Without warning, a tie rod shot out of the battered Ford sedan. Immediately, all engine power was lost. Swearing, Face pulled the car off to the side of the interstate. He knew enough about cars to know it wasn't going to be worth repairing. He doubted BA would even want to, especially since Hannibal was making noises about it being time they all switched to vehicles the military didn't know they had.
"Great," Face muttered. "Figures this thing would die in the middle of nowhere. I have got to get a car phone." He sighed, too well aware that the finances hadn't yet stretched to such luxuries, popped the trunk, and got out of the car. The trunk held a large black duffel bag, which Face swung onto his shoulder before shutting the trunk.
He counted his blessings: it wasn't raining, and he was still wearing clothes appropriate for the hike out to his friend's remote cabin. He was about two hours northwest of LA, though this was a fairly deserted stretch of state highway, with no sign of civilization for miles. He'd been coming back from visiting a friend who, for a small fee, created the paperwork to back up the false identities that kept the military from finding where the team lived. Face had gone to retrieve a new set of identities, as something told him they were going to be needed soon. It was supposed to be a simple day trip: three hours out to where his friend lived; three hours back.
Face sighed, and started walking. Whenever he heard a car, he stuck out his thumb and put on his best smile.
He was rewarded half an hour later when a classic black Mustang convertible pulled off the road. A striking brunette was at the wheel.
"Need a lift somewhere?" she asked.
Face smiled. "If you'd just drop me off at the next town, I can call my friends to get me," he told her.
Her eyes raked boldly over him, undressing him with frank appreciation. Slowly, her lips curved into a smile, and he had to rein in the urge to take a breath at the impact of that smile. Here was a woman who knew she was beautiful and knew how to use it.
"What's your name?"
"Tim," he lied.
"I'm Amanda. Hop in," she invited.
When he was settled in the car, she pulled back onto the highway. "I can do better than the next town. I'm headed down to LA, if you're interested in going that far."
Face looked at her. She wore a short red mini-dress that only served to emphasize her curves; if she had a weapon hidden on her, it wasn't anywhere obvious â€“ the dress was far too revealing for that. She radiated confidence, as if she had no doubt of where she was going or how she was going to get there.
Face had hitchhiked before; he knew how dangerous it was. Yet, she didn't strike him as being one of the ones he had to fear.
"LA would be nice," he agreed. "Would save my friends the trip."
She flashed that killer smile at him, and he felt his heart jolt. "My pleasure. So what happened to your car?"
"It died," he replied, grinning. "I'll leave the gory details of how to my mechanic. What brings you this way?"
"Interstates are so impersonal," she told him. "You get there faster, but you miss out on the scenery. I live in San Francisco, but the tryouts for the circus are being held in LA."
"Oh?" Face said, intrigued. "So what do you do?"
Amanda smiled. "High wire acrobat." She chuckled softly. "I'm the 'Amazing Amanda.' Not a very original name, but â€”" she shrugged "â€” circuses aren't exactly known for being creative with those sorts of things."
"I can't say I've ever watched a circus," Face admitted.
"Really?" she asked with interest, glancing over at him as she drove. He spared a moment to note she handled the manual transmission car with the ease of long familiarity. He also noted that they were traveling a good twenty miles over the speed limit, but she didn't seem to care.
He shrugged. "Wasn't something I did as a kid," he said honestly. "Then I grew up and got interested in other things."
"You should come see me sometime," she told him.
"You that sure they'll take you?" Face asked in surprise.
She grinned. "Darling, no one's better at the high wire than the Amazing Amanda. I'll even work without a net."
"What do you do in a high wire act that you'd need a net?"
"Well, the wire's at least twenty feet in the air, it's usually about 21 mm in width, and it's at a specific tension between two poles. That's for starters. Then, the basics: walking on that wire without falling, adding in props, maybe a few gymnastic twists, all the stuff to make the crowd gasp, thinking you're going to fall."
Face digested this information. Amanda seemed to live in a world apart from the women he'd gotten to know over the years, and he knew he was intrigued by her. "Twenty-one millimeters? How in the world do you walk on that?"
She chuckled. "Very carefully," she said seriously. "It takes practice to know how to walk and, how to fall if you do fall so you don't collide with the wire."
He winced as his imagination came up with the possible injuries from such a collision. "I can't imagine anything paying enough to be worth that kind of risk."
"It doesn't," she admitted. "But I love what I do. Up there, there's nothing more important than doing what I'm supposed to do. There's no war, no hate, no fighting, no games. It's just me, the wire, and the routine I'm doing. Even the crowd fades away."
Something in the way she said that made Face reevaluate her. There were depths to this woman:woman; her attire said upscale, the car said collector, but the words she spoke said she was more than she appeared. He was fascinated and attracted. He knew that was a dangerous place for him to be, and reminded himself that she was a stranger who'd picked him up. She could be anything and he was better off trusting that she meant him harm.
"Must be nice to have someplace you can go escape the world like that," he said quietly.
She glanced at him, and he wondered briefly if the fact he'd learned how not to slouch betrayed his military background. He had a sneaking suspicion she'd pegged him for a vet. All she said, though, was, "It is. I think people need places like that. Get all wound up in life and forget to enjoy it sometimes."
"Better living through joy?" he teased her.
She laughed softly. "Why not? Seems to me like we've tried everything else."
He chuckled. "I don't know if people can handle that. There'd be someone who'd insist on spoiling the fun."
She frowned. "Unfortunately, you're probably right." Abruptly, she shifted into a lower gear, slowing the car down rapidly as they approached the outskirts of a town before she actually applied the brakes.
For the six blocks that comprised the town, Amanda kept to the posted speed limit. Face saw why as they passed the sheriff's car just inside the town limits on their way out. The sheriff looked positively disappointed they'd avoided his speed trap.
"Like that guy?" Face couldn't resist commenting when they'd passed the town limits sign.
Amanda flashed him a grin. "Like that guy." He could feel the car's speed was steadily increasing and had no doubt she'd be speeding again. He couldn't remember the last time he'd done some low-level flying like this without being worried about being caught. It felt oddly exhilarating to be a passenger like this, too, knowing that if they were stopped he'd have to do some serious fast-talking to avoid suspicion.
"So what do you do?" Amanda asked a half-mile later.
"I perpetrate the myth that working in an office actually accomplishes something," he told her blandly. He'd already decided that Tim was an office drone; it didn't seem worth it to make him into anyone with a more glamorous profession, especially since his hiking boots, jeans, and knit shirt didn't scream money. He'd dressed to go hiking; he hadn't dressed to impress anyone.
"I've often wondered about that," she told him. "I've never worked in an office. Well, unless you count the box office of the circus, and even then I was just selling tickets. Not pushing papers."
He shrugged. "I wouldn't know anything different," he lied smoothly. "It's what my parents did."
"I don't remember my parents," Amanda admitted. "I haven't felt like I missed anything by it, either. I've had good friends; they've been family to me."
Face was tempted to agree, but he decided that hadn't been Tim's life. He spun a tale of a small but close family, a few good friends, but always that perfect family he'd never had. He threw in a few details from living on a farm borrowed without shame from Murdock's life; he'd heard the stories enough times to retell them as if they were his own. He could tell Amanda bought it, too, which only proved yet again that he could talk anyone into believing anything.
"Your parents must be proud of you," Amanda remarked. "Are they in LA with you?"
Face shook his head. "No," he said regretfully, "they retired to Florida. I try to make it out there for the holidays, but I know it's not nearly enough." He sighed. "Thank God for long-distance phone calls."
Amanda smiled. "I know how that feels â€” my friends are all over the place!"
Face didn't have anything else to add to that, so he let the conversation stall there. He could tell from the roadway signage that they were less than half an hour from LA now.
"Where in LA are you headed?" he asked a few minutes later.
"Would you believe a Holiday Inn?" she returned with a grin. "If I remember the directions right, it's off Highway 101, near where 101 meets I-5. I can drop you off elsewhere if you like."
"No, that's fine," he told her. "Don't want to be any more bother than necessary."
She looked him over quickly, the gaze heating his blood. "Pity I have an audition," she purred. "I wouldn't mind you bothering me some more."
A blind man could see she was interested in him. Face wasn't blind, nor was he stupid. Interested in him or not, he knew better than to get involved with the person who'd picked him up hitchhiking. "Maybe some other time," he offered noncommittally.
Amanda looked disappointed, and he had a moment to wonder if she'd give in gracefully or not. "Of course," she said finally.
All too soon, she pulled up to the Holiday Inn. Face got out as she did the same, exiting before he had a chance to open her door.
He smiled at her as they met at the rear of her vehicle. "Thanks for the ride, Amanda."
He nodded once in acknowledgement of her words and started walking towards the hotel lobby in search of a phone. He could feel her watching her leave and hid a smile at the predictable gesture.
Just short of the phone, he turned to face her. She was still standing there, watching him. "Buy you a drink, in thanks for the ride?"
She smiled slowly. "I'd love that."
Face loved museums. He'd fallen in love with going on a field trip when he was nine, and the allure of so much art and history in one place had never left him. One of his favorite places in LA was the Natural History Museum, where a permanent exhibit of gems was housed. When he heard that a new gallery featuring the origins of gems was going to be opened, he paid for the opportunity to be among the first to see the new hall, but was disappointed when he had to miss opening night due to a mission the team had. To make up for it, Hannibal agreed to meet him the following weekend at the museum.
The Saturday crowd made it nearly impossible to view everything. Frustrated that a particular group of people seemed intent on hogging the display, Hannibal and Face took a step back.
"I wish I'd been here opening night," Face complained. "Would've been less people."
"Sorry, Face," Hannibal said. "It's a permanent exhibit, though â€“ the crowds will fade eventually."
"Yeah, but nothing quite like the first time."
"You should see this place at night," a female voice murmured.
Both men turned to see a stunning brunette in a revealing red mini-dress standing just off Hannibal's left. On anyone else, the short dress would have been considered worthy of a prostitute; on her, it served to emphasize long legs and a well-shaped female form even while it said she knew exactly how she looked in it.
"Place is closed at night," Hannibal remarked, recovering faster from the impact of her physical beauty. "I don't suppose you have special permission?"
A mischievous smile graced her lips. "You might say that," she agreed noncommittally. "I'm Amanda. I don't know about you, but it's hot in here." She pressed a hand to her chest. "What do you two say to getting out of here and having a drink? I know a quiet bar just up the street."
Hannibal and Face glanced at each other. A drink might not be the only thing Amanda wanted, but both were curious enough to want to find out. Besides, life without risk wasn't a life either wanted to live.
"We'd love to," Hannibal declared. "Lead the way."
It was, Face reflected later, a great way to while away an afternoon. Amanda was witty, charming, intelligent, and conversant in a number of topics. The afternoon was winding down into evening when Amanda suddenly stiffened and started looking around, as if she'd sensed trouble.
"Problem?" Hannibal asked.
"I just remembered I need to meet with a friend," Amanda said easily, but both men had made a life out of reading people, and she was lying. "It was a pleasure talking with both of you. Perhaps we can meet again?"
"Certainly," Face said, pulling out a card from his wallet. "Give me a call anytime," he said as he handed her the card.
She smiled and put the card in her purse as she stood. "I will," she promised. "Good night."
Both men rose. "Good night, Amanda," they said in unison.
She walked quickly away.
Two days later, a headless corpse was found near the museum, but by the time it made the news, Face and Hannibal were deep into a new mission for the team, and paid the news little attention.
Smoky, sultry jazz flowed through hidden speakers as Face stepped through the mostly empty bar on a rainy Tuesday afternoon. He'd been told he could find his contact here. As he moved, he could feel the weight of the gun he carried in a shoulder holster as well the press of other weapons he'd concealed in both the coat he wore and on his person. It did little to reassure his nerves. Knowing he could handle himself in a fight, that he'd come prepared for trouble, didn't change the fact that his contact was an unknown quantity. She'd been vouched for by people he hadn't met, didn't personally know, but he knew the rule. Either he trusted the network of people the team had, or he didn't. He needed the information he'd been promised he could obtain through this woman he'd been sent to meet.
The bartender greeted him with quick professionalism. Face asked for and received a tall glass of cola; the bartender promptly went back to studying the chemistry textbook that lay over the ice machine. Face glanced at his watch and saw he was a few minutes early. He sighed; it figured he'd manage to be prompt when who he met wasn't.
He leaned against the bar, his eyes scanning the room out of paranoia-induced habit. It looked like a hundred other anonymous small clubs where live music was featured.
His attention was caught a few minutes later when a slender, stunning woman with a cap of white-blonde hair strolled in. The short crop of her hair made her face look vaguely elfin; the black trench coat she wore against the rain flared around her as she moved. She wore black leather pants and a black, figure-hugging top. She looked like she, too, had come prepared for trouble; even her hands were covered in black leather gloves. She radiated power, confidence, and danger. Then her lips curved into a friendly smile as she closed the distance between them, and she turned from stunning into dangerously beautiful. He had to remind himself he'd seen many women as beautiful and dangerous as her, but something told him that even among that group, she was unique.
Instinctively, Face rose to his feet, controlling his reaction to her only through sheer will. He wouldn't give her the satisfaction of letting her physical charms get to him. He had a feeling that a woman like her was used to men falling all over her feet. She'd probably used it to her advantage in much the same way he did with his own handsomeness. It was that thought that gave him the strength to not be overwhelmed.
"Templeton Peck?" she asked. "I'm Amanda Montrose. I believe I'm expected?" She pulled off a glove and extended a hand for him to shake.
He smiled and shook the proffered hand. "Well, I wasn't expecting a woman as beautiful as you, but yes." He gestured to a table near the bar. "May I get you something to drink?"
She shook her head. "Later, we'll drink champagne," she promised. "I assume you'd like to get right down to business. Most military men do." She sat down.
"I'm in no rush," Face returned. "I would hate to miss out on the company of such an intelligent woman such as yourself." She was good, he thought, good enough to figure out who he was. That marked a point in her favor; she'd done her homework. So had he. He was willing to trade real names for the talents she was reputed to have; he needed her.
Surprise and pleasure at his compliment lit her dark eyes. "Well," she purred, "in that case, I'll have a glass of white wine."
"Coming right up." He leaned over, caught the bartender's attention, and then waited until the wine was served. Face brought the glass over to the table, then moved his own glass to a seat across from Amanda before he sat down.
She smelled the wine, swirled it, drank, made a face, then pushed the glass aside. "I don't know why I even try," she remarked. "American wines aren't worth it."
Face chuckled. "Have you tried California wines? There are some really good wineries there."
"I'll have to keep that in mind," she acknowledged. "But I freely admit to being particular about some things." She studied him a moment. "Let's not dance around this anymore, shall we? I'm given to understand you need some assistance. What kind of assistance?"
"Word has it that you're one of the best art thieves in the world. Would you be willing to give me a crash course in art appreciation?"
Intrigued, Amanda leaned forward. "Why do you think that I can give you what a course in art can't give you?"
"I'd rather have you on my arm when we walk through the gallery tonight than wait to find that my friends and I have been set up."
Amanda's eyes narrowed. "Which gallery?"
"And what makes you think I won't use the opportunity to my own advantage? You are, if my sources are to be believed, wanted by the government."
"If you are the one who stole that painting a decade ago and replaced it with an excellent forgery, then it's in your interest to make sure it doesn't go to auction," Face told her.
"Oh? Which painting?"
It didn't escape his notice she didn't deny or confirm anything. "Ravelli's 'Nude.'"
"I see." Amanda considered this a moment. "Why are you and your friends involved?"
"We were asked to help make sure it goes to auction. The collector is afraid someone may kill her to get it. I know enough about art to know a good forgery when I see one."
"I never did like that painting," Amanda muttered, half to herself. "He caught me in a bad light, the idiot."
"What did you say?" Face asked, not sure if he heard her correctly.
Amanda started, then laughed softly, aimed a killer smile at him. "Did anyone tell you that you have amazing connections if you managed to hook up with me?"
"Well." Face thought that over a moment. "I've always had a knack for finding beautiful, intelligent, and talented women. Besides, you haven't said yes, yet." Even as he said it, he knew they weren't talking about just her assistance with the painting.
Amanda's lips curved. "Indeed. Where shall we start?"
The club's music was a loud, throbbing, sensual pulse to which the packed dance floor gyrated to in varying degrees of skill. Strobe lights painted flashes of color across the crowd. Standing near the entrance of the crowded club, Hannibal took a few precious seconds to let his eyes adjust to the noise and semi-darkness, even as his sense of danger urged him to hurry.
With a sigh, Hannibal threaded his way through the crowded club towards the dance floor, knowing that in a club like this Face would be there. He wasn't surprised to find him wrapped in a stunning brunette's arms in the middle of the dance floor, or that the pair of them seemed to be matching each other's movements perfectly. For a moment, he envied Face's position; the woman was quite the looker, certainly pageant queen material, and she danced like a pro. How Face managed to find the most attractive women in any city they were ever in was a talent Hannibal admired and understood; he'd wielded it himself a time or two. Hannibal wondered what she'd be like in bed and whether Face had gotten that far. Then he sighed, pushing aside his speculation. Torago was beautiful, the client was happy, but the Army was closing in on their trail. There would be time enough for questions later, provided they left now.
He tapped Face on the shoulder. "Face, we gotta go," he yelled over the music. The crowd forced him to stand close to Face and Face's dance partner.
Face frowned. "But, Hannibal, I just met Amanda," he complained, and Hannibal suddenly felt as old as his years for being the killjoy, again. For half a heartbeat, Hannibal wished he could just tell Face to enjoy himself, that the team would be fine without him, but they'd just untangled themselves from one trap named Stockwell. Hannibal didn't need them getting caught in another.
"Face, it's time to go, the MP's will be here shortly."
"MPs?" Amanda asked. She looked taken aback for a moment, then wondered, "What kind of trouble are you in?"
"Long story," Face said shortly. "Sorry, darling, have to run."
"Then go through the back. Door's to the left of the restrooms." Amanda kissed him thoroughly, winked at Hannibal, then added, "Good luck."
"Thanks," Hannibal told her, meaning it. "Come on, Lieutenant, let's go. Now," he said, adding the bite of command to the last word when Face's shock hadn't quite worn off.
Hearing it, Face snapped back into reality. "Right. Good night, Amanda. I'll call you if we're ever back this way."
"Don't worry about it," she said with a laugh. "I'll find you sometime."
Muttering under his breath, Hannibal gave Face a slight tap on his shoulder, nudging him in the direction Amanda had suggested. With a shake of his head, Face moved.
They escaped the MP's just in time.
It was a risk coming to the hospital, especially since the MPs would undoubtedly check, but Face hadn't liked the way Hannibal looked. He'd taken a pretty bad fall, and from what Face could tell, had broken his arm in such a way that the first aid the team knew wasn't going to be enough to set it.
"I'm telling you, Amanda, I'm fine," a woman insisted. Distracted from his own concerns about Hannibal by the woman's voice, Face looked up to see who was entering the crowded ER waiting room. A heavy-set woman cradled her left arm while a younger, thinner woman escorted her. Time was treating the injured woman kindly; her brown hair was liberally salted with gray, but she radiated a motherly confidence. The younger woman had long brunette hair and the kind of beauty Face had always appreciated.
"Now, Lucy," Amanda said, "you are not fine. You burned yourself pretty bad there."
"Oh, hush," Lucy countered. "How would you know how bad it is?"
Amanda rolled her eyes. "Because I have eyes, and you screamed?"
Hearing it, Face's mouth twitched. He fought the urge to smile as Amanda urged her companion forward to the check-in desk, and Face lost track of them in the line of people.
He'd been waiting for some time (twenty minutes, not that he was counting) before Amanda took the chair beside him.
She leaned over, looking at the stack of magazines on the table next to him. Her way to the table was blocked by someone's temporarily abandoned stroller. "Anything good there?" she asked.
"Depends on good," he told her, suddenly, absurdly grateful for her presence, even though some part of him reminded him he was courting danger by staying in an ER waiting room. She was a nice distraction from thinking about how badly broken Hannibal's arm was, and how long Face and Hannibal could safely stay before the MPs tracked them down.
She smiled, amusement lighting up her face. "Oh, definitely, hand me the ancient Parents magazine. Maybe it'll help me figure out a better technique or two to deal with my stepmother."
He chuckled. "I see they took her in pretty quickly." He handed her the magazine.
Amanda shrugged elegantly. "Second-degree burn, possibly third. She accidentally knocked over a pot of boiling water. We were making tea." She paused. "So who are you waiting for?"
"My father," Face lied, "he fell and hit his elbow pretty hard." Then Face met her gaze. Something in him started ringing warning bells. "Tell me something if you don't mind," he began, going with his instinct, "have you ever met someone who you wished had been your parent?"
Amanda smiled. "Oh, absolutely. Lucy's on that list. You?"
"Not in a very long time," Face hedged.
"I know the feeling," Amanda agreed.
"Tony Peters, please return to the Reception Desk," a woman's voice paged over the intercom.
Face rose, hearing his alias. "Hope your stepmother recovers soon," he told Amanda. Slipping a hand into the pocket of his suit, he pulled out a card and handed it to her. "Maybe we can get together and talk more?"
Clearly amused, she took the card and slipped into her purse. To his surprise, she pulled out a business card of her own and handed it to him. "Call me," she invited.
Face glanced at the card. "Amanda LeFave â€“ Security Consultant" was typed on the simple ivory card, along with a local phone number. "I'll do that," he promised easily.
She nodded, then he turned to find out what Hannibal's condition was. By the time Face returned to the lobby, a now-treated Hannibal beside him, Amanda and her companion were long gone. For a moment, Face was disappointed, but promised himself he'd call her.
He'd just pulled out of the parking lot of the small hospital when he heard the telltale sirens of the MP's and swore.
"Step on it, Face," Hannibal ordered, and the chase was on.
"Meet anyone interesting while you were waiting?" Hannibal wondered, over the sound of the sirens. He glanced over at Face, saw the grin. "Nevermind."