There Will Be An Answer
By R. L. Keller
As I was casting around for something to call this, the Beatles song, ‘Let It Be’, kept running through my mind. Because I promised to ‘answer’ all the questions I left with my story, “DJ”, this line from the song just seemed to fit. Suggestion: some familiarity with some of my other stories, especially “Friends” and “A Favor for a Friend” might prove useful. RK
Lee was laboring badly, breathing hard, struggling to take each successive step. He couldn’t keep this up; he knew he had to stop. Yet he stubbornly refused to. Finally the person with him couldn’t stand it any longer and reached out to switch off the treadmill. “What did you do that for?” Lee demanded, as loudly as his out of breath condition would allow.
Dr. Will Jamison, his CMO, usual foil in all matters medical – and friend, if truth be told – glared at him. “Because I can’t stand here any longer watching you kill yourself,” Jamie blustered right back.
“I’m fine,” Lee said, but both recognized that his voice lacked its usual timbre.
Jamie’s expression softened just a bit as he replied. “No, Skipper, you’re not. You know it, I know it, and ignoring the problem isn’t going to make it go away.” His voice softened even further as Lee sagged, bracing himself on the rails of the exercise machine. “It is getting better. Two weeks ago you could barely walk ten yards. Now you’re up to almost a hundred. But it’s going to take time.”
“And in the meantime, Seaview sails without me,” Lee mumbled miserably.
Jamie couldn’t keep a small smile from appearing. “You always have hated vacations,” he teased.
But instead of defusing some of Lee’s anger the statement only made it worse. Before Lee could control it, his fist slammed against the railing hard enough that a small cry of pain escaped.
Jamie reacted immediately. Taking hold of Lee’s arm, leading him to a nearby chair and sitting him down on it, he quickly examined the hand. Deciding there wasn’t anything seriously damaged he grabbed a chemical cold pack, gave it a hard squeeze to mix the compounds, and laid it against Lee’s hand. “Feel better, now?” he asked quietly.
Jamison’s smile only broadened at Lee’s hard expression, and Lee found himself finally starting to relax. He leaned back in the chair, rubbing his hand with the cold pack. “How much longer?” he finally asked. Recognizing the plaintive quality in his voice, he sat up straighter and glared at the Doctor.
“I don’t know,” Jamie answered honestly. “The latest blood work shows all the drugs are out of your system, and there doesn’t appear to be any permanent kidney or liver damage.” He walked across the room, poured out two large mugs of coffee and walked back, handing one to Lee before pulling up a second chair and sitting down facing his CO. “But while the drugs that caused the debilitation are gone, there’s still too much residual muscle weakness to certify you fit for duty.”
“Why?” Lee demanded.
Doc sighed heavily. “We’ve been through this, Skipper. That was one weird cocktail you were fed. There’s just no way for us to know how long…” but was interrupted.
“No,” Lee growled. “Why can’t I go back on duty? It’s not like I spend a lot of time jogging on board Seaview. Most of the time I just stand around in the Control Room anyway.”
“Yeah, right.” Doc snorted into his coffee. “And the first time the boat hits a little turbulence and you go flying because you’re not strong enough to catch yourself… Real good for crew morale, Captain, letting them see you trying to pick yourself up. Or better still, helping you,” he added, knowing how much his Skipper absolutely hated physical assistance. As he watched another storm cross Lee’s face, threatening to explode, he commanded firmly, “Don’t hit!” and carefully hid a grin as Lee closed his eyes, sighed heavily, and relaxed his hand. Jamie reached across and laid a hand on Lee’s leg. Lee didn’t open his eyes but his face finally lost its black look. “I wouldn’t even think of telling you that I know what you’re going through,” Doc continued quietly. “I will tell you that it’s getting better, almost daily. But your fighting it isn’t helping.”
“And sitting on my six all day is,” Lee grumbled, and opened his eyes to glower at Jamie.
“Actually, it is. The more you push yourself, the longer it takes your muscles to rebound.”
“So you set me up on that thing,” Lee pointed to the treadmill, “in hopes I’ll go back to being bedridden?” He glared at the Doctor, who just glared back.
“Excuse me, Commander? I told you to stop a good ten minutes before I finally turned it – and you – off.” Lee couldn’t hold his hard expression in the face of the one coming back at him and lowered his eyes. “No one is telling you to remain sedentary. Just not to go beyond ‘tired’ to total exhaustion. It’s only setting you back.”
Lee finally nodded. He also reached up absentmindedly to rub his temple.
Jamie asked softly, “Headache?” He grinned openly at the immediate and expected answer.
“No!” But they both recognized Lee had lost this round so when Doc suggested he drive Lee home, Lee grudgingly surrendered. Once in Jamie’s car he leaned back against the headrest and closed his eyes, thinking back on the last several weeks.
Seaview had been in port going through some extensive upgrades to her computer systems when ONI called Admiral Nelson and asked to ‘borrow’ his Captain – after one of the Admiral’s infamous yelling matches with the Intelligence agency’s director they’d been better about going through what the Admiral considered proper channels. Nelson had left the decision up to Lee, but everyone knew this was the same thing as giving permission since Lee rarely turned ONI down. Much to a few people’s disgust – mostly Chip. But it was supposed to be a simple job, didn’t even involve leaving the country, and Lee expected to be gone only a few days.
To say the assignment went badly would have been the understatement of the century. Lee’s cover was blown almost immediately, his backup turned out to be nonexistent, and when Lee had proven uncooperative his captors had stuffed him full of such a mixture of drugs there wasn’t even a way to figure out what they all were. He’d then been left for dead, still conscious but unable to move, slowly sinking into oblivion. That he hadn’t died was a miracle. That he made it home as rapidly as he did, almost two weeks later, was a fluke. Lee would be forever grateful to a nurse in the hospital he’d ended up in for making the extra effort to communicate with the almost vegetative patient Lee had been at the time, and figure out his crude way of giving her Chip’s cell phone number.
Lee didn’t remember much for almost 48 hours after Nelson and company had descended on the hospital. Doc explained that Lee had been mentally exhausted from the ordeal he’d been through, something Lee could readily acknowledge. Once again surrounded by friends he’d relaxed for the first time in over three weeks, and totally crashed.
Lee had spent the next two weeks in
Lee turned his head and watched out the open side window. He was the first to admit he was a lousy invalid. There wasn’t anyone who had ever worked around Lee who wasn’t made quickly aware of how much he hated inactivity – no matter what the reason. The other three senior officers aboard Seaview had very specific knowledge of what happened when Lee got bored. And to that end had bent over backward trying to give him as much freedom as possible during this latest convalescence. As soon as he was able to walk without aids he was allowed to return to his townhouse. For the first week Seaview’s two corpsmen took turns staying with him, until he blew his stack at what he considered ‘coddling’ and threw them out.
While Jamie flatly refused to let Lee drive just
yet, Chip picked him up most weekday mornings and Lee spent at least part of
the day in his office catching up with the never-ending mounds of paperwork
that always threatened to take over his desk. Lunch was usually delivered by his secretary,
although a couple times Admiral Nelson pried him out of the office by taking
him to lunch at one of the local restaurants, then driving him back home. Jamie normally dropped by each morning for a
few minutes or, like today, requested his presence in
Lee was grateful that, for the most part, his evenings were his own. His friends and colleagues were trying very hard not to ‘mother hen’ him. He did get the feeling, however, when he walked down to the beach as he did most evenings this last week, once again able to go that far, that he was being watched. But so far he’d never caught anyone and, in truth, didn’t look too hard. For his part he was trying to be good. While there were nights he might not actually go to bed, he at least rested quietly on the couch. He might not eat a huge dinner, but he at least fixed something. That was, if Chip didn’t show up with pizza or the Admiral with take-out from the Italian restaurant they both liked. Or both. Lee grinned as he acknowledged that had only happened once. Obviously they’re coordinating their plans a bit better.
“What are you plotting,” Doc demanded, noticing the grin as he pulled up in front of Lee’s place. Lee just looked at him. “Oh, no, you don’t, Commander. I know you far too well to fall for that ‘Who, Me?’ look.”
Lee just chuckled. “Relax, Jamie,” he said as he slowly and carefully exited the car. After shutting the door, he leaned down and looked in the open window at the Doctor. “Was just wondering whose turn it was to show up with dinner.”
Jamie’s hard look vanished into a sheepish grin. “We really don’t mean to be quite that obvious.”
Lee’s expression was suddenly the best command glare he could muster. “You definitely need more practice.” He realized what he’d said when Jamie burst out laughing. “Good bye, Doctor,” he grumbled, and headed for his door. But he turned and grinned as Jamie backed out the driveway, giving him a quick wave.
* * * *
Apparently it was the Admiral’s turn this evening
because he showed up about 1730 with chicken vegetable fettuccine alfredo and
half a loaf of garlic bread. After the
dishes were all cleaned and put away, he stayed to go over some budget items
and discuss Seaview’s next cruise. It
was pretty straightforward – they were just going up to the
“Chip and I came up with a plan this morning to keep you out of trouble while we’re gone,” he teased with a grin. Lee was momentarily ticked that they’d go behind his back like that, but Nelson just smiled more broadly at his frown. “Down, Commander,” he ordered, albeit with a voice still full of humor, and Lee gave him a wry smile. “Actually, I rather think you’ll enjoy it. Since it’s already been proven that you convalesce quite nicely at your friends’ Bed & Breakfast,” and he grinned again at the look Lee shot him, “and since you did promise to introduce Chip to your new girlfriend, Lacey…” - it was Lee’s turn to chuckle - “we decided that Chip could drive you up, spend a few days, and we’d pick him up as we pass the Oregon coast on our way north. I think between Lieutenants O’Brien and James we can manage to get her that far.”
“Don’t forget Chief Sharkey,” Lee teased a bit himself.
“Heaven forbid,” Nelson grinned. “Might be good for me to take a shift or two,” he added. “It has been awhile.”
“Drive?” Lee questioned, returning to the main topic.
“I know Doc’s forbidden you access to your car keys. At least for now. But the traffic is much lighter up there than here, and eventually you’re going to be strong enough that it won’t be an issue.”
“Eventually,” Lee growled. “Just how long am I supposed to be beached for? Tim and Annie ought to really love that. And what happens to all the reports I’m supposed to be working on?”
“Chip already talked to the Hughes and they’re more than happy to have you. The Institute even offered to pick up the tab but they wouldn’t hear of it. Chip said something about Mrs. Hughes wanting to sit you down and feed you?” He chuckled as Lee just hung his head. To Annie food was almost a religion, to be prepared with love and consumed on a regular basis. She was even worse than Jamie on that topic where Lee was concerned. He could only imagine what menus she was already concocting in her head. “As for the reports, on top of the ones I’ve already given you there are some other projects I’d like you to take a look at. Chip’s going to give you his laptop computer, and the Hughes have a fax machine. You’ll be able to stay in contact with not only NIMR but Seaview as well, and Angie can co-ordinate everything.”
“It’s all worked out. I don’t have a say in this, Sir?” Lee complained as he rose angrily and stalked across the room.
“Of course you do,” Nelson said, refusing to be goaded. “You can stay here and be ‘mother henned’ by Jamie.”
Lee turned sharply toward his boss. “He’s not sailing with you, Sir?”
“Not if you’re staying here. He doesn’t trust anyone but himself to be strong-willed enough to handle his bull-headed, stubborn, masochistic…”
“Stop!” Lee demanded, then couldn’t hold back a smile at the grin on Nelson’s face. He walked back to his chair and sat down. “And I’m not masochistic,” he muttered.
Nelson just continued to grin. “You agree to the plan,” he said softly as if he already knew the answer, yet his face showed a measure of surprise that Lee had surrendered so easily. Lee figured it was a good indication that he understood Lee, himself, realized he’d be better off away from the Institute, away from all of the constant reminders of what he couldn’t yet do.
But Lee wasn’t quite ready to give up complaining. “And how soon am I being banished, Sir?” Nelson raised an eyebrow over the inflection Lee had unintentionally put on that last ‘Sir’, and Lee sent him a slightly sheepish grin.
“Jamie’s been complaining lately that Chip takes barely more leave time than you do. Today’s Tuesday. If you leave Thursday morning that gets you there Friday afternoon. Seaview’s due to sail Monday and we can pick Chip up next Wednesday morning. That gives him a few days to relax as well.” Lee finally grinned and surrendered gracefully to the inevitable.
* * * *
Lee decided his ‘luck’ was still holding. Not only did his last trip, the ONI assignment, go badly, he couldn’t even get away on a quasi-vacation on schedule. At the last minute there was a glitch with one of the new computers being installed on Seaview, and Chip had to get everything sorted out before he could leave. Unfortunately for Lee, that gave Jamie another shot at him. When he and Chip finally left about 1300 it was none too soon for Lee.
But with the late start, and even though Chip didn’t always stay strictly to the speed limit in Lee’s little red sports car, it was nearly 2000 hours Friday before they pulled into the Hughes’ driveway a few miles north of Newport, Oregon. It had been a very relaxing trip for Lee, not having to do any of the driving. And he’d laughed a good bit of the way, a lot of it because Chip wouldn’t give up about finally getting to meet Lee’s girlfriend. Tim came out to greet them as Lee showed Chip where to park the car next to the garage. Chip popped the trunk to get to their bags while Lee worked his way out of the low seat. Having had a major argument the previous evening with Chip about carrying things, Lee didn’t even try to help. He did give the other empty parking spaces a glance and looked at Tim questioningly.
“Relax, Lee,” his and Chip’s Annapolis buddy laughed. “While there’s only one couple here at the moment, and they’re night owls and won’t be back until almost 11o’clock, we have a full house starting tomorrow again. Business is just fine, not to worry.”
“Where’s Annie? I expected her to descend on me the minute I hit the place…” Lee was unable to stop the touch of irritability that crept into his voice.
“You have a momentary reprieve.” Tim smiled, ignoring Lee’s scowl. “Friends of ours are celebrating their 10th wedding anniversary and, at the last minute, their babysitter got sick. Annie volunteered to watch their two daughters while they went out for the evening.”
“And where, pray tell, is the fair Lacey?” Chip inquired. “I’ve been waiting for far too long to meet this enchantress.”
“What?” Tim sputtered, and looked at Lee curiously.
“Chip usually refers to her as a magician. I made the mistake of telling him that Lacey doesn’t cook therefore, while I was staying at Brad’s cousin’s house, I did it all.”
“Ate, too,” Chip nodded. “I swear he gained weight. Never before have any of his girlfriends been able to get him to do that.”
Lee just smiled enigmatically as Tim chuckled. “Actually, you’ll also have to wait until Annie gets back to meet Lacey,” Tim explained. “She loves kids so Annie took her along. Anyway, let’s get you settled,” and they headed for the back door, going through the kitchen, and finally into the large front room. Tim hesitated just a second at the bottom of the staircase, and Lee grinned slightly.
“Definitely too early to turn in,” he said casually. “Think I’ll stay down here for awhile. I assume we have the Driftwood Room. I know the way.”
With another split second hesitation Tim said softly, “Annie said, if you’d rather, you can have Sea Star on the second floor and we can put the Adams in Driftwood.”
Lee had been expecting that so the flash of irritation was only that, a flash. “And give up my private balcony?” He grinned. “Not a chance,” and went to sit out on the front porch as Tim and Chip headed upstairs. They joined him about 10 minutes later, and Lee grinned at the expression of wonder on his XO’s face. Chip looked at him and he laughed. “I had somewhat the same reaction when I first saw it and realized that’s what Tim and Annie call the small room.”
“Well, actually,” Tim admitted, “as Lee knows, it’s roughly the same size as the four rooms on the second floor. But a lot of people just don’t like climbing the extra flight of stairs so we don’t usually use it except for friends. And family – Annie’s brother and his wife drop in every so often. Usually unannounced,” he ended with a grumble, then gave himself a shake. “Anyway, Chip, beer?”
“Ah, excuse me?” Lee exclaimed. “None for the invalid?”
“Orange juice in the fridge,” Tim said, mentioning Lee’s usual form of liquid refreshment, besides coffee, the first time he’d stayed, then added cautiously, “wasn’t sure if alcohol was allowed.”
“One benefit of this convalescence,” Lee assured his friend, “no drugs.” He refused to look at the dark expression he knew had hit Chip’s face. It happened anytime that this particular ONI mission was mentioned directly. But from Tim’s expression, he’d spotted it out of the corner of his eye. “Booze is one restriction Jamie hasn’t made.” Recognizing the harshness in his voice as he ended, he smiled wryly.
Tim grinned back. “Beer it is. And there’s Double-Berry pie in the fridge as well.”
Lee groaned dramatically, Tim laughed, and Chip asked curiously, “Double-Berry pie?”
Lee just looked at him and shook his head. “Chip and food. Some things never change.”
Tim laughed at Lee but answered Chip. “Annie mixes raspberries and blackberries together. It started as an accident and now it’s required fare on the dinner menu at least once a month.”
Chip looked at his friend, puzzled. “I thought you only served breakfast?”
“To the guests, Chip. To the guests. Required on my dinner menu,” and he headed for the kitchen.
Lee looked at Chip and the blond returned it, slowly shaking his head. “That room…” he said lovingly.
Lee nodded. “Called you those times from the balcony. I could live up there.” He sighed heavily. “Probably will, for awhile,” he admitted tiredly, and there was silence between them for several minutes.
Chip finally asked cautiously, “Lee…?”
Lee just waved a hand at him. “It’s okay. Honest,” he added as Chip continued to look worried. “I like it here. Tim and Annie don’t seem to mind having me here…”
“We don’t,” Tim said adamantly, returning with three beers, most of a whole pie, plates and forks, and a container of ice cream, all on a tray.
“Had to sample it?” Lee asked innocently, noticing the piece of pie that was missing.
“Had to make sure it was fit to serve to guests,” Tim answered with a smile, and started slicing what was left.
Lee went back to his answer to Chip. “I’ve got plenty of paperwork to keep me occupied. And if I run out for some reason I’m sure Angie will find some more,” and shared a grin with the others. “And, to be honest, I don’t think I could be around the Institute, and not allowed on Seaview, without going stark raving fruiters.” As they all laughed, Tim handed Lee a plate with a 5-inch slice of pie topped by a huge scoop of vanilla ice cream. “Tim!” Lee thundered. “Good grief. I can’t eat all this.”
“All the more for me,” Chip assured him, starting in on an even bigger slice. Lee just shook his head and picked up his fork.
Conversation was light as the three worked their way through the dessert, a wondrous mixture of flavors held together by a light, flaky crust. Lee wasn’t sure how but his plate ended up empty, and he nursed his beer as Tim and Chip divided up what was left.
As Chip yawned and it started a chain reaction, Lee glanced at his watch and discovered it was nearly 2200. Early by his standards, but he knew if he sat here much longer he’d never make it up the two flights of stairs to the gorgeous room that shared the top floor of the B&B with the much larger Lighthouse suite. Chip looked at him carefully as he stood up, but again he just waved off his friend. “I may have to take it a bit slowly, but I can climb the stairs just fine,” he said with just a hint of frustration, then sighed and smiled. “Enjoy the peace and quiet.”
“Amen,” Tim breathed. “Starting tomorrow the next four weeks are zoo city. I think two of the five rooms stay vacant one night each.”
“Not to mention your uninvited squad mates,” Lee muttered, not quite under his breath.
“Lee,” Tim gave him a hard look, “do we have to go through that again?”
Lee backed down. “Sorry,” he apologized. “Must be more tired than I thought.” Adding a good night, he headed into the house and up the two flights of stairs.
* * * *
Lee awoke the next morning to a moment of disorientation and a cold nose in his face. He’d surprised himself and had little difficulty climbing up to the third floor ‘room’ that took up the whole back of that floor. It was actually one large bedroom, dressing area and huge bathroom on one side, and the private balcony on the other. The balcony windows faced south toward Yaquina Head lighthouse a few miles down the coast at the end of the long sandy beach the B&B overlooked. As memory of where he was settled in, and the cold nose proved to belong to the beautiful blue merle Shetland Sheepdog, his ‘girlfriend’ Lacey, he grinned.
Lee had momentarily walked out onto the balcony the night before, but common sense had taken over and he’d washed up and settled into the queen-sized bed. He hadn’t even realized he’d fallen asleep until Chip, trying desperately not to disturb him as he climbed into the other side of the bed, failed miserably and jostled him awake. Lee just grinned at the look of chagrin Chip gave him, rolled over, and apparently went right back to sleep since the next thing he became aware of was Lacey’s gentle good morning, followed by a quick, wet kiss. The sound of a soft snicker reached his ears, and he looked up to see both Tim and Annie standing in the open doorway. Tim quickly put a finger to his lips to shush Lee and pointed at Chip, still very sound asleep. Lee looked at him, then Lacey, then back at Tim and Annie, and an absolutely wicked grin spread slowly across his face. Very carefully he sat up, swung his feet around to sit on the edge of the bed, and patted the mattress. Lacey, knowing an invitation when she saw one, landed softly on the bed next to Lee. He gave her a loving scratch behind both ears and motioned toward the still sleeping Chip. Lacey walked the short distance across the bed, carefully lay down and, with Chip laying on his back, laid her head next to his on the pillow and breathed lightly in his ear. Lee heard a muffled snort and looked over to see Annie clamp a hand firmly across her mouth. Tim was barely controlling his laughter, and Lee wasn’t sure how long he could control his own.
The reaction was everything the other three could have hoped for. Chip started smiling softly in his sleep, and Lee egged him on by whispering, “Chip, Lacey’s here. She wants to give you a big kiss ‘good morning’.” Lacey helped by snuggling a little closer, laying her head on Chip’s shoulder, and flicking out her tongue to just touch his cheek. Chip finally opened his eyes lazily and looked into the beautiful blue eyes of… a dog!
“ARGHHHHHHH,” he screamed, drowned out instantaneously by three squeals of laughter and one joyous bark, and threw himself off the edge of the bed away from the intruder. As the others howled, totally unable or unwilling to stop laughing, Lacey turned to Lee with a look of ‘what’s his problem’ on her very expressive face. That ignited the revelers even more, and Chip sat on the floor getting madder and madder. Unfortunately, that only made matters worse still.
Lee wasn’t sure what would have happened if Annie hadn’t finally taken charge of the situation. “Lacey,” she called, and the sheltie looked her way, tail wagging happily. “You’ve just earned extra munchies.” Lacey bounced up, gave Lee another quick kiss, and launched herself off the bed. She and the Hughes exited, Tim closing the door still laughing.
Lee turned his most innocent look on Chip. The blond was still fuming but starting to pick himself up. “You’re the one, Chip, if memory serves me correctly,” he said simply, barely suppressing his laughter, “that said my new girlfriend must be a real dog, and that’s why I wouldn’t introduce her to anyone.”
While Chip’s eyes still held anger, Lee saw his mouth start to twitch as Chip turned toward the bathroom. Lee rose and walked out onto the balcony, looking out on a beautiful morning that held the promise of a wonderful day. Lee wished he could enjoy it, but instead felt himself start to tense up. Finally giving himself a shake and willing the fist he’d unconsciously made to relax, he smiled ruefully. OK, Crane. While this isn’t the solution you’d like, it’s not all that bad under the circumstances. Try making the best of it, and he stood listening to the sounds of the birds and surf until he heard Chip behind him. Lee turned and looked at his friend, eyebrows raised but saying nothing.
Chip momentarily glared at him, but couldn’t hold it and finally grinned. “I will get you for that,” he muttered nonetheless, and Lee chuckled all the way to the shower.
When he came down the stairs a short while later Chip was helping Tim bring breakfast items out to the dining area. With only one other room occupied at the moment Annie had cut proportions down but the variety was still present: several different kinds of muffins and fruit juices, sliced peaches, grapefruit sections, scrambled eggs, and the day’s entrée – Belgian waffles with strawberry or blueberry topping. Annie caught Lee glancing at his watch and chuckled. “Yeah, I know we’re late this morning. But the Williams’ don’t get up until almost 8 so there was no hurry to start cooking.”
“This looks good for me,” Chip snickered, glancing at the sideboard where the food was sitting. “What’s everyone else having?” and looked at Annie innocently. Tim laughed, Lee smacked his friend, and they all sat down to eat.
* * * *
Chip and Tim spent most of the day running errands and laying in supplies for the coming week. Lee stayed downstairs visiting with Annie for awhile, but eventually wandered back to the room. The balcony gave him a wonderful view and a pleasing background to work on the first of several departmental budget reviews. It was times like this that almost made him wish he were back in the regular Navy. Almost. He grinned at himself as he set up the laptop computer on the balcony. Give up Seaview? I don’t think so! he admitted easily, and settled in for several hours of juggling numbers.
He was surprised when Annie interrupted his concentration about 1300 – no, Crane. You’ve done this before. Landlubber equals civilian time equals 1 pm – with lunch. “Annie…” he started, but she cut him off.
“I haven’t forgotten you think lunch is an unnecessary waste of time,” she lectured him.
“Not waste of time,” he corrected her. “Waste of food,” and smiled with her. “I eat quite enough at your breakfasts to last all day.”
“Well, I still don’t think its good for the digestive system. But all I brought was half a sandwich and some peach slices.” She dropped the plate on the small table between the two chairs on the enclosed balcony and settled into the other chair. The first Lee realized Lacey had come in as well was a small nose edging close to the sandwich. “Lacey,” Annie warned, “touch that and you die.” The small dog looked at her seriously, glanced at Lee, and curled up in the corner. Annie laughed and looked at Lee. “I don’t think I’ve properly thanked you for her.”
“Wasn’t my doing,” Lee reminded her. “I just delivered.”
“Brad’s getting half-price rooms the rest of his life,” Annie assured Lee, then continued sheepishly. “Tried to make it free but he wouldn’t hear of it,” and they both grinned.
“He’s just glad this worked out so well. I know he was concerned about her.”
“She settled in like she’d lived here all her life. Can’t have worked out better.” Annie sighed heavily, then grinned at Lee. “Tim calls her our surrogate child.” Lee remembered that the couple had always wanted children but discovered they couldn’t, and looked carefully at Annie. She just grinned. “Works for me,” she said with a smile, and Lee relaxed and picked up the sandwich. He started to take a bite, stopped and looked at it curiously, and glanced at Annie. “Oh. Guess Chip didn’t tell you? He said you had a visitor onboard Seaview who had an interesting variation on an ordinary chicken salad sandwich, and passed on the recipe. Said you’d liked it,” she added innocently, and rose to leave. Lee briefly closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and a big bite of the sandwich that besides normal chicken salad filling held halved grapes, apple and walnut chunks, and alfalfa sprouts, turning it into a Chicken Waldorf Salad sandwich. He gave Annie a grin as she left, said a silent thank you to Michelle Ortiz, the ONI agent who had brought the recipe to Cookie’s attention, and went back to his report between bites.
It wasn’t until Lee was almost done eating that he realized Lacey was still curled up in the corner of the balcony, watching him. He glanced at his bedroom door. Annie had left it cracked a bit but was nowhere in sight, and Lee gave the last couple bites to the sheltie. “You rat on me,” Lee told the little dog, “and that will be the last munchies I give you.” Lacey looked at him, tail wagging happily, licked her lips, and returned to her corner. Lee chuckled at her and returned to his reports.
Lacey kept him entertained most of the afternoon, although that wasn’t her intention. She’d stayed comfortably curled up in the corner of the balcony, so Lee was startled when she suddenly shot up and out the door. It wasn’t for almost a minute that Lee heard a car door close almost too softly for him to hear, even with the balcony windows open. He certainly hadn’t heard a car drive in. Lee got up and glanced out the back window to see a middle-aged couple taking bags from their car. Annie had gone out to greet them, with Lacey at her side. Quite obviously the little dog took her duties as Spindrift Inn’s official greeter seriously. It was a surprise, therefore, when 20 minutes later she reappeared on the balcony, gave Lee a quick poke with her nose, and returned to her corner.
Three more times during the afternoon the scenario was repeated. Lee was prepared now for the quick departure, the sounds of guests checking in, and her eventual return, grinning and giving her a scratch each time she did. At one point Annie wandered in.
“So this is where she keeps getting to,” she said, reaching down to pet Lacey. “If it’s a problem just close your door.”
“No problem at all,” Lee assured her. “Just a little surprised is all.”
“Obviously she considers you one of her special people,” Annie said laughingly. Suddenly she got thoughtful. “You didn’t share lunch with her, did you?” she asked sternly. Lee gave her his most innocent look, which from Annie’s expression she didn’t believe for an instant, but she just smiled.
“Doesn’t keep her from her ‘official duties’,” Lee chuckled.
“Oh, no. She has to know everything that’s going on around here. And she’s so intuitive. Picks up all too quickly on guests that might not like dogs. Never gets pushy. Although she does have a slight tendency to want to herd the bird population.” They both smiled. “Anyway,” she changed the subject, “all the new guests are in. Lighthouse has three sisters, two married, one divorced, that get away each year for a vacation by themselves. They’ve been here before. You won’t have a problem leaving your door ajar for Lacey, if you choose.” This was in obvious reference to the two college girls that had busied themselves snooping everywhere the first time Lee had been there. He’d ended up not only closing but also locking his door to preserve his privacy.
“I’m actually rather enjoying the company,” Lee admitted. “Any excuse not to look at these reports for a few minutes. Any word from Tim and Chip?”
“I gave them quite a shopping list,” Annie admitted. “Even the freezer was pretty bare after the last couple weeks. By the time they get back and get everything stowed away it will be time to fix dinner. How does my strange version of spaghetti, fresh green beans with browned bread crumbs on them, and minute steaks sound?”
Lee’s eyes had lit up. “I haven’t had crumby green beans in forever. Forgot all about them, actually.”
“Simple meal when I don’t really have a set time for dinner.”
“Anything I can do to help?” Lee offered.
“Yes. Stay out of my way,” Annie said firmly, but then smiled broadly. “It will be ready about 45 minutes after the guys get back.”
“So will I,” Lee surprised himself by saying. Annie’s grin widened and she left. She did hesitate briefly at the door but, while Lacey watched her, made no move to get up. Annie gave Lee another grin and left.
“Pretty sure of your welcome, are you?” Lee asked seriously. Lacey just curled herself a little more comfortably, and Lee went back to his reports.
Finishing one set of department budgets coincided with vehicle doors slamming shut, and the unmistakable sound of Chip’s laughter. Still chuckling at Lacey’s excited yip and rapid exit moments before, Lee shut down the laptop and headed downstairs. Knowing he’d just get yelled at if he tried to help, he poured himself a cup of coffee and curled up with his back against the wall in the little breakfast nook area in the kitchen. He visited while Annie started dinner and Tim and Chip stowed the small mountain of supplies and foodstuffs they’d returned with.
Lee had to laugh at Lacey at one point. Not allowed in the kitchen, she’d stayed contentedly at the top of the stairs to Tim and Annie’s living quarters in the basement, looking through the railing of the entryway from the back door. During a quiet point just before dinner was put on the table there was a small noise, like a puff of air.
“Yes, Lacey,” Annie said casually, continuing on with what she was doing, and Lee glanced at the little dog. Before long she seemed to puff up her cheeks, hold it a second, and let it out in a very soft ‘huff’. “Chill, Lacey,” Annie cautioned, but set down what she was doing and prepared a dish of dry dog food, topped with the juice off the green beans and a bit of crumbled biscuit from that morning’s breakfast leftovers. Lacey started dancing happily as Annie approached and leaned over the railing to place the dish on the floor. As she walked back to the stove, Annie looked at Lee. “I keep trying to convince her that if she’d wait until after we eat, there might be a few more scraps.”
Lee chuckled. “Wouldn’t work the next few days, anyway. With Chip here there won’t be anything left,” then laughed out loud as Chip threw a wadded up plastic grocery sack at him. But as Annie started to set the table, Lee turned and Chip sat down next to him. Table set and food delivered, the Hughes sat on the other side and the four enjoyed a companionable meal.
It was times like this that Lee regretted being kept so busy he had precious little time to call his own. Yet even listening to Tim and Chip battle amiably over the last piece of minute steak he admitted he loved what he did, and really wouldn’t be happy living his life any other way. At least for awhile he could relax and enjoy his friends, forced vacation or not, and he laughed as Annie reached out with her knife and cut the meat into two pieces.
“I’d totally forgotten how impossible these two used to be around each other,” Annie said grumpily, looking at Lee. “I’d thought Tim had outgrown the impishness.”
Lee replied seriously, “I’d thought the same about Chip.” But they shared a laugh as the two friendly combatants instantly looked totally innocent.
“Us?” Chip took umbrage at Annie’s remark. “You forget how often Lee was the instigator in getting us into trouble.” It was Lee’s turn to look innocent.
“You two were older,” Annie defended Lee before he could say anything, and his expression went that much more angelic. Chip looked ready to really get into the argument – however good-natured it was – but Tim stopped him.
“Forget it, Chip. One thing I’ve learned, never argue with Annie – especially in the kitchen.” He turned and gave her a quick hug, cutting off any comebacks from that direction, and everyone finished eating and got up. While Tim and Chip headed for the front room, Lee hung behind to help Annie clear the table.
But she promptly ushered him to the half door. “Out,” she ordered, then relented. “If you can behave for half an hour or so, I’ll let you come stir the veggies for tomorrow’s breakfast.” Lee’s eyes lit up. “Yes, that one. Now go keep those two from bothering the guests.”
His mind occupied with the casserole he’d had the first morning he’d stayed there, filled with onion, scallions, mushrooms, and green and red bell peppers - among other things - it took him a bit to pick up on what was happening in front of him. He heard Chip ask, “What are these?” followed by a loud “BLECH!!” and hurried forward to see his blond friend standing next to a small table in the main entryway, doubled over, gagging and coughing up something into his hand.
Tim was just turning around from where he was in the living room starting to fix the pot of coffee they kept available for the guests. But when he saw Chip he instantly started laughing hysterically, barely able to get out, between giggles and coughing, “They’re liver…and garlic squares…. Annie ….makes them…for Lacey.” By the time Annie came out to see what all the commotion as about, Tim was rolling on the floor, Lee was laughing so hard he had to hold on to the stair railing, and Chip was just standing there, getting madder and madder, sending both men positively murderous glares.
Unfortunately, Annie didn’t help matters a whole lot. “Chip, if you were still hungry you should have said so,” she said seriously. “I’m sure I could have found you something else.” The comment sent both Lee and Tim into further hysterics, and Chip’s glares finally turned to embarrassment.
“Thank you, but no, Annie,” he mumbled. “Think I’ve had quite enough.”
“Sorry,” Annie continued with a grin. “I should have warned you. I keep that dish out so the guests who want to can treat Lacey.”
“She’s welcome to them,” Chip growled not quite to himself, causing more laughter from the others, and he reached down to give the dog the pieces in his hand, then stomped over and sprawled in one of the chairs in the big room. Tim and Lee finally got themselves under control and sat also, and they kibitzed until Annie later joined them. Lee looked up guiltily as Annie came in, realizing he’d totally forgotten about offering to help with the next morning’s prep, but she just winked.
“Catch you next time,” she grinned, and curled up next to Tim on the couch.
The four friends spent a quiet evening visiting with the returning guests and each other. Lee enjoyed watching Chip get needled off and on by their hosts, his oldest friend being the undisputed champion of doing it to everyone else. But he was also frustrated that by 9 o’clock he was having trouble keeping his eyes open. Annie inadvertently snapped his attention back by asking, oh so innocently, if he’d by any chance talked to Rebecca lately.
Chip was instantly alert as well. “And who, pray tell, is Rebecca?” He suddenly looked suspicious. “Not another one of your furry friends?” he challenged Lee.
Lee chuckled. “Down, Chip. Just another guest the first time I was here.” He shot an irritated look at Annie for bringing her up, but couldn’t maintain it in the face of the petite brunette’s grin. “No. I stay so busy it’s hard to keep up with anyone. You of all people should know that.” It wasn’t really a lie. He hadn’t ‘talked’ to her, only had the short note she’d written a couple weeks after he’d returned to NIMR. A note he’d not even answered, he was ashamed to admit. Seaview had just been leaving when it came, and what with one thing or another…
“Too bad,” Annie continued. “I thought you might want to give her a call while you were here.”
“Don’t have her number,” Lee answered.
“Don’t you have it in the files?” Tim asked his wife.
Her grin turned sheepish. “Must have written it down wrong – when I tried to write her a quick note it came back ‘addressee unknown’, and I couldn’t find her listed in the Portland phonebook.”
Lee carefully didn’t admit that since he knew her real name, not the one she’d used while she stayed at Spindrift, he could no doubt track her down. But he wondered to himself if Annie’s note being returned (he knew Annie too well to think she’d written anything down wrong) meant that she’d moved. Lee hoped her ex-husband hadn’t reappeared to make trouble. His thoughts were interrupted by Chip demanding to know more about the mystery woman.
“Give it a break, Chip,” Lee grumbled. “She was just a very nice lady it was fun to spend some time with. I doubt she’s thought any more about that couple of weeks than I have.” His grumbling ended in a yawn, and Chip changed tactics.
“Looks like it’s bedtime,” he said casually.
Lee gave him a thoughtful look. “Tim work you that hard today? Maybe one of the things I need to work on while I’m here is a revised physical fitness test for the officers if you get tired so easily.” The look Chip sent him had been known to send Seaview’s crewmen running for their lives. Lee just laughed. But he also took the hint, said good night, and slowly climbed the stairs. Frustration returned as he was barely able to make it up the last half flight. He stood at the top for a bit, his eyes closed, angry at a body that refused to keep up with what he wanted it to do. Voices from below put him back in motion. He’d made it inside his own door before the ladies returning to Lighthouse saw him, and went out to the balcony. He sprawled out in his chair and closed his eyes, letting the soft familiar sounds from the ocean below lull his mind into relaxing.
With no sense of passing time, a hand on his shoulder startled Lee. “Sorry,” Chip said cautiously. “You okay?”
Lee grinned, mostly to himself. Chip might harass him on a fairly regular basis about taking care of himself. But his friend also understood that Lee could be pushed just so far. Now he stood almost nervously, apparently not knowing how Lee was going to respond to basically being sent to his room. At first wondering if a little light retaliation might be in order, Lee instead let the grin broaden. “Yes, Chip. I’m okay. Just wanted to sit out here for awhile.” He glanced at his watch, finally letting the darkness outside tell him it was late. “Didn’t realize I’d fallen asleep,” he added sheepishly, as the dial read 11:05.
Chip visibly relaxed and sat down on the edge of the other chair. “We were just talking,” and he nodded downstairs. “Tim said it’s not that much farther from where the car park is to the beach than what you’ve been walking at home. Thought you might enjoy going down tomorrow and soaking up some rays.”
“Sounds great,” Lee lit up instantly, “If there’s a breeze the kite flyers will be out, especially on a Sunday.”
“I remember you talking about them…” Chip’s voice sort of trailed off, and he glanced down.
“What?” Lee asked softly, and Chip finally looked back up.
“You going to be okay here? I mean, it was my idea to stick you here until…well…I just know you weren’t given a whole lot of choice in the matter.”
Lee looked at his friend of many years and smiled softly. “Chip, in all honesty, what I said before is really the truth. If I’d stayed at NIMR either I’d have driven myself crazy, frustrated that there was so much around me I couldn’t do, or else I’d have driven Jamie whackers keeping me from trying to do it anyway.” They both grinned. “Here…well…some of the frustration is still there, I won’t deny it,” and Lee sighed heavily. “But so much of the temptation isn’t.”
“You’ll be back aboard Seaview in no time,” Chip grinned, “driving us all whackers.”
“Excuse me?” Lee glared at the blond, and they both burst out laughing.
Chip finally looked at Lee and asked quietly, “Relaxed enough to crash now?”
Lee sent him another glare. “I always have hated that you can read me so easily,” but the look relaxed into a grin at his friend.
“Just doing my job, as any good XO does,” Chip assured him seriously, then grinned as well. “Lee…” he started, but didn’t seem to know how to continue.
Lee reached out a foot and tapped one of Chip’s. “Spit it out,” he ordered softly.
It took Chip a little longer. “We never really talked about what happened,” he finally got out.
“That’s because every time it was mentioned, you just got royally ticked,” Lee answered carefully.
“Yeah,” Chip acknowledged. “Just…you were supposed to only be gone a few days. Which turned into three weeks,” his voice raised in anger. “And Admiral Nelson couldn’t get word one out of ONI.”
“Chip,” Lee said softly, and watched the tight fists his friend had made slowly relax.
“Then I get that crazy phone call,” Chip scowled at him, and Lee grinned.
“Toni, Mrs. Casey, said I needed to be more careful about choosing my friends,” and he laughed as his best one blushed.
“Yeah, well…” and he finally grinned sheepishly. “Guess I do need to send an apology.”
“And I need to send a Thank You. How ‘bout we do it together, once I’m back at work. Which,” he breathed heavily, “according to Jamie, will be faster the more rest I get.” He groaned dramatically as Chip grinned at him, but pried himself up and headed for bed.
* * * *
The next morning Lee found himself settling into the old familiar routine of ‘holding court’ at breakfast with Tim, visiting with the guests, and Annie, as she came and went making sure everyone had enough to eat. He actually found it kind of reassuring, in a way. While he hated having his life ‘rearranged’ as it were, from what he really wanted to be doing, he’d very much enjoyed this part of his earlier stay at Spindrift Inn. He found some of the tension he’d awakened with, tension that would be a constant part of him, he knew, until his life was back to normal, fall away and leave him with a sense of peace. After the last of the guests left the table, Annie chased the three men off to the beach. Lee had started to insist that Annie come, too, but she’d just shooed them off, saying she was already planning a picnic for Tuesday. Chip would be leaving the following morning and they could all enjoy the day when it would be much quieter, not so many people, on a weekday instead of a weekend.
Lee, in turn, shooed Tim and Chip off for a long walk/jog on the wide, flat sand of Beverly Beach once he’d settled himself against a piece of driftwood. The walk from the car park, along the path that went underneath Highway 101 to the beach, was about as far as he could go. He noticed Chip give him a concerned look, realized he’d clenched a fist, and gave the blond a wry smile as he forced himself to relax.
“Now scram,” he chased the other two off.
“You’ll be okay?” Tim asked.
Lee patted the cell phone clipped to his waist. “Besides,” he added with a grin, “you two will be back in three hours, four tops. You can’t keep Chip away from Annie’s cooking any longer than that.” He laughed with Tim as Chip just snorted, and the two men headed south along the beach.
Still early, there weren’t too many people at the beach yet, and Lee settled back against the log. The soft breeze that was blowing was warm, as was the sun. Those, coupled with the soft sounds of a high tide, calmed Lee as little else was ever able to. He relaxed more comfortably into the dry sand, half-closing his eyes. Even the noisy arrival of several families couldn’t disturb him, and he had no idea he’d closed his eyes until he ended up with a face full of sand. Chip’s snickers identified the culprit and Lee wiped off the sand with a glare at his friends and a glance at his watch. He’d been right – it was just after 1 o’clock. “Told you,” he said to Tim, who offered him a hand up. Reluctantly, he accepted. “Chip got hungry,” he still got his needle in.
“Hey,” Chip defended himself, “we jogged all the way to the end of the beach.” They did look like they’d worked up a sweat, but Lee still looked to Tim for confirmation.
“Well, almost,” the brunette admitted. “The tide was in so we didn’t make it around the point to the lighthouse.” Lee remembered all too well the point Tim referred to. He’d been caught on the other side by the rising tide and ended up spending several extra hours he’d not planned on, waiting for the tide to go out enough that he could get back.
“Still a fair workout,” Lee acknowledged, somewhat wistfully.
“You’ll be joining Tim in no time,” Chip responded confidently. “While I’m stuck underwater replacing seismic sensors.” The last was somewhat grumbled.
“And loving every minute of it,” Lee continued to needle. “You like it when I’m not on board, getting to play Captain without the total responsibility that comes with having the job on a permanent basis.”
“Are you kidding?” Chip growled back. “Sharkey watching my every move. Ratting on me to Nelson if I so much as change the height setting on the periscope.”
“He does not,” Lee scolded, then snickered. “He rats to me as soon as I get back.” He burst out laughing as Chip muttered something decidedly rude.
It was a cheerful threesome that returned to the B&B. But even with the several hours in between, the extra walking put Lee at the limit of his strength and it was all he could do to walk from the parking area, through the kitchen, and out to the front porch. As under control as he kept himself, he was still fairly sure that Chip caught the effort it took Lee to maintain the casualness. But nothing was said openly. Both Chip and Tim stayed momentarily in the kitchen. Annie had seen them arrive, and as they came in the back door was getting out a plate of sandwich fixings, potato salad, and fruit. She’d frowned briefly at Lee as he just ignored the food and kept walking. But both she and Tim were used to his not eating lunch if he’d had a big breakfast. Not so Chip, who joined Lee a few minutes later with not only a plate for himself but also one for Lee. Although he’d only put half a ham sandwich and a small helping of salad on it as opposed to his own, which held two big sandwiches as well as salad and fruit. Their hosts joined them shortly, Tim carrying both their plates while Annie carried a tray with a pitcher of iced tea and four glasses. Lee was tired enough he’d have almost preferred to be left alone, but he shrugged off the feeling and forced himself to enjoy the quiet chatter of his friends. He also forced himself to eat, albeit slowly. By the time he was done he figured he’d built up enough energy to make it back to the room.
Barely, as it turned out. On top of everything else, he started getting a headache. Chip walked up with him, ostensibly to grab a quick shower after his workout. Even through his frustration, Lee had to smile to himself as his always-sensible friend casually matched steps with him and kibitzed lightly about this and that, purposely not mentioning how much effort it took Lee to climb the two flights of stairs. Originally going to go sit out on the porch, Lee instead acknowledged his infirmities by giving Chip a nod and laying down across the bed. Eyes closed but not asleep when Chip emerged from the shower, he hid a grin as the XO, onboard Seaview or not, gently slipped off his Captain’s shoes, unclipped the cell phone, and drew the comforter back, covering Lee as much as he could. Lee hadn’t really intended to fall asleep. His exhausted body, given fresh air and sunshine, a light lunch, and now a warm bed, had other ideas.
* * * *
Lee awoke thinking he’d only closed his eyes for a little while, although he did notice his headache was suddenly gone. But little things started to not make sense. For one thing, the sun was shining in the back window instead of the west end of the balcony. For another, he was no longer dressed and laying on top of the bed, but stripped to his shorts and laying between the sheets. Hearing the shower turn off, he glanced at his watch and discovered it was 0620. He’d slept nearly 15 hours!
“Hey, it’s alive,” Chip snickered, coming into the main room with one towel wrapped around his waist and using another to dry his hair.
“Too late,” Lee grumbled, sitting up and swinging his legs off the side of the bed. At Chip’s upraised eyebrow he continued. “Tim already used that line the first time I was here.” Chip’s other eyebrow went up, waiting for an explanation, but Lee just gave him an enigmatic little smile and headed for his turn in the shower.
Hearing voices as he came downstairs 45 minutes later, Lee was met with sudden silence, two guilty expressions, and one very smug one. “What?” he demanded.
“Sorry, Lee”, Tim apologized. “Didn’t realize we were the only ones who knew.”
Lee sighed heavily and finished walking up to them. “The slip-up with the pain pills,” he guessed.
Annie nodded. “I’m afraid we’ve inadvertently given Chip blackmail material to use against you with your CMO.”
“He wouldn’t dare,” Lee growled, glaring at Chip, and cringed slightly as his friend’s expression went totally cherubic. Lee just closed his eyes, shaking his head slowly. “My fault actually,” he admitted, opening his eyes again, “for saying what I did upstairs. But I think I’m glad he’s leaving in a couple days,” he added with a mutter, and had to grin, albeit weakly, at the snickers that produced.
“Did you ever tell Doc Jamison how you got your black eye after Jerry’s wetting down?” Tim asked innocently, and Lee’s grin turned positively evil as it was Chip’s turn to cringe. “Seems to me, one good ratting out would deserve another.”
“Ah, guys, is this private, or do I get let in on it as well?” Annie chided.
Lee grinned. “Tim told you we all got a little…well…”
“Stewed to the gills?” Annie supplied.
“Fried to the tonsils,” Tim agreed.
“Absolutely blotto,” Chip added.
“Definitely feeling no pain,” Lee continued.
“Until we woke up,” Tim corrected, and all three men shuddered.
“Anyway, I finally surfaced and got the coffee going. Tim woke up…”
“Unfortunately,” Tim growled.
“Got him going on the coffee,” Lee went on, “and went to make sure Chip was still alive.”
“Tim did say, when he got home,” Annie glanced at the blond, “it was quite a successful wetting down.”
“Had its moments,” Lee agreed.
“Chip wasn’t ready to wake up yet, I take it?” Annie grinned.
“So I stuffed him in the shower and turned on the cold water.”
“Then ran like hell,” Chip growled, but couldn’t hold it and he finally grinned.
“Trust me,” Lee corrected, “I wasn’t running anywhere. I could still just barely walk,” and all four laughed.
“So, what about the black eye?” Annie got back to the story. Lee glanced at Chip, who turned red.
“Still wasn’t too coherent when Lee came to check on me,” the blond admitted.
“Turned the water off and went to stand him up so I could get his wet clothes off – had stuffed him in, skivvies and all – and he went a little ballistic.”
“And you let him nail you?” Annie was surprised. “I’d have thought you could handle him just fine. He can’t have been very functional.”
“Like I said, wasn’t very functional, myself,” Lee admitted bashfully. “He got in one good swing before we both collapsed.”
The four friends’ laughter was interrupted by voices from above. “I gather nobody explained to your CMO,” Annie said, heading for the kitchen.
“Told him I bumped into something,” Lee admitted.
“Just forgot to tell him it was Chip’s fist,” Tim teased. “Wonder what he’d have to say about that?” From Chip’s expression he was in no hurry to find out, but any further discussion was interrupted by guests.
Once breakfast was cleaned up, Tim and Chip headed for a run on the beach, then to Newport to help a friend of Tim’s track down some parts for the pick-up he was fixing. Lee was invited to go along but declined, citing a need to get back to the reports he was supposed to be doing. He’d goofed off yesterday and, if they were going to picnic the next day, probably wouldn’t get anything done then, either.
“Work, work, work,” Chip teased. “That’s all he ever thinks about.”
“Somebody has to,” Lee sniped back, causing grins all around. The men took off, Annie headed down the hill to a friend’s house for a couple hours, and Lee reluctantly headed back upstairs. Actually, he’d have preferred otherwise, but reality was sinking in. He’d done nothing yesterday except walk down to the beach and back from the car park and he’d been totally drained. He figured he’d better rest today if he was going to have the energy to walk that far again tomorrow.
But once upstairs and the laptop set up, he found he couldn’t concentrate on the reports staring back at him from the screen. I made such a mess of things, starting with the ONI mission. The agency was trying to keep track of a splinter group operating inside the U.S., making several different agencies uncomfortable. Lee had been sent in to see if he could find out what they were up to. But his cover had been compromised within hours of his making contact. Lee wasn’t sure what he’d done or said but he’d been grabbed without warning, confined to a small windowless basement, and ‘interrogated’ frequently over the next several days. Each session started with Lee being beaten, apparently to ‘soften him up’ for the main interrogator. Interestingly, while his torso quickly sported a multitude of deep bruising, each session adding to the accumulation, very little major damage was done. After five days Lee was almost getting bored. He’d decided that these guys were a bunch of amateurs, no real threat to anyone, and he was just waiting for someone to make a mistake and he would make his escape.
And that was my biggest screw-up of all, he chastised himself. Not taking his captors seriously. He was still hoping to pick up bits of intelligence and didn’t actively try to get away. It nearly cost him his life.
He never saw the newcomer. The man who had used him the most as a punching bag came into the room and blindfolded him instead. Lee could feel the difference in the atmosphere almost immediately. The tension was palpable as he heard several more people enter the room, but nobody said anything. Everyone just seemed to be waiting…
Poke. No, that didn’t happen. At least, I don’t remember it happening. I thought I could remember all of it up until… Poke. Lee opened eyes he hadn’t realized he’d closed and looked down. Lacey was just about to give him another jab with her nose, demanding attention. Lee tried to steady breathing that had gotten rapid and shallow, and reached a shaky hand down to the little dog, holding it in front of her. He’d discovered while staying at Brad’s that Lacey loved to rub her face against his palm. But he jumped as he realized the two weren’t alone.
“Sorry,” Annie apologized. “Didn’t mean to disturb you.”
“Not a problem,” Lee sighed. “Believe me,” he added, wondering what had brought Annie back so soon. He glanced at his watch and visibly shuddered – nearly two hours had passed. He caught Annie’s grin and gave it back shyly.
“Pesky demons again?” she asked carefully, and sat down in the other chair. Lee didn’t answer, just lowered his eyes, pretending to concentrate on Lacey. “Told you once, they’re not contagious.”
“What makes you such an expert?” Lee hadn’t meant it to come out so harshly, and briefly glanced up.
Annie was still smiling, but just barely. “Had a pretty steady diet of them after Tim’s accident,” she answered softly.
Lee closed his eyes just a moment, remembering what he knew of the helicopter crash that had cost Tim his naval career, as well as the lives of several friends. Nodding, he looked at Annie. “Tim mentioned it wasn’t pleasant.”
“Understatement of the century,” she muttered. “But we got through it. You will, too,” and the smile was back. “Just have to think positive. Demons hate that.” She grinned, and Lee couldn’t help but smile as well. “But what they do love,” she continued, with a bit of a determined look on her face, “is to eat. If there’s nothing in your stomach for them to munch on they start in on the lining, and you end up with ulcers. What would you like for lunch?”
Lee groaned dramatically. “Annie,” he practically whined, “for Pete’s sake. I haven’t even digested breakfast yet.”
“Something light,” she said as she stood up. “I’ll just go see what’s in the fridge to make soup out of,” and off she went before Lee could argue further.
“Not that it would do any good, anyway,” Lee grumbled to Lacey, who was still busy rubbing the top of her head into Lee’s hand. She seemed to especially love it when he helped by rubbing softly across her eyes. He glanced at the computer but it had timed out – the screen was dark. So much for getting anything done this morning. Oh well. He shut it down, staring out the windows at the ocean until Annie returned about 40 minutes later with a bowl of what turned out to be cheesy asparagus and potato soup and something very strange looking, sort of yellow marbled with chocolate, in a tall glass. He looked at Annie suspiciously as she set it on the table.
“Banana smoothie with chocolate sauce and a little honey. Demons positively love it – leave your stomach alone for hours,” she grinned. Lee still looked skeptical but tried a small sip, decided it just might be potable after all, and started in on the soup as Annie headed downstairs.
* * * *
Lee did manage to get some work done that afternoon. He was about halfway through his lunch when Chip bounced in from his run, grabbed a quick shower, polished off the last few swallows of the smoothie Lee hadn’t managed to get down, and took the empty dishes back downstairs. Lee knew that Chip and Tim had left for Newport when Lacey returned to curl up in the corner of the balcony. Not buying into Annie’s theory about banana smoothies and demons, he still was able to concentrate enough to get most of the way through the next report before Lacey’s excited yip announced the men’s return. Lee closed the computer and walked downstairs for dinner and a relaxed evening on the front porch. He did get a bit of a headache about 9 o’clock. Not bad enough to spoil his evening but enough that Chip, who always seemed to read him way too easily, caught it. Lee just grinned enigmatically at his friend and returned to the conversation he was having with two of the guests. They’d been to the shark exhibit at the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport, and Lee was giving them a few personal recollections from the open ocean to go along with the information they had gotten at the exhibit.
Tuesday dawned sunny and warm – almost hot by ocean standards. The Hughes’ neighbor and part-time employee, Michelle, arrived just as they were cleaning up from breakfast to keep an eye on things while everyone else was down on the beach. Tim pointed out at one point that the jeans Lee had put on that morning were probably going to be too warm to wear all day. Lee admitted he’d not packed any shorts, and ended up getting harassed by Chip for not even knowing how to pack for a vacation, he took so few. But Annie came up with an older pair of Tim’s. They were a little big, especially with the weight Lee had lost and not yet gained back. When he came back downstairs from changing he could already see her mind working on how to fatten him up and just sighed heavily – much to the other two men’s amusement.
Mid-week, with no breeze to bring the kiters out, meant the four friends had the beach pretty much to themselves. Not totally, of course, with the state park camping grounds just across the road. But enough that they didn’t have to walk all that far from the access path to find a spot for their picnic. Lee stretched out on a blanket and guarded the food hampers while the others enjoyed a run. Annie admitted she didn’t get down to the beach nearly as often as she’d like to, and threw sand at her husband before taking off at a dead run, Lacey at her heels, with Tim and Chip right behind.
They all came walking back about three hours later. “I was beginning to think I had the coolers all to myself,” Lee teased.
“Fat chance,” Chip dropped down into the sand next to the blanket. “Just working up an appetite. I’m beginning to see why you don’t eat much lunch.”
“Told you.” Lee grinned. “Annie gets way too carried away with breakfast.”
“You guys haven’t seen what she put in the hampers.” Tim advised, then all three turned innocent looks on Annie as she harrumphed and started unpacking. Out of the hamper came all the basics – paper plates in wicker holders, plastic utensils, serving spoons, and glasses. Next came no-bake chocolate oatmeal cookies and coconut macaroons, and a large thermos of spiced iced tea. Tim was put to work pouring that while Annie started in on the cooler. Five minutes later the blanket held turkey and avocado croissant sandwiches, spinach salad with chopped hard-boiled eggs and mandarin oranges, crab-stuffed cherry tomatoes, cheese-filled celery sticks, and cherry turnovers. Lee looked at the extravagant spread, muttered something mildly rude, and had to endure Annie’s withering stare and the other men’s snickers. He deflected them all momentarily by asking, “What about Lacey?” The little dog, upon returning from the run, had settled herself next to him, her head on his outstretched leg.
“Not to worry.” Annie grinned, reached back into the cooler, and came out with a large, meaty, soup bone. She also poured out a bowl of water and set it close by.
“Geesh,” Lee complained, pointing to the bone. “Even Lacey’s going to be stuffed. That thing’s bigger than she is.”
“I think he’s gotten the point,” Annie applauded. “She can gnaw on that thing for hours and not cause a problem, and there’s enough food for the rest of us that I don’t have to fix dinner.”
“You’d better not,” Lee growled before smiling and reaching for a sandwich.
Once the food disappeared, more into himself than he originally thought possible, Lee stretched out even further and spent the rest of the afternoon, along with the others, soaking up the sunshine and sounds of the shoreline. No one was in any hurry for the day to end. About 5:30 Annie finally roused, causing the men to stir as well, and they reluctantly returned to the house. By the note they found on the kitchen table Michelle had left just shortly before, once all the guests had left for dinner. Annie jokingly asked if everyone was ready for his dinner and even Chip threatened her with mayhem before crashing on the front porch. The exercise had again exhausted Lee but he was far too satiated with food, sun, and good friends to let it frustrate him. He stretched out on the porch swing, one leg draped over the side to gently rock himself back and forth, enjoying the gathering evening. Apparently all the guests had had full days as well, returning late and declining to stay down and visit.
“You going to sleep down here?” Chip finally asked him, the sky darkening after a glorious sunset.
“Thinking about it,” Lee answered lazily, with a grin. But he laughed as his friend reached out a foot and gave the swing a kick, and reluctantly sat up. “Spoilsport,” he grumbled, although still smiling.
“What time are you supposed to get picked up tomorrow?” Tim asked the blond.
“Not soon enough,” Lee groused, then had to shift his legs quickly to escape another kick delivered, to be sure, halfheartedly. He levered himself up as Chip finally answered Tim’s question.
“The Admiral said he’d give me a few hours lead-time. My guess is he’ll call first thing in the morning, and I’ll need to be in Newport around noon.”
“So you’ll be here for regular breakfast,” Annie chimed in. The men all laughed and Annie clarified her comment. “I just thought perhaps I’d have to get up earlier than usual to fix yours special.”
“Admiral Nelson isn’t usually that inconsiderate of civilians,” Chip answered.
“Only staff,” Lee added quietly, and he and Chip shared knowing looks, remembering all too many times when the OOM’s projects kept everyone scrambling madly to keep up.
“And I need to get a good night’s sleep,” Chip continued, “since it’s probably the last one I’ll get for awhile.”
“Never did ask,” Tim did now. “Nelson get in a temp while Lee’s out?”
“Nope,” Chip answered. “At least for this trip. Easy cruise. I’ll command, and give Lieutenants O’Brien and James some experience with the Exec duties. And actually, it’s easier this way. Every time we get in a temporary CO I spend so much time running interference between him and the Admiral, besides him and the crew, I never get anything else done.”
“Must make you feel good,” Tim teased Lee, “being so indispensable.”
“Yeah, indispensable,” Lee growled not quite under his breath. “So why the blazes am I stuck here?”
“Come on, grumpy,” Chip lightly poked Lee, “you know you’re looking forward to all the rotten little stories Sharkey will have to tell you when you get back.”
Lee was forced to smile at Chip’s uncanny knack for knowing how to defuse his occasional bouts of temper. “Meaning, you know already you’re going to screw up and give him stories to tell me?” he asked innocently, and laughed outright at Chip’s answering snort.
“Bed. Both of you,” Annie ordered. All three men reacted to the tone of voice, albeit laughingly, and headed indoors.
* * * *
Lee had one more moment of disgruntlement, the next morning, as Chip came downstairs dressed in his khakis. Lee had awakened early, showered, and gone down as Chip headed for his turn in the shower. Lee had actually forgotten Chip had packed the uniform until he saw the blond bounce down the stairs. Seeing it sent a wave of frustration through Lee but it passed quickly as Annie gave a wolf whistle, causing the blond to blush. It also created some interesting comments from several of the guests – in particular the three ladies staying in the Lighthouse suite - and Lee enjoyed watching Chip handle the situation. Chip’s prediction of Admiral Nelson’s call proved dead on, as the OOM called just after 8 o’clock. Chief Sharkey would meet Chip at Newport with FS1 at 1130 hours. As the guests left the table and Annie and Tim started cleaning up, Chip and Lee kibitzed over a last cup of coffee about several operational procedures and crew assignments. Lee knew Chip had absolutely no problems running Seaview in his skipper’s absence. It was one of the reasons Lee felt free to continue to accept ONI assignments. Lee, however, studiously avoiding ever mentioning that to his XO. Suicidal, he wasn’t!
He also knew that Chip sometimes got nervous without Lee there as a buffer between him and the Admiral. But when Chip asked once too often about setting up the diving schedules to keep the balance between time in the water and frequency of dives under control, Lee stood up, held his arms out slightly from his body, palms forward, and demanded, “Do I look like I have my decision suit on?” He watched the flow of expressions cross Chip’s face as the blond took in Lee’s jeans and t-shirt clad form. They settled into a grin as he recognized Lee’s ‘subtle’ way of conveying to his friend he had the utmost confidence in him. Lee grinned also, and picked up his cup. “Chill, Chip. You know you always handle everything just fine.”
Chip finally nodded. “Just easier when I don’t have to.”
“Get used to it,” Lee grumbled. “Looks like it’s going to be this way for awhile.” Chip gave him a long look and he finally grinned again, somewhat sheepishly. “While you’re practicing running the boat, I can practice taking a vacation.”
“Dinner at Leonardo’s says I do better at my assignment than you do at yours,” Chip snickered.
“Sucker bet,” Lee complained. “No contest.” But he grinned as Chip chuckled, and they headed for the kitchen.
* * * *
It was harder on Lee than he thought it would be, seeing Chip and Tim take off for Newport two hours later. Lee chose not to accompany them, opting instead to return to his balcony. While not totally wasted from his day at the beach, he decided to take the safer route. (“That’s a first,” Chip had joshed him.) Annie cocked at eye at him as he watched them drive off, then turn and walk through the kitchen toward the stairs. Lee stopped and glared at her. “No lunch,” he ordered.
Annie just grinned. “There’s one cherry turnover left. Do you want milk or iced tea with it?” Lee just closed his eyes, groaned, and headed upstairs.
He’d planned to work on the next report, but found himself searching the horizon for a glimpse of his submarine as she sailed north. He knew it was hopeless. Even if she were for some reason on the surface, she’d be so far out he’d never spot her. But it didn’t keep him from daydreaming that he could.
A poke broke up the tortuous moment, and Lee gave himself a shake. “Thanks, Lacey,” he said quietly to the little dog as he gave her a loving scratch behind both ears. “Wallowing in self pity isn’t really my style.” She wagged her tail happily, and as Lee straightened up and turned back to the computer, went to lie in her chosen corner of the balcony. Lee looked at her thoughtfully for a moment, then headed for the bathroom. With no carpeting on the balcony, unlike the bedroom, he thought she might be uncomfortable. Lee returned with a large bath towel, folded it down to the right size, and moved Lacey long enough to put it down where she always lay. “There,” he said, with another scratch. “That looks much better,” and he finally got back to his budget report.
His concentration was broken a short while later by a loud exclamation. “One of my best towels,” Annie sputtered. Good as her word, in her hands was a plate with the turnover and a glass of milk. But she’d stopped dead when she saw what Lee had done.
He gave her one of his most innocent expressions. “She was uncomfortable.”
Annie said something rude and glared at him. “She’s comfortable on a rock,” she muttered. Slamming the plate on the table nearly hard enough to upset the glass, she turned and stomped back out.
“Somehow, I don’t think I’d better tick her off again for awhile,” Lee told Lacey, and picked up the turnover. He was licking the last of the crumbs off his fingers when Annie returned with a padded dog mat. Apparently the sight of Lee polishing off the abbreviated meal helped defuse her mood because she quietly replaced the towel with the mat, then gave Lee a half smile as she picked up the now empty plate and glass.
“Suppose I should have brought that up earlier since she spends so much time up here.”
“Doesn’t she need it downstairs?”
Annie gave him a sheepish grin. “We bought it for her to use in our bedroom at night. Think she actually slept on it twice before Tim invited her onto the bed.”
“Tim?” Lee asked innocently. Annie just harrumphed and headed back downstairs, followed by Lee’s laughter.
Lee himself went down about 4 o’clock, after emailing the reports he’d finished off to Angie. He looked at the next one on the list, decided he’d had enough for one day, and shut down the computer. Not finding anyone in the front room, he headed for the kitchen and found Annie twisting Oreo cookies apart. Lee gave her a curious look as he poured himself a glass of orange juice.
“Head start on Friday night’s dessert. Friends are coming over.”
“Thanks for the warning. I’ll make myself scarce.”
Annie gave him a disgruntled look. “That’s not what I meant,” she growled, and handed him the rest of the bag of cookies. “Here. What you don’t eat, take apart.” As Lee grinned and complied – after having one of the cookies – she took a butter knife, scraped all the icing off into a bowl, and tossed the cookie halves into a plastic bag. When the cookies were all done she sealed the frosting container and put it in the fridge, then sealed the end of the plastic bag. Taking out a marble rolling pin she gave the bag a few good smacks, breaking up the cookies.
“Tim’s head?” Lee volunteered as he curled up on the breakfast nook bench.
Annie pointed the quasi-weapon at him. “Yours if you don’t watch it,” she threatened, then went on to explain as she set to work rolling on the broken cookies. “Need crumbs. Once they’re the right consistency I’ll add melted butter and press them into a large pie plate for a bottom crust, and keep it in the fridge. Tomorrow I’ll make a chocolate mint mousse for the filling, and leave the pie in the freezer. Friday I’ll mix the frosting with whipped cream, and right before serving I’ll pipe that on, and top the whole thing with pieces of shaved chocolate.” Lee shuddered and she grinned. “Yeah, a little decadent. But it’s not often Paul and Maureen come over.”
“I’m almost afraid to ask what the main course is.”
“Pork loin stuffed with apples, raisins, and walnuts, then rubbed with thyme. Browned well on the outside, then finished cooking in the roaster. Do you like baked potatoes or baby reds best?”
Lee shrugged. “Won’t be here, anyway.”
“Yes, you will,” Annie said adamantly.
Lee backed down with a sheepish grin. “In that case, baby reds,” he answered.
Annie nodded. “Haven’t settled on a veggie and salad yet, either.” She looked at him expectantly but he just grinned at her over his glass. “Something simple, to balance the rest of the meal. Maybe an apple, banana and raisin salad, and Brussels sprouts.”
“Sounds good,” Lee acknowledged. An excited yip from outside announced Tim’s return and he finished his juice, rinsed the glass, and put it in the dishwater, Annie all the while chuckling.
“Bachelors,” she said softly, in reference to an old joke, as Lee headed for the back door. Lee was still grinning as he crossed the yard toward the garage.
* * * *
Lee spent most of Thursday with Tim. After breakfast, his friend caught him looking longingly at his car. Lee knew Annie had the keys. He also knew there was no way he was going to talk her into letting him have them. “Want a ride down to the beach?” Tim asked offhandedly, helping Annie clean up.
“Too much of a bother,” Lee answered. Tim had already mentioned he had to drive into Portland for the day.
“Yeah, right,” Tim muttered. “Grab a jacket and your cell phone. I’ll drop you off, and when you’re ready Annie can pick you up. Assuming,” he added with a grin, “you don’t decide to stay down all day and I’m back by then.” Lee grinned as well. “Or you can go with me. All I have to do is make a quick stop at the insurance office to sign some papers.”
“Wouldn’t it be easier to use an agent in Newport?”
“That’s where he used to be. The head office, in their infinite wisdom, closed the local branch and moved everything to the main one in Portland. It’s actually not that bad. Mostly we handle everything with phone or fax.”
“You’ll take 18 up?” Annie asked, mentioning the highway number.
“Just thought if Lee goes you could come back by way of 30 and 101. At least he’d get to see a little more of the countryside.”
“And because it takes so much longer, you’d have us out of your hair all day,” Tim complained, albeit with a grin. Annie just grinned back. “Sound like a plan to you?” he asked Lee
“Surely you have something else you’d rather do than ferry me around all day.” Lee couldn’t keep the grumble out of his voice.
Tim shook his head. “Boy,” he started with a purposeful look at his friend, “you are beginning to get on my nerves.” He turned to Annie. “We have got to teach this guy how to relax.”
Annie nodded a firm agreement. “He can’t even pack decently for a vacation,” she reminded both men.
Lee just hung his head, then glanced up sheepishly to find both his friends smiling at him. “Okay, okay, I surrender,” and the two men took off.
The day didn’t quite go as planned. For some reason, traffic getting into the city from the coast was heavier than Tim said it normally was. To pass the time Tim gave Lee a brief history lesson, explaining that the city could just as easily have been called Boston. Lee looked at his friend skeptically, but Tim continued in all sincerity. The two founding fathers, Asa Lovejoy and Francis Pettygrove, who had chosen the site for the town in 1844 at the confluence of the Columbia and Willamette rivers, had originally nicknamed it ‘Stumptown’. The Chinook Indians, who used the area as a stop on their trading route, had gradually created a clearing in the forest as they chopped wood for campfires. In 1845, Lovejoy and Pettygrove flipped a coin to see what they would actually call it, since both wanted to name it after their respective hometowns – Boston, Massachusetts, and Portland, Maine. Lee just shook his head.
As they got closer in Tim described how the city, while having a population of over 450,000, vigorously tried to maintain a small-town atmosphere. There were abundant parks throughout the area, including Mount Taber Park, one of the few extinct volcanoes inside a U.S. city. Presenting a progressive face to the world, the town fathers enacted and enforced strict anti-pollution laws, keeping the area as clean and friendly as possible. “But keep it under your hat, will you?” Tim warned. “The last thing we need is half of California moving up here to get away from the smog and overcrowding.”
“Mum’s the word,” Lee answered seriously, before both men started laughing.
By the time they got to the insurance office, the agent Tim needed to see had left for lunch. As neither man was hungry, Tim drove around showing Lee the sights until they could be fairly sure the agent was back. However, at that point, it was too late to make the longer drive out Highway 30, following the Columbia River to Astoria, then down the coast on Highway 101. Returning the way they came, it was still nearly 5 o’clock when they pulled into the driveway. Tim had complained most of the way about how bad the traffic still was.
At one point Lee started laughing and Tim glared at him. “Oh, stop complaining,” Lee chuckled. “This still beats most of California all to hell.”
Tim finally grinned. “Suppose it does,” he acquiesced.
A simple dinner led to a quiet evening. Annie stayed upstairs, doing the prep for the next day’s breakfast and visiting with guests, while Lee followed Tim downstairs for a beer and a baseball game. Walking into the couple’s living room, Lee noticed his car keys lying almost hidden behind a vase in a corner knick-knack hutch. For future reference, he thought to himself, and settled down in an overstuffed recliner to enjoy the game and the company.
Friday morning, after a breakfast of Annie’s stuffed French toast, accompanied by a few jabs about “I thought you only made this when Brad was here,” Lee let Tim drop him off at the beach for what was supposed to be a few hours. Lacey decided she was coming, too. When his cell phone went off about 1:30, Lee told Annie laughingly that he was having far too much fun soaking up the atmosphere and watching the little dog stalk seagulls to want to come back just yet.
Annie laughed as well. “The ultimate optimist,” she chuckled. “And what’s really funny is, she’d get the surprise of her life if she actually caught one. Anyway, if I don’t hear from you in the meantime I’ll send Tim down about 5 o’clock. Paul and Maureen are due about 5:30.”
“Sounds perfect. It’s still fairly quiet down here, even for a Friday.”
“Won’t be once the after work crowd starts showing up.”
Lee agreed and settled back in the warm sand, watching Lacey have another go at a solitary seagull who was bound and determined to check out that particular stretch of beach even if it was being guarded by a furry, four-footed beast twice its size. Eventually even she surrendered to the soporific effects of sun, sand, and softly lapping waves, and snuggled up next to Lee’s side for a nap. Lee didn’t realize he’d fallen asleep until a small yip of welcome, and Lacey using his stomach for a launching pad, announced Tim’s approach.
“I hate it when she does that.” Tim laughed as Lee groaned dramatically then grinned, brushing off the sand she’d kicked on him.
“She definitely has way too much energy,” Lee agreed, rising slowly as Lacey danced happily around the pair.
“How you feeling?” Tim asked somewhat cautiously as they headed for the car. It was actually the first time either he or Annie had asked about Lee’s physical condition directly.
Lee frowned just an instant then gave himself a shake, and his friend a rueful smile. “About the same. Jamie warned me that the progress I was making might level off at some point, before continuing to improve.”
“Plateauing.” Tim nodded. “Natural, to be expected…and damned frustrating,” he added with a snarl. Lee looked at him curiously and he finally gave Lee a wry smile. “Sort of makes you want to kick something – hard!”
Lee grimaced. “I usually end up with a fist into something,” he admitted. They both finally grinned.
“Never helps,” Tim said.
“Not a bit,” Lee agreed.
“Doesn’t keep us from doing it.”
“Not so far.”
“Dumb couple of idiots.”
Lee gave his friend a punch. “Speak for yourself,” he admonished, and they both burst out laughing.
They were still chuckling and gently harassing each other, when they pulled into the drive a few minutes later and found a new car standing next to Lee’s. “Ah,” Tim grinned. “Paul must have gotten away earlier than planned. Terrific.” Instead of going through the house they walked around to the front porch and found Annie just setting out iced tea classes. Lee was introduced to the couple with her, Paul and Maureen Whitman. He and Tim sat down as well, and Lee listened quietly as the obviously old friends got caught up.
But there was something almost disquieting about the new man, and it took Lee a few minutes to realize what it was. While seeming to casually visit, Lee got the feeling he was being carefully scrutinized. He finally put the pieces together when he noticed the man’s watch: inward-facing instead of the normal way. Lee felt an instant flash of anger that Tim and Annie would have invited a doctor here to observe him without telling him, and had to just as instantly get himself under control. These were obviously old friends, and obviously used to being here. It could really be nothing more than a coincidence. But Lee didn’t think so! He downed the last of his drink and stood. “Better go clean up,” he said to no one in particular, and headed into the house.
“Lee, you’re fine,” Annie insisted. “Sit and relax.”
Lee knew he glared at her, no matter how momentary it was, before forcing a smile on his face. “It got pretty warm today…” he half mumbled. Not bothering to finish the sentence he gave her a quick nod, sent an “If you will excuse me” in the general direction of the Whitman’s, and made his escape.
His original thought had been to take a quick shower, get himself back under control, and return downstairs. But with anger guiding him, he climbed the stairs a little more rapidly than he should have. Combined with the walk from the beach, with so little time in between, he barely made it to the balcony before collapsing into the chair. He wasn’t sure how many times his fist had hit the innocent chair’s arm before he noticed, cringed, and forced himself to relax his hand. A sudden headache drove away any lingering thoughts he might have still had about rejoining the dinner party. Instead, he laid his head back against the wall behind him and closed his eyes, not bothering to acknowledge the soft knock on his door a short while later. He did acknowledge the soft poke. Lacey was standing next to his chair, an almost worried expression on her face. There was no misreading the concern on Tim’s face, standing just behind her.
“Sorry,” Lee tried to pass it off. “Got a headache. Didn’t want to spoil your dinner party.” He didn’t bother explaining the headache hadn’t come until he’d gotten upstairs.
Tim’s expression didn’t change but he nodded. “I’ll bring a plate up for you,” and he turned to go. Lee thought about telling him not to bother but decided against it. Things were a little strained between him and his friends already. He didn’t want to cause any more trouble. Headache notwithstanding, he was actually somewhat hungry. And he figured anything he didn’t eat he could pass along to Lacey, who’d taken up her usual position in the corner.
Lee hadn’t moved when Tim returned 10 minutes later with his dinner. The plate was arranged neatly, but full of the foods Annie had mentioned the other day. Lee gave it a dirty look before turning the look on Tim.
“Told Annie we’d save you a piece of the pie. Didn’t figure you’d want it after all this.” Tim’s grin was a bit sheepish.
“Got that right,” Lee growled, but he sent a small smile his friend’s way as Tim turned and left.
Surprising himself, Lee ate everything except the one small bite of meat he gave Lacey, and a few pieces of apple she conned him out of. That was something else he’d discovered while staying at Brad’s – Lacey was an apple freak, practically closing her eyes in bliss as she munched each piece. The meal finished, Lee leaned back against the wall again, letting the food digest and letting himself finally relax as the sky slowly darkened. Eventually he got up, put the empty plate on the chair by the bedroom door, and headed for his belated shower. He was just stepping back into the bedroom from the dressing area, towel vigorously drying his dark curls, when there was a short knock on his door.
“Come,” he called, thinking it was Tim, then had to quickly drop the towel to around his waist when it turned out to be Annie instead. There was a momentary flashback to an incident that had occurred in the Detroit hospital, and Lee almost groaned out loud.
Annie had been looking in the direction of the balcony and hadn’t noticed Lee until his rapid motion with the towel, and just stopped dead and closed her eyes. Neither spoke for a moment, until she said softly, “Didn’t handle that very well, did I?” She didn’t explain whether she meant the dinner guests, or this intrusion.
Lee didn’t, either. “About as well as I did,” he admitted shyly.
A grin appeared on Annie’s face, in the soft light from the bed lamp Lee had turned on earlier. “Then I’ll just take the plate and let you crash.”
“On the chair next to you.” Lee by this time was also grinning, and he was sure Annie heard it in his voice. But she purposely kept her back to him as she picked up the dishes and turned to leave. “Might as well take Lacey with you,” Lee added. She’d taken up residence on his bed while he was in the shower.
“Come on, you little scamp,” Annie motioned, and Lacey reluctantly got down. “And how much of Lee’s dinner did you con out of him?”
“Not so much that she’s probably still hungry.”
“She’s always hungry,” Annie complained. But she sent a quick grin Lee’s way before the two left.
* * * *
Saturday was a mix of guests departing and arriving. Annie had her friend Michelle come, and between them and Tim had all the rooms quickly cleaned and ready for the new batch. Lee had, as usual, gone down for breakfast. No one mentioned the previous evening, for which Lee was thankful. He really hadn’t handled things well at all. He should have been more prepared for the fact that Jamie wouldn’t let him off the hook so easily, and would have made some sort of arrangement for Lee to be evaluated fairly regularly.
After breakfast he returned to his balcony and his reports. He’d purposely left the door slightly ajar, as Lacey spent the day dividing her time between her ‘official’ duties and keeping Lee company. Tim floated in briefly about 1 pm with a grilled cheese sandwich, a bowl of soup, and the promised piece of pie. “I want you to appreciate that, buddy,” he smirked, pointing to the dessert. “It came this close,” and he held his thumb and forefinger very close together, “of not making it to the top of the stairs intact.”
Lee chuckled. “That good, huh?” Tim just put an expression on his face of utter bliss and headed back to work. Lee had to admit he’d not tasted anything quite like it. It literally melted in his mouth. As the house settled down once again about 5:30 he wandered downstairs and made a point of telling Annie how much he’d enjoyed it, as well as the previous night’s dinner.
“Nothing all that complicated,” Annie quipped as she pulled a meatloaf out of the oven and checked the baked potatoes. She grinned at him. “Just looks elegant. That’s the whole secret. Make people think you spent all day in the kitchen when really it’s just a matter of knowing how to put things together.”
“Ah,” he sent a grin back, then hesitated. She looked at him expectantly. Lee wasn’t sure what he wanted to say. He just knew he needed to acknowledge what had happened. “So,” he finally said softly, eyes not totally raised toward her, “how many pages of instructions did Doc send?”
“Only two,” Annie answered seriously, then her grin broadened. “Chip added several more.” She laughed out loud as Lee muttered several rather rude descriptions of his XO - and best friend. “Don’t worry,” she continued. “Most all of both sets revolved around not letting you overtax your limited strength, and making sure you eat. Nothing much else.”
“That’s quite enough!” Lee growled, then gave her a small grin. “Hope I didn’t cause you too many problems last night.”
“Nope,” Tim quipped, coming in from the front room. “Just explained what an antisocial SOB you can be at times.” He laughed out loud at the look Lee sent him.
“Timothy!” Annie yelled, and he ducked and grinned at her. “He did not,” she told Lee.
“You’re right,” Tim agreed, “I think I used the term ‘pig’, not SOB.” By then Lee was laughing almost as hard as he was.
“You’re both hopeless,” Annie growled. “Sit!” she ordered, and started putting supper on the table.
Lee spent most of Sunday as he had Saturday, working on reports. Annie fussed at him when she brought up a light lunch, and Lee sheepishly admitted it was pretty much SOP when he was in port to spend the weekends on paperwork. “It’s when the office is the quietest and I can get the most done,” he said bashfully.
“Hopeless,” Annie muttered as she turned towards the door. “The man is absolutely, positively, hopeless.” Lee was still chuckling half an hour later.
By the middle of Monday afternoon even Lee had had enough of juggling figures for awhile and wandered downstairs. A light mist was falling; not enough to chase the guests back from wherever they were spending the day, but enough so that Lee stayed in the front room instead of going out on the porch. The instant he’d come down Annie had gone up saying it was about time he surfaced, she needed to clean the room and change the bedding. Tim’s SUV was gone, and Lee found himself just puttering around the room. Spotting a Portland phone book he absentmindedly checked the yellow pages, and found what he was looking for under Psychologists. R. Lynn Radiwan, Psy.D., and David M. Bassett, Psy.D. She’d used her first name on her trip down here, Rebecca, and her birth last name, Duval, that she’d changed after the fiasco with her ex-husband. Not exactly knowing why, Lee wrote out the office phone number and address on the note pad Annie kept by the phone and slipped it into his pocket. He wasn’t even sure why he hadn’t told them the other night about the change of names. Just… Oh, he supposed it was to stop Annie from bugging him, and getting Chip involved in the gentle harassment. Or maybe not so gentle, knowing those two, he cringed. But maybe, when he started feeling stronger – If I every get to feeling stronger… He felt himself tense up, and willed himself to relax. Maybe he’d give her a call. She had invited him to dinner if he was ever in the area. And having gone with Tim the other day, Lee now knew getting into Portland was no big deal. Tim’s complaints about the traffic notwithstanding. Lee grinned to himself.
“What are you plotting?” Annie demanded, coming down the stairs with her arms full of bedding - as well as Lee’s dirty clothes bag, he noted – and apparently having seen the grin.
“Not a thing.” Lee gave her an innocent look and walked over to help her carry the load, but she just glared at him. Lee shrugged his shoulders at the dismissal. “Just thinking about something Tim said.”
“That can be hazardous to your sanity,” Annie teased, and headed for the laundry area in the basement.
A yip from Lacey announced Tim’s return, and the rest of the day went much as the one before.
* * * *
Monday’s mist turned into Tuesday’s rain. The three friends chuckled as they cleaned up after breakfast – well, Tim and Annie cleaned up. Lee was relegated to finishing the last lemon poppy seed muffin – over the fact that apparently this batch of guests was a hardy lot. Not one of the bunch had let the rain spoil their day’s plans, from whale watching, to shopping in Newport, to taking a dune buggy ride at the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area about 45 miles south of Newport. Lee could understand. He’d had just about enough of being housebound himself. He was fairly sure, however, that neither Annie nor Tim would let him go down to the beach. Having the strength to walk in what was still a gentle rain would be one thing. But even Lee couldn’t see just sitting around in the wet sand, so figured he’d resign himself to another day of reports.
Fate, however, intervened. Once the kitchen was back in order, Tim headed down to Newport to a dentist appointment – just his regular twice a year cleaning and check-up, he’d explained at an upraised eyebrow from Lee. Then Annie decided to make a batch of cinnamon rolls, discovered she didn’t have enough yeast, and headed out to make a quick grocery run. Knowing he was going to end up paying for it big time, Lee waited until both had left, slipped downstairs for his car keys and a raincoat, and drove down to the Yaquina Head lighthouse. Even with the ramps, he wasn’t going to attempt the walk down to the tidal pools, afraid that he might have too much difficulty coming back up. But bundled in the warm, waterproof windbreaker, he sat down on a bench on the headland overlooking the ocean, enjoying the momentary freedom.
At one point his cell phone went off, and he grinned as he answered it. “Okay, smarty,” Annie’s voice scolded in his ear. “Where are you?”
“Out,” he answered simply, the grin broadening.
There was an indecipherable mutter from the other end. “And when will you be back?”
“When I feel like it,” Lee answered defiantly. He heard Annie slam the phone down and grimaced. But he was feeling far too good to let it spoil his mood. Yes, he’d only driven about five miles. And yes, Annie was going to have his head for it. But God, it felt good to actually do something on his own again!
About two hours was all he could take. The steady dampness was beginning to penetrate the windbreaker and he figured he’d better wander back to the B&B. Two things met him at the back door – the wonderful smell of yeast dough rising, and Annie with her hand outstretched. Lee grinned sheepishly as he dropped the keys into it.
“What do I have to do, wear these things to keep you from grabbing them?”
Lee’s grin changed to one of speculation. “That might make for an interesting time tracking them down.”
“You wouldn’t dare,” Annie threatened but began to blush. Anything Lee would have answered was cut off by Tim’s arrival in the drive. Lee peeled off the windbreaker and gratefully exchanged it for the cup of coffee Annie poured him, then curled up on the bench at the small table, occasionally giving Annie a leering smile. Annie was still slightly flushed, although they were both laughing, when Tim came in. Neither explained as he looked from one to the other. Eventually his eyes spotted the keys on the counter, where Annie had tossed them.
“Take a drive?” he asked Lee carefully.
Lee held up one hand, thumb and forefinger close together. “Felt good,” he added, sipping coffee from the mug in the other hand.
“Know the feeling,” Tim admitted, with a glance at his wife. She just shrugged her shoulders.
“Obviously have to hide the keys better,” she muttered, causing Lee to choke on the mouthful of coffee he was attempting to swallow. She glared at him but still blushed slightly.
“Miss something, did I?” Tim grinned.
“Just never you mind,” Annie shook a finger at her husband. But she couldn’t hold the stern expression and started laughing, Lee joining in. Tim just shook his head and went to change. When he returned, Annie set out a light lunch of fruit and sandwiches, then started on the rolls. Tim disappeared but Lee lingered, watching Annie take portions of the dough, roll it out to about a quarter of an inch thick, and sprinkle on brown sugar, cinnamon and raisins. She then rolled the dough into a long roll and sliced it crosswise into slightly over 1-inch sections. Tim floated back through as Annie placed the sections half an inch apart on a cookie sheet, snatching up the two end pieces and popping one in his mouth as he handed the other to Lee.
“Raw dough?” Lee hesitated.
“Raw yeast dough, with brown sugar, cinnamon and raisins. Heaven,” and he headed out the back door.
With reservations Lee took a nibble, decided it was definitely edible, and polished it off, to Annie’s chuckles. He stayed a while longer as Annie let the first batch rise while she prepared the next one, then put the first tray in the oven. He finally decided to go upstairs, Annie tossing him another small end piece as he maneuvered off the bench. She also caught the glance he gave toward his keys and quickly dropped them into her apron pocket. Both grinned, but nothing was said as he headed toward the stairs.
He did actually give some thought to opening the computer but instead settled into his chair on the balcony as the weather settled in around him, sending a steady rainfall against the windows and socking in the coastline with clouds and fog. He let his mind wander back to another stormy afternoon spent here. No thunder and lightning this time, he mused, and without really knowing how it happened, ended up with his cell phone and the piece of paper from yesterday’s foray into the phonebook in his hands.
“Radiwan and Bassett,” a pleasant female voice answered his ring.
Lee hesitated just a moment, not sure what to say. “I don’t suppose there’s a chance of talking to Dr. Radiwan,” he finally got out. “I mean, she’s probably with a patient.”
“Actually, she’s out of the office this afternoon,” came the reply. “Are you a patient? Would you like to speak to Dr. Bassett? I believe he’s free right at the moment.”
“No, no,” Lee quickly backpedaled. “Just a friend who’s in town for a few days.” So that was quibbling with the truth a bit.
“Would you like to leave a message? A number where you can be reached?”
“No, that’s not necessary. Well…” he hesitated. What was stopping him? “Just tell her Lee called,” and he gave the secretary his cell phone number.
“I’ll give her the message as soon as possible,” he was assured.
“No big deal,” he said quickly. “If she’s busy we can make it another time.”
“I’ll let her know,” and the connection was broken.
It couldn’t have been half an hour later that his phone went off. But he almost didn’t answer it. What is your problem, he mentally kicked himself, and flipped it open. “Crane,” he answered cautiously.
“Hey, sailor,” came the amused response, and Lee relaxed as he recognized Angie’s voice. “That was much too officious an opening for someone relaxing on the beach, enjoying a much deserved vacation.”
“What vacation?” he groused. “I’m so buried in reports I’ll never see the end of them. And I’ll just bet you’re about to tell me you’ve found some more.”
“Well, now that you mention it…” They both laughed, and the Admiral’s secretary (and generally accepted acting head of NIMR when her boss wasn’t around) settled in for a long conversation about reports already completed, and some new proposals that had just come in. Lee enjoyed kibitzing with Angie, sometimes more than with the Admiral. Although he’d never admit that in public. He was surprised to find out, when he finally hung up, that well over an hour had passed. Angie had needed clarification on several things, and between the two of them they actually dealt with most of the new proposals over the phone. There were still several reports that Lee would have to handle, and Angie promised to scan them into the computer and email them up. She just laughed when Lee muttered grudgingly, “Gee, thanks, Angie. Don’t know what I’d do without you.”
“I rather think you’d find something – or someone,” came the chuckled response.
Lee just harrumphed and broke the connection. But he decided he needed to make the short trip up to Depot Bay the next time he got his hands on his car keys and buy Angie a necklace to match the earrings he’d bought her his last trip up here. He also decided to put in a bit of work on the reports he still had since it sounded like he was getting more. He was in a better frame of mind after the call. Concentrating on what had for so many years now been the major focus of his life – Seaview and everything that went with running her – had eased some of the frustrations he hadn’t even been aware of, and made the work much more bearable. When his phone went off again just about 5 o’clock, he figured she’d found something else to send along before she herself left for the day. “Hi, gorgeous,” he said casually, and sat up straight as a different feminine voice chuckled.
“Hi, yourself, handsome,” it said.
Lee swore softly under his breath. “Sorry. Who is this?”
“Obviously not who you were expecting,” came the reply with continued good humor. “It’s Rebecca. You rang?”
Lee let out a breath. “Sorry,” he repeated. “Was talking to Angie earlier. Thought it was her calling back.”
“Oh,” came the suddenly cautious response.
Lee shook his head. “The Admiral’s secretary,” he explained. “Remember? The one I bought the earrings for. We were discussing project proposals.”
“Oh,” came a little more softly. “Working trip. That’s why your phone was tied up earlier. I actually got your message not long after you called, but then couldn’t get through. Figured I’d just wait for awhile.”
“We got a little involved. With the proposals,” he hurriedly added. The response was met with more chuckles and Lee momentarily closed his eyes, shaking his head softly. “Anyway,” he changed the subject, “you promised me dinner the next time I was in the area. Thought I’d call and collect.”
“Terrific. How long are you in town for? Where are you staying?”
Lee hesitated again before answering. “Not actually in Portland,” he finally admitted. “But close enough I could drive it.” I hope, he muttered to himself.
“Bangor?” she asked, mentioning the naval submarine base in Washington State. Lee didn’t answer. “Oh. Classified, I’ll bet. Never mind.”
“Hmm,” was all Lee said. He’d never fool her, once they actually met. But for now…
“What’s your schedule like? When could you get away?”
“Actually, mine’s probably a little more flexible than yours,” Lee admitted. “No office hours.”
“Oh. Okay. Well, then, how about Friday night?”
“Sounds good,” Lee said, and it did. Maybe he could even fool her for the evening into thinking there was nothing wrong.
“If you can stay over, we could maybe spend part of the weekend sightseeing?”
So much for that bright idea, Lee admitted to himself ruefully. “Not sure,” he told her. “Will just have to play it by ear. Where should I meet you?”
“What would you like to eat? Or is food still a nonessential item to you?” she teased. Lee didn’t answer, and he heard her chuckling. “How about Cassidy’s, on SW Washington St.? Northwest food menu. Great atmosphere. Think you could find it?”
“Bet a cabby could,” Lee mildly teased back.
“I’ll make reservations. Seven-ish sound about right?”
“Perfect.” He could drive in early and find a motel, rest most of the day, and take a cab to the restaurant. He might be able to pull this off, yet.
“See you then,” her voice came back lightly, and Lee rang off with a smile on his face as well. Things were definitely looking up.
Lee spent the intervening days quietly, conserving what little strength he had. He wasn’t sure how he was going to handle getting away without totally frying his friends, or damaging their relationship. What he finally settled on was to leave a note saying he was just going to take off for a couple days, he’d call if he needed anything, and to please not worry about him. The B&B was getting a little claustrophobic. He hoped that would suffice. Although, as he wrote the note Friday morning before going down to breakfast, he ended up harassing himself about a submariner having claustrophobia. He’d very carefully not made any further attempts at his car keys, hoping Annie wouldn’t bury them too deep. Of course, that was actually the lesser of his several problems when he thought about the whole deal. How in blazes was he supposed to get out of the Inn with an overnight bag in the first place?
Oh, hell, he finally surrendered. Once breakfast was over, he carried his final cup of coffee into the kitchen where both Tim and Annie were putting things away. “Ah…” he started, then didn’t know what he wanted to say.
“Spit it out, boy,” Tim teased.
“I suppose you two would come totally unhinged if I tried to take off for a couple days.” He held up his hand and hurried on. “Not far, and I’ll keep the cell phone on. Just need to get out of here for a bit.” He took a deep breath and waited for the beheading he knew was coming.
It never came. The couple exchanged glances, and Annie put her hands in her pockets. “You sure you feel up to it?” she asked seriously.
“Won’t know ‘til I try,” Lee answered. “I know where I’m going. I think I have it well planned. Absolutely no jogging,” he added with a small grin.
The pair of brunettes exchanged another glance. “Well…” Tim hesitated. “It’s not like you’re a prisoner here. One request. Would you take Annie’s car instead of yours? It’s an automatic.”
Actually, that was something of a relief. “Works for me.”
“Great!” Tim turned to Annie, his eyes gleaming. “Can you imaging the looks we’ll get, showing up at the Henderson’s tomorrow evening in Lee’s little red number?” All three laughed, Lee a little hesitantly to be sure. But under the circumstances he wasn’t about to argue.
Annie was still in the kitchen when he came back down moments later with the small overnight bag in which he’d packed underwear, t-shirts and his shaving kit for the trip up with Chip. “You sure that’s all you need?” she asked.
Lee could see Tim out the window, backing Annie’s sedan out of the garage. “I’m not leaving indefinitely, Annie,” he groused. “Just need to get away…” He didn’t finish the thought, just headed for the back door.
She let him get almost through before she said offhandedly. “Tell Rebecca “Hi” from us, and remind her she’s welcome back any time.”
Why did I even try? Lee hung his head. It was still down when he got to the car. “How do you live with her,” he muttered at his friend, glancing back toward the house and spotting Annie grinning in the open doorway.
“I don’t know,” Tim shrugged his shoulders. “But we seem to manage just fine.” He gave Lee a wink. “Have fun,” he added, grinning, and shut Lee into the car after throwing the bag in the back seat. Lee just shook his head and drove off.
* * * *
The plan actually went pretty well; at least, the first part of it. Lee had a fairly easy drive into Portland, finding a motel with no problem. The youngish lady at the desk was more than helpful, telling Lee approximately how long it would take him to get to Cassidy’s. With that information, Lee left a wake-up call for 5 o’clock just in case he happened to fall asleep, and a request for a taxi to pick him up at 6:20. The clerk was happy to oblige.
Kicking off his shoes in his ground floor room – checking in so early in the day he’d luckily had his choice – he opened a window the small amount the security bar would allow, then took the time to lay out the dress slacks, shirt, and jacket he was going to wear that evening before stretching out on the bed. Thinking he’d just close his eyes for a bit, he was surprised when he opened them again that almost four hours had gone by. Slightly chagrined, he called the desk to cancel his 5 o’clock call, getting the same perky clerk. She happily re-confirmed the cab, and Lee headed for the shower.
A few minutes after six Lee walked the short distance to the lobby. He was a little concerned not to find ‘his’ clerk on duty. But the middle-aged woman that was there, once he identified himself, smiled and said she’d just made the call to the taxi, told him which company, and why didn’t he have a seat until it came. Lee surprised himself by being way too nervous to settle for long, and ended up staring out the front window until the cab pulled up. Nodding a thank you to the desk clerk he walked out. The cabby knew exactly where the restaurant was; he even gave Lee a very nice revue of the place while they made the drive. They ran into a bit of Friday night traffic, but still pulled up with a good ten minutes to spare.
He had to grin as he paid off the cabby – the car that pulled up right behind was Rebecca’s Subaru wagon. Lynn, Lee reminded himself. Call her Lynn, and he waited while the valet took her car. He wasn’t even sure how he should react when she walked up, but she settled that in a hurry by giving him a huge hug and a quick kiss on the cheek. He returned the hug easily, then looked at her curiously as she backed off and held him at arm’s length.
“I know what you’re having tonight,” she said sternly, but still smiling.
“Whatever on the menu has the most calories,” she answered, chuckling as Lee just hung his head. As Lee glanced at her practically through his eyelashes she laughed outright, put her arm through his, and they entered the restaurant.
Lee definitely approved of her choice of restaurants. Located in a historic building in the heart of downtown Portland it had a classic, yet comfortable, atmosphere. They were quickly seated in a quiet corner and Rebecca – No, dummy. Lynn – pointed out some of the paintings scattered around the area. “Cassidy’s likes to support the local artists so they have free showings. You never know what you’re going to find when you come in.”
“Sounds like you come here often.”
“It’s not far from my office. David and I have been known to hit the bar for drinks and a quick meal after work.”
“His wife doesn’t object?” Lee asked carefully.
She gave him a speculative look. “Fishing, Commander?” she said with a grin.
Thankful that his dark complexion hid a great deal, Lee was still acutely aware he’d been nailed. “Just curious,” he was able to mumble.
Her grin broadened. “One of the things we settled on very quickly when we went into partnership – don’t mix business with pleasure. I think I told you before, how supportive David is.” Lee nodded. “He’s big brother, father confessor, and all-around nice guy. But he also enjoys having a good time, if you know what I mean.”
“Plays the field a bit?”
“Discreetly, to be sure. Has, oh, half a dozen ladies he sees off and on. I dare say at least a couple of them would like to settle him down.” She laughed. “Don’t think he’s ready for that just yet.”
“What about you?” Lee asked, again cautiously. “Still gun-shy? Did the Ex ever show up again?”
Her answer was interrupted by the waiter wanting to know if they’d like cocktails. Lee raised an eyebrow, but getting no response said they’d order wine once they’d settled on what they were having for dinner, and both stuck their noses belatedly in the menus.
“Ah…” Lee started. It still felt wrong to call her Lynn. “None of my business,” he said softly, eyes down but not really reading. He heard her chuckle softly.
“Relax, Lee. And no, the Ex is still a no-show, thankfully. As to the first part, I get out off and on. But I’m much more the homebody. Think I had quite enough partying in the early days. And if you choose to call it gun-shy, well, that’s probably as good a description as anything.”
Lee looked at her over the top of his menu and saw the smile she was directing at him. “Occupational hazard,” he apologized softly. “Always have to know what’s going on around me.”
“Hey, not a problem. As long as I get reciprocal information.”
“Nothing new,” he admitted. “Too much work, too little free time.”
“B-o-r-i-n-g,” she drawled, and they both laughed. Lee opened his mouth, nothing came out, and she looked at him curiously. “What?”
“Sorry. I just…well, it doesn’t seem comfortable calling you Lynn.”
She laughed, loud enough that Lee glanced nervously at a couple of the closer tables. “Hey, chill. No big deal. Actually, I kind of enjoyed hearing the sound of my own name again. So Rebecca will be just fine. Or Becca, if you prefer. That’s usually what I went by.” Lee nodded his thanks. “Speaking of last time, have you talked to the Hughes lately?”
“Just this morning, actually,” Lee said carefully. “Annie said to remind you, you’re always welcome.”
Becca’s eyes were obviously seeing something other than Lee as she answered. “That trip had its moments.” She gave herself a small shake and looked at Lee. “But some of the best parts were staying there. How are they doing? Business good?”
Lee laughed. “Almost too good. The place is booked solid, and looks to stay that way for awhile. But they love it. “Oh,” and he looked at her, “guess you don’t know about the official greeter they acquired.”
Becca looked at him curiously, but before she could put voice to her question the waiter arrived to take their order. She settled fairly quickly on the Baked Pacific Red Snapper stuffed with mushrooms, spinach, onion, and jack cheese, served over fresh linguini with balsamic braised red onion and shallots. Lee had a much harder time but finally chose the Northwest Seafood and fresh Linguini that included sautéed smoked salmon, Oregon bay shrimp and blue mussels, with spinach, air-dried tomatoes and asparagus in a citrus cream sauce. Becca approved. “Lots and lots of calories in cream sauces,” she teased. Giving her a dirty look, Lee also ordered a chardonnay from a local winery, Eyrie. As they waited for their dinner salads, Lee explained about Lacey.
“She sounds delightful,” Becca said as Lee finished and the salads arrived. “It would be fun to go down there again. But sounds like I’ll need to book way in advance.”
Lee nodded. “From the sound of things,” he agreed noncommittally, and concentrated on his salad.
They were quiet for a bit, as each worked on the tender greens. About halfway through, Lee caught her watching him speculatively. “You’re off-duty, Doctor,” he said casually, and Becca had the good graces to blush.
“Sorry. I’m an observer of people. What can I say?”
“Didn’t mean to sound so disapproving,” Lee apologized. “Just…” and he didn’t finish.
“What?” Becca asked softly.
Lee took a deep breath and laid down his fork. He knew he’d never make it through the main course if he finished off the salad. “Sorry,” he apologized again. “A few too many people lately who think they know my business better than I do.” He hadn’t meant it to come out that harshly. He hadn’t even realized how much it was bothering him. He looked up a little shamefaced and tried to smile.
He waved her off. “Long story,” he muttered.
“Classified?” she asked with a small smile.
“Very,” he answered adamantly.
“Hey, how about the weather we’ve been having,” she said lightly, with a grin. Lee grinned back, and they spent the rest of the meal in enjoyable small talk. Becca harassed him again over the dessert menu. Lee was totally stuffed, but got talked into sharing a piece of Loganberry pie with her. “Warmed, with ice cream on top,” she told the waiter, who smiled as he walked away. All Lee said was “Geesh!”
He had a good bit more to say when Becca tried to pay the bill, insisting that she’d in essence invited him. Lee finally settled it by firmly handing her back her credit card and placing his in the leather folder the waiter left on the table, a glare at Becca defying her to argue further. With a laugh she surrendered.
There was another minor argument as they started to walk out. Lee had had the cab driver give him the company’s phone number so that he could call when he was ready to leave. But when he pulled out his phone, explaining to Becca, she insisted she could drop him off. “That way I’ll know where to pick you up tomorrow,” she grinned at him. “You can’t leave without the grand tour – such as it is.” Lee realized he must have made a face when she laughed. “Still not much of a tourist, are you?” Lee didn’t answer for a bit. He could think of nothing he’d like better than to spend the day with Becca. But while he’d apparently gotten away with tonight, he knew he’d never make it through an entire day without at some point crashing badly. “Sorry,” she obviously misread the expression on his face. “You said you might not be able to stay.”
“It’s not that,” Lee said hurriedly, then stopped as the valet arrived with Becca’s car. “Offer of a ride still stand, or have I ticked you off too badly?”
“Hop in, Commander,” she grinned. He paid the valet, much to Becca’s annoyance, and settled into the passenger seat, giving her the name and address of the motel. As she pulled away from the restaurant, concentrating on watching traffic, he laid his head back against the headrest. Maybe, just maybe… If I’m very careful… he considered. And what’s the worst that can happen? Her bringing me back so I can take a nap! He didn’t realize he’d made two tight fists until Becca said softly, “Whatever you do, just don’t throw my purse out the window.”
“What?” His head bounced forward off the headrest and he looked at her.
“It’s about the only thing loose you could get your hands on,” she said carefully, and Lee finally took a deep breath.
“Sorry,” came out, then he looked at her, embarrassed at her gentle reminder of his penchant for throwing things when he got angry. “I seem to be saying that a lot. And your purse is safe. Lately it’s been pretty much limited to throwing my fist into chair arms.”
She gave him a quick smile. “We all have our moments,” she offered. “Any way I can help?”
“You already have. Tonight’s been great. And tomorrow would be fun. Just…”
“Something nice and relaxing, if you don’t mind.” He figured if he could gently direct the activity, he might still pull it off.
“Life been a little hectic lately?” she asked gently.
“Different, anyway,” Lee fudged.
“How about a nice drive up to the lodge on Mt. Hood for lunch, then back to my place for dinner?”
Lee looked at her sternly. “Is that all you ever think about – food?”
She laughed. “Not usually. But you do seem to have that effect on me for some reason.” Lee just harrumphed and laid his head back on the headrest. But he couldn’t keep a grin off his face. When he glanced over, he realized she’d seen it as well.
“Sounds like a plan,” he admitted, and quietly heaved a sigh of relief. How strenuous could that be?
* * * *
The good mood Lee awoke with deteriorated rapidly halfway through his preparations for Becca’s arrival. He’d called the desk to let them know he’d be staying another night, then checked in with Tim and Annie, knowing they’d be worried if he didn’t.
“Spindrift Inn,” Annie’s pleasant voice answered his call.
“Just checking in, gorgeous,” Lee said, grinning.
“Have you had breakfast?” came the instant question.
Lee was expecting it. “I wasn’t aware you delivered,” he quipped back. “Besides, it would be cold by the time you got here.”
“Oh, I think I could handle that,” Annie snapped right back. “Cinnamon roll, orange juice, prosciutto and melon…” Lee just shook his head as they both ended up chuckling. “Lee,” Annie finally continued, “were you expecting a call? You didn’t say anything before you left.”
“There aren’t that many people who would know to call there,” Lee got serious. “And most of them would have called my cell phone. Why?”
“Probably nothing. Just, a man called yesterday, asked to speak to you. I told him you were gone for a couple days and did he want to leave his name and a message. He sounded a little ticked but just said it wasn’t important and he’d check back.”
“Bet it was Chip,” Lee growled.
“Why would he call like that?” Annie was puzzled.
“Checking up on me,” Lee spit out.
“Down, dear,” Annie said calmly. Lee shook his head and relaxed. “Come to think of it,” she continued, “it did sort of sound like him.”
“Hmm, think it’s time to flatten an XO.”
“Down, dear,” Annie repeated, humor in her voice, and Lee laughed, his good humor starting to return. “What would you like me to do if he calls back?”
“Just play along. You might let Tim talk to him if possible. He would recognize Chip’s voice a little easier than you might.”
“Good idea. We’ll take care of it. Have a good day planned?”
“Yes, mother, actually I do,” he answered sternly. Annie laughed, and he did, too. “Give Lacey a hug for me. I should be back tomorrow afternoon sometime.”
“Whenever. I promise not to rent your room.”
“Appreciate that.” They both laughed, and Lee rang off.
The rest of the day went a good deal smoother. Becca picked him up just after 9:30 and they made a leisurely drive through the mostly agricultural Willamette Valley into the mountainous terrain, eventually finding snow. Lee looked at Becca, puzzled. He was grateful she drove a 4-wheel drive vehicle.
“They ski year ‘round on Hood,” she explained. “But don’t get any ideas,”
“Absolutely no snowball fights. Period. No way!”
“Spoilsport,” Lee grumbled, then grinned.
At the 6000 ft. elevation they arrived at Timberline Lodge. While waiting for a table in the dining room they strolled through the National Historic Landmark, opened originally in 1937. Lee was especially fascinated by some of the murals and wood-relief panels. Near the ground floor entrance was a gorgeous floor compass and nearby, a panel depicting a fountain surrounded by native animals: bear, deer, and skunk among them. They ran across a wonderful glass mural of Paul Bunyan with Babe the Blue Ox, of folklore fame. In the main lounge doorway was an Inlay wood mural of two mountain lions, and over the fireplace and bread-warming oven in the Cascade Dining Room was a wood relief carving of forest, beaver with beaver dam, deer, and bear. Lee had walked casually through the lodge, Becca’s arm in his, glad there were few stairs to climb into the fieldstone and timber lodge. So far, everything was going just fine.
After lunching on the Lodge’s famous burgers and pepper fries, they continued their drive around the mountain into the Hood River Valley, and eventually into the community of Hood River, on the Columbia River. Becca told Lee that it was designated “The Windsurfing Capitol of the USA”, and Lee could well understand why. There was a fair breeze blowing, as Becca said there usually was in the Gorge, explaining that’s that what this section of the Columbia River was called. And in that one fairly wide stretch of river there must have been 400 windsurfers enjoying the day, on boards that looked something like a surfboard with a sail attached.
“Have to remember to tell Riley about this,” Lee muttered half to himself as they stood in an observation area, totally fascinated.
“Who’s that?” Becca asked.
“One of the crew. Keeps a surfboard on the sub.” Becca looked at him like he’d lost his mind, and he laughed. “He’s young, and does lend an air of comic relief now and then. But he’s a great sonar operator, and all around good hand. And since we’re not strictly a Navy vessel, a little leeway is allowed.”
“Leeway, as in the Captain says its okay?” Becca teased at his choice of words. Lee just closed his eyes, shaking his head softly as she chuckled.
Back in the car Becca left Hwy 84, the main freeway through the Gorge, and followed what she called the ‘Old Scenic Highway’ to Multnomah Falls. At 620 feet it was Oregon’s tallest and most famous waterfall. Lee knew he was pushing himself, but nonetheless enjoyed the ten-minute walk up to Benson Bridge between the lower and upper falls. He took it slowly, pretending to enjoy the sights and smells. And in fact, there was a lot to enjoy.
Back on the old highway they passed other falls: Horsetail, Wahkeena and Latourell among them. Lee laughed at some of the place names. “A lot have Native American origins,” Becca explained. She asked if he wanted to stop at any and he said only if she wanted to. He was just enjoying the scenery.
To that end they did stop at Chanticleer Point, almost back to Portland. At 700 feet it presented impressive views overlooking the Columbia River, the Oregon side of the Gorge, and across the river to Washington State. Lee was duly impressed.
But returning to the car he was also pretty much at the limit of his strength. He knew Becca realized something was wrong when she asked quietly, “You boys been playing rough on board Seaview again?”
“Not on board,” Lee admitted wearily. “As much as I hate it, think I’d better have you drop me back at the motel.”
“You still have to eat,” Becca insisted.
Lee’s instant frown turned into a sheepish grin. “I’ll get something from room service.”
“Nonsense,” she insisted. “We’ll zip back to my place. I’ve just got a light dinner planned anyway. You can crash while I fix it and I’ll run you back later.”
Crash being the operative word, Lee mumbled to himself. At Becca’s upraised eyebrows he opened his mouth to argue, took a deep breath, and surrendered, hoping he could manage a couple more hours. How hard could it be?
Too hard, it turned out. He’d barely sat down to Becca’s idea of a simple dinner, a chicken and noodle casserole she’d quickly popped together, green salad, and French bread, when he was hit with a strong migraine. He was trying to apologize and suggest he just return to his chair in the living room until she could drive him back to the motel – or better still, he insisted, just call him a cab – when he realized he wasn’t even sure if he could stand up. Between the pain of the headache and his already overtaxed muscles, his body was on the verge of shutting down. He tried once again to apologize just before fireworks went off in his line of vision and everything went black.
* * * *
With no reference points, Lee awoke totally disoriented. He looked around through very light sensitive eyes at a fairly plain room holding shelves with a few books, a utility dresser with a small mirror over it, and the single bed he was laying in. The blind was pulled down over the one window in the room but Lee could tell it was light outside. It wasn’t until he sat up that he discovered that the only thing he was wearing was his skivvies.
“How you feeling,” came from the partially open door, and Lee found Becca watching him intently.
“Better than last night.” He hesitated and looked at her intently. “I assume it was last night.”
She smiled as she walked up to him. “Assumption correct,” and she handed him a glass of something pale gold. “Apple juice,” she said as he hesitated taking it.
“Rather have coffee,” he grumbled.
“No caffeine. At least for the next 12 hours or so. Not after a migraine.” Accepting it he looked down, then sharply at her. She just grinned. “No, I’m not Superwoman. In case you forgot, my dining room chairs are on casters. It was a fairly easy matter to wheel you in here and put you to bed.”
“Don’t remember a thing,” Lee admitted irritably.
“You probably also don’t remember the pills I woke you up long enough to swallow.” Lee just shook his head and polished off the juice. “Been nailed with a migraine or two myself. Know the symptoms.”
Lee handed the glass back to her. “Where are my clothes?” He tried to keep his voice from sounding harsh. Considering her grin, he wasn’t sure how it had come out. She took a step to one side and he saw them lying over the back of a chair. “Oh. Now, a bathroom and a little privacy?” He scowled at her low chuckle.
“Straight across the hall, and I’ll be in the kitchen fixing breakfast.” She left the room still smiling.
“Feeling better?” she asked seriously as he joined her a short time later.
“Better than the last time I was conscious,” Lee answered just as seriously.
“You shouldn’t have let me push you so much.” He stopped dead in the act of pouring out more juice from the pitcher on the counter and glared at her. “Sorry. You scared me last night. Your cell phone has a redial button and I was hoping whoever you called last would know what was going on. I was really surprised when it turned out to be Annie.”
Lee took a slow deep breath, finished pouring the juice, and sat down on the stool at the breakfast bar. “It was dumb to try and keep it from you. I just…oh, didn’t want to bother you, I guess.” All this was said with his head down.
“You dope,” she barked. Lee’s head snapped up and he glared at her. But he couldn’t hold it in the face of the one she sent him. “Can you imagine what could have occurred if you’d crashed anywhere but here? If I’d actually done what you asked and called a cab? Not that you’d have made it out the front door. I had no idea what was happening…” As she continued the tirade Lee had to hide a grin. Becca was doing exactly what Chip or Jamie would have done. And for exactly the same reason. They cared about him, and something he’d done had worried them into a loud recitation of his shortcomings. “What the hell are you grinning about?” broke through his musings, and his smile increased. Becca’s face got even angrier, but Lee cut her off before she could let loose another volley.
“Just realizing how familiar you were sounding. Although my CMO and, especially, my XO are a little better at attacking my character. Of course,” he added sheepishly, “they’ve had a lot more practice.”
Becca took a deep breath, and finally let a small smile appear. “As I recall, you do seem to have a problem with doctors and illness.”
“Something like that,” Lee admitted.
Becca dumped the mushrooms, red and yellow bell peppers, cauliflower and broccoli florets she’d been chopping when Lee came in into a non-stick pan on the stove. “Veggie omelet sound okay? Sorry, no cheese or onions this close to a migraine. Same goes for bacon or sausage.”
“I’ll manage,” Lee assured her with a small grin.
Another thought hit Lee as he was almost finished with the excellent omelet. “How big a panic did you leave Annie in?” He was anticipating being grounded for the foreseeable future, and his disgust must have come through in his voice because Becca chuckled.
“Don’t think she’s too pleased with you right now,” she commented lightly.
“Swell,” Lee grumbled.
“But we left it ‘til this morning to decide what to do.”
“I’m fine,” he said firmly, then looked at Becca cautiously. “At least, okay to drive back down.”
Becca nodded. “I’d have to agree. Always a good sign when the appetite returns.” She grinned as that remark coincided with Lee putting the last of the omelet into his mouth. Lee nearly choked on it, and sent her a scowl that she just laughed at. “Actually, though, I had something else in mind… well, in addition to, really.” Lee sent her a distrusting look over the top of his juice glass. “I rather enjoyed yesterday. At least, up until you passed out.” Lee lowered his eyes and she continued with a smile in her voice. “How about you drive back this afternoon as planned. I have a couple patients I have to see tomorrow. But it wouldn’t create any problems to take the rest of the week off. I could drive down Tuesday morning, pick you up, and we could meander up Hwy. 101 into Washington State all the way around the peninsula; visit Hoh Rainforest, Hurricane Ridge, whatever. Maybe spend a few days in Seattle.” Her grin broadened. “We could spend hours munching our way through the Pike Place Market. Then have dinner in the Space Needle.”
Despite a shy grin of agreement, Lee still muttered, “I don’t need a nursemaid.”
“Actually, Annie suggested a keeper with a baseball bat.” Becca laughed at the look he sent her then got serious. “But I wasn’t planning on being either. Just thought it would be fun to get away from real life for a few days and play a little.”
Lee’s scowl turned sheepish. “Actually, it sounds great,” he conceded. “You can get away that easily?”
“David will have to handle a couple things for me, but yes. He’s been bugging me about taking some time off. Apparently I’ve been a bit testy lately.”
Lee raised an eyebrow. “You? Not a chance.”
“Finish your juice,” she growled, before they both burst out laughing.
He was comfortable enough to answer a few carefully worded questions from Becca on the ride back to the motel. He assured her that according to everything he knew, he’d not injured his recovery at all the day before, just maybe not helped it much. He refused to say what had caused the problem, just said that the doctors told him he would eventually be back to normal; he just needed to be patient. “Not one of my strong suits,” he admitted.
“I never would have noticed,” Becca commented lightly, and they both grinned. She would have preferred letting Lee relax at her place until early afternoon but he pointed out that by leaving as soon as she’d finished cleaning up the breakfast dishes he could check out of the motel in time to avoid paying for another night. But she insisted on hanging around long enough to help him pack his small bag and see him safely off. He was able to placate her somewhat by reminding her that since it was Sunday, the majority of the traffic would be heading back to the city from the coast, not vice versa, so making the two hour drive should be no problem. He also got in one needle before taking off, saying he’d not bother calling to let her know he got back to the B&B safely since he was sure Annie already had that planned. Becca admitted she’d been requested to let the Hughes know what time he left Portland. Lee just shook his head, decided he had it coming, and returned Becca’s hug warmly, followed by a “See you Tuesday.”
Lacey’s was the warmest welcome he got upon his return to the Inn, although the cold stares both Hughes gave him warmed fairly rapidly. He helped it along by acting properly chastised. Relaxing in the front room awaiting dinner, after spending an hour upstairs cleaning up and checking his email, he asked Tim how he’d enjoyed driving Lee’s car. Tim didn’t say a word, just let a huge grin be his answer. Lee also remembered to ask, over a dinner of fried chicken and mashed potatoes, if there had been any more phone calls. Annie just shook her head.
“Had a couple emails from Chip,” Lee said, both hands holding the piece of breast meat he was in the process of devouring. “Both about boat stuff. Came in yesterday.”
“He can’t manage without you around?” Tim teased, chicken leg in one hand, fork full of cold slaw in the other.
Lee laughed. “He just lets the Admiral buffalo him once in awhile. Under normal circumstances he handles everything just fine. Even under definitely not normal ones. He just likes to be reminded of that occasionally.”
“Or likes to remind you you’re not expendable?” Annie asked innocently.
“That, too,” Lee answered.
“Good XO,” Tim added.
“The best,” Lee agreed. “Doesn’t mean I’m not going to flatten him for that call.” He paused, thoughtful for a second. “He obviously doesn’t have enough faith in you two,” he added with a smirk, and quickly stuffed his mouth with chicken.
“With some justification,” Annie grumbled, with a glare at Lee.
“Chip should know by now, some people are just totally hopeless,” Tim interjected. Lee refused to be goaded, and just grinned back.
He spent most of Monday working on two of the more important reports Angie had sent him, then emailed them off with a short note that she needn’t expect anything for the remainder of the week, he was going to be otherwise occupied. He got back an equally short note saying good, she was beginning to think he was a lost cause, not being able to relax even when he was on vacation. He was about to write back, reminding her that the Admiral had given him the work in the first place to keep him occupied, thought better of it, and surrendered. He knew perfectly well that he’d lose any verbal battle he got into with her. That’s part of what made her perfect as the Admiral’s secretary.
He was totally involved in a discussion with one of the guests Tuesday morning about coral reef habitats when Lacey bounced up from her usual spot between the dining area and front room and went charging out her dog door and around the house. No one paid her much attention because of her habit of trying to herd birds – she apparently assumed it was another one of her ‘official’ duties. Annie was in the kitchen at the time, and everyone looked up when she re-entered the dining area with a newcomer – Becca. Lee glanced at his watch and discovered it was barely 8 am.
“Yeah, yeah,” Becca caught the motion. “Just got to thinking about Annie’s breakfasts and didn’t want to be late.” That got the expected chuckles, and she settled down next to Lee and concentrated on the morning’s offerings: Farmer’s Hashbrowns loaded with sausage, onions, and green peppers, and scrambled eggs, as well as the always available fruit, juices, and muffin selections. She got a moment of revenge when Lee admitted he’d finished packing before coming downstairs.
“What are your plans for today?” Annie asked Becca innocently. “Do you know where you’re spending the night?” She received a piercing glare from Lee at this line of questions, inferring their need to keep track of him. Becca just shrugged.
“I thought from here we’d take the Three Capes Loop into Pacific City, stop wherever we feel like, and come out at Tillamook. Lee’s seen most of it, of course, when we went up to your friends’ place at Netarts.”
“But we didn’t stop along the way,” Tim entered the conversation. “You guys can play as much as you want.” Lee’s glare transferred directions. Everyone else just ignored him.
“Sort of what I thought,” Becca continued. “We shouldn’t have any major problems finding someplace to stay, wherever we find ourselves toward late afternoon. Sort of thought we’d just play the whole trip by ear.”
“Ah, to be young and adventurous once again,” Tim sighed, forgetting he was within range of Lee’s left foot. Lee immediately reminded him.
* * * *
The two took off shortly after 9:30. Tim had slipped upstairs for Lee’s bag while Lee and Becca were explaining to Lacey that she couldn’t go along. Lee didn’t mind. While quite looking forward to the next few days, he was secretly hoping his infirmities didn’t spoil the trip for Becca. Any chance to avoid an expenditure of energy, like the extra trip up the stairs, was appreciated.
Lee didn’t remember much of the trip with his friends up to go crabbing in Netarts – he and Tim had kibitzed most of the trip. This time both he and Becca enjoyed the sights. For the most part they didn’t get out of the car, but made stops at observation points. The first was just north of Pacific City to see one of two monoliths named Haystack Rock along the Oregon Coast. This one, at 327 feet high, was the larger of the two, and located at Cape Kiwanda County Park. They enjoyed watching some of the area’s famous dory fleet launch and others return, then again headed north.
Their next stop was Anderson’s Lookout at the south end of Cape Lookout State Park. From there they could look up the gorgeous coastline, past Netarts Bay and the spit that formed it, all the way to the Cape Meares Lighthouse. They got out again when they reached the lighthouse to check the view south, deciding it was magnificent no matter which direction you looked, and to make the short walk to the ‘Octopus Tree’. Lee had found it on the travel maps Becca had and insisted he had to see it, after all his various and sundry encounters with the animal it was named after. It was actually a giant Sitka spruce with no central truck, just an abundance of low-lying branches 3-5 feet in diameter. From the plaque just inside the fence that protected it they learned that, according to legend, the tree was created to hold the canoes of the local Indians’ deceased chiefs, thus turning it into a sacred burial tree.
They didn’t stop again until reaching 101 again at Tillamook. Both decided they could bypass the Tillamook Air Museum, although they did enjoy the view of what it was housed in – a World War II U.S. Navy wooden blimp hanger. It was actually the largest wooden building in the world at 1072 feet long, 296 feet wide, and 192 feet high, according to the travel notes. Becca made Lee laugh when she related that the last time she’d been there, someone had hung a basketball hoop near the ceiling at one end. They did stop at the Tillamook Cheese factory for the short tour and a light lunch, followed by a dish of one of the factory’s multitude of in-house-made ice cream flavors.
From there they headed north on 101, enjoying the vistas at several of the many viewpoints built into the highway to take advantage of the wonderful scenery, but not stopping again until reaching the town of Cannon Beach. It wasn’t particularly late but they weren’t in any particular hurry, either, and decided to start looking for a motel here just in case, since this whole area was one gigantic tourist destination.
They ended up being fortunate, and found rooms at the first place they stopped that didn’t already have a No Vacancy sign. As it was still early, and Lee was feeling fairly well (he had to assure Becca), they made the short walk to one of the many beach accesses. They spent several minutes enjoying the view of the long, sandy beach that fell away from the rocky shores of Tillamook Head to the north, and out to the other monolith named Haystack Rock, this one only 235 feet tall and surrounded by other sea stacks and minor monoliths. They both decided that for whatever reason, they liked the solitude of the more southerly one better. Returning for the car, they drove the three-mile stretch of town proper, enjoying the view of all the art galleries and specialty shops mingled in with the mini-malls and restaurants. Settling on a smaller café instead, they enjoyed a relaxing, homey dinner, and returned to their rooms.
Lee had to endure a bit of gentle harassment the next morning when he told Becca he wasn’t really hungry. What he didn’t tell her was that he hadn’t slept well, and woke up to a bit of a headache. Becca finally admitted she wasn’t all that hungry either and they decided to take off. It was about ten miles to Gearhart, slightly less to Seaside, and they agreed to find a place along there and get something light to tide them over. Becca said the traffic, fairly heavy but not unbearable on the two-lane 101, would get tricky once they reached Astoria, and she didn’t particularly want to make any stops there until they’d crossed over to the Washington side of the Columbia River. Lee had already checked the travel books, and while there were several places that looked interesting, there were none that demanded to be stopped and checked out.
The closer they got to Astoria, the more Lee appreciated the fact that Becca was driving. The highway widened but the traffic thickened, reaching its peak close to the mouth of the Columbia River. As used as he was to California traffic, it still made him slightly nervous to travel what he considered to be a not very well thought out road pattern.
At one point Becca said softly, “I hope you’re not afraid of heights.”
Why?” he asked, turning her way, and she nodded ahead. Before them was the impressive, and rather imposing, sight of the Astoria-Megler Bridge. While deftly weaving through traffic to make the entrance, she explained that at slightly over four miles, it was Oregon’s longest bridge. It was also very high. A quick check of the books pegged it at just under 200 feet above the river, with a midspan length of 1232 feet, allowing even the largest Naval vessels access to the river’s harbors. Lee was properly impressed.
He could also, once they disengaged themselves from the main force of Hwy 101 traffic and headed for Long Beach Peninsula, give Becca a bit of a history lesson without benefit of the travel book. At the southern end of the 28 miles of hard sand that made up the spit was Cape Disappointment, one of the most treacherous river bars in the world. It had not come by its nickname, ‘Graveyard of the Pacific’, by accident.
“Rather sounds like it’s ‘accidents’ that did cause it,” Becca teased. Lee just grunted and continued. It was precisely because of the hazardous conditions that the Coast Guard had established its only heavy-weather Motor Lifeboat School at the Cape Disappointment Coast Guard Station and Lighthouse. “You’re familiar with this area?” Becca was curious.
“The Cape is famous, or rather infamous, in naval circles. And we’ve had crewmembers that have taken training here. You don’t want to hear some of the horror stories.”
“You’re right, I don’t. I like my oceans nice and calm, thank you.”
“What, no shipwrecks, giant octopus or rogue waves?”
“No, thank you,” Becca said adamantly.
“You’re no fun,” Lee teased back.
They ended up going past the Coast Guard station as they drove through Ilwaco. After a leisurely trip to the end of the spit at Nahcotta, with its history as a major oyster harvesting center dating back to the mid-19th century attested to by the mounds of shells that still lined the bay front, they returned to the town of Long Beach for lunch.
“You okay?” Becca asked carefully as Lee sat picking at the shrimp Louie in front of him.
“Yes,” he announced firmly, giving her a severe look. She remained passive and his frown softened. “Little headache, that’s all. I get them sometimes. No big deal. Definitely not like the other night.”
She just nodded and returned her attention to her own meal. But Lee had a feeling it led to her suggestion that they look for a place to spend the night there and enjoy the relatively quiet community. There was a lovely wide elevated boardwalk that extended nearly half a mile along the beachfront, with places along it to sit and enjoy the view or watch the kiters play on the beach. She said there wasn’t much to do between here and Ocean Shores, where they’d probably spend Thursday night.
“At this rate it will take forever to get all the way around the Peninsula,” Lee complained.
Becca raised her eyebrows. “You have a problem with that?”
Lee lowered his head slightly. “Actually, no,” he admitted. “Just didn’t want you…ah, well, don’t know how much time you can take off.”
She smiled at him. “One of the jollies of working for myself, and having a great partner I can count on. Don’t worry. I’ve had to cover for quite a few of his little jaunts. He owes me.” Lee dropped his eyes all the way to his plate and continued to pick at the salad disinterestedly.
Lee’s cell phone went off about an hour later, just as they were setting off from the motel they’d found to spend some time on the boardwalk. “Crane,” Lee answered, less than thrilled with the intrusion.
“Trip going that badly,” Tim’s voice taunted him. “Boy, you have got some serious problems.”
Lee couldn’t help but chuckle. “Trip’s just fine, smarty.” He mouthed Tim’s name to a puzzled Becca before continuing. “Just caught me by surprise is all.”
“Oops. What did I interrupt? Or is it repeatable over the phone?”
Lee muttered something that definitely wasn’t, and Tim burst out laughing. “Just starting out for a walk along the boardwalk in Long Beach, Washington,” he finally answered the question. “Did you call just to harass us?” But he also finally chuckled.
“Actually, no. There were two calls for you. One last night and one this morning.”
“From Chip?” Lee guessed.
“Well, this morning’s definitely was. Nothing crucial. Told him you’d run off with your latest girlfriend to the wilds of Washington State and you’d be back when you felt like it.”
Lee just shook his head at his friend’s laughter. “He didn’t blow a gasket?”
“He’s saving that for when he sees you. I refused to explain.”
Lee took a deep breath. “And the other call?” he changed the subject.
“The guy from the other day,” Tim got serious. “Annie was sure. And it wasn’t Chip. That much I’m sure of.”
“Say anything to Chip?”
“Didn’t have to. There was enough of a regional accent, subtle but there, to know this guy was more mid-Atlantic than mid-West.” Lee was reminded that one of Tim’s more eclectic talents was judging people’s hometowns by their speech patterns. And he had an uncanny knack for being right.
“Still ticked that I wasn’t there?”
“And definitely disgruntled when I couldn’t tell him exactly where you were.”
“What did you say?”
“Just that you were off sightseeing somewhere in Washington State, and I’d expect you back when I saw you. Somehow…”
“Sorry. I just got this feeling I shouldn’t have said even that much.”
“Hey, don’t worry about it. Probably someone from ONI who hasn’t gotten the word I’m unavailable. Although how there could still be anybody left with functional eardrums after the Admiral finished yelling…”
Tim laughed. “Sort of got the impression he could be a bit…opinionated,” he finished diplomatically.
“That’s one way to phrase it.” Lee agreed.
“Anyway, you have fun. If this dude calls again I’ll just tell him to go take a long walk off a short pier.” Both men laughed and hung up.
“Everything okay?” Becca questioned.
Lee smiled. “Yeah. Chip checking up on me. Tim being his usual pain in the tail.”
“And something else?” Lee looked at her carefully. “Who’s Owen Eye? You got awfully serious there for a bit.”
Lee chuckled at the misinterpretation. “What, not who. O-N-I,” he enunciated carefully. “Office of Naval Intelligence. I still have connections there, being in the Reserves,” he finished noncommittally.
“Ah,” she smiled her understanding. “You and your alphabet soup.”
“And I suppose your profession doesn’t use acronyms?”
“Well…” she hedged, and they both laughed. “So, you set the pace. We’ll walk as far as you think you can comfortably get back from.”
“Or keep walking as far as I can, and you can come retrieve me in the car.” It came out a good deal more bitter than he’d intended it to, and he lowered his head. “Sorry.”
She put her hands on her hips and glared at him. “You use that word many more times and I’m going to stuff it where the sun don’t shine. You have nothing to be sorry for. Well, with the possible exception of that little stunt on Saturday.” Lee looked at her through his eyelashes, a small grin twitching his lips. “If I was in your position, and forced into this level of inactivity, I’d go stark raving fruiters.”
“Close,” Lee admitted.
“Chill,” she ordered, then gave him a small shove. “Start walking, buster,” and they headed down the boardwalk arm in arm.
They ambled along chatting casually until they came to one of the three observation platforms that had been built along the walkway, and stopped to read the interpretive signposts that talked about some of the area’s natural history. Lee happened to glance back the way they’d come and whistled softly.
“What?” Becca looked at him.
“That’s the farthest I’ve been able to walk since this whole mess started,” he almost whispered. “At least,” he added quickly, “without falling on my face.”
“Outstanding,” Becca nodded her approval. “How do you feel?”
Lee hesitated a moment, a slight frown appearing. “Like I’d probably better sit down for a bit before I do fall,” he admitted.
“Bench,” she pointed behind them, “You rest. I’m going to go wiggle my toes in the sand for awhile.”
“Have at it,” he chuckled, and lowered himself onto the wooden seating area, actually surprised that he wasn’t more tired than he was. He suspected Becca’s little foray was more just an attempt to get out of his face for a bit, to let him know she wasn’t hovering. But he appreciated it nonetheless.
Time had little meaning in the afternoon sunshine. There weren’t enough tourists mid-week to bother him, and he stretched out his long legs and physically and mentally relaxed. Becca had left her shoes with him – she was already wearing just-above-the-knee shorts – and was having a great time playing in the surf. He wasn’t paying any attention to where his mind was taking him until he was brought up short by an image of the room where he’d been held. Startled, he opened his eyes and realized that the boardwalk had gotten a good bit busier. Among the newcomers was a woman with two small children, the oldest of which, about four years old, was screaming at the top of his lungs because “Mommy” wouldn’t let him go down and play in the water. Deciding it might be a little quieter down on the beach, Lee gathered up Becca’s shoes and found a place to settle back down. He was surprised when he went to stand that it was fairly easy. He’d had a bad feeling that once he sat, he’d crash. Maybe I am actually starting to improve. He stretched out again in the lee of the walkway and once again let the warm sun and sand do their magic. Becca had heard the screaming as well, apparently – Lee figured everyone in a three-block radius had – and smiled at him when she saw his intentions, but hadn’t left the edge of the surf.
This time at least, Lee felt his eyes closing and let them. He so loved the sounds and smells and sights of the ocean. He didn’t know what he’d do if he had to give them up…
He was going to have to. It seemed inevitable. There was no way out of the mess he’d gotten himself into this time. He couldn’t move, could only lay there letting the paralysis that was affecting his body slowly envelope his mind. No cavalry this time; no Nelson riding last minute to the rescue. No Chip telling him to wake up, it was all a bad dream. No…
“No what?” Lee jumped so hard he barely missed cracking heads with Becca, kneeling next to him, her hand on his shoulder.
“Damn,” he muttered softly. “Sorry.”
She sat back on her heels and frowned. “There’s that word again,” she did a little muttering of her own.
Lee gave himself a final shake and finally focused on her. “Guess I fell asleep,” he said with a sheepish grin.
“No what?” Becca repeated.
“Nothing. Just a bad dream.” He wouldn’t look at her as he said it, instead preparing to get up.
But Becca’s hand remained on his shoulder, pressure holding him in place. “Get your breathing in order first, okay?” Lee belatedly realized he was borderline hyperventilating and closed his eyes, willing himself back under control. “Better,” he heard her say, and her hand disappeared. He opened his eyes to find her putting her shoes back on. “Okay, now?” He just nodded. “Do you want me to get the car?”
He shook his head. “Was congratulating myself when I moved down here from the boardwalk how good I actually felt.” He rose easily and presented his elbow to her. “I’m in the mood to live dangerously.” She just shook her head, gave him a small grin, and put her arm through his.
On his own, he’d probably have tried to make it all the way back to the motel. On my own, I’d have fallen flat on my face in the street and been dragged away as a drunk, he grumbled to himself as he waited for Becca to bring the car to the boardwalk entrance. She’d paused there and given him an intense look, and he’d wisely surrendered. He also agreed when she suggested they find something Take Out for dinner. He wasn’t sure how much he could eat because his headache had intensified on the walk back. He just knew he wasn’t up to polite conversation in a restaurant.
He was barely up to it in his room when she returned with quite acceptable Chinese. He’d managed to give her a bad time about her choice, saying, “I thought all the preservatives weren’t good for people who get migraines.” She’d looked positively sheepish as she admitted it was either this, or burgers and fries. Lee said he’d take his chances and they sat at the small table in his room making a fairly nice dent in the sweet and sour pork, fried rice, vegetable chow mein, and egg rolls. She’d even been able to leave a deposit for the return of the thermos and brought green tea.
“Bad?” she asked, as he finally pushed his chair away from the table.
“Dinner? Quite good, actually.”
“No, dummy. Your headache.”
“What?” he stared at her, suddenly angry. “You read minds now? No, I’ve got it.” He stood abruptly and stalked off a few feet. “I’ve got a neon sign on my forehead. ‘Stupid idiot gives himself headache because he can’t deal with his infirmities’.”
“Don’t hit!” penetrated his anger. He wasn’t sure why, but her echo of Jamie’s same command – maybe because it was given for the exact same reason – forced a grin to appear. He shook his head as he looked down at the fists he’d made, then turned toward Becca. She just raised an eyebrow.
“Must be a doctor thing,” he said, knowing she still didn’t have a clue why he was grinning. “Never mind. Just…oh…thanks.”
“You’re welcome, I think. Why the grin?”
“You just reminded me of the last time someone gave me that order.”
“As I recall, you do seem to have a tendency to punch out chair arms.”
“Wasn’t a chair,” Lee looked at her sheepishly. “The side railing on a treadmill.”
“Ouch, that smarts.”
Lee cringed. “No, that dumbs. Really, really dumbs.”
Becca just shook her head. “Okay, sit. If all you can do is tell bad jokes, it’s time I give you a little relief.” Lee stiffened, not moving, just looking at Becca suspiciously. “Easy, Commander,” she teased him. “Come sit back down,” and she moved to stand behind the chair he’d bounced out of. When Lee still didn’t move, she patted the back of the chair with her hands. “Down,” she ordered firmly, and he slowly and hesitantly complied. With gentle fingers she made soothing rotations against his temples, telling him to close his eyes and try to relax.
Lee just knew this was one of the dumber things he’d ever let himself get talked into. But he tried to cooperate, closing his eyes, and concentrating on taking slow, deep breaths. He could hear Becca’s voice, speaking soft and low, further coaxing him to relax. This is sooooooo stupid!!!
“Lee, how are you feeling?” Wait a minute – she was behind me. When did she move? Lee slowly opened his eyes. Becca was once again sitting in the chair on the other side of the table, but she was sitting at a 45-degree angle. No, wait a minute. My head’s lying sideways on the table. How the hell did that happen!
His head bounced up and he glared at Becca. “What the blazes did you do?” he demanded.
She was polishing off the last of the fried rice, and grinned before answering. “Just a little relaxation technique I was taught. How’s the headache?”
Lee actually had to think about that a moment, surprising himself when he realized it was, in fact, almost nonexistent. He glanced at his watch – from the last time he’d looked at it, almost 45 minutes had gone by. “What are you, some kind of witch?”
Becca choked on the last bite of rice, and had to grab her tea before answering. “First time I’ve been called that – well, at least to my face.” She grinned, and Lee found himself returning it.
“Sorry. Didn’t mean it quite like that,” he backtracked.
She just waved a hand at him. “Quite all right. The temple area is a very sensitive point. Your own body recognizes it, that’s why you tend to reach up and rub it when you start to feel a headache coming on.”
“But I don’t.”
Becca snorted. “Definitely going to have to buy you a mirror.” Lee frowned at her but she just laughed. “Actually, there’s an even better acupressure point on your foot – right behind the big toe if memory serves me correctly. I’ll have to look it up.” She grinned and started clearing away the ‘dishes’. “I’m going to let you crash. I’ll run the thermos back to the restaurant, then do the same. Okay by you?”
“Not sure I have a choice,” he admitted, his eyelids getting droopy again.
“See you in the morning, then.” She grinned. “Rest. You did quite a lot today.”
“What’s on the agenda for tomorrow?”
“A leisurely jaunt up 101, around Gray’s Harbor to Ocean Shores. A fairly short day and an easy drive. With luck we’ll get there in time to take a horseback ride on the beach.” Lee figured he must have made a face because she laughed. “What? Don’t tell me you’re afraid of horses.”
“No. Just can’t remember the last time I was on one,” he admitted.
“Piece of cake. This is tourist country, remember? The wranglers are used to tenderfeet.”
“You, on the other hand…?”
“Have a very dear friend whose parents live on a cattle ranch in eastern Oregon. I get over there usually a couple long weekends every summer. Come on. Where’s your sense of adventure? We’ll find you a nice gentle hack and you’ll have a blast.”
We’ll see…” he answered carefully. She just smiled and left.
* * * *
Less than 24 hours later, Lee was beginning to think he was traveling with a witch after all. The drive north on 101 was fairly run of the mill. There would be little traffic until they got close to the Gray’s Harbor area, he noted when he checked the map that morning before starting out, so he volunteered to help with the driving. Becca hesitated but, giving him a long look, she finally acquiesced. “If you promise to tell me when you get tired. Ah,” she quickly amended, “if you tell me before you get tired.”
Lee grinned. “Deal. It looks to be a pretty easy run to Aberdeen. How about we stop there for a late breakfast, early lunch, and you can drive from there.”
“Perfect,” and they took off.
Lee enjoyed the chance to contribute for a change. So far he’d been able to keep most of his frustrations under control, but it was so much more enjoyable to have something useful to do. Becca used the time, between giving him a brief description of the lumber, fishing, and cranberry growing that were the area’s main industries, to get busy on her cell phone. She not only found a motel in Ocean Shores, right by the beach, for them that night, but also called ahead and discovered that there was a two-bedroom cabin available for Friday, Saturday and Sunday at the Lake Crescent Lodge. She was ecstatic.
“I gather that’s something special?” Lee asked.
“A minor miracle. The whole place - cabins, main lodge, everything - is usually booked solid months in advance. I just gave it a shot, didn’t really expect anything.”
“Last minute cancellation,” she gloated.
“Sort of like when you came down to the Spindrift,” Lee said guardedly. “I was right the first time.” She gave him a quizzical look. “You are a witch. Wiggle your nose and things just fall in place.” She said something rude and they both laughed. “Good place to hang out, I take it?”
Becca nodded. “We can use it as a base camp, of sorts. From there it’s an easy day trip to Hoh Rainforest, Hurricane Ridge – to say nothing of all the things to do right around the lake.”
“Hurricane Ridge?” Lee asked dubiously.
Becca laughed. “Relax. While it can get pretty nasty up there, mostly it’s just a great vista point to the Olympic Mountain range.”
“Just remember – I’m a submariner at heart.”
“You told me you weren’t afraid of heights.”
Lee mumbled something unintelligible, and Becca looked at him quizzically. “Not heights,” Lee explained. “Just don’t have to deal with bad weather all that often. On a submarine, we just go under it.” He grinned finally, and so did Becca.
She took over driving after their stop for brunch, transferring from 101 to Hwy 109 at Hoquiam for the trip to Ocean Shores. Once there they checked into the motel, which was right next to one of the several beach accesses. The beach itself was separated from the town proper by a narrow strip of dunes. Much of the beach was actually drivable, although Lee noted there were some areas that were posted no driving except by beach patrol to protect the clam beds. From where they parked the car, well above the high tide mark, all Lee could see in either direction was miles of open beach – and a place where one of the local stables was set up to offer horseback rides.
Lee did actually end up enjoying himself. Becca would have preferred to ride her horse down to the edge of the surf but wasn’t allowed to, again because of possible damage to the clam beds present. But they still enjoyed a pleasurable hour’s ride along the beach side of the dunes. Not one for equestrian sports, Lee was amazed that what he’d imagined as just sitting on a horse, in actual fact gently stimulated so many different muscle groups. And not so gently a few others, he discovered as he dismounted at the end of the hour and his backside spent several moments talking back to him. Apparently his face registered some of his body’s sentiments because both Becca and the wrangler grinned at him. He finally joined them. When Becca suggested a little stretching of said muscles, Lee willingly joined in.
They kicked off shoes, rolled up pant legs, and spent the next half-hour slowly walking along the edge of the surf. The beach there was a very gentle slope. Lee watched several fairly young children, chaperoned by adults, wander 20-30 feet out into the gentle waves, and the water was still only about waist deep. It was very easy walking in the hard sand at the surf’s edge, and Lee felt a lot of pent up nervousness fall away like the retreating tide. Unwilling to turn around, it was Becca who finally broke through and brought him back to reality by reminding him it was getting on to dinnertime.
“Spoilsport,” he groused, and sighed heavily.
“Realist,” she corrected. “Tomorrow will be a busy day. And besides,” she grinned, “I’m hungry.” On the desk clerk’s recommendation they found an excellent restaurant, Alec’s By The Sea, and stuffed themselves on deep-fried cod, baked potatoes, salad, and deep-dish blackberry pie, before crashing early.
* * * *
“What’s wrong,” Becca asked as Lee answered her knock on his door the next morning.
“Nothing,” came the automatic reply. She obviously didn’t believe him and just stood in the doorway, hands on hips, glaring at him. He lowered his eyes. “Didn’t sleep too well,” he finally admitted. “Think I ate too much dinner.”
At that she laughed. “Then I gather you’d rather not have breakfast before we head out.”
“No!” was the adamant response. They grabbed their bags and took off.
Lee’s good humor returned as they took a back road through Copalis Crossing, and rejoined Hwy 101 at Humptulips. He was driving again, with Becca navigating, and raised an eyebrow at the unusual name. “Get used to it,” was Becca’s advice. “We’re headed into the Quinault Indian Reservation. Ahead we’ll just bypass Hoh Reservation, and if we happen to wander out to Neah Bay later this weekend we’ll be on the Makah Reservation. Lots of Native American names.” Lee just nodded.
They didn’t waste much time driving this stretch of road. They were inland from the ocean and much of the forests they should have been traveling through had been clear cut, leaving a fairly unpleasant landscape. After a quick stop in Amanda Park for breakfast they returned to the ocean at Queets, where they entered the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary. They were also back in the forest, and for the next ten miles or so had glimpses of the ocean. But not many sandy beaches here. Where there were openings they saw rocky coastlines and graveled stretches covered with lots of driftwood; the offshore area a tangle of sea stacks of various heights and shapes. There were several beach entrances but they had numbers, not names. All except one, and Becca had Lee turn off at the sign for Ruby Beach. She said it was so named because ruby garnets could sometimes be found among the pebbles, and mentioned she had a necklace made from several stones she’d picked up on previous visits. “You up for a bit of a hike? The trail down isn’t long but it’s a little steep. It does switchback several times, so that helps.”
Lee just shrugged his shoulders. “Willing to give it a try. Part ways, at least.”
“I may have something that will help. Packed it for areas like this, just in case,” and she opened the back of the wagon. From underneath a travel robe that had been laid up against the back of the rear seat she withdrew a heavy, knobby blackthorn walking stick. “I have no idea where this came from. I found it in my aunt’s stuff when I cleaned her house after…” She didn’t finish, and Lee just nodded with a small smile of understanding. “Anyway, it’s solid as iron.” Lee had to agree as he hefted the aid, slightly over three feet long. Sure wouldn’t be the first time he’d been forced to use a cane. However, he avoided telling Becca that.
“I thought you promised no baseball bats,” he said sternly instead, smacking his hand with the sturdy wooden stick. “This thing is hard enough to be a lethal weapon.” She just smiled and shrugged her shoulders. “Should work just fine,” he said, and they headed down the dirt trail.
Going down wouldn’t be the problem, and Lee kept careful track of how far he was descending. At the first of the switchbacks there was a bench. At least he could rest there if the trip back up became too difficult. Actually, the worst of the trip was at the base of the trail. Storms had piled drift logs in a crazy tangle right where the trail met the mix of gravel and sand beach. Lee wouldn’t really have minded staying right there. The view was spectacular; waves crashing in a never-ending cascade off the multitude of sea stacks of every shape and size. A few were so big they still had trees on the top, remnants of the eroding coastline. There was a small stream coming in from the left to meet the ocean but it flattened out enough to make crossing it a simple matter to get to the sand-and-small-rock beach beyond.
“Hey, this way,” broke through his reverie, and he looked to where Becca was standing a short way to his right. “There’s a way to get through the driftwood.” Almost reluctantly Lee headed her way, and made his way to the edge of the surf. The trail put them at the northerly end of Ruby Beach and they ambled south looking at all the different rock formations, and the little tidal pools the water left at the base of the closer-in sea stacks. There were other people on the beach, but not so many that one still got the feeling of peaceful wilderness solitude. It wasn’t long before Lee became aware of Becca’s patient impatience at his slow pace, and insisted she go work off some of her pent-up energy. She raised an eyebrow but when he just smiled, she increased her pace.
Lee wandered around for a little bit, checking out a small tidal pool more closely, then spotted color amongst a small pile of stones. Walking over, he smiled as he picked up a small garnet. Continuing his search, he found another of roughly the same color and size, and pocketed them. One of the machinist’s mates aboard Seaview was a bit of an amateur rock hound, and Lee figured he could get the man to make a set of earrings for Becca, to go along with the necklace she’d mentioned earlier. Deciding he’d walked as much as he dared for the time being, Lee found a handy log and sat down. He’d handled the trip down the trail quite easily, and felt okay now. But he really wasn’t looking forward to the climb back up to the parking lot, and knew that he’d better rest as much as possible beforehand.
He totally lost track of time as he watched the waves and listened to the multitude of sea birds. Many of the beaches of California, and Oregon for the most part, were much older and more worn – hence, not so many offshore rock formations. He was fascinated by the patterns the waves made as they crashed against and swirled around the stacks.
“Earth to Lee,” finally penetrated his thoughts. He turned in the direction it had come, then grinned sheepishly.
“Been there long?” he asked. Becca was standing at his left shoulder.
She laughed. “Actually, no. You just looked so lost in thought.”
“Seem to be doing a lot of that lately.” He gave himself a shake. “Not like me at all. I’m usually very aware of what’s going on around me. Have to be.”
“Its called vacation, silly. That’s what you’re supposed to do – forget work and relax. Tim was right – you definitely need more practice.”
Lee just frowned and stood. “Are we ready to go?”
“No. But if we stay any longer we’ll be late getting to the lodge.”
They almost were, anyway. Their trek back up the path was painfully slow. The walking stick was a great help, as was the handrail that lined the path in several places. But even after resting for several minutes on the bench at the last corner, it was all Lee could do to make it up the last few yards. Becca said little, pretending instead to be fascinated by the five to seven inch long banana slugs that appeared here and there in the lush undergrowth along the path. Lee totally grossed her out by commenting, as he rested at one point, that slug slime was the fastest cure on earth for the irritation caused by injudiciously rubbing against a stinging nettle bush. Becca was firmly of the opinion she’d rather suffer the burning nettles than slime herself with a slug. Lee was totally unsuccessful in convincing her that no, she wouldn’t. Finally nearing the top of the trail, she sprinted ahead and brought the car as close as she could, and Lee gratefully fell into the passenger seat.
Later, Lee remembered little of the hour-long drive to Lake Crescent Lodge. For most of it he had his eyes closed, trying to get control of an exertion-caused headache. Becca for the most part remained silent. Catching his eyes open at one point she told him not to worry. While the lush old-growth timber and wonderful scenery they were traveling through shouldn’t be missed, she reminded him that they would be back this way at some point during the next couple days to visit the Hoh rainforest. He’d miss nothing by resting now. She did try to apologize for pushing him into doing more than he should have but he just waved her off. He told her if Chip, who had known him since their first days at Annapolis, couldn’t keep him from occasionally screwing up, she didn’t stand a chance. She’d laughed, as he’d intended, and they were both once again silent.
Arriving at the lodge, Lee remained in the car enjoying the beauty of glacier-carved Lake Crescent while Becca registered. Returning, she drove to their cabin, one of what was called ‘Singer Tavern Cottages’ after the original name of the lodge when it was built as a tavern in 1916. This one had two bedrooms plus gathering area, and a covered front deck with view of both the lake and the surrounding mountains. They settled in, then Becca started making noises about walking over to the dining room in the lodge for dinner. But Lee didn’t think he was up to it.
“You have to eat,” Becca insisted. “All you’ve had today is a light breakfast. I can drive us over.”
Lee frowned at her, but got himself under control before opening his mouth. “Maybe you can bring me back a sandwich,” he compromised, and Becca unhappily left. He knew he should just go to bed – let his body recover from how he had pushed it today. Instead, he settled into a chair. DAMN! Luckily for the occupants of the closer cabins, the anger exploded in his head, not out of his mouth. When is this going to end? The drugs are gone – at least that’s what they keep telling me… His fist hitting the arm of the chair for the who-knew-how-manyeth time finally broke through the anger. Thankfully, the chair was well padded. He took a deep breath. No, Jamie wouldn’t lie about that, he admitted. Nor would he have sent me off to deal with this on my own if he wasn’t comfortable it would eventually get better. But eventually’s sure damn slow in coming! He gave the chair arm one more smack for emphasis, then leaned his head back and closed his eyes.
That’s how Becca found him when she returned, bringing with her a large Styrofoam coffee cup full of seafood chowder, and a bagel with cream cheese and salmon lox. She didn’t say much, just left him to eat while she settled herself into her bedroom.
“Better?” came quietly from behind him as he finished the bagel and worked on the last of the chowder.
“Yes, thanks,” he mumbled over his shoulder before returning his concentration to the cup.
“I can see the improvement, just in what little I’ve been around you,” she said quietly. “Last weekend you wouldn’t even have attempted that path.”
Lee was quiet for a bit, then finally smiled to himself. “Do you have any idea how I hate people reading my mind?” he complained, yet letting the smile reach his voice.
“Then you’ll have to work harder at not telegraphing your feelings,” she countered, and walked around him to sit on one of the other chairs.
He gave her a sheepish grin. “Don’t handle illness well,” he said softly.
“So you’ve mentioned.” She grinned, and he did as well. “Have you ever considered taking an anger management course?”
His instant glare didn’t last long in the face of her grin. “That’s part of Chip’s job description,” he told her.
“I gotta meet this guy. He must be some kind of miracle worker.” Lee choked on the last of the chowder, but he ended up chuckling with Becca, softly shaking his head. “Better now?”
“Yes, thanks.” He stood up and tossed the cup, along with the paper plate the bagel had come on, in the trash. “So, what torture are you going to put me through tomorrow?”
“Up to you,” she answered lightly. “We’ll be here for several days. We can just putter around the lake if you’d rather.”
Lee thought about it for just a bit, then shook his head. “No. Happily I seem to recover fairly quickly. I’ll be ready for another round by morning.”
“In that case we’ll backtrack to Hoh, and you can enjoy the sights you missed on the drive from the beach. And once there, there’s several different lengths of nature walks we can take through the area around the Visitor’s Center.”
Lee nodded. “Sounds like a plan. Guess I’d better get a good night’s sleep.” She just smiled and he headed to his bedroom.
But he didn’t sleep, at least not well. Dreams kept waking him up. He didn’t remember much of them once he was awake, but he knew what they were about. They kept taking him back to that basement room. To the beatings, to the interrogations, and to those last fateful moments. Those were the most disturbing. Not so much because they were almost his last, but because he kept getting the feeling there was something he was supposed to remember about the incident. Some little thing that either he’d forgotten, or the drugs he was forced to swallow had made him forget. He hadn’t wanted to swallow them – had done everything he could think of not to. Tied into the chair he couldn’t actively fight. But there were other ways to resist. When they’d held his nose, trying to force him to breathe through his mouth so they could pour the drugs down his throat, he’d used techniques he’d been taught to momentarily stop his breathing. He thought he’d won that round when the glass pressed to his lips was withdrawn. But almost immediately a fist hard to his stomach caused him to gasp, the glass was instantly forced against his mouth, and he had little choice but to swallow as he struggled for oxygen. A voice taunted him – a new voice, one he hadn’t heard before, at least in that room. He almost wanted to laugh. All the time he’d been there, no one had bothered to blindfold him. They didn’t seem to care that he saw their faces. But now, when it appeared they were going to kill him, there was someone who didn’t want to be seen. Weird. Made no sense whatsoever.
Well, he admitted, sitting on the edge of his bed about 4 o’clock the next morning, at least it doesn’t make any sense to me. At this point it was useless to try and go back to sleep. He puttered around until just after 5:00, showered, donned a jacket against the early morning chill, and sat outside on the porch watching the sun come up over the mountains.
“How long have you been up?” Becca asked when she found him there shortly before 7:00.
“Not long,” he hedged, then changed the subject. “For as much of an ocean person as I am, I have to admit this place is wonderful. It’s as if the mountains cast a quiet dignity over everything. And the lake – the water’s such a dark blue. It’s almost like looking at ocean water.”
“Legend says the lake is bottomless,” Becca said lightly. Lee had the feeling – again as if she could read his mind – that she knew exactly what had happened. But thankfully appeared to be letting it pass. “Legend says,” she continued, coming to stand next to him, “that there’s a monster in the lake.”
“Like Loch Ness?” Lee asked her, disbelieving.
“And Lake Okanagan, in British Columbia, Canada.” Lee just shook his head. “Oh. Resident skeptic, I take it.”
“Actually, no,” Lee backed off. “I’ve seen way too many things that shouldn’t be…” His voice trailed off as he looked out at the lake.
“Yes?” Becca prodded gently.
A small smile appeared on Lee’s face. “Classified,” they both said together, then laughed.
“Hmmm,” Becca said, wrapping her arms around herself. She’d come out in her bare feet, having thrown a light bathrobe over her nightgown. “Well, the dining room opens at 7:30 for breakfast. I’ll go grab my shower. I assume you’ve been up long enough to be hungry?” Lee gave her a sheepish grin but just nodded. “Then a hearty breakfast, because I don’t have a clue when or where we’ll have lunch.”
“Works for me,” Lee agreed.
They both decided they didn’t care if they had lunch or not. They’d pigged out on Salmon Lox Eggs Benedict served with diced potatoes, strawberries, and an orange slice. Along with a dish of fresh melon they shared, orange juice and coffee, they decided they were set for the day.
Becca drove this morning, letting Lee enjoy the almost hour-long drive back to Hoh Road, then 19 miles inland toward the Visitor’s Center. Much of the way lush forest lined both sides of the road, especially the last stretch. In many areas the trees grew to touch each other above the road. They stopped partway along the Hoh Road to check out a sign that said simply, “Big Spruce Tree.” And it was. According to the signboard closer to the tree it was 270 feet tall, about 12 ½ feet in diameter at its base, and estimated to be 550 years old. As Lee carefully pointed out, there were California Redwoods that were much bigger. Becca nailed him with a well-aimed elbow and reminded him, just in case he’d forgotten, that they weren’t in California. They both laughed. Continuing on, another good laugh filled the car as, nearing the park entrance, they passed the “Hard Rain Café.” The name became understandable as they wandered through the Visitor’s Center. Hoh was one of only a few protected rainforests in the Northern Hemisphere. Moisture-laden air off the Pacific, bumping into the Olympic Mountains, produced an average annual rainfall of 140 inches a year, with a record of just over 190 inches. And a lot of condensed mist contributed another 30 or so inches. Several nature trails of various lengths took off from the Center, and they chose the “Hall of Mosses” trail. Lee figured he could handle the ¾ mile loop that wandered through some of the oldest part of the area. The Ranger on duty said it was fairly flat, with only a small ascent close to the beginning. Turned out to be a little more than ‘small’ but they took it slowly, and Lee managed just fine.
“This place could give a small child nightmares,” Lee commented as they were almost instantly enveloped in huge maple trees shrouded with club moss and surrounded by licorice ferns. “What’s that Disney movie, where someone’s being chased by moss-covered trees through the night?”
“Isn’t that part of Fantasia?” Becca guessed, but they both just shrugged and continued walking. The further they walked the darker it got, and they just looked at each other and laughed. Many of the trees were themselves invisible, hidden by layers of moss that could weigh up to four times the weight of the tree’s own foliage. The moss itself did no actual damage to the trees, but in times of very wet ground and very high winds could contribute to a tree breaking, or actually falling. Everywhere there was evidence of this happening. And yet, Mother Nature had a plan for everything. Fallen trees, over the years, became ‘nurse logs’, places for new trees to sprout and grow. The practice produced some very strange-looking tree trunks in places, for the new trees sent out roots around the nurse logs. Then, as the old log eventually rotted away, it left the new tree standing on huge roots called stilts.
They walked slowly, Lee again using the walking stick, taking their time and enjoying the unusualness of the area, the lushness, the almost spookiness of the moss trailing off the trees. They had been warned, so were prepared for, the sounds of something large moving through the undergrowth. While they never did get a glimpse, they knew it to be one or more of the Roosevelt Elk that inhabited the area. Overhead, birds kept up constant conversations with each other.
Toward the end of their counter-clockwise trip around the loop there was a small side trail to an area known as the Maple Grove. Becca made the short jaunt, leaving Lee to contemplate a line of trees headed into the center of the loop. It took very little imagination to visualize the nurse log that had fallen and sustained them, then slowly disappeared, leaving only the straight line of her children behind as her legacy.
He smiled as Becca rejoined him. At her upraised eyebrow he asked, “What?”
“Just wondering what that expression was on your face?” she smiled.
“Oh. Just standing here contemplating nature’s infinite patterns. I’ve been in rain forests before, of course. Mostly in South America. But…I guess I’ve never really slowed down enough to actually look at them. This place is impressive.”
She smiled, but gave him a curious look. “How does a submariner come to be wandering around a South American rain forest?”
Lee knew his expression darkened but he tried to answer as lightly as possible. “Long story.”
“Oh. Another one of those,” she emphasized the last word. “How you doing?” she changed the subject. “If we add up the short walk from the parking lot, wandering around the Center, then the stretch of Mini Trail to get to this one, you’ve probably done almost a mile already with still a bit to go.”
Lee nodded. He knew she’d noticed he’d been leaning heavier and heavier on the walking stick. “Actually, pretty good. Oh,” he acknowledged, “I’m tired. But not shaky-tired. And no headache,” he added with a small grin.
She returned it. “Excellent. See? You are improving.” She slipped an arm through his free one. “Then slow and steady it is. Maybe we can drive along Lake Crescent for a bit when we get back. There’s a bunch of viewpoint turnoffs along 101. You don’t even have to get out of the car. Maybe a short nap at the cabin,” she teased with a grin, “and you’ll be able to walk over for dinner tonight.”
Lee’s frown at her reference to a nap just caused her grin to broaden, and he finally let a slight smile show. “Sounds like a plan,” he agreed.
He wouldn’t have wanted to go very much further, he acknowledged as he gratefully settled into the car. But he was also thrilled he’d managed as well as he had. He was very tired and leaned his head back against the headrest for the drive back but visited amiably, exertion-caused headache noticeably and happily absent. They spent a leisurely half hour driving along the edge of Lake Crescent, enjoying the beautiful vistas and the contrast of dark, deep lake to the tall, steep, lushly green mountains that surrounded it.
It was still only about 2 o’clock when they returned to the cabin. With all the exercise, sun, and fresh air, Lee was ready to be teased into lying down for awhile. “But surely you’re not,” he told Becca. “This trip has got to be pure torture for you.” Lee held up a hand as she half closed her eyes, looking ready to start an argument. “All I meant was, there must to something you’d like to do for a few hours instead of hang around here.”
“Well,” she backed off. “I’d sort of thought we’d hit Marymere Falls tomorrow. But if you really don’t mind, maybe I’ll make the hike into Sol Duc Falls this afternoon. Should be just about right to get back and clean up in time for dinner.”
“Bye,” he waved her off. She hesitated just a moment, but grinned at the threatening look he sent her and headed off.
Avoiding the bed on general principles – tired or not that was a little too much like admitting he really did need a nap – he stretched out on the couch. I really am getting better, he breathed happily. Finally! He closed his eyes, listening to the birds, the sounds of other guests moving around the grounds, a light breeze softly rustling the trees. It’s been so long…
How long will it take? he wondered with the part of his mind that was still working. He had no way to judge the passage of time once the drugs started to affect him. While they robbed him first of his motor skills, leaving his mind for later, they still cast a dream-like quality over his thinking. The blindfold had been left on as he was untied from the chair and laid on the floor. He felt himself being stripped, then re-dressed in clothes too rough and old to be his own. Voices came and went – some he recognized; one, in particular, he didn’t but somehow felt he should. He forced himself to concentrate as he felt his body levitate – no, just being carried, he decided – and laid back down on something that was at least softer than the floor. The something vibrated, giving him the sensation that he was moving. He had no idea how long it lasted, just that it stopped. He felt the blindfold being removed but it didn’t help much – he could no longer see. His head impacted with something hard and he wondered what had become of his body. It didn’t seem to be attached anymore. He thought he smelled dirt, and oil, and diesel fuel, but he no longer cared why. He did wish it was the ocean…
Did I just feel something? They told me…
The feeling came again, a hand gently shaking his shoulder. He tried opening his eyes, totally amazed when he was successful. “Hey, sleepyhead.” Becca smiled gently down on him. “Good nap?” she teased. Lee shook his head softly, which she misunderstood. “No?” she frowned.
Lee finally grinned. “Sorry. Not what I meant.” He sat up slowly, running his hands through his hair and over his face, pulling himself back to reality and finally looking at Becca. “Just a weird dream. Did you have a good hike?” he changed the subject.
“Wonderful. You want first shot at the shower before we head over for dinner?”
Lee knew he frowned again, but quickly got himself together and did a quick evaluation. He really did feel pretty good. He finally gave Becca a lop-sided grin. “You go ahead. I think I need to finish waking up.”
“No fizzing out on me tonight,” she warned him firmly, backing off and putting hands on hips. “You are not getting out of dinner two nights in a row.”
“I had dinner last night,” he corrected, took one look at the expression that appeared on Becca’s face, and grinned sheepishly. “Well, sort of, anyway.” Becca just headed for her room, shaking her head.
* * * *
The Dining Room didn’t open until 6 pm, and didn’t take reservations. They walked over early hoping to get a lake-view table, and enjoyed the turn of the century atmosphere of the main lodge while they waited. Over the stone fireplace in the antique-filled lobby was a huge mounted elk head, according to the small plaque it had been shot in 1902 and was of ‘near record’ size. The desk clerk told them that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had visited the lodge in 1937, using it as a base as he studied the proposal that would create Olympic National Park the following year.
Once seated in the hardwood-floored dining room, decorated with Native American masks and tapestries on the walls, they concentrated on the menu. Becca said she’d had the Greek linguini the night before. Tonight they both settled on the halibut stuffed with crab and shrimp and topped with Hollandaise sauce. Served with Yukon gold potatoes and fresh bok choy, both decided it was quite edible, and topped off the meal by sharing a piece of apple pie a la mode.
Pleasantly stuffed, they ambled down to the edge of the lake and found a spot to sit and enjoy the ever-changing shadows as sunset approached. It darkened rapidly once the sun was behind the mountains and they made their way, as others were, back to their cabin. With his rest that afternoon Lee was in no hurry for bed, and chose to sit out on the porch for another hour or so. He finally submitted to Becca’s gentle harassment that he’d better get a good night’s sleep since he had a slightly longer hike ahead of him tomorrow than he’d had today. With mutters of “she’s going to kill me, yet,” albeit said with a grin and a quick duck away from the backhand she halfheartedly swung at him, he headed for bed.
* * * *
He awoke drenched in sweat from fighting for his freedom and yelling at the men who were keeping him from it. His head was pounding so bad that he was only vaguely aware of his flailing arms hitting something, or the thud that followed. He did finally hear his name being called, and opened eyes he didn’t realize were still closed to find the source. It hadn’t sounded like any of the men he’d seen so far.
It wasn’t. His bedroom light was on, illuminating Becca on the floor a few feet from the bed. As he slowly turned to sit on the edge of the bed, she sent him a glare. “You awake now?” she asked dryly. As he just nodded, she rose and came to sit next to him. “Want to talk about it?” came much more gently.
“Couldn’t if I wanted to,” Lee said almost sadly, then quickly looked at her. “Did I hurt you?”
She just laughed. “Not a chance. Lots of padding back there,” and she indicated her backside. Very gently she reached out to take his wrist. He pulled his hand away sharply as he realized she was attempting to take his pulse.
“I’m fine,” he growled.
“Yeah, right,” she muttered. “That one wasn’t nice.”
“Sometimes they aren’t,” he admitted wearily. He stood up and walked to the bathroom to wash off some of the sweat, thankful he’d remembered to pull on his pj bottoms. He didn’t, always.
She’d moved by the time he returned, but only so far as to sit with her back against the headboard, his pillow on her outstretched legs. “Down,” she said, giving the pillow a pat. “I’ll work on that headache.
He stood still, frowning at her. When she just smiled the frown changed to a glare. “Your version of a psychiatrist’s couch?”
“First of all,” she answered seriously, refusing to be goaded, “I’m a psychologist. Second, I don’t use a couch. I find that, instead of helping a patient to relax, it actually makes them feel they are in a more vulnerable position and they tense up. And third, I told you, I’m just trying to give you some relief from the headache you’re trying so hard not to acknowledge. Although,” she gave him a careful smile, “it really does help to talk about these things.”
Lee relaxed slightly, but still didn’t move. “Couldn’t if I wanted to,” he repeated quietly. He looked at her curiously as she glanced around the room, then got up and walked over to the small dresser. His watch and wallet were lying on the top and she picked up the latter, opened it, and took out a $5 bill. She tucked it in the pocket of her robe and said with a grin, “You are now officially a patient, and therefore protected by law from my repeating anything you tell me.” She returned to her former position and grinned at him. “Normally I only charge friends a dollar. From you I’m collecting ‘Hazardous Duty Pay.”
At that Lee snorted, and finally relaxed somewhat. But he still didn’t move. Over the years he’d seen psychiatrists a few times – mostly ones hired by ONI to help him deal with issues their missions had caused. While he’d hated the intrusions into his privacy, he had to admit that for the most part the sessions had been helpful. Somehow this didn’t feel right to him, however. Not Becca. But he also had to admit that she’d been of immense help once before. And she did seem to have a knack for easing his headaches. And in a not unpleasant way. He finally gave her a rueful smile and stretched out on the bed, his head on the pillow.
As before, she started gently massaging his temples, speaking softly, urging him to relax. He didn’t pay too much attention to what she was actually saying until she asked softly, “Tell me about what’s causing the nightmares.” He didn’t answer and she continued even more softly. “It’s connected with your current health problems?” He still didn’t answer, just nodded once before closing his eyes and letting it all run through his mind. “Tell me about it,” she urged gently. He turned enough to look at her intently, seeing only honest concern and caring. Returning to his former position, he heaved a deep sigh and did his best to make sense of the whole, crazy mess.
“I told you about ONI, about still having connections to them.” When she quietly affirmed that, he continued. “Not quite two months ago they ‘borrowed’ me from NIMR. They do that once in awhile. Admiral Nelson doesn’t particularly appreciate it, and Chip gets downright belligerent that I keep doing it, but…”
“I’ve always felt that it’s my duty…that I’m serving my country. Helping others…”
“Chip doesn’t see it that way?”
“Oh, he understands why I go. Sort of. And so does the Admiral. That’s why he usually just leaves the decision of whether or not to take the assignments up to me. But…” This time she didn’t say anything, just let him continue at his own pace. “Chip gets upset because, it just seems, things don’t ever work the way they’re supposed to.”
“I gather this was one of them?” Lee sighed heavily, closed his eyes, but didn’t say anything. “Lee?” she vocally nudged him.
“NO!” He sat up, his back to her, his head down. “This is wrong,” came out miserably.
“Why?” came softly from behind him.
“It’s hard enough with the ONI shrinks. I don’t want to do this to you.”
“To me?” He looked at her over his shoulder but didn’t say anything. “I believe this was my choice,” she smiled softly.
“Not what I meant,” he mumbled even more miserably.
She gave the pillow a small pat. “Then tell me what you do mean. Lee,” and he could hear the honesty in her voice, “I can appreciate that this is very hard for you. You are so private, you keep everything bottled up so tight, exposing your mind to others has to be pure torture.”
“You have no idea,” came out fiercely, and he shuddered and closed his eyes. Old memories flooded his thoughts – memories that had nothing to do with this mission, or even ONI. He felt her reach out and lightly grasp his shoulder, not forcing, but gently willing him to lie down. His mind in turmoil, he hesitated slightly then complied. But his eyes stayed shut, seeing images he’d prefer not to.
“Lee, I can appreciate the fact that you think I’ll be shocked, or angered, or saddened by things you could tell me. And quite honestly, I may be. But words can’t hurt me. Events that have happened to you can’t hurt me. They are hurting you, in ways I don’t now understand. But I’d like to. I’d like to help you understand them. In understanding comes healing. That’s something I’m sure you know, because I really rather suspect you haven’t gotten unexplainably angry at anyone since our little session on the Hughes’ balcony, have you?”
Lee couldn’t help himself, and gave a small snort of laughter. “Unexplainably, no,” he admitted. “There’s always been a perfectly logical reason.” He heard Becca’s soft chuckle, and looked up at her.
“Tell me about this…mission, you called it?”
Lee nodded, and closed his eyes again as Becca went back to massaging his temples. “There was this group…ONI thought they were a splinter group from an organization they’d dealt with before. That’s why ONI was handling it instead of the FBI, even though they were here in the U.S. They’d been keeping an eye on them but wanted someone to infiltrate the group…find out firsthand what they were up to. I got tagged because I…had dealings with the main group before, knew something about how they operated.” He felt Becca’s fingers hesitate slightly, and looked up at her questioningly.
“Weren’t they afraid you might be recognized? I mean, I would think they’d want to send in a total unknown.”
Lee chuckled humorlessly. “Not a problem. No one from the first time survived the encounter.” He waited for her to show revulsion at that statement, in her eyes, or tone of voice. It never came. She just nodded, and he finally continued. “It should have only been a few days. Quick in, see what they were up to, quick out, and report. Then back to Seaview…”
“I gather Chip’s prophecy came true?”
“Prophecy, hell,” Lee spit out before he could stop it. He felt Becca’s fingers increase their area of massage to include his forehead, and took a deep breath. “I screwed up,” he finally said.
Another long sigh. “I don’t know,” came out much more anguished than he intended. He was silent for a bit, getting himself back under control. Becca didn’t interrupt. “I made contact just fine. Said the right things, made all the right noises so they’d believe I’d been sent from the main organization… Anyway, somehow I did something to alert them. I hadn’t been there twelve hours when I was grabbed, tied up in a basement room. Should have seen it coming…been able to get away before…”
“They hurt you,” Becca said softly, not a question.
Lee almost laughed. “They tried.” He looked up at Becca again. “They weren’t very effective.” Becca gave him an ‘oh, really’ look. “Came later,” he said softly, and closed his eyes again. “This batch was a bunch of clowns. At least, that’s what I took them for. Oh, they sent down the ‘enforcer’ to punch on me. ‘Soften me up’ for the interrogations. He was the only one who seemed to know what he was doing. The beatings left a lot of bruising but no real damage.” He paused and took a deep breath. “It was just the one guy that did all the physical persuasion, but they all took turns ‘interrogating’ me… Didn’t really know what they were doing. Or maybe…pretended they didn’t.” He chuckled softly. “My fourth grade teacher used to do a much better job of interrogation…” The grin stayed on his face.
“And what, pray tell, did your teacher have to interrogate you over?”
He looked at her. “I’ll never tell,” he teased her, but his expression slowly turned grim again.
“Hmm. Another time, definitely,” Becca threatened, but Lee was already back to more current issues. “Something changed, didn’t it?” she continued more seriously as Lee remained silent.
“After almost a week, the guy who’d been beating on me and a couple of the others came into the room, tied me into a chair, and blindfolded me. Knew something was up. They hadn’t bothered before…didn’t seem to care that I knew what they looked like, even though there had been a few new faces I’d not seen before being caught.” Lee heard his voice shaking and paused long enough to take several deep breaths, getting himself more under control. Becca just kept up her gentle massaging and didn’t interrupt.
“NO!” Lee practically yelled, and sat up again. “I can’t do this.” A little after came, “I shouldn’t be…
He felt the bed move slightly, and felt Becca’s hands return to his shoulders, her thumbs rubbing the knots in the back of his neck. “Deep breaths, Lee,” he heard her say softly, and realized he was shaking. “That moment is long gone. It’s all over. It can’t hurt you now to remember what happened.”
“No,” came out painfully. “It’s not over. At least…”
“Lee, that moment is gone. Things may happen in the future to remind you of it, but the memories of what happened that day can’t hurt you.” She didn’t try to make him lie down again but did continue to sit behind him, massaging muscles that Lee realized were rock hard with tension. His head in his hands, he tried to relax. Tried to distance himself from that day – those next few hours. It was one of the more difficult things he had ever done.
He had no idea how much time had elapsed before he spoke again. Becca hadn’t said anything either. He finally took a deep breath and continued. “I heard several people enter the room. The man who most often interrogated me did most of the talking. I heard other voices in the background. I recognized them as other members of the group. All except one…” He paused to concentrate. “I never heard his voice clearly. Just a whisper…sort of. He was behind me. The main guy kept talking, about how I was going to regret not co-operating.” He hesitated again, not wanting to remember. But knowing he really didn’t, after all, have a choice. The memories had been invading his thoughts whether he wanted to accept them or not.
“My head was held from behind and a glass was placed against my mouth. They tried to make me swallow whatever was in it by holding my nose.” His head came up out of his hands for just a moment, then went back down. “I’m a diver – I’m trained to hold my breath for long periods of time. Couldn’t have lasted forever, but was buying myself some time. Apparently they got impatient.” His head came up again. Even he could hear his voice go flat as he tried to distance himself from the emotions. “Somebody got impatient. I think the guy who was holding the glass from the direction it…the punch…came. If I had to guess, I’d say it was the new voice. No one else had hit me that hard.” He paused as a shiver shook his upper body. “As I gasped and coughed, the glass was forced against my mouth again. I didn’t have a choice…” He paused briefly before continuing. “The man who had been taunting me started talking again, but from behind. I think he was the guy who had been holding my head.”
Lee stopped talking for so long Becca finally said softly, “Did he tell you what it was you were forced to drink? What was going to happen?” Lee nodded, but wasn’t sure he could get it out coherently. “Lee?” she prodded gently, but he just shook his head. It was bad enough when it invaded his dreams. He couldn’t utter the words out loud. “Lee?” Could he?
“He said,” Lee started, then stopped to get his voice under control first. “He said…that whatever they gave me would strip away my muscle control first.” He forced himself to concentrate on the facts, not the emotions he’d gone through, and his voice once again steadied into almost a monotone. “It didn’t take long. I could still feel the ropes tying me into the chair but my legs and arms went numb. Before long the only reason my head remained level was because someone had a fist full of my hair. He told me that the drugs would eventually shut down my whole body, leaving the brain for last. He said I would be able to feel my body die.” Lee’s voice broke, and he fought to control it.
“But that didn’t happen,” Becca encouraged him, giving him time.
Lee shook his head slowly. “Still don’t know why.”
“Maybe because they weren’t as effective as they thought they were?”
“Effective enough,” and Lee’s voice broke again. He felt her try to pull him back, either against her or to lie back down, but he shrugged her off. Shaking himself back into more control, he finally turned to face her. He still had trouble looking at her directly, but his gaze met hers off and on as he continued. “Once I couldn’t move, they untied me and laid me on the floor. I was stripped, and dressed in old clothes.”
“How much of this do you actually remember, and how much were you told later?” Becca asked softly.
He gave her a quick flick of his eyes, but focused more to the side than on her. “At this point I was still aware of what was happening, I just couldn’t move.” She nodded and he continued. “The leader was still taunting me, telling me I’d never see my friends again, the ocean, anyone or anything I loved. How the drugs were already robbing me of my ability to move but would still let me feel myself die.” He stopped and closed his eyes for a moment before continuing. “I could hear the other voice very soft in the background. That voice…” and his trailed off.
“What about it?”
Lee just shook his head again. “I don’t know. It’s like…oh, that it reminded me of someone.”
“You think you knew this person?”
“No, not really. Just…that it sounded like someone I should know.”
“Could that be why you were grabbed so quickly? Not because you did something wrong, but that they were told who you were?”
“By who?” Lee laughed mirthlessly. “I told you. Didn’t leave anyone left to tell them.” He glared at her, again daring her to pull back from him. But she just continued to look at him openly and honestly. His glare died and he dropped his eyes again, remaining silent until she once again prodded gently.
“Did they leave you there?”
His head shook from side to side slowly before finally answering. “No. I was picked up and carried to a vehicle of some sort. The blindfold was still on. I don’t really remember the ride. But from where I knew I was, to the train yards where I was found, would have only taken them about half an hour.”
“The train yards?”
“Yeah.” Lee could hear his voice getting flat again as mental exhaustion became stronger than his emotions. The headache, never totally gone, was coming back with a vengeance. “The blindfold was finally removed, but didn’t make any difference – by that time I couldn’t see. They dumped me out on the ground – I could tell it was dirt and gravel. I didn’t know at the time where it was but I could smell oil, and diesel fuel. I lay there and thought about everyone and everything I would never see again.” He finally looked at her. “The last memory I have is thinking I didn’t get to see the stars again…” The emotions and the headache finally took their toll and he almost felt himself deflate, just sitting there, head down. This time when he felt Becca’s hands he didn’t resist. She made him lie down, and he felt the covers pulled over him.
“Go to sleep,” he heard Becca tell him softly. He felt her gently brush a few unruly curls, damp from emotions, off his forehead, and tried to relax. Tried to clear his mind of the terrible, frightening, thoughts that had invaded his mind those last few moments before he totally lost consciousness all those weeks ago. Becca continued to touch him gently, rubbing his temples, massaging the still too tense cords around his neck and shoulders. He knew he should say something to her. At the very least thank her for being so supportive. Hell, just for being there. Decidedly uncomfortable with discussing his emotions, she’d made it…well, not easy. Nothing and no one would ever make that happen! But at least bearable. As she continued her gentle ministrations he finally allowed some of the tension to leave his body; felt his breathing steady into something resembling normalcy. Almost falling, finally, into restful sleep.
The sound of her voice, soft and gentle, registered in his mind, but only served to deepen his level of comfort. “Rest easy, Commander,” settled around him. “Thank you for your trust. I’m beginning to understand why you give it so sparingly. I have a hard time believing you’ve survived as long as you have, doing the things I’m beginning to realize you do, and still function as well as you do. You’re an exceptional man, Lee Crane. It’s obvious you have such a strong sense of duty; of being the best you can possibly be at whatever task you set for yourself. It’s also obvious that no matter what that sense of duty forces you to do, you’re not the kind of man who manages to do it without a great deal of emotional involvement – to the detriment of your stability. You’ve been fortunate to find a balance point between sense of obligation and sense of mental preservation, and if it gets a little out of whack on occasion, you’ve allowed a select few friends close enough to bring everything back into focus. Thank you, Lee Crane, for allowing me within that very small circle.”
Lee tried to rouse himself long enough to acknowledge Becca’s comments, but instead felt himself falling further under total exhaustion’s influence. The last thing he heard was, “You’re safe, Lee. You have no need to fear tonight. I promise you, this time you’ll wake up in the morning.”
* * * *
He did, too, but he was mortified to discover it was no longer morning. It took him a bit to figure that out, however. He just assumed it was still early when he didn’t see Becca on the way to the shower. There was something about the level of sunlight shining through the windows in the gathering room – his bedroom had still been dark – but he didn’t take the time to analyze it, nor did he happen to look at the clock.
He’d finished his shower, off the water, and was standing there drying himself off when the door opened just wide enough to admit a hand holding a large Styrofoam cup of steaming coffee. He took it with muttered thanks, and listened to a soft chuckle as the hand disappeared. It wasn’t until he’d dressed and returned to the gathering room, coffee almost gone, that he glanced at the clock and discovered it was almost 1 pm.
“Have a good sleep?” Becca asked with a grin. She was curled up on the couch with coffee of her own. Several sandwiches were on a plate on the coffee table in front of her. There was also another large Styrofoam cup. “I made a quick food run when I got back from jogging around the grounds. Figured if you hadn’t surfaced by the time I got back, I’d roust you anyway. More coffee,” she pointed to the cup, “and tuna sandwiches.”
“I thought caffeine was a no-no after a migraine,” Lee mumbled.
“That was no migraine, and you know it,” she answered softly.
The coffee Lee grabbed with alacrity, sitting down in one of the chairs. He ignored the sandwiches until Becca, grabbing half of one for herself, shoved the plate toward him. “Eat,” came the order. “You need your strength. As soon as you’re ready, we’re taking off for Marymere Falls.”
“If you can’t kill me one way, you’ll try another.” Even Lee recognized the whine, and flashed her a quick smile.
She smiled back. “The falls are about a mile in, and for most part its fairly flat. You don’t have to do the last bit if you don’t want to. That’s the only steep part. But it’s a lovely little forest path, well maintained. The fresh air will do you good.”
Lee knew he should say something more about last night – was surprised when she didn’t bring it up. Whether from exhaustion, or finally being able to get it out in the open, he’d slept dream-free. He’d told her a great deal more than he’d told NIMR’s doctors. He’d decided early on it was none of their business and, for the most part, they hadn’t pushed the issue. Jamie had given him several opportunities to open up, asking quietly and easily how much he remembered of the incident. He’d let it drop when Lee would just shrug his shoulders and change the subject.
Lee snagged half a sandwich, more to bide time than because he was hungry, trying to decide what to say. But Becca started talking about plans for the next several days and, somewhat gratefully, he let the moment pass. She gave him a little more description of their proposed walk this afternoon, then explained that they’d pack and leave in the morning. She planned to take their time making the hour and a half drive to Port Angeles, have brunch, then make the 17-mile drive up to Hurricane Ridge Visitor’s Center. There was a walk from there out to Hurricane Hill Lookout they could at least do part of, enjoying the view of the Olympic and Bailey mountain ranges that made up the center of Olympic National Park. They’d spend the night in Port Angeles, then either make the drive around Puget Sound to Seattle on Tuesday, or maybe take the ferry. Lee made her laugh when he said he’d rather they drove around – he didn’t like being on boats when he wasn’t the one deciding the course.
Becca coaxed him to eat another half sandwich, then they took off for the drive along Lake Crescent to Storm King Ranger Station at the east end. After parking and spending a few minutes looking at the lake, they headed out along the loosely graveled walk. The first part ran along the edge of a meadow, and they were surprised to find several black-tailed deer grazing unconcernedly just a few feet off the trail. The path went downhill briefly, with a side path that curved down to the lake on their left. But they took the fork to the right, through a stonework culvert under Hwy 101 and into old growth forest. It looked similar to the “Hall of Mosses” trail at Hoh but with a little more sunshine sneaking through the treetops, and less moss. They passed over small streams bridged by large trees cut in half lengthwise, with rough-cut lumber nailed in place for handrails, and ran into more deer along the trail, munching nonchalantly along the edge of the path. As Lee and Becca stopped to watch, the deer moved off a few feet into the ferny undergrowth with more the appearance of just getting out of the way then any kind of fear. The hikers grinned at each other and continued on.
Just past Barnes Creek, about three quarters of the way into the mile long path, the trail narrowed and took a sharp rise up. Lee gave it a glance but, walking stick in hand and taking it slowly, the two continued the rest of the way to the lower level of 90-foot tall Marymere Falls. It was a spectacular sight, hidden there in the forest. The first part of the falls was fairly narrow, but about half way down it hit an outcropping of moss-covered rock, to broaden and cascade the rest of the way into the pond at the bottom.
Lee and Becca lingered there, neither in any hurry to leave the very peaceful setting. Other people came and went, lingered or not, no one disturbing anyone else. But shortly after 4:30, knowing he still had to make the mile-long walk out, Lee finally decided they’d better leave. They took it slowly and carefully. Lee was quite tired by the time they made it back to the Ranger Station, but by the end of the half-hour drive back to the Lodge he could actually feel some energy returning. He rested while Becca showered and changed, then cleaned up, and they walked over to the Lodge for an excellent steak dinner.
* * * *
Again Lee’s sleep was disturbed by dreams but not, thankfully, the powerful ones from the previous night. These were more on the line of ones he’d had off and on since waking up in NIMR’s Med Bay, and centered on trying to figure out what he’d done to alert the group that he wasn’t who he said he was. They weren’t strong enough to wake him up until his usual 5 am, but they did leave him feeling like he’d not rested well. He lay quietly for a few minutes, thinking about what Becca had asked – could it have been other than something he did? But that was dismissed with a shudder and he sat up, remembering. As he’d told Becca, he hadn’t left anyone alive to rat on him. He was just coming out of the shower when he heard Becca stir, and was packed and ready to go by the time she came out from hers. She packed quickly, and they were on the road by 7 o’clock.
They took their time driving along the edge of the lake eastward on Hwy 101, then re-entered the forest for most of the winding two-lane road into Port Angeles. They drove around the town until they found a place for a hearty breakfast. While eating, Becca quizzed the waitress about current weather conditions on the ridge. Lee learned they could and did chance rapidly at the mile-high Visitor’s Center. As the restaurant was fairly quiet this Monday morning the waitress made a quick call. She came back to tell them they were in luck; it was clear that morning, somewhat of a rarity up there, but that fog and low clouds were expected late in the day. They both assured her that wouldn’t be a problem; they were expecting to be back down by mid-afternoon or so.
Finished eating, Becca suggested they go ahead and get motel rooms for that night, then they wouldn’t have to worry about it later when Lee might be tired. He gave her a bad time about still trying to kill him off, but she just took a half-hearted swing at him and told him to pay the bill. Once rooms were arranged they headed up the narrow, winding but well-maintained road that led to the Hurricane Ridge Visitor’s Center.
* * * *
“Talk to me, Lee.”
“About what?” He instantly got a jab in the ribcage from Becca’s elbow, and grinned distractedly over to his right.
“About what’s going on in that pea-brain of yours,” she growled. “You’re way too quiet.”
“Oh,” he said, almost instantly distracted again, sitting on a fallen log and looking off into the distance toward Mt. Olympus and all its surrounding peaks. He’d really enjoyed the meandering drive from sea level up to the 5000-foot-elevation at the Center. The views were spectacular, the ever-changing geology and biology occupying his mind – with the occasional distraction of spotting black-tailed deer grazing near the road. At the Center they spent half an hour checking out the topography map on the upper lever, an approximately six-foot square visual depiction of the park. It was fun to stand behind the table it laid on, finding points on the map, then looking out the wall of glass and finding the actual site. They also wandered around looking at the other exhibits, and watching one of the rangers show some people the difference between elk and deer antlers, and mountain goat horns. Downstairs they spent a few minutes in the gift shop, where Becca embarrassed Lee by buying him a t-shirt with a marmot on it. The little gopher-like animals were plentiful in the park. They’d heard them whistle as they’d gotten out of the car. Lee just ducked his head and accepted the gift. Somehow the thought of walking around with a rodent on his chest wasn’t his idea of haute couture. Finally he grinned. He figured he could leave it with Tim.
Getting back in the car they drove the half-mile of paved road to the trailhead of the one-and-a-half mile hike to the top of Hurricane Hill Lookout. The ranger had promised them they could not only get marvelous views of the mountain range, but see all the way north to the Strait of Juan De Fuca and across it to Vancouver Island in Canada. One look at the trail map at the Center told Lee he’d probably not make it the entire way. The trail climbed a little more steeply and steadily than he thought he could handle just yet. But he decided to go as far as he could, and let Becca tell him about the rest of it when she got back to wherever he stopped.
They walked slowly as always, enjoying the views of mountain meadows dotted with small groves of fir trees. Marmot whistles frequently pierced the relative quiet. Becca teased Lee that he should have put on his new shirt and whistled back. They also spotted more deer here and there. Where the trail followed along the ridge they had marvelous views into the deeper canyons, and glimpses of patchy fog creeping its way into the landscape.
Lee had gone about halfway to the Lookout when he called it quits. Not far off the path, through a small stand of trees, was a fallen log. He chose to sit there looking out across a deep valley to the Bailey mountain range beyond while Becca continued on. He’d found his mind wandering to basement rooms, train whistles, and the antiseptic smells of hospital wards, and barely acknowledged Becca’s return. He wasn’t even sure how long he’d been sitting there, and took a quick glance at his watch as he brought himself back to the present and let her comments finally sink in.
“Sorry,” he apologized.
“Do you have any idea of how much I’m beginning to hate that word?”
It almost slipped out again before Lee could get it swallowed. He grinned at her sheepishly, but just shook his head. “Just stuff that doesn’t matter anymore,” he answered her first question softly, and turned back toward the landscape in front of him.
“It obviously matters to you or you wouldn’t have been so buried in it,” she insisted.
“Just sounds and smells,” he finally admitted. “They were the last senses to go. And the first to come back.”
“How much later?”
Lee frowned. “That part’s a little sketchy,” he admitted. “Jamie told me he’d had a brief conversation with the doctor who treated me…”
“You weren’t immediately taken home when you were found?” she interrupted.
Lee shook his head. “I was in Detroit.” He glanced at her. “Did I tell you that?” She shook her head. “Did tell you I was stripped and redressed.” She nodded. “I’d been dressed like a transient, that’s why they dumped me in the train yards, I guess. At some point I was found and taken to a hospital. There was some kind of foul-up when I was admitted, and the ER never got around to taking my fingerprints so Security could try to ID me.”
“That’s what happened!” a new, yet strangely familiar voice broke in, and Lee spun around on the log.
“Bracken,” he barely breathed. His old nemesis from Annapolis days was standing about ten feet behind him to his left, leaning casually against a small tree. There was nothing casual about the way he was holding the Beretta 9mm, complete with silencer, in his hand. Instinctively Lee shifted to put as much of himself between Bracken and Becca as he could.
“That was the damnedest thing,” Bracken continued easily, and walked to where he was about six feet from the left end of the log. Lee continued to stare at him. “After the guys dumped your body they took the van to where they could park without causing a commotion and walked back. Jase wanted to watch you die.” Lee momentarily closed his eyes, and felt Becca shudder next to him. “But when they got back you weren’t there. Jase swore they were only gone about fifteen minutes, but you’d just disappeared. We didn’t have a clue what happened. Nelson didn’t have you.” He almost grinned. “That was some consolation, at least. But some people were a little displeased that I’d allowed my guinea pig to just up and ‘poof, you were gone’.”
“Happy to oblige,” Lee goaded carefully. From the change in Bracken’s expression, Lee decided he’d better be even more careful.
But Bracken seemed to get himself back under control quickly. “Who’s your friend?”
“Just that – a friend. She’s no threat to you. Let her go.” Lee knew it was useless but he had to try.
Bracken dismissed the request with the barest of expression changes. “Name,” he demanded.
Lee felt Becca stiffen in preparation for answering the growl. “Becca Duval,” he interrupted her quickly. He wasn’t sure why, but for some reason it seemed important to protect the name she’d legally changed hers to. He also decided it was important to switch topics. “How did you end up in the middle of that?” he asked Bracken seriously. “The last I heard, when you left Annapolis you went into your father’s import/export business.”
“I didn’t leave,” Bracken spit out. “Because of you, I got booted out.”
“Wasn’t my doing,” Lee disagreed, but softly. “I did everything I could to see that you stayed.”
“Mr. Goody-Two-Shoes,” Bracken muttered and took a step closer, then abruptly gave Lee a triumphant, chilling, grin. “God, was it sweet when I discovered who was being sent in to investigate.”
“As I was asking…” Lee encouraged. He’d been watching the continued thickening of the fog creeping up the walls of the valley in front of him. Bracken appeared to be alone. If Lee could just buy some more time…
“Yeah. I worked with dear old Dad for awhile.” He gave Lee a mirthless grin. “In fact, he thinks I still do.” Lee cocked the expected eyebrow and Bracken relaxed his stance somewhat – although the gun never wavered. It was still pointed directly at Lee’s head. “Oh, I do just enough to keep him out of my hair. But we both discovered fairly quickly that I wasn’t cut out for a desk job, so I took over all the traveling. Dad’s business can get a bit…eclectic at times. I discovered I had a talent for tracking down some of the more obscure items his clients asked for. Ended up meeting and doing business with a lot of interesting people.”
“I’ll bet,” Lee mumbled not quite to himself.
Bracken seemed to be enjoying his storytelling. “Oh, it was all on the up and up back then – ah, mostly, anyway. And if I had to get a little creative tracking down an item, well…neither Dad nor the clients really wanted to know.”
“That’s a long way from whatever you’re into now,” Lee pointed out.
“Like I said. Ended up meeting a lot of interesting people. Discovered just how lucrative a few of those associations could be.”
“I’ll bet,” Lee repeated gloomily.
“And the really crazy thing?” Bracken was obviously proud of himself. “We did such a good job of controlling things, doing just enough business openly that no one questioned what was going on behind the scenes, that the CIA contacted me – ME! – to do a bit of covert intelligence gathering for them.” He laughed outright, but it wasn’t a pleasant sound. “What a joke. I give them just enough to keep them happy, and use what they give me to run circles around them right under their very noses.”
A few things were starting to make sense to Lee. “I get the feeling I bumped into a few of your friends last year.”
Bracken’s expression hardened into a vicious snarl. “You have absolutely no idea what you cost me, Crane.”
“Actually,” Lee said softly, “I’m beginning to get a pretty good idea. So, you set up another branch of the group a little closer to home?”
“Didn’t start out that way,” Bracken admitted. “Everyone was so busy keeping track of their buddies overseas, we sort of thought they’d be safer here.” He grinned malevolently. “Then just about the time I learned you were being sent in to scope them out, I got word that another little project some friends were working on was ready for testing.” His grin broadened. “Couldn’t think of a more perfect guinea pig.”
Lee felt Becca’s hands grip his right arm but he casually shrugged them off. He needed that hand and arm free – the walking stick was lying by his right leg. “You should pick your friends better,” he said somewhat offhandedly, mostly to cover the shrug. “This last group was a bunch of jokers. I’ve had lots better interrogations. And the drug didn’t live up to your dire threats.”
“Those ‘jokers’ as you call them were doing exactly what they were told,” Bracken snarled. He took another small step forward threateningly, then seemed to get control of himself and smirked. “Couldn’t have you too badly damaged before I got there. I was, shall we say, profitably occupied elsewhere for a few days.” His smirk turned sickly sweet. “And I kind of like the way the drug worked. The great Lee Crane, forced to use a cane and depend on a woman for assistance.”
Lee knew he cringed but couldn’t stop it. “But I gather I wasn’t supposed to survive.”
“Humm, no,” Bracken admitted. “You were supposed to be dead by the time you were found, and Nelson get a call to come retrieve a body bag.”
Lee shuddered at that visualization. “Any idea what went wrong?” he asked as casually as his nerve endings would let him.
“That’s why I’m taking you back, to try and figure that out.” Bracken’s expression turned hard. “We kept checking the morgues; didn’t expect you’d end up alive as a John Doe. By the time we found that out you’d already been returned to NIMR, still alive. Dr…no, you don’t need to know that, but he wants you back to try and figure out why it didn’t work.”
“Worked well enough,” Lee admitted with hanging head, hoping Bracken saw the hopelessness he was trying to express, and Becca saw the hand quietly grip the walking stick. He thought she might have because she shifted minutely away. “You followed me up to Oregon?” he asked, still stalling for time. The fog was threatening to rival anything London had to offer, and was just about to broach the edge of the valley. Even now wisps of it were winding in and out of the stand of trees.
“We couldn’t get to you at NIMR, just kept watch. But one afternoon you didn’t go home like my man assumed.” Lee was no longer unhappy he and Chip had been delayed leaving that day. “All of a sudden you just disappeared, and I had to scramble a bit.”
“Hard to find good help these days,” Lee commiserated.
“He won’t be making that mistake again,” Bracken growled, and Lee cringed again. From the corner of his eye he saw Becca shudder as well, and use it as an excuse to pull away even further from Lee. It caused Bracken to half smile before returning his gaze to Lee.
“Just a matter of having a friend track your credit card usage. Took awhile to catch up, that’s all.” He looked around quickly, not letting his eyes wander far from Lee. “But it’s all going to work out just fine. Just fine indeed. A nice busy tourist attraction, so nobody pays much attention to anyone else. A little weather to cover our tracks so we’ll be nicely away before Ms Duval is found.” He left no doubt what he meant by that.
Lee didn’t bother commenting. He just hoped Becca was holding herself together. He was going to need her to be coherent and cooperative very shortly. The fog was almost thick enough, and Bracken was almost close enough. All he needed was the right distraction. Several times there had been sounds of people walking on the trail. Quiet conversations, respectful of the natural wonders that surrounded them, and of other hikers. Most of them had been headed back toward the Visitor’s Center, with the approaching inclement conditions. The log that Lee and Becca were sitting on was just barely visible from the trail but no one had apparently wanted to violate their solitude, for which Lee was grateful. He sure didn’t want anyone else mixed up in this mess. Bracken had stayed just far enough to the left that Lee knew he was making sure he wasn’t seen.
When the distractions came they were multi-fold, and so unexpected that even Lee was momentarily unable to take advantage of them. A marmot’s sharp whistle, just below them down the steep slope into the valley, coincided with rustling in the underbrush. “Hope that’s not a black bear,” Lee said as if to no one in particular, remembering the exhibits he’d seen at the Center that said they were not infrequently seen. He was gratified to see Bracken’s eyes shift nervously in that direction. Lee could see the man mentally evaluating his options when another rustling, just behind Bracken, coincided with a breath of wind blowing a solid layer of fog and low clouds up over the valley rim and into their little grove of trees. Instantly visibility was down to almost zero, it was that thick. Praying he’d only been wanting to unsettle Bracken - there really wasn’t a bear about to appear in their midst - Lee swung the walking stick in Bracken’s direction with all the effort he could put into it. He gained a small measure of satisfaction when he felt it hit and heard a curse. Switching the stick to his left hand, he reached for Becca’s arm. He growled a firm but quiet, “Not a word!” and headed with her in tow to their right, deeper into the little copse of trees. Within their cover the fog hadn’t yet penetrated thickly. Becca, while remaining quiet, was not as used as Lee was to moving silently and he was painfully aware of her footfalls next to him. But he had the satisfaction of hearing Bracken, even more loudly, heading in the direction of the trail. Bracken and his buddies at Annapolis had never been real good in the stealth department.
Finding a small tree surrounded by several bushes, he pushed Becca down into the center and squatted next to her. “I’m going to lure Bracken a little further up the trail,” he told her, and pushed the walking stick into her hands. “You’ll be safe here for now. He assumed we’d head immediately for the trail and the Center. Once you hear us get past you, you need to make your way down for help.”
“I’m not leaving you up here,” Becca whispered insistently.
He started to just firmly brush her off, then relented. “You have to,” he told her. “I can’t let this go any further.”
“But you’re in no condition…” she continued hesitantly, then added more firmly, “you don’t have a weapon.”
Lee grinned humorlessly. “I know Bracken. And his kind. I’m sure I can stay out of his way until you get back with the rangers. He cannot be allowed to get away.”
Unhappily, Becca finally nodded agreement. “How will I know you’ve…that it’s safe to move?”
A soft curse came from their left as Bracken apparently stumbled over something in his search for them. “He’s an oaf.” Lee nodded in that direction. “You’ll know.”
Becca nodded again but pushed the walking stick back into his hands. “I have a feeling you’re going to need this more than I will.”
Lee raised an eyebrow but accepted it nonetheless. “Once you reach the path you’ll be okay.” He took a deep breath. “Just hurry.”
She leaned forward and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. “You take care of yourself, Commander,” she ordered firmly. “I still have vacation days left, and there’s a few more sights I’d like to show you.” His quizzical expression was interrupted by footfalls getting closer. Returning her kiss he pushed her even further under the bushes, stood up, and headed along the edge of the copse.
From what he remembered, there was another grove of trees about fifty yards away, along a spine that took off from the ridge the trail was on. There was no cover between the two groves, but the fog was heavy enough that he figured he would be okay. His immediate problem was getting Bracken’s attention on him and away from Becca. From the mutterings he figured Bracken had immediately checked the trail where the fog was so far a little thinner, and when he didn’t find them there, headed back into the trees. Once Lee reached the upper trail edge of the copse, he smacked a tree trunk with the walking stick, thankful again for its iron-like sturdiness, and made a soft sound as if he’d tripped. He smiled as, after a moment of silence, he heard what were supposed to be silent footfalls head in his direction, then sobered. Don’t get cocky, Crane, he warned himself. He’s the one with the gun.
Luck was still with him, however. The ever-moving fog opened just enough for him to spot the trees he was headed for, then closed in again. He’d sat long enough that a measure of strength had returned, and didn’t figure he’d have any problem covering the somewhat uneven meadowland between, especially since it was slightly downhill. He gave the tree trunk another small tap, uttered a falsetto “Lee” to sucker Bracken into believing Becca was still with him, and set out.
He almost made it. Just as he headed out, a heavy billow of fog surrounded him, making it impossible to even see the ground at his feet. Wielding the walking stick like a blind man’s cane, he trusted his sense of direction to keep him in a straight line. Several times he ran across small shrubs, giving them a whack to keep Bracken’s attention. Once he heard a heavy thud behind him and almost laughed outright. Guess he found that last bush, too, Lee chuckled to himself, and waited to make sure Bracken didn’t get lost in the fog. When he once again heard footsteps closing in he continued, but almost waited too long. Just as he was about to enter the copse a bit of wind briefly thinned the fog. Lee heard the soft ‘phat’ of the silencer and was almost tripped by a searing pain in his left calf, but was able to make the cover of the trees as the fog rolled in again. Bracken was either serious about wanting Lee alive, or his aim was even worse than his stealth. Making a quick check and determining the bullet had just grazed him, taking a small slice through the outside of his calf - painful, but not very damaging - Lee decided it was probably the former and took a moment of comfort in the thought. It was immediately followed by thoughts of what Bracken would probably do to him if he did catch him again, and he hurried deeper into the copse. This grove, being further off the trail, was brushier than the first one, and Lee found what he hoped was a defensible hiding place. He made sure he was well hidden, but could still stand quickly and swing the walking stick if Bracken got close enough.
Instead, Bracken stopped just inside the grove and broke the silence. “Come on out, Crane. Make it easy on me, and I go easy on the woman.”
Lee had at least half a dozen trees between himself and his nemesis, and felt comfortable answering. “Like I’m supposed to believe that,” he growled.
“Well, there are easy ways to die, and hard ones. I’m sure you don’t want to watch her suffer.”
Sounds were swirling along with the fog but Lee was pretty sure Bracken had shifted positions between comments, trying to find him. He risked a quick, “We’ll take our chances,” and then went totally silent, listening.
From the occasional sounds, Lee figured Bracken was actually doing a pretty decent job of searching for him. Them, he corrected, and allowed himself a small grin. It was obvious Bracken had no idea Becca wasn’t still with him. She should be well away by now, on her way down the trail to the car, and from there a quick drive to the Visitor’s Center. Lee had no idea how long it would take her to convince the rangers of the problem. He just hoped they were smart enough to take her, and the threat of Bracken’s gun, seriously. My money’s on Becca.
Lee was listening to the sound of Bracken continuing the search to his right when soft rustling to his left caught his attention. Within the grove of trees the fog wasn’t nearly as thick, but Lee didn’t dare risk moving for fear of alerting Bracken to his location. Damn. We’re going to run into that bear, yet, he groaned, and put all senses on even higher alert than they already were.
There were no more discernible sounds from Lee’s left, thankfully. Bracken was getting closer and closer, and Lee didn’t need the added distraction. Armed only with the stick, he was only going to get one good chance. If he failed to make a good hit, knocking Bracken unconscious or at least gaining possession of the weapon, Lee was no better off than he was now, and possibly a lot worse. Under normal conditions he had no doubt he could handle the larger, heavier Bracken easily. But things were far from normal. Lee had no misconceptions about who would win if this ended up in a fight, and considered his options. He wasn’t exactly sure what was beyond this grove of trees. If he had to make a run for it, and he grimaced at that unfortunate choice of words, his best bet would be to head back up towards the path, praying the fog would give him enough cover. The path would at least give him a point of reference. Becca had to have made it down by now and was hopefully on her way back with reinforcements. They would go first to the original small grove of trees, where Becca could point them in the direction of this one. If he could work his way back and get to them first, Bracken would be penned in. Even if he somehow managed to elude them for now, Lee would bet he wasn’t outdoorsman enough to last out here for long without being caught.
First things first. Bracken was getting closer and closer, methodically searching. And also, apparently, listening. The wind was picking up as well, causing the treetops twenty feet above Lee’s head to rustle, and unfortunately obscuring some of Bracken’s movements. The man was almost on top of Lee before he was aware of it, and he had to react instinctively. He came up swinging, aiming for where he thought Bracken’s head would be, but unfortunately misjudged slightly and connected instead with the man’s shoulder. He had the satisfaction of seeing the gun go flying from Bracken’s grasp into the underbrush, but before he could take another full swing Bracken grabbed the stick. A power struggle being useless, Lee held on just long enough for Bracken to prepare for a strong pull and actually leaned into the action, surprising his enemy so badly he lost his footing. Lee caught just a glimpse of Bracken’s head bouncing off a tree trunk before heading as fast as he could in the opposite direction, following his earlier escape route.
That’s when Lee’s luck ran out. Not that the fog wasn’t heavy enough to give him cover. Just the opposite. It was so thick, Lee had no idea the small ridge he found himself on didn’t lead back to the main one until it had narrowed to little more than a spine and turned dangerously rocky. He kept going, hoping the spine was just a saddle and would widen again on the other side. He got a bad feeling, however, when a rock he accidentally kicked loose went over the side to his left, and he lost the sound of its fall before ever hearing it hit bottom. Not good, Crane, he cautioned himself. Time to sit tight before you follow that rock. And that’s all he could do. In the totally gray world he found himself, hearing was the only sense he could count on. And even that was compromised by the swirls in the air currents. Kneeling down to present a smaller target should the fog suddenly open up, he waited and listened.
Once he stopped, and worked to get his pounding heartbeat under control, he could hear lumbering footfalls behind him. Either Bracken was better at stalking than Lee had given him credit for, or Lee’s own infirmities had made him much too easy to follow. Probably both, Lee admitted with a heavy sigh. Or it’s the bear and I’m on his path, Lee suddenly started worrying. But listening as carefully as he could, he decided it had to be Bracken. He knew for sure when he heard the man stumble and let out a soft curse. From the sounds, if Lee could trust them, Bracken was about twenty feet away, coming slowly as he, too, found the ridge narrowing. With Lee stopped there would be no sounds for him to follow, so he couldn’t be sure Lee wasn’t laying in wait for him just ahead. The fog continued to be so thick Lee could barely see his hand at the end of his arm. He was worried not so much about Bracken’s gun, assuming he’d taken the time to find it after it went flying, but that he might also have the walking stick, using it as Lee had earlier, feeling his way. If he should hit Lee - even by accident - if Lee wasn’t exceptionally careful it would take very little to make him lose his balance on the knife-edged spine. In his weakened condition there would be no way he could save himself from falling.
Suddenly Lee heard Bracken stumble again, and a solid thud. Rocks cascaded down the steep side of the canyon wall. Lee could hear Bracken breathing heavily, apparently having fallen badly, and crawled as quietly as he could forward. If he could catch the bigger man off-guard, he might still get in a lucky shot and end this cat-and-mouse game once and for all.
It almost worked. Continued heavy breathing covered the sounds of his approach. He figured Bracken was trying to figure out what to do. Lee had found a fist-sized rock that fit comfortably in his right hand, the only weapon available to him. He worked desperately to control his own breathing, his energy reserves rapidly diminishing with both the physical and mental stress he was under. He knew he was within just a few feet when sounds beyond Bracken caught both men’s attention. No bears, please! Lee begged silently, and launched himself at Bracken’s turning body.
He caught the larger man totally unaware, sending him sprawling. Hearing something go clattering down the steep hillside, he swung the rock toward Bracken’s head. Lee wanted only to knock the other man out long enough to get him under control – maybe use belts to tie him up until help arrived. A twisting Bracken avoided the blow and the two men struggled briefly on the narrow ridge, neither seeing the other clearly in the heavy fog. Lee was grateful Bracken seemed to have neither the walking stick nor the Beretta – maybe the gun was what he’d heard go flying – and managed to back away as Bracken briefly lost his balance and let go of him. Neither man had said a word except for grunts of effort. Lee could hear the bigger man gather himself apparently for a lunge in his direction, when all of a sudden there was another cascade of rocks, and Bracken screamed. Lee scrambled forward to where Bracken had been; he wasn’t there. But the screams continued from just to his right – over the edge of the ridge. Lee could just make out a pair of hands through the fog, frantically scrambling for any kind of purchase. There wasn’t much except loose shale from what Lee could see.
“Bracken,” Lee yelled. “Don’t panic.” Lying on his stomach he reached over as far as he could, just barely able to reach one of Bracken’s hands. Lee still couldn’t see his face, but one hand stretched for Lee wildly just as the other apparently lost its precarious grip on a rock. The instant he felt Bracken’s weight, Lee knew he was in trouble. With no way to brace himself, he could feel his body start to slide forward. Bracken’s mad scrambling wasn’t helping. “Bracken, stop,” Lee ordered. “You’ll pull us both over. Settle down. I know you can’t see anything, but try to feel around and find something to help yourself. I can’t keep this up very long.”
Lee heard nothing but mumbles and grunts in return, but the wild scrambling stopped. It didn’t help much. While Bracken searched with feet and free hand for a way to save himself from gravity, Lee suddenly felt like a hydraulic connection with a broken seal – he could feel what little energy he had left literally draining away. Again he felt his body slip closer to the edge.
Suddenly there was weight pressing on his legs, stopping his forward movement. He hoped it was Becca having disobeyed his orders and not a bear, but he couldn’t even spare the energy it would take to turn and look. The fog was continuing to swirl in the freshening wind and Bracken’s face was beginning to appear, on it a mixture of defiance and fear. Lee couldn’t think about that. He couldn’t think about anything except maintaining the unsteady grip he had on the other man’s hand.
Becca apparently heard something Lee didn’t because suddenly she yelled. “Over here. Follow my voice. Be careful, but hurry,” and kept up the litany, guiding whoever was coming through the fog. Lee couldn’t even lift his head. He did get another glimpse of Bracken’s face, felt the other man tighten his grip on Lee’s now almost lifeless hand – and pull? Lee looked again. There was a meanness to Bracken’s expression Lee wasn’t sure he’d ever seen before, and in that instant realized the man’s intention. If he was going to fall, he intended to take Lee with him. The only thing that kept him from succeeding was Becca’s weight on Lee’s lower body, but he had no idea if Bracken knew that. As footsteps and voices could be heard getting closer, Lee saw another expression flash briefly across Bracken’s face – one of defeat. Just as the voices reached the three, out on that narrow ridge, Lee felt Bracken let go.
* * * *
Lee never lost consciousness during the remainder of that horrible day; although for most of it he wasn’t able to do more than barely turn his head. The voices turned out to belong to three park rangers. One immediately flattened himself next to Lee, peering into the swirling fog. They both listened as something heavy tumbled down the embankment to land very far away with a dull thud. Lee just shook his head slowly at the other man.
“You don’t follow orders very well, Ms Radiwan,” a new voice said sternly.
“You had that problem, too,” Lee commented wearily as he was gently turned over.
“Shut up, Commander,” Becca warned him, and he tried to grin. He wasn’t sure how successful he was but she momentarily grinned back, kneeling next to him.
“We told you to wait by your car.” Again the ranger who seemed to be in charge spoke. He also was kneeling down.
“Like I told you,” Becca defended herself, “Lee’s still recovering from an illness. I have absolutely no idea how he managed to do what he did. I needed to get back up here, not wait around who knew how long for you guys.” She turned back to Lee as the first ranger was making a cursory exam. “I went down like you told me, as far as the car. Used my cell phone to call for reinforcements and came back. Okay?”
Lee grinned tiredly. “Just glad you weren’t the bear.”
“What bear?” she asked, sudden panic briefly crossing her face which changed to concern as Lee groaned. The first ranger had found the bullet wound.
“Not too serious,” the ranger said, more to his superior than anyone else. He shrugged off the backpack he was wearing and reached inside. “I’ll put a dressing on it here, and leave it for the paramedics to clean up a little better once we get down.”
His boss nodded. “There should be an ambulance waiting by the time we get you off the ridge,” he told both Lee and Becca. Lee gave a quick glance toward the edge, and the ranger nodded. “There should also be a couple Search & Rescue personnel there as well. As soon as we get you down, we’ll come back. We won’t leave him there.” Lee just nodded weakly.
Quickly and efficiently Lee was wrapped in blankets and secured inside a wire rescue basket. Using red-coned flashlights that helped cut through the fog, the group started back down. The head ranger, who introduced himself as Mike Lancing, used the time to ask more questions. Becca walked alongside the litter, her hand resting lightly on Lee’s shoulder, letting him do most of the explaining unless asked something specifically. Lee kept his answers to a bare minimum, not completely from exhaustion. He gave Lancing Bracken’s full name, then explained that Bracken had blamed Lee for his expulsion from Annapolis, and had obviously continued to do so.
“That’s a long time to hold a grudge, Commander,” Lancing observed dryly.
“Bracken wasn’t the most stable person in the world,” Lee answered back. He told Lancing the basics of what had happened, leaving out most of the first part of the conversation. He glanced several times at Becca but she seemed to understand his need to keep parts of the story quiet. She did interject a few comments when Lee was telling about getting away from Bracken the second time. It had been her Lee had heard off to his left. Not a bear, he sighed quietly. She looked at him curiously but he just gave her a brief grin. He’d have to explain that to her later – maybe!
Once Becca had made her call, she’d hurried as fast as the fog would let her back to the first stand of trees, then in the direction she’d seen Lee disappear. Well hidden in the fog, she’d been able to follow Bracken’s heavy movements to the second grove. She’d seen the brief struggle, watched Bracken search desperately for the gun once Lee got away, thought she saw him find it but wasn’t totally sure, and once more go after Lee. Again she’d followed, no closer than her hearing would allow her to mark Bracken’s movements. She’d only allowed herself to get close when she finally heard Lee call to the struggling man.
“I heard something tumble over the edge when I first hit him,” Lee added. “It could have been the gun. I never saw it.”
Lancing just nodded. “We’ll look for that, too.”
The group stopped briefly at the second grove and made a quick search. They didn’t come up with the gun but did find the walking stick, which was returned to Becca undamaged. “Made those things good,” Lee commented, and the whole group grinned.
As promised, an ambulance as well as two S&R vehicles were waiting for them at the trailhead. Once Lee was transferred from the basket to a gurney, most of the rangers headed back out to retrieve Bracken’s body. Two stayed – Lancing, and the one whom Lee had yet to hear say a word. Two paramedics, one male, one female, quickly and efficiently checked Lee over and prepared to get him down the mountain to the hospital. Lee put up a brief argument. He insisted that all he needed was to rest, and he could do that at the motel.
At that Becca glared at him. “Commander,” she growled firmly, “can’t you ever just follow a simple order without an argument?”
“I could ask you the same question,” Lee muttered back, but his expression turned sheepish at her scowl.
“You’re Navy, for pete’s sake. You should be used to taking orders.”
“More used to giving them,” he grumbled.
Becca brandished the walking stick. “This has already been put to good use today. Just shut up and behave.”
Lancing reached out and grabbed the stick. “Maybe I’d better hang on to this for the moment,” he said firmly. But Lee saw his eyes twinkle, and he laughed outright as Becca turned her glare on him. Lee figured Lancing was probably glad he still had the stick a few minutes later when Becca realized she was expected to ride down in the ambulance as well. She put up a heartfelt if short-lived battle, trying to explain that she was not only just fine, she also needed to get her car down as well. Lee figured he wasn’t the only one who had recognized Becca’s adrenaline rush from the afternoon’s activities and knew that once things calmed down she was going to crash big time. Lancing just continued to grin as Becca grudgingly surrendered, tossed her keys over, and climbed in the ambulance to sit on the seat beside Lee’s gurney. Lee saw the ranger’s grin broaden as Becca caught the one on Lee’s face and glared at him. Lee gave him a wink as Lancing closed the ambulance door.
The rest of the day was a mixture of frustration and humor. Frustration that even though he explained at least half a dozen times – and quite patiently, he thought – that he was still recovering from a recent illness, had just overtaxed himself, and that all he needed to do was get a little rest and he’d be fine, his comments went pretty much ignored. Once the initial care physician at the hospital decided that - except for an almost total inability to move, and not counting the small matter of the bullet wound - he seemed to be otherwise physically okay he was admitted, attached to two IV’s, a heart monitor and a catheter, and incarcerated in a private room. And humor that Becca was having pretty much the same problem. She, at least, had retained possession of her cell phone, and he could only lie there and guess at the calls she was making. He figured his phone was where he’d left it, in her car, and didn’t even bother asking for it. Everything else he’d asked for had been ignored: pj’s instead of a hospital gown, real food instead of IV’s, and no catheter. After awhile he just gave up. The same doctor came in after he was settled, wanting more information on the original illness or a number where he could reach Lee’s own physician. Lee hedged. Even though there were several people at the Med Bay who could answer the man’s questions, Lee just told him that his own doctor was on a submarine in the middle of the Gulf of Alaska and couldn’t be reached. He didn’t mention that with all the calls he knew Becca had made, Dr. Tyler would no doubt be hearing from Jamie sooner rather than later.
Lancing showed up during the early part of the evening, ostensibly to let Lee know they’d recovered Bracken’s body and, by some miracle, the Beretta as well. But rather than just leave again, as Lee was hoping, he settled into a chair and quietly prodded Lee for more information. While hinting that the ranger might want to keep quiet, at least for the present, that this had been anything other than an unfortunate hiking accident, Lee chose to give Lancing little more than he’d already said, and gradually pretended he was having trouble staying awake. It had the desired effect of getting rid of the ranger, but Lee didn’t realize that he did actually fall asleep soon after.
He realized it some indeterminable period of time later when he opened his eyes to find the room lights had been greatly dimmed. He closed his eyes again and lay quietly, digesting the remnants of the dream that had apparently awakened him. It had been a jumbled mess of quiet beaches, Annapolis Honor Board meetings, bears (one of which was walking on its hind legs and carrying a blackthorn walking stick, at which Lee gave his head a shake), a whole room full of clock faces with short blond haircuts – and the smell of Nelson’s aftershave? Lee thought he was only mentally shaking his head from side to side until a voice to his right, soft and rich, asked, “What’s wrong, Lee?” Lee’s eyes flew open and he tried to sit up before remembering how hopeless a task that was at the moment. By that time Admiral Nelson had come over from the chair he’d been sitting in and was standing at the bedside, his hand laying gently on Lee’s arm. “Easy, lad.”
“Sorry, Sir,” Lee apologized, allowed himself a half grin remembering Becca’s last comments about that word, and finally focused on his boss. “When did you get here? What time is it?”
“Easy, lad,” Nelson repeated with a chuckle. As Lee reached clumsily for the button that would raise the head of the bed, Nelson found it instead. “Better, now?” he asked, once Lee was sitting up a bit more.
“Awake, anyway,” Lee muttered, and again listened to Nelson’s soft chuckles as he returned to his chair. “Becca, ah, Dr. Radiwan, called you?”
“More or less. I believe the progression was, she called the Hughes, they called NIMR, and Angie called us.” At Nelson’s choice of words, Lee glanced quickly around the room, causing a soft snort from the Admiral. “Yes, Jamie came as well. You don’t think I’d get away without him after the report we got.” He chuckled at Lee’s cringe.
“Into Bremerton Naval Base, and rental car to here. But at the moment Doc’s hopefully asleep. Seems there were a couple motel rooms paid for but going for naught.”
“You talked to Becca.” It wasn’t a question.
“Briefly. Charming woman,” and he raised an eyebrow.
Lee was thankful the room was still fairly dark. “It’s not what you think, Sir,” he said defensively.
“With you it so rarely is,” Nelson quipped, then added softly, “but you’re a fool.”
Lee decided it was time to change the subject. “How much did she tell you?” He was thankful that Nelson also chose to get serious.
“Cautious woman as well,” he told Lee. “Not knowing Jamie and me from Adam, she said little beyond, apparently, what you told the ranger.”
Lee nodded. “He was here earlier, after they stuck me in here,” and he watched Nelson grin at his tone of voice. “I just didn’t want to open that can of worms, not when I knew I couldn’t do anything about it right now.”
Nelson nodded. “However…”
“Yes, Sir,” and Lee told Nelson everything that had happened, starting with Bracken’s appearance on the ridge, and everything that the man had said. Nelson asked a question here and there, but basically let Lee tell the story at his own pace. “Why do you think he did it, Sir?” he ended, with a long look at his boss.
“Go bad?” and Nelson just shrugged.
“No. That was pretty obvious. Greed, and the fact that he was just plain mean. I thought the Academy would change him. I tried to help him. Didn’t have any success. What I meant was, why did he let go?”
“Are you sure he did?”
It was Lee’s turn to shrug, on his part very tiredly. “It sure seemed like it at the time. He had a good grip on me. I certainly wasn’t holding him up at that point. I’m sure he tried to pull me over. Would have, if Becca hadn’t been there.” A strong shiver hit his body and he sighed heavily to cover it. “But it just seemed, once he couldn’t get me down and knew there was help coming, he simply quit.” Even Lee recognized the weariness in his voice, and Nelson came over once again to stand by the bed.
“Who knows, lad,” he said softly. “Perhaps when he realized it was over and he was going to be caught, he just couldn’t face his father. Maybe he was afraid of what his cronies would do to him if they thought he’d ratted out. We’ll never know. But I’ll tell you this,” and his voice turned hard, “there’s going to be some serious digging into his business dealings. As well as his government connections, whatever they were. I dare say there’s going to be a fair amount of damage control to deal with.” Lee nodded tiredly, and Nelson’s voice softened. “Now you go back to sleep. Jamie’s going to have my head for keeping you awake as long as I have.”
“I’m fine,” Lee said automatically, then glanced up sheepishly.
Nelson grinned at the younger man. “You need your rest,” he said firmly, but continued to smile. “You’re going to have a fair amount of damage control to handle yourself when you get back.”
“Why?” Lee immediately demanded and tried to sit up straighter. “What’s wrong? What’s going on with the cruise?”
Nelson just chuckled as he gently pressed Lee back against the bed. “Easy. While it has been, shall we say, interesting, and I’m not sure who’s going to be more happy to have you back, Chip or the crew – when you’re well enough,” he added firmly, “and not before – that’s not what I was referring to. I just meant, Chip’s going to go ballistic when he finds out you’ve been keeping Dr. Radiwan a secret from him. She’s definitely not a dog.”
It took Lee a second to understand what Nelson meant. “I guess he told you about Lacey.”
“Brought back pictures,” Nelson admitted, and Lee just grinned. It died rather abruptly when the Admiral continued. “The last I saw, one was posted in the Wardroom, and Sharkey said he put one up in the Crew’s Mess.” He laughed outright as Lee groaned dramatically and shut his eyes. Chip did promise to get even, Lee grumbled to himself. He also felt the head of the bed return to its earlier position, and opened his eyes again as the blankets were tucked in a bit more firmly. But they didn’t stay open long as sleep once again claimed him.
* * * *
Lee awakened much more gradually this time, grimaced as memory returned of where he was, then yawned and stretched. Realization set in that a few of the things he had been attached to – IV and monitor - were no longer there, and he relaxed and opened his eyes. Two sights hit him at the same time: it was bright daylight outside the window, and Doc was sitting on the edge of the bed grinning at him.
“You going to stay awake this time?”
“What do you mean, this time,” Lee demanded, glaring.
As usual, Jamie was totally unaffected by his CO’s bad humor. “You’ve tried it a couple times already in the last hour or so, with minimal success.”
“Oh.” It finally dawned on Lee that something else was missing, and he shifted on the bed.
“Just what do you think you’re doing?” Jamie asked sternly.
“Going to the head,” Lee growled.
Jamie’s grin returned before he asked carefully, “Think you can manage that far?” His grin broadened as Lee’s glare turned into twin lasers.
Finally Lee relaxed as well. “Guess I’m about to find out,” he mumbled. Surprisingly, a fair amount of strength had returned in the almost 24 hours since his ordeal. Not nearly what he’d gotten up to over the last couple weeks, but enough so that he managed the short walk across the room and back with little trouble. Sitting on the edge of the bed, he gave Jamie a hopeful look. “You’re springing me?”
Jamie crossed his arms. “And just what would give you that idea?”
Lee gestured to the monitors. “You got rid of all the extras.”
“Just wanted to eliminate all the bickering I’d have to put up with if I didn’t,” Jamie sniped back. His grin came back as Lee raised his eyes upward. But he also reached out and took Lee’s hand in his. “Squeeze,” he ordered, and got serious at Lee’s lack of success. “I rest my case. Now you rest your body.” His lecturing tone, the one Lee was, unfortunately, overly used to hearing, relaxed somewhat as he went on. “Probably another 24 hours or so, then I’ll let you finish your vacation.”
Lee looked at him disbelievingly at that. “Not home?”
Jamie smiled. “I don’t see any need. You haven’t done yourself any favors, and have no doubt set yourself back a bit. But if you continue to make the kind of progress you have since you were brought in yesterday, I don’t see any reason to drag you away from Dr. Radiwan. Unless you’d rather go home, that is.”
“No, no,” Lee answered hastily.
“Good. Because if you had, I’d have to seriously consider finding a nice, safe mental hospital for you,” he teased, and Lee sent him another glare. It transferred to the door as there was a soft knock, and it opened to admit Becca’s head.
“Hey, it’s awake,” came with her soft chuckle.
“Told you it would be,” Jamie chimed in. Lee, painfully aware of the inadequate coverage a hospital gown supplied, swung his legs back up on the bed. Jamie tucked the blankets in while trying desperately, and not succeeding well at all, to suppress his laughter. “I’ve known him for too long, and unfortunately too well,” and returned to his lecturing tone, “to be that far off.”
Becca had finished walking up to the bed by then, and held up a paper bag. “Deli sandwiches and containers of soup,” she explained to a puzzled Lee. “It has been my experience that when the hospital cafeteria food is only fair, the patient’s meals are even worse.”
“I gather you’ve already scoped this one out?” Lee asked. He grinned as both Becca and Jamie shuddered.
“We managed,” Jamie said with a frown. “But the Admiral…” and he didn’t finish.
“Having lunch elsewhere, I take it.”
“That all depends on what you mean by lunch.” Jamie shuddered again. “When last seen he was headed out the front door yelling into his cell phone, being followed by a decidedly overwhelmed FBI agent.”
“Ouch,” Lee murmured.
“There’s plenty here for you, too, Dr. Jamison,” Becca said, starting to unpack the bag.
“Please. Will, or just plain Doc,” Jamie insisted. “Dr. Jamison makes me think I’m still an intern.” All three grinned. “And Dr. Tyler has already mentioned taking me someplace close where he said the food was excellent.”
“Very possibly where this came from,” Becca said. “It was recommended by one of the nurses and seemed to be getting a steady stream of customers from this direction.”
“What did you tell him?” Lee asked Jamie. “Dr. Tyler.”
“Actually very little. Once he got a look at the Admiral’s stars, I think he decided he’d rather not know.” He turned to leave. “I’d warn you to be careful around him,” he told Becca, jabbing a thumb at Lee, “but you’ve obviously been managing quite nicely on your own.” Lee opened his mouth to retort but Jamie just pointed a finger at him. “And you, behave,” he ordered. “Try it for a change. You might like it.” But he added a wink before walking out.
“I like him.” Becca grinned, unwrapping the sandwiches.
“I was afraid of that,” Lee complained, but he ended up grinning as Becca laughed.
The bread was homemade and thickly cut, the turkey slow roasted to perfection, and the garnishes fresh and plentiful. Neither said much for a bit as they started working their way through the wonderful sandwiches. Becca popped lids off two containers of thick turkey noodle soup, a perfect complement. Lee let Becca get most of the way through her first half sandwich before asking carefully, “How you doing?”
She gave him a brief smile and took a deep breath before answering. “Better,” she answered honestly.
“Did you sleep at all last night?” She gave him an embarrassed grin. “Can’t imagine why,” he teased. The look he got in return made him glad she didn’t have the walking stick with her. “Not surprised,” he answered, more serious. “Wired like that takes awhile to wear off.”
“I thought I was handling everything pretty well. Until I tried to close my eyes, that is. Gives me a whole new perspective on dealing with other people’s nightmares.” Lee reached out and took her hand in his, giving it a light squeeze. She smiled at him and took another bite of sandwich before continuing. “I’ll be okay.”
“Sure you will,” he assured her, and changed the subject slightly. “What time did the Admiral and Doc get in?”
“Uhm,” came out around a mouthful of sandwich, and she swallowed before answering. “Must have been about 10:30. I tried I don’t know how many times to come check on you, but I swear they must hire retired drill sergeants for nurses around here.”
“Master chiefs,” Lee amended dryly. “Wondered what happened to you. Figured you were so busy on the phone…” He stopped at the scathing look she sent him.
“I made two phone calls,” she told him firmly. “One to Tim and Annie. Tim said he’d take care of notifying your people. And one to David, which I wasn’t even through with before some…”
“Careful,” he warned, smiling broadly.
“Nurse,” she spit out, “was there to confiscate my phone. It’s not like I had any other calls I was going to make.” She chewed furiously on her sandwich as Lee just continued to work on his, grinning softly. Finally, she gave him an apologetic one in return. “I’m afraid I wasn’t overly polite when the Admiral and Dr., ah, Will showed up.”
“They didn’t seem to notice,” Lee commented, with a private grumble he knew she didn’t understand. “The Admiral just mentioned, since you didn’t know them, you weren’t overly anxious to tell them anything.”
“How’d they get here so fast? I thought they were somewhere in the Bering Strait?”
“Gulf of Alaska, actually,” Lee corrected. “The Admiral developed his own form of rapid transit. Remind me to show you sometime.” He grinned. “If you’re nice maybe I’ll take you for a ride.” Becca looked at him suspiciously but he just grinned more broadly.
“Well, I’m just glad they did get here. At least I finally knew you were okay.”
“No one would even tell you that much?”
“ ‘Resting comfortably’ was all I could get. I was about to do something hazardous to someone’s health if they hadn’t showed up when they did.” Lee grinned, but he also pushed away the half sandwich he hadn’t touched. Becca frowned. “That’s not much lunch.”
“Half a sandwich that size equals anyone else’s whole one,” Lee defended himself.
“Humm,” she murmured. “Well, maybe the guard would like the rest. There’s still another whole one in the bag.”
“What guard?” Lee demanded.
“The one outside the door.” She looked at him curiously. “You didn’t know he was there?”
“No,” Lee growled. “Policeman?”
“According to the patch on his sleeve, he’s from NIMR.”
Lee gave a short, sharp, whistle, and a forty-ish medium-toned African American poked his head in the door. “Need something, Skipper?”
“Had lunch yet, Davy?” Lee asked, relaxing back against the bed. Leave it to the Admiral to call in one of the Base guards Lee was very familiar with; and, someone who was used to dealing with the occasionally temperamental young Captain. Davy Jackson divided his time between dock security and serving aboard Seaview.
“Actually, no, Sir.”
Lee motioned him in. “Good. Dr. Radiwan got a little carried away.” He pointed to the bag she was holding out toward the guard.
Jackson took it and looked inside. “She was expecting Mr. Morton to show up, maybe?” he said with a grin.
“Mr. Morton?” Becca looked questioningly at Lee
“Chip,” Lee smiled. “Seaview’s Exec. The bottomless pit.” He and Jackson shared a grin before the guard disappeared out the door. Lee didn’t realize his eyes had closed until he heard Becca talking and had no idea what about. “Sorry,” he shook himself, then grinned at the look on Becca’s face. “Oops.”
She finally grinned back. “Looks like you’re ready to go back to sleep.”
“Don’t know what’s wrong. Just can’t seem to stay awake.”
“No reason why you should.”
Lee just shook his head again. “The Admiral should be back shortly. He wouldn’t have gone far. What about you? You need to get some sleep yourself, before you drop.”
“I’m fine,” Becca answered.
Lee frowned at her. “As the absolute master of that line, I beg to differ.” But she just grinned at him as she finished the last of her sandwich and cleaned up the wrappers and soup containers. “Heard you gave away my motel room last night.” Lee decided to let that one go for the moment.
“You weren’t using it,” she quipped. She caught him frowning and smacked the leg closest to where she was sitting on the edge of the bed. Unfortunately, it was also the one with the bullet crease, and he winced. But they both ended up laughing. “Once they got here and found out you were okay, they descended on me. Admiral Nelson…”
“…can get just a tad…intense…at times,” Lee finished.
“He was obviously just concerned. I mean, it wasn’t like he badgered or anything. I probably should have been more forthcoming with them, but I just wasn’t sure…”
“It’s okay. They understood. Actually, the Admiral was quite impressed.”
Lee nodded. “It’s not everyone who can be dumped unprepared into the middle of something like that, and keep their head the way you did.” He lowered his head and looked at her practically through his eyelashes. “Impressed me, too.”
There was a momentary silence between them, until Becca reached out and smacked Lee’s leg again, albeit not very hard. “Well, don’t make a habit of it,” she threatened, then grinned sheepishly. “My nerves couldn’t take much more of that.”
“I don’t know,” Lee teased. “I was thinking of recommending ONI recruit you.” Becca’s instant mock outrage was matched by Lee’s laughter.
“How do you do it?” she finally asked.
Lee just shrugged. “Do what I have to,” he answered simply.
“This is what you were talking about, when you said once that Chip doesn’t like it that you continue to take assignments from this ONI.”
Lee nodded. “Office of Naval Intelligence. Chip has other names for it. Either Organization of Noxious Ineptitude,” he grinned, “or, depending on how many beers he’s had, ah, well, maybe I’d better not…” He looked at her sheepishly.
She grinned. “I really want to meet him.”
“Why?” Lee demanded, causing her grin to increase.
“Because, silly, I’m very much enjoying meeting your friends. Why did you think?” Lee just muttered something under his breath, interrupted by a yawn. “Please, will you go back to sleep? You want to get out of here tomorrow, don’t you?”
“I am getting out of here tomorrow. Period,” Lee answered defiantly. “I’ll be okay by then.” He looked at her speculatively.
“What?” It was her turn to be demanding.
“Good agents know that when things are quiet, they need to conserve energy for the next battle.”
“The only battle I’m going to have is knocking your block off if you don’t quit with the recruitment campaign.”
Lee laughed, but he also dropped the head of the bed down a bit. He did get in one more comment. “You are safe, now. It’s okay to relax. The longer you stay wired, the harder you’re going to crash.”
“I’ll take my chances,” she grumbled, then waved off the retort Lee was coming back with. “Okay, okay. I’ll work on it.” She walked over and closed the blinds on the window. “Good niiiight,” she sing-songed. Lee laughed, but he also closed his eyes.
* * * *
He hadn’t heard anyone come in, but suddenly he felt someone’s hand on his wrist. His eyes popped open and he pulled back sharply before realizing it was just Jamie. He took a deep breath and started to apologize, but Jamie shushed him and pointed toward the other side of the bed. Becca was slouched back in the chair, her feet propped up on the bed, sound asleep. “Finally,” Lee mouthed. Jamie nodded and again took hold of Lee’s wrist. He just smiled as Lee frowned, and reached with his other hand to raise the head of the bed.
Once Jamie was done taking Lee’s pulse, he had Lee turn and sit on the edge of the bed to check heart and lungs. Lee gave Becca a quick look before turning his back to her. Jamie had to stifle a laugh as he realized once again how uncomfortable Lee was around Becca dressed only in the hospital gown. Lee just glared at the doctor. Once Jamie was done he gripped Lee’s hand as he had done that morning. A still disgruntled Lee put as much effort into the squeeze as he could. Between a still decided lack of strength and the fact that Jamie had been very careful how he let Lee grip him, Lee wasn’t nearly as successful at squashing his CMO’s hand as he would have liked. But the doctor wisely chose not to take advantage of the situation, and kept his expression neutral as Lee got up and walked to the head.
When Lee re-opened the bathroom door he saw Jamie kneeling next to Becca’s chair, and just stood in the doorway. He wasn’t sure if Jamie had awakened her or she’d awoke on her own, but she was just putting her feet back on the floor and straightening herself in the chair, trying unsuccessfully to brush off Jamie’s efforts to check her over as he’d done Lee. They became aware of him standing there at the same time. Lee didn’t realize he’d reached behind him to pull closed the back edges of the gown until Jamie snickered. “He’s shy,” he told Becca.
“So I’ve noticed,” Becca said, bemused. Her attitude changed abruptly as Jamie continued.
“Now, young lady. Until now I’ve stayed out of this. But from what I’m seeing you just hit the wall and I’m putting you to bed. Either here in the hospital or, if you’d prefer, we can go back to the motel.”
At that Lee burst out laughing. “She’s a little young for you, isn’t she, Doc?” he snickered. “To say nothing about what your wife would have to say if she found out. Humm, when she found out.”
Jamie sent him a momentarily murderous glare before returning to Becca. “He’s also rude,” he muttered.
“That, until now, I hadn’t noticed,” Becca muttered back, but trying very hard not to laugh herself. She got serious as she tried to argue with Jamie. “I’ll be okay. Need to bring Lee some dinner.”
“I think the Admiral and I can manage that. We have had some experience in that department,” Jamie lectured.
“That little catnap did me a world of good. I’ll be fine now for a few hours.”
Lee broke in before Jamie could respond. “I’d advise you to surrender, Becca.” He was still chuckling. He’d been on the receiving end of Jamie’s lectures so often, it was kind of refreshing to see the doctor land on someone else for a change. “You wouldn’t like the way he retaliates.”
“He’s not my CNO, or MCO, or SOB, or whatever you call him,” she growled. “Where goes he get off giving me orders?”
“CMO.” Lee was laughing so hard he could barely get out. “Chief Medical Officer. And I’m going back in the head. You’re on your own, Doc.”
By now Jamie was laughing almost as hard as Lee, but still said as sternly as he could get out, “Trust me, Dr. Radiwan. I’ve had too many years of putting up with him,” and he nodded in Lee’s direction. “You really don’t stand a chance.”
It took awhile but between the two of them, Lee and Jamie convinced Becca to let the doctor drive her back to the motel. Lee also talked Jamie into finding him a bathrobe and letting him walk out to the small courtyard Lee could see from his window to get a little fresh air. He could tell Jamie wasn’t overly thrilled with the plan. But he could also see Jamie weighing the advantages of trading a little leniency right now for some cooperation later on, and eventually agreed. Jackson came along, of course, but that was okay. Lee was going a little stir-crazy cooped up, especially after all the fresh air he’d been getting of late.
He was daydreaming a bit, reminiscing about the good times he’d had the last week or so and trying not to think about the last 24 hours, when a hand on his shoulder interrupted. “Admiral,” he started, and tried to rise. Nelson kept a light pressure until he was sure Lee was going to stay seated then pulled up a chair. “You’ve kept yourself busy today,” Lee continued carefully. So far there hadn’t been a clue from the Admiral’s benign expression how his day had gone. If he was still in a yelling mood, Lee didn’t particularly want to be on the receiving end. “I expected you back earlier.”
Apparently Nelson was yelled out for the time being because he smiled. “Actually, I’ve checked in a couple times,” he said lightly. “You’ve just always been asleep.”
“But you’re right – I have been busy.” He gave Lee another smile. “I rather think Angie’s going to have a thing or two to say about my cell phone bill this month.”
“How goes the battle?” Lee asked after a quick grin of his own.
“It’s bad enough when all I have to deal with is ONI,” Nelson grumbled. “In this case, between them, the FBI, CIA, and National Park Service…” He punctuated the comment with a growl.
“Sorry,” Lee said softly.
“Why?” Nelson demanded “It’s not your fault the intelligence community is populated by a bunch of nincompoops.” Lee grinned, and finally so did his boss. “The locals weren’t too big a problem. I could just tell them to hold their tails until their superiors got around to telling them whatever the official lies turn out to be.” Lee gave another half smile at Nelson’s sarcasm. “As for the rest of the jackasses,” Nelson continued, “none of this should have been allowed to happen in the first place.”
“Seems Bracken had been getting cocky. Didn’t think anyone was paying any attention to what he was doing – which, in essence, was correct. He’d been, especially after Detroit, making subtle little inquires. A few people sort of wondered what he was up to, but he just covered it with reminders that you and he were together at Annapolis. And, of course, since no one talks to anyone else in what Chip refers to – quite accurately in this case – as the Ineptitude community…” He stopped his grumbling and chuckled softly as Lee ducked his head. “You really do need to remind him to pay closer attention to who’s close enough to hear when he’s down at BZ’s blowing off steam.”
“Yes, Sir.” Lee said softly. Obviously so did he!
“Anyway, now that its hit the fan everyone has been comparing notes – and blaming everyone else, of course. No one person had enough to get suspicious, apparently, but now…” A look came over Nelson’s face that made Lee very glad he hadn’t been on the receiving end of any of Nelson’s phone calls today.
“Damage control kicking in?” he asked carefully.
“Finally. The a…” and was drown out by a loud cough from Lee. Nelson glared at him just a moment, then relaxed as two nurses walked past fairly closely. “Everyone is finally sharing intel,” he continued a good deal more quietly. “At least about anything to do with Bracken. Several people have already been detained – held incommunicado while everything is being sorted out.” He caught Lee’s quick glance at Jackson. “Just a precaution. While it appears Bracken was working alone out here, we didn’t want to take any chances.”
Lee nodded. “He had at least one person helping keep an eye on me at NIMR,” he reminded his boss.
“Who has been found and detained.”
At that Lee’s head popped up. “Really? I mean, I sort of got the impression, from what Bracken said, that…”
“Beat him up fairly badly and used him as another guinea pig. He was found in one of the local hospitals. While the drug cocktail does have some fairly nasty side effects,” he paused as Lee shivered unconsciously, “it definitely has flaws.”
“Thank heavens,” Lee said, nearly to himself.
“I’ll second that,” Nelson said softly, and the two shared a comfortable smile.
“But,” Lee continued, puzzled, “I’m having problems with the idea that these guys would use their new concoction, then let their ‘guinea pigs’ be found so easily.” He held up a hand to momentarily stop whatever Nelson was about to say. “I know I wasn’t supposed to be found so quickly. But it doesn’t made sense. Why aren’t they afraid an antidote, or something, would be found to counteract their serum?”
Nelson sighed. “Because, Lee, even though, as you said, you were found before they planned, whatever this compound is, it breaks down so fast there’s just no way to get a fix on what’s even in it. Now that the ‘cat’s out of the bag’, so to speak, people are starting to look into who Bracken’s been spending time with. If they can find the doctor, or even a clean sample of the compound, then they can work on a way to counteract it. In the meantime their secret is, unfortunately, safe.” Lee’s acknowledgement was broken by a yawn, and Nelson smiled softly. “Jamie has some concerns about you finishing this little jaunt you’ve been on.”
“I’ll be fine,” came out instantly. Nelson snorted, and Lee gave him a sheepish grin.
“Mostly, he’s expressed concern over the extent your little cross-country expedition yesterday may have set you back. We both realize you were living on pure adrenaline and guts, and he’s worried about how long it will take the effects to settle down. We both just think you might be better off back at your friends’ place.”
“It would probably be best for Becca to get back to work, back to a familiar routine.” He gave Nelson a hopeful glance. “It’s what’s always worked for me.”
Nelson gave the younger man a stern, if somewhat indulgent, look. “The only ‘work’ you’re going back to, Captain, is a computer full of reports.” He smiled as disappointment registered on Lee’s face. “Angie tells me she’s forwarded at least half a dozen new proposals to you in the last week.”
“Swell,” Lee grumbled, but finally gave Nelson a small grin as the Admiral chuckled openly. Lee nodded toward Jackson. “Complete with chaperone?” he asked.
Nelson grinned. “Think you need one?” he asked, bemused. Lee just lowered his head and grumbled to himself. Nelson laughed. “No, lad. I suspect Jamie will suggest it, since he’s not convinced at this point either you or Dr. Radiwan are safe to turn loose just yet. But from the last report that I got, by tomorrow morning most of the damage control measures should be in place.”
“Are you returning to Seaview, Sir?”
“Why?” Nelson grinned. “Don’t you trust Mr. Morton to get her home safely by himself?” He chuckled at the disgruntled look Lee sent him. “Actually, I think I’m going to Washington and do a little yelling face to face.”
“Would save on the phone bill,” Lee offered.
Nelson glared at him a moment, then just shook his head. “I’ll put Jamie on a plane back to NIMR. There’s been some mutterings about having you come back to Detroit to tie up some loose ends. When you feel up to it, Lee,” he interrupted as Lee started to say something. “Not right now, and not until things settle down a bit.”
“I was only going to say, Sir, that I need to go back, anyway. There’s a certain nurse I haven’t yet gotten around to thanking properly.”
Nelson smiled. “Ah, yes. Chip mentioned he had an apology to make as well. And I have a small offering to make by way of a ‘Thank You’ that you can deliver for me. Perhaps when Chip gets home I’ll send him up to the Hughes. When the time is right, you and he can fly back and get everything sorted out, then he can drive you home.”
“Should be able to drive myself home by then,” Lee groused.
Nelson just laughed. “Well, I’ll let the two of you argue about that.”
“With you safely out of the line of fire,” Lee complained, but finally he joined Nelson’s laughter.
Jamie chose that moment to appear, and Lee looked at him questioningly. “I don’t think her head had even hit the pillow before she was out cold,” Doc answered. “I kept the room key, and I’ll check on her later.” He looked sternly at Lee as the younger man got a huge grin on his face. “Watch it, Captain,” he warned. Lee just continued to grin.
“One of you going to tell me what I missed?” Nelson asked innocently.
Lee started to answer but felt Doc’s hand on his shoulder. “One word and you’ll be spending the next week in Med Bay,” Jamie threatened. Lee just looked innocently between the two older men. Unfortunately he also yawned. “Looks like it’s beddy-bye time for you as well,” Jamie smirked.
“Jamie,” Lee started to complain, but was cut off mid-word.
“I have no intention of turning either of you loose until I’m sure it’s safe.” Nelson snorted and Jamie nodded at him. “You’re right. I’m not sure it would ever be safe, no matter what.” Lee just crossed his arms and glared at both of them. He could tell that the Admiral still wasn’t sure what was going on, but decided to play mediator just the same. It wasn’t as if this was the first time he’d had to do it between his two stubborn officers, and Lee allowed himself a private smile.
“Jamie, suppose we send Jackson for dinner – something we can eat out here. Once we’re through, I’m sure Lee will agree to return to his room peacefully.”
* * * *
Well, mostly peacefully, anyway. After reasonably acceptable Chinese, Lee let himself be escorted back inside. He wanted Jamie to go check on Becca before he’d agree to settle down, expressing concern that if she awakened alone, maybe with nightmares, she might not handle it well. Both Jamie and Nelson reminded Lee that Becca seemed quite capable of handling whatever was thrown at her but he still wasn’t happy until Jamie agreed to go and report back. Reluctantly, Lee finally let the Admiral coax him indoors and sit him down on the edge of the bed. Lee himself wasn’t sure why he was so nervous all of a sudden, but he tried to concentrate on the bits of boat business Nelson distracted him with until Jamie returned.
Lee had been worrying for nothing, Jamie gently lectured his obviously wound up CO. Becca hadn’t moved from the time that he’d left her. He’d taken the leftover dinner with him, remembering there was a small microwave oven in the motel room, and had awakened her long enough to eat. But she’d curled right back up after barely half a dozen bites, and Jamie hadn’t argued. “Now, will you settle down?” Jamie finished his narrative. “Or do I have to sedate you?” He just grinned confidently at the glare Lee sent him.
Lee wasn’t sure why he still tried – he knew perfectly well the CMO always remained perfectly unaffected by a look that could send most able-bodied seamen scurrying for their lives. Force of habit, he admitted to himself, and slipped between the sheets. He fell asleep quickly to the sound of Nelson and Jamie quietly visiting, but not before he heard Jamie ask softly, “Do you think we could maybe get him to keep this one? I think he’s finally met his match.”
* * * *
Once again the room was in bright sunlight when he awakened. A soft, “Hey, sleepyhead,” reached his ears, and he looked over to see Becca sitting in the chair, definitely looking better than she had the last time he’d seen her.
“Hey, yourself.” He grinned, and sat up. “Feeling better?”
“Decidedly,” she admitted. “Good enough I walked down to the beach this morning and threatened a whole new batch of seagulls.” They both chuckled. “How about you?”
Lee made a fist. He wasn’t overly thrilled with the result but at least it was better than it had been, and he looked up. “Ready to break out of this joint. Where’s the warden?”
“Not far enough away to let that happen without permission,” came from just outside the partially open door. Jamie stuck his head around, then he and Nelson walked the rest of the way in. “We just sent Jackson for bagels and coffee.”
“Then I have time to shower and get dressed.” He glanced at Becca. “You did bring my clothes, I hope.”
“Which Will promptly confiscated,” she explained, with a glance at the doctor.
“Doctor,” Nelson said to Becca, “perhaps you’d like to join me down the hallway for a few minutes. There’s a definite chance it’s about to get just a tad loud in here.”
“Jamie, I’m leaving – now!” Lee demanded. He stood up, not paying any attention to the fact that Becca was behind him until she passed by on her way to the door.
She leaned toward him and whispered so only he heard, “Yum! That’s the nicest scenery I’ve seen this whole trip. And Jamie says you’re shy.” She managed to impart a hint of a leer - in a most ladylike way of course.
Jamie and Nelson both grinned at the quick glower Lee gave her, but he stood his ground until the door was firmly shut. “Jamie…” he started, but the doctor cut him off, actually speaking fairly quietly.
“Just cool your heels, Skipper,” he said, walking most of the way over to Lee. “Yes, I’m probably going to release you back into Dr. Radiwan’s custody. But we do this my way, or no way. Is that understood?” Lee just fumed, saying nothing. “Sit,” Jamie ordered, and reluctantly Lee complied. Again, after a brief exam, he gripped Lee’s hand. And again, Lee managed a decidedly lackluster squeeze. He sighed heavily and dropped his eyes.
Jamie sat down next to him on the edge of the bed. “Look, Skipper. We tucked you into bed a few minutes after 1900 hours last night. It’s now almost 0930. The only time I’ve known you to sleep even half that long at one time is if I’ve sedated you, or after you and Chip have spent the night out carousing.” Lee glared at him, he just smiled, and Lee finally did as well. “I’ve worked around you long enough to have some appreciation for how hard this has been on you. All I’m asking you to do is be aware of what your body is trying to tell you. I have to agree with Dr. Radiwan – I have absolutely no idea how you managed what you did the other day, except to say that it’s just another example of you doing what has to be done. You are greatly appreciated for that characteristic, even if it does tend to drive a few of us batty.” He frowned, but couldn’t hold it in the face of Lee’s sheepish grin. “You are needed, Captain, healthy, and in one piece. The sooner the better.” Lee opened his mouth, but closed it again at the look Jamie gave him “But only healthy and in one piece. Is that clear?”
“Understood,” Lee said quietly.
“Now I really am worried.” Jamie just chuckled as Lee glared at him, but even he finally grinned.
There was a moment of silence before Lee spoke. “Jamie,” he asked hesitantly, “the Admiral also intimated I needed to be back…” he held up his hand, “when I’m well enough. What’s been going on aboard Seaview this cruise?”
Jamie laughed openly. “Nothing that won’t sort itself out fairly quickly,” he snickered. “Let’s just say, Chip is going to be very happy to have you back – once he decks you for this little escapade setting you back like it has, that is.”
“Didn’t have a whole lot of choice in the matter,” Lee defended himself.
“No,” Jamie agreed. “I suppose you didn’t, all things given.”
“Then can I get out of here? Please?”
Jamie grinned and nodded. “Your bag is in the head.” He stopped Lee from blustering with an upraised hand. “She just said I confiscated it, not what I did with it,” he reminded Lee. With a muttered grumble Lee headed in that direction, but as he closed the door he gave the doctor a quick smile.
* * * *
It was actually closer to 11:00 before Lee and Becca finally got away. Showering and getting dressed caused Lee more trouble than he’d anticipated. He knew Jamie caught the extra effort it took. Trying not to hover, the doctor grabbed Lee’s bag for the walk out to the front door where Becca had pulled up with the car. Lee was just grateful the doctor hadn’t insisted on a wheelchair. Admiral Nelson was waiting with Becca, visiting amiably. Lee had a feeling, from the far too innocent smiles each gave him, that he was going to greatly regret those two had ever met. When he did finally get them pried apart and the two took off, he had one final grumble as Becca indicated a bag laying on the back seat.
“We polished off the bagels and coffee Jackson brought,” she teased with a grin. “I bought you a seafood salad and a strawberry bagel with cream cheese.”
“Thank you,” Lee muttered, his expression in total opposition to the words. But he finally sent her a quick grin and reached for the bag.
Between the late start, and running into traffic as Hwy. 101 made its way into Washington’s capital city, Olympia, where they caught I-5 south, it was nearly 5 pm before they crossed the Columbia River into Portland. With a good two hours of driving left, “not counting stopping for dinner,” Becca reminded Lee and he sent her a disgruntled grimace, they decided instead to spend the night at Becca’s. Lee made a quick call to Tim and Annie to let them know they’d be back the following morning. At least, it was supposed to be quick. First Annie wanted to know everything that had happened. When Lee put her off, saying he’d explain when he saw them, Annie demanded to talk to Becca. Lee just rolled his eyes as he handed over the phone, and listened as Becca assured Annie they were both just fine. There was silence on Becca’s part for a bit, then she tried to tell Annie something wasn’t necessary; she probably should get back to work. She listened some more, finally admitted it would be kind of fun, and laughed as Annie said something else before she finally clicked off the cell phone.
“What was that all about?” Lee asked.
Becca chuckled. “Seems we are both going to guests at the B&B for a few days.”
Lee raised an eyebrow. “Could have sworn they were booked solid.” Suddenly he sent her a look of alarm, causing her to burst out laughing.
“Down, Lee. No, she’s not intimating we would be sharing a room.” She laughed harder and Lee muttered a few things he figured she didn’t really need to hear, and stared again out the front window. “They had a couple who had to leave early. Tried to tell her I really shouldn’t, but it seems there’s a possibility her brother and his family might show up tomorrow for the weekend, expecting your room to be free. Annie wants to be very sure they don’t have any vacancies at all.”
Lee finally relaxed. “I gather there have been…”
“Apparently they tend to show up unannounced. At least this time they must have given warning.” Lee yawned, and Becca smiled.
“Home in about twenty minutes,” she grinned.
“I’m fine,” he insisted.
“Sure you are,” she agreed. “Sort of.”
“How about you?” he countered. “For the last half hour I’ve been wondering if I should offer to drive. Your eyes keep headed toward half-mast.”
She sent him a sheepish grin. “Let’s just say, I think we’re both going to bed early tonight.”
* * * *
“Crash time,” Lee heard her say, and realized he’d closed his eyes. Once at Becca’s she’d fixed a quick dinner, and Lee had settled on the couch while she cleaned up the kitchen. He’d been able to keep up a reasonable facsimile of conversation - he thought - and had no idea how long his eyes had been closed. He looked now to find Becca smiling down at him.
“Apparently more tired than I realized,” he reluctantly admitted.
“You know where your room is,” she told him firmly. “The bed’s a whole lot more comfortable than that couch.”
“I don’t know about that,” he countered. “Seems pretty comfortable to me.”
“Move it,” Becca ordered. Lee reacted to the order with a momentary frown, but finally grinned sheepishly and moved.
Later, he couldn’t even remember his head hitting the pillow and was somewhat confused, therefore, the next time he opened his eyes. It was obviously still dark outside, and he glanced at the readout of the digital clock next to the bed – a detail he hadn’t noticed his first night in this room. He mentally kicked himself for what had led to that night, trying at the same time to figure out what dream had awakened him. Whatever it was, it couldn’t have been very bad, he decided, because he was breathing normally with no recollection of any troubling thoughts. He was just shaking his head, about to roll over and go back to sleep, when he heard something. What was that? He quickly sat up. Listening carefully and not hearing anything further, he still decided he’d take a quick look around. Just in case, he told himself with a frown. He’d purposely not looked behind them on the way here to see if Jackson had been ordered to play watchdog. But he was pretty sure Nelson wouldn’t have been so nonchalant about Lee’s going off with Becca if he was at all concerned; from what he’d been told in the apparently still ongoing phone calls, there wasn’t any danger. But just in case, Lee repeated to himself, and walked quietly out into the hallway.
There was a photosensitive cell light in a plug-in right outside the bathroom door that gave off just enough light that Lee could see by, and he wandered out to the living room area. There, an almost full moon sent enough light through the windows that Lee could tell there was nothing wrong. He’d about decided he was just paranoid, and all he’d heard was maybe a neighbor’s cat, when again there was a small noise, almost like a whimper, coming from the direction of the hallway. There were two doors beyond the one to Lee’s room, besides the bathroom, and he headed quickly but quietly back into the hallway. The first one led, he discovered, to what Becca apparently used as a home office. The blinds hadn’t been pulled over the windows and in the available moonlight Lee could see bookshelves lining two walls, and a desk with computer equipment. Guessing that the last door was to Becca’s bedroom, he hesitated opening it. But the sound came again – definitely someone in distress – and he quickly turned the knob. Any hesitation he had vanished as what little light filtered in from an open window illuminated Becca in the throes of a nightmare, tossing and twisting, and mumbling softly, punctuated with soft whimpers. Carefully he sat down on the edge of the bed and gathered her against him.
Not quite carefully enough, it turned out. She screamed and got in one good punch to his face before he could get her contained. He shook her gently and spoke softly, trying to get her to wake up. She continued to mutter, although the only words Lee was able to identify were ‘help’ and ‘bear’. Guess I’d better explain that one, he did a little muttering to himself, and held her tightly until she finally awoke totally.
Startled as she found herself unable to move, she quickly realized who had her and relaxed. “Oops.” She grinned at him sheepishly.
He reached over to turn on a bedside lamp. “Turn about’s fair play, I guess.” He grinned back. “Sorry. You should never have been involved in this mess.”
A flying elbow instantly slammed his ribs. “That word,” Becca growled, and she pulled away from him slightly. “If it hadn’t been for me you’d be dead right now.” Her expression turned to one of speculation. “Although, when you think about it, if it hadn’t been for me you wouldn’t have been up there in the first place.”
“He’d have just found me at the B&B. No telling what would have happened.” He reached up and absentmindedly rubbed the side of his face. “I apparently do need to explain something, though.” She gave him a quizzical look, and he grinned. “You were muttering about the bear.”
“I seem to recall he was chasing me, with the most malicious grin on his face.”
“S…,” started to come out, but Lee stopped himself just in time. “When I was trying to distract Bracken, remember, there was a rustling in the bushes. I just said that about maybe being a bear to scare him.”
“Figured that part out,” she grumbled. “But you said it again when I caught up to you.”
Lee looked down, then glanced at her shyly. “The whole time he was chasing me, every time I heard a rustle – now I know it was sometimes you – I kept telling myself I hoped I’d not been right after all and it was a bear. By the time you caught up, I was so tired I’m not sure I cared anymore.”
“Oh.” He watched as she shuddered involuntarily, reached out, and gathered her back against him. She momentarily resisted. “I’m okay now,” she insisted.
“I know,” he said softly. “Not sure I am, though.” She relaxed against him as he leaned back against the headboard. They were both quiet, and Lee listened as Becca’s breathing returned to the quiet evenness of sleep. He reached out and turned off the light, never realizing later when he also fell asleep, his head resting against the top of hers.
He awakened to almost hysterical laughter and opened his eyes – well, tried to, anyway. His left one didn’t want to work properly - to see Becca facing him, her hands clamped firmly over her mouth, yet still unable to stop the giggles leaking out. Frowning, he demanded, “What’s so funny?”
Apparently unable to speak, she just pointed toward the mirror over the dresser, and Lee got up and walked in that direction. With the morning sun shining in through the partially open window, he wasn’t even all the way there before he spotted what was triggering her fits of laughter. Her slap earlier had done more damage than he’d realized, and he was sporting one of the worst shiners he’d ever had. Even he couldn’t resist chuckling as he turned back, but he growled nonetheless, “Ought to be fun explaining this to Annie.”
Becca snorted, and struggled to get herself under control. “Blame it on the bear?” she suggested.
Lee grinned. “Works for me,” and they both burst out laughing. Shaking his head, Lee headed for the shower.
* * * *
Gearing himself up to be set upon by Annie and totally smothered in well-meaning, if unwarranted, coddling, Lee and Becca got back to the B&B about 10:30 that morning. He wasn’t disappointed. If Annie had had her way, he’d have been immediately tucked into bed and plied with chicken soup. He managed to avoid the bed – just barely – and settled on the front porch swing. He couldn’t brush off the soup quite so easily, served with thick ham sandwiches and iced tea. Tim joined him on the swing, Becca helped Annie bring out the food, and all four enjoyed an early lunch. Lee knew his friends were being eaten up with curiosity, and between bites gave them the highlights of the story – more than he’d admitted to the ranger but a good deal less than he’d told the Admiral. Tim, of course, remembered Bracken from their Academy days, and added a few choice comments of his own. Becca added a few personal recollections along the way but in no way compromised what Lee chose to keep quiet. He grinned to himself as the thought once again flitted through his mind about her making a good ONI agent, and Annie immediately demanded to know what he was smirking about. He just chuckled. “Nothing, Annie. I’m just glad it’s over.”
“Oh, no, you don’t,” Annie snapped back. “I’ve seen that expression way too many times. Usually on his face,” and she pointed to her husband. “You actually liked what happened, didn’t you? Got some kind of adrenaline rush from the excitement of the hunt. While the rest of us are left wondering if you’ll ever come back or not.”
Lee and Tim shared a quick glance, both knowing this was just ‘worried Navy wife’ coming out. One of the reasons Lee had never made any major commitment to anyone was his realization of what she’d go through every time he left on a mission, be it ONI or Seaview. And Annie had not only had to deal with that, but also the reality of the situation when Tim had been injured and several of his team killed. Now Lee needed to calm her down. “In the first place,” he spoke softly, “you couldn’t have been worried sick because you didn’t know a thing about it until it was all over.” Annie looked about ready to blacken his other eye, the thought causing Lee to grin even broader. But he quickly got it under control. “No, I don’t get off on the rush,” he insisted. “It happened. I dealt with it the best way I could under the circumstances. That’s not what I was grinning about.”
“Then what?” Annie wasn’t ready to give it up. Lee knew he didn’t dare mention what he’d really been grinning over. He’d have both ladies angry with him. Instead, he made do with the lesser of several evils and told them about thinking Becca was a bear. It had the desired effect, and the others laughed. Unfortunately, Lee also yawned. “No!” he practically yelled, as Annie looked ready to send him to bed. “I’ve laid around way too much the last few days.” He gave her a coy little grin. “I promise to be a good boy and stay here on the porch. Okay?” Tim and Becca burst out laughing. Lee was glad Annie wasn’t within kicking range, but even she finally grinned. Any comeback she might have made, however, was cut off as Lacey, lying at Lee’s feet, suddenly took off around the house. Moments later a car could be heard coming up the drive. Annie and Becca gathered up the lunch dishes and headed for the kitchen while Tim waited with Lee to greet whomever of the guests were returning early.
It turned out not to be guests at all, but Annie’s brother, sister-in-law, and their three children, aged from about four to maybe eight. Lacey returned almost immediately and settled under the porch swing, causing both men to exchange glances, and Tim stood up to check out what the problem was. The look he gave Lee was one of resignation tinged with satisfaction. Lee pushed the swing far enough that he could lean back and see around the corner of the house. As the children roared into the yard, Lee saw a man start to take bags from the trunk of the car and Annie walk out to meet them. She said something and the bags were dropped dejectedly back into the trunk.
“I thought you said they always showed up unannounced,” Lee asked Tim quietly. “This time you seemed to know ahead of time they were coming.”
Tim smirked. “Annie’s cousin called and said they were headed in this direction. Oh, this is fun.” He looked at Lee. “Be prepared. You’re the evil person who did them out of free room and board. Celia is not going to be pleasant.
“Hey, if I can survive ten days of General Gregory being ticked ‘cause he had to share a cabin with his aid while they were aboard Seaview, nothing much she could say would phase me.” They both chuckled. “But what’s this about?” and he pointed beneath him, to where Lacey had curled up.
“The first time they were here after she came, the kids wouldn’t leave her alone and we finally ended up locking her downstairs most of the time. She adores kids, but not these three.”
After barely an hour, Lee was about ready to renege on his comment to Tim. Not so much from what the sister-in-law said to him but from how she treated Annie. Surprisingly, the fiery-tempered brunette handled her quite easily. When something was said about it being lunchtime, Annie smiled sweetly and said they’d already eaten but she supposed she could whip up a salad and some fruit. When it became apparent that Lee was a friend, she mentioned casually that “yes, it was so nice to have him here for a visit, even if it meant booking the room well in advance.” She and Tim had begun renting Driftwood just like the other rooms. The family finally decided they’d go spend the afternoon at the beach, voicing their intentions to return for dinner before “they guessed they could find a motel.”
“Oh dear.” Annie smiled even more sweetly. “We’ll have to make it another time. Tim and I are taking Lee and Rebecca to Newport tonight for dinner. You really do need to give us some advance warning next time you’re in the area.” Lee nearly choked, swallowing a snort of laughter.
“You can just leave like that?” Celia asked. “With a full complement of guests? Wouldn’t you like us to stay here for you until you get back?”
Lee was having a horrible time keeping a straight face, and he bent over to scratch Lacey for camouflage as Tim answered. “Already taken care of. But thanks for offering. If you wait until too late you’ll have a hard time finding a room anywhere. They fill up fast this time of year.”
Finally deciding, apparently, that they were getting absolutely no sympathy, Annie’s brother gathered up his family and left. Annie did just about have a stroke when she discovered what had been keeping the children occupied the last half-hour – decapitating every snapdragon in the flowerbeds. Tim tried to distract her. “You’d better give Michelle a call and make sure she can come this evening.”
“Not a problem,” Annie said mournfully, looking at her desecrated flowers. “If she can’t, Tish can. Carl’s out of town and she was bemoaning the fact she didn’t have anything to do.” She glanced at Lee. “You are up to dinner out tonight, I hope. It would be just like that…”
“Ahem,” Tim cleared his throat loudly.
“Woman,” Annie spit out, “to come back and check.”
“Not a problem,” Lee assured his friends.
“As long as we don’t keep him up past his bedtime,” Becca teased, and Lee gave her a dirty look as the others laughed.
* * * *
Lee awoke the next morning as he had the one four weeks previous – minus, of course, Chip’s hysterics. Lacey poked him with her cold nose until she was sure he was awake, and then gave him a quick kiss. Giving her a scratch, Lee looked toward the door. Tim winked and closed it behind him on his way back downstairs. Lacey poked him again. “Anybody ever tell you you’re a pest?” Lee asked the little dog affectionately. Her answer was another kiss and a happily wagging tail. Lee gave up, rose, and headed for the shower.
He decided as he dressed that something else was about the same of his first morning here – his strength – and chafed a bit. Four weeks wasted. I’m right back where I started, he growled to himself. But a smile replaced the frown. Well, not wasted, actually, he admitted. Bracken and his bunch are taken care of. I really have had a good time visiting with Tim and Annie, seeing the sights with Becca. Becca… His thoughts were interrupted by voices outside his door as whoever was staying in Lighthouse made their way down to breakfast, and Lee finished dressing and joined them.
He grinned to himself as Becca joined the group shortly after 8 am. She’d obviously been out for her usual morning run. “So,” he asked lightly. “How many seagulls this morning?”
“A bazillion,” she answered, then had to explain to the puzzled Hughes. “I’ve got to come down more often. It feels so good, and this batch of birds is getting so used to me I don’t even feel bad about yelling. They just stare at me and squawk back.” They all laughed.
“Driftwood is usually open,” Annie reminded her. “You’re welcome here anytime.”
“Open, at least, as long as Lee can stay healthy,” Tim teased. An immediately disgruntled Lee lowered his head to his coffee cup, then choked as Tim nailed him with a foot. “Hey, lighten up,” he ordered. “If it’s the only time we get to see you, so be it. No big deal.”
Lee finally smiled. “Promise I’ll show up in one piece,” he said and the grin broadened. “Just won’t promise when.”
“Deal,” Annie chimed in.
Lee spent a relaxing day, mostly on the porch swing. Chip called about 10 am on the Hughes’ phone, giving him hell for not answering his cell. “Sorry,” he apologized, and had to put up with the frown Becca sent him from where she was sitting on the front steps. The two ladies had gone out first thing after breakfast and bought new snapdragons to replace the ruined ones and were just back, sitting down and plotting which colors went where. They could hear his end of the conversation plainly through the open front door. “Left it upstairs,” he continued. “Didn’t think I’d need it.”
“You okay?” Lee could hear the concern in his friend’s voice. Poor Chip. He had to have been beside himself getting the original information from Angie’s call, seeing the Admiral and Jamie rush off, and being stuck on Seaview. Still, a little disgruntlement was in order.
“Yes, Uncle Chip. I’m just fine,” Lee groused. Annie snorted. “Now, what’s been going on with the cruise?” he switched from a whine to his command voice. “All Admiral Nelson and Jamie would say is, that it’s been ‘interesting’. I want details.”
“Ah…” Chip hedged. “Tell you when I see you. We dock tomorrow late. Everything’s in one piece – sort of.”
“What have you done to my boat?” Lee practically yelled.
“Down, Lee,” Chip snapped back. “Nothing a little paint won’t fix. Like I said, tell you when I see you. I’ll be there Sunday.”
“With the boat’s log,” Lee ordered. “Or a reasonable facsimile thereof. I want to know what’s been going on.”
There was snicker over the phone line. “Now I know you’re okay,” Chip’s voice held a broad smile. “See you Sunday,” and the line went dead.
“Broke your boat?” Annie asked innocently as Lee stomped back out to the porch.
“He better not have,” Lee growled, but finally smiled as both ladies laughed.
Annie shook her head and told Becca, “The only difference between men and boys…”
“Is the size of their toys,” Becca finished, and both cracked up.
Lee gave them a dirty look. “Where’s Tim?”
“In the garage, playing with one of his toys.” Annie ignored his tone and grinned at him. “Did Chip say when he’d be here?”
“Sunday,” Lee answered, still grumbling. He felt a poke, looked down to see Lacey looking up at him, seemingly a grin on her face as well, and stomped off in search of male companionship since the females were all ganging up on him.
* * * *
When Lee got up Saturday he was surprised by how much better he felt – almost like he’d been feeling the last few days before his mountain expedition. Becca had, as usual, taken her early morning run, but once breakfast was over and she’d cleaned up, she returned with Lee to the beach. The two, accompanied by an enthusiastically seagull-chasing Lacey, spent several hours leisurely walking and talking. Most of the conversation revolved around Becca wanting to know more about Lee’s life onboard Seaview. Apparently she and Annie had been exchanging stories. Normally uncomfortable talking about himself, he was pleasantly relaxed with the conversation, and the company. He answered Becca’s questions amiably. He also led Becca back through the incidents at Hurricane Ridge, concerned about how she was handling everything. At one point she stopped walking and looked at him speculatively.
“I thought I was the psychologist here,” she complained. “When did you get your license?”
“Comes with the rank,” he replied easily. “You don’t command a boat without being able to handle the crew’s issues.” He smiled. “Mind you, I’m a little out of practice. That job mostly falls to the XO.”
She gave him a shy smile. “Oh, I don’t know. You’ve been doing okay. Although,” and she chuckled, “I don’t suppose a hug is used very often on board.”
Lee shook his head. “Not usually,” he agreed. “But you’d be surprised. There have been a few instances – women scientists and such. A good hug has been known to come in handy.”
“Oh, really,” Becca challenged.
“Rank does have its privileges,” Lee quipped. Becca grabbed up a handful of sand, threatening to throw it at him. He just grinned more broadly and opened his arms. Turned out they were a little longer getting back to the B&B than they had originally planned.
* * * *
Lee had a surprise waiting for him when he came downstairs the next morning – Chip was helping Tim bring the breakfast items from the kitchen. “I see you weren’t planning on missing breakfast,” Lee grinned.
“Absolutely not,” Chip assured him seriously. “How often do we get food like this?”
“Careful, Mr. Morton. Cookie finds out you said that, you’ll be on bread and water.”
“And just how would he find out?” Lee gave him an evil grin. “Geesh,” Chip muttered, and looked at Tim. “See how he treats his Exec? No loyalty whatsoever.”
“I look out for my crew,” Lee defended himself. “As the XO, you should be able to take care of yourself.”
“Children!” Annie threatened, bringing in a tray. Lee and Chip just looked at her, then each other, and grinned. “Behave yourselves or you’ll both be on bread and water. Now eat.” She relented as she placed the tray in the warming pan. “And let me know how you like this. It’s a new recipe – sort of.”
The three men dove in with alacrity, joined shortly by several of the earlier rising guests. Lee wasn’t exactly sure what the new dish was. He just knew it was delicious. It looked as if cooked broccoli, onions, red and yellow bell peppers, a little bacon, and some chopped up chicken had all been mixed together with scrambled eggs. Or rather, bound together – there was actually about twice as much meat and veggies as there was eggs.
“This is really good,” Lee said as he spooned out a second helping. “What do you call it?”
Annie blushed. “Well,” she hedged. “Actually, I suppose you could call it ‘Refrigerator Clean-out’. I just dumped everything in the fridge that looked reasonable into a big frying pan, heated it up, poured beaten eggs over the top, and kept stirring until the eggs were done.”
“Works for me,” Chip said, taking thirds.
“Hey,” Lee jabbed him. “Save some for the rest of the guests.” Everyone laughed.
“It’s okay, Lee,” Annie told him. “I wasn’t sure how it was going to go over. There’s enough for another batch still in the kitchen.”
“Great,” Chip grinned. “Fourths.” Lee just turned his eyes upward and shook his head as everyone laughed even louder.
Surprisingly there was still some left when Becca came in, finally, just shortly before 8:30. “Figured the seagulls got even,” Lee drawled, after introducing her to Chip.
“Not a chance,” she answered, still a bit out of breath. “Back to the grind tomorrow so took a good long run to the end of the beach and back.”
“You don’t need to take off immediately, I hope.” Annie said. “I’d sort of thought I’d put together a picnic lunch for the beach.”
“There she goes again,” Lee said to no one in particular. “Food – food – food. That’s all she ever thinks about.”
“Sounds good to me,” Chip snickered. “It you ever get tired of her…” he looked at Tim.
“Not a chance,” Tim answered, and gave Annie a hug. “I’m kind of fond of her myself. You’ll have to find one of your own.”
“That’s hopeless,” Lee teased. “So far he hasn’t been able to keep one past the third date.”
“Oh, yeah?” Chip defended himself. “And what about you? Your track record’s no better than mine.” But he gave Becca a speculative glance before returning his gaze to Lee.
Lee just shrugged. “I’m just taking my time, so I can learn from all your mistakes.”
“Enough,” Annie broke into the resulting laughter, stopping whatever comeback Chip was planning. She turned to Becca. “On second thought, maybe you and I will go to the beach and leave these three brats to fend for themselves.”
“Actually,” Becca said once she got herself under control, “Lee said something about having me help him buy a necklace for – Angie?” and she waited for Lee’s confirmation, “to match the earrings he got last time. And I thought, as long as I was here, I’d make a quick trip to the cemetery. Sort of planned it for yesterday but it didn’t happen.” She looked at Lee but he was hiding behind his coffee cup.
Annie just nodded. “You two run off and do your errands, and we’ll all meet down on the beach about 1 o’clock. That sound about right? Oh, and help yourself to some flowers from the garden. At least this time they’ll be beheaded for a good cause.” Lee had to translate for Chip as Becca finished her breakfast and went to clean up.
Lee figured he wasn’t the only one who hated to see Becca leave when she finally announced about 4:30 she’d better get going. He knew Tim and Annie had grown even fonder of her after this latest meeting than they were already, and she’d impressed Chip as well, especially after it became known how Lee had gotten the black eye. The Hughes had never asked, assuming, Lee figured, that it had happened on the mountain. But Chip had made a snide remark about it during lunch, then demanded an explanation when both Lee and Becca got sheepish grins on their faces. Lee started to answer but Becca cut him off, telling the rest that she’d inadvertently slugged him. “It was just an accident,” she said quietly. “Was having a bad dream. Guess I was loud enough I woke Lee up, and when he came in to find out what was wrong, I nearly flattened him.”
“Thank you,” Chip nodded at Becca. “You just got even for me. The last time I tried to stop one of Lee’s nightmares, he threw me across the room and smashed my head into his desk.”
“That’s what you get for impersonating a dragon,” Lee sniped. But one look at Annie as she again prepared to break up the squabble, amiable though it was, caused everyone to break out in giggles.
Becca had packed that morning before she and Lee left the B&B, and Lee now walked her back to her car as the other three cleaned up the picnic things. “I don’t want to say good-bye,” Lee said hesitantly when they reached the parking lot.
She just smiled at him. “Me, neither. However, we both have jobs that we need to get back to. I seriously doubt either one of us would be happy to give them up for long.”
Lee nodded. “There is that,” he agreed. “I imagine David will be glad to see you.”
“He’s probably already planning a retaliatory trip of his own,” she grinned. “What about you? When will you go back to work?”
“As soon as possible,” Lee grumbled, then turned sheepish as Becca laughed at him. “Not sure,” he admitted. “I imagine Chip will have been instructed to report to Jamie how I’m doing. Maybe a few more days here. He and I will make a quick trip to Detroit, fly back here and pick up my car, and drive home. I’ll be allowed to at least do office work. Seaview’s next scheduled cruise leaves two weeks from tomorrow. With any luck at all I’ll be on her.” He grinned wickedly. “I’ll make Jamie’s life so miserable he’d better let me sail with her.” They both laughed.
“A postcard now and then would be appreciated,” Becca said.
Lee nodded. “At least an occasional phone call. You never know,” he grinned. “The kind of things I get involved in, I might just need to talk to my therapist from time to time.”
“You know the number. Just no bears!” she added emphatically. They both laughed.
“Okay, no bears.”
“But there is the small matter of Chip’s dragon you’ll have to explain to me sometime. Oh, and what your fourth-grade teacher was interrogating you about.”
Lee knew he cringed. “I was hoping you’d forgotten about that.”
“Not a chance, Commander. You don’t get off the hook that easily.” But the kiss they exchanged before she climbed in her car and drove off told both it would be a most pleasant therapy session, and Lee was still smiling ten minutes later when the other three joined him. It changed to his best command glare as he turned on Chip.
“Now, Mr. Morton, you will explain to me just what the hell happened on this last cruise, and why the Admiral and Doc just kept saying it was ‘interesting’. And, what part of Seaview needs fresh paint?”
Chip turned a little green. “Well, you see, it was sort of like this…”
(To be continued in “A Subtle Little Reminder”, coming next.)