THE PUPPET MASTER
by Fidelma C.
The casual backhand from the meaty fist split the girl’s lip and she recoiled in agony but knew better than to cry out.
“Can’t? Or won’t, my dear?” The accented voice was silky and thoroughly odious. “And, I should warn you, ‘won’t’ is not a word that appears in my vocabulary. ‘Won’t’ is a word that causes pain. And ‘can’t’ is not far behind. So, before you continue, perhaps you might like to consider the repercussions of your last statement?”
She sobbed, torn between loyalty and love. She could taste her blood, running down the inside of her mouth, and licked the metallic tang of it as she defiantly stared him down.
“Won’t then. If that pleases you better!”
He sighed loudly, theatrically, and she could smell the unpleasant odour of him, scented the menacing power of him, whimpered as she watched him approach and strained against the bonds that held her. She was utterly terrified.
“Your honesty is laudable, my sweet. But you see, I do my homework. And I do it really well. You have a younger brother – a much younger brother – what is he, twelve, maybe thirteen? He rides his bicycle to school every day. Down the road that leads from your parents’ house, turns onto the main street and travels two blocks to the school. I know your parents worry so much about those two blocks, terrified a car might side swipe him. Did you know they check his safety helmet every evening? What loving parents. Are you such a loving sister?”
The implicit threat was her undoing.
“You are my puppet, little one. All you have to do is deliver a
package.” The insidious voice continued
as the tears trickled silently down cheeks now pale under the deep
The headaches were becoming more persistent, increasingly pervasive, and Nelson rubbed a hand across his forehead as the pain impinged on his concentration. This was also annoyingly frequent. Daily his focus seemed to be diminishing as he struggled valiantly to complete the final phase of Project Discovery.
He thumbed open the phial of Excedrin he kept
in his desk and swallowed two capsules dry.
Jamie would rail at him if he knew but Nelson had worked so hard the
past six months, it was unsurprising that time and the biological call of nature
were catching up with him. After all, he
wasn’t getting any younger – he’d be 54 this summer. And he hadn’t been out on Seaview for
the best past of half a year. He missed
her! Only knowing that Lee had command
of his “best girl”, allowing him to concentrate on his lab work, had eased his
conscience. But he missed her -
badly! She was as much his “grey lady”
as she was Crane’s. Nelson snorted with
some amusement. He may have built Seaview
and intimately knew every inch of her schematics but her captain was her very
soul, the crew her arteries and veins, her exec the blood coursing through her
- ensuring all areas were appropriately maintained so that she could perform to
her optimum. Nelson knew his staff well
– had handpicked them from the cream the US Navy had to offer and trusted them
absolutely with his prized possession.
But still part of him resented the enforced sojourn in
But sometimes, the restrictions galled him. He longed to be aboard his boat, relished being in the thick of the action – and there was always action guaranteed aboard Seaview!
Nelson scrubbed at his eyes wearily. Maybe he needed to have them checked. Perhaps all this computer-based analytical SH… was causing eyestrain. Seaview was due to sail soon and he thought he might have Jamieson perform an eye exam to determine if he, maybe, needed glasses.
Or perhaps not! If Will got him into his clutches he probably wouldn’t be seen again for days! Which reminded him, he’d been in
Angie Newman’s sunny nature hid a fiercely astute brain and she hadn’t risen to the position of P.A. to the head of NIMR without the street smarts to go with her keen intellect. Upon her return to the office and hearing her boss’s muttered “I’ll be at home for the rest of the day, Angie” on her voicemail, coupled with getting no response from there to her enquiry regarding the meetings still scheduled for the day, her antennae began to twitch. This was so unlike the admiral! But then her Boss hadn’t been himself for the past couple of weeks. She couldn’t quite put her finger on it. He’d been spending an inordinate amount of time in his lab during the preceding months and very little aboard his beloved boat. A smart girl, she’d reconciled the two and put his bad humour down to abstinence! If Lee or Chip hadn’t been so busy she’d have discussed it with them and perhaps persuade them to entice him onto the boat for a lengthy cruise! And get him out of her hair!
She grinned indulgently, prepared to cut the admiral some slack; he’d been working horrendous hours for the past couple of months with no relief in the form of a mission aboard Seaview to relax him – as much as any mission aboard Seaview could relax the crew. She had become the person who ran NIMR in the absence of Nelson or the Seaview Command Crew. Now the job was growing beyond proportion, with the Institute taking on more and more worthy projects, and Nelson becoming increasingly uncommunicative, bogged down as he had become in his research.
At day’s end she crossed to the omni-present coffee pot that resided on her credenza. Emptying the contents, she replaced the filter, filled it with aromatic freshly ground coffee and replenished the water, leaving it ready for the first person to enter the office next morning – all they had to do was just hit the switch.
After a restless night, during which he’d tossed and turned unable to persuade his over-tired body to succumb to proper sleep, Nelson woke unrefreshed at his customary 0530. He dragged himself out of bed, hit the shower, shaved and dressed automatically, his head throbbing badly enough to make him seek out the analgesic in his bathroom cabinet. Having downed two pills with a swallow of water, his stomach slightly nauseous, he decided to forego his usual breakfast ritual and head for the office where Angie would have laid on a pot of his newly favourite blend of coffee.
He turned the key in the sedan’s ignition reflecting, through the pain that stabbed at his head, what a find Angie had been. The girl was more than competent as a secretary, loyal to a fault, knew when to nag him and when to leave him alone – a talent in itself – and could make damn good coffee to boot! Plus she got on well with the Seaview’s Command Staff and could soothe the likes of Jiggs Starke, Donald Evans from ONI, four star Whatzits from Alphabet Agencies and wasn’t even fazed by calls from the President himself! She was the best assistant he’d ever had and he made a mental note to authorise a raise for her – she’d put up with his unrelenting moods for the past six months.
Nelson knew he’d been a particular bear this past couple of weeks. He needed to finish Project Discovery! The State Department were counting on him. It had seemed so easy just six short weeks ago. All he had to do was put the final test phase into operation. He’d known it was a go! Just a formality! Now his head ached so badly that he could hardly concentrate on the figures the test results threw out at him. And Seaview was due to sail in less than a week! With Project Discovery on board for its first ‘live’ test.
Which caused his immediate problem! Project Discovery wasn’t quite ready for sea trials. He’d been unable to complete the final tests necessary to ensure the safety of the “live” trials needed to put the Project into general release. And, God knew, it was eagerly anticipated within the increasingly nervous US high command, at least among the few who were privy to its existence.
Nelson was due to meet with his senior staff at 0800 to review the status of the boat. Seaview had been dry-docked for several weeks being outfitted with new computers, much to the joy of her First Officer, Chip Morton. The man was a whiz kid when it came to computers and constantly researched new developments to enhance Seaview’s advanced capabilities, pushing, nay nagging, Nelson to embrace the cutting edge in computer technology. Nelson, designer and owner of the Seaview, was forced to defer to his subordinate in I.T. matters and, truth be known, it bothered him. But he trusted Morton implicitly; having handpicked him for his brainchild submarine above many others, knowing his potential was wasted riding a desk in Washington.
But Nelson had had worries beyond this computer enhancement and the refit of Seaview – kindly paid for by the Navy as the boat was on secondment when the SH1T hit the proverbial! Consequently costs were defrayed and the Institute was solely responsible for seeing to the computer upgrade, while the Navy absorbed the cost of the repairs to the boat herself. In dry dock the Navy, ultimately, paid for the down time of both the boat and her crew. And without a moment’s complaint. Those in the know in ComSubPac and ComSubLant were happy to pay the bills cogniscent of the fact that, without Seaview’s involvement, life as we know it, would have ceased to exist. The gratitude of Presidents’, Prime Ministers’ et al and the promise of medals, was secondary to proving the worth of Project Discovery though! And the entire cost of both project and shake down was being borne by the Institute. So it was imperative that the tests yielded fruit!
For the fist time in his entire Naval career, from Midshipman to Four Star Admiral, he was flummoxed, unable to comprehend a solution to his findings. He was fit to be tied. He pounded the steering wheel in frustration, thinking ahead to his meeting and suddenly, his headache surging to monumental proportions, he almost rear-ended the SUV in front of him at the traffic lights. Get a grip on yourself, Nelson, he groused. You’re no good to anyone lying in a hospital if you smash up your car now, are you? That won’t get Discovery finished and installed on the boat before we sail!
Acknowledging the salute from the vigilant security staff at the Institute’s main gate, he drove past the raised barrier, parked in his usual spot, ascended the steps and slowly crossed the lobby to the bank of elevators, absently returning the salute of the M.P. at the front desk.
Automatically he unlocked the outer door, traversed Angie’s empty office, hitting the switch on the coffee percolator as he passed, and punched in the code that opened the door to his own large office suite. Dropping his briefcase and cover onto the massive desk he moved directly to the corner window where the sight before him never failed to take his breath. The massive submarine, Seaview, his creation, his dream and now his reality, rested in her pen. The gleam of early morning sunlight on her glossy silver grey hull reminded him why he’d chosen Santa Barbara as the site for his Institute. Aside from the channel that led to the breakwater, the climate had been the main attraction for Nelson. Originally from Boston, the harsh winters were now a thing of the past for him. Even on a bad day the temperature in Santa Barbara was pleasant and the shimmer of sunlight reflecting off the newly painted structure gladdened his heart momentarily.
This early in the morning the dock was deserted, save the security detail and, as he turned back into his office Nelson noted the absolute silence of the building. That wouldn’t last long, he knew. The Institute would begin filling up by 0800. Therefore he’d better get a move on if he wanted to get anything done before the madness of the day started. He pulled the schematics for Discovery from his briefcase and began to go over the papers again – for the nth time! Scrabbling in his drawer he popped another two pain pills and swallowed them dry once again. Jamie really would kill him if he ever found out!
“I tell you, Lee, you should have come. It was a terrific game! The quarterback threw a record yardage and the….”
A dry, smiling voice interrupted the passionate one. “But did Anna enjoy the game as much as you did, I ask myself? Maybe you’d have been wiser to join Lauren and me for the candlelit dinner at Bertoni’s. The food was wonderful, the company excellent and the…..ahem whole evening was very pleasant.”
A wry moan was the only response. Then “Well, she did say to look her up next time we’re in port. She’s just a bit busy the rest of this week.”
Sympathetic laughter floated. “You do pick ‘em, Chip.”
“If you two gentlemen could can the discussion of your love lives, we do have a meeting scheduled!” The grating tone of an obviously irate Admiral came from the inner office and had both men exchanging curious glances and raised eyebrows.
Their meeting was due for 0800 and it was barely 0715 now. They had planned on going to their own offices first to review their notes but this was patently no longer an option. And an early morning meeting with an obviously narky admiral was going to be no picnic. Handing his bulging briefcase to the khaki clad officer with three broad gold stripes on his sleeves, the blond quickly crossed to the credenza and poured two large mugs of freshly brewed coffee, silently thanking the ever-efficient Angie.
Holding open the inner door Lee Crane allowed Chip to precede him, beginning a smooth apology. “Sorry, Admiral, I didn’t realise you wanted to start the meeting early…” before he turned and caught a glimpse of the older man. Pressure of work had kept him busy in his own office and on the boat and he hadn’t caught sight of his superior for several days. Crane was shocked at the changes in the man and glimpsed a similar emotion in his exec’s worried eyes. Nelson looked positively haggard, his craggy features even more lined than usual, his face pale and his brow furrowed. Lee was unable to prevent an exclamation. “Sir, you don’t look well. Are you feeling all right?”
“I’m fine, Lee, don’t fuss!” Came the irritated reply as he opened his desk drawer and retrieved the bottle of pain relief. Quickly shaking two small pills onto his hand he swallowed them down. Chip Morton moved forward and pushed one of the mugs towards his boss. Nodding acknowledgement, Nelson took a deep draft. “Thanks, Chip.”
Exchanging concerned glances, for Nelson really didn’t look fine, the two officers took seats at his indication. Chip pushed the other coffee towards his friend and captain but Lee refused with a shake of his head and a wry smile.
“I’m trying to cut down, Chip. Doc’s orders.”
Which resulted in a small snort from the blond officer. “When have you ever obeyed Jamie’s orders, Lee?”
“Well, I’m trying to limit my caffeine intake, especially while I’m ashore. I’ve been drinking more tea and Susie has been getting these herbal concoctions for me.” The captain explained amid more snickers from his blond exec.
“Lee, there’s caffeine in tea, too!” Chip was halted by the soft roar that came from behind the big desk.
“Gentlemen, please! I do not have all day! Let’s get this meeting underway so I can get back to some real work! Project Discovery is not going to test or install itself!” Nelson’s hands clenched into fists, thumping the desk in frustration at the by-play he usually quite enjoyed.
Suitably chastened but their worry now heightened, the two senior officers began pulling papers from their cases. Friends for many years and highly attuned to each other’s feelings, at times almost psychic, each knew immediately what the other man was thinking. This was most unlike Admiral Nelson. Should they call Jamieson?
Lee shook his head almost imperceptibly and Chip knew they would come back to this discussion later. Taking a large drink of his coffee he proceeded to outline the status and operational advantages of the new computers now aboard Seaview and the necessary work schedule to complete the programming during the coming days. As he ended his assurance that the work would be finished well in advance of sailing, both men became aware that Nelson’s attention was focused elsewhere. He had barely heard one word of Chip’s report.
“Admiral?” Crane’s tone was hesitant. And exchanging a further swift glance with Chip told him the other officer was equally worried. “Sir? Are you sure you’re OK?”
”Blast it, Lee! I told you I’m fine! So leave it alone! Please! I’m just tired. I didn’t sleep very well last night, if you must know.” Nelson rubbed his forehead wearily. The pain pills hadn’t even taken the edge off his headache. Knowing coffee wasn’t the answer but needing the jerk it usually gave him, he levered himself from his chair and stalked to the coffee pot in Angie’s office. Returning he poured for both himself and Morton. Temper subsiding somewhat – he knew he was being unfair to his senior officers – he scrubbed at his eyes and attempted to concentrate.
Arriving for the day at 0750 precisely Angie Newman was surprised to see the empty coffee pot. Hmm, Nelson obviously started early this morning! She tapped softly on the door and popped her head around it, unsurprised to see that Nelson wasn’t alone. But definitely surprised that it appeared the meeting had been going on for some time, knowing it had been scheduled for 0800 - and it was barely that now. She frowned and tutted, coming further into the room and grabbing for the empty coffee cups and the overflowing ashtray, raising her eyebrows meaningfully at the two officers seated before the Boss’s desk.
The dark haired Crane flushed under her accusing look and somewhat sheepishly hung his head. Angie had recruited him to try to get Nelson to stop smoking – especially in the office. And he had been making some progress. But no way was he brave enough to tackle the Admiral in the mood he’d been in this morning! His thoughts were reflected in the golden amber gaze that returned hers and her pitying look let him off the hook – for now.
Turning her eyes to the blond, she silently demanded his explanation. Bland, amused azure eyes met hers unblinkingly and she was now the one to blush. Muttering under her breath, something about scared little boys masquerading as big strong officers, she beat a hasty retreat, promising fresh coffee shortly.
Lee glanced admiringly at the impassive face of his exec as the blond officer reclined easily in the chair, hands clasped casually across his flat abdomen, long legs stretched out before him. He envied Morton his ability to disconcert without uttering a word. He’d seen his best friend and stalwart XO reduce crusty Sailors to quivering wrecks with the mere raising of a single eyebrow, not a spoken word necessary. But he hadn’t thought it would work on the redoubtable Angie. Crane speculated silently. Well, well, was it possible Nelson’s extremely capable assistant had a soft spot for Mr. Morton? This would bear watching. And could be fodder for some extensive teasing! Though he’d have to watch out for Chip’s retaliation; which, experience told him, could be nasty. Very, very nasty!
Two hours and another pot of coffee later (Lee feeling virtuous that he had resisted temptation), Nelson was ready to admit that his senior staff had the operational logistics of the big boat well under control. There was no reason to suppose otherwise, his rational mind knew, they had done it many times before; and for almost half a year now, without him on board or taking part in the pre-departure routine. Perhaps that was the crux of the matter – he felt slightly jealous, superfluous to requirements, that they had things so well in hand that he was no longer necessary.
Logically he knew he had the best command team in or out of the Navy, emotionally he resented the fact that his inventions had detracted from his time on the boat, his girl, his creation. He rubbed his hand distractedly over his sweating brow. He needed to complete Project Discovery, must have it ready for installation aboard Seaview in the next few days, had to have it worthy of the sea trials or he was putting the boat and her entire crew at risk. Something, he knew, Seaview’s captain would not permit.
He wondered that Crane hadn’t asked him about the project. Knowing his captain, and Lee’s total belief in him, he probably shouldn’t be surprised. Crane would presume the project was in the final throes of development, that Nelson would have ironed out any potential problems before initiating the sea trials. Normally, Lee’s assumptions would have been correct but Nelson found it hard to motivate himself to complete the necessary configurations. His focus was gone, his concentration shot. He couldn’t fathom it. Never before had he experienced these problems. Usually his mind was sharp as a tack, his attention to detail unrelenting. Now he had trouble reviewing the simplest mathematical equations. He knew his officers were concerned about him. Hell, he was worried about himself! He wondered if stress was beginning to take its toll. He wasn’t getting any younger. Perhaps he should delegate more of his work. But it wasn’t fair to exact any more from Seaview’s command staff. They had their hands full running the boat and, when in port, taking over many of Nelson’s duties regarding the Institute. He knew he had the unmitigated loyalty of his staff. That Crane and Morton would go to the ends of the earth and beyond for him, he had no doubt. He had no children to inherit when his time was done but he knew that his son of the heart, Lee Crane, and the man he considered his big brother in all but blood, Chip Morton, were more than able to carry forward the Institute he had created into the future.
But he didn’t want to think about that right now. He raised a shaking hand to rub his aching forehead. The pain seemed worse now, despite the analgesics he’d taken, radiating from his brow to the base of his skull. It felt as it the top of his head was about to blow open. He was ready to admit that he would be useless in the lab today. Perhaps some fresh air would help.
“Gentlemen, I’m going to take a walk down to the boat. I’ll catch up with you later.” Effectively dismissing the officers he quickly crossed the room and exited without waiting for them to stand. Leaving two very puzzled men behind him.
“What gives, Lee?” Morton asked, beginning to stack his folders tidily together and putting them into his briefcase.
Crane was still staring out the door after Nelson. “I’m not sure, Chip. But there’s something very wrong with the admiral. His behaviour is most unlike him and he doesn’t look at all well.”
“He hasn’t looked good for days now, Lee.” Angie entered the inner office, having overheard their conversation. “He’s smoking too much, drinking too much coffee and not getting enough sleep. Plus his moods are pure hell in the past few weeks!” This last was spoken with feeling.
“Angie, you, better than anyone, know the admiral – and his moods!” Crane tried to tease her out of her very evident worry.
“No, Lee, you’re wrong. He has a temper, sure. Enough to fuel a nuclear pile, on a good day! But this isn’t the same. This is no temper tantrum. It’s…it’s…I don’t know! It’s like he can’t concentrate on anything for too long. Did you notice the way he keeps rubbing his head? And he’s gone through a whole bottle of Excedrin.” She reached into a drawer of Nelson’s desk and pulled out the almost empty pack. “See? This was full two days ago! And I’m sure he has more at the house.”
Crane and Morton exchanged concerned glances. Maybe now was the time to contact Jamieson? Came the silent communication. Lee nodded. Angie looked, confused, from one to the other.
“You’re doing it again!” She cried in exasperation. She hated it when those looks passed between the two senior officers. She could never tell what they were thinking. God, they must be hell on the bridge of the boat!
“Don’t worry, Angie. I’ll give Doc a call and have him drop by to see the admiral.” Lee promised, flashing her that famous Crane grin – that had absolutely no effect on the small brunette.
She snorted derisively. “As if that’ll do any good! He’ll just ignore Jamie and continue doing what he’s doing. It’s more than just the headaches and the moodiness, guys. I think the admiral is really worried. I don’t think Project Discovery is going as well as it should.”
Lee was instantly alert. If anyone were privy to that information it would be Angie. And if Project Discovery was behind target then it had serious implications for Seaview’s next voyage. Again wordless communication passed between captain and exec, both determining the impact of Angie’s news and knowing they would have to handle this very carefully with the highly volatile admiral.
“I’ll talk to him, Angie.” Crane reassured her, rising to his feet. “The readiness of Discovery is vital to our next cruise. And I’ll have Doc take a look at him. Despite what he says he’s far from fine!”
Angie escorted the two men from the inner office and prepared to secure it – Nelson’s office never remained unlocked when he was absent. As protocol demanded, Morton stood aside to let his captain pass, appeared to stagger and dropped his briefcase, clutching at the doorframe for support.
“Whoa, buddy, what’s up?” Crane wheeled, gripping the suddenly ashen-faced exec’s arm as Angie hurried towards them, concern in her expressive green eyes.
“Chip, what’s the matter?” She quickly detoured, pouring him a glass of water, alarmed at the sweat that now beaded his forehead.
Regaining his equilibrium Morton straightened, gulping down the water gratefully. “Just…a little…dizzy…for a moment….”
“Sure you don’t need Jamie to take a look at you, pal?” Lee asked, worry apparent in his amber gaze.
“I’m fine, now. Fine!” Chip repeated, almost as if trying to convince himself. He shook his head slowly, clearing his momentarily clouded vision. “Whew, don’t know what brought that on!”
“Probably caught cold at the game last night.” Crane wasn’t above teasing his long time friend, even in his weakened condition! “Guess Anna wasn’t sitting close enough to share her body heat!” He covertly watched Angie’s reaction. She immediately retreated behind her desk and busied herself with her papers, eyes lowered. Oh, yeah!
Chip snorted, not rising to the bait, crossed to Angie’s desk and set down the now empty glass. “Thanks for the water, Ang.” He bestowed one of his rare incandescent smiles on the extremely attractive secretary. And Crane watched, hiding his amusement, as a pretty blush invaded her cheeks. Bingo! Morton was a goner – he just didn’t know it yet!
Lee bent and retrieved Chip’s briefcase as they exited the office with a final wave to Angie. Incapable of the poker face so easily assumed by the exec, he was unable to hide the slight smirk on his face, which Morton immediately picked up on.
“What?” Crane just shook his head, his smile widening, unholy glee lighting up his golden eyes. “What?” Morton repeated, perplexed, as they travelled the long corridor to their adjacent offices. Crane didn’t respond verbally, just shoved the briefcase at his friend’s middle, causing an “oomph” at the unexpected gesture.
Chip slowed outside the men’s room, indicating to the other that he was going to use the facilities and would join him in a moment. Lee nodded, continuing in the direction of his office. He hadn’t gone ten paces when he heard a muffled thud and a sixth sense, that had stood him in good stead many a time, had him dropping his own briefcase and cover and sprinting for the men’s room.
Hurriedly pushing open the door he found his friend collapsed on the ground, pale and sweating profusely, barely conscious, groaning in pain and clutching his mid section, desperately trying to curl into a ball. “Hang on, Chip. I’ll get help!” Lee briefly checked his friend’s pulse, which was weak and thready, pulled open the bathroom door, prepared to bolt for the nearest phone. Catching sight of Angie in the corridor he quickly shouted for her to call for Jamie in a hurry and returned to give his friend what aid he could.
He loosened Chip’s tie and wet some tissues, wiping the beads of sweat from the other’s forehead, urging him to hang on. Chip’s face was once again ashen, his breath coming in great gasps as if his lungs couldn’t get enough air, and his lips were tinged with a faint bluish colour. Lee was seriously worried; this had come upon his friend so suddenly. One minute they were joshing in the corridor and the next Chip was fighting for every breath on the floor of the men’s room.
Crane was unsurprised when the door was pushed
open and Angie appeared, her normally pink cheeks pale and fear in her clear
green eyes as she knelt on the other side of the stricken man. “What happened, Lee? Same as in the office? He just got dizzy?”
”Don’t know, Angie.” Lee couldn’t bear the groans of agony being emitted by his friend. Chip was curled into a foetal ball and all attempts to pull him into a more comfortable position were strenuously resisted. Suddenly the resistance was no more and Crane snapped into action, realising that his friend had ceased to breathe. He pushed Morton onto his back and angled his head, beginning CPR, compressing for five then pushing air into the other’s mouth, then compressing again. Angie’s eyes were wide as she witnessed Crane’s frantic fight to keep his friend alive. Then she was being pushed aside by gentle hands as Jamieson took her place, rapping out questions, barely waiting for responses. He administered a shot directly into the deeply unconscious man’s chest, ripping open Chip’s khaki shirt without finesse. He urged Crane to keep up the CPR as he took Morton’s vitals. Satisfied with the readings he directed Lee to stop. Putting his stethoscope again to Chip’s chest he listened intently then, exhaling a huge breath, he dropped back onto his haunches.
“Anybody care to tell me what brought this on?” His gaze swept the two people in the room and the faces now crowding the open doorway. Angie, tears pooling in her eyes, just shook her head. Lee, now that his friend was once again stable and breathing, inhaled deeply and filled Jamieson in on recent events. Jamie called for corpsmen and had Chip swiftly removed to the Med-Bay. Helping Angie to her feet, he realised the girl was in shock. “Lee, take Angie for some tea then come find me.” Anticipating the protest he held up his hand, silently indicating the trembling girl in his arms. “Take her, Lee. Tea etc. I may have some answers for you by then."
Crane nodded as Doc transferred Angie to him and sped after the retreating gurney. Following the medic from the men’s room, he crisply directed the voyeurs to return to their offices, collected his own and Chip’s briefcases, dropping them off in his office before making for the cafeteria.
Tea didn’t seem to have done Angie any good. Knowing Jamieson as he did, being probably his most frequent patient, Lee knew he would concentrate on his patient first and foremost and get to the relatives and friends all in good time. A trait Lee admired in his CMO – mostly – except when he was the relative and friend left waiting! Then it was pure hell!
Finally unable to wait any longer, they crossed the courtyard to the high tech medical facility behind the administration block.
Jamie was just coming out of a treatment room, his tall slightly balding frame hunched over a chart as he scribbled. He looked up as his CO and the admiral’s P.A. all but accosted him. He held up the clipboard in defence. “Hang on! He’s holding his own. His heart rate, blood pressure and temperature are all relatively stable for now but, given he had two separate attacks and as severe as the second episode was, I’m not taking any chances. I’m waiting for the results of blood tests and an MRI scan to confirm what I believe to be the cause. But as he appeared perfectly fine a couple of hours ago, had a rapid downslide and with the symptoms you describe, I’m working on the theory that he’s either ingested poison or had a severe allergic reaction to something. What can you tell me about Chip’s movements in the last 12-18 hours?”
Both Lee and Angie were stunned. Jamieson slapped the clipboard against his thigh, startling the two. “I need to know where he’s been, what he’s eaten and drank in the past 12-18 hours, and I need to know it fast! Lee, what did he do last evening?”
Crane filled the doctor in as best he could. There was nothing untoward that Chip had done - maybe, knowing the Morton appetite, he’d eaten a hotdog or burger at the game. His girlfriend of the evening had been sufficiently p.o.’d, that she’d scooted before he could take her to dinner. Aside from that, Lee knew Chip hadn’t eaten breakfast as he’d picked Chip up at his beachfront condo on the Institute grounds in preparation for their early morning meeting.
Seeds beginning to ferment, Lee was distracted by the noisy arrival of Admiral Nelson. Out of breath, pale and sweating but demanding answers regarding his senior staff member, Nelson looked anything but a well man. Lee’s brain cranked into top gear, putting one and two together and making fifty!
“Doc!” Crane cadence was just short of a bellow. Jamieson’s verbal report skittered to a stop as he watched Crane visually examine the dishevelled admiral, sweat dampening his habitually neat russet hair and beading his brow, the handsome but craggy features unusually careworn and a weariness in his eyes that bespoke little sleep. Lee felt a shiver of apprehension overcome him, looking into those desperately pained eyes. “Jamie, test him, now, for whatever you’re testing Chip for!” It was notional but Crane’s intuition sensed a connection here, tenuous at best, but a possible link.
Jamieson blinked at the Skipper’s vehemence, ready to protest Crane’s seemingly hair-brained idea then, taking another sharp look at Nelson, he didn’t hesitate to obey his CO’s order. Grabbing hold of the stocky older man, and signalling to a corpsman to help, he eased the protesting admiral onto a gurney alongside the unconscious Morton. Quickly stripping off Nelson’s shirt, he applied his stethoscope; recording vitals as he drew blood, sent it to the lab and set up a saline I.V.
Lee stood out of the way, bracing himself against the wall. He didn’t want to leave, but he was reluctant to have Angie witnessing his friends’ indignities. Nelson was grumbling testily as Jamie re-examined his heart and lungs, checked his eyes, ears, throat and impatiently awaited the results of the lab work.
Finally sensing their presence, Jamieson shooed them out of the treatment room to wait in the adjacent waiting area. Crane, knowing the myriad enemies Nelson had, mentally reviewed several possibilities but couldn’t readily come up with anyone who would want Project Discovery stopped. Knowing this was the admiral’s current pet project, his gut instinct told Lee that these attacks were somehow connected to Discovery. But why would Chip be a target?
Hours passed. Someone, probably Crane’s secretary, Susie, brought sandwiches, cold drinks and coffee. They remained untouched. Lee paced continually until Angie wanted to scream at him. She perched on the wide window ledge overlooking the ocean, which consumed so much of the time and attention of the men she cared for. Seaview couldn’t be seen from this part of the Institute grounds and Angie had always thought that a mistake. So many of the personnel sequestered here in Med Bay were part of the make up of the giant submarine, it stood to reason she should be part and parcel of their recovery, therefore she should be seen from every window of the recuperation rooms. But then again the Institute hadn’t been designed by a woman!
Crane thought frantically as he paced, then calmed and tried to order his thoughts. He wouldn’t serve his friends well to continue as he was. He forced himself to sift chronologically through the morning’s events. And a persistent nagging suspicion planted itself in his mind. He shook off the idea but it recurred insistently and reluctantly he allowed it to work its course as he speculated on the possibility of the inconceivable.
“Doc, how are they?” It was Crane who voiced the thoughts for all of them as Jamie stepped into the waiting room, unsurprised to find not only Lee and Angie, but CPO Sharkey and Seamen Kowalski and Patterson anxiously awaiting news, scuttlebutt being as efficient on shore as aboard the boat.
Will Jamieson had been CMO with Seaview for more than 4 years; a short while after Crane had taken command. He admired the young CO, enjoyed working with him, knowing Crane gave 110% of himself in every situation, frequently to his own detriment. He was perhaps Jamieson’s most frequent and worst patient, constantly challenging the limits of his body and the speed at which mortal medicine could hope to heal recalcitrant flesh. Jamie was also conscious of the loyalty accorded the young skipper and the boat’s senior officers by the entire crew.
He ran a weary hand over his thinning brown hair, leaning his aching body against the wall for support. It had been a very long and exacting day and it wasn’t over yet. “They’re both holding their own right now, Skipper. We’ve pumped Chip’s stomach as he had a more immediate exposure to the drug and he’s on an I.V. drip to replenish fluids….”
”Pumped his stomach?” Crane questioned.
“Chip ingested a toxic poison within the past several hours. Judging from your conversations with him today, Lee, he’s unlikely to have eaten anything that hundreds of others couldn’t have eaten. Therefore it seems likely it was something he came in contact with here at the Institute today. Again, and this is a distinct possibility, he could have taken something or been given something that we’re not aware of.
But we all know the exec, he doesn’t do drugs, alcohol, amphetamines or anything else – hell, the man is allergic to so many prescription drugs I’ve got difficulty finding medication to treat him!
In the admiral’s case, his bloods show that he’s been exposed to this same ‘poison’, over an extended period, possibly several weeks. There’s been a gradual build up in his system, causing severe headaches which have become almost constant lately. Instead of coming to me, he compounded the problem by taking increasingly frequent doses of over the counter analgesics!” Jamie huffed a frustrated breath, glancing knowingly at his captain who had the grace to blush – having done it himself on at least one occasion Jamieson was aware of - and he never let Lee forget it! “These self-medicated painkillers, instead of alleviating the headaches, worked in tandem with the poison to cause loss of concentration, forgetfulness, nausea and insomnia. He’s been driving around for days like this and is lucky he hasn’t caused an accident, killing himself or someone else!
Cmdr. Morton, it seems, experienced a highly allergic reaction to the toxin, having taken in a large amount of the drug in a relatively short time frame.”
Angie was shaking her head. “But how…?”
“And why?” Crane interjected grimly.
Jamieson shrugged wearily. “Why, Captain? That I can’t tell you. How? Lee, you said Chip didn’t have breakfast this morning?”
“That’s right. He moaned all the way to the admiral’s office because I wouldn’t give him time to get something. Jeez, Jamie, you know the way he eats! I was teasing him, telling him I needed to go over some stuff before the meeting. But we were early and I was going to let him get something in the Cafeteria. Then the admiral heard us and we began the meeting early and he didn’t have a chance to eat.” Crane was now feeling incredibly guilty, knowing that if Chip had eaten it might have negated some of the effects of the poison.
Jamie nodded, following Lee’s unspoken train of thought. “Yes, Lee, if he’d eaten it might have helped but it could also have had the opposite effect. So don’t go beating yourself up over this.” Knowing his captain’s heightened sense of responsibility, he realised Crane would be feeling intense guilt and determined that Lee shouldn’t shoulder the blame for Chip’s condition.
Angie’s brow furrowed. She was tired and obviously she was missing something here. “But Chip didn’t eat anything. He just had…..” Her voice tailed off as the implications hit home. “Coffee? The coffee caused this? Chip? And the admiral??” Her pitch rose to almost a cry. “That’s not possible. I make the coffee – always.” Her stricken green gaze begged Jamie to tell her differently.
He wished he could. Knowing how devastated she would feel, he tried to let her down as gently as possible. “We’re testing what remained in the pot, Angie. And the grounds from the pack you were using. I’ll have the results shortly. They should tell us if the coffee was responsible for what’s happened to Chip and the admiral.”
A tap on the door interrupted and Jamie took the note handed to him by a lab technician. He scanned it quickly and sighed. “Well, that confirms it, I’m afraid. Both the liquid and the grounds tested positive. They were laced with a significant dose of common or garden rat poison.”
Angie swayed and Lee made a grab for her, carrying her to a chair. Depositing her unresisting frame, he called for one of the crewmen to bring her some water. Jamie shouldered him out of the way and knelt, coaxing Angie to bend forward and put her head between her knees. Within a minute she had valiantly rallied, sipped some water and looked from the concerned faces of one man to the others before bursting into tears. Dropping the water glass to the floor, unmindful of the spreading stain on the carpet, she wrapped her arms around her knees and sobbed bitterly. Jamieson patted her back solicitously, Crane hovered and the others desperately wished they were elsewhere, looking anywhere except in her direction, but her sobs tore at their soft hearts. They hated to see pretty little Angie so upset.
“Oh God, it’s all my fault!” She was barely coherent but Jamie and Lee, closest to her, heard the softly voiced words and exchanged hesitant glances. “I poisoned them! Chip! The admiral! They could have died. I could have killed them both!”
Overcome by her tears and self-blame, she failed to see the shocked looks exchanged between the Seaview crew. It was Crane who voiced the horror they were all thinking.
“Angie, did you put something in the coffee?” His voice was soft and disbelief coloured his tone, knowing how the young secretary felt about Nelson and Chip particularly and, in a broader sense, all of Seaview’s crew.
She slowly raised tear drenched, shocked eyes to his then swept the seemingly, to her, suspicious faces of the crewmen, finally settling on Jamie’s encouraging, non-accusing gaze. In her emotional state and to her heightened senses, it seemed as if he was inviting her confession. She shrank back in the chair appalled that these men she had known, and developed real friendships with over the years, could think that of her.
“Honey, I know you wouldn’t have done it willingly. Did someone threaten you? Your family?” Lee forced his tone to remain conciliatory. Much as he wanted to shake the information out of her, he was too much of a gentleman to do so. Chip often kidded him about his courtly manners. Now he was shocked to the core. He, Chip and not least Nelson had come to depend on Angie. She was vital to their team, running the Institute single-handed when they were on the boat. He couldn’t - wouldn’t - believe that she had willingly betrayed them. And he saw the same shock in each of the crewmen’s eyes. Angie was well liked for her sunny, caring nature. He didn’t know what to think and could see the same uncertainty reflected in the eyes of his crew. Well, almost all his crew, he amended, seeing the absolute disbelief in Patterson’s blue eyes.
“No! How could you think that, Lee? How could any of you think I’d hurt Chip or the admiral? Or anyone!” The horror in her broken voice was genuine – or she was a very good actress. Lee wanted to believe the former. But the Institute was designed such that only a select few people had access to the admiral. His office was like Fort Knox, with sophisticated locking devices to which only he, Chip, Angie and Nelson himself had the codes. Lee knew he hadn’t tampered with the coffee; it was unlikely either Chip or Nelson had – given their current states, therefore by a process of elimination, that left Angie. And she was the one who made the coffee. She had access and opportunity, but motive? He had yet to work that one out. He had no doubt she hadn’t gone along willingly, that supreme pressure must have been exerted by Nelson’s enemies. And she had been missing for several days some weeks ago. Both he and Chip had kidded her about her sudden absence from the office but she’d given them a rather vague response. He hadn’t thought anything of it at the time but now? Was it possible that she’d been compromised perhaps even brainwashed? Still he couldn’t overcome that bitter sting of betrayal.
He didn’t need to say anything further. She knew by the wounded look in the golden-amber gaze that he didn’t believe her. Her green eyes widened in shock - and a betrayal of her own was born. She had never envisaged a day when Lee Crane - a man she admired above all others for his courage, bravery and loyalty - would become her accuser, her Judge and Jury, would condemn her without proper trial. On the basis of overwhelming evidence maybe – but surely her years of loyalty to Nelson and the Institute counted for something? They’d shared many traumatic experiences, classified beyond even her own high clearance, shared vigil over Nelson when he’d been injured, helped him grieve over the death of his only sister and stood by him when the world had thought him a traitor. Surely that counted for something? But searching his golden eyes, she didn’t recognise the plea for re-assurance. All she saw was condemnation - and the effects of the long day caught up with her, her resistance diminishing.
Eyes pooling with tears, she managed to whisper “Believe what you want, Lee, all of you! You will anyway!”
“Miss Angie…” Sharkey’s sputtered words, awkward, disbelieving, spurred her to action. With an audible sob she gained her feet, caught up her purse and made for the door, somewhat unsteadily. Wrenching it open she almost staggered out, the hopes and dreams of seven years snuffed out in a moment of the most intense betrayal. She made it uncontested to the open elevator and punched the button for the car park level, sinking against the back of the stainless steel compartment as her life fell apart around her.
To a man the Seaview crew looked to their captain for guidance. He stood, shaken, unable to comprehend the level of betrayal he felt. Angie had played a vital part in the command structure at the Institute. Hell, she’d been there longer than he had and had helped ease him into the role he’d taken on, particularly when it came to Institute business. He’d loved her like a pesky little sister and relished the thought that had come to him just today – but so many hours ago now – that she and Chip might get together. So his hurt was both on a professional and personal level. Yet still a niggle of doubt persisted.
So he snapped instantly into command mode. Angie had to be apprehended – for her own sake.
“Pat, Ski, go after her. Call gate security. Stop her from leaving the grounds. Bring her back here. We need to get to the bottom of this!”
Ski sprang to attention, crossing instantly to the phone but Patterson hesitated. Knowing the Senior Ratings well, Crane immediately caught Pat’s reluctance for the task he’d been set and, although Patterson’s training was so ingrained that he would have unswervingly carried out his captain’s command, Lee knew he had a supreme difficulty with this particular order.
“What’s up, Pat? Would you prefer I send Chief Sharkey?”
“Oh, no, sir!” Came the immediate assurance, but the hesitancy Lee could feel still remained. “But…. are you sure, sir? Miss Angie, sir? It’s just not like her!”
“I know, Pat, I know. And believe me, I’m having problems with this too! Just... bring her back, eh? We can iron it out. And I don’t think she’s in any condition to be driving right now.”
“Aye, sir!” Patterson executed a perfect Navy about turn and followed Ski. Lee sighed, at times like this he felt ancient! So much older than the men under his command – many of whom were actually senior to him in years!
Both voices, Jamie’s and Sharkey’s, came almost simultaneously. Jamieson deferred to the COB, who voiced what they were both thinking.
“Skipper, are you sure? Really, really sure, sir? That it’s Miss Angie, sir? It just doesn’t seem right, like. She’s such a nice kid. She ain’t got a bad bone in her body, sir. She adores the admiral. There’s no way she’d do nothin’ to hurt him, sir. And she is just so sweet on Commander Morton, it ain’t funny, sir. You ever see her ‘round him? Well, she blushes up all pretty, like, you know? Maybe I’m speakin’ out of turn, sir, but I just don’t see Miss Angie doin’ something like this, you know? She’s a good kid, a real sweetheart, ya know….” Sharkey hung his head, sighing deeply.
“Lee?” Jamie added his two-penny worth, prodding the captain into voicing thoughts he wasn’t ready to share.
“Chief, Jamie, I don’t have all the answers! I just look at the facts. Chip was poisoned – and he’s suffered a severe allergic reaction. The coffee he drank in the admiral’s office caused this! And he could have died! If you didn’t have my caffeine intake rationed, Jamie, I’d have drunk the damn coffee too! Both Chip and I noticed this morning that Admiral Nelson didn’t look well and were all for calling you in. Now we discover that he’s been exposed to doses of this poison in his coffee for several weeks! We all know that the admiral’s security is the tightest. NIMR is like Fort Knox where Nelson is concerned!” Lee paced, slugging one fist into the other palm as he walked off his tension. “There are only four of us who have unlimited access to his office. And I think we can rule out Chip and the admiral! It could be me and you need to view me as a suspect.” Crane spoke sincerely, giving the others carte blanche to investigate him. Both Sharkey and Jamieson shook their heads, cogniscent of the depth of affection that existed between the admiral, exec and captain.
“That leaves Angie. And I don’t believe it any more than you do! IF – and I stress IF – she was responsible, then she was certainly coerced into it involuntarily or was an unwitting pawn. And she is as much a victim as Chip and the admiral.”
Anxiously awaiting the return of Ski and Pat, Lee strode to the window. Unable to see the car park he turned and subjected Jamieson to his best pleading look. “Jamie, can I see them, just for a minute? Please!”
Jamieson sighed, having expected this. “Lee, neither of them is awake right now. I’ve given Chip a mild sedative. He’s not going to be too comfortable for a day or so. Having your stomach pumped is tough on the system and he’s going to have a sore throat and experience some gagging, coupled with nausea and, as severe as his reaction to the poison was, he’ll have a monumental headache. I’d like to keep him here for another 24 hours or so but I know, come morning, he’s going to want out. But you saw how bad the attack was. He needed CPR, for Christ’s sake! He stopped breathing! So I need you to work with me to let me monitor him for at least another day.”
Jamie was mercilessly playing his CO! One part of Lee wanted to support his friend and help him escape Jamie’s clutches – as Chip had done for him in times past. But he’d been witness to the severity of Chip’s reaction to the poison, had been forced to breathe air into his best friend to keep him alive until aid arrived. In Lee’s eyes, Jamie had saved Chip’s life and thus he owed the Seaview’s CMO an immense debt of gratitude.
Reluctantly the captain agreed, knowing he would pay for it when Chip was fully recovered.
“And the admiral?” Crane’s tone was tense. He read as much into Jamie’s body language as into his speech and knew the CMO was dealing with the easier case scenario first.
Jamie was torn now. He wanted to give it to his CO straight but, knowing the deep affection between the two men, tried to emphasise the positives. “Admiral Nelson is doing as well as can be expected…”
“What the hell does that mean, Jamie? Cut the bull!”
Jamie understood Crane’s concern. “Lee, he’s been ingesting a toxic substance over an extended period of time. It’s taken its toll, to be frank. He’s not a young man. He can’t shrug these things off the way you and Morton seem to. I’ve got him stabilised right now. But you have to understand – it may take days to flush the poison from his system. And he’s not going to be very comfortable while we’re doing that.
The headaches he’s been experiencing will get worse for possibly the next twenty four hours before they begin to ease off. And I can’t sedate him as I could Chip. Can’t risk adding anything else into the mix of poison and analgesic that’s already in his bloodstream. I’m gonna tell you straight, Lee. He’s got a very tough few days ahead of him and I can’t guarantee that his body will be up to it. We’ll need to observe him and keep him calm for the next forty-eight to seventy-two hours. If his heart can survive that, then I’ll give him a fighting chance.”
“Jamie!” Crane ran his right hand through his closely cropped dark hair from back to front, a characteristic gesture betraying his shock and agitation. “I…I guess I didn’t realise it was that serious!”
He saw his own horror mirrored in the
Chief’s expression. “Please, Jamie, just
let me look in on them for a moment. One
minute. I won’t wake Chip and I promise
not to disturb the admiral. I….I just
need to see them for a moment.
Jamie’s warm brown eyes saw the pleading in the lighter golden ones. He hated the hard line attitude he was forced to take in the face of the younger man’s extreme anxiety but the welfare of his patients came first.
“Lee, I can’t let you see the admiral right now. Maybe tomorrow if he settles down and makes some progress during the night. Believe me, I’m not taking this stance just for the sake of it. Admiral Nelson does not need any outside factors to distract him right now. You have to be aware that there is a distinct possibility that he’s not going to beat this one.”
Lee stood on the steps of the Institute Medical Facility, his hands in his pockets, and contemplated the myriad stars in the night sky. So many nights he had observed these same stars from Seaview’s conning tower, often accompanied by Nelson. He’d relished those quiet moments with the man, watching the same stars that had been navigated by Sailors since the first explorations of sea and ocean. Now he wondered if he would have another chance.
“Sir?” The quiet voice broke into his painful reverie and he turned to see Kowalski waiting for him at the bottom of the steps. “Why don’t you let me drive you home, Skipper. It’s been a long day.” Since shortly after their first mission together, Ski had designated himself the captain’s man, very much as Sharkey was Nelson’s and Patterson Morton’s. He knew the skipper was hurting badly from the events of the day and night.
Jamie had finally relented and allowed the captain to see Chip – extracting the promise that Crane would go home and get some rest if he did. Lee had slipped quietly into the dimly lit room and crossed to stand motionless beside the bed. His friend was still too pale, his face whiter than the starched linen pillow on which he rested. Chip’s pose seemed unnatural, as he lay flat on his back instead of his usual curled to the side position. His blond hair, usually immaculately groomed, was mussed and sweat dampened. Thankfully he wasn’t on a ventilator although an I.V. dripped fluid into his left arm. Crane shuddered slightly, recalling his terror when he’d been forced to carry out CPR. Thank God for his training, his actions so ingrained that he hadn’t had to think, he’d just performed. His thoughts so far away, it took him a moment to realise that cerulean eyes were open and watching the parade of emotion across his darkly handsome features.
“Hi.” His throat was sore, the voice that came out barely a croak.
“Hi, yourself!” Lee fed him some ice chips from a glass on the bedside table. Chip enjoyed the coolness as it moistened his parched lips, dry mouth and aching throat.
“What hit me?” It felt like he’d been flattened by a twenty-ton truck, which had then reversed back over him for good measure. He was weak as the proverbial kitten – weaker if truth were told. He could barely raise his aching head off the pillow and that petrified him. He knew Crane could read him like a book – as few others in his circle of friends, colleagues and acquaintances could. Lee put a reassuring hand on his friend’s shoulder, seeing the unaccustomed emotion in Chip’s usually inscrutable eyes. Friends for more than half their lives, Lee was one of few privileged to be allowed see past the mask Morton habitually wore.
“Take it easy, Chip! You’re going to be fine.” Lee tried to push re-assurance into his tone rather than the terror he’d been feeling, remembering.
“What happened?” Chip watched a black cloud descend over Crane’s expressive features and alarm bells began to ring.
“I’m not sure we should be talking about this right now. Jamie will kill me if he knows I woke you. He only let me see you on the strict understanding that I didn’t disturb you.” Crane tried for a smile to lighten the mood but what passed for a smile didn’t reach his eyes and didn’t fool his exec – in fact had the very opposite effect.
“Am I dying?”
Lee’s eyes opened wide at the flatly voiced question. “No, Chip! God, no! You gave us all a monumental fright but Doc says you’ll be fine in a day or so. You’re gonna be sore, I guess. You stopped breathing and Jamie had to give you a shot of Adrenaline straight into your heart muscle, then they had to pump your stomach and ….”
“Captain!” Jamie had perfected the soft voiced roar but it had the effect of a bellow! Prone and standing, both officers jumped guiltily. “You promised you wouldn’t wake him!”
“I didn’t!” “He didn’t!” The protests came simultaneously as Jamie crossed to check the I.V. and his patient’s vitals.
“Doc, I wasn’t sleeping and I was going nuts trying to figure out what happened to me.” Chip confessed, swallowing convulsively as his mouth dried up again. Lee fed him some more ice chips, which he gulped greedily.
“Chip, you need to rest. Your body has been through a severe trauma and it needs time to heal. You don’t need to hear this right now.” Jamieson argued.
“Actually, Doc, I do.” Morton’s tone was surprisingly firm, the level not quite as he would want it, were he on Seaview, but sufficient to convince the medic that he wouldn’t settle for less than the truth.
Lee glanced at Jamieson then resumed the telling of the day’s events at the medic’s nod. Crane filled Chip in, watching his friend’s expressions change as the story unfolded. He could see the horror in his exec’s eyes as Chip learnt of Nelson’s predicament, then the disbelief, followed by total denial, when he spoke of Angie’s possible involvement.
“No way, Lee! NO! Not Angie! There’s got to be another explanation. I don’t buy that! No way, no how!” Morton was resolute in his belief in Nelson’s secretary’s innocence, much as Patterson had been; and struggled to sit up in his agitation, Jamie firmly pressing him back down. “I’ve probably worked closer with Angie than you have over the past six years and, I can tell you, that girl worships the ground Nelson walks on! There is no way she could have been persuaded, cajoled or intimidated into betraying him. It’s just not in her nature!”
“Chip, calm down.” Jamie was already preparing a hypodermic; unhappy with the stress level this conversation was provoking in the exec. He readied it for insertion into the I.V. tubing.
Morton saw his intent and tried to avoid it, attempting to rip the shunt from his vein, but Lee, sensing his purpose, grabbed Chip’s hand and allowed Doc to administer the sedative.
Crane flinched; Chip’s accusing gaze forewarned of extreme retribution! He watched as the sedation almost immediately took hold, dragging his friend reluctantly into the arms of Morpheus, blue veined eyelids fluttering closed on pale cheeks, then open, as he fought but ultimately couldn’t evade Jamie’s cocktail.
Lee caught the faint hint of a smirk Jamieson allowed himself and scowled. But before he could challenge the CMO, a commotion in the central hallway caught both their attention.
Leaving Chip blissfully oblivious, Jamie strode purposefully to the door, Crane hot on his heels. Lee was conscious of Jamie’s muttered “Good Lord!” as he took in a very dishevelled Angie, her brown hair tumbling from its usual neat twist, a darkening bruise on one cheek, a cut on her forehead oozing blood and various scrapes and grazes on her hands and arms. She was supported by Patterson and Ski, crying softly as she tried to extricate herself from their gentle hold.
“What the hell happened?” Crane rapped out sharply. “I told you to bring her back, not…”
”Time enough for explanations.” Jamie moved quickly, opening the door of an exam room further down the corridor. “Bring her in here.” Kowalski scooped her up in his strong arms and carried her, setting her down on the examination table as Jamieson indicated, the others trailing behind.
Jamie pulled a pencil light from the breast pocket of his white lab coat and shone it briefly into her tear bright eyes. Noticing his audience, he made shooing motions. “Go back to the waiting room and let me see to Angie. I’ll come find you shortly.”
Lee stepped towards the table and laid his hand gently on Angie’s shoulder. “We’ll sort it out, Angie. Don’t worry.” He was startled at the bitterness in the look she sent him as she shied away from his hand. “Angie….!”
“Not now, Lee!” Doc’s tone brooked no argument as he indicated the door with a nod of his head.
Entering the waiting area Crane found his three crew members in various dejected poses. “What exactly happened?”
Ski straightened up, his worried gaze
connecting with his captain’s. “We went
after Miss Angie like you said, sir. We
caught up with her in the car park. She
was just getting into her car and we called out to her. She didn’t answer, just got in and started
the engine. She was accelerating hard,
Skipper, then when she braked for the security barrier it was like she had no
brakes at all. She swerved and smacked
straight into the perimeter wall. She
wasn’t wearing a seatbelt and she hit her head on the windscreen. She was dazed and kinda out of it so we just
brought her straight back here.”
Patterson took over. “She didn’t want to come, sir. When she realised where we were taking her, she started to cry and begged us to let her go. Said she just wanted to go home. Said she hadn’t done anything wrong.” Pat looked at his skipper, reproach in his blue eyes. “But we couldn’t leave her in that state, sir. And she hit the wall with some whack! She needs Doc to check her out.”
“You did the right thing, Pat. Doc’ll take care of her.”
“Sir, Miss Angie’s car is pretty new. Seems to me the brakes shouldn’t just go like that.” Kowalski looked troubled. “And they were gone. She hit that wall with quite an impact, sir. The whole front end of her car is totalled.”
“You think someone tampered with her brakes, Ski?”
“I’m pretty sure of it, sir. New cars don’t usually have the brakes go that comprehensively without giving some warning. Miss Angie’d have noticed if the brakes weren’t working right and would’ve done something about it. She’s fairly savvy about cars, sir, for a girl.”
The last comment brought a wry smile to the captain’s troubled face. Angie was obviously pretty popular with his crew, the way they’d rushed to her defence.
Sharkey chimed in. “Skipper, I’ve had Miss Angie’s car towed to the motor pool and asked maintenance to take a look at the brakes. We should know pretty soon if it’s been tampered with.”
“Good move, Chief. The way things have been going around here today, I’d say it’s a safe bet.” Crane sighed wearily.
It was back to waiting – and pacing. Sharkey’s cell phone rang just as Jamieson pushed through the door. The Chief answered the call as the others turned to the doctor.
“She’ll be OK. She gave her head a pretty good smack but there’s no concussion. I’ve put some stitches into the cut on her forehead, she’s got some badly bruised ribs where she hit the steering wheel. I’ve cleaned up the other grazes and given her some pain medication. She’ll be bruised and sore for a couple of days but she’ll heal fine. I’m going to keep her overnight for observation – much against her wishes, I might add. If there are no further complications, I’ll release her in the morning.”
“Can I see her, Doc?” Crane asked.
“Not if you’re going to upset her again!” Jamie’s tone was one of exasperation. “You’re not exactly top of her hit parade just now!”
“I know, Jamie. But we really need to get this cleared up as soon as possible.” He stopped as Sharkey concluded his call, noting the grim expression on the Chief’s face.
“Skipper, the brakes on Miss Angie’s car were tampered with. All the fluid had been drained and the airbag was disconnected for good measure. Someone wanted to make sure she was hurt real bad.” Sharkey smacked his fist into the palm of his other hand.
“She’s a lucky girl. It’s a good thing she hadn’t already left the Institute grounds.” Doc commented.
“I’m not sure she’ll see it like that, Jamie.” Crane exhaled, knowing he had an apology to make.
He entered the room Angie had been allocated quietly in case she was sleeping. She wasn’t. The livid bruising on her cheek and the neat black stitches on her forehead stood out in stark contrast to her pale features. Her face was a study in misery as she bleakly shredded the tissue wadded in her hands. She turned her head his way and her expression hardened as she spotted him.
“I wanted to apologise, Angie.” Crane sat down on the edge of the bed and tried to take her hand but she pulled away.
“Why? Because somebody interfered with my brakes, all of a sudden you believe me? Maybe I did it myself, to throw suspicion off me!” She ached all over, her head hurt and her heart was sore. That he of all people could suspect that she would harm the admiral or Chip!
“Angie, you’re misunderstanding. I know you’d never normally hurt the admiral or Chip. But if someone threatened you or your family….”
“You’ve known me for four years, Lee. Four years! And you thought me capable of poisoning Admiral Nelson? Slowly! For week after week, from what Jamie’s said. Making his coffee and knowing that every cup he drank put m..m..more of the p..poison into his system.” Her voice wobbled as the bitterness of the betrayal hit home. “You thought I could do that? Watch him become so ill that I was terrified for him? You don’t know me at all!”
Lee felt terrible for harbouring even the slightest doubts about her. “Angie…”
“Oh, go away, Lee. I don’t ever want to see you again! Don’t you think the admiral and I realise that what you’re suggesting could happen and have plans in place if anyone were to threaten me? You have so little trust!”
Despite his promise to Jamie not to upset her, Lee knew he could get to the bottom of this right now. “Angie, who gave you the coffee grounds? Who?”
She stilled at his question. Her eyes widened as her face paled even further, if that were possible. “The admiral commented on her coffee so I asked which brand she used. She said it was new to the market and only sold in speciality shops. So I asked her to get some for me.”
“Who, Angie? Who?”
Her voice was little more than a whisper. “Susie.”
Lee came back to the present and acknowledged the concern in Kowalski’s voice. “Ski, you’re just as tired as I am. Go home and get some rest.”
“Oh no, sir. I didn’t have the early start you did. And I’d rest much better if I knew you’d made it home safely, so what do you say, sir? It’s past two in the morning. Let me drive you back to your place.”
Knowing Sharkey would have done the same for Nelson, or Pat for Chip, made it easier for Lee to accept Ski’s ministrations. Beyond exhaustion, he meekly handed over his car keys and allowed himself to be driven back to his condo by the shore on the Institute grounds.
His elbow resting on the side window supported the hand he dropped his head into, weary beyond belief. Kowalski ventured a sideways glance, taking in the abject stance of his skipper. “Sir, it’s not your fault. None of this is down to you.”
Crane roused himself sufficiently to speak. “Ski, I practically accused Angie of doctoring the coffee. I am directly responsible for her being in the Med Bay tonight!”
“No, sir!” The Senior Rating was on a roll! “The person who tampered with Miss Angie’s brakes and airbag is solely responsible for her being in the Med Bay, sir! Not you!”
“Which brings up another point.” The exhausted captain was still alert enough to add one and one! “Susie had to have someone else on the inside working with her. She delivered the coffee, but no way would she have the know how to disable Angie’s airbag and drain her brake fluid.”
“So we’re looking for someone with that practical knowledge, eh, Skipper?” Kowalski’s feral instinct came to the fore. “Shouldn’t be too difficult. You leave that to me, sir.”
They pulled up outside Lee’s beachfront apartment. “Thanks, Ski.”
“Hey, no problem, Skipper. I’ll keep this baby (referring to Lee’s prized Shelby Cobra) overnight and pick you up here at 0800, sir.”
“Make it 0700 and you’ve got a deal!” Crane returned wryly.
“0700, sir! You got it!” And Kowalski executed a perfect handbrake turn and accelerated out of the parking area with enough exhaust smoke to cause Lee to wince.
“I’m fine, Jamie! No way am I staying here another 24 hours!” Lee could hear the raised voice of his exec almost halfway down the corridor. He halted outside the door, gleefully eavesdropping on the row in progress.
“Chip, I am not going to argue with you. You had a full body trauma less than 24 hours ago! You are staying here where I can monitor you for another day! At least! You are going to eat 3 squares and if I find that you’ve obeyed orders I may allow you out of here tomorrow.”
“Jamie, you’re over-compensating!” Lee shook his head at the conciliatory tone his exec and best friend was using – that was sooo not the way to get past Doc!
Jamie’s tone became less agreeable. “Commander Morton, you are staying here today! You have a headache, your chest hurts, your throat is sore and your stomach is cramping. You haven’t eaten for more than 24 hours. If – and I mean IF – you eat breakfast, lunch and dinner today, I just might, repeat might, release you to light duty tomorrow. And don’t try to think outside the box, Commander! If you envisage for even one moment that you can sign yourself out of here without my authority – then think again! I hesitate to remind you but you need me to sign off on your fitness for duty roster! I can have you shore side so fast your head will spin, Mister!”
Lee stifled another grin. Chip should know when he was whipped! It appeared he didn’t! “I’ve already had what passes for breakfast here. It was so totally crap! How do you expect me to recover my strength on the basis of that? I need some of Cookie’s food. Doc, please! Confine me to the boat, anything! But get me out of here!” Chip all but begged the CMO.
“So your only objection is the food? What if I was to guarantee a decent lunch followed by your favourite Chinese for dinner – with the captain?”
“You paying, Jamie?” Came Chip’s familiar speculative tone.
“And if I was?” The CMO retort was swift.
“Well, maybe I’d wager you that the hand you’re holding was a tad obvious, Doctor! NO DICE! I feel fine, I want out of here!”
“And I’m telling you that you’re not fine! Not by a long chalk! And you need to be under observation for a further 24 hours. Like it – or lump it, Commander!”
Lee decided now was the perfect time to step in. He needed both these men on his side. And placating Chip was the first step.
“Morning, guys. Guess from what I heard the breakfast wasn’t up to scratch, Chip. OK, Doc, if I persuade Cookie to whip up something tempting for the exec’s lunch?”
He saw Chip’s eyes light up at sight of him, anticipating his friend’s help in getting out of here. Doc’s eyes narrowed as Lee stepped between them, winking at Jamie. Chip caught the wink and his expression turned mutinous. There was obviously no help coming from his friend. Chip shot him a traitorous glare. Payback would be sweet! There was a you-know-I-can-make-it-an-order look in Lee’s eyes that told Chip he was licked.
“Like I have a choice!” He muttered crossly. “But I feel fine, starving, but fine!”
Jamie opened his mouth to protest but Lee cut him off, knowing another round would tick his friend off even more. “OK, Chip, the starving part we can take care of. But there is something I need you to help me with, both of you.”
Jamie’s eyes narrowed suspiciously on his CO, while Chip sat forward curiously, wincing slightly as pain shot through his stomach and chest. As unobtrusively as possible, he leaned back against the mound of pillows behind him, crossing his arms over his midsection, not wanting Jamie – particularly – to see that he wasn’t quite as fine as he made out. But Crane, knowing him better than anyone else, saw the colour almost bleach from his face, the pale blue hospital issue p.j.s accentuating the intense blue of his eyes and the flare of pain that crossed them. As simply as raising one eyebrow, he questioned Chip’s ability to help him. A firm nod in return was all he needed not to inform Jamieson, and the look that passed between them said payback!
“What do you need us to do, Lee?” Chip’s voice was still slightly scratchy; a legacy of the stomach pump, but his tone was eager and filled with anticipation.
Jamieson frowned, unsure the captain should be co-opting his patient into whatever scheme he was plotting. On the other hand, Crane had certainly diverted the exec’s thoughts of flight. He decided to hold off his objections til he heard the Skipper’s plan.
“Firstly, Jamie, how are the admiral and Angie this morning?” Lee asked.
“Angie? What happened to Angie?”
“I take it you haven’t filled Chip in on last night’s events, Doc?” Lee could hear the anxiety in his XO’s harried tone. Oh, yeah, he was sunk all right!
“Not yet. The admiral came through the night pretty well, all things considered. He had one rather disturbing episode.” Jamieson revealed reluctantly. “We had to put him in restraints.” He saw the horror on both officers’ faces and unaccountably felt the need to defend his actions. “For his own sake! He became very agitated. His headache had him almost climbing the walls, he attempted to disconnect the I.V. and the heart monitor. I did warn you about this, Skipper.”
Seeing Chip’s abject shock Lee realised that, as he had been out of it most of the previous day, his friend didn’t have a clue what was going on. He filled him in as succinctly as he could, culminating with the night’s events and Angie’s revelation.
“How is Angie this morning, Doc?”
“She’s still sleeping, Skipper. The longer she sleeps the better she’ll heal. She’s going to be pretty sore for the next few days. But she doesn’t have a concussion so I should be able to release her this morning.”
“Could you find an excuse to keep her here for – say another 12-18 hours or so?”
Jamie floundered a little. “I guess so. But why would I want to?”
“For her own safety, Jamie. Plus I need to get Susie over here, without tipping her off that we’re on to her or appraising anyone else that we know what’s going on. My gut instinct tells me that there’s someone else involved here at the Institute.”
”She was thoroughly checked out, Lee. I saw to her hiring myself!” Chip was vehement. “You know her background. Her clearance was higher than strictly necessary for her position. She’d been working with other government agencies and, God, you know I’d never take any chances with your safety!”
“Chill, Chip! Of course I know that. And she’s obviously been very cleverly compromised. Perhaps she doesn’t even know she’s being monitored. But there’s no way she’d have the knowledge or capability to disable Angie’s airbag and drain off her brake fluid. No, someone counted on Angie getting off base before her brakes failed and wants Susie to remain undetected. They may have something else in mind for her. You having an allergic reaction to the poison had thrown a curve ball. We’re on to them quicker than they had anticipated. And we can use that to our advantage to catch whoever masterminded this attack on the admiral. That’s where you both come in.”
Lee outlined his plan to his two officers and had them nodding in complete agreement, although he sensed Chip’s slight hesitation. “What’s up, Chip?”
“You’re asking a lot of Angie, Lee. She’s not as used to this cloak and dagger stuff as we are.”
“And that’s where you come in, pal. Angie’s not my number one fan at the moment. I messed up big time, practically accused her of being responsible for this whole mess.” Crane began to twist the class ring on his left hand, a sure sign he was disturbed. “She can help us get Susie over here without arousing suspicion. And we need to find out who their “mole” is. They have someone else in place here, someone who has mechanical knowledge. I’ve got Sharkey and Ski quietly working that angle.
But I figure Angie can get Susie here on the
pretext of Institute business. We’ll get
a chance to question her without tipping our hand. Doc, we need you to buy us some time. Just put the word out that Chip suffered an
allergic reaction to something. I don’t
want the word poison mentioned! If
anyone asks about the admiral, he’s suffering from exhaustion. He’ll be back on track in a day or so.”
”Can do, Lee. That’s all you need from me?”
“Not quite, Jamie. If Susie won’t co-operate we may need you to administer something to persuade her to talk.”
“Captain!” Jamieson obviously wasn’t comfortable with that.
“Doc, she’s orchestrated the systematic poisoning of the admiral for the past several weeks. Chip almost died! The admiral could still die!” Crane wasn’t pulling any punches, running his hand through his hair in an agitated movement. “I need answers. And I’ll get them however I can!”
Chip was clearly in agreement on this one. But Jamieson was still reluctant.
“Jamie, I’ll only call on you if it’s strictly necessary. Chip and I should be able to handle this between us.”
“Skipper, Chip’s a patient! He’s not up to running round the Med Bay apprehending criminals!”
“And I won’t ask him to, Doc! Chip’s only role in this is to get Angie’s co-operation. I can handle the rest. Unless, of course, your particular expertise is required!”
Chip looked disappointed to be relegated to such a minute role but he had a disquieting feeling that events would take a turn for the worse before they got better.
Jamie’s insistence on Chip using a wheelchair to visit Angie didn’t bode well for the exec’s humour. Demanding a shower he found he wasn’t quite as steady on his feet as he’d thought. Frank, a corpsman from Seaview, assisted his XO’s ablutions and, within thirty minutes, freshly showered, shaved and garbed in clean Med Bay p.j.s and robe, Chip was resigned, if not happy to admit, to the welcome assistance of the wheelchair as Lee pushed him towards Angie’s room.
“Can we swing by the admiral’s room? I’d really like to see how he’s doing.”
“Me too, buddy. But Jamie’s determined that we don’t upset him. I didn’t realise how seriously this was gonna hit him. Chip, he might not pull out of this one.” Crane’s voiced was choked. “Jeez, for a while there, I didn’t think you were gonna make it!”
“I don’t remember too much about that. But I guess I owe you my life, Lee, again! I…”
“Hey, what’s the count now, pal? Are we even keeping score? Did it start afresh when I joined Seaview? Cos I sure hope you’re not holding all those times you saved my hide in Annapolis against me.” Crane kept his tone light, recognising the intensity of his friend’s emotions.
“Chip! Goes without saying, buddy! I did what I had to do. Same as you would have – and have done. If you’ve got a problem with me administering the kiss of life – well, we can just call it something else!”
“LEE!” Chip yelped!
“Course you’ve had more practice than I have!” He relished the blush washing over his XO’s Nordic features as he pushed him down the corridor. Sometimes Chip could be so gullible! Lee knew his exec had more than his fair share of the ladies, but he’d always admired Chip’s ability to remain friends – or friendly acquaintances – with the women he went out with. Chip often teased Lee about his courtly nature towards the females he dated. But Lee reckoned he was nowhere in the running when it came to his exec. Chip’s sincerity shone through, in all his relationships. He never misled his girlfriends, preferring to be upfront about his first love – Seaview – and his frequent abrupt absences – duty.
It had led to some disappointments – as with Anna, the game being the final straw! – but Lee knew there was a special girl out there waiting for Chip – as there was for him. And they would have to be special – to be able to take second place – for much of their time together – to the other lady in their lives – their grey lady – Seaview.
Angie was awake and counting the minutes until she could get out of Med Bay. She needed clothes; the ones she’d been wearing the previous evening had mysteriously disappeared – as had her purse. She knew her car was in no condition to be driven but she could have called a cab if she’d at least had her purse! Her head throbbed and she ached all over. She felt thoroughly miserable - and she was still terribly worried about Admiral Nelson. He’d looked so ill. She knew Jamie was very concerned about his ability to fight this. And she felt sick inside every time she thought about the number of times she’d brewed pots of coffee for him – poisoned him! How could she have not known? Not seen the effects the coffee – her coffee – had had on him. Tears pooled and tracked down her pale cheeks. If he died…. She turned her face into the pillow, sobbing harder. And Chip Morton… Oh God, he’d come close to dying yesterday. She’d almost killed him! But for Lee Crane he’d be dead now. She’d be a murderer!
Logically, Angie knew she was over dramatising. But her emotions were in turmoil. She started as the door opened, scrubbing her cheeks as she turned to see who had entered. She wasn’t expecting the boat’s captain and exec and seeing Chip, pushed in a wheelchair by Lee, opened the floodgates again.
Chip rose from the chair to perch on the edge of Angie’s bed, pulling the sobbing girl into his arms. He was appalled at the livid bruising on her face as she gratefully curled against his broad chest. Her tears soaked through the robe he wore over the Med Bay p.j.s as he soothed her, stroking his big hands over her small back. She was petite and slight in his arms. The only time he’d ever held her before had been on the dance floor at the previous year’s Christmas party. Now she felt vulnerable and tiny in the narrow hospital bed and his protective instincts multiplied one hundred fold.
“Shh, Angie, please!”
“Chip, I almost killed you! How can you even talk to me?” She wailed, burying her face against his chest, mortified that her tears were saturating him, conscious of her red eyes and nose and the Med Bay garb that did nothing for her. She failed to see the effect she was having on the normally inscrutable exec. Her usual efficient poise had crumbled and her big tear wet green eyes connected with his steady blue ones tugging at something in Morton’s heart. He wanted to cuddle her, console her, but she was already withdrawing from him, embarrassment now colouring her too pale cheeks. She cut a wary glance towards the captain, pulling out of Morton’s arms, steeling herself for what would come from Lee.
Crane caught her apprehensive look and winced, knowing his apology from the previous night hadn’t, as he’d suspected, overcome the damage done by his initial accusation. “Angie, I’m sorry!” He injected as much genuine sincerity as he could into his tone. “Forgive me for doubting you. I should have known better. Put it down to a very stressful few hours – please! I know you’d never hurt the admiral or Chip and we need your help to find out who’s trying to get to Admiral Nelson so badly that they’d risk spiking his coffee with poison, knowing anyone in his company could drink it.”
“Jamie explained that I had an unusually allergic reaction, Angie.” Morton explained, taking hold of her hand and drawing her antagonistic gaze away from his friend. “Most visitors could maybe handle a cup or two and not feel anything more than a slightly nauseous sensation. The admiral – and you – were the ones most likely to be exposed to a prolonged dosage. And I know you don’t drink coffee.” Angie shouldn’t have been surprised that Seaview’s exec knew this tiny detail about her – Morton’s quick brain and observant nature stored vast quantities of minutiae on very different subjects – but she was. “The admiral wasn’t quite so lucky. And he’s going to have a tough time of it over the next few days. I won’t lie to you, Angie, there’s still a possibility that he won’t pull out of this.”
She withdrew her hand from Chip’s as he gently spoke the words that damned her in her own eyes. She’d been trusted with Nelson’s safety in his suite of offices and she’d failed. She couldn’t bring herself to look the two Seaview Officers in the eye.
“I’m so sorry! I don’t know why I didn’t see it. I just… The admiral liked the coffee Susie made. He commented on how great it was when he went to your office, Lee.” The tears were leaking again and Morton made shushing motions but she was determined to continue. “I asked Susie what blend it was and where she got it. She volunteered to organise some for me. I trusted her! She was your secretary, Lee! She had all the formal clearances! I didn’t suspect for a moment that she would give me anything other than regular coffee. Maybe I should have. I know how many enemies the admiral has. I should have taken better care of him! If he dies, it’s all my fault! And the reason I was out of the office that week you asked about, Lee, was because I went on one of those anti-terrorist courses for secretaries. To help them look out for threats against their bosses! Ironic or what?” And the tears came again. The two men looked on helplessly for several moments before Morton gathered her again into his arms, cradling her against his broad chest, soothing her tattered emotions, while Crane felt totally superfluous to requirements!
But time was of an essence. They had to identify and neutralise Nelson’s enemies. And, much as he hated to disturb the budding romance he could see transpiring, he needed Angie’s co-operation. And Chip was the conduit.
Nodding faintly in his exec’s direction, Lee left the next steps up to him. Manufacturing an excuse, he left Chip and Angie alone, admonishing his friend not to attempt to leave without wheelchair assistance. Grudgingly acknowledging Crane’s concern, Morton welcomed the chance to be alone with Angie and nodded perfunctorily as his captain exited.
Relishing the feel of her in his arms he still needed to extract the requisite information. “Angie! You know Lee is only trying to get to the bottom of this, don’t you?” He spoke softly, taking in the citrus perfume of her hair as he held her. “Perhaps he came across a little strong, but he’s very worried about the admiral.”
“And you! God, Chip, I was there! He was terrified for you! He saved your life! If he hadn’t been there…. Oh, Christ, Chip!” She was shaking badly and he held her tightly.
“It’s OK, Ang. I’m fine! But Lee’s right. We need to know who’s behind this attack on the admiral. Susie’s just a pawn. There’s another mole in NIMR – whoever interfered with your car last night – and he’s higher up in the food chain than Susie, least that’s how Lee and I see it. We need to get to him – fast! The reaction I had to the coffee was something they couldn’t predict and allows us to act sooner than they anticipated. Lee thinks – and it makes sense – that it’s got something to do with Project Discovery. So we need to know everything that Susie knows. Without anyone guessing that we’re on to her. That’s where you come in. Can you get her over here? Manufacture a reason to have her come to you here. Any plausible excuse that won’t arouse suspicion. Ang, these people have proven themselves to be lethal. They’re prepared to kill anyone who gets in their way! So we’re not asking you to undertake this lightly. You could have been killed last night! If you’d been on the highway when your brakes failed….” His arms tightened around her in a reflexive action, loosening his hold when she gasped with pain from her bruised ribs.
Her green eyes widened. It was the first – and only – indication he’d given her that he cared. “Chip!” She touched her hand to his cheek and he turned his lips into her palm. Her heart began to race. Oh, this was so not the time or the place! Holding the thought she brought her emotions under control. “Of course I’ll do anything that I can. Anything you want me to.” He noticed she avoided any mention of Lee and filed it for dealing with later.
“Thanks, Angie. It’s your call. Get her over here any way you think fit. Jamie was going to release you this morning but he’s agreed to hang on until you can get Susie here. However long that takes!”
“Well, I don’t have any clothes or purse. My car’s totalled and my house keys were in my purse.” Reality checked in as she realised her plight! Chip soothed her concerns. He’d organise his own secretary to go to Angie’s house to get her something to wear. Chief Sharkey would be purloined to find her purse and keys – probably still in her car. Reassured that her immediate concerns were taken care of, Angie agreed – as Chip knew she would - for Nelson.
Much as it went against the grain, Morton was returned to his room for rest and observation, Crane was sidelined to the visitors’ area and Angie was resigned to waiting for her call to Susie’s voice mail to be answered when the secretary reported for duty. Jamie wielded his power over the command staff with an admirable display of reticence! Interspersed by the odd smirk! However his very real worry for the admiral tempered his reactions to his two superior officers.
Lee Crane was determined to get to the bottom of the plot against Nelson. In the four and a bit years he’d been privileged to captain Seaview, his relationship with Nelson had grown, changed dramatically, and solidified into something he’d neither envisaged nor asked for, but had certainly welcomed, if with some trepidation. Lee had embraced the change but been somewhat wary of it, initially looking for a hidden agenda.
But with the solidifying presence of Chip, and his own gut instinct – which he relied upon 100% - he’d begun to see Nelson as the father he’d never known; as Chip was the brother he’d adopted years earlier; or truth be told – he’d been adopted into the Morton clan by the classman who knew what family meant. Lee had been welcomed by the Mortons from his first visit and, to this day, received the same care packages Chip got from his Mom, convinced as she was that Cookie couldn’t feed them adequately. Both men winced and tried to hide the post that was (unfortunately) delivered to the boat. Scuttlebutt being what it was, word usually spread efficiently to the Galley that the captain and exec were unlikely to be hungry. A seriously peeved Cookie was not a pretty sight and the crew suffered – as they knew what was good for them – in silence!
Angie was warmed and relieved by Chip’s unwavering belief in her innocence. She still harboured resentment against Lee for his initial suspicion and doubted if she’d be able to work with him again. As he was such an integral part of life at the Institute she knew that meant she’d be looking for another job. And her heart broke at the thought of leaving the admiral, Chip and the friends she’d made amongst the Institute staff and the crew of Seaview. The thought of not seeing Chip on a regular basis tore at her heart. She’d come to care for the quiet, thoughtful exec more than she’d been prepared to admit over the past several years and now, just as it looked like he was exhibiting some reciprocal interest, she had to leave.
She’d seen the distrust – not just in Crane’s eyes – but in Jamie’s, Sharkey’s and Ski’s. And, knowing how things were on board the boat and at the Institute, she speculated that there would come another time when threats would be made again – and she couldn’t bear the thought of being suspect in the captain’s or crew’s eyes. No, it was better she left now. She cringed when she recalled the wounded look in Lee’s golden eyes as he’d contemplated her supposed betrayal; shuddered at the pain she’d seen reflected there on behalf of Nelson and Chip.
The ache in her head coupled with the soreness in her whole body every time she moved, along with the desolation of leaving a job she loved and people she cared for, contributed to the tears that flowed again and she held a wad of tissues to her mouth to stifle the sobs.
This was the picture Susie saw when she entered the Med Bay room, a stack of files she thought Angie might need in her arms. The sight of her colleague, bruised, stitched and crying bitterly caused the pretty blue-eyed blonde to drop the folders on the end of the bed and rush to Angie’s side.
“Oh my God, Angie! I had no idea. I just heard you’d been in a car accident. Are you OK?” Susie patted ineffectually at the other girl’s arm. Angie’s tears flowed harder, fuelled by the deception of a trusted colleague. She’d only known Lee Crane’s secretary for the six months she’d worked at NIMR but her clearance had been high and she’d been trusted by her workmates. A further betrayal.
“Did you bring the files I requested?” Angie ground the words out through clenched teeth, unable to feign politeness. Susie’s startled look told her she’d gone over the top and she backed off perceptibly. “Sorry, Susie, I’m just not feeling quite myself right now. Everything seems to hurt.”
“Oh, gee, Angie, I understand. My God, I didn’t realise!” Lee’s secretary was visibly disturbed. “If I can do anything for you, cover for you with the admiral… Whatever you need…”
“That’s OK, Susie. Admiral Nelson is suffering from exhaustion. He’s in the Med Bay just now too. So there shouldn’t be too much that either Captain Crane or Commander Morton can’t cover.”
“But I heard Mr. Morton had been taken ill, too!”
“Oh, he had an allergic reaction to something, Susie. Probably got it at the Bears game he attended the other night.” Angie dropped in casually, waiting for Lee Crane to make an appearance.
She was surprised, as was her companion, when the door opened to admit not only Captain Crane but also Commander Morton and Doctor Jamieson. Angie’s gaze immediately went to Chip, wheelchair bound and still paler than usual.
“Hi, Lee, Chip – hope you’re feeling better. Doctor Jamieson, Angie asked me to bring her some paperwork. I hope that’s OK?” Susie looked from one to the other of the grim faces.
“Why, Susie?” Lee Crane had been an exemplary boss. She couldn’t have asked for a more considerate, polite superior. Chip Morton had always treated her well and even the gruff Admiral Nelson, on the occasions she’d had dealings with him, had been nice if distant.
“What do you mean, Lee?” He knew. They all knew. She was determined not to cry but couldn’t prevent the tears that seeped.
“You could have killed Chip. May have killed the admiral. What did they offer you? What payment did you receive to risk two deaths, maybe more! To merit killing one of the best scientific brains in the world, Susie?” Lee bit out the questions, needing answers. Chip’s hand on his arm calmed him enough to allow her time to respond.
She was sobbing, head in her hands, almost relieved to be finally discovered, to pass the problem to more experienced hands. “All he wanted was for me to deliver a package; to give the coffee to Angie. He swore no one would be hurt. He threatened to kill my younger brother. To have a car hit him on his way to school. He’s only thirteen! I couldn’t take a chance with his life.”
“But you could with Admiral Nelson’s and Chip Morton’s.” Angie’s voice was cold as the grave. She raised one hand, tacitly asking Lee and Chip to allow her to continue.
“I didn’t know…didn’t realise…” Susie sobbed, hands frantically scrubbing tears from her cheeks.
“Don’t talk rot!” Angie spat, startling the officers along with the secretary. “You gave me coffee grounds laced with rat poison! You bloody well knew! And you stood by and watched the admiral get weaker and sicker! And if Mr. Morton hadn’t had an allergic reaction, you’d have continued to give me the coffee! Until when? Til the admiral was dead?” Angie’s eyes sparkled with tears now but she blinked them back. Her voice strengthened. “It’s not the first time, is it, Susie?” Three pair of eyes snapped to hers as Susie’s cowed but still belligerent demeanour caused her intuition to kick in. “You’ve done this before!”
“No! Yes! I have to! But not like this. You don’t get it! Nicky’s only thirteen. My parents waited years to have him. I have to protect him.”
Jamieson was the first to understand what drove the young girl to acts that could be counted as treason. And he could empathise with her loyalty to her family. “Susie, they’ve got a stranglehold on you. You have to break that. You know they’ll own you until you have the strength to break away.”
“I can’t, Dr. Jamieson. You don’t understand! If I don’t do what they want me to, they’ll kill Nicky. If they wanted to kill me, I could handle that. But if anything happens to him, it’ll kill my parents. I had to do what they asked of me. I wouldn’t do this for money!” Her voice shook with desperation.
“Susie, what else have you done for these people? They’ve got you over a barrel. You know they can take you out. Any time they like. And you might not be as lucky as I was.” Angie retorted grimly.
“No!” Susie protested, her eyes widening at the implications of Angie’s statement. “They had nothing to do with your accident! They didn’t. They promised me no one would get hurt.”
“Well, they lied!” Angie snapped, frustrated, sore and mad as hell. The three officers struggled to hide matching grins, despite the seriousness of the situation. Angie was just getting started. She ripped into the younger girl, quoting what had been done to her car, listing off her various aches and hurts and finally getting Susie’s confession.
She’d been controlled by the man she’d known only as “The Puppet Master” for more than two years. He’d used different threats each time to ensure her obedience. Three senior officials in her previous positions had been compromised without having her role called into question. Thus her clearances had been more than adequate for her post with NIMR and she’d been ‘encouraged’ to apply for that position.
Morton began instantly reviewing Institute recruitment procedures as she spoke. Lee was shaken. He’d thought the admiral was very well protected. As an agent of ONI he’d used the auspices of that agency to employ the latest in security measures to ensure Nelson’s safety.
“What about your partner?” Lee’s tone was harsh, not unfamiliar to Chip and Jamie but definitely to the two women.
“I don’t have a partner.” Susie looked at him in confusion.
“Then they have someone on the inside watching you too.” Crane informed her. “Whoever tampered with Angie’s car. What can you tell us about this Puppet Master? How does he contact you or you him? How do you get the spiked coffee?”
He had begun to pace and it made Susie nervous. She’d never seen this side of Lee Crane. She stumbled over the answers to his barked out questions. “I have a pre-programmed cell phone he gave me. When I need more coffee I call and he has it delivered to my house.”
“Who makes the delivery?”
“I’ve never seen anyone. It’s always left in my mailbox.” She had decided that the only way out of the mess she had dug for herself was to co-operate.
“OK. You’re going to call him now. Tell him you need more coffee. In the meantime, Susie, I want you and Angie to stay here.” Halting Angie’s instinctive protest with a raised hand, he continued. “Jamie, I’m going to place a guard on this door. No one in, no one out, except you, me and Chip. And I’m going to put guards on the admiral’s room also. Same rules apply.
Chip, call Seaview’s Master at Arms. Get some men here right away. Armed.” Chip nodded, hopping out of the wheelchair, striding to the bedside phone and rapping out the order. As he spoke he heard Angie object to having to stay in the Med Bay and Lee’s growled response to “Cooperate or I’ll have Jamie put you in restraints!” He grinned at the disgusted look on the secretary’s pretty face and the disdainful glare she shot at Crane.
When Susie had placed her call, Crane took the cell phone and handed it to Chip with instructions to get the lab to see if they could come up with anything that would link them to an address for the Puppet Master.
Overriding Jamieson’s objections that Chip was still a patient with a simple “I need him, Jamie,” Lee followed his exec from the room and the two conversed quietly for several minutes.
Returning, Lee instructed the girls to stay put and indicated that he wanted to speak with Jamieson outside.
“Jamie, I need to leave but first I have to see the Admiral.” Jamieson barely had a chance to open his mouth. “Non-negotiable, Doc. He may have heard of this Puppet Master. And we need every advantage we can get. Besides I just….”
“Need to see him, I know!” Jamieson sighed and reluctantly gave in the young CO. “But just for five minutes – no more. Clear? And you are not to agitate or upset him. Understood?”
Crane’s meek “Yes, Jamie.” roused a sidelong look of exasperation from the medic.
Lee was shocked by his first sight of Nelson. His mentor and friend was hooked up to an I.V. and a heart monitor that beeped with a regular monotonous cadence. His wrists were restrained, tied to the rails of the hospital bed with soft but secure material. Still his constant exertion had caused chaffing and red weals from the restrictive bonds. His face was contorted with pain, his red hair damp and mussed, his head thrashing agitatedly back and forth on the sweat soaked pillow as he mumbled incoherently. The duty nurse sitting with him rose from her post and slipped out at a nod from Jamieson.
Crane threw an askance glance at the doctor before moving to the bedside. He laid a hand on Nelson’s arm and leaned forward, talking softly into the recumbent figure’s ear. To Jamieson’s surprise, the agitation in the prone body seemed to lessen as the semi conscious man appeared to listen to the captain’s soothing voice. The admiral turned towards the source of the sound, his head stilling on the pillow. Lee continued to talk soothingly, his hand remaining at all times in contact with Nelson’s arm rubbing it rhythmically in slow, sure motions. Jamie took the opportunity to slip the damp pillow from beneath his patient’s head and replace it with a fresh cool one. Nelson sighed as if the movement had alleviated the pain in his over heated head.
The admiral seemed to be listening to Crane, the mumbling having stopped. Jamie began to take his vitals and was astounded to discover that his patient was cooler and calmer than he’d been since his admittance. He encouraged Crane with a nod to continue and Lee leaned closer then, despite an initial silent protest from Jamie, began to undo the restraints.
“Admiral, we need your help. Jamie and I need you to remain calm. We know your head aches and you don’t feel so good but you have to stay very quiet and do whatever Jamie says. He’s going to make you better, I promise.” At this Jamie shot his captain a fulminating look – he wished he could be as positive as his CO. Then again, Nelson had surprised him in the past.
“Lee…” It was barely a croak but it was coherent and both men leaned forward to hear the weak, slightly slurred voice.
“I’m here, Admiral.” Lee’s tone was warm, confident, reassuring, as he clasped the older man’s hand in a gentle but secure grip.
“How…is…Chip?” A mere whisper but both men were unsurprised that Nelson’s first words concerned their mutual friend.
“He’s fine, Admiral.” Lee exhibited his trademark smile, warmth encompassing the worried man in the bed. “Absolutely fine. He had an allergic reaction to the poisoned coffee and that gave us the tip off to look at you too.”
“No, Admiral.” Crane shot a look at Jamieson. Why he should be surprised at the grasp the practically unconscious man had on the situation he didn’t know! Nelson constantly amazed him. “We know who’s responsible. How are you feeling, sir?”
“Tired. Head …. hurts.” His brow furrowed as he tried to focus on Lee’s words. “Hard … to concentrate. Thirsty.”
Jamie raised the head of the bed and spooned some ice chips into his mouth. Nelson nodded gratefully.
“Admiral, the headache is probably at its most intense right now. It’s due to the poison you’ve been ingesting in the coffee. We’re gradually flushing it from your system and the headache should begin to ease during the next few hours. I’m sorry, but you’ve taken such an overdose of analgesics lately that I can’t give you anything to alleviate the pain.” Jamie explained.
“I need you to rest, sir. The past few weeks have taken their toll on your body and your resistance is depleted. So I want you to remain calm and try to get some sleep. I’ll leave the restraints off if you’ll do that. You were very agitated during the night and we were afraid you’d hurt yourself.”
Nelson nodded, his eyes drifting shut but opened again as Lee spoke hesitantly.
“Admiral, I’m sorry to keep you from sleeping. I just have a few questions that I really need answers to. Have you ever come across someone called the Puppet Master?”
“Yes! Of course! But he’s dead! He’s dead!” Nelson’s blue eyes opened, drilling through Crane’s in their intensity. Lee exchanged another look with Jamie not wanting to cause the admiral further agitation. Jamieson lifted the limp wrist and frowned as Lee continued.
“You know of him, Admiral?”
“Many..years..ago. But he died! Saw him …die.”
“How, sir? When?”
“Lee, he’s not really up to this type of questioning.” Jamieson spoke worriedly.
“’S alright, Will.” Nelson croaked. “Long time ago, Lee. When... I was first with…ONI. He was a … genius. Ran lot of agents… on both sides ... Men got back…that shouldn’t have. Obeyed his instructions … and got back safely. Did what they...were told. That’s how he got the name…Puppet Master. But he’s dead.”
“Well, he’s back, Admiral. Or someone masquerading as him. He’s compromised three people from official government positions that we know of. Maybe others. And he’s been trying to poison you for several weeks now. Any idea why he might have a grudge against you, particularly? None of the others he went after were hurt. Dismissed in disgrace but not physically hurt. Why you, why now and does it have anything to do with Project Discovery?” Lee persisted, despite Jamieson’s stern frown.
“Lot of people want Discovery delayed…or stopped. But think not …his primary..motive – if it is..him.” Nelson’s voice was raspy but getting slightly stronger.
“Then why, Admiral?”
“Girl.” Nelson gave a semblance of a sad reminiscent smile despite the pain in his aching head. “Didn’t get the girl he wanted.”
“A girl?” Crane shot the doctor a perplexed look. “This is all about who won a girl? This Puppet Master would want to see you dead over a girl?”
“Agent. She was his … top agent.” Nelson’s croak took on a sombre note. “She discovered he was …working for both sides. Turned him in – I persuaded her. I was sent with a …team of agents to bring him in. Charlotte was with us. He wouldn’t be taken easily. There was a battle and she was hit. Died in my arms. He saw what happened - that he’d hit her - and left his cover. Came towards us, screaming for her and shooting. I had no choice. Best placed. I took him out. He’s dead, Lee. I’m sure of that.”
“Well, someone out there is using the name. And wants revenge on you, sir.”
Despite his weakened condition, Nelson’s brain was more astute than any healthy mortal. “Who were the others he ‘compromised’, Lee?”
Crane rattled off the names of the three Susie had been responsible for. Nelson nodded slowly, recognising all of them. “They were part of my take down team. Check for Todd Martin and Joe Molloy also. They were the … other members. Have you found out who in NIMR was working against us? Someone who had access to the command floor, I take it?”
Lee flushed, his eyes full of guilt as he informed Nelson that his own secretary had been responsible.
“Not your fault, Lad.” Nelson dismissed it, knowing his captain viewed this as his mistake. “Need to revise ….our recruitment procedures.”
“Chip’s working on it already, sir. And we’ll be intensifying our background checks too.” Crane affirmed.
The admiral nodded, unsurprised, cogniscent of Morton’s legendary efficiency and fierce protectiveness where his captain was concerned, he had no doubt that Lee’s exec was beating himself up over his perceived failure to protect them both. “Lucky Jamie restricted your caffeine intake, Captain.” He felt like teasing Crane a little. Sometimes – like now – the young man was too intense.
His quip didn’t have the desired effect. Instead Lee’s mouth firmed into a thin grim line. “She could have poisoned the entire Institute, Admiral. And if Chip hadn’t had the reaction he did to the coffee, you could have died! And Angie!” He was still upset at her injuries, feeling directly responsible for them.
“Angie doesn’t drink coffee, Lee.” Nelson had already sent a grateful prayer of thanks heavenwards for that but now realised there was something else his two officers hadn’t told him. “Blast it, Lee, Jamie, what is it? What’s happened to Angie?”
Jamieson took over the explanation hastening to reassure the worried admiral that his young secretary would recover swiftly.
“Damn him to hell!” Nelson was visibly agitated and struggled to raise himself up in the bed. Jamie immediately restrained him, shooting Lee an irritated glance.
“Nice one, Captain! I told you not to upset him! Couldn’t you have kept quiet about Angie?”
“I’m sorry, Jamie. I forgot he didn’t know!” Crane was suitably contrite. “She really is all right, Admiral. Jamie would have released her already except I asked him to keep her here. She’s safe and Susie’s with her. I wanted to buy any time we could. Keep a semblance of normalcy and not tip our hand to whoever is out there.”
Nelson could usually read his captain like a book and knew Crane had a plan but his head ached too badly to ask for details. “Put a guard on Angie, Lee. I don’t like innocent people getting hurt.”
Crane flinched at the word ‘innocent’ remembering how he’d all but accused Angie of being responsible but, at Jamieson’s warning glare, decided not to comment further beyond saying, “Already taken care of, sir. Armed guards on both your rooms until we get this guy.
Admiral, does this Puppet Master have a name?”
Leaving the admiral to rest, Crane found a fully dressed Chip Morton waiting for him outside along with Chief Sharkey, Kowalski and Patterson. Aside from being a little paler than normal, Chip was his usual immaculately attired self, his khakis perfectly pressed, his jacket over his arm and cover in hand. Crane motioned the group away from Nelson’s door allowing the two armed guards take his place. The five men made their way down the corridor, Crane casting a stealthy glance behind him, hoping they would be out of range before Jamieson emerged from Nelson’s room.
No such luck.
“Commander Morton, just where do you think you are heading? I’ve placed you on medical leave and you are going nowhere except back to your room, Mister!” Jamie was really angry. His usually warm brown eyes blazed with temper as he approached, casting a particularly disgruntled glare in his CO’s direction.
Morton’s heated “I’m fine!” coincided with Crane’s cool “Remember that conversation we had a couple of months ago, Jamie? This is one of those occasions. And I need you to back off. OK?”
The blond officer, stocky NCO and burly senior ratings were amazed to see the immediate deflation of the CMO’s belligerent stance. “Aye, sir” being Jamie’s reluctant response as he executed a swift about turn and left one satisfied and four stupefied men behind him.
“Lee, that must have been some conversation!” Morton began to grin but came to almost Navy attention as Crane swept him with his best command glare, a distinct don’t-go-there-Mister look.
“Sure you’re up to this, Chip?” He asked in a low voice that the others couldn’t hear as he turned and began to stride down the corridor, matched by Morton and closely followed by his men.
“Absolutely, Skipper! I wouldn’t endanger the mission if I didn’t think I could keep pace, sir.” Morton adopted formal Navy mode, his response clipped, blue eyes cold as ice.
“Knock it off, Chip!” Lee sighed, exasperated, and threw him a wounded look from under his eyelashes. It was a look he’d perfected over the years knowing it melted his poker faced XO. “You forget I saw you stop breathing just about twenty-four hours ago. Takes a while to come to terms with that, buddy.”
“Sorry, Lee.” An abashed Morton was better than a formal Navy Morton and Lee grinned at his friend as he punched him lightly in the arm.
“Chief, report! Any advance on who tampered with Angie’s car?”
“Well, sir, me and Ski have been askin’ a lot a questions this morning. But Miss Angie doesn’t have an assigned parking slot like the command staff do (immediate rectification warranted!) and anybody works here who drives to the Institute has a legitimate reason for being in the staff car park. Nobody we’ve talked to remembers anyone displaying an unusual interest in her car. We have a list of all personnel whose cars were parked in the staff car park yesterday.” Sharkey pulled a sheet from the clipboard he held and handed it across to the captain.
They were all seated in Crane’s office. Ski and Pat perched uncomfortably on the couch, Sharkey occupying the sole armchair, while Crane propped himself against the edge of his desk. Chip had booted up Lee’s computer and, fingers flying over the keyboard, was busy pulling a list of all new employees to the Institute and Seaview in the past six months – since several weeks before Susie had been employed.
Pulling the papers from the printer, Morton and Crane bent over the desk attempting to match names from both lists. After several minutes they were down to twelve names. Sharkey was dispatched to investigate these. Ski and Pat donned civilian clothing and, taking an Institute sedan, took first watch at Susie’s apartment complex. Stu Riley, another trusted Seaview rating, was already in situ polishing the floor of the lobby and watching to see who deposited a package in Susie’s mailbox.
Morton, the acknowledged computer expert, was following the career of one Master Spy, Colin Barrington, and tracking any leads to family, friends, former colleagues he might have worked with, especially any currently residing on the west coast.
Crane rifled through his secretary’s drawers, looking for anything suspicious but came up with nothing. He tracked down the lab personnel working on Susie’s cell phone but there was no joy there either. After several hours coming up blank on all fronts he was just about ready to throw something. Almost simultaneously Chip called to him, his tone indicating he might be onto a lead, and Chief Sharkey burst through the office door, dragging a short skinny handcuffed individual dressed in dirty overalls and accompanied by an armed security guard.
“Just a minute, Chip! What’s this, Chief?”
“Caught him under your car, Skipper. He had this with him!” And Sharkey held up a small toolbox. “You didn’t tell me you were havin’ any maintenance done on your car, sir. And I figured if you were, you’d have had it towed into the motor pool.”
“Well?” Crane raised an eyebrow but the greasy, dark complexioned prisoner merely sneered in response. “Who is he, Chief?”
“Name’s Marcel Polinski, sir. Been working here about seven months in the motor pool according to the Chief Mechanic. So he has the know how to tamper with Miss Angie’s car. And he didn’t look like he was checkin’ your tire pressures, Skipper.”
“Who do you work for?” Crane stepped forward until he was toe to toe with the smaller man. For a moment he thought the swarthy prisoner was going to spit in his face.
“You Americans!” The sneer was back, coupled with a blatantly snide tone. “So stupid! You do not see what is under your nose.”
“He’s not going to talk.” Crane watched the prisoner carefully. He’d been party to enough interrogations – on both sides of the fence – to instantly assess the likelihood of gaining information. Short of drugging him – and he hadn’t yet ruled out the possibility although it wasn’t one he favoured – he knew he’d get nothing from this tough little individual.
“Give me an hour with him, Skipper! I’ll make him talk.” The stocky, belligerent, sometimes garrulous, Chief meant business.
“Down, Chief!” Crane’s tone was mild, slight amusement evident to the cuffed man. A look of confusion crossed his Slavic features. This wasn’t going down at all as he’d expected. Facing capture, he’d been sure they would use the recognised interrogation procedures. However, it was clear they were not even going to question him further. What could they know already? Had the stupid girl known more than they’d realised? Not possible. And he - he had not betrayed the Master. Perhaps they were bluffing. He was dragged to the brig in a state of some perplexity.
Chip Morton was exhausted. As the hours passed he’d amassed more and more information. Colin Barrington had been a prolific Spy Master. Many of his former colleagues and agents were still alive, well and holding important government and private industry posts. The deeper he dug, the longer the list grew. It was going to take forever to check each one. The XO was just about to call a halt and go in search of some coffee – belay that! – when he heard Sharkey arrive with his captive. Hearing the prisoner’s name rang a distant bell in the back of his mind but he badly needed a break. He’d been hunched over the computer for hours, still in Lee’s office, not having bothered to return to his own and boot up his machine. He flexed his shoulders, wincing at the soreness in his chest and abdomen – a weakness he’d never admit in front of Lee or Jamie.
He rubbed at tired eyes, pinching the bridge of his nose to relieve the ache that had returned and looked up to see his friend and CO leaning against his own desk.
“Chip, if Jamie could see you now he’d have you back in Med Bay and me in the brig!” Lee shook his head. His own stubbornness was matched only by his XO’s! “Let’s go get some food. Why don’t we take a walk down to the boat and see what Cookie was intending to serve you for lunch in your hospital bed.”
“If it’s chicken broth and Jell-O, Lee, you’re a dead man!” Morton’s facial expression was impassive and his vocal tone flat, indicating his total seriousness!
“Now, Chip, I’m hardly responsible for what Cookie produces!” Crane began to back track, worried that was exactly the menu Jamie and Cookie had devised for the XO’s depleted system.
“If it is, Lee,” the exec’s famous inscrutable façade was in place, “that’s your lunch. Mine is whatever Cookie has in mind for you!”
“I need my energy, Lee. It’s not as if I had a wonderful breakfast either!”
“I didn’t have any breakfast!”
“YOU never do!” Morton shot back, smug now that he had his too-easy-to-read CO on the back foot. “I, on the other hand, consider breakfast the most important meal of the day. And give it due consideration. However today…” The fastidious blond shuddered delicately to make his point. And froze as the missing piece fell into place. They hadn’t cleared the Institute lobby and he whirled for the elevator they’d just left, shouting to Lee to accompany him. “That’s it. That’s the connection! I knew as soon as I heard the name!”
“What, Chip? What name?”
“Polinski. The guy you just sent to the Brig. He’s Czech. One of Barrington’s former agents is Czech. Don’t remember his name. But he’s recently been assigned to the UN and he’s based in San Francisco.”
The ringing of his cell phone interrupted as he poured over the information Chip had pulled on Polinski and Togarev. “Skipper, Riley reports the delivery of a suspect package to Ms. Robinson’s mailbox. We are now tailing the delivery man.” Kowalski reported.
“Stay well back, Ski! Try not to let him spot you. Mr. Morton and I have some fresh information. If you can tie in our suspect, we’ll soon be in position to move.” Crane’s instructions were urgent. All going well they could wrap this up pretty quickly. He badly wanted this one over.
“Aye, sir. We’ll take every precaution. So far I don’t think he knows he’s being tailed.” There was a feral quality to Kowalski’s voice. “And we’ll make sure he doesn’t see us, sir.”
Lee disconnected the call, turning back to the report on Anton Togarev Chip had printed off. “He’s had a chequered career, Chip.”
“Yeah. Seen a lot of action in Eastern Europe by all accounts. Then when the former Czechoslovakia divided he became a citizen of the Czech Republic. Now he’s with their Consulate in San Francisco. Coincidence or what?”
“Like the Admiral says, Chip, who believes in coincidence?” Crane studied the print out. “Maybe I’m wrong, but my gut instinct tells me he’s our man.”
“I’m with you, Skipper. I’d trust your instincts any day.”
“Do we have a photo of this guy?”
“Take your pick. He’s a photo op merchant.” Chip pulled a sheaf of pictures from the colour printer and handed them over while he studied them on screen. Togarev looked every inch the suave diplomat; stocky, a little rotund with receding hair, swarthy skin tones, moustache and dark, almost black eyes.
There was something about him that caused a frisson of unease in both men and blue eyes met golden over the terminal, each silently acknowledging their disquiet.
“Chip, take this over and show it to Susie. See what reaction you get from her.”
“Right, Skipper.” Already on his feet, Chip swayed slightly as he moved too quickly and grabbed onto the edge of the desk.
Instantly round the desk and cupping the other man’s arm, Lee eased him back into the chair. “Whoa, Chip! On second thoughts, you take a break. I’ll run over to Med Bay. If Jamie gets a load of you the way you look right now, he won’t be letting you go any time soon!”
“I’m fine!” The blond insisted but took a shaky breath. “Just hungry!”
Lee took a close look at his friend, worried that he had asked too much of him. Chip had shed his jacket, loosened his tie and rolled the sleeves of his khaki work shirt to the elbows, yet still managed to look elegant. He also looked tired and pale and a faint sheen of sweat glistened above his upper lip.
“OK, here’s the deal. You’re going to lie down on the couch here while I’m gone. I’m gonna ring down and have Cookie bring lunch up here. When you’ve eaten and rested some, then we’ll discuss phase two of our plan.”
In truth Chip was too tired to object to his CO’s suggestions - he preferred to think of them as such – and gratefully stretched out. He was asleep before Lee reached the elevator.
A short rest and some of Cookie’s excellent food – not the dreaded Chicken Broth and Jell-O – restored Chip greatly. Lee’s return with Suzie’s confirmation of Togarev’s identity had coincided with Kowalski’s call informing them that he and Pat had tailed the deliveryman straight to the Czech Consulate.
Lee was pacing, practically simmering with suppressed energy. He’d sent Sharkey and Riley to relieve Kowalski and Patterson, supplying them with pictures of the diplomat and instructions to call immediately they spotted him.
“Lee, you realise we have a major problem here.” Chip chose his words carefully, knowing he could easily spark off his volatile captain. “We can’t just waltz in there and get him. The Consulate is foreign territory – Czech territory. And they’re unlikely to hand him over to us – not with the proof we have right now. Plus he can always claim Diplomatic Immunity.”
“Can you claim Immunity for murder? Attempted murder?” Lee was scathing, golden eyes flashing dangerously.
“Don’t ask me, pal!” Chip raised his hands defensively. “That’s one for the lawyers. Let’s hook our fish first.”
“He doesn’t know yet that we’re on to him….”
“We can’t be completely sure of that, Lee.” Ever the cautious, rational XO, Morton chose to brave his CO’s displeasure. Well used to being Lee’s sounding board, it was better that the captain rail at him than go off half-cocked and get himself into all sorts of trouble. “We don’t know how many more of his people he has stationed here. The only ones we can afford to trust are the regular Seaview crew and any Institute staff you and I can vouch for personally.”
Lee flashed his friend a grateful smile. Chip was right as usual. Since day one in Annapolis he had grounded the more exuberant tempestuous Crane, forcing him to listen to reason and tempering his act-first-and-question-later nature. That didn’t mean he had to always like – or listen to – his exec’s logic.
“So what are you suggesting? That we just wait until he pops out and then nab him somewhere? That could take days! Especially if he is on to us.” Crane growled, frustration evident.
“Do we have a choice? I don’t see him voluntarily coming to us, do you?” Chip’s tone was sarcastic but he was sorry he’d spoken when he saw Lee’s golden amber eyes begin to gleam. “Oh God, you’ve hatched a plan, haven’t you?”
“Yeah, but you’re not gonna like it!”
“Are you out of your mind?” Will Jamieson was as angry as he could ever remember being in his entire life. He stood, feet planted apart, arms bracing his upper body weight, palms flat on his desk as he leaned forward, almost into the faces of the two officers seated in front of him. His fine boned facial features were suffused with colour, jaw clenched and mouth thinned into a firm line of disapproval. “Skipper, I am telling you now, in my capacity as CMO of the boat, that I am seriously considering you for a psychiatric evaluation! And you, Mr. Morton, I am more than surprised at you! I went along with his hair-brained scheme this morning and, against my better judgement, let you out of here! And look at you! You’re obviously overtired, stressed out and worse than I thought you were, if you’re going along with him on this one!”
“Chill, Jamie. I’m fine – genuinely!” As soon as he spoke Chip realised he’d said the wrong thing.
Jamie’s eyes narrowed as he stalked around the desk. Both the seated officers were tense, sitting forward in their seats, knowing Doc wouldn’t react favourably to their – Lee’s – plan. But neither one of them was prepared for what happened next.
Jamieson put a hand on Morton’s shoulder tipping him further back into the seat, then placed one hand on Chip’s chest poking firmly while the other prodded insistently at his abdomen, eliciting a heartfelt moan from the younger man and a blanching of all colour from his face.
“Jamie!” Lee jumped to his feet, shocked beyond belief, pushing the CMO away from his friend. A grim glare was shot the medic’s way as he checked on his now shallowly breathing, sweat-sheened exec. “What the hell was that about?”
“I am fed up to the back teeth with you two hiding injuries! ‘I’m fine’, he says and he expects me to believe that! Do I look as if I got my medical degree from the University of Banana Trees? Take a look at him! Yesterday morning he needed CPR to keep him alive! He’s been poisoned, for Christ’s sake!” Jamieson was yelling now, his two senior officers looking at him askance. They were used to the ‘game’ they played with Doc, trying to escape his clutches as quickly as possible. But this was no game. Jamie was seriously steamed. “He needs rest and instead what does he get? You, hauling him wherever, having him overdoing it and tiring himself to the point where he …”
“He rested. I made sure he slept for nearly two hours.” Crane defended himself to no avail.
“You saw how he reacted when I touched him! His stomach and throat are sore from the pump, his chest is aching from the shot of adrenaline I gave him. His head is probably throbbing because the poison is still not completely cleared from his system. For Heaven’s sake, Lee, look at him.” Jamieson swept his hand towards the exec, whose colour was now better but his arm was wrapped firmly around his middle to discourage any further probing.
Jamie yelped. “So help me, Chip, if you say ‘I’m fine’ I’ll put you in restraints and lock you in an isolation ward for a month!”
Morton stood, almost to attention, his impassive XO mask firmly in place. “Lt. Commander (Dr.) Jamieson, I wish to formally advise you that I do not feel anything like as bad as the picture you are painting. I am a little sore in the chest and abdominal areas but this is not sufficient to hospitalise me or prevent me from carrying out my duties. Captain Crane has been most solicitous to my needs. I have not been ‘hauled all over the Institute’. I have been seated in the captain’s office operating a computer. I have eaten and rested at his behest. Now I respectfully request that you BACK OFF, Doctor!” His voice rose as he ended his almost bitten-off speech.
Jamieson’s eyes narrowed to mere slits. “You want to go Navy on me, Commander? That’s fine by me, sir! You can hike your tail into an exam room right now, SIR! If, and I do mean if - after due consideration, I consider you are fit, then – and only then – will you be returned to duty, Commander!”
“Jamie, we don’t have time for this!” Crane tried a pleading tone, seeing Morton was getting nowhere. “If we don’t draw him out, make him think…”
“NO, Captain! What does it take to get through to you? I will not risk the Admiral! His health is precarious. You two come in here with your cockamamie scheme, like Batman and Robin, and give no thought to anyone else….”
Crane’s posture and expression hardened. “Doctor Jamieson, I understand your concerns regarding Admiral Nelson. And if you think Commander Morton and I devised this scheme lightly than you are sadly mistaken! As long as that madman remains free the Admiral’s life is in grave danger. We have apprehended two plants in the Institute but have no way of knowing if there are more. The longer this Puppet Master is loose, the more difficult it will be to protect the Admiral. Think about it, Doctor! It is very difficult to provide the cover he needs. That’s been more than adequately proven, given recent events. And the Med Bay is even more hazardous than the Administration Building what with the number of people constantly coming and going. We need a swift resolution to this, Jamie.” Crane softened his tone, knowing the Doctor’s concern was primarily for his patient and unable to fault him for that.
Jamie exhaled loudly, eying each of the officers in turn. Logically he knew their concern was for Nelson’s well being but his ingrained medical training wouldn’t allow him to give in easily. “You ask too much, Skipper, maybe tomorrow or the next day, when the poison is totally out of his system. At the moment his condition is too unstable. He doesn’t need the additional stress.”
“I know, Jamie, and I wish there was some way we could lure Togarev here without involving the Admiral. But I don’t know how! Anything else is going to take too long to set up. And we can’t protect the Admiral adequately for a prolonged period with the number of people we have at our disposal. Most of Seaview’s regular crew are on shore leave and I’m not prepared to use anyone Chip and I cannot personally guarantee.” Crane appealed to Jamieson’s logical side.
Jamie sighed, knowing he was going to give in but not liking it one bit. However he appreciated the two senior officers’ dilemma. They had limited choices.
Hearing Jamie’s sigh, Crane and Morton knew they’d overcome his objections but were wise enough not to allow their triumph to be seen by the CMO, each valuing their current state of health!
“Let’s go talk to the Admiral!”
Nelson’s head ached – viciously. His empty stomach churned, but the thought of food was abhorrent. His breakfast had consisted of juice and toast. He’d managed the juice but had to force down a couple of bites of the toast. Lunch had been the dreaded broth and, to appease the pretty nurse who’d done her best to persuade him to eat, he’d managed a couple of spoonfuls. The Jell-O hadn’t even been attempted.
He hadn’t seen Jamieson since shortly after Lee had left. He had no idea what was going on. His mind, when he could concentrate, was working overtime. The Puppet Master – talk about a blast from the past. He hadn’t thought about Colin Barrington for over a decade and then only in quiet moments of reminiscence. Or Charlotte – beautiful Charlotte. She’d been one of the best female agents he’d ever worked with – and the most loyal. He’d had feelings for her – who wouldn’t? He remembered her quiet golden beauty, her sensitive nature that didn’t sit well with her role as under cover agent. But she’d done her job, served her country, turned in the double-crossing manipulator she’d loved and, ultimately, given her life for her beliefs. God, he hadn’t thought of her in years. But the memories were still as fresh, the pain of her death still as deep. She hadn’t returned his feelings but he’d been young enough to relish that unrequited love.
He stirred restlessly in the bed, wondering how Lee’s investigation was going. There was no way Barrington could still be alive. So, who was using his moniker? And why now? What had triggered off the events that, according to his captain, had begun two years earlier? Christ, he needed answers. Lying here alone was tortuous!
He struggled to sit forward, swinging his legs slowly over the side of the hospital bed, thankful that the IV had been removed. He groaned as his head felt as if it would topple forward but managed to hold it erect with some difficulty. He braced his forearms either side of him, preparatory to levering himself to his feet, but his nauseous stomach betrayed him. Swallowing the bile that rose in his throat before he threw up, he was forced to sit back and catch his breath. This wasn’t going to be as easy as he’d thought!
Another groan was elicited as the door swung open and he came face to face with Jamie – an already incensed-and-not-bothering-to-conceal-it Jamie! Followed by Crane and Morton, both with equally sheepish but determined looks on their faces.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing, Admiral?” Jamie’s tone was unusually waspish! Chip and Lee must have seriously ticked him off, was Nelson’s immediate thought. “I’ve already told this pair there is no way I’m going along with their plans, so don’t think for one moment that you’re getting out of here any time soon!”
Good, so his boys had a plan. Now if he only knew about what? Obviously they needed his input and his authority to ensure Jamieson’s compliance.
“Take a deep breath, Jamie.” His voice wasn’t nearly as resonant or commanding as he would have liked. It still had the power to bring his CMO up short. Jamieson knew he wouldn’t be allowed the leeway to intimidate the Admiral as he sometimes could the CO and XO. That didn’t mean he had to give in totally.
He strode forward to take Nelson’s wrist between his lean fingers, checking the pulse rate. Somewhat satisfied, he checked the other man’s eyes, temperature and blood pressure before easing him back against the pillows and swinging his legs back up onto the bed, covering him with a light blanket and sheet.
“Don’t fuss, Jamie!” Nelson groused, a spark igniting as his cognitive powers digested the implications of the CMO’s statement; obviously Crane and Morton needed him to be part of their plan and Jamieson was resisting.
“Admiral, I need you to lie still. There’s still a chance you could have an adverse reaction to the poison. We really need to monitor you for the next few days.” Jamie knew he was battling the odds.
“I took one look at these two pups and knew they had a plan that somehow involved me – and in a way that you don’t like, Jamie.” Bad as he felt, Nelson wasn’t above teasing his officers. Crane’s dark skin hid the blush better than Morton’s and he noted the hasty glances both threw in the CMO’s direction. “Spit it out, men!”
Outlining their plan, Nelson’s participation didn’t seem too onerous and he wondered at Jamieson’s reluctance. Enquiring, he was forced to acknowledge the depth of concern the doctor had for his state of health as Jamie pointed out the possible repercussions of the proposed actions. “Jamie, I’m going to get dressed, sit in a chair right here, answer some questions – and you’ll be right beside me. How stressful can that be?”
“More than you’re willing to admit, sir, in my humble medical opinion, that is!” Jamieson wouldn’t be placated, shooting daggers at his other two senior officers.
“Jamie, it’s a lesser risk than allowing him to come after me in his own time. Lee’s right, we don’t know how many of the Institute’s staff he has compromised. If he could get to Lee’s secretary then he could get to anyone.” Nelson saw the flush of shame that swept both Crane’s and Morton’s faces – and waved a dismissive hand. “Not your fault, gentlemen, she had all the proper clearances. Which means this Togarev – and I don’t know him personally - hand picks his people. Now, we have one chance to convince him that he failed this time; that he can’t count on anyone but him finishing off the job. I’ve got to be capable of giving the interview, leak that we’ve caught all his people without defining numbers, but still give the impression that I’m vulnerable – not yet out of the woods.”
“Which you are not!” Jamieson injected, clearly unhappy.
“Jamie.” Morton, with a glance at the other two, took the CMO aside. “I understand your reluctance, of course I do. And if we thought there was any other way to smoke Togarev out, don’t you think we’d do it? But he’s not after me, or Lee. He wants the Admiral. And he wants him to suffer. Any other course of action will prolong this needlessly. And the Admiral will be constantly at risk. And if he is, so are you, the captain, Angie and I because none of us are going to leave him alone. Not to mention any innocents who might get in the way of this madman.”
Chip’s logical analysis was the final nail in the coffin – bad analogy – for Jamieson; he knew the younger, calmer, cautious officer was right. His sigh of defeat wasn’t music to anyone’s ears – they were all now in immediate danger.
The interview went smoothly, flawlessly – giving the exact impression the command staff wanted. Nelson came across as alternately aggressive - having beaten a threat from within his own Institute coupled with a potentially lethal poison attack - and weak – being unable to recuperate as quickly as he would like.
Morton’s allergic reaction was sited as the catalyst that had precipitated the discovery of Nelson’s condition, leading to an almost full recovery on the Admiral’s part – albeit that he was still slightly unwell and confined to the Med Bay for the next several days. The interviewer, a sometime girlfriend of Lee’s, oozed sympathy and cajoled the Admiral into revealing – as planned – that he wasn’t quite as up to par as he seemed - although better than anyone could have hoped given the amount of poison he’d ingested.
Linda Nugent was the consummate interviewer, drawing more from the interviewee than he’d ever intended, even now – under instruction as she was from Lee Crane. It made the interview all the more credible, seeming to tug from Nelson the inherent weakness he still felt, despite his protestations of well being. The interview was carried on all the local networks at 21.00.
All regular Seaview crew within hailing distance had been re-called. With a retinue of some thirty-seven men, Crane and Morton drew up a rotating schedule to guard the main entrance to the Med Bay, Angie’s room (unwilling as they were to release her until the threat to the Admiral had been neutralised), Nelson’s room and the surveillance at the Czech Consulate.
Sharkey, Kowalski, Patterson and Riley had to be coerced into taking down time. Morton, becoming the quintessential XO, ordered them to stand down, sleep, eat and report again in six hours. After eliciting a promise from the exec that they could rest in the waiting area and - if needed - be woken, the four Seaview stalwarts finally agreed to crash.
As the Med Bay settled down for the night, lights dimming in the corridors, the few patients having been settled, the Seaview officers re-defined their plans. Realising Jamie’s legitimate concerns for Chip, Lee insisted he take the first watch and Chip would stand down. Out-manoeuvring his CO, Morton had a bed delivered to Nelson’s suite where they could both take turns to rest, without leaving the Admiral alone.
Nelson grumbled vocally but saw, and warmed to, his officers’ overt concern. He recognised the need to draw out the perpetrator as soon as possible and night security, following on from the recently televised interview, afforded their suspect his best opportunity.
Knowing suspicion alone wouldn’t be sufficient to provide intrinsic proof, they had rigged a battery of hidden infrared cameras to record every movement and sound inside Nelson’s room. Patterson was in charge of the recording equipment, given his familiarity with the task and equipment. Lee and various Seaview crew were stationed in or near the corridor leading to the impatient patient’s room. Chip, playing possum – under orders – was armed and ostensibly sleeping in the second hospital bed in Nelson’s room. He was tense and ready for combat, determined that no harm would come to Nelson on his watch.
Lee paced the waiting area like a caged lion, intently watching the screens that had been set up in the intervening hours. Linda had played a stormer, setting the scene exactly as she’d been instructed to play it. If Togarev didn’t take the bait now, he never would and they’d be back to square one. Crane winced – less than square one, he’d have Jamieson to placate! Lee had seen the toll the interview had taken on the Admiral. And Jamie was justifiably annoyed that Lee had put him in the position of having to agree to the scene staging, knowing Nelson wasn’t physically up to the task.
Crane sighed, wishing for a conclusion to the events he’d put in motion. He was tired, hadn’t slept in over 36 hours – although he’d been sure to convince Jamie that he had! In reality, he’d spent the hours at his house pacing the deck, trying to come up with a list of enemies capable of pulling off the crime – as he’d perceived it – against Nelson and Morton. Now he was physically exhausted but mentally energised. He needed to wrap this quickly. He knew he was on sticky street with Jamieson, deplored the position he’d been forced to adopt with Nelson and regretted that he’d been unable to keep Chip away from the action. But there were so few he could trust – and Chip’s skill with the computer had provided the lead they’d needed. Without his exec and friend they wouldn’t have their suspect and, hopefully, the means to apprehend and eliminate the threat to Nelson.
But he was glad that Chip would at least be lying down during the anticipated activity. He had a radio link to an earpiece Chip was wearing so he could warn the man to be ready for any intrusion. Jamieson had restricted all nurses and physicians from visiting or checking on the Admiral until he lifted the order. Eyes on the monitors, he could see Nelson appeared to be dozing while Morton shifted around, as if trying to gain a comfortable position to sleep.
Like a thief, he crept stealthily through the corridors. It had been incredibly easy – perhaps too easy – to bypass security. He hadn’t lost the old skills and the sixth sense that had stood him in such good stead during his active career as an agent.
Modern technology betrayed him. The Czech Republic was new to the ways of the Western World and he was not as versed in the subtle and, thanks to Morton, cutting edge devices NIMR employed. Thus he was unaware that he’d been recorded on hidden cameras since he’d gained entrance to the Med Bay.
Sharkey had woken Kowalski and Riley, readying them to move, stun guns in hand, on the captain’s order. Patterson was already manning the bank of electronic surveillance equipment. Crane hadn’t needed to be roused. Despite promising Doc he would rest, he’d paced intermittently. And Lee knew, notwithstanding Morton’s exhaustion, that he was equally prepared in the Admiral’s room. They were as ready as they could be.
He withdrew his silenced pistol as he approached the room where Nelson was accommodated. The stupid simpering interviewer had all but given the Admiral’s location away, so enthralled was she at gaining access to the famous Nobel Prize winning scientist.
He’d managed to fool them all. They’d bought into the theory that the reason for the poisoning was to delay the latest hush-hush project Nelson was developing. That was an added – but nevertheless significant – benefit. His grin was malevolently evil as he recanted how smoothly that particular tactic had worked in his favour. Nelson had no idea of his agenda. And he relished the thought of acquainting the four-star Admiral with his reasons – before he pulled the trigger. Given the lax security on the NIMR base at this time of night, he was secure in the knowledge that he could complete his task and evade apprehension.
Skirting the nurse’s station, manned by a single operative busy on the phone, he traversed the corridor until he came to the appointed room number. He visually swept the quiet private floor before taking up position outside the designated room. Easing the door open, he brought his weapon to chest height prepared to discharge at any opposition. Soft snores assailed his auditory senses and he adjusted immediately to the unexpected presence of a second body in the twin bedded private room. He immediately identified the blond head barely protruding from the blankets on the second bed from the stock shot he’d seen on the interview as Lt. Cdr. Chip Morton, Executive Officer of the Seaview, an unfortunate victim of the poison. But no matter, he was incidental to the drama about to be played out. How he relished confronting Nelson, telling him how long he’d dreamed of this day, reminding him how Barrington’s death had advanced Nelson’s career and the repercussions Colin’s demise had meant for so many agents overseas, trapped without any possibility of repatriation, such was the secrecy surrounding those paranoid times.
His first instinct was to plough as many bullets as he could into the prone body on the nearest hospital bed, the patient turned away from him so the only visible portion was a mass of russet hair. His finger tightened reflexively on the trigger of the automatic but he refrained from shooting. He wanted – needed – to have Nelson acknowledge his killer, know who and why his death was so sought after and in such a dramatic fashion. A quick bullet would have been a lot easier but the trauma Nelson and his men had gone through during the past 24 hours appealed to his theatrical side.
He sidled up to Nelson’s hospital bed, keeping a wary eye on the sleeping occupant of the other bed who shifted restlessly but appeared deeply asleep. Pushing the pistol hard into the flesh beneath the Admiral’s chin he felt the start as the flag officer woke, stilling instantly as he realised the incipient threat.
Despite the tension Nelson had been unable to avoid drifting off, his compromised system not totally clear of the poison by any means. Thus it took several seconds for the face above him to come into clear focus and recognition dawn. It was the eyes.
“Yes, me, Commander – or more correctly - Admiral!” The latter was spat with some contempt. “I see you remember me!”
“I didn’t recognise the photo or the name.”
“No, after Colin’s untimely death – due to your stupidity – I was captured. It wasn’t pleasant. Afterwards they gave me a new face and a new name. They changed my job, my lifestyle, everything but my burning hatred for the person responsible for what happened to me – you, Nelson!”
“Barrington had turned – he was working for the other side, man!” Nelson protested; his voice weakened further by the pressure of the automatic at his throat. If he shot now….
“No! Never!” Togarev pushed the gun tighter into Nelson’s flesh forcing his head upwards. His hate filled eyes bore into the blue ones beneath him as he hissed out the words. “He would never compromise his agents undercover! Never. You knew his reputation. How could you believe he would leave us out there to die – or worse?”
“We had incontrovertible proof!”
“What proof? Charlotte?” Togarev smiled – a personification of evil and it made Nelson shiver. “You were fooled by her too, Harri? That’s what she used to call you, isn’t it? But she was the one who had sold out, Harri!”
He saw Nelson’s start of surprise and eased the pressure on his throat, knowing he had the admiral’s full attention now. “You didn’t know that, did you, Harri? Neither did Colin. Until that last day. He knew when she led you to him. But he trusted you, Nelson, to believe that he wouldn’t betray his own men.”
“He shot her.” Nelson protested. “I was there. She died in my arms. She loved him.”
“Yet she betrayed him. She made your Government believe that their best man had gone over to the other side. Despite all the evidence, his achievements, they meant nothing in the end. You were suckered by a pretty face! She cried on your shoulder, didn’t she? Told you how much she hated to do what she had to do. She played you, Harri, had you exactly where she wanted you!
And she cost you! You, and your pathetic Government, who were prepared to believe that the man who had risked everything to bring his men home, who had succeeded beyond belief in training his agents so well that his success rate was second to none, was capable of such an abject betrayal. You, Nelson, you should have known! Or at least suspected. Colin ran you as an agent. How many dirty ops did he get you out of? Yet, as soon as she implicated him, you were prepared to believe her. She was a perfect fit! They needed someone special to take him out – to make it so credible that you wouldn’t question his guilt. But he deserved more, Nelson! More than a sobbing, distraught woman, professing her love for him but her deeper loyalty to her country forcing her to condemn him as a double agent. You all bought it, hook, line and sinker, as you Americans’ say! You couldn’t stand that he was so good; that he brought so many home that should have perished. You should have trusted him!
Why couldn’t you, Nelson? He counted you among his special ones. He trusted you implicitly, why couldn’t you do the same for him? Do you have any idea what you cost us – the dark ones – the ones left on the other side? Without him we were lost. No focus. No way out. I was one of the lucky ones. I was eventually rescued by the Underground; given a new face, a new identity. But I lost my family in the process – my wife, my children. All because of you. And I swore one day you would pay! I swore to confront you before I killed you. Just as you cut him down so will I cut you down. You should have trusted your instincts, Nelson. You should have trusted him. The ultimate betrayal was yours.”
Togarev took two steps back, the better to aim. With hair trigger reflexes Chip Morton fired his concealed revolver as the Czech’s finger tightened on the trigger. Morton, acknowledged as the best shot on Seaview, timed it to perfection his bullet propelling the gun from Togarev’s hand and leaving the assailant clutching his bleeding digits as the room was swarmed with Seaview and Institute personnel.
Four days later Jamieson had finally cleared the two men for full duty, deeming the poison and the stress of the intervening events to have fully left their systems. Morton had complained loudly enough for Jamie to release him to recuperate in his apartment on the Institute grounds under the strict supervision of one suitably cowed Lee Crane, who wasn’t about to p.o. his CMO any more than he already had!
Nelson wasn’t quite so lucky. He’d spent two further days since Togarev’s capture under Jamieson’s ministrations. His health had continued to improve but his mood was dark. Togarev’s revelations had given him food for thought and he was determined to confront the former agent’s allegations. If Barrington was innocent he deserved to be buried with full military honours and Nelson was intent on seeing it through to the bitter end – no matter how many agency feathers it ruffled.
But just now he had an infinitely more pressing problem.
Togarev had confirmed that Susie and Polinski were his only plants at the Institute. Susie had been naïve enough to think that the only repercussion would be the loss of her job. She hadn’t envisaged being handed over to the authorities on charges of treason and her terrified countenance still haunted Nelson. She had been a reluctant pawn and he didn’t want to see her face the full onslaught of the legal ramifications of her actions. Thus he had interceded on her behalf and would testify at her trial.
Behind his paper strewn desk, without the ever-present coffee cup at his side, his brow furled as he stabbed the buttons on his phone to summon his captain and executive officer. A courtesy tap heralded their arrival.
“Come in, gentlemen.” He growled as he stabbed out his second cigarette of the day – at 0730! Crane and Morton exchanged apprehensive glances. All was not right in their boss’s world.
“Admiral, is everything OK?” Crane took his usual chair as Nelson waved them both to the seats in front of his desk. He noticed with relief that the admiral looked to be back to his normal healthy self. But he was mystified by Nelson’s humour. The irascible admiral was clearly not in the best of moods.
“Togarev hasn’t invoked Diplomatic Immunity, has he?” Crane leaned forward in his anxiety.
“No, Lee, in light of the crimes he’s committed against innocent civilians, he’s been denied that right.” Nelson was pleased that the appropriate authorities had deemed Togarev’s crimes serious enough to revoke his diplomatic status and the Czech Republic was happy to sacrifice him rather than risk strained relations with the United States.
However that didn’t alleviate Nelson’s most worrying issue.
Chip’s intuition called it in one. Shifting slightly in his chair he tried to warn his friend and Captain by kicking him lightly in the shin. Crane turned confused hazel eyes towards his exec but failed to catch his unspoken message when Chip nodded as unobtrusively as possible towards the outer office. He rolled his eyes as Lee didn’t pick up his silent communication.
“But surely that’s good news, sir?” Lee couldn’t fathom Nelson’s bad humour. Usually after a successful outcome Nelson hummed with satisfaction - not on this occasion.
“Infinitely, Captain!” But Nelson’s clipped response failed to alleviate his captain’s concern.
“Sir, is there something else wrong?” He caught the full brunt of Nelson’s glare as he noted the slow shake of his exec’s head. What was he missing here?
“Yes, Captain Crane, there is something very wrong!” Nelson snapped, temper at an all time high after mere hours back on full duty status. “Have you failed to notice something missing in my office?”
Lee cast a glance around the Admiral’s opulent suite, confusion evident in his striking hazel eyes. Everything looked in its usual place. “Yes, sir. I mean, no, sir. Everything seems to be here.” He winced as Chip kicked him again. He was definitely missing something – big time.
“Everything, captain?” Nelson’s tone was ominous. “Like my secretary?”
Crane’s mouth opened but words failed to emerge. Angie had resigned, citing a difficulty to work with Lee as her reason when pressed by Nelson. The Admiral was appalled – she was the best assistant he’d ever had and what she’d put up with over the previous six months had only proved it! He had elicited Morton’s aid to persuade her to change her mind but to no avail. She was still deeply upset by Crane’s initial distrust and afraid that, should a similar circumstance occur, she would be again immediately suspect.
“Lee, if it’s a choice between my submarine captain and my so-efficient secretary,” Nelson tossed the grenade, “then I hate paperwork!”
Crane caught the distinct warning in the Admiral’s tone and knew he was expected to do whatever was necessary to ensure Angie’s return to the outer office. He almost groaned aloud, intercepting Chip’s swift grin before it was smothered behind his hand.
“Admiral, I sent her flowers – and chocolates – and an abject apology!” Crane uncharacteristically stuttered, almost pleading. “What more can I do?”
“Grovel, Captain, grovel!