Billy Melrose took a deep breath and said a fervent prayer that Robert would make it out. Peering out from his hiding place, the agent searched in vain for any sign of his young partner. In his seven years at The Agency, Robert Muir was the best agent Billy had ever worked with. Of course, five years ago when he had been given the young rookie as a partner, his thoughts had not been exactly kind.
"Why me?" He had complained to Harry Thornton, head and founder of The Agency. "He's as green as they come, Harry." Billy had lamented. "A college degree and a charming smile don't automatically make a man agent material."
"You're right," Harry had agreed, "it doesn't," not bringing up to Billy he was only a two-year man himself, which some considered being still green. "But Robert's got a lot going for him and you know it. He's intelligent, inventive and quick. He can handle a gun better than half of you older guys and he's light on his feet. And just because he's young doesn't mean a thing. Work with him, get to know him. I guarantee that Melrose and Muir will be the best team we have ever produced."
"Come on Bobby," Billy now quietly cheered him through clenched teeth. It had started out as a routine assignment. Three men were sighted at the docks late at night and when questioned had been evasive about their reasons.
Robert had been more than a little curious. "I checked their records. Two of them check out; names, birth dates, occupations, but this fellow right here, this one bothers me." He pointed to the surveillance photo. "I can't figure out exactly what it is that bothers me, but it does."
Billy had learned after five years to trust Robert's instincts and so they pursued it. It was a perfect night for a little investigation, a nice breeze blowing, just enough moonlight to see but not to hinder. Each at a listening post, they had clearly heard the plans for taking out three of the top western agents in an attempt to topple the government. It was the kind of evidence Bobby was good at getting and Billy was good at plotting to stop. But their luck had ended when an unscheduled ship had arrived off the pier and the moon turned against them. The Soviets had come out with guns blazing and the partners had separated. Billy had managed to duck under a lifeboat, trying hard not to give away his position. If he could manage to snake out over the port side, he knew he'd be home free. But loyalty to his friend and partner kept him where he was. Where the hell was Bobby?
It had been an hour since he had lost sight of the young man. They had an agreement that the longest they would wait for one another would be half an hour. Billy reminded himself of this over and over. But if he left, Bobby would really be sunk. He had to get the kid out.
There were only five years’ difference between the two partners, but Billy had always felt fatherly toward the younger man. When Robert Muir had started with The Agency five years ago, he had been a young twenty-five compared to Billy's thirty years. Two years into his marriage, with a brand-new daughter just three weeks after becoming an official agent, Billy had felt responsible for his partner. Billy was a loner, always would be, but Bobby, Bobby wasn't the kind of man who should be alone. And Carolyn was the perfect woman for him. Young and blonde and ambitious, she had a sparkling personality and an infectious laugh.
She always welcomed Billy with open arms and a warm smile. Just last week he had been a guest at Candy's birthday party – a precocious five-year-old and proud big sister to three-year-old Jonathan.
"You ever find the other one?" He heard a voice coming toward his hiding place.
"Never did. I'd say he's probably gotten away, but that's perhaps to our advantage. We don't have to tell pretty-boy that his friend is missing. We can make that one think that we've already taken care of his pal and he's more likely to tell us what we want to know."
"I wouldn't count on it." A gruffer voice replied. "We've had him for an hour and he's not told us anything. I think we should try a little persuasion."
"If you beat him any further, he'll never talk."
Billy scanned the scene in front of him, assessing the situation. So Bobby was still alive but apparently had been roughed up. There was still a chance. He heard more footsteps and the sound of something heavy being dragged. The sight that met him filled Billy with anger. A man they hadn't seen in any of their stakeouts was dragging the beaten body of Robert Muir, throwing him onto a tarp. "Caught him trying to use the radio. I don't know how far he got, but I think we should get out of here right away."
"The other boat is standing by," the first man said. They quickly made their plans, Billy trying to remember what he was learning and keeping an eye on his partner. Bobby was slowly making his way to the hatchway, Billy praying that he would make it.
The sound of a helicopter cut through the sky and searchlights lit up the area. General confusion reigned for the next several minutes, which seemed like hours, shots ringing out. Assured that the invasion was the "good guys," Billy worked his way out of his hiding place and joined in the capture. Handcuffing the biggest Russian, Billy turned just in time to see one of the men pull out a gun, primed to shoot. Yelling out to alert those around him, one of the rescue party lunged for the gun, the man pulling it back from his grasp. The gun went off, Billy watching in horror as he saw Bobby Muir crumple to the ground. Throwing the man he had in his custody against the lifeboat, Billy ran to his partner, already uneasy about the amount of blood oozing from his wounds.
"Quick, get a doctor," he said into the air. He placed Bobby's head on his lap, trying to stop the blood flow with his hands. He called once more for someone to get a doctor but knew it would be useless. "Don't give it up, man," he encouraged. "We will get you to a doctor; you'll be fine."
Bobby coughed, his body shaking with the pain. "Billy," he rasped. "Please tell Carolyn that I love her."
Billy nodded, now knowing this was no time to ply Bobby with false promises of recovery. "I will, I promise."
"Candy, Jonathan." His voice was getting lower. "Grow up good and strong."
Billy nodded again, ashamed that his eyes were filling with tears. Surely he was past that by now.
"Car . . . Carolyn. She's the best thing that ever happened to me."
Struggling, Bobby removed his wedding ring, placing it in Billy's free hand.
"Give this to her. I know you can't tell her about this, but please promise you'll give her the ring."
Bobby looked up into the night sky, seeing something Billy knew was for him alone.
"It's past midnight; she'll be worried. Tell her I'll be home late."
Billy watched as his partner and friend took his last breath, letting the tears fall unashamed.
Billy hugged the flowers he was carrying close against him, wishing he didn't have to do this. He had mixed feelings about not being the one to tell Carolyn about her husband's death but Harry had thought it best to let the police handle it.
"You know as well as I do Billy that we can't tell her the details of Robert's death. She thinks he works for a film company for heaven's sake. The police will take care of it. I want you make sure she's okay and then you are to head back to DC."
Billy had always enjoyed being an agent, thinking he was making a difference in the world. But he hated this part of it, he decided. Carolyn Muir was a woman who had just lost her husband and would never really have the answer to the question why. Taking a deep breath, he knocked on the door of the Muir home, a small but cozy place. In the tiny back yard, he saw the swing set that he had helped Bobby put together three weeks earlier. The bicycle Candy had gotten for her birthday was parked against it. It was strange knowing this family as well as he did, and yet he was still a stranger.
Carolyn answered the door looking impeccable as always, her lovely smile replaced with tear-stained eyes.
"Billy." She opened the door wider. "Please come in. It's good to see you." She took the flowers, thanking him for his kindness. "Come on out to the kitchen."
He walked through the living room he had walked through many times before. At the sight of Robert's favorite jacket hanging on the hat stand, he almost lost it. He reminded himself that a good agent never lost control of his emotions. But was he an agent or a friend?
"Can I get you a cup of coffee?" She tried to play hostess, picking up a pile of papers off of a kitchen chair for him to sit on. "I'm sorry the place is such a mess. I just can't seem to get caught up."
She reached for a coffee cup, misjudging the distance, and the mug fell to the floor and shattered into tiny pieces.
"I'm sorry," she apologized. "I just can't seem to get a handle on things. There's so much to do and so many plans to make. Bobby was always better at organizing than I am. He always teases me about being detailed but not organized."
Billy watched helplessly as the young woman clenched the corner of the Formica counter, her slim body shaking with sobs. Getting up from his chair, Billy walked over to his partner's wife, taking her in his arms and letting her cry.
"I'm sorry," she finally lifted her head, her emerald eyes full of tears. "I hope your shirt isn't ruined."
"You have nothing to be sorry about, Carolyn." He handed her his handkerchief. "If there is anything I can do, please let me know." Wiping her eyes, she laid the handkerchief down on the counter.
Allowing Billy to lead her to the chair he had vacated. "What happens for you now, Carolyn?"
"The um . . . the Muirs want to bury him in the family plot in Philadelphia, so we've made the arrangements. The funeral will be Tuesday and then I'll, I will um come back here and get things packed up and put the house up for sale before I go back to Philadelphia to stay."
"Do you have family there as well?"
"Yes. I grew up in Philly and my parents are still there. They are going to keep the children for me while I finish up the details here. I just never thought . . ."
Billy cleared his throat, pulling out the ring he had carefully carried in his pocket. He handed it to her, noticing her eyes growing wide. "Don't ask me how I got this," he tried to smile. "Carolyn, you know he loved you more than anything."
She nodded. "When I went to the morgue to identify the body, he didn't have his ring. I thought maybe the police had taken it as evidence or something. Thank-you." Carolyn reached up to give Billy a kiss on the cheek, clutching the ring so hard in her hand it made her wince. "Thank-you for being a friend to Bobby and to us. He always thought highly of you. We all do. I know this must be hard for you as well."
"He was a wonderful friend and partner." Billy nodded, feeling like a hypocrite. "Did the police say how he died?"
"Robbery, they think. I don't understand it. Bobby rarely carried any money as you know, and the credit cards were all still in his wallet. I don't know what he was doing down at the docks that time of night. He told me he had to work late editing some film for IFF's new documentary. The police kept asking me why he was at the docks, did he make a habit out of it, did he have any known enemies, things like that. I just kept saying I don't know, I don't know. He was a film-maker for God's sake. Why would anyone want to kill him?"
Billy wished he could tell her the truth, but he couldn't. Giving her the ring had been against policy, but his promise to his partner had been more important. "Please let me know if there is anything I can do," he told her again.
"Thank-you for coming, Billy." She kissed his cheek.
Letting himself out, he paused at the family picture hanging on the wall by the door.
"I'll miss you, man. But I promise you this; I'll make your death worthwhile."
“Congratulations on your promotion," the young agent slapped Billy Melrose on the back. "Big times huh? New office and everything. And no more working in the field." "I think, after all, this time he does deserve a break." Steven Johnson, now the head of The Agency, agreed.
"How many years have you been here?" Lee Stetson asked him. "Fifteen?"
"Eighteen, to be exact. You would think after that many years I'd finally get away from bozos like you." Billy had great admiration for Lee Stetson A.K.A. Scarecrow. He was young and brash and headstrong but Billy had great affection for him. He was just like a son to the 46-year-old man. In ten years The Agency had hired many good agents, and that made Billy more confident that the world would be in good hands.
After Robert's death, Billy had taken a good look at his own life. He loved his job and knew he could never leave it, but perhaps he should enjoy life more. He met Jeannie Morgan through mutual friends and they married in 1967. Vanessa was born the following year, with Kari close on her heels and Robert three years later. Taking this promotion was a natural step in progression. It paid more money and limited his time on the field. And he got to work with fine agents like Lee.
"Well, Billy. Now that you are firmly ensconced in your new office and have all these agents to do your bidding, it's time I gave you some work to do." Steven laughed. He handed the new division chief a thick envelope. "It's material that's been declassified. I need you to go through and make sure everything is up to date and policy has been applied. You can get Stetson to help you."
"Thanks a lot." Lee grimaced. He had injured his foot on his last assignment, and was on light duty. Billy knew Scarecrow was not good at sitting around, and wondered how the next few weeks would go over.
Waiting until Steven left the office, Billy threw half of the stack at him. "I know you think you're a big hotshot agent after only two years, but since you need to stay off your foot, you can help me with these."
"What am I supposed to do with them?" He picked up his stack like they were contaminated.
"Make sure they are marked declassified if they should be, and look for any inconsistencies."
"Right," Lee grunted, taking them to his desk in the Bull Pen. "Do the taxpayers know we spend their money doing paperwork?"
"Go now, Stetson." Billy roared. He burst out laughing after he shut the door. "Young pup, thinks he knows everything."
“Billy?" Lee stuck his head in the office two hours later. "I think I found something."
"What is it? Bring it on in here and we'll take a look."
Lee came into the office, shutting the door behind him. "It's a file on the death of an agent. Are these ever declassified?"
"Really depends on the situation." Billy didn't look up from his own papers.
"According to the file, it was an accidental death in the line of duty. Let's see, the ‘agent was on routine investigation and a gun was discharged accidentally by a member of the Soviet subjects.'" Lee read.
Billy saw the entire scene play through his head for the first time in years, remembering Bobby crumple to the deck of that ship.
"What else does it say?"
Lee looked up at the older man, thinking his voice almost had a hint of tears in it.
"It says his body was released to his wife and the agent was buried in Philadelphia. No honors."
"No honors!" Billy sputtered. "He died defending his country. He was one of the best damn agents this organization has ever known."
"Sounds like there is a story in there somewhere." Lee stated, sitting down on the chair in front of Billy's new desk.
With slow words full of hurt, Billy told the young man about his early days at The Agency and his partner, Robert Muir.
"Did she ever suspect?" Lee asked, even his rough-toughness affected by the story.
"I don't think she ever did. They were so young and so much in love. Bobby was a fine photographer, and it made sense to her that he would work for a film company. I remember she did ask me why anyone would want to kill her husband but she seemed to accept the robbery angle the police presented."
Lee looked the file over with a critical eye. "What about her pension?"
"What do you mean?"
"Her government pension. According to his file, Robert Muir worked for The Agency from August 1960 to August 1965 as a full-fledged agent. It's probably not much, but it would be something and she's not been collecting it for the last eleven years. And what about his Agency life insurance?"
"Good point." Billy muttered. "Maybe we should look into that."
Carolyn Muir rubbed her nose in concentration as she stared at the blank paper in front of her. ‘The Captain yelled,’ ‘No" she shook her head. ‘The Captain bellowed at his men,’ "Still not right." ‘The Captain and his men . . .’
"I really don't know what the Captain did, nor do I care." She jerked the paper out of the typewriter and crumpled it into a ball.
"Temper! Temper!" Captain Gregg's rich voice filled the room followed seconds later by his form. "Story not going well dear?" He looked over in the direction of her overflowing wastebasket.
"Not well at all," she shook her head. "I think I've been trying too hard. After all the praise I received on the last article I did for the New Yorker, I guess I'm afraid of messing up."
"Just take your time, it will come to you. It always does."
"I wish I had the confidence in me that you do Captain." She smiled, her emerald eyes shining as she looked up into his rich blue ones.
"Perhaps a walk in the fresh air would be helpful. It's a lovely day with a hint of fall. Such a perfect day for thinking up a sea tale or two."
"I wish I could, Daniel," she said reluctantly. "But there is so much to do."
The resident spectre of Gull Cottage dematerialized from the room with a huge sigh, which made her laugh. Maybe he was right. A walk by the ocean always was good for bringing up ideas and refreshing the mind.
The sound of a car pulling in front of the house caused Carolyn to go the French doors and walk out on the balcony. It was very rare that cars made it up to Gull Cottage unless they were expected. The road was still unpaved and increasingly full of pot holes, which the county just never seemed to get around to fixing. The car was one of those red sporty things that tourists tended to drive and getting out of the passenger seat was a young man. A very good looking young man, she couldn't help but notice. He was probably lost, she reasoned.
Going downstairs, she opened the door of Gull Cottage, pulling the door closed behind her.
"Can I help you with something?" she asked the man politely.
He was tall and handsome, his suit showing that he wasn't a typical tourist, if he was one at all.
"I'm looking for Mrs. Robert Muir," he told her, walking toward the gate. "I was told in town that she lives around here somewhere."
It had been so long since anyone had addressed her as such, she almost failed to recognize it as herself.
"I'm Carolyn Muir." She walked over to the gate and opened it for him. "How can I help you?"
"I'm Lee Stetson," he introduced himself. She took the hand he offered, appreciating his firm grasp. He couldn't have been more than twenty-four or so, she thought, and his eyes were a nice hazel that held his emotions. "I'm here to talk to you about your husband."
"My husband?" her voice cracked slightly. "I'm sorry, Mr. Stetson, but my husband has been gone for a number of years now." He could hear the trace of tears in her voice.
"Yes, Ma'am, I know. Which is why I'm here. I need to talk to you about the circumstances of his death."
If he hadn't had such a serious face, she would have sent him away, but something about his manner caused her to want to listen.
"Who is he?" she saw Captain Gregg at her side. "What does he want here?"
"Be quiet, please, Daniel" she whispered to the ghost. "I want to know what's going on here."
"That's what I'm here to tell you, Ma'am." Lee stated, trying not to get irritated.
"Oh, I'm sorry, Mr. Stetson." She realized he had heard her last remark to the Captain. "I'm just nervous. Please come in." She led him into the house and through the door to the front room indicating that he should sit on the couch. "Can I get you something to drink, Mr. Stetson? You must be tired from your trip."
"Yes, thank-you, that would be nice. A glass of water would be fine."
She nodded, heading for the kitchen, the Captain following directly behind her.
"Find out what the man wants, and send him on his way. I don't like the looks of him."
"He looks fine to me," she said, then wished she hadn't, knowing that the seaman would take it the wrong way. "I mean, he doesn't look possessed or anything. He looks like a normal person. But I am nervous about what he must want. He says it's about Robert."
"Your late husband?" Even with the Muirs living in Gull Cottage for the past eight years, the Captain knew very little about the man who had shared a part of their former life.
"Please stay close by."
"I'll be right here. I promise."
"Here you go, Mr. Stetson." She handed the man his water, taking the chair beside the fireplace. She looked down at her faded jeans and white untucked blouse, wishing that she at least looked a little better. If she could have read Lee Stetson's mind, she would have blushed to know what he was thinking about the beautiful creature sitting across from him, wondering if he should give older women a try.
"Mrs. Muir, like I said, my name is Lee Stetson and I'm here on behalf of The Agency, a government organization, that defends the freedoms this nation was built on."
"So, you're like the FBI or the CIA? " She tried to place what he was saying in perspective.
"Well, yes, only better," he couldn't resist. "We have worked with both of those organizations but unlike them, we do our work in secrecy."
"Are you trying to tell me that you're a secret agent?" Her eyes were full of amusement. "Like James Bond?"
He tried not to laugh at her statement, thinking how close she was to the truth and yet not even close to it. For an answer, he handed her his badge letting her peruse it at her leisure.
"But, I don't understand, Mr. Stetson." She handed his credentials back to him. "My husband was a photographer and a film editor. He worked for a government film house that produced documentaries. What has that got to do with spies and such?"
Lee ran his hands through his hair and sighed, wishing he was anywhere but where he was. How did you explain a thing like this and have it make sense? He handed her a thick manila envelope he had in his briefcase. "This should explain everything better than I can."
She thanked him and taking the papers, starting to read the one on top. Captain Gregg peered over her shoulder at the document and she held it up slightly so he could read it as well.
"I – my glasses are upstairs." She smiled at the young man.
Lee nodded, feeling in the way. As she read, he looked around the room, marveling over the sailor's treasures he saw there. It was fantastic, the antiques in this room alone that were from all over the world. And they were just sitting around as knick-knacks. They should by all rights be in a museum, he thought.
Studying the portrait over the fireplace, he wondered what kind of Captain the man in the picture must have been. He glanced over at Mrs. Muir who was still avidly reading, seeming to confer with herself ever so often. She looked over at him once or twice and gave a wry smile. Lee returned it.
"Mrs. Muir, could you point me in the direction of the restroom?"
"Up the stairs, the door on the right."
"Thank-you." He got up and walked out of the room.
She watched him walk up the steps before going back to her reading. The documents she was reading were somewhat unsettling and she didn't feel like going on. According to what she was reading, International Federal Film was all a facade, it existed in name only.
"But I remember watching all those boring documentaries." She turned toward the Captain. "I was proud of them because I knew Bobby had worked hard on them, and now it looks like what he was doing was millions of miles away from that."
"It certainly seems like it," the seaman rubbed his beard with his forefinger. "The mere mention of assassination attempts and coups and enemy agents would suggest that. It seems that Mr. Muir was involved in the world of espionage."
"Bobby was a spy? That's ridiculous!" she didn't want to believe it. Her sweet, unassuming husband who couldn't stand up to his own father had brandished guns and defend the country from the enemy?
Carolyn watched as Lee Stetson sat down on the couch once more, reaching for his water glass.
"I'm almost finished, Mr. Stetson," she told him.
"Take your time." He tried not to sound impatient. The worst part of this assignment wasn't even started yet.
He heard her breath catch and a cry escape her throat. Looking up he saw tears streaming down her lovely face, old memories creeping into her eyes.
"I don't understand." She wiped hastily at her eyes, tears rolling unheeded down her cheeks. "My husband was murdered by a Soviet agent?" She shook her head, not wanting to believe it.
"Actually, it was ruled as an accident." Lee said gently. "Which is why it's being declassified after only eleven years."
"Declassified?" She looked confused as she handed the envelope back to him. "The police told me it was an attempted robbery. I always thought it was a little strange though. I kept telling myself that I was being silly and the police knew what they were talking about." She was trying hard not to cry further, and not doing a good job of it. Lee felt sorry for her and was not sure what to do. He hated to see a woman cry.
"It all makes sense." She said quietly, at last. "The late nights, the mysterious phone calls, the gun I found in his briefcase, the sudden trips out of town . . ."
Lee looked at her, trying to figure out who she was talking to. It wasn't to him and she didn't seem to be talking to herself. Of course, she was trying to get through a big shock. He reminded himself.
After he thought he could move on, Lee told her about the pension and the life insurance policy, apologizing that she had not been receiving them through the years.
"The paperwork must have gotten messed up, because you should have been the recipient. My superior, William Melrose, is looking into that for you right now."
"Billy? Of course, Billy was his partner. That's how he got Bobby's ring."
"Yes, Ma'am. He was with your husband when he died." He handed her a card, with a phone number emblazoned on it. "You can call him if you want, just dial that number."
Long after Lee Stetson had gotten back into his car and driven down Bay Road, Carolyn Muir leaned against the ship's wheel on the balcony off her bedroom trying to put everything in perspective.
"Mom, are you all right?" Sixteen-year-old Candy padded out on the balcony in her robe and slippers. "You seemed kind of distant at dinner."
"I'm fine, sweetie." Carolyn put her arms around her daughter who was now taller than she was and hugged her close. "I just had some thinking to do."
"Well, if you need anything . . . " Candy kissed her mother. "I love you."
"I love you, too." Carolyn watched her go, wishing she could tell her children the truth about their father.
"Need some company?" Captain Gregg materialized beside her, placing his hands on either side of her. "Or would you rather be alone?"
"No, Daniel, please stay," she begged. "I don't want to be alone."
"This day must have been quite a shock for you. I can't imagine the memories it must be conjuring up."
"Many." she nodded. "And at first I was angry – angry with Bobby and angry with our friend Billy who never told me and even angry at that nice young man that had to deliver the news, but I'm not angry anymore. I realize that Bobby loved something so much he died for it. And that something wasn't just his country or his government but me and the kids and his parents and the people in the street. It was what he wanted."
They stood there for several minutes, the only sound the songs of the jar flies and the ocean in the distance. For the first time in years, Carolyn felt free. She hadn't realized before what the shackles were that had held her in place but now she knew. Turning to face the Captain, she thought about how much she loved him and how he had given her what had been missing from her life. Peace. Finally Robert Muir was at peace and so was she.
For Lee Stetson there was no peace, just an unsettled feeling he couldn't shake. This was the first time he realized that this was a serious business that involved more than just the agent but also those around him. As he drove down the lonesome Maine roads on his way to Boston, he had plenty of time to think about the events of the day.
That poor woman living all these years, never knowing the details of her husband's death, just having to accept it. He swore then that he would not put any woman through that. No one should ever have to suffer because of him.
It would be a long time before he would think differently.