The rain continued to pour down, a steady unending torrent that taxed the already swollen rivers and creeks. For the most part the weather was just that, a force of nature that no one could change but must simply learn to cope with. On occasion lightning would fork through the gunmetal gray sky but the accompanying thunder was lost in the drone of the engine of the car making its steady way up the mountain road.
Admiral Harriman Nelson (Ret.) settled into the back seat, letting the driver handle negotiations with the weather and the roads. Nelson very seldom drove himself outside the institute these days. If business took him beyond the organization he had founded and it was within driving range then he was normally chauffeured. Hank Mathews was a frequent driver and Nelson much preferred him to some of the others on staff. Hank knew the shortcuts, every twist and turn of every back road in the county. He swore he could shave ten minutes off of each drive time from the Institute.
Sometimes Hank's choice of routes could be a little unnerving--roads characterized by hairpin curves and steep embankments off the shoulder, much like the route he had chosen today. But Hank's driving record was spotless. The two wrecks on his records were not Hank's fault and he'd never gotten a speeding ticket. Of all of the institute’s drivers, Lee respected—and trusted—Hank the most.
“Wicked weather we're having, don't you think, Admiral? Don't suppose that this is one of those fruity scientists playing with the jet stream or something, do you?" Hank asked cheerfully. The stories of Seaview's missions were the stuff of tall tales and more often than not the blame for many problems that might happen to arise. Everything from sour weather to dandruff was often blamed on the scientists that Nelson had run afoul of in the past.
Nelson chuckled, aware of the running joke concerning Seaview’s reputation. "Hank, I think you're looking at typical weather for this time of year. It can't be sunshine and surf all the time."
“Suppose you're right, Admiral. I just kinda wish ...” Whatever Hank was about to wish for was lost in the screech of tires as he rounded the curve and came face to face with a semi-truck in the wrong lane. Hank tried to correct but the car lost traction on the rain-slick road and ended up sliding to the narrow shoulder. The front end of the truck clipped the back end of the car, ramming it through the guardrail and over the side of the steep hill.
The car rolled down the embankment, flipping three times before it finally stopped rolling although it continued to slide for several more yards. It landed on its top, smashing the windows in, scattering the tempered safety glass all over the hillside. The windshield was buckled inward, the edge of the top of the roof crushed against the hood. The back window was spiderwebbed and at the center of the web pattern was a bright smear of red.
The rain continued to fall, paying no heed to the accident.
Lee Crane glanced at the clock in the corner of the computer screen and frowned. 1630. Lee knew there was supposed to be a short conference with the heads of security when the admiral got back from his lunch meeting with Dr. Hardin. He should have been back by now. The lunch meeting couldn't have lasted this long. Curious, Lee picked up the phone and hit one of the various memory buttons. The answering end was quick to pick up.
"No, he isn't back yet. No, I haven't heard from him, and finally no, I haven’t tried his cell," was Angie Watson's greeting as she picked up
"Am I that predictable?" Lee asked with a smile that he knew Angie would be able to hear.
"Only to me and maybe Chip. I’ve been expecting you for the last ten minutes," said Nelson's personal assistant.
"So you have no idea when he'll be back?" Lee couldn't stop himself from asking.
He heard Angie sigh. "If it will make you happy, I will call his cell phone. Just don't hold your breath. You know he turns it off when he's in a meeting like this."
"The restaurant?" Lee suggested delicately.
"Vittorio's. Yes, if the admiral doesn't answer, I'll call the restaurant and see if they made their reservations."
"You know l love you," Lee said.
“Ha. Too late. I'm spoken for but I appreciate the sentiment. Now Commander, I do have some phone calls to make," she said tartly.
"Of course," Lee acquiesced before adding, "Thanks, Angie." Lee hung up the phone, still smiling and turned his attention back to trying to figure out why Cookie had forwarded the inventory of the on hand previsions in the galley to his mailbox. He scanned the document to make sure there wasn't anything that DID warrant his attention but after the second scan he couldn't find anything to justify it landing in his already overstuffed e-mail box. He was just about to forward it to Chip when the phone rang. Caller ID flashed Angie's extension.
"Yes?" Lee asked.
“Lee, we have a problem."
The room telescoped for a second before Lee got himself back under control. Not fully trusting his voice he managed to ask, ''What?"
"I just got a call from Dr. Hardin. The admiral never made it to their lunch meeting."
Lee's mind was spinning in a million directions at once, mapping out what to do next. "Okay. First off, notify security and find out who was driving the admiral and what they were in. They should have the route the driver planned to take. I’ll grab Chip and we’ll check out the restaurant and see if the car is there."
"Lee, be careful."
"Of course we will. Stay calm. There could be a very logical reason for this."
Once more Lee heard Angie sigh. "I hope you're right, Lee. I really do."
The steady drip of water was the first thing that Nelson registered. Carefully, he tried to move but the wave of pain that washed over him was nearly enough to send him under again. Gasping, he rode the wave out, learning his lesson for the moment. Don't move. He simply lay on his back, cataloging his hurts.
His left shoulder was on fire. Broken or just badly dislocated, it didn't matter. It hurt like hell. He learned quickly that taking a deep breath was out of the question. Having been the recipient of broken ribs in the past, he recognized the sensation once more, along his right side. He focused on just taking shallow breaths and keeping calm.
"Hank?" he called out, his voice shaky with the pain. He got no answer. "Hank!" Nelson called out again, louder this time and still received no answer. Either Hank had been thrown from the car and couldn’t hear him or he was unconscious…or he was dead.
The car had come to rest on the roof. With dismay Nelson noted that the windows, except for the back, had all been blown out and crushed against the body of the car. Nelson studied the back window. It was spiderwebbed with cracks, splattered on the outside with brown mud, further obscuring the view. The red stain in the center of the pattern puzzled him until he acknowledged that his head was pounding in time to his heartbeat. With his right hand, he gingerly touched his temple, his fingers encountering warm, wet blood.
He could hear the rain falling, pounding against the underside of the car. A steady trickling of rain water had inched its way over the lip of the broken window and was pooling on the ceiling—now the floor—of the car. Nelson was lying in a deepening pool of muddy rainwater.
Knowing he had to try and move, to find a drier spot, Nelson pushed with his legs and a white hot flame of pain shot through his entire body, leaving him quivering and breathless. With a hand that shook entirely too much, Nelson moved his hand over the thigh of his right leg, feeling for whatever it was that was sending torturous waves of pain though him.
His finger brushed against the tip of something solid and unyielding. For a blink, he thought it was bone but he dismissed it. Cautiously he lifted his head up, trying to see what the problem was.
The problem was an inch of glass, poking out of the khaki material of his trousers, about two inches up from his knee. With his breath coming in shallow gasps, Nelson tugged experimentally at the glass that was embedded in his flesh.
The motion set off another torrent of fire and Nelson let go of the glass shard as a deep moan rolled from his throat. Dreading what he might find, he moved his hand under his leg and felt the broad, flat edge of the glass shard sticking out from the underside of his thigh. The fragment had entered through the back with enough force to puncture through skin and muscle.
Nelson knew enough from Jamie's past lectures to never remove an object from a penetration wound. Slowly he pulled his hand away from his leg, still feeling the sticky warmth on his fingers. Unsure of just how many other injuries he had, Nelson was almost afraid to move. But he had to move himself away from the pooling water. Bracing his right leg against the surface under him, Nelson pushed.
Locking down the instinct to scream, Nelson pushed his body away from the pooling rainwater and froze when the car tilted. Afraid to even breathe, he waited for the car to stop rocking. Not daring to unbalance the wreck, Nelson made the decision to drag himself back to where he started. Using his good leg, he pulled himself, inching back toward the position he'd just left when something in his side seemed to erupt in an explosion of pain and the world dropped out from under him. Nelson's body went limp and his eyes closed as unconsciousness closed in on him.
Lee Crane felt like he was living another nightmare, the same dream he'd had—and lived—whenever the admiral disappeared. That terror that he wouldn't be found this time, the fear someone had done the unthinkable and snatched him away forever.
Arriving at the restaurant, Lee and Chip had split up and searched the parking garage from top to bottom. There was no sign of the admiral's car. No record of any such car coming into the garage. Lee, frustrated and angry, stood in the second floor of the parking garage, running a free hand through his hair while he dialed a number on his cell.
"Chip, he's not here," Lee said as Chip picked up on the first ring. He heard Chip let out an equally frustrated-sounding breath.
"Then something happened to him on the way," Morton said.
"Do we know yet what route they took? The garage said Hank Mathews was the admiral's driver. He could have taken any of the back roads into town."
"I'm having Howard send me the route and we can follow it on my GPS.”
Lee agreed with Chip’s plan, seeing no other real alternative at the moment. Ten minutes later Lee's red Cobra following Chip's gray and green Jeep pulled out of the garage and headed toward the hills. Lee could not stop thinking about the hundreds of things that could have happened to his friend. Each thought was more horrible than the last and finally Lee shook his head, gripped the wheel tighter, and forced himself to stop thinking about it. He was already a nervous wreck and none of this was helping any.
When his cellphone chirped, Lee nearly climbed through the roof. "Yeah?" he said once shaky fingers finally manipulated the answer button.
"Howard says they took this back road into town. He's trying to bounce a signal off the car’s GPS unit but so far he's not having any luck," said Chip.
"Not likely in the hills. If Howard calls back, tell him to keep trying."
"Already have. Angie says he's not answering his cell, either because it’s turned off or there's no signal," Chip added.
Lee wasn't even aware he'd muttered "Or he can't answer" until Chip replied.
“We're doing all we can right now, Lee. He'll turn up. You know he will."
"I know. I'm trying to be positive here. Chip, one more thing.”
“You’ve got an idea?”
“Have Angie activate the admiral’s tracker.”
“Lee, do you want to go that route this early?” Chip was the voice of reason, of logic, but Lee wasn’t interested in reason and logic right now. He wanted to know where his friend and mentor was. The tracker took time to activate and build a charge, time that Lee wasn’t sure he had. Enough time had already been wasted.
“Do it, Chip.”
Morton recognized the tone and didn’t argue. “Aye, Skipper,” he said simply.
Chip hung up on his end and Lee dropped his phone into the seat beside him. It was very hard to remain optimistic when the past continued to haunt Lee. A single mantra began playing in Lee's mind as he followed Chip's SUV.
Please be alive. Please be alive...
The second time Nelson came back to consciousness, it was with a great deal more pain than the first. He could distinctly feel something digging sharply—and painfully—into his right side.
Closing his eyes and trying to block the nauseating, wicked tongue of fire that seemed to lick his entire body, he brought his good arm around and delicately touched the point from which the pain seemed to emanate. Sure enough he touched the edges of a second shard of glass, gored into his back. His movement earlier must have driven it deeper in. Is this what he had mistaken for broken ribs?
Nelson rested, trying to puzzle out his next move. If he could call for help ...call.
Feeling something akin to hope, Nelson dug into this jacket pocket for his cell phone. He switched it on and waited while it came to life. Then as suddenly as it swelled, that spark of hope wavered.
His cell phone worked, but he had little reception. If he could get a call out, it would be spotty and likely to get dropped. Still, it was better than no hope at all. He dialed Lee's number and waited.
The phone beside Lee chirped again and he grabbed it up, thinking it was Chip without checking the caller ID. "Yeah," he began.
For a second there was nothing then a garbled voice called his name. "Lee..."
Lee slammed on the breaks, thankful there was no one behind him. He was barely ware that Chip had also stopped. "Admiral? Admiral, are you alright?" Lee demanded.
“…Lee." The voice cut in and out. It was horribly mangled but it was Nelson's voice. Lee's outlook soared.
"Admiral, it's hard to hear you. Where are you?" Lee strained to listen but there was nothing further. Lee glanced down at the small screen but the call had been dropped. He dialed the admiral’s number but this time he got the annoying 'the person you are trying to reach is unavailable right now, please try again later'. Fuming and holding back the desire to put his fist through the windshield, Lee dialed again and got the same message. With fingers that shook so hard he could barely press buttons, Lee managed to dial Chip’s number.
“Yeah? Chip’s voice was cautious.
“He called. The call got dropped and I can’t get through to him, but he called.” Lee’s explanation came out in a breathless rush and he clearly heard Chip’s gasp of surprise.
“But where is he?” Chip demanded.
The question had Lee shaking his head. “Keep looking. There has to be some sign of him.” Lee cut the call and pulled his foot off the brake, only just realizing he was still in the middle of the road. He pulled over to the side, put the little car into park, and sat there, deep in thought. He’d been ambushed on a road much like this. Trussed up and tossed into the back of a truck, he’d managed to get away, but what if the admiral wasn’t able to? The question continued to haunt Lee as he started the car back up and pulled out, searching for some sign. There were miles and miles of road to search. Lee didn’t even have a clear starting point.
The water trickling into the overturned car was becoming less a trickling and more a stream. The puddle Nelson found himself laying in was growing deeper. A chill settled over him, causing sporadic shivers throughout his body.
Nelson pushed past his own misery and tried to call Lee again but luck just wasn’t on his side. The call didn’t go through. The weather, his position, the gods of bad luck, something was keeping the call from going out. He was trapped, forced to wait for his presence to be missed.
Surely Gary Hardin had missed him and called Angie. Angie would have told Lee. Lee would be going nuts right now, imagining all kinds of things. Had he not been in so much pain, Nelson could almost laugh at the situation, having fallen prey to something as elementary as a car wreck.
Another shiver shook Nelson’s body. He was lightheaded and having trouble keeping his eyes open. He knew he needed to stay awake but he was so tired and he hurt, God he hurt. The dampness was almost overwhelming. He shifted, trying to find a more comfortable position but the glass shard in his side inched deeper, causing him to gasp painfully. He froze—terrified to move for fear that the shard might be long enough to puncture a lung. Silently praying that Lee would think to activate the tracker embedded in his arm, Nelson settled in as the world outside the car began to grow darker.
Chip had parked his truck on the side of the road and waited for Angie to call him back. They needed a hit off the tracker for a direction. Without one, they could spend hours looking in the wrong area, wasting time they didn’t have.
What happened if the tracker didn’t work this time? What if the admiral was out of range? Chip shook his head, dispelling the silent questions. He’d been found by the tracker and he’d been out to sea. The tracker had to work.
The rain had finally slacked off, giving them a temporary respite from the weather. A few yards down the road Chip could see Lee’s little car parked. Lee was pacing the side of the road, walking several more yards out of sight before slowly wandering back toward the car. Lee was worried: it was in his posture, the tilt of his head, and the set of his shoulders. Chip recognized that there was a bond between Lee and Nelson. It was something both men needed and Chip never felt threatened or left out. Lee needed a father-figure in his life. Nelson seemed more than happy to step into that role.
What would happen in that day that Nelson was no longer there for Lee? Chip shuddered, not willing to entertain that thought. With any luck that day was far off yet.
The cell phone buzzed, sending Chip through the roof. He wasn’t expecting it and he grabbed at the phone, fingers searching for the button that would end the trilling buzz. “Yes?” he managed, seeing Angie’s office number.
“I’ve got coordinates for you,” she said in a rush.
“Finally,” Chip breathed as he dug around for a pencil in the glovebox. Angie gave him the coordinates of Nelson’s fully functioning tracker, as well as another tidbit of information: the GPS position of the car. The two sets were identical, meaning Nelson was still with the car, which made no sense to Chip. Morton was just about to hang up when he had a sudden thought. “Angie, any movement on that signal?”
“No. It’s stationary. Absolutely no movement as far as I can tell.”
Chip growled, unhappy with that answer. “Okay. Angie, I need to you contact Sharkey, have him round up a few men and have them meet us there. Contact Jamie, too.”
“I’m on it. You two be careful and bring my employer back in one piece. I need him to sign off on the holiday bonuses,” Angie replied tartly. Chip grinned, knowing she was trying to cover her own worry.
“You know we will. Lee and I will have to handle the overflow paperwork otherwise,” Chip replied, playing along with the game.
After hanging up, Chip started up the truck, which got Lee’s attention. Morton saw Lee’s dark head jerk in his direction and then he jogged over to the Jeep. “What?” he asked as Chip rolled down the window. When Chip relayed what he’d been told, Lee’s face lit up.
“You lead, I’ll follow,” the brunet ordered and he darted back to his car. Chip pulled the Jeep out and Lee pulled in behind him.
Their destination point was a few miles ahead, around a sharp curve in the road. Drops of water once more decorated the windshield of Chip’s Jeep as he pulled the vehicle over to the side, following the directions on his own GPS. They were close.
He got out, followed by Lee. The hillside was barren and rocky, with a few sparse bits of vegetation here and there to break up the desolate view. A scar on the hillside, a great swatch of churned up dirt and clay, beaconed to searching eyes. A section of broken guardrail and black skid marks on the road told more of the story. Without a word, Lee plunged over rail and down the hillside. There was no talking to him, no telling him to be careful. With little choice but to follow, Chip went after his friend, nearly running over him when Lee came to an abrupt halt.
Below them a dark colored car rested upside down. Chip heard Lee mutter something but it was lost in the low rumble of thunder. The brunet totally ignored the promise of incoming rain and he slid down the hill, intent on reaching the car.
“Admiral!” Lee called out, hoping for an answering call. Chip watched as Lee froze, listening. But there was no response. A sour knot settled in the pit of Chip’s stomach. He followed after Lee, more cautiously. He didn’t want Lee to have to face whatever they might find alone.
Lee reached the car first, sucking in a deep breath at the damage. The car must have rolled several times before stopping here. He was about to drop to his knees when Chip’s yell caught him off guard. He jerked his head around to see Chip standing about fifty feet away. “What?”
“I found Hank.”
Lee stared at the car then back to Chip. He couldn’t leave the car. “Is he alive?” He saw Chip bend down over the form of a body that somehow Lee had missed. Chip glanced up and shook his head. Lee felt something in his gut nosedive and he forced himself to turn back to the overturned car. He heard something, a moan, a groan, something from inside that car that sent his emotions skyrocketing.
“Admiral?” Lee was on his knees in the mud and gravel, trying to get a better look inside the car. He rested his hand against the wet metal and the car wobbled dangerously. Lee jerked his hand back as if singed. Lee took a closer look and he finally saw why. The car was on a ledge, literally. Gravel dislodged by gravity and the weight of the car trickled down the cliff’s edge, for what had to be at least a hundred foot drop. Just looking down and imagining the car landing at the cliff base was enough to make Lee weak in the knees.
Dry-mouthed, shaking, and fearful of upsetting the precarious balance the car had, Lee tried to look into the car. The back window was shattered and smeared with mud, obscuring whatever was inside. The smear of red against the tempered glass did nothing for Lee’s nerves. “Admiral?” he called out again and saw something moving inside the car.
Afraid to break eye contact with the moving figure, Lee maneuvered as close as he dared. He caught a blurry glimpse of tousled red hair and then slowly a hand pressed against the glass, bloody fingertips resting against the window.
Lee felt a long slow breath leaving his body. Lightly he touched his fingers against the glass, lining his fingers up with Nelson’s. “Hang on, admiral. Just…hang on. Please.”
Voices. Nelson could hear voices, watery and far off, but he knew that tone, the timbre of that voice. Lee. He should have known Lee would find him. He should never have doubted it. Lee was…just there for him.
Desperate to move, to give some kind of sign that he was still alive, Nelson mustered up the strength to call out, not even sure if he had the strength to make himself heard. Lee must have heard something because he could hear him calling. The muffled echoed of ‘admiral’ was enough to make Nelson choke on relief.
A flicker of movement out the back window obscured by the spider web of cracks and filth caught Nelson’s attention. He tried to roll over and had to stop as the pain shot through his body leaving him gasping and panting for breath. He was able to reach one hand up and press it to the window. It was all he had the strength for. He didn’t notice Lee’s hand, pressed against the glass over his.
Chip heard their former COB, Curley Jones, complain on several occasions that he hated waiting. With the rain peppering down again at a steady rate, Chip was beginning to agree with him. There was no way either man was willing to wait in the dry confines of their cars. Lee wasn’t about to leave Nelson and Chip couldn’t let Lee stand in the rain on his own. So the two paced and waited, straining to hear the sound of approaching cars. For some reason this stretch of road seemed almost abandoned. Neither man had heard any vehicles pass by the entire time they’d been here.
Lee was starting to lose patience, not surprising given that it was Admiral Nelson in peril. He’d pace and glance up, square his shoulders and make another pass by the overturned car. He hadn’t heard any more from the admiral and the growing silence was bothering him. God, what if they were too late…Lee closed his eyes and for a second he was overwhelmed, trying to deal with a life without Admiral Nelson. It was like trying to imagine the rest of his life without Seaview, or without Chip as his backup. He couldn’t cope with the concept.
“Lee?” Chip’s voice pulled Lee to the present and he opened his eyes, hoping the grief he’d felt wasn’t visible. Chip looked like he was about to say something further but the sound of an approaching truck pulled his and Lee’s attention to the road. Without saying anything further Chip headed up the steep slope.
A white Ford F350 had pulled in behind Lee’s car and behind it was one of the institute’s two ambulances. Chip knew without looking that Jamie was riding shotgun. He wasn’t disappointed. The lanky doctor slid smoothly out of the van seconds after Sharkey and Kowalski got out of the chief’s truck.
Chip quickly explained the situation and led the group down the slope to the overturned car. “We’ve got to stabilize the car before we can even start to get the admiral out,” Chip said.
Sharkey was studying the situation. Rope wouldn’t work. But he had a couple of long tow straps in the toolbox that might work. He explained his idea to the exec and the blond officer nodded slowly. “That might work. Connect up to the axle?”
“It’s the strongest part of the car we can get to,” the chief agreed. “Ski, get those straps out of the toolbox,” Sharkey ordered, tossing the rating his keys. The crewman scurried up the slope. He returned in short order with several heavy strap sets. Each set was roughly four inches wide and about fifty feet long. It was going to take several sets to connect the car to Sharkey’s truck.
Working slowly and carefully, Chip and Sharkey worked to secure the strapping to the exposed axel. Doc and Frank, who drove the ambulance, worked with the body of Hank and got him loaded, covered to offer some measure of decency. Until they got the car stabilized, there wasn’t anything Jamie could do but watch.
He kept a close eye on Lee, bearing all the signs of extreme stress. Occasionally he’d see Lee shiver, but he didn’t know if it was due to cold or simply nerves. Lee wasn’t helping himself by being out in the rain. The only protection either he or Chip had was their jackets. Neither wore a cover and the jackets would only go so far to protect them against the steady drizzle. Lee’s khaki trousers were discolored from the knees down, covered in brown mud and gravel where he’d apparently crawled around on his knees, no doubt to look into the car. He’d worry about Lee once they got to the admiral. Jamie never questioned the bond between the two, just like he’d long stopped questioned what tied Lee and Chip together. There was something…not natural…at work there and Jamie was well aware he’d no doubt need every advantage he could get once he was able to reach Nelson.
As Chip and Sharkey worked to secure the car, their actions continued to put more pressure on the crumbling ledge, sending more rock and gravel tumbling down the cliff face. “Okay, that’s done it. Chief, let’s see if we can pull the car up some,” Chip suggested.
“Aye sir,” was Sharkey’s sharp answer as he headed up the slope. Chip waited, listening to the ominous creaking of the metal of the car settling into the mud and gravel. The rain was picking up and Chip noticed that the runoff from the hillside was pouring into the car, flooding the inside. The admiral was no doubt as soaked as Lee and Chip.
From the road came the deep rumble of the big truck as Sharkey fired it up and eased it away from the shoulder. The car shook and inched forward, sending a shower of rock, mud, and gravel down the cliff face. The ground vibrated with the force of the strain on the strap. Slowly the car inched forward. Abruptly it shuddered violently and the narrow ledge it had been resting on collapsed, dissolving into a mass of gravel and mud. The car dropped with a crunch of metal and the sound of tempered glass from the back window shattering.
“NO!” Lee screamed and shot forward, stopped only when Chip threw himself after the brunet, tackling him around the waist and sending him to the ground. The two men rolled for a moment, Chip finally coming up, straddling Lee’s waist as the dark haired young man found himself flat on his back. “Let me up, damn it,” Lee snarled, his eyes wild and desperate.
“I can’t lose you both,” Chip said softly. He and Lee locked eyes for a breath before Chip eased up. Lee clawed his way to his feet but stayed in one spot, his hands clenched into fists so tight Chip’s fingers ached in sympathy.
The strap was still tight with tension and Sharkey coaxed more power out of his truck. The back of the car with the roof smashed flat and the back glass completely gone oozed up the lip of the cliff. The truck’s engine grumbled in defiance of the weight trying to pull backwards on it but Sharkey wasn’t giving up. He inched down on the accelerator again and the Ford pulled on the strap, dragging the unwilling car up the slope, higher and higher until it was finally resting on safer ground.
Lee, so impatient he was dancing in place, finally darted forward and crouched low to the back window. “Admiral?” he called out, the words taking on the cadence of a prayer. All he got was silence.
“Chief!” Morton’s bellow could have been heard to the Oregon border. “We need a jack!”
Sharkey slid out of the truck and gave his exec a smart salute to let him know the order had been heard. In a few minutes the sturdy chief of boat had arrived with a heavy duty jack and a crowbar.
Lee, Chip, Sharkey, and Ski worked for the next half hour to pry apart the back window enough to insert the jack. They finally worked the metal apart and were able to set the jack up. What followed was an agonizingly slow process as they pried open the shattered window to reach the admiral.
Nelson lay on his back, head to one side and the bottom of the roof of the car covered in mud, gravel…and blood. Pushing the others out of the way, Jamie and Frank descended and dove in head first to determine if the admiral could be moved. Slowly, with Lee standing watch and praying to every deity he’d ever heard of, Jamie and Frank eased, teased, and coaxed the admiral from the mangled wreckage.
“Spine board!” Jamie barked. Sharkey and Ski jumped three feet and they hit the ground running, heading for the ambulance. They retrieved the piece of gear the doctor had demanded and slid their way back down the slope.
By the time they got back Jamie had already isolated the glass shard in Nelson’s side as well as the one in his leg. Without knowing what other injuries the admiral had, he wasn’t ready to move him anymore than possible. Handling him as delicately as a glass blower would handle a still warm creation, Jamie and Frank slid the spine board under the admiral and secured him so he wouldn’t damage anything else.
“I’m going along,” Lee announced to Jamie. The two locked eyes, blue into amber hazel. Seldom did the doctor back down but in this case he recognized he could kill two birds with one stone. He nodded once and Lee dug into his pocket.
“Ski, take my car back to the institute.” He gave the keys a toss and the rating caught them in midair. Pleased that the skipper trusted him with the vintage Cobra, Ski headed up the slope toward the little red car.
Chip relayed instructions to Sharkey to get a wrecker out and have the mangled car towed back to the institute. Jamie and Frank were loading the admiral into the back of the ambulance and Lee’s slender frame disappeared after the older man. Seconds later the sirens and lights came to life as the ambulance peeled away from the shoulder and down the road.
Chip left Sharkey arranging for a tow for the crushed car. Feeling exhausted and drained, Chip climbed into the cab of his SUV, rested his head against his arms, crossed over the steering wheel. He didn’t know what he would have done had Jamie balked about letting Lee go along. With Lee under Jamie’s watchful eye, there was hope for everyone yet.
He wasn’t wet anymore and the miserable pain had faded to a manageable dull ache. The sound of the rain pounding on the underside of the car and the steady drip of water was replaced by the soft hum of air moving though vents and a rhythmic beep. He moved his hand, feeling the tugging that told him he’d been hooked up to an IV.
His eyes felt like they had a ton of sand packed into the corners and trying to pry apart gummed up eyelids was almost painful. He finally managed, looking around the familiar setting. He let out a soft sigh, never so grateful to see the inside of Med Bay before.
His watch was gone, so he had no idea what day or time it was—day time, judging from the sunlight streaming through the window. Then Nelson realized he wasn’t alone.
In a straight-back wooden chair on his right, Lee Crane sat, one leg crossed over the other, arms folded over his chest and his chin resting on his crossed arms. Nelson smiled softly. He should have realized that Lee would be close at hand. It was Lee’s way. He’d do the same for Chip and Nelson felt privileged that Lee would think so much of him.
“Lee?” Nelson said softly, knowing it wouldn’t take much to wake the younger man.
Lee’s eyes flew open, fixed on the admiral and he smiled weakly. “Admiral…” The words seemed laced with disbelief. “How are you feeling?”
Nelson pondered the question for a second and decided on an honest answer. “Sore.”
“No wonder. Jamie pulled a three inch shard of glass from your back and another from your leg. You’ve got a few broken ribs and a concussion,” Lee was explaining as the door to the room opened. Jamie saw Nelson awake and his eyes flicked over to Lee.
“I see Dr. Crane has been informing you of the rather long list of injuries.”
Nelson grinned. “Just the condensed version, Doc. Why don’t you clue me in on the specifics?”
“Be happy to,” Jamie acquiesced and picked up the clipboard from the table next to the bed. Nelson knew that Jamie probably had everything memorized but the clipboard just added that mental touch to the whole scene. “I removed the glass from your back and right leg and those wounds have been stitched and bandaged. You’ve got two broken ribs, and a concussion. Left shoulder dislocated, since repositioned. I haven’t strapped it down since you aren’t going anywhere for a while yet.”
Nelson scowled, partly because it was expected. “And just how long is ‘a while’?”
The corner of Jamie’s mouth twitched. “Until I say so. So don’t get in a hurry.”
The scowl this time was for real. “Jamie, I cannot lay here. I’ve got an institute to run,” he grumbled.
“And who runs it when you’re not here? Don’t tell me you’ve perfected cloning. Angie can manage things just fine. She’s got Lee and Chip to handle the overflow if it gets out of hand.” Jamie was totally unrepentant and almost smug about the whole thing.
Nelson swung his head around to see Lee, trying desperately not to smile. “You might as well give in, Lee. You might rupture something if you don’t.”
Given permission, Lee’s face split into a dazzling smile. “It’s good to see you’re alright.”
“The fact it’s me and not you laying here doesn’t have any bearing in the matter?”
“No,” the brunet lied smoothly, “none whatsoever.”
Nelson snorted and Jamie grinned in response. “Ten minutes, Lee. You promised.”
Lee grumbled something and Nelson raised a curious eyebrow. “What on earth did you promise?”
“Stupid promise. Jamie plays dirty,” the younger man grumbled and slumped down in the chair.
“Just how so?”
Lee sighed. “I promised Jamie that once you woke up and I saw you were going to be alright I’d let him examine me. He’s afraid I’ll catch pneumonia and pass out in the corridor from lack of oxygen or something. I was a little damp, that’s all.”
The puzzlement on the admiral’s face was clear until he recalled the steady rain. Lee must have stayed with the car the whole time until he’d been pulled free. Knowing Lee he never noticed the rain, never paid any attention to the fact he was probably soaking wet and chilled to the bone. Lee’s devotion to him was something that always surprised him. What had he done to inspire such dedication from this young man?
“I wouldn’t leave until I knew you were alright. Even Chip tried to get me to go home. I…I just couldn’t,” Lee said softly, unable to meet Nelson’s eyes.
A very soft smile settled on the admiral’s lips. “Lee, look at me.” Lee’s eyes drifted up at the sound of that gentle command. “I’m fine now. You should let Jamie give you a look over just to prove him wrong. Go on. I’ll be here when you get back. You can tell me how you tracked me down.”
Lee got to his feet and headed for the door. He turned back once to have the admiral shoo him out the door with one hand. Reluctance in his gait, Lee vanished around the corner, to be replaced with the tall, broad shouldered Chip Morton.
“Chip,” Nelson greeted.
“Good to see you awake, sir. You had us all worried.”
“I think I’ll recover,” Nelson replied. His relationship with Chip was different than whatever it was he had with Lee but there was a bond there, nevertheless. Chip seemed to anticipate things, to know ahead of time when something was needed. Right now his posture said he understood that Nelson needed some answers. “Something I should know about?” the older man prompted.
Chip shook his head. “Not really. You just scared us. We nearly lost you at one point. When we were trying to stabilize the car and pull it forward so we could get to you, the ledge the car was resting on collapsed. If we hadn’t had you anchored…” Morton trailed off, seemingly unable to finish the thought.
The image was enough to send a shiver through Nelson’s body. “The rain probably made the entire hillside unstable. Thank you, Chip.”
“Just doing what had to be done. Angie needs you to sign off on the holiday bonuses. You know I couldn’t disappoint her,” Chip said with a smirk.
Nelson laughed softly, feeling the tug of his broken ribs. “No, she’s not someone who accepts disappointment well. What happened to Hank?”
Chip’s expression saddened. “He… was thrown out of the car. Jamie said his neck snapped on impact. He didn’t feel anything.”
Nelson frowned, his own eyes mirroring the emotion in Chip’s. “I’m sorry to hear that. Hank was a good driver. A good man. I’ll need to contact his family.”
“I can handle that for you, if you like,” Chip offered.
Nelson waved a hand. “No, I’ll take care of it. I’d rather handle it on my own. We were sideswiped by a truck, I think.”
Chip was nodding. “We’re still putting together the pieces on that. After seeing the damage done to the car, I realized something big had to have clipped you. I contacted the police and notified them of the accident. They got back to me just a while ago with a report from the safety officer from Yellow Line Trucking. One of their drivers, a new guy it seems, came in with black paint on his bumper and a smashed headlight and turn signal. He’s been taken into custody pending further investigation. We think it’s probably the truck that hit you. It’s up to you if you want to press charges.”
“That’s vehicular manslaughter,” Nelson said softly, not forgetting a man had died.
“The police are considering adding aggravated assault as well as reckless driving and leaving the scene of an accident to the charges.”
Nelson sighed. Some days the course of action was so clear-cut and easy, other days not so much. Legal action would not bring Hank back. However negligence was just that. Hank’s family deserved some kind of closure. “Have our lawyers look into it. On behave of Hank’s family.”
“I’ll get right on it, sir.”
“And Chip, make sure Lee gets some rest before he parks his six back in here.”
Chip’s grin turned sheepish. “Jamie and I already
worked out a deal.”
Nelson rolled his eyes. “I know I don’t want to know about this.”
“No, sir. You really don’t. Lee will get some rest before he comes back. I promise.”
“You three worry me sometimes,” Nelson said slowly. He was beginning to feel tired now and the idea of closing his eyes for a nap seemed really appealing.
“Get some rest, sir. It’s been rough on everyone. If you get some sleep, I might be able to get Lee to go home for a while.”
Nelson tried not to yawn but was horribly unsuccessful. “That’s a deal, Mr. Morton.” It seemed like his eyelids were growing heavier with each passing second and it seemed the grandest thing to snuggle into the warm dry covers, secure and safe for the moment. He heard Chip’s soft murmur of something but it didn’t actually register. Somehow he felt better knowing that when he woke up later, Lee would be there. He owed them both so much, but showing his emotions just wasn’t something he was able to do. ‘Thank you’ just didn’t seem enough for all they did for him.
Nelson finally gave up and let sleep claim him. For the moment it was enough to know he had people like Lee and Chip and Jamie in his life, men who were willing to do anything for him. It gave friendship a new meaning and Nelson promised himself he would never take that friendship for granted. Accidents might happen but he was certain that having these people in his life was no accident.