Steel and Stone
One Red Fish
The breeze ruffled his dark hair as he sat, knees drawn up to his chest in a relaxed pose, arms draped across them, watching the river far below. Though he did not move to look above him, he saw the reflection of the skies in the view, the white clouds drifting across the gorge plunging the intensity of the sunlight into deep shadow, then moving away, alternating, shifting, changing his perspective yet again.
At the call of the eagle above him, gliding on a thermal picked up from below, he lifted his head this time, his hazel-flecked, amber brown eyes watching the soaring bird, its wings outstretched.
Hardly aware of the gesture, he reached up, rubbing his right hand along his forehead, fingertips and thumb kneading the deep ache that persisted despite his self-imposed rest at the top of the escarpment. With a sigh, he dropped his head into the heel of his hand, propped his elbow on his right knee, and closed his eyes.
Slowly, after several minutes, he lifted his head again, blinking his eyes open as he willed away the steady throbbing. Focusing on the blue of the river snaking away to his left, he consciously tried to ignore the pain. Finally deciding it was not going to stop before it got worse, he gave in and climbed to his feet, turning east away from the river, and he made his way slowly back the way he had come. Though he had not gone as far as he would have liked today, he smiled softly through the headache, pleased with his progress.
As he slowly climbed the gradual slope punctuated by grey stone and green meadow to the timeless village above him, he allowed his thoughts to wander away from tiredly placing each step after the last.
It had been almost a month since he had awakened that first night, and he had gradually gotten better, his shaky legs and injured hip finally able to carry him out of the narrow, stone-lined streets of the village and down this hill. Lifting his eyes from his worn boots, he smiled again at the beauty around him, breathing deeply of the thin air. Stopping for a moment to rest, he was immediately mesmerized by the sight of two golden eagles, the first from a little while ago joined now by another as the pair swooped and wheeled through the deep blue of the sky, the rugged grey Gamila Peaks in the background.
Several minutes later, he was startled from his fascination with the raptors by the approach of footsteps along the path.
“Herate, Leksi,” the older man said in greeting, as he and his long-haired, brown dog came toward him.
“Hello, Costa,” the dark-headed Leksi responded in Greek. “You’re headed all the way down to the river?”
“Yes. There’re a few more hours of daylight, and I must make preparations for the next group of rafters coming in tomorrow morning,” the smaller man responded, his sun-worn face crinkled in a smile. He was dressed in soft blue slacks and a grey sweater, his worn, brown leather jacket thrown over his arm. He carried a sturdy walking stick, and he whistled to the wandering dog.
Reaching out to pat the younger man on the arm as they passed each other, Costa smiled into the amber brown eyes. He saw the pain behind the returned smile, and he said warmly, “Elena has a meal waiting for you, and I happen to know that she has just returned from the bakery with two fresh loaves of warm bread.”
Watching Costa continue down the winding path,
the dark-headed man remained behind, his smile fading as a difficult
realization hit him. . . . He still had a long way to go before he fully
recovered his strength. Then,
reaching up once more to absently rub at his right temple, he turned back toward
the path and the
The control room of the boat was quiet, the only sounds the soft electronic noises that spoke of a late afternoon shift and no forward movement of the vessel. Executive Officer Charles “Chip” Morton stood at the wide windows looking out onto the dark depths beyond, seeing only the faint glow of the lights in the reflected darkness of the area behind him.
The cup of coffee in his hand had long grown cold, though he stood with both hands wrapped around it, both thumbs threaded through the handle of the navy-blue, gold-rimmed mug.
He was not on duty.
It was not his watch.
But he stood there anyway, unable to remain in his cabin and unwilling to try.
For long, extended seconds, he closed his eyes tightly, and he sucked in a deep breath through his nose, his forehead knitted in an endless pain that he could neither rid himself of nor afford to let control him.
It had been that way for weeks.
If something did not change soon, it would be that way forever.
Opening his blue eyes, dimmed by lack of sleep and lack of peace, he blinked rapidly, forcing himself to breathe normally. Straightening his shoulders, he placed the stone-cold cup of coffee on the wide ledge below the windows in the nose of the submarine. Then he reached in the pocket of his khakis before he clasped his hands behind his back, attempting to seek solace in a familiar pose . . . in a familiar object clasped in a tight fist.
Behind him, two crewmen glanced over from their stations and exchanged a pained look between them, both noticing the clenching and unclenching of the exec’s hands behind his back.
“He’s hurting, Ski,” Patterson whispered, nodding in Mr. Morton’s direction.
“I know, Pat,” the rugged-faced, powerfully-built sonar operator responded. “We all are.”
A soft clearing of O’Brien’s throat caught their attention, and they turned silently back to their stations, nodding acknowledgement as they did so. Both felt the tight grip of the young, dark-headed lieutenant’s hand on a shoulder, and both knew the officer standing right behind them sympathized with their words, despite his reminder to attend to their posts.
Rising slowly from his desk
with a frustrated growl, Admiral Harriman Nelson yanked open his door and,
after a moment’s hesitation in the corridor, headed aft toward
As their eyes met, the doctor reached in a drawer and pushed a small bottle of scotch toward the admiral in silent offering.
Nodding slightly, Nelson lifted it to his lips and downed a small swallow. Then, leaning forward and handing it back, he locked eyes with the doctor again as Jamison spoke.
“Couldn’t get anything accomplished on your reports, Harry?”
“It’s too damn quiet on this boat,” the older of the two replied gruffly.
Nodding in agreement, Jamison leaned back in his chair, its comforting squeak responding, and he crossed his arms, staring up at the pipes running across the ceiling.
It had been “too damn quiet,” as the admiral had put it, ever since he had made the announcement just after morning mess that they would be immediately setting a course for Pearl to participate in military maneuvers in the Pacific. It had been then, and still was, the kind of quiet that could only occur at the deepest and darkest of ocean depths----that occurred at the darkest of defeats.
And, except for the intermittent squeak of the doctor’s chair, the silence continued now.
It stretched between them, separating them, as Nelson leaned forward, placed both elbows on the edge of the desk, and propped his forehead against his palms, trying to ignore his own doubts.
Despite the silence that surrounded them, the unspoken thoughts and sentiments were almost a unifying thing, like the salt water of the oceans that tied all of life together, that penetrated even the darkest of crevices, the darkest of trenches, . . the darkest of thoughts.
Both, without trying, without wondering, could have guessed at the other’s turmoil, and no words between them were needed for long, silent moments.
Finally, the admiral spoke.
“I didn’t know when I brought him here that I could become so fond of someone so stubborn, so sure of himself.”
“You mean. . . like you?” the doctor harrumphed. Then, sobering when the admiral did not lift his head, Jamison added softly, “He . . . he is that . . . and more.”
His hesitation was evident, though he knew exactly of whom the admiral spoke. He had just been unsure of what tense to use to phrase his response.
Jamison instantly thought back over the many times in the last two years that he had butted heads with Lee Crane while trying to get his willful young captain to listen to reason . . . always over some issue related to his own health.
“You miss him, too, then?” Nelson asked, lifting his head for just a moment to look into Jamison’s hazel eyes with his own haunted blue. He was grateful for the way Will had said “is” instead of “was” a moment before, despite the fact that it had been six weeks to the day since they had seen or heard directly from the captain, and Nelson smiled slightly in anticipation of the expected response now.
“Miss him? Like I miss an irritating itch . . . or my conscience when I’ve had too much to drink.”
Jamison heard a small, derisive laugh escape from the admiral across from him, and, as the man’s head came up again, the doctor silently acknowledged that his own words were only a transparent cover for the too-noticeable worry wrapped around his own heart.
“You Old Fraud, Will,” Harry
said, knowing it too. “You miss that boy like I do. You miss his aggravating
ability to turn your calm, organized
Jamison did not even try to shake his head in denial. Instead he allowed a small, ironic smile to form, as he nodded again, this time in defeat.
“Face it, Will. You miss Lee, and you want him back here as badly as the rest of us.”
Staring into the tired blue eyes of his friend and superior officer, Jamison reached out and picked up the bottle still standing between them on his desk. Lifting it slightly higher, he said, “To the Skipper, a man whose loss could not have been properly appreciated by any of us. Here’s wishing that we all get the chance to drink to his health even one more time.”
Then he leaned forward and placed both hands on the desk, both feet on the floor. The groan from his chair echoed the sentiment of his heart as he did so.
He looked the admiral in the eye, his gaze steady, and he said quietly . . . said the words he knew no one, least of all the man across from him, wanted to hear, “But, Harry. . . . You did the right thing today. It’s your responsibility to help us all move beyond his loss. . . . As hard as it is to let him go, it’s time.”
Elena looked up from rinsing the raw chops at the sink as the outside door to the kitchen opened.
The tall, dark-headed man entered the cheery space, the insides of the room white washed and fresh in the afternoon light. Evidence of the older woman’s sunny disposition was everywhere, from the stone containers of lavender and yellow lilies that normally grew wild along the edges of the meadows and rock outcroppings, to the bright red curtains that billowed in the soft breeze coming in through the open window.
“Herate,” she said with a smile as he stepped inside. “Are you hungry?”
Nodding slightly, he smiled back at her, trying to avoid calling her attention to his exhaustion. He failed miserably as he leaned against the polished pine table in the center of the room.
“It smells wonderful, Elena,” he replied softly.
Placing the mutton in the heated frying pan, she quickly washed and dried her hands, then stepped over to guide the thin young man to the closest chair, her hand on his arm.
“Leksi,” she admonished, “You must sit down. You push yourself too hard.”
Crossing to the sink, she poured a crystal clear glass of fresh, cold water for him and returned to the table, pausing briefly to pick up a fork and turn the quickly browning meat as she moved past the stove.
“Efcharisto,” he replied tiredly, closing his long fingers around the glass and taking a swallow in appreciation.
Pausing to knead the tightened muscles at the base of his skull with her strong, age-spotted hands, she smiled softly as he sighed and seemed to relax just a little at her kindness. His forehead was supported in his hand, his elbow propped up on her table and, even without being able to see his face, she knew that his eyes were closed.
Patting his longish, curling hair with one hand, she left him to tend to the chop cooking on the stove again. Then, picking up a basket of warm bread and returning, she pulled out the adjoining chair and sat down beside him.
“Leksi, you must let Costas take you down into Ioannina to see a doctor. This cannot continue. It is but 60 kilometres from here, and he must pick up the tourists tomorrow morning anyway. You should go with him.”
Turning to look into her searching brown eyes, he reached out and covered her hand on his arm with his larger one. Squeezing her fingers slightly, he said, shaking his head once, “Elena, you know he would have to return for me, and he has much to do. . . things I cannot yet help him with.”
She started to shake her head back at him to protest, but he reached up to touch her face with his hand. Her concern had only been for him, was always for him, leaving him feeling so fortunate to have found his way to these two people that treated him like the son they had never had.
“No, Elena,” he said. “I’ll be fine. It’s just a headache. As you said, I probably just pushed myself too hard.”
Suddenly he froze, and his eyes searched her face wildly for a brief moment as if trying to find something right before him that he had gotten but a glimpse of, something he needed to find again desperately, before it was too late.
She watched him worriedly, but wisely did not speak until he had relaxed from his suddenly alert posture back into the unyielding wood of the chair, his eyes closed tightly.
“What is it? Tell me.”
He shook his head, and he answered quietly, though his eyes remained closed, “I don’t know. . . . It was like an echo. . . like another voice inside my head, saying the same words at the same time. . . . It was a man’s voice, and I could. . . I could almost see his face, could almost say his name. . . . Then it was gone again.”
Reaching out to him, she patted the side of his face gently as she pushed off from the edge of the table and climbed to her feet to return to the frying pan she had ignored long enough.
As she passed him, she said, “Give it time, Leksi. It will come. You must give it time.”
He awoke suddenly from a dream to find himself lying in his small, quiet bedroom, the moonlight filtering in through a thin, woven curtain over an open window. This room, like all the others of the stone house, had white, chalky walls splashed with bright color in the daytime, color created by woven wall hangings and a chunky pottery vase full of wild mountain lilies.
However, in the minimal, silvery light, the colorful accessories created darkness in a white-walled room that would otherwise be more filled with light, too much light, to make any sleep possible some nights.
He could not remember the dream exactly, but it was probably the same nebulous, darkly shadowed one, the same recurrent dream, that had seemed to plague him since the first coherent night he had spent inside this room. But it did not matter, because in the daylight he never recalled the details of it. . . any more than he could recall the details of his life, of who he was, or what had happened to him.
Like the dream, his life before coming to this place was shrouded in shadows he could not penetrate, neither asleep nor awake.
It had begun almost a month ago---even when he had been more dead than alive---and, though he had yet to remember any names, any places, or any faces, he knew that the dream must be born of a memory that refused to surface.
In fact, that was exactly the way it made him feel, each and every time it happened. . . like he was a drowning man trapped just below the surface of a river or ocean. . . trying to break through, trying to reach the light, . . . trying to find the air he needed to survive.
Taking a deep breath now, he lay back into the pillows behind him, and he reached up to knead at his forehead with his fingers. With his eyes partially closed, he tried to block out the light and concentrate on the dark place inside his head, the place where he could not go in the daylight, the place that only occasionally opened up for him, just a crack, to enter at night.
. . . Except for today. . . .
Suddenly, he remembered the feeling he had gotten while sitting in the kitchen with Elena that afternoon.
What had he been saying?
Something about just having a headache?
Something in response to her concern about pushing himself too hard?
Closing his eyes, he tried to focus on those words again, tried to conjure up a face, a voice, a place . . . any details that would help him wedge open the door to the dark space inside his mind where the memories waited.
But it was no use.
It would not be awakened, not like this.
He sighed and slowly rolled over, facing the wall and staring at it. He reached up and pulled one pillow down, bunching it up under his head in frustration as he closed his eyes.
Suddenly his eyes flew open again, and he gasped as if in pain.
There, no more than a foot in front of his face, was the wall . . . the wall he. . . he remembered!
It had been the familiar gesture of reaching up to adjust the pillow, followed by finding himself staring at something equally familiar. . . this wall. . . that had triggered that memory.
Yes, he was sure of it!
When he had closed his eyes, he had almost heard or felt . . . what? A certain sound? A minute vibration?
Then, just as quickly, it too was gone.
He lay still, trying to piece it together as he stared at the white-washed wall.
Afraid to move, he relished how familiar it felt to be lying this way, on his side, his pillow punched down under his head, a wall so close in front of his face.
If he didn’t move, if he didn’t try to think too hard, maybe he would be able to inch his foot inside that barely cracked door inside his mind, keeping the memories open just long enough to get a good look inside.
Slowly, carefully, he cast backward through the daylight hours, searching without being obvious, trying to touch on little things, on any little thing that had also, somehow, seemed familiar.
He already knew he was not
from this village, not from this mountain . . . that he did not even come from
this part of the country. While he had had no trouble communicating with Costa
and Elena in this small, isolated village in the northwest corner of
Besides, if he had lived here, they would have known him immediately when they had found him, and they had not.
His eyes widening, he paused again, seeing himself in the kitchen with Elena that afternoon, hearing her words as she tried to talk him into going to Ioannina with Costa in the morning.
Though he somehow knew immediately that he would never go to see a doctor, any doctor, willingly, he also realized that he had made excuses to her again today. In evading her suggestions, he had been avoiding the idea of going to the city, just as he had ever since he could first speak to them. And now he also acknowledged that his reluctance had nothing to do with the idea of seeing a doctor about the injuries or headaches.
He reached up, pushing his hand through the damp, too-long curls, grasping the back of his head in frustration. Biting down on his bottom lip at the instant return of the recurrent headache, he closed his eyes and forced his searching thoughts deeper.
After a few seconds of silence, a tortured moan echoed in the room as his determination probed a raw, open wound near his heart. As his eyes flew open again, the surfacing thought took shape.
Suddenly, he knew he had been avoiding the idea of going anywhere beyond this mountain. . . beyond this place. . . away from this village, away from these two people. . . .
This was where he felt. . . safe.
What did it mean?
What was he afraid of?
Trying to think through it logically, his attempts to shuffle softly into his past having proven basically ineffective, he did his best to ignore the headache and continued to stare at the wall, knowing it somehow comforted him to do so, as he pushed himself relentlessly into the past.
He wanted to know, but. . . at the same time, he didn’t.
It was as if there was something in the way, something as solid as stone or an unyielding steel wall.
Something was stopping him like the. . . the painful bruises and broken bones of the last month had prevented him from regaining his strength, from taking a deep breath without the fire of instant agony up and down his chest.
What had happened?
. . . What had he done?
As soon as his thoughts formed the last question, the others seemed to fade away, leaving that one, simple query standing alone, like the mast of a single ship on an empty sea.
What had he done?
Had he done something somewhere . . . something he shouldn’t have. . . something he was having to run from . . . to hide from?
Was that it?
What else could it be?
Was that why he didn’t want to go to Ioannina, to any city?
Was he running away, hiding from something he had done. . . or from something he hadn’t done?
Taking sharp, ragged breaths as his heart began to pound and his head started to throb, he tried to push himself closer to a truth he was beginning to think he didn’t want to know after all.
And, all the while, he kept his eyes focused on the white-washed wall. He could see each tiny shadow of the irregular surface, the moonlight behind him causing each imperfection to stand out in relief.
It was familiar . . . yet somehow, it was not.
He reached out to touch the wall’s pock-marked surface, feeling its cool unevenness against his palm. He closed his eyes and ran his fingers lightly over it, comparing it with something he couldn’t see, something locked away inside his mind.
It should have been smoother, sleeker. . . . It should have been made of . . . of metal. . . .
The gasp that escaped his lips this time corresponded with his sudden movement as he snatched his hand away from the wall, as if scalded by it. He sat up abruptly.
With his eyes wide open, the pieces suddenly came together inside his head.
He staggered to his feet. Then, his hands grasping the white cotton legs of his soft sleep pants, he bent almost double as something hard slammed into him. . . something that wasn’t there.
The memory was gone again as soon as it had surfaced, but not before crashing into his ribs, threatening to tear an anguished cry from his throat. Breathing hard, he struggled to remain standing, holding himself up with a determination of steel, his shaking fingers digging into his thighs.
It was important that he did not cry out.
He did not want to disturb Elena and Costa. . . .
But, suddenly he knew it had been even more important before. . . . It had been absolutely imperative that he not cry out. . . .
Costa had been sure his injuries were the result of a horrendous beating. Is that when he couldn’t cry out? During the beating?
Eyes closed, he heard the harsh, ringing sound of a steel door slamming closed, like a loud, metallic echo of finality choking off his air, choking off his freedom.
What had he done to be nearly killed that way? What had he done to be in such a place? Even if he had been a prisoner, civilized people didn’t treat prisoners that way. . . .
Shaking his head, trying to clear his ears of the incessant, repetitive rhythm of the door slamming again and again, he blinked open his eyes and hauled in a tortured breath.
Then slowly he stood upright, and he forced himself to take normal, measured strides to the other end of the room, stopping when he reached the wall closest to the door. Turning, he paced back in the direction from which he had come, his bare feet making no noise on the cold stone of the floor.
He paused almost involuntarily just before his outstretched hand touched the wall in the silvery dark.
Twice more, he paced across and back, stopping each time before he was forced to, before he reached the walls, as if the length of an unseen place inside his head was just short of the length of the room he was now in.
After the last pass, he reached up, covering his eyes with one hand as he extended his other blindly, palm finding the rough wall in front of him. He turned then, sliding slowly down to the floor, his back bare against the wall and his knees bent, legs pulled toward his chest.
He remained like that, his head down, resting on one arm across his knees and his other pressed into his waist, trying to keep his stomach from rebelling. He sat unmoving, his tortured thoughts and disjointed memories in total turmoil.
What had he done?
Though he still had no solid recollection of any of it, he was now sure that he had been imprisoned for some reason. And he had been beaten there.
Had he done something terrible, something worth placing him in a small, enclosed space, a place smaller than this room, a place from which he only wanted to escape?
But . . . he also remembered a narrow bed pushed up against the smooth, hard-surface of a wall, a wall that. . . somehow brought him a sense of comfort when he touched it. . . .
How could that be? How could both be true?
Confused, his head pounding, he struggled to find an answer, something that fit the few broken, disjointed images he could recall.
Could he have served a sentence inside a cell. . . a place that had been at one time comforting and secure then, for some reason, became a living hell?
He raised his head to stare at the opposite wall without moving.
Could his reluctance, his fear of leaving the village to go to the city come from knowing that if he were recognized he would be caught and returned to that torment? It made sense that he must have, despite the aftereffects of a horrendous beating, somehow escaped from it. . . .
But . . .
Why had he been there, and how did he escape?
Could he have tried unsuccessfully to escape earlier? Could that have been when he had been beaten . . . almost killed?
As a shudder passed through him and the pain of the last month crashed into him again, he knew he would do almost anything to avoid ever being caught again and sent back.
But suddenly, his thoughts returned to the place he was in now, to the people that had helped him.
What about Elena and Costa? Wasn’t he endangering them by being here?
What about his responsibility to them?
“Admiral, I’m going to sedate him . . . give him something to make him sleep! Baring that, I’m going to take my fist and take out my frustrations on his stubborn jaw,” the doctor ranted heatedly. “I’m telling you, if he doesn’t get a good night’s rest soon, he’s going to put himself, and maybe this boat, at serious risk. And one of his men is probably going to beat me to the not-so-proverbial punch!”
At the man’s first words, Harriman Nelson had lifted his eyes to watch the doctor’s agitated pacing, back and forth across the floor of his cabin, from the desk to the far wall and back again in the small, confining space.
“Will,” he asked tiredly, “is it that bad?”
Spinning around to stare worriedly at the man he considered friend and boss, as well as highly-regarded scientist, Will Jamison opened his mouth to reply, then closed it, shut his eyes for a second, and just shook his head.
Crossing the floor to slip exhaustedly into a metal chair in front of the admiral’s desk, their places across a desk now reversed from the night before, he slumped forward to stare at the floor, his elbows on his knees and his hands clasped together between them.
Quietly, after a few seconds, he said, “Yes, Admiral. It’s that bad. I walked in on our normally utterly calm XO today while he was tearing into a man verbally for something the crewman has done the same way for weeks. It made absolutely no sense, except that. . . .”
Then pausing, lifting his eyes to meet the piercing blue across from him, he took in the older man’s worn expression, his face more lined with exhaustion and worry than the physician had ever seen him.
The doctor took a deep breath and continued, “You know Chip’s been holding everything inside since . . . well, since Lee disappeared. He’s been keeping this crew together by sheer determination and will power. And, because of him, everything around here has continued to go pretty smoothly, even without an answer to the questions we’ve all had, even without the return of the skipper, or . . . or any real closure on all of this for any of us. But . . . now, after weeks of not knowing . . . now that we’ve gotten this reassignment . . . . Well, he’s showing signs of tremendous stress, Admiral . . . signs of too many nights without any decent sleep.”
He paused again before he added softly, staring straight into the eyes of the man whose full attention he had finally obtained, “And, he’s not the only one.”
“So, now, you’re here to launch your tactics against me, are you?”
Shaking his head grimly, Jamison just stared at the man.
Then he said quietly, neither wanting to argue, spar, nor tease with him under the circumstances, “Admiral, this isn’t easy on any of us. And you, more than anyone, know that Lee wouldn’t want us to let his loss affect us, affect this boat . . . his boat . . . this way.”
Closing his tired blue eyes, Nelson sucked in a deep breath through his nose.
Then, knowing his medical officer was correct about what he had said, he pushed the breath back out and blinked open his eyes.
“His loss. . . ,” he said quietly, the pain of the words evident in his tone, his eyes.
Then, with a little shake of his head, he asked, “What happened, Will?”
“Sir?” queried the doctor quietly, not sure which part the admiral was referring to of all that had happened. Did he mean today with the exec, or was he asking what Will thought had led to this situation with their skipper?
“With Chip. . . . What happened?” the admiral clarified into the silence.
Watching him, worrying about this man that he respected above all others, Jamison nodded and replied, “O’Brien came to me this morning. . . with Chief Sharkey practically pushing him through the door. They were both concerned about the exec, afraid that if one of us doesn’t get him off the bridge, force him to get some sleep, he’s going to crash into the deck and wind up in Sick Bay for a week. That wouldn’t be good for him, the boat, or the crew at this point.”
Taking a deep breath, then
seeing the blue eyes still watching him intently, waiting, he added, “They both
said Chip’s been . . . well, very irritable and hard with the men in the last
two or three days particularly . . . something they’ve only rarely seen from
him. . . . You know how he is, sir. Usually, he keeps everything together,
wears an impervious countenance no matter the situation, no matter what he’s
feeling. . . . Even when the two of you came back from
The doctor looked down, breaking eye contact with the silent man across from him, no longer able to look at his own anguish reflected back from the sad blue eyes.
Staring down at the smooth surface of the spotless floor, Will continued softly, “Admiral, I think this prolonged not knowing, even after. . . well, now hearing that we have new orders we can’t question, that we’re being sent away from these waters, sent in some other direction . . . . Well . . . it’s definitely taking a toll on him.”
“You saw him berate the crewman yourself? And you know it wasn’t deserved?”
“Yes. I made it a point to be in the area this afternoon to observe him myself. O’Brien and Sharkey are right, Admiral. We have to do something. Chip’s held the men, held us . . . together for this long. Now we have to help him.”
The red-headed man ran his index finger along the side of his temple, rubbing at the throbbing ache. It had inserted itself there last night with the arrival of the message sending them to the other side of the globe and away from the one area where they all wanted to remain. And it had not let up.
Nelson said, as he deliberately reached out, his hand poised over the intercom button on his desk, “You go get that sedative ready, Doctor. Then come back here. I’ll call for Mr. Morton to join us.”
When Chip Morton walked into the admiral’s quarters after hearing the single word, “Enter,” he stopped at attention in front of the metal desk. His eyes fixed on a spot over the admiral’s head, on the smooth, unmarred surface of the bulkhead behind him, he waited for the man in the chair to look up from the reports on his desk and acknowledge him.
Finally, barely giving the blond-headed exec a glance, Admiral Nelson said, “Have a seat, Chip. I think it’s high time we talked about this.”
Slowly, almost woodenly, the well-built young man lowered himself to the edge of the chair. He again affixed his gaze on the metal bulkhead behind the other man, not making eye contact with him.
“Chip. . . . Mr. Morton!” the admiral admonished, trying to get his officer to look at him. He knew the young man would not want any comforting words right now, so he deliberately kept his tone hard. . . . There would be time to express his concern after he had broken through to him.
In slow motion, the blue, wounded eyes finally met the blue, piercing ones of his superior officer.
“Report, Mr. Morton,” Nelson demanded, concern for the demeanor of the younger officer lancing through him.
“You heard me, Mr. Morton. Report!”
“Sir, I, . . . ,” Chip started, pushing himself up out of the chair.
“Don’t give me that hesitation. I won’t have it. Either you spit out what’s eating at you so you can get some rest . . . or I’ll have the doc,” he paused and nodded at the man just entering through the doorway, “give you something so you can.”
“Sir, I don’t need. . . .”
Motioning Will Jamison impatiently toward a seat in the lone chair across the room, Nelson kept his unyielding gaze on the youngest of the three of them. He interrupted the exec’s words with his own, “Yes, Mr. Morton, you DO need. . . . You NEED to have your say. Then you NEED to get some sleep, one way or the other. After that, you NEED to work with O’Brien to get this boat and its crew in shape for whatever comes our way with these new orders we’ve received.”
Closing his eyes for a brief instant as he hauled in a shaky breath, Chip blinked them open again, and he reluctantly met the admiral’s steady gaze. After a moment, it finally registered that the man across from him, the man he had been avoiding for the last few days, was in as much pain as he was.
Nodding once in resignation, Chip stood up a little straighter and said, “Admiral, I respectfully request to be allowed to return to active duty.”
Once the words began, they continued as if a faulty, high pressure valve had suddenly become unstuck, spewing out words that would have been incomprehensible before all that had happened in the last month. Even now, Nelson struggled to believe them.
“I’ve checked with Admiral Hatch, sir, at Naval Intelligence, and I’ve received tentative clearance to return to the states to attend a briefing on the Albanian situation before I go back in. I know it’s unexpected, Admiral, but,” he paused, swallowing hard. “. . . O’Brien can handle things here, and it’s not like I’ve been a lot of good to you lately, anyway. . . .”
“Return to active duty? . . . Dammit, Chip! Do you know what you’re saying?”
“Yes, Admiral. I know. I’ve given it a lot of thought since. . . over the last few weeks, not just since yesterday . . . and it’s what I . . . what I want.”
The admiral began shaking his head, slowly at first, then with increasing agitation. He met Jamison’s eyes and motioned the man to the door with a sideways glance, then returned his attention to the officer directly in front of him.
“Sit down, Chip,” he said, the command evident in his steely voice. He watched as the younger man complied sluggishly, as if he were moving through seaweed infested water.
Walking around his desk and nodding to the doctor silently pulling the door closed behind himself, Nelson crossed his arms and leaned against the front edge, just to Chip’s right. He looked at the bowed blond head of the younger man now sitting motionlessly in a chair in front of his desk.
Taking a deep breath, he
swallowed and said calmly, “Chip, you won’t do Lee or anyone else any good by
following his path into
From a voice far away, the words almost muffled, he stopped at the too-quiet, uncharacteristic interruption.
“He’s not dead, Admiral. He can’t be dead. . . . I won’t let him be.”
Closing his eyes, Harriman Nelson lifted them to the overhead of the cabin, and he called on all of his formidable, inner strength to help him know how best to respond.
“Chip, it’s time. We have to go on . . . ,” he began. Then he tried again, being harsher with both of them, with himself and the man before him, than he wanted to be, but knowing it was for the best.
“Chip, they found. . . .”
But suddenly, the younger man stormed to his feet, his face contorted with rage and his hands coming up in two fists, close to the sides of his head as if preparing to defend himself in hand-to-hand combat against an approaching enemy. Chip quickly backed up, knocking over the solid metal chair, and he kept going, taking three rapid steps away from the desk, the man leaning on it, and the words he did not want to hear . . . not again.
In a voice strangled with anguish, he exploded, “NO! They found NOTHING! A charred corpse they said was . . . was Lee’s . . .” Then, as if he were choking, he finished, “No, Admiral! . . . I won’t go off in some other direction . . . abandoning him . . . as if I no longer believe. . . .”
Closing his eyes, his fists pressed into his forehead, Chip drew in a sharp, ragged breath and listed the facts, one-by-one, casting them angrily out into the space between himself and the admiral as if they were daggers, each one ripped painfully from his flesh and thrown to the floor in relief, “American money. . . . Clothing that could have been anyone’s. . . . A singed piece of paper with institute letterhead on it. . . .”
Then, breathing hard, he shouted, “They found nothing! They gave us nothing, Admiral! . . . Not one damn thing that identified that body we buried as Lee’s.”
Quickly, Chip turned around, facing away from his superior officer and walked away two more steps, his shoulders heaving silently, the heels of both hands pressed into his forehead.
Nelson reached down quietly and grasped the fallen chair. As he righted it, he placed a tight grip on his own feelings. Then, he walked across the floor to stand behind Chip. Reaching out, he put both hands on the slightly taller man’s shoulders from behind him.
Holding on with strong hands, he asked quietly, his tone leaving no room for argument, “What else? . . . You’re his friend, yes; but, I know you well enough to know you are a practical, level-headed officer, Chip. . . What else? Why can’t you accept it?”
Then, unprepared for the instant assault from inside his own head, Harry heard the echo of the question aimed silently back at himself . . . , “Why can’t I?”
Waiting to hear what the younger man had to say, Harriman Nelson had to admit that, at that moment, he was not doing any better with accepting the evidence from the Albanian government, nor the orders that had arrived yesterday. He just hadn’t voiced his feelings about any of it to anyone else, not yet. Yesterday afternoon, sharing a drink with Will, was the closest he had come. . . .
That thought sent a shudder through him as he realized that his feelings and frustrations were normally the parts of himself he would’ve only confided in one other person . . . and he was no longer here. . . .
At the small, wounded sound coming from the older man behind him, Chip turned around.
Both men’s hands dropped down by their sides, though the blond’s were again balled up into two tight fists.
Chip looked into the admiral’s pain-filled blue eyes, and he asked, his voice still a little ragged, but his thoughts clearer than they had been in days, “Why were they so eager to cooperate with our government to return his . . . his body to us? Why were they so helpful? They’re hiding something, Admiral. They have to be. Either that, or they just wanted us out of there, not asking any more questions. It was all too easy, too quick, too politely done when you and I got there. . . . And . . . something’s missing, Admiral.”
He swallowed hard, dropping his eyes from the piercing gaze.
Looking down and holding out his hand, the object in his now open fist was visible to both men.
Chip took a deep breath. Then, he asked, “Where’s his ring? If the . . . if that badly-burned body they gave us back really was. . . really was Lee, then where’s his ring? Why didn’t they mention it? Why wasn’t it there?”
Narrowing his eyes, looking
at Chip’s ring where it lay in the center of his palm, Nelson thought back over
the paltry evidence, the non-existence of personal effects . . . and the black body
bag he and Chip had been given when they had visited the capital of
Jamison had done his best to autopsy the remains, but dental records had proven an inconclusive match since their captain had never needed any work done on his perfect teeth. After taking DNA samples, they had given the body an appropriate burial at sea, in accordance with Lee’s wishes, requests made clear to both of them years ago, but. . .
. . . But, the truth was, none of them had believed in their hearts that the body they were honoring was that of their captain. And it would be another month before all the DNA sequences could be checked conclusively. . . .
In truth, none of them had received much closure from the ceremony.
After that, they had remained in the area as if by tacit agreement, carrying on routine testing of software and hardware upgrades that could be accomplished anywhere, and they had taken on a few small projects for a team of Italian scientists from Universita’ degli studi di Palermo, projects that, at any other time, would have been months and months further down their priority list.
Then yesterday they had
received unexpected information from the Department of Defense directing them
Technically, since they were not Navy, Nelson could have balked, calling in a few favors from old friends, but he had already acknowledged the request, knowing that nothing more could be accomplished from the waters of the Mediterranean, nothing except to prolong the agony of acceptance over Lee’s loss for all of them.
Now, hearing Chip’s words, Nelson wondered why he had not thought about the distinctive ring that was as much a part of his captain as his unusual eyes, his quicksilver emotions, and his sharp intelligence.
With all of his contacts all over the world, with all of the resources of the formidable institute behind them, they still had been unable to uncover any word about Lee that contradicted what the Albanian officials had told them.
“Leave it to your unerring intuition where Lee’s welfare is concerned, Chip,” the admiral grumbled good-naturedly, hope struggling with the questions the younger man’s words had raised. “Leave it to you to come up with a possible answer that was right there in front of us the whole time. . . .”
He had known Chip possessed an identical ring.
In fact, he, himself, owned
a similar one as well. All
Then, reaching out to take Chip’s ring, to hold it in his hand, the admiral used it like a talisman to focus his whirling memories, to cast his thoughts backwards to other instances, to other times Lee had been out on some harrowing mission or other for the government.
Did he not always leave identifying items like that behind?
Shaking his head slightly, he thought that maybe Will would know. Or, maybe they could check in Lee’s cabin to be sure. . . .
Turning his attention back to his executive officer, however, he saw something flicker through the blue, faraway eyes for a moment. Then, reaching out to grip the younger man’s forearm as the blond lifted his hand and pressed the heel of it into his forehead again, Nelson asked quietly, “What else, Chip? I know there’s something else.”
After a long moment, he heard the now calmer, quieter voice reply, “I’d know if he were. . . if he were dead. . . , Admiral. . . . I can’t explain it, sir. But, I’d know.”
“What do you mean, Chip?”
With a slight sigh, Chip said, his gaze never wavering from that of the older man’s as he dropped his hand again, “You know I come from a large family . . . five sisters, Admiral. But Lee. . . you know he’s an only child. From the first year we roomed together at the academy, we became more like family, closer than friends, more like . . . well, more like brothers. I think we were each the brother the other had always wanted.”
Chip’s glacial blue eyes thawed just a bit as his face implored the older man to listen, to not just dismiss his words . . . to understand what he was saying, “Trust me, Admiral. He’s not dead. . . . If he were, I would know. I’d know it right here,” he added, closing his eyes, the heel of his right hand again pushing into his forehead, pushing back his short blond hair as he slid his fingers upwards.
Then he said, almost in a whisper, “I don’t care what any government says, he’s not dead. He’s missing. He’s . . . Lee’s in trouble, Admiral, and I have to go find him before it’s too late.”
When he opened his blue eyes to stare up into the darkness of his cabin hours later, Chip reached down to finger the ring on his hand. Its blocked shape, with the smooth, onyx stone, was so familiar, yet the feel of it on his hand was something he had grown unaccustomed to in the last few years.
When they had first graduated from the academy, he, like all the others, had worn his class ring constantly, but in the years since, he had put it on less and less, finding it more of an encumbrance in his daily work than not.
But now . . . now, it had served an important purpose, and he had found he hated to part with it so easily again.
With a slight smile in the darkness, the sadness and worry that had gripped him deep inside, freezing him against any reaction, any emotion, seemed to recede from his chest just a fraction, like a tide rolling out from a rock-strewn beach.
But, like the tide, he knew the sadness and worry would be back.
For now, he breathed out and back in, glad of the room inside his chest to do so. Looking back, he was glad the admiral had called him in to make him talk about it all.
They had reached a compromise of sorts last night regarding the immediate future and, as a result of his released anger and frustration, he felt less like a tightly-wound spring . . . more like just a piece of coiled wire, waiting . . . with no particular use. . . yet.
But, at least now that he wasn’t tied in so many knots and tangles, he could think straight again. He could breathe again.
With a sigh, he closed his eyes and thought back over the last six weeks.
He could see Lee Crane in
his mind that last day when he had been part of the crew of three that ferried
the captain toward the Albanian shore, just north of the border shared with
Lee had sat in the bow of the small, inflatable skiff, watching the approach of the grey, rocky shoreline just before dawn. Wearing his black wool turtleneck and pants, his leather jacket unbuttoned, one leg propped up as he gazed out at their destination, he had turned to look at Chip as his friend and exec had handed him a cup of coffee from a thermos.
“Here, Lee,” he said, “One more taste of home before you head off into those mountains.”
They had held each other’s eyes for a moment, one more long look that spoke of the respect, trust, and value they each placed on the other. No other words had been exchanged, only a quick nod at each other when Chip and the two crewmen had put the skipper ashore, trying to ensure that Lee, his gear, and his worn, but rugged boots stayed dry.
Everything else had already been said the night before. They had discussed and acknowledged the unstableness of the region, along with the political unrest that had led to this insertion of a United States Navy-trained operative to locate three missing men in unknown territory. It was definitely what amounted to a needle-in-a-haystack situation.
And it had all happened so fast. . . a recent election gone sour, with the three U.N. representatives who had been sent in to observe and ensure the democratic process, suddenly gone, lost as surely as if they had each drowned in the rough sea crashing into the rocky shore.
The Greek community in
Predictably, blaming fingers
for the disappearances were pointed in the direction of disgruntled Greeks now
residing within the borders of
Though no group claimed responsibility for the situation, demands immediately made to the U.N. for recognition of one of many obscure political parties that had not been listed on the recent ballot triggered its own supposition. It was probably just as the admiral had thought from the beginning; the two events, the demands for placement on the ballot and the disappearance of the three delegates, were probably tied together.
Questions remained about who had taken them even now.
But, right after their disappearance, the questions had been rampant.
Most had hinged on if the delegates
were still alive or not and, if they were, what other steps could be taken to
get them out. While the politicians and diplomats tried official channels to
find out, other government agencies in the
No one, even now . . . weeks later, knew for sure which group had really held the three men, only that its members had been violent . . . exceedingly so, as it had turned out.
No one, not even after Lee had gone in to try to recover them, knew the answer. . . not even after two of the three had made it back out without him.
The captain had radioed for a pickup by the Seaview’s crew just down from the initial insertion point at Sarandë. But when Chip and the men had arrived, they had found only Doctor Steven Andrews down on the rocky beach with Crane waiting high in the rocks above. With no more than a quick wave to ensure that Chip knew he was alright and to assure himself that Andrews was safely on board the awaiting skiff, Lee had surprised them by immediately turning inland.
Ignoring what he had to know would be his friend’s intense agitation at seeing him do so, Lee had climbed the steep trail further up the mountainside to, according to the message Andrews gave them, return to the interior of Albania and locate the other two men.
Returned to the safety of Seaview, that first delegate had
described long days and nights of being held in a village just to the north of
the city of
Though their captors had been no more than uncomfortably rough and verbally demanding with them, Horace Frawley was very sick as a result of the harsh conditions they had endured in the three days before Lee had reached them. As far as Andrews knew, the other delegate, John Critinger, was still alive and well, though Lee had only been able to get Andrews away.
Later, after over a week of waiting anxiously off-shore aboard the sub for another contact from Lee, and after Chip, Sharkey, and Kowalski had returned to the city in an unsuccessful attempt to find out anything, they had picked up a short-wave radio signal. It was broadcast on an unfamiliar, un-secure frequency, but the signal was coming from Lee’s radio and was using the correct code. The message asked for another pickup in six hours.
This time, when they had kept the rendezvous, they had only found Critinger waiting. The man was barely able to identify himself. In fact, the despondent delegate had shown virtually no emotion, not even relief, and he had barely uttered a response to Chip’s desperate questions before collapsing in the bottom of the skiff.
“Where’s the captain? Dammit, man! Where is he?” Chip demanded.
Critinger only shook his head morosely, his thin, filthy hair hanging down in his face as he whispered brokenly, “. . . nothing of a captain. . . .”
Shaking his arm, Chip forced the unfocused eyes to open again, and he snarled, “Where’s Lee Crane? The man who went in to get you? . . . Where is he?”
“Dead. . . . Lee’s dead. . . . He’s not coming.”
His heart choking him as he struggled to maintain his calm, reserved demeanor, Chip had ordered the others to return with the exhausted delegate to the submarine, while he and Ski immediately returned to the rocks above the sea, waiting in vain for Lee to follow. When they had reluctantly returned to the boat with Sharkey, who had come to get them several hours later, the chief told him the admiral had questioned the man about how he had made it out without the skipper. In fact, Nelson had continued until the doc had stepped in, stopping the questions.
Jamie told him later the admiral, though desperate to determine what had happened to their captain, had finally recognized that Critinger was both too exhausted and distraught to help them. The man had hung his head, shaking it back and forth wearily. He had been able to say very little about “Lee,” the only name he knew for his rescuer, except repeatedly mumbling over and over that he shouldn’t have left him to fight off the small militia by himself, that he wasn’t coming back . . . that he was dead.
It was not until the next night, after the man had slept for almost 24 hours, that they had been able to hear Critinger’s full descriptions of the near fanaticism of the group that had held them, the deplorable conditions they had endured, and about Lee Crane’s fate.
Critinger’s voice had sounded small and stretched thin as they sat listening to him in the widest space within the submarine, the nose known as “the admiral’s front porch.” The man had been amazed to learn the true identity of his rescuer, who had gone in twice to get him out, but he had not been at all surprised to learn of the esteem in which everyone aboard held Captain Lee Crane.
It was with a raw, gnawing pain in his gut overshadowing even his fierce pride in his friend’s actions that Chip had finally understood what Critinger was saying. The Brit was absolutely certain Lee had died during the otherwise successful attempt to free him.
“He wouldn’t tell them a bloody thing. . . . Not even the proverbial name, rank, and serial number,” Critinger said, nervously trying to make light of it at first, as he began explaining to Chip and the admiral.
The doctor sat close by, keeping a watchful eye on his still recuperating patient.
Then, becoming more serious, more morose, Critinger revealed, “They had separated me from Andrews and Frawley quite early on, and I was only able to get brief glimpses of them from time to time. But after Lee got Andrews out, before he came back . . . they moved the two of us again, put us in some enclave deep inside a mountain. . . . I know now it must have been a definite forty or fifty miles away, but at least they put us together. . . . Shortly after that, Frawley died.”
At the reaction from the men in front of him, he clarified, “It was probably a heart attack. . . he’d let me know that they had not hurt him, just that he’d been having chest pains since we’d first been taken. . . . Then, with little food, the cold and the damp living conditions . . . an unwell man couldn’t last long like that. . . . I never did find out what they did with his body. . . . Afterwards, they began to lose patience with trying to get me to agree to their demands, and they were becoming more threatening. I knew my time was rapidly running out.”
He took a deep breath, closing his eyes for a moment. Then, he said, “When Lee was brought in, I guess it was three days later . . . they at least kept the two of us together from the start. Maybe it was the only place inside that mountain they had to lock us in, I don’t know. But it may have been that they thought if we created some kind of bond, I’d give them what they wanted when they . . . when they started in on him. . . .They wanted things from us. . . . Things neither of us was prepared to give them.”
Shivering a bit despite the blanket he had draped around him, Critinger paused for a moment. Quietly, the doctor got up to bring him a mug of hot coffee.
In the meantime, Critinger took a deep breath and continued, “They wanted me to agree to make a recording demanding the U.N. recognize their party, to ensure that they be listed on the official ballot during the next election. . . .They didn’t seem to understand that they were going about it all wrong . . . that the very thing they wanted was now impossible because of the terroristic actions they had already taken.”
He took the coffee, nodding his thanks at Jamison and, holding the mug between his hands, he allowed his sad green eyes to meet those of each of the three men as he started speaking again.
They had not pressed him by asking any questions, probably under the doctor’s orders, but he knew what they wanted to know.
He just dreaded telling them.
“Lee . . . your captain . . . they used him to try to get me to change my mind, to give them what they wanted. They . . . they brutalized him. I can think of no other word for it.” He took a deep breath and continued, “They also wanted to know who he was and who had sent him. They were very angry about his success in freeing Andrews. . . apparently, they’d gotten a look at him that night, and I’m sure that’s part of the reason they were so rough with. . . .” Again, he stopped and took a deep breath, trying to steady himself. Then he said, “But I’m getting ahead of myself. . . . Suffice it to say that he would tell them nothing . . . .”
The man shook his head again, and his voice became even softer as the memories crowded back in.
“He didn’t even try to make something up to appease them. He just remained silent, his eyes glaring at whichever one of them was taking a turn punching him, kicking him . . . only looking at me whenever I started to say anything, whenever I made the smallest noise that made it sound like I was going to give in. . . . Then he would find me with those dark eyes of his, staring at me, clearly conveying that I needed to tell them nothing, to give them nothing . . . to keep my silence no matter what.”
Lifting his hand from the warmth of the mug to cover his now closed eyes, he said, his own self-loathing plain, “I could have made them stop so easily. But I did what I’d been trained to do. I observed. And I kept silent.”
Rising, the doctor placed his hand on the distraught man’s shoulder through the navy wool of the blanket, squeezing it, and he said, “You obeyed what Lee Crane was telling you to do, just like the men here always do, even when conditions are at their worst. And he gets us through it, whatever it is, time and time again. He’s used to giving orders, to having men obey his commands without question under the most extreme of situations, and we are very aware how good he is at conveying his orders with only his eyes if necessary. . . . You did the right thing, John.”
Admiral Nelson grunted and nodded calmly, though his eyes spoke of as much anger as Chip and Jamison had ever seen from him as he said, “If you’d caved in, John, if either of you had . . . those men would have gotten exactly what they wanted, and the people of that area would’ve all been the losers for it. Then . . . they probably would’ve killed you both anyway.”
John Critinger sucked in a deep breath through his nose, and he swallowed hard, nodding his head in acknowledgement of their words.
“Thank you, both of you,” he said quietly. “I know that now. What he did . . . was able to do. . . . It makes such sense, seeing all of you, the respect you have for him . . . but it doesn’t make it much easier to close my eyes and remember the effects of what they kept doing to him, sometimes several times a day.”
The admiral and exec looked at each other as the man stared down into his coffee, taking a swallow before returning it to the table beside his chair.
“Your captain was. . . .” Critinger’s voice caught on the word, and he looked away again, this time turning his eyes to the windows on the water beyond them.
“Was? . . . What makes you so sure he’s not coming back?” Chip spoke up, his voice tight as he struggled to get his anger back under control after the description he had just heard.
With a sigh, the man began to talk again, “He told me that last night before we broke out. . . that he was getting weaker, that he didn’t know how much longer he would. . . that he’d be able to last.”
The three men listening to him exchanged glances, all of them thinking that if Lee had admitted that much. . . his condition must have been worse than any of them would like to contemplate.
“It was the first time I’d heard him say anything like that. He’d always remained so positive, so deliberate about keeping my hopes up. But that night he couldn’t stop coughing. He was all but gasping for breath afterwards . . . the wheezing sound seemed to echo inside the cold damp walls. . . .”
He took a long shuddering breath before adding, “Our cell was virtually a cave with a steel door, and it. . . it felt like a tomb.”
Critinger clenched and unclenched his hands on the
wool of the blanket as he spoke, his arms resting across his legs. His eyes
took on a faraway look, though he moved them to Harriman Nelson’s face, a man
he had known since his early days as a British official dealing with
“There was nothing I could do for him, Harry. They hadn’t even brought us any water lately, and he was burning up. He told me he was going to try again to get me away from them. That he wanted me to watch for my opportunity and to promise him that I would go, that I wouldn’t look back. He told me. . . he reminded me . . . that we had a duty to the people of that country. . . to make sure they knew about the way that group virtually held the villagers in the area as hostages to their cause, about what was supposed to happen next.”
“He kept. . . ,” Critinger reached up and grasped his own shirt in his hand, shaking it in demonstration, “He kept holding onto my shirt, his eyes boring into mine, as he tried to talk through the coughing, through the wheezing, . . . to make sure I understood how important it was that this group and its high level supporters did not gain a wider power.”
Then Critinger dropped his eyes from the two smoldering blue pairs boring into him and, as if to himself, he started nodding his head before continuing.
“I know now what he was doing, why he extracted that promise from me. He knew that if I tried to take him with me, if I tried to help or wait on him, it would condemn us both to going on the way we were, . . . that they would kill us when they realized they had no more leverage over me. One of us had to escape, to tell someone what he’d found out. I think he knew he was dying, that he . . . .”
Chip suddenly jumped to his feet and began pacing back and forth agitatedly in front of the windows.
“What happened, John?” Harry asked quietly, his friendship and respect for the exhausted man across from him keeping him in his chair. But his eyes followed his exec, and he badly wanted to pace right along side of Chip in his own angry disbelief.
Swallowing hard as he again met Harriman Nelson’s intense blue eyes, Critinger replied, “I don’t know where he got the strength to even lever himself up off of the floor of that dark hole, Harry. But, he did. When they came to get us that last time, there were only two of them. He hadn’t put up much of a fight the last few times . . . so they’d become less and less vigilant over the last two days. I have no doubt now that it was exactly what he had wanted them to do.”
Taking another sip of the now cool liquid in his mug and nodding to the doctor, who quietly offered more hot coffee from a nearby urn, he continued, “Lee waited until they were both inside the room, then he . . . he just exploded, jumping one, slamming him against the other one, against the stone wall. Then, he grabbed the falling guard’s rifle, and before the other man could react, Lee bashed his jaw with the end of the gun. I grabbed the rifle on the ground, and we ran out the still open door and through the compound.”
Critinger’s eyes glazed over as he spoke, remembering the rest of it, “Twice more, we saw guards at various points. The first time, Lee caught the man unaware from behind and knocked him to the ground with the gun, but the last one . . . . We were close enough to the opening that we could see the night sky for the first time in what seemed like weeks. The guard saw us, though and fired. But he missed, and Lee shot him. We were through the opening by the time the shots brought the rest swarming at us from behind.”
He took another deep breath and said, “He hollered for me to go, and he jumped down behind part of a stone wall, trying to hold them off with the guns we’d grabbed. No one got close to me, but. . . .”
His blue eyes lifting from the floor where he had been standing ever since he had begun listening to Critinger tell of Lee’s attack on the guards, Chip met the delegate’s eyes and he asked, “Guns? You only mentioned that he had one before.”
Quietly, the man said, “I tossed my rifle toward him as he waved me on, but I didn’t have the courage to stay and help him, Mr. Morton. He had my gun as well as his, but it wasn’t enough.”
“What do you mean? What happened?”
With a defeated shake of his head, the man continued, “I left him there. He kept them from following me, gave me time to make it partway down that mountain and to hide deep in the trees, but they . . . they overran his position.”
“You’re sure?” Nelson demanded, desperate to disprove it.
“Yes. I saw him fall, saw them come over the top of the stones, and I knew he was dead. I’m sorry, Harry.”
“But how can you be so sure?” Chip insisted.
“Mr. Morton, all that time, his silence was what drove them insane with anger, with frustration. But once we made it out. . . . Now, for me . . . inside my head, it’s the same thing that has driven me insane with guilt ever since.”
“The fact that he didn’t say anything while they beat him?” Chip asked almost defiantly, not understanding.
“No! . . . The silence of his guns that night, then the silence of theirs. When the shooting stopped, I knew the only way that would’ve happened was if he were dead.”
“Maybe they captured him again! Maybe he’s still alive!” Chip continued, refusing to believe anything else.
Critinger tore his eyes away from the anguish he saw in the executive officer’s face, that he heard in the younger man’s voice, and he shook his head.
He said, his tone full of self-loathing and guilt, “You didn’t see him, Mr. Morton. What they did to him after he helped Andrews escape. . . . If they did recapture him, what do you think they would’ve done to him after he helped me? Even if they didn’t shoot him by that wall, by now. . . .”
“John,” the admiral said, speaking into the silence that followed, “If you had stayed. . . .”
“I know, Harry. I know. If I had stayed, the sacrifice that boy made would have been for nothing. It’s the only thing that’s kept me going since then.”
“When was that? When did you escape?” Chip asked, still intent on understanding the details, wanting all the information that might help them find the captain.
“Three days ago. I was only able to get close enough to the hidden radio Lee had told me about . . . to get a call through . . . that once, the night before you and your men met me below the cliffs. . . .”
The doctor stepped over, breaking Chip’s eye contact with the exhausted man sitting in the chair, huddled now inside his blanket and shaking his head again.
“That’s enough, gentlemen. I want to know about Lee
as much as you do, but I’m taking John back to
“I wonder what happened, what went wrong to start with?” Chip asked in a flat voice, as if to himself as he stepped away and allowed the doctor to move toward his patient without rebuttal.
“To start with?” Nelson asked. Then, turning to the exec, he demanded, “What do you mean, Chip?”
“In the beginning, Admiral. On that second trip in. What happened that Lee got caught? I can’t believe he’s dead any more than I can believe he was careless then . . . for them to catch him. . . .”
“Catch him?” Critinger spoke up, grabbing hold of the arms of the chair and lowering himself back down, his eyes on the admiral. Then he turned and looked the younger man squarely in the eyes as he said, his voice more firm than they had heard it, “No! They didn’t catch him, Mr. Morton, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
All three men turned puzzled eyes to meet his as he continued, “That’s what I started to tell you earlier. It’s one of the things you need to understand. . . .”
“We’re listening, John,” the admiral encouraged.
Critinger sucked in a deep breath through his nose and slowly released it, his eyes closed. Then he opened them again and said, “Sorry about that. Obviously I didn’t make it all clear earlier. It was the reason the radio was hidden in the village, the reason I had a way to contact you afterwards. . . Your captain not only died getting me out, he willingly walked into that compound and gave himself up to those bastards to start with. He planned it that way . . . because it was the only possible strategy for reaching me, for helping me. . . and Frawley, whom he thought was still alive. . . . But, in the end, it was all for me.”
The silence of the room was broken only by the faint, comforting noises from the control room behind the observation nose where they sat. The rhythmic symphony of sounds told that all was as it should be, at least here on Lee’s grey lady.
“Not all for you,” the admiral said calmly, his emotions for the moment captured tightly in a heart turned to cold stone. “John, what did you mean that one of you had to escape to tell what Lee found out? About what else was going to happen? I think there was more that Lee wanted you to tell us, wasn’t there?”
The exhausted figure in front of them seemed to sag in on himself for a moment, shoulders slumping tiredly as he thought hard for a few moments. Then, he silently nodded and said, “It’s information I’ve gotten very used to hiding. . . . Forgive me. When I think about it, I’m sure it was you that Lee meant I should tell it to, Harry. But . . . ,” he glanced at the doctor and the exec in uncertainty.
Quietly, Jamison spoke up, “Since you’re intent on staying, can you tell me first about his injuries? Then I’ll leave the three of you to discuss whatever else matters.”
“Yes, Doctor, if it will help you in some way to know.”
Critinger watched the hazel-eyed man nod back at him, the sadness reflected in his eyes, and he continued matter-of-factly, “Lee’s left wrist was broken and, by the end, he was covered in layers of bruises and cuts. He had trouble walking, his right hip was terribly bruised, maybe fractured, and he had a deep laceration running from here to here.”
John indicated a four-inch long area from his right temple to behind his ear. “For a long time, it was what I worried about the most. He had lost a lot of blood when they first hit him with that steel bar, and he would drift in and out of consciousness for periods of time after that. I worried that he didn’t really remember much about what was happening. But . . . he seemed to pull through it, at least enough to get me out of there.”
“A steel bar? They hit him in the head with a piece of steel?” The admiral’s raised voice was lanced with anger, and his face was like stone as he asked.
“Yes, Harry, in the head once, in the side and chest several times. . . . I guess he should have died then. But . . . he held on. And it got worse. You already know how I told you he was that last night, and I’m quite sure several of his ribs had been broken during the course of things, but that last day . . . even though they had gone back to kicking him and just using their fists . . . well, it was the first time I ever heard him cry out when they hit him.”
He met Jamison’s eyes as he said, “I was sure that, with the wheezing sounds, with the difficulty he was having breathing, that a rib had nicked or punctured a lung. I think he knew it too. Knew that if it wasn’t punctured, it was close. And I think he knew that very much more would finish him.”
As Harry closed his eyes, his worry crashing into him, Chip stood up from where he had been sitting across from them, listening intently, and he walked over to stand by the windows. Though the partition doors had been closed when they had first come in to give them privacy, the admiral and the doctor watched him, knowing nothing would give Lee’s friend enough space in the tight confines of the submarine to deal with the rage and anguish consuming him at that moment.
“Admiral,” the doctor said adamantly, reaching out to
Critinger, “I’m going to take John back to
He caught the overwhelmed blue eyes of the red-headed admiral and nodded toward the exec’s back.
Then, helping his exhausted patient to his feet, Will led him aft, pausing only when the admiral’s words stopped them as he said quietly, in a tight, restrained voice, “John. What he did, you’re right. He did for you and for Frawley, in the beginning. But what Lee did, in the end, was not just for you. It was also to make sure you lived to tell whatever information he had uncovered, as well as what they did to all four of you. I’ll be down to talk to you in a few hours. We’ll see that the information gets into the right hands. Everyone should know what those villagers have known, what they have been powerless to stop.”
Now, as Chip lay in his bunk, his eyes open in the dark, he remembered that the admiral had tried then to speak to him, coming over and placing an ice-cold hand on his shoulder, clamping down on it fiercely.
But he had not responded.
Instead, he had kept his
eyes trained on the sea life swimming by them in the clear waters of the
Reaching up first to pound his fist into his pillow, he then brushed his hand across the moisture building behind his eyes and released a ragged sigh.
“Lee,” he said aloud, blinking up into the dark. “Where are you, buddy?”
He pushed himself, forcing each step, concentrating all of his determination into getting to the next rock outcropping, to the next bare spot in the trail.
One hand gripping Costa’s gnarled walking stick that Elena had insisted he take with him, he dared not stop, as he practically staggered forty more feet up the twisting path, climbing higher than he had managed the day before.
Finally, with his rasping breath sounding in his ears, the blood pounding in his head making his headache nearly overpowering, he reached out, placed one shaking hand on a waist-high, grey boulder. After a moment’s rest, he pulled himself up above it.
Then, held up by the curiously-smooth stone, he leaned forward, both hands on his thighs, and he struggled to catch his breath.
Long minutes passed, his breathing finally becoming less labored, before he could lift his dark eyes and marvel at how far he had managed to come.
It had finally dawned on him two days ago that he had been going about his mission of rebuilding his strength all the wrong way . . . literally.
Instead of trying to climb down into the deep gorge carved out by the Voidomatis and Aoos Rivers far below the village, then making his way back up when he was most exhausted, he had decided that, though the gorge and the river were his ultimate goals, he would be better off doing the opposite, at least for now.
So, as he had done the last two mornings, he now set his sights on climbing up the rugged trail toward the peaks and columns of Gamila, going as far up as he could before returning. . . downhill. Of course, going down the steep track was almost as difficult on his weakened legs and injured hip, but at least his breathing was better this way. And both were just as secluded.
Finally standing up and looking around, he could see the square stone houses of Mikro Papingo below him with the exceptionally narrow gorge just beyond. And, though he was still not up high enough to get more than a glimpse of the river it contained, he experienced a moment of awe at the raw beauty of it. He knew the tiny white flecks on the otherwise deep blue green of the water must be the cataracts on which Costa made his living, running the rapids with large, inflated rafts full of tourists from the city at least six days a week.
Off in the distance, he
could see the serpentine road that traversed the lower mountains. It snaked its
way down from Costa and Elena’s village at the base of the much higher Gamila
to the slightly larger
As he stood there and looked out over the land below him, he tried to dispel the mental images he had tried to avoid for two days. . . thoughts about what his life must have been like before he came here, about what he must have done to have remained for so long behind a metal door in a small cell with smooth walls. . . .
Shaking his head, he angrily hefted his walking stick and pushed off from the rock. If he still had energy for such thoughts, he still had enough to keep going up the trail. Setting his jaw in determination, he turned and headed up the path again.
Somewhere up there, as Costa had told him, was a hut built for shepherds and hikers near the top of Astraka Column; someday in the near future that site would be his goal, that and remembering his past.
He desperately wanted to remember, but he did not want to just aimlessly wonder. . . . his thoughts dwelling on something his head told him must have happened, but that his heart rebelled against believing.
For some reason, he believed that it was not in him to have deliberately done something terrible, something illegal, something . . . unforgivably wrong. . . .
As he trudged upward, he clamped down on his thoughts, struggling to focus on each step, only allowing his thoughts to ease toward the edge of that precipice inside his mind . . . and no further, like a wary hiker traversing a dangerous trail along a high cliff.
He remembered almost nothing of what had happened before he had awakened to full awareness after apparently being in Costa and Elena Melanthius’ home for almost a week. In fact, he still did not remember anything beyond familiarity with a small, enclosed space with smooth, metal walls, a narrow bunk set against one side, a closed metal door . . . and being hit with something hard and unyielding with the knowledge that he could not cry out.
. . . Those pieces and the faint vibration that had been his only comfort inside the dark, nebulous dreams.
But what had that vibration been, that remembered sound, like a muffled movement of . . . of engines?
Suddenly he stumbled, his exhaustion catching up to him.
He fell to his knees, and with a groan of pain, he put his injured hand out, grappling for a hold that would prevent him from rolling sideways and precariously close to the edge two feet to his right. Seconds after he came into contact with the rough rock surface beneath him, he pulled his hand close to his chest and gasped aloud.
It was more than just the force of the fall, more than the pain of the unhealed wrist that caused his response, however.
Closing his eyes, he struggled for breath, struggled to stop the remembered pain, echoing repeatedly of something crashing into him, pummeling his side, his chest. Then, just as suddenly, he glanced up from his knees on the side of the sunlit mountain, instantly expecting to see two men standing menacingly above him.
And he realized he expected to see the foot of one of them raring back to crash into him again.
He closed his eyes . . . struggling to keep the image away . . . struggling to hold onto it, and he put both hands back down on the rocky path. As he did so, instant nausea slamming into him, he realized that the rock beneath his hands should be cold and damp, not infused with heat from the sun.
With his eyes tightly closed, he also knew that when he had been locked away, it had been in a place with constant, almost unbroken darkness.
Then he shook his head to clear it, sure that he had just heard not only the echo of a metal door slamming, but the jangle of keys turning inside a lock as well.
The floor inside his head, the floor of the place in which he had been a captive, was made of stone, like the trail on which he now knelt, breathing hard from his exertion and confusion. But it was damp with seeping water, and the place was dark, the blackness disturbed only by . . . he turned his head, opening his troubled eyes, squinting up and to his left as if he could see a small amount of light filtering in through the darkness. . . through a small, square opening, like a window cut into a steel door.
That small opening had allowed in the only light that had broken the blackness.
Confused, he slowly realized that his imprisonment, whatever it had been for, had nothing to do with the small room with the smooth, steel walls and the narrow bunk from his solitary memory of the past. It had nothing to do with a sentence served for some illegal activity for which he had been duly punished. It had everything to do with something someone wanted to hide, just as he had been hidden away in the relentless dark, beaten and . . . and expected to die.
Pushing off from the ground with a groan and using the sturdy walking stick to steady himself, he staggered back to his feet and stepped away from the edge of the trail. He leaned wearily against the rough surface of the wall-like rock face behind him.
He ran one hand over the stone, and he closed his eyes again.
He had done this before . . . this stumbling to his feet, this exhausted, pain-filled leaning against the only thing strong enough to hold him upright. He had leaned against a stone wall before, struggling to breathe, struggling to . . . to not give in.
. . . Not give in to what?
Lifting his eyes, he ran his hand over the rock behind him again, knowing it should be slightly damp and mossy, not dry and gritty like this.
Then, suddenly, as if someone had joined him unexpectedly on the steep trail, he heard a concerned voice as if from beside him, near his head in the darkness, and he felt. . . . felt the weight of an unseen hand placed comfortingly on his shoulder.
“Are you alright?”
The concerned words echoed inside his head.
It was too close, too fast, the shattered memories of the place and the circumstances coming at him too intensely like shards of broken glass thrown directly in his face. The nausea rose up, overwhelming him in a wash of hot and cold, covering him in a wave of sweat and . . . and a sense of duty that surprised and consumed him.
As he held onto the rock and leaned over, losing the contents of his stomach, his head began to pound more furiously. He suddenly had a fleeting thought that the man beside him in the dark, cave-like space had been his responsibility.
And he had been powerless to protect him, any more than he could protect himself.
Long moments later, he edged further up the path and, reaching out for a low outcropping of rock partially blocking the trail, he eased his body down to sit on the stone. He leaned forward, his head in his hands.
He remained there, unmoving, eyes squeezed closed, his lungs rasping. . . .
Once, a low moan made its way from between his tightly compressed lips, though he was hardly aware of it.
Words like “duty,” “responsibility,” and “can’t give in” resounded through his pounding head, deepening his confusion. . . and his frustration.
Slowly he sat up, blinking open his pain-darkened, amber brown eyes. Rinsing his mouth with the bottle of water hooked to his belt, he spat it out before taking another long swig of the cool liquid. Easing his throbbing head back against the rock face beside him, he stared unseeing across the beautiful greys, greens, and blues of the landscape stretching out below him. Reaching up, he rubbed his fingers against his forehead, kneading his temples, but taking care to avoid the long, barely-healed gash running along the right side of his head under his dark, curling hair.
Who am I?
Why am I here?
Where was that place?
Who were those men?
Who was the man behind that voice?
And why did I feel such a sense of obligation to him?
The questions continued to crash into him, and he took another swallow of the water, trying to keep himself grounded against them, against the lack of answers he had for them.
Costa had explained that he had spotted him, over a month ago now, down in the gorge. He had been lying unmoving between some rocks at the water’s edge, his dark clothes causing him to blend into the shadows. Afraid he was dead, Costa had enlisted the help of the two young guides that worked for him piloting the other two rafts for the visitors. They had turned their rafts toward the bank down below the rocks and had left the tourists to the task of moving the supplies into two of the three rafts, while they went back by foot to investigate.
“You were so cold, I had little hope for you when we first got there,” Costa said, searching the drawn, pale face of the younger man in the bed, his upper body propped up on several pillows. “I found a pulse, though, and turned you over carefully. But I was shocked to see how close to death you appeared. You were barely breathing, your face was . . . the bruises and cuts all over you, they made us almost afraid to touch you for fear of causing more pain. But you never moved, at least not until you came around just as we got you to the van over an hour later. You cracked open your eyes then and grabbed hold of my arm, acting like you were going to try to get to your feet and leave if I didn’t respond the way you needed me to. . . . You asked me, using two different languages I understood and one I wasn’t sure of, to hide you.”
Shaking his grey head, Costa took a deep breath and continued, clarifying into the long silence, “You asked me. . . not to help you, not to get you to a doctor, . . . but to hide you.”
“Why did you?” the young man, his head still wrapped in a white bandage, asked quietly.
The older man looked down into his coffee again, the dark rich brew forgotten as he responded, “Someone had nearly killed you. Whoever it was, I was afraid they would succeed if they found you. So, I did as you asked. . . . I don’t know why it became so important to me, to all of us, to do so, but even then, more dead than alive, there was something about you that made us believe in you, believe that you needed our help.”
“But hide me from what?”
“I didn’t know. . . . I still don’t. But, for as long as you need a place to stay, or to hide, you may remain here with us.”
“What about the others . . . your wife, the men that helped you, the tourists? What if helping me . . . hiding me . . . endangers you . . . or them?” he inquired worriedly, despite the exhaustion tugging at him.
“The tourists only lost a little time on their journey down the river, only had a slight inconvenience of being crowded into two rafts on the last leg instead of three. They have gone and will only remember what happened as some additional adventure. They no longer matter. . . . As for Pertras and Vankos, they have come to check on you several times, concerned only for your good health. While young Vankos is a bit hot-headed and impetuous, both are good boys, and they have been very helpful, especially keeping everything running smoothly for me while I have been here, helping Elena with you.”
“How long have I been here?” the injured man asked, barely above a whisper. Though his tone shared his distress at having to inconvenience so many people, his voice lost strength as his body slumped down tiredly, deeper into the pillows, and his dark eyes fought to stay open.
Leaning forward, Costa patted one bruised bare shoulder, pulling the light blanket up further. He reached in his pocket and pulled out a small object. “You have been with us for almost a week.”
At the younger man’s startled look, his eyes flying open, Costa soothed, “Relax now, no one has come looking. We are all fine. Besides, my friend, this is the third time we have spoken of some of these things. But you have been too out of your head to do much more than ask a question and drift away again without really hearing and understanding its answer. . . . Now it is my turn to ask, no? . . . . And I have some questions for you.”
He met the amber brown eyes, looking for the unusual hazel flecks in them that had been visible when the young man first awoke. Not seeing them now, he knew the darkness in the eyes, just like the deep crease between the dark eyebrows and the tightly clenched, badly bruised jaw, was a signal that the young man was in more pain than he would admit to.
“I know you are hurting, but I need to ask you something before I let you return to the sleep you need.”
He saw the young man nod once, the crease between his eyebrows deepening.
“Do you remember anything?
“Remember?” echoed the young man.
Costa clarified, “Your name? Where you come from? . . . Do you remember who did this terrible thing to you?”
He saw the dark eyes searching internally for a long moment, their color growing even darker. Then he saw the slight shake of the head, quickly stopped by the obvious pain, before he heard the quiet voice. There was no panic in it, no anger, only an overwhelming exhaustion.
“No. I don’t. . . I don’t remember anything. . . Not even the river you mentioned. . . nor talking to you before.”
Patting the shoulder again, Costa leaned forward and showed the young man the object in his hand.
With a spark of energy brought on by interest, the dark-headed young man pushed himself up slightly and reached out to take it, grimacing as he did so.
The gold ring was badly scarred, the gouged black stone loose in its setting. Looking at it closely, he tried to make out the words around the edges but could only read broken letters, enough to know that whatever it said, it was written in Latin, not Greek. Then turning it again, he saw a date inside and two letters, the initials, L. C.
Glancing up at Costa as he heard the man’s next question, he shook his head slightly, closing his eyes with the fresh dizziness the motion caused.
“Is this yours? Do you recognize it? . . . It was the only thing we found on you besides the torn, almost-shredded black clothing you were wearing.”
“I don’t know,” he whispered. “It doesn’t mean anything to me.”
“Well, it must be yours,” Costa said quietly, watching him carefully. “And since you do not remember your name, my Elena has already taken to calling you by one.”
Catching the slight smile, though it did not reach the pain-filled dark eyes, Costa continued, “She has used the initials inside the ring to decide that, until you remember what it is we are to call you, she will call you Leksi. Does that meet with your approval?”
“Leksi,” the young man repeated, nodding once as his eyes closed. “Yes . . . I . . . please give her my thanks. . . .”
Costa took the ring from the young man’s relaxed hand and, knowing that like so much of his bruised and battered body, his long fingers were still too badly swollen to return the ring to the place Costa was sure it belonged, the older man set it on the small table beside the bed.
Opening his eyes a crack, the injured young man reached out painfully, gasping as his broken wrist refused to let him do more than grasp at the man’s arm.
“Thank you, Costa. . . . Thank you for. . . for helping me . . . for hiding me.”
Patting the bruised shoulder again, the older man eased the splinted hand back to the bed and said, “You sleep, now, Leksi. When you awaken again, we will still be here to help you.”
Shaking his head, the young man lifted his eyes again to the blue sky, the clouds drifting slowly behind the cliffs above him. Though he was exhausted by the climb, by the memories that had crashed through him, by the pain that still coursed through his head and his throbbing wrist, he felt great relief, like a tremendous weight had been lifted off of him.
Costa had been right . . . about so many things.
Someone had beaten him until he had almost died. Though the rocks of the river he must have fallen into . . . or had been thrown into . . . had almost finished the job, his benefactor had told him that many of the bruises were clearly put there by fists, boots, and what looked like the square-edged imprint of a wooden board or metal bar.
Someone, probably upriver
from this village high in the mountains of northwestern
He had been held in a small, dark place, inside a cold, cave-like room with damp, stone walls and floor. At least two men had kicked him, had hit him with fists and . . . and with something hard and unyielding like a board, but . . . another man, a third man, had tried to help him. The latter had been someone equally vulnerable, someone he had been trying to protect, someone he had felt responsibility for.
Squeezing his temples between fingers and thumb, he knew now that he had been in that situation because he had been trying to help someone else, not because he had done anything wrong.
Who was the man with him?
“Are you alright?”
As he heard the worried voice again, felt the man’s hand on his shoulder trying to help him remain standing, he smiled despite the pain, despite the exhaustion.
“No,” he said aloud. “No, I’m not alright yet. . . . But I will be. . . . I will be.”
Pushing off from the rock, he turned toward the village below him and headed back down the trail.
After a few minutes he stopped, just before a bend in the track carried him out of sight of the river deep inside the gorge.
He thought again of how Costa had found him next to the river down at the bottom. Looking off to the north, he followed the path of the gorge and the river with his eyes as he wondered silently what had happened to him somewhere up there, something that had nearly killed him, that had succeeded in robbing him of his memory.
Then, lifting his eyes to look up at the summits of the Gamila, he thought, “When I have the strength to make it to the top of the first column, I’ll start concentrating on the gorge. And when I can make it down and back up again, I’ll be ready to follow the river north. . . .”
Aloud, he said angrily, “I won’t let whoever did this steal my past from me.”
As he continued on, he allowed the relief he felt and the promise he had made himself lift his spirits and ease his struggle to breathe, like a thermal carries a bird effortlessly above the cliffs. Thinking again of the care and trust placed in him by Costa and his wife, he knew that he also needed to find a way to ensure that his presence here never placed those two special people in any kind of danger, that there were never any repercussions for having helped him.
With a smile brightening his tired eyes, he thought about them both, about all that they had done for them.
That was the name Elena had called him and two nights ago, he had decided she had been wrong to have chosen it.
From the beginning, he had known the meaning of that name and, despite his acceptance of her kindness in giving it to him, he not been comfortable laying claim to it, even for a little while.
But now, thinking of that dimly remembered man with whom he had shared his prison. . . .
Now he knew that, for whatever reason. . . she and Costa had been able to see something in him that he had not been sure of himself. They had seen something worthy of their trust.
The name they had chosen to call him held more significance than its similarity to the initials inside the ring he now wore; it was a name as ancient as the grey stone all around him, and it meant “defender of man.”
Chip stood in the control
room verifying the course plotted by the computer when the admiral entered. He
paused by the radio shack, looking over
“Did you send that message I asked you to?”
“Yes, sir, Admiral,” the brown-haired radio operator responded. “I’ve not yet received a reply, though.”
“Keep me informed.”
Walking forward, the admiral stood beside his exec for a few moments, watching Chip’s practiced movements.
“What’s our ETA, Chip?” he asked when it was obvious that the blond officer was finished with his task.
“We should make
“Flank speed for alternating periods, Admiral.”
His face showing his surprised but ready agreement, the admiral nodded. He was pleased that Chip was taking this seriously, finding something to latch onto and pour his concentration into.
Together, they had agreed to
discharge their duties in the Pacific as quickly as possible. Then, they would
return to the
It was not much of a hope, but in view of the failed attempts they had already made---three of them now---there was little else they could do.
Hopefully their efforts, and Lee’s, had rattled the cages of the group enough that some of the locals would scrape up the courage to begin an underground effort through which he and Chip could work to try to determine if Lee were still alive.
Stepping back over into the small area to port of the control room, the admiral took the piece of paper on the clipboard that the younger man handed him.
Reading the precise handwriting, he allowed a small smile to creep onto his granite features.
Handing it back, he nodded
and said, “Thanks,
“Oh, and continue monitoring all news from the northern Mediterranean area. I’ll have Bannatyne review the tapes each afternoon at 1400; he knows several of the languages from that area.”
“Aye, sir. We’ve already conferred on it, Admiral.”
Turning, he caught Chip’s blue eyes on him and he nodded, gesturing the exec forward and into the observation nose.
Once they were standing
beside each other, looking out at the sunlit blue waters rushing up around
them, the admiral said, “It’s all set, lad. Admiral Hatch has agreed to have
his expert meet us at
“Thank you, Admiral. I appreciate the trouble you’ve gone to.”
The older man’s blue eyes darkening, he glared at the young officer for a moment before saying harshly, “Mr. Morton, when it comes to taking care of my men there is no such thing as ‘going to any trouble.’ Is that clear?”
“Perfectly, sir,” the exec replied, his lighter blue eyes twinkling, his face reflecting his attempts to keep the much-relieved smile from forming.
Reaching out, Nelson gripped Chip’s forearm for a second before turning and saying, “I’ll be in my cabin. Call me if anything changes.”
As the older man walked away, Chip watched him go.
So what he had suspected was true. Nelson was not just doing this to pacify him.
For all of the admiral’s stern appeals to logic and common sense, the OOM had not been able to let go of Lee either. He had apparently not believed in the “evidence” the foreign government had handed them any more than Chip had.
Nelson too had some hope that Lee was still alive and not lost to them forever.
As soon as he heard the click of the latch firmly meeting the door jamb, Nelson reached behind himself, locking it.
He sagged backwards against the door. Closing his eyes, he struggled to focus his thoughts, struggled to keep himself together.
Then, swallowing hard, he stalked over to his desk, leaned down, and yanked open the bottom drawer. Removing the amber bottle of Drambuie, he opened it and, with hands that shook slightly, he poured a drink into the empty glass waiting for him on top of the desk.
Replacing the drink on the edge of the desk, he pulled his black leather arm chair around until it was close enough to his bunk to allow him to sit in it, prop up his feet, and reach his glass. Then, unbuttoning the top of his shirt, he lowered himself into the chair.
However, he neither picked up the nearby glass, nor did he ease out of his shoes and raise his feet to the rack.
Instead, Nelson leaned forward, resting both elbows on his knees. He caught his head in his hands, pressing the heels into his skull, just at his eyebrows.
His head was throbbing
unmercifully as it had been intermittently since he had given the order to
Squeezing his exhausted eyes shut, he concentrated on Chip’s words from that night over 48 hours ago, concentrated on the exec’s words about Lee’s ring.
How could he have not thought to check on that?
How could he have not even considered that something so vital was missing?
He hadn’t wanted to believe the body they’d been given when they’d gone to Tirana was Lee’s, though he’d gone through the motions, made them all go through them, as if it had been.
He’d put Jamie to work on what had to be done, and he’d prepared the crew for what they were about to do and why. Desperately trying to remain objective, yet struggling to provide some sense of closure for his crew . . . for Lee’s crew. . . he’d thought he’d taken everything into account, everything important.
But he had overlooked this one critical piece of evidence. Had there been others?
He knew Jamie would’ve mentioned it right away if he’d found any sign of the ring . . . It wasn’t that he thought it could’ve been on the . . . the corpse, and they had missed it.
No, it wasn’t that.
It was just that he, a dispassionate man of science with the ability to think and reason, had not even thought to ask the important question!
It was just that this was about the one person who . . . . It was that this was about Captain Lee Crane, Commander of the Seaview and his. . . his . . . .
Rocking back and forth in agitation, his headache continuing to plague him, Nelson kneaded his brow with his hands, even as he repeatedly berated himself.
“Face it, Harry,” he said aloud, “You’ve let Chip carry the load, let him be the one to take care of everything for the last few weeks. You had your righteous anger to get you through the first part, . . . anger at ONI for sending him in there, anger at those animals for hurting him, for. . . for killing him if Critinger was right, and you had your . . . your own, selfish anger at Lee for taking the assignment in the first place, then for not being satisfied with getting just one of them out!”
At the thought of those days immediately after John Critinger had told them Lee was dead, of his reaction after hearing what those men had done to him. . . .
Nelson continued to rock back and forth, digging his hands into his head, trying to keep away the images that John’s words had invoked, images of Lee walking into that enclave, of giving himself up to that terroristic political group as the only way to get the other two men out. . .
Why didn’t he come back to us, let us help him?
Why did he try to handle it all by himself?
Knowing Lee Crane as he did, however, the answer was simple and not long in coming. Sucking in a deep breath, Harry growled with the thinking of it.
. . . Duty.
That boy had a stronger sense of what he thought his duty was than anyone he’d ever known! It didn’t matter that Lee was no longer officially Navy, no longer expected to follow official Naval orders . . . Hell! It didn’t even have anything to do with orders, and Harry knew it.
It had everything to do with Lee not being willing to give up on anyone to whom he felt he had a duty, and once he had accepted the responsibility of getting those three men out. . . .
Nothing short of death would have stopped him.
Nothing short of death.
Well, he had managed to get both Dr. Andrews and John out, hadn’t he?
Then why hadn’t he come back?
. . . Why hadn’t he come . . . home?
Swallowing hard, Harry tried not to allow his thoughts to dwell on why, but once started, he knew he was powerless to stop the harrowing images, to stop his imaginative mind from summoning the pictures of what Lee must have endured from forming inside his head. . . the images made more real by the story John had told.
It had been the same every night for the weeks since Critinger had told them what had happened.
And, it had been made even more haunting . . . not less, when he and Chip had returned from the capital with the body bag.
Yes, he could still hear John’s voice telling them of it all.
And, unfortunately, he could remember it almost word for word since he had thought about it so much in the ensuing weeks.
Alone in his cabin, no one to remain strong for except himself, Harry no longer had the power to stop the words from returning . . . .
. . . “He just remained silent, his eyes glaring at whichever one of them was taking a turn punching him, kicking him.”
. . . “They. . . they brutalized him. I can think of no other word for it.”
Clenching his fists, Harry heaved in a deep breath and tried unsuccessfully to stop the images that formed, unbidden, as he remembered Critinger’s choice of words. During the original telling of it, he had not known exactly what that word had meant, why John had chosen it. . . . But now he did. . . .
. . . “It doesn’t make it much easier to close my eyes and remember the effects of what they kept doing to him, sometimes several times a day.”
. . . “He couldn’t stop coughing. He was all but gasping for breath afterwards . . . the wheezing sound seemed to echo inside the cold damp walls. . . . The place was. . . it felt like a tomb.”
Harry’s chest tightened at the remembered description. Struggling to breathe, he hauled in a ragged lungful of air, then let it out painfully, noisily.
Suddenly chilled, he shivered violently in the icy draft from the vent across the room and wrapped his arms around himself as he rocked forward once more.
. . . “He kept holding onto my shirt, his eyes boring into mine, as he tried to talk through the coughing, through the wheezing.”
. . . “I think he knew he was dying . . . .”
. . . “I don’t know where he got the strength to even lever himself up off of the stone floor of that place, Harry. But he did.”
Reaching for the glass still sitting beside him on the corner of the desk, Harry closed his eyes and took a burning swallow. His hand shook slightly as he opened his eyes again and replaced the glass, sloshing some of the remaining contents on the floor.
Then, staring down at the dark, spreading liquid with unseeing eyes, he fought unsuccessfully to avoid what came next.
. . . “Yes. I saw him fall, saw them come over the top of the stones, and I knew he was dead.”
. . . “If I had stayed, the sacrifice that boy made would have been for nothing.”
. . . “Your captain not only died getting me out, he willingly walked into that compound, gave himself up to those bastards to start with. He planned it that way . . . because it was the only possible strategy for reaching me, for helping me. . .”
Knowing what that decision had cost Lee, an anguished cry escaped Harry’s lips.
He struggled with thoughts of the pain he knew his friend must have endured, and he dropped his head, chin to his chest, as the remembered words continued to careen into him like the pounding of relentless, rhythmic fists.
. . . “Lee’s left wrist was broken, and by the end, he was covered in layers of bruises and cuts. He had begun to have trouble walking, his right hip was terribly bruised, maybe fractured. He had a deep laceration running from here to here.”
. . . “He had lost a lot of blood when they first hit him with that steel bar, and he would drift in and out of consciousness for long periods after that, after they hit him, and I worried that he didn’t really remember much about what was happening.”
. . . “I guess he should have died then. But . . . he held on. And it got worse.”
. . . “I was sure that, with the wheezing sounds, with the difficulty he was having breathing, that a rib had nicked or punctured a lung. I think he knew it, too. Knew that if it wasn’t punctured, it was close. And I think he knew that very much more would finish him.”
Suddenly, Harry sat up, pounding the arms of the chair with both fists and pushing himself to his feet. His shouted words filled the emptiness of the cabin.
“No! He is not dead!”
He turned, staggering across the cabin. As he reached the far wall, he turned and, pulling himself together, he paced angrily to the other side again.
In the middle of the third pass, his eyes growing wilder as he thought bitterly about how far away they were getting from where any of them wanted to be, he stopped dead in his tracks, staring at his desk.
Then, after a long moment, he closed his eyes, trying to dispel the instant image of his tall, dark-headed captain, trying to tear his eyes away from that spot where Lee always perched, somewhat irreverently, on the corner of his desk. He knew that if Lee were here, he’d be watching him with amusement, his amber eyes lit up with that sparkle created by his barely hidden smile.
Growling, Harry turned around, opened his eyes, and walked back toward the far wall. Then he slowly turned around again, hoping this time to not be able to so clearly visualize the young captain, the man he thought of inside his heart as both good friend and beloved son.
Breathing out a slow, shaky sigh of relief, he walked back over to his chair, eased down into it, and he reached out for his unfinished drink. Then, downing the rest of it quickly, he replaced the glass, avoiding looking at his desk this time. He closed his eyes again, leaning his head back wearily into one welcoming wing of the chair.
“Lee,” he whispered, “did I ever once tell you how much you meant to me, lad?”
Then shaking his head slightly, knowing he had not, he squeezed his eyes shut even tighter. He allowed his anger . . . this time not directed at ONI, not at those men, not at Lee, his anger aimed at himself to cut through him.
As he poured another half glass and swallowed it, the warmth of the alcohol tried in vain to warm the cold, solid stone that had become his heart.
“Harry,” he whispered, his voice tired and defeated, “You’re an old fool.”
They hung there, lifeless, nine empty shells, waiting . . . waiting for someone to have need of them.
He reached out, unable to keep from touching the one in the middle. Its pale color in vivid contrast to the others drew his hand forward. His eyes were unable to turn away, to stay focused on his assigned task.
Taking hold of it, gripping it tightly, he knew that many times, more times than he could count, it had helped save the man he revered above all others from a cold, watery grave.
Except for its bright yellow color and longer length than most, it was no different from any of the others hanging there. It was the same material, had the same latex seals around the neck and wrists, and it was useful at the same cold water depths as the rest.
However, there was one difference.
It hadn’t been used in going on two months.
Kowalski dropped his head, his strong hand still clinging to the trilaminate of the closest sleeve of the empty drysuit.
“Skipper,” he thought, feeling the moisture gathering behind his closed eyelids, “I sure do miss you, sir. I surely do.”
Swallowing hard, he lifted his head, sucked in a deep ragged breath through his mouth and closed his lips into a straight, unyielding line. A muscle in his jaw jumped as he pushed the yellow suit back into its slot in the open locker and reached back up to take down the first one in line. Methodically examining the seals, valves, and zippers of the red suit before moving down the line to the next one, he allowed his thoughts to stray for a moment.
They had been put through their paces, matching movement for movement with an “enemy” destroyer for two days as they had participated in the military maneuvers. Though he did not know all the reasons they were involved in this operation, he did know one thing . . . whatever they were engaged in had nothing to do with getting the skipper back.
Shaking his head in
frustration as he automatically reached for the tube of wax to apply to a back
zip on the suit in his hand, he let his thoughts carry him further away, back
to the Mediterranean, back to the
“Why’d you go back, sir? And why alone?” he asked silently, shaking his head again. “If you’d just waited, if you’d just asked, me and the exec, we would’of been right there, helping you any way we could. . . . We just weren’t fast enough.”
In his mind, he could see the captain lift his hand, turn, and immediately disappear again into the rocks. Then they had gotten another brief glimpse of him a moment later as he climbed higher, returning to the town above them.
What was it called? Serandë or Sarandë?
But that was the last time any of them, except that civilian . . . that U.N. representative, Mr. Critinger, had seen him.
They had tried. It wasn’t like they had just left without looking for him.
He and Mr. Morton and Sharkey, they had gone looking, three days after the captain had brought out that first man---three days after he didn’t come back. They had turned that town upside down, spreading out and checking all the quiet, dark streets and alleys, going into empty warehouses, keeping watch for any movement, following any suspicious groups moving through the tiny town that might have been able to lead them to the captain.
They had finally enlisted the help of the local police, and Mr. Morton had even gone to the militia post. But they’d turned up nothing of any use, except to see that there were pockets of unrest everywhere that made getting answers difficult. After being tolerated for a few days, it was made clear to them that leaving was their only option.
When that Mr. Critinger contacted them, and they had picked him up, word had gotten around the boat pretty fast that the man had told the admiral, Mr. Morton, and the doc, that the skipper had been killed.
But they hadn’t given up, not even then.
He, the exec, Bannatyne, and even the doc, had gone back in together, this time leasing a car and driving up those twisty roads through the mountains to that little village Mr. Critinger had told them about. They had stayed in Delvinë, making it look like they were just tourists, but then they had slipped away that night, and they’d gone into the village just to the north on foot.
Kowalski closed his eyes, his hands halting as he finished checking the third suit.
It had been like the whole place, and everyone in it, was scared of its own shadow.
No one would talk to them even though they had Bannatyne with them who could communicate with the people they came across, at least enough to get by.
No one would even act concerned about the man they were looking for!
All they had gotten were a lot of heads shaking at them and fearful eyes darting into dark corners.
It had been so frustrating!
They had not even been able to locate an area beneath any caves in the mountains like that Mr. Critinger had described to Mr. Morton. They had been picked up by someone claiming to be with the local police who had carried them back to their hotel in Delvinë with a strong suggestion that they stay there, or better yet, leave the country altogether.
It hadn’t gone down easy with the XO, not at all!
But Mr. Morton had known they had blown their cover and were not going to get any answers that way. He had contacted the admiral, who agreed that the only thing left for them was to try official channels.
Since then Mr. Morton had put up a good front, trying to take it well for all of their sakes, but Kowalski knew he was hurting. He could see it in his eyes, especially after he and the admiral returned from the capital . . . especially after they had buried that body at sea.
Kowalski knew that Mr. Morton was not going to let it drop, that he did not believe the skipper was really dead any more than Kowalski and the rest of the guys did.
But, if that was still the
case. . . what in blue blazes were they doing out here in the Pacific instead
of cruising the waters of the
With a frustrated sigh, Kowalski closed the zipper on the completed suit, and he hung it back in the third slot. He finished the next one without allowing his mind to wander, but for the life of him, he couldn’t bring himself to reach up and take down the yellow suit in the number five slot . . . not yet.
His mind made up, he skipped it, going on to the number six, the exec’s yellow and black one, knowing he would come back to the skipper’s later. It had been the one with the longest downtime, so it would stand to reason that he would need to spend longer on it than the others, in case. . . .
Yes, he’d just leave it alone for now.
Then, promising himself that he’d come back to it without fail, Kowalski suddenly lifted his eyes to stare beyond all of the gear. Nodding his head, he said aloud, his voice echoing softly in the large, empty space of the open bay behind him, “Yeah, I’ll bet that’s it. It’s just like me leaving his suit alone, knowing I’ll come back to it later. . . . Mr. Morton and the admiral, they just want to make those people think we’ve gone. But . . . I know it for a fact. The two of them haven’t forgotten the skipper any more than I have.”
Reaching up, he clenched the empty leg of the solid yellow suit in his fist for a moment, and he dropped his head.
“Skipper,” he whispered in a strangled voice, “We’ll be back, sir. I swear it.”
The mountain was encased in a cloud. The thick cottony mist swirled around him as he stood outside the stone hut, the grey of its hewn rock blending almost invisibly into the grey of the cloud.
The watery mist clung to him, to his hair, his face, his clothes.
“I’m as wet as if I’d gone running through a light rain along the beach at low tide,” he thought.
He lifted his eyes, then shivered with a slight chill as he wondered where the idea of that particular comparison had come from, and shaking himself mentally, he turned to head back through the rough wooden doorway behind him.
This was his fourth day up at the hut that stood near the apex of Astraka Column, one of the three connected stone peaks that formed the Gamila towering above the tiny village.
Though the mountain and the gorge far below it were known for their treacherous, unexpected weather, the view from the top had only been obscured by clouds on one other morning. But, even on that day the rain clouds had been a temporary disappointment that had burned off later in the afternoon with the returning heat of the sun and the almost constant, steadily-pushing wind.
Confident that today’s weather would also pass in a few hours, he stepped inside the rugged interior of the hut and crossed the stone floor to the blackened hearth. Grateful for the shepherds from the village who kept the shelter well stocked, periodically bringing up supplies and firewood by mule from the hills below, he lowered himself to sit tiredly on the heated rocks for a few moments, the warming blaze at his back.
Then, shaking his head after only a few moments, he rose and stepped restlessly back toward the open doorway again, leaving the crackling of the fire behind him.
He was exhausted from his trip half way down and back up this morning, his breathing ragged still.
He knew he should stay by the fire.
He pressed his hand into his chest, kneading the dull ache of the tight muscles over a deeper, more relentless pain, and he closed his eyes for an instant, struggling with the lingering burn of his lungs that had been brought on by the long, strenuous climb. Then, frustrated, he dropped his hand, wondering for the thousandth time how long it was going to take to get beyond the injuries that had almost killed him.
Determined to regain his strength, he had made several treks up and down the mountain within a couple of weeks, three more than he had originally planned. And, even now, he knew he was still not completely recovered from the . . . from whatever had happened to him . . . from the pain-filled shadows of almost two months ago. . . . from events he still could not completely recall.
Ignoring the slight headache that always returned to torment him whenever he wore himself down physically, whenever he tried to focus on the past too intensely, he again lifted his right hand, this time rubbing absently at his temple while his amber brown eyes searched the opaque grey outside.
What was it about this place today?
Why was he so uneasy?
Then, responding to a tingling at the back of his neck that set his teeth on edge, he gave in to an unnamed need to keep moving despite his exhaustion, and he stepped outside once again, out into the instant dampness of the cloud.
Standing still, he tried to analyze what was causing this growing sense of alarm.
He forced his breathing to remain steady, though he rubbed again at the throbbing of his head.
Something was wrong.
Searching the inside of the cloud with restless eyes, he realized that the grey fog had grown thicker, bringing visibility down to a few feet or less. With water beginning to drip along his hairline, he stepped a few feet further away from the solid shape of the hut behind him.
He knew that the wind up here was usually a constant force. It always pushed into his face, lifting his hair away from his head and bringing the immediate, unbidden thought that his curling hair was too long, that this was not at all the way he normally kept it.
But, his mind wandering in his tiredness, he silently acknowledged that he had purposefully avoided asking Elena to cut it for him. Neither had he shaved the dark beard, despite the fact that it made him uncomfortable with its unfamiliar growth. Reaching up to touch his damp jaw line now, he again had that feeling that this was not the way he usually looked.
For reasons he could not explain, not even to himself, he had left the rough beard and long hair alone, allowing the former to grow in fully, filling the hollows of his cheeks that remained from his interminably long convalescence.
Lifting his eyes and reaching up to rub at the back of his neck, his fingers snarled in the unfamiliar length of the curling hair there, he again searched the grey around him, wondering what was setting him so on edge.
It was as if he felt something . . . or heard something . . . that was out of place, something that should not be here.
But everything was so still.
There was no movement.
And the cocoon of silence inside the cloud was so complete, it was as if he had cotton wadding stuffed into his ears.
Suddenly, with no conscious thought about doing so, he reached out a hand that touched . . . nothing.
Surprised, as if he had been expecting to feel something smooth and solid beside him, he pulled his hand back to his chest, his eyes opened wide and staring out at nothing.
What was it. . . ?
What had he expected to feel there beside him?
A . . . a wall. . . ?
Whatever it was, it was definitely not there.
But . . . it had been as if he had known it should be there. . .
Closing his eyes, he had a fleeting image of walking down a narrow, familiar corridor, the smooth walls light colored, like the grey clouds all around him, their solid closeness comforting and. . . .
Opening his eyes, fighting a sudden wave of disorienting dizziness, he heard it . . . felt it again . . .
. . . It was a low humming sound, intermittent in intensity, and it was beginning to combine with a vibration that he could feel, if only up and down his spine.
This time he turned his head, his hand reaching out again, and he smiled slightly.
That vibration. . . .
He remembered it somehow. . . .
It was as if he belonged to it . . . and it to him.
Taking another step toward the sound, he suddenly stopped, reaching up with his outstretched hand to push his palm into his forehead and run his fingers into his thick hair, pushing at the intensifying pain.
Something was wrong.
It shouldn’t be here. . . .
It didn’t belong here. . . .
Listening harder, he turned his worried, searching eyes back to the hut behind him, barely visible in the swirling cloud cover that was starting to thin out just a bit.
The sound was growing in magnitude.
The vibration was changing in intensity.
Suddenly he turned and dashed back inside, grabbed up his half-full water bottle from the small rough table and stuffed it back inside his half-empty pack with the two remaining ones. Then he swiftly added several more logs on the fire before he crossed the dirt floor to the two wooden bunks covered with bedding over wire in one corner, rapidly stripping them of their blankets.
Rolling three of them quickly, he stacked the rough, grey woolen blankets, one on top of two, and removing his belt, he bound the triangle of three rolls together with the strip of leather, buckling it tightly.
The fourth, he opened and, testing the strength of the edges along one side, he worked to quickly tear two, six-inch strips from one edge. He stuffed one into his pocket.
Pausing only for the second it took, he lifted his head and listened again, realizing that the out-of-place vibration and sound were both growing louder, more pronounced . . . and much, much closer.
Picking up the sturdy walking stick he had used on his way up the mountain and wrapping the remaining strip of material around it tightly, he stepped back over to the hearth. He plunged the wrapped end of the stick into the fire until the grey strip of material wrapped around it caught and blazed up.
Then, with the strapped-together blankets under his arm and the light pack on his back, he returned outside, holding up the flaming torch he had made. He closed the door behind him, trying to ignore the surging headache, already focused on what he needed to do next.
Listening intently, he peered into the no longer quite as thick grey cloud. Despite the remaining lack of visibility, he decided on a feasible direction and started across the un-level ground, heading away from the security of the hut, away from the path back to the village, and toward the higher elevation of the adjoining column of grey rock he had only partially climbed once before.
He climbed rapidly, his tortured breathing growing more and more harsh. Despite the renewed pain, he forced his concentration on gaining more altitude quickly, on working his way diagonally up and around the unfamiliar grey stone face of the mountain. He paused intermittently to wave the torch back and forth over his head, trying to penetrate the cloud with its warning glow.
As the noise bouncing off of the rocks became overwhelming, he dropped the blankets and, wrapping the dry piece of cloth from his pocket around the rapidly disintegrating cloth of the torch, he continued waving the spluttering flame back and forth, hoping desperately that it would be enough.
For an instant, as he heard the screaming engines of a small jet pass just overhead and to his left, he thought it had been.
Then the whole mountain seemed to shake as some part of the jet made contact with the stone above him. The screeching and tearing of metal made him stop for a long, unending moment, his eyes closing in defeat as the prolonged sounds of the horrendous impact reverberated over, around, and through him.
Grabbing up the blankets at his feet, he pushed off of the rocks and, ignoring the searing pain from his still recovering body, he began running uphill toward what he could only hope would be large enough pieces of the aircraft to allow him to do some good for someone.
Just as he reached the crest of the rock face, he saw fire licking at one sheared-off wing. He knew it would not be long before the ground beneath his boots was shaken in earnest with the blast from a deafening explosion that would super-heat the air around him.
Setting his jaw in determination, his eyes on the flaming, broken wing visible through the thick cloud, he began working his way down the other side of the summit toward the remaining sections of the aircraft lying off to the left.
The fuselage of the jet was broken open like an eggshell, with three sections lying in jagged but still recognizable pieces. Only one wing was still attached to the body of the aircraft. Even with the burning flames of the other cutting through the thick fog of wet cloud cover, visibility was still not good. In fact, the thickening smoke hampered it even more.
Briefly wondering if it had been the burning wing that had hit the rock as the small jet had passed over his head, he scrambled down the slight slope toward the wreckage.
When he approached the remaining two sections of the craft beyond the red and white tail lying on its side, he heard faint moans coming from his right. Dropping his supplies, he paused only long enough to remove the partially-torn blanket from his pack before he ran toward the gaping opening.
Using the blanket to beat at the flames beginning to lick at one edge, he cleared enough of a route that he could ease his tall frame inside. Coughing from the smoke tearing his eyes, he quickly checked the seats inside what remained of the main cabin as he searched for passengers and crew.
The first man, lifeless eyes staring straight ahead, was wedged in between two leather seats along one side of the smoke-filled hull. Moving on, he quickly found a coughing, older woman with a frantic look in her eyes, and another, younger woman, wearing a red uniform skirt and once-white blouse, lying tangled in a silent heap at his feet. Dropping to one knee and checking quickly with two fingers against the neck of the crew member, he found a strong pulse. With an apologetic squeeze of the unconscious woman’s shoulder, he moved to check on the older woman.
With some difficulty, he unclasped the damaged seatbelt that had protected her, but now prevented her escape, and he caught her slight weight as she slumped forward, her eyes closing. Picking up her small, grey-headed form, he backed out the way he had come, stepping carefully over the crew-woman still lying in the aisle. Then, both of them coughing heavily from the smoke, he forced his exhaustion away and carried her out of the jet and toward the rocks at the summit.
When he gently placed her on the ground behind two protective boulders, she abruptly rolled over on her side away from him, her hand lifted to her mouth as she continued to cough.
Hoping the stones would shield her from the heat if an explosion prevented his return, he climbed back to his feet and returned to the burning hull. The smoke was thicker this time, as he felt his way to the unconscious woman lying on the tilted floor. Untangling her from the wreckage around her, he worked one arm beneath her knees and the other below her shoulders.
Lifting her, he groaned at the pull on his own slow-to-heal wounds and, coughing hard, eased both himself and the unconscious crew member back out into the damp air and away from the jet.
Kneeling, he placed her beside the first woman he had brought out. Though the unconscious woman did not move, the first lifted her head slightly at his return.
Hauling in a painful breath and coughing hard, he responded to her frantic English, but not to the question she had asked about the man in the cabin.
“It’s alright. . . . Don’t try to move. . . . I’ll be right back.”
Then, pushing off of his thighs, he staggered to his feet coughing hard and returned again to the downed jet, this time heading toward the only other large section that could possibly be sheltering anyone else who was still alive. . . the cockpit.
The sound of a groan pushed him to hurry, not taking time to use the partially-burnt blanket to hit at the flames threatening to consume the jagged, yawning opening. Instead, he dashed through the only break in the rising blaze and, almost as an afterthought, used his hands to beat at the sparks that dropped into his hair and caught at his sleeve as he struggled through the wreckage.
Reaching the pilot, he was relieved to see dazed blue eyes trying to find the release on the shoulder harness. Pushing away the fumbling hands, he unclasped the buckle, reached down to lift the far arm over his shoulder as he pulled the pilot up, and turned the man back toward the entrance.
“Come on,” he gasped, coughing again. Then he demanded of the struggling older man, “Help me here!”
Together, with another groan from the pilot, they stumbled back toward the only exit and made for the remaining, much smaller opening in the flames. Staggering to their knees in the rocky, singed grass outside, they remained there only for a moment. Then he hauled the older man to his feet and half-carried, half-dragged him toward the sheltering rocks, pausing only long enough to grab his pack with his free hand and pull it along with them.
Once there, he propped the pilot against one of the grey boulders, his back to the now flaming jet. Unable to speak, he struggled to haul in several deep breaths through lungs that felt that they were burning as brightly as the flames cutting through the dense fog.
Then, after a few moments, he placed his hand on the pilot’s shoulder, shaking him slightly.
“How many on board?”
When he repeated the question, this time in the English he had only realized he knew moments before, he saw the blue eyes struggle to focus on his face.
The faltering voice responded to his tone, “Two passengers . . . man and a . . . a woman. . . . One crew member. . . .” Suddenly the man began to rouse more alertly, trying to push off from the rock holding him up.
“Are they all out? . . . I have to get. . . to get them out!”
“Easy, now. Easy.” Digging his fingers into the pilot’s shoulder, he said, “The man didn’t make it, but the two women are here.”
His blue eyes wide, the pilot said, “Dead? . . . Mr. Premarious? No! . . . You have to get him out! . . . Even if he’s dead . . . you can’t let him burn in there! Please!”
Blinking hard, his amber eyes dark with exhaustion, he stood slowly, looking back at the burning jet. For an instant, he lifted one hand and gripped the back of his head in an unconscious gesture of frustration.
Then, his decision made, he picked up the three rolled blankets, placed them beside the pilot, and said firmly, “Use these to cover the women and yourself. Stay warm. I’ll try to get to him.”
The pilot seemed to relax in relief, as he whispered, “Thank you. . . he’s . . . Just please try.”
Nodding, he ran back down the slight slope to the destroyed jet. Picking up the singed blanket he had tossed aside earlier, he paused to beat at the flames licking at the opening, forcing them down. Then, stepping back, he satisfied himself that the flames would remain at bay for a few moments, and he ran up the slanted aisle of the cabin and reached out to unclasp the seat belt of the unseeing man.
The metal of the clasp burned his fingers as he struggled with it, but he kept at it until it came loose. Then, hauling the body of the heavy-set man up out of the seat and partially over his shoulders, he backed out of the cramped space.
As he turned in the aisle, he pulled in too much smoke and began to cough again, staggering under the unwieldy weight. Dragging the dangling feet across the melting rubber mat of the floor, he made his way back toward the opening.
Stumbling as his boots touched the rocky soil outside the ripped-open fuselage, he almost went down. Then, with another effort that sent bursts of stars flashing across his vision, he groaned and began carrying the heavier man across the rocky surface.
Suddenly, the inevitable explosion rocked the ground beneath him, and he fell forward with a cry that was lost in the reverberation of the deafening blast, the dead weight of the man pinning him to the ground.
By the time the flames burned out and the crash site settled into an eerie silence, none of the jet’s passengers, her crew, nor their dark-haired benefactor, were moving.
When the thick cloud of morning fog began to burn off and the wind picked up again, the smoke from the fire began shifting away from the rocky summit, moving with the stiff breeze.
Behind it came the fresher, but just as ominous, smell of approaching rain carried on the rising wind.
Small sounds filtered slowly through the murky depths inside his head.
Trying to reach them, he fought his way toward the surface, pushing back the darkness that threatened to drown him, to destroy his ability to breathe.
His chest and back felt like they were being crushed, the pressure too much.
From somewhere, the thought floated toward him that he had to rise more slowly through the depths, that he could not push himself to the surface so fast . . . or the pain would become much worse. He struggled to remain calm, to hold at this depth until the pressure equalized.
Then, suddenly, the weight was gone, and he blinked open his eyes, sure that he would see . . . .
But . . . whatever he expected, it was not what he saw, as his eyes fluttered open, then closed again. He was lying face down, head turned sideways, and his fingers were digging into the sharp scattered shale of a mountain summit. Though he was unable to lift his head, he knew immediately that he was not alone. Someone was there, moving around beside him . . . someone that had helped remove the crushing weight pinning him to the ground.
Instantly, a vague vision of a blond-headed man standing beside him, ready to reach out to help, invaded his throbbing skull. He slowly blinked open his eyes again, expecting to see someone that looked familiar. Then, as he did so, he immediately heard the soft sounds of a woman crying. He tried to move his head toward the anguish, concern twisting in his gut.
Where was his friend? Was he alright? Was he hurt too?
But the slight movement brought the darkness back down, and a single word, mumbled in English, escaped his lips as, unable to prevent them from doing so, his barely opened eyes slipped closed again.
. . . “Ch-i-i-p. . . .”
The coolness of the water on his face brought him around the second time and, as he blinked open his eyes, he was aware that he was now lying on his back.
Above him he could see a sky of dark, cloudy grey, but nothing more. Though the fog had burned off, storm clouds were beginning to move in to take its place.
“Easy, there,” a deep voice said as someone reached out and caught his questing hand, preventing him from touching the throbbing pain that seared through his head. “Just rest a moment,” the voice added, its owner moving so the younger man could see him without lifting his head. “You have a bad cut up there, and you’ve been unconscious for a while now.”
“Where . . . ?” he began, then closed his eyes, trying to remember. The smell of smoke was strong, and it brought the immediate memories back quickly. Opening his eyes again as he struggled up to one elbow, grimacing as he did so with the renewed volley of pain through his head, he asked, “Did everyone get out?”
“Yes, thanks to you. . . . We’re alright . . . except for Mr. Premarious . . . but,” the man added, glancing off to his left, “I think he may have been dead before we ever hit the mountain.” The deep voice trailed off as the speaker, an older man with salt-and-pepper hair, closed his blue eyes for a moment. “Here,” he said, opening his eyes again quickly and reaching out to the dark-haired younger man on the ground. “Let me help you.”
Accepting the supporting arm, he began coughing as soon as both shoulders were off of the ground, a stabbing pain through his head almost blinding him.
“Are you alright?” the man asked in concern, his thick, greying eyebrows knitted in worry as he wondered if the younger man had rescued them from a fiery fate, only to succumb to smoke and a head injury he had sustained in the effort.
“Yes-s-s. . . just . . . give me a minute.”
Offering the coughing younger man a bottle of water, the pilot said, “Here, son. Drink some of this.”
Nodding, he took the plastic bottle, dimly recognizing it as one he had brought up with him from the village. Nodding again, he indicated that the couple of swallows had helped as he handed the water back. This time he noticed that the older man beside him had not used his left arm, keeping it tucked close to his body. He slowly brought his golden-brown eyes up to search the man’s face as he heard the deep voice again.
“I’m Owen Roberts, the pilot, and over there is Sonya Chandler, the member of my crew you carried out. She’s got a nasty bump on the head. . . . Our passengers are. . . were. . . Mr. and Mrs.George Premarious . . . of Premarious Steel. . . .” He took a deep breath before continuing, rubbing his arm in obvious pain he tried unsuccessfully to hide. “Mrs. Premarious will be alright, but. . . well, I guess you remember that her husband is dead. . . . I want to thank you for what you did . . . for getting us. . . .”
Coughing again, the younger man interrupted the words of appreciation as he pushed further off from the ground, picking up the singed piece of blanket beside him as he struggled to sit up. “I’m . . . Leksi,” he said, hesitating for a moment as the name slipped off his tongue easily, surprising him. Then, he added, “I hiked up here a few days ago . . . from the village . . . down at the . . . the base of this mountain.”
“Leksi?” the man responded, clearly puzzled. Shaking his head, he said as he rose with the younger man and reached out to help, “I’m sorry, . . . from some things you’ve been mumbling, I thought maybe your name was something different.”
The amber-brown eyes blinked over at the pilot in confusion, as Leksi accepted the man’s steadying hand beneath his upper arm, swaying slightly as he regained his feet. When Roberts did not acknowledge the look nor add anything else, Leksi shook his head, trying to clear it of an instant image of something totally out of place here, . . . of dark, unending water and undulating waves, . . . an image that surged through his head like a rising tide.
Taking a deep breath, Leksi asked, “How are they?” nodding toward the two women. He felt steadier now, one hand anchored firmly on top of a waist-high boulder to his right. His eyes took in the scene around him for the first time since the explosion had knocked him to the ground.
Roberts, leading the taller, but more slightly built Leksi forward, answered his question, “I’m concerned about Sonya. Like I said, she has a large bump on her head and, though she’s been conscious part of the time, she keeps fading in and out.”
“And. . . the other lady?” Leksi asked, pausing for a moment to cough, one hand grasping his thigh as he leaned over. Roberts stayed beside him, providing support for a moment before they went any further.
“My boss’s wife . . . well, she’s pretty shaken up and distant. We need to get them away from here, somewhere warmer.”
Nodding, as he fought the wave of dizziness and nausea that hit him hard, Leksi said, “There’s a . . . a stone hut. . . . It’s not far. I’ll show you.” Straightening with effort, he continued walking toward the two women.
“Wait,” Roberts said hesitantly, stopping the younger man’s forward progress with a hand on his arm. “Wait a minute. . . . I’ll have to stay here. I can’t just leave Mr. Premarious out in the open like this. His wife . . . she’ll never agree to go, otherwise.”
Pausing to look up at the dark clouds rolling toward them in the already overcast sky, Leksi took a deep breath and responded, his low, matter-of-fact voice leaving no room for disagreement despite the noticeable pauses for breath in between. “He’s dead, Roberts. And . . . if we don’t find shelter from this weather soon . . . some of this group just might be joining him. . . . Besides . . . I can’t. . . I’m in no shape. . . to get them there alone. . . . You’ll have to help us.”
As the blue eyes of the pilot met the dark, unwavering stare for a moment, Robert’s confusion about the younger man returned. Then, nodding slowly as he acknowledged the wisdom of the words, he responded, “I guess hypothermia up here could be a very real concern, couldn’t it?”
“Everyone’s injuries . . . getting wet, then chilled from the wind . . . on top of what the three of you’ve already been through today . . . Yes, I’d say that could be a very real possibility.”
Leksi removed his arm from Roberts’ grasp as he asserted, “I’m alright now. . . . Thanks for your help. . . . I’ll be fine. . . . I’m going to check on them . . . . Then we need to get your arm in a sling.”
His dark eyes shifted away from Roberts’ face, and he looked over at the two women he now felt responsible for.
Nodding, the older man swallowed. It was not going to be easy to convince his boss’s wife to leave, but he knew the younger man’s assessment, made despite the pain he was obviously in, was right. Roberts was still feeling quite shaky from the ordeal of the last few hours himself, and it was with relief that he realized he alone did not have to be in charge of every decision made out here . . . .
There was something about this young man that inspired confidence. . . .
Watching him walk away, he knew it was more than the manner with which the words had been delivered moments ago that confused him about Leksi. In fact, Roberts had been more than a little surprised to hear the younger man’s decisive tone, not to mention his perfect English. The words, the tone, and the actions conflicted sharply with what he saw with his eyes when he looked at the lean, almost gaunt young man.
Roberts was an ex-Air Force pilot and, though he was struggling right now, he was well used to handling difficult situations, just like he was used to giving orders. He easily recognized that special brand of confidence exuding from the younger man for what it was----the confidence born of making decisions which routinely affected the lives of others.
Who was this Leksi, and what was he doing up here?
Puzzled, but glad for the younger man’s logical input and good sense, he watched as Leksi stepped over to the grey-haired woman sitting nearby, her dead husband’s hand in hers.
The elderly woman was immaculately dressed in a sage green wool suit, the fabric singed and soot-darkened in places. However, oblivious to her surroundings and her circumstances, she sat quietly, rocking gently over the hand clasped to her cheek. The tears streaking her face and the lost look in her eyes told of despair and grief, as well as hinting at the onset of shock, none of which did the fragile woman look as though she could withstand for long.
After placing his hand comfortingly on her shoulder for a moment and not receiving any acknowledgement, Leksi asked gently, first in English, then switching smoothly to Greek, “Mrs. Premarious, are you warm enough?”
He pulled the wool blanket up around her shoulders when she did not answer, and he rubbed her back in concern, his long fingers making circles across the dark scratchy material. Reaching out after a moment, he felt the chill of the finely-boned hand that continued grasping her husband’s in a white-knuckled grip. Then, knowing he needed to do something to break the chill, he used the wool of the blanket against the wool of her suit to warm her, rubbing her arms vigorously for several minutes.
“You just rest here, ma’am,” he said quietly when he was satisfied that he had done all he could for the moment. “We’ll get everything else done. Then we’ll come back for you. . . . We’re going to take good care of you and your husband.”
Slowly, she lifted her glazed eyes up from her husband’s still face, and she almost focused on Leksi’s dark amber-brown eyes. In a faraway, almost child-like voice, she said softly, woodenly, “He’s cold. . . . I don’t want him to be cold.”
“Yes, ma’am. I know you don’t. How about if I bring him a blanket?”
Nodding slowly, she removed her eyes from the face of the young man beside her and said, “Efcharisto.”
Setting his face into a soft, sad smile, he reached up to wipe at the tears staining her cheeks with the back of one curled index finger. Then he struggled to his feet tiredly and, squeezing her shoulder again, he made his way over to where Roberts now sat, pulling a grey blanket up tighter around his quiet crew member lying on the ground close by.
Leksi dropped slowly to his knees beside them, one hand on the pilot’s good shoulder for support. He watched the older man for a moment, then he began using cold fingers to tear away the worst of the remaining edges of the singed blanket remnant he had brought with him.
“How is she?” he asked, this time in English.
“She’s awake.” Roberts smiled. “That’s an improvement.”
Leksi reached out, taking the slender wrist in his hand, checking the woman’s pulse. He was immediately pleased to see her blink open large green eyes at his touch.
“My name’s Leksi,” he said soothingly, a small smile on his otherwise serious face. “How do you feel?”
“Woozy,” she replied softly, allowing her eyes to close, but not before a small smile touched her lips in return.
Rubbing her arm lightly through the blanket, he said, “Just rest a bit then. But don’t be surprised if we keep bothering you, making you wake up to talk to us for a while.”
Nodding slightly, she smiled again and said with her eyes still closed, “Alright . . . Leksi.” Then, to his embarrassed consternation, she mumbled, “I’ve never had such a handsome rescuer before. . . even a hurt one.”
Blushing slightly, one corner of his mouth lifting in an ironic smile as he continued to work at the weave of the blanket, he asked with a cough, “And just how often do you have to be rescued, Ms. Chandler?”
“My first time. . . ,” she replied, her voice trailing off tiredly.
“Ms. Chandler,” he asked, rubbing her arm again, trying to keep her awake. “Can you tell us where you hurt? Besides your head.”
Her eyes flickered open as she shook her head slightly, then closed her eyes again. “It’s Sonya. . . . And I. . . I twisted my ankle, I think. . . . I remember falling. . . . My . . . my shoulder’s sore, too.”
“Nothing else, Sonya?” Roberts added his voice to the query.
She moved her head to get a better look at each of them, fighting to keep her eyes open, and her voice faltered as she responded, “No-o. . . Are you a. . . a doc-tor . . . Lek-si?”
Laughing gently, he said with a reassuring smile as he tore a long strip off of the edge of the blanket, “No, I’m not a doctor. I’m just used to helping deal with. . . with injuries. . . in emergencies. . . .”
Her eyes were closed, so she did not see the look of confusion and surprise that crossed his face as he suddenly shifted his eyes away from the two of them. He stared out at the grey rock all around them without seeing any of it for a long moment.
He knew his own words had been accurate somehow, but. . . .
Shaking himself, suddenly aware of the pilot’s scrutiny, he reached up and touched the painful area around the fresh gash on his head. The headache was pounding again . . . as if the recent explosion had been inside his skull.
Grasping the back of his head and the too-long dark curls at the nape of his neck, he blinked his eyes hard a few times, forcing himself to concentrate on what needed to be done.
There was no time now for wondering where those words had come from. . . .
He had to help Roberts get these women down to the hut. . . .
“Let’s get this on your arm,” he said, gesturing to the four-inch strips, the rough triangle shape he had fashioned from the piece of blanket, and the empty plastic water bottle lying beside him. “This is all I have to splint your arm with. . . ,” he added as he put the heel of his good hand against the plastic bottle. He pushed down on it, flattening it with a loud crackling noise that made Sonya open her eyes to look at him, but brought no reaction from Mrs. Premarious off to their left.
Leksi moved closer to the pilot, ready to try splinting his broken arm as he asked, “Have you checked her ankle or her shoulder, Owen?”
“Yes, I. . . ,” the pilot’s words were cut off for a few minutes as the pain of his broken forearm sliced through him, despite the younger man’s careful handling. He bit into his lower lip as Leksi placed the stiff plastic of the bottle beneath his arm and wrapped it firmly in place with the wool strips. Then he groaned slightly as they both worked to ease the remaining triangle of material beneath his arm and the flattened bottle, tying the ends in place around his neck.
With a sigh of relief now that his arm was better supported, Roberts finished, “That’s . . . that’s the first time she’s been aware long enough to ask her about other injuries. All I knew was that I hadn’t found any broken bones.”
Squeezing the man’s uninjured shoulder, Leksi said, “Just rest here a minute. I’ll check. . . . Then we need to head down the mountain.” Murmuring to the young woman and seeing her eyes crack open again, Leksi said, “I’m going to check your ankle, if that’s alright, Sonya. . . .”
Not waiting for a reply, he slid down to remove the blanket from her feet and touched each one, finding immediately that the left ankle was swollen and felt warmer than the other. But nothing appeared outwardly broken.
Then he shifted his position again, moving back toward her head and gently touching first one shoulder, then the other, watching her face for a reaction.
Sure from the soft moan and movement of her head that it was the right that was injured, he moved his fingers closer to her neck, checking her collarbone through the once-white blouse, then down her right arm, noting the tear in the material. When she did not react again, he leaned back and sighed in relief. Nothing appeared broken or out of place. It was probably just badly bruised and sore.
Covering her again with the blanket, he said, “Just stay still, Sonya. We’ll be right back.” Turning to the pilot, he asked, “Owen, do you think you can help me with Mrs. Premarious?”
The pain the older man was in was evident in the drawn paleness of his face as he nodded and slowly made it to his feet. Leksi reached out to steady him this time.
“Thanks,” Owen responded with a gasp.
“No problem,” the younger man answered. Owen looked at him closely for a moment, one hand protecting his injured arm. Why that particular expression? It certainly sounded more American than Greek. . . .
“Do you think you could talk Mrs. Premarious into helping you with Sonya for a little while?” At the man’s hesitant nod, Leksi continued, “Make a point to seat her next to Sonya . . . with her back to her husband. I’m going to move him back to the cabin of the jet . . . now that the fuselage has burned out. . . . At least it’ll give his body some protection . . . from the rain that’s coming.”
“I’ll try,” Owen responded, shaking his head. “But I’ll come back to help you carry him. He’s a large man, and you don’t look any too steady on your feet either.”
“I’ll be alright. But with that arm you can’t help me much anyway, and she knows you better. . . . You stay with them. . . . She may be difficult to deal with when she realizes what I’m doing. . . .”
Coughing stopped his words for a moment, and he bent over, hands on his thighs and Roberts’ hand on his arm, waiting for the deep wracking to subside. Standing again, stars shooting across his vision, he nodded at the concerned look in the blue eyes and took a deep breath. Then, he continued, “She was . . . she was worried earlier about him being too cold out here. Tell her . . . I’m going to cover him with a blanket as I promised . . . and take him out of this wind.”
Recognizing that Leksi was right in what he was saying and planning, Owen gave him the courtesy of not mentioning again the physical struggle it was going to require to move Premarious’ body back inside the jet. Instead, he merely said, “She’s not going to want to leave him, especially when we start down the mountain away from him.”
Nodding, Leksi ran his hand over the top of his head in frustration before he said quietly, “I know. . . . But we have no choice.”
Nodding back with his face set in grim determination, Owen moved over to stand beside the frail-looking older woman, who was still seated on the rocky ground. Leksi followed him and placed the last remaining wool blanket carefully over the dead passenger’s body, taking care to leave his face uncovered. Owen eased down beside her on his knees.
“Mrs. Premarious,” he asked. “I need your help with Sonya. Will you come over and sit by her? She’s hurt, and I think it would make her feel better to have you to talk to for a little while.”
The moist hazel eyes looked up at him blankly, but he was relieved that she did not refuse outright.
“Please, ma’am,” he entreated. “Come with me. I need your help.”
“But George. . . . He needs me, too.”
“I know, Mrs. Premarious, but Leksi will take care of him. Remember? He said he would. . . . See, Leksi brought him a blanket.”
Moving her eyes slowly back toward her husband and their dark-haired rescuer beside him, she nodded.
“Alright. He’s such a nice young man, isn’t he? . . . Covering George to keep him warm. . . .”
“Yes, ma’am. He’s a nice young man.”
Owen reached out and eased the woman’s icy fingers from around her husband’s hand. Then, taking her hand firmly in his warmer one, he assisted her to her feet. Turning her toward Sonya, he kept up a steady stream of conversation as Leksi, down on one knee, began to pull the body of her husband up and over his shoulders.
Owen glanced over long enough to wince in sympathy at the agony that crossed the younger man’s features as he silently struggled his way to his feet, staggering under the dead weight. Leksi’s teeth were cutting into his bottom lip, but he made no sound that would distract the elderly woman from Owen’s continued reassurances in her ear. Turning away, the pilot continued walking with her, then helped settle her on part of Sonya’s blanket, her back to the jet.
Even as he picked up Sonya’s hand and placed it in that of Mrs. Premarious, he continued talking to his boss’ wife as if she were a small child, “See. Sonya needs you. She has a bad headache. If you hold her hand and talk to her, maybe you can help her feel better.”
But, all the while, he wondered about the determination and care being displayed behind him.
The woman’s wails, even as her plaintive cries turned to quiet, muffled sobs, still seemed to echo off of the bleak stone around them.
The somber group of four had only been picking their careful way down the rugged, trail-less side of the mountain for less than ten minutes, but to Owen Roberts, it seemed much longer.
Leksi led the way, carrying the sobbing elderly woman wrapped firmly in one of the three blankets and held securely in his arms, her face buried against his chest. Despite the fact that Roberts had seen him stumble twice, Leksi had not made a sound except to murmur words of comfort that the pilot could not quite make out over the muffled crying.
Following them, Roberts was also wrapped in a blanket--the one Leksi had only momentarily used to cover his boss. He used his good arm to support the struggling Sonya as they made their way slowly across the face of the rocky mountain.
“Easy, honey,” Owen said, as he heard the white-faced girl beside him hiss in pain as her ankle made contact with the side of a rock protruding from the uneven ground. “Leksi said there would be a trail soon. It’ll get easier then.”
She stopped for a moment, and he paused with her, giving her a chance to recover. As she panted for breath against the pain, Owen heard Leksi’s halting voice from just down below.
“Owen . . . here’s my . . . walking stick. . . . Maybe it’ll. . . it’ll help Sonya.”
“Good,” he responded. “Just leave it there, and we’ll get it. You’ve got your hands full already.”
Leksi nodded and kept going, breathing hard at the exertion. He knew he had to keep moving as long as he could before he stopped. He was not at all sure how long he could continue to carry the frail woman and remain on his feet despite the steep, slightly-sideways descent.
“Good thing it’s down angle,” he murmured aloud, his brain barely registering the somehow familiar phrase as his boots slipped again on the loose shale.
Above him, Owen supported the young woman as she leaned down and picked up the sturdy walking stick with her other hand, all the while trying to keep her weight off of her injured foot.
Its length was made from some sort of gnarled wood, and its weight felt solid in her hand. But both of them stared curiously at the charred remains of cloth clinging to one end, the blackened wood transferring soot to her hand as she peeled away the remnants of what appeared to be fuel for a torch.
Owen pulled his eyes away from the blackened walking stick and looked searchingly at Sonya for a moment before he closed his eyes at the sudden memory. Opening them again, he sought the dark-haired figure standing at the intersection of their path with a trail switchbacking up from below, and he said softly, “Now it makes sense. . . . It was Leksi. . . . He . . . he saved us from more than just the fire, Sonya.”
Grasping the walking stick’s charred end firmly in one hand, Sonya gripped Owen’s shoulder tightly with the other, her arm stretched out across behind his neck. After a second, she replied, “I don’t understand.”
Squeezing her waist with his good hand in response, Owen resumed his supportive pace down the mountain beside her, pleased to feel the improved steadiness provided for both of them by the simple addition of the sturdy stick. His mind mired in memories from just before the crash, he spoke slowly, almost woodenly, “My instruments were flickering in and out. . . . I knew there were mountains in this area, but I thought we were high enough. I also knew there was no where to land with that gorge down there. Even when. . . the fog got so thick, I thought we were okay, but. . . all of a sudden, I saw a light moving back and forth in front of us. . . . I tried to pull us up, but . . . the port engine had been going in and out. We almost made it. . . . But the wing on that side must’ve clipped the rocks up there. . . . I killed Mr. Premarious, Sonya. . . ,” he dropped his head, stopping them both for a moment.
“No, Owen,” she said firmly, her melodious voice strong in his ear. “No. He died of a heart attack. That’s why I wasn’t buckled in. I . . . I was trying to help him, but it was too late. It happened just before we hit the fog. You didn’t kill him, Owen.”
Taking in a ragged breath, the pain from his throbbing arm almost serving to steady him in his suddenly relieved anguish, he said, “I knew you’d said something about his heart when you first came around up there, but I . . . I didn’t know what you meant for sure.”
Stabbing at the ground with the walking stick to emphasize her words, the ramifications of Owen’s words from a moment ago beginning to sink in, she said, “So Leksi really did save us . . . didn’t he? He used this as a torch and signaled you, giving you enough time to keep from plowing the 450’s nose right into the side of the mountain!”
“Yes, honey. That’s exactly what happened. And . . . if we hadn’t found this stick, I don’t think we’d ever know what he did. I don’t think he would’ve said a word about it.”
The two of them looked at each other for a long moment, his blue eyes searching her vivid green before they began picking their way toward the trail below. Both of them contemplated the revelation without speaking again . . . both of them awed by the quiet bravery of the man whose quick actions had saved three lives. . . twice. . . less than two hours before.
They continued on in silence for another thirty minutes, both lost in thought as the relief of reaching the trail a while back was dampened by the rain that began to fall. They pulled their protective blankets closer around them.
As he walked, his thoughts on the last few hours, Roberts was more and more sure of two things. The young man down below them, whoever he was, had a military background of some sort, and his actions with the makeshift torch, not to mention pulling them from the fire that followed, had saved all three of them.
The long hair and beard, the
gaunt appearance, as well as the clothes of an outdoorsman, had confused him.
But the confident voice that had all but issued orders up there made him
positive of certain similarities between the two of them. And there was just
something about the dark, amber brown eyes that spoke of pain and loss, of
experiences far beyond the mountains of
Then suddenly, Owen’s blue eyes widened, and he cried, “Leksi!”
As one, he and Sonya began pushing themselves faster down the wet, rugged trail, as they both saw the dark-headed man below them falter and sink to his knees. By the time they reached the other pair, the unmoving Leksi was sitting on his heels, his knees bent and head dropped forward, his dark, curling hair soaked with more than just cold, drizzling rain. But, his arms wrapped protectively around her, he continued to clutch the tiny figure of Lydia Premarious close to his chest.
Sonya reached out to touch the shivering shoulder as Owen quickly helped her to a low rock next to the younger man. “Leksi?” she asked, trying unsuccessfully to get him to lift his head. She could see that his eyes were tightly closed.
Owen stepped around in front of him, and they worked together to ease the unresponsive older woman from the tight grip Leksi had on her. At first, he clung to the tiny woman reflexively, but with Sonya murmuring in his ear, Leksi slowly relaxed his grip, though he did not open his eyes.
“Let us have her, Leksi,” Sonya pleaded, worry overshadowing the headache that throbbed behind her eyes. “Just rest a minute. We’ve got her. Just rest.”
She looked at Owen with concern as they finally pulled the slight form of the older woman away from the cradling arms. Together they settled her on the rock next to Sonya, who held her close.
Leksi, his hands digging into the thighs of his dark wool trousers, was gasping for breath, and his eyes remained closed. His head wound was bleeding again, with a thin trickle of blood running down the side of his face, mingling with the sweat and rain dripping out of his hair. His face was terribly pale.
Standing, Owen removed the remaining bottle of water from Leksi’s pack. Then, handing Sonya the bottle to open, he awkwardly eased the weight of the pack from the younger man’s shoulders, one arm at a time. Pouring a tiny bit of the water on the corner of her blanket, Sonya reached out and wiped the face of the man beside her, alarmed at the clammy feel of his skin.
Leksi didn’t react.
“Owen . . . ,” she murmured, shaking her head, her eyes wide in fear for the man between them.
“Leksi, drink some of this,” Owen said, taking the bottle from her. “Leksi!”
His words finally brought the pain-filled, dark brown eyes blinking open, and Leksi reached up with slightly shaking fingers to take the bottle from him. After a long swallow, he handed it back, his head dropping again, eyes closed and chin almost to his chest, as he continued to draw in ragged breaths.
Sonya reached out, laying her hand against the side of his face. Quietly, she asked, “Is it your head?”
After a brief pause, during which she thought he had not heard her, Leksi responded haltingly, “I’m fine. . . . just need to. . . to catch my breath.”
Seeing him lift his left hand and push the heel of it against the right side of his chest, Owen asked, “Are you hurt?” Reaching out to move the dark leather of the old coat aside when he received no response, the older man demanded, “Let me check.”
Leksi’s eyes opened, and his hand moved quickly, halting the concerned pilot’s actions with a firm hold on his wrist. His instantly focused gaze narrowed as he looked into the worried blue eyes across from him.
“I’m fine. . . . Thanks. . . I . . . just give me a minute.”
The quiet, broken words belied the sharp-edged steel in the stare that passed between them, and Owen Roberts moved his hand away reflexively. He experienced a brief moment of something close to fear before the non-threatening tone of Leksi’s voice penetrated his brain. He dropped his eyes from the fierce stare, catching sight suddenly of the flash of a polished onyx stone, square cut and set into the face of a scarred gold ring on Leksi’s left hand that he had not noticed before. His eyes widened a fraction, but still intent on finding out what was wrong with the younger man, Owen blinked his bewildered confusion away before lifting his eyes again.
Beside him Leksi was already climbing to his feet, his left hand pushed further inside the unbuttoned old coat and across his upper ribs, the battered ring now out of sight.
“Wait, Leksi!” Sonya cried, trying to stop him with one hand on his arm. “You need to rest.”
“No,” Leksi said, shaking his head and still breathing hard as he leaned down slowly to pick up the discarded pack. “We need to . . . to get to the hut. . . . It’s not much further.” With no more than a flash of pain crossing his face to betray the effort it took, he shouldered the pack and reached down, silently gathering up the blanketed elderly woman in his arms.
Sonya sighed loudly, looking at Owen in defeat. He nodded back at her, both of them quietly acknowledging that they could do little to help him. They all three knew he was the only one of them capable of carrying Mrs. Premarious the rest of the way, and she would never make it if they expected her to get there on foot.
Neither would they if they didn’t go now.
As he helped the white-faced young woman to her feet, Sonya’s auburn hair plastered to her head by the rain, Owen murmured encouragement into her ear, “We have no choice, honey. Any of us. Maybe it’s really not much further.”
They continued down the trail, both hoping he was right.
Relieved that both women were sleeping quietly, Owen cradled his throbbing left arm against his chest and moved back across the stone-enclosed room to sit in one of two rough-hewn chairs pulled close to the fire.
He watched the younger man’s profile, the light from the flames flickering across his dark features. Leksi sat on the hearth with his back against the corner of the stone wall, knees drawn up to his chest and arms clasped tightly around them. Though the younger man’s dark eyes never left the flames burning brightly before him, Owen could see the physical struggle going on behind them.
After a few moments, Leksi lowered his head to his knees and Owen saw him begin to rock back and forth almost imperceptibly, his hands clenched together in a white-knuckled grip around his knees.
Rising from the chair again, Owen used a corner of a blanket drying nearby to carefully remove the old tin coffeepot from the hook hanging down inside the fireplace. Picking up a battered, blue mug, he poured some of the steaming brew. Then, replacing the coffeepot once more, he set the mug on the table, pulled the chair closer to the young man, and turned back around to retrieve the coffee he had poured. He held out the cup.
“Leksi,” he implored, “drink some of this. It’ll help warm you from the inside. Come on, now.”
Slowly the head came up, and the dark, pain-filled eyes turned toward the pilot’s blue. Nodding, Leksi reached up with slightly trembling fingers to take it. But instead of drinking the coffee, he just wrapped both hands around the cup as if drawing comfort from its warmth as he returned his eyes to the fire.
Gripping the closest shoulder in concern, Owen narrowed his eyes and asked quietly, unwilling to risk waking the women asleep across the room, “What is it, Leksi? . . . It’s more than just your head, isn’t it? Are you alright?”
After a moment Leksi turned to meet the blue eyes again and for a single heartbeat, his own dark amber widening, he had a sudden, disconcerting feeling. He had heard those words, or words very similar, before. . . . He had stared into concerned, piercing blue eyes like those of the pilot before. . . somewhere . . . sometime. . . in the not-too-distant past.
His eyes lost focus for a moment as he struggled to hang onto the feeling, onto the memory that had a tenuous hold on him.
But he couldn’t . . . and, blinking rapidly, he knew the memory had gone again as swiftly as it had come.
Closing his eyes and turning his face away, back toward the fire, he hauled in a deep ragged breath, and he felt the renewed burning up and down his chest. Dropping his head, forehead pressed to his knees, he felt the tight grip of the hand on his shoulder, and he squeezed his eyes shut.
“What is it, Leksi? How can I help if you won’t tell me?”
In a quietly determined voice, the younger man replied, “I’m fine, Owen. . . .” Then lifting his head he added, before lowering it again, “There’s nothing you need to do.”
“Your chest. . . . You were having a terrible time breathing up there, weren’t you?”
With a rasping sigh, Leksi lifted his head, blinking his eyes against the sharp pain in the right side of his chest. He struggled to focus on Owen. Then, slowly meeting the concerned gaze, he nodded once and took a swallow of the coffee.
“Yes,” he replied after a moment.
“It’s my fault, Leksi,” the pilot began, his deep voice loud in the small, echoing space. “I shouldn’t have asked you to go back for Mr. Pr. . . .”
Silencing Owen with a look first aimed at him, then with eyes moving swiftly toward the bunks in the far corner of the room, Leksi communicated a reminder to speak softly as he said, “It wasn’t you, Owen. . . . Nothing you said or did. I . . . I’ve been recovering from. . . from some injuries for a while now. . . . It’s why I was . . . up here today.”
Seeing the puzzled look at his last words, he added, dropping his gaze back into the dark coffee, “I’ve been staying here. . . trying to . . . get myself . . . back in shape.”
He took another swallow, grateful for the warmth the aromatic brew offered. Because of the limited protection of the old leather coat, his clothes were not as soaked as those of the others. For that reason, and because he had not wanted anyone to see the destruction wrought on his body by the beatings he had endured, he had not removed them . . . not even to change into the set of spare clothes he had stored in a wooden box beneath one bed. He had insisted on giving the shirt to Owen to wear instead. . . but he knew he would pay later for the shivering he felt deep inside.
“Injuries? How badly were you hurt? Your chest and lungs?” Owen asked quietly, his brow furrowed in concern.
“It happened a couple of. . . months ago. I . . . tangled with . . . with the river down in the gorge,” Leksi offered quietly, unwilling to provide more details.
“You broke some ribs or something, didn’t you?”
“Probably,” the younger man shrugged carefully. “It doesn’t matter now. . . . I’m better. I just. . . I guess I just wasn’t as . . . as recovered as I thought.” He returned his eyes to the fire, his head leaning back tiredly against the grey stone behind him, teeth digging into his bottom lip as he fought with the burning pain.
Owen sat silently beside him, broken arm pulled close to his chest, eyes boring into the white, sweating face of his companion.
There was more to this story, much more.
But he did not want to repay the debt he owed this reticent young man by prying too much. . . at least not right now.
Owen said softly as the fire crackled in the grate and the clatter of the rain on the tin roof threatened to drown out his words, “I suspect that you’ve got a concussion now, and with the way your breathing sounded up there, I’d bet money that you did some damage to one or both lungs a couple of months ago. Am I right?”
The younger man did not offer any more than a noncommittal, “Could be,” as he struggled silently with the pounding headache and burning in his chest. Both told him he had pushed himself much too far beyond his limits this time.
As he felt Owen’s grip tighten again on his shoulder and experienced the effect of the man’s concerned words of moments before, he closed his eyes tightly. Blaming the unfamiliar prickling behind his eyelids on the pain and exhaustion, he was suddenly consumed by a wave of overwhelming homesickness for people and places he could no longer remember.
He realized, with the force of an unexpectedly sharp hitch in his breathing, that more than anything, he wanted an end to the mysteries of who he was and where he belonged. He needed those answers even more than he wanted to know what had happened to him or why. But . . . biting down on his lip once more, he knew he did not want to know any answers at the cost of putting those who had befriended him since then in any sort of danger. . . .
“Chip!. . . Look out! . . . All ahead full!. . . Chip!”
The words, all but shouted in the echoing quiet of the stone hut, brought one man to instant and full awareness.
Owen’s head jerked up from its resting place on his good arm lying across the wooden table, and he opened his eyes to see the thrashing form in dark, damp clothing lying on the stone floor next to the hearth.
Dropping to his knees, he held onto the younger man’s shoulder, shaking it hard, and he commanded, “Leksi. Leksi! Wake up!”
The dark brown-gold eyes came open instantly, and the words of his dream died on his lips as he struggled for breath, struggled to sit up and remember where he was.
Then, his breathing ragged, he asked, “How long . . . has it been?”
Glancing down at his watch, Owen rose from his knees as the younger man grabbed for the hearth and, with a groan, pulled himself up to sit on its edge.
“A couple of hours.”
Nodding, Leksi turned gingerly to poke at the fire with a piece of split wood before laying it across the top of the rekindled flames. “They should be here soon.”
“They? The people from the village? You still think they’ll come? But what about the rain?”
“They’ll come. . . . They won’t let the weather stop them.”
“But,” Owen continued, “with the fog from before and the clouds coming in behind it. . . you’re sure they could’ve seen something wrong from down there?”
Nodding slightly, Leksi flashed him a slight smile that didn’t reach the pain-filled eyes. “The gorge, the river, the mountain. . . the people of the village are very aware of . . . anything that happens here. . . . They’ll have seen the smoke, the fire. . . . Don’t worry. They’ll be here soon.”
Pushing off from the stone hearth, Leksi began walking across the room to check on the two women, but he paused half-way there. Placing a steadying hand on the center of the table, he shook his head to clear away the remaining dizziness, again rubbing his left hand across the right side of his chest before he continued on. Then, moving carefully, he eased down on the edge of the wood-framed bed beside Mrs. Premarious.
From across the room Owen was interested to hear him conversing with the elderly woman in fluid Greek. . . very different from the words he had shouted upon awakening a little while ago. And he was just as amazed to hear her respond, since she had not said anything to the pilot’s attempts to check on her an hour ago.
Relieved, Owen quickly prepared two mugs of coffee and started toward them. But before he made it across the room, the wooden door opened to admit several men dressed in bright-colored raingear and carrying packs.
Though he could not follow everything that was said in the discussion that followed, Owen noted the relieved expressions of the men and the ease, as well as something bordering on pride, with which they all eagerly greeted Leksi. Though he knew the younger man was exhausted and in pain, he was not surprised that Leksi covered it well, quickly turning the attention of the arriving group to the needs of the crash victims.
It was only later, as the women were seated on the backs of two of the donkeys and the door to the hut was firmly closed behind the last man out, that Owen realized he would probably have no more time to talk to the younger man for a while. There would be no more time to ask him all of the questions about which he still wondered, not that he was sure he would have been given any answers anyway. . . .
With the arrival of the men from the village, men used to working together to accomplish whatever task was necessary, there had been little opportunity for discussion. Introductions were made, everything was sorted and packed, and their injuries were treated with a fairly sophisticated array of antibiotics and ointments, as well as proper splints and bandages.
Amazed at the resourcefulness of the men, Owen realized that their small village was probably a couple of hours from any clinic or hospital, and the people here were used to, in fact, prided themselves on their own self-sufficiency.
As the bulk of the group began their trek down the mountain, two men and the donkey they led broke away from the others and continued up toward the summit. Realizing that Leksi must have told them about the body of the fourth member of their party, Owen closed his eyes and sighed in relief. They would hopefully bring his boss’s body down to the village, which would allow Mrs. Premarious the dignity and comfort of quickly accompanying her husband home to Agrinio.
Though neither woman had
said very much, Owen was confident that they were both much better as they
began the relatively easy journey to the base of the mountain and the
It could have turned out so much worse. . . .
Nodding at the villager who was beside him, ready to offer an extra hand in support, Owen turned briefly to search the trail behind him for Leksi. Their dark-haired rescuer appeared to be deep in conversation with an older, smaller man. Both seemed very comfortable together, the older man with an arm slung across the back of the taller Leksi. Both were smiling, and Leksi’s head was bent down to catch something the older man. . . Costa? Is that what Leksi had called him?. . . had said. They both laughed briefly, and Leksi nodded his head.
Whoever Costa was to Leksi, it was clear that they trusted and respected each other.
Was Costa Leksi’s father?
Shaking his head, Owen noted the similarities in coloring they shared, but, in looking at their dissimilar body builds, he decided the older man was more likely an uncle if they were related at all. But then, thinking back to some of the younger man’s expressions and the words he had used when he was unaware of it, Owen realized he had somehow come to think of Leksi as more American than Greek.
Despite the exhaustion written all over him, even from this distance, Owen could tell that some of Leksi’s tension had drained away with the arrival of the men from the village. It was as if the younger man had carried the weight of responsibility for those he had rescued up until the moment that the rest of “his team” had arrived to assist them.
Smiling slightly, Owen caught the look that Sonya surreptitiously gave the young man as she turned back around to face in the same direction as the steady, grey donkey she rode. She saw Owen watching her, and she blushed a bit, lowering her eyes, but smiling all the same.
Lifting one eyebrow, Owen
looked back at Leksi, who was oblivious to her attention, and he smiled again,
knowingly this time. He and Sonya were among the few Americans who worked for
Mr. Premarious on this continent, and he was as protective of the auburn-haired
young woman as if she had been his daughter. He knew she was much sought after
by many of the men she came into contact with, both here in Agrinio and in
His smile growing, Owen wondered if his almost too-dedicated, very attractive Sonya had finally stumbled onto someone who could hold her interest beyond the first or second meeting. . . if there were to be a second meeting between them. Shaking his head a bit at the ironies of romance, he suddenly remembered something else. . . another possible irony in all of this.
Seeing again the battered,
but still distinctive ring he had spotted on the younger man’s hand, he shifted
his eyes to search Leksi’s face. How ironic would it be for their rescuer here
in the land-locked mountains of northern
Doctor Will Jamison stood with his attention glued to the two strips of x-ray film hanging up in front of him, both clipped to the lighted viewing surface on the wall.
After a long moment, he closed his eyes and rubbed a hand across them tiredly. Then, blinking them open, he wiped at both again in an attempt to remove the sudden moisture and clear his vision. With a loud sigh, he lowered his head, chin resting on his chest and one hand grasping the edge of the table beside him in a white-knuckled grip.
He had had the two separate
DNA samples placed in incubation in the agarose gel for weeks, almost as soon
as the admiral and the exec had returned from
He and the admiral had exchanged only minimal conversation about it at the time, the older man simply saying, “You’ll do the tests?”
It had been more of a question than a request, more of a request than an order; it had gone without saying that the doctor would do whatever he could to get the answers they needed. It was imperative that they determine, one way or another, if the badly-burned body zipped inside the thick, black vinyl bag had been that of their captain, Lee Crane, or if it had belonged to another, with name probably never to be determined.
Now as he stared again at the strips of slightly translucent material, the tiny, darkened bands imprinted on them standing out in stark contrast to the greyish-colored film, the answer was finally clear. The darkened sections represented so much more than simply the natural decay of an isotope that had bound itself to two samples of human DNA too small to see any other way. . . . They represented the illusive events of the last two months . . . and the events of the unforeseen future.
Slowly, with one last
examination of the evidence before him, he pulled his eyes away from the film,
turned off the light illuminating it, and crossed the room. Taking a deep
breath to steady himself, he removed the mic from the wall and clicked it to
life. Then, fighting all the while to keep his voice as neutral as possible, he
said, “Admiral, this is the doctor. Could you come down to
After a slight hesitation in which he envisioned the redheaded admiral reaching for a similar mic in the control room, he heard the man’s reply on the intercom over his head.
“Of course, Doctor. I’ll be right there.”
“Uh . . . and, Admiral. . . could you bring the exec? There’s something down here I think you both will want to see.”
Though the voice was firm, Jamison could hear the tired heaviness behind it as the admiral replied, “Certainly, Doctor.”
Swallowing hard, Jamison replaced the hand-held microphone in its slot and returned to stare at the film.
True, he now had an answer to one of the questions that had plagued them all for weeks. But would what he had found make things easier on everyone, or would it simply send them all into unending emotional turmoil all over again?
Rubbing his eyes again in frustration, he turned around and walked toward his desk. Then, stopping, he stared at the wall behind it, the wall on which his credentials hung flanked by several black and white photographs he had taken and developed himself. Though all the photos captured places he had been and the faces with whom he had worked over the years, his troubled hazel eyes gravitated to one particular shot.
He had taken the picture at a crew picnic on institute grounds five or six months ago, and in it he had captured a rare moment of unbridled laughter shared between the three officers he respected the most in this world.
Chip Morton had been telling some story about Lee’s exploits at the academy, and, not to be out done, the Admiral had chimed in with a comment about Chip’s equal culpability in the events, leaving the original storyteller wondering how the older man had known. Suddenly all three were laughing heartily at each other’s reactions.
Shaking his head slightly, Will Jamison reached out to touch the frame, wanting desperately to hold onto the image of the pure happiness of that day. It had been too long since any of them had laughed like that. . . and now he feared that his news would prolong the healing even more. Closing his eyes, he breathed out loudly through his nose, and then, turning, his eyes blinking open rapidly, he realized he was no longer alone.
Swallowing hard, he caught the blue eyes of the two men watching him with puzzled, but guarded expressions, and he tried to speak. “Gentlemen, I . . .”
But he faltered for a moment, breaking eye contact with them, his eyes drawn unerringly, like a heat-seeking missile finding a target, back toward the x-ray film hanging over the unlit panel against the far wall behind them.
Seeing his look, both men turned curious eyes and followed his gaze.
Immediately the admiral moved toward the panel, reaching up and pushing the switch that turned on the back lighting. He placed one hand on the wall and the other on the table beside him, bracing himself literally as he reviewed the results of four weeks’ worth of waiting.
For a long, silent moment, he examined them with his intense, expert eyes.
Turning back to face the doctor, Chip asked, his throat suddenly as dry as sand from a desolate beach, his pale blue eyes searching for answers, “Jamie? . . . Are those the DNA test results?”
Seeing the doctor’s nod, Chip again turned and watched the admiral, trying to read the older man’s body language. But not knowing what to make of the suddenly dropped head and sagging shoulders, the fingers of the admiral’s left hand splayed wide on the surface of the pale grey bulkhead in front of him as he leaned toward it. Chip turned anxious eyes back to the physician.
“What? . . . What does it mean?” Chip demanded, fear of the answer almost closing his throat.
Taking a deep breath, Jamison took two steps forward and said, “Chip, it means that. . . .”
But he was interrupted by the sound of the admiral’s fist coming down hard on the edge of the wooden table top, followed instantly by the discordant clatter of instruments on the metal tray lying at the other end.
“It means,” the admiral
responded, his angry voice loud and very gruff, “it means that Lee could still
be alive, and I’ve left him there in
The doctor and the exec
watched in helpless silence as the admiral yanked open the door to
Quietly, Chip reached out,
stopping the doctor with one hand on his arm, and struggling to get hold of his
own emotions, he said, “I’ll see about the admiral, Jamie. All that matters now
is that we get back to the
Turning toward the exit, Chip paused, hand on the door handle as Jamison’s quiet voice reached him, “Chip. . . . He could . . . he could still be just as dead, you know.”
Shaking his blond head, the exec answered without turning to look into the doctor’s knowing eyes. “I know you’re just trying to keep us from getting caught on that same high tide, low tide of hope and dread, Jamie. But . . . he’s alive. . . . I know he is. And . . . I think he,” Chip nodded in the direction of the admiral’s hasty departure, “knows it, too. This time, nothing’s going to stop me . . . us. . . from finding Lee.”
The cigarette smoke swirled
around his head, caught up in the steady stream of air coming in from the ventilation
system. Oblivious to the blue-grey haze hanging over him, the man at the desk
absently flicked ash from the lit cigarette he held, but had barely touched to
his lips. He kept his eyes focused on the maps of
A quick knock at the door brought no response as the man’s attention remained on the maps, one a physical rendering of the geographic area, the other a political map showing roads and regions in muted colors.
Another knock, more insistent than the first one, finally gained a response as the admiral grunted, “Come in.”
Easing the door open, the exec was instantly concerned at the amount of smoke permeating the room, but he only sighed when he realized the cause.
Smiling faintly, he said, “Sir, I have those charts you asked for.”
“Oh, come in, Chip. Come in.”
“Uh, Admiral,” the blond said hesitantly after a few seconds, “I thought you gave up smoking. You know neither . . . Lee . . . nor the doc would approve, and I can’t say that it does much for the air filtration system either.”
With a sigh, the older man pulled his eyes away from the map he was studying, and he glanced at the blond. The sadness and pain in his voice was clear as he responded, “Will doesn’t have to know and. . . and Lee’s welcome to grumble at me all he wants when we get him back.”
Nodding, Chip agreed, smiling slightly, “Aye, sir.”
Returning his eyes to the map on top, the admiral said, “Come over here, Chip, and look at this. After our conversations with Lieutenant Daniels, I have an idea about where to start our search.”
Walking around behind the desk, Chip stood at the admiral’s right shoulder, following his finger as it pointed out an apparently less-populated area than even the Albanian villages they had checked before, an area with fewer roads and towns in the southern mountains, just north of the border with Greece.
“Why there, sir?” he queried, puzzled. If anything, from listening to the officer Admiral Hatch had sent to brief them, he would have thought they would get more information in places with more people, not less. And, knowing Lee, Chip would have suggested one of several towns closer to the sea, not further away.
If Lee had been able to get away from the men that had originally captured the U.N. delegation, he would have moved nearer to the sea, hoping for the Seaview’s crew to find him. But then, if he HAD gotten away, he would have found some way to contact them despite Critinger’s removal of the radio, and the fact that he had not. . . .
Breaking into Chip’s thoughts, the admiral started to answer, “Don’t you think it stands to reason that. . . .“
But suddenly, the intercom on the desk crackled to life, interrupting him.
“Admiral? Excuse me, sir. Is the exec with you?” The question in the tone was clear in the quiet cabin.
Reaching out and holding down the button above the speaker, Nelson replied, “Yes, Sparks. He’s right here.”
“Pardon the interruption, Mr. Morton. But we’ve picked up more of the news about that plane crash we told you about this morning. There will be a press conference in a few moments. You asked to be kept informed, sir.”
Chip leaned over and depressed the button. “On my way, Sparks.”
When there was no further reply, Nelson turned curious eyes to the tall blond standing by his desk. Chip was staring down at the charts still rolled up in one hand as he tapped them into the palm of the other, his mind suddenly miles away.
“What’s all that about?” Nelson asked.
Chip almost shook himself,
pulling his eyes back to the admiral’s puzzled face, and he said, “Just a news
report they caught the tail end of this morning after shift change. Apparently,
a light jet went down in the mountains somewhere in northern
Shaking his head, the admiral kept his eyes on the younger man’s impassive features, Chip’s blue eyes giving away nothing more than a passing curiosity.
“A tragedy, definitely. . . . What in particular piqued your interest about it?” Nelson asked.
Chip drew his lips into a straight, noncommittal line, mindful of that high tide-low tide he and Jamie had discussed several times in the last week.
“I’m sure it’s not relevant
to our search, Admiral. It isn’t even in
Eyeing the younger man, suddenly sure there was more to Chip’s interest than that, despite his officer’s nonchalance, Nelson pushed back his chair and stood.
“Let’s go. I’d like to hear what happened as well.”
“Aye, sir,” the exec responded, punctuating his words with the uncharacteristic reply of decisively hitting the rolled up charts once on the edge of the admiral’s desk as they left.
Arriving in the radio shack
a few moments later, they moved to stand beside O’Brien who was behind
Glancing around the control room, Chip could tell immediately, with the certainty of long experience, that the men around them were attending to their assigned duties efficiently. However, there seemed to still be that current of highly-strung intensity that indicated everyone’s awareness of the Mediterranean destination named two days ago----and their eager anticipation of the possible reasons for it.
Returning his eyes to the radio equipment, Chip heard O’Brien mutter as he read a few lines over Bannatyne’s shouder, “Man, I’d hate to’ve been on that jet. Colliding with a mountain in the fog. . . How in the devil did they ever survive that?”
Waiting until the two men
finished writing and sat back, relaxing suddenly from the tension of taking
notes---one from the original broadcaster and one from the translation into
English that followed----Chip gripped each man’s shoulder in appreciation. He
squeezed harder, appreciation turning to concern, when he saw
Acknowledging the seriousness with which both men had taken his request, and thinking about how much Lee meant to all of the crew, Chip said, “Thanks for notifying me. What’ve you got?”
The exec was momentarily startled at the steady, knowing look in the quiet crewman’s eyes when Bannatyne turned around and handed him both of the yellow legal pads. Chip lifted his eyebrows for a brief instant as he met damp hazel eyes that suddenly blinked several times, as if the silent young man was aware of something important he was not yet ready to voice.
Then, nodding to Bannatyne in acknowledgement, their eyes locking, Chip struggled to place his poker face back where it belonged. Taking the offered pages, and following the admiral, he said, his voice thick with emotion he could not explain, “Mr. O’Brien, you still have the conn. I’ll be in the nose.”
“Aye-aye, sir,” came the quick reply as the dark-haired lieutenant watched the exec walk away with the admiral, pausing long enough to push the button on the side of the chart table which closed the metal partition behind them.
At first, both lost in thought, neither of them spoke as they sat in the chairs facing the bow of the boat. Chip held the legal pads in one hand, but he sat with his elbows on his knees staring straight ahead, his gaze unfocused.
After seeing Bannatyne’s
face, he was not at all sure that
“Lee,” he thought dismally, “I sure do miss you, buddy.”
Lifting his eyes to the saltwater swirling around the tops of the windows, he blinked rapidly several times, pulling in a deep breath through his nose and releasing it again slowly.
After several long moments of silence, the admiral suddenly stood up with a frustrated growl and crossed to the cabinet against the starboard bulkhead, poured two drinks, and returned to the chairs in the center of the space. Handing one glass to Chip, he remained standing. Then, taking more than a sip of his drink, he stepped toward the massive windows and the foaming, sunlit water beyond.
He reached out, his hand flat against the transparent surface as he stared into the ever-changing depths.
After a moment, he dropped his head and closed his eyes. He said much too quietly, though his voice grew in volume as he continued, “I abandoned him, Chip. I should’ve never ordered us away from there to start with. We should’ve stayed until we found him, until SOMEONE was made to answer for what they did to him!”
Chip was pulled out of his
own reverie by the instant understanding that the man across from him was
finally ready to talk about what he had been dealing with alone for two days,
refusing the exec’s earlier offer to listen. Obviously, the admiral still had
strong feelings of guilt about having given the order to leave the
Standing, the blond crossed to wait nearby, leaning against the bulkhead. “Sir, you don’t know that it would’ve done any good to stay. It may’ve just antagonized them all that much more, especially since they clearly expected us to believe the body they gave us was his. And . . . it could’ve turned out that it was. You had no way of knowing, not before now.”
Nelson replied, lifting his head again, “You may be right that I couldn’t have known for sure, but I didn’t have to give up on him until we were. And that. . . the fact that I left him there . . . is knowledge that I shall always have to live with.”
He swallowed hard, his eyes on the view he loved. But his thoughts were on the young man for whom he would have traded it all to find, and he said, “I may never be able to look him in the eye again when we do find him, Chip, but this time, . . . this time we ARE going to find him. One way or another.”
The admiral turned, gazing at Chip with smoldering blue eyes as he added, “It just remains to be seen as to how, where, or even when. But, we will find out what those rebels did with him, if we have to move in on them and stay from now to eternity!”
Taking a deep breath, relieved by the older man’s adamant intensity, Chip nodded and returned to the nearby chairs. Now that the admiral was focused again on finding the skipper and not so much on his self-incriminations, he felt he could stand down just a bit.
Again, as the silence stretched between them, he thought about his friend and how much he missed Lee . . . how much they both missed him. With a small, quiet sigh, Chip mused silently. “You are so much better at dealing with the admiral’s moods than I am. . . . We both really need you here. . . .”
Chip set his half-full glass on the side table and, his thoughts still on his missing friend, he picked up the legal pad, absently scanning the two pages of Bannatyne’s handwriting. The only sound was the turning of the first yellow page as Chip folded it back.
Suddenly his eyes widened and, jumping to his feet, he exclaimed, “Admiral! Sir, look at this!”
He took long, quick strides toward the windows again and handed the other man the pad of yellow paper.
Then, as the admiral took it, Chip began pacing up and down beside the windows, waiting for him to read and watching him carefully to see his reaction.
“Chip?” Nelson asked as he took the legal pad from the suddenly agitated younger man and glanced down at it without reading. A few words caught his eye about the rescue on the side of the mountain before he looked back up.
“What is it, Chip? You think this has something to do with Lee?”
The blond paused in his pacing and gazed at the admiral for a few seconds, his eyes full of hope that he was desperately trying to silence, to control . . . before it sent him too far over the edge . . . like a diver whose curiosity carries him too far from the surface for his rapidly-emptying air tanks to guarantee a safe return.
Shaking his head then, as if in too much pain to respond to the questions, Chip broke away from the man’s steady blue-eyed stare and began pacing again. After another moment, he stopped by the windows and leaned down to place his hands on the ledge in front of them, his back to the admiral.
Though his heart was hammering in his chest, Chip struggled to keep a tight rein on his feelings. He knew he could be dead wrong about his instant belief. . . and relief.
There was so much of it that made no sense. . . .
But he could also be very right.
Suddenly remembering Bannatyne’s face from a little while ago, he hauled in a shaky breath and released it again.
They could both be right.
He took another deep breath.
Then, turning, he propped himself against the ledge, purposefully adopting a relaxed pose, arms crossed, legs stretched out in front of him, and one foot crossed over the other at the ankles.
He held the admiral’s blue-eyed gaze with his own, forcefully keeping his voice and his expression neutral. Nodding toward the tablet in the admiral’s hand, he requested calmly, “Read it, sir, and tell me what you make of it.”
Unsure of what to expect, Harriman Nelson began at the beginning, reading the words crewman Bannatyne had translated from the radio news report a little while before.
The report told of the crash, described the electrical problems and engine trouble, followed by an explanation of the foul weather and the ultimate fate of the small jet. He paused over the news about George Premarious and the fact that the family expected to hear that his death had been caused by a heart attack prior to the crash.
Nelson was acquainted with
the steel corporation’s president and owner, as well as his frail wife,
But, glancing up at the blond-haired exec, at the expression that was as impassive, as inexpressive, as any product of Premarious Steel, he knew none of that explained Chip’s uncharacteristic, quicksilver demeanor about all of this.
That was more. . . Lee’s . . . typical response.
Swallowing hard and lowering his eyes again, forcing himself to concentrate, he continued reading.
Then, he stopped and read back over one particular section of notes that Bannatyne had obviously tried to write down word for word. It contained a quote from the pilot of the doomed jet, an ex-U.S. Air Force captain named Owen Roberts.
“. . . With our instruments down and the fog too thick, we would have hit the stone side of Astraka Column, nose in, if it had not been for the quick thinking of a local man out on the mountain. He had been out hiking, heard our failing engines, and he made a torch from his walking stick, putting himself at risk to stand out on the side of the rock, waving it back and forth to warn us off.
When I saw the light, I was just able to pull up, almost high enough to clear the summit. We would have made it, but for the intermittent engine trouble. As it was, only one wing hit the stone and, though we went down, . . fortunately, three of us survived. . . . We owe him our lives. Not only did he keep us from plowing into the rock, he got all of us out before the explosion. Though he turned out to be injured himself, he led us to shelter further down the mountain. . . .”
Nelson, his heart beating faster for reasons he could not quite put into words, lifted his eyes from the paper again, holding Chip’s steady blue gaze for a few seconds.
Could this man . . . how had the report put it? . . . this “local man out on the mountain”?. . . Could this man be the commander they searched for?
The specific phrases jumped out at him from the hurried script on the page. . . “quick thinking”. . . “putting himself at risk”. . . “owe him our lives”. . . “got all of us out before the explosion” . . . “turned out to be injured himself”. . . .
Lowering his eyes again, Nelson forced himself to carefully read the next section of Bannatyne’s handwriting and, this time, instead of staring up at Chip afterwards, he closed his eyes, head down. In his head, he reviewed the information, reviewed his own response to it.
Apparently, the reporters had not yet been able to find and talk to the man who had rescued the steel president’s wife and crew. Just before it listed the details of George Premarious’ arrangements, the last paragraph implied that there was some mystery behind the rescuer’s unavailability. . . . It implied that it was almost as if the villagers of Mikro Papingo were protecting him for some reason.
No one, not among the survivors, not among the villagers, had given the man’s name, and he had since disappeared.
Disappeared. . . .
Nelson was a scientist of the highest calibre, and he dealt in facts and evidence, not hunches. But in this instance, when they had had no information, no facts in two months, nothing that had proven to be reliable at any rate, he was willing to believe that there might be some other, unimagined explanation for Lee’s disappearance. . . at least until the possibility could be ruled out.
The facts were that the captain had disappeared two months ago, that they had searched the area of Albania where they had lost track of him to no avail, and that, in the end, they had been given a body to take home that was not his.
It was now an established fact that Lee Crane had not been in that body bag.
They now knew they had not buried their captain at sea.
Was it possible he could
turn up on a lone mountainside in northern
As a strong mental image of his young captain flashed through his mind---Lee’s dark eyes, olive complexion and black hair, accompanied by his uncanny knack for languages---the admiral knew that yes, for whatever reason, it was possible.
His eyes still closed, he allowed a single syllable to slip through his lips as he turned away from Chip’s steady gaze.
“Lee. . . .”
The exec was suddenly at his side, easing Nelson’s exhausted frame into one of the nearby chairs, pushing his own unfinished scotch into the admiral’s hand.
As the admiral lifted the glass to his lips, he was aware that his hand was shaking slightly. But, after a sip that brought tears to his eyes as it burned down the back of his throat, he blinked rapidly and looked into the concerned face of the exec, who was now squatting down in front of him on the deck.
“Are you alright, sir?” Chip asked, his worry clear.
Nodding, Nelson reached out and picked up both legal pads. He shook them, rattling the pages for emphasis as he said a little more firmly, “Chip, I’m going to sit here and read both of these reports carefully.”
As the exec nodded, Nelson
added, his stronger voice clearly making the next words a series of orders, “Make
a course change, Mr. Morton, and head for the northern coast of
Standing, Chip allowed himself the relief of a quick grin, as he responded crisply, “Aye, sir!” and headed aft to the control room.
These were the orders he had been waiting to hear!
When he was gone, shutting the separating doors behind him, Nelson closed his eyes, leaning forward over the yellow legal pads clutched in his hand.
Softly he said, “I know you can never forgive me for leaving you, lad. But hang onto your faith in us a little longer, if you can. We’re coming at flank speed, son.”
Owen Roberts scanned the website, his eyes glued to the screen as he lifted the cup of steaming coffee to his lips. He was barely aware of the strong, rich flavor as he swallowed, his eyes continuing to search for the information he had been unable to locate during the last two hours.
Setting down the cup, he reached up with the same hand, rubbing tiredly at his eyes and closing them for a moment.
It had only been half a day since they had buried his boss, George Premarious. Roberts was exhausted, the ordeal in the mountains having completely drained him, and he had had little chance to reflect on all that had occurred until this afternoon.
Mrs. Premarious had been surrounded by family members the last time he had gotten a glimpse of her this morning, and he had dropped Sonya off at her condo a few hours before. Now, he wanted nothing more than to eat a good meal in the quiet solitude of his house and sleep for a week.
But something had been nagging at his memory, just barely beneath the surface. . . something lying just out of reach, hidden in a cloudy grey, half-recollection for several days now. Then earlier in the evening as he had been lying on his bed trying to sleep with the television on in the background, he had heard something on the news about an upcoming yacht race in the Saronikos Kolpos that made him finally realize what it was that had been bothering him.
The broadcaster had intoned, “The view of the sea will be spectacular for those joining the race in person on Sunday afternoon. . . .”
The remainder of the words were never heard as Owen had pushed himself up on one elbow, his eyes glazing over for a moment . . . his thoughts far away.
“View of the sea. . . ,” he had mumbled. “Sea view. . . Seaview!”
Leaving his rumpled bed, he had quickly headed down the hall to his computer, booted it up, and had begun searching the internet for a news article that he remembered reading almost a year ago.
It had contained a story about an American research submarine, the Seaview, and her recent exploits in the Antarctic. In it had been a picture of some of her crew out on the ice and he believed that if he could just find it again, he might be able to confirm the thoughts that had been nagging at him. Either that, or he would satisfy himself once and for all that he was wrong to think the young man on the mountain had looked somewhat familiar.
It had to be that article that was haunting him. . . he had had no other contact with anything remotely connected to the U.S. Navy, at least that he could recall, in years. But, he had been at it for almost two frustrating hours, his efforts severely hampered by his inability to use both hands to type, and he had been unable to locate any mention of the article he had been hoping to find.
Suddenly, the phone on his desk started ringing, the noise an unwelcome intrusion into his thoughts.
“Dammit! Not another reporter!” he muttered.
Still glaring at its interruption, fearing it would lead to more of the same questions he had endured over and over during the last few days, he ignored it, deciding to let the answering machine pick it up.
After several more rings, he heard the neutral voice of his answering service, followed by the crisp, clear tone of an unfamiliar, no-nonsense voice on the other end leaving a message.
“Captain Roberts, this is
Lieutenant Commander Morton of the SSRN Seaview.
We picked up a radio account of your recent situation in the mountains of
Making up his mind, several pieces of the confusing puzzle of events and faces suddenly slamming into place, Owen reached for the receiver.
“This is Owen Roberts. How can I help you?”
Without missing a beat on the other end of the line, the voice asked, “Captain, could you hold for the admiral, sir?”
“Yes, certainly. I’ll stay on the line.”
“Thank you, sir. It will only be a moment.”
After a brief pause, Roberts heard an insistent, slightly gruff voice on the other end.
“Captain Roberts, this is Harriman Nelson of the Nelson Institute for Marine Research of Santa Barbara, California and the submarine, Seaview. My condolences on the loss of your boss. George was an acquaintance . . . definitely a good man.”
“Yes, he was, sir,” Owen Roberts replied, the sorrow evident in his voice.
“Roberts, I’ll come right to the point of my call, if you don’t mind. . . .”
“There’s no need, Admiral. I’ve just been sitting here for the last two hours searching for an internet article I remembered reading a while back on your boat and her crew.”
Pausing for a second in surprise, the admiral replied, “And why is that, Captain?”
Taking a deep breath,
knowing he was finally on the right track. . . that they both were, Roberts said
evenly, “Let me ask you something, Admiral Nelson. Are you missing one of your
crewmen? Or, is it possible he’s acting in some kind of covert capacity in
In the radio shack of the Seaview, receiver held to his ear, the admiral suddenly turned away from the electronic equipment, his blue eyes zeroing in on the face of the blond exec standing beside him and, with his free hand, he reached out, grasping the younger man’s forearm in a steel-like grip.
Chip met the gaze steadily, concentrating all of his willpower on keeping his emotions even . . . on forcing himself to wait . . . to remain still, patiently listening, despite the silent quickening of his heartbeat.
But he was puzzled.
There had not been enough conversation between the two men, one here in the control room of the submarine, the other somewhere in central Greece, to exchange even Lee’s name . . . yet somehow, what Chip saw in the admiral’s reaction gave him cause for more hope than any of them had had in much too long. What did the brief exchange really mean?
“Yes, Captain Roberts,” the admiral replied, filling in two of the points of confusion for the listening Chip, “one of my officers, Lee Crane, is missing . . . has been for two months. You seem to have been looking for a way to confirm some hypothesis, and now I think you have. Do you have any idea of Crane’s whereabouts?”
“Lee Crane. . . . I don’t know anyone by that name, Admiral, but I. . . .”
Suddenly Roberts stopped, unsure of how much he should say.
What if the man he knew as Leksi was this Lee Crane . . . and he had been avoiding these people for some reason?
What if the caller on the other end of the telephone was not really who he said he was?
Would it be endangering the young man who, in retrospect had been so careful to give nothing away about himself, if he answered these questions being asked by someone whose identity Owen could not confirm?
His loyalty to the dark-haired young man who had saved the lives of three people on Astraka Column three days ago made his duty clear. First, he had to establish just who these men were that he was discussing things with, and then, somehow, he had to confirm the reason for their interest in the man he knew only as Leksi.
“Um, Admiral,” he said, hesitating. Then, clearing his throat, he spoke again, his voice more business like, “Admiral Nelson, would it be possible for you to meet with me? I would rather discuss this in person.”
Hearing the change in the pilot’s tone, the admiral closed his eyes for a moment, trying to clamp down on his impatience, trying to control his irritation.
Then, opening his vivid blue eyes again, he set his jaw and said evenly, “Of course, Captain. We can be there in. . . .”
He saw Chip hold up one hand flat, palm down, moving it in an arc to simulate the flying sub in flight, then touching the face of his watch, and holding up eight fingers.
Nodding, the admiral continued smoothly, “We can be there by around 0800 hours tomorrow. Is there a lake nearby where we could land a small craft?”
“Lake? Yes . . . There’s a lake with a marina just south of here, near the airport. Shall I meet you there?”
“If you’ll send someone to pick us up, I think we should meet in one of George’s offices, somewhere you’ll feel comfortable and have the resources to confirm we are who we say we are.”
“I’ll arrange it, sir,” Roberts replied in relief at the calm control of the other man’s responses. Perhaps his worries were unfounded after all. “And. . . and, thank you for understanding my hesitation, Admiral.”
“I’m not at all sure I understand it, Captain Roberts, but I’ll respect it for now. Just. . . just know that we have been very worried about our captain for much too long a time, and when we meet, you and I, I’m going to expect any information you have that may be related to his whereabouts.”
“Your captain?” Roberts’ voice rose as he asked the question, his salt and peppered eyebrows rising as well. Is that who Leksi really was? Captain of the Seaview?
But . . . why would he have been on that mountain, calling himself by another name, if he belonged on board a submarine, if he were the captain of such a boat?
“I’ll do what I can,” Roberts added. Swallowing hard, battling against his own extensive military training, he then stated firmly, “But quite frankly and with all due respect, sir, your demands are not my top consideration here.”
“Then what is?” Nelson asked sharply, turning away from Chip, his eyes narrowing as he glared twin blue laser beams into the bulkhead behind the electronic equipment while he listened.
“The best interests of the man who saved three lives on Astraka Column this week, Admiral.”
Nodding, though the man on the other end of the line could not see him, Nelson said evenly, “If that man was Captain Lee Crane, I assure you that is exactly what I want as well. . . .” Then, thinking for a moment, Nelson added, “Roberts, I’ll have someone email a picture of Crane to Premarious Steel in just a few minutes. And we’ll see you in the morning.” Almost as an after-thought, he added, “Thank you for speaking with me.”
“I’ll be waiting for you, Admiral.”
When he handed Sparks the
receiver, the older man turned glittering blue eyes on the exec for a long
moment. Nodding again, he said, “
Not replying when
Chip followed him, confusion and elation both warring on his unyielding countenance.
What had stopped the conversation so abruptly? It sounded like they now knew so much more than they had before, and yet . . . they knew nothing more.
Watching the admiral resume his position beside the windows, which now looked out on the darker depths of 90-plus feet, he said in a voice that came out more demanding than he intended, “What happened, sir?”
The older man turned back to look at him for a long moment before he turned away, placing both hands on the ledge and leaning forward over it. Dropping his head, he shook it back and forth before he replied.
“He wouldn’t give me very much information, Chip.”
“But you have enough to investigate further? To meet with him?”
“Yes, I’m convinced that he knows Lee, that he’s seen him, talked with him.”
Surprised, his elation rising at the same rate as his caution, Chip responded, “I want to believe that as much as you do, Admiral. But, sir, I don’t understand how you can be so sure.”
“I’m sure, Chip. Very sure. In fact, it is precisely because he wouldn’t tell me anything that makes me so sure.”
Shaking his head, Chip said, “I don’t follow you, Admiral.”
Taking on the steady blue gaze of the executive officer, Admiral Nelson elaborated, “He’s protecting him, Chip. He’s protecting the man that rescued them on that mountain, a man he could’ve only known a very short period of time. And that alone is enough to convince me where nothing else could. Who else but Lee Crane could have engendered such loyalty after such a brief, albeit harrowing, encounter with complete strangers?”
As Chip nodded, not trusting his usually stone-steady voice to reply directly to the question, he simply said, “I’ll have Sharkey ready the flying sub for immediate launch. Do you also want a course change?”
“No, Chip. Have Seaview remain on course for the waters in the area closest to the crash of that jet. We can meet her there after we talk with the pilot.”
Returning to the control room seconds later, Morton found his own willingness to hope buoyed up even further by the anticipation that permeated the small space. Glancing around at the first genuine smiles he had seen on the faces of his men in far too long, Chip nodded, and he smiled slightly, allowing his hope to touch the light blue of his eyes as he watched them.
Then, straightening his expression and speaking clearly, his deep command voice carrying throughout the room, he said, “Mr. O’Brien, you have the conn. Chief, you’re with me. We have a flying sub to launch and a skipper to find!”
His smile growing exponentially in spite of himself, he heard multiple echoes from around the control room, from more sources than only O’Brien and Sharkey, as the control center of the submarine reverberated with a resounding chorus of “Aye, sir!”
The large wood paneled room, with its massive steel and black granite conference table, spoke of a solid corporate reputation. It had been the same with their first glimpse of the exterior of the impressive, yet not ostentatious building.
The two older men accepted the coffee offered by a raven-haired assistant, the quiet woman barely able to keep her eyes off of the tall blond-headed man in uniform standing at the far end of the table. Nelson and Jamison, who had insisted upon accompanying the two officers, glanced at each other in some amusement, as it was obvious the young woman was taken with the uncharacteristically oblivious exec.
Chip was lost in thought, his relief at finally having a solid lead into Lee’s disappearance vying with his worry over the time this meeting was taking from their search for his friend.
If the man who had disappeared from the village in the mountains several days ago really was Lee Crane, how much further away could he get with each passing hour? But the question that kept worrying Chip the most was, WHY? If he was physically capable of hiking up and down mountains, of disappearing from searching reporters, why was Lee not looking for them?
He kept his back to the room, blue troubled eyes staring out of one of the huge windows, its striking vista over rolling green hills and low-growing, geometrically-spaced fruit trees barely noticed. And even when the impressive twelve-foot door opened to admit two additional men, he remained that way as introductions were made behind him.
The admiral merely nodded in his direction, not drawing him out of his reverie as he and Jamison shook hands with the greying, dark-haired man whose left arm was encased in a cast and supported by a sling of black cloth.
“Admiral,” Roberts began, as the burly man with him moved off to stand by one wall, with no names exchanged, “I appreciate your time in coming here. I received the picture you sent, and I’ve done some checking on you. Mr. Premarious’ executive assistant had several albums of his, taken at various events over the years and,” he smiled as he continued, “because you’ve not changed much since the convention you both attended in Chicago five years ago, you were easily recognizable.”
Beside him, Jamison coughed slightly, covering his grin with one hand. But then he immediately glanced worriedly over at Chip, who still had not acknowledged the conversation going on behind him. Ordinarily the gregarious officer would have delighted at adding a dry jibe to just such an exchange.
“I’m relieved, Captain Roberts,” the admiral responded smoothly.
“Please call me Owen, Admiral,” he said, gesturing for them to be seated. His eyes flickered toward the back of the younger man remaining by the windows, but he quickly returned his gaze to meet the steady look from the admiral.
Sliding the picture received last night out of his sling, the pilot placed it on the table and pushed it across to them. The admiral looked down at the handsome, professionally-taken photograph of a uniformed Lee Crane, and a sharp pain of loss knifed into him.
The long pause and the blue eyes that closed in momentary anguish did not go unnoticed by either Will Jamison or Owen Roberts.
Satisfied that his instincts about the admiral’s sincerity were correct, Roberts said quietly, “The man I met on the side of that mountain four days ago, Admiral, would no longer fill out that uniform, and he was anything but military in appearance. He told us his name was Leksi, that he had hiked up from the village of Mikro Papingo, but . . . he was definitely the man in this photo.”
From across the room, they heard the blond slam his open hand into the portion of wood-paneled wall separating the two windows, and Jamison stood, moving toward him quickly as they saw Morton drop his head, hand still grasping the wood trim beside him.
As the doctor spoke quietly into the younger man’s ear, their heads bent together, backs to the room, Roberts turned away to take in the grief-stricken eyes of the man seated perpendicular to him on his right.
Swallowing hard, Nelson nodded at him, relief beginning to show in the blue depths. After drawing in a deep breath, he said gruffly, “Captain Roberts. . . Owen, you can’t know how much . . . how much it means to us to hear that. . . . You’re sure?”
They both paused for a second, each remembering separate thoughts of the man they each respected, though one had known him for much longer than the other.
Then the pilot said softly, “Yes, I’m positive. And having met the man, Admiral, knowing I owe him my life, I think I do have an idea of what he probably means to all of you.”
“Will you tell us what happened. . . ? About this . . . Leksi . . . about Lee?”
“Of course. But first, there’s someone I’d like for you to meet.”
Turning, he looked over his shoulder and nodded at the man blending into the background behind him. The man quickly opened the door and exited, returning a few moments later supporting a petite, auburn-haired woman, one of his hands under her arm. As the two men at the table stood, Owen reached out to seat her beside him, patting her on the hand. She looked at him steadily, her green eyes luminescent in her otherwise pale face.
“Admiral, this is Sonya Chandler, a member of our flight crew and,” he added with a reassuring smile, “a young woman that I consider a doting daughter.”
Reaching out, Nelson shook her extended hand, and said, “It’s a pleasure, Ms. Chandler.”
As he moved to his seat, she said, “Please call me Sonya, Admiral.”
She turned her head toward the two men approaching slowly from the window, and Nelson noticed the greenish-yellow bruise on her forehead as she did so, just under her fringe-like bangs.
Clearing his throat, Nelson pulled her eyes back to him as he said, “Sonya, let me introduce you to Seaview’s doctor, Will Jamison, and Executive Officer, Lieutenant Commander Morton.”
Briefly taking in the concern in the older man’s hazel eyes, she was most immediately struck by the pain behind the pale blue of the younger officer’s as he sat down across from them.
This man was hurting, and she instantly connected his anguish to the worry she had brought home with her. There was absolutely no doubt that these men were as concerned about the dark-headed man she had met on the side of a fog-covered mountain as she and Owen were.
Owen reached out and,
reading her eyes, he gripped her hand tightly. An image of Sonya pacing the
floor two afternoons ago, practically begging him to take her back to the
Though he returned his attention to those gathered now around the table, his memories about recent events only sharpened as he heard the admiral’s next words.
“Will, Chip, this is Sonya Chandler. She. . . .”
“Chip? Your name is Chip?” Owen asked incredulously, interrupting as he leaned forward, looking intently at the blue-eyed young man across the table.
Staring back at the pilot, Chip nodded. His expression was instantly neutral with an undercurrent of wariness in his eyes as he replied politely, “Yes, sir. My name is Charles Morton, but I’ve always gone by Chip. Why? Is that important?”
Owen met the steely stare evenly as he said, any of his remaining doubts dissipating like smoke in a stiff breeze, “Leksi . . . Lee . . . was pretty much out of his head on two different occasions, and several times he said something that I thought was ‘Chip.’ In fact, I thought it was his name until he told us to call him Leksi.” Trailing off, he added, “But I never got a chance to ask him about it later. . . .”
Chip’s eyes dropped to the shiny surface of the table as the man’s words crashed into him. He did not see Sonya studying his face, but he did hear the admiral immediately voicing the thought most plaguing him.
“Leksi? I wonder why he would. . . ? Perhaps you’d better start at the beginning, Owen.”
Nodding, the man squeezed Sonya’s hand and explained, his words tumbling out of him like water cascading over rock, “Of course, Admiral. We were flying Mr. and Mrs. Premarious back from a gathering of friends just east of there, and we began experiencing difficulty an hour into the flight. First, I lost power to most of our instruments, and without them, I could only guess at the location and height of the mountains around us. I had little experience with the area, and we were in dense clouds that I couldn’t get above. I had also begun having trouble with one engine.”
He paused, taking a deep breath and continued, “Mr. Premarious . . . George, began having some distress. We were north of Ioannina, the city with the closest airport large enough for our GS450 and, I hoped, a decent-sized hospital. I was just trying to make the airstrip when I spotted a small, waving light through the fog. We were headed straight for it, and I pulled us up as much as I could. But the response on one side was sluggish, and our wing . . . it must have hit solid stone. The fuselage broke up on impact . . . into at least three sections, but . . . “
He stopped. The next part of what had happened was somewhat hazy for him, and his hesitation was compounded by the guilt he still felt at having implored the younger man to go back inside the jet to retrieve the body of his employer . . . despite the danger.
Sonya, her voice melodious but slightly shaky, spoke up, though for some of it she could only speak of what Lydia Premarious and Owen had told her since that day.
“Leksi. . . your Lee. . . got us out. I was unconscious, but he must have carried us one at a time, getting us far enough away to withstand the blast that followed. Leksi even went back in to bring Mr. Premarious out just before it, though we knew . . . Leksi knew. . . he was already dead. . . .”
She trailed off, looking at Owen before she swallowed and continued, “We think he died of a heart attack prior to the crash. I . . . I was out of my seat, trying to help him. . . but. . . .”
She reached up with one
trembling hand, gingerly touching the bruise on her head. “After the crash, I was
Jamison asked into the silence that followed, “Owen, you were quoted in the report that we received saying that Lee was hurt. . . .”
Picking up the threads of the haltingly-told story, Owen nodded as he squeezed Sonya’s hand again and said, “It was my fault. I asked him to go back in for Mr. Premarious. I knew he was dead; Leksi knew he was dead. He . . . he just nodded and went anyway. . . . There was an explosion. . . just after he came out carrying George’s body. He was thrown to the ground, and he . . . the place is nothing but bare, grey stone up that high, and he must have hit his head when he fell. He was unconscious for quite a while, coming around only briefly once or twice. . . .”
Looking at Chip, he nodded and said, “That was the first time I heard him saying your name. Later, he said it again when we were all mostly asleep, waiting for the men from the village to reach the stone hut we had sheltered in. It was the only thing that I really heard him say that seemed . . . out of place . . . for where we were or who I thought he was at the time . . . though I can’t say that about his actions.”
Chip’s glacial blue eyes bored into the man speaking, as the impact of what Roberts had said grinded and twisted at his gut like a submarine propeller caught in a steel net.
“What do you mean?” Nelson asked.
“Well. . . . He spoke perfect Greek, for one thing, and he was dressed like the villagers we saw later. But . . . for all that, I thought he must be American. And there was just something about him, something that didn’t fit the place or the circumstances.”
Seeing the puzzled looks of the admiral and the two men with him, Roberts added, “Once he was conscious again, he . . . he shook off the injury like . . . like it was something he could just ignore. He . . . I’m ex-Air Force, Admiral, but . . . I’ve not been around too many men that could handle the pain he obviously did, not with that kind of utter calm and mental discipline.”
Chip and the admiral met each other’s eyes, blue on blue, as the doctor sucked in his breath with an audible hiss. Slamming both hands down on the unyielding granite, Jamison pushed away from the table and stood, stalking over to the wide windows. As he stood there, looking out, he mentally reviewed what Critinger had told them over six weeks ago about the captain’s injuries at that time.
Used to the doctor’s frustrated responses to Lee’s past injuries, the admiral ignored this display. He was relieved enough now to indulge his innate curiosity for a moment, so he asked, “Owen, what made you connect him to us?. . . I know you mentioned seeing a picture somewhere along the way that you related to Seaview, but . . .”
“He said very little really, Admiral,” Roberts answered immediately, turning from explaining the events and more toward trying to voice the thoughts the young man’s actions had evoked.
“It was more the way he
carried himself, the way he acted, as if he was used to being in command, used
to making life-and-death decisions. He had a presence about him that screamed
self-assurance and confidence, yet he was as gentle as he could be with
Suddenly, hearing this sincere and very accurate description, after having thought Lee dead for so many weeks, was almost more than Nelson could handle. He fought to keep his composure, to remain focused on getting the answers they needed.
His voice quieter than before, Nelson choked out, “What happened next?”
Nodding at Sonya, her green eyes bright, the pilot said, “He helped me with the ladies, carried George’s body back to shelter it inside the burned out cabin of the jet, and he got the two of us on our feet and moving down the mountain.”
“So, you could all walk out on your own at that point?” the doctor asked, turning to face them from across the room.
Sonya spoke up, “I had hit
my head, and I was pretty woozy . . . and Owen, his arm was broken, but Leksi .
. . Lee. . . set it for him using a flattened water bottle and some strips torn
from the blankets he had brought with him . . . I guess from the hut down
below. And he carried Mrs. Premarious,
“Walking stick?” Chip asked puzzled, struggling to recall the significance of it for a moment before he remembered some mention of it in the news report Bannatyne had translated.
Nodding, Roberts added, “He didn’t say anything about how he had used it as a torch, but he pointed it out when we walked past it. . . to help Sonya. And when she picked it up from along the trail, we realized there were strips of burned blanket wrapped around one end. . . . And it hit me then that he had made a torch of it in the fog . . . that I had in my hand the source of the light that had kept us from hitting the mountain nose in. Not only had he gotten us out of the 450 before it exploded, but his actions kept us from dying instantly in a crash we couldn’t possibly have walked away from.”
Sonya gripped Owen’s arm and added, “We made it the rest of the way down to a tiny, stone hut where we waited much more comfortably until the villagers came to help us, just like he said they would.”
Roberts continued, “They took us on down the mountain after that, the ladies on donkeys brought up from Mikro Papingo, and Lek-. . . Lee. . . basically placed us in the hands of an older couple, an Elena and Costa Melanthius, once we got there. We didn’t see him again, except for a glimpse at a distance. He was sitting out on a stone parapet overlooking the gorge the next morning, but from the time that the first reporter arrived in the village to cover the story, he was gone. The odd thing was that the villagers seemed to be covering for him, feigning ignorance of his existence and saying he must have just been passing through.”
“But you don’t buy that explanation?” Nelson inquired.
“No,” the pilot said, shaking his head emphatically. “Neither of us do. When the men from the village first arrived, he was obviously too well acquainted with the one called Costa to have just been passing through.” Nodding as he thought through it all again, he added, “Yes, they knew each other all right. It was clear in their mutual respect and in the old man’s concern for him.”
As the exec and the admiral contemplated what they had been told, the doctor circled back around to stand beside the pilot. His face was unreadable as he asked, “What kind of condition was Lee in up on the mountain . . . and that last time you saw him?”
Sonya and Owen looked at each other, their concern clear for the others to see. Nodding at her, Owen indicated that she should share her on-going worries with them.
Taking a deep breath, she
said, “It became apparent that he was hurt worse than he let us believe. As he
Swallowing hard, she said, her bright green eyes filling suddenly with tears, “We . . . we saw him drop to his knees and, by the time we got to him, he was really having to work at every breath. His head was bleeding again, and his skin was hot and sweaty-cold at the same time. I . . . I thought he was going to . . . to die right there in front of us . . . just like Mr. Premarious did. . . especially when he started reaching up, pushing his hand into his chest. . . .”
“But,” Roberts assured her as she clung to his hand and turned her face away, “he didn’t, honey. . . . He’s alright, Sonya. I’m sure of it. . . .”
Touching her chin and gently turning her back to look at him, he peered down into her tear-streaked face and added softly, “If he isn’t alright now, he will be soon. These men are his friends. They’ll make sure of it.”
She bit down on her lip, and she hauled in a shaky breath, nodding with a small smile for the four men watching her in concern. When her eyes found the blue of Chip Morton’s across the table from her, she held onto his confident gaze for an extra moment.
Leaning toward her, Chip said, his voice deep and reassuring, “Sonya, I’ve been Lee Crane’s friend for years, and he’s the toughest man I’ve ever known. . . . Definitely the most hardheaded,” he added, smiling when his words brought a soft, relieved laugh from her, “but he’s walked away from worse situations than whatever happened to him on the side of that mountain. The very fact that he was there at all, even bleeding and struggling for breath, is the best news I’ve had in a very long time.”
As Chip talked to the young woman, Jamison felt the effect of the words she had spoken slicing through him like a knife. Unable to share in their relief yet, he walked away from the others again, placing his hands on the window ledge, his thoughts far away.
He closed his eyes, easily picturing their captain ten to fifteen pounds lighter, his already lean frame that much thinner, and Jamison layered the thought of the new head injury to the image he had already conjured up from Critinger’s words weeks ago. He also had no doubt, after hearing the young woman’s words, that Lee must have either punctured a lung at some point or was very close to doing so.
If he were trying to stay away from the curiosity of the press, and if he were not trying to make it back to them, what else would he have to endure before they found him?
And would he still be in one piece when they did?
Hauling in a shaky breath, the physician opened his eyes, staring out at nothing as a thought suddenly occurred to him. . . .
. . . If Lee was going by another name and hadn’t mentioned who he was or where he was from. . . . If he hadn’t been trying to locate them . . . to come home . . . could he still be suffering from the ill effects of an earlier head injury, from something that had happened to him two months ago?
What if he couldn’t come home, couldn’t use his own name, because. . . because he didn’t know where home was or even who he was?
Turning around abruptly, his motion catching the admiral’s alert attention, Jamison quickly skirted the edge of the table and headed toward the door.
Stopping all conversation at the table, Admiral Nelson stood suddenly, drawing everyone’s eyes toward him and toward the doctor.
“What is it, Doctor?” he demanded, his eyes not missing the heightened agitation of the physician.
“Admiral, we need to find him. And we can’t waste any time in doing so. I’ve thought about what Ms. Chandler and Captain Roberts have told us. Putting that with what Critinger already explained to us, I’m afraid that Lee may be suffering from some kind of amnesia.”
His blue eyes widening, Nelson stepped toward the door and said, “You’re saying he might not even remember who he is?”
“I’m saying it would certainly explain a great deal, Admiral. And I don’t like the sound of the other symptoms they’ve described, the head wound, the struggling to breathe, the pain in his chest. We need to find him. We need to find him now.”
Standing to join all three Seaview officers by the door, Owen and Sonya reached out to quickly shake their hands before they exited.
Then suddenly, the green-eyed young woman reached out again, grasping onto the admiral’s sleeve for a moment. “Please,” she implored, “before you leave, can you tell us why he was there? And anything about what had happened to him before he helped us?”
The admiral met the worried,
intelligent eyes steadily before he made up his mind and said, “I suppose it
wouldn’t do any harm to tell you some of it. Lee originally went in to
“The U.N. delegation?” Roberts queried quietly, referring to the news headlines weeks ago.
“Yes. He got them out except for one that was already dead, but he didn’t follow them. We knew he had been very badly beaten, and eventually we were told he’d been killed. . . . It was only recently that we learned that he may not be dead. . . .”
As he looked into her concerned face, the admiral’s eyes betrayed the guilt he felt inside for believing the lies, for giving up on searching for Lee. But, at the small squeeze of Sonya’s hand on his forearm, Nelson pushed away the thoughts and nodded back at her with a small smile.
He leaned in and kissed her on the cheek as he said, “You have given me hope again. Thank you.” Including Owen in his next words with his eyes, he added, “Thank you both.”
“You’re most welcome, Admiral. Please find him and return him home safely. He’s a very brave man, but he’s obviously endured enough.”
Then, nodding at her words,
Nelson turned to go. But, one hand on the door, he paused again and said,
“We’ll keep you informed about how things turn out. But as Chip said, don’t
worry about him too much. Lee Crane may get into more scrapes than any
As the admiral squeezed Sonya’s hand again in his and turned to follow the doctor and exec out of the door, they all heard Jamison mutter from the hallway, “More lives than a golden-eyed alley cat, is more like it!”
In another situation, one that was not so urgent, not so much a matter of life-and-death for Lee, Chip might have been enjoying himself immensely. As it was, the feel of the powerful vehicle hugging the sharp curves, settling into the rhythm of the serpentine switchbacks, helped ease the raw worry that tormented him.
When they had first
rendezvoused with Seaview in the
Ionian Sea between the
After much discussion about strategy for what was next, the four of them, Morton, Nelson, Jamison, and Bannatyne, along to help translate for them, seemed to find their own solace in mutual silence.
Chip banked the next steep curve to the right, downshifting smoothly into the climb. He exhaled loudly, his eyes narrowed, as he thought again about Sonya Chandler’s description of the struggle Lee had endured on the side of that mountain a few days ago.
At the sound from the exec, the admiral pulled his eyes from the road in front of them, and he gazed at Chip’s profile. He was worried about the intensity behind the blue eyes that never flickered in his direction, not even for an instant as he spoke.
“Chip? Do you want me to take a turn?” he asked, his voice gruff in the otherwise silent car.
The only response was a tightening of the exec’s jaw and a slight shake of his head as the younger man continued to expertly negotiate the road. He drove as if he traveled this particular stretch of mountainside several times a day. Leaning back with an understanding sigh into the comfortable leather passenger seat, crossing his arms over his chest, the admiral tried to relax.
He knew the tension of the man beside him had nothing to do with the road, but everything to do with the journey.
They had already passed
several of the many villages of the Zagorohoria, their light grey, square-cut
houses set one above the other into the sides of the mountains. The colorful
doors and windows, in bright turquoise, yellow, and red, stood out in cheerful
contrast to the monochromatic backdrop of slate roofs and stone walls. But only
the crewman in the back seat seemed to pay the picturesque villages or their
surrounding scenery more than a passing glance. Even when they had crossed the
As they continued to climb,
however, the admiral slowly turned his eyes toward the encroaching peaks,
wondering at the chances of the passengers of a light jet surviving an impact
of any kind with the imposing grey stone above them. The map folded up beside
him had identified the peaks as the Gamila. But, as Bannatyne had translated,
it was also called the
Once again, with a glance over at the doctor in the seat behind him, Nelson turned his churning thoughts to his young captain.
Unable to stop it, he allowed a feeling of dread to encroach darkly on the hope he had begun to rely on ever since he had heard Owen Roberts’ voice in the radio shack of the Seaview. While it seemed the man had provided a good lead in their search for Lee, the situation he described remained almost as dire. . . much more dire than Nelson liked to think. On their way from Agrinio back to the boat in FS1, Jamison had told them of his growing concerns. . . and none of them sounded good.
The doctor, like the pilot had already suspected, was worried that one of Lee’s ribs was indeed contributing to the breathing problems Roberts had described. In fact, Will had mentioned that a broken rib could be in danger of causing or had already caused a laceration to one or both of Lee’s lungs. But Nelson knew the doctor well enough to know, from the look in Jamison’s hazel eyes, the dropped voice, and the shake of his head, that Lee’s head injury --- or injuries --- brought the doctor the greatest worry.
“What had he called it?” Nelson wondered tiredly to himself. “SIS?”
From all they had been told by first Critinger and then Roberts, he understood that Second Impact Syndrome was a very real possibility for Lee. The result of two head injuries, the second occurring before the first had a chance to fully heal, SIS could lead to coma or worse. Nelson and Morton had listened closely to the information shared with them, understanding that the effects of two such injuries could be felt immediately or delayed for months.
Expelling a deep breath he did not realize he had been holding, the admiral growled audibly. Then, shaking his head, he thought again about the possible symptoms the docto had mentioned, ranging from confusion and changes in emotional responses, to dizziness and blinding headaches. But the greatest danger from SIS was its underlying cause, the increased intracranial pressure brought on by unregulated flow of blood in damaged blood vessels. If that was what Lee now suffered from, it was hopefully still possible to treat it, depending on how bad it was and how quickly they could reach him.
It was clear that they had to get to Lee. . . and in a hurry.
Ignoring the glances thrown his way by the others, Nelson clenched his fists and stared out the window beside him, his eyes again focusing on the triple peaks of the tallest mountain.
They couldn’t be this close to finding him, now that they knew there was a strong possibility Lee was still alive, only to lose him to his injuries.
Somewhere, between here and that mountain, he fervently hoped they would soon find the young man they sought . . . find him both healthy and ready to come home.
The sleek vehicle remained behind them, parked beneath a gnarled tree, the car’s roomy width unsuited for negotiating the twisting alleyway that separated the stone houses nestled against the mountain. The narrow street was lined with stone, with the houses set only slightly back from the head-high grey retaining walls. These houses, like those they had passed earlier, had the distinctive addition of colorful doors and windows, the slight, afternoon breeze billowing bright curtains inward. Other than the curtains’ wavy, colorful motion, the village was quiet, with no noticeable movement.
The soles of their shoes scrunched loudly on the square, stone cobbles of the street as the admiral and exec headed away from the vehicle. The other two remained behind, splitting up as they wandered around the edges of the village, looking for someone, anyone, with whom to speak. None of them wanting to overwhelm the locals with more inquisitive visitors, the plan was for the other two to follow the first in a few minutes, if they found no one else to assist them first.
Drawn by the painted sign above the open door and the tantalizing smells of fresh-baking bread from inside, the two officers paused just within the white-washed walls of the village bakery halfway down the street. As they allowed their eyes to adjust to the relative darkness, the rotund baker and two female customers turned toward them in surprise.
Expecting to welcome hungry tourists, the baker nodded to the two men, obviously military officers from their clothing and bearing, and he asked in broken English, “May I . . . be of help?”
Stepping forward, Nelson said, “Yes, we are looking for Elena and Costa Melanthius. Could you tell us where we might find them?”
Not missing the look exchanged between the little round man and the brightly-dressed, older woman standing closest to him, Morton heard the vague reply.
“What . . . your business is . . . with them?” the baker asked, wiping his flour-covered hands on a blue rag and watching them suspiciously, though not yet with open hostility.
“After the jet crashed on the mountain, Owen Roberts, the pilot, sent us to speak with them,” Admiral Nelson spoke up, using his best military courtesy.
After staring at him blankly, only catching the name of the pilot, the man’s dark eyebrows rose dramatically as Bannatyne stepped inside the doorway with the doctor and moved forward to translate. The baker glanced again at the two women, and he spoke to them rapidly in a language the admiral could only assume was Greek.
Beside him, Bannatyne caught his eye and nodded.
One of the women, her intelligent eyes quickly shifting back to Nelson’s face, nodded back, offering a faint, though not entirely welcoming smile.
Hearing the young man translating his words, the baker replied, and Bannatyne said, “This is Elena Melanthius, Admiral.”
With Bannatyne struggling in places to translate the obscure Zagorohorian dialect, they were able to carry on a short dialogue that, at one point, resulted in Elena sending the other woman to find her husband for her and bring him to meet the somewhat intimidating, though very courteous visitors.
The arrival of Costa Melanthius about ten minutes later brought a relieved sigh from his wife. Up until that time, any mention of a dark-haired young man, either by the name of Lee Crane or Leksi, brought a worried look to her face followed by an emphatic, negative shake of her greying head.
The man, though not even as tall as the baker, seemed to fill the small room with his presence as he entered. He immediately crossed the floor to stand by his wife, his arm wrapped protectively around her waist. Costa stared determinedly into the blue eyes of the man he perceived immediately as the leader of the visiting group of four.
Again, relying on Bannatyne to translate, the questioning and answering continued, following the admiral’s introduction of his team.
“Mr. Melanthius,” Nelson continued, “We have spoken with the pilot of the small jet that crashed on the Gamila, Owen Roberts. He, in fact, was trying to contact us, to locate information on someone very important to us, Captain Lee Crane of my research submarine, Seaview. He believed that the man that helped them on the mountain earlier this week was our missing captain.”
As he watched the couple, Nelson could see the unease in the woman’s dark eyes, though the man simply watched the four of them with interest, not responding in any way. This man was very capable, very confident, and Nelson knew that he was a leader in this community as much as he, himself, was a leader on board his own boat. If this man could be convinced of what they said, of their intentions, Nelson was sure he would be an ally, not a deterrent, in their search for Lee.
Using Bannatyne as translator, the conversation continued.
“This Lee Crane, this captain of yours? What makes you think he is here? Why do you come to us?”
“He has been missing for over two months, Mr. Melanthius. Captain Roberts believed he recognized him from an article published about my crew a year ago. Here is a picture of Lee, of the man that Owen Roberts recognized.”
He reached inside his uniform and withdrew the same glossy, digitized photograph of the striking, dark-haired captain, who was seated with cover in hand for the public relations shot. Handing it to his counterpart, he saw the momentary shock of recognition cross the man’s face . . . before it was quickly gone again.
However, when the woman took it from her husband, her hand was shaking visibly, and she held the photo close to her chest for a moment, the other clutching Costa’s arm tightly. Both remained silent, though the fairly frosty temperature in the air between the two groups thawed by several degrees.
“Costa,” she breathed, staring at him. He patted her hand where it gripped the sleeve of his worn leather coat.
Responding at last, he said, “The captain of a submarine? I do not understand. How is it that you think your missing captain could be here, in our mountains?” He gestured to the view outside the still open doorway.
The admiral, feeling the cloak of protection emanating from the couple across from him, was sure that this seemingly innocent question was important to convincing them to help. He took a deep breath, unwilling to expose them to too much information that might someday endanger them, and he responded, “Captain Crane entered a tense situation two months ago to assist three innocent men, and he . . . he never returned to us.”
As he faltered, his emotions suddenly flaring too close, too quickly to the surface like a diving bell releasing emergency ballast, he was acutely aware of Costa Melanthius’ eyes on him. Swallowing hard, Nelson gazed back steadily and, for the first time in their presence, he allowed his blue eyes to mirror the depths of his feelings.
They knew Crane. He was sure of it. . . . If only he could convince them to help. . to help Lee come home. . . .
Though his eyes registered recognition of the concern he saw and heard, Costa did not offer anything more for a long moment. He had protected the young man, sheltering him in his home, caring for him when he and Elena had been afraid he would die from his injuries. . . .
And the first quiet plea, spoken down inside the gorge by the river, spoken repeatedly in three different languages at great cost of pain and ragged breathing, flared through his memory as if burned into it. . . .
“Hide. . . . pleas-s-se. . . . Don’t let them. . . find. . .”
Swallowing hard, his memory and loyalty warring with the concern and worry he could clearly read in the expressions of the otherwise imposing figures across from him, Costa shook his head negatively, just as Elena had done.
“No, we know nothing about any submarine or any captain. Now, please go. Take yourselves and your questions away before you upset my wife any further.”
As Bannatyne translated, Nelson closed his eyes for a few seconds, and he tamped down on his frustration with an audible growl. Feeling Chip’s hand on his shoulder, he turned toward the doorway, knowing they had no choice now but to leave. . . at least to leave the immediate vicinity. Already beginning to plan how to keep the village under surveillance while they hoped to learn something more about Lee’s whereabouts, he was two steps from the open doorway before he heard the woman’s excited exclamation.
Turning back and looking quickly at Bannatyne for an explanation, Nelson watched her in stunned silence. The woman had broken into a quick dialogue with her husband, speaking so rapidly that the crewman was clearly having trouble following.
Her face transformed from guarded to thrilled in seconds as she stepped out of the protective, one-armed embrace and toward the four, equally surprised men across from her. Then she stopped before the uncomprehending exec, gesturing toward him, chattering eagerly.
The normally, supremely-composed Chip Morton just stood there, transfixed, his light blue eyes staring alternately at the animated woman and the dumbfounded Bannatyne. The latter just shook his head apologetically, his hands spread wide in a gesture of confusion, and he said, “I’m sorry, sir. She’s talking too quickly. All I can catch is something about your hands.”
The perplexed look on Chip’s face magnified as he looked down at his hands. Then, shaking his head, he lifted them up slightly as if offering both to her for explanation.
Eagerly, she seized the opportunity and reached out, lifting his right hand and holding it out toward her husband. They clearly heard the word “Leksi” repeated several times as Costa stepped around her, taking Chip’s wrist in his sun-browned, heavily-calloused grasp. He turned the exec’s hand over, knuckles up, and he leaned in, examining the distinctive onyx ring closely. Then, lifting his dark eyes to gaze into Chip’s face, he said something calmly to Bannatyne over his shoulder.
Nodding suddenly, the crewman said, “Sir, he wants to know if you’ll allow him to look at your ring more closely.”
Having already figured out what the older man wanted, Chip removed his hand from the yielding grasp and worked the gold onyx ring from his finger. Placing it carefully in the man’s palm, Chip watched as Costa Melanthius looked at it inside and out, then turned and offered it to his wife.
She took it, but only held it tightly, wrapping her fingers around it. Then, looking down at the picture she still held, she pointed at the ring barely visible in the photograph, its dark shape noticeable because of its stark contrast to the white cover in Lee Crane’s hand.
The eyes they both turned, first to Chip, then to the admiral, were at once full of relief, then flooded with worry.
“Please come with us,” Costa said, taking his wife, who still clutched the ring and the photograph, by the arm.
As Bannatyne translated, the four men turned to quickly follow the couple. A few minutes later, they had negotiated the narrow stone-lined streets of the village and were seated at a rectangular table in a comfortable kitchen with white-washed walls.
Both parties were on a first name basis by the time they reached the house and, though gaining the information would be slowed by the process of translation, the admiral was confident that their common concern would fuel the conversation, assisting in comprehending both the questions and, hopefully, the answers.
But, before he could pose the first question, Costa spoke up, his dark eyes alert and focused on the admiral’s face, “You have known our Leksi for a long time? You are his friends?
Holding the man in his
steady, blue-eyed gaze as Bannatyne translated, the admiral responded, “Yes,
Costa, Chip and Lee Crane have known each other for years. They went to the
To his left, Chip shifted slightly in his seat, the simple words and Costa’s level stare making him chaff under their probing attention. He broke the brief eye contact and looked around the room, wondering if Lee was here somewhere . . . maybe even in an adjacent room. He clenched his jaw, willing himself to stay seated, to stay here and listen to the abidingly slow conversation.
Then, responding to the silent question as the dark eyes moved back to hold his, the admiral added, “We . . . Lee and I. . . well, to answer your question, yes, we’ve known each other, worked together, for several years. . . . Costa, Elena. . . we. . . we had been led to believe Lee was dead. Now we know otherwise. Will you tell us where he is?”
Shaking his head when Bannatyne finished translating, Costa answered sadly, “You must understand, Admiral Nelson . . . Harry. . . Leksi is no longer here. He simply disappeared a few days ago, just after the crash of the jet. He must have known the reporters would come, and he . . . though he did not know for sure, he suspected that his presence here might bring trouble to us.”
“He’s not here?” Jamison asked, followed quickly by the exec’s demanding query.
“Where is he?” Chip demanded.
“What do you mean?” Nelson asked. Then nodding at Bannatyne, who passed on the highest ranking question, he added, “Please start at the beginning and tell us what you know of him, how he came to be here.”
With a sigh, the man glanced at his wife, and he said, “I run a rafting business down on the Voidomatis, for the tourists. We, my men and I, found him down there, in the gorge, weeks and weeks ago. He was washed up against some rocks, and he was very badly hurt.”
As his words were translated, he was momentarily distracted by the sudden noise from the man with the thinning hair at the opposite end of the table. Pulling his eyes away from the vivid, pain-filled blue of the blond’s eyes immediately across from him and turning to face the doctor who had spoken, Costa heard the translated question.
“What kind of injuries?”
Using his hands to demonstrate as he replied, he said, “He had a gash from here to here on his head, and he had at least three broken ribs, too many bruises to describe, and . . . and he . . .”
Speaking slowly, Jamison said for him, his voice more of a statement than a question, “And he didn’t remember who he was, did he?”
“No, he did not,” Costa responded after the translation. “He could only ask me to hide him, not to let ‘them’ find him, though I never did find out any more about those he was referring to. . . .”
In those words, Nelson heard the concern that went unvoiced, the concern that Costa, like Roberts in the beginning, wasn’t completely sure if they were the ones Lee would trust or the ones from whom he needed protection. Listening intently to the rest, Nelson knew he had some convincing to do before he could expect any more help from the older couple.
Costa continued, “I’m not sure he knew. . . . But it was not hard to tell someone had tried to kill him. In addition to the abrasions from the rocks, he had the marks of boots, fists, and something solid, maybe a board. . . something squared off on the edges that was used to hit his side and chest again and again. Whoever hit him with that. . . .”
Bannatyne’s face paled as he translated the words, and he faltered.
His voice like stone, Chip broke into the interrupted flow of words as he clarified succinctly, “It was a steel bar. . . . They beat him with a steel bar and almost killed him. All because he. . .”
“Mr. Morton,” the admiral cautioned.
But, seeing the color of Chip’s eyes turn a hard, glacial blue, the admiral knew gaining his compliance would not be so automatic.
“Admiral,” he began. “What those bastards did to him. . . .”
But, immediately, the older of the two softened his countenance for a moment. He locked eyes with Lee Crane’s closest friend, the man he knew Lee thought of as a brother, and he waited for an extra heartbeat, reaching out and gripping the exec’s forearm tightly before he spoke. His voice was softer than it had been before.
“Easy, lad. He would not want you to endanger these kind people by telling them too much . . . not for any reason.”
The blond stared back at him for a moment. Then, closing his eyes, he drew in a deep, ragged breath and nodded abruptly.
The admiral released his arm and, turning his attention back to the couple, he nodded at Bannatyne, who had not yet resumed his translation, as he asked, “You took care of him? For how long?”
Bannatyne took a deep breath and repeated the questions.
Elena, her dark eyes still on the unfocused blue gaze of the blond across from her, responded to the translated question more slowly than she had those back in the bakery.
“For weeks, Admiral. He had a broken wrist and a badly bruised hip. A bone there may have been cracked. It caused him great pain to move around too much. But it is true . . . he had no memory of who he was, why he was here, or even what had happened to him. He . . . I think that was what caused him the greatest pain. He would not let us take him to a hospital or even to see a doctor. I . . . even when he was getting better, he did not sleep well at night. . . .”
Nodding distractedly, his mind still whirling as he contemplated the short, un-translated exchange that he had just heard between the two officers, Costa took a deep breath. Then, adding to Elena’s comments, his words directed at the young interpreter, he added, “I think for a while, he had vague memories of being in a small, enclosed place, and he worried that he might have done something terrible, that he had been injured escaping from a jail. But. . .”
“A jail?” the admiral demanded, interrupting the flow of words shared through the crewman. Dropping his head, Nelson felt the single-syllable word cut through him like a serrated blade made of the sharpest steel.
Across from him, the doctor and the exec exchanged shocked expressions, their worry for their commander tripling. Chip shook his head and clamped down hard on the anger that threatened to choke him. After a moment, he forced himself to focus through the engulfing, dull red haze, struggling to follow the translated conversation.
“Sometimes he could remember pieces of things. We didn’t talk about it often, but I could tell. . . we both could,” Costa added, nodding toward Elena, “when a memory had really shaken him. There was a time when he thought he might have been on the run from the law, but there was no logic in that. It was clear to us that he was not that kind of man, and what someone did to him was not right by any law. Leksi . . . your Lee, did believe that his presence here would endanger us, though. And, even when he soon stopped believing he must be running from the law, he pushed himself physically to prepare to leave as soon as he could.”
Nodding, the admiral responded, “So, when the crash occurred. . . .”
“Yes . . . he left. But he would have gone soon anyway. He must have left on foot. He did not take my truck nor the van I use for the rafts, though I had already told him that he could when the time came.”
Speaking up again, the doctor asked, “Owen Roberts, the pilot, said that Lee was injured on the mountain. What kind of shape was he in before he left?”
Looking first at her husband, Elena then met the doctor’s gaze and said through Bannatyne, “Costas tried to make him allow the doctor who arrived to assist with the crash to examine him, but he would not. In fact, no outsider except the three
from the mountain even saw Leksi. The woman, the young one, told me that he had hit his head, that he had had a difficult time breathing. But as for Leksi, he did not let me know any of that.”
“He wouldn’t,” harrumphed the doctor quietly, looking down at the table and shaking his head back and forth morosely.
Chip spoke up before Bannatyne had a chance to translate the doctor’s reply, “Do you have any idea where he might have gone? . . . What he might do or where he might go?”
Hearing the translation, Elena silently turned to look into her husband’s eyes. Both of them knew that if they were wrong, if they made a mistake in trusting these men, it could cost Leksi his life. Other than the ring and the picture, how could they be sure?
Seeing their hesitation, the admiral turned his head and looked steadily at Chip for a moment. Then he said firmly, “Mr. Morton, I need you and Doctor Jamison to go outside . . . to wait for me.”
His voice held just a hint of command, enough that the doctor immediately stood without protest, nodding at the older couple and walking out through the open doorway.
But in the unmoving, glacial blue of the exec’s eyes, Nelson saw the reason for Chip’s hesitation. Though there was no accusation there, he felt the instantly crushing burden of his own request, and he heard an echo in his ears of Morton’s adamant refusal, voiced weeks ago, to ever back down again where finding Lee was concerned.
From before he had hired the two officers to work together, Nelson had known that, if ever forced to choose between two reasonable, but conflicting orders given by his commanding officers, the exec would, in a decision having nothing to do with rank, side with his friend. . . especially to protect the boat and her crew. But Nelson had known he could live with that balance, as long as he knew he still had both men’s respect.
However, his decisions in
the last weeks, particularly the one sending them all halfway around the world,
far away from the
Now, more plainly than he wanted to see it, when he knew the blond desired nothing more than to hear anything said that might help them find his friend, Nelson clearly observed the brief, but fierce internal struggle Chip fought. After a long moment in which their eyes remained locked, he finally saw the young man nod at him curtly.
Breathing out an almost audible sigh of relief, Nelson was grateful for the trust that was returned in that short reply. He nodded back as the blond held his eyes for another moment before standing. Then the only sound was that of his chair quietly scraping the floor and the soft “ma’am” and “sir” he uttered to the older couple as he nodded at them and turned to follow the doctor’s path.
Nelson watched him through the open doorway as he moved off, standing apart from Jamison, who was waiting beneath the branches of a tree hanging over a low stone wall.
Returning his eyes to meet Costa’s, Nelson reached out toward the older man’s forearm where it lay on the table. He then covered Elena’s hand that lay on the same wooden surface and, squeezing it gently, he looked first at the woman, then her husband, holding their dark eyes with his lighter ones.
“Please . . . we are so grateful for what you did for Lee . . . for . . . Leksi. You found him and took care of him. You kept him alive, kept him safe. There will never be enough words to tell you how much that means to us . . . to me.”
Then, unable to remain still another moment, Nelson squeezed Elena’s hand again and pushed away from the table. He stood and began pacing up and down one side of the room, his hands shoved deep into the pockets of his dress uniform.
The couple watched him carefully, their eyes finding his as soon as he reached the furthest point and turned back, stopping to stand across from them on the other side of the table, his hands spread wide on the polished wooden surface.
He looked down, breaking eye contact with them for a moment, then back up, gazing steadily at first one, then the other. In his face, in his bright blue eyes, they could at once see the pain of . . . of a bereaved parent in agony, as well as the guilt of a man who had been blaming himself for that loss.
Standing quickly, Costa turned to the crewman waiting silently near the door. In a commanding voice, he said in perfect English, “Please leave us.”
His eyes widening, Bannatyne glanced at the admiral, then turned and left when he saw the slight nod from the redheaded officer. Costa walked to the door and closed it firmly behind him before turning to face the admiral on the other side of the table.
Nelson hauled in a shaky breath, and he said, “You’ve understood everything we’ve said?”
“Yes, Harry.” Nodding toward his wife, Costa replied, “We both have. Most of our tourists don’t speak Zagorohorian Greek. And we’ve heard enough, from all three of you, to know that we can place our trust in you . . . to protect Leksi. I am sorry for the deception, but we had to be sure. Now, please tell us about . . . about your captain.”
Nelson expelled a noisy breath. Then, his voice ragged with the nearly paralyzing emotions and the difficulty of expressing them, he nodded and said haltingly, “Lee . . . Lee Crane is more than the captain of my submarine. . . . He. . . he. . . .”
Aware that what he was about to say was something he had known for a long time, he shook his head again. It was something that he had never taken the time---or the risk ---of speaking aloud to anyone, especially to the one person with whom he should have shared it. Nelson paused to rake in another shuddering breath. Then, steeling himself against the overwhelming pain, aware that if he did not convince these two people, he may never find Lee, he said in a voice barely above a whisper, “He is the son I never had, Costa, the son I never knew I needed or wanted until . . . .”
Lifting his head in surprise, he felt the sudden warm shifting as the edges of the solid stone that had replaced his heart the day he had committed a body he thought was Lee’s to the depths of the ocean began to melt. Then Nelson said more steadily, his voice growing stronger, “Lee Crane is like my own flesh and blood, and there is nothing I wouldn’t give to have him back . . . here beside me again. Please, if either of you has any idea of where I can find him, how I can help him, I need to know.”
Then, looking back down at the table again, blinking rapidly to contain the prickle of salt tears that marked the return of life inside his chest, he added softly, “But, I know you care for him too. If you feel that it is safer for him, or better for him in some way, that we not be told where he is right now, please. . . .” He took another deep, painful breath and finished, “Please tell him for me that his old, old man would love nothing better than to have him back on board his boat when he is ready.”
Elena, already on her feet, moved to stand beside the struggling, uniformed man, and she reached out to him, turning him around by the shoulder to face her. Then, standing on her tip-toes, she leaned in and kissed him first on one wet cheek, then the other, pulling him to her in a strong embrace.
“Admiral,” she said as she leaned back and reached out one hand to take that of her approaching husband. “My Costa will take you to the gorge. He will help you find your Lee Crane, to get him the medical attention he needs. And when you find him, if he wants to go with you instead of returning here, tell him for me that he is always welcome in our home. As are you and your men.”
Smiling broadly for the first time in what felt like too many years, the blue-eyed admiral squeezed the hands they each offered him, and he said huskily, “Thank you. Thank you again for all you did for him. . . for us.”
As the tires of the sleek black vehicle squealed in the apex of the curve, Will Jamison cut his eyes toward the sheer drop-off on the admiral’s side of the car. Then, taking a deep breath, he forced his focus away from the gorge below them and toward the craggy mountains on the other side.
He closed his eyes and swallowed hard, grumbling to himself audibly about redheaded drivers who took too many chances. A short, ironic laugh from the admiral brought his eyes open again, and Will tried to smile over at the man behind the wheel.
“I guess you’d rather be back on a nice safe submarine,” Nelson growled, not removing his eyes from the road.
Laughing a little too lightly, Jamie said, “I think I’d rather be anywhere but on this road at this time of night with someone in as much of a hurry as you are.”
A quick glance at Nelson was enough to assure the doctor that his comment was not too far out of line. In fact, it seemed to relax the driver momentarily. Then both of them sighed in relief a few moments later as the road straightened out and headed away from the edge.
Nelson sent the car thundering forward, eager to reach the small town Costa had told them about another few kilometers to the north. They would spend the night there, having already confirmed arrangements with a local innkeeper Melanthius knew, and they would travel on in the morning.
. . . After daylight, Will hoped.
Another glance at the admiral had him revising his thoughts however as, in the oncoming headlights of a truck, he clearly saw the lines of exhausted tension marring the man’s face. Nelson was grasping the leather-wrapped steering wheel in a white-knuckled grip, and his face was pale.
. . . Much after daylight, Jamison confirmed to himself. The man beside him needed to rest, even if his physician had to resort to a syringe to help him do it.
Deep in thought and plotting just such an act, Will did not notice the first few mumbled curses that the admiral uttered. But he did catch the next few expletives the man growled under his breath, lips barely moving, when a slow moving vehicle in front of them momentarily impeded their progress.
“What did you say, Admiral?” the doctor asked innocently, as the driver beside him steered their car around the smaller one in front.
When Nelson just glanced at him briefly and returned his eyes to the road without further comment, the doctor asked more soberly, “Harry, what’s wrong? We’re closer now to having Lee back than we’ve been in months. I would’ve thought you’d be relieved, not tied in more knots than one of Riley’s painters.”
Expecting a small smile or even a smirk at his mention of the fun-loving, accident-prone crewman and all the jokes at his expense about his difficulty with ropes and knots, Jamison’s worry increased when he received neither. Knowing there was plenty to worry about with regard to the captain’s possible injuries, the doctor took a deep breath, trying unsuccessfully to steady his own concerns.
He tried again, this time much more insistently, “Harry, what’s wrong? Dammit, tell me!”
Hauling in a ragged breath through his nose, Nelson let it out and gripped the steering wheel tighter before glancing over his shoulder at the sleeping crewman in the backseat. Then he replied with a snarl, “Someone’s after him, Will. We have to find him, and we may not have much time.”
Shaking his head, the doctor asked incredulously, “After Lee? Now? After all this time? How do you know that for sure?”
“Before Costa left with Chip to start down into the gorge, he pulled us both aside. He said he didn’t want his wife to know, but he had found out that there were two men asking questions in a nearby village recently. Apparently the strangers had heard that an injured man had been airlifted out of the northern end of the gorge a day or two before, someone described as tall with dark hair, dark clothing, and no identification.”
“That couldn’t have been Lee. . . ,” the doctor trailed off, not understanding.
“No, of course it wasn’t. But someone else looking for him wouldn’t know that. And, as a result, it brought some unwanted visitors into the area even before the crash of the jet. At any rate, it was certainly enough to make everyone protecting Lee even more suspicious of us. And Costa said he had told Lee about it, which was the main reason Lee had moved up to that hut that Owen described to us well before Costa felt he was physically ready.”
“No wonder he left after the crash. . . . The Lee Crane I know, regardless of any memory loss, would have left just to keep Costa, Elena, and the people of their village safe. . . if he thought someone was after him,” the doctor mumbled. Then, in a stronger voice, he asked, “Who did Costa think they were?”
Nelson shook his head, “They didn’t identify themselves. But his friend told Costa one of them had a central Albanian accent. They were asking about any other hikers that might have been hurt in the area lately, especially in the last six weeks, anyone with that similar description. . . . Costa definitely believed they were looking for information of some kind that could have pointed them to Lee.”
“What’s the plan now, Admiral? Besides adding one more reason why we need to find him quickly, does this change anything we’ve already decided?”
The driver shook his head tiredly before answering, “No. But that’s the main reason we’re up here instead of down in the gorge. . . . That and your physical condition, Doctor.”
“My physical. . . ? Admiral Nelson, I do believe you just insulted me! While I can’t say I was relishing the idea of hiking through a rocky gorge for days on end . . . . Harry, you’d better include yourself in that assessment! You are, after all, older than I am, and I happen to know the physician that performs your annual physicals quite well!”
Nelson offered a slight smirk as his only response, then quickly turned serious again as he continued, “We know the men were asking questions from village to village. You, Banny, and I will continue taking the long way around by road today and tomorrow, keeping our eyes open for them. If they’re looking for Lee, I want to know why, and I want to stop them before they find him.”
He took a deep breath and finished, “Hopefully, we’ll reach the northern end of the gorge by dark tomorrow night, where we’ll meet up with Chip, Costa, and the river guides helping them. . . if this storm front rolling in doesn’t slow them up too much. With luck, we’ll have found those men by then, and Chip will have found Lee.”
Looking back into the dark toward the deep, extremely narrow gorge he knew was just behind them, Jamison nodded his head. “As long as you can get me down to them along the river if they find Lee.”
“Oh, I’ll get you down there, Will. It just might not be in the manner in which you prefer to travel.”
With a quiet harrumph, Jamison sat back in his seat and tried to relax. He knew Costa had been adamant that this is the way Lee would have gone, down into the gorge and north, back in the only direction with which he had any connection, any memory. He had adamantly insisted this was the reason “Leksi” had pushed himself so hard to climb the mountain. . . to get in the kind of physical shape he would need to be in to hike through the gorge and up into the rocky terrain Costa had told him about to the north. According to Costa, though Lee had not known where he needed to go or why, he had been sure that he had to return to the gorge and head north in order to completely regain his memories.
Closing his eyes, Jamison remembered the man’s eyes and his voice, fear and worry plainly written in both as Costa had told them what Lee hadn’t said.
“But I suspect there was another reason he left heading that way, one I am ashamed to admit. . . . Leksi knew that if they came, they would not be kind to anyone who had helped him. Though he did not speak of it, I know that he was thinking that if they found him, he would not want to be anywhere near our village, near us. . . . No, he will not head to another village nor to any city near here now. He will remain in the gorge or in the mountains around it until he finds what he is looking for . . . or until they find him. And he will head north while he searches. . . north toward answers, not in the opposite direction.”
They could only hope they found the captain soon, before anyone else---or his injuries---caught up with him.
His hazel eyes widening at a sudden thought as he stared out into the deepening dark, Jamison realized that if Lee Crane did not want to be found by anyone searching for him, finding him down in that gorge could be just as difficult as tracking him so far had been.
“Oh, and Jamie,” the admiral said quietly, not removing his eyes from the darkened road and the headlight beams trying to brighten it. “There’s just one more thing.”
The doctor looked at the older man sharply. “What’s that?” he asked.
His blue eyes shifting quickly toward the doctor’s face, then back toward the road, the admiral responded, “Costa gave him an old pistol before he left. Lee’s armed.”
No, there couldn’t be any smoke.
Blinking hard, he tried to clear his vision.
Where was it coming from? He didn’t build a fire, did he?
No, he was sure he hadn’t.
He rubbed one hand across his eyes.
No fire. He couldn’t have any smoke, its grey-white plume rising above him through the trees, its sharp, distinctive smell drawing attention to his position.
Slowly, blinking hard, his vision cleared.
He wished he could have the warmth of a blazing fire. Shivering in the cool dampness of the grey mist rising from the river, he knew he badly needed one. His reluctance to build a fire had left him chilled and achy on the last two mornings, and tomorrow would be no different.
Tempted to keep moving through the growing dark just to stay warm, he shook his head in irritation. He immediately gasped with the onslaught of a sharp pain through his head, stabbing from right to left, and he began staggering to his feet, his hand pushing against the white hot agony that would not stop.
He groaned again. No, he couldn’t risk breaking an ankle along the treacherously rocky trail below him in the dark.
Besides, he thought, as he sank groggily back to the ground, he was too tired to keep going. But, as thunder from the approaching storm shook the ground, he knew he could not stay here either.
Huddling into his worn leather coat, grateful for its thick comfort, he tried again to get to his feet, this time pushing off from a nearby rock. But suddenly he dropped forward, going down on all fours with a groan, his hands clawing at the rich, dark humus beneath him as a wave of nausea left him retching in misery. Once it was over he sat back on his heels, wiping the sweat from his forehead, one arm pressed into his chest as he rocked back and forth around it.
Then, reaching back out to the rock, he hauled himself slowly to his feet with one hand and pulled his pack from the ground with the other. He stumbled shakily off into the dark, moving slightly uphill. Collapsing to the ground a few minutes later, his knees buckling beneath him, he lay there panting, his head pounding unmercifully.
When the rain began a little while later, he drew his knees up to his chest, instinctively trying to conserve his body’s remaining heat. He shivered violently as he closed his eyes . . . against the splattering drops working their way through the thick overhead branches . . . against the pounding inside his head.
His last thought, before the darkness crashed in around him, was of Elena and Costa.
“Not. . . far enough. . . away,” he mumbled. “Got to . . . get further. . . aw-w-ay.”
The weak, watery sun had barely cleared the steep sides of the gorge when they were up and moving again.
Even the sound of the river close by and the rain hitting the tautly stretched tent had not been enough to soothe Chip Morton’s frustration during the night. He had quietly cursed the storm that had brought their search to a standstill much too soon. Knowing how much ground they had to cover, yet in fear that they might miss Lee if they pushed on in the descending darkness, he had reluctantly agreed to Costa’s suggestion last night to make camp here by the river in this relatively flat spot.
He looked out at the cascading water, its white froth fueled by the rain marking unseen rocks lurking beneath the roiling surface. His worried eyes were aware of the untamed landscape around him, but in his mind, he saw the cool steel of Seaview’s hull, her bow cutting a swath of white foam visible from the bridge high above.
If his skipper had a favorite place aboard his grey lady, it was probably either standing watch inside her observation nose, looking out through the transparent herculite, or on her bridge above the open water. Many times Chip had discovered him standing on that bridge, coffee cup in hand, leaning on the rail and watching the sunrise from his vantage point above his surfaced boat as she cruised ahead at standard speed.
Chip hauled in a shaky breath, held it for a moment and released it, worry etched in every movement. It had been over two months since Lee had been aboard his boat, two long months in which the Seaview and her crew had been without their skipper.
They were close now, close to finding him. . . so close.
But would they be in time?
He could only hope that between his group and the admiral’s, they would find him soon. . . before the others, the men Costa was concerned about, had time to locate Lee and finish what they had started weeks ago----if that was what was really going on now.
Chip turned his head abruptly, his thoughts interrupted by a sound behind him. He nodded at the older man’s approach, silently acknowledging the steady hand on his shoulder.
Costa shook his head at the pain he saw in the light blue eyes, and he said kindly, “You worry for your friend, no?” Seeing the officer draw in another deep breath and close his eyes for an extra second, Costa squeezed the strong shoulder harder, then patted it comfortingly. “He is strong, our Leksi. . . your Captain Lee Crane. He has managed to live through so much, and he has a fierce heart, does he not?”
“Yes,” Chip said, his voice tight. Then nodding again, he added, “He’s always managed to stay just barely one step ahead of trouble for as long as I’ve known him. And you’re right, Costa. . . . He has a fierce heart. He would walk into trouble willingly, meet it head on without thinking twice, if he thought doing so would help someone else.”
Nodding, Costa patted the tense shoulder once more, and he said, “I think you would join him there, in the thick of trouble, would you not. . . if you thought it would help him?”
With another deep breath, Chip responded, “Yes. If he would only give me the chance. . . . Not like last time. . . .”
“Ah-h-h,” Costa said, nodding again. “He is as protective of you, as you are of him. Like brothers, no?”
Swallowing hard, Chip turned his eyes back toward the wild white water, and he whispered, “Like brothers. Yes.”
Patting his shoulder once again, Costa turned away as he said simply, “Come. It is time to go. We will either find him today or not for a long while.”
His eyebrows drawing together in sudden concern at the words, Chip turned away from the river and reached out, grasping the older man by the elbow. “Wait, Costa. What do you mean. . . either today or not for a long while?”
Looking back into the searching blue eyes, Costa responded, “The gorge ends within the next 12 kilometers. If we do not find him here, it will be hard to know where else to look. If we do not find Leksi before nightfall, he either hiked out of the gorge at one of the village . . . ,” Costa paused, seeking the correct words in English, “Um-m-m. . . access routes or possibly he caught a ride in someone’s vehicle near one of the bridges. Either way, our search will take us no further with any assurance.”
Shaking his head and lifting his eyes toward the narrow cleft in the rock walls further up river, Chip insisted, “But you said you knew he would go this way, that you believed we’d find him here. If the gorge ends so soon . . . Costa, he has quite a head start on us. He’s probably long gone!”
“He did come this way. I am sure of it. And what I said. . . it is because I do not think he will be in any hurry to leave this gorge. I think he is still here. . . . But, if we do not find him here beside the Voidomatis, the question is, where would he head from here? Does he even know where else to go?”
Breathing again, Chip released the older man’s arm. He asked, “That’s why you said he would be here? Because you told him you found him by this river, that he had been carried south. . . . This, the mountain, and your village. . . . They are all he knows.”
“Yes,” Costa responded
sadly. “He would not leave the river and the gorge until he had to. . . or
until he remembered something more. If the memories returned, I can only guess
that he would probably follow the river further north. . . but again, where?
Nikkolas told us he believed one of the men recently asking questions was from
After speaking, Costa nodded once and left the blond to join the two river guides that had accompanied them. Chip turned back to look at the rushing river, his eyes solemnly searching the far bank before returning to stare into the white foam again. Abruptly, he growled in frustration before turning to rejoin the search.
Without giving voice to his thoughts, he added silently, “We’re here, Lee. You don’t have to do this alone anymore. . . . Dammit, let us help you, buddy! We’re here.”
Something out there.
Can’t stay here.
Gotta get moving.
Gotta get away.
Soundlessly, the dark-headed man struggled to his feet, pausing only long enough to shoulder his lightweight pack before stumbling down the slope toward the river.
He wanted to scream, wanted to give a voice to the sharp pain that assaulted the side of his head. But he bit down on his bottom lip and contained it, his eyes wide with the force of the sudden slicing agony.
After a few more steps he began to slide downhill, catching himself against a large grey rock and breathing raggedly against its icy coldness. He shivered, eyes closed against the dizziness and the nausea that found him again. Then, gasping softly with the pain inside his head, he set his jaw and kept going.
When he reached the river he turned left, and he began picking his way around the massive boulders, leaning heavily on first one, then the next as he made slow, but steady progress northward. Glancing up after a while, he suddenly realized he could see the narrowing end of the gorge not too far ahead, and a moment of panic hit him as he wondered what he was going to do when he reached it.
Have to keep going.
Can’t let them find me here.
At least until the . . . the end.
May not be able to. . . to climb all the way out.
May not matter in the end. . . but. . . .
Just keep going.
His eyes on the silver-white foam of the waterfall visible ever so often through the trees and rocks up ahead, he realized he was going to have some hard climbing to do to reach even that point. Pausing for a moment to lean against a low rock, breathing raggedly, he alternated between rubbing his aching chest and kneading the sharper stabbing pain of his head between thumb and forefinger.
At least there were no more of the old stone bridges crossing the river here, their grey humpback shapes rising in a smooth symmetry that connected the right bank of the river to the left. It wasn’t the bridges that bothered him, but the threat of being seen from the roads that crossed them, as well as the villages perched above them on the rim. That threat, on top of what Nikkolas had told them, had joined his own deteriorating physical condition in slowing him down several times in the last few days.
He had passed more than one hiker since he had started out, as well as one raft of nearly professional-looking paddlers pitting their strength and expertise against the combined danger of the cataracts and the rocks of the river. But to all of them, he was just another loner, out testing himself in the same way they were, testing themselves against the water, the weather, or the walk.
Being seen by a lone hiker was one thing, and being visible from a village, from a road, was something else entirely. It left him too vulnerable to anyone who might know more about him than he knew about them. . . or about himself.
Closing his eyes for a few seconds, he tried unsuccessfully to raise a memory of the two dark-headed men dressed in dark suits that Nikkolas had described. Then, shaking his head slightly, he realized he only knew one thing.
If they were looking for him, he knew he couldn’t afford to be spotted.
Several times, he had had to find places to hide through the remainder of the day, not daring to walk openly along the trails intersecting the roads in such relatively high visibility areas. Twice, it had meant that he had had to backtrack to locate a suitable place to wait out the sun, curling up to sleep exhaustedly until darkness gave him better cover to proceed.
But his caution had cost him in more than just time. His hip, injured weeks ago but healing, had caught the brunt of a fall against some rocks in the dark. And something told him that this time, having landed hard with his ears ringing and his vision blurring slightly, his head was only going to get worse, not better, with time.
The headaches were becoming unbearable.
Relieved that he could see no more curved bridges or high stone villages between here and the end of the gorge, he tried to ignore the persistent questions that badgered him about what he would do when his refuge ran out completely. And he tried to ignore the increasing pounding in his head that told him he couldn’t go much further, even without the worry of the bridges.
Reaching up to clench his hand around his head again, he remained there, leaning against the rock, gasping for breath and feeling like he could almost hear a heavy wrench bouncing around in a dry metal drum inside his head . . . as it rolled down a rocky hillside . . . or was slammed repeatedly against a distant beach by angry waves.
Eyes lifted painfully toward the mountains beyond the deep cut of the gorge, he thought again of the Gamila, and he took a steadying breath.
As long as there were mountains, trees, and few people, he could keep working his way north. . . at least for as long as he could keep going.
But what’s up there?
And why north?
Pressing the heel of his hand into the side of his head, he struggled to breathe through the staggering pain, concentrating on it forcefully rather than enduring the volley of continual questions.
Pushing off from the smooth, rounded stone, he continued upriver.
Jamison was suddenly jarred awake by the abrupt change in direction, the tires of the vehicle all but spinning in the dirt and gravel thrown up behind them through the unexpected turn. Grabbing the dashboard in front of him, he glared over at the intensely-focused driver as he exclaimed in surprise, “What the hell?”
Movement from a more alert Bannatyne in the back seat caught the corner of his eye, and he heard the crewman’s quiet response as the man explained breathlessly for the quietly cursing admiral.
“He spotted another car . . . over there. . . among those trees. It looks like it’s hidden behind some rocks . . . near the rim.”
“Why? Who is it? Could it be those men who’ve been asking questions?” the doctor queried, not really expecting an answer. One glance toward the gorge had him squinting into the setting sun as he asked, the glare of the rays brighter even than the driver’s blistering response.
“Dammit, Will! Do you think I know? We’re just going to check it out,” Nelson countered as he waved by way of explanation toward a broken barricade and red sign that shouted danger in several languages. Driving slowly now, too close to the edge for anyone’s comfort, he cautiously nosed their car into the trees over a hundred yards back from the first one.
“Stay here, Will,” Nelson ordered quietly.
Shaking his head, the doctor ignored the tone and opened his passenger side door a split second before he heard the echoing crack of a single shot.
All three of them knelt beside the car, waiting and holding their breath as they tried to determine if they had been the echoing shot’s intended target or not.
Jamison heard the admiral whisper firmly, “Banny, you’re with me. Doctor, STAY HERE.”
Without waiting for a reply from either of them, Nelson moved forward in a zig-zag pattern through the trees. Then he dropped down again next to some small, thick scrub brush as he looked toward the other vehicle, pistol in hand. It was not lost on either man behind him that his course took him even closer toward the ragged eastern rim of the long, narrow gorge below.
The brown-haired crewman followed a few steps behind, reaching the admiral’s position in much the same manner before the older man eased forward another few feet away from him. They continued this process several more times, like children playing at some bizarre version of tag. As soon as the younger man caught up, the admiral pulled ahead again----while the doctor followed their movements with his eyes from the relative protection of the large black vehicle’s shiny fender behind them.
Just as Bannatyne caught up with the admiral behind some boulders scattered near the edge, they both saw movement near the gleaming silver vehicle and froze. As his eyes adjusted to the relative brightness after the gloom of the tree-encrusted area where Jamison waited behind them, Nelson squinted into the sun and could just make out one man leaning across the hood of the car with a pair of binoculars.
Suddenly, though he could not see the rifle that created it, another crack of a shot split the silence, its loud report echoing off of the rocks around them.
Nelson immediately stepped out from his hiding place, pistol in hand. planning to demand an explanation for the shooting. But an unintelligible shout and excited gesture toward the gorge from the man at the car, followed by a flurry of movement at the edge, stopped him where he stood, and he dropped back down next to his silent crewman.
As they watched, a second man scrambled up from below the rim.
First they saw the profile of his head, followed by massive shoulders and a tall torso. The returning man yelled something Nelson could not make out and waved an arm at the other one standing beside the car. The rifle in the crook of the climber’s arm was clearly outlined against the setting sun as he did so. As soon as he breached the rim, both men ran and jumped inside the car, and they slammed both doors closed before spinning the car around and careening back down the crumbling dirt track toward the main road.
Their hurry took them precariously close to the edge.
Fear gripping his throat, the admiral tried unsuccessfully to get a good look at those in the car before it careened beyond the curve. Then he ran toward the edge, afraid of what he would see. At first, he could make out nothing but the silvery ribbon of the river far below, grey stone, thick shadows, and dark trees. Then, following the river with his eyes, a wave of tremendous relief flushed through him as he could just make out four tiny figures running along the river trail far below. In the lead was a man that appeared to be Chip Morton, easily distinguishable by his shock of blond hair. Accompanying him were three dark-headed men, and all of them had dropped their packs as they headed upriver toward the northernmost end of the gorge.
Had the two men been shooting at Chip and his party?
Or had they been shooting at the lone man they were all searching for?
Forcing his eyes to precede Chip’s movements, Nelson followed the course of the river until he lost sight of it among some huge rocks and deeper shadows to his right.
There was no sign of any movement up there . . . no sign of anyone else . . . no sign of Lee Crane.
Tearing his eyes away from the depths of the gorge and the events unfolding below them. . . events he knew he could not impact from this distance, he reluctantly turned back toward the two men approaching from behind him.
“Admiral? Are you alright?” Jamison asked in concern.
“Fine. Fine!” the redhead growled, waving the doctor off as he began stalking back toward the parked car.
Bannatyne followed silently as the doctor tried to keep up with the angry strides of the shorter man in front of him.
“Admiral! Wait. What’re you going to do? What were they shooting at?”
“I don’t know for sure. Chip is down there. . .”
“He’s alright?” Jamison broke in worriedly.
“Yes, he and Costa are headed upriver. I’m going down to meet them.”
“Down there? You mean driving back to the last bridge?”
“No, Will. I’m going down from here. There’s a trail. It’s rough, but it’s passable. You and Banny take the car back to that last village and drive down to the bridge over the river. After I meet up with Chip, we’ll come back and meet you there.”
As he spoke, his clipped words and phrases leaving no room for rebuttal, he opened the rear door of the rented car, removed a small knapsack with basic provisions and hoisted it to his back. Then he turned resolutely toward the rim and the two men. He held up two radios, handing one to Jamison and giving the keys to the vehicle to the young crewman.
“We’ll meet you back at the river before nightfall, or see you there tomorrow by . Return to the village for the night if we don’t get back to you in time. Bannatyne, that’s an order. Don’t let the doctor talk you into staying at the river beyond whatever it will take you to get him back to the rim by dark. I don’t need him having a heart attack on the trip back up; I need him still breathing and well enough to check over the captain when we return with him.”
The admiral spoke the words to the crewman, but his piercing blue eyes held the doctor’s in a no-nonsense glare.
“Aye, sir,” the crewman replied. The doctor opened the car door and climbed in as the admiral began walking toward the rim.
Bannatyne was just clipping into his seatbelt when the doc suddenly opened the passenger door again, climbed out, grabbed his own pack of medical supplies from the backseat, and told the crewman, “Go. Wait for us at the bridge all night if you have to. Just wait for us. If the captain is down there, we’ll bring him back to you. . . hopefully alive and under his own power.”
Moments after the admiral’s head disappeared below the rim on the steep, zigzagging trail headed down to the river, the doctor took a deep breath and descended to follow him between two grey stone sentinels guarding the crest of the trail.
By the time they had reached the half-way point of the descent, the admiral had given up snarling at the doctor for disobeying his orders, contenting himself with firing occasional, heated glares in his direction instead. Both of them needed all of their concentration and focus to deal with the tough descent, and they were breathing hard from the struggle to work their way down, over, and around the obstacles along the rugged trail.
They paused for a few moments, silently seated on the same rock, easing the burning in knees unaccustomed to the constant strain. Jamison lifted his eyes toward the hidden rim high above them, murmuring a quiet plea that they would not have to return the same way. If the backs of his legs hurt now, he could not imagine the agony of quadriceps asked to endure such a climb.
Then he turned his eyes down toward the river, wondering how much further they had to go before they reached the relatively flat trail along the far bank. The thought occurred to him even as his eyes searched for a solution. . . . How were they going to reach the other side when they got to the bottom?
“Ready, Will?” the admiral asked, his voice more forgiving than before as he reached down and offered the doctor a hand up from the rock.
Taking the offering, Jamison nodded and climbed to his feet with a slight groan. He saw the satisfied gleam in the blue eyes that accompanied the swiftly hidden smile, and he muttered, “Admiral, I sincerely hope you get to tell me again how unnecessary this was when we find Lee.”
The blue eyes sobered as the admiral nodded in silent acknowledgement.
Then, just as they resumed their descent, they heard two quick shots. The staccato rhythm seemed to reverberate off of the rocks around them, echoing again and again through the gorge.
The admiral barely heard the sharp gasp from the doctor behind him as he cursed loudly and increased his painful pace, all caution forgotten in his worry. Moments later, he could hear shouts from below, the sounds unintelligible, like mere whispers over the gradually increasing roar of the river.
The admiral cursed again in mounting frustration, but he stopped to steady the doctor over a particularly difficult section, secretly glad of the man’s bullheaded insistence in joining him. Their eyes met as another shot tore through the narrow canyon, both instinctively dropping behind the cover of the stones for a few moments before continuing.
It was clear that the shots were not made by the high-powered rifle they had heard and seen before. Instead, it was a smaller caliber, but equally deadly pistol. Its effectiveness would depend upon proximity and the accuracy of the hand that wielded it.
Both breathed a little easier when they reached the river without hearing any more shots, and they headed upriver, following the flow and the sounds of the still unintelligible shouts up ahead. After dropping his pack to leave it behind and taking the doctor’s from him, the admiral led as they picked their way around the rocks.
The spray from the river settled over them, causing the doctor to shiver slightly as he followed the admiral’s relentless pace. As his shirt darkened with moisture, he was no longer sure how much was caused by his own sweat and how much from the water thrown into the air by the force of the river cascading endlessly over the rocks.
Suddenly, they emerged from behind several gigantic boulders along the rocky, but negotiable bank on their side and stepped into a stand of dark trees. The uppermost boughs stretched toward the rim of the gorge far above, casting thick shadows on both sides of the river. Even the sound of the river seemed muted in respect for the abundant growth.
Crouching beside two thick hardwoods, the admiral silently signaled for the doctor to join him. He whispered, “Stay here, Doctor. We may need you yet.”
Then, leaving behind a stern glare to emphasize his words, the admiral moved forward through the trees, his body bent low to the ground. He avoided the bank, moving slightly away from the river in an attempt to circle around and gain a clear vantage on whatever was up ahead. He froze at another shout, dropping to one knee in the thick, wet leaves and listening intently.
Was that Chip’s voice that he had heard?
Narrowing his eyes, he could just make out some movement among the trees on the other side of the river. Then, turning further upstream to the far right, he lifted his eyes to scan the slope that began the ascent back to the rim of the gorge. If he could make his way up that slope and continue upriver, maybe he could get behind whoever had the men on the other side pinned down.
For as long as he could remember, Chip Morton had loved the wide vastness of the ocean, any ocean. The unbroken expanse of the water in almost any weather settled and soothed him like no other place, no other sight. And, despite his love of the ability to see forever out on the open water, he had quickly found that he could endure any amount of tight, cramped quarters, even for long spells of incredibly close living and working conditions, just to enjoy it.
No, he had never experienced uneasiness in tight places before.
But, as the walls of the exceptionally narrow gorge tightened further in throughout the morning and afternoon, he began to experience increasing uneasiness . . . and something more. . . the feeling of sinking, paralyzing, desperate despair.
They were close, so close to finding Lee. But it seemed that they just weren’t close enough. Once they reached the end of this gorge, which they would surely do before nightfall, all they could do tomorrow was to follow the river north, hoping that it would lead them to him, hoping that he had not headed off in another direction. . . or worse.
What if he had tried to cross this river back there, where the water had been the narrowest and roughest? The powerful surge, thundering around the huge, rounded stones, could suck a man right down into the cataracts and sluices, haystacks and hydraulics, only to spit him back out a quarter mile downriver, battered and drowned. . . .
He picked his way around another huge boulder, the spray as it cascaded south making the rocky ground wet and slippery this close to the river.
He had an unbidden flash of seeing Lee’s amber brown eyes laughing at him months ago, his smile making his whole countenance appear boyish and carefree as he had teased Morton about a now long ago date with a new assistant in Nelson’s legal offices. For once, Lee’s tanned face had been unmarred with fading bruises or cuts from some mission or other, and his eyes had sparkled with a now unremembered wisecrack exchanged between them.
He had been happy, and he
had been healthy. But that had been more than four months ago. . . before the
kidnapping of the U.N. officials, before
Trying to focus on the slippery ground at his feet and the steadily climbing figure of Costa up ahead of him, Chip clenched his jaw and forced himself to not look at how rapidly they were approaching the falls that marked the end of the gorge, that marked the end of where they knew to search.
Should they go on, heading
Rounding a slight bend in the river and, despite his fierce willpower otherwise, Chip found it nearly impossible to keep his eyes from wandering away from the narrow, rocky path in front of him. He glanced toward the falls, the doubt and anguish he had been struggling to hold at bay for two days, for two lifetimes, threatening to rise up in his throat, strangling him as he hauled in the next breath.
Suddenly, he caught a glimpse of movement up ahead, just below the tall trees that seemed to be virtually standing in the river, growing out of it with their roots imbedded in solid rock.
It was him! It had to be!
Running forward, he grabbed Costa’s shoulder and silently pointed upriver. It was all he could do to keep from shouting, from hollering Lee’s name and trying to get his attention.
But, unwilling to spook the man they had been desperately searching for, unwilling to take a chance on whether or not Lee would remember him, he knew they had to be careful. . . careful and quiet. Not that anyone up there would be able to hear much over the sound of the water, but. . . . Beyond the need to protect Costa and Elena by hiding from trouble that might come looking for him, Lee may not know how to react if he saw a group of four men behind him, trailing him, and he may feel trapped into reacting.
Hopefully, he would at least recognize Costa, but. . . .
Chip swallowed hard, the thought that his friend may not remember him stabbing into him, twisting, like a sharp blade of glittering steel.
Better to do this cautiously. . . .
The warning Costa had given them earlier---that Lee had a gun---cascaded through his head. Though he would like to think Lee would not shoot them even if he did not remember him, he knew they could not take the chance on making Lee feel he had no choice but to fight.
If he saw them and decided to fire at them. . . .
Chip knew Lee Crane better than the men with him did. If his friend brought his pistol to bear on them. . . .
He couldn’t let Costa and the two guides go in, possibly blundering into danger from the very man they were trying to help. . . .
“Costa,” Chip said directly into the older man’s ear over the pervasive roar of the water, “you and the others stay here. I don’t want to spook him with all of us going up after him.”
Nodding, the other man immediately turned and signaled wordlessly to the two younger men behind them to drop down and wait with him.
Somewhere in the back of his mind as he started forward, working his way upriver from boulder to boulder, Chip realized the three men behind him were used to working in this place, that they were used to using hand signals to communicate over the steady roar of the river.
“Lee,” Chip breathed, as his attention was drawn by another movement up ahead.
The tall, dark-headed figure dressed in equally dark clothing was moving slowly, erratically, as if he were aware of the men following him and he was trying to work his way up the slope by staying close to the protection of the rocks.
It had to be Lee. It had to be.
But . . . he wasn’t being as cautious as Chip would have expected. . . . He wasn’t exactly sticking to the rocks for cover. . . . It was more like he was. . . .
Chip saw Lee’s head drop, saw him almost go down on both knees, then pull himself up, using the grey stone beside him to right himself. Then, staggering against the next rock, he continued to climb. . . .
Chip’s eyes suddenly flew open wide, and he felt the full weight of fear crash into him like a board hitting him squarely in the chest. With the logical caution of his quiet evaporating like air being knocked out of him by the same, well-aimed board, he cried out, his words immediately washed away downriver in the roar of the water.
Chip began to run as soon as he saw his friend fall, thrown backwards violently as if he had been struck down by that same illusive board. The crack of a rifle reverberated across the gorge a split second later, and Chip continued to sprint forward in a bob-and-weave motion with no pattern to it. . . none except to draw attention to himself as a decoy . . . or a witness----that, and his desperation to get up the slope to his friend.
“LEE! Get back! Get BACK!” he hollered, his voice lost in the second shot that seemed to shake the ground beneath his feet as he continued to run. All thoughts of his own dangerous position were lost in the steel grip of fear for his now clearly identifiable friend, who was staggering from his back to his knees and slowly to his feet almost a hundred yards in front of him.
From behind him, Chip was aware that Costa had shouted some warning, but he kept running, slipping precariously on the damp stones, and he knew the men he was with were running too, following him.
He was up there, just ahead. And he was clearly in trouble.
He had been lost for so many weeks, gone from their lives almost as if he had ceased to exist anywhere outside the Seaview, their only word coming in bits and pieces of nebulous rumor and vague supposition, leaked back to them like water dripping intermittently from condensation running along overhead pipes.
Now Lee was here, on the same riverbank, beside the same river, inside the same gorge, no more than one hundred yards away. But, as Chip’s harsh breathing joined the roar of the river inside his head, as his hands grabbed for rocks and roots to assist him in his desperate climb toward the trees, he knew that the distance between them might as well be two more months or two hundred more miles.
Lee stumbled up the steep bank, falling back to his knees at least twice as Chip saw him frantically trying to get into the shelter of the trees above him and away from the rifle fire. Lee looked back over his shoulder once, and Chip faltered, his boot slipping on a rock, as their eyes met.
As he regained his balance and pushed forward, every step was haunted by that look on his friend’s face and the darkness of the eyes that had met his for just an instant . . . just before Lee turned back to claw his way up the slope backwards with one hand.
Lee’s eyes. . . .
They were so dark with pain they appeared black in his pale, drawn face, and worst of all. . . there had not been one shred of recognition in them.
Chip paused to shrug out of his pack, dropping it where it lay, before again pushing himself forward, the realization of what he had not seen in Lee’s eyes merging slowly, reluctantly, with what he had. Lee was hurting, and his eyes had been desperate, filled with more pain than his friend normally allowed anyone to see. Glancing up, catching a final glimpse of his dark-haired commander as Lee groped blindly behind him, the heels of his boots digging into the dark dirt, Chip saw him pulling himself up backwards with only his right hand as he disappeared into the dark shadows of the trees.
Lee must be losing blood; the impact of the bullet that Chip had seen throw him backwards only moments before had to have done more than graze him.
“Lee,” he breathed, wanting nothing more than to reach his friend and grab hold of him, to reassure him of who he was and of the safety he would provide if Lee would only let him.
Continuing up the slope toward the dark trees, dimly aware that they were rapidly losing the limited sunlight the narrow gorge allowed in, Jamison’s ominous words from days ago came back to him.
“I’m saying it would certainly explain a great deal, Admiral. And I don’t like the sound of the other symptoms they’ve described, the head wound, the struggling to breathe, the pain in his chest. We need to find him. We need to find him now.”
Well, they had found him, but helping Lee was no closer now than its possibility had been two days or two weeks ago.
Chip was breathing hard as he pulled himself up, entering the shadows of the trees at roughly the same place where he had seen Lee disappear. As much as he knew that he had to get to Lee quickly, he was also completely aware of what that look he had seen in Lee’s eyes could mean. Unaware of who Chip was and with Costa too far back to recognize, Lee would associate the four of them with the shot from the rifle that had wounded him.
Hoping for more time to allow his eyes to adjust to the sun-dappled shadows, Chip ducked behind a rock as soon as he saw the tell-tale reflection of the setting sun on the dark metal object that appeared from behind a tree further up the slope. He winced, taking a deep breath at the whine of a bullet pinging off of the rock above his head.
“LEE! Lee, it’s Chip!” the blond yelled, hoping that his friend would recognize his voice over the water just below them. “Don’t shoot. . . !”
Another bullet ricocheted off of the stone over his head as his only reply.
When he received no other answer, when he saw Costa and the two guides moving into the trees off to his left, Chip knew he had to do something. No matter how badly hurt Lee was----armed, conscious, and feeling threatened, he was deadly dangerous.
Forcing himself flat to the ground in preparation for circling around the stone and uphill toward the river to the right, he knew that his friend was not going to make this easy.
“Leksi! Do not shoot! It is Costa. We are here to help you, Leksi!”
As a bullet whizzed over Costa’s head off to the left and behind Chip’s position, hitting a pine trunk with a loud ‘thwack,’ Chip heard the older man’s obvious curse. His blue eyes narrowed, and his resolve tightened down on the shuddering denial inside his heart. He had to do something, or Lee would cut them all down, one by one.
He couldn’t let Lee kill Costa. . . .
“Are you alright, Costa?” Chip hollered.
“Yes,” came back the quiet reply. Then, the older man added, “But the bullets. . . We cannot go up or back.”
Closing his eyes for a long second, Chip took in the fear and worry running through the man’s reply. In agony at his decision, but knowing he had no choice, he reached slowly back, unsnapping the flap of the holster at his side.
Harriman Nelson was known for having nerves of steel, expectations of iron, and the perceptiveness of a blue-eyed laser. He was an incredible judge of character and could strategize with the best minds in the military, both before and after his “retirement.”
But, he admitted to himself, this was one helluva fix, one with less and less chance for a positive outcome the longer it took to resolve.
They had to get to Lee in a hurry, but they needed to do so without endangering anyone else.
He had heard the worry in Chip’s voice, even through the muffling stillness of the trees and over the roaring of the water, and he knew how desperately the normally supremely-stoic exec wanted to get to his friend. Usually the blond could be counted on to remain calm-to-a-fault in any situation, but this one had been wearing on Chip for months. It had been wearing on them all, but for Chip, Nelson knew it had been filled with an intense, unending agony.
As he eyed the approaching challenge that his climb was about to present him, Nelson recalled his own reaction when Will had specifically warned them both about the injuries Lee had possibly sustained over the last two months. The physician’s worry had been transmitted clearly, as his words left no room for misunderstanding of the critical nature of the probable injuries.
Expelling a deep breath he did not realize he had been holding, the admiral growled audibly. Then, shaking his head, he thought again about the possible symptoms the doc had mentioned, ranging from confusion and changes in emotional responses, to dizziness and blinding headaches. But the greatest danger from Second Impact Syndrome was its underlying cause, the increased intracranial pressure brought on by unregulated flow of blood in damaged blood vessels. If that was what Lee now suffered from, it was hopefully still possible to treat it, depending on how bad it was and how quickly they could reach him.
It was clear that they had to get to Lee. . . and in a hurry.
The words Will had shared with them and the worry behind them had nearly sent Chip reeling. The blond had turned pale, staggering backwards a step and had reached out to the bulkhead behind him, gripping a nearby panel in a white-knuckled grip, his chin dropping to his chest. But, Nelson admitted to himself, he had not watched the younger man after that, too overcome himself with the weight of the prognosis and the guilt of knowing that any amount of blame Chip sent in his direction for delaying their search was less by half than what Nelson had instantly heaped on himself at hearing the words.
Shaking his head, Nelson shifted the doctor’s knapsack of medical supplies higher on his shoulders, reached down to place an unconscious hand on his holster, and continued on resolutely.
He had to get up higher, and he had to get behind Lee before one or both of his men did something irreversibly dangerous to break the stand-off he was convinced was going on just in front of him and to his left.
If only Chip would keep calling out to Lee, keep talking to him. . . . If only Lee would recognize him.
“Just a little longer, Chip,” he muttered. “Just give me a little longer to help you both.”
Chip and Lee were close. They were brothers of the best kind. . . brothers by choice. . . and their relationship was defined by honor and loyalty hardened like steel through one trial by fire after another.
As he inched uphill, hugging the side of the steep, rocky slope, Nelson knew he needed to be able to predict what Chip would do in the next few minutes. . . but, at the very time when he needed his exec to be the most stalwart in his actions, he feared the younger man, almost driven beyond his endurance with worry, would act more impetuously out of character than in any other situation since he had known him.
“Come on, Chip,” Nelson whispered, his lips barely moving. “Keep talking to him. Get him talking to you.”
As he struggled to find a handhold, to climb up and around a large tree that seemed to emerge straight out of the rock above him, he added beneath his breath, “Don’t go in on him, Chip. Just sit tight a little while longer.”
Breathing hard, the admiral managed to haul himself up the almost sheer expanse of rock. Only the protruding roots wrapped around the otherwise smooth stone gave him any purchase as he struggled. Reaching the top of the huge boulder with a quiet groan, he turned over, lying on his back on the doctor’s pack and closed his eyes to keep the distant treetops from spinning above him in the darkening sky.
Then, shaking his head again, this time to clear it of his own exhaustion, he returned to his knees. Now ten or twelve feet higher than he had been when he had first approached the sheer rock face, he got slowly to his feet and started off again, looking for a place to cross the river.
Returning part of his thoughts to the situation down below, he knew he had to get across the water and head into the trees on the other side before either Chip or Lee took any more action that could result in certain disaster for the other. . . or for them both.
“Keep talking to him, Chip. . . . Please. . . keep talking.”
Stopping suddenly, his eyes widening, he realized he had been wrong about something. Even in this, even in the distraught state the admiral knew him to be in, Chip Morton would do the predictable thing, the one thing Nelson feared. If he believed the only way out of this was to scramble up the slope and stop Lee from shooting again, from possibly hurting Costa or the men with him, Nelson knew that action would be very much IN character for the intensely brave young man.
But the frightening scenario Nelson most feared for them both, for all three of them, would be created if Lee fired at Chip and harmed him. . . or if Chip was forced to hurt Lee to save the others.
If only there had been some way for Nelson to let Chip know he was there, ready to help them both.
Lying on his stomach, Chip worked his way around a small boulder and toward a patch of thick brush off to his right. He was acutely aware of the rich smell of the thick, dark dirt, the leaves and pine needles crushed beneath his dark brown shirt. He knew his clothes would help him blend into the deepening shadows of the trees; only his blond hair would give him away.
Picking up a handful of humus as he snaked his way forward, his elbows and the toes of his boots digging into the dirt to propel him upward, he quickly slathered the dirt over his short hair. Rubbing it in as he kept moving, he added streaks of rich darkness to his face, smearing it quickly before concentrating again on reaching his objective.
Breathing a sigh of relief when he was behind the thick deadfall, he worked his way to the other end and peered out between several fallen branches, trying to get a glimpse of his friend.
But, if he were dressed appropriately to blend in, Lee Crane had become the woods.
No movement distinguished him from the backdrop of grey stone covered in shadows and the middle ground of tall hardwoods and straight pines mixed with the low overhang of thick spruce branches. With his dark hair and dark coloring, not to mention the beard Elena had referred to back at the tiny village, an unmoving Lee would be nearly impossible to spot. But Chip knew from first hand experience his inability to see Lee was more than that; it was a direct result of how crafty his friend could be in any outdoor setting.
Commander Lee Crane, with his ONI training and countless experiences depending only on himself to survive over the years, would not be found easily if he intended to hide.
Suppressing a sigh, Chip knew Lee could be waiting ten feet in front of him or a mile away. Or, he thought, his eyes widening in worry, he could be circling back around on the other side of an unsuspecting Costa right now. Swallowing hard, he decided the only two choices were to either call out again and give his own position away. . . hoping Lee would answer with recognition this time. . . or he could fire what he hoped was a harmless shot and try to entice Lee to give his position away.
Either way was dangerous. . . too dangerous.
They were out there.
They were moving closer.
The white-hot agony of his arm warred with the expanding, pounding fury inside his head. It was a struggle for supremacy, with him the battle’s undisputed loser.
His breathing sounded raspy to his own ears, and he fought to keep the ragged sounds quiet.
When he lifted his head from the clinging soil and damp leaves, the dizziness nearly overwhelmed him, making the trees and stones circle around him in a sickening array of grey, green, and dark brown.
He had to keep moving. He had stayed here, half buried in loose dirt and leaves, gun poised in false readiness that blurred vision could not overcome, for long enough.
They would be on him if he stayed.
But he couldn’t move.
Maybe if he fired another few shots out into the woods, he could keep them away for long enough to make it back to his feet.
Chip, his 9mm in his hand, edged forward again. If he could just make it to the cover of the grey stones up ahead, he would feel he had a chance of getting behind the position from which Lee must have last fired at them. He had to find out if Lee were still there or if he had moved off, working to gain a better vantage point.
He sucked in his breath when a shot was fired somewhere off to his left. He ducked low behind a tree, hoping it was thick enough to protect him, trying to gauge the angle of any additional shots from that same location in order to place the trunk squarely between them. Another shot followed the first, the bullet hitting a tree off to Chip’s right.
For a long, few moments, nothing moved. Then, another shot echoed through the trees, ricocheting off of a nearby rock with a high-pitched whine.
Chip moved nothing but his eyes, searching for anything closer than the relative security of the rocks up ahead from which to decide his next action. Seeing nothing else promising, not even off to the right, he took several deep, steadying breaths, hoping that Lee was just firing wildly, not knowing where he was and trying to keep him pinned. Then, staying in the deepest shadows of the trees, Chip pushed off with his toes and stayed flat, using both elbows and knees to pull himself forward. Avoiding a large broken branch lying on the ground, its severed limbs digging into the dirt where it had fallen, he hauled in a silent breath and crawled around it, using up precious seconds.
Off to his far left, he heard Costa’s voice again.
“Leksi! It is Costa. Please, Leksi. Let us help you!”
Grateful for the possible distraction of the man’s voice, Chip kept his eyes on the objective of the rocks another ten feet up ahead as he continued to snake his way toward them. Suddenly he froze, the soft sound of a brittle branch breaking beneath his knee as loud to his own ears in the deep quiet as if the crack had been another bullet, this time fired at point-blank range.
Knowing any more stealth no longer mattered, he propelled himself up from the ground, and he dove headfirst toward the shelter of the rocks.
But he never made it as he was hit from the side and sent sprawling, both men rolling furiously, one over the other down the slight slope, as they fought for supremacy over Chip’s beretta.
When he hit his head and came to a stop against a tree, his vision exploded into tiny pinpricks of light shooting in a thousand directions. Momentarily blinded, Chip felt himself being hauled to an upright position, his back scraping against the rough bark behind him. Demands in Greek that he could not understand pelted down on him like slivers of hard, frozen rain, and he kept shaking his head, trying to clear it.
But he knew the angry voice, and some part of him registered the worry in his gut at the hard, rasping breathing that accompanied the words. His own breath catching in his throat, nearly choking him, he blinked repeatedly until he could focus on the infuriated, pain-darkened eyes of his best friend. And he was acutely aware that his own gun was now pressed firmly against his left temple.
“Lee,” Chip choked out, his blue eyes pleading for recognition. “Lee, it’s Chip! Don’t you know me?”
He closed his eyes in disorientation as the bearded man on his knees in front of him shook him again, the incomprehensible reply only adding to his agony.
The only consolation was that he no longer felt the muzzle of the gun against the side of his head.
Slightly dizzy in his relief, Chip forced his eyes open again. But he gasped aloud as he felt the hold on his shirt loosen and saw the dark-headed man all but collapse on his side against a low boulder.
“Lee!” he cried, reaching out to grasp the closest arm to steady him. It was the same hand that still held the gun, though it was now pointed toward the ground.
The dark-haired man’s eyes hardened for a moment as he tried to reassert himself, struggling for an instant against the grip on his uninjured arm. But, not understanding why the blond seemed to be more concerned about him than about gaining control of the pistol he held, he felt himself falter. An intense heat broke a sweat over him, drenching him with its intensity, and a chilling cold swept through him at the same moment with a shivering, teeth-chattering freeze that took away his ability to breathe, to move.
His head felt like a series of gunshots had exploded inside, and he stared out at the pinpricks of light spiraling across his vision. Blinking rapidly, he could still see the camouflaged blond beside him, leaning over him, but he could neither reach out to him nor break free of him. The man’s lips were moving, saying something, but he could not understand the words. He was barely aware of dropping the weapon as his own hand came up, trying to grasp the dirt-smeared, brown shirt, his actions propelled by a fragment of thought that sifted through from somewhere deep inside. He tried to smile at the dirt-covered blond, his teeth white in his own dirt-encrusted face, but he could only manage a grimace of pain.
Kneeling next to Lee, Chip could no longer breathe.
While the woods around him seemed to swivel and sway of their own accord, he was able to maintain his focus by concentrating on the dark brown eyes of the man lying in the thick humus on the side of the hill. The rush of the water below him was a constant roaring in his ears, and he was aware of his own deadly weapon still lying on the ground by Lee’s right side, within easy reach of them both.
But he could only stare into those dark eyes, taking in the gaunt planes of the bearded face, the long, unruly black hair curling around his ears, the pain standing out so vividly in the lines around Lee’s eyes.
“Lee,” he said, voice and eyes pleading. “Lee, it’s me, Chip. Chip Morton. I’m your friend, Lee. I’m here to help you. Please let me help you, buddy.”
When Lee’s hand tightened his grip on Chip’s shirt, the blond thought he was getting through, but recognition became of secondary importance when he saw Lee blink his eyes rapidly, then close them tightly, going rigid with pain.
“Hang on, buddy,” Chip said. “We’ll get you taken care of. Just hang on.”
Lee gasped out something in Greek that Chip could not understand, but he quickly reached out and ripped away at his friend’s blood-soaked black shirtsleeve, exposing the seeping shoulder wound.
At least it wasn’t gushing out from an artery. . .
Lee’s eyes, his eyelids only half-open now, remained fixed on Chip’s face as he struggled to haul in one shallow, raspy breath after another. Relieved that Lee was no longer fighting him, Chip tried to keep talking to him, tried to keep making eye contact as he worked, ripping off part of his underlying white t-shirt and stuffing pieces of it in the bloody wound, both the small hole in the front and the larger opening in the back of Lee’s shoulder where the bullet had torn all the way through.
He saw the toll his efforts were taking on the other man, but tried to ignore the pain he was causing, knowing it had to be done. As he worked, he continued his one-sided conversation, trying to get through with his tone as much as with his words.
“Easy, Lee. If we can get the bleeding stopped, you’ll be much stronger when you finally have to face Jamie.” Then, worriedly, he admonished, reaching up to tap his friend’s bearded jaw as he saw the dark eyes begin to close, “C’mon now. Stay with me. Don’t you close those eyes yet. . . .”
Breathing a sigh of relief when the dark brown eyes found his worried blue again, Chip realized he had to find some help without leaving Lee. Speaking calmly, not wanting to send his friend back into a misplaced struggle for survival, Chip said, “I’m going to reach down for the gun, Lee. But I’m not going to hurt you with it. I just want to fire off a harmless shot or two to get us some help up here. Okay? Now just stay calm, Lee.”
Not removing his eyes from the dark-headed man leaning against the low rock, Chip eased his left hand down toward the weapon. Slowly, watching Lee’s eyes for any hint of concern, he almost breathed out a sigh of relief when he saw his eyelids blink and slide closed, Lee’s dark eyelashes like smudges of soot smeared across his ashen face.
Quickly, Chip grabbed the gun and pointed it at the sky, firing three rapid shots before tucking the warm 9mm back into the holster on his hip. Leaning back over his friend, he tapped the sweating, darkly-bearded face, hoping for a reaction. He nodded, his smile growing as the dark eyes slowly appeared beneath two slits of Lee’s eyelids.
“Thought I’d lost you there, buddy. Just hang with me, now. I’ve got to get the. . .”
His words were lost in the sudden movement from the man in front of him, as Lee abruptly got both legs under him and raised up on his knees, an old revolver suddenly appearing in his hand and pointed off to Chip’s left.
“What the hell?” Chip started, then realized Lee was aiming the gun at the admiral, who had stepped from behind some thick spruce trees from the uphill side of the slope.
Both men held their pistols steady, their eyes each boring into the other with Chip looking back and forth between them.
“Report, Mr. Morton,” the admiral said evenly, his eyes instantly taking in the condition of both of his officers.
“Admiral,” Chip said quietly. “I’m fine, sir. I didn’t know you were here. I was just firing off some shots to get Costa’s attention.” Then, he returned his blue eyes to his commander, concerned about Lee’s silence. The dark-headed man had dropped to sit on the heels of his boots, and his head was down, though the aim of the pistol had not wavered.
“Lee,” Chip said, getting to his feet and taking a step toward his friend. Lee’s head came up, and he stared at the blond, though he never moved the pistol. “Lee, it’s alright. It’s the admiral. He won’t hurt either one of us.”
Nelson did not move except to slowly lower the gun to rest at his side, ready to defend Chip if necessary, but wanting to give weight to his exec’s words. He remained silent, worry for his men making his throat tight, though he kept his intelligent blue eyes narrowed and focused on the pistol in Lee’s hand.
The fleeting thought crossed his mind that he didn’t know if he would be able to shoot Lee Crane, even to save his own life or Chip’s. Tightening his grip on his weapon, he knew instantly that he would if he had to . . . but only if he thought Lee was going to shoot the blond that stood between them.
“Lee,” Chip continued talking. “Please. Put down the gun. The admiral’s not going to hurt either one of us. He’s here to help me. We just want to get you back to the boat, Lee.”
For the first time, he thought he saw a hint of interest in his words, as Lee’s hooded eyes flickered toward him for an instant, before returning to focus on the admiral’s gun. He winced as Lee tried to push off of the rock and get one boot beneath him, only to gasp in pain, and drop his head again.
Stepping toward him and into his line of fire at the admiral, Chip mentally reviewed his words, trying to remember what he had said that had gotten Lee’s attention.
The boat. That was it!
Reaching out with one hand toward his friend, he took another step and dropped to one knee in front of Lee, whose whole body seemed to be shaking with the effort to remain upright and semi-alert.
“Let me have the gun, Lee. Please. We need to get you back to the Seaview, to your boat, buddy.”
Wrapping his hand around the hand that held the pistol, Chip was amazed to feel how steady Lee’s grip still was. Carefully, he removed the weapon from the white-knuckled grasp and placed it on the ground behind him. Then, sure the admiral would be right behind him to help, he pulled the shivering man toward him, cradling him against his chest.
“Easy, Lee. That’s right. Just let me help you. We’ll get you back to your boat soon.”
Chip felt the strong hands behind him, helping to ease them both down to the ground, positioning Chip’s back against the same rock that had held Lee up earlier.
“Lee,” Harry asked gently, “can you tell us where else you’re hurt, lad?”
Chip just shook his head as Nelson got back to his feet and returned to the trees to collect the doctor’s pack. Removing a canteen and handing it to the blond as soon as he returned, the older man dropped to his knees beside them both, watching as Chip got a single mouthful down Lee before their dark-headed commander began to cough.
“How bad is his shoulder?” Nelson asked quietly as they both supported their friend between them, feeling the tremors shaking him with each wracking cough.
“The bullet went clean through. I don’t think it hit an artery, but he lost a lot of blood before I got it packed. And it hasn’t slowed much since then with all of his moving around.” Taking a deep breath, Chip added, “He hasn’t shown any signs of recognizing either one of us, though he finally let me bandage the bullet wound for him.”
Lee lay back, eyes closed, his head resting against Chip’s shoulder, and he continued to struggle for breath, spasms of pain crossing his face and tightening his jaw repeatedly as they talked.
“I’m sure there’s something in Will’s pack for pain, but I know he’d rather examine him before we give him anything. . . . Here,” the admiral said, “let me put this over him, and I’ll go back and get our doctor. I left him just downriver.”
“Jamie’s here? Down in the gorge?” Chip asked incredulously, hope causing him to lift his worried blue eyes to meet the admiral’s as they spread the man’s black leather jacket over Lee.
With an ironic laugh, Nelson replied, “Yes. He was too stubborn to stay behind, and I guess we’ll hear about how right he was for a long time to come.”
Smiling as he ran his fingers through Lee’s long hair, Chip said, “He can let us all hear about it three times a day on the boat’s intercom for all I care, if he can help us get Lee back to the boat in one piece.”
“Aye, lad,” the admiral answered, smiling. “I’ll go back for him if you think the two of you will be alright here until I return.”
“We’ll be fine, Admiral. And send Costa on up here, too, will you? Maybe he and his men can rig up some way for us to carry Lee out of here.”
“Banny should have the car back down by that last bridge by now. It won’t be more than, what? Three miles?”
“Yes, sir. But,” Chip asked, “what about whoever that was that shot Lee in the first place. We’ll have to take it slow and keep an eye out for them.”
Nodding and reaching out to grasp Chip’s shoulder with one hand and place his hand flat against Lee’s face with the other, Nelson growled, “We’ll be careful. Now that we’ve found him, we won’t lose him again, Chip. That’s a promise. I’ll be right back, lad.”
Pushing Lee’s revolver back close beside Chip, he nodded at the watching blue eyes and stood back up. But he stopped, turning back in amazement at the quiet word they both heard Lee speak.
The dark brown eyes flickered open for just a moment, and Lee asked, “Chi-i-p?”
Breathing in a lungful of relief-saturated air, Chip closed his eyes tightly before blinking them open again. A full smile crossing his face, he glanced up at the admiral smiling down at them and said, “Yes. I’m right here, Lee. So is the admiral. We’ve got you, Lee. Just rest now. We’ll get you back to your boat soon.”
Nodding, Nelson swallowed hard and began picking his way carefully down the slope beside the river.
It had been a long walk back.
The supposed three miles was really four, and darkness completely encroached on their trek half-way down, the sun’s last slanted rays finding it difficult to penetrate the deep, narrow gorge. Even the long shadows at the beginning of the trip made picking their way along the river that much more treacherous, but they had resisted the use of flashlights, hoping the cover of near, and then complete darkness would work in their favor in protecting them all from sniper fire.
Nelson had walked just behind the blanket-covered litter Costa and the guides that worked for him had created from two stout branches and a cross-webbing of nylon rope. The two youngest men took turns leading with one end, and once, Chip had allowed one of them to rotate in for him. But otherwise, the blond-headed exec had insisting on carrying the other end, placing him right at Lee’s head most of the way.
By the time they had reached the black car parked just to the side of the closest bridge, they had all been exhausted and subdued. They were worn down by not just the last leg of the journey, but the adrenaline rush of the last few hours, preceded by the hope that had built steadily over the last few days . . . following weeks of nearly hopeless searching.
But worry, more than anything else, had consumed them all.
It still did.
Nelson looked out of the window of the black automobile’s passenger side, too tired to be more than mildly concerned about the nerve-wracking, hairpin-turns that Costa seemed to negotiate effortlessly in the dark. Turning to look over his shoulder, he met Jamison’s eyes in the limited light penetrating the interior from the car’s headlights. Will shook his head slightly, indicating there was no change in the blanket-wrapped man Chip held up against his chest, Lee’s long legs stretched out diagonally between the front seats, held close against Nelson’s body in the front.
While three of the men were uncomfortably cramped in the spacious backseat, the fourth was completely unaware of the accommodations.
Lee had only regained consciousness for brief moments during the long walk south along the river, and each time he had conversed for mere snatches of phrases, spoken only in Greek with Costa. Each time, it was obvious he was in great pain, and he seemed disoriented, looking at all of them, even Chip, without recognition. They were not even completely sure he knew who Costa was.
Nelson patted one of Lee’s boots and, head still turned over his shoulder, nodded slightly at the doctor. He was instantly reminded that, though it was not unusual at any time since they had served together aboard the Seaview, Lee had been particularly suspicious of Will Jamison’s efforts to examine him the two times they had stopped long enough on their hike for the doctor to do so. Both times, Lee had been groggy, but more than a little combative, and it had taken both Chip and Costa to calm him during the few minutes he had seemed to be aware of his surroundings.
He turned back around in his seat as they crested the edge of the gorge, grateful for Costa’s knowledge of the area. They had exited the deep, ragged slash in the ground on the opposite side from where he, Will, and Banny had seen the snipers, saving them half a day’s drive around the edge of the gorge. But they still had a good three hours or more in driving time to reach the marina outside Igoumenitsa where Chief Sharkey waited with FS1. From there, Nelson estimated they would be able to return to their submerged submarine within an additional fifteen minutes.
The arrangements were as fast as they could make them. . . . It would have to be fast enough. The only difficulty now, baring incident with the so far, unreturned silver car and its two occupants, would be in making sure that Lee lasted that long.
Jamison had been unusually tight-lipped about offering any more information, and the demands from Nelson had simply met with a shake of the head and a tired, “I can’t tell you any more, Admiral, until I’ve run some scans. You’ll just have to be patient.”
But it hadn’t escaped anyone’s attention that any movement of his head seemed to send Lee into a blinding, gasping agony and that during the brief moments when he had been conscious, he was not himself. Never the most even tempered of men, he seemed to vacillate between being completely withdrawn, barely listening to their interactions, and uttering sharp, snarling replies to any questions, particularly from the doctor.
Though Jamison had explained to them all that Lee’s outbursts were probably a direct result of the head injury and exhaustion, it had still been terribly disconcerting for them to see him that agitated over nothing more than changing a bandage and checking a pulse.
It only made things worse that he did not seem to recognize them. . . and Nelson had begun to suspect that it would be a long haul before he did. In fact, now that he thought about it, it was almost as if Lee could not really see them and. . . .
His eyes widening in sudden realization of some of Will’s actions the last time Lee had been conscious, Nelson silently surmised that the doctor may have been thinking the same thing. He turned to glare at the physician, narrowing his blue, glittering eyes.
Jamison just returned the stare calmly, seriously . . . silently, as Nelson slowly turned back around and gazed out of the window, seeing nothing but his own reflection in the dark glass. He remained deep in thought.
Chip’s voice had seemed to help settle Lee the several times when he had thrashed around on the edge of a pain-induced delirium. But only Costa had seemed to be able to calm Lee at all during those two instances when he had been conscious enough to battle against Jamison’s efforts to examine him.
It suddenly seemed to Nelson that, while they had found Lee Crane in one piece, there was a part of him that had been irrevocably stolen away by the weeks he had been gone. And. . . if he were right, and there was more damage already done than the doctor had previously mentioned. . . .
He shivered slightly, reaching out to grasp one of Lee’s boots tightly. What had he caused by leaving the area, abandoning the younger man to his fate?
Nelson glanced over at the calm face of the driver next to him in the darkness, and he breathed out heavily. If it hadn’t been for Costa and Elena. . . .
He would always be grateful to them for the assistance they had given Lee.
Even now, despite the possible danger, Melanthius had insisted on accompanying them back to the submarine to help ease Lee’s return to his vessel. He had sent Pertras and Vankos to the closest village to either borrow a vehicle or catch a ride back to Mikro Papingo, where they would explain his decision to Elena.
“I will go with you, Harry,” Costa declared, as he closed the door of the car after helping to carefully ease the unconscious Lee inside next to Chip. “It will help our Leksi to have me there, no? And then I will be able to go home to my Elena to tell her how happy he is when he is all well again . . . with his memories returned.”
Nelson turned back around to look at the still unconscious Lee Crane. Seeing the uncharacteristically wild, curling hair, and the unnaturally pale, unshaven face, he closed his eyes for a few moments, exhaustion and worry hitting him hard, like a punch to the gut he could no longer defend against.
He hoped Costa’s optimism would prove correct.
Lee had to be alright. He had to be.
They had found him, and he was still alive.
The rest would come with time. It had to.
Blinking his eyes open again, he sighed silently and found the pale blue eyes of his exec on him. He nodded at Chip, too tired and too worried to speak or smile.
The blond’s quiet, confident voice gave him some comfort, however, when he spoke up in the silent interior of the car, “He’s going to be alright, Admiral. You know how tough he is. The hard part’s over. I’m sure of it.”
Nelson nodded in reply, his eyes moving to rest again on the dark-headed man Chip held closely against him, supporting him through each curve in the serpentine road. He realized that Lee’s eyes were tightly closed, and it was obvious that he was just barely unconscious now, that he was fighting to get to the surface, fighting through the pain.
Lee’s lips began moving long before Nelson could make out any of the sounds enough to know that he was not speaking English, and he began tossing his head from side to side. Nelson turned and reached around to the backseat while keeping one forearm across Lee’s legs.
When he heard Lee groan and felt him start to struggle against him, he turned to the driver. “I think you’d better find a place to pull over, Costa,” he said quietly. “Lee’s coming around, and we may need you to help.”
Noting the man’s responding nod, Nelson returned his attention to the back seat.
Chip was murmuring in Lee’s ear, and Banny had reached over to assist Nelson in holding onto their captain’s legs, both trying to prevent him from kicking out and injuring anyone in the cramped space as he started to struggle in earnest. Will had taken Lee’s pulse, and he now kept hold of the arm closest to him. Chip’s arms were wrapped over both of Lee’s biceps and around his chest . . . loosely though in mindful response to Jamison’s earlier cautions about the injured man’s ribs. The doctor had made it clear he was particularly concerned about puncturing or further lacerating a lung, and none of them wanted to restrain Lee to the point of making things any worse than they already were.
Costa eased the car into a wide, tree-lined overlook, and both he and the admiral got out of the vehicle in the dark, opening the back doors to assist in any way they could. Through it all, Chip’s voice was a constant as he kept up a steady stream of one-sided conversation in Lee’s closest ear, trying to hold him up while the others assisted from both sides of the car’s open rear doors.
Lee’s dark, wide-open eyes were wild and unfocused as he began to thrash around in the seat, his back pulled up close to Chip’s chest. The blond fought to hold on without hurting him, trying to avoid the shoulder wound that had started bleeding again, flecks of crimson showing through the white dressing. The bulky bandage was visible as Lee’s unbuttoned black shirt fell open, his chest heaving with exertion as he strained against Bannatyne and Costa, who were trying to assist Chip.
His angry, short-clipped Greek was clearly translatable as he struggled against them all.
“Easy, Leksi,” Costa soothed, trying to get through to the dark-headed young man. “Just rest. Let us help you. These are friends, Leksi. No one will hurt you. You have Costa Melanthius’ word on that. You are safe now.”
Though the man kept up a steady stream of words, switching smoothly between Greek and English as he worriedly tried to get through, he kept shaking his head, knowing that he was not having any effect.
Suddenly, Lee gasped loudly, and with a cry of pain, he reached up with his uninjured arm toward his head and collapsed limply against Chip.
In the silence that followed, the doctor checked the dark, unevenly dilated pupils, took Lee’s pulse, listened to his heart and respiration and, with his jaw clenched, he deftly changed the dressing on the freely bleeding shoulder wound.
“Jamie?” Chip asked into the silence.
But he received no response except a curt shake of the head until the doctor was finished. Then the physician barked, “Let’s move! We’re running out of time.”
Working efficiently, they carefully maneuvered Lee back into the diagonal position of before, returned to their previous seating arrangements, and got the vehicle underway, headed toward the sea.
A few minutes later, Jamison leaned forward and gripped the admiral on the shoulder, meeting the man’s guilt-laden, worried blue eyes. “He’s using up his remaining strength fighting us. But with the head injury, I can’t give him anything . . . not until I run those scans.”
Jamison shook his head, frustration evident on his face as he turned and gazed into Chip’s steady eyes. When the younger man nodded at him in reassurance, the doctor swallowed hard and added, “We have to make a decision.”
“What’s that?” Nelson queried, his voice gruff, his throat closed in overpowering concern.
“We can continue on this way, trying to get to the boat. Or we can head to the closest city with a hospital and hope they have the equipment I need.”
While Costa and the crewman remained silent, it was immediately clear which side Chip favored.
“No! We have to take him to Seaview, Jamie!”
Both Nelson and the physician looked at him for a long moment before the admiral asked softly, “Costa, the closest city is Ioannina, is it not?”
“Yes, Harry. It is about ninety minutes from here. But, if we are going toward the sea instead, we will have to turn west soon.”
Checking his watch, the admiral said, “That would only save us about thirty to forty-five minutes. What do you think, Will? Can that amount of time make that much difference?”
Jamison turned to look back at his unconscious patient, Lee’s long, dark eyelashes, his unruly black hair, and his rough beard standing out severely against the pallor of his face. He lifted the closest arm and checked the thread-y pulse without verifying against his watch, then lowered it gently back to let it rest across Lee’s chest.
With a sigh, his eyes avoiding those of the two blue-eyed officers flanking him, he said somberly, “I can’t begin to answer that question logically without being able to get scans of the inside of his skull. If it’s as I fear, he may need surgery, and any delay at all is too long. On the other hand, what I need won’t be found at every small medical facility, but I do know it’s available on board the sub.”
“Chip?” Nelson asked, his eyes on Lee’s best friend, who had dropped his chin to rest it on top of Crane’s head, his eyes unfocused and staring out at nothing at all.
When the exec’s blue eyes slowly fixed on his, the admiral continued, “I know what I think. What about you? Why are you so adamant that we need to take him to the Seaview?”
Immediately, the blond replied, “It’s his home, and I think he has the best chance of recovering his memories there. It’s where he’s comfortable, where he’s most familiar with his surroundings. It has to be there.”
His eyes met the admiral’s, and held, blue on blue for a long moment in the limited, shadowy light.
Then Nelson nodded, accepting that the weight of the final decision, like the other decisions he had made recently, was resting on his shoulders. He could only hope that this one was more correctly made than the others had been.
“I agree. Let’s chance it and take him home.”
The soft waves lapped
against both the sand at his feet and the grey rocks further up along the edge
of the huge lake. Chip stood silently, facing the dark void of the water of
They had been fortunate. It would take even less time now to get Lee back to the boat.
As soon as they had reached
a temporary break in the mountains near Elecusa, Chip’s cell phone had started
ringing, the signal finally strong for the first time in days. Having
anticipated the need for him to get as close to the Zagorohoria region of
Hearing the approach of the crewman, who had parked the car where it could be easily retrieved tomorrow by the rental company, Chip opened his eyes and took one more look up at the stars. With any luck, they would have Lee back on board his boat within the hour, a much more satisfactory timeline than they had previously thought possible.
He nodded to Banny, who was jogging toward him, and they both climbed aboard the small craft. By the time the aft hatch was sealed and Sharkey had them airborne, Chip was standing beside the doctor and the admiral, looking expectantly at the silent physician for information.
“Alright, Jamie,” he said brusquely when it was obvious nothing was forthcoming. “I gave you your ten minutes to get Lee settled and checked over. Now I need to know how he is.”
“Easy, Chip,” Nelson murmured, his attention on the pale, sweating face of the unconscious man lying in the single rack in front of them, his head and shoulders raised with two folded blankets and a pillow. He had watched his CMO check Lee’s vital signs, change the blood-spotted dressing again, and start both the IV and the flow of oxygen, relief especially clear on the doctor’s otherwise impassive face at finally being able to do both of the latter.
But Nelson knew Will Jamison well enough to know he was still deeply worried.
Confirming Nelson’s suspicions, Jamison began his answer with a shake of his head and a deep sigh. “Chip, Admiral,” he started. Then he paused again, glancing over at the worried faces of the other two men that had accompanied them, and he took note of the turn of Sharkey’s head, ears poised to catch every word while still attending to his instruments and their heading.
He cleared his throat and lifted his voice, preferring to only say it all once, “He’s running a fever, and he’s severely dehydrated, not to mention showing signs of hypothermia. . . though I think we can get all of that under control.” The doctor’s eyes shifted away from the men to glance at the IV hanging from the hook on the aft bulkhead. Then, dropping his eyes to the face of his patient, he added, “I’m mainly worried now about the blood he’s lost, the difficulty he’s been having breathing, and above all, the head injury.”
For a few moments, the only sounds were of the flying sub’s instruments, loud in the small space. Then Nelson queried for all of them, “Will he be alright?”
The worried hazel eyes looked up from where the doctor sat on a crate of supplies beside his patient, his answer plain before any words were spoken as he shook his head negatively.
“I don’t know, Admiral. Right now, I just don’t know.”
Nelson stopped his pacing and made one more check of the three men waiting silently in the rear of the craft. Then, walking between the quiet Bannatyne and the dozing Costa---who were both safely strapped into the two rear seats, he took his own place next to Chief Sharkey. Buckling himself into the black swivel seat, he leaned forward slightly to check the readings on the panel before him.
He caught the chief’s quick glance toward him, and he nodded back, both of them forcing themselves to attend to what was in front of them on the other side of the herculite windows rather than who was behind them by the aft bulkhead.
Nelson swallowed hard, then touched the microphone against his throat and said, “Nelson to Seaview. Come in Seaview.”
“This is Seaview,”
Relief flooded through the redheaded man, followed quickly by a warm rush of hope for the commander and pride in his men. He set his jaw into a tight line, swallowing again to force down the emotions that coursed through him before he answered.
“We’re coming home, Sparks. . . . All of us.”
“The captain, too, sir?”
He took a deep, steadying breath as they all heard the protocol-breaking reply clearly through the speaker on the panel in front of him, the words aimed not only at him, but the men in the control room that Nelson could imagine were probably hanging on Sparks’ every word on that end.
“Yes, Sparks. Captain Crane,
Nelson could almost hear the crewman nodding in affirmation to the others as he replied enthusiastically, “That’s excellent news, sir!”
Immediately, the admiral heard the multiple shouts of elation that overwhelmed the limited scope of Spark’s microphone. And he glanced around the small craft, assured by the various pairs of eyes and slightly sad smiles that moved from his face to look over at the unconscious form in the rear rack, that everyone else but Lee had heard them too.
His quiet, serious voice
broke through the excitement on the other end as he added solemnly, gruffly,
“ETA 5 minutes. Request a team of corpsmen with a stretcher to meet us at the
After a long pause, in which the radioman on the other end processed the implications of the quiet words, Nelson heard the subdued response, “Aye, sir. We’ll be ready. Seaview out.”
He leaned back in his seat, guilt crashing through him again as he closed his eyes briefly, imagining the looks of mingled hope and worry that would be exchanged around the control room and the electricity of concern that would be telegraphed throughout the boat in a matter of minutes.
He had let them down, all of them----not just the dark-haired commander that lay so still in the bunk behind him. And now they would have to all pay the price for his decision to stop looking for their captain----they would have to pay right along beside of him as they all fought to hold onto the life still remaining inside Lee Crane.
Shaking his head, he opened his eyes again. Glancing over at the chief, he saw the loyal, worried eyes watching him, reading him.
“He’s tough, Admiral. You brought him home. Now trust the doc and the boys to pull him through, sir.”
Inhaling deeply through his nose, Nelson nodded once in acknowledgement, and he returned his eyes to the dark water beneath them. The limited moonlight glinted off of the intermittent, white-capped swells and, as Sharkey put them into a graceful dive, plunging the small craft beneath the surface, Nelson felt the buoyancy of hope rise up in his chest.
They were almost home.
For a few seconds, he thought back to the trip weeks ago when he had sat like this, barely moving next to an equally still Chief Sharkey, who had busied himself piloting the lithe craft with a heavy heart. Behind them, Chip Morton had kept silent watch over a black, vinyl body bag strapped into the same rack where a still breathing Lee Crane now lay.
The despair and despondency that had gripped him on that trip was something he hoped to never experience again. He had felt like a huge boulder of crushing stone had been lying across his chest, and any air he managed to suck in was in spite of it, around its edges, and barely worth the effort.
Now he reminded himself, on this trip they were again taking Lee home to his boat, to his men. But this time, though much worse for the weeks he had been gone, he was definitely alive. And this second chance was more than any of them had thought possible on that last, heart-wrenching journey.
Somehow, that hope would have to be enough to pull them all of out this interminable nightmare, enough for them to latch hold of and pull Lee through.
As he felt Sharkey turn the small craft around to prepare for docking, as he felt the strong magnetic force grasp hold of FS1 and settle her into place beneath Seaview’s bow, he turned and glanced over his shoulder at Chip. The blue eyes that held his for a long moment made it clear that the blond, too, had remembered the hopelessness of that last trip and that he was immensely grateful for the opportunity of this second chance at bringing his friend and captain home.
Nodding, Nelson swallowed again, feeling the solid stone of guilt and defeat melt slightly at the continued warmth of hope that enveloped him just as the steel clamps settled into place over his head.
Gathering himself, he unbuckled quickly and headed aft. Hearing the opening of the hatch and the whoosh of equalizing air, he motioned the two corpsmen inside. He hovered silently as Jamison and his team, with Chip’s help, deftly eased the unconscious captain from the bunk to the stretcher they placed on the floor. Then, indicating that Costa should follow Chip, Nelson stepped toward the open hatch, pausing long enough to grasp the chief’s arm tightly in acknowledgment and appreciation of Sharkey’s efforts.
“He’s gonna be alright, Admiral,” the chief responded with assurance. “Now that he’s back on his boat, he’ll be alright. You’ll see, sir.”
“Thank you, Francis,” Nelson said softly, his use of the man’s first name conveying effectively how grateful he was for both the reassurance and the man’s initiative. “If he is, then we have you to thank for your foresight. Jamison was making us all sweat every minute it took to get the captain here, and you saved all of us quite a bit of additional worry. Now he can get the care he needs that much sooner.”
The pleased expression on
the COB’s face warmed his heart another few degrees as Nelson turned to head
Nelson sucked in a ragged
breath as he walked quietly through his boat, watching and listening to his
men. As the corpsmen quickly carried Lee aft through one section after another,
the assembled crew members leaned down and, careful to not impede his progress
Chip, his voice thick with the emotion he could not. . . would not hide from them, tried to field the questions in their eyes that they did not voice.
“Thank you, men. All of you. We’ll get you an update as soon as the doctor checks the captain’s condition again.”
Then, pausing a few minutes later, the XO met Kowalski and Patterson’s eyes as he passed the two Alpha shift crewmen standing side-by-side in one of the middle sections of the boat. In response to the devastated look in Kowalski’s dark eyes, Chip shook his head and said softly, “Pass the word, Ski. I know the Skipper will appreciate everyone’s support when he comes around. But right now, he’s pretty bad off. He’s lost a lot of blood from a bullet wound to the shoulder, and he may have a lacerated lung from some broken ribs. But the doc is most worried about his head injury. He. . . well, we’ll just have to wait and see.”
The quiet seaman nodded solemnly and said, reaching out to grasp the blond officer’s arm in support, “He’ll be alright, Mr. Morton. He’s . . . the Skipper’s as tough as this boat, and she’s as sturdy as they come. He’ll pull through, sir.”
Nodding at both of them,
Chip walked on through the gathered men, silently following the stretcher
As Nelson approached, Patterson spoke up and added to the exchange that the admiral had already overheard, “Thank you for bringing him home, sir. We’re all mighty glad to have him back aboard.”
“Thank you, Pat,” Nelson
said. Then he indicated the quiet, contemplative man who had stopped beside him
and, somewhat distractedly, he began to introduce them. “Costa Melanthius,
Seamen Kowalski and Patterson.” Turning back to the two crewmen, he asked,
“Pat, would you and Ski take care of Mr. Melanthius for me? Banny took his pack
up to his cabin on A deck, but he wants to see that the captain is settled in
As the two men nodded, Nelson added quietly, hoping to convey the man’s importance to the crew and to their visitor at the same time, “He and his wife took care of Captain Crane, men. They’re the only reason he’s still alive to return to us.”
As he said the words aloud, he knew there would be no assuaging his own guilt at not being there for Lee himself during those long weeks of recovery following his imprisonment and torturous treatment.
“Yes sir! It will be our pleasure, sir!”
The enthusiastic reply from both crewmen brought a soft smile to Nelson’s face as both men fell in to bring up the rear of what had become an unprecedented procession through Lee’s boat in the middle of the night.
The breeze ruffled his dark hair as he sat, knees drawn up to his chest in a relaxed pose, arms draped across them, watching the river far below. Though he did not move to look above him, he saw the reflection of the skies in the view and in the white clouds drifting across the gorge as they plunged the intensity of the sunlight into deep shadow, then moved away, alternating, shifting, changing his perspective yet again.
At the call of the eagle above him, gliding on a thermal picked up from below, he lifted his head this time, his hazel-flecked, amber brown eyes watching the soaring bird, its wings outstretched. Focusing on the blue of the river snaking away to his left, he followed the ribbon of water back toward its unseen source as he simultaneously sought to trace backwards to the origin of his presence in this place. . . as he struggled to remember why he was here.
But his quest to find the specific memory ended as he was immediately mesmerized again by the sight of two golden eagles, the first from a little while ago joined now by another as the pair swooped and wheeled through the deep blue of the sky, the rugged grey of tall, rocky peaks in the background.
Suddenly, his eyes flew open and the landscape disappeared.
The peaks, the river, and the two eagles were replaced by a sharp, inescapable pain searing through his head, through his shoulder and chest, overwhelming him. He struggled, blinking rapidly to get beyond the pain, to take in his surroundings and the shadowy shapes moving just out of reach beside and above him. He tried to speak, to reply to the murmur of voices sifting into his pounding head like a feather tossed about by high winds. But his words were lost in a grinding cough that quickly turned to dry retching, and he curled toward his side, eyes open but barely aware of the hands that supported him.
The cry of the raptors from his dream merged with his own ragged gasp as the white hot agony inside his head continued to spear into him, sending him reeling backwards, towards unconsciousness.
When his eyes closed, he was no closer to unraveling where he was or why than he had been in almost two months.
Chip stood silently, his back to the room, hands clenched into fists and pushed deep into his pockets. Behind him, Admiral Nelson paced the pristine floor, his eyes on his gleaming shoes, their black polish contrasting sharply with the white surface beneath them. Costa Melanthius stood quietly, pausing occasionally in his examination of the pictures on the bulkhead behind the doctor’s desk to look at first one, then the other of his companions.
All three looked up in anticipation, their faces a compilation of fear and relief, dread and hope, as two corpsmen wheeled the gurney back inside the main area behind them. Chip struggled to remain silent as he stepped toward them and got a good look at his friend’s pale face, Lee’s dark eyelashes, equally dark beard, and long, curling hair accenting the grayish cast to his features.
“He looks like he’s already dead,” Chip agonized silently, moving forward to assist the medics in lowering the gurney and gently, but efficiently transferring their unconscious captain to a bottom rack. Then he moved aside so the doctor could hang the IV from a hook overhead and lean down over his patient to check his breathing.
Standing aside once more, Chip closed his eyes for a few seconds, trying to visualize his friend on other occasions in which he had been treated here, particularly the way Lee’s ultimate liveliness and captive irritation challenged the doctor and his staff from worrisome start to relieved finish.
He had never seen Lee look this bad.
He admitted to himself that he was afraid . . . afraid of losing his friend, afraid of losing him again after having just found him . . . after already fearing him dead for so many weeks.
Opening his eyes at the hand placed firmly on his shoulder, he nodded in acknowledgement at the worried blue eyes that met his.
He could see his own fears mirrored in the older man’s face, in the lines around the admiral’s eyes, at his jaw set in firm denial against those fears.
Though the admiral remained silent, Costa came up to flank Chip on the other side and said quietly to both of them, echoing their thoughts aloud, “He looks bad, our Leksi. But I have hope. . . . He looked worse the first time I saw him, almost frozen from too long in the river and covered in hideous bruises. I thought he was surely dead when I first reached him, but he was not. He survived that. . . He will survive this.”
Chip, his eyes watching the doctor working over his friend, swallowed hard at the images Costa’s words invoked and at their match with Critinger’s story of what those men had done to Lee. He hoped that Costa was right, hoped that Lee’s body would be able to outlast the additional injuries, that he would not succumb to them now that he had survived so much to make it home.
But how much could he take and continue to walk away?
Blinking rapidly, Chip lifted his chin, his jaw set into a hard line. He did not speak as the images and worries continued to cascade through him.
Dimly, he realized Jamie had stepped in front of him, blocking his view of Lee. The physician was watching him carefully with sharp eyes.
“Are you alright?” Jamison asked quietly, staring into the agonized blue eyes of the blond and reaching out to grasp his arm.
“Fine,” Chip responded gruffly, nodding his head once, realizing belatedly that his head was pounding furiously. It had been that way off and on since he had fought with Lee by the river, hitting his head against that tree. Then, taking a deep breath, he asserted, “What about Lee?”
Nodding back and releasing the blond’s arm, though he made a mental note to check the young man over thoroughly at first opportunity, Jamison pointed toward his office door and said, “Let’s go in there to talk. I could use a cup of coffee.”
As all four men crowded back into the doctor’s small office, it was not lost on any of them that Jamison waited behind the first three to pull the door closed, shutting off the words he was about to tell them from anyone, unconscious or otherwise, in the larger Sick Bay behind them. The doctor walked behind his desk and sat down in his chair, pouring a cup of Cookie’s brutal brew while Nelson and Costa sat in front of the desk. Chip remained standing by the bulkhead to the admiral’s right, his hands still clenched into fists inside his pockets.
When the doctor offered the pot in his direction, the admiral shook his head and ordered succinctly, “Let’s hear it, Will.”
Nodding, the doctor replaced the half-full pot on its stand and picked up his cup, using it to warm his suddenly cold hands.
He shook his head again, the weight of the whole situation pressing down on him. With full awareness of that high tide, low tide dichotomy he and Chip had discussed several times and knowing they wanted the bottom line, he ignored all of that and began with a listing of each individual concern.
“I think we’ve got the dehydration and the beginnings of hypothermia under control, and I feel better about his lungs. One shows a laceration, probably caused by the broken ribs on that side. But the ribs are mending, thanks to Costa and his wife’s care, and I think, as long as we can keep him calm and relatively still, the laceration will finish healing too.”
He nodded warmly at the dark brown eyes watching him intently from the other side of the desk. Then, glancing down for an instant, he took a deep breath and looked up again from his rapidly cooling coffee, meeting the admiral’s blue-eyed gaze.
“He’s lost a lot of blood, and he’s exhausted. In fact, he’s as weak as I’ve ever seen him. If I had to take him in surgery right now to remove a bullet, I wouldn’t give you a plugged nickel for his chances. His vitals are not as strong as I’d like to see them.”
He moved his eyes on to take in the icy blue turned on him from the far bulkhead. Jamison swallowed and said, “But fortunately, that particular surgery isn’t necessary. I’ve cleaned out the bullet wound, and the bleeding’s stopped. I’m confident the wound will fully heal with time.”
Chip spoke up, interrupting the litany of injuries and their status with his question, “So. . . are you saying you’re not going to have to do surgery at all . . . or you need to do it, but can’t?”
Will nodded, placing the much cooler cup of coffee on the desk in front of him, looking down at the grey metal surface. Trust the exec to get right to the point, he thought. Lifting his eyes again, he looked at each man, settling his gaze last on the captain’s academy roommate and longtime friend.
“The scans didn’t show any large build up of blood beneath his skull, which is great news. There is some bleeding, however, and there appears to be a small amount of swelling, but I’m hopeful that rest and medication will resolve both without surgery. Now we’ll just have to wait to see if that’s the case.”
“What about the second impact and the worry you had about that?” Nelson asked, immediately alerted to the fact that the good news had not been delivered with any trace of elation.
The physician shook his head, “Unfortunately, there’s little way for me to say for sure. He’s definitely suffering from severe concussion, but right now, I’m not seeing the obvious, overall swelling of SIS. As I mentioned, there is some small leakage of blood and slight swelling, but hopefully it is a temporary situation that is presenting as Post-Concussion Syndrome, not the usually fatal swelling of SIS.”
“When will you know for sure?” Nelson asked.
“SIS can develop later of course, but I’m hopeful that worry is behind us. He’s holding his own.”
Shaking his head, Chip pushed off from the grey of the bulkhead and walked over to the desk, leaning on it with both clenched fists curled on the metal surface. His voice was almost a growl as he exclaimed, “Vitals not as strong as you’d like. Holding his own. Dammit, Jamie! What is it you’re not telling us?”
The physician hauled in a deep breath through his nose and pushed it back out again. He stood up and picked up the clipboard with Lee’s medical information on it as he prepared to return to the bay next door. He paused and said, his voice quiet and full of regret, “He came around very briefly as we were finishing the scans. He didn’t seem to know who any of us were then, any more than he has since we found him, and . . . .”
“And?” Chip demanded, his hopes for improvement in that area plummeting with the doctor’s words.
“And,” Jamison responded, “it could just be a temporary side-effect of the swelling and the bleeding that will clear up . . . but a few minutes ago, I wasn’t at all sure he could even see us. And now he’s deeply unconscious. Because of that, and the fact that his vital signs have slipped some, I’m afraid he’s going into a coma.”
The mountain was encased in a cloud. The thick cottony mist swirled around him as he stood outside the stone hut, the grey of its hewn rock blending almost invisibly into the grey of the cloud.
The watery mist clung to him, to his hair, his face, his clothes.
“I’m as wet as if I’d gone running through a light rain along the beach at low tide,” he thought.
He lifted his eyes, then shivered with a slight chill as he wondered where the idea of that particular comparison had come from, and shaking himself mentally, he turned to head back through the rough wooden doorway behind him.
This was his fourth day up at the hut that stood near the apex of Astraka Column, one of the three connected stone peaks that formed the Gamila towering above the tiny village.
Though the mountain and the gorge far below it were known for their treacherous, unexpected weather, the view from the top had only been obscured by clouds on one other morning. Confident that today’s weather would also pass in a few hours, he stepped inside the rugged interior of the hut and crossed the stone floor to the blackened hearth. He immediately lowered himself to sit tiredly on the heated rocks for a few moments, the warming blaze at his back.
Then, shaking his head after only a few moments, he rose and stepped restlessly back toward the open doorway again, leaving the crackling of the fire behind him.
He was exhausted from his trip half way down and back up this morning, his breathing ragged still.
He knew he should stay by the fire.
But something was beckoning to him, making him extremely restless. He tried
Ignoring the slight headache that always returned to torment him whenever he tried to focus on the past too intensely, but this time, the ache was an agony that would not be ignored. He lifted his right hand, rubbing at his temple, while his amber brown eyes searched the opaque grey outside.
Suddenly, he froze.
Someone was there, nearby inside the grey cloud. He could hear the voice, familiar somehow but muffled, as if the cloud was more than a misty, moisture-laden barrier between them.
Chip broke off in mid-sentence, turning quickly to look more closely at the unmoving features of his friend.
He had taken the admiral’s place four hours ago, forcing the worn out older man to get some rest. Chip had been there, sitting quietly next to Lee’s rack ever since, and though Jamie had come in a few minutes ago to sit with him and bring him a fresh cup of coffee, Lee had not moved nor made a sound in all of that time.
“What is it, Chip?” Jamison asked, aware suddenly of the blond’s intense focus on their captain.
“I thought I saw him move.”
Rising to check Lee’s pulse, Jamie shook his head and said, “No change. But talk to him . . . let’s see what happens.”
“Lee,” Chip said, turning his attention to the unconscious dark-haired man. “Lee, I’ve missed you, buddy. Come on. Open your eyes so I can tell you about the status of your boat.”
He turned his head, trying to see into the greyness, willing his eyes to make out form and features to accompany the murmuring of the calm, quiet voice.
Aware that his own breathing was growing more ragged, that he could not make a run for it, he nearly cried out when something unexpectedly touched his arm.
“Yes. Definitely,” Jamison nodded, his eyes swiveling quickly from Lee’s face to the exec’s and back again. “Keep talking, Chip. There was a change for a few seconds.”
Hope staring back at him through Jamie’s eyes, Chip swallowed hard and started speaking again.
“It’s alright, Lee. You’re home now. You’re safe. Jamie’s here, the admiral’s been here, and,” smiling slightly, Chip finished, “I’m here . . . waiting for you to wake up and take your duty watch.”
Jamie looked to his left at the blond who was leaning forward, Lee’s right hand held carefully between both of his, aware of the need to avoid jostling the wounded shoulder. The concern on the exec’s normally stoic face was obvious. Though Morton had not suffered a concussion, the headache from the finally-revealed bump on the back of his head had taken enough of a toll that, after checking on the boat and crew, he had finally slept for most of yesterday in one of the racks on the other wall.
The doctor returned his attention to the captain and, signaled by the change in respiration and heartbeat, he said, “It’s working. I think he’s coming around, Chip.”
Frustrated at not being able to see through the fog, he wiped his hand across his face, wondering for the thousandth time how long it was going to take to get beyond the injuries that had almost killed him.
Determined to regain his strength, he had made several treks up and down the mountain within a couple of weeks. And even now, he knew he was still not completely recovered from the . . . from whatever had happened to him . . . from the pain-filled shadows of almost two months ago. . . . from events he still could not completely recall.
But what was it about this place?
Searching the inside of the cloud with restless eyes, he realized that the grey fog had grown thicker, bringing visibility down to a few feet or less. With water beginning to drip along his hairline, he stepped a few feet further away from the solid shape of the hut behind him.
He knew that the wind up here was usually a constant force creating a perpetual sound somewhere between a whistle, a whine, and a roar. But today there seemed to be another sound out here, a different but continual sound that made him want to walk deeper into the cloud to search for it.
But everything was so still.
There was no movement.
And the cocoon of silence inside the cloud was so complete, it was as if he had cotton wadding stuffed into his ears.
Suddenly, with no conscious thought about doing so, he reached out a hand.
His attention caught by an unexpected movement, Chip nudged the physician beside him and nodded toward Lee’s hand.
“He is coming around. Look!”
The captain’s left hand slid an inch or two along the smooth, slightly curving bulkhead beside him, palm flat against the metal surface. Then, as they watched, he patted the bulkhead once before his hand dropped back to the blanket as if it were suddenly too heavy to hold up. But Lee’s long fingers maintained contact with the wall, keeping close as if he felt grounded by it somehow, and his eyes moved beneath closed eyelids as if he were searching for something.
“Chip,” Jamison said, “Keep talking to him. I’m going to send Kowalski for Costa and the admiral.”
Surprised, as if he had been expecting to feel nothing, he felt something smooth and solid beside him. He kept his hand against it, comforted by it, his eyes opened wide and staring out at nothing.
What was it. . . ?
A . . . a wall. . . ?
Whatever it was, it was definitely not supposed to be here, on the side of the stone-covered mountain in the grey fog.
But . . . it had been as if he had known it should be there. . . .
Closing his eyes again, he had a fleeting image of walking down a narrow, familiar corridor, the smooth walls light colored like the grey clouds all around him, their solid closeness calming and. . . .
He took a deep breath, the smooth, somehow familiar surface comforting in its closeness, and he relaxed through some of the pain that was reasserting itself, making its presence known between his temples.
The murmur of voices was close too, and though he could not recognize them, they blended with the pervasive sound that washed over him, through him, helping to ease him further through the pain. Blinking rapidly, he breathed deeply again as he suddenly understood that the constant sound was connected to the surface beneath his hand, like the whistling of the wind in this area was connected to the mountain itself.
In fact, it wasn’t so much a sound that he heard, but a steady, reassuring vibration.
Chip was barely aware of the doctor’s return as he kept his eyes on Lee’s face. He smiled slightly when he saw the darkly fringed eyelids flutter for a brief second, and he squeezed Lee’s hand encouragingly as he coaxed, “That’s right, buddy. Come on now. It’s time for you to roll out of that bed and take over the watch. You’ve slept through too many shifts, and the crew is going to mutiny if they don’t get another glimpse of you soon.”
Opening his eyes and fighting a sudden wave of disorienting dizziness, he heard it . . . felt it again . . .
. . . It was a low humming sound, constant in intensity, and it was beginning to combine with a vibration that he could feel, if only up and down his spine.
This time he turned his head, his hand reaching out again, and he smiled slightly.
That vibration. . . .
He remembered it somehow. . . .
It was as if he belonged to it . . . and it to him.
Taking another step toward the sound, he suddenly stopped, reaching up with his outstretched hand to push his palm into his forehead and run his fingers into his thick hair, pushing at the intensifying pain.
Something was wrong.
It shouldn’t be here. . . .
It didn’t belong here. . . .
Listening harder, he turned his worried, searching eyes back to the hut behind him, barely visible in the swirling cloud cover that was starting to thin out just a bit.
The sound was growing in magnitude.
The vibration was changing in intensity.
Suddenly, he knew.
He wasn’t supposed to be on this mountain, in this thick, grey fog. He was supposed to be somewhere else. He was supposed to be with that sound, with that vibration beneath his feet . . . all around him.
It wasn’t really here either.
But where was it?
How was he supposed to find it?
Just as his fingers sought the comforting surface of the wall again, his eyes slammed open, and he reached up instead, grabbing hold of his head with a cry that echoed through the sudden, searing pain and the grey darkness that beckoned beyond it.
Chip reacted instantly as Lee’s eyes flew open, both hands reaching toward his head. Leaning across Lee’s chest, he tried to keep him from tearing out the IV and the nasal cannula without placing too much pressure on Lee’s ribs as he did so.
“Jamie!” Chip called over his shoulder. “Help me!”
Then, turning his attention back to the struggling man beneath him, Chip soothed, “Easy, Lee. Easy, buddy. Just breathe.”
Hearing the ragged, choked off cry, Chip clenched his jaw and snarled quietly in the ear of the physician who was now beside him, “Can’t you give him something? He’s in terrible pain!”
Reaching out with one hand to adjust the oxygen levels, Jamison responded through gritted teeth, “You know I can’t do that, Chip. We need him conscious, not comatose.”
“But not like this!” Chip snarled, before turning back to face Lee and dropping his voice into as calm a tone as he could manage. Though Lee’s eyes were open, they were dark brown, as dark as Chip had ever seen them, the pain obvious in their depths. Lee was staring up at the rack above him, unseeing, unblinking, and he was gasping harshly for breath.
“Easy, Lee,” Chip said, aware from the corner of his eye that the admiral and Costa had entered Sick Bay behind him. “Breathe through it, buddy. You can do it, Lee. Come on. Breathe.”
Suddenly, they both felt the dark-headed captain’s muscles relax beneath their restraining hands, and Chip saw his eyes close. . . tightly at first, then his face slowly became more relaxed. Chip squeezed the hand he still held and, as he sat back, relieved that the worst seemed to be over, he was surprised to hear Lee’s voice.
In little more than a whisper, eyes still closed, Lee asked, “Ch-i-i-p?”
The blond closed his eyes in unspoken relief and squeezed his friend’s hand. Then, opening his eyes again, he reached out with his other hand to push back the soaked black hair matted to Lee’s forehead. With a slight smile, he responded, “Right here, Lee. You sure had me scared, buddy.”
“Didn’t . . . shoot . . . you?”
Staring down into his friend’s face, Chip shook his head, trying to understand the point of reference for the question. Suddenly, he recalled what he hadn’t thought much about before. No, Lee had not pulled the old revolver he had gotten from Costa on him, though Chip knew he had produced it later. They had fought for Chip’s 9mm, but Lee hadn’t held it on him for more than an instant-----and he hadn’t pointed the other gun on him at all.
“No, Lee. You didn’t shoot me. I’m fine, buddy.”
A wince of returning pain crossed the drawn features of Lee Crane’s face for an instant, and he panted for breath slightly before he tried again to speak. In between, Chip gripped his hand tightly, willing some of his strength into his friend’s weakened body as he said, “Just rest, Lee. Don’t try to talk.”
“Crit-ing-er?” Lee managed to ask, before he closed his eyes again.
Shaking his head at the obstinacy of the dark-headed captain, Chip said, “He’s fine, Lee. He made it back here to Seaview just fine, thanks to you. Everything’s alright.”
In response, the captain tried to open his eyes again, struggling unsuccessfully to pull himself up using Chip’s grip on his hand. But failing, he dropped limply back to the pillows supporting him and whispered, “Re-port.”
Amused and immensely glad that Lee seemed to have remembered both who and where he was, Chip Morton snapped out with a smile, “Headed back to home port at cruising speed, sir. All crew present and accounted for, including her . . . .”
But halfway through, Chip trailed off, glancing up as he felt the doctor’s hand on his shoulder. Looking back down at Lee, he saw the slight smile on the relaxed features.
“Is he. . . ?” Chip breathed.
“He’s asleep, Chip.”
“He’s going to be alright, isn’t he? I think he could see me, and he seemed to know where he is.” Chip glanced over at the admiral, nodding at the man whose blue eyes were watching them both.
“Yes, I feel confident now that he will be,” the physician said. “He certainly recognized you . . . and where he is . . . even who he is. I’d say that, and his improved vitals, are very good signs for his full recovery.”
“You’re sure, Jamie?” the blond queried, echoing the questions in the eyes of the two men standing behind him.
“I’m as sure as I can ever be with Lee Crane, Chip. Yesterday, I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but then, I don’t really know why I’m surprised.”
“Why is that, Will?” the admiral asked.
Lifting one eyebrow and running his hand over his sparse head of hair, Will Jamison shook his head and explained, “The skipper lives and breathes this boat, Admiral. I swear, it’s like the two of them are connected somehow. Chip saw it too, didn’t you? It’s like he. . . he just reached out and touched that bulkhead beside him and, from that moment on, he started coming back to us. I think he could tell where he was just from the touch and feel of this boat.”
Nodding, Harriman Nelson walked over and leaned down over the sleeping young man. Unashamed for the others to see him, he straightened the skewed blanket over Lee’s chest. Then, reaching out to place the palm of his hand along the side of Lee’s bearded face, he smiled and sighed with relief before saying quietly, “Welcome home, son.”
Steel and Stone Epilogue (Part I)
The twisting road was a joy to drive this time.
Chip reached out with one hand to turn down the volume on the CD player, negotiating the approach to the curve expertly with the other. Enjoying the purr of the engine and the rush of the wind from the open sun-roof, he dropped his outstretched hand to the gear shift, downshifting smoothly and smiling as the small, but powerful car handled the maneuver flawlessly. His grin widened as he completed the curve and pushed the car back up into its climb, executing the gear changes with precision.
He glanced over at the fine features of the woman seated beside him, catching her eye and winking as she smiled back at him. He returned his eyes to the curving, snaking road, marveling silently at the stunning beauty of both the grey-stoned landscape around him and the auburn-haired woman beside him, aware suddenly that he had barely thought of either on the first trip he had made up here.
Chip sighed softly, settling back into the accommodating leather of the driver’s seat, his attention on the road and the forward motion of the car. But he allowed his thoughts to travel in reverse, thinking slowly back over the last five months.
Unaware that the smile on his face had faded, he was slightly startled when the silky voice of the woman beside him found his ears a little while later.
“It’s so beautiful up here,” Sonya said, mirroring Chip’s thoughts of a few moments before. “I can’t say that I really realized how beautiful on my trip down this road the last time.”
Glancing over at her, Chip saw the brief flicker of pain in her large green eyes, and he nodded as he replied, “I imagine you didn’t exactly have your mind on the scenery three months ago.”
“No,” she echoed, “no, I didn’t.”
A long moment stretched between them, the silence blown away by the rush of the warm wind before she added quietly, “Chip, he doesn’t talk much about it. . . . Will you tell me how you think Lee’s really doing with all of it?”
He turned his head slightly to gaze for a second into her eyes. Seeing only a small trace of worry and not an overwhelming concern, he relaxed again as he returned his eyes to the road, realizing she needed his reassurance more than anything else.
Before he could speak, however, she clarified simply, “I care about him, Chip. I care about him more than I could ever imagine caring for someone before . . . and I . . . I want to get to know him better.” She looked down, smoothing her hands against the chestnut-colored, cotton slacks she wore, and she took a deep breath before adding, “I didn’t know him before he . . . before he was hurt . . . and you’re his best friend. . . . I just want to know if you think he’s . . . .”
She trailed off, lifting her eyes to touch Chip’s soft blue before he returned them to the serpentine road.
Chip’s smile returned, and he reached out to take one of her hands in his, squeezing it for a second in reassurance. Then, noticing a stone-lined overlook up ahead, he released her hand and eased the car into a lower gear, steering it diagonally across the two lane road and stopping next to a low wall on the other side. Turning off the vehicle, he climbed out and walked around to open the door for the petite young woman. They walked over to the stone wall and sat down on its low, irregular surface, taking a few minutes to soak in the bright sunshine and the dazzling view stretching out below them.
Already started back down the rough, remembered road of the previous months, Chip threw both legs across the wall and sat deep in thought, his eyes barely taking in the rolling hills stretching out in front of them like a series of natural stone terraces. Silently, he forced himself past the weeks of cold, hollow agony in which he had thought Lee dead and, beckoned by the warmth of the afternoon sun toward the relieved end to that particular fear, he concentrated on the days immediately following Lee’s return to the boat.
It had taken almost two weeks for Lee to regain any of his strength, the loss of blood from that single bullet and the delayed surgery afterwards adding to the slow recuperation as the lingering effects from the concussion took a painful toll on him. At first he had said very little, seeming to find that it took everything he could muster together to remain awake and aware of who and what was surrounding him.
Chip, Nelson, and Costa,
along with various other crew members, took it upon themselves to make sure
someone was with Lee constantly, even when they had finally made port in
Finally, the admiral and Chip had cornered Jamie and insisted that there was no reason that Lee had to remain in the small, though state-of-the art clinic. Reluctantly, Jamie had acquiesced, and they had moved Lee home to his cottage on the north beach of the institute’s grounds. Chip had joined him there, and together with Costa, who had been staying at Lee’s since they had docked, the two of them settled in to take care of the dark-headed captain until he no longer needed them.
Though it still bothered Chip that Lee had never expressed his preference about going home, nor had he ever tried to fight or sneak his way out of Jamie’s clinic as he would have in the past, it was evident to all of them that the change had made all the difference. Spending long hours sitting or sleeping in the warm sun on his back deck, and eventually being able to begin taking walks along the water’s edge, Lee finally began to improve.
Chip thought he would never forget as long as he lived walking by the open door to Lee’s bedroom one morning and seeing him seated on the corner of his bed, staring at himself in the mirror above the dresser across the room. After he had been at the clinic four days, he had finally allowed someone to cut his hair, but he had simply, quietly refused any offers to help him shave his beard. Apparently, that morning while Chip had been preparing breakfast for the three of them, he had changed his mind and had taken care of it himself.
The change made him look at once both more like himself and more like a complete stranger.
“Lee?” Chip asked quietly, stopping in the open doorway and staring with wide eyes at the gaunt, haunted face of his friend. He swallowed hard and added, stepping inside the room, “Are you alright?”
Though Lee looked more like himself than he had since Chip had first set eyes on him in the Zagorohorian gorge almost two weeks before, the ordeal that he had endured was suddenly more vividly apparent. Never carrying any spare weight on his tall, broad-shouldered frame, the amount that he had lost was suddenly visible in every plane and hollow of his face.
The questions in the dark amber eyes spoke of more than weight loss, however, as Lee slowly moved his gaze from his own reflection to meet the blue eyes of the friend kneeling in front of him, one strong hand on his good arm.
“I’m right here, Lee.”
He had only seen his friend cry on one other occasion and, as he saw Lee crumble toward him, tears streaking his face, he reached up now to help ease him down on the floor beside him, strong arms wrapped around the shaking frame. Holding him close, Chip rocked his friend against his chest, his chin resting on the dark, closely cropped curling hair. Lee didn’t make a sound, but Chip could feel every shudder pass through him, shaking them both with the intensity.
Finally, feeling Lee straighten, Chip helped him ease his back against the side of the bed, reaching up to pull a dark green pillow down to place it behind them both. They sat silently, side-by-side on the floor, for long minutes before Lee began to speak, his voice stronger than Chip expected after the emotional turmoil of a little while before. Maybe he was stronger now as a result of it. . . .
“They took almost all of me, Chip. I . . . You said Critinger told you he wouldn’t have survived if it hadn’t been for me. . . . But the truth is, I wouldn’t have survived what they did to me if I hadn’t had getting him out of there to concentrate on. I would’ve died there. And they would’ve won.”
Swallowing hard, wanting nothing more than to shake his friend and make him understand what his sacrifice had meant to the kidnapped official, Chip knew he would help Lee the most by getting him to clarify what he was saying first. The rest could come later.
Taking a deep breath in the silence, he asked, “Are you saying that if you’d gone in only to find out both of them were already dead . . . you’d have never made it back out?”
Lee’s single syllable statement was spoken with more conviction than anything else Chip had heard him say in almost two weeks. He looked closely at his friend’s dark eyes and gripped his arm tightly, knowing if he gave him a minute, Lee would begin again when he was ready.
“I’ve survived worse mental torture, Chip, and I’ve been closer to death from an injury . . . or . . . or a bullet wound once or twice in Jamie’s Sick Bay, but I’ve . . . I’ve never been hurt that badly over that length of time. . . . I knew somehow, that if I didn’t get out of there, get away from them soon . . . they wouldn’t have to kill me . . . but I’d die just the same. . . . If Critinger hadn’t been there, Chip, . . . I’d have started wishing for it.”
Lee had said it and now, Chip thought, he can start to heal . . . really heal. Fighting to keep the relief out of his voice, gripping Lee’s arm tighter, Chip said quietly, “It’s alright, Lee. It’s alright to feel that way.”
“It doesn’t make me very proud, but at least I know that about myself now.”
Chip shook his head, as he said, “No, Lee. You have nothing to be ashamed of.”
But, knowing that this was the first of many conversations they would now be able to have about the situation, Chip knew he didn’t have to convince Lee yet. They would have plenty of time for that. He closed his eyes gratefully, knowing that Lee was going to be alright.
Then he opened them again and said, “I know I can’t begin to understand what you went through, Lee, but I do know that you’re wrong about one thing. They were killing you, slowly, deliberately, one beating at a time. They were killing you. . . . Critinger’s descriptions were enough to make me sure of that . . . that and the fact that most of us would have given in to anything they demanded to avoid that kind of pain. And in the end, if you had, they would have killed you both then.”
Lee nodded, and he turned his head slowly to gaze into Chip’s eyes. “I knew we couldn’t let them get that admission from Critinger, but . . . .” He trailed off, staring at Chip for a moment, his eyes widening.
A little alarmed at the increase in Lee’s breathing, the raspy sounds that had gotten slowly better over the last two weeks returning, Chip finished for him, the question in his voice, “But . . . you wanted to give in?”
Lee, his wide amber brown eyes darkening a bit, shook his head negatively and reached up to push the heel of his hand against his temple. Chip couldn’t tell if the headaches had returned or if it were the memories that bothered him most at that moment. But, when his friend finally spoke, he knew for sure it was the latter.
In a whispered voice, Lee responded, “No. . . I only knew we couldn’t. . . . But I couldn’t remember why we were there anymore, or what we were trying to get back to. . . only that we had to get out of there, away from them before it was too late for us to do so.”
Chip’s eyes widened at the words. He had assumed that Lee had known he was trying to get back to Seaview throughout his imprisonment, that he had not gotten to the point that he could not remember until later, when Costa had found him. Suddenly, he recalled Critinger’s words about Lee being hit in the head with the steel bar, about the blood he had lost, and about how he had worried that Lee hadn’t remembered much after that.
It was then that he was sure his friend had suffered more, that he had endured more to get back to this point, to get back here to safety, to be able to sit on the polished wood floor of his bedroom on a sunny Santa Barbara morning, than any of them had realized. Taking a deep breath, Chip reached out and helped Lee as he struggled to his feet, steadying him as he swayed a little.
Looking into the now much clearer, amber brown eyes facing him, Chip smiled slightly and said, “All of us knew that if anyone had a chance of surviving what Critinger described to us, it was you.” Then, with a decided gleam in his eye, he added, “Of course, Jamie probably said it best the day we met Owen and Sonya.”
“What was that?” Lee asked curiously, returning the smile.
“More lives than a golden-eyed alley cat, is more like it!”
Chip shook himself and slowly returned his eyes to meet Sonya’s beside him.
The young woman was sitting very still, her flat hands against the rough stone of the wall, as she watched him curiously, giving him time to pull his thoughts together to answer the question she had asked him in the car.
Seeing his face, the agony of memory slowly giving way to a smile at the end---at something she could only imagine, she knew he was remembering something that had happened with Lee. As his eyes focused once more, turning toward her, she smiled softly, encouragingly, and she reached out to squeeze his arm for a second.
“Sonya,” he said, appreciating the time she had given him. “I can’t tell you Lee’s one hundred percent back to the way he was, not in his strength or his energy level. And I won’t insult you by pretending that this hasn’t left him a little more broody or a little more prone to long moments when he isn’t really listening to what’s going on around him.” Grinning more widely, he added, “Maybe all of this has affected me that way, too.”
She nodded, encouraging him to continue, and Chip sobered slightly, thinking hard about various things that had occurred in the last couple of months, trying to put his thoughts into words for both of them.
“Lee still seems to drift back mentally more than I would like to see him doing. But I know he’s just trying to sort out what’s happened to him. We’ve talked about it once or twice, and I think a memory will work its way to the surface unexpectedly sometimes. There’s so much of what happened that he didn’t remember until lately, and I think it’s a good sign. Doc Jamison and the admiral agree----but it really takes a lot out of him when it happens.”
Chip felt the pressure of her warm hand on his arm as he brought his eyes, from where they’d drifted across the landscape, back to her face. He reached up with his other hand to cover hers with his, squeezing it in appreciation. She had not interrupted him once, and her intelligent eyes were supportive of his efforts to continue. Pausing in his contemplation to appreciate what her exceptional skills as an attentive listener could mean for his friend, he smiled back at her.
Grateful for Chip’s willingness to talk to her about his best friend so openly, Sonya realized the trust he was placing in her, and she said softly, “Thank you, Chip, for helping me understand what he’s been going through. It’s hard for me to know if he’s always been so quiet and . . . and almost distant at times, or if it’s a result of what has happened recently.”
Chip nodded, understanding exactly what she was saying.
“I know you two have talked
quite a bit on the phone, and Lee really seemed to enjoy your short visit last
month while you were working in
He smiled as she blushed slightly and looked away.
“He’s been getting steadily better since then, Sonya. Jamie finally relented and he’s been able to go back to running again, something that’s always helped him deal with whatever’s on his mind, usually after some mission or other. That’s made a big difference. And, as for those rather blank times when a memory hits him particularly hard, it’s been happening less and less, at least less often at the times when he should be concentrating on something else. And I’ve seen him smile more at something someone says and even laugh once or twice. And he hasn’t lost his sense of humor, because he’s bantered with the boys on occasion, more on this cruise in the last two weeks, even if he isn’t back on active duty yet.”
Chip laughed aloud, his eyes twinkling suddenly at one particular memory of an evening he and Lee had spent at the admiral’s house. Aware that Sonya was leaning back on both hands, her feet dangling over the wall as she watched him, he was glad she was allowing him the time to finish his thoughts.
They had grilled out and had enjoyed a few too many drinks, but he and Nelson had both been pleased with how relaxed Lee had been. For his part, Chip had also been secretly glad over how comfortable the admiral had been around Lee, a big change from the guilt-ridden moroseness the older man had slipped into when they had first returned to port. He knew from Angie that Lee had stormed into the admiral’s office late one afternoon a few weeks after he had shaved and had demanded that Nelson tell him what was wrong. . . . Things between them had been much better after that and had gotten steadily better.
Chip chuckled again, then turned his eyes back toward the patient Sonya.
Yes, this young lady was a rare find, a little quiet for his tastes, but perfect for his friend. She was secure in her own life, didn’t need a man to keep her constantly entertained, and it was obvious that she cared about Lee Crane deeply.
Chip pulled his legs back over on the uphill side of the wall, and he stood agilely, reaching out to offer Sonya his hand. Once she was on her feet, he walked her around the side of the small copper-colored car. Opening the door for her, he paused and stared down into her luminescent green eyes.
“Sonya,” he said. “Lee has more courage than anyone I’ve ever known. That and his inner strength are what have gotten him through this and many tough situations in the past. He’s finding his balance again, more and more by the day, and I’m quite sure he’ll be alright. He’s a lucky man to have survived what he did. And, he’s a lucky man to have someone like you to care about him.”
She dropped her eyes and stared out at the crystal blue sky hovering over the grey and green landscape stretched out to the horizon beyond the stone wall.
Chip reached down and lifted her chin, asking her silently to look up at him again. As she complied, he said softly, “Sonya, I think it’s helped him to know that he’s found two special people in Elena and Costa. That fact has helped him see that something positive has come out of all of this. And I know it’s important to him that there’s been another positive result from all that’s happened. You.”
Smiling softly, she leaned up on her tiptoes, her hands on his chest, and kissed the serious blond on the cheek.
“Thank you, Chip,” she said, as she dropped back down in front of him. “Lee’s so fortunate to have friends like you that have stood by him, helping him through this ordeal like he’s told me you have. It might not be something he would say to you, but I will. You and the admiral and Costa saved his life down in that gorge, and I will always be grateful to all three of you.”
As he waited for her to slide into the passenger seat and to close the door for her, it was Chip Morton’s turn to blush.
Steel and Stone Epilogue (Part II)
Harriman Nelson stood leaning against the stone wall in front of Costa’s house, his cup of coffee long cold as it sat on the rough surface beside him. He shook his head once as he shaded his eyes, watching the barely distinguishable figure climbing the trail high up on the side of the mountain behind the village. Relieved to see the dark-headed man’s steady progress, he pulled in a deep breath through his nose and released it in a prolonged sigh.
Stuffing both hands deep in his pockets, Nelson tried to relax and ignore the memories that threatened to choke him.
Lee was doing fine, he reminded himself silently.
He’s worked hard to get himself back in shape, both physically and mentally, and he’s doing just fine.
But even if he said the words aloud repeatedly like a mantra, he knew it would not decrease the uneasiness he felt at the fact that Lee insisted in going off alone to test himself against the ocean or the beach or the mountain or the gorge, over and over again. Shaking his head again, this time at himself and his worries, he admitted that Lee’s strategy had worked miracles in improving his physical condition . . . even Will had said as much.
But the drastic improvement in Nelson’s own mental state had begun first.
Picking up the stone cold cup and taking an absent-minded sip, he smiled slightly as he remembered the day Lee had barged into his office and practically roared at him that he had better come clean about whatever guilt was eating him alive.
If Lee hadn’t cared so much, Nelson thought, he would never have acted that way. . . . It was written all over Angie’s face that she couldn’t imagine anyone but Lee Crane having the gall to take me on like that. . . .
“Get up from that chair, and tell me what the hell’s the matter with you!” Lee shouted, slamming the heavy wood-paneled door behind him.
Nelson stood slowly, the hands splayed out on the solid surface of his desk taking most of his suddenly unsteady weight.
“I think you’d better explain yourself, Commander,” Nelson growled in surprise, his blue eyes steel-edged and hard in the red, outraged face.
“No! It’s you that had better explain, Admiral,” Lee continued to rail at him, dark eyes boring into Nelson’s. “I want to know why you’re avoiding me, why you won’t talk to me, why you told Angie you didn’t want me in here! I want to know why, Admiral, and I want to know now!”
“Get out, Lee,” Nelson responded, the fight suddenly going out of him. He knew the young man pacing back and forth in front of him was right. It was him. It was his fault. But not totally ready to give in to the challenge thrown at him, he said more quietly, “Leave and get yourself cleaned up before you come back in here. And don’t you . . .”
“NO! I won’t leave this damn office until you tell me what’s eating at you. What’s wrong? Why are you afraid to face me?”
Lee took a deep breath, and both of them heard the unmistakable rattle in it that gave away the exertion the words were exacting. But he did not stop there as he wheezed out, “That’s it, isn’t it? . . . You’re afraid . . . .”
The tall young man faltered for an instant, eyes closing and his hand reaching up to push hard into his right temple, as if willing away a sharp pain. Then he opened his eyes again and glared across the desk at the unmoving, older man as he demanded, his voice softer and more halting now, “What is it, Admiral? . . . Why’re you . . . afraid of me? . . . What is it that you . . . feel so . . . guilty about?”
Nelson shook his head, remembering how he had stared at the still gaunt young man standing across from him breathing so hard, his dark eyes blazing in his too-pale face. At that moment, he hadn’t known which one of them he feared for the most, Lee with his too fragile physical condition, or himself with his forlorn, guilt-damaged mental state.
They just stood there, staring at each other for a long moment until it suddenly became apparent to Nelson that the young man across from him was weaving slightly, more unsteady than he had seen him in almost two weeks. Lee was dressed in a too large, grey cotton t-shirt and navy running shorts, and he was covered in sweat.
Surely he had not been running on the beach!
He was not in any condition yet to. . . .
But, before the thoughts could be completely processed, Nelson found himself dashing around the desk, lunging to grab Lee’s closest arm and ease him down into the tan leather chair behind him. Turning, he crossed quickly to the bar, poured a glass of cold water, and wet a terrycloth hand towel.
Returning with both, he said softly, “Here, drink this, Lee.”
Helping to hold the glass steady long enough for Lee to drink half of it, he then lay the rolled towel around the back of Lee’s neck. The trembling young man bent forward, his elbows on his thighs and his head supported in both hands.
Ignored for the moment, Nelson closed his eyes for an instant and felt that familiar sting of guilt shoot through him for the condition of his officer. Then, sinking into the chair beside the younger man, he sat leaning forward, watching Lee’s face as the pain of some suddenly remembered memory played across his features. Instinctively, he reached out and gripped Lee’s forearm tightly, wanting to let him know he was there without intruding on whatever had him in its clearly brutal grasp.
Will had told him that, once started, the memories would hopefully continue to resurface like this for a while . . . that it was the best thing for Lee in the long run but that it would be hell on him, on all of them, for a while. Eventually, the overwhelming memories would probably taper off, allowing him to function more normally. At that point, if Lee was strong enough physically, the doctor would hopefully be able to okay a full return to duty.
While he waited for Lee to respond, he made himself study the young man beside him more closely than he had at any time in the last, busy week. Lee was looking better now that he had finally shaved off the beard, more like himself. But, Nelson suddenly realized, the dark hair had hidden from all of them how thin and . . . and hollow Lee had become.
Admitting it to himself now, he realized he had felt even more guilty at being unable to find Lee, at leaving him there at the mercy of his captors, once he saw the full extent of his condition . . . and, yes, he had tried to retreat from his guilt by pulling back from Lee, distancing himself from him. Smiling softly, Nelson acknowledged that this avoidance, coupled with the heavy workload the head of the institute had been under since their return, was what had probably prompted Lee’s loud, uncharacteristic entrance here today.
If anyone knew him well enough to recognize the signs of Nelson’s guilt-laden feelings, it was this young man----and he was probably the only one who could have broken through, barging headfirst through the layers of steel Nelson had purposefully shielded himself behind.
He squeezed Lee’s arm harder, and he was alarmed to feel the tremors that shook the thin frame as Lee began to rock back and forth slightly in the chair. Unsure as to the cause of the agony, whether it was physical or from an alarming memory, Nelson drew his chair closer and reached around to encircle Lee’s shoulders with his other arm. When he felt the slight flinch, he held on insistently, relieved when the younger man finally allowed himself to be pulled sideways into Nelson’s hold.
Barely aware of the soft opening and closing of his office door, the admiral glanced up to look into Jamison’s concerned eyes and shook his head. Nodding, the physician retreated as quietly as he had entered.
Long moments went by before he finally felt the young man relax against him, Lee’s dark, sweaty hair leaning against Nelson’s sandy red. With one more silent shudder, Lee slumped harder into him, and Nelson reached up to run his fingers through the damp curls, leaving his hand to lie along the side of Lee’s cold, clammy face.
Though he could barely choke the words out, he said brokenly, “Lee, lad, I’m so sorry . . . so sorry for not finding you . . . for not staying there until we found them and made them tell us where you were . . . . I’m so sorry.”
There was a long moment of silence in which Nelson continued to berate himself for what he had done, but his thoughts were broken wide open as Lee’s low voice finally filtered through.
“Admiral . . . I got out . . . I got out when Critinger did. . . . You didn’t leave me there. . . with those men. . . . I got out when he did.”
Though Lee was still leaning against him wearily and Nelson could not see his face, he knew the tired young man’s eyes must be closed even as his own opened wide in surprise.
Not moving, he stared out of the window behind his desk.
Not seeing the sunshine outside or the soft white clouds that drifted over the beach, he felt himself being caught up in a small boat set adrift on a stormy sea, overturned by a huge, dark wave crashing over him.
Breaking out in a cold sweat, Nelson felt dizzy, soaked to the skin, and thoroughly chilled.
He squeezed his eyes closed and turned his face to bury it against Lee’s hair. A broken gasping sob choked out, crashing through the gruff façade of distance he had used to isolate himself, and he clutched the young man’s shoulder, mindful somewhere inside that it was not Lee’s still bandaged one.
Gratefully, he felt Lee’s hand on his head, stroking his hair, then dropping down to rub his back, as the comforter became the comforted.
Swallowing hard, Nelson levered himself up and stared into the moist amber brown eyes of the young man he knew was the son of his heart. Lee offered him a soft smile as he asked, “You thought you had abandoned me to them?”
Closing his eyes again and swallowing hard, Nelson managed to respond, “Yes. I thought . . . I assumed they took you prisoner again . . . after you got Critinger out.”
Lee straightened slowly, the pull of his injuries making him wince as he did so, and he took a second to catch his breath, though he shook his head in answer.
“I . . . my memories of it . . . have been hazy . . . but I . . . .”
He took a deep breath, trying to steady himself, grateful for the admiral’s firm grip on his arm again. Then he continued, “Chip told me last night about what Critinger said . . . and about what steps you took to make sure the information he gave you could make the most difference to the U.N. . . . Knowing that, well . . . it helps it all seem worthwhile. I’m glad, by the way, that you took it as seriously as I had hoped when he finally made it back to Seaview.”
Leaning against the stone wall, Nelson smiled slightly as he remembered the way Lee’s voice had lingered over the name of his boat, as if just saying her name was a talisman that both awed him and blessed him with her strength.
Maybe it did.
He sighed again and searched in vain for the figure moving high above him along the tree-lined trail. He wished for the second time that morning that he had brought his binoculars. Glancing down at his watch, he knew he might as well start up soon. He could meet Lee on his return trip like he had yesterday, and they could hike back down together.
But, as the rest of the conversation from that day in his office insisted on sifting through his head, he leaned back against the wall, and he let the memory come.
“I think the man behind it all has had his political ambitions stamped out for good, Lee. But, more importantly, I hope the people that his group was trampling all over in the process will feel more willing to stand up for themselves now.”
“I imagine you’re right, Admiral. In fact, I think they had already had enough by then.”
At Nelson’s questioning look, Lee added, “After Chip told me about what Critinger described to you, pieces started coming back to me last night. I . . . I couldn’t sleep, and I’ve done a lot of walking and thinking since then.”
Lee paused to push his fingers through his short hair. Then he pulled his eyes back from the window to look closely at the man beside him. He saw the lines and crevices, the dark shadows around Nelson’s eyes, and he knew he needed to explain.
Taking a deep breath, he said, “Admiral, Critinger was right about my position by that wall being overrun, and he was right about seeing me fall. . . . But I fell because some boards beneath me gave way, and I . . . I remember falling, crashing down through them and rolling down a half-buried old stone staircase. It was crumbling in on itself, and it . . . it went down into the side of the hill . . . underground. It was . . . there were some men down there, men standing, waiting, with automatic weapons.”
He paused for breath, his eyes remaining steadily on Nelson’s beside him. Seeing the questions in the admiral’s eyes, Lee shook his head, indicating he still didn’t understand all of the details himself.
Without giving the blue-eyed man a chance to voice any of them, Lee continued, “I don’t know. I know it doesn’t make much sense. It may have been a wooden doorway that they released the catch on or something when they heard what was going on over their heads. I never. . . I never found out. I just remember coming around, and the men that had been standing over me were pulling me down a stone-lined passageway, away from the opening. The others were guarding them.”
He shook his head again, once, as if aware by now that doing so was not the smartest of moves with his returning headache. Then, he spoke slowly, searchingly, trying to make sense of what he had seen for both of them, “It was . . . like some bizarre, silent stand-off with the ones guarding the opening and the ones that had overrun the wall just staring at each other. It was like there was some invisible line between them, separating them . . . only I had blundered through it. . . . I’m not sure they fired a single shot or exchanged a single word, but those men got me out of there.”
“Where did they take you?” Nelson asked incredulously, many questions formulating in his brain that he dared not overwhelm Lee with all at one time. “What happened?”
Again, Lee shook his head, “I’m not sure, Admiral. I . . . I don’t remember much of it, and I’m not sure I was alert enough during the next few days to have even seen or heard much. Their language was Greek, though. That much was clear, and they saved my life at risk to their own. I . . . I only recall vague snatches of a trip in the back of an old truck . . . .”
Lee glanced up, as if able to see something clearly inside his head as he spoke, “There was a dark canvas over me with weak sunlight seeping in through tears in the fabric, and . . . and there was a canteen. I had a rough, wool blanket over me, but it was cold . . . so cold. And I tried to stay awake enough to hold onto the crates shifting around me on the curves . . . I think they were driving pretty fast, climbing higher in the mountains. . . . I know it kept getting colder.”
Nelson watched Lee’s face as he told the story, and he could see that as he spoke the words aloud, the young man was putting the pieces together for both of them for the first time.
Suddenly a shiver went through Lee, and Nelson tightened his grip on his arm.
“Easy, lad,” he said softly. “Easy now. You’ve answered my questions, and there’s no need to put yourself through any more right now. Let’s get you. . . ” Starting to stand, he stopped at the resistance and at Lee’s hand on his arm.
“No, Admiral,” Lee said softly. “I need. . . I think I need to finish it. I’m alright.”
Sinking back into the chair, Nelson saw the truth of it in the young man’s face, and he nodded at him.
“Alright, Lee. I’ll listen as long as you feel like talking about it.”
Nodding gratefully, Lee dropped his eyes to the floor and began speaking again, picking up where he had left off, “It was dark when we stopped, and I heard voices, angry voices. There were some shots fired, but not right outside the truck, further away. . . .” He lifted his head as if listening to something only he could hear as his voice trailed off.
“There were shouts, and the truck started up again, headed down this time, and I remember thinking that we had crossed a border of some kind.”
“From Albania into Greece?”
Nodding, Lee said, “Yes. It must have been. . . . We traveled much faster going down, but I have no idea how far we went. I know I kept blacking out . . . The next thing I really remember was being carried and placed in a raft of some kind . . . that and the sound of rushing water.”
“The gorge?” Nelson asked, his voice rising in inflection. “They took you down into the gorge to help you get away from the men chasing you?”
“Yes. I think so. . . . And there was someone with me, someone whose face I never got a good look at. It was dark, and I was so cold . . . but hot at the same time . . . all I remember was lying in the bottom of the raft shaking.”
Lee dropped his eyes again, and he gripped the top of his leg with the white-knuckled fingers of his good hand. When he started speaking, his jaw was tight, and his voice was angry.
“They shot him, Admiral. . . . When I woke up the next time, he was lying next to me in the bottom of the raft. I reached out, and my hand came away covered in blood. He was dead from a bullet wound in the back. . . . But I didn’t have time to think about it because the raft must have hit something. We were both tossed out and . . . . Well, that’s all I remember. . . . Until waking up in Costa’s house.”
Nelson helped ease the exhausted young man back into the chair, and he reached over for the unfinished glass of water. Offering it to him, he saw Lee’s hand shake slightly as he lifted the cool water to his lips.
Smiling, nodding toward his own outstretched hand, Lee returned the glass to him, and said, “I guess it’s going to take me some time to get through all of this.”
Closing his blue eyes for a grateful few seconds, Nelson opened them again and sat down sideways in his chair, facing the younger man. “Lee,” he said, “It’s going to take all of us a while to get through this. We thought we’d lost you. . . that you were gone from all of our lives forever. Having you back, having you here. . . well, it’s all that matters to me, son. The rest is nothing compared to that. I promise you, I’ll be right here with you, listening to you, working with you from here on, and I’ll be grateful for the opportunity.”
“Thank you, Admiral.”
“No, son. I am the one that’s grateful. I told Costa and Elena up there in that village when they weren’t sure they should trust me, that you are the son I’ve never known I needed so badly until I . . . until I thought you were gone. And now I need to tell you the same thing, Lee. No more looking back, wishing I had told you how much you mean to me, lad.”
He took a deep breath and said, “I am so incredibly glad to have my son back home.”
Lee’s warm amber brown eyes held the admiral’s brilliant blue for a long moment.
Very quietly, he said, “And I return that love and respect, Harry.” Then, a smile lighting up his somber features, and with a twinkle in his eyes, Lee quickly challenged, “But I humbly demand that you quit blaming yourself for anything, sir.”
“You, humble?” laughed the admiral. “Not possible, son. Not possible.”
Lee laughed with him and, accepting the outstretched hand, he used it to haul himself up out of the chair. Together, the slightly smaller, older man supporting the taller, younger one, they walked to the window and stood side by side, looking out at the ocean they loved.
The words they had both spoken echoing in his ears, Nelson turned his head to take in the rest of the view around him---the timelessness of the stone houses terraced against the slope of the hillside, the rugged strength of the Gamila towering above him, and the ragged slash of the narrow gorge in the earth down below. He smiled and drew in a sweet lungful of air, grateful that he had accepted Lee’s challenge to cut back on his smoking and to start a regime of walking daily along the rocky beach with him while the younger man had struggled to get himself back in shape during the last eight weeks.
Blue eyes twinkling, he tossed out his cold coffee and thought with pride that he had continued walking more and smoking less, even when Lee had started running circles around him . . . literally. Now he was very glad of his efforts.
Chip and Sonya would be here this afternoon, and tomorrow Owen would join them up here at Mikro Papingo. At Sonya’s request, the five of them would hike with Costa up to the stone hut the next day and then out to the site of the crash, where she would lay some olive branches cut from George Premarious’ own orchards. Then they would remain here a few more days, visiting with Costa and Elena before returning to the Seaview.
Smiling, he was pleased that they had responded to Costa’s invitation to visit with them for a while, glad that Lee and Sonya would have this chance to enjoy each other’s company for a little longer than they had back in the states last month. He was especially grateful for the chance to see Lee come full circle, putting the painful memories of what had happened to him into the larger context of the very special people he had met here as a result.
Last night Lee had quietly confided in him that he felt he had gained another layer of family as a result of the last five months, referring offhandedly to Harry’s acknowledgement, the care Costa and Elena had given him, Owen’s friendship, and Sonya’s . . . .
Nelson chuckled softly as he recalled the way Lee had dropped his eyes and blushed slightly, not finishing the started sentence about the young woman for a few moments. Then he had looked back up and had said, “I don’t know what, if anything will come of it, Admiral. But, I’ve never felt with anyone else the way I do about her. She’s patient and caring and,” grinning, Lee had added, “she has a mind of her own. She’s definitely a special young lady.”
Smiling, Nelson nodded to himself and began walking toward the closest grey stone house. If nothing else came of this trip, at least Lee Crane was beginning to look to the future again, not spending every waking thought and scrap of energy wrestling with the too recent, too horrific past.
Hopefully, by the time they all left this village to return to their now forever entwined lives, Lee would be ready to resume his full duties as the captain of his boat. But even if he wasn’t, Nelson knew he and the people that cared about the young man would stand unquestionably by him until he was.
The breeze ruffled his dark hair as he sat, knees drawn up to his chest in a relaxed pose, arms draped across them, watching the river far below. Though he did not move to look above him, he saw the reflection of the skies in the view, the white clouds drifting across the gorge plunging the intensity of the sunlight into deep shadow, then moving away, alternating, shifting, changing his perspective yet again.
At the call of the eagle above him, gliding on a thermal picked up from below, he lifted his head this time, his hazel-flecked, amber brown eyes watching the soaring bird, its wings outstretched.
He smiled softly, glad to realize the recurrent dream was from a very real memory of sitting here before, in this place, watching the eagle soaring above his head.
Slowly, feeling somewhat stiff from his climb up the mountain earlier today and in anticipation of the one he planned down into the gorge tomorrow, he reached out, stretching his good arm across his chest, pulling on it carefully with the other. Satisfied that neither motion had caused more than the expected, comfortable stretch, he repeated the motion on the other side, this time pulling slowly on the shoulder that had sustained the bullet wound. His smile grew as the exaggerated motion caused no pain.
Taking a deep breath, he let his eyes travel down into the narrow gorge, taking in the sight of the ribbon of sparkling blue water far below. So much had happened in the last five months. Yet sitting here, it was as if nothing had changed in a millennium.
Filled suddenly with the peace and security offered by that simple thought, he climbed to his feet, eager to return to the village and surround himself with the voices and faces of the people he had come to care so much about, some that he had known for several years and others whose lives he had stumbled into in the preceding months.
As he climbed the gradual slope punctuated by grey stone and green meadow to the timeless village above him, he allowed his thoughts to wander away from confidently placing each step after the last.
It had been almost five months since he had awakened that first night here in this village, and he had gradually gotten better, his shaky legs and injured hip finally able to carry him out of the narrow, stone-lined streets of the village and down this hill. Lifting his eyes from his worn boots, he smiled again at the beauty around him, breathing deeply of the thin air. Stopping for a moment to rest, he was immediately mesmerized by the sight of two golden eagles, the first from a little while ago joined now by another as the pair swooped and wheeled through the deep blue of the sky, the rugged grey Gamila Peaks in the background.
He wondered if it was the same pair he had first seen months ago as he had climbed this hill back up to the village.
Several minutes later, he was startled from his fascination with the raptors by the approach of footsteps along the path. Glancing up, he expected to see Costa, much as he had seen him that day months ago. Instead, his smile grew wider as he realized the person walking lightly down to greet him was Sonya.
He had not seen her in a month and, as the afternoon sun glinted off of her shoulder length auburn hair, he realized how much he had missed her and just how beautiful she looked to him. Breaking into an uphill jog, he caught her close, pressing the pale yellow of her blouse against his chest, and he leaned down, breathing in the sunny fragrance of her soft hair.
“Hello to you, too, sailor,” she murmured, wrapping her arms around him and tilting her face up to meet his eyes. Smiling in delight, she stood transfixed, pleased with the solid feel of his back beneath her hands and the happiness on his face. She knew immediately he was much better than when she had seen him last-----healthier, stronger, and much more contented.
“Oh, Lee,” she breathed, reaching up to touch the side of his face. “You look much better! I’m so pleased at how happy you look.”
Suddenly aware of the two men standing above them on the path, one of them smirking openly, Lee smiled wickedly at her and winked. “Happy to see you,” he murmured, reaching up to take her hand, pressing a kiss into her palm. Then, leaning down and pulling her more firmly toward him, he looked long into her eyes, before lowering his mouth to find hers.
A moment later, he lifted his head and took her hand, turning her back up the path. Leaning down as they walked, he whispered, “I missed you, Sonya. I’m so glad that you wanted to come.”
“I missed you, too, Lee. Thank you for sending Chip to meet me at the airport. I didn’t want to wait for Owen to get back tomorrow.”
Chuckling as they approached the other two men, Lee raised his voice and asked her, staring at his friend in mock challenge, “I trust Mr. Morton behaved himself on the way here? He doesn’t get off the boat much, you know.”
“Oh, he behaved, Lee. But of course, that two hour drive did give me a chance to find out a little more about his commanding officer, you know.”
Pleased and relieved beyond measure to witness Lee’s teasing of the blond-haired exec, Nelson laughed at the sudden look on his face at Sonya’s statement. Reaching out to take her hand, he said with a chuckle, “Maybe you’d better walk with me, my dear, while the two of them sort that one out.”
“Thank you, Admiral,” she replied, winking over her shoulder at the two behind her.
As the four of them made their way back to the village, Nelson heard Lee hiss loudly in Chip’s direction, “I can see I’m going to have to reassert my authority around here. What exactly did you tell the young lady, MISTER Chocolate Chip Morton?”
Chuckling and eyes twinkling, the admiral concentrated on keeping a straight face as he walked.
If he had looked back . . . if any of them had, they would not have had a difficult time sobering immediately. As it was, they continued on up the path without noticing the shiny silver car parked on top of the only visible packhorse bridge over the river far below or the sun reflecting off of the binoculars trained in their direction.
Comments/Feedback to : OneRedFish1@hotmail.com
places in this story actually exist, though I have taken great license with
them. Even the stone hut stands on Astraka Column of the Gamila above the
Here are a few of the websites that I visited in my research.
Special “thank you’s” go to Susan who taught me so much about writing with her wonderfully thorough comments and to Lyn who encouraged me to try my hand at a Voyage story from the very beginning.