The Road to Ransom Creek
Autumn beauty was everywhere as Lee skillfully steered the ‘Vette down the country roads. The trees were blazing with reds and yellows, and there was that distinctive chill in the air that comes around Halloween. The crispness of the air made him feel alive, but not nearly as much as the beautiful woman sitting beside him in the passenger seat.
They were on their way to a countryside mansion called Ransom Creek that had been turned into a hotel and conference center. Ransom Creek was the site for a top-secret meeting between the Agency and representatives from MI6 and the CIA. Even though their trip was business, Lee welcomed the chance to spend extra time alone with Amanda. Chances like that didn’t come along nearly often enough. The trip to the mansion and back would give them plenty of time to talk in the car, and they would also have the opportunity to stop off for coffee or anything else that struck their fancy. But, for the last few miles, Amanda had been uncharacteristically silent.
Lee snuck a glance at Amanda. She was pretty in a pink skirt and sweater set, looking sweet and feminine. She was also looking a little pensive.
“Thinking about missing Halloween with the boys?” he asked her gently.
Since she joined the Agency, it had become apparent to Amanda that holidays and special occasions with her family were never going to be the same. In fact, it was becoming rare for her to participate in family events without business intruding in some way.
“A little,” she admitted. “But, one thing that you learn when you have children is that nothing ever stays the same for long. They grow up and start becoming more independent, and soon they’re off doing their own thing instead of spending time with you.”
“The boys are spending Halloween with their dad, aren’t they?” Lee asked.
Since Joe had returned to the States, the boys had been spending more time with him. They saw him regularly on weekends, and Joe and Amanda tried to share them on special occasions, like birthdays and holidays. It only made sense that they would want to spend time with him, and Amanda fully supported it. However, in spite of the amicable relationship between Amanda and Joe, things could still get a little awkward at times. On the one hand, Joe having the kids left Amanda free to spend time with Lee, both on and off the job, something that they both appreciated. On the other hand, Amanda sometimes felt a little left out when her boys went off to have fun without her, and Lee privately felt a little jealous.
Lee knew that Amanda had no interest in remarrying Joe, but he was a little concerned that Joe might still be hoping that she would change her mind. The boys would certainly love it if their parents got back together. Lee hadn’t actually established a relationship with the boys yet. He and Amanda were taking things slowly, enjoying their relationship, but Lee knew that he couldn’t wait too long to start building connections with Amanda’s family. He only hoped that the boys would come to accept him in time and not see him as an intruder on their family scene.
“Joe is taking the boys to this big haunted house in Alexandria,” Amanda was saying. “I’m not really sorry to be missing that. I’ve heard that some of the things they have in it are really disgusting, like bloody bodies and maniacs with chainsaws, the kind of stuff that you see in horror movies these days. The attraction is really geared more for teenagers, and I’m concerned that the boys are really too young for it. After all, Jamie’s only eleven!”
“Did you tell Joe that you were concerned?” Lee asked.
“Yes, but by then, he’d already promised the boys that he’d take them,” Amanda said. “Apparently, Philip’s been working on him for weeks, telling him how great it is and how everyone in his class is going to go and that some of them went last year and had a great time. I didn’t know anything about until it was too late, and now that he’s promised the boys, he doesn’t want to go back on his promise. Joe doesn’t really know much about the haunted house, and he thinks it sounds harmless enough, but I still don’t like the sound of it. Joan Peters, on the PTA, said that her oldest son went with friends last year and had trouble sleeping for a week, and he’s two years older than Philip.”
Lee nodded thoughtfully. It didn’t surprise him that Joe wasn’t as up on local events and their age-appropriateness because he’d been away so long.
“Of course, I know why Philip really wants to go,” Amanda continued. “Linda Montez’s older brother is working there. He’s dressed as a zombie or something, and Jamie says that Linda is planning to get her brother to take her there on Halloween. Philip wants to prove to Linda that he’s cool by showing up and demonstrating that fake monsters don’t spook him a bit. Jamie’s only going along with him on this because he doesn’t want to look like a fraidy-cat.”
Lee laughed. He understood the feeling, and truth be told, he’d done dumber things to impress girls when he was Philip’s age. But, maybe this experience would be good for him.
“Well, look at it this way,” Lee said. “The boys may find out that the haunted house isn’t so bad, Philip will make a good impression on Linda, and Jamie will get a boost to his self-confidence.”
“And if the haunted house is too scary and the boys are traumatized by it?”
“Then, the boys will have learned some valuable lessons. Philip will learn to be a little more careful about what he does when he tries to impress a girl because it can be pretty embarrassing if you fall on your face in right in front of her, and Jamie will learn that he shouldn’t let others talk him into doing things he doesn’t want to do just because he’s worried about what they might think of him.”
Amanda smiled a little. “When you put it like that, I guess it wouldn’t be so bad. Those are good life lessons. You don’t think that they’ll be too traumatized?”
“They might be for a week or so, like that other boy you heard about, but they’ll get over it, and if the boys get really scared by this, Joe will be more careful about what he promises them in the future.”
“I guess I’m feeling nostalgic about when the boys were little, and they were happy when I’d take them trick-or-treating. Sometimes, Philip would ask me to tell him scary stories, but I never made them too scary. Simpler times.”
“As you say, kids grow up. Scary things and complications become more appealing. Especially romantic complications.”
Lee and Amanda shared a glance, and Lee took one hand off the steering wheel to give her hand a squeeze. Once again, Lee was glad that he and Amanda didn’t have to travel to the meeting with Billy and Francine.
“So, tell me,” Amanda said, “what was it that you did to impress the girls when you were young?”
“A lot of really stupid stuff,” Lee admitted. “Then, I became an agent.”
“To impress girls?” Amanda asked with raised eyebrows.
“No. That was just a bonus,” Lee said.
“You know,” she said, “I’ve been reading this pamphlet about Ransom Creek, and it turns out that there’s a ghost story associated with it. A tale of tragic love.”
“There is? Where did you get that?”
“I stopped by the AAA office the other day to renew my membership, and when I saw the pamphlet with the hotel’s name on it, I picked it up.”
Lee chuckled. “You work for a government intelligence agency, which provides you with a profile of the house and its owner, and you pick up a pamphlet from AAA.”
“Consider it gathering additional intelligence,” Amanda said. “It was the only one they had left since the owners haven’t sent any new ones for over a year.”
“According to Billy, the woman who owns the place was trying to turn it into kind of a resort and retreat center, but she didn’t have much luck with it,” Lee said. “It’s a little too off the beaten path to attract much attention from tourists.”
Fortunately, Cynthia Ransom, the owner of the mansion, just happened to be the fiancé of Senator Benjamin Kahler, who was on the security committee arranging this conference. He suggested it as an ideal spot to meet because it was kind of isolated, away from prying eyes. Keeping intruders away shouldn’t be too difficult, which was fortunate, because one of Lee’s functions at the conference was to coordinate the security teams that would be patrolling the perimeter, keeping the attendees safe. It was the reason why he and Amanda were heading there earlier than the others. If the conference was a success, Cynthia’s mansion might just become a center for government conferences on a regular basis.
“In the pamphlet, Cynthia Ransom tries to emphasize the history of the mansion,” Amanda said. “It was once part of a large plantation, built in 1768, but it was never very successful. Twice, parts of the mansion were damaged by fire and had to be rebuilt, and it was a drain on the family fortune. Over the years, much of the land was sold off, although it was still a working plantation during the Civil War. At that time, one of Cynthia’s ancestors, Josiah Ransom, was a high-ranking officer in the Confederate army. He fell in love with a beautiful young woman named Charlotte Babcock. It turned out that Charlotte had been recruited as a spy for the Union and that she had gotten close to him to learn about the movements of his troops.”
“Some romance,” Lee commented.
“It gets more romantic,” Amanda said. “Charlotte actually fell in love with Josiah and decided to tell him the truth. By then, he was so much in love with her that he didn’t care. To avoid either of them being arrested for treason and bringing scandal on their families, they decided that Josiah would turn over the plantation to his younger brother and that the two of them would run away together and start a new life somewhere else.”
“But you said it was tragic love, so I guess they got caught.”
“Mmm-hmm. Josiah’s superior officer found out about the romance and their plans to run away, and he assumed that Josiah was defecting to the Union side. He showed up the night they were going to leave. Nobody is quite sure what happened next, but apparently, he tried to kill Charlotte for being a spy and Josiah fought him off. Both the officer and Josiah were found dead the next day. Josiah had stabbed his superior, and the officer had shot him before dying himself.”
“Charlotte completely disappeared. She probably wasn’t killed because they didn’t find her body, but no one ever saw her or heard from her again. Some people think she went back to being a spy. Others say that she started a new life under another identity. But, they say that Josiah’s ghost still walks the halls of the mansion at night, searching for his lost love.”
“Who are ‘they’?”
“Who are ‘they’ that say all this stuff?”
Amanda looked down at the pamphlet. “It doesn’t say. The Ransoms, I guess. Why? You think it’s all made up?”
“There are no such things as ghosts, Amanda.”
Amanda laughed. “Well, of course not! I don’t believe in ghosts. But, the story is still pretty romantic.”
Lee smiled a little, but he had to admit that the story’s tragic ending bothered him. The spy business was dangerous, and he well knew that romantic entanglements, especially with the wrong people, could be very dangerous.
“I’m more interested in current romances than past ones,” Lee said. “It’s only too bad that we’re on a work trip rather than a personal one.”
“I know,” Amanda said. “I have to admit that I’m kind of excited, though.”
“Yeah! I mean, we’ve worked with British agents before, like Emily and James Brand—”
“Brand was an accountant, remember?”
“Well, yeah, but still, this is much more exciting, a joint mission between the Agency, the CIA, and MI6!”
“We probably won’t be included in the actual mission,” Lee said. “The purpose of this meeting is to discuss the kind of help that the Agency will provide. We might offer field personnel, or we might just end up coordinating things on a strategic level.”
A few weeks prior, a joint mission between the CIA and MI6 had gone horribly wrong, and an MI6 agent had been killed. Lee had never met the man who had died, but he still felt the loss of someone who had shared the same profession, the same dedication to serve his country.
For the past two years, a large international smuggling ring had been transporting stolen goods between Europe and the United States in order to fund terrorist activities. MI6 agents had gotten a lead on some of the top members of the group and a large transaction that would take place between smugglers in London and some wealthy American buyers. MI6 requested some assistance from the CIA in apprehending the smugglers and their buyers, but somehow, the smugglers had discovered that MI6 was on to them. The agents who were going to make the arrests had walked into an ambush. In the end, they were fortunate that there was only one fatality, although no one was feeling fortunate about it.
So far, they had been unable to tell how the smugglers knew there was going to be a bust. Also, the people who had been in the field on the last mission were now known to the smugglers by sight. New intelligence indicated that there might be another opportunity for a bust soon, but with the leak still unidentified, the CIA and MI6 thought that it would be best to call in outside help for assistance. In particular, Richard Baudin, the CIA mission head, was friends with Senator Kahler, who suggested that they contact the Agency and further suggested his fiance’s home/hotel as a suitable meeting site. The Intelligence Oversight Committee (which Senator Kahler was part of) had strongly recommended reevaluating their information sources in case one of them was the source of the leak and recruiting a completely new set of field agents.
Bringing in outside help was a sensible move and the Agency, which had its own independent sources of information and experienced field agents, was a good choice, but Lee was still concerned. Until the leak was identified, any mission that involved the same group would be risky. Fortunately, Billy was a cautious type, and Lee doubted that he would give into pressure from the committee or from either of the other intelligence organizations to provide them with manpower until it was safe to do so. The last thing he wanted to see was more dead agents.
Lee glanced at Amanda again. He had some qualms about bringing her into such a volatile situation, but Amanda had never been one to shrink away from dangerous situations. Besides, after all this time of working with her, he couldn’t imagine proceeding with a mission without his partner.
“This is going to be exciting!” Amanda said brightly.
“Just be careful,” Lee reminded her. “Remember that someone who was once part of this group died on their last mission. These cooperative assignments can be tricky even at the best of times, and feelings are running high now.”
“I’ll remember,” Amanda said solemnly.
Lee certainly hoped that she would. Amanda had a habit of attracting trouble instead of avoiding it. At least, they would be together the entire time. He would just have to keep his partner close. Lee grinned, liking the image that came to mind.
“You know,” he said, “I once tried to learn to play the ukulele when I was young in order to impress a girl.”
“Yep. Turns out that I’m not musical. But, then I learned how to give the best neck rubs, and that worked better.”
“I think I might have to see that.”
“Oh, I’ll make sure that you get a chance later . . .”