This story follows on the backside of Father Figure. I never intended for that story to produce a sequel. That story was a one-shot telling, bam and I’m done. However, some things take on a life of their own. Thanks to my betas. Without them I wouldn’t make near as much sense.
Shadows of the Past
Whatever you wanted to call it, a light drizzle or a heavy mist, water droplets clung to the material of the black leather jacket and on the dark curls of the slender young man who wandered along the back fence that separated the Nelson property from the property of the nearest neighbor. The main house couldn’t be seen from Lee Crane’s point of view, but there were other structures that caught the young man’s eye.
The one that intrigued him the most was what had once been a stone house. The roof was long gone and the walls were now falling in on themselves. Weeds grew unfettered all around in large clumps, and years of leaves and other debris had packed against what was left of the walls. The stones had all taken on a uniform gray-green color, weathered by an endless tide of seasons. Lee wondered what the house had been before time and the elements had taken its toll.
The mist began to intensify, growing heavier and more persistent. With a sigh, knowing his keepers would expect him to have sense to come in out of the rain, Lee gathered himself and turned back in the direction of the house. As he turned away from the ruins, something caught his attention and he spun around to better focus on it.
Someone was standing by the broken stone edifice. It appeared to be a young man, maybe Lee’s age, with short dark hair. He stood ignoring the rain, wearing nothing more to protect him from the elements than a dingy white shirt and dark trousers. Lee had never seen him before, but then he didn’t know every one of the Edith’s neighbors. That property belonged to the Wickwire family, a line that, according to Edith, had dwindled down to two elderly spinster sisters. No one had ever said anything about a male member of the family.
The low rumble of thunder seemed to roll across the landscape and Lee glanced skyward, amazed at how dark the sky had gotten in the hour he’d been outside. When he glanced back toward the old ruins, the figure was gone.
Lee frowned. Where did he go? Inside the old ruins? They wouldn’t offer much protection from the rain. Lee considered climbing over the fence and checking out the ruins for himself but the fence was five feet tall, at least. The last thing Lee needed was to be climbing over a fence to satisfy his curiosity. The gunshot wound in his midsection was healing well but he wasn’t ready to test himself, not just yet. Heaven help him if Chip caught him.
Shaking his head, Lee decided he’d had enough of the rain and headed back to the house, his shoes glistening wet with water drops as he pushed through the short, cropped grass. Edith kept the grounds immaculate, without so much as a dandelion on the lawn. A far cry from the overgrown landscape of the property next door.
Lee entered through what Edith called the mud room, a sun room with several benches and shelves, just off the kitchen. Here she kept her shoes she wore out in the garden, gardening gloves, and a collection of potted plants that enjoyed the warmth of the sunny space. It also served as the coat room and storage place for hats and gloves as well as other winter gear needed now that the weather was turning colder.
Once inside, Lee shed the damp jacket and hung it on a brass hook mounted on the wall alongside twelve other identical hooks. He felt a sudden chill as he lost the insulating later of the jacket, even though he was wearing a long sleeved flannel shirt. He quickly adjusted though, and sat down on one of the many benches and worked to untie his shoes. After stowing them on the bottom row of one the sturdy shelves, Lee walked into the kitchen in his socks. Not too surprised, he found the admiral in the kitchen, innocently stirring the contents of a medium-sized pot. It was odd to see the admiral in civilian clothing, in this case a pair of casual khaki trousers and a dark blue pull-over. Lee always had the incredible urge to stare, as if trying to make sure this really was the admiral. It didn’t seem natural. The rich smell of chocolate wafted through the air and Lee grinned in response. “Hot chocolate?” he asked.
“Uh huh. Seemed like a good idea. You need something warm after wandering around in the damp. I thought I would beat Chip to it and save you the lecture.”
Lee ducked his head shyly. “He’s a little too…close. I know he means well…”
“He was scared. We all were. He just shows it differently. Which is why I don’t say too much when you go on these short, unaccompanied excursions,” Nelson responded with a wry grin.
Once more Lee ducked his head. Then he had an idea. “Do the Wickwire sisters have any brothers? Or maybe a cousin?”
Nelson shook his head. “Not that I’m aware of. No brothers, for sure. Maybe a cousin. Why?”
“I could have sworn I saw someone down by the ruins of that old house. He was sort of just standing there in the rain. One minute he was there, the next he just vanished. I figured he had to be a relative. That or he was trespassing.”
Nelson worked at pouring the steaming brew into two mugs as he listened to Lee’s story. “You didn’t go down there did you? That old house is a deathtrap. It’s falling down and a hazard if you ask me. Those two insist the old place has sentimental value. They say it was the original house some long forgotten ancestor from England built before the larger house they now occupy was built. It’s been abandoned for generations.”
“Should we say something to them? I mean, if somebody’s snooping around down there…” Lee let the sentence trail off as he cast a glance out the kitchen window, looking toward the back end of the property.
“I’ll take a walk down there and see if someone was sneaking around. Edith has the sisters over for some charity thing and I’d rather not tell them you saw a strange man on their property, if I can avoid it. Those two are an odd bunch, the younger in particular. If I find where someone has been then I’ll deal with it,” Nelson said. Lee seemed happy with his suggestion. For a second he debated mentioning some of the stories he knew about the Wickwire property but, in light of recent events, he decided not to. Lee didn’t need to know about unsubstantiated ghost stories right now. Instead he focused on pouring chocolate into mugs.
“I don’t think we’ve ever met them,” Lee said, not able to recall anyone by that name at Edith’s Christmas parties.
“No,” the admiral started, “They have relatives out of state they generally visit. They are usually gone from Christmas past the first of the year. Trust me, you aren’t missing anything. They act as if the Revolutionary War is still going on. An odd pair, to say the least.” Nelson finally rinsed the pot out in the sink then handed Lee a mug.
The younger man sipped at the rich concoction with appreciation. Nelson was a very good cook when he wasn’t in the lab dissecting some sea cucumber or inventing some new gadget. “This is good. Thanks,” he said.
“I would suggest you find something that will keep you inside for a while. The rain is only going to get worse and I doubt if Chip will tolerate watching you tramp through the wet again today,” Nelson suggested. He carried his own mug with him as he headed out of the kitchen.
Lee silently agreed with the admiral’s wisdom. Chip wasn’t keen on letting his friend out of his sight but Nelson had firmly agreed with Lee. It was exercise, Lee needed it, and as long as he stayed to the property Nelson didn’t see any reason Lee couldn’t take a walk in the afternoon. Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t cooperating. Almost from the day Lee and Chip arrived they’d been plagued with gray overcast skies and an almost continuous drizzle.
Sipping at the chocolate, Lee walked to the library. The Nelsons had amassed quite a collection over the years and Lee figured there had to be something in there that would keep him occupied for a few hours. It wasn’t often that he had time to enjoy the simple act of reading a good book. It would make Chip happy and a happy Chip was a Chip not likely to start a tirade on how Lee needed to take it easy.
He found the library empty, no blond in sight. He was probably in the den, using the computer and checking his email. Lee smiled and began a search of the shelves, slowly sipping the chocolaty concoction. He found an interesting book on the history of Boston and settled down in a comfortable chair, determined to beat Chip to the punch and actually be resting when the blond finally came calling.
Nelson knew it was no use in actually checking the old ruins but to pacify Lee, after he’d finished off the hot chocolate, he donned a jacket and headed out into the intensifying rain. He hiked past Edith’s flowerbeds and their mother’s herb gardens to the farthest reaches of the property. On the other side of the fence Nelson could see the weathered stone of the crumbling walls of the old house.
The elder of the two sisters, Estelle, refused to go near the place and Cordelia, the younger, would not even listen to suggestions that the place be torn down. It was their heritage, she insisted. Privately, Nelson thought it was an eyesore, and even Edith had commented that the entire property would be better served if they at least cleaned up around but. But the grounds and gardens were the domain of Cordelia and she would have no part of any discussion involving the old house.
For years stories had circulated that the place was haunted. Nelson had grown up on stories that there was a spectral young man, dressed in tattered and muddy clothing, who wandered in and out of the ruins. The stories had started in the mid-forties, when Nelson was still a boy, and the adults had whispered of the strange occurrences reported there at night, odd lights and unusual sounds that no one could identify. He’d gone down there a time or two to investigate things for himself but his father caught him one evening. The punishment he’d received for sneaking away was enough to keep him from venturing down there again. His father had never been a man to spare the rod and spoil the child. He believed in firm discipline.
Had Lee seen the ghost? The last thing Nelson wanted was another being from the supernatural beyond to come calling. Lee was fragile enough without hearing this story. Nelson was determined not to let Lee know about this particular tale. As soon as he had the chance, he’d mention to Edith to keep that little bit of history under wraps.
It wasn’t too hard to climb over the fence and make his way the few yards to the crumbling stone structure. The place was dangerous for sure. The ground was riddled with holes and half-hidden stones for the unwary to trip over. Rumor had it there was a cellar under the house but he could see nothing to indicate such a thing. There was no sign that there had been anyone here either. Lee wouldn’t like that answer.
Nelson decided he’d come up with an explanation for who might have been hanging around and he’d be sure to suggest that if Lee wanted to take a walk, he should steer clear of the back end of the property. Just to be safe.
Nelson turned and walked back to the boundary fence, climbing back over it and returning once more to his home turf. He cast a backward glance toward the ruins and, for a second, he caught flash of white among the stone.
Nelson shook his head and decided it was just the mist of the falling rain playing tricks on his eyes. He didn’t look back as he headed toward the house.
Lee was enjoying his book and would have gotten completely engrossed had not he heard something in the hallway. Frowning, Lee glanced up. He could feel the shadow lurking in the hall outside the library. He sighed and tried to ignore it, but the sensation of being watched simply would not go away. Without a sound, he sat the book on a nearby table and moved toward the door. He paused, listening. No doubt about it, he was outside, hovering again. Crossing his arms over his chest, Lee stepped into the doorway, fired up his best glare and exclaimed “Boo!”
Chip Morton started badly, dropped the small bottle he was holding, and did his best to stem the tide of swear words that would have had any of the crew staring at him in disbelief. “Holy sh…Lee…” he managed.
Lee failed to stop the smile forming on his lips. “The hole is actually healing nicely,” he quipped smartly. It wasn’t often one got the jump on the exec.
Chip was not impressed as he bent down to retrieve the bottle he’d dropped. “Lee, that’s not funny,” he grumbled.
Lee shrugged and moved back into the library. “You worry too much. I’m just trying to accept what happened and move on.”
“Well,” Chip began as he followed Lee into the library, “You can move on by taking the antibiotics Jamie sent.”
Lee fired up another glare. “I don’t need any more pills.”
“It’s an antibiotic. It won’t knock you out. Antibiotics just fight infection. He gave you pain meds too, but you just pretend it doesn’t hurt. I know better.”
Lee sighed. “You can safely say that knowing how Jamie plays? The man has his own apothecary. He mixes his own meds. Who knows what those really are?” Lee waved at the small bottle that Chip sat down on the table. “And no, I don’t need his pain meds.”
Chip plopped his huskier frame into a nearby chair. “I can’t help but worry. You’re too thin, you’re too pale, you move like you’re eighty years old…”
But Lee waved a hand at his friend, dismissing his worries. “Calm down. I’m pale because I’ve been either in Sickbay or inside since this whole…mess…started. You know I hate being cooped up. It’s been mostly cloudy and rainy since we got here. I’m thin because I’m always thin. I don’t eat like you do, Iron Gut.” Lee ignored the eye roll and plowed on. “I was shot. At close range. It tends to make things sore,” he said simply.
Chip pounced. “Ha! You just said you were sore.”
“I said I was sore. Not enough to warrant a twelve-hour nap and that’s what you get when you buy into Jamie’s ‘pain med’ scam. I just need a little time and space. Can’t you see it from my point of view?”
Chip had a hard time meeting his friend’s intense gaze. “It’s not easy. I can’t get that image out of my head.” He closed his eyes, trying to erase the image of Lee flat on his back on the control room floor while his warm blood sluiced from the hole in his gut. The sound of Lee calling his name brought Morton back to the present. “Sorry.” Chip grinned sheepishly. His eyes flicked to the small amber bottle on the table. “You still need to take that antibiotic. Jamie will ask. You’re not going to make me lie to Jamie, are you?”
Lee sighed. “You lie to Jamie all the time. Why is this different?” He picked up the empty mug and frowned. He’d have to get a glass of water. Jamie could have picked a smaller antibiotic. These things were huge.
There was a wicked gleam in Chip’s blue eyes. “I lie about me. I can’t lie about you. He’ll find out. He’s vindictive when he finds out we lie to him. He’s got giant needles. You don’t get injected, you get stabbed,” Chip explained simply.
Lee shook his head. “One of these days I’m going to find out why you’re so afraid of needles,” he said as he stood, closing his hand around the pill bottle.
“I’m not afraid of needles,” Chip corrected, getting to his feet to follow. “And where are you going?”
“To the moon!” Lee snapped when he realized Chip was about to shadow him. He took a breath when the blond stopped short.
“Lee, I’m sorry. I don’t mean…” Chip began but Lee shook his head again.
“I know you don’t. I know why you do, but that doesn’t make it any easier to deal with. I…I just need a little space. I am managing an hour walk in the afternoon, unaccompanied I might add, so I think I am perfectly capable of walking to the kitchen for a glass of water to wash these giant horse pills down with.” Lee rattled the bottle for emphasis. Having announced his intentions and his destination, Lee walked out, leaving Morton alone.
Chip watched his friend leave the library and he sank back down into the elegant overstuff chair. Lee was right. Without meaning to he’d been hovering, always keeping an eye out, making sure Lee didn’t over exert himself, making suggestions that he should sit down, take it easy, whatever the situation called for. He knew Lee chaffed at the mother-henning, as it was known, but Chip couldn’t stop himself.
The eldest of five siblings, he’d grown up keeping an eye on his younger sisters, looking out for them, herding them out of trouble and coming to their rescue from time to time. Upon meeting Lee, that instinct had shifted and found a new target in the man Chip happily called his brother from another mother. But still, he should have known Lee would balk at having a keeper in constant contact. Chip sighed and made a mental note to try not to be so obvious in his watching.
Lee made his slow way down the halls of the enormous estate the Nelson ancestors had built over generations. He’d been to visit several times and each time he learned something new about the structure. It had a fascinating history, as intriguing as the man who was the last male in the Nelson line. It was kind of sad, when Lee thought about it. The Nelson name would die with the admiral; but not his memory or his legacy. Lee smiled to himself, thinking of the elegant gray queen that wouldn’t exist if not for the genius that was Admiral Harriman Nelson.
Letting his mind drift as he headed for the kitchen, Lee nevertheless made out a new set of voices, coming from the dining room. He paused, knowing he’d have to pass the dining room to get to the kitchen and he had no desire to interrupt Edith’s gathering.
But the appearance of the admiral’s sister put the brakes on Lee’s plans. “Lee!” Edith’s strawberry blond head popped out of the dining room and, upon seeing the brunet, smiled. “Do me a favor? Find Chip. I’d like to introduce you both to some friends of mine,” she said.
“He’s in the library,” Lee began.
“Excellent! Go on, fetch him if he’s not busy,” Edith ordered and she vanished back into the dining room.
Wouldn’t have mattered if Chip was busy, when Edith made her wishes known not even the admiral had the heart to disappoint her. Stifling the sigh, Lee turned and walked back to the library. He found Chip still sitting in the chair he’d previously vacated, looking through the book Lee had formerly been reading. He couldn’t resist. “That doesn’t look like Dr. Seuss,” he said as he leaned against the door frame, recalling a recent visit to Chip’s eldest sister’s house for his twin nephew’s birthday party. Chip’s gift had been a collection of Dr. Seuss books and he’d been ‘required’ to read one as a bedtime story to the twins. Chip glanced up from the book and grinned at Lee.
“You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself
Any direction you choose.
You’re on your own. And
you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy who’ll
decide where to go.”
Lee returned the grin, recognizing a Morton-style apology as well as Chip’s warped sense of humor at play. “A Dr. Seuss apology. That’s a first, even for you,” he said.
“Gotta stay original. I thought you were heading for the kitchen?” Morton reminded him, eyeballing the amber bottle in Lee’s hand.
“Edith has some friends she wants to introduce us to. She sent me to ‘fetch’ you.”
“Fetch?” Chip repeated with a raised blond eyebrow. “I don’t think I’ve ever been ‘fetched’ before.”
“That’s the word she used. You are officially being ‘fetched’. Come on. One does not keep Edith waiting,” Lee said, mimicking the tone and inflection of the admiral when referring to his sister’s society functions.
“Lead on, Rin Tin Tin,” Chip replied smartly as he rose to his feet. Lee only shook his head and walked back the direction he came. Morton very carefully watched Lee as he walked, noting the almost imperceptible limp. The wound was a little to the left, miraculously missing anything vital but it chewed through a lot of muscle. Lee would deny it but Chip wondered how much pain his friend was really in. Finally Lee arrived at the dining room and, with a touch of trepidation, entered with Chip close behind.
Edith saw them and rose to her feet, moving toward the pair. “Lee, Chip, I would like you to meet some friends of mine. Ladies, these are the two gentlemen I told you about, Commander Lee Crane and Lieutenant Commander Charles Morton. Lee, Chip, may I present Miss Estelle and Miss Cordelia Wickwire, treasurer and head of genealogy for the Historical Society.
Lee found himself being scrutinized by two pairs of eyes nearly the same identical shade of light blue. There was no doubt the two ladies in question were related. One of the ladies had longer hair, once blond but now a silvery white, done up in a bun that sat atop her head like an oddly shaped hat, encircled at the base by a pale baby-blue ribbon that was tied off in the front in a small bow. The other lady still had some brown and it was pulled back into a bun at the base of her neck. Both were dressing similarly in long-sleeved, high-necked blouses, one with lace at the cuffs and throat, the other trimmed with a delicate blue ribbon the same shade as the ribbon in her hair. Lee tried to put a pleasant expression on his face but there was something unnerving about the gaze of the silver-haired lady that made him want to take a step backward.
“Edith indicated you were navy? What is your rank, young man?” the ribbon-bedecked sister demanded sharply directing her query towards Lee.
Lee shot Chip a puzzled glance. But Edith said our ranks…but Chip only shook his head and Lee turned back to the sisters. “Commander, ma’am,” he answered.
The sister glared, her eyes narrowing suspiciously. “And you?” she asked Chip.
Chip blinked. Why was this important? “Ah, Lieutenant Commander, ma’am.”
The first sister snorted. “Junior officers,” she snapped with distaste. “Our father, Bridger Jackson Wickwire, was an admiral when he retired. I suppose they’re suitable for most social occasions though,” she muttered.
The second of the two sisters didn’t seem to have any inhibitions about meeting two strange men. “Estelle Carlotta Earline Wickwire,” she introduced herself, gracefully rising to her feet and coming forward to meet the two. Lee wasn’t too surprised to see she wore a very long pale skirt with a pale flower pattern, trimmed with the same lace that trimmed her white blouse. Briefly he wondered if she wore modern shoes or the antique button type. She gravitated toward Lee, holding out a hand as she moved. Lee, a gentleman by nature and training, took her hand gently in his. She blushed and Lee flashed her a polite smile. “My sister, Cordelia Elaine Lorelei Wickwire. You’ll have to look over her, she’s a little protective of the family name,” she said apologetically, slowly and obviously reluctantly pulling her hand away.
“Edith dear, it’s a little unseemly to have to two unmarried men in your house. I mean, really. You have your reputation to think of,” Cordelia asked in a near shocked tone
Edith never batted an eye. “Well, my brother is keeping an eye on things. As a four-star admiral, he is also their commanding officer,” she reminded quite tactfully. Lee stifled the grin. Edith was a master at this. She missed her calling in politics.
Cordelia seemed mollified with Edith’s answer. After staring at Lee for too long a breath, she shifted her attention to Chip. “Morton?” she began, “Of the Cambridge Mortons?”
Chip blinked. “Ah, no ma’am. Chicago, actually. My father’s family is from there,” he said slowly.
“And your mother’s side?”
Chip blinked again, not sure why she was asking. “Ah, Dunn, My mother’s maiden name is Dunn, and she’s from Virginia. Norfolk area, I believe.”
“Oh, Norfolk!” Estelle trilled happily. “I’ve always loved Norfolk in the spring. It’s much too hot in the summer, but the spring is so divine.”
Cordelia barely acknowledged her sister’s outburst. Instead she focused on Lee again, her expression conveying definite tones of distrust. “And where are your people from, young man?” she barked.
Lee noticed Edith smiling lightly and promised himself a word with her when her guests were gone. “Rhode Island, ma’am. My mother is a Jacobson.”
If it was possible, Estelle brightened at the mention of the name Jacobson. “Oh, what a coincidence! I was once wooed by a young man by the name of Andrew Jacobson. He was such a nice young man,” Estelle said with a wistful tone. “When I was eighteen, I think.”
The distant ringing of the phone caused Edith to rise to her feet and softly excuse herself, leaving the Wickwire sisters alone with Lee and Chip. Chip glanced longingly after the retreating Edith, not fond of being left along with the quirky sisters.
Meanwhile Cordelia seemed less than impressed with her sister’s past boyfriends. “He was not appropriate for you, sister. Father did not like him. It’s a good thing he left when he did.” She got to her feet and began gathering up select papers and tucking them neatly into a folder.
Estelle’s expression fell. “I suppose so. He did leave rather abruptly. Father was very picky. But Andrew was such a nice young man.” she repeated sadly. “I wonder where he is now,” she mused. She turned away from Lee and slowly began to walk back to the dining table. “Not Father, of course. He died several years ago.”
Cordelia, snorted. “Doesn’t matter. They were all unsuitable,” she said distastefully.
Estelle was quick to take offence. “All of them? What about that young man, Alexander Duncan? He came from a well-connect family.”
“He lied. I researched his family tree. He claimed to be related to General Washington. I found no such evidence. Therefore he was a liar and not suitable.”
Estelle seemed to have forgotten where she was. Her attention was totally focused on her sister. “And Douglas McKinley? How was he unsuitable?” she demanded, no longer simply gathering things but snatching them from the table and jamming them haphazardly into a binder.
With a wave of her hand Cordelia dismissed the question but she refocused on Lee. “You have the look of him, you know,” she said slowly, deliberately raking him with her eyes from head to toe and back again. Lee shifted uncomfortably. “Slim. The same black, curly hair. You move like he did.” Distractedly she shook her head, smoothed the bun at the top of her head with a visibly shaking hand and went back to gathering her papers.
Lee’s eyes darted to Chip, who had a similar look on his face. This lady has a screw loose…
As Cordelia stacked the papers together, she glanced up once more and frowned, staring at Lee. “What’s your name, young man?” she asked abruptly.
Estelle sighed. Loudly. “Sister. This is Commander Lee Crane. Edith’s friend. He and Lieutenant Commander Morton are visiting with her brother, the admiral, for a while. Remember?”
A visible cloud of confusion swept through Cordelia’s blue eyes. “Commander Crane. Where are your people from?” she asked slowly, echoing her earlier question.
Estelle quickly stepped forward. “Cordelia, I think it’s time for us to leave. You’re tired, dear. This always happens when you’re tired.” Thankfully Edith returned, her presence a welcome distraction. Estelle focused on the younger Nelson sibling. “Edith, thank you for having us, but I think it’s time to take sister home.” Estelle gathered up the small stack of folders and took her sister by the arm, gently guiding her toward the door.
Edith moved forward to guide the two out. Estelle continued to rest a gentle hand on her sister’s arm and guided her out of the dining room, following Edith down the hall. As they turned the corner toward the front entranceway, Lee and Chip exchanged curious looks. “What just happened?” Lee asked.
“I think I just had my pedigree questioned,” Chip surmised. He shook his head, trying to figure out the strange little ladies when Edith came back up the hall. She favored both with an apologetic look.
“I am sorry. Estelle and Cordelia are both members of the Daughters of the Revolution, the Junior League, and not to mention a half dozen other genealogy- based societies here in Boston. I should have realized they’d want to know where you’re from. Don’t take it personally, they do that to everyone. And you’ll have to overlook Cordelia. She’s a little…” Edith trailed off, searching for a polite word.
“Dotty?” Chip supplied.
“That works. She’s been like that for a while but it’s gotten worse the last few months. Estelle has to keep a constant eye on her, poor thing.”
“Do they do that often?” Lee asked.
Edith snorted, a feminine version of the snort her admiral-brother used to convey varying tones of disgust. “All the time. Both sisters are very proud of their family and they like the opportunity to explain just how important they are. ” Edith indicated that the two follow her back into the dining room she’d just vacated. She quickly set to work gathering all the papers and folders. Lee and Chip moved to help. “Just gather them all together,” she directed. “I’ll sort through them later. Now about the Wickwire sisters; as you might surmise, they are what society would have once called spinsters.”
“We’re a little more modern than that,” Chip said.
“Oh course you are, Chip, but Cordelia and Estelle are not. They’re about, oh, a hundred years behind today’s society. But as I was explaining…Estelle, being the eldest, was expected to marry first and to that effect she had several suitors back in the day. As you heard, Cordelia is very protective of her sister and the family name. I don’t think here is any man alive she would deem suitable enough for Estelle at this point.”
“So the Wickwires are the top of the food chain, so to speak?” asked Lee as he stacked folders.
Edith nodded. “Oh, the very top. They are one of Boston’s oldest families. Not the oldest, I dare say. Our many-times-removed-grandfather, Eoghan O’Hara Nelson and his three sons, Pádraig, Seamus, and Fearghus, came over several years before their family did. But I digress,” she said with a sheepish grin.
Lee tried to hide his own smile. Storytelling was apparently in the Nelson’s blood. It was clear Edith was only just warming up to the story. She accepted Lee and Chip’s help and continued with her telling.
“Now keep in mind that all this happened before I was born. I am simply passing the story as it was told to me,” Edith began and launched into the telling. “As it was told to me, their father…”
“The Admiral Bridger Jackson Wickwire?” Chip asked with a haughty air.
Edith laughed. “Chip, we’ll make a Bostonian out of you yet. Yes, that admiral. The stories are that he was very protective of the family name and just as protective of his daughters. He was very particular about who he saw as suitable suitors, as it were.”
“Sounds like Cordelia takes after him,” Lee said.
“Doesn’t it through?” Edith replied. “Anyhow, when Estelle was sixteen, much too young in her father’s opinion, she was courted by a young man named Andrew Jacobson. That lasted only a few weeks before he simply up and left, leaving the poor girl heartbroken.”
“He just left?” Lee asked.
“Just like that. It was assumed that the admiral had a chat with the young man and encouraged him to find greener pastures, so to speak. The next summer at Estelle’s birthday party she was introduced to another young man, Alexander Duncan.”
“Let me guess: he hung around and eventually he also left in a hurry?” Chip surmised.
“You catch on fast, Chip. There were several young men who came calling, the last, as I remember the story, was in the early sixties.”
“Douglas McKinley?” Lee asked, recalling the look Cordelia had given him.
Edith nodded. “Correct. As I remember it, there was something of a scandal because Douglas had escorted both Estelle and Cordelia to various functions. Something like that just wasn’t done at that time in these circles.” The papers were now neatly gathered and stacked in an orderly fashion. She was about to lean forward to pick the stack up, only to have Morton bet her to it. “I am perfectly capable of carrying that,” she said to Chip.
Chip just grinned and hefted the stack off the table. “Lead the way,” he instructed.
Edith sighed. “You are entirely too helpful.”
Lee snorted. “You have no idea,” he muttered under the snort. The remark went unheeded as Edith directed Chip out of the dining room and toward the study. Lee followed, making faces at Chip behind his back. The blond, sensing his commanding officer behind him, glanced back only to see Lee smiling angelically. Morton suspected otherwise but said nothing as they followed Edith to the study.
That’s where they found the admiral, occupying a chair with the best view of the large windows. Lee had a moment of amusement, seeing the admiral’s apparent attraction toward large windows. “I take it your guests have left,” the admiral surmised, looking up from the book he was reading. Lee got a look at the title, recognizing the characters as Russian but that was one language he didn’t know. Oh, he knew a few phrases but he had a ways to go before he could converse and read Russian fluently. The admiral, however, spoke the language flawlessly.
Edith directed Chip to set the folders on her desk. “Yes, they just left. You can stop hiding now.”
Nelson raised an eyebrow and Lee tried to hide his grin. Watching brother and sister spar was a very entertaining spectacle. The admiral had a reputation for sending anyone with less than two stars running for their room to hide under the bed, but he was always very gentle with his sister. Not that she pulled her punches with her much older brother.
“I wasn’t hiding,” the admiral argued.
“Of course you weren’t. But I’m fairly certain that nothing short of a general quarters alarm could have had you emerging from this cave. You promised to organize dinner, since I had to entertain my guests without any of your help.”
Nelson’s blue eyes sparkled. Truth be known, and very few people outside Lee and Chip knew the truth, Harriman adored his sister and would do anything for her. Entertaining two peculiar members of the local Historical Society apparently was not on that list. Volunteering to organize dinner in exchange for not having to deal with the two paragons of society seemed like a small sacrifice to make since the housekeeper was on vacation this week. “No, I didn’t forget. I was just thinking about what sounded good for dinner.”
Edith began straightening the folders. “Anything as long as I’m not in charge. Why don’t you take Lee and Chip with you? I was just telling them about the Wickwires.”
Nelson snorted, making the sound come out half insult, half disgust. “They should be safe as long neither of them tries to court Estelle. Her suitors tend to disappear,” Nelson replied.
“That’s what Edith was explaining. I thought it was kind of sad, actually,” Chip said.
“Cordelia thought Lee looked like one of Estelle’s past suitors, Douglas McKinley,” said Edith with a grin aimed at Lee.
Nelson’s expression turned thoughtful. “You know, I believe I recall that one. That was right before I went to the academy. He turned up the winter before I left, invited by some third party to a random holiday function, I recall. Father introduced us. I remember because he was a lieutenant in the navy. ”
Edith gave her brother a quick kiss on the check. “You don’t talk about father very often,” she said softly.
“Father was showing me off. The prodigal son, leaving for the academy as soon as was humanly possible.”
Edith was unimpressed. “And who talked about joining the navy every chance he got?” she asked pointedly, jabbing the end of a manicured nail into her brother’s shoulder.
The admiral smiled. “That’s entirely beside the point, kitten.” Still smiling, he dropped the book he was reading on the nearby table. “Come along, you two. Let’s see what the kitchen holds that might make a decent meal.”
Having been summoned and not daring to say no, Lee and Chip filed out after their employer, much to the amusement of Edith. She watched all three leave, noting that her brother was gradually losing that sad, mourning quality he’d first come back with. It was as if he’d been bleeding from a wound no one could see. By his own admission, whatever was troubling him concerned Lee so Edith, unable to sit back and watch her brother suffer, had called Chip. The rest, as they say, is history. She just hoped that he—and her brother—would be able to heal from whatever wounds they both suffered from.
With Lee and Chip conscripted to help with dinner, Nelson put together a very nice meal that had Lee’s mouth watering before they sat down to eat. Chip kept sampling the side dishes until the admiral finally caught him.
“Maybe you’d like to assist Cookie in the galley when we next set sail?” Nelson asked. Chip grinned sheepishly but kept his fingers away from the bowls.
As they worked, Lee remembered the man he’d seen earlier and Nelson’s promise to look into things. “Admiral, about that man I saw earlier?”
For a second Nelson froze, keeping his back away from Lee. “I did go down there. I couldn’t find any sign that someone there. I’m sorry, Lee.”
Lee frowned. “I know I saw someone.”
“Saw who, where?” Chip butted in.
Nelson shifted his gaze from the obviously distraught Lee back to Chip. “Lee saw someone pilfering around the ruins of the old Wickwire house, on the back end of their property. I told him I’d go down and take a look but I couldn’t find any sign that someone had been there. Lee, it may have just been a student, hunting the ruins for artifacts. Sometimes the archaeological set gets a little carried away.”
“I know I saw someone,” Lee insisted.
Nelson’s answer was kind and gentle. “No one is disputing that, lad. I just said I couldn’t find where they had been. Listen, don’t worry about it. I’m sure there is a logical explanation. Probably a student. Sometimes they get a little confused when it comes to property lines.”
To keep Lee and Chip busy, Nelson set them to setting the table after showing them where his mother kept the heirloom china and the antique silver. Edith was particularly impressed when she saw the dinner table, complete with white linen table cloth and matching napkins. “Showing off?” she asked as they finally sat down for the meal.
The admiral, taking his place at the head of the table, only grinned as he began passing the side dishes around. “I thought it would be nice,” he admitted.
Lee accepted the first bowl, a dish of Brussels sprouts in butter sauce. Lee spooned three onto his plate and passed the bowl to Chip, seated on his right. The table sat eight and Edith sat across from Lee. When Lee accepted the bowl of mashed potatoes, he realized that his three green sprouts had multiplied to five.
Edith’s blue eyes danced and she shot a quick glance to Chip who was busy spooning the vegetable in question onto his plate. Lee resisted the urge to say anything but instead tolerated the extra green spheres on his plate. He spooned what he hoped was an acceptable helping of potatoes onto his plate then accepted a basket of rolls from Edith.
Looking down at his plate, Lee was pleased to note that the mound of potatoes was enough to appease the persnickety XO. He dropped a roll onto his plate and accepted the bowl of honey-glazed carrots. He spooned some to his dish and handed the bowl off. A small butter dish came around and Lee accepted this as well.
The small mound of carrots on his plate had grown. Once more he locked eyes with Edith who again glanced toward Chip. Morton was a master at adding to Lee’s plate. Lee never saw him and Chip never got caught, which only added to the blond’s ego. Lee choked back a sigh.
The main dish was pork chops, sautéed to the admiral’s specifications in a sauce known only to him. The smell of them simmering on the stove had driven Chip crazy. Lee speared a chop and dropped it to his plate. This time Lee leaned over. “That big enough?” he asked slyly.
“Only if you eat the whole thing. Wounds need protein to heal. That’s why I’m a fast healer. I’m a firm believer in protein,” Morton shot back as he laid claim to a chop of his own.
Edith couldn’t help but chuckle. A quick glance from her brother said he was just as amused but choosing to hide it. Edith raised an eyebrow in question.
“You don’t want to know,” Nelson advised his sister and he turned back to his dish.
The only concession Lee made for the meal was his choice of drink. Nelson had produced a very nice wine for dinner but Lee wasn’t sure that the alcohol would mix well with the antibiotic Chip was hot to trot for him to take, so he opted instead for a clear soda. If he needed to get into the pain pills before turning in (not that he would admit it to Chip), he wouldn’t have to worry about having some weird reaction. Then he remembered the strange man he’d seen earlier. “Edith, do the Wickwire sisters have any male relations visiting?”
Edith looked surprised. “Heavens no. A male relation in that house? Forget the fact that the place is as big as the Waldorf-Astoria, Cordelia would never tolerate a man to step foot in that house, relation or not. Why?”
“I saw someone standing by the ruins this afternoon. I glanced away for a second and when I looked back, he was gone. It was just…odd.” he explained.
“By the old house? Maybe you saw the ghost?” Edith ventured. All the blood drained from Lee’s face. “Lee, are you alright?” she asked, alarmed.
“I don’t care for ghost stories,” Lee managed and turned his attention to his pork chop, slicing it into smaller and smaller pieces. He didn’t want to hear about ghosts. Not now. Not ever again. There were too many ghosts in his past. One was far, far too many.
Oddly it was Nelson who picked up the threads of the story. It may have had something to do with the unnerving stare that Chip had boldly turned on him, as if sensing somehow that there was more to the story than anyone was letting on. Nelson met the gaze calmly. “The grounds are reportedly haunted. No one knows by who, just that he haunts the ruins. I didn’t mention it before, for…reasons.” The admiral did not flitch as he met Chip’s gaze. It was the blond who backed down first. “Lee, I don’t want you anywhere near those ruins. I don’t care if they are on the other side of the fence; take your walks someplace else.” The last was delivered in unmistakable Admiral Tones that broke no argument.
Edith glanced nervously from her brother back to Lee and Chip. Neither of the three would look her in the eye and Edith got the distinct impression she was missing something. Like she’d stepped into a room half way through a conversation and they were waiting for her to leave. “Harry, it’s just a story. I really don’t see what harm…”
“I said No! Lee, stay away from that side of the property. I won’t risk…” Whatever Nelson had been about to say abruptly died on his lips. He simply wasn’t able to finish his thought. He stared at Lee for a long moment, making a visible effort to tear himself away and refocus on his dinner.
Chip watched the entire exchange without a word. Edith was clearly flustered, her brother’s tone and attitude were obviously confusing to her. An uncomfortable air seemed to settle over the table, each diner picking at their plate, unable to eat yet unable to call an end to the meal. Once more it was the admiral who broke the silence.
“Kitten, I suppose you’ll be coming out for our fall fundraiser?”
With a more neutral topic to focus on, the conversation picked back up. A few guarded glimpses at Lee told Chip that he hadn’t quite gotten over the shock of hearing about a reported ghost. Chip promised that, even if Lee hated him for it, he was going to keep a close eye on his friend. He wanted no more surprises on this trip.
Lee was getting ready for bed, having showered and dressed in his favorite pajamas. He was putting away a few things and he paused by the large window of his bedroom. His view looked out over the back of the house and grounds and from the height of Lee’s room, he could just see the boundary fence between the two properties.
Lee’s fingers tightened reflexively on the window sill. There was—something—floating around the ruins of the old house. The moon struggled through the overcast but occasionally enough light would illuminate the landscape and Lee could just make out something pale moving among the rocks and half fallen walls.
Uncharacteristically, Lee drew back from the window, spinning around and putting his back to the glass. This wasn’t happening. Not here. Not now. He didn’t want anything to do with another ghost.
Not even sure why he bothered, Lee doubled checked the lock on the window. Without thinking, Lee pulled the shade all the way down and then pulled the curtains closed. Whatever was lurking down by that old house could damn well stay there!
Lee turned out the lights and crawled into bed. He closed his eyes, determined to get a few hours’ sleep, determined not to let whatever was out there bother him.
~ * ~
It was close to midnight and Chip rolled over in bed. He’d had some weird dream about a mermaid and was snuggling back under the covers when he heard a soft thump against the wall.
He froze, holding his breath to listen more closely. Another thump, followed by a low moan, coming from Lee’s room. That did it for Chip. He gathered his robe off the end of the bed and slipped it on even as he headed out of his room to Lee’s. He gripped the doorknob and twisted, pushing the door open.
The room was dark; the shade and the curtains on the window were drawn tight, the only light was the dim light from the hallway coming through the door. “Lee?” Chip called out softly but the brunet did not hear him. Lee tossed restlessly, and Chip heard another moan, loader this time.
“Lee!” Chip tried a little more forcefully, reaching for his friend’s shoulder. The second he made contact, Lee’s eyes flew open and he grabbed Chip by the wrist in a bone-crushing grip. Chip froze, waiting for the nightmare to take its leave and for Lee to fully wake up.
Time seemed to stop as Lee held onto Chip’s wrist, the tension against his bones painfully tight. Slowly, Lee’s grip loosened and Chip, very gently and slowly, pulled his arm away. He would check for bruises later. He knew what he risked whenever he tried to wake Lee from a nightmare.
“Awake now?” Chip asked softly, sinking onto the edge of the bed.
Lee blinked, clearly still foggy. “Maybe. Come back in the morning,” he said thickly.
“I heard something and came over to check. You okay?”
Lee blinked again, his eyes round and owlish in the dim light. “Yes. Just…just a night…just a dream.” He looked away when he couldn’t say ‘nightmare’.
“You want to talk about it?” Chip offered.
A spark of panic in Lee’s eyes followed by a hoarse, “No.” He paused, swallowed, and shook his head. “It’s okay. It’s gone now.”
“Sure?” Chip urged. He hated seeing Lee struggle with something when help was just a word away. But it wasn’t in Lee’s nature to ask. It never had been and Chip knew he was asking for the moon for the man to change.
“I’m good, really. You can go back to bed.”
Clearly dismissed, Chip got to his feet. He started for the door, halfway across the room he stopped and looked back. “You want some milk or something?” he asked, knowing he was pushing but unable to stop himself.
Lee made a visible effort not to yell. This was how Chip was wired and after all these years Lee knew there was no changing him. “I’m fine. Go back to bed.”
Chip didn’t move. “You’re sure?”
“Positive. I’m fine. Just go? You’ll just whine in the morning that I kept you up all night,” Lee said.
“Whatever,” came Chip’s flippant response as he left, pulling the door closed behind him.
Lee lay in the dark, still feeling his heart hammering in his chest. He remembered the dream. He was standing in the ruins of that old house, watching the admiral walk closer to him, a gun in hand. Behind him stood Krueger, with his dead eyes. Lee couldn’t move as Nelson narrowed the gap between them, telling Lee it would only hurt for a second and it would be all over, that it was really for the best…
Then Chip was there, his wrist in Lee’s grasp although Crane had no memory of grabbing him. Chip was his anchor to this world and honestly he was grateful to Morton for waking him up. But he didn’t want to be dependent on anyone. He wanted to be his own person.
Lee found himself staring at the closed curtains. Unable to resist, he slowly got out of bed and made his way to the window, pulling back the curtains and peeking around the drawn shade. The landscape was shadowed in silvery moonlight as the clouds raced by overhead. He saw nothing out of the ordinary. Lee pulled back, leaving the shade and curtains drawn, and went back to his bed.
Lee punched at the pillow, trying to get comfortable. Did Morton lie in his bunk listening for him at night? Probably. Why couldn’t he just come in, wake him up and leave it at that? Why did he have to…hover? Lee was a grown man. He didn’t need Chip following him around all the time.
Trying not to grumble, Lee closed his eyes and let his body relax, trying to get back to sleep. After that last nightmare, sleep was slow in coming.
The morning heralded another dreary, drizzly day. Visibility was down to just a few scant miles and the house was a little damp as Lee faced the morning. Lee seriously considered simply curling up for another hour or two but old habits die hard and, despite not sleeping very while the night before, he was up at 0630.
He showered, more to warm up than anything, and carefully checked the bandages on the healing wound. He was happy to see no signs of infection. Chip would be happy. Jamie would be ecstatic.
Dressed in a pair of worn jeans, a tad looser than he remembered, a long-sleeved black and gray flannel shirt, and a pair of thick black socks, Lee headed downstairs toward the kitchen.
The coffee maker was set to switch on automatically at the same time every morning. With three extra early birds in the house, Edith set the coffee maker to switch on at 6:30 am. Lee found he was the first in the kitchen and poured himself a cup of the dark brew.
The sound of rain pulled at his senses and Lee softly made his way toward the kitchen to the mud room with its large windows. He thought he heard a second set of footsteps but he didn’t react. He was pretty sure who it was.
“Did you take your antibiotics?” Chip’s quiet voice asked from a point behind Lee. The brunet didn’t bother to turn around as he stood in the mud room doorway, watching the rain trickle off the eaves. Instead he took another sip from the coffee cup in his hands and rolled his eyes, aware that Chip wouldn’t see him.
“No, I thought I would stop taking them altogether then maybe an infection would kill me and save me from having you hovering over me twenty-four hours a day!” Lee snapped. Once again he felt guilty for losing his temper. He froze, waiting for Morton’s next move.
He could feel the chill of the cool morning, the dampness of the rain outside, the almost imperceptible vibrations of the air currents blowing on the hairs of the back of his neck. The silence was deafening. Finally, too curious to ignore the man behind him, Lee turned.
The hallway was empty. Chip was nowhere to be seen. Lee started down the hall, eyes searching the side rooms for some sign of where Morton had gone but it was as if the blond had vanished. “Chip? Chip, damn it, stop hiding from me,” Lee called out in irritation.
Materializing as if he were the ghost of some long forgotten Nelson ancestor, Morton popped out from a room, his blue eyes blazing. “I wouldn’t want to be accused of hovering,” he snapped.
“Chip,” Lee began but Chip shook his head and threw his hands up.
“Yesterday I apologized. Last night was a fluke; I happened to be awake and I heard you, excuse me for caring. Today is a different day. I worry about you. You’re my friend. I cannot help it. Lee, you were shot, do you not remember that?”
“Of course I remember,” Lee barely had time to answer before Chip pounced again.
“Well, you sure as hell don’t act like it. You know damn well Jamie’s gonna turn you inside out when you get back and I’m trying to keep him from finding anything to keep you grounded any longer than you want to be. You call it hovering. I call it looking out for my brother. You want me to stop, fine. I’m done. If it makes you happy, I’ll leave. I’m sure I’ve got a desk full of papers that needs someone’s attention. You’re the favorite son anyway, you and he can have a high old time without me hovering in the background,” Morton spat out as if the words were laced with poison. He didn’t wait for Crane’s answer; he simply spun around on his heel and headed down the hall.
“Chip,” Lee called out halfheartedly but Morton didn’t slow down. He turned and headed up the stairs, leaving Crane alone on the main floor. Well, not totally alone.
Feeling someone behind him, Lee spun around to find the admiral watching with a curious expression and concerned sapphire eyes. “Something you want to talk about, son?” Nelson asked, his velvet bass seeming to rumble up the hall like soft thunder.
“I seem to have made Chip mad,” Lee offered with a glance up the stairs.
“Mad? That’s like saying the Flying Sub is a sedate shade of yellow. You know why he does what he does,” Nelson said.
Lee ducked his head, staring into the coffee cup, looking for answers in the dark brew. It was his face that was reflected back at him—as if the answer were within himself. Maybe it was. He took a deep breath, trying to work around the emotion he could feel inside. “I know. We…we talked about it some yesterday, before Edith introduced is to her friends. I thought he understood I need a little space.”
“You know, when I first encountered the pair of you at the academy, I thought you really were brothers. I can’t remember who it was who set me straight.”
“When I first met him, it was like…I’d known him all my life. We clicked, somehow,” Lee said softly.
“I know.” Nelson’s voice held a note of understanding and compassion Lee had heard before, but only on rare occasions. “I know what it’s like, to have a brother.”
“I need to apologize, but I just think I’d make the situation worse.”
Nelson watched Lee for a moment. Lee WAS recovering, but he still looked tired. Not surprising, the man was healing from a gunshot wound to the gut. Nelson had the scars from his own fair share of wounds. Gunshots sucked the life out of you, in more ways than one. “Lee, maybe you need to go for a walk.”
Lee jerked his head up and confusion clouded his amber-hazel eyes. “Chip will kill me.”
Nelson laughed, his deep, rolling chuckle oddly comforting. “Let me handle Mr. Morton. I think some space between the two of you would be best right now. From the sound of things, he and I need to have a chat anyway.”
“It’s raining,” Lee offered somewhat shyly.
Once more Nelson chuckled. “The rain has mostly let up. Just remember to be back here in time to make Edith’s dinner engagement. These are important friends if hers and I do not want to disappoint my little sister.” It was incredibly early in the day, with plenty of time for Lee to get a walk in and come back, but Nelson felt it important to remind Lee not to forget.
Lee grinned. “Do I have to?” he asked, the question sounding more like it came from a ten-year old than a grown man.
Nelson laughed softly. “Yes. If I have to go, then you and Chip are going to suffer right along with me. A few hours for one night will not kill you. You don’t even have to wear a uniform. Edith says it’s a casual dinner. Think of it as ‘show and tell’.”
It was Lee’s turn to laugh. “I hope I don’t get lost then,” he added with a grin.
“Don’t even think about it, Commander. Like counting plankton, do you?”
“Point taken, sir,” Lee said quickly. But Nelson wasn’t quite done with him yet.
“I will ask that you not go near those old ruins. I do expect you to wear a jacket and take your cell, in case you think you might need a ride back,” the older man suggested. “Chip’s not the only one who worries about you.”
Lee recognized a cleverly disguised order when he heard one. In or out of uniform, the admiral was still the admiral. It wasn’t wise to dismiss him lightly. “Yes, sir.” Lee headed for the mud room for his shoes and to gather his black leather jacket. He sat the cup on a nearby bench while he dressed for his walk. With still more than half a cup to go, Lee was reluctant to turn loose of the liquid kick-start to his morning. On his way through the kitchen, he paused briefly to refill the cup to full status. Folding his fingers around the handle, he left via the front door, under the admiral’s watchful eye, determined to steer clear of the falling down ruins on the back end of the Wickwire property.
Nelson watched the younger man shut the front door and he turned his gaze to the stairs. Time to have a chat with the XO.
The admiral had been right. The rain had let up to a very light, sporadic drizzle. Lee found he actually liked the light touch of the cool rain, holding out his hand almost in wonder as he walked along the quiet street.
For the first time he actually stopped to look around at the stately homes that lined the street. His previous walks had been on the Nelson property and he didn’t have the same view as now. The admiral’s house sat on a hill overlooking the sea, with the other houses sort of lined up as if they had to contend with taking the second place spot. Lee smiled at the analogy and started to walk up the still street.
There were no other cars. The only traffic on this road would belong to the residents and at this hour no one seemed inclined to be out and about. Lee slowly meandered along the road, eventually draining the coffee cup and letting it dangle loosely from his fingers. A light breeze had sprung up, carrying with it the sharp scent of wet leaves and the occasional salty kiss of the sea. The longer Lee walked, the more relaxed he became, not realizing just how tightly he’d been wound up. He found himself thinking about Chip.
Nelson was right. Chip was so much a part of him, it was impossible to separate the XO from the skipper sometimes. The crew knew this; they accepted it and recognized the advantage. But Chip could be so…annoyingly…watchful.
But Lee never considered exactly WHY Chip was so…attentive. It made sense though. Chip knew that he’d want to go back to work as soon as possible. By constantly keeping tabs on him, encouraging him to eat and rest, not to mention the meds Lee hated like the plague…he sighed. Maybe he was just going to have to deal with Chip for a little while. Morton was just being Morton. It was what he did. He looked after the skipper.
If he could just give Lee a little space, a little time to adjust. Truth be told, there was a lot he was having trouble dealing with. He accepted the fact that Nelson hadn’t been himself, but Lee was trying to rationalize that a spirit, a ghost, a lost soul, had tried to take him over, had put his body into something of a state of suspended animation to accomplish what he wanted. He’d been used. There was no other word for it. The wound in his gut would heal. He wasn’t sure about the wound on his soul.
The only sound was the soft footfall of his shoes on the road, quiet thuds that echoed distantly on the air. Here the road began a slow turn and a house, larger than the rest but not nearly as well kept, loomed deep in the curve. Beyond this house there were no other homes. A once-white fence separated overgrown property from the road. Lee couldn’t make out much of the house; the trees and shrubs from the yard had taken over and partly hid the structure from view. He knew the house by reputation and from Edith’s in-depth descriptions. This was the Wickwire estate. One thing he did notice immediately was the roses. While not in full bloom, a few of the shrubs were not quite ready to give into the encroaching winter and still carried a few brightly colored blossoms. The figure of an older woman trimming the roses was on the other side of the fence.
She wore a large, oversized straw hat, with large artificial red roses set in a cluster between the brim and crown. A red ribbon was woven into the straw around the brim. Her long silvery white hair was down but pulled back with a red ribbon. Abruptly the woman glanced up and her light blue eyes narrowed as she saw Lee.
“I remember you,” Cordelia Wickwire said slowly. “Douglas?” she added, almost wistfully.
“No, Miss Wickwire. I’m Lee Crane. We met at Edith Nelson’s home yesterday.”
Cordelia continued to stare. Lee felt himself growing more uneasy but rationally he told himself there was nothing to be uneasy about. Miss Wickwire was a harmless old lady.
“I see,” she said almost sadly. “How much longer to you plan on staying around here, young man?” she asked.
Lee paused. He really didn’t know how much longer he’d be visiting. Jamie wouldn’t let him go back to work, not yet. And it was nice to be able to spend some time with Nelson, out of uniform, listening to the stories and theories the older man still had about his ideas and the sea. “I’m not sure yet,” he finally answered honestly.
“I still say you still have the look of that McKinley. Shady character. Not at all reputable. Good riddance, I say. Yes. Good riddance. I can’t understand what my sister ever saw in you,” Cordelia said, focusing on her roses and nearly tuning Lee out.
For a moment Lee was unsure of what to say or do. She seemed more confused than anything and he wasn’t so sure she should be out here on her own. To simply walk away seemed rude. “You have some very lovely roses,” he offered, hoping he sounded polite.
“Prize winning. My roses have consecutively taken the grand prize in the Heritage Rose Foundation annual showing. Mine are some of the oldest in Boston,” she said proudly.
“You must put a great deal of work into them,” Lee said.
“I work every day out here. The roses are my friends.” She paused, holding the shears in one hand, contemplating the shrub in front of her. “How much longer are you going to be visiting, young man?”
Lee frowned. She’d asked him that once already. “Only a little while longer, ma’am,” he said. He’d been told the little old lady was a bit dotty and now he could believe it. He was contemplating how to gracefully make his exit when she dropped the shears she was holding. They landed on the ground with a dull thud.
“Drat. Now where did those things go?” she grumbled. Lee watched as she stooped down, searching the ground for her shears. Lee knew this was his chance to make a graceful exit but the old lady seemed so distraught over having lost her shears, he couldn’t just leave.
Setting the empty coffee cup on a nearby fence post, Lee glanced around and finally noticed the gate He reached over and worked the latch on the opposite side, then swung the gate inwards. Cordelia was on her hands and knees at the edge of the rose bushes, looking under the leaves on the ground. “Can I help?” Lee asked.
Cordelia glanced up and favored him with a smile. “Oh, certainly. My eyes aren’t what they used to be,” she said and backed away from the shrubbery, giving Lee room to look.
Using a hand to sweep away the hanging lower leaves, Lee looked for the missing shears, coming up empty handed. “Ma’am, are you sure they landed under these bushes?” Lee asked.
Silence met his question. Lee glanced up, turning to look behind him, only to see the flat end of a shovel coming straight for him. He tried to duck but he was already in an awkward position, crouched on his knees. He tried to roll to his side but the old lady welding the shovel was faster and had better reflexes than Lee expected.
“All I asked was that you pretend, just for a little while. My sister always has suitors, what harm would it be just to pretend to love me, just for a little while? Can’t you do that for me, Douglas? I won’t let you tell Father! I won’t let you go to Estelle!” she screeched, her eyes seeming to lose their focus, her hair coming loose and wild in the damp breeze. There was no time for Lee to correct her. She carried through on the first swung as she ranted wildly, then brought the shovel backwards, aiming, not for Lee’s head as before, but at his midsection.
The flat of the blade smacked dead center on the healing gunshot wound, sending fireworks of pain shooting through Lee’s body. For a second all he knew was an intense agony, curling up and bringing his knees toward his abdomen in a fetal position. It was almost like being shot again. Desperately he tried to find the words to explain he wasn’t Douglas but all he could see were stars so he missed the third swing of the shovel. After it connected, he didn’t see anything except darkness.
Nelson found Chip in his room, angrily tossing clothes haphazardly into a suitcase.
“Lad,” Nelson called out softly and Chip paused with his back to the older man.
“I can’t stop what I am,” Chip said softly.
“No one is asking you to.”
“No,” Nelson gently corrected the blond and moved so that he was in Chip’s line of sight. “He wants some space. This isn’t easy. For any of us.”
“But you’d think he’d know…I mean…it’s what I am. I can’t stop. It’s what I do. He’s my brother and I can’t help that I worry about him.”
“Because it’s how Lee is. You of all people know how badly he hates having someone hovering over him,” Nelson responded.
“I know it and I keep doing it. Pestering him about the damn meds, suggesting he take it easy. Harping at him to eat more. It’s like we’re married,” Chip said.
Nelson grinned wickedly. “Maybe you should get a divorce?”
Chip laughed, soft and low. “We’d only argue over who got half of Seaview. I think we’re stuck with each other.”
“Then stay. Don’t leave, at least not yet. I’ve sent Lee on a little walk, to think.”
The expression on Chip’s face turned haunted. “He’s in no condition…in this weather…”
The look in Nelson’s eyes stopped Chip cold. “Do you know what it’s like, being betrayed by someone you trust?” the admiral asked softly, knowing he’d touched a deep nerve. He watched as Chip stopped fiddling with his suitcase and walked toward the window. He was quiet, uncharacteristically so. When Morton finally did answer, his voice was deeper and rougher than usual, touched with memories the XO obviously did not want to remember. “You’ve seen my service record, sir. You know the answer to that.”
“My point exactly. Lee needs some space. He’s having a hard time accepting…me…right now. He seems fine but he’s more distant toward me than he was…before. He’s having a hard time accepting what happened to him, what…Krueger…did to him. Just give him a little more space.”
Chip took a deep breath. “We could have lost him. It’s so damn hard, watching him now, knowing…what I know. If I don’t say anything, Jamie grounds him and Lee is slower to recover. If I push too hard, I risk pushing him away.”
Nelson rested a hand on Chip’s shoulder. “Despite what you think, I don’t believe that you could push him away. He needs you. And despite what you think, I need you. I value you for your abilities and your opinion, not to mention the considerable friendship you have with Lee. So if you don’t mind, please unpack. I promised Lee that I’d talk you out of it and I don’t want to look like a liar.”
Chip grinned. “No sir. Admiral’s don’t lie.”
“At least not where we can get caught,” Nelson replied, clapping Morton on the back. “We try very hard not to get caught.”
Cordelia looked down at the unconscious man, puzzling out how to get rid of the interloper for the final time. She needed someplace she could dump him, someplace no one would look, out of the way…secluded.
The old house on the bottom end of the property—Estelle never went down there; she swore it was haunted, that a young man could be seen roaming what was left of the structure. It was perfect. The old cellar was probably still there. Well, it had been when Cordelia last used it.
But she couldn’t very well drag the man. It was a pretty good distance. The yard cart, what she used for trimmings and her tools. She left it…where. She cast about, looking for the low setting red wagon and found it about ten feet from where she stood. The wagon held a small mound of thorny clippings and her small gardening claw.
After grabbing the handle and maneuvering the wagon closer, she grabbed hold of Lee’s arms, hauling his limp body onto the wagon, crushing the mound of thorn encrusted branches. The cart wasn’t big enough to hold all of Lee’s body; his legs and feet dangled uselessly off the back. Cordelia paid them no heed. She got a firm grip on the handle and tugged.
The wagon was slow to start at first. The ground where she’d been standing was slightly mired from her working and the wheels were a bit bogged down. A few more tugs pulled the wagon free. Humming to herself, Cordelia pulled the wagon through the overgrown yard, past the house and behind the gardening shed in the back. She passed the old green house, the window panes shattered and the ground around it covered with broken shards of glass, glittering like lost gems in the scattered debris. She ignored it, continuing along what was once a path. It was usually dark when she had done this in the past. She hoped Estelle didn’t see her this time.
As the wagon jostled along, Lee’s body was bumped back and forth. The constant motion worked the cell phone from Lee’s jacket pocket and, without a sound, it dropped to the ground and bounced a few feet before landing in a clump of weeds.
Cordelia continued on her way, her destination slowly coming into view. When the Wickwires came from England in the beginning, they built this house before the larger, more appropriate structure was built. The house had been abandoned to the elements, a time long past into history. The roof, once thatch, had since rotted away, leaving the insides bare to the seasons. Exposure to a century’s worth of weather had the walls crumbling. Cordelia approached the ruin carefully, looking around for a landmark. She spotted what she was looking for, inside the dilapidated structure.
Through the clumps of grass, fallen leaves and broken stone, a piece of corrugated tin could be seen, weighted down by several rocks and covered by years’ worth of leaves. Cordelia nimbly picked her way through the rubble and dropped to her knees by the rusted section of metal. She began to pick off the fist-sized rocks until she had completely uncovered the tin. She got back to her feet, grabbed the edges carefully with both hands and pulled, revealing a crumbling hole about three feet square.
Dropping the metal sheet to the ground, Cordelia walked back to the wagon and grabbed Lee by both arms, pulling him off the wagon, sliding his body along the wet ground. She came to the hole and dropped Lee’s unconscious form beside it. She dropped to her knees again and with both hands, pushed Lee’s body forward…into the black hole.
A distant ‘splash’ from below brought a smile to Cordelia’s lips. She slid the metal back across the hole and replaced the dozen or so rocks she’d previously moved. When that was done she kicked fallen leaves and debris over the tin until it was hidden from view. Only she knew it was there now.
With her task done, she got back to her feet and walked back to the cart. With a firm grip on the handle, she started the trip back to the gardening shed. She made it to the compost heap and dumped the oddly flattened pile of trimmed branches into the mass of previous trimmed bits and leaves.
With that task out of the way, Cordelia finally registered the rain, now falling gently once more. She then realized that her clothes were damp and her shoes—thin canvas that she wore in the gardens—were also completely soaked. She frowned, trying to remember how on earth she had gotten so wet but quickly dismissed it. She parked the wagon in its spot by the shed and walked up the stone path to the house. Once on the back patio she heeled out of the wet shoes and carried them into the coat room, dropping them into the corner. Then she realized that not only her shoes had been wet, but the hems of her linen pants were soaked, clinging to her skin like something alive.
She needed a hot bath. She was chilled through to the bone. Cordelia headed up the stairs to her room. She gathered up clean dry clothes and quickly drew herself a warm bath.
Forty-five minutes later, Cordelia had settled into her favorite chair with a nice cup of tea, and her favorite crochet afghan, feeling warm and drowsy. She sipped at her tea and let herself relax, thinking of her roses and how beautiful they were in full bloom. Growing sleepier, Cordelia set the empty tea cup on a nearby table and pulled the afghan up closer.
The past was catching up to her. For a moment she thought it was Douglas come back to her after all this time. She’d begged and pleaded with him to take her away, get her out of her father’s house, away from his influence and his simpering fawning over the beautiful Estelle. Estelle, such a lovely young girl, the pride of the Wickwire family, while she, Cordelia—plain, ordinary Cordelia—watched a never-ending parade of handsome young men call on her older sister. Not one ever gave her a passing glance.
Douglas was different. Douglas had spoken to her and smiled at her, even brought her a white rose once. She thought that maybe, just maybe…but no. He was in love with Estelle. Was going to speak to their father about marriage. Had laughed when she had asked him to take her away.
Wait till Estelle hears about this…his mocking laughter haunted Cordelia, enraging her, sending her over the edge of sanity. He was just using her to get in Estelle’s good graces, trying to curry favor with their father, the admiral. She couldn’t let him tell Father. Her sister must never know…Estelle would hate her if she found out.
No one would ever know now. The memory of this and her other past deeds to protect the family name, an effort to make her father proud her for once, slowly drifted away as sleep claimed her.
Lee was jerked back to consciousness as he impacted with the water and filth layering the bottom of whatever it was he’d landed in. Sputtering and choking, Lee flailed for a second before realizing the water wasn’t that deep. There was a second of serious disorientation as smells and sensations slammed into him all at once. It was overload and Lee found himself nearly hyperventilating before he forced himself to stop and take control. He glanced around him but wasn’t reassured.
He was surrounded by cold and blackness. It was like being dropped into an inkwell. The cold seemed to swirl around him with icy fingers, tickling the back of his neck with its caress. The water was freezing and almost slimy. The sickening smell of mud, mold, and decay was everywhere.
Fighting the nausea in his gut and the pain that threatened to tear his head apart, Lee made a valiant effort to stand on his own, managing for only a few seconds before he teetered into something solid. The sudden appearance of a wall he couldn’t see surprised Lee and he gratefully leaned into it for support. He could tell that the water came up to his knees and he was completely soaked from his landing. He glanced up, trying to see how he ended up here, trying to get some sense of how far he’d fallen but there was nothing but suffocating, cold blackness. He felt a whimper building in the back of his throat but he crushed it before it could make itself heard.
He forced himself to remember what happened. Things were fuzzy. All he remembered was the younger of the two Wickwire sisters, Cordelia. She’d…called him Douglas. Who was Douglas? Lee was having a hard time believing he’d been duped by a frail looking little lady. Nevertheless, here he was, wherever here was.
Without light it was impossible to judge his surroundings. He turned his attention to the wall he was leaning against, running his hands over the area at level with his chest, moving upward, hoping to find something he could grab to pull himself out with. He felt old moss-covered stone, damp with moisture and slime mold. Something scurried across the back of his hand and reflexively he drew back sharply. The sudden movement aggravated the still-healing wound in his gut and, coupled with the other injuries, it pulsed with fire. He sucked down another lungful of damp air trying not to let the panic he felt hiding deep down rise to the surface.
Moving slowly Lee felt his way along, slogging through the filthy, stinking water, measuring his prison with footsteps but losing track as the pain in his head rose and fell in time with his beating heart. He finally came to the conclusion that he was in a deep square hole, lined with rock and a bare earthen floor. The mud and silt under his feet squished repulsively with each step. He could find no.
Lee raised his head, hoping to see some pinprick or hint of light. There was nothing, just more sickening, suffocating blackness. “Hello? Can anybody hear me?” Lee yelled as loud as he could but it was almost as if the dark and stone were swallowing his voice, hiding him from anyone who might be looking. He continued to walk around the confines of his prison and he stumbled onto something.
It felt like a stick, and Lee pushed it around with his foot. Maybe if he had something long enough he could tap against the ceiling, maybe attract some attention. Slowly, ignoring the sensation of his brains sloshing around in his head, Lee felt around in the water until his hands closed around the object his feet had encountered.
Instinct told him it wasn’t a stick. The texture and weight were all wrong. Feeling the bottom drop out of his stomach as his fingers traced the object, he realized he was holding a bone. It was too short for most animals except maybe a horse or a deer, leaving the implication that it was human; a human leg bone.
Braced against the wall, Lee felt his breath catch in his throat. He was holding a human bone and he could feel his hands shake as reality took hold. Carefully he began to walk, moving his foot through the water, searching for what he knew was hiding in the blackness. He hit something. Something that felt round.
Unable to stop the trembling, he reached down and felt for the second object. His fingers encountered a round surface. Further exploration led to the eye holes. His initial fear was correct. He had found a skull. There was a human skeleton down here.
Lee took a deep, shaky breath. Something told him he’d found Douglas.
It was raining again. Not the light drizzle that had punctuated the morning, but a steady downpour that could be heard on the eaves of the house. Nelson hardly paid attention to the noise, engrossed in a book written by a Russian whaler named Vladimir Markov around the turn of the century. That time and lifestyle were fascinating to the older man. On the plus side, it gave him a chance to practice his Russian.
A presence in the door of the study pulled Nelson’s attention to the here and now. Chip was standing there, a look of confusion and worry on his face. Nelson closed the book after memorizing the page number. “Yes?” he asked politely.
“About yesterday,” Chip began.
“What about it?”
“Were you not going to tell Lee that story? About that old house and the ghost?”
“Would you have?” Nelson countered with steel in his voice.
Some of the fight had gone out of Morton. “I don’t know. I don’t think Lee is up to another ghost.”
“My thoughts exactly. If I had remembered to tell Edith not to mention it, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
“What do you think?” Chip asked. “Do you think he saw a ghost?”
Nelson closed his eyes and rubbed at his forehead. “I have no idea what Lee saw. I just hope that by keeping him away from that end of the property…I—I don’t know what I’m hoping to prevent. I just don’t want Lee down there.”
“Well, apparently he’s decided to extract a little revenge on me for my stunt last night at dinner,” Chip replied with a glance to his watch.
“You mean with the vegetables? Humph. Pointed, though not very subtle. I take it he’s still wandering about? He has been gone a bit, hasn’t he?” Nelson checked his own watch. Two and a half hours had passed since Lee left the house. Nelson tried to squash the worry that threatened to rise up. Lee was a grown man able to take care of himself. When he was ready, he’d come back to the house and he said as much to Morton. Chip agreed but it was clear he wasn’t happy about it. Nelson had to smother a grin as that brotherhood bond once more surfaced. Chip decided to occupy himself elsewhere and Nelson returned to his book.
About a half hour later Edith made the announcement she had some errands to run and she’d be back in time for dinner. She wasted no time in reminding her brother not to forget their dinner tonight. She expected them to be dressed by at least four o’clock and she would not tolerate any excuses. Nelson meekly promised they would be ready as Edith gave him an affectionate sisterly kiss on the cheek then she was gone, leaving Nelson alone once again.
Nelson lost track of not only Chip, but of time. He worked his way through half the book before his back muscles started to protest the lack of movement over the last few hours. Nelson put the book down and stood up to stretch stiff and sore muscles. A glance back to his watch surprised him. Four hours since Lee had left. It was getting on lunch time and while Lee wasn’t a big eater, having not eaten breakfast, he had to be hungry.
Unless lunch was taken care of…it wasn’t beyond the realm of possible that Lee had found some company on his walk. Walking over to the phone on a nearby table, Nelson picked up the receiver and dialed Lee’s cell phone number from memory. The phone rang several times then rolled to voice mail. Odd. “Lad, just checking on you. Don’t want you to forget we have an engagement this evening. Edith will never forgive me if we miss it. Let me know if you need anything.” With nothing more to add, Nelson hung up, still puzzled.
Leaving the study, the admiral headed for the kitchen where, predictably, he found Chip, happily working his way through a sandwich the size of a small planet. Nelson swore it had its own gravitational pull, probably why Chip was having a hard time pulling away from it. Chip saw the older man and grinned sheepishly.
“Hungry?” Nelson asked dryly as he opened the refrigerator.
“A bit. I left you some,” Morton offered.
“How considerate. However I doubt any sandwich I make would rival yours for content, not to mention shear girth. Remember, we’re eating at Cassoway’s tonight.”
“Haven’t forgotten. I thought about taking a run, work the calories off,” Chip replied.
Nelson almost burst out laughing. “And should you ‘run’ into Lee?” he asked carefully.
“It will be total coincidence,” the blond supplied between bites.
“Humph,” the admiral retorted but didn’t press the issue. He actually hoped Chip would run into Lee, just to save him the worry of wondering what had happened to him. Lee had probably run into another jogger or maybe he’d gone down by the docks and was chatting up some of the fishermen. He’d come home when he was ready.
Alone in the darkness, Lee was losing track of time. The only thing anchoring him to reality was his watch. The dim blue-green glow of the hands was the only hint of light and his only guide to mark the passage of time.
It was impossible to get comfortable in one place. He couldn’t sit—the water was knee high and cold. Just standing in it was enough to sap his strength and pull away what little warmth his body could generate. He’d been shivering on and off for the last half hour.
He’d already checked for his cell phone. There was no describing the stab of panic in his gut when he realized the phone was gone. A frantic search of all his pockets only confirmed the loss. Had the crazy old bat taken it? Did she even know what a cell phone was?
Trying to find something to keep him occupied, Lee had continued to search the filthy water for remains. He found several more bones, as well as a second skull. There were two bodies down here, at least. Trying to keep focused, Lee wondered why. Had they been killed and then dumped? The alternative—that they’d been dumped and forgotten, left to die—was more than enough to make him sick to his stomach.
But that only lead to the question of why. And who was dumping bodies down here. Cordelia Wickwire? Was she some kind of serial killer? Was she coming back to gloat over her latest prize?
Lee glanced upwards, the ceiling above him as dark as the water he stood in. No hint of light penetrated the inky blackness. Another shiver coursed up his spine, one that had nothing to do with the temperature. Once more he raised his voice to call out to the darkness. There was no answer. The blackness that swirled around him seemed to swallow his words, giving him nothing but despair.
There was no way around it. Cordelia Wickwire had dumped him in this hole to die.
The afternoon passed quietly. After lunch Chip went out for a run, leaving the house in an eerie quiet. Nelson retreated to the library for a while longer but eventually he got restless. He put his book aside and began a slow meander of the house, wandering through various rooms, recalling the times he’d spend here as a boy. It was a mixed bag of recollections.
Harriman had led a sheltered life as a boy. His mother, who had miscarried twice before successfully carrying a baby to term, was terrified that her son would catch some illness. She kept him inside for the most part, away from the other children on the area. A lonely, shy boy, Nelson found solace in books. The tutors his mother hired for him had a hard time keeping up with the young prodigy and by the time he was ten it was obvious he was unlike other boys his age.
For his father the solution was simple. When the younger Nelson was eleven he was sent to a private school. A four-year institution, the school was at a loss at what to do with Harriman after two and a half years. He was barely thirteen and his father had no idea what to do with the budding genius.
For the next several years, Harriman was bounced in and out of various private schools. His incredible intellect made it hard for him to interact with children his own age. His smaller size made him a target for the older boys and as a result he developed what his instructors would call ‘attitude’. It was always expected that he would join the academy and the young man never had any other college in mind. His family came from a long line of navy service men, so Harriman’s future was marked out practically from birth.
When Harriman was seventeen he entered Annapolis Naval Academy. Once more he was plagued with the same problem he’d faced everywhere else. His short stature marked him an easy mark for harassment. While hazing and fighting were frowned upon, Harriman was a frequent target. Things changed after his plebe summer when the roommate he’d been assigned dropped out, unable to take the intensity of a midshipman’s training. He was quickly assigned another roommate and Nelson found himself in the company of one James Riggs Starke III. Fourth generation navy, Jiggs, as he preferred to be called, wasn’t the bullying type and took exception to the less than officer-like treatment his new friend was getting from their so-called class mates. Word quickly spread that to target Midshipmen Nelson meant you’d have Midshipman Starke on your six. The bullying soon stopped after Jiggs took a couple of the worst offenders aside. Nelson never figured out what happened and Jiggs would have rather died than tell, but life at the academy got easier after that.
Thinking back on those long ago days, Nelson wondered how he would have gotten through the academy without Jiggs. He knew how Lee must have felt, finding someone who understood you, someone who accepted you, and was happy to call you a friend. Of course, there were many instructors at the academy who regretted the paring of Jiggs Starke and Harry Nelson. But it was clear early on that both were destined for far more than just a career with the Navy. The same with Lee and Chip.
A steady drumming on the roof pulled Nelson out of his deep thoughts. A quick trip to the nearest window proved it was raining again. And hard. It was about then that he heard the front door slam shut.
Thinking, hoping rather, that it was Lee, Nelson encountered a tall, blond, soaking wreck of a human. Chip was drenched, head to toe, dripping on the tiles in the foyer. Nelson covered his mouth with one hand, trying hard not to laugh. A choked sound managed to make an escape, earning him a much toned down version of the look that would send enlisted men looking for a deep hole. “Are you alright?” Nelson managed to ask.
“It would start raining when I was furthest away from the house. The best I could do was just keep running. The closer I got, the harder the rain came down. Even my feet are wet,” the blond whined.
Trying not to laugh at the sad, pathetic mess of his XO, Nelson sucked it up and tried his best. “Maybe you should get out of those wet shoes. I’ll take them to the mud room and you can go up and get a hot shower. Lee will never let you live it down if you catch pneumonia from jogging.”
Chip bent down and pulled at the shoelaces. “Don’t give him any ideas. He’s dangerous enough on his own,” he grumbled as he worked. The laces had somehow worked into knots that defied Chip’s attempts to untie them but he finally managed to work them loose. With a wet slurp he pulled the waterlogged footwear off, followed by the saturated socks. Chip then took his still-dripping self up the stairs. Nelson heard the soft footfalls as he thudded his way to the bathroom.
Nelson stared at the mess on the floor. This would be the week the housekeeper was on vacation. Well, there was no getting around it; someone had to clean things up. Nelson picked up Chip’s shoes and socks and took them to the mud room to drip dry, then collected a mop and bucket on the way back. He spent the next few minutes mopping up and water and mud off the tile.
By the time he was done, the heavy downpour had tapered off to a steady shower. He cleaned off the mop and rinsed out the bucket, replacing both in the mud room and headed for the front of the house again. He pulled open the front door to search the surrounding landscape for any sign of Lee. The weather had run Chip indoors, so where was Lee that the rain hadn’t sent him inside?
Unless he was inside. A variety of scenarios presented themselves to explain what was keeping Lee from noticing the foul weather, making the older man grin as some of the more interesting ideas came to mind. Nelson shut the door and headed for the study. Once more he picked up the phone and dialed Lee’s cell phone number. It rang five times and went to voice mail. Nelson didn’t leave a message this time, choosing to simply hang up. His hand lingered on the receiver as Chip entered. Nelson tried to cover his worry as he noticed the blond.
“You look considerably more dignified,” Nelson observed, pulling his hand away from the phone.
“I feel more dignified, not to mention warmer. That is one cold rain,” Chip said. It did not escape his notice that Nelson was hovering around the phone. “No answer on Lee’s phone?”
“No,” Nelson growled. “He’s doing this on purpose. I told him not to be too late getting back—that tonight was Edith’s dinner with her friends. I promised my sister we’d all be there. That includes Commander Crane!”
Chip shook his head. “He doesn’t like being the center of attention. I can’t imagine he’d be late though. He knows this is important to you. I’m sure he’ll show up soon.”
Nelson continued to growl. “I should hope so. I do not what to tell my baby sister that we’ll have to cancel dinner because of one AWOL officer.”
Lee had yelled himself hoarse but it was painfully obvious that no one was hearing him. He’d clawed at the walls trying to climb out until he was sure he’d scraped the ends of his fingers bloody. There just wasn’t any purchase on the slimy stone walls.
The cold was soaking into his bones and he was now shivering continuously. His head was still pounding in time to his heartbeat, adding a new dimension to his misery. The wound in his abdomen throbbed with a dull inner fire, like a banked coal, waiting for a gust of wind to breathe life back into it. Standing in the stagnate, stinking water was sapping his strength and his energy. It was hard to stay on his feet but there wasn’t any other alternative.
The water that had been knee high had risen over the course of the last few hours until it was now at mid-thigh level. His feet and ankles were numb and his legs were growing colder with each passing minute. The only thing Lee could do was keep moving.
“Chip! Admiral! I’m down here!” he tried again, his voice raspy with the effort. He paused in his pacing—listening for any sign that his shouts might have finally attracted attention but there was nothing. Dejected, Lee lowered his head, wrapped his arms around his body, and continued his useless pacing in an effort to try and keep warm.
He couldn’t die here. Not in some stinking muddy hole, alone and in the dark. It couldn’t be how he was destined to leave this world. Not after surviving a gunshot, not after having his body possessed. He couldn’t die now, not like this.
A whimper began to form in the back of his throat and this time he didn’t have the strength to hold it at bay. It escaped; the sound of someone who was slowly losing hope and faith. Tired and weary, Lee found his way to the wall and worked toward the nearest corner. With his back braced by the two sides, he leaned back, shivering almost uncontrollably. With his head bowed, he tried to conserve what warmth he had but the deepening water continued to suck the life from him, like some unseen vampire slowly bleeding him dry.
He took a deep shuddering breath, trying to resist the temptation to crawl into a ball. What had it been like for the two whose bones he’d found? How long did they yell for help before they realized none was coming? How long did it take for them to die? Days? Weeks? Or had they been dead when they were dumped? Lee doubted it. Something told him that Cordelia was responsible. Somehow, for some reason, she’d dumped two people down here and no one ever found them. But why him?
Because I remind her of someone named Douglas? The thought came crystal clear like a light in the darkness. She warned Douglas to stay away. She confused me with Douglas and did the same thing to me that she did to him, however many years ago. She was reliving what she did to Douglas…oh God…
Lee tried to hold onto reality but it was slowly slipping away from him. With the black reptilian cold slithering around him, he tried to keep standing but instead found the exhaustion too much to deal with and he slowly slipped into the water. He barely noticed the cold. “Admiral?” Lee glanced upwards one more time, hearing nothing, seeing nothing. “Please?” The word came out a choked plea.
Edith stared at her brother, her big blue eyes wide with disappointment and disbelief. “Cancel? We can’t just cancel. One does not cancel a reservation at Cassoway’s. It just isn’t done,” Edith said with finality. She glared at her brother, leveling her best Little-Sister-Is-Not-Happy look at him, cornering him in the study. He wasn’t even close to being ready for dinner and their reservation was in less than two hours! Admiral or not, she was going to kill him!
Nelson glanced at this watch. It was just after four o’clock. Lee left the house a little after seven am that morning, meaning he’d been gone for nearly nine hours. Long past when Lee should have turned up. As indicated to Morton, telling his sister he had to cancel was the last thing he wanted to do.
“Kitten, I’m sorry, but Lee hasn’t come back yet. I reminded him of dinner tonight and he promised he wouldn’t forget.”
“Then where is he?” Edith challenged with fire in her eyes. “He’s ruining a perfectly planned dinner with two very good friends of mine. These are important people, Harry. I have to move in the same circles as they do, have you any idea what it’s going to mean if I have to cancel because Lee can’t tell time?” Edith was practically squeaking with indignation.
Nelson took a deep breath just as Chip entered the study. There was a brief shake of his head and Nelson felt something in his stomach lurch. This was wrong, all wrong. “Kitten, I don’t think Lee is doing this on purpose,” Nelson said, beginning to realize that his friend might truly well be in trouble.
The blood drained from Edith’s face. “Good heavens. You mean…you think something has happened to him? But this is Boston, not the high seas,” she said, eyes darting from her brother to Chip.
“He’s still not answering his phone,” Chip said to Nelson’s silent question.
Edith quickly sized up the situation. “Lee’s missing, is that what you’re trying to tell me?”
Her brother nodded. “I told him to go for a walk. He and Chip were getting on each other’s nerves. I thought some time apart would be good for them. We just thought Lee was being stubborn.”
“But he is also responsible. There’s a reason he hasn’t come back yet,” Chip added when Nelson paused.
Edith stepped back and took a good look at both men. It was clear they both felt responsible. Laying blame wasn’t going to find Lee, if indeed he was missing. “Did he say where he was going to go?”
“No. He just walked down the street. I figured he’d be gone an hour or two at the most. I didn’t figure he’d go far, he’s not in…” Nelson closed his eyes and trailed off, finding it hard to say Lee wasn’t in any kind of shape for a long walk. Because of him. Because of Krueger’s influence.
“Harry, I can help,” Edith said softly.
“Kitten,” Nelson began but Edith was shaking her head and moving toward the phone.
“No. If Lee is missing we need to get started. I don’t suppose either of you have called the police?”
“No,” Chip answered, “We’ve only just finally figured out something was wrong. We just thought he was out.”
Edith picked up the phone and dialed a number. As she waited she realized that both men were giving her a curious look. “Did I mention we were having dinner with the wife of the Boston Police Commissioner? I’m not without connections in this town, you know.”
Trying to keep warm, Lee pushed himself to move again. The cold, the exhaustion, the sheer mental fatigue was taking over and more than once Lee stumbled, going to his knees in the rising water. Twice he went in over his head and came up sputtering and coughing. He gagged as an uncontrollable fit of coughing wracked his body. He managed to make to it to the closest wall where he leaned and hacked until he had no more strength, but somehow kept on his feet. He was utterly spent with no reserves left. He leaned against the wall, waiting for his strength to come back.
Somewhere he thought he heard the sound of a pipe bursting. Delirious with exhaustion, Lee thought himself back aboard Seaview. The power is out. We’re taking on water…”Admiral?” The spoken word was barely a hoarse croak.
A violent shiver tore through Lee’s slender frame, making his teeth chatter as he tried to hold still. “Admiral?” he tried again but got no answer. Why had the admiral abandoned him? Where was Chip? Chip was always there, where was he now?
Chip was mad at him, Lee remembered now. Because he’d yelled at Chip, Chip was mad now and he left. “I’m sorry…I take it back. Chip! Chip, I’m sorry! Come back!” Lee tried to reason with his absent friend but Chip’s words keep echoing in his head.
Lee closed his eyes against the rush of emotions. “Don’t leave me, Chip. I’m sorry.”
But Chip was gone now. There was nothing but the darkness. Was Krueger waiting for him? Lurking in the abandoned ruins, waiting for Lee to come back? Hiding In the dark, waiting for Lee to die so he could take over his body again?
“Fat good it will do you. You’re trapped in this hell hole, same as me,” Lee taunted the darkness. He glanced upwards again. “Admiral? Don’t leave me here with him. ADMIRAL!” Lee flung the last of his waning strength into the word, daring, hoping, praying for an answer to come to him.
All Lee got in return was silence and blackness. He stumbled again, going to his knees. The water came to his chest and he clumsily tried to right himself. Lee found he didn’t quite have the strength to claw at the wall, much less pull himself to his feet.
The admiral wasn’t going to find him this time. Lee resigned to wait: for rescue or for death, whichever came first. The uncontrollable shivering began and in the blackness Lee began to believe that death would find him first.
Chip was witness to an amazing display of High Society vs. High Command. Edith seemed to know everyone in town from the police commissioner’s wife to the head of the Disabled American Veterans association and in no time she had the police on the doorstep, investigating the report of a missing naval commander.
Nelson was trying to keep his calm as they asked a dozen seemingly mindless questions. No, Lee hadn’t argued with anyone. No, Lee wasn’t seeing any one in the area. Lee was single. Yes, Lee had a routine; he went for a walk everyday but not at the same time. No, he hadn’t said where he was going. Yes, he had a cell phone but he wasn’t answering it. Yes, his phone had GPS, it was an Institute-issued phone, and it was standard in all issued phones. More police began arriving and Chip was paired off with one of their technical experts, who had arrived with a heavy duty laptop, hoping to get a fix on the GPS in Lee’s phone, if it was still operable.
A tap was placed on the phone in the advent this was a kidnapping. When Chip argued that no one but a handful of institute staff even knew where they were, the head of the Missing Persons unit, Lieutenant Porter, had a ready explanation.
“That might be the case,” he said, “but there are a lot of wackos out there. Somebody watching the house might have seen Commander Crane’s pattern and been waiting for him. They might be planning a ransom.”
Nelson’s stomach soured with the thought. He wanted to mention that Lee was recovering from a gunshot but he knew that would raise a hundred new questions that had nothing to do with Lee’s disappearance. He could only hope that Chip would consider the same thing.
Lt. Porter, a tall, thin man with a thin nose and beady dark eyes, who reminded Chip of a stork, finally called an end to the questioning and started calling in more units. Within the next hour, the entire Boston Missing Persons division was on alert. The Nelson home became a staging area and a starting point for the dozens of volunteers that had appeared out of thin air, due to Edith’s contacts within the Disabled American Veterans association. Both police and volunteers, individually and in groups, armed with a detailed description of Lee, set out to begin a full scale search of the surrounding houses.
The doorbell chimed and Estelle glanced up from her book to look at the clock. It was a little late in the evening for a social call. There was no sense in her getting up since the housekeeper could deal with most things. It was probably a salesman. Ruby would send them packing soon enough.
Only the housekeeper soon appeared, tapping on the doorframe to get Estelle’s attention. Ruby Carver, a woman in her mid-forties’ who had been with the Wickwires for ten years now was reluctant to do anything to shake the calm of the house, but this was beyond her control. “Miss Estelle, the police are here. They’d like to speak with you.”
“With me? Whatever for?” Estelle asked as she got out of the chair and followed Ruby to the front foyer. She found two men in raincoats waiting. “Yes? What’s this about?” she asked.
“I’m Detective Ramirez and this is my partner, Detective Cook. We’re investigating a missing persons report. I understand you met Commander Lee Crane yesterday?” the shorter of the two asked, as both presented badges to clear their identity. Estelle examined each one with growing trepidation. She hesitated but tried to answer their questions as best as she could.
Yes she had seen Commander Crane. He was staying with Edith and her brother, Admiral Nelson. No, she hadn’t seen him all day. Of course she’d let them know if she did happen to see him.
The interview took less than ten minutes and when she bid the officers a thank you and promise to call if Lee turned up, Cordelia appeared. Estelle sent Ruby off to oversee dinner and she focused on her sister.
“Who was that?” Cordelia asked in a testy suspicious voice, eyeing the door as if it were going burst open.
“That was the police, Missing Persons investigators. Remember that nice young man we met yesterday at Edith’s?”
Cordelia snorted, conveying her distaste. “I do not recall every person we meet.”
“Oh Cordelia, it was only yesterday, for pity’s sake. He was such a nice young man, tall and dark-haired, had the most interesting eyes. You said he reminded you of Douglas.”
“Douglas McKinney. Unsuitable. I warned him to leave. Interloper.” Cordelia dismissed the idea and she turned, heading back to the den. Estelle was about to follow when another knock on the door got her attention. With a sigh she opened the door once more.
It was Admiral Nelson. Estelle smiled. “Good evening, admiral. Did you ever find Commander Crane?” she asked.
The admiral’s face darkened with a touch of sadness. “No, we’re still looking. Miss Estelle, I found this on the fence post in front of your house. It belongs to my sister.” He held up a blue and white coffee cup.
“Oh, yes, Edith’s Blue Willow. That’s a very old pattern you know, you can tell by the shape of the doves. Now why would Edith leave that on the fence?” Estelle mused.
The admiral smiled at her. Trying to rein in his temper and be as patient as possible, he tried to explain. “Well, you see, Edith didn’t leave it. We think Lee did.”
Estelle still didn’t understand. “Seems a little careless, leaving an antique like that lying about in the open. It could have got broken. Such a shame too, Edith has quiet a collection,” she rambled on.
“Um, Miss Estelle, you see, Lee, Commander Crane, he went for a walk earlier today and he took this cup with him. For some reason he left it on your fence. I was hoping you could tell me if you or your sister might have seen Lee today,” Nelson managed to get in while she was musing.
Estelle drew back in surprise. “I never thought to ask her!” she declared and darted around the corner, calling her sister’s name.
Holding on to a thread of hope that Lee might be here, Nelson stepped into the house, praying that one of these two sisters had some clue of where Lee had gone. He’d take anything that would guide him to Lee. He gone out on his own to look for some sign of Lee and when he saw the cup he had hope, there was a chance that maybe…his thoughts were interrupted by the returning Estelle.
“The admiral is looking for his friend, that nice young man we met yesterday,” Estelle was saying, leading her sister by the arm. Nelson was afraid to breathe, fearing the worst.
“I don’t recall any such young man,” Cordelia said with a suspicious glare in her eye as she examined the man now standing in her house.
Estelle sighed. “Admiral, I am sorry. My sister’s memory isn’t what it used to be,” she apologized.
Nelson wasn’t giving up. “Please. He’s tall, slender, with dark curly hair, with darker complexion then me. He…he was wounded. He might be injured now. If you’ve seen him, I need to know.”
Cordelia seemed to look straight through him. Estelle took her sister by the arm. “You remember him? You said he looked like Douglas?” she tried to get her sister to recall.
“Douglas McKinley. Worthless liar. I warned him, told him he’d best be on his way. He wasn’t suitable at all. Father would never have tolerated a liar with such common blood in our family. It was best he left when he did. Yes. It was for the best.” Cordelia was shaking her head and detached herself from her sister’s hold to wander off into another room.
Her expression sad, Estelle watched her go. “I’m sorry, admiral,” she said, turning back to him. “I don’t think she saw your friend. She doesn’t even recall meeting him.”
Nelson tried to hide his disappointment. “It’s alright. I had to ask. If Lee should turn up, please let Edith know?” he asked.
“Certainly. I do hope you find your friend. He seemed like such a nice man.”
Nelson took his exit, walking with great deliberation down the sidewalk. He held the coffee cup in both hands, his last tie to his missing friend. Lee had been here. He knew it, he could feel it. But where was he now?
The shadows of evening were growing longer as the sun inched closer and closer to the horizon. It would be dark soon. The scene around him was controlled chaos as officers checked every house on the block, questioning who might have seen Lee. So far no one had notice him.
“Admiral?” Chip’s voice cut across the distance and Nelson looked up. The blond was headed his way. “Anything?”
“No,” Nelson forced the word out past a throat that threatened to close up with guilt and blame. He should never have sent Lee out. He should have found a better way to deal with things. Lee wasn’t in any kind of shape to be out on his own for long. He had a gunshot to his gut, for crying out loud. “I should have gone with you. None of this would ever have happened,” he whispered.
“I should have listened to him. He was trying to get away from me,” Chip said.
For a second is was all either man could do to just stared at one another, each trying to find and justify the reason their friend wasn’t by their side now. It was Nelson who broke the stalemate. “We’re not going to find him if we keep blaming ourselves.”
Chip cleared his throat, making an effort to keep the emotion from taking over. It was easy when he was aboard the Seaview. Not so easy when he didn’t know if Lee were dead or alive. “I’ve talked to the harbor authorities and they are about to put divers in the water,” he said. There was a breathed “Good God” from Nelson. Chip couldn’t have agreed more but he was trying not to show it. “The search is ongoing. We’ve got their technical expert trying to get a trace on the GPS on his cell phone. This weather isn’t helping. They can’t get a clear signal just yet,” Chip said. He’d no more finished speaking when his own cell phone rang. He took a few steps back and fished the phone from the pocket of his jacket. “Morton,” he answered briskly.
Nelson paid little attention to the conversation, trying to figure where to start next. Chip calling his name got his attention. “Admiral, they think they have a fix on Lee’s phone. We’re right on top of it.”
Nelson felt his heart backflip. “Can they activate it?” he asked, his voice tight and hoarse.
Chip repeated the request. “It should be ringing,” he said in response.
Nelson held his breath, listening for the three-tone chirp that was Lee’s ring. At first there was nothing. Chip asked them to dial again and once more they listened. Over the distant sound of the voices of volunteers, there was a distant, out-of-ordinary sound. A chirp, like a lost cricket. The sound stopped. Nelson was already on the move with Chip right behind, ordering that they dial again.
The chirp was louder now. Nelson was having a hard time listening for it over the pounding of his own heartbeat. Each time it stopped Chip would order a redial and it would come back to life. Trying to hide his shaking, Nelson found it: the bright blue glow of the digital readout flashing with an incoming call giving away the phone’s location.
Nelson snatched the phone off the ground as Chip reported the find to the police. “Lee! LEE!” Nelson called out to the fading daylight, searching the overgrown landscape for Lee’s body. He could be anywhere. Unconscious or wounded, unable to call out…Nelson refused to believe that Lee was dead. Not after what he had lived through. Not now.
Nelson froze. A flash of lightning lit up the landscape with the intensity of the midday sun. With the afterimage still glowing in his eyes, Nelson realized the ruins of the old Wickwire homestead were less than a hundred yards from where he stood.
“Oh my God…” Nelson took a stumbling step forward, then another. He didn’t even register Chip’s detached cry of “Admiral, wait”, he just plowed forward, heading for the ruins.
The rain was coming down harder now, plastering Nelson’s red hair to his scalp. Distracted, he dragged his fingers through the mess, trying to get it out of his eyes.
“Lee?” he called out again but there was nothing. No body, no sign that his friend had been here. Nelson began to circle the remains of the walls, certain he’d find something. Chip was on the phone still and, over the top of the hill, lights began to burn through the night as flashlights were broken out to help with the search. Beams were aimed in their general direction and Chip waved his arms to get their attention.
A metallic ping pulled at Nelson’s attention. Metal. What was metal? His eyes darted about in the growing darkness. As the rain intensified, so did the pinging. “Chip, I hear metal. Search the ground for something that shouldn’t be here,” Nelson ordered.
Chip wasted no time. With his feet he began working through the piles of leaves and detritus. Nelson searched outside the walls while Chip shifted his search inside. He started with the outside corner and worked his way in. His foot rubbed against something that wasn’t stone. The scrap was metallic.
“Admiral, here,” Chip directed. Already soaked, he dropped to his knees and with his hands he felt along the ground. Nelson was soon by his side and the two uncovered a piece of rusted corrugated tin, hidden by a layer of leaves and weighted down by a dozen or so fist-sized rocks.
Together the pulled the sheet of decaying metal away to reveal a black hole. Nelson leaned over the side. “Lee?”
There was no answer but Nelson wasn’t giving up. “Lee, it’s Nelson,” he tried again and was rewarded with a weak, hoarse-sounding cough. “Chip, get a rescue party down here,” Nelson ordered. And before Chip could realize what he was going to do, Nelson lowered his body into the hole, let go of the edge and dropped into the blackness.
It was like dropping into a freezer. He landed in water that came up to his waist. “Lee? Son, are you down here?”
Nelson stopped. Dim light filtered through the hole above and he waited for his eyes to adjust. As if by silent request the darkness was banished as several beams of bright light sliced through the inky blackness. What the light revealed made Nelson weak-kneed with relief and nausea, all at once.
Lee was crouched in the far corner of the hole, arms wrapped around himself, head bowed to his chest. The black, oily-looking water came up to his neck. He was so pale, he looked waxy and blue. Nelson slogged through the filthy, stagnate water to Lee’s side and gathered his cold body close. “Lee, son, we found you. Everything’s going to be okay.” He pulled Lee’s unresponsive form up out of the water, leaning Lee’s head against his chest. Lee tried to mumble something but it came out disjointed and confused. “Shh. Don’t talk. I’ll get you out of here. I promise.” Nelson tightened his grip on his friend, flooded by emotions and relief that it was finally over.
Rigging a harness, the rescuers were able to lift Nelson, holding tightly to the unconscious body of Lee Crane, out of the hole and back onto solid ground. Chip was waiting, taking the limp body of his friend from Nelson’s grip as the EMTs worked to help the admiral out of the harness.
Chip could not believe how cold Lee felt. It was like holding a figure of ice. Lee was so cold, he’d stopped shivering. His arms were drawn up and crossed over his chest while his hands clenched into tight fists. Chip sank to the ground, ignoring the rain and his already soaked clothes, holding his friend and trying to will some measure of warmth back into Lee’s body. Volunteers began offering their coats to the blond and Chip did his best to wrap Lee in the offered warmth. Lee still looked dead, his face as pale as marble. The tremor in Chip’s hands as he worked to cover his friend had nothing to do with the cold and damp.
The lights of an ambulance could be seen, casting red and blue shadows into the deepening night. The hill was too steep and slick for the ambulance to get safe traction on so using coats as a makeshift stretcher they carried Lee up the hill. Chip was reluctant to leave his friend’s side, awash with the guilt that if he’d listened to Lee’s concerns, this would have never happened.
The Wickwire sisters, unable to ignore the commotion, had stepped out of the house and were watching the activity with curious eyes. When Lee’s pale body was finally loaded into the ambulance, Cordelia let out a strangled cry and she collapsed on the sheltered front step, hysterical and crying.
Chip was torn between going with Lee and finding out what had happened. Since Nelson had Lee’s power of attorney and was able to make all medical decisions for him, it made sense for Nelson to go. Chip stayed behind as the elderly sisters were surrounded by police and volunteers.
“I don’t want you to hate me,” Cordelia was saying. It was very clear that Estelle didn’t understand how she could hate her sister.
“Cordelia, what did you do? I don’t hate you. Please, did you do something to that young man?” Estelle pushed. The police kept back, listening with a close ear.
With great reluctance, the younger sister began to spill her secret…how their father ignored her, how no one ever paid her much attention. So when Andrew Jacobson came calling on her sister and their father disapproved, Cordelia killed him. Lured him to the old house and smashed a rock into his skull. She dumped the body into the old cellar and covered the hole with an old piece of tin metal from the greenhouse.
Over the years the pattern repeated itself as their father deemed each suitor that came to call on his favorite daughter unsuitable. Cordelia would lure them away from the house and incapacitate them, hiding the bodies in the old cellar.
“But Douglas was different. I thought Douglas loved me,” the younger sister whispered, her voice raspy from crying. Estelle had moved to sit beside her sister, wrapping an arm around her and rocking her in gentle motions back and forth as the unbelievable tale spun forth.
“I asked him to take me away. Father hated me; he loved you and hated me. I thought Douglas loved me, that he would take me away…but he didn’t. He was just being nice to me, because he knew it would make you happy. He was going to tell father that I thought…he was going to tell you. He thought it was funny! I couldn’t let him tell you. You’d hate me if you found out. I didn’t want you to hate me…” Cordelia’s broken voice trailed off.
Estelle made soft, reassuring noises to her sister. “Be still. It’s alright. I don’t hate you. Cordelia, you have to be honest with me. Did you do something to Commander Crane?”
But Cordelia was lost in the shadows of the past. “I thought Douglas loved me. I really did…” she whimpered in broken tones
There were no words to describe Chip’s feelings. Lee could have died because this senile old lady thought he was someone she’d already killed once, but somehow he only felt pity for her. So desperate for a little attention that she committed an untold number of murders and now, almost fifty years later, were her deeds only just coming to light. No one ever suspected her.
Chip wrapped his arms around himself, trying to ward off the chill and damp. He stepped away from the crowd, his attention turned back toward the ruins at the bottom of the hill. Shrouded in shadows, they had been forgotten once more with Lee’s rescue. Chip was sure that once daylight came, there would be a more thorough investigation.
Something caught his eye. A figure, pale and nebulous, seemed to float around the broken walls. Chip found himself holding his breath as the figure seemed to stop moving and solidify. A man was standing among the crumbling walls. The figured lifted his head, almost aware that mortal eyes were following him and as Chip watched the figure faded then completely vanished.
The last thing Lee remembered was the cold and the dark. He wasn’t cold now, far from it. He was nice and toasty warm, the mattress under him was soft, the blankets atop him were fluffy and cozy. He sighed, content that he was no longer cold and miserable.
Then it dawned on him. He wasn’t cold and miserable….with a jolt he snapped his eyes open, trying to understand what had happened.
“Easy, skipper. Slow down. You have to walk before you can run.” The voice he knew, the face he knew but…
“Jamie?” Lee croaked and frowned. What happened to his voice?
Will Jamieson, Lee’s arch enemy in all things medical, as well as one of his closest friends, smiled. “Settle down. Behave and I’ll let your visitors come in. I can’t get rid of them so they might as well come in. We’ll try to answer your questions one at a time.”
“My voice?” Lee croaked again. He tried to sit but the doctor placed a very gentle hand on his chest and pushed him back into a supine position. Lee was just too confused to argue.
“Best not to use that voice too much right now. You’ve got a nice healthy case of laryngitis, caused by exposure and overuse. Just rest your voice as much as possible. Now: stay. Promise me?”
Lee nodded in slow motion, too overwhelmed not to. When Jamie stepped away from his bedside and Lee recognized his ‘suite’ at the institute’s Med Bay. How in the hell….
When the admiral and Chip appeared, Lee couldn’t stop smiling. “How are you feeling, lad?” Nelson asked, as he grabbed the nearest chair and pulled rank on Morton, who was left to confiscate one from the other side of the room.
“If you say ‘fine’, I’ll slap you,” Morton warned, plopping down into his acquisition.
Lee grinned and held up the fingers of his right hand in the ‘OK ‘sign. Morton chuckled. “Always the wise guy,” he said. “What’s with the laryngitis anyhow, doc?’
Lee glanced sideways at the doctor and in whisper he answered, “Yelling.”
Chip’s mouth formed a small ‘oh’, as if he should have realized. For a second he could only imagine what Lee went through, screaming and yelling for help and no one heard him for all that time. It wasn’t a pleasant thought.
Lee focused on his friends. He had to think how to ask his questions in as few words as possible. Nelson seemed to understand the confusion in Lee’s eyes. “Let me start from the beginning,” he offered. Lee nodded. “I sent you for a walk, to give you and Chip some time apart, remember?” Nelson asked and Lee nodded, remembering. “Well, apparently you encountered Cordelia Wickwire. Cordelia is…” Nelson searched for the word he wanted.
“Not tightly wrapped,” supplied Chip.
“I couldn’t have said it better,” Nelson agreed, then paused. “Chip, you were there. Maybe you’d better explain this part.”
“I don’t know where to start,” Chip began then turned thoughtful. “I guess I tell it the way she told it. Estelle was the pretty one in the family. She had all the guys in town following her and Cordelia got looked over. Even her father, according to her, looked over her. So Cordelia tried to make her father happy. If he disapproved of any of Estelle’s boyfriends, Cordelia would clunk them on the head and hide the bodies in the cellar of that old house.”
Lee’s eyes widened. “But…” he rasped and Nelson held up a hand.
“Hush. Listen,” the admiral ordered and Lee snapped his jaws shut.
“Nice. Why can’t I get him to do that?” Chip teased.
Nelson grinned. “It’s the stars. Tell him the rest of it.”
“Well, seems that there was one guy who turned up and Cordelia fell in love with him. She tried to convince him to marry her but he was just being nice and marriage to Cordelia was the last thing on his mind.”
“Douglas,” Lee managed. “She called me Douglas.”
“Doc will kill you if he catches you talking too much,” Chip reminded and Lee grinned again. “Anyhow, apparently she killed Douglas. Dropped his body into cellar of the abandoned homestead. They found the remains of six bodies down there.”
Lee blinked. He mouthed the word ‘six’, his eyes somber. He felt a shiver starting to climb up his spine and was helpless to stop it. “The ghost?” he asked, whispering to ease the vibrations on his raw throat.
Nelson’s eyes softened. “I don’t know. We may never know. He could have been one of Estelle’s suitors. Forensics and specialists are working to identify the bodies. They’ll have a proper burial for all of them, when they determine who they are,” he said. Lee remembered Cordelia’s mad ramblings before knocking him out. He opened his mouth to speak but Nelson cut him off. “It can keep, lad. Just rest. Doc said you’ve got a bit of infection due to that filthy water you were stranded in. Nothing major.”
Lee still didn’t have all the answers. “Find me?” he hacked out as his lungs tried to expel the gelatinous buildup inside.
Chip got up and got a cup of ice chips for Lee to suck on. They soothed his raw throat and eased the coughing a bit.
“How did we find you?” Nelson asked for Lee and got a nod from the brunet. “Very long and drawn-out story. We finally tracked your cell phone and I took a wild-hair guess that you might be somewhere around what was left of that old house. From there we found the hole and I went in. You were unconscious when I found you.”
Chip picked up the threads of the story. “The rescue party arrived at that point; we got an ambulance on site and took you back to the hospital where they treated you for hypothermia. You were as blue as an ice cube when they pulled you out of that da…freaking hole. Scared the crap out of me. They wouldn’t turn you lose for twenty-four hours and you never regained consciousness. We managed to get them to release you for transport back to Santa Barbara; I broke the Flying Sub’s old speed record to get you here. You totally missed that,” Chip added as Lee stuck his tongue out at the blond in response. “You’ve been under Jamie’s care since then. That was yesterday morning.”
“How sick?” Lee asked. He knew that he had to be ill with something, he felt lousy, despite begin warm and alive. His head was certainly not happy. He sat the cup of ice on the nearby table to focus on the doctor, who was leaning against a nearby wall, listening to the story, ready to step in if needed.
Chip and Nelson traded glances but it was Jamie who interjected. “Let me answer that. Skipper, you’re going to be with us for a while, so let’s get a few things straight. Argue with me and I will use everything in my considerable arsenal to keep you sedated for an entire month, if necessary. Do we have an understanding?”
Lee blinked. Jamie was serious! How bad off was he? With a sigh, he nodded and tried to look innocent. Jamie just snorted.
“I know that look. However, I’ll give you a free pass this once. We’ll start with the hypothermia. When they rescued you, your core body temperature put you well within the severe range. That took a while to reverse but the doctors in Boston did an excellent job. You spent over ten hours in waist-deep, filthy cold water. The drop in body temperature, combined with the exposure, not to mention you hadn’t fully recovered from the gunshot, seriously compromised your immune system. All indications point to a full blown case of pneumonia. You are here for the duration. You already have a double lung infection, as that cough tells you, as well as an ear infection, the laryngitis I already mentioned, and a secondary, but minor, infection in the bullet wound. The final touch is that nice bandage on your head, coordinating nicely with the greens you’re wearing,” Jamie said.
Surprised, Lee’s hand reached for his head, only just now registering the square patch of gauze there. Under Jamie’s watchful eye he traced it with his fingers, judging size and estimating the wound underneath. He was careful not to try and remove it. That would explain the pounding in his head.
“Seven stitches,” Jamie said, answering the unspoken question. “You took a solid wallop from something. What you can’t see is the concussion. You’ve got a hard head, but you collided with something harder.”
“Shovel,” Lee whispered, his eyes losing their focus as he remembered.
Jamie nodded. “That would do it. I’m warning you, Lee. I expect you to cooperate. You can argue with me, swear to me that you feel fine, but I have the facts and they tell me that you are going to be a very sick young man soon. If I have to sedate you, I will. Have I mentioned that you aren’t going anywhere for a while?”
Lee grinned and blinked once more. “No sedate. Be good,” he rasped.
“Sure. Next you’ll tell me you have a bridge to sell me.”
Lee grinned and tilted his head. “Promise,” he added.
Jamie glanced down at Chip and the admiral. “You know, I almost believe him,” he said and everyone laughed.
With his questions, well, most of his questions answered, Lee felt himself growing drowsy. He frowned and glared at Jamie. “Don’t give me that look. I’m innocent this time. Lee, you are exhausted. This is just your body telling you it’s had enough. Listen to it, and me, for once.”
Lee nodded. Nelson got to his feet, pausing to give Lee’s shoulder a reassuring squeeze. “I’ll come back tomorrow. You listen to Doc,” he said.
Lee nodded again. Nodding hurt less on his throat. Nelson maneuvered his way around Chip, indicating to Morton that he follow. Chip rose out of the chair, but Lee’s raspy voice called out his name, stopping him. Chip glanced back at this friend.
“Stay?” Lee asked.
“Skipper, you should rest and I know what’s going to happen if Chip stays,” Jamie argued, but Nelson took the doctor by the arm.
“Make an exception this time. I’ll fill you in later,” Nelson said. Jamie looked over at Lee and Chip, than back to Nelson. There was something subtle at play here and Jamie had no clue what it was. Well, if the admiral was offering an explanation... “Okay. He can stay. But Lee does not talk. He has got to let his throat rest.”
Lee gave Jamie a thumbs-up sign then pantomimed himself holding a key and ‘locking’ his lips shut. Then he grinned angelically again, his hazel eyes sparking but tired.
“I’ll hold you to that,” Jamie answered and followed the admiral out of the suite. Lee pointed to the chair that Nelson had just left and Chip sat down. He pointed to Chip and with one hand he made a talking motion with his fingers.
“You want me to talk to you?” Chip guessed and Lee nodded. “What on earth about?” Lee spread his hands in a ‘whatever’ gesture. “Why?”
Lee rose up, looking out the door for lurking doctors and leaned over to Chip, thinking about how to keep it simple. “You were mad. I’m sorry. You can hover all you want,” Lee said as loud as he dared.
Chip held out his hand and Lee dropped his into the waiting palm. “I’m sorry too. If it means anything.”
With his free hand, Lee again made the talking sign. “Okay, okay.” Chip struggled to come up with something to talk about. “You’re coming back with me for Christmas?”
Lee shrugged and waggled his hand back and forth. Chip understood. Lee’s mother was a photographer whose assignments might last weeks, even months on location. “Okay. Just in case you are, I talked to Mom the other day and she has finalized Christmas dinner. If not, this is what you’ll be missing out on.” Chip launched into a description of his mother’s cooking and the desserts that were a stable of the Morton Holiday Table.
Lee didn’t care what Chip talked about. The silence of that hole haunted him still and Chip’s voice would keep the memory of the black and cold stillness at bay. Lee drifted to sleep, protected by the cadence of Chip’s voice and his reassuring grip.
 “Oh, The Places You’ll Go”, Dr. Seuss, 1990