FSeason One is full of some great plot devices. I have always been fascinated by the episode “The Saboteur” and I was never happy with the way it just…ended.  Like so many of the episodes, it just seemed to need more. While I don’t answer all the questions, I think I have a neat story to share. This story was partially inspired by the chatter on the Sub Pen in the weeks surrounding Halloween concerning various haunted landmarks. The place in this story—Edgewood—is inspired by the very real Waverly Hills Sanatorium, located in Louisville, KY. Trust me, that place defines creepy. For the curious, you can find more information about Waverly Hills at http://www.therealwaverlyhills.com

A very special thanks going out to my betas, Liz and Rita. Without them, this story wouldn’t make half as much sense and it would have a heck of a lot more commas.

 

The Devil to Pay

Sharon H.

~<<>>~

Cast of Characters:

Gwendolyn Morton (Wendy):  Chip Morton’s second younger sister and an NCIS agent.

Margaret McBride (Maggie):  Farm owner who is trying to cope with her own problems.

Jacqueline Spencer (Jackie):  Maggie’s cousin and best friend; studying nursing at the local college. Jackie is currently in a relationship with the city’s chief of police, Wade Reed.

Wade Reed:  Red Mills’ chief of police. His best friend is the county sheriff, Jason David Hendricks. Wade is in a committed relationship with Jackie, although he is a bit more committed to her than the other way around.

Jason Hendricks:  The Inez County sheriff and Wade’s best friend; former owner of the Edgewood hospital and property. Jason is quietly in love with Maggie, something the whole town is aware of, except it seems, Maggie McBride.

Lieutenant Jeffery Russell:  Wade’s second and the city of Red Mills’ only other police officer. Has run against Jason in two previous re-election bids and lost both times. He gets along well enough with Jason, but harbors a deep resentment.

Kelly Miller:  A resident of Red Mills, Carl Miller’s wife of three years and eight months pregnant with her first child.

Carl Miller:  A resident of Red Mills, and Kelly’s husband of three years.

Bobby Miller:  Carl’s younger brother, a known hothead and trouble maker.

Nancy Green:  Inez County dispatch operator.

Lao Kwan: an operative of the People’s Republic, operating under the name Simon Rice. Several months ago he established a base to develop his plan of re-acquiring Lee Crane, who he previously kidnapped and brainwashed in the episode ‘Saboteur.’

Ann Morgan:  Head of NIMR’s Med Bay Records Department.

Jean Cooper:  Duty nurse with the Inez County Health Department.

Angela “Angie” Michelle Watson:  Admiral Nelson’s personal assistant in the operation of all things concerning the institute.

And not to forget the officers and crew of the SSRN Seaview, which we all know and love.


 

 

Introduction…

It was called Edgewood and it would have made the perfect background setting for some gothic horror movie. Situated in the center of a one hundred-fifty acre tract of land, the decrepit building looked more like a remote and forgotten castle than the hospital it had once been.  It rose to a height of four floors and its three wings spread across the property like some dark bird of ill omen. Black holes that were broken out windows and open doors seemed to stare blindly at the surrounding woods. It was a foreboding place.

The small town of Red Mills had grown up around the hospital in the early days. Eventually time caught up with the mammoth structure and it simply became too costly to maintain. A new hospital was planned and built in a more populated spot one county away and in the early half of the 1950’s Edgewood was closed.

The last owner, Eugene Hayes, died at age 73 without a direct heir. The county granted his estate to the son of his deceased sister and the young man found himself the sole owner of one eyesore of a building.

At present the property is for sale but Jason Hendricks, who inherited Eugene’s estate, hasn’t had any offers for it. Over the years the place has acquired a reputation as being haunted. Locals reported strange lights in the upper floors late at night. Shadowy figures of former patients were said to roam the halls. Eerie sounds were rumored to emanate from the edifice.

Today there are still reports of strange lights, unusual cries and odd activity in and around the property of the old hospital. Jason Hendricks maintains the property as best he can and occasionally has to worry about sightseers and the occasional ghost hunter. For the most part, Edgewood sits neglected and forgotten, waiting for a new owner.

~<<>>~

October 15…

Chip Morton glanced at his watch again and surprised himself at the late hour. 0200. Geez, but that was late. Or was that early? Not so unusual for him but the last thing he ever expected to be doing was banging at his sister’s door at some unholy hour, begging for her help. Steeling himself, Chip rang the doorbell and waited.

A few minutes passed. He rang the bell again and this time added a few hard thuds on the door with his fist. She had to answer. She had to be home. He rang again and this time was grateful to hear muttered swearing growing louder as the apartment’s occupant neared the door.

The door was flung open and a disheveled blonde woman stood in the doorway wearing a faded ‘Go Navy’ tee shirt that fell just short of her knees, revealing a lot of shapely leg. Her long blond hair was pulled back in a braid and it was obvious she had just crawled out of bed. She stood there for a few breaths and blinked.

“Chip? What the hell?” she stammered, rubbing the sleep out of her eyes.

“Does Dad know you talk like that? And is that my shirt?” Chip said to his sister, trying to keep the emotion and exhaustion out of his voice.

Gwendolyn Morton, known to most her friends and coworkers simply as Wendy, grinned back her brother and opened the door a little wider for him to enter. “Where do you think I learned all those choice phrases? And what makes you think this is your shirt?” she said tartly, closing the door behind her brother.

“Because I had one just like that and it vanished,” Chip shot back to his sister as she vanished into her bedroom.

“That’s so sad. Can’t even keep up with your own clothes,” she said from her room. She returned shortly pulling on a long pink bathrobe over her pilfered tee shirt.

“Have you thought about hiring a housekeeper?” Chip commented as his eyes swept over the mess that was his sister’s apartment. While Wendy was a neat, organized person, she was nevertheless a pack rat when it came to electronics. Her apartment was testimony to that fixation, filled with computers in various stages of rebuild, boxes of wires and circuitry, software magazines, and computer manuals.

“I’ve been busy,” she insisted. “You’re as big a pack rat as I am, I’ll bet your place looks as bad as mine.”

Chip grinned. “My place looks nothing like this,” he defended his home. If he were lucky she would never see the spare bedroom. At last count he had six computers he was rebuilding in his spare time, not to mention the three laptops he was tinkering with, and the dozen or so old cell phones he had plans for.

“Whatever,” she replied as she shoved boxes out of the way. “So why are you banging on my door at two a.m.?” She cleaned off the couch and indicated Chip sit.

“I’ve got something I need to ask of you,” Chip said solemnly.

Wendy grinned. “Oh? What, has your admiral decided that two Mortons would be better than one? I can be bought but I’m not cheap,” Wendy teased. The look in her brother’s eyes stopped her cold. Now that the sleep was out of her system, she could tell that her brother looked exhausted. The shadows of dark circles were beginning to form under his eyes and he looked like it had been more than a few hours since his last shave. He was out of uniform and his blue polo shirt was wrinkled. He was wearing a pair of worn, beat-up tennis shoes, a clear sign he ‘off duty’. What she was seeing was totally against the brother she knew. What was going on in Chip’s world to warrant such a radical change in his routine?  “Chip, I was only joking. What’s wrong?”

Chip rubbed at his forehead. “Wendy, the admiral is missing,” he began, not knowing how else to say it. Fidgety ever since he sat down, Chip got to his feet to wander about the cluttered room. Not pacing exactly, just restless and unable to sit still. 

“Missing? How?” Wendy straightened in the chair, every sense on high alert as Chip dropped that particular bomb. No wonder he looked like a zombie.

“He vanished off a flight somewhere between D.C. and Santa Barbara. Wen, I need your help. We can’t nose around D.C. without attracting attention. We need somebody here who knows the area and can poke and nose around without arousing suspicion.”

“Chip, I haven’t been a full field agent that long. Mostly I pretend to be some twelve-year girl and draw out pedophiles and child molesters. I track down con artists who swindled sweet little old ladies out of their life savings,” Wendy said slowly.

“You handled the investigation onboard Seaview well enough[1],” Chip supplied.

“That was my break. If I screwed that up my ash can was toast. I didn’t exactly make a great first impression with you,” she said defensively.

Chip sighed. “But you got over it and did the job. The admiral was impressed with you. No offence but I need someone low profile. You can poke around and ask questions. Lee and I can’t do that without attracting a boatload of attention. Please?”

“Why me? I can point you in the direction of a dozen or more agents who are ten times more qualified than me…” Wendy began but Chip cut her off.

“None of whom I know or trust. Wen, if you won’t do this for me then do it for Lee. Do you have any idea how close he and the admiral are?”

Wendy shook her head and she hooked a floating strand of her long white-blond hair behind her ear. She had a general idea but honestly no real clue, just the bits she had observed from her short time on Seaview[2] and Chip’s own stories when he was home on leave. “How is Lee?” she asked tentatively, her voice dropping a notch. 

Inwardly Chip smirked. Come on little girl, take the bait… Chip knew for a fact that his sister still carried more than a slight infatuation for his oldest friend, Lee Crane. It was a crush that Wendy had carried from the day she met Lee and Chip wasn’t above using that to lure her in. He needed her help and she was the only one in Washington right now he trusted. Chip wandered the apartment, deliberately keeping his back to her. While he could lie without any hint of emotion and fool Lee, he might not have as much luck with his family. “He’s a wreck. He’s hiding it well enough, but I’ve known him too long. It’s just a matter of time before he starts blaming himself for this whole mess. You know enough about Lee to know how he thinks. Wen, we need your help on this. We can’t nose around DC without attracting attention. You can. You know how crucial the first twenty-four hours are in cases like this.” He wasn’t exactly lying. Lee was a bundle of nerves and his temper was frayed past the breaking point. The only thing that had kept him from completely exploding once they landed in D.C. was the need to keep this whole mess quiet.

“And how many hours have you lost so far?”

Chip sighed. “He should have landed this afternoon, around 1400 west coast time. It’s taken us this long to track down that he wasn’t taken from California and that there wasn’t something usual that happened on the flight. We can only figure that he disappeared out of D.C.”

Wendy appeared lost in thought and Chip felt himself holding his breath, praying that she’d say yes. She had to say yes. Sure, he could go directly to the director of NCIS but then he’d have to worry about if his presence there would set off any alarms with the press. Leaks happen. He knew Wendy would do as he asked and the press would be one less thing he’d have to worry about.

When his sister spoke again, she was right behind him and she rested a hand on his upper arm. “Let me get with my boss. Tell Lee I’ll do what I can.”

Chip let out the breath he’d been holding. “Wen, I can’t thank you enough.” He grabbed his sister in a huge bear hug, resting his chin atop her head.

Wendy returned her brother’s hug with a sigh. “Wait till we find Admiral Nelson. Then you and Lee can figure out what it’s worth.”

~<<>>~

Reality slowly returned to Harriman Nelson. He ached. Every muscle, every bone was sore beyond description. He couldn’t figure what he had done to be so sore. Maybe the plane had crashed. That would explain why he ached so badly. Maybe he’d been thrown from his seat and was lying in the aisle…

Nelson pulled himself into a sitting position and immediately regretted it. His stomach rolled and heaved with the motion. He took a couple of deep breaths trying to contain his rebellious insides. As he finally opened his eyes, he realized that he was no longer on the plane.

He was inside a small room about ten feet wide and maybe fifteen feet long.  There was just enough light filtering through the filthy window to see by. Using a nearby wall for leverage, Nelson pulled himself to his feet and wobbled unsteadily. Where the hell was he?

Franticly he tried to recall his last minutes in the plane. Had it gone down? Hijacked? How had they gotten him off the plane? As he processed one question after another he began to remember: he hadn’t made it onboard the plane. Somebody had been waiting for him at the boarding gate saying there was an important phone call from a Commander Crane. Nelson had followed and…

Drawing a blank, the admiral understood that ‘whatever’ had happened, that’s ‘when’ it happened. Probably drugged and then brought here. Wherever ‘here’ was. Next time FS1 was in dry dock he’d wait till the repairs were finished. Jiggs and his damn meetings could just wait.

Was he even in his own country? How long ago had it been since he’d first blacked out? He glanced down to his watch and was disturbed to find it was gone. He felt in his back pocket for his wallet and discovered it was gone as well. His cell phone was gone from his jacket pocket.  Not surprising. Whoever took him certainly wouldn’t want him to call for help.

Slowly and methodically Nelson began an examination of his cell. Thick yet old cinder block made up the walls. Ancient white paint hung off the blocks like the scales of some prehistoric creature, turning to dust with Nelson’s touch. The floor was some type of industrial tile and covered with grit, dust and debris. The ceiling was new, well not new actually, but the particleboard sheets held in place with shiny new screws were not original to the place.

There was a small blessing: the room’s large but filthy window. The glass was so caked with dirt and grime Nelson could hardly see outside. It was also dark, long past sunset from the looks of things. He’d get a better look in the morning. Gingerly he touched the glass and pushed. It would be possible to break the glass if he had to. He’d wait until he knew more of what was going on. He wasn’t even sure how high up off the ground he was.

He continued to examine his prison. There was no furniture and no other objects he could possible use as a weapon. He came to the door and was disheartened to find that, while it was as old as the rest of the room, it was solid and wasn’t budging. He jammed his shoulder into it, hearing the hollow thud as his body impacted with the door. It wasn’t opening, no matter how hard he pushed.

“Hello? Can anybody hear me?” Nelson called out, curious as to whether anybody would answer. But there was no immediate answer. For a second Nelson thought he heard voices. He pressed his ear to the door, listening, but heard nothing further. He waited, driven to pace but he resisted. Instead he wandered back to the window, trying to clean the grim off with the handkerchief that had been curiously left in his pocket. He managed to clear a fair section of the glass and he peered out, trying to get his bearings.

There was a quarter moon—that much he could clearly see. In the moon’s soft illumination Nelson saw nothing but trees. Off in the distance he thought he could make out a road but as he stared he could see no signs of traffic. There were neither oncoming headlights nor receding taillights. Nelson pulled back from the window, trying not to let the panic he could feel creeping up on him take over.

He was Harriman Nelson. He’d faced worse things than this. Lee had to have missed him by now. He and Chip would stop at nothing to find him. He had to remember that. There had to be clues. Lee was tenacious and Chip was meticulous. Neither would leave a stone unturned until they found some hint of what had happened to him. After all, they’d found him before.

A scrape of something against metal pulled Nelson’s attention back to the present. The door was pulled open and Harriman was facing two men. Both were large, imposing figures, with solid muscle. Nelson calculated his odds and quickly came to the conclusion that in his present condition he was badly outnumbered.

“Out. Kwan wants to see you,” said one with a voice that seemed to be made from loose gravel and rocks.

“Who’s Kwan?” Nelson asked. The name had a definite Asian sound to it. The People’s Republic fit into that category. The situation was getting worse with every passing minute. The People’s Republic had taken Lee and they broke his ONI conditioning. They brainwashed a trained field agent and Lee had nearly shot and killed him trying to obey those sick and twisted orders.

Nelson felt the cold knot of fear tighten up in his gut. A muscle in his jaw twitched but he didn’t move. Let’s see how bad they want me.

“Kwan wants you alive. He didn’t specify in how many pieces,” said the walking boulder and he entered Nelson’s cell. The first punch knocked Nelson against the wall and the second punch drove the air from his lungs. He dropped to his knees, gasping for air, his arms wrapped around his midsection.

When Harriman was finally able to get his wits about him he found he was being dragged down a dimly lit corridor, his arms held tightly between the two assailants. His feet dragged the floor, leaving streaks in the thick layer of dust and dirt. He tried to pull away, to get his feet under him and move under his own power, but it was useless. These two had him and weren’t giving him up.

Nelson was half carried into a larger room. It looked just as rundown as his cell. Peeling paint, rust stains on the walls, and mold and mildew crawled up the cracks of mortar. The floor here was just concrete with several drain holes set into the floor. The ceiling was new, with more particleboard and a large pulley set in the center of the room. Nelson felt his gut constrict some more.

A small, wiry man of Asian ancestry was waiting for them. He was dressed in a dark suit, his black hair was slicked back and his cold eyes held no emotion as he assessed Nelson. He nodded once and the two thugs released their hold on the admiral. Nelson staggered but he managed to keep his balance and stay on his feet.

“Who the devil are you?” Nelson asked finally.

“Maybe I am the devil, Admiral Nelson,” the man said condescending tones. “I’m sure that by the time we’re done here you’ll think me one and the same. My name is Lao Kwan. You’ve a brilliant mind, so I’ve been told. I’m sure by now you’ve figured out where I’m from.” He spoke with no accent, the words coming out cultured and smooth. As if he were highly educated, refined. Someone who could blend into American society. Nelson wasn’t fooled though.

“The People’s Republic,” Nelson snarled as if spitting out something foul. Kwan smiled.

“Brilliant. You have an excellent grasp on the situation.”

“Why have I been brought here? What is this place?” Nelson demanded, feeling his temper slowly eclipsing the terror.

“This place? Used to be a hospital, once upon a time. You might call this…” Kwan indicated the room with a sweep of his hand, “…the culmination of several years of planning,” said Kwan as he began to slowly circle Nelson.

Nelson glared at the man. “Planning?”

“Yes. You see, my last assignment didn’t go quite as planned and a welcome in my homeland is somewhat questionable, unless I can present them with a prize as grand as my last failed assignment.”

Nelson’s eyes continued to bounce around the room, taking in every detail. There were several long tables that puzzled him for a few minutes. Then he realized he was looking at operating tables, more than half a century old. A shiver climbed up his back as he turned his attention back to Kwan. “And just what was your last failed assignment?” he asked curiously.

Kwan faced him with an odd look in his dark eyes. “I’m sure you’ll be interested in hearing this. The captain of your submarine spent a few days in my company before I released him back into your service. Unfortunately, his conditioning was quickly broken. Such a pity, I put a good deal of energy into breaking through his ONI training.”

Nelson felt a cold chill wash over him as the words registered. “You tried to brainwash Captain Crane.”

“Tried? I’d say that experiment went over quite well. We hadn’t counted on outside interference to stop Captain Crane so close to his goal. That was actually my original purpose and the reason for this wonderful facility. I would love another chance at the good captain, to prove that he can be broken and retrained to be a valuable tool for my country.”

Nelson clamped down on the fury rising in him. “Well, now what?” he snapped.

“I thought you and I could have a nice chat about your marvelous submarine and its weapons system. I’m particularly interested in the laser.”

Nelson forced his expression into something bland and emotionless. “And what laser might that be?”

“Now Admiral; I happen to know that when Seaview underwent her last refit, a laser was installed. I would love to know more about that as well as Seaview’s missiles.”

“Not from me you won’t,” Nelson replied quietly. “You can’t seriously expect me to cooperate with you.”

“I don’t expect anything from you. I fully expect you to fight me tooth and nail every inch of the way.” Kwan snapped his fingers and Nelson found himself grabbed once more and forced toward the heavy chair in the corner. True to Kwan’s words, Nelson fought with everything in him, seeing the thick heavy straps set into the broad armrests of the thing. As they forced him toward the chair, they worked the khaki dress jacket off his arms and finally pulled it free. Nelson bucked and twisted, trying to get loose.

In the end, Nelson lost the battle. Forced into the chair, his wrists were quickly strapped down. His shoes and socks were also removed and his ankles were strapped down next. Nelson never gave up, continuing to pull and tug against his bonds even though it was painfully clear he wasn’t getting away. By the time they were done with him, Nelson could hardly move.

His chest heaving with the exertion, he glared at Kwan as the man tinkered with something just out of Nelson’s view on a table. The panic that had abated spiked anew when Nelson saw the syringe Kwan carried.

“I’m sure that if your Captain Crane were here, he’d tell you about his experience in this very chair. However, the methods we employed then were somewhat crude, even by my reckoning. I hope to establish more long-lasting techniques,” said Kwan as he expertly flicked the barrel of the syringe and expelled the air bubble. “I’m particularly fond of chemical persuasion. Much more effective that shock therapy.”

“No, Kwan, don’t do this,” Nelson warned even though he knew his words meant nothing. Nelson continued to pull and twist at his wrists but the thick leather cut into his skin and gave him little freedom. Kwan ignored Nelson as he took a pair of scissors and cut through the fabric of the long-sleeved khaki shirt. Kwan felt for the vein in the crook of Nelson’s arm and inserted the long needle.

Immediately Nelson felt a warmth rush up his arm, followed by the sensation of a thousand tiny pins pricking his skin. It crawled up his arm like a million ants. He was overwhelmed with the desire to brush the imaginary creatures off but strapped as he was Nelson was forced to endure the sensations. He turned his gaze up to Kwan. “Is this all you’ve got?” he asked, venom dripping from his voice.

“For the moment. Trust me, Admiral. By the time we’re done with you, you will gladly tell me everything I want to know.”

“Don’t bet the house on that. They know I’m missing. They won’t give up till they find me.”

“You mean your valiant captain and executive officer? Let them try. You are nowhere near Washington. This backwoods little state is landlocked. And this facility is so isolated and forgotten I doubt anyone would even think about this place. I’ve paid the previous owner a good deal of money to keep it isolated and forgotten. No one is going to know you’re hear until I want them to know.”

Nelson felt his gut recoil in horror that this time maybe there was no way out. Then the crawling sensation began to change and become real pain. Harriman closed his eyes and rode the wave as it spiked, driving all thoughts from his mind. 

~<<>>~

October 16…

A quiet knock on the hotel door made Lee glance up from the computer screen. “Yes?” he called out.

“That was the secret knock. Open up,” came Chip’s voice, muffled from the other side of the door. Lee stood and crossed the distance to the door to open it for his exec.

“I bring food and information,” Chip Morton said tiredly as he entered. The door closed and Chip listened for the click as the lock engaged. He carried several white bags and a tray of sodas and sat them down on the small table Lee was using as his desk. The table was already scattered with four or five empty paper coffee cups, old newspapers and several manila folders. Chip glared at the mess and made a disapproving sound in the back of his throat.

“Obviously I need to teach you the finer art of organization,” Morton grumbled as he gathered the papers up and dumped them into the nearest garbage can. The coffee cups followed and the folders he stacked up on the edge of the bed. He then reached over and with a long finger, began closing the laptop.

“I’m busy,” Lee snarled, smacking at Morton’s hand. He’d had precious little sleep in the past two days and sometimes Chip’s antics wore on his nerves. He knew Chip was just looking out for him and he appreciated it, but it also served as a reminder that if somebody had taken a little extra time to look after the admiral maybe they wouldn’t be here. Lee felt that someone should have been with him. He should never have let the admiral travel on his own. It had been Lee’s idea to put FS1 in dry dock for a complete hull inspection and repainting. The admiral’s summons to Washington had been unexpected. Lee thought he could have planned better and not let the admiral take a commercial flight, even if it was first class.

“Yes you are busy. Busy eating,” Chip replied, ignoring his longtime friend. “Besides, what I have to tell you is way the hell more important than the updates on the Flying Sub’s overhaul.”

“What? Did you find something? Do you have a lead?” Lee nearly came over the table toward his friend, desperate for any news that might lead them to the admiral. Chip shook his head and opened the bags, setting out several wrapped sub sandwiches and cartons of still warm french fries. Lee’s eyes narrowed as he began counting the drinks. “Unless you’re eating for two, you’d better start explaining,” he said, falling back on an old joke to prove he held no hard feelings toward Chip. He grabbed one of the soft drinks and jammed a straw into the top.

Chip sat down and began to unwrap his sandwich. Lee glared at the blond who seemed impervious to the amber-hazel stare. Just as Chip was about to take a massive bite out of his sandwich he glared back at the brunet. 

“You eat. We’re having company and it would better to have everybody on the same page.”

“Chip, we’ve been over this. The fewer people involved in this the better.”

“Which is why I’ve only contacted one other person, and trust me, if I can’t trust her I can’t trust anyone. Eat. If Jamie finds out you’ve been on a liquid-caffeine diet the last two days he’ll have my hide. Judging from the still-made and only slightly rumpled bed you haven’t slept much either. I have enough to do without having to fend off one needle-happy doctor. You. Eat. It’s really easy. Stick something in your mouth and chew,” Chip ordered as he proceeded to demonstrate.

Lee popped a French fry in his mouth and chewed. “You’ve certainly had enough practice. I hate it when you get cryptic and I hate it when you get all bossy. Remind me again why you don’t want your own command?” he grumbled, but unwrapped his sandwich.

“I keep telling you: paperwork. I’ve seen your load. No thanks. You’re not eating…” Chip’s voice trailed off with a blue-eyed menacing glare.

Lee sighed and gave in. Chip wasn’t ready to spill his secret yet, but if there was one thing Lee had learned over the years it was to trust Chip’s judgment. If Chip had found someone trustworthy then there shouldn’t be any reason to doubt him. Lee fumbled with the wrapping on the sandwich, not about to admit that he was actually getting hungry. He’d barely taken a third bite when there came three quick knocks at the door.

Chip jumped up from the table. “She’s right on time,” he said with a grin and darted for the door.

Lee was surprised to see Chip’s sister, Wendy. Her long blond hair was pulled back into a single braid and her blue eyes were alert and serious. She was wearing blue jeans and a gray tee shirt under a brown leather jacket; very casual compared to the last few times he had seen her[3] . Then it dawned on him. He was so focused on finding some trace of the admiral he had completely forgotten about Chip’s sister working for NCIS. “Wendy, I didn’t know you were coming,” Lee said, shooting the Morton brother a poisonous glare. As usual, Chip ignored him

“Hi, Lee. I promised Chip I’d give you guys a hand,” she said by way of greeting but didn’t elaborate. She shed the jacket and Chip took it from her and tossed it into a chair. She glanced first toward Lee, then back to her brother, comparing the two. She didn’t like what she saw. Neither man looked like they’d had a decent night’s sleep in probably two days. Lee had an odd hollow look to him, like someone had scooped his soul out with a spoon and left behind an empty shell. Chip simply looked exhausted, as if he was wearing himself thin trying to do more than humanly possible for one person.  She sighed quietly and vowed that if she could, she’d do everything in her power to help them find Admiral Nelson. “Oh, you brought food. I’m starved,” she commented, hoping to break the odd silence in the room. Chip grinned.

“Don’t I always take care of my baby sister?”

Wendy snorted. “When you want something,” she teased and was bothered to notice the flash of hurt drift through Lee’s eyes. No, that would never do. According to Chip, Lee blamed himself for this mess and as far as she could ascertain, Lee’s presence probably wouldn’t have changed anything. If anything, he’d either be dead or missing like Admiral Nelson. Neither scenario sat well with Wendy. “Never fear, I have been busy this morning for you boys,” she replied and accepted the unwrapped sandwich from her brother. She plopped down on the edge of the bed, and took a bite out of the sandwich as Chip pulled the table a little closer and sat the third cup closer to her.

“Chip suggested you had some leads,” Lee began. Without thinking he took another bite out of the sandwich and chewed slowly.

A stray strand of platinum hair had worked itself loose from the long braid and Wendy absently brushed it aside. “Let me go over what Chip’s told me so far and see if I have all the facts straight. Three days ago Admiral Nelson was in Washington on business,” she began.

“That’s right. Budget meetings. He was supposed to fly back on Thursday morning.”

Chip picked up the thread. “But he missed his afternoon flight. He called Angie to say that there was a late meeting scheduled and he was expected to attend. Only when he showed up for the meeting he found that somebody had gotten their wires crossed and there was no meeting. Angie had to scramble to find him another flight home.”

“I’ll bet the admiral was in a foul mood after that,” Wendy said. She’d had the occasion to meet the admiral once before on his own turf and had a clue about the man’s legendary temper. Chip’s stories filled in the blanks.

Both men nodded. “Angie said he sounded mad enough to chew nails and spit tacks. But she got him an 8:25 flight out the next morning and that was the last she heard of him,” said Chip.

“So he gets an 8:25 flight out of Washington east coast time, I assume, and we’re looking at what? A five to six hour flight?”

Chip nodded. “That’s about right. I arranged for security to have someone at the airport with a car to take him home. Standard operation procedure when the admiral flies commercial. I got a call from security saying the admiral didn’t get off the plane.  I called Lee and we both went to the airport. We found his luggage but no admiral. Everything indicated that he boarded the plane here in D.C. but he didn’t get off in California.”

“I assume you checked out your security guard?” Wendy asked.

Chip nodded. “Our security is extensive. Everybody, not just our security, is subject to a comprehensive background check. The guard was clear. He’s been with us for years.”

Wendy took another bite. “It’s possible that he could have been diverted before actually boarding the plane. If that is the case, records would show he checked his baggage and boarded.”

Lee perked up. “Shouldn’t there be video?”

Wendy grinned and wiggled a blond eyebrow. “On it. I told you I’ve been busy. I had to clear it with my boss. Trust me we are keeping this quiet,” she added at Lee’s stricken look. “Thankfully she agrees with you that this should be kept as low key as possible.”

Chip groaned. “Homeland security is terrified that if word gets out that a four-star admiral was snatched off an airport in the nation’s capital, it will start a panic.”

“No doubt,” agreed Wendy. “Anyhow, I’m working with airport officials to get their video of all the planes departing that day. If Admiral Nelson was lured off the ramp during his departure, there should be footage. Chip, I’m also following up on your other suggestion.”

Chip arched an eyebrow. “A list of private planes?”

The Morton sister nodded and washed down her bite of sandwich with a quick swallow of soda. “Should have something in the next couple of hours. I’ve expanded the search for the last ten hours after the admiral’s plane took off. They might have needed time, they might not have wanted to attract attention to themselves if they left in a hurry. Their main problem would be…” Wendy trailed off as once more she saw that flash of hurt and sadness in Lee’s eyes.

“Keeping the admiral subdued,” Lee finished quietly. “They probably would have had to drug him.”

“Lee, I’m sorry. I’m doing everything I can to help you two. I’ve got resources I can call on when the time comes but until then, I’m afraid all we have are a few thin leads, nothing concrete just yet. I can pull in more people…”

Lee shook his head. “No. We can’t attract attention. I don’t want to alert whoever abducted the admiral that we’re onto him. Plus, I’m trying to keep this low-key and out of the papers and news. I just want him found.”

“We’ll find him. The admiral’s a tough old bull shark. He’s not going to make it easy for anybody who grabbed him. I won’t ask you if he had enemies, but I will ask if there was anybody in particular—lately—who may have threatened the admiral,” Wendy asked.

Lee and Chip stared at one another. “No one who’d be mad enough to try something like this. He’s made plenty of enemies over the years, but to risk kidnapping him in broad daylight? I just don’t know.” Lee shook his head.

“We’ll keep at it. Keep your cell phones close by. We might get lucky and he’ll call. Stranger things have happened. But I promise you we won’t give up.” Wendy wadded up the empty wrapper and gave it toss toward the garbage can. She missed by a mile but grinned anyway as she got up to retrieve it.

Chip and Lee also stood. “Wen, I can’t thank you enough for helping us,” Chip started. Wendy wrapped her arms around her big brother and gave him a big hug.

“Nonsense. I can’t say no. We’ll find these morons. We’ll get him back.”

She pulled away and faced Lee. He looked so sad. She knew from experience that he and the admiral were close but she hadn’t thought much about it. He looked almost as if he’d lost a parent. She could only imagine what she’d be going through if something happened to her father.

She took a step forward and wrapped her arms around Lee’s frame. His arms closed around her and for a brief moment in time Wendy wished she didn’t have to leave, that she could just stay like this forever. Maybe someday Lee would see her as something more than Chip’s little sister, but now was neither the time nor the place. “We’ll find him, Lee. Keep thinking that.”

“I’m trying,” came his shaky voice in her ear. She pulled away and gave both men the sternest look she could muster.

“You should try to get some sleep. It’s obnoxiously late and you both look worn out. I promise to call you the minute I get some news. Promise me you’ll both get some rest,” she added.

“We’ll try. This is nerve-wracking, but we’ll try,” Chip promised his sister. As she picked up her jacket and gave them both a little wave, she vanished out the door.

“I hope she knows what she’s doing,” Lee said as he sat back down. Chip growled.

”Of course she knows what she’s doing. She’s my sister. You are not going to stare at the computer screen anymore. You are going to take a shower and then you’re going to try and get some sleep. We both look like death warmed over and I need some sleep. I know you’ve had less than me.”

Lee shook his head. “I can’t. Every time I close my eyes I keep remembering when we found him in that raft with a bullet in his leg[4]. Only, in my dream he’s dead by the time we find him.”

“Lee,” Chip grabbed his friend by the shoulders. “That is not going to happen. Wendy is going to find us a lead and that lead is going to be solid and it’s going to point us to where the admiral is. We’re going to ride in and he’s going to ask where the devil have we been all this time. I’m right and you know it.”

Lee couldn’t help but laugh. “That sounds just like him. He’s gotten to be more than my friend and I can’t help but think…”

“Stop,” Chip ordered and pulled Lee to his feet. He steered him in the direction of the bathroom. “Shower. Use soap and hot water. Rinse and repeat if necessary. Dry thoroughly. It will help you relax. Put on clean pajamas, I assume you packed some,” Chip said, trying to pull his friend out of the funk he’d fallen into when they landed in D.C. yesterday and had found little to no clues.

“I packed sleepwear, okay? Geez, but you’re pushy.” Lee replied.

“My job. I will be back in twenty minutes. You’d better be on your way to sleep by then.”

Chip left Lee to his own devices and Lee headed for the shower. Minutes later he was dressed in his favorite white pajamas and heading for the bed. He wasn’t sure he could handle sleep right now. Like he told Chip, every time he closed his eyes he imagined all the times the admiral had vanished and, unlike previous times before, they were too late to save him. Lee always woke up in a cold sweat, fearing the admiral would be dead before they could get to him.

Lee settled down on the edge of the bed. He hadn’t bothered to button the pajama top. The hotel room was cool as the air conditioning kicked in and a chill breeze drifted across his damp chest. He pulled the covers back and climbed into bed, snuggling under the warm covers.

In minutes he was asleep and unaware when Chip stepped in, turned out all the lights but one and left again.

~<<>>~

Harriman awoke in his cell. Cold, hungry and ill, he pulled himself into a sitting position, his back braced against the wall. His insides twisted and churned, and for a minute he thought he was about to retch. He closed his eyes and clenched his jaw tightly, forcing himself not to give in. His head pounded and the room seemed to spin, even with his eyes closed. Slowly he cracked his eyelids and focused on the far wall, waiting for the dizziness to go away.

Cold crept up his limbs. His bare feet felt desperately numb as he tried with chill fingers to massage some warmth into them. When he felt well enough to stand, he tried to get to his feet. He was incredibly weak. The drugs Kwan had injected him with must be responsible. He could hardly stand and had to use the wall for balance, leaning heavily against it as he moved slowly toward the window.

Daylight was beginning to creep in. It still didn’t answer how long he’d been here. He still didn’t know where here was. Somewhere inland, away from the sea and from Seaview’s reach. This backwoods little state is landlocked, Kwan had told him. Nelson took that to mean he was still on American soil. There was still a chance that Lee could find him

Nelson stared at the glass in the window. Slowly he took off his khaki shirt and balled it around a fist. Taking careful aim he ran his fist through the window. The glass shattered and Nelson drew back his hand. Long shards of broken glass fell to the floor. Shaking the glass from his shirt, he set it aside to deal with later then noticed the nasty bruising on the inside of his right arm. There was more than one puncture mark marring his skin. Kwan had injected him more than once. With a shudder he remembered the pain and the hallucinations. Pushing those thoughts aside, Nelson gathered up his makeshift weapons. He sat down on the hard floor and carefully ripped the already sliced-open sleeve of his shirt off, to make a grip for his glass-shard blade.

He had two pieces of glass big enough to make a weapon. Each blade had a handle fashioned from the material from his long sleeved shirt. Unfortunately, that left Nelson with no other clothes but the trousers and the tee shirt he currently wore.  Not much protection against the encroaching cold.

His stomach grumbled its disapproval of its empty state. Nelson wondered if they planned on feeding him anytime soon. The scrape of metal against metal pulled Nelson’s attention from his project.

The door to his cell opened a crack and a bottle of water was slid inside. Then the door was slammed shut. Nelson was reminded of an old horror movie and the slamming of an old tomb. With any luck this would not be his.

The admiral slowly got to his feet and retrieved the bottle. He opened it and sniffed the contents cautiously. It smelled like water. It didn’t seem to have any additives in it. He took an experimental sip. The water tasted sweet and cool and it soothed Nelson’s parched throat.

With two weapons at hand, Nelson carried the bottle over to the window and once more looked out over the landscape. It was nearing dawn. The sky was slowly brightening with the rising sun. The forest below him was draped in shades of scarlet, bright yellows and rust brown. Autumn was well underway, as the cold in his cell reminded him. How far north was he? And how much colder were the nights doing to get?

Just as Nelson thought, far in the distance, there was indeed a road. If he could make it to that road there was a chance he could flag down a car and get help. But the trick was making it that far. First he had to get out of this hell.

He leaned his shoulder against the wall, watching the brightening sky. Where was Lee? Looking for him in D.C.? Had he and Chip found some clue that would lead them to him? There had to be some clues out there, something to lead his friends to find him. He had to hold on to that hope. It was nearly the only thing he had left.

~<<>>~

October 17…

The next day found Lee and Chip on separate trails. Lee was working with a long list of private planes on the airfield the day Nelson vanished, hoping that a name or something would spark some recognition and give him a clue. Chip was sequestered with the security footage, scrolling through hours and hours of images, searching for some sign of the admiral. Around noon Wendy turned up with a bag of tacos from a local fast food place.

“Thought I’d drop by, return the favor from last night and see if there was anything interesting so far,” she said as she handed off the food to her brother.

Chip attacked the offering while he kept one eye on the screen. “Nothing so far,” he grumbled.

“You need any help?” his sister offered.

Chip shook his head. “Thanks but no. I don’t want to hurt your feelings but you don’t know the admiral. You don’t know his mannerisms or the way he walks. I can’t risk missing that if I can’t get a good look at him.”

Wendy shrugged. “No offense taken and you have a good point. If you need anything give me a call. I’ve got some wheels working to contact any of the passengers and see if they saw anything odd around the time of departure.”

With a promise to call if he needed anything, Chip gently shooed his sister out and went back to work. On the screen he watched a quiet corridor for several long minutes. He was beginning to wonder if something were stuck, but a quick glance at the time stamp on the upper left hand corner showed that the footage was still playing.

Then it happened. A man, wearing the uniform of airport personnel, came into frame obviously talking and gesturing with his hands. Behind him, fists clutched and his gait screaming agitation was a man in a khaki jacket. Clearly visible on the sleeves of the jacket were the identifying stripes of an admiral. Chip felt his gut summersault. He slapped at buttons, pausing the footage as he scrambled for his cell phone. His first call went out to Wendy.

“Get back up here on the double. I need you!” he bellowed into the phone. He hung up on her before she could reply and then called Lee. “Lee, I found it, he’s on the security footage!” Chip exclaimed as Lee’s voice came on the line.

There was a sharp intake of air as Lee absorbed Chip’s words. “I’ll be right down,” he said and disconnected.

Chip sat back in the chair, staring at the still footage. The admiral was clearly not happy about something. If he was having to take a late flight, and then was pulled off a second time, yeah, he’d be royally ticked off.

Wendy tore into the room, her cell phone clamped tight to one ear. Chip frowned as she spoke to whoever was on the other end.

“And she’s positive about what she saw? Tony, you’re a peach. A slimy peach and twice as fruity, but you are handy from time to time. Thanks.” She disconnected the call and grinned at her brother. “A seventy-year-old grandmother remembers being behind a very distinguished looking young man, and clearly remembers the young man, as she described him, as being very agitated when he was told he had a phone call from a Commander Crane.”

Chip’s stomach turned itself into knots. “She remembered all that? Sharp old lady,” Chip managed around a dry throat. Lee chose that moment to make his entrance, his eyes immediately going to the screen.

“Admiral,” he breathed. He swallowed convulsively and sat down hard in the closest chair.

“Easy, Lee. This is just one step in the trail,” Chip urged.

Lee pointed to the first man dressed in airport garb. “I want his name,” he ordered.

Wendy nodded. “I’ll get some security up here and see if anybody knows him. Lee, you should know, it looks like the admiral was lured off the plane, like we talked about last night.”

Lee spun around and fixed the blonde women with an unwavering gaze. “Explain,” he ordered.

Wendy ignored his tone and plowed forward. “I’ve had some people looking up passengers, to see if any of them remembered anything odd at boarding time.”

“And?”

Wendy took a deep breath. “We ran across a passenger who says she was behind a ‘rather distinguished young man in a Navy uniform.’”

Lee felt a small smile tug at his mouth. “She described the admiral as a young man?”

Wendy shrugged. “She’s a seventy-year-old grandmother. So yeah, to her everybody is young. But the point is, she remembered the admiral and saw someone lead him off just after he checked his baggage.”

Chip noticed that she did not mention how Nelson was lured away. The fact that the kidnapper knew enough about the admiral to invoke Lee’s name as a diversion was frightening. Lee would only grab onto that and the guilt would rise like high tide.

Lee digested the news. He had more now than he had an hour ago. He had a timeline. He had a face. He pointed to the screen, his finger brushing the monitor and area around the door on the screen. “What’s in that room? Does it lead anywhere?” Lee asked. Chip had put the footage back into play and they watched as the airport ‘official’ opened the door and gestured for the admiral to enter. Nelson did and it was obvious that the ‘official’ glanced around, and then followed the admiral. The door was shut behind him. He seemed unaware of the camera that had recorded every move.

Wendy was back on the cell phone, quietly asking questions. Lee wasn’t listening though. He was focused on the screen, watching. No one came out of the room and no one else entered.

Chip glanced over to his friend. If they didn’t get some solid answers soon Lee was likely to tear this place apart. Finally Wendy rested a hand on Chip’s shoulder. “I’ve got security on its way up here for an ID on the joker and the details of what’s behind that door,” she said softly.

It was another ten minutes before a security guard arrived. Chip backed up the footage and froze the frame. The guard looked at the screen and then slowly shook his head. “Not one of our people,” he said.

“Would you like to explain to me how somebody not on your payroll managed to acquire a uniform, slip past your security checks, lure my employer off the plane then sneak the man off this facility?” Lee’s voice was a sharp as a knife and Chip could practically hear the edge sliding across a whetstone.

The security guard paled, faced with this imposing figured. “Ah…I don’t …know…” he managed as the dark haired man rose to his feet and took two steps forward. The guard took two steps back in response. Instinct told him that this man could snap him in two and not even think twice about it. He had a deadly glow in his eyes that said he would like nothing better than to do just that.

It was the blond man with the cold iceberg-blue eyes that stopped him. With a hand on his shoulder, the blond spoke quietly to the other. “Lee, it won’t solve anything. We’ll get to the bottom of this.”

“Damn right we will,” the man named Lee snarled. The guard felt Lee’s eyes boring into his and he had the sudden image of a wolf…no a leopard. A black jungle cat he’d seen once in the zoo. Its eyes had seemed to glow with some otherworldly light…that’s what this menacing figure reminded him off. The guard was nodding—anything to keep this man from tearing his throat out.

“Yes sir. I’ll find out how this happened. We’re already reevaluating our security.”

“A bit like closing the barn door after the horses are out,” the blond man growled but he was able to calm the other man down. Slowly they both sat back down. The one named Lee gestured to the screen.

“I want to know about that room. Does it have another exit?”

The guard shook his head. “No, it’s just a storage room. We keep first aid gear there and cleaning supplies.”

“Then they had to come out,” the blond muttered.

The guard turned to face the attractive blond women standing quietly in the corner. He didn’t like the look in her eyes either. It was almost as cold as the blond man. “I think maybe you’d better go and start investigating this,” she said with a tilt to her head. “Keep it quiet. I’ll be reporting this to my boss, who will report this directly to Homeland Security. They won’t be happy when they find out your lack of proper security.”

“No ma’am, I’m sure they won’t,” the guard stammered and made a hasty exit. Lee and Chip never noticed. Both were focused on the screen again. Chip had fast-forwarded though minutes of just nothingness to a point where another two more men dressed in hospital scrubs entered the frame.

Chip leaned forward. “What the hell?” he muttered. Behind him he felt Wendy grip the back of his chair and lean forward.

“Two doctors? A doctor and an aide maybe?” Wendy asked.

“Or two people pretending,” Lee supplied with deadly calm.

Nothing happened for a long moment. Then one of the doctors appeared, glanced around and then the other two men, both dressed as hospital staff, wheeled a gurney down the corridor.

“Who the hell is on the gurney?” Lee snapped, indicating that Chip should rewind the footage. Frame by frame the exec reversed the images.

The face of the figure on the gurney was covered with bandages. Lee was reminded of a burn victim. There were patches over his eyes and white bandages covered his head. But why? “Hiding his hair color,” Lee muttered, answering his own question.

Chip spun his head around to stare. “What?”

“The bandages. They hide his hair color. Like the patches over his eyes keep anybody from seeing his eyes. They didn’t want him to be recognized,” Lee said.

“Okay. So they drugged the admiral and wrapped him up like a burn patient. It’s a lead. Hang tight boys, I’ve got work to do. I’ll call when I have something for show and tell,” Wendy barked out and grabbed her cell phone once more and was out the door.

“We have a lead,” Lee whispered. God, he wanted to reach out and touch the screen, as if somehow he could pick up something from the image. Some sense of direction, something tangible that said his friend and mentor was still alive.

“I told you we’d find something,” Chip said quietly.

“It’s easy to say that, but is this going to lead somewhere? Where did they take him? What do they want with him? And who the hell are they?”

“We’ll find out. We found this much and I’m betting they didn’t count on that. We will find him, Lee. We’ll bring the admiral home,” Chip reassured.

Lee nodded, folding his hands and resting his chin atop them. Chip sounded so certain. Why couldn’t he have that kind of faith? He personally would never stop until he found the answers but was it so hard to have faith when there were so few pieces to the puzzle. He continued to stare at the screen and made a silent promise. We’ll find you, Admiral. I swear it.

~<<>>~

The scrape of the door pulled Nelson out of a light doze. He sat on the floor, his makeshift weapons ready. He glanced upwards to the door to see the same two men as before standing there.

“It’s that time again, Admiral,” said the one with the gravelly voice. Nelson mentally tagged him as ‘Rocky.’ Slowly Nelson got to his feet, still bare from their last encounter. He doubted he was going to get his shoes back. Kwan didn’t seem like the type.

“I suppose that if I refused, you’d just drag me out?” Nelson asked.

“Just following orders. Boss wants you. He’s got the money. He gets what he wants.”

“What if I offered to pay you more to let me go?” Nelson said with a grin.

“Money talks. All you have are a bunch of empty promises, old man. Now move.”

With his makeshift blade in hand, hidden from view, Nelson walked slowly toward the door. He sized up the pair, trying to judge which one would be the better target. As he drew nearer, he tightened his grip on the fabric wrapped shard and brought it up, jamming it hard into the gut of the guard on his right hand side.

The guard screamed, high and shrill like a rabbit in a snare, clutching at his gut as Nelson pulled the shard up, ripping through skin and flesh before the shard broke off, leaving a four-inch piece of glass in the man’s guts.

Nelson was grabbed and thrown against the wall as Rocky snarled at him. Nelson was expecting something of the sort and from his trouser pocket he pulled the second smaller blade he’d made, slashing at his attacker. He caught the man along the left side of his face and ripped a jagged slash in his cheek.

“You bastard,” he snarled, one hand clasped over his wound as blood dripped from between his fingers. With his other hand he grabbed Nelson by the neck and threw him down the corridor.

Harry hit the ground and his glass blade went skittering out of his reach. The impact drove all the air out of his lungs and his head cracked hard against the tile floor. For a second all he saw were stars and he struggled to get his feet under him.

He managed to get to his feet and he scrambled down the corridor, not entirely sure where he was going. Something with an inhuman growl tackled him around the waist and he went down again, colliding into the wall. Nelson’s head cracked against the solid brick, stunning him once more. Reality returned and he could feel that he was on his back and being dragged down the corridor. He managed to raise his head to see Rocky with a grip around one of his ankles.

Nelson tried to roll and claw at the filthy floor but there was nothing to grab onto. He was inexorably pulled forward, even as he tried to kick out with his unfettered foot. He knew where he was going, back to that chamber of horrors, back to that hideous chair with its straps and the drugs and who knows what else.

Nelson clawed and kicked the entire way. As they neared the chamber, Rocky bellowed for his employer.  “Kwan!”

Shadows danced outside of Nelson’s range of focus and he was faced with two more men he hadn’t seen before. These two grabbed him by his arms and pulled him off the floor, marching him forward.

Kwan was watching, his face as emotionless as a snake. “Take him to the chair,” he ordered. Nelson struggled but one man moved behind him and locked an arm around his throat, cutting off his air. Gray spots danced before his eyes and he was forced into the malicious chair once more. The thick straps were tightened down over his wrists.

As Nelson clawed for breath, Kwan stalked toward him with yet another needle. The admiral wasn’t in the mood for another round of pain inducing drugs. He struggled but, like before, it was pointless. Kwan looked down on him dispassionately.

“Chen wants to kill you. You scarred his pretty face,” the foreign agent said.

“Better than what I did to his friend,” Nelson spat, eyeing the needle.

“Yes, I’ll have to think about what to do about him and what sort of penance you’ll have to pay for his death. In the meantime, time for a higher dosage I think.” Kwan went through the motions once more, flicking the barrel of the syringe and expelling the air bubble. He injected the entire contents of the full barrel into Nelson’s already exhausted body and immediately he began to quake as the toxin surged through his veins.

Closing his eyes, Nelson called on this own ONI training, learned so long ago. It was like riding a bike; once learned, never forgotten. He felt his heart pounding, felt sweat beading up on his forehead and neck. His temperature skyrocketed and with it the pain. His muscles cramped up so tightly they felt like they were going to snap bone. Then the tension bled away, leaving him gasping and exhausted before the cycles started all over again. With the pain, the nightmare images seemed to dance in front of him, sickening splashes of color that spun dizzily.

“Just think Admiral,” Kwan’s voice said as Nelson drifted in and out of lucidity, “I broke your wonderful captain. Do you think you’ll fare any better?”

The words echoed as Nelson discovered, that with the higher dosage of the drug came stronger hallucinations.  He seemed to be falling down a deep dark hole, and Kwan’s words followed him down

Broke your captain…

Fair any better…

Broken…broken…broken…

Nooooooooooo! Leeeeeeeeeeeee!

~<<>>~

Standing on the deck of Seaview, Lee watched as the three crewmen pulled the boat broadside with the hull of the submarine. A covered body lay on the floor of the boat. Carefully the crewmen hoisted the body out of the boat and onto the deck. Lee stared, unable to bring himself to peel back the soaked blanket to see the face of the man underneath. Slowly Lee reached out and gripped the edge, pulling the cover back.

The admiral’s eyes were closed. The rugged features looked peaceful in death. Lee felt his throat close up as he knelt by the older man’s side. He started badly when the admiral twitched. Lee’s heart pounded as he knelt closer. “Admiral?” he asked hesitantly.

The body jerked and sat upright then the eyes opened, revealing solid white orbs that cast blindly around, searching for prey. They locked onto Lee and both hands came up, lunging for Lee’s neck. They closed around his throat cutting off his air. “Leeeeeeeeeeeee!” a disembodied voice hissed.

Lee Crane awoke with his name echoing in his head and the undeniable memory of having heard Nelson’s voice. Slowly the cobwebs in his head began to clear and the distinctly worried face of Chip hovered over his, blue eyes intense with worry.

“Easy Lee. It’s just a dream,” Chip’s deep voice said to him, and Lee realized that Chip was holding his shoulders. Carefully Morton let go and he stepped back from Lee.

“What happened?” Lee asked, blinking the sleep out of his eyes. He was slumped in a chair in the room he and Chip had been using to review the footage. The last thing he remembered was the endless hours of footage that never seemed to move.

Chip released his grip on his shoulders and sat back down in his chair. “You fell asleep,” the blond said simply.

Lee straightened. “Why didn’t you wake me?” he barked angrily.

Chip barely flinched. “Because you needed the rest.”

“Damn it, I need to find the admiral, not sleep while you do all the damn work,” Lee snapped out harsher than he intended. Chip simply flicked a cold gaze over to him, then turned back to the footage he was fast-forwarding.

“Are you done?” Chip asked quietly.

Lee took a couple of calming breaths. “I don’t know,” he answered simply.

Morton chuckled as a slight smile settled on his lips. “Well, at least you’re honest. Lee, I know this isn’t easy,” he said.

“It’s impossible. I don’t understand their security measures. How in the hell did they let some bunch of outsiders sneak in here and somehow carry off a four-star admiral out from under the noses of the nation’s capital? God, if this does get out, it’s going to cause widespread panic and nobody is going to trust anyone’s security measures. I’m always harping at him to take somebody with him, that he needs to travel with some kind of security. I should have gone with him,” Lee said, the words coming out in a rush faster than he could stop.

Chip blinked tired eyes and stared at the brunet. “I wondered how long it would be before you actually started taking blame.”

“If I had gone with him I could have watched his back, I could have run interference. They might have been less likely to go after him if he’d had backup,” Lee theorized.

“Maybe. Or they might have seen it as a two-for-one-deal and Wendy and I would be combing the countryside for my employer and my best friend. I know what this is doing to you.”

“It’s killing me. I can’t keep doing this.” Lee twisted at his ring. It was an old habit—one of many the crew used to gauge their skipper’s state of mind. Lee had started doing it after his father had died. The ring with its black stone had been his, passed to Lee when the time came. It was too big for him then. The ring had been made for a grown adult and Lee had been just fourteen at the time and still growing. The habit grew from then, when the ring was big enough to roll around his finger easily. Now it was a perfect fit but the habit was ingrained and impossible to break.

Thinking of the ring, Lee started thinking of his father. The memory of Ambrose Crane had grown fuzzy with time and it was with sadness that Lee realized that he couldn’t remember some things about his father. Had he ever twisted the ring in agitation? Or had he ever feathered his fingers through his hair? Or paced? Even the sound of his voice was distant and fuzzy, blurred by time.

He knew Nelson’s habits; the way he ran his hand through his hair and rubbed the back of his neck when he was agitated, the way he tended to pace with his hands in his pockets, or the way he would rub a pencil across the top of his ear when thinking. Lee knew the cadence of his stride and the feel of him when he was in the room.

Lee looked to Nelson for that guidance and leadership he should have looked to his father for. But the fates had other plans for Ambrose. He never got to see his son graduate first in his class. He never saw his son’s rise through the ranks. He missed the friendship his son had forged with one of the most violent tempers in the Navy.

However, an instructor at the academy had shown an interest in the skinny, geeky looking kid from Rhode Island. While Captain Nelson never showed him any favoritism, he made Lee work for every point of credit.

He remembered seeing Captain Nelson at his graduation. Over the years, he heard about Nelson’s many promotions, each one garnering more and more attention. Lee’s rise through the ranks had attracted its own share of attention that Lee felt he could have lived without for the most part. He was just doing his job and he never understood what all the fuss was about.

“Chip, I’m sorry,” Lee began.

Chip glanced up. Lee had gotten quiet in the last few minutes and while Chip was concerned for his friend, he also knew Lee had a lot to work out at the moment and he was content to leave his friend alone for now. He wasn’t expecting an apology for something Crane had perceived he had done.  “Whatever for?”

“I know sometimes the admiral is rough on you. I know sometimes we’ve left you out of the loop when you, as the exec, should be party to all decisions onboard the boat. It’s not as if we don’t trust you. It’s just sometimes, the circumstances, they, well…” Lee tried to explain but found himself at a loss for words.

“Lee, I’ve always known that you and the admiral have some kind of connection. He needed a son, I think. He was—he still is—at that stage when he needs to know that his work, his passion, is going to be passed on and nurtured by another generation. Before he met you he didn’t have that. He’s a bachelor. Somehow you became the son he needed. You needed a father. You had lost yours at a point when a father is important. I’m lucky. I still have my parents. I didn’t need the kind of bond you and the admiral have. Yeah, sure, you get by with a lot of shit that would probably have me cleaning bilges for a month, but that’s why you get to deal with him,” Chip said with a grin.

“I didn’t ask to be singled out,” Lee insisted.

Chip shrugged. “I know. It doesn’t bother me. Like I said, you needed him and I think he needed you. You both came along about the same time and it was a good match.”

Before Lee could formulate a response, there came a quick rap on the door and Wendy popped her head in, carrying two large coffee cups.

“Oh, you are my favorite sister,” Chip said as he accepted one of the cups. Lee did the same, taking a few experimental sips and letting the caffeine soak into empty cells.

“You’re gonna love me even more. Find anything else?”

Chip shook his head. “No. He doesn’t show up any more. But there’s tons of footage we haven’t touched yet.”

Wendy perched on the edge of the table. “Okay, well in that case I’ll let you know what I found out. First off, I’ve managed to close off the corridor, using ventilation repair as the excuse. I’ll process that room personally to keep this quiet. Meanwhile, I found that there was a MedFlight chopper on the field at the time the admiral vanished. It was cleared for takeoff roughly an hour after the time stamp on the footage we saw.”

Lee rose out of his seat, fists clenched tightly. “Did it have a destination?”

Wendy smiled. “West Virginia. I’m trying to get in contact with the officials down there and hopefully we can get more information.”

“Wendy, you are a treasure,” Lee exclaimed, grabbed her in a hug and planted a kiss on her forehead.

Wendy laughed but sobered quickly. “Appreciate that, really I do, but this isn’t over yet.”

Lee frowned. “It won’t be over until we find him and get the bastards that took him,” he said.

Chip was in total agreement. “One step at a time. We’ll do this.”

~<<>>~

When Nelson’s senses found a rare moment of lucidity, he was still strapped to the heavy wooden chair. Experimentally he tugged at his bounds but they were as tight as before. He felt weak and his stomach rolled as he brought his head up. Must be a side effect of whatever they were pumping into him. But what was it designed to do? Cause pain? He could hear voices but his mind hadn’t completely cleared and he had to focus to understand the words.

“…coming around soon,” Nelson understood as the cloud gradually drifted in and out of his skull.

“….another dose…start questioning him. The drugs have been in his system long enough.” That was Kwan’s voice; Nelson was lucid enough to recognize that much. His vision kept blurring and the room continued to telescope in and out. One minute things seemed far away, the next the walls crowded around him, suffocating him and threatening to bury him under their weight. The voices he heard were distorted and twisted, becoming insane cackling and mad ramblings. He felt his head loll forward, chin resting against his chest. His muscles seized up once more and the pain of his cramping muscles crawled up his arms and legs, forcing a groan from his parched throat.

Lee…Chip…somebody…Another seizure ripped through his body, forcing Nelson to breathe raggedly, curling his fingers over the edge of the armrests as he tried to keep in control and not cry out in agony. He wouldn’t give Kwan the satisfaction. He simply would not.

Time seemed to crawl by as nightmare images and sounds assaulted the helpless man. He had no idea how much time had passed before his thoughts cleared. As he raised his head up to glance around he realized that Kwan was seated in a chair across from him, his soulless eyes staring at him. Nelson stared back.

“Admiring your handy work?” the admiral croaked. He felt like he barely had the strength to lift his head but he forced himself to meet Kwan’s gaze.

“Something like that,” the man said. “I was just wondering how long I’d have to keep you to break you.”

“Not…not for much longer. I’ve…been missed…by now. They’ll find me. You’ll see,” Nelson said slowly. That was the only thing he had to hold onto, the hope that Lee and Chip would find him. By now they had to have known that something was horribly wrong. They had to be searching for him. Nelson found it hard to believe that there were no clues to his disappearance. Everybody made mistakes. Kwan was no different despite his attitude. But instead of arguing, Kwan simply smiled. It was a sight that Nelson was beginning to dread seeing.

“Oh I’m counting on it. When I said that no one would find you until I was ready, I was serious. I’ve left just enough clues to slowly lure Crane into my little web. I won’t be thwarted a second time,” Kwan gloated.

Nelson felt the blood pool to his feet as he realized what Kwan meant. He was bait. Lee would follow whatever leads Kwan had lain down and Lee would walk into a trap. Nelson weakly tried to pull his wrists free but he simply lacked the strength to do much more than rub his skin raw. Kwan was still watching and smiling.

“Consider this, Admiral. Once I ship you back to my country and break Crane, your influence on the institute will simply no longer be a factor. He’ll take over the institute. Command of Seaview will be wholly his. Without you to maintain the scientific objective of the institute you founded, Crane will find himself drawn more and more into military operations.”

Nelson shook his head, regretting the action as it felt like his brains sloshed from one side to the other. “No. No, that’s not what I founded the institute for…that’s not why I built Seaview. She’s not a weapon…” Nelson nearly pleaded but Kwan continued to smile.

“But she is. Just think. I broke Crane once. I’ll bend him to my will and have the perfect spy in the ranks of the military. The captain of the Seaview will be completely under my control. And you? Once I break you, you’ll give me everything I want to know about Seaview and all your other inventions. Afterwards, you’ll be an excellent tool to make Crane heel whenever his loyalty wavers.”

“No. I won’t. I won’t break.” Nelson pulled his head up defiantly and glared back at the man. Kwan smiled. Finally he stood and walked away. For a moment Nelson thought he was going to be left. Then Kwan returned. The panic rose in Nelson’s very soul as Kwan held another syringe in his hands. A weak “no” escaped Nelson as his eyes tracked the needle.

“Time for a little something different,” Kwan said merrily as Nelson struggled ineffectually. His stomach recoiled in horror as the contents of this syringe were pumped into his system.

Kwan returned to his chair and waited. Nelson felt sweat sliding down the back of his neck, soaking into his already damp, filthy tee shirt. His breath came in short ragged bursts. There wasn’t pain this time, but another sensation, an overwhelming sensation to move. He was restless and fidgety, but strapped down as he was there was no way to move and no place to go.

Kwan leaned forward. “Now, Admiral Nelson. Let’s you and I talk about Seaview.”

~<<>>~

The two men worked in silence, the only sound being that of the power drills as they worked to put up thick panels of plywood, covering the broken out window. Nails would have taken too long to try and pound into the concrete. The screws tore through the thick block like butter. A battery powered lantern sat on the floor. It was the only source of light.

“I’d like to see him break another window out,” one of the guards said with a chuckle.

“I don’t understand why we just don’t put the old goat in the basement,” the second man muttered as he drilled another screw into place. The screws were nearly four inches long, but the plywood was thick and heavy, and they needed to be tacked firmly into place so they couldn’t be pulled down.

“Be glad we don’t have to clean the basement out. It’s flooded down there and it’s nasty as hell. I’d rather screw a couple of boards in place than deal with that mess down there.”

The second man nodded in agreement. “Good point. I didn’t sign up to play carpenter. I sure as hell don’t wanna play janitor.”

“Work your mouth less and that drill more. Kwan’s gonna be done soon.”

“What the heck is so important about that guy? What’s he know that Kwan’s so hot to trot to find out?” the second man, taller than his companion asked.

The shorter of the two shrugged as he fitted another section of board into place and powered the drill up again. “Don’t know. Don’t care. Kwan’s got some kind of weird fixation with drugs. I’d rather not be his next guinea pig. You keep asking questions and that’s exactly what you’ll end up as: strapped down to some table while he experiments on you. You’ve see what he’s doing to that Nelson-fellow.”

“I’d rather not. This job is paying too much for me to get nosy.” He grabbed a handful of screws and one by one began to drill each one into the board and wall, setting them about two inches apart. When he reached the bottom of the board, he had four screws left. Without thinking, he dropped the screws back into the box at his feet. His buddy was still working, the sound of his drill covered the tiny metallic clink as one screw missed the box, landing in the floor and rolling into the corner.

“That’s the end of it,” the shorter man said, stepping back to look over his handy work. “Looks solid, doesn’t it?”

The other man tugged on the edge of the wood but it was snug and not budging. “Looks good to me. Get your stuff and let’s get out of here. This place give me the creeps,” he ordered. The two men gathered up their tools and the box of screws. One picked up the lantern and waited for the first man to leave. He took one last look at the small cell-like room, pleased with their work and he took himself out.

The screw lay in the corner, forgotten and lost in the darkness.

~<<>>~

Lee Crane paced the confines of the hotel room, his arms wrapped around him as he walked.  Chip had counted at least twenty laps starting from the bathroom door, around the foot of the bed to stand in front of the windows. Then he would reverse and walk from the windows, around the foot of the bed, and back to the bathroom door. He would generally stand still for three or four minutes then he’d begin all over again. Chip had long since grown used to Lee’s quirks but this was starting to get on his nerves. Not that he could blame Lee. Lee was more of a doer, while Chip tended to think and plan his next course of action. Right now Lee was beginning to remind Chip of the final lap of a random NASCAR race. “You’re making me dizzy. How about sitting down for a few minutes? You’re wearing me out just watching you,” Chip said.

“Sorry,” Lee grumbled. He jammed his hands deep into his jeans pockets and wondered back to the window, peering outside at the city beyond. He glanced back to Chip who seemed to be reading something on the laptop. Occasionally Lee would hear a brief couple of clicks as the blond would type something in. He seemed so calm. How could he be so calm? It seemed like Chip was the voice of reason throughout this. All Lee wanted to do was grab some people and shake some sense into them.

“How can you sit there like this is routine?” Lee asked quietly as he forced himself to sit down on the edge of the bed, dropping his hands into his lap.

Chip glanced up. “I’m thinking. I’m planning. It’s what I do. What do we do next? If we have a solid lead—what then? Somebody has to think about those things while we wait.”

“I hate waiting,” Lee whispered.

“I know. But there are limits to what we could do. Wendy can move in circles that no one would think twice about. If we turned up, in tandem, people are going to put two and two together and we can’t afford for them to come up with four. I know you hate inactivity but this is the best thing we can do right now. This was your idea, remember?”

The knock on the door interrupted Morton’s speech and Lee jumped to his feet. He opened the door and let Wendy enter.

“I have something,” Wendy announced with a tired smile. She sat down on the edge of the bed and stretched, working the kinks out of her neck. Lee sat down behind her and with long fingers gently worked the knots out of her neck and shoulders. She closed her eyes and he found the spots of tension and worked them loose.

“Chip, can I keep him?” she asked in a dreamy voice.

Chip glanced up at his friend with a gleam in his eye. “You can have him for a week if this lead of your pans out,” he said. Morton was satisfied to see a slight smile on Lee’s face.

Wendy cracked an eye. “First off, I processed that store room nine ways to Sunday. We got prints out the wazoo. We did find an abandoned uniform, like the one that guy was wearing in the first bit of footage we have of the admiral.”

“Anything on it?” Chip asked.

“So ahead of you, big brother. My people found some hairs and a partial print off a zipper. We found two prints that belonged to the admiral and the prints of several airport personnel. One set of prints came back as unknown and we ran that through IAFIS[5] . Came back with a hit. Does the name Zhu Deng mean anything?”

Lee and Chip exchanged looks and shook their heads. “What’s his nationality?” Lee asked with a cold glint in his eyes.

“Our dear old friends, the People’s Republic. Seems he’s been over here a little longer than was originally agreed on. He came over two years ago on a business visa and for some reason he vanished when it came time to go home. Since coming over here, he’s established not less than three other aliases. Tao Wang, Simon P’eng and Simon Rice. For all we know, Zhu Deng is an alias as well,” Wendy explained.

Lee swallowed down a knot of fear. The People’s Republic was back and this time they had the admiral. Why? Were they planning on doing to the admiral what they had done to him? An involuntary shiver danced up his spine and he slid off the bed, driven once more to pace as he twisted his ring around and around on his finger.

“Lee?” Wendy asked concerned. Was it her imagination or was Lee a little paler than when she came in? She glanced over to Chip.

“We have reason to especially dislike the People’s Republic.” Chip didn’t elaborate. That encounter was still classified and likely never to be subject to the public eye. Certainly he and Lee would like nothing better than to forget it. Wendy settled back down but she continued to glance in concern at Lee. “Did you find anything about that medical transport?” Chip asked.

Wendy nodded, hooking a loose strand of hair behind her ear. “The MedFlight chopper that took off from the airport here was bound for Charlestown, West Virginia. It landed and a patient was off-loaded and then reloaded into a ground-based ambulance. Unfortunately, that’s all I was able to find out over the phone. From here on out it’s a matter of old fashioned footwork. We are going to have to go to West Virginia.”

Lee and Chip exchanged glances. Years of friendship coalesced into something that allowed the two to somehow know what the other was thinking. Many times before that same look had passed between them in the Control room. The crew had witnessed it on too many occasions to dismiss it lightly. Something unspoken passed between the two, leaving Wendy glancing back and forth between the striking brunet and her brother.

Chip broke the silence. “Then we’ll go to Charlestown.”

“I should go with you,” Wendy suggested.

Lee put a stop to that train of thought immediately. “No. We can’t ask you to do that. You’ve done enough for us already.”

“Lee,” Wendy spun around to face Crane. “This is far from over. You need me,” she insisted.

“You’ve already done enough for us. We can handle this from here. Besides, if a bunch of us show up, we could tip somebody off. I don’t want to risk the admiral.”

Wendy was about to say something else but Chip spoke first. “No. There’s no telling what we’re going to end up dealing with. I can’t ask you to get any further involved.”

Wendy sighed. When her brother took that tone there was no arguing with him. “You’ll let me know what you find?”

“Of course, you know I’ll keep you in the loop.”

The conversation lagged and Wendy could tell the two men were dead on their feet. Tactfully she stood up. “You boys need some rest so I’ll see myself out. Just promise me you’ll both be careful.”

Lee gave Wendy a tired smile. “Careful is our middle name. Promise.”

Lee saw Wendy to the door, continuing to promise to keep her in the loop. Once he gently shooed her on her way, he closed the door quietly and made his slow way back to the table.

“God, Chip. The People’s Republic? What do they want with him?” Lee asked knowing the answer perfectly well but something made him voice that question out loud.

Chip took a deep breath. “The man has hundreds of inventions to his name. He’s a genius. Do I have to go on?”

Lee shook his head. “No. I can’t believe I actually asked that question. Well, what next? West Virginia?”

Chi was already reaching for his cell phone, formulating their next plan of action. “West Virginia,” he confirmed. “With any luck we can pick up the trail there.”

~<<>>~

October 18…

This was not going the way Lao Kwan had planned. With a snarl he continued to pace the spacious main room, cursing in his native language as he replayed the last few days in his head.

It should have been easy. These drugs had been tested over and over again and had proven effective in the past. The first drug he’d given Nelson stimulated the nerve centers, producing constant pain and hallucinations. After one dose, most subjects were babbling their family secrets to anyone who would listen.

But not Admiral Nelson. Nelson had ridden out the first dose and remained silent. Kwan then doubled the second dose. He fully expected Nelson to fight the drugs but he hadn’t expected for him to resist the second dose.

The second round of injections had been a different compound, one that Kwan has also had previous success with. He’d felt sure that Nelson would succumb to it. It played on effects of the first drug, leaving the mind more open to suggestion. Only the admiral hadn’t broken under the new chemicals. He had remained silent even after repeated injections.

He would just have to keep trying. Keep telling the admiral that no one was looking for him. Somehow he had to convince the stubborn man that Crane was better off without him. Break his spirit and convince him that he was alone, with no hope of rescue. A few more doses of the compounds he’d had luck with previously and he should have everything he wanted from the admiral. He had other drugs he’d experimented with. Something was bound to prove effective.

Wandering back to the heavy chair, Kwan watched Nelson as he wearily brought his head up. Walking around to face the captive, Kwan tracked Nelson’s eyes as those blue orbs fixated on him for a brief second before losing their focus and his head lolled to his chest. There would be no more questioning him now.

“Are the repairs on his cell complete?” Kwan called out. One of the guards answered yes, the window was taken care of. Kwan nodded, pleased. “Take the admiral back to his cell then. We’ll try again tomorrow.”

Kwan watched as Nelson was unstrapped from the chair. Ming draped one of the admiral’s arms over his neck and led the man down the corridor.  Nelson offered no resistance and didn’t seem to even be conscious. Hopefully he’d have more favorable results tomorrow.

Kwan arched his fingers over the back of the chair. Crane had sat in this very chair, subjected to the crude methods he’d devised to break the ONI training.  They had worked, most certainly, but not as effectively as he had liked. Crane had reverted to his true nature soon after his release. Kwan’s work had been called a failure and he knew if he returned to his country without having completed the job, the kindest thing he’d be facing would be a firing squad.

So Kwan had stayed in the United States using a number of aliases and assumed identities. He wanted another chance at Lee Crane, to make the conditioning permanent. There was still a chance he could acquire Crane. For now, it was a matter of watching and waiting. The opportunity would present itself, like it had with Nelson. He would be ready. Not only would he be able to present Nelson to his county, he would have Crane to re-break and re-condition. Like he told Nelson, he’d have the perfect spy.

~<<>>~

The impact of landing on the hard tile floor jolted Nelson back to his senses. For an eternity he lay on his side, too tired and weak to do anything else. Gradually his senses cleared and he was able to lever himself up into a sitting position.

He’d been returned to his cell, but with a notable difference: The cell was bathed in pitch-blackness. The darkness seemed to close in on him like a black shroud of hopelessness. He felt a whimper building in the back of his throat but he choked it back down. He wouldn’t give in to whatever drugs Kwan had pumped into him.

Nelson slumped back against the wall. Time was meaningless now. He had no idea how many days had passed. He didn’t know if it was day or night anymore, which he supposed was all part of Kwan’s plan. This wasn’t the first time he’d been held captive by a foreign power. He knew how these people thought. It was all about dominance and control. Kwan controlled him, controlled where he was kept, controlled what drugs were pumped into his body. Isolate the prisoner. Deny him the basics needed for survival. Kwan had done that all too well.

Weakened by the lack of food and water, his stomach took turns growling its displeasure at him and rolling with nausea. How much longer could he do this? He’d already had too many injections of some nightmare producing drug, with Kwan’s insane suggestions that Lee was better off without him, that he’d been abandoned. 

He knew that wasn’t true. Lee wouldn’t abandon him. He and Chip both had to be looking for him. Sharkey and the rest of the crew would tear the country apart on Lee’s order. Kwan was just trying to make him lose faith, trying to strip him of what hope for rescue remained. Faith and hope were all he had left.

~<<>>~

William Jamieson glanced at his watch, aware that another day was drawing to a close. He dropped the pencil he’d been writing with to the desk and focused on the desk calendar. Five days had passed since Lee and Chip caught a flight out to Washington D.C. Three days since anyone had heard from either them or their employer. The last he saw of them was Thursday. Their story was the admiral had requested them both for some high level meetings.

Friday came and went quietly. Jamie hadn’t expected to hear anything over the weekend and he wasn’t surprised. He was surprised when Monday morning dawned and the trio hadn’t returned. Now it was late Tuesday and still no word, not a whisper of the admiral, Lee, or Chip.

Will hit the power button on the computer monitor and the screen went black. Standing up, the lanky doctor took a few minutes to stretch his back and shoulder muscles and considered what he knew so far about this mysterious set of meetings.

First off, he knew that the admiral was due back from Washington Thursday afternoon. He knew for some reason Nelson had been forced to catch a later flight. After that things got fuzzy. Standard operating procedure mandated that a security team meet the admiral at the airport if he was aboard a commercial flight. Usually it was Sharkey, but the COB had been extremely close-mouthed when he got back from the airport this time. And he’d come back alone. No one was talking about why.

Plus there was the fact that Lee and Chip both hated trips to Washington. The only place that ranked higher on their list of hated places was perhaps Will’s Med Bay!  But there hadn’t been the customary grumbling and complaining that usually accompanied such an order from their employer. One minute they were here, the next they were gone. No explanation.

Will smelled a rat. He didn’t like not being in the loop when something odd was going on. An oddity meant trouble and trouble usually meant somebody was headed for an extended stay in his domain.

Will decided it was time for some answers. There was one person on the grounds that would be likely to have such answers. Will decided that it was time he had a talk with that person and see just what he could learn.

As Jamieson headed out of his Med Bay office, he nodded casually to various staff members on their way out for the evening. The thought crossed his mind that he might be too late to catch his quarry but he dismissed the idea. If the admiral wasn’t in his office, there was a good chance she was putting in a few extra hours.

Will was right. He found the admiral’s personal assistant, Angie Watson, hard at work at her desk, a stack of folders on the edge of her desk and a three-inch high stack of papers at her elbow. His entrance into her office caused her to glance up and favor her visitor with a weak smile.

“Are you lost, doctor?” she teased.

Will smiled. “It’s awfully quiet around here. Is it like this when we’re gone?”

Angie shrugged. “Depends.”

“Hmm,” Will said vaguely. He wandered the small office for a few minutes, thinking. “Heard from Lee or Chip?”

He had been watching and he noticed her start. She covered it well and continued to type. “No. I’m sure they’re busy.”

“What was this round of meetings about? I usually hear about it when one of them gets drafted. I can’t believe they both slipped out of here and I didn’t hear nary a peep.”

Angie glanced up. She knew he was fishing. Jamieson waited. Angie stayed silent, as if weighing the options. Jamieson decided to chance it. “What happened?”

“What makes you think anything has happened? Lee and Chip were ordered to Washington to accompany the admiral in a round of budget meetings. Simple,” she said unconvincingly.

“Uh-huh.” Jamieson leaned against a shelf and crossed his arms over his chest, watching the young woman. Angie continued to work.

“Why are you staring at me?” she asked without glancing up.

Jamieson grinned. “How do you know I’m staring?”

“Because a woman always knows when a man is staring at her. Think of it as kind of a sonar, if you will,” Angie replied, this time glancing up and shooting the doctor a quick smile of her own.

“So when are they due back?”

Angie blinked. “Not sure. The admiral didn’t say,” she replied smoothly.

“Angie, you and I both know there are no budget meetings in Washington. If I may: there is no joy in Mudville.”

Angie completely abandoned her typing and began a quiet shut down of her systems. “It’s getting late, doctor. Shouldn’t you be headed home?”

“I should. I’d rather know what’s going on around here. If anybody has the answers, it’s you. You practically run the place in the admiral’s absence. And the admiral is very absent, isn’t he?”

He watched as her eyes and expression hardened. “You are presuming a lot, doctor,” she said.

“I know how things go around here. Something isn’t right. If there is anything I can do to help, let me know—even if it’s just somebody to talk to. I needn’t remind you I have sufficient clearance for nearly every level of security around here?”

Angie blinked wide eyes and Jamieson took the time to actually look at the young woman. She looked tired. There were dark circles under her eyes that her carefully applied make up couldn’t hide. “Angie?” Jamieson knew Angie well enough to know she wasn’t the gossiping type. She could and would carry a secret to the grave. He had to make her understand she wouldn’t be betraying anyone’s trust if she let him in on whatever was going on around here.

Angie froze, standing behind her desk, using it as a buffer between her and the doctor. She knew she could trust him but Lee had made her promise not to let word of this leak out. Dr. Jamieson wasn’t likely to go running to the press. Plus there was a good chance that one, if not all three of them, were likely to need his services once they came back.

And Angie was certain that they were coming back. They had to. She simply couldn’t imagine one of the three not returning. They were such a part of her life now that it was impossible to not think of them at least a dozen times a day. The doctor continued to stare at her, his eyes like orbs of cerulean watching her every move. When he began to speak, Angie couldn’t find her voice to answer.

“The Flying Sub is in dry dock right now, so the admiral flew commercial to Washington. There was a problem with the return flight, either at the airport here or there. The security detail assigned to escort the admiral back home reported the problem. Naturally Lee had to go to the airport to investigate. Of course Chip tagged along.”

Angie raised an eyebrow again. “How do you know about the security detail?”

“SOP whenever the admiral returns from Washington via commercial flight, established before the Flying Sub became operational, as you well know. So obviously they were expecting the admiral to return. That didn’t happen. So if the admiral ordered Lee and Chip to join him in D.C., why bother with the security detail to the airport unless he was expected to return and didn’t.”

Other than the one question, Angie hadn’t corrected or denied any of Jamieson’s theories. He continued to surmise, watching his employer’s assistant closely.  “My guess? The admiral wasn’t aboard the plane when it landed. The security detail investigated and alerted Lee, and the two followed the trail back to Washington. Something has happened to the admiral and they are trying to find out just what. For some reason Lee doesn’t want the real story to get out.”

He saw Angie swallow convulsively. He’d touched a nerve all right. He waited, wondering if she’d admit her part in all this. She looked him dead in the eye. “You didn’t hear any of that from me,” she said slowly. “If, theoretically speaking, someone of importance had encountered…difficulties…in the nation’s capital, it might be a good idea to keep such an incident quiet as not to stir a public panic.”

The light of understanding dawned in Jamieson’s eyes. It made sense now. “One would think the nation’s capital a safe place for travel.”

Angie nodded. “One would think so,” she agreed.

Jamie smiled. “Well,” he began, “I’m glad we had this chat, Angie. It’s been most…enlightening.”

Angie smiled weakly. “It has indeed, doctor. Umm, if I should hear from Lee in the near future, and I do expect to hear from him, I’ll mention you asked about him.”

Jamie nearly laughed out loud. “Oh, yes, you do that. I can’t wait to have a chat with him when he gets back. He can tell me all about the ‘meetings’ he’s been ordered to.”

“Yes sir, I’m sure he’ll be more than happy to fill you in.”

After bidding the young woman a good night, Jamieson found his way out of the office and headed back to the Med Bay. He nodded to the lone duty nurse at the front desk and made his way to the records department on the second floor. Usually he’d call his requests in but he wanted to make this one in person.

He found Med Bay’s office administrator and head of records, Ann Morgan, busy gathering her things to leave for the evening. Ann was a short yet energetic young lady who had an eye for detail. She’d interned at Santa Barbara General and nothing got by her scrutiny. She had a quiet demeanor and was inclined to keep her opinions to herself for the most part, but Jamie knew she was a deep thinker and always worked out her thoughts before giving voice to them. Med Bay might be his domain but the realm of office administration belonged to Ann.

The smaller woman glanced up at the newcomer. “Evening, doctor,” she said, her very southern South Carolina accent setting her apart a little bit. “Shouldn’t you be heading home right about now?”

Jamie favored the young lady with a smile. “I’m headed there as soon as I finish an errand or two. Can I get you to do me a favor in the morning?”

“Of course. You need some records pulled?”

“Yes, I’ll need the admiral, Cmdr. Crane and Lt. Cmdr. Morton’s records as soon as you can.”

Ann’s brown eyes widened in surprise. “There isn’t a problem, is there?”

“Oh no,” the doctor reassured. “I just need to look over some things and make sure their medication lists are up to date.”

Relief flooded her eyes. “Oh good. Here I was thinking there was a problem. You know those three, always something going on,” Ann replied and reached for a pen and a sticky-note pad on the desk. She scribbled a note in her personal shorthand in case someone should glance at it, it would look like gibberish. She stuck it to the monitor of her computer. “There. A little reminder. I’ll have them up as soon as I get in. Oh, I should tell you they’ve been thinned. Will you want their complete files?” she asked, referring to the process of pulling older records out and storing them so the main file was manageable.

Jamie snorted. “No need for you to haul the entire mess up. The files as they stand right now will be fine. I need you to do something else for me.”

“If I can.”

“Oh, it’s simple. I’m thinking it’s time to start an inventory of the medical supplies.”

Ann nodded. “You’re probably right. Are you thinking entire inventory or just medical?”

Jamie grinned. “It’s been a while since we did a complete inventory. Supplies, medicine stores, everything down to the ballpoint pens. Contact our suppliers and notify them we are doing inventory and request any necessary buy-back forms. Should keep everyone busy for a few days.”

Ann laughed and shifted the strap of her purse over her shoulder. “It should indeed. I’ll get the ball rolling first thing in the morning. Are you heading home?”

Jamie shoved his hands in his pockets and nodded. “Just a quick stop at my office for a few things then I’m on my way out. Going to enjoy the peace and quiet for a little while,” he said.

“Yeah, all too soon things will be back to normal. Have a nice night doctor. See you in the morning.”

“You too, Ann.”

Jamie watched the young woman leave. Slowly he followed, turning to head for his office at the end of the hall. A complete inventory of the entire Med Bay would keep administration staff busy—too busy to notice anything was amiss with the command staff—for a few days. Hopefully by then this whole mess would be sorted out and things could go back to normal.

~<<>>~

“This is an airfield?” Lee Crane asked in disbelief. He sat in the passenger’s side of the rental car as Chip pulled down the long drive. Drive was a word Lee used loosely. It was more of a track in a field, two worn ruts with a patch of grass between that seemed to stretch out forever.

“Wendy narrowed it down to this airfield. Services mainly small private aircraft and some helicopter traffic,” Chip explained. He hit another bump and the car bounced painfully.

“Nice one,” Lee commented as the car settled.

“You get to drive out of here and we’ll see who’s the better pilot,” Chip replied. A low building was coming up on their right. The track slowly curved and opened up onto a patch of gravel. Chip brought the car up to the building and killed the engine. There didn’t seem to be anybody around.

“Is this place open?” Lee asked.

Chip leaned back. “Only one way to find out.” He opened his door, his actions mirrored by Lee. Cautiously the two entered the building.

There were several small single engine planes lined up inside. Working on the underside of one was a small, wiry looking man wearing dark blue work pants and a matching jacket. He glanced up at the newcomers and grinned. “Hi there. Something I can do for you?”

Chip and Lee tossed quick glances toward one another and Chip slowed his pace, letting Lee take the lead. “We’re looking for a friend of ours. We were told he might have been here.”

The man, who had the name ‘Daryl’ embroidered on the front of the jacket, took off his stained ball cap and scratched at his head. “Lot of people come through here. What’d he look like?”

“He was onboard a medical transport helicopter. We were told it landed here a few days ago and offloaded a passenger.

Daryl was nodding. “Oh sure, I remember them. Some foreign looking doctor. Said he had a burn patient he was taking back to some fancy clinic.”

Lee felt his stomach twist into knots at the news. “Did he say where? This is really important.”

Daryl shook his head. “Sorry. I didn’t talk much with the guy. His English was good enough but he just didn’t seem like the chatty type. They hired an ambulance from a local nursing home and took off. The chopper refueled and left the way it came in.”

Lee nearly pounced on the guy. “Do you know which nursing home? Please, you have to help us.” Lee’s mind spun quickly, trying to come up with something, any kind of lie to win the guy over and make him want to help them. He could see the man was already starting to get leery of Lee’s constant questions. They hadn’t offered their names or even who they were with. Lee couldn’t blame him for being suddenly suspicious. Then Lee hit on the perfect explanation. “It’s my father, you understand. He remarried a few years ago but it didn’t work out. They divorced and he wrote her out of the will. Well, Dad had a stroke and now we can’t find him. We think she’s trying to get him to change the will and write us out,” Lee said in a rush.

Daryl rolled his eyes and motioned that they follow him. “What the hell is it about ex-wives? None of mine seem to understand we ain’t married anymore!” he declared as he led the two men to what was apparently his office. He dug a worn and stained phonebook from the drawer of an equally worn and stained desk and dropped it on the desktop. A haze of dust exploded upwards like a mushroom cloud. Without noticing, Daryl flipped the book opened and zipped through pages. Finding what he wanted, he turned the book around to face the two men.

“Local nursing homes. The closest is Green Meadows. He might have called them. “

“Chip, get these numbers and addresses,” Lee ordered quietly. Chip was already on the move, entering numbers into his smart phone as fast as his fingers would go. Lee turned his attention back to Daryl. “Thanks a lot mister. I can’t tell you what this means,” Lee began but Daryl waved him off.

“Don’t think nothing about it. Like I said, I got an ex-wife or two. You and your Dad, you must be pretty close. Hope you find him and stick it to his ex.”

Lee and Chip took a few more minutes to go over the numbers and addresses. They talked a little bit more to Daryl, who finally actually introduced himself. Daryl had a pretty good memory and he had a fair description of the party who landed with the chopper. There were four people total: the doctor, two assistants, and the bandaged patient. The pilot never left the chopper.

Lee was pushing for anything that Daryl could remember. Abruptly, the man frowned. “You know there was something. I asked him about that patient of his, you know, to pass the time. They was waiting for that ambulance to show up and standing around. That doctor fella, he was real closed up. So I got to talking to one of his assistants. He was looking kinda green and asking where the bathroom was. I gave him directions. Think the guy was airsick—seen it happen a few times. I caught him heading back to the chopper and I asked him what was wrong with the guy and he said he was a burn patient.”

Lee tried to keep the excitement out of his voice. They were getting closer, he could feel it. “Did he say anything else? Maybe mention where they were going?”

“I asked,” Daryl offered. “Figured they might be heading for Vanderbilt, down in Nashville. Heard they had a burn center down there. But he gave me this real funny look and said they was heading for a place called Edgewood.”

Lee shot Chip a quick look but the blond was already at work, keying notes into his phone. Chip was already trying to find some reference to the place. “I can’t find any place called Edgewood, connected with a medical facility,” Chip finally said. His deep voice was troubled by his lack of information to pass along.

Lee could tell that this trip was going to take more digging around than he had originally planned. It was eating him up, the amount of time it was taking to shift through each piece of the puzzle to form some kind of picture. It was already getting late and they were both tired. They had opted to drive rather than fly for the simple sake of convenience. Neither of them had any idea if this lead would pan out and if they drove they’d be free to follow any possible threads. It looked like they had a good one though.

“Is there a motel around here? Looks like we’re going to need to spend the night and get started in the morning.”

Daryl gave them directions to a decent motel and Chip and Lee bid their thanks and good byes. As they headed back to the car, Lee took the lead and slid into the driver’s seat. In the fading light of the day, he backed the car out of the gravel lot and pulled down the rutted drive.

“Edgewood,” Lee said by way of confirmation.

Chip was shaking his head. “Is it a town? A facility? A hospital? I need something more to go on.”

“We’ll get it. Tomorrow we’ll hit the nursing homes and see if they have any record of where this doctor went with this burn patient of his. I’d think they have some record of it. “

“Most likely. When we get to the motel I can do some more research and maybe get some more information. You have to admit, we know more now than we did two hours ago.”

Lee nodded, guiding the car along. “True. I just hope it pans out to something. All this work and we end up at a dead end. I don’t want this to go public, but if we don’t find something soon, we may have to, just to find out if anybody out there has seen anything,” he replied sadly.

“Let me root around first. If I can’t find the place, it doesn’t exist,” Chip replied confidently.

~<<>>~

October 19…

“This place doesn’t exist,” Chip moaned as he stared at the computer screen. A knock on the door pulled his attention away from the screen and with a sour expression on his face he got up to let his friend in.

Lee was carrying two large coffees, one of which he passed off to Morton who promptly disposed of a quarter of the brew in several gulps.

“Needs a shot of doc’s brandy,” Chip commented and dropped back into his chair.

Lee planted himself on the edge of the mussed bed. “Anything?”

“Lee, I got nothing. There isn’t anything here to indicate any kind of facility called Edgewood. I can’t find a town or a place by that name.” Chip voice dripped with irritation. He hated to be foiled by a mystery and right now this place, this Edgewood, was laughing at him, taunting him with its existence that Chip couldn’t prove. However, Lee was obviously deep in thought. He sipped at the coffee thinking about what he had learned earlier.

“I talked to the nursing home Daryl mentioned, Green Meadows. They said a Doctor Tam requested an ambulance to transfer a burn patient to a facility in Kentucky.”

Chip’s head came up abruptly. “Kentucky? Okay, I didn’t see that coming,” he said. “What if we’re looking for one of those little towns that isn’t on the map? And how are we supposed to find a place that isn’t on the map? Hire a physic?” he demanded grumpily.

“No, we just take the same route the driver of the ambulance took.”

Chip stared. “You’ve been sitting on that little piece of information, while I bust my—“

“Ah ha, language, Mister Morton,” Lee reminded with a smile.

“—six, finding nothing, while you got directions?” wailed the blond.

 Lee continued to grin. “Sometimes it’s fun making you work for it. Come on. I have to feed you and then we can get started. We have a long drive ahead of us.”

“Directions,” Chip was grumbling as he closed up his laptop and bundled the cords to shove back into the case. “I’ve got some directions for you…Crazy spooks and their freaking secrets…”

~<<>>~

Red Mills was a quiet little town nearly right smack in the middle of horse county. Not much ever happened in this sleepy little town. An occasional fight might break out among the high schoolers on a Friday night or an occasional city council dispute might bleed out into the general populace. But for the most part the people were laid back and easy going.

So the squealing tires, the crunch of metal, and the tinkle of shattering glass brought afternoon activities to a halt as shopkeepers along the town square came barreling out to see what on earth was happening.

Two cars sat at the main intersection, the side of one car totally caved-in, the front-end of another was crumpled while steam poured out from under the buckled hood. Two figures were on their feet, apparently assessing the damages to their respective cars. One figure was on a cellphone, ignoring the other bystander totally.

Margaret McBride made her way on shaky legs around the ruin of her car while she desperately tried to remember if she looked both ways before pulling into the intersection. She was positive she had and she hadn’t seen anybody when she pulled out. She stared with disbelief at the mangled mess that was once her car, feeling tears of frustration leaking down her face. This was her only car. She didn’t have money for another. Now what was she going to do? What if the insurance didn’t pay, what if it was her fault…oh God…

Meanwhile the driver of the other car was still on the cell phone. Maggie heard her call a third person and wondered how many more people she was going to call. She walked over closer to the driver and asked as politely as she could “Are you alright?”

The woman apparently didn’t hear her. “She pulled out in front of me,” Maggie heard her say and her temper spiked.

“I didn’t pull out in front of you. I had the right of way!” Maggie exclaimed. By now a crowd was gathering and from the police station on the first floor of the courthouse a familiar figure darted, weaving in and out through the crowds. He saw Maggie and made a beeline for the young woman.

“Margaret! Maggie, are you okay?” Wade Reed, city Chief of Police, asked as he closed the gap between him and her, muscling through the crowd. He raked a hand through his short dark hair and took in the scene with calculating green eyes, taking in his long-time acquaintance and the cousin of his girlfriend. Maggie was wild-eyed but she answered calmly.

 “A little shaky but okay,” she said to him.

Wade couldn’t help but notice the damage to the car. Classic T-bone. The back door of the dark gray Ford Taurus was completely mashed in and the car had an odd list. The back passenger’s side tire was flattened and as Wade peered at the under carriage it was pretty clear that the back axel was broken. Wade felt his heart going out to Maggie. While the Taurus was an older model, Maggie had kept it in good shape and until now there hadn’t even been a scratch on the paint. Now look at it.

He glanced over to the other driver but she was still on the phone. “Ma’am I’m going to need to talk to you as soon as you’re done,” he said. The woman gave her blond ponytail a flip and nodded but turned her back to Wade as she continued to talk. Fine, he’d given her a chance. He glanced back toward Maggie who was a definite shade lighter than she’d been earlier. She had wrapped her arms around herself and her eyes had taken on a far off stare. Light shock, no doubt.

Wade took her by the shoulders. “Maggie, I need you to focus for me. What happened?”

Maggie was a few inches shorter than Wade’s own 5’9” frame and a little rounder than modern fashion magazines dictated. She had medium length brown hair that she seldom styled, preferring to simply comb and pull back into a ponytail. The fact that she was even in town at all was a surprise to Wade. Maggie preferred to stay home and wasn’t often seen out. Right now the woman was trembling lightly as Wade wrapped his hands around her shoulders, trying to reassure her that she wasn’t in trouble. Her pale blue eyes were wide and damp with tears that threatened to ruin her attempt at a calm composure. “I came up to the intersection and stopped. I swear there wasn’t anybody coming. You know me, Wade—you know I can’t afford for something to happen to my car. She just came out of nowhere. By the time it was over, she’d spun my car around and I was facing the direction I’d just come from.” Wade whirled around to stare at the cars. Sure enough Maggie’s car was facing the road she just pulled out of. “Wade, it’s not my fault, I didn’t see anybody coming,” Maggie insisted her voice cracking with the last word.

“Hush, nobody’s blaming you. Just take it easy and I’ll handle this. Come over here and just sit down for a few minutes. Get off your feet and just rest while I talk to our other driver,” Wade instructed, gently tugging the young lady toward a nearby bench. He managed to get her to sit down and hoped she’d stay there. She was scared out of her mind right now but she could easily turn hostile if the other driver proved to be a problem. Maggie might be shy but she harbored a nasty temper if provoked.

The other driver, as it happened, was still on the phone. Wade was tired of waiting as he walked toward her. “Ma’am, I need to ask you some questions,” he said to her. His dark green eyes flashed in irritation as she glanced at him dismissively. He didn’t recognize her as a local.

“Johnny, I’ll call you back,” she said to whomever she was chatting with and focused on the police officer. “That woman cut me off,” she began pointing a manicured finger at Maggie.

Not likely, Wade thought. “I need your driver’s license and registration.”

The woman stomped off in a huff toward her car. Wade followed. She dove into the glove box and finally collected the requested items.

By now the crowd was beginning to disperse. This may have been due to the appearance of the city’s second and only remaining officer, Jeff Russell, an average looking individual of average height and non-descript looks. He didn’t have the muscle of his boss but most people knew Jeff by sight and didn’t question him when he started to break up the crowd. He was gently ushering people back to their stores and trying to restore some semblance of order to the small town square. People obeyed not because they understood he was the deputy, but because Wade had chosen to give him a chance after the fallout concerning his uncle. When it looked like most people had been satisfied that there wasn’t anything gory to see, Jeff picked up his pace, heading for Wade. “Need some help?” he asked.

Wade glanced down at the license he’d collected. “Lucinda Devers,” he read and glanced at the woman.

“Everybody calls me Lucy,” she said. “Aren’t you going to give her a ticket or arrest her or something? She pulled out in front of me. My Camaro is totaled,” she continued to complain. She shifted the strap on her purse and Wade couldn’t help but notice that she had one of the higher-end designers.

“Miss Devers, do you have insurance?” he asked politely. He handed off the registration and license to Jeff. “Take these and run them, would ya?” he asked. Jeff accepted them and nodded and then jogged back to the police station.

Meanwhile the woman was staring. “Why do you have to do that? I don’t see you running her information,” Lucy complained, waving at hand at Maggie. One of the local shop owners had come out and was sitting with Maggie, having apparently brought her a glass of water.

“That’s because I already know her and I know for a fact she has insurance and no criminal record. I’m afraid I can’t say that about you. Now, do you have any kind of insurance?”

As it turned out, Lucy Devers liked her expensive cars and her fine luxury items but for some reason she didn’t see the need to renew her car insurance. As Jeff informed Wade over the radio, she hadn’t had insurance for the last three months.

Within the hour Lucy was fined and the car, what was left of it, was impounded. A wrecker was on its way to haul it down to the impound lot. Lucy had called a boyfriend for a ride and to work out where she was going to get the money for the substantial fines she was racking up. Turns out she had been texting a friend on her cell phone at the time of the crash, which was also illegal.

Meanwhile, that left the problem of Maggie. Wade let Jeff handle Lucy and he turned his attention to his longtime friend.

“You need me to call Jackie for you?” he asked, referring to Maggie’s cousin.

Maggie shook her head. “She’s in class right now. I don’t want her to mess up her day,”

Wade knew Jackie wouldn’t care. She’d move heaven and earth for her cousin. Instead Wade tried another tactic. “You need a ride then?”

Maggie sighed. Wade’ protective streak, evident since high school, guaranteed that he would not let up. “I was on my way to the grocery. Today was payday,” she said.

Ah-ha, Wade thought. That explains why she was in town. “Tell you what:  let me take you home, I’ll call Jackie and I’ll switch cars with her. You can drive her Grand Am and I’ll give her my Ranger. Then you can go to the grocery and take your time,” Wade offered.

“Wade…” Maggie began, trying to formulate an argument. But she knew she was beaten. Wade had been protective of his friends throughout high school and Maggie, having been in that circle of friends for years after graduation, had learned the protective streak hadn’t gotten any better with the intervening years. She sighed as Wade fixed her with a green-eyed glare.

 “Mags, just humor me. Besides, Jason will have my tail if I just left you like this,” Wade said.

“Jason shouldn’t worry so much.” Maggie snorted again, but not too low for Wade to hear.

“Your friends worry about you. It’s our job,” Wade corrected and herded the brunette toward the police station. He got Maggie settled into the front seat of his cruiser and drove her back home, to the modest farm house situated on twenty-three acres of ground about ten miles outside of town. The house was a little run-down looking, since Maggie probably hadn’t had the funds for the simple little cosmetic things like a new coat of paint on the porch and a few new screws to rehang the slightly askew shutters. But the yard was neatly cut and trimmed and the flower pots on the porch and the flower beds around the house held a collection of very colorful plants and flowers. Wade wondered how much of his head Maggie would take off if he and Jason showed up one weekend and offered to do a few repairs. Best wait a few days to suggest it.

“Wade, I appreciate you driving me home, but I’m really fine,” Maggie insisted with one hand on the door handle.

“Mags, you feel fine now, but the adrenaline rush is going to wear off and I’d rather you be someplace safe and secure when you do crash. I want to get a full statement from you later. Just calm down and I’ll take care of the car.”

Maggie sighed and Wade unlocked the door for her. “Give me about an hour, okay. This will all work out, Mags, I promise,” Wade said to his friend and she smiled at him.

“Thanks Wade. I mean that,” she replied and got out. Wade watched her walk up the steps to the house, unlock the front door and go in. He made no move to start the engine back up but instead reached for his cell phone tucked into his pocket. He dialed a number from memory and waited. If he was right, it was the lunch break for his girlfriend and he could catch her between classes. Sure enough his call was picked up.

“Wade?” Jackie Spencer’s voice was puzzled, obviously having seen the caller ID and confused at why Wade was calling her at this time of day. He seldom bothered her when she was at class.

“Did I catch you at a bad time?” Wade asked.

“No, I’m between classes. What’s wrong?”

Wade grinned. He’d been right about the timing. “We need to play musical cars. I need to switch mine out for yours so Maggie has something to drive. I can drive the squad car till we get things worked out.”

“Wade, I hate it when you get cryptic on me. What happened?”

Wade sighed. Jackie was protective of her cousin and he hadn’t helped the situation any. “She’s fine. Some out-of-towner t-boned her on the intersection on her way to the grocery. The car will have to go into the shop.”

Jackie’s exclamation of protest nearly deafened the chief of police. “Why didn’t you tell me?” she demanded. Wade held the phone a good six inches from his ear to protect himself from his girlfriend’s outraged shriek.

“Baby, I just did. She’s fine but insists on going to the grocery today. I talked her into going home first so she’d be someplace familiar when the adrenaline rush bled off. I thought she’d feel better driving your car, so you can have my truck.”

Jackie agreed and after a few more quick words the pair hung up. One problem solved. Wade turned his attention back to the house, seeing the curtains inside move and Maggie’s head appeared in one window. She waved at him then the curtain dropped back into place. Grinning, Wade finally started the car back up and turned around in the driveway. He needed to get his truck, drop it off for Jackie, bring her car back to Maggie and then if he was lucky, she’d drop him off at the station before she went on to the grocery. Hopefully by then she’d have had a chance to calm down and unwind after the accident. Maggie was a resilient young woman but she’d had a rough year and this accident was something she really didn’t need. Wade promised himself he’d do anything to get her car back on the road and make things easier for his longtime friend.

At least with this little bit of excitement out of the way, maybe things would go back to normal around here. Red Mills wasn’t a town that saw much excitement.

~<<>>~

The door to the cell opened, blinding Nelson as the shaft of light cut through the darkness. The hapless man threw an arm over his eyes as they watered painfully in the light. The guard new exactly what the light was doing to Nelson. He aimed the powerful flashlight directly at the man’s eyes as he stepped into the cell.

“Don’t like that do you?” the guard growled. Nelson didn’t answer, slowly lowering his arm. His eyes were slow to adjust to the sudden light and the figure of the guard was blurry and indistinct. “I owe you for what you did to me,” he said and Nelson felt something in his gut twist. It was the guard he’d tried to kill, the one whose face he’s slashed open.

There was no place to go as the guard took his revenge. The first kick forced a cry from Nelson’s throat, sending him rolling into the far wall. Cornered, it was all he could do to curl up in a ball, trying to protect himself as the guard kicked and stomped at him. It went on and on, each impact on his body sending shockwaves of pain and misery through his already abused body. Distantly Nelson heard a voice, ordering the guard to stop.

“He’s of no use to me dead.” The voice was Kwan. Nelson heard the grumble of the guard and Kwan snapped back with something but it was lost as the messages of pain overload all else. “I hold the power of life and death over you, Admiral. Remember that,” Kwan said to him.

Nelson didn’t move. He heard footsteps and the creak of the door. It slammed shut and Nelson closed his eyes, trying to think past the pain. Breathing heavily, he slowly straightened, pulling himself up into a sitting position, his back braced in the corner of the room. Limb by limb, he began to take stock of his injuries and gradually came to the conclusion that he was battered and bruised but nothing was broken. Kwan wouldn’t have that to use against him.

Nelson raised an arm to brace himself as he tried to get to his feet. His palm smacked against wood. He froze, trying to understand what he was feeling. He thought the walls were concrete. So why was he feeling wood?

His body protesting every move, Nelson made it to his feet and began to trace the edges of the panel with his fingers. He felt the tops of screws along the edges. Was there a window under the board? Nelson tried to pry the edges up but there wasn’t enough space to get his fingers under nor did he have the strength.

Exhausted, the admiral sank back to the floor and leaned against the wall. It was hard not to give into the never ending sense of despair and hopelessness. Kwan continued to insist that Lee had given up, that he’d moved on. He wasn’t wasting any more time searching for him. Nelson had started out praying that Lee would find him but after finally learning the truth, that he was bait in an elaborate trap set for Lee, he’d been working on a plan to get himself out of this mess. Once free, he could notify Lee.  

But with each passing hour, he grew weaker and more incoherent. The drugs sapped his strength, played tricks on his mind and left his body exhausted. If he couldn’t orchestrate a plan soon, he’d be too weak to get very far. The idea of escaping only to be recaptured was enough to force a pathetic whimper from Nelson’s throat. Closing his eyes he pushed all thoughts of failure from his mind.

Trying to find a more comfortable position, Nelson twisted his aching body to curl up on the floor, hoping to conserve heat. There was no heat in his cell, and the cold and dampness only added to his misery. Abruptly his hand brushed against something and he nearly gasped in surprise. Gently he picked up the object, feeling his pulse race as, by touch, he recognized what he held.

It was a long screw, like the ones probably used to screw the plywood boards into place over the windows. Nelson estimated it was probably four inches long. He could feel the threads between his fingers, tracing them down to the sharp point of the screw tip. A weapon. A small one, but a weapon all the same. All he needed was an opening, a chance to use it and find his freedom.

~<<>>~

“Explain to me again how you found out about this little town,” Chip ordered as he fought to keep the boredom at bay. The drive was turning out to be a long and boring trip, with a few stops for food—that Chip insisted on. Other than that, boring was the only word Chip could think of to describe the last few hours.

Lee relaxed behind the wheel and launched into this story. “I got lucky actually. I went down to that nursing home Daryl mentioned and wandered around till I found the ambulance garage. I started asking questions, using that story I handed Daryl,” Lee explained.

Chip grinned. “That was genius. So out of left field, but totally genius.”

Lee shrugged. “Whatever works. Anyhow, one guy said he remembered that Dr. Tam hired them to take a burn patient to some town in Kentucky. He remembered it was called Red Mills. He remembered Tam because the guy got really pissed when they wouldn’t let his people drive the ambulance. Insurance won’t allow anyone other than nursing home staff to drive.”

“Lucky for us.”

“Anyhow, the driver remembered the name of this little town they went to. Said Tam ordered him to pull into the parking lot of the hospital and stop. They got out, unloaded the patient and that was the last the driver saw of them. He was told his job was done.”

Chip frowned in thought. “I don’t suppose he ever got a real good look at this so-called patient?”

Lee shook his head. “No. He said whoever it as, he was quiet the whole way down there.”

“Think they were keeping him drugged?”

“It’s the only thing I can think of that would keep him quiet enough to move that kind of distance,” Lee answered sadly.

Chip let the silence drag for a while longer but then the boredom started again. He fished out his phone and began looking up information about the town Red Mills. “You ever heard of this town?” Chip asked.

“Nope. The driver said he’d never heard of it either. Just one of those tiny little towns. Every state has them. Why?”

“No reason. Just thought I’d look it up and see if there was anything interesting. Doesn’t look like there is much.” Chip grew silent as he skipped through various links. Without warning he uttered a curse that made Lee spin around to stare.

“What the hell did you find?” he demanded.

“Listen to this: Another reported hot spot for unexplained activity is the Edgewood Hospital in Red Mills. The locals report having seen lights in the upper floors and have even heard ghostly screams and echoes in the night. Police are often called to investigate. The property is privately owned and visitors are not permitted on the grounds.”

“Edgewood…” Lee’s voice trailed off as he focused once more on the road.

Chip stared in confusion at his phone. “But is it the same place? This doesn’t make sense. This article implies the place isn’t a hospital anymore.”

“You’re the techno-guru. Look it up. Tell me what you find. It’s more than we knew ten minutes ago,” Lee ordered.

Chip grew quiet as he carefully searched through links and bits and pieces for the back trail. For some reason, yesterday he’d been unable to hunt anything down concerning this Edgewood. But today with the town Red Mills as a starting point, he was able to pull several bits of information from the Internet.  He spent a good hour in silence as he searched. Lee was beginning to wonder what on earth was taking Chip so long. Finally the blond sighed. “You want everything I found?”

“Take it from the top,” replied Lee.

“The short version: Edgewood was a hospital back in the day—that day ending sometime in the fifties. Eventually it was replaced by a larger more modern facility. The property was sold and passed through several owners. It’s always had a reputation for being haunted. It is not in use now.”

“A quiet place, out of the way, and a place that not many people would be willing to visit,” Lee rehashed.

“You think they took the admiral there?”

“Anything is possible.” Lee replied. “I don’t suppose that this Edgewood has an address?” Lee asked.

Chip yawned and stretched muscles that had grown stiff from sitting in one place too long. “No. And trust me, I’ve looked. Our best bet is going to be to find this town and ask around. Somebody has to know where it’s at.”

“We’ll attract attention,” Lee warned.

“We’re going to attract attention regardless. You and I don’t exactly have a local accent. They’re going to peg you for New England the first time you say anything with an ‘R’ in it,” Chip pointed out.

“So says the Chicago native,” Lee replied.

“My point exactly. We might not have a choice here.”

Lee grew quiet. Chip was right. They needed help, and the only way they were going to get it was to ask. To ask meant explaining. Did he dare risk that? Did he dare not? To ask risked the potential of alerting whoever had the admiral that somebody was looking for him. Whoever was behind this was clever and resourceful. If they thought they risked losing their prize, they might do something radical, like eliminate the admiral. Lee felt a shiver crawl up his spine. The reaction wasn’t lost on Chip.

“I think we should stop for the evening,” Morton declared.

“It’s early. I’d rather keep driving,” Lee insisted.

“And I’d rather get there in one piece. The next exit, we make a detour and we find a motel for the night,” argued Morton. Lee stayed quiet. He didn’t want to stop. He wanted to get to this town of Red Mills and start searching as soon as possible. The last thing he wanted to do was stop.  But Chip wasn’t giving up. He could be tenacious when he got it into his head he wanted something. “Lee. I’m serious. You need some rest. I need some sleep.”

“You can sleep in the car.”

“And you plan on sleeping when? You’re human and you need a few hours if you plan on staying alert and on your game. Humor me.”

Lee sighed. He could go without sleep for extended periods of time but he hadn’t had much since Sharkey’s call that the admiral had vanished. Chip was right even if Lee would rather bite his tongue than admit it out loud. He risked becoming a liability if they didn’t stop like Chip suggested.

Without a word Lee picked the next exit, coming up on some town he’d never heard of. They found a small motel and picked two rooms for the night. Chip had shifted into his big brother, I’m-just-doing-my-job-by-looking-after-my-skipper-routine and practically ordered Lee to get a hot shower. While Lee was in the shower, Chip snatched the car keys and promised to be back soon.

Lee showered and changed into sleepwear and spent the next few minutes channel surfing, catching bits and pieces of local newscasts. Getting a better idea of what was going on and where they were, he was pleased to note that there was no word of the missing Admiral Nelson. Wendy had kept her promise to keep things low key.

A knock on the door pulled Lee’s attention away from the TV. He dared a quick glance out the heavily curtained window to see Chip standing outside with several bags from a local fast food place. “Food,” Morton announced as Lee opened the door for him.

“You and your gut,” Lee responded tiredly. He shut the door behind Morton and Chip made a beeline for the small table.

“I found a Mexican place up the road,” the blond explained as he started unloading the bags. Lee’s appetite went downhill in direct proportion to the amount of stress he was dealing with. That was half the reason Chip was along on the trip. The number one reason, of course, being to find the admiral, the number two reason was to keep an eye on Lee so he’d be in decent shape to bring the admiral home.

Lee dropped down into one of the room’s two chairs. Chip was setting out various selections and Lee felt his stomach contract. Nausea rocketed through his gut like a train. He couldn’t eat anything. Normally he’d scarf down Mexican on any day of the week but his nerves were completely shot right now and even the smell made him sick.

Chip was unwrapping a taco and glaring at Lee. “Skipper…” he grumbled.

Lee picked one up and unwrapped it. He stared at the offending food object like it had personally insulted him.

“You have to put it in your mouth and chew,” Chip suggested softly. As if to demonstrate he crunched down on his chosen taco. Lee did his best to emulate his friend. He took a bit and tried to chew but it was like gnawing on plastic. He forced himself to swallow and wash it down with a gulp of soda.

“I can’t,” Lee replied, dropping the taco back into its wrapper.

“Half. Make it to half and I’ll shut up. If Jamie finds out…” Morton trailed off, the threat implied. He watched as Lee stared at his food. Very reluctantly he picked it back up and forced another bite.

It was almost painful to watch but Chip didn’t let up. He cajoled, badgered and hounded the younger man until Lee actually managed to eat the whole thing but he was looking green by the time he finished. Chip figured it would be best to accept things as they were. At least Lee had something in his stomach.

“You need me to make a run for some antacid or something? I saw a 24-hour drug store a few blocks from here,” Chip asked quietly.

Lee shook his head. “I’m fine,” he said automatically, but it didn’t take a genius to figure out it was a knee-jerk reaction, like walking. Left foot-right foot. Ask the standard question and get the standard answer. Lee started folding the wrapper into smaller and smaller squares. It was something for his hands to do while Chip ate.

“Maybe you should try and get some rest. You’re going to insist you drive and you need some sleep before I’ll let you behind the wheel,” Chip suggested.

Lee glanced up through dark lashes. “Before you ‘let’ me?” he asked, trying to derail Chip’s argument.

Morton was wise to the tactic and as easily as he ignored Lee’s through-the-lashes look, he plowed through Lee’s argument. “Oh yeah. I still have the keys, remember.” 

“I can hot wire the car. Maybe I’ll just leave you here,” Lee said.

Chip frowned. He’d been waiting for that. “You could. But you need me, Lee. I came along of my own accord. You never asked, remember? Be a damn sorry stunt to pull if you left me.”

Lee leaned back in the chair and fixed his friend with a calculating gaze. Chip was right. He hadn’t asked him to come along. Chip had been there from the first moment security had reported Nelson never made it off the plane. Chip had suggested they go to D.C. and had Angie book two seats on the first flight out. It had been Chip who suggested going to his sister for help. That had been a move that Lee hadn’t thought of. He wasn’t sure how he had been planning to search but he hadn’t considered going to NCIS, even unofficially.

“So why did you come along?” Lee asked quietly.

Chip blinked. “What the hell kind of question is that? Do you honestly think I care so little about the admiral that I’d just let him vanish off the face of the earth?”

Lee felt the ghost of a smile threatening to immerge. “Sometimes…sometimes I wonder who…who you’re following: Me or the admiral?”

Chip set what was left of his taco down on the table and locked his fingers together, apparently trying to gather his thoughts. “Lee, I think we’ve had this conversation before. I don’t follow. You just happen to be going in my direction.” Chip grinned and Lee responded in kind.

“You should have been a diplomat.”

“I’m happier as the exec. You aren’t eating and I know you wanna get an early start. Get to bed. I need a shower and another taco and I can’t have either unless I know you’re tucked away for the night,” Morton said.

Lee got up from the chair and went to the bed, pulled back the covers and plopped down on the mattress. “I hate it when you whine,” he replied.

Chip snorted. “What I’d like to hear is you snoring,” he replied. Chip got to his feet, gathered the trash and what was left of the food and headed for the door. He paused before leaving, glancing back at Lee. “I will do a little more looking around online and see if I can’t get some more information about Red Mills. Maybe I’ll find us a lead or something.”

Lee nodded. “Anything is more than we have now. And Chip? Thanks. I’m…I’m running on automatic right now. I take you for granted sometimes,” Lee said quietly.

Chip just shook his head. “Don’t worry about it. You have enough to wrap your head around at the moment. Now, you wrap your head around that pillow and get some sleep. I’m going to do the same.”

Lee grinned tiredly. “After you finish the rest of those tacos?”

Chip smiled and held the bag up. “Waste not, want not,” he replied and vanished out the door.

For a few minutes Lee sat on the edge of the bed, wrestling with his churning stomach as he tried to force the meal he’d just eaten to stay in one spot. His gut continued to rebel and Lee took a few shallow breaths, forcing himself to calm down. Not a battle easily won, Lee’s stomach finally quieted enough that he felt he could get up without throwing up.

Slowly, almost wobbling, Lee made his way across the floor to the small bathroom. Still in the dark he turned on the faucet. He grabbed a washcloth from the rack and soaked it, running it over his too-warm face and neck, trying to cool down. It was an old trick his mother used to try when he was a child and had bad dreams. She’d read somewhere that warm temperatures in turn raise a person’s internal body temperature and could trigger nightmares. She often used a cool washcloth to bring Lee’s temperature down so he would sleep easier. The trick had worked more times than not and, as Lee grew older and struck out on his own, it was a tactic he reverted to on occasion. Like now.

Feeling cooler and more in control, he filled up one of the small disposable cups from the dispenser and took several shallow sips. The cool water slowly settled his stomach and, when he felt steadier, he made his way back across the room.

Lee killed the lights and crawled into bed. Maybe he’d get a few hours of sleep before the nightmares started. He was haunted by visions of finding Nelson’s body—in some dreams, what was left of his friend’s body.  It was hardly restful and Lee knew that until he found the admiral, no trick could make the nightmares go away.

~<<>>~

Nelson grew to despise the darkness. The dark was cold and damp, isolated and lonely, amplifying his misery. His throat was parched and his stomach constricted with hunger. He tried to remember when his last meal was and he thought it was breakfast, the morning he’d been taken. Unfortunately he had no idea when that was. The thought of breakfast and the memory of the smell of scrambled eggs and bacon was almost painful and he quickly pushed the thought out of his head. He needed to think about other things. He started with the Periodic Table, recalling each element’s name and number.

He was half way through the table when the door was pulled open. Nelson was waiting. At hearing the first scrape of metal against metal he dropped his head to his chest, pretending to be unconscious. He waited. It all depended on how many of them there were. They had come for him twice since finding the long sharp screw but always under the watchful eye of two armed guards. He might be able to fend off one. Two was out of the question.

Someone poked him in the shoulder. Nelson didn’t move, neither resisting nor responding to the touch. No one spoke. The hand grabbed his shoulder and shook him. Nelson went with the motion and let gravity carry him to the side, sliding to the floor. He heard a muffled curse and he felt a hand reaching for his throat to feel for a pulse.

With the nail clutched in one hand Nelson acted, shoving the slender object into the face of his guard. There was a cut off yelp and Nelson shoved harder, feeling the point pierce flesh and muscle. With his free hand he clamped down over the guard’s mouth, cutting off his screams. Something warm dripped over Nelson’s hand but he paid it little attention. He continued to push, using the palm of his hand to shove the screw deeper. The guard grew still.  Swallowing back the bitter taste of bile, Nelson backed away from the corpse, still twitching as muscles slowly stopped receiving messages from the brain. Blood and other fluids dripped from the man’s left eye socket. Nelson’s aim had hit home.

Nelson scrambled. He didn’t have much time. He bolted for the door and took precious time to push it shut and slam the locking bolt home. If they came looking they’d see the locked door and would think twice about him escaping.

Next Nelson whirled around and tried to get his bearings. He knew the direction he had always been taken. That led deeper into Hell. He needed to exit stage right…

Staggering slightly as weak muscles protested Nelson headed for the direction he hoped would take him to freedom. He meandered through a maddening maze of corridors and, following the faded signs that still pointed to the exit, Nelson came to what he prayed was the way out of this hell.

Nelson blundered through a door and stumbled into the night. It was impossible to get his bearings. The best he could do was keep going and pray that he eventually came to the road. He paused, trying to orientate himself. Where had the road been? Nelson franticly tried to recall and mentally calibrate where his cell had been and where he had seen the road. But he decided that he was wasting too much time. He struck out, heading into the dark forest.

The clouds were moving in fast. The moon was partially obscured as the gray clouds continued to build overhead. Nelson could tell a storm was coming in. The smell of rain was thick in the air, mixing with the scent of fallen leaves and dry earth. Right now his main concern was getting away—away from Kwan and away from his drugs and his questions. The weather was secondary.

He pushed farther into the forest. Every footfall echoed with the crunch of dry leaves and windfall branches. His bare feet, already aching with cold, now stung as sharp sticks, stones and thorns cut into his soles and caught at his ankles. There wasn’t any way to avoid them. He had nothing but the shirt on his back to act as a bandage. With the temperature dropping and a cold damp breeze rapidly building, Nelson needed as much protection as he could get.

A gunshot pulled his mind from its musing. Panic rose like a tidal wave and his heart pounded loud enough to deafen him. They had found he was missing. They were coming after him. He didn’t have near the lead he wanted. He was still too close to that nightmare hellhole. He wouldn’t let them take him back in there. Something told Nelson if he were retaken, no one would ever find him.

Nelson picked up his pace and as fast as his torn feet would carry him. He blundered through the thick undergrowth, frantic to get away from his kidnappers. He couldn’t let them take him a second time. He had to find help. He had to let Lee know he was still alive.

In the tangled deadfall of the forest, Nelson’s left foot got snarled on something hidden in the darkness and he went sprawling face first. He balled his fists into the damp earth, frustrated that everything seemed to be conspiring to keep him from escaping. Clumsily he tried to get back on his feet and excruciating pain licked up his left leg. He lurched, falling against the trunk of a tree. Breathing raggedly, he launched into a staggering run, each step sending agonizing pain up his ankle and leg.

Behind him the voices were getting closer. Terror spiked anew and Nelson plowed through the undergrowth. He couldn’t stop. He couldn’t let them take him again. He’d managed to hold out once but he wasn’t sure he could do it again. Lee. He had to find Lee. Lee and Chip had to be searching for him. He had to reach them. In the near total darkness of the forest, without any moonlight to guide him, Nelson stumbled over fallen limbs and rocks, further cutting his feet and ripping the material of his already torn and soiled trousers while the voices behind him grew louder.

It began to rain. Slowly at first, then the drops began to pick up and a steady downpour ensued. Desperate for water, Nelson ached with the need to hold his head up and let the sweet precipitation slide down his parched throat. He didn’t dare stop though, continuing his mad exodus though the menacing forest.

It happened so fast, Nelson was positive he was hallucinating. One minute he was staggering through some nightmare, the next his bare feet were standing on the still warm asphalt of a lonely road. For a second it was all he could do to stand and stare at his torn and bloody feet, white against the dark of the paved road.

Only the squealing tires and the oncoming headlights pulled his attention away from the road. He was rooted to the spot as the car barreled out of the darkness. For a breath, Nelson thought time stood still as the car fishtailed on the asphalt and the raindrops seemed to hang in the air against the backdrop of the oncoming headlights. Only belatedly did he realize the car couldn’t stop.

Reality came to a screeching halt as Nelson’s exhausted body and the car collided.

~<<>>~

Margaret McBride cranked up the music a little louder and gripped the steering wheel. The song playing just wasn’t what she was in the mood for and she began searching for a station, finally stumbling over “Bring Me to Life[6] .” That song seemed to fit her mood and she turned the volume up another notch.

A fat raindrop hit the windshield. Maggie let out a deep sigh and backed off the gas a fraction. She knew these roads like the back of her hand but it hadn’t rained in weeks. The wind had also picked up and she knew from experience that most of the time deer tended to bunk down on a windy night. The chances of hitting one on a night like this were slim. Still, driving her cousin’s car, she wanted to be careful. She couldn’t afford to wreck two cars in the same day.

Maggie left the windows down, the sprinkle not yet enough to warrant rolling them up. The night was just chill enough that she hoped the drive home would cool her temper and she wouldn’t snap at her cousin when she finally got home.

As Maggie guided the car down the back county road, she paid little attention to the surrounding countryside. Somewhere off to her left the enormous hulk that was the Edgewood Hospital lurked in the darkness.  Abandoned for years, the place had a reputation for being haunted. Local kids thought it was funny to break in and dare each other to spend the night. The place was private property and Wade and Jeff were kept busy this time of year trying to keep the thrill seekers out.

In the meantime, she ran the events of the day through her head, trying to figure out why she was so touchy and why everything seemed to get under her skin lately. It honestly wasn’t too much of a stretch to figure out why. About eighteen months ago she had buried her mother. Six months later her father followed, to be buried at the right hand side of his wife of over thirty years. She had never come to terms with the grief but she would never admit it out loud.

Just when she was beginning to get over their deaths, her fiancé of over a year was dead, killed in a tractor-trailer accident halfway across the country. Trying to cope with three deaths, and no body to bury in the case of Eric, trying to hold a job and keep the farm going was too much. Her temper had gotten away from her on more than one occasion and one day she got tired of her boss, a male-chauvinistic pig that had little use for women to start with. Her fifteen-minute rant on his ancestry had been applauded by the entire female contingent of the lawn and garden center but it hadn’t done much for her employment status.

Out of a job, Maggie had accepted the help of her cousin, Jacqueline Spencer. Jackie had moved in and was using her income as night-shift waitress to help out with the house and bills as Maggie searched for another job. Even with Jackie’s help, she could no longer actively maintain the farm and so she sold off a huge chunk of it a few months back, leaving her with twenty-three acres—a fifteen acre field and eight acres of timber. The field she let grow up for hay that she sold off after each cutting. Unable to find a full time job, she’d settled for a part time job cleaning offices downtown twice a week. That, combined with the hay sales and Jackie’s income, helped to pay the bills and let her stay at home. These days she didn’t feel up to dealing with people and her trips to town had dwindled to just a grocery trip on paydays. Anything else she could order and have shipped to the house. Lately she found she just couldn’t tolerate the press of people. Large crowds unnerved her and she had a hard time talking to strangers, even innocent encounters at the store. She’d thought about going back to school but the idea of being stuck in a room with twenty other strangers was enough to send her into a near panic. To calm her down, Jackie had suggested she look into online classes.

The rain picked up and so did the wind. Maggie rolled the windows up and turned the music down a notch. The cell phone in the cup holder went off, the screen alight as it vibrated. Maggie snatched it up, knowing it wasn’t a good idea to answer it while driving. She hadn’t passed another car since leaving the store. A glance at the caller ID told her who the caller was. She hit the receive button and answered, “City morgue, you stab ‘em, we slab ‘em.”

“Why don’t you answer the phone like a normal person?” Jackie asked with a sigh.

“What’s fun about normal? Did you need something or are you just bored?” Maggie asked, turning down the music again.

“Just checking on you. You’re late.”

”The store was busy for some reason. It was late when I got in and the evening after-work crowd was there. Plus I had a big list. We were out of everything.  And Jason was waiting for me when I got out.”

“You could do worse than Jason, you know,” Jackie said tactfully.

Maggie signed. Jason Hendricks was a subject she wasn’t up to dealing with. He was friendly, he was nice, and he had been one of Eric’s best friends. “Not no, Jackie. I’m tired and I shouldn’t be on the phone driving your car. I should be home in a few.”

“Good, cause that rain is moving in. Not near enough to break the drought but it’s a start.”

Maggie adjusted her grip on the phone and slowed the car down a fraction. The rain was getting heavier and she flipped the wipers on. For a second the dry blades just smeared pollen and dirt across the windshield, obscuring her view of the road.

That’s when something blundered onto the roadway. About the size and shape of a man, Maggie couldn’t get a good look through the pouring rain and the filth-smeared window. In reflex she hit the brakes and the car slide sideways, unable to find solid traction on the oil-slick road that hadn’t seen rain in more than five weeks.

“SHIT!” Margaret screamed as she dropped the cell phone and gripped the wheel, trying to straighten the car and avoid whatever was in the road. The car fishtailed and with a sickening thud, collided with the man-shaped being.

For an eternity Maggie sat behind the wheel, shaking like a leaf as curse words that would have made her own father frown rolled out of her mouth. Meanwhile, a disembodied voice called out to her from the abandoned cell phone.

“Maggie? Answer me, are you all right? What happened? Answer me, damn it! Margaret Frances McBride, answer me!”

Maggie picked up the phone and put it to her ear. She opened the car door but hesitated about stepping into the pouring rain. She stared at the body in the road, feeling terror, panic, and horror shoot through every part of her soul. She’d hit a man. She’d killed a man. She couldn’t breathe and she had to force her voice to croak out an answer. “I’m fine, Jackie,” she said slowly.

The man on the ground moaned—a sound full of anguish and pain. Maggie forced herself to get out of the car as Jackie’s voice demanded to know what was going on. Her temper and nerves frayed to the breaking point, Maggie spoke once more to Jackie. “Let me call you back.” With that, Maggie hung up on her cousin and best friend and then jammed the phone into her jeans pocket.

Maggie dropped to her knees beside the man and reached for a pulse. His hand twitched and immediately latched on to hers, causing her to yelp. She tried to pull back in panic but the stranger had a death grip on her. He opened his eyes and looked up at her. Maggie had never seen such desperation on a human face before. It was as if she was the last soul on the planet and he was pleading for her aid.

“Please…help…m—me,” the man whispered as his eyes locked onto hers.

“I’ll take you to the hospital,” Maggie said, trying to say something to lessen the desperation in his eyes.

“NO…not the hospital…” A shudder seemed to roll through the man’s body, vibrating through the grip he had on Maggie’s wrist. But then his eyes rolled into the back of his head and he collapsed back to the asphalt.

Maggie studied things for a second that lasted hours. Then she came to a conclusion. She got to her feet and opened the back door on the car. Then she studied the unconscious man. She gripped him under the arms and pulled backwards, toward the car. He was dead weight and considerably more than she was used to lifting. His stocky frame was heavier then she’d expected and it was a strain to drag his unresponsive body the short distance to the car. She climbed into the backseat, pulling the man with her. When she was as far into the back of the car as she could go, she opened the door on the other side and crawled out, dodging around to the other side again. She shifted the man’s bare feet into the car and shut the door. She noticed that her hands were dotted with blood before the rain washed the drops away.

By now Maggie was completely soaked. She got back into the driver’s seat, her wet clothes dripping into the seat and floor of the car while her hair was plastered to her skull. She started the car back up and straightened out. She flipped off the radio, no longer interested in music. She glanced backwards to her passenger but he was still unconscious. Maggie nudged the gas pedal and at a more sedate pace, she headed home. 

~<<>>~

Maggie guided the car down the long driveway and parked under a stand of maple trees. After killing the engine she hopped out and darted to the house, snatching open the backdoor. “Jackie, I need you!” she bellowed and slammed the screen door shut. She ran back to the car and yanked the back door open. One small blessing was that the rain had slacked off from the downpour of earlier.

The man was still unconscious. She would focus on the person later, right now she needed to get him in the house and cleaned up. From the little bit she had seen he was an absolute mess.

“Damn Maggie. What did you do, make a pit stop at Derelicts `R’ Us?” Jackie’s voice sounded over Maggie’s shoulder.

“Can the backtalk and just help me get him inside,” Maggie ordered.

“I hope you know what you’re doing,” Jackie said under her breath.

Working together, the two women pulled the unconscious man out of the car and with him between them they maneuvered him into the house. “Where?” Jackie grunted, trying to keep her end of the parcel up. 

“Spare bedroom,” Maggie answered.

Within a few more minutes the two women had settled the stranger down on the bed. Only then did Maggie finally accept that she was soaked to the skin and she needed to do something about it. She dripped her way down the hall, wincing at the trail they’d made coming in. Mud and water puddled on her hardwood floors. She sighed. She would clean that up later. She stopped in her room long enough to grab dry clothes and headed for the bathroom. She left her soaked shoes in the floor and peeled out of the wet things. Toweling off quickly and changing into the dry clothes, Maggie promised herself a shower when she was finished with everything. She dropped the drenched clothes in the tub to deal with later. Right now she needed to attend to the stranger she had given refuge to.

Returning to the spare bedroom, she found her cousin still watching the still form. Maggie ignored Jackie and immediately sat to work tugging at the man’s wet clothes. Jackie stood frozen, leaning against the door.

“Don’t just stand there like a rock. He’s soaked. Help me get the wet clothes off. Once we get him dried we can tuck him in,” Margaret ordered

Jackie glared at his cousin. “I am not taking the clothes off some drunken bum,” she replied dryly. “I have some standards.”

Maggie stopped and returned her cousin’s brown-eyed glare. “Look. He’s not a bum. He came out of nowhere and I hit him, okay? I can’t take him to the hospital.”

“Why the hell not?” Jackie shot back.

“Because he asked me not to, that’s why! Now help me. It’s not like you don’t know what a man looks like—Miss Nursing Program student.”

Jackie grumbled but she helped her cousin separate the clothing from the man’s already shivering body. In a few minutes they had the soaked and filthy clothes off the man and Maggie had scrounged up some pajamas, dumping the wet clothes in the tub with her own. At first glance she didn’t think they were salvageable but she’d wait before tossing them out. As she headed out of the bathroom she grabbed more dry towels and went back to the bedroom.

It was Jackie who made the first discovery. “I know a bullet wound when I see one,” she announced, resting her hand on the man’s right shoulder and highlighting the scar in question between her finger and thumb. There was a small round scar there. Jackie squinted, looking closer. “No, that’s not a bullet wound. It’s three. Mags, this joker’s been shot multiple times in the shoulder at some point,” Jackie declared.

Her cousin sighed. “You’re not here to sightsee. Help me get him dressed,” Maggie urged. She couldn’t help but notice the scars on his back, running horizontal to his waist. The line of scars that she couldn’t even begin to identify had long since healed but they added to the mystery of who she’d given sanctuary to. And the bruises. His body was riddled with them, as if he’d been beat on. Several bruises looked suspiciously like shoe prints. His torso was covered in ugly blue-yellow-green marks, extending to his thighs and even his arms.

Jackie wasn’t ready to give up. The guy needed to be in a hospital, not their spare bedroom. Methodically she began testing limbs, running her hands over joints, feeling for broken bones. She couldn’t find anything. Even his ribs were solid under her touch. She turned her attention to his head and found what she was looking for: a knot on the back to the left side of his head. “Head injury,” she said finally as her fingers tested the spot. “He needs to be in a hospital. Not here.”

Maggie paused. His eyes haunted her, pleading and begging. NO…not the hospital… he’d said, those eyes full of panic and terror. How could a hospital inspire such emotions in someone? Considering the nearest hospital was in Hardin, a good forty-five minutes away. That only left the old Edgewood place. But that was abandoned and falling down. What could he be doing out there, if that’s where he came from? Maggie realized Jackie was staring at her, waiting for an answer. “Do you think he has a concussion?” she asked.

Jackie growled under her breath. “How should I know? He’s got a knot on his head the size of a baseball. I’d guess yes. You need to take him to a hospital. You are not a doctor.”

“No. He asked me not to,” Maggie replied defiantly.

“Dumb reason, if you ask me,” Jackie muttered.

“Well, I didn’t ask you, now did I?” she snapped. “Just help me and you won’t have to deal with him anymore.” In silence the two women redressed him in clean dry clothes and Maggie turned her attention to the man’s abused feet. They were cut and bruised, evidence that he’d run through some rough terrain before she hit him. The woods bordering the road she had been driving? But there weren’t any houses in that area, only the old hospital. Had he run through the woods? She chewed at her bottom lip, realizing this was the second time she’d drawn a connection to the old Edgewood estate.

“What the hell is wrong with his feet?” Jackie asked, noting how cut and swollen they were.

“Get me some stuff to clean him up with. I can’t let him get infected,” Maggie ordered.

Jackie didn’t stop grumbling as she walked to the bathroom. “Bad idea. Take him to the hospital and they can deal with him. Freaking druggie. Probably too stoned to even notice he didn’t have any shoes on,” she blustered. She gathered up a bottle of alcohol and some antibiotic cream, some cotton balls and some bandage wrap. She couldn’t believe her cousin, the careful one who didn’t trust her own shadow these days, to come dragging some stoned-out derelict to the house. Still grumbling under her breath, Jackie took the supplies back into the bedroom.

She found Maggie sitting on the edge of the bed, waiting. Without a word she accepted the supplies from Jackie and set to work cleaning the numerous cuts and abrasions from the stranger’s feet. She paused a few times, finally speaking.

“Get me some tweezers, would ya? I found some thorns, I think.”

This time Jackie kept her grumblings to herself as she located the tweezers from the bathroom and returned. She handed them off and watched as Maggie worked to pull tiny thorns and bits of other debris out from his maltreated feet. Even though there was a lamp on, Maggie didn’t seem to have much light to work with. Silently Jackie left and returned with a flashlight. She switched it on, focusing on the bottoms of the man’s feet. “You need more light,” Jackie said quietly as Maggie threw her a puzzled glance.

“Thank you,” her cousin responded and continued. After a stretch that for Jackie seemed never ending, Margaret set the tweezers aside. She picked up the tube of antibiotic cream and applied a generous amount to the cuts and scrapes. Next she wrapped a loose layer of bandages around the man’s feet, to keep the ointment in place. Then she pulled the covers over him. His shivering—which hadn’t stopped the whole time she’d worked on him—gradually slowed as he warmed up under the covers.

Maggie stripped off the wet comforter from the top of the bed and bundled it up to take to the laundry room. Jackie was standing by the door watching her. “What?” she demanded, knowing her cousin was probably going to read her the riot act.

She was right. “I do not understand you. You have a perfectly nice man, he has money, he has a steady job, you don’t have to worry about his criminal record, and he’s not half bad to look at, and you won’t give him the time of day but you come dragging some unconscious, strung out homeless bum into the house? Have you lost your mind? Are you completely insane? Did you hit your head when that lady t-boned you earlier?”

Maggie hefted the load in her arms and continued down the hall. “I did what I did, you can like it or lump it. I could care less. I couldn’t leave him there, after all I hit him,” she replied.

“You hit him? And he said he didn’t want to go to the hospital?”

Maggie carried the comforter down the hall to the laundry room and pulled open the dryer door. She paused, rethinking the action and opened the washer instead. Blood and mud splattered the comforter and it would make better sense to wash it. “I suggested it. He said no. Jackie, you should have seen the look in his eyes. He was desperate. What the hell was I supposed to do?”

“Drop him off at the hospital,” Jackie insisted. “Let somebody else deal with him. Damn it, Maggie, this isn’t some stray dog. You can’t just keep him.”

Maggie turned and faced her cousin. “You saw him! He’s been tied down. His wrists are raw and he’s got welts around his ankles. He’s covered in bruises. This was done to him. Somebody tried to hurt him, bad.”

“You forgot the needle tracks on his arm. Probably shooting up. You know how some drug-heads are.”

“He’s not a drug head.” Maggie didn’t explain why she felt compelled to defend this man. Jackie would have another subject to sing about and Maggie wasn’t in the mood right now. She knew she couldn’t have just left him there. “Besides, I think he’s right-handed. The tracks are on his right arm. Unless he’s double jointed or ambidextrous then he’s not shooting himself.”

“Then he had a buddy give it to him. You’ve been reading too many mysteries. You are not Sherlock Holmes. At least let me call Wade. Or Jason. They can deal with him.”

“When he comes to we’ll find out what to do with him. I’m sure he has a home and just needs a hand, that’s all. We’ll worry about it in the morning. You want to be helpful, the trunk is still full of groceries,” Maggie said with a note of finality. She had a ton of things that needed to be done right now. She had the comforter to wash and dry, her own wet clothes to wash and dry, she had to decide what to do about the stranger’s clothes, there was the mud trail from the back door down the hall, groceries to put up…hopefully Jackie would stop playing inquisitor and take care of the groceries. The effort of pulling and tugging on the dead weight of the unconscious man was beginning to make itself known. Maggie made a mental note to take something for the muscle ache before she went to bed. She quickly threw herself into the handful of chores that needed to be done, closing out her cousin’s concern and worry.

Jackie sighed. It was obvious that Mags wasn’t in the mood to discuss this further. But Jackie wasn’t done grumbling. “Yeah, if he doesn’t turn out to be a homicidal lunatic. Some freakazoid ax-murder,” she muttered. There just wasn’t any arguing with Maggie when she got like this. She headed for the back door to start bringing in Maggie’s haul. She only hoped that her cousin was right, that come morning all this would clear up and things could go back to normal around here.

Whatever normal passed for these days at any rate.

~<<>>~

This was Jason Hendricks’ second term as county sheriff. He took over from the county’s previous sheriff, Connelly Booker, in the second year of Booker’s term, after his indictment on twelve counts of fraud and embezzlement from the county. In a mid-term election, Jason’s only opponent had been the deputy of Red Mills, Jeff Russell. In a small town where everyone knew everything, Jeff being the nephew of Booker didn’t go over well. Jason won the mid-term election.

Jason found he liked being the county sheriff even if most of his first term was straightening up the mess Booker had left for him. He’d ended up cleaning house—literally. Now into his second term, Jason had re-staffed the county clerk’s office and the county jail. It was at his insistence that the 911 dispatch center be updated with the latest equipment and a permanent staff, leading to the hiring of Nancy Green. Nothing went on in town that she didn’t know about and there wasn’t a citizen she didn’t know by first name, making her perfect to head up the dispatch. It was no surprise that she knew about Jason’s late evening run even though he’d tried to keep it quiet. In a town where everyone knew everyone, if the wrong person overheard, it could spell disaster.

Jason pulled the Dodge Dakota down the long rutted driveway, kicking up a thick cloud of brown dust. He pulled up next to a ramshackle house with a falling down front porch and one of the three front windows boarded up. The front door was open but the screen swung back and forth in the evening breeze. Occasionally it would bang against the door frame, echoing hollowly in the late evening air. The place looked abandoned but the soft blue glow of a TV set flickered through the one window not boarded up, giving Jason the only clue that someone was home.

Stepping out of the truck, Jason glanced around but Carl’s truck was gone. If he’d been told right, Carl was at work and wasn’t due back till his shift was over around 7:00 a.m. Plenty of time to find Kelly and get her to a shelter. Gingerly Jason placed a foot on the bottom step of the porch and the front door opened at the sound of the ominous creak. Kelly Miller, Carl Miller’s wife of three years, popped her head out.  “Jason, don’t use this porch. You’ll break your neck. Carl ain’t got around to fixing it yet,” she said. “Come around the back.”

Shaking his head at the absent Carl, Jason did as instructed and was met by the petite blonde. Her right hand rested protectively at the rounded top of her belly. Kelly was eight months pregnant. “You want something to drink?” she asked him politely.

Jason shook his head. “No, I’m fine. What I would like is for you to tell me what this is all about.”

Kelly eased down into a kitchen chair. “I can’t live like this anymore, Jason. We don’t have no phone ‘cause he don’t want me talking to anybody but who he says I can. He won’t let me go to town on my own. He takes me to the grocery and he don’t hardly let me out of his sight.”

Jason leaned against the refrigerator with his arms crossed over his chest. “Have you talked to him about it?”

Kelly snorted and swore. “Aint no talking to Carl, you know that. He’s got it in his head that my place is in this house and I got no life outside of it. You’ve seen this place, it’s a dump. And he don’t make no effort to fix things either. Won’t let me get a job, won’t let me see no doctor. Jason, I got no idea what I’m having, cause he won’t let me see anyone. I want outta here.”

“I can help you leave but you gotta promise me something,” Jason said.

 Kelly’s eyes narrowed. “What?” she asked.

“I take you out of here, you don’t come back. If you and Carl wanna try and work things out, that’s fine by me, but I came out here because you were lucky enough to run into Nancy at the store and told her to tell me to come out here. I’m not gonna take you out of here for you to come back in a week and wanna go through all this again when you’ve decided you’ve had enough. Again.”

Kelly nodded. “I know. I’m done with it. I ain’t bringing my baby up like this.” She folded both hands around her extended belly. She sounded like she meant it and Jason smiled.

“Good. Come on, let’s get you moved out of here,” he invited as he held out a hand for Kelly to take. She got to her feet and nodded toward the room past the kitchen.

“I got two suitcases in there,” she said.

“I’ll get them. You go on out to the truck and I’ll be right behind you.”

Kelly made her slow way outside and Jason grabbed up the two worn suitcases in the living room. Both were much lighter than he would have though. He tucked one under an arm and grabbed the handle of the second then followed Kelly. She was waiting outside the truck, her posture indicating her nervous state. Jason pulled out the keys from his pocket and hit the door locks. He tossed the suitcases into the back of the truck and helped Kelly climb into the cab.

“Jason, I can’t thank you enough,” Kelly said as she eased into the passenger’s seat. Jason smiled.

“No problem. I just wished you’d said something sooner. You don’t have to live this way. Carl has no right to treat you like property.”

Kelly sighed. “I know. I was just hoping it would get better, you know, like when we first got married. He was sweet back then, so gentle. He’s just gotten…jealous I guess. I can’t keep living like this,” she said.

“It’s alright now. I’ll take you to the Haven Shelter and they have doctors and legal aids that can put you on the right path. I’m just glad to help before it got worse,” Jason explained. He put the truck into reverse to back out of the driveway when incoming headlights flared in the rearview, momentarily blinding him. “What the heck?” he murmured as he tried to see who was behind him.

Kelly gasped, already knowing who it was. “Oh God, it’s Carl!” she exclaimed, twisting around as Jason could just make out the door on the vehicle behind them opening. Jason’s hand went for his service weapon and he got out of the car.

“Carl, don’t do something stupid now,” Jason urged, feeling the adrenaline rush as he realized Carl was packing a shotgun. He wasn’t aiming it, but Jason didn’t want this confrontation to get that far. “Just put the gun down and let’s talk about this.” How had Carl known he was out here? Somebody had loose lips down at the dispatch and he was willing to bet the bank It wasn’t Nancy. That little weasel of a deputy Wade had under him was a likely candidate.

“I can’t let you take her from me. She’s all I got, don’t you know?” came Carl Miller’s mournful voice.

Jason wanted to say that if he’d treated Kelly better she wouldn’t be trying to leave in the middle of the night. Instead he opted for something different. “Carl, you and her need a little time apart. Get your head on straight, figure some things out, and maybe you and her can get back together,” he suggested. Inside the car he heard Kelly swear viciously, capped with a “like hell I will.”

But Carl wasn’t interested in giving his wife of three years any time away from him. “I ain’t gonna let you take her away from me,” Carl declared and brought the shotgun up to bear.

Jason swore under his breath and yelled at Kelly, “Stay in the car and keep you head down,” he ordered. Everything else was lost as the first blast of the shotgun kicked up a cloud of dust at Jason’s feet, echoing the rumble of thunder overhead. Great, rain moving in…

Jason ducked behind the front of the car, the headlights from Carl’s truck giving him no cover. Another blast from the shotgun took out the front tire and Kelly screamed. Overhead the sky opened up, slowly at first and but picking up speed until it was pouring rain. The shotgun blasts had died off for the moment and Jason had an idea. Crawling under the truck, he made his way toward Carl who was trying to sneak around the front, thinking that’s where Jason was hiding. The sheriff took aim and fired.

The bullet came nowhere close to Carl but the shot was enough to freak him out and he spun around, unable to see where Jason was. The sheriff rolled out from under the car and threw himself at Carl, knocking the shotgun to the ground. The two men hit the ground, the hard dirt now a slimy layer of mud as the two rolled.

Jason took a punch to the jaw that he returned with feeling, snapping Carl’s head back. Somehow Jason managed to flip Carl onto his stomach and with the man writhing like a landed fish Jason cuffed him, pinning his hands behind his back. Carl spit and stuttered and swore as he lay in the mud and pouring rain.

Jason staggered to his feet, soaking wet, his blond curls matted with mud, and headed for his car. He slid in behind the wheel and grabbed the mike. “Dispatch, better send another car out to the Miller’s place. Things got a little out of hand,” he said.

“Copy that, Jason. Hun, what did you do now?” Nancy asked.

Jason sighed. “Long story, Nancy. Just send me some back up, would you?”

Kelly raised her head and wiped the tears from her eyes. “You ain’t gonna arrest him, are you?” she asked.

Jason rolled his eyes. “Kelly, I have to. He ignored me when I told him to drop the gun and he took two shots at me. I gotta take him in,” he said.

Kelly sighed. “I guess so,” she said softly.

Jason got back out of the car, aware he couldn’t get much wetter anyhow, and pulled Carl to his feet. Kelly’s husband continued to spit and curse at Jason, at his wife, and at the world in general. “Ungrateful wench! I gave her a good home and she wasn’t happy with that! I take her anywhere she wants and it isn’t good enough for her! Instead she goes sneaking around behind my back, sleeping around with anybody she pleases!” Miller snarled as Jason led him to the truck.

Kelly stuck her head out from the Jason’s rig. “How the hell am I gonna sneak around behind you back? I ain’t got no damn car! You never let me outta your sight for more than a few minutes at a time!” she shot back angrily.

Carl spat viciously as Jason pushed him inside the dry truck. He couldn’t put Carl in his truck, those two would tear each other apart!

“You did this! This is all your fault!” Carl snarled, glaring at Jason. “I ain’t gonna forget this! Just you wait. What goes around comes around, just you remember that!”

“Carl Henry Miller, I’m gonna have to put you under arrest. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say or do can and will be held against you in the court of law. You have the right to speak to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you. Do you understand these rights as they have been read to you?” Jason sighed as he shut Carl’s truck off and yanked the keys from the ignition.

“You gonna arrest me for trying to keep my wife? Damn it, Jason, you can’t do this to me! She’s mine!” Carl pleaded.

“She’s a human, Carl, she doesn’t belong to anyone,” Jason corrected as he shook his head. Walking back through the rain, Jason wondered if his life could get any more complicated.

~<<>>~

October 20….

The body floated face down in the water, bobbing up and down with the action of the gentle waves. Lee felt his breath catch as he recognized the body. He knew the shape of the shoulders, the color of the hair swishing lazily back and forth with the waves. All that remained was for Lee to wade into the water and turn the body over, to see the face and know for sure. Slowly he stepped into the cold sea, the water up to his knees, water like ice…he reached out and tried to grab at the khaki jacket the corpse wore but it drifted just out of range, forcing Lee to go in deeper. Deeper, till he was up to his waist and the water was getting colder, turn to ice, freezing him in place…

Lee awoke to the sound of banging on his door. For a second he was confused. This wasn’t his room. This sure as hell wasn’t his cabin onboard Seaview…then he remembered the admiral. The dream was a fading wisp, another in a series of nightmares that had plagued him since the admiral went missing.

Heaving his body out of bed he lurched toward the door, pausing to peek outside through the window. He wasn’t surprised to see Chip. Lee opened the door and Chip slipped inside, holding two very tall paper coffee cups.

“I bring an offering to appease the morning gods,” Chip said theatrically as he shoved one cup toward Lee. The brunet latched onto the cup and swallowed down a deep swallow.

“Oooh, the morning gods are pleased…” Lee mumbled as the caffeine began to circulate through his body. Running a hand though his tangled curls, he registered that a shower might do him some good. Without another word he carried his cup to the bathroom and shut the door.

Chip searched for the TV remote and once he’d recovered it he plopped down on the bed, surfing through morning newscasts. He was trying to get a better idea of what was expected of the weather for the day. Already, dark clouds were drifting around and the parking lot was still filled with puddles from a cloudburst the night before. He registered the shower running and waited for Lee to make his reappearance. A few minutes later Lee did emerge from the shower, a towel wrapped around his narrow hips and his dark hair in total disarray.

“So I’m getting you a comb for Christmas?” Chip asked with a grin.

Lee ran a hand though his curls, purposely giving them a shake and then flicking the excess water at Morton. “I’ve had a shower, thanks,” the blond said dryly, using his free hand to wipe the water from his face. Lee attacked his duffle bag, digging out clean clothes.

“Anything I need to know?” Lee asked as he started to dress. Chip continued to surf through stations, pausing occasionally to sip at his coffee. “Rain. Lots of rain. It rained last night. Roads will be wet.”

“And that’s supposed to mean what?”

Chip sighed. “I mean the roads will be wet. Apparently this part of the country has been under drought conditions for the past few weeks. The roads might bear watching.”

“Noted. Think we can find this town today?”

“Should. I’ve been looking things up. We should be there in a few hours.”

Lee paused, pulling a white tee shirt over his lean frame. “We could have kept going last night.”

Chip shook his head. “I didn’t know that last night. Now I do. We both needed the rest. We’ll get there today and then we can start looking around. I don’t think this Edgewood is going to be hard to find. I found a few articles online on a couple of those ghost-sighting websites. The place is like the Holy Grail for ghost hunters.”

Lee finished tucking in his shirt and buttoned his jeans. “How so?” he asked.

“Seems like everybody is dying—no pun intended—to get into the place. But the owner, a guy by the name of Jason Hendricks, he won’t allow groups in. Says the place is too dangerous for folks to be wandering through. So from time to time some brave group of so-called ghost hunters manage to break in. Local residents keep an eye on the place since it happens to be right off one of the main roads.

Lee brought his head sharply up. “This main road have a name?”

Chip grinned an almost predatory smile. “I knew you were gonna ask that. Highway 210.”

“I assume you have some directions?” Lee, now completely dressed, was tossing his shaving kit into the duffle bag and closing everything up. When he glanced up Chip was on his feet, switching off the TV and tossing the remote onto the nearest table.

“I always wanted to tell you were to go,” he quipped lightly.

Lee rolled his eyes and grabbed up the duffle bag. “Just lead the way. Any chance of some more coffee on our way out?”

“Always. I suppose you’re driving?”

“Always. I need you to navigate,” Lee replied as he slung the duffle strap over his shoulder.

“Then there had better be breakfast with that order of coffee,” Chip said sharply.

“What is it with you and your stomach?” Lee asked leading the way out the door.

Chip snorted. “I can’t navigate on an empty stomach. You have no business driving on an empty stomach.”

Lee continued to grumble about bossy blonds. Chip, as usual, ignored him. The pair paused long enough to check out and pay the bill. After a second quick stop at the same place Chip found their first round of coffee and the addition of a few bagels, they hit the road again, the town of Red Mills set firmly in their sights.

~<<>>~

Despite a restless night, Maggie McBride was up at her usual hour, around 7am. She’d been up several times during the night to check on the stranger but at no point had he stirred. Maggie couldn’t help but wonder what the man had been through to so thoroughly exhaust him like this.

With a cup of coffee in one hand, she stepped onto the back porch to watch the sun rise over the trees on the east side of the property. She loved it here and never got tired of watching the sun rise and set. Glancing across the yard, she noticed several things she needed to work on today since she didn’t have to go to work till tomorrow. But right now she had another priority. She had a guest in the spare bedroom. She made her way through the quiet house, with just the tick of the old grandfather clock and the soft whir of the filtration system of the aquarium as background noise. Her cousin was gone for the day, in classes at the local college, leaving Maggie alone with the stranger.

Not that Jackie had wanted to go. She was firmly convinced that Maggie had invited the devil himself into their house and she’d been dead set against leaving her alone with him. Maggie managed to talk her cousin into going to classes. The Nursing Program had a waiting list at least two years long and she’d been lucky to get in when she had. Attendance was mandatory, as well as a grade point average of 3.0 or better. She simply could not risk getting kicked out of the program she’d lobbied so hard to be admitted into.

Before leaving, Jackie had loaded the Maggie’s father’s Winchester shotgun and set it up in the hall outside the spare bedroom. “He even twitches funny, you can blow a hole in him the size of the barn door,” Jackie had said.

Maggie just rolled her eyes. The shotgun sat out in the hall, forgotten as she looked in on the stranger. In the light of day she could get a better look at him and she was more convinced than ever that her first reaction had been right.

He didn’t look like a drunk, or a strung-out dope head, or even homeless for that manner. His hands were strong and calloused but not overly. Definitely the hands of someone not a stranger to work. His fingernails weren’t torn or scraped but neatly trimmed.  He was broad shouldered and almost barrel chested. He wasn’t a tall man either. Stocky was the word that came to mind. Maggie remembered how heavy he felt last night. He was solidly built, not fat but muscle. He was in shape, whoever he was. He had a strong jawline and well-defined features. Fine lines traced the edges of his eyes. His short hair was neatly trimmed, but just this side of curly, and was a rich auburn color. He hadn’t shaved in a few days and the stubble was thickening to a beard. He didn’t look well. His color was pale and there were dark circles under his eyes. Hollows behind his cheeks gave his face a sunken look. Maggie continued to watch him, and nearly spilled her coffee when he twitched.

Trembling and chiding herself for being so jumpy, she sat the half empty cup down on the nearby nightstand. Slowly she eased into the chair in the corner and sat down in the edge of the seat as she continued to watch the man.

She tried to guess at his age and came up empty. Late forties? Fifties? He had the kind of face that was hard to gauge. There was character and life in the lines of his face but no definite age. More and more it was the ghost of someone she’d known before, only this ghost had aged some twenty years. His eyes began to flutter and slowly he opened them. Eyes a brilliant blue gradually focused on Maggie. She smiled. “Good morning,” she said brightly.

He blinked. “Is it?” The words were croaked rather than spoken.

“Thirsty?” she asked

He blinked, his expression puzzled as he nodded.

“How about some orange juice? I’ll be right back,” she said and got to her feet without waiting for a negative answer.

When she left he pushed himself up into a sitting position. He glanced down at his hands, noting the angry red marks around his wrists. With a trembling finger he reached out and traced the over inch-wide welt on his right wrist, then repeated with his left wrist. How had they come to be there? He tried to look inside himself for answers but he found nothing. Literally nothing. It was like looking down into a tunnel and a million images, sights and sounds whirled around him like a school of fish. Wild panic threatened to engulf him when he realized he couldn’t remember his name, where he came from or how he got here. All he could remember was a hospital. And pain. Convulsively his fingers clawed into the blankets, as he tried to lock down the terror and confusion. He was breathing heavy when the young woman returned carrying a tall glass of orange juice. She extended it out to him and he forced his hand to relax and accept the glass. He sipped slowly, the cool juice soothing on his desert-dry throat. It also was a start to calm down the horrific empty feeling in his stomach. He might not recall how he got here but he knew he was hungry.

The young woman sat down on the edge of a stuffed chair in the corner. There was a disjointing flash and he had the image of a young man with dark hair and a haunted expression hovering over him.

“My name Is Maggie. Margaret McBride, but everyone calls me Maggie” she said quietly.

He sipped at the juice again, trying to find the words to convey his confusion.  “Do you know me?” he asked as calmly as he could muster.

Maggie shook her head. “No. But I couldn’t leave you there.”

His stomach curdled in disappointment that he tried to hide. “Leave me where?” he tried to ask evenly.

Maggie drew back, leaning into the chair. Her light blue eyes grew dark as she processed his words. “I found you in the middle of the road last night, during a rainstorm. You ran out in front of my car and when I tried to brake, I fishtailed. I ended up smacking into you with the back end of the car.”

“I see,” he said, although his tone clearly said that he didn’t

“You don’t remember?”

The man shook his head. “No. I don’t know you. I don’t know this place. Something has…happened to me…Why can’t I remember what happened to me?” he asked brokenly. In frustration he ran a hand through his hair and wincing noticeably as his fingers ran across the back of his head. Maggie was out of the chair, taking the half-empty glass from him and setting it aside on the nearby table. 

“You’ve got a fair-sized goose egg. I think you got it when I hit you. You probably hit the concrete. I tried to swerve, I swear but you just came out of nowhere,” Maggie said, recalling that horrific moment when she collided with him.

Head injury. Could that be why I don’t remember? His thoughts were climbing all over each other, pushing, shoving, and demanding. A million questions that he couldn’t answer vied for his attention, each one louder and more persistent than the last. Desperate to stop the onslaught of words in his head, he buried his head in his hands, trying to answer at least one question. But there was nothing, just a blackness that whispered despair and helplessness. He pulled his hands away from his face, the bright sunlight of the room banishing the darkness and calming his pounding heart.

“Listen, head injuries can be serious. I think maybe you should go to the hospital,” she suggested.

Her words started a chain reaction as the man’s deep blue eyes widened in panic…Straps holding him down, fire coursing up his arm, the needle plunging into his skin, the pain ripped through his muscles, blood dripping down his arm, wild laughter, blackness so thick it sucked the breath and the life out of him, leaving his gasping and clawing for air…no…no… “NO!”

There were hands on his shoulder, shaking him, anchoring him to the present and a voice broke through his terror. “Hush, calm down. You’re gonna hurt yourself. I won’t take you to the hospital. Ssshh. Easy.”

He opened his eyes, not realizing he’d closed them, finding the young woman sitting on the edge of the bed. She released his shoulder, but both her hands folded around one of his. Her slender fingers were dwarfed by his larger hands but she held on tightly, giving him something concrete to home in on. Gradually the panic and the fear abated, leaving him weak and trembling. “No hospital?” he whispered, not sure he could trust his own voice to not betray the terror he felt was still lurking in his soul.

“No hospital. I promise.” Maggie said with conviction. The look of terror began to fade from his eyes, replaced by relief. Jackie wasn’t going to like this at all. Well, it couldn’t be helped. It happens sometimes. She couldn’t kick this guy out and she couldn’t bear to see him in such a state of panic. She needed to establish something sane and normal. “Are you hungry?”

“Starved actually,” he said somewhat hesitantly.

Maggie got to her feet. “I can help with breakfast. Let me give you a hand.”

The stranger—Maggie understood she was going to have to find a name for the guy—swung his legs out from under the covers and stared at the wrappings now evident. “My feet…”

“Were covered in cuts and scratches,” she interjected. “I cleaned you up as best as I could. You looked like you’d run through rough terrain. I pulled out thorns and rocks before I got you settled.”

“I see,” he said his tone matching his earlier declaration. “Can I walk?”

Maggie smiled. “That’s up to you. You’ll just be going to the kitchen. It’s not far.”

“Lead on then. My stomach has given me my marching orders,” he said with the ghost of a smile.

Maggie extended her arm and he gripped her carefully. He staggered a few steps before finding his balance. She led him to the kitchen and pulled out a chair for him to ease into. Whatever had happened to him had left his muscles incredibly weak and it took all his strength to walk that short distance. He was exhausted to the point of pain but the gnawing at the pit of his stomach was stronger. It didn’t help that his left leg ached and it was difficult to move. If Maggie hadn’t helped him out of bed, he wasn’t sure he’d have been able to manage on his own.

“Now,” Maggie said as she turned her attention to the refrigerator. “First off, I need to call you something. ‘Mister’ is going to get old after a while. What name sounds good to you? Maybe you’ll get lucky and pick your real name,” Maggie said. She grabbed for the egg carton and the butter dish. Continued searching uncovered a half a pack of bacon. “Toast or biscuits?”

“Wouldn’t toast be simpler?” he asked.  

“And biscuits take all of ten minutes. And you know that toast is easy so not all is lost,” she said with a smile.

He chuckled and Maggie realized she liked the sound of his voice. It was a velvety bass, like he could read Shakespeare and she’d understand it. It was the kind of voice that could recite a dictionary or the phonebook and make it sound interesting. His laugh was just as intriguing. “Sounds like you won’t take no for an answer,” he replied.

“That’s what my cousin says.”

“Cousin?”

“Jackie. She’s taking classes, in the nursing program. In the evenings she works as a waitress at the country club. She’ll be home later. She’s convinced you’re an ax-wielding mass murderer,” Maggie said. She turned the stove on and set to mixing scrambled eggs.

“She might be right.”

Maggie shook her head. “No. I don’t think she is.” She paused as she whisked up the eggs and poured them into the hot skillet. “You still haven’t come up with a name yet,” she reminded him, partly to change the course of conversation.

The man sat silent for a few minutes, lost in his thoughts. He was trying to remember any name but nothing came to him. He had to have known someone, why was it so hard to remember? There had to be someone, some place that had meaning for him. He felt like he was cast into a sea…                      

“A sea…the ocean…” he whispered. The ocean had meaning. Something about the sea but he still couldn’t put his finger on it.

“The ocean?” Maggie repeated. “You’re a far piece from the ocean.”

“How far?” he asked, the disappointment churning his gut once again.

“You’re in the heartland of Kentucky. Smack dab right in the center. I can take you to some lakes but it’s a hefty road trip to see an ocean.”

“East coast…or the Gulf coast…” he muttered.

“See, something else you remember,” Maggie said with a grin.

“Ben,” he said suddenly, tilting his head slightly as if envisioning the word. “Shortened form of Benjamin. Hebrew. Meaning ‘son of my right hand’,” he said distractedly. There was something more about the name Ben. Seeing the name conjured an image a tall, slender young man. But the image faded as quickly as it came, leaving him disappointed.

Maggie turned, dividing her attention between her guest and her cooking. “Okay. I did not know that. Ben?”

The man smiled. Yes. Ben, that had some meaning for him, even if he couldn’t pin it down. “Yes. I think I’ll be Ben for a while.”

“Okay Ben, can I interest you in some coffee?”

The idea of coffee was like a light coming one. Coffee was important! “I would love a cup of coffee,” he said.

Maggie shuffled around and poured a cup from the coffee maker. “Cream? Sugar?”

“No, just black,” Ben replied.

She sat the cup down in front of him and winked. “You know that you like your coffee black. There’s hope yet. Now. Ready for breakfast?”

Ben felt odd as Maggie bustled about the kitchen. She hand-mixed a batch of biscuits and had them in the oven before he could protest. She set down two plates and filled both with a heaping portion of scrambled eggs. “How do I cook this bacon? Crispy?”

“Crispy bacon sounds fantastic.”

In no time Maggie had set a breakfast table. The bacon went onto one plate, and the biscuits went into a bowl. She sat down a third bowl of cubed potatoes. Lastly she sat down a butter dish and a jar of grape jelly and apple butter. Ben had worked through three-fourths of his coffee and, without asking, Maggie refilled his cup, filled a second glass with orange juice and sat it before him before sitting down. “Don’t wait on me,” she ordered and proceeded to fill up her own plate.

Ben followed her lead, a little more slowly. The food smelled delicious and his stomach nearly ached with the need to fill it. He started out carefully, taking bacon and dropping several slices to his plate. He followed that up with a generous helping of potatoes and a biscuit. He split the biscuit in half and layered each section with a heaping spoonful of jelly. Finally he was set and he dove into his breakfast.

The food tasted as delicious as it smelled. It might not have been a gourmet meal but it was simple and filling. It seemed like he couldn’t get enough food. The emptiness in his gut demanded attention and his one plate wasn’t enough to calm the raging hunger inside of him. He went back for seconds on the bacon and potatoes and he picked out another biscuit. He didn’t realize that Maggie had finished and was watching him with amusement in her light blue eyes.

“Been a while since you had a meal maybe?” she suggested.  

Ben frowned. When was his last meal? What had it been? He couldn’t remember and he grew frustrated at the lack of memory.

“Don’t look so grim,” she said. “I was only joking. Do you want some more coffee?”

Ben shook his head. “No, this is fine for now. Can I help you with the dishes or something? I should earn my keep.”

Maggie stood and shook her head. “No, you need to just rest for right now. If you want I can maybe find some clothes for you and you can take a shower. Those places on your feet could use another cleaning.”

A shower sounded like a fine idea. He felt grubby and filthy and said as much. Maggie chuckled. Moving incredibly slow Ben managed to get to his feet and follow his host to a medium sized bathroom. “Towels, wash clothes, soap and shampoo that won’t make you smell like a girl,” she said with a grin.

Ben chuckled in return. “At this point I don’t think I’d care what I smelled like as long as I was clean again.”

“Under the sink you’ll find some razors and the like. You can do something about the beard.”

Ben couldn’t help himself. “Maybe I’ll keep it?” he suggested with a grin.

Maggie snorted. “Somehow I don’t see you with a beard. Won’t do to hide that distinguished face of yours behind whiskers. I’ll bring you some clothes. And take your time. No hurry.”

Ben simply nodded, still smiling, and closed the bathroom door. Maggie headed off to what had been her parents room. After her mother died they had donated her clothes, but Maggie still had both her father’s and Eric’s clothes. She’d never gotten around to getting rid of her father’s things and as far as Eric…well, his belongings, what little he left behind before heading for Oklahoma City, were all that she had left of him.

She found the closet exactly like she had left it after her father had died. The heart attack had been sudden and he’d died before the paramedics could arrive. Maggie still thought her father had died of a broken heart after her mother’s long bout with cancer. If it hadn’t been for Eric, Maggie might have followed her parents out of pure grief.

With a deep sigh, Maggie tried to push all thoughts of Eric Sanders out of her mind and searched through the closet, trying to find something that might fit Ben. Her father had also been a short stocky man. So had Eric. Maggie didn’t think it would be hard to find something Ben could wear. In the end she settled on a pair of worn jeans and a short-sleeved denim shirt. She found a tee shirt that had seen little wear and added it to the collection. Underwear and socks were still located in a dresser by the door. She hesitated on the socks, thinking his feet would heal faster if left bare. She’d ask about shoes later.

She walked back to the bathroom and knocked. “I found some clothes that might fit. I’ll leave them on the sink,” she said after knocking twice and quietly opening the door. The shower was still running and she heard his muffled voice saying thanks. She dropped the clothes off and closed the door.

With that done, Maggie headed back to the kitchen. She had breakfast to clean up. And a puzzle of what to do with this strange man.

~<<>>~

Jackie Spencer was still grumbling as her second class gathered for the morning. Her lack of sleep was manifesting itself in her third cup of coffee from the dispenser down the hall and her general bad mood had her sniping at her friends. All because of her cousin. Had Maggie completely lost her mind? What on earth had possessed her to bring some strung-out homeless bum into their house?

Well, in all honesty it was Maggie’s house and she could do whatever with it, but to bring some strange man...a MAN of all people. Maggie barely had anything to do with the males she acknowledged as friends, and she comes bringing in some guy she doesn’t even know, with some story that she hit him? The guy had to be drunk or worse to be wondering around in the road that time of night. Probably had to take a leak and his buddies stopped and let him out, only to drive off as some practical joke. “Damn impractical,” Jackie muttered. Her cousin comes along and hits the guy. Now they were stuck with some homeless drunk.

Jackie shook her head and continued to grumble to herself, garnering some odd looks from a few of her classmates. If her cousin had any sense, and that was debatable these days, she’d send this dude packing as soon as the guy woke up. Unless he was one of those freaks who knew a good thing when he saw it. Pretends to be sick or something and Maggie would feel sorry for him and let him stay. And stay and stay...

Jackie grumbled ‘like hell,’ out loud and a student sitting across in front of her turned. Jackie smiled innocently and the woman, shaking her head, turned back around.

Not if she had anything to do with it. That decided Jackie. If Guido or Horace or whatever his name was happened to still be hanging around when she got home, she’d call Wade. He could deal with the guy. She wasn’t going to let some fly-by-night, opportunistic bum take advantage of her cousin when she was clearly not in her right mind!

~<<>>~

Ben turned off the water and reached for the towel on the rack. He dried off and stepped over the lip of the tub. The room was warm and the mirror was fogged up. With the palm of his hand he wiped the steam from the mirror and looked closely at the man staring back at him. He knew that he should know the face but it was a stranger who looked back at him. In curiosity he studied his own body for a clue to who he was. What he found only further served to deepen the mystery.

There were several similar round scars clear on his right shoulder. Slowly turning around he could see there were several long scars horizontal on his back. Claw marks, a little voice in his mind whispered. He shook his head, for some reason suddenly thinking of a mad wolf. Why would I have been attacked by a wolf?

There were various other scars that spoke of an interesting life. Try as he might he could not recall how he might have acquired any of the scars. He turned his focus to the bottoms of his feet.

The cuts and scrapes were red, raw, and ugly. They were still sore and tender but he could walk slowly. What continued to puzzle him were the raw red welts around his wrists and ankles. Somehow he knew he’d been restrained but he couldn’t understand why. On the inside of his right arm, at the bend of his elbow, the skin was bruised, turning a sickly yellowish-green and purple. Close to a dozen small pin-prinks were visible. Ben puzzled over what they might be and could not formulate an answer. The left side of his body, from his mid torso to his hip, down his thigh and on down to his lower calf was a long black and blue bruise. The rest of his torso, his thighs and one arm were marked by large angry bruises, also bluish-green fading to purplish-yellow. All he could remember was the blackness and pain. Confused and angry, Ben grabbed the new clothes and got dressed. Everything fit a little loosely but Ben didn’t care. Then it dawned on him. What had he been wearing when Maggie had found him? Maybe they would offer a clue he didn’t have. He dumped the pajamas he’d been wearing into the hamper and opened the door. The fresh air made the steam inside swirl and shift, reminding Ben of London fog. London…why London? He stepped into the hallway and got his bearings, listening. He heard noise from the kitchen and headed in that direction.

Maggie was facing the doorway when he appeared. She smiled at him and sat the now dry plate aside. “The clothes seem to fit. Good. I have a few more things then. You look so much better. Soap and clean water agrees with you,” she teased. Ben returned the smile and gently made his way forward.

“More coffee?” she asked.

Ben pondered the question. “Yes. For some reason that sounds like a good idea.” He watched as she retrieved a new coffee cup from the cabinet and moved toward the coffee maker. Ben noticed that the coffee carafe was full. She’d made a fresh pot of coffee since he hit the shower. He felt odd, like he was taking up time she could be spending on other things. She didn’t have to take care of him. “You didn’t make coffee for me, did you?” he asked as he eased into the chair he’d vacated.

Maggie shook her head. She set the cup down in front of him and reached for the cup sitting next to the coffee maker. She poured the cup full and sat the carafe back on the burner. “My fiancé used to drink coffee all day. It’s a habit I never broke.”

“Used?” Ben asked carefully.

She took a deep breath and turned away from him, the first time she’d shown him something other than cheerful optimism. “He was killed a few months ago. Since he died, I don’t get out much. It’s easier to stay at home and not have to face everyone and their sympathies and apologies. Jackie is constantly harping for me to get out more but I just don’t want to.”

Ben sat silent. It was obvious that this was a subject she wasn’t ready to discuss. He had no right to push. He didn’t even know her. But he couldn’t think of anything to say, there was nothing he could think of to break the awkward silence. It was Maggie who spoke first, with a voice rough around the edges “So, did you recall anything?”

“I seem to have led an interesting life. I have a number of scars I can’t explain.

“We noticed that last night when we found you.” His brow furrowed in confusion and Maggie tried to explain. “You were soaking wet and I couldn’t let you sit around like that,” Maggie said, turning back around and facing him. It felt odd to be telling a total stranger than he’d been stripped by two women. Ben cleared his throat, also uncomfortable, but what was done was done.

“So what can you tell me about when you found me,” Ben asked to change the subject.

Maggie sat down across from him, her hands wrapped around the coffee cup. “It was pouring rain. We haven’t had a lot of rain lately. We’ll take every drop we can get. But I had turned the wipers on. Like I said it hadn’t rained in a while and the wipers were all clogged up with pollen and dust. The windshield just smeared up at first. I saw something dart into the road and for a second I thought it was a deer.”

“But where did I come from?” Ben asked. Instead of answers he only had more questions. He balled a fist in irritation, fighting down the incredible urge to smash something. 

Maggie tried to look sympathetic. She couldn’t imagine not being able to remember anything about her life. “I don’t know. I tried to break but the roads were slick and the car fishtailed. I slammed into you with the back end of the car. You’re lucky I didn’t kill you.”

“Somebody might have had that in mind,” Ben replied quietly, shifting his gaze to the welts on his wrist, hoping that he wasn’t dragging an innocent woman in on his problems, whatever they might be.

~<<>>~

Lee was driving. It was the only way he could focus on the problem at hand and not lose his mind. In the passenger’s seat Chip was quiet, letting Lee take command. Morton understood that Lee needed the distraction and until they found some hint of the admiral, Lee was only likely to draw more and more inside. To pass the time, Chip had taken to looking things up on his smart phone. He wasn’t surprised when he got an incoming text from his sister.

**Any luck?**

Chip almost laughed but he didn’t want to explain to Lee what was funny. Casually he typed back an answer.

**Possible. Place called Edgewood. Abandoned Hospital near in Red Mills, Kentucky.**

**Red Mills? Town?**

**Yes. On our way. Will explain later**

**Stay safe** Wendy sent back. This time Chip did grin.

“Amused over there?” Lee asked quietly.

Chip snorted. “Just Wendy. She was asking how we were doing. I said we were headed to Red Mills to find a place called Edgewood.”

“Hopefully we can find it,” Lee replied sourly.

“I’ve got some ideas. Let’s get to this town first and then we can start snooping around. What are your thoughts on getting help?”

Lee sighed and tightened his grip on the wheel. “I don’t see how we’re going to snoop around without attracting attention. You pointed it out. A small town like this, we’re going to stick out like a pair of extra thumbs.”

“So we keep it low key and to a minimum. Someone official, like the local sheriff.”

“Agreed.”

The two drove on in silence. A sign came up and Lee slowed down. He was pretty sure they had to be getting close. They slowed and he was able to read the sign as they passed. “Red Mills, six miles,” he said.

“Indeed,” Chip replied. He squared up in the seat, focusing on the information on his BlackBerry.

“Suggestions?” Lee asked. They were getting closer. He was determined that he wouldn’t leave this town until he had some answers. He wasn’t going home without the admiral. One way or the other.

“You want to scope out this Edgewood if we can find it?” Chip asked.

To Lee, that sounded like a good plan. Find Edgewood, snoop around a bit, maybe get lucky and find the admiral…”Do you have any kind of directions?” Lee finally asked.

Chip repeated the few directions they had and Lee was pleased to note that the Highway 210 they were looking for intersected with the road they were on. Taking the turn off, they found themselves on a very quiet stretch of road, lined mostly with farmland. This time of year the cornfields were turning golden yellow and the few soybean fields left were a deep, rich brown, waiting harvest. There were barns and silos and pastures full of black and white and red-brown cows. But there were no other signs to guide them. Lee was getting concerned when twenty minutes later brought them no closer to their goal.

“Et tu Navigator?” Lee asked with his eyes on the road. In the time since they’d taken the turn off they hadn’t spotted one car.

Chip was grumbling from his side of the car. “On it, El Capitan. I thought I saw something about a turn off…” Chip searched through the links as he tried to find the vague reference he’d seen earlier. After some searching he groaned. “I know I saw something about turning off 210. That the place sat on a dead end.”

“I haven’t even seen a turn off anywhere around here,” Lee complained sourly, trying to keep the disappointment out of his voice. As he gripped the wheel harder something caught his eye. Coming from behind a stand of trees, a large farm tractor eased onto the main road pulling a flatbed wagon loaded with square bales of hay. Lee slowed the car down and both he and Chip craned their necks to see around the trees. A narrow road dipped down and trailed off, the turn nearly hidden by the stand of scarlet and yellow maples. They’d have missed the turn off entirely, the road was that well hidden.

Chip snorted and laughed out loud. “We should flag Farmer Brown down and thank him,” he said as Lee turned the car down the smaller, less maintained road.

“Let’s focus on this abandoned hospital of yours,” Lee countered.

“When did it become mine?” Chip asked with a snort.

Lee didn’t answer, continuing to guide the car down the old road. It was riddled with potholes, rough spots from patches made years earlier. The shocks on the rental were certainly getting a workout as Lee tried to avoid the worst of the holes, but often he wasn’t able to miss them all.

“Sometime today…” Lee grumbled as he drove on. “I thought you said this road dead-ended.”

“I said I thought I read it was on a dead end. Nobody is saying that this is the road,” Chip replied dryly.

“When does it dead end? At the edge of the earth?” Lee was getting more and more irritated with each passing mile. Off to his right he saw a house: a one level farmhouse with a large front porch and a neatly trimmed yard. There was a woman on the front porch, watering plants in pots scattered on the railing. Chip tugged on Lee’s sleeve.

“Pull in here,” he ordered.

“Are you fruity?” Lee demanded but he did as Chip asked, pulling down the rutted gravel drive. He’d barely put the car into park when Chip unsnapped his seat belt and vaulted out of the car.

~<<>>~

Maggie was taking a few minutes to water the plants she kept on the front porch. She kept lavender in a large pot in the corner and other herbs, including mint, parsley, and basil, were scattered across the wide banister. Even with last night’s downpour, the pots were protected under the overhang of the porch and they were barely damp. Maggie didn’t mind taking time to water everything. It was part of her morning routine and she enjoyed pulling weeds and trimming back spent blooms.

When the blue Chevy Lumina pulled into her driveway she glanced up and frowned. She didn’t like visitors and she didn’t like strangers just pulling into her driveway like they had some kind of special permit. The engine on the car shut off and out of the passenger’s side bounced a tall, broad shouldered young man. The late morning sun glistened off his white-blond hair and his blue eyes were hard to miss even that this distance. Still, Maggie had never seen him before and she really didn’t want to be bothered.

For a second she almost panicked. What if he was the one after Ben? Had they tracked him here? She regretted leaving the shotgun inside the house and promised to set it by the front door the first chance she got. “I’m afraid that whatever you’re selling, I’m not interested,” Maggie said firmly as she took two steps off the porch, forcing the stranger to stop in his tracks. He looked at her with a puzzled expression for a minute then smiled.

He has a nice smile, Maggie thought then chided herself for not paying closer attention as he spoke. “No ma’am. We’re not selling anything. We’ve gotten a bit turned around and I was wondering if you could tell us if this road will take us into Red Mills?”

Maggie frowned. “You have gotten turned around. No, this road dead ends at the old hospital. You need to go back the way you came in and take a left. That will take you into town,” she explained.

“Back the way we came and take a left,” the blond man repeated. “Sounds simple enough. What old hospital? You mean Edgewood?”

Maggie sighed and tried not to roll her eyes. She should have known. Three weeks ago there had been a special on the Adventure Channel about haunted locations in the south. One segment had been on the old Edgewood hospital that used to operate back in the ‘30s and ‘40s. It had been empty for the last half century or more. Since that show had aired Maggie had counted no less than ten tourists who wanted to get a closer look at the ‘haunted’ hospital.

“I wouldn’t go out there if I were you,” Maggie warned.

“Why? It’s just an old building,” the man said casually. Maggie wasn’t fooled. Too many sightseers had come before him with the same attitude.

“It’s private property now. That place is falling down and dangerous. It’s not a good idea to go out there,” she tried, but she could tell that her words were falling on deaf ears.

“Well, I don’t think we’ll be inside the old place. Might be interesting to see it up close though. Thanks for the directions, ma’am,” he said and happily got back into the car. Seconds later the car backed up out of her drive and pulled back into the road, heading the opposite direction they came, in the direction of the hospital.

Shaking her head, Maggie went back in the house, pulling the door shut behind her. She’d call Wade in a bit and let him know two more sightseers were trespassing on the hospital property. Maybe a few hours in the county jail and a nice fine would teach them to not break and enter.

~<<>>~

Kwan was beyond furious. His golden opportunity had slipped through his fingers like sand. Nelson was gone, escaped somehow. Some other power must be looking over the man to grant him enough luck to make an escape.

Nelson couldn’t have been in very good shape. Kwan hadn’t bothered to feed him in the time Nelson had been in his power. No food, isolation, and the drugs were all designed to break the man’s will and get the information he wanted out of him. The fact he’d found the strength to kill a guard, make his way out of the maze-like complex, and stay ahead of the search party when they found he was missing indicated that Kwan had grossly underestimated the man.

Well, even if Nelson had gotten away, there was still a chance he could reclaim Crane. That was what this whole operation was about, recapturing Crane and rebreaking the man. Still, the idea of presenting a newly broken Crane and Admiral Nelson to his superiors after he was thought to have failed was enticement to make Kwan keep looking for the escaped admiral.

That decided him. Nelson couldn’t have gotten far. How did he plan on getting home? Fly out? There were only a few airports in the area. It was one of the many things that made this location ideal. The nearest airport was seventy miles away. Besides, the man had no money and no ID. Kwan had made certain of that when he’d taken Nelson.

There was the distinct chance that Nelson would alert the authorities. A raid like that took a while to prepare. His little mole should give him plenty of warning time. He’d also pass along instructions to look for the admiral. If nothing else, his operative was in the perfect position to bring Nelson back to him, under the guise of his own official duties.

In the meantime he’d continue to search the surrounding woods. Maybe the admiral had found a cave or a deadfall tree to take shelter in. After a night of rain he’d be cold, wet, miserable, and weak. An easy target.

~<<>>~

“What was I wearing when you found me?” Ben asked as Maggie came back into the kitchen. She carried a green plastic watering can that she sat under the facet. She turned the tap and let the water run.  He’d watched her fill it up once before to water the plants in pots on the front porch. This was the second trip. He could tell something was bothering her but for the moment she wasn’t talking about it. Instead she seemed relieved to have something else to think about.

She turned and tilted her head slightly as if thinking. “You know, I had forgotten about those. Hang on.” She shut the water off and headed out of the kitchen. Ben wasn’t sure if he should follow. While walking wasn’t exactly painful, it was tiring. For some reason he still felt exhausted, not to mention the simple fact of standing or sitting was putting strain on an overstressed leg muscle. So it was a relief of sorts when Maggie returned with a few articles of clothing and sat them in front of Ben.

With calloused fingers he gently picked up the first piece. It turned out to be a tee-shirt, once white, but now filthy, covered in dirt and darker stains that, to Ben, looked suspiciously like blood. There were no other marks on the shirt. The second article was a pair of khaki trousers, torn and stained as well the hems nearly nothing but threads. There were no identifying marks on them either.  Ben sighed. “And I wasn’t wearing shoes?” he asked.

“No. Not when I found you. I know I mentioned it but you had thorns and other debris stuck in your feet. I cleaned you up as best as I could. You might find stuff I missed as you heal. Quite frankly, it looked like you ran through the woods.” Maggie sat back down in the chair she had left, watching the emotions run through his brilliant blue eyes.

Ben grew quiet as he thought about what that might mean. “I was running from something,” he concluded.

“Someone,” Maggie corrected. Gently she touched the raw marks on his wrists. “I think you had been tied down. But I don’t know why.”

Ben once again studied the marks on his wrists. Rope burns? Something told him they weren’t rope burns but Maggie was right. He’d been tied down. He extended his right arm, puzzling once more over the bruises on the inside of his arm. “What do you make of these?”

Maggie looked uncomfortable. “Jackie thinks you were shooting up. I think…I think someone tied you down and injected you with something.” When Ben grew quiet again, Maggie quickly added, “Jackie thinks that I read too many mystery novels.”

“And why do you not think like your cousin?” Ben asked.

Maggie sat back down. Until now she didn’t know why this man, this stranger with the delicious bass voice, moved her in ways she would normally never consider. She took a long look at him again, studying him and finally admitting to herself why she felt like she could trust him. “I mentioned a fiancé earlier.”

“You did. It’s none of my business,” Ben interjected, but Maggie waved a hand at him, dismissing the objection.

“You remind me of him. Eric was a redhead. He had your height and build. I feel like I know you and I don’t even know your real name, all because you remind me of someone who’s dead.” It felt odd to actually finally admit why she allowed him into her house. It sounded illogical when she said it out loud. But Eric had been special…no one knew him like she had. She felt that Ben was special as well but she couldn’t say why. 

Ben didn’t know how to answer that. He felt like it took a lot for her to admit that much to him. But there was something important he had to say. “If someone is after me I’m endangering you. It might be better if I left.”

Maggie glared at him. “And where are you going to go? You don’t have any money, no ID, no clue as to who you really are. If somebody is after you, you’d be an easy mark. I can’t just let you wander off. You’re in no kind of condition to be on your own,” she declared.

But Ben was stubborn. “I won’t put an innocent person in danger simply because they’re associated with me. I could get you killed.”

“And I could get run over by a bus tomorrow. Life’s a risk. You’re staying here and you’re going to get better and you’ll remember who you are. Better yet, let me tell my friend Jason about you. He’s the county sheriff.”

Ben’s reaction was immediate. “No! If somebody is after me, the fewer people who know about me the better.” Ben shuddered at the thought that innocent people could get killed because of him. What if Maggie’s trust in him was misplaced? What if he was into something dirty? What if he’d double-crossed someone? Ben couldn’t help but wonder if he wouldn’t be better off on his own, but Maggie was right. Where would he go? The question of who was looking for him ate at Ben and he could not get away from it. Maggie picked up the clothes from the table and left.

That’s when the power went out. The hum of the air conditioning stopped and the house was dropped into a dead silence. Ben reacted instinctively, getting to his feet and ignoring the discomfort of standing on just-beginning-to-heal wounds. He staggered down the hall, favoring his left leg but feeling like he had to do something. Instead he found Maggie watching his approach with an amused look. “A man of action?” she teased.

Ben chuckled. “I suppose so. I felt like I should do something.”

“Not much you can do, unless you want to go downstairs and make sure the breaker box wasn’t tripped.”

Ben brightened. “I can do that,” he affirmed and Maggie told him where to find a flashlight and how to get to the basement. Feeling happy to be doing something, Ben retrieved the flashlight from the cabinet Maggie had directed him to and easily found the door to the basement. He eased down the steps, careful of his weaker leg. Ben found what he assumed to be an average basement. There were plastic storage boxes marked with the names of various holidays. Some were marked dishes. Another box was marked curtains. Another was marked toys. Everything was neatly organized on shelves fixed to the walls. There was no sign of water leakage and no hint of mold or mildew.

Bare feet on the cool concrete floor, Ben moved toward the breaker box on the far wall. He pulled back the cover and pointed the beam of light into the recesses. After some study he couldn’t find anything to indicate a problem.

The memory came out of the blue, slamming into him with enough force to make him gasp. The breaker box seemed to morph and the room telescoped. The wall in front of him vanished, fading like smoke and he was looking at electric panels in front of him, lights blinking, huge coils of wire wound over and around the panels, like some kind of snake…he saw his hands deep in a nest of multicolored wire, braiding and unbraiding the mess as he went, looking for the short that was keeping the…

“Ben?” Maggie’s voice broke the spell and Ben jerked back to reality, blinking and puzzling over what had just happened. A memory. A real memory. “Ben, everything alright?” Maggie called out again and Ben heard the squeak of her feet on the steps.

“I’m coming. I can’t find anything wrong with the breaker box.”

“Rats. Well, I’d better report it then. I need to make a phone call anyway,” Maggie’s voice faded as the words echoed in his head.

Report. Damage control report…status report…missile room report…admiral, we’re taking on water…

Ben closed his eyes, letting the memory wash over him like a tidal wave. The sound of voices, all echoing the word report…

But Maggie’s voice again broke the spell and Ben glanced up to the ceiling. “Everything alright down there?” she asked.

“Fine. I’m on my way up,” Ben replied and closed the breaker box before heading up the stairs. The voices weren’t done with him and continued to whisper words in his mind. Nothing made sense. Certainly not the voice that continued to whisper the word ‘admiral’.

~<<>>~

Jason Hendricks gripped the wheel of the truck and tried not to yawn. Unsuccessful, he did manage to stay on his side of the road, thankful his was the only vehicle in sight. One of his biggest complaints was people who drove when they were tired. Pot calling the kettle black, if he ever heard it.

That mess with Carl and Kelly took the better part of the night to clear up. He’d ended up calling out another unit to deal with Carl and yet another unit to take Kelly to Haven Shelter. Then he had to change the flat on his car and to make matters worse, he had to keep the flattened tire as evidence that Carl took a shot at him! It was close to 3am before everything was wrapped up and Jason was able to slink off to his bed for a few hours. He’d already been tired from the long trip to Lexington where he’d had to sign off on the grant he’d been begging for. The Inez county police department needed some new computers and, if they could get them, new squad cars. Two of the Crown Victorias had been rebuilt twice and Jason didn’t think they had a third rebuild in them. Two new Ford Taurus’s were on their way.

Because of his absence yesterday afternoon, he’d missed the accident involving Maggie and the out-of-towner, Lucy Devers. While he knew he couldn’t have prevented it, he was still kicking himself for not being there when Maggie might have needed him. While he wasn’t trying to replace Eric, Jason had been trying to convince Maggie that his intentions were truly honorable. Friends with her since high school, he saw her completely fall apart when Eric died and he felt it was his duty to keep an eye on her and give her a hand when she needed it. He knew how deep his feelings for her went. He just wasn’t sure if Maggie knew how deeply he felt. Maybe she did and that was the reason she kept him at arm’s length. He couldn’t blame her really, not after what she’d already dealt with after Eric’s death. He just couldn’t make her see that he honestly loved her without scaring her.

It didn’t help that she was mule-stubborn and refused to ask for help, insisting on doing everything for herself. Her cousin, Jackie, simply didn’t bother asking if she needed help. She simply showed up one afternoon with a car load of clothes and moved in, taking over a spare bedroom. Jason had been grateful; at least now Maggie wasn’t alone so far out of the city. He’d barely had time to catch Maggie as she’d been coming out of the grocery. As usual she’d declared that she was fine, she didn’t need any help, thanks for coming by…well at least he’d gotten a hug out of her. She’d gotten so reclusive since Eric’s death it was a surprise to see her in town at all.

Jason listened to the regular chatter on the radio with half an ear as he drove along the main road from Hardin in neighboring Willborn County.  Highway 210 eventually split into three other roads, one of which dead-ended at the border of the Edgewood Hospital grounds.

Edgewood Hospital had once been his property until just over a year ago. A white elephant he could neither afford to fix up nor tear down, he’d been at a loss with what to do with the place. The answer had been some developer from overseas who wanted to turn the place into a hotel for high-paying guests with a taste for legends of the supernatural. Jason couldn’t unload the place fast enough. The money had been exceptional and he’d stuck it in the bank with the intention of one day paying for a wedding and a nice honeymoon. That is if he could ever manage a date with Maggie McBride. Trying to be friendly and respect the fact she was still mourning Eric wasn’t the easiest thing sometimes. 

“Jason, where are you at?” Wade Reed’s voice cut over the radio, breaking through the haze of Jason’s thoughts. 

“Making the rounds, out on 210 coming in. Why?”

“I’m in the middle of a million and one things and Maggie just called to tell me two more snoopers just stopped and asked for directions to you-know-where,” Wade replied.

Jason swore softly under his breath. “You’re kidding. How many does that make this month?”

He heard Wade snort. “I lost count. Ten? Eleven? The hell if I know. Figured you might wanna go out there, run ‘em off, pay a visit to Maggie…” Wade let the sentence trail off and Jason could hear the smile in his voice.

“You’re a riot. But yeah, I’ll go out, kick some tourists off the place. Thanks for the heads up,” Jason said.

“No problem. Say hi to Mags for me,” Wade said and signed off before Jason could throw a defending jab in. Still grinning to himself, he pulled his rig off the main road onto route 1831. This road dead ended at the edge of the Edgewood property line, but it also lead to Maggie McBride’s place, the only resident on the road. The rest was woods and farm land. She was extremely helpful in keeping unwanted visitors off the old property.

Jason drove by Maggie’s old farm house, seeing it quiet and still. It was odd not seeing her car in the drive but hopefully by the end of the week it would be fixed for her and she could have things back to normal.

Jason kept going, the road getting worse the further he went. Sure enough there was a car, a light blue Lumina with out-of-state plates, parked off the side of the road. He slowed and put his truck into park. He shut the engine off and got out, running a hand through his curly blond hair. He hoped this would be easy, explain to these people that this was private property now and visitors were discouraged. He might be able to distract them by mentioning the legend of the country bridge a few miles south of here. The old covered bridge dated to the early part of the century and was supposedly haunted by the spirit of a young girl whose car ran off the bridge some forty years ago. That ploy had worked in the past.

Jason neared the parked car, not seeing anyone around. He noticed the car had Washington D.C. plates. A little far from home, weren’t they?  They’d have to come back to the car eventually and he’d just wait here until they did. Have a nice chat about trespassing and send them on their way. Simple, right? With a grin to himself, Jason dropped his rear end on the front end of the car to wait. He didn’t have to wait long. He could hear them before he saw them; two voices, one a notch deeper than the other. As they neared the car, Jason felt laughter trying to bubble up as he overheard their conversation.

“What were you expecting? If he’s here, it’s not like we can just waltz in and bust him out, I don’t care what ONI training you have,” the deeper voiced one was saying.

“Would you calm down, I wasn’t going to try to get in during broad daylight,” the other voice said.

“Bull. If you’d seen the place, you’d have had to get inside and look around. Don’t look at me like that, I know you.”

Two men suddenly emerged from the brush, found they had company, and immediately clammed up. “Afternoon gentlemen,” Jason greeted pleasantly. No sense in being hateful, at least not yet. He got a good look at both men, committing their faces to memory. They didn’t look like ghost hunters. But then, what exactly did ghost hunters look like? “I’m the county sheriff in these parts, name’s Jason Hendricks. Did you fellas not know that you’ve been trespassing on private property? And before you say no, I happen to know you stopped and asked directions and I know the young lady you spoke with would have mentioned this wasn’t public lands.”

It was obvious the leader of the two was the tall, slender, dark-haired young man. Nervously he ran his finger through tight dark curls, tighter than Jason’s. He had amber-hazel eyes and on one hand he wore an odd ring. Jason couldn’t make out the design, just that it was an odd black stone. An onyx maybe? He wasn’t sure. The other man wore no jewelry except for a watch. His hair was white-blond and very short. His eyes were a deep blue and they seemed to see everything. They flicked over Jason, the car, the surroundings, all in a breath that seemed second-nature. Jason found it curious that he stayed behind the dark-haired man, watching his back. Jason wouldn’t have been surprised to learn he was armed and he wondered if he had a permit. He’d worry about that if he drew a weapon. No sense in borrowing trouble, at least not yet.

Neither man answered Jason at first. “Can I see some ID?” Jason asked, keeping the pleasant tone in his voice. It was easier to catch flies with honey, his Aunt Rita always said.

Without a word, each man carefully went for their wallets and handed him an ID card. Jason was expecting a driver’s license. He was surprised to find himself holding two sets of military ID.

Commander Lee Benjamin Crane of Santa Barbara, California and Lieutenant Commander Charles Philip Morton, also of Santa Barbara. Jason shook his head, faced with a puzzle. The names sounded familiar but he couldn’t recall where he’d heard them before. He handed the cards back to their owners, the brunet turning out to be Crane and the blond Morton. Still neither had tried to explain themselves.

“You know, I can arrest you for trespassing. I’d rather not. All that paperwork just makes me sleepy. How about you tell me what you were doing over there? Don’t tell me you believe all that malarkey about the place being haunted?”

“Can we have a minute?” The blond asked as he tugged at the brunet’s sleeve. Jason waved a hand.

“Take several. Make it good though,” he warned. He hopped off the hood of the car and wondered around to the back, touching the mike clipped to his shoulder. “Nancy,” he said softly to the dispatch operator, “Run these plates for me,” Jason instructed and read off the license plate numbers on the Lumina. A few minutes later Nancy came back, explaining the car was rented to a Lee Crane a few days ago, no wrecks, no notices, and no warrants. He thanked Nancy and turned his attention back to the pair.

It was clear they were having a mildly heated discussion. The brunet was shaking his head with a determined set to his jaw but the blond wasn’t giving up. Finally the brunet took a deep breath and Jason saw he’d balled both fists up. He wasn’t sure what had transpired but it was obviously enough to kick off a defensive reaction on the one named Crane. Finally both men turned to him.

“How do I know if I can trust you?” Crane asked. Jason raised an eyebrow and scratched the underside of his chin.

“Well, you don’t know me from Adam, I’ll give you that. Would it help if I told you my predecessor was convicted of over a dozen counts of fraud and embezzlement and when it came time to replace him they picked me over his nephew?” Jason said.

Crane fidgeted for a moment, the fingers of his opposite hand twisting the ring on his finger for a second before he caught himself and jammed his hands into his jeans pockets. Jason waited, wondering what was so distressing that this man had a problem with opening up. Behind him, the blond obviously wanted him to explain. “Lee, this could be our only chance. We need help,” he said.

Finally Crane exhaled sharply. “Do you know who we are?”

“Navy reserves, according to your ID. Judging from your conversation that I wasn’t supposed to overhear, you’ve got some connection to the Office of Naval Intelligence. I confess the names are familiar but I don’t recall why.”

Crane took a breath and cast a quick glance to the blond behind him. The blond nodded once, his eyes clearly indicating that Crane should explain their actions. Crane was apparently nervous. As Jason watched him, he realized it wasn’t nervousness he was witnessing. The man was anxious, fidgety, as if he had something else on his mind. Finally Crane spoke.  “I’m the commanding officer of the submarine Seaview, of the Nelson Institute of Marine Research. This is my executive officer Charles Morton.” Crane indicated the blond with a jerk of his head.

Jason suddenly remembered now. He’d heard the names on the news at one time or another. “That’s the submarine with those big windows?” he asked. A nod from both men confirmed his question.

“What day is it anyhow?” Crane asked of Morton.

Chip answered, “The twentieth. This mess started on the fifteenth.”

“What mess?” Jason asked. Crane seemed reluctant to divulge what the problem was and Jason thought maybe he needed a little urging. A little nudge maybe, to get the story out in the open. “I can’t help if I don’t know what’s going on,” he added.

Crane took another slow deep breath. “On October fifteenth, our boss was supposed to catch a flight from Washington D.C. to Santa Barbara. Only when the plane landed he wasn’t on the flight,” Lee began.

The atmosphere seemed to take a serious turn, the air charged with the tension that radiated from the dark-haired storyteller. Jason wracked his brain, trying to recall all the stories he’d heard over the years about the submarine. He was trying to recall the name of the institute’s founder but all he could come up with was Horatio-something and he knew that wasn’t right. Crane paused, flicked his gaze down at the ground, then bringing his eyes back up to gaze at Jason through dark lashes. “I don’t think this is the right place to be discussing this,” he concluded.

Jason thought for a minute. Take them down to the courthouse? No, his office was just big enough for him not to mention it was hardly the most private place on the planet. Crane didn’t act like he wanted everybody in town to know what was going on. “Are you two hungry? Maybe you could use a cup of coffee?” Jason ventured.

The two men exchanged looks. A ghost of a smile drifted across Crane’s features as he faced Morton. “I know, you need food,” he said in an amused tone.

Morton grinned. “Keeping up with you burns a lot of calories,” he said as if that explained everything.

That decided it for Jason. “If you gentlemen would like to follow me, I know a little diner, shouldn’t be too full this time of day. We can get a back corner booth and you can tell me why you’re traipsing around on private property, threatening to break in what should be a condemned building.”

The two men agreed, albeit a bit sheepishly, and Jason headed for his car while Crane and Morton piled into theirs. Jason started the car up and waited for Crane to get turned around before pulling off. With the Lumina behind him, Jason led the way up the worn road. They passed Maggie’s house and Jason regretted not being able to stop and see how she was doing. There would be time enough for that later, he thought, and continued on.

~<<>>~

“Brilliant, Morton. Just freaking brilliant,” Lee grumbled as he trailed the blue and white truck.

In the passenger’s seat Chip scowled back. “It was your idea to hop a fence marked ‘no trespassing’.”

“And who stopped and asked for directions?”

“We’d have never found the place if we hadn’t stopped,” Chip argued.

“Well, she called the local sheriff. We could have been arrested!” Lee shot back. They passed the farmhouse they’d stopped at previously. Lee turned to watch the house glide back as they drove past, puzzled when a figure on the front porch caught his eye. He slowed down, not sure of what he’d seen.

“What are you doing?” Chip asked.

Lee shook his head and did a double take. The front porch of the house was empty now. “I thought I saw something—never mind,” Lee explained, and pressed his foot on the gas once more to catch up with the sheriff’s car. Could he tell Chip that he thought he’d seen someone who looked like the admiral? It wasn’t possible, was it?

Unable to get the fleeting glimpse of the man out of his head, Lee focused instead on how he was going to explain their situation to the county sheriff and whether or not he would think them crazy. Suddenly Chip jerked his head up and began to search through his smart phone again, obviously hot on the trail of something.

“What are you doing, Sherlock?” Lee asked.

“Jason Hendricks…Jason Hendricks…Here!” Chip exclaimed excitedly. “I thought I recognized the name from earlier. Lee, this is our best lead yet. A Jason Hendricks used to own Edgewood.”

Lee blinked. “But is it the same one?”

“I guess we’ll know soon enough, won’t we?”

~<<>>~

Ben stepped out onto the front porch for a minute, still puzzled by the fleeting memory and the word ‘admiral’ being spoken by a voice he thought he should know. He glanced down at his hands, still remembering the flash of him searching through a mess of wires, searching for something. He still couldn’t grasp what he had been searching for. A short? A short to what? What was he, some kind of electrician?

With a sigh, Ben stepped further out onto the porch. The worn boards under his bare feet were cool and slightly damp from last night’s rain. He leaned against the banister, folding his arms across the top of the railing. This brought his wrists back into view.

Wide straps cut into his skin, rubbing his flesh raw as he struggled against them, yanking and tugging, desperation giving way to panic as the needle came into view…

Ben blinked and the memory faded, leaving him slightly breathless. He backed away from the banister as he heard cars coming up the road. He ducked back inside, catching a glimpse of the police truck and the second car following close behind. He found Maggie in the living room, straightening things up and doing some light cleaning.

“Was that the police?” she asked, apparently having heard the cars going down the road.

“Must have been. It was a blue and white truck with a light bar on top,” Ben said.

Maggie nodded as she relocated a stack of magazines and dusted under them. “Oh, that was Jason. County sheriff, he drives a Dodge Dakota. Wade must have passed my call on to him. Some bunch of out-of-towners, looking for the old hospital. I promised I’d call if I saw anyone snooping around down there,” she said as she worked.

Ben eased down into a chair in a corner of the room she’d already been over. He was still tired. His muscles felt overworked and it was hard to get the strength to do much more than walk across the floor. Had he been ill? The fingers of his left hand moved to the inside of the bend of his right arm, absently rubbing the healing puncture marks. Maybe his continuing weakness was connected to whatever he might have been injected with, if indeed he’d been injected with something. But if he had been, then for what reason?

“What kind of hospital?” Ben asked hesitantly. For some reason, the word seemed to conjure up nothing but inky blackness, searing pain and a sense of hopelessness unlike anything he could describe with words. Maybe if he faced this…irrational fear…head on, he could at least understand it. Maybe conquer it.

Maggie sat down on the couch and started sorting through the magazines. “Edgewood? It’s not really a hospital anymore. It’s old, it’s abandoned, and it’s falling down. Jason used to own it a few years ago. Inherited it from some recluse uncle of his. He sold it off about a year ago I think.”

Ben glanced up from his scars and bruises. “To who?”

Maggie shrugged. “No clue. Jason never said.”

It wasn’t the first time Maggie had mentioned the name Jason. “Have you known this Jason long?” he asked, half teasing his new friend.

Maggie blushed and tried to pretend like she wasn’t aware of it. “We went to school together, me, Jackie, Eric, Jason and Wade. Wade’s the city Chief of Police. Jason would like to be more than a friend but I’m just not ready for that yet.”

“He’s a close friend then? But are his intentions honorable?” Ben asked with a gleam in his eye.

Maggie giggled. “Yes, Ben. His intentions are very honorable. He’s my very good friend, he’d do anything I ask. He’d marry me if I said yes. I just don’t think it’s a good idea. I mean, he IS the county sheriff. Not the safest job on the planet.”

Ben tilted his head slightly, thinking. The conclusion wasn’t hard to come up with. Maggie wasn’t that adapt at hiding her feelings. She probably didn’t have to, unlike…

Frustrated, Ben wanted to growl. Someone who hid their emotions? That made no sense…shaking his head in irritation, he focused back on the current conversation. “You’re afraid he’ll be killed, like Eric was killed?” he asked.

He watched as Maggie paled but she didn’t stop her sorting. Instead she became more focused on the titles and dates, picking which ones were to be kept and which ones she’d throw away. “I don’t want to go through that again,” she said softly.

“Have you told Jason that?” Ben ventured.

“I’m not what he needs. I’ve got too much baggage and he shouldn’t have to deal with all that. He needs somebody who can make him happy. I don’t think I’m that person,” she argued. Something in her tone made Ben think that perhaps this wasn’t the first time she’d made that argument. Without even knowing why, Ben felt compelled to defend the absent Jason.

“I think maybe he needs to be the one to decide what he needs. You can’t choose how another person thinks and feels,” he said softly.

Maggie said nothing but gathered up her collection of garbage and left for the kitchen and he heard her dump the load in the trash. It grew quiet and then he heard the soft sound of water running. Maybe he had pushed too far. What she did was completely her business.

But she had friends. She had people who cared about her, even if she couldn’t see it. Could he say the same thing?

~<<>>~

Lee followed Hendricks’ truck into the small town, pulling up at a neat looking little building that he assumed was the diner Hendricks had mentioned. Hendricks got out and Lee and Chip followed.

Lee found himself in a brightly lit restaurant, with one wall dominated by a line of booths. In the center of the room were several worn wooden tables, each table accompanied by two, three or four equally worn wooden chairs, depending on the size of the table. The floor was old black and white tile, aged but still in good condition. The counter was lined with stools, the seats of which had been covered in leather of various colors. Some were blue, some red and a lone green one stood out from the others. Each window was covered in either red or blue shades, half pulled to let in light but block the glaring rays of the sun. The smell of burgers and french fries, coffee, and the lingering scent of bacon from the breakfast crowd lingered in the air. Lee noticed the place had a few patrons but for the most part it was empty. A figure seated at the counter turned as they entered and focused on the sheriff.

“If it ain’t the big man himself,” the man at the counter grumbled. Lee shot a quick glance at Chip, wondering if they weren’t about to get pulled into some local conflict. Jason simply sighed.

“Bobby,” Jason acknowledged the seated figure. ”I’d suggest you keep your mouth shut and stay out of this,” the sheriff advised.

The man named Bobby snorted. “You arrested my brother. You don’t go throwing my family in jail for defending what’s his,” he insisted.

“Your brother treated Kelly like she was a prize sow or something. I’ve seen animals that got treated better than her. Carl wouldn’t even let her see a doctor and she’s eight months pregnant,” Jason argued. Tactfully Lee and Chip stayed a few paces back, letting Jason handle what was obviously an ongoing domestic dispute.

Bobby was less than impressed with Jason’s logic. “Women been having babies forever. Don’t need no doctor for what comes natural like. You got no right to step in where you ain’t wanted. Or needed.”

“Bobby,” Jason warned, “Stay out of it. Unless you wanna share a jail cell with your brother.”

“Yeah, whatever. You just watch your back, Mr. High and Mighty Sheriff. Everybody knows where you live. Hate for something to happen, late one night maybe.” Without a backward glance, Bobby slapped a few bills down on the bar and waltzed out of the diner. Jason watched him go, another sigh escaping.

“Sorry you had to see that. Bobby’s full of hot air most days, when he’s not full of booze or weed.” Jason seemed to shrug the incident off and directed the two toward the back of the diner and the last booth in the place. Chip indicated that Lee slide into the booth first and Lee shook his head. The look in Chip’s eyes hardened. Lee rolled his eyes and relented, sliding into the booth but not without muttering ‘worrywart’ under his breath.

Chip slid in beside him. “My job,” he retorted softly.

Hendricks sat across from them, casting both a curious but puzzled look. How on earth a subordinate officer got by with a stunt like Morton had just pulled was beyond him. Finally he shook his head as a waitress popped up and handed out three menus. She favored Hendricks with a grin. “Still no date?” she asked, clearly teasing.

Jason signed and answered with a grin. “Just wait. I’ll convince her one of these days,” he said.

The waitress, with a name tag that said ‘Patty’, smiled. “Well, if anybody can get Maggie out of that old house, it’s you. Now, let me guess, double cheese burger, extra pickles, side of chili fries and a sweet tea with a lemon?”

Jason handed the menu back without opening it. “I don’t even need this,” he said as she accepted it and turned her attention to the newcomers.

Chip liked the sound of what Hendricks had ordered. “I’ll have the same, but a cup of coffee.”

Lee nodded in agreement. “The same,” he said with a thumb jerk at Chip, “but hold the chili.”

Patty grinned as she scribbled notes. “You guys want I can bring you the pot?” she suggested.

Lee and Chip both nodded. With that out of the way, Patty darted off to put in their orders, leaving the three to themselves.

Hendricks fixed an expectant gaze on the two. Crane’s hands rested on top the table. Absently he twisted the ring on his finger around and around. “I’m listening,” Hendricks invited.

“You’re going to think we’re crazy,” Chip offered softly.

Hendricks shrugged. “Maybe not. Two Navy reserve boys from California, in a rental car from Washington D.C., all the way down here as far from the ocean as you can get? I’m betting you have a good reason.”

Lee nodded. “I told you earlier that our boss, Admiral Nelson, was supposed to catch a flight back from Washington. When the plane landed in California, he wasn’t on it. Chip and I,” Lee indicated the blond with a tilt of his head, “traced his movements back to Washington. We spent a few days following leads. To make a long story short, they lead us here and to the Edgewood hospital.”

“That you own,” Morton added.

Hendricks drew back. “Used to own. No longer own. I sold that slag heap about a year ago to some developer.”

“Every lead we have says that the admiral was taken to Edgewood,” Lee argued.

But Hendricks just shook his head. “Mister, that place is falling down. I wouldn’t advice a colony of roaches to move in, much less take your admiral there. And for what reason?”

Lee and Chip exchanged looks. Finally Chip spoke up. “These people that we believe took Admiral Nelson, they’re aligned with a foreign power we’ve crossed paths with in the past. They don’t play well with others and they don’t play by the rules. If they have a man with the admiral’s intellect in their power, and if he breaks, they’d stand to gain a tremendous amount of information.”

Hendricks blinked. It certainly explained the earlier reference to ONI. “You’re talking about secrets. Classified government stuff. Are you telling me that they’d…torture…this admiral of yours for this information?”

Lee nodded. “In a heartbeat and not bat an eye. These people are…ruthless.”

Jason contemplated the information he now had. How much of this was believable? All of it? Neither of these men looked like the type to lie. Plus there was something about the look in Crane’s eye when he talked about this admiral. The very real look of loss and grief. He’d seen the same look in Maggie’s eyes when he had to tell her about Eric. “Listen, unless you guys have solid proof that your admiral is being held in Edgewood I can’t authorize an entry onto posted, private property. The owner was adamant about that after I sold the place to him.”

Crane froze. “Describe him,” he ordered in a voice that seemed to be spiked with the cold of an Arctic iceberg.

“The new owner?” Jason tried to remember what he could about the man who had called himself Simon Rice. The more details he remembered, the wider Crane’s eyes got until he held up a hand, calling for silence. Jason trailed off, not sure what to think.

“His name isn’t Simon Rice,” Crane said and something in his voice made Morton turn. The concern in the blond’s eyes was impossible to miss. The waitress Patty chose that moment to arrive with their food. She sat platters in front of each man and rested a coffee carafe on a hot plate in the center of the table. “I’ll be back to check on you later,” she said without noticing the tension in the air, and she whisked herself off.

Even Chip’s appetite took a hit when faced with the pain and emotion in Lee’s voice. “Lee?” he asked as the other man seemed to stare off into space. “Lee?” Chip tried again, more forcefully as Lee finally shook his head.

“He’s back,” Lee whispered hoarsely.

Chip cast a glance toward Jason but then refocused everything on Lee. “Lee, who’s back?”

“At the time, he told me that his name was Kwan. If he has the admiral…God, we have to do something. I can’t just leave him there!” Lee’s voice rose a notch and it was clear to Jason that he was close to panicking.

Jason reached out and grabbed the man’s wrist, both as a way to anchor him to the present and to offer support. “Calm down, pal. I want to help you but I cannot bust in on the place unless I have more information.”

Chip broke in. By now he’d figured out what had Lee so…traumatized. That was the only word Morton could come up with. “Not here,” he said firmly.

Jason glared at him and Chip returned the glare with a cold expression of his own. “I want to know what’s going on. Don’t give me some pretty story, I want the all the gory details.” His denim blue eyes hardened as he and Chip stared at one another.

Chip sighed. Be careful what you wish for… “Is there a motel around here?”

Jason nodded. “I’ll take you there, if I get an explanation.”

Chip’s expression turned calculating and Jason had the feeling that despite the friendship he’d seen between these, he wouldn’t want to tick the big blond off. “Anyway we can get this to go?” Morton asked, indicating the meal neither he nor Lee had touched.

“Not a problem. Motel’s even got a microwave.” Jason got to his feet and went to hunt down the waitress. Chip wasted no time pouncing on Lee.

“What gives, pal? Now, while it’s just me,” Chip ordered.

Lee looked at Chip with haunted eyes. “Kwan is the one who oversaw my…conditioning. He was in charge when I was…brainwashed…to sabotage…” Lee’s voice broke and he closed his eyes, trying to move past the memories of that weekend, the drugs, the shock treatments, everything that had been done to him to break his ONI training and brainwash him.

Jason returned with three foam containers. Obviously he’d missed something but it was clear that, for the moment, neither man was ready to give in. As soon as the meals were packed up, Jason dropped several dollars into the table and waited for Crane and Morton to slide out of the booth.

“The meal’s on me. I’ll take you to the motel and I expect some answers,” he replied.

Morton turned to face him, something cold and deadly peering at him from within those ice blue orbs. “Be careful what you wish for, Sheriff.”

~<<>>~

Ben was alone in the living room, knowing he’d pushed Maggie too far. What she did with her life was none of his business. He was about to go find her and apologize when the house abruptly came back to life. The quiet hum that had been missing suddenly returned. There was a jubilant yelp from the kitchen as Maggie noticed the return of power to her home. But it was the softer sound of what Ben thought was some kind of pump that got his attention.

He knew that sound. Curious, he slowly got to his feet and followed the sound to the corner of the living room. A florescent bulb was flickering, finally coming back to life and letting out a soft blue-white glow, illuminating a large fish tank. The sound he had heard turned out to be the filter pump kicking back on. Ben judged it to be about a 75-gallon tank, although how he came up with that comparison was again a mystery. The tank was a reef tank, with rock and a few live plants as the habitat. There were several fish swimming about but one in particular grabbed his attention. It was a smallish fish, pale with dark stripes and the hint of yellow on its dorsal fin.

Acanthurus triostegus,” Ben muttered, bending down to get a better look at the fish as it darted about, nibbling on the rock. 

“What is what?” Maggie asked from behind. Ben stood up. “Acanthurus triostegus. Also known as a convict tang.” Ben indicated the pale fish in the tank.

Maggie grinned. “Okay, Mr. Marine Biologist, why does he eat at the rock? Jason got him for me as a present a few weeks ago and I don’t know much about him yet,” she asked.

For a second Ben gawked, trying to understand why the words ‘marine biologist’ seemed to echo in his head. Some kind of award for marine biology? But again the knowledge stayed just out of reach, teasing him with its existence. He focused on Maggie and her question. Without thinking about it, he answered. “Tangs are algae eaters. Obviously this one is doing a good job of keeping the algae cleaned out but he’s looking for more to eat, which is why he’s nibbling on the rock. Try getting a Gracillaria, a type of marine plant, either red or green, won’t matter. He’ll nibble on that between feedings. And it won’t hurt him to have lettuce or even broccoli to nibble on.”

Maggie was staring at him as if he’d suddenly sprouted gills. “How do you know that?” she asked quietly.

Ben looked at her, a measure of sadness and confusion in his brilliant blue eyes. “I honestly don’t know,” he replied before turning his attention back to the tank. There was something else here but he couldn’t put his finger on it. Something about the word ‘tang’ that had meaning…

Maggie left Ben with the tank, a little unnerved at how fast he had answered her question. Did he really not know where the knowledge came from or was he pretending? But why would he be pretending? What was he hiding from if this was an act? What was his mind trying to protect him from if this was real? Shaking her head, Maggie puttered about in the kitchen, putting dishes away and cleaning off the counter. She dumped out the old coffee grounds and continuing to wonder about the enigma she had allowed into her house. 

The next few hours followed a similar pattern. Something innocuous would trigger some brief summary of knowledge, leaving Maggie amazed and poor Ben confused as he tried to understand where the information had come from.

The first episode after the fish tank was about dinner. Maggie was commenting to herself about whether or not she had enough fixings for a salad when Ben began explaining about how some species of seaweed such as the Ulva lactuca and the Chondrus crispus were edible and made excellent salad material. When he was done explaining, he stood there with his mouth agape, trying to figure out how he knew that, growing frustrated at not finding the answers.

The most interesting thing that happened was an odd observation from Ben himself. Maggie caught him watching the fish tank again when he slowly turned to her. “The Tang,” he said slowly, running his fingers through his auburn hair. “The USS Tang, USS-563…she was a submarine…I had just made lieutenant…when I was assigned to her…” He sat down on the edge of the couch, his eyes confused.

“Lieutenant?” Maggie repeated. “If you served onboard a submarine, you were in the navy?”

Ben nodded. “I remember being promoted. The paperwork came through while I was stationed at Pearl…” Clearly he was trying to remember more and the frustration at not being able to recall more was painful to watch. “Why can’t I remember who I am?” he whispered.

Maggie sat down next to him and rested a hand on his. “It will come back. Maybe not today or tomorrow but you’ll remember. It might be a name or something. Maybe Jackie knows something about amnesia.”

“I don’t understand why I can remember such random things but I can’t recall my own name, or where I come from!” Ben exclaimed in frustration and he swarmed to his feet to begin a restless pacing from one end of the room to the other, despite the limp that slowed him down.

 The display of temper unnerved Maggie but she wasn’t afraid of him. She didn’t have anything she could say to him that would ease the frustration. Then she realized she took what she had for granted: her friends, Jason, and Jackie, even Wade.  He didn’t even know WHO he was, much less the names of family or friends. Maybe it was time to accept what she had and move on. Stop living in the past. Stop being afraid.

Meanwhile Ben continued to pace. He couldn’t keep doing this. Not having an identity was driving him crazy. “You said you have friends in law enforcement,” he began, chewing on the germ of an idea.

Maggie stayed seated on the couch and nodded. “I do. Wade Reed is the city chief of police and Jason Hendricks is the county sheriff. I know one or both of them can help.”

“I can’t keep doing this. I need to know who I am. The longer I stay here the more danger I could be putting you in. This has to end,” Ben said.

“I can call Wade, or Jason, and they’d be out here in a heartbeat. I know they can help you.”

Ben took a deep breath. “Make the call then, please. I need some answers.”

Maggie bounced off the couch. “You won’t regret this. I know you’re frustrated but I know this is the right thing to do,” she said and headed for the kitchen.

Ben stayed in the living room watching the fish tank. This had to work. Surely there was something somewhere, fingerprints, some data base of missing persons, something that could tell him who he was. He couldn’t endanger innocent people much longer.

It took a few minutes but Maggie finally reappeared. “How do you feel about a road trip?”

“Beg pardon?” Ben asked.

“Wade wants to help you but it would be better if we went to him. He’s got equipment at the station to run your fingerprints with.”

Ben nodded in agreement. “Alright. I, ah, could use some shoes.” He wiggled the toes of his bare feet and grinned.

Maggie smiled in response. “I think dad’s shoes might fit.”

Now donning socks and shoes, Maggie and Ben made the drive to town. The drive was quiet. Ben didn’t have much to say, he was too keyed up to start much conversation.

The police station was a small affair, but then Ben wasn’t really sure what he would have expected. A small town was going to have a small police force, and they wouldn’t have needed a large space. Maggie put the car into park and shut off the engines, giving him a reassuring smile. “Ready?” she asked.

“As I’ll ever be, I presume.” Ben opened his door and followed her in.

The first person they ran into wasn’t the person Maggie wanted to see. Jeff Russell had all the appeal of a snake and was twice as slimy. At least in Maggie’s opinion. Jeff had the attitude of someone who felt he was far more important than he really was and pretended to know more than he really did, bluffing his way through conversations, stealing bits of gossip and making like it was something he’d known before anyone else. Maggie felt the only reason he was deputy was because he didn’t have the pull to be chief and this was the most important position he could achieve.

“Hi, Maggie,” he said pleasantly. His expression went blank as he noticed the man she was with. For a second he stammered, the first time that Maggie had ever seen him speechless. “I…I’d like to stay…stay and chat, but I’m in a hurry…” he stuttered, and much to Maggie’s surprise, he practically flew out the door.

“Well,” she commented. “Not that I’m complaining. Never liked him anyway.” She dismissed the incident and led the way to the Chief of Police’s office. The door was opened and she stuck her head in, “Anybody home?” she called out.

“Hey, Mags!” Wade greeted her with a broad smile. “Nice to see you. Come in and tell me what this is all about,” he invited and Maggie entered the small office, indicating that Ben follow.

“This is the Chief of Police, Wade Reed. Wade, this is the man I was telling you about. For now you can call him Ben.”

Wade stuck his hand out to Ben. “Nice to meet you sir. Hopefully we can figure out who you really are, if I’m to believe Maggie.”

Ben shook Wade’s hand and for some reason he immediately liked the chief. There was that flash of a memory again, centered on the word ‘chief’. It was another of those words that had meaning, like the earlier echo of ‘admiral’. It was puzzling and frustrating, but Ben hoped that after this meeting they would be closer to solving this mystery of who he was.

Wade Reed was a stocky but solidly built man, less than six feet tall. He was about Ben’s height and build actually, with short brown hair and expressive dark green eyes topped by a pair of bushy eyebrows. On the whole, Wade reminded Ben of someone but once more the memory stayed just out of reach.

“The best way to do this is run your fingerprints. Might take a few hours,” Wade said and watched Maggie’s expression turn sad. “Sorry, Mags. This isn’t one of them crime shows. I don’t have a bunch of fancy computers to run this stuff through. Best I can do is sent the prints off to the state police over in Hardin and they’ll get back with me when they have a hit.”

Ben sighed. He’d been hoping for something sooner but he’d take anything. “Better than nothing,” he concluded. “Where do we start?”

They took Ben’s prints, and Wade explained that if at some point he’d ever been printed they would get a match. Wade noticed the raw red places on Ben’s wrists. “Know what caused them?” he asked.

Been shook his head. “No. We…we think maybe I was…tied down…for some reason,” he said haltingly.

“For what reason?” Wade pressed.

“I don’t know.” It seemed like a lame answer to Ben’s ears but it was the only answer he had right now. Wade didn’t press the issue, but picked up the fingerprint card and promised to return in a minute.

True to his word, he returned quickly and wanted to talk about what Ben could remember and if he recalled anything concerning the welts on his wrists. Ben slowly explained that he had matching welts on his ankles and then showed Wade the needle tracks on the inside of his arm. Wade studied them and made a few notes. “Blood tests could confirm the presence of any lingering drugs. Maybe Mags can take you down to the health department and have some blood drawn? The lab would get back to us in twenty-four hours,” Wade suggested.

Maggie nodded. “We can go over once we leave here,” she said. “If you want,” she added with a concerned glance at Ben.

Ben nodded, rubbing a hand over the back of his neck. “I don’t have an issue with finding out what I might have been injected with. It would settle my mind,” he said.

“Good, that’s one thing. We’ll type your blood while we’re at it. It might help match you up if you do turn up in a database. When you have it done, have Jean call me. We’ll pick up the tab. Have you recalled anything that might help us figure out who you are? Words? Places? Anything will help,” Wade urged.

Ben frowned. “Some words seem important. For some reason, the word ‘admiral’ has meaning. ‘Chief’ seems important.”

“Tell him about the Tang,” Maggie advised.

“The Tang?” Wade echoed.

Maggie leaned forward. “It was so weird. Ben was able to remember that he was transferred to the USS Tang when he made lieutenant and that he was stationed at Pearl,” she said excitedly.

Wade shifted his attention to Ben. “Really?” he asked, looking for confirmation.

The older man nodded, running his fingers through his auburn hair. “Really,” he replied.

“So Pearl would be Pearl Harbor? You’re navy?” the younger man surmised. “You realize this opens up a whole new area of searching. The navy WILL have your prints on file. I’ve already put in a request to have your prints run through all the armed services. This close to Fort Bradshaw, it occurred to me you could be army.”

Ben tilted his head slightly and Maggie recognized the look. He was remembering something.  She rested a hand on his arm. “Ben? What is it?” she asked.

“Fort Bradshaw? Lt. Gen Chris Goodman?” Ben asked.

Wade cocked a bushy eyebrow. “That’s right. Took command a little over a year ago. Name mean anything?”

Ben shook his head, not sure. He had the image of a party? A football game? And something about steak dinners? Ben concentrated on the fleeting memory…”A bet,” he began, feeling like he was trying to grab at smoke rings. “A steak dinner against a lobster dinner…and a football game…” Ben’s voice trailed off. His blue eyes held shadows of confusion.

Wade however had a mischievous gleam in his eye. “You just named someone who might know you. Let me make some calls and see if I can’t get a hold of the guy and see if your description jogs a memory.”

Maggie beamed, her blue eyes dancing merrily. “See? I told you Wade could help.”

Wade waved a hand. “It’s Ben who made the connection. I’m just following leads.” Wade then suggested the idea of getting a tally of any birthmarks or scars. That was an interesting conversation as Ben recalled the scars on various parts of his body, from the supposed bullet wounds on his shoulder to the mysterious claw-like marks on his back.

“Maybe you’re a game warden?” Wade suggested. “Tangled with a bear once upon a time?”

Ben shrugged. “Whoever I am, it seems to be a fast-paced life. I just hope all this leads to something.”

Wade nodded and leaned back into his chair. “If there is a missing person’s report on you, or even an outstanding warrant, although I know you didn’t want to hear about that, it will come up. Mags, I’ll give you a call when I hear something. I don’t know how long it will take. Depends on how backlogged they are. I will also try to contact the folks at Fort Bradshaw and see if I can talk to the CO. 

Maggie got to her feet. “It takes as long as it takes, I suppose. Wade, thanks a lot. Jackie’s not too keen on this. She thinks he’s some kind of axe murderer.” She said with a nod toward Ben.

Wade grinned. “Jackie is just looking out for you. Ben, whoever you are, it’s been a pleasure meeting you. Looking forward to knowing who you really are.”

The meeting had taken about an hour and a half. Ben felt something of a relief as he got back in the car. “I like him. He reminds me of someone,” Ben said as Maggie started the car up.

“I’ve known Wade since high school. He’s a great guy. At some point he and Jackie might get married,” Maggie explained as she pulled the car out of the parking lot and into traffic. She never noticed Jeff sitting in his squad car at the corner of the building, watching them leave.

Their first stop after leaving the police station was to the health department. In a small town like Red Mills, Ben was getting used to everyone knowing everyone so it was no surprise when Maggie addressed everyone by first name. Quickly she introduced Ben to the head nurse on duty, Jean Cooper, a middle-age lady with snow white hair and a penchant for announcing she was single. Maggie went on to explain that they were there for a blood test for Ben.

The duty nurse looked Ben up and down with an odd look in her eye. “Just what kind of test did you want, hun?” she asked. Ben felt like he was the prize bull at the county fair. He heard Maggie snort.

“Jean, he’s not the top selling stallion at the auction, for crying out loud,” she muttered and Jean laughed.

“You got my hopes up, Maggie. Pickings are getting slim in this town,” she said as she bustled out getting what she needed to draw the sample for the test. “Seriously, darling, what kind of tests you want us to run?”

“Call Wade. It was his idea,” Maggie said.

Jean nodded as she carefully started the procedure. Ben watched with a certain detachment, assaulted by the familiar sense he’d done this more than once. The antiseptic smells of the soaps and cleaners, everything about the office reminded him of someplace else. A hospital? No, the room he saw was too small for a hospital and it didn’t look right. Another question that he’d save to answer when he finally knew who he was.

Jean drew several vials of blood and promised to call Wade for further information on what tests to run. Ben and Maggie left the health department and Ben felt compelled to ask, “Does she look at every man like that?”

Maggie giggled. She couldn’t help it. “She does but she doesn’t mean anything by it. She’s an incredible flirt. You just have to know how to handle her.”

Since they were already in town, Maggie made the suggestion that they stop off and pick up something from the deli for dinner. Jackie would be home in a while and Maggie thought it would be a quick fix for an already overloaded day. So they stopped at the local grocery store, made a few selections and in no time were carrying out three loaded Styrofoam trays to the car. With dinner out of the way, Maggie pointed the car in the direction of home.

Just outside of the city limits, a dark blue car pulled off a side road and moved in behind her. She glanced in the rearview again, not happy with how close the dark car was tailing her. “Back off, would you?” she muttered and urged a little more speed out of the car, hoping to widen the distance between her and them.

Ben also glanced in the mirror. “A little close aren’t they?” he commented.

“That’s what I was thinking,” Maggie replied. Instead of widening the gap, the car behind her also sped up leaving nothing but a few inches between them.

With a sense of growing panic, Maggie dug out her cell phone and managed to dial a memorized phone number. She nearly cried when the connection was picked up. “Jason?” she said, hearing her own voice breaking and hating herself for having to call.

In her ear, Jason’s voice was calm and reassuring but concerned. “Mags, honey, what’s wrong?” he asked,

Maggie couldn’t keep the fear out of her voice as the first bump on the rear of the car jolted the occupants. “Jason, somebody’s following me,” she whimpered, trying to keep control of the car with one hand while holding onto the cell phone with her other. A second jolt to the bumper forced a scream from her throat and she dropped the phone in the floor. Ben could hear a voice calling Maggie’s name but he couldn’t reach the phone since it had rolled under Maggie’s seat.

The car behind them continued to bump the back of the car and Maggie, in tears, was having a hard time keeping control of the car. Ben, desperate to help her, grabbed the wheel with both his hands. “Faster,” he urged, and steered the car sharply to the left. “Maggie, faster. Let me steer,” Ben said letting some inner instinct take over.

Maggie responded by pushing the accelerator to the floor. The car shot forward, giving them some breathing space. But it didn’t last long. The car behind them also sped up.

“Just keep going. If we can make it to your house we stand a chance,” Ben said, hoping he was right, hoping he could protect this innocent woman who had tried to help him from getting further tangled in the threads of his unknown past.

~<<>>~

Jason pointed out the motel in town and watched as the blond shifted into what Jason could only describe as Big Brother mode. How on earth he got by with it when Crane was technically his superior officer was a mystery to Jason. Unless they were closer friends than Jason suspected.

Morton pretty much took over, booking the rooms, paying for both and taking possession of the bags of food. While Crane wasn’t exactly incapable of functioning he was clearly in some level of shock and he didn’t argue with Morton when the blond steered him into one of the motel rooms and dropped the food onto the table. He paused, pulled his cell phone from his pocket and made a quick check for missed calls. He then set the phone beside the three cartons. “Watch him,” Morton ordered as if Jason were one of his crew and vanished out the door. For a second Jason wondered what Morton meant when Crane gave him a watery grin.

“Ignore him. He’s been doing that since the academy.  He takes his job as XO seriously.”

“He’s concerned about you. That didn’t exactly look healthy. You gonna be okay?” Jason asked.

Lee nodded and ran a hand through his dark hair. “Fine. I just…I just wasn’t expecting to run into Kwan again. Once was enough.”

“Who is this Kwan anyhow? I take it he’s not a developer like he told me,” Jason surmised.

By now Morton had returned with two cups of coffee. “Found a coffee maker in the lobby,” he explained as he handed a cup to Crane. The dark-haired man wrapped both hands around the cup, as if the coffee were some kind of magic elixir destined to cure the world’s ills.

Morton plopped down into one of the two chairs in the room. “We’re in this together. We should drop titles and surnames. Everybody calls me Chip,” he said. He pointed to Crane. “He’s Lee.”

“Jason, then,” the sheriff replied. “Now, do I get an explanation about who this Kwan is?”

What followed was a story that made Jason sick to his stomach. His opinion of Lee rose considerably as he understood some of what he’d gone through at the hands of the man named Lao Kwan. Even Chip looked sick, as if he hadn’t heard the whole story yet. Maybe he hadn’t, Jason didn’t know. He did know one thing: If this Kwan was he same man he sold Edgewood to, there was serious trouble in his little county.

“So you think that this guy, Kwan, the same guy I sold the property Edgewood to, has your admiral?” Jason surmised when Lee was finished with his narrative.

Lee nodded. “I do. Everything we found, all the hints and clues, indicated that whoever did this had the money to organize such a kidnapping. If he has the admiral…” Lee trailed off, unable to finish. He stood up and dropped his empty cup into the trash and then went to the small bathroom, closing the door.

“This admiral, he means a lot to you, doesn’t he? He’s not just your boss?” Jason asked softly, hearing water running from the bathroom.

Chip sighed. “There is no easy way to explain Admiral Nelson. He’s not like any other man I know. He’s more to Lee. They have a…a bond. That’s the best word I can come up with. If something…permanent…happens to the admiral, I don’t know how Lee’s going to take it,” he explained.

“What does this Admiral Nelson look like? In case I happen to run across him,” Jason asked.

Chip described the admiral as best as he could, seeing those blue eyes staring at him in his mind. That glare could bore holes through a titanium bulkhead. He tried to convey the stocky, solid build, the short auburn hair, and the attitude. That was the hardest to convey. The admiral was intensely curious, highly temperamental, but there was a side to him that very few people even knew existed. Chip had seen that side, the gentle, forgiving nature that made Nelson human. The side that Lee seemed to bring to the surface when no one else could.

Jason grew quiet. Lee finally came out of the bathroom, the collar of his white shirt and his bangs damp. “What’s next?” he asked, directing his question to Jason.

“We bring in the city chief of police. He’s a personal friend, I trust him like no other. I want his input on how to deal with this whole mess,” Jason said.

Lee frowned. “I wanted to keep this quiet. I’ve already told you more than I intended.”

“Lee, I need backup on this. Between me and Wade, we can figure out the best way to approach this situation, legally,” Jason emphasized. 

“We’ve wasted enough time as it is,” Lee insisted, “If Kwan is here, and he has he admiral, he’s already had him for five days. He had me for a weekend and broke me in forty-eight hours.”

Jason shook his head and tried to reason with Lee. “Wade can help us with that. Besides, there is the offhand chance you’re wrong. I can’t risk that kind of fiasco if this guy isn’t the Kwan you know and he’s just planning on developing the property like he told me.” Jason would have said more but his cell phone started ringing. Rolling his eyes, he pulled the phone out of his shirt pocket and glanced at the ID. Lee saw his eyes widen and Jason muttered, “I have to take this, excuse me.” Jason answered the phone, the over tones of concern and worry hard to miss. “Mags, honey, what’s wrong?”

Lee couldn’t hear the other side of the conversation but whatever it was had Jason on his feet. “Maggie! Where are you? Honey, answer me!” he pleaded. He stared at the phone then jerked his attention to his audience. “I have to go. Talk to Wade Reed, downtown at the station. Tell him I sent you and he’ll listen. I really have to go,” he instructed and blew out the door, leaving Lee and Chip more than a little confused.

“We talk to this Wade Reed person?” Chip asked.

Lee sighed. He didn’t want any more people involved, but Jason had been right. What if he was wrong? What if he was jumping at shadows and envisioning the worst, letting his worry over what might have happened to the admiral get the best of him. He got to his feet and pointed to the door. “Let’s unload our gear and see if we can find this guy. No sense in waiting.”

With duffle bags unloaded out of the rental and dropped off in respective rooms, Chip took possession of the keys and took command of the car. Lee slid into the passenger’s seat, grumbling softly but allowing Chip to take over. No one else would have dared such a stunt and Chip knew it. As Chip started the car up and pulled out of the lot, he hoped this Wade person was as reliable as Jason had painted him to be.

~<<>>~

Wade was knee deep in reports when a light knock on the door distracted him. He glanced up to see two men, one dark-haired, one blond, both with serious expressions on their faces. “Can I help you gentlemen?” he asked politely.

The dark-haired man, obviously the leader, entered the small office. “Lee Crane, this is Chip Morton. Jason Hendricks said you might be able to help us.”

“Wade Reed,” the chief said, standing and extending a hand to the pair. They shook and Wade indicated that they take a seat. “This must be important. What does Jason think I can help you with?

A bit haltingly, Lee slowly explained the story of the missing admiral, the clues that had lead them here, and the chance that the admiral was being held in the old hospital. The more Lee talked, the more Wade became convinced that this missing admiral of theirs was Maggie’s mysterious Ben. “This admiral of yours, he got any scars or anything that might help identify him?” Wade asked.

Lee paled. Why…? Shaking his head slightly and trying to remain optimistic, Lee answered. “Several gunshot wounds, right shoulder,” he replied. It was the first thing that came to mind, since he himself had given the admiral one of those scars. Unconsciously, Lee tightened an arm over his midsection and the scar hidden there.

“On his back,” Chip interjected. “There are several long scars. They’ll look like claw marks.” They looked like claw marks because that’s what they were. No sense in trying to explain that story. Who would believe a werewolf?

The fax machine on the edge of the desk burped to life, spitting out several sheets of paper. Wade confiscated them and scanned the tightly packed wording. He smiled and glanced up to the two men. “Gentlemen, I don’t know how to explain this, but I think I found your admiral.”

~<<>>~

Maggie choked back a cry of relief as she saw her house coming up. Only Ben’s erratic swerving of the car across the road had kept the second car from smashing into them again. Frantically she began to break and Ben spun the steering wheel hard to the right, whipping the car into the drive way. The back end slid out from under the car and the car twisted in the drive, sliding on the gravel.

The car finally came to a halt and behind them the other car was pulling into the drive. Maggie stumbled out of the car, fumbling for the key to unlock the back door. Ben wasn’t worried about such details. Grabbing the woman by one arm and ignoring the weakness that seemed to plague him since he’d awakened that morning he plowed up the steps of the porch and snatched the screen door open. With one kick he knocked the back door open and threw Maggie inside. His left leg screamed in protest but he ignored it and focused on the situation at hand. “A gun?” he shouted, staying between himself and their pursuers.

Maggie ran toward the back of the house, grabbed the Winchester shotgun from the hall. “Here!” she shouted and gave the shotgun a toss. Ben caught the weapon in mid-air and spun around to meet whoever was after them.

One man burst through the back door, brandishing a gun. Ben didn’t wait for an explanation or introduction. He fired one blast of the shotgun, catching their assailant in the chest. His body was flung backwards into the wall and slid to the floor.

Time stood still. Ben crept forward, every sense on high alert. He felt something behind him and dared a glance. It was Maggie, wide-eyed with fear but holding out a handful of shotgun shells. Ben said nothing but accepted the ammunition and jammed them into his pocket. He indicated that Maggie stay inside and he slipped quietly toward the backdoor again.

He forgot about the front door. It exploded inward in a shower of splinters and Ben whirled around, moving much faster than even he expected. He brought the shotgun up again and fired a second time, taking out a chunk of the door just above the intruder’s head. Ben was down to one more shot and he knew he had to make it count. The intruder was coming right for him. The assailant smiled and raised his own handgun. Ben took aim with the Winchester.

One wall of Maggie’s living room was suddenly coated in blood, brains and bone as the shot practically blew the man’s head off. The lifeless body fell to the floor.

In the distance, a siren could be heard coming up the road and growing louder. Maggie eased around the corner of the door and saw the carnage, growing pale as she made the connection of what was now covering her wall. The siren grew louder and she heard the crunch of tires in her drive. With a body at the back door and the front, she had to choose which door was the best exit. The decision was made for her when the tall blond figure of Jason Hendricks appeared in the door.

Ignoring the dead body, not caring what anybody thought about her, Maggie threw herself at Jason, trembling and crying as the adrenaline of the last few minutes began to wear off. “Hush now, everything’s okay. I’ve got you now,” Jason whispered to her as she held on to him as if her life depended on it. The nearly headless body in the living room made him half sick and he tightened his grip on the quaking young woman in his arms. He cast a puzzled look at Ben.

“Who are you? What the hell happened here?” he demanded.

“For now, I’m Ben. There’s another body in the back. They were chasing us and we managed to make it this far,” Ben explained, knowing that a far better description was needed to explain the bloodshed Ben himself was clearly responsible for.

“What were they after?” The man, who Ben assumed to be Jason, asked. He pulled Maggie close to him, as if trying to shield her from the horror of the carnage inside her own home, wrapping an arm around her waist protectively.

“Me, I assume,” Ben replied dryly. The answer infuriated Jason and he balled a fist, trying hard not to go for his own weapon. In his arms he felt Maggie take a deep breath.

“Jason, please don’t get angry with him,” Maggie said feeling Jason tense as he was about to explode into a tirade about putting her in danger. “He wanted to leave and I wouldn’t let him,” she said, wiping her eyes with the back on one hand.

Jason abruptly snapped his mouth shut as he finally got a good look at the older man. The height, the stocky build, the hair and even the eyes…was it possible?

“You said your name was Ben?” Jason asked. Gently he tugged Maggie outside, indicating Ben should follow. He did, without relinquishing his hold on the shotgun. Something told him that there would be other attempts and he wasn’t ready to go about unarmed just yet.

Jason guided Maggie to the passenger’s side of his truck. “Honey, I want you to stay right here. I want to talk with Ben for a minute.”

Maggie nodded, feeling safe inside the big Dodge. Jason took a few steps away from the car and focused on the older man. “You said your name was Ben?” he repeated.

“Ben was as good a name as any. When I remember my real name you’ll be among the first to know,” Ben replied to Jason’s question. He stood calmly, waiting for Jason’s next comment. He wasn’t ready for what Jason said.

Jason smiled. A real smile. “Mister, I think you’ve got friends looking for you.”

~<<>>~

Ben was trying to wrap his head around the fact that someone knew who he was. “I’m an admiral?” he asked again, certainly not feeling like an admiral.

Jason was laughing softly. “That’s what I was told. You are Admiral Harriman Nelson, according to my sources. A four-star admiral with an incredible IQ, if they are to be believed. And they have torn up half the country looking for you.”

“And I have people looking for me?” Ben—Admiral Nelson—asked, still having trouble believing things.

“One step at a time,” Jason suggested. “I need to call this in first. Maggie, you can’t stay here tonight,” Jason said.

Maggie tilted her head up to glare at him, pushing back a stray lock of brown hair from her eyes with a still shaking hand. “And where do you propose I stay?” she asked coldly.

Jason grinned. “I have plenty of space. I promise to be a good boy,” he said batting his eyes at Maggie.

She sighed in response. “I have two dead men in my house and an admiral who doesn’t know he’s an admiral and you make jokes,” she chided. “I suppose I need to call Jackie and tell her not to come back here. She can stay at Wade’s, I guess.”

Jason still couldn’t stop from smiling. “Sorry. Seriously. Let me call this in and I’ll take you to meet your friends,” he said to Ben. “You need to stay with me anyhow until we get the details of this mess worked out. You just admitted to killing two men,” he reminded him.

Ben cradled the shotgun, his expression hardening. “They broke into the house. They’d have killed Maggie,” he said.

Jason swallowed. “I believe you. I can tell the front door was broke down. But I still have to play this by the book.”

“Jason! You can’t arrest him!” Maggie exclaimed, grabbing on to Jason’s arm in distress. “If it weren’t for him...” she trailed off, trying not to think about it.

Jason put his hand on her shoulders. “Calm down. I said I was doing this by the book. I just didn’t say whose,” he said with a grin. He turned his attention back to Ben. “I’ll have Wade meet us at my place, should be easier that way,” he said, guiding Maggie back to the truck. “Sit and stay. You’re in no shape to argue with me right now,” he told her. Maggie glared at him but did as she was told. Jason then slipped into the driver’s seat and reached for the radio. While he called the shooting in, Ben continued to muse over the information.

An admiral? Well, he had remembered being a lieutenant. Would he remember the people who were looking for him? What kind of friends were they? Close friends? Family? Not having the answers but knowing they were close was making Ben antsy. He had gotten used to being called Ben. What did his friends call him? Ben tried to be patient but he had the feeling that patience wasn’t one of his virtues.

~<<>>~

Wade hung up his cell phone and flashed a triumphant smile at Lee and Chip. “Jason is 99% sure that Maggie’s friend Ben is your Admiral Nelson,” he announced.

“Ben?” Lee echoed, feeling the second, though less incapacitating, shock of the day.

Wade cocked a bushy eyebrow skyward. “That’s what Maggie was calling him. Seems the guy’s got some kind of amnesia and can’t even remember his own name. Something wrong?”

Morton grinned. “Benjamin is Lee’s middle name. If the admiral has amnesia, he apparently thought enough of the name Benjamin to use it

Lee was still something of a bit shell shocked. “The admiral once told me it was Hebrew, for ‘son of my right hand’,” he said.

Morton laughed softly. “Well, I think that’s certainly appropriate. So who’s this Maggie and how’d she find the admiral?” Chip asked.

“She’s one of the locals. Lives about ten minutes outside of town. Owns a little farm. She came in with this gentlemen, explained the man had amnesia and could I help them figure out who he was. I took his prints and sent them off to the state boys. They went down to the health department for blood samples but I won’t have them back till tomorrow.”

Lee and Chip shot each other concerned looks. “Why a blood test?” Lee asked.

“Whoever he is, he had needle tracks on the inside of his arm. He didn’t have any clue as to why he had them, but the evidence looked like he may have been held down and injected with something. The blood tests were to determine what, if anything, was in his system. Buddy, you don’t look so good, you okay?” Wade asked as Lee turned positively pale. The news that the admiral had possibly been drugged not only confirmed his suspicions but chilled his soul.

“I’m fine,” Lee responded and Chip snorted.

Wade had no idea what Morton thought was so funny. “Jason says he’s taking Maggie and this Ben to his place. It’s safer there.”

Chip was quick to interrupt. “Why is it safer?”

Wade stood. “Looks like your admiral shot and killed two men breaking and entering into Maggie’s house.”

Lee gripped the chair arms. “Is he hurt?” he asked.

“Who? Your admiral? No. Guy doesn’t have a scratch,” Wade said. “Scared poor Maggie half to death though. Jason has your guy in protective custody until they get the details all worked out. He’s not been arrested. The shooting was self-defense but Jason wants to make sure his bases are covered.”

Lee and Chip exchanged another glance. Wade had the weird feeling that even though neither had said a word, volumes were being spoken between the two. It was a little unnerving.  “If you fellas are up to it I can take you out to Jason’s place. It would be easier if we all met in one central location,” he said, hoping to break up the silent chain of communication.

Crane’s eyes lit up. “That’s the best suggestion I’ve heard all day,” he answered.

Wade pushed past his desk, moving toward the door. “Great. No point in wasting time. Let’s take a road trip then,” he invited and lead the two out of his office down the hall. As the trio exited the building, Jeff stepped out from around the corner. He pinched his lower lip between two fingers, deep in thought. He would have to move fast if he was going to make this work. First he needed to make sure the motel was being watched. They’d have to go back there eventually.  If he played his cards right, not only would he recover Nelson but he’d have Crane and Morton to turn over. Should be worth a pretty penny.

~<<>>~

Jason’s place turned out to be a small frame house just inside the city limits.  A three door cinderblock garage, larger than the house, sat off to the side. A tan and brown Ford Bronco sat in the driveway. The two back wheels were off and the back end rested on a pair of jacks. The gravel drive was littered with various car parts, soda and beer bottles and a large tool box, closed against the elements.  Several large trees grew around the house, including maples and a few walnuts. The yard hadn’t seen a mower in a few weeks and the weeds around the house and front porch needed a good trim. Wade didn’t make any excuses for his friend as Lee and Chip got out of their car to wait.

Lee was watching Chip when the blond jammed a hand into his pocket. There was a brief look of panic then a calculating glow lit up in the back of his blue eyes. “I left my cell phone at the hotel,” Chip said finally.

Lee couldn’t help himself. “You? Mr. Ever-Ready? You forgot your cell phone?” he teased.

Chip threw him a sour look. “That’s Mr. Ever-Prepared,” Chip corrected emphasizing the last word. “Ever-Ready makes me sound like the Energizer Bunny.”

Lee wasn’t done. “I’ll bet you look good in pink. And you do have big feet,” he said.

Chip did not dignify Lee’s smart-mouth comments. Instead he held his hand out. “If you’ll give me the keys I’ll go back and get my phone. Won’t be gone twenty minutes,” he said.

Lee, still grinning, handed off the car keys. “You haven’t lost the motel keys, have you?”

“No, I haven’t lost the motel keys,” Chip grumbled, half mimicking Lee’s tone. To prove his point he pulled out two credit card-like objects from his jeans back pocket. “Keyless entry locks. No keys. So there,” Morton supplied with a short raspberry. Lee was still grinning as Chip got in the car and started it up. He pulled out of the gravel drive in a haze of dust and exhaust.

Wade watched the whole exchange with a little bit of confusion. As he parked his rear on the top step of the deck he decided he really didn’t want to know.

~<<>>~

There were few cars in the small parking lot as Chip drove up and shut the engine off. He headed straight for Lee’s hotel room. He hadn’t bothered to check his and he distinctly remembered setting the phone down on the table with his empty coffee cup.

He swiped the card through the lock and pushed the door open. The hotel was dark and cool, the drapes still pulled and the air conditioner humming happily away. Chip went straight for the small table across from the bed and was pleased to note he’d been right. His cell phone was resting right where he thought it was. A quick check proved he had no missed calls and Chip signed in relief.  He was just about to stuff the phone in his pocket when he heard something out of place.

Chip froze, all his senses on alert. There was someone here. Nothing in the room looked disturbed. The small room was short on hiding places, with no closet. That just left the bathroom and the door was cracked, a sliver of black against the brown door.

Cautiously, Morton dropped the phone back to the table and pulled the Sig out from the holster under his left arm. Pigs would fly on the day he left the institute grounds without a weapon. He flicked the safety off, listening to the air conditioner’s hum. That seemed to be the only sounds he could hear. Nothing else seemed out of place and for a second Chip thought he’d been overreacting. He was just about cancel his internal alert when an arm snaked around his neck, pulling back and catching him in a chokehold. Or tried too. His assailant hadn’t anticipated Morton’s reflexes or his physical condition.

Chip grabbed onto his assailant’s arm and threw himself forward, the body behind him sailing over top his and landing with a slam onto the floor. The gun in Chip’s hand also went flying, landing somewhere on the floor of the dark room. His victory was short-lived as a second assailant attacked. He was tackled around the waist and he went down, rolling with his attacker and colliding with a wall. He took a punch to the jaw that snapped his head back and stunned him for a breath.

That breath was what his attacker needed. Chip struggled to get his feet under him only to find his assailant was straddling his waist, trapping his arms at his sides. He thrashed, trying to free himself but he didn’t have enough leverage to throw the man off. Someone out of Chip’s line of sight handed his attacker a short length of tape and Chip’s fear spiked when the man, dressed in black and wearing a black ski mask, pressed the tape over his mouth.  Terror skyrocketed as the masked attacker pulled a syringe from a front jacket pocket and Chip struggled to get to his feet. He couldn’t find leverage, pinned as he was.

The needle inched closer and Chip tossed his head wildly, trying to avoid being injected. The second figure knelt down behind him and took Chip’s head between his hands, forcing him to hold still. The needle sank into his neck like a sliver of ice. Immediately his muscles seemed to turn to cold jelly. He had no control and he found all of his other senses beginning to wink off like candles being blown out. He could hear his attackers talking but the words were watery and growing more distant with each passing second. There was nothing for Chip to hold on to as he slowly slid into the darkness.

~<<>>~

Half an hour and passed and still Chip wasn’t back. Lee wasn’t particularly worried. Knowing Chip’s appetite it wouldn’t surprise him to find out Chip found a fast food place and he’d come back with a bag of burgers or tacos. Or took a few minutes to warm up some of the leftovers they’d abandoned. Chip’s cast-iron stomach was legendary for handling things that would send mere mortals into food poisoning.

It didn’t help Lee’s growing restlessness. He was concerned about what kind of shape the admiral was in. Amnesia? Would the admiral know him? Remember Seaview? Lee sighed and tried not to dwell on what he couldn’t change. He’d deal with it when it happened.

The squawk of the radio in the police car distracted Lee. Wade was sitting in the front seat of the cruiser and he grabbed for the mike. “Wade here, go ahead, Jeff.”

A voice Lee didn’t know came over the radio. “Wade, we got a problem out on Tucker’s farm. We got a cabinet truck in the ditch, took out half of Tucker’s fence row facing the road and we’ve got about a hundred head of cattle roaming loose. We really need you out here. Tucker’s boiling mad.”

Wade sighed. “Yeah, sure. I’ll be out there. Just hold everything till I get there,” Wade instructed. With a groan he hung the mike back up and glanced up to Lee. “You heard that I assume?”

Lee grinned. “Duty calls,” he replied.

“Don’t it though? Is your friend lost or something?” Wade asked as he glanced up the road.

Lee shrugged. “I’m sure he’ll be along shortly. Probably stopped for something to eat.” Lee didn’t want to admit that he was starting to get a little concerned himself. Chip didn’t poke along. He had something to do and he did it. However, Lee was able to keep the concern out of his voice.

Wade started the car up. “Been nice meeting you. I hope Ben is the guy you were looking for. Hopefully you guys can help him remember who he is. Seemed kinda sad when I talked to him,” Wade said.

This time Lee couldn’t keep the emotion out of his expression. “I can imagine,” he answered softly.

Wade turned the car around, taking time to toss Lee one last departing wave as he pulled onto the main road. Lee watched the car fade into the distance. He sighed and glanced at his watch once more. Surely Jason would be coming along soon. Trying to relax and calm his frazzled nerves, Lee settled on the step of the porch, listening to the sounds of the evening. The birds singing in the trees overhead. The buzz and hum of late season insects. The dry rustle of autumn leaves as the late October breeze blew. Not unpleasant sounds but not sounds that someone who spend most of his life under the sea was exposed to very often. It was almost soothing until he remembered that his best friend and mentor had been missing for close to a week.

A car coming down the road pulled Lee’s attention back to the present. For a moment the thought it was Wade coming back but the man who stepped out of the car wasn’t Wade. Shorter with a dark buzzed haircut and unassuming looks, Lee had never seen him before. Used to relying on his instincts, Lee didn’t like this newcomer. There was something about him that Lee couldn’t identify. Something dark and foul.

“You Lee Crane?” he asked.

Lee stood. “Who are you?”

The stranger’s expression indicated impatience but quickly dissipated. “Lieutenant Jeff Russell. Deputy Chief of Police. Jason sent me out here to get you. Said your admiral remembered something about where he’d been held.”

Lee’s internal alarms were blaring as loud as the klaxons aboard Seaview. “Why didn’t they come out here first? I thought that was the plan?” Lee countered.

The reaction was instant. Before Lee could react, Jeff had pulled his service weapon and had it trained on Lee. At that distance, he had no chance to even make the attempt to get the gun away from the deputy. Instead Lee slowly raised his hands to indicate he had no weapons. 

“Don’t try anything funny. I know all about you. Kwan wants you alive but if I have to shoot out a kneecap to get you back…well, don’t tempt me. Turn around.”

Lee had no choice. There were plenty of things Jeff could do to him that would hurt like hell but leave him alive. At least this way he was whole and able to affect an escape if possible. He could feel the barrel of the gun against his shoulder as Jeff pulled his wrist around and Lee felt a handcuff close around it. His other wrist was next. Jeff was careful to take Lee’s wallet and cell phone after cuffing him, putting an end to the thought Lee might be able to signal Chip for help.

“Now,” Jeff ordered, “in the car. Back seat. Remember. Kneecap. Shoulder. Makes no never mind to me, as long as you’re alive.”

Lee was pushed roughly in the direction of the car and he staggered forward. Jeff wrenched open the door and Lee was shoved into the back. He fell forward, landing on his side in the seat and the door was slammed shut behind him. His gut twisted as he was sickened at how easily he had fallen into this trap. He felt like an idiot. Awkwardly Lee managed to sit up, his hands feeling the back of the seat. There was nothing out of place. He began twisting his wrists in the cuffs, wondering if maybe he could pull free. Jeff had closed them up tight and Lee couldn’t get free. Lee saw Jeff glance at the rearview at him.

“You know, your admiral got away from us once,” he began. “Drove a screw through one poor bastard’s eye. Must of hurt like hell. We got careless, thinking the old man was in worse shape than he was.”

Lee wanted to say something but he wasn’t going to antagonize the man. Jeff was just looking for a reason to put a bullet in him.  “I couldn’t believe my luck when I saw the old man at the police station with Maggie. Was no problem to let Kwan know where he was. Should be no problem getting him back.”

Lee felt his breathing hitch. Before or after Jason found the admiral, he wondered but he stayed silent. Jeff was having too much fun gloating and Lee needed as much information as he could get.

“I got lucky again when I walked by Wade’s office and overheard you three talking. Kwan’s been hot to get his hands on you for some reason, and you should have heard him when I told him you were in town. I goofed up on that one, but it was a mistake I easily rectified. Kwan’s gonna have a field day with you, pal. I’m gonna retire rich.”

They pulled off the main road at one point. Lee didn’t recognize where they were as they pulled onto a rutted one-lane road that was more goat track than anything. It ran along the edge of a cornfield for several miles while the trees grew larger and denser. Eventually they came upon the edifice that was once Edgewood hospital, huge and sprawling, like some grotesque growth on the land. Jeff finally parked the car up close to the building. He got out and opened the back door.

“Out,” he ordered. Lee complied. Once more he felt the gun against the shoulder blade and was forced to walk. They entered the building and walked down a long corridor. Jeff kept up a steady pressure on his shoulders and directed him down various corridors. Only Lee’s training was able to keep him from getting completely lost. Finally they ended up in what felt like a large open room, judging from the echo of their steps. Most of the lights were out as Lee tried to see into the darkness. Standing in the open under the lit bank of lights were three other men, armed and waiting. Lee’s gut contracted further. Jeff then did an odd thing: he unlocked the handcuffs and took a step back. Lee rubbed at his wrists, trying to see into the darkness.

The subject of one of Lee’s worst nightmares stepped out of the shadows: Lao Kwan—the operative from the People’s Republic who had tortured him over the course of a weekend. By the time Kwan was done with him, Lee was calling himself an agent for the People’s Republic and would have willingly killed Nelson. He had certainly tried. Kwan smiled. Lee couldn’t stop the chill from climbing up his spine, making his whole body quake in fear.

“What have you done with the admiral?” Lee asked, balling his hands into tight fists, wishing he could wrap his hands around Kwan’s neck and squeeze. Kwan frowned theatrically.

 “What? No warm greetings? No reminiscing about the last time you and I met?” he asked.

”There’s nothing warm in what I want to say to you, Kwan. You have me, now let the admiral go. That’s what this is all about, isn’t it?” Lee asked coldly.

Kwan took a few steps forward, stepping further into the light. Nothing about him had changed, from what Lee could remember. The same cold eyes, the same emotionless smile, the voice that had haunted his nightmares for weeks afterwards…What is your name? The voice taunted from his memory. Another shiver threatened to swim up Lee’s spine but he did his best to repress it.

“I wouldn’t worry about your admiral. You are in my domain once more. What happened to him should be the least of your worries,” Kwan said.

Lee was furious. “Don’t toy with me, damn it! Where’s the admiral?” he roared, trying to keep his temper in check and failing miserably. The fact that the admiral had been in the hands of this man since his abduction was enough to make Lee sick with fear and worry. Kwan had broken him in two days. He had the admiral for more than five. Was there anything left of that brilliant mind? Remembering that Wade had mentioned amnesia only made the nausea rolling in his gut worse.

“I tell you how this is going to work. You’re going to have a seat in this chair,” he began, as his hands caressed the back of the piece of furniture in question. “And then you and I are going to pick up where we left off. Only this time when you leave you’ll be a willing agent of my county and the conditioning will be permanent.”

“Like hell I will,” Lee spat viciously. No way was Kwan getting him in that chair again. Never. Lee couldn’t take his eyes off the hideous chair with its straps and the memories of three horrific days. Had the admiral sat in the chair? Had he suffered through what Lee had experienced?

“You will do as I say willingly or I’ll have you forced into the chair. Go willingly and I won’t have to use any persuasive measures,” Kwan said slowly.

The knot of fear in the pit of Lee’s stomach tightened. “What do you mean ‘persuasive measures’?” he asked, fearing the answer. Kwan snapped his fingers and the bank of lights behind him flared to life, illuminating the entire room and the figure dangling by his wrists in the center of the chamber. Lee felt his stomach churn and felt the bile rising to the top of his throat. It was Chip.

One eye was already starting to swell, and blood had dried in a crust around his nose, staining the grey duct tape over his mouth. His eyes held more than a measure of fury and disgust as they swept over Kwan and the four men flanking Lee. Finally the blue orbs came to rest on his friend. As two men who communicated with less than a glance or a gesture, Lee knew what Chip was telling him. No. Don’t do what he wants. Lee swallowed down the despair rising in his soul. He had no choice. Kwan would take Chip apart piece by piece and make Lee watch. “If I do what you want, will you let him go?” Lee asked quietly, unable to meet Chip’s eyes as they widened in surprised. Frantically Chip shook his head and struggled against the ropes holding him, but there was no give.

“Sit in the chair, Commander.” Kwan’s voice held all the warmth of the Arctic Sea. Lee took one step toward the chair, feeling his body start to tremble in anticipation. He remembered the last time he sat in that chair; the way the straps had cut into his wrists, over his chest and shoulders, the drugs that Kwan pumped into his body, the hours of shock treatments and the endless rounds of questioning and re-conditioning. Lee didn’t think he could go through that again. Once was enough. Then it occurred to Lee—if Kwan had Nelson, he’d have him on display like Chip. He’d want as much leverage as he could get to make Lee kneel. If the admiral wasn’t here then he’d gotten away at some point. Had the earlier attempt to recover the escaped admiral that Jeff had spoken of failed? If his absence was noted, would Nelson put the pieces together and figure things out? Kwan’s irritated voice interrupted Lee’s thoughts.

“I grow tired of waiting, Commander. I’m eager to get started, and delays aren’t good for Mr. Morton here,” he said. To illustrate his point, Kwan nodded to one of the men who stood guard. With a smile born of nothing less than pure evil the man stood before Chip, raking him with his eyes before he landed a punch to Chip’s stomach. With a muffled grunt Chip’s body swung backwards, suspended by only his wrists. Only then did Lee realize that Chip’s feet didn’t touch the ground. The tips of his toes missed the floor by several inches, giving him no leverage to hold himself. Lee jerked convulsively in respond to the punch, taking a step toward his friend. “NO!” he shouted as two more men grabbed him by his arms to keep him back.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

“It stops when you sit down,” Kwan said as the underling landed another punch against Chip’s gut.

“Alright! Stop it!” Lee ordered and marched toward the chair. Shivering almost uncontrollably, Lee sat down onto the hard chair, resting his hands on the armrests. He faced Chip and Morton’s eyes were closed, as if he couldn’t bear to see Lee forced to submit.

Kwan was smiling again. “Restrain him.” Two of the guards moved forward and began strapping Lee to the chair. They tied his wrists down, then the straps over his shoulders and chest, crisscrossing over his heart, the straps dark against the stark white of his shirt. By the time they were done Lee could hardly move. Instead he flexed his fingers against the edge of the armrests and glared at Kwan.

“Now let Morton go. You have what you came for.”

Kwan was fiddling with something on a table, just out of Lee’s line of sight. “When was Morton’s release a condition of your submission?” he asked softly and Lee felt his stomach drop.

“No. Let him go. I’ll do whatever you want. Morton isn’t a part of this,” Lee said, trying not to plead but desperate to spare Chip from watching what he knew was going to happen.

“You’ll do what I want anyhow, Crane. I have plans for Mr. Morton. While his knowledge is of a different caliber than yours, he nevertheless has information that my country will find invaluable.”

Lee couldn’t stop himself from jerking wildly against his bonds as Chip’s eyes flew open and panic flared in their depths. “No! You can’t do this! I’m the one you wanted, let him go!”

“I’ll take whatever is owed to me, Commander,” Kwan said, closer to Lee this time. Lee twisted his head around, trying to see his tormenter, and his heart skipped when he saw the syringe. The barrel of the syringe was full of a cloudy looking fluid and Kwan dropped a hand on the inside of Lee’s exposed right arm, holding that limb steady against the restrained man’s struggles. With an expert maneuver, Kwan injected the entire contents of the barrel into Lee’s body. “After the failure of being unable to fully break your ONI training, I am owed a great deal,” Kwan whispered and stepped back to watch the effects of his concoction on a new victim.

Immediately the pain surged through Lee’s body like witchfire, starting with his arm and moving up, through his shoulder and into his chest. It was as if someone was dropping goblets of lava onto his skin and letting it drip over his flesh, searing its way through muscle and bone. He gritted his teeth and refused to give voice to the scream that threaten to rip from his throat. He was vaguely aware of Kwan’s voice speaking low and softly.

“When my first attempt at converting you failed I knew returning to my country would mean an immediate death sentence. That left me no choice but to go underground and wait. I knew that one day I’d once again have the chance to rectify my mistakes.” Kwan made his way toward Chip, still hanging helplessly from his wrists. “Cmdr. Morton was a bonus I could ill afford to ignore.”

Lee, sweating and nearly panting from the agony of his cramping muscles, glanced up at Kwan. “The admiral got away from you, didn’t he? You could…couldn’t keep him and he escaped…” Lee managed, somehow knowing he was right. If Kwan had the admiral, he wouldn’t be able to resist gloating.

Kwan stared at Crane. “It doesn’t matter now. You’re not going anywhere. I won’t make the same mistake twice.”

~<<>>~

Jason couldn’t understand what was going on. Lee should have been waiting for them. That was the plan they had worked out. Instead, no one was waiting when he pulled into his driveway. As he cut the engine, Maggie and Ben got out of the truck and Jason picked up the radio mike. “Wade, where the hell are you?”

A line of profanity that would have made any sailor proud filtered out the speakers as Wade sputtered and swore. “Damn dirty little weasel. He lied to me,” he snarled over the radio.

‘Wade, there’s a lady present,” Jason reminded his friend with a glance over at Maggie, who had an amused look on her face.

“Oh, like she ain’t never heard me cuss. I think I’m gonna fire that little shit,” Wade continued to grumble.

Jason tried to get to the bottom of the story. “Who the Sam Hill are you talking about?”

“Jeff! Damn liar had me drive all the way out to the Inez/Kimble county line saying there was a truck had taken out part of Tucker’s fencing and his cows were out. Tucker ain’t even home! I’m telling you, that little f….”

“Wade,” Jason warned as he caught the image of a grinning Ben out of the corner of his eye.

Wade caught himself in mid rant. “Fruitloop…he’s as dirty as his uncle.”

Right now Jason’s priority was getting Wade calmed down and getting to the bottom of where Lee was. “Did you take Lee with you?” he asked.

“Now why in the hell would I do that when you were on your way over with that admiral fella?”

By now everyone’s attention was on the conversation. “Well, he’s not here,” insisted Jason.

“Then where the hell is he?” Wade sputtered at hearing the news. Jason rolled his eyes and collapsed back into the seat.

“Would I be asking you if I knew?” Jason groaned. “Just get back here. We need to figure out what happened to Lee.”

“Did that Morton guy turn up? Maybe Lee took off with him,” Wade suggested.

“Wade, one of these days I’m gonna shoot you if you don’t start telling me the whole story.

Wade went on to explain that after following them out to Jason’s place Morton had gone back to the hotel for something. He was supposed to come right back, which was why Wade didn’t have a problem with leaving Lee alone when he got called out on the bogus accident call. As Wade wound up his explanation, Jason shook his head. “Well, pal, there’s nobody here. No car, no Lee, no Chip. Nobody. Just get on back here, would you?”

Jason signed off but didn’t get out of the car. He saw Maggie moving closer. “So where is your friend? He didn’t just vanish.”

Jason glanced around the house and yard. “I don’t know. Wade said he left him here.”

Maggie sighed. “Great. Worse than a bad dream. All we need now is Freddy Krueger to make it complete.” Maggie had no idea what the impact of her words would have on Ben.

Ben blinked and everything was lost in a roar. He couldn’t hear anything. It was like being tossed into a whirlpool. The name Krueger echoed in his head again and again, overlaid with hundreds of images and words.  They slammed into him, showing no mercy as his mind fought to organize and categorize the thoughts and ideas. Him holding a gun, the recoil as he fired, the shocked look on Lee’s face…Lee collapsing on the deck…Sickbay, the sounds of Jamie’s voice barking orders…the straightjacket that restrained him, the straps holding him to the table. Chip’s face over his, concern and worry in those blue depths...the ghost of the man who had possessed Lee, forcing him to move and walk about with a bullet lodged in his gut…a bullet he had put there…

Gasping for breath, the man dropped to his knees, holding his head in his hands, feeling like it was going to explode. “Chip…” he whispered. “Lee? God, how could I have forgotten you?” He felt hands on his shoulders and glanced up to see Maggie hovering over him, concern in her pale blue eyes.

“Ben?” she asked hesitantly, “what’s wrong?”

With a watery weak smile, Harriman Nelson glanced up at the young woman. “I remember.”

~<<>>~

He felt shaky and weak but Harriman Nelson was in total control of himself and his memories. He knew who he was and what had happened to him. Worst of all he remembered Kwan’s desire to get his hands on Lee once more. And now it looked like someone had snatched Lee out from under their noses. There was no doubt in Nelson’s mind what had happened.

The trick was manpower. To get Lee back they needed a plan. And there was no way he was dragging Maggie into this mass. Even if he tried he was pretty sure Jason would take exception.  Right now the county sheriff was muttering about Jeff and being none too polite about what he called the man. Maggie just looked on, amused. She caught Nelson’s eye and smiled.

“He and Jeff don’t get along too well. They tolerate each other but…” she trailed off with a flourish of one hand at Jason.

Nelson snorted. “I see. Jason, we can’t stand around here. Kwan has Lee and I won’t stand by and let that…that…butcher…” Nelson’s voice wavered as he remembered everything Lee had gone through in his recovery after the incident. He owed Lee. He couldn’t let his friend go through that again.

Jason groaned. “Ok, Ben, Admiral Nelson, what do I call you anyhow?” he asked as he scratched the back of his head, mussing the tangle of blond curls.

Nelson paused. “Most of my friends just call me Harry. When they’re being kind,” he added with a grin.

“Okay then. Harry. We don’t know that Kwan has Lee. I’ll admit that Jeff is a slimy piece of work but you’re suggesting that he’s working with an agent from a foreign country. I can’t see Jeff doing that,” Jason insisted.

Maggie couldn’t stop herself and spun around to face him. “Jeff would sell out his own brother if he had one. That man cares about nothing except himself and money. If this guy—Kwan?—if he’s paying Jeff to do his dirty work, Jeff will do anything he asks.”

 “And Chip is missing,” Nelson surmised, and not liking the direction his thoughts were leading him.

Jason cocked a blond eyebrow. “Surely this is just a coincidence? I can’t image he’s disappeared between here and the motel.”

Nelson snorted. “In my line of work, when things like this happen, it isn’t a coincidence. How many people knew where Lee and Chip were staying?”

Jason froze. “There’s only one motel in this town. It wouldn’t take a genius to figure out where they were staying.” Suddenly Harry’s assumption didn’t seem so far out in left field.

Nelson paced back and forth in the gravel driveway, running a hand through his auburn hair. “Then someone could have been waiting? Or followed Chip in? So it’s possible Kwan has Chip as well.” Nelson did not like the developing scenario at all. Kwan was filthy. He’d use Chip against Lee. And Lee would be forced to do whatever Kwan wanted of him if he thought it would save Morton.

Nelson balled a fist up, fighting the urge to punch something. The sound of tires on the gravel distracted him and he was surprised to see a second car pulling in. He’d been so absorbed in his thoughts he never heard the car till it pulled in. The driver’s side door opened but Wade was on the radio and he didn’t look too happy. Leaving Maggie’s side, Jason walked toward the car.

“What’s wrong?” he asked in a low voice. Wade snarled something impolite.

“Carl Miller made bail,” he said.

Jason had a few words to say about that, low under his breath so Maggie wouldn’t hear. “I was hoping he’d stay in jail for a few more days.”

“His brother Bobby made bail for him. He’s not happy with you, Jason. Kelly’s filed for divorce and he blames you. Watch your back, would you?”

Jason snorted. “Coward’s all hot air. I’m not worried about him. We’ve got bigger things to deal with right now.” He decided not to mention the confrontation at the diner earlier. It would do any good if he did. He was the county sheriff. He didn’t run from his problems. He’d face Carl and Bobby if he had to. It was his job.

Nelson, who had overheard the last of their conversation, had a few things to add. “We need to check the hotel Lee and Chip were staying at. There might be some clue as to what happened to Chip. I need some answers and that’s the best place to start.”

Wade blinked, watching Nelson. The old man acted like he was in charge, spouting out orders like this was his town. “This isn’t the guy who was in my office earlier who didn’t know his first name,” he observed. That guy had been almost shy compared to this fellow.

Nelson met Wade’s gaze impassionedly. “Well, I know who I am now. I know what happened to Lee. I’m pretty sure I know what happened to Chip. I need to   find my officers. I can’t waste any more time.” Nelson replied coldly.

Wade blinked. “Gung ho old man, aren’t you?”

Nelson wasn’t impressed. “What part of ‘we’re wasting time’ do you not get? I know what Kwan’s capable of. I’d be willing to bet anything that he has Chip and will use him against Lee. We can’t delay any longer.”

“Now just wait a minute, General Patton,” Wade started as he surged out of the car. “Who the hell is this Kwan guy anyhow?”

Jason decided that this had gotten far enough. He dropped a hand on Wade’s shoulder, keeping him back. “Wade, calm down. Kwan’s not someone who plays nicely with others. We do need to get moving. I have a feeling you’re right, Harry,” Jason said, trying to placate Wade. Then Jason turned his attention to Maggie. For the most part she had stayed quiet. Jason wanted her out of harm’s way. He couldn’t stand the thought of her getting wrapped up in this mess. The panic he’d felt when he saw the dead bodies in her house still resonated in him. He walked toward her, gently took her by the arm and tried to explain as he steered her toward his house.

“You’ve already had a rough day. I don’t want you involved any more than you already are,” Jason was saying as he guided Maggie up the steps of the porch. He dug his keys from his pocket, peeled off a key and placed it in Maggie’s hand, curling her fingers around it. “Stay in the house. Call Jackie and have her come over here. I don’t want you alone.”

Maggie wasn’t happy. “I have to watch you go off and wonder if you’re coming back?”

Jason wrapped his arms around the smaller woman and kissed the top of her head. “I am coming back, never doubt that. I promised Eric I’d keep an eye on you,” he said.

Maggie looked up at him. “Then promise me you’ll come back. It’s time to leave Eric out of this,” she said.

Jason grinned and couldn’t help but laugh. “Alright. I promise I’ll be back,” he replied.

Nelson retrieved her shotgun from Jason’s truckand handed it off to Maggie. “You might need this. I’m hoping Jason has something we can use.” Maggie accepted the gun from his hands.

“I never thanked you for earlier. I’ve never been chased or had some gun-wielding goon break into my house before,” she said.

“My fault. I’m sorry I involved you in this. You handled yourself well. You didn’t panic but you listened to me even though you really didn’t know me,” Nelson replied. Maggie only shrugged.

“I’m not worried about it. You might have a different name, but you’re still the person I knew as Ben. I trusted you.”

Jason planted another kiss atop Maggie’s head. “Go on. I’ll be back when we get this nastiness taken care of. And yes,” he addressed Nelson’s question, “Wade actually has a nice cache of toys we can play with.”

“Now wait just a minute,” Wade started. “Who said anything about giving him a gun? I ain’t gonna be responsible when he shoots his damn foot off!”

Nelson had just about had enough of Wade. He seemed nice enough earlier, why the blazes was he turning out to be so blasted hard-headed? Without a word, Nelson snatched the shotgun back from Maggie and popped in two shells from his pocket that he hadn’t gotten around to giving back to her. He glanced around, spying a walnut tree at the edge of the house. One limb hung over the yard, bowed down slightly by the wait of several walnuts that hadn’t fallen yet. Nelson didn’t say a word, simply raised the shotgun, took aim and peel off one shot.

The walnuts on the end of the branch simply disintegrated, scattering shell and bark debris to the ground. Nelson handed the shotgun back to its owner and faced Wade. “I’m not likely to shoot my foot off,” he snapped.

Wade stared for a minute, taking in the distance from where Nelson had been standing to the blown-off branch. Wade wasn’t a bad shot but he wasn’t sure he could have done that kind of damage from that distance. Jason leaned in closer with a cheesy grin on his face.  “You might recall I said he shot two men who broke into Maggie’s place. The first shot scored the guy in the head and the second guy he plugged in the chest. He never reloaded. So…” Jason let the sentence trail off.

Wade’s mouth opened but nothing came out. Finally he stopped gaping. “I got another Winchester,” he said.

Nelson grinned and a positively evil gleam flashed through his eyes. “I’ve gotten used to a Beretta,’ he answered.

Wade was nodding and muttering to himself as he walked back to his car. “A Beretta. Sure. Why not? Why didn’t I think of that? Beretta, naturally. Who wants a Winchester when they’ve gotten used to a Beretta?” he continued to mutter.

Maggie collected her purse and the three deli meals from Jason, who had retrieved them from his car. She in turn was muttering, “Toys. Boys and their toys.” She made her way up the steps and unlocked the front door, pausing to set things inside before returning to lean against the banister of the porch. It was time to go. Nelson, despite his hurry to get going, paused to glance back at Maggie, the young woman who had taken him in and helped him when she had no real reason to. He gave her a small wave and she returned it, also returning his smile. Then Nelson got into the car and Wade pulled out onto the main road.

Maggie watched as the dust settled, the evening sun casting long shadows across the yard and road. She took a deep breath and rubbed the back of her hand over her eyes. Trying to keep a positive attitude that they’d find their friend, Maggie send up a silent prayer and hoped they’d all come home safe and sound.

~<<>>~

First things first, Nelson wanted to confirm his thoughts concerning Chip. He ordered Jason to check out the hotel. Jason didn’t question the man, simply relayed what they were doing back to Wade. Wade said he’d met them at the station and let them go on ahead.

As the two drove on to the hotel, Jason chanced a question. “You must be pretty important to Lee and Chip? Important enough they tracked you all the way from Washington D.C.?” he asked. 

Nelson shot Jason a look, something in his eyes that Jason couldn’t identify. Quickly he turned away, facing ahead. “I owe those two a lot, more than I could ever express. They’ve both saved my hide more times than I can count.”

“And now you’re returning the favor?”

“You indicated you knew something of Kwan. What did Lee tell you?” Nelson asked.

Jason shrugged. “He explained why he was looking for you, that he’d run into this guy Kwan before and he knew what he was capable of. He explained some of what Kwan did to him and tried to make him do to you,”

“Then you know that Lee…he told you about what Kwan did to him?” Nelson asked. Lee didn’t like to talk about that episode of his life, preferring to ignore it, pretend it didn’t happen. He must have been desperate to tell that story to a stranger.

“Not the details. Just generalities and how he was afraid for you. I needed some answers and Chip was kind of urging him, I guess. That’s when I directed them to the hotel, Chip checked into two rooms and Lee laid things down for me. Wade doesn’t know the whole story. You have to know him. He doesn’t mean to be a jerk.”

Nelson waved off the excuse. “As long as I can find Lee and Chip, I don’t care.”

They pulled up to the hotel and Jason parked the car. Getting out, he noticed that the rental car Lee and Chip had been driving was still in the lot. He tugged on the handle experimentally but the door was locked. He cast a quick look at Nelson and grinned mischievously. “You want I can break in for you?” he said.

Nelson shook his head. “No, let’s find their room.”

Jason found the hotel room locked. Grumbling, he turned to Nelson. “Stay here and I’ll check with the front desk and get a master key.”

Nelson only nodded and watched Jason walk away. Muttering under his breath, Nelson knew they wouldn’t find Chip. Worst case scenario, they’d find Chip’s body. Nelson quickly pushed that image out of his head. Or he tried to. He’d found Chip injured and unconscious enough times that the gut wrenching sense of panic he always felt when he found one of his boys was more than just a memory. It was physical, causing his heart rate to go up and his mouth to go dry. Finally Jason returned with the hotel manager. The man swiped his key card and stepped back. “Lock up when you’re done,” he said and left the two men alone.

Nelson entered the cool room. None of the lights had been turned on and immediately Jason tensed. “We switched two of the lamps on. Who turned them off?” he asked.

“You sure you left them on when you three left?” Nelson asked, studying the room. He spied Lee’s duffle on the bed, unopened. Slowly he walked his way around the room, unable to find anything that indicated Chip had come back here. “Why did he have to come back to the hotel?”

Jason shrugged. “Wade didn’t say. Maybe he forgot something?”

Nelson chuckled. “Chip Morton? Forget something? Not outside the realm of possible but improbable. The man takes organization to a fine art. With him it isn’t a job, but a way of life.” He frowned. Nothing was out of place here. Jason began switching lamps on, filling the room with light. Nelson wandered the small room, wondering what could have brought Chip back here.

“Hey Wade?” Jason’s voice broke the silence and Nelson spun to see Jason talking into the radio clipped to his shoulder. Wade’s voice echoed back.

“Here. What’s up?”

“Did Morton say why he needed to come back to the hotel?”

“Yeah, he forgot his cell phone. Crane seemed to think that was the funniest thing on the planet but Morton didn’t look very amused. Crane gave him the car keys and he left. Said he shouldn’t be gone more than twenty minutes. No sign of him I take it?”

Jason grumbled “No.”

“Well, just so you know, Jeff’s car is gone, he’s not answering his radio or his cell. That little rat has some explaining to do when I find him,” Wade snapped.

Jason wasn’t so concerned about Jeff at the moment. His attention was focused on Nelson as he slowly toured the room. “I’ll get back with you when we find something,” Jason said and signed off. Nelson moved to the other side of the bed, slowly turning as he surveyed the room.

As he moved, his foot brushed against something under the bed. Curious, Nelson bent down and felt under the bed for the object. He came up with a cell phone.

“That Morton’s?” Jason asked as Nelson studied the object.

“Yes. It’s institute issue. Chip wouldn’t just leave his cell phone like this,” the older man mused. “Even if he lost it, he’d make a better effort to find it.” Nelson’s expression turned worried. He pocketed the device to return to Chip when he found him.

Jason was no fool. He could tell what the older man was thinking. “You’re thinking something happened to your friend.”

‘But I don’t understand why. If Kwan already has Lee, why would he need Chip?” The answer came to Nelson even as he asked the question. Chip knew the computer system, he knew every circuit and wire onboard Seaview, better than anyone. He had the passwords to the security system and he knew the override codes for every operating unit onboard the boat. And he was Lee Crane’s best friend. His earlier theory was sounding more plausible with each passing moment.

~<<>>~

It was time to plan a strategy. Jason and Nelson arrived back at the police station and Wade began loading up the trunk of his car with any gear that might be needed. Nelson suggested a coil of rope and got a very odd glare from Wade.

“Why? Are we scaling the walls of Jericho here?” he snapped sarcastically.

Jason popped him on the back of the head with an open palm. “Dude, chill out,” Jason ordered. Wade grumbled but it was at a level Nelson could safely ignore. Jason did turn to him with a curious expression. “I’d like to hear what you have in mind before we wade into the frying pan,” he said with a raised eyebrow at the Chief of Police. Wade simply snorted something and continued to grumble.

Nelson wasn’t sure how to answer. He wanted to rush in, blast anyone who wasn’t brunet or blond and get out. But his memory of how he got out the first time was fuzzy from the drugs and exhaustion. He pulled a hand over his face pinching the bridge of his nose between two fingers. “I can’t remember how I got out,” he admitted, feeling like a louse.

Jason smiled. “I don’t suppose I ever told you I used to own the place?” he asked.

Nelson’s face lit up. “No, you…ah…failed to mention that little bit of intel,” the older man replied, trying to sound cross but finding that he was overjoyed instead. This might work out after all. “You can get us in?” he dared to ask.

Wade tossed two coils of rope he’d liberated from some random storage locker into the back of the car. “Are you kidding? Me and him have been all over that dump. We know pretty much every way in and out. I don’t guess you remember where you were being kept?” he asked.  

Nelson leaned against the car, letting his mind wander back to when he’d been held. They weren’t pleasant memories, overshadowed by the sound of Kwan’s voice taunting him that he was the bait to bring Lee in. Lee had walked into a trap. Shaking his head, Nelson forced himself to remember the details of the room with the chair. “A big open room. There was an echo when you walked across it. It was full of operating tables and had drains set into the floor.”

Wade and Jason shot each other knowing looks. “The old operating theatre,” Jason said. Wade grinned.

“Two stories high and it’s ringed with these huge windows,” Wade added.

“You know the area?” Nelson asked.

Jason nodded. “Yep. Third floor. There’s a skylight as well, if I do recall.”

Nelson shared in the two grins from Jason and Wade. “Then if you don’t have any ideas I might have a few,” the older man said. “For beginners, we’re going to need a doozy of a distraction.”

Wade crossed his arms over his chest. “Jason and me can be pretty distracting,” he confirmed with a grin at his friend.

“You need me to call in a few more men? I can mobilize the entire county if I have to,” Jason said glancing toward Wade and bringing his gaze back to Nelson.

The admiral smiled. “Oh, I think three is plenty. Wade, what kind of explosives do you have on hand?” Nelson considered what he’d been through and there was no doubt what Lee was reliving. Kwan had described himself as the devil. Well, Nelson was determined that before the night was over, there’d be the devil to pay and he’d get his boys back. And he owed Kwan a great deal.

~<<>>~

Kwan depressed the plunger on the syringe, injecting a forth serum into Lee’s blood steam. The brunet was breathing heavily, fighting the effects of the drugs with everything in him. Sweat had beaded up across his forehead and was sliding down the sides of his face, tracking slowly down his neck. The collar of his shirt was damp already. With sullen eyes he glared at Kwan, waiting. He hadn’t spoken since he’d been strapped in the chair, unable to stop the agent as he pumped one pain-inducing concoction after another into his system. Lee knew from experience this was just the beginning.

“Alright Crane. Let’s begin. I think you’ll remember how this game is played. What is your name?” Kwan asked. He took the now empty syringe to a table and dropped it with a clatter.

Lee simply glared at the foreign agent. His eyes were the only gauge to the hatred that seethed inside of him.

Kwan frowned. “Now Commander. This isn’t the way this game is played. I ask you a question and you answer. You answer correctly and I won’t have to take drastic measures.”

Lee stayed silent. He’d already decided he’d stay that way until he had no choice. He was determined that this time he would not be broken so easily. He’d learned some things since their last encounter. He wasn’t the same man anymore.

Kwan studied the lean man in the chair. “I think I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that this time you won’t be broken.”

The defiant glow in Lee’s eyes took on a new light. His expression darkened as Kwan began to circle Chip’s helpless form. Morton’s own eyes were dark with hatred as he followed the agent. Kwan hadn’t removed the tape from Chip’s mouth so he stayed as silent as Lee. His hands clenched at the rope tied around his wrists, pulled taut by the weight of his own body. He was still suspended above the floor, the tips of his scuffed white tennis shoes a good four inches from the cracked and stained concrete. His eyes tracked Kwan’s movement as he pulled out a switchblade knife. Depressing the catch, the blade exploded outward.

Lee clearly saw Chip’s Adam’s apple bob as he swallowed in reflex. Kwan seemed to study Morton for a moment. “What do you think? An ear maybe?” He rested the blade behind Morton’s ear. “Or maybe an eye?” He moved the tip of the blade under Chip’s right eye.

Lee felt something in his stomach sour and he felt like retching. But he took a deep breath instead. “Lee Crane. My name is Lee Crane,” he said in a subdued voice.

Kwan smiled and removed the blade from Chip’s face. “Very good, Commander. Lessons learned are not forgotten. However, I do think you were a little slow in answering.” Without further warning Kwan jabbed the blade into the muscle of Chip’s left bicep and slowly began to pull the blade through the flesh of Morton’s arm.

Muffled by the tape, Chip’s grunt of pain could still be heard and Lee surged against the bonds tying him to the chair. “I answered you, damn it! Leave him alone!” he yelled, ignoring the constant cramping of his muscles.

Kwan withdrew the blade and wiped the blood off on a white handkerchief from his pocket. A crimson stream ran from the open wound, dripping off the back of his arm to splatter soundlessly against the floor, adding another collection of stains to the discolored concrete. “Disobedience has a price, Commander,” he said coldly. “Now. Let’s begin again. What is your name?”

This time Lee lowered his head before he answered, unable to stand the look in Chip’s eyes. “Commander Lee Benjamin Crane,” he whispered.

Kwan turned to glance at Lee and then cold cocked Chip in the jaw. Morton’s body swung backwards from the impact. Once again Lee tried to rise out of the chair. “I answered you!” he roared.

“Not loud enough. Again. Louder,” Kwan instructed.

Lee’s chest heaved and the muscles of his arms bunched as he tried to break out of the thick straps holding him down. However, the repeated injection of whatever Kwan had been pumping into him left him weak and gasping. Another cramp tore through his thigh muscles, forcing him to relax and ride the pain out. He lifted his head and glared at Kwan. “Commander. Lee. Benjamin. Crane,” he spat out, forming each word into its own statement, reflecting how revolted he felt.

Kwan again drove his fist into the wound on Chip’s arm. The muffled whimper made Lee sick. His hands curled into fists as he growled, “Leave him alone for God’s sake.” Lee knew he sounded like he was pleading and he hated the sound in his ears, but Chip didn’t deserve this.

“Less insolence, Commander,” Kwan instructed as he punched Chip low in the gut, driving the air from Chip’s lungs and sending him swinging once more. “Once again,” he ordered. Lee took a deep breath and repeated his name and rank as calmly and as rationally as he could.

Kwan stepped away from Morton’s swinging body. “We’re making progress, don’t you think?” he asked of Morton. However, Chip didn’t respond. His head hung to his chest, every muscle limp. Kwan frowned and slapped at Morton’s face but the young man didn’t come around. Kwan spat something in his own language. “Take him down. He’s of no use to me unconscious,” he grumbled.

Two guards moved forward. One cut the rope and Morton’s slack body folded up and would have landed on the ground had the guards not caught him. “Use the cell we prepared for Nelson,” Kwan ordered. With Chip’s body suspended between them, the guards carried him out the room. Lee watched them go, relieved that Chip no longer had to suffer for his attitude. As Chip was carried out, Kwan dismissed the other two guards. He pointed to Jeff. “Stay alert. The admiral might come looking for Crane.”

Jeff snorted. “That ain’t likely to happen. The guy has amnesia. Can’t even remember his own name,” he said.

Kwan started. “What?”

“No kidding. Has no clue who he is. Local woman took him in and he’s started calling himself Ben.”

“You failed to mention that when you notified me about him,” Kwan warned.

“I didn’t know then. I didn’t find that out till later. He was still smart enough to outfox two of your ‘best’ people,” Jeff smarted.

Kwan snarled at the deputy, one hand clenched around a syringe like it was weapon. “I want him alive. I don’t care what condition!” he snapped. “Get out of my sight before I decide to use you for my next subject. And don’t return unless you have Admiral Nelson! The whole plan is pivotal to his recapture!”

Like a roach caught out in the open Jeff scurried out the room, leaving Lee and Kwan alone.

Kwan noticed Lee’s intense stare. “Quality test subjects are hard to come by,” he purred, once more in control of his emotions. He walked toward the table he’d kept his store of syringes on. Lee felt his pulse race with the thought of more drugs in his system. He was already weak and nauseous, and the constant cramping of his muscles was leaving him feeling exhausted. That’s how it was before. Drugs, constant questioning…the only thing missing was the electric shocks. He was sure they weren’t far behind.

Kwan advanced on Lee, the new syringe in his hands. Lee twisted his wrists, trying to pull free, but he didn’t have the strength and the straps were pulled too tight. “The admiral got away from you, didn’t he? You couldn’t keep him tied down. He was better than you,” Lee said. As the needle came into view, Lee felt his heart pounding. In response he griped the edge of the chair arms, fingernails digging into the wood as he fought back the black terror rising up from the pit of his stomach.

Kwan frowned. “The admiral spent some time in this same chair. However he seemed to be made of sterner stuff than I anticipated. But don’t worry. I took him once. I’m sure that with his amnesia he won’t be hard to recapture.”

Lee’s answering grin was nearly feral. “I know he shot to death the two you sent after him. You’ll never get him back. The admiral’s smarter than ten of you. You can’t be sure his memories haven’t come back. He’ll bring the authorities in here and shut you down. You’ll go away for a long, long time.”

Kwan studied Lee for a long moment. There were flashes of emotions in those dark eyes that disturbed Lee. It was as if he’d said something to the operative that made him think of something he hadn’t considered before. Almost in slow motion, Kwan walked back to the table and Lee let out the breath he’d been holding as the agent laid the syringe down. He hadn’t expected the man to pick up a new syringe.

“I can see why Nelson thinks so much of you. You brought an interesting point up. It might be time to cut my losses here and head for higher ground before it’s too late.” This time Kwan didn’t stop as he held Lee’s arm still again and injected the contents of the syringe into Lee’s body.

Immediately Lee felt his muscle control slipping. He recognized the effects of a powerful sedative, far, far stronger than anything Jamie would have dared to use. His began to lose control of his senses but he desperately tried to hold on to consciousness. He was vaguely aware of Kwan’s voice, speaking to someone…but that didn’t make sense, there was no else in the room. Weakly Lee raised his head and saw Kwan holding a cell phone. “Start evacuation. Bring the van around. Have Crane and Morton loaded, but not before drugging him.”

Lee’s head swam. No…he couldn’t let Kwan take him someplace else. The admiral wouldn’t be able to find either of them if Kwan moved them now. But there was no one to help Lee as the sedative took hold and carried him into the abyss.

~<<>>~

Chip held his breath and worked to neither resist nor react as he was half carried, half dragged down the corridor. They were heading deeper and deeper inside the old hospital. Thankfully getting lost had never been a problem of Chip’s and he had every twist and turn memorized. He resisted the urge to look up, still pretending to be unconscious.

He’d seen a chance and taken it, knowing if he’d been caught Kwan wouldn’t appreciate being duped. Chip could only imagine what the operative would do to him in retaliation, while making Lee watch. With him out of the picture, Lee at least had a better chance of withstanding whatever the agent had in mind. Chip knew if he bided his time and waited he’d get his chance to act.

They stopped at the end of a long corridor. He chanced a quick glance around, cracking open one eye to see a corridor full of doors illuminated by a string of naked light bulbs close to the ceiling. All the doors had a small window set into it. Several of the doors had loop and latch locks newly welded to the frames. Each loop was festooned with a bright, shiny new padlock. Chip didn’t like that at all. If he got thrown into one of those rooms—and no doubt that was the plan—he’d never get out on his own. He snapped his single eye shut before it was too late.

There was a chirp and one of the guards slowed, apparently feeling for the object making the noise. Chip could only assume it was a cell phone. The voice of the guard and the fainter voice of the speaker on the phone could be heard on Chip’s right side. Start evacuation. Bring the van around. Have Crane and Morton loaded, but not before drugging him. The voice on the phone said.

“Will do,” the guard said simply, and Chip felt the motion as he pocketed the phone. He couldn’t stop his heart from pounding wildly as the words sank in. He wouldn’t let them drug him again. He needed to lose these two goons and get Lee out now.

“Think you can handle him?” the voice on Chip’s right said.

“All I have to do is dump him and lock the door,” the voice on his left grumbled.

“Better take these.” Chip heard clinking, metal links against metal. Handcuffs? His thoughts were confirmed in the next bit of conversation. “Nelson got loose. Better make sure this one can’t get out. Cuff him to a pipe or something. I’ll go start the van. You come back and give him another sedative.”

“Fine,” the guard on Chip’s left acknowledged, and Chip felt his weight shifted till he was supported only by one guard. Morton heard the echo of footsteps as carried down the corridor. Chip waited. He wanted to be sure there was only one guard to contend with. He still had whatever he’d been injected with earlier swimming in his system and his shoulders ached from having been strung up for over an hour. The wound on his arm was aching and pounding but he could ignore it for the moment. Kwan had simply been playing. Chip suspected that if the agent had wanted to hurt him, he wouldn’t be able to stand on his own two feet.

The door to the cell swung open. The guard carried Chip’s body into the small room and was about to drop him to the floor when Chip acted, shoving the man into the wall and landing a punch to his face. Chip felt warm blood spurt as he connected.

A muffled curse preceded a punch to Chip’s jaw that rocked his head back and nearly dropped him. Morton managed to stay on his feet, snapping out another punch that drove the guard’s head into the wall. The guard wobbled for a second, stunned, and Chip got a third punch in. This one dropped the guard and he fell to the floor like a sack of potatoes.

Breathing heavily and slightly wobbly himself, Chip first peeled the tape off his mouth, feeling like it took half the skin of his lips off with it. Next he searched the guard for the keys to the cell and the handcuffs, taking time to liberate the automatic jammed into his belt. He cuffed the man’s arms behind him, threading the short chain between the cuffs around one of several pipes that ran from the floor to the ceiling. Stepping back, Chip grinned evilly.

He knelt down and striped off the man’s shoes and socks. He yanked out the shoe laces of both shoes and tied the guy’s ankles together and as if to add insult to injury, he shoved one of the socks into the unconscious man’s mouth.

Get it in gear, Morton. Chip lurched for the door, folding the latch over the loop and locking the padlock in place. Not sure if the keys were going to come in handy he pocketed them and turned, trying to figure his next move. Try to make it to Lee? If he could find that van they’d have a ride out of here…

That decided Chip. Rubbing at the wound in his arm, he made his slow way down the dark corridor, determined that he would find that van and get his and Lee’s sixes out of here.

~<<>>~

Jason and Wade crept around the backside of the building, each carrying a backpack. Both had flashlights but for the moment only Jason’s lit the path. Jason had the perfect area in mind: the kitchen section, located on an outside wall for easier venting of the hot ovens in the summer. Between him and Wade, they had enough explosives to take out the whole north wall. Harry wanted a distraction? Be careful what you wish for. Jason almost giggled.

“Something funny?” Wade asked as they slipped around the corner.

“Never mind. Space those explosives fairly even apart.”

“Teach me to steal eggs, won’t you,” Wade grumbled, as Jason knew he would do.

They found the door just like Jason remembered. The lock had been broken years ago by would-be ghost hunters and he’d forgotten to tell the new owners about it. It hadn’t been a priority at the time. He’d just been happy to find a buyer and unload the eyesore.

Well, his shortsightedness was a blessing as the door creaked open. Both men froze as the sound carried into the night. Ducking inside, Wade engaged his flashlight and made for the farthest end of the room. In silence they began setting the explosives. The pliable C-4 was easy to stick into the hundreds of cracks that riddled the walls. “How’d you end up with this much C-4?” Jason asked.

Wade snorted. “I’d tell you, but then I’d have to kill you,” he replied. “Can you work your hands as fast as you work your mouth? I wanna outta here,’ Wade complained.

It didn’t take long. A timer was connected to the detonator and Wade glanced over to Jason. “You think three minutes?” he asked, trying to figure out how soon to set the timer.

“Sounds good. Give us plenty of time to haul ass,” Jason answered.  Wade made a final adjustment to the timer and stepped back, hearing the happy tick as the mechanism engaged.

“Is this arts and craft night?” a familiar voice asked, and Jason darted around, his hand going for his service weapon. Jeff Russell stood in the door that led into the building from the kitchen, his own weapon trained, not at Jason, but at Wade. In the other hand he carried a flashlight. He played the beam across the walls, seeing the pockets of explosive set into the cracks. He grinned.

“Damn dirty traitor,” Wade spat as he saw his deputy.

“I’m opportunistic,” Jeff corrected. He pulled out his handcuffs and tossed them to Wade. “To the pipe, there on the wall,” he instructed, shining his light on several thin pipes that disappeared into the ceiling. Wade didn’t move at first but then Jeff pointed the gun at Jason. “Now,” he ordered. Wade snapped the cuff around the pipe and then locked it around his left wrist. He still wanted his right hand free, even if he was tethered. “Drop the gun and the keys,” Jeff said. “You know I never did like you,” Jeff addressed Wade. “Always acting as if you were doing me a favor by keeping me on. They should have elected me sheriff, not you,” he snapped focusing on Jason. “My employer’s always on the lookout for prospective test subjects. I think I’ll give you both to him. See how you like being hopped up on pain-inducing drugs. It’s a hobby of his,” Jeff was explaining.

Seething, Wade did as he was told. Jason’s eyes were flicking from Wade to Jeff and it occurred to him that Jeff had no idea that a timer was quietly ticking away. There was no way he had missed the C-4. The noise of the three men masked the timer and Wade’s own body hid it from view. The look in Wade’s eyes said he had a plan but with Jeff watching he couldn’t act. Jason needed to get Jeff’s attention off of Wade.

“Just like your uncle. Wouldn’t know honesty if it rose up and bit you on the ass,” Jason snapped. He never did like Russell but he never thought it would come to this. He certainly never thought that Russell would shoot him.

The sound was deafening in the narrow room and the bullet caught him low on the side and threw him backward. He caught himself on the stained countertop and he heard Wade’s disgusted curse right before a second shot exploded close by. For a second time seemed to move in slow motion as Jason sank to his knees as the pain gored through his body. Jeff’s body lay on the floor, the blood pooling under his head and beginning to spread. Jeff’s eyes stared ahead, seeing nothing.

Jason raised his head and glanced toward Wade who was holding a gun in his right hand. “Damn fool. He ought to know I carry a .38 in a back holster.”

Jason climbed to his feet, wrapping an arm around his midsection. Jeff’s bullet must have taken out a rib from the feel of things. With bloody fingers, Jason grabbed the keys off the floor and tried to work the locks on the cuffs.

“You okay?” Wade asked as the lock finally clicked and he yanked his arm free. Jason just nodded and Wade grabbed his friend’s arm and pulled it over his shoulders. Without asking, Wade started for the door, half pulling Jason along.

“Come on pal, I’d rather not go out with a bang just yet,” Wade urged, and the two picked up speed. Out the door and Wade goaded more speed out of his friend. Running and hearing the catch in Jason’s breath every time his step jarred his body, the two headed for shelter, matching each other stride for stride.

They made it to a dividing wall that circled what had been an outside area for patients. Wade leapt up and caught the top with both hands, pulling himself up. On top the wide wall, he extended a hand to Jason and pulling with everything in him, he hauled Jason up. Together they dropped down onto the other side just as the first blast ignited.

The blast blew the back of the wall of the kitchen outward and ripped apart the dividing wall, throwing debris and rock over the two men who had taken shelter on the other side.

~<<>>~

The autumn evening bled into an autumn night, thick with the sounds of night birds and crickets, desperate to sing their songs before the kiss of winter’s frost stilled their voices for another season.

Harriman Nelson made his slow, careful way through the trees toward the monolith that was Edgewood Hospital. He questioned whether or not this plan was going to work. He was counting on too many things and he was concerned that for once his plans were going to go the way of the Dodo bird.

He found a cluster of overgrown shrubs that had once probably been ornamental. Their bright red foliage gave him excellent cover as he settled in to wait. There were still too many unknowns. How many people did Kwan have working for him? Where did he have Lee and Chip? What kind of shape were they in?

Nelson tried not to think too much about that last question. He knew what Kwan had done to him. Kwan wanted to break Lee again, to turn him into an agent for his country. Lee would rather die than submit to that kind of torture again. All the evidence pointed to the fact that Kwan had Chip as well. Nelson knew his boys only too well. They’d go to any lengths to protect the other. Lee would do anything to save Chip. Chip would walk through fire for Lee. Kwan had the perfect tool to make Lee kneel.

Nelson would have to tangle with the devil himself to get his boys back. And he was determined he wouldn’t leave here without them. Glancing at his watch, he noted that it was getting close to time. His distraction was due soon and only then would he try to make it inside.

Something caught his attention. Crouching down lower among the shrubs, Nelson listened as a large van pulled down the rutted and dusty road. The head lights reflected off the old walls and in the light Nelson could make out the faded blue paint job, the rust holes around the wheel wells, and the lack of windows in the back. His blood ran cold as he considered what Kwan would need with a van of this size.

The vehicle pulled to a stop outside of the closest door. Nelson knew from Jason’s directions and description of the place that this door had once been a staff entrance and exit. The corridor eventually led to the operating theater, where he’d been kept and drugged. Where Lee, no doubt, was being kept now.

The van idled and the driver got out. He opened the back doors and then vanished inside the building. Nelson waited and watched. Something darted out of the shadows, wraith-like, moving like smoke through the overgrown grounds. Nelson stared, trying to make out what was moving around. The figure darted out from the cover of the low hanging limbs long enough for Nelson to finally make out what it was.

The ‘what’ turned out to be a ‘who’. “Chip,” Nelson dared to breathe. He watched as the blond crossed open ground and headed straight for the largest tree, that the van happened to have been parked under. Nelson was doubly amused when Chip grabbed onto the lowest hanging branch and hauled himself up. Within seconds Nelson had lost sight of the exec. Morton must know something and was waiting.

Soon enough Nelson knew what Chip was waiting for. The driver of the van came back with a figure over one shoulder. Nelson couldn’t be certain, but he was willing to drop a substantial bet that the figure the driver carried was Lee.

Feeling something in the pit of his stomach bottom out, Nelson watched as the driver climbed into the back of the van with his parcel. He seemed to be gone for far longer than Nelson would have expected and just when he was getting concerned, the driver hopped out. Then he went back inside.

That’s when the distraction Nelson had been waiting for announced its presence. The north side of the hospital detonated in a thunderous explosion. Flames rose into the night sky, casting an orange glow over the landscape. Nelson scrambled to his feet, heading for the van.

Nelson couldn’t believe his luck. Neither could Chip apparently. Morton dropped down out of the tree, slid into the driver’s seat and threw the van into gear. Nelson barely had enough time to launch himself into the back of the vehicle, the back doors swinging wildly as Chip tore down the road. Rolling into his knees, Nelson managed to grab onto the door handles and pull them shut. Only then did he permit himself a smile of triumph.

“Admiral?” Chip’s incredulous voice called out to him from the front seat. Nelson got to his feet, leaning against the wall of the van.

“I applaud your timely entrance, Mr. Morton,” Nelson commented as he sank down beside Lee. “Son, what happened to you,” he asked the unconscious man softly.

Chip was glancing into the rearview as he drove. “I think Kwan drugged him. His plan was to drug us both.”

“Explanations later,” Nelson ordered. His attention was focused on the handcuffs tethering Lee to a ring bolted to the floor. “I don’t suppose the driver was nice enough to leave us the key? Lee’s been cuffed to the floor,” Nelson said.

There was a metallic jingle and Chip called out, “Check these,” and tossed a ring of keys over his shoulder. Nelson caught them out of midair and began shuffling through them. The handcuff key was easy to spot and with two quick twists, Nelson had Lee free. He kicked the cuffs aside and quickly set about checking Lee’s vitals. His pulse was slow but steady. His eyes, as best as Nelson could see in the dim light, were reactive. The younger man wasn’t responding to Nelson’s touch or voice. It took a powerful sedative to knock Lee down. Knowing Kwan, it was something he’d dreamed up expressly for this. “I’ll get you out of this, son,” Nelson said softly.

“Funny, this started out to rescue you,” Chip inserted with an amused tone.

Nelson snorted as he climbed into the passenger’s seat. “And the effort is greatly appreciated, I can assure you,” he replied. A flash of light in the side view mirror caught his attention. A car was coming up fast. “I think our hasty departure has been noted,” Nelson observed. At first he thought it might be Wade’s cruiser but as they took a curve it was clear that was no police car.

Chip swore, flooring the van and sending it jerking along the old road. Acting on instinct Nelson tore open the glove compartment door, finding a Browning .9mm inside. Checking the magazine, he was pleased to note it was nearly full. He glanced over to Chip who was holding out a second weapon.

“Took this off a guard. Might come in handy,” he said.

Nelson took the weapon from Chip and sat it on the seat beside him. Chip was totally focused on driving, desperately trying to keep the heavy van on the road. Every pothole they hit jarred the van and the passengers violently. The turns were sharp and came out of nowhere with no rhyme or reason.

The first ping almost went unnoticed. Nelson abruptly realized what was going on and glanced out the window again. He couldn’t make out the details but he was pretty sure they were shooting at them. Nelson dared a quick glance at Lee but the man was still unconscious, his body bouncing around as Chip flew over potholes.

The second pop was louder and there was no doubt what had happened. “They got a tire,” Chip swore and he tried to control the van. The gutted road twisted into another curve and this time Chip could not control the van. It overshot the road and he learned the hard way that there was a steep embankment on the other side. The van hurtled toward the bottom of the near sheer drop. The right front side of the van clipped a tree, throwing the van off center and to the side. The centrifugal force took over and the top heavy vehicle rolled onto its side, onto the roof and then the other side. At the bottom of the hill it finally came to rest on its side.

~<<>>~

Kwan ordered the driver to stop and he threw the car door open. “Keep the light on where the van went over,” Kwan ordered as he descended the hill, his gun held tightly in one hand while he trained the beam of a flashlight over the ground.

As he neared the van, he couldn’t see any signs of life. It would be a pity if they were dead. The agent edged around the front of the van. The windshield was spiderwebbed with cracks. In the passenger’s seat, leaning against the door, was Morton. A gash on his forehead had bled down his face and neck and across his throat, staining his shirt. Kwan couldn’t tell if he was alive or not.  He brought the beam of his light across Morton’s face, making out the very slow rise and fall of his chest. He was still alive. Good. There was a chance to recover at least one of the three at any rate.

Kwan worked around to the back of the van. He reached up and gave the door handle a tug. One side of the door, now the bottom, swung open and Kwan shone the light into the dark cavity.

There were two bodies on the side of the van that was now the floor. Nelson’s body was closest to the door, lying on his side. Kwan watched, uncertain if the admiral was alive or dead. To Kwan’s pleasure, Nelson slowly stirred, managing to roll onto his back with a groan that the foreign agent recognized as pain. Nelson turned his head, staring at Kwan with an expression of disgust and loathing.

“You filthy vulture,” the admiral growled. Wincing, Nelson pulled himself up, using the side of the van for leverage. His left shoulder was at an odd angle and Nelson seemed unable to move his left leg, using only his right leg to push himself into a sitting position. He must have reinjured his left leg when the van rolled. By the time he was done, he was panting and gasping with exertion. “What now? Take us back to your lair? Experiment on us like a bunch of guinea pigs?” Nelson demanded.

Kwan smiled. “You seem to have acquired a few injuries. What? A dislocated shoulder and a broken leg no doubt?” he asked as his eyes studied Nelson’s left leg.

“Puts a dent into your plans, I think,” Nelson replied. His own eyes were searching the floor of the van, desperate to find one of the two guns. He’d lost both when the van rolled and he had no idea where either was. His attention was diverted once more by Kwan, who was moving closer.

“Nothing I can’t deal with. I’m not totally without heart, Admiral. I’m willing to make your journey to your new home as painless as possible,” Kwan said. 

Nelson felt his heart climbing into his throat as Kwan pulled a small syringe and a vial from his pocket. He uncapped the syringe and jammed the needle into the vial, drawing up the entire contents into the barrel. Nelson had nowhere to go. His left arm was useless and throbbing in pain. He held it tightly to his chest and tried frantically to think of some way out of this. Kwan edged closer, dispelling the air bubble in the syringe.

“Don’t worry, Admiral. You’ll sleep for as long as I need you to. You’ll never feel a thing,” Kwan purred.

“And neither will you.”

Lee…Nelson swung around to see Lee Crane propped up on one elbow, and holding a gun. Without a single drop of emotion in those once expressive hazel orbs, Lee’s finger twitched and he fired. Once. Twice. And kept firing until the clip was empty. Kwan’s body jerked with each shot fired and each bullet found its mark in a tightly packed area of his chest. Wordlessly, gasping like a fish out of water, Kwan dropped the syringe and the gun. The syringe hit the ground and rolled out of sight. The gun landed on the back of the van and Nelson scrambled to grab it, a grunt of pain escaping as he exerted too much pressure on the overstressed shoulder.

“Stay here,” Lee said, able to ignore the boundaries of rank, and he pulled himself to his feet. The drive to protect the man who was as close as a father to Lee drove all other instincts to the back of his mind. He knew he had gotten carried away. He knew he could have taken Kwan out with one shot. But the drugs had muddled his senses and removed all sense of honor. He remembered Kwan using Chip as a punching bag, the blood dripping down his friend’s arm. He knew what Kwan wanted to do to him. He knew now that Kwan kidnapped the admiral and had done who knows what to his friend and mentor. It was too much to deal with. Lee wanted the man dead. He wanted no room for doubt. When he’d started firing, he simply couldn’t stop.  Unsteadily he stumbled forward, wordlessly accepting Kwan’s gun from Nelson. Lee peered over the edge of the van. Kwan lay on the ground, his mouth working as small sounds of pain forced their way from his throat. His eyes locked on to Lee. “You’re not going to haunt anyone ever again,” the young commander whispered and aimed the gun one last time. The reverb of the shot echoed through the forest, shattering the silence and ending the illusion of peace and tranquility. Lee turned his back on the corpse that now had a single hole in his forehead, perfectly placed between both eyes.

Nelson watched the whole scene and as Lee turned to face him, he saw the shoulders slump and his eyes rolled into the back of his head. The adrenaline rush that was keeping Lee on his feet ran out, like a car runs out of gas.

Despite the shear agony that ripped through his left leg, Nelson surged to his feet and managed to grab Lee under his shoulders and ease him to the ground.

That effort was too much for Nelson. He couldn’t force his legs to work and his knees simply folded under him. The darkness engulfed him and he collapsed by Lee’s side.

~<<>>~

Wade clawed his way out from under the rubble of the ancient wall and began digging for his friend. Jason lay on his back, coughing weakly as Wade flung rocks and debris off of him. “Can you walk?” he asked.

“Well, I’m not laying here,” Jason retorted sourly. Wade extended a hand and helped Jason to his feet. The blond staggered and began to limp as he walked back to the car.

Wordlessly, Wade wrapped an arm around Jason’s waist and pulled an arm across his shoulder. “Lean,” he ordered. He felt Jason sigh but relaxed when his friend settled his weight on him. As they neared the car, they saw the tail end of an ancient van pulling down the road. Seconds later they saw a second car pulling down the same road.

The two men exchanged looks. “Think that was them?” Wade asked.

“Well, it was sure as hell somebody,” Jason snapped.

Taking that as his cue, Wade stepped up the pace and they double timed it back to the car. Dumping Jason in the passenger’s seat, Wade skidded to the driver’s side and gunned the engine, throwing the car into gear. Jason grabbed up the mike. “Dispatch, we need a fire crew at the old hospital. An explosion of some kind has the north end on fire. Also request all available county units to the hospital access roads. I want all roads in and out blocked. Nothing goes out.

“Copy that, Sheriff. Fire crews have been alerted,” Nancy reported. “All available county units, report,” her voice cut across the airway and slowly the various county units called in their positions and Nancy directed them to the road nearest to them.

Rounding a corner, Wade abruptly hit the brakes else he would have plowed into the back end of the car in the middle of the road. He threw the car into park and pulled his service weapon before sliding out the car. He was about to order Jason to stay but he was already out of the car, his own weapon out and aimed at the car.

Wade edged around to the driver’s side. “Out of the car! Hands where I can see them!” he snapped, his voice cracking like a whip in the cool night air. Slowly the door opened and the driver carefully stepped out. He calculated his odds against two very armed and angry looking men and decided that his best bet was to cooperate.

“There’s a van at the bottom of the ravine,” he said.

Wade swore softly. “Jason, deal with him. I’ll check the ravine.” Without another word, Wade scrambled down the hillside as the night exploded in a cacophony of gunshots. By the time Wade reached the bottom, the shots had stopped. The van lay on its side and for a second Wade didn’t think there was anyone around. As he neared the van he felt his breath hitch as he spotted the bodies of Nelson and Lee. Quickly he checked their pulses and found it on both. But they were thready and uneven.

Wade reached for the radio clipped to his shoulder. “Dispatch, send an ambulance out to Edgewood. I’ve got a van in a ravine, two unconscious possibly a third,” Wade reported, now searching for the blond man. He got lucky and found Morton in the cab, slumped against the passenger’s side door, blood covering one side of his face and also unconscious. “Confirmation on three unconscious, Dispatch,” Wade said.

Nancy was quick on the response. “Copy that, Wade. Ambulance in route. ETA seven minutes.”

Wade lowered his hand and took in the scene before him. Three unconscious men and one dead one. As much as he wanted an explanation, this looked like one of those things that the less he knew about, the better off he would be.

Another explosion rocketed through the night air. Wade lifted his head to stare above the tree line where an eerie orange glow was growing brighter. Edgewood was on fire. Wade decided he wouldn’t be sorry to see it go. 

~<<>>~

Nine hours later…

The sounds were the first thing to register. Soft beeps, the soft murmur of voices, distant footsteps. The clatter of equipment being rolled around. Doors opening and closing. The quiet whoosh of a curtain opening and closing. Nelson slowly let his senses come back on line, one by one. The sense of touch registered stiff sheets under him, the familiar material that hospital gowns were made from and the distinctive feel of the thermal blankets used in hospitals. His sense of smell detected soap and antiseptic alcohol.

There was a sixth sense that he’d come to rely on over the years and he had the distinct impression that someone was watching over him. Literally. Someone was standing off to the side of the bed. Slowly Nelson opened his eyes. At first everything was a blur, but gradually things cleared. The one person he hadn’t expected to see was hovering over him with an amused twist to his lips.

“Jamie?” Nelson’s voice croaked and sounded like a rusty gate.

“I’m like a bad penny. You just never know where I’m going to turn up,” Will Jamieson replied sagely. He poured something from a plastic green decanter on the small bedside table into a matching plastic cup and handed it to Nelson. He sipped at the cool water, letting it soothe the scratchiness of his throat. “Well, are you going to tell me what the blazes is going on?” Nelson demanded.

Jamie snorted. “Some things are normal, at any rate,” he said. “I got a call late last night from a Dr. Greenwell, requesting release of your medical records as well as Commander’s Crane and Morton. Did you honestly think I was just going to fax the stuff over and forget about it? Angie had me on the first flight out. Landed about three hours ago. You three have been out of it since you arrived.”

Nelson rolled his eyes. “Arrived where?”

Jamie chuckled, his shoulders shaking with laughter. “Hardin County General. You were brought straight here after Chief Reed found you, Lee and Chip all three unconscious in the back of an overturned van at the bottom of a gully.”

Nelson tried to rise up but Jamie put a restraining hand on his chest. “Do not get up. You’ve got a dislocated shoulder and a very, very badly strained leg muscle. I won’t bore you with the details. Suffice it to say you will not be walking any time soon. You are also exhibiting the signs of a low grade concussion.”

“Where’s Lee? And Chip?” Nelson demanded.

“Fine and resting,” Jamie informed the admiral. He took a step back and Nelson was able to focus on the dark-haired young man in the bed across from him. A gentle and familiar snore on his right indicated that Chip was also still down for the count. Turning, Nelson could see Chip was lying with his back towards him, the blond hair partly covered with a bandage. The relief at seeing his boys alive, if not exactly well, was more than words could describe.  “You’re the first one to wake up,” Jamie explained. “Lee is going to be dealing with some residual muscle weakness over the next few days but thankfully it’s not permanent. The tox screen showed some very nasty drugs in both your systems—his more than yours. I managed to get my hands on a blood test you apparently submitted earlier and the levels were higher at that point than now. Thankfully it seems they don’t hang around very long.”

“Those drugs, could they have caused amnesia?” Nelson asked.

“I’d say they were a major contributing factor. Those drugs, combined with the physical and emotional trauma. Add a head injury to that and it’s no wonder your memory took a vacation. Your sense of self-preservation is incredibly strong. If forgetting who you are would protect you from Kwan…” Jamie let the suggestion trail off.

Nelson fixed the doctor with an odd look. “What do you know about Kwan?” he asked.

Jamie weighed his answer, thinking carefully. “I know that Kwan used you and Lee as some kind of experimental guinea pigs. We’re still identifying the toxins in yours and Lee’s system. Chief Reed explained what he knew when I showed up,” he explained. Nelson didn’t reply instead, he closed his eyes, trying to kill the memory of Kwan and his taunting voice. What had Lee gone through in that short time before they rescued him?  

Jamie dropped a hand to Nelson’s shoulder and gave him a reassuring squeeze. “Lee’s going to be fine in a few days. Chip is going to have a headache the size of Wyoming for the next few days till the concussion starts to heal. He had four stitches in his head to keep his liquids inside where they belonged. He lost enough, according to the EMTs who pulled him out of the van. Another stab wound on his arm required seven stitches to close.”

“I see,” Nelson said, thankful his boys were alright. He caught Jamie giving him an odd look. “What?” he asked.

“You apparently made quite an impression here. There’s a young lady who’s been asking about you and a young man named Jason. You can have a few minutes with them if you want.”

Nelson grinned. “I’d like that, if my doctor agrees,” he replied.

Jamie shook his head. “He agrees. Just behave yourself. I’ve already warned those two to not let you talk them into breaking you out.”

“I’ll behave,” Nelson replied. Jamie vanished out the door and a few minutes later Jason and Maggie entered. Jason was walking stiffly, seeming to favor his left side. Nelson was pleased to note that the two were holding hands. Maggie’s light blue eyes lit up as she saw him.

“Ben? Or what do I call you now? I mean, you’re kind of important, as it turns out,” she said.

“Only in his mind,” came a muffled reply from the door in Jamie’s voice.

Nelson couldn’t help the deep chuckle that rose out of him. He’d missed that, truly he did. “I let all my friends call me Harry,” he instructed.

“Harry. I don’t know, you still seem more like Ben to me,” Maggie teased. “How are you? Really?” she asked.

Nelson weighed the answer. “Good. I’ll be up and about in a few days,” he said.

“Don’t hold your breath,” came the same voice from the door. This time the comment was accompanied by a soft chuckle from the other side of the room. Maggie and Jason turned to see the dark-haired young man stirring in the bed.

“Maggie, Jason, I’d like you to meet Lee Crane. My very good friend, Lee Benjamin Crane” Nelson introduced Lee and had the pleasure of watching Lee’s head dip in embarrassment.

Maggie grinned at Nelson. “See? You remembered more than you thought you did,” she replied.

Nelson glanced over to Lee and grinned to see his friend had lowered his eyes, shyly as he was known to do, and was glancing up at Nelson through dark lashes. Nelson knew Lee didn’t react well to praise of any kind, always looking for some way to shuffle the tribute to others under him. This time there was no one he could hide behind, faced with the knowledge that even as an amnesiac, Nelson had thought enough of him to take Lee’s given middle name as his own.

A very groggy voice from behind the curtain on Nelson’s right muttered, “Can I get in on the action? Anytime there’s a pretty girl involved I seem to get left out,” it said.

Jason urged Maggie toward the other side of Nelson’s bed. A well-build but tired looking young man was lying in the bed, his blue eyes bright with amusement as he looked up at Maggie. “Hi there,” he said merrily and grinned at her.

“Oh. Hi,” Maggie said, mesmerized by the smile.

“Maggie, my other very good friend, Chip Morton. Lee and Chip do me the honor of being the skipper and first officer of the submarine Seaview. A pair of the finest officer’s I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with,” Nelson said and had the very satisfying reaction of seeing Chip blush. Wasn’t often you caught the exec off his guard.

Maggie giggled. “Jackie’s going to be sorry she called you a homeless bum,” she said. “We’ve met, sort of,” Maggie said. “You stopped for directions back to town.  I might not have been as polite as I could have been,” she apologized.

Morton smiled again. “No harm done. It pays to be a little suspicious in this day and age,” he said. “I don’t suppose I could get you to help me sit up? I’m really tired of lying flat on my back.”

Jason mock-growled from behind her. “Hey, no moves on my girl, Chip,” he said. Chip grinned as Maggie took a swat at the sheriff before moving to help Chip sit up in bed. She noticed the bandage covering the stitches. “How’s your head?” she asked him.

“Hard as a rock,” quipped Lee from across the room.

Maggie shook her head. “It’s like two ten-years-olds,” she said with a smile up at Jason.

“And that’s on a good day,” came the doctor’s voice from the door. Maggie giggled when Chip rolled his big blue eyes for her. Maggie fixed Jason with a mock-angry glare. “You must be a bad influence on these gentlemen,” she said seriously.

“Me?” Jason squeaked. “What did I do?”

Maggie sighed as she grinned at Nelson. “I let him out of my sight for an hour and he comes back with two broken ribs and what he claims is just a scratch. Scratches do not require eleven stitches!” 

The choked laughter of Lee and Chip made her turn but she couldn’t understand what was so funny. She finally noticed that Ben—Harry—was also trying hard not to laugh. “Maggie, I think Jason is probably innocent this time around,” he managed.

Maggie just shook her head, pretty sure that she would never understand men.

The conversation turned toward the event of the past few hours. Jason informed the three that the Edgewood hospital was a total loss. The fire gutted most of it. Jason went on to say that the arson investigators traced the source of the fire to the kitchen on the north side of the complex. They found the remains of a body, apparently shot to death according to the coroner. It looked to be the remains of the deputy, Jeff Russell. Dental record confirmation was pending. As best as they could figure, Jeff had probably been shot by one of Kwan’s men and the fire set to cover the murder.

Jason said that sounded like as good an explanation as any, but Nelson got the distinct feeling he knew more than he was letting on. He decided it was better if he stayed out of it. If Jeff had been in Kwan’s employ, it was best dead and buried.

Kwan was indeed dead. The coroner found no less than fourteen bullets in the body: thirteen tightly packed in the chest and a single bullet in the forehead. According to the report it was the head shot that killed him. Wade’s report indicated that Kwan had been shot in self-defense by Lee trying to protect the admiral. According to Wade, Kwan didn’t stand down when Lee told him to drop his weapon and he didn’t drop until Lee had fired a full clip. Wade took credit for the bullet in his head. No one was questioning the report. Nelson knew that no one had been around when Lee emptied the clip into the agent. He was positive there had been no witnesses when Lee put a bullet between Kwan’s eyes. Wade and Jason were covering for them and Nelson, for the sake of Lee, saw no reason to counter their statements.

Homeland Security had been notified and they were going through what was left of the hospital, trying to find evidence of Kwan’s movement through the country over the past few years. They were desperately trying to cover their tracks and the knowledge that an agent with a known history of espionage, kidnapping and torture of a Naval reserves commander, and now an retired admiral, was wandering around undetected.

After about half an hour, Jamie made another entrance, interrupting the conversation. “I think these gentlemen need their rest,” he announced, receiving the same reaction he would have expected to get from a group of ten-year-olds who’d been told that recess was over.

With promises to return before they were released, Jason and Maggie turned to leave. Maggie paused and said something softly to Jason, who nodded and continued on his way. Maggie glanced up to Jamie. “I need to say something to…Harry,” she said, clearly trying to get used to his real name, not the name she’d grown to know him by.

“Alright,” the doctor acquiesced.

Maggie stood by Nelson bedside and took a deep breath. “I wanted to thank you. After meeting you, I realized that I was taking my friends for granted. I’ve been so wrapped up in not letting myself live that I’d blocked out the chances I might be missing. I see how important friends are now,” she said. Hesitantly, she bent down and kissed Harriman Nelson on the cheek. “Thank you.”

Nelson, for one of the very few times in his life, found himself speechless. “Well. Um. Uh…I’m not sure I can take the credit for that,” he stammered, and Maggie chuckled.

“Well, what I really wanted to say was that in a few months, when everybody is healed up, we’d like you to come to the wedding,” she said. “All of you,” she added, her eyes sweeping the room.

Nelson beamed. “Of course we will. I’ll be sure you have my contact information before we leave.”

With a final shy farewell, Maggie hustled herself out of the room. Lee and Chip were giving their employer a curious, questioning look. Nelson, still slightly embarrassed, addressed his friends as best as he knew how.“Do the two of you find something interesting?” he grumbled, but the tone lacked true emotion.

“Yes sir, things are very interesting,” Lee smarted off. He grinned as he shot Chip a look. “However, I suspect we may never know,” he added.

Nelson gently touched his cheek. “Lee, if I could answer you, I would. In this case I’m not entirely sure what I did.”

~<<>>~

Much to the chagrin of the trio it was another thirty-six hours before Jamie was willing to release them. He wanted at least another day for the toxins to filter out of Lee’s system and that was also the soonest that Angie could book the fastest flight back to Santa Barbara.

Lee grumbled naturally, but the continued visits by Jason and Wade made the stay tolerable. He found he liked Jason, as did the admiral. Wade and Chip turned out to have the same tastes in food, meaning there was very little they wouldn’t eat. Both made it their habit to stop by at least twice a day for a few minutes to see how things were going. Maggie came by a few times, a little less shy each time she visited.

Finally came the day Lee had been looking forward to: Jamie was allowing them to be discharged from the hospital. Jason and Wade had arranged to take them to the airport and had arrived early on the morning of their release to beat the traffic and get to the airport in plenty time.

Nelson was a little disappointed that Maggie wasn’t able to come in. She’d finally gotten a full time job with a new garden center that was going up across town. Jason was so happy for her, since now she could feel like she was doing something and it gave her the chance to work with the plants she loved so much. Her shift started in a few hours, leaving her unable to stop by. She did send a ‘get well’ card to the three, with her phone number and a wish that they keep in touch. Jason all too pleased to report that she was staying with him while repairs were being made to her house. The county sheriff was on cloud nine and admitted to Lee that he was hoping Maggie would decide to sort of not move back home. Seemed silly anyway, if they were going to get married in a few months.

Hospital policy indicated that the three had to be wheeled out in wheel chairs. Jamie took possession of Nelson’s chair and Jason guided Lee out while Wade took Chip. The last two were discussing the best places in town to eat and Chip was complaining that hospital food was about as appetizing as Styrofoam. Secretly Nelson agreed but he just wanted to go home. He’d treat his boys to the best meal money could buy as soon as they were home.

As the party was heading for the door leading outside, a commotion coming in got their attention. EMTs were bringing in a patient but there was something odd about this one. The level of frenzy was through the roof and when the patient on the gurney was wheeled in, everyone froze in disbelief.

It was Maggie.

Jason immediately snapped into action, flying through the ER doors to follow the paramedics, demanding answers as Wade switched his radio on. They’d both turned them off while they were in the hospital so they missed the 911 call. Wade worked frantically, trying to get what happened from Nancy at dispatch.

Nelson discreetly told Jamie to wait on the discharge, as anxious as Jason and Wade were over what had happened to Maggie. Finally Wade made his way back to the small knot of people. He took a deep breath and launched into his explanation. “A few days ago, Jason arrested a man named Carl Miller. Carl’s wife filed for divorce and Carl blamed Jason for it. He threatened Jason when he was arrested but Jason didn’t think much of it at the time…” Wade trailed off, eyes tracking the swinging door that lead back to the ER. “Anyhow,” he picked up his train of thought, “Carl and his brother Bobby showed up at Jason’s house a while ago. They were looking for Jason. They found Maggie instead. She was getting ready to go to work. Maggie managed to make a 911 call but she was attacked…the whole thing was recorded…Nancy heard the whole thing…” Wade trailed off again. “I really need to find Jason,” Wade said with a pleading look at his new friends.

Nelson waved him off. “Go, go, find him. We’ll stay out here and wait.” He watched as Wade vanished behind the swinging doors. “Jamie, call Angie. Have her cancel that flight. We’ll stay until we know more.”

Time crawled by. Nelson, Lee and Chip stayed in the waiting room of the ER, on the alert for any kind of news. Jamie, while not a practicing physical for the hospital, was able to clarify Wade’s reports, breaking down the medical jargon into layman’s terms. She was in surgery and her chances were slim. She’d been shot twice at close range and one bullet was extremely close to her heart. All they could do was wait.

Wade stayed with them, filling them in on the county-wide search for the Miller brothers. County and state authorities had been notified and the two had finally been picked up trying to cross the county line. Right now the charges ranged from breaking and entering, assault, attempted murder, and a half a dozen other charges. For the moment, everything rested on the outcome of Maggie’s surgery.

Finally the ER doors opened and Jason seemed to stagger out. His blue eyes were hollow and staring, empty of everything Nelson had gotten used to seeing. Wade moved toward his friend, not sure of how the surgery went. Jason and Wade locked eyes and Jason let out a choked sob. Wade grabbed his friend—his brother—and held him while Jason broke down.

~<<>>~

Instead of a wedding, Nelson, Lee, and Chip, along with Jamie, extended their stay in Red Mills to attend the funeral of Margaret McBride.

By now Nelson was walking with crutches. Lee was not nearly as tired as when he’d first come to in the hospital, and Chip’s concussion was starting to heal, the headaches that were plaguing him growing less intense each day. With Jamie keeping close watch on his charges, they made it a plan to get through the services and the burial scheduled for later that evening.

Harriman Nelson never did like funeral home. The too-sweet scent of flowers, the way people talked in low hushed tones while in the room with an open casket, the dim lights that seemed to hide emotions on people’s faces. He’d been too far too many funerals in his day but this one was harder to deal with. Maybe it was because he had known her, grown to like her for being stubborn and strong-willed. That she’d had faith in him when he wasn’t sure he had faith. Something made this service hard to accept.

At one point, Nelson found himself facing a tall, slender young woman with long blond hair and honey brown eyes. “We’ve never met. I’m Maggie’s cousin, Jackie,” she said simply her hands clasped together tightly, apparently more than a little nervous.

Nelson extended a hand and she accepted it. Her grip was shaky but firm.  “I’m truly sorry about your loss. She was a rare soul. She spoke about you often,” he said. He resisted the urge to ask her how she was doing. It was obvious she wasn’t doing well at all and he thought that was the dumbest thing anyone at a funeral could ask. It was a questioned he’d heard echoed in the parlor at least a dozen times already and he swore he wouldn’t fall into the same pattern.

He got a thin smile from her as she answered. “Good things, I hope. We didn’t always see eye to eye on some things. I owe you an apology. It’s not often a four-star admiral lands on your doorstep. I shouldn’t have called you a homeless bum. Or any of the dozens of other things I called you that night.”

Nelson shook his head. “Water under the bridge. You’ve nothing to apologize for. You had no idea.” The two exchanged a few more words and Jackie excused herself to talk to other visitors. Nelson found Lee and Chip searching the small room. “Looking for someone?” Nelson asked as he hobbled over to his officers.

 Lee nodded. “I was looking for Jason,” he said. In the brief time he’d gotten to work with the county sheriff he’d grown to like the man. He seemed genuine and honest. They needed more men like him and Lee wanted to thank him for helping them find the admiral.

“He won’t be here,” Wade announced from behind them. Lee and Chip turned.

“I don’t understand,” Chip said, the confusion clear in his eyes.

Wade shrugged, his own expression clear that he didn’t approve of Jason’s actions. “He’s gone. Left town as far as I can tell. His resignation was faxed in yesterday morning. I checked the house, and while a lot of his stuff is still there, most of his clothes are gone. I pulled some strings and found out he’d withdrew a substantial amount of money from his bank account. He just couldn’t handle seeing her like this, I guess,” Wade conjectured with a nod toward the casket at the head of the room. “You know he’s paying for all this?” Wade swept the room with his eyes. “The funeral home director told me Jason even arranged for a stone to be set as soon as she was…buried.” Wade clearly had trouble even saying the last word and he ended up turning his back on his new friends while he got himself back under control. “I could kick his tail. He’s still got stitches, he’s got two broken ribs and the doctors were concerned about the blood loss. He’s got no business going off like this. Maggie would have his hide…” he rambled as he tried to focus on something other than the obvious reason for being there.

“But where could he have gone?” Lee asked. It didn’t seem like Jason to just run away. Lee had trouble seeing Jason as someone who hid from his problems. Although he’d never been in Jason’s shoes, he could only imagine what the man was going through right now.

Once again Wade shrugged and let out a long deep breath. “I have no idea. He’s got an uncle, down in the western part of the state. It’s pretty remote down there, with some deep woods. It’s the only place I figure he’d run. Maybe if he gets his fill of solitude he’ll come back. Who knows?”

~<<>>~

Two weeks later…

Lee Crane walked down the quiet corridor of the Administration building. It was long past ‘quitting’ time. Most of the staff had gone, and been gone for several hours. Office doors were closed and locked, accessible only by the cleaning staff that would be in after midnight.

There was one door that Lee knew he would find unlocked but, despite the events of the last few weeks, he couldn’t bring himself to just enter without knocking first. He tapped lightly twice on the doorframe and heard the occupant’s firm request to enter. Lee pushed the door open

The admiral was at his desk, a thick folder spread out in front of him. “Hello, Lee,” Nelson greeted him. “I would think you’d have gone home by now,” he said.

Lee grinned lightly. “I’d have thought the same thing about you.”

“It is a bit late, isn’t it?” Nelson asked with a glance at this watch. An eyebrow went up as he finally registered just what time is was. “My name happens to be on the building. What’s your excuse?”

Lee’s eyes dropped and came back up to glance at his friend and employer through dark lashes. “Just catching up on paperwork. I wanted to read your proposal to add a new marine archaeology department.”

Nelson nodded. “Find anything to add?” he asked innocently as he closed up the report he was reading and dropped it into the top drawer of his desk. Casually he locked the drawer and turned his full attention to Lee. It was with a silent sigh of relief to note that he was looking much better these days. The first few days after coming home had been rough on them all. Kwan only had his hands on Lee and Chip for a few hours but it was clear that whatever the foreign agent had done to them it had left a mark. Neither man spoke about it. It was just as well. Nelson wasn’t ready to talk about what still haunted his dream in the dark of the night. 

“I like the idea actually. It means there might be a few more requests for Seaview,” Lee replied interrupting Nelson’s thoughts.

“I think we can handle a few more. I want to start compiling a list of potential candidates for department head. Tell me, what did you think of Dr. Harrison?”

Lee frowned. “That’s the marine archeologist we rescued from Marcanda, right?[7]” he asked.

“That’s the one.”

Lee shook his head. “She seems a little young, from what I remember of her,” he said. Quite frankly he didn’t recall that much about her. A good part of that trip had been spent in Sickbay as he recovered from his exposure to an isolated strain of fungus. He’d fully recovered but Harrison had been exposed for far long than him. She had recovered but not without complications.

Nelson laughed. “So says the youngest submarine commander on record,” he chuckled, and Lee had to grin.

“Point taken, sir,” he replied with an embarrassed note to his voice. “Are you thinking of her as a candidate?”

“One of several,” Nelson said evasively. The admiral uncharacteristically fiddled with a pencil. “My sister is coming to town next week. I was hoping you and Chip would be available for dinner one night, or several,” he finally said.

Lee blinked, a bit thrown. “Of course. You know I like Edith. Is she alright?”

“Oh yes, she’s fine. I just…I just wanted to invite her to visit for a while. I don’t have much family left.”

Lee knew Nelson was thinking about his ordeal at the hands of Kwan. Lee understood all too well what he was going through. He’d been broken once. He couldn’t begin to imagine what Nelson had gone through, and the admiral had never openly spoken about it. Lee couldn’t quite figure out what the admiral was getting at until he spoke again. “I don’t want my family—or my friends—to think I take them for granted.”

“I never thought you did,” Lee replied.

Nelson got to his feet and walked to the window, looking out in the deepening dusk beyond. “When I was being…held…by Kwan, he tried to convince me that you would stop looking for me and eventually forget about me,” he said softly.

 “No!” Lee gasped. “That’s not true. I would never have stopped looking for you!” he declared. “And I could never forget you, even if I tried,” he added more sedately.

“I did. Forget you, that is. I forgot everything and everyone that was important to me. Maggie believed in me, kept telling me to have faith and that I would remember eventually. I don’t think I valued my friends enough. If I had, maybe I wouldn’t have forgotten you and Chip.”

Lee stepped closer and dared to rest a hand on the admiral’s shoulder. Touch wasn’t a sense that Lee was comfortable with, especially with the admiral. “Sir, I know Kwan. Knew him, I mean. I knew what he was capable of, I knew how twisted and sick he was. Your amnesia was just your mind’s way of protecting itself. If you didn’t remember, you couldn’t be forced to divulge the information Kwan wanted.”

“Maybe. Still, I want my friends and family to know that I do value them and I need them in my life.”

Lee took a deep breath. “We know, sir. Trust me, we know.”

The silence stretched. Neither man seemed willing to say anything that would break the spell of unspoken understanding that now existed between them. Finally, clearing his throat, Nelson walked back to the desk and began gathering up his things. “Have you heard from Wade or Jason lately?”

“Chip heard from Wade yesterday. Jason is still gone. No one has seen anything of him since Maggie’s funeral. His credit cards were left at the house. There’s been no further activity through his bank account and no one has reported his truck.”

Nelson unlocked the top drawer, withdrew the file he’d previously placed there, and dropped it into his briefcase. Glancing up at Lee he asked “You don’t think he did anything…permanent…do you?”

“Jason doesn’t seem like the type. I can only imagine what he’s going through. I have some contacts. I’ve been trying to track him down myself. I think, if we can find him, we can ask him to come out here. It would be different, and maybe then he can start to heal.”

Nelson nodded. “I like that idea. A man like Jason would work out well on our security team, I think. Keep looking for him. He’s bound to surface sooner or later.”

Lee cleared his throat. “Chip and I will need to clear a few days off. We both told Wade that Bobby Miller threatened Jason at the dinner on the day we came looking for you. When their trial comes up, Wade wants us to testify since Jason can’t seem to be found.”

Nelson nodded understandingly. “Not a problem, lad. Whenever you need to go, it won’t be a question. We should know in plenty of time and can arrange for transport if we happen to be a sea.”

Lee tilted his head slightly. “With both Chip and me gone, will you need a temporary captain?” he asked.

Nelson chuckled. “In case you’ve forgotten, I used to command a submarine. I could do with the practice,” he said in an amused tone.

Lee smiled. “Yes, sir. I’ll remember that”

 

“See that you do, Commander.” Nelson finally had the rest of his things gathered up. “I suppose you’re going to walk me to my car?” he asked with an amused twist to his lips.

Lee grinned albeit shyly. “Since I’m parked not that far from you,” he replied.

Nelson only chuckled and inclined his head. Since coming home, Nelson got the impression that Lee was afraid to let him out of his sight. He’d seen the younger man go through this once before when Chip had vanished for eight weeks, then mysteriously turned up alive but very ill[8]. Nelson hadn’t said anything, knowing that only time was going to show Lee that he wasn’t going to vanish again.

Lee got the door, careful to lock everything up as Nelson left the office. “I’m going over to Chip’s later. We thought we’d grill some hamburgers. You’re welcome to join us.”

Nelson brightened. “Would be my pleasure. I might even have something to contribute to dinner. Give me an hour to change and clear some things up,” he said.

Nelson got in his car and Lee headed toward his. Nelson smothered his grin as Lee started his little red car up but didn’t pull out, waiting instead for Nelson to pull out first. He did, driving the short distance to his condo at the highest point of the property the institute was situated on. The house hadn’t existed until Nelson obtained the property. Originally it hadn’t been part of the compound as he acquired it. It had been part of a separate tract of land that ran along the coast. He’d purchased it and decided that he wanted the officer’s quartered on the base and set to designing elegant but simple housing that complimented the landscape. His was the first house he built. The view on a clear day was unmatched by anything…except the view from the nose of the submarine he’d brought to life. 

Getting out of his car, Nelson unlocked the back door and switched off the alarm. He headed for the study on the main floor and dropped the briefcase on the desk, still thinking about what he’d told Lee.

He had very few real friends. Jiggs, Lee, Chip, a handful of people from his navy and teaching days. He had little family left. There was a scattering of cousins but the Nelson line was dying out. He’d never married, and while his sister was in a relationship with a very nice young man that Nelson approved of wholeheartedly, if she married and she had children they would carry her husband’s name. The Nelson name died with him.

Unlocking the briefcase he pulled out the thick folder and sat it on the desk. It had been faxed over that morning by NCIS Agent Gwendolyn Morton, as per his request. What he had read so far made him question the past and ponder the future of his family and the institute he’d worked so hard to establish. It was always his thought—and wish—that Lee and Chip would take over when he was no longer able to carry on. While that dream hadn’t changed, the evidence was leading to the theory that Lee and Chip might not be the only ones to carry on his legacy and work.

Shaking the thoughts from his head, Nelson picked up the report, unlocked one of the four small file cabinets in the corner, and dropped it inside. With a twist of the key he relocked the cabinet.

A while later, Nelson, now dressed more causally in faded jeans and a blue polo shirt, left the house with half bottle of Glenlivet and walked down the hill to Chip’s condo. Lee’s place was dark, with a single light on the back porch to act as a beacon for the return trip. However, the lights on Chip’s back deck blazed merrily away on the cool evening.

Nelson smiled happily. No matter anything else, his friends here were his family. They were and always would be the most important driving force in his life. Nothing could change that. Nothing. 

 

End

srh

 

 

 

 

 



[1] Falling Far by Sharon H.

[2] Also mentioned in Falling Far by Sharon H.

[3] The last two times Lee has seen Wendy as an adult have been in the short stories “Twist of    Fate” and “Falling Far”, both by Sharon H.

[4] The Exile…Season One:  Vol. 2-Disc 2, side B

[5] IAFIS…. Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System

[6] Bring me to Life by Evanescence, 2003, Wind-Up Records.

[7] See “Falling Far” by Sharon H.

[8] See “Lost” by Sharon H.