Note: A big thank you to Liz and Lyn for their help and suggestions with this one. I always knew where it was going; it just took longer to get there than I thought! And to Rita, who provided the inspiration by requesting the “grovelling” scene. It may help if you’ve read The Puppet Master before tackling this one but it’s not strictly necessary. Hope you enjoy!
by Fidelma C.
It couldn’t go on much longer!
She’d been back at work almost a week now and she had to stop jumping every time he walked into the office.
Oh, he’d apologised – profusely. He’d sent her flowers, chocolates, champagne; then more flowers – this time personally delivered along with a genuinely sincere apology and a puppy dog look from under those long dark lashes. She knew Chip Morton had probably put him up to that. Her resignation had been legitimate, not a stunt to make anyone feel bad. And it had cost her everything to hand in that envelope, to turn away from the admiral and the dream job she’d held for almost six years. She knew the admiral considered her the best assistant he’d ever had. He’d even offered her a pay rise to stay on but she’d quietly refused.
As soon as she’d been released from Med Bay (supposedly to go home and rest) she’d headed straight for her office on the command floor of the Institute, typed her letter of resignation and packed up her personal items, taking one last look around the place she’d come to love as, head throbbing and every bone in her body still aching, she headed out for the last time. She’d called a cab to take her home; refusing the kind offers she’d received from Seaview and Institute staff. Better to make a clean break but first there was something she had to do.
She’d given the letter directly to the admiral – she owed him that. He’d spluttered, demanding reasons, flatly refused to accept it then tried to persuade her to change her mind. Finally he’d pleaded with her to take some time to reconsider. She’d shaken her head and left before she disgraced herself and bawled like a baby. Nelson didn’t need that on top of everything else he’d endured. He was still confined to bed, the poison not yet completely out of his system.
The flowers had arrived that afternoon, along with a handwritten note. The chocolates had followed the next day; the champagne a day later and the man himself had appeared on her doorstep the following day. His apology was abject, his plea for her return sincere, his warm hazel eyes so desperate that she found herself somehow giving in and agreeing to return the following Monday. His sigh of relief was heartfelt and he’d deposited a quick kiss on her cheek, promising her that she wouldn’t regret it. There had been a noticeable spring in his step as he left.
Now here she was halfway through Friday morning, desk overflowing as she grappled to catch up on the workload. The admiral had been back to work several days before her and he must have spent the entire weekend working, such was the level of paperwork left on her desk. She didn’t mind the work – it was the tension she felt whenever he walked in. Luckily he’d been so busy on Seaview all week that she hadn’t seen much of him but, despite his warm smiles and grateful glances, she still started any time he arrived in her office. She couldn’t help it!
She lectured herself inwardly on professionalism and tried taking deep steadying breaths to calm herself but the tension wouldn’t go away. She was as attuned to his movements as radar – knowing instantly when he was on the floor – her whole being tightening up with dread and dismay. It didn’t help that a new secretary hadn’t yet been appointed for him – hiring procedures having been stepped up since the Puppet Master affair – and she and Debra, Chip Morton’s secretary, were sharing his paperwork. Thank God she only had to get through a few more hours and she’d be out of here for the weekend!
It couldn’t go on very much longer!
He was at the end of his tether. He hated the way she seemed to jump every time he was near her. Her green eyes held a wariness that hadn’t been there before and she made a point of keeping a distance between them whenever she could. She didn’t escort him into the admiral’s office any more or bring him coffee the way she would once have done. In fact, now that he thought about it, he hadn’t seen her bring coffee to the admiral either. No surprise really! It was going to take them all a long time to get over this latest threat to their charismatic boss.
He was under no illusions. He knew Angie hadn’t come back for anyone other than Nelson. All his pleading, his gifts, wouldn’t have dragged her back if she hadn’t felt that abiding sense of responsibility towards Admiral Harriman Nelson. He’d been wrong before – but never as glaringly as he had been this time. He was deeply embarrassed that he’d entertained suspicious thoughts of her for even one moment. And more than guilty that he’d been responsible for her accident. He’d noticed the new haircut. She’d had her usually long dark hair bobbed to just below chin length and added a fringe to hide the scar on her forehead. Doc Jamieson had stitched it neatly but it was still raised and angry and every time he caught a glimpse of it as she lifted her hand to finger the unaccustomed new hairstyle he winced inwardly.
He knew it was up to him to repair the damage and recognised that it wasn’t going to be easy. It would take time for her to trust him again – to see that he trusted her fully and without reserve. At least she’d come back! Nelson had been like a grouchy bear without her and Chip’s secretary had threatened to quit too – having to cover both his and the admiral’s urgent paperwork along with her own workload - for a whole week. The admiral had even mock threatened that if it came to a choice between Angie and Lee, she would win hands down.
But he could feel her tense up and see her guarded looks whenever he walked in and regretted that he was causing her stress. Thankfully he’d been busy on the boat most of the week and he’d worked out of his cabin more than usual, aware that he was purposely avoiding his Institute office. However that couldn’t continue indefinitely.
It couldn’t go on any longer!
He fumbled a cigarette from the crumpled pack close to his right hand, lit it and inhaled with guilty pleasure. He’d assured Jamieson that he was cutting down but, damn it, with the tension in this office he was smoking more than ever! Angie jumped warily every time Lee entered. Lee sported a mortified / shamefaced expression every time he caught sight of her and the pair of them were wearing him out!
He closed his eyes and shook his head slowly, wanting to bang their two numb skulls together. Lee had behaved badly but he’d apologised. Angie had been wrongly accused but had been vindicated and had accepted Lee’s apology. Why couldn’t they all just move on? He had no time for sub-agendas or miffed feelings. There were more important things to be done. Oh, undoubtedly Lee had leapt too hastily to conclusions but he’d banished the suspicious thoughts almost immediately.
He’d made his captain all too aware that he disapproved wholeheartedly of him suspecting Angie for one single moment. And he thought he’d made it clear to Angie that he, Nelson, had every confidence in her and trusted her implicitly. She’d thanked him quietly for his assurance, turned down the generous pay increase he’d offered, citing that she didn’t deserve a raise for nearly killing him. He’d almost lost his temper with her at that little remark! But, realising that he needed her far more than she needed him (or so he thought), discretion outweighed valour and he just patted her on the shoulder and allowed her to return to her desk.
How he wished Edith were here. He would have sicced his practical sister on Angie. She’d have lent a sympathetic ear, allowed the younger girl to pour out all the latent unspoken feelings, mopped up tears and bracingly told her to get on with it. But Edith was gone and all the wishing wouldn’t bring her back. He needed someone – anyone – to deal with this latest crisis. Between caffeine withdrawal and an overdose of nicotine his body was in revolt. He just wanted things back to normal – or whatever passed for normal around here! With fresh resolve and a slightly evil grin, he reached for the telephone.
It had to stop NOW!
He’d watched his best friend and the girl he – liked – pussyfoot around each other for over a week now. Lee was avoiding his office at the Institute – that was painfully obvious. He was making excuses to stay on the boat when he should have been ashore, casually asking him or Chief Sharkey to stop by his office and pick up anything in his in tray. And he was studiously avoiding Nelson’s office unless it was absolutely necessary.
Flowers, candy, champagne, he knew his friend had tried it all to entice Angie back to the Institute. He’d been given an ultimatum by the admiral: Get Angie back – or else! It was the “or else” that had Morton worried. He’d seen the toll it had taken on Lee. The loss of appetite, of sleep – his friend’s overgrown sense of responsibility was eating away at him. He was blaming himself for Angie’s accident – as sure as the sun rose in the East. But had he told her that? Had he bared his soul to her? Told her how desperately ashamed he felt for having doubted her? Explained that he’d been so worried about Nelson and Morton that he’d temporarily lost his mind? No, Lee’s best friend snorted, he’d probably apologised prettily, handed over the flowers, given her that wounded puppy dog look that could – on occasion – melt even him and she’d succumbed and agreed to return – without either of them ironing out any of the patently unresolved feelings between them!
Well, it ended now. He’d had enough! He was sure Nelson had had enough and, from the way the admiral had been acting this week (as he’d been drafted more often than not to venture into the lion’s den), it was only a matter of who exploded first, himself or Harriman Nelson!
He needed a plan. And he had the beginnings of one in mind. All he needed was a little co-operation. He was reaching for the phone just as it rang under his hand.
One hour later, plans laid, Chip Morton strode into Admiral Nelson’s outer office. Without pausing he opened the bottom drawer of Angie’s desk, scooped out her purse, lifted her bodily from the chair and over her spluttering wide-eyed protests declared “Come on, Beautiful, I’m taking you to lunch.”
Halfway out the door before she even realised it, she dug her heels in slowing their passage. “The admiral…”
“Knows all about it. He said take your time and don’t worry about being late back.” The blond officer urged her along with a firm grip on her elbow.
“I take it we’re not going to the cafeteria then?” She asked dryly.
“Not quite. We’re going to Morelli’s.” He named a top Santa Barbara restaurant that had her eyebrows climbing up her forehead – until the pull of the still healing wound put a stop to that. Truth to tell, she’d hoped Seaview’s handsome XO would ask her out. He’d exhibited inordinate concern when she’d been injured, held her tenderly as she’d cried all over him and she’d thought maybe he was interested in her after all. She’d had a soft spot for him forever. But since her release from the Med Bay he hadn’t approached her except in a businesslike manner and she’d begun to suspect that, in those emotionally charged moments, she’d read more into the situation than was warranted.
Angie acknowledged that he’d been only trying to protect his captain and friend from her wrath. She’d heard enough stories of their close friendship to realise that Chip would do anything for Lee Crane and vice versa. In fact, if their reputations with the ladies weren’t so renowned she’d have wondered…. But she envied the integrity of their friendship, such a rarity today, knowing that each would willingly give their life for the other.
“By the way I like the new hairstyle!” He shot her an admiring but mischievous grin as he reversed his black SUV from his designated car park slot. “Did you replace your car yet?” He knew since the Puppet Master debacle that she had now been assigned a parking space alongside the command staff, at the admiral’s insistence. But he hadn’t spotted her driving in.
“Yeah. Ski came with me last weekend and helped me pick out a new one. I think he enjoyed crawling around engines and checking chassis. He was a great help.”
“Pity. I’d have liked to help. I love cars.”
“And yet you drive this?” Her tone was a little dubious. His car, while relatively new and supremely well appointed, shrieked practicality.
“Well, we can’t all be as flamboyant as our captain now, can we?” Again he flashed that boyish grin, showing he intended no malice. “The XO has to be seen as stodgy and sensible. How would the crew react if I showed up in a little number like Lee’s? They’d lose all regard for me overnight! Besides, he lets me borrow it whenever I like. So I get the best of both worlds, the practicality of this baby and the awed respect of my crew - plus the chance to let off steam at Lee’s expense!”
He made her laugh – and she hadn’t had a chance to do much of that lately. She allowed herself to relax a little. Maybe this lunch wasn’t such a bad end to her first week back at work.
He pulled the big SUV into the small lot and parked with expert dexterity then hopped out and rounded the vehicle to chivalrously help her descend from the elevated seat position. For a moment the atmosphere became highly charged as they were in close proximity and she caught her breath in anticipation. Chip cleared his throat, he had to remain focused although the faint smell of citrus shampoo reminded him of the day in Med Bay when he’d held her in his arms while she drenched him with her tears.
“How are you feeling, Angie?” His tone was serious, full of consideration for her, but not in the least amorous.
She looked up into his beautiful bright blue concerned eyes and sighed regretfully for what might have been. Ah well, at least she had lunch to look forward to! “I’m fine, Chip, honestly. Doctor Jamieson has assured me that the scar will fade and in a couple of months it will hardly be noticeable. I’m just glad to be back in the office. Glad that Admiral Nelson and you are both fully recovered.” She trailed off, suddenly unable to make eye contact with him.
“And are you fully recovered, Angie? Not just physically?” There was a depth of meaning behind the seemingly bland words that demanded an honest response.
“I’m getting there, Chip, I’m getting there. And now, I am starving! So could we, maybe, progress from the car park to the restaurant?” She tried to defuse the taut scene with a little humour. Glad to see the serious light fade from his azure eyes, she sighed inwardly as he gestured her forward and zapped the remote central locking on the SUV.
“At your command, my lady!”
He wondered would she ever speak to him again after today!
Inside the restaurant they were shown to a
secluded table for two by the window overlooking the ocean. Starched white linen cloths and napkins vied
with sparkling glassware and polished cutlery for dominance on the intimate
table. Chip took the menu and wine list
handed to him and, while Angie perused the menu, he selected – with her
approval – a light Californian Chardonnay.
The wine was produced, tasted and, at his nod, poured. At that precise moment the presence of
another party registered and Chip fluidly stood. “Angie, your luncheon companion has arrived.”
She frowned at him a little uncertainly and turned, taking in the equally astonished persona of Lee Crane, as Chip hastened to explain. “Sorry for the subterfuge, folks. But both Admiral Nelson and I have had enough. Angie, I told you I was taking you to lunch, not that I was going to eat with you. Same goes, Lee. Now the wine is here, the check is taken care of and you two are not to appear back at the Institute until you’ve both come to terms with the unresolved issues between you! Neither my nerves nor the Admiral’s will stand any more of this pussyfooting around between the pair of you. Sort it out and move on! And Angie, I’ll pick you up for dinner tomorrow night?”
She glowed inwardly at the slight hesitancy in his voice but outwardly frowned her displeasure at being manoeuvred into this contrived situation. Logic triumphed in the end and she nodded compliance, realising that she and Lee really needed to get through their problem for the future of their working relationship. She saw the speaking glance the captain shot his exec and appreciated that he had been similarly “handled” by the two men he called best friends.
“Sit down, Lee. He’s right. We do need to talk frankly!”
Chip inhaled deeply, backing away and leaving the two combatants to figure it out for themselves. You could lead a horse to water but…..
However he had a huge smile on his face as he swung himself into the seat of his – practical – SUV! He picked up his cell phone to call the admiral.
It was never spoken of. No one ever learnt if Captain Crane had grovelled to Angie Newman but they both returned to the Institute in the early afternoon in subdued good humour, kissed chastely as they parted company and she returned to her desk, recognising that she would be under covert scrutiny by the admiral, while Lee sauntered down to the pen where his beloved Seaview was docked, knowing he would face an overt inquisition by his nosy exec.
Both had pledged to keep them guessing!
Lee crossed the gangplank, acknowledged the dock detail, saluting the colours before he climbed the sail and dropped nonchalantly into the control room, eschewing the final rungs of the ladder. Morton straightened from his computer console as his captain approached, ready to take his punishment if his conniving with Nelson had gone awry, but not prepared to go down without a fight. Lee appeared in good humour however and he relaxed slightly. Maybe he actually had a chance at a date with Angie on the morrow. Or was his buddy just a little too smug?
They were best friends but opposites in almost everything; one dark, one blond; one devil-may-care, one cautious; one fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants, one practical-having-thought-out-every-possible-scenario. But their similarities outweighed their differences. Both were moral, upright, honest, true to country, flag and Navy, their loyalty to the admiral and the Institute the by-word they lived by and their friendship to the other total. That was what made their working relationship so special and leant more than a significant partnership to their command positions aboard Seaview. No way would Lee have put the moves on Angie knowing how Chip felt about her – even if that feeling hadn’t yet been publicized.
“How was lunch?”
“Up to Morelli’s usual high standard.” Spoken with a definite grin.
“You know what I mean!” A hint of impatience in the usually placid tones.
“Oh, you mean did I grovel?” An amused smirk.
“Well, did you?” More than a hint of impatience!
“You’ll never know!” A smug complacency.
“I can ask Angie!” Triumphant one-upmanship.
“As I said, you’ll never know!” Conspiracy!
“Aw, come on, Lee.” A definite whine!
“Ask no questions and ye’ll be told no lies!” The captain patted his exec patronisingly on the shoulder then moved towards the spiral staircase to the afternoon reports that waited in his cabin.
The glacial glare that followed his retreating back, had it been a weapon, would have cut him in two. Whistling aloud and grinning to himself he swiftly ascended the steps, dropping back just before he disappeared from sight to throw a softly voiced “Thanks, buddy, I owe you one.”
“More than one, Lee Crane! And I’ll collect tonight. Drinks, Bennigans, 1930!” The blonde’s grin almost split his face.
Bennigans was a popular wharf-side bar in Santa Barbara frequented by the more mature crowd – it was unusual for anyone to be carded by the bartender at Bennigans. The two officers had changed from uniform into jeans and polo shirt on Crane’s part and chinos and short sleeved open neck shirt on Morton’s – casual but stylish as befit the venue. They had brought their beers to a quiet booth, Chip ordering a burger and fries from the friendly waitress. Lee declined, smirking that he was still full from lunch. Chip knew his friend was a light eater at the best of times but co-operated when Lee filched fries from his generously loaded plate.
He teased Crane mercilessly about his lunch date, angling for the details, but Lee just shook his head and, despite threats of dire retribution, kept mum. No amount of pleading or cajoling would get him to reveal details - except to say that he and Angie had reached an ‘understanding’.
Frustrated, Chip knew he would get nothing out of his friend that Lee didn’t want to give. Lee could be incredibly close mouthed when he wanted to be. Part of his ONI training, Morton guessed. Then hastily redirected his thoughts. Any inkling of ONI activity set his teeth on edge. He moved on to probing if Angie had said anything about him at lunch.
“Do you want me to be kind and lie or wound and tell the truth?” Crane tried a little payback for the teasing he’d endured for the past two hours.
He watched Chip’s hopeful expression deflate and took pity on him. “She did say that she was looking forward to your dinner date tomorrow.” The blond immediately brightened so the small white lie was worth it. Chip began to plan aloud as to where he would take her while Lee sipped his beer and glanced idly around the sparsely populated bar. It was late for the after work one-for-the-weekend crowd and early for the all-night party gang. Thinking about calling it a night himself he spotted a rather dishy redhead sitting alone at the bar who seemed to be eyeing them rather speculatively. Just as he was about to call Chip’s attention to her, she briefly met his gaze and deliberately turned away. Deciding he’d been mistaken he called for the check – which Morton took delight in letting him pay.
As they exited the premises, Lee shrugged on his black leather bomber-style jacket as Chip donned his more formal sports coat, cheerfully arguing as to whether they would play golf or tennis the following morning. Chip favoured golf, needing to win back the bet he’d lost at their last game. Lee was angling for tennis, feeling the need of the faster paced game.
Both were unaware of the redhead following them out of the bar until she spoke.
“Well, well, if it isn’t the scourge of the Nelson Institute secretarial pool! Just how many typists do they go through there a year? Have you kept count of the number of little dollies you’ve bedded and dumped, Mr. lover-boy Morton?” Her tongue dripped vitriol and Chip’s eyes widened in stunned disbelief as he was confronted by this total stranger who knew him by name. She was far from drunk but had enough alcohol in her system to buoy her courage.
“Now just a minute…” Lee Crane leapt immediately to his friend’s defence.
“Lady, I don’t know who you are…” Chip began, only to be interrupted by a string of expletives that had both men cringing.
“No, you don’t! Aren’t I lucky? Just how many notches have you carved in your bedpost? Do you even have room left? Of course maybe it’s a four-poster and you’re working your way round, Mr. screw-‘em-and-threw-‘em-aside-Morton, the legend of the Nelson Institute!” Her fury was a palpable thing and left both men agape.
Crane was the first to get angry on his friend’s behalf. Chip appeared flabbergasted at the unprovoked attack. Lee knew his friend wasn’t like that. Sure, he’d had relationships and hadn’t found the person he wanted to settle down with yet. Neither of them had. It was difficult, being away at sea so much, to develop a lasting association. But while Chip dated frequently he’d always chosen carefully, never making promises and always, but always, remaining on friendly terms with his ex’s. It was one of the things Crane most envied about his friend. Too often his own relationships had ended in bitter rows, the girl unable to take second place to his grey lady, Seaview.
“Look, hold on.” Crane tried reason. “Neither of us know you. You can’t just turn up here and cast aspersions willy-nilly!”
“Oh, he..” Tossing her head towards Chip, “doesn’t know me. But he certainly ‘knew’ my sister! And when he’d had all he wanted from her, he had no hesitation in throwing her aside, just like all his others! Only he didn’t give a damn that she’d fallen in love with him! It didn’t matter to him. He just took his pleasure and walked away when she started getting too serious for him. She was only twenty-one years old!”
Now Chip knew for sure it was a case of mistaken identity and he breathed a little easier. It was years since he’d dated anyone that young.
“Look, Miss, it’s obvious you’ve got the wrong man. I didn’t date your sister….”
“Oh, how remiss of me! You date so many, how could you possibly be expected to remember every single one!” Her sarcasm was beginning to rouse both men’s temper. “And I suppose you can conveniently forget that this one slit her wrists when you dumped her! Or did you even bother to find that out? Perhaps her disappearance from the Institute and a job she loved was opportune enough for you!”
Chip recoiled at the spitting virago in front of him but anger was coming to the fore. “I didn’t date your sister! I didn’t know your sister! Now I want you to back off….”
“Maybe this will help to jog your memory!” She rooted in the small purse she carried and both men tensed, coiled; ready to spring at the slightest hint of danger. But she merely withdrew a tattered, dog-eared photograph and thrust it aggressively at Chip who had no choice but to take it.
Bewildered he stared at the image in front of him. The girl in the picture was a complete unknown. Lee looked over his shoulder not recognising the young woman in the photo – and he knew every girl Chip had ever dated!
Glancing back at the redhead he saw the shimmer of tears in her eyes as she pawed through her purse, presumably seeking a tissue. Ever gallant, Seaview’s captain reached into his back pocket for a handkerchief as Chip continued to study the photo and wrack his brains for any possible connection he might have had to the young girl. Thus it was Crane who saw the small calibre pistol appear, aimed at his unsuspecting friend. He immediately threw himself sideways against Chip, knocking him off balance and, as the blond stumbled, Lee felt a jolt - followed by a searing white-hot pain tear through his upper chest and knew instinctively that the close range bullet had imparted major damage.
Peripherally he heard the girl’s shocked cry, saw her drop the gun and back away as she realised what she’d done. Saw the horror invade his friend’s blue eyes as Chip caught him reflexively when his knees buckled and he sagged in Morton’s arms, the pain becoming intolerable. Crane heard the urgency in Chip’s voice as his friend urged him to stay lucid and he struggled to respond but the words wouldn’t come, couldn’t form. His vision was growing dark, grey at first as he felt Chip lower him to the ground then slowly black encroached. He’d been shot enough times in his Naval and ONI career to recognise a serious one – and this was plenty serious. Chip’s anxious tones penetrated the cloud that was gathering and he fought to reply. He wanted to say something to his friend – reassure him that it would be all right – but it was too hard to speak the words. “Ch...ip…” was all he could manage before the blackness took over - shutting out the overriding pain – perhaps forever.
Morton frantically lowered Lee to the ground as the hazel eyes rolled back and Lee’s head dropped limply onto his neck, clutching his friend close as he pressed urgent fingers against the pulse point in Lee’s throat, his own heart hammering painfully. Thankfully there was a beat – not strong or steady but there. Chip shifted around until he was kneeling on the concrete with Lee lying partially propped against his chest. The car park was otherwise deserted. He was too intent on Lee’s condition to concern himself with the whereabouts of the maniac who’d shot him. He was conscious that she’d dropped the pistol and it was within his reach if she reappeared in a threatening mode.
He dug in his hip pocket for his cell phone and called for an ambulance then, training coming to the fore, he swiftly assessed Lee’s condition, using his handkerchief as a pressure pad to stem the blood flow from the chest wound. Unwilling to move Lee around too much he gently felt for an exit wound, immediately disturbed not to find one. That meant the bullet was in there somewhere – damn. There was little more he could do for his friend other than keep him warm and he quickly stripped off his own jacket and tucked it round the injured man willing him verbally to hold on, that help was on the way. Grabbing the cell phone again he hit a pre-programmed number.
“Jamie? It’s Chip. Lee…Lee’s been shot.” He heard the swift inhalation of breath. “It looks bad, Jamie. It’s left upper chest, small calibre bullet but close range. No exit wound. I think… I’ve managed to stem most of the bleeding. I’ve…there’s an ambulance on the way. Do you want us to take him to the Institute or Santa Barbara General?”
Jamie came to a quick decision. “General. I’ve got privileges there and if it’s as bad as you say they have more resources. I know the best thoracic surgeon at SBG. I’ll give him a call and we’ll meet you in the ER.”
He checked with Morton as to the care he had already given Lee, thankful for the younger man’s sound thinking and quick actions. As he hung up, Chip heard the welcome wail of sirens piercing the night air. As an afterthought he dialled 911 and asked the dispatcher for the police department.
Chip Morton was in shock.
The ride to the hospital had been a nightmare. He’d been summarily pushed aside by the EMTs as they’d tended to their patient, checking airways, breathing and circulation, swiftly setting up IVs, administering authorised pain meds, attaching a portable heart monitor and placing field dressings over the wound before loading Lee into the ambulance and, lights and sirens ablaze, made with all speed for the hospital. They’d given him no definite word on Lee’s condition. He’d had to fight to be allowed accompany his friend. The first police officers on the scene had wanted a statement from him. The girl had disappeared and, as the only other occupant of the parking lot, Chip was a natural suspect. He’d given them his business card – the NIMR name and his rank sufficient to convince them to allow him give his statement at the hospital - the two SBPD officers had secured the crime scene and called in for backup before one followed the ambulance in the police cruiser.
On arrival, they’d been met by a trauma team and Lee had been hurried away without a word to him. The SBPD cop had taken a short detailed statement, warning him that he would have to give a longer one in due course at the police station. Jamieson had appeared shortly after but, beyond a swift look at the slumped figure in the hard plastic chair in the bustling ER, he hadn’t stopped his headlong rush towards the Trauma Unit with which he was all too familiar. However that one glance was enough to note the desolation in the azure blue eyes, the trembling in the sturdy jacketless figure and Jamie could tell the man was close to breaking point. A quick call on his cell phone covered that and Jamieson was free to concentrate on his current - and most frequent - patient.
Chip was aware that he was shaking but he couldn’t seem to stop. Now that the rush of adrenalin had passed he had time to relive the entire incident. Tonight’s events had happened so fast. He groaned aloud, hunching forward, elbows on taut thighs and hands clenched tightly, his head resting on his fists, unaware of the speculative attention he was receiving from the - mainly female - employees.
He’d been studying the photo diligently, trying so hard to place the girl in the picture that he hadn’t been aware of the woman pulling the gun. He’d glared protestingly at Crane as he’d felt his friend shove him aside, belatedly hearing the sudden sharp retort of the small calibre pistol which sounded unnaturally loud in the almost empty parking lot. Even then, stupidly, he wasn’t aware that Lee had been shot. It was only when he felt Lee slump against him, his entire weight bearing down on Chip, that Morton had instinctively reacted, grabbing him tightly and watching the light die in those remarkable golden eyes as a red stain spread over Lee’s chest. No, dear God, no! It couldn’t end like this – not like this! After the dangers they’d faced together over the years and on Seaview, how could it end in the car park of a bar in downtown Santa Barbara, a favourite eaterie, non-threatening and a clear case of mistaken identity?
But what ate at Chip, as he scrubbed his hands over his ashen face, was that his friend had taken the bullet intended for him.
He started at a light touch on his shoulder, looking up into familiar clear blue compassionate eyes. “Come on, Chip. Let’s go get you cleaned up and grab some coffee. Come on, lad.”
Morton’s gaze was uncomprehending and Nelson shook him slightly, feeling the trembling course through the younger man’s body. Jamieson had called it right, as usual, Nelson acknowledged. If Doc wasn’t to be faced with two patients, someone had to take care of Morton. And, worried though the admiral was about Lee, that someone had to be him.
Normally Chip’s ingrained military training would have ensured he stood in the presence of a superior and, to Nelson, this indicated the younger officer’s degree of shock. He tugged gently at Chip, eventually getting the taller stronger man to his feet and, unresisting, Chip allowed himself to be led to the public restrooms where, for the first time he realised that his hands were covered in Lee’s blood, splodges dramatically highlighting his previously pristine white shirt.
Seeing the stark evidence of his friend’s injury, Chip’s face leached of all remaining colour and it was just about all Nelson could do to keep him on his feet. “Come on now, lad. You’re no use to Lee like this. Wash up as best you can and we’ll go to the cafeteria and find some coffee. Jamie will know where to locate us as soon as he has any news.”
It was almost like leading a sleepwalker. Chip went through the motions as he was instructed, watching the rust coloured water swirl down the drain and wondering if that was Lee’s lifeblood being washed away. He braced his arms on the sink and lowered his head, taking several deep breaths.
Nelson stood by helplessly, watching his officer, hands clenched impatiently into fists. He needed to know the details of this fiasco! Jamieson had had only moments to brief him that his captain was seriously injured and that he needed to get down to Santa Barbara General before his exec – Lee’s exec – fell apart. What in blazes was going on? And now, to boot, he couldn’t get a coherent word out of the almost-out-of-it XO. He took a deep calming breath, recognising that the other man was in shock, his distress plain to see.
He sucked in another breath as Chip turned. Seaview’s exec was a typical Nordic blond but his usual light tan was now missing; obliterated by the grey cast to his skin. His eyes were sunk back in his head, the intense blue now almost colourless and he looked to have aged a decade in the past few hours. The splashes of dried blood provided the only colour on his tall frame and Nelson instinctively grabbed his arm as Morton swayed noticeably.
“Come on, Chip. Coffee.” Nelson gave him little choice, propelling the younger man along with a firm grip on his elbow until they reached the almost deserted cafeteria. Pushing Chip into a chair, the admiral ordered two large coffees, sugared one of them and set that in front of Morton. In an unaccustomed gentle voice he prodded the young officer for details of the night’s events. Chip blinked hard twice, visibly fighting to regain control, took a grateful gulp of the hot coffee, grimacing at the sweetness, and preceded to haltingly fill the admiral in.
Time passed intolerably slowly and it was several hours before an exhausted Jamieson found time to seek them out and give them an update on Lee’s condition. Chip had consumed numerous cups of coffee and the admiral had even managed to get him to eat part of a sandwich. Jamie was pleased to note that his colour was better as he leapt to his feet the moment he spotted Seaview’s CMO.
“Doc! How is he?”
Jamieson sank into a chair, gratefully accepting the mug Nelson pushed in front of him and swallowed several much-needed gulps of the hot coffee before he spoke, very aware of the two officers’ impatience for news.
“He’s critical, Chip. There’s no point in me lying to you.” He watched the colour drain again from the younger man’s face at his candid words. “The bullet was lodged very near to his heart. The close range meant it tore through a lot of muscle and, although Lee’s heart itself wasn’t damaged, he lost a lot of blood. We had to transfuse him with five pints of whole blood. Dr. Fleming is one of the best thoracic surgeons on the west coast and he removed the bullet successfully but Lee’s heart stopped during the surgery and we had to shock him to get him back. The bullet nicked a lung causing a pneumothorax and we’ve inserted a chest drain. He’s in recovery now; then he’ll be moved to ICU. After that it’s a matter of wait and see, I’m afraid. There is a very real fear of infection. Fibres of his clothing were impacted by the bullet and it took a long time to remove them all. If, and I stress if, he survives the next twenty four hours then he may have a chance.”
Jamieson observed both men’s devastated expressions at his grim news but he didn’t believe in sugar coating his reports – his experience told him it only caused problems in the long run. In reality he felt equally heartsick, for he had an incredible fondness for the young captain. He gentled his tone, eyeing each of Lee’s close friends individually. “Chip, Admiral, don’t write him off yet. Lee’s young, he’s strong and he’s beaten the odds before. This isn’t gonna be an easy one but, knowing Lee as I do, he has the strongest will to live of anybody I’ve ever known. If anyone can make it, he can.”
“I hope you’re right, Will.” Nelson cleared his throat. He appreciated his CMO’s directness but a glance at Chip showed him that the younger man was again taking it hard. Realising that Jamie didn’t know the background to the evening’s events the admiral gave him a short but concise account.
Jamieson shook his head in disbelief. Like Nelson, he knew that Chip was far too honourable and upright to be guilty of the woman’s accusations and he reached over to pat Chip’s arm in consoling support. “And you’ve no idea who the girl in the photograph is?”
“Honestly, Doc, I have never seen her before in my life. Not only didn’t I go out with her but I don’t recall ever even seeing her at the Institute. That .. that …maniac who shot Lee said her sister was twenty-one – I don’t cradle snatch!” Despite the seriousness of the situation the two older men had to smother a grin at Chip’s almost indignant tone.
“And the police have the photograph?” At Chip’s nod, Jamieson continued. “Well, it should be easy enough to trace her through Institute records.”
“The SBPD have already been on to the Institute. I’ve instructed the head of Personnel to co-operate fully with them. We’ll find her, Chip.” Nelson shot a reassuring glance at Lee’s exec. Hesitating, he broached the question they both wanted to ask. “Will, can we….?”
Jamieson held up a hand. “Admiral, if you’re going to ask me can you see him, the answer’s NO. Hear me out! He’s still in recovery. We need to get him stabilised and settled in ICU. Then, maybe – maybe! – if he responds well, I’ll allow you both five minutes each. And that comes at a price! Admiral, I want you to go home and get some rest, I know you of old! You’re planning on being here practically round the clock – this is not the Institute where you call the shots! So you’re going to have to work with the routines of the staff here. I’ll cut you as much slack as I can – within reason – but you’re not going to have the autonomy that you have in Med Bay or aboard Seaview!
Chip, you’re suffering from shock – whether you want to admit it or not!” Jamieson was on a roll and taking no prisoners! “I want you in Med Bay overnight.”
At the exec’s instantaneous revolt, Jamieson crossed his arms and sat back in the chair, awaiting the challenge.
“Doc, there is no way in hell I’m leaving here until I know that Lee is going to be all right. I don’t care if I have to camp out in the ER overnight but I am not leaving.”
The last words were enunciated with precision, the inscrutable mask Morton perpetually wore when on duty now firmly in place. And the icy glare that accompanied the words was testament to the depth of his feelings.
“Chip!” Jamieson gentled his tone somewhat but remained firm. “I know you want to be here for Lee but you have to look at the broader picture. You’ll be no use to him when he needs you most if you don’t take care of yourself now.” He glanced at his watch. “It’s almost 0300. You’ve been on your feet since early morning and came close to taking a bullet yourself tonight. You saw your best friend almost die in your arms. Christ, Chip, you’re entitled to be a little off base! Now it’s going to be at least another hour before you can see Lee, then I want you to come with me to the Med Bay, let me get you settled there and you can come back here first thing in the morning. Perhaps I’ll let you sit with Lee for a while then. I don’t want you alone tonight.”
“I won’t be alone. There are plenty of people around here.” The stubborn blond responded.
Jamieson’s tone became stern, brooking no argument. “I’ll pull rank if I have to! You are in no state to sit here without sleep tonight. Now I want you to…”
“Jamie, with all due respect, I don’t give a damn what you want.” Neither Jamieson nor Nelson had ever heard that particular degree of soft voiced insubordination from Morton, despite repeated provocation over the years, and they exchanged uneasy glances.
Chip continued in a gentle almost toneless voice that was more forceful than if he’d shouted. “Maybe you didn’t hear me earlier but I AM STAYING RIGHT HERE until I know that Lee is out of danger. I don’t care if you won’t let me sit with him but I’m staying. He took a bullet for me tonight and I’m going to see him for that five minutes you promised. And I’m gonna make sure he knows that he’s not alone here, that I’m right outside. Admiral, if you want my resignation for insubordination you’ll have it in the morning.”
Nelson waved aside what could be perceived as the younger man’s grandstanding, knowing it was no idle threat. His senior officers’ close friendship went way beyond the strictures of rank and, truth to tell, he felt much the same way himself. Jamieson’s face was like a thundercloud however and Nelson knew he would have to do some serious talking to have his CMO agree to their staying at the hospital, all the while knowing that the exhausted medic wouldn’t be straying too far from the patient himself. He recognised Jamieson’s concern was for Chip’s wellbeing and couldn’t fault him for that. But he also knew his executive officer’s renowned stubbornness and would have bet his house on anyone’s ability to remove Chip from his friend’s side.
“Will, how about a compromise? You settle Lee and let us see him for five minutes. Then I’ll take Chip home to change, we’ll grab an early breakfast somewhere – which I will make sure he’ll eat – and we’ll come back here in a couple of hours.”
Jamieson knew when he was defeated. There was no way he could eject Chip from the ER or force him to spend the night in Med Bay without the Admiral’s support and if Nelson was willing to keep an eye on the younger man – well, wasn’t that why he’d called him in the first place. “OK, I’ll agree to that, provided Chip is not driving anywhere and isn’t left alone. Shock is not to be under-estimated, gentlemen.
Now give me some time to go see how they’re getting on transferring Lee. I’ll come get you as soon as I can. In the meantime, Chip, you might want to take care of these.”
He carefully took some items from the pocket of his white lab coat, knowing the effect this would have on the already stressed officer – Lee’s Annapolis ring, his chrome and black diver’s watch - the one Chip had given him for his 30th birthday to replace the gift the crew of his previous command had presented to him that had been broken during a Seaview mission - and Lee’s plain black leather wallet.
“Just hold them for him, Chip!” Jamieson chose his words specifically to imbue hope into the younger man, covertly trading glances with Nelson.
Chip clenched his fist around the items, then fingered the texture of the leather wallet, running his thumb over the onyx stone in the ring – the gesture reminiscent of Crane’s habit of twisting his ring in moments of agitation – and held the watch between his big hands recalling the inscription he’d had etched there – “Lee, 30, Big Bro Chip!” followed by Lee’s birth date. He fumbled the items into his pants pockets and blinked furiously a couple of times before he tried a rueful grin on the other pair.
“Bet you the first thing he asks after when he wakes is the ring!”
“No bet, Commander!” Nelson retorted, with a sly grin at the medic. “That’s a given! What I will bet is that he attacks Jamie about it before we even enter the picture!”
The two officers could see the amused exasperation still in Jamieson’s face as he left.
“Thanks, Admiral.” Chip intoned softly and Nelson picked up the conversational threads instantly.
“You’re welcome, lad. I know you don’t want to be anywhere else but here and I also know that Lee wouldn’t want you blaming yourself for what happened tonight.”
He smiled slightly at the startled look in the azure eyes that met his. “Chip, we’ve been together too long now for you to be able to hide from me that effortlessly.”
“Thought Lee was the only one who could read me that easily.” Morton muttered.
“Maybe I’ve picked up some tips from him over the years!” Although he still found it incredibly difficult to “read” the XO aboard the boat. Morton was, and had been even as a youth in Annapolis, the most inscrutable of characters. While Crane was a very private person, his face betrayed his emotions; Chip on the other hand was 99% of the time impossible to read; which stood him in good stead in his professional position and engendered the men’s absolute trust but could be a pain in the ass for his friends -and superior officers in particular.
“Admiral, I’ve been thinking. Should we call Lee’s mother?” Chip’s voice was low and strained.
“I thought about it, lad.” Nelson admitted, running one hand distractedly through his russet hair. “And of calling your mom too. Let’s wait til morning and see how he is. It’s late and there’s no way they’d get flights before tomorrow anyhow.”
Morton nodded agreement, happy not to have to deal with notifying either mother yet. An uneasy silence descended as they both lost themselves in their own thoughts.
It was well over an hour before Jamieson returned, the lines of exhaustion etched deeper into his thin face but his eyes seemed a little brighter as two equally worn out but hopeful faces turned towards him. He didn’t beat about the bush. “He’s critical but stable.” Jamie pronounced bluntly. “He’s resting comfortably enough in ICU and you can see him for five minutes – one at a time and not a minute longer. Then I want you both out of here!”
The trek to the ICU seemed endless. Morton was practically fizzing with nervous energy, aching to see his friend but dreading it at the same time. Jamieson stopped at the high-tech observation station where a team of dedicated nurses monitored the output from an array of machines in individual rooms.
He handed the two officers a set of scrubs each. “This is a sterile area and you’ll have to gown up. Who’s going first?”
Chip deferred to his superior who waved him off absently. “Don’t be ridiculous, lad! You know you want to, so go ahead.”
Jamie helped Chip don the protective clothing and led him towards one of the almost totally glass enclosed cubicles further down the corridor. “Chip, I need to warn you that he’s hooked up to a lot of machines right now. Don’t read anything unnecessary into that. We’re just monitoring him very carefully for the next several hours.”
At Chip’s nod he pushed open the door and led the way into the small room dominated by a high hospital bed and a plethora of beeping and whirring machinery. Chip swallowed convulsively, glad for Doc’s warning. He’d seen Lee in similar situations on more than one occasion but it never got any easier. Following a brief but intense examination of the equipment he finally allowed himself to look at his friend.
Lee lay flat on his back; a soft blanket pulled up to just above his waist and a large white bandage was taped across the left side of his chest. White discs were scattered across his upper torso with leads to the various machines behind the bed. A ventilator was attached, tube descending into Lee’s throat and taped in place to his lower jaw, breathing for him and announcing its regular cadence. IVs were hung from poles on either side of the bed; one dispensing a clear fluid while the other dripped whole blood. The large gauze square obscuring the left hand side of his chest partially hid the tube that protruded, a slightly pinkish fluid leaking from it to unknown regions. Chip almost gagged at the sight. His friend’s usually saturnine features were pale, dark curls plastered to his forehead, thick dark lashes casting shadows on his almost colourless cheeks as nasal canulae fed him oxygen. What remained of Chip’s colour fled, leaving him almost as white as the linen his friend rested on. He moved woodenly til he was adjacent to the bedside and laid his hand on Lee’s right forearm.
Jamie hovered close prepared to catch the taller XO if he looked like he was going to lose it. But he saw the younger man pull himself upright, seeming to gain strength from the light grip on his friend’s arm and was gratified to see clear blue eyes connect with his own brown ones as Chip’s lips twitched in forced amusement.
“He hates that ventilator with a passion.”
“Yeah, but he’s lucky this time.” Jamieson responded laconically. “It’ll be out before he’s even aware it’s been in! It’s just a precaution following the surgery. It allows his body to take a break from the effort of breathing and concentrate on other areas. We’ll remove it in a couple of hours or as soon as the shock begins to wear off. What he’s not going to like is the chest drain, which will remain in place for a couple of days. Or the Foley!”
Chip winced in sympathy for his friend, knowing how Lee hated the indignity of the catheter. The sight of Jamieson’s more-than-slightly evil grin perked him up – as it was meant to do.
“Jamie, he’s going to hate you for that!”
“Goes with the territory, Chip. There’s not a lot he’s gonna be able to do about it for the next few days. Then we’ll reach our usual compromise, I have no doubts – loud and all as it may be.”
Both men chuckled and Jamie was relieved to see some slight colour return to Chip’s face at the banter. Glancing at his watch he saw that the allotted five minutes was just up and began making shooing noises.
“Give me a minute, Doc. Please?”
Jamieson backed off and the XO bent towards Crane’s ear and spoke in a low tone that the doctor couldn’t – and wouldn’t have tried to – overhear. He watched as Chip straightened, smoothed his – slightly trembling – hand over his friend’s sweat dampened curls, brushing them back from Lee’s forehead as he reluctantly pushed away from the bed.
Outside Jamieson watched Morton covertly as he helped Nelson on with the sterile clothing. He knew the young officer was hurting even more, having witnessed first hand the previously only reported condition of his friend. Chip made no attempt to remove the scrubs and seemed a little dazed as Jamieson accompanied the admiral into the glass walled cubicle.
Nelson sucked in an audible breath at his first up close sight of his injured captain.
“He looks so pale, Will.”
“That’s due to the blood loss, Harry. And the shock. As you can see we’re still transfusing him. When we get his blood volume back to an acceptable level and, if the shock wears off, then his colour will improve.” Jamieson shook his head. “Shock and infection, Harry, they’re our biggest enemies. If we can overcome the shock and prevent any infection, he’ll have a fighting chance. I can’t promise you any more than that.”
“I know you’ll do your best for him, Will. We don’t say it very often,” Nelson’s lips twitched in a humourless grin, “it’s not very ‘manly’, I guess. But we both love that boy.”
Will Jamieson knew that Nelson considered the fatherless Crane as the son he’d never had. And recognised how devastating it would be if Lee weren’t to pull through. His gaze slid to the tall blond who was watching intently through the glass. Chip hadn’t taken his eyes off Lee since he’d left the room. Jamie sighed. “And as much as we love him, Harry, it’s nothing compared to the way Chip feels about him. That’s why I called you down here….”
Nelson’s eyebrows met in a ferocious frown. “I would have expected you to call me about Lee, in any case!”
“Goes without saying, Harry.” Jamieson’s long friendship with the four-star flag officer enjoyed a familiarity allowed few. “But I can do more for Lee than you can right now and that leaves me with little time to look after Chip. He’s hurting desperately too. You can see that. And I need you to take care of him so that I can concentrate on helping Lee.”
Nelson acknowledged the wisdom of Jamie’s words with a slow nod. “You’re right, as usual, Will. And it’s what Lee would expect.” He laid his hand on Lee’s arm, squeezing gently, a lump forming in his throat. “Come back to us, son. We...we all need you, Lee.”
He left the room as Jamie checked the IVs one more time before following him out.
Jamieson took off his sterile clothing as Nelson did the same, both men noting that Chip had propped himself against the wall making no attempt to remove his scrubs.
Nelson watched Chip surreptitiously while he addressed Jamieson. “Will, I take it you’re staying here for what remains of the night?”
“Yep! I’ll bunk down for a couple hours in the doctor’s lounge but I’ll hang around until we get his blood volume up a bit.”
“You’ll call if there’s even the slightest change?”
Jamieson rolled his eyes theatrically. “I’ll call. But if you’re expecting him to wake up any time soon – don’t! ”
“OK, then. Come along, Chip. Let’s get you home.”
“I’m not leaving.”
“WHAT?” Two identical expressions assaulted the blond. “That was the deal, Chip. You promised!” Jamieson’s annoyance was evident in his voice.
“I lied.” Flatly. Still propped against the wall and watching the unconscious man in the glass walled room, Morton crossed his arms and his square jawed face took on a stubborn cast. “I’m not leaving here until I know Lee’s out of danger. And as you won’t let me sit with him I’m going to stand right here. I won’t be in anyone’s way and….”
“Chip! For Heaven’s sake! It’ll be hours, maybe days, before he wakes! We’ll be keeping him sedated – for his own sake. You can’t stay here that length of time.” Exasperation now coloured Jamie’s tone.
“I can and I will! I promised Lee I wouldn’t leave him and I don’t intend to break that promise.”
“Chip. Lad.” Nelson attempted a conciliatory tone. “Lee wouldn’t expect…..”
“Admiral, please! Don’t order me to leave him because I won’t! I need to stay here. Please!” Troubled azure eyes met sapphire blue ones, seeking an understanding Chip thought he would find there.
Nelson sighed in defeat and nodded abruptly. “Give me your keys. I’ll have someone pick up your car and drive it home, bring you a change of clothes and some breakfast.”
Jamieson watched in growing disbelief as Chip pulled the key chain from his pocket and passed it with a soft “Thank you, sir” to the admiral, before he exploded.
“Admiral! You are not seriously…..”
“Will! Do you think you or I can get him out of here any way other than by calling Security and making a scene? And I think we are all too damn tired for that right now!”
”But, Harry, he’s not in any state …..”
”Then get him a chair, Will! He’s not going anywhere and the sooner we both accept that, the better! And besides, I feel better knowing that Lee is not alone and I’m sure - somewhere - Lee knows it too. Plus there’s a woman out there who tried to shoot Chip earlier. There’s every possibility she may make another attempt. At least he’s safe here!”
Throwing his hands up in despair and glaring ominously at the two officers, Jamieson stomped off to retrieve a chair. Grinning tiredly at the audible breath the blond released, Nelson patted Chip’s arm. “Just don’t get in his way, Chip. For your own sake!”
The weekend passed in a blur for Chip Morton. By Sunday afternoon he had reached the depths of physical and mental exhaustion. If Lee had woken he’d have considered it a milestone. But his friend remained unconscious and Chip knew it worried his doctors. Although the fact that Crane had survived the almost forty hours since the attack was a positive.
Chip hadn’t left the corridor outside Lee’s room for longer than it took to shower, change clothes and eat what little he could manage during that period. He’d been grateful for Chief Sharkey’s appearance with fresh clothes and shaving gear for him early on Saturday morning. Jamie had - reluctantly - allowed him use of the doctors’ facilities to clean up; Patterson had brought him a take out breakfast roll on both mornings; Kowalski had driven his and Lee’s cars from the bar to their respective apartments, delivered Chinese and Thai take out meals both evenings and, together with Sharkey, generally ran interference with the rest of Seaview’s anxious crew.
Morton had grown to appreciate the dedication of the ICU staff. They were always ready with a sympathetic smile or cup of coffee for him, having gotten used to his constant presence. He had resolved not to get in their way, cogniscent of the fact that they were the constant providers of care for his friend. In turn they recognised the import of his being there for Lee, allowing him the allocated five minutes per hour visitation.
Those times were precious and private. He talked to Lee, told him how he expected him to recover, and joshed him with tales of their wilder escapades both in and since Annapolis. And held his hand tightly when he despaired of his friend ever waking again.
He couldn’t eat; tried for Patterson and Kowalski’s sake to put a dent in the food the ratings faithfully produced; allowed himself to be dragged to the cafeteria by Nelson or Jamieson and pushed sandwiches around his plate in a concerted effort to look like he was eating, fooling no one. By Sunday evening, his admiral and CMO were almost as concerned for him as they were for Lee Crane. They were certainly more exasperated!
“Admiral, I swear to God! If you or somebody else doesn’t get Chip out of here I promise you I am not going to be responsible for my actions! He’s exhausted! He hasn’t slept a wink since all this began! He bats those baby blues and has managed to get the ICU staff catering to his every whim! And he’s driving me insane! There’s no sign of Lee coming out of this and….”
“And that’s what’s really got a burr up your six, Will. Not Chip. Don’t take it out on him! That’s not your style. We’re all feeling the frustration – the hopelessness, Chip more than most. So cut him some slack! I’m no happier than you about all this – don’t think for a moment that I am! That young man hasn’t got the sense he was born with! He has absolutely no perspective here!”
Will Jamieson wasn’t used to hearing that particular tone from his admiral – a combination of command, exasperation and despair.
“But if we make him leave and Lee…dies, he will never forgive either one of us. And I’m not prepared to lose them both. Are you?”
“I don’t want to lose either one of them!” Jamieson retorted and ran a hand through the receding strands of his brown hair – whose increasing thinness he often blamed on a certain pair of officers! “But if Lee doesn’t wake soon I think we should redouble our efforts to get in touch with his mother. There’s no medical reason I can see why he hasn’t regained consciousness.”
Their efforts to locate Elaine Crane had proved fruitless. Inquiring of her neighbours had yielded only that she had left on vacation a week ago but hadn’t said where she was going. Chip had made the decision not to alarm his own mother unless Lee’s condition worsened. As they were allowed minimal visiting time with their friend, there was no point in clogging up the corridors.
Jamieson sighed and looked at Nelson, reaching a decision. “Come on, Harry, I’m going to grant Chip’s wish!”
Puzzled, the Admiral followed the CMO back to the ICU where Morton waited for his next five-minute stint with his friend. He stood as he watched the two officers approach, noting the resolution in Jamie’s deportment.
“OK. I’m going to bring you both up to date before I tell you what I want to do next.” Jamieson’s tone was faintly assertive, even a little aggressive, and both Nelson and Morton straightened.
“Lee’s been holding his own surprisingly well since the surgery on Friday. We removed the ventilator more than twenty-four hours ago, his blood volume is close to normal levels and we stopped the sedation early this morning. All we’re supplying him with now is a reasonably heavy-duty painkiller and nutrition via IV. However he should have regained consciousness by now and I don’t like the fact that he hasn’t.
So I’m going to do something a little – let’s say – unorthodox.
We all know our redoubtable captain doesn’t deal with pain very well.” He waited for the snorts he knew would be forthcoming from the other two and wasn’t disappointed. “He basically denies it. As in ‘if I don’t admit pain, I don’t feel it.’ And I think that’s what’s going on here – subconsciously. Lee is quite comfortable where he is right now and, at some level, knows that if he wakes it will be to pain. So his subconscious is forcing him to stay under. Deny the pain.”
“Where is this leading, Jamie?” Morton’s usually intense blue eyes were dull from lack of sleep, dark circles like deep bruising bore witness to his lengthy vigil and his movements were edgy and tense, his tone unintentionally harsh.
Jamieson looked at the younger man sympathetically but with a degree of exasperation. He could see the toll this nightmare situation had taken on Chip, in his opinion unnecessarily, but he’d backed Nelson’s decision to allow Morton to stay and tried to make it as easy on him as he could without compromising Lee’s treatment. He’d have preferred if Chip had been sensible and gotten some rest – he didn’t need the exec folding on him now when he needed his help.
“I’m getting there, Chip, and I’m going to need your help and yours too, Admiral. You mightn’t like the sound of what I’m going to suggest but, believe me, it is in Lee’s long term interest.”
Nelson frowned but he trusted Will Jamieson implicitly. Chip Morton glared accusingly at the medic knowing, even before he heard what Jamie had to say, that he was assuredly NOT going to like it.
And he didn’t. It was rough seeing his friend begin to come round. Logically he understood Jamie’s rationale but it hurt to watch his friend in pain. Jamieson’s ‘treatment’ had involved shutting off all Lee’s pain meds to force him to come back to the real world. He had assured Morton and Nelson that it was a necessary – if somewhat extreme – procedure and that he would re-administer medication as soon as he’d wooed Lee out of his comfort zone.
It seemed to be working but Chip didn’t like seeing what it was doing to his friend. Lee’s eyelids had firstly begun to flicker. REM – Chip knew all about that – and not the Aussie Rock group, a favourite of Lee’s. Then Lee had started to shift slightly on the bed. Jamie had instructed Chip and Nelson to keep in constant touch with Lee. Talk to him, stroke his arms, his face and his head; soothe him when he became agitated. As Lee’s level of awareness increased, he became obviously more uncomfortable and soon small sounds began to emerge. Mere breaths at first, then a slight hum, finally becoming soft groans as his lids attempted to open. It was a long haul but eventually Lee’s eyes became sluggishly aware and he blinked fuzzily as the faces around him began to take shape.
His first thoughts were pain, intense, burning pain, in his chest, his head, his throat, behind his eyes, practically everywhere. Where was he? Not on Seaview, not Sickbay, not even in Med Bay, this was totally unfamiliar. What was familiar was waking up to see Chip, Jamie and Nelson co-alesce into reasonably steady figures with identical concerned expressions. God, he must be bad. He’d had enough experience in waking to find one or more of them hovering over him to learn to read their faces. All three were now grim and Chip’s, in particular, was haggard and worn. Funny (not really), he couldn’t remember what had caused this latest hospital sojourn – he was pretty sure he hadn’t been on an ONI mission and he certainly wasn’t aboard Seaview – so what happened? His usually sharp memory was recalcitrant about supplying details. The pain sidelined him. That, in itself, was abnormal. Jamie’s customary cocktails more often than not had him floating in a painless haze. This was…. agony. He just wanted to close his eyes and slip back into the black depths of oblivion. Unfortunately that was proving impossible.
“Lee? Skipper? Stay with me. Come on, now. Open your eyes for just a little while. Please.”
It was Jamie’s voice. He knew that. Could tell that through the pain. Knew Jamie was probably looking for something - some reaction. Figured he must have a concussion. That would explain the pounding in his head. And Jamie ALWAYS wanted him awake when he had a concussion. But it didn’t explain the agonising pain in his chest or the soreness in his throat or the all-pervading weakness he was feeling. God, this was frightening, terrifying. Why wasn’t Jamie doing something about the PAIN?
“Jamie, for God’s sake!” The voice was Chip’s, he could tell that much, but the tight tone was one he hadn’t heard before, raw, pleading and totally anguished. He tuned into his oldest friend’s inflection. “This is obscene! Do something! Stop this! NOW!”
He wanted to tell Chip to cease. Not to worry so much. He could usually tune out the pain. Part of his ONI training – if only he could concentrate. But this was like no other pain he had ever encountered. It was all-pervasive, radiating out from his chest and affecting every bone and muscle in his body. He had to find a way to tell Jamie about the pain. Jamie would make it stop. His voice, when he tried to use it, was rusty, barely more than a croak.
“Jamie….hurts…..” But it was enough to bring a very relieved smile to the CMO’s tired and lined face.
“Thank the Lord, Skipper.” Jamie’s grin widened and he immediately moved to adjust the IV. Almost instantaneously Lee felt the lassitude slide over him and the waves of agony diminish. “I’m going to give you enough to make you comfortable, Lee, not enough to put you under again. I want you with us for just a few more minutes. Understood?”
Lee nodded slowly, cautiously, but now that it no longer felt like the top of his head was going to blow off he became a little more aware of his surroundings. And the people around him. Chip looked terrible, exhausted, his eyes red rimmed from lack of sleep. And Nelson and Jamieson didn’t look too much better. He could hear the steady beep of machinery and, despite the welcome relief of the painkiller, he could feel an unaccustomed pressure in his chest coupled with an aching dryness in his throat. Thankful that he wasn’t on the dreaded ventilator, none the less he had an inkling one had been part and parcel of his treatment!
“Thirsty…” Within seconds a spoonful of ice chips was held to his greedy mouth and he sucked gratefully. “More…”
“Easy, Lee. Not too fast.” Jamie cautioned but held another spoonful to the parched lips.
“It’s … good...” He sighed as the melting ice soothed his arid throat. “How long…?”
Nelson interpreted the question. “How long have you been here, lad? Almost two days now!”
“But you’ve been making incredible progress.” Jamieson interjected with a don’t-argue-with-me look to the other two. “You probably already realise from the soreness in your throat that you had a ventilator for a while. No biggie - just a precaution after the surgery. You will have some pressure in your chest. That’s from a drain we have in place. Now that you’re awake we’ll probably remove it tomorrow….”
“No, Skipper, we’ll wait til you’re feeling a bit stronger.” Jamieson was firm on this. “Besides, you’re not going to be awake much longer. Now that I know you’re back with us to stay I plan on knocking you out for the next twelve hours so I can persuade these guys to go get some beauty sleep!”
“Chip… looks… terrible! Home!” Morton’s CO ordered with what little command tone he could muster in his croaky voice.
“Oh, I plan to, Skipper, believe me! I’ve been wanting to send him home for the past two days. But, like a certain stubborn captain I know, he doesn’t listen to me either!” Jamie’s almost plaintive tone caused a twitching of the lips from Nelson and an almost outright grin from Crane, but not a movement from the inscrutable exec.
“This isn’t funny!” Chip’s growl caused them all to look at him questioningly. Both Nelson and Jamieson exhibited intense relief and their chuckles indicated the welcome release of tension at their friend’s words. But Chip still radiated stress, moisture blurring his relieved blue eyes. “Don’t you ever, ever – do you hear me? – ever, do that again!”
“What?” Crane was suitably confused.
“Put yourself in the line of a bullet that’s meant for me!”
“Not now, Chip!” Jamieson knew that Morton was nearing the end of his tether and needed the release that ragging on his friend would give him, but Lee wasn’t up to this right now.
“WHAT? I … what happened…?” Lee scrabbled to recall the circumstances of his injury, but couldn’t.
“What’s the last thing you remember, son?” Nelson spoke gently, the voice of reason.
“Bar…I ...ate your …fries…” A look of total incomprehension invaded Lee’s pale features.
“You don’t remember the redhead? With the photo?” Chip was incredulous and in his worn out state more emphatic than he realised.
“Enough!” Jamieson shot an irritated look at the now dumbfounded blond exec. “Skipper, you are going back to sleep – NOW!”
“Mr. Morton is going home to sleep in his own bed tonight or, by God, I’ll make sure he’s barred from this floor for the next two days! Understood, Mister?” Jamieson’s razor sharp glare would have rivalled any of his well-honed instruments. “Admiral, I trust you will back me on THIS one?” His acerbic reference to Nelson not backing him earlier wasn’t lost on the flag officer.
“Indeed, Jamie, now that Lee is out of the woods I think a night in our own beds is called for – for all of us!” He included the dedicated CMO in that!
Chip looked like he was about to argue. A glance cast at his best friend told him how worried Lee was - for him; he obviously looked a state! Not wanting to cause Lee any further anxiety, he reluctantly agreed to leave. Resolving to return as early as possible the next day.
Jamie’s triumphant glare encompassed Nelson too. “You are both out of here! And don’t reappear until at least 0900 tomorrow! Lee’s going to sleep quite peacefully until then. And if he continues to improve at the rate he’s doing we’ll have him transferred to Med Bay in another two or three days.”
“Lucky … me!” A reluctant chuckle was wrought from the trio at the grumble from the patient whose remarkable hazel gaze swept them before grudgingly succumbing to the cocktail Jamie had rigged.
“Sleep is the best thing for him right now.” But Jamie was relieved; that his ploy had worked and that Lee was back in the arms of Morpheus. Now all he had to do was get rid of Morton and Nelson - and he was counting on Patterson and Sharkey to get them back to their respective residences. Shifting Kowalski would be a whole different ball game!
Monday morning at 0600 saw Chip awake and restless having slept in fits and starts, waking several times in a cold sweat. Knowing he wouldn’t be allowed to see Lee at this hour he called the hospital to be told that his friend had had a comfortable night and was still sleeping. Unable to settle he decided to use up some of his pent up energy by going for a run. He quickly changed into shorts, T-shirt and running shoes and went though his warm up routine on the deck before breaking into a gentle jog along the beach. He soon accelerated to his regular punishing pace, feeling the restlessness abate as he concentrated on his breathing and the workout he was giving his muscles. Usually when ashore he and Lee would run together and he missed his friend on this beautiful Southern California morning. One of the perks of working for NIMR was the wonderful stretch of private beach owned by the Institute and the beachfront condos allocated to most of Seaview’s officers and senior Institute staff – the married ones having more suitable housing elsewhere on the extensive property.
Chip loved to run and he indulged himself this morning with a longer than usual session. As he wasn’t going into the office first thing, there were no time constraints. Returning to the condo he was breathing hard and completed a proper cool down routine before hitting the shower. Eyes still gritty from lack of sleep he dressed in his usual precisely pressed khakis, downed a quick breakfast of cereal, juice and coffee and was just reaching for his car keys at slightly after 0800 when the doorbell rang.
“You’ve WHAT???” Nelson spluttered into the phone. “But you can’t….”
He listened to the calm voice at the other end before crashing the receiver down. “Of all the...” He stabbed viciously at the button on his intercom. “Angie! Get me Sanderson in Legal. Then get me Jamie!”
Too incensed to even attempt politeness he knew his secretary would understand. Not that he understood a whole lot this morning. He pushed his chair back violently so it crashed against the cabinet behind and rose in a single irritated movement. Striding to the window, hands clasped behind his back in a characteristic movement, he watched his beautiful grey lady Seaview rest easily at the dockside. There was minimal activity around her at this hour of the morning. Hell, what would he do about the computer refit if Morton were…? He refused to think about it. It would all get sorted. He’d see to that!
“Admiral? Your call to Professor Sanderson is on line one.” Angie was her usual efficient self, unaffected by his mood.
“Lionel? Chip Morton has been taken in for questioning by the Santa Barbara police in the light of Lee Crane’s shooting on Friday night. I want you to get down there and represent him.” Nelson was practically erupting. The poor lawyer at the other end of the phone had to slow him down to obtain details. “OK, yes, if you must! Come over now and I’ll fill you in.”
As soon as he replaced the receiver, the phone rang again. “Admiral, I’ve got Dr. Jamieson for you.” Angie didn’t sound like a happy camper!
“Admiral! What the hell is going on?” Will Jamieson was just about at the end of his tether, as evidenced by him swearing at a senior officer. “I get back here at 0900 and the place is swarming with cops wanting to interview Lee! I can’t allow that! For God’s sake, the man just came through critical surgery! He’s still not out of the woods by any means. I need to….”
“Will! Will! Listen to me! I don’t want anyone going near Lee. Keep them away from him as long as you can. They’ve taken Chip in for questioning. They’re going through the personnel records here but so far haven’t been able to identify the woman from the photograph. If they find out that Lee has no recollection of the incident, I’m afraid they’ll go gung ho and throw the book at Chip. Now I’m meeting shortly with Lionel Sanderson. If anyone can obfuscate them, he’s the man. What are the chances of getting Lee to Med Bay today?”
“You are not serious?” Nelson could hear the disbelief in Jamieson’s voice. “Lee went through thoracic surgery just three days ago! He still has a chest drain in. And you want me to move him NOW?”
“I thought you were going to remove the drain today?”
“I am. I planned to if he had a good night and he did. But that’s an uncomfortable procedure, Admiral, and I’d like him kept stable for twenty-four hours afterwards. Maybe tomorrow we can move him to Med Bay.”
“Will, I just got off the phone with the most officious, arrogant SOB of a cop I’ve ever come across. He as much as said that Chip fabricated the whole story about the redhead; that he shot Lee in a fit of jealousy because Lee’s – to quote him – “top dog” on Seaview. Now we all know how the lad feels about Lee – hell, it’s obvious to anyone who knows them! This, on top of what he’s endured since Friday evening is enough to send even our inscrutable exec over the edge!” Nelson’s diatribe wound down, knowing he was preaching to the converted. “He’s going to want to interview Lee also.”
”Over my dead body!” Jamieson’s words were grim and Nelson chuckled despite the gravity of the situation. He wouldn’t want to be the cop who tackled a seriously ticked off Will Jamieson! His momentary reverie was broken by a brisk knock to his door and Angie’s hasty entrance.
“Admiral! There are some policemen here to see you. They’re rather insistent.” Her overly cool tone portrayed her indignance – but only to Nelson. “They’ve already been through Personnel, now they want to interview all the Institute and Seaview staff! And Lt. Connelly, he’s in charge, says he needs to talk to you straight away. He has a warrant, sir!”
Jamieson had overheard the entire conversation from his end. “Harry, much as I hate this, I think I agree with you that Lee would be better off at the Institute. If they’re that aggressive, we can protect him better there than here. I’ll remove the chest drain straight away and plan to have him transported within the next couple hours, or as soon as I’m happy with him. You working on Chip?”
“Thanks, Will. And yes, I’m working on Chip!” Nelson was once again grateful for his quick thinking CMO. He disconnected and, hand still on the receiver, looked up at his petite P.A. “Has Prof. Sanderson arrived?”
”He’s on his way up, sir.”
”Very well. Send him in as soon as he gets here. Ask Lt. Connelly’s indulgence – I need ten minutes. And can you look up a number in Honolulu for me – it’s a Steve McGarrett of the State Police, Five-0 I believe they are called.”
Angie perked up. “Cmdr. McGarrett from ONI, sir?”
“Ex-ONI, Angie! But the same person, yes. If you can get hold of him for me, I think we could cut through some of the red tape that’s bound to surround this case.”
“Of course, Admiral. Consider it done!”
Chip was getting very fed up with the repetitive questions being thrown at him. He’d answered every one as honestly and thoroughly as he could. Yes, he’d been the one to suggest Benningan’s for drinks on Friday night. Yes, he’d met Captain Crane there and yes; they’d left together to go to their respective cars. He’d described the redhead in as much detail as he could, had even offered to try and reconstruct her with a police artist if it would help. And all the time he got the increasing feeling that they didn’t believe him.
They’d shown up at his door just as he was about to leave for the hospital so he hadn’t even had a chance to see Lee for himself this morning. He’d asked if he could swing by the hospital on the way to the station but his request had been totally ignored. Oh, they’d been polite. Ushered him into a room, bare except for a table bolted to the floor and four light wooden chairs, certainly not designed for comfort. They’d offered him coffee, asked if he wished to consult an attorney… Chip assured them that he was as anxious to get to the bottom of this as they were, to find the woman responsible for shooting his friend. Their barely hidden smirks had alerted him straightaway to the underlying premise – they didn’t believe a word he said.
Then they’d left him alone to cool his heels for several hours while they – politely – informed him that their presence was needed elsewhere and they’d be back shortly. He’d sat, he’d paced, he’d realised this was part of their ‘softening up’ process – to make him confess. Eventually he’d settled down, summoning the poker face he was famous for on Seaview. Finally the pair returned with another cop, a rumpled bull of a man, almost as wide as he was tall – who made no pretence of his scepticism as Chip repeated his story yet again.
He’d introduced himself as Lt. Patrick Connelly and shook his almost bald head in a world-weary fashion as Chip concluded his narration.
“Come on, Commander, you don’t honestly expect us to believe that drivel, do you?” He exchanged disbelieving grins with his colleagues. “Good story though! Mystery woman comes out of nowhere, shoots your friend in the car park of a busy bar, then disappears and no one sees a single thing. Not one witness! And the bartender doesn’t remember a redhead in the bar on Friday night.”
“It’s the truth!” Chip knew he was beginning to sound defensive but he’d been over the same ground for hours now.
“It’s a total fabrication, Morton! I know it and you know it!” For a big man the cop gained his feet adroitly, patience at an end. He’d gotten precisely nowhere at the hospital, his reception at the Institute had been extremely cool and he’d had his fill of these stuck up, close knit Military types. He leant across the table, braced on his forearms, almost nose to nose with the younger man, as overtly intimidating as he could be. “Look, pal, make it easy on all of us, huh. Your colleagues have been giving me the run around all morning and I’ve just about had it! They spirited your captain out of the damn hospital before I could question him and now they’ve…..”
“Leave Lee out of this! For Christ’s sake, he had major surgery just a couple days ago!” Now Chip was blindingly angry, determined that Lee would not be forced to endure their questioning in his current state – although he detected Jamieson’s hand in keeping them away from Lee. “He can’t help you. He doesn’t remember anything after leaving the bar.”
Chip knew from the satisfied expressions on their faces that he hadn’t helped his case any. But he was staunch in his desire to protect Lee – even at his own expense. His innate honesty and morality had been ingrained at an early age and he truly believed that if you told the truth then justice would be served. He would not – could not – countenance the fact that he could go down for a crime he didn’t commit. And he knew the Admiral would be working to have him released. Still a small trail of fear uncurled itself as Connelly sat back down and tipped the chair onto its back legs, shoving his hands into the pockets of the dark slacks he wore, exuding confidence.
Chip felt a cold rivulet of sweat wend its way down his spine. The room had become close and airless, his khaki jacket sticking to him. He longed to take it off and loosen his tie but he wouldn’t give them the satisfaction of seeing his discomfort. The other two hadn’t spoken since Connelly’s arrival, tacitly allowing him to take the lead.
“So your friend, Captain Crane, your only witness can’t help you, eh? Can’t finger you either – how convenient!” Connelly’s grin was almost friendly, admiring even.
Chip assumed his most inscrutable expression – one familiar to all aboard Seaview. “Doctor Jamieson says this sometimes happens with a trauma such as Lee’s. It’s the body’s way of denying the event. In some cases the memory comes back entirely, in some partially and in others not at all.” He was quoting Jamie verbatim.
“You better hope for the latter.”
Chip’s glacial stare had withered better men than Connelly and he saw the start of surprise the other man couldn’t quite conceal, inwardly chalking one up for his side. “On the contrary, Lieutenant, I very much hope Commander Crane regains his memory as soon as possible. Then maybe you’ll actually start looking for the person responsible for his injuries.”
Connelly brought the front legs of the chair back down to the floor and leaned forward, elbows on the table, studying the calm demeanour of his chief suspect. He was sure he’d rattled the Naval officer’s cage when he’d exchanged pertinent glances with his colleagues. He’d deliberately left Morton to stew for a lengthy period, knowing from experience that it either totally unnerved the suspects or, equally as much, caused them to bluster and admit to more than they should. But this man had coolly and calmly related the story he’d stuck to all morning. Perhaps he had underestimated the blond. He eyed the precisely pressed uniform the other man wore so easily, contrasting it with the bare and scarred tabletop where previous occupants of the room had etched their individual personalities into the wooden surface. The contrast was stark.
“Do you consider yourself a brave man, Commander?” He allowed his eyes to drop to the three rows of colourful campaign ribbons on the left breast of the khaki jacket.
Not sure where this was leading, Chip answered cautiously. “As brave as the next man, I guess. But not foolhardy.”
“I think you are brave, Chip. May I call you Chip?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “I think you’re very brave, and maybe just a little foolhardy. And I think you’re clever too. See, I don’t know what was said between you and the captain on Friday night. But I think that if you had planned to kill him you could have picked a much better time and place. That’s what I mean about foolhardy – you took a big chance that you wouldn’t be spotted, busy bar on a Friday night. Know what I mean?”
Connelly stood and began to pace the small room, playing on Chip’s vulnerability by idling behind his back, stopping as if to ponder and making the younger man increasingly uncomfortable, a classic psychological tactic. “So that leads me to think this wasn’t planned. At least not for that specific time. What did he say to you, Chip? Did he goad you? Does he lord it over you that he’s your superior officer? That he outranks you? Does it rankle that he’s moved so fast up the command ladder? Was that it, Chip? And just this one time you flipped! And who could blame you? He rode you bareback. It was merciless! And so demeaning! You have rank! You have status in the eyes of the crew! He shouldn’t do this to you! So you pulled out the little pistol – where did you pick that up anyway? – and oh so carefully, not to smudge the prints, you shot him at point blank range. Very bad luck that shot didn’t kill him but I guess you couldn’t risk a second, huh? You’re a good shot, Chip. I’ve seen your service record. So what happened? Did he turn suddenly? Did he confront you? How could you miss from that range, huh? That’s been puzzling me.”
Chip was shaking his head slowly as Connelly leant close and almost whispered the final words into his ear. “Firstly, I would never, ever do anything to hurt Lee Crane. He’s been my best friend since I was almost 18 years old. He’s saved my life on more than one occasion. We work together in sometimes-dangerous situations and I wouldn’t want anyone else at my side – couldn’t trust anyone the way I trust him. I have no resentment that he outranks me or is my superior aboard Seaview. He more than deserves it. He earned it. I know that boat better than most and he’s the only person I want to ever see captain her. I have the best job in the world as her exec – Lee’s exec. I wouldn’t change anything about that. Lee is closer to me than a brother and is the finest man I know. And secondly, if you’ve seen my record, you’ll know that I’m a crack shot. Besides computer studies, it was the only area I ever outperformed Lee at the Academy. If I’d shot Lee Crane, he’d be dead. For sure. From that range it wouldn’t have taken a second bullet.”
Connelly had returned to face the suspect as Chip talked. The calmness, the obvious sincerity of the simply spoken words, coupled with the absolute integrity that shone from the cerulean eyes that met his with a directness Connelly had seen few times in his years as a cop, caused him to re-evaluate his theory. Either Morton was telling the truth or he was the best actor Connelly had ever encountered. And Patrick Connelly had served enough years cleaning scum off the streets to know when to trust his gut instincts. He’d used every tool in his impressive armoury - and more - to try and break the man. His reputation as the best interrogator on the Force was well deserved and he’d have made Captain long since had he been prepared to take the rank. But that would have pulled him off the streets and he knew that was where he made the real difference – not behind a desk.
Connelly nodded decisively, turned the wooden chair around and straddled it, resting his forearms across the back. His colleagues exchanged disbelieving glances, one raising an eyebrow and the other shrugging as they resumed their places at the table.
“OK, let’s go over it one more time.” His mouth twitched as Chip groaned aloud. “Step by step this time, Commander. Leave nothing out.”
Chip sensed the difference in the police lieutenant’s tone and attitude as he began the narration again. Connelly interrupted him this time to ask pertinent questions, sharpening the younger man’s recollections, and Chip leant forward in the chair loosening his tie as he honed his perceptions and recall of the night’s events. As he related the details of the shooting, Connelly’s questions came thick and fast. How old was she? How tall was she? What shade of red was her hair on a scale from strawberry blonde to russet? Did she have any particular accent or speech pattern? What was she wearing, clothes, shoes, what style of purse did she carry? Eye colour, lips, shape of face – all built a picture in Chip’s mind until he could just about see her in front of him. Was she right or left handed? Did he recall her perfume? When she dropped the gun did she back away or turn and run? At what point had she disappeared from Chip’s view? Did he recollect hearing a car leave the parking lot?
Chip had thought the events of that night were indelibly printed on his mind. But it was only through the insightful questions of the experienced cop that he appreciated how much he had either forgotten or had only noticed subconsciously. Connelly might be tough as hell but he was a good cop and Chip began to believe that they might actually get this woman yet. Then Connelly began to question him about the waitress and the barman who served them. That was when things began to fall into place for the seasoned cop.
Hearing Chip’s description of the waitress and the duty barman he cast a disgusted look at his two cohorts.
“Did either of you think to check the time that barman you interviewed came on Friday night?” Their sheepish expressions were answer enough. “OK, back to the legwork, you guys!”
It was their turn to groan. And Connelly grinned openly for the first time since he’d entered the room all those hours ago. The two cops rose to their feet and exited the room, leaving Morton and Connelly alone together.
“Like some coffee, Commander?”
“I’d kill for some!” At Connelly’s quick grin, Chip realised what he’d said and his own lips twitched.
“Come on, I’m sure you’d appreciate another view. These walls can close in on you when you’ve been here a while.”
Connelly led the taller younger man from the room; Chip snatching his cover from the table where he’d laid it so much earlier. He followed the cop to what was obviously a break room, empty right now but with the ever-present coffee pot and disposable cups.
“Can’t vouch for the freshness of the coffee, I’m afraid. Rule round here is that the person who takes the last cup puts on the next pot! This one could be stewing for a while.”
“I’ll take it any way it comes.” Chip avowed and gulped greedily when the Styrofoam cup was handed to him. “Lieutenant, have you any idea how Lee was today? I haven’t heard anything since I called the hospital early this morning and they said he’d had a comfortable night. Your men confiscated my wallet and cell phone when they brought me in.”
“SOP, Commander, I’m sure you understand.” Connelly had come to a new appreciation of this man during the past few hours and recognised the training – military rather than police but similar, hell perhaps even more ingrained! – Chip had undergone.
Chip nodded, he too had come to view the police officer differently. He accepted the fact that the man had a job to do and that he, Chip, had to be eliminated from the equation as a potential suspect. He hadn’t particularly enjoyed his treatment at the hands of the SBPD up til now but he did appreciate this man’s thoroughness.
Connelly delved into his pants pocket and pulled out Chip’s familiar wallet and cell phone. “It was encoded. We couldn’t crack the code and, believe me, our best guys tried!”
“I designed the code. And I’m relieved the code proved itself but I’m willing to share. With the good guys!”
“Might take you up on that, Commander. Bit of a computer buff, are you?” His grin was quick, almost envious and, at his words, Chip smiled the first genuine smile since he’d left his home that morning. If only the other man knew!
Connelly wondered at the enigmatic smile but shrugged off his curiosity – for now. “I’ve got to go bring my captain up to speed. Make your calls. Appreciate it if you’d stay here, I’d like to talk some more. Maybe get a police artist to put together a photo fit of our girl. But you’re not obliged to stay. Got to make that clear to you.”
“That’s OK, Lieutenant. I want to help any way I can. I just really need to find out how Lee’s doing. You said he’d been moved from the hospital. I know Jamie hadn’t planned on transferring him to Med Bay this soon. I just hope everything’s OK with him.” As he spoke Chip, brow furrowed, was pushing the buttons to connect him with the pre-programmed number.
Connelly nodded and left, re-assured by the commander’s first actions that he’d been correct in his assessment. Now to convince his sceptical captain!
Nelson crashed the receiver back into its cradle – it was a testament to the strength of the moulded plastic that it didn’t shatter - as a tap was followed by the door opening tentatively and Angie popped her head around, an expression of chagrin mingled with shame on her pretty face.
“Damn reporters!” Nelson muttered and shot her an accusing look.
“I’m sorry, Admiral. He told me he was calling from the Hamilton Institute in Florida about a project you had expressed interest in.” Angie was usually very good at screening the admiral’s calls. But her head hadn’t been fully on her job today, worried as she was about both Lee and Chip – and she knew Nelson couldn’t keep his mind on his work either although he’d tried to make it seem as normal a day as possible.
“Don’t worry about it, Angie. I didn’t hire you for your psychic abilities!” He managed a tired grin, noting the concerned expression and lines of strain showing on his petite P.A. She managed a quick grin in response to what she knew was the nearest thing she’d get to an apology. She’d guessed by the roar from the inner office that someone unsavoury had slipped by her usual thorough screening and knew the admiral despised reporters more than any other breed of human – and he’d had plenty of experience.
“Any word of Commander Morton yet, Admiral?” Her stomach was knotted with worry. And she was bone weary into the bargain. As soon as she’d been alerted on Friday night of the captain’s shooting, she’d manned the office – the only thing she could do to help, leaving the admiral and Chip free to be with Lee. She’d remained at the Institute constantly during the weekend, fielding the myriad calls the event had generated, some prurient, some genuine concern from friends and colleagues of Lee’s and some downright unsavoury. She’d only left to go home to shower and change. She’d wanted to stop by the hospital, if only to see Chip, but she’d heard from Seaview’s crewmembers that he hadn’t left the ICU throughout the weekend. Now that Lee had been brought back to Med Bay she hoped to be able to go see the captain – as soon as Dr. Jamieson had lifted the ‘no visitors’ order which he’d extended even to the admiral.
“Not yet, Angie. I sent that buffoon, Sanderson, down there hours ago and all I get is one call telling me that he’s not allowed to see Chip, that Chip hasn’t been charged with anything but is helping with ‘enquiries’ and has refused an attorney! What the devil is he thinking?” Nelson’s growl indicated he was ready to work himself into a rage and only the appearance of Dr. Jamieson just then headed off the temper tantrum ready to erupt.
“Will, how is he?” He had not enjoyed being banned from Lee’s bedside but he knew that Jamieson had his captain’s welfare at heart and so Harriman Nelson had reluctantly – for the most part – controlled his impatience.
“He’s doing as well as can be expected.” An enigmatic response, typical of the urbane medic when he didn’t have the news Nelson expected – wanted desperately – to hear. “It’s been a rough day on him. I’d ideally have liked another 24 hours in ICU before we had to move him so I’ve kept him rather heavily sedated all day. He needed to be awake for the removal of the chest drain and, believe me, that was not a comfortable procedure.” He saw Angie wince in sympathy. “I knocked him out for the transfer and have kept him pretty much out of it since. He’s not going to be a happy camper when he wakes up, however.”
Nelson raised one eyebrow enquiringly. He was somewhat reassured at Jamie’s chuckle. “You know our captain, Admiral. Likes to be in control of everything around him. I may have neglected to mention to him that we were going to move him today. So he’s in for a bit of a shock when he finds himself back in Med Bay – when I finally allow him to wake up.”
Nelson allowed himself a small snort of relieved laughter – if Jamieson was this relaxed about his least favourite patient then perhaps Lee was going to be OK. He pushed himself out of his chair and rounded the desk to the sideboard where he kept an impressive drinks array for visitors – or the occasional tipple he deemed necessary for troop morale, and now seemed like a suitable occasion. He poured shots of neat whiskey for himself and Jamieson, enquired of Angie her preference and watered down a tot for her. All three sipped the aged alcohol appreciatively.
“Angie, you’re out on your feet. I want you to go home and get a night’s sleep.” Nelson tipped his glass in her direction, ready with a steely glint to his gaze when she opened her mouth to protest. She snapped it closed, bowing to the inevitable.
“What about Chip, Admiral? Is he going to remain in custody all night?” That was her main concern.
Jamieson lowered his glass, having taken just a token sip. “You mean he hasn’t called you?”
“You’ve heard from Chip?”
“Just five minutes before I got here! He rang my cell to find out about Lee. He’d heard Lee’d been transferred from the hospital and was concerned that we’d moved him too quickly. He said he’d call you straight away.”
“Damn, my line’s been tied up with calls almost all afternoon! And I turned my cell off!” Nelson berated himself then barked. “Well, what did he have to say for himself? Silly young fool! What’s he playing at – refusing an attorney?”
Jamieson could see Nelson was about ready to work himself up a real head of steam and didn’t envy Chip when the admiral got hold of him. Nelson was more bluster than bite but one glare from those steely blue eyes had been known to send officers and ratings alike scuttling for cover.
Trying to defuse the mounting temper tantrum Jamie casually replenished the admiral’s now empty glass, the previous shot having been knocked straight back.
“Knowing Chip, I’d say he felt he could handle it on his own, Admiral, be that right or wrong. He would only play it one way – upfront and honest – and wouldn’t see the need for reticence or caution in what he’d tell the police.” He hurried on as he saw Nelson about to interrupt. “And I’d say it worked too. From what he told me, his ‘help with their enquiries’ is exactly that. He’s putting together an identikit picture of the woman with a police artist. He sounded tired but otherwise OK. His only concern was for Lee. He’ll swing by Med Bay after he’s finished at the Station – despite me telling him he wouldn’t be allowed to see Lee tonight, under any circumstances.”
Jamieson shook his head disgustedly, sipping on his drink and drawing a small grin from Angie and Nelson. “I must be losing my touch. He said he’d be by anyway! Nobody listens to me anymore! But I mean this! And it goes for you too, Admiral. I want you to go home – NOW – and you too, Angie. You’ve been here nearly as long as the admiral. Get a decent night’s sleep and – if you’re really lucky and he’s up to it – I’ll let you sit with Lee for an hour tomorrow.”
Grumbling under his breath about over officious medics and lack of respect for rank, Nelson tossed off the last of his drink, speared Jamieson with a mock scowl and motioned with a nod of his head towards Angie that she should take off. With murmured good nights to the two officers, she left.
Nelson crossed to his desk and began stuffing papers into his briefcase, ignoring Jamie’s noisily cleared throat. “Don’t start!”
“That’s not what I had in mind for a restful night, Admiral!”
“It’s the best you’re going to get, Will!
“You’re as bad as the other pair! Worse! At least they have age on their side!”
“I’m only two years older than you, Will! And I’m not ready for the pipe and slippers detail quite yet!” Nelson responded drolly as he and Jamieson headed for the elevator. “Besides, how long is it since you saw your own bed?”
Jamieson was unable to stifle a yawn. “Why do you think I attempted to have Chip stay away from Med Bay tonight? If he insists on coming back here to try to see Lee, I’ll have to stay around. I don’t trust him not to charm his way past my staff!”
Nelson stepped into the elevator and turned to look at the taller leaner man. “And what harm would it do if he did, Will? You’ve already said that Lee is out for the count. You sent Chip home last night and the lad has spent the best part of the day at the police station, he’s probably desperate to at least see for himself that Lee managed the transfer without any complications. Instruct your staff on pain of death to throw him out after ten minutes but let him have that if nothing else.”
Jamieson sighed loudly and shook his head. “They really have you wrapped around their little fingers, don’t they, Harry? I never thought I’d see the day!”
“Oh, I’m not beyond putting a burr up their six if I think they need it, Will, and I’ll have a few words to say to Commander Morton for refusing to allow Sanderson to represent him. But, after what Chip’s been through since all this started, you and I both know that he won’t rest easy tonight if he doesn’t see Lee for himself first.”
“You’re probably right – as usual! OK, I’ll allow him ten minutes, max! And I want to see Chip for a check up tomorrow morning! I bet he hardly slept last night and probably hasn’t eaten all day. Plus he’s dropped a good ten pounds since Friday!” Jamieson groused as the two exited the Institute lobby. “That young man has more than exceeded his quota with me!”
“I’ll allow you to tell him that! My hearing won’t take the fallout! Goodnight, Will.” And chuckling quietly to himself, Nelson strode towards his car before the doctor got the bright idea of checking him out!
Chip was surprised to be allowed into Med Bay to visit with Lee, following his call to Jamieson, although the steely glare from the head nurse warned him there was zero tolerance for any extension of the ten-minute limit. He just needed to see for himself that his friend had withstood the move from the hospital without any repercussions. Jamie’s absence was the best indicator that Lee was improving. Chip knew there was no way the conscientious physician would have left were he not completely satisfied with Lee’s condition. He could tell that Lee’s colour was better this evening. The unnatural pallor had been replaced by something closer to – if not quite – his friend’s usual healthy olive complexion.
Chip leaned on the guardrail by Lee’s side; studying his sleeping friend, glad to note the loss of the chest drain and the IVs. The heart monitor was still in place but the beeps were regular and steady – he had enough experience of watching his friend connected to the apparatus to be able to read it with practiced precision. All the signs indicated improvement and Chip sighed with welcome relief. Today had been tough but if it meant the police accepted his story and lay off Lee then it was worth it. He scrubbed his hand across his face, tired beyond measure. But he had one more task to complete before he could head for home.
“Rest easy, buddy.” He laid his hand on Lee’s forearm, squeezing lightly, and felt a slight stirring from his sleeping friend. Knowing he would be slaughtered by the Major General on duty outside – not to mention Jamieson when he found out – if he were to wake Lee, he quickly soothed him back to sleep with soft patting motions to his arm and face. “Sleep, Lee. Jamie’s right, it’s the best thing for you just now, pal. I’ll be back in the morning. And don’t worry, I won’t rest til we find her.” With a final light caress to his friend’s bare shoulder, Chip left, holding both hands palm out in response to the glare he received from the military-style nurse. What he failed to notice was her grin as he headed for the elevator, still tired but his good humour more or less restored having seen for himself the improvement in Lee’s condition.
Unintentionally, Chip’s last comment had penetrated his friend’s drug induced slumber causing him to frown inwardly as his recalcitrant brain struggled to recall the words. Unable to quite wake up he knew, in the part of his consciousness that was aware, that Chip felt responsible for his injuries and Lee also knew that would make his usually cautious and methodical friend reckless. On some level he was aware that Chip had been with him constantly since the shooting – except for today. He couldn’t figure that out. He’d expected Chip to be there – and knew there had to be a very good reason why he wasn’t. Jamieson had probably restricted access. Yes, that had to be it. He hadn’t seen anything of the admiral either. Lee was floating in a hazy pain-free world but recognised that all was not as it should be with his best and oldest friend. He could only hope that Chip wouldn’t do what he would probably do given the same circumstances. In other words, attract trouble!
Chip paid off the cab outside Benningan’s, unbuttoned and peeled off his uniform jacket, loosening his tie as he entered the establishment. A cold shiver had wound its way down his spine as he’d surveyed the car park. He’d half expected to see Lee’s blood on the asphalt but the scene was as normal as one could imagine of a busy wharf-side bar at 2200 on a Monday night.
The citizens of Santa Barbara were used to the presence of uniformed sailors and he attracted no more attention than a handsome man in officer’s attire would do. Glancing around the busy establishment, hoping against sane hope that she would be there, he approached the bar. The barman was unfamiliar, not the one who had served them Friday night. He ordered a beer, fingering the copy of the police artist’s sketch he’d helped compile. He meant to canvass the patrons; sure he could find someone who recognised her, if not tonight then tomorrow or all the tomorrows it took until he found her.
“Thought you might show up here, Commander.” A familiar voice sounded at his elbow and Chip turned to see Lt. Connelly, sipping what looked like ginger ale, slide onto the stool beside him. “Leave the police work to the professionals, heh?”
“You’re a step ahead of me, Lieutenant.” Chip took a quick quaff of his beer. Feeling the alcohol react on his empty stomach, he placed the glass back on the bar; the last thing he needed was to have his perceptions impaired.
“Yeah, we’ve shown her picture round. So far, no joy. And the barman who worked the early evening shift on Friday is out of town for the weekend. Not due back til tomorrow.” Connelly allowed his gaze to wander over the blond Naval officer. He could see the younger man’s exhaustion. He’d thought he might find Morton here, having become acquainted with his tenacity during their dealings today he’d felt it was a natural proclivity that Morton would find his way back here sooner rather than later.
“How’s your friend?”
Chip was surprised to find the question was sincere and answered honestly. “Lee’s doing better. I was worried that the move to Med Bay might have been too soon but he seems to be OK. At least his meds are downgraded and our CMO has gone home for the night – he wouldn’t have left if he were in any way concerned about Lee. So that’s looking good. He still has a long haul ahead of him.”
“I’m going to need to question him at some point.” Connelly cautioned.
“Not much he can tell you if he doesn’t remember what happened.” Again Chip tried to shield his friend.
“You said yourself that his memory could return.” Connelly countered.
“Or it might not.”
“We’ll still need to talk to him. Just for the record. SOP.” The cop held up his hand to prevent Morton’s instinctive rebuttal. “When his doctor clears it.”
At Chip’s involuntary grin, Connelly realised that he would be stonewalled for as long as they deemed it necessary.
“You know, I got an interesting call today. Your admiral pulled in the big guns.”
Chip merely raised an eyebrow enquiringly. He watched as a waitress served food to some customers in the booth he and Lee had occupied Friday night. The smell was enticing but his stomach couldn’t handle anything right now. The famous Morton appetite was taking an unappreciated hiatus. He knew he’d dropped weight the past several days and that Jamie would probably be on his case – not as much as had it been Lee – but he was undoubtedly in for a grilling from the vigilant CMO – and sooner rather than later.
“Yeah, got a call from the State Police in Hawaii.” Connelly continued to sip his drink, his eyes constantly traversing the busy bar.
“Hawaii? Not from ComSubPac?” Chip’s puzzlement was evident in his tone.
“Nope. A call requesting information on your status – whether we’d arrested you, were holding you or if you were merely ‘helping us with our enquiries’. Apparently your admiral knows him of old and this McGarrett is well got with Governors and Heads of State …..”
“McGarrett? Steve McGarrett?” Chip was astounded. McGarrett had been two years ahead of Lee and him at Annapolis. “He’s a cop? Last time I encountered him, he was with ONI – Office of Naval Intelligence.” He translated for the other’s sake.
“Not just a cop – the cop! He’s head of the State Police unit ruling the eight islands – reports only to the Governor and the US President. Heavy hitter – lots of clout; especially with my captain. He put his two cents worth in your corner, my friend. Seems he knows both you and your captain from the Academy – and has a lot of time for your admiral. Vouched for you. Said you couldn’t lie worth shit! Convinced my captain anyway.” Connelly failed to mention that he’d reached the same conclusion on his own.
“Steve McGarrett! Never thought he’d give up the Navy!” Chip grinned in recollection of the rigid, disciplined commander. But McGarrett had always been a deep thinker, a problem solver. Yeah, he could see it; the switch to law enforcement - and if he remembered anything about the man it was his piercing blue see-all gaze and his reputation as a loner, well suited to the solitary profession of an ONI agent. Chip was glad to hear that McGarrett had found another venue for channelling his energies – he just wished Lee would follow suit. But there was a similarity between the two men that he couldn’t deny – a call to duty so ingrained that neither man could ever rule out the necessity to answer the need that so defined them as outstanding individuals.
Chip, although he hated the missions Lee undertook, knew he himself had answered that call when his particular skills had been requested. He’d hated it, untrained in the art of subterfuge as he was, but had backed Lee to the hilt as the situation had warranted. And they’d lucked out – mostly due to Lee’s skill and daring, his innate ability to read the situation and plan a strategic advance or retreat. Chip owed his life to his friend on more than one of his un-asked-for secondments to ONI. What he failed to recognise was that the reports showed it was his singular skill, mostly in computer technology, that had resulted in the successful outcome of the mission. Lee’s talent was in getting them in and out, Chip’s was in retrieving or planting the required data – without anyone knowing their systems had been infiltrated.
Nelson had burned the phone lines at length to the higher echelons of ONI, demanding that his officers be left to cover the duties the Institute paid them for. He couldn’t refuse his men their opportunity to best serve their country but he could request that ONI call on them only as a last resort. Nelson was particularly concerned for Morton – who’d had no specialised training as an agent. But in the past couple of years Chip’s computer skills had come to the attention of the various heads of station – who’d tried to purloin him for their own agencies – due to some of the scrapes Chip had managed to pull Seaview out of and his insistence on the boat having the latest computer technology available. He diligently followed – and in many cases designed – hardware and software that would inevitably enhance Seaview’s capabilities and Nelson acknowledged that he was lucky Chip was so devoted to Lee and to Seaview that he couldn’t be drawn by incredible offers from the hi tech firms interested in him.
He knew Chip had been approached several times by huge conglomerates, seduced with offers of personal wealth (of no appeal) and of monies and facilities to further his areas of interest (tempting) but nothing could compare to what he had as XO of the best boat in the world, at his friend’s side and with the facilities of the Nelson Institute and the backing of the admiral for anything he requested to advance Seaview’s technologies. Morton had grown up in a secure, comfortable background where money hadn’t been lacking so financial gain wasn’t a factor for Chip. What he had missed out on was paternal support for his career choice.
Chip knew Nelson trusted him in the computer arena, as he did no one else. Lee had Nelson’s total acceptance – he was like the son the admiral had never had. And Chip knew he too – as Lee’s brother - held a unique place in that rarefied atmosphere, although it was not as acknowledged as Lee’s place was - and he had no difficulty with that! Chip was glad for his friend that he had found a father figure and did his best to help Lee act as part of a family, a trait Lee had only begun to develop upon his adoption into the Morton clan.
Chip realised his thoughts had drifted when he heard the lieutenant call his name. “Commander, I think you need to go get some sleep. You spaced out on me there for a while.”
Chip apologised, stifling a yawn at the same time. He was tired and, now that he was happier about Lee’s condition, thought he might actually get some decent shut-eye. Connelly followed him out of the bar and Chip couldn’t repress a shudder of revulsion as his eyes wandered around the car park. He knew he’d be unable to come near the place again.
Connelly saw his reaction. “Don’t worry, Commander, we’ll find her. Your sketch is being circulated to all cruisers in the area and we’ll talk to the barman as soon as he comes back to Santa Barbara. He may remember something that will help us identify her.”
Chip hailed a cab and held out his hand to the big policeman as the car screeched to a halt. “Thanks, and it’s Chip.”
“Pat. Look, here’s my card. Give me a call tomorrow and I’ll keep you posted.”
Lee woke slowly, keeping his eyes closed as he attempted to evaluate how he felt, which, he realised pretty fast, was a heck of a lot better than the last time he’d been awake - however long ago that was. His chest hurt – a lot – but it seemed he was able to breathe a little easier. He remembered Jamie removing the chest drain – he didn’t think he’d ever forget that – and the welcome relief of the heavy-duty painkiller he’d received straight after, which had knocked him out for God knew how long. At least the ache in his head had subsided and the soreness in his throat was almost gone, indicating that it had been some time since the ventilator had been taken out. Moving didn’t seem like a good plan but he thought maybe opening his eyes now might be a start.
He cautiously allowed his lids to lift as the white ceiling above him hove into fuzzy view and he blinked a couple times til his vision cleared. The room appeared dissimilar somehow to when he’d woken before. The light was different. Lee turned his head slowly and carefully to the left, to the source of the light – a window, dressed with narrow wooden blinds slanted to mute the bright sunshine outside. His room hadn’t had a window. He had obviously been moved while he’d slept. But to where? He wasn’t on Seaview, couldn’t feel either the throbbing of her engines or the very faint rocking motion (imperceptible to most) that she made when stationary.
He allowed his eyes to move around the room. It was fairly large – as hospital rooms went - nicely decorated, with yellow walls, pale wood doors leading to presumably a closet and head; a couple of comfortable easy chairs, a table under the window – currently crowded with floral arrangements – and the standard hospital bed upon which he lay were the only furniture. He could smell Lysol, or a similar detergent, a pungent odour significant of any hospital he’d ever had the misfortune to find himself in.
A uniformed nurse currently occupied one of the easy chairs. She was unaware he’d woken; absorbed as she was in the broadsheet newspaper she was reading. Lee took the opportunity to scope out some further facts, knowing she’d begin to fuss as soon as she realised he was conscious.
It didn’t take a genius to figure that he was in Med Bay. Lee grinned inwardly – surely he’d spent enough time here in the last four years to recognise the place! He’d probably been a guest in most of the suites since he’d taken over as Seaview’s captain. His assessing gaze encountered no IVs, heart monitors or attachments – even the dreaded Foley was gone. That, coupled with the absence of any of his trio of guardian angels, meant he must be on the mend. Chip, in particular, would have had to be pried away with a crowbar! He frowned, remembering that he’d insisted at some point – he couldn’t remember when – that Jamie send Chip home. Then, perversely, he recalled being concerned that Chip wasn’t around. Being worried that his friend was going to get into trouble. But his time clock was completely out of kilter and he couldn’t recall the sequence of the memories – they were just vague fragments floating.
He thought maybe he could attempt some small movements. He started with his head, moving it slowly on the pillow. When it didn’t fall off and the throbbing headache didn’t get any worse, he tried his hands and arms – fingers first, flexing and stretching out the digits, rotating the wrists, then lifting the forearms off the bed and bending them at the elbows, wincing as the bruising from the IVs caused minute but throbbing aches. His ring, the Annapolis ring he wore on his left hand, was missing. He frowned momentarily. Then his brow cleared. Chip would have it. He was sure of that!
He flexed his feet, glad to feel them respond readily – not so sure they’d be much use were he to put his weight on them though! Despite the individual successes, he felt a pervading weakness and surmised that, whatever had happened - and that was a total blank - the injury had been severe. The nurse still hadn’t noticed him and Lee frowned again. She certainly wasn’t taking her duties overly seriously – a mortal sin in his opinion. Then his innate fairness kicked in – he’d only been awake five, maybe seven minutes. She was probably on fifteen-minute obs and had likely checked him out just before he’d awoken. Whatever she was reading in the local newspaper was obviously enthralling – she hadn’t lifted her head since he’d become aware. Not that he was complaining! The longer he could put off the fussing the better as far as he was concerned. He wondered what time of day it was and attempted to turn his head far enough to see if there was a clock on the nightstand, having realised his watch was also missing. The range of the movement must have caught her peripheral vision for she immediately came to her feet, quickly folding the newspaper on the chair she vacated.
“Commander Crane! You’re back with us. Good morning, sir. How are you feeling?” She picked up his wrist and expertly calculated his pulse rate as she carried on a patter of conversation, not waiting for him to respond. The fussing had begun. “Now, Commander, I’m just going to make you a little more comfortable before I call Dr. Jamieson and let him know you’re awake.”
Lee submitted to the quick check, knowing Jamie’s would be substantially more thorough. His request to visit the head was met with an askance glance. Before she left to call Jamie, she at least raised the head of the bed and propped him up with several pillows, allowing him to recline in a semi upright position, which was a decided improvement. Lee hated the fussing more than he hated the necessary procedures – one of the reasons he was constantly chaffing at the bit to escape from the confines of Sick Bay or Med Bay, but at least on Seaview he usually only had Jamie or the occasional corpsman to contend with.
He rolled his eyes to Heaven, knowing he’d have Jamie – and probably half the Institute medics – to deal with in the coming days. Something told him he wasn’t going to get out of here too quickly this time. He sighed, wishing he’d been able to hold off the nurse a little longer. He’d been enjoying the peace of being awake without being fussed over. His gaze casually drifted to the chair she’d occupied. The newspaper lay on the seat, abandoned in her haste to attend him. The broadsheet was folded neatly across the mid section, headline prominently displayed. Lee caught sight of the inflammatory caption, gasping with pain as he came semi upright in immediate agitation.
“Officer Questioned in Shooting of Seaview Captain” shrieked the lurid headline accompanied by a head and shoulders Institute publicity shot of Chip. God! Lee immediately recalled his concern as to Chip’s absence. That would explain it! He’d been arrested! Lee couldn’t remember the details of the incident that had put him here but for sure he knew that Chip wasn’t responsible! Christ! Had Chip been arrested? On suspicion of attempted murder? Was that why Chip hadn’t been around? But he had been there, or had he? Lee’s memories weren’t all that reliable.
He had to know what the paper said! Needed to know! Lee used the control to raise the bed as far as it would go. As upright as he could be, he pushed back the covers, levered himself inch by gradual inch over to the edge of the mattress, his breath hitching as the pain hit instantly, stabbing him like a serrated knife entering his chest wall. He reached into the deepest recesses of his consciousness to damp down the agony. Slowly, carefully, he swung his legs over the side of the bed using the rigid edge to aid him and pushed himself off, reaching forward as far as he could for the newspaper. He couldn’t quite reach and rested for a moment, planting his feet as firmly as he could on the cool floor, the overwhelming weakness causing him to clutch even harder at the edge of the mattress. He levered himself excruciatingly slowly into a standing position, bent forward and grasped the arm of the chair, supremely aware of the shake in his hands as he leaned on the chair arm with one hand for much needed support while the other reached tremulously for the newspaper, desperately needing information, so completely riveted on the newsprint that he was unaware of the door opening behind him.
“Captain Crane! What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
“Chip, give me a hand!” Jamieson’s voice was tight with censure as he quickly moved to one side of the patient he’d expected to find prostrate in the hospital bed. He should have known better! With Chip at Lee’s other side, they manoeuvred him gently back onto the bed and Jamie quickly checked him over, his face set in stern disapproval.
Lee looked at the doctor’s grim countenance from under dense black eyelashes, knowing he’d managed to tick off the medic once again. It seemed he was a past master at that! His gaze swept to Chip’s equally forbidding demeanour, one he was more used to seeing directed at recalcitrant seamen than himself. He could already hear the lecture he was bound to have to sit through!
Chip slowly and deliberately crossed his arms over his chest – a movement designed to make wayward crewmen cower in terror and almost elicited a similar reaction from his captain just then. “Entertaining ideas of escape, Lee? A little premature, don’t you think? Even for you.” While his voice was calm, the exec’s blue eyes flashed a warning even Crane cringed from. Morton’s bad side was not a pleasant place to be – as he’d had occasion to experience – first hand!
“Simmer down, Commander.” Jamieson requested, having completed his checks and satisfied himself that Lee had done no further damage. “This is my show!” And he turned a blazing glare on the bane of his professional life as he leaned closer, bracing his arms on the bed.
“Now, listen to me, you! And listen good!” His tone was the harshest the two officers had ever heard and had Chip - angry as he was at Lee - almost switching sides ready to protect and defend his friend from Jamie’s unconcealed fury. It forced Lee to lock his eyes with the doctor’s whose righteous anger denied the captain the entitlement to look away. “I don’t give a damn right now that you outrank me. I don’t give a good Goddamn that you’re one of the best captains I’ve ever had the privilege of working with. I don’t even care if the admiral fires me for this – in fact I might even welcome it! What I do care about is that I spent six long agonising hours on Friday night watching the most eminent thoracic surgeon on the West Coast working to try to save your sorry hide! I practically breathed every laboured breath along with you while he dug that bullet out of your chest. And when he had to shock you twice to get your heart started I felt each jolt your body took! Along with Chip and the admiral, I spent the weekend willing you to come back to us – and just take a look at the toll this has taken on Chip!”
When Chip opened his mouth to intervene, Jamieson cut him off with a slicing motion of his left hand, never taking his eyes from Lee’s. “No! He needs to hear this! Medical care is only part of what has got you this far, Captain. Despite the work and effort of the ICU team that took such care of you over the weekend. It’s the prayers and supplication of the people who call you friend and leader – coupled with divine intervention – that’s gotten you this far. And what do I find when I walk in here less than four days after your surgery? You – trying to do your usual disappearing act! Your Houdini routine! Who the hell do you think you are, Lee Crane? To try to undo all that has been put into your recovery in one selfish, ill-conceived, brainless attempt to prove that you’re super human! Again! And I’m sick of it! I’ve had just about enough!” Jamieson thrust angry fingers through his thinning hair as he straightened up, eyes bright with emotion and heated determination, leaving two shocked and silent officers trading apprehensive glances.
“Easy, Will.” None of the three knew how long Nelson had been standing there or how much of Jamieson’s tirade he’d heard. But the mellifluent tone broke the frozen atmosphere.
Jamie turned his back on them then, linking both hands together at the back of his neck to work the kinks out of his tense shoulder muscles as he strode towards the window. He was weary and worn down, an emotional as much as physical result of the exhausting weekend and the shock of seeing Lee attempting to once again escape his clutches.
“I can’t do this any more!” He muttered to himself - then, shoulders slumping, he pushed his way past Nelson and left the room.
Deafening silence followed his departure. Morton made a move to go after him but the admiral’s hand on his arm stopped him. “No, Chip, let him go. He needs to be alone for a while.” Nelson drew in a deep breath then looked at the man in the hospital bed, the closest he acknowledged he had to a son – and he wanted to slap him stupid!
Except one look at Lee’s sheet white face stopped any further recriminations. He traded a concerned glance with Morton and, as one, both men stepped towards their friend taking up identical positions on either side of the bed. “Do you need me to call someone, Lee?” Nelson asked in his resonant baritone. He was only somewhat relieved by Lee’s slow shake of his head.
“No, thank you, sir. I’m fine.” He raised his head; his remarkable hazel eyes shrouded in abject misery, his usual commanding tenor barely a croak. “I’m sorry, Admiral, Chip. I wasn’t trying to leave. Couldn’t. Just wanted the paper.”
At both men’s blank gaze, Lee gestured weakly towards the chair and the folded newspaper with the damning headline. “I didn’t remember being moved here – I guess this is Med Bay – and I couldn’t fathom why Chip wasn’t here. But I sort of remembered him being here – or rather there – most of the time, but not here. If you know what I mean. Then I saw the newspaper and I thought he had maybe been arrested. I was just trying to get to it when you and Jamie came in, Chip. I wasn’t trying to escape. Honest!”
Nelson sighed heavily and Chip rubbed a tired hand over his face. Despite the first decent night’s sleep they’d had since this turmoil began, both men were still bushed.
“I’m sorry too, Lee. I shouldn’t have jumped to conclusions.” Chip was contrite. He’d just been party too many times to Lee’s escape bids to read anything further into it when he’d found his friend out of bed and seemingly attempting to abscond. “That headline is deliberately inflammatory. Of course the police questioned me. I was the only other person there when you were shot. But after they quizzed me on Friday night, they let me stay at the hospital until you were out of danger. I spent most of yesterday at the SBPD station and worked with a police artist to put together a likeness of the woman who shot you.” He intentionally foreshortened the saga of his time at the hands of Santa Barbara’s finest. “It’s been circulated to all the police cruisers and it’ll hit the papers for this evening’s edition. I spoke to the lieutenant in charge of the investigation last night and he’s very hopeful of a quick result.” He didn’t tell Lee where he had met Connelly.
“That’s good news, Chip.” Nelson knew he was hearing the abridged version and fully intended to get the entire story from his exec during the course of the morning. “Now if I can just placate our weary and disgruntled doctor! I really do not feel up to finding a new CMO for Seaview right now!”
“Admiral, ask Doc to come back and talk to me, please.” Contrition shone from Lee’s amber eyes and he grimaced as he shifted in the bed trying to get comfortable. Chip was immediately by his side, helping him ease upwards and propping pillows behind him. “I honestly didn’t mean to upset him.”
“We’re all tired, lad. I’m sure Jamie will come round once he’s had time to calm down a little.” Nelson actually wasn’t as sure as he sounded but he hated to see the look of wretchedness on his captain and friend’s face.
The door opening behind him had all three looking hopefully but it was a nurse who entered carrying a tray with Lee’s breakfast. She was a sturdy middle-aged woman with a pleasant but no-nonsense demeanour – unfamiliar to Lee who thought he knew all the Med Bay staff from his frequent hospitalisations – and she smiled placatingly at him as she set the tray on the wheeled table.
“Good morning, Captain. Breakfast is served. Gentlemen.” She nodded a greeting at the two uniformed officers but concentrated her attention on her patient, pulling covers off the various plates and setting cutlery to hand.
“I’m not very hungry at the moment.” Lee, whose appetite was fickle at the best of times, was too distracted to be able to face food just now.
The nurse nodded pseudo-sympathetically. “That’s no problem, Captain. I’ll have it removed straight away.” Lee’s eyes widened slightly at her calm acceptance. Usually he got an earful from Jamie or one of his corpsmen and a most unsubtle ‘eat or else’ threat!
“Just let me get rid of this and I’ll have the IV set up in no time!”
“IV?” Seaview’s captain sputtered.
“Why, yes, Captain. I was told to expect this. Dr. Jamieson ordered the IV replaced if you were unable to eat. Don’t worry. I’ll just be a moment.”
Lee’s expression was like a thundercloud and, while Chip attempted to conceal his snickers behind a coughing fit, Nelson allowed a broad grin to cross his craggy features. “I think you’d better consider attempting the meal, Lee.” He uttered dryly, unfazed by the captain’s ire.
“Your choice, Captain! Makes no difference to me.” The nurse’s tone was offhand as she straightened and tucked the sheets with precise movements, effectively hemming Lee in. “And lunch and dinner carry similar promises. Note, I said promises, Captain, not threats. You’ll get to know me in the coming days. I raised four boys of my own and, believe me, I can do stubborn – and difficult – and impossible – and downright nasty! So, if you know what’s good for you, Captain Crane, don’t take me on! We’ll get along much better if you just eat your meals and take your medication as and when I tell you. Then we’ll be out of each others’ hair that much quicker, don’t you think?”
With a practiced smile she ignored his glower and turned to the highly-amused-and-trying-to-conceal-it admiral and exec, raising one eyebrow questioningly. “And you are here at this time of the morning because… Gentlemen? Our patient needs to eat and rest. As soon as he’s finished all his breakfast I’ll be giving him a bed bath – and I’m sure he won’t appreciate an audience! Visiting hours begin at 2pm. You are both more than welcome to re-join the captain then.”
The four stars on Nelson’s collar didn’t intimidate her one bit and the admiral was nothing if not wise to the ways of the world and Jamieson’s nursing staff to boot. So he bade his captain a somewhat choked goodbye, disregarding Crane’s beseeching look. When Lee’s gaze shifted to Chip, the commander found himself unable to meet his friend’s eyes. “I’ve got some stuff to check on the boat, Lee, the computer refit – you know.” And he slinked out behind Nelson. Lee’s voice followed him into the corridor. “And I want a status report on the refit at 14.00 when you get back here, Mister Morton!”
Both Admiral and Commander eyed each other somewhat sheepishly, chagrined to have been so easily ousted and having cravenly left their friend to the tender mercies of the woman neither was prepared to admit scared the crap out of them!
“I suppose I had better go and find Will.” Nelson sighed, running a hand distractedly around the back of his neck. “And if I were you, Chip, I would make myself very, very scarce for the rest of the day. He was threatening to have you in for a physical this morning – before he got ticked off at Lee!”
“Thanks for the warning, Admiral!” Chip took a cautious look around, as if to make sure the coast was clear, before heading purposely for the elevator. “I’ll be on Seaview if you need me. But if Jamie’s looking, you have absolutely no idea where I went!”
Nelson grinned briefly before heading to Jamieson’s office. His senior officers’ antics usually amused him and he knew that Jamie and Lee made a bit of a game out of their confrontations about Lee’s stays in Sick Bay. At the bottom of their sometimes loudly held ‘discussions’ lay a deep and abiding respect, one for the other, and the volume was as much an outlet for their respective frustrations as anything else. More often than not Nelson was forced to intercede and come down in favour of either combatant, frequently having to side with Jamie when Lee’s common sense went out the window where his own health was concerned. He sometimes allowed Morton to sneak a little solace to the captain – in the way of boat reports or re-fit updates – behind Jamie’s back (sort of!) to ensure Lee’s continued co-operation.
However on this occasion Jamieson had misread the signs, albeit with good excuse. And Nelson would have to point that out to him. He owed Lee no less. But Jamieson wasn’t in his office nor was he in the well-appointed Doctor’s lounge. Finally Nelson tracked him down – with the help of the nurses’ station - to the bluff overlooking the beach a couple of hundred yards from Med Bay. Then put his own plans in train before he followed the harried CMO.
Jamieson looked tired and defeated; a foreign slump to the narrow shoulders in the familiar khaki uniform. His hands were pushed deeply into his pants pockets and tension radiated from his tall lean frame.
“They keep us young, Will.” Nelson knew Jamieson had discerned his presence but was choosing to ignore him.
“Maybe you, Admiral. But I’ve never felt so old.” Jamie snorted – half laugh, half sob.
“Nonsense! That’s just exhaustion talking. You need a dose of your own medicine, my friend. Like about twenty four hours horizontal! I have Patterson standing by with a car to take you home. You are not to appear again on these premises until tomorrow. And that’s an order!”
“Lee is perfectly fine.” Realising what he had said, Nelson chuckled. “He’s in good hands. You have your people well trained, Will. And if there is cause, we know where to find you.”
“Is on the boat. That’s the best medicine for him right now, along with taking care of Lee. He’ll still be here tomorrow. And I’ll make sure he’s fed. The not-so-little nurse you sicced on Lee has that angle all wrapped up, where he’s concerned, I can assure you! So you can crash secure in the knowledge that your two worst patients are being taken care of! Go on, Will.” Nelson urged. “You can use the down time.”
“Admiral…. Harry …. I’m…sorry about my explosion back there.”
“I’m not!” The admiral’s vehement avowal was followed by outright laughter. “Does them good to have to second guess us, sometimes! But Lee wants to see you. And you owe him a chance to explain. For once, he wasn’t trying to escape.”
He saw the conscientious medic weakening. “But tomorrow will do fine! Now get on with you. Pat’s waiting. I’ll keep a close eye on them, don’t worry.”
“That’s a lot like setting the thief to guard the crown jewels, Harry!” Some of Jamie’s spark had begun to re-emerge in the face of some decent sleep. “And thanks, Harry. Thanks a lot.”
“Get on with you!” Nelson waved a dismissive hand as he blustered. “Just couldn’t stand the thought of having to go through the rigmarole of trying to find another CMO who could put up with those two! Be easier to find a new captain and exec!”
The woman sat at the hospital bedside, oblivious of the patient, so intent was she on the three-day old newspaper. Her mouth was drawn into a grim line, tightening her pretty features and making her look older than her thirty-one years and her heart was thumping erratically. She started when a hand fell on her shoulder.
“Sorry, Cassie, didn’t mean to startle you. You’ve just been so quiet this visit. Did you have a tough week?”
Cassie tucked a lock of red hair back behind her ear as the kindly young nurse spoke. “No, Mel, not so tough, just seemed like a long one.”
“I know it’s not easy, driving down here every Friday after a busy week. You’ve been an absolute angel for the past three years. I don’t think you’ve missed one week.”
“And she doesn’t even know I’m here! That’s the hard part, Mel.” Her voice was barely above a whisper. “She was so vibrant. Loved life so much. It’s just so hard to see her like this.”
“Her choices, Cassie. You know she’s had problems for a long time, honey. She chose to discontinue therapy despite all our best efforts. She was old enough to make her own decisions and we had to respect them.”
“But she seemed to have settled down finally. She loved her job. Had a steady stream of friends. Was coping really well. Until HE came along.” Her hands clenched on the newspaper and wadded it into a ball, the headline that had attracted her disappearing beneath the crushing force of her fingers.
“Commander Charles Philip Morton, affectionately known as Chip, of the Nelson Institute of Marine Research here in good old Santa Barbara!” Cassie bit out the words between gritted teeth unable to hide the venom she felt at voicing his name, never mind seeing his picture on the front of the paper she’s taken from the visitor’s area. Her eyes had been drawn to the head and shoulders shot on the days-old newspaper. She’d had to read the story, although she already knew most of the details. Her heart had hammered in her chest and she’d wondered at her ability to keep breathing when she’d seen his picture staring up at her from the coffee table.
Even before she’d returned to Santa Barbara, she’d agonised about shooting the wrong person. Shooting anyone! She couldn’t believe she’d done that. Acted out that! She’d reached into her purse for a tissue and come out holding the gun she’d carried for protection ever since she’d lived in L.A. And she’d shot him – in cold blood. She’d removed the small calibre pistol from her purse, taken aim and fired. Except her intended victim had been totally unaware and his friend had caught the bullet destined for him. Every time she re-visited the scene in her mind she wanted to throw up. She’d spent a tortured week, listening to the reports of the shooting of Seaview’s captain and knowing she’d been the cause of his agony – he, an innocent bystander. She’d almost died when he’d thrown himself in front of his friend, realising that she was about to shoot. But she was too late to abort the shot. So she’d panicked and ran, and had nightmares about it every night this week – when she’d been able to persuade her tired body to eventually sleep. She’d jumped every time the doorbell or the phone had rung in her Los Angeles office and home. So many times she’d had to rationalise what a confession to the police would do to her life – Vicky’s life? Who would pay the bills for her sister’s care if she ceased to earn an income? She’d had to steel herself to come down here for this weekly visit, knowing that it would cause consternation among the staff if she were not to appear.
“Oh, you mean the guy that was in the papers during the week about the shooting last weekend of the captain of Seaview? Yeah, I saw that.” The young nurse efficiently tucked the already straight covers around the catatonic patient in the bed. “What has that got to do with Vicky?”
“He’s the guy she was seeing!” Cassie’s words were heated, almost tumbling over themselves in her eagerness to explain. “HE’s the cause of her being here! Like this!”
Mel stopped what she was doing and dropped into the chair beside her patient’s only visitor since she’d arrived at the Sanatorium three years ago. “What do you mean, Cass? How can he have caused this?”
“She was so happy, working there. She’d finally found a job she could really enjoy. She loved it.” Cassie waved her arms, dropping the wrinkled newspaper to the floor, as she expounded on her last memories of her sister whole and well. “Until he came along, seducing her, enticing her. And then when he got what he wanted from her, he dumped her. She couldn’t handle any more rejection. She just couldn’t! That’s when she slit her wrists the first time.”
The nurse was young but experienced enough to know when she was out of her depth. “I think I’d better call Dr. Meredith to talk with you, Cassie. I think you’ve got this a little out of whack here.”
She pressed a button on the touch pad phone on the nightstand as Cassie looked at her in disbelief. Within moments Dr. Saul Meredith appeared and took a seat on Vicky’s bed facing her, while Mel took Cassie’s unresisting hand between her warmer ones.
“Cassie, Mel tells me you think the guy that was in the paper is somehow responsible for Vicky’s condition. Now you know that’s not true.” He spoke reassuringly, if with more than a little abrupt dismissal. “Vicky’s been having problems since her early teens and when she decided to cease therapy once she reached her majority there was nothing further we could legally do to force her to comply with the treatment regime. Therefore she just continued to get further out of control – until the suicide attempts brought things to a head.”
“But except for him there would have been no suicide attempts! Don’t you understand? She loved her job. She loved him. He was all she could talk about! Then when he dropped her she just gave up. She’d told me he was fickle. She wouldn’t introduce me to him until their relationship was more ‘stable’, she said. But she thought he really loved her!” Cassie jumped up and began to pace the confines of the small room.
Mel and Saul Meredith shared a sympathetic glance, knowing they were going to burst yet another of Cassie’s balloons. She’d been living on hope the past three years that her younger sister was going to wake any time and be the beautiful, beguiling creature she’d been before she’d become the sole responsibility of a devastated and overly cautious older sister.
“HE did this to her!”
Saul Meredith stood and faced Cassie; he’d been putting off this day for months now. But Cassie had needed to come to this stage in her sister’s treatment before she could be persuaded as to the hopelessness of this case.
“Cass, he didn’t cause this. He doesn’t know anything about this. He’s never met Vicky.”
“What are you talking about? Of course this is his fault! If he hadn’t dumped her… If he hadn’t led her on…..”
“Commander Morton has never even met Vicky, Cass.”
“That’s not true! She went out with him, several times! She slept with him. She told me. When she worked at the Nelson Institute!”
“Cass, Vicky never worked at the Nelson Institute.” Dr. Meredith’s voice was now full of compassion and understanding.
“Of course she did! For five or six months! She loved that job. She told me all about it. And the people she met there, the friends she’d made. This guy who really liked her…..” She watched in crumbling disbelief as the psychiatrist gently shook his head. Mel stood and reached strong arms around Cassie’s now trembling shoulders, bracing the older woman as the truth seeped in.
“Cassie, that was total fabrication. You know how she used to make up stories. She spun you a web – a total tissue of lies. Vicky never worked at the Nelson Institute – even when she was part of the OutReach programme. She didn’t have the skills. But, being based here in Santa Barbara, the Institute is constantly in the news and Vicky more than likely wove a story around her fantasy job and fantasy man. As you were based in LA and not visiting on a constant schedule as you are now, it was probably easy for her to fool you into thinking that she’d gotten so much better and was leading a semi-normal life. And you wouldn’t be human, Cass, if you didn’t latch on to that belief, as much as you’ve gone through with her over the past ten years.”
Mel felt the older girl shudder and drew her towards the bedside chair. As Cassie’s face leached of all colour, Mel saw Dr. Meredith leap to catch the almost semi-conscious woman and help her sit. He forced Cassie to bend forward and checked her pulse. “Cass, come on. You don’t need to do this. I’ve told you enough times – you have to accept it! Vicky is not going to get better. She hasn’t been happy for more than 10 years. What she saw when your parents were murdered devastated her. She has never been able to come to terms with it. A stronger person maybe, but not Vicky. You need to let her go. Get on with your life. You can’t continue to do this to yourself. Otherwise, I’m afraid, you are going to end up as sick as she is.”
“None of it’s true?” She needed total clarification and moaned softly at his reluctant nod. She leaned further into Mel’s soft arms, watching the un-reacting eyes of the baby sister she’d adored since the day Vicky was born when Cassie was only seven years old. “She told me she loved that job.”
“She never had a job, Cass.” Mel tightened her arms around one of her favourite people. She’d had patients like Vicky who didn’t merit half the care and attention that Cassie gave her little sister, constantly, never missing a week in the three years that Mel had been looking after Vicky. “Why didn’t you talk to me, girl?”
“I thought she was getting better. That she needed to be alone, needed to develop some independence. She asked me to give her some space.” Mel nodded, understanding how this tragedy had evolved.
Saul Meredith, however, got a nervous twitch. And in his line of business, nervous twitches were not to be ignored. He saw the hunted look enter Cassie’s eyes. Watched as the ramifications of their conversation hit home and her deep violet eyes widened as the consequences of her actions bore down on her.
Cassie bent dazedly and picked up the three-day old newspaper, smoothing it out between her fingers. She gazed for several moments at the headline, then at the picture of Seaview’s Executive Officer, the man questioned in the shooting of the boat’s captain.
“Oh, my God! What have I done?”
“Lee! Hey, it’s good to see you up and around, buddy!” Chip was chuffed to see his friend on his feet, albeit a little shaky, using the walls and furniture to guide his steps back to his chair, and still under the watchful gaze of the nurse they had dubbed Sgt. Major McGuire. “Jamie know you’re doing this?” His words were spoken with a deliberate mix of light-hearted caution. While Lee and Jamieson had made up their differences – and Chip hadn’t been privy to that conversation – Lee had been going out of his way all week not to cause the CMO any further distress, almost to the point of worrying his friends with his exaggerated care for Jamie’s sensibilities. The plus factor was that Lee was healing at an accelerated rate; for once he was heeding Jamieson’s instructions to the letter and not bucking to be let out of Med Bay. The significant minus was that he was tiptoeing around the CMO in a most un-Lee-like fashion.
And both Nelson and Morton were friends of old enough standing to know that something was going to give sooner rather than later. The trick was anticipating Lee Crane’s reaction. Would he blow a gasket and ream the CMO out of it, demanding to be allowed home? Or would he simply do a flit? A midnight, or mid-morning -depending on the opportunity that presented itself – escape routine from Med Bay. Or had Jamieson’s outburst sufficiently cowed Seaview’s captain to the point where he would obediently follow orders until the CMO released him back to duty or his own recognisance? The third scenario being the most unlikely, the two officers were on tenterhooks, knowing the situation wouldn’t go for long without resolution – in one form or another. The challenge was in being in place at the right time to defuse the ticking time bomb; most probably one Lee Crane with attitude! But, in light of his performance during the week, Jamieson couldn’t be considered lacking in dramatic flair either. So both Morton and Nelson were cautiously pussyfooting around the two main players in this act, all the time waiting for the other shoe to drop. As it did that Friday evening – but not in a way either man had envisaged!
Lee sent his oldest friend a slightly lopsided but triumphant smile. “Jamie knows – and approves – as long as I don’t overdo it.”
“And I’m here to ensure that he doesn’t!” Reminded the sharp-tongued martinet, as she swept out the door, having seen her patient settled in the chair. “I’ll return with your medication at the appropriate time, Captain. See that you don’t go wandering off in the meantime. Commander.” She inclined her head in Chip’s direction as the door swung closed behind her.
The two officers exchanged identical grimaces followed by wry grins. “God, Lee, Jamie must have scoured the planet looking for her! She even frightens me to death!”
“Oh, her bark is usually worse than her bite!” Lee leaned his dark curly head against the tall back of the comfortable easy chair and studied his friend with concerned amber eyes. Chip continued to look exhausted even though he’d been “persuaded” to sleep in his own bed all week. Lee knew his exec had kept to a punishing schedule, covering both his own and Lee’s work on the boat and at the Institute, and visiting Lee for hours each evening, updating him on the boat’s status and the computer refit, making him feel useful and included and, truth to tell, keeping him sane
Lee lived for Chip’s visits, for his friend was an entertaining companion with a droll wit and a choice, sometimes pithy turn of phrase who managed to lift the monotony of the hospital routine found even in the Institute’s Med Bay. Lee knew he’d healed far quicker than expected and chaffed to push himself harder as was his wont. Only fear, that he would further alienate Jamie and worry Chip and Nelson needlessly, had kept him following orders. He knew Chip still felt guilty that Lee had taken the shot intended for him. No amount of reassurance on his part had removed the grim, accountable look from his friend’s face whenever Chip glanced at Lee. And it had grown worse as the week wore on, with no progress by the police in finding the shooter, despite running the artist’s impression of the redhead in the Santa Barbara daily paper and on the local TV news bulletins. Chip had told Lee the previous evening that the SBPD were preparing to widen the search by circulating the picture to the national tabloids, now convinced that the woman wasn’t a local resident.
Lee wasn’t sure how Chip was so well informed about the development of the case and hesitated to ask, knowing instinctively it had something to do with the exhaustion evident on his friend’s still pale features and the yawns he was desperately trying to conceal. He felt culpable, aware that Chip was overworked, not eating properly and had dropped a considerable amount of weight in the past eight days. He’d wager a year’s salary that the last proper meal Chip had eaten was in Benningan’s the previous Friday night.
“Ok, want today’s report?” Chip countered cheerfully, ignoring the dark brooding expression that had pervaded Lee’s countenance. “We completed the computer re-fit! No thanks to those bungling idiots from the IT Dept! They kept insisting the new Sonar and Radar stations were working perfectly even though Ski, Pat and I knew we hadn’t switched them over yet! Boy, did they have egg on their faces! Gave us all a good laugh!”
When Lee barely grinned at what would usually have made him double up, Chip took a closer look at him. “Hey, Buddy, what’s up?” With his innate ability to read his friend, Chip knew instinctively the problem. “You’re thinking about this night last week, aren’t you?”
Amber eyes flew to azure. “You know me so well.” Lee sighed deeply. “Trust me to mess up everything! I should have been there this week. You’ve had to hold down the fort both at the Institute and on Seaview – while I’m holed up here!” He thumped the arm of the chair, his voice resonating disgust as a flash of pain resulted from the unwise movement.
“And the alternative is?” Chip’s tone indicated the growing anger he’d been effectively concealing all week. The anger that warring emotions such as guilt, sorrow, irritation, worry and dread had spawned. “Like this is your fault! You couldn’t let me take the shot meant for me! So you had to go and put yourself in danger – in the line of a bullet. Why, Lee? Just answer me that!”
The tall blond stood and began to pace. He wasn’t ready for this confrontation. Hell, he knew Lee wasn’t ready for it either and Jamieson would probably kill him if he knew Chip had precipitated this line of conversation. But he was weary, fed up with the lack of progress in the police investigation, ready and needing to vent. Rationally he knew he shouldn’t be doing this – he was tired, no, way beyond tired. He’d been burning the candle at both ends all week. If Nelson or Jamieson knew, or even Lee, he’d be in deep trouble.
Having seen no result from the artist’s sketch of the redhead, either from the cruisers or the local newspaper, he’d taken to meeting with Lt. Connelly most evenings in various up-market bars and nightclubs after he’d taken leave of Lee. Sleep had been put on the back burner and he was beginning to feel the pinch of the unaccustomed late nights coupled with the increasing tension and frustration. He was drawn back to the present by Lee’s soft, somewhat hesitant answer to the question he’d almost forgotten he’d asked aloud.
“I can’t answer you that, Chip. Any more than I think you could answer were the roles reversed. I saw it - I reacted. Nothing premeditated, no agenda. I just couldn’t let her shoot you if I could stop it. No less than you would have – and have done – for me!”
That simple statement was Chip’s undoing, knowing the circumstance of which Lee spoke. With a groan he sank into the chair opposite his friend. “K! You’re probably right. If I’d seen the gun first I probably would have reacted the same way!”
“Only if it had been aimed at me.” Lee felt entitled to lighten the atmosphere. “If she’d been pointing that thing at you and you’d seen her, then I’d have expected you to tackle her. Jeez, Morton, think your training’s gone totally out the window?”
“Hardly, Crane! I just reconnoitre the situation a little bit - before I jump in with both feet!”
The familiar banter felt good to both men and they grinned, alleviating the mood. The door opening heralded the return of Nurse McGuire and they silently groaned, anticipating the usual routine of temp/resp/BP taking followed by what passed for dinner, even in Nelson’s luxuriously appointed Med Bay.
Both were pleasantly surprised when she waved Nelson and Jamieson in, the latter pushing a hospital trolley laden with take out from the most up market Chinese restaurant in Santa Barbara. Morton, the foodie of the group, could feel his taste buds sit up and take notice for the first time in a week.
“Wow, a Silk’s delivery! Only you could arrange that, Admiral.” Chip’s tone was just short of reverent.
“I thought Lee could do with a change from hospital food, as good as Med Bay tries to be.” Nelson replied dryly. “And you could handle a little more than a sandwich a day, from what Cookie tells me.” He watched the exec’s fair skin flush with embarrassment. Nelson knew the toll this past week had taken on Seaview’s First Officer; he’d been everywhere, covering everything, his own work, Lee’s work, with a secretary down, and trying to interview a replacement for Susie. Nelson had eventually inveigled Angie’s support and she had suspended interviews for the foreseeable future. Finding a replacement for Susie was the least of their worries right now. They would all rather focus on getting their captain back on his feet and well again, without having his exec join him in Med Bay through overwork and anxiety.
Lee grinned, watching Chip’s expression animate at the sight of some of the best Chinese food in the neighbourhood. He had to admit the smell was beginning to get to him too and he eagerly took the not-too-loaded plate and chopsticks that Jamie handed him.
Nelson, Morton and Jamieson piled their plates from the generous selection and proceeded to eat, conversation sporadic and easy as they sated their palates. The phone on the nightstand trilled as they tidied away the dishes and leftovers and had Morton, the closest, picking up. He frowned as he took the message from the Institute’s Gate Security.
“Commander Morton, there’s a Doctor Saul Meredith and a Ms. Cassandra Sommers here at the gate asking for you and Captain Crane. I wasn’t sure whether to put the call through to Captain Crane’s room but Ms. Angie said you were there so I figured it was OK.”
“Did they state the nature of their business?” Morton’s voice was authoritative but curious and had the other officers perking with interest.
“No, sir. Just that it was imperative that they speak with either you or the captain and preferably both.” The Guard returned.
“Have you checked their ID?” Obviously satisfied with the answer, Morton continued. “Very well. Issue them with passes and provide a guard to escort them to Med Bay. I’ll meet them at the elevator on the second floor.” Chip clipped out the orders, heard them acknowledged so there could be no mis-interpretation, replaced the handset and turned to update the others.
“Appears Lee and I have visitors. A Dr. Meredith and a Cassandra Sommers. Names ring any bells, Lee? Seems it’s important they speak with both of us.”
“No, Chip. Neither one. You?”
“Not for me, either. He’s a Psychiatrist from the Isabel Catini private Sanatorium and she’s a fashion buyer from L.A. according to their ID cards. Guess we need to see what they want. I’ll meet them at the elevator. If I think they’re OK, then I’ll bring them back here.”
“You armed, Chip?” Nelson interjected brusquely.
“No, sir. Never anticipated the need here, Admiral.”
“Then I’m going with you. No point in taking chances.” So saying, Nelson pulled the small semi-automatic from beneath his jacket and checked the chamber before replacing it in his pants pocket. “Come on, lad. If I’m not mistaken we’re about to get some answers!”
Crane and Jamieson traded half anxious - half anticipatory looks as the two uniformed officers strode from the room.
“How are you feeling, Lee? Honestly!”
“I know you don’t want to hear this, Jamie. But I’m fine, a little weak still, but fine. I don’t need molly-coddling!” Lee’s tone was terse, a measure of his anxiety at what he and his exec were about to face but Jamie grinned slightly, unseen by his patient. That last statement was enunciated with clear irritability and announced an obvious return of the old Lee Crane – one Jamieson was glad to see re-appear. The cautious, afraid to offend patient he’d seen since their skirmish on Tuesday was not the captain he’d become used to and any deviance from the norm worried the doctor who cared as much, if not more, for the individual as for the patient.
Jamie’s outburst had been the result of exhaustion, worry and misunderstanding. Will Jamieson recognised that Nelson and, heck, the whole of Seaview’s crew, valued his ability to handle – sometimes – their wayward, overly conscientious, way too responsible, injury prone captain. And they relied on him to put Lee Crane back together again, as he had succeeded to do on too-many-to-recount occasions. Jamie valued Lee as a captain and as a friend, as he did Nelson and Morton. His biggest, all-encompassing, recurrent fear was having to face those men he considered friends, not to mention the entire crew of Seaview, and admit he’d failed. And it had come too close to reality for his liking this time.
Rationally he recognised there was little more he could have done for Lee. Logically he knew he couldn’t have changed the result, any more than Chip Morton who’d been there. He just wished Lee wouldn’t so frequently place himself in danger! However, Jamie acknowledged, would it really have been any easier had it been Chip lying injured and Lee pacing the floor equally exhausted and searching for answers?
They were a pair all right, like bookends - one night – one day, dark and light, brunet and blond. Different on the surface but crafted from the same mould; identical intrinsic values, morals - honesty, loyalty to Country, Admiral, Seaview, crew and friends – in any order where their allegiance was required or necessitated. Jamieson admired them both, as senior officers, colleagues and fast friends – not that he was averse to pulling his CMO rank when necessary and equally to putting regulations aside when it benefited the patient. Like tonight’s Chinese meal. Jamie knew, though Lee had been behaving extra-ordinarily well - for him, that his star (!) patient was champing at the bit, in serious need of a diversion, having healed better than even he – Jamieson – had envisaged.
Jamie had also been attempting to make up for his ill-conceived tantrum earlier in the week. He’d been wrong, accusing Lee of trying to abscond but, accustomed to the captain’s usual repertoire, it had seemed a likely scenario. And he’d jumped summarily to an incorrect, albeit not unlikely, conclusion. He accepted that Lee had been placating him all week, going out of his way to obey orders, so totally unlike the captain he knew that he, Jamieson, was on edge, waiting for the challenge, the demand to be allowed home now that Crane was somewhat ambulatory. So far, Lee was stalling and the wait was beginning to irk Jamieson. But he didn’t want to be the one to concede.
It was almost a game between them, at times loud, frequently a morale boost for the crew, but sometimes – as now – a private thing, neither willing to gainsay the other as a familiar standoff approached. Jamie feared this particular confrontation would not be pleasant, with outsiders entering the equation. He was wary of the effect this conflict had had on Seaview’s two senior officers – life long friends, the impact of the shooting had been as traumatic for one as for the other. Lee taking a bullet for Chip, when he could, was as ingrained in the captain’s make up as in the exec’s. Jamieson had no doubt that, had the opportunity arisen, he would be standing here overseeing Chip, attempting to ensure he didn’t over exert himself and under no illusions that Seaview’s exec would be as prone to escapology as her captain!
He caught Lee’s speculative gaze and, with a small shake, brought himself back to the conversation. “You’ve made really good progress this week, Lee, I agree. But you are still weak from the blood loss and the trauma. You’ve got to rest and build up your strength. If you follow orders and continue to do as well as you’ve done this week then I should think I’ll be seeing the back of you in another week to ten days.”
“A week!” Typically, Crane picked the shorter duration, his tone just short of an outraged howl. “Jamie! I thought maybe a few more days at most!” Not wanting an outright confrontation he tried his best beseeching look.
Jamieson was having none of it and shook his head adamantly. “Minimum one week here, Skipper. And no arguments! And you’re looking at possibly another month after that before I’ll certify you fit for duty.”
“A month! But, Jamie, that means I’ll miss Seaview’s next cruise!”
“And your point is?”
Lee’s expression hardened. “I want to be aboard Seaview when she sails, Jamie. I intend to be! And surely it’s too early for you to tell whether I can make it or not?”
The CMO’s expression was ever so slightly smug. Jamieson had played one of the two trump cards he’d been holding (Chip had been the other) and the captain had played right into his hands - although he’d never let Lee see that. “Well, I guess that’s very much up to you, Skipper. I’m not making any promises but your rate of recovery depends on you following my very clearly defined rules and not bugging me from now til next Friday about letting you out of here. And not trying to over extend yourself because you think you feel fine!”
Lee opened his mouth to argue further but was silenced by the sounds of a commotion from outside, his eyes going wide as he heard Chip’s furious bellow followed by Nelson’s deeper but equally angry voice. Jamieson strode to the door and wrenched it open - there were other patients on the corridor deserving of consideration! His mouth fell open at the sight before him and Lee, watching intently, braced himself physically and mentally for the confrontation ahead.
Morton and Nelson watched the elevator’s indicator as it came to a stop on the second floor and Chip saw the admiral’s hand reach for his pants pocket in an almost instinctive motion. His own heart was hammering in his chest. Somehow he knew this couple held the key to the identity of the woman who’d shot Lee. But even he wasn’t prepared for the sight that greeted him as the elevator door opened and the guard stepped forward, revealing the tall, bespectacled man with his arm around the elegant woman who needed his strength to seemingly remain upright. Chip drew in a swift breath. Her face was heart-shaped; her skin pale, eyes deep violet and even the severe, scraped back hairstyle couldn’t hide its glowing colour. She looked very different from the woman who had accosted him in Bennigans car park just a week ago; the woman who’d shot his best friend. But there was no doubting it was the same person.
Chip took a step forward, gripping her by the forearm as if she would likely flit. “You!” His tone was strident, his expression feral – nothing at all like the usually impassive exec, showing the depth of his feeling. “What the hell are you doing here? Come to finish Lee off, have you? Over my dead body! But that’s what you wanted, wasn’t it? Me, dead. Instead you nearly killed my best friend!”
Nelson stepped forward and gently prised Chip’s taut fingers from the now cringing girl’s arm. “Easy, lad!”
“Admiral, she shot Lee! She’s the one we’ve been searching for all week.” Chip tried to bring himself back to his usual control, outwardly at least, as he drew himself to his full height.
All too aware of the Guard’s avid interest, Nelson dismissed the man to return to his post, ascertaining instinctively that the visitors posed little threat. Chip appeared not so sure, understandable given the circumstances. He positively radiated almost incoherent rage and Nelson knew, while it was certainly justified, that it would need to be defused before they could return to Lee.
“CHIP!” The thundered command did more to bring Chip back to his usual stoic bearing than any other method. “She’s no threat to Lee now. Not like this. And she’s obviously come here for a reason. Come on, son, we need to hear this.”
That last, more than anything, registered with Chip Morton. Lee had a relationship with the admiral way different than his – a father/son thing that Chip both delighted in and rather envied. Lee’s father had died when he was five years old and he’d never had a male role model or father figure in his young life. While Lee had been adopted into the Morton clan at the age of seventeen, Chip’s own father was never supportive of either one of them, particularly his son, entering the Naval Academy, having plans for him to enter the family business. Chip’s father had even tried to stymie his son’s career – having him posted to a desk in Washington, much against Chip’s mother’s wishes – in an attempt to force him into compliance. Nelson had freed him from the monotony before Chip had given in and resigned and Chip felt he owed Nelson for both the rescue and the wonderful opportunity. They were friends now for sure; Chip was a plank owner of Seaview, but superior and subordinate being the more usual played out role. This was the first time Nelson had ever referred to him as ‘son’ and it brought Chip up short, suffusing him with a warmth he would long remember and cherish. He nodded decisively, indicating to the older man that he was back in control and Nelson patted his arm reassuringly before he turned to the slightly bemused doctor and the now obviously terrified woman.
“Dr. Meredith, Ms. Sommers, I’m Harriman Nelson and this, as you know, is my Executive Officer, Lt. Commander Morton. I gather you have a story to tell us and perhaps we should take this discussion back to Captain Crane’s room so that you can avoid having to repeat yourselves. I must warn you however that the captain is still under medical care and I will not tolerate anything that interferes with his recuperation. Is that clear?” He shot Chip a cautionary glance, including him in the warning, knowing the temper - rarely evidenced except in defence of his friend – that simmered below the once more inscrutable facade.
“Shouldn’t we call Lt. Connelly, Admiral?” Chip questioned, low voiced but insistent.
Nelson saw the woman shudder at the mention of police. “All in good time, Chip. Let’s hear Ms. Sommer’s out first.”
He led the way to Lee’s room with Chip bringing up the rear, ever watchful. Nelson was unsurprised to see Jamieson had taken up position just behind Lee’s left shoulder and stifled a murmur of amusement as Chip moved to flank his friend protectively on the other side. He watched Lee’s expression carefully as he indicated that the couple should take seats, seeing memory dawn and Lee’s eyes fly to Chip for verification. They needed no verbal communication – an almost imperceptible nod from Chip enough to have Lee pulling himself straighter in the chair as he faced the duo now seated across from him who had yet to speak.
Cassie could hardly look at the two officers. She stared at the floor somewhere in front of their feet, all the while holding Dr. Meredith’s hand in a tight grip for vital support. She was grateful for his presence. She’d been so sure she could do this. Now she knew that without his patience, acceptance and support she would probably have bottled out and returned to L.A. tonight. She’d been prepared for hostility from the two officers but not for the incandescent rage she’d sensed from Morton. Nor the quiet but palpable fury she felt from the khaki clad man on Crane’s other side who had been introduced as Dr. Jamieson. She sensed that, while Nelson was angry, his curiosity was to the forefront and she also felt a willingness to listen that was absent in the others.
The biggest surprise was Crane himself. She had expected anger, condemnation, a weak and bedridden patient from what she’d read in the newspapers. She was therefore amazed to see him seated in a high backed chair, clad in pyjamas and robe, more than a little pale and stiffness evident in his careful movements, his amber eyes searching for answers but withholding censure or disapproval. She saw him reach a hand back to momentarily catch Morton’s forearm in a gesture of encouragement towards the tall blond commander. An unexpected move when one would have thought Crane should be the one in need of support. But perhaps not so surprising when she recalled the captain’s instinctive movement to save his friend when she’d pulled out the pistol. She shuddered again at the recollection, her stomach in turmoil.
“Dr. Meredith, Ms Sommers, would either of you care to begin?” Nelson invited, propping himself on the edge of Lee’s bed.
“Ms. Sommers.” Her almost purple eyes flew to the owner of the softly spoken words. Crane leaned forward a little. “It must have taken some courage for you to come here today. Please, tell us.”
Her eyes flooded with tears at the empathy he showed. “Please, Captain, don’t be kind to me. I don’t deserve it.” She almost whispered but cleared her throat to continue, cringing anew at the growl that emanated from the blond at Crane’s side. A mild “Down, Chip.” subdued the officer who squeezed the captain’s shoulder gently in return.
“I’m not sure where to start exactly. First of all, I’d like to say I’m so, so sorry for all the trouble I’ve caused.” It was the wrong thing to say. She could almost feel the hackles rise on Morton and Jamieson and her voice shook audibly as she continued. “My younger sister Victoria – Vicky – has been an in- patient at the Isabel Catini Sanatorium for three years now. Dr. Meredith has been her Psychiatrist for most of the past ten years.”
As she faltered Lee felt that maybe some gentle questions would make the storytelling easier for her. He knew how difficult this was for Chip – and to a lesser extent Nelson and Jamie. But it had to be torture for Cassandra Sommers and he admired her guts in coming forward to face them.
“Vicky is the girl in the photo you showed us?”
”Yes. Three years ago she attempted suicide for the first time. In all there were three attempts within six months. She was twenty one years old.” Her eyes flickered to Morton whose expression remained impassive. “For the past two years she has been completely catatonic. She now receives palliative care only in the Sanatorium – I’ve fought that but have finally accepted that there is nothing further they can do for her.”
Nelson saw the reassuring squeeze that Meredith gave to her arm. She seemed to draw strength from it, inhaling deeply as she went on. “Vicky was a very unhappy person for a number of years. She withdrew from therapy when she reached eighteen and for three years was, to say the least, a handful. Then she seemed to change, to settle down. I had moved to LA – she thought that was wonderful. I wanted her to come with me but finally she was out on her own, out of my clutches, she said. She told me about the wonderful job she had gotten at the Nelson Institute.” She saw all four men react to that and proceeded to explain. “I’ve just today found out that was a lie. As was her ….romance…. with Commander Morton. And the other accusations she levelled against you, Commander. But I believed them – all of them until just recently.”
Unknowingly her tone became slightly pleading. She needed them to understand how it had been at the time. “She was just so happy. For the first time everything seemed to be going right for her! Vicky was so vivacious, so full of life. She’d been through too much. Now she was so ...so carefree, young and in love for the first time! She told me such wonderful stories about her work, her new friends, this fabulous guy who was mad about her. But he had a… a… reputation so she was waiting to introduce us until she was sure of him. Looking back I know I should have seen it for what it was.” Her tone turned self-condemnatory. “I was too busy working my new job. Trying to earn enough to pay for her therapy when she decided to resume it. And, truthfully, happy that she was managing by herself so that I could have a life of my own for once!
I believed her. Every lie she spouted, I swallowed it wholesale! When she told me it was over between you, Commander, that you’d made it intolerable for her to stay on at the Nelson Institute I urged her to take a Harassment suit but she wouldn’t. The next morning I found her in the bath having slit her wrists.” Tears pooled again and fell this time down pale cheeks. Meredith supplied a handkerchief and she mopped them, sniffing. “She continued to deteriorate over the next few months until finally she lapsed into a state of complete catatonia. She’s been like that for just over two years now.”
Meredith took over the telling seeing Cassie’s difficulty in continuing. “Vicky is a victim of trauma-triggered schizophrenia.” He saw Jamieson nod sympathetically, recognising the medical terminology. “When she was fourteen years old she saw her parents gunned down in a bank raid. Cassie became her legal guardian and has been in sole custody of Vicky for the past ten years. Vicky has had innumerable problems during that period and it hasn’t been easy for Cass. When she gained her majority Vicky eschewed therapy, convinced she could go it alone. She tried desperately but couldn’t. Over a period of about two years she became increasingly delusional, to the point where she was making up entire lifestyles and stories. She read about NIMR in the local papers and on news events and created a life for herself there. Victims of trauma-triggered schizophrenia can be very persuasive. They manufacture complete new identities in some cases. Vicky was able to convince Cass that she was holding down a full time job, had new friends, was seeing a wonderful guy. Until the day the entire pyramid came crashing down around her ears.
No one knows what precipitated that. All we do know for sure is that, at some point, life as she was creating it became too much for Vicky and she had to get out of the surreal world she had contrived. For her there was no choice – death. The first time she wasn’t so successful. Frankly, she made a bit of a mess. She was admitted to the Sanatorium and, despite being under close observation, she was able to make two further attempts. Finally she accepted that she was not going to be allowed to end it that way. So she chose to end it another way. By self induced catatonia. It’s rare. Vicky’s is a most unusual case.”
Jamieson winced involuntarily. What a sad end for a young life. And how incredibly difficult it must have been for her sister to have to watch. As if to validate his opinion, Meredith continued.
“Cassie has paid the bills in the San for the past three years, working herself to the bone to afford them. She visits every single Friday, hasn’t missed one in three years.”
“Please, don’t make me out to be a saint, Saul. I’m just a sister who couldn’t do the job of being a parent.” She tone was self deprecating, bordering on bitter.
”I think you’re being too hard on yourself.” Jamieson spoke up, immediately aware of Chip’s artic glare. “Vicky was obviously a very confused young woman. There’s probably little more you could have done, short of having her committed.”
“That’s exactly my opinion, Doctor.” Meredith concurred. “I’ve been urging Cassie to stop visiting Vicky; to have her sectioned and go back to LA and get on with her life. The past three years have been both a physical, emotional and financial drain on Cass. And there is no prospect of Vicky ever recovering.” The Seaview officers watched with apprehension as tears sparkled again on the woman’s dark lashes. “Last Friday, I requested a meeting between Cassie and the Sanatorium board. We laid out the facts and encouraged Cass to take the final step. All Vicky’s doctors were in agreement but Cassie asked for some time to think it over.”
“I couldn’t drive back to LA. I should have. I should never have gone to that place. That bar. I don’t know why I did. Maybe I just didn’t want to be alone. I don’t usually drink very much.” She withdrew her hand from Meredith’s and clasped hers together, kneading them urgently. “I saw you both there. And I recognised you, Commander. You were talking, laughing; having a good time and all I could think about was Vicky. How her life was! They were asking me to abandon her! To walk away as if she never existed. She was my little sister! I loved her.” Her voice broke and Meredith reached for her again. There was obvious affection in his gaze and his protective gestures. But Cassie pulled gently away, needing to finish this – her confession. “I don’t know what came over me. I’ve carried a gun for several years; living in LA it’s practically de rigour. But I swear, I swear, I never thought of using it. Even when I followed you both outside, I didn’t plan it! When you said you didn’t recognise her picture, denied all knowledge of her, something inside me just… just lost it. I snapped and I don’t remember how the gun got in my hand, I swear that! I didn’t mean to do it! When I realised that I had actually shot you, Captain, I couldn’t believe it. I really couldn’t! Oh God, I am so sorry. You deserved none of this.” Her voice trailed off, leaving a deep silence in its wake.
The four Seaview officers traded glances, understanding on Jamieson – the medic’s part, insightful on Nelson’s, pleading on Crane’s, but totally mixed on Morton’s. Mindful that Chip couldn’t see the unspoken plea in Lee’s eyes, Nelson gave his son of a heart a gentle but decisive shake of the head. The four star admiral was long enough in the tooth to understand that his tender hearted captain would have withheld pressing charges in the face of Cassie Sommers’ heart wrenching story, but Nelson was savvy enough in the ways of justice and the tenets of law enforcement that dictated the young woman needed to pay for the crime she had committed. Added to the fact that he wasn’t fit to deal with Chip Morton should that scenario play itself out! Crane nodded reluctant compliance, knowing it was out of his hands.
“Lee.” Amber eyes locked with Nelson’s piercing blue gaze. “We’ll sort something out.”
Grateful for Nelson’s intuitiveness, Lee nodded in return; knowing Vicky Sommers’ bill at the Isabel Catini Sanatorium would become the responsibility of NIMR for the foreseeable future.
At the almost imperceptible nod from Nelson, a relieved Morton left the room, knowing Lee had been tempted to drop the charges against Cassie Sommers. Nelson’s indefatigable logic had prevailed once again. Outside Chip took a deep, calming breath before unclipping his cell phone and punching in Connelly’s pre-programmed number. Hanging up, he took a moment to lean against the wall and close his eyes, finally acknowledging the weariness seeping through every pore in his body.
It was OVER. But what a tragic end - for all concerned. It would take a harder heart than his to condemn the woman presently in Lee’s hospital room.
He’d been prepared to hate her. Needed to despise her for what she’d done to his friend. His conflicting emotions churned in his stomach as he found himself almost admiring her loyalty to her sister, knowing he would have been equally culpable had it been his brother in the same situation. Oh, perhaps he wouldn’t have gone out and actually shot someone but it was clear from her recounting of the circumstances that the shooting hadn’t been premeditated – more a target of opportunity and a much regretted one at that.
Lee was going to be fine, Thank God. He, Chip, would be OK when he could rid himself of the images that nightly plagued him when he closed his eyes. Perhaps Cassie Sommers’ confession would go some way towards alleviating them. Unbelievably, despite all he’d gone through during the past eight days, he found it hard to blame her. Had the roles been reversed would he have done less for Katie, his baby sister? For Lee, his younger brother? He didn’t want to feel this way. For a full week he’d hated her, now she’d gained his reluctant sympathy and he found that inordinately difficult to cope with.
It was almost a betrayal of Lee and all that he had suffered. What they’d all suffered; Lee, Nelson and Jamieson – they’d all experienced their own individual traumas, having to deal with the imminent loss of their friend/brother/son. Chip found himself clenching his hands fiercely, his neck and shoulder muscles tautening under his khaki uniform jacket as he pressed his head fiercely back into the wall, his eyes closing tightly against the conflicting images. A soft, hesitant voice broke his intense concentration, forcing him back to the present.
“Chip? Is everything OK? Lee?”
Angie! Beautiful, anxious green eyes in a heart shaped face connected to his as her soft worried tones washed over him. Chip reached out, his hand trembling slightly as he brushed her newly styled dark hair away from her forehead, revealing the still slightly raised scar. This was reality, loyalty, courage. Despite accusations of betrayal, she’d returned to NIMR and the Admiral, wiser, stronger and even more protective of her charges.
“Yes, Angie, everything’s fine – now.” He leaned forward to bring his arms to bear on her shoulders, resting his forehead against hers in a gesture she found more endearing and revealing from this very private man than the most passionate kiss. “Hey, you know we never had our dinner together. How ‘bout tomorrow?”
“Well, Commander, maybe you want to take a rain check on that.” She retorted dryly. “I usually require my dates at least semi-conscious and, from the look of it, you could sleep for a week!”