There were days I figured I would never finish this story and at one point I almost tossed it out. Originally it was a story of another flavor but over time it sort of mutated. Any mistakes are mine and no fault of my very human, though excellent beta.

 

Eye of the Storm

Sharon H.

 

~<<>>~

 

Lee Crane glanced at his watch and stifled a groan. Looking out over the empty expanse of ground, he eyed the dark buildings and surrounding countryside with apprehension. Nothing moved; no animals and certainly no people. Lee was beginning to wonder if this was a waste of time.

 

ONI had contacted him earlier in the evening with a message that one of their agents had information to pass along. The agent was in a bind and could not break cover. Lee was reluctant but Admiral Radcliff swore this was a simple pick-up. All he had to do was rendezvous with the contact, pick up his information and report back, ASAP. Lee agreed. Now he was regretting it.

 

Lee had driven nearly an hour out of the city in one of the institute’s fleet cars to some ramshackle point not even on the map. What was left of an ancient motel continued to molder off to his right. The trees, unfettered and allowed to grow unchecked, had slowly taken over the once gravel parking lot.  Lee settled in to wait after parking under the cover of some low-hanging branches. He’d been waiting for nearly two hours now and his patience was growing thin. His contact, a man by the name of Sam Carver, was supposed to meet him at this spot at 2100 hours. Lee didn’t know the nature of Carver’s cover and he didn’t care to know. He just wanted to get this over with.  

 

With a sigh, Lee ran an agitated hand through his dark curly hair. Time seemed to have slowed to a snail’s pace and the muscles in his legs were beginning to cramp, aching from sitting in one spot for so long. He decided to stretch his legs for a bit, give Carver another fifteen minutes, and if he hadn’t shown up by then he was out of here. ONI could set up another meeting with another contact if it was all that important. The only reason he’d waited this long was because he owed Carver a favor.[1]

 

Sliding out of the black car, Lee walked around the front, each step kicking up a small cloud of dust as he paced. The road up to this long forgotten motel was hardly more than a dirt track and the car’s slick black paint job was already coated in a thick layer of gray-brown grime. Crane turned away from the car, breathing in the dry, dusty air, his senses on alert for any sound or movement that might be out of place. The snap of a twig brought his head up sharply as he tracked the noise off to his right. Overhead a three-quarter moon illuminated the landscape but deepened the shadows around the woods on the other side of the car. His eyes, now accustomed to the dark, could see nothing out of the ordinary. Lee reached under his worn leather jacket, reassured by the weight of the Beretta in the holster at his back.

 

The sound did not repeat itself and the nervy young commander mentally kicked himself for jumping at shadows. Facing the dark woods that lay just on the other side of the car he stood listening to the sound of crickets and night insects. No other sounds were decipherable. Lee shook his head in disbelief, turned to walk back to the car, and

he came face to face with the pale, wide-eyed figure of his contact. Slowly his body tilted forward and Lee grabbed him around the chest, under his arms. Crane swallowed back the bile climbing into the back of his throat. The man had been beaten, his face a kaleidoscope of bruises, his shirt damp with still-warm blood, his mouth contorted in a silent scream as Lee eased him to the ground.

 

“Carver? Carver, can you hear me?” Lee kept his voice low, hoping to get some response from the injured agent. Carver blinked once and then focused on Crane. He grabbed for Lee’s wrist, pulling him closer. In a harsh whisper Carver managed to force out a few strangled words. “Crane…knew you’d come…”

 

“Take it easy, Carver. I’ll get you out of this.”

 

Carver grabbed a fist full of Lee’s shirt as a violent shiver shook him. “Too late. Listen…I hid…” Carver gasped, started coughing, spitting up blood as he clung to Lee, as if his grip on Crane was the only thing keeping him alive. “There’s a list,” he hacked out between the coughs and the blood.

 

Lee tightened his grip on the dying man. “A list of what? Carver, what kind of list?”

 

 

“A card…of the hand…in the blue outlet…Amadi…”

 

Lee frowned. “Carver, that doesn’t make any sense. What are you talking about?” Lee asked softly.  Abruptly the man convulsed then grew still. His eyes locked open, unblinking, unseeing. Lee found no pulse. What list? Whose hand? Amadi? That couldn’t be right. There was only one Amadi he knew of and he was in prison, serving a life sentence.

 

“Too bad about Carver, ayh?” a deeply accented voice called out to Lee from the other side of the rental car. Lee, who had a special gift for languages, recognized the southern sounding accent, probably from Texas or Louisiana. The young officer scrambled to his feet to face two very armed, very large men

 

“I don’t know who you’re talking about. My car broke down and I’m waiting for a buddy to give me a lift. This guy came out of nowhere.” Crane said.

 

“Nonsense. Pretty far removed from town. Not a place I’d be wondering around at night, unless I had…business…to attend to. What could you possibly be doing all the way out here if you weren't waiting for someone?” the voice called out to him, the speaker remaining hidden in the deep shadows.

 

Okay, Crane, lie your way out of this one. ”I don’t know anything. I told you, my car broke down. You must have me confused with someone else.”

 

From the other side of the car stepped the speaker, a bear of a man with broad shoulders and a head of wild tangled hair and a full beard. Lee fought back the urge to take a step backward.

 

“This man,” the bear prodded the dead body with a booted foot, “was a member of the Office of Naval Intelligence, until just very recently. Death has a way of retiring you. Funny that you should show up when we know he was going to meet someone.”

 

“I don't know what you're talking about. The guy was dead before he hit the ground.”

 

Despite his size, the bear of a man lunged forward with lightning speed, grabbing Lee by the front of his shirt and slamming him against the hood of the car. The impact knocked the wind out of Lee as he fought against the steel grip of fingers now tightening around his throat.

 

“Where’s the card?”

 

 What card?… Lee’s mind screamed as he gasped for air. The claw-like fingers released their hold on him. “I told you, I don’t know him.”

 

“Make the good man see reason,” Grizzly snarled, lifting Lee with one hand and throwing him to the ground.

 

Lee was grabbed and slammed, face down, once more into the hood of the car while he was searched. The Beretta was pulled from the holster at his back and it vanished, presumably into the pocket of one of his attackers. His wallet was also confiscated. Lee thanked his habit of carrying a false ID when he did these little 'jobs' for ONI. You just never knew when something would go wrong. Like now.

 

“Says his name is Lloyd Cain,” said one. A deep snort from the leader told Lee he wasn't convinced.

 

“ID's can be faked. Give me that.”

 

Lee saw the huge man reaching for the wallet. Taking advantage of the slight distraction, Lee spun around and, using the hood of the car for balance, brought both feet up and caught the nearest accomplice square in the chest, shoving his body to the ground. Lee saw the first punch headed for him and managed to duck, then launched himself at the second thug. They hit the ground, kicking up a cloud of thick dust. He took a couple of ill placed punches but it wasn't enough to slow him down. Lee got in a few punches of his own and felt the solid connection and the very satisfying crunch as his fist connected with somebody's nose.

 

“Damn it!” A sputtered curse confirmed Lee's hunch but he didn't have time for a follow up. He barely had time to scramble to his feet before a kick to the back of his right leg sent him sprawling back onto the dusty ground. He tried to pull himself together but he was grabbed by his jacket and yanked back to his feet, then thrown against the car a third time, held down as he took a fist to his jaw, a second fist to his gut again and a third fist to his side, right over his left kidney. Lee tried to fend off the blows but he was grabbed by his arms and held up to face the leader.

 

“Killing is such a messy business. I'm sure you'd rather avoid it, if at all possible. Just give me the card and all this unpleasantness can be forgotten,” Grizzly urged.

 

Lee raised his head to glare at Grizzly. “I told you, I don't know what you're talking about,” he said and another punch to his stomach drove the air out of his lungs. He felt the grip on his arms slacken and he dropped to the ground. Pain seemed to swirl around Lee like a sadistic whirlpool, threatening to suck him down in to a deep, dark hole. With determination, Crane clung to consciousness as he was hoisted back up and slammed against the hood of the car, his back screaming in agony from the impact. 

“McGregor, I think he’s telling the truth.” A voice sounded dubious.

 

Lee heard Grizzly. “He’s faking. We know Carver was going to meet someone. We go back with the codes or we take him with us.”

 

Lee felt a hand on the neck of his shirt and he was hauled to his feet once more then thrown to the ground. A boot connected with his side, then another. He felt something give and he bit back the scream of pain as he felt at least one rib snap with the impact.

His whole body vibrating with agony, Lee lay on the ground, unable to summon the strength to move.

 

The voices were talking once more, the words swirling around him like a mad school of fish, moving too fast for him to catch. They kept at him, demanding to know where the card was but Lee had no earthly idea what they were talking about. Every negative answer got him another round of pounding. Finally the questions—and the beating—stopped. Some sense in the back of his mind was aware of the car starting up. Were they going to leave him here?

 

 Lee didn’t have time to wonder anymore as he was rolled over onto his stomach. Instinct told him what was about to happen to him and he bucked against the weight of a knee grinding into his spine. His arms were pulled behind him and he felt the sticky material of tape against his skin, binding his wrists together. When he tried struggling against the bonds he got another kick to his unprotected side.  He tried to push away with his legs, only to have his ankles grabbed and quickly bound. They did the same for his knees, leaving Lee feeling like some kind of modern-day mummy. He was rolled onto his back and a knee wedged right into his stomach, pinning him to the ground even as he bucked and twisted.

 

“Last chance, pal. You might get out of this alive yet if you give me what I want. My boss ain’t near so forgiving.”

 

Now Lee realized what was going on. Grizzly was just softening him up. If he didn’t talk now they were going to take him to their boss. “Go to hell,” Lee spat out, his comment earning him a punch to the jaw that drove his head back with a snap. Tape was forced down over his mouth, silencing any further outbursts.

 

Lee was hoisted off the ground and carried over Grizzly’s shoulder. Under him, the ground moved in dizzying waves. His body was shifted and then dropped with a sickening jolt into the trunk of the car.

 

Before the trunk was slammed down, a blood-smeared face peered down at Lee. The thug whose nose he had busted with a lucky punch leaned over the young commander. Backlit against the star-studded night sky, the blade of a knife glistened in the thug's right hand.

 

“I'll trade you, hot shot,” he muttered and brought the blade down low into Lee's left side.

 

Lee's scream was muffled behind the heavy-duty tape and immediately the pain spread through his left side. He felt his warm blood slowly spreading, soaking his shirt. You've really done it now, Crane. Jamie's not going to like this.

 

Fighting against the pain enveloping his entire body and the nausea ballooning in his gut, Lee struggled to free himself. The trunk slammed shut with the finality of a coffin lid, sealing his fate. He writhed in the darkness, trying desperately to work free of the imprisoning tape. He felt the car start up again and the forward motion as it slowly dove off. He tried to keep the panic at bay but he knew that Admiral Radcliff was the only one who knew where he was at. Radcliff wasn’t expecting a report until the morning.

Until Radcliff starting looking for that report, no one would have any idea what had happened to him. And now no one would know where he was being taken.

 

~<<>>~

 

It was close to lunchtime when Chip Morton finally made it to his office. His flight had been delayed a few hours due to bad weather but not so much that he couldn’t put in at least a partial day in the office. The seminar had lasted all weekend and Chip had gone as the institute’s representative. The admiral would want a report as soon as Chip could put one together.

 

He found the Administration building quiet as he entered and ignored the elevator in favor of the stairs since he missed his morning run. Chip jogged the two flights up and made the short walk down the corridor to his office. He thought about popping in to harass Lee but decided against it. Chip knew he had a desk full of stuff. Two days at a software seminar will do that.

 

Kim Martin glanced up from the stack of mail and flashed Chip a quiet smile of her own. “Good Morning, Mr. Morton. I haven’t gotten through the mail yet, but I do have a stack of messages for you.” The dark haired lady handed off a rather thick stack of neatly printed messages.

 

Chip settled his briefcase on the edge of the desk and quickly sorted through the stack. Some he would deal with on his own, the rest he’d leave for Kim to deal with later. There was a note from Sharkey concerning the new dive gear, several assorted messages concerning supply, and a few other messages concerning contracts with current suppliers. The last message made him curious. “Short circuit fudge?”

 

Kim rolled her eyes. “Oh, I thought I’d pulled that out. I’m sorry. It’s for the pot luck we’re putting together for the last of this month.”

 

Chip immediately felt his interest perking. Kim was sort of the ‘den mother’ for the secretarial staff, hired on right after the admiral took over. There were so many new people—no one knew who was a researcher from an engineer from the secretarial staff so Kim started organizing pot luck lunches in the cafeteria.  Everyone who brought a dish wrote the name of it on a card along with a little tidbit about themselves. The event quickly caught on and while nowadays it was more for the administrative staff, everyone still had fun.

 

The challenging part of the potluck was coming up with the names of the dishes. Each office assistant tried to come up with a dish name that reflected the occupation of their ‘charge’. ‘Secret Agent Bran muffins’ made by Lee’s office assistant and Angie’s ‘Four-Star’ four-layer chocolate cake came to mind.

 

“And you came up with ‘Short Circuit Fudge’?” Chip asked.

 

“Trust me, one bite and you’ll short circuit,” she explained with a grin.

 

Chip laughed. “Oh, that’s priceless. You have to save me and Lee some.” With his selected messages in one hand, Chip grabbed the briefcase up and headed for his office. He was gone long enough to drop everything on his desk and then double back, making a bee-line for the coffee pot. He poured a cup of the dark brew, dropped two donuts onto a paper plate. “I see Lee hasn’t been here yet,” he commented, noticing the full dozen donuts—now minus his chosen two. Lee’s secretary was currently on maternity leave and the temp, although very competent, tended toward healthy and was known to bring in bagels and whole grain muffins. Lee usually managed an excuse to ‘visit’ and avail himself to a couple of the chocolate-coated confections. It was odd that he hadn’t popped in yet.

 

“I noticed that myself. I checked but Commander Crane hasn’t entered the building yet,” Kim explained.

 

Chip frowned, noticed a glob of chocolate on his thumb and promptly stuck the contaminated digit in his mouth. “Kim,” he said before vanishing into his lair, “Let me know when Lee comes in.”

 

Kim nodded and grabbed for a pencil to make a note. “Absolutely, sir.”

 

With a nod, Chip disappeared into his office and closed the door.

 

~<<>>~

 

Lee wasn’t sure what prompted his return to consciousness. It wasn’t true consciousness, mostly a state of being aware, like he was floating. The car was still moving. He had no idea how long they had driven but they must have hit every pothole and bump to get there. Contorted painfully in the trunk of the car, his back, his legs and his neck had started to cramp. There was no point in mentioning the stab wound. The blood loss had made him light headed and dizzy to the point where even laying still in the dark made his head swim, pushing him dangerously close to nauseous.

 

The heat was getting worse with each passing hour. He continued to drift in and out of consciousness, jolted awake by the jostling of the car over rough patches on the road. He had no idea what time it was. He felt like he’d been trapped for an eternity, wondering how long it would take for someone to miss him. He should have mentioned it to someone, either security, the admiral, someone. A little late for it now.

 

He could feel sweat beading up under his hair line, sliding under his ear. The dark blue polo shirt he wore to the meeting was soaked with sweat and blood. He had hoped that the sweat might have loosened the adhesive on the tape and he could slip free but the tape must have been of higher quality than Lee expected. It continued to hold fast around his wrists and ankles.

 

Breathing heavily, Lee tried once more, having long since lost count, to kick open the trunk. His feet echoed hollowly against the inside of the car ineffectually. He closed his eyes, breathing short, shallow breaths since the tape over his mouth forced him to breathe through his nose only.

 

The car hit another bump, jolting his already abused body and causing him to roll slightly to his left side. The pain screamed through every nerve and a deep groan forced its way past the tape. Lee closed his eyes, riding out the wave of pain as another jolt bounced his body against the floor.  

 

Nausea rocketed through him, forcing him again to close his eyes. It was hard not to focus on how miserable he was, the stifling heat, the agony his body was in, the scratchiness in his throat as the need for water grew, turning his mouth into sandpaper. His tongue felt thick and covered in cotton. Dizziness made the darkness an unforgiving monster as Lee struggled to stay conscious. It grabbed on to him, like prey in a shark’s jaws, and slowly pulled him under.

 

~<<>>~

 

Chip glanced up at the clock, surprised when he noticed it was nearly 1430. With a puzzled expression he paged Kim. She was quick to answer. “Yes, Commander?”

 

“Did Lee ever turn up?”

 

“Well,” she began, “he never passed through here. Give me a second to contact Connie and see if he came in.”

 

“Thanks, Kim.” Chip released the button and sat still for a second, staring. Why was he uneasy about this? Lee probably had a very good reason for not being in. Kim would call back, report that Connie had him scheduled for some admiral-sanctioned thing, and that would be the end of it. When the phone did ring, Chip nearly jumped out of the chair.

 

“Yes, Kim?” he asked, hoping his voice wasn’t shaking as much as he thought it sounded.

 

“Connie says Commander Crane hasn’t been in the office all morning. He hasn’t been in the building either.”

 

Chip was at a loss for words. He managed to stammer his thanks to Kim and cut the connection. He wondered if the admiral was aware that Lee hadn’t made it in this morning. Chip seriously doubted it.  He reached over and picked up the phone, dialing the extension for the head of security. The line was quickly picked up. “Hawkins here,” came the immediate answer.

 

“Hawkins, have somebody check on Commander’s Crane’s house. I want to know if his car is still on the grounds,” Chip ordered. Hawkins acknowledged the order and promised to get back with him as soon as he had checked.

 

Once more Chip stared ahead into space, trying to visualize what might be keeping Lee from reporting into work. Lee didn’t miss work. It was like a child saying ‘no thanks’ to an extra cookie. It was beyond uncharacteristic. Chip’s hand hovered over the phone for a second before he pulled it away. Resolved, Chip decided this was best done face to face. He did page Kim one last time. “Is the admiral in his office?” he asked when she answered. There was a pause as she checked, her fingers clicking on the keyboard clear over the speaker.

 

“Yes sir, as far as I can tell,” she answered. Chip thanked her and severed the connection. He didn’t get up, instead remaining in his seat as he waited for security to call back with an update. Time seemed to crawl by. When the phone rang back ten minutes later, Chip was a little more expectant but his hand still trembled slightly when he hit the speakerphone button. “Yes?”

 

“Sir, I’m outside of the commander’s house. His personal car is still in the drive and the house is locked up. You want me to go in?”

 

Chip pondered the question. “Yes. Override the security system if it’s armed and let me know what you find. Use my cell phone, I won’t be in my office,” Morton hung up the phone and this time got to his feet. Time to approach the admiral.

 

~<<>>~

 

Angie was in the middle of several reports that needed to be proofed and edited when the door of her office swung open and Chip’s blond head appeared, followed by the rest of him. “The admiral in?” he asked.

 

“He is, but he’s not in the best of moods,” she warned.

 

Chip frowned. “I really need to see him.”

 

Angie echoed the frown. “Hang on,” she ordered and picked up the phone. “Sir, Mr. Morton needs to see you,” she said. “Yes, sir.” She hung the phone up and hitched a thumb in the direction of the main office. “You’re on,” she told the blond, who grinned in response. Angie turned her attention back to the computer as Chip pushed past her and into the admiral’s office.

 

Chip found the admiral behind his desk, a scowl on his face as his eyes darted back and forth, reading a report on his desk. The sapphire eyes darted up to see the blond, then flicked back down to the report. “Something I can do for you, Chip?” Nelson asked.

 

There really wasn’t any other way to approach the subject. Nelson despised games. “Have you seen Lee today?”

 

Nelson’s attention turned completely to Chip. “Now that I think of it, I haven’t heard or seen him all day.”

 

“Security reports his car is still parked at his house. I’m still waiting…” Chip’s comment was cut off by the buzz of his cell phone. With an apologetic glance at his employer Chip dug the phone from his pocket. “Morton here,” he said, expecting the call.

 

“Sir, Commander Crane’s house looks spotless. No sign of anything unusual. It appears he just walked out and hasn’t come back yet.”

 

Chip frowned. “That’s what I needed to know. Thanks, Hawkins.” Chip disconnected and stuffed the phone back in his pocket. He turned back to Nelson. “I had security check Lee’s house. I wanted to make sure there weren’t signs of a struggle.”

 

“You suspect a problem?” Nelson asked in low tones.

 

Chip let out a sigh. “I don’t know. It isn’t like him to not show up and not notify someone. If he left his car, he must have taken an institute vehicle.”

 

Nelson snorted. “You’re right, as usual. Follow up with the garage and report back to me when you’ve found something.” 

 

“Aye sir,” Chip replied smartly. He turned and was headed for the door when the intercom came to life with Angie’s voice. Normally Chip would have left but when he heard Angie mention Admiral Radcliff, the current director of ONI, he paused at the door and shot his employer a curious look—a look that Nelson shared. Too much of a coincidence with Lee’s location unknown. Nelson silently indicated that Chip not leave just yet.

 

“Alright, Angie. Let’s see what he wants,” Nelson invited. Seconds later Admiral Chester Mitchel Radcliff came on the line.

 

“Harriman, where’s that boy of yours?” he growled.

 

“Sorry Chester, we have a rule of not hiring anyone under the age of 18. You’ll have to be more specific.” Nelson’s look was entirely too smug and Chip buried his own smile.

 

“I’m talking about Crane, damn it,” the current director of the Office of Naval Intelligence grumbled. Chip saw Nelson smile.

 

“Names make identification so much easier. Now what do you need my captain for?”

 

“Details, Harriman, are something I’m not prepared to share with the likes of you just yet. Crane was supposed to report as soon as he had a chance.”

 

Nelson’s expression turned decidedly dark and Chip was glad that the ONI director could not see the admiral on this end of the connection. The admiral glanced back up to Chip and mouthed the word ‘garage’. Chip accepted the order and ducked out, leaving Nelson to handle the ONI director with no witnesses.

 

“Since you didn’t have the decency to ask me before you borrowed him, you can rectify that mistake now by telling me what you wanted him for,” Nelson snarled as the office close shut.

 

Radcliff didn’t seem impressed with Nelson’s tone. “It’s classified.”

 

“You sent my captain on some random assignment, didn’t have the guts to notify me, and you have the nerve to tell me it’s classified?” Nelson voice rose a notch as the outrage made itself heard.

 

“Harry, he might be your captain but he’s MY agent. His duty to his country comes before that over-sized bathtub toy of yours.”

 

Nelson resisted the urge to put his fist through the top of his desk and mentally counted to ten, in Russian, seeking to cool his boiling temper. Odín…dva…tri…četyre….

“And he can’t fulfill those duties if he’s dead. Now where in the hell did you send my captain? Don’t hand me that line of bull about ‘need to know’ and all that. I need to know. Since you didn’t see fit to back him up on this, it’s up to me to find him before it’s too late. Now where the devil did you send him?”

 

Radcliff's voice was a snarl as he answered. “This investigation is classified. Only a handful of people know of it.”

 

“I could give a damn. Now where the hell is Crane?” Nelson's answering growl was like thunder on the distant horizon. 

 

In a standoff that seemed to last years, Chester Radcliff finally relented. His deeply accented Arkansas voice had the hint of defeat as he answered Nelson with the address of where he had told Crane to wait. “It’s an old motel. Been abandoned for several years. We’ve used it as a drop a couple of times now. Have you ever heard of a petty thief named Ahmed Jaheen?”

 

“I don’t know many Middle Eastern thieves,” Nelson replied dryly.

 

“He was released from prison a few months ago and he’s been a busy boy since then. We’ve been keeping a close eye on him,” Radcliff began.

 

“I can imagine. So what does this Ahmed Jaheen have to do with my captain? Make it fast.”

 

“A few months ago Jaheen approached one of our agents, undercover as an arms dealer, a man named Carver. Jaheen’s been buying ammonium nitrate and nitromethane like it’s going out of style.”

 

“I don’t like the sound of that.”

 

“I won’t mention the ungodly amount of Tovex[2] he acquired through another avenue.  If Crane has encountered some trouble, you’re the closest and best equipped to handle it. I’ve done all I can for you.”

 

“Mighty big of you,” Nelson responded dryly.

 

“Harry, if Jaheen is building a bomb we need to know where.”

 

“When I find Crane, you’ll get your answers.”

 

~<<>>~

 

Chip found the garage the usual bustle of activity as the maintenance crew did the daily checks on not only the cars of the institute fleet, but the myriad of jeeps, forklifts, trucks, and other motorized equipment that serviced the institute. The head mechanic was Jim Robertson, a short stocky fellow who could diagnose a mechanical problem in any vehicle by smell and sound, or so legend said. Jim was dressed in the usual attire of the mechanics divisions: a dark blue shirt, dark blue lightweight trousers and black shoes. His blue and white NIMR ball cap shaded his eyes and he pushed the headgear back as he spotted Morton heading in his direction.

 

“Mr. Morton, what brings you down to the Hole?” Jim asked. The ‘Hole’ was the nickname given to the enormous garage. It took up two levels of the massive garage          with the lower level being where the bulk of the service work was done. The upper level was mostly a parking facility for the fleet.

 

“Following a hunch. Don’t suppose Cmdr. Crane came down here yesterday sometime?”

 

Jim grabbed the brim of his hat and pulled it off, rubbing palm and fingers of his left hand over the top of his head and close-cut hair. Buzzed almost to the scalp, there was almost no hair to speak of, mostly just fuzz. But Jim’s pale blue eyes were contemplative. “I wondered about that. Yeah. Late yesterday, around…I don’t know what time you call it…it was 10:30.”

 

“2230. How can you know metric and standard measurements and not know military time?” Chip joked, shaking his head.

 

Jim laughed in return. “Old dogs and new tricks. You know what they say. But yeah, he came in, requested a car, and signed out. It’s in the logs.” Jim motioned for Chip to follow and he lead the way to a medium-sized office filled with shelves full of manuals, blueprints, and other books of the trade. Jim slid into the old swivel chair and attacked the keyboard, typing fast and two-fingered, bringing up the checkout logs for the fleet. Chip leaned in close, his eyes darting over each entry.

 

“Sorry. I stand corrected. 10:37 last night,” Jim confirmed, a scarred and calloused finger pointing to the entry on the screen. Chip frowned. He’d been out of town. Maybe if he’d been here…

 

“What did you put him in?” Morton asked.

 

“Mr. Morton, I’m hurt that you would ask such a thing,” Jim said in mock surprise. “Actually, it’s a good question. I figured with that little red baby of his he might want something a little sporty so I offered him the Mustang but he declined. Said he needed something a little less flashy. And dark. We’ve got a black Ford Taurus and when I suggested it he said that would be fine.”

 

Chip was nodding, his mind processing what Jim was telling him. Lee didn’t want to stand out. He wanted to blend in. A black mid-sized car would do that. “I don’t suppose he told you what he was up to?”

 

Jim shook his head as he logged off the computer. “No sir. Cmdr. Crane isn’t a big talker. Oh, he comes down, chats with the guys when things get slow, brings that Cobra of his in for us to look at but he’s not big on personal stuff. He didn’t volunteer and I didn’t ask. I didn’t think it was odd that he wasn’t taking his car. He seldom takes it off base.”

 

Chip understood Lee’s thinking. Not many knew the Cobra’s background and exactly what the car meant to Lee.  

 

“Did that car have GPS?” Chip asked curiously.

 

Jim looked up and grinned. “Mr. Morton, ALL the fleet cars have GPS. If they don’t when they come in, they don’t leave until it’s been installed. Standard operating procedure around here.

 

 “Thanks, Jim. He didn’t happen to mention when he was supposed to come back?”

Jim shook his head again. “No sir. Nothing. There isn’t a problem is there? With Cmdr. Crane?”

 

“Not sure yet,” Chip said, wishing he didn’t have to say it like that. But the truth was the truth. For all they knew, Lee had a flat on the other side of town with a dead cell phone and no change. The admiral may have more answers from ONI. Chip was reluctant to push the panic button until he absolutely had to. “You’ve been a big help, Jim.” Chip turned and headed out of the garage, hand reaching for the pocket holding his cell phone. He’d no more made contact when the phone rang.  “Morton here,” he said not bothering to check the caller ID.

 

“Chip,” Nelson’s grumble was unmistakable. “You and I are taking a road trip.”

 

~<<>>~

 

“Are we there yet? Where are we headed? Tijuana? What the hell was Lee doing out here? Communing with nature? Hell of a place for a rendezvous.” Nelson growled as Chip made yet another turn, taking them off the main road and onto a track that had once been blacktop but was so forgotten it was mostly gravel and dirt now. There wasn’t much to see, just the seemingly endless road that stretched before them. The dust was so thick Nelson could smell it with the windows rolled up, oozing in through the air vents. Chip would have to give his precious SUV a bath when all this was over.

 

“According to Admiral Radcliff’s directions we should be coming up on the motel soon,” Chip said quietly, not taking his attention off the road. He was pushing the Jeep as fast as he dared while keeping watch for potholes and any number of wild animals. This far out of town, the last thing he needed was to hit a deer and total out his truck, with the admiral as a passenger.

 

Nelson only snorted at the comment, too caught up in his worry for Lee. What on earth had he gotten messed up with now? Were they too late? Nelson refused to accept that Lee might be dead. Nelson had to hold on to his hope that they weren't too late, that Lee was still alive. Chip flicked a quick glance to his employer. Nelson's posture was stiff, his shoulders squared. He was bracing himself for what might be.

 

“Sir, do you think he's alive?”

 

“I was just asking myself that very same question. I have to believe that he is. If Lee comes back with as much as a bruise, I'll have Radcliff's head on a platter.”

 

In the glow of the midday sun the forgotten motel emerged from the trees, like something out of a ghost town. Chip slowed the SUV to a crawl, his eyes sweeping the area for any sign of the black car Jim described. He pulled the vehicle over onto the shoulder and he and Nelson got out, cautiously exploring the landscape

 

A body lay on the ground a few yards away. Chip’s strangled whisper of 'Lee' was like a gunshot in summer air. Both men ran forward, dropping down by the dead man.

 

“It's not Lee.” The heartbreak in Chip’s voice was almost too thick to bear. “Where is he?” Chip asked, not expecting an answer. Both men moved away from the dead man, trying to find the answers in the dismal landscape. The sun beat down, unforgiving and relentless. Further searching revealed tire tracks and what Chip thought might be dried blood. But whose, neither could say. “What about the motel?” Chip finally asked.

 

Without further comment, Nelson marched up to the abandoned building. He entered the first room he came to that wasn’t locked and looked around. Cheap and simple, the furniture that was left was rotting and moldering as it sat forgotten in the room. Chip didn’t bother with niceties, choosing to simply kick down the door of the next locked room.

 

It took an hour to search the motel. There was no sign of Lee. They found one room with a heavy chair that didn’t match the decor. Rope was still tied to the legs and arms of the mismatched chair and blood stained the floor and wall. “Looks like someone fell, then got up and leaned against the wall,” Chip surmised, gently touching the dried blood. What the scene didn’t tell him was if his friend had been here. The walls were silent, refusing to tell anyone what had happened to Lee Crane.

 

~<<>>~

 

Lee’s journey back to consciousness was filled with pain and gut-twisting nausea. He closed his eyes and, breathing raggedly though his mouth, abruptly realized that while the tape from his mouth was gone his wrists and ankles were still bound, He slowly forced everything to calm down. His head exploded with pain as he tried to move and for a long time he simply lay perfectly still trying to come to grips with what was happening.

 

He opened his eyes, not sure what to expect. He found himself in some kind of storage room. After a second of contemplation he changed that to a storage hold. There were crates and boxes stacked against the walls, strapped down with netting. Immediately he felt his stomach take another nosedive as the implications set in. Focusing, he could feel the sway of waves. He was on a ship. They weren’t moving as far as he could tell. Which meant they were still moored. That was a good sign. It made getting away a tad bit easier.

 

There was a couple of light bulbs overhead, giving him light to see by. Carefully he levered himself into a sitting position, his back against a crate, feeling the nausea settling down to wait. The stab wound on his side had faded to a dull throb and he tried to ignore it like he ignored the pounding in his head and his aching muscles. Screwed this up right, came the thought as he surveyed his prison, looking for anything that might give him a clue as to where he was. He didn’t have much time to ponder his options. The wheel clanked and the hatchway was pushed in.

 

He gazed up at the newcomer, feeling the details of years past coming to rush back in one painful breath. The dark eyes, the set of his jaw, the cool, collected way he carried himself…Lee knew the man. Lee never expected to see him again. “Amadi,” Lee spat the name out, disgust pouring from every cell. Carver was right. As for what the rest of it meant, that was any man’s guess.

 

Amadi’s time in prison had left its mark on him. He wasn’t the robust figure Lee had last seen, on trial for crimes against his country. He’d lost a lot of weight, not nearly as muscular as he had been, and there was something in his eyes that bothered Lee. A spark of something not entirely sane.

 

“For the moment I’m Ahmed Jaheen. The original had the misfortune to die before his sentence was up. We looked so much alike, it was easy enough to dress the dead Jaheen in my clothes. Poor Omar el-Hakim Amadi died in a prison riot. Jaheen was released and no one knew the difference.”

 

“Not for much longer, if I have anything to do with it.”

 

“Brave words. Now Carter stole something from me, something that means a great deal. A data card. I would like it back. Why don’t you tell me where the card is now?”

 

“I told your goons once, I don’t have any card. Carver died before he could tell me anything. Your doing, no doubt.”

 

“McGregor said that Carver insisted that he passed them on to you, yet we didn’t find them on you. Either you or he hid them. Now where are they?”

 

“Even if I knew I wouldn’t tell you.”

 

“I wonder how Admiral Nelson will react when I send you back to him, one small piece at a time. Gift wrapped of course.”

 

“The admiral will hunt you down and sent you back to prison,” Lee snapped back.

 

Amadi paced the hold, the hard soles of his boots thudding on the metal decking. “Nelson can hunt all he wants. He’s not going to find you. Not until I want him to find you, or rather what’s left of you. You, Nelson, and Morton, you’re all going to pay for what you did to me!” Punctuating his fury, Amadi lashed out and kicked Lee in the side, knocking him back to the floor.

 

Lee gasped in pain, unable to defend himself as Amadi kicked him again and again. Once he took a boot to the stab wound in his side and the agony swept through him, graying out his vision and sending every muscle vibrating with misery. The only thing that saved him from further torment was the rush of blackness that reared up to engulf him.

 

~<<>>~

 

Admiral Chester Radcliff was still blowing smoke when Nelson called to report they’d found one dead body and no Lee Crane. The description of the dead man matched Carver. Of all the damn rotten luck…

 

“So where the hell is Crane?” Radcliff demanded on the phone. Nelson’s outraged voice blasted back at him.

 

“How the hell should I know? You sent him on this cockamamie quest—I’m the one trying to salvage this mess!”

 

Radcliff stuttered for a second, trying to think of a snappy comeback, but arguing with the likes of Admiral Nelson wasn’t easy. And Radcliff had to admit that this whole assignment was turning into a first class SNAFU. “You don’t have any way of knowing where he might be?”

 

“Chester, if I knew, do you think I’d be wasting time with you right now? For all I know he’s acting on his own. It wouldn’t be the first time,” Nelson grumped.

 

Radcliff felt a spark of hope. He still had a chance to nail Jaheen. “If Crane’s gone solo I can’t risk you breaking his cover. I need to know what Carver was onto. Crane might be my only chance to find out.”

 

“And if he gets killed in the process?”

 

“I’ll get you a new captain.” The minute the words were out of his mouth Chester regretted them. Nelson exploded in a crescendo of expletives, calling into question Radcliff’s family ties to everything from goats to slime mold. Radcliff couldn’t even get a word in edgewise for nearly two minutes while the fiery admiral raged. Eventually Nelson paused to catch his breath and Radcliff had a chance to interject. “Are you done?”

 

“I’m only just warming up,” Nelson growled back. “My exec is on the phone, coordinating with my people to get a fix on the GPS in the car Crane took from our garage. With any luck, if we can find the car we’ll find my captain.”

 

Nelson didn’t even give the head of ONI a chance to reply. He killed the connection and spun around, looking for Chip. They hadn’t left the rotting motel, instead taking the time to make calls and try to pinpoint where the car Lee had taken might be. As Nelson had told Radcliff, Chip was coordinating with the garage and the head of security to locate the car. The longer Chip was on the phone, the farther he’d wandered away from the crumbling building. Nelson was watching when Chip stopped, still on the phone, bent down and picked something up off the ground. Nelson jogged down after him.

 

He wasn’t sure what he was expecting but Nelson accepted the object Chip passed to him. It turned out to be a wallet. Faded and warn, it was something Nelson himself might have thrown out a long time ago. Instead this was filled with an assortment of objects. A few credit cards, a library card, and a driver’s license. The name said ‘Lloyd Cane’, but the picture was Lee. Nelson felt something in his gut start to twist and he felt sick. If Lee had been here, what had happened?

 

Finally Chip focused his attention on the admiral. “Sir,” he began, still on the phone. “We’ve got a fix on the car.”

 

“About damn time,” Nelson snapped and headed for Chip’s SUV.

 

A few minutes later they were navigating even worse roads then before. Nelson kept silent, letting Chip navigate the road, following the directions as he stayed on the phone with whoever he was working with—probably Howard, the surveillance specialist. He kept his speed slow and steady, fearful of missing something.

 

The trees on either side of the road eventually grew sparse and they came out onto a stretch no longer shaded. The heat of the sun was immediate. A parked car was sitting on the side of the road several yards ahead. Chip communicated a quick “Howard, we got it,” into his phone, thumbed the disconnect button and dropped the phone into the center console.

 

Afraid to even breathe, both men exited the SUV and approached the apparently abandoned car. Nelson noticed that Chip had his service weapon out, held low as he crept up on the car. He took the lead, Nelson holding back since he hadn’t thought about grabbing his gun.

 

Chip made his way up to the car and looked inside. There was nothing out of the ordinary inside.

 

“Chip, the trunk?” Nelson asked anxiously. Chip opened the door, surprised that it wasn’t locked and popped the trunk. The gasp from Nelson sent ice shooting through Chip’s soul. He hurried to see what the admiral had found, even though he dreaded what it might be.

 

There was nothing in the trunk. Relief surged through Morton, all the while the concern for his friend spiked. While there was no body waiting discovery, there was a massive pool of blood.

 

“Dear God,” Nelson whispered, staring in sick fascination at the crimson pool. Chip reached out and touched the drying blood.

 

“Tacky. Been here a while,” he offered. The smell was also a hint. The blood had literally been cooking in the heat of the daytime sun. “Well. We have more pieces of the puzzle.”

 

“But we don’t have the big picture,” Nelson concluded with sinking spirits. Something told him time was running out for his young friend and there wasn’t a damn thing they could do about it.  

 

~<<>>~

 

Lee came to, in more pain than the first time. Amadi was gone and the hold was empty. Crane was no fool. He knew Amadi would come back and Lee doubted he’d stop with just a simple beating. He didn’t relish another session like the one he’d just endured. He couldn’t count on a rescue. Even if Radcliff told the admiral where he was meeting Carver, he wasn’t there now and there was no way to track where they’d taken him. Amadi was too smart for that.

 

The only other logical choice was for Lee to get himself out of this mess. Using the edge of the crate he’d been leaning against he finally tore free of the tape around his wrists and worked the rest of the sticky stuff from his legs and ankles. He hated the stuff. Why did the bad guys always seem to have a roll of this crap lying around?

 

Lee gazed at the door. There was probably a guard—if he was lucky, one guard. Well. One guard wasn’t too much of a problem. Lee searched the hold, hunting for anything that he might be able to use as a weapon. Other than the crates and the netting there wasn’t much. The crates were shut with nails and Lee simply didn’t have the strength to pry them open. The netting, however…

 

Lee took precious time to untie all the knots securing the netting over the stack. It was a little bulky but that would actually work in his favor IF he could get it to work. He dropped the netting where he wanted it, picked an appropriate crate on the stack, and gave it a shove.

 

The crash was as noisy and as satisfying as Lee could have wished for and in seconds the wheel on the hatch was spinning. The door swung inward and a guard dressed in a grimy t-shirt and equally greasy jeans bolted in.

 

Lee had just enough time to position himself with the netting by the door, behind where the hatch door would open, giving him a very slim measure of cover. When the guard darted in Lee gave the netting a swing, throwing it over the man and then pulling back with all his strength. The guard immediately set up a struggle, further tangling himself. Lee gave the netting a few twists for good measure then dropped the mess on top of the still struggling guard.

 

Lee staggered up the corridor, heading for the stairwell at the end of the corridor. Already he could hear shouts overhead. The guard must have had a radio and reported Lee’s defection. He reached the top of the stairs and came face to face with another crewman. Lee didn’t wait around for the introduction, slamming his fist into the other man’s gut. He dropped to his knees, gasping for air and Lee darted around his bent body. But the guy had better recovery reflexes than Lee expected and he spun, grabbed for Lee’s ankle and jerked, bringing Lee to the deck.

 

Crane rolled into his back and kicked out with his free leg, smashing the heel of his shoe into the other guy’s head. After the third time the guy let go and Lee scrambled to get his feet under him. By now the entire boat was in an uproar and Amadi appeared topside, fury blazing in his black eyes.

 

“Crane!” he yelled across the deck. Lee didn’t pause. He ignored everything, the pain and the discomfort of his combined injuries and he launched himself over the side of the boat. He landed in the water without his usual grace and floundered for a second as he tried to get his bearings, then dove as gunfire pelted the surface. He angled down, kicking with all his strength, slowly angling back up to the closest pier with flashbacks of Venice in his head.

 

Somewhere off to his right Lee heard the rumble of an engine and the first flutter of panic twisted though his gut. He focused on the pier, still entirely too far away as the sound of the engine drew closer. He dove again, going down as deep as he dared and kicked as hard as he could. The pier seemed miles away. Are we there yet? Lee thought idly as he swam. His hand touched something that turned out to be the support beam for the pier he’d seen, relief rocketing through his system. He surfaced once, grabbed a quick breath, and went back down as the speedboat headed in his direction. Apparently Amadi wasn’t anxious to see Lee get away so easily.

 

Lee kicked downward, angling under the pier as far back as he could go. He grabbed onto the support and held on, keeping his buoyant body from rising to the surface. He waited, seeing the refraction of the underside of the boat slicing through the water. Slowly the boat strayed further and further away from him and Lee was able to relax. He started to rise to the surface when something jerked him back down.

 

Panicked, Lee kicked his tethered leg, feeling something in the water. The something turned out to be a length of half rotten rope, fouled around the support. The current and Lee’s own motion must have dislodged it and it had gotten wrapped around Lee’s leg.

Trying to free himself, Lee was running out of air. With his hands he peeled and pried at the rope but it was slippery with algae and it refused to loosen. His vision was starting to gray out, with explosions of lights behind his eyes. His lungs burning with the need for oxygen, Lee fumbled with the rope, finally slipping it free. He immediately popped to the surface, gasping for air.

 

Once under control Lee made himself search for the motorboat, still hearing the rumble of the outboard. Swimming slowly, Lee pushed back under the pier again, his head just above the surface as he watched and waited. He couldn’t stay in the water much longer. He was already cold and the water sucked what little warmth he had left. He knew all too well what would happen if he stayed too long. Finally the sound of the outboard faded and Lee swam out to the open, hooked both hands over the edge of the pier, and hauled himself onto dry land.

 

Exhausted beyond words, Lee managed to get to his feet. With his arms wrapped around him he touched the stab wound on his side, not surprised when he felt warm blood again. He wavered unsteadily on his feet but managed to stay upright and stagger toward the lights of the town, needing to find some way to contact Chip or the admiral.

 

He didn’t know how long he walked. He never saw any other cars as he staggered almost blindly along an old road, probably an access to the pier. He saw what looked like a gas station up ahead. As he drew closer he thought he could make out the profile of a pay phone booth. Please… let it be a working phone…please…

 

Lee staggered toward the booth, feeling his strength giving out. He grabbed for the receiver of the phone and closed his eyes in relief when he heard the active dial tone. Now he just needed to remember how to make a collect call.

 

~<<>>~

 

They had run out of leads. Chip called back to the institute to have a tow truck pick up the car. Neither wanted to return to the institute but there didn’t seem to be anything either could do at the moment. They had no real proof Lee was in trouble—just a fake ID that Lee carried when he was on assignment and the blood in the trunk of the car. There was no evidence that the blood was Lee’s.

 

Nelson, running on instinct and more than thirty years of experience, was convinced that Lee was in trouble. Judging from the quiet, withdrawn attitude of the blond, he could tell that Chip was convinced as well.

 

“Do we go back home?” Chip finally asked.

 

Nelson sighed. “We don’t have many options. I’m reluctant to contact the police. Lee could simply be undercover. We’ll do him more harm if we blow things for him.”

 

“I was thinking the same thing.” The two walked back to the SUV, each man lost in his own thoughts. The wrecker was due soon and Chip figured he would hang around until it arrived. He said as much to the admiral and Nelson agreed. Chip felt that Nelson wasn’t too eager to leave the last thing that had a positive connection to Lee. Morton felt much the same way but like Nelson, he couldn’t verbalize it.

 

Chip’s cell phone chimed and he pulled it out of his pocket and flipped it open. “Morton,” he said without even checking the caller ID. He assumed it was the wrecker, calling for further directions. They were pretty remote.

 

“Collect call from Lee Crane. Do you accept the charges?” the operator said distinctly.

Chip felt all the blood drain to his feet and his knees shook. It took him two tries to choke out an answer. There was a brief second of silence and Lee’s voice came over the line.

 

“Chip?” Lee sounded weak and hurt—a sound that sent slivers of ice through Morton’s veins. Chip grabbed on to the open door of the SUV for support.

 

“Lee, where are you? Are you hurt?” Chip demanded.

 

There was a pause. “A Marathon gas station. Street sign says…said Tunica and Pike.”

By now Nelson had realized what was going on and followed Chip’s lead as the blond climbed into the truck. He’d barely shut the door when Chip gunned the engine and peeled out.

 

“Lee. I need you to stay with me. Can you do that?” Chip pleaded.

 

Another long pause. “They’re looking…can’t be out…in the open…” There was a hollow sounding thud, as if Lee had dropped the receiver. Chip’s fingers tightened on the wheel.

 

“Lee? Lee, answer me. Lee?” But the silence on the other end was Chip’s only answer. “Damn!” Morton swore as he dropped the phone into the consol.

 

“Easy, son,” Nelson admonished as Chip coaxed a little more speed out of the truck. He didn’t care about speed limits right now. Lee sounded like he hurt and that meant he was in trouble. When he said as much to Nelson, the admiral growled.

 

“I’ll have Radcliff’s head. What direction?”

 

Chip gave Nelson the names of the streets Lee managed to pass on. Chip devoted his attention to driving while Nelson took over the GPS to pinpoint Tunica and Pike. It felt like years before they finally arrived and Chip pulled the truck into the debris-filled gas station. Signs on the door and windows read ‘closed for renovations’. This late in the evening, the remolding crew must have gone home.

 

There was no sign of Lee as Nelson and Chip got out and looked around. Nelson felt his hands shaking, unsure of exactly what had happened to his young friend and fearful of what he would find when they finally did catch up with him. Chip jogged toward the phone booth and Nelson followed.

 

The receiver hung from the cord, swinging gently on the light breeze. When Chip reset the receiver he saw the blood smeared on the heavy molded plastic. “It’s still wet,” he said, drawing his finger over the red stain. He swallowed down his worry and backed out of the booth.

 

“Spread out. He couldn’t have gone far,” Nelson said and he moved toward the building.

Chip paused, trying to think like Lee. He said they were looking. Who were ‘they’? Were ‘they’ looking for Lee? He was concerned about being out in the open…Chip looked around, searching for someplace that might offer some measure of cover.

 

A few yards to his left there was a fast food restaurant and a couple of shops. Chip trotted in that direction, heading for the alley behind the stores. There was a parked van to one side and the other side was lined with dumpsters. The ground was strewn with broken boxes and other assorted trash.

 

“Lee?” Chip called out and listened, holding his breath. There was no answer. “Come on, Lee. Answer me. Please?” Chip started searching for his friend behind the dumpsters, thinking that’s where he would hide if he was hurt and being chased. The first two dumpsters yielded just trash. The third revealed the body of a dark haired, soaking wet Lee Crane.

 

Chip darted back to the head of the alley. “ADMIRAL!” he shouted across the way and Nelson’s red head jerked in his direction. Then Chip went back to Lee, levering the dumpster out so he could reach him. He did a quick check to make sure there weren’t any broken limbs.

 

“Lee,” came a strangled whisper from behind Chip as Nelson saw the battered and bedraggled figure of the young commander. The man was curled up on his side, legs drawn up in a fetal position and his head tucked to his chest. There wasn’t a dry patch of skin on his body; he was utterly and completely soaked.

 

Chip stood and backed off, needing to call Jamie. Nelson moved in and, totally ignoring the trash and filth, sank down by Lee, trying to offer as much support as possible and checking for broken bones and other injuries. He gathered the brunet figure against his. “Son, can you hear me?” Lee moaned weakly and tried to move but Nelson held him still. The older man could see Lee's eyes moving under closed lids but it was as if Lee didn't have the strength to open them. The bloodstain on Lee's shirt, half hidden by the black leather jacket, told Nelson that Lee was suffering from far more than a simple beating. He pushed the jacket aside, noticing the darker stain on the dark blue shirt. Nelson searched for the source of the blood, finally finding it on Lee’s left side. He had been stabbed. Nelson had no idea how deep the damage was. The wound had stopped bleeding for the moment but Nelson suspected it wouldn’t take much to get it going again.

 

“Lee, son, I've got you now. We'll get you out of here, just stay with me,” Nelson urged, taking off his own jacket and covering Lee's shivering, lean frame. Lee was sliding into shock. They couldn't waste much more time.

 

“Chip?” Nelson called out to the blond as he cradled Lee’s body. Chip was swearing a blue streak that would have had the crewmen staring. Most would have been surprised to know that their usually in-control exec even knew those words, much less how to use them.

 

“I can’t get any reception,” Morton snapped angrily.

 

Nelson shook his head. “Never mind that right now. We’ll take him in ourselves. We can contact Jamie when we get closer.”

 

“Aye sir,” Chip acknowledged and darted back toward the SUV to bring it closer. For the first time in hours Chip could breathe. Lee was alive. Everything would work out. Lee was alive and for the moment it was all Chip could ask for.

 

~<<>>~

 

Will Jamieson was enjoying the quiet of the office, content that the day had passed quietly and uneventfully. No catastrophes. No disasters. No mutant sea life rampaging though Med Bay. Well, not that there had ever been a mutant sea life problem in Med Bay—that problem seemed confined to Seaview. However, it was nice to go to work and not have to worry about getting eaten by plankton.

 

So, when the cell phone in his pants pocket rang, the vibration that accompanied the ringing zinged through him like an electric shock, forcing a litany of colorful phrases from the normally tame doctor’s mouth.

 

“Jamieson,” he mumbled somewhat breathlessly as he tried to calm himself from the moment of excitement. He wasn’t expecting to hear Chip’s voice on the other end, wrapped in a blanket of anguish and worry.

 

“Jamie, it’s Lee. He’s been stabbed.”

 

Will felt his stomach drop to the bottom of his feet. “How bad?” he snapped. He heard Morton suck in a deep shaking breath before answering with “It’s bad. Somebody beat the shi…stuffing out of him as well.”

 

It was Jamie’s turn to heave a shuddering breath. “What are you driving?”

 

“My rig. The admiral is in the back with Lee.”

 

“Dear God,” the doctor muttered. He was definitely going to have his hands full when Chip got to Med Bay. Very few things compared to the protective nature of Admiral Nelson when one of his ‘boys’ was in trouble. “How far away are you?”

 

“Another twenty minutes at least. Once I hit the main road I can press for more speed,” Chip said wearily.

 

“Good. I’ll get clearance for you at the gate. Don’t stop, just bring him straight in. And Chip—be careful. I have enough on my hands right now without adding a car wreck to the mix,” warned the doctor.

 

Chip’s reply was quick. “Understood, Doc. We’ll be there as soon as we can.” Chip cut the connection, leaving Jamie holding a dead phone. He involuntarily shuddered at the thought. Dead. No one was dying, not if he had anything to do with it.

 

Jamieson grabbed up the phone on his desk, alerting the emergency room, notifying nursing staff and corpsmen, and contacting security. By the time he was done, Med Bay was on stand by and Jamie was a bundle of nerves. He did his best to hide it, projecting a calm and reserved front to the nurses and staff. Security was on high alert, instructed under pain of their next complete physical to allow Morton’s rig straight in. Jamieson found himself standing outside the main entrance, waiting for Morton’s Jeep to come over the hill.

 

Time seemed to stand still. Jamie kept checking his watch, thinking that they should have arrived by now. Maybe they did have an accident…

 

But the familiar set of daylight-running headlights popped over the rise and Jamie was finally able to breathe.  Chip brought the rig up to the front of Med Bay and threw the driver’s side door open. “It’s bad,” he said as he lunged for the back passenger’s side door and yanked it open. Jamie was signaling to the two orderlies who’d been waiting on standby. They brought the gurney as close as they could to the SUV.

 

“Easy with him,” Jamie instructed as the two moved in to help Lee out of the back of the truck. Nelson relinquished his hold on the younger man, watching as he was placed on the gurney. He scrambled to follow even as Chip pocketed his keys and darted after the retreating entourage. “He’s soaked to the bone,” Jamie muttered and threw a questioning look at blond.

 

“We found him like that, Doc,” Chip supplied. Jamie just shook his head. Only Lee Crane…

 

True to Jamie’s prediction, the doctor had his hands full. Lee was fast sliding into shock. For a second the doctor puzzled over the fact that Lee actually should be in worse shape than he was. Then he remembered that Nelson had been with him. Had Lee known who was with him, even subconsciously? Jamie stopped questioning the bond between the admiral and Lee, and the bond between Lee and Chip, a long time ago. Jamie shook his head and focused on the too pale figure on the gurney. As if suddenly remembering he had an audience, he spun around. “Stay, sit!” he barked at the two.

Chip’s mouth opened to say something and Nelson’s face hardened.

 

“I will not…” the admiral began but Jamie cut him off.

 

“I have to get him stabilized. I have to deal with the blood loss, the trauma, and reverse the shock and run tests. I can’t do that with the pair of you hovering over my shoulder.”

 

Jamie could see Nelson getting his mental feet under him and a deadly glow alit in the back of his blue eyes. “I should to have a chat with Radcliff. I need to brush up on my head hunting.  Keep me updated?”

 

“You know I will,” Jamie answered with a nod.

 

Nelson accepted that and spun on his heel, to probably head for his office. Chip remained rooted to the spot. “Jamie, can’t I…?”

 

But Jamie shook his head. “Chip. No. You can’t. You need to wait out here. I promise I’ll let you know when he’s stable. You need to decompress. You’re tense enough to snap,” he observed. He saw how Chip practically deflated but in all honesty, Chip would recover. If he didn’t give his patient the attention he needed and now, Lee might not.

 

~<<>>~

 

Nelson wasn’t even paying attention to the time when the light tap on his door garnered his attention. He glanced at the clock and was shocked to find that more than two hours had passed since they’d brought Lee in.  “Come,” he ordered, feeling more tired than he had in ages. Tired? No, drained. Like all the energy was just gone. Finding Lee like that…Nelson closed his eyes trying to banish the memory.

 

Will Jamieson entered, pulling the door shut behind him. The doctor also looked tired. Nelson was afraid to ask but he needed answers. He needed to know about Lee. “Well?”

 

Uninvited, Jamie dropped into one of the visitor’s chairs. “He’s going to recover. He’s in better shape than I expected actually.” Jamie noticed how the tension in Nelson’s shoulders seemed to give out as he spoke, a telltale sign of the man’s concern and worry. Hopefully his news would help to alleviate that worry.

 

“Any clue what happened to him out there?”

 

“First and foremost,” Jamie began, “he was beaten. His chest and torso are a mass of contusions and lacerations. Stab wound on his left side so of course he has some blood loss. He was severely dehydrated. Don’t know the reason for that.”

 

Nelson cast his gaze downward. “We found blood in the trunk of the institute car he’d taken out.”

 

“He was transported to some point in the back of the car then. That may explain the dehydration. In this heat I’m not surprised.” For a breath neither man said anything, concerned about the well-being of their mutual friend. Jamie broke the silence, filling in the blanks he knew Nelson still needed answers for. “There is the possibility of kidney damage.”

 

Nelson jerked his head up, a storm brewing in his sapphire eyes. “That bad?”

 

“It’s a precaution. You know I don’t like to take risks with my patients. Lee was severely beaten. Judging by the various sizes of the bruising we’re looking at two assailants, maybe more. There are some fairly deep contusions and they have me worried.”

 

“But I don’t understand why,” Nelson said softly. “What did they hope to gain? Does Lee know something we don’t?”

 

Jamie could only shake his head. “We won’t know until Lee comes around. I don’t have him sedated. The man is simply exhausted. The blood loss, the dehydration, and the exposure to whatever body of water he ended up in, it’s all taken its toll on him. Lee’s human, as much as he’d like to think otherwise. He needs the rest. He’ll wake up when he’s ready.”

 

Nelson let loose a slow sigh. “In the meantime I can’t help but wonder who knows he’s alive and will they come after him. I can’t protect him forever, Will.”

 

Jamie leaned forward. “You do what you can, Admiral. That’s all any of us can do.”

 

“Does Chip know?”

 

The doctor leaned back in the chair. “Not yet. I wanted to update you first. Before you ask, he didn’t see me leave Med Bay. I left Morton in the lobby while I took the back exit. I’m hoping to convince Chip to go home.  Chances are Lee won’t wake until sometime tomorrow.”

 

“Chip’s not going to just leave. You know those two,” Nelson warned.

 

“I was hoping to have a little help from you in that area. Lee needs rest. Chip needs to get some sleep before he collapses. He’s been at that seminar for two days. You know as well as I do. I’m betting he’s slept very little—he just got in this morning, and came into work for the day. He’s running on adrenalin fumes right now and he needs a few hours of downtime.”

 

Nelson snorted. “I forgot about that seminar. You’re right.” The admiral stood and headed for the door. “Come on then. Let’s see if we can’t send our stressed-out exec home.”

 

The two weren’t surprised when Chip wasn’t in the Med Bay lobby. Wilma, the nurse on duty at the desk, hooked a thumb toward the elevators. Nothing was said but the message was clear--Chip had gotten tired of waiting and gone searching on his own.

 

With Jamie in the lead the two headed up the stairs, not willing to wait for the elevator. The found Chip apparently just a few steps ahead of them, also heading for the room Jamie usually put Lee in.  At the sound of their footsteps Chip looked up. “Jamie?” The question was almost plaintive.

 

“Chip, Lee’s exhausted. He won’t even know you’re here,” Jamie tried to reason with Morton. The blond only lifted his chin.

 

“I don’t care. I need to see him,” he said defiantly, ignoring the four-star admiral at Jamie’s side.

 

“Chip,” Jamie started only to have Morton plop down on the floor with his back to Lee’s closed door.

 

“I can get comfortable right here,” Morton said, glaring up at the doctor.

 

Nelson wanted to smile but he knew the effect would be ruined if he did. “Mr. Morton, I think you’d better listen to Jamie. Lee is fine. Let him rest. You go home and get a few hours of sleep.”

 

“After I see Lee. I just want five minutes. I need to see him for myself. I need to get that last image of him out of my head. I can’t sleep seeing him…like that.”

 

Jamie and Nelson exchanged looks. It was Nelson who broke the silence. “You saw him, Jamie. Could you sleep after that?”

 

Jamie inclined his head slightly. “I’ve seen him afterwards and it’s going to be a while before I get any sleep. Five minutes, Chip.”

 

Grinning broadly, Chip hopped up from the floor and pushed his way into Lee’s room. He stopped just inside the door, watching his brother sleep. Lee was bruised and battered but the damage looked less with him resting in the hospital bed. The monitors beeped hypnotically as Morton looked on. He walked softly toward Lee’s bedside, needed somehow to make contact with his friend but not daring to incur Jamie’s wrath by waking him.  “It will be alright, Lee,” he whispered instead. He felt something touch his shoulder. He turned to find the admiral standing beside him.

 

“He knows, son. He knows he’s safe now. Jamie says he’s just exhausted and will wake up when he’s ready. Go on home. If there is any change Jamie will let us know.” Nelson could feel the tension in the blond’s shoulders but slowly he relaxed some.

 

“I just couldn’t get that last image of him out of my head. I know he’s being taken care of, but I had…” Chip trailed off, at a loss for words.

 

Nelson gave the man’s shoulder an reassuring squeeze. “I know, lad. I know. I was there, too, remember? Go on. I’ll get you a driver if you need one.”

 

Chip shook his head. “No, I can manage.” He shifted his attention to the doctor, leaning against the doorframe. “I’ll be back in the morning,”

 

“Morning is fine. For now go home. Please, Chip?”

 

That did it. Chip accepted defeat but at least he’d gotten to see his friend. “I hate it when you beg,” he said, his only concession to the lost battle. He slipped out the door past the smiling doctor.

 

“Thank you, admiral,” Jamie said as Chip vanished down the corridor.

 

Nelson shrugged. “Don’t thank me. I just told him the truth. Let’s just hope ‘morning’ is a decent hour and not 1201.”

 

~<<>>~

 

He was confused at first. There was a tugging on his wrist that was familiar yet unsettling. He could move but with the movement came aches and a soreness that radiated through every bone and muscle. With a gut-wrenching bolt of terror Lee realized something was wrong. He had no idea where he was or how he got here. With a huge blank spot in his memory he was afraid to even open his eyes, fearful of what he would see. Gamal…Gamal’s men had captured him when he was trying to make contact with the underground…This man will tell you nothingtake him out and have him shot…

 

“No...” That lone word grabbed the attention of Will Jamieson, doing a late afternoon check on his most persistent patient. Will moved to the bedside and rested a hand on Lee's forearm. The young man tossed his head and his breath quickened as he climbed back to the land of the living.

 

“Skipper, come back to us. Time to wake up,” Will coaxed and was rewarded by a sliver of molten amber as Lee timidly cracked one eye.

 

“Jamie?” Lee's voice seemed brittle as eggshells as he heard his own words. Taking in his surroundings it slowly dawned on him he was in the room he usually occupied when he was in Med Bay, the second story corner room with the view looking out over the quay. He brought his hand down over his chest and Lee saw the tugging he had felt was the IV taped down over the back of his hand. The doctor was giving him a reassuring grin and Lee felt himself slowly relaxing.

 

“Not your favorite person, but I'm all you have right now. How are you feeling?”

 

Lee closed his eyes, as if cataloging the various hurts. “Like something ran over me. What time is it?”

 

“An honest answer. You must have taken a harder whack to the head than I thought,” Will teased, inciting a weak smile from the brunet. “And it's just after 1700. You've had a long nap. You needed it.”

 

Lee's eyes opened again and registered surprise. “How bad am I this time?”

 

“You've come back in worse shape. Top of the list is a concussion, followed by a nasty stab wound, stitched and bandaged by the way, along with one broken and two cracked ribs.”

 

“That explains the wrap.” Lee's free hand was moving up his left side, feeling the tight wrap around his torso. Further down his fingers ran over the bulkier bandage covering the stab wound. Lee paused, trying to remember how he was stabbed and then trying to fight back the panic when he couldn’t remember. He didn't realize that Jamie was still talking to him and he forced his attention back to the present.

 

“You have some internal injuries, consistent with a severe beating, some possible kidney damage. Before you ask, yes, you're on a catheter and I'm keeping you under observation till I know for sure your kidneys are in working order. Somebody worked you over good, Skipper. You're a very lucky man.”

 

Lee's brows furrowed as he thought. “How did I get here?” One question at a time. The doctor must have seen the confusion in Lee's eyes. He was there with a steadying hand on his shoulder.

 

“Slow down, Skipper. You contacted Chip from a payphone on the other side of town. They found you in an ally about twenty yards away. You don’t remember?”

 

Lee frowned. “No, I don’t,” he whispered. A sudden shudder coursed through Crane's lean frame. Will moved forward, pulling up the spare blanket draped over the foot of the bed, drawing it up over Lee's shoulders. The young commander couldn't seem to stop shivering.

 

“Skipper? Lee, just relax and rest. I need you to focus and calm down. It's over now and you're safe.”

 

Lee closed his eyes, feeling too sore and confused to argue. He felt his shivering subside as he began to warm up under the added blanket. He knew the symptoms of delayed shock, having ridden it out too many times before. He has the oddest feeling, that there was something important he needed to pass on but couldn’t remember what it was. A deep, overwhelming panic washed over him like an icy cold wave and for some reason Lee couldn’t move past it. It was terrifying and like nothing else he’d ever felt before. Well, once before, but he’d worked hard to forget Krueger. With a deep shuddering breath, Lee concentrated on the here and now. It felt nice just to be safe for a little while. “No visitors?”

 

“All in good time, Lee. I chased Chip out after I got you stabilized. The admiral mentioned head hunting and Admiral Radcliff in the same sentence. It would seem the admiral was not in the best of moods when he found you. They’ve both been in and out but you’re been asleep. I'm sure one or both will be by soon enough.”

 

As if summoned, a blond head appeared in the doorway. “Jamie?” Anxious blue eyes darted around the room eventually settling on Lee's form in the bed.

 

Will sighed. “Come on in. He's expecting you. No scheming, no plotting. Understood?”

 

“Yes, mother hen. I promise to be a good boy,” Chip replied tartly, snagging the room's only chair and planting himself at Lee's bedside. He paid no attention to Will's exit, solely focused on Lee. He’d been by numerous times earlier and each time Lee had still been asleep. It was good to see him awake now, even if he had something of a lost look in his eyes.

 

“Tell somebody about these little adventures of yours,” Chip snapped. Lee gave him that look, the under the eyelashes, I-was-a-bad-boy-but-I promise-to-be-good-now-look. Chip couldn't find it in his heart to stay angry with Lee for very long, no matter how stupid or dangerous a stunt he had just pulled. He grinned and shook his head. “You scared us,” Morton added, extending an open palm. Lee reached out and dropped his hand into it, giving his friend a reassuring squeeze. 

 

“I should have told you. I didn't think there would be any problems. Admiral Radcliff said this should be a snap. Except they got to Carver first.”

 

Chip frowned. Lee was a perfectionist who took his commitment to ONI seriously. Chip knew how his friend’s mind worked and even now he was sure Lee was taking the blame for Carver’s death. “It’s not your fault,” Chip said softly.

 

Lee shook his head, the amber eyes dark. He locked down his emotions with an iron will, determined not to give into the anger and the urge to blame himself for this, trying to convince himself that Chip was right. “Jamie said you and the admiral found me behind a dumpster in an alley?”

 

Chip nodded. “You looked like you’d been run over then dumped overboard. You were soaking wet. What happened out there, pal?”

 

Lee closed his eyes, about to admit to Chip what he was only barely willing to admit to himself. “Chip, I don’t remember,” he whispered.

 

Chip’s eyebrows went vertical. “Don’t remember…me and the admiral finding you?” he ventured.

 

Lee shook his head again. “All of it. Any of it. I remember getting a car from the institute garage. I signed out, I left the institute, I remember driving out to that old motel…and Carver…after that…” Lee voice almost shook as he explained. He felt Chip’s hand on his arm, a reassuring touch that anchored him to the here and now.

 

“You don’t remember who did this to you?” Chip asked.

 

For a third time, Lee shook his head. “Nothing. I remember Carver. He…his eyes…I remember his eyes. But I don’t remember the rest of it. I don’t know how I ended up in that alley. They killed Carver, why didn’t they just kill me?”

 

“Lee, I can’t answer that. Did he say anything to you?”

 

“NO! I don’t remember anything! Why can’t I remember what happened? This isn’t like me…” Lee was frantic with near panic, unable to comprehend why he couldn’t remember.

 

“Lee, calm down. Take a deep breath and relax. We’ll get to the bottom of this, I promise you,” Chip tried, wrapping his fingers around Lee’s wrist, doing his best to reassure his agitated friend. He could feel the stress through taut muscles, tight with tension. Unfortunately, they had attracted attention.

 

“Chip, I think Lee needs some rest,” Jamie said firmly, coming to stand across from Morton. Chip shot the doctor a dirty look then turned back to Lee.

 

“It’s okay,” Lee said softly. Chip let out a deep breath. Slowly, he got to his feet.

 

“I've got a backlog of things to do. I'll be by later today. Just rest and behave so Jamie doesn't have to get radical, okay?”

 

“Sure thing. In all honesty, I don't feel up to arguing with Jamie today,” Lee said with a glance at the hovering doctor. He refocused on the blond. “Scram, okay? I'll be fine.”

With a backward glance and a mocking salute Chip left, leaving Lee to consider the last few hours. Lee closed his eyes, ignoring the ache in his ribs and the pounding in his head. He was aware of Jamie puttering about in the room but he ignored it. Gradually he drifted off but his rest was troubled by a whispering in his head, words just beyond his comprehension. Something had him, was dragging him down into the darkness where there was no light, no air…no life…

 

A touch on his shoulder jolted Lee awake and he clawed free of the dream, gasping great lungfuls of air.

 

“Easy, lad. It's just me.”

 

Lee forced himself to focus on the stocky figure of Admiral Nelson, now occupying the chair at his side. One hand rested on his shoulder. “How long have you been there?” Lee asked, trying to get his breathing and heartbeat under control. His hands shook with the aftermath of the nightmare and he tightened his fingers around the blanket to hide it. Nelson's very presence was enough to chase the shadows away and hold the darkness at bay. Even now, as Nelson watched over Lee's bedside, there was a measure of safety that Lee could never recall experiencing in the presence of another, except his own father. The remnants of the shattered nightmare were fading into wisps, almost as if not daring to risk the wrath of a vengeful yet protective admiral.

 

“Long enough to know that was one dozy of a nightmare. Want to talk about it?”

 

Lee shook his head. “I'm fine now. Did...did you talk with Admiral Radcliff?”

 

Nelson raised an eyebrow at Lee's shift of topic but didn't question it. “I did actually. He's screaming to know if you got any information from Carver.”

 

Carver's pain filled, staring eyes filled Lee’s memory. “Sir, I don’t…I don’t remember what happened. If Carver said anything to me, I don’t know what it was,” Lee’s eyes and expression shifted to something akin to shame. He lowered his head, unable to meet Nelson’s gaze.

 

“Lee? Lee, look at me,” Nelson said in a voice that not many had ever heard. It wasn’t the rumble of a four-star admiral demanding answers. It was the request of a friend who cared. Slowly Lee raised his head.

 

“I feel like a failure. What kind of agent am I if I can’t recall the details of one assignment? What am I supposed to tell Radcliff? He’s expecting answers.”

 

“The mind doesn't always work the way we expect it to, Lee. I'll handle Chester. I want you to relax and listen to Jamie for once.”

 

“I can’t,” Lee said softly before he could stop himself.

 

Nelson’s brow furrowed with concern. “Can’t what, Lee?”

 

“I can’t relax. All I see is this suffocating darkness. It’s all around me. I’m a grown man. Why do I feel like a child who’s suddenly afraid of the dark?”

 

Nelson could only shake his head, his sapphire blue eyes holding compassion that only a very select few had ever seen. His soul ached for whatever Lee had been through. And to know that he’d been through all that for nothing, that he had nothing to show for it except a new scar, was a hard pill to swallow. Nelson wanted nothing more than to somehow take the dark fear lurking in the back of Lee’s molten amber eyes and banish it forever but by Lee’s own admission he was a grown adult, not a child. There was only so much he could do for the younger man. Nelson tightened his fingers in a reassuring grip, trying to will some strength—and faith—to the young commander. “We’ll get you through this, Lee. Don’t rush things. In time you’ll likely remember the entire night. Don’t try so hard. You’ve been through a lot.”

 

Lee took a deep breath and leaned back against the inclined bed. “What do you know so far?” he asked.

 

Nelson frowned. “I've already talked with Chester about that. This investigation of his is all the idiot can talk about. You and I are going to have a long chat about you running off like that. Next time clue me in, if no one else.”

 

“Yes sir. I'll keep that in mind next time.”

 

Nelson sighed. “I suppose it's too much to ask that there not be a next time. Lee, whoever is behind this, they did a job on you. This amnesia you're experiencing could be the only thing saving you right now. Word is going to get out that you're still alive. If they think there is the remote possibility that you'll be able to remember and identify your attackers there could be another attempt on you. Med Bay is the most secure place outside of Seaview we have. I want you to stay here at least till we've had more time to review what happened to you.”

 

“I can't stay here forever, sir.” came Lee's surly answer.

 

“I can't afford to lose you, either. Where am I going to find another captain who'll get along with my current XO?” Nelson teased, trying to keep his tone light, but unable to keep out the concern.

 

“We're a unique set, aren't we?”

 

“Unique? That's one hell of a way of putting it,” Nelson growled. “I can't afford to lose you just because Chester's trying to make a name for himself as the new director of ONI. If he thinks he's going to use you he's sadly mistaken. I'll fight for you, Lee, you know damn well I will, and I'll have Chip and the rest of the crew right beside me. They've grown attached to their skipper and I would hate to have to break another one in.”

 

Lee smiled shyly. “Yes, sir. Understood.” Somehow having Nelson on his side made everything worth it.

 

Nelson got to his feet. “Time for me to let you get some sleep before Jamie comes back and reads me the riot act for keeping you from resting. Maybe you can manage some sleep without nightmares?”

 

“I'll try, sir,” Lee cast up a second shy smile and dared a glance through the dark fringe of his lashes. “Admiral?”

 

“Hmm?”

 

“What if…what if I never remember what happened? Chip never did.”[3]

 

The fear in Lee's voice was real enough and made Nelson cringe inside. He seldom heard that tone coming from the self-reliant officer. He could count on the fingers of one hand when something had actually spooked Crane that badly. It simply drove home that the bruised and battered young man before him was human and just as fallible as the next person. Nelson wasn't sure he could say the right things to ease Lee's fears about what had happened to him, but he was damn well going to try.

 

“Don’t think about it right now. For now, let Jamie do his job. You need to heal. Let me deal with Chester and his wild goose chases.”

 

With a final glance back to Lee, and an admonishment to rest, Nelson was gone, leaving Lee alone. Even with the bright sunshine streaming through the windows, the shadows seemed to taunt him from just out of sight. He was tired, more so than he cared to admit to anyone, even Chip. He heard someone enter the room, recognizing the cadence of Jamieson's footsteps.

 

“Time for a checkup?” Lee asked without opening his eyes. He heard Jamieson's soft chuckle.

 

“Skipper, if you'll just keep your eyes closed and relax I won't sedate you. I'd rather not anyhow. I want you to relax and let your body actually heal for once before you start putting it through the wringer again.”

 

Lee felt the sigh escape him before he could stop it. He opened his eyes to see Jamie pulling the shades on the windows, dropping the room into a cool gloom. Jamieson turned to see what was troubling his patient.

 

“What's wrong, Lee? You're not in any pain are you? I can give you something light for it, if you want.”

 

Lee shook his head. He ached but there really wasn't any real pain. The wound on his side throbbed somewhat, but it wasn't something unbearable. “Trying not to feel like a failure. This was important and I screwed things up.”

 

“You haven’t done anything of the sort. You were in the wrong place at the wrong time. How’s that song go, sometimes you’re the windshield, sometimes you’re the bug[4]? This time you are the bug, I’m afraid.”

 

“I certainly came back squashed this time,” Lee grumbled.

 

Will reached for Lee’s shoulder, giving the younger man a reassuring squeeze. “Rest, Skipper. That's an order. I can make it non-negotiable, but I'd like to give you the benefit of the doubt.”

 

Lee didn't argue, letting Jamie fuss over him. His body was tired and he was weary enough to give in and just do what the doctor asked for once. Jamie took his pulse and listened to his heart and respiration. Apparently satisfied that everything was normal, he turned down the lights in the room, not completely off but enough to cast shadows in the corners. Lee repressed a shudder as the door shut with a click.

 

In the gloom of the hospital room Lee tried to rest. Once more he closed his eyes but for a second time the darkness and the whispers taunted him. Slowly Lee Crane drifted into a troubled sleep, haunted by wisps of shadows and memories as he tried to come to grips with the fact that this time he hadn’t won.

 

~<<>>~

 

Three days later…

 

The last thing Chip Morton expected to find first thing on a Friday morning was his best friend and commanding officer flat on his back under a circuitry panel in the Control Room of Seaview. For a long second Chip just stood there, pondering his next move. He knew Lee had just been released from Med Bay but it was his understanding Lee was on restricted light duty. Thanks to Dr. Jamieson that was also the dock security guard’s impression, hence the phone call to Chip to let him know that Cmdr. Crane had boarded Seaview. Chip, of course, came down to investigate what Lee was doing when they both knew Jamie would howl if he found out Lee was roaming around on the sub. Lee continued to tinker—oblivious to the fact he was being watched. Finally Chip couldn't stand it any longer.

 

“Does Jamie know you're down here?”

 

The resulting 'bang' and explicit language that filled the air made Chip grin as Lee pulled himself out from under the panel, rubbing at the top of his head. He glared up at Morton. “You could cough or something,” he grumbled.

 

“Why? I'm pretty sure crawling around in the nether regions of a submarine is hardly what Jamie meant by 'light duty'. Do you have a death wish or something?” Chip extended a hand and helped Lee to his feet.

 

“I'm not crawling around and these aren’t the ‘nether regions’. It was one panel. And I was just checking it out.”

 

Chip wasn't swayed. “And this is why we have a fully trained core of highly specialized crewmen; so our captain isn't crawling around on the floor when his doctor has just released him from Med Bay.”

 

“I'll remember that next time we have a melt-down in the Circuitry room and you're up to your waist in fried, crispy circuits.”

 

“This isn't about me right now,” Chip neatly sidestepped the issue, “this is about you busting doctor's order.

 

''Is there anything that goes on around here that you don't know about?” Lee groused, moving toward the nose. He perched on the edge of the table and folded his arms over his chest. Chip was strongly reminded of a child pouting because he'd been told he couldn't play in the sandbox any longer. He found it hard not to smile.

 

“Well, I do know that Riley's dating a blond with the nickname 'Bunny' but her real name is still a mystery. I know all and see all. Jamie's going to shoot you when he finds out you're down here. I'm pretty sure that when he said 'light duty' he meant something along the lines of your skinny butt in your office.”

 

“I wanted to come down here and see how she was doing,” Lee said. “Jamie’s had me tethered to Med Bay and I was sick of being inside. I thought I could come down here, look over Patterson’s rewiring of the board, and be back in my office before anybody knew I was even here. What did you come down here for, anyhow? Don’t you have reports to work on? If you’ve run out I’m sure I have something you can work on.”

 

Chip shook his head. “Don’t you trust Patterson to rewire one simple little panel? The man could splice and rewire this whole boat blindfolded,” he said, sidestepping the issues of who had alerted him about Lee being onboard. Chip leaned against the support strut between the windows, watching Lee who even now was giving him that under-the-lashes-look.

 

“Of course I trust Patterson. But he'll ask and I can tell him the panel looks fine.”

 

Chip just shook his head again. “Come on, Skipper. Back to your office. I'll cover for you this time but no way am I going to risk Jamie's wrath if he finds out you were down here. You know how the admiral is right now. You fall off his radar for five minutes and he'll mobilize the entire National Guard.”

 

Lee slid off the table and followed Chip, still grumbling. “I'm on base and security knows to keep an eye out. I don't think anybody would risk trying to get to me right now,” he replied.

 

Chip indicated that Lee precede him up the ladder, partly out of respect for Lee's rank, partly in case Lee wasn't as healthy as he thought he was and he lost his balance. When it looked clear to Chip that Lee wasn't going to fall flat on his rear, he followed. The two men walked amiably toward the Administration complex.

 

“How are you doing, Lee? I mean, really how are you doing?” Chip asked quietly. Both men nodded to the security guards on watch as they headed up the hill.

 

“How would you feel if you were sent to do a job, came back in pieces, and you couldn’t remember a damn thing about what went wrong?” Lee snapped, more angrily than he aimed. His frustrations over the amnesia he was experiencing had made him nearly waspish whenever the subject was brought up.

 

“Lee. I do know. I wasn’t sent out to do a job but I know what it’s like. I hate to split hairs but you’re missing, what? A few hours? I’m missing six weeks. Six weeks of my life that I can’t get back.”

 

Lee's anger played itself out and he sighed. Chip felt the dejection radiating off his friend in waves. “Chip, I’m sorry. It’s just…I feel like such a failure; an amnesiac ONI agent. No matter what I try, the only thing I remember is Carver's eyes...” Lee trailed off, the memory of Carver's dead eyes clear in his mind. Had Carver said something to him? There was a whispering in his memory that he still couldn't explain. Shaking his head, Lee turned his attention back to Chip. “Sorry. Just venting,” Lee said quietly. The two entered the administration building side by side and headed toward their second story offices.

 

“You know I don’t mind. You have to be able to let off some steam to somebody. I know you’re full of hot air anyhow.”

 

“Ha, ha. You’re a riot, Morton.” But Lee was thankful for the friendship he had with Chip, a friendship that had been one of the few constants in Lee’s life.

 

“I’ll drop by for lunch,” Chip said as they neared Lee’s office. Crane started to say something in response but Chip raised a forestalling hand. “It’s either come with me for lunch or you can explain to Jamie why you skipped out.”

 

Lee grumbled. “Good point. His answer to everything is to stab it with a needle or stick a tube in some random orifice. One day, he’s going to be on the receiving end of a catheter and I will be there.”

 

Chip choked back his laughter as Lee entered his office, leaving Chip to wander down to his. He found his secretary, Kim Martin, enthroned behind her desk, hard at work. She glanced up and favored Chip with a smile.

 

“Good Morning Mr. Morton. Your mail is in and you already have a full load today,” she nodded to the thick stack of various colored envelopes on the end of her desk.

 

Chip picked up the stack. “Load being the operative word,” he grumbled as he thumbed through the curious collection.

 

Kim chuckled softly. “Oh now, it’s not that bad today,” she chided gently. “You might actually like some of them,”

 

Chip raised an eyebrow in question. “Might? Dare I ask?” He dropped the stack of envelopes back onto the edge of her desk. He knew she’d take the stack back to his office later but there wasn’t anything there to grab his immediate attention.

 

“Be nice. Yes, actually you do. First off, the admiral wants to talk to you about the security updates and the software and computer upgrades for the institute.” Kim shuffled the mail into a stack next to a curiously tall stack of folders and printouts. He ignored the day’s promised workload as the words ‘computer upgrade” penetrated though his blond head.  

 

“You’re right, this I might actually enjoy for once. Is he expecting me?” he said, trying not to glow with excitement. Paperwork was dull. Computers were exciting.

 

“Is there salt in the sea?” Kim replied lightly as she reached for the phone. “I’ll notify Angie you’re on your way.”

 

With a happy salute, Chip executed a perfect about-face and made his way back down the hall to the admiral’s office. He found Angie Watson, Nelson’s personal aide in all things pertaining to the running of the institute that bore his name, wearing a smirk as Chip walked into her office.

 

“What?” he asked, seeing her mysterious little grin.

 

“Oh nothing. Just that it took you nearly forty-five seconds to walk from your office to here. Considering it’s got something to do with computers I expected you to come flying in here like the roadrunner from the cartoon.”

 

Chip flashed the dark-haired lady a grin. “Meep-meep,” he tossed back as he headed toward the door. Behind him, Angie could only smile. It was nice to see the boys in such a good mood. Then she caught herself thinking about Lee and Chip as ‘boys’. Well, they were, were they not? The only difference in men and boys was the price of their toys, the old saying went.

 

And Lee and Chip had a very expensive collection of toys—when the admiral let them play. Angie continued to smile as she focused on her work. With any luck things would stay calm and peaceful, for at least a few more days. Things would be back to normal soon enough.

 

~<<>>~

 

Admiral Nelson glanced up as the soft buzz from the outer office signaled a visitor. As expected it was Chip, and he looked to be in a very good mood if the grin on his face was any indicator.

 

“Morning, Chip,” Nelson greeted.

 

“Good Morning, Admiral. Looking forward to upgrading over a hundred computer units?” Chip asked with the same grin.

 

“Not hardly. I trust you have a plan for this massive change over?” Nelson grumbled.

 

“Always. Planning is my middle name,” Chip answered as he settled into one of the two stuffed leather chairs in front of the big desk that dominated the office.

 

“Your enthusiasm for all things electronic frightens me at times, Mr. Morton,” Nelson replied dryly but with the twitch of a smile. With the light banter out of the way Chip visibly switched gears, moving easily into ‘exec’ mode, noted by his posture and mannerisms. “Where do we start?”

 

Chip began by outlining which departments he wanted to start with first and how long the transition was likely to take. As their discussion drew to a close, Nelson stabbed out the third cigarette and toyed with the obviously empty coffee cup.

 

“You’ve seen Lee this morning.” The sentence was a statement, not a question. Chip wondered how long Nelson was going to wait before asking for an update.

 

“Yes sir. I saw him into the building and up to his office.”

 

“Saw him in from where?” came the question with a half smirk.

 

“Ah. From Seaview sir.”

 

Nelson found it hard not to smile. Lee found solace onboard Seaview, a peace there that drew Lee like no other. Chip and Nelson both felt it but the call was loud and impossible for Lee to ignore. If Lee were ever fortunate enough to find a woman who could accept him as he was, she would be hard pressed to understand that in many ways she would always be the other woman. Seaview was Lee Crane’s first love. Nelson focused back on the exec. “What exactly was he doing there? Not something he shouldn’t have been, I hope.”

 

Chip squirmed. “No sir, not exactly. I managed to herd him toward his office before he could get into too much trouble.”

 

“If anybody can keep him in line, it’s you. How is he? I haven’t seen him today.”

 

Chip shrugged. “Frustrated. He keeps trying to remember what happened to him that night but nothing comes. He says he feels like a failure.”

 

Nelson got to his feet and walked to the window, gazing out into the quay beyond. “He’s not a failure,” Nelson said quietly.

 

“You and I know that but in Lee’s mind if he were a stronger person this wouldn’t be happening. He takes personal blame for anything he can’t control.”

 

“Then maybe I should have a chat with him myself. I assume you threatened mayhem if he doesn’t break for lunch?”

 

Chip did not bother to hide the grin. “Something like that, sir.”

 

“Good. I can catch him off guard since he’ll be expecting you. I’m sure Radcliff will call later for what’s becoming our daily shouting match.”

 

Chip blinked innocently. “I wonder who’s on the losing end of that engagement?” he mused aloud.

 

Nelson snorted and shook his head. “Out with you, before I do you damage. I’ll handle Lee today,” he said.

 

“Yes sir.” Chip stood as he smiled and took his leave. He didn’t worry so much about Lee now. With Nelson on it, there was no way his buddy was going to beg out of lunch now. When Nelson set his head to something there just wasn’t any getting around it.

 

~<<>>~

 

Lee was absorbed in the report outlining the massive upgrades to the institute’s computers and software when the door of his office quietly opened. Normally Dana would have alerted Lee to incoming visitors but this particular visitor was allowed a few privileges. Lee glanced up, expecting to see chip only to be surprised by the appearance of the admiral “Sir?” Lee asked, half rising out of his chair.

 

Nelson motioned for him to remain seated. “Do you have any idea what time it is?” Nelson asked.

 

Lee blinked and then cast a quick glance to the digital display in the corner of his computer screen. 1:45. He repeated what he saw back to his employer.

 

“And how long have you been holed up in this office? Be sure to include the time before Chip caught you snooping around Seaview.”

 

“Since around 0800,” Lee replied quietly, glancing up at Nelson with a shy smile.

Nelson chuckled. “Sounds to me like it’s time for a lunch break. I’m feeling like Italian. My treat.” Lee blinked and stared at him for a breath. Nelson raised an eyebrow. “Do I have to make it an order?”

 

“No sir, I just thought, I mean you don’t want me off base…” Lee trailed off as Nelson interrupted with a raised hand.

 

“Alone. I don’t want you wandering around alone. You’ll be with me and we are going to be in a very public restaurant. I hardly think anyone is going to try anything while you’re in the presence of a four-star admiral. Come on. I’m hungry.”

 

Since there was no arguing with Nelson, and not being too unhappy with being conscripted by his mentor for lunch, Lee gathered his jacket and, trying not to smile, followed Nelson out of the office.

 

Thirty minutes later found the pair at a small Italian restaurant Nelson frequented. With lunch ordered, Lee felt himself being studied intently. He returned Nelson’s gaze calmly and without emotion. His employer nearly burst out in laughter.

 

“Definitely been hanging around Chip too long. Since you were 18?” Nelson ventured, knowing exactly how long Lee and Chip had been friends.

 

“Yes sir. I couldn’t believe it when I got him for a roommate. Talked about his family all the time. All those aunts and uncles and cousins. Took me forever to get the names of his sisters straight.”

 

“Can you name them all now?” Nelson asked with a slight smile.

 

Lee grinned. “Danielle, Wendy, Mary Rose and Deanna. The last two are twins.”

 

Nelson nodded. “Studying nursing, I understand.” Chip was proud of his family and it wasn’t hard to catch him telling stories of his parents and sisters and what they’d been up to from time to time. Nelson didn’t usually familiarize himself in the personal lives of his officers but he knew Chip was exceptionally proud of his youngest sisters, recently graduating valedictorian and salutatorian of their high school class and making the Dean’s list every year of their college enrollment.

 

“I believe so. Pediatrics, I think.”

 

“I believe you’re right,” Nelson replied.

 

Lee couldn’t think of anything else to say and stayed quiet. Nelson seemed content to have gotten that little bit of conversation out of him and curiously studied the clientele of the slightly busy restaurant, watching the comings and goings of the lunch crowd. Their order arrived and the two men attended to the serious task of eating. Lee was perfectly aware that Nelson was watching him and keeping an eye on what he was eating. Lee tried to force himself to eat but his appetite was horrible these days and the excellent food tasted like so much ash in his mouth. He managed to get half of it down before Nelson chanced the subject.

 

“How is your memory, Lee?”

 

Crane felt his heart skip a beat. Could he be honest? He still didn’t remember anything from that night, just Carver’s dead eyes staring into his. For some reason they seemed burned into his memory, overriding everything else.

 

“You can be honest with me, Lee. I don’t blame you for anything that happened that night. What did happen wasn’t your fault,” Nelson said quietly. Lee wondered if the man was capable of reading minds or was it that he had just gotten easier to read over the years.

 

“I should have told Chip. Or you. Anybody. I had no business going out to the middle of nowhere without backup or without telling someone what I was doing,” Lee explained.

 

Nelson toyed with his glass, as if he wasn’t quite sure how to bring up the subject. Finally he spoke. “You know, Radcliff is suggesting you see a hypnotist. He thinks we can force you to remember.”

 

Lee stared. “What do you think?”

 

Nelson snorted. “Hrrumph. I told him he can stick that idea where the sun doesn’t shine. Lee, I know you hate things you can’t control and you hate being forced into something. I’m not going to make you do this when I damn well know you aren’t ready for it. Furthermore, if there is one thing I’ve learned about you over the years, I know you take your job, all of your jobs, seriously. You won’t accept failure and you have the most annoying tendency to take blame for everything that goes wrong. This is not your fault.”

 

“I can’t help but feel useless. I should be able to remember what happened to me. I’ve experienced worse. What makes this so terrible that my mind doesn’t want to recall anything?”

 

Nelson tried to be reasonable, pitching his voice low and reassuring. “All we know was that you were stabbed and beaten. We don’t know if you were dumped and left for dead or if you managed to get away. Since you managed to call, we can only assume you managed to affect your own escape. Whatever happened to you was traumatic to say the least. Something like that isn’t overcome easily.”

 

“Then what good am I, if a little stress or something traumatic makes me forget the very thing I need to report? I’m useless. An agent with amnesia. What kind of captain does that make me?”

 

Nelson could sense where Lee was going with his absurd line of thinking and he needed to stop that train of thought before it got anymore ingrained. “Lee,” Nelson began softly, “we’ve had this conversation before. I won’t accept another man as Seaview’s captain. There isn’t anything wrong with you. We’ll get to the bottom of this. You’ll remember what happened to you. Maybe not today or tomorrow but it will eventually come back to you. I have faith in you.”

 

Lee kept his thoughts to himself. He didn’t feel worthy of anyone’s faith right now.

 

~<<>>~

 

The drive back to the Institute was quiet. Lee didn’t trust himself to start a conversation and for whatever reason Nelson had little to say. Lee could only figure this was the admiral’s way of giving him space. Lee was lost in his own thoughts and barely noticed when they passed by the guard shack. Minutes later Nelson parked the car in his personal parking space and killed the engine. However, he didn’t immediately exit the car. Instead he turned to Lee.

 

“I don’t suppose I can talk you into going home for the rest of the day?” Nelson asked.

 

“I really need to keep busy. If I go home now I’m just going to dwell on what I can’t remember. At least if I’m here, I’m useful,” Lee replied.

 

Nelson could only nod and he got out of the car. Telling Lee he wasn’t useless would be a waste of time.  “I’ll be sure to tell Jamie you had a decent lunch. And don’t worry about what you can’t remember. Radcliff can blow smoke all he wants. When you’re ready to deal with what happened, you’ll remember,” Nelson said as he waited for Lee to round the front of the car. They walked back to the building, Nelson taking the lead and Lee staying a few paces behind.

 

Angie must have been keeping watch or the guard reported Nelson’s arrival back to her. Lee was willing to bet the latter. The admiral’s personal assistant was waiting patiently outside her office, watching the hall and the elevator Nelson normally used on his way up. She pounced the minute he was within range. Lee respectfully retreated, his stomach souring as he overheard the brunette secretary saying something about Radcliff.

 

Lee spent the next few hours going over stacks of reports and updates. A few things were ready for the admiral’s desk. He could have given them to his assistant to pass on to Angie but he was starting to get that closed in feeling and he had the idea that a quick walk down to Nelson’s office to deliver the reports in person might do him some good. He might stop and harass Chip on his way back.

 

With a nod to his temporary office assistant and a quick check to make sure the admiral was actually in his office, Lee made the short trip down the hall, a tidy stack of folders tucked under his arm. He nodded to Angie and glanced in question at the door. She had the phone on one hand but when she saw him she swiftly replaced the receiver on its cradle. Angie shook her head. “I was just about to page you,” she said.

 

“Something wrong?” Lee asked. He sat the folders down on her desk and she shuffled them into Nelson’s in box.

 

“Not wrong, just odd. A fax came in for the admiral and when I took it in, he asked me to page you. I barely have time to sit down when here you are. The two of you make me wonder sometimes. I should warn you though, Admiral Radcliff called twice already this morning and our admiral is getting tired of telling him the same story.”

 

Lee’s own expression saddened. “That I’m a useless failure?”

 

Angie frowned and she glared at the dark-haired young man standing in her office. “Lee Crane, I will not tolerate hearing you refer to yourself as a failure. Do you understand me, sailor?” she snapped.

 

Lee had to smile. It wasn’t often that Angie snapped but when she did, it was with style. He whirled around, stood at attention, and snapped a perfect salute. “Yes ma’am.”

 

Angie eyed him for a second or so then grinned. “At ease, mister.”

 

Lee melted and walked to her desk, promptly perching on the edge. “I’m just a little edgy I suppose.”

 

“You’ve every right. Lee, what you experienced was horrific. Trust me. The admiral doesn’t expect you to recover overnight.”

 

Lee sighed. “I know. He’s told me that but I still…I feel like a failure.”

 

“If Chip were here he’d be more than willing to kick your six for saying that.”

 

“Well, the admiral will have mine if I don’t go in.”

 

“You’re on,” Angie replied depressing the door release. “And remember, the admiral isn’t upset with you. You’re doing the best you can.”

 

“Thanks for the heads up,” Lee said and he headed for Nelson’s office, vanishing behind the double doors. Angie sighed and refocused on her work. Lee was so hard on himself. But that’s how he was. Angie knew there was no power on earth that could change him.

 

~<<>>~

 

Admiral Chester Radcliff glared back at Nelson over the small screen of the monitor that sat on the edge of Nelson’s desk. “Harry, that boy has to be remembering something,” he growled.

 

“When he does I’ll let you know,” Nelson replied dryly.

 

That flippant remark did nothing for Radcliff’s temper. “Damn it, Harry. This isn’t a game.”

 

Harry feathered his fingers through his auburn hair. “Chester, believe me, Crane doesn’t remember that night. My CMO has him under observation but so far he doesn’t have anything to offer you or your investigation. The minute Crane has something to report I’ll pass that information along, but right now there is nothing to tell you,”

 

Chester heaved a massive sigh. “Nelson, do you have any idea what it’s like, having an investigation like this stall out just when it looks like we’re getting to the bottom of things? I’ve got every agency from the FBI, the ATF not to mention NICS pestering me for updates and your boy is the only one who knows what happened. I sent him to do a job and I need to know what he found out.”

 

Nelson wanted to run his fist through something but, other than the desk, there wasn’t a fist-friendly surface in his office. “What part of ‘amnesia’ do you not understand? Pushing him and chewing at him isn’t going to change that and I’ll be damned if I’m going to hound the man.” Nelson managed to get the comment out without growling but the emotion was clear on his face.

 

“Nelson, I need answers. I’m faxing you what we have so far. Have Crane look it over. Maybe it will jog something. I need some damned answers, Harry.”

 

“I won’t make any promises. But I will do what I can.”

 

Clearly that wasn’t the answer Chester was looking for but it was the best answer Nelson was willing to give up. With a muttered promise to contact him if Crane remembered anything, Nelson broke the connection and sat behind his desk, deep in thought. He wasn’t sure how much time had passed before there was a gentle knock on his door and Angie entered.

 

“Sir, this came over the fax. From Admiral Radcliff, ONI.”

 

“Thank you Angie. Oh, page Lee for me. I’d like to have a word with him.”

 

“Yes sir.”

 

Angie efficiently dropped the manila folder on the edge of her boss’ desk and then made a quick exit. Nelson pulled the folder to him, flipping it open with a practiced motion. The pages were still warm to the touch. Slowly Nelson began reading the file, absorbing the ongoing investigation. Despite Radcliff’s apparent eagerness to help Lee recover his memory, there was very little in the file that told Nelson more than Radcliff had already mentioned. The rapid knock on the door and Crane’s entrance into his office pulled his attention away from the files.

 

“Sir, you wanted to see me?” Lee asked uncertainly.

 

“Sit down, Lee,” Nelson urged gently, in a tone that most would have been surprised to hear. Nervously, Lee eased into one of the leather chairs in front of the big desk and folded his hands in his lap. He waited, not sure where this was going but fearing for the worst. “Radcliff thinks at this point you should be remembering something from that night,” Nelson said. There was no trying to soften the blow.

 

“Sir, I’ve tried. It’s just… nothing comes,” Lee said sadly, staring at his hands. He couldn’t meet the admiral’s gaze. He felt like such a failure. Was this where the admiral told him what a disappointment he was? How could he be expected to do the job Nelson had hired him for if his memory couldn’t be depended on? He waited for the words.

 

“I don’t know what the hell Radcliff thinks you are, some kind of robot, I guess,” Nelson grumbled.

 

Lee jerked his head up and his eyes widened in surprise. That wasn’t what he was expecting to hear.  “Sir?” The word slipped out before Lee could stop it.

 

Nelson raised an eyebrow. “Is there a problem, Lee?”

 

“I just...I wasn’t expecting you to say that.”

 

“Lee, how many times do I have to tell you, Radcliff can go hang himself. I don’t care what he wants. He’ll get his information when you’ve finally come to grips with it.”

 

“Thank you, sir. I know you’ve said that before…”

 

“And you’re expecting me to chance my mind?” Nelson asked. Lee toyed with the ring on his finger, the number one tell that something was bothering him. He dropped his head again, once more focusing on his hands. It was clear that that was exactly what Lee expected. That he was certain Nelson expected more out of him than he was possibly capable of. What on earth had shaped this young man to make him think the entire world depended on him?

 

“Lee, Radcliff had this faxed over.” Nelson pushed the folder towards Lee who tentatively reached for it with long fingers. “It’s the investigation that Carver was working on, centering on a man named Ahmed Jaheen.”

 

Lee could hear Nelson’s voice but the words seemed to be growing farther away and more hollow with each spoken word. Nelson’s office slowly faded away and Lee found himself back at that abandoned motel, Carver’s eyes staring into his…

 

“Lee? Lee, what’s wrong?” Nelson asked as Lee’s expression went completely emotionless. Nelson grabbed his friend by the shoulders but Lee was unresponsive. Nelson snatched at the phone. “Angie! Get Dr. Jamieson down here, Pronto!” Without waiting for an answer, Nelson slammed the phone back down and slid the other chair over to Lee. His golden hazel eyes that conveyed so much expression were blank and empty as Lee stared ahead, lost in something only he could see.

 

“Carver? Carver, can you hear me?” Lee kept his voice low, hoping to get some response from the injured agent. Carver blinked once and then focused on Crane. He grabbed for Lee’s wrist, pulling him closer. In a harsh whisper Carver managed to force out a few strangled words…

 

But the words stayed hidden, keeping just beyond Lee’s reach. He tried to reach for them, knowing the answer was just out of sight, teasing him with their existence. They continued to dance beyond his touch. Frustration ate at him as he tried desperately to remember what Carver had told him.

 

…a kick to the back of his right leg sent him sprawling back onto the dusty ground. He tried to pull himself together but he was grabbed by his jacket and yanked back to his feet, then thrown against the car a third time, held down as he took a fist to his jaw, a second fist to his gut again and a third fist to his side, right over his left kidney. Lee tried to fend off the blows but he was grabbed by his arms and held up to face the leader.

 

The card…where is the card…what did Carver do with the card…

 

“Lee!” Nelson’s voice broke the spell Lee seemed trapped in, and slowly he focused on the older man.

 

“Admiral?” Lee’s voice was a brittle as fine blown glass.

 

“Take it easy, Lee. I’m right here. What happened?”

 

Lee blinked. “I’m trying….” he whispered, trailing off as Will Jamieson burst through the door and made a bee-line for the pale commander.

 

“Admiral?” the doctor asked. Nelson stood up, vacating the chair and silently inviting Jamieson to take possession. Jamie quickly settled in across from Lee, looking deeply into his eyes and measuring his pulse in one wrist.

 

“He spaced out on me. We were talking about Radcliff’s investigation when he was just…just gone,” the admiral explained.

 

“A flashback probably. Lee, you’re as pale as a ghost. Care to share with me?” The doctor asked calmly.

 

Lee was still a little spacey but he was slowly pulling himself back together. “I remember…bits and pieces. There were three of them. They kept asking about a card. They tried to…they tried to beat the information out of me. There’s more, I know there is.” Lee’s voice was hardly more than a hoarse whisper.

 

“Radcliff never said anything about any damn card,” the admiral snarled.

 

Jamie shot Nelson a look. “I don’t like how he’s obsessing over this. Lee,” Jamie returned his focus on the younger man. “I think I should revoke your status and send you home.” He expected Lee to argue with him but he got a dull, disbelieving look instead. Those hollow eyes nearly broke Jamie’s heart.

 

“Jamie, what if Lee had a change of scenery instead? Something that would keep him busy and give him something to focus on other than his memory?”

 

Jamie’s expression turned speculative. “Like what?”

 

“My cabin at the lake,” Nelson said.

 

“Sir?” Lee glanced up at his employer, disbelief clear on his face. Nelson rested a reassuring hand on the young man’s shoulder.

 

“You can spend a few days up at the cabin. It will get you away from the institute and put you out of Radcliff’s reach,” Nelson said.

 

“Alone? No, I won’t allow that,” Jamie began only Nelson cut him off with a wave of his hand.

 

“No, not alone. Chip can go with him. We can put off the upgrades for a few weeks. I’d go but somebody needs to diffuse Radcliff.”

 

“But…I…I can’t ask you…” Lee began, well aware he was fighting a losing battle. When Nelson got his head wrapped around something there was no getting him off track. That look was in his eyes, the look that said he had the bit between his teeth now and nothing was going to rein him in.

 

‘It’s my cabin. I’m pretty sure your doctor would tell you that you need some time off,” Nelson said with a sly grin aimed at Jamieson.

 

The doctor responded in kind. “Long past,” he said to Lee. “I prescribe at least a week away from the institute. I do have one suggestion,” Jamie added.

 

“What?” Lee asked wearily, trying to think of what other restrictions the doctor could possibly inflict on him.

 

“I should go along,” Jamie suggested. “You still have a broken rib, and that knife wound on your side needs tending until the stitches come out. You could have more of these flashbacks and in your present condition I can’t predict how well you’re going to react—if this spell is any indication, not very well.”

 

Nelson gave Lee’s shoulder a quick squeeze. “I agree. I also don’t think you should be alone and with two people there, someone will always be able to be with you.”

 

Lee grumbled. “I don’t need a babysitter,” he said sourly.

 

“No,” Jamie chuckled. “You need a full time staff—trained in trauma procedure.”

 

Nelson smiled but he focused back on Lee. “I think it’s a good idea. You can leave tomorrow, if that suits Jamie,” Nelson said with a glance at the doctor.

 

“Suits me just fine. In the meantime,” Jamie focused his attention on Lee. “I want you to go home and get some rest.”

 

The response was automatic, even if the words lacked conviction. “Jamie, I’m fine,” Lee said.

 

The doctor simply snorted. “You keep telling yourself that. Home. Admiral?” Jamie glanced toward the older man for backup.

 

The admiral was quick to jump to Jamieson’s defense. “Listen to the doctor this once, Lee. I’ll have someone drive you home. I will be by to check on you later. Agreed?”

 

Lee sighed. Maybe they were right. Maybe what he needed was to get away from the familiar. Get away and focus on anything other than that night. “Yes sir,” Lee finally acquiesced. “I need to pack, it would seem.

 

“Do you want Chip or Kowalski to drive you home?” Nelson asked with a bemused grin.

 

“I’d rather keep this low key,” Lee said before adding with a small grin of his own. For some reason it bothered him to think that everybody knew he couldn’t remember. Chip was safe. Chip could be trusted to take a secret to the grave if need be. “Chip already knows and I don’t want to freak the crew out. They tend to worry.”

 

Nelson chuckled softly as he reached for the phone. “We all worry about you, son.”

 

~<<>>~

 

The drive back to Lee’s condo was quiet as Chip drove Lee’s Cobra. Chip was one of the few people Lee trusted with the classic car, its background known only to a few people. The car was more than just a car for Lee. It was one of the last links that Lee had with his father. The two had spent months restoring the car before Lee’s father was killed in a boiler accident. When Lee came to California to skipper Seaview, he’d had the car shipped in. It had cost him a pretty penny but Lee wouldn’t be parted from the little car.

 

Chip pulled up into the drive and killed the engine. For a minute neither man moved. Chip wasn’t sure what was going on in Lee’s mind and so far his friend didn’t act like he was up to talking about anything.

 

Finally Lee broke the silence. “The admiral thinks it would be a good idea for me to get away. He wants to hide me at his cabin.” Distaste did more than color Lee’s words. Hiding wasn’t in Lee’s nature. He preferred to face his problems head on. Running from trouble wasn’t what made Lee Crane tick.

 

“Sounds like a plan to me. Radcliff is like a damn bulldog. He’s not going to leave you alone and the constant nagging can’t be good for you. What will be good for you is to get away from here for a few days,” Chip said, hoping to convince his friend he wasn’t hiding. Having Radcliff call every few hours for an update had to be unnerving and the farther Lee got away from that the better off he would be.

 

“You really think that will help?”

 

Chip shrugged and got out of the car. “Can’t hurt. As isolated as that cabin is, I doubt anybody would think to look for you there, if they could even find the place,” he said.

Lee followed, getting out of the car and moving toward the garage. He was about to open the door when Chip stopped him.

 

“Hold it, pal. No strain on the stitches. Why haven’t you gotten an automatic door opener anyhow?” Chip asked as he grabbed the handle and heaved the door upwards. Lee parked the Cobra inside when the weather turned sour or he was going to be gone for a few days.

 

“Just not something I’ve gotten around to doing yet. Just park the car inside. I thought I heard it was going to rain this weekend,” Lee directed.

 

Chip didn’t reply but did as asked, sliding behind the wheel again and starting the car back up, rolling it gently into the garage. With a glare aimed at his friend, Chip pulled the garage door shut but let Lee lock it. Chip then followed Lee out of the garage through the side door and into the house.

 

“You plan on following me all night long?” Lee asked, walking through the kitchen.

 

“That depends on how long it’s going to take you to tell me what happened in the admiral’s office. I get a call saying Jamie wants you home and when I show up, you look like you’ve seen a ghost. The admiral promised to brief me when I get you settled.” Chip said, waiting for Lee’s explanation.

 

Lee dropped into the nearest chair in the living room, throwing a leg over the side and sprawling comfortably as he could. He ignored the ache of the broken rib, the pain manageable for the moment.  Something cold touched the back of his shoulder and he glanced up to see Chip holding out a cold beer. He accepted it, noting the cap was already gone and he knocked back a swallow. Chip collapsed on the couch, parking his feet on the edge of the coffee table. Patient as death, Morton was obviously willing to wait as long as it took for Lee to open up. Instead of a beer Chip had a soda, indicating he was still on duty. Lee was aware that the only way to banish the blond specter was to give in.

 

“Jamie called it a flashback,” Lee relented, relaxing into the chair and holding the bottle by the neck between a finger and thumb.

 

Chip took another swig from his soda can. “Had a few of them myself,” he admitted.

 

“When?” Lee asked, tilting his head slightly to gaze at the blond.

 

Chip knocked back another swallow, refusing to meet Lee’s soul-piercing gaze. “A couple of times,” he replied vaguely. “After…Peru.” All after his first encounter with a marine archaeologist named Serena Harrison. Chip failed to mention a few times before that, before he accepted his current position NIMR. There were some things Lee didn’t know about and Chip wasn’t ready to open up about them. Not yet. Maybe not ever.

 

Lee paused. Chip didn’t often let on that something was bothering him. Lee knew about the first time Chip had seen Harrison, and that he’d had a flashback, but he didn’t know about what. Chip never went into detail and Lee respected his friend too much to push into an area where he might not be wanted. “So you know what they’re like?”

 

“Disorienting. Disturbing.”

 

“Disturbing. That’s one way of putting it.”

 

Chip finally glanced toward Lee. “So you had a flashback in the admiral’s office and he called Jamie. And Jamie took one look at you and pulled you off duty.”

 

Lee sighed. He pulled another swallow out of the bottle. “Pretty much sums it up. The admiral thinks maybe if I get away from the Institute and away from Radcliff’s constant harping, maybe I’ll…cope…better.”

 

It wasn’t quite the explanation Chip had been hoping for but he had more information now than when he started. “Is the admiral going with you?”

 

Lee knocked back another swallow. “He says he needs to stay here, to rein in Radcliff, he said. He had the idea you’d go with me. You and Jamie.”

 

Chip considered what he’d been told. “Not a bad thought.”

 

Lee’s eyebrows shot up. “You don’t mind?”

 

“Why would I mind? I’m your friend, Lee. I’d have thought that after all these years you’d have figured that out.” Lee didn’t answer, his eyes staring ahead at something only he could see. Chip got up and walked back toward the kitchen. “I should be kicked for giving you a beer with your pain meds. But since you won’t take your pain meds…” Chip said, as usual trying to lighten his friend’s mood. He got a shy smile from Lee and as he walked past Lee’s chair, Chip snagged the now empty beer bottle from his friend. “You want another before I leave?”

 

Lee shook his head. “Thought I’d hit the shower.”

 

“And then get some sleep?” Chip added.

 

Lee snorted. “It would make Jamie happy.”

 

“And me and the admiral…” Chip trailed off as he walked out of the living room and through the kitchen. Lee heard the back door slide open then slide shut. The distinct rattle of keys said that Chip was locking the door behind him. Then silence settled over the house. Still lounging in the big chair Lee closed his eyes, trying to relax. It was just so hard to believe that the admiral was almost in effect buying him time, getting him out of Radcliff’s line of fire. Lee could only hope that the tactic would work and he could get his faulty mind to cooperate. He had to remember what happened that night.  

 

~<<>>~

 

Nelson waited until Lee and Chip had left before sinking back into his chair, running his fingers through his hair before burying his face in his hands and letting out a deep sigh. Still seated in the chair on the other side of the desk, Will Jamieson echoed Nelson’s sigh.

 

“Jamie, what’s wrong with him?” Nelson asked quietly.

 

“Trauma, Admiral, pure and simple. Lee’s physical condition indicated a terrible beating, the blood lose from the stab wound, the concussion, as well as the abrasions on his wrists. He’d been restrained somehow. Tape would be my guess from the lack of actual rope burns. His mind wants to shy away from what happened. Not uncommon in cases like this.”

 

“Jamie, Lee’s been beaten and shot, even drugged before. He’s never had a memory loss like this before. Why now?”

 

Jamieson shrugged and got to his feet. “I wish I had more of an answer for you. He suffered a concussion and lacunar amnesia is just one of a handful of symptoms.”

 

“And you think this will help?” Nelson asked hopefully.

 

“I do. Lee is very focused. He’s concentrating too hard on trying to remember, even if he’s not conscious of it. Get him out of his office, away from Seaview. Sending Chip is an excellent idea. He can sympathize with Lee and understand what he’s going through, having been there himself. He trusts Chip. Maybe Lee will reach out to him,” Jamie said.

 

“He trusts you as well, Jamie. More than you think.”

 

The doctor smiled. “But I’m not the one he’ll follow to Hell and back,” he replied sagely as he got up to leave. “I’ll be ready to leave whenever Chip is,” he added as he headed for the door, leaving Nelson alone in his office.

 

The admiral heaved a deep sigh, wondering if Lee hadn’t already been through enough hell. Speaking of hell…he punched the intercom button to raise his office assistant. “Angie, if you don’t mind, I need to speak with Radcliff.”

 

“Yes, sir. I’ll contact him at once and transfer him directly to your office.”

 

“Thank you.” Nelson didn’t have long to wait. In less than ten minutes Angie notified him that she was transferring the director of ONI. Nelson gave the man a few seconds before he connected on his end.

 

“That boy of yours finally remembered something?” Radcliff demanded.

 

What Nelson wanted to do was run his fist through the man’s face but that wasn’t possible from this distance. Instead he did his best to maintain a calm attitude. It wasn’t easy. “Well, that depends on how much you’re not telling me.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

 

“Lee remembered being attacked by three men. They were looking for a card of some type and they assumed that Lee had it. So what card might they be talking about?”

Silence on the other end of the phone made Nelson wonder if Radcliff hadn’t hung up. “Chester?” he urged when he got no answer.

 

“Carver was undercover,” Radcliff began.

 

“Yes, we’ve covered that part of the story. This is where you tell me the parts left out of your so-called ‘report’ you faxed over.” Radcliff wasn’t happy and Nelson could hear it in his breath as he growled over the receiver. He put up with Jiggs for near thirty years and Radcliff wasn’t even coming close. “I’m waiting,” Nelson reminded the ONI director.

 

“Carver was working under the alias of a dishonorably discharged marine who had access to explosive materials. Jaheen approached him to purchase the material to make a large bomb. And I mean large. Carver was trying to ascertain what the target was.”

 

“You mentioned something to that effect earlier. I take it that’s where things got ugly,” Nelson surmised.

 

“Too damn correct,” Radcliff snarled. “Carver overplayed his hand and Jaheen got suspicious. I sent Carver to meet with Crane, turn over everything he knew. Unfortunately, I don’t know what card Carver might have had. Crane was supposed to recover the intel and report back to me.”

 

Nelson took a deep breath. “Radcliff, as much as it pains me to tell you this, Lee is so badly traumatized by this my CMO has declared him medically unfit for duty. If he starts to remember anything further I will pass it along but I will not allow you to badger the man. If you can’t get that though your rock-hard skull then you can take a flying leap!”

With that last declaration Nelson was able to indulge himself and he slammed the phone down. He was stilling fuming ten minutes later when Angie beeped in. Without looking at the phone, Nelson stabbed at the receiver. “Yes Angie?”

 

“Commander Morton to see you, sir.”

 

“Alright, send him in,” Nelson said.

 

Seconds later the door opened and the blond officer stepped in. “Sir?” he asked as he walked toward the desk.

 

“Sit down, Chip,” the admiral invited. Chip did, watching the expression on his employer’s face. Concern, worry, and several other emotions seemed to play across the surface of his eyes. “How’s Lee?”

 

“When I left him he was about to take a shower and get some rest. He mentioned you thought it was a good idea to get away for a while,” Chip began, easing into a chair.

 

Nelson nodded. “Yes. I want you to go with him. I know how close you two are, you anchor him when I can’t. You’re…his brother, for lack of better words. Jamie will be going with you. Lee needs him as well, I think.”

 

Chip found himself nodding. “With the ribs and the stitches, that’s not a bad idea.”

 

“Did he mention the flashback?”

 

“He did after I dragged the story out of him. You think he could have more?”

 

Nelson sighed. “The one he had here…scared me. I’m worried about him. Jamie says he’s obsessing over his inability to remember. I want him whole and healthy, not broken like this. I need you and Jamie to put him back together again.”

 

“You don’t mind putting the upgrades off?” Chip asked with half a grin. He was aware that Nelson wasn’t keen on the project but it was one of the necessary evils of progress.

 

“Lee is more important at the moment.  I can hold Radcliff off for a little while longer but I can’t keep this up forever. This is the best solution I can come up with.”

 

“I’d do anything for Lee. All of us would, sir.”

 

“That’s all I can ask for,” Nelson replied softly, still haunted by the expression of nothingness in Lee’s eyes. He prayed he’d never have to see that again.

 

~<<>>~

 

Nelson had promised to check on Lee and given the circumstances he dared not go back on that promise. It was getting late when Nelson pulled his car into Lee’s drive. Most of the lights in the house were off but there still appeared to be a glow from the living room windows.

 

The admiral made his way to the back porch. The back door was locked. Nelson had a key though and he quickly let himself in, pausing to check the alarm system. Lee hadn’t set it, possibly thinking that Nelson would be by. The admiral chuckled softly.

He made his way through the kitchen, finding it spotless as usual. In the living room he found the TV on, turned to one of the news channels. Another habit of Lee’s. He kept up with world events, never knowing when those events might impact them here, either in his role as an active intelligence agent or as a Reserves officer and Seaview’s commander.

 

The brunet was stretched out on the couch, the blue throw that usually lay draped across the couch back now covering Lee from mid chest to toe. His dark hair was tousled and a stray lock had curled over his forehead, across his right eye. One arm was under the cover but the other was resting on his chest.

 

Nelson debated if he should wake Lee but he also knew that sleep was one the best things for him right now, as he was clearly not getting enough. The older man leaned against the door, simply watching Lee sleep and grateful he was getting some badly need rest.

 

However, the rest was short lived. As Nelson watched, Lee tossed his head fitfully, his expression growing less peaceful. Lee muttered something but it was so low Nelson missed it. He abandoned his post and moved to sink into the chair by the couch. He watched to see if the dream might fade and leave Lee in peace.

 

The answer was quickly apparent when Lee moaned, his breath coming in ragged gasps. His fingers tightened, gripping a tight fistful of blanket. “No…I won’t…you can’t…Admiral…” The last was spoken almost as if it were a plea for something. Help maybe?

 

Nelson was a bit taken back to hear Lee call out for him. He couldn’t bear to watch Lee fight with this nightmare any longer. “Lee? Son, wake up, it’s just a dream,” he urged.

Lee tossed his head some more and Nelson dared to rest a hand on his exposed arm. “Son?” he tried again and this time Lee’s eyes opened. Cloudy and blurred with sleep and the recent nightmare they expanded, taking in as much light as possible in the dimly lit room. They stared at Nelson then blinked a few times before they finally cleared.

 

“Sir?” Lee asked as he tried to sit up. He hissed in pain as he twisted and put too much pressure on the still healing rib and stab wound.

 

“Easy, son. You don’t have to be in a hurry on my account,” Nelson warned as he pulled his hand away. He remained on the edge of the chair, ready to help if Lee needed it.

Slowly the younger man eased himself into a sitting position. “How long have you been here?”

 

“Not long,” Nelson reassured.

 

Lee took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I didn’t aim to fall asleep.”

 

“It’s okay. You probably needed it. Nightmare?”

 

Lee nodded. “I’m okay now.” It was apparent that whatever it was, Lee wasn’t going to discuss it with Nelson. The older man eased back into the chair, getting comfortable.

 

“I said I’d stop by this evening. I just wanted to check on you, see how you’re doing.”

 

“Same as this morning. I still can’t recall anything. What kind of card were they talking about?”

 

“Lee, I’ve told you. Stop worrying over it. You can’t help it and it’s not your fault. And before you start, you are not useless; you are not a failure. You simply got in over your head, a circumstance that I completely blame Chester for. He should have had more sense than to throw you to the wolves like that, no back up, and no clue as to what had happened to you. I promise you, this won’t happen again.”

 

Lee didn’t say anything, curled in the corner of the couch. “I should have said something.”

 

“Let’s not rehash that old argument again. What’s done is done. You’re alive, mostly in one piece. Let’s concentrate on getting you fully functional again.”

 

Lee smiled shyly. “Yes, sir. I told Chip about the cabin. He didn’t seem to have a problem with going. I think he might be a little disappointed we’re pushing the upgrades back a few weeks.”

 

“Chip and his computers,” Nelson laughed. “You’ll be nice to Jamie? I’m not going to get a call from him where you ‘accidently’ left him behind at some rest stop, am I?”

 

Lee grinned again. “I hadn’t thought of that. It’s an idea though.”

 

Nelson had to laugh. “You must have been a handful as a child.”

 

“So my mother keeps telling me.”

 

The two men grew quiet, comfortable in each other’s presence. “Are you packed yet?” Nelson asked.

 

“Mostly. I’ll finish in the morning.”

 

“Good.” Nelson got to his feet. “I’ll let you finish that nap. I hope the next is more restful than the last. I don’t know if I’ll see you in the morning, so I’ll say it now. You three have a safe trip, and I want you to relax. Don’t exert yourself. You’ll remember when you’re good and ready. Is that clear?”

 

Lee dipped his head. “Yes, sir. I’ll try.”

 

“I can’t ask for anything more. Get some rest and try to bring Jamie back in once piece?”

 

“Yes, sir,” Lee replied and grinned.

 

Nelson let himself out, locking the door behind him. If Chip came by, he had a key. As he walked back to his car he hoped that Jamie was right. He wanted Lee healthy and whole and he’d do anything to get his friend back in that condition.

 

~<<>>~

 

The sunrise was just a rosy promise on the horizon as Chip organized and packed the back of his SUV. He needed to make sure he had room for his gear, Jamie’s, and Lee’s. He didn’t foresee a problem but it never hurt to anticipate

 

With his gear neatly stowed in the back of the rig Chip made the quick trip to Jamie’s house on base, just a few minutes’ walk from the medical center. Jamie, also an early riser, was up and waiting, his neatly packed bags just inside the door. “Good morning for a road trip,” the doctor greeted Chip. Morton returned the greeting with a grin.

 

“Not bad indeed. You get pick of the seats. You want shotgun or back?” he asked as he lowered the tailgate and accepted the bags from Jamie.

 

“Actually, I thought I’d sit in the back. This is an excellent chance to watch the two of you, out of uniform and off boat. I’m curious as to what I’ll see,” Jamie said.

 

“You’ll see me driving, Lee sulking because he isn’t driving. Not much to see,” Chip answered. He stepped back and studied his work. Plenty of room for Lee’s gear considering Lee was known to pack light.

 

“I think I’ll see more than that,” the doctor said enigmatically. Chip just shook his head.

 

“Let’s go retrieve our sulky commander,” he suggested as he stowed the last of Jamie’s gear, a large heavy-duty duffle bag that weighed more than Chip expected. “You pack a whole emergency room?” Chip asked as he hefted the duffle a few times before he wedged it carefully in among the rest of the gear.

 

“I considered the company I was keeping. There are a few medical books in there and a few articles on PTS as well as studies of flashbacks. I thought I would brush up,” Jamie explained.

 

Chip closed up the back of the truck, walked to the front of the rig, and climbed in. For the short trip to Lee’s place Jamie climbed into the front seat. Chip started the truck and backed out of Jamie’s drive. “You think Lee has post-traumatic stress?”

 

“You did, after that mess with English and Corwin,” Jamie answered quietly.

 

Chip couldn’t stop the involuntary shiver that crawled up his spine. Marcus English was deranged, twisted, and more than a little obsessed. After vanishing in Peru for eight weeks Chip, deep in the throws of malaria, had been found by a group of missionaries guided by English. Once home, Chip’s recovery had been marred by several kidnapping attempts. They were all orchestrated by Marcus, who was convinced that Chip had been to some mysterious lost city in the jungle. The final attempt had been successful, resulting in Chip waking up onboard a freighter bound for Peru. His only saving grace had been the ship’s captain, who wanted no part of a kidnapping plot much less one that included Seaview’s executive officer. He made a deal to return Morton to Nelson, as Seaview had been following the freighter for days[5].

 

Chip didn’t remember any of his time missing in Peru. No therapy had been successful in returning those memories to him and he’d long since accepted that whatever happened didn’t matter. He’d come home alive. He also didn’t recall much after the explosion that destroyed the freighter and dumped him into the sea. His rescue by Seaview was foggy at best. What did return to haunt them all was the return of the captain of the freighter, Dathan Corwin. His ship destroyed, his crew dead, he blamed Nelson for the death of his sons who’d been aboard the ship when it went down. Corwin, scarred from the explosion both mentally and physically had returned to exact vengeance on the admiral by kidnapping him and Lee, interred them both in emptied tombs in the lower sections of an ancient cemetery mausoleum on the other side of town. The mausoleum was in bad repair and the lower sections flooded during heavy rains. They’d both nearly drowned in rising waters before being rescued[6].

 

The reaction wasn’t lost on the doctor. “Does that still bother you, Chip?”

 

Chip couldn’t answer. Being kidnapped by obsessed treasure hunters and being buried alive weren’t topics generally covered at the academy. “I thought you were coming along because of Lee?” Chip asked softly, hoping to derail the conversation. He didn’t want to relive that time of his life.

 

“You’re my patient as well. Doesn’t matter if there isn’t anything visibly wrong with you.”

Chip couldn’t find the words to answer so he clamped his mouth shut, choosing instead to devote his entire attention to driving. They arrived at Lee’s house and Chip killed the engine after pulling into the drive. Without any further comments Jamieson disembarked from the truck, heading for the back of the house. Chip followed, giving Jamie room, hoping he’d focus on someone else, even if that someone else was Lee.

 

They found Lee already up and about. No surprise there, Crane was an early riser for as far back as Chip could remember. He was sitting on the banister of the deck, dressed in jeans that had seen better days and wearing a black tee-shirt under a dark blue short-sleeved button-down shirt, unbuttoned. He waved at the pair as they climbed the short steps and knocked back the last of the coffee from the cup in his hand.

 

“Morning. Who’s driving?” he asked with a grin.

 

“My rig, I’m driving,” Chip shot quickly.

 

“Spoilsport. You’re gonna kill me with boredom, you know that,” complained the brunet.

 

Chip snorted. “We can play the license plate game on the way up. Alphabetically. You wanna be helpful, you can spring for gas.”

 

Lee stood up and carried his empty cup inside. “Do I get to feed you as well?” he asked as he washed the cup out and flipped off the coffee maker.

 

Chip grinned. “Since you’re offering.”

 

Lee shook his head as he noticed Jamie watching the pair of them, a very amused expression on his face. “See what I put up with? No respect at all. You sure you want to tag along with us? What if he gets hungry and I forget to feed him? Could get ugly.”

 

Jamie tried not to let the smile take over but he failed miserably. “No, Skipper, I don’t think I’d miss this for all the tea in China. You seem to be in a better mood than yesterday.”

 

Lee shrugged. “It’s early yet.”

 

With the dishes, what there was of them, washed, dried, and stowed away, and the coffee pot emptied and ready for the next use, Lee made one final round through the house, checking doors and windows. Chip waited patiently in the kitchen. “Is this common?” Jamie asked, listening to Lee’s footsteps upstairs.

 

Chip shrugged. “Sometimes. Goes back to when he lived at home. His mom worked late some nights and he has this aunt who was a little…off centered. She insisted that all the doors and windows were locked before they went out or went to bed. I guess you could say old habits die hard.”

 

Jamie held his tongue and waited for Lee to come back down. He finally came back down with two bags, one in each hand. There was a warning growl from Morton. “How heavy are those?”

 

Lee blinked. “Not that much.”

 

“Then it will be easy for you to drop them. Or you’re gonna be riding in the back seat.”

 

Lee dropped the two bags to the floor and grinned at Jamie. “See how he treats me off boat? No respect.”

 

Chip only shook his head as he grabbed both bags and headed out the back door. Jamie laughed softly and followed as Lee brought up the rear, still grinning. He paused long enough to lock the door, and quickly caught up with the two.

 

Jamie climbed into the back as Chip loaded the last of the gear into the truck. This was already interesting and they hadn’t even left yet. It was going to be a very enlightening trip indeed.

 

~<<>>~

 

Their first stop was at a gas station to top off the Cherokee. The place was packed at that early hour and an empty pump wasn’t immediately available. They were still in line waiting for their turn as people crossed back and forth in front of the rig. Just before they inched forward as the pump opened up, a man ran out in front of them, dropped his soda where it rolled partially under the truck. He scrambled to recover it then quickly darted out of their way. Chip pulled the truck up to the pump and got out—the incident forgotten since there was no harm done to anyone. “Card?” he asked, grinning at Lee.

 

Lee muttered something under his breath and handed Chip a credit card. Morton slid out of the truck and spent the next few minutes filling the SUV’s tank. When that task was accomplished, Chip got back in and handed Lee his card and receipt. Starting the vehicle back up he commented offhandedly, “I can’t drive on an empty stomach.” He pulled the truck into traffic.

 

Lee stared. “Seriously?” Lee had been hoping the remark Morton had made at the house was a joke. Obviously not. “Why didn’t you grab something before picking me up?”

 

Chip shook his head. “You know I can’t eat first thing in the morning. I can’t eat until I’ve been up at least an hour.”

 

Lee sputtered. “That’s a load of crap! I’ve seen you stagger out of bed and shove leftover pizza in your pie-hole!”

 

“Humph,” snorted Chip, reminiscent of a certain four-star admiral. “I was probably sleep-eating.”

 

Jamie was having way too much fun listening to the exchange. He’d seen a little bit of what these two were capable of on the boat but this was different. No constraints of rank for either to bow to, no crewmen to behave for, no lines of protocol, just two old friends who were closer than brothers The doctor leaned back into the seat, listening to the banter, almost wishing he could take notes.

 

Lee was still sputtering. “Sleep eating?”

 

“Yeah, like sleepwalking. Only eating, in your sleep.”

 

“Jamie?” Lee asked, half turning I his seat.

 

“I’ve read documented cases of it.” The doctor admitted, although he seriously doubted Chip had ever had such a problem. From the look on Lee’s face that wasn’t the answer he was expecting.

 

“Well, I’ve never heard of such a thing,” Lee announced. Chip drove up to a fast food place and pulled the SUV into the drive thru line. “Jamie, you hungry? Lee’s buying,” Morton offered, glancing into the rearview mirror back at the doctor.

 

Meanwhile Lee wasn’t done grumbling. “I will get you for this, Morton.”

 

Again Chip glanced into the rearview and grinned at Jamie. “Of course you will. That’s why I have to act fast.”

 

Chip placed their orders, with Jamie declining, stating he’d eaten something earlier, earning the muttered comment of ‘at least someone had some sense,’ from Lee. Chip pulled up to the window and promptly held out an open palm to Lee. Lee glared at his friend.

 

“I’m gonna start carrying around something slimy and rotten to slap down in that greasy paw of yours.” Lee fished through his wallet, retracting the credit card again and dropping it into Morton’s waiting hand. Chip grinned as his fingers closed around it.

 

“That’s okay. I can always memorize your credit card numbers,” he threatened as he handed the card to the cashier at the window.

 

Jamie tried not to laugh but with the long ride ahead of them the antics were only likely to get worse.

 

Once they got on the road, Lee nursed his coffee and Chip quickly demolished the breakfast burrito he’d ordered, washing it down with his coffee. Jamie was concerned that Chip, driving, shouldn’t be trying to eat at the same time but he navigated the big vehicle expertly, never swerving, staying to his lane and maintaining a constant speed. Jamieson should have known better after seeing him juggle responsibilities and orders as exec. What he didn’t expect was the change in Lee.

 

After the antics of the morning died off, the two would exchange occasional barbs from time to time. Sometimes it began with something Lee said and Chip would pick up the threads and run with it. Sometimes Morton would comment on something that would get Lee started. But the farther they drove, the quieter Lee got.

 

Jamie was concerned. It was classic brooding behavior, even if he couldn’t see Lee’s face and expression. The posture, the slump of his shoulders as he relaxed into the seat, they all said that Lee was drawing into himself, as if now that he was awake he was thinking about that night again, troubled by his inability to remember. Jamie leaned forward and rested a hand on Lee’s shoulder. “What to talk about it, skipper?” He heard Lee sigh.

 

“Is it obvious?”

 

“Only to someone who’s watching.”

 

“What would you do if you went into surgery and suddenly you can’t remember the procedure?” Lee asked, twisting his head around to glance face to face with Will.

The doctor shrugged. “I’d still be a doctor. You’re still Seaview’s skipper. You haven’t forgotten how to react, how to think objectively. You’re basing this on one incident.”

 

Lee didn’t say anything. He turned back around and sank into the seat. Jamie caught Chip looking at him in the mirror. He shrugged and the doctor got a slight eyebrow twist. Neither man said anything else for a while, giving Lee as much space as possible. At one point they thought Lee was asleep until his slightly slurred voice, evidence that he had been napping, queried softly, “Are we there yet?”

 

Jamie snorted and choked on his laughter as Chip pitched his voice up. “Lee Benjamin Crane, don’t make me turn this car around, so help me!”

 

Lee laughed softly. “That sounded like your mom, no kidding.”

 

“I certainly heard it enough,” Chip explained.

 

Jamie leaned forward as much as his seat belt would allow. “Road trips much?”

 

“Summer trips to my grandparent’s farm. Two hour drive with one boy and four girls—two boys if Lee happened to be visiting. Yeah, we got threatened on a regular basis,” Chip said.

 

Jamie was interested. “I didn’t know your grandparents had a farm.”

 

“Not a big farm, but big enough that early on I learned eggs came from chickens, milk came from cows and blackberries had thorns. Remember that, Lee?”

 

Lee groaned. “Oh, do I? ONI should use blackberry picking as one of its training methods!”

 

“Okay, you’re gonna have to tell me this story. You can’t stop there,” Jamie said.

 

Lee and Chip exchanged quick looks. “You tell it, it was your idea,” Lee entreated.

 

“Wading in the pond wasn’t my idea,” Chip replied.

 

“You weren’t stopping me,” Lee countered.

 

“Chip?” Jamie urged.

 

“Okay, okay. Summer of our Youngster year,” Chip began.

 

“That’s technically the sophomore year,” Lee interjected.

 

“We had three weeks leave granted and Lee’s mother was in Germany on some long project so I dragged him to my grandparent’s farm. My granddad promised he’d pay us for any work we did and there’s always work to be done on a farm. So when we show up, my grandmother says she’ll pay us by the gallon to pick blackberries. Easy money, right?”

 

Lee snorted. “I’m not an idiot, but I had no idea that a shrub could stab you.”

 

“You mean you didn’t know blackberry bushes had thorns?” Jamie asked.

 

“Of course I know they have thorns. But these were like mutant thorns or something. More dagger and less thorn. It was like they knew you were coming and they were waiting,” Lee argued.

 

“And they had acres of berries. They grew along the fence line on the entire stretch of property. So, Lee and I, armed with buckets and visions of all the cash we’d make, started picking berries.”

 

“Nobody mentioned the mosquitos or the other insects, or the snakes, or the deer.”

 

“Deer?” the doctor echoed.

 

“Deer,” Lee affirmed. “This big bossy doe that had twin fawns. Mostly they leave you alone but if you walk up on one, she’ll scare the fire out of you with all the noise she makes.” Lee explained, clearly remembering one such incident. “And don’t forget the heat. It was the middle of summer. It was hot!” Lee explained.

 

Jamie was really getting into the story. “I thought you were tough academy students?” he teased.

 

“Sophomores, remember?” Lee reminded, using the term the doctor would be more familiar with. “We hadn’t been on our YP cruise yet so technically we weren’t even sophomores.”

 

“Anyhow, by the time we’d been at it for about two hours, we each had full buckets and we hadn’t even made it a quarter of the way around the fence line. We were going to be rich but we had a lot of area to cover. That’s when Lee spotted the pond,” Chip said

 

“Pond?” Jamie inquired.

 

“Yes, a pond, depression in the ground, holds water?” Lee smarted.

 

“You would know,” Chip replied. “Well, Lee here walks toward the pond and I’m following. Lee decides it might be cool to go for a quick swim. Now keep in mind, I agreed with him.”

 

“You two were what? Nineteen years old?”

 

Lee snorted. “About that.”

 

“So, Lee shucks his tee-shirt and jeans and heads into the water. We left the buckets on the bank and I followed him in, left our clothes on the bank. Things are fine until Lee grabs ahold of this floating log and the snake crawls up his arm.”

 

Jamie could not believe what he was hearing. “Skipper, I didn’t think you were afraid of snakes.”

 

Lee grumped and slumped further down in the seat. “I am not afraid of snakes,” he clarified in a huff. “But do you want a snake crawling up your arm while you’re half-naked?” The comment earned several deep chuckles from the back. Chip continued with the tale.

 

“So Lee’s yelling ‘Snake!’ I’m hollering ‘where’ and he’s back peddling toward the bank. Next think I know, this snake comes sailing right for me, smacks me in the chest, I go down, slip in the mud, Lee’s sliding in the mud trying to get out of the pond, somehow the blackberry buckets get knocked over and we both end up squashing most of them trying to make it up the bank.”

 

Jamie could not disguise the laughter, trying to image these two young men, trying to act so adult and grown up, dealing with the chaos of one small snake. “So I take it you didn’t make any money that day,” he asked as he tried not to laugh too hard.

 

“No, and to make matters worse, we had to explain to Chip’s grandmother why our underwear and clothes were stained purple,” Lee griped, as if the incident had happened last week.

 

Chip was chuckling as well. “You know, those stains never came out. We had to toss those things before we went back to classes.”

 

Jamie leaned back into the seat, contemplating the story. Chip glanced up into the rearview and winked, confirming what Jamie was beginning to suspect. He studied Lee for a few minutes, pleased to note that he no longer seemed quite so dejected. If the story was a diversion to get Lee to think about something other than himself, it worked.

 

While there weren’t any more long involved stories, the trip was punctuated by short tales of Lee and Chip, either as midshipmen or their early days in the navy. But the conversation wasn’t completely about those two. On several occasions Lee would ask Jamie if he’d ever been stationed on this base or that ship, giving the doctor a chance to do more than just listen.

 

They drove further and further into the country, higher as they reached the hills and started climbing into the mountains. Lee’s mood, somewhat dark but not as brooding as it could have been, gradually lightened as they traveled higher into the hills, anticipating their final destination. Jamie caught glimpses of a river on occasion, the wide ribbon of blue finally coming into view when they came up on a bridge that crossed it.  “This is the only way in or out of the valley,” Lee explained as they traversed the bridge over the river. Jamie filed the information away. That began a running litany of tidbits of information as Lee pointed out landmarks, quirks of the area, and facts about the weather. Jamie could tell that even though this was removed from the sea and Lee’s true love of Seaview, he had a certain fondness for the place.

 

By the time they reached the cabin it was midafternoon. Chip pulled the SUV up to the cabin and killed the engine. “Yes, we’re finally here,” he commented, playing off Lee’s earlier comment. They got out of the car, Jamie impressed at the change in Lee’s attitude. He shouldn’t have been surprised when Lee picked a key off his ring and unlocked the door.

 

Lee always enjoyed being invited to the admiral’s cabin. It was large and open, a two-story affair that sat on the side of the lake with a view unparalleled by anything Lee knew away from his beloved Seaview. He’d come up here several times at the behest of his employer, usually to recover from some injury or another, and ordered off base by Jamie.

 

The cabin was more than just a simple get-away. It had four bedrooms—three upstairs and one downstairs, a large kitchen and main living area filled with overstuffed chairs and a large sectional couch. The bedrooms upstairs had their down deck and a stairwell that joined it with the deck on the lower floor. It had electricity and a generator as well as a phone line and of course, an Internet connection. The admiral was fond of saying that when he wanted to get away, he wanted his privacy but he didn’t want to be completely out of touch.

 

It didn’t take long for the travelers to unpack the car and pick their rooms. Nelson had his personal room set aside when he had the cabin build and Lee and Chip both had rooms that they preferred. Jamie, who had never been to the cabin, had been told by Nelson before they left that Jamie could take his room and the doctor quickly dropped off his bags, following Lee and Chip’s example of unpacking and putting things away. He had a small bath and he stowed his shaving gear there, slowly taking in the room and the simple decor that more than suited him.

 

He left his room and headed toward the den, glancing around at the furnishings and just the sheer beauty of the place. He found Chip downstairs in the living room, pulling back the heavy curtains and letting the afternoon sun stream in.

 

“Chip, I am impressed,” Jamie said with a smile.

 

Chip returned it. “Classy, isn’t it?” he said. “I can’t believe you’ve never been up here before.”

 

Jamie shrugged. “No feelings hurt. There really hasn’t been a good reason.”

 

“I’m not sure this classifies as a good reason,” the exec replied.

 

Jamie looked around. “Speaking of reasons…” he trailed off, looking for Lee.

 

“Outside. There’s a pier that juts out over the lake. You’ll most likely find him there. It’s not the ocean but it is water,” Chip explained.

 

Jamie grinned. Lee was almost…incomplete…without the influence of the sea—or in this case, a lake. He was drawn to the tides like a moth to a flame. “Maybe I should leave him alone for a while?”

 

“Would be best I think. He has a lot on his mind. When he gets done sorting things out he’ll come back. I don’t want to push him,” said Chip. “I do however want to see what sort of stores Collins set in.” At Jamie’s odd look, Morton explained. “Paul Collins, the caretaker. The admiral had me give him a call yesterday and he should have brought in supplies. Charges it to an account the admiral set up just for maintenance of the cabin. He’s a retired veteran and it gives him something to do on occasion, plus the admiral lets him use the place when he doesn’t plan on being up here. Oh, before I forget, the admiral had a small wine cellar dug a few years ago. He keeps a few vintages on hand if you’re looking for something for a nice dinner. He keeps a couple of cooking wines on hand as well. And I should tell Lee that Collins said the trout were biting yesterday.”

 

Jamie pondered the situation. “Been a while since I went fishing,” he finally said. The more he thought about it, the more he didn’t think it was good for Lee to be alone. He knew his CO all too well and the man would only brood over what he couldn’t change.

 

Chip’s expression went blank. He wasn’t sure that was a good idea. There was a lot Lee had to deal with right now. Chip had been there and he knew that there were times he hadn’t wanted anyone around as he tried to come to grips with what had happened. But in the same breath it had been a welcome sign to know he had friends who cared and worried about him. “Don’t push him. He’ll clam up if he thinks you’re trying to analyze him,” the blond warned.

 

Jamieson nodded. “Just going fishing. Nothing more,” he reassured the younger man.

 

Chip grinned. “There’s a small shed around back. You’ll find a couple of good poles and a tackle box.”

 

“Sounds like a good idea. Maybe if we’re lucky we’ll bring back dinner.”

 

Chip’s eyes sparkled. “You two catch it and I’ll cook it.”

 

“Sounds like a deal to me,” Jamieson replied as he headed for the door.

 

The path around the back of the cabin was warn smooth by previous passing feet and Jamie had no trouble finding the small shed Chip spoke about. He picked two rods and one of the two tackle boxes and headed for the lake. Lee’s dark head was easy to spot at the end of the pier, under the shade of a small grove of cedar trees. Jamie didn’t try to be quiet. Stealth was the best way to get Lee’s senses on edge. Instead he stepped out onto the wooden pier, his footsteps echoing over the lake as he walked down to Lee.

 

“Chip said the caretaker mentioned that the trout were biting. I thought I might see how rusty I was. Been a while since I went fishing,” Jamie said as he settled down on the far end from Lee. He rested the extra rod on his left and rifled through the tackle box. Once he found the lure he wanted, he focused on settling the lure on the line. Lee silently got to his feet and walked back to the cabin.

 

Jamie sighed. So much for that brilliant idea. Lee had enough on his mind; the last thing he would have wanted was company. He should have just left Lee alone. Trying not to be too angry with himself, Jamie promised that from here on out when Lee wanted private time he’d give it to him. The doctor spent the next few minutes studying the shoreline of the lake, watching as an occasional fish surfaced, causing an echo of ripples across the top of the water.

 

Footsteps on the pier caught the doctor by surprise. Glancing over his shoulder he was astonished to see Lee walking back toward the edge of the pier. In his hands he held something in what looked like a paper towel. He sat back down on the edge of the pier and reached for the second rod. He handed Jamie something.

 

It turned out to be a piece of bologna. Jamie grinned. “Trout like bologna?” he asked.

 

Lee grinned. “Sometimes. Never hurts.”

 

The companionship as the two fished in silence was peaceful. Jamie wasn’t about to shatter the mood by asking any one of the hundreds of questions on his mind. He didn’t expect Lee to say anything either. The younger man was intensely private and not one who gave into random gossip. So it was a surprise when Lee began to speak, softly, as if he were afraid he might scare the fish.

 

“First time I came up here was right after that mess with Gamal,” he began.

 

“You were in pretty bad shape,” Jamie added.

 

“Maybe,” Lee conceited. Jamie suppressed the urge to comment further. The fact that Lee even grudgingly admitted to being hurt, years after the fact, was an accomplishment. “It was fall and it had been a while since I had seen autumn leaves turn. It was absolutely beautiful. The admiral showed me about the bologna then.”

 

“You’ve come up here often?” Jamie asked. It seemed a safe enough question.

 

“A few times. Usually when you kicked me off the grounds,” Lee said with a slight grin.

 

“It’s a dirty job…” Jamie shrugged, totally unrepentant concerning his past actions. Lee simply didn’t know the words ‘slow down and relax’. He went at everything full tilt, making no never mind that his body might not quite be up to the challenges of a Lee Crane in full charge. The only thing that could make Lee slow down was meeting Chip Morton head-on or being sidelined by the doctor. It was something Jamie only did as a last resort.

 

“You gotta do what you gotta do sometimes, even if I don’t like it,” Lee said.

 

Jamie lowered his pole and turned to look at Lee. “I wonder sometimes if you know how hard you can be as a patient,” he said.

 

Lee grew quiet. After a few minutes he reeled the line in, checked the empty hook and re-baited it with a second piece of bologna. With a swift motion of his wrist, he sent the line flying and it landed in the water with a ‘plop’. “It’s not something I set out to do,” Lee finally admitted.

 

Jamie was getting close to something but he wasn’t about to push unless he had a clear opening. He decided to wait and see what else Lee might volunteer.

 

“You and I just see me different, I guess. I don’t see why it’s necessary to sideline me sometimes. You take me away from work and I can’t do my job if I’m in Sickbay, or Med Bay, or confined to my house.”

 

Jamie didn’t want to start something that would anger Lee. But he needed to explain his side of things. “I’m a doctor. I heal. It’s what I chose to do and it’s what I continue to do. If I ‘sideline’ you, as you call it, I’m not without my reasons. I’m not doing it for some perverse reason to keep you from doing your job. I’m doing it because I want you to continue to do your job and you need to let your body heal and catch up to the damage you incur all too frequently.”

 

Lee seemed to digest this. The end of his pole bent slightly and he gave his end a quick tug. He frowned and reeled the hook back in. It was empty. “Sneaky today,” he commented and re-baited the hook a second time. He tossed the hook back into the water. “I don’t take inactivity well,” Lee replied softly.

 

“You’re not doing much now,” Jamie observed and Lee favored him with a small smile.

 

“I’m fishing for dinner,” he corrected as his pole jerked. A few minutes later he landed a foot-long trout.

 

“We need something to put this in,” Lee said. He got up, his fingers hooked under the lip of the fish and he walked back to the cabin. A few minutes later he came back with a faded blue cooler. The fish had vanished, stowed away, Jamie assumed, in the cooler. He sat the container between him and the doctor as Jamie’s pole bounced as something tugged on his line.

 

When they landed the second fish Lee concluded that they just might catch dinner after all. Jamie’s fish was about seven inches long. They’d need at least two more for a decent meal. As Lee settled back down, he threw the doctor a look and grinned. “Ready to try your skills at dressing out some trout?” he asked.

 

“I can handle you, can’t I?” Jamie countered with a grin of his own.

 

They ended up with three more fish, more than enough for dinner. Lee helped Jamie dress the fish out, tossing the entrails back into the lake. Lee was surprised to find they’d spent close to three hours at the end of the pier. The smell of charcoal drifted on the wind and Lee glanced up to see a thin plume of smoke drifting from the kitchen side of the cabin. There was a large grill located outside the kitchen and Chip must have concluded they were going to bring back dinner and was readying things to cook.

Sure enough, a few minutes later the XO himself appeared on the path coming around the side of the cabin, heading for the pier.

 

“Are we having fish for dinner?” he asked when he was close enough.

 

“I think so,” Jamie said as Lee lifted up the two sides of the largest fish they’d caught. Chip grinned.

 

“There were hot dogs and burgers made up in case you didn’t have any luck. We’ll have those another night I think. Let’s get those on the grill,” he said.

 

The sun was beginning to dip behind the evergreens while the fish sizzled on the grill. The three men milled about on the porch, chatting about whatever topic came up as Morton oversaw the cooking.

 

In a lull in the conversation, Jamie turned his attention to Lee. “How are you doing?”

 

Lee shrugged. “Not bad. I don’t recall anything more than I did before though. I still don’t know what card they were talking about.”

 

“Give it time. You need to convince your mind that you’re safe now. I don’t think anybody could find you out here even if they’re looking.”

 

 “I’d like to see them try it.” Chip grunted from the grill.

 

Dinner was served and the three enjoyed a satisfying meal of grilled fish and baked potato wedges: simple but filling. After dinner they washed and dried the small handful of dishes then continued to sit outside, listening to the sound of crickets growing louder and the occasional fish jumping out on the lake. Still dealing with the aftereffects of his ordeal, Lee grudgingly admitted to feeling tired. Here in the mountains, the sun set early and Jamie made the suggestion that they all get some sleep. Chip thought it was a good idea and agreed.

 

“I do want to check your stitches though,” Jamie said before Lee could vanish into his room. Grumbling only slightly, Lee pealed out of the short-sleeved shirt and pulled the tee-shirt off. Bruises were still visible on Lee’s lean chest and torso as far up as his shoulders. His wrists were still a collection of mottled green and yellow stains, one more reminder of his ordeal. The bandage on his side was peeled away, giving Jamie a good look at the healing wound. A little poking and prodding and the doctor announced Lee was healing well. He then produced two small white pills that he sat on the table in front of Lee. Lee glared at the small pills in disgust. “No excuses. They will just help you relax. I promise. Humor me,” Jamie said.

 

Muttering, Lee picked up the pills and tossed them back, washing them down with a glass of water Chip handed to him. “Anything else?” Lee asked with a glare.

 

Jamie just grinned. “No. I’m happy.”

 

Shaking his head and grumbling about nosy doctors, Lee gathered his clothes up and vanished into the cabin. Chip, leaning against the banister of the deck, was watching Jamie closely. “Will they really ‘just help him relax’?” he asked, referring to the pills. The doctor smiled.

 

“Among other things. He should sleep soundly once they kick in.”

 

Chip shook his head. “You play dirty.”

 

“I believe you’ve said that before. If I have to play dirty to get you two to listen, then so be it,” Jamie replied unrepentantly.

 

Chip was quiet for a moment, obviously thinking. “We don’t say thank you enough,” he finally said.

 

Jamie snorted. “You can say that again.”

 

Morton laughed softly. “No, seriously: We take more risks than most people, I think because we know we have you.”

 

“I’d be a poor surgeon if I didn’t try to live up to my oath. Although it would be nice if my most persistent patients would use a little more discretion.”

 

Chip grinned and ducked his head, reminiscent of Lee. “Not always possible, Doc. Sometimes we don’t have time to think. We see what needs to be done and we know it needs doing. We’ll worry about the cuts and burns later. Not to change the subject, but the admiral wants daily updates. You want the honors or do I get the job?”

 

Jamie grinned. “You deal with him tonight and I’ll take him tomorrow.”

 

“Deal. You headed for your bed?”

 

“Shower and sleep. You’ll listen for Lee?” Jamie asked. Lee had a tendency toward nightmares when he was injured. Jamie knew he had more than his fair share when in Med Bay but after turning him loose a few days ago, Jamie had no idea how well he’d been sleeping.

 

“My job,” Chip answered quickly.

 

“You’re not on duty, Chip.”

 

“Since when do I have to be on duty to be his friend?” Chip countered.

 

~<<>>~

 

”Crane is incommunicado,” Nelson explained to the figure framed on the monitor. It was the third time in twelve hours he’d been contacted by the head of the Navy’s intelligence agency and quite frankly, Nelson was tired of dealing with the man. He promised himself that once he was done with this call, he’d follow it up with a nice glass of sixteen-year old scotch.

 

“What the hell does that mean?” Radcliff demanded. However, Admiral Nelson was less than impressed with the director of ONI’s demeanor.

 

“It means that Crane’s not here and you can’t reach him at the moment. When my CMO releases Lee, you and he can chat until your heart’s content. Until then you’re just gonna have to wait.”

 

Radcliff turned a very dangerous shade of red. “Harriman, you can’t do this. Crane’s the last link I have to Carver and this investigation. I need to know what Carver found out!” he exploded.

 

Nelson slammed his fist down on the desk making papers, files, and the coffee in the blue and white cup dance. “Lee doesn’t remember and I’ll be damned if I let you hound him for something he doesn’t know!”

 

“Harriman Nelson…” Radcliff began, the note of warning clear in his voice.

 

“We’re finished here, Director.” Nelson spat the last word out like it was something foul and with a practiced twist of his wrist he switched off the monitor and leaned back in the desk, counting to ten in his head.

 

He made it to six when the phone rang. Caller I.D. read Angie’s extension. Nelson stabbed at the intercom. “Yes Angie?” he asked innocently. He was pretty sure his tone would not fool his observant office assistant.

 

“Sir, Admiral Radcliff is on line one. He says it’s urgent.”

 

“I’m sure it is. Tell the good admiral I am not in the office. I’ve left the country, in conference with the heads of state, gone to Margaritaville; I don’t care what you tell him. I’m done talking with that hard-headed overstuffed blowhard!”

 

Angie’s firm “yes sir’ was barely heard over Nelson’s internal grumblings. Nelson ran tired hands through his already tousled auburn-red hair. Letting out a deep breath, he acknowledged that he was tired and cranky.

 

Radcliff was dealt with for the moment. Nelson rose out of the chair and headed for an antique oak cabinet in the corner, picked up a slightly dusty bottle from the back of the cabinet, pouring two fingers into a glass and replacing the bottle. Taking the glass with him, Nelson wandered to the window, looking out over the ocean. He was just standing there, watching the sea, when a light tap at the door distracted him. “Yes?” he said offhandedly.

 

The door opened and Angie popped her dark head in. “Sir, I’m about ready to leave. Anything before I go?”

 

“No, just have a nice evening,” Nelson said with a grin.

 

“I’ll try sir. You should go home and get some rest. You’ve had a long day,” she admonished.

 

Nelson sipped at his glass. “I have indeed,” he agreed.

 

“See you in the morning then. Goodnight,” Angie offered and Nelson returned the wish. The door closed, leaving the admiral in the silence contemplating the day’s events. He tried not to think too much about Chester Radcliff, who hadn’t even asked how Lee was doing, just demanded the same thing.

 

Thinking he’d hang around a little longer in case Chip decided to call to pass on an update, Nelson settled back in his chair and pulled the file Radcliff had faxed over closer. He flipped it over and started to read it one more time, looking for something he that might jog Lee’s memory.

 

The investigation started six months ago when a man named Ahmed Jaheen approached the undercover Sam Carver to purchase several hundred pounds of materials to make a bomb, similar to the one used in Oklahoma City, which was what sparked the investigation to start with. Carver went along with the purchases, providing Jaheen with what he was asking for.

 

Radcliff had filled in the blanks, explaining that Jaheen wanted a detonator for the bomb. Carver stalled for time trying to find the location of the explosive.

 

Without Lee to remember exactly what happened, the rest was simply conjecture. Ahmed Jaheen could be a Muslim name. What big event was coming up that a practicing Muslim might be opposed to? Had Radcliff done a check on that?

 

Reaching for the phone, Nelson gave himself a mental kick when he nearly paged Angie. Some people have a life outside this place…he reminded himself. Won’t kill you to dial your own phone. Then he drew his hand back, reconsidering. Let Radcliff stew for a few hours. This might be a wild goose chase anyway. When Radcliff called in the morning for their daily shouting match, he’d mention this theory and see what Radcliff had to say about it.

 

While Nelson considered the idea, the phone rang. The ring tone indicated a direct call and Nelson knew it could only be Chip. He decided not to mention this to Chip either, at least until he had a chance to talk to Radcliff.   

 

~<<>>~

Chip leaned back in the chair and enjoyed the cool evening air for a few more minutes before going back inside. He came back out with a cordless phone and borrowed Lee’s habit, perching on the banister. He dialed a few numbers and waited for the pick-up. He was one of a handful of people who knew the admiral’s direct extension to his office. Nelson made it clear he wanted updates every day. Chip waited while the phone rang and was able to breathe a sigh of relief when it finally picked up.

 

“Chip?” Nelson’s voice held a light note of concern.

 

“Yes sir. Just calling to let you know everything is fine so far,” Chip said.

 

“Good. How’s Lee?”

 

“He seems to be in a good mood. He and Jamie spent the afternoon fishing, caught enough for dinner. He’s not as moody as he has been and I think that’s a good sign.”

 

Nelson sighed. “It is. It’s a very good sign. He’s listening to Jamie? No screaming matches?”

 

Chip laughed softly. “Not yet, but we only just got here.”

 

“Humph. Don’t remind me. Where is Lee?”

 

“Jamie suggested we all get some rest and Lee’s already turned in. He looked tired but he’d never admit it. Jamie checked his stitches and sent him to his room.”

 

Nelson chuckled at the mental image. “I’ll bet he did. Take it slow with him, Chip. I can handle Chester for a while longer. At some point we do need some answers though.”

 

“Yes sir. I understand. Give us a few days. With any luck I’ll have something you can placate Admiral Radcliff with.”

 

The satisfaction in Nelson’s voice was notable. “That would be good. The old reprobate’s starting to get on my nerves. Take care, Chip. Update me tomorrow.”

 

“Yes sir.” There wasn’t anything else to add so Morton killed the connection. The sun had completely set for the evening and darkness now covered the lake. The occasional hoot of an owl signaled the surrender of day to night. Also feeling tired, but not quite ready to call it a night, Chip headed for his room. He paused to close and lock the back door before heading upstairs. As he moved down the hall he paused outside Lee’s door. There was no light seeping out from under the door and Chip took that as a good sign. For a second he debated pressing his ear to the door to listen but he decided against it. Things sounded quiet and Chip did not want to get Lee riled up if he thought he was being ‘watched’.

 

Satisfied for the moment Chip headed for his room, eager to take a shower. He’d brought his laptop with him so he could keep up with emails and issues. That should keep him occupied until he was ready to call it a night.

 

~<<>>~

 

The place was more shack than actual building. Successive owners had built, torn down, and rebuilt the structure until the original building design had long been lost. There was no sign to give name to the place. Patrons simply knew it as the Sand Bar.

The lighting inside was mostly a suggestion. Fixtures, filthy with dust and a coating of years of nicotine had turned once white light to a dim yellow. There seemed to be a permanent haze that shifted like fog on weak eddies of stale air currents. The place never seemed to close. At any given point there might be one to a dozen random patrons, come to drown their troubles away for a few hours.

 

In the farthest back corner, in a booth covered by split and peeling faux once-red leather, a lone figure sat. A single bottle waited on the table. Condensation on the glass indicated the bottle was still three-quarters full. Whatever it was that brought this man here, it wasn’t the allure of alcohol. He leaned into the corner of the wall and booth, dark eyes watching the other patrons. The former Major Omar el-Hakim Amadi was waiting.

 

The front door opened, allowing entry to a group of four, all heading to the bar. Before the door could slam shut it was pulled open again and a huge man, built like a bear, entered. He glanced around and headed for the back corner, sliding his massive bulk into the opposite end of the occupied booth. “You wanted to see me?” he rumbled.

 

“McGregor,” Amadi greeted casually. It was the only name he knew the man by. He was a mercenary and his loyalties lay with whoever was willing to pay him the most. Amadi found he asked few questions and he followed orders without debate. While he didn’t trust the man, he was reliable.  “Have you recovered the card yet?”

 

“Sorry. Still looking for it. Carver either passed it off to Crane and Crane done hid it, or Carver hid it and lied about passing it off.”

 

The answer was not the one Amadi was looking for. “I need that list. Before Crane can turn it over to ONI and blow everything.”

 

“We’ll find it. Can’t be that many places he could have stashed the damn thing. I’ll have some men go over the motel again,” McGregor replied.

 

“Meanwhile I have another job for you. Bring me Crane.”

 

McGregor frowned. “He even alive? We worked him over pretty good.”

 

Amadi, who McGregor knew as Jaheen, only snorted. “He’s alive. Trust me.”

 

“Security around that institute’s pretty tight. Not impossible to get in, but it won’t be easy.”

 

Amadi gave the mercenary an oily smile and reached into the pocket of his shirt, pulling out a folded piece of paper. “Crane actually left in the company of another man this morning. I had watchers posted. They were followed to a gas station. One of my men was able to attach a small transmitter to the front bumper.” He placed the folded paper on the table and gently slid it across the open area toward the big man. “This is the frequency the transmitter broadcasts on. You should not have any problem finding them.”

 

“I’ll get on it. Anything else?”

 

Amadi held up his index finger. “Yes, I want Crane alive. I have plans for him. Don’t get carried away like you did with Carver. ”

 

“Carver was an accident. You want Crane alive then he’ll be alive. If there’s nothing else?”

 

“One more thing. The man Crane is with, his name is Morton. I want him alive as well. Double the fee if you deliver both. Alive. Beyond that I don’t care. Am I clear?”

 

“Crystal.” With that McGregor nodded and slid his frame out of the booth. He vanished out the door, leaving Amadi to his thoughts. 

 

The man continued to sit, not in any hurry. That missing card was problematic to say the least. Amadi admitted he’d been careless. He suspected that Carver was undercover but he hadn’t planned on this. He was running out of time. He’d plotted his revenge from prison for a long time and Lee Crane wasn’t going to stop him from getting it.

 

~<<>>~

 

The smell of bacon and coffee greeted Jamie on the first full day of his ‘vacation’. As he walked down the hall toward the stairs he passed Lee’s door, still closed. He considered knocking and doing a morning check but he could hear Lee moving about and decided against it. There would be plenty of time for that later.

 

The doctor found Chip manning the kitchen, a smile on his face as he hummed some nonsensical tune. The blond glanced up from the stove. “Coffee’s ready.”

 

“I would imagine so,” Jamie replied as he gravitated toward the coffee maker. He enjoyed a good cup of coffee but not quite to the point that Lee and Chip seemed to require it. As he poured himself a cup he pondered out loud. “What would you two do without coffee?”

 

“Hush your mouth, as my grandmother used to say,” Chip shot back. He transferred the bacon from the skillet to a plate. “You like scrambled eggs?”

 

“Of course. You know, if you just use the egg whites they’re healthier.”

 

Chip made a face. “You know, if you just use the egg whites, they have no taste.” To illustrate his point he started cracking several eggs into a large bowl— yolks and all. Jamie just shook his head as he walked out into the deck.

 

Chip continued to hum, making up melodies as he cooked. He heard Lee coming down the hall. “Good Morning, Secret Agent Man.”

 

“Good Morning, Chief Lame Joke,” Lee shot back, a grin tugging at the corner of his mouth.

 

“You gonna eat this morning or pick at a piece of toast?”

 

“You’re cooking? Oh, hell, I’ll eat then,” Lee replied, letting the grin take over.

 

“Okay, extra rat poison in your eggs,” Chip said sagely, getting a punch in the shoulder for his smart comment. “Owe! Doc! Lee hit me!”

 

From the deck outside Jamie threw his two cents in. “I am not in this. You two are on your own.”

 

Lee grinned at Chip then blew him a raspberry. Chip just grinned, shook his head, and returned his attention to the stove. As Lee poured himself a cup of coffee he remembered something. “Remember that time I went home with you for that week break Jamie MADE us take? And we had that food fight in the kitchen[7]?”

 

Jamie made his reappearance at that point. “Hold it. Food fight? This I have to hear.” He dropped down into a chair and waited patiently for the story to pick back up.

 

“It never would have happened if YOU hadn’t kicked us both off base,” Lee grumbled, planting the blame for the whole incident on the doctor.

 

“If you’d take a vacation like regular mortals I wouldn’t have to ‘kick you off base’. Now, what food fight?”

 

“You started it,” Morton reminded the brunet. .

 

Lee rolled his eyes. “Whatever. Anyhow. YOU kicked us off base so Chip called his parents and said we had a week and were coming up.”

 

Jamie nodded. “I think I remember that. You came back from some ONI thing with a pulled leg muscle. You never were clear on how you were injured.” The hint was plainly clear.

 

“That’s because I never said,” Lee answered tartly.

 

Chip grunted. “Well, you told me you ‘fell’ out of a third story window and landed in a hay cart.”

 

Lee, watching Chip work, had grabbed three plates from the cabinet and without being asked, he started to set the table. “I did no such thing.”

 

“Horse feathers! You did so!” Chip shot back.

 

Lee grinned. “I didn’t fall. I was pushed.”

 

Chip wasn’t going to let up. He’d never heard that full story and he might actually get some answers this time. “How does one get pushed out of a third story window?” he mused as he spooned out eggs into a bowl.

 

“By someone who does not want you on the third floor. I should think that would be obvious, even to a blond. You gonna let me tell this story or interrupt me all week?”

 

“It’s gonna take you all week to tell it,” Chip countered. Lee grumbled something but Morton ignored him.

 

“So Chip and I headed to his parent’s house. We got in really late and were a little slow getting up the next morning. His mom had fixed this really great breakfast. Chip and I were eating and Blondie here,” Lee slapped gently at the back of Chip’s head, “kept hounding me about how I ended up with a slight limp. Forget the fact he was black and blue on his right side, with some lame story about how he hit the periscope during turbulence.”

 

Chip set the eggs on the table, pausing to give his buddy a quick flick on the shoulder. “Plot table. I hit the plot table. Makes more sense than ‘I was pushed out of a window’.”

 

“Whatever. So, he wouldn’t shut his yap, so I flicked a piece of pepper at him.”

 

“And your mother was witness to this?” Jamie asked, easily seeing these two without the constraints of command and able to act simply as friends.

 

Chip grinned. “No, she had left. Doorbell rang and she went off to answer it. We sort of forgot about her and by the time she came back we’d made a mess of the kitchen.”

 

“I can imagine,” the doctor replied dryly.

 

Lee’s eyes were sparkling. “She wasn’t mad exactly but she made us clean it up. And do the dishes.”

 

“And fix dinner that night,” Chip interjected.

 

“And wash our clothes,” Lee added. “I think her theory was to keep us too busy to get into any more trouble.”

 

Jamie was laughing. “Chip, I think I like your mother.”

 

With breakfast cooked, the three sat down to eat. Lee was aware that his plate was thoroughly scrutinized by Jamie as he filled it up. He kept a close eye on it as well. Chip had gotten to be a master at adding to it when Lee wasn’t looking. He’d pulled that trick several times before and he was determined he wasn’t going to try it on this trip. However, his portion sizes must have pleased both doctor and blond because neither made any comment. Conversation drifted as they ate.

 

“So, what’s on the agenda for the day?” Jamie finally asked.

 

“As little as possible,” Chip answered. “This is a va-ca-tion.” He made a point to draw out each syllable of the word.

 

“I thought I’d go for a walk,” Lee said and immediately Chip’s blue eyes hardened.

 

“Not alone, you’re not,” he shot.

 

“Nothing’s going to happen to me. You said yourself this place is so remote it would be hard to track.”

 

“I know what I said but that’s not what I’m talking about. What if you get out there and have another flashback?” Chip’s expression said he wasn’t going to argue about this. Then his eyes softened. “Why don’t you and Jamie take a walk?”

 

Lee blinked, clearly not even thinking that Jamie might want to be in his company. He dared a glance at the doctor. “Jamie?” he asked softly.

 

“I’d be honored to take a hike with you,” he said, meaning it.

 

Lee glanced back to Chip. “You don’t mind?”

 

“If I minded I would never have suggested it.”

 

That seemed to settle things. They finished their breakfast and spend the next bit cleaning up the kitchen. With the dishes done, Lee retrieved a long sleeved flannel shirt from his room. He suggested that Jamie do the same. Lee spared Chip one last look at the door leading out of the kitchen. “You sure you don’t want to go?”

 

“I’ll go another time,” he said. Lee seemed to accept his answer and vanished out the door with the doctor close behind. Chip grinned. Not that he didn’t want to go; the trip would have been fun. But he felt it was more important for Lee and Jamie to spend some time around each other without him along. Chip knew all too well what Lee was going through, the torment of not knowing, unable to remember. Something Chip regretted now was not opening up about what he felt. The confusion and the frustration of knowing there was eight weeks of his life he couldn’t get back had turned him waspish and sour for a while. He knew that he’d distanced himself from his friends and now he wished he’d talked more about it, even if only to Lee. At the time he didn’t think Lee could or would be able to understand. But now…maybe later, if he and Lee had the time and the space, he’d bring it up. Right now Lee didn’t need to be alone. Lee wouldn’t be allowed to brood and maybe he’d open up to the doctor. Jamie kept trying to learn what made them tick and this might give him some answers.

 

Meanwhile, Chip had the cabin to himself and he pondered what they’d have for dinner. The burgers and hot dogs he’d found yesterday might work. Maybe they could con Jamie into cooking. With that settled Chip got his laptop from his room and retreated onto the back porch to work for a while. He didn’t get much done though. The lake was alive with dragonflies and waterfowl and Chip found himself simply watching the water, counting fish as they jumped for insects. He caught himself smiling, realizing that for the first time in a long while he was simply doing nothing. Lee would tease him and comment about learning how to relax. As if the brunet had room to talk.

 

Closing down his computer Chip leaned back into the chair, propped his feet on the banister, and simply watched the lake. It was nice to be able to do nothing for once.

 

~<<>>~

 

They hadn’t gone far when Jamie started to asked small questions. “I didn’t know you had an aunt.”

 

Lee glanced back, surprised. “My dad’s sister, Aunt Mary. She moved in with us after Dad died. Why?”

 

“Chip mentioned her before we left yesterday. You don’t talk much about your family and I found it curious, that’s all.”

 

The answer seemed to peak Lee’s curiosity as well. “Is that part of understanding a patient? Knowing their family background?” The question was innocent enough. Lee noticed that Jamie seemed genuinely interested in their backgrounds but he couldn’t figure how that helped him treat illness or injury.

 

“A huge part. I can understand parts of a patient’s psyche better if I can understand their family history and dynamic.”

 

“Oh.” Lee continued to walk the path, a bit slower now, obviously deep in thought. Jamie knew what a private person Lee was and so he was surprised when the younger man began to talk. “I was fourteen when my dad was killed. It was a boiler accident. He lingered for about two weeks. The doctors did all they could do but it was sickening watching them draw blood and run tests. It seemed like they never gave Mom or me a straight answer. We spent every day and most nights at the hospital, waiting to see if he would recover or not. I hated hospitals after that.”

 

With that one explanation, Jamie began to understand Lee’s aversion to all things medical. Lee didn’t seem like he was finished so Jamie stayed quiet and listened.

 

“After that my Aunt Mary came to live with us. Mom was a designer with Crane and Co. at the time. My father was interning there after high school and that’s how they met. He joined the Navy after they got married. And before you ask, no, I’m not related to the founders of the company. Just a coincidence.  But anyhow, she was gone a lot and after Dad died she didn’t want me by myself. So Aunt Mary came to live with us. She wasn’t crazy about me wanting to join the Navy.”

 

“Oh, why not? I can’t image you doing anything else.”

 

“Well, her father had been navy and then her brother joined up. Both had been killed and she didn’t want to see me doing the same thing. I can’t blame her really but I knew what I wanted.”

 

“At fourteen?”

 

“Yeah. I just…knew. You know what I mean?”

 

Jamie nodded. “I do actually. You said your mother was a designer? I thought you told me she was a photographer.”

 

“She is. When I was a junior in high school she went back and got her degree in photojournalism. She loves it. She gets to travel and see new things. Sometimes she can’t make it home for the holidays thought. She’s out of touch for weeks on really long shoots. One time she spent six months in Argentina, without a phone or even electricity. Loved every minute of it.”

 

Jamie was picking up a lot of information and he only needed to nudge here and there. He saw another opening and nudged a little more. “So that’s how you ended up going with Chip’s family for the holidays?”

 

Lee turned and grinned. “Yeah. I had no idea what it was like to have a big family. I mean, I’ve got a few aunts and some cousins, but they’re in other parts of the country and we never got together for the holidays. Aunt Mary would cook a dinner and the three of us would eat but once Mom started doing photography, she was gone more. My plebe year, she was home for Thanksgiving and I got to spend the weekend with her at home but she was going to leave the first of December for this long shoot in Russia, in the Ural Mountains. She wouldn’t be home for months. At first I was just going to stay at the academy, but my roommate had a freaking fit. Told me his mom would beat him senseless if I didn’t come home with him. I told Mom about the invite and she wired me the money for Christmas gifts. So that’s how I ended up with Chip’s family for the Christmas break.”

 

“Must have been a shock. Chip’s got a pretty good sized family.”

 

“That’s being kind. Culture shock, that’s what it was.” Lee paused, remembering that first trip with his new friend. “There were his parents and his four sisters. There was an aunt on his mom’s side. She and Chip’s mom are twins actually. That was weird. But his aunt and her husband and their three kids, an uncle on his dad’s side, his wife and their son, some other cousins that I’m not sure where they came from. All totaled there was about twenty people there for Christmas. But they made me feel at home. Included me in everything.”

 

The two walked on a little further. Jamie understood more of the depth of Lee and Chip’s friendship. Chip gave Lee something more of a family when Lee didn’t have much of one. He could understand the impact that would have on a young man like Lee.

The trail they took guided them along the edge of a noisy little creek. Jamie assumed that it ran into the lake. The path carried them above the creek for a long stretch. Lee didn’t seem to be in a hurry and kept his pace slow and steady. Jamie was grateful. He would have to remind Lee that his ribs might not be up to a rigorous hike.  In fact, if Jamie didn’t know any better, he would say Lee was getting tired.

 

“You want to stop for a bit? I’m not quite an active a person as you are,” Jamie said cleverly.

 

Lee turned and grinned. “You jog the beach as much as me and Chip,” he said.

 

“I make two laps. You and Chip make, what? Five?”

 

“Gonna have to get you out more.” With that Lee found a fallen log and settled himself down on it. Jamie spotted a medium sized boulder and he settled against it. The exercise was good for him now but he’d be sore later! He watched Lee, noting the furrow between his eyes.

 

“Skipper?” he asked softly.

 

Lee grinned sheepishly. “Just thinking. Or trying to think. I don’t understand how I can forget something so important.”

 

“Do you know it’s important? Maybe nothing at all happened and you’re worrying for nothing,” Jamie suggested.

 

“No,” Lee corrected. “Carver came out of nowhere…they’d beaten him nearly to death. He died in my arms. He had to have said something to me. He knew he was dying, I could see it in his eyes. He had to have said something.”

 

“Lee? Did you just now make that connection? You didn’t mention it yesterday.”

 

Lee was staring at something only he could see. “It’s something…I think I just now realized.” The forest around him spun maddeningly. Jamie seemed like a pin point in his vision as the daylight faded and Lee found himself standing in the empty once-gravel parking lot. “Too late. Listen…I hid…” Carver gasped, started coughing, spitting up blood as he clung to Lee, as if his grip on Crane was the only thing keeping him alive. “There’s a list,” he hacked out between the coughs and the blood…

 

“LEE!” A voice shouting his name rocked Lee back to the present. Jamie had him by the shoulders, deep concern in his blue eyes. He focused on the doctor, the feel of his fingers on his shoulders, the breeze in the trees, birds overheard, anything to anchor him to the present. “Are you back?” Jamie finally asked with a touch of humor.

 

“I hope so,” Lee replied. “Carver was trying to tell me something. He had the card and he hid it.”

 

Jamie let go and returned to his rock, settled back in. “So what is this card? Where did he hide it?”

 

Lee looked down. “I don’t know…I can’t remember that…” He brought his head back up, but he didn’t meet Jamie’s gaze. It was as if Lee were embarrassed that he couldn’t remember, afraid to see the disappointment in Jamie’s eyes. Not that there was any.

 

“Skipper,” Jamie found Lee responded better when he used the informal title. “You keep thinking this is due to some weakness on your part. It’s not. It’s just something…you were in the wrong place at the wrong time. It could happen to anyone. Both Chip and Nelson experienced episodes like this.”

 

Lee balled his fists, fighting back a sudden surge of anger. “And Chip never remembered what happened to him in Peru. The admiral regained his memory after a few days. Where do I fit into this?”

 

“Easy, Lee. Slow down and don’t take this so personally. Your memory isn’t doing this to you on purpose. It’s trying to protect you. Don’t work so hard at it and it will come back to you.” Jamie evaluated what he saw, Lee’s staring eyes, the way he was trying to hide the tremor in his hands… “ Maybe we should walk back to the cabin.”

 

Lee got to his feet, jamming his hands into the pocket of his jeans. He wasn’t going to let these flashes or whatever they were called disable him. “The trail circles around the lake. We’re about a quarter of the way around at this point. I wanted to show you the waterfall.”

 

“Alright then. Lead on,” Jamie invited. Jamie understood. Lee didn’t want to let this control him. Lee started back up the trail, moving carefully. Jamie wondered if he was in any kind of pain. Knowing Lee, he would never admit to any. He was a bit startled when Lee started talking again.

 

“So, what about your family?”

 

“Me?”

 

“Well, I’m not talking to myself. You never mention your family.”

 

Jamie blinked. “My parents are long gone. I do have a sister though.”

 

“Really?”

 

“Lives in Washington State. Married, with two kids, so I guess I’m an uncle.”

 

Lee grinned. Jamie could hear it in his voice. “Yeah, that’s how that happens. You’ll have to invite them down. I’d like to meet them.”

 

Jamie found himself thinking it would be nice to have them come to visit. It had been a few years since he saw his niece and nephew. “I might do that sometime.”

 

“Ever been married?”

 

Such an innocent question and one that Jamie didn’t want to answer. “Not anymore,” he said absently, not really thinking about what he was saying. There was something sad in Jamie’s tone that made Lee stop and turn. The doctor had stopped walking and was staring at his hands.

 

“Jamie?” Lee asked, concerned.

 

Jamie looked up. “What? Oh. Sorry. I was thinking.”

 

“About what?”

 

The older man blinked. He didn’t want to talk about it. Not that he didn’t think Lee would understand—he just wasn’t ready to talk about it. After ten years, when would he be able to talk about it?  “Nothing,” he finally said.

 

Lee didn’t push. He recognized he’d touched a nerve but he didn’t understand what. Had Jamie been divorced? Had it been ugly, like Chip’s? Or was there something more that Jamie didn’t want to talk about?

 

“You mentioned a waterfall?” Jamie reminded him.

 

Lee knew a diversion when he heard one. He didn’t fight it, just nodded and gestured. “A couple more yards. You’ll hear it. It’s not very big but it is pretty.” Lee led the way up the path, his mind still on Jamie’s evasive answer. It dawned on Lee that perhaps he wasn’t the only one with a few secrets.

 

~<<>>~

 

The walk back to the cabin went well as Jamie and Lee exchanged a few more short stories. Jamie was talking about being stationed onboard the USNS Mercy when they rounded the bend and saw the cabin on the rise above the lake. The blond head of the exec was attached to a body that was stretched out on a chair and looking extremely comfortable.

 

Jamie snorted. “I wonder how close we can get before he wakes up.”

 

“Not very,” Lee replied as Chip lifted his head and saw the duo coming up the path. Morton stood and stretched, grinning as they came closer.

 

“I was thinking you got lost or something.”

 

“Sure. I saw you ‘thinking’. What were you thinking about, red-headed archaeologists?” Lee couldn’t help but tease his friend about the marine archaeologist they rescued a few months back. Chip had admitted that when he first seen her, he’d had the most incredible feeling like he knew her. She reminded him of something but he couldn’t figure what. When Lee suggested that maybe she’d triggered a memory from his time in Peru, it started a mild obsession on Morton’s part to find out if she’d ever been to Peru but so far he’d never acted on the impulse. He must have hit a nerve when Chip’s neck up to his ears turned beet red.

 

“At least it’s not a submarine,” Chip muttered as Lee and Jamie climbed the steps.

 

“Why don’t the two of you date more often? I never hear you talk about anyone for any length of time,” Jamie asked innocently. He walked into the kitchen, grabbed two bottled waters from the fridge and made his way back outside.

 

Lee was perched on the banister and accepted the bottle from Jamie with a soft ‘thank you’. Chip was back in his chair with his feet on the banister again. “You can ask that, knowing how many times you have to stitch us up?”

 

Jamie shrugged. “Just seemed like at this point you’d have somebody…serious? Chip especially, since he comes from such a big family.”

 

Chip blinked. “Tried that once. Didn’t work out so well.”

 

“Does that mean you just give up?” Jamie queried. He knew for a fact Chip dated very little these days. It was the lament of the secretary pool.  

 

“She cheated on me. It’s kind of hard to get passed that,” Chip said with a stubborn tilt to his chin.

 

Jamie shook his head. “Lee, what about you?”

 

Lee stared at the water bottle. “It’s enough that I worry you and the admiral. I can’t imagine putting someone else through that. Maybe later. But she’d have to understand. I’m not ‘broken’. I don’t need ‘fixing’. This…” Lee spread out his arms and looked himself up and down, “…is what I am. It would have to be someone who can accept me as is.”

 

Jamie smiled. “It’s nice to find that person you connect with.”

 

Chip and Lee glanced at each other. Chip had that mischievous glow to his eyes and Lee frowned. He shook his head once and the blond mirrored the frown, clearly not understanding. Lee’s eyes narrowed. Able to almost read each other’s minds, Chip nodded once but the look in his eyes made it clear he wanted an explanation. In turn Lee nodded.

 

If Jamie noticed the exchange he did not acknowledge it. “Lee, tell Chip what you remembered.”

 

Chip brightened. “Lee?” he pressed.

 

The brunet looked down. “It wasn’t much.”

 

“Lee, anything is an improvement,” Chip said gently.

 

Lee took a deep breath. “I know Carter tried to tell me something before he died.”

 

Chip’s eyebrows went vertical. “You know that for certain?”

 

“He…came out of nowhere. I don’t know where. I guess the motel. Damn, why didn’t I think to search that motel, I might have been able to save him…” Lee frowned.

 

“And they might have beaten you to death as well if you’d turned up sooner than you did,” Chip added.

 

Lee folded his hands in his lap. “Maybe. But Carver, he must have known he was dying. I…” his eyes clouded as he focused on the memories he had of that night. “I told him I’d get him out of there and he said it was too late. He knew. He said…he said he had a card and he’d hidden it.”

 

Chip waited, afraid to push. “Did he tell you where he hid it?”

 

“I don’t know! I’m no better off now than when I got here. How do you deal with this, knowing there is something there and you can’t reach it?” Lee demanded as he slid off the banister and stalked into the cabin.

 

Jamie straightened but Chip stopped him. “Let him go. He’s frustrated and he’ll only see us as coddling him if one of us follows. Give him some space.”

 

Jamie resettled himself. “I don’t like how he’s obsessing over this.”

 

“Jamie, have you ever woke up one morning and not remembered the night before?”

 

The doctor smiled. “Once, when I turned twenty-one.”

 

Chip shook his head but returned the smile. “Not like that. There’s an element I can’t describe, the feeling that something’s going to come back and hunt you down. You don’t know. That’s the scary part. You don’t know and no one can answer that. The answers are inside but they won’t come out. Lee doesn’t react well to things he doesn’t know and can’t understand.”

 

“You can say that again,” the older man agreed. He peered curiously at the blond. “You never regained any of those memories from Peru. You didn’t obsess near as much as Lee is now.”

 

Chip shrugged. “It bothered me for a while. I knew I was somewhere. I knew I interacted with someone. But as time moved on and no one stepped forward to explain what had happened, I gradually accepted that it didn’t matter. I was alive, I was in one piece, and that’s all that mattered. I wanted to get my life back and I couldn’t do that by moping around, wishing I could remember what happened to me.”

 

“And Lee? He’s not the type to sit back, sigh, and say ‘oh well’.”

 

Chip grinned. “No, he’s not. He’ll remember. I know Lee.”

 

~<<>>~

 

“Admiral,” Angie’s voice had that tone to it and Nelson knew even before answering what the issue was. Gently he pressed the receive button.

 

“Go ahead and transfer him, Angie.”

 

Nelson could see his office assistant smiling as she acknowledged the order with a calm ‘yes, sir’. Nelson waited a few seconds longer, letting the old goat stew before answering the phone. He readied himself for another battle and hit the speakerphone button. “Good morning, Chester. Did you sleep well?”

 

The voice on the other end of the phone didn’t sound happy. “Damn it, Harry! I ever tell you you’ve got a twisted sense of humor?”

 

“You have now.”

 

“If I had a damn direct line to your office I wouldn’t have to dance around that secretary of yours.”

 

“I’ll have you know that my office assistant is doing a fine job.” Nelson made a point of gently correcting Angie’s job title. The offhanded snort told him that Radcliff heard the correction and wasn’t impressed. Nelson didn’t care.

 

“Cut the hogwash. What have you got for me this morning?”

 

Nelson grinned. Chester was almost as fun to bait as Jiggs! “Not much. The morning paper, but I doubt you’d be interested in the news here in Santa Barbara.”

 

“Harry,” came a low growl. Nelson wasn’t impressed. Jiggs sounded worse when he was in a good mood!

 

“The newest numbers on a sea lion population count came in. And the research parameters for a very interesting Great White project came in this morning. Very interesting reading.”

 

“Nelson, if I have to spell it out for you…”

 

The auburn-haired admiral couldn’t wipe the smile from his face. “Slow down there, Chester. Better stick to small words. Don’t want to over tax yourself this early in the morning.”

 

“Nelson, I’m only going to ask one time…”

 

“That a promise?” Nelson interjected with undisguised glee.

 

“Where’s Crane?”

 

“Still indisposed and still under doctor’s orders.”

 

 “Indisposed. Humph! What the hell does that mean?”

 

“Means the same as incommunicado. We covered that yesterday, I believe. I do have something for you to look into though.”

 

Radcliff’s growl was almost comical. “About damn time.”

 

Nelson ignored him and plowed on. “I was reading the file you faxed over. This Ahmed Jaheen you’re following, would he be Muslim?”

 

“We think so. Before he was sent to prison Jaheen had been tied to Hezbollah. Since his release he seems to have switched alliances, joining up with another group that had previously been connected to General Gamal before his death. Carver was looking into that, trying to find out if they had a foot hold in the US or not.”

 

“So have you bothered to cross check events in the near future that someone with Jaheen's background might have opposition to? That might narrow your field.”

 

There was silence on the other end of the phone. “I can’t believe no one has cross checked that yet. Harry, you old goat, you might be onto something. You keep on Crane and I’ll check into this lead.” Without so much as a thank you, Radcliff hung up, leaving Nelson smirking and amused.

 

“Old goat indeed,” he muttered as he refocused on the reports in front of him. He hadn’t been lying to Radcliff, the great white research project he was looking at was fascinating and something he was seriously considering following up on. “Goats happen to be quite intelligent,” he continued to rumble, still grinning.

 

The phone rang and for a second he thought it was Radcliff again but the tone indicated an outside call. He recognized Chip’s number. He picked up the receiver. “Nelson.”

 

“Sir, I thought you’d want to know, Lee might have remembered something,” Chip said, almost in a rush.

 

“What?”

 

“He knows Carver was trying to tell him something. He admitted to Lee he had a card and he hid it. However, Lee doesn’t yet recall if Carver told him where.”

 

Nelson drummed his fingers. “Not much to go on, lad.”

 

“I know sir. But it’s more than we had yesterday. Lee might be on the verge of remembering more. We’re trying not to push. He’s doing enough of that on his own.”

 

Nelson sighed. “Is he around?”

 

“He and Jamie took a hike earlier. He’s in the shower now.”

 

“Might he be receptive to a phone call later in the day? I have some news for him I’d like to share that might make him feel better.”

 

“Sir, I’m sure he’d love to chat with you. Jamie wants to check his stitches in a bit and I’m not sure what else he’ll be doing. Resting, if Jamie has his way.”

 

Nelson snorted. “A pastime I agree with. Thank you for the update. I have a small something to toss back to Radcliff.”

 

“Just trying to help, sir.”

 

“Keep doing what you’re doing. I’d like to talk to Jamie tonight, when you all settle down.”

 

“Yes sir. I’ll pass that along.”

 

The two rang off and Nelson continued to sit at this desk. “So what does this card look like? If I was Carver and I suspected I was being followed, where would I hide it?”

 

~<<>>~

 

Shadows were growing longer in the lengthening evening light and the three friends were visiting amiably on the deck once more. Jamie was acting chef this evening and Chip was justifiably impressed. 

 

“Jamie,” he started, talking around a mouthful of his second burger, “I did not know you could cook.”

 

Jamie just grinned and leaned back into the chair. He had eaten his fill and was simply content to let things digest. “I can’t take much of the credit. The burgers were already made up. I just concocted the sauce.”

 

Lee eyed the remaining hot dog still on his plate. “Was this thing safe to eat?” he asked, having already eaten one burger and one hot dog.

 

Jamie continued to grin. “We’ll know in another half an hour, won’t we?”

 

That remark got him a pair of napkins tossed in his direction. Laughing softly, the doctor was enjoying himself, and he especially enjoyed watching how Lee and Chip interacted with each other off the boat. This wasn’t something he was likely to see very often and he knew it. “What’s on for tomorrow?” he asked to chance the topic.

 

It was Chip’s turn to grin. “Who knows? Tomorrow hasn’t got here yet.”

 

Lee focused on his friend. “For someone who claims they like to plan, you’re real agreeable to doing nothing.”

 

“That’s how I am; adaptable. Able to adjust to the changing situation and make the most of it,” Chip answered.

 

“Well, I’m heading for the shower. Need any help with the dishes?” Jamie asked as he stood.

 

Lee shook his head. “Nope. Standing rule: he who cooks does not do dishes. Go on. Chip and I have this under control.”

 

“I’ll have to remember to cook more often then,” Jamie retorted as he vanished into the cabin. Neither Lee nor Chip moved for a long breath, Lee bracing his elbows on the table as he rested his chin on his folded hands.

 

“What?” Chip asked gently. Lee’s eyes flicked over to him, uncertainly swirling in their depths.

 

“I was remembering about Gamal.”

 

“Good grief, Lee. Why on earth would you want to remember him? Sadistic doesn’t even come close. And Amadi! Patterson wanted to shoot him so bad. As close as he got was the chance to slug him. I can’t say I blamed him. Even the admiral wanted to throttle him when we found out you’d been captured. I’d never seen him so mad.”

 

“For some reason that’s been on my mind the last few days. I keep finding myself in Gamal’s headquarters, being be…questioned.” Lee almost said ‘beaten’ but he couldn’t bring himself to say the words.

 

Chip snorted. “Well, remember something else. You want to remember something then remember Luana. She’s worth remembering. And I get a lot of satisfaction out of knowing that Amadi’s rotting away in some prison. More than he deserves.”

 

Lee frowned. “Something about that…” The frown turned into a scowl and he closed his eyes, fists clenched tight. It was like trying to reach something on a high shelf, something that was just out of reach.

 

“Lee?” Chip sounded concerned and Lee opened his eyes.

 

“Sorry. I just…I felt like there was something important there.”

 

“If it was something important, you’ll eventually remember it. Pushing yourself is counterproductive.  Lee, earlier—did I miss something about Jamie?”

 

Lee shrugged. “He said something odd while we were out there and he wouldn’t say anything more. He acted like he shouldn’t have said as much as he did. We were talking about families and I asked him if he’d been married. He said not anymore. It was just weird. He was almost—detached. I’ve seen that reaction in people before.”

 

Chip’s brows furrowed in concern. “Lee, his record says he’s single. Nothing about being widowed or divorced or anything like that. You think he’s lying about something?”

 

“I dunno. I don’t know why he would lie about being married. It wouldn’t have changed anything. The admiral wanted him for his abilities, whether or not he was married had no bearing.”

 

“You want me to look into it?”

 

“No. If Jamie wanted us to know he’d tell us. I don’t want him to think we’re digging into his past and he didn’t want us to.”

 

Again, both men were silent. Chip was thinking back to the mission Lee had mentioned, wondering why the hell he was remembering that. Chip certainly didn’t want to remember it. Lee was a mess when he got back, contusions and abrasions, a concussion and several cracked ribs. Gamal must have used him as a punching bag and it made Chip sick to remember. Lee was so exhausted when they got back to the boat he’d hardly been able to stand. Luana had been very helpful in getting him to settle down until Jamie could get to him. He didn’t realize Lee was calling his name until he felt the touch of Lee’s hand on his arm. He looked up, seeing the worry in Lee’s eyes, directed at him now. “Sorry.”

 

“Where did you go?”

 

“Just remembering the shape you were in when you got back. Amadi sold you out and you could have been killed.”

 

“You said yourself he’s in some prison.”

 

“Doesn’t seem like enough.”

 

“You always were the protective type. We need to get you a woman so you’ll have someone who actually needs protecting." The last was added with a grin. “Come on. Help me get this cleaned up and you can call the admiral for an update.”

 

“He wants to talk with you.” The expression in Lee’s eyes was clear. It wasn’t fear exactly. There was very little that Lee feared. More like trepidation, a weariness that maybe the admiral was tired of waiting for answers.

“Relax, Lee,” Chip reassured his friend. “He just wants to hear from you how you’re doing. You’re not in any kind of trouble and he hasn’t changed his mind.”

 

Lee sighed as he stood up and gathered plates. “I can’t help but think he’s getting impatient with me.”

 

“Why?” Chip questioned. “This isn’t your fault. Radcliff is the one who needs his six kicked up between his ears for leaving you hanging like that.”

 

“I guess maybe I keep expecting him to need someone to yell at. I’m a safe target sometimes because he knows I’ll dish it right back.”

 

“Oh, the admiral has the perfect outlet for yelling: Admiral Radcliff.”

 

But Lee was staring ahead, his eyes wide yet unseeing. Without realizing it, he lost his grip on the stack of plates and they fell out of his hands, crashing to the floor and shattering into a million pieces.

 

Chip, focused on another task, jumped and spun around at the sound. “What the hell?” he breathed as he spotted Lee. The brunet was rigid and unresponsive. Chip moved toward him, taking a hold of Lee’s arm. “Lee? Buddy, talk to me,” the blond urged. But Lee didn’t even blink. Carefully guiding his friend inside, Chip got him settled in the living room. “JAMIE!” he yelled, afraid to abandon Lee, even for a few seconds.

 

Heavy footsteps in the hall heralded the doctor’s arrival. He carried his doctor’s bag with him and he dropped it to the floor by the couch Lee was woodenly perched on. Crouching in front of the younger man, Jamie snapped his fingers twice at Lee’s eye level, hoping to force the young man’s attention to shift.

 

Outlet.

 

Outlet.

 

“…in the blue outlet ….” Carver’s dead eyes staring up at him…

 

Fighting against the pain enveloping his entire body and the nausea ballooning in his gut, Lee struggled to free himself. The trunk slammed shut with the finality of a coffin lid, sealing his fate. He writhed in the darkness, trying desperately to work free of the imprisoning tape. He felt the car start up again and the forward motion as it slowly dove off.

 

Carver’s voice, the death rattle in the back of his throat… “in the blue outlet…”

 

He tried to keep the panic at bay but he knew that Admiral Radcliff was the only one who knew where he was at. Radcliff wasn’t expecting a report until the morning.

Until Radcliff starting looking for that report, no one would have any idea what had happened to him. And now no one would know where he was being taken. No one could hear him, no one could see him, trapped in the back of the car… dark shadows seemed to be lurking just out of the corner of his eye and something was whispering in the blackness. “…in the blue outlet…Le…Leeee…Leeeeeeee…”

 

Slowly Lee’s eyes focused on the doctor. “Lee? You ready to come back to us? Lee?” Jamie was talking softly, his eyes focused on the younger man’s. The brunet blinked and his senses slowly came back on line.

 

“Jamie?” he asked softly, not truly trusting his own voice. He looked up to see Chip hovering behind the doctor. “Chip, what happened?”

 

“You checked out on me, that’s what happened.” The worry in the blond’s voice was unmistakable.

 

“I…I remember something Carver said. The blue outlet.” Lee glanced from Chip to Jamie but neither seemed to understand what it meant. He didn’t want to mention the rest of it, the panic that no one knew where he was, the thought that no one would be able to find him…it was childish, yet it haunted him and would not let him go.

 

“Outlet? Lee, that’s clear as mud,” Chip grumbled.

 

“I know, but that’s what he said. I swear.”

 

“Lee, no one doubts you,” Jamie urged. Lee shook his head and closed his eyes again, chasing down the thought, trying to corral it. It strayed just out of his grasp, like trying to grab a fish in a bowl, frustrating him further.

 

“Blue outlet? What kind of outlet?” Chip questioned.

 

“I don’t know,” Lee growled. A slow ache had been building up between his eyes and now it morphed into a steady pounding. A full-blown migraine was coming on, turning Lee queasy with nausea and stealing away his concentration. Absently he rubbed at his forehead and immediately Jamie pounced on him.

 

“Headache, Lee?”

 

At first he was going to deny it, but even as the thought crossed his mind he realized this was shaping up to be a doozy. “A little one,” he admitted and Jamie grinned.

 

“They’re common with flashbacks. Maybe you should go lay down? Turn off all the lights and close your eyes. The dark will be good for you.”

 

Lee scowled. “What would be good for me would be to remember what happened to me. What kind of card did Carver have? And why didn’t they just kill me then and get it over with?” Lee vented his frustrations, getting to his feet and pacing the living room. Halfway on his first pass he stopped and grabbed the back of the couch. Jamie was the closest and he steadied the younger man with a hand on his elbow.

 

“Slow down, skipper.” Jamie’s admonishment was gentle as Lee’s fingers gripped the material of the couch as he rode out the wave of dizziness. “It’s alright. It’s common. Come on. I’ll walk you to your room. Chip will never let you live it down if you pass out between here and there,” Jamie suggested.

 

“He’s just looking for something to pick on me about anyhow,” Lee grumbled as he let the doctor guide him upstairs.

 

Jamie kept a hand on Lee’s arm, giving him something solid to home in on. The brunet was quiet as the doctor guided him down the hall to his room. “Skipper?” Jamie asked softly, using his familiar title.

 

“I’m fine,” came Lee’s automatic answer. Jamie herded the unresisting man toward the bed and settled him down in the edge. Lee’s eyes were still unfocused and dilated.

 

“Lee, you’re not fine. You’re bordering on shock. You remembered something more than Carver saying something about a blue outlet.” For a long breath Lee kept his eyes lowered, unable or unwilling to meet the doctor’s gaze. His hands twitched and the fingers of his right sought out the left and in agitation he began twisting the black onyx ring he wore, around and around his finger. Very gently Jamie dropped his hand over Lee’s, calling a halt to the incessant twisting. “Skipper, talk to me.”

 

Lee took a deep shuttering breath. “They tied me up and locked me in the truck of a car. I was trapped in the dark, I couldn’t get free, and no one knew where I was. No one would know where they were taking me. I couldn’t scream for help. Do you have any idea what it’s like to be that helpless and know that you’re alone?” Lee’s words were barely a whisper.

 

Jamie understood what it cost Lee to admit that much. He hated anything he couldn’t control and to be in that situation must have been…beyond terrifying. “No. I’ve never been caught up in anything like that. But you have to remember something: you’re not alone now. You have Chip and you have me and, while he’s not here, you have the admiral. You are not alone. You don’t have to go through this alone.”

 

“I’m not good at asking for help,” Lee softly admitted.

 

“We know that. That’s why we’re here.” Jamie watched the words impact the young man. He finally glanced up, giving Jamie that shy, under-the-lashes-look.

 

“It doesn’t bother you, knowing that…” Lee’s words trailed off as he tried to find the words and came up short.

 

“Knowing that you’re human, that you have the same fears as the rest of us mortals?” Jamie smiled as he managed to pull a weak grin from Lee. “No, Skipper. We don’t mind at all. Now why don’t you lay back, let me give you something for that headache, and you get some rest.” Jamie was surprised when Lee didn’t argue.

 

“I’d like a shower,” he said.

 

“Then get a quick shower and I’ll be back with something for your head,” the doctor instructed. He took a step back and watched as Lee, only slightly unsteadily, stood and made for the small bath. The door closed and Jamie waited, listening. He could hear the water come on, the pause as the shower engaged. He figured Lee wouldn’t linger so he stepped out and made the quick trip back to his room for the bottle with the medication he’d given Lee the last night and the glass from his bathroom. He came back to Lee’s room, the smell of soap now thick in the air. He settled down in a chair and waited.

 

A few minutes later Lee came out, a towel around his waist, his hair curled and disheveled. He dug around in the dresser and came up with some clean clothes and vanished back into the steamy bathroom. A few minutes later the bathroom went dark and Lee came back, dressed in pajama bottoms. Silently Jamie held out two small white pills and Lee accepted them just as silently, washing them back with the offered glass of water.

 

Lee settled back down on the bed. “Are they gonna knock me out like they did last night?” he asked with a grin.

 

“They will relax you. The rest is your body saying slow down. You don’t give yourself enough time to heal. I’d be a lot happier if you’d listen to me this once.”

 

Lee sighed. “I’ll try.”

 

Jamie laughed. “I’ll accept that. Go to sleep, Skipper. We’ll all be here in the morning.”

 

The brunet pulled the covers over him and Jamie killed the lights as he walked out, pulling the door shut as did. He paused at the door, listening, but he didn’t hear anything further. Lee might actually be willing to listen to him, even if it was just this once. Not bothering to hide the smile, Jamie headed downstairs. He found the blond half of the command duo sitting in a chair with an unreadable expression on his face. “Chip?”

 

Morton’s blue eyes shifted from staring into nothing to focus on Jamie. “I’m missing something. I know I am.”

 

“Chip, as much as you want to think so, you can’t help Lee with everything. You just can’t.”

 

“No,” Chip shook his head, “It’s not that. Lee admitted that for the last couple of days he’d been thinking about Gamal. Damn, Jamie. You know what kind of shape he was in when he came back. Gamal was just sadistic, that’s the only word for it. I don’t like how he’s connecting this incident with that twisted SOB.”

 

Jamie perched on the couch arm. “Something about whatever happened to Lee reminds him subconsciously of that encounter. Don’t you run into things that remind you of Peru?”

 

For a second Chip stopped breathing. Serena Harrison, with her red hair and jade green eyes…something about her…but he wasn’t going to mention it to Jamie. Instead he shook his head. “Nothing to this extent. I’m going to mention it to the admiral. Maybe he can see something I’m missing. How’s Lee?”

 

“Resting. Wonder of wonders, I convinced him to let me give him something to take the edge off the headache. It’s a little easier now that I think I understand why he dislikes drugs and hospitals. Which is more than I can say for some people.” The opening was clear but Chip didn’t take the bait. Acting as if he hadn’t even heard the remark Morton got out of the chair and headed for the kitchen.

 

“I need to call the admiral and let him know what Lee said. I’ll get the kitchen cleaned up. If you wanted to turn in, go ahead. I’ll take a shower when I get done in here.”

 

Jamie shook his head. Some things would remain a mystery a little longer, he guessed. He debated offering to help in the kitchen but Chip acted like he needed some space. Jamie sighed. He’d give Chip what he wanted right now. There was something the blond was hiding, something that dated back to the undecipherable reaction he’d witnessed on Seaview’s deck the day Dr. Harrison was brought aboard after that cave-in, but Jamie couldn’t guess what it might be. Chip certainly wasn’t willing to open up just yet. Some days Jamie wondered who was the more stubborn, Lee and Chip for refusing to accept help, or himself for refusing to give up. Jamie was determined he’d eventually ferret out what was bothering the blond. Just maybe not today.

 

~<<>>~

 

“Chip, that doesn’t make any sense.” Nelson’s statement was as sour as a bad lemon.

 

“I know, sir. But Lee’s certain. Carver said ‘in the blue outlet’. That’s all Lee can remember.”

 

Nelson wanted to growl but growling at Chip wouldn’t solve anything. “How is Lee?”

 

“Frustrated and fighting a monster headache, not that he would admit to it. He had another flashback.”

 

“I see. He’s coping?”

 

“Not as well as Jamie or I would like. He’s just so focused he won’t slow down, and getting him to listen...well, you know Lee. Jamie did get him to lie down and rest though.”

 

Nelson grunted. “Probably for the best. I don’t know how that’s going to be helpful but I’ll pass that on to Radcliff. He’s due to call for his nightly tirade.”

 

“Sir, there’s something else. Lee’s remembering being captured by Gamal.”

 

Nelson didn’t even try to moderate his disapproving grumble. “What the hell for?”

 

“I don’t know sir. It just seemed odd that he’d remember that after all this time so close to this most recent mess.”

 

“Chip,” Nelson rumbled, “in the years I’ve known you I’ve come to depend on your instincts. You think the two are connected? How?”

 

Chip’s voice was hesitant. “I don’t know. It just seemed odd that he should remember that incident in connection with this one. ONI was investigating a man with an Arab-sounding name. Maybe it was just coincidence.”

 

“Maybe not. Radcliff admitted that Jaheen has ties to a group that was previously connected to Gamal. With the advent of the new government in that country they could be up to something. Lee might have uncovered that something.”

 

“But until he remembers, it’s only conjecture on our part.”

 

“I’m afraid so, lad.”

 

“Sir, if Carver was dying and Lee remembers that Carver told him he had a card and he hid it, could this blue outlet be where he hid it?”

 

“Anything is possible. It makes sense though. I’ll throw the theory to Radcliff and see if he has any other ideas. You get some rest. You sound tired.”

 

“Lee’s not the easiest to deal with when he’s like this. Took a while to get him calmed down when he realized he was remembering a few things.”

 

“I assume the good doctor had something to do with that?” Nelson asked with a smirk.

Nelson could hear the smile in Chip’s voice as the young man answered.

 

“Something like that, sir.”

 

“Well,” Nelson could only shake his head. “Get some rest. I’ll handle Radcliff. I’ll let you know if the idea leads to anything.”

 

Nelson hung up and picked up a pencil, idly twirling it in his fingers as he thought about things. Blue outlet? That didn’t make sense. The first thing he thought of was an electrical outlet. But that didn’t make any kind of sense at all.

 

What sort of chance would he have if he went down there and looked for himself? The worst that could happen would be he’d come back empty handed.

 

~<<>>~

 

Something had him—some monster—its tentacles were wrapping around him, tightening their grip and slowly dragging him downward, into the darkness, into the cold. He clawed and dug but he couldn’t get purchase on anything as he was pulled downward. He struggled to breath but the creature tightened around him, pinning his arms to his sides, constricting his airway…down and down, a shimmering curtain of bubbles rising overhead as the light above him started to fade away…

Without warning a hand extended into the light, dispelling the blackness, taking a hold of him and bringing him up to the surface, to the light and into life…

 

With a gasp and a jolt Lee was awake, clawing at the blankets as if fighting with something. Breathing heavily he sat up, puzzled at the figure who was crouched by the bed. “Jamie?”

 

“Awake now?” the doctor asked. In the dim light of the room Lee could see his blue eyes furrowed with worry. He was in his pajamas, looking like he’d just gotten out of bed. Had Jamie heard him? Was he going to wake the whole house every time he had a nightmare?

 

“Maybe,” Lee muttered, his voice still thick with sleep and the memory of the dream, now fading fast.

 

Jamie eased down on the edge of the bed. “Wanna talk about it?”

 

No he didn’t want to talk about it. He wanted to ignore it and move on, forget it and hope he didn’t have the damn dream again. Except by now he knew that wasn’t going to happen. Something about being trapped underwater. Something had him and was dragging him further and further down into the water. He’d had that damn dream every night since he’d come to in Med Bay. He glanced down at his hands, noticing they were still clutching the blankets. With a supreme bit of willpower he forced himself to let go. He dragged the fingers of one hand through his dark curls, remembering that he wasn’t alone, he didn’t have to do this by himself. “I don’t know why I seem to have these nightmares,” he said softly.

 

“Because you’re the type of person who doesn’t communicate feelings very well. You bottle them up, ignore them, hope they go away and this is how they manifest themselves. The human mind is an amazing thing,” the doctor said gently.

 

“Then why won’t it let me remember?”

 

Jamie sighed. “I don’t know, Lee. You took a lot of damage. I can only guess by your injuries what you went through. The mind protects itself from what it can’t deal with and at the moment it doesn’t want to face what happened. In time it may come back.”

 

“Chip’s didn’t. He still can’t recall what happened to him in Peru. What if the same thing happens to me? What if I can’t do my job without blanking out something important?”

 

“Skipper,” Jamie once again fell back on the familiar term, “Chip had massive injuries I can only guess at and who knows what kinds of infections. Then he came down with one of the most virulent cases of malaria I’ve ever seen. Hell, I’d want to forget that, too. You’re trying too hard.”

 

“I want to know what happened to me. Why did I come back…with the injuries I had?” Lee could not say he had been beaten. For some reason the words were stuck in his throat and he had to work around it.

 

“I know that. Relax. Give it time. I’ve been reading up on some techniques we can maybe use to relax you. Calm down, it’s not hypnosis,” he added seeing Lee’s look of panic. “I know all about Radcliff’s idea. This is different. If and when you’re ready to talk about it. The harder you try to remember, the further it’s going to slip away from you. So just settle down and relax.”

 

“I hope you’re right.”

 

Jamie grinned. “Just give it some time. Think you’re ready to go back to sleep?”

 

Lee sighed. “I’ll try.”

 

“Good. And Lee? We’re your friends. We’re here to help. We won’t think less of you for whatever you want to open up about.”

 

“I’m fine now,” Lee said and saw Jamie roll his eyes. Lee couldn’t help but smile.

 

“If I had a dollar for every time I heard that,” Jamie said. He got to his feet and headed to the door.

 

“Jamie,” Lee called out before the doctor had left.

 

Jamie stopped with a hand on the doorknob. “Yes?”

 

“Thanks. Usually Chip hears me…”

 

“Don’t worry about it. I just happened to be up. Try to get some rest, okay?”

 

“Sure.” Lee watched as Jamie shut the door behind him. In the still and cool of the dark room, Lee rolled over and pulled the covers over his shoulder, trying to get comfortable again. He wasn’t sure he was going to be able to go back to sleep but he could feel himself relaxing. Jamie was a good friend, more than Lee had ever given him credit for. So much of what he did was more out of friendship than any oath he might have taken.

 

~<<>>~

 

McGregor parked his van off the main road, finding a narrow trail just big enough to allow the van passage. Shielded from view by low hanging limbs and leaves, he shut the engine off and settled in to watch and wait. The cabin sat in a valley below him, partly obscured by pines and cedars. Occasionally he could see movement in and around the cabin but for the most part it was just shadows in front of brightly lit windows.

 

“How long are we gonna sit here?” the figure in the passenger’s seat asked.

 

“Until dark. Wait until they go to sleep. You’ll stay in the van,” McGregor ordered.

 

The second man was toying with a thin stiletto blade. “I still say we both go in.”

 

“Duggins, this is why I am in charge. I’ve done this before. I go in, get what we came for and get out. I’ll let you know if you’re needed. I don’t like putting all my eggs in one basket. Think of yourself as my ace in the hole.”

 

Duggins smiled. In better light a watcher might see that he had a mouth full of broken and rotten teeth and that his nose was slightly crooked. It had been broken recently and was still healing up. “I owe Crane for my damn nose,” he said.

 

“You’ll get you chance at Crane. Just not until I say so. I’ll catch them both when they’re asleep and neither will know what hit them. Be like taking candy from a baby.”

 

“Don’t get carried away like you did with Carver. If you hadn’t killed him we might have gotten that card from him. He was this close to cracking, I could tell.”

 

“You don’t know anything. Carver was stubborn. All noble and shit. We weren’t gonna get anything out of him. He’d already hidden the damn thing. Crane--now, he knows. I can feel it.”

 

“Five thousand for Crane?” Duggins asked, still playing with the blade.

 

“Five for Crane and five for the other. Alive.”

 

“Jaheen’s got a lot of money to throw around.”

 

“My kind of employer. For the kind of money he’s willing to pay, I’m more than happy to play fetch and carry.”

 

The long shadows were slowly lengthening and growing darker, melting into full-fledged night. The lights in the cabin below began to wink out one by one as someone walked through the cabin and switched them off for the night. McGregor checked his watch. Not much longer now.

 

“We’ll wait a little longer. I want everyone all tucked in before I pay them a visit,” McGregor said. Duggins was a good fellow but he was a little over anxious, a little too gung-ho. He needed to calm down a bit. The only reason McGregor brought him along was the offhand chance Crane and Morton might be more than he could handle. He doubted it though. He just liked to have his bases covered.

 

The cabin finally went dark. If there were any lights on, they were on the other side of the cabin where he couldn’t see. He’d move a bit closer but give it a little longer before moving in. They had time.

 

~<<>>~

 

Chip shut the water off and pulled the curtain back, letting loose a bank of steam from the shower. He stepped over the lip of the shower and grabbed for the towel. After drying most of the water from his body, he wrapped the towel around his waist and stepped from the bathroom into the bedroom.

 

It was much cooler there and Chip took a moment to pull the curtain on the large full-length windows. He didn’t want to get up too early. Next he went in search of his clothes, picking out what he needed and changing into pajama bottoms and a tee shirt. He dropped the wet towel over the edge of the sink and went back to the bedroom. He thought about checking on Lee. It was several hours since he’d last seen his friend. Shaking his head, Chip decided against it. Lee needed the rest—he’d chafe if he thought he was ‘being watched’. From his briefcase he pulled his laptop and settled in on the bed.

 

There were several emails waiting for Chip’s attention and he spent the next few minutes reading before he started formulating replies. Time passed quickly as he reviewed several reports and answered questions from departments scheduled for the first stage of the computer and software upgrade. Nothing Chip hadn’t anticipated. He lost himself in the task of reviewing, reading, and creating responses. He had no idea what time it was until an incoming email with its time stamp grabbed his attention. It was well after midnight. Suddenly realizing just how tired he was, Chip decided what was left could wait until tomorrow and began to shut the computer down.

 

He put everything away and began turning off the lights. He was about to settle in when he heard something. He couldn’t identify what it was, just that it was out of place.  He pulled the Sig from the top drawer of the nightstand and glided toward the door.  It might have been just an animal, but better safe than sorry.

 

He found the hallway dark, like he expected. His bare feet made no sound on the floor and he made his way quietly up the hall. That’s when he heard another sound. It definitely did not belong to an animal. Chip paused, all his senses on alert as he crept through the house. He came into the den, gun in both hands, eyes darting through the room as he covered every corner. Something on his right side caught his attention and the something morphed into the figure of a huge man. Chip fired but the man lunged at the last minute and Chip’s shot went wild. The man slammed into Morton, sending him crashing into the wall. He felt fingers in his hair and his head was snapped backward, colliding with the wall one more time. Chip collapsed into a crumpled heap on the floor.

 

~<<>>~

 

A gunshot followed by a crash jerked Lee to his senses and he was on his feet before he registered he was even awake. Something huge smashed through his door and there was no time to react. He struggled, but his assailant more than outweighed him and whatever Jamie had given him made Lee’s reflexes slow and sluggish. He was half dragged, half carried out of the bedroom, and thrown down the hall. He landed on his knees and tried to get his feet under him only to have his body kicked, and then kicked again. His ribs, still healing from the last beating, screamed and protested against the abuse and Lee scrambled to get out of the way. He half fell-half slid down the staircase, barely able to stay on his feet. He made it to the den before he was tackled and thrown to the floor.

 

There was a weight on his back, the sensation of a knee grinding into his spine that was terrifyingly familiar. His right hand was grabbed, yanked behind his back, and he felt something wrapped tightly around his wrist. His left hand was snatched next, binding it to the left. Tape. The memories started to bubble up like spring water. Lee rolled over onto his back to see a huge man standing over him.

 

“Heyla there, Crane. Long time no see,” he said.

 

Lee felt his stomach curdle and for a second he thought he was about to throw up as a million emotions shot through his body and soul. Panic, terror, anger, frustration and pure hatred rushed through him like flood waters. Only then did Lee realize another body was lying on the floor—Chip. He wasn’t moving and he was bound hand and foot and bleeding. Lee could only see the back of his head but the short blond hair was stained red. Lee thought he could see Chip breathing but it was hard to tell. Lee tried to stall for time. “Who are you and what do you want?” he began. He knew it was lame but it was the first thing he could come up with.

 

“Carver had something my boss wants back. A data card. Now. There are two versions to this story. One, that Carver hid the card, told you where it was, and lied to me about it or two, he passed them on to you, and you’re lying to me. You can make this easy on yourself. Where’s that damn card?”

 

Lee fumbled with the tape binding him, trying to get lose. “I told you before; he didn’t say anything to me. He died before he could pass anything on!” he exclaimed. Jamie…Jamie where are you, for God’s sake stay hidden…

 

The huge man wasn’t happy with Lee’s answer. He reached down and grabbed Lee by one arm. Crane bit back a yelp of pain as he was tossed onto the couch.

 

“Wrong answer,” the giant grumbled. He grabbed Lee’s feet and tapped his ankles together, hobbling him. Next he left for the kitchen, coming back with one of the heavy oak kitchen chairs. He sat it down and then grabbed for Chip, dropping him into the chair.

 

Lee squirmed but the tape wouldn’t come lose, just like before. He could only watch as their attacker taped Chip’s ankles together then taped them to one leg of the chair, tethering him. He pushed Chip against the chair back and then taped his bound wrists to the back slats of the chair. Chip slouched forward, held in place by the industrial adhesive. Lee tried not to think about why he was going through all this trouble. The guy tested Morton’s bonds and then tossed the thick roll of tape over to the couch. Next the assailant grabbed a fist full of Morton’s hair and jerked his head backwards.

 

“Wakey, wakey,” he said in a sing song voice. Chip’s eyes flew open and unsteadily bounced around the room, finally coming to rest on Lee, bound on the couch. “Now,” the man addressed Morton, “You tell your buddy over there to give me what I want or I take you apart.” As if to illustrate, he held a long knife in front of Chip’s face.

 

Morton’s blue eyes crossed as he stared at the blade in front of his nose. “Lee, don’t say a word,” he said. His statement earned a punch to the face that rocked the chair backwards on two legs before dropping back to four. The punch did nothing for Chip’s already splitting skull.

 

Lee continued to writhe on the couch. Chip could see the gray tape around his friend’s ankles and assumed that was what bound his wrists. Chip felt his own wrists taped together and he twisted them, trying to pull free. He wanted to keep their attacker’s attention away from Lee. There was also the question of where was Jamie. “How did you find this place?”

 

The giant sneered at Morton. “Not hard. We figured at some point Crane would have to come out of hiding. All we had to do was watch. We spotted him in the car with you, and followed you to the gas station. While you were busy we managed to slip a tracker under the front bumper and abracadabra, here we are,” he said with a flourish.

 

The man who dropped his soda…it rolled under the truck and he went after it. I never paid him any attention…damn. “We? There a mouse in your pocket or something?” Chip asked. He tried not to follow the shadow in the now closed curtains of the den. There was someone outside and Chip was fishing to make sure it wasn’t another bad guy.

 

“Me, and you two of course,” the intruder said.

 

Two…he doesn’t know about Jamie…Jamie had been in the back of the Cherokee and they didn’t see him…“Let him go. You want me, right? He doesn’t know anything,” Lee began, hoping to buy Chip’s freedom. But the look in the big man’s eyes said he wasn’t buying Lee’s story.

 

“What he knows is irrelevant. He’s going to make you talk, unless you want to watch me slice him like a melon?” He held up the knife once more but a sound from the kitchen got his attention. The guy jerked his head toward the noise. He started to move toward the door. “Now you fellas stay right here. Don’t start without me.”

 

~<<>>~

 

Jamie knew he didn’t have much time. He was playing purely on conjecture and he prayed he was right.

 

He’d heard the gunshot and the crash and almost rushed out of his room. He’d made it as far as cracking open his door, just in time to see someone entering Lee’s. Jamie had reacted by closing his door and frantically trying to think. Whoever was out there, they probably weren’t friendly. Given that they had gone into Lee’s room meant that something had happened to Chip.

 

Jamie spied the medical bag he’d dropped in the corner, a glimmer of an idea in his head. These people played dirty…hadn’t he been accused of doing the same thing? Jamie dug into the medical bag, smiling when his hand closed around the object he wanted. He grinned as he pulled an empty 10cc syringe from the bag.

 

Now all he needed was something to put in it. And he had just the thing.

 

~<<>>~

 

Nothing was out of place in the kitchen. Table and chairs, missing the one he had Blondie parked in. No dishes out, nothing on the floor, nothing he saw out of place. Blaming animals outside, McGregor went back to the den. Crane was still on the couch, a dark look in his eyes as he stared back.

 

“You boys have a nice chat while I was gone?” he asked as he made his way back toward the blond guy. He was pretty sure this was Morton but he wanted to make sure. Too much money wrapped up in this for him to get the wrong guy.  He walked around behind the blond. “What’s his name?” he asked addressing Lee, grabbing a handful of hair and pulling back, stretching skin and neck muscles tight. He pulled out the knife again and rested the blade against taut flesh. “His name,” he repeated.

 

“Morton! Charles Morton, okay! Leave him out of this!” Lee yelled, still struggling with the tape binding him.

 

“Morton,” the man repeated, pulling the blade away, but he didn’t release his grip on Chip. He did give Chip some slack and the blond relaxed a bit. This time he addressed Chip directly. “You’re friend over there has information I need. All he has to do is tell me what I what and I’ll leave. The longer he holds out, the worse it’s going to be for you.”

 

“Lucky me,” Chip smarted off, earning him a backhanded slap across the mouth. Slowly he brought his head up, tasting the coppery tang of blood on his lips.

 

“How long were you two supposed to be up here? Couple of days? A week? How soon before somebody misses you? I’m betting I have a few days before anybody thinks something’s wrong,” the assailant said. He walked over to Lee, who had been wearing only pajama bottoms. The stitches in his side were visible and the stranger grinned as his eyes took note of them.

 

“Healing up, are you?” he asked pulling out the knife again. He braced one open hand against Lee’s chest, pinning him down to the couch as he slid the tip of the blade under the fine surgical threads. One by one he cut through them, Lee practically holding his breath against the snap of each stitch. “How about I give you a matching set? Left and right sides?”

 

Lee knew this was his time to act. The guy was bent over, off-center and unbalanced. He wouldn’t be expecting Lee to fight back. He brought up both feet, catching the intruder in the gut, and shoved. The guy was knocked backwards, over the coffee table, smashing it to splinters. He landed on the floor and a fourth figure—Jamie—darted forward, dropped one knee on the guy’s chest and took aim with the hypodermic needle he held in one hand. He thrust the needle into his neck and depressed the plunger.

 

The guy was faster, grabbing the syringe away from Jamie, his huge hand crushing the barrel as he threw it aside. Jamie had enough time to pull back but not enough time to get away as that same huge hand grabbed him by the throat and they rolled, with Jamie pinned to the floor as he bore down. Jamie clawed and twisted, trying to dislodge his attacker’s grip. Spots danced in front of his eyes and the blood pounded in his ears, a defending roar that drowned out everything. He tried to kick his attacker but his legs were immobilized, pinned under the weight of his assailant’s leg over his knees. . Without warning the man let go and Jamie rolled, gasping for breath as he tried to see what had caused the guy to turn loose.

 

It turned out to be Lee, who’d been able to lever to his feet and launch himself at the stranger. Still bound hand and foot, Lee’s body rolled and the stranger scrambled after him, grabbing Lee around the throat this time. Jamie managed to get his feet under him, grab a piece of broken table, and smash his makeshift weapon across the guy’s back. He roared to his feet and spun drunkenly. Jamie didn’t even bother taking aim, just brought the broken leg of the table back around and slammed into the guy again, catching him across the side of his head.

 

He went down, landing half on top of Lee. Jamie, running on adrenaline and a fierce protective streak toward anyone who might harm his patients, slammed the broken table leg across the man’s back and neck. That was enough. The attacker lay still. For a second there was nothing but the sound of breathing as Jamie sucked in air and Lee fought to crawl out from under the unconscious body. Jamie moved unsteadily, grabbing Lee under his arms and pulling him free. Then he set to work, picking at the tape until he’d pulled enough lose for Lee to free himself. Still staggering slightly, Jamie moved toward Chip and freed him.

 

“Remind me not to piss you off,” Lee said. Free of the imprisoning tape, Lee was now checking on the unconscious intruder. He was alive but nonresponsive.

 

Jamie pulled the tape off Chip’s wrists and the blond was able to deal with the rest of the sticky stuff himself. “Not what I had in mind,” he admitted. “I was hoping to pump him full of a nice sedative and send him to sleepy-bye land.”

 

“Like I said, you play dirty. Glad you’re on our side,” Chip said. He finished wadding the ball of used tape up in his hands, watching as Lee began to return the favor, snatching the roll from the couch where the guy had tossed it and pulling the guy’s hands behind his back, taping his wrists together. Morton turned to the doctor. “How did you know?”

 

“I heard the gunshot. By the time I got to the door I was just in time to see someone slip into Lee’s room. I knew it wasn’t you. I guess I was lucky that he checked Lee’s door first else he would have busted in on me. I didn’t know how many more of them there might be and since he was in Lee’s room after I heard a crash, I assumed you were down for the count. I hunted down the strongest sedative I had in the biggest syringe I carried and slipped down the stairs off my room. Sooner or later I’d get a chance to pump him full of sleep-juice.” Jamie was staring down at the now trussed up intruder. “I wonder what his name is.”

 

“Mud,” Lee grumbled as he wrapped more tape around the guy’s ankles. “And you know what mud spelled backwards is.” He took a moment to search the guy but found no form of ID and no other weapons—other than the knife that lay forgotten on the floor. He must have been relying on his size and surprise to work for him. Lee picked up the blade and dropped it on the couch. Meanwhile Jamie had bent down and was doing a quick check on the man, testing his pulse and looking into his eyes. He didn’t say anything as he got back to his feet.

 

“Now what?” Chip asked and Jamie switched his focus to Morton.

 

“What happened to you? What was the crash I heard? And how’d you get a split lip?” he asked. Chip tried to look everywhere except the dent in the wall where his head had been smashed. Jamie didn’t miss the motion and his eyes tracked to the far wall and the rather large indentation in the paneling. “The admiral isn’t going to like that you put a hole in his wall,” Jamie said.

 

“I blame him,” Chip said, pointing to the guy on the floor. Jamie advanced on him, two fingers pointing at the blond. “And where’s my gun? I lost it when he tackled me,” he asked, eyes tracking the floor for the missing weapon.

 

“You can look for your toys later. Eyes on me, right here,” Jamie ordered, bringing his fingers to his eye-level. Morton, grumbling but too well trained to disobey that tone of voice, did as instructed and locked eyes with the doctor. After a few minutes, Jamie pronounced Chip as alive and his head hard as rock, but he wanted to keep him under observation for a while.

 

Meanwhile, Lee had vanished upstairs and come back out pulling a tee shirt on. “I always like to interrogate villains fully clothed,” he replied to Chip’s questioning look. Morton grinned.

 

“I dunno. Maybe if he were a woman, we’d get more answers if you were half dressed.”

Lee glared at the blond as Morton got to his feet, only to stumble a few steps before Jamie grabbed his elbow.

 

“Easy, Chip,” the doctor said as he guided Morton to another chair. “How dizzy?”

 

“Not much,” Chip said, but he had closed his eyes and his fingers gripped the armrests of the chair, digging into the fabric.

 

“Sure. Tell me another story, Uncle Chip,” Jamie grumbled as he felt for Morton’s pulse.

 

Lee, listening to the pair with a grin, had settled on the arm of the sectional couch, watching their visitor. “How long is Godzilla gonna be in Snooze-ville?”

 

Jamie, still focused on Morton, gave the sleeping man a quick glance. “Not sure. I don’t make it a habit of knocking people out with a table leg. I don’t know how much if any sedative I got into him. Either way, it could be awhile.”

 

“We should contact the admiral, let him know,” Chip said.

 

“I will. In the morning. Right now I want to know about this guy.”

 

“Lee, that’s not going to happen until he wakes up,” Chip argued.

 

“I can wait.” Lee stretched out on the couch but abruptly found himself in the cross hairs of a very unhappy doctor. “What?” Lee asked blinking innocently.

 

“You’re bleeding. Why?” Jamie asked, advancing on Crane. Lee’s hand inched toward the spot on his side where the stitches had been. He felt the warm, sticky wetness that indicated the wound had opened, staining the white tee-shirt he’d pulled on. He let out a long sigh. “Don’t give me that. Lose the shirt. I want to see what I’m looking at,” Jamie ordered. Lee had little choice but to obey, knowing that Jamie wasn’t above cutting the shirt off of him to get to the target area. Groaning, Lee pulled the tee-shirt off and Jamie focused on the wound.

 

“Will I live?” Lee asked as he sucked in a breath, feeling the doctor’s finger’s gently probing the wound.

 

Jamie grunted. “For a while longer. Don’t move. I need to get a few things.” With a warning glance at the reluctant patent, Jamie vanished down the hall to this room.

 

“You’ll never learn, will you?” Chip asked with a grin.

 

“Worth a try.” Lee settled back on the couch but continued to eye the unconscious man on the floor. He looked and sounded American to Lee, fitting with the southern accent he’d heard that night. Then it hit him: he remembered…“Too bad about Carver, ayh?” a deeply-accented voice called out to Lee from the other side of the rental car. Lee, who had a special gift for languages, recognized the southern sounding accent, probably from Texas or Louisiana.

 

“Lee? Lee, what’s wrong?” Chip noticed his friend’s expression and, concerned, he got out of the chair and moved forward, ignoring how the room still wanted to spin. That was the same time that Jamie appeared with his medical bag. “Jamie, something’s wrong with him,” Chip announced.

 

“Lee?” Jamie dropped the bag on the end of the couch, advancing on Lee once more. Lee was shaking his head.

 

“No, nothing’s wrong. I just realized I…I can remember…” Lee’s voice trailed off as if he were indeed recalling something. He felt something touch his arm and he glanced down. It was Jamie’s hand. “Him. He was there that night.”

 

“You’re sure?” the doctor asked. Lee nodded.

 

“Yes,” Lee said as the spark of something flared anew in his eyes. “He was the leader. He did all the talking. There were two others…but I can’t remember them. Him…him I remember. Someone called him…McGregor. His name is McGregor.”

 

Chip’s smile was positively predatory. “Oh goody. McGregor and I can have a nice chat when he wakes up. Anything else?”

 

Lee shook his head, the frustration clear.

 

“Easy. You’re remembering something. The rest will come in time,” Jamie said.

Lee sank back into the embrace of the couch only to have Jamie focus on the stab wound in his side. “I won’t stitch it back up at the moment. I think I can bandage it really well and if you’re a good boy and don’t squirm, that should do it,” he said. Lee didn’t protest, simply letting the doctor work. Meanwhile Chip had spotted his gun and retrieved it from where it had landed. He sat it on the edge of the couch next to Lee.

 

Jamie gave Lee a curious look before asking, “I take it you’re not going back to bed.”

 

“No. I’ll nap here on the couch and wait for our new friend here to wake up,” Lee explained. The bandage on his side felt odd to him so he dropped the tee-shirt on the couch arm. He could put it on later if he needed to.

 

“Chip?” Jamie asked of the blond.

 

“Probably stay with Lee,” he answered.

 

“I don’t need an audience,” Lee grumbled.

 

Chip couldn’t stop himself. He rolled his eyes and parked on the opposite end of the couch. “That’s debatable. You honestly think I can sleep after all that?” Chip pointed to the wreckage of the table and the unconscious body on the floor.

 

Jamie wasn’t sure he could sleep either but the idea of staying up now and waiting for this guy, who wasn’t likely to wake for hours, wasn’t appealing. “I think I’m going back to my room. Just keep in mind that I really don’t know when he’s going to come around.”

 

Lee waved a hand at him. “You go ahead and try to get some sleep. No reason the night has to be wasted on all of us.” Lee switched his gaze toward Morton but the blond wasn’t paying attention, instead stretching his long legs out in front of him, and yawning. He was obviously settling in to wait alongside Lee. The brunet sighed, recognizing the futility of arguing with him.

 

Jamie was hesitant at first. He picked up the medical bag and cast a last look at both Lee and Chip, then to the intruder on the floor. “Just don’t get heroic if he comes around.” The doctor then left for his own room.

 

The cabin grew quiet. Chip glanced over to Lee, stretched out on his end of the sectional couch, eyes closed to just slits, watching the floor. Chip wasn’t sure this was a good idea. Maybe they should risk contacting the institute. Somebody would be there. If nothing else they should contact the admiral directly. Yes, it would mean waking the admiral up but once he found out why Chip doubted he’d be angry. “Lee, maybe we should tell the admiral,” Chip said softly.

 

“It’s late. I don’t want to wake him. I want answers from him first. Maybe if I knew who this guy was working for? He seems to know what Carver was investigating. I want to know more about this card I’m supposed to have. How do you hide a card anyhow? This is the digital age, why wouldn’t something like that be backed up, in case the original was stolen or lost?”

 

Chip reached for the roll of tape from where Lee had set it on the couch and began twirling it around his fingers. “Depends. Sensitive material may not be backed up. Some stuff is too dangerous to make copies of. The more copies you have the more you have to keep track of them. It’s like a secret. The more who know, the less of a secret it is. If Carver had this mysterious card and McGregor wanted it back, he couldn’t risk killing you if you knew since Carver was already dead.”

 

Lee continued to watch the stranger he’d nicknamed ‘Godzilla.’ “So what is on this card?” he mused.

 

“I hope you’re not asking for an answer.”

 

“No,” Lee said with a determined set to his chin. The guy would have to come around at some point. Lee promised he’d be there, waiting. Chip slowly pulled himself up off the couch.

 

“Going somewhere?” Lee asked.

 

“To do a check. I would have brought backup. I can’t believe this guy came alone.”

 

Lee straightened. “You shouldn’t be roaming around in the dark alone.” He got to his feet, earning a blue-eyed glare which he ignored. “I’m not letting you go out there by yourself.”

 

Chip grumbled under his breath. He wondered how much of Lee’s insistence on going with him was to actually check for a second person and how much of it was to keep an eye on him. He wouldn’t admit it to either Lee or Jamie but the headache was making him grumpy and sour. He just had to be careful so Lee wouldn’t notice. Without thinking he had carried the thick roll of gray tape with him. Absently he dropped it to the table before grabbing a flashlight from the pantry and slipping out the back door, Lee on his heels with a flashlight of his own.

 

Lee slipped a pair of tennis shoes on and stepped out onto the deck, shadowing Morton. He kept one eye on his friend, the other on the forest that edged the cabin. Morton ventured off the porch, his soft-soled house shoes making hardly any noise on the ground. Lee followed, splitting off but keeping Morton in his sights.

 

They made the circuit around the cabin. There didn’t seem to be anything out of place, no sign that the assailant in the cabin had been with someone. For all appearances, it looked like he was acting alone. Neither man saw the shadow at the top of the ridge, hidden under the trees, watching their every move.

 

~<<>>~

 

Nelson was in a quandary. He knew he shouldn’t be wondering around on his own. He didn’t get four stars without understanding the value of backup. It was choosing that back up that had him perplexed.

 

On one hand he knew he could rely on Sharkey to go with him. The man had good instincts, they had a close bond with each other, and knew to watch the other’s back. On the other hand, if he did happen to find this card that Jaheen was so hot-to-trot to recover, he might need someone a little more tech-savvy than the sturdy COB. Sharkey was many things but computer literate wasn’t one of them.

 

His first choice would have been Chip but that wasn’t possible right now. Sparks then. Jimmy Sparks was the next best thing to Chip Morton. Between the two of them there wasn’t a wire or button on Seaview that hadn’t seen one or the other’s personal attention.

 

Except Sparks wasn’t as…field-savvy as Sharkey. Right now Nelson needed someone who could shoot straight if he didn’t get the right answers. That someone was Chief Francis Sharkey.

 

So that’s how Sharkey found himself riding shotgun at 2330 at night as the admiral navigated roads that Francis didn’t even knew existed “Ah sir, where exactly are we headed?” Francis hated to question the admiral but, seriously? Where on earth could they be headed at this time of night?

 

Nelson smiled lightly. “Chasing a theory, Chief.”

 

Sharkey tried not to roll his eyes. The admiral might be a genius but there were some days… As Sharkey sat on his side of the car he began thinking. There were very few things that would prompt this level of focus from the admiral. “This has something to do with those thugs who beat up the skipper, doesn’t it, sir?”

 

“This has everything to do with those thugs, Chief. Those people were looking for something the skipper didn’t have or know anything about. A card of some kind. Lee knows that Carver had the card and hid it. Chip thinks that Carver managed to tell Lee where he hid that card. That’s what we’re looking for.”

 

“You think we have a snowball’s chance in El Paso of finding it?”

 

“Well, Francis, we’re certainly going to try.”

 

They rounded a curve and the headlights hit on a low flat structure. It looked less appealing to Nelson in the dark than it did in the daylight. Nelson pulled the car up to the building and killed the engine. “Chief, get that pack from the back seat.”

 

The two men got out of the car and Sharkey complied. The pack in question was a green faded knapsack filled with two flashlights and various other curious objects, including a couple of screwdrivers. Sharkey shouldn’t have been surprised. Some of the crew tended to forget that the admiral was once an active intelligence agent as the skipper was now. Habits like that die-hard and the admiral knew how to think about these sorts of things. He’d even traded his khaki uniform for dark pants and a dark, long sleeved pullover. It was odd, seeing the admiral out of uniform. It was a side to him that Sharkey seldom, if ever, saw. Somehow the admiral looked more…sinister, if that was possible. More calculating. Like the intelligence agent he still was.

 

Nelson fished around in the pack and pulled out the two flashlights, tossing one to Sharkey. The chief switched his light on, playing the beam across the ground, looking for rocks and holes that might catch and trip him up. Nelson was doing the same and the two headed for the motel. The doors kicked in by Chip only a few days ago were still swinging in the slight breeze. Other than that, there was no sign that anyone had been here. Until they entered the first room.

 

What furniture had been left behind was shredded and busted into a million pieces. “Seems like we’re not the only ones with the idea to search this place,” Nelson commented as he played his light across the room.

 

Sharkey was poking around the wreckage. “Not much left to look over. Somebody done beat us to it.”

 

“They might have searched the room but they didn’t know what we know,” Nelson said.

 

“Ah, sir? What do we know?”

 

“I want you to search the electrical outlets. Look for something out of place, something not the right color maybe…you’ll know it when you see it,” Nelson said and started to search along the bottom of the room, down next to the floor.

 

Sharkey could only shake his head. “I’ll start in the next room over.” The chief got a noncommittal ‘uh-huh,’ as Nelson continued his search. Francis left to head for the next room over and found it to be in the same shape as the first. Furniture was busted, moldy cushions were ripped and the stuffing strewn across the floor. In some places the ragged carpet was yanked up in long stripes as whoever looked for whatever.

 

Sharkey spent about a half an hour in the first room. There wasn’t anything out of place as far he as he could see. The next two rooms were pretty much the same. Trashed and mangled beyond belief yet the electrical outlets seemed untouched. Why on earth would the admiral have him searching the electrical outlets? It didn’t make any sense.

 

However, Sharkey changed his mind when he walked into the fourth room. Among the debris and broken bits of furniture Sharkey spotted the mangled double socket of an electrical outlet. It had been ripped from the wall and at some point, probably in the search earlier, and it had been stepped on. That was odd. The chief stuck his head out the door and called, “Hey, Admiral?” Nelson couldn’t have been too far away. Sharkey was just starting to look around when he popped in.

 

“You find something?”

 

The stocky chief shrugged. “Might not be anything,” he said and handed the broken socket to the admiral. Nelson smiled.

 

“No, Chief. This is exactly what we’re looking for. Search the wall sockets.”

 

Still puzzled at what on earth the admiral was looking for, Sharkey obeyed, playing the light along the bottom of the wall. A beat-up bedside nightstand was in the way and Sharkey bumped it with his hip. The drawers had been pulled out and smashed on the floor so the thing weighted nearly nothing. Behind the half-rotted nightstand Sharkey found that wall’s outlet, but the faceplate wasn’t the dingy white of the rest of the plates in the dump. This one was an aged-powder blue, replaced long ago for some reason. “Sir?”

 

Nelson moved to investigate what the chief had found and he grinned, almost maliciously, when he spotted the off color wall outlet. “Lee, I think I found your blue outlet,” he said and bent down by the wall. He pulled the pack off his shoulder and dug through it, coming up with a screwdriver.

 

Carefully he began to unscrew the faceplate from the wall. His suspicions were confirmed when he popped the plate loose. Instead of the socket behind the plate, the space behind the plate was empty. “Carver must have ripped the socket from the wall when he figured he was being followed,” Nelson theorized. Lying in the bottom of the space was a small black square. With calloused yet nimble fingers Nelson collected the tiny square and held it up. “Nice work, Chief.”

 

Sharkey was puzzled. “Sir, what is that?”

 

“It’s a memory card, Francis.”

 

“My sister uses those in her camera. I just thought they held pictures.”

 

“No, they hold all manner of information. And I am most curious to see what this particular little bit of technology holds.” Nelson pocketed the small square and got to his feet. A hand on his shoulder stopped him as Sharkey raised a finger to his lips. Silently the chief pulled the Beretta from the holster at his back and took a step forward.

 

It happened so fast that if Nelson hadn’t been watching, he’d have never seen it. Sharkey stepped forward, grabbed onto something and, going with his forward momentum, had the stranger’s arm twisted behind him and had shoved him face first up against the wall. Sharkey pulled his other arm around the man’s neck. “Move and I’ll snap you like a twig,” the chief growled, his Coney Island accent all the more menacing in the dark.

 

“Who are you and what are you doing here?” Nelson asked.

 

“Emad…we’re watching the place,” the man managed around the weight on his throat.

 

“Why?” Nelson pressed.

 

“We figured…somebody would come…looking.”

 

That was enough for Nelson. He nodded to Sharkey who released his hold on the man and just as quickly introduced the butt of his gun to Emad’s head. Emad dropped to a heap in the floor and lay still.

 

“That was simple enough,” Sharkey proclaimed.

 

“Wasn’t it though? You’ll find some plastic ties in the pack. Let’s take Emad back with us, shall we? I have a few more questions for our nosy little friend,” Nelson said. He had a link back to whoever had started this mess. Now if he could just figure out how to use it.

 

~<<>>~

 

Duggins knew something was wrong. He heard the first gunshot and he was out of the van, watching and waiting. Lights began coming on in the cabin and still Duggins waited. McGregor had a temper and Duggins was smart enough not to cross him. If he said wait, then Duggins had better do the smart thing and wait.

 

Leaning against the van, Duggins waited. The cabin grew quiet again and one by one several lights went off. The living room was still lit though. McGregor never came out and Duggins didn’t like the feeling he was getting. McGregor might be big, but everybody had a weakness. Maybe Crane got lucky this time.

 

He watched as several lights came back on and two figures came out, armed with flashlights. Thin beams of light cut through the night as he watched. They circled the cabin once, taking nearly forty-five minutes to make the rounds. Duggins wondered if McGregor said anything. They were looking for something…or someone. Finally they gave up and went back into the house. Lights flicked off again.

 

“Too much money riding on this,” Duggins grumbled. Without another thought he headed for the cabin, considering how he was going to get in and what he was going to do once he gained entry. Crane was on alert. He’d have to be careful if he was going to catch them by surprise.

 

He needed to draw them out of the cabin. Once he got them out he could deal with them one at a time. How to draw them out again?

 

~<<>>~

 

 

Back inside the cabin, Lee was taking the lead as they walked back through the kitchen when a dizzy spell came out of the blue. Without thinking he grabbed the back of one of the chairs, squeezing his eyes shut as he rode the wave out. He could feel Chip’s hands on his back, he could hear his voice, but the words were lost in the sound of the blood pounding in his ears. Gradually he could make out what Chip was saying.

 

“Lee? Lee, what’s wrong?”

 

“Nothing. Dizzy spell,” Lee managed. He felt Chip gently push on his back, herding him toward the living room.

 

“Let’s get you on the couch and off your feet,” he said. Lee’s expression darkened. “Humor me and I won’t get Jamie up.”

 

“Blackmailer,” Lee grumbled, but allowed Morton to guide him to the living room. He heeled out of his tennis shoes and stretched his lanky frame out on one end of the long couch, leaving Morton to claim the other end.

 

“Still dizzy?” Morton asked once they were both settled.

 

“Not much. I don’t know what caused it,” Lee admitted. He decided not to mention being tackled, or half falling down the stairs.

 

“I don’t know. Being attacked and taped up like a Christmas present would make my head spin. Take it easy for a while. If we’re lucky, Thug-zilla here will sleep until we get a chance to report him to the admiral.”

 

“The admiral’s going to love to hear about this,” Lee agreed with a smile.

 

The two settled in, Chip on his end of the couch with his gaze split between the sleeping intruder and the exhausted-looking Lee. He wondered if Lee wasn’t more hurt than he was letting on. Wouldn’t be the first time he’d tried to hide wounds from Jamie. He promised to keep a better watch on his friend for signs of a worsening injury.

 

Lee wasn’t even aware he’d closed his eyes until the crash from outside jerked him back to wakefulness. Likewise Chip was up, on his feet, gun in hand. He pointed a long finger at Lee and barked a sharp “Stay here.” If Chip was still having dizzy spells, they weren’t noticeable as he crept across the floor.

 

Lee threw his friend a dark look but it made more sense for Chip to investigate. Lee’s injuries were still making themselves known and his torso ached from being kicked earlier. The room wasn’t holding as still as he would have liked, a sign he was suffering more than just re-cracked ribs.

 

Chip vanished into the kitchen, leaving Lee alone with the still-sleeping attacker. Lee took another moment to study him, letting bits and pieces of the night filter slowly back to him. He remembered them asking him a card—a data card, he called it. Carver said he had hidden it before encountering Lee. In the blue outlet. Whatever that meant, that’s where it was. Maybe the admiral had another idea.

 

Lee frowned, wondering where on earth Chip could have gotten to. What was he doing, walking around the entire cabin again? He felt a prickling along his shoulder blades and turned just in time to see an arm swing toward him.

 

Lee ducked, slid off the couch, and landed on the floor. He rolled and came up with a broken piece of the table—maybe the same piece Jamie had used on the thug on the floor. “Who are you?” he demanded.

 

“Someone who’s gonna settle the score,” the man growled and Lee realized who he was. The man who had stabbed him…the man whose nose he’d broken in the fight that night.

 

Already hurting and with Jamie’s drugs still in his system, Lee’s reflexes were off. He swung his makeshift weapon and the two grappled, Lee trying to keep his bare feet away from the broken bits of sharp wood and metal scattered on the floor. His attacker was quick to notice what he was doing and worked that to his advantage, herding Lee over the worst of the broken debris.

 

Unable to watch his feet and the attacker, Lee staggered and lost his footing. It was only for a second but it was all the other man needed. Lee took a punch to the gut that awoke every nerve ending in his body. Momentarily stunned, the attacker aimed another punch that rocked Lee’s head backward.

 

The brunet landed with a crash to the floor and did not move.

 

~<<>>~

 

It was well past 0230 when Nelson and Sharkey got back to the institute. He had Sharkey drop him off at his condo first then ordered the chief to take their new friend down to the security until they could figure out what to do with him. First Nelson wanted to check the contents of the drive before contacting Radcliff. And he wanted to talk to Lee first thing in the morning. It would do him wonders to hear that his half-remembered bits had paid off.

 

Nelson took the time to shower and change closes, shedding the grimy and dusty clothes in favor of his favorite pajamas and a soft warm robe. More comfortable, Nelson headed for the study where his personal computer was set up and he sat down behind the desk.

 

He inserted the card into one of the many slots and waited. He wasn’t sure what he was expecting so when the black screen with the small box captioned PASSWORD popped up he wasn’t surprised. He leaned back in his chair, drumming his fingers against the top of the desk, deep in thought. Too many wrong attempts to enter a password might result in the information being wiped completely. Chip had set up a few things like that in the past. A safety precaution.

 

He needed Chip. Nelson grinned as he had a sudden thought, one that had crossed his mind earlier. He didn’t have Chip but he had the next best thing. He reached for the phone and from his desk he dug out a small black leather-bound book…the phone numbers and addresses of his officers. He looked up a name, came up with a personal cell phone, and dialed. Considering the late hour, Nelson expected the phone to ring several times but instead it picked up on the second ring.

 

“Hello?” the voice on the other end wasn’t even sleepy sounding.

 

“Sparks, isn’t it a little late to be up?”

 

James Sparks coughed and Nelson could clearly hear the amusement in his voice. “I could ask you the same thing, sir. Something wrong?”

 

Nelson shook his head at his cheeky officer. “If I could borrow you and your computer know-how, I have something that might be right up your ally.”

 

~<<>>~

 

Jamie had just gotten comfortable and was beginning to drift off when a crash jerked him out of bed.

 

“Again?” he grumbled and he grabbed his black bag from the floor. Armed once more he inched out the same way he did it last time, hoping it would work a second time in a row. Stepping out of the room’s private entrance to the deck, Jamie slipped around the front, more shocked than anything to find Chip unconscious on the deck.

 

The blond was sprawled across the deck, face down, still wearing his pajama bottoms and tee shirt. He wasn’t moving and for a second Jamie wasn’t sure if he was even breathing. The slow rise of his chest set the doctor at ease. He dropped to one knee long enough to check for a pulse. He found one as well as a nasty gash on the side of his head. Two whacks to the head in less than six hours weren’t healthy. Jamie vowed to make sure the blond was properly examined when this was straightened out. He got to his feet and took two steps forward when something slammed into the back of his head.

 

Like a sack of potatoes Jamieson crashed to the deck, totally unresponsive. Duggins stood over him, a curious look on his face. “Hate to break this to you pal, but you’re just in the way,” he said. Reaching down, Duggins grabbed the doctor by his ankles and dragged him into the cabin.

 

Still breathing heavy from his tussle with Crane, the last thing Duggins wanted to do was deal with a third body. Ideally, he needed to find a place to stash this one while he dealt with Crane and Morton. There was no telling how much longer McGregor was going to be out of it. Duggins found himself in the kitchen, glancing around for a closet or someplace he could use. He saw the opening to a second room and peeked inside, thinking this might work. It turned out to be a laundry room--too small. He spied a closed door and, thinking it was a closet, he gave the knob a quick twist and pulled the door open.

 

Not a closet. Duggins found himself looking down a short set of steps that lead to a cellar of sorts—a very dark cellar. His eyes landed on a small light switch and he gave it a flip. The cellar lit up and he could see several racks and shelves. He smiled. This would do perfectly. He moved back through the kitchen, scrounging for something he could use to tie the unconscious man up with so he wouldn’t have to worry about him popping up unexpectedly. There wasn’t anything in the kitchen to use so he moved to the living room. Crane was still unconscious on the floor but McGregor was starting to move. Duggins ignored him, having already sliced through the tape on his wrists and ankles. He wasn’t able to find that specific roll of tape so he grabbed up the nearest lamp and yanked the cord from the wall. With his pocketknife he sliced the cord from the lamp and tossed the now useless device to the floor. He did a second lamp the same way, giving him two cords to work with.

 

He went back to the kitchen, spotting the roll of tape on the table. He grabbed it up, slipped it over one wrist, and picked up Jamie by his shoulders, pulling him across the floor through the cellar door and down the short steps. He pulled the limp body further into the small room, as far back as he could go, and then dropped the body to the concrete.

 

He quickly tied Jamie’s hands behind his back and followed up with his ankles. As a final twisted, he yanked a length of roll from the tape, plastered it over Jamie’s mouth, and wrapped it a few more times around his head. Giggling like a child he trotted up the steps and hit the lights, bathing the small cellar into inky blackness. He then spotted the padlock on the door. With a very satisfied grin slammed the door shut and snapped the lock into place. Now with that taken care of, Duggins was able to focus on dealing with the real reason they were here.

 

Duggins found McGregor up, groggy and sluggish. “Th’r’s three of ‘em’,” he slurred as he staggered slightly.  The accomplice shook his head.

 

“Took care of it. Let’s do what we came here for. Can you function?”

 

“Yes, damn it, I can function. Where’s the blond? Morton.” McGregor muttered.

 

“Out back. I haven’t loaded him up yet.”

 

“Then let’s get to it. I want out of this joint. Spent enough time here as it is. Boss is expecting results this time,” McGregor said as he bent down and hoisted Lee’s unconscious body over his shoulder. “Got a surprise for you, pal,” he said as he carried Lee out the door and into the night.

 

~<<>>~

 

Jimmy Sparks stared at the screen; his tall lanky frame slouched comfortably in the leather chair as he contemplated the small dialogue box. “Have you tried anything, sir?” he tried not to stare at the admiral, so used to seeing him in the standard khaki uniform that finding him in his home wearing pale blue pajamas and a darker navy blue robe was a bit like finding Superman without his cape. It just looked odd. Instead Sparks focused his attention on the little enigma that the admiral had presented him: a password protected data card. Mr. Morton would love to get his hands on this little gem.

 

Nelson, wandering the room, shook his head. “No. I’ve spent entirely too much time around Chip to know I might do more harm than good if I started typing random words. Chip’s out of reach right now. You’re the next best thing I have. I’m open to any ideas that might get us into those files.”

 

Sparks leaned back in the chair. “May I? He rested his fingers on the keyboard and looked up at his employer.

 

“Be my guest,” Nelson invited and Sparks immediately attacked the keyboard.

 

“Mr. Morton has a program, designed to break down passwords and cyphers. I know I can access it and maybe I can use it to break down the password for this little beauty,” Jimmy said, still typing. “We should be able to crack this password in no time.”

 

Nelson grinned. He’d chosen wisely. Sparks and Chip spent a lot of time with Seaview’s computers. The two knew every wire, cord, and circuit aboard her. Sparks was the only one beside himself or Lee who Chip trusted with any software upgrades. If anybody could break this password it would be Sparks. “So what on earth were you doing up at this time of night?”

 

Sparks’ eyes flicked up to his employer and then back to the screen. His fingers continued to dance across the keyboard. He supposed there was no use in trying to keep it a secret. Both the skipper and Mr. Morton knew about it. “I was aboard Seaview, sir.”

 

Nelson felt a smile tugging on the corner of his mouth. “Don’t tell me you had a round of insomnia and decided to walk about the boat for a while?” he asked, referring to Lee’s habit of wandering the boat at all hours when he couldn’t sleep.

 

Sparks turned a curious shade of pink. “No, sir. Nothing like that. I sometimes come aboard at night do some work with the radio. It’s the best time to work since the airwaves are the clearest at this time of night.”

 

The auburn-haired admiral shook his head. He wondered if Lee had any idea that he was corrupting the junior officers. He contemplated saying something but in the same breath this is the kind of attitude that gave Seaview the reputation she had. For not the first time, Nelson admitted that he had nothing but the best working for him, making this institute and Seaview something he could always be proud of. “Does the skipper know about this?”

 

The curious shade of pink darkened to red. “Ah. Yes, sir. He sort of helped me hunt down a burnt capacitor one night. Took us nearly two hours to track it down.”

 

“Why am I not surprised?” Nelson mumbled, but the mumbled was tinged with amusement. While the young man worked, Nelson headed for the kitchen. He spent the next few minutes with the coffee pot, figuring that they needed all the help they could get. It didn’t take long to make a fresh pot and he wandered back to the office with two cups in his hand. He settled one down beside the lanky brunet.

 

“Oh, thank you, sir,” Sparks said and latched onto the cup, savoring the dark brew. The admiral made a pretty good cup of coffee. He focused back on the program, now running and analyzing the password program in the card. He glanced up to the admiral. “This has something to do with the skipper?” Most everyone knew the skipper had come back from some ONI-sanctioned event badly injured and with no memory of what had happened. Knowing how close the skipper and the admiral were, it wasn’t hard to guess that the admiral might be looking into the assignment that the skipper had been hurt on.

 

“It does. Everything boils down to a card, a card that someone thought the skipper had. We think this is that card.”

 

Sparks nodded. “Easy to hide. Good choice. That’s what I’d use if I wanted to keep something secret.” He focused on the screen once more, sipping the coffee. “Looks like a seven letter word, or a seven character combination, I should say. A password might not necessarily be a real word.” He stopped, realizing who he was talking to. “Sorry, I mean, you know that…”

 

Nelson smiled. “It’s alright. I know what you mean. Go on.”

 

“Ah, well,” the radioman sputtered, “I’ve got three of the characters now. R. E. V.”

 

Nelson blinked, his mind working to come up with words that might begin with those three letters. There were hundreds and that was just the words. Add a number or other random character to the mix and the combination was unending. He took another sip of his coffee, pacing slowing around his office.

 

“Got a fourth character. E,” Sparks said. His blue eyes clearly watching the seemingly never ending scroll of letters. “Last letter is also an E.”

 

Revenge,” Nelson whispered. “The password is revenge.”

 

Sparks divided his attention between the screen and the admiral. It didn’t take long for Mr. Morton’s program to cycle through and eventually crack the password. Once more the genius of the admiral was one step ahead of them. The word REVENGE filled in the password block. “Sir, we’ve got it. You were right.”

 

Nelson looked up from the window he’d been looking out of and crossed the distance to the desk. He stood behind the younger man and nodded to proceed. Sparks’ finger tapped a key and the screen changed. Nelson wasn’t sure what to expect. There were several files on the card. “Pick one,” he said. Resting his hand on the mouse, Sparks chose one at random and opened it.

 

The file contained a map of North Africa. Across one small corner, several small dots pulsed slowly. Sparks hovered the pointer over one and a small set of numbers appeared. Each small dot had a corresponding set of numbers. “Coordinates?” he asked.

 

“That would be my guess. But for what?” Nelson mused out loud. He studied the numbers, deep in thought. He pointed to one set of numbers. “That’s Cairo, Egypt. This one,” Nelson shifted his finger, “Is in Libya. Misrata, I believe.”

 

Without asking, the radioman minimized the screen, went back to the desktop and found the Internet connection. He plugged in the number sequence and submitted the search. He shouldn’t have been surprised when the first number came back as the global coordinates for Cairo, Egypt. “You were right, sir.”

 

Nelson clapped the young man’s shoulder. “I’ve been doing this for a while,” he said with a smile in his voice. “Pick another file. Let’s see what else is on this thing.”

 

At random, Sparks opened another file and found it to be a spreadsheet of sorts. There were several rows of numbers and a final row of figures. “Looks like someone’s bank accounts,” he said, recognizing bank routing numbers.

 

“I believe you’re right. Chester is going to love it when I send him this. What else is on this thing?” Nelson asked.

 

Sparks backed up and picked another file. This file contained a list of names under the heading of ‘al Tanzih: The Left Hand of Allah.’

 

“Carver must have complied this,” Nelson assumed as Sparks scrolled the list of names. Beside each name was a US State and city. Beside some were notations: Cryptographer. Explosives. Forgery.

 

“Sir, this looks like a list of operatives working in this country,” Sparks said even though he was sure that the admiral had already figured it out.

 

“That’s exactly what this is, Lieutenant. This is what they nearly killed Lee for and what Carver was trying to protect. He couldn’t pass the card onto ONI because he couldn’t access. The best he could hope for was passing it on to Lee.” A name on the list got his attention: Emad el Jafeer. Maybe their mysterious new friend from the motel. Coincidence? Nelson didn’t think so. Another name stood out and made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up—Omar el-Hakim Amadi.

 

“Amadi…” the radioman whispered. Nelson could only stare at the screen.

 

Former Major Amadi, who betrayed Lee to Gamal.

 

Former Major Amadi, Gamal’s head of security who was willing to sacrifice himself to destroy Seaview.

 

Former Major Amadi who was supposed to be serving a life sentence in prison. But that didn’t make sense…if he was in prison…it only meant that Amadi had somehow escaped.

 

Unable to stop shaking, Nelson sat the coffee cup down, jammed his hands into his pockets, and started pacing. “Amadi. This whole mess was orchestrated by Amadi.”

 

Sparks looked up. He remembered the trial. They all did. When Amadi had finally been sentenced he’d gone completely wild, threatening everyone in the room, screaming obscenities in two languages, and finally declaring he’d kill the admiral if he ever had the chance.  “But Amadi is in prison. Isn’t he?”

 

“Apparently not. I’m betting he’s out.”

 

Sparks shot his employer a concerned look. “Sir, you, the skipper, and Mr. Morton all three testified against Amadi at his trial. He swore he’d get his revenge one day. If he’s behind all this, this could all be part of a plan to get back at you…” Sparks couldn’t finish the thought.

 

Nelson’s eyes grew dark. “I know, Jimmy. I know. That’s what has me worried.”

 

~<<>>~

 

Duggins wrapped another round of tape around Morton’s ankles before tearing the tape from the roll. Both men were still unconscious, showing no sign of coming around. McGregor climbed into the back of the van, some chain and two pairs of handcuffs dangling from his fingers. Duggins, finished with his part of the job, leaned against the van door as McGregor grabbed Morton’s hands and pulled them behind him. He’d pulled out his knife again and was toying with the blade as he watched the big man work.

 

“You said I could have a shot at Crane. He owes me for my nose.”

 

McGregor pulled Morton into a sitting position with his back against the van walls. He threaded the chain around the links of the cuffs then threaded the chain around a small hook screwed into the wall. He pulled a small padlock from his pocket and locked the ends together. He gave the whole ensemble a tug, pleased that it was holding. He’d like to see Crane get out of this one.  He sat back and tapped the side of Morton’s face with one hand. Chip never stirred, completely out cold. “You’ve done enough damage for one day,” the big man said, turning his attention to Lee.

 

“He owes me,” Duggins insisted.

 

“You got your shot in. Leave it alone.”

 

“It ain’t right,” Duggins continued to whine.

 

“So file a complaint. Otherwise shut up about it. Life ain’t fair. Didn’t you know that?” McGregor didn’t take long securing Lee. Both men were slack and it was easy to work with them. Neither was going to be comfortable when they finally came around but he really didn’t care. Jaheen wanted them both alive and that was enough to keep McGregor from getting inventive with how he secured them. Crane got away once. Wasn’t going to happen again. With that in mind, he studied the tape around both their ankles. Effective, but not for what he wanted. When they came around he wanted them to know they were caught and not getting away. He was an expert at this sort of thing.  “There’s a tool box behind the seat. Go get it.”

 

Duggins folded the knife back up. “What for?”

 

“Because I’m tired of watching you stand around while I do all the work. Get it and bring it here.”

 

Duggins, swearing under his breath, trudged to the front of the van and pulled back the seat. He found a small heavy plastic toolbox behind the seat and grabbed it up. It turned out to be surprisingly heavy. He carried it to the back and dropped it with a solid thud on the van floor. “What’s in there? Rocks?”

 

McGregor smiled. “Little something extra I like to call insurance.” He flipped the catch back and threw up the top. Inside were more chain and several small padlocks, each with the key inserted in the lock. He picked out one lock and a length of chain. That’s when Duggins saw the wad of used tape, pulled from Morton and Crane’s ankles. McGregor then methodically began wrapping the chain around Crain’s ankles. Tight. He could see the links bite into Crane’s skin as he wrapped the links around and around, finally joining the two ends with the small lock. “Get out of that, pal,” he invited as he tested his work, trying to slide his finger between the wraps. Not much room.

 

Duggins was grinning. “You done this a few times, ain’t ya?”

 

“You have no idea.” McGregor moved to Morton and repeated the process.

 

Duggins thought it was funny. “You outta hog tie ‘em.” He giggled at the thought of watching these two struggle—chained up like they were. “Oh, I know what you outta do…” he giggled again.

 

McGregor finished up, snapped the box shut, and tuned Duggins out. The little twerp was seriously getting on his nerves, despite being slightly useful there for a while. His usefulness was about to run out though. Morton and Crane weren’t going anywhere.  Time to take care of Duggins right now. He was still giggling when McGregor picked up the box and swung it, catching the other man in the head. He went sprawling to the ground a good ten feet away, the van doors splattered with blood. McGregor stepped out of the van and checked Duggins’ pulse. Still alive. Too bad.

 

With the toolbox in one hand he reached down and grabbed one of Duggins’ ankles and dragged him toward the lake. He wasn’t in the mood to listen to Duggins annoying giggle anymore and he sure as hell wasn’t in the mood to share ten thousand dollars.

He pulled the unconscious man to the dock and dropped him. He spent the next few minutes wrapping his ankles and wrists in chain, then in a twist that made McGregor smile he hogtied the man, chaining his wrists to his ankles. Still smiling, he gave Duggins a push and Duggins dropped into the lake. The man’s body sank, only a few bubbles breaking the surface to betray the sinking body.

 

Whistling a merry little tune, McGregor walked back to the van and dropped the box back behind the seat. He made one last check on Crane and Morton, satisfied they were still out cold. He shut the van door and climbed into the driver’s seat then started the engine. He put the van in gear and pulled away from the cabin. He almost stopped, remembering that there had been another man besides Crane and Morton. Should he go back and tie up a few loose ends? He smiled at his choice of words. He put the van into park and was about to turn off the engine.

 

No. He decided against it. Duggins had dealt with the guy and while he was an annoying piece of shit, he did good work. The guy wouldn’t be going anywhere for a while, long enough for him to get a head start with the two in the back. He had a long drive ahead of him. He needed to make time before Crane and Morton were missed.

 

~<<>>~

 

Jamie came to aware he was laying on something hard and cold. Concrete? He tried to push himself up off the floor. That’s when he realized his hands were tied behind his back. The darkness he found himself in spun maddeningly, the edges of his vision graying out as he struggled to sit up. His stomach heaved and churned, the acid taste of bile rising alarmingly fast in the back of his throat. Realizing that his mouth was taped shut, Jamie stopped struggling and held still, hoping to calm his rolling stomach. His head was pounding in time to his heartbeat. Thud-thud-thud…

 

Another wave of nausea rocketed through him, forcing Jamie to squeeze his eyes shut and will his insides to settle down. Calm down. Calm down. You’ll choke if you throw up…that’s not going to help anyone. Calm down. He focused on his breathing, keeping it slow and steady, taking shallow breaths as he tried to calm the rising panic.

 

Slowly his stomach settled but he was afraid to open his eyes. The room was still spinning and he couldn’t deal with the dizziness right now. Instead he tried to ascertain what he’d been tied with and if he could get free. Something was wrapped tight around his wrists, too tight for him to twist free. His fingers tingled with the lack of circulation to his hands and the cold that penetrated his body. He was wearing just his pajamas and a shirt. The concrete floor sucked the warmth from his body, sending him into almost convulsive shivering. The movement awoke the pounding in his head again.

 

He kept his eyes closed, not even sure where he was at. Concrete floor? What part of the cabin had a concrete floor? What if he wasn’t at the cabin anymore, what if he’d been taken somewhere? Where was he? How would anyone find him? What did they plan on doing with him? What had happened to Chip… Chip was bleeding on the deck…he needed to get loose and help Chip. Lee. Chip had probably been knocked out protecting Lee…his stab wound could have opened…he’d been favoring his side, had he reinjured his ribs? He should have pressed the issue when he noticed it. He had to get loose and find them.

 

Jamie opened his eyes, determined to try and get up off the floor. The first motion sent the room spinning again and he dropped back to the floor, his vision graying out once more, and finally he dropped into a deeper darkness than the one he had awakened in.

 

~<<>>~

 

Unable to raise Chip, Lee, or Jamie, Admiral Harriman Nelson was on the warpath and he didn’t give a damn whose toes he stepped on to get what he wanted. Right now he wanted his friends safe and that inner instinct, the one he had counted on in the past, was telling him that safe was the last place he was going to find anyone.

 

First he sent Sparks on home with a promise to call if he needed anything. There was nothing more the radioman could so and Nelson didn’t see the point in making him stay. His phone call to Radcliff only raised more questions than answers. Tel el-Kadir prison reported they thought Amadi had been killed in a prison riot but records were showing that his body had never been identified. They were investigating further.

 

When Nelson mentioned the name ‘al Tanzih’ Radcliff grew uncharacteristically quiet. “Harry, are you sure?” he finally dared to breath.

 

“No, Chester, I’m making it up as I go along. Oh course I’m sure! If you’ll take a minute to read over the files I sent you, you’d know what the devil I am talking about!”

 

“You don’t have to yell, damn it!” Radcliff snarled back. “Al Tanzih is the name of that group that had ties to Gamal, the one I mentioned earlier. They’re determined to carry on his vision and they’ve threatened to disrupt anything that might mean democracy for that country, including the new elections and the treaty signing with four other North African countries in a week. Jaheen’s name comes up as the number one figure for this bunch. We had no idea that they were this organized.”

 

“Well, you’d better rethink that idea. You have a list of bank accounts; you can freeze their funds. They’ve got targets marked. You know where the explosives are set now. You’ve got a list of known al Tanzih members here in the US. I suggest you get on it and start rounding up people. And while you’re at it, I want to know about Amadi. His name is all over those files Carver set up and not once do I see Jaheen’s name.”

 

“Tel el-Kadir will get back to me as soon as they can. Don’t hold your breath though.”

 

“When it comes to ONI I’ve long since learned not to expect much,” Nelson shot back acidly.

 

Radcliff ignored the insult. “Where’s Crane?”

 

Nelson balled his fist and slammed it as hard as he could against the flat surface of his desk. Papers, pencils, and other object jumped two inches before coming back down. The echo reverberated through the study. “I just handed you everything you need! What the hell do you need Crane for?” he demanded, just short of growling. Then he stopped and realized that Radcliff might not be as much of an idiot as Nelson pegged him for. “You don’t believe Tel el-Kadir. You think Amadi escaped.”

 

“That country’s been nothing but chaotic in the last few months with typical new government problems. I think Amadi escaped. He’s vowed revenge and he hasn’t exactly been quiet about it.”

 

“On who?” Nelson knew the answer but he wanted to hear it from Radcliff. The man was doling out information like quarters to a group of five-year-olds and Nelson was sick of having bits and pieces of the puzzle. He wanted the whole damn picture now!

 

“On the ones who put him in prison in the first place.” The words dripped out of Radcliff’s mouth reluctantly.

 

“Meaning me.”

 

“And Morton and Crane. You three testified at his trial. He wants you all dead, Harry.”

 

“Damn it, Chester, why not just tell me this up front?”

 

“Because we don’t have proof! When we heard Jaheen had up and switched camps and joined up with al Tanzih, it just didn’t add up. It was coincidence that Jaheen and Amadi were both serving time in the same prison and something was fishy when one was released and the other was supposedly killed.”

 

Nelson narrowed his eyes. He’d been under the impression this was new information. It sounded more like Chester had known about it for a while. “How long have you known about this?” he asked, calling Chester out.

 

Radcliff grumbled. “A while now. We needed proof before we could say anything for sure. If Crane did encounter Amadi and he can remember it, that’s all the proof we need.”

 

The two admirals exchanged a few more words and veiled insults before Nelson hung up. Nelson knew damn well why he didn’t tell Radcliff about Emad. He was sick of having little bits of information doled out to him. Right now Emad was his only link to whoever was after this card and Nelson wasn’t ready to turn loose of him yet. Until the man came around, questioning him would have to wait.

 

He tried Chip’s number one more time, growing frustrated when it rolled to voice mail like before. Lee and Jamie’s number did the same. The landline phone to the cabin simply rang before the answering machine picked up. Nelson declined to leave a message.

 

If this was the work of Amadi, could he have tracked Lee to the cabin? “Impossible,” Nelson muttered. But it should have been impossible for Amadi to break out of prison. They had no proof…yet.

 

Nelson wasn’t in the mood to wait around for whatever proof the officials at Tel el-Kadir might dredge up. He needed to move now to insure something hadn’t happened to his people. He grabbed up the still warm phone receiver and punched in some numbers from memory. He prayed Sharkey was still awake.

 

 

~<<>>~

 

A jolt woke Lee up and for a long breath he had no idea where he was. Everything was fuzzy and nothing wanted to focus properly. When he tried to move his hands to clear his eyes, he realized he couldn’t move them. Blinking some more to clear his vision he was finally able to focus and get a better idea of where he was.

 

It looked like he was in the back of a van or other such vehicle and leaning with his back against the wall. Tugging told him he was secured somehow to the van’s side. To his right was a mesh wire divider, covered on the other side with a black curtain. To his left were the van’s double doors. In front of him, leaning heavily to one side, was Chip Morton. His temple had a deep ugly gash on it. Blood had dried on the side of his head and his once white tee shirt, was stained a deep rusty brown. Chip’s head wobbled as the van bounced and jostled along.

 

Lee strained, pulling against whatever had him secured to the van’s walls, but apparently their kidnappers had anticipated things. Tugging and feeling with his fingers told Lee he’d been cuffed to something—it felt like a pipe or something, welded to the van wall. Chain was wrapped around his and Chip’s ankles so tight his bare toes tingled. Lee sighed. It was getting annoying waking up like this.

 

“Chip.” Lee tried calling Morton’s name, softly, so as to not draw much attention. Morton didn’t move. “Chip.” A little louder the second time.

 

“Ouch,” came Morton’s declaration. He did not open his eyes but Lee could tell by his breathing that he was awake. “Jamie, make it go away,” the blond pleaded.

 

“Ah, Jamie isn’t here.” A cold sliver of fear lanced through Lee as he wondered where his friend was. Had they left him behind, was he dead? God, don’t let Jamie be dead…

 

Chip opened one eye. “If he isn’t here, where is he?”

 

“I don’t know. I don’t even know where here is.”

 

“I would say we’re in trouble,” the blond observed, closing his eye. Lee could tell he was working with his hands, twisting and testing his own bonds. “I hate handcuffs,” Morton announced sourly.

 

“If I had some wire…” Lee said, trailing off.

 

“Yeah, well, if I had more sense, neither of us would be here.” Chip’s expression darkened as he continued to twist. There just wasn’t any give in the handcuffs. With his eyes still closed against the pounding of his head he straightened up and leaned against the wall of the van. “Something clipped me when I stuck my head out the door. I should have figured there would be two of them.”

 

“You know everything now?” Lee countered. Chip pried open the same eye he’d opened earlier.

 

“It’s my job to anticipate. I should have figured that there would be two of them.” He promptly closed his eye. “I wouldn’t have tried to pull off something like that on my own. I’d have taken backup. I should have known better.”

 

“We had no way of knowing there would be one of them, much less two,” Lee argued.

 

Chip stayed silent this time. Lee knew his friend well enough to know the blond was having a nice long guilt trip and that nothing he could say at this point would change things. Morton blamed himself for this mess. He’d be mad for a long while yet. Of course, that didn’t bode well for their kidnappers. If Chip got loose, it wouldn’t be pretty.

 

They continued to drive on. The metal walls of the van were cold against Lee’s bare back and from time to time he’d shiver, unable to stop. He never got the chance to put his shirt back on and the only thing he’d been wearing was his pajama bottoms. Chip at least had a shirt on but neither was wearing any shoes. They were at a definite disadvantage here.

 

“What do you think happened to Jamie?” came Chip’s quiet question.

 

“I don’t know. I hope he’s still alive.”

 

This time both angry blue eyes snapped opened and narrowed. “God as my witness, I swear, Lee, if they killed him…”

 

“You’ll have to stand in line,” Lee growled back.

 

Chip’s expression turned calculating. “There are two of them, one for each of us,” he reasoned. Lee had to grin. Even when plotting murder Chip was reasonable!

 

Lee lost track of time as the van apparently rambled over every ditch and pothole in the county. Something about that thought seemed familiar and he tried to chase it down but got nothing in return. Frustrated and uncomfortable, there was absolutely nothing Lee could do. There was no getting loose and no way of knowing how long they’d already been on the move. Apparently Chip was also tired of the ages-long drive. With this eyes closed and his head tilted back, he asked softly, “Are we there yet?”

 

Lee just shook his head. Then he had a thought. “Chip, don’t you usually check in with the admiral in the morning?”

 

“In the morning and the evening. I expect he’s wondering where we are at.”

 

A small predatory grin began to form on the young commander’s face. “How do you think he’ll act when he can’t reach us?”

 

The grin was echoed by Morton. “Not well.”

 

~<<>>~

 

Sharkey had taken the Flying Sub out at night before but he wasn’t the skipper. The skipper could make the little yellow craft do things he wasn’t even sure the admiral designed her for. He was a little nervous about taking her out in the night like this.  He wasn’t even sure if he’d be piloting so he was more than a little relieved when Nelson took the controls and eased the little craft from her berth under Seaview’s nose.

 

Nelson began explaining what he knew so far but the names involved were unfamiliar to the COB. “So just who is this Amadi character anyhow? If he’s got it in for you, why haven’t I ever heard of him until now?” Sharkey didn’t like the idea of some fanatical fruit bat out there gunning for the admiral. Granted there were probably several of them loose already but at least he knew their names!

 

“We ran into Amadi before you came aboard, Chief.” Nelson explained the circumstances surrounding General Gamal’s magnus beam and how Seaview had very nearly been crushed under its power.

 

“So this Amadi guy, you think he escaped prison and now he’s here in the States? And he wants revenge for you sending him to prison?”

 

Nelson shrugged. “Admiral Radcliff thinks so. It’s probably just an accident that he even encountered Lee. If it had been anyone else other than Lee at the drop with Carver we may never have even heard about this.”

 

Sharkey slumped in the co-pilot’s chair and crossed his arms over his chest. “You’d think ONI would have some sense and let you in on this. I mean, if the guy is after you, I’d think that would be something you’d need to know.”

 

“Sharkey, I think you’ve pretty much summed up Chip’s thinking when it comes to ONI and Lee,” Nelson said with a wry grin.

 

Nelson began to question himself as they drew closer to the valley. Should he have brought more back up? What if he and Sharkey weren’t enough? What if…

He shook his head, trying not to drown in a sea of ‘what ifs’. There was a reasonable excuse for why no one was answering their phone. Nelson hoped that he’d land the flying sub and there would be three people on the dock, fishing, without a clue to the danger they might be in.


Something inside Nelson told him he was likely to find a whole other scenario.

 

~<<>>~

 

“We’ve stopped,” Lee whispered.

 

Chip lifted his head, listening. “About time,” he grumbled.

 

They heard a door on the front of the van open then slam shut. Lee noticed that it wasn’t as bright was before and he figured they must have pulled the van inside some building. A garage or a warehouse maybe.

 

Footsteps on concrete…Lee strained to listen for voices but all he could hear was a muffled murmur. Frustrated that he couldn’t hear more he pressed his ear to the side of the van, hoping to catch something—any clue as to where they were and what might be about to happen to them. 

 

There was nothing else that Lee could hear. Some kind of motor started up, distorting anything else Lee might be listening for. Even Chip perked up at the sound.

 

“What the heck is that?” he asked.

 

Lee shook his head. “Dunno. I was trying to hear what they wanted to do with us or even where we are, but that thing started up.”

 

“Sounds like a forklift,” Chip said, listening.

 

“It does,” Lee agreed, focusing on following the sound. The forklift, or whatever it was, continued to run for what Lee estimated to be another ten or fifteen minutes. Then as abruptly as it started, the sound stopped.

 

Footsteps on the concrete again and this time the doors of the van opened. Lee and Chip looked up. It was Godzilla from the cabin. Looking a little groggy and red-eyed but he was up and functioning.

 

“Miss me?” the man asked with a grin.

 

“Sort of like I miss dysentery,” Chip mouthed off. The big man simply continued to smile as he climbed up into the back of the van. He produced a set of keys and unlocked the chain securing Lee first. His hands still cuffed behind his back, Lee expected Godzilla to unlock the chain around his ankles. He was surprised when instead he was grabbed by his feet and dragged out of the van.

 

Lee found himself hauled out like a fish on a line and unceremoniously dumped onto a wooden pallet beside a large, immensely heavy stockless anchor. Godzilla still had the chain that had secured Lee to the van and he deftly wrapped it around the ring bolted onto the anchor’s shaft. He then threaded the chain between the short links of Lee’s handcuffs and locked everything down tight.

 

Knowing it was useless, Lee nevertheless felt obliged to tug at least once on the chains. The anchor didn’t even budge. The thing had to weigh at least a ton, if not more. In a few minutes Chip joined him, secured the same way.

 

The forklift started up again. The pallet lifted off the ground about three feet and jolted slightly as the forklift rolled forward. Godzilla maneuvered the forklift into a smaller room off the main warehouse. Once inside, he lowered the pallet and backed the lift out of the room.

 

“I’ve heard of the ‘old ball and chain’ but this is going to extremes, don’t you think?” Chip asked as he tugged on his chains.

 

Godzilla returned. “Stick around fellas. Wouldn’t want you to miss out on things,” he said and proceeded to pull down the sliding door. Both Lee and Chip heard the rattle of chains as the door was locked from the outside. To add injury to insult, the room was abruptly dropped into total blackness.

 

“I guess even the bad guys need to cut their energy bills,” Chip replied dryly.

 

~<<>>~

 

Despite Nelson’s fervent wish, no one was on the dock when he brought the Flying Sub in for a water landing. He barely had the patience to put the systems on standby, so anxious was he to get ashore and find out what the hell was going on.

 

Sharkey got their gear together and was ready when Nelson popped the hatch. The cabin looked quiet and unspoiled. “Split up. You take the backside, through the kitchen. I’ll go around front,” Nelson ordered. Sharkey nodded and headed off, thankful he’d been here before and knew the cabin.  

 

Nelson wasn’t sure what to expect as he took the front steps cautiously, gun in hand, making as little noise as he could. Something just wasn’t right. The place was too quiet. There were too many lights on for this time of night. Plus Lee would have heard the Flying Sub come in. The man might be half-crazy with a fever but he’d know the sound of FS1. That Lee wasn’t on the dock to meet them had Nelson more than deeply concerned.

 

The living room was in complete shambles. The table that sat in the center of the room was smashed to pieces. Furniture was overturned, lamps lay broken on the floor…the more Nelson saw, the sicker he got. When he heard Sharkey’s yell he only got sicker.

 

Moving around the piles of debris, Nelson followed Sharkey’s voice to the kitchen and the back deck. Francis was bent over a small pool of blood, drying in the night air.

 

That did it for Nelson. He plowed through the kitchen heading for the stairs. “Lee! Chip!” he called out for those two first, and found neither in their rooms. Both rooms had been tossed though, drawers pulled free from the dressers, clothes thrown in the floor. Chip’s laptop sat on the bed, the monitor attached to the keyboard by just a few frayed wires.

 

“Jamie!” Nelson called out to the last member of the group, praying for an answer. He made his way to his room, the room he’d given to Jamie since he himself wouldn’t be there. It was also turned upside down as whoever went through everything in a failed attempt to find the card Carver had hidden, thinking Lee had it now.

 

“Sharkey! Check everywhere!” Nelson bellowed. He could hear the sounds of cabinets being pulled open and slamming shut. His stomach sour with worry, Nelson searched the closets, under the beds, and outside the windows for some sign of his friends.

 

Damn. He forgot the cellar.

 

A few years ago he had a wine cellar included in the cabin, using a small closet off the laundry room as the entrance. The cellar wasn’t big but it was enough to hold a few good-sized racks. Nelson abandoned the search of the rooms and headed for the laundry room.

 

The door originally didn’t have a lock, since it was just a closet, but Paul, the cabin’s caretaker, suggested he install a small latch and padlock at eye level. Nelson distinctly remembered telling Chip when he contacted Paul to unlock the wine cellar.

 

It was locked now.

 

All it took was one shot and the remains of the padlock fell to the floor with a metallic thud. Nelson hit the lights and shouldered the door open to thunder down the short set of steps. At the bottom stair he stopped. “Jamie? Lee?” he called out. His stomach curdled when there was no answer. Still, he had to look. He rounded the corner of the last rack to find Jamie on the floor, hands bound behind him and unconscious. Tape was wrapped around his head, over his ears, covering his mouth.

 

“Jamie…” Nelson dropped to his knees. As gently as possible he pulled the tape away and checked the doctor for other injuries, quickly finding the goose egg on the back of Jamieson’s head. Nelson’s hand came away stained with blood.

 

Jamie groaned and rolled his head. “Hush, Doc. You’ve gotten yourself in a bit of trouble,” Nelson said softly as he fished out his pocketknife and cut the electrical cord from Jamie’s wrists and ankles. The doctor’s eyes fluttered and slowly opened.

 

“Ad’mir’l…” he mumbled, the words getting stuck in his throat.

 

“Easy, Jamie. Catch your breath. It’s alright now.” Nelson helped the doctor sit up as Jamie cradled his aching head in his hands, trying to remember what had happened.  He jerked his head up, an action he regretted, as his brains seemed to collide with the back of his skull.

 

“Lee, where’s Lee? And Chip…he’s unconscious on the deck…I have to…” Jamie made a valiant effort to get to his feet but the room spun maddeningly. He ended up grabbing onto Nelson for support.

 

“I thought I told you to take it easy,” Nelson chided as he guided the unsteady physician to the stairs, where he settled him on the bottom step.

 

Jamie glared at the admiral ineffectually. “I’ll be fine in a few minutes,” the doctor said weakly.

 

“Oh no, you don’t. You’re not going to try that line of bull on me. You’re not fine, you’ve got a bump on the back of your head the size of a melon, and you can’t even keep your eyes straight. You’re going to sit right there for a minute,” Nelson ordered.

 

Jamie grumbled but did as ordered. “How’s Chip? I think he was bleeding.”

 

“They’re not here,” Nelson said.

 

Jamie blinked. “Where are they? Chip needs…he was bleeding and Lee…” Jamie trailed off as Nelson watched him closely.

 

“Sir?” Sharkey appeared at the top of the steps. “No sign.”

 

Nelson nodded, having accepted that Lee and Chip were gone. It was sickening but it was a fact. “Get the Flying Sub ready for takeoff. We’re leaving as soon as I can get Doc on his feet.”

 

“Aye, sir,” was Sharkey’s quick response and he vanished.

 

“Clearly something went wrong. The cabin is a mess. Do you have any idea what happened?” Nelson asked gently.

 

“We were attacked,” Jamie started as Nelson carefully helped him to his feet. “One guy, he was huge. Chip heard him and came out of his room to investigate but he was knocked out and the guy went looking for Lee. He didn’t realize I was here and I was able to sneak up on him later and with Lee’s help I pumped him full of a fast acting sedative. Well, I tried. I ended up clubbing him with a table leg.”

 

“Inventive,” Nelson said, more than a little amused at the mental image of Jamie knocking out someone with a broken table leg.

 

 “Whatever worked. It was enough to keep him under for a while. Not enough, apparently.”

 

“Don’t start blaming yourself. These people are resourceful,” Nelson remarked as they navigated the steps.

 

“I need to get my medical bag. And change clothes. I can’t go wondering around dressed like this. ”

“I’ll take care of it. What else happened?”

 

Jamie didn’t realize it but he was leaning heavily on Nelson’s stocky frame. “Must have been two of them. Lee and Chip were waiting for the first guy to come around. I heard something later and I went to investigate. I found Chip unconscious on the deck. Then something smacked into me and the lights went out. Next thing I knew I was waking up with you standing over me. Now I know how Lee feels.”

 

Nelson chuckled softly. “You and he can swap experiences when I figure out where the hell he and Chip are.”

 

“So who’s behind this? And where did they take Lee and Chip?” Jamie asked.

 

Nelson growled. “I don’t know where, but I have a pretty good idea of who.”

 

~<<>>~

 

“How long have we been here?” Chip asked as they sat in the pitch-blackness.

 

“Too long,” came Lee’s quick reply. “Honestly, I have no idea. Feels like a few hours.”

 

“This is going to get ugly, you know that. This Jaheen thinks you have his card, whatever the heck it is. You know how he thinks he’s gonna make you give it up,” Chip supplied sourly.

 

“Yeah,” came Lee’s sick sounding answer. “Chip, I’m sorry for dragging you into this.”

 

“Save it for later. You can buy me dinner when we get out of this mess,” Chip replied.

 

The light abruptly came to life, blinding both men. The sound of the chains on the door indicated someone was coming in. Squinting until they were adjusted to the light, they could only wait as the door was pushed up.

 

Chip could only stare as the former Major Amadi strode into the room, looking smug. He saw Chip staring at him and the smug look deepened.

 

“You remember me, how touching.  Lt. Cmdr. Morton, wasn’t it? You testified against me at my trial.”

 

“And I’ll do it again—at your next trail for kidnapping and attempted murder. How the hell did you get out? I thought yours was a life sentence,” Morton spat angrily.

 

“Crane didn’t tell you?”

 

“Must have slipped my mind,” Lee muttered. Chip heard something odd in Lee’s voice and he dared a quick glance at his friend. The brunet’s eyes had that faraway look---a look Chip had seen before. Lee was remembering—and trying to cover their sixes while he was at it.

 

“Crane’s not in the habit of cluing me in on everything that goes on. I just get told what I need to know,” Chip said, hoping his tone sounded sour enough to be believable.

 

The look on Amadi’s face clearly said he wasn’t buying it. “Lies. Captain, I’m going to give you a chance to make it easy on yourself. Tell me where the card is and I won’t have to carve your friend up into very small pieces.”

 

Lee faced Amadi. “I told you once. I don’t know where your card is. Carver died before he could talk. You slit your own throat on this. Do whatever you want to him, I can’t tell you what I don’t know!”

 

The standoff seemed to last for days. Finally Amadi stood down. “Think about it.” The door was pulled down and they heard the rattle of chains again. Once more the lights went out.

 

“That went well,” Chip said absently.

 

“Didn’t it, though? What did you tell the admiral?”

 

Chip blinked, wondering how Lee made the huge mental leaps on occasion. Must come from hanging around the admiral… “I told him you were starting to remember—and you’d better tell me what you just remembered, else I’ll kick your six when I get loose—and that you had remembered something about a blue outlet.”

 

“I do remember. All of it. Amadi IS Jaheen.”

 

“Okay, I’m blond but I’m not stupid. Explain.”

 

“Jaheen and Amadi were in Tel el Kadir prison together. Amadi told me earlier. There was a prison riot, Jaheen was killed, and Amadi took his place. When Jaheen’s sentence was up, Amadi was released instead. He’s trying to sabotage the peace accords as revenge for him being sent to prison. When he found out it was me who met Carver for the swap, he saw a chance at revenge.”

 

“I take it he has no idea we’re friends?”

 

“I was off boat when he was on Seaview. He may have seen us talking during the trial and he knows we were both at the cabin, but he would have no way of knowing for sure we’re friends,” said Lee

 

“Then we need to keep it that way,” Chip affirmed.

 

“My thinking as well. So you told the admiral about the blue outlet?”

 

“Yeah. You think he put the pieces together?”

 

“This is Admiral Nelson we’re talking about here. With any luck he has that damn card and already turned it over to ONI.”

 

~<<>>~

 

“I’m not staying. You need me,” Will said with an odd glow in his eyes. He’d found time to change, ditching the nightclothes he’d been wearing and digging out a gray polo shirt and black trousers. Nelson had been trying to convince the doctor that he needed to go to Med Bay and have that knot on the back of his head tended to but Jamie abruptly cut him off, one of the few times he’d ever dared cross Nelson. It didn’t matter to him that Nelson was technically his boss and superior officer. He’d taken an oath: I will remember that I remain a member of society with special obligations to all my fellow human beings. He knew Lee wasn’t in top shape and he had no idea what Chip might be suffering from by now. He couldn’t stay behind. His own injuries could damn well take a back seat for the moment. “Please don’t question me, Admiral.”

 

Nelson stared at the doctor, not surprised when the man stood up to him. Jamie was almost as brazen as Lee and for the same reasons. Neither man stood down when it came to the welfare of another. “Alright. But when this is over, you go to Med Bay and get checked out.”

 

“I’ll be right behind Lee and Chip,” Jamie said. And you, once this is all done and over with, Jamie thought, fairly certain none of them would get out of this without a few more bruises. Nelson was a lot like Lee in that respect, ignoring his own safety in favor of others.

 

Nelson brought the Flying Sub in for a landing. Only Lee was as familiar with the craft and Nelson quickly ran through the shutdown sequence. Jamie unbuckled his harness and grabbed the heavy medical bag he’d managed to salvage from the cabin. Miracle of miracles it had gone untouched during the wild search for the mysterious card Lee was supposed to have.

 

Upon landing, instead of heading toward Med Bay as Sharkey had expected, the trio instead grabbed a Jeep at the dock and drove up to the institute’s lockup, called the brig for simplicity’s sake. Once there, Nelson led the way inside where he found Neil Hawkins, the head of security, a little sleepy-eyed from having been awakened in the middle of the night, but on top of things. “Is he awake yet?” Nelson grumbled, his voice like distance thunder. Sharkey was certain he’d felt the floor vibrate with the force of the question.

 

Neil nodded. “Came to a while ago. He’s been quiet though. You want to question him?”

 

“No. Bring him out here.” Nelson’s order caused Neil and Sharkey both to stare questioningly at Nelson. “Did I stutter?” the admiral asked.

 

“No, sir. Give me a few minutes.” Neil, unable to hide the puzzlement on his face, vanished into another room.

 

Jamie, staying quiet, was confused as to what exactly was going on. “Who are we waiting for?” he asked softly.

 

“His name is Emad, and I think he’s an operative for a group known as al Tanzih. You might say we met at a motel,” Nelson replied with a smirk.  “Sharkey, we’re going to need the car again.”

 

Sharkey dug for his cell phone and made a quick call to the garage. He confirmed that a driver would be on his way up shortly with the car. The chief was trying to keep up with the admiral and failing miserably. He had no idea what the man was up to and trying to think like him made Francis’s head hurt.                             

 

A few minutes later Neil returned with the man from the motel. He glared at Sharkey, obviously remembering who had clubbed him. Neil wasn’t taking too many chances. The man held his cuffed hands low as he shuffled along. Neil handed Sharkey the key.

 

“Let’s go for a ride, Emad,” Nelson said. Neil gave his employer a surprised look.

 

“Sir?” he asked cautiously.

 

“I’ve got this under control, Neil. Don’t worry about me,” Nelson said, taking Jafeer by the arm and steering him out of the building. Jamie and Sharkey trailed after, Sharkey muttering under his breath something just beyond the doctor’s hearing.

 

Sharkey often had trouble keeping up with a man as brilliant as Admiral Nelson. But this stunt beat everything the COB had learned about the admiral except for one thing—Nelson was nothing but unconventional.

 

Still in handcuffs, Emad was prodded none too gently into the back of the car. Nelson slid smoothly behind the wheel as Jamie settled into the passenger’s seat after stowing his medical bag in the trunk, leaving Sharkey to accompany Jafeer in the back.

 

“Sir, ah, do you think this is a good idea?” the chief asked as he settled in.  

 

Nelson didn’t answer. He simply started the car and pulled out, headed off the grounds. Sharkey realized they were headed back to the motel. No one said a word the entire trip. As Nelson pulled the car into the abandoned parking lot, the lights glinted off another car parked off the road. Jafeer’s car. Nelson had Sharkey search the vehicle when they saw it the first time but it was a rental with nothing useful to share. Now it was going to come in handy, if for no one but Jafeer. 

 

The admiral killed the engine and got out. Sharkey and Jamie followed. Nelson jerked open the back door of the car. “Get out,” he snapped. Emad obeyed, daring not to. “Chief, unlock his cuffs.”

 

Sharkey didn’t understand what the hell was going on. The admiral had already said this might be their only link to the skipper and he was going to just turn him loose? The admiral had to have a screw loose—that was the only suggestion.

 

Once free, Emad rubbed his wrists idly. “That’s it?” he asked.

 

Nelson wasn’t through with him quite yet. With reflexes he didn’t often get the chance to use or admit to, he grabbed Emad by the throat and in one smooth motion he kicked Emad’s legs out from under him. He slammed the foreign agent against the side of the car and tightened his fingers around the man’s windpipe. Emad gasped and gagged in response.

 

“You tell Jaheen I know who he is and what he’s up to. I have the card he’s looking for and if he wants it back, he’ll release Captain Crane and Commander Morton. Do I make myself clear?”

 

Desperate for air, Emad nodded and Nelson turned loose. He leaned against the car, sucking in air as he held a hand to his sore throat. Nelson pulled something from his pocket and held it up for the still gasping man to see. It was a folded piece of paper.  Nelson stuffed it into the pocket of Emad’s shirt. “Give that to Jaheen. When he’s ready to make the swap he can contact me at that number. Understood?”

 

Nodding and afraid to speak, Emad took off at a dead run for his car. Moments later the car peeled out in a cloud of dust and gravel.

 

Sharkey expected the admiral to get back in the car but instead the older man perched on the hood of the car. “Sir?”

 

“We’re going to wait, Francis.”

 

“Ah. Wait for what, sir? You really think that this Amadi guy is gonna swap the skipper and Mr. Morton for that card?”

 

“I do, Francis. I really do. If not, I’ve run out of ideas.”

 

~<<>>~

 

 

Omar Amadi held the folded piece of paper in his hands and slowly smoothed out the creases. Emad had come back quaking in his boots, rambling about the fiery red-headed demon named Nelson and how he was willing to make a deal to get his officers back.

 

Amadi wanted more than just to make his government pay for his years in Tel al Kadir. He wanted revenge against Nelson for turning him in and refusing his asylum plea. He owed Crane and Morton for their testimony at the trial. This might be his chance to make all parties suffer for the indignities he’d been forced to suffer.

 

“McGregor!” Amadi raised his voice to catch the attention of the America mercenary. The big man heard him and jogged across the warehouse floor.

 

“Are we there yet?”  McGregor asked with a grin.

 

“Nearly. Slight change of plans though. Get the forklift. Move them to the dock. This is what I want you to do with them.” Amadi explained his idea and from the look in McGregor’s eyes, the mercenary liked the idea as well.

 

“I’ll get right on it. Shouldn’t be a problem,” he affirmed and headed off to carry out his tasks out.

 

Amadi continued to study the folded paper. He needed to formulate his plan, figure out exactly what he was going to say to the admiral. This was sure to be a trap. But two can play at this game. Nelson would find that out when he expected Crane and Morton to be let go.

 

Amadi grinned. He’d let them go alright.

 

~<<>>~

 

When the phone rang Nelson picked it up on the first ring, knowing who it was. He wasn’t surprised.

 

“Amadi,” he said by way of greeting. The voice on the other end was the same familiar and conceited tone he’d heard years before.

 

“Admiral Nelson. I have something you want.”

 

“And I have something you want. I suggest a trade.”

 

“Just like that?” Amadi asked.

 

“Just like that,” Nelson replied. “No games, no strings attached. Turn Crane and Morton loose and I give you your card.”

 

“I’d like to believe you, admiral. How do I know you haven’t already notified the authorities?”

 

“How do I know you haven’t already killed Crane and Morton?” Amadi laughed and the sound sent chills through Nelson. More than anything he wanted to put a bullet through that man’s head. 

 

“An excellent point, Admiral. However, I can assure you that Crane and Morton are both very much alive. I accept your offer.”

 

“I’m glad you’re willing to deal with me. Where?”

 

Amadi explained the directions and Nelson made mental notes. “I know the place. We’ll be there. I’ll be bringing two men with me.”

 

“Alone.”

 

“Amadi, give me a little credit. I’m not an idiot, as much as you’d like to think me one. I need someone to watch my back and the other is a doctor. Not a threat to you in the least. This keeps us both honest.” For a second Nelson thought that Amadi was going to argue.

 

“No more than that.”

 

“No more. Have my men ready.” Nelson didn’t give Amadi a chance to answer; he simply hung up on him. Dropping the phone into the pocket of his brown leather jacket, Nelson turned to Sharkey. “Call Patterson and Kowalski.”

 

Sharkey’s eyes grew as wide as dinner plates. “Admiral, you just said, that is, you told Amadi you were bringing two men.” Sharkey held up two fingers to punctuate his observation. “The four of us show up, he’s likely to shoot the skipper, Mr. Morton, and us, too!”

 

“Calm down, Francis. I didn’t get four stars by blindly running ahead. Trust me, Chief. Amadi’s only going to see the three of us.”

 

~<<>>~

 

Lee wasn’t feeling very secure right now. McGregor had come in with the forklift and carried the pallet out into the open, stopping on the edge of the dock. No matter what he and Chip tried, McGregor only grinned and refused to explain what was going on.

 

McGregor drove the forklift off and Chip started in on the handcuffs once more. “I don’t think I can slip out of these,” he complained.

 

“I think that’s the idea. I got away from him once. He’s not going to risk that again.”

 

“I think it’s awfully unsporting of him,” Chip replied.

 

McGregor was back. He puttered about the dock for a little while, completely ignoring Lee and Chip. Eventually he came back to the pallet with several lengths of chain. Both watched as chain was attached to each corner of the pallet. Then the four sections of chain were attached to a large hook.

 

“Lee, I don’t like this,” Chip said softly.

 

“Neither do I.”

 

McGregor took a good look at the two of them, as if studying each one in turn. “You two make an awful lot of noise.”

 

Ah no…went through Lee’s mind as McGregor went off in search of something. Gut instinct told him what the man was looking for and his stomach rolled when the man returned and he could see what it was: a roll of duct tape.

 

“What is it with you and that damn tape?” Lee asked. He regretted opening his mouth when the huge man backhanded him.

 

Tasting blood, Lee had no time to act as a piece of tape was slapped over his mouth. Chip got the same treatment. His mind moving in a dozen directions, Lee was trying to figure why on earth Amadi would want them quiet. Something was about to happen. It could only be a trap. He didn’t want them to warn whoever was coming. There was only one person Amadi would have gone through this much trouble for. Somehow he’d figured out a way to lure the admiral in. No, admiral, please don’t fall for it…

 

McGregor was gone and Lee realized that he’d lost track of the man. When another motor started up, Lee frantically searched to find the source. He saw Chip doing the same.

 

The sound was a dockside crane. The boom swung over the dock and lowered, dropping the load-carrying hook down to within reach. McGregor hopped out of the crane’s cab and quickly connected the hook to the chains now connected to the pallet.

 

The next thing Lee and Chip knew they were hanging suspended over the water, the wooden pallet holding them creaking under the strain of the enormous anchor and their own combined weight. The pallet swung gently in the light breeze, the chains rubbing and clanking softly like chimes. McGregor shut the crane down and walked off the dock. One by one the bank of lights over that section shut off, leaving the two men in deep shadows.

 

Chip was afraid to breath or even move, concerned that any added strain would break the slats of the pallet. He could feel the pull of gravity on them, sagging the wooden frame in the center.  If the pallet broke, the anchor would take him and Lee straight to the bottom of the bay and, tethered as they were, there would be no rescue in time.

 

~<<>>~

 

Nelson parked the car in an empty spot and got out. Every muscle and nerve was on a hair trigger. He didn’t bother with the gun, choosing to leave it in the car. At Sharkey’s puzzled expression he shrugged. “You don’t think Amadi’s going to let me keep it, do you?”

 

Sharkey had to admit that the admiral was right but he kept his anyhow. He needed to at least keep up appearances.

 

Jamie considered grabbing the bag but decided against it. He could come back for it if he needed it. He didn’t want anyone to think he might be hiding something.

 

With Nelson taking the lead, the three men walked slowly toward the warehouse. Sharkey hated the odd silence. “Why is it these guys always have some abandoned warehouse on the dock for their hideout? Why not an old mall or something?”

 

Nelson laughed softly. “Sharkey, I don’t even ask anymore.”

 

Sharkey kept the rest of his questions to himself as they neared the structure. Several figures separated themselves from the shadows and flanked them on both sides. Nelson didn’t protest, he simply let them think they had the upper hand. He gave each one a quick once over, just to be sure Lee and Chip hadn’t made an escape yet and were maybe disguised as Amadi’s people, but these were unfamiliar figures.

 

At one point they were stopped and searched. Sharkey’s gun was confiscated. They seemed puzzled when they didn’t find any weapons, or anything else, on the admiral. He just smiled enigmatically and silently invited the two to lead the way.

 

They walked through an opened, apparently mostly empty, warehouse. Amadi must have been using this for a staging area to ship his materials out. Through one side and out another—the three found themselves on a wide walkway, the bay on one side and the other side bordered by the warehouse and other various buildings. The area was poorly lit but Nelson could see the silhouettes of ships on the water, smell oil and diesel fuel, hear the sounds of ropes rubbing and chains clanking. The sounds a sailor would expect to hear.

 

Nelson trained his eyes on the bay, looking out over the expanse of water. This had to work—if he wanted Lee and Chip back, this absolutely had to work. There was no margin for error, no chance for mistakes. They had one shot.

 

Footsteps pulled Nelson’s attention away from the water. Amadi—and he was alone. Nelson was surprised. “No guards?” Nelson asked. He realized that their escort was gone. Nelson never noticed where they went but he figured they hadn’t gone far. Amadi wasn’t one to leave things to chance. He had an advantage and Nelson couldn’t see him giving that up.

 

“My gesture of goodwill,” the former head of security said. The two men faced each other, weighing, measuring, looking for some chink in the other’s armor that could be exploited and used. Nelson had over thirty years of military experience backing him. Amadi had his years as Gamal’s right hand man plus his time in prison. It was very nearly an even match.

 

“Where are my people?” Nelson finally asked. It galled him to be the one to break first but he wanted this game done and over with.

 

“Oh, they’re hanging around. The card?” Amadi held out his hand.

 

Nelson sighed. He could have held out, forced Amadi to release his men first, but he was pretty sure Amadi had other plans. Slowly Nelson unbuckled his belt. Amadi’s eyebrows lifted in surprised until Nelson undid a tiny clasp that opened the small compartment in the buckle. A small black square dropped into his hand. “Is this what you’re looking for?” He held it up between two fingers. Amadi wanted the card then Nelson was willing to give him just that.

 

“If you don’t mind?” Amadi held out his hand.

 

Every instinct screaming not to do it, Nelson dropped the small object into Amadi’s waiting hand. His fingers closed around the small square and he smiled. “Time to uphold your end of the bargain,” Nelson urged.

 

Amadi smiled. “I did promise to let your men go, didn’t I? McGregor?” Amadi raised his voice and shifted his gaze to a point above and behind Nelson and Sharkey. “Let Nelson’s captain and exec go.”

 

The bank of lights over the dock came to life with the power of the rising sun and the first thing Nelson saw was Lee and Chip, on a platform of some kind, suspended over the water. Dear God no…He hadn’t counted in this. Nelson threw Amadi a look filled with hatred and pure disgust before the clank of a break release forced Nelson’s attention away.

 

The pallet hit the water with a splash and a crash. Lee and Chip were immediately dragged under by something heavier than either of them. Nelson took two steps forward as Sharkey dove straight into the water after them. Nelson spun around but Amadi was gone.

 

The silence was deafening. Nelson hated himself for what had happened. Amadi had played him and done a fine job of it. It didn’t matter what else might happen, if Lee and Chip died…it would be his fault. He thought he could outsmart Amadi. With the information sent on to ONI, they could coordinate with the correct authorities to track down the devices and round up a good number of the el Tanzih.

 

But none of that mattered if Lee and Chip drowned now…because he thought he was smarter than Amadi.

 

On his knees by the water’s edge, Nelson could only pray and hope. Absently he registered the ripple of the impact of the platform and bits of floating debris. He hardly even noticed Jamie to his right, on his knees and staring into the water, almost as if by the sheer force of their combined will they could bring them to the surface.

 

~<<>>~

 

Ski cleared his diver’s mask and set the next charge along the wall of the dock. The water was dark and murky but he was trained to work in such conditions or worse. In the confines of a sub you had to know where everything was by touch and instinct. There was nothing blacker than darkness at twenty five hundred feet.

 

He felt the touch of Patterson’s hand on his shoulder. He glanced backwards and Pat gave him the ‘all finished’ signal. Ski returned it and he back peddled. They’d swim back to the pier and would wait for Sharkey’s signal.

 

Ski had barely started after his friend when something huge hit the water overhead. Both divers flinched as something dropped through the water, heading for the bottom. Two figures could be seen struggling as they were dragged down into the darkness.

 

Ski didn’t stop to think, he simply reacted. With Patterson behind him, Ski kicked as hard as he could after the figures…how deep was the bay in this area…how fast were they sinking…what the heck was dragging them down…Ski tried to keep his mind clear as he followed them down into the darkness.

 

~<<>>~

 

Lee’s nightmare was taking shape and there wasn’t a thing he could do to stop it. The lights snapped to life and for a brief second he saw the admiral on the pier, saw the understanding and the sheer horror written on his face before he spun to face Amadi.

 

There was a second of weightlessness before gravity grabbed on with talons of steel. The pallet plummeted to the water, broke into a million pieces on impact, and the anchor did what it was designed to. It sank, taking with it him and Chip, dragging them into the inky darkness.

 

Chip’s own eyes bugged with frantic terror for a split second before they were both pulled under. He tried to suck in as much air as he could but the tape over his mouth prevented him doing more than stealing a shallow breath though his nose. The water was over their heads and they plunged downward…into the cold…into the blackness…

 

Lee desperately struggled with the handcuffs, shredding the skin around his wrists as he pulled and tugged, losing precious oxygen as he struggled. There was no give, no release, no trick he had left, no little bit of luck on his side this time. Chip, God forgive me…Admiral…blackness was the last thing Lee saw.

 

~<<>>~

 

“I NEEDBOLT CUTTERS!” Patterson’s bellow echoed out across the water as Sharkey pulled himself up on the dock. Nelson hauled him to the top and then spun around, eyes darting around, looking for something he could use. He spotted a toolbox by the crane’s cab and made a dash for it. He rifled through the tools, coming up with a pair of heavy bolt cutters. Sharkey was on his feet, hands extended. Nelson gave them a toss and they sailed through the air into the chief’s waiting grasp.

 

Patterson kicked for the dock and as soon as he was close enough, he reached. Sharkey passed the cutters off to him and he shoved the mouthpiece back between his teeth and dove.

 

Silence once again rippled over the water. Nelson forced himself to stand still, watching the water’s surface for any sign. Lee and Chip were both excellent divers, they could hold their breath for over four minutes if they had too. But how much time had passed? They didn’t have the time to hyperventilate for a long deep dive. Did they have time to take in any air?

 

A figure suddenly exploded out of the water, towing another figure as limp as a doll. Kowalski kicked for the dock and when he was close enough Sharkey and Nelson both reached out to help haul the unconscious man to the dock. Seconds later Patterson appeared hauling what could only be Chip.

 

Both men were unconscious. The only clothes Lee wore were a pair of pale blue pajama bottoms. Chip was wearing a tee shirt and the wet material clung to his chest and abdomen. Around each wrist was a cuff, with the remains of the chain Patterson had cut through to free them. The torn and bloody skin was testament to their struggle to free themselves in the last seconds as they were pulled toward their deaths. More chain was wrapped around their ankles, so tight their feet were starting to turn blue from lack of adequate circulation.

 

“Sharkey, get my medical bag from the car,” Jamie snapped ignoring his own aches and pains, tossing aside everything but the need to bring Lee and Chip back to the living. Sharkey took off, his shoes pounding on the concrete as he headed for the car.

 

Lee was unresponsive, his bare chest still without the mechanism of breathing to instigate motion. “Lee, son, don’t do this,” Nelson pleaded. Drops of water clung to Lee’s dark lashes, catching the light and glistening like some kind of macabre diamond setting. Jamie started compressions, forcing air into the skipper's lungs, trying to breathe life back into the young commander's body. Forced into motion, water slid off Lee’s olive tanned skin leaving wet tracks in their wake…like tears…

“Damn it, Lee! Do not give up on me now. Fight for it, damn you!” Jamie swore as he pounded on Lee’s chest, forcing his lungs to expel air even as he forced more in, desperate to start the mechanism of breathing again. He dared a glance over to Chip, thankful to see Kowalski hard at work on the exec, pleading and swearing between each compression and each breath.

“Come on, Mr. Morton. Damn it, come on, breathe,” Ski swore softly, almost as if he were afraid the exec might not approve of the language. Morton’s body was still, without a sign of life. The wet shirt outlined every curve of every muscle; chest and abdominals, biceps and triceps, muscles that had been useless in freeing him from whatever had tried to drag him and Lee into eternal, suffocating blackness.  Patterson, still in possession of the bolt cutters, set to work on the chains around their ankles, cutting them free and tossing the chain aside. The links left ugly red impressions on their skin, raw and in some places bleeding where the chain had rubbed.

Jamie felt Lee shudder under his hands, felt a shaky breath start, stop, and then start again. With a choking gasp, Lee came back to life, coughing and sputtering, water pouring out of his mouth as his lungs fought to expel the foreign substance. Immediately he started shivering, his bare skin clammy in the chill night air. Nelson took over, shedding his black jacket and wrapping it around Lee as he pulled him closer, trying to hold the warmth around the younger man’s body. Lee—exhausted and without any reserves to spare—sank into the offered warmth. He barely had the energy to lift his head and watch as Jamie worked frantically over Chip. Sharkey pounded back up, the medical bag clutched tightly in his hands. “Ski, I need this shirt off,” Jamie ordered, plucking at the collar of the soaked tee shirt.

Kowalski answered by pulling free his diver’s knife and slicing through the thick material that made the collar. Jamie gave the material a yank, ripping it down the front over Chip’s sternum. Next he dove into the bag, hunting for something specific. He came up with a long syringe in a sealed plastic wrap. Jamie stripped off the wrap, expelled the air bubble, and jabbed the needle into Morton’s broad chest, empting the entire contents of the barrel.

The results were instantaneous. Like Lee, Chip shuddered, gasped then rolled as he began gagging, coughing, hacking up entirely too much water. Unable to stop he curled into a ball, shaking as his body tried to shift into shock.

“Ambulance?” Jamie asked, glancing around.

“Already covered, Doc. Patterson took care of that,” Ski answered.

Chip hacked some more, trying to talk as he made an effort to focus. “Lee...” he called out hoarsely, searching desperately for his friend.

Lee pulled himself away from Nelson’s support and reached toward Chip. Their hands came together, fingers closing around each other’s wrists in a gesture of more than brotherhood. “I thought I’d lost you…” Chip croaked, his voice nearly giving out on him.

“No,” Lee said softly, not trusting his own voice beyond a hoarse whisper. “I’m right here.”

~<<>>~

Epilogue

It took a shower, a trip to Med Bay, four hours of sleep, a trip to Med Bay, a call to Admiral Radcliff and a third trip to Med Bay to see his boys before Nelson was finally able to piece together the events of the last week.

Jamie was recovering. After they returned, Nelson forced him to live up to his promise to have himself examined. The result was a diagnosis of a mild concussion and had him stuck in Med Bay under the watchful eye of Dr. Tabitha Miles, a young physician recruited by Jamieson himself. Her ability to be totally unswayed by pleas, promises, and threats was the very reason he’d hired her and it was now backfiring on him. Nothing he did or said could convince Dr. Miles to release him for at least forty-eight hours.

Lee and Chip were both under close observation. Lee’s stab wound required serious cleaning and rebandaging, and his torso was once again wrapped. His just-starting-to-heal-ribs were cracked again and he was on limited movement until further notice. His wrists and ankles were also wrapped in bandages, over an antibacterial ointment. His memory had fully returned. He said the shock of seeing Amadi again was like a board to the back of his head and it all came back in a rush.

Chip had a concussion, the result of having his head first smashed into a wall and then from whatever he’d been hit with the second time. The constant headache was wearing on the blond and he was spending most of his time asleep. Likewise, his wrists and ankles were raw and shredded and now covered in ointment and bandages.

Since both men had aspirated water on their uncontrolled dive they were being watched carefully for signs of pneumonia. So far things were looking good but it was barely eight hours since they’d been admitted. Chip already had a history and Lee’s own system was weakened by injury and shock. They were being watched very closely indeed.

Nelson stopped in to check on everyone as soon as he cleared the final details up with Radcliff. He found Jamie and Chip asleep, but Lee refused to give up so easily. “You should get some rest,” Nelson urged as he pulled a chair up to Lee’s bedside.

Crane frowned. “I will. I just wanted to be awake when you came in.”

“Something you wanted to say?”

Lee’s eyes drifted downward. “For a second I actually thought I was going to die. I didn’t know you had Patterson and Ski in the water.”

 

Nelson grinned. “They were my ace in the hole—my plan B, if you will.”

 

Lee laughed gently. “Always have a plan B,” he said.

 

“You’re learning,” Nelson replied, amused. “If Amadi stalled about turning you two back over to me I had Ski and Patterson lay a line of charges along the dock wall. Sharkey’s watch had a tiny transmitter built into it, and he would have signaled when to set the charge and distract Amadi enough so that we could all dive into the bay. Ski had a boat ready for us. I didn’t count on Amadi being a step ahead of me.”

 

“It’s not your fault. Amadi never planned to let us go. He never actually said what he was going to do with us but he would have never turned us over back to you.”

 

“You could have died. You damn near did. I thought I could outsmart that bastard.”

 

“Every day is that risk, sir. That’s part of what I have to say to you. I’ve never had the chance or taken the time to actually say thank you.”

 

Nelson blinked. “Thank me? Lee, I…you…you both could have been killed. What the blazes do you want to thank me for?”

 

“For letting me skipper Seaview—for being a part of the institute. For allowing me to...be your friend.”

 

Shocked beyond words, Nelson could only stare. “The pleasure has been and always will be mine. I value you and Chip and Jamie, irritating worrywart that he is. It’s not easy sometimes, I know that. You’re…you’re my family, as much as Edith.” For a long time neither man said much else. Lee—exhausted from his own internal struggle and the activity of the last few hours—yawned, unable to hide it. Nelson smiled at him. “You need to rest. Get some sleep. When you’re out of here, the four of us will go out for a nice dinner.”

 

“I owe Chip dinner anyhow.” Lee mumbled. He couldn’t keep his eyes open any longer and he stopped fighting, letting the calm peacefulness of a nightmare-free sleep claim him.

 

Nelson got to his feet and walked softly toward the door. As much as he would have liked to have told Lee, this wasn’t over. Amadi had gotten away. At some point he was going to have to break that to both men but for now they just needed to heal and feel safe. There was no telling when or where Amadi might pop up again.

 

Nelson wasn’t sure who won this round. Amadi’s scheme was ruined and his organization would be slowly hunted down. Now that it was known that he was actually alive, he was a fugitive. His name and face were on every terrorist watch list in at least a dozen countries. Death was the only thing that would stop him now.

 

“I’ll do better next time, son,” Nelson whispered from the door. Despite what Lee might say, he blamed himself. It couldn’t happen again. “I promise.”

 

~<<>>~

 

 

The card was once again back in Amadi’s possession. The bank accounts, the names, all the information he pulled together for operating in this country, it was his once again. He inserted the small card into the reader and waited for the information to load. He smiled, seeing the files that had been there before Carver stole it from him.

 

He clicked on the file he knew was a listing of various bank accounts. The smile he had been wearing faded as a new document loaded. It wasn’t a list of bank accounts. Instead it was a simple word document with line of type.

 

You really didn’t think I was going to give you all this information back, now did you?

 

“Damn you, Nelson!” Amadi yelled, slamming his closed fist against the table, causing everything on the desk to jump. Scowling, he leaned forward, staring at the screen. “Laugh at me if you will, Nelson. You will regret it.”

 

 

 

 

End

 

srh

 



[1] See short story “The Expert”--SRH

[2] Tovex—a type of explosive

[3] See short story “Lost”--SRH

[4] The Bug—Mary Chapin Carpenter, 1992

[5] See short story “Lost”--SRH

[6] See short story “Grave Consequences”--SRH

[7] See short story “Breakfast”—SRH

Author’s Note: Major Amadi turned up in “The Magnus Beam” and his fate was always left a bit nebulous. I always imagined if he turned up he’d have it in for Nelson.