“Are you guys sure you still want to go with your father?” Amanda asked her sons a final time, “I really think you should both rest.”
“I want to go,” Jamie said.
“We’ve been planning this a long time,” Phillip agreed with his brother.
“If it was me, I’d have you both home resting,” Amanda said, motioning to her sons’ various injuries.
Jamie had broken his leg a week ago, playing soccer. He seemed to be getting around well on crutches, but she still worried about him.
Phillip had gotten a severe gash in his arm three days ago, when he and Lee went to their archery class. Amanda had gone along to watch as well. Phillip didn’t pay attention to what he was doing and had inadvertently injured himself. Lee couldn’t have looked sorrier, as if he were the one who hadn’t paid attention.
The boys were due to leave with Joe, for Disney World, the next morning. Phillip had graduated in June, and this was her ex’s way of celebrating with their sons. The boys would fly down to Florida with Joe for the whole week. When he told her about the trip, she and Lee had decided to go with Michael to Ocean City that same weekend. Dotty and Captain Kurt were on a cruise that would return the day before Amanda and Lee got home from the beach.
Billy had gladly given his agents a four-day weekend, starting with Friday, the morning the boys were leaving. Lee had joked, asking if the world would be safe without his watchful eyes for that long, and Billy assured him it would.
“So we can go, Mom?” Phillip asked.
“I suppose the two of you are packed?” Amanda asked.
Both boys nodded frantically. They knew they had to be prepared to go, in order to convince her, so they had each made sure they had everything they would need. If their mother found out the lengths they’d gone to so they could make this trip, she would be impressed.
They started by finding their suitcases three mornings ago, and then packed them. Anything they needed that wasn’t washed, they had washed and dried, without ruining anything. The next day, they each double-checked the other’s job of packing. To top it off, they hadn’t argued about anything for the last four days.
“Yes, you can go. Your father already made the reservations. He also told me he didn’t think he would get another week free and that he had to take advantage of this one, so if you two are up to it, you can go.” Amanda said, smiling at them.
“Thanks, Mom, you’re the best,” Jamie said.
“All right, awesome!” Phillip said, giving his brother a high five with his good hand.
“Do you guys think you can help me with dinner?” Amanda asked.
“Sure, when should we start it?” Phillip agreed.
“You’ve got about an hour,” Amanda informed him and then went into the living room to read. The boys made their way to their rooms, whispering to each other excitedly.
The next morning was pandemonium. Joe showed up half an hour late, and the boys were bouncing off the walls, because he hadn’t called. After their suitcases were in the cab, Joe practically carried Jamie while Phillip followed behind with the crutches. Amanda had managed to get up and wake the two older boys as well as make sure they ate breakfast. Michael had gotten up in the middle of the commotion, so Amanda had just added him into the mix of breakfast and getting dressed. Lee didn’t wander downstairs until Joe’s cab arrived, but he was ready to go for the day.
“I’m going to miss them,” Amanda said as she and Lee waved to the cab. She could still feel the spot on each cheek where her sons had hastily kissed her goodbye.
“So am I,” Lee agreed. “Now that they’re off, are you ready to get ready to go?”
“Stop teasing me,” Amanda said as she realized she was still in her nightgown and robe.
“I have to tease you.”
“That’s what love’s all about isn’t it?”
“It’s more than that!” Amanda laughed.
“If you want to go get ready, I’ll keep an eye on Michael.”
“Okay. I shouldn’t be long,” Amanda said.
Not long for Amanda turned out to be two more hours. She remembered some last minute packing for all three suitcases, on top of getting herself ready for the drive. The three remaining family members finally piled into the Subaru Legacy Wagon at ten-thirty that morning.
They were almost out of Virginia when Lee saw the fuel gauge nearing empty. He mentally kicked himself for not remembering to refuel the night before. Sighing, he looked for a highway sign indicating a gas station.
“Why the big sigh?” Amanda asked, looking up from the book she’d been reading. It amazed Lee that she could read in the car without getting sick. When he was younger, he never could.
“We’re almost out of gas. I’m going to have to exit so I can refuel.” He admitted.
“That’s okay, Sweetheart.”
“I know, but if I’d done it yesterday, it wouldn’t slow us down.”
“Lee, we’re on vacation. Take your time.” She urged him.
“Yeah, Daddy, take your time,” Michael piped up. He was happily strapped into his safety seat, watching the small TV/VCR unit they had plugged into the cigarette lighter. Amanda had taken him to rent movies the night before.
“You’re okay back there?” Lee asked.
“Yeah,” Michael answered.
“He can probably use the bathroom break,” Amanda said, peeking back at their son. He was focused on the television again, and had not heard her. Lee was nodding in agreement.
“All right, if there’s a sign, I better take it. We’re on yellow as it is.” Lee said.
“There’s one up ahead,” Amanda pointed, “It says ‘Batton, next exit.’ I’ve never been to Batton.”
“Me either. Well, let’s take it,” Lee agreed, “what’s that exit number?”
“I don’t know. It just says ‘A’. The rest is all scratched off,” she told him as they passed the sign and started along the horseshoe curve of the off ramp. Lee nodded, focused as he was on driving.
The gas station/Quick Mart was deserted except for two cars. One was an old Buick and the other was a new looking Audi. Lee guessed them to be employee vehicles. Their car was the only one fueling. There was nothing else along the road as far as he could see, in either direction. Once he started the fuel pump, Lee set it so it would stop when the tank was full and headed with Michael to the bathroom.
“Don’t you have to ask for a key?” Amanda asked from her seat in the car.
“We’ll see if it’s locked first. I could just pick it, if it is, but I wouldn’t let him watch. It’s not illegal to use the bathroom, is it?” Lee asked. Amanda’s laugh was answer enough, and the two started off again toward the bathroom.
Five minutes later, the duo returned. Amanda hadn’t moved from her spot in the car, where she was reading. The fuel pump had been off for a minute or two. Michael climbed back into his seat, but was waiting for Lee to get in before trying to buckle up.
He was too big for a toddler’s seat, but Amanda found and purchased a booster seat that would accommodate the car’s shoulder seat belts. It hadn’t taken long for Michael to learn how to strap himself in, and let himself out.
“It was unlocked,” Lee winked at her, “I’ll be right back, I’m just going to go and pay for this.”
“I want to go with Daddy,” Michael said after a minute of waiting patiently.
“He’ll be right back,” Amanda said.
“But I want to see inside.” The boy retorted.
“Michael, by the time you get in there, he’ll be coming out again.”
“I don’t care,” he said and slid out of his seat, then opened the door, jumping to the ground. Amanda opened her door at the same time and got out. She let him go, but followed, figuring that Lee should be opening the Quick Mart door any second and then they would all get in the car and buckle up again.
“Amanda, no!” Lee shouted, followed by a whisper, “Oh, God.”
She looked to her right and saw Lee, hands up. He was at the receiving end of a .357 Magnum, held by a hooded figure. She dared not attempt escape.
“Daddy!” Michael ran to his father as Lee shouted. The boy was still unaware of the situation. Lee moved his hands from their position above his head to hold his son to him. The boy stood just taller than his father’s knees.
“What do you want me to do?” Amanda asked, her hands halfway up in surrender, her eyes on the hooded stranger. She knew it would be chaos if she turned and ran. Quickly, she eyed the young cashier. The nametag read: Jeremy. His complexion was a pasty white and he was more afraid than either Lee or Amanda were letting on.
“Money. Give me all of it,” it was a man’s voice, with a slight Hispanic accent.
“My…my purse is in the car,” Amanda admitted, “We were just coming in to get his father.”
“Get over there, then. No funny moved, or I shoot,” the man promised.
Lee was terrified. He watched Amanda pick up Michael as if everything were normal, but knew she must have been just as scared. There had been times when they were on a case, and one or the other of them was at risk. He would die if something happened to her or Michael.
Lee couldn’t think of a word to describe the anguish if anything ever happened to their family. After all, the boys’ lives were just started. They were still young, and mostly innocent, all three of them. Now the youngest was in danger. He shook his head, trying to clear the thought away.
The sound of police sirens closing in caused the captor to turn his head, “What the hell! You’re dead!”
A shot rang out toward where the cashier had been standing. Luckily, the boy had ducked before the gun was fired. Lee saw Amanda hug Michael closer to her. She turned so that her body was sideways against Lee’s. Their son would be out of the line of fire that way.
“Why…did you…do that?” the robber asked, closing in on Jeremy.
Jeremy stood up, slowly, “I hit the panic button before I knew you had a gun, I thought it was a knife, man. I didn’t think all these people would be in here, or I wouldn’t have done it, I swear.”
Lee nodded to the young man’s apology.
“Congratulations,” the man said, turning away from Jeremy and taking his hand off the trigger, but keeping it close, “Everyone is now a hostage.”
“His gun looks like yours, Daddy,” Michael observed.
“Shhh,” Lee said, trying to hope that the man hadn’t heard it, but knowing he had. Lee felt a shot of adrenaline run through his veins, but ignored it. Now was not the time to do anything rash.
He had brought his gun along on the trip, but it was in the glove compartment. It was his PPK, not the Magnum. Although he sometimes practiced with his Magnum, it wasn’t even kept at home. Michael might have seen it once, but Lee didn’t know how his son would remember that.
“You’re a cop too?” the man asked.
“No, federal,” Lee admitted. Maybe it would calm the man’s fears to know the truth.
“Where’s your gun?”
“I don’t have one on me,” Lee answered. The man seemed satisfied but kept his aim on the Stetsons.
“Daddy, I’m hungry,” Michael whispered loudly. He had been hushed, so he knew he had to talk quietly now.
Lee would have laughed at his son’s statement, if he didn’t have a gun pointed at him. Instead, he told Michael, “Well, um, why don’t you get down, grab one of those candy bars.”
“Yeah,” Michael said, wiggling to get down and out of his mother’s grasp.
“Hey,” the gunman said, pointing the gun at the boy, “No funny stuff. In fact, you go with him, lady.”
“Please, don’t point at him,” Lee requested in a whisper, and at the same time, Amanda gasped audibly.
“He’s not going very far,” she protested.
“I want to keep it that way,” the gunman retorted, moving his aim from Michael to Amanda.
Lee wasn’t happy to have Amanda as the target, but he knew she wouldn’t make any sudden moves or do anything to make the man fire. This settled his nerves, but only a little. He tried to keep still, not wanting to draw attention to himself.
Amanda took Michael by the hand and led him to the row of candy just under Jeremy’s counter. Michael put his hands on his hips as he took his time deciding what he wanted. There was so much for him to choose from.
Lee watched them from his position against the wall. He knew exactly what Michael would pick, no matter how much candy was there. He wished Amanda would take a chance, run and hide. Then his logic kicked back in. That wasn’t an option; it was too risky.
He thought about trying to overtake the gunman, but it was also not a good option. If Michael weren’t there, he’d try. He didn’t want to be wrong and get himself or his family shot.
When he had walked in, the agent training had immediately kicked in. He’d reached for his gun before he was seen, and then groaned inside when he remembered it was in the car, and not loaded. He had looked around and saw that the gunman was working alone. Lee was about to walk out the door when the robber told him to freeze. His chance to warn Amanda had flitted by. The gunman had proceeded to take his wallet, but hadn’t patted him down for weapons.
“Hurry up!” the man yelled at Michael. Startled, the little boy took two steps forward and made the choice his father had predicted: M&M’s, two bags. Michael and Amanda returned to Lee’s side, and the senior agent opened one of the bags of candy for his son.
“You know, you didn’t have to yell at him. He’s only a little boy,” Amanda said indignantly.
The man didn’t apologize. He only shrugged.
“What’s the other bag for?” Jeremy asked to make conversation, if nothing else.
“Cause I’m gonna get hungry later,” Michael said, not looking up from where he was seated between his parents’ legs. He continued munching away happily on his candy.
“Listen, why don’t you let us go? You have my wallet. You don’t need us,” Lee said.
“Where would you go, if you left? Straight to the police station, I bet. They’re on the way, already. Why should I let you go?” the man asked.
“We were just going to the beach for a family vacation. That’s where we’d go,” Amanda knelt down to be closer to Michael. The little boy was picking out the reds to eat first, followed by the rest of what was in his hand.
“What are you, the Cleavers? I wish I could take my kids to the beach. Even for a few hours,” the gunman admitted.
Lee thought that was curious. The man had been cold hearted enough to shoot at Jeremy, yet he longed to take his family on a vacation? Lee didn’t know much about this town at all, other than its name, but it seemed obvious that jobs were hard to find in Batton.
“What’s your name?” Amanda asked.
“Why you want to know? So you can tell the cops? Just call me Enrico,” the gunman said, one sentence followed quickly by the others.
“Enrico, you have children. Would you want them terrified by a strange man like this? Please, let us go,” Amanda tried to exploit Enrico’s soft side, if he had one. The gunman’s eyes changed to one of wistfulness. It was the only expression Amanda could see. She thought she’d possibly gotten through to him.
Just then, the police sirens became exponentially louder and then stopped altogether. Many car doors were opened and slammed shut.
“This is the Batton police department. Everyone, come out with your hands up!” came a call via bullhorn.
“Nobody…moves!” Enrico said, aiming the gun toward Lee. All four hostages obeyed. Amanda’s hope for freedom was dashed.
After fifteen minutes of terrified silence, the phone rang. Jeremy didn’t move to pick it up. Enrico nodded at him after ten rings, and the cashier answered the phone.
“They want you.” Jeremy held out the phone toward Enrico.
“No funny stuff, Mister Fed, or your family will regret it,” Enrico said to Lee, waving his gun around for effect.
“Right,” Lee nodded his agreement.
Michael stood up and yanked on the hem of Amanda’s T-shirt. “Mommy, where’s Mister Rabbit? This would be much more fun if he were here.”
“He’s…you left him in the car,” Amanda explained quietly, trying to hear what Enrico was telling the police negotiator.
“I need to go get him. Can you ask the man?” Michael insisted vociferously.
“Not now, Honey, really, we need to be quiet now, because he’s upset,” Amanda tried to explain to him, but Michael seemed not to care about the danger they were all in.
“Mommy, please?” Michael looked up at her with a face inherited from his father, the saddest puppy dog eyes in the world. Then he changed his mind. “Daddy and I can go get him. Daddy can do anything.”
Michael took his father’s hand and pulled him toward the door with no results. Lee knelt down to explain to his son, “Enrico said not to go. We have to wait. But we’ll go get your rabbit soon, okay, son?”
“But Daddy…” Michael turned his puppy dog look on his father, and stuck out his bottom lip in a pout to boot. Lee was forced to look away. He smiled briefly as he reminded himself how often he’d used the same look on his wife, and how well it worked.
“I am NOT talking to you people anymore!” Enrico suddenly shouted. He pulled the cord out from the mouthpiece and threw the phone away. The cord retracted toward Jeremy who zigged out of its way.
Enrico pulled off his mask in his rage, revealing a handsome young man. He was obviously Hispanic, and obviously angry. Curls of black hair covered the top of his head, shaved on the sides and back. His nose flared with the frustration of the discussion he’d just ended and his lips were pressed together tensely.
“You can ask now, right, Daddy?” Michael asked into Lee’s ear. His father had shielded him from Enrico’s possible rage and hadn’t let Michael up from their crouching position yet.
“He’s, he’s a little grouchy right now, Michael,” Lee said honestly, hoping that would quell his son’s need for the favorite toy.
“I don’t care,” the youngster squirmed out of his father’s reach and marching pointedly to Enrico, yanked on the man’s khaki pants; “I want Mister Rabbit.”
Enrico was taken aback by the child’s boldness. He had been leaning against a doughnut display, brooding, and eyeing his hostages. He hadn’t expected the little boy to break away from his father’s grasp. Enrico thought then that his own two-year-old was active and probably wouldn’t take well to restraint.
“Is that a pet or something?” Enrico asked.
“No, silly! It’s my favorite stuffed buddy,” Michael smiled charmingly at Enrico, “I want to go out to the car and get him. With Daddy.”
“Please can he go?” Amanda asked as she watched Michael run to the doors of the store. He saw the police cars and backed up a little bit. She hadn’t noticed how shaky she was until that moment.
“He can go. But that’s it.” Enrico nodded, “Get him out there.”
Amanda moved, but Lee stepped forward, “He wanted me, anyway.”
“ ‘Manda, I’m just going to put him outside so he can get his rabbit,” Lee tried to reassure her. He knew the police would swarm to his son, but Michael was listening and Lee didn’t want him to be scared.
“All right,” she couldn’t argue his logic. Michael had wanted him, and would have made it happen his way eventually. She knew that the cops would close in on Michael the second he left the store. He would be frightened and alone. But he would be safe.
“Here are the keys, Michael, in case the doors are locked,” Lee pulled his key ring out of his pocket. The keys to the Q-Bureau were on it too. At least his office would be safely locked. He began sweating as he felt Enrico’s angry stare. “Go on.”
“You come with me. I don’t like those police guys.” Michael held tightly to Lee’s arm when his father stood.
“Michael, just go.” Lee said harshly.
“Michael, I mean it. Go, now, or it’s trouble later!” Lee yelled. He was frustrated that Michael wouldn’t just go. He’d hoped the incentive of Mister Rabbit would be enough, but now Michael had a sudden case of separation anxiety.
“I don’t wanna!”
Lee looked to Enrico who shook his head in the negative. Then Lee did something he prayed he wouldn’t regret. He picked Michael up off the ground by the back of his shirt, opened the door, and flung the boy out with what he hoped wasn’t too much force to get his son past the door. He pulled the door shut behind him and didn’t turn to see what happened after that. Instead, he nervously ran his left hand through his hair. Michael was safe now, so taking chances might not be such a bad idea.
Amanda was crying tears of relief, and Lee held her to him to comfort her. She had been on edge since this event started and needed to let out her feelings. He was thinking the same thing she was. Michael was okay. A moment later, they could hear him crying for them. The only evidence their son had been there was the second bag of M&M’s and the empty wrapper from the first bag. Lee glared at Enrico hatefully.
Amanda wiped her eyes, her crying fit done. She pulled herself together and held Lee’s hand tightly in hers. She was certain everything would be okay now. Lee combed his hand through his hair and then fisted and unfisted it, fidgeting.
“Hey, calm down. The kid’s fine.” Enrico said with little care in his tone.
Amanda started a sputtering cough. Lee patted her back in an effort to help her clear the problem. She stopped choking for a moment and looked into his eyes, then began again. Lee knew that look. His wife had a plan and he’d find a way to play along.
“Look, she needs a drink. Can she get one out of that cooler there?” Lee asked, indicating the one Enrico was standing right next to. He knew the gunman would agree, because the only other refrigeration units were along the far wall, out of his line of sight.
“Yeah, go ahead.” Enrico predictably agreed.
Amanda cut back her coughing fit a little and faked a stumble toward where Enrico was standing. She opened a can of soda and took one sip, then two more fast ones.
“Better?” Enrico asked.
She nodded, “Oh, yes, that’s much better, thank you, I feel so much better.”
“Back over there.” Enrico ordered.
She was nodding compliance when she managed to literally choke on her drink again and flailed. Her accuracy was right on as she aimed the drink at Enrico’s eyes, deliberately dumping the soda on him with the next upswing of her arm.
Lee had begun his advance on Enrico as soon as Amanda had begun her trip back to him. He ran up and grabbed the gun from Enrico’s weakened grasp while the gunman sputtered and rubbed his eyes with his free hand.
Enrico hadn’t expected this, and he fought with Lee, trying to punch him. Lee answered with a sidekick to the stomach, and Enrico fell backward, having slipped in the liquid from the mess Amanda made. Lee was on top of the other man in an instant, and with the hardest back fist he could manage he knocked the other man out.
“Amanda, get the cops in here?” Lee requested of her, glad to be in control of the situation.
“What do I do?” Jeremy asked.
“Just stay there, kid.” Lee let loose a long sigh of relief.
The agents and the cashier were patted down for their own good, to make sure they had the real culprit, and then released by the police. It was a matter of policy, to make sure there were not any accomplices.
Amanda and Lee gave their statements to the police as quickly as they could and promised to go to “Enrico’s” trial. They were able to give their statements on the scene, as long as they would go to the station the following week for a second interview.
The police had told them that the gunman’s real name was Eric, and that he had been unemployed off and on in the last year. They also said Eric was wanted for other Quick Mart robberies in the area.
Michael was glad to be reunited with his parents. Lee felt a little guilty when he saw his son’s bruised and skinned knees and palms. However, the feeling was lifted when Michael hugged him and said, “that’s okay.”
“I’m glad you’re all right,” Lee said.
“Am I in big trouble?” Michael had to know. He never forgot a thing his parents told him, and being warned of punishment was hard to forget.
“No, no, I said that because…I was scared, that’s all.” Lee assured him.
“Are we still going to the beach?” Michael asked, relieved. “Sure are,” Amanda said.
“Yay!” Michael cried, hugging his parents again.
“It’s sad,” Amanda, commented as they headed for the beach, “I thought I was getting through to him. I don’t understand why he did what he did.”
“And we just might not,” Lee agreed, “I guess he thought it helped his family.”
“Did you call our hotel about the reservations?” Amanda asked, changing topics.
“Yes. They said that they’d pro rate today, since we’re small town heroes. I was surprised, but who am I to argue? I’m just glad we didn’t lose our reservations.”
“That was nice of them. Michael was ecstatic that we weren’t going straight back home,” Amanda said.
“No need to cancel the trip. I’m going to treasure this time even more than I thought I would when we set off this morning,” Lee said. “Is he still out?”
“Yes, like a light.” Amanda confirmed, looking over her shoulder at their son. Michael’s head was hanging limply to the left, Mister Rabbit held close in his right arm. His legs were dangling from his booster seat.
“Well, after a day like ours, who wouldn’t sleep?” Lee smiled, glancing at his son via the rearview mirror.
“I know I will, later.”
“No, you won’t, Mrs. Stetson,” Lee gave her a lascivious grin.
“Oh?” she held his right hand in hers as he continued driving, “Now I really can’t wait.”
Disclaimer: The original characters are not mine; they belong to WB ‘n’ Shoot the Moon. Any new character is mine.
Timeline: Early August 1992
Tissue Warning for angst
Timeline: Early August 1992
Tissue Warning for angst