lost themselves in one another.
An hour later, they were both rushing around the bedroom in a frenzy, crossing paths in and out of the bedroom and bathroom.
"We're going to be late," Amanda said, gesturing at the clock and shaking her head. She rushed back to the closet to find her red sweater.
"I don't care." Lee shrugged with a devilish grin and a wink. He stood at the mirror adjusting his tie. "We're always late, and it's always worth it."
"Sooner or later, Billy's going to complain," she replied forebodingly, zipping up her black skirt. Lee's cavalier attitude always amazed her.
"I don't care," he repeated, again wrapping his arms around her from behind and attempting to nuzzle her neck.
"I do," she countered with a laugh, regretfully extricating herself from his embrace. "Not again, Scarecrow, let's get moving."
"Well, I'm trying to, but you..." he began in a teasing tone.
She laughed, playfully pushing him away. "Lee!"
"Good morning, Sir," Amanda greeted the Section Chief with a nervous smile as she entered his office and sat down.
"Morning, Billy!" Lee followed suit, winking and handing Billy a small white bag adorned with the image of a dancing donut.
"Good morning, Lee, Amanda," Billy replied, accepting the offering and unfolding the top. "Ahhh," he sighed with obvious delight. "Bear claw. Jeannie won't let me have these, but what she doesn't know won't hurt her. Thank you." He stuck his nose in and took a whiff, his eyes closing in ecstasy. "Trying to make up for being half an hour late?" he asked perceptively, raising a knowing eyebrow.
"Yeah, sorry about that, Billy," Lee replied with a carefree grin, then giving Amanda a private, smoldering glance. "We got a little... tangled up this morning."
Billy nodded. "I see," he replied carefully. Lee's meaning was not lost on him. He was tempted to tease the pair, but didn't want to embarrass Amanda or overstep his bounds.
"So, what's up this morning, Sir?" Amanda asked, still trying to recover from her husband's inference to their morning activities. 'Maybe Billy didn't catch Lee's innuendo,' she thought to herself hopefully. They sat down and waited expectantly for Billy to begin.
He handed them a folder. Inside, they found an extensive report and a photo of a serious-looking and handsome middle-aged man. He had sandy blond hair and deep-set brown eyes.
"Meet Dr. Devon Stankirk," Billy began as he set the bear claw on a napkin. "He's the Head Chemist for Healthwise Pharmaceuticals. He and his team have been developing a break-through drug that may aid in slowing down the aging process. It's still in the early stages of experimentation. Unfortunately, preliminary test results show that sometimes the aging process is actually sped up dramatically, rather than slowed down."
"What's the Agency got to do with this, Billy?" Lee asked, closing the file and handing it back.
"Stankirk has been kidnapped by a radical animal rights group called 'People for Animals'." Billy paused, taking a bite of the irresistable pastry. "They're demanding that Healthwise end the study immediately because of all the animal experimentation that it requires."
Amanda shook her head slowly. She was against animal testing as much as the next person, but to kidnap someone over it was going way too far.
"There has to be more to it than that for them to call us," she prompted, studying Billy's serious countenance.
Billy nodded. "There is. Dr. Stankirk is the First Lady's nephew. Healthwise Pharmaceutical has full backing and support from the White House. The President himself wants us to handle this."
Lee and Amanda approached the luxurious brownstone home of Dr. Stankirk and rang the doorbell. After a few seconds, the door swung open slowly. A freckled, redheaded young woman of about eighteen stood just inside the house.
"May I help you?" she asked politely in a soft-spoken voice. She stretched an arm across the threshold, protectively blocking the entrance.
"Ah, yes," Lee said, clearing his throat. "We're here to speak with Mrs. Stankirk. I believe she's expecting us. My name is Lee Stetson and this is Amanda King. We're federal agents."
"Thank you for coming," she said with evident relief. "Please, come this way. My name is Jenny. I thought at first you might be reporters. If you'll please have a seat in the library," she pointed, indicating the room, "I'll let my sister know you're here."
Lee and Amanda stepped into the library and took a seat on a plush deep green sofa situated in front of an ornately carved marble fireplace. Amanda looked around and noticed that the walls were lined with bookshelves. All the wood was lustrous, intricately carved oak, and Civil War era antiques adorned the room.
They didn't wait long. Jenny soon reappeared with another woman. The fact that they were sisters was obvious, despite the age difference.
Nervously, the second woman extended her slim, manicured hand. "Hello. I'm Shelly Stankirk and this is my little sister, Jenny Reilly. Thank you so much for coming, Mr. Stetson and Mrs. King."
"Thank you for having us, Mrs. Stankirk," Lee replied.
"It's a pleasure to meet you," Amanda added solemnly, shaking their hands and adding, "I'm so sorry it's under such stressful circumstances."
Shelly Stankirk shrugged and shook her head as if she still couldn't quite believe the circumstances in which she now found herself. "Please, call me Shelly," she said with a little gesture, dismissing formality.
"Then, please call us Lee and Amanda," Amanda smiled, warming to her immediately.
"Okay, I will. Jenn," she addressed her sister. "Would you mind bringing some iced tea for our guests?"
"Sure, Shel." Jenny agreed amiably and disappeared quietly.
Shelly sat down on an over-stuffed wing-back chair. Although her features were tired and drawn, she was still very lovely. Her concern for her husband was evident in her nervous manner and facial expression.
"I don't know where to begin," she shrugged helplessly, sounding lost.
"How did your husband disappear?" Lee asked, leaning forward.
"He called from work Tuesday to say he'd be staying late. When he didn't get home by nine, I started to worry. He never works past seven, occasionally eight, and he always calls to reassure me - he knows how I worry. So at nine, I called the lab, but no one answered. He never came home." She smoothed her skirt as she took a deep breath to try and steady her nerves, then looked up at the two agents.
"And he had been receiving threats from the 'People for Animals' Organization?" Amanda questioned gently.
"Yes," she nodded, reaching for a packet on the table in front of her. "I have the letters here."
She handed them the folded notes, her hand shaking slightly. Lee and Amanda looked them over together as Jenny returned to the room and set a tray of iced tea, lemon slices, and sugar on a low coffee table in front of them.
The letters were arranged in chronological order, eight in all. The first three were pleas, the following four were more serious, but the eighth was the worst, it was downright threatening. None of the letters were signed with any names, just the initials PFA. All of them were typewritten on plain white stationary.
"Have you heard from PFA since your husband's kidnapping?" Lee questioned.
"No, but they've called Healthwise. They keep demanding that the study be stopped immediately," she informed them, wringing her hands together.
"Or?" prodded Amanda.
"They haven't said. They're giving Healthwise three days to comply with their demands." She shrugged helplessly, a frown creasing her brow. "I don't even know if he's okay… if they're giving him food and water..." she paused, throwing her hands up and letting them drop into her lap. Tears began to well up in her eyes. "What if they're hurting him?"
Amanda watched her with sympathy, not knowing what to say. She didn't want to give the woman false assurances. She would be a nervous wreck, too, if it was Lee who had been kidnapped.
"I'm so sorry," Shelly apologized, embarrassed.
"There's nothing to be sorry for," Amanda said.
"What kinds of animals are used for the experiments?" Lee questioned when she'd composed herself to a degree. He picked up a glass of tea and took a sip. "What exactly is done to them?"
"Mostly rats," Shelly told them, looking relieved to get back to business. "Rats that have been bred for scientific study. They're injected with varying amounts of the drug and then studied to determine the results. Sometimes they're injected with other drugs as well, to determine whether there are any drug interactions."
"Shelly, you said mostly rats," Amanda pointed out. "What other animals are tested?" It bothered Amanda to have to ask such pointed questions, seeing that Shelly was so upset over her husband's disappearance, but she knew it had to be done.
"They also use some dogs and cats. Monkeys, too, since their genetic makeup is closest to humans. It's these animals that the PFA is most upset about, though they don't like the testing on the rats, either. The thing is," she pinched her lips together, closed her eyes, and gave her head a slow shake, "none of the animals are abused. Some of them live longer than they would under normal circumstances, but some of them simply age and die earlier than they normally would." The words seemed to spill out of her mouth. "They're well fed, cared for, and not caused any pain, if it can be helped." A small sob escaped her attempt at control. "And none of them stay in the lab long. Devon works with local animal shelters and he actively promotes the adoption of strays."
Her distress at having to defend her husband's line of work and motives was apparent. Obviously, she'd been doing a lot of it recently. She looked helplessly from Lee to Amanda, pleading with her eyes for them to understand.
"Okay," Lee said soothingly. "We'll be in touch with you if we need to know anything else. Here's our number. We'll check with Healthwise, too. If you hear anything, or think of anything else, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, please call us immediately."
"I will," she promised, taking the card.
Later than evening, at the Stetson/King household...
"Ahhh! That was the best pot roast I've had in ages, Dotty," Lee praised, rubbing his hands over his very full stomach.
"Abe Lincoln Pot Roast," she said, beaming with pride at his compliment. "I'm so glad you enjoyed it, Lee."
"It's the best, Grandma," Jamie volunteered. "Lots of potatoes, my favorite!"
Phillip's mouth was too full to add his compliments as he was well into his third bowl, so he simply nodded his agreement enthusiastically, giving Dotty a 'thumbs up'.
Lee and Amanda exchanged a smile. Being together as a family was a rare and enjoyable occasion for them both, but especially for Lee. His hand rested on Amanda's knee, occasionally traveling the length of her thigh. He had never been so content in his life, though he would never have believed it a few years ago.
"Hey, Lee," Phillip said, swallowing the last bite of pot roast into his mouth, "how about a little basketball?"
"Yeah!" agreed Jamie with enthusiasm. "Come on outside and shoot a few hoops, Lee."
"Okay, guys," Lee agreed happily. He loved spending time with his stepsons, and took every possible opportunity to do so. "Go easy on me, though, my stomach's about to burst."
After the three had gone outside, Dotty and Amanda began to stack and carry the dinner dishes into the kitchen, stacking them next to the sink.
"Lee's just too good to be true," Dotty told her daughter with a sigh. "He's gorgeous, he's got manners, he's great with the boys, and he's obviously smitten with you, Darling."
Amanda grinned in complete agreement. "I know, Mother. I'm pretty smitten with him, too."
"So I've noticed," Dotty teased with a grin.
They worked together, discussing the day's events. They could hear sounds from outside of the basketball dribbling, laughter, and good-natured ribbing between Lee and the boys.
"They'll be more than ready for dessert by the time they're done with their game," Dotty observed, laughing.
"You made dessert, too, Mother?" Amanda asked in surprise.
"Of course!" she exclaimed proudly. "Dreamy Creamy Chocolate Mousse Cake! From the new 'Modern Chef' magazine."
"Mmmm." Amanda smiled. "Sounds delicious. You were busy today."
A moment later, the back door opened and Jamie stuck his head in. "Man down," he exclaimed dramatically. "Bring ice!"
Amanda and Dotty exchanged a worried glance, then Amanda ran outside while Dotty prepared an ice pack.
"Oh, sweetheart! What happened?" Amanda inquired as she approached Lee.
Lee was sitting on the ground, trying unsuccessfully to remove his shoe. He grimaced in pain and sat back, placing his hands behind him on the pavement for support. Phillip and Jamie stood back, watching anxiously.
Phillip spoke up. "Well, he was going for a hook shot, and he jumped. When he came down, his foot just kind of flopped over and he fell."
Amanda looked at her son quizzically. "His foot 'flopped over?'" she asked.
She was on her knees and gently removing Lee's tennis shoe. "Ow!" he complained.
"Sorry," she winced.
"My foot just gave out," he told her, frustration evident in his voice. "It hasn't happened in a long time. I injured it about ten years ago and it still bothers me occasionally. I'm sure it's just sprained."
Amanda was slowly peeling off his sock when Dotty came out of the house with the ice. "Do you need to go to the emergency room?" Dotty questioned worriedly.
"No, it's just sprained," Lee repeated, shaking his head. "No doctors."
"It's swelling," Amanda observed, touching it gingerly. Lee watched her face, enjoying the concern he saw there despite the pain from her gentle prodding.
"Whoa," Jamie exclaimed, eyeing Lee's foot, which was turning pink. "It's gonna be huge!"
"Thank you, Dr. King," Amanda responded dryly. "Here, let's get you inside."
With Amanda's and the boys' help, Lee stood up, relying on his good foot, and draped an arm over her shoulder and Phillip's. They slowly made their way into the house, Lee hobbling to keep his weight off his swelling foot. After he was comfortably situated on the couch, Amanda placed the ice pack on his ankle.
"Fellas, you'd better get upstairs and finish your homework," Amanda suggested to the boys, who were hovering over Lee. "When you're finished, you can have some dessert and watch television."
Cheering at the prospect of dessert despite their recent enormous portions of pot roast, Phillip and Jamie raced upstairs. Dotty went up, too, to make a phone call to a friend.
Sighing, Amanda sank down beside her husband, and he draped his arm around her.
"You'd better stay off your foot for a while. Maybe you should go upstairs and lie down in my bed," she told him, her face troubled.
"Are you propositioning me, Mrs. Stetson?" he teased lightly, pulling her close.
"Lee, you are in no condition to..." she began.
Her words were effectively cut off by his kiss. Caressing his chest, she kissed him back obligingly. His hand traveled lower on her hip and squeezed.
"Okay, I take it back," she whispered breathlessly. "Apparently, you are in condition."
Lee grinned, wiggling his eyebrows up and down suggestively. "Did I hear something about dessert?"
"Which kind of dessert are you talking about?" she asked in a throaty voice. His hand had remained on her hip and was now caressing it gently.
"Both," he quipped, tightening his other arm around her waist.
The next morning, Lee's ankle was not too badly swollen, but he was still in a lot of pain. He couldn't pull on a sock, let alone put his foot into a shoe, without wincing. He managed to walk a little, but only with a pronounced limp.
"You can't go in to work like that," Dotty observed, clucking over him like a mother hen. "You can stay home while Amanda goes in and let me mother you. I'll fix your meals, fluff your pillows, bring you fresh-baked cookies..."
Amanda noted the expectant expression on her husband's face. Dotty was doting on her son-in-law, and he was eating it up. She had the feeling he would be a model patient for her mother.
"Mother, you never spoil me like that when I'm sick," Amanda grumbled good-naturedly.
"I do, too," Dotty protested. They could hear her muttering about Amanda's various childhood illnesses as she disappeared upstairs.
"Look," Lee said, cajoling. "I think if I soak it for a few minutes, I'll be able to..."
"No way, Buster." Amanda pointed her finger at him. "I already talked to Billy and he said that you're to stay home and keep off your foot, at least for today."
"But we have to go to Healthwise Pharmaceuticals today," he reminded her half-heartedly.
"Francine and I are going," she informed him, running her fingers through his hair. "Everything's all worked out."
"You and Francine, huh?" he asked gloomily, looking chagrined.
"Yes. You need to stay off your foot, Lee." She moved closer to him. "If it doesn't get better, you will go to the doctor tomorrow, no getting out of it."
"I'll worry about you all day," Lee complained lightly, ignoring her assertion.
"I'll be fine, Big Foot," Amanda joked with a grin.
"You're going to pay for that remark," he laughed, pulling her closer for a kiss.
"I know," she smiled, wiggling her eyebrows at him. "I'll see you later. I'm heading in early to go over the details with Francine."
"Well, better Francine that that oaf Fred. I love you," he said. "Be careful."
"I will. I love you, too," she replied, throwing him a kiss. "Stay off your foot!"
"Good morning, Francine," Amanda greeted cheerfully as she entered the Bullpen.
"Hello, Amanda," Francine returned with a smile. "How's Lee's foot doing?"
"It's pretty painful, but he'll be okay as long as he stays off of it," Amanda said.
"That's doubtful, knowing Lee, but I hope he feels better soon," she said sincerely. "In the meantime, we get to play Charlie's Angels, huh? I get to be Jill Munroe," she joked.
"That's all right, Francine," Amanda responded with a laugh. "I'll be Sabrina, the smart one."
"Ha, ha," Francine responded flatly with a roll of her eyes. They secretly enjoyed their verbal sparring matches.
Billy had been standing out of sight in the doorway of his office, covertly listening to the two women as they teased each other. Deciding to join in on the joke, he bellowed across the Bullpen, "Cagney, Lacey, my office, please." He turned to walk back inside, chuckling heartily at his own cleverness.
Francine and Amanda exchanged amused glances as they followed Billy into his office. He was sitting behind his desk, still shaking with barely suppressed laughter. Both agents grinned at him, shaking their heads.
Getting down to business, Amanda gave a brief report on the meeting with Shelly Stankirk, and Francine handed him a report on 'People for Animals', or PfA The organization had been involved in high-profile cases before, and always seemed to be stirring up a hornet's nest somewhere.
"Well," Billy said after they'd gone over everything. "Looks like you've done the preliminary work. Get to it."
He watched them proudly as they left his office. Never in a million years had he ever thought he'd see the day that they'd get along so well, let alone make such a good team in the field.
Fifteen minutes later, the two were headed for Healthwise Pharmaceuticals. They were to meet with one of Devon Stankirk' colleagues, Dr. Sybil Wellsbury.
Upon arriving, they were greeted, in the spotless lobby, by a tall woman. She had a silver-gray pageboy and appeared immaculate in a violet business suit.
"Hello," the woman greeted them warmly, shaking their hands. Amanda noted that her eyes were the same silvery hue as her hair, presenting a startlingly attractive appearance.
"Hello," Amanda and Francine greeted her.
"I'm Dr. Sybil Wellsbury," she informed them cordially.
"Agents Francine Desmond and Amanda King," Francine responded, gesturing at herself, then Amanda.
"It's nice to meet you both," she said sincerely.
"Likewise," Amanda replied, smiling.
After a pause, Dr. Wellsbury got to the matter at hand. "Frankly, we just don't know what to do about all this. I'm so glad you're here to help." She looked from Francine to Amanda.
"We'll do the best we can," Amanda assured her.
"I'm sure you will," she agreed warmly.
After recapping what they already knew from the reports and from Mrs. Stankirk, they asked if there was anything Dr. Wellsbury could add.
"I really don't think so," she replied thoughtfully. "I mean, we've had some picketing from 'People for Animals' in the past, but they've never stooped to anything this low or serious before," she said, shrugging.
"We'd like to see the animals you use for testing, if you don't mind," Francine replied.
"Actually," a voice responded from an office door, "Not all of the animals are housed here."
Dr. Wellsbury turned towards the man who had just joined them. "Professor Lang," she replied in surprise. "I didn't know you were here today."
The short stocky man entered the room, eyeing Amanda and Francine genially. "How can we be of service to you ladies...?" he paused.
Noting the professor's hesitation, Dr. Wellsbury introduced the three of them.
As she finished, Professor Lang said, "Sybil, I'm sorry to interrupt, but Emma needs you in Administration as soon as possible. Perhaps I can continue with the tour?"
"Certainly," she agreed easily.
After she excused herself and left, the professor turned to them with a smile. "I have such a terrible memory," he explained apologetically. "I'd been told your names, but forgive me for not remembering. I do know you're from a government agency and are here because of the kidnapping of our colleague, Dr. Stankirk. How can we be of service?"
Amanda spoke up. "Dr. Wellsbury was just filling us in a little on what's been going on."
"What did you mean when you said the animals aren't housed here?" Francine asked, arching an eyebrow. "I thought this was the research facility."
The professor cleared his throat and made a sweeping gesture. "This facility is equipped for research and administration only. Most of the animals are not housed here, for lack of space. A small number of them are brought and kept here for testing, but the majority of them are kept in a satellite research and housing facility not far from here."
"Well, may we see the ones that are here?" Amanda asked hopefully, rubbing her hands together.
"Certainly," he agreed, shoving his sausage-like hands into his pockets. "Normally, it would be out of the question, but under the circumstances, we're prepared to cooperate with you fully. Follow me, please."
Walking after him through the lobby, they soon found themselves in a long white corridor. The professor walked surprisingly fast on his short legs. As he strode along, he continued speaking. "You'll have to visit our satellite facility, too," he was saying. "Maybe tomorrow."
"Is PfA aware of that facility?" Amanda asked him as they walked along, their heels clicking noisily on the flooring.
"Not that I'm aware of, thank heavens," he answered, pulling an ID pass out of his pocket. Inserting the card into a keypad mounted on the wall to the right of a large white door, he turned toward them. "You'll want to wear lab coats inside," he suggested. "The monkeys sometimes like to throw their food, and whatever else they can, at strangers."
"Oh, joy," Francine responded sarcastically, glancing down at her new designer suit. The professor noted Francine's chagrin and grinned unabashedly at Amanda.
Amanda couldn't resist ribbing Francine. "You know how to handle monkeys, Francine. After all you used to have one, remember?"
Francine pointed a warning finger at Amanda. "Not funny then, not funny now." Still, she was unable to maintain her stern expression.
Stepping aside, Professor Lang held the door open for them gallantly, then entered after them. He led them to a rack of white lab coats, indicating that they should each select one as he did the same.
Again, inserting his card into another slot, the expansive interior room was opened to them. The professor switched on the lights. Amanda and Francine glanced around the room, which was sterile, white and eerily quiet. No one else was present in the lab.
Two small rows of cages lined one wall and in the middle of the room sat several gleaming examination tables. Trays with syringes and other equipment stood at the ready. The room gave the impression of antiseptic cleanliness.
A piercing, excited scream erupted, filling the room with banshee-like echoes. What followed was a chorus of screaming, scuffling, meowing, and cage doors rattling. Cats yawned and rubbed their heads on the doors, monkeys grabbed the bars and shook with all their might, rats scurried back and forth.
"The animals usually sleep in the afternoon while the team has their lunch. We've roused them." He smiled apologetically, then laughed at the cacophony as he looked around the room.
Amanda and Francine stepped forward for a better look at the creatures. On the top row were four caged monkeys. One of them grinned broadly at them and turned around in his cage, his long tail sticking out through the bars. When he faced them again, he aimed and flung a brown apple core directly at Francine.
"Hey!" she protested, covering her face protectively with her hands and turning away. The half-eaten fruit missed her by an inch. The monkey screeched with animated delight, waving his arms above his head like a prizefighter.
"Now, Winger," Professor Lang scolded, wagging a finger at the errant monkey. "That wasn't a very polite way to welcome Ms. Desmond, was it?"
"His name is Winger?" Amanda smiled and stepped closer, holding her finger out for the monkey, who was stretching his hand out toward her. He grasped her finger and shook it as if greeting her with a handshake, showing none of the mischief he'd displayed a moment earlier.
"Yes, we name all of the animals - very unorthodox, I know. Many of them are only used for testing for a period of six months to a year, after which members of the staff, their family or friends often adopt them. We're very proactive in finding homes for every animal. Again, I realize this is not the norm, but it wouldn't even be possible if the animals were being abused."
Looking closer, Amanda noted nameplates on each monkey's cage: Winger, Vera, Molly and Bruno. The primates appeared to be cared for and well fed.
Professor Lang next indicated the six cages containing felines. "These are some of the kitties," he told them. Amanda smiled at his reference to the cats as kitties. "I have five cats at home, myself. All of which I adopted from the lab. My wife wouldn't mind five more, but we've got enough to handle as it is."
"Hello, kitties," he greeted them as he walked by the cages. They mewled in answer.
The cats were also named – Sam, Frodo, Mickey, Fluffy, Rascal and Foxy - and they, too, seemed to be content. They had food, water and spacious clean cages. Most of them were purring and appeared healthy andaffectionate, rubbing their ears on the bars of the cages.
Amanda walked up to one cage and began to scratch Sam's ears, sticking her fingers through the bars and talking to him as he strained for the contact.
Francine was inspecting the rats, which were located on the opposite side of the room in smaller enclosures. "You even name the rats?" she questioned in disbelief, gesturing to the name plates.
"Oh, yes," the professor answered eagerly, heading over to stand beside her. "We name all of the creatures, like I said. George, here, is aging very rapidly indeed, I'm afraid."
Amanda joined them. "How old is he?" she questioned.
"He's two months old." Professor Lang replied as he shook his head ruefully. "We injected him at three weeks of age. He'll be dead within a week due to old age."
The rat certainly looked very old. His fur was sparse and gray, and his eyes were yellow and rheumy. He huddled in the corner, having burrowed into a rag for warmth.
Another rat was busily racing around his bowl of water. "How old is Harold?" Francine inquired.
"Harold has surpassed a normal rat's life span by three months and is still going strong," he told them with pride. Then, surprising both of them, he reached in and picked the rat up, kissed its head and replaced it in its cage.
"Well," Amanda said, smiling at the affection the man had bestowed on the rodent. "Thank you so much for allowing us to observe the animals, Professor Lang."
"You're quite welcome. On the way out, I'll have the receptionist give you a map to the research facility. It's fully staffed. I'll also alert Brenda Tomlinson that you're coming. She, along with her team, oversees the care of all the animals there."
"That would be very helpful," Francine responded.
"You know," he told them earnestly, "we hate to do any kind of experimentation at all on the animals, but this project could be a potential boon for humankind. If we can extend our lifespan by ten or fifteen years or more... think of the possibilities! This is the only project for which we allow animal testing here at Healthwise. It's not our normal practice, and we receive most of the poor creatures from shelters, except for the monkeys and rats. As you know, sadly most animals in shelters end up being destroyed. So they've been granted at least a little more time by coming here, and often they end up with loving homes after they've done their duty."
He led them back to the lobby and over to a long reception desk. "Stacey," he addressed the receptionist. "Please draw up a map to our satellite facility for Agents Desmond and King. And write down Brenda's name, as they'll be meeting with her."
"Yes, Sir," she said, crisply professional.
The professor said goodbye and shook their hands warmly, inviting them to come back, if necessary. He gave them his business card and that of Dr. Wellsbury. Then, he quickly disappeared down another corridor.
Stacey glanced up at Francine and Amanda, appraising them with her aloof green eyes. "Here you go, ladies," she said.
"Thank you," Amanda replied, accepting the offered map.
"Enjoy the tour of the research facility," she told them, a peculiar edge to her voice.
As they headed for the car, Francine asked, "That receptionist was a little strange, don't you think?"
Amanda nodded her agreement. "I thought so, too. I felt like I was under a microscope. We should run a background check on her - there's a complete staff list for Healthwise back at the Agency."
"Good idea," Francine agreed approvingly.
An hour later, Amanda stood at the printer at the Agency, waiting for a file to run, tapping her ballpoint pen against the machine.
"That's funny," she murmured thoughtfully as the pages printed out.
"What's funny?" Francine asked, heading toward Amanda to glance over her shoulder.
"Stacey Peters is not on this staff list," she explained, handing the list to Francine.
Francine studied it for a moment, then sighed, shaking her head. "Strange. I'll call Professor Lang and ask him why."
Ten minutes later, she returned. "Easily explained," she informed Amanda. "Stacey Peters is a temp - she lives in Arlington. Their regular receptionist, Gaylynn Lewis, is on maternity leave. They just forgot to provide us with that information."
"Okay," Amanda said, punching keys. "Stacey Peters. Aha! That was easy. There she is... She's the only Stacey Peters in Arlington, at least with the 'ey' spelling, so let's see... Oh, my gosh!"
"What?" Francine asked and moved closer, taking the seat next to Amanda to see the screen.
"She's actively involved with PfA." Amanda pointed to the screen and looked at Francine, her eyes wide. "Has been for about four years."
"Well!" Francine exclaimed, standing. "Isn't that interesting? Let's go talk to Billy."
"So," Billy remarked thoughtfully, folding his arms across his ample chest. "PfA has a mole at Healthwise… And apparently they're not aware of it."
"Yes, Sir," Amanda confirmed.
"And she wasn't happy to see us," Francine offered. Rolling her eyes at Amanda, she added, "It's a good thing that looks can't kill."
"I think that Professor Lang should be informed as soon as possible," Billy asserted.
"Tomorrow, we'll check out the facility where the majority of the animals are kept. If everything checks out, we'll go from there." Francine looked over at Amanda. "I think we'll also be having a discussion with Stacey Peters."
"Yeah," Amanda nodded. "We'll have a chat with her. Obviously she knows where Dr. Stankirk is being held."
"Good," Billy approved, nodding. "Be careful, both of you."
"We will, Sir."
Amanda went home early and found Lee playing video games with Phillip and Jamie. The three of them were cheering loudly and high-fiving each other over Jamie's high score. Noises of Dotty's dinner preparations filtered through the house as did the smell of roast chicken and scalloped potatoes.
"Hello, family!" she greeted cheerfully.
"Mom!" The boys ran to greet her and brag about how terrible Lee was at video games. "Lee's getting better, but man - he wiped out on every game we played!" Jamie told her excitedly.
"Actually, it was pretty funny," Phillip added with a grin.
"Hey!" Lee called out, defending himself from his position on the couch. "Give me time. Just wait until I get the hang of this controller thing!"
The boys laughed raucously and went into the kitchen to ask their grandmother when dinner would be ready and try to sneak a taste. Amanda could hear her mother giving them each an apple and then shooing them out.
Smiling, Amanda stepped into the family room and over to her husband. "How's the foot, handsome?" she asked as she leaned over the back of the couch to encircle her husband's shoulders from behind.
Lee leaned back and nuzzled his face in her neck, inhaling her scent. "Mmmm, much better now!"
"Oh, really?" she grinned.
"You bet. So how'd it go today?" he asked.
Amanda circled around to the front of the couch and sat down next to him. "Good," she responded. "I'll tell you more about it after dinner. Right now, I think I'll go help Mother."
She started to stand up, but he grabbed her hips and pulled her down onto his lap. "Where do you think you're going?" he growled. "You haven't given me a kiss yet."
"Well, where are my manners?" she purred, twisting towards him. He captured her lips in a long sweet kiss.
"That's more like it," he exclaimed, grinning and releasing her. "Now you can go to the kitchen, woman."
Amanda smiled at his macho comment and stood up. Lee lightly swatted her behind. Turning, she gave him a flirty wink. "Save it for later, Mr. Stetson."
He laughed, watching as she sauntered into the kitchen, swinging her hips seductively for his benefit. Anticipation swept through him as he pondered what 'later' would entail. 'I was either blind or completely insane when I first met her!' he thought to himself, shaking his head.
"Hello, Mother," she greeted happily, kissing Dotty on the cheek.
"Hello, Darling," Dotty smiled affectionately. "How was your day?"
"Really good," she answered. "How was yours? Was he a terror?" she asked jokingly, gesturing toward Lee.
"Not at all!" Dotty exclaimed. "I love taking care of Lee. He's an angel, Amanda!"
"I think it's down to your wonderful care, Mother," Amanda said, giving her a quick hug. "You should see him when he's in the hospital Every nurse in a fifty mile radius has been warned about him. Now, what can I do to help with dinner?" she asked, rolling up her sleeves.
Later that evening, after everyone else had gone to bed, Amanda and Lee lay cuddled together in their room as she filled him in on the day's activities.
"Sounds like you and Francine have everything under control," Lee said, pouting to tease her. He rubbed her arm lovingly. "Next thing I know, you'll ask Billy to assign you and Francine as partners."
"Oh, yeah," Amanda mocked him, lightly tracing circles on his abdomen as she watched it quiver. "That's exactly what I was planning."
"Come here," he commanded, rolling over and dragging her with him. His hands began to roam down her body. "I seem to remember you telling me to 'save it for later,'" he whispered seductively. "Well, guess what? It's later."
Amanda quivered at the resonance of his voice. She stretched her body over to see the clock on the nightstand. "I believe you're right!" she exclaimed in mock-surprise and relaxed against him.
"I'm always right," he agreed lightly. With a salacious grin, he rolled her back over and began planting greedy kisses all over.
The next morning, Lee insisted on going in to the Agency. "I can sit in the Q-Bureau and go through paperwork, at least. I can't stay at home another day - I'll go nuts, despite getting the royal treatment from your Mother!" He had complained until Amanda had finally given in.
Amanda drove them in and settled Lee upstairs in the Q-Bureau, then went to the Bullpen to check in with Billy and Francine. After making arrangements for the day and being reminded by Billy to call for backup under suspicious circumstances, they headed out.
"Billy gets more and more protective all the time," kidded Francine. "Sometimes it's more like he's a father than a boss."
"Yeah," Amanda agreed. "It's kind of nice."
"Yes," Francine agreed with a warm smile. "It is, I suppose."
Francine and Amanda drove up and parked at the research facility that Stacey had indicated on the map she had drawn. The building had a large 'Healthwise Pharmaceuticals' sign painted on its side.
"How did the professor take the news about Stacey Peters?" Francine asked.
"He was pretty upset and surprised," Amanda told her. "He was going to let her go this morning."
"It's strange, Amanda." Francine looked askance at her partner. "It could be nothing, but this place seems deserted. Look at the lot… ours is one only a few cars here. I think we should call for backup before we go in. Just in case."
"Then, let's do it," Amanda immediately agreed.
Francine dialed the Agency on her car phone, and was put through to Billy. She briefed him and asked for a backup team, and he told her he'd arrange to send one right away.
Back at the Agency, Billy broke the connection, then redialed and ordered a backup team to meet Francine and Amanda. He hung up and looked over to find Lee Stetson standing in his doorway.
"Are you sending a team to Amanda and Francine?" he asked.
Billy nodded in confirmation. "I'm glad you're here, Scarecrow, I was about to call you. I ordered a backup team to assist. They have a feeling that something's not quite right. Amanda will have my head for letting you leave, but I know you'll want to be there. Here's a copy of the map."
"Thanks," Lee said gratefully as he accepted the map and turned to leave Billy's office.
Amanda and Francine sat in their car waiting for the Agency contingent. Neither of them noticed the white van hovering in the distance.
"Well, it's a good thing we found out about Stacey Peters. At least we have her address if we have any questions for her," Francine remarked.
"And we probably will," concurred Amanda. Glancing around, she added, "You're right, there sure aren't very many other cars in this lot. Professor Lang told us the facility is fully staffed. But then, it's still pretty early. I hope the team gets here soon."
A door opened, and a young brunette woman in a white lab coat strode purposefully toward them.
"Hi," she greeted them through the rolled-down car window. "I'm Brenda Tomlinson. Professor Lang told me to expect you. Why didn't you come to the door?"
"We were about to. Where's the rest of the staff?" Amanda asked.
"Well," Brenda laughed, tossing her curly hair. "It's pretty early. I always like to be here by seven. Everyone else drifts in around nine."
"Oh," they replied, exchanging a look.
"Well, come on in," she started toward the building, clearly expecting them to follow. "We'll get started on the tour. It'll be better without so many staff around."
Francine and Amanda glanced at each other once more, not moving. Knowing now that something was definitely going on, neither moved right away.
Brenda sensed their hesitation, her eyes hardening. "I'm afraid I'm going to have to insist," she said firmly as she returned to the car. Her tone was suddenly menacing. She pulled a small gun out of the pocket of her lab coat before Francine or Amanda had a chance to react.
"Now," Brenda ordered, "hand me your weapons. Nice and easy."
Reluctantly, Francine drew her pistol from her waistband. "Careful," Brenda's voice was cold. "Don't try anything stupid. Yours, too," she said to Amanda as she took Francine's gun and dropped it into the pocket of her lab coat.
Amanda withdrew her pistol from her purse and reluctantly handed it to Brenda as she gave Francine a look.
"Get out of the car," she demanded. They complied, moving slowly.
After frisking both of them, Brenda motioned for them to go ahead of her. The three made their way to the building. Upon entering, it was obvious that this was not a research facility, but rather some kind of storage depository.
"Get in there," Brenda roughly shoved Amanda towards a small room.
"What kind of place is this? This isn't where the animals are housed, is it?" Francine asked.
"No," the woman answered with annoyance.
"I'd be willing to bet that you're not Brenda, either," Francine continued, undaunted.
"Right again, Blondie. Not that you're in any position to interrogate me. This is a storage warehouse for Healthwise Pharmaceuticals. Medical supplies, lab coats, lab equipment, everything except the animals."
Amanda entered the room and 'Brenda' slammed the door and locked it. "You come with me," she ordered Francine.
"Where are we going?" Francine questioned, wondering why she and Amanda were being separated.
'Brenda' ignored the question. "It's a shame that the professor got you and your friend into this mess. We had all our plans made to blow this building up when he insisted that Brenda show you around. I'm sure you know by now that Stacey is with us. She gave you a map to this warehouse instead of the facility where the animals are kept. They're safe and sound, but Healthwise will suffer financially when we destroy all their equipment."
Francine studied the angry young woman as they walked along. "What's your name?" she asked her.
"Nina," she snapped, shrugging. "Why do you want to know?"
"Do you realize what you're about to do?" Francine questioned, trying to look into the young woman's eyes. "Nina, your motivation is to save animals, but you're about to kill two innocent humans. How just is that?"
"Innocent? Innocent?!" Nina's voice rose. "You're on their side. You're defending them!"
"Nina, We were assigned to this case to investigate the facts and find Dr. Stankirk. We're not on anyone's side," she tried to reason with the angry woman.
"Shut up," she yelled. She pushed Francine into a closet and locked it. "It won't be long, now," Nina informed her through the door, giving it a pat of finality.
Francine heard Nina rushing away. She waited a moment, then felt the doorknob and sighed with relief at discovering that it had a keyhole on the inside. Quickly, she pulled a pin out of her collar and began desperately trying to pick the lock. She was worried about her partner; Amanda had no idea about the bomb.
Francine made fast work of the shoddy closet lock, which told her that Nina didn't expect it to have to hold her for long. She feared that she wouldn't have time to reach Amanda if she stayed inside the building, and worse, she might run into Nina. Francine had been led to the opposite side of the warehouse from where she had last seen Amanda. She decided to go out the back door, run around the building, and back in the entrance they'd originally used.
Immediately after she escaped, a thunderous explosion roared through the building. Francine was thrown forcibly to the ground, grinding her palms into the pavement and landing hard on her knees. Stunned, she turned to see the warehouse engulfed in raging red and orange flames. Thick black smoke billowed out the doors and through the roof, causing the air to turn sooty.
Coughing and slightly dazed, Francine staggered painfully to her feet, aware that there was no way anyone inside could have survived such a blast. "Oh, no! Amanda!" she lamented, remembering her partner.
As soon as the door to the room had shut, Amanda had immediately pulled a lock pick out of her sleeve and gone to work. It had taken a while, but after five minutes, she'd felt the locking mechanism give way, and she pushed open the door. She made her way through the hallway they'd been led down and found the outside door.
She'd have to find Francine, but first, she wanted to see if their backup had arrived. Hoping to find an Agency vehicle or two, she stepped out into the bright sunlight and looked around. There was no sign of anyone or any recognizable cars or vans. Shrugging, she was about to return to search for Francine, when a white van screeched out of nowhere and pulled up alongside her.
Two men jumped out and seized her, dragging her forcefully into the vehicle. They shoved her into a corner. 'Brenda' turned to glare at her. "You were supposed to die in the explosion," she hissed as the van sped away.
"Where's Francine?" Amanda asked, rubbing her left shoulder where she'd hit the wall of the van. She was startled as, behind them, the building she had just exited exploded violently and burst into flames.
"Francine!" she cried out in anguish.
Strong hands grabbed her and one of the men covered her mouth with thick black tape, while another bound her hands and feet with twine that dug painfully into her flesh.
"You may come to regret not having been in the building," one of them snarled. Then, one man held her as the other slapped a cloth, saturated with a sickeningly sweet smell, over her nose and mouth. She quickly faded into merciful oblivion.
Lee and the contingent team arrived seconds after the Healthwise structure had erupted into a furious fireball. In all the commotion, no one had seen or heard the white van race off in the distance.
Lee bounded out of his car in a flash and raced towards the chaos, his eyes furiously searching for Amanda and Francine. He had recognized their car, parked in the lot, a few spaces away from his own. His heart pounding, the deafening sound of the inferno thundering in his ears, he circled the building, desperately calling for his wife and friend.
"Amanda! Francine! Amanda!" he yelled frantically. The booming roar of the conflagration was the only answer he received. "Where are you?"
The warehouse had been immense. Agents converged on the site and raced to catch up with Lee as the sound of sirens screamed through the congested air, looming closer by the second. As the roof collapsed, a booming crash echoed through the smoky haze.
"No!" Lee screamed in horror, his face and clothing blackened from the charcoal soot and ashes.
Agent Roberts caught up to him first, and raced alongside Lee, who was now limping noticeably. Together, they spotted Francine. She stood alone, unsteadily, in the parking lot, staring at the inferno. Covered in black ashes, her slacks shredded at the knees, and her knees and hands bloodied, she teetered on the verge of shock.
Lee rushed to her side and wrapped his arm around her. "Oh, my God...Lee!" she exclaimed, clutching his arm. "Where's Amanda?" she asked fervently, a note of hysteria in her voice.
"She wasn't with you?" Lee demanded, handing her over to Roberts.
"No - she was locked in a room on the other side of the warehouse from where I was," she replied shakily, pointing. Her eyes were distressed and wild. "Oh, Lee...It all happened so fast...I don't know..."
"I'll find her," he vowed, taking off in the direction in which Francine had pointed. To Roberts, he said, "Take care of Francine."
Lee ignored the searing pain in his ankle as he sped around to the front of the building, which was still rolling in flames and dark smoke. "Amanda!" he yelled at the top of his lungs.
Firemen, who had just arrived at the scene, prevented his attempt to enter the warehouse. "Sir, you have to stay away from the building."
"My wife is in there!" Lee shouted heatedly, trying valiantly to break out of their grasp. "Let me go!"
"Sir, no one could have survived a blast like that! If you go in, you'll die for sure!"
Another firefighter rushed up and helped to restrain Lee. Roberts and Francine appeared; they must have followed him. Lee struggled with all his might to break free.
"Let me go!" he screamed again, attempting to break free. "I have to find her!"
Francine laid a gentle hand on Lee's arm. "Lee, you won't do Amanda any good if you charge in there and get yourself killed. If she was in there when the building blew, she's gone. But if you go in there, you'll die for sure, and her family is going to need you."
Lee looked into Francine's eye for a long moment, her words sinking in. The building was a huge fireball; not even the firemen could get close enough to get inside at this stage. Finally he nodded stiffly, his body relaxing. The firemen released him, and he turned and embraced her tightly.
"She must have gotten out, Lee," Francine asserted, grasping at hope. "The lock on the closet was easy to pick; maybe she picked hers too, and came outside looking for the backup team, same as me."
"She did," Lee affirmed, his eyes anguished. "I know she's not dead. I'd feel it if she was." His voice trembled with emotion. "She can't be dead."
Still, a cold fear had wrapped itself around his heart, and he desperately wanted to know where she was. He knew she had to be alive despite the odds, but was worried that she even if she got out of the building she might still be in grave danger, otherwise where was she? 'Hold on, Amanda. I swear I'll find you.'
Amanda stirred, trying determinedly to regain consciousness. As she slowly came to, she distinctly heard Lee's voice, telling her that he would find her. 'Hold on,' he'd whispered fervently.
She sat up and looked around, finding herself in a dark, chilly room. Gingerly, she moved her hands and feet; they had been untied. She rubbed her wrists and winced at the abrasions from the biting twine. She put a hand up to her mouth and was relieved to find the tape gone.
Her thoughts turned suddenly to Francine. Had she made it out? Where had 'Brenda' taken her? Sorrow filled Amanda as she realized that she might have lost a good friend. She closed her eyes and tried to remain calm. She had to be strong. This was not the time to break down. She had to get out of here... wherever 'here' was.
"Hello?" she whispered softly into the darkness.
"Who are you?" a shaky male voice responded.
"My name is Amanda," she responded, heartened to hear another voice. "Who are you?"
"Devon Stankirk," he replied quietly.
"Oh my gosh!" Amanda exclaimed. She tried to stand up, but bumped her head. Putting one hand above her and one out in front, she felt the top of a cage and icy steel bars.
"Ouch! I'm in a cage!" she cried in surprise. "Oh my gosh!" she said again, this time in indignation.
"I've been in a cage for five days," he informed her dryly. "There's no way to get out."
"We'll see about that," she replied with determination. Pulling her lock pick out for the second time, she started working on the lock outside her cage. Awkwardly, she worked at the mechanism backwards, straining her arms and hands to reach it.
"You recognized my name, didn't you?" he asked her. "Who are you?"
"Yes, I recognized your name," she admitted. "I'm a federal agent. My name is Amanda King, and I was assigned to find you. I guess I've done my job," she joked lightly.
"Have you seen my wife?" he asked with concern, turning toward the sound of her friendly voice.
"Yes, I've met her. She's very worried about you," Amanda assured him as she continued to work on the lock.
"Poor Shelly," he moaned mournfully. "I miss her so much. For animal lovers, these people are incredibly heartless," he continued. "They don't care if you starve or freeze to death in here."
"Just relax and hang on, I'm gonna get us out of here," she told him. "Are you injured at all?"
"Just my pride," he answered with a rueful laugh. "Being in a cage kind of takes away your self-respect."
Amanda laughed with him. "Just hang on," she repeated.
Billy arrived on the scene ten minutes after Lee. The firefighters had finally gotten a handle on the blaze, which was now almost completely contained. The former warehouse was little more than a smoldering shell.
Lee and Francine had checked the room Amanda had been locked in, and had discovered the door open, the lock presumably picked. Amazingly, the fire hadn't totally consumed that area and it was obvious that she had escaped.
Francine breathed a sigh of relief, then said, "Thank goodness she got out before the building blew, but," she bemoaned, "if she got out, where is she?"
"I don't know," Lee said grimly.
"I think we need to have a chat with Stacey Peters," Francine said.
"Who?" Lee asked.
"Stacey Peters, the temporary receptionist at Healthwise. Surely Amanda told you..." she began.
Lee nodded, remembering. "Oh, yeah. She did. Stacey is involved with PfA, which means she probably knows where Amanda is. Let's go," he said, ready for action.
They stopped and informed Billy of the latest developments and learned that the firefighters hadn't found any bodies inside the building. Breathing a collective sigh of relief, the three agreed to keep in frequent contact with one another. Lee and Francine headed for the Corvette and set off to find Stacey Peters.
Lee waited, gun drawn, against the apartment building outside Stacey's door. Francine knocked loudly and glanced at Lee. He nodded.
The young woman answered her door cautiously. Her green eyes were red-rimmed and puffy from crying. When she recognized Francine, she wordlessly stepped back to allow them entry, a resigned expression on her face.
"I knew you'd come," she said in between sniffles. "I'm actually glad you're here. I'll tell you whatever you want to know. She dropped her head in defeat. "I already know I'm in a lot of trouble, but I'm going to cooperate with you. I just want out of this mess once and for all!"
"Why are you suddenly in such a compliant mood?" Francine asked suspiciously, placing her hands on her hips.
"After I gave you and your friend the bogus address for the research facility, I called Steve. Steve is the one behind this whole thing. He was also my boyfriend," she confessed.
She paused and looked at Lee and Francine guiltily. "He told me that it was over between us, that he was in love with Nina." She spat out the name as if it was poisonous.
"Nina is the one who forced Amanda and me into the warehouse before it blew up," Francine explained to Lee.
"I didn't know that was going to happen, I swear!" Stacey asserted. "This whole thing got way out of hand. They were only supposed to scare you, not hurt anyone! I was so stupid; I did everything Steve told me to because I thought he loved me. I never expected things to get so crazy."
"Where are they holding Dr. Stankirk? Is Amanda being held in the same place?" Lee prompted impatiently, feeling no sympathy for Stacey's romantic woes.
"I'm sure she's where Dr. Stankirk is," she confessed, nodding. "I'll take you there."
"Got it!" Amanda proclaimed.
She opened the door to her cage and gingerly stepped out, and began to stretch. "Ouch," she muttered, rubbing her cramped shoulder.
"You got out!" Devon whispered, duly impressed.
"Shhh," she admonished him. "Be quiet, or they'll hear you."
She noiselessly set to work on his cage door. It was easier now that she could face the lock rather than working backwards, but the darkness slowed her down.
She recalled the day she escaped from her handcuffs for the first time under Leatherneck's supervision. Lee had walked in and watched, so amused. He was surprised when she released the tumblers so quickly. He'd told her later, that it wasn't her cuffed hands he'd been watching, but rather the view beneath them. She'd responded by smacking his arm.
Sighing, she wished he was with her now. He had to be crazy with worry, wondering where she was. She only hoped he didn't think she'd been killed in the explosion.
'I'm okay, Lee,' she said to him silently. 'I'll get back to you as soon as I can! I love you.'
'I'm okay, Lee. I'll get back to you as soon as I can! I love you.'
'Amanda?' Lee straightened in his seat and frowned as he drove towards their destination, certain that he'd just heard Amanda's voice. Stacey sat in the back of the car giving directions. They'd promised to smooth the way for her, given her cooperation and obvious remorse.
Francine, noticing the change in Lee's expression eyed him with concern. "You okay?" she asked, looking at him curiously.
Lee wasn't about to tell her that he'd heard Amanda talking to him, telling him she was okay. She would think he was crazy. "Yeah," he answered tersely, "fine."
They pulled up in front of a large house in an upscale neighborhood. "Where are we?" Francine asked, turning toward Stacey and watching her carefully.
Stacey explained, "Steve inherited this house from his dad. He doesn't live here," she gestured toward the dwelling, "but uses it for PfA meetings, parties, and stuff like that."
They exited the vehicle and carefully headed for the house.
"No one should be here now, except Steve and Nina," Stacey whispered. "They're trying to figure out what to do with Dr. Stankirk."
"Okay," Amanda said quietly. "Come on out, Dr. Stankirk."
She helped him climb out of the confining cage. He sagged to his knees, lacking the strength to stand after being locked in the cage for so long.
"Take a few minutes, then we have to try and get out of here," Amanda told him seriously.
"Okay," he agreed. "Please call me Devon."
"How often do they come down here?" she asked him.
"Down here?" he questioned. "How do you know we're 'down' anywhere?"
"Well," she shrugged. "There are no windows, there's lots of noise from upstairs, and it's freezing. It has to be a basement."
"Good show, Sherlock!" he teased, grinning.
"Elementary, my dear Watson," she joked back.
Within minutes of breaking into the house, Francine and Lee subdued Steve and Nina. Francine, looking fatigued and sore, phoned Billy, who told her that he'd send a team over right away.
Meanwhile, Stacey took the key from Steve's pocket and slapped him across the face, then led Lee down to the basement. Inserting the key into the lock, she opened the door and switched on the light. Amanda and Devon Stankirk looked up in surprise as they walked into the room.
With the aid of the light now filtering through the room, Amanda sat the doctor in a chair and rushed into Lee's waiting arms. He held her tightly against his chest, whispering her name into her hair.
The next evening, Lee and Amanda stood in the backyard watching two thick steaks cook over the glowing coals of the barbeque grill. Lee had his arms wrapped tightly around his wife, grateful to have her back safe and sound.
"It was wonderful of Billy to give us the rest of the week off," Amanda said, leaning back against her husband's strong physique.
"Yes, it was," Lee agreed. "Especially since we just got back from two weeks off… not that he knew we were on our second honeymoon," he added.
"Mhm," was the only response she was capable of as he gently rubbed her shoulders. Rousing herself, she said, "He's going to have to be told sooner or later, unless he's already figured it out and is waiting to see when we'll fess up."
"That's a discussion for another day," Lee protested. "I was so worried about you," Lee told her, pulling her closer. "But somehow I knew you weren't in the building when it blew."
"How'd you know that?" she asked.
"I don't know, I just... knew. I was running around like crazy trying to find you, but I kept telling myself you weren't in there," he told her, rubbing her arms.
"Lee?" She turned to face him.
"When I was coming to, I could have sworn that I heard you telling me to hold on, that you'd find me," she told him, searching his eyes.
"Yeah," he looked at her in astonishment. "I did, I said that to you. I mean, I said it in my own head," he tried to explain. "I heard you, too."
"What did I say?" Amanda asked, knowing the answer already.
"You said you were okay, that you'd get back to me soon, and that you love me."
She stared at her husband in amazement. "That's exactly what I said," she said, smiling.
"Amanda," Lee whispered as he leaned in to kiss her on the neck. "You're so much a part of me. I don't know how I ever lived without you."
She inclined her neck to give him better access. "I know what you mean. I feel the same way."
He continued kissing her, nudging her blouse over to caress her shoulder with his lips. Amanda relaxed further into him, enjoying his attentions.
With Dotty visiting Lillian and the boys with Joe and Carrie, they had the entire house to themselves for three days.
"Hmm?" came his muffled response.
"The steaks are going to burn," she informed him, eyeing the smoking meat.
He pulled back, turned, and kissed her lips. "Is that all you ever think of? Food?" he teased.
"No, I can think of one or two other things," she teased back. "I'm going to go finish the salad."
Lee watched her walk back into the house. He looked down at the grass longingly. He'd been planning on leading Amanda down, onto it, before she reminded him of their dinner.
They ate by candlelight, enjoying each other's company and talking a little bit about the case. Amanda told him, in detail, what had happened to Francine and her, up until the time they'd been separated.
"Francine was really worried about you," Lee told her, running a hand through his hair as he remembered his own concern.
"I was worried about her, too," Amanda said. "I saw the explosion from the back of the van." A shudder ran through her body as she remembered seeing the building erupt, fearing that her friend was still inside.
"It's amazing that we can hear each other," Lee mused. Then, catching Amanda's eye, he playfully challenged, "I wonder if we could do it right now."
Amanda shrugged. "I don't know," she said. "Let's try it."
"Okay. Tell me what I'm thinking," he said, closing his eyes.
After a moment he opened them. "Well?"
"Nothing came to me," she admitted.
"Well, then," he said, "you think something and I'll try to 'hear' you."
Amanda closed her eyes and concentrated, trying to send him a message. Opening her eyes after a moment, she shook her head, and they laughed uncertainly.
"Oh, well," she said, shrugging again.
"Maybe it only works in dire circumstances," Lee suggested, in a half-teasing tone, but he had a perplexed look on his face. This wasn't the first occurrence of a special connection between himself and Amanda, and he was fascinated by it. He had every intention of pursuing his investigation in the future, but for now, he was happy to accept it as a special gift they shared when in need.
As they cleared away the dishes, the phone rang. Billy wanted to let them know that Devon Stankirk had been reunited with his wife after his debriefing. Stacey Peters was going to get off light, though he didn't know exactly what that meant, yet. The PfA was on its way to being dissolved.
"Thanks for calling, Billy," Lee said as he hung up the phone. He filled Amanda in as they finished cleaning the kitchen.
After they poured a couple of glasses of wine, they snuggled up together on the couch. Lee wrapped his arms tightly around his wife and nuzzled her neck. "I'm so glad you're okay," he whispered.
"Me, too," she responded.
She turned toward him. He took her face in his hands and kissed her deeply. Increasing the pressure of the kiss, he leaned forward, causing her to lay back against the couch. "What do you say we take this upstairs," he whispered seductively.
"Sounds like a plan to me," she agreed, smiling suggestively. "We can engage in some life-affirming activities..."
He cut her off from saying more with another kiss that penetrated through to her soul. Scooping her up into his arms, he whispered into her ear, "I hear those life-affirming activities keep a person pretty youthful."
Amanda laughed throatily as Lee carried her up the stairs to the haven of their bedroom. "Well, then, we'll be forever young, won't we?"