On Deadly Ground by Pauline
A big thank you to Carole H for her help with the picture, and to my beta’s.
Cursing silently, Lee picked his way through the mist shrouded swamp. He didn’t want to think about what might be in the grey brackish water. The hot, humid air sapped his strength as he moved stealthily through the tangle of Mangroves, making hardly a ripple in the murky water. I must have been crazy to accept this assignment, he muttered to himself. He’d been here less than 12 hours and he was already looking forward to getting back to Seaview and a hot shower.
The swamp was a dangerous place, infested with snakes, swamp eel, caiman and mosquitoes, as well as human animals that would think nothing of killing any-one who got in their way. He was expected to make contact with Alex Lambert, an agent that had been working undercover to infiltrate a US submarine suspected of being involved in smuggling drugs out of South America to the US, only Lambert had disappeared and no-one had heard from him. Lee stopped and wiped a sleeve across his face. It would be dark soon and he needed to find a place to camp for the night. It would not be a good idea to continue on in the dark. He pulled the aerial photo of the area from his breast pocket of his jungle fatigues and unfolded it. He should be reaching higher ground and dry land soon, if he didn’t run out of daylight first.
Half an hour later Lee found the ruins of an ancient temple rising out of the mire. With relief, he climbed the crumbling stone steps, grateful to be on dry land. Water dripped from him as he stood surveying his surroundings. The towering stone pillars supporting grand curved arches, were covered in moss and lichen. Large stones were scattered around the site and a carpet of dead leaves and debris covered the floor. He could almost certainly find enough dry material to get a fire going and dry out his clothes.
He set about gathering dead branches, leaves and moss to build a fire and within a few minutes had a fire going. He sat in front of it, although tempted to take off his wet pants and hang them to dry, he knew that there were too many biting insects crawling around in the leaf litter. He did pull off his boots and tipped them up to drain the water out of them. It was not going to be a comfortable night.
Later, he sat on the stone steps, one knees drawn up, his hands wrapped around the leg, and let his mind returned to Seaview and the conversation he’d had with Chip Morton...
“No, Lee!” Chip Morton almost yelled as he paced in front of Lee’s desk.
“Calm down, Chip,” Lee got to his feet and walked around the desk. “I have to go, it’s my job.”
“No, it’s not your job”. Chip halted and turned on his friend. “ Your job is Captaining Seaview, not playing James Bond,” Chip continued his ranting over Lee’s latest summons from ONI.
Lee sighed, knowing that he was going to face even worse from the Admiral when he found out. “I’m sorry, Chip, but I have to go.”
“Fine, go!” Chip snapped. “Get yourself hurt again or worse. One of these days they are going to ship you back in a coffin.”
“Chip,” Lee tried again to placate his friend.
“I mean it, Lee,” Refusing to be placated by anything Lee had to say, Chip turned on his heels and stormed out of the cabin, slamming the door behind him.
Lee winced and suppressed a shudder at the thought if his coming mission. He hated the swamp.
At first light Lee packed up his camp, and made sure that the fire was out and was on the move. Leaving the temple ruins, he moved into the jungle, following the trail that appeared to have been recently travelled until he found himself on the edge of a village. The dwellings were ram shackled wooden shacks, built on stilts above the water.
The sound of an outboard motor in the distance disturbed the quiet of the swamp and Lee crouched motionless in the undergrowth at the edge of the track, watching and listening. He could hear low voices and the sound of the outboard seemed to be getting closer. Carefully, Lee crept through the undergrowth to get a closer look at what was going on.
There was an inlet and a zodiac was approaching the village. There were two men on board, dressed in black and carrying M16’s; these guys meant business. Lee watched the two men secure the zodiac under one of the dwellings and climb out. They were met by another man who came out of the shack. There was a brief conversation before they all went inside. He continued to watch as the men re-emerged and formed a chain to load plastic wrapped packages into the zodiac. Digging into his pack for the camera that ONI had given him, he took several photos of the men before sealing the camera into a plastic bag and returning to the pack.
Lee knew that the zodiac was his lead to the sub. Reluctantly, he slipped silently into the water and waited for them to finish loading; at least the water was warm. While he watched he studied the zodiac, looking for some secure hand hold that would allow him to hitch a ride without being seen from the boat. These guys did not look like Navy; more like mercenaries. Lee was beginning to think that this was a job for the DEA. While Lee was officially part of the Submarine Warfare Operations division of ONI, he often got called upon to take missions outside of that remit. Lee again found himself wondering where the intel had come from for this operation.
With no visible anchorage points, Lee was forced to swim underwater for a closer look at the zodiac. Surfacing near the bow, he found a towing ring and hoped that it would be strong enough to take his weight.
While the men had been occupied loading the cargo, Lee had slipped aboard the sub using an unguarded hatch; they probably didn’t expect anyone to be sneaking aboard so security was lax. There was not as much room on the old diesel/electric sub as he was used to aboard Seaview. He moved carefully and quietly through the narrow passageways, headed aft, away from the control room and any crew. There probably weren’t more than twenty men running the sub. He managed to find a small storage locker to hide in next to the aft missile room. The torpedo racks were empty so no-one would come to this area of the boat. It was a relief to discover that this was not a Navy sub as had been expected but there had been no sign of Lambert. He suspected from the looks of these men, that he was already dead, his body probably dumped somewhere in the swamp. Once the sub arrived at its destination he would sneak ashore and report. With any luck there next landfall would be the US.
Feeling the deck move under his feet, he knew that the sub was underway. The old sub creaked and groaned as she sank below the water and Lee couldn’t help wondering just how well maintained she was. Sitting down on the deck, he made himself as comfortable as possible. He hoped that it would not be a long voyage or things could get a little uncomfortable. His clothes were still wet and after the sticky heat of the swamp he was beginning to feel cold. He removed his boots and wet socks, but he had no way of drying them or himself. Pushing a hand through his wet hair, he surveyed his surroundings. The compartment was virtually empty apart from some old rope, an empty oil can and a rusty tool box long abandoned by its owner.
Drawing his knees up to his chest he wrapped his arms around his middle, trying to conserve the heat that was slowly ebbing from his body. He wished that he had worn a dryliner under his clothing, but he hadn’t thought that he would need it with the heat of the swamp. Adding to his discomfort, he had several bites on his back, legs and neck that itched now that he was out of the water. Just how the insects had gotten under his clothes he didn’t know.
Chip Morton looked at his watch and entered their course and position in the log. Seaview was on her way back to Santa Barbara, where hopefully she would be re-united with her Captain. Chip hid his disapproval at Lee’s absence as he returned the log to its place beneath the plot table. Why couldn’t Lee be content with Captaining Seaview? Why did he feel that he had to keep accepting these crazy missions for ONI? All too often Lee came back injured and it was left to his friends to pick up the pieces. Maybe NIMR should start sending the bills for Lee’s medical care to Admiral Johnson at ONI headquarters.
Chip knew that Nelson was not happy about ONI borrowing his Captain, but in reality, there hadn’t been anything he could do about it. ONI had their hooks in Lee and was not going to let go. Admiral Johnson knew how to play on Lee’s loyalty when he knew damn well that Lee would not refuse. To make matters worse, they were not privy to the details of Lee’s assignment, if Lee got into trouble, they would not be there to back him up. Chip’s thoughts were interrupted by the arrival of Lt. O’Brien.
“Good evening, Mr Morton. I’m relieving you, Sir.”
“Good evening, Mr O’Brien. You have the con. Keep on course for Santa Barbara. I’ll see you in eight hours.” Somewhat reluctantly Chip turned and headed aft; he would have dinner and then hit his rack. He would have preferred to have stayed at the Conn just in case, but O’Brien would call him if anything should come up.
Lee came to his feet at the sound of footsteps approaching the compartment and moved to one side of the hatch, ready to tackle whoever came through it. He grabbed the wrist of the first man through the hatch, pulled hard and then twisted. He heard bones snap and the gun glittered from the man’s hand. The man cried out in pain and cursed.
Lee didn’t have time to follow through his attack as the second man grabbed him from behind and threw him into the bulkhead.
Lee let out a soft “Oomph,” as he impacted hard, temporarily winded and dazed, Lee shook his head to try and clear it.
“You all right, Conrad?” his attacker asked.
“Bastard broke my wrist,” the man complained angrily, swinging wildly at Lee.
Lee managed to duck the swing and get in a punch to the man’s stomach. As his assailant staggered backwards, the second man grabbed the front of Lee’s shirt and slammed him back into the bulkhead, his head impacted with the metal and for a moment stars danced in his vision.
“Another move and you’re dead,” the second man growled, shoving the gun into Lee’s face, he grabbed the front of Lee’s shirt. “Come on, the Captain will want to talk to you,” he said, giving Lee a push towards the hatch.
The man was probably waiting for Lee to try something, but he wasn’t about to do anything to get himself shot.
Lee was manhandled into the control room. “Captain, we found this guy in the aft storage locker,” the man reported.
“Who are you? How did you get aboard?” The captain, a tall man with sharp blue eyes and silver grey hair asked.
“Lee Glenn,” was all Lee was going to admit.
The Captain unclipped a 10 x 8 photo from his clipboard and placed it on the chart table in front of Lee. “Well, Lee Glen, it may surprise you to know that we have been expecting you. We have spy cameras all over the area.”
Lee picked up the photo; it was of him in the ruins the first night.
“Now, Lee Glenn, tell me why I shouldn’t just throw you overboard?” The Captain asked.
“That would be murder?”
“The man arched an eyebrow and smiled. “And that should bother me? But you haven’t answered my question, how did you get aboard?”
“It wasn’t difficult, your men are sloppy,” Lee answered critically as he cast a glance at the men around him. The crew’s appearance was also untidy, with scruffy jeans and grubby T-shirts that looked like they had not seen a laundry recently.
There was a chorus of profanities from the crew in response before the Captain held up a hand in a gesture to silence them. “Maybe I should let my men demonstrate their dislike of strangers that stowaway aboard this vessel.”
Lee didn’t answer.
“The bastard broke my wrist, Captain. I say we fire him out one of the torpedo tubes,” Conrad spoke up.
The captain regarded Conrad. “Maybe he’s right, you are sloppy.” Then he returned his attention to Lee. “Lock him in the brig for now. I’ll deal with him later,” he ordered.
His guards’ bruising grip on Lee’s arm tightened as he was dragged out of the hatch and led in the direction of the brig. The unfortunate Conrad’s place had been taken by two other crew members. They obviously weren’t prepared to take any more chances with him escaping.
When they reached the brig, the door was unlocked and he was thrown roughly inside. He stumbled off balance and hit the deck hard. The first man followed him in, flanked by the other two, who closed the door and took up position in front of it.
The man grabbed Lee and hauled him back to his feet before slamming him back against the bulkhead. “Sloppy are we, I’ll show you sloppy. You made us look bad in front of the Captain, now you’re going to pay for that,” the man growled.
Lee stifled a groan at the bruising impact with the unyielding metal. Using both hands he delivered a chop to both sides of the man’s torso, just below the ribcage. However, his success was limited as the other men joined in. The cell was small and there was not much room to manoeuvre. Lee could normally take care of himself, but three against one was not good odds. Lee tried to use his feet, but the first man grabbed his ankle and pulled his feet out from under him. He landed hard and before he had time to recover, the man dropped a knee onto his stomach, pinning him down. Grabbing the front of Lee’s shirt, he pulled him up and punched him in the face. Lee felt blood running from his nose and tasted blood in his mouth. While the other two men held Lee’s arms, the first man continued to use Lee as a punch bag, landing punches to his face and body. He finished the attack by driving his knee into Lee’s groin twice. Lee bit back a scream at the gut wrenching pain that erupted from the blows, making his eyes water and his stomach heaved.
“Not so tough now, are you?” the man scoffed as he got to his feet and stood over Lee. “I don’t know why the Captain is even bothering with you.” Delivering a departing kick to Lee’s ribs, the man turned to leave.
Still flat on his back on the deck; Lee could hardly breathe around the pain, he drew up his knees, the pain holding him immobile, he could only watch as they locked the door firmly behind them.
Lambert unlocked the brig and stepped inside. Lee was lying curled on his side on the deck and Lambert dropped to one knee beside him. “Lee, what have they done to you?” he touched two fingers to Lee’s neck to check for a pulse. “Lee, can you hear me?”
Lee groaned in response. His left eye was black and there was a bruise on his cheek that spread down to his jaw.
“Lee, how badly are you hurt?” If Lee was seriously hurt, there would be little he could do to help him. He was the only one aboard the sub trained in first aid, and the first aid supplies were basic. He doubted that any of the crew would care what happened to Lee.
Lee opened his eyes and squinted up at him. “Alex? I thought...you were dead.”
“No, lucky for you. Where are you hurt?” Alex asked dropping his hand onto Lee’s shoulder.
“Everywhere,” Lee grimaced as he struggled to raise himself up off the deck.
Lambert gripped his arm to he helped him to the bunk.
Lee eased himself down onto the bunk with another groan, his right hand pressed to his left ribcage.
“God, Lee, you’re a mess,” Alex squatted down in front of him. “Lie down and let me check you over.”
Lee shook his head. “I’m okay.”
“Yeah, sure you are. Come on, let’s see the rest of the damage.”
“It’s only bruising, it can wait,” Lee resisted, pushing Alex’s hand away as he tried to open Lee’s shirt. “What are you doing here, anyway?”
“I’m the cook and medic. I’m afraid things are pretty basic around here.”
Lee glanced at the door. “They’re not worried about me escaping?”
“Guess they figured you weren’t in any shape to make an escape attempt. Besides, there’s nowhere to run while we’re at sea.” Alex took a wipe from the first aid kit and carefully cleaned away the blood from Crane’s nose. “Try and get some rest while you can, I’ll bring you some food.”
“I’m not hungry,” Lee told him.
Alex frowned; concerned that Lee may have internal injuries. “Okay, but you really should get out of those wet clothes. Once everyone is busy unloading, I’ll come a get you and we’ll both get out of here.”
“No, you have to leave me. If you blow your cover it will mess up the whole operation and we might never get another chance to catch these guys,” Lee protested.
Alex shook his head. “I’m not leaving you. They’ll kill you. Besides, your diversion gave me the chance to get to the radio and alert the Coast Guard,” he smiled cheerfully. “There’ll be a reception waiting for us. Just relax, I’ll see you later,” he squeezed Lee’s arm reassuringly.
Lee felt Alex’s supporting hand on his arm as they dragged themselves out of the water onto the beach. The swim had not helped his bruised ribs, but he was not going to let it slow him down. They had come ashore at a remote stretch of the southern Californian coast. The water was chilly and mist was drifting in off the sea. Lee wiped water out of his eyes as they sprinted up the sand towards the cover of low rocks and vegetation, hoping that they would not be spotted. It wouldn’t be long before their absence was noticed.
A bullet whizzed past Lee’s head and he instinctively flattened himself against the smooth rocks, stifling a groan as his bruised ribs came into contact with the hard surface. He took a quick look back to the submarine; the Zodiac was emerging out of the mist, racing towards shore. “Come on, let’s get out of here.”
Alex moved beside him as they scrambled over the rocks. Once again finding himself cold and wet, Lee was looking forward to getting back to Santa Barbara. More bullets ricocheted off the rocks, sending sharp fragments flying into the air. He veered, heading for the cover of a large tree he could see silhouetted against the night’s sky on the ridge. Where was the Coast Guard when you needed them?
“You okay?” Alex asked tightly.
“Yeah, fine,” he replied with a quick glance at the man beside him. He was running on adrenaline, he should have taken the chance to eat and catch a nap while aboard the sub, but his sense of survival, combined with pain, had prevented him from doing so.
The ground was rising away from the beach with the sand and rocks giving way to low growing vegetation and the dark shapes of twisted oaks, sculptured by the weather appeared out of the night. Bullets continued to strike close to them as they scrambled over the rocks and into the thick foliage of sage brush, yarrow and deer weed. The vegetation did not afford much cover and Lee gasped and cursed softly as he felt the hot sting of a bullet in his right calf, as he sprawled face down he felt something hit the back of his head and then everything went black.
Chip’s mood was lightened by the sight of Lindsey waiting for him as he stepped off the gangway onto dry land.
Lindsey smiled and gave him a hug and a kiss. “Where’s Lee? He’s not still aboard is he?” she asked.
“Last minute assignment, he’s off, heaven knows where. And if I know Lee, he’s up to his neck in it,” Chip grumbled as he slipped an arm around her shoulders.
“Oh, I bet the Admiral is not too happy about that,” Lindsey commented as they walked towards Chip’s car.
“He’s not the only one. “ Chip couldn’t help worrying about Lee, not knowing what sort of trouble he was getting himself into.
“I’m sorry, Chip – but I’m glad your home,” Lindsey squeezed his hand. “I’m going to cook you dinner.”
Chip smiled. “Sounds great.” Stopping beside the car, he unlocked the doors and opened the passenger side.
After stowing his bag on the back seat, Chip went around and got behind the wheel.
His head felt like someone had it in a vice. Lee blinked, trying to force his eyes to stay open. Where was he? There was something on his face and he raised a hand to try and push it away.
“Don’t do that,” a female voice said and his hand was gripped and pulled away.
Lee turned his head slightly, trying to see who it was. A nurse stood beside him. “Where am I?”
“San Diego Naval Medical Center. You’ve just come out of surgery,” she told him.
He seemed to be floating on the edge of sleep; it was difficult to concentrate, he was so drowsy. “Thirsty,” he complained.
“We’ve got you on IV fluids; you can have a drink when we get you settled into a room,” she smiled.
He didn’t want to go to a room, he wanted out. But a part of him wanted to close his eyes and let sleep take him. From the throbbing ache in his head and the drowsiness he knew that he wasn’t up to escaping.
“We’re going to take you to a room now,” the nurse told him.
There was some activity around him and then he was moving, being wheeled out through double swing doors and into a corridor. There wasn’t much of a view as he was wheeled through the sterile environment of the hospital and into an elevator. The doors slide closed and he felt the elevator start to move. The nurse standing beside the gurney smiled reassuringly. His eyelids were getting heavy and he let them close. He drifted in and out of sleep, roused by being transferred from the gurney to a bed. Nurses fussed around him, checking his blood pressure and temperature. He burrowed deeper into the pillow and let sleep drag him down again, wrapping him in a blanket of darkness.
Lee shifted uncomfortably in the back seat of Alex’s SUV. His head was still throbbing from the bullet that had grazed the back of his skull and he was still sporting a bandage around his head. His right leg was pretty numb following the surgery to repair the damage to the muscle and tissue. He had insisted on leaving the hospital, against medical advice. The doctor hadn’t been happy about it, he’d wanted Lee to stay for a few more days, but Lee hated hospitals. There was no way he was going to remain in the hospital for any longer than he considered necessary.
“You okay back there, Lee?” Alex asked.
“Yeah, fine,” the pain meds they had given him prior to leaving the hospital were beginning to take effect and he could hardly keep his eyes open. Alex had been forced to act as mediator and said that Lee could stay at his place until he was well enough to return to Santa Barbara. The drive from the naval hospital to Alex’s home in the San Diego suburban area seemed to be taking forever. With nothing but the same boring scenery outside, that seemed to go on for miles, Lee found his eyes drifting shut. Must have been more than pain meds they had given him, he realised, but right now he didn’t care if it helped him survive the journey. He was beginning to think that he had made a mistake in leaving the hospital before he was really ready.
The next thing Lee knew, they had pulled up in front of a traditional town house with white walls and red tiled roof. Alex came around to help Lee out of the car. Getting to his feet, Lee felt a little woozy, due in part, no doubt, to the medication. He wasn’t sure that he would be able to manage the crutches that Alex handed him. He would have to use them for the next week or so, until he could put weight on his injured leg. Jamie was going to have a field day, Lee reflected gloomily.
“Ready?” Alex asked.
Lee nodded. He made his way carefully towards the house. The front door was open and a woman stood waiting.
“Welcome to our home,” she smiled.
Lee blinked at the woman in front of him. She had long, black hair that tumbled around her shoulders and deep blue eyes. “Thank you, Ma’am,” Lee managed in response. Alex was just full of surprises.
“Lee, this is my wife, Carlota. Carlota, this is Lee Crane,” Alex introduced.
“Pleased to meet you, Carlota,” Lee smiled.
“Won’t you please come in? You look tired; let me show you to the guest room.”
Lee nodded, a comfortable bed sounded good. Exhaustion was settling on him, he hadn’t realised how much the injury had taken out of him.
Alex laughed, “The old Crane charm strikes again.”
“Alex, behave,” Carlota chastised her husband, “you’re embarrassing our guest.”
Feeling himself blush, Lee ducked his head and followed the pair. Alex helped him up the stairs to the bedroom and he had been too tired to argue.
“I stopped to buy you some pyjamas on the way to the hospital this morning. I think they are the right size,” Alex told him, putting a shopping bag down on the bed.
“Thanks, I take it you are responsible for the clothes?” The clothes that Lee had been wearing were trashed and the hospital had disposed of them.
“Yeah, I couldn’t let you come out wearing a hospital gown. Do you need any help?” Alex offered.
“I’ll manage, thanks,” Lee tried not to sound ungrateful, but the fussing was starting to get on his nerves; he wasn’t totally helpless.
“Okay, I’ll bring you some lunch later. Oh, and I almost forgot, I thought you might like a souvenir,” Alex pulled open the drawer of the nightstand and produced the photo of Lee. “I managed to grab this,” he smiled.
“Thanks, but you shouldn’t have bothered. How come it didn’t get ruined by the seawater?” Lee smiled as he picked up the photo.
“Actually, one of the coastguard guys retrieved it from the sub when they searched it. I think it’s rather good, sort of peaceful” Alex said cheerfully as he made his way out of the room and quietly closed the door behind him.
Lee lay back against the stack of pillows and pulled the comforter higher. He knew that he wasn’t strong enough to travel yet, but he was anxious to get home. His friends would be worried about him. He turned toward the door as Alex entered carrying a tray which he set down on the nightstand and looked at Crane.
“Lee, how are you feeling? Are you hungry? I brought you lunch.”
He wasn’t very hungry, but he knew he should try and eat something; it must have been 48 hours since he had last eaten anything. “I’m okay, thanks.”
Alex smile and moved the tray to the bed where Lee could reach it. “The doctor said that you need to drink lots of fluids and he left you some antibiotics and pain medication.”
The pain meds made him feel like a zombie and he hated taking them. Instead he turned his attention to the sandwiches and soup. “Smells good.”
“It’s home made. Carlota is a great cook,” Alex told him, sitting on the side of the bed.
“How long have you been married?” And why wasn’t I invited to the wedding?” Lee asked before taking a cautious spoon of the soup.
“A couple of years, I met Carlota while on assignment in Mexico. It was a bit of a whirlwind romance.”
Lee smiled. “I’m happy for you.”
“Thanks. Do you have anyone waiting for you in Santa Barbara?”
Lee paused between bits of his sandwich. “No, Seaview is the only lady in my life.”
Alex shook his head. “That’s just not natural. You need to find yourself a woman to come home to,” he told him.
Lee grinned. Alex was not the first person to make that comment. “I don’t have time for a relationship.”
“Make time. Seriously Lee, life’s too short, buddy. You don’t know what you’re missing.”
Lambert sat watching Crane, lying on his back with one arm resting across his stomach, the hand clutching the comforter; he was sleeping peacefully for once. Alex had never understood Lee’s dislike of anything medical, but he respected his wishes and brought him to his home. Lee hadn’t wanted to go to hospital, but his leg needed expert treatment. However, almost as soon as soon as Lee had regained consciousness, he had insisted on leaving, signing himself out and thus giving Alex no other option. Lee had certainly lived up to his reputation for being a bad patient and definitely did not take no for an answer.
Lee had at least agreed to the crutches but was not really strong enough to manage them. He was still bruised from the beating he’d received on the sub and Alex suspected that he was playing down his injuries. In any event, he had managed to badger Lee into taking the pain meds and finally he had fallen asleep.
Fortunately, Alex had been able to radio the sub’s position before they left the boat. He had never been more grateful for the arrival of the cavalry, in the form of the Coast Guard, a Navy sub chaser and park rangers. He would never have been able to get Lee out of there alive without their help. Lee had lost a lot of blood from the leg wound and without proper first aid, might not have made it. The head wound, while not serious, had been messy and Alex was sure that Lee still had a headache.
In a few days, when Lee was stronger, he would arrange transport to take Lee back to Santa Barbara. ONI owed Lee big time for the work he’d done for them over the years; it shouldn’t be difficult to persuade Admiral Johnson to provide a chopper to fly them. Alex intended to go along to make sure that Lee got there in one piece and to ensure that he saw a doctor. Left on his own, Lee would just go home and not bother to tell anyone that he was hurt. He would doubtless not bother with the tablets either.
His thoughts were interrupted by Carlota slipping quietly into the room. “Are you coming to bed? I’m sure that the Commander would not be happy if he was to wake and find you hovering,” she whispered.
Alex grinned. That was another of Lee’s pet hates, people fussing drove him crazy. He eased out of the chair, careful not to make any noise and followed her out. He had his own plans for the night.
Lee lay listening to the silence, trying to remember where he was. Opening his eyes helped as he recognised his surroundings – Alex place. For a few moments he remained still, letting himself wake up properly. The pain meds left him feeling groggy and as soon as he got home he would flush them down the toilet. Thinking of which, he needed to talk to Alex about getting home. As much as he appreciated Alex’s hospitality, he needed to get back to Santa Barbara. He’d lost track of the days, but he must be overdue and Nelson and Chip would be worried about him.
Throwing back the comforter, he sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed. Catching sight of himself in the mirrored closet doors, he cringed. You’re a mess, Crane. With several days’ growth of beard and his hair curling unruly around the bandage wrapped around his head he was in need of a shower and shave. He was about to reach for the crutches when there was a knock on the door and Alex stuck his head in.
“Good, you’re awake,” he smiled, entering the room. “After you’ve showered I’ll redress your leg.”
“There are fresh towels in the bathroom and a robe hanging on the back of the door. Can you manage?”
Lee sighed, but a small smile crept over his face. “Yes, Alex, I think I can manage a shower and shave.”
Alex shrugged. “Okay, come down when you’re ready. Carlota is making breakfast.”
“I hope she isn’t going to too much trouble on my behalf, I’m not a big eater,” Lee told him as he hauled himself up off the bed.
“Yeah, I noticed. I don’t know how you survive on what you eat,” Alex teased.
Lee stood enjoying the warm spray, letting it wash away the last residue of sleep. It felt good after everything that he’d been through; he was finally beginning to feel human again. His head had felt itchy and he had removed the bandage so that he could wash his hair. He cautiously worked the lather through his hair being careful not to touch the wound on the back of his head. Ducking his head under the spray, he rinsed the shampoo from his hair. He would like to have stayed in the shower longer, but he had most of his weight on his left leg and didn’t want to end up on his butt; that would be embarrassing.
Turning off the water, he managed to get out of the shower without any mishaps. He felt cleaner than he had since he’d entered the swamp, how many days ago? After towelling his hair almost dry, he hung the towel around his neck and turned his attention to the several days’ growth of beard; it wouldn’t due to turn up at NIMR looking like a beach bum. He was in enough trouble with his XO without giving him more ammunition. His black eye and bruising on his face looked disgusting somehow made worse by the beard. There was no way he could hide neither them nor the bruising on his ribcage and arms from Jamie. Fortunately, there did not seem to be any lasting damage to the other part of his anatomy that had been hurt in the beating he’d taken.
Returning to the bedroom, Lee found Alex sitting on the bed waiting for him.
“I thought I’d do this now, save you getting dressed twice,” Alex indicated the first aid kit on the bed beside him.
“Okay,” Lee agreed readily, his leg needed dressing to stop he stitches catching on his pant leg and it made sense to let Alex do it now.
After pulling on a T-shirt and boxer shorts, he sat on the bed and watched Alex bandage a light dressing in place; he also re-bandaged Lee’s head.
“There, all done,” Alex closed the kit. “You ready for breakfast?”
Lee shook his head. “You don’t give up, do you?”
Lee soon discovered that he was not going to be allowed to get away with just toast for breakfast when Carlota put a plate in front of him with two ham n’ egg burritos. He looked pleading at Alex, who just smiled and shrugged.
“Don’t look at me. I told her you didn’t eat.”
“I’ve never known a man that didn’t enjoy good food,” Carlota responded as she placed a large bowl of Avocado fruit salad, yogurt and honey on the table and took a seat opposite her husband.
Lee regarded the food and wondered how much he needed to eat to satisfy Carlota. But once Lee started to eat, he found that he was enjoying his breakfast. “I need to get back to Santa Barbara. I’m already overdue,” he told Alex between mouthfuls of fruit salad.
“Yeah, I thought you might. I pulled a few strings and there’s a chopper leaving Coronado Naval Base this afternoon.”
Lee nearly choked on a piece of fruit. “I could have got a commercial flight,” he spluttered between coughs.
Alex grinned. “Will you calm down? We were on an official ONI mission; I figured they owed you a ride home. Besides, no commercial flight would accept you with recent leg trauma.”
Lee was embarrassed that the Navy was providing a chopper just for him. He was sure that they had better things to do. Alex must have known what he was thinking.
“Lee, after all you’ve done for them, don’t you think they owe you a helicopter ride?”
“I was only doing my duty,” Lee mumbled, uncomfortable talking about ONI in front of Carlota.
Alex shook his head at him. “It’s arranged, so you may as well surrender.”
Doctor Will Jamieson hated surprises; there had been too much chaos in his life since he’d accepted the position of CMO aboard Seaview. Lee’s unexpected arrival by chopper had certainly caused a hullabaloo at the institute. The doctor had been unable to contain his own shocked horror at the sight of Lee Crane standing in the doorway of his office, dressed in green combat gear; he was leaning on crutches. His dark hair was an untidy mess of curls and there was a bandage wrapped around his head. What had Crane done to himself this time? “Skipper!”
“Hi, Jamie.” Despite the grin, Lee looked tired and the smile did not quite reach his usually expressive eyes.
“What happened?” Jamieson was already on his feet, moving around the desk to help Crane to a chair. “Come and sit down.”
“Thanks,” Lee put down the crutches and dropped heavily into the chair in front of Jamieson’s desk.
Returning to his desk, Jamieson called his secretary. “Becky, could you bring Commander Crane a cup of coffee please?”
“Certainly doctor,” she responded.
Jamieson turned his attention back to Crane. “What happened? How bad?”
“Shot in the head, but it’s only a graze,” Lee told him.
“And the crutches?” Jamieson prompted. He knew that Lee would not divulge any more than he had to.
Lee’s gaze dropped to his legs. “Took a bullet in the leg that needed surgery,” Lee said quietly.
For a moment Jamieson sat staring at the young man in front of him as several thoughts flashed through his mind. The Admiral would go ballistic when he found out. “Should you be out of the hospital?” he inquired at last. He wanted to examine Crane, but he didn’t want to antagonise him by fussing.
“Signed myself out,” Lee admitted sheepishly.
“Stupid question, I should have know,” Jamieson sighed.
Lee shook his head. “Relax Jamie, I’m fine.”
“Why didn’t you contact the Institute? We would have come and picked you up,” Jamieson wanted to know.
“Because I didn’t want to exchange one hospital for another and because I wanted to come home and sleep in my own bed,” Lee told him with a warning note in his voice.
Jamieson knew that there was no way he was going to be able to keep Lee in Med bay, however badly he was hurt.
At that moment they were interrupted by Jamieson’s secretary with the coffee. She smiled at Lee as she put the tray down on the desk. “I included some cookies; I thought you might be hungry.”
Lee returned the smile. “Thanks.”
Jamieson couldn’t help smiling himself. The Crane charm worked every time, even when Lee wasn’t trying.
“What?” Lee asked as he reached for his coffee and a cookie.
“I’m glad that someone can get you to eat, even if it is only cookies.”
Lee gave him a shy smile.
The doctor frowned and shook his head. He’d let Lee finish his coffee and cookies and then he was going to give him a thorough exam. “I hope you’re not planning on driving yourself home,” he changed the subject.
Lee again shook his head. “A friend is waiting outside, and before you say anything, I am going home to sleep in my own bed. So don’t even think about trying to keep me here,” Lee warned.
Jamieson threw up his hands in surrender. “I don’t know why I bother.”
Lee gave him a mischievous grin. “I’m your favourite patient.”
“And the worst,” Jamieson shot back. “You realise that I am going to have to make a report to the Admiral?”
“I guess so.” Lee shrugged.
“Come on, let’s get this over with.” Getting up, Jamieson moved around the desk to help Crane out of the chair.
Lying on the exam table, Lee had to admit that he was tired. He could quite easily have closed his eyes and slept, but there was no way he was going to let Jamieson get his claws into him. The journey had tired him and he wanted to go home and catch up on some sleep before he faced Nelson and the wrath of his friend and Exec. Chip Morton.
“You’ve got more lives than a cat,” Jamieson commented as he examined the wound on Lee’s calf.
Lee knew how lucky he’d been. The bullet had missed the bone and major blood vessels; it had entered the back of his calf on a slant and exited the side. It still hurt like hell and it hadn’t helped that he’d been some distance from medical help.
Jamieson frowned in concern. “Do you want to talk about it?”
Lee gave his head a small shake. “No, Jamie, I’m fine. I’m tired that’s all.”
“How much blood did you lose?” Jamieson enquired as he re-dressed and bandaged the leg.
Lee shrugged. “Don’t know, I was unconscious a lot of the time.”
Jamieson shook his head disapprovingly. “Okay, sit up and let me take a look at that head wound.”
Lee sat up and swung his legs over the side of the table. He winced as Jamieson examined the bullet crease on the back of his head, if he hadn’t fallen as the bullet struck, it would have blown a hole in the back of his head and he would be dead.
“I think we can dispense with the bandage. Keep it clean and be careful you don’t open it up again,” the doctor instructed as he pulled off his surgical gloves and walked over to the clinical waste bin. After tossing the gloves into the bin he turned back to Lee. “Your good to go, but I’ll need you back here to have the stitches out.”
Lee nodded and slid carefully down from the table. “Thanks, Jamie.”
“Don’t think you’ve totally escaped. Once the stitches are out you’ll need to exercise that leg to build up the muscle,” Jamieson warned as he took Lee’s arm, helping to steady him.
“How long will that take?” Lee asked as he pulled on his pants. He was bored already and was anxious to get back to work, even if it was light duty.
Jamieson smiled. “If you follow orders I’ll pass you fit for light duty as soon as you can drive.”
“I could drive one of the institute cars,” Lee suggested hopefully.
Jamieson shook his head. “Go home and get some sleep. We’ll see how things are when the stitches are out,” he ordered sternly.
“Can’t blame me for trying,” Lee grinned and headed for the door to make good his escape before Jamieson changed his mind and ordered 24 hours observation.
Sprawled in an armchair, Lee took another swallow of coffee. He could hear Alex clearing away the breakfast dishes in the kitchen. Lee had insisted that he didn’t need a babysitter, but Alex had been equally determined to stay and had installed himself in the spare room.
Lee had to admit that it felt good to be home and sleep in his own bed. Last night he had, under protest, taken the pain pills the doctor had left him and had a good night’s rest. After some cajoling from Alex, he had also managed a decent breakfast this morning.
He still had to make his report to ONI and had already written a rough draft. He wondered if Admiral Johnson would send someone to debrief him as he had been ordered not to set foot in his office at the institute; much to his annoyance and frustration. He would have liked to have checked on his boat before coming home, but he wasn’t allowed near the dock either.
Lee sighed heavily. He knew that he had to give his leg time to heal, but he was bored and eager to get back to work; he needed something to do. Just because he was house bound, it didn’t mean that he couldn’t do something useful with his time.
Then there was Nelson, although Lee was aware that Nelson did not approve of his continued involvement with ONI, the Admiral had not tried to stop him from taking the assignment. Lee suddenly found himself remembering the first night he’d spent in the jungle, sitting on the temple steps, reflecting on his argument with Chip. He remembered the camera; he’d taken some shots of the temple, thinking that Nelson might be interested. It was a shame that Alex didn’t manage to retrieve the camera instead of that stupid photo.
He’d been expecting a visit from his friend and XO. Chip had been pissed at him before he’d left the boat. He knew that Chip had not meant the things he had said in the heat of the moment, but still he felt the need to talk to Chip and clear the air between them. If he was honest, that was partly the reason for his restlessness.
“How’s the head? Do you need anything?” Alex asked as he stuck his head around the door, interrupting his thoughts.
Lee scowled. “Yes, I need something to do, I’m going stir crazy.” He’d contemplated calling his secretary and asking her to bring him something to work on. There was only one problem, Donna had not been to the lighthouse and most people had problems finding it on the first visit.
“I can’t help you there, sorry,” Alex entered the room and sat in the other armchair. “Why don’t you watch some TV, I’m sure you could find something to watch.”
Lee snorted. A couch potato he was not. “I would have thought that you’d want to get back to that lovely wife of yours, instead of babysitting me.”
“Are you trying to get rid of me? You could hurt a person’s feelings,” Alex said in mock indignation.
Admiral Nelson looked up from his paperwork and sighed. He could hear the sounds of an argument coming from Crane’s office. Closing the file in front of him, Nelson got up and headed out. Lee Crane was supposed to be at home recovering from his injuries and Nelson suspected that was the cause of the argument.
He shook his head as he passed Angie’s desk and she gave him a sympathetic smile. Like the rest of the staff on the command floor, she was used to Lee’s occasional run-ins with Will Jamieson, Seaview’s CMO. By the sounds of this one, neither of them was prepared to back down. Lee was stubborn, that was what made him such a good Captain, but sometimes that same determination drove everyone crazy. Especially when it came to Lee’s health; the man refused to rest when it was clear to everyone else that he needed to do so.
Reaching Crane’s office, Nelson opened the door and the voices instantly raised several decibels. Lee’s secretary was not at her desk and Nelson guessed that she had decided to make herself scarce until things calmed down. He entered Lee’s office to catch the end of the argument.
“I let you go home on the understanding that you would stay there and rest,”
“That may have been your understanding, Jamie, but it wasn’t mine.” Lee was standing behind his desk, leaning heavily on a cane.
“Seaview is in port; there is absolutely no need for you to be here,” Jamieson told him, his arms folded across his chest and a determined expression on his face.
“No need,” Lee waved his free hand at his desk, “there is every need; I have a mountain of paperwork.”
“You’re the Captain; delegate,”
“I will not foist my work off on someone else when I am perfectly capable of doing it myself,” Lee replied angrily.
Nelson cleared his throat as he moved into the office. “Gentlemen, do you realise that I could hear you both in my office?”
“I’m sorry if we disturbed you, Admiral,” Lee apologised quietly, glaring at Jamieson.
This was the first time that Nelson had seen Lee since his return and he noticed how pale Lee looked. “Sit down, Lee,” he ordered gently.
“Will you all get off my back and let me do my job!” Lee snapped, his eyes burnished with gold.
Nelson stopped in his tracks, taken aback by the venom in Lee’s voice.
Lee gave a heavy sigh. “I’m sorry, Admiral, that was out of line.”
Nelson took a step closer. “That’s all right, Lee, you’re in pain and its clouding your emotions.” He reached out hesitantly and put a hand on Lee’s shoulder. “Sit down, lad,” he urged, half expecting Lee to shrug him off.
Lee lowered himself into his chair with a sigh.
“Of course you know that you have frightened your secretary?” Nelson teased. “The poor girl has probably taken refuge somewhere until the fireworks stopped. Good secretaries are hard to find, Commander, I would appreciate it if you would try not to scare her away,” he chastised softly.
Lee gave him a sheepish grin. “Yes, Sir.”
Lee tried to keep the pain from showing on his face. Yes, his leg was aching and had stopped him sleeping. He’d woken in the early hours with cramp and had been forced to take the damn pain meds that he hated. But that was no excuse for losing his temper. He knew that Jamie had his welfare at heart and he shouldn’t have let his anger and frustration get the better of him. He only wanted to be allowed to do his job. He sighed and looked up at the doctor. “I’m sorry Jamie, I shouldn’t have lost my temper, it was unprofessional.”
“I’m sorry too, Skipper. After all, you are my CO,” Jamieson smiled.
“Why don’t we all take a break and grab a coffee?” Nelson suggested.
Lee appreciated the gesture, but he couldn’t face the thought of getting up again and walking anywhere right now. His injured leg protested every movement.
At that moment the door opened and Chip Morton stuck his head in. “Is it safe to come in?”
Lee groaned inwardly. “Yes, Chip, come on in.” The trio of mother hens was complete and he didn’t stand a chance.
“Chip, you’re just in time, we were about to adjourn to my office for coffee,” Nelson told him.
“Admiral, you and doc go ahead; we’ll be along in a few minutes,” Chip said.
Lee studied Chip; he’d been expecting a visit from his friend and prepared himself for the coming lecture. “All right, Chip, let’s have it.”
Chip frowned. “Lee, I didn’t come here to criticize you, although I did tell you that you would end up getting hurt again.”
Chip moved around to Lee’s side of the desk and pulled open the top drawer.
“What are you doing?” Lee asked, slightly annoyed at what he considered an invasion of his privacy.
Chip rummaged in the drawer and produced a packet of pills, along with the picture of Lee at the ruins. “Hey, what’s this, that Kodak moment? Someone couldn’t resist snapping a picture?”
“Damn spy cameras,” Lee muttered, he’d gotten careless, not noticing the camera, but who puts cameras in a swamp?
“The camera loves you, buddy,” Chip teased, placing the photo on the desk in front of Lee, along with the pills. “Take them,” he ordered.
Lee recognised the pills as Tylenol, picked up his empty coffee mug he handed it to Chip with a smile.
Chip shook his head, but took the mug and disappeared, returning a short time later with some water.
“Thanks,” Lee swallowed two of the pills and returned the packet to the drawer. “Happy now?”
“Yeah, ecstatic, you can tell me the full story later.”
Lee struggled to his feet. “Mustn’t keep the Admiral waiting.” He knew that he hadn’t heard the last of it, but it appeared that for now, Chip was prepared to let it slide. Now all he had to do was convince Nelson and Jamie that he was fit for light duty. Maybe he could distract Nelson with the picture of the temple ruins. Chip hovered by his side as Lee limped towards the door.