Note: This started as an epilogue to my last story ‘Stalker’ but grew a little in the process of writing! My thanks to Liz and Kim for their help and suggestions – any errors or misconceptions are mine alone. Lt. James is borrowed once again with the kind permission of R.L. Keller – his creator.
* Sequel to 'Stalker'
Lee turned over, dragging the sheet with
him and hauling at the blankets as they slithered towards the floor. He half sat, punched the pillow into some
semblance of a comfortable shape and, turning it over, flopped back down hoping
that its cooler side would alleviate his aching head. He gave it five full minutes, while he
contemplated the events of the past twelve hours, before giving up. He flipped off the covers and grabbed the khaki
pants that he’d dropped on the end of the bunk earlier when he’d been ordered
Jerking them on quickly he reached into
his closet for a fresh shirt, the other having been rolled into a ball and
tossed into the laundry hamper. Lee
doubted the stains would ever come out.
Yanking on clean socks he stuffed his feet into his oxfords and sat on
the bunk to lace them. He closed his
eyes briefly, tightly, allowing his head to drop dejectedly onto his
chest. There had been so much
blood. The small amount of dinner he’d
managed to force down threatened to make a re-appearance. He swallowed determinedly and stood. Coffee, he needed coffee. Cookie ensured the brew was kept going 24/7. Coffee and a walkabout. The crew were used to seeing their skipper
patrol the boat at all hours of the day and night. Nothing unusual about that. He’d hit the wardroom then check in on the
control room even though the boat was at dead stop for the night, as ordered by
the admiral after the attack. Hell, he
could even add
The door opening had the few crewmembers present in the mess lifting their heads. All but one. Kowalski cradled the coffee mug in his hands, its contents long since cold. Seated alone at a table he didn’t react to the shifting of his fellow rates and barely lifted his head as khaki pant legs brushed by him. He vaguely heard the gurgle and hiss of the coffee urn when someone dispensed a serving of Cookie’s wicked brew, mired as he was in his misery. Hunching his shoulders further he hoped to give off the vibe that he really, really, didn’t want company. Khaki clad legs dropping onto the bench opposite and a mug clunking onto the table told him he was out of luck. Reluctantly he raised pained brown eyes, prepared to chew Sharkey out – and encountered equally tormented amber ones.
“Skipper.” He was about to stand, belatedly realising that the few hands present had already done so, when his CO motioned him with a nonchalant wave to remain seated.
“Guess Doc threw you out too, Ski.” It was more statement than question as Lee inhaled the fragrant brew – it being inconsequential that he’d already downed two mugs full in the wardroom – before sipping cautiously. “Damn, that’s hot.”
“Yeah, Cookie made a fresh pot just before he went off duty a few minutes ago.” At his captain’s raised eyebrow, he shrugged. “Guess he stayed on a bit in case there was any news. Just got rid of him and the chief. Actually, thought you were Sharkey come back.” His admission was just a tad sheepish.
Crane nodded, warmed by the closeness of the bond his crew had forged and that Ski felt comfortable enough at his unexpected presence in the crew’s mess to drop the CPO’s rank. It hadn’t always been so. He felt a brief, inappropriate, grin tug at the corners of his mouth as he recalled his initial meeting with the rate. He’d clocked Ski but good. And had seen enough of the seaman’s innate ability since then to know that he was lucky the then Chief of the Boat, Curley Jones, had intervened when he had. Otherwise he’d have been flat on his back on the deck plates of the control room and that would have been a hell of an introduction to his new crew. As it was, it had taken him long enough to resurrect himself from that inauspicious entry. If it hadn’t been for Chip….
Chip. The muscles around his heart seized – he would swear it. He suddenly had difficulty breathing and desperately attempted to hide the tremor in his hand as he placed the coffee mug carefully back on the table, wrapping both hands around the ceramic.
“They’ll be OK, sir.” Kowalski’s tone lacked the confidence that his quietly spoken words tried to invoke. But Lee nodded dutifully, badly wanting to believe. Needing to re-assure both Ski and the other crewmembers that might overhear their soft voiced conversation. He missed the short inclination of Ski’s head that suddenly had the few remaining rates needing to be somewhere else. By the time he lifted his head from the contemplation of the swirling brew in his cup the mess had miraculously cleared out. He only vaguely noticed it.
Ski was one of the very few people he felt even slightly comfortable letting go with. Since shortly after their first inauspicious meeting Kowalski had aligned himself as Lee’s go-to man. He was Lee’s preferred diving partner, much as Patterson was Chip’s. He squeezed his eyes tightly shut. If only he could shut out the memories as easily as the light. He felt the mug being tugged gently from his hands and opened his eyes.
“Much more force on that and it’ll shatter, Skipper. And I think doc’s got his hands full already. He won’t thank you for….” He trailed off at the look on Crane’s face.
Naked misery. He’d allowed himself to forget just how young his commanding officer really was – barely four years older than he was. But he’d packed so much into his life, led with such ease, held his rank with such insouciance that it was difficult not to see him as one with greater seniority in years. Right now he felt like the elder, the comforter. It was hard not to smile at the irony. What a role reversal. But he knew what his skipper was going through. The agony of waiting for news; the clawing at his gut in case that news was not what he wanted to hear; the guilt. Hell, yeah, he was with the skipper all the way on that one! Shoulda, woulda, coulda.
Should have been the one out there in the first place. Would have done it different. Maybe. It had been a close call. Could have taken the pain for his friend, for both his friend and his superior officer. He knew exactly where Lee Crane was coming from – it was infinitely harder to be a watcher than a participant. And they’d both been forced to watch it go down from inside the sub. His own stomach threatened to revolt.
He stood, suddenly restless. Grabbing both mugs he re-filled them and sat down again, shoving one across the table.
Lee latched on to it gratefully. The warmth seeping through helped stem the coldness inside him. “If only we’d had some warning. Called them back in before those sharks got within an ass’s roar of them.”
Ski was already shaking his head. “No way anyone could have predicted they’d react that way, Skipper. I was watching the sonar like a hawk and, believe me, if I’d a hint that diving party was in any danger they’d’ve been out of there so quick you couldn’t blink. None of us have ever seen sharks move in that fast with no provocation. It’s like… like they were programmed to attack. But the exec and the guys weren’t doing anything to get them in such a… a frenzy. I just don’t understand. Even the admiral couldn’t explain it.”
It was Lee’s turn to shake his head – the ‘blame game’ in full flow. “Doesn’t change the fact that two men are dead and two badly injured.” The words ‘because I didn’t get them out of there when the sharks first approached’ remained unspoken.
The senior rating wouldn’t argue with his CO – even when he guessed what he was thinking. “Those sharks were just plain curious when they first showed up, Sir. Some of ‘em were little more than half grown, Skipper. Mr. Morton would have laughed his head off if you’d recalled them cause of that. Something happened out there to spook those creatures. Something or someone.”
Lee’s whiskey coloured eyes narrowed at the darkly uttered words. “There was nothing else out there, Ski. Nothing on radar or sonar other than the diving party and those sharks. What are you getting at?”
Ski shrugged, clearly uncomfortable. “I’m not sure I even know, Skipper. Nothing that I can explain exactly. Just a...a… feeling that that wasn’t no accident out there. But there ain’t nothing I can base it on.”
A frisson of unease wound down Lee’s back, exacerbating the coldness that sat in his stomach. “What you’re saying… that the diving party was a deliberate target? But why? And how?” He stood; movement always helped his thought processes. Unconsciously he began to pace the small confines of the mess, unconsciously twisting the Academy ring on his left hand. “They were just bringing in one of the admiral’s deep growth plankton research projects. Nothing top secret or even classified. It makes no sense.”
Kowalski leaned forward, recognising that Crane’s innate curiosity had now been roused. “I don’t know, sir. I’m not sure I’m even on the right track. But those sharks were not out to attack from the off. Otherwise they wouldn’t’ a had the cubs with them. Something out there got them real riled up. Caused their curiosity to switch to aggression. I’ve never seen anything like the speed of their attack. Like they were hyped up on some kind of drug or something.”
Lee frowned, mentally playing back the scene he’d observed from the nose and through the control room cameras. “Maybe the admiral will be able to get something from the samples he took from the one the rescue party were forced to kill. It was a routine retrieval of plankton, Ski. There was nothing obvious out there to trigger their antagonism. We didn’t even deploy the repellent until they began to close in on the divers.” And that had been about as effective as bug spray. Even in the doses he’d ordered. But he couldn’t risk sending out a second diving party with more weapon power than the initial divers – which had been like throwing rocks at the enraged creatures – until he’d ensured their safety. It warmed his heart that those divers had been chomping at the bit to get into the water to rescue their colleagues.
It had galled him that he’d been unable to go out with them but with Chip already out there, he’d had the Con. O’Brien had been off-duty and Chris James just didn’t have the experience yet to make the tough calls – good officer that he was – and Lee didn’t want to put him in that position. So he’d had to suck it up and watch Sharkey take what should have been his place in the rescue party. In the end they’d ‘bounced’ a sonar echo, diverting the massive predators long enough for the rescue party to get out there and bring in the wounded. Unfortunately it had been too late for two of the divers who were pronounced dead in the Missile Room after a cursory examination by Jamieson who had swiftly moved to triage the two injured men. He’d barked instructions at his corpsmen, ordered wetsuits summarily cut off and had oxygen administered and IV’s hanging almost before Lee - who’d handed over the Con once all divers were back on board - and Nelson had skated to a halt inside the hatch.
So much blood. He barely suppressed a shudder at the recollection. The sill of the diving hatch had been coated in it and smears of the coagulated stuff had left dark red stains on the grey deck plates. Men had been everywhere; Sharkey ensuring his rescue party were helped out of their gear, barracking the hands into checking and stowing apparatus, issuing orders to have the bodies of their fallen crewmembers gently handled and respectfully covered, all the while hovering as close to the injured men as he could get away with. Lee had gone straight to Chip, supporting the barely conscious man who had been weakly instructing Jamieson to care first for Patterson.
Doc’s response to that being unprintable,
Chip had subsided with a soft chuckle as Jamieson had issued a barrage of
soft-voiced orders that were instantly obeyed by the corpsmen and
stretcher-bearers, testament to the seriousness of the situation and all the
more compelling for the lack of volume.
He had effected their removal to
He’d stopped just long enough to give his obviously distressed captain a concise report.
“I need to get Patterson into surgery immediately. He’s still bleeding sluggishly from the femoral artery, not to mention what he’s lost from the stomach wound and the myriad other cuts he’s sustained. But the leg’s our priority if we’re to save him. Chip’s quick response out there bought him time but we need to move fast now. From what I’ve observed, in a cursory exam, the exec’s lost some blood from a number of wounds and we’re gonna have to stitch him up and then transfuse him. He’ll need a couple of days recovery but if he doesn’t succumb to infection or pneumonia from losing his regulator then he should be OK to resume duty then.”
With that Jamie had been gone, time being of the essence and too focused on his patients to give his usual patented speech about keeping out of his hair for the next several hours. Lee had done what needed to be done; ensured the safety of the boat, brought what comfort he could to the stunned but stoical friends of the deceased crewmembers, arranged for the respectful storage of the remains and answered what questions he could about the status of the well-respected exec and critically injured rating. Then he had high-tailed it to Sick Bay where he’d lurked in the background with the admiral – already in situ – both of them watching with keen eyes everything that had been going on but managing to stay out of the way as Frank Gallagher, one of Jamieson’s efficient corpsmen, had X-rayed and stitched up the now sedated exec while John Stewart had assisted the doctor in surgery.
He’d remained pressed up against the bulkhead even when Frank had sent him a re-assuring smile as he’d finally finished with Chip, settled him into one of the lower bunks and adjusted his I.V. He’d found his pulse rate slowing a little as he’d watched Chip breathing easily but he’d still been on edge waiting for that hacking cough to surface. His friend had had more than one bout with pneumonia and he prayed intently that this incident wouldn’t spark a recurrence. He knew that Jamie would not take any chances and had likely ordered sufficient antibiotics in the I.V. to ward off anything short of the Pneumonic Plague. And he wouldn’t rule out even that. Once Nelson had returned to his lab, requesting to be immediately informed of any changes or updates, he’d sat with his friend, gratefully sipping the coffee Frank had thoughtfully provided, until Jamieson had come out of surgery.
Immediately he’d been on his feet, almost crowding the doctor, wanting information on Pat and Chip; in his anxiety failing to see Jamie’s exhaustion or the lines of strain around his mouth. Frank had slipped past him adroitly, deftly stripping off the blood stained plastic apron and gently pushing the older man in the direction of his office where a carafe of hot coffee waited, then went to aid the other corpsman in transferring Pat to a bunk in a series of synchronised movements that spoke of long practice and familiarity. Satisfied that Patterson was in the best of hands, and checking to ensure that Chip was still resting easy, Lee had followed Jamie into his office where the doctor was again reaching for the coffee pot, having downed the first mug in several swift gulps.
“Need a refill?” Jamie indicated the mug still clutched in Lee’s hand. “Though I shouldn’t be encouraging you.” He felt impelled to grouse. “Your caffeine consumption rivals that of the entire D Watch!”
At Lee’s terse nod, he filled the mug
three quarters full and waved at the second chair in the small partitioned
structure that served as his office.
“You off duty?” Without waiting
for an answer he dropped back into his own seat, reaching for the bottle of
medicinal brandy that resided in his bottom drawer, pouring a healthy dollop
into each mug. He leaned back and
savoured the aroma. “That was a tough
one. Been a while since I had to perform
such intricate stitching.” Prior to Seaview
Jamieson had been an ER consultant and Trauma specialist at one of
Lee frowned, hating to be reminded of past injures and indicated that Jamie should continue his report. With a wry grin at the point scored, the doctor complied. “We managed to close off the artery and are continuing to replace Pat’s blood volume. His pressure is coming back up nicely. We stitched up the other wounds – one on his abdomen was particularly severe and it’s a miracle that no major internal organs were ruptured. Barring infection, he’ll make a full recovery but you won’t be seeing him back on duty for several weeks. We’ll be keeping him fairly quiet and pumping him full of antibiotics for the next couple of days.”
Lee nodded, relieved; both cognisant and appreciative of Jamie’s use of the word ‘we’ – acknowledging the contribution of his equally hard working corpsmen. “And Chip?”
Jamie’s sigh ratcheted up Lee’s heartbeat for several uncomfortable seconds. “Chip was lucky. He took a wallop from the tail fin and has some major bruising on his ribs and abdomen and X-rays showed cracks in two of those ribs – as I said, lucky. But he’s going to be in considerable pain for the next few days. Also, some of the lacerations he received were deep enough to require subcutaneous stitching, which will itch as they heal. We’re replacing the blood and fluids he’s lost and I don’t anticipate any major problems there. My biggest worry is the fact that he lost his regulator – only briefly – but with his history I’ve got him on intravenous antibiotics for now. He won’t be happy about that when he wakes but with what I’ve added to his I.V. he should sleep til morning so I don’t see any need for you to camp out here.”
Levering himself out of his chair he caught the stubborn look on Crane’s face and his brown eyes went hard. “I mean it, Captain. Hit the rack. It’s been a long day for all of us. You’ll be taking up most of the slack with the exec out of action during the coming days and I don’t want to have to pull rank if….”
“I get the picture, Doc.” Lee scowled grumpily. He knew Jamieson wouldn’t hesitate to make good on his threats if he thought it was necessary. Casting an exasperated glance at the medic he caught him in the middle of a yawn and realised suddenly just how tired Jamie looked. The man had spent the last several hours on complicated surgery and his day wasn’t over yet. “Just let me check on Chip one more time and I promise I’ll go grab a few hours sleep.”
He’d done what he’d been asked to do. Maybe not as much rack time as Jamie would have liked but….
Lee came back to himself to see Kowalski looking at him expectantly. “I’ll talk to the admiral, Ski. See what he thinks of your theory.” Looking at his watch as he got to his feet he realised more time had passed than he’d thought. “In fact, he’s probably in his lab right now working on those samples. Your watch doesn’t begin for a couple hours yet. Why don’t you try to get some sleep?”
Ski dipped his head then looked up
somewhat sheepishly. “Thought I might
take a run by
“Your rack, now, Sailor! I can’t have you falling asleep at your station.” Lee ordered; then ruined it by casting the senior rating a wry, conspiratorial grin. “Thought I might swing by that way myself after I speak with the admiral. If there’s anything to report I’ll have you called.”
Lee sent up a silent thank you to
whatever deity watched over noncompliant submarine commanders and kept them out
from under the watchful eye of over-zealous CMOs. Not that he had any doubts that Jamieson
would hear about his return to
The semi-darkness was conducive to deep
thinking and Lee was only disturbed during the next few hours by the corpsman
quietly checking on his still sleeping patients. His conversation with the admiral had been
…interesting. Nelson had still been in
his lab – as Lee had suspected. He’d
shared Kowalski’s theory with the older man and received a sharp glance and a
non-committal grunt in response. When
pressed, his superior had grudgingly conceded that Ski’s conjecture might have
some merit. Nelson admitted to already
having spoken to the rest of the watch and ascertained their recollection of
the events leading up to the shark attack.
Lee could tell the scientist in Nelson was consumed by the work he had
interrupted and had only half an ear on their conversation. Leaving him to his test tubes and samples Lee
had taken a quick tour of the boat before returning to the sterile environment
He studied his friend intently as he brooded. Chip was paler than usual and his normally carefully combed blond hair was matted to his head and darkened by the sea water that had not been completely washed out. Lee knew that would drive the fastidious exec nuts when he awoke and would have him demanding a shower immediately – long before Jamie would approve him being on his feet. A yawn split his face and his eyes darted guiltily around. Frank was back at doc’s desk, head bent over his charts. Lee knew he was already way beyond tired but, checking his watch, he discovered it was later than he thought and he was due in the control room in under an hour. Reluctantly climbing to his feet he replaced the chair by the wall and laid a hand on Chip’s bare shoulder, squeezing gently. He frowned. Chip’s skin felt a little cold and clammy and he tugged the blankets further up, debating whether or not to say something to Frank. He pressed his palm lightly against Chip’s forehead but that felt normal to the touch and he decided against it. Perhaps it was just that Chip looked unnatural lying flat on his back as he was. Snugging the blankets into position he took a quick glance at Patterson who was still kept under by Jamieson’s cocktail of drugs. Sketching a wave at the corpsman he headed for his cabin. A shower and a gallon of coffee – in that order – would set him to rights. He’d check back on his friend a little later.
“Crane here, Admiral.”
“Lee, can you come to my office when you get a moment.” Nelson’s voice sounded uncharacteristically disturbed and distracted – which had the hair on the back of Lee’s neck standing on end.
“On my way, Sir.” Clicking off the mic, he handed the conn over to Lt. James and took the spiral stairs to Officers’ Country two at a time. Entering the spacious cabin he found Nelson seated at his desk, immersed in his papers. A long forgotten mug half full of coffee and an ashtray brimming with cigarette butts, coupled with the stale odour of tobacco that hung in the air, were testament to his preoccupation.
“Sit down, Lee.” The blue eyes raised to his were troubled, tiny lines of tiredness fanning out from the sides. Lee’s heart began to beat faster as he dropped into his usual seat, his unease growing as he took in the dishevelled figure in front of him. Nelson’s uniform was rumpled, he needed a shave, his hair was mussed as if he’d been raking his hands through it constantly and his fingers were stained with nicotine and some other unidentifiable liquid. He’d obviously gotten precious little sleep the previous night and, at his age, it showed. The contrast to the younger, sharply dressed, alert officer wasn’t lost on either man.
“What’s up, Admiral?” There was no beating about the bush with Seaview’s captain and Nelson appreciated the blunt tone. There wasn’t an easy way to say this.
“Lee…” He hesitated. His young friend had only just begun to recover from the death of Linda Nugent and the events surrounding her demise. This, coupled with the fact that Chip was now even more intrinsically involved, was going to hit him hard. “When I tested the samples we took from that shark I discovered something rather… unique. I double-checked my findings before verifying them with Dr. Jamieson but we both concur.” He watched Lee lean forward in the chair, thighs spread and hands clasped between them. Then took a deep breath. “The watch reported that the sharks appear to have erupted into a sudden frenzy just before attacking our divers. That would be consistent with what we found in the blood sample. There was an extremely high level of adrenalin – epinephrine – present but what was of even more concern was what we detected alongside it. Adrenalin, as you are aware, is naturally manufactured by the body in response to certain stimuli. But it can also be extraneously administered. The amount, in the sample we tested, was of sufficiently high content to lead me to believe that this was the case in this instance. Also present was a chemical blocker. The self-same compound that we found in Linda Nugent’s body during the autopsy.”
He watched the shutters come down over Lee’s remarkable almost-amber eyes, the shock still his already tense body. He could almost perceive the progression of thought cross the younger man’s expressive features, the nostrils flaring and lips thinning as he processed the horrifying information.
“You’re saying….” The harsh whisper was not his captain’s normal commanding tone.
Nelson held up a hand in the universal stop signal. “At this point in time, I’m not ‘saying’ anything, Lee. I’m theorizing and conjecturing, nothing more. But I thought you should know what we’ve found.” He couldn’t sit still in the face of Lee’s stunned horror and, jerkily lighting a cigarette, stood swiftly and began to pace. “I believe, from the test samples, coupled with the description the watch gave of the sharks’ sudden frenetic activity, that they did not attack indiscriminately.”
“He’s back. He, his ‘cell’ – or whatever you want to call it – is still acting under his orders.” Lee practically spat out the words, his olive complexion darkening and his amber eyes flashing dangerously.
Nelson hesitated, took a long drag from his cigarette before rounding his desk and crushing the butt into the brimming ashtray. He flipped through several folders on his desk before extracting one and tossing the slim file across to Lee. “It seems that might be a distinct possibility. Jaali Nusair. Positively identified by one of the alphabet agencies. ‘Fearless Bird of Prey’ in Arabic.”
“How long have you had this?” He watched the anger build, saw how Lee was attempting to control it, his knuckles whitening as he gripped the edges of the folder while he scanned the scant material, knew the moment he reached the 8x10 headshot.
“And you didn’t tell me?” The words were tightly bitten off through thinly compressed lips.
“To what purpose, Lee?” Nelson gazed compassionately at the down bent dark head. “We were barely at sea when this came through. There was little point in burdening you when there was nothing you could do except become frustrated.” And brood – but he didn’t vocalise that. He indicated with a wave of his hand the files spread across the surface of his desk. “This changes things. And adds a new dimension, I’m afraid.”
Lee’s eyes were like chips of molten amber as he raised them reluctantly from the photo of his handsome nemesis, Marco Di Fabrioni aka Jaali Nusair, to meet concerned sapphire ones. His gut clenched in anticipation, knowing instinctively from the admiral’s sympathetic expression that his wasn’t going to be good.
“This cruise wasn’t classified. It wouldn’t take a lot of digging to find out where we are at any one point in time. But how did those sharks get phenomenal doses of adrenalin? And, even more disturbing, can he trigger that blocker to release on request?”
Nelson’s murmured words, spoken barely loud enough for him to hear, had him almost reeling at the infinite ramifications.
When Lee walked into Sick Bay Chip didn’t
know which of them looked worse. He’d
seen his own reflection in the mirror when John had shaved him earlier and knew
he looked like a cross between road kill and death warmed over. He felt worse. But Lee didn’t look much better. His face was pale beneath his usual olive
tones and his hair looked as if he’d been dragging his fingers through it in
agitation. His eyes were…bleak, the
golden orbs almost completely leached of their usual jade green flecks. Chip had been lying quietly in the bunk –
feeling too lousy to do anything else.
He ached all over; his bruised muscles and cracked ribs protested every
movement, his stitches pulled and his chest and head hurt. He hadn’t even felt like the toast and juice
doc had exhorted him to try for breakfast.
He’d managed to lose the I.V. but when he’d insisted doc prop him up on
pillows he’d been too uncomfortable, despite the painkiller Jamie had insisted
on – the ribs objecting vehemently and the tightness in his chest and lungs worsening. He hadn’t mentioned the latter to Jamieson or
the corpsmen for fear of a protracted stay in
All such thoughts went out the window when Lee entered. “What’s wrong? The boat?” He struggled to lever himself up, using his elbows for traction but the effort proved too much and he hissed through his teeth, beads of sweat popping out on his forehead as he refused to give in. Lee dragged several pillows from the rack above and stacked them behind Chip, propping him semi-upright but stopped, alarmed, when his friend gripped his wrist and began to cough weakly. He was about to shout for Jamieson when Chip shook his head slowly, stopped coughing and brought his breathing under control, swiping at the perspiration on his brow with a pyjama-clad arm. Lee grabbed the water glass from the ledge behind the bunk and slipped the straw between the blond’s lips. Chip took several grateful sips before relaxing back into the pillows and attempted a wry grin after taking a couple of shallow, cautious, breaths.
“Better?” Lee asked, his brow creased with concern as his gaze roamed over Chip’s ashen countenance.
“Yeah, thanks. Boat?” Morton managed to croak as fire enveloped his lungs and spread into his entire chest cavity.
“The boat is fine. But you’re not.” Lee’s tone was a mixture of indulgence and exasperation. “I swear – you’re worse than I am!” His attempt at ‘jocular’ was beyond pathetic – in Morton’s eyes.
“Not…remotely…possible.” But the twitch of his lips belied the severity of the words at Lee’s mock scowl. Then it was his turn to frown. “Pat?”
“Doing OK, doc says.” He pulled a chair alongside the bed and dropped into it wearily, aware of Chip’s intense scrutiny but unable to hide his tiredness from one who knew him well.
“He saved my life…out there. Took the brunt of that…shark’s weight when he attacked. Doc said Thompson and Jenkins didn’t…make it. What happened to turn those…sharks?”
“We’re…not sure.” Chip watched Lee twist the class ring he wore on his left hand – a sure sign of his friend’s agitation.
Lee shrugged, refusing to meet his eyes and Chip bet Jamie had lectured him on not upsetting the patient. “You can tell me…or I can lie here and…run through a dozen different scenarios…” He had to pause to cough again but waved away the water Lee offered him. He dragged in a couple of ragged breaths, trying not to wince visibly – knowing Lee would inform Jamieson if he thought Chip was in any distress. “And when you leave…I’ll manage to find out… for myself.”
He observed Lee carefully, saw the usually warm golden eyes ice over at some inner conflict, watched him wrestle with his thoughts then come to an abrupt decision. But not one that sat easy.
“The admiral thinks it may have something to do with Di Fabrioni – or Jaali Nusair, to give him his real name. He found a compound in a sample from one of the sharks that’s consistent with the blocker that was used on Linda.” Lee filled Chip in as best he could on Nelson’s Intel and suppositions to date. “He’s still working to try to find out if Nusair can trigger the blocker to release on request. If he can, it means….”
“He’s back. And everything and…everybody he comes in contact with… is a potential walking…time bomb.” Solemn blue eyes met sober amber as Chip put Lee’s thoughts into words. A fit of jagged, pain filled, coughing had Jamieson emerging from his office.
“I think it’s time for the exec to rest, Captain. I did say ten minutes and you’ve already exceeded that. Commander, I don’t like the sound of those lungs. I’m going to change the antibiotic you’re on and administer a stronger painkiller.”
“Jamie, I’m fine…” The wracking cough gave immediate lie to that statement.
“I’m not gonna argue with you, Chip. Believe me, pneumonia and cracked ribs do NOT go together.” The lean, balding medic sighed with mixed irritation and frustration. “Out, now, Captain. Mr. Morton is going to rest for several hours – one way or another.”
Lee grinned sympathetically at his friend but knew Jamieson was right. Chip looked wretched and sounded worse. His conscience pinged at him for burdening his friend with the bitter revelations about Nusair but he knew of old that his exec hated being kept out of the loop – even when not operating on all cylinders. And it seemed as if his XO was going to be a guest of the good doctor for a little more than the immediate future.
“I’ll come back later, Chip. Anything you need me to get for you?”
“PDA…from my safe.”
“A lot later, Captain. After dinner would be good.” The doctor emphasised as he handed Chip several pills and a glass of water.
“Lee, don’t bother…” Chip had to break off to cough again as a thought struck him. “I don’t…need it.”
“No problem, pal. And don’t lie there worrying. I need you to rest and get back on your feet so we can get this bastard – once and for all.” His face set with determination and resolution, Lee sketched a quick wave at the two grim faced men he left behind.
Chip groaned, ignoring Jamie’s concerned
query as he flung his forearm across his eyes to shut out the sights and sounds
It was a couple of hours before Lee
managed to make his way to Chip’s cabin to retrieve his PDA. He’d spent some time with the admiral who had
taken the decision to scrap the rest of their mission in favour of returning to
Lee had entered the admiral’s cabin at the tail end of the conversation, hearing just enough to glean the basics. His own lips had tightened in fury as Nelson had angrily thrown the receiver back into its cradle, looking as if he wanted to strangle someone with the spiral cord.
“Incompetent, over-paid, over-inflated spooks! Couldn’t trail a terrorist with a join-the-dots map!” His hands were almost shaking with rage as he lit up a cigarette, inhaling deeply as he dropped into his chair.
“I lost two good men out there!”
“As did I, Lee. As did I.” The bitten out words and the livid glint in the admiral’s icy blue but steady gaze reminded Crane to whom he was speaking and he nodded an apology. Nelson took two more deep drags from the cigarette before stubbing the remainder out in the overflowing ashtray, seeming to come to an abrupt decision. “Plot a course for home, Lee. Thompson and Jenkins deserve to be back with their families and Patterson will need some extensive physical therapy and recovery time. I’m going to hunt Nusair to the ends of the earth if I have to. No one – no one – goes after my people and gets away with it.” He strode across the room to rummage in a cabinet, pulling out rolled up maps and plans and thrusting them back before finding what he was looking for. “Get us started for the Institute and come back here when you can. I want a plan of action in place before we make port.”
Lee left him pouring over topographical
maps and satellite images of the
It didn’t take a genius to figure it for a ring box or to guess at the intended recipient. He pulled the tiny box out left-handed and flipped the lid. Chip had excellent taste and the solitaire was exquisite, not so big as to overwhelm Angie’s narrow hand and slender fingers but enough to make a definite statement of ownership. Lee closed the lid, the spring-loaded clasp shutting with a decisive snap. He clenched his fingers around the little casket for a moment before replacing it exactly as he’d found it. Based on their conversation almost a week ago it seemed unlikely that Chip would be giving Angie the ring any time soon. He closed the safe and spun the dial before leaving the cabin. At the door he paused, looked back at the empty room, making a silent promise to its absent occupant.
“I’m gonna get Nusair. When he’s either behind bars or dead, then I’m getting the two of you back together. You’ve got my word on that.”