A big “thank you” again to Rita Keller for allowing me to adopt Lt. Chris James once more and to everyone whose encouragement and support has led to the completion of this story. It’s been a long one – conceived in Vancouver, Canada, in June, begun while waiting for a delayed flight in Heathrow Airport in London, England, thankfully continued in NYC, USA, in October when I’d hit a wall and finished in Ireland in early December. Thanks to my betas for their perseverance – I owe them big time on this one!
To the Voyage writers out there, I wish you all a very happy New Year for 2007 and hope to see lots of stories during the year. Hope you enjoy this one.
By Fidelma C.
Angie Newman sighed heavily, kicked back in the swivel chair and
stretched her arms tautly to work out the kinks in her too tense
shoulders. It had been another long,
exhausting day. The first few days after Seaview returned to port usually
were. Her lips curved in a wry
smile. It seemed as if the admiral
operated at double speed whenever he hit the Institute after any one of Seaview’s
cruises. Well, she amended, that was
when the boat didn’t have one of her ‘unusual’ experiences and he – or one of
the command staff – didn’t wind up in
Then, oh then, all hell just broke loose.
If it was Nelson himself who ended up in the Institute’s state of the art medical facility, that was bad enough. But if it was Chip Morton or – God forbid – Lee Crane, the boat’s exec and captain respectively, then the admiral was like a hibernating bear with a toothache who had just been woken from a very sound sleep. In other words – in Angie’s case – it was time to disappear into the nether regions of the sprawling NIMR facility and conduct an inspection of the archived documents that she hadn’t looked at for more than three years. Even that didn’t guarantee safety from the infamous Nelson temper. And in truth Angie didn’t resort to the subterfuge very often, certainly not in the past almost six months since she’d become the Institute’s Deputy Director, a title that still gave her goose bumps when she read it on the small wooden desk plaque which had been a gift from the senior ratings, Kowalski and Patterson, who had been so tickled by her promotion.
this hadn’t been a particularly difficult mission and the crew had come back
relatively unscathed. Well, there was
that six-inch gash on Lee’s forearm, which had required eleven stitches, plus
the slight concussion Chip had received when someone had accidentally clocked
him with a wrench while he was repairing the malfunctioning navigation panel in
the control room. It wasn’t that unusual
for either of the senior officers to come back injured but it was, for sure, a
result when no one ended up in
Almost all the crew that was; the workaholic senior officers didn’t seem to think that shore leave applied to them.
Crane and Morton were a lost cause! They’d been last off the boat as usual, signing off on cruise reports personally, having overseen the dismissal and logging out of the crew. Then they’d descended on their respective offices. Oh, they always had a legitimate excuse; the need to check their in-trays or to grab forms for the provisions for forthcoming cruises, which translated to an experienced PA - as Angie was - as taking work home. She wasn’t fooled for one moment. They might, if Lt. Cmdr. Jamieson was lucky, concede to an occasional nine holes of golf or a couple of early morning tennis games after their habitual five mile run on the beach (just after the crack of dawn when most sensible people were turning over in their beds in anticipation of the alarm clock rousing them to action). Angie knew nothing like a few stitches or a slight concussion would deter that pair.
They’d appeared in the office at 07.30 this morning, practically glowing with health after their run and in their usual teasing, distracting form. Having been in the office for forty-five minutes – in anticipation of a full day chasing Nelson – she’d had coffee brewing, and they’d helped themselves while kibitzing not so nicely with each other, as brothers do, and she’d enjoyed the snide and sometimes very slightly off-colour remarks they knew she wouldn’t take offence to. Angie was all-seeing, all-hearing and no-mouthing! She knew it was their way of letting off steam. She felt rather privileged that they could be themselves in front of her.
Nelson, on the other hand, had hit the office the previous day like a
whirlwind. He was presenting the
signature paper today at a conference on oceanic pollutants at a hotel in
She hadn’t minded the work, being almost as passionate about the oceans as the admiral was; his genius and genuine love for his field had long been an inspiration for her - and a major factor in her coming to work at the Nelson Institute. She shook herself back into reality as she began to pack her briefcase for the drive home. It was Friday night - and the one night in the week that she forced herself to leave the office at exactly 18.00 hours. Practical to a fault, Angie knew that she needed balance in her life to perform to her optimum, so she swam in the Institute’s pool twice a week and had a standing date for volleyball with a local club, which comprised of some of the other female workers from the Institute.
It served two purposes; giving her a necessary workout and an outlet for the physical energy she usually put into paper pushing, plus it allowed her to become “one of them” – something that her rarefied status as the admiral’s secretary – and now Deputy Director of NIMR – didn’t permit very often. Angie knew she had a ‘reputation’ at NIMR. In fact she had systematically built it to almost mythical status over the past seven years. Everyone at the Institute respected her role, knowing she would protect the admiral at all costs; that she saw as the primary function of her position. And she regularly, without difficulty, re-routed calls from Naval Intelligence, coolly dismissed alphabet agencies and stood up to Capitol Hill, whether it was the President himself or his lowest aide who called, seeking Nelson. She could read the admiral’s moods as soon as she looked at his broad, craggy face. And usually deciphered his intentions for the day within five minutes of him being in the office. It was a matter of pride to her, to do her job to the utmost of her abilities. And sometimes that meant learning what was going on in the lower ranks – and the administrative staff had the monopoly on the latest, and juiciest, gossip.
Sometimes it was so skewed she dismissed it totally. But there were times when it had proven its worth and she’d been able to direct a certain comment, or raise an eyebrow, so that the person in question got the subtle message that continuing a particular course of action or talk could lead to a very short tenure at NIMR. In any event, the mainly female staff of the admin centre knew that Angie ruled the roost and that neither she nor Deborah Coleman, Chip Morton’s secretary, or Lee’s secretary - the current talk of the Institute, being male and recently hired - Jason Comerford, would deign to talk about their respective bosses or contribute to whatever stories ran rampant around the Institute.
Angie was astute enough to recognise that when you put two very handsome, single, males into the equation, surrounded them with a certain mystique, imbued them with heroic character that leaked out despite the clamp down on details of Seaview’s missions – the very recalcitrance of the crew adding to the notoriety of the command staff’s reputation – it was inevitable that they would attract the attentions of the female staff, and in some instances they were very attractive ladies, who populated not only the admin centre but the various laboratories and scientific arms that made up the Nelson Institute of Marine Research.
niggle of guilt assailed Angie as she chose the files she wanted to work on at
home – it being frowned upon to be on NIMR property at the weekend unless there
was an emergency or the order came from the admiral himself. But she consoled herself that she was getting
out of the work atmosphere for at least a few hours before immersing herself
once again in the files. She had no
Plus she’d promised Debbie that she’d make time to visit with her and her family on Saturday evening for a bar-b-que the other secretary had planned. Debbie had even managed to drop into the conversation that she’d invited her boss, Chip Morton, and his friend and CO, Lee Crane. (Neither Debbie nor Angie was completely confident that either man would make an appearance, despite their assurances to the contrary).
be guaranteed to pull Crane for an assignment at the most inappropriate times
and only Nelson’s dire threats had the remotest chance of successfully keeping
his captain from being assigned more and more missions from that particular agency. Lee considered it his duty to help out when
and where he could and if that meant he double-jobbed
on his own time, then he saw it as affecting no one but him. Even his closest friend, Morton, couldn’t get
through to Lee that his missions had far reaching consequences for those who
cared about him and he’d been known to wax long and lyrical on the subject of
his dislike for the agency that frequently left his fellow officer hung out to
dry and either physically or emotionally hurting. It usually ended with Lee allowing Chip to
vent his very vocal frustrations, then Crane would go
perform the mission and let the XO cut loose on him upon his return – if he was
in any condition to withstand the assault.
For that read: if he wasn’t ensconced in
grin widened as she moved into the admiral’s adjoining office and placed the
small stack of messages, ranked according to urgency, on his desk; there being
every reason to assume that Nelson would put in an appearance at some point
over the weekend – the rules didn’t apply to him, after all. Or to the other senior officers come to
that. She knew that Dr. Jamieson would
check in with
her hand and traced the very fine white line on her forehead. He’d done a remarkable job with the stitches
– within a couple of months the scar had been negligible. But he’d been rather pushy about making her
Despite the grousing they did about the CMO, she sensed a bonding between them, an innate respect and caring. She’d seen just how affected Jamieson – the senior officers called him ‘Jamie’ (among other things), that familiarity indicating their friendship with the medic – had been when Lee had been shot and seriously injured some months back (**). When Chip had been used – Crane used the term ‘abused’ as Morton wasn’t a trained agent – by ONI, and been hospitalised twice in close succession (***), Jamieson hadn’t wanted to release the XO as soon as he had, but he’d realised that the patient’s health necessitated a cutting loose, for his own sake. So he’d patched Chip up and entrusted Lee to take care of him. Lee’s idea of caring, knowing his over-achiever friend as he did, was to have Angie pick him up from Med Bay, take him home and cook for him, thus keeping Chip happy and ensuring he didn’t overdo things.
Which brought her to her own feelings for Chip Morton. No, now was so not the time to go there! She determinately repressed those thoughts as she moved back into her own office, set the coffee maker for the first person into the office tomorrow to hit the switch, took her purse from the bottom drawer of her desk and grabbed her briefcase and car keys, casting a professional glance over her tidy workspace prior to departing. She was just about to switch her phone over to Security, who’d take calls in her absence, when the instrument trilled beneath her hand.
“Timing is everything!” She muttered, as she reluctantly lifted the receiver. “Admiral Nelson’s office.”
“Angie.” The gruff voice was instantly recognisable. “Sorry to bother you so late in the evening but I need the information on Project Discovery quite urgently. I want you to take the files pertaining to it and bring them to me here as soon as possible.”
The request not being entirely unusual, Angie sighed gustily – no way was she now going to make her game. “Of course, Admiral. Give me five minutes to close up here and then, depending on rush hour traffic, I should be with you within half an hour or so.”
“Thank you.” Nelson hung up rapidly and Angie took a rare, unprofessional, moment to stick her tongue out at the receiver, that innocent instrument suddenly responsible for the change in her plans for the evening. Oh well, it was part and parcel of her new role, she chided herself briskly. RHIP, as she’d heard so often during her tenure with NIMR over the past seven years.
She quickly made her way back to Nelson’s office, depressed the hidden switch on the portrait of Seaview that took pride of place on the wall behind his desk, spun the safe’s combination –known only to a very privileged few – and sorted through the files to identify the ones Nelson had requested. Project Discovery was finally nearing completion, it had been tried and tested exhaustively, and was about ready for commercial application – to the Government agencies that would eagerly appropriate it and thus inadvertently pay for some of NIMR’s forthcoming research projects.
Securing the safe once more behind the oil painting, she reached down for the briefcase that resided alongside the admiral’s desk. Placing the files inside, she snapped the fasteners and spun the combination lock, then secured the attaché case to her wrist with the strong chain link cuff that was designed to withstand way beyond normal pressures (a design of Nelson’s). She briefly debated having a staff car drive her to the hotel but, it being after hours – and Friday to boot – and given that Nelson hadn’t designated high priority, as he’d already shared the Discovery project at the highest Governmental levels, Angie decided to take her own car. She could swing by the hotel to drop off Nelson’s work to the man in person and then call by the sports complex in the hope of making it into a late game or two.
now, she gathered up her purse and her own briefcase, tossed her jacket over
her arm to conceal the chain on the second briefcase and grabbed her car keys
before diligently securing the office as she left. Emerging into the parking area she took a
moment to sniff the slightly salty sea air and bask in the warm late afternoon
sunlight as she practically jogged to her car, despite the heavy briefcases. She deposited her jacket, purse and briefcase
in the trunk before settling into the driver’s seat of her almost new
sedan. The case chained to her right
wrist was slightly cumbersome as she put the transmission into drive and
steered the car towards the entrance.
Acknowledging the guard with a wave, she drove through the raised
barrier and headed for downtown
“Pizza and beer at my place or d’you want to eat out somewhere?”
At the mention of food Chip Morton’s stomach began to rumble, reminding him that he’d missed lunch due to a hastily re-scheduled meeting downtown with the head of a new technology company whose work he was interested in. He’d intended to grab something quick from the cafeteria upon his return but had been dragged down to the boat by the brunet now perched on the edge of his desk, swinging one leg lazily. All his protests had gone unheeded; Lee’s focus being solely on the intermittent malfunction that dogged their navigation equipment and which Chip had thought was finally sorted, only to have it rear its ugly head again this afternoon. He’d spent most of the time on his back, head and shoulders inside the panel, tracing circuits and cabling - and listening to Lee rant. Now at – he checked his watch – 19.15, he was suddenly aware that he was starving. “Pizza’d be faster – we can call from here and it should arrive shortly after we do.”
Both men lived on the Institute grounds in quite luxurious condos NIMR provided for its senior staff. It was convenient – and relieved the security conscious admiral’s mind considerably, especially given the trouble his two top officers had already proven themselves capable of getting into.
“Pizza’s good.” Food came way down Crane’s priority list at the best of times and he amiably agreed with his friend’s suggestion. “You about ready to get out of here?”
“I’ve been ready for the past hour!” Retorted the blond, reaching out to swat Lee’s khaki covered leg and missing as Crane slid nimbly off the side of the desk and out of reach. “You’re the one who insisted on going over the patch one more time.”
A swift frown suddenly marring the smooth olive forehead had Chip groaning – he shouldn’t have mentioned the patch, which was all he’d managed to cobble together on NavCom in the allotted timeframe. Now he would have to listen to Lee all evening going on about it – the man never settled when there was the slightest thing that failed to function to its full efficiency on his beloved Seaview.
“I’m sorry I spoke. Just chill, Lee! It’ll get sorted tomorrow. I have a couple of ideas I want to test out in the morning. Bear with me a while. We’ll get her up and running again as quickly as we can.” He had to smile at the glare Lee initially sent him, which transformed into an almost sheepish grin as he realised that Chip, as usual, had his measure. They’d been friends for so long that Chip could read every nuance of expression or posture in Lee; it never took words to convey his feelings – especially where Seaview was concerned. It was one of the traits Morton admired most in his friend and CO. Lee truly had the best interests of the boat and her crew at the heart of everything he did – everything he was. It made for a wonderful captain – but a frustrating friend.
“Come on, buddy, outta here. I’ll call the pizza place from the car.” Chip adroitly shut down his PC, shrugged into his jacket and grabbed his cover and briefcase. Lee had just started for his own office when he heard the phone on his desk ring. He quickened his pace to the accompaniment of Chip’s theatrical groan and a muttered “Don’t answer it!” but by the time he reached his desk it had stopped ringing. With a short expletive, he collected jacket, cover and briefcase and retraced his steps towards Chip’s office – to the ringing of Chip’s landline.
Casting his eyes heavenwards Chip reached for the instrument, mouthing to his friend “Bet it’s the admiral, checking are we still here!” At Lee’s sigh, he barked into the mouthpiece, “Morton.”
“Security here, Mr. Morton. Is Commander Crane with you, sir?”
“Yes, he is. Let me pass you over to him.” His grin was ever so slightly evil as he eyed the comically dismayed expression that momentarily crossed his friend’s face.
“No need, sir. The message is for whichever of you we could locate.”
Chip frowned and saw it instantly echoed on Lee’s face as he followed Chip’s side of the conversation.
Miss Angie, sir. She’s in downtown
They made it to the site of the carjacking by breaking all the speed limits. Lee had insisted on driving, taking a pool car rather than his little two-seater convertible, sensing Chip’s upset and wanting to arrive in one piece.
The scene was immediate in-your-face organised chaos.
A number of police cruisers, an ambulance, (which almost gave both officers incipient heart attacks), several witnesses and their vehicles, milled around the busy intersection. A police roadblock had been erected at some distance and Crane and Morton had to show their ID cards and security clearances to be allowed through. Their total focus on locating Angie, they moved directly towards the ambulance, only to find it empty and two rather disgruntled paramedics disparaging of the call out.
Chip snagged hold of a police officer and enquired brusquely, “Where’s Ms. Newman, Angie Newman?”
The officer shrugged his shoulder as he returned to the interview he was conducting. “Over there, somewhere. Couldn’t get her off the phone.”
Lee and Chip headed in the direction he’d indicated, sweeping the scene
with experienced eyes. This section of
the busy four-way crossroads was currently off limits to traffic, which was
being filtered elsewhere by the highway patrol.
At the traffic lights stood a non-descript four-door sedan with
She was a sight to behold, missing one shoe, hose torn and legs badly scraped, skirt ripped and exposing a lot more leg than she’d usually concede to show. Her white blouse was streaked with blood, grass and dirt, pulled from her waistband and gaping at neck and shoulder, several buttons missing down the front. A stainless steel cuff and the remains of a short chain dragged down a badly bruised right wrist and she held the cell phone to her ear with her left hand. The right side of her face showed a wicked friction burn, which oozed blood, and a purpling on her left jaw indicated that she’d probably taken a fist in the face. Shards of glass were visible in her usually neat dark hair, which was now in severe disarray. She was pacing, mis-stepping without a shoe, as she spoke and she was obviously pissed and totally oblivious to the sight she presented. Her staccato tones could be easily heard from a distance and Crane and Morton exchanged uneasy glances.
She spotted them as they swiftly approached. “Admiral, Lee and Chip have arrived. I’m getting no satisfaction out of these local cops, so I’ll sic them onto the captain and exec. What? OK, sir, I’ll put you on.” She handed the phone to Lee, gesturing pre-emptorily to Chip. “Admiral Nelson wants to talk to Lee and he wants you to co-ordinate with the cops. Let me fill you in.”
“Angie! Honey, slow down a minute.” He caught her by the elbows, tugging her gently round to face him, to better view her injuries, as he stripped off his jacket and slung it around her shoulders to cover her. She shrugged impatiently out of his grip.
“No time, Chip. These bozos haven’t a clue. We need some muscle here. I can’t seem to get through to them that the Admiral’s work has been stolen. It’s gone. GONE!” Her voice had been rising steadily but she now took a deep breath – well, as deep as sore ribs would allow her. She almost hissed the words out, so she wouldn’t be overheard. “It’s Project Discovery! All his notes. Everything!” She ran her hands frenziedly through her already disordered hair, smearing blood from her scraped palms onto cheeks that were becoming increasingly pale.
To Chip she looked decidedly fragile and it was obvious no one had taken care of her injuries. He wondered why the paramedics hadn’t looked her over. That became immediately evident when he voiced the suggestion and she turned on him.
“NO! Don’t you understand? His research! All his notes! God!”
Lee joined them, having finished his call with Nelson, but was equally unsuccessful in persuading her to have someone check her over. “Pull rank! Do something! Anything! These idiots aren’t doing anything. Discovery could be on a plane to the People’s Republic by now! Get them moving. Do something - NOW! That’s why I called NIMR security. Some other idiot called the locals!”
“Angie, sit down. Here, come
on. Sit!” Lee quietly ordered, having propelled her
discretely in the direction of the ambulance; in her agitation she’d failed to
notice his subtle manoeuvring. He pushed
her gently onto the step outside the medical vehicle and hunkered down so he
could assess her injuries, face to face.
“I’ve just gotten off the phone from the admiral. He’s worried about you more than his
research. He’s going to meet us at
“Start from the beginning.” Chip encouraged softly as he recognised the rapid deflation of her adrenalin rush once she was seated and among friends, even as she flinched from their gentle ministrations.
Her gaze switched uncomprehendingly between the two khaki clad officers for several moments, as they tended to her various cuts and bruises, before she allowed her shoulders to slump forward and expelled a huge sigh of relief, tacitly – temporarily – allowing them to take charge. She concentrated on keeping to the facts, knowing they’d need as concise a report as possible.
“I got a call in the office, around 18.00, from the admiral. He asked me to bring the file on Project Discovery to the conference venue. It was Admiral Nelson’s voice!” She defended, although neither officer had queried her. “I was about to leave for the evening anyway, so I took the folder from his safe, put it in the briefcase and headed to my car. Oh, no!”
She started up and had two pair of hands immediately restrain her. “My purse! My briefcase! They were both in the trunk. I’d taken work home for the weekend.” She failed to spot the swift, slightly amused look that passed between the two men. “Oh, hell! What did I bring?” She was mentally wringing her hands trying to remember what files she’d taken home to work on. Mostly everyday Institute stuff, if she recalled correctly, but she knew she wasn’t thinking all that clearly. The longer she sat, the more aches seemed to find places to make themselves felt.
Lee took her bruised right wrist into his hands, gently flexing it to check how badly it was sprained. She tried to jerk it out of his grasp, yelping aloud as he probed the delicate bones. “That doesn’t matter. It’s OK, honey. Your wrist doesn’t appear to be broken but that cuff has got to come off and you’ll probably need an X-ray. Tell us how they did it.”
She looked from one to the other, seeing calming amber versus snapping electric blue in their eyes. Both, in their own way, focused her and she leaned her head wearily back against the open door of the ambulance, drew in a deep breath, closed her eyes and began to describe what had happened.
“Admiral Nelson called. Asked me to bring the Project Discovery file to the hotel where he’s speaking. I took the file from the safe. Put it in the case and chained it to my wrist. SOP. I was already heading out for the evening so I figured I’d swing by the hotel on my way. I know I should have taken a staff car with a driver, but it didn’t seem that important – Discovery has already had its trials and been accepted by the powers that be. I just didn’t think it might be any kind of plot to get hold of it. It was the Admiral on the phone! So I decided to kill two birds with one stone. I took a shortcut. And look what happened.” Her tone became self-condemnatory.
“Angie, you are not to blame yourself!”
“Who else, Lee? I was stupid! I didn’t think. That’s not what NIMR pays me for. I’m supposed to be smarter than that, to see potential risks to the admiral and his work and deflect them. I goofed tonight, pure and simple.”
Conceding he was probably on a hiding-to-nothing, Lee attempted the improbable anyway.
“Angie, this was a well-organised, superbly executed job. They’re obviously professionals – and they had targeted you particularly. It most likely wouldn’t have mattered if you’d had a guard with you. They’d probably only have gotten dirtier.” In his attempt to make her feel better, Lee watched as the significance of his statement hit home and she paled even more – and cursed himself for his insensitivity. Angie was like a little sister to him, thus she was precious and even more so to Chip Morton who harboured definite designs on her – if he was any judge – and he knew Morton like the back of his hand. “What exactly happened, honey?”
She gestured towards the intersection, sucking in a breath, more in control now. “I pulled up at the stop light. Just sat there waiting for it to change, listening to a CD. Next thing I know, the two side windows came in on top of me. They popped the locks and opened the doors. I ducked but one of them hit me. I’m not sure which one. The one on the passenger side had a big metal thing; he just cut the chain and took the briefcase.
The other one was huge. He unsnapped the seatbelt, grabbed me around the waist, picked me up and threw me out of the car. Then they both got in and drove off. It took seconds from start to finish. Just a couple of seconds.”
The two seasoned officers looked at each other. Both recognised a sting operation if ever they’d seen one. Hunkered down close to her, as she came to the end of her tale, both men saw and felt the moment she began to shake. Chip gathered her into his arms, his tone conciliatory.
“Angie, you’ve got to let these guys take care of you. You need to go to….”
“No!” She practically wrenched herself out of his grasp. “What I need is to get my car back. Get the admiral’s research back! I fouled up, Chip. Don’t you understand?
I failed to follow proper procedure, just to save myself some time, and I may have handed our enemies – on a plate – the plans to a weapons defence system so far advanced that it would have taken them years to catch up. And I just waltzed into their game plan. Oh, shit, shit, shit!” She finally buried her head on Chip’s broad shoulder as she simultaneously thumped him energetically and, much to both men’s relief, finally allowed the tears to flow.
Both officers reacted instantly to the timid voice and had the small thin man taking a hasty step backwards in face of their affront.
“Umm, I’d just like my cell back.” He gestured to the phone that Lee still held. “The police have told me I can go and she, uhh, kinda borrowed it.”
“I’m sorry!” Angie apologised somewhat distractedly then, looking from Lee to Chip, explained, “I’d left my cell in my purse. I asked this gentleman if I could use his to call the Institute. I guess I…sorta forgot to return it.” She turned back to her errant knight, brushing the tears from her cheeks. “Thank you, most sincerely. I really do appreciate it.”
He looked from her to the two uniformed officers flanking her and shrugged deprecatorily. “Happy to help, Miss. I gave a statement to the police and they know how to reach me if they need me. Not that I saw very much anyway, they were both wearing facemasks – like knit things, you know, the kind you see in movies?
Anyway, if you need me for anything, Miss, I’d be happy to oblige. The police have my numbers.” With a final slightly leering/admiring glance, for she had been showing an uncustomary amount of skin – which faded immediately he saw the steely glare Chip shot him –the BMW owner thankfully retrieved his cell phone from Lee and rabitted back to his convertible.
“My phone was in the trunk – in my purse. My house keys! My driver’s licence!” Her eyes widened as she recognised the implications. “They know where I live. Oh, crap!”
Lee smiled dryly at her brief show of annoyance. It was so typical of the petite
brunette. But he noted that she still
hadn’t stopped shaking. “Angie, we’ll
take care of it. I’ll get someone over
to your place tonight to secure it and we’ll have the locks changed first thing
in the morning. You’ve got to stop
worrying. Now we need to get out of
here. I’m going to call Jamie to meet us
She bristled immediately. “I
don’t need to go to
Even as upset and irritated as she was, she recognised the silent, commiserating glances the two exchanged and knew she wasn’t going to get her way. “Nelson spoke, eh? And what Nelson wants, Nelson gets. Right?” It was almost a mantra around the Institute.
“Angie….” Chip had only begun when he was interrupted by one of the EMTs – the one who’d provided the blanket and wipes and who’d obviously overheard the conversation.
“Those cuts on her legs need attention – they’ve got a lot of grit and dirt embedded and could easily become infected. She’s badly sprained that wrist and it needs support, and I suspect she’s got some rib damage. She could also have a concussion from the blow to her jaw and she needs those grazes on her face to be professionally looked at if they’re not going to scar.” He lowered his voice, as if she couldn’t hear. “She’s also in shock – she really needs to go to the hospital but she won’t allow us to treat her.”
Taking pity on the kinder of the two MT’s – who’d allowed them time to reason with Angie and had provided what limited care she would allow – Lee gestured to Chip to take her to the car while he placated the young, eager carer; the other being seasoned enough to know when his presence wasn’t required. “We’re from the Nelson Institute of Marine Research and have our own medical personnel. Our Chief Medical Officer is an ex-trauma surgeon. She’ll be well looked after. But thank you for your concern. And your kindness. I’ll be sure to point out your observations to Dr. Jamieson, Mr. Preston.” Reading his name from the tag on his shirtfront.
Relieved enough to allow the obviously military types to take charge of the injured girl, he still insisted that Lee sign a release form. The young man’s eyes widened in disbelief as he scrutinised the signature. “Commander Lee Crane? But…. You captain the Seaview! That’s Admiral Nelson’s boat. I’ve been to the Nelson Institute so many times on their tour. It’s a real treat to meet you, sir.”
Lee smiled gently. “Well, next time you come by, ask for Angie Newman, she’s the Deputy Director of NIMR. And I know she’d like to say thanks.”
With a swift salute, he left the younger man explaining to his older colleague just whom they’d been treating.
The irresistible force met the immovable object. Both senior officers could only stand back
and admire as they witnessed what would go down in
Opponent One – small, feisty and very determined vs. Opponent Two, tall, lean and equally determined. The second combatant had, of course, an advantage – he’d had way more experience in dealing with recalcitrant patients. Plus he was sneakier. She played by the rules – he didn’t. And made no apologies for it. Both officers commiserated with the loser but the clash had been worth the price of admission.
She’d fought him every minute since Chip had carried her in, even Nelson’s appearance and his insistence on her obeying Jamie’s orders hadn’t worked. She’d been spitting pure fire by then and had threatened to walk out if he (Nelson) had sided with the physician. She’d reluctantly allowed Jamie to clean up the cuts to her legs and face and support the sprain on her right wrist – once bolt cutters had removed the cuff – with a soft cast but she’d almost physically fought him when he’d suggested that she should remain overnight as she was in some degree of shock.
Used to Jamie’s no-nonsense approach – and his expertise at dealing with officers who put their own wants before what he perceived as their needs – the senior officers (valuing their continued good health) had cravenly backed off and left the protagonists to it, silently admiring Angie’s stance but conceding Jamie’s victory, long before it became fact. They’d known he was sneaky – but he rose in their estimation of his stealth and all three traded somewhat wary glances.
He’d initially tried to persuade her – gently – that she needed monitoring for shock. That had gone down like a lead balloon. He’d threatened her with a powerful sedative. She’d deep six’d that by knocking the syringe from his hand as he’d approached. She’d hopped off the exam table, wincing as the various bruises made their presence felt and backed away from him. Recognising her very real fear, Jamie had changed tactics mid-stream and gently soothed her into a chair, casting warning glances at the other three. Then he’d coolly informed her that he had no problem with her returning to her apartment if she agreed to take a small dose of brandy, which would calm her racing pulse and reduce the potential effects of shock, allowing her a peaceful night’s sleep.
Not having experienced his particular brand of ‘persuasion’ before Angie had all too readily agreed, would have done anything to get out of there, and failed to note the sympathetic looks that were exchanged over her head – or Jamieson’s slight of hand as he poured her a tot of the quality liquor he kept for just such ‘emergencies’. She took a sip and grimaced at the taste but – at his insistence – knocked it back, shuddering at the unaccustomed raw bite of the alcohol. He suggested that she give it a minute or two before attempting to leave, offering to have a staff car drive her home. Her nod of agreement had her head dropping further than she’d thought and she’d jerked it upright, even as she began to slide bonelessly from the chair. Confusion was apparent in the green eyes that met his as Jamie grabbed her under the arms and lifted her slight form back onto the exam table. She struggled weakly in defiance but the sedation was too strong and she was asleep within seconds of him laying her down.
“Sneaky, Jamie, very, very sneaky.” Nelson shook his head at the physician he admired greatly and grinned in wry amusement. “But I wouldn’t want to be around when she wakes up.”
“I really hate to do that, Admiral, she’ll have difficulty ever trusting me again.” Concern evident in tone and gesture, Jamieson gently smoothed the dark hair back from Angie’s now placid features. “But our little lady here has a very real phobia – she wouldn’t even let me examine her properly. Barely let me clean out the cuts and grazes. Whether she likes it or not, she’s in shock. She didn’t stop trembling the entire time and her pulse is way too fast. There’s no way I could allow her to leave. Not in that condition.”
Nelson knew that Jamieson was an extremely conscientious doctor and took his duties seriously. “I wasn’t criticising, Jamie.” He assured the other man. “You did what you had to. But she’s going to be madder than a wet hen when she discovers what you did.”
“I’d rather that than any of the possible alternatives.”
“She’ll be OK, won’t she?” Chip stepped closer to the sleeping woman, his gaze unconsciously tender.
Nelson traded an amused glance with the other two. Chip was obviously disconcerted; he’d never have allowed his feelings to show so blatantly otherwise – except maybe with Lee – and especially not in front of his superior officer. He’d have been horrified if he’d known that his emotions were written all over his usually expressionless face.
“She’ll be fine, Chip. A bit sore and bruised for a few days, some of the lacerations from the glass and asphalt were deep and dirty but nothing too serious or that required stitches, and there was no evidence of a concussion. A good night’s sleep will work wonders. What I’ve just given her should keep her under for the next twelve hours or so.” Jamie placated the younger man. “Now that she’s out, I’ll give her a quick once over to make sure there’s no other damage that she ‘forgot’ to mention. Then I’ll have one of the nurses get her settled. I’ll check on her in the morning and, more than likely, release her then. You might make sure that she has something to wear.” He indicated the tattered remains of her clothing, Chip’s jacket still around her shoulders as she’d refused to release it.
“I’ve sent Ski out to her place. He’ll secure it for tonight and have a locksmith change the locks first thing in the morning. Maybe Debbie could stop by and gather some stuff for her, I’ll give her a call.” Crane volunteered.
“Good idea, Lee. Debbie won’t mind when she learns of the circumstances.” Nelson nodded his approval – he was proud of his staff; NIMR banded together when one of their own was victimised. “Now, Gentlemen, shall we adjourn to my office? We have a strategy to plan. Jamie, take care of her.”
Jamieson nodded. He knew Nelson was inordinately fond of his young P.A.
Chip looked like he wanted to say something further but merely followed his superior officers out, with a final lingering look at the pale sleeping figure.
“Oh, Angie, he’s got it bad, girl!” Jamie murmured sympathetically as he rang for a nurse to assist him. Moving back to the exam table he gently lifted her wrist to check her pulse. “Now I wonder what caused that phobia of yours? We’ll have a little chat soon – when you’ve forgiven me for tonight! I can imagine you’re going to be spitting feathers at me tomorrow. And I thought I’d seen it all with Lee Crane!”
Nelson moved to the credenza in his office and hit the switch on the coffee pot Angie had thoughtfully left ready for the morrow. Gesturing his officers to seats in front of his desk, he crossed to the sidebar and poured each of them a much needed, generous shot of single malt. Handing the glasses to the two younger men as he reached back for his own, he studied them both closely.
He could easily see Lee’s upset – Crane was the quintessential Naval officer and gentleman and it would offend his sensibilities to have a woman he worked with, and genuinely liked, targeted as ruthlessly as Angie had been. Chip was usually more – difficult – to read and Nelson had had occasion to curse his XO’s stoic demeanour. That had patently taken a knock just now. Nelson hadn’t guessed at the depth of his exec’s feelings for his PA. Heck, maybe even Chip hadn’t realised how much he cared for the petite brunette until tonight. His sympathies rose for the young blond officer – but he knew the words wouldn’t be appreciated so he rounded the desk, dropped into his high-backed leather chair and lit a cigarette, silently acknowledging that it soothed the rage that bubbled inside him at the attack on one of his people. One of his people that he’d thought immune to attacks against him. The sense of responsibility for tonight’s action bit deeply. He wanted whoever was accountable for the assault on Angie – and he wanted them badly.
“Let me have the story again – from the beginning.” He listened quietly, thoughtfully, as the two re-iterated the tale as they’d been told it. He nodded decisively when they finished.
“Obviously a well-orchestrated, co-ordinated attack. Not a spur of the moment target of opportunity. Balaclavas, bolt cutters – they didn’t want to be recognised and they knew Angie would have the attaché case secured. We’re not dealing with amateurs. We need a copy of ‘my’ call to the office. Chip, you’re on that. Request the tape from Records – just as well we document all incomings. Lee, we’ll need more personnel. See whom you can recall from liberty. I know you’ve got Ski out at Angie’s place. Ideally I’d like Sharkey, O’Brien, Patterson and maybe young Lt. James.”
Lee was shaking his head already. “Sorry, Admiral, the chief’s left for the east coast on vacation and O’Brien is acting as best man at a wedding this weekend. Pat is probably available and I don’t remember Chris talking of any special plans. I’ll chase both of them up immediately.”
Nelson suppressed a grin – he shouldn’t have been surprised. It was quite possible that Lee knew of the liberty plans for all 125 crewmembers! That was just the type of skipper he was.
“Fine, try for Riley also. Get on
to gate security, Chip.” He instructed,
drawing deeply on the cigarette – he thought better when his hands were
occupied. “Angie was quite likely
followed from the moment she left the grounds.
Perhaps they managed to capture something on the CCTV cameras. We’ll need to review those. I’m assuming the local force have impounded
the car left at the scene. What can we
find out from that? These guys are
likely too professional to have left prints but even the brightest criminals
can slip up. Not that our boys in blue
will want to volunteer any information.
They should have an APB out for Angie’s car too. Let’s see if they’ve got any leads yet. Offer them our laboratory facilities – they’ll
be superior to anything SBPD currently have available.” Nelson wasn’t being elitist – merely
pragmatic. And his ire rose as he
contemplated the slight figure of his PA as he’d last seen her, huddled in
Chip’s way too big jacket on the gurney in
He’d never thought of Angie as a potential target. He’d come to terms long since with the idea of Seaview being a mark for his enemies, as were his inventions, and even his crew – although that was harder to bear. But – and maybe he was a dinosaur in this age of feminine equality – he hadn’t dreamed of anyone targeting his PA, his newly announced Deputy Director. No question, Angie had been deserving of the promotion but had he unknowingly endangered her by elevating her to that position, with its attendant publicity?
Crane watched Nelson carefully, seeing the obvious signs of the admiral’s temper rising. “Admiral, it’s not your fault.” He spoke softly, guessing at the reason, knowing instinctively that Nelson would blame himself. “Angie knew the risk, knew that her heightened profile could make her a target. Knew it and accepted it.”
Nelson saw Chip nod in agreement and paced back to his desk, crushing out the butt of his cigarette. His colour was still high and his blue eyes snapped with ill concealed rage. He pounded one fist into the desk hard enough to hurt his hand. The attendant pain helped him focus. “Goddamn them! Perhaps I’m old fashioned but I can accept the risks we take. It’s what we trained for. But when they attack helpless women….”
His eyes narrowed in surprise and displeasure as he heard Lee chuckle and Chip laugh outright.
“I’m sorry, Admiral, but calling Angie ‘helpless’ is a bit of a stretch. If you could have seen her when we got there. She had commandeered someone’s cell phone and was swatting away both the local police and the EMT’s like they were nuisance flies. If things hadn’t happened as quickly as they did, I’m betting she’d have given those guys a run for their money.” Lee’s amber eyes sparkled. He – like Chip – had seen Angie in action in defence of the admiral. She was a formidable sight for all her diminutive stature – a pocket dynamo, the exec had been known to call her.
Lee could see that his attempts to lighten the atmosphere were working. Nelson’s colour was fading as his temper dissipated. He gave one of his patented ‘harrumphs’ and lit another cigarette, easing himself back down into his chair. He knew he’d been ‘finagled’ out of his temper – again. Seaview’s young captain seemed to have a knack for it. “Thank you, Lee.” He intoned quietly. “Now, I want these people and I want them badly. Chip, any ideas?”
Grateful for something concrete to keep his mind off Angie, Chip was thinking ahead. “We’ll need to co-operate with the locals on this one, Admiral. And probably the Feds too, once they discover that your research is missing. I mean, Project Discovery isn’t exactly chicken feed.”
“Thank you for that most erudite compliment, Chip.” Nelson extolled drolly, watching as the younger man flushed at the inappropriateness of his words. The admiral amusedly waved aside his stammered apology. “I appreciate the sentiment, lad. And, while the notes are a loss, there are copies, both here and in my safe at the house. The plus factor being that the project is already well into the production phase.” He was unsurprised at the jolt that his comment attracted from the younger pair. “Yes, we were a little further advanced on the project than I’d previously admitted to. It was only a matter of time, once it went into general circulation, before something leaked or someone attempted to copy it. So, while this is a blow and earlier than I’d like, it’s not going to adversely affect the launch of Discovery. Despite what they’ve procured, it’ll take them some time to get to where we’re currently at.”
“Even so, Admiral,” Chip persisted, “we’re going to have to deal with outside agencies this time. With the number of civilians already involved, it’s inevitably going to make the TV news.” He hated to be the bearer of bad tidings but, as the pragmatic one of the trio – Lee would have said ‘anal’ – he felt duty bound to point out the obvious negatives.
Nelson frowned, but conceded the point. “So we’re going to need someone to play nice with the media. Let’s get our PR Dept. onto that immediately.”
“We don’t want the Press getting
anywhere near Angie, sir.” Lee
cautioned. “And you know they’ll be all
over her, given the slightest opportunity.
We can keep them at a distance as long as she’s in
“You’re right, Lee. And I know you hate dealing with them but you’re acquainted with that girl at the local TV station, Linda something. She proved extremely helpful in the past. (*) Perhaps she might be willing to assist us once again.”
Lee nodded his reluctant compliance. He was an intensely private man and, while he’d had a brief relationship with Linda Nugent, they had both decided that they would rather remain friends than infrequent lovers. It wasn’t conducive to his undercover assignments to have his picture splashed across the tabloids – it happened far too often for his liking as it was.
Nelson caught the hesitance in the golden eyes and understood. “Lee, call her. Gain her co-operation and then let Lt. James handle the follow up. He could do with the experience. And he’ll be good ‘poster boy’ material for the Institute in your stead.” He watched the colour wash into the sallow cheekbones, knowing how Crane hated the designation that had followed him from his entry into the Academy. And, at the smirk Chip sent his friend’s way, Nelson threw him a mock glare. “Don’t get too comfortable, Commander. If we have to loose the big guns, it’s your six I’ll be tossing onto the pyre this time!” He enjoyed the frequent banter between his two young officers and grinned wryly at the speaking look from Lee’s sparkling eyes. All three appreciated the momentary lightening of the atmosphere before getting back to the evening’s serious business.
“Actually, I thought I might call on my acquaintance from SBPD, sir.” Chip offered, his quick brain having run through the parameters of the situation in his own inimitable style and coming up with one of his ‘fast action equals damage control’ lists, so familiar to and appreciated by his superiors. “The locals are going to play a big part in this and it stands to reason that we’ll have to deal with them plus the Feds – not to mention ComSubPac and probably the White House when the loss of Project Discovery becomes known. The wider parameters are monumental, Admiral.”
Once again Nelson had cause to thank the fates that had put him in the
same timeframe that had witnessed the advent of Crane and Morton into
Chip traded a soft smile with Lee – Nelson’s edict being a little different than Chip’s proposal – but agreed without demure. Both knew that the admiral had an agenda of his own, even as he doled out assignments. Chip left it up to Lee to ask the question.
“Admiral, what are you proposing to do, sir?”
“Me, Lee? Why, I’m going hunting.”
It proved a long, fruitless, night. Despite their hopes, no clues yielded from the tape of the call to Nelson’s office. Chip had made contact with Lt. Connelly who, as one of the senior officers with SBPD, had already been chosen to spearhead the case by his captain – who was willing to concede that Connelly’s familiarity with NIMR might trigger a faster resolution to this one. Captain McNeill was well aware of the high profile and news-worthiness of this case – not to mention the difficulties of dealing with the military and the top-secret nature of the stolen material. He was more than happy to allow Connelly to take over.
Chip had cleared the SBPD lieutenant for access to the base and he and
his partner were immediately escorted to the
Patrick Connelly had been a tenacious adversary. From the top of his nearly bald head to the tips of his badly shined shoes he shrieked ‘cop’. He was a bull of a man in a rumpled though expensive suit, his girth almost matching his height. He was no taller than Nelson but outweighed him by a good fifty pounds – and all of it pure muscle. For a big man he could move as lightly as a dancer when the need arose. And, despite an inauspicious start, Morton knew he could trust this man implicitly and that Connelly held him in the same regard. Since the ‘Cassie Affair’, which had been resolved – as Connelly had admitted – more by luck than detection, they had met occasionally for a beer, keeping up with each other and a friendship of sorts was born.
Connelly was a street cop, not a desk jockey. He was fifty-six years old and had put in more than his thirty. He could have accepted a promotion to captain several years earlier but that would have taken him off the streets and into a purely administrative role. It wasn’t for him. He was a bloodhound and would stay on the streets as long as he remained active. He regarded the taller, younger, khaki clad blond with an unusual fondness. Unmarried and childless, Connelly didn’t usually allow people to get close to him. But somehow this man had managed it. And Pat Connelly didn’t quite know how. He’d been very taken with the officer’s composure and steadfastness when he’d questioned Chip about the attack on Lee Crane. Initial, inbuilt scepticism in the seasoned cop had turned to admiration and respect. Bottom line – he just plain liked Chip Morton.
“Chip, good to see you again.” The cop’s eyes were dark, hooded, knowing, but his broad face split into a pleasant grin as he clasped the proffered hand eagerly.
“It’s been a while, Pat.” Blue eyes full of affection met Connelly’s and Chip’s rare incandescent smile lit up his face. “Thanks for coming by so quickly.”
With a nod, Morton dismissed the security guard who had escorted the police officers from the gate. Security was always tight at the Institute but he’d ordered a Level 2 – the next to highest alert – when they’d brought Angie back onto the base.
Seeing the deference with which the guard treated the blond, the woman at Connelly’s side raised an eyebrow. Connelly performed the introductions. “Sergeant Alanna O’Regan, SBPD, Lt. Cmdr. Chip Morton of the Nelson Institute and Executive Officer of the Seaview. I thought your secretary might find it easier talking to another woman, Chip.”
“For the record, that’s Sergeant, Lt. Cmdr.” She corrected as she openly sized him up.
Morton shook hands with the tall brunette and murmured the customary platitudes. She was incredibly beautiful; glossy, almost jet-black hair was caught in a knot at the nape of her neck flattering her oval face, her complexion was pure peaches and cream and she had wonderfully dark lashed deep blue eyes. She looked to be somewhere in her early to mid thirties, tall and slender, dressed in a navy blue pantsuit. And Chip took an instant and inexplicable dislike to her.
He couldn’t have said why. Lee would have kidded him about it, for Chip’s reputation as a ladies man was stellar – and much exaggerated. Perhaps it was her assertive don’t-mess-with-me stance or the blatant, almost aggressive, way she was looking him over. She reminded him of a sleek feline and he could just about see her licking her lips in appreciation. Morton didn’t suffer from false modesty. He knew he was reasonably good looking – not as strikingly handsome as Lee but OK in a conventional all-American way. He’d had his share of female attention over the years and like any healthy young man he’d sown his wild oats. With age had come discernment and there was just something too obviously and off-puttingly sexual about this woman’s attitude. If he’d had to put a word on it he would have said – bold. She looked like she wanted to eat him whole.
His best XO mask firmly in place, Chip acknowledged her remark with a
short inclining of his head, smoothly turned to Connelly and thanked him for
his thoughtfulness. “But I’m afraid you
won’t be able to talk to Angie until tomorrow.
Doc wanted to keep her in
“She wasn’t badly hurt?”
“Some nasty cuts and bruises and a
badly sprained wrist.
He gestured for them to precede him into the lobby of the Administration building, which was brightly lit despite the lateness of the hour. Crossing to the elevator he addressed his comments to Lt. Connelly, subtly and without any hint of being impolite, managing to exclude the female cop.
Her failure to intimidate him annoyed her intensely and a frown creased her smooth brow. She wasn’t used to put downs and his silent brush off had been clear as crystal. But he would pay for that, she resolved casually.
Nelson had a vicious headache, caused by too much coffee and earache. He’d spent the intervening time fielding calls from ComSubPac, ComSubLant and various federal and gubernatorial agencies, all intent on sending personnel to assist. It wasn’t interference he needed but information. He was on the hunt. But the calls just kept interrupting him. Jiggs Starke had been the only bright spot in an otherwise frustrating couple of hours. His old friend had cottoned on immediately, promising to send out feelers to see what he could come up with on the coconut wireless. Pity the other agencies didn’t have his savvy. Starke, as did Nelson, knew that something as carefully planned as this didn’t happen in a vacuum. Someone, somewhere had knowledge of the plans and the perpetrators – and that Intel could be traded or, if necessary, bought.
As his private line rang once again he sighed and lit yet another cigarette, his ashtray already overflowing. He absently thought that he would have to dispose of the evidence soon or he would catch hell from Jamie. Not to mention the disapproving looks from Lee and Chip. Recognising the number on the caller display, he reluctantly lifted the receiver as a knock on the door heralded Chip’s entry with two civilians.
Waving them in, he exhaled deeply. “Yes, Mr. President. I appreciate the call, sir. We’re doing everything in our power to retrieve the material. Yes, sir. It is a blow. But we’ll still be at least six months ahead of the opposition, even if we don’t succeed in getting it back. I’m receiving excellent co-operation, sir. Everyone has been most helpful. Thank you, I’ll feel free to call if there is anything I think you can assist with.” He listened intently, his voice softening as he replied to an obviously personal comment. “Thank you, Andrew. She’ll be fine. She’s in good hands. Our CMO insisted on keeping her overnight, much against her will, I can assure you.” He paused and chuckled at the other’s comment. “Yes, it was loud. And I wouldn’t risk calling for a day or two, if I were you. You’re liable to get an earful.” Pause. “She is, that. I’ll tell her. And she’ll appreciate it. I appreciate it, sir. We’ll keep you informed.”
Hanging up the receiver, he rose to his feet, crushing out the half smoked cigarette. “I’m sorry for keeping you waiting.”
“The President has a tendency to take precedence, Admiral.” Connelly denoted dryly, striding ahead and enveloping Nelson’s outstretched hand in his giant paw. “It’s nice to see you again but a pity the circumstances aren’t better. May I introduce my colleague, Det. Sgt. Alanna O’Regan. Sergeant, Admiral Harriman Nelson.”
“A pleasure, Ma’am. Lieutenant, it’s nice to see you again. Why don’t we sit down?” Nelson indicated the sofas ranged around a coffee table across the office, moving towards the venue as a given. “Chip, could you ask Lee to join us? He’s with Chris in the Press office.”
Not one to miss much in his immediate milieu, Nelson spotted the glance the female detective flicked in Morton’s direction at his instruction. Chip dipped his head in compliance, closing the door behind him as he left.
She was impressed. He was on
first name terms with the President of the
“O’Regan? Any relation to our late mayor, Sergeant?” Nelson queried, as he enquired as to their preference for coffee.
“He was my father, Admiral.” She offered stiffly, adding nothing further, but her eyes were cold.
“My condolence on your loss. And that would make the Governor your uncle.” She nodded assent, without commenting. Nelson lit another cigarette. A lady with connections.
Within minutes, while Connelly and Nelson exchanged small talk, the door opened again and Crane and Morton entered. If she’d thought the blond was good looking and the russet-haired admiral was powerful then the brunet was breath taking.
Lee felt himself being evaluated and almost consumed by the deep blue eyes in the strikingly beautiful face. But, like Morton, he was used to come-ons from the female sex. And overt did nothing for him. Glancing sideways at his friend, they exchanged a silent communiqué.
Chip was only too glad that it wasn’t personal. She obviously behaved this way with everyone she encountered. Her scrutiny of Nelson hadn’t gone unnoticed. The admiral had taken the single armchair and Connelly and his colleague had seated themselves on one of the comfortable brown leather sofas, so Chip and Lee perched themselves side by side on the other couch. Coffee offered and declined, they got down to business.
Neither the call nor the CCTV cameras at NIMR’s gatehouse had provided any clues. An FBI voice identification expert – an old friend of Nelson’s called immediately – had swiftly opined that the call was an expertly, professionally, put together amalgam. Nelson’s voice – but taken from random interviews and taped recordings to mesh into that one seemingly effortless phone call. The perps’ car had been a lost cause. Having been examined by experts; neither a fingerprint nor so much as a hair had been retrieved.
“And I’ve only got more bad news, Admiral.” Connelly added. “Ms. Newman’s car was found by one of our patrol units. Unfortunately it had been burned out. Comprehensively. I’m afraid we’ll find little to help us there. It was too hot for anything other than a preliminary investigation at the scene so we won’t have anything concrete for another day or two. However, I wouldn’t bet on us getting lucky. These guys are pros. We’ll put the word out on the streets. But I’m not very hopeful of a result. This took planning by someone who knew what they wanted and went after it.” Connelly cannily contemplated the three faces in front of him. From Chip’s implacable look to Crane’s non-committal gaze to Nelson’s inscrutable one. “I’m thinking you have a better chance of coming up with something on this one than we will. This smacks of a military mindset.”
He quashed, with a slicing motion of his hand, the instinctive protest from his colleague. “I’d guess that you know the purpose of the enemy, if not the face.”
Nelson acknowledged the shrewd wisdom of the man with a short nod. “I – we – want these people, Lieutenant. And we are prepared to co-operate fully with you.” He saw the woman’s eyes darken with what almost equated to disdain – and he wondered. “Our laboratories and personnel are open to you. We have resources and capabilities your department would covet. And we have access to agencies and Intel that would take you months to tap into. All we ask in return is to be privy to anything you uncover.”
O’Regan shot an incredulous glance at her superior. She was astounded to see him nod his head thoughtfully in acquiescence. “Lieutenant….” Her protest was abruptly cut off.
“Sergeant. I think I’ve got a heads up on you here. And I suggest we take the admiral up on his very generous offer. His…contacts…are way superior to ours. I think we should take advantage of them.”
Nelson conceded with a graceful nod, his measure of the cop having been correct. He was…unsure…of the lady officer, having observed her reaction to both Chip and Lee – and himself, if the truth were known. All his instincts screamed…trouble. But he couldn’t say why. She had done nothing, said nothing so far, to give that impression. He just had an innate distrust of her. And he felt that Chip shared his feelings – not that you could read anything from Morton’s demeanour. Lee hadn’t been exposed to her for long but he could sense an antipathy in his young but astute captain. Lee’s sixth sense had proven itself many a time and he wasn’t prepared to ignore it now, nor Chip’s obvious dislike of the woman – well, obvious if you knew the exec. He grinned wryly – it being one of the few times he was able to read his usually enigmatic XO.
“Now, I think it’s getting late and we should adjourn for the night.” Connelly rose adroitly to his feet. “It’s obvious that we can’t progress this much further until we can talk to Ms. Newman and hit the streets.”
“I’m not sure Angie will be able to tell you anything more than she’s already told us.” Lee added. “She gave a very comprehensive statement to the officers at the scene.”
“Oh, come on, Commander! You’re surely not suggesting that we don’t interview the suspect?” O’Regan sat forward in her seat, attitude now overtly aggressive.
“Suspect, Sergeant?” Morton queried, deceptively quietly.
“Of course she is, Lt. Cmdr.” As if he were totally dense, she took pleasure in emphasising his rank, as she listed the negatives. “She was in possession of the documents. She violated your protocol. We haven’t got a lot else to go on. We’ll need to completely investigate her background, her living arrangements, her bank accounts, etc.”
“What?” She almost snapped at her superior, belatedly acknowledging his disapprovingly raised eyebrow and backing off. “Sorry, Lieutenant.”
“Don’t you think NIMR would have checked out her credentials?” Connelly chided, not so gently.
Nelson waded in, a hardness invading his voice. “Angie Newman has been my P.A. for the past seven years and has recently been promoted to the post of Deputy Director of NIMR, Sergeant. That doesn’t happen without an extremely high security clearance. And a lot of trust.”
His tone became a warning. “Angie is the victim here. I will not countenance anything other than extreme courtesy when you speak with her, is that clear?”
“Very clear, Admiral.” Connelly answered quickly, shooting a warning look at his colleague who seemed likely to argue further. “Let’s go, Sergeant.”
He shook hands with the three naval officers advising them that they would be back the following day to talk to Angie.
“When Dr. Jamieson gives you clearance.” Nelson reminded him.
“I’ve experienced Dr. Jamieson’s tactics, Admiral.” Connelly shot back, uncowed. “And I’m not unsympathetic, but we really do need to talk to Ms. Newman. She may remember more than went into her initial statement. To be frank, we have so little to go on here that anything she can add would be welcome.”
“As long as Dr. Jamieson clears it.” Nelson wouldn’t back down.
“OK. But, sir, this is a two way street. You’ll have our full co-operation but we’ll expect yours in return.” Connelly remained unfazed. “Should you receive any further communication or any Intel from your military colleagues, I want to hear about it.”
Lee crossed the office and poured himself a cup of the almost stewed coffee - just how he liked it. It was past midnight and he needed the jolt to the system that the caffeine would provide him. He raised the pot and silently offered the others. Morton nodded and Lee did the necessary, handing him the cup.
Nelson was already moving towards the decanter. “Well, that was interesting.”
“Pat will co-operate, sir.” Morton was confident.
“I agree, Chip. I’m just not quite sure of the lady’s agenda.”
“I don’t mean to sound melodramatic, Admiral. But I did not like the vibes I got from her.” Lee’s amber gaze was troubled.
“I don’t think you’re alone there, Lee.” Nelson intoned dryly.
“I don’t want her anywhere near Angie.” Chip’s voice was unduly sharp and a tide of red suffused his fair complexion as the others regarded him somewhat amusedly. It was highly unusual for the exec to make his feelings so blatantly known.
“Down, Chip.” Came drolly from the admiral. “Angie is more than capable of dealing with Sergeant O’Regan. In fact I think they’d be very well matched. And, have no fear; Angie will not be alone in any dealings with the police. Our legal department have already been briefed and will be present, if necessary, during any and all interviews. And don’t forget Jamie. He’s not likely to allow anyone close to Angie until he’s happy that she can hold her own.”
“Angie might have something to say about that, sir. After the way he tricked her tonight.” Chip reminded him.
“Ah, but, Chip,” and Nelson sent a full blown grin his captain’s way as he spoke, “remember we’re talking about our CMO here. The same CMO who has regularly dealt with one recalcitrant captain who doesn’t take instruction too well from any member of the medical profession.” He watched as Crane dropped his eyes. Refusing to allow Morton off the hook either, he continued. “Not to mention XOs who defy him at every opportunity. You know he attributes his hair loss since joining Seaview solely to you two!”
He delighted in the sheepish looks that comment fostered. Consulting his watch, he knocked back the remainder of the tot of whiskey he’d poured. “We should try to get some sleep for what remains of the night, Gentlemen. Why don’t we re-group here at 09.00”.
Intercepting the wistful glance Chip unconsciously cast in the direction of the medical building, Nelson jerked his head towards the door. “Don’t even think about it, Commander. Jamie hasn’t let you out of his radar yet after that little concussion you got just before we made port.”
“It was nothing, I’m fine, sir.” Morton protested, amid snickers from his friend at the overused remark – more usually attributed to Crane.
“All the same, I wouldn’t push it, if I were you, Chip.” Nelson’s eyes twinkled at Morton’s abashed look.
“Aye, sir.” An audible growl emanating from the direction of his stomach had the blond blushing furiously.
“Sorry, Chip, we never did get that pizza.” Crane chortled, sucking air as his friend elbowed him nicely in the ribs.
Angie’s head was fuzzy and ached – like the worst hangover she’d ever had in college. Her mouth felt like it had been stuffed with cotton that had been soaked in spoiled milk. Her stomach roiled as she slowly tried to turn onto her back, every joint and muscle in her body protesting loudly – which brought her to a quick halt. The slightest movement hurt. Even her eyes wouldn’t co-operate and open fully. She groaned and raised a hand to her aching head, realising belatedly that both her palms were stinging badly. What the hell had happened?
Memory flooded back as she sorted through the various other injuries that were beginning to make their presence felt. The car jacking. Med Bay. The bed beneath her felt unfamiliar, the mattress rock hard, sheets and pillow cases crisp and starched. And what in God’s name was she wearing?
She finally managed to open her eyes enough to make out the cheerful yellow paint on the opposite wall and the pale wood of the nightstand and the single armchair that were in her line of vision. Gaining focus wasn’t easy but, after several blinks, things swam into some semblance of clarity. Someone had substituted her clothes for one of those disgustingly humiliating shapeless hospital gowns that tied at the neck and were otherwise open down the back. Damn that doctor – she should have known better than to trust him. They were all the same – God complexes obviously handed down with medical degrees.
A slight movement behind her indicated the presence of another person but, as she slowly turned her head in that direction, her hair was suddenly grasped in a viciously tight fist and, before she could even attempt to cry out, she was flipped onto her stomach, her face buried in the starched cloth of the pillow. Her first realisation was that her entire body shrieked in protest; her second was that she couldn’t breathe. She scrabbled furiously for any leverage but was forced to admit defeat when a heavy weight descended on her back. She couldn’t see, couldn’t hear, everything was closing in on her.
The third realisation was that she was about to die.
Even as that thought hit, she felt the brutal grasp on her hair ease fractionally and her head was pulled back just enough that she could suck in sufficient air to have the incipient blackness receding. Her lungs burned, she was pinned to the mattress by a solid mass and her head was wrenched back, making it difficult to take in anything more than shallow breaths. Tears leaked from the corners of her eyes, both from the terror and the pain as she felt him – for she was sure it was a he – shift on her. His fist tangled further into her hair as his other hand moved towards her exposed throat. She froze completely, forgetting even to breathe as she felt cold metal prick her skin. He pressed the razor sharp tip of the knife into the vulnerable flesh, not hard but making it clear that one little push and her life would cease.
“Don’t cry out, don’t scream. Do not so much as move a muscle. Understood?” She could feel his lips at her ear, his voice just above a whisper.
She was too afraid to nod, to speak.
He pressed the tip of the blade a little deeper and a tiny bead of blood pearled. She bit her lip to keep from whimpering. “Do you understand, Angie?”
The fact that he knew her name, the very way he spoke it, sent a fresh wave of terror coursing through her. “Yes.” She croaked, forcing the barely breathed word through stiff lips. Fear had dried up the saliva in her mouth and she couldn’t as much as swallow.
“Good. We’re going to get along well, you and I. Very well.” His voice purred against her ear, the threat overtly implicit, and she shook.
He eased his weight fractionally off her and she drew in a ragged breath, only to freeze again as he dragged the knife blade almost caressingly across her taut neck to the tie that held the hospital gown in place. Her heart almost leaped from her chest when he swiftly cut through the thin strip of material and a tiny sob forced its way out of her parched throat. She squeezed her eyes tightly shut as he slowly drew the sharp tip oh-so-gently down her slender back from her shoulder blade to her hipbone just above the edge of her panties, barely grazing the smooth pale skin as she held herself rigid.
“Pink silk for pretty Angie.” He tightened his hold on her dark hair, lifting her back towards him so that the gown dipped off one shoulder. Through her tightly closed lids she could feel him watching her, sense him salivating at her vulnerability, and sheer terror at what he planned had her left hand snaking towards the call button that rested alongside the pillow.
The knife embedded itself in the mattress, just below the small white button and barely above the tips of her fingers as she silently freaked. She had to struggle to subdue a scream of terror – it manifested itself as a tiny moan as she curled her seeking fingers into a tight fist. She had never been more scared in all her life and her hot tears scalded the cotton pillow.
“Bad girl, Angie.” His tone was reproving rather than angry; the total lack of emotion worse than a shout. “And bad girls have to pay.” He skimmed his fingers lightly, teasingly, over her spine from her hip back up to her left shoulder, making her shudder under his touch. His hand stilled momentarily as if he relished her vain attempt to evade him. “You can’t get away, Angie. There’s no escape. I could take you right now if I wanted. I’ve seen you – around the base, in your so respectable little suits, the admiral’s very proper little secretary. You weren’t so cool, yesterday, were you, Baby? You showed a lot of skin then, Angie. Got me all excited, Babe.” He moved against her and she could feel the potency of his arousal against her hip.
Sheer terror caused her to retch and the blade, which had been lazily circling her shoulder, bit a shade deeper than intended. She cried out inadvertently. “Cool it, Baby. Chill. Now you know I mean business. And I’ll be back. But first I’m going to leave a little message for your admiral. A piece of the puzzle for him to ponder. I’ll be in touch, sweet Angie.”
With that he pushed her, face down, back into the pillow and she thrashed as she fought for her life, convinced that she was going to die and not caring any more if she enraged him. His strength easily subdued her, pinning her down again, and she fought valiantly but the bite of the knife into the soft tissue of her shoulder had her shrieking, her screams muted by the cotton that filled her mouth. She almost lost consciousness as the tip of the blade gouged delicately into her shoulder, leaving the promised communication embedded in her bare flesh.
She was incapable of reacting when he released his grip on her hair and eased himself off her. She shook from head to foot but was terrified to move a muscle lest it incite further violence. Turning her head enough to gulp in some very necessary air was about as much as she could manage, and even that came slowly, fearing instant repercussions.
“It’s over – for now, Angie. This was just the first lesson. Tell Nelson. Up to now it’s been business, darling. No hard feelings.” His voice dropped to an even more sinister level – if that were possible. “But I’ve had a taste of you, Angie. And I want more. You’ll never be safe, love. Not til I’ve taken you. But I’m nothing if not generous. So I’ve left you a little present. Your purse, Baby – it’s at the end of the bed. Sleep tight now – and dream of me.”
He pinched the nerve in her neck that rendered her instantly unconscious. Slipping unobserved out the door, he shook his head at the ease with which he’d penetrated NIMR security.
Angie swam back to consciousness gradually. Her head ached worse than ever – both her temples and the back of her neck pounded zealously. Her mouth felt like field mice had taken up residence and when she tried to shift onto her side, over and above the general, and in some cases rather specific, aches in her body, her left shoulder throbbed unmercifully and incessantly with a raw, new insistence. She gulped and sobs exploded as painful memory overtook her. The fingers of her left hand inched once again towards the call button and, encountering no resistance, shakily depressed it as she eased her aching body to one side, finally allowing herself to slump. The immediate attention from the nurse on duty caused her to curl up into the smallest ball she could and cry out her abject fright into the already soaked pillow.
The last moments of competition were wordless and ruthless. Crane beat Morton out by a scant hair. They both collapsed on the sand at the base of the deck, breathing torturously. Crane managed a weak wheeze.
“Twenty bucks tomorrow.”
“In your dreams!” Morton levered himself onto one elbow, sucking in air at a rate of knots. “You cheated! You knew I had nothing to eat most of yesterday. A body such as this needs constant fuel to maximise its potential!”
Crane’s intended chuckle came out more of a groan as he turned onto his back and gulped in the necessary air to refill his desperately needy lungs. The morning sun, weak as it was at this early hour, beat down on him, soothing in its warmth and drying the sweat that slicked his body. He loved these early morning runs. Alone they focused him, but when he managed to run with his friend and brother – as they both tried to do whenever they were home at the same time – there was a camaraderie and a competitive spirit that brought back his days at the Academy. Chip had been the track champion all four years; his huskier frame having a deceptive elegance of gait and a speedy finish that had thrown more than one competitor for a loop. Lee had excelled in the boxing ring, his win record had still to be beaten almost fourteen years later.
“You’re not going to convince me that you hit the rack with nothing to eat last night. I know you too well, Morton.” That single sentence expended most of his available energy and he didn’t even bother to open his eyes to see the reaction from his exec.
“Cereal doesn’t count!” Came the righteous response. “I wouldn’t be able to sleep if I went to bed hungry.”
“Yeah, right! And you didn’t hit the stash of candy bars you keep in the refrigerator either?” Lee was gradually getting his breathing under control.
“Absolutely not!” The reply was totally virtuous, managing to include a hint of shock at his friend’s pseudo accusation. Then a genuine laugh burst forth. “OK, Crane! You do know me too well. But that wasn’t real food and I do need some actual sustenance to keep me going, even if you don’t. Which is why I’ve laid out breakfast. If it were up to you, we’d hit the boat on a gallon of coffee. I know you’re anxious about NavCom but we’ll get it sorted a heck of a lot faster if my stomach’s not complaining.”
“I should know better by now. Feed the beast! First rule when befriending Morton – ensure full stomach so the whining is minimised.” He yelped as Chip attacked his bicep with a clenched fist – controlling the punch.
“Inside! NOW! Juice, fruit, cereal. And the coffee should be just about done.” Unlike Crane’s minimalist kitchen facilities, Morton had arranged to have the essentials – in his view – stocked in advance of the boat docking at home base. He’d earlier put the sausage meat into the broiler before their run and had the beaten eggs ready to toss into the microwave. Within minutes, he’d thrown together a meal and Lee ate as if it were his last. Sipping his coffee, Chip almost sighed with satisfaction. Getting Lee to actually enjoy food was always difficult but he knew that his friend would eat way more after a challenging run – if it was presented to him without fuss – than he would at any other time of the day. He willingly rose to put more bread into the toaster at Lee’s instigation and gleefully watched his friend scarf it down with the last bites of the scrambled egg. If Lee ate nothing more for the day, at least Chip would know that he’d had a decent breakfast.
He couldn’t know how prophetic those words were – for either of them.
Lee luxuriated in a long hot shower. After shampooing and rinsing his hair, he braced his arms against the tiled walls and allowed the water to cascade down onto his taut muscles. Fresh water being at a premium on the boat, showers were by necessity restricted so he enjoyed the on-shore pleasure of easing out the minor aches until the water cooled and he was reluctantly forced out. The landline was ringing as he emerged. Hastily wrapping a towel round his waist, he slung another around his neck to catch the drips from the dark curls that were his constant torment. He groped for the bedside phone with one hand while he dried off his face and batted the towelling material absently over his close-cropped hair. “Crane.”
“Lee, it’s Jamieson.” The serious note in the doctor’s voice had Crane’s hand stilling as he dried his hair and a cold premonition assailed him. “I know it’s early but I guessed you’d be up.” Will knew his CO’s habits only too well.
“Yeah, Chip and I went for a run. I’m just out of the shower. What’s up?” No beating about the bush, his tone demanded.
Jamieson blew out an exasperated breath. “I should give you both hell. You’ve got stitches and Chip’s had a concussion. I didn’t clear either of you for running!”
“You didn’t tell us we couldn’t. The stitches are in my arm, not my leg.” He pointed out - totally reasonably, he thought. “And Chip is on his own. Jamie?” There was something in Will’s voice that told Lee his blustering was a diversion tactic – that he was hesitant about the real reason for his call. Lee picked up his watch from the nightstand – it was just after 06.40, kinda early for Jamie to be up and about, off boat.
A defeated sigh came through the instrument and, as if there was no
other way he could impart the bad news, Jamieson blurted it out. “Angie was assaulted this morning in
There was self-condemnation in his voice but the very words caused Lee to block everything else. He drew in a deep, appalled breath. “Oh, Christ. Is she OK? I mean, was she…?” He broke off, unable to continue as the thought had his stomach threatening to surrender the breakfast he had so recently enjoyed.
“She wasn’t raped. At least, she says not.” Jamieson sounded uncharacteristically tentative. “Not surprisingly, she won’t let me – or anyone else – anywhere near her. The nurse on duty responded to a call from her room and found her crying her eyes out, saying someone had threatened her. They rang for me straight away. She’s totally traumatised, not making a lot of sense right now, keeps demanding her clothes and that we allow her to go home.” He drew in a ragged breath. “Lee, there’s no way I can let her out of here in the state she’s in. She says her attacker gave her a message for Admiral Nelson and insists that we call him. I tried to get hold of Chip but there’s no reply from either his landline or his cell.”
“He’s probably still in the shower.” Lee returned as he began to pull clothes from drawers and a fresh uniform from the closet.
“Get him over here as soon as you can. Angie just might respond to him. I’ll keep trying the admiral. Oh and, Lee, you might want to step up the security level on the base and call your contact in SBPD. Angie says it was one of the guys who carjacked her yesterday.”
That last titbit had the two officers speeding towards
Lee restrained Chip, as he made for the staircase, ready to eschew the elevator. “Cool it, buddy. You won’t be any use to her if you arrive in there straining at the leash. She needs calm and collected right now, not an overdose of testosterone. Wait for the elevator.”
Morton nodded, realising the common sense of his friend’s words and knowing that Lee was equally anxious to get to Angie. He took a deep breath and Lee could see the implacable mask his friend had patented as far back as their Academy days descend. He’d been one of the privileged few to be allowed to venture past it. And now he perceived that his best friend was aching. Since Lee’s call, he’d just wanted to pound somebody – anybody. The thought of Angie – sweet, petite little Angie (with the heart of a sumo wrestler and a persona not far short, if he was to be honest, the exterior packaging belying the interior) – being assaulted not once but twice within a twenty-four hour period had his protective instincts going into overdrive.
Lee’s first call – even before alerting Chip to the current situation – had been to the Institute’s Chief of Security, raising the base’s alert status to ONE. No one would be cleared – on or off the property – without one of the three senior officers’ say so. Right now their priority was Angie.
Emerging from the elevator on the designated floor, Lee halted outside the room number they’d been given, his hand on Chip’s outstretched arm. There was unprecedented activity on the usually quiet floor at that hour of the morning and he realised that the place was buzzing with an unaccustomed commotion. Two guards bearing arms were posted outside the door to Angie’s room and snapped to attention at the appearance of the senior officers.
“Wait.” Lee cautioned flatly, drawing his friend to the opposite wall and pinning him there with one hand in the centre of Chip’s chest. He knew Morton better than any man alive. They’d been closer than brothers for most of their adult lives, and maybe even before that, depending on when you thought adulthood kicked in. Lee’s more extensive experience with ONI gave him knowledge of victims and the aftermath of their traumas that Chip wouldn’t have garnered. “Go in there, breathing fire and brimstone, and you’ll probably scare her half to death. By all accounts she’s already had that this morning. Right now she needs your calmness, your ability to read the scene, to support her and to show her how you really feel about her.” He felt Chip’s heartbeat accelerate beneath his fingertips – it scared him too. He couldn’t quite imagine how Chip was feeling just this minute. But he knew the stalwart individual he’d befriended those first days at the Academy. “I’ve known you long enough to know when you’re serious about someone. You’ve gone out of your way to play it casual with Angie. You’ve probably wined and dined three quarters of the female staff of NIMR. And it’s all been to prove that you’re not attracted to her. Admit it to yourself, if no one else. You more than like her, bro.”
Morton could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times Lee had called him ‘bro’ in just that tone of voice. And each time it warmed his heart that this younger but way more intelligent man could read his very thoughts. He’d fought his attraction to Angie almost since their first meeting. He was well aware of his reputation as a lady-killer amongst the NIMR staff - and beyond – and it was way over-rated. He’d had his share of bedmates – less than had been attributed - but what guy denied the reputation? He had never, ever, promised more than either party was prepared to accept.
Lee Crane knew him too well. Knew his reputation was wildly exaggerated and that it suited Chip to perpetrate the myth – taking the pressure off him to commit. Unfortunately, knowing him as well as he did, that meant Lee could sense the one time Chip’s heart was finally engaged. Morton couldn’t hide his growing feelings for the little brunette from the one man who could read him like a book and there wasn’t another person alive – except maybe his mom – to whom Chip would have confided the gamut of emotions raging through him right now.
His hand still pushing against Chip’s chest, Lee absorbed the sigh that tore through his friend’s body. “Yeah. OK. I like her. Maybe more than like her.” He caught the triumphant grin that Lee couldn’t keep hidden and growled. “Now is so not the time for this, Lee. Come on, I need to find out what that bastard did to her. And if I ever lay my hands on that sorry son of a….”
Lee could feel the tension flood through Chip and a similar anger burned in him also. “I’ll hold your coat. Mind you, if the look on the admiral’s face is anything to go by, we’ll be standing in line.” He’d just caught a glimpse of Nelson striding in their direction, ploughing through the increased populace like an old time steam ship.
“Gentlemen.” The admiral nodded brusquely, obviously angry and way more than upset at this turn of events. He indicated the door opposite with a terse motion of his head. “Shall we? Then I think we need to talk some more with Lt. Connelly.”
Nelson had wanted to use his office for the
interview, thinking Angie would be more comfortable with the familiar
surroundings, but there were too many people so he’d settled on one of the less
formal conference rooms. Angie still looked pale and a little shaky but had
been stubbornly determined to leave
Not that she’d escaped Jamie’s clutches entirely. Will had insisted on keeping an eye on her and was seated across the table, next to the female detective sergeant whose aura of hauteur and disdain didn’t appear to have cooled any overnight. If anything, Nelson found her even colder than she’d been the evening before, the focus of her attention was Angie and the patronising tone she’d used had put his back up instantly. Angie had been through enough. She shouldn’t really be here – Jamie had deemed it too soon – but she had wanted to get it over with and he’d acquiesced, acknowledging the immediacy of the police officers’ need for any leads she could provide.
Connelly had kept O’Regan reasonably well in check, leading the interview himself and gently drawing the unfolding of events from Angie. She was flanked on either side by Chip and Lee, both men’s protectiveness evidenced by their solicitousness towards her. Nelson’s lips quirked in amusement – that hadn’t gone unnoticed by the lady cop. And she hadn’t liked it either. In fact, now that he looked closely, he would swear he could see from Angie’s body language that she was visibly squaring up to the other woman. He’d never doubted his PA’s courage or fortitude and he’d many a time been grateful to her as a buffer against unwanted callers, but he’d never admired her composure as much as he did right now. She’d had an incredibly difficult – traumatic – twenty-four hours. The car jacking and theft of his research had been bad enough but, and he couldn’t prevent his fists from clenching, the personal attack on her in Med Bay – on his own property, damn it – enraged him totally.
He deliberately relaxed his stance as he encountered the long, knowing
look Lee sent his way. OK, it wasn’t his
fault. He could acknowledge that. So why did it still feel like his fault? He had, however unintentionally,
placed Angie into harm’s way. Would he
ever get out of his head the sight of her earlier that morning when they’d walked
into her room at
She’d looked like a small child huddled in the one armchair provided, a
And he hadn’t missed the look in Angie’s eyes when she’d spotted the tall blond – it was a mix of panic, confusion, and finally intense relief. Jamieson had risen to his feet – with some difficulty – upon their entry, his own relief at their arrival evident. All three officers had stopped just inside the door, standing aside silently to allow the nurses to pass. Nelson had watched Jamie’s approach and seen how Angie had silently tracked the doctor’s progress, how she’d held herself rigidly in the armchair, feet tucked beneath her under the robe, white knuckled fingers clutching the towelling fabric to her with what almost amounted to a death grip.
Chip had gone straight to her, crouching down, close but not touching her, instinctively knowing that she would need to make the first move, to be in control. He began to speak in a voice so low that only Angie could hear. At first she had flinched away but he’d persisted and finally she threw herself into his arms with a small sob. He’d lifted her, turned and sat in the chair with her on his lap. She’d curled into him like a small child and he’d given the three waiting officers a short nod, indicating that they should leave them alone.
Leading the way into the corridor, Nelson moved far enough away so the guards couldn’t overhear them. “What the hell happened, Will?”
Before Jamieson could reply, they were interrupted by the trilling of
Lee’s cell phone. He murmured an
apology, checked the caller ID and answered immediately. “Crane.” After listening intently to the short
message, he instructed the caller, “Have them escorted to
Snapping the cell shut, he was about to speak when the doctor interrupted with a frown, pointing at the offending instrument. “You know they aren’t allowed in here, Lee, except in certain areas.” Anticipating the captain’s protest, he held up one hand. “However, given the circumstances, I’m prepared to overlook it. This time.”
Lee scowled darkly. “With the base at Level One security, Jamie, I’m afraid Chip and I will be married to these things for the foreseeable future. That was the Gatehouse. Lt. Connelly and his partner have arrived. I phoned him as soon as Jamie called me, Admiral. He wanted to speak with Angie before this happened and I imagine it’s even more imperative now.”
Catching Jamie’s worried frown, Nelson intervened. “I know you don’t like it, Will. I’m not sure I do either. But they have precious little to go on. They really need to talk to Angie sooner rather than later. And with this morning’s events….”
“I don’t think she’s in any fit state to talk to the police, Admiral. All I know right now is what she told the nurse who answered her call and that wasn’t much. She awoke to find someone in the room, he threatened her and left a message for you. She won’t talk to me at all.” His tone was a mix of defeat and self-condemnation.
“So you don’t know for certain if she was….” Nelson coughed delicately, unable to utter the word.
“Raped? No, she wouldn’t let me close enough to examine her and I didn’t push it. Tried to calm her down by talking to her – understandably, she was extremely agitated. Just before you arrived I thought I might be getting somewhere. I’m hoping Chip can persuade her to let me take a look at her. After the cocktail I slipped her last night she’s not going to be pre-disposed to trusting me anytime soon.”
“Jamie, you did what you thought was right.” Lee interjected gently. At the disbelieving glance Nelson shot in his direction, the captain had the grace to blush. “I know, I’ve kicked to high heaven when you’ve done the same to me. But you were right this time.” Refusing to concede that Jamieson had been right the numerous times he’d hoodwinked his CO kept Lee in some degree of tenuous control.
“I just wonder if she hadn’t been so muzzy because of the sedative would she have been able to fight him off easier.” The conscientious medic continued to berate himself.
Nelson hesitated then asked the question that had been on his mind since
“Not unless you think she slashed the mattress and magically conjured up the purse that was in her car when it was hijacked.”
The two senior officers drew in sharp breaths. Nelson knew Angie wasn’t the hysterical type but he’d had to ask. The police would. “How the hell did he get in here? Get onto Institute property with a Level 2 in place? Lee, get hold of Chief Mezkat – I want to know all movement on and off base since 20.00 last evening. Have him check the perimeter control units – it’s unlikely this guy walked in the front entrance. Although with his chutzpah, anything’s possible!” Harry began to pace, arms laced behind his back, wishing he could light up a cigarette – he needed the clarity of thought nicotine provided him – but he knew Jamie would pounce if he attempted to withdraw one.
Lee made the call and had just hung up when the ping of the elevator announced the arrival of Lt. Connelly and his partner. Discharging the escort, Lee caught Nelson’s eye and both exchanged a grimly amused glance as they noted the Det. Sgt.’s thorough once over and instant dismissal of their CMO. Both silently acknowledged that Jamieson’s mild mannered look could be extremely deceiving – admiral and captain having had vast experience in that regard.
Pat Connelly nodded to the senior officers, held out his hand to the doctor and greeted him with sincere respect. “Dr. Jamieson, it’s been a while. I’m sorry we have to meet again in such circumstances.”
Jamie returned the handshake enthusiastically, one professional to another. “Lieutenant, it appears to be our lot in life. Thankfully, things – while serious – aren’t quite as fraught as they were last time we met.”
“Seems you’re all having a time of it, just the same.” Connelly commented, his gaze taking in the armed guards at the nearby doorway. “Oh, allow me to introduce my colleague, Det. Sgt. Alanna O’Regan. Sgt., Dr. Will Jamieson, Chief Medical Officer for the Nelson Institute.”
Jamie was about to extend his hand when her abrupt nod of
acknowledgement dissuaded him. He
exchanged a quick glance with his
Her watchful eyes strayed beyond them to the armed guards. “I take it that’s Ms. Newman’s room? Perhaps I should go talk to her, woman to woman.” She moved to by-pass the men but Jamieson stepped smoothly into her path.
“Not right now, Sgt. O’Regan. Commander Morton is with her at the moment. And I’ll decide when Angie is ready to talk with the police.”
A quiet chuckle broke the immediately escalating tension. “Visit here any length and you’ll get to know Dr. Jamieson, Sgt.” Connelly quipped. “He’s very protective of his patients. I found that out, PDQ! And I’ve no reason to suspect he’s changed these past few months. So, Doctor, perhaps you can fill us in on this morning’s events?”
Jamieson re-iterated what he’d already imparted to Nelson and Crane. Connelly rocked back on his heels, hands in trouser pockets, the epitome of the laid back cop. Only the sharp look in the dark brown eyes and the frown that creased his brow bespoke the shrewdness that was such an integral part of the man. “We’ll need to dust the purse for prints, of course, but I’m not expecting anything. These guys are too good. However, Doctor, we do need to talk with Ms. Newman as soon as possible. She’s our best hope of anything further.”
“I appreciate that, Lieutenant.” Jamieson’s tone was sympathetic but with an undercurrent of steel – they both had a job to do. “However, until I’m satisfied that Angie is in a fit state to talk to you, I’m afraid you’ll have to wait.”
O’Regan took a step forward as if to challenge the medic but the opening of the door to Angie’s room had all of them swivelling in that direction. Chip stepped through and instantly took in the newcomers. His trademark XO façade masked the irritation he felt at the female officer’s unwelcome presence, although Jamie’s eyes narrowed at the exec’s unnatural pallor. “Pat. Detective Sergeant.” He nodded acknowledgement, ignoring the irritating swift up-and-down of his khaki clad body that was becoming de rigour from the woman.
“Chip, how’s Angie?” Nelson moved to the exec’s side, following Crane who’d swiftly clasped his friend’s arm in support.
“She’s…” Morton had to stop and consider the words he’d planned to use. ‘Fine’ somehow didn’t cut it in this case. “She’s struggling, Admiral. He threatened her, frightened the sh.. - life out of her, and told her he’ll be back. From what he said he’s obviously been around the Institute awhile, watching her. He left a message for you, sir. She wants to see you.”
Nelson nodded and moved to enter the private room. O’Regan stepped forward to accompany him but Chip solidly blocked her. “Just the admiral and Dr. Jamieson, Sgt.”
Jamie raised an eyebrow – Chip had patently worked some magic on the petite brunette.
“Now, just a minute, Commander. …”
“Sgt.!” Connelly barked once and she dropped back deferentially.
“Lee,” Nelson interrupted smoothly, “why don’t you take the Lieutenant
and Sergeant to the
Crane nodded compliance and began to herd the SBPD officers towards the
elevator. Chip moved after his friend,
quietly passing on Angie’s request for the dry cleaning and spare shoes she
kept in the office. Typically for her
in-control persona, she wouldn’t condone facing the police in
Nelson watched Lee’s slightly dragging stance, knowing his captain would
rather remain with the man he considered brother. Had Angie not asked for him specifically,
he’d have accompanied the police officers and allowed Lee and Chip to deal with
his P.A. – scratch that, Deputy Director.
Truth be told, and Harry shuddered at his own cowardice while
acknowledging his discomfort, he’d have preferred to escort the cops than to
have to face the situation beyond the
“Sir, before you go in, I think you need to know that the…message that was left for you was rather…graphic.” The unusual hesitancy in the XO’s normally dispassionate tones had the hairs rising on the back of both the admiral’s and CMO’s neck. Chip continued, obviously still uncomfortable in the position of messenger. “Jamie, Angie is still more than pissed at you but she’s prepared to let you accompany the admiral.”
“God bless your powers of persuasion, Chip!” Jamieson moved off to gather a kit in preparation for entering Angie’s room.
“Whoa! Hold on, Jamie. She’ll tolerate your presence – but that’s as far as it goes. And you don’t know what I had to promise to negotiate that!”
“Chip! She’s been attacked. Every hour that passes diminishes the possibility of trace evidence. We only have her word that she wasn’t…sexually assaulted….”
Morton held up his hand in supplication. “Jamie, for what it’s worth – and from what Angie’s said – he threatened her, scared her royally but he didn’t resort to rape – at least not this time. He’s told her he’ll be back though, which absolutely terrifies her. And he hurt her - physically. Which is why I insisted that you’re present when she talks to the admiral. Sir, she’s pretty upset but she’s adamant that she wants to talk to you, give you the message in person. I just think you need to be…prepared.”
Holding open the door Morton allowed the older men to precede him into the room, noting Nelson’s slight reluctance. Angie’s eyes were red rimmed from crying and a tremor still occasionally wracked her but there was an air of determination about her that re-assured Harry that she would get through this. Her green eyes met his then inexplicably shied away, passing over Jamie with a look Nelson perceived as vague distrust and a tiny smile bloomed inside him despite the circumstances. Oh yeah, she was definitely ticked. And, with a sense of shock, he realised that she was embarrassed. She was usually such a feisty, straight-laced little thing, always prim and proper and so in control that she was totally out of her depth right now, having him see her at less than her organised best. And there was shame tucked in there as well – at having let him down by being deceived into losing his research material. He had to disabuse her of that immediately.
Chip having taken up a protective stance on the arm of her chair, Nelson motioned Jamieson to stay back as he crouched down close to her still shuddering figure. “Angie, look at me. Look at me.” She reacted instantly to the command tone she was used to hearing. “None of this is your fault. None. The loss of the research is negligible – we are already so advanced on the project that this won’t make a lot of difference. It’ll take them years to catch up from what they took.” He watched her closely – she accepted his words at face value but there was still a doubt in her clouded green eyes. Nelson sighed. “Angie, believe me, there’s nothing you could have done to prevent it. This was no arbitrary car jacking. They were organised and resolute - and totally professional. And based on what happened here this morning, you already know that. The police have very little to go on. Anything you can tell us now will possibly help us apprehend them. I’m more sorry than I can say that you had to go through all this – especially what occurred this morning. You’re certain it was the same man?”
Her voice was husky, initially somewhat hesitant, but unwavering. “I’m sure, Admiral. I didn’t see him but he’s big, very strong. He didn’t speak yesterday and he wore a mask but I just know it was him. He wanted me to know that he was one of the ones from yesterday and left my purse on the bed – told me it was a gift.” Her voice shook with the strain. “He said he’d been watching me for a long time.” She drew in a shuddering breath.
“Angie, he gave you a message for me. What is it?”
Tears flooded her eyes and she groped for Chip’s hand. He was there; gripping her fingers tightly, her rock. She glanced back at him, encouraged by the nod of his head, and both admiral and CMO tensed; dread seeping simultaneously into their pores at the poignant exchange.
Nelson inhaled deeply, stark terror causing him to swallow convulsively
as he watched Chip gently slip the towelling
He almost gagged. In his wildest dreams he hadn’t imagined anything like this. Raising tortured eyes to meet Morton’s angry laser blue gaze he resurrected some inner semblance of control. Hearing Jamieson’s hiss of breath, he forced himself to take in the message that had been etched into her flesh. The cuts weren’t terribly deep and were distinct enough to indicate a crude letter but, having bled profusely and still seeping, the message was currently indecipherable.
Angie hunched over, trying to minimise her exposure to the three males present. “Dear God.” Nelson staggered back, sick to his stomach. Jamieson grabbed his arm and pushed him onto a straight-backed visitor’s chair. He too was shocked but, as a medical professional, he’d seen some of the worst of mans’ depravity and this didn’t come close. However his patient was skittish at best and he knew he’d have to tread carefully with her in light of his trickery the previous evening. She was still deathly pale and tremors shook her slight frame. Even at this distance he could see that her pupils were dilated from shock – she’d just had too much to cope with in the past twenty-four hours. And now they were going to ask even more of her.
“Angie, honey, will you let me clean up those cuts?” Jamie’s voice was gentle, coaxing. He made no attempt to approach her, his request giving her a modicum of control. Her head came up and she shakily pushed a strand of dark hair out of her eyes, seeking Chip’s reaction. His hold on her never wavered as he spoke to her in a low, soothing voice. She curled tighter into his embracing arms but made no attempt to cover her injured shoulder. At Chip’s nod, Jamieson exhaled slowly and placed his medical bag on the over-bed trolley.
“Before I do anything, I’m going to my office to get the digital camera.” He informed the others. “Angie, I’m going to photograph the wounds before I clean them up and also afterwards. Is that OK by you?” Again she looked to Chip for advice.
“Makes sense, honey. The police will want to see the message. Be easier that way.”
“Message…. What is the message?” They’d all forgotten that she was the only one who couldn’t see it.
Morton cleared his throat. “It looks like an alphabetical letter. Could be an O, or a C, maybe a D or an R, even a Q. It’s bled a lot so it’s hard to say until some of the blood is wiped away. But it doesn’t look too deep – just needs to be cleaned up a tad.” All Seaview’s officers had undergone basic first aid as part of their training at the Academy but Chip still looked to the CMO to corroborate his assertions.
Thankfully, Jamieson concurred. “Chip’s right, Angie. I doubt any of the cuts will even need stitching. Sit tight and I’ll be right back. Can I get you anything? Some tea, maybe, or juice?”
He saw her gaze sharpen as she looked directly at him for the first time, could practically see her thought processes at work, and welcomed the return of the fiery little hellion he’d grown fond of – just as he’d intended. “NO! You honestly think I’m going to eat or drink anything you’ve got on offer? Once in this lifetime was enough, thank you, Doctor!”
“Jamie.” He insisted with a soft smile. The nickname was reserved for those closest to him and indicated to the others that Angie had just become another member of their tight knit clan – the first outside of Seaview. She studied him intently for a moment before nodding abruptly – tacitly accepting the change in status. With a quick grin, he left to retrieve the camera.
Chip rubbed her arm gently. “He’s one of the good guys, Angie. Despite what you might have heard from Lee.”
He made her laugh but it changed quickly into a sob as the circumstances came crashing back. “Admiral, I’m so sorry….”
“Angie, none of this is your fault.”
“I failed to follow procedure….”
“Procedure be damned!” Nelson exploded, beginning to pace, glad of the excuse to vent his anger. “You did what you thought was appropriate in the circumstances. If I’d always followed procedure, neither the Institute nor Seaview would exist. And if they hadn’t been built and I hadn’t incurred enemies then this wouldn’t have happened to you. So we can go round the houses with blame and it won’t get us anywhere.”
Morton grinned, used to the admiral’s loquacious logic, and felt Angie relax a little beneath his hands. Jamieson arrived back before they could pursue the subject further and he proceeded to photograph the wounds on her shoulder before he cleaned them up. Her innate suspicion wouldn’t allow her to accept any pain relief and the process was slow and painful. By the time Jamie had finished his gentle ministrations, Angie was clenching her teeth, green eyes drenched with tears. Nelson’s visage was sombre, Chip’s murderous and even the usually calm Jamie was finding it hard not to curse the perpetrators. He’d thought Lee Crane his worst patient – he was rapidly having to revise his opinion.
His voice was soft and soothing as he taped a gauze pad in place over the now clear letter “C” that had been revealed once the seepage of blood had been wiped away. “Honey, will you let me give you something for the pain?”
At her instant refusal, he persisted, still gently. “Just something to take the edge off and calm you down a little. I promise it won’t knock you out or make you fuzzy. But your pulse is racing and that will only get worse in a stressful situation like telling your story to the police. Please? Just a mild painkiller.” He fudged. No way was he going to call it a tranquiliser!
Nelson cleared his throat and she caught the unspoken command. Reluctantly nodding, she finally, still suspicious, rejected an injection but accepted the pills and water glass Jamie handed her. Truth to tell, she was exhausted and ached all over, her palms stung, her shoulder sang and every bone in her body ached. She wanted nothing more than to curl up, sleep for a week, and have this all over when she next woke.
Harry was startled back to the present by the realisation that all eyes were on him. He’d failed to hear a question Connelly had asked him and was forced to request the lieutenant to repeat it.
“I know you’ve arranged for the locks on Ms. Newman’s house to be changed, Admiral, but I still don’t think it’s wise for her to return there right now, given the threats her assailant made this morning. I’m going to arrange to have her placed in protective custody and have Sergeant O’Regan accompany her to a safe house….”
“She’ll be returning to
Angie’s reaction was immediate, Jamieson’s just slightly slower and Nelson held up a placating hand. “Lieutenant, you’ve seen our security breached today. Believe me, that won’t be allowed happen again. Angie can stay at one of our guest cottages on the base – she’ll have a twenty-four-hour armed guard. I think she will be more comfortable there and certainly as safe as she would be at any of your facilities.”
Jamieson interrupted the Sergeant’s protest with one of his own, shaking his head decisively. “Sir, the guest cottages are too isolated. Their location on the base is such as to ensure privacy for any visiting dignitaries. Although she won’t appreciate it, Angie needs to be under observation – at least for the next twenty-four hours. Shock is unpredictable….”
“I’m fine!” Came from between gritted teeth.
Jamie rolled his eyes at the familiar refrain. Where did the admiral get these people? Next thing, she’d be demanding to return to work – and that was so not going to happen! But he’d also seen the look of panic in her eyes.
“Angie will stay with me.” Chip’s firm declaration brooked little contention. “No arguments.” He caught her left hand in a comforting grip and felt her tension ease gradually as he kept hold. “Admiral, Lee and I will be unavoidably busy on the boat today. We still have to solve the problem with NavCom. Perhaps Patterson and Riley could take care of her at my place until I can get there?”
Nelson delicately disguised his small snort as a throaty cough, not for one minute fooling his staff. “That should solve all the issues pertaining to Angie’s safety. Lieutenant? Doctor?”
While the senior SBPD officer indicated his reluctant agreement, the lady cop was rather more difficult to convince. “Lt. Connelly, you’re ceding jurisdiction to these people? That’s totally against procedure! We need to secure the witness – if she is a witness!”
“What the hell do you mean by that?” Angie grasped the arms of her chair – ignoring her stinging palms – and sat forward, eyes flashing, in full battle mode.
“Well, we only have your word for this morning’s ‘mystery’ attacker! In fact all three mystery attackers!” O’Regan’s deep blue eyes sparked, raking the slighter dark haired woman scathingly.
Nelson, with supreme gratification, saw his officers draw upright in defence of their colleague but she was very much a match for the female detective, green eyes sparking. “You think I’m some sort of contortionist, Sergeant? That I cut a notch in my own shoulder? Or car jacked myself and cost Admiral Nelson his research? I wish it were so! Despite what you’re thinking, lady, I loved my car – it’s only a little over six months old and, before you ask, it’s fully paid up and, no, I didn’t need the insurance for any loan payments. I’m very well taken care of by the Institute and have no outstanding debts. I don’t gamble or play the stock market and my bank can confirm my credit rating. In short, I value my job here more than for the money it pays. So go figure!”
There was a resounding silence following Angie’s tirade, broken only by Nelson’s pseudo-cough. “Angie, nobody’s suggesting you imagined the attacks.” He admonished gently, his gaze landing firstly on his PA then more coldly on the detective.
It was Angie’s turn for an indelicate, unladylike snort and the glares that passed between the two women would have cut crystal.
With a slightly pleading get-me-out-of-here look in face of the impending catfight, Connelly overrode his colleague’s misgivings and ignored her blatant rudeness – that would be dealt with privately.
“Ms. Newman, I want you to know that you are not under suspicion by the Santa Barbara Police Department and I regret any allusions that may have given you that impression.” With a chiding sideways look at O’Regan, who flushed at the intended barb. “But if you recall anything further, however insignificant it might seem, please don’t wait – contact me immediately. We have very little to go on – there’s been nothing acquired from your car so far that could assist us. We have an arson investigator going over it as we speak. Very often criminals think fire will destroy all trace evidence and that’s not always the case. We may get lucky but it will take an inordinate amount of time – time we just don’t have if we’re to catch these guys and recover the admiral’s work before they get to pass it on. Meanwhile, we’ve got techs fingerprinting the room in your medical facility where you were attacked. If it was the same guy, I’m betting he was too professional not to have worn gloves. So we’re pinning a lot on getting anything there. Admiral, anything from your contacts?”
“Nothing so far.” Nelson admitted with some degree of irritation. He’d been hoping something would break from all the feelers he’d put out the previous evening.
“And nothing springs to mind regarding the “message” left with Ms. Newman?”
Nelson frowned in renewed concentration as Connelly once again perused the printed out photographs Jamie had provided. “Nothing. There’s nothing about the letter “C” that tells me who might be behind this. I wish I could be more positive but I’ll start a trawl through my files immediately to….”
“I can help, Admiral.” Angie volunteered. A chorus of “no’s” had her wincing and she glared at the NIMR officers in gross indignation.
Jamie took point duty in the face of the craven looks he received from
the others. “Angie, two choices - you
rest at Chip’s or you return to
Sensing a storm brewing, Lee put his hand over Angie’s as she tightened hers around the chair arm, knuckles whitening even as she flinched from the pressure to the abrasions on her palms. “Easy, honey.” He muttered but her reaction was not the one he’d been expecting as she practically leapt from her seat.
“Oh, my God! He had one. The same as yours. Well, not the same but…like it.”
Confusion reigned in male expressions as they tried to figure out what she was talking about. Angie, momentarily, noticed a calculating look appear in the lady cop’s eyes but, before she could store the thought away for perusal later on, was dragged back to the present by the cacophony of questioning from her colleagues.
“Lee’s ring! He wore an Academy ring on his left hand. He didn’t wear gloves and he held the knife in his left hand!”
Connelly’s eyes gleamed as Jamieson agreed. “The marks down Angie’s back are on the left, the message is on her left shoulder and the cuts on the mattress are to the left of where she lay. All consistent with the attacker being left handed.”
“Or wanting us to think that way.” This from the cool female sergeant; forcing Jamieson to acknowledge her point.
“Angie, can you give us a description of the ring?” Chip, typically and true to form, found focus on the only lead to emerge so far.
She was initially hesitant, only having remembered the ring when she’d seen Lee’s hand on her arm. “It was definitely a class ring. Like your Academy ones. I’ve seen enough of them to recognise one.” Although Chip and Nelson didn’t wear theirs daily, both men habitually sported them on dress occasions. Chip’s was the same as Lee’s, both having graduated from the same class. Nelson’s was very different, both in the colour of the stone, the mounting and the inscriptions. Closing her eyes, she tried to recall what she’d observed through the terror that had pervaded as she heard Nelson explain how the graduates designed their own year’s class ring. “The stone was green and square rather than oval like Lee’s. It was yellow gold and the sides were wider too. I think there was writing but I don’t remember what it said.”
“Think, Angie!” Nelson urged, sitting forward. This was their first genuine, possibly only, lead.
Her head began to ache again and she pressed the fingertips of both hands against suddenly throbbing temples. “I can’t! That’s all I remember.”
Before Jamieson could intervene, Connelly did. “Leave it for now, Admiral. We’ll get a police artist to work with Ms. Newman to build a picture of the ring. It’s amazing what details can emerge when a drawing begins to take substance. I’m betting Angie – you don’t mind if I call you that? – will remember more when she’s sitting comfortably with a cup of tea and her head’s not aching so badly.”
“Unfortunately, the other branches of the military have similar traditions.” Nelson hated to throw a damper on their first real forward step but he had to be honest. “Air Force and Army both have graduation rings. It might not necessarily have been Navy, Angie.” He hated to see her deflate, to see the tears well in her eyes before she turned away to hide them. Nelson felt like a heel.
Requesting O’Regan to contact SBPD and have an artist dispatched to
NIMR, Connelly called a halt to the interview.
Lee left Angie in Chip’s care while he summoned Patterson and Riley to
escort her to Morton’s condo. Nelson and
Connelly huddled together to discuss future direction of the investigation and
Jamieson rounded the table to give instructions to Angie, which earned him a
withering look from beneath her lowered lashes.
Exchanging a quick grin with Morton - it being too similar to what they
were used to seeing from their CO - he then quietly reiterated the conditions
for her remaining out of
Angie sighed lustily, repeating the instructions she’d already heard once before. “No caffeine, no stimulants, no work related issues. Rest, take it easy, try to get some sleep and take two ibuprofen every four hours. Put the antibiotic ointment on the cuts and scrapes at regular intervals….”
Jamie held up two hands placatingly. “I give in. Take her out of here, Chip. And, Angie, you are not to set foot back here until Monday morning – at the earliest! And if you need something stronger than the ibuprofen, you’re to call me – understood?”
“Angie, I mean it.” Nelson’s tone, overhearing the conversation, was his most serious. “Please. Follow Doc’s instructions. And don’t give Pat and Riley a hard time.”
She acquiesced with a reluctant nod. “All right, Admiral. I’ll be good.” Chip led her out, handing her over to Patterson along with the keys to his condo.
“Admiral, I apologise for Sergeant O’Regan’s…enthusiasm. She was out of line and I’ll let her know it. But she’s a good officer. I think maybe she and Ms. Newman are diametric opposites and probably won’t get on too well together. Once she organises the artist I’ll assign her to other duties. Mind you, your Angie seems to be more than able to hold her own – and it looks like she’s got plenty of help from your staff if she needs it.”
“I think you’ve called that very well, Lieutenant.” Nelson extolled dryly. “Perhaps Sgt. O’Regan might be better applied to looking into the breaches in our security – which is obviously a serious issue and one we will be prioritising ourselves – or liaising with our Incident Officer, Lt. James, who’s co-ordinating our exposure to the media.”
Connelly smiled drolly, easily interpreting the retired flag officer’s request as exactly what it was – a suavely couched order.
Chip Morton spent much of the next eight hours flat on his back under the panel that housed Seaview’s navigation controls. When he’d proposed to Lee the previous evening that he had a couple of ideas as to how to fix the problem, he hadn’t bargained on the programme being even more stubborn than he was. What had hours ago seemed like a potential quick fix had turned into something a lot more complicated. Morton was determined that the damn thing wasn’t getting the better of him and, despite Lee requesting him to call it quits two hours previously, persevered obstinately. He had finally succeeded in tracing the problem to an intermittently flashing connection and, having put the necessary block in place to prevent recurrence and tested the system to his usual onerous standards, was confident that the problems wouldn’t be repeated.
Wriggling out of the confined space, now practically blinded by a headache from several hours of squinting in the close quarters of the access panel courtesy of the meagre illumination provided by a flashlight and having had nothing but a quickly downed sandwich from the cafeteria for lunch, he realised that he needed a shower, food and sleep in that exact order – and pronto. Lee – unable to help in any practical way – had kept him company, (when he wasn’t pacing agitatedly as he chafed at the tardiness in fixing his lady) completing maintenance reports at the table in the boat’s nose and throwing appropriately encouraging comments to his exec. On the couple of occasions Morton had emerged, seeking coffee or a brief respite, Lee had updated him with news of the investigation. Which wasn’t heartening. Nelson had been pursuing his worldwide covert contacts with little success. His trawl through Seaview’s most recent files had proved inconclusive. There’d been a couple of “Cs” to remark upon – but none that stood out as having a marked grudge against either the admiral or NIMR.
Angie had been ensconced in Morton’s condo, with Patterson and Riley on guard duty, both officers knowing that the seamen would guard her with their lives, if necessary. Debbie had come up trumps when asked, swinging by Angie’s apartment where Ski was waiting, having arranged for the locks to be changed, and had picked up enough clothes and incidentals to last her friend and colleague for several days. She’d been predictably appalled at what Angie had gone through when she’d learned the specifics but had grinned shrewdly at her boss’s proprietary attitude in insisting that Angie stay with him.
Not that Chip was currently aware of the knowing looks that were being
exchanged by his friends and colleagues.
His protective instincts had kicked in and he’d reacted on impulse. And, while he’d been working on the NavCom
problem, he’d silently berated himself a dozen times for prematurely showing
his hand. OK, Lee knew he was more than
interested in pursuing a relationship with Angie. Probably Nelson did too, after the incident
Lee had engineered a couple of months earlier when Chip had been released from
Thinking about Angie as he worked caused him both anxiety and anticipation.
Anxiety - because he hoped she hadn’t thought him presumptuous in extending the invitation – scratch that – insisting that she stay with him. Or, heaven forbid, worry that he might expect anything more of her. He knew his reputation as a lady’s man preceded him but he wouldn’t take advantage of anyone’s vulnerability and when he thought about what Angie had gone through…. It made his hand clench around the screwdriver he was holding and, in his frustration, he twisted the tool so tightly that the head of the screw snapped and he bit off a mild expletive.
Anticipation - when he thought about her waiting for him at home. With some surprise he realised that he was looking forward to heading home and finding her there to greet him. A smile he was glad Lee couldn’t see split his handsome face and he attacked the sheered off screw with renewed vigour.
“You finally done?” Crane stacked the last of his papers with obvious relief as he watched the usually immaculate exec crawl crab-wise out from under the computer console. He grinned as Morton sat up and smoothed back his still neat blond hair. Chip kept his hair military short so there was hardly a strand out of place. The rest of him was however predictably disreputable, given how and where he’d spent the afternoon. “If the crew could see you now, Mr. Morton.”
Both men grinned and Crane extended a hand to pull Chip upright. Wincing, the blond straightened, rubbing at his protesting spine. “Finally convinced you’ve corrected the problem?” Crane ribbed his exec’s over cautious nature – which had kept them both here probably an hour or so longer than strictly necessary.
“I’ve got a bear for a CO!” The XO retorted in like manner. “He’s one of those guys who can’t rest if there’s anything not performing 100% on his boat. Real slave driver. Know the type?”
Crane punched him lightly on the arm, acknowledging the point – and the fact that Chip was giving out all the indications of a ball-busting headache. “Time to get out of here, pal. You got a lady waiting for you at home.”
Knowing that if Seaview hadn’t arrived home later than planned both he and Lee would probably have had dates arranged on a Saturday night, Chip insisted that Lee joined them for the take out Chinese he intended to order. “Nuh-huh! I’m not that keen on being a third wheel.” Crane insisted as they left the boat.
“You wouldn’t be! Actually, to be honest, Lee, I think we’d both probably be more comfortable with you there.” In the almost encompassing darkness Crane could sense, if not see, the blush that was the bane of the flaxen-haired Morton’s life, now and since their Academy days. “With all Angie’s been through, I’d hate her to think I was… well, putting the moves on her.”
Lee rolled his eyes dramatically, confident that he couldn’t be seen as
they approached the car park adjacent to the
Morton shrugged deprecatingly. “Guess so. But, just to reassure her, come for dinner. You got no other plans, so humour me. I’ll even get your favourite Kung Po Chicken.”
Crane grinned evilly, already anticipating the needling this uncharacteristic behaviour from his long time friend would engender. “With green salad and your mom’s special dressing?”
“You drive a hard bargain. Having chained me to that console for the afternoon, now you expect me to create in the kitchen! Thought that was the whole point of take out. Guess I’ve got some nice Californian Chardonnay in the refrigerator that I know Angie likes, so you bring the beer.”
“Done! I’m just gonna swing by my office to check my in-box before I leave.”
“You’ve no car here.” Morton protested; reminding him that in the heat of the call from Jamieson in the early morning they’d travelled together.
“I really need to check for messages then I’ll get Security to drop me home. You go ahead.” Crane’s response was almost apologetic and Morton knew he was thinking of his ONI commitments. Contacts from Naval Intelligence would usually be made by phone to his landline or via e-mail to his personal mailbox either at the Institute or at home.
A faint growl espoused Chip’s feelings where that particular agency was concerned but he didn’t have a chance to vent his disapproval as they encountered Chris James on their path to the car park. The young lieutenant had changed from his duty khaki’s to a natty ensemble of chinos, open neck shirt and blouson jacket, indicative of a Saturday night on the town. Morton almost checked his watch, not having realised it was after 2000 hours but he knew Chris wouldn’t have shirked his duty and it must already be past that hour – no wonder Lee was slightly miffed with him!
“Sirs!” James would have snapped to attention, even in civvies, if it hadn’t been for a ‘down’ motion from his skipper. “You just leaving the boat now, sirs?”
The eagerness of the young lieutenant had similar grins appear on the faces of the senior officers. They’d both been just as keen to be kept in the loop when in James’ position. Crane answered, eyes twinkling. “The exec was a little tardy in diagnosing the problem with NavCom. I’m thinking he needs a refresher course in basic computer maintenance. Don’t you agree, Lieutenant?” Definite payback.
James’ jaw dropped. Basic and
Morton - in the one sentence when it came to computers? His first tour on Seaview, he’d been
in total awe of the exec’s computer skills.
The machines practically sat up and talked to the man. Now he didn’t quite know where to look
between his two
Morton interrupted smoothly, shaking his head morosely. “Get used to him, Chris. He’s pulling your leg. Spent the afternoon doing paperwork in between hassling me for trying to ensure his lady’s perfect for his next inspection. Forgets that there are some of us who actually have a private live outside a titanium hull. Looks like you’ve got an evening planned?”
Less a question than a slight tease, James felt obliged to respond – and not a little cocky at the nature of his response. “Actually, as we’re both off duty tonight, I’m taking Alanna, Det. Sgt. O’Regan, out to dinner and maybe to a club a little later.”
Buoyed by his success in attracting the very beautiful cop to spend the
evening with him, James didn’t notice the almost indiscernible stiffening in
“Oh, I intend to! Good night, sirs.” James jauntily departed and the senior officers watched him go with no slight degree of worry.
“She’s up to something.” Morton considered himself the more savvy of the two where human nature was concerned and he narrowed his eyes, looking worriedly after the almost boyish young lieutenant.
“Maybe we’re reading too much into this.” A born mediator, Crane tried to see both sides of the coin.
Chip’s voice was flat, devoid of emotion. “You got the same vibes from her as I did, Lee. She’s a piranha. She even eyed up the admiral – until she got a load of you. I thought for sure she was going to go after you. Not that you can’t handle yourself….”
“Makes me even more worried if she’s got young Chris in her sights. Boy’s got stars in his eyes. She’ll feed him a line and he’ll fall hook, bypass line and go straight to sinker.”
Eyes as ice cold blue as he’d ever seen them locked on Crane’s own concerned amber. “No maybes, Lee. I don’t like this.”
“I don’t have a good feeling about it either. But what do we do? Lock him in his room? He’s over twenty-one, on his own time and entitled to go out with whomever he pleases. We’re his commanding officers not his parents. We wouldn’t have welcomed any interference in our dating habits at his age. And we owe him the same courtesy. He’s put in a full day and he’s entitled to his down time.” Fully prepared to defend his JO in the face of the exec’s disapproval, Lee couldn’t help, privately, but feel the same concern Chip had voiced. But he upheld Chris’s right to make his own decisions as to whom he dated and, despite his apprehension, forced himself to shrug off his antipathy towards the woman to whom he – and obviously Chip – had taken an immediate but incalculable dislike.
“Agree with you in principle, Lee, but with what’s been going on….” Morton frowned as he watched James’ car stop for an intense check before exiting the Institute’s security gate.
“I know where you’re coming from, buddy, but unless we confine everyone to base, which isn’t feasible, then the best we can do is ensure that the on-base security and perimeter patrols are as tight as we can make them. Other than that and remaining vigilant, I don’t know what more we can do.”
Reluctantly Morton conceded the point and, having reached the
“Aye, aye, sir!” Crane returned smartly as, with a grin, he began to jog up the steps. Seconds later he was thrown onto his hands and knees, barely refraining from cracking his skull on the concrete steps.
The fireball that had been Chip Morton’s black SUV burned brightly against the darkness of the night sky. Dockworkers and Security personnel grabbed extinguishers and valiantly fought the inferno, but had little success against the fierce conflagration. The Institute’s fire tender pulled to a screaming halt and the professionals took over, expertly uncoiling hoses, their breathing apparatus and turn out kit allowing them to move closer to the blazing vehicle. Water erupted under high pressure as they began to expertly douse the soaring flames.
Morton sat on his backside on the asphalt where he’d been summarily
tossed by the force of the explosion.
Unable to motivate himself to move, his jaw dropping open at the sight
of his beloved SUV ablaze, mesmerized by the dancing flames that held him in
their thrall, he almost failed to notice Lee drop to his knees at his side and
begin to painstakingly run his hands over Chip’s limbs. His almost numb brain finally registered
Crane’s distracted shout for someone to call
His eyes tearing up from his proximity to the blast and his ears still deafened from the roar as the vehicle had erupted in flames, it took him some minutes to realise that he was basically uninjured and pull himself out from under Lee’s restraining hands.
“I’m all right. I’m OK. Let me up.”
Lee forcibly resisted all Chip’s efforts to lever himself to his feet. “Stay put. Doc’s on the way.”
Those very words were guaranteed to bring a scowl to the blond’s face. “Don’t need Doc. I’m fine!”
“Not from where I’m sitting, pal.” Lee had taken in the dilated pupils, the scorched sleeve of Chip’s khaki jacket, the sluggishly bleeding wound on his left temple, not to mention the sheet white pallor of his complexion and the fact that Chip was residing probably thirty feet or more from where he’d left him.
“I’m all right. Mad as hell and my ears are ringing, but I’m OK.”
“Humour me and wait til Jamie takes a look at you.” The glower he received caused Lee to duck his
head. Chip had aided and abetted
numerous escapes from
Jamieson quickly went to work on a grousing Chip while Nelson drew Crane aside to determine what had happened.
“Not sure, sir.
I was going up the steps to the
Overhearing the conversation, Morton managed to extricate himself from the CMO’s clutches long enough to add some salient details. “The car was booby trapped! I hit the remote central locking – luckily from a distance – and it just went up.” He was mad enough that he managed to shrug off Jamieson and get to his feet, despite the medic’s protest.
“There’s something bizarre going on here, sir.” The blond’s azure eyes engaged the senior officer’s sapphire ones. “And this is one determined sucker. With seemingly unlimited access to the base. Either that or I’ve ticked off someone badly enough for them to torch my car and this had nothing to do with Angie or your research being stolen. Somehow I don’t think that’s the case. I don’t believe in coincidence.”
“Nor do I, Chip. Nor do I.” Nelson sighed heavily, watching intently as
the blaze was swiftly brought under control.
His inner rage built as the fire was extinguished and the night returned
to its usual comforting darkness, albeit the rescue vehicles and ground staff
both littered and lit up the expanse of the car park. Jamieson insisted that Chip’s injuries needed
Lee walked by his friend’s side - as if afraid to let him out of his line of vision - and close enough to provide assistance if needed. But Chip was more angry than hurt. His cover was long gone, Lee had retrieved his briefcase, and his jacket and pants were streaked with dirt and grime, his left sleeve badly scorched. He grudgingly submitted to being led into an examining room and stripped of his jacket and shirt. Nudged into seating himself on the gurney he tolerated the checks of his vision, hearing, temperature, blood pressure, lungs and heart rate, all the while concentrating on the conversation between Lee and the admiral. He winced as Jamie probed the cut on his forehead, absently hearing the doctor mutter about the need for stitches or if it could be treated with steri-strips.
“What the hell is going on here, Lee?” Nelson questioned acerbically. “We’re at Level One security and yet whoever this is can seemingly get to us despite our most secure setting. How can that be?”
“I really can’t explain it, Admiral. But I’ll see to beefing up the patrols immediately and having Ski join Pat and Reilly guarding Angie – after all, she’s been targeted twice.” Lee saw Chip’s head pop up at that, despite Doc’s ministrations. “Chill, buddy. We’ll make sure she’s OK.”
“I can do that myself, if Doc will cut me loose.” Morton growled, gritting his teeth as the CMO swabbed at the burn on his arm.
“I’m not gonna keep you, Chip, but just take it easy while I tend to you.” Jamieson knew the best way to care for his most difficult patients was to play to their strengths – none of them relished having their injuries treated so if he could promise to minimise the down time he had some chance of gaining their nominal co-operation. He had quickly and efficiently evaluated the exec’s injuries – the head wound had bled copiously but was relatively minor. Chip was coughing from the smoke he’d inhaled but his lungs didn’t seem to be congested – though they’d bear watching and, despite the shock causing the dilation of the pupils, there was no concussion. That had been of particular anxiety to Jamie as the XO had suffered a slight concussion only days previously before Seaview had put into port. Once that concern had been ruled out, Jamie had decided the other injuries were minor enough not to merit keeping Chip overnight in Med Bay – not that he reckoned he’d have had much success had he suggested it.
For a single moment the temptation had been almost too much and he’d wickedly thought about recommending an overnight stay – just to see the reaction it would provoke from the normally staid and sensible exec. Staid and sensible until it came to his own health, that was. Morton was almost as bad as Crane when it came to being sidelined with illness or injury. Add to the mix that he had a distinct propensity to have adverse reactions to several of the more common mediations and painkillers and it made for interesting times for the CMO – and one decidedly difficult to treat patient.
Having placed some butterfly strips over the cut on Chip’s temple, anointing the burn with salve and wrapping it in a thick layer of gauze, Jamie stepped back and allowed Chip to slide off the exam table and don his scorched, bloody and smoke blackened shirt. “Keep those wounds dry. I know you’ll want to shower to get rid of the grime but tape some Saran wrap in place over the arm and keep your head out of the water – at least until tomorrow.” This last at the disgusted look Morton aimed his way. “And take these when you get home - they’ll help you sleep.” He knew there were two chances – slim and none – that Chip would take the pills but his Hippocratic oath meant he had to offer. In all likelihood the capsules would find their way into either the trash or the john.
“Connelly’s outside.” Lee imparted as Chip tucked in his shirttails. “Feel up to talking to him?”
“Why not?” His XO groused, thoroughly ticked. “Not that I can tell him anything. He’d be better off talking to Security. I haven’t laid eyes on my car since I parked it there this morning. Whoever’s responsible for this certainly had enough time to plant a device, link it to the remote CDL and didn’t care how close to the explosion I was.”
“Which means, Chip, that whoever did this has accelerated the level of
violence.” Connelly, accompanied by the
Institute’s Deputy Chief of Security – an ex-marine named
Sombre blue eyes connected to amber – the only person to whom Chip was likely to have given his keys was Lee – or perhaps Ski or Pat. But how many outsiders would have known that? The unspoken question came to the forefront of all four officers’ minds. Could it possibly be an insider? Eyes clashed, refusal to accept warring with abject disbelief; azure, sapphire, dark brown and amber sombre as unwelcome thoughts skidded between unwilling to accept brains.
The SBPD lieutenant, unaware of the silent interaction, continued. “I’ve already requested Brian Harding, the arson investigator who looked at Angie’s car yesterday, to get himself over here as soon as he can make himself available. Your vehicle probably won’t be accessible for any in depth survey until tomorrow when it’s cooled down, Chip, but I’d like Brian’s preliminary report as soon as. Not that I’m in any doubt as to what he’ll find. But I’ll have him work with your Chief here.”
Connelly took stock of the pallor the blond couldn’t hide and the dressing on his arm, visible beneath the badly scorched shirtsleeve – Morton having elected to dispense with his ruined jacket. “You OK, son?”
“Peachy!” Chip grumbled absently as he took in the hive of activity that surrounded what had been his beautiful SUV. He’d obviously been too out of it earlier to appreciate the bleakness of the scene. The arc lights erected by Security cast the burned out wreckage into stark relief. The tarmac was still soaked from the volumes of water used to quench the flames and traces of foam still clung to the area that had housed the petrol tank – the fire fighters deeming it prudent to hedge their bets. Oil glistened on the illuminated tarmac where it had spilled from the tank, thankfully prevented from igniting. He could still smell the rancid residue of the smoke in the night air and despite his best efforts was unable to avoid the coughing fit that choked him as the stench invaded his lungs. Catching sight of Jamie’s frown and Lee’s instant concern – and fearful that they would try to stick him in Med Bay overnight – he immediately tried to downplay the chronic ache the acrid stench had caused in his lungs.
“Don’t go there, Lee.” He muttered in low tones that he hoped neither Jamieson nor Nelson would pick up on. He made contact with Lee’s worried amber eyes and whatever Lee saw in the azure ones was enough to convince his friend. The mere dip of Lee’s head in acknowledgment of the entreaty had Chip relaxing his taut shoulders. Lee wasn’t above siding with the CMO if he thought Chip needed aid. They turned sharply as a slender, light brown haired man joined their group. He nodded to the officers but addressed himself exclusively to Connelly.
”Brian, thanks for coming so quickly.” Connelly shook the smaller man’s hand. “Brian is one of
“Your staff are not having much luck with their vehicles this weekend, Admiral.” Harding had to raise his voice over the noise of the engines and generators that were still running. “I’ve only managed a very preliminary look see but it’s hard not to consider a connection between this one and last evening’s.”
“It seems highly plausible.” Nelson agreed, his growl indicating his extreme displeasure.
“I won’t be able to give you a thorough report until sometime tomorrow.” Harding continued. “Have to wait until the vehicle is cool enough to examine properly but in the meantime I managed to come up with this.” He displayed the small clear plastic bag he’d been holding in his left hand and which contained various pieces of metal and plastic – some charred and scorched but still recognisable as having once been a remote car locking device. “The force of the blast caused you to drop it, Commander, and the case came loose. Shouldn’t have – these things are made to withstand considerable pressure. That got me thinking and I started to look for signs of tampering. They’re slight but there. The case was opened previously, very cleverly, and a tiny microchip inserted.” He indicated the minute round metal disc, visible through the plastic. “That’s a very high tech miniature transmitter, Gentlemen. When you hit the button, Commander, it sent a signal to a corresponding unit fixed, I’d guestimate, somewhere close to the fuel tank on your vehicle. Guaranteed instant bonfire night. Where were your keys today?”
Chip’s headache was returning – full force – and the steri-strips Jamie
had attached were itching fiercely. He
barely managed to contain himself from rubbing the affected area, knowing he’d
draw their attention and – unwarranted – concern. He forced himself to concentrate. “On my desk from the time we returned from
“So our ‘intruder’ could have gained access to your office while we were in the conference room with Angie?” Connelly queried. “Your secretary doesn’t work on Saturdays?” It was part statement / part question so Morton chose to answer.
But when I spoke to her about Angie’s experience she volunteered to go
pack a bag for Angie. She dropped it off
during the afternoon at my condo. She
may have called by the office to check on messages. Debbie’s very dedicated – it wouldn’t be
unusual for her to do that on a Saturday.
But she was planning a bar-b-que this evening and we were all invited so
I’d guess her time was tight. Security
can tell us when she entered and exited and the desk clerk at the
“I’ll ask.” Lee volunteered
quietly and moved away to complete the call.
He was back in minutes. “Debbie
didn’t enter the
“What are the chances of anyone getting to your cabin on Seaview, Commander?” Harding queried.
Chip huffed a breath. “Until right now, I’d have said slim to none. And we went to Level One security after the attack on Angie this morning.” He looked to his brother officers for confirmation – which was unhesitating in its positive response. “But then again, whoever this is has proven that he has almost unlimited access to the base. I can’t understand that!”
“But not to Seaview, Chip.” Lee reminded him. “I’d stake my life on it.”
Chip conceded the point – somewhat reluctantly. It clawed at his gut that access to their boat could have been compromised. “I’d like to believe that, Lee. Then it leaves the time that the keys were on my desk. And there were any number of people in the building who could possibly have accessed my office while we were in the conference room. Damn! I should have been more careful.”
“Don’t beat yourself up, Chip.” Nelson advised, knowing his exec would berate himself for his supposed carelessness. “You couldn’t have known there was a wider strategy behind the attacks on Angie. In fact, this act is the first – and hopefully only – indication that there is something else behind the theft of Project Discovery.”
As if the admiral’s words had sparked a response, one of the duty communications team approached him with a cordless phone. “Pardon me, Admiral, but Chief Sharkey is on the line and he says it’s urgent that he speak with you.”
Nelson excused himself and moved away to take the call in relative privacy. Ears pricked at his exclamation only a couple of sentences into the conversation. They gathered the gist from the one-way dialogue, anxiety gathering pace as the admiral’s voice rose and fell. “Francis. What? Are you OK? Run off the road? You’re sure? The police say it was no accident. How long will you be hospitalised? Yes, yes. (Impatience in his voice) I appreciate that but you are NOT to hinder your recovery by reporting back here too soon. Do you understand me, Francis? That’s an order!” His voice softened at the last then hardened as the chief obviously spoke again. “Damn! How in the name of God…. Not your problem, Francis. We’re on it at this end. Have your surgeon send all relevant material to Dr. Jamieson. And, Francis, if you need anything….” Nelson listened for several minutes before disconnecting with a reminder to Sharkey to take his doctor’s advice and not report back until he was fully recovered.
Practically fizzing with rage, he almost threw the instrument back to the hapless comm. tech before turning back to his colleagues. “As you’ll have no doubt surmised, Chief Sharkey was injured late this afternoon close to his home back East. He suffered a broken femur and is currently hospitalised awaiting surgery. It appears that he was run off the road deliberately. The incident was witnessed by a traffic unit but they were unable to apprehend the culprit. Sharkey’s OK.” He forestalled the comments he knew would be paramount. “Mad as hell and hurting, but otherwise all right. It strikes me, however, that this is one too many co-incidence. And illustrates that our perpetrator has many arms. What I don’t understand is – why? They have my research. If they are interested in selling it to the highest bidder whey aren’t they concentrating on that? Instead of seemingly targeting my staff.”
“Unless the theft of the research is a smokescreen, Admiral. And there’s something more sinister behind it.” Connelly interjected quietly. “After all, there has been no ransom demand for your project.”
“That wouldn’t be entirely beyond the bounds of possibility, Lieutenant.” Nelson shrugged his shoulders, wishing he could light up a cigarette. “After all, why should I pay for the return of my own material when I can reconstruct it from memory? No, they – whoever THEY are – will be targeting our enemies for the big money. It strikes me as if this – what’s been happening since the theft of the research – is rather more personal. The targets have been my Deputy Director, my XO and my Chief. So far.” His expression turned decidedly grim. “My fear is that this is only the tip of the iceberg. Whoever is behind this has accessed our base under both Level 1 and 2 Security Status and beyond to the opposite side of the country. Their reach is apparently all encompassing. That’s what really has me worried, Gentlemen.”
Chip had breathed a sigh of relief as Lee ate a substantial – for him – amount of the Chinese he’d ordered in. It wasn’t unknown for the captain to lose his at best meagre appetite when things in his life were not running entirely smoothly. On this occasion it was Angie who had him worried. She was unnaturally quiet – for her – and had eaten next to nothing, although he knew from Pat and Riley that she’d had no lunch to speak of. She was obviously stiff and sore but refused to take the pain meds Jamie had prescribed for her, insisting that a soak in the bath would soothe most of her aches. So he’d made her some hot tea and she’d retreated with it to the condo’s guest bedroom and bath with an attempt at a smile and a quiet goodnight.
“I think today has affected her probably more than yesterday.” As he had done so many times since their
“What she went through in the past 24 hours would traumatize anyone.” Chip’s voice hardened as he continued. “But this morning was personal. And that’s going to take time to overcome. Most people see Angie as the oh-so-confident PA / Deputy Director of NIMR, Nelson’s right hand woman. Few people see her as she really is – an over-achiever in a family who’d never had anyone attend college. Then when she majored in business administration – at the behest of her parents when she’d wanted to study marine biology – they threw a hissy fit when she took a job with first a government agency then NIMR instead of a more prestigious position, paying better, within private industry. They basically disowned her. Luckily she has a lot of friends in the area and she’s very self-sufficient. Which is why I’m concerned about her now. This has taken more out of her than she’ll admit.”
Lee grinned as he swallowed the last of his beer. “Whoa, buddy! That’s pretty profound. When did you learn so much about Angie?”
Chip’s fair complexion betrayed him as he realised that in his anger he’d given away more than he’d intended. Lee had that knack of getting him to open up where few others could. “We’ve talked a lot the past couple of months, I guess.” He shrugged it off as no big deal.
Seeing his embarrassment, Lee let him off the hook. “Why don’t you hit the rack yourself? You’ve had a pretty traumatic night too.” Knowing it would tick the blond off, he began to look around, frowning. “Where are the pills Doc gave you?”
“Don’t start, Lee.” His friend warned, storm clouds brewing in the blue eyes. “I don’t need them. I’m fine!” He emphasised the last word – it being Crane’s own favourite phrase when he needed to re-assure / blindside / or downright escape the clutches of the CMO on any and all health issues, major or minor.
Lee’s immediate surrender had him grinding his teeth, knowing he’d been had, but a grin quickly replaced the impending tempest. “Go home, Crane. Go to bed and I’ll see you here for breakfast at around 0800.” He ushered his friend out the door, checking that security had stationed a car outside – having sent Ski and Pat home earlier. He groused, not quite under his breath. “For sure there’ll be nothing edible in your kitchen!”
Lee’s grin widened. “I’ll be here – as soon as I’ve finished my run.” His expression changed to one of mock sympathy. “I’d suggest you join me but Jamie would probably kill you if he found out.” He darted quickly out of the way of the exec’s swinging arm, fishing his keys out of his pocket as he headed towards his own condo just a little further down the beach.
Muttering under his breath at smart-ass captains and big mouths, Chip secured the patio and front doors before allowing his own grin to emerge. He was in the kitchen, debating the wisdom of keeping or ditching the remainder of the take-away, when his cell phone rang.
The hardest part had been telling Angie he had to leave. He’d seen the flare of panic in her eyes and had done his best to re-assure her but he really did have to go. He’d briefly debated calling Lee but decided against it in light of the security team right outside the front door and the fact that Crane had had a long day too. He’d acquainted the patrol with his plans and had left as soon as the motor pool had delivered a car. Driving barely within the speed limits towards the city he could still see Angie’s anxious face at his front window. Damn Chris! His timing really, really sucked!
Several hours later he emerged from the car – totally wiped and his headache back in full force, exacerbated by the pull of the butterfly stitches on his forehead. Feeling like an old man, joints aching now from having been tossed on his rear end earlier, he dragged himself up the steps to his front door, waving acknowledgement to the security patrol who hailed him, eagerly anticipating the comfort of his bed. It was past 0200 and he’d been up over twenty-one hours – on top of little sleep the night before. As he reached for his keys, the door swung open.
“Angie! What are you doing still up, honey? You need to rest.”
She shrugged, winced, having momentarily forgotten that she ached all over – and particularly in her left shoulder. “Tried, couldn’t sleep.”
“Did you take the pills Jamie left you?”
She cast him a derisive look over her shoulder as she picked her way back towards the kitchen. “Sure. Just like you did.” She’d heard Lee harangue Chip about taking the medication Doctor Jamieson had prescribed. And the rude comments the blond had uttered – thinking her out of hearing – before he’d tipped the pills into the sink, flushing them down the drain.
Chip cleared his throat, knowing he’d been rumbled. But his protective nature wouldn’t allow him to acknowledge that what was sauce for the gander was also sauce for the goose! “I’m used to hard knocks, you aren’t.”
The look she threw him would have shrivelled lesser mortals. “Get a life, Morton. Come out of the cave!” When he opened his mouth to protest she held up a hand. “From where I’m standing, it’s a toss up as to which of us looks worse. You’re shattered. And hurting.” Intuitively she picked up on the cause of the furrow between his fair eyebrows. “And you’re worried about Chris.”
Knowing the lady well, he belatedly recognised that he wasn’t going to get away with treating her like the ‘little woman’ and shielding her from the latest happenings, so Chip gave in, sighing mightily. “I’ll make some tea.”
“No.” She contradicted, pushing him towards a chair and moving to the stove where a kettle rested. “You sit, I’ll make tea. I need to have something to do with my hands.” She busied herself about the kitchen, despite the smarting it caused in her scraped palms, putting water in the kettle, pulling mugs from the press and tea bags from the canister. She frowned as she realised he didn’t possess a teapot but hung the teabags from the mugs and poured water when the kettle boiled. Placing milk on the table for herself - knowing he took his black – she sat, taking in the utter exhaustion he could no longer hide. “What happened with Chris?”
Dumping the tea bags into the trash before seating himself at the small, rarely used, kitchen table, he waited until Angie sat down before answering. “Chris, purportedly, had too much to drink tonight and got pulled after he’d left his date home.”
“No way! Not Chris. He has no tolerance for alcohol. And he avoids it like the plague.” She thunked her cup down indignantly.
Chip marvelled silently once again. It was true – there were no secrets from the secretaries, and less from the newly appointed DD of NIMR! “From what I saw of him he wasn’t drunk but he was certainly incapable of driving. The police surgeon at the station took a couple of blood samples, one for the SBPD to process and one I dropped off at the lab for Jamieson.”
Angie forgot her own aches as she leapt to her feet, little mother in defence of her cubs. “Chris has maybe one beer on a Friday night if he’s out with the guys. That’s it. Tops. In almost two years I’ve known him, I’ve never seen him even slightly inebriated.”
“Calm down, Angie. I don’t understand it either. I know Chris is too conscientious to drive having drunk alcohol but the traffic cops that stopped him swore that he was weaving all over the road. And his levels were well over the limit when he blew into the bag. They had no choice but to take him in and charge him. And he didn’t act like a typical drunk either when I saw him but he was confused. Knowing he’d been out with Alanna O’Regan I had the sergeant call her.”
Angie snorted derisively at the mention of the female officer but sank back slowly into her chair and cradled her mug between her cold hands, enjoying the warmth even as it exacerbated the stinging palms. “I guess she said he drank too much at dinner. What he sees in her….”
Chip frowned into his teacup. “Actually, no. She confirmed that he’d only had one glass of wine with their meal, followed by coffee. Of course, she couldn’t attest to where he’d gone or what he’d drunk after he dropped her home. But Chris swears he was on his way home after dropping her off when he was stopped. That he hadn’t been anywhere else.”
“Maybe there was something in the food he was allergic to.” She hypothesised. “Or perhaps someone slipped something into his coffee – to make it look like he was drunk.”
Morton chuckled, stretching wearily. “Angie, you’ve been hanging around Lee and the admiral too long.”
“But if he wasn’t drunk….”
“I didn’t say he wasn’t drunk. I said he didn’t look like he was drunk.” Morton corrected. “He’s been booked on a DUI charge and we can’t do anything about it until Doc can take a look at the blood sample that’s locked in the safe in the lab until morning.”
Not that he hadn’t given the young lieutenant a severe tongue lashing for having to bail him out. Chris had been suitably chastened, but still weaving on his feet, all the while insistent that he hadn’t over indulged and looking more ‘fuzzy round the edges’ than actually drunk. But Chip had gone cold at the description of James’ actions as the duty sergeant had listed them off. He’d been lucky to run into a traffic patrol (not literally) instead of an on-coming car or one of the barriers that flanked the costal road he’d been travelling on.
Morton had had to practically peel the semi-conscious officer out of the car when they’d reached his apartment, watched with growing exasperation while he’d tried to insert his key into the lock, and finally plucked the key from his wavering fingers and opened the door, supporting the young idiot inside and dumping him unceremoniously on the bed before taking off his shoes and leaving him to sleep it off. He’d had some qualms as to whether Chris would become ill and had left a basin at the side of the bed - just in case – then, as a back up, called the long suffering Kowalski, a trained field medic, to come and stay over in the event that Chris should be drunk enough to choke on his own vomit. One of the things that made Morton an exceedingly good XO was that he thought outside the box and covered all the parameters. Waiting until Ski arrived had taxed his patience and his headache had grown into monumental proportions by the time he’d arrived home. He was surprised to now realise that the tea and conversation had done more for his head than a couple Ibuprofen.
“This has been one weird weekend.” Angie muttered as she sipped at her tea.
“You can say that again.”
“It’s almost as if someone has it in for the Institute. Targeting people willy-nilly.” She sighed tiredly, beginning to finally come down from the emotional highs and lows she’d been experiencing all day. “Hell, maybe the theft of the admiral’s research is just a smokescreen for something more sinister that’s going on here.”
Chip felt a frisson of – something – crawl down his spine at her words. Unfortunately, at the same time, a full-blown yawn accompanied by some serious jaw cracking, interrupted his thoughts. He needed sleep. So did his houseguest. “You may very well be on to something there, Angie. But it’s going to have to keep til morning.” He rose to dump the end of their drinks down the sink and stack the cups in the dishwasher. “Let’s go to bed.”
He turned in time to see her freeze at his last words and cursed himself for his insensitivity. Her eyes were darting around the small kitchen as if seeking an avenue for immediate escape. “Angie, I didn’t mean together, honey. You know me better than that. I wouldn’t put the moves on you after the couple of days you’ve had.”
She flushed with embarrassment, knowing she’d over-reacted to his turn of phrase, and silently urged herself to cop on. How on earth would he, the acknowledged Romeo of the Nelson Institute, find her even remotely attractive dressed as she was in the sweat pants and oversized Miami Dolphins T-shirt Debbie had packed for her to sleep comfortably in – and without a screed of make up? Not to mention the scar on her forehead that her now limp hair wasn’t hiding or the enormous scab that was forming over the graze on her cheek. She couldn’t raise her eyes further than the top button on the polo shirt he’d changed into after his shower earlier. She’d been deluding herself all day that he cared something for her, insisting she stay at his place. Truth hurt, but it was better than the alternative – pipe dreams.
Chip Morton was a Class One, A-list Gentleman with a capital G. He’d have done the same for anyone in similar circumstances and she was guilty of reading more into his kind gestures than was warranted. Oh yeah, she’d taken care of him once – for all of one afternoon after he’d been released from Med Bay – when he was hurt following the ONI mission he’d been seconded to. (****) And her caring for him wasn’t even at his behest but something Lee had set up, thinking his friend needed some down time and knowing that she would ensure he got it. He’d kissed her in her car outside Med Bay, got her all flustered but then been too wiped by the time they got back to his condo to continue anything more than sporadic conversation between naps. She’d worried that he needed to be under medical supervision but he’d insisted he was fine. He’d even eaten a tiny portion of the meal she’d cooked and thanked her for taking such good care of him when Lee had arrived and she’d left. They’d had dinner twice since, when their schedules had allowed, not to mention a bunch of official work “do’s” they’d been forced to attend, but he hadn’t put the moves on her any time since. So what made her think that he was doing it now?
She took a deep breath, rubbing her suddenly aching temples and acknowledging that she was belatedly re-acting to the implicit threat from the unknown attacker. And putting any and all men in his place. It wasn’t right and it certainly wasn’t fair to Chip Morton who had been nothing but a gentleman and a concerned friend to her. Unfortunately.
“I’m sorry. I...it’s just….”
“Angie, you have nothing to apologise for.” He crossed to stand in front of her, not getting too close and noting her uncharacteristically shy away from him. “Honey, don’t. Don’t let him do this to you.”
She raised uncomprehending, tear shot eyes to his intense sympathetic azure gaze and his heart constricted. His own head ached and he needed sleep but he couldn’t bear to see her pain. “Come here.”
Scooping her out of the ladder-back kitchen chair, he sat down with her cradled in his lap. She couldn’t help the fact that she stiffened and it didn’t go unnoticed. “Sweetheart, don’t you know that I wouldn’t do anything to hurt you? I’d cut off my right arm before I’d scare you – in any way. I want you to feel safe here – and get some sleep. You don’t have to wonder if I’m going to try anything on.” He cuddled her close in a non-threatening way and ran his hand up and down her spine in a deliberately soothing motion. After several minutes her stiff posture eased. “That’s better. There’s a lock on your bedroom door and if it makes you feel better, then use it. I won’t be offended. But I hope you know that you never have anything to fear from me in that regard.”
She had relaxed sufficiently under his gentle ministrations that the words that followed came without her knowledge or control. “Maybe I’d like to have.”
He went rigid, his hand stilling in the small of her back, hoping against hope that he wasn’t misinterpreting her words. “Angie….”
“Kiss me. Please?” Hesitant, unsure, still afraid, she wanted him – wanted the protectiveness and reassurance of his touch.
Unable to resist her whispered, uncertain plea he bent his head and tenderly rested his lips on her soft pliant mouth. Her response was hesitant but definite. He deepened the kiss and she opened her mouth under his, raising her arms to link behind his neck as he shifted her gently to bring her in closer contact.
Wanting badly to take it deeper, Chip forced himself to reluctantly retreat, knowing there was only one place this would end – his bedroom. Perhaps Angie thought she was ready for it. He wasn’t sure and wasn’t prepared to take the chance. When it happened, and it inevitably would –given the way he felt about her and the fact that it seemed to be reciprocated – he wanted no third party involvement. And he could feel the tension in her body, as closely as it was pressed to his, and the whimper of pain from her aching limbs as he shifted her to ease the ache in his groin.
“Honey, you’re not ready for this. Make no mistake,” he whispered as he blew strands of hair back from her heated cheeks, “I’d like nothing better than to take you to bed right now. But it wouldn’t be fair to either of us. We deserve more. We’re both physically and mentally drained and, like so many occasions in the past, it just isn’t our time. But, have no doubts, lady, that time will come. I’ll make certain of it. It’s waiting for us. Just not right now.”
Angie burrowed her head into his shoulder, embarrassed but somewhat relieved to have the decision taken out of her hands. He understood her so well, could read her yearnings and her vulnerabilities like no one else. With each of their encounters she fell a little more in love with him.
“Thank you. For understanding.” It was little more than a murmur as she eased her way out of the arms she could have stayed cocooned in forever.
“Always, honey. What you went through this morning was pretty traumatic. I’d be a total heel if I was to take advantage of you now.” She was standing in front of him and stroked his arm in gratitude. The shudder that went through him left her in no doubt of the desire he was suppressing.
He caught her hand as she went to move away. Intense blue eyes engaged reticent green. “This isn’t over, Angie. It’s merely a rain check.” There was a promise, that there was no getting away from, in his voice.
She nodded acknowledgement of the statement – it would be fact, when the timing was right for them both. Right now she needed fresh air. Her head and her heart were pounding in unison. “I need to go outside. Just for some air. Before I go to…sleep.” She substituted ‘sleep’ for the word that had begun this intimate interlude.
Chip stood as she slipped into the living room, his concerned gaze following her as she unlocked the patio doors and stepped onto the deck that fronted the ocean. He knew she welcomed the space and deliberately didn’t follow her too soon.
That he did, that some higher deity was engaged in her decision to take some air at that precise moment in time, saved Lee Crane’s life.
“Angie, it’s late.” He intentionally stayed in the lee of the patio doors, not wanting to crowd her. She was standing at the furthest end of the deck, arms wrapped around her middle and her head thrown back on her slender neck, gazing fixedly at the quarter moon that shed its mysterious light over the ocean and somehow he knew she was trying to stop the tears from falling. His every protective instinct told him to go to her, to take her in his arms and stop the pain. But he knew she had to work through it on her own, at her own pace and he could do more harm than good if he tried to accelerate the rate of healing. But she did need rest. And truth to tell, he was beyond exhaustion. Tomorrow being Sunday, they would not usually be expected at the Institute but these were not normal times and he expected to be fully engaged in the mire that had encompassed the previous almost 36 hours.
“I know. I just wanted some air. Some clean, sweet air.” She wrinkled her nose as she realised that the air didn’t seem as clean as it should, given the condo’s proximity to the Pacific Ocean.
Catching her slightly disgruntled expression, Chip stepped further out onto the decking and sniffed appreciatively at the bracing post midnight / early morning coolness. Instead of the clear ocean scents he was expecting, his nostrils were assailed by a strangely invasive but conversely almost sour smell, one that he wasn’t used to along this stretch of private beach – but one that he’d been trained to sniff out. “That’s gas. Oh, shit!”
Immediately discerning the prevailing winds as coming from the direction of Lee Crane’s house, he leapt off the deck and flew in that direction, calling over his shoulder for Angie to alert Med Bay and Security. Without hesitation, he made for the back of Lee’s condo as the closest point to his, hauling his shirt over his head as he went. Without even testing the doors, sure as he was that they’d be locked, he wrapped the polo shirt around his forearm and thrust it through the glass of the rear door, just above the panel holding the lock. Quickly knocking the broken glass aside, he wriggled his fingers free and popped the lock. The stench of gas was even more pervasive inside the kitchen and Chip found his breath already clogging in his throat. Ripping the material from his arm, he shook the clinging shards of glass free and used it to shield his mouth and nose as best as possible.
Thanking the Gods that Crane’s condo mirrored his own, he was able to navigate his way to Lee’s bedroom without benefit of light. Wasting no time to see how badly affected his friend was, he simply gripped Lee under the arms and hauled him up over his shoulder in the closest he could manage to a fireman’s carry. He was staggering under Crane’s weight and the effects of the gas by the time he emerged into the clear air, breathing in great gulps of welcome oxygen as he managed to make it to his own place before depositing Lee onto the cool wooden decking. He instinctively sought the pulse at the throat of the lean dark haired man who’d been his friend since forever and almost sagged in relief as his unsteady fingers caught the faint beat. Without thought, he levered himself over Crane’s bare chest, pried open his mouth and began to breathe into him, mentally counting out the breaths until, an indeterminate time later, he felt hands push him aside.
“Let us take over, Commander. He needs pure oxygen.”
Morton sat down heavily where he dropped, just far enough from Crane to allow the medics to work. It took several minutes but he finally heard the sweet sound of Lee’s weak, rough sounding, cough. He sagged with relief but almost immediately rebounded to his feet as a most unwelcome and horrific thought entered his mind and he sprinted for Lee’s condo once again.
Vaguely aware of a figure pursuing him, he looked back to see Angie on his tail. Roaring as loudly as his punished lungs allowed, he instructed her to call Nelson and Jamieson. She faltered at the total command in his tone, one she was not used to hearing from him. As he ploughed ahead he glanced back and, seeing her hesitation, let rip a blistering oath that had her retreating at a run. Knowing it would only take a spark to ignite the place, and possibly the surrounding condos, he entered Lee’s home cautiously, having created a possible back draft by leaving the kitchen door open. He unerringly made his way to the tiny pantry off the kitchen that housed the electrical fuse box, stopcock and gas boilers. Shutting off the gas at the mains control unit, his lungs on fire, he was coughing wretchedly as he systematically made his way around the condo, opening all the doors and windows to disperse the pent up gas. The levels were toxic and he could feel their effects in his slowed down gait, his agitated heart rate and the throbbing in his head that threatened to blow his skull clear off. He had to get out of there – fast. But more than that, he needed to get back and see how Lee was faring. Crane had been exposed to the gas for who knew how long.
Stumbling through the front door he saw what looked like the entire Institute camped outside his condo. Unable to make it further without a rest stop, he surged into the driveway and leant his weary body against – of all things – the highly polished chrome fender of Lee’s most prized possession after Seaview, his classic red Shelby convertible. Too weak to do more than press himself against the vintage car, he tried to gain strength from the gleaming patina of the paintwork and the glow of the chrome. Her master would be back to claim her – soon. In a moment that was pure Crane, the stoic ever-pragmatic exec patted the car’s bumper in reassurance, before trying to haul himself to his feet. Steadying himself against the frame of the car, he fought off the dizziness and swallowed down the nausea that assailed him as he gained his balance before endeavouring to find his way back to his friend. He hadn’t moved more than three steps before he felt support on his right side and a familiar voice exhorting him to take it easy – Patterson.
To his own ears, his voice was weak as he managed to unglue his tongue sufficiently to ask what Pat was doing there. “Security called me, sir. They knew Riley and I were here earlier and had standing orders to call us if anything untoward went down.”
Crane’s orders, Chip knew; his friend and captain would have covered all the bases. And he needed to get back to Lee. “Thanks, Pat. I’m fine.” He wouldn’t admit that he was still light headed and felt like throwing up, but whatever Patterson saw in his face had him tightening his hold on the taller exec, all but keeping him upright as he reached the wooden deck where the captain lay. Blankets now swathed Lee’s pyjama-bottom clad figure, several medical personnel were treating him and Chip was grateful to see John, one of Seaview’s regular corpsman, among them. An oxygen mask was in place over Crane’s mouth and nose with an IV already running fluids through. Angie practically pounced on him as Pat led him onto the deck.
“Chip, are you OK? I called the admiral and Dr. Jamieson – they’re both going to meet us at Med Bay as soon as Lee is able to be moved.” She sounded panicked and Chip wanted to re-assure her but his throat was tight and sore and he was unable to verbalise the words he sought to impart. In fact, he was barely able to stay upright and, but for Patterson’s assist, he’d have joined his friend on the deck. Trying to clear his throat, he was rewarded with nothing but a garbled groan – which immediately alerted John, who knew him only too well. He was summarily eased into a seated position on the deck and hooked up to an oxygen mask before he could object. The immediate respite to his lungs was almost worth the indignity. He’d forgotten he was shirtless until he felt the cold blades of John’s stethoscope on his overheated skin, persistent even as Chip tried to brush him off.
“Hold still, sir. You’ve inhaled a significant amount of gas too and we need to get your oxygen levels up.” The corpsman explained as he took the exec’s vitals, deftly clipping a portable oxymetre to his middle finger and attempting to take a reading. Chip’s non-co-operation earned him a reproachful glare.
“Lee?” He wheezed, through the tightening in his chest.
“Whoa. Geez, Commander. Your levels are nearly up there with the captain’s.” Sensing Chip wouldn’t relax until he affirmed the skipper’s status, he complied. “Captain Crane has been exposed to the gas for what appears to be a considerable period. He’s still breathing on his own, which is a good sign, sir. But we need to get you both,” emphasising the last, “transported ASAP.” With a nod to the paramedics, John swiftly engineered the removal of the captain. He caught Patterson’s eye and indicated that he should head Chip towards the waiting ambulance.
Pat nodded his understanding and began shepherding his senior officer in that direction. Swiftly interpreting his XO’s look, torn between his best friend and the woman on his patio, he spoke quietly so only Morton could hear. “Sir, Riley and I will take care of Miss Angie. You go with the skipper.” Wisely he didn’t mention the fact that Chip obviously needed attention too. That would have protracted the proceedings unnecessarily.
“Lee’s place….” Morton croaked, but Pat understood his concerns.
“We’ll check it over, lock it up tight and post a guard, sir. Don’t you worry. Riley and I’ll stay right here til you get back.” He forbore mentioning that he thought the exec wouldn’t be getting out of the CMO’s clutches any time soon. That would serve no purpose and Patterson could readily see the anxiety in the XO’s eyes as he watched the skipper wheeled into the Institute ambulance. “You go ahead, sir, we’ve got everything covered here.”
Pushing the mask aside as the exasperated paramedic tried to stuff him into the ambulance, he shot one last order.
“Pat, find out …cause.”
“I don’t believe this!” Nelson muttered to no one in particular as he watched his captain being swiftly unloaded and John begin his report even as the gurney moved along the tiled lobby. There was an urgency about the doctor’s rapid-fire questions and fluid movements that caught at something within Nelson as he followed them into an examining room. Steel blue eyes dared brown to try and evict him.
“I haven’t the time.” Jamieson muttered, knowing he’d have a hard job shifting either Nelson or Morton – and he couldn’t afford to waste time now. He really didn’t like the look of Lee Crane, the blue tinge around his lips indicated that he’d been exposed to the gas for longer than his body could easily tolerate. A swift glance at Morton had him worried about his next-to-least favourite patient. The exec’s face was pasty white, his breath coming in short wheezing gasps and he shook with cold in the climate-controlled room. A quick word to John had the corpsman throwing another blanket around the still shirtless XO, seating him and replacing the oxygen mask over his mouth and nose. As Morton rebuffed his attempts, Jamie let out what could only be described as a bark.
“Not now, Commander! Sit! It’ll be your turn soon enough.” All present knew the words were meant as much in reassurance as in censure. And they served their purpose with both anxious men, his practiced eyes told him, as Morton subsided into the chair and Nelson visibly relaxed.
Not that their young captain was out of the woods yet, by any means. Will frowned. He really needed a timeframe on how long Crane had been exposed to the gas – Carbon Monoxide from what John had told him. He spoke as he worked on the younger man.
“Chip, I want you to talk as little as you possibly can. But have you any idea how long Lee was exposed to the gas.”
Levering the mask away from his face enough to talk, Morton conveyed as much information as he could. “He left my place…about 2300. I got the call…about Chris…maybe fifteen / twenty minutes later.”
“What about Chris?” Nelson asked testily.
“It’ll keep, Admiral.” Jamieson interrupted his superior impatiently. “Cut to the chase, Chip. Just give me a timeframe”
“Got home about 0200. Angie was still up…made tea. Went out onto…the deck for some air. Smelled the gas. Broke into Lee’s condo. He was in bed. I don’t know if he crashed…soon as he left…or stayed up for a while. Best estimate…he could have been exposed for several hours.”
The lengthy speech proved too much for the exec and he began to cough raggedly. John immediately replaced the oxygen mask, increasing the flow and concentration until Chip’s breathing returned to a semblance of regularity. Jamie frowned at the breath sounds but couldn’t afford to take his attention from the captain. Jerking his head at the corpsman, with whom he worked so well, he silently instructed John to give the XO a more detailed exam. John slapped a blood pressure cuff on Chip’s upper arm and began to record vitals. At Jamieson’s murmured instruction he also took blood and had it rushed through the lab along with the sample Will had taken from Crane. Neither man cared that technicians had been dragged from their beds post midnight – that was what NIMR paid them handsomely for.
Harriman Nelson wasn’t known for his patience at the best of times – and these weren’t the best of times. He watched Jamieson’s every movement as he worked on the man he considered to be the closest to a son that he would ever have, anxiety gnawing at his guts and fear eroding discretion.
“In a minute, Admiral!” Concern had Jamieson snapping, which raised the antenna of both admiral and exec – Jamie rarely snapped unless he was pushed to the pin of his collar. And if he was, then both senior officers had more than good reason to worry about the object of his snappishness – their son / brother.
Morton could feel the pounding of his heart as an acute pressure against his chest wall and breathing was still painful, despite the pure oxygen he was inhaling courtesy of the despised mask. His headache being somewhere off the Richter scale, he felt dizzy and nauseous in equal proportions. And not one of these symptoms was he prepared to admit to – for fear of being summarily evicted from the exam room and away from his brother officer. He was also cold, having mislaid his shirt somewhere between Lee’s condo and here. The blankets he’d been given weren’t doing a very good job of heating him up but, then again, maybe it wasn’t the blankets’ fault. Finding this thought too confusing to continue, he tuned back in to the activity going on around him.
Nelson was plain scared. He’d seen his captain through more injuries than he’d ever envisaged, been through more horrors and terrors than he could comprehend, but this, THIS was somehow personal. He was beginning to get the whole deal now – too late! And it all circled back to him; his research, his P.A., his COB, his exec, his officer in Chris James – though he had yet to find out what had happened there – and now his captain. More than just his captain, if he were totally honest. Crane had ceased being just his captain a long time ago. Regret stabbed at him as he railed against the side of his personality that refused to allow him acknowledge his innermost feelings. Rarely had he expressed to the people around him, Crane, Morton, Will, just how much they meant to him. He was thought to be a genius – feted by Presidents and Royalty, courted by the top brains in governments all over the world, his opinion sought after in times of world crises. Yet he couldn’t tell the ones who meant so much to him just how much he cared about them.
Fists clenching, eyes stinging with an emotion he couldn’t allow to be seen – even here amongst his most trusted friends – he made a private deal with God. Let him live. Let him be whole. And I’ll cast my pride aside and tell them how much they mean to me, how I value them in my life – and not just for their contributions to the Institute, but for the difference they make to me as a person; as a father, as a friend, as a teacher and guide, how they’ve individually enriched my life.
He caught the look Jamieson winged his way and forced himself to relax his stance – if only to negate one worry for the harried doctor. He knew Will would have tagged his emotional state straight away. It was almost a given that he would haunt Sick Bay if Crane was a patient there and that Jamie would worry almost as much about him as about Lee. Tonight wouldn’t be anything different, but Jamieson needed to concentrate on Lee – and Chip – so he had to take himself out of the equation. He could best do that by being his usual testy, obnoxious, impatient self.
“Doctor?” He infused the word with every command tone he could dredge up; the ADMIRAL wanted answers and was NOT about to be denied. In his peripheral vision he caught sight of Chip’s wince but Jamieson wouldn’t be hurried. He eventually turned from his patient, satisfied that he was now stable, and faced the shorter stockier man with equanimity, only his eyes betraying the sympathy he felt for the slightly older man who was more than employer to his patient. Will accepted and read the lab report John brought right then before turning to address his superior.
“Admiral, no surprise, Lee is suffering from Carbon Monoxide poisoning. Best guess – he was exposed to it for two hours or more. His blood count is concentrated with carboxyhemoglobin and we urgently need to get his levels down if he has any chance of beating this. Lee is exhibiting severe symptoms, exhibited by his continued unconscious state, which are caused by high levels of poisoning over a protracted period. We have to deal with this fast if there are to be no long term effects.” His hesitation at this point caused consternation in both admiral and exec and he was reluctantly forced to concede his fears. Will didn’t believe in sugar coating but he didn’t want to alarm these men unnecessarily either. He cared for them – all three of them – too much. “We won’t know until – or if – Lee regains consciousness how the poisoning has affected his system. He may experience confusion, short term memory loss, changes in personality, extreme disorientation, impaired reasoning, even behavioural and learning difficulties. People respond differently to the same levels of poisoning and symptoms can range from mild to severe in persons with the same level of exposure. We could be looking at permanent memory loss, various long terms effects including heart or even brain damage.”
He watched the men he considered his closest friends absorb his diagnosis – and saw the stunned reactions neither man could hide. “Let’s not borrow trouble just yet. Now there are a couple of tests I need to do. And I want you two out of here while I perform them.” His expression softened, knowing how close the three men were and prepared for their objection, but held up one hand, forestalling the protests he knew would ensue. “Lee won’t feel a thing but the procedure is not pleasant and it’s not something you need to witness.”
Nelson gritted his teeth, saw Chip lift the mask from his already exhausted face to add his ten cents worth and waved the exec down. “I think we can stand it, Will. We both want to be here for him.”
The simple statement went a long way with the medic, used to dealing with the three on an ongoing basis, and he shrugged compliance – but with a cautionary note. “Be warned, Chip, if I find you’re exhibiting similar toxic levels I’ll be performing this on you.”
If anything the exec’s familiar stoic expression re-affirmed his stance and Will sighed, unsurprised, as he quietly requested John to bring the ABG kit.
He thanked God that Lee was unconscious and thus unaware as Jamieson hurt to heal. Jamie had explained the procedure as he’d cleaned the site but it was still hard to watch as he slid the larger than usual needle into the inside of Lee’s left wrist seeking the artery. Nelson moved closer to Morton, mindful of Will’s words to the now paler than pale exec. He squeezed Chip’s shoulder in silent support as they watched Jamieson collect the fluid for the Arterial Blood Gas test. He’d felt Chip’s start at the low moan that had emerged from Lee as Jamie had punctured his skin but the physician’s murmured “good, good” had given him hope that Lee was emerging from his unconscious state – or at least that some awareness was there.
As Jamie withdrew the needle they saw John slide in to cover the puncture site with a thick gauze pad. “That will need to be held in place for at least the next 10 minutes to reduce the risk of bleeding from the artery and to limit extensive bruising.” Jamison explained, his sharp eyes noting Morton’s almost deathly pallor. “Chip, I think you need to lie down.”
“I’m OK.” He deliberately declined to use the word ‘fine’ – Lee’s customary retort – but it was clear to all that he was anything but OK. And his nausea had increased as he watched Jamie work on Lee until he thought he was about to throw up. Repeated swallowing had prevented that ignominy but had increased the heat in his lungs.
Jamieson instantly summoned a nurse who returned within minutes with a second gurney. His protests going unheeded, Chip was summarily placed on the table that was aligned alongside his friend, Jamie’s stethoscope descending on his chest. “I want deep breaths now, Chip; in through the nose and out through the mouth. I know it hurts but I need to get a feel for the pressure the gas is placing on your lungs. Don’t fight me. This is serious. You’ve inhaled concentrated doses of the gas. You weren’t exposed for the length of time Lee was but you exacerbated the trauma to your lungs by your increased activity level. Lee was asleep, his system in suspend mode, if you want to call it that. You were in rescue mode, and inhaled almost as much into your overworked lungs in the short time you were in his condo as he did into his sleeping lungs – if that makes sense. Lee was in respite and you were at full tilt – you didn’t have the prolonged exposure but you got a double dose of the concentration – not to mention that your lungs were already under pressure from the explosion and the fumes you inhaled earlier. That’s what your blood test shows.” He brooked no argument as he pushed the exec into a reclining position on the gurney. Chip subsided, finally admitting how awful he felt and acknowledging that he could do nothing further for Lee.
Throwing an arm over his face to block his eyes as he felt Doc slide an IV needle into the crook of his elbow, he swallowed the bile that rose into his throat. He fought back the tears of helplessness that wanted to leak from under his tightly closed eyelids. They wouldn’t do Lee any good. And he needed to be back in control – for Lee. That was an exec’s job – to protect his CO. And he couldn’t do his job if he was on a gurney in Med Bay. Exhaustion, confusion, and the primary need to do his job, forced his eyelids open and his hands to push Jamie out of his way.
“Need to check on Lee…have to….” To his own ears his voice sounded weird, thick and slurred, his tongue sticking to the roof of his mouth.
“Easy, Chip.” Jamieson’s voice soothed as he re-checked the exec’s vitals for any more recent anomalies, replaced the oxygen mask, smothered him in warmed blankets to bring up his low core temperature and attempted to assuage his worry regarding his friend. Taking into account the deterioration in Morton’s condition, his concern escalated.
“John, prepare the hyperbaric chamber for two patients – stat!”
Picking up on the CMO’s concern, the corpsman raced for the door, leaving it swinging in his wake. Jamison turned to what was now a very apprehensive admiral and attempted some level of re-assurance.
“Harry, both Lee and Chip are suffering the varied effects of Carbon Monoxide poisoning. Lee’s unconscious because he’s been exposed for a protracted period and now that the adrenalin rush has left, Chip’s experiencing an accelerated reaction to the noxious gas he’s inhaled under less than ideal conditions. He hasn’t lost consciousness but I’m no less worried about him than I am about Lee – not to mention that he’s already suffered one trauma this evening and his lungs are already compromised.” During their conversation he’d steered Nelson away from the two gurneys, not wanting Morton to overhear his conversation.
“We’re – or rather they are – in the lucky position of having a hyperbaric chamber available here at the Institute.” He could see the admiral’s nodding head already run the possibilities. “The pressure in the chamber will remove the CO from their bodies faster. We’ve been administering 100% oxygen therapy since they were brought in and it’s not having the desired effect quickly enough. We can’t give them anything more concentrated than that or we risk COPD - Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. In my opinion our best option is to use the chamber to pump oxygen into them under pressure. It reduces the CO levels faster than conventional treatment and restores the oxygen carrying capacity of the blood to normal levels quicker. Twenty minutes in the chamber does the work of four hours of normal oxygen therapy. Up to three treatments may be necessary over the course of the next twenty four hours but it further reduces the risk of cognitive problems and lasting damage to memory and concentration.”
“Is that your recommendation for the two of them, Will?” There was both total trust and sublime hope in the blue eyes that connected to Jamieson’s.
The doctor sighed; sometimes the weight of choice was difficult to bear. “I’ll be honest, Harry. I’d hoped we could avoid this. But our single other option is something that’s only currently being researched. And there are no conclusive studies to support the theory that using both Oxygen and Carbon Dioxide might reduce the levels of CO in the body. It’s virtually untried in humans – they call it Normocapnic Hyperpnea – and I’m not entirely sure it’s warranted taking the risk in this case when we have a hyperbaric chamber at our disposal. So, yes, Harry, that’s my recommendation.”
Nelson nodded decisively, his confidence in this man absolute. “Then let’s get moving, Will.”
For more than the hundredth time, since coming to the Institute, Will Jamieson found himself thanking God that Harriman Nelson had spared no expense in equipping the place – especially where the medical facilities were concerned. NIMR’s hyperbaric chamber was one of the largest on the west coast and could easily accommodate several people. Its current occupants were already showing the positive effects of the pressurised therapy after just one twenty-minute treatment. Lee Crane had regained consciousness although he had been too dizzy and disoriented to be his usual troublesome self and was – so far – resting quietly and following instructions. It was currently Morton who was causing Jamieson grief. The XO was insistent that he was well enough to leave the chamber, adamant that his breathing was fine and assuring the sceptical medic that the burning in his lungs was completely gone.
Jamieson didn’t believe a word of it and was equally insistent that the stubborn blond officer complete at least one further session. Lee, having been exposed to the gas for longer, would be required to undergo two further cycles. He hadn’t as yet informed either of the senior officers that they would be transferring no further than to Med Bay’s third floor for the remainder of the night at least and, in the captain’s case, for an indeterminate time until he, Will, was satisfied that there were no lingering after effects of the near lethal dose. He knew the fallout from dropping that little bombshell wouldn’t be pleasant. But one of the reasons he’d lasted longer than any of the other medics either on board the boat or at the Institute was that he was equally as stubborn as the trio that made up Seaview’s command staff. It was a source of intense frustration and no little irritation to him that these particular two could behave more like fractious, pouting children than the battle seasoned officers they actually were where their own health issues were concerned.
The only thing currently keeping Morton in the unit was that Lee Crane was there too and Jamieson wasn’t above using Chip’s concern for his friend to keep him in line. It was part of the ‘game’ he’d bought into since taking over as Seaview’s CMO. Things could get loud at times given the stubborn personalities involved but their mutual respect for each other kept them from getting personal and ensured their strong friendship remained intact. Knowing that Jamieson had made the difference many times between life and death for both men gave the doctor a decided advantage – unspoken but acknowledged – and he used the cards he was dealt with barefaced insouciance whenever necessary. And if that failed, he called in Nelson. But he used that ace in the hole only when it became unavoidable – he had too much respect for these men to undermine them without jolly good reason. Grimly, he faced the possibility that this might be one of those times.
“There’s no reason for me to stay!” Currently seated on the exam table, having completed the required second twenty-minute cycle in the chamber and subjected himself to having yet more blood drawn, Chip was fuming, almost silently, as Jamie bade him take deep breaths while he listened to the XO’s lungs. Morton huffed and earned himself a sideways look from the now more than ticked off medic. A small throat clearance from the watchful admiral, who had been in attendance the whole time since his officers were brought into Med Bay, had the XO subsiding. Unwillingly. But Chip knew better than to take on his boss – especially at close on 0400. Realising belatedly that Jamieson must be just as tired as he was, Chip sighed and capitulated, but not without one last stipulation. “All right, put an extra bed into Lee’s room.”
Jamieson snorted. “In your dreams. And have you keep each other up all night? You both” and he emphasised the last “need to rest. Once Lee’s completed this treatment I want the two of you horizontal and snoozing for at least eight hours. And I’ll accomplish that any way I have to!”
And he wasn’t averse to enforcing it via his trusty hypo, as both admiral and exec were well aware.
Chip changed tactics, knowing his bolshie attitude would now get him nowhere with the stonewalling physician. “Please, Jamie. I’d rest easier if I knew Lee was in the same room and I know he would too.” He made no pretence of playing the medic. “Besides, and I know the admiral will agree with me,” he was blatantly stroking here “it’ll be easier to post a guard on one room than two. I’m assuming that’s what you’d planned, sir?”
His deference to Nelson was contrived - and the four star admiral found himself having to subdue the grin that struggled to surface. Nelson’s responding bark concealed his laugh as he conceded to the exec’s inimitable logic – and way-too-innocent expression.
“It would relieve personnel, Will.” His tone was mild, as he really didn’t want to tick off the doctor any more than his two officers already had.
Jamieson sighed, knowing he’d been outgunned. “Very well. But neither of you dare to have plans to leave here tomorrow before I evaluate you both thoroughly!”
“What about church, Jamie?” The guileless look Chip sent his way almost threatened to undo the beleaguered physician and he looked to Nelson pleadingly.
“Give me permission, Admiral, to put him in restraints and shoot him so full of sedative that he won’t surface til Tuesday – at the earliest!”
Nelson chuckled, used to the by-play between his men. “No can do, Will. Couldn’t be party to compromising your ethics. And, unfortunately, I’m probably going to need you to release them before you want to. Whoever this is has obviously decided to escalate their agenda.” His tone went austere and both Jamieson and Morton picked up on the unspoken. “I’m likely going to need both Chip and Lee before they advance what is obviously becoming a pre-planned programme of attack.”
Before Jamieson could open his mouth to object, Morton recalled Angie’s words.
“Admiral, Angie said something earlier that struck a chord with me.” Chip shrugged off Jamie’s attempts to get him to lie down. “She commented how the initial attack stole your work but that the subsequent assaults targeted people around you – hurting you indirectly.”
A thought occurred through the headache he still wouldn’t admit to. “Jamie, did you get a chance to process the blood work on Chris James?”
“Not hardly, Chip.” Jamieson protested. “It’s the middle of the night!”
“I don’t know why, Jamie, but my gut instinct tells me he wasn’t drunk.” Morton slid off the table and began pacing, ignoring the doctor’s shooing motions back to the gurney. “Oh, he acted drunk, stupid. And don’t ask me why, but I’d bet my next paycheck that he had exactly what he said he had to drink. I think he was drugged. How – or why – I don’t know. But I’m pretty sure it’s part of what’s going on here this past 24 hours. Jamie, how soon can you get the work done on the sample of Chris’s blood that I left here?”
Jamieson moved to the phone. “Give me a couple hours. Until now I hadn’t considered it a priority.”
Exchanging a grim glance with his admiral, Chip intoned gravely, “Nor did I, Jamie. Nor did I.”
Both Jamieson and Morton got their way. Jamie had the two exactly where he wanted them – on Med Bay’s third floor – with both men as co-operative as could be expected, given the individuals involved. Logic overruling determination, Chip was currently ensconced in the same room with Lee, the CMO having given in to the inevitable, knowing both men would settle easier in close proximity to each other. Jamieson’s worry – that Morton wouldn’t rest, too busy ensuring his captain was being taken care of – was allayed by the judicious (sneaky) use of a mild sedative, the recipient too exhausted and distracted to query the welcome offer of coffee. Thus it was that, having bullied and finally threatened Nelson into leaving, Jamieson was arguing with a wide-awake, if still a little nauseous, Crane while Chip slept like a baby in the next bed.
“You don’t settle down, Lee, and you’re looking at the sharp end of a hypo full of sleep juice.” Jamieson threatened.
“I’ll sleep if you agree to let me out of here come morning.” His most difficult patient bartered.
“In your dreams, Captain.” The medic snorted, as was expected of him. “You’ll sleep, either which way!”
“Jamie!” His tone disgusted, Lee sent his physician and friend his best command glare.
“Doesn’t cut any ice with me, Lee.”
“You heard the admiral, Jamie. He needs us.”
Immune to the “little boy”, under the lashes, look Lee mastered so brilliantly, Jamieson conducted a further swift examination, concentrating on the captain’s breath sound, the Oxymeter readings that thankfully showed Lee’s oxygen levels were once again approaching normal and checking the thick gauze pad that covered the incision on the inside of his wrist, noting Crane’s instinctive wince as he probed to ensure there was no leakage of blood. “The admiral’s ‘needs’ are secondary to yours and Chip’s right now.” He lectured firmly. “The CO in your body is well reduced which is why you feel so much better. And thank God for the Hyperbaric Chamber. We’d be looking at a much longer treatment schedule without it. But, and I’m serious here, Commander,” emphasising his rank was worse than Jamie calling him ‘captain’, “there could be severe after effects from the Carbon Monoxide poisoning and we need to keep you carefully monitored for the next few days.”
He could already see Crane rolling his eyes and his frown deepened. The captain was NOT taking this seriously enough for his liking. Tone grave, he admonished his worst patient. “I’m not joking, Lee. The level of CO you ingested was pretty toxic and over a prolonged period. We may not know what the lingering effects are for several days.” He forestalled the protest from the younger man with an upheld hand, palm out. “As the younger generation says, Lee, talk to the hand, cause the face ain’t listening!”
He grinned at the comical look that overcame Lee’s increasing exasperation. “Didn’t think I knew the jargon, heh? Had Riley in Sickbay this last cruise. Got quite an earful so I’m all caught up on the latest hot lingo.”
“Geez, Doc, need to keep you busier, if that’s what you’re coming back with.” Lee grumbled.
“Don’t think you’re going to distract me, Mister.” The older man blustered, well aware of his least favourite patient’s diversion tactics. “No way are you leaving here tomorrow or even the next day until I’m completely satisfied that you’re not showing any post contamination symptoms. Appreciate you don’t like it, Lee, but it’s for your own good.” Knowing he’d mouthed the same words many times before, with little or no effect, Jamieson was ready for the blast he knew was forthcoming.
“Newsflash, Jamie – I’m fine. Chip got me out of there before any permanent damage was done.”
“Newsflash, Lee,” exasperation colouring his tone, Jamieson lowered the head of the raised bed into a prone position, “I’m the one with the medical degree and I’ll be the judge of that. Aided and abetted by my faithful tests. Don’t plan on getting out of here anytime soon!”
“Any chance of piping it down here?” The grumble came from the other bed as Chip rolled over to blearily confront his friends. “Some of us are trying to sleep!”
Jamieson snorted again. “God grant me a sedative strong enough to knock you both out! Go to sleep, the pair of you!” Grinning reluctantly, he dimmed the lights as he exited the room, knowing he’d won the immediate battle while the war was still ahead and – depending on the test results he got back – it could be bloody.
Morton blinked owlishly and shook his head, trying to stave off the effects of whatever Jamie had slipped him – and he knew the devious CMO had drugged him somehow. ‘Should have known better than to accept his offer of caffeine,’ he berated himself. ‘Must have been more out of it than I thought. Seen him catch too many people that way. Never thought I’d be one of them.’
“You awake, Chip?”
The blond turned his still slightly muzzy head in the direction of his friend’s voice and tried to focus his uncooperative eyes. “Yeah, more or less, no thanks to Jamie. How’d you feel?” There was some chance Lee would be honest without the CMO or admiral present.
His answer was initially a heavy sigh – which drew a concerned frown from the exec – followed by a grudged admission. “Not terribly hot. But better than when I woke up first. My chest isn’t actually on fire any more and I’m reasonably sure – well, fairly – that I’m not about to throw up any time soon.”
Morton’s snort accompanied his groan as he sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed. He knew better than to try to stand right then, as fuzzy as he still felt, but he needed to get moving if he was to oust the lingering traces of the sedation. “Glad to hear that. Not sure I’m up to cleaning that up any time soon! And I know how you feel. Thought a couple times I was going to have a revisit from the take-out we had earlier.”
“Oh, gross! Please don’t mention that!” As he’d envisaged, Lee reacted with an appropriate facial expression.
Chip levered himself carefully off the side of the bed. Taking deep breaths he evaluated the distance between the beds, the bathroom and the door to the corridor. “Tell me honestly how you feel right now. Cos we need to get out of here.”
Lee’s dark eyebrows almost met his hairline. “Did that gas affect you more than you’re admitting, buddy?”
Morton met his friend’s eyes steadily – or at least as steadily as he could. “Hope not, Lee. Cos if I’m wrong then the next target in this sick game that’s going on is the admiral. Angie called it earlier, as far as I’m concerned. The attacks so far have been directed against Nelson in a variety of guises; first his research, then his PA, his COB, his exec, his third officer – if I’m right and Chris wasn’t drunk - and now his captain. See where I’m leading here? There’s a logical conclusion?”
“Someone’s going after Nelson.” Lee cottoned on fast. It didn’t take a Nobel Prize Winner to catch the drift. “The attacks have been focused on people close to the admiral. To date. And there are no guarantees as to who’s going to be next. Up til now the attacks appear to be random with no apparent pattern – other than the connection to the Institute – or at least not one that I can see.”
Cautiously pushing himself away from the bed, Morton began to pace the room, starting slowly until he was able to walk steadily around the perimeter. Lee watched him, could practically see the thoughts whirling around in his friend’s head, probably only one of a mere handful of people who could read the inscrutable blond. Chip was quick witted but methodical, Lee had seen him numerous times work his way through a problem, tease it out in his head and come up with the logical – usually correct – answer, and in half the time it took his classmates to reach the same conclusion. If Chip had one flaw it was his hesitance to speak out – he preferred to remain in the background and let the more vociferous get the glory. Lee had hounded him mercilessly in Annapolis until he thought he’d knocked that trait on its rear end. Obviously not.
“Spit it out, Chip. I need to hear it.”
Morton shrugged deprecatorily. “Just a thought – may be nothing. But it started with Angie – first business then personal. Followed by Chief Sharkey, me – Chip, then Chris and then Crane. Alphabetical in a weird sort of way, or maybe just opportunistic. With these guys, who knows?”
Lee had raised the head of the bed until he was semi-reclining. “You may have something there. But where does it go from here? If you’re right he’s picking his targets according to his own whim, leaving out Bobby or perhaps he’s labelled him O’Brien, or maybe it’s because he’s not in Santa Barbara – not accessible. Then there’s Jamieson, Kowalski or maybe he’s Ski, the list is endless. All we can speculate at this point is that Nelson is the ultimate target. And we have no idea what their timescale is.”
“True, Lee. But given what they’ve accomplished in just over 36 hours, I’d say the timeline is important to them somehow – whoever they are. And it’s probably tight. I may be wrong about the alphabet but I’d bet anything that there’s a particular significance to the timing. It’s just too pat, too…orchestrated, maybe. I don’t know.” Pacing out his frustration had purged most of the drug out of his system and he eyed his friend speculatively but not without concern. “How do you honestly feel, Lee?”
“Honestly? A little sore if I take deep breaths and I’m not entirely sure I won’t puke if I move too fast but if you take it slowly I should be able to keep up.”
“Ready to bust out of here then, bro?” Morton quirked an eyebrow at his friend.
“Moi? Escape from Doc’s clutches? When did you ever know me to refuse?”
“Sure you’re up to it?” Chip couldn’t contain the niggle of concern, wondering if he was doing the right thing involving Lee so soon after he’d almost died.
Crane levelled his best command glare coupled with his well-practiced command tone. “Yes, Commander Morton, I’m up to it. Whatever it is. But just where are we headed and how are we going to get there dressed like this?” Indicating their Med Bay issue p.j.s.
“All part of my plan, Lee. Such as it is.”
First objective was to get out of Med Bay without being seen. Having achieved that, barely – the increased security was tight but the guards were intent on looking for people trying to break in and not out – and thankfully Nelson hadn’t had a chance to put a guard on their room as yet, their next port of call was the Administration Building and their respective offices where both kept spare uniforms. Chip had resurrected his shoes from the closet in Med Bay and Lee was fortunate to find an older pair of Oxfords in the back of the press in his office which he’d obviously stored there some time ago and forgotten about. They were both conscious of the fact that they had – probably – only two hours tops before their escape was noted and reported to Jamieson, who would definitely not be happy with either of them.
More comfortable now that he was dressed but feeling only marginally better, not that he would admit that to anyone except maybe Chip, Lee pulled the window blinds and turned on just his desk lamp before booting up his computer while he waited for Morton to re-appear. Buttoning his cuff over the thick wad of gauze was cumbersome and he grimaced as he slotted the button home. He didn’t completely buy in to Chip’s alphabet theory but was prepared to run with it until his meticulous XO either proved or disproved it. It was as good a way of marking time as any, he snorted softly. He sure as hell didn’t have anything better to contribute and he trusted Chip’s instincts.
Distracted by his worry that Chip and Angie were right and that this series of attacks was designed solely to hurt Nelson emotionally and ultimately culminate in injuring or killing him, Lee almost failed to spot the pop up on screen indicating that he had e-mail waiting. He frowned. He’d cleared his inbox earlier that – the previous – evening. Who was likely to expect him to check his mailbox much before Monday morning? NIMR would page him, ONI would call him directly and friends wouldn’t rely on e-mail at weekends knowing that he did, occasionally (or when ragged on by Chip), let his hair down and party or wine and dine his latest female companion. Curiosity had him tapping into the pop up to bring forth the message.
It appeared on screen but in a format unlike anything he’d previously seen in his inbox. The message took over the entire screen with neither sender nor subject boxes, one word at a time until the short message was readable.
How was your evening, Captain? Entertaining, I hope. In fact – A GAS!
PS. Hope it is you reading this, Captain. The only one I want dead is Nelson. However, casualties are an unfortunate by-product of war. Regrettable but unavoidable. Ask Nelson.
Lee read the message with growing horror. Then blinked to clear his vision as it began to fade from the screen – word by word, as it had appeared. He thought it was a lingering effect from the gas at first, that it was affecting his eyesight. Then was forced to reconsider when he was again looking at the backdrop he saw every time he booted up his PC. The message was gone. Obliterated as if it were never there. He’d barely had time to read it once. He quickly called up his inbox but there was no sign of the message or that it had ever existed. He hit the trash can button - nothing there. Archived messages – nothing. It was as if the damn thing had never been. Perhaps Jamieson was right and he was suffering some side effects from the gas inhalation. Lee’s lips thinned to a grim line as he instantly rejected that. He had seen it. It had been there. He hadn’t dreamt it. He wasn’t losing it entirely!
“Sorry I took so long. Decided to put on a pot of coffee. Jamie probably wouldn’t approve. Don’t know about you but I need a caffeine jolt to get me going and no way am I trusting anyone else to make it after the…” Chip had backed into the room, using his hip to push the door far enough open to navigate the doorway with coffee pot and mugs in hand. Finally catching a glimpse of Lee’s absorbed expression in a too pale face, all his worries came crashing back. “What’s wrong? What’s happened? Should I call Jamie?” He dumped the pot and cups on Lee’s desk and moved to his friend. “OK, pal. Let’s get you back to Med Bay. This was a stupid move on my….”
Before he could berate himself any further, Lee intervened. “I’m fine. Don’t panic. I just got a message from whoever’s behind this. Looks like Angie called it right. They’re after the admiral. And they don’t care who they mangle on their way.”
“Show me.” Chip’s tone was clipped. He’d gotten a momentary fright at the sight of Lee hunched over the computer, obviously in worse shape than he’d thought, accompanied by a massive dose of the guilties for involving him. He should have known Lee wasn’t in any shape for this, his friend had been half dead barely hours ago.
“Easy, Buddy.” If Morton could read Crane, then the reciprocal was also true and Lee had a fair idea what was causing the almost panicked look Chip sported. “I’m fine.” Knowing that wouldn’t cut the mustard – as he’d used it too many importunate times to count – Lee felt obliged to elucidate. “Or at least no worse. Need you to look at this. Message popped up on my screen then disappeared as soon as I read it. Thought for a minute I’d imagined it.”
Morton, NIMR’s acknowledged computer whiz kid – despite the braniacs in their respective fields that Nelson employed at the Institute – came around the desk and punched a couple of buttons on Lee’s PC. Then punched a couple more. And a few more. Nudging Lee out of the way he ran a series of programmes, fingers flying over the keys too fast for Lee to keep up. Muttering to himself, he finally gave up with a frustrated expletive. “Nothing. Whatever you saw is gone. Can you reconstruct it from memory?”
Pulling a pad in front of him, Lee wrote out the message verbatim, his ONI training kicking in. “You and Angie were spot on. Whoever this “C” is, is after Nelson. Wants him dead and doesn’t care a whole lot who they take out on the way – the objective being to make the admiral suffer. So he/she/they know him well enough to know that injuring the people around him will hurt him.”
“Yeah. But they’ve just made a monumental mistake.” Chip intoned softly.
“How so?” Lee frowned, not following Morton’s logic.
“What you just got was an ‘untraceable’ e-mail. It appeared, you read it, it disappeared.”
“There’s no such thing as an untraceable e-mail. Oh, the punters think there is, the mugs who get sucked into sites purporting to offer ‘anonymous’ mail believe it. But, if you know what you’re looking for – and where to look and have access – then there’s nothing that ain’t traceable!” Chip sighed with satisfaction, his mid-west accent becoming more evident. He loved a puzzle, his oft-teased pedantic nature coming into its own. “Give it to me.” Knowing Crane as well as he did, it was second nature to presume Lee had the message down pat. As his friend tore off the sheet of paper and passed it across, Chip was finessing the keyboard, coaxing information that Lee didn’t have the expertise to query. From the disgruntled expression on the blond’s face, he wasn’t getting anywhere fast.
Lee poured coffee from the pot Chip had brought and handed a cup to his engrossed friend, who absently slurped avidly. Lee sipped cautiously. Usually he enjoyed his java as toxic as it came, Cookie’s noxious blend, but right now he wasn’t sure his stomach wouldn’t revolt if he tested it unduly. Score another to Morton; Chip had no doubt garnered that he wasn’t up to full strength and had watered down the usual power-the-reactor brew on or off boat to suit his friend’s compromised stomach. The coffee hit a spot and dragged him back to almost full capacity, enough to tune in to Chip’s audio.
“If you got a message from these guys, stands to reason they probably sent one to all of us. Ah ha!” He motioned Lee around to view the screen over his shoulder as he keyed in his code and pulled up his own e-mail. As with Lee’s message it appeared on screen one word at a time.
How was your evening, Commander? Entertaining, I hope. In fact – HOT!
PS. Hope it is you reading this, Commander. The only one I want dead is Nelson. However, casualties are an unfortunate by-product of war. Regrettable but unavoidable. Ask Nelson.
And as with Lee’s message it disappeared similarly. “Same format? Same typeface?”
Lee confirmed and watched as Chip’s fingers typed further commands and codes – too fast for him to follow – and saw Chris James’ e-mail message appear in the same vein.
How was your evening, Lieutenant? Entertaining, I hope. Unhappily it didn’t end as you’d envisaged. Too bad.
PS. Hope it is you reading this, Lieutenant. The only one I want dead is Nelson. However, casualties are an unfortunate by-product of war. Regrettable but unavoidable. Ask Nelson.
And disappear again. The fingers flying over the keyboard next brought up Angie’s message – which was subtly different from those sent to the three officers.
Sorry your evening isn’t progressing as you’d hoped, Angie. Presume you had thoughts of a cosy night at home with Commander Morton. Too bad. There might not be any more opportunities – if he wasn’t far enough away from the gas tank.
PS. Hope it is you reading this, Angie. The only one I want dead is Nelson. However, casualties are an unfortunate by-product of war. Regrettable but unavoidable. Ask Nelson.
The message disappeared, as had the others. Lee had scooped up a notepad and jotted down the last three messages. He hesitated as Chip’s fingers came to rest and his friend stared thoughtfully at the screen.
“Ah, Chip?” As the azure eyes connected with his own amber ones and finally focused, Lee’s voice was uncharacteristically uncertain – as if he didn’t really want to know the answer to his next question. “You can, uhh, tap into anyone’s e-mail?”
“Yeah. Well, anyone here at the Institute or any of my family or anyone I know who has e-mail – once I know their Service Provider. Oh, need to check Sharkey’s.” And the fingers began to fly again.
“The admiral’s? Mine?” Lee’s voice was soft – but deadly. And Chip sent him a do-you-really-want-to-know-the-answer-to-that look before registering the sombre expression on his CO’s face, his own changing in response.
“You asked the question, Lee. But just because I can, doesn’t mean I ever would. I’d never invade another person’s privacy like that – unless it was of the utmost importance.” There was a lot of indignation and a hint of hurt in the blond’s reply, forcing Lee into a sheepish grin and a squeeze of his friend’s suddenly stiff shoulder.
“I know, Chip, I know. Put it down to tiredness and my extreme awe at the abilities you continue to reveal. Just glad you’re working with us here, pal, and not against us.” His attempt to lighten the suddenly charged atmosphere failed at the grim expression that came over Morton’s fair features.
“Unfortunately, whoever’s behind this knows more about computers than the average layperson and enough about NIMR’s security and personnel to be able to come and go seemingly at will. And at least enough to know how to target the admiral most effectively by hurting those closest to him. This is one heck of a personal vendetta.”
Picking up on his XO’s well-reasoned thoughts, Lee continued. “So we need to beef up Nelson’s personal security until we can apprehend whoever’s behind this. Telling him that is going to be fun!”
Chip wasn’t listening, instead concentrating once more on the screen. “That’s odd.”
“There’s no message in the chief’s mailbox.”
Morton shrugged. “Makes me wonder if we were reaching when we assumed the chief’s accident was part of this. Could be just a co-incidence.” He held up his hand when he saw Lee about to protest. “I know. We don’t believe in co-incidence. But sometimes they do happen. Now maybe our “C” just hasn’t gotten round to sending Sharkey’s message yet or perhaps – and hopefully – their range is confined to the west coast. Just one less mess to contend with.”
“Hope so. There’s enough to be going on with here.” Abstractly running his hand through his short dark hair, Lee began to pace in the restricted space behind the desk. Realising the sun had begun to rise; he raised the window blinds he’d pulled earlier. Checking for the current time, he recalled that his watch wasn’t in its usual place on his left wrist but on the nightstand in his condo, which reminded him that they were both technically AWOL from Med Bay and Jamie – and no doubt Nelson – would be in pursuit in the not too distant future. “What are you doing now?” His curiosity was provoked as Chip’s fingers flew across the keyboard and it beeped obligingly as his printer began to whir and spit out paper by the ton.
“Just running a programme to acquaint us with anyone who’s got either a Christian name or Surname beginning with ‘C’ that we’ve come across in any shape or fashion during the past twelve months. Either aboard Seaview or in any of NIMR’s various interests.” Chip shrugged. “May be a wild goose chase and for sure it’s a long shot but who knows? Next off, I’m going to find the source of those mails.”
Lee watched as Chip’s expression again became focused on the screen in front of him. “Can you do that?”
Morton shrugged. “Yeah, I can do it. Nothing’s untraceable – despite what Joe Public thinks. Question is, can I do it in time to stop whoever’s orchestrating this. And before they get to Nelson.”
Lee’s office door – which had been ajar – now opened fully. “Oh, I think you’ve got a much bigger problem than that, Commander.” A new voice sniped, dripping sarcasm.
One hour and forty-seven minutes. Morton winced as he checked his watch and caught Lee’s similar surreptitious glance at the clock on the PC screen. Busted! And with re-enforcements. The CMO and the four-star admiral stood shoulder to shoulder in the doorway, well as shoulder to shoulder as their disparate heights allowed.
But the expressions on their faces were identical – major pissed off coupled with, at least on the admiral’s side, some latent concern. Jamieson was as mad as the younger men had ever seen him and was so NOT in the mood to be placated; not that Chip wouldn’t try anyway – he was the one who’d led his captain into this little escapade. But before he could open his mouth, Lee came up off the edge of his desk, causing Jamie’s eyes to narrow threateningly at the slightly off gait motion.
“Jamie, this is one of those times when I need you to back off. Please.” Crane’s voice was quietly modulated but there was steely intent imbued in the controlled tone.
Jamieson’s expression darkened; he’d made a deal with his CO some time back and respected the fact that Crane didn’t call on it lightly. But, damn it! Not NOW! Not when there were unknown and incalculable, possibly life threatening, after effects of the gas inhalation. Looking at his way-too-young-looking commanding officer’s unwavering expression, Will found himself – unbelievably – swayed. It was a trust issue, both men respecting the hell out of each other. Lee, while he would always downplay injury or illness and take pleasure in evading his CMO’s clutches, would inevitably concede defeat when push came to shove or when decisively cornered. Unless the greater good interfered. That was the crux of the conversation he’d had just over a year ago with Will Jamieson. It was supremely private between the two (only Morton having any inkling as to what had occurred) – and hadn’t been spoken of since. And Will recalled only one occasion when he’d been asked to similarly stand down. (*)
But his Hippocratic oath forced him to voice his concern in this case.
“I’m sorry, Captain, but I’m not comfortable with that, given the circumstances.” His vocal chords were stiff – it went against the grain to have to overrule his superior.
“Jamie….” At the use of his rank, Lee’s voice went hard, his hazel eyes harder still but he was prevented from continuing.
Patience snapping, Jamieson came down hard and fast. “Shut your yap, Lee. I am so not in the frame of mind to put up with your shenanigans right now. I told you the possibly serious, potentially lethal, side effects of the CO inhalation and you’ve chosen to ignore me. Once again. Totally.” His gaze swept the room to encompass Morton. “Well, enough is enough. If you care so little for your health that you are prepared to risk it continually, as every treatment I recommend is completely ignored, then you go for it. But without me. I’ve had it.”
The lack of emotion in Jamieson’s final words spoke volumes. Lee’s heart sank – and it wasn’t the only one. Used to the doctor’s rants, usually at a volume guaranteed to burst sensitive eardrums, this soft-spoken ultimatum had the three men exchanging nervous glances.
Chip moved to stand beside Lee, guilt weighing heavy in his gut. If he’d left Lee in Med Bay and pursued this on his own, maybe…. He knew Jamie worried about the entire crew but perhaps just a tad more about the two men alongside him, Nelson and Lee being his most frequent and most troublesome patients, being the ones who took on all comers without thought or concern for themselves. It was solely due to Jamie’s skill and caring that these two were here today, despite all they’d been through between their service to ONI and Seaview’s missions. They couldn’t afford to lose him – Seaview couldn’t afford to lose him – and it was down to him to ensure that Jamie stayed; anything else was unthinkable. He needed to know that Lee would be taken care of by the only doctor Chip knew stood a chance of dealing with his high maintenance brother. Even if that meant taking himself out of the equation. That caused a momentary twinge – what would happen to Lee if he wasn’t there as his rear guard? But there were 123 other members of Seaview’s crew who would die to protect their captain. He was expendable, Jamieson wasn’t. They couldn’t lose the best CMO they’d ever had because he’d messed up as an exec. Instead of protecting his captain he’d risked his life.
Taking a deep breath, he prepared to eat whatever humble pie was necessary. “Jamie, don’t blame Lee. This was all my idea. He had nothing to do with it.”
“Like I believe that!” Jamieson snorted with derision, running a hand through his thinning locks. “For sure I didn’t hear him hollering in protest at the other end of the building!”
Chip opened his mouth to renew his case for Lee’s innocence but, before he could get a word out, Nelson overrode everyone with his characteristic bellow.
“Enough! All of you! We are all suffering from sleep deprivation. It’s past 0630 Sunday morning and none of us got much shuteye the past two nights. Will, I appreciate where you’re coming from and not for one moment do I condone their actions, nor will I sanction your resignation on foot of that – but, and it’s a big all consuming but – I need to find out what they’ve uncovered before you stick them back in Med Bay.”
Forestalling the protests about to come from all three, he perfected his four-star roar, silence radiating in its wake.
“And, Gentlemen, that is exactly where you are both headed – sans protests! Eventually. Will, it’s pretty clear that they have come up with something pertinent to our current travails and I need to hear it – pronto. It’s also rather obvious that they are both capable of being here and performing what I can only surmise is their own particular brand of crime solving. If we have any chance of beating this...this lunatic, then I’ve got to hear what they have to say. After that, if either of them wants to remain with the Institute, they’re all yours. For as long as you like!”
Nelson’s inimitable logic, coupled with those four stars, soothed ragged tempers and frazzled nerves. “And you need to bring them up to date with what you found in Lt. James’ blood test, so why don’t we all take a load off, sit down and talk rationally. Chip, is that coffee even semi-drinkable?”
He grimaced at the first taste – it wasn’t nearly strong enough to wake up his sleep deprived brain cells. Glancing around the room he took in the three frowning faces. Morton, seated behind Lee’s desk and absently sending commands to the PC via quick fingers, cast quick worried looks towards the still grim doctor. Jamieson had insisted on checking out Lee before acquiescing to Nelson and his most reluctant patient was scowling as he submitted to having his lungs checked again.
“Enough, Jamie.” He pulled away irritably from Will’s stethoscope and re-buttoned his shirt. “We both know I’m not one hundred percent and there’s nothing more we can do right now but wait it out and see what develops. In the meantime, I have work to do here and you need to let me get on with it.”
Seeing the storm clouds gathering on both stubborn faces, Nelson interceded. “Will, he’s right. Now we can move this to Med Bay if you want. But I don’t see the difference in allowing this conversation take place here or there. Lee, move your butt from that sofa and I’ll personally secure the restraints when you return to the Infirmary. Now, Chip, what have you found?”
As Morton filled the others in on their discovery of the vanishing e-mails, the printer began to spit out a veritable stream of paper. Lee passed across his hand written versions of the mails as Chip explained the phenomenon. “It’s incredibly simple and daringly innovative. In a nutshell, the sender – who wishes to remain anonymous – subscribes to a website which guarantees anonymity. That website hosts lists of senders and receivers – but neither party actually comes in contact with the other when mails are sent or received. As soon as the message is read, it disappears from the screen and thus cannot be directly responded to. The recipient then has to send a response via the website. But the website just passes across the mails and doesn’t hold onto them in their database. In most cases both parties are listed by the site holders who purely act as intermediaries. Neither party comes into direct contact and there’s no evidence that they have ever corresponded and the key, as far as it concerns us, is that the recipient isn’t necessarily aware that it’s on the host server. Unless or until it chooses to be a participant.”
Jamieson knew he was way out of his league here – he could input data and create files on his PC, use e-mail competently, but beyond that he was lost. “Why would anyone want to send messages that way?”
“To prevent their identity becoming known. If I receive mail, I generally know the source. If I get spam I can initiate a firewall to prevent it getting through. These ‘host providers’ have ways of circumventing known firewalls and getting their clients’ messages through.” All three saw a faraway look invade the exec’s azure eyes and knew he was already thinking of new security measures to protect the integrity of their IT division. A throat clearance from Nelson had him jolting back to the present, a faint flush rising on his fair complexion. Indulgent glances from both Nelson and Crane told him he’d been rumbled and he shrugged his shoulders somewhat sheepishly. They knew his love of all things computer driven – the greater the puzzle the better he liked it. And he was responsible for a number of forward thinking and innovative changes NIMR had made to their technology.
“Another day’s work, Chip.” Nelson grinned companionably, recognising that their XO had just garnered a new project for his down time. It was no wonder either of the senior officers had girlfriends that lasted longer than a couple of dates – they were both confirmed workaholics!
“Yes, sir. But what the general public doesn’t know is that what they consider – and are sucked into believing – is untraceable, actually leaves what surmounts to a ‘fingerprint’ on their computer.”
Nelson leaned forward animatedly – finally they were getting somewhere. “So what you’re saying is, you can track the person who sent the messages?”
Morton held up a hand in caution at the overt excitement all three officers displayed. “Whoa, a minute. We’re lucky that there were four messages that we know of, so we have several avenues to pursue. And yes, I’m pretty confident that we can track them back to the host provider and then I should be able to hack into their database and find out the sender’s identity. Problem is, the ‘fingerprint’ is left on the sender’s PC not the receiver’s.”
Nelson’s heart, which had begun to pound at the thought of a fast resolution to this, sank. Lightened once again at the exec’s blasé shrug. “Nothing complex to retrieve but just a shade time consuming.”
His companions were forced to grin at the exec’s nonchalance – Chip having lost most of them four sentences earlier. “But if what Lee and I believe, that you are the ultimate target, Admiral, then there’s a message awaiting you which we need to access.”
“What’s your reasoning, Gentlemen? I haven’t been a mark, thus far.” No sooner spoken that it clicked into place. “You think whoever is behind this is targeting the people around me for some reason? Why? To hurt the Institute? Hurt me?”
“That’s what we’re surmising, Admiral.” Lee answered from his perch on the edge of the leather sofa, hands clasped loosely between his knees, his casual stance belying the tension in his tired eyes. “The attacks to date have all been geared towards the people closest to you. And we’ve all – except for the chief – received messages pertinent to what’s occurred during the past 30+ hours.”
“So you need to check my e-mail?”
“If our premise is correct, sir, then you’ll be able to verify it. If you’ve received a message.” Morton answered. “Our guess is that it’s there waiting for you to retrieve it, Admiral.”
“Can I do it from here? Or do I need to go to my personal terminal?”
“From here is fine, sir.” Morton’s fingers again flew across the keyboard. A very slight throat clearance from Crane, coupled with a cautiously exchanged glance, had him reining in his enthusiasm and the slight flush that rose over his cheekbones bespoke a story that Nelson was excluded from. But he wasn’t a Nobel winning scientist for nothing.
“Do I take it that my presence here is moot, Mr. Morton?” His tone was dry enough to scorch desert plains as he watched the blush and the sheepish expression that encompassed his XO’s fair complexion.
Morton stammered as he tried to reassure his boss. “No, sir. I mean, yes, sir. Technically I could. But I absolutely wouldn’t, sir.” Ingrained truth coming to the fore, he felt compelled to add, “Unless of course, sir, that it was a life or death situation and you were unable to see fit to opening your own mails.”
Stifling a grin, Harry shook his head at the little known but widely appreciated talents of the man he’d poached from the Navy to become Seaview’s first and thus far only exec. There were times he lamented the fact that Morton didn’t have a boat of his own to command but he subjugated those moments by reconciling himself that Chip was where he wanted to be – side by side with Lee and in the role he was best suited for and that he, Nelson, had a command team second to none in any man’s Navy. But his conscience pained him – occasionally – recognising that Morton was denied the command and promotion that would have been due him, had he stayed in the Navy. For now he crossed to Lee’s desk and seated himself in the chair Chip vacated.
Logging into his e-mail, he cast a sidelong glance at the exec, who was studiously looking elsewhere as he entered his password. “I take it you could bypass this anyway?”
“Aye, sir.” Morton’s lips twitched slightly at the droll tones. His gaze sharpened as the anticipated message appeared on the screen – each word forming individually as with the previous mails.
Having an interesting weekend, Admiral? Wondering who’s next? Or when it’s going to be your turn?
PS. You have a loyal staff, Admiral. But innocent casualties are an unfortunate by-product of war. Regrettable but unavoidable. That is what you said, isn’t it, Nelson?
And as with the previous mails, the message faded the same way. Nelson raised stunned eyes to the three sombre persons who were reading over his shoulder. He drew in a sharp breath and exhaled loudly. Standing, he paced to the window, hands clasped together behind his back in a pose familiar to the three other men. “Ironic how one’s words can return to haunt one.”
Jamieson exchanged uneasy glances with the younger officers. “I take it you’ve used that same phrase before, Admiral?”
Nelson’s craggy face was grim as he turned back to the room. “What commander of my age who’s been through several wars hasn’t, Will? And while it’s unfortunately true it sounds rather – tasteless – put like that.” And he gestured towards the computer screen.
“Admiral, it sounds like a death threat.” Lee voiced what they were all thinking. “Everything that’s happened so far has been designed to hurt the people around you. Now they’ve made their intent clear – they’re coming after you. Chip, we need to….”
“Captain, you need to park your six back on that couch or, I swear, I’ll have you returned to Med Bay so fast your head won’t know your tail is following.” Jamieson threatened. Lee retreated; knowing he’d pushed Jamie’s buttons enough for the threat to become likely reality. Morton re-took his seat behind Lee’s desk and once again started to type commands via the keyboard.
“Lee’s right, Will. This approach – outlining their intent – is tantamount to an overt threat. And, by the sounds of it, they intend to act fast. They haven’t exactly pulled their punches so far.”
“So we need to beef up your personal security, sir.” Lee knew that wouldn’t sit well with the independent admiral and wasn’t surprised to see him bristle at the restriction. “If we’re correct, it won’t be for long. Chip’s on the case.” Injecting a semi-teasing / placatory tone.
“Problem is, what I’m doing is re-tracing baby steps.” The distracted exec muttered. “And it’s time consuming – several hours at best guess – and these guys move fast.” Tapping a last key he watched with obvious satisfaction as things began to happen on the screen. Finally tearing his eyes away, he reached for the bundle of papers in the printer tray. “Here’s where I need help. This is a list of all the people we’ve come in contact with either on Seaview or here at the Institute over the past 12 months whose Christian, Surname or case file name begins with the letter ‘C’. Even before the signature on the e-mails we were agreed that the letter bore a significance.”
As each face reflected the reminder of the letter carved into Angie’s shoulder, he hurried on. “What I propose is that we go through the names and give each one either a high or low priority, as to whether they could be behind this. It’s a lot of work.” He warned. “Obviously there will be some we can quickly dismiss. But for the others, we’re going to have to check current locations, assess motivation and use our gut-feel instinct. Then we make a short list and check each one of them out thoroughly. I think I can short circuit some of the grunt work with a programme I’ve been tinkering with.” Nelson and Crane grinned despite the seriousness of the situation. You could always count on Chip for a solution. He was the most steadfast person either man had ever known – the best guard for your back. “It’s still going to be tedious work.”
“Perhaps we can draft in some additional help.” Nelson held up one hand at the doctor’s instinctive protest. “Hear me out, Will. Our best personnel have been attacked and therefore have a vested interest in catching this guy. Sidelining them will only increase their frustration – and you’ve told me before that that only retards their recovery time. Stick Lee – or Chip – back in Med Bay and deny him the opportunity to help and what does that create? A patient bent on escape. But I’ll bow to you on this one and, if you think it’s a detriment to their health in any way” and the admiral emphasised the latter, “then they’re out of here.”
Crane and Morton didn’t dare trade glances, for fear their smirks at the admiral’s masterful play of the conscientious CMO would scupper any chance of them remaining in the fray. They could see the hesitation in Jamie’s eyes before he spoke.
“Sedentary duties only, Admiral?”
The younger officers risked a quick look; correctly interpreting each others silent shrug of conscience. OK, mostly sedentary. What other course would be open to them if they had to save the admiral? Jamie couldn’t / wouldn’t expect any less of them. Satisfied that they could live up to Jamieson’s limitations, they nodded compliance.
The doctor didn’t seem noticeably mollified. He knew these men too well. But he also knew the bargaining chip that was give-and-take. And he’d give now to trade off later – if it proved necessary. In fact the entire story, as it evolved, made it harder to endure knowing he hadn’t yet had time to impart the results of Lt. James’ tests. As to those additional bodies Nelson had mentioned drafting….
“Admiral, I hope you’re not thinking of asking either Angie or Chris James for assistance, or dragging Chief Sharkey from the east coast.” Deciphering the ‘look’ on Nelson’s face for exactly that, he puffed up immediately. “No way, no how. None of them are fit for this right now.”
“Which reminds me,” Lee interjected, “you haven’t given us the script on Chris James.” He couldn’t believe that he’d forgotten the results of the blood work on his junior officer were still pending. Morton lifted his head also; appalled that he hadn’t remembered the young lieutenant’s impending DUI charge.
Jamieson winced at his lack of forethought – knowing how these men cared for their crew. “Sorry, Skipper, should have told you first off. Chris’s blood work showed no more than a trace of alcohol; completely consistent with what he said he’d had to drink. What’s a lot more worrying – and embraces the theory you’re working off here – is that there was a small concentration of Benzodiazepine showing. In layman’s terms, that’s a member of a class of drug that can depress the central nervous system. You’d know it better as a component in medication such as Valium or Xanax – or Rohypnol.”
It was clear that Nelson was already privy to this news as he didn’t react as sharply as Crane and Morton whose heads snapped up at the doctor’s revelation.
“Rohypnol? That’s the date rape drug? Chris…?” Morton almost gagged. Correctly reading his horrified expression, Jamieson was already shaking his head.
“No! What showed up in his blood was a trace amount of a substance that constitutes a part of what comprises Rohypnol.” Acknowledging that his friends were now as lost as he’d been when Chip was trying to explain the intricacies of the e-mail situation, he broke down his explanation into comprehensible terms. “Benzodiazepines work with any other drug already in the body, whether they occur in natural or ingested forms, such as endorphins which are naturally secreted – as Chris might have encountered being out with a very beautiful woman – or any alcohol he’d taken. He says he only had a glass of wine – and the alcohol content in his blood verifies that.
When the police lab processes their own test, that’s what they’ll find so he’ll be clear on the DWI. However, that’s not the entire picture. Someone slipped him something during the course of his evening out with Ms. O’Regan. And they didn’t have any clue – or any care – as to how his body would react to the drug. Benzodiazepines typically increase the effect that one drug – such as alcohol – has on the other. So it appeared, when Chris was pulled over, that he’d been drinking excessively. What’s really worrying is that the drug limited Chris’s perceptions so that he really was as incapable of driving as if he was drunk. And he could have easily killed himself or any other poor slob who was unlucky enough to share the same patch of road. An accident waiting to happen.”
“Lucky it didn’t,” was Crane’s grim retort.
“Whoever slipped the drug into his drink couldn’t count that it wouldn’t,” came Morton’s savage growl.
“And knowing Chris as we do, that would have devastated him,” was Nelson’s bleak summation.
“Unfortunately, the tablets are cheap to purchase and relatively easy to come across. And, as with the CO you both inhaled, there are possible side effects which Chris may experience.” Jamieson shrugged. “The amount that showed up in his blood when I tested it several hours later was negligible – enough to cause immediate problems but hopefully not lasting ones. However, we’ll need to monitor him for the next 24 hours. Kowalski is already bringing him in to Med Bay for me to take further blood samples and give him a thorough going over.”
“Which leads us right back to someone who knows us intimately.” Lee levered himself off the sofa, despite Doc’s disapproving glare, and picked up the batch Chip had lifted from the printer. “And means we need to wade through this lot while Chip looks into hacking the e-mail process.”
“Actually, Jamie, it would suit on several levels if Angie and Chris – once you’re done with him – were here to help.” Seeing the frown beginning to gather on Jamieson’s face, Nelson hurried on. “They’ll be checking through the papers and doing some computer work, that’s all. And if they’re here, then we can draft in Ski, Pat and Riley. The way these guys seem to operate, it’ll be safer if we’re all under one roof.” He got that last in nicely, completely deflating any argument the doctor had.
Jamieson threw up his hands in surrender. “I’m too tired to argue with you, Admiral. But – a word of warning. I am going to hold you personally responsible for their good behaviour. Any deviation from what we’ve agreed and you won’t find your next physical at all a pleasant experience! Now, I’m going to Med Bay to check out Lt. James. I’ll have Ski escort him across here when I’m finished. I will also have breakfast sent in and you will eat it.” With a particularly hard look at his captain, he executed a perfect Navy about face and left the office, refusing to give in to the impulse to slam the door behind him.
Somehow none of the three in the room were left unaware of the CMO’s displeasure. Crane verbalised it for all of them – not without a touch of wry humour in his tone. “Guess for your sake, sir, neither of us better have a relapse.”
Chip Morton was a methodical man; his teachers over the years had called him disciplined. Others called him pedantic and some unkind people labelled him anal. Harriman Nelson had had many occasions to be thankful for the man’s many sterling qualities - one of the most notable being what he preferred to term ‘tenacity’. And that Sunday morning he had more reason than ever to thank God for that finely honed trait in his exec. Despite his obvious exhaustion and headache plus what was turning into a hacking cough - not to mention the burn on his arm which he’d observed Chip rub on occasion when he’d thought no one was looking - coupled with what probably amounted to some severe enough bruising from hitting the tarmac when his car had exploded, the XO diligently pursued the task of tracking the sender of the deliberately inflammatory e-mails.
And he wasn’t the only member of the walking wounded who deserved credit. Nelson considered himself privileged to work with some of the finest colleagues a man could have. Lee Crane, patently not at the top of his game, never-the-less soldiered on in true warrior style, plugging away at the lists of possible villains, short listing and following up on locations etc. Angie, still pale and bruised but determined not to be left out if she could contribute. Chris James, shaken by the revelation that he’d been drugged without his knowledge but adamant that he wanted to assist where and however he could. And Kowalski, Patterson and Riley – as short of sleep as any of them and still ploughing through the mire of a year’s worth of contacts. Harry sighed – a tad dejectedly for him. What made one year a significant cut off point? Why not two, or ten? God knows he’d made enough enemies in his lifetime who would still wish him harm. At the same time, there was a certain logic in his officers’ thinking. Sitting at his desk, having propped the door to Angie’s office open, he unlocked his middle desk drawer and pulled out the previous year’s diary. Wouldn’t hurt to go through it and see if anything noteworthy jumped out at him – or any significant “Cs”. He was desperately seeking a trigger.
Towards mid-morning, Nelson was still looking while Angie had taken a much needed time-out to prepare fresh coffee, James had gone to get a breath of air – still feeling the residual effects of the drug – and two of the ratings had taken themselves off on a mission to source sustenance for lunch, leaving a fully armed Patterson in charge of security matters. Jamieson had been by to check on the CO and XO’s wellbeing. Unsatisfied, but unable to find any clearly evident reason to haul them back to Med Bay, he’d left again with dire warnings of what would happen if they didn’t get some rest soon. Harry paced impatiently. ‘Soon’ didn’t look like it was going to happen in the very near future. He’d be in the doghouse once again with his CMO – seemed like he was going to have to get used to it.
A loud “YES!” brought him out of his reverie and directed his – and Angie’s and Pat’s – attention towards Lee’s office. The exec had insisted that his best chance of tracing the e-mail sender lay in tracking it from the PC the messages had been retrieved from – Lee’s. Crane had been quite content to share his workspace and ceded his desk to the exec, working from the couch with Chip’s laptop on his knees. Except now that he began to think on it he suspected that he’d been manoeuvred by his friend into resting – or perhaps it was an attempt to deflect the ‘wrath of Jamieson’ as they’d long ago christened their CMO’s full volume rant-and-rave. Either one of them would do whatever was necessary to deflect that – especially when it was directed at the other. Lee seemed to feature prominently on the doctor’s radar just now and Crane knew that Chip would see it – if indeed he would even admit to it – as just looking out for his captain, all part of an XO’s duties.
Chip’s uncharacteristic yell – almost a triumphant crow – had brought Lee bounding to his side, the admiral and Angie running into the office while Patterson stood practically at attention in the doorway, his sidearm gripped in both hands.
Seeing the excitement in the azure eyes, Nelson motioned to the rating to stand down. “Chip?”
“We’ve got the sender, Admiral. Or at least the sender’s computer ID,” Morton corrected himself as he edged his chair almost unconsciously closer to the desk. With Lee leaning over his shoulder, he caught his captain up with some of his exhilaration – although it was plain from Crane’s expression that he wasn’t entirely sure what he was looking at.
Nelson knew he could usually read Lee Crane pretty accurately. Chip Morton was another thing entirely, it taking something way out of the norm to dislodge the inscrutable mask the exec was renowned for. Whatever was on the PC screen succeeded spectacularly. Morton’s jaw dropped, his eyebrows climbing into his now mussed fair hair, blue eyes narrowing as the skin over his cheekbones seemed to tighten and his mouth thinned into a grim line. Crane’s more expressive features mirrored his exec’s – except for the anger that was all too apparent. Chip was just too good at concealing his baser feelings.
“Son of a b….” Lee barely breathed out the words as he laid a supportive hand on the exec’s arm, removing it swiftly as Chip winced. He’d inadvertently gripped the bandage concealed by Chip’s shirtsleeve.
“Damn him!” Morton’s deprecation was little more than a whisper. Then, “hold on! Something’s not right here.” Fingers skimming across the keyboard his posture radiated tension as he frowned heavily and – to the two outside his immediate family who knew him best and were thus familiar with what to look for – with intense fury. Once his digits stilled, he was quiet for so long that Nelson grew worried by his immobility.
“Chip?” He exchanged querying looks with Crane and Angie. Accustomed to the XO’s calm serenity when all around them had gone FUBAR, he was unnerved by this uncommon inactivity. Exhaling a breath he hadn’t realised he was holding, he watched a quick exchange of looks between his senior officers before Morton focused his attention back on the assembled company.
“Sorry, sir.” Nelson impatiently waved off his apology, anxious to hear what he’d learnt. Another of those silent communications between captain and exec had him almost demanding answers. He saw Morton draw in a deep – in others he would have thought ‘calming’ – breath before he spoke. “I think we need to call in Lt. Connelly, sir - but suggest to him that he leaves his little sidekick back at the ranch!”
Patrick Connelly couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He’d been a cop for more than thirty of his fifty-six years and he’d rarely come across anything quite as skewed as he was currently being asked to consider. His head was reeling. If not for the fact that he trusted these people – and one in particular – he’d have slapped a gag order on them so fast they’d have been in HQ at East Figueroa before they’d had time to call their slick on-site lawyers.
Reality prevailed, as his blood pressure dropped back within normal parameters. He scanned the solemn faces ranged around him in Nelson’s now secured private office, honing in on one pair of cerulean eyes that had engaged his steadily since the moment he’d entered the room and taken up residence on the brown leather sofa. When had Chip Morton’s regard become so necessary to him? Perhaps not until the moment – mere minutes ago – when he’d realised from the blond’s closed expression that he had probably lost it. Why did it pierce a place in his chest where his heart had once resided? Connelly couldn’t answer that – even to himself – and he shifted uncomfortably, the leather echoing his awkward movements. Perhaps it had been foolish to defend O’Regan in the face of what looked like overwhelming odds – or a stack of co-incidences, depending on your viewpoint – but he’d worked in Robbery/Homicide with the woman for over ten years. Surely that earned her the benefit of the doubt? OK, so he hadn’t partnered with her before and he’d found her reactions to the NIMR officers a little…unusual – make that abrasive. But that didn’t mean they could target her as their scapegoat and he’d told them as much. That was when something infinitesimal had entered the blond’s clear blue eyes – something Connelly wasn’t used to seeing in someone he had come to regard as friend – and somehow that shamed him.
He’d only understood about one word in three of Chip’s explanation of the anonymous e-mail and how it had been tracked to his personal computer downtown. His dark, almost chocolate brown eyes swept the assembled company. He’d been dismayed to learn of the late night events that had left Crane and Morton looking both ill and exhausted. The captain’s breathing sounded distinctly wheezy and the executive officer seemed to be trying to suppress a persistent cough. The younger officer – James – whom he’d not met before, had lines of strain and tension around his mouth. Connelly had read the incident report before he’d left the station. Angie Newman looked tired, pale, and younger than he’d thought with her hair pulled back into a ponytail and dressed more casually than he’d ever seen her in slacks and a light blue sweater. Her poor bruised cheek, now puffy and beginning to sport varied colours from green to dark purple, caught at something inside him. The trio of armed seamen standing guard outside the admiral’s office had shown no signs of tiredness and appeared more than ready to dispel all comers. Frankly they were – intimidating, even to as seasoned a cop as Pat Connelly.
And Nelson. Well, Admiral Harriman Nelson looked like exactly what he was – a blisteringly angry four-star flag officer whose military bearing was evident even seated in an armchair. He certainly didn’t look like a man whose life had been threatened. Then again he hadn’t gotten those stars for no reason, Connelly reminded himself. Not far off his own age, Nelson’s grim expression, despite the lines of fatigue, bore witness to the man’s desire for answers – for justice – for an end to the attacks on his people. This was a man who hid behind no one. It went deeply against the grain to have to take a back seat and watch his colleagues – and friends, for Connelly had observed that they were more than co-workers back when Crane had been attacked by the Sommers woman – being targeted and unable to stop or deflect the pain and suffering onto himself. Realisation dawned – as he became aware of four identical, disappointed glares and one still steadfast blue one. What he was seeing in Nelson went for each of the others in the room. Any one of them would willingly give his life for the other.
Pat Connelly exhaled heavily, rubbing his large hand contemplatively over the lower half of his face, his forefinger lingering on his slightly fleshy lower lip. He tapped it speculatively before leaning forward and withdrawing a single sheet of paper from the briefcase that rested on the coffee table. His experience with NIMR had – up til now – been positive, despite difficult circumstances. Deep down he knew – trusted – that these people wouldn’t cast blame lightly. They all, to a fault, epitomised everything that an officer and a gentleman – outmoded as the notion was – should be. Yet something in him still hesitated. It was akin to ‘selling out his own’. With all their complex equipment and reasoned explanations there wasn’t one single positive shred of solid evidence that would hold up against his colleague. As much as these men stood up for each other, it was up to him to take a stand on behalf of his co-worker – until such time as his defence was proved misplaced.
Unfortunately for Pat Connelly, that wasn’t long in coming.
A single A4 sheet of plain photocopy paper denounced Alanna O’Regan as an attempted murderer and possible traitor to her country.
In an attempt at defending his colleague, Connelly had retrieved a full colour drawing of the Academy ring Angie Newman had described to the police artist the previous day. “Sgt. O’Regan circulated the description you gave throughout the entire area.” The page quickly circulated, each officer in turn shaking their heads as they failed to recognise the year or branch of the military it pertained to.
Until the page reached Angie. Taking a quick look and about to pass it on, the diminutive brunette suddenly pulled it back and studied it more thoroughly, oblivious of the eyes that watched her with intense concentration.
“This is the drawing your detective circulated?” At Connelly’s affirmative nod she glanced towards Nelson, as if seeking confidence before she spoke. Evidently getting what she needed, she had no hesitation in continuing.
“Because this is not the ring I described to your artist.”
Conscious of each of them visibly reacting to her words – and none more than the police lieutenant – she hurried on. “It’s similar, pretty close in fact, but not quite right.” Frowning, she tried to concentrate on what she’d witnessed rather than the depiction she was currently seeing. “The shape is good, except the setting of the stone was a bit wider and the sides are too – exaggerated. The ring I saw was narrower and the colour of the stone is completely wrong. It was jade green – this one’s almost turquoise.”
There wasn’t a man amongst them who’d have picked up on the differences – much less admitted to it publicly. The big police lieutenant’s very stillness made her nervous. She searched her colleagues’ eyes for reassurance, the disconcerting events of this entire weekend affecting her usual aplomb and causing her to doubt herself. Just as she opened her mouth to voice her uncertainty, Nelson interrupted.
“Well, Lieutenant? Is this proof enough? Your sergeant is somehow involved in what’s been going on around here. I don’t know to what extent but I’m certain she’s at least guilty of sending the e-mails and falsifying the drawing. Now it’s obvious that she’s working with others and we need to find them. Fast!”
“Before they can carry out their threat to the admiral.” Crane added harshly.
But it was Chip Morton – the quiet voice of reason on Seaview’s command team – who sealed O’Regan’s fate in Connelly’s eyes. “Or hurt any more of our people. So far we’ve lucked out and nobody’s died – no thanks to her. The next time we may not be so fortunate. She has to be stopped, Pat. Now.”
Connelly hunched forward on the couch, dropping his head into the hands he’d propped on his knees. Cops were charged with protecting lives, valuing human existence, cheating death, putting their own life on the line to save an innocent. This…this piece of scum had diced with lives, uncaring if death or injury occurred, if innocents were targeted, the attacks – the desire to hurt Nelson – being the prime motivator. And they weren’t concerned if others outside the Institute were wounded or killed, as they’d clearly demonstrated when they’d allowed a drugged Chris James to get behind the wheel of a car. The thought that a fellow cop – and a woman he’d worked with, hell he’d brought her to NIMR – could be involved, made him sick to his stomach. But the pieces began to fit together and Connelly was a veteran who couldn’t – much as he might wish to – ignore the string of co-incidences which his gut now told him were anything but.
The silence in the room was disturbed by the quiet hum of paper spewing from the printer behind Nelson’s desk.
“Excuse me, sir, but I ran a check on Sgt. O’Regan and diverted the report to your printer.” Morton strode purposefully across the room to retrieve the print out. Nelson shook his head sardonically; he should have known the exec would have the bases covered.
Chip scanned the six-page report, frowning slightly as he passed the pages in turn to Lee who’d risen to join him. Nelson watched Crane, knowing he’d glean more from the captain’s expressive face than from Morton, whose XO mask was firmly in place. As Lee read, Nelson observed his features tauten, saw the resolve that tightened his mouth and caught the exchange of glances between his two officers. Impatient, beyond worry, he wanted – needed – to know what they’d found.
“Well, Gentlemen, get to it!” Almost exploded from him when he caught the hesitant look Crane and Morton traded. “Out with it!” He barked. Saw Chip nudge Lee to speak.
“Admiral,” Crane took a deep breath, regretting it as a coughing fit ensued. Recovering, he wished himself anywhere but where he was. There was no easy way to break this. “The late mayor, Aidan O’Regan, was married once before. His first wife is the mother of his daughter, Alanna. Her name was Charlotte Hamilton.”
Lee had anticipated the effect the words would have on Nelson and was already on the way to the admiral’s desk to call for Jamieson. Chip grabbed for the carafe of water on the sidebar and poured a glass, handing it to the admiral as the older man sagged back into the desk chair, reeling from one shock too many.
Only the three senior officers knew the significance of the name; Connelly, James and Angie exchanging puzzled looks. Then it clicked for Angie – and her complexion paled until it was akin to waxen. “The Puppet Master.” She didn’t realise that she’d whispered the words aloud. For one single moment she considered making a bolt for the bathroom. Nausea roiled in her stomach and the ache in her left shoulder intensified. “C – for Charlotte.”
“I don’t need a doctor! I’m all right.” Nelson protested volubly, slapping testily at the CMO’s hands as Jamieson, who had come on the run, attempted to take his pulse.
“I can see that.” Jamie snapped back, all the time visually assessing the obviously shaken man. It hadn’t escaped his notice that there was palpable tension in the air. Angie was sheet white and looked in need of a week’s R&R – at least. Morton was desperately trying to disguise the cough that was becoming increasingly persistent – and with two bouts of pneumonia in the past couple of years, Jamieson wasn’t prepared to take any chances with the exec’s health. Chip was heading for Med Bay – NOW! It was just a matter of girding his own lungs and ears up for the yelling match that would ensue. Not that he, Jamieson, wasn’t up to it; but he knew he’d probably have to fight the admiral and captain also. And not that the skipper was going to escape a stay in Med Bay either. Crane was patently exhausted and suffering some obvious after effects from the gas inhalation. Knowing how Lee could and would hide any and all symptoms at will, Jamie was doubly aware of the potential effects that he would need to be on the look out for in the skipper in the coming days and weeks. And he wasn’t looking forward to keeping close tabs on the man. Crane could be extremely devious when he was cornered in Med Bay and had a tendency to find his own way out. Usually, like this little incident, without the approval of his CMO and with the undoubted aid and abetting of his exec.
But Jamie also recognised their ingrained call to duty and what intrinsically drove them – both as officers and men. And he had, over the years, come to admire them equally on their own merits as individuals – both very different in looks and temperament, but the depth of their loyalty and friendship was unsurpassed in his experience. He had to admit to a sense of awe – their ‘brotherhood’ being something of a wonder to him and unlike anything he’d never experienced during or since his college days, either in Med School or in the various branches of the Navy that had led him to NIMR. He had to stringently remind himself that it was in their best interests that he curtailed their activities – for the sake of the immediate and long-term repercussions on their already depleted systems. If he had his way, all of them – including Chris James – would be ensconced in Med Bay for the next twenty four hours – minimum – on maximum rest plus any other medication he deemed necessary!
Snorting lightly, he released Nelson’s wrist. Fat chance of any of his wishes ever resembling reality.
He had to constantly remind himself that he wasn’t dealing with “normal” males. These men were honed warriors – battle seasoned and, in their own minds, immune to any health issues that impeded their single minded, contrary get-the-job-done attitudes. And while it regularly ticked him off, from a professional standpoint, it also gave him a profound sense of well being and pride – that there were such stalwart individuals in this world, who cared more for the rest of mankind than for themselves, that they would repeatedly put their own lives on the lines for each other – and for others who would never know of their selfless sacrifice. It humbled Jamieson when he thought it through – but not enough to allow these guys that much leeway! It was his job to ensure that they were in the whole of their health to take on all before them. And he wasn’t above getting loud – if it garnered the required result. Unfortunately, he already had surmised that he was on a hiding to nothing this time out.
He didn’t even have the chance to begin issuing orders before the phone on Nelson’s desk started to ring.
Events had moved quickly once Nelson had picked up the receiver and put the caller on speaker. How O’Regan had known they were all there was anybody’s guess. She was even better informed of their movements than they’d thought – the information she’d disclosed suggesting that she was working with an insider. But who? Thoughts of a traitor in their midst gutted them all. They’d built a tight knit crew on Seaview and NIMR’s screening programme for new recruits was second to none. However, that concern would have to wait until later as they’d bigger fish to fry right now - like the little gem she’d just dropped so adroitly into the conversation.
“Now that you’ve finally figured me out, Admiral, and remarkably without anyone being killed, it’s really quite appropriate that all your people are with you now to witness your demise at my hand. And don’t even think about being heroic, Nelson. If anyone attempts to leave, the bomb I’ve planted will detonate. I think you are familiar enough by now with my methods to know that I don’t fool around or make idle threats. If the door to your office opens, for any reason, the bomb will be remotely detonated. So I suggest you tell your seamen stationed outside not to attempt entry. Oh, and just in case you might be tempted to try and defuse the devise – it’s in the bottom drawer of your desk, by the way – it’s been rather cleverly booby trapped. And I’m sure you’ll agree, Admiral, it’s only in the movies that they successfully manage it without blowing themselves to kingdom come. Real life is quite different, but feel free to try.”
Nelson, back once again to his usual indomitable self, exchanged telling glances with the two officers who were already delicately investigating the contents of his bottom drawer while he engaged the woman in conversation. “Your issue is with me, O’Regan, not my people. Let them leave.”
“And you think they’d agree to that, Admiral? “ She mocked, her tone changing to chilling detachment. “You’re trying to snow me and I don’t appreciate it. If you need another demonstration of my ability to get to you and your people, perhaps I should just detonate the bomb right now.”
“No, that won’t be necessary.” Nelson’s voice was terse, controlled; the only overt sign of his agitation was the almost silent drumming of the fingers of his right hand on his desk. Crane and Morton nodded as one, having picked up the coded message he’d tapped out. “Stalling for time, see if you can do something with it.” “I gather you have an agenda and we are down to the final item. Something tells me you want to play this out in person, mano a mano, so to speak.” His resolute gaze swept the room, gauging the reactions of his people.
Crane and Morton were gently removing from the drawer the book sized black plastic box with its steadily blinking red light, having determined from experience that moving it wouldn’t cause it to detonate. Crane tapped out softly “need tools” as Morton searched for a way to pry open the casing, switching on the desk lamp to provide better illumination. Chris James, cool as usual under pressure, silently queried the admiral who pointed towards his briefcase lying on the credenza. Swiftly crossing the room, he brought the attaché case to his superior who thumbed the combination and handed over a compact toolkit, all the time continuing his conversation with O’Regan. Angie’s already waxen complexion was now grey as putty but she was holding up well, unconsciously rubbing at her left shoulder. Jamieson was intently studying each of them in turn but, events having overtaken him, was content to play this out now, his trust in these men implicit as he held his own anger at bay. And Connelly, he was on the edge of his seat, the sense of betrayal now hidden behind a cold mask of fury and deadly intent.
“Don’t you mean, “lámh cois lámh”, Admiral?” She chided. “After all, both our roots are Irish. Although you might not appreciate that little reminder.”
“Not particularly, Ms. O’Regan. And I appreciate less that you stole my research, injured my personnel and caused thousands of dollars of damage to property. Not to mention putting countless lives in danger without a thought for the consequences when you blew up Chip Morton’s vehicle and placed Chris James behind the wheel of a car when you’d given him a drug that impaired his senses.” His tone getting harsher with each word, his eyes cut to the scene that was playing out on his desk.
Using the tools from his kit, Crane had prised the casing from the small black rectangle of plastic uncovering the intricate network of wiring underneath. One sweeping glance was enough to apprise him of the fact that this wasn’t a conventional timer device complete with ticking clock, instructions for the making of which could be downloaded from the Internet in these egalitarian times. Unfortunately, this apparatus was much more complex and Nelson watched with growing despair knowing, even before interpreting the escalating concern on his officers’ faces, that this one was a bitch.
“Come now, Admiral.” The mockery and self-congratulation in her voice made his teeth ache as he clenched them. “You’ve got to admit, I played you well. And nobody died. YET!”
“And if I have my way, nobody will.” His heart sank as he caught the look traded by Lee and Chip. It was no good. With what they had to work with, the bomb couldn’t be defused.
“Tsk, tsk, Admiral. I hadn’t realised you were so naïve!” She laughed, her voice becoming louder. “Someone’s going to die today and that’s you. You don’t deserve to live. ‘Innocent casualties of war” sound familiar? That’s what your people will be – ‘regrettable but unavoidable’ – in my war against you!”
There was no other conceivable way out. He briefly thought about chucking the bomb out the nearest window but, despite its compact size, it was powerful enough to cause untold damage and he had no idea of who else might be working in the Admin Building or any of the adjacent ones. A quick visual check with his command team told him all he needed to know. Whatever chance they had of getting out of this lay in challenging her openly. Only one option – give her what she wanted. Direct confrontation.
“All right.” His normal baritone was somewhat husky – lives rested on his ability to pull this off. But he had the backing of the best team in the known universe. And each of them perked up at what, to a disembodied voice, sounded like surrender but to the assembled company who’d gone into battle countless times against worthier adversaries was nothing less than an ultimatum. “Your show, Sgt. O’Regan. We can’t defuse your bomb. You hold six lives in your hands when you want only mine. Not to mention the seamen stationed outside. They would at best be injured if not killed in the blast. I won’t risk any more lives. How do you want to proceed?”
“You are beginning to realise that I have control, Admiral.” She took immense pleasure in it, if the smirk in her voice was any indication. “Order the seamen outside your office to stand down. Surrender their weapons to me upon my approach. As you’ve surmised, I want your death to be face to face. If others die as I accomplish my goal, so be it. I really, really don’t care. You have to believe that, Admiral. But I’m not a monster, despite what you think right now. And I’m open to trade. But you don’t know what I’ll want to trade until we meet. So I suggest that you set that in motion, immediately. I’m already on the base. Issue the necessary instructions to clear me – and my companion – to your office.”
Devoid of choices, Nelson silently consulted with his people before complying. To a man they concurred with his decision – only possible choice, in the circumstances – to confront their nemesis up close and personal.
Her eyes. He’d expected them to show some degree of mania or mental illness. For surely she was insane. But her deep blue eyes were pools of clarity, filled with intense hatred and a hint of amusement at their predicament. She’d flicked her gaze over each of them in turn, assessing, gauging who was her biggest problem, when she and her escort had ushered a raging Kowalski, steaming Patterson and pissed off Riley into the office ahead of them. Their weapons had been confiscated and they were as defenceless as their superior officers once her companion had searched them thoroughly and relieved Nelson and Connelly of their hardware.
Her companion. Nelson ground his teeth. NIMR’s deputy director of Security, Philip Richardson. No wonder she’d managed to infiltrate their Level One status. She’d had the man responsible for Base security this weekend in her pocket. The betrayal stung – deeply. He’d seen the reactions from his men to the former Marine guard – they ranged from bitter disappointment on Lee’s part to wanting to rip his head off on Ski’s. Then he’d spotted Angie cringe and retreat almost instinctively behind Morton and his gaze flew to Richardson’s left hand – which sported an Academy ring on the second finger. His thunderous scowl evoked a smirk from the big ex-Marine; whose wolfish gaze devoured the diminutive brunette as he lovingly cradled an Uzi sub-machine gun in his arms. Nelson had no doubt that this was the man who’d been instrumental in Angie’s carjacking and had assaulted her in Med Bay. He didn’t blame her for withdrawing – the man was a giant, easily six foot six and powerfully built – Richardson had frightened his usually indomitable assistant using his size to make her vulnerable, both physically and sexually. He was aware of Crane and Jamieson moving protectively closer to her, both conscious of the implicit threat.
Amazing the tiny details one could perceive when the shit was about to hit the fan, Nelson mused. He’d often thought Morton inscrutable, unreadable, but right now he could decipher every notion, every image, that crossed the exec’s all too intuitive mind. And knew that the XO was ready to pound the way-bigger Marine into hamburger. Chip didn’t get mad often but when he did….
And right now Nelson didn’t need his exec taking on an armed ex-Marine, fully five inches and forty pounds of muscle heavier than him, in defence of Angie when there were greater hazards at stake – like getting their collective butts out of here in one piece with a bomb on his desk and the detonator in the possession of a seriously deranged female. He was about to bark an order when he caught the silent interplay between Crane and Morton. An almost infinitesimal unspoken conversation, the two so highly attuned that they needed little more than flicked glances to communicate. He relaxed his stance – his men had it totally in hand. And Angie would be protected – no matter the cost.
“Admiral Nelson – and company.” Her tone was mocking as she swept the nine people covered by her Glock 9mm and Richardson's semi-automatic – not to mention the detonator she held so casually. Her gaze lingered on the obviously enraged police lieutenant. “I’m honestly sorry to have used you the way I did, Pat. You were more than fair to me when others thought I was trading on my father’s and my uncle’s reputations. But you gave me a legitimate reason for being here and Phil provided the access I needed to put my plan into operation. Oh, in case I didn’t introduce you properly, Phil is my younger brother – or more correctly my half-brother. He chose not to trade on our paternal surname when he entered the Academy and so changed his name by deed poll to his mother’s maiden name.” She tossed a twisted smile in Morton’s direction. “So don’t go tying yourselves up in knots over your security checks. He passed then all – legitimately. And was happy enough to come work here several months ago – at my suggestion.”
“You’ve obviously planned this revenge of yours very thoroughly, Sergeant.” Nelson tipped back the chair behind his desk and thumbed a cigarette from the package that was always near to hand. Lighting it, he inhaled deeply and, seemingly, contentedly. As if a coded message had been transmitted to his men, there seemed to be an appreciable relaxation amongst them – while simultaneously an imperceptible state of heightened awareness found its place, if you knew what to look for.
“Oh, believe me, Admiral, I have.” She strutted forward defiantly, frowning, disconcerted by his apparent nonchalance. “I’ve been working on it since the day you took my mother from me!”
Nelson’s gaze sharpened and he ground the stub of the half smoked cigarette into the ashtray as he snorted. “Don’t talk rubbish. You couldn’t have been more than a child when your mother died.”
Enraged at his seeming dismissal, she planted her hands on the desk in front of him, never relinquishing the Glock, angry dark blue eyes boring into bright sapphire ones as she hissed venomously. “I was only a baby when she died. If the truth be known, I hardly remember her. But my father brought me up on tales of her patriotism, her heroism and the fact that she gave her life to make this country a better place for others to live in. Then you had to go and besmirch her name, all she stood for, all my father stood for.” Tears of rage flooded her eyes and she swiped them away angrily. Pirouetting from the desk gracefully she took in the cagey but fearless faces. “Cover them, Phil. Don’t let down your guard for a moment.” She cautioned. Watching as he hefted the sub machine gun tighter in his grip, she then swung back to the still silent Nelson. “Nothing to say, Admiral? No high and mighty defence? You branded her a traitor! You were the one who had to ‘set the record straight’. You caused my father to have a heart attack and die – of shame. YOU cost me both my parents!”
“I brought the truth to light.” Nelson spoke softly initially, conscious of the fact that he was dealing with a largely unknown entity. She was volatile and totally beyond reasoning – and liable to shoot first and rationalise it later. A quick glance in Jamieson’s direction and he caught the small nod that assured him he was playing it right – for now. Will’s expertise was in trauma surgery but his exposure to the extraordinary aboard Seaview had honed his interest in psychology and mental health and Harry trusted his judgement. Hell, all their lives might depend on his next play. “A good man was vilified for years; his reputation left in shreds. A man who saved countless lives and whose death left an unquantifiable number of agents in limbo behind the Iron Curtain – our own people as well as some who had crossed to our side with the promise of a better life in America for their families.” His voice rose inevitably as he became passionate. “For over thirty years Colin Barrington was buried in a pauper’s grave, a charge of treason laid against him, for his actions against the United States – and for shooting your mother. She’d convinced the powers that be that Barrington had turned and I was part of a task force sent in to either retrieve him or eliminate him. Those were very tense times.” Nelson’s tone grew bleak with the telling. “I shot him. It was an unbelievable situation. He had killed Charlotte, then came rushing out towards us. We had to assume he’d gone rabid. So I took aim and shot him, believing him a traitor. And for thirty-odd years all those involved – me, my team, the establishment – believed it also. But the record had to be set straight when the facts became known. I had no choice.”
“No choice! No choice!” She jerked her weapon up and levelled it at the slightly shorter man, for she was a tall girl. “You had a choice. We all have choices, Admiral! It was a thirty-year old story. Barrington had no family. No one to hurt. You didn’t have to bring it to light. You could have let it lie. Let her rest in peace.”
“And Colin Barrington? What of him? Didn’t he deserve to have his reputation restored? He was a hero, a true patriot. Didn’t he merit more from the country that he’d served? He’s now buried in Arlington, where he should have resided all that time.” But Nelson despaired of reasoning with the now wild-eyed woman.
“You’re trying to confuse me. My mother died exposing a traitor!” She was shaking now, tears beginning to leak from the dense blue eyes, her features twisted in pain.
“No, Alanna.” He used her given name in an attempt to reach her – futile perhaps, but he needed to try. “Your mother was the traitor. Colin Barrington died because of the information she’d given us and, to my last breath, I’ll regret that I was the one who brought him down. But I honestly believed that he had gone rogue. He’d shot Charlotte – my team and I witnessed the shooting – but we weren’t aware of information he had identifying her as the double agent. We were programmed to see what was played out in front of us and she orchestrated it beautifully.” A depth of emotion saw his head drop to his chest and bitterness invade the tenor of his voice. “Unfortunately she hadn’t calculated on Colin taking the action that he did.”
At her continued silence he ploughed on, conscious of the readiness of his people to act when he gave them any slight opportunity. “Her presence with what was obviously an elimination team signalled to Colin that she’d betrayed him. He loved her.” A resounding ‘No’ interrupted him but he continued as if the interjection hadn’t taken place. “You forget the times we were living in. I knew little of Charlotte’s private life. Wasn’t aware of her marriage to your father or your birth – and Colin certainly wasn’t, I’m sure of that.” He didn’t add that he himself had had feelings for the beautiful older agent – in the circumstances it wasn’t appropriate, but he was aware that his close friends knew the whole story. *
A swift glance around his office noted that all his people were ready for whatever opportunity they could find to act. It was up to him to locate the trigger to afford them time to overpower the two armed insurgents.
When he looked back on that day – that weekend – in the passage of time, Harriman Nelson shuddered. Profound grief vied with intense relief. The stench of death had permeated his office for many weeks – a lot longer than it had taken the cleaning firm to remove the stains from the furnishings.
His attempts at placating O’Regan with the true facts of her mother’s death, reasoning with her over the subsequent denouncement of Charlotte Hamilton as a double agent and the restoration of Colin Barrington’s reputation, had backfired. Instead he’d opened a wound that had bled freely. And drawn blood in ways he could never have envisaged. He’d – in later discussions with his command team, they had all – pegged her as a loose cannon. But he could never have dreamt the immense repercussions his words would have.
Deferring to his greater knowledge of the circumstances, having complete faith in him, his men had allowed him to run the play. On the rare occasions he permitted himself to indulge in intense introspection, he wondered if that faith had been misplaced. If his actions had, directly or otherwise, been the cause of two tragic deaths. If he could have somehow prevented the terrible unfolding of events that Sunday.
“No! I know what you’re doing, Admiral. Trying to vindicate yourself – absolve yourself of any responsibility in her death. I lost my mother twice because of you. I lost my father because of you! I don’t care about Barrington. I wanted to be what she was – it’s the reason I joined the Police Department.” She ran distracted hands through her long dark hair, the Glock still tightly clenched in her right hand. “You – YOU, Admiral Nelson – took away my reason for living! Do you understand? I don’t care what happens to me now. I have to kill you because you destroyed her. Single handedly, you devastated our entire family. Now do you understand?”
The cold dispassion in her eyes, the purpose, more than the words, caused his heart to skip a beat. A quick glance alerted his men to take advantage of any chance for action. Nelson knew he could count on Kowalski to take out the marine if the opportunity presented itself. Ski’s heavy muscular build, coupled with his martial arts skills, would be a match for the taller huskier man – if they succeeded in disarming him.
Intercepting the glance, and enraged that Nelson wasn’t sufficiently cowed, her eyes narrowed dangerously. The four-star flag officer tensed and saw a similar reaction from his men. Even Angie seemed to note the increased danger emanating from the police officer.
“I don’t think you quite appreciate how serious I am, Admiral. You are going to die today and it really doesn’t matter to me if I go too, or how many I take with me. I’m not sure that you’ve grasped that concept fully. Maybe this will convince you.”
In mere seconds, and before anyone had time to react, she had pivoted, picked her target, taken aim and fired. The retort from the bullet echoed loudly in the room, assaulting ears and Angie screamed, clutching Chip’s arm in fright. Simultaneously Riley cried out, the force of the bullet catapulting him backwards and, eyes glazing as pain overtook him, he hit the wall and slumped into a semi-seated position on the carpeted floor.
There was stunned silence for a single count of probably ten seconds before the men of Seaview responded, their one concern – to a man – aiding their injured comrade. Ignoring her commands to stand still, the men of the world’s largest nuclear vessel moved swiftly into action.
Jamieson grabbed his bag and practically vaulted across the sofa to reach the downed seaman. Kowalski, a trained field medic who had been standing next to Stu Riley, had beaten him by mere seconds and was already checking for pulse and breathing. The bullet had caught Seaview’s youngest seaman high on the right shoulder and he was still conscious although blood was pumping steadily from the close range wound. A 9mm Glock wasn’t a weapon to be trifled with. Riley was lucky to be alive. O’Regan hadn’t targeted with any concern for whether her victim lived or died, a fact that tore through Harriman Nelson and the rest of the command team. Chip swiftly disengaged Angie, pushing her behind him, protecting her from the threat while giving him room to manoeuvre should the need arise.
Richardson swung his Uzi, desperately attempting to cover the moving bodies who were paying no attention to either his or O’Regan’s shouted orders to remain still. Only Nelson hadn’t changed position, remaining behind his desk as his men swarmed into action, aiding their fallen comrade. Obviously in shock, Riley was clinging onto Ski’s arm while protesting weakly that he was OK, much to the doctor’s chagrin. Staunching the bleeding as best as he could, Jamieson thought about insisting that he be allowed to transfer Riley to Med Bay knowing the seaman would require surgery to remove the bullet. But Stu, though pale, was in no immediate danger; the blood loss having been temporarily dealt with, he’d been shot up with a mega strength antibiotic and painkiller. Will was deeply afraid that O’Regan wasn’t going to stop until she had succeeded in her self-imposed mission and Nelson was dead. If she tried and failed then he wanted to be there to provide what immediate care he could – hopefully enough to save Nelson’s life. Not to mention whomever else she decided to target in the process.
Nelson, however, had other ideas. He wouldn’t have chosen this arena but, like his men, he was a warrior first and a human being second. An opportunity had presented itself – perhaps the only one that would – and they acted as one. In the confusion of shouted orders and scuffling bodies, Lee and Chip moved in unison to tackle the Uzi-toting marine. Patterson had dropped to the floor during the shooting and now came up wielding a wicked looking knife that had been concealed in his pant leg. A single flick of the wrist and the knife left his hand in a fast smooth arc before burying itself high in Richardson’s broad back, felling him instantly. Almost before he dropped, the senior officers reached him. Chip wrenched the semi-automatic away, clipping him smartly under the chin with the butt of the gun and, once he was on the ground, Lee quickly straddled the larger man causing a scream of agony as he twisted his arms behind his back, securing them with his web belt and knotting it tightly.
Simultaneously, Nelson reached for the Colt Double Eagle he had taped to the underside of his desk. A momentary twinge of conscience at shooting a woman assailed him. If there had been any other way…. He’d done it before and, if the necessity arose, no doubt he would do it again. He shot to wound, to disable, but in the last second before the bullet left the gun she turned, saw his intent and loosed off a shot of her own. His struck first and hers went wild. She crumpled, the gun falling from her hand, and Nelson moved quickly to kick it beyond her reach. His bullet had hit her at mid chest and he knew, even before he stooped to check, that he wouldn’t find a pulse. It was over.
What he hadn’t anticipated was the heavy thud from behind him that had him pivoting swiftly, bringing the 8-round pistol to bear, or the heartfelt “No!” that came from Chip Morton.
O’Regan had succeeded in her mission of death. But had failed to take out her target. Instead her final bullet had penetrated the broad chest of Lieutenant Patrick Connelly. No novice when it came to field injuries, Nelson knew there was no hope even as Jamieson elbowed him ungently out of the way and began to assess the fallen man. A small trickle of blood seeped from the corner of the police lieutenant’s mouth as he turned his head to find one person. Jamie’s urgent “don’t move” went unheeded as the seasoned cop sought out the man he’d developed a particular friendship with over the preceding months.
Chip tossed the Uzi aside, dropped to his knees and took Connelly’s hand between his, grasping it firmly as if he could will the man to live. He too had seen enough fatal injuries to know that not even Jamieson’s skill could save the police lieutenant. Tears burned behind his eyelids but he refused to let them fall. PDA’s (public displays of affection) went against everything he’d been trained for at the Academy but he knew his friends would forgive the lapse if he allowed himself to give in right now. But the training was ingrained and he contented himself with grasping Pat’s cooling hand in his own warm one. “Hang in there, buddy. Jamie’s the best. He’ll have you sorted in no time.”
A heaving breath all but did Connelly in but he was determined to have what he instinctively knew would be his last words. He’d enjoyed the months of friendship he’d found with Chip Morton. “I think...we both know…that isn’t going…to happen. My fault…I brought her here.”
“No, Pat. You couldn’t have known. With all our security checks we didn’t find out about Richardson.” Chip could see the light fading from the brown eyes and his own cerulean ones pleaded with Jamie to do something. Even before the doctor’s defeated shake of his head as Jamie pressed several large gauze swabs against the gaping wound, he’d known. A comforting hand descended on his shoulder. Lee. He could always count on Lee to be there for him and dipped his head in both appreciation of the fact that his brother was by his side and despair for the life of the man slipping away beneath his hand. He felt the need to say something, anything that would help ease the transition for this man, who had come to mean a lot to him, into the afterlife – for he strongly believed that there was one.
“Thank you, Pat, for believing in me when the evidence proved otherwise. (**) For being a true friend, even if we didn’t see each other that often lately. More my fault than yours but I’ve valued your friendship more than you possibly know and I’m gonna miss you, pal.”
“Me…too. Never had…a kid. But would have…liked a boy…like you. Make sure…you take care…of yourself…you hear?” Chip tried to shush him but Connelly knew every moment counted and he wanted to say the things that were important to him. Jamie handed Chip a fresh piece of gauze and Morton gently wiped away the blood that continued to trickle from the corner of Connelly’s mouth. “Got…good people around…you…friends…family…nice girl. Enjoy. You do…good work…son…fine officer….”
It wasn’t dramatic but it was final. Connelly had slipped away and Morton knew all eyes were on him. Trying to resurrect his stoic XO mask was difficult. He wanted – needed – to grieve for the man who had just died in front of him. Chip looked up at the family gathered around him. Lee was by his side, total acceptance in his open face, his presence rock solid. Jamie laid a comforting hand on his arm, his lean features sombre. Nelson nodded gently, his blue eyes showing his sadness at this unforeseen turn of events. Angie was crying openly, sheet white from shock, held tightly against Chris James’ chest. Ski and Pat were quietly tending Riley, giving him as much privacy as they could. It was enough.
He gathered the childless man into his arms and rocked him as he would have his own father. He didn’t know if Connelly had family who would mourn his death. But in the here and now he was there for him and, recalling the affection he’d seen in the older man’s eyes when they’d met sporadically, as his missions on Seaview allowed, he bent his head and allowed his own feelings free rein.
The mopping up operation was fast and skilled, Nelson’s four stars accelerating the process. With the detonator in his possession, Nelson had no difficulty defusing the explosive. SBPD acted swiftly and claimed the bodies of the lieutenant and sergeant, their spin-doctors already concocting viable stories. Richardson had been taken under armed guard to Santa Barbara General, his wound serious but not life threatening. He’d already given police the name of his accomplice, thankfully not on the staff at NIMR, and SBPD were preparing to round him up.
Harry was way beyond tired, but determined that the truth would come out. He would ensure that Connelly received a burial befitting the sacrifice of his life – if nothing else it was needed to cauterise the open wound he sensed still resided within Chip Morton.
Which was why he’d gone back on his word to Will Jamieson and overridden his CMO’s edict to haul both Crane’s and Morton’s tails straight to Med Bay. And in the heel of the hunt Will hadn’t protested – too much – beyond subjecting each of them to another exam and blood test before releasing them to their respective homes, under strict instructions to go straight to bed and rest for twenty-four hours minimum. Both knew that Lee would most likely take the spare room at Morton’s place – just to be there if he was needed to talk or sound off to – and acknowledging that they both needed to feel the closeness of the unique bond that existed between them as a re-affirmation of life. It had been a hellish weekend.
“Give me a minute, Lee.” Chip requested as they approached the vehicle Nelson had insisted upon to take them home. Despite his exhaustion he’d noticed that Angie was giving him a wide berth and had elected to return to her own apartment now that the threat was past. He couldn’t help but wonder if it was because of the first hand experience of the danger they faced almost daily – she would be used to it in theory having read Seaview’s logs but this was the first time she’d been party to death up close. Or was it that she regretted the burgeoning relationship between them for other reasons. Nausea seemed to be his constant companion right now but he worried that the threatened rape – coupled with facing her assailant – would have more serious repercussions. He would do whatever she needed of him to get her past this. His insecurity hammered at him but he’d never backed down from a fight before and if that’s what it took then so be it.
“Angie.” She turned at the sound of his voice. Patterson was tucking her into the passenger seat of a staff car but discretely moved to the opposite side of the vehicle at the exec’s approach. Chip crouched down to eye level, every muscle in his body protesting the manoeuvre. “Sure you don’t want to stay over one more night?” He kept his voice low. “Guest room’s yours as long as you want it.”
“I….” She’d thought she was tough, the kick-ass Deputy Director of NIMR. How wrong could a girl be? Green eyes shimmering, she engaged his azure ones. God, he was beautiful. “I can’t, Chip. Pat’s taking me home now and the admiral has cleared Ski to take me in the Flying Sub tomorrow to my best girlfriend’s place for a couple of days. I just need a little space right now. This all happened so fast.”
He could relate to that. He just didn’t want her so far away from him, his protective instincts coming to the fore again. But Angie had proved that she was more than capable of fighting her own battles. He sighed quietly – it wasn’t about what he wanted but what she needed. His mother’s voice came out of nowhere. ‘If you let something go and it comes back to you then it was meant to be, but if you try to trap it you’ll never know if it stayed for the right reasons.”
He needed to know that Angie was staying for the right reasons.
“You take all the time you need, honey. Just remember, we have a date when you get back.”
Her lips quivered but a small smile eventually tweaked at the corners of her mouth. She’d thought, after the day’s events, that she’d never smile again. “The ‘date’ we’ve been trying to have for the past six months, Sailor?”
Crouched as he was outside the car as she sat in the passenger seat, Chip was on a level with her. “I think I’ve got even more incentive to make sure this one really happens. You’re one of a kind, Beautiful.” Without giving her a chance to object, he angled forward and touched his lips to hers. Gently, no pressure. Anticipating nothing more than a return peck. With an almost inaudible sob, she caught him close, wrapping her arms around his neck. Their kiss deepened, desire overcoming propriety, until sense prevailed and Chip pulled back, resting his forehead against hers, inhaling the subtle fragrance of her.
When he thought he could, he stood, unclasped her arms and set her back in the seat, latching the seat belt securely around her and closing the car door. Patterson had been discretely scanning the scenery but practically leapt to attention when Morton advised him that Angie was ready to leave.
“I’ll take good care of her, sir. The admiral has requested a guard be placed on her apartment until Ski picks her up in the morning to fly her home.”
“Thanks, Pat. Make sure you get some rest too.” The exec in him wouldn’t stand down until he knew all his men were accounted for and given the down time they needed. It had been an exhausting couple of days for them all.
“Will do, sir. Now you need to get home before the doc catches your six still on site.” The senior rating knew the slight insubordination would be tolerated. Patterson had long since designated himself the exec’s ‘keeper’, as Ski was the captain’s and Sharkey the admiral’s. Their service together went way back and a little mutinous behaviour was tacitly tolerated.
“You got that right! I’m beat. But I don’t want to see you report until Tuesday morning at the earliest. Ski, either. Take some time to decompress. I think we all need it. And thanks, Pat, your skill with the knife saved our bacon back there.”
The rating flushed at the accolade. “Just lucky, I guess, that when Richardson patted me down he didn’t do a good enough job. Glad it worked, sir. I knew the admiral was just waiting for a diversion and hoped that if I could take one of them out then it would give you an opportunity to act.”
“It worked fine, Pat. And you deserve the credit.” He made a mental note to commend Pat’s contribution in his incident report, even as his heart clenched at the thought of writing the full story. “Drop Angie off then go get some sleep. And that’s an order, Sailor!”
“Aye, Sir.” Snapping a perfect military salute, Pat rounded the car and slid into the driver’s seat. Morton watched the glow of the taillights until he couldn’t see them any longer.
“Come on, pal.” A familiar voice at his side urged him towards their waiting vehicle. “I need to crash even if you don’t.”
“He was a good man, Lee. He didn’t deserve this.”
“I know, Chip.” Crane’s voice was filled with pain – for Connelly and for his friend. “And good men have died before and will again in the pursuit of peace and righteousness. I know it’s no consolation but I honestly believe that the last person in the room Alanna O’Regan would have wanted to die was Connelly. He had no part in this. We were all dragged in because of our association with the admiral. He was unfortunate enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. A real ‘casualty of war’ as she put it. So bloody unfair.” The last came out as a whisper. Eyes stinging, Morton ducked into the rear seat of the car. There would be several more days of de-brief, funeral arrangements to be made etc., it wouldn’t end here. But for now he needed sleep and the thought of being allowed that in his own bed was secondary to none. Except, maybe….
“Lee, you think it might be…advisable – given the circumstances – to stay aboard Seaview tonight? I mean, just in case of a further threat.”
Crane visibly brightened. Any opportunity to be with his ‘lady’ worked for him. All the men who served aboard the nuclear submarine had a connection to her but none more than the command crew. Nelson was her designer, Morton a plank owner who had been there from her inception and Crane, well, Crane was the man who had always been destined to captain her.
“I think that might be a solid plan, Chip. Good thinking.”
“Just what an exec is for, Skipper.” But Lee could hear the ache behind the words.
Several hours later Jamieson found his way back to Nelson’s office, unsurprised to see the lights on and the admiral still at his desk. The overflowing ashtray bore testament to the number of cigarettes he’d smoked, as did the stench of stale smoke in the stale air.
Nelson inhaled deeply the last drag from his cigarette before crushing it out, knowing how much Will hated that he risked his health in this way.
“How’s Riley?” His voice was husky from lack of sleep and too much nicotine.
“He’ll be fine.” The CMO reassured. “Luckily the bullet didn’t do any major muscle or tissue damage and, though it caused quite an amount of blood loss, your speedy closure of the situation prevented him from needing anything more than a couple of pints of transfused blood. The surgery to remove the bullet went well and, with some supportive care, Riley should be fit for light duty in a couple of weeks.”
“And Lee and Chip?”
Jamieson snorted, shifting tiredly in the armchair. “What do you think? Best guess, they’ll be haunting this place before either one of us is awake in the morning. Good as the scuttlebutt around here is, I overheard a rumour that they’re spending the night on the boat.”
A small smile tugging at his lips, Nelson chuckled. He should have anticipated it. His ‘boys’, as Jiggs Starke called them, would find their own comfort level and nowhere better than Seaview to provide what they each needed. Not to take from the man seated in front of him; Nelson knew Will would drag their sorry sixes instantly to Med Bay if for one moment he thought they needed it. But he was also a believer in the power of healing the mind and body in tandem and knew Lee and Chip together with Seaview could do more for each other than all his medical knowledge would accomplish.
“Doesn’t surprise me. I don’t think Lee is fully convinced that the patch on NavCom is going to cut the mustard during simulated tests. Best guess he’s already needling Chip on ways to circumvent the….”
Jamison groaned. “I so do not need to know this, Harry. What I need, right now, is my bed. For eight straight – at the very least.” And he pointed an accusing finger at his superior officer. “As do you too! I know you think you can oversee everything but, as your doctor, I’m telling you that you need sleep. Now. No agenda. No compromise. My bones are telling me I’m too old for this shit! And yours ain’t so great either.”
His rank-be-damned and tell-it-like-it-is attitude was a major part of the reason Nelson had employed Jamieson initially. Coupled with his aptitude for dealing with his command team, knowing when to press and when to allow them latitude, such as just now. It had to be dealt with.
“For what, specifically, Harry?” Dulled-with-tiredness, brown eyes perked up slightly as the admiral pushed himself slowly out of his leather swivel chair and crossed to the sidebar. Pulling a bottle from the cupboard underneath he poured generous splashes of an aged amber liquid into two old fashioneds – squat Irish crystal whisky glasses. Passing one to his trusted CMO he raised the other in salute.
“Sláinte, a chairde. Go n’eirigh on bothar leat.” At Will’s quizzical look he interpreted, “Roughly translates from the Irish language as ‘Good health, my friend’ – or ‘down the hatch, pal’, whichever you prefer – and ‘may the road rise with you’ or in naval terms it could possibly equate to ‘good winds and following seas’. In this case, I’d like it to mean more than that. The beauty of the Irish language is that it can be interpreted to mean many things, depending on relationships. ‘Slán’ signifies ‘goodbye’.” The slight tilt of Jamieson’s glass made no translation necessary.
Nelson sighed. “And as for the rest, I would wish it in varying ways for Connelly and for all of our young bucks. They will have their own roads to follow. I think we both know the paths they’ve chosen won’t be easy ones and the best that we can do is try to guide them and prepare them for the difficulties that they will face. And be there to patch them up when our Intel goes FUBAR!”
At the admiral’s unexpected witticism, Jamieson choked on the rye burn of the alcohol. “I think it’s more than time that we both hit our racks, Harry. If that’s the level you’re reduced to. Don’t know about you but I’ll need to be in the full of my health to deal with our two pit bulls first thing in the morning. I don’t expect either of them to do other than bitch at being on less than full duty status come daylight.”
The four-star flag officer sent a wry grin his CMO’s direction and raised his glass. “Thus were we once, Will. Thus were we. In our day. And thank God for them and their ilk. They have different paths to tread. Other foes to battle. Weapons such as we would have never imagined to grapple with. There are times I think we had it easy compared to what they have to contend with.
And then I look back and see that it wasn’t easy to do what we did, in our day, with what we were given to fight with. To coin a phrase from the French, Will, ‘Plus ça change; plus qu’il la même chose’ – ‘the more things change; the more they remain the same’.
Draining the amber liquid, Harry placed the glass back on his desk, Will echoing his movements. The shorter man pushed himself to his feet, almost swaying with tiredness. The repercussions of this weekend weren’t done with by a long chalk. But that was for another day. For this Sunday night, he was going home, his people were safe, his research retrieved – not that that mattered one whit to Nelson – and order was being restored to his life.
For who knew how long.
(*) The Puppet Master
(**) Identity Crisis
(***) The Selection Process
(****) No Easy Extraction