"Serena, I have a meeting in about an hour. Could you take these samples over to Dr. Kilborne so he can run the tests on them and make sure they've been mixed properly?"
Serena rolled her eyes but made sure to force a pleasant expression on her face before she turned to face the professor. "That's why I'm here. To help," she replied with a little too much cheer in her voice.
Dr. Clark didn't seem to notice. He merely nodded then turned toward the door that had been locked the entire time she'd been working with him. She had asked him once what was behind the door, but he had changed the subject and said it was just storage for some old projects. They kept it locked for security purposes. "Nothing important," he'd said.
As soon as the professor closed the door behind him, she heard the lock click. "Nothing important, indeed." Ever since he'd received the phone call yesterday about that special project he'd mentioned earlier in the week, he'd been very close-mouthed about everything he'd been doing. Although he'd warned her, she still didn't like being kept in the dark. Not when so much was riding on her finding out information about that project.
She had fielded a call to the lab at the end of the day yesterday from a General Sandstone. If her instincts proved correct, he was Air Force, and that meant there was a high chance NASA was involved. "Gotcha!" One more piece to the puzzle. If she could only get one clue to confirm her suspicions. Anything at all.
"Well, I'm not going to find out anything else sitting in this lab all day. Maybe if I get these samples to Dr. Kilborne, I can get back in time to see who is nine o'clock appointment is."
With resolve, Serena packages the chemicals and placed them in a protective carrying case. It wouldn't do to spill anything on her way to the testing lab. As she walked there, plans formed in her mind for how she could get the professor to reveal something about this project.
Throughout the entire testing process Dr. Kilborne initiated, Serena remained in the lab, offering assistance where needed. Dr. Clark wanted the results back today. She had nothing else to do.
After about an hour-and-a-half, the tests complete and a positive result pronounced, Serena took the samples and the printout back to Dr. Clark's lab. She heard voices coming from within the locked room.
"Good. I didn't miss them."
Pretending to occupy herself with some odd experiment, Serena waited for the meeting to come to a close. A messenger knocked on the door with a package for Dr. Clark. After taking it and signing the clipboard, she glanced down at the brown-paper wrapped box. She shook it and didn't hear anything rattling then glanced at the closed door.
Serena debated over interrupting the meeting and after several moments decided to wait it out. She placed the package on the desk in Dr. Clark's office then came back out into the lab just as the door to the other room opened.
"All the pieces will be in place by 2300 hours tomorrow. The couriers are coming late to avoid detection and throw the hounds off the scent. Make sure you're there to meet the delivery transport."
"I will. Thank you, General."
The Air Force officer pulled the door shut and turned just as Serena crossed his path. He caught her eye and narrowed both of his. She just smiled and walked passed him, assuming a nonchalant air.
When the sound of his boots echoed on the linoleum floor, she released a sigh of relief. Unable to resist, Serena turned to watch his departure only to catch his eye again as he cast one last look into the lab before disappearing around the corner. She closed her eyes. If all went well, he wouldn't suspect a thing, and she could deliver this news to Yuri so he could pass it on to the embassy.
At last. They had a break.
"Are you sure no one else has welcomed this new family, Amanda?"
Lee stood in the kitchen holding the freshly baked poppyseed cake and waiting for Amanda to grab the lemon pie.
"I'm sure of it, Lee. I haven't hardly seen any of them around the house this past week, except for Monday evening when the woman came outside and got in the car to drive away. Other than that, it's been quiet and almost always dark over there."
"Well, maybe they don't want to be disturbed, or maybe they're not quite moved in yet and we should wait."
"Oh, stop your whining, Lee." Amanda swatted his shoulder as she walked by. "Now, let's go. If no one else is going to welcome them to the neighborhood, at least we can."
Lee groaned. "This better be quick. Mom has dinner almost ready, and my stomach is grumbling." He glanced down at the cake in his hands. "And you're not making it any easier on me forcing me to carry this cake."
"Don't worry. I baked two of them, so you'll have a piece for dessert tonight."
"Oh, Amanda, you're wonderful!"
She smiled. "I know." Grabbing his sleeve with her free hand, she nodded toward the front door. "Now, let's go."
They crossed the street and walked up the path to the front door. Amanda wrapped twice with the doorknocker and waited. She almost knocked again, but they heard movement from inside, and a moment later, the door opened.
A man with dark brown hair and dark eyes greeted them. Those eyes said he didn't want to be disturbed, but the way he looked at Lee caused a knot to form in Amanda's stomach. She knew that look. Before she could contemplate it further, the woman Amanda saw on Monday joined the man at the door with a welcoming smile.
"Hello! Can we help you?"
Amanda thought she detected the hint of an accent in the woman's voice, but couldn't be sure. If it was there, she hid it quite well. "We've come to welcome you to the neighborhood and bring some fresh baked goods for you and your husband to enjoy."
"Oh, how nice!"
"My wife noticed you'd just moved in last week and she's been bugging me to come over for several days. My work schedule hasn't left much time until tonight."
"Are you sure we haven't come at a bad time?"
The woman cast a sideways glance at the man next to her then returned her gaze to them. "Not at all!" She nudged her husband.
"No, please. Come in."
Lee and Amanda followed the couple inside. The pair led them to the living room where a faded brown couch, in need of an upholstery job or replacement altogether, sat against one wall with two mismatched chairs adorning the adjacent wall. One lone wooden table in the middle that didn't match any of the other furniture rounded out the setting in a room that had seen better days. The cracked and peeling cream-colored wallpaper would need to be replaced and the blue-gray carpet needed a vacuum.
Amanda tried not to let her thoughts show on her face as she and Lee set the cake and pie on the table. "So, how long have you been here?"
"Ten days." "Two weeks."
They both answered at the same time. What appeared to be nervous glances passed between them, then they turned to face Lee and Amanda again. Amanda caught Lee's narrowed eyes for the brief moment before he returned his face to a nonchalant expression.
"I'm sure the time seems unimportant when you're just getting settled."
"Yes, it does seem to pass a lot faster than we'd planned. We have so much to do and so little time." The woman reached for the cake. "John!"
A moment later, another man entered the room. This one had blonde hair much like the woman's, only not as wavy and in need of a wash. The man's clothes looked like he had just come in from working in the yard. The eyes were the same as the man who had met them at the door, and Amanda couldn't help but wonder at their lack of interest in greeting their neighbors.
"You called, Il...Serena?"
"Yes. First, I'd like you to meet our neighbors." The woman turned to face Lee and Amanda. "I'm sorry, but I don't believe we exchanged names."
Lee leaned forward. "Lee Morton, and this is my wife Amanda."
Amanda looked at her husband and caught the almost imperceptible shake of his head the warned her not to question his actions. Considering her own curiosity, she couldn't exactly fault him.
"Serena Brown." She nodded at the man sitting next to her. "My husband, York, and my brother, John Michaels."
"Pleased to meet you both."
"Likewise." Serena turned again to John. "Can you take this cake and pie into the kitchen? We'll have them after dinner."
"Of course." John did as she asked, then disappeared.
"I'm sorry for the state of our house. We haven't had time to do much decorating or even make sure the furniture we ordered would be delivered on time. I know this must look awful." She smiled. "You are no doubt a wonderful housewife and mother who keeps a clean home with furniture and decorative items to match."
"She must have that look about her." Lee smiled and reached for Amanda's hand. "My wife does like a clean house, but if it weren't for her mother also living with us, I don't know that we'd have as much luck. With two teenage boys and work schedules that sometimes have us out all night, it's not easy."
York leaned forward in his chair, interest showing in his eyes for the first time since they'd met. "All night? What do you both do?"
"We're in the documentary film business."
"Sounds interesting." His tone said otherwise.
Amanda ignored that for the moment. "Oh, it is! We sometimes get to travel all over the world to scout out locations. I never dreamed I'd get the opportunities I've had since I started working with IFF." She squeezed Lee's hand and gave him an adoring smile. "Since I met my husband, we've been almost inseparable and it seemed only natural that I work with him too."
"Don't you wish for more time alone? If you work together all day and come home together at night, I would think it could be tiring."
Amanda clenched her fingers around Lee's and cut off his reply. "We sometimes are assigned to different places. So, we're not always together. And we have our own interests that give us time apart. How about you? Where do you work?"
"I'm a research assistant at Georgetown University. I work with the head scientist in his lab." Serena nodded at York. "He is chief of security."
The telephone rang in the kitchen, and they heard John answer it. A moment later, he came to the doorway and cleared his throat. He and the couple in front of them shared a meaningful glance.
York stood and Lee and Amanda followed. "I'm sorry, but this is an important call we must take."
"Thank you for coming and for bringing the desserts. They look delicious." Serena smiled, but it didn't quite make it to her eyes. "I'm sure they will be wonderful with our dinner."
Amanda smiled in return and followed Lee to the door. "It's our pleasure. Maybe we can have you over for coffee and dessert one evening once you've settled in here."
Serena nodded. "That would be nice."
"Speaking of dinner..."
"Yes, Mother and the boys will be waiting for us." Amanda waved as she and Lee stepped outside. "Nice meeting you."
"And you," Serena replied then closed the door.
As they made their way back across the street, Amanda fought hard to keep from looking over her shoulder. She had a feeling they stood at the front window watching, so she remained silent until they could step out of view around the line of bushes along their driveway. Once they did, she let Lee have it.
"You want to tell me what that's all about?"
Lee stopped and glanced toward the street, obviously making sure they could no longer be seen. But, he gestured for her to move further toward the back yard just in case.
"Amanda, you've been around this business long enough. Didn't you notice the Russian accent in all three of them?"
"Well, I noticed an accent, but I wasn't sure what it was. They spoke very good English."
"Yeah, too good. And I bet those names they gave weren't real either."
"What makes you so suspicious?"
Lee leaned against the hood of the ‘Vette. "You know our assignment I told you about the other day? Where we're supposed to be keeping our eyes and ears open for possible situations that might compromise the project at Georgetown University?"
"Well, they both said they work there. Add to that their accents and the suspicious glances they kept exchanging."
Amanda nodded. "And the sparse furnishings in the house despite having been there for almost two weeks."
"I admit I've had my doubts about them. Mother thinks we get too involved in our work, but even she came up with an outlandish story about spies and the Russian government. Then again, with the books she reads..."
"Well, let's just stay alert." He reached for her hand and straightened then led the way toward the back of the house. "Right now, I'm hungry. I'll put a call into the Agency and have them run a check on those names. Then, we can eat."
"Is that the only time you have available?"
"Yes, Dr. Adams has a full appointment schedule this morning, but he can make room this afternoon."
Amanda paused and twisted the phone cord between her fingers as she leaned against the wall between the kitchen and living room. "Yes, all right. That's fine. Thank you. I appreciate you making time for me on such short notice. I'll be there."
She hung up the phone, then picked up the receiver again and dialed work.
"IFF, this is Tina."
"Billy Melrose, please. This is Amanda King."
"Billy, this is Amanda."
"Good morning, Amanda. Is everything all right? You're not calling out sick again are you?"
"No, sir. But, I do have a doctor's appointment this afternoon, so I'll have to leave work early."
"That's fine, Amanda. The case load isn't too heavy, and with the report Lee called in last night about your new neighbors, I think we'll be fine for a few hours without you."
"Thank you, sir."
"You just make sure you're all right."
Amanda smiled at the concern in her boss's voice that he didn't often show. Despite his gruff exterior, she knew he cared. "I will. Lee and I will be there in about twenty-five minutes."
"Good. Report to my office as soon as you get in."
"We will. Goodbye, Billy."
Amanda hung up the phone, then reached for her purse as she got nauseous again. She paused and took several deep breaths until the feeling passed. Confident, she grabbed her purse and headed out back to where her mother was in the garden.
"Mother, Lee and I are leaving for work. Phillip and Jamie are still sleeping."
Dotty looked up from the flowerbed. "All right, dear. Did you make that appointment?"
"Yes, Mother. It's this afternoon. I took time off work."
"Good. These symptoms you're having can't be good."
"Mother, it's probably just all the stress from work and the recent events taking their toll. I'm sure it's nothing." Amanda looked up as Lee rounded the corner from the front of the house and headed for the ‘Vette. "I could even be experiencing minor bouts of anemia. That would explain my fatigue and headaches."
"Well, you shouldn't take chances–"
"On your health," Amanda finished for her mother. "I know. And I'm not. I'm seeing the doctor this afternoon for some blood work."
Lee honked the horn.
"Sounds like your husband is getting anxious to be gone. Surprising coming from someone who's not a morning person."
"He's getting better, Mother." Amanda leaned down and kissed Dotty's cheek. "See you this afternoon!"
She half-jogged down the driveway and got into the ‘Vette, fastening her seatbelt. "You're in a hurry to leave this morning. Something pressing at work?"
Lee backed out of the drive and headed down the street. "Just wanted to get there and have Beaman run some checks on this new family across the street."
"You really don't trust them, do you?"
"Well, I admit I'm a little suspicious, but I don't know if it's enough to warrant investigating them."
"Amanda, Billy said we should keep our eyes and ears open. We already know there's a chance there could be sabotage attempts. With the tendency of these bad guys to utilize homes in the suburbs, I'm not willing to take the risk."
"After all, how much bad could happen in suburbia?"
Lee glanced over at her with a grin. "Yeah, all right. Throw my words back in my face."
Amanda reached over and squeezed his thigh. "I use what I can."
"And if you want to actually get to work this morning, you'll keep your hands to yourself."
She looked at the teasing glint in his eyes and slowly removed her hand. "All right, but only if you promise I can return them later."
"That's one promise I know I can keep."
"We should have the test results back next week, Mrs. Stetson. The doctor will call you then."
Amanda nodded at the medical assistant behind the counter. "Thank you, Mary. I look forward to his call."
"Have a nice day!"
"You too." She smiled, collected her purse and left the building.
On the drive home, she reflected on the visit with Dr. Adams. He'd asked her a list of routine questions, then some others that had surprised her. Why would he need to know about her eating habits and if she'd been hungrier than normal lately? If she mentioned being nauseous and dizzy, that would indicate a lack of eating, not overindulgence.
"He was just doing his job. Trying to find out what might be causing these symptoms." Amanda tried to suppress another yawn, but decided to let it out. "It's gotta be anemia."
Forcing herself to stay awake for the drive home, she pulled the Wagoneer into the driveway, noticing there were no other cars there.
"Wonder where everyone is."
She shrugged and got out, then went inside the house. As soon as she stepped into the kitchen, she saw the note written on the whiteboard.
"Phillip and Jamie at park. Gone shopping. Love, Mom."
Amanda erased the message, then turned and looked at the food her mother had set out for dinner. She didn't see any vegetables, so that must be the reason for the trip to the market. She might as well get the roast in the oven while her mother shopped. Moving about the kitchen to start preparations for supper, Amanda passed the kitchen table and saw the paper-clipped papers she'd found in the driveway across the street on Monday.
"Now, how did these get here? I could've sworn I left these in the living room." Did Lee find them or maybe her mother? Neither one had asked her about them.
She glanced out the window and thought about the people across the street. The woman might be missing whatever these papers contained. Amanda looked down at them again. "STS-28. I just know I know that from somewhere. But where?" She knew she could call work and have them double-check, but decided to return the papers instead. Perhaps she could gain some more clues from talking to Serena again.
With her mind made up, Amanda placed the roast in the oven and set the timer, then grabbed the papers and headed across the street. She walked up and knocked on the front door then waited. John answered the door this time.
"Hi, John. Is your sister or brother-in-law home? I have some papers I think belong to Serena. She dropped them earlier this week when she was getting into the car."
Amanda held out the pages and John took them. He glanced down at them then jerked his head back up at her. His eyes narrowed, but just as quickly, he forced a neutral expression in its place.
"Serena! Amanda Morton is here to see you. Says you might have lost some papers earlier this week!"
Amanda waited for a few moments for Serena to come to the door. The woman's smile seemed forced. "Why, Amanda. How nice to see you again. What's this about some papers?"
"John has them."
Serena took them from her brother and flipped through them. "Did you read anything in these?"
Amanda was taken back by the abrupt tone of her voice. "No, I didn't. Only saw the hand-written notes and realize now they're probably research notes. I saw that you dropped them earlier in the week and came over to pick them up before the wind blew them away. I planned to bring them back to you, but with everything that's happened this week, I forgot. This afternoon, I had a doctor's appointment and came home to cook dinner when I saw the pages on the table where I'd left them. So, while the roast was cooking, I thought I'd bring them over here." She paused and realized she'd been rambling. Maybe Serena wouldn’t notice. "Nothing important, I hope. Just looked like a bunch of numbers and letters to me when I glanced at it. Didn't make much sense and all the numbers just made me dizzy."
Serena and John exchanged a glance. "Are you all right now? You mentioned a doctor’s appointment." She stepped aside and gestured behind her. "Do you want to come inside and sit for a while?"
Amanda put up a hand and shook her head. "Oh, no. That's not necessary."
"Please. I insist. What kind of neighbor would I be if I didn't thank you for returning these notes to me?" Once again, the smile didn’t quite reach her eyes. "And I'd like to return your dishes from last night."
Amanda nodded. "All right. But, I can only stay for a few minutes."
"Fine. John will show you to the living room. I'll go get your plates."
John led the way, but didn’t gesture for her to sit down. A moment later, Serena came through the other doorway from the kitchen with the two plates. She didn’t come all the way into the room, so Amanda met her halfway.
"The desserts were delicious. You really know how to cook."
Taking the plates, she smiled. "Thank you. I'm glad you enjoyed them." Amanda glanced at the clock in the dining room. "I really should be going. The roast is in the oven, and if it burns..."
Serena glanced over Amanda’s shoulder. "Are you sure you can't stay a while longer?"
"No, I need to be home to greet my husband and help Mother with the groceries."
"I'm afraid we must insist."
Amanda started to turn at the sound of York's voice behind her but froze when she felt the tip of a gun against her spine.