Just a Simple Errand
4247 Maplewood Dr.
Saturday, April 6, 2002
“Monday?” Amanda repeated. “You’re telling me this is due this coming Monday?”
Jenna looked down at her feet. “Yeah,” she muttered.
“And just how long have you known about this? Look at me, Jenna.” Jenna lifted her head, her dark eyes meeting Amanda’s own. “How long?”
“About a month,” Jenna admitted. “But Mom, I really didn’t mean to forget, but I just kept thinking I had more time, you know—and I kept putting it off until it was too late. And you know there was other stuff happening too—I guess I just—”
“You just forgot.” Other stuff—having been a teenager once herself Amanda knew that could mean just about anything. In her head she could see her own Mother standing before her at that age, arms crossed.
“Someday you’ll have a teenage daughter of your own, missy—then maybe you’ll understand what I go through.”
How right Mother had been. Drawing in a deep breath and letting it out, Amanda mentally counted to ten before continuing.
“Sweetheart, I really do understand what you’re saying, but you can’t put things off till the last minute.”
“I know—I really am sorry.”
“It’s all right,” Amanda said. “Now what exactly do you need for this project?”
“Well we have to write a letter to a Civil War soldier,” Jenna explained. “That’s not really the hard part but it has to be on whatever you call that sort of old-fashioned looking paper; you know, the kind you see in the National Archives?”
“You mean parchment paper?” Amanda asked.
“That’s it,” Jenna replied. “Lisa said that they sell it in different colors too.”
“Let me guess—different colors like lavender?”
“Maybe,” Jenna replied. “There’s no harm in looking, anyway—is there?”
Amanda let out a quiet sigh. “No, I guess not. What else do you need?”
“Not much. It just has to be hand-written in black ink and Mrs. Andrews says she wants it in a clear presentation folder.”
“That doesn’t sound too bad,” Amanda said. “We can go to Office Depot and you can pick up the things you need and then we’ll go somewhere for lunch. But the second we come home you have to get straight to work on this. All right?”
Jenna smiled. “I will, Mom.”
“And promise me that you won’t leave any more projects till the last minute?”
“I really didn’t mean to—” Jenna began. At that moment Amanda’s cell phone rang.
“Hold that thought.” Taking the cell phone out of her pocket she flipped it open. “Hello?”
“Amanda, we need you.” Francine said.
“Need me?” Amanda repeated. Jenna was staring at her now—her expression curious. Amanda lowered her voice. “Francine, it’s a little difficult at the moment.”
“Why is it difficult?” Francine asked. “I know Lee’s out of town and this is your day off, but I wouldn’t be asking you to do this if it wasn’t important.”
“Asking me to do what, exactly?”
“A simple little milk run.” Francine told her. “You know the Shady Groves Bowling Alley in Alexandria?”
“Yes, I know it, just one moment.” Cupping her hand over the receiver Amanda turned towards her daughter.
“Why don’t you go upstairs and get ready?” she told her. “We’ll be leaving in about ten minutes.”
“But I’m already ready, unless—hey, can I put on some makeup?”
“Jenna, upstairs—now ”
A loud sigh. “Okay, okay—I’m going.” Amanda waited until she was sure Jenna was upstairs and in her room before continuing. “What do you need me to do at the bowling alley, Francine?”
“We need you to go there—you’ll go to the snack bar and order a double cheeseburger with everything on it and a suicide soda.”
“A suicide soda is all the sodas mixed together—that’s what it’s called,” Francine said. “The man behind the counter will give you a coded message—you deliver that message to us and the mission is over.”
“Francine, it’s still difficult—I have Jenna with me—I promised to take her shopping for her school project.”
“Well what about your mother?” Francine asked. “Can’t she take her instead?”
“No, she can’t. Mother’s at an estate sale with Captain Curt.”
A long pause. “Well in that case take her with you.”
“What?” Amanda said disbelievingly. “I can’t take Jenna on a mission. What if something went wrong?”
“What could possibly go wrong?” Francine replied. “It’s just a simple milk-run. In and out. There shouldn’t be any problems.”
Shouldn’t be any problems—famous last words. If she and Lee had a penny for every simple operation gone wrong they’d be millionaires by now. In the center of her forehead a headache began to blossom—Amanda rubbed at it with her fingertips.
“Amanda, I wouldn’t be asking you to do this if there was any other way,” Francine told her. “The information we’re getting from this contact is vital to breaking apart the last cell of the De Vrees Network. Will you do it?”
The De Vrees network had been their most recent case— a terrorist organization based in Amsterdam and operating in America—they had taken out the main organization but the splinter cells would be harder to remove. No wonder Francine needed her. “All right, Francine,” Amanda said finally. “I’ll do it.”
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“What exactly is a milk run again?” Jenna asked.
“It’s just a name for a simple mission where you’re either picking something up or dropping something off,” Amanda replied as she made a left onto Boundary Channel Drive, heading towards Reagan National. It was a pleasant spring day—not too hot or cold—the windows were open to let the breeze in. Maybe after they’d have a nice lunch in the park or walk around DC afterwards and enjoy the cherry blossoms. “In this case I’ll be picking something up.”
“What will you be picking up? Oh I’m sorry,” Jenna’s face fell. “I’m not supposed to know that, right? I keep forgetting.”
Glancing over at her daughter Amanda could see herself when she had first started working with Lee—overeager—asking about a million questions. There were differences, of course— big differences. After all she’d he’d been an adult at the time and not a thirteen-year-old—she knew that Jenna must still be trying to process all of this.
“Sweetheart, it’s okay,” she told her. “It’s natural to want to know about these things.”
“Well yeah, but I still need to remember that its secret stuff—that need to know thing and all.”
They had stopped at a red light—leaning over, Amanda gave Jenna’s hand a brief squeeze. “You’ll get the hang of it—trust me.”
A faint smile. “Thanks, Mom. Is there anything that I am allowed to know?”
“Just that I’ll be picking up a note—that’s really all I can say.”
“A note,” Jenna repeated. “That’s fine—that’s good.”
Amanda made a right onto Edsall Road. Shady Groves Bowling Alley was just up ahead on the right.
“So—do you need me stay in the car?” Jenna asked.
For a moment Amanda was tempted to say yes—if something did go wrong the car would probably be the safest place, but only if Jenna would stay there. Would she?
“No you won’t. You never stay in the car, and you know it.” And Jenna was a lot like her—As Lee’s words sounded in Amanda’s head she came to a decision.
“No,” she replied. “You’ll be coming in with me. “
“Oh—okay,” Amanda could detect a faint note of nervousness in her daughter’s voice, though she was doing her best to hide it. “What am I supposed to do?”
“Well, we’re going to go to the concession area,” Amanda said. “Then I’ll go up to the counter and you can wait at a table. I’ll pick up the message and then we’ll leave.”
“That sounds easy.”
“It should be, sweetheart.” Amanda said. And as they pulled into the parking lot, she whispered a silent prayer that nothing would go wrong.
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Shady Groves Bowling Alley
“Must be Children’s Day,” Jenna had to raise her voice to be heard above the noise—barely managing to sidestep a boy who darted past her, screaming at the top of his lungs.
“James you come back here right now!” a woman, obviously the boy’s mother, yelled out.
“I remember coming here for Children’s Day when I was little,” Jenna said.
“I remember it too,” Amanda said. “We even got you a little bowling ball—you had to put it down and sort of push it down the lane.”
“Just like that little girl there.” Amanda’s eyes followed Jenna’s finger to where a little blond girl, standing with a man who must have been her father, bent down to give her bowling ball a little shove— the ball rumbled as it made its way down the lane. If Amanda hadn’t known any better she would’ve sworn she was looking through a window into the past.
Funny how it didn’t seem that long ago that she’d had a tiny little girl—a little girl who was now officially a teenager. And growing—as they walked over to the concession stand Amanda noted how the top of Jenna’s head almost came past her shoulder now—true to her mother’s predictions, she’d grown almost four inches since her last birthday. Still very much straight up and down figure-wise—just as Amanda had been at that age but that would change too.
‘My baby’s growing into a young woman.’ A happy thought, but at the same time the realization caused a lump in her throat. As they entered the concession area Amanda put one arm around Jenna and gave her a sudden, brief hug.
“Mom, what was that for?” Jenna asked.
“Just because,” Amanda said. “Just sit down now—it shouldn’t take long.” Jenna’s only reply was a nod—she grabbed a table near the front as Amanda approached the counter. Luckily there were no lines—which meant no waiting, which was good.
Maybe Francine was right. This mission would be a piece of cake.
“Can I help you?” asked a dark-haired man with very green eyes. His nametag identified him as Andreas.
“Yes,” Amanda replied. “I’d like to order a double cheeseburger and a suicide soda.”
The man’s eyes widened. “Are you sure?” He lowered his voice to a near whisper—his eyes darted nervously.
“One moment.” Andreas went into the back, picking up a bag and a soda that he’d apparently prepared in advance. Amanda’s hopes rose. Almost there and no problems yet.
“Here you go, ma’am.” The man handed her the bag and the soda.
“Thank you,” Amanda turned to go.
“Maybe you want to check it first,” Andreas said. “Just to make sure everything’s correct.”
Correct? “No—that’s all right,” Amanda said quickly. “I’m sure I’ve got everything that I need.”
“Please ma’am,” Andreas told her. “I couldn’t let you walk out without making sure you have what you need.” Another nervous glance—were they being watched?
“Okay,” Amanda sat the paper bag and the soda back down on the table—she unrolled the top of the paper bag. “But I’m sure that what I need is in here. After all—I’ve heard this is the best place for double cheeseburgers and I’m definitely a double cheeseburger lover so—” her voice faded away as she looked down at the bottom of the bag. Money—quite a lot of it—a bonded stack of one-hundred dollar bills.
‘This isn’t what I ordered at all.’ Amanda’s mind raced as she thumbed through the bills.
“The list is underneath,” Andreas hissed.
“The list,” Amanda repeated. “Oh right—of course—that’s a good place for it.” Carefully she pulled out a strip of paper from underneath the money. Her eyes scanned the items quickly. Fertilizer, ammonium nitrate—all the ingredients for a good-sized bomb. She turned the paper over to look at a hastily-scrawled name on the back. The name of the target—suddenly she felt cold inside.
She had to get this information to the Agency—and fast.
“I have to say you surprised me,” Andreas said. “I had no idea the Vesuvius was a woman. And I was told you always wore black.”
The Vesuvius—one of the world’s leading demolitions experts—willing to sell his services to anyone for the right price. “Sometimes I wear black.”Hastily Amanda stuffed everything back in the bag. “But you know how black collects lint—it’s not always practical and anyways, I’m not really on the clock today.”
“On the clock?” Andre stared incredulously.
“Exactly.” Before the man could ask anything more Amanda grabbed the bag and the soda and left. At a nearby table, she saw Jenna—all smiles—busy talking to a boy with sandy brown hair.
“Jenna,” she said—her daughter looked up. “Come on, sweetheart—we really need to go.”
“Okay, Mom.” Jenna stood. “See you, Chris—I gotta go—it was great meeting you.”
“Call me when you get a chance, Jenna,” Chris said.
Again Jenna smiled—a pink flush rose in her cheeks. “I will.” They left the concession area. Something told Amanda they had to move—and quickly.
“His name’s Chris,” Jenna said. “Isn’t he cute?”
“Yes, he’s very cute.” Out of the corner of her eye Amanda caught sight of a man, dressed all in black, making his way to the place she’d just left. Vesuvius—surveillance photos had never managed to get a clear picture of the man’s face, but it had to be him. Her heart sank.
“He goes to Williamsburg Middle and look—”Jenna fished a piece of paper out of her jeans pocket. “He even gave his phone number so I can call him—Mom, isn’t that awesome?”
“That’s certainly—that’s awesome.” Jenna talking to boys on the phone—Lee wouldn’t exactly be thrilled about that, Amanda knew. Still, they could deal with that later—just as soon as they got out of here.
If they got out of here. Out of the corner of her eye Amanda spotted two men in suits, pointing at them. Instinctively she began walking faster.
“Mom, can we slow down?” Jenna had to practically run to keep up. “Anyway, I need to go to the bathroom.”
“Later.” Amanda gripped the paper bag tightly and kept her eyes focused on the door ahead—narrowly avoiding a group of Junior Trailblazers in the process.
“Do you mind?” one of the Den mothers said indignantly.
“Sorry—I’m so sorry,” Amanda replied.
“But Mom I need to go now,” Jenna continued. “I don’t need to go later.”
“Not here, Jenna” Amanda said. “I promise we’ll stop at a McDonalds or something.”
Almost there—they were almost in the clear—
“What’s wrong?” Jenna asked. “Why are we rushing? Did something happen? Please tell me.”
“I’ll explain in the car,” Amanda told her. “I really will--but right now we need to leave.”
“I’m afraid that won’t be possible.”
The voice was cultured and held the faintest trace of an Italian accent. It belonged to the man who stood in front of them. His gun was in his hand, the barrel partially obscured by his black coat.
It was Vesuvius. Jenna drew closer to her mother, her fingers clutching Amanda’s arm tightly.
“Not leaving so soon, are we?” Vesuvius said. “After all, I believe you have something that belongs to me.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Amanda said. “My daughter and I are running errands and we just came here to pick up some lunch on the way.”
“From a bowling alley?” Vesuvius raised an eyebrow.
“Well the line at McDonald’s was too long—and besides, we’ve always liked the bowling alley food.” Maybe if she could keep talking, keep him talking, she could think of some way out of this. Her cell phone was in her back pocket—if she could just reach inside and press the right numbers then someone might be able to help.
“Surely you can do better than that. After all, you were able to successfully impersonate me and persuade Andreas to give you in the information. Don’t move.” A sudden click as Vesuvius cocked his pistol and Amanda froze—her hand halfway to her pocket.
“If you have something in your pocket you better hand it over,” Vesuvius said. “And don’t think of trying anything. There are two men behind you with guns trained on you and your daughter. You don’t want to risk her life or risk anyone firing into these children, now do you?”
She didn’t want to risk that. Slowly Amanda pulled the cell phone out of her pocket and handed it to the man, who flipped it open, inspecting it closely before putting it in his pocket.
“And your daughter? Does she have a cell phone?”
“Sweetheart?” Amanda said.
“No, I—I forgot it. I left it at home.” Jenna’s voice trembled slightly but overall she sounded calm; a lot calmer than Amanda had expected her to be at this point. But as Vesuvius drew closer Jenna’s grip around her arm tightened and she drew back even further.
“I believe this is mine.” With a smooth motion the man yanked the paper bag from Amanda’s grasp. “Care to tell me who you’re working for, Mrs.—”
“Stedman,” Amanda replied. “And we’re not working for anyone—we just came here to get some lunch.”
“That’s—um—that’s right,” Jenna added quickly. “Just lunch.”
“Still sticking to your story? No matter, we’ll have plenty of time to get the truth from you later,” Vesuvius said. “For now, Mrs. Stedman, I think it would be best to put you and your daughter on ice.”
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“Back here.” The men in suits—obviously some kind of hired muscle, pushed them down a narrow corridor. One of the men held Amanda by the arm—the gun pressed tightly against the small of her back; the other man—short and stocky, held Jenna in a similar fashion. Jenna remained quiet the whole time, dark eyes huge in her pale face. Amanda couldn’t even guess what her daughter must be feeling at this point—she could only hope that she was managing to hold it together. At the end of the corridor she saw a doorway—the man holding her took a key and unlocked it.
“Inside,” he said as he shoved her roughly through the door. Jenna was next—Amanda managed to grab her before she fell, holding her against her--she could feel the way her body was trembling.
“Don’t bother screaming,” the stocky man said. “No one in the alley will be able to hear you and I’ll be on watch—and trust me when I tell you that you don’t want to annoy me.” The door slammed shut—Amanda heard the key turning in the lock and the sound of footsteps retreating.
“Jenna?” she said. No reply—Jenna just stared—her eyes open but unfocused—her breathing rapid. A flashback or just plain fear—she’d seemed calm only a moment ago. Amanda fought to stay calm herself. “Come on—let’s sit over here, sweetheart.” Taking Jenna’s hands, she led her over to a sofa near the back and set her down.
“Look at me,” Amanda told her. “We’re alone now—you’re safe, it’s all right.” She kept repeating these words, relieved when Jenna’s eyes finally met her own. “Good—now just breathe, in and out, very slowly.” She watched as color slowly crept back into her daughter’s cheeks. “That’s it—feel better?”
Jenna nodded. “A little—I guess I just had a moment. Still scared, though.”
Amanda squeezed her hands. “I know you’re scared,” she said. “And believe me, that’s normal. But trust me—we’re going to get out of this.”
“How are we going to get out of this?” Jenna asked. “Mom, what is all of this all about?”
Amanda hesitated. On one hand, Jenna wasn’t cleared to know certain things, but on the other hand she was in danger and she at least deserved to know why. “The message that I picked up,” she began. “It contained information about making a bomb—a bomb to blow up a building in DC.”
“A bomb? You mean those men—and that man in black—they were terrorists?”
“So we’re not really safe—are we?” Jenna replied. “What did that man mean about plenty of time to get the truth from you later?”
“I don’t know.” Actually she had some idea, but Jenna didn’t need to be frightened any more than she already was at this point.
“What are they going to do to us?”
“I really—I don’t know,” Amanda told her. “Hopefully we’ll be out of here before we find out.”
“But how? Do you have a gun or anything?”
“No, sweetheart—I don’t have a gun with me.” As she spoke, Amanda scanned the room. Some kind of storage area—the metal shelves that lined the walls contained bowling balls of various sizes and colors, bowling shoes and pins—slowly an idea began to form. “But even without a gun there are still other things that we can use.”
“Other things like what?”
“Listen to me,” Amanda said. “If we make a lot of noise we could get that man to come back here.”
“He said would we annoy him if we did that.”
“When he comes back here, I can kick the gun out of his hand and you could hit him over the head with a bowling club. What do you think?”
For a few moments Jenna was silent.
“Mom, I don’t know,” she said. “I mean, I’ve never hit anyone over the head before—are you sure that we can do this?”
Amanda heard the doubt in her daughter’s voice. And honestly she wasn’t sure either—but one thing she did know for sure—staying here and waiting would be much worse. “We have to try something,” she told Jenna. “Now as long as we work together we can do this. All right?”
Jenna bit down on her lower lip. “All right,” she said finally. “I’ll do it. What do we do after we get out?”
“Get to a payphone and call for backup.”
Jenna hesitated. “We might not need a payphone,” she reached into her front pocket, handing the phone to Amanda.
“I didn’t exactly tell the truth earlier.” Jenna said. “But you know, since the kidnapping and all—I try to have it with me all the time.”
“I know.” Amanda flipped open the phone. “There’s no signal back here,” she said. “But once we get out we should be able to pick something up. Are you ready?”
Again Jenna nodded. “I’m ready.”
“Good.” Together they rose from the sofa. Amanda selected one of the pins from the shelf and handed it to her.
“It’s not very heavy,” Jenna frowned as she grabbed the pin by the narrow end hefting it experimentally up and down. “Will it work?”
“It should work just fine. Try to hit him on the back of his neck—right here,” Amanda patted the area at the base of her skull. “That’s the best place.”
“Very good. And now I want you to stand in front of the door and start yelling and screaming—just as loud as you can.”
“Screaming about what?”
“Anything—the point is to get him back here.”
Jenna drew in a deep breath. “Help!” she yelled at the top of her lungs. “Please help me—oh please—I’m claustrophobic—I can’t breathe—I’m going to throw up! Please!”
Nothing—no footsteps or anything. Jenna began to bang repeatedly on the door with the club.
“If you don’t let me out,” she called out between bangs. “Right now—or you’ll be so sorry—” Without any warning she let out a piercing scream. Amanda put her hands over her ears—she had forgotten how loud her daughter could scream. Footsteps sounded, coming down the corridor.
“Now,” Amanda hissed. “Quick. Move to the left side of the door.” Jenna did, wielding the club overhead. They heard the key turning in the lock—the door swung open.
“What the hell—” but before he could say more Amanda brought her right foot up, hitting his wrist with a solid crack and forcing him to drop the weapon.”
“Now!” Amanda said. Jenna brought the club crashing down on the back of the man’s head and he dropped forward like a stone.
“Good work, sweetheart.” Amanda bent down to take the gun. “Now all we have to do is get out of here—”
“Hold it right there,” it was the second man in the suit, coming down the corridor towards them, his gun trained in their direction.
“Drop the weapon, Mrs. Stedman,” he said. “Or I drop your daughter.”
Amanda released the gun—it fell to the floor with a clatter.
“Now back away from it!” the man barked. “Both of you—now.”
Slowly Amanda backed away as the man drew closer—her foot hit something hard—a bowling ball left lying on the floor.
“Keep moving, Mrs. Stedman,” he said. “Nice and easy—nice and—”
Amanda moved until she stood behind the bowling ball, her foot poised—once the man was close enough she drew back her foot and kicked it in his direction. He gave a shout as he tumbled over the ball and ended up on his back, sprawled across the concrete floor.
“You little—” his face reddened as he raised his gun—
“No!” Jenna lifted the pin once more—it landed with a resounding smack on the man’s forehead. Amanda watched as his eyes rolled back in his head and he slumped back onto the floor.
“I didn’t know I could do that.” Still gripping the club Jenna stared down at the unconscious man—her face had grown pale again. “But I was scared—I didn’t want him to hurt you.”
“I know, it’s all right.” Slowly Amanda stood, taking the pin from Jenna’s shaking hand as she pulled her into a brief hug. “And you did a very good job. Now let’s lock them up and get out of here,” bending down she quickly grabbed the gun and retrieved the key from the other man’s hand. “I’m pretty sure I remember how to get out the back way.”
“That sounds good. And Mom?”
“I still need to do that project, don’t I?”
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“Sweetheart, I just need you to sit here for a minute while I talk to Francine,” Amanda told Jenna. “Will you be all right?”
“I’m fine, Mom.” Jenna sat down in one of the chairs in the empty conference room. “I’ll just wait right here.”
“Well I won’t be long, I promise.” Amanda said. “Do you need anything else right now?”
Jenna shook her head. “I’m all right with water right now. I really am okay.”
Amanda smiled as she gave her daughter a brief kiss on the top of her head. “I know you are. We’ll go out for lunch after this, all right?”
“That sounds nice.”
“I promise I won’t be long.”
A small smile. “You said that already.”
“I know.” Amanda left the conference room, shutting the door behind her as she turned to face Francine.
“How is she?” Francine asked. “This had to be frightening for her.”
“It was,” Amanda admitted, watching through the glass as Jenna sipped her water. “And she did have a little moment earlier when we were trapped, but I think she’s okay now.” At least she was hoping that was the case—praying that there wouldn’t be some kind of delayed reaction.
“Hopefully she will be,” Francine said. “Did she actually hit those men with a bowling pin?”
Amanda nodded. “Yes, she did.”
“Actually, that doesn’t surprise me—she’s a strong girl after all she’s been through. Let’s go into my office.” Amanda followed Francine through the bullpen to the office, taking a seat on the sofa opposite the desk.
“We took the two men who captured you and Jenna into custody,” Francine opened one of the file folders on her desk as she spoke. “One of them turned out to be Mr. Donnelly, the manager of Shady Groves—and both were members of the De Vrees Network.”
“What about the man who was supposed to give me the coded message? “ Amanda asked.
“Murdered—we found his body in a closet in the manager’s office.”
A Dutch terror cell operating out of a bowling alley—and on Children’s Day—the thought that she and Jenna had been there—that close to—Amanda shuddered inwardly. “What about Vesuvius?”
“Still on the loose,” Francine said. “But we have an APB out on him—and with the information you gave us he shouldn’t be too hard to find. And we have extra security detail on the Lincoln Memorial and on all the monuments in case he decides to change his target.”
“Well it’s the first real lead we’ve gotten on Vesuvius, so we have to thank you for that,” Francine replied. “Your full report is due on Monday and of course we’ll need a computer composite—that shouldn’t take long.”
“Thank you, Francine.”
“Oh before I forget—is there anything that we can get for Jenna while she’s waiting?”
Amanda was about to say that wasn’t necessary until she remembered—the reason she’d gone out to begin with. “Actually, Francine—could you see if you could get her a few sheets of parchment paper?”
Francine raised her eyebrows. “Parchment paper?”
“Yes,” Amanda replied. “Lavender, if it’s possible. Oh, and a clear presentation folder”
“Lavender parchment paper and a clear presentation folder?” the woman repeated. If Francine’s eyebrows went any higher, Amanda thought, they were going to leave her forehead and take on a life of their own.
“It’s for a school project; it’s due on Monday.”
“Oh—I see.” Francine picked up the cordless phone. “Well I’ll see what Leatherneck can do.”
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“Here you go, Jenna,” Leatherneck said. “A clear presentation folder and some sheets of lavender parchment paper—well technically it’s card paper, but it’s made to look like parchment anyway. How many sheets do you need?”
How many? “I—um—I guess maybe one or two,” Jenna said. “The letter shouldn’t be that long.”
“Well why not take a few?” Leatherneck said, placing the sheets in the folder. “That way you’ll have a couple to spare in case you mess up.”
“That sounds good.”
“Just be careful not to bend it.”
“I will.” Jenna took the folder. The bubblegum was there again, she noticed—though this time she knew better than to try and touch it. “What is that gum for?” She asked him.
“Not for chewing,” Leatherneck replied. “Well—not under normal circumstances anyway.”
Normal circumstances—as if anything around here was actually normal anyway. She watched as Leatherneck bent down, rummaging under his counter.
“You can chew this though,” he handed the packet of Bubblelicious to her. “It’s grape-flavored.”
“Thank you,” Jenna said as she took the packet.
“Thank you very much, Leatherneck,” Mom said.
He smiled. “Anytime, ladies.“
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“Mom, do you want some bubblegum?” Jenna asked as they got into the car.
“No thank you, sweetheart. I’m fine. Where would you like to go eat?”
“Taco Bell I guess.”
“Then Taco Bell it is,” Amanda replied. “And remember, when we get home—”
“I’ll get right to work, I promise.” Opening the clear folder Jenna leafed through the stack of paper she held. “I still can’t believe that Leatherneck could find this at the Agency—and in lavender too.”
“Well believe me, you’d be surprised what Leatherneck can find.”
“Yeah, I think I would be.” Jenna grinned. “Just wondering, you know, what the Agency ever used it for.”
“You’d be surprised at that too, sweetheart.”
“I probably would.” Jenna fell silent for a few minutes after that, her head turned away from Amanda—staring out the window. Just being quiet? Amanda wondered. Or was there something else on her mind?
“You know,” she began. “If there’s anything you want to talk about, I’m right here.” No reply. Amanda turned left onto Lee Highway. “I know today wasn’t exactly a normal day for you.”
“Not exactly, no.”
Jenna didn’t sound upset or frightened, Amanda noted—but still there was a tone in her voice that she couldn’t identify. She decided to probe a bit further. “You know what you did—that was really brave.”
“I guess, but I didn’t feel brave at the time, though,” Jenna replied, turning to look at her mom. “Mostly I just felt so scared—and I knew I didn’t want that man to hurt you.”
“I just acted out of instinct—fear, mostly” Amanda remembered saying that to Lee once. “A lot of times when you’re bravest is when you’re the most afraid,” she said out loud.
“Yeah, but who’s going to know?” Jenna said, then let out a sigh. “I’m sorry, Mom. I guess it still bugs me that there are so many people that I can’t say anything to.”
“It’s hard, isn’t it?” Amanda asked.
“Kind of,” Jenna explained. “I mean all this stuff happened today and no one can know about it—not my friends, anyway.” She paused. “I know that you and Dad can know—and Grandma, though Grandma might worry a lot—and Billy and Francine know but they’re so busy a lot of the time. I don’t know who else to talk to.”
“It still seems unreal,” Jenna said. “Spies and all.”
“Believe me, it used to be the same way for me.”
“I can’t even tell my friends about meeting Chris without explaining what I was doing at the bowling alley in the first place.”
Chris. So much had happened that day that Amanda had to think back to remember exactly who Chris was—the boy that Jenna had been talking to. “Well,” she said, thinking aloud. “You could always say that we were there to volunteer—to supervise the younger children. We’ve done that before, haven’t we?”
“Yeah—yeah that would work,” Jenna said. “Thanks, Mom—you’re really good at this.”
“Well, I’ve had to be over the years.” Had to be. Amanda could remember how much she’d hated it, all the lying and sneaking around. But she’d been an adult, and besides that she’d had Lee to talk to. And Jenna was only thirteen—barely a teenager and still a child who was trying to process everything. This had to be doubly hard on her, Amanda knew, the same way it had been for Phillip and Jamie—
That was it.
“Sweetheart, what about your brothers?”
“Sure—they went through the same things when they were your age and they found out, remember?” Amanda made another turn onto Glebe. “I know they live out of town, but you can always call them on the phone.”
“And that would be okay—that would be safe?” Jenna asked. “I wouldn’t want to do anything to put us in danger.”
“You wouldn’t be endangering anyone. Trust me, it would be just fine.”
More silence. “Thanks Mom,” Jenna said finally.
SMK SMK SMK SMK
4247 Maplewood Dr.
“Hey there,” Amanda greeted Lee at the door—pulling his body close to her own as they shared a passionate kiss.
“Quite a greeting, Mrs. Stetson,” Lee murmured, his eyes looking down into hers.
“Well I missed you, you know.” Amanda replied breathlessly.
“So I see—will there be more later on?”
Amanda smiled. “We’ll see.”
“Sounds promising,” Lee said. At that moment Dotty emerged from the kitchen, glass of milk in hand.
“Well I’m going to take this upstairs and read my book,” she announced. “Oh—hello Lee. How was your trip?”
“Everything went just fine,” Lee told her.
“Well, hopefully it was less exciting than what happened around here,” Dotty looked at Amanda pointedly as she spoke. “I’ll leave you two to talk.”
“Good night, Mother,” Amanda said.
Dotty smiled. “Good night, darling. Night, Lee.”
“Good night.”Lee waited until Dotty went upstairs before turning to face Amanda. “What did she mean?” he asked. “Did something happen when I was gone?”
How was she going to tell him this? Amanda took a deep breath, taking his hands in hers. “There was a little problem,” she began. “It all worked out, but there are some things I need to tell you. Let’s sit over here.” She led him over to the family room sofa.
“Amanda just tell me,” Lee said. “Did something happen? Is anyone hurt?”
“No, everyone is perfectly fine,” Amanda said. “What mother was talking about is that Jenna and I did have a little excitement today.”
His face darkened. “What kind of excitement?”
“I needed to take Jenna to get supplies for a last-minute school project,” Amanda explained. “And Mother was out with Captain Curt and Francine wanted me to do what she said was a simple milk run. Ordinarily I wouldn’t have taken Jenna, but the project was due on Monday and I really didn’t have a choice.”
“Believe me, I understand,” Lee said. “I’ve been there myself. What happened next?”
“Well, I didn’t want to leave her in the car—”
“And knowing who her mother is, she wouldn’t have stayed anyway—” Lee finished her thought.
“Exactly,” Amanda replied. “So I left her at a table while I went up to the concession stand to pick up the note—only I ended up picking up something else instead—a list of ingredients for making a bomb.”
Amanda nodded. “The person at the counter—he thought I was there to pick up something else—he thought I was Vesuvius.”
“Wait a minute.” Lee held up his hand. “Vesuvius? You mean the terrorist?”
“Yes. So anyway, I took the information and I was going to take it to the Agency. And that’s when the real Vesuvius turned up. He took the information and locked Jenna and me in a storage room.”
“Amanda, he didn’t hurt you or—”
“No,” Amanda said quickly, watching as relief flooded her husband’s features. His grip on her hands eased slightly. “We’re both fine. Jenna did have a little moment, but—”
“A little moment?” Lee repeated. “Do you mean a flashback?”
“I don’t think it was a flashback, exactly.” As she spoke Amanda could picture the way Jenna’s face had looked—so pale—dark eyes dilated with fear. “I think she froze up for a moment—she was just really frightened.”
“But after that she calmed down, right?”
“Thank God for that.” Lee said. “Tell me what happened next.”
“We started to try and think of a way out. Jenna still had her cell phone with her but we couldn’t get a signal—not in the room.”
“Where was your cell phone?”
“Vesuvius—he took it. He would’ve taken Jenna’s too but she told him she didn’t have hers.”
“That was quick thinking on her part,” Lee said. “Though it was taking a hell of a chance. I’m almost afraid to ask what happened next.”
She was going to have to tell him the rest quickly—there wasn’t any other way.
“Jenna banged on the door to get the man to come back there,” Amanda said. “Then I kicked the gun out of his hand and Jenna hit him over the head with a bowling pin. After that a second man came back there and I knocked him over with a bowling ball and Jenna hit him over the head again. After that we got out of the room and called for backup.”
“No, and by the time backup arrived he was long gone.”
“Have they found him yet?”
“I haven’t heard anything, but they’ll catch him—I was able to give them a description—which is more than they had before.” Lee said nothing for a moment, staring down at their entwined hands. “What is it?”
“Hopefully they will find him,” he said. “That man’s a killer—I don’t like the idea of him being on the loose.”
“Lee, he doesn’t know who I am or who Jenna is—we’ve deactivated the cell phone so he can’t use that to trace us. It really is all right.”
“I know—I’m just glad you’re both safe.” Lee gathered her into his arms, holding her close—Amanda could feel him shaking—how fast his heart was pounding. She closed her eyes, letting herself relax against him.
“You never did tell me how your mission went,” she said.
“Not half as eventful as yours,” Lee replied. “The contact turned up on time—she handed over the information and that was that. The only glitch was the eight-hour layover trying to catch a flight back home.”
“Piece of cake, huh?”
“You could say that.” Lee said. “And Jenna really hit two guys over the head with a bowling pin?”
“That’s what she did.”
“Wow,” Lee said. “Where is Jenna, by the way? Don’t tell me she’s already in bed on a Saturday night.”
“Well—” Amanda began.
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“Sounds like you and Mom had quite a day, sis,” Phillip said. “Nobody was hurt though, right?”
“No, no one was hurt.” Jenna lay on her stomach, kicking her feet up and down. “We’re both all right.”
“It must have been scary,” Jamie added.
“Yeah it was,” Jenna could remember the way her chest had constricted at the sight of the gun pointed at her—and when that guy had grabbed her—a slight shiver ran through her body. “But Mom was there—I wasn’t alone this time. I think that made it better.”
“Do you know what it was about?” Phillip asked.
“Not exactly,” Jenna hedged—she knew that she could tell her brothers most of it but wasn’t sure what she should say about the bomb part—Mom had only told her that part because they were in danger. “All I do know is that it had something to do with a package that Mom had and that man wanted.”
“And this was the man dressed all in black right?” Jamie said.
“That’s the one,” Jenna told him.
“Just glad you two escaped.” Phillip said. “And you knocked out two guys?”
“Yeah.” As she thought about it, Jenna felt a smile spreading over her face. “The bowling pin was really heavy, you know—it was hard to lift but I knocked them out cold.” Not exactly the truth; the pin had been light and they hadn’t been knocked out cold—she’d heard them groaning through the door when her Mom had locked them in the room.
Jamie whistled. “Wow—I’m impressed.”
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“Knocked them out cold?” Lee repeated raising his eyebrows. They stood together at the top of the stairs—from this vantage point they couldn’t actually see Jenna, but they could hear her quite clearly. “Bowling pins aren’t that heavy.”
“You have to let her exaggerate a little,” Amanda said. “After all, she’s telling the story.”
“And then Mom threw the bowling ball,” Jenna continued. “And the man flew over it—”
“Yeah, she’s telling the story all right.” Lee replied, shaking his head bemusedly.
“Well, she needs an outlet,” Amanda explained, keeping her voice low so that Jenna wouldn’t overhear. “I know there’s us—and Mother and Billy and Francine, of course—but sometimes we’re busy—the boys might be more accessible.”
“And they were around her age when they found out, I know,” Lee said. “Believe me, I think it’s a good idea—this is her life, after all. They might help her deal with it.”
“A spy one day?” Jenna said. “Maybe, but I really don’t know about that.”
Lee swallowed hard. Inwardly he knew that right now his daughter was just talking—it would be years before Jenna actually made that decision, but the thought of it still caused a knot to form in his gut.
“I just –it made me feel really good, Jamie” Jenna said. “That I was scared but I still could fight back.”
She fought back—the knot in Lee’s stomach dissipated, replaced by a feeling of pride. Jenna really had come such a long way. Amanda’s smaller hand wrapped around his own—she must have known what he was thinking.
“What do you say we go upstairs to our own room?” her voice murmured against his ear. “I still haven’t had a chance to really welcome you home, you know.”
“Oh?” Lee said. “And what does a really welcome home entail?”
Amanda smiled. “You’ll see, Stetson.” Hand in hand they walked up the stairs, heading towards the bedroom.
“Oh, and I forgot to tell you,” Jenna said. “All about meeting Chris—he was so cute—”
“Amanda?” Lee asked.
“Who exactly is Chris?”
Amanda drew in a deep breath and prepared to explain. "You see there was this boy at the bowling alley..."