Author’s note: Heartfelt thanks to Liz Martin for all her help and constructive comments and suggestions on this one. Liz, you are a terrific sounding board – and a great nag too! This one would never have been finished without you.
“D’you ever get the feeling you were being followed?”
The blond clad in Service Dress Whites almost choked on the weak whiskey and water he had just lifted to his lips, his bright blue eyes twinkling amusedly. When he’d gotten the small coughing fit under control he managed to grin sardonically at his companion, who was glancing uncomfortably around the plush ballroom.
“If you mean followed by eyes, then you’re not wrong, Lee. Fifty percent of the invited guests have been eyeing you all night.” At the jerked response from the brunet, as amber eyes locked on blue, Morton couldn’t resist teasing. “That’s one hundred percent of the female attendees, Captain Crane. The ‘choker whites’ do extraordinary things for your complexion,” he hammed, using the exact phrase his secretary Debbie – happily married with two great kids – had used when she’d gotten an eyeful of Seaview’s skipper as they’d all left the Institute in the fleet of staff cars provided. Crane’s scowl – and the accompanying blush, which even Lee’s olive skin couldn’t entirely hide – caused him to chuckle harder.
The average age of the invitees to this incredibly boring soiree, but a command performance for NIMR’s senior staff as Admiral Nelson’s late sister had been a founding member of the host charity, was 55 plus – and that only by dint of the number of younger Institute employees that had been co-opted. The one saving grace was that they were only expected to put in an appearance for the drinks reception and the charity auction. Nelson and his date for the evening would stay for the formal dinner – having persuaded (nagged) Will Jamieson and his new lady friend to keep him company. The admiral knew his younger staff members had better things to do on a Friday evening and had only requested their presence for the informal proceedings, tacitly acknowledging that the handsome young officers in their formal Whites would have hands dipping deeper into pockets – mostly at the behest of their admiring ladies. Especially as he’d already set up Crane and Morton to keep the bidding live if it waned, his assurance that the Institute would pick up the tab in the unlikely event that they got caught out giving them carte blanche to keep the bidding healthy. They’d been doing this for three of these annual shindigs now and NIMR had yet to pay out a sou.
This year he’d encouraged – OK, bribed – Bob O’Brien and Chris James to join the party. Several years younger than the senior officers, they were both ‘poster boy material’ and, judging by the reception they’d received, were an immediate hit with the daughters of the cream of Santa Barbara society, who would again urge their parents to tap into their pockets. All in the aid of a good cause, he assured himself.
His senior officers were by now reluctant experts at this.
Even as he thought the thought he saw Crane uncharacteristically manoeuvre himself and Morton back into a corner where they could blend into the background – as much as could be expected – while watching what was happening in the greater expanse of the room. His eyes narrowed, wondering what the devil they were up to. His date, Nancy Fitzpatrick – a widowed friend from Boston who was in town for a couple of weeks visiting her daughter and grandchildren – followed the direction of his gaze and, knowing him only too well, caught the curiosity that had been so much a part of him when they were growing up. Seemed things hadn’t changed much in the intervening years. She rolled her eyes, shaking her head amusedly.
“Harry, why don’t you go see what’s going on with your men. I’ll be fine here.” She snagged a passing Angie Newman by the elbow. NIMR’s Deputy Director had been checking that the buffet met the Institute’s exacting standards, having taken over the role that Edith Nelson had been tasked with before her tragic death two years earlier. “Angie can keep me company while you’re gone. I’m sure she’ll tell me what havoc you’ve been wreaking since my last visit!”
“Not certain that’s necessarily a good
thing.” Nelson retorted dryly, casting a
wry look at his able assistant who grinned unrepentantly back, green eyes
sparkling. “Women!” He shook his head humorously, glad that
Having married young, her husband had died some
ten years ago, leaving her alone in her late thirties with one teenage daughter
to bring up. Nelson had dutifully
attended the funeral, not having seen either Con or
Which brought him back to his previous thoughts. Far from working the room, Crane and Morton were in what appeared to be serious discussion in one of the recessed areas of the ballroom. A frown beginning to cloud his brow, he attempted to calm his escalating temper. Damnit, what was going on here? They were supposed to circulate! They both knew how much this night and the fundraising meant to him – because of Edith. But if there was a problem with the boat, he wanted to hear about it – now.
He fielded various dignitaries who attempted to engage him in small talk as he crossed the room at a measured pace, acknowledging them but declining to stop and converse. Manoeuvring adroitly around a pair of plump society matrons, who practically swooned at the sight of the stocky but somehow powerful man in the white uniform with enough gold braid to trim a pair of full-length curtains, he drew to a halt before his two senior officers who were still talking in low tones although he caught the slight snicker that came from the tall blond and the responding frown on his equally tall companion’s more serious face. A cleared throat indicated his intense displeasure and both men turned swiftly towards him, almost snapping to attention.
“Gentlemen, is there a problem I should be aware of?” His brusque tone signified his annoyance and he distractedly sipped his drink as he was reassured that nothing of boat’s business demanded his immediate attention. “Then why, may I ask, are you both sequestering yourselves in the corner when I need you to mingle with our paying guests?”
“Sorry, sir, no excuses, sir!” Came simultaneously and he patented one of his extremely irritated ‘harrumphs’ at the stock response, it giving nothing away.
“Not good enough, Gentlemen!” He shot back, conscious of the fact that he was being cantankerous but unable to help himself. It was partly due to the fact that he knew he’d be trapped here for the entire evening while his younger colleagues would be free to leave after the auction. Therefore, surely it wasn’t too much to ask that they see their way clear to performing as expected for the relatively short time they were required to be here?
“My fault, Admiral.” As usual, Morton attempted to deflect any blame from his captain and friend. Nelson noted the virtually concealed shushing motion from the exec as Chip drew himself to his full height and he almost grinned despite his bad humour – this should be a good one!
“Lee’s had some ‘strange’ occurrences during the week, sir. He’s feeling a tad paranoid!” At the inevitable frown from one and groan from the other, Chip hastened to explain. “Oh, nothing sinister, Admiral. Just some of his favourite oatmeal cookies gift-wrapped and left on his desk, a posy of his favourite flowers, a few slices of home-cured ham and homemade biscuits left for his lunch, some handmade slippers ‘to dispel the cold when at sea when’….”
“Alright, Chip! I think the admiral gets the message.” Crane’s scowl grew fierce as he saw his superior officer now struggle to contain his mirth. Morton didn’t even attempt it, guffawing cheerily as he caught the twitch of Nelson’s lips.
“Another ‘admirer’, Lee?” Humour instantly restored, crystal blue eyes twinkling at the dark look on his young captain’s face, he was prepared to forgive and forget. “How many does this make it? Seems all the Institute’s ladies want to take care of you, lad!” His amusement waned somewhat as he recalled the most recent threat to his young captain’s life – a sadistic vengeance-seeking female who had wanted to hurt Nelson by injuring those closest to him.
“I don’t need taking care of!” Nelson’s bark of sardonic laughter was mimicked by the exec’s – behind a hastily disguised cough – as his highly trained, battle seasoned captain, veteran of more combat missions than any man of his rank and years should be, groaned theatrically and shook his head in despair.
Rescue appeared in the guise of a long-legged, beautifully dressed young woman – sporting a microphone in one hand and with a camera crew dogging her steps.
“Guys, give me a minute but be ready to shoot on my GO! Admiral Nelson! Hey, Lee, Chip! How goes it?”
More than grateful for the rescue, Lee leant forward to press a kiss on the cheek of the pretty, grey-eyed, caramel-haired TV journalist who had once been more than a friend. They were still that as was evidenced by her sparkling eyes and good humour when she enthusiastically returned his kiss and turned to punch Morton gently on the arm, quickly evading his retaliation, giggling infectiously at his attempt to tickle her.
“Slick moves, Newshound!” He teased, grinning at her engaging laugh.
“Gotta be quicker to out-smart the smart ones, Sailor Boy!” It was a well-established routine between the pair.
They’d developed an enduring friendship when
she’d been dating Lee, and the anchorwoman for
Linda Nugent was what Chip called a ‘honey’ and he’d had high hopes of a lasting relationship for his friend. But demanding careers and a touch too much independence on both sides had deemed otherwise. But she’d come to regard the fun-loving blond almost as highly as Lee. Her friendly – and sometimes not so friendly – banter was a big part of her charm.
“Dig the Whites, guys! Does wonderful things for your complexion, Lee! ” Her almost silver-grey eyes sparkled with humour and her glossed mouth tipped upwards in a mischievous grin as Lee growled something under his breath at Chip, the latter striving manfully to contain his laughter, azure eyes twinkling at her wickedly and she guessed she’d stepped on something of an old joke. Never one to miss an opportunity, she batted her eyelashes playfully at the exec. “And your mom keeps you lovely, Chip! That blond hair and those beauuuuuutiful blue eyes – the epitome of the good clean living all-American boy.” Putting her head to one side and tapping a fingernail consideringly against her lower lip, she amended, “Well, maybe we should skip the clean living part.”
It was Lee’s turn to chuckle as the tables were
turned on his friend and he watched the blush rise over Chip’s cheekbones. She wasn’t finished yet, sighing dramatically
as she turned to an amused Nelson.
“Poster boy material for everything a
“Not always, Miss Nugent. Unfortunately, not always.” Nelson intoned drolly, with a knowing look at his men whose expressions turned decidedly discomfited.
Linda wished she had more time to find out what that was all about. “Back to work for me, I’m afraid, guys. Some of us have a living to earn. You ready for our interview, Admiral?” At Nelson’s nod, she gestured her cameraman and sound engineer forward. “We’ll stick with the questions we’ve already gone through, Admiral; what tonight means to the Nelson Institute and to you personally; why you feel there’s a need for events like tonight’s Gala and how much money you hope to raise for the Children’s Fund from the dinner and the auction. And maybe Lee and Chip can tell us about one or two of the more interesting items to be auctioned this evening.”
She’d been checking her microphone as she spoke and looked up to note that the two had taken a step away from the admiral so that they were no longer in camera shot. Before she could comment, Nelson interrupted smoothly. “We agreed the interview would be with me, Miss Nugent, not my officers.”
Momentarily startled, not having taken Nelson for an egotist, a single glance at the two men in question showed that they weren’t offended by his action but seemed strangely glad of it. On reflection, she recalled the numerous times Lee had shied away from any form of publicity. Chip too, now that she thought of it. Hmmm, curiouser and curiouser!
“As you wish, Admiral. Perhaps they could kind of stand behind you, in shot of the camera but I won’t ask them to contribute to the interview.” Playing ball was the only way to get this four-star officer’s co-operation and she valued her “IN” to the NIMR circle. Plus – she wouldn’t let Lee down. He trusted her and, while her journalistic nose sensed something more going on here, her innate code of ethics (somewhat unusual for a member of her profession) wouldn’t allow her to abuse that hard won trust. As her cameraman got ready to film and her sound guy counted off the seconds to live transmission, she almost infinitesimally caught the sudden shift in Morton’s stance; nothing major, just enough that Lee’s face was now in shadow. She frowned but it was too late to do anything about it as the final seconds ticked away and she segued smoothly into what she did best.
What she didn’t do best was punctures.
Especially not in a flimsy cocktail dress and heels in a dark, badly lit, downtown hotel car park, having sent her crew back to the station with the tape for the late news show. Swearing a blue streak, she hurled her shoes and miniscule clutch purse into the front passenger seat before stalking barefoot to pop the trunk and haul out the spare wheel and requisite tools.
She was wrenching at the stubborn lug nuts, still muttering dire curses under her breath, when she became aware of someone approaching. Tensing in the semi darkness, wielding the wrench defensively, she surged to her feet – and dropped her arm as she expelled a ragged sigh. “Lee, you frightened the sh.. life out of me!”
Crane frowned, taking in her thin dress and bare feet. “What are you doing trying to change a tyre on your own, dressed like that? Why didn’t you come get someone to do it for you?”
She bristled with indignation – this had been an integral factor in them calling an end to their relationship. “Because I can do it myself! I don’t need anyone to do it for me. And you’re, what? Going to change my wheel dressed like that?” Indicating his Dress Whites.
He was already stripping off his jacket, revealing the tight white T-shirt underneath. Throwing his jacket and cover onto the passenger seat through the open door, he levelled a cool amber gaze at her defiant stance and, before she could object, plucked the wrench out of her more-than-capable hand, hunkering down to efficiently jack up the axle and deal with the recalcitrant wheel nuts. Much to her intense chagrin!
“I could have done it!”
“No contest, Newshound!” Came an amused voice from behind her, making her whirl at the unexpected. Geez, she’d thought her reflexes were better honed! She hadn’t heard Morton move in behind her. Seriously in need of a refresher course in self-defence, she chided herself.
“But why would you want to? When you have ready, willing and able in the shape of the Navy’s finest at your disposal?”
“Don’t notice you wading in to help, Sailor Boy!” She retorted as she fished her shoes out of the car and hopped on one foot as she donned them.
“No point in swelling the coffers of the local dry cleaners if we don’t have to.” Came the blond’s lazy response as he tipped his cover back on his wheaten gold hair and she snorted dryly. “Besides, Lee doesn’t need any help to change a simple tyre. He’s well used to doing that on his little baby.” Referring to his friend’s penchant for speeding along in his classic Shelby Cobra Convertible, which needed replacement tyres more than twice as often as his own beloved SUV.
“Chip doesn’t believe in getting dirty unless he absolutely has to.” Crane grunted as he tugged the wheel free, setting it aside as he reached for the replacement. “The resident joke on Seaview is that the laundry staff use more starch on Morton’s gear than on the rest of the boat combined!” Alluding to the creases in the exec’s khaki’s that always seemed just a tad sharper than anyone else’s.
Comfortable with the on-going ribbing, Morton grinned amiably at the back of his friend’s head. “Yeah, and enough Clorox on the captain’s uniforms to have Stores pitching a fit after every cruise. Not to mention the ones he manages to totally destroy.” He angled close enough to whisper – mindful of her sharp elbow and its proximity to his ribs. “The Institute had to substantially increase their uniform budget when Lee took over the captaincy….”
“Enough, Chip! Just goes to prove I’m not afraid to get my hands dirty.” He knew Morton couldn’t see the evil grin but wouldn’t be able to resist rising to the challenge.
“Uh, uh, uh, Lee. Not going to get me that easy, bro.” He winked at Linda, who was now bemusedly watching the familiar interplay. “Twenty says you can’t change the wheel without getting anything more than your hands dirty.” Fairness was a given.
“Dinner’s on you if I do!” Crane shot back.
“Done!” Never one to refuse a sure thing Morton glibly agreed but, knowing his friend only too well, tempered it with a cautionary disclaimer. “But I choose the restaurant!”
“Agreed!” Crane flicked him a smug glance that had the blond frowning. It quickly dawned that he’d been suckered – but he couldn’t figure out how. Until Lee adroitly stood up, having tested the newly tightened nuts, cleaned his hands on the wet wipes Linda had provided and held them out, palms up for his exec’s inspection, indicating his spotless clothes. “Mine, I think.”
Always a gracious loser, Morton conceded immediately. “And I vote Mexican. I quite fancy some tacos. Feel like joining us, Linda?”
“Only if I spring for the beer. I could have done it but, truthfully, I’d have been here half the night trying to get those wheel nuts off if it wasn’t for you, Lee.”
Shrugging his jacket back over one shoulder, Crane demurred. “No go, Linda. Anyone would have done the same. Besides, a bet’s a bet! Morton gets to pick up the entire tab – and I for one am starving!!”
It had been a fun evening. Linda had given Lee a ride to the restaurant while Chip waited for Angie who had been delayed ensuring the admiral and his party were seated - and soothing his slight grump when he’d learned of his senior staff’s plan for the rest of the evening. She knew where he’d rather be!
The two naval officers had caused somewhat of a
stir among the cliental as they’d entered the small family-run Mexican
establishment; where they were obviously well known and greeted effusively by
Ramon - the chef/patron - before being shown to a quiet table; Ramon’s wife,
Consuela, taking over as their hostess.
Morton had retrieved a garment bag from the trunk of Angie’s car and he
and Lee had disappeared into the men’s room to emerge several minutes later
more casually dressed. Chip had stashed
their uniforms back in Angie’s trunk before sliding into the comfortable booth
opposite Lee and Linda and the four friends had relaxed, chatted about the evening,
ribbed each other mercilessly and ate their way through what felt like the
entire contents of the menu, having put themselves in Consuela’s very capable
hands. She was familiar enough with the NIMR staff to know that if eating were
an Olympic sport Morton would win gold for the
Chip practically drooled as she set out the fare and Lee pondered as to how he could make a significant enough dent to prevent the disappointed pout Consuela now had down to a T. He surprised himself and ate more than he’d intended, seduced by the ambience and the low key attitude of his friends, whose chatter and friendly badgering was almost conducive to sublime relaxation, and the variety of foodstuffs had him reaching for more than he’d thought he would be able to consume.
Morton took pleasure in watching his friend put away more than his fair share of the wonderful food. He’d long ago sussed that it was easier to get Lee to chow down when he was sufficiently distracted that he didn’t realise he was slowing his usual hectic pace enough to actually enjoy what he was eating; and made a mental note to cue Jamie in on the slight subterfuge – it being an on-going battle between CO and CMO on the former’s eating habits. But for now Lee was very relaxed and at his most charming best, with a font of hilarious stories and being a wonderful raconteur when he wanted to be - and made the effort. He was at the height of his not inconsiderable prowess tonight; comfortable with his long time friends, pressure off and enjoying the barracking as they bantered familiarly back and forth.
As the night drew to a close, they found themselves in the restaurant car park, happily bickering over the logistics of getting each of them home. With both officers living on the NIMR base and both ladies having apartments in downtown SB, the latter pair having their cars there, it was finally settled that Chip would drive Angie home while Lee dropped Linda back to her place and Chip would pick him up from there and drive both of them back to the Institute in Angie’s car which he would drop back to her the next day. Agreement having been finally and amicably reached, both couples exchanged the appropriate hugs and kisses as they departed.
And if Lee noticed that Angie’s smile was a tad forced right at the end, he put it down to the exhaustion of almost a week of twenty-hour days culminating in the relief of a job well done and sore feet – demonstrated by the fact that she was barefoot and carrying her heels.
Neither couple saw the silent witness to their departure lurking in the darkened area of the car park; fists clenched and face a mask of bitterness.
Lee had planned to meet Chip first thing
Saturday for a round of golf at the nearby country club where they were members
but the weather had other ideas. He woke
to dismal grey skies and steadily beating rain, unusual for a late June day in
He shifted onto his back, letting his eyes drift shut as he savoured the luxury of the lightweight duvet, which was all the covering he needed. Despite the rain lashing against the bedroom window, he was warm and cosy and allowed himself a few minutes to savour the cocooning comfort of his bed. The pleasant memories of the previous evening seeped back and he grinned. It was good – more than good – to watch the relationship between Chip and Angie come into its own, finally see them acknowledge the attraction between them and make time for each other rather than using their busy schedules as an excuse to deny what they felt.
His brow creased as he recalled the recent incident that had forced Chip to eventually admit to his feelings for the petite brunette. All three of them, plus Chris James and Stu Riley, had been victims of a plot to hurt Admiral Nelson by a vengeful woman police sergeant who had succeeded in killing a good friend of Chip’s before Nelson had managed to shoot her. *
Chris had recovered quickly but it had taken longer for Riley to regain full mobility in his shoulder and it was still doubtful as to whether he would be able to defend his World Surfing Championship. Lee sighed, tucking his hands behind his head as he burrowed further into his comfy nest. Will Jamieson had operated initially to remove the bullet but had called in the foremost expert in the region to advise on follow up treatment. Riley would have the best chance money could buy him; whether it would be enough to secure him a subsequent Championship was in the lap of the Gods. Not surprisingly, Seaview’s youngest rating was full of optimism and refused to admit defeat. He was aided and cosseted by his best friends, Kowalski and Patterson, and if that triumvirate couldn’t succeed than nothing would, Lee conceded. And whatever they needed to get Riley back competing, he would ensure they had. It was a sound, supportive friendship and what hurt one, hurt them all.
He stretched his legs out under the covers, relishing the pleasant heat and the quiet moments that he somehow found so hard to carve out for himself. His fault, entirely, but he was a ‘thinker’ by nature and a ‘loner’ by dint of his upbringing. His grin surfaced unbidden – the latter having been all but knocked out of him by his arbitrary pairing with Chip Morton on his first day at the Naval Academy and his subsequent adoption into the Morton clan thereafter.
There were more than similarities between the Riley/Ski/Pat relationship and his own with Chip Morton. Kowalski and Patterson were senior ratings on the boat, plank owners, while Riley was a relatively new kid on the block who’d been taken under the wing of the older hands when they’d sussed his naivety, youthfulness and penchant for trouble. Within weeks of their pairing as roommates at the Academy, Morton had pegged the younger-by-almost-a-full-year Crane as a veritable trouble magnet and deemed it his forte in life to be there to haul him out of whatever situation he found himself in. And, on more than one memorable occasion, he had!
Their roles had changed several years ago when Crane had assumed command of Seaview, the new boy - but the senior officer - to the seasoned XO and plank owner. Adjustments having taken place – some more difficult than others, but both men being consummate professionals – they had settled into their respective roles to the betterment of the boat and their brotherhood. But Morton still embraced his role as older brother off boat and diligent and ever watchful XO on Seaview, defining – without apologies – his primary function as ‘looking after his CO’. While it irked him sometimes, Lee privately enjoyed the warm fuzzy feeling it – usually – engendered, having someone there exclusively for him. And he couldn’t have wished for a more efficient exec, both so in tune in their professional and private lives that they could practically read each others’ thoughts, making words often unnecessary and orders followed almost before they’d been voiced.
He wriggled comfortably, enjoying the
unexpected down time. It was fun seeing
Morton finally smitten – correction, hooked!
Even if he didn’t fully appreciate it yet. Lee had known his friend had feelings for the
admiral’s PA but Chip had given himself away more than publicly with his overt
concern when Angie had been the first victim of their latest nemesis. And when there had been a follow up attack in
Come to think of it, it was more than likely that the crew was also privy to the secret. He grinned evilly, remembering an incident when he’d walked into the crew’s mess of an evening (as was his wont on his tour of the boat) just over a year ago to see money changing hands and a book being hurriedly shoved out of sight by the Senior Rating, Kowalski. It had been right after the Puppet Master affair and, if memory served him, Morton’s name had been highlighted on one side of the page and Angie’s on the other before the book had been hastily removed from his sight by a red-faced rating. But the XO was extremely well regarded by the crew and, while they wouldn’t have hesitated keeping a book on his romances (after all, in their minds, he had a reputation as something of a ladies’ man to uphold) they wouldn’t have embarrassed him by acknowledging it publicly. And the crew fairly doted on the admiral’s PA, now NIMR’s Deputy Director.
But it had taken rather longer than expected for his friend to show up at Linda’s to pick him up the previous evening – Lee had had plenty of time for a second cup of coffee! Linda was a good friend – and he was glad for that. She’d taken the change in their relationship extremely well. Both being pragmatists, they’d discussed at some length where their future lay. Unfortunately they’d each come to the conclusion that it was headed in very different directions. That they’d managed to resurrect a solid and lasting friendship spoke volumes for the people they were. Both driven personally to succeed in their chosen careers and, while they’d been wildly attracted to each other, the depth hadn’t been there to sustain the intensity such diametrically opposed careers would necessitate. And neither had been prepared to compromise.
Chip Morton had spelt it out in words that Lee had been forced to acknowledge. Linda was too independent. After sufficient lubricant to loosen his tongue, Lee had asked for his friend’s input. And had to concede the truth when it all but slapped him in the face. Morton had couched it brilliantly – shades of his own foibles. Both of them being career Navy – aside from the fact that they’d entered the Reserves to work with Nelson – both officers and gentlemen (mostly), their primary profile was that of nurturer and protector and that was, essentially, the need they sought in the woman of their dreams. Oh, yeah, but she had to be sufficiently capable of coping with their protracted absences and the inherent danger of their job description without coming totally unglued. In short, Chip had laid it out - semi-drunkenly - they were seeking a chimera.
A woman who could be all things to their man, independent enough to survive their deployments but woman enough to enjoy their protective maleness when they were around. Lee sighed, for the first time in his life envious of what Morton had found in Angie. She was like a bolshy younger sister to him, giving no quarter, ruling NIMR – and at times even the admiral – with a rod of iron but sweet and feminine enough to satisfy the nurturer/protector that was his best friend. She’d proven herself a worthy mate for Chip, coming through a couple of harsh ordeals – having been a target in both the Puppet Master’s and Alanna O’Regan’s campaign to get to Nelson. (* & **)
Lee sighed, it was seldom that he was relaxed enough to enjoy the opportunity to allow his thoughts to wander, and snuggled further into the comforting warmth of the duvet as the rain continued its rhythmic beating against the windowpane. He knew it wouldn’t last long so he was determined to savour the few minutes he probably had left.
He’d been attracted to Linda Nugent at their first meeting – who wouldn’t? She was beautiful, witty, genuinely nice and the attraction had been mutual. They’d enjoyed a wonderful few months before they’d admitted that there was something intrinsically missing from their relationship. He knew what that was – although it had taken him some time to admit it to himself.
Having been brought up from the age of five in a single parent home without siblings, he wanted for his own kids the upbringing that Chip Morton had had – a two parent family with squabbling kids ruled uncontested by a wonderfully supportive mom and dad and with a stability that he secretly envied, never having known it during his formative years. Truth to tell, he’d found it for the first time when he’d been brought home to the Morton enclave and been immediately adopted into their family. Even then he’d been secretly suspicious – that it was too picture-perfect, that it wouldn’t/couldn’t last. He’d been quickly – and quietly – proved wrong and that had been largely due to his friend’s mother. Claire, although she’d worked outside the home as a teacher, was instinctively THERE for her children. She had an inherently nurturing nature, which she had passed on to her children (much to Lee’s frustration at times in Chip’s case) and once Lee had come into her milieu, he too had been cocooned by her maternal forces – sometimes not in ways that he appreciated at the time! But her love was unconditional and he’d quickly fallen under her spell. It being entirely mutual had taken him a longer time to cotton onto.
THAT was what he aspired to for his own children – and he wasn’t prepared to compromise. Part of him knew that there was someone out there for him who would fit the bill perfectly; he’d wanted it to be Linda but pretty soon knew that she was too wrapped up in her own career. No bad thing at all and wonderful for her own personal ambition, but not compatible to their relationship – given where his career was taking him right now and the all too frequent dangers he and his crew had to face.
Perhaps he was destined to be like Nelson and his career would consume him to the point that he had no permanent outside relationship. He sincerely hoped not. Much as he revered Harriman Nelson – and he admitted that he’d always found the admiral worthy of his awe – he hoped that there was a significant other and a brood of children in his future.
The intrusive ring of the phone beside his bed interrupted his enjoyable reverie. Lazily unhooking his hand from behind his head he reached for the instrument.
There was a pause before his friend spoke, exasperation evident in his tone. “How’d you know it was me?”
“Who else at…” he squinted to read the clock’s dial in the barely brightening early morning, as the grey skies restricted the light, “…0630 on a Saturday morning when we’d planned to play golf in an hour. As you’re looking out at the same thing I am, I guess our game is cancelled.” He sighed. “There goes my twenty bucks.”
A snort was his only answer.
“And I guess a run is out of the question?” Crane wasn’t above teasing his long time friend.
“In this? Masochistic, I’m not!” Lee could almost hear his friend’s shudder of revulsion.
“So, fancy spotting me in the gym?”
Morton groaned. Spending so much of their lives underwater had its downside and, while he was probably the first to hit Seaview’s gym in the mornings when they were at sea, he preferred the open air, the beach or the golf / tennis courts that surrounded NIMR property rather than the state of the art gym facility that Nelson provided for his staff.
“Lee…” It was a definite whine.
“What if I sweeten the pot? Your twenty against my fifty that I can bench press 220 in a shorter time than you can.”
This time the pause was calculated. Crane could almost hear the cogs shifting in Morton’s brain, followed by a suspicious, “D’you gain back that ten pounds Jamie was on your case about the past two weeks?”
“Jeez, Chip!” The disgust in Lee’s voice was enough for his friend, who backed off – having immediately (and satisfactorily) gleaned that nothing was further from Crane’s sphere of thought.
“OK, you’re on! Pick you up in fifteen!”
Knowing he’d be showering after their workout – and probably dropping into his office to check his in-box, Lee hopped out of bed and, following a quick but thorough shave, donned an old Navy sweat suit that had seen better days, packed a carry-all with a change of clothes and some sundries he’d need for whatever came his way during the day. He briefly toyed with the idea of bringing a uniform but, as he only planned a quick visit to the office, deemed it unnecessary. It wasn’t a lengthy trip back to his condo on NIMR’s base if it came to it but he liked to be prepared for all eventualities. And he knew his exacting XO – and best friend – would deem him a lame brain if he didn’t show up with all entities covered. Which was why he kept spare khakis and Oxfords both in the office and on the boat. Sometimes Morton reverted to his childhood in a not so stellar fashion – at least as far as his closest-thing-to-a-younger-brother was concerned!
Morton mightn’t rate the gym over other preferred – outdoor – pursuits but he didn’t let that deter him from giving his body a thorough workout, his competitive nature spurred by the leaner but toned brunet whose well-defined muscle groups were revealed now that both men had stripped down to singlet and shorts. Following their warm up they’d made use of the extensive equipment Nelson had seen fit to install before donning helmets and gloves and taking up positions in the sparring ring he’d also put in, knowing Crane’s love for the sport. Chip had learnt over the years how to avoid total humiliation on the odd occasions he allowed his friend to coax him into the ring. Lee had been the inter-collegiate boxing champion during their tenure at the Academy and Chip had a very healthy respect for the power and reach of his punches. He’d learnt early on to stay out of Lee’s contact zone and got his own workout from avoidance techniques and parrying blows rather than up close and personal. Even his heavier build was no contest and, while Lee’s structured all-but-professional approach made him a formidable opponent, Chip – no slouch himself – should have connected more than he did.
He had long ago conceded that he couldn’t best his oldest friend in this sphere but he gleaned a little more insight into Lee’s superlative skills each time he was persuaded to spar with him and thus gave his friend at least a semblance of a competitive workout. Once they’d moved on to other arenas he was back to his usual teasing, cutthroat self.
They’d been at it for over an hour but that early on a Saturday morning they had been practically guaranteed to have the place to themselves so both heads swivelled simultaneously when the door from one of the adjacent locker rooms opened. Both jaws dropped – simultaneously – as a vision in Lycra hesitated at the sight of the sweat-soaked men who were the gym’s only occupants.
“Oh, I…hope I’m not intruding. There’s usually no-one here at this time on a Saturday.” She turned back towards the door as if she almost expected to see opening hours posted.
Her short blonde curls were caught up at the nape back of her neck in some kind of pretty swatch of material, her blue eyes were wide at their unexpected presence, her legs went on forever and her hour-glass figure was perfectly encased in clinging electric blue Lycra that covered her from neck to ankle.
Crane was the first to recover, moving adroitly from the bench press where he’d been pumping close to the 220 of his bet with Morton, who was his spotter on this occasion.
“Not at all. This isn’t our usual time slot either. The weather…” He vaguely indicated towards the bank of windows against which the rain still beat in monotonous regularity.
“I understand, Captain.” Her voice was low and musical, with a slight but definite Southern twang. Chip had also risen to his feet politely and her deep blue eyes caught the movement, swinging in his direction. “Please don’t let me interrupt you, Commander. I have a set routine, you won’t even know I’m here.”
Chip’s barely breathed “I doubt that!” had Lee elbowing him in the ribs, his low “Down, boy!” for Morton’s ears only.
“We’re just about finished here anyway, Ms. Snow. Give us ten minutes and we’ll be out of your hair.” Lee promised.
“Not necessary, Captain Crane. I’m quite OK with it if you are.” She moved to the other side of the large airy room and began her warm up exercises, seeming unaffected by the officers’ presence.
Lee had to drag Chip’s attention back to their previous activity. His friend’s concentration was shot! He kicked Morton’s shin non-too-gently with the toe of his battered sneaker, bringing the exec’s indignant face back to his. “You’re practically spoken for – or have you forgotten?”
“Just cos you’re eatin’ at home doesn’t mean you can’t look at a menu!” Chip rejoined smugly, his grin widening at Lee’s disgusted snort. He knew, and Lee knew, that he’d never act on the impulse but, be still my beating heart, she was seriously gorgeous. And Angie wouldn’t kill him for looking! That produced a whole new – and mostly unwelcome – thought process, which effectively removed the happy grin from his face, but it wasn’t one that he wanted to pursue right now. None-the-less, he caught the speculative look Lee tossed his way. But chose to ignore it right now. And attempted to lighten his mood as Lee prepared to dampen his own concerns.
Switching their attention to the end of their workout they finished out their routine, grinning silently at each other as they headed for the showers – a tacit admittance that they’d both been distracted by the blonde bombshell. They’d barely cleared the door to the men’s locker room before Chip started.
“OK, give, Crane! You know her name; she knows you – and me too, come to think of it. Spill!” In his best commanding tone as he ripped his sweaty sleeveless top over his head.
Lee debated stringing his friend along – for all of the minute it took him to strip out of his gear and head for the showers. Then he thought of the certain retribution that would wend its way his direction, sooner rather than later, and decided it wasn’t worth it.
With a shrug, as he adjusted the temperature of
the water to his desired requirement, he called over his shoulder. “Met her a couple days ago in the lab – she’s
working on the admiral’s team on his latest plankton project. She’s quite the whiz kid in her field,
apparently. He was impressed enough to
woo her from the
Morton was renowned for knowing everything that happened on the boat and at NIMR – and drove everybody, bar Lee, crazy trying to establish how he did it. And for a beautiful woman to sneak past his radar….
The retort was swift as he soaped himself liberally and allowed the hot water to cascade over his well-worked muscles. “Hardly! I avoid the admiral’s lab whenever possible, you know that! I get my NTK from his reports as it affects Seaview and the Institute – that’s enough for me!”
Lee knew Chip avoided – wriggled out of, to be precise – the more scientific aspects of many of Nelson’s projects, when he could. He did it to an extent also. Whilst he greatly admired – even revered – Nelson’s intellect, he saw his and Chip’s job as that of facilitators; to make it happen so that Nelson could devote his considerable talents to the scientific aspects of their cruises. But he couldn’t pass up the chance to get one over on his best friend. “Just a pity you’re so scared of the admiral’s little pets that you missed out on meeting the delectable Chloe Snow. And your NTK let you down on that one too, buddy.”
Crane hid a smirk, knowing the reference to the blonde’s Christian name wouldn’t go unnoticed. “I’m not scared! Just – choosy.” (He really, really hated the sight of the little squid that took up – far too much, in his opinion – space in the lab’s aquarium.) “Chloe, eh? Suits her. Guess the admiral performed the introductions?” Chip was fishing without bait and Lee took pleasure in stringing his pal along.
“Actually, no. He wasn’t there so we sort of introduced ourselves. It’s her first time on the West Coast so I offered…” He tailed off, realising that he’d given the razor-sharp Morton more than enough ammunition.
Turning off the water and wrapping a towel around his waist while he draped another over his shoulders and used it to swipe his dripping wheaten hair back from his face, Chip grinned evilly, not missing a trick. “She turned you down!”
“She explained that she’s busy getting settled. She’s using one of the guest cottages on the grounds.” Lee defended himself. NIMR had several villas on their extensive property which were kept for the exclusive use of visiting guests and staff Nelson had inveigled to join the Institute temporarily. They were situated on the opposite side of the bluff from the condos Seaview’s senior officers occupied, but equally secure.
“Yeah, and it’s a big move from the east coast.” Morton’s sincerity was patently lacking as he preceded Lee into the dry area. “Face it, buddy, you struck out. She’s not interested in joining your Den of Delightfuls! But she surely takes care of that killer body she’s got!”
Lee merely grunted in response as he pulled on black jeans and a white polo shirt and slipped his bare feet into deck shoes. Although he planned to drop into his office for a short while he could be casual in his dress, it being Saturday and the majority of the Institute’s employees would be off duty. He did a quick double take as he watched Chip don a crisp, impeccably pleated uniform. His brow creased speculatively.
“You heading for the boat?”
Standards might be relaxed for the weekend at the Institute but Nelson’s rule was that all officers had to properly attired aboard Seaview.
“Just for a couple hours. I want to run the new programmes we just installed through their paces.” He held up both hands at Lee’s instinctive protest then went back to tucking in his shirt. “I know the techs gave it a thorough shakedown yesterday but I wasn’t there because we had to attend the admiral’s pet charity reception. I just want to make sure that what they say works, actually does.” He shrugged somewhat deprecatingly as he sat down to pull on socks and tie his shoes. “I know I handpicked these guys but….”
Lee grinned companionably. “You just can’t let go, can you? And you accuse me of being a workaholic.” His amber eyes gleamed wickedly – it wasn’t often he could get one over on his old friend.
Chip immediately – as predicted – went on the defensive. “Nothing to do with that! I just don’t like surprises. And as our next cruise takes us under the Polar ice cap for several days I don’t want to discover that something that should work doesn’t – especially when there’s several feet of sheet ice above us.”
Neither did Lee. “Want me to come with you?”
Chip’s emphatic ‘NO’ had Lee raising an eyebrow. “You’d only stand over my shoulder and nit pick.” He groused as he slicked back his short, still wet, blond hair.
Lee opened his mouth to refute the accusation but snapped it shut just as quickly. It was true. While he was as proficient with computers as any Academy graduate he didn’t have Morton’s flair and what Chip could get those machines to do was way beyond his area of expertise. He wouldn’t be of any help and his hovering would likely drive Chip to distraction.
“OK. Don’t work too hard.” He cautioned, knowing that when Chip got engrossed he forgot the passing of time and was liable to spend the rest of the day tinkering with his programmes. “Got any plans for later? You taking Angie out somewhere?”
If he hadn’t known his friend as well as he did Lee would have missed the slight clouding in the azure eyes as he turned away to swipe a comb through his tightly clipped dark curls. Curious now, he watched in the mirror as Chip made a small production of packing his gym gear into his bag before he formulated an answer. The grin that lifted the corners of the blond’s mouth didn’t quite reach his eyes – but only one who could see beyond the mask that Chip habitually wore would notice that.
“Actually, no. She’s busy tonight – got something on with one of her girlfriends. How ‘bout you?”
“Got a couple errands to run this
afternoon. Want to meet up for a drink and something to
Chip’s hesitation was brief and few other than Lee would have noticed it. “Sure, want me to swing by and pick you up?”
“Nah, I’ll be downtown anyway. Just make sure I don’t have to ‘swing by’ and drag you off the boat.”
“Not a problem, Lee. By then, I’ll probably be so cross-eyed from the screens that I’m going to be well ready for a break. Besides, I’ve got something to pick up downtown later so that works for me. See you there.”
Lee’s brow knitted as he watched the tall khaki-clad blond pick up his gym bag and depart. Thoughtfully he packed up his own gear. There was something going on with his friend, he would bet on it. But it was equally obvious that Chip wasn’t ready to talk about it right now. Hefting his own bag he left the locker room, almost bumping into Chloe Snow who was coming out of the women’s locker room almost directly opposite. Excusing himself, Lee stepped back and allowed her to precede him towards the exit. She was in such superb physical shape that it surprised him that she hadn’t done a longer workout.
They traded small talk as they headed for the exit. She was friendly but distant enough that he knew an offer of coffee – or anything else – wouldn’t be appreciated. And he wished her a pleasant day as he noted that the weather appeared to be clearing.
He’d forgotten all about her before he’d reached his office. He snagged a small pile of pink message slips from his secretary’s desk as he passed, flicking through them quickly before he tapped the four-digit code into the keypad that had in the past few days appeared on his office door - courtesy of Chip and his current paranoia about increasing security.
He clicked his tongue in self-reprimand. That wasn’t fair. Chip had had good reason in the past year to order a complete review and upgrade of the base’s security. Coded keypads had been fitted to all the offices on the command floor in recent weeks. Nelson’s office had sported one for over a year now but the breach in security, which had allowed armed enemies take the senior staff and several of Seaview’s crew prisoner almost six weeks ago (**), had ratcheted up the XO’s concerns and the keypads were just one of a number of features that had been introduced.
Entering his office he strode first to the large picture window that overlooked the Sub Pen where his Lady resided. Pushing the catch that released the window he shoved it fully open and leant his elbows on the painted sill, breathing in the slightly salt tinged air and admiring the sleek shape of the submarine as he did first thing on the mornings when he worked out of his Institute office. Even now, almost five years on, it still gave him a thrill to realise that he commanded her.
Reluctantly he turned away as the late emerging sun cast a flattering glint to the institutional grey paint and bathed her in cool silver tones.
And froze as he spotted the flowering plant that took up residence in the very centre of his desk – along with the familiar pink envelope propped against it with his name in loopy, feminine script.
Who the hell was leaving these gifts and how in the name of all that’s holy was she getting in here? Not even the cleaning crew were unsupervised on the command floor – another of Chip’s precautions. This had been going on for almost a week now and he was getting tired of it. Oh, the gifts in themselves – along with the flowery sentiments in the notes – were innocuous enough, but the very fact that someone had accessed his office, obviously by-passing the coded keypad as neither item had been there when he’d left the previous evening, begged a question.
He’d had enough of this. Taking a clear plastic folder from his drawer and grabbing a pencil from the holder on the desk, he manoeuvred the envelope into the sleeve. He’d get Jason, his secretary, to send it to the lab Monday morning to see if there were any prints on it. He probably should have done it earlier in the week but it had seemed harmless. Now it had taken on more sinister proportions – Chip was likely to go through the roof; he took the safety of everyone in the Institute seriously but particularly those on the command floor.
Pulling some tissues from a box Lee gingerly removed the Bromeliad to preserve any latent prints, set it on top of one of the filing cabinets out of his line of sight, and settled down to some work – trying to put aside his irritation.
Several hours later he locked up his office and was heading for the elevator when he heard a mild swear word in a soft feminine voice and, eyebrows raised, retraced his steps back past his own and Chip’s offices to the slightly ajar door of Nelson’s outer office. Easing the door gently open, unobserved by the pre-occupied inhabitant, he propped himself against the jamb and grinned at her startled yelp when she finally spotted him.
“I thought the admiral frowned at you working on the weekend, Angie?”
“He does and he’s not overly keen on you doing it either. Doesn’t seem to stop you though. But he’d do more than frown if he knew how close you came to giving me a heart attack just now, Lee!” She retorted – before grinning back at him.
Lee’s eyes sparkled. He enjoyed the spunky brunette’s no-nonsense personality and she was easy on the eye too. Usually dressed in sober business attire, she was petite and dainty in cream cotton capri pants and a cream camisole under a coral voilé elbow length shirt that she’d tied at the waist. He both envied and rejoiced that Chip had finally found a woman worthy of him.
“He probably wouldn’t appreciate the fact that you know words like THAT either!” He swiftly rejoined, referring to the overheard cuss word.
She blushed endearingly. “Guess where I learnt it? But I won’t tell if you won’t! Either about my little indiscretion or about us being here.”
“And Chip’s on the boat as you probably know so
we’ll include him in our little conspiracy.”
A trained observer, he noticed immediately that she broke eye contact
and busied herself sorting papers at the mention of Chip’s name. Uh oh, trouble in
“You look really nice, Ang. Off somewhere special?”
Genuinely perplexed, she swept a deprecatory glance over her attire. “Thanks, I guess, but this is just cool and comfortable. It’s muggy with all that rain. I didn’t think anyone else would be here and I just wanted to sort out the donations from the auction last night so I can get the cheques banked first thing Monday – before anyone has a chance to change their mind! I’m heading straight home for a long hot bath and a cool glass of wine. Nothing more challenging than that!”
A frisson of – something – wound its way down Lee’s back, although he deigned not to comment. Chip had definitely mentioned that Angie had plans for the evening. Reckoning that he had a better chance of ferreting information out of Chip than Angie he bade his goodbyes and headed once again for the elevator.
Angie worked hard and deserved her recent promotion to Deputy Director of NIMR. It left her little free time and, coupled with Chip’s over-burdened schedule, resulted in not a huge amount of mutually compatible time off. Lee thought they’d have put a free evening for both of them to good use. But perhaps they’d had a spat. Who was he to judge? All the same it niggled. Chip didn’t lie, ever – a fact that rendered him practically useless to ONI, much to Lee’s relief after the last time that agency had used his friend to further their own ends. (*)
Which meant that either Angie had just lied to him about spending the evening at home or she’d lied to Chip about going out with friends. It was inconceivable that Chip had lied to him. Or was this what happened between friends when outside relationships distorted friendships? No. What was between Lee and Chip was more than friendship. They were brothers in all but name. Which meant, Lee surmised, that whatever had happened between Chip and Angie was so new or so raw that Chip hadn’t yet come to terms with it to the extent that he was comfortable sharing it.
Tempted to head straight to the boat to confront Chip, he mentally hauled himself back. SO not the way to approach this! They were meeting in just a couple of hours so he could contain his concern – and curiosity – til then.
His mind still consumed by the thought of problems in his friends’ relationship, Lee parked his red Shelby Cobra convertible in an open-air car park in downtown Santa Barbara, unfortunately having been unable to drive his little beauty with the top down as the weather had only upgraded from ‘downright awful’ to ‘mediocre’.
Lee hated shopping with a passion. He was usually ‘persuaded’ to hit the stores once a year by his nagging exec, or his exec’s mother whose raised eyebrows at the state of his jeans meant a shopping trip was long overdue. It was pointless to mention to Claire Morton that the denim was just about ‘broken in’. And he was more often than not summarily dragged, protesting all the way, to the nearest menswear store to stock up. As NIMR supplied his uniforms and the rest of his wardrobe consisted of a couple of dark suits, dress shirts, pants, a single navy blazer, jeans, T’s and knit shirts, he was lucky enough to get away with the once a year overhaul by his uber-critical best friend.
However he’d had a spate of ‘incidents’ on recent cruises that had severely depleted his stock of socks and shoes and he badly needed to replenish both. Having done his homework, a single visit to a men’s outfitters had provided three pair of black oxfords and a dozen pair of black cotton socks. A quick trip to a sports outlet and he was the owner of several new pair of athletic shoes. Depositing his bounty in the (small) trunk of the Cobra, Lee checked his watch. He was still over an hour and a half early to meet Chip and had just decided to head for a local art gallery he loved to frequent, whose owner was a friend of Harriman Nelson’s specialising in maritime studies and where he knew he could spend an enjoyable hour or more browsing, when his cell phone trilled.
Fishing it out of his pocket as he walked and recognising the caller ID, he answered warmly. “Hi, Linda. How goes it?”
“Hey, Lee. Sorry, but you SO do not want to know the answer to that!” Her tone was a mix of frustration, exasperation and humour.
“Bad day?” He was instantly sympathetic, their relationship might not have worked but there was still a solid friendship between them.
“Beyond bad! Way beyond!!” The humour he so much associated with her kicked in and she laughed, somewhat deprecatorily he thought. “Oh, you know me, Lee. Everything’s a drama!”
Truth be told, that had been a contributor to the break up of their relationship. Linda, while portraying all the tenets of an independent woman, tended to dramatise the minutiae of everyday life that she couldn’t (or didn’t want to) cope with. But, as Chip had, with consummate caution, eventually pointed out to Lee, it wasn’t that she couldn’t do it, it was that she was trying to show him that she needed him to do it. Playing a role to keep him – a role that wasn’t in her genetic make up and would eventually unravel the relationship. Chip still genuinely liked and admired Linda – she just wasn’t the soul mate his friend needed. Never the less, they’d remained good mates and Lee grinned as he indulged her.
“Tell me.” He continued strolling toward the seafront as they talked.
“You said last night that you might be downtown this afternoon. I don’t suppose you’re still here?”
“Actually, I am. You need something?” She’d told him that she was working all day Saturday on a story that would air the following week.
“Do I what! You know I planned to take my spare into the shop this morning? Well, when I came out to go to work some twisted sicko had slashed my tyres! All four of them! I had to get a cab to the station and arrange for the local garage to pick up my car and replace my tyres. They’re going to drop it back to the apartment for me. Usually there’d be someone here who could give me a ride but my crew are all off today and I thought if you were still downtown you could maybe drop me home and I’d cook us something to eat.”
Lee’s mouth watered. She knew his weak spot and he’d missed lunch today. Come to think of it, he hadn’t had breakfast either. Linda was a superb cook and he’d enjoyed nothing more than a night in with her home cooking when they’d been seeing each other. And dessert hadn’t been too shabby either! Not that that was on the cards tonight. But there was sincere regret in his voice when he had to refuse her offer, his stomach growling in protest or sympathy – he wasn’t sure which.
“I’m meeting Chip for dinner in a little over an hour, Linda. But I can swing by and pick you up, drop you home and come back to meet Chip. I’ve got plenty of time.”
“If you wouldn’t mind, Lee, it would be great if you could drop me off. I really need my car for a shoot early tomorrow. I could call a cab if it doesn’t suit. I’m just being really, totally, selfish! And I know it. I’m so mad!! I badly needed to vent to someone! I haven’t had a flat in years and in the space of twelve hours I’ve got five tyres that need replacing!”
Her aggrieved tone made him chuckle. “Don’t bother with a cab. I’m happy to pick you up and take you home. You can owe me one of your home cooked specials the next time we’re in port.”
“Hey, I’d be happy to cook for you and Chip tonight if you’d like.”
He was tempted. She was five-star-plus in the kitchen. But he thought of the glimpse of – whatever – he’d caught in Chip’s eyes in the locker room and Angie’s flat denial that she was busy this evening and knew he needed time alone with his brother. There was something bothering Chip, something amiss that would take pulling and dragging on a one-on-one basis to have him spill. Reluctantly, after a swift consultation of his watch, he declined her offer.
“Sorry, Linda, I need to talk to Chip privately, boat business. But I’m happy to pick you up at the station and drop you off at your place. I’ve got plenty of time; in fact I was just going to put in an hour or so at Ellie’s place so I can swing by right now if you’re good to go.”
“Fine by me, Capt’n Crane, sir!” She laughed. “In fact I’ll go so far as to walk to the entrance of the building so that you don’t even have to park. Just pull into the portico and I’ll be waiting.”
“Don’t do me any favours, Linda!” He couldn’t help but chuckle, their entire relationship had been fun from the get go. She had provided the light relief he’d needed from his overly stressful work environment and the attraction had been instant. But their jobs had been mutually incompatible. He couldn’t confide in her – even the most mundane aspects – and expect her not to use the information so he’d been unable to relax totally in her company, always on guard not to say something about a mission or injury that would have her sharp journalistic brain reading something more into it. She was fascinated enough with his work at NIMR and as captain of Seaview – if she knew some of the situations they’d been placed in or anything about the work he did for ONI…. The last thing he needed was his face in the media any more than it had to be!
But when they had come to an agreeable end to their relationship they’d wanted to preserve the underlying friendship and respect for each other that had been a huge part of the attraction in the first instance. And they’d done a superb job. Totally at ease together, no expectations beyond a sincere friendship, they felt able to call on each other when necessary. Reversing his path, Lee returned to his car and, within minutes, pulled up to the entrance to SBTV.
Linda was already there, glamorous but shivering in the cool-for-June evening air, wearing a silky floral chiffon dress and matching heels that made the most of her not inconsiderable assets – she’d been taping most of the day. Her caramel bob swung as she dropped into the low-slung seat, dropping her large tote bag at her feet, and turned sparkling grey eyes in Lee’s direction.
“Thanks so much, Lee. I really appreciate this. I’m not exactly dressed for this weather. And I promise you the most incredible home cooked meal next time you guys are in port. All your favourites! Just let me know if Chip is coming so I can double the amount!” Morton’s appetite was legendary and he’d groaned in mock dismay when Lee and Linda had stopped seeing each other, knowing his days of home cooking were severely numbered.
Lee laughed as he signalled a right turn onto the main road. “Triple, Linda. Seaview’s food bill is way above that of any comparably sized boat in the Navy – feeding Chip Morton is like feeding three hulking Navy ratings! But he’s one of our cook’s favourite people, as he’ll eat absolutely anything. Except squid,” he hastily tacked on – just in case she ever thought of serving it to the blond. Lee had seen his friend turn a particularly nasty shade of green at just the sight of it.
“Doesn’t show though, does it?” She defended her friend. “He keeps himself in great shape.”
Lee was forced to concede the point. “I’m going to hold you to that meal soon as we can manage it. Cookie can’t hold a candle to you but if you ever divulge that to anyone – especially Chip – I am SO dead! And the entire crew will be on bread and water for a week! If Cookie doesn’t think he’s appreciated he’s liable to go on strike. Now a submarine submerged is not a great place to be if the crew isn’t well fed. One of the reasons that Nelson employs a top chef like Cookie.”
He was serious. She did a double take but – he was really serious! About a COOK? On a submarine? OK, not just any submarine; they were talking Seaview. He caught her look and grinned. “Cookie is rather – temperamental. A culinary genius but let’s just say that none of us go out of our way to upset him!”
“Hmm, if he’s a genius and he can’t hold a candle to me, then what does that make me?” She teased, and he was laughing as he turned into her apartment complex and pulled into the empty space in the almost deserted car park right next to her car, now sporting four fully inflated tyres.
“Looks like your garage did the necessary, Linda.” He turned in the seat toward her, resting one arm lazily along the top of the steering wheel – and saw that she had been totally distracted by something outside his field of vision. He leant forward to peer past her, noting with interest the annoyed frown that had replaced her former sunny expression and that her intriguing almost-silver eyes had hardened to pure slate. He could see that the focus of her attention was an imposing black limousine that was parked with total disregard for returning dwellers, its length taking up almost four parking bays.
“What the hell does he want now?” Linda muttered angrily as she thrust open the door of the small convertible and scrambled hurriedly out.
Lee pulled the keys from the ignition and emerged from the opposite side. “You know this guy?”
She was so angry that she barely took the time to answer Lee as she stalked towards the limo. “Oh yeah, I know him. But I thought I’d gotten rid of him once and for all. Jerk just doesn’t know how to take ‘no’ for an answer!”
Lee watchfully observed the driver’s door open as Linda approached and what could only be described as a gorilla in a black suit, complete with white shirt and bow tie, all but lumbered out. Crane rounded the Cobra anxiously but backed off as the huge suit-clad figure merely reached out to open the back door. A tall, stylishly dressed, man with a handsome unlined face and short almost jet-black hair, greying distinguishingly at the temples, emerged gracefully from the rear of the car. A second gorilla exited the passenger side of the limo and came around to flank his boss. Lee began to get a very bad feeling as Linda strode fearlessly right up to go toe-to-toe with the elegant stranger.
“Just what part of ‘no’ don’t you understand, Marco?” She spat furiously, stabbing the index finger of her right hand into his chest. The two bodyguards didn’t react well to that at all, crowding her out by inserting their bodies between her and their boss. Lee was already crossing the car park as the grey suited man waved a hand at his over-eager lackeys and they dropped back reluctantly but remained poised to defend their charge.
“I merely think it is time that we had a proper talk, cara. Somewhere we won’t be… interrupted. I was so hoping that you would agree to spend the day with me but, alas, by the time I arrived this morning you had already left.” His tone was smooth and unhurried, his English flawless but with just a faint trace of a foreign accent. “Now I hope that you will have dinner with me. I trust this – gentleman – was merely giving you a ride,” with a dismissive flick of his eyes in Lee’s direction.
“You slashed my tyres!”
“Not personally, you will appreciate.” His smug grin showed perfect white teeth, which Lee instantly wanted to stuff down his throat. “But I think it is best if you tell your – friend – to go home. You look delightful, as always, so there is no need for you to change.”
“In your dreams! Get your hands off me!” This as, at a flick of his boss’s eyes, one of the bodyguards grabbed her upper arms in his meaty hands and began to push her towards the rear doors of the limo.
Lee, deceptively slim of build, exploded into action as he saw the goon’s massive fist close around Linda’s arm. His ONI training had included several forms of martial arts, which he kept honed sparring with Chip, and he’d been the middle-weight boxing champion all four of his years at the Academy. He could easily have taken one of them, socking the first gorilla what would have been a lethal blow to someone of a lesser size, forcing him to let go of Linda to defend himself.
Lee shouted at her to run but a fist to his jaw had him momentarily seeing stars and he was unable to ascertain if she’d obeyed him. He rallied quickly and parried with a right upper cut into the solar plexus. Gorilla Number One stumbled back against the wing of the car and Lee circled around him, ever conscious of Gorilla Two who had decided to enter the fray. A roundhouse kick from one of his long jeans-clad legs caught the second bodyguard in his rock hard stomach, unfortunately barely causing him to draw breath and certainly not dissuading his advance.
“Run, Linda!” He yelled again this time using his best command voice.
A slight movement of air behind him was the only warning Lee got of the re-engagement of Gorilla One. He whirled, fists already flying but wasn’t in time to avoid the sudden burning agony in his shoulder. It froze him in his tracks, catching his breath and sending the muscles in his left arm into spasm, rendering it totally useless and blurring his vision. He staggered backwards and into the path of the second henchman.
He heard Linda cry out his name and turned urgently to see her being pushed into the car by the third man. His hold was not gentle and Lee could see the pain etched on Linda’s pretty face as she struggled to get free. But she was no match for the taller well-built male – whose very dark brown, slightly slanted eyes had Lee momentarily, distractedly thinking he looked somewhat familiar – who simply picked her up with one hard arm around her waist and, despite her desperately flailing arms and legs, dumped her into the rear of the vehicle. Lee had only managed to take one step in her direction when his arms were roughly grabbed from behind. Sharp stabs of agony shot up his left arm and into his shoulder and he almost blacked out. Dimly he heard the cultured, accented voice bark out an order in what he vaguely recognised, from the few words he could comprehend, as a middle-eastern dialect.
“Bring Captain Crane along. We’re lucky to have no neighbours showing up just now but we can’t risk killing him here. Make sure he is no trouble.”
Lee fought valiantly to escape but knew that he had no realistic chance against the size and viciousness of his opponents. As the second bodyguard advanced he used his captor as leverage, pushing back against his chest and shooting out both stiffened legs, catching the bulky baboon in the lower abdomen and causing him to double over. A shrill command from the boss man and he felt an intense pressure in his left shoulder, which almost forced him to cry out at the pain, even as the goon released his hold on Lee’s right arm. The respite was momentary, however, and allowed him no time to take advantage of the reprieve. It preceded a lethally sharp jab into his right side just about parallel with his ribcage.
The resultant agony was off the scale and Lee could feel pain radiate throughout his whole body. He arced involuntarily, as if an electric current was being forced through every nerve and sinew. He tried to scream but neither his lungs nor his vocal chords would co-operate and the saliva in his mouth had dried up completely. The burning sensation became increasingly intense and went on and on until he sagged into his captor’s arms, all control lost. His last grateful thought, as he descended into the almost welcome darkness, was that at least it would be a release from the pain.
Waking up was sheer hell. And he quickly wished he hadn’t.
Every muscle in his upper body felt as if it had been torn apart by a wild animal. His abdomen and side ached brutally, his ribcage was on fire, his chest felt as if an intense pressure was bearing down on it and his shoulders and arms were practically wrenched from their sockets by his manacled position. His jaw hurt and he worked to get some saliva into his bone-dry mouth, hazily remembering a vicious punch before he succumbed once again to the almost nauseous throbbing in his head and stomach as he lapsed back into the black relief.
Chip Morton downed his first mouthful of the refreshingly cold beer almost greedily. He was feeling a combination of satisfaction and sheepishness. Satisfaction that he’d succeeded in putting Seaview’s newly installed computer programme through its paces to his exacting requirements and sheepish that he’d been seduced into spending most of the day on the boat – much as Lee had predicted. His stomach was growling, it had been a long time since the almost tasteless sandwich someone had brought him from the cafeteria and he signalled his waitress, ordering a substantial appetiser that he could share with Lee – when he eventually arrived. Frowning, he glanced again at his watch. Lee was almost thirty minutes late - which was most unlike his punctual captain and friend.
He forced himself to relax and took another sip of his drink, allowing it to slide effortlessly, pleasurably, down his parched throat. Surely he could cut his friend some slack; just because he was punctual to a fault it didn’t mean that Lee couldn’t be a couple minutes late on a Saturday night.
By the time his appetiser appeared several minutes later it was all he could do not to grind his teeth. He’d tried Lee’s cell phone several times to no avail. It was ringing out. He’d phoned Lee’s condo – no reply. He’d contacted NIMR’s security but all that revealed was that Seaview’s skipper had checked out at approx 1330 that afternoon. As a last resort, almost cringing, knowing it would alert Admiral Nelson, he’d paged Lee’s emergency beeper. No response. Well, at least not the one he wanted. And now it was no longer funny – no way would Lee fail to respond to that page – if he was at all capable. He forced himself to calm his racing heartbeat and give his friend a reasonable amount of time to respond to the page, in the meantime downing a gallon of water to counteract the beer he’d already drunk.
His protesting stomach had him digging into
“Chip, what’s the devil’s up? Where’s Lee?” Nelson’s tone was terse.
“That’s the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question, Admiral. We were to meet at 18.30 for dinner. Lee didn’t show and he’s not answering his cell or his pager.” Morton knew Nelson would pick up on the worry in his voice if he let it show so he deliberately kept it neutral. “Question is, sir, do I give him some more time or organise a search party straight away?”
Nelson’s hesitation was so brief it was practically imperceptible. “Now, Chip.” A wry note entered his voice. “If he’s merely late we’ll thoroughly embarrass him and if it’s something more serious – well, best get the crew out looking before they get too, ahem, liberated. It is their first Saturday night in port for quite a while.”
“Aye, sir.” He was already tossing bills on the table and sliding out of the booth. “I’ll start with the standby crew, they won’t have been partying. And they’ll know who’s good to go. We know Lee left the Institute grounds at 1330 and he told me he was heading downtown to do a few errands. So I’ll have them concentrate the initial search there.” He had almost reached his SUV by now and pulled the keys from his pocket, hitting the remote locking device while still some distance away – a lesson learnt from the loss of his previous vehicle. *
“I’ll have his most recent credit card transactions pulled. Might give us a place to start.” Nelson mused.
“You can do that, sir?” Morton groaned inwardly even as he spoke. He should have known better. Nelson could pull any string he wanted with the alphabet agencies –Chip had seen him do the impossible any number of times since he’d signed on as Seaview’s XO.
“I do have a few contacts, Mr. Morton.” But there was an indulgent note in the four star officer’s voice.
“Aye, sir. I know, sir.”
“Don’t worry, lad. We’ll find him.”
Chip couldn’t help the cramping in his stomach even as the confident words served to steady him. He had a gut feeling that it wasn’t going to be quite as easy as just wishing it so.
Regaining consciousness the second time around wasn’t much better. But at least his head was a little clearer and the nausea had all but subsided. He was still sore all over his torso and the pain in his shoulders and arms was almost unbearable. His senses began returning one by one to their usual acuity.
First his ears - he registered the almost total silence surrounding him. But when he concentrated he could hear the very faint expellation of breath that indicated he was not alone.
Next his eyes – which he opened to mere slits in case the breath sounds came from a hostile. He took in as much as he could without moving his head. His immediate impression was of almost total darkness but not complete blackness, denoting a light source nearby. He risked opening them further and, as there were no immediate repercussions, he cautiously moved his head very slightly to either side in turn to widen his field of vision. His sharp eyes roved his immediate vicinity and took in details as to the size and manner of his prison.
The room was approximately 10 feet long by 15 feet wide with concrete walls and floor, the only light source coming from a small barred window barely twelve inches square set high on the wall to the right of him. It allowed some degree of illumination while keeping the overall space in almost-darkness. Still wary, as he knew he wasn’t alone, he let his gaze roam fairly freely, having encountered no reaction to his wakeful state. He couldn’t discern any obvious cameras or listening devices, although he didn’t discount them entirely. More importantly he couldn’t see a door of any kind or any means of escape. Growing bolder, he swept his eyes over the floor – and stopped at the splash of colour he encountered. It was like a bright light in the dimness of his – their – prison. He recognised the pattern of the material even though the wearer was curled into a foetal ball and turned away from him.
Shit! That was the mildest of the swear words that coursed through him as he realised that he wasn’t the only prisoner in this seeming hellhole.
That complicated things, immeasurably. Whatever chance he might have of getting himself out of this godforsaken place had just gone down the tubes.
He forced himself to follow the tenets of his training and bring up the next of his senses – smell.
His nostrils twitched at the dank, musty odour. Wherever he was being held was mostly enclosed and relatively unused. There was no odour of blood or bodily functions, even though there were no apparent facilities – indicating that either the place hadn’t been used as an incarceration point or that the captives held there had been allowed out to do the necessary. But there was a faint, albeit very faint, smell of salt in the rank, damp air, signifying a possible proximity to the sea.
Water called to Crane – in all its forms. It was a friend, a loved one and if it was close by then maybe, just maybe, there was a way out of here for both of them.
The sense of touch was next to call upon. Eschewing his almost intolerable discomfort he pushed his fingers to the total extent of their reach. Constrained as he was with his hands manacled above his head, his arms and shoulders ached miserably from the unaccustomed position. He ascertained by feel that his wrists were cuffed with metal restraints that had already chaffed his skin and caused some swelling in his wrists and hands as his entire body weight was dragging on them. This was resulting in an almost welcome numbness in his fingers. Emboldened now that he was sure that he and the sleeping or drugged Linda were alone, and feeling his way delicately, - the movement causing tingles in his fingertips which he knew would precede an agonising return to full sensation, he encountered a short thick chain threaded into a metal circle that was embedded into the concrete wall. He managed to get his legs under him and made his way slowly to his knees, taking some of the strain off his shoulders and arms. Groaning with the agony of blood returning to the sinews and muscles he tried jerking it free but it only resulted in unbearable pain in his already overburdened arms and chest. Gasping for whatever breath he could, he pulled on the taut metal ring with everything that he had, again and again and again.
With zero result. The embedded ring didn’t move a single millimetre. He was well and truly shackled. Exhausted, disheartened, he forced himself to rest and consolidate what strength he could muster.
Not to mention the effect the movements were having on his already depleted system. He knew now how he’d been overcome. Oh, he’d no illusions that he could have realistically taken both of the gorillas. But he might have had a fighting chance without the unfair advantage they’d had.
He’d heard of them – mostly courtesy of reports he’d been privy to from
the British SAS. Stun guns. But they weren’t the usual
or accepted warfare of choice in the
On that note it was way past time to test his legs and ascertain if they would bear his weight. From his kneeling position he pressed his spine into the sturdy concrete wall behind him, using it as leverage to push himself first onto his haunches and then into a standing position. It wasn’t easy. His legs felt like noodles but persistence won out and he was finally on his feet. He was weak as a kitten and bracing himself against the solid wall was the only thing that kept him upright. His breathing was ragged and the pain in his chest and side was merciless. Lee thought ruefully that he might have broken or cracked a rib – he was more than familiar with that pain. But it could also be the residual effect of the Taser – time would tell.
He took several minutes to just breathe deeply and allow the nausea, that threatened once again, to subside before even attempting to bring his hands down. He knew it was going to be agony and could only guesstimate at how long he’d been unconscious, his body suspended in the same position, his arms bearing his entire weight.
Well, no guts no glory. He brought his arms slowly down to shoulder height, biting his lips to halt the scream that wanted to erupt as blood flow returned to deprived tissues, he held them there for what seemed like ages before bringing them all the way down. This time he almost bit through his lower lip at the resultant spasming of his muscles. He hunched his shoulders in an effort to contain the agony but it didn’t help. He forced himself to work through it, calling on every ounce of
reserve he had and the SERE (***) training he’d endured courtesy of ONI. He massaged one hand with the other until the tingling in his fingers was almost gone and he thought they would function at least semi-normally – if he could get out of the restraints. He flexed his shoulders experimentally, and winced, inhaling sharply at the ensuing rip of agony through the traumatised muscles. Knowing time and continued movement would ease the ache he mandated himself to give himself the requisite time for the muscles to reacquaint themselves with the return of feeling. Deep breathing only accomplished so much – the rest was the result of clenched jaws and an iron will.
Several painful minutes passed before he finally felt that he had his severely abused body under some semblance of control. He gave one last hopeful attempt at dislodging the metal ring from the concrete wall. Using his entire body weight he tugged in short sharp bursts. Sweat popped out on his brow as he wrapped both hands around the chain that tethered him to the metal ring. He gave it his all. Nothing. Nada. Zilch.
Defeated he prepared to allow his fifth sense free rein. The only chance they had of getting out of here was if Linda was in any shape to free him. Having swept the confines of their prison once again for bugs or cameras he was reasonably certain that they were unobserved. But time was growing short. How he knew that he didn’t know but the sixth sense that had rarely let him down kicked in once again. Lee had no concept of how long he’d been held here but he could guess from the atrophy in his muscles that it had been several hours. Knowing Chip Morton as he did he could already envisage his friend calling an all-out Search & Rescue operation. It gave him some modicum of hope – but first Chip had to discover who had him and where he was being held – no small feat. He really, really needed to get out of these shackles.
He tried out his voice with the merest whisper of her name. No reaction. He knew she was alive because he could hear her steady breath sounds but what state was she in? Had she been drugged? Was she badly injured? Maybe worse. His blood ran cold at the thought. She was curled into herself in a protective ball. Her normally silky caramel-coloured hair was matted to her head with sweat and her dress clung to her slender body, delineating every curve and hollow.
“Linda. Come on, honey, wake up for me.” He pitched his voice a little louder and after calling her several times he caught the sudden change in her breathing pattern and knew she was conscious and, at least somewhat, aware. Her defensive position didn’t change and he continued to call her persuasively, soothingly, desperately trying to curb his impatience. Who knew how long they had before their captors appeared?
“Linda, sweetheart, I know you’re awake. And I need your help if we’re going to get out of here.”
This last brought a reaction and she slowly unwound herself from her tightly coiled position, turning over to face him. He caught his breath at the sight of her bruised and ravaged face. She’d been beaten and every protective male instinct rose up and engulfed, enraged him. Her pretty face was scraped and badly grazed all down her left cheek, her lip was split and still oozed blood and a large portion of her left temple was discoloured. He guessed she’d have a right royal shiner come morning – if either of them were around to greet the morning. He could see that her eyes were dulled from the pain and the return to consciousness was taking some adjustment. He carefully scanned the rest of her for any obvious injuries. Her dress was torn at one shoulder and hung raggedly half way down her arm, her wrists were bound together in front with some thin nylon rope, the dress had ridden up while she was out of it and exposed a length of slender thigh but there were no obvious bruises or marks on her legs that he could see and, while she was shoeless, her ankles were unbound.
OK, he could work with this. Adrenalin pumped through him, forcing aside the pain, as all the training he’d received, and sometimes endured, roared back. He was suddenly intensely grateful for the extensive survival courses he’d undertaken, knowing they would once again possibly save his sorry hide – and, if he were exceedingly lucky, Linda’s too.
“Linda, how are you feeling, honey?” He kept his voice soft, soothing. He could see the hurt and confusion in her eyes, red-rimmed and swollen as if she’d been crying - a lot. He waited, as patiently as he could, while she surveyed their prison, heard her suck in a gulp of air as she registered their predicament. Saw the exact moment when she gave in, succumbing to the seeming futility of escape, resigning herself to whatever fate awaited her. Despairing of hope.
His voice sharpened. “Linda. Snap out of it! NOW! I need your help to get us both out of here!” He was purposely ruthless. He couldn’t afford to pander to her hurts now. That feeling that time was growing short niggled at him again and he needed her help to get out of the chains that held him prisoner. He would do what he had to and apologise for his insensitivity later – if there was a later.
She blinked – several times. And focused on him. Finally. Gratefully. “Lee. Oh, God, I thought I’d never see you again. I thought they’d killed you. He said they would. Are you OK? Shit, what a stupid question. Of course you’re not OK. I can see that. You’re hurt and bleeding and, oh my God, Lee, what are we gonna do? We can’t get out of here and he’s… Marco… he’s turned into an animal. I don’t know….” Her breath caught and she gasped as she pushed herself into a sitting position against the damp wall, shivering as the cold penetrated her thinly clad body.
“Linda, I have this – feeling – that we don’t have much time.” Lee needed to lay it on the line for her if they had any chance of getting out of here any time soon so he didn’t pull his punches. “I don’t need a long drawn out explanation right now so we’ll skip the ‘why are we here’s’ and go straight to ‘let’s get out of Dodge’. That doesn’t mean you can’t fill me in while we attempt to escape but let’s not make them mutually exclusive.”
She started in surprise. This wasn’t the laid back Lee Crane she thought she knew. They’d spent several months together as lovers and longer as friends – good friends – but she didn’t know this totally purposeful hard-eyed man that was shackled to the concrete wall opposite her. The force of his personality engulfed her, making her believe that he could actually get them out of here. Madness, total insanity. She’d been smacked in the head once too often. Her face ached and her head throbbed. Hell, her whole body did. But there was something in Lee’s eyes – something she’d never seen before and she shivered. This wasn’t the lover that had given her mindless pleasure or the friend she’d had pizza with, got blitzed with when she’d celebrated her promotion to lead anchor and her despair when she’d thought that she wasn’t going to get the anchor spot. This was a clinical, honed, military officer who was reconnoitring the situation with a view to getting them both out of here. And she didn’t recognise him. But the more she looked the more saw what had attracted her to Lee Crane in the first place; that steadfast honesty in those amber eyes, the proud tilt of his head that bespoke a true officer and a gentleman, the leanness that disguised his deceptively muscular build and the determination she ascertained in the taut lines of his mouth. She began to believe that if anyone could get them out of Marco’s clutches it might, just conceivably, be Lee Crane.
And that meant her stepping up to the plate – figuratively, maybe, but there wasn’t a huge hell of a lot that Lee could do in his current shackled position, the lines now etched on his face showing the anguish he’d endured. All because of her. OK, can that! She couldn’t afford to go that route. Lee was obviously so well tethered that he couldn’t get free. At least she was somewhat mobile. Which meant that she had to get her act in gear and see what she could do to get both of them free.
Seeing the sudden determination fire in her eyes eased the anxiety – somewhat – in Lee. At least she was with him and ready to pit her not inconsiderable wit against their mutual enemy; who was still the shadowy figure grazing the edge of his consciousness – more than was warranted by their encounter in the car park at Linda’s condo. There was a nagging sensation at the back of his mind that he’d seen those eyes somewhere before – but in a different face and another time and place. It would have to wait, however, his priority right now was getting them both out of here before their captors showed up. It wasn’t going to be easy. Hell, when had he ever opted for the easy route?
Chip Morton thrust both hands through his short
blond hair in frustration and settled his cover more firmly on his head. He’d taken the time, since his call to the
admiral and mobilizing the crew that had remained in
Lee’s profile, as captain of Seaview, would have been sufficient to hazard an all out alert if he was dealing with his old friend, Lt. Pat Connelly, but Pat was sadly no longer with them. While Chip had established a working relationship with his successor, Pete Masters, in the aftermath of Pat’s death it was nothing like what he’d had with Connelly. And he didn’t feel as if he could confide – or justify – his fears for Lee to the by-the-book officer who had taken Pat’s place in the SBPD unit. If it became necessary to involve the authorities though, he wanted to ensure that he looked his most authoritative.
Nelson’s name was usually enough to get the
locals jumping in
Between them they’d managed to muster
thirty-two men, sixteen teams of two, who were combing the entire SB area from
downtown to the wharf-side bars to the coves and beaches that Lee was drawn
to. Chip knew he would be in for some
serious ribbing if Lee was merely ‘otherwise engaged’ and had forgotten their
arrangement. But that niggling something
told him that wasn’t the case. Over the
eighteen-plus years he’d known the slightly younger man, he had developed an
almost seventh sense – way beyond a sixth – as to when Lee was in danger. That sense had been crawling all over him
about five minutes after Lee was due to show in
He pulled out his cell phone and speed dialled Nelson’s number. The admiral’s first call had been to ONI suspecting that they’d pulled one of their usual stunts and purloined Lee for a mission. That was the most logical explanation for a Crane disappearing trick and, despite Chip’s usual antipathy toward that agency, he’d almost have welcomed it right now. But ONI’s director, Hunt Beckett, had sworn blind that Lee wasn’t working anything for him at the minute. That had left Nelson tracking Lee’s credit/debit card purchases, Chip having advised him of Lee’s plans for the afternoon.
“Nelson.” The growled response didn’t bode well for any good news.
“It’s Morton, Admiral.” As if Nelson wouldn’t already have seen that from caller ID. Duh! He ploughed quickly on before the irascible flag officer could call him on it.
“Anything, Chip?” The exec could easily detect the worry in those two words.
“Not so far, sir. We’ve got teams combing the area but it’s a
long shot that we’ll actually come up with anything. I’ve asked Pete Masters to put out an APB on
“God bless procrastinating bureaucracy!” Morton could almost hear the grinding of Nelson’s teeth.
“I’m with you there, sir. Any luck on the cards?”
“I pulled in a couple of favours and found out that Lee used his debit card twice this afternoon - once in Stanton’s at 15.15 and again in a sporting goods store on Haley Street at 16.05. Nothing since then.”
Chip looked for the positives. “Well, at least we know, sir, that he was alive as of a little more than five hours ago…”
Nelson knocked that on the head pretty quickly. “IF it was Lee using his card.”
Morton locked his jaw. “We have to assume that for now, Admiral. There’s no evidence to the contrary. And as the stores are closed til Monday morning we can’t get visual verification from the sales staff. I – we – need to figure that it was Lee making those transactions. Plus it fits with the plans he told me he had for his afternoon.”
He heard the sigh that permeated the airwaves. “You’re right, Chip. And he was due to meet you downtown in just over two hours. I tried to pull his cell phone records but nothing doing until Monday morning. So, what would Lee Crane do to fill in the time?”
Chip held back a snort – barely. “Well, he wouldn’t shop anyway. That’s for damn sure. Knowing Lee, he’d head for the water. Stroll on the beach; maybe just hang out where he could see the ocean. Head to the restaurant early for a beer, but we know he didn’t do that. Who knows?” Frustration was evident in those last words. He was very gravely worried. Darkness had set in and Lee had missed his rendezvous by almost two and a half hours. His stomach churned – that was so not Lee Crane – punctual to a fault, unless something had gone seriously fubar. And Chip was convinced those woo-hoo feelings he’d been having for the past several hours weren’t wrong. Lee was in trouble and, knowing his friend as he did, it was fairly serious – with a capital S – trouble.
Consolidating the attributes he was renowned
for he forced himself to remain impassive, to step into his best friend’s
shoes. To be Lee Crane – with almost two
hours until he had arranged to meet him, Chip, in
“He’d have gone towards the ocean, for sure, Admiral. Walked the seafront.”
“Maybe towards Ellen Marshall’s studio – you know how much he loves her work…”
“And he’s always bemoaning the fact that he doesn’t get enough time to go see her stuff. Good call, sir. That’s exactly something Lee would do.” Chip couldn’t help the relief that coursed through him – which was instantly repressed as he just as quickly realised that, while Lee might get caught up in the beauty of Ellen’s paintings and sculptures, he absolutely wouldn’t miss his dinner engagement. Lee was anal about punctuality. If he was late – and he was seriously late now – it wasn’t because of anything good happening in his life.
Apparently Nelson was getting better at reading his exec for he gentled his tone as he spoke Morton’s own thoughts. “Even if he did go there, he wouldn’t have stood you up unless it was unavoidable, Chip. And, given that he’s been out of touch for almost five hours now, I don’t think we’re over-reacting.” Clearing his throat, his voice now brusque: “I don’t actually care if we’re over-reacting – and he better have a very, very plausible explanation for his failure to answer either his cell or his pager. I’ll contact Ellen and verify if Lee was there today. In the meantime, bring me up to date on your search grid.”
Trained to follow orders immediately, Morton launched into a depressing report – none of the search teams having word of any sighting of their captain. They’d scoped out the main airport and the several private airfields, the bars and restaurants of the popular wharf area, the bus station and ferry port, the car rental agencies – any that were still open at this time of the evening. Chip’s frustration and worry became more evident with each unsuccessful disclosure.
“Quite frankly, sir, I’m out of ideas.” He finally admitted, utterly disheartened. “It’s like he’s vanished off the face of the earth. Are you sure ONI...?”
“I’m sure, Chip. Aside from my conversation with Hunt Beckett I contacted Sam Todd at home (the DD of Naval Intelligence) **** and threatened to pull Seaview from their use if he lied to me. I trust him to tell me the truth and he swore blind that they don’t have Lee on anything right now. If he’s lying….” Nelson didn’t have to elaborate – his temper was legendary and his retaliation notorious. Morton was now more inclined to believe ONI hadn’t purloined Lee for some nefarious mission at little or no notice. Before he had a chance to react, Nelson continued.
“Chip, you’re closer to Lee than anyone. You know how he thinks, feels, what he’ll do in given situations. But right now, you’re trying too hard to cover all the bases to have time to sit back and figure out anything that might help us find Lee.”
Morton straightened purposefully. “Sir…”
“Easy, lad, I didn’t mean that you aren’t trying your damnest to find him. You’re just spreading yourself too thin, Chip. You’re organising the search parties and grids, co-ordinating the results, fielding calls from everyone who’s involved with this and,” Nelson’s voice hardened in advance of the protest he knew was coming, “you are not utilising the unique talent that you have above anyone else in the entire United States – your brotherhood with Lee Crane.”
Chip’s opened his mouth to respond – hotly – but not so much as a squeak emerged. Nelson was right, as usual. He caved. “What do you want me to do, sir?”
“I want you back here, ASAP, Commander. I’m bringing in Angie as Logistics Co-ordinator. She’ll track the search teams and move them from grid to grid til we’ve combed the city and surrounding areas as best we can. I need you here to help me construct a list of Lee’s possible enemies. Anyone who might want to do him harm and have the wherewithal to see it through right now.”
Those last words had Chip almost lose it completely. He forced the lump out of his throat and swallowed convulsively in order to respond. “Pete Masters put out an APB on Lee’s car. Best he can do in the circumstances – until we file an official report when he’s been missing for twenty-four hours. But, Admiral, I’m not sure you’ll be able to get hold of Angie, she was meeting friends tonight.”
Nelson’s voice was as gentle as the exec’d ever heard it. “I’ve already spoken to Angie and she’s on her way. Come on in, Chip, we need to brainstorm on this one. We’ll find him, lad. I have no doubts. But you’re more use here right now than out there. Let’s do this by the book, son.”
Teeth clenched to prevent the sob that wanted to escape, Morton acquiesced. “And, sir, you might want to alert Jamie.”
A weary sigh preceded the words Chip knew, in his heart of hearts, were unnecessary. “In hand, Chip, in hand. Doc’s en route as we speak. I just pray that we’re being overly cautious.”
Morton couldn’t help but echo the sentiment even as he doubted the chances – and it made his already almost empty stomach spasm, his fear for his friend escalating with each minute that Lee failed to show.
Lee’s still swollen fingers were throbbing as he attempted to undo the well-tied knot in the thin nylon that bound Linda’s wrists and he clenched his teeth against the pain. This was taking twice as long as it should have.
“It’s no good, Lee. You can’t budge it. It’s useless!” She was rapidly giving up hope that they could get out of here. Fortunately Lee wasn’t ready to lie down and die.
“I’m a sailor, Linda. Knots are my business. I’ve undone better than these. It’s just going to take a little longer than I’d like.” He grunted with satisfaction as he felt the first tiny degree of movement in the knot. It spurred him on. Sure, he’d untied more difficult knots – Morton had been THE master in the art of knot tying and he’d challenged his younger roomie more times than not (no pun intended) at the Academy. Lee had held his own. And he had no doubts that he could undo this knot too – it would just take a little longer and a lot more concentration, given that he was working at a serious disadvantage. He was on his knees, which allowed some slack on the chain that tethered him, but Linda was forced to stand so close to him that his face was practically grazing her stomach. It was an uncomfortable position – they’d been lovers for several months, were still good friends, and he wasn’t dead – yet.
‘Get your mind back to the business at hand, Crane,’ he admonished himself. Gritting his teeth, he worked at the tiny give he’d felt in the bindings. It took several minutes longer but he eventually had the pleasure of seeing Linda unwind the last of the synthetic rope from around her mistreated wrists. She practically hopped around at the return of feeling to her forearms, massaging them gingerly as the blood flow caused her to fight tears of pain.
Lee allowed her all of one minute, harshly interrupting her. “No time, Linda, we’ve got to get out of here. NOW.”
“Exactly how do you propose to do that, Lee?” Her tone bordered on the sarcastic; her return to relative freedom giving her some limited degree of control and allowed her to mask her abject terror at the situation they were still in right now, despite the note of confidence projected in Lee’s voice. “I don’t exactly see a door marked ‘Exit’.”
“Don’t suppose you have a Bobbie pin?” She sent him a speaking and thoroughly dismissive glance despite having watched enough James Bond to know that the hero could work wonders with that tiny tool as a lock pick.
“With this do?” She countered acerbically, indicating the sleek fall of her caramel chin-length bob.
He shrugged philosophically. “My bad luck to be incarcerated with a woman who doesn’t use hair clips. Never happens in the movies. Just make my day and tell me you’re wearing an under-wired bra.”
“What?” She gaped at him. Now was SO not a time for a dissertation on her underwear!
Sighing a tad theatrically, in an attempt to relieve her heightening anxiety, he explained as if to a child. “What I need you to do is to pull one of the wires out of your bra. It’s thin enough to enable me to pick the lock on these cuffs.”
She was flummoxed sufficiently for her mouth to drop open and she instantly took steps to correct that, snapping her perfect little white teeth together. “And you know this how? Is this what they teach you at the Academy? If so, I’m writing to my Senator when I get out of here!!” She huffed, even as she turned her back to him and worked the straps of her bra down her arms and unclipped the closure from between her shoulder blades. Despite the fact that they’d been lovers, she somehow needed that modicum of privacy just now. Tugging it from beneath her dress, she worked one of the wires from the seam and presented it to him, triumph and doubt fighting for supremacy in her expression.
“Trust me, Linda. I can get us out of here.” She met the sincerity of his amber gaze with a scared and doubting silver grey one. What she saw there temporarily reassured her. She nodded, tacitly agreeing to put her life in his hands. Hell, what choice did she have, when it came down to it? She wasn’t likely to be able to get out of here on her own. And he seemed to know what he was doing. Despite his beaten and exhausted – not to mention manacled – state, he exuded authority and confidence. Was this just the nature of all submarine captains or was he somehow different? Not that she knew too many sub jockeys. Come to think of it that aura of calm self-assurance had attracted her to Lee in the first instance. Not that he was cocky or anything, he just exuded a poise and coolness that was a serious babe magnet. Maybe it was an Academy thing for, now that she dwelt on it – for precisely one point five second, she realised that Chip Morton possessed it too. All she knew for certain was that she had seriously underestimated the man and when – if – he got them both out of here she was going to have one hell of a story.
“Talk to me.” He was doing something with the bra wire, poking it into the tiny slit in the cuffs where the key should go. God, did he actually think he could do something like free himself? That really only happened in the movies. “Who is this guy? Where are we? And why are we here?” Then an untenable notion crossed his mind, as he thought back on her modest approach to removing her bra. Perhaps the bastard hadn’t limited himself to the bruises on her face and her cut lip.
“Linda, did he… hurt you… anywhere else?” He couched it carefully but could feel the anger ready to erupt.
She raised startled grey eyes to his, horrified. “No! No, he didn’t, Lee. He… I… we dated for a while. After you and I split up. But he was just so possessive and he’s got some kind of obsession about me being simply friends with any other men. It just got too stifling and I told him several weeks ago that I didn’t want to see him again. He doesn’t take no for answer easily.”
“I kinda found that out today.” Lee inserted drolly as he methodically poked at the lock on the manacles. “Who is he, anyway?”
She forced herself to concentrate on his voice and not on the seeming futility of his actions. “His name is Marco di Fabrioni and he’s a major investor in the station. He’s Italian, Sicilian, I think. And he’s supposedly been serious about developing a relationship with me for a while now. He’d asked me out when you and I were going together and I refused. But as soon as we broke up he began to – I guess you could say – ‘woo’ me in earnest.”
Lee almost snorted. The man he’d encountered was no Italian – nor Sicilian. He was middle-eastern and Lee knew if he could only block out the aches in his body that were affecting his brain he would be able to pinpoint where exactly he’d seen this guy before, either in person or in a situation report somewhere. He continued to poke at the handcuffs, swearing silently as the swelling in his fingers hampered his attempts to free himself. “But you’re not interested? In a relationship with him?”
There was a silence that could only be dubbed as ‘uncomfortable’. “To be honest, Lee, after we broke up I… may have given him the impression that I was available.” She was hesitant – how do you tell a former lover about his replacement? Especially in the predicament they now found themselves.
“But he became unbelievably obsessive, always
wanting to know where I was and who I was with, and I soon found out that part
of my attraction to him was that I’d been with you before him. He was constantly asking where we’d gone,
whom we’d seen and what we’d done. Talk
about an instant turn off.” Shakily, she
began to pace the confines of their small prison, every now and again glancing
at him work the wire into the tiny slot of his shackles. “So I told him I wasn’t interested. He was persistent for a while but then he
seemed to take on board what I’d said and in the past few weeks he’s backed off
gracefully. I haven’t seen or heard from
him for several weeks. He hasn’t even
been around the station. To be honest I
was hoping he’d gone back to
“Not your fault, Linda. And let’s not jump to conclusions.” He exhaled as he eventually felt the long overdue snick that indicated he’d triggered the lock mechanism on the second cuff. Groaning, he extracted himself from the hardware and began to massage his bruised and chaffed wrists as her eyes widened in disbelief.
“How did you do that?”
“Parlor trick.” He dismissed it casually, but could see from the gleam in her silver grey eyes that she wasn’t buying it. There was going to be some serious damage control resulting from this little escapade – if they eventually got out of here in one piece, which was now looking a little more likely as he was finally able to function. Within limited criteria.
Staggering to his feet, he initially braced himself against the wall until he was sure that his legs would support him. He ruthlessly manipulated his fingers and wrists, biting his lip to avoid crying out at the resultant agony that shot through the abused sinews and tendons. The rigorous training he’d received, both as a naval officer and with ONI, now stood him in good stead and he appropriated the pain into that small niche in his brain that allowed him to do what had to be done and deal with it later.
He made his way first to the tiny window that let the only light into their prison. Sniffing delicately, he could ascertain the distinctive scent of the ocean and, more importantly, the direction of the breeze. Not that it would be a lot of use to them unless they could find a way out of their prison cell. Without his watch he could only guess from the amount of light filtering in from the small aperture that it was approaching dawn. Approximately twelve hours since he’d arranged to meet Chip Morton. And approximately eleven and a half hours since his friend had hit the panic button, knowing Chip as well as he did.
It should have given some degree of comfort but he was already resigned to the fact that there wouldn’t be much for Chip to go on. He knew Nelson would use his influence to track his card purchases but that wouldn’t show much beyond where he’d made his last transaction. And he knew they wouldn’t gain access to his cell phone bills until Monday and even then they wouldn’t find much as Linda had called him. It would be a leap to track her calls – not that was beyond the scope of Chip Morton who would be climbing the walls by Monday, Lee knew. But it would be a leap.
He was no longer involved with Linda – hadn’t been for upwards of six months – so why would Chip even go there. Except that Lee knew Chip would pursue every avenue and wouldn’t rest until he found out what had happened to him. Whether that would be in time or not…. He knew Chip would eventually find his car – hell, unless Di Fabrioni had had it removed. And presumably there would be a report regarding Linda’s disappearance, but again that wouldn’t be until Monday when she failed to show up for work. He knew Chip would put two and two together. Whether it would be too late…. He couldn’t afford to dwell on that. He could only count on one person right now – himself. Not enviable in his current position as he was seriously below par, shoeless, his watch and Academy ring gone; as was his wallet, keys and any ID he’d been carrying.
“What are you looking for?”
Belatedly he registered the bravado in Linda’s acerbic words before he caught the belying apprehensive gaze that tracked his every move as he systematically combed the walls for an exit route. There had to be some concealed access through the walls into their prison; neither of them were exhibiting the bruises a drop from the nine foot high ceiling would had engendered. However, if there was any form of access, it was extremely well hidden. Nothing moved under his seeking hands.
“Do you have any idea where we are or how we got in here, Linda?” He crouched down to check for any cement blocks that seemed loose or out of place but the walls were smooth and uniformly damp.
“It’s the first time I’ve been to his
house. All I could guess from the car
ride was that we’re about thirty minutes drive south of
‘Oh, goodie.’ Lee thought, standing up to cup her face in his palms and check her pupils carefully for obvious signs of concussion. That they seemed to be reacting equally, in what light there was, didn’t completely reassure him.
“There’s some kind of door in one of the walls. I don’t know exactly where. I think I was a bit out of it, to be honest. Just remember that they operated it with a huge lever thing when they carried me down here and it seemed to be about two feet thick. One of the big guys made a sorta joke about not wasting my time looking for a way out cos the only way out of here was if Marco wanted me out.”
Having given his wall search all the time he thought was prudent, and in the face of her comments, Lee then began a minute section-by-section search grid on the floor. It took more time than he’d warranted, given the dim light available, but eventually he found the sunken manhole cover he’d been subconsciously looking for. His heart sank at first sight as it was set flush into the concrete floor and the four custom built leverage points were way too small for fingers. It would take the proper tools – presumably only available to their captors – to raise the heavy iron cover.
Or maybe not.
“Linda, grab that bra wire and then take out the other one. We’re going to need them both to get out of here.”
She began to mouth a response, totally confused by his orders but shrugged and succumbed without question to the commanding tone, scrambling almost immediately to obey. Then watched with awe as he threaded the thin but taut wires into each of the two tiny holes on opposite sides of the approximately eighteen inch in diameter manhole cover, grunting with exertion as he attempted to lift it. It didn’t take Einstein to realise that it was going to take two people to shift it from opposing sides. And hey, it was her life at stake here too so she grabbed either end of a bra wire that she’d never thought would engender such usage. She wasn’t prepared for the reality of the wire cutting into her soft palms and she sucked in a pained breath as they both expended serious energy before managing to drag the heavy iron cover sufficiently clear to expose their prospective exit route.
She slumped back onto the damp floor of their prison in unutterable relief, sweating profusely, and was gratified to see Lee do the same. He allowed them barely a minute to recover their breath though, before he was on his knees, peering into the abyss.
“Too much to hope there’d be steps down.” He muttered to himself. “Always got to be the hard way.” The dim lighting from the tiny window wasn’t enough to extend into the hole so he relied on his acutely developed sense of hearing for guidance, going so far as to hush Linda as she began to speak – knowing but ignoring the fact that his blunt dismissal had totally pissed her off. Concentrating fiercely, he could hear the weak ‘whooshing’ sound of moving water. And the salty ocean tang that he’d smelt faintly earlier was now more apparent. It also looked to him that there was a very little more illumination at the bottom of the shaft as if a light source was within discernable distance. Spirits rising for the first time since he’d felt the force of the Taser’s charge, Lee felt some modicum of control over his – their – situation return. He searched his pockets for something to drop into the hole. He needed to gauge the drop. Coming up empty he cursed the fact that their captors had relieved them of all but the clothes on their backs.
“Linda, can you find me anything that I can drop down this shaft to make a splash?”
“Only thing I can see here is the metal cover, Lee.”
“No good. It might catch halfway down and be impossible to shift. Or worse yet, it could block the bottom of the shaft. If only we could pull the manacles out of the wall, but they’re too embedded.”
“Only other thing here is this piece of rope they tied my hands with.”
He took only seconds to consider – not that there was much considering to be done. Either it worked or it didn’t - and that proposed a whole new set of alternatives.
“Be as quiet as you can be while I drop it.”
“Because I need to know how far the drop to the water is.”
“Why?” She leant closer and peered down into the dark intimidating shaft.
“Cos I think this is a sewer that’s been bypassed several years ago. I’m betting there’s an exit to the ocean pretty close by. And I’ll go so far as to guess that our Mr. di Fabrioni is smug enough to think that no one can get out of his tight little cell and hasn’t got this exit manned.”
“Oh, no. No, no, no, no, no!! Lee, tell me you don’t expect me to go down there?” She was physically backing away from the hole as she spoke, retreating until she came up against the wall. There wasn’t light enough to tell for sure but he reckoned that she’d lost any colour that remained in her face – aside from the marks di Fabrioni had inflicted which made him wince whenever he looked at her. And he could see how she was beginning to tremble. Her whole body began to quiver. This was beyond mere apprehension. She was seriously terrified and just this side of hyperventilating.
“Easy, Linda.” He cupped her shoulders in his hands, soothing her gently and running his palms down her arms and back up again, tenderly stroking until he felt her shivers subside a little. She was still taut as a bowstring but for the sake of their imminent survival he had to be completely honest with her. Which was, on the down side, going to necessitate a degree of brutality - given her current reaction to their only possible escape route. “Before we do anything else we need to establish the drop.”
His only recourse was the nylon rope that had bound her wrists. It wasn’t the weight he’d have picked but you played the cards you were dealt. “Ssshh!” He cautioned as he moved back to the hole and honed his concentration – their lives very possibly depended on this. Plop. Best guesstimate – fifteen to twenty feet til he heard the just-short-of-silent indication that mass had found density. Better than he’d reckoned but still far from ideal. And – no choice – she so wasn’t ready for this but Lee had heard the boss’s order to kill him – and Linda had confirmed it was still on, postponed as it was by its proximity to other people but at their captor’s behest as and when he warranted it.
He could see the shudders that still wracked her body. “I know it seems like a tight fit, Honey, but there’s plenty of wiggle room. I’m betting it’s no more than ten to twelve feet to the water line – there are higher diving boards at some of the local pools. We can do this. And the fact that we can actually see light in the water means that it’s not too far to wherever this sewer comes out. We’ll be only minutes underwater. I can easily take your weight,” he could also lie convincingly when he had to – his upper body already protesting the anticipated exertion, “so I’ll lower you as far as I can and with our combined heights you shouldn’t have to drop more than a couple of feet. Move back as far as you can so I can drop in front of you. And I promise you we’ll swim out of there in minutes. You won’t have enough time to become claustrophobic, I guarantee it.”
The glare she shot him was caustic. It said – in words of one syllable, which she obviously thought were appropriate to the mental age she’d assigned him – that he was SO totally off the mark. But he could hear her teeth chatter even as she clenched them around the words. “I’m NOT claustrophobic. I can’t SWIM!”
Oh, shit. Double shit. Triple shit. They were now in really, really deep do-do’s.
Reality sucked. He hadn’t spent months with this woman as his lover and longer than that as his friend not to know that she really, really, wouldn’t voluntarily do this. How could he have spent so much time with her and not have figured out this fundamental fact? They’d spent days on the beach, more on the patio at his condo. But come to think of it, she’d never ventured into the sea. She’d always made an excuse about feeling lazy or not in the mood. What she categorically hadn’t done was told him she couldn’t swim!
They could still do this. They wasn’t any other option. Staying meant certain death for him – and he wasn’t entirely sure why di Fabrioni hadn’t killed him already – but who knew what fate was planned for Linda. The bastard obviously had no qualms about roughing her up and that was a total anathema to everything that Lee Crane lived by. His every instinct was to protect women – not that he was naïve enough to believe that they were the weaker sex. But when it came to body strength and kicking ass, most untrained women weren’t a match for men. Sad but true. There were a number of martial arts courses open to women these days – which he knew Linda hadn’t taken up – but outside the military most females weren’t capable of fighting off a determined male.
He purposely gentled his voice, massaging his hands up and down her arms and across her tense back continuously to calm her racing heartbeat, restore her breathing to something close to normal and reduce her obvious tension.
“You won’t have to swim, Linda. What you’ve got to do is trust me. Do what I tell you to do without question and I will get us out of here. I promise.”
“I can’t go down there, Lee. You don’t understand.” Her voice wobbled alarmingly and she trembled in his arms, breathing raggedly in an attempt to bring herself back under some semblance of control. “Believe me, I’ve tried. But when the water goes over my head I just totally panic.”
She pressed herself against him, hugging him tightly to her and Lee got this very, very uneasy feeling as she finally released herself and retreated until her back was flush against the furthest wall. “He’s going to kill you, Lee, whenever it suits him. It started because he was jealous that we were going together but now it’s because he can’t afford to let you go. Whether it’s because he thinks there’s something more than friendship between us or not, I don’t know. But I’ll never forgive myself for calling you yesterday. This is totally my fault.
“For some reason he still wants to keep me around, so I guess I’m safe enough for now. But you have to get out.” She took a deep breath – it pained her to admit that she’d been taken in once by a handsome face, a hefty wallet, and a relentless pursuit. “And you have got to expose him. His cover is solid as an investor in the TV station but I overheard a telephone conversation earlier tonight after we got here. He didn’t think I was listening but he mentioned ‘catastrophe’ and ‘scoppio di bomba’. Now I don’t speak Italian and I don’t for sure know what the words mean but I’m guessing that they’re not anything good, and ‘bomba’ sounds too much like bomb to me.”
It sounded a lot like that to him too. He wasn’t surprised that Di Fabrioni also spoke Italian – he would need it for his cover. What did surprise him was that he had allowed Linda to overhear him. Careless. Or advantageous. Depending on your viewpoint.
Lee had his arms around her now, cradling her against him, attempting to soothe her violent shuddering, even as every muscle in his own body tensed at her words. She was cold, he could feel that through the thin material of her dress, but the tremors that shook her were less from cold than from absolute terror. For all her brave words – and he admired her incredibly for what he recognised was an assumed bravura – he knew there was no way he could leave her behind. It wasn’t going to be pleasant and she would probably hate him for the rest of her life but she was going down that shaft and into the water. And what she’d just told him meant they had to get out of here sooner than right now! He needed to get a full alert out ASAP. The ramifications of this one could be catastrophic. And looking into her eyes he could see that the pupils were slightly dilated. Add that to the confusion that was increasingly apparent in her usual speech pattern and he was more than half convinced that she’d suffered a slight concussion from the blows she’d been dealt.
“Linda, I’d bet my life he’s not Italian and for sure his name isn’t Marco di Fabrioni. He’s middle-Eastern – as near as I can pinpoint the dialect he spoke with his men. From what you’ve just said I’m guessing he’s planning some sort of terrorist attack here on the west coast. If I were a betting man I’d wager he’s a deep cover cell leader for al Qa’ida or some such organisation and whatever he’s involved in is huge – given how deeply he’s planted himself – and the cover of a TV station owner doesn’t come cheap.”
As he spoke, quietly and calmly, Lee had been slowly but deliberately manoeuvring himself backwards. Despite his fear that she was somewhat concussed, and what he was going to put her through would have Jamie tearing what was left of his hair out, the alternative was worse. At least as far as his very healthy survival instinct told him. Stroking his hands soothingly up and down her arms continuously as he spoke softly in her ear, she was right by the shaft before she realised it. He quickly and thoroughly wrapped both his arms around her, binding her closely against him, exhorted her to take a deep breath and apologised even as he dropped them both swiftly into the vertical shaft.
“Chip, we’ve found Lee’s car.” Angie’s tone was buoyant with excitement as she imparted the news they’d been waiting on for several hours. Chip swiftly raised his head from the laptop he was consulting, his azure eyes red-rimmed from lack of sleep, worry, and the intensity of the computer work he’d been glued to for more hours than was advisable. He’d been so inured in his database that he hadn’t even heard the phone ring. It was past 0500 and their search had proved thus far fruitless. This was the first bit of good news they’d had since Lee had failed to show for dinner.
“Where?” He knew his tone was terse but couldn’t do anything about it. If he hadn’t been as worried as he was he would have closed his eyes at her tiny flinch at his brusque timbre. God, this was hard!
He forced himself to gentle his voice. “I’m sorry. Who located it and where did they find it, Angie?”
was imperceptible to anyone who didn’t know her well. “In the car
“Mr. Morton, we found the skipper’s car in a parking bay at Ms. Nugent’s apartment complex. Her car’s here too. But it looks like something odd went down here, sir.” The chief tended to be – voluble – at the best of times. Now he sounded decidedly excitable. Chip cut through it ruthlessly, seriously lacking patience but trying to project his usual calm image, not that Sharkey even noticed.
“How so, Chief?”
“Well, it looks like the skipper kinda took off. I mean, the car is like, parked properly within the lines and all but the driver and passenger doors are still open and the keys are missing from the ignition. Even so it’s a wonder someone didn’t hotwire it – but bein’ that this is a kinda upscale joint maybe it’s safe to do that here.” His voice beggared his disbelief.
A view that was shared by the now fully alert occupants of Angie Newman’s office, which had been converted to Command Central some hours earlier. This was their first real clue and both Nelson and Morton snapped to action, almost tripping each other up as they issued orders, the commander quickly but reluctantly ceding to the admiral and said admiral admonishing him purposely to add his two cents worth.
Thus it was that a veritable phalanx had descended on Linda Nugent’s apartment block. A second team visited SBTV and somewhere in the midst of this chaos a certain XO almost had to be physically restrained from joining the operation. He’d put up the best of arguments; he alone knew Linda better than anyone but Lee. He could pick up on clues Lee or Linda may have left – but to do that he had to be there in person.
Nelson’s voice – at its most commanding FOUR STAR FLAG OFFICER status – cut though what amounted to the exec’s rant. “Mr. Morton, do you have any doubts that your teams can do the job that has been entrusted to them by you, their commanding officer?”
Standing almost to attention, Morton was forced to answer honestly. “No, sir.”
“So why are you exhibiting all the signs of wanting to look over their shoulder?”
That silenced him.
Because he was the one who always wanted to be there to get Lee out of the trouble he, with indisputable regularity, got himself into. Because Lee was the brother he’d found at the Academy and had been either beside or one step behind ever since. Because he’d done it too many times to question why. Because he hated having to stay behind to command Seaview, Lee’s lady, while others went on retrieval missions. Because he knew Lee trusted him to do what needed to be done when he wasn’t there to do it.
And this time he was once again indisputably sidelined – and it wasn’t even because he was in command of their boat.
And it sucked – badly.
But his “Aye, sir,” was crisp and correct.
Dimly aware that Nelson had excused himself Chip paced the office, swearing all the myriad curse words he’d learnt during his years as a sailor both at the Academy and at sea. Silently, of course, because there was a lady present.
Not just any lady. Angie. But he just couldn’t go there right now. He rubbed his aching forehead, acknowledging the pain in his head, moved his hand down to his chest, unconsciously massaging his palm over the hurting place there. He couldn’t do that right now either. Seating himself back in front of his laptop he scrubbed his hands over his slightly stubbled jaw before once again setting his fatigue aside and sending his fingers flying over the keys, inputting the latest information into the search pattern programme.
“I can enter that. You should take a break – grab some coffee.” Angie sat beside him on the sofa and tried to pull the laptop towards her. Chip resisted, pushing her hands gently aside.
“Thanks, but I’m good. And I’m more familiar with the programme so I can direct the crew to the next probable search area faster.” He knew his brusque tone hurt her, could see her visibly withdraw. Damnit, he hadn’t meant that. She’d been through enough. He purposely softened his voice. “Sorry, didn’t mean to snap at you.”
“It’s OK. I mean, I’m sorry too.” She looked totally miserable and his heart contracted. “My timing really stunk.”
Well, yeah, he couldn’t deny that. But she wasn’t to know that Lee would go get himself caught up in – whatever. He concentrated so hard on the screen to block out the agony constricting his heart that he began to see black dots where there should have been words. Squeezing his eyes tightly closed as if he could shut out the pain, both physical and emotional, he sought for an appropriate response.
Truth – yeah, it stunk. Equal truth – it wouldn’t have been any easier to accept at any other time. He could see the tears shimmering in her green eyes. She didn’t need a confrontation right now. So, she’d lied to him but this wasn’t the time for an emotionally charged showdown. He was experienced enough that he could recognise what was driving this but wasn’t in any way qualified to deal with it in a personal sense. And now was SO not the time. But he had to do something to alleviate her pain – he could almost hear his mother’s voice egging him on.
He reached for her hand. Squeezed it tight. Sought for the words he needed to get past his own hurt and reassure her that he felt hers. “It’ll be OK, Angie. We’ll get through this.”
“Oh God, Chip, I hope so. But I’m not sure I can.” She jumped up, distancing herself from him, and grabbed a handful of tissues from the box on the admiral’s desk, mopping up the tears that spilled down her cheeks.
He wanted to go to her, wrap her in his arms and assure her that he would make it right. But he couldn’t. That was the last thing she needed right now. And, as much as he wanted to, he needed to clear his head and get back to the task in hand. It was what she needed too. And her contribution in co-ordinating the teams was invaluable. With this latest information he needed her beside him to pull their guys from the least likely positions into what he and the computer had latterly identified as the next most probable search areas – given the latest information.
“We’ll work it out, Angie. Whatever it takes, hon. But for now let’s concentrate on finding Lee.”
The gentle tone, the understanding in the face of his worry for his friend and the utter confidence in his voice, almost undid her, even as it warmed her aching heart and staunched her resolve. Blotting her cheeks, she sucked in a deep breath and brought him up to date.
They were interrupted by Nelson and Jamieson; the latter taking one look at the blond and beginning to dig in his medical bag, all the while muttering under his breath.
“Take these - and don’t for one minute attempt to tell me you’re fine.” The CMO barked, shoving two small brown pills and a glass of water almost into Morton’s face.
Easily identifying the tablets as Ibuprofen Chip swallowed them without argument, hoping they might take the edge off his pulsing headache. He baulked somewhat when the medic, grousing volubly, tipped his head back and dripped eye-drops into his red-rimmed orbs. The relief was almost instantaneous and didn’t go unnoticed.
“What you really need is to stand down for a couple of hours, Chip. Get some rest.” Anticipating the protest, Jamieson held up one hand. “And I’m not stupid enough that I know you won’t. But YOU can’t know how long this is going to take and you need to be fresh for when you’re needed.”
He couldn’t argue with the doctor’s logic and knew that Nelson had handpicked Will Jamieson for that very reason some years back. Their relationship, both in command and as friends, was one of absolute trust. Chip knew Jamie was right; he was way beyond exhaustion and badly needed rest. And in any other officer Jamieson would be demanding mandatory downtime, but he also knew that the trust factor that existed between them was such that Jamie would treat him and allow him to play out his destined role until either he, himself, or the CMO decided it was totally non- productive and dangerous for him to continue. In other others words, Jamie would cut him some slack and let him make the play – for now.
“I’m good for a couple more hours, Jamie.” At the medic’s instinctive protest, Chip raised one hand palm out in the universal ‘stop’ sign. “We’ve just inputted a new search grid based on finding Lee’s car at Linda’s and I – we,” acknowledging Angie, “need to co-ordinate sending teams to the radio station where she works and to populate the new grid pattern.”
Angie was already on the radio dictating their next moves to the crews and, at Chip’s behest, updating SBPD’s new Lieutenant, Pete Masters, on their findings thus far. “Chip, he wants to talk to you.” She extended the cordless phone.
He took it, simultaneously accepting a cup of freshly brewed coffee from the admiral and sipped it appreciatively as the caffeine jolt cleared much of the fog from his over-tired brain. He wouldn’t dare say it aloud but it did more for his headache than the pills Jamie had forced on him minutes earlier.
“Morton.” He listened with growing frustration as the newly appointed SBPD lieutenant explained once again why his under-funded department couldn’t acknowledge Crane as officially missing for twenty-four hours. White-faced with anger, coupled with fear for his friend, Chip began to pace the spacious office, rubbing at his forehead as if to will away the headache. “Look, Lieutenant, we’ve found his car with the keys missing and the doors wide open. Lee loves that car. No way would he have left it like that. We’re trying to trace Linda Nugent, a friend of his, who also can’t be found just now.” He listened, and then lost his legendary XO cool, practically seething. “No! It is NOT possible that he changed his mind and decided to spend the night with her! Not without contacting either NIMR security, the admiral or me. This is the captain of Seaview we’re talking about. He doesn’t just go UA at the drop of a hat! Take it from me, Lieutenant,” he almost spat out the title, “something has happened to him and neither Admiral Nelson nor I will forget your lack of co-operation.”
About to break the connection, he grudgingly returned the phone to his ear at the indignant squawk that emerged. He listened for several minutes; the on-lookers to this most uncharacteristic display of temper saw a gradual easing of his tense shoulders. “Thank you for that, at least. My men haven’t touched the car beyond ascertaining that the trunk was empty, bar the packages that Captain Crane had purchased earlier this – make that yesterday – afternoon. Please keep me informed of your findings.”
Disconnecting rapidly, he wanted to heave the instrument across the office but manfully refrained. Turning to face the still silent threesome who had witnessed his almost total loss of control, he could feel the tide of colour suffuse his cheeks at the stunned look on Angie’s face, the slight frown on Nelson’s and the amused smirk on Jamieson’s.
“Feel better now that you’ve found someone you can yell at, Chip?” Came irreverently from the doctor. Jamie knew how badly the younger man needed to vent his frustration and was very glad that it had manifested itself in such a volatile manner. All too often the soft-spoken, frighteningly calm and stoic exec hid his very real feelings and emotions behind an impenetrable mask. His blistering tongue could scrape layers of skin off seasoned sailors without him resorting to the necessity y of either raising his voice or resorting to swear words. Jamie’s twinkling brown eyes watched studiously as much of the remaining tension drained out of Chip and the younger man began to grin somewhat bashfully.
With an apologetic look at Nelson, he explained, “Pat Connelly told me several times that the only way to get action from the cops if they don’t want to move on something is to yell at them, yell some more and come back and yell again. Seems he was right. Didn’t get me all I wanted, which was a full mobilisation of the SBPD force out looking for Lee – unrealistic, I know. But he has agreed to send someone down to fingerprint Lee’s car and run anything they find through the Feds’ VICAP***** database. Other than that, we’re on our own for now.” He gulped back the rest of his cooling coffee, the high-octane liquid hitting his empty stomach and, coupling with the adrenalin rush of the confrontation, wiped away almost the last of his exhaustion.
Which was just as well because, almost immediately, his cell phone began to ring and, dismissing the unfamiliar caller ID, he reflexively answered it, almost dropping the instrument when he recognised the voice at the other end.
Linda was no lightweight and he was beyond exhaustion but he hauled her high enough onto the shale-covered shore that they were both out of reach of the incoming tide. He turned her onto her side and began to express the water out of her lungs. It took several tries before she started to weakly cough up the seawater she’d swallowed. He continued to put pressure on her diaphragm and eventually she began to retch violently. Once he was convinced that she was breathing OK, if a little raggedly, he turned onto his back and began to bring his own heart rate down to normal rhythm. His superb physical condition stood him in good stead once again and it took him bare minutes to recover his equilibrium. They’d escaped their prison but were still in a very precarious position and needed to get to safety – fast. Hopefully before their escape had been discovered.
He pushed himself to a standing position, wavering a little and light-headed from lack of food and water, wincing as the shale abraded his bare feet. The early morning air was cold and damp, much as the previous morning had been, and he shivered in his sodden clothes. Linda would be freezing too, her flimsy, now soaked and torn dress no protection against the wind chill coming from the sea. There was nothing he could do about that right now. They needed to get off the stony beach and under cover. His gaze raked the shoreline seeking out any possible shelter. There was precious little. Their best bet for now was some sandy dunes further up the beach. He could burrow a hole for Linda and cover her with sand that would protect her in some small way from the elements while he scouted out what looked like a dirt track at the top of the hill that widened as it wended eastwards
She’d stopped heaving and was able to sit up unaided so he caught her forearm and tried to bring her to her feet, mindful of the fact that she would probably be unsteady and ready to catch her if her knees folded. She surprised him by pushing strongly at his helping hand, scrabbling to her feet – even if she did waver a little – without his help and putting as much distance between them as she could before her legs gave out and she plopped down onto her backside.
“Get away from me, you bastard!” She could barely croak through the soreness in her throat from the amount of water she’d swallowed. “I told you I couldn’t bloody swim!”
Lee felt guilty – for all of thirty seconds. Jeez, Louise, he’d saved her life! Albeit temporarily, to be fair. But she could be a little more grateful. Granted it had been a tad hairy when they’d hit the water. He’d thought from the light conducted through the water that their egress would be shorter than it had transpired to be. He’d had no problem with the distance, being an experienced diver, but had had to contend with a very panicked passenger. From the moment they’d hit the water, Linda had fought him, dragging them both unnecessarily downwards, and he’d had to expend energy he didn’t have to push them back up to the surface. Even then she’d made things difficult, batting at him, trying to shove him away from her, refusing to accept his instructions to take a breath and hold it while he submerged them for short distances. Until eventually, when she’d put both their lives at stake, he’d been forced to subdue her by pinching the nerve just above her collarbone and rendering her unconscious. Jamie would no doubt give him hell, given she had a suspected concussion, but it was either that or they both drowned.
Even Jamie’s usually vocal wrath – and he winced involuntarily at the thought – was preferable to the acerbic diatribe Linda unleashed. He’d known she wouldn’t be exactly pleased with him but hadn’t realised she was acquainted with so many invectives as to put a seasoned rating to shame as she dragged herself up the steep incline. The stones, slippery from the ebbing tide, cut into the tender soles of her feet and she winced as she slipped and slid, water dripping from the dress that clung to every inch of her tall and curvy body.
“Hold up, Linda.” He wanted to tell her of his plan to get her warmed up while he attempted to secure them a way out of here. Her two-word response was pithy as she continued to shakily make her way up the stony beach avoiding his attempts to help her by shrugging ungraciously away from his hand on her elbow. He stayed by her side as she struggled upwards, cogniscent of how unsteady and emotionally wrought she still was, wincing as the sharp little pebbles cut into his bare feet. He’d known it was a risk to subject her to the trauma of having to go underwater but warranted it less of a risk than remaining a prisoner. He just hadn’t counted on her being so p.o.’d – but a part of him even admired her for that and for her staunch determination in clamouring to the top. However his gentlemanly instincts went swiftly out the window when he realised that she was ready to launch herself without caution over the brow of the hill.
“Whoa!” He practically tackled her around the waist before her head breached the top of the slope, not knowing what – or whom – they’d be facing. He had to reckon that their escape wouldn’t go undetected for too long. Not wanting to hurt her any more than she’d been already Lee manoeuvred himself so that he was underneath her as they slid several inches down. Which resulted in several inches of skin being abraded from his back and already sore shoulders. An indrawn breath and muttered imprecation were the only indications of his pain.
She was pushing herself off him almost before he could get his thoughts together and he grabbed her elbows tightly, reflexively, pinning her along the hard length of him. He caught the shocked look in her eyes, tightened his hold until he saw that she was somewhat calmer, and softened what would have otherwise been bitingly sarcastic comments. “We’re not out of the woods yet, Linda. They’re going to find us missing sooner or later and come looking. If Di Fabrioni is half the player I think he is then he’s gonna have his hounds out searching. Our little underwater trip didn’t take us far enough that I’m sure we’re even off his property. Until then we need to keep our heads down, be aware and work our way towards the closest major road.”
“Oh, and as you’ve got all the answers tonight, hot shot, I’m guessing you know where that is too?” She sniped, still not having forgiven him for her underwater ordeal.
Controlling his breathing so he didn’t snap back at her, knowing she was simply venting and so totally out of her usual element, he modulated his tone as he answered – albeit somewhat tersely. “No, I don’t. But I’m guessing that the widening of that track up above as it goes east will eventually lead to at least a secondary road of sorts and then perhaps to a highway or interstate. You’ve given me a general indication of where the house is and I’m reasonably familiar with the coastline around Santa Barbara (!!) so I figure if we keep going a couple of miles in this direction we’ll sooner or later find ourselves among friends. Trick is – we’ve got to avoid our enemies in the meantime.”
He steadied her as she shivered convulsively, wished he had Jamie here to gauge the level of her concussion and if he’d exacerbated it by his actions, lamented that he had nothing dry to cover the sodden dress that clung like a second skin and afforded her little warmth. Then watched her gather herself together at his deliberate words and finally recognise and come to terms with their still perilous predicament.
“Fine, I concede the point. Since you seem to know what you’re talking about.” The sarcastic tone told him she might be down but she was far from out and he grinned wryly, pulling himself upright despite his protesting back. What was one more ache? He motioned her to remain in place and crept quietly up to the top of the incline, cautiously raising his head above the lip. Satisfied that they weren’t immediately in for some nasty surprises he turned to gesture her to join him and surprised a concerned, almost worried, look on her expressive face. A far cry from the glares she’d been giving him. “What’s wrong?”
“Lee, your back. It’s bleeding and your shirt is torn. Oh my God, it must have been when you pulled me down just now.” He saw realisation dawn that he had ended up on the bottom deliberating and saved her from possible serious injury – or worse.
Glancing over his shoulder as far as he could, he saw what had shocked her. His wet shirt had already been plastered to his skin but now sported several rips, which were bloodied from the myriad small cuts he’d received. It looked worse than it actually was. In fact his wrists, rubbed raw from the metal shackles, hurt worse. His fingers still felt sore and swollen, not to mention the ache in his side and shoulder from where the Taser had impacted.
“It’s nothing. Come on, we need to get out of here.” At least one good thing came out of it. Her concern allowed her to take his hand and accept his assistance onto the sandy but pebbled track and saw her scurry to obey when he recommended that they travel at as fast pace as possible until they reached an area where there was some limited cover from shrubbery and an occasional tree. They’d gone several miles in that fashion, taking what cover they could, and moving swiftly when they encountered barren terrain. The dirt track had become an asphalt road some time back but there was a distinct lack of traffic – for which Lee didn’t know whether to be grateful or majorly pissed.
He could see that Linda was seriously flagging. She had been running on pure adrenalin since their escape but that was now critically waning. He could see the languor in her movements as she followed his lead without protest now and the glazed look in her eyes as she concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other. Worse – she’d stopped talking. He wished she’d complain, berate him, anything! Instead she remained stoically silent. Lee hated to push her so hard but he desperately needed to put distance between them and their captors. And, much as he knew they both needed rest, he was afraid that if he allowed her to stop he wouldn’t get her going again. She wasn’t equipped with the survival skills that he had honed to near perfection. On his own he’d have been out of here hours ago.
His innate sense of fairness tripped him up then and there. Without her, he’d still be shackled in a dingy cell. But he was the experienced one in this situation and the call was his – for right or wrong. And his sixth sense – that had served him unbelievably well in the past – kicked in, telling him to keep moving.
It was well justified when, barely fifteen minutes later, their side road became Highway 33, a route he was familiar with as it ran south of Santa Barbara and he’d used it many times to access 101 from the Institute on the occasions he hadn’t been able to take the Flying Sub to San Diego for CINCPAC meetings. He was grateful that there was sufficient roadside cover that they could pick their spot and he left Linda resting against a substantial tree trunk while he scouted out some likely transportation. He judiciously let several Lexus, BMWs and Town Cars pass – there was a definite dearth of trucks on this road, all preferring the Interstate – before, thank you God, he spotted an oncoming taxi cab. Probably a drop off to SB’s airport heading back to home base and avoiding the tolls he’d likely charged to his unwitting customer. He stepped out and flagged it down – only to have it accelerate past him at increased speed.
Obviously his disreputable appearance was working against him. Having this happen twice more seriously tried his patience. Desperate measures beckoned. He woke Linda from her scant slumber and explained their predicament. The next cab that passed almost caused its driver an injury he stopped so fast. Lee’s sudden appearance from behind Linda had the cabbie practically hyperventilating. His refusal to take them anywhere – given their appearance – was annoying but not unexpected. Even Lee identifying himself as an officer of NIMR and captain of Seaview didn’t sway the driver in his favour. He would have taken Linda – anywhere – but Lee wasn’t prepared to allow her to get into a cab on her own in her condition. What his mention of NIMR did buy him from the leery cab driver was, however, one call from his cell phone. He made that call count.
Not one but three NIMR sedans showed up, Chip practically catapulting from the lead car before it came to a complete stop – thankfully, Lee noted, from the passenger seat! Nelson emerged more sedately from the rear of the vehicle. Jamie alighted from the other side – and, for once, Lee was never happier to see him. He was worried about Linda who had lapsed into a doze once they’d made contact with Chip. He knew he’d pushed her way beyond her endurance level and only hoped that he hadn’t gone too far - and that she’d eventually forgive him. Over-riding that worry was a distinct unease regarding Di Fabrioni, his plans and where he’d seen him before.
For now Lee was just supremely grateful for Chip taking ownership of the situation as soon as they’d risen from their hiding place in the bushes. Directing operations, as the inimitable commander that he was, Chip swiftly assessed the situation appointing Lt. James and Chief Sharkey to secure the perimeter and assign the eager crew members piling out of the NIMR vehicles to best aid their CO. He quickly gauged Lee’s exhausted and sodden state and barked for a blanket, which he threw – it being immediately produced – around his friend’s shoulders. Lee gratefully accepted the assist but pointed his rescuers immediately in Linda’s direction and then began to almost simultaneously update Jamieson on her condition while he filled his colleagues in on their current situation.
Chip was concerned more with getting them all the hell out of here – given the limited sitrep he’d gotten from Lee, and without asking needless questions that could be answered later. While Jamieson was speedily assessing his CO’s state of health, he’d seconded Kowalski to check on Linda.
Nelson quickly assured himself that Lt. James, Chief Sharkey, Riley and Patterson had the security detail before he allowed himself to check on how Lee was doing – despite his own silent and quirky acknowledgment that Morton would have already sussed that out. He pursed his lip with unbidden amusement as he saw that his captain and friend was typically busy shrugging off the CMO’s anxious ministrations. Chip had quickly gauged that Lee was more concerned about Linda and kept a weather eye on Ski even as he oversaw Jamie’s quick exam. Lee was sufficiently keen to get out of there that he submitted to the CMO’s superficial examination. Not so Linda.
At Kowalski’s approach she’d shied back into her concealing bush and it had taken Lee’s unequivocal OK for her to allow the large jumpsuit-clad man to toss a thin alu-foil heating blanket around her, his big hands tucking it gently about her thinly clad body, all the while murmuring soft assuring words and swiftly gauging her obvious injuries. She had visible facial injuries, was borderline hypothermic, almost certainly in shock and he quickly requested more blankets. The security of the additional covering seemed to re-assure her as did Ski’s soothing soft-talk. He gently tipped her head back and shone a penlight he’d taken from a comprehensive First Aid Kit in each of her eyes. She blinked reflexively and he grinned companionably.
“I’m Kowalski, they call me Ski. And I’m a trained field medic. Doc’s just a bit occupied checking over the captain so he asked me to take care of you for now. You’re Linda, right? And you’re a friend of the skipper’s. I think I’ve heard your name mentioned in despatches.” He winked conspiratorially and she could almost feel herself relax – a little. “You feeling a bit warmer now, Linda?” He deliberately used her first name, made eye contact, developing some empathy between them, sensing her distrust. Waiting for her nod before he allowed his gaze to rove her face, he then gently probed her skull from neck to temples. His jaw tightened as he observed the damage to her pretty face but he forced himself not to show his revulsion as he used an antiseptic wipe to gently blot away the coagulated blood and began primary treatment, slowing as she winced.
“Hey, somebody hit you but good, pretty lady. You’ve got a nice little concussion going on there. And that’s a nasty scrape on your cheek. I think we can clean it up a bit right now so it won’t scar but that cut on your lip is going to need a couple of stitches – if I’m any judge. Doc will make the final decision and he’s the best. You talk to Angie. She had to get some stitches on her forehead a while back and now you can scarcely see them.”
His tone was so soothing that she almost allowed herself to let go, her lip trembling, but she bit the inside of her cheek to stop herself from bawling her eyes out. Her head was aching, the entire left side of her face was throbbing, she was cold and – yeah, she was scared. Even though she knew, in her heart of hearts, that she was safe with these people. Glancing around she recognised Nelson, Chip and several others. But when Kowalski gently tugged at the blankets, she baulked.
He sat back on his haunches, unfazed. “I know you’re upset, Linda. You’ve been through a lot and you’d probably prefer to have Doc look you over. But he’s a bit busy with Captain Crane right now and I know that the skipper is just as anxious about you so he sent me over here to check that you’re doing OK. I just want to find out if you need some special treatment or if you’re OK to move back to the Institute by car. I promise I’ll be quick and we really need to get out of here. Is it all right with you if I just check you over?”
Patterson’s appearance at that precise moment could have almost been orchestrated. Competently and comfortably cradling his M-16 he grinned gently at the bruised but familiar face that graced his local news channel when he was in port.
“Excuse me, ma’am. Ski, the exec wants to know when you’ll be clear to evac. He wants us out of here like now.”
Hearing Ski’s grunted affirmation, Linda realised that she really wanted to get out of there too so she gave what epitomised a jerky nod. As Patterson discretely moved away, Ski gently removed the near death grip she held on the blankets and deftly checked her over, satisfied that she wasn’t hiding any life threatening injuries. His jaw clenched as he found the bruises on her arms and legs and the bloodied and dirty cuts on the soles of her feet. She wouldn’t be walking far for the next several days. He could feel her withdrawal even as he scooped her into his strong arms and deposited her in the second of the Institute cars. Caught her almost frantic look for a familiar face as the NIMR convoy picked up speed and he hastened to placate her.
“Captain Crane is
in the lead car with Admiral Nelson, the exec – Commander Morton – and
Doc. I’m sure he’s fine and you’ll see
him soon as we get to
She didn’t understand some of the terms he spouted but his tone and touch were kind and she was obviously in good hands – she’d recognised the NIMR logo on the cars and Chip and Nelson had been familiar faces. Much as she wanted to stay awake and alert, now that she was warm and safe events caught up with her and she allowed herself to drift away, wedged closely between Kowalski and Patterson in the rear seat.
Lee, on the other hand, was swiftly and concisely bringing his colleagues up to date on the situation. Nelson had taken the front passenger seat; he hadn’t had a lot of choice as Chip had glued himself to Lee’s side and Jamieson wasn’t giving up his place either. Twisting around in the front seat, with Sharkey at the wheel, he watched Lee bat ineffectually at the CMO’s attempts at triage. Lee looked like hell, wet, bedraggled, his face lined with exhaustion and pain and his body shivering with cold despite the space age blanket draping him. Nelson could see the bruise that darkened his jaw, the bloodied welts on his wrists, the cuts on his bare feet - and his jaw tightened in anger. And goodness only knew what other injuries Lee was hiding! Thank God he seemed otherwise lucid, bring them rapidly up to speed on the previous twenty-four hours’ events, his conjectures succinct but sufficiently detailed.
disgust was almost palpable when two of the three Institute cars drew up
“I need to get to my office. NOW!”
“Not gonna happen, buddy.” Morton practically snorted, knowing this battle was over before it had even begun. The fire shooting from the CMO’s brown eyes was almost matched by that in the admiral’s sapphire blue ones.
“You’ve said some really stupid things in your time, Commander,” Jamie’s tone was arctic and both younger officers winced, (Jamieson only used THAT voice AND formal rank when he was totally ticked) “sometimes I could put it down to a concussion – maybe even a delusion - but this just about beats all!”
“Jamie, I appreciate your concern – I really do.” Crane tried for his most winsome, re-assuring timbre, somewhat muted by the chills that continued to shake him. “But I have this – feeling – that if we don’t act on this quickly something… catastrophic is about to happen.”
He could see both Nelson’s and Morton’s antennae perk and internally sighed with satisfaction – outwardly he didn’t allow any emotion to show, not wanting to piss off Jamieson any more than he was about to. And the CMO looked about ready to explode – or commit murder, which went totally against the medic's sworn oath.
Sharkey had judiciously removed himself from the driver’s seat and stood almost at attention, holding the admiral’s door open and trying to look as if he wasn’t eavesdropping.
Lee’s voice was at its most persuasive, “I’m not going to fight you on this. I know I need the cuts on my feet and wrists
treated but they can wait. What I
really, really need is to access ONI’s database and find out who this guy who’s
calling himself Di Fabrioni really is. He’s bought over
It looked like he was convincing Nelson and Morton but Jamieson still wasn’t buying it, his glare mutinous. “Jamie, I’m deadly serious. This could be something as big as a west coast 9/11.” Seeing the shock invade the medic’s eyes, even as his lips thinned, he was prepared to be gracious in victory – only to be blindsided from his right.
“Compromise.” Morton pronounced in that certain drawl he had perfected when adjudicating between argumentative seamen who had been underwater too long – it told you, in no uncertain terms, to accept it or he was going to get down-and-dirty-and-you-really-really-wouldn’t-like-the-next-bit. At Lee’s frown and Jamie’s opening his mouth to protest Chip donned his severest XO expression, which even had Nelson think twice about interfering. “I mean it!” He barked, pointing his index finger towards Jamieson. “For fifteen minutes, he’s yours. Do your worst but plan to have him escorted to my office then.”
Turning to jab the same finger into Lee’s chest he exhorted his best friend. “YOU – co-operate! You’ll be sprung in fifteen. It’ll take me that long to run a search on your guy and then access ONI’s database. Not to mention any other databases I can ….” He broke off before the words ‘hack into’ broached his lips, darting a slightly sheepish glance at his senior officers, both of whom grinned happily back at him knowing his expertise with all things computer related.
throat, he continued. “Yes, well, Lee,
did Linda give you any indication as to when Di Fabrioni entered the
Lee and the admiral shared a conspiratorial grin. It was fun watching Chip slide into his other persona as a computer nerd – not that they hadn’t been exceedingly grateful for his rather awesome talents several times in the past.
Jamieson’s cleared throat as a reminder that the rear car door on the
Sighing mightily and directing a you-will-suffer-for-this glare at his friends, Lee lowered himself into the wheelchair and allowed the corpsman to propel him up the ramp, followed by a relieved (surely not smug) Jamieson gripping his overstuffed medical bag.
“That went well,
Chip.” Nelson lit up a much-needed
cigarette as he prepared to accompany his XO towards the
“Aye, sir. If you’ll excuse me, I don’t want to risk any more of Lee’s wrath by not having something for him when Jamie’s fifteen minutes are up. I’ve asked Chris to take the slow route to the Admin building,” he was being facetious but appreciated Nelson’s grudging grin for what it was – an admittance that he was giving Lee as much down time as he could while he, Chip, found out as much as possible about the man who was now his sworn enemy. Anyone who played dirty pool with his friend….
“Go, Chip. And tell Angie to get on home. I have no doubt she’s still there.” He knew his staff only too well – so he didn’t miss the faint, very faint, hesitance in the XO’s step. And wondered. But shook off the slight unease in the face of this new and possibly very real threat. If Lee was correct…. And he had no call to doubt his young captain’s instincts - they had proved only too reliable in the past. He couldn’t afford to dismiss them now. Grinding out his cigarette in a handy facility outside NIMR’s main building before following Chip, he headed for his private office and his own proven contacts. Couldn’t let these young whippersnappers have it all their own way!
Crane almost exploded from the despised wheelchair as the tech propelled it into the exam room. Jamieson made no attempt to hide his snort of amusement. “It’s not often you’re so willing and eager to get into my dreaded clutches, Captain.” With a nod at the exam table he bade his CO to remove his shirt. Lee was cogniscent of the fact that he’d been downgraded from the ‘very’ formal rank of “commander” to the infinitely more bearable nomenclature of “captain” – not as good as “skipper” and a far cry from his given name but at least a step in the right direction.
“It’s not that I’m keen to be the focus of your attention, Jamie, rather that I’m ready to be out of that…thing! And more than ready to get back to work. You’re on the clock, Doc.” There was enough humour behind the terse voice to allow Jamieson to engage in the customary banter that – usually – marked their relationship.
“Believe me, Captain, I’m only too aware of that! Now while you’re hobbling on those cut feet of yours towards my exam table perhaps you can give me a rundown of what I can’t see for myself.”
“Not a lot, Jamie, to be totally honest. For once, what you see is what you get. They grabbed me, tied me up, left me in a cellar which I found I could swim out of, climbed a rocky incline – accounting for the cuts on my feet – and managed to call you guys to come to the rescue.” He flashed his friend his best convincing smile – coupled with a totally innocent face. Which didn’t fool the experienced CMO for a solitary second.
“Ditch the shirt, Skipper, and don’t try to snow me. The clock might be ticking but MY clock works to a different rhythm than other peoples. So don’t count on your XO to get you out of here any quicker than I’m ready to be done with you. Or at least,” in the face of the storm cloud building on Lee’s face, “until you’re honest with me and I’m satisfied you’re telling me the truth.”
Lee dropped his head towards his chest as he hitched one hip onto the exam table, attempting to shrug off his shirt as he did so. “I’m not even going to fight you on this, Jamie, cos you’ll see the physical evidence for yourself. Everything I’ve told you so far is the truth. I maybe just forgot to mention that they zapped me a couple of times with a Taser – shoulder and side – you’ll probably see some residual burns. But,” and he was quick to throw in, “they’re minimal and haven’t slowed me down – much. What I need more than anything else is a hot shower, a gallon of coffee and something to eat wouldn’t go amiss.” The last was to appeal to the CMO’s usual refrain that he didn’t eat enough. Lee was hoping that would distract Jamieson sufficiently, but he should have known better – heck, maybe that was one card too many to play.
He groaned inwardly at the CMO’s dark scowl, allowing his discomfort to show outwardly as the doctor swiftly drew blood from the vein at the inside of his elbow.
“Taser?” At Lee’s reluctant nod, Jamieson continued – labelling the vial of his captain’s blood with controlled force. “Twice? Shoulder and side? Into your ribcage, right here,” and he probed gently but not sufficiently so to prevent Lee’s wince and sharp intake of breath. “Yeah, right! That would explain this spectacular bruise. And you think you’re going to walk out of here in fifteen minutes!” His tone reeked sarcasm as he threaded the digits of his right hand through what was left of his hair before swinging around to face the man who was struggling to get his shirt back on as he perched on the absolute edge of the exam table – one butt cheek away from flight. “You don’t! For once you have no idea, do you?”
At Lee’s mystified look, Will Jamieson dropped his hand from his head and leant back against the exam room door, unconsciously, or otherwise, barring his most reluctant patient’s next likely move – escape. Bringing both hands up to scrub briefly at his face he then lowered them sufficiently to cup his jaws. Contrary to popular belief he really didn’t enjoy curtailing his captain’s activities. But sometimes, to keep Lee – not just his CO but also his friend – alive and healthy, he had to rein him in. Reluctantly for sure, of necessity there was no doubt.
Will sighed, he derived no pleasure from this but it was his sworn duty to keep this man alive and he couldn’t in all conscience let him go after that little disclosure without a battery of tests – which was going to take a lot longer than the fifteen minutes he’d been allotted. Now to explain it to him – in words that wouldn’t have the volatile and medically hostile captain erupt.
“Lee, I know
you’re familiar with the… science of Tasers but maybe not the reasons why we
don’t use them here in the
The Taser is laser-sighted and uses cartridges attached to the end of a ‘barrel’.” Lee’s brief nod told the medic that his reluctant patient was more than intimately acquainted with the description. “The cartridges project a pair of barbs or darts attached to insulated copper wires. It can be deployed at a distance or may also be used in a direct contact stun mode.” Knowing he sounded like he was quoting from a manual – and not getting the reaction he needed from Lee, Jamie increased the irritation in his voice.
“The ‘normal’ reaction from a person exposed to the discharge of a Taser is the loss of some voluntary muscle control resulting in the subject falling to the ground or ‘freezing’ on the spot. The device relies on physiological effects other than pain alone to achieve its objective, although pain is the main factor when it’s used in ‘drive stun’ mode.”
He could see Lee was ingesting his words as his CO allowed his head to hang down between his shoulder blades in acknowledgement of worse to come. Jamieson didn’t relish being the bearer of bad news but – God – he had no choice.
“Skipper, Lee … I’m guessing that you struggled after you were – zapped?” At Lee’s reluctant but thankfully honest nod he sighed, having already anticipated the answer. “Unfortunately, the harmful effects of the Taser device are exacerbated by violent struggling and extreme expenditures of energy in the ensuing several days.”
Raking his hands over his lean jaw, Jamieson struggled to reconcile his Hippocratic oath with his job as NIMR’s CMO. He’d trusted this man with his life too often to disregard his instincts – plus, deep down, he knew there was no way in hell he was going to keep Crane in his orbit for any longer than that promised fifteen minutes – even if it went against everything he’d trained for. Sometimes the greater good really had to override the health of the individual and, much as his head and heart ached to do it, he knew he would have to mop him up and let him go – much as his mentors had done in other war zones. And Jamie knew that they were fighting an on-going war against terrorism every day of their lives as things currently stood.
He went eyeball to stubborn eyeball for several seconds with his obdurate CO before surrendering. And he couldn’t even say it was against his better judgment, for he knew this honorable man for what he was – a warrior for the greater good.
Sighing gustily he moved behind Lee, gently working the shirt back off and dropping it onto the floor, drawing in a hissed breath as he observed the nasty, oozing scrapes that peppered his back. “What I really need is you on complete bed rest and observation for the next forty-eight to seventy-two hours.” Holding up his hand at the glare he received over Lee’s shoulder, he indicated his concession to the inevitable. “Like that’s about to happen! OK, Skipper, on your front, let’s get these cuts cleaned up and treated in the fourteen minutes I’ve got left.”
As Lee gingerly rotated himself to lie face down on the table, pillowing his head on his crossed arms, he allowed a quick grin to split his pale, worn features. “Fourteen, Doc? You wish! Nine minutes, twenty-five seconds and counting. Yee-ouch! Jeez, Jamie, you could warn a guy!” Lee sucked in any further yelps as Jamieson began to cleanse the abrasions on his back. Gentle as Jamie was, the astringent stung badly but, despite his initial utterance, Lee clenched his fists and remained stoic as the doctor first treated the bloodied mess that was his back and then cleaned and lightly bandaged the worst of the cuts and grazes on his feet, finally ministering to the welts on his wrists left by the shackles. By now the swelling in his fingers had subsided dramatically and complete functionality had almost returned so he didn’t see the necessity to call that to Jamie’s attention – no need to give his CMO anything else to worry about or reason to keep him here any longer.
A knock on the door had Jamieson frowning as he expunged the air from the blood pressure cuff wrapped around Crane’s arm and tugged the ear pieces of the stethoscope down to rest about his neck as he ripped at the Velcro strip banding the taut bicep, even as they both simultaneously, equally peremptorily, called for the visitor to enter.
Immediately acutely aware of the irritation in both voices – not unexpected in the circumstances – Kowalski pushed open the exam room door and slid inside. “Hey, Skipper, Mr. Morton sent me to res… ahh, asked me to bring you a clean uniform, sir. And requested me to escort you to his office once you’re done with him, Doc cos he pulled Lt. James away for another job.” It was obvious to both men that the senior rating was struggling to retain his equanimity. Lee remained silent while acknowledging Ski’s bounty with a nod, sliding off the exam table and taking the proffered clothing with muttered thanks. It was Jamieson who finally broke the taut silence between the two officers, following Kowalski’s gaffe, as Ski tried – unsuccessfully – to make himself invisible.
“Not so fast, Captain. You know
I’m not happy about this, Lee.” The use
of his nominal title, followed by his Christian name, told the younger man just
how unhappy and torn the medic was.
“Ideally I’d like to admit you but I’d be wasting my breath even making
the suggestion.” Again holding up one
hand to forestall his CO’s protest, he continued. “What I am going to do, however, and
you are going to agree to, is the wearing of a portable heart monitor
which will be connected to a base unit here in
At Lee’s pseudo-deferential nod, his patience snapped. “I’m not looking for your agreement, Commander, I’m telling you how it’s going to be!”
Now he’d been relegated back to the formality of his rank, Lee noted – not a good thing.
“And right now you’re going to drop your pants and let me administer this antibiotic so none of these cuts get any more infected than I can prevent. Then you’re going to use the shower in the doctors’ lounge and before you get into that uniform shirt you’re coming back here so I can fit the heart monitor.”
Way beyond ticked!
Lee critically assessed the CMO’s tolerance level and slid his butt off the exam table without further complaint. Un-snapping the button at the waistband of his jeans, he slid the zipper down and turned, dropping the denim just sufficiently to uncover the upper portion of his hip. He’d been the recipient of enough injections in his nether regions to know within a millimeter exactly where the needle would impact. He caught the stifled cough from Ski and knew the senior rating had cottoned on – as had the CMO, whose own muted snort of laughter hid his disbelief at Lee’s tacit agreement. It didn’t make the sting of the needle any more bearable though and he hissed through a breath as Jamie jabbed, then withdrew the hypo and disposed of it in a medi-safe container.
“Here, take these!” Jamie shoved three pills in a paper cup and a glass half-filled with water at him. At Lee’s suspicious glance, he sighed gustily. “The two white ones are extra strength ibuprofen for the pain and the pink one is an anti-inflammatory to combat any residual muscle swelling from the impact of the Taser. No sedatives – I promise. Now - GO! Back here in ten. Ski, give him a hand. And DON’T argue!” This last as Lee opened his mouth to protest the necessity of an escort.
Wide-eyed innocence greeted his words as Lee backtracked skillfully, having dutifully swallowed the pills. “Wasn’t going to. Just wanted to ask if you’d take a look and see how Linda’s doing – while you’re waiting for me.” Hazel eyes sparkled. “Hate to think of you just hanging here – waiting.”
Jamie’s eyes narrowed threateningly – not that he hadn’t intended doing exactly that anyway but he wasn’t going to admit it to his worst patient. “Believe me, Captain, I won’t be bored. Updating your medical file is tantamount to a full time job around here.” His reward was the flush that faintly tinted the younger man’s olive skin.
“Actually, Doc, I think I may have put both my big feet right in it.” Ski shifted guiltily as he further explained. “Ms. Nugent, ah, Linda, ain’t too happy right now. Doctor Morgan is the physician assigned to her and….” Lee’s groan interrupted his hesitant admission.
It was no secret in
“What’s the problem, Ski?”
“My fault, Skipper. I kinda mentioned back when we picked you guys up that doc here is the best stitcher in town. Trying to reassure her, you know. Sorta told her that you’d done a super job on Ms. Angie, Doc.” Ski shifted uncomfortably again. “Now she’s refusing treatment from Doctor Morgan.” Lee’s snort drew an arctic glare from Jamieson.
“Nobody ever accused Linda of being stupid, Ski.” Lee didn’t back down from his CMO’s disapproval. While he couldn’t fault the woman’s medical skills he had a lot less time for her autocratic bedside manner. And he hadn’t even been the direct recipient. But he’d seen first hand how she’d treated both Patterson and Chip as little more than lab rats, in his opinion – which was admittedly biased. Jamie might be disposed to work with her but, if he could prevent it, no one close to him, on the receiving end of treatment, would.
Jamie’s drawl halted Lee’s exit.
“While I’m personally distinctly flattered, Commander,” Lee winced at
the return to his rank and the hardening of Jamieson’s tone, “it does call my
reputation as head of
Attempting to diffuse the situation, Ski broke in. “My fault entirely, Doc. I was the one….”
“No, Ski. This is mine.” Lee, more than a little ashamed that he hadn’t thought too much about Linda since they’d been taken to separate exam rooms, stepped forward until he was almost toe to toe with the medic. “I don’t – wouldn’t – deny that she’s a good medic, Jamie, but when it comes to my men I need more than good. She’s arrogant and treats them with no mind for their ultimate wellbeing. I can’t and won’t abide that. They are fighters - warriors - and deserve to be treated as such. It’s been a slow burn but now I’m adamant about this. If she can’t accord my men the respect they deserve then she goes. I don’t relish going over your head, Jamie, but if I have to, believe me, I will.”
Seeing the stubborn cast on the younger man’s face that he knew wouldn’t be denied, Jamieson capitulated – for now. There was obviously more going on here than he was privy to. “We’ll talk about it for sure when this current crisis is resolved. In the meantime, I’ll visit with Ms. Nugent while you take that shower, Skipper.”
His easy acceptance of Lee’s concerns deflated a huge amount of his captain’s ire. Reaching a hand forward, Lee clasped the doctor’s shoulder – they were, more or less for now, on the one side. “Thanks, Jamie.”
And saw Kowalski give a huge sigh of relief.
Despite an underlying degree of irritation, Jamie managed to toss a grin in the rating’s direction. “Thanks for the vote of confidence, Ski. I’m sure I can trade on it for months to come.” Relishing the senior rating’s sheepish look, he decided to cut him some slack. “Didn’t realize I rated that highly with Angie, though.”
It was fun to watch similar traded ‘NOT-going-there’ looks and he suppressed a chuckle as both men sidled out the doorway. Tucking his stethoscope into the pocket of his lab coat, he cast a professional glance around the exam room before exiting.
Lee could hear the raised voices as he and Kowalski approached the door to the exam room currently occupied by Linda, Jamie and probably assorted other medical personnel. The sheer indulgence of a long hot shower and the comfort of his familiar khaki uniform had gone a ways toward gaining him a second wind. Ski had re-bandaged his feet and produced a pair of soft leather moccasins, which were not too uncomfortable on his battered soles. His other varied cuts and bruises were painful whenever he flexed any particular muscle group but the mild painkiller Jamie had insisted upon took the ragged edge off and he could, for the most part, exert a mind-over-matter approach. How long it would last was anyone’s guess and he predicted that he would come down with a spectacular bang when it did.
For now he traded amused glances with the senior rating. It was not unusual to overhear high volume arguments
“Either this is louder than usual, Ski, or we urgently need to upgrade the sound-proofing in the exam rooms.” Lee grinned companionably as he saw the younger man wince at a particularly colorful expletive.
“Maybe it’s just that ladies’ voices carry further, Skipper.” Kowalski ventured diplomatically, hanging back as Lee forged ahead.
“Time to rescue doc, I guess.”
Ski wasn’t sure who exactly needed rescuing but he wasn’t going to argue with his CO. “Right behind you, sir,” knowing he was one of the few who could get away with this slight irreverence.
Sending him a mock-withering glance, Lee knocked briskly on the exam room door before pushing it open. A quick scan of the compact area had him noting Dr. Morgan’s grim features, the hovering nurse, the fact that Jamieson was looking no less frustrated than he had when Lee had left but that Linda was looking a whole lot better than the last time he’d seen her – if seething anger could be deemed as such. She had obviously managed to shower in the meantime and was dressed in loose green scrubs that dwarfed her tall but slender frame. Seated on the edge of the exam table, (in a pose not dissimilar to Crane’s own several minutes earlier) bare feet swinging agitatedly – evidence of her extreme annoyance – Band Aids on the soles on her treated feet, her colorfully bruised and scraped face bore a mutinous expression. Her lip was still sluggishly oozing blood and Lee was vaguely surprised that Jamie hadn’t already stitched it. The reason why became obvious almost immediately as she practically leapt from her perch at his entrance.
He wasn’t sure from whom the comment had come, belatedly realizing – as his head swung between Linda and Jamieson – that both utterances were almost simultaneous. Hers having the - almost - addition of a most unladylike word.
“Ow! Ouch! F…flip!” Linda’s expression contorted with pain as her injured feet took the brunt of her weight. Kowalski moved faster than either Crane or Jamieson, catching her around the waist and gently lifting her back up onto the gurney.
“Whoa, there, Ms. Nugent. You need to give those cuts a little time to heal.”
Reflexively she’d clutched at his arms to restore her balance when he’d grabbed her; belatedly becoming aware of the taut biceps now bunched under the red jumpsuit he wore and the fact that her unfettered breasts were practically pressed against his powerful chest. She wriggled out of his grasp, swatting ineffectually at his heavily muscled shoulders.
“Let go of me, you big oaf!”
Kowalski stepped back immediately, a flush streaking up his sallow cheeks.
“Linda!” Crane’s voice held all the authority of his command as it whipped out and around the room. The entire assembly froze. Both Jamieson and Kowalski had heard that particular tone on a number of occasions and all but visibly cringed, knowing what was to come.
Dr. Morgan’s blue eyes widened – she’d been unfortunate enough to come across Seaview’s captain on several occasions when she’d treated his men but then he’d been distantly polite and distinctly austere, coldly requesting that Dr. Jamieson was called before she could complete her examinations. She’d not been pleased at his obvious displeasure and several times they’d come to verbal blows but she’d never had occasion to witness the absolute power he could inject into one single word. It had the sudden impact of a pistol shot in the small treatment room. And gave her a heretofore unseen insight into the man and the commander. It was obvious that he thought highly of all his men.
“You owe Seaman Kowalski an apology.” The tightness of his voice coupled with an inherent disappointment in his tone prolonged the silence in the room, broken by Ski’s token protest.
“Sir, that’s not necessary….”
“I beg to differ, Ski.” Crane’s gaze never left his ex-lover’s gray eyes, although he’d moderated his tone. “Linda was out of order and I think she knows it. Don’t you?” His soft-voiced words challenged her to disagree.
“Lee, she’s been through a lot today.” Doc’s warning did nothing to alleviate his CO’s hardened stance. Crane’ lack of response spoke volumes. No way would he allow any member of his crew to be thus maligned.
A shuddering sigh was his reward, tiredness now seeping through in her voice. “No, I’m sorry. I’m being a total brat. Mr. Kowalski, my apologies. I guess I’m a tad wired right now. You’ve been more than kind. Lee, I should thank you. You saved my life. Let’s talk later. Now, Dr. Jamieson, if you’d do whatever else you have to do, I’d be more than pleased to get out of your hair.”
The good doctor flicked a glance at his CO, message sent and received, as he moved the prepared surgical tray closer to him and pulled on fresh latex gloves. As Lee prepared to open his mouth, Jamie interjected smoothly.
“Linda, why don’t you lie down for me now. I’m just going to numb the area with a slightly stronger analgesic. You won’t feel a thing, I promise. Then it shouldn’t take more than two or three small sutures to close the lip. If we’re lucky – and you’re a good healer – there should be little or no scarring once it heals.” He glanced around the silent bystanders. “And I think we could lose half the people in this room. Ski, why don’t you escort the skipper back to exam room three? Dr. Morgan, perhaps you’d be kind enough to equip the captain with a cardiac monitor and let him get on his way while I finish up here.”
At Lee’s instant thunderous expression, his own brows met in a frown and he called his CO to one side, lowering his voice as Ski held the door for Aimee Morgan. “Don’t start with me, Lee. She’s a perfectly competent doctor and it’s only fitting a monitor, for heaven’s sake. Not like I’m asking you to let her perform brain surgery on you.” His exasperated tone had Lee’s mouth twitching at one side although he immediately tried to hide it by deepening his scowl. Interpreting Lee’s disdain was as much for the monitor as the doctor, he hastened to explain. “You’ll hardly even notice it, Skipper. It clips to your belt, is about half the size of your cell phone with two wires leading to discs on your chest that keep an eye on your heart rate and alert the control unit if it goes out of whack for any reason.”
As Lee’s scowl refused to lighten Jamie’s expression softened, knowing how much his CO hated any medical restrictions. “It’s important, Lee. I wouldn’t ask you to wear it if I wasn’t worried about the effects of the Taser. We just don’t know enough about them yet.” He backed off then, allowing Lee’s innate intelligence to process the information and come to his usual pragmatic conclusion.
A resigned nod was his reward. His voice equally low, Lee tilted his head in Linda’s direction. “She’s exhausted, Jamie. After you stitch her up can you arrange for her to get some sleep?” He knew what was coming even before Jamieson gave him the slightly evil grin he’d patented since becoming Seaview’s CMO.
“Don’t worry, Skipper. The anesthetic I’ll be injecting into her, combined with her tiredness, should be enough to send her to sleep while I’m working on her lip. If not, I’ve got a regular arsenal on hand. She won’t be going anywhere for several hours.”
As he’d expected, Lee grimaced at the mention of oft-used trickery – with him the usual recipient. “Now why don’t you get out of here before your exec resorts to a personal rescue mission instead of sending Kowalski!”
Chip Morton looked up from one of the three computer screens that currently glowed in the weak light of the still early morning that filtered through the slatted window blinds as his office door abruptly opened. His slow grin dimmed slightly but he managed to refrain from frowning as he looked his friend up and down. Taking in the lines of exhaustion around his eyes, the tense set of his jaw and the pallor of his usually olive complexion, he guessed Lee was just about running on empty right now. Knowing how Lee hated being fussed over – especially when he was less than one hundred percent – Chip wheeled his chair back around to check something on one of the screens, casually waving his hand towards the tray on the other side of his desk.
“Thought you’d be ready for some coffee by now. And Angie managed to rustle up some sandwiches.” He watched surreptitiously as Lee hesitated for a split second before crossing the room, as if expecting to be challenged on his health, saw the wariness drop from him but noted how – gingerly – he picked his way across the expanse of carpeting to the desk as if his feet were hurting him badly. Saw how he just about salivated at the first gulp of the strong coffee and devoured the entire mug in a couple of quick draughts. Grinned openly as Lee refilled his mug and downed the second one almost as fast, relishing the rush of caffeine as it hit his bloodstream; initial thirst slaked, he savored the third cup he poured.
Morton nodded at the carafe as he pulled a second swivel chair into position between the glowing monitors. “Grab me a cup, have yourself something to eat and get your butt over here. I need you to look at what I’ve got so far and then hit your ONI pals. It’s time for them to come out to play.”
At Lee’s sour look, he shrugged offhandedly.
“Take me a while longer by myself. Just thought you might want to short circuit it.”
Clutching at the mug Lee thrust at him, Chip grinned amiably. Lee knew him well enough to discern the order behind the seemingly casual words and also knew he’d get nothing out of Chip until he’d at least made a pretense of eating something. Reluctantly grabbing a sandwich – without even checking the filling – he took a bite, prepared to chew it until he could force it down. Flavors burst on his tongue and he almost reared back with surprise. Ham salad on whole wheat with a tangy honey mustard dressing, if he was any judge; his all time favorite. Suddenly realizing that he was starving, he devoured the sandwich in a couple of quick bites. Reaching for a second he caught Chip’s quick smirk, almost immediately hidden, and decided a little payback was opportune.
“Angie knows me so well! These are terrific. The way to a man’s heart and all that…. She’s already got mine! She make any of your favorites or does she expect me to eat all these?” Poking gently through the selection he found a BLT combo that he knew Chip was partial to. “Looks like I’m not her one and only after all.” The sudden tense set of Chip’s shoulders didn’t escape him nor did the subtle deliberate relaxing of same. Unfortunately they didn’t have the time he would need to dig whatever was eating at Chip out of his friend – and Lee knew it would take considerable time. Morton was not only closemouthed but could be completely unassailable when he wanted to be. So Lee stored his impressions for later but not without an uneasy niggle of worry.
“Want one of these?” He held out the plate, indicating the BLT, and arched a brow at the headshake he received in return. Chip Morton refusing food? Call out the men in white coats!
“Coffee’s good for me. I had something earlier.” Came the distracted reply as Chip’s fingers raced over the keyboards. “Let me fill you in on what I’ve managed to get so far on our friend di Fabrioni.” Lee replenished both their coffee mugs before sliding into the second chair and scanning the screen Chip indicated.
“I began with a basic internet search which produced little more than we
knew already. Then I… never mind, you
don’t need to know. Di Fabrioni’s a
majority shareholder in the holding company that owns SBTV which – when I
eventually managed to track it down – is owned by a European corporation with a
head office in
“Forty seven? The guy I met didn’t look older than mid to late thirties. What’s Linda doing with a forty seven year old guy?” Lee’s disgruntled tone had Chip grinning widely.
“What does any woman see in any guy? I mean, personally, I don’t see what has all the ladies in a tizz when you’re around.”
“Put a sock in it, wise guy.” But he appreciated Chip’s attempt at levity. “What else did you find out?”
“Parents deceased, no siblings, educated in state schools – so no family
money to speak of. Private schooling is
very popular with Italians who’ve got the money so our guy didn’t inherit his
wealth. Gained a scholarship to the
London School of Economics where he graduated top of his year. Returned to
“Got it in one – high tech components for munitions and military hardware. Plus, get this, a company contracted to the Italian government to produce guidance controls for their armed forces’ nuclear weapons. A diverse mix of other companies too. Guy’s a regular Midas. Anything he put his money into seemed to flourish. Only one downside – his health suffered. Had a potentially fatal heart attack about seven years ago – lucky to survive it.”
“You’re kidding? He certainly didn’t look like he’d a bad heart to me.” Lee learned forward to see the screen for himself, incredulous, absently rubbing his hand over his left shoulder where he’d been tazered.
“He dropped out of sight for several months then re-appeared and it was business as usual.” Chip tapped several keys, frowning as he speed-read the information that appeared. “If anything business was even better than usual. He began to expand his network abroad, specifically….”
“Right on the button. Give the man a cigar. Now tell me what you make of it all.”
“I’d be interested to hear that also, gentlemen.” Both men had been so engrossed they hadn’t
heard the office door open and turned to see Nelson cross the room and reach
for the coffee pot. He waved them back
to their seats when they automatically stood; studying Lee overtly for several
long seconds until the younger man almost squirmed. “Lee, you look like you need about twelve
hours uninterrupted sleep. You too,
Chip. That’s unlikely to happen until we
know what – if anything – we’re up against.”
He held up a hand as Lee opened his mouth to protest. “I’m willing to go with your gut instinct on
this one, Lee. For the
moment. Now, theories, facts,
suppositions, I’ll take anything you’ve got.
Then I’ll fill you in on what I learnt, or rather didn’t learn, from
Chip gestured to Lee to begin and he rapidly brought the admiral up to date on the facts they’d garnered. “Now here’s where the theory and supposition take over, sir. The man I saw outside Linda’s apartment looked to be in his late thirties at most. He didn’t move or act like someone who’d ever suffered from heart problems and I recognized the language he used briefly with his men as a middle-eastern dialect. I still haven’t been able to narrow it down.” He frowned at Nelson’s wry grin. The admiral knew that he was like a sponge when it came to absorbing languages – one of his little quirks that had come in handy on occasion.
“Could it possibly have been Teke?” Chip asked without looking up from his study of one of the three screens he had operational.
Nelson barked a laugh. He was frequently pleasantly astounded at the shrewd intelligent mind that his executive officer kept hidden behind the placid exterior he showed the world in general. And the man could practically make a computer tap dance. “Where did you come up with that one, Mr. Morton?”
Chip shrugged. “Just
pulled up a map of the
“I’ve never been to
“No, but you’ve been to
“Ah, I see where you’re coming from, Chip. Teke is one of the Turkmen dialects and is
derived from the ancient Turkic language Chagatai, which was once widely spoken
“Let’s see if we can get a little conversation going.” With the press of a few keys Morton had a short dialogue coming from the speakers. He played it a second time at Lee’s command before the brunet nodded slowly.
“That sounds just like it. I knew I’d heard the language before.”
“And now, Chip, you’re going to tell us that Di Fabrioni has holdings in
“Not that I’ve found yet, sir,” Chip’s fingers were flying over the keys, “but given the right question…. Ah, yes, there it is. Come on, you beauty, come to papa.” Unaware of the grins his superiors were exchanging Chip rubbed his hands together as he waited for the data to populate the screen. “Six and a half years ago Di Fabrioni industries purchased a carpet factory in Ashgabat, the Turkmen capital.”
“Just about the time Marco re-appeared on the business scene after his recovery.” Nelson injected, raising one eyebrow as he waited for Lee to advance his theory further.
“Or did he? What if Di Fabrioni died or remained too ill to make a comeback and someone else, someone who looked sufficiently like him to take his place, assumed his role, his business, his life? He had no family and anyone else could have been either disposed of or paid off. It certainly fits.”
“There are very few pictures of Di Fabrioni to be found before he came
It was Lee’s turn to shrug after studying it for several minutes. “Hard to tell if this is the guy I came up against or not.”
“This is Di Fabrioni today – or rather over the past two years since he bought into SBTV and began to spend several months a year on the West Coast.” Chip handed around a stack of printed photos he’d obviously pulled off earlier.
Nelson stroked his chin contemplatively as he perused the images. “I see similarities to the earlier photo but we’d need a specialist in facial construction and aging to tell for sure if this is the real Di Fabrioni.”
“I’m betting it’s not.” Lee
asserted, not raising his eyes from the material he held. “And I’d lay odds
that the carpet factory in
“Already on it. Seems
to be a very successful factory – exports its products by truck to local
distributors all over the Middle East, including
“Maybe it’s a legitimate business also.
Carpet manufacturing is a staple of the region’s economy.” But Nelson was frowning. “However, I’m inclined to think that your
instincts will be proved right, Lee. And
I’d wager a guess that the guidance systems he manufactures in Italy have
probably found their way into Afghan hands via his middle eastern holdings
too. However, we are rather jumping to
conclusions by assuming that his business here in the
“Sadly, you are right, Lee. And now that I have more pertinent information there are some particularly pointed questions I want to ask of some very highly placed individuals.” He levered himself out of the chair and placed his coffee cup on the desk. “As your generation is fond of saying, gentlemen, this smells. I’m sure you are both familiar with the adage ‘keep your friends close and your enemies closer’.
Yes, this smells rather badly.”
Incomprehension was swiftly followed by appall on both younger men’s faces. Nelson nodded grimly, acknowledging that they’d followed his train of thought correctly. “You’ve both worked enough with ONI and our other Intelligence Agencies to know that it happens. And if that’s the case then it’s been sanctioned at the highest level. I think a video call to Hunt Beckett and Sam Todd is called for.”
He watched the non-committal looks traded by his senior officers at the
names of Naval Intelligence’s Director and Deputy Director. Neither man had particular regard for the
former. (****) “Todd is a good man and
I’ve known Beckett since we were in the Academy. I’ll know if he’s lying or hiding
something. Kidnapping is a federal
offence and by taking you and Miss Nugent Di Fabrioni has crossed whatever
Now, don’t go hacking into any ONI databases until I talk to Beckett. Lee, you need to rest before you have Jamie after your hide. In fact, why don’t you both take a break and….”
He was interrupted by the phone and, despite the seriousness of the situation, snorted with amusement at the chorused “Jamie” and identical wry expressions.
Morton reached for the handset but Lee beat him to it and hit the speaker button, more than a hint of exasperation in his “I’m fine, Mom.”
“That’s… as may be, Skipper. But
I need you to come to
“Doc, I don’t have time for this right….”
“What’s up, Will?” Nelson cut across his obviously annoyed captain.
“Admiral, I’m glad you’re there, sir.”
There was perceptible relief in the physician’s tone, which had Nelson’s
antenna twitching – very un-Jamie-like.
“I need the captain in
“Jamie, I’m perfectly all right. If your heart monitor thing has gone haywire then the problem’s at your end not mine.”
Jamieson’s voice firmed in response to the hard edge in Crane’s. “Lee, pick something else to be stubborn about and get your six over here – now.”
“Jamie!” There was a wealth of annoyance in the gritted word.
At the telltale narrowing of Lee’s eyes, Chip hastily intervened. “Spill it, Doc, or he’s not going anywhere fast.”
All three heard the weariness in Jamie’s heavy sigh. “I didn’t want to do it like this. I’d rather have told you in person. Lee, I’m really very sorry. But Miss Nugent - Linda - I’m afraid she died several minutes ago.”
Afterwards, whenever he thought about that day, Lee realized that what had been in his voice was stupefaction – pure and simple. He had braced his palms on the desk earlier in aggrieved response to Jamie’s demands and now he allowed them to take his weight as his brain rejected the mind numbing words. He turned to Chip, disbelieving eyes seeking verification. Chip was rooted to the chair, his face alarmingly pale as he raised shocked blue eyes to molten amber. Without another word Lee launched himself from behind the desk and hit the door running. Nelson attempted to grasp his arm as he passed but to no avail, wincing as the office door hit the wall with a resounding smack. Morton catapulted out of the chair and followed his friend as Nelson’s “We’re on the way, Will,” was flung over his shoulder as he too left the office at a run.
“What the hell happened?”
His fist slammed forcefully onto Jamieson’s desk, fury overriding shock and incredulity. As a medic and a friend Will knew the powerful emotions currently ruling Lee – the need for answers, explanations. But first must come acceptance and he recognized that Crane had not yet reached that point. He spared a quick glance at Nelson and Morton who had entered behind the captain; his own lean features somber, eyes reflecting the pain of needless loss.
“Lee, why don’t you sit down. I need to…”
“I don’t want to sit down and I don’t want to hear what you need. I want to know what the hell is going on. How, in God’s name, can she be dead?” A shrill beeping emitting from the credit card sized device at Lee’s belt distracted them for a moment before Lee wrenched at it, ripping the wires from it and tossing it onto the desktop. The heat in his golden eyes dared the doctor to object and the older man wisely refrained, though not without a pointed look that spoke volumes.
A firm hand on his shoulder had Lee turning swiftly but he subsided somewhat as the admiral continued to exert gentle pressure and finally, albeit reluctantly, dropped into a chair, his eyes returning to Jamieson’s.
Will sat, cleared his throat, his face tight as he sought to marshal his thoughts. “First of all, I am more sorry than I can tell you. It happened so quickly there was little I could do.”
“She was fine when I left her.” Jamieson could see acceptance begin to invade Lee’s expressive eyes as his words made Linda’s death more of a reality. With acceptance would come grief, unbelievable grief, and Jamie ached for his friend. But grief was one of the unavoidable steps towards healing and Lee would have to take it. He wouldn’t take it alone. Chip moved to Lee’s shoulder as Nelson lowered himself into the room’s other chair.
“Lee, before we get into explanations – and I promise to do that right away – I need to give you a quick check and a shot.”
“What the hell for? I’m fine!” He bit out harshly, patently aware as he said it that he wasn’t so took a deep breath and refrained from protesting any further as Jamie swiftly and efficiently checked pulse and respiration and had him roll up his sleeve for the prepared hypo he took from the small surgical tray on his desk. He was about to ask what it was when Jamie walked back behind his desk, dropped into his chair and ran a weary hand over his lean jaw, sighed deeply, locked his somber gaze with Lee’s and began.
“Dr. Morgan had drawn Linda’s blood and sent it to the lab for routine analysis. Just as I took yours, Lee. I’d injected a mild anesthetic into her lower jaw prior to stitching up her lip but other than that she hadn’t had any drugs, analgesic or otherwise. There were no contra-indications and the area was nicely numb so I placed several micro-sutures into the lip and coated it with a clear sealant to stem any post contamination. She was tired and achy but otherwise OK. I was about to administer a sedative to make sure she got some rest and have her moved to a room when she began to complain of a tightness in her chest and difficulty breathing. She became violently nauseous and within minutes began to convulse. Linda slipped into a coma and, in layman terms, basically suffocated due to her lungs shutting down and her heart just ceasing to function. When she flat-lined, we shocked her numerous times but without success. By the time I began to suspect what was causing it, Lee, she was gone.”
He saw Chip lay a comforting hand on Lee’s shoulder and squeeze gently. Lee drew in a shuddering breath as a myriad of easily readable emotions crossed his deathly pale features.
“I knew you’d want answers which is why I didn’t call you immediately. I took some more blood and performed the tests myself. There aren’t that many things that would cause a perfectly healthy young woman without a history of any serious illness to have such a sudden and extreme reaction except under severe trauma, which wasn’t the case here.”
“So you suspected an outside cause?” At Will’s nod, Nelson prompted, “And?”
“Sarin.” Nelson was nodding, having more or less guessed what Jamie was about to impart, as Morton and Crane took vital seconds to come to terms with the horror of the deadly nerve agent.
“But I thought Sarin was a gas.” Lee protested. “How did…?”
“Sarin can be used in its gaseous state but it starts life as a liquid. It’s colorless and odorless at room temperature and can be ingested or injected. In Linda’s case we found the injection site only when we went looking for it.” Jamie explained, running a tense hand over his thinning brown hair.
“Sarin has a low vapor pressure and its vapor concentrations immediately penetrate the skin so inhalation and absorption through the skin pose a great threat which makes it particularly effective as a weapon of mass destruction.” Nelson took over. “It’s relatively cheap to produce and has no special storage requirements beyond simple refrigeration. It’s also easy to inject in single doses but what….”
“I thought I read somewhere that a vaccine was available. Don’t our troops on foreign deployment routinely get it?” Chip asked.
“Yes, and there’s also an antidote, Chip, but it has to be administered immediately. Unfortunately, Linda’s reaction was so severe that she died before I suspected the possible cause and could even draw up a dose of atropine and pralidoxime.” Jamieson shook his head in self-disgust.
“Will, you’re a doctor not God.” Nelson knew his CMO would second guess himself and beat himself up for days over this. “Sarin is estimated to be five hundred times more toxic than cyanide and death usually occurs within one minute of direct ingestion. What puzzles me is if Linda was injected by Di Fabrioni why didn’t it take effect immediately? And why kill her now and in this way?”
“I can’t answer you that, Admiral, and we may not know how until we can perform an autopsy.” Jamie saw both younger men wince at his words but there was little comfort he could provide. He picked up a piece of paper that was lying on his desk, handed it to Nelson, who scanned it quickly, and nodded as the admiral raised a querying eyebrow. “I’m guessing here, sir, but from the toxicology report I think he may have found a way to inhibit the immediacy of the toxin. A blocker if you like. It could mean that the Sarin can be ingested but the effects don’t manifest themselves until a predetermined time and place.”
Nelson tapped the paper with the back of his hand broodingly, his mind already working overtime. “We need more tests and we need that autopsy as soon as possible. If he’s managed to do this, then we are in a whole lot of trouble.”
Lee began to pace the limited confines of the small office, running his hand distractedly through his dark hair as he thought back to his conversation with Linda in their prison. His hand came to rest gripping the back of his neck as he recalled her conjecture as to what had possibly set Marco di Fabrioni off. “He went after Linda when she and I broke up but the relationship didn’t last long, primarily because he was extremely possessive. She thinks – thought - he’d been watching her. He killed her because she went out to dinner with me on Friday night. He knew who I was, my connection to the Institute, knew we’d find out what killed Linda. He’s sending us a message.” His gaze locked with Nelson’s compassionate one and he wanted to be ill. “He used her as a guinea pig.”
“Not arms. He’s been stockpiling Sarin.” Chip looked almost as sick as Lee but his eyes blazed with a mix of anger and pain, his usual imperturbable mask absent for once.
“I’m almost afraid to admit that I think you’re both right, Gentlemen. And the very thought of it scares the hell out of me. Sarin has a relatively short shelf life so whatever he’s got planned he’s going to act soon. He’s more than crossed the line now. This is murder and I’m going straight to the top.” He lifted the handset and punched in his own office number knowing, despite the hour, that his deputy director would still be there. “Angie, get me President Jacobson. Priority level Crimson.”
They all heard her indrawn breath before the snapped out ‘Yes, sir.”
“Admiral, Doc.” Both men turned as one at the note of uncharacteristic urgency in Chip’s voice to see him watching Lee with something akin to dread. “If Di Fabrioni has managed to find a way to ‘delay’ the onset of the poison, what’s to say he hasn’t injected Lee with the same thing and it just hasn’t taken effect yet?”
Lee was buried in pain. It was
more emotional than physical – though come to think of it his head was throbbing badly enough to have him contemplate taking
something for it. The very notion made
him snort derisively. What would Jamie
think - his captain voluntarily seeking a pain pill? The CMO’d have him in
The ten days since Linda’s death had passed in a blur – a flurry of official
activity in which Lee, much to his extreme annoyance, had been unable to
participate. Thinking about Linda was still painful. He’d cared for her; they’d had a history – a
good one. She’d become a real friend
after the passion had been spent and he didn’t have too many of those. He would miss her and he would grieve for
her. He’d been too busy in the
intervening days to allow himself to think too
deeply. They’d been at sea now for two
days – he had thought getting back to Seaview would help but so far he
hadn’t felt any of his boat’s usual soothing calming effects. Then again, Seaview wasn’t a miracle
worker; he’d hardly stood still long enough since coming aboard to allow
himself to feel anything. This was
practically the first time he’d been alone for longer than five minutes – and
that only under the guise of completing his reports in his cabin prior to
turning in. His friends knew he wasn’t
sleeping properly, that he had little or no appetite and just made a show of
eating enough to keep them off his back.
All Jamieson had been short of was doping him to the gills and having
him sleep in
He looked down at the neat piles of reports on his desk but hardly saw them. Throwing down his pen with a groan of frustration he thrust his fingers through his short dark hair then scraped them over his slightly bristly jaws. He was weary, bone weary, but knew he wouldn’t sleep even if he tried. Picking up the mug on his desk he gulped the dark coffee and shuddered as the cold contents hit his empty stomach. It must have been sitting there longer than he’d thought. He set the mug aside with a small clatter and dropped his forehead onto his cupped hands. Wishing. Wishing that so many things could have been different. Wishing he could turn the clock back.
Logic outweighed emotion and he was forced to acknowledge that there was little he could have done differently to avoid the eventual outcome. He had not been the one in control and the power play had been at another’s behest – and at the highest level. All that had been left was for him to deal with the aftermath. He had been effectively sidelined. And that was what currently ate at him, what twisted his gut in knots as he attempted to suppress the rage and bitterness that was like bile rising inside him. He wanted to sweep everything off his desk, trash the place, anything to find an outlet for the seething fury that roared within him.
He could almost hear the words of his old boxing coach at the Academy, Ziggy Feldman.
‘Pick your target, choose your moment, waste of time and energy just lashin’ out blindly.’
He deliberately set about unclenching the tight fists he hadn’t been
aware of making and concentrated on relaxing the bunched muscles in his
shoulders and back. It wasn’t easy to be
sanguine about the decisions that had been made for him – albeit that they’d
been made with his best interests at heart.
His snort was pure resentment – not for his friends’ concern but for the
machinations of those outside of his control who had put him in that
position. He’d been confined to
Pat, patently under instruction, had kept him sane by ensuring that he’d plenty to do and the first task he had delicately introduced had been the issue of Linda’s remains. Jamieson had insisted on an outside autopsy and had called in CDC, ***** keeping them both up to speed and on site in the event of a possible terrorist attack. Linda hadn’t had any close surviving family, except for a single male cousin back east, so Lee had made the arrangements for her funeral and interment. The burial had been the day before they’d sailed; well attended, as Linda was both a popular anchor and a well-liked colleague, but not a media zoo. There had been a ‘gag’ order on the circumstances of her death and coverage of the funeral by order of Homeland Security. Lee had kept the service short; he’d known Linda would appreciate that. He’d been grateful for Chip’s support – it had been harder than he’d realized it would be. Angie had cried. Nelson and Jamieson had both been there as had Kowalski. Linda had had good friends and made lasting impressions on a lot of people.
A brisk knock on his cabin door had him straightening and he’d barely
managed the standard ‘Come’ before Morton was inside, shouldering the door
closed as he balanced a tray in one hand and the daily log in the other. Lee sighed; the determined look on his XO’s
face brooked no argument. He had evaded
this conversation since he’d left
He nodded at the insulated carafe Morton carried. “Hope that coffee’s not doctored – pun intended.” He added before Chip could make a smart remark.
“If it is then Doc has talents the AMA doesn’t have any idea about.” Chip deposited the tray on Lee’s desk and tossed the log onto the bunk, ignoring his CO’s frown. “Chill, Lee. There’s nothing in the logs to merit anything more than your signature and there’s nothing in the coffee other than pure unadulterated caffeine.” He poured the aromatic liquid into the two mugs he’d brought and, grabbing his, dropped into the visitor chair, loosening his tie as he squirmed into a comfortable position, stretching out his long legs and crossing them at the ankles.
Crane wasn’t fooled by the casual posture, even as he picked up his own mug and sniffed suspiciously at the contents, studiously disregarding Chip’s eyes cast heavenwards.
“Where Jamie’s concerned, can’t be too careful.” He muttered in self-defense as he took the first cautious sip.
Chip shook his head mournfully as he gulped greedily at Cookie’s high-octane brew. “Paranoia is a serious hazard in our profession, bro.”
Lee barked a laugh. “Not where Jamie’s concerned.”
“Nuh-huh! You mean, not where you and Jamie are concerned. I’m not the one in his radar – this trip.”
Lee made a rude noise, relaxing into the familiar banter. “Yeah, right! Haven’t you cottoned on yet? We are all in Jamie’s radar! The admiral gave that guy way too much power when he appointed him.”
Chip lifted his coffee mug in a mock toast. “I’m with you on that one. If he even knew I was bringing you coffee this late he’d have a fit.”
“And you don’t think he already knows? If he doesn’t, he will by the time we get to the wardroom for breakfast tomorrow.” Lee shook his head sorrowfully at his XO’s ‘innocence’. “Not a lot happens on this boat that Will Jamieson don’t either know or find out about.”
“Ah, but there’s nothing goes on on this boat that the XO doesn’t know about.” Chip responded with a positively evil smirk. “And there are certain things that the XO knows that certain crew members wouldn’t want the CMO knowing so let’s say that said CMO just might not find out about this particular pot of coffee!” He frowned as he mentally recapped his last sentence. “Does that make any sense?”
“NO! Thankfully.” But Lee grinned – a proper honest-to-God-grin – as had been intended. His smile faded as Chip’s expression grew serious. He’d known this confrontation was coming – had avoided it for several days now.
“How are you doing?” Chip’s intense blue gaze could see right into his soul, Lee had always thought. He’d never been able to evade it. Neither could anyone else. It was part of what made him such a great exec – and friend. He couldn’t prevent the sigh that emerged unbidden and raised his mug to his lips in a vain attempt to cover it. Several sips of the fragrant brew calmed him enough to answer his friend honestly.
“I’m… working on it.” At Chip’s quizzically raised eyebrow he expanded his answer. “Physically, I’m good – great. Clearances from On-High – and our exacting CMO.” As Morton didn’t show any reaction to that Lee sighed inwardly; he wasn’t going to get out of this easily. And suddenly it didn’t feel so bad to unburden himself; to talk out his muddled feelings and his over-riding anger with his oldest friend – the one person he could be sure would listen without judging. He cradled the coffee mug, warming his hands on the sides as he watched the murky liquid broodingly. “I just feel….” He struggled to put it into words – meaningful words.
“Cheated.” Solemn amber eyes rose slowly to serious blue ones and locked on, his breath momentarily stolen from his lungs. How did he do it? How did Chip find the one word in the entire universe that so described his tormented thoughts and emotions? Lee’s insides twisted and the coffee did a roller coaster ride around his belly. He set the mug down and, resting his elbows on the desk, brought his hands to his face, forefingers sliding up the sides of his nose and gripping the bridge to ward off the headache that was now in full bloom.
Chip put his own mug on the desk, and walked without speaking into the small head. Lee heard the cabinet open and close, followed by water running and Chip returned with a glass and three small brown pills. “Take ‘em before your head explodes.”
Lee hesitated and Chip pushed the glass towards him, uncompromisingly. “It’s these or I call Jamie. Come on, it’s only ibuprofen. And you need to kill that headache.”
Reluctantly Lee took the proffered capsules and tossed them back, following them with a lengthy drink of the water. He’d long ago given up wondering what signals he gave out that Chip could always tell when his head ached.
Satisfied, the tall blond exec resumed his seat but this time hunched
forward in the chair, hands clasped loosely between his thighs, his brow
furrowed. “We denied you closure.” He waved off Lee’s instinctive protest, the
leather chair creaking as Lee slowly sat upright. “It couldn’t be helped and, logically, we all
know and accept that. Once the admiral made that call to
It was the ‘maybe’ that did it.
Being the fair-minded person that he was Lee couldn’t allow the burden
be placed on his friends – his family – when he knew they had made the right
choices, for him and for the mission.
They had acted in his best interests, terrified that Di Fabrioni had infected
him with Sarin and the blocker that had been used to kill Linda in such a
timely fashion. When the President had
quickly put together a task force Lee had known that he couldn’t be a part of
it. He was a potential liability, a
ticking time bomb, and much as he had wanted to be there he recognized that he
could have been detrimental to any positive outcome. Still, it had been inordinately difficult to
“No, you were right. I could have compromised the entire mission.” It was difficult to admit but there was also an element of cleansing therein.
“We hoped Linda’s funeral would be closure enough. In hindsight, we should have let you go face to face with him when he was being shipped out.” Chip’s expression was suddenly feral and Lee knew his wasn’t much different. It had cut him deep that Di Fabrioni had been deported instead of paying the ultimate price – either death or prison.
“Not sure that would have been a good idea either.” Lee confessed softly, eliciting a small grin of acknowledgement from Chip.
“Must admit I found it hard to hand him over entirely unscathed after what he put you both through.” The blond admitted ruefully before his expression hardened again and he clenched his fists, uncharacteristically allowing his fury to show. “It goes against everything I believe in for that…that maniac to have gotten off scot-free. I know the President had his reasons, Lee. And the admiral agreed with him. Plus Di Fabrioni did give up the location of his stockpile of the gas but it still goes against the grain somehow.”
Lee nodded abruptly, totally in agreement. “He’ll be dealt with by one of our Sepc Ops
units sooner rather than later, Chip.
The President called me – to explain personally. He was trying to avoid any backlash on the
Morton watched as his friend quickly banked his anger, internalizing it as was his wont. This one wasn’t going away quickly. He’d known that Lee would not be happy being confined to Med Bay while Di Fabrioni and his men were rounded up – couldn’t altogether blame him for that. Once Nelson had explained his theory to their commander-in-chief events had moved swiftly. He’d been tasked with gathering a small elite team to back up the anti-terrorist squad that had been immediately dispatched. Loathe to take life – knowing Nelson and Crane felt the same way – he’d almost hoped that, on this occasion, his sharpshooter skills would be needed.
Fortunately – or otherwise – Di Fabrioni had put up little resistance, being outnumbered and outgunned. Chip’s only satisfaction had been in ramming his fist into the pseudo-Italian’s smirking face when he’d remarked that he at least had the satisfaction of knowing that his blocker worked. He flexed his hand now at the memory, knuckles still bruised. He hadn’t cared at the time – still didn’t – if he received a reprimand for his actions. Neither his own men nor the task force members had batted an eyelid. Lee had noticed his skinned knuckles but refrained from commenting.
“Guess the President knows what he’s doing. Just doesn’t… feel right, somehow.” Chip’s blue eyes clouded. Linda had been a good friend. He would miss her.
“Least you got to be there. Try being stuck with Jamie watching your every move!” Lee couldn’t keep the bitterness from his voice. Recognizing it for what it was, he held up one hand in apology. “Sorry, not your fault. Just….”
“Need to pound on someone?” Chip took the words out of his mouth. “Just don’t pick on me.”
Alerted by something in the blond’s tone Lee looked at him – really looked at him – for the first time in days. There was an atypical slump to Morton’s shoulders and he had a… dispirited air about him. Lee straightened in his chair, the leather creaking as he moved.
“What’s up, bro?” He asked quietly, concern evident in both voice and eyes.
A tired smile made a brief appearance – a pale imitation of his usual incandescent light-up-the-room beam. “Nothing. Nothing at all, Lee, more than what we’ve already got – which is more than enough to be going on with. And, on that note, I need to go so you can get some sleep. Before Jamie finds out I’m keeping you up and comes after my hide. ” So saying, he began to lever himself out of the chair.
“Park it, Mister.” The barked order was accompanied by Crane’s command glare and Chip dropped back almost automatically, scowling at the tone. Lee narrowed his eyes, amber trying to hold blue but Chip avoided looking at him. Lee cursed mentally. He’d been so wrapped up in himself that he hadn’t noticed that something had been going on with his friend. Correction, he’d noticed that all was not right with Chip the morning after the Charity Auction but events had conspired to drive it out of his mind until just now. “Spill it, bro. Right now. This has something to do with Angie, hasn’t it?” He recalled the petite brunette’s evasion about her plans when he’d come across her in Nelson’s office the morning of the kidnapping. An unpleasant thought assailed him. “She does know about Sophie, doesn’t she? I mean, you have told her everything?”^^
“Of course! It’s got nothing to do with that.” Chip sighed, raking both hands thoroughly through his military short blond hair. “You may as well know. It’ll be common knowledge once we get back from this trip anyway. She doesn’t want to see me any more. Gave me the old heave-ho the night of the Auction.” He’d made a dismal attempt to inject some humour into his voice but knew from the stunned look on Lee’s face that he hadn’t succeeded.
Whatever he’d thought might be the issue that had been the last thing Lee could have imagined. Angie Newman had had a soft spot for his friend forever. Their fledgling relationship had only blossomed in the last few months with Morton most unusually wearing his heart on his sleeve ever since Angie had become a target in two very nasty incidents during the past year. He was stunned at the raw pain visible in the azure eyes and the lines of strain around Chip’s mouth. Wanted to kick himself for being so mired in his own misery that he’d failed to see his buddy’s suffering. Some friend he was. His mouth uncharacteristically engaged before his brain caught up.
“Why not? It’s a free world and she’s entitled to choose who she goes out with.” But Chip wouldn’t look him in the eye – which was SO not Morton.
“Don’t give me that! Angie thinks the sun rises and sets on you.”
“Bull! That is so much horse shit!” Lee was getting steamed but he was getting to the bottom of this – one way or another.
“Leave it, Lee. Please.” Morton propelled himself to his feet and strode to the door. Taking a deep breath he rested his forehead against the panel for several seconds before turning the knob. “She has her reasons and I’ve got to respect them. Just… leave it, OK.”
He closed the door quietly after him leaving a shocked and appalled Lee Crane behind.
But not for long. He’d barely seated himself in the chair behind his desk in the cabin next door before it opened and his CO and friend stomped in, smacking the door closed decisively.
“No. No way, Chip. I’ve been the one standing by for the past four years watching Angie adore you from afar. That girl loves you so much it almost hurts to be in the same room with you two. And I’ve seen your feelings for her grow and develop in the last while til it’s obvious that you love her just as much. So don’t try and tell me that she just dumped you and we have to respect her wishes without knowing why. OK?”
Chip rested his elbows on the desk and put his hands to his head, squeezing his eyes tightly shut. Now he was getting a headache. “Lee, I’m really not comfortable talking about this. She’s made her decision and that’s an end to it. I can’t force her to go out with me.” By the end he was practically grinding his teeth over the words.
Lee dropped into the facing chair almost dumbfounded. Almost. Chip’s words, if not his tone, struck a
chord. “Does this have anything to do
with the attack on Angie in
“Drop it. Please.” The warning note in Chip’s voice told him he was on the right track.
“Christ! Have you talked to Jamie?”
“For God’s sake, Lee! That’s the last thing she’d want.” Confirming his suspicions.
Lee rubbed his hand over his jaw. What a God-awful mess. The attack on Angie had been brutal and terrifying – all the more so because of being on their own turf. No wonder she was traumatized. “He needs to know, Chip. And she needs to talk to someone, if not Jamie then someone she can trust.” He knew Angie’s relationship with their CMO was fragile at best but had improved a lot in recent weeks. Obviously not enough for her to have confided her fears to him or for Jamieson to have noticed this. His heart ached for both of them – two people he considered perfect for each other – and especially for his oldest friend, his brother in all but name.
“She’s working through it in her own way, Lee. I asked her to think about talking to someone and she said she would. She’s a tough lady. She just needs some time and space and I promised to give her that.”
At whatever cost to himself, Lee inwardly saluted his honourable friend. “I’m no expert, Chip, but I do know that it’s virtually impossible to work these things out without professional help. I wish you’d at least consider letting Jamie know what’s happening. If you feel that you’d be breaking Angie’s confidence by talking to him then maybe I could….”
Morton eased back in the chair. He should have known Lee would immediately take on his problems as his own. “We’ll handle it, Lee. But thanks. I’ve already spoken with Admiral Nelson – he needed to know what’s going on. Angie probably isn’t going to be happy with me about that but it had to be done.” His jaw firmed. If he couldn’t help her – if she wouldn’t let him help her – then he’d make sure that she got what she needed. However he had to do it. “And you can be sure that my performance won’t be affected.”
Lee’s head jerked up, affronted. “That was never in doubt! You can’t think….”
“Sorry, my bad. I must be more tired than I thought. Guess I need a dose of my own medicine.” He stretched his arms over his head, locking his hands together and pushed until his shoulders popped. Lee took the hint, standing and moving to the door only to be stopped by Morton’s words.
“Thanks, Lee. For listening. I didn’t mean to offload on you but somehow I’m glad I did.”
It was hard but Lee managed to crack a grin. “Funny thing, but I actually feel better having gotten out some of my own frustrations tonight. Guess those phone companies have got something when their adverts say that it’s ‘good to talk’.
“Yeah, right!” Morton snorted. Then a thought struck. “Hey, did the Chief tell you that he caught your stalker?”
“You mean the cookie making, plant leaving, perfumed letter writer?”
“Who left you slippers to ‘warm your…”
“Yeah, yeah!” Crane flipped a hand. “Guess she was getting desperate with that one.”
“Or running out of ideas.” Chip shook his head, a real honest-to-goodness grin breaking through. “Sharkey was so chuffed that his stakeout paid off. After five nights!”
“He wasn’t quite so happy when he was caught on camera grappling with Ms. Chloe Snow and she was seen getting the better of him.” Lee chuckled. “Or that the admiral and the chief of NIMR security had set it up to test your new measures for the command floor.”
Chip scowled. “I wasn’t exactly blown away by that piece of information either!”
“Go on. You were more annoyed that your system wasn’t foolproof.” Lee teased, glad to see his friend shake off his misery – even for a short time.
Morton drew himself to his full height, sniffing derisively. “There’s no such thing as a foolproof system and anyone who tells you so is deluding themselves. As far as I’m concerned, bring it on. The more we’re challenged the better we can overcome the challenges. Just thank God they work for our side.”
Lee echoed with a silent ‘Amen’ as he gave a two-fingered salute before slipping out the door. In the corridor he rested his back against the bulkhead, allowing his head to drop to his chest, momentarily acknowledging the pain he felt for himself and his friends. It had been a lousy couple of weeks and he was determined that he would do anything he could to alleviate the misery his friends were experiencing. But he made a mental note to keep an eye on Ms. Chloe Snow. Something about the way she’d looked at Chip hadn’t sat well with him. And if his friend was going to be footloose and fancy free – for whatever the reason – then….
God, he was tired – beyond tired – but for the first time in a while he had a sense of purpose and he knew he would sleep. If only to refresh himself for the battle ahead.
Chip tugged off his loosened tie, tossing it onto his desk, unbuttoned his uniform shirt and pitched it unerringly in the direction of the clothes hamper next to the closet door scoring a direct hit. He toed off his shoes, stowing them neatly under his rack, undid his belt and shucked his pants and socks in a single movement, walking into the small head to shower. He was lucky enough that his fair complexion and light beard growth didn’t necessitate shaving twice a day. Unlike Lee whose five o’clock shadow made itself known in or around 1500 hours. Finishing his ablutions he pulled on p.j. bottoms and sank into his desk chair to complete his own reports.
Rummaging abstractly in the drawer for his preferred pen, his fingers encountered a small smooth box. He stilled for several seconds before drawing it reluctantly out. Turning it over in his hands a couple of times he finally opened the spring-loaded top. The single carat solitaire diamond refracted in the artificial overhead lighting, glittering brilliantly in its bed of soft gray velvet. The stone appeared to wink at him – derisorily, it seemed – and he snapped the box closed, clenching his fist, almost crushing the velour box in his hands.
His chest ached and he caught his breath, leaning his head against the high back of his desk chair. His eyes burned and he squeezed the box tightly, wishing away the memory of that last night. Both their schedules had been nuts for months now and they’d barely seen each other outside the office. Angie had been working eighteen-hour days for weeks coming up to the auction – it was the biggest charity event the Institute hosted and the closest to the admiral’s heart. Nothing could be left to chance and every last detail was triple checked. Chip understood that – knew how important it was to Angie that everything went off without a hitch. Now he could see that it had been a convenient avoidance technique. Dropping her home after the meal with Lee and Linda had been the first chance he’d had to be alone with her outside the office in what seemed like forever.
They’d kissed and everything had been fine until he’d tried to deepen the kiss and he’d felt her stiffen in his arms and try to pull away. He’d used his larger frame to cradle her close and she’d pushed him away almost violently. Then she’d dropped her bombshell. He drew in another ragged breath. She’d asked him for time – to let her work through her fears and anxieties, stressing that it wasn’t that she didn’t trust him but just couldn’t bear to be too close to anyone right now. The sight of her tears and genuine distress had almost destroyed him. Still did whenever he thought of it. So he would do whatever it took. If that meant waiting he could do that – for as long as necessary. And if he had to become creative and devious – well, he knew he’d have help if he needed it.
Gaining his feet in one smooth move he crossed to the wall safe, rotating the dial until it agreeably clicked open. He almost threw the tiny inoffensive box into its depths until it was obscured by the paperwork already occupying the small aperture. Spinning the dial, he locked away the symbol of his future happiness – for now.
** see The Puppet Master
*** (SERE) = Survive, Evade, Resist, Escape.
**** see No Easy Extraction
Centre for Disease Control in
^^ see Bonds of Friendship