Author’s Note: Thanks to everyone who has kept after me to get his story finished. You know who you are, and you have my undying gratitude.
Just ANOTHER walk in the park
C. Lyn Barrow
"Come in and sit down, Captain Crane," the heavyset man behind the desk ordered brusquely. Crane hesitated, his right hand on the doorknob, his uniform cap tucked familiarly beneath his left arm. “Come in. Come in, damn it. I don’t have all day.”
Lee Crane released the knob and allowed the door to swing shut behind him, but he did not move. He was accustomed to a little respect, himself, and he refused to allow this industry giant to intimidate him. He remained where he was, at near-attention, his dark head tipped just slightly to one side to convey his curiosity. He was more than aware of the impact of a Naval officer in full dress blues and he decided that even that slight advantage would be beneficial here.
“Don’t think you can intimidate me, young man!” the mogul barked at him, and Crane fought back a smile, carefully keeping his features sedate. So, Martin Bauer’s demeanor stemmed from an insecurity of his own, not just overbearing arrogance. “Admiral Carstairs told me you were an unconventional sort of man. I didn’t expect you to be so damned spit and polish.”
“I am still Navy,
Mr. Bauer, even if I’m no longer on active duty. The Nelson Institute is closely allied with
several branches of the
Bauer waved a white, pudgy hand at him, once more beckoning him forward. “Oh, damn it, I know. I know all that.” He leaned forward in his high-backed chair and opened a carved wooden humidor, retrieving a fat cigar. “Have one?” he offered as he trimmed the tip of the cigar and reached for a large, silver desk-size lighter.
“Thank you, no. I don’t smoke.”
Probably don’t drink much either, or carouse around, huh. The perfect gentleman. Isn’t that what they say of
“Admiral Carstairs referred your contract to the Nelson Institute as something he considered too sensitive for a commercial ship,” Lee stated then, deciding that he needed to take control of the conversation before it got completely out of hand. He crossed the thick carpet slowly to stand between the two chairs situated in front of the desk, his back ramrod straight, broad shoulders squared.
Bauer chuckled coldly. “So that’s what he said to get you here, eh? Still, I guess that’s exactly what it is.”
Crane frowned, not liking the way this meeting was going at all. He was confident he knew what Nelson would do in this situation. He would tell Bauer what he could do with his job and march right back out the door without another word, but Lee did not feel he had that degree of autonomy when it came to the organization founded by his employer and friend, Harriman Nelson.
“Would you care to brief me on what it is you want from NIMR?” he persisted, carefully keeping his annoyance out of his voice.
“Only if you sit down, damn it! I don’t like people who loom over me the way you’re doing.”
Seeing nothing else he could do, Lee sank down onto one of the pair of richly upholstered chairs before the teakwood desk; real teak, he judged, not veneer. He sat on the front half of the chair, leaning forward, forming a pleasant smile on his face that he did not feel.
“There. Did that kill you? Damn it man, I’m not accustomed to military stiffness. I’m wanting to hire you and I get attitude!”
Crane inhaled slowly, refusing to be angered, although the man’s persistent swearing was grating on his nerves. He might expect it from certain enlisted men, but in a business setting he felt it was out of place. “I meant no disrespect, Mr. Bauer, but I understood that there was some urgency to this mission you would have us undertake.”
“Urgency? Damn right!”
“Your task, Mr. Bauer? What is it that can only be handled by the crew of the Seaview?”
“You are aware that I contacted your Harriman Nelson directly about this undertaking nearly a month ago and was summarily rejected.”
Lee stifled a smile. A whole sentence without the word damn being used once. A milestone. “I am aware of that, Mr. Bauer. The Seaview is a research submarine. It is not a glorified transport vessel.”
Bauer seemed to disregard his statement, his words almost overtopping Lee’s. “Admiral Carstairs told me a great deal about you, Captain.” Crane doubted that, but he allowed the man his perception. “He said you're one of ONI’s best operatives.”
If Carstairs had, in truth, revealed his own connection to the Office of Naval Intelligence he had been doing more talking than was warranted, Lee thought with some bitterness.
“I work for the Nelson Institute of Marine Research, Mr. Bauer, not the ONI.”
“Yes, I get that, damn it," Bauer answered caustically. "But Carstairs assures me you’ve performed exactly this kind of mission before. That it’ll be a walk in the park for you.”
“I understood this was a contract for NIMR and Seaview, Mr. Bauer, not an ONI mission. If that’s what this is I’ll have to get my orders from Admiral Carstairs. I cannot discuss it with you and I’m afraid I’ll have to decline your contract.” He rose smoothly to his feet, once more tucking his cover under his arm.
“No! You can’t!”
“I certainly can. Which is it to be? A contract or an assignment?”
Lee felt the change in the air around him as the office door at his back was opened, but he had no doubt as to who had entered. He turned slowly, making his salute as formal and correct as any naval officer had ever done as he faced Admiral Jesse Carstairs, the current head of ONI.
“Actually, it’s a little of both, Captain.” The admiral returned the salute casually, brushing past him and taking the second chair in front of the desk, motioning the younger man back to his own chair. Crane turned, but did not sit, his action not lost on the admiral. “Martin, I did warn that you were going to have to walk softly with our Captain Crane, didn’t I?”
Lee did not wait for Bauer to reply. “Is
this an ONI assignment, Admiral? Does
Nelson know? After the fiasco in
“I just got off the phone with him. He’s given his approval, albeit reluctantly. Said for you to call him on his private line if you have any doubts.”
“Then why was I summoned here? If he approves, why did you need me to come
“This is an important mission, Lee, but for you it really should be a simple matter, and with the Seaview involved it could be considered a done deal.”
“Another simple in and out, Admiral Carstairs?” Lee said crossly. “I seem to remember that’s what you said about the last job you sent me on. And the one before that, and the one before that....”
“All right, Crane! Enough! In spite of what you and Nelson believe I don’t enjoy sending valuable agents into dangerous situations. I’m not heartless. But.... It isn’t just the agents that I have to consider... but those they’re sent to extract or accompany. You know that. You know it better than most.”
“I know it, Admiral,” Crane conceded, his gaze meeting Carstairs’ evenly. He knew the man spoke the truth. He appreciated the difficulty of the job Carstairs held, but he wished, just once, that he would be honest with him up front -- from the first. “What’s the job?”
Carstairs leaned back in his chair, relaxing for the first time. “Do you know what kind of a company Bauer & Boen is?”
“I'm afraid not. But a wealthy one from all appearances."
“We’d have to be to afford the Seaview, now wouldn’t we, Captain?” the rotund executive snarled.
Lee raised one eyebrow skeptically, and then glanced at Carstairs. “So we’re actually going to be paid for this mission?” he said coolly.
Carstairs gave him a one-sided grin, but Bauer was still blustering unabated.
“I could practically build my own ship for what it’s costing my company to hire your submarine.” Crane bit back a sharp response. “You’re looming again, Captain!”
“And I’ll remain standing until I get some straight answers,” Lee explained firmly, then shifted his attention to Carstairs. “Since you say my admiral has approved this mission, just what plans do you have for me this time?”
“Sit down, Crane. It’s not going to be so bad.”
Lee grumbled in disagreement born of experience. “So you said, but what is it?” he reiterated. “The longer you take to explain, the more knots I get in my stomach.”
“Oh relax, Captain,” Bauer urged him, puffing on his cigar and sending up a cloud of thick blue smoke.
Lee closed his eyes momentarily. He hated cigars with an almost unreasoning intensity. There had been a time, on one of his less successful ONI missions, that he had fallen into the hands of a man who smoked cigars. He shook his head, banishing the unpleasant memory.
“Bauer & Boen is an internationally known construction
firm specializing in bridges and dams.
We’ve built the most perfect structures of their type in virtually every
Lee looked quickly from Bauer to Carstairs and back. “There are
“With a lot of work and convincing repartee.” It was Bauer who answered his pointed
question, not Carstairs, he noted. “I
assure you our effort has been fully authorized by our State Department. We want you
on this job, Crane, and if we have to hire your damned submarine to get you
then that’s what I’ll do! Your submarine
will transport our preliminary investigation team of engineers, and their
necessary equipment to the capital city of
“Morton!?” Crane choked out and turned his smoldering, dark gaze on the admiral. “Commander Morton’s no ONI agent!”
“No, but he is a personal acquaintance of my overseas program manager, Dr. Wade Maxwell. Seems they grew up together, have known one another since the third grade.” Lee nodded slowly, the name only vaguely familiar, but for some reason his tension increased. Chip’s aversion to Lee’s participation in ONI missions was a sore point between the two friends, and he could imagine nothing that would draw the other man into a situation that looked to be as convoluted as this one.
“I don’t like it. Civilian involvement always triples the risk on ONI assignments,” he hedged.
Bauer snorted derisively. “As I said before, Captain, relax. You’re going to be working for me, not the ONI. And we’re going at the invitation of the Maranvar government. There won’t be any trouble. All we want you to do is provide a presence, and see my people safely to the camp at the site where the dam will be built.”
Crane shook his head, frowning in consternation. “Why are you involving the ONI at all?”
Martin Bauer had the good graces to look sheepish, and he drew deeply on the fat cigar.
“He’s not,” Carstairs explained, taking control once more. “He contacted the State Department about taking the contract, they contacted the CIA, and they contacted us.”
“That sounds unpleasantly familiar,” Crane grumbled. “But why us, even if Chip and this Dr. Maxwell are acquainted? That doesn’t strike me as enough reason to....”
“The State Department insists on an official escort for the project team, Captain, but with the sanctions in place they can’t send in a squad of Marines,” Carstairs interrupted. “The military junta that rules in Maranvar has approved us providing our own security team unit. The Seaview will present a formidable presence, as Martin points out, and perhaps act as a safeguard while you’re in-country, and the CIA....”
“Doesn’t want to disclose any of their agents to a potential enemy. I understand. But why me?” He was aware of a quick look exchanged between Carstairs and Bauer. He still wasn’t getting the entire truth, he knew without a doubt. “Why does Seaview need to make an impression, and why do you want an Agent if this assignment is so safe? If your three civilians plan on living in the backcountry for the next year or so I would think that a professional security force would be more appropriate, a team that could stay there with them. Why do you think you need me at all?”
“I told you, Captain,” Bauer interjected sourly. “You come highly recommended, and your first officer....”
“Wouldn’t be going if Admiral Nelson hadn’t already committed to it, Mr. Bauer,” Lee returned quickly. “Childhood friend or not. I have full say-so on who goes on missions off my boat, and despite his occasional involvement Chip Morton has no real training in covert activities, not to mention any inclination toward them. I’m going to talk to Admiral Nelson about this, and if I have my way, Chip won’t be accompanying us.”
“But you’ll take the assignment?” Carstairs demanded.
Crane looked toward him, the green flecks in his brown eyes aflame with some barely controlled passion, either eagerness, or fury, and Carstairs seriously doubted it was the former.
“As usual, sir, you’ve left me little choice. But one of these days, there’ll be a job that I simply won’t do for you.”
Carstairs nodded. He was fully aware that Crane could only be pressed just so far. He was an excellent agent, one of the best, as he had told Bauer, but he was also a thinker, and a man of conscience, not an automaton. At any rate, this job should be just as simple as he had assured him it would be. He hoped it would be, anyway; Nelson’s warnings still rang ominously in his ears of what he planned on doing should any harm come to his two senior officers.
“I tell you, Lee, I’m not real sure about this,” Chip Morton was muttering as he stood beside the captain on the foredeck of the Seaview awaiting the arrival of the Admiral Nelson and the Bauer & Boen project team.
“There’s still time to change your mind,” Crane suggested, his thoughts going at once to the upcoming trek into the backcountry of Maranvar.
The exec shook his head, though without conviction. “No, it’s something I have to face sooner or later.”
Lee frowned questioningly. Morton had been typically skeptical about the mission he was to be included in, even if it was not officially an ONI assignment, but this uncertainty of his was totally unprecedented. When Chip was first informed that he would be included in the party venturing into the highlands of Maranvar he had been as reluctant as Lee had expected him to be, grumbling that at least he would be along to make sure Crane stayed out of trouble. The captain had then used the presence of Chip’s old friend as incentive, but again he had not responded as expected, somehow not as excited about seeing Wade Maxwell as Lee had anticipated. In fact, he’d seemed almost alarmed, accepting his own inclusion in the assignment with greater composure than the news of seeing this companion from his youth.
Lee did not recall ever hearing Chip speak of a Wade Maxwell, and although Crane knew he was not privy to every detail of his friend’s younger days prior to the Academy, he had begun to wonder if there was some kind of unresolved conflict between the two of them. Chip’s peculiar statement brought that concern to the fore. Any official expedition into a foreign country, no matter how approved and welcomed they were supposed to be was no place for hashing out old problems.
But how serious could those problems be? Chip had admitted that he had not seen Wade since he was nineteen, but he had been forthcoming with little more information. His exec was uneasy, and that, in turn, alerted the captain.
Morton gave a subdued groan as the Institute limo rolled to a stop and the rear doors swung open.
As Lee had expected, Admiral Nelson was the first to emerge into the hazy dawn light. He frowned as the Admiral turned and extended his hand into the car to assist someone in exiting. Surely, he thought with a little bitterness, none of the project team was going to need physical assistance on this trip. No one had mentioned that and it would certainly complicate things if it were the case. Damn, he swore to himself. If that were so, it would be another black mark to add to his association with Admiral Carstairs.
He glanced sidelong at his friend and XO as Morton sighed raggedly, softly but anguished nonetheless. This was getting serious. Lee frowned again at the slow flush that climbed from beneath the collar of Chip’s khaki uniform shirt to his hairline. Now totally alarmed, Lee transferred his attention back to the limousine and the person Nelson handed from the car. It was definitely not someone with a handicap of any sort.
Admiral Harriman Nelson walked toward them with a swagger neither man had often noticed in his stride, and a smile on his face that even the notification of his winning the Nobel Prize had not garnered. Of course, with just a slight shift of his gaze Lee understood.
“Chip?” Crane choked out, his astonishment carrying him a single step forward closer to the limo. “Is that...?”
“Wade Maxwell....” Chip whispered.
The woman walking beside the Admiral was movie star beautiful, as statuesque and graceful as the most famous model. She was slender, yet at the same time somehow voluptuous, her long legs seeming even longer in the short skirt and four-inch spike heels. She was wearing a severely cut gray suit, but the thigh-length of the skirt and the hot pink shell beneath the jacket gave lie to its austerity. She wore large tortoiseshell eyeglasses, slightly out of style but perfect for her, he thought distractedly. She had a glorious mane of deep red hair, flowing long and free in gentle waves. She was talking to Nelson and gave her head a little toss, setting that wondrous fall of hair into sensuous motion, and Lee swallowed spasmodically, helplessly.
“Now, maybe you understand, Lee,” Chip was muttering. Chip turned to face him squarely, his blue eyes earnest and pleading. “That’s Rusty. We were high school sweethearts before the Academy....”
“You’ve... been avoiding... that... all these years?” he stammered, glancing toward his friend, his incredulity clear, then, “Oh m’god....” Crane managed as the nickname registered and memory began to filter through his amazement.
“She wanted to get married. I wanted the Academy, and the Navy. She knew that. Had known it all along, but... but... she wanted to get married....” he managed.
“I get it, buddy,” Lee replied gently, speaking not from experience, but compassion, recalling the distraught young Morton who had returned to the Academy at the beginning of their second year. “She’s the one you talked about, right? The one you almost gave up your dreams for?”
“You remember that?” Chip’s quiet voice was incredulous.
Lee nodded. “You were troubled. Obviously something had happened over summer break. I just made an educated guess.”
“You never pushed me to tell you.”
“I knew you’d tell me if you needed to. I would have pursued it if it had continued to hang on, but it didn’t seem to.”
“Well, she’s returned to haunt me after all.”
“What makes you think she’s still after you?” Lee teased gently, struggling to keep his sudden smile out of his voice. “Of course, that sure would be a hard to come home to after a long, dangerous trip on the Seaview.”
“Aw, Lee.... Cut it out.”
Crane’s grin broadened, then eased. “Come on, Commander. We’ve got work to do here, and we might as well get it over with. There’s the other two members of the project team bringing up the rear.” He chuckled dryly. “Looks like you may have some competition anyway, my friend. They both look like they could take either of us on and come away free.”
Morton turned and looked. The final two members of team were in their mid-to late-thirties, tall, muscular, and fit. “Well, that sure explains why the State Department figured she needed an escort. Those two fellows are obviously incapable of defending themselves, much less anyone else,” he answered grimly.
Lee’s warm chuckle and the quick slap on the back eased Chip’s uneasiness somewhat. Maybe he was putting too much import on her being here, he acknowledged. Maybe once Wade met Lee she would shift her focus to the handsome Skipper. Maybe she was already attached to one of the poster boys for “Brains and Brawn” who accompanied her. Maybe.... He shook his head at his own irrational thoughts. This wasn’t like him. It just wasn’t. Get a grip, Morton, he told himself fiercely.
“Chip Morton!” Wade’s voice was just as melodious as he remembered it, sending little shivers of desire and dismay through his body.
Both men saluted the Admiral formally, then, “Dr. Maxwell,” he answered thinly.
Once she would have launched herself across the intervening distance that separated them, trusting him to catch her, but the years had mellowed her, it seemed, or she had grown into her position as the head of Bauer & Boen’s Overseas Project Management Group.
She stepped away from Nelson and regally extended her hand to the exec. He moved forward to meet her, taking her hand between his own without hesitation, blue eyes meeting blue eyes in a connection that Lee could feel from even three feet away.
“Uh....” Chip stammered, obviously disconcerted. Crane stared at him, at a side of Chip Morton he had seldom seen before. “Dr. Wade Maxwell, this is Lee Crane, Captain of the Seaview.”
“Captain Crane,” she purred, taking his right hand informally in her left, and batting long lashes at him. “So all of Chip’s praise of your potential, all those years ago was not misplaced after all. We never met, but I do remember seeing you around town a time or two.”
“Dr. Maxwell, I’m afraid you have the advantage of me.”
“I doubt too many people have been able to say that of you, Captain.”
She smiled a secret sort of little smile, and deep violet eyes met intense brown ones. Lee blinked, taken aback by the impact of a jolt nearly like an electrical charge, but she continued unabated.
“The youngest submarine CO in the Navy certainly couldn’t miss much. Chip always said you would make your mark in the Navy. It appears that he was right.”
Abruptly Lee found himself at a loss for words. He had given this woman not a moment’s thought in more than fifteen years, and yet it seemed she had kept track of not only Morton’s progress, but his own, as well.
“Welcome to the Seaview,” he said weakly then. “Commander Morton will see you aboard,” he finished and nodded a casual dismissal to his Exec a moment before Nelson’s voice drew his attention away.
“Gentlemen, this is Captain Crane.”
Lee looked toward the Admiral, instantly recalling his own obligations.
“Good morning, sir,” he greeted amiably, stepping forward to greet the two engineers.
“Lee, this is Roger Snow,” Nelson said gesturing one-handedly at the shorter of the two men, though he was still of a height with Crane. “And Peter Barry,” Nelson finished, nodding to the second man.
Snow appeared to be a few years the elder of the two engineers, his brown hair liberally splashed with gray, but he, like his fellow was physically trim and fit, and had Lee still harbored serious concerns over their inclusion in this effort their appearance would have removed them. Pete Barry was a giant, overtopping the captain by several inches, dark haired, lean, and as homely a man as any Crane had ever seen, his ears affixed to the sides of his head like some afterthought, but the man’s grin turned ugly into pleasing, and Lee could not help but smile in response.
“Welcome to the Seaview, gentlemen,” he said, repeating the same words he had spoken to Wade, but his tone was much more relaxed.
“Glad to meet you, Captain. I’m Roger Snow... the geologist and explosives engineer of the team,” Snow reintroduced himself. He grinned with a sidelong glance at Morton and Dr. Maxwell as they stood at the foot of the ramp that spanned the distance between the pier and the Seaview’s deck. “Guess you could say I’m her second in command, like he’s yours. This is Pete Barry, mechanical engineer. He’ll be in charge of technology and manpower.”
“Mr. Snow, Mr. Barry. A pleasure. We’ll be getting underway momentarily if you wouldn’t mind going aboard. Most of our passengers enjoy the Seaview’s observation nose as we leave the harbor. Your luggage will be stowed in your quarters.” He motioned to Kowalski, standing dutifully nearby. “If you’ll follow this seaman below, he’ll show you the way to the observation area...”
“Thank you, Captain,” the second man said in a deep baritone as he moved forward.
Neither had offered to shake hands. That was perfectly all right with him. He had learned a long time ago that it was best not to make friends with Seaview’s clients, nor with the men he led on ONI missions. This was a combination of both. But the second man did not seem to be ready to go below just yet.
“I just wanted you to know how thrilled I am to actually be traveling on this magnificent machine, Captain. I’ve read everything I could find on her, and she’s just as beautiful as I expected. I understand she’s been fitted with some amazing prototype equipment! Newly designed torpedo loaders? Is that what you call them?”
Crane grinned, but remained silent. Coming from another man the questions might have made him suspicious but this man absolutely exuded enthusiasm, and if the most confidential thing he showed an interest in was the recently installed computerized torpedo loading racks they would be getting off easy. He shared the man’s sentiments, but it was Nelson to whom he should be giving his high praise, and he glanced at the admiral quickly.
“I’ve assured Mr. Barry that you’d arrange a Class A inspection of the boat for him, Lee,” Nelson informed him, indicating a level of security higher than his captain would have expected.
“Very good, sir,” he replied then turned his gaze back toward the tall engineer. “I’ll have a tour scheduled for you, Mr. Barry, some time in the next couple of days. Will that be to your satisfaction?”
“Oh, it will more than satisfy, Captain. I’m absolutely delighted!”
Lee waved Kowalski forward, then stepped aside as the seaman led the two men below. He edged closer to Nelson but neither of them spoke, watching as Morton stood conversing quietly with the redheaded woman, his expression open and revealing. He remained silent, seeing the myriad of emotions that played across the normally impassive features. There was sorrow, and regret there, but there was also anticipation and a fair degree of optimism radiating from his friend. He seemed to have lost himself in her violet eyes, and she appeared equally preoccupied.
“Chip?” Lee said softly, all too aware of Nelson’s increasingly amused observation at his side. “I think we’d better get underway if we’re going to catch the tide,” he continued. “Would you care to see Dr. Maxwell safely below?”
Chip’s head came up sharply, and his blush deepened just momentarily as he looked first at Nelson, then at Crane, then addressed the air somewhere between the two men. “Aye, sir. I’ll have Seaview ready to cast off as soon as you give the word.”
“Thank you, Mr. Morton,” the Captain replied formally, then watched quietly as his long-time friend moved away at the woman’s side, his hand gallantly on her elbow as he assisted her through the hatchway and she began her descent into the Seaview, as confident in her high heels as any Sailor in sneakers. He glanced at Harriman Nelson, seeing the smile on the older man’s face. “Now that’s something you don’t see every day,” he said quietly. “Chip doesn’t fluster easily.”
“Our exec is a man of surprises,” Nelson observed, stifling a chuckle.
“I agree, Admiral,” Lee admitted.
“Have you met her before?”
“No, sir, I haven’t,” he replied illusively. “I know who she is... now... but I never actually met her and failed to make the connection. Chip always referred to her as Rusty.” Lee glanced about the dock, then shifted his attention to the cleared deck around them. “Sharkey, let’s get the boat zipped up and ready to cast off,” he called to the COB, and preceded Admiral Nelson into the belly of the Seaview.
As he had expected the admiral went straight to his quarters leaving further public relations efforts to his captain. Had they been scientists, or guests of his own invitation Lee knew it would have been different, but these were people more or less foisted upon them by the ONI and he felt no obligation toward them.
Crane descended the ladder and glanced swiftly toward his executive officer. Chip was reading one of the weather update printouts, standing near the radio shack, but he looked up, giving Lee a brisk nod, his typical assurance that all was in readiness.
“You may take her out as soon as all lights are green, Mr. Morton, then when we’ve cleared the headwaters and the course is set turn the conn over to Mr. Goodwin and join us in the nose.” He winked at Chip, and grinned.
He would have liked to remain on the bridge, himself, allowing Chip to attend his old sweetheart and her team, but Institute protocol required that either Admiral Nelson or the captain remain in their company until they were at sea, and Nelson had given over that responsibility to him. He joined the three members of the project team standing in the observation nose, quietly looking out the clear panels into the shimmering water. For a moment the scene remained unchanged, then, as Chip’s commanding voice called out orders that were repeated through the boat, it gradually began to alter, the color of the water deepened, the sense of motion increased. The red haired woman gave a little gasp and whirled to face the captain.
She started to make further comment, her gaze slipping beyond the Captain to the blond exec, but she pressed her full lips closed, smiling slightly.
“Mr. Morton is the most valuable asset I have on this boat, Dr. Maxwell. I couldn’t run her without him,” he told her, though a moment before he’d had no intention of building Chip’s prestige in her eyes.
Maybe that wasn’t why he had done it, he reasoned, but
rather to protect his own investment in Chip Morton. There had been other women in the exec’s
life, some of whom he had even thought might be able to snare his wily
friend. But this woman was different
from them all, he knew that instinctively, a knowledge that had been verified
by Chip’s almost mesmerized behavior on deck.
Chip, who never failed in protocol, had been struck speechless and
frozen in place by the smile of this woman from his past. Morton was secure in his career now, with a
permanent home base in
Crane fielded questions from the two male members of the project team without giving his answers much attention. They were standard questions about the Seaview that virtually every civilian passenger who came aboard her asked. What are the windows made of...? How fast can she go...? How deep do you dive...? How many men aboard...? Any women...? As the gigantic submarine slipped beneath the waves he watched the reflection of the Control Room in the glass. He could see what Dr. Maxwell saw as she stood with her back to the bow watching Morton instead of the enthralling sight beyond the clear panels, and he observed his exec with a new eye.
Chip was as fair as he, himself, was dark, and though he
stood a scant inch taller than Morton in height he knew his friend would appear
the stronger of the two. Chip had always
outweighed him by twenty pounds or better, even during their years at the
“Does Commander Morton pilot the Seaview often?” Wade Maxwell was saying, drawing Lee’s attention back to her.
“Often enough that I should be afraid for my job,” he replied, but his air of confidence, and his ready smile belied his words. “Chip is my right hand, Dr. Maxwell, and I don’t make that claim lightly. He’s the man who makes this boat function without a hitch.”
“He’s very fond of you, too, Commander. That’s obvious,” she replied with a smile, then turned her amazingly dark, almost violet, blue eyes up to him. “The letters he wrote to me his first year at the Academy often spoke of you.... I’m afraid that at that time I still thought we could get back together.... Funny how things work out, isn’t it?” She lowered her gaze almost shyly for a moment, and Crane found himself smiling with pleasure.
“It certainly is.”
She turned slightly, taking a new physical stance as she chose to change the direction of their discussion. “I got the impression from Admiral Nelson on our way here that he wasn’t particularly pleased about us being here.... Civilians aboard his submarine are not to his liking.”
“He had planned on staying ashore this voyage,” Crane revealed. “He’s working on some experiments in the Institute lab he’d hoped to complete... something that required absolute stability. Couldn’t guarantee that aboard Seaview, although we’ll certainly try to give you the smoothest ride we can manage.”
“Oh, I’m not unduly concerned with comfort, Captain, or I wouldn’t be in the line of work I am. Roger, Pete and I have built dams in several third-world countries, and where we work there are seldom five-star hotels.”
Lee’s smile widened. So, she was tough as well as beautiful. Chip, you old dog....
“Captain, lights are green across the board, the course is set and we’re underway at twelve knots, increasing to twenty after we clear the breakwater,” Chip Morton’s voice said at his shoulder.
Lee rearranged his expression and turned to face him. “Very well, Mr. Morton. I’ll take over now....” He started to step past Morton, but paused. “I’ll send Chief Sharkey over to show Mr. Snow and Mr. Barry to their quarters when they’re ready to leave the nose. I leave Dr. Maxwell to you.”
“Uh... Aye, sir. Thank you, sir,” Morton stammered, flushing again, much to his captain’s suppressed amusement.
“As you were, Commander,” Crane said briskly, and returned to the Control Room, chuckling softly to himself. This was certainly going to be an interesting voyage.
The boat was quiet, although it was never truly silent while they were underway. Mid Watch had begun more than an hour ago and Lee Crane knew that the Officer of the Deck, Lt. Commander Cramer, ten years his senior and a career officer, was completely trustworthy, but he was headed for the Control Room anyway. He descended the spiral ladder well slowly, nodding a greeting as Cramer looked up from his position at the charting table and saw him. The watch crew glanced his way also, but his arrival was neither unexpected nor unusual, and they returned to their duties. When sleep eluded him, as it frequently did, the only thing that would relax him enough to return to his bed was a quick tour of the Seaview in order to assure himself that all was well. The crew was accustomed to it now, but early on he knew he had stepped on a few toes of those who took his inspection as a personal affront. He had learned to be more circumspect over the intervening years, and the crew had come to view his nightly tours with tolerance and even appreciation. It was impossible, at least for him, to spend so much time with these men and not come to trust and admire them. They were all expert at the jobs they did, highly skilled and adept, and if some of them were annoying and irritating, so were some family members, or so he had been told by those who had large families.
“Trouble sleeping again, Skipper?” Cramer asked quietly, as though he was reluctant to speak louder in the silence of the submarine’s night.
“Nothing unusual about that, Win,” Lee replied calmly, his dark gaze wandering ceaselessly over the screens and boards that lined the walls of the Control Room. There was no need for him to ask after the condition of the boat; it was all spelled out clearly before him in lights and dials and he was well aware that should there be anything of concern Winston Cramer would inform him of it without prompting.
“Just starting or just ending?” the older man questioned absently, referring to the Captain’s frequent tours of the boat.
Crane smiled. “Ending. I’ll be heading back to my quarters shortly.”
The OOD nodded and tapped the chart with his pencil. “Here’s our location, Skipper.”
Without comment Lee noted the position, then picked up the course-plotting ruler and casually placed it on the chart atop the table. He nodded in satisfaction, still gazing at the chart.
“Come left, steer course 265.”
“Come left, steer course 265, aye, sir,” Cramer replied evenly, and the course adjustment was echoed in the standard manner. It was a minor adjustment, but it would avoid the low-pressure area he had noted on the chart an hour before he had surrendered the conn. “Y’think that’s gonna blow into something, Skipper?”
“There’s no sense in our plowing through it just to find out, now is there, Win?” Crane answered, grinning. “Though I know how much you do love a good storm.”
Cramer grimaced, unhappily recalling the last time Seaview had been required to weather out a blow on the surface. “Aw, Skipper. You know my queasy stomach’s the reason I opted for sub duty after fifteen years in the Navy.”
“It’s that ulcer of yours, Win. Doc tells me it’s clearing up, though. Maybe next time you can stand sail duty and not feel a thing.”
“Next time....” he groaned, but he was smiling. “At least tonight you weren’t the only one with trouble sleeping, Skipper.” Crane glanced up from the chart, one eyebrow rising inquisitively. “The lady engineer came down about twenty minutes ago. She’s in the nose.”
Lee straightened once more, his attention shifting to the observation nose forward of the Control Room. “Twenty minutes,” he repeated, knowing that was about the same time he had awakened, and finding it oddly curious. Guest Cabin 4 was just down the corridor from his own quarters, and he wondered if he had, somehow, heard her departure. “Carry on, Mr. Cramer.”
“I have the conn, Captain,” Cramer answered briskly, but he watched as Crane moved with casual determination toward the dim figure standing in the darkened nose.
“Dr. Maxwell? Is everything all right?” he asked gently. It was not uncommon for guests aboard Seaview to have difficulty sleeping the first night or two, but at least they usually had the good sense to stay in their cabins. Wandering around a submarine in the middle of the night was not a safe activity for any visitor.
She gave a start and turned toward him although he was certain she must have seen his reflection in the Herculite windows and been aware of his approach. “Oh, Captain Crane. I didn’t expect to see you up at this time of night.” She had a magazine rolled between her hands, the copy of the Journal of Structural Engineering he had noticed on the table earlier.
He moved closer, though remained a good arm’s length from her. She seemed almost nervous, ill at ease, twisting the magazine mercilessly. “Nor I you, Doctor. I’m afraid that sleeping through the night has never come easily for me.”
“You carry a heavy load of responsibility. That’s enough to trouble any sensitive person’s sleep. Have you found that your restlessness disturbs Chip?”
Lee did not respond at once. It struck him as an odd thing for her to ask. “Not that he’s mentioned,” he admitted, although he knew everyone aboard was fully aware of his nocturnal wanderings.
She still hadn’t revealed the source of her own sleeplessness though, a fact that was not lost on Crane. His ONI training had given him more experience than most submarine captains in detecting subtle nuances of tone and gesture. More often than not on his frequent missions undertaken for Naval Intelligence he had reason to trust that training, and now her uneasiness was obvious to him. In light of his just completed conversation with Winston Cramer, he wondered if she was ill.
“Are you unwell?” he asked kindly, extending one hand. “Would you like for me to see you to
She looked at him sharply. “I feel perfectly well, Captain,” she replied, her tone as sharp as her gaze. Her hands on the magazine were now utterly still, her knuckles white. “I didn’t know your rules confined those who have hired your services to their quarters!”
He withdrew his hand smartly, but his response was patient and even gentle. “Your pardon, Dr. Maxwell, but Bauer & Boen merely booked passage for you and your equipment. They did not request, nor are you entitled to freely access every part of Seaview. You are not confined to your quarters, but because she’s a warship as well as a research vessel it’s not safe for you to venture into most areas of the boat unaccompanied.” He inhaled slowly, keeping his own emotions well in control. “I merely thought perhaps that being unfamiliar with the motion of a submarine you were awake because of an upset stomach. It’s not uncommon....”
“Forgive me, Lee,” she said abruptly, her tone now all honey and cream. She smiled and took a single step closer to him, tucking the magazine roll beneath her left arm as she extended her hand, briefly touching his wrist just below the cuff of his shirt, leaving the sensation of warmth on his skin for a moment. “I thought Chip would have told you how much of a bitch I can be when I don’t get my beauty rest. I woke up... and remembered an article I wanted to read in this magazine. I tried, but I couldn’t get it out of my head. I just had to come down and get it.”
He nodded, deciding that hope of seeing a certain blond officer was the real source of her restlessness and he allowed the blatant excuse. She smiled winningly, her amazing violet eyes sparkling at him, drawing him irresistibly into their depths. He blinked and took a step backward. Her smile widened, and she chewed on her lower lip for a moment before she spoke again.
“You’re right, of course. I’ll go back to my cabin to read my article. But you, Captain? Aren’t you going back to bed tonight?”
He hesitated, certain that he heard more in her question than should have been there. “Of course, Dr. Maxwell, but first allow me to see you back to your cabin.”
She glanced past him toward the industrious Control Room crew. “That would be very kind of you. If I had the ingredients I would even invite you in for a nightcap.”
“Seaview is a working boat, Doctor. We don’t have much use for casual drinking.” He shook his head then, hearing an unpleasant note of condescension in his own voice. “Maybe once we’re ashore we can have a drink together somewhere....”
“Of course. That would be nice.”
She stepped close to him, slipping her free hand through his arm, her shoulder just brushing against his. She looked up at him, seeing the slight flush that tinted his olive complexion though he did not return her gaze nor her smile. She sighed, content, and allowed him to lead her toward the spiral ladderwell.
He was aware of her hand subtly tightening on his arm for a moment before she started up the metal stairs ahead of him. He could not help but admire the slender ankles ahead of him as she climbed, and it almost seemed as if she lingered on the last step a moment before stepping out into the corridor. He stepped up beside her, allowing her to take his arm once more, matching his stride to hers. She was smiling prettily as they came to a halt outside Guest Cabin 4 at the aft end of the long corridor known as Officers’ Country. She removed her hand from his forearm and leaned back against the door.
“Thank you for seeing me home, Lee,” she murmured, looking up at him through naturally thick lashes that made artificial enhancement unnecessary.
“Uh... my pleasure, Dr. Maxwell.”
“How long will it be before you call me by my first name? I feel as though I know you so well.”
He returned her smile, once more on footing he found secure. “A while longer, I’m afraid.” He glanced down the empty corridor. “There’s no real need for you to have to be up at any particular time tomorrow, Doctor. There’s always chow available and I’m sure Cookie would be glad to whip up anything you want from his larder. He gets pretty bored just feeding us Sailors. He says we have no imagination... when it comes to food.”
“That doesn’t sound like the Chip Morton I used to know. If ever a man loved his food it was Chip, and he loved to experiment, too. I remember he took me to an Indian restaurant once that last summer....” She fell silent, but her eyes glittered oddly as she continued to gaze up at Crane. “We had to drive sixty miles to the next town to get there, but it was very good food, and....” Now her voice did break, and she blinked urgently.
“That was some time ago, Dr. Maxwell,” he said gently. “But Chip still loves good food. Maybe we’ll just have to put some dinner together with that drink when we get to Maranvar.”
“Thanks again, Lee. I’ll be good and stay in my room at night from now on.”
“That’s probably for the best. If you want anything, just pick up the phone in your room. The radio operator will answer and he can help you with whatever it is you need.”
Her smile returned, but to her lips only. Her eyes were distant and almost cold. She reached out unexpectedly, her fingertips brushing his cheek lightly. She turned then, and entered the small cabin, closing the door quietly behind her, leaving him standing, slightly stunned in the corridor.
Lee touched his cheek where her fingers had brushed. It seemed that a residual electrical charge remained. He turned slowly, his walk about the boat forgotten. The corridor was silent as it should be at this time of the night, and he walked softly, keeping his steps as quiet as possible as he passed Chip Morton’s door. He wondered now if Dr. Maxwell’s question had been as a result of some casual comment of Chip’s, and perhaps his nightly passages through the submarine did disturb his friend’s slumber.
An unexpected sound inside Chip’s room brought him to an abrupt halt and he swung about, his dark brows furrowed as he listened to the obvious sound of movement from within, leather soles on the decking pacing back and forth across the cabin. It would seem that at least on this night Chip was also awake and restless, and Lee raised his hand without thought to knock on the door. The sounds inside ceased, but there was no summons to enter. Only silence.
“Chip? It’s Lee,” he said softly.
His concern level increased as the silence continued and he was on the verge of reaching for the knob when the hail finally came to enter. The knob turned easily beneath his fingers and he stepped forward but hesitated, glancing aft at the very quiet sound of another door latching. He frowned, knowing that Guest Cabin 4 was the only other occupied room on this corridor, and wondering if Wade had considered another midnight stroll, but she did not appear. Perhaps his call to Chip alarmed her, and she had merely opened the door to see if anything was wrong. He would have to remember to apologize to her tomorrow, he told himself, then pushed open the door to Chip’s quarters and stepped inside, closing the panel as silently as he could.
To his surprise, Chip sat on the side of his mattress, his black oxfords, that Lee had so distinctly heard, positioned neatly, side by side next to his rack. He was wrapped in the burgundy wool bathrobe he had bought last leave as protection against the Seaview’s efficient air conditioning system, but instead of pajamas, the legs protruding from beneath the robe were clad in khaki uniform trousers. Lee leaned back casually against the door, his arms folded across his chest as he studied his friend’s closed expression.
“What’s up, Chip?” he asked at last when Morton remained silent. “I’m supposed to be the one with the wakeful nights, remember?”
Morton sighed heavily and rose, padding barefooted across the floor to the head. He drew himself a glass of water at the sink, drank it quickly and returned to face his captain.
“I woke up,” he explained shortly. “I have the next watch. Figured I might as well stay up.”
“And pace the floor?” Lee asked without accusation. “Anything you want to talk about, buddy?”
“No.” Chip shook his head decisively, perhaps a bit too firmly, the captain thought absently, but let it go.
“Then I’m heading back to my own bunk. Carry on, Mr. Morton.”
He let his arms fall to his sides and moved to turn, but paused when Chip spoke.
“Lee.... I’m sorry. I... I guess I just had a bad dream. That’s all. I woke up all in a sweat and couldn’t remember a thing about the dream. I took a shower and started to get dressed, but I still can’t shake the feeling I woke up with.” He sighed again, the only real betrayal of his uneasiness. “When you knocked I realized just how... how foolish I was to be upset, and I thought if I didn’t answer you’d go on to bed. Guess I should have known better about that, huh?” Chip finished reluctantly, his voice revealing his regret.
Lee took a single step closer to his friend. “I’ve had my own share of bad dreams, Chip. They don’t always have a cause, but the ones that hang on like this sometimes do.” He fell silent for a moment, debating the wisdom of broaching the sensitive subject with Morton, then decided he must. “Could it be the fact that the ONI is even remotely involved in this little pleasure jaunt of ours? I know how you feel about them.”
Chip looked up sharply from his examination of the floor between them. “I wish I could say it was, Lee, but this doesn’t have the same feel as most of your assignments. You said that yourself.”
“I know, but--.”
“I think it’s Rusty... seeing her again after all this time,” Morton blurted, interrupting in a manner that was totally opposite his usual correctness. “She’s turned out just great, hasn’t she? I mean, she’s successful and well known in her field, and....”
“Beautiful,” Lee finished for him with a grin, then continued gently. “Are you thinking of trying to reestablish the relationship you had with her before?”
Chip stared at him in what seemed to be wide-eyed amazement, as if the thought had never occurred to him before. “What makes you ask that?” the exec murmured.
“Oh, I don’t know.... Maybe the fact that you were struck dumb when you saw her again. Maybe that she seems more than a little interested in you.” Lee smiled fondly as he moved around the blond-haired exec and braced one hip against the corner of the desk. “I was just down in the Control Room. She was in the observation nose. She may have expected to find you on duty....”
“She was in the nose? Alone?” Chip blurted, more scandalized that a civilian was wandering around his submarine unaccompanied, at night, than he was flattered that she might be looking for him. “She can’t do that!”
“So I informed her, my friend. I don’t think she’ll do it again. She’s quite the lady. To look at her I would never have suspected she’d be interested in any aspect of engineering, much less dam building. Where’d that come from?” Crane asked, trying to distract him from his ire.
“She was always good in math,” Morton muttered, turning to sink back down on his bunk. He sat hunched forward, his hands clasped between his knees, his gaze locked on his interlaced fingers. After a long moment he looked up, blue eyes meeting brown. “After you briefed me when you got back from Seattle, I... I called my sister back home.... Marisa,” he went on, quickly clarifying which of his four sisters he meant. “She and Wade were good friends for a long while, even after I....” He cleared his throat needlessly. “After we broke up. I asked her what she knew about what Rusty’d been up to since she left town.”
“And?” Lee prompted when Chip fell silent once more. He knew Chip’s inquiry was completely within his character; the need to find out what he could about an old acquaintance he was about to meet again.
“Rusty’s an only child... like you, Lee,. Her folks doted on her and they even moved to
“Well, it looks like she’s done extremely well for herself. It can’t just be any person who would be hired on by a company like Bauer & Boen and rise to head up their overseas operations. Did you suspect she had that kind of talent and motivation?”
Chip grinned. “When we were dating, it wasn’t really her mind that I found the most fascinating. I was only nineteen when we split up, remember.”
“But you already knew what you wanted to do with your life... had known for years.”
“Aw, Lee, she was only sixteen. At that age I was still just thinking girls and cars!” He cleared his throat uneasily as Lee’s eyebrows rose skeptically. He knew very well that Lee had known exactly what he wanted to do with his life at that age. “Well, most don’t, anyway. That’s what she was when I left, you know, just sixteen, all starry-eyed and in love with being in love. Looks like she got some focus to her life after I left for the Academy.” He sighed wearily. “I’m glad. I worried about her for a long time. Then...when I learned she wanted me on this job I was afraid it might be because she was still holding a grudge. She was pretty mad at me for a long time.”
“Didn’t look to me like she was, buddy,” the captain admitted.
“Then why? It’s been fifteen years.”
Lee pushed away from the desk and crossed to stand beside his friend. He rested his hand lightly on Chip’s shoulder. “What’s the word? Kismet? Being in the right place at the right time? This voyage is going to take nearly two weeks, Chip. Take your time... get reacquainted with her. Just....” Lee smiled widely. “Forgive the cliché, but why don’t you just let nature take its course. If the old spark is still there, you’ll know it soon enough.”
“Oh, you’re a great one to talk! The guy who seldom bothers with a third date with most of his lady friends.”
“That’s not always my idea, m’friend. You know how difficult it is for most women to accept our lifestyle. Can’t say as I blame them, either.” His grip on Chip’s shoulder tightened briefly then he stepped away, his smile still in place. “If you want to get another hour’s sleep I can wake you.”
“You’re not going back to bed?” Chip asked, already certain of the answer. Lee shook his head without replying. “How about an early breakfast? It’s a little early for Cookie, but I’m sure we can scrounge up something.”
Lee’s grin widened even further. “Great idea. But I hope Cookie is around. I need to advise him of what I told Wade about his eagerness to make her breakfast whenever she wanted.”
“Oh brother, you may be in deep trouble, Skipper. Deep trouble.”
Lee shrugged eloquently, and went to sit in the large chair behind the desk to wait while his friend finished dressing.
Six days into the journey and so far the Seaview had functioned perfectly, her engines purring like gigantic, well-fed felines, Crane thought to himself as he left his quarters and walked briskly toward the Wardroom for breakfast. There had been no leaks, no shorts in the wiring, and no mysterious blips on sonar. There had been no lapses in discipline, no differences among the crew, no accidents, not even a minor one. It had been a dream voyage, particularly, he thought distantly, for his Executive Officer. He'd had no qualms at all at rearranging Morton’s carefully scheduled duty roster, giving the exec more than his usual amount of time away from the bridge, and since he had not removed him entirely from the roster Morton had not complained... if he had even noticed. It was only fair, he decided. There had been any number of times when Chip had filled in for him in the past few years, pulling double duty when Crane had been off the boat for one reason or another, or when he had been incapacitated after one of those off-boat ventures.
Morton’s last duty watch had been the 16:00 to 20:00 hours Dog Watch, leaving him time to sleep, to perform the other duties required of an XO, as well as ample time to act as escort for Dr. Maxwell. Lee was not at all surprised to see the exec already at the Wardroom table, seated beside the red-haired hydraulics engineer. The Wardroom was quiet; the Morning Watch not yet ended and the Forenoon Watch still an hour away. The only other person in the room was Lt. Cross, seated at the far end of the table, so fully engrossed in his study of the reactor maintenance manual that he did not even look up when the captain entered the room. Morton glanced at him then at Cross and grinned, nodding a swift greeting to his friend and superior officer. Lee returned the smile and gave a little shake of his head.
“Don’t disturb him,” he said, nodding toward Cross as he eased lightly into a chair across from Chip and Wade. “What’s on your agenda for the day? Are you beginning to feel the pinch of confinement, Dr. Maxwell?” As long as they were aboard the Seaview to him she would be a patron, to be treated with the respect and detachment due any paying client.
“Not really, Captain. The fact that you’ve kindly surfaced for a portion of every day has certainly helped. Surely that’s not standard procedure.”
“Actually, it’s not that uncommon. We can easily maintain speed on the surface, and should there be any lost time it can be made up once we’re submerged. The seas are unusually calm this trip, and fresh air is well received by all aboard.”
Chip was nodding his agreement, and his patient expression told Lee that he had already told Wade all this, but he supposed she was just voicing her appreciation. Her next words seemed to confirm that supposition.
“Well, it’s certainly been a comfort to be able to see the sun and the sky once in a while. I can’t imagine how you submariners can stand to stay submerged for weeks at a time the way I’ve heard.” She batted long lashes over her deep amethyst eyes. “I hope you’ll forgive me if I’m convinced that you’ve done this just for me... for me and my team, I mean.”
Lee nodded his acknowledgement, his smile unrestrained and open. “Seems every man aboard has been knocking himself out to please you; myself included.”
“Your crew has been very sweet.”
She looked up at him through long, feathery lashes, duplicating Lee’s own unconscious gesture, one that those who knew him well were intimately familiar with. He was no more immune to that look directed at him than his friends were to his own. But it was no unwitting glance on her part. Rather it was calculated to achieve the greatest impact, and the effect it had on the worldly, yet oddly naïve captain was stunning. He gulped, and sat back in his chair, his dark gaze flicking swiftly to his friend, the image clear in his mind of the many times he had seen Chip and Wade standing side by side in the observation nose, sometimes talking, sometimes merely standing quietly together. If she was flirting with him he was certain it must be an innocent thing, a game perhaps, and he forced himself to relax once more.
Chip was smiling pleasantly. “What do you want for breakfast, Lee? I’ll get it for you.”
“The usual, I guess,” he answered, still slightly shaken from her sultry gaze.
But Chip must be comfortable with leaving her alone with him... no, of course they weren’t alone. There was Lt. Cross.... Lee shook his head again, his misgivings over her behavior and his own reaction to it troubling him. One of the galley stewards entered the Wardroom to check the officers’ coffee urn, saw the captain, and filled a mug for him from the fresh urn, placing it on the table in front of him before retreating once more with the stale coffee. Lee wrapped his hands around the cup, letting the warmth seep into his suddenly chilled body as he stared deeply into the nearly black liquid.
“Your crew takes very good care of you, Captain... Lee....”
He didn’t look up, didn’t want to become lost in those violet eyes again. The soft huskiness of her voice was hard enough to resist. Abruptly he realized that it was not the first time she had flirted unabashedly with him, recalling the seemingly casual touches, the lingering glances, and wishing he could recall in greater detail how he had responded. He swore silently as he shook his head in rejection of the unwelcome notion. This was a woman who had sought Chip after years apart, and as Morton’s friend he had subtly made it clear to every man aboard that she should be considered off-limits to all but the exec. Was he so weak as to betray his best friend’s interests? Or could it be that Wade was just extraordinarily adept at the game, he wondered distantly. Determined not to give in to his impulses, he looked up, smiling companionably. She had donned her glasses, as if she, too, had decided to erect a barrier, of sorts.
“It’s a good crew, Dr. Maxwell. Submariners are a close-knit bunch by necessity, and this crew is closer than most, in my opinion. It’s an environment that soon forms a strong bond, and the men that don’t fit generally transfer out. Submarine life isn’t for everyone.”
“But it is for you and Chip, isn’t it. This life suits you both perfectly.”
Lee felt his tension beginning to ease. She was a beautiful woman, and maybe his imagination was just working overtime.
“It’s the Seaview that suits us. It’d be hard to imagine either of us doing anything else, now.”
“But surely you will, eventually. Chip tells me that you’re already spending nearly all your shore-time working at the Institute, filling in for Nelson on a lot of things.”
“I help out where I can... but then, so does Chip. We both have our duties to fulfill at the Institute itself.”
“It really is a full time job,” she stated, seeming somehow surprised.
“Just like the Navy in that respect, but....” He forced his smile wider. “Unlike the Navy, even though we may be at sea a good bit of the time at least we know we’ll be in the same home port for the foreseeable future. I’ve even been thinking about finding a piece of property up the coast and building a house on it.”
Now why had he said that, he wondered anxiously. Would she think he was suggesting something more than he meant? What had he meant?
“So Chip told me. He said he was waiting to meet the right girl before he started looking at property. Are you going to marry, Captain? You already seem rather married to the Seaview and to NIMR.”
Her smile was gentle and kind now, and he wondered if he had misread her look before, but now there was something behind her eyes, a wariness perhaps, that made him uncomfortable. It wasn’t something he usually had any problem with, reading people, but Wade Maxwell was proving more of an enigma than he had expected. Her interest in Chip Morton seemed apparent to anyone who observed them together. So, was it his own raging ego that had allowed him to interpret her actions as enticing, or was she merely playing with him, using him. Using him? Why had that thought run through his mind.
Chip was obviously intrigued with her, perhaps even considering attempting to reestablish their one-time relationship. There was no need for her to try to make him jealous by flirting with his best friend. She was a brilliant woman, successful, and accomplished. If she had yearned for her high school sweetheart all these years then surely her love was true, and his own reservations were meaningless. Reservations. Is that what it was? If so, why?
Still, when Morton reentered the Wardroom carrying a plate laden with scrambled eggs, toast and bacon, Lee could not repress the jolt of guilt that went through him. He fought it back, shifting his attention to the plate Chip slid in front of him.
“Good grief, Chip, you’ve brought enough for all of us... including Cross.”
At the mention of his name the young lieutenant looked up, belatedly realizing that not only the exec was present but the captain. He lunged to his feet, snapping a quick salute.
“Sirs!” he choked out.
“As you were, Lieutenant,” Crane responded with a brief nod. “Interesting reading there?”
“Yes, sir!” the youngster replied exuberantly. “Fascinating stuff, sir.”
Lee smiled, knowing that Cross’s degree had been in nuclear physics. “You going after an advanced degree, Mike?”
“Eventually, sir, but I want to stay on Seaview for as long as you’ll have me.”
“The two things are not mutually exclusive, you know. We’ll talk to the Admiral if you like....”
The young man flushed, but grinned. He glanced at the clock on the wall, and his flush deepened. “I’ve got the next watch in the Reactor Room, sir.”
“Then, carry on, Lieutenant. We’ll set a time to talk to Admiral Nelson about your career plans....”
“Thank you, sir.”
Cross was grinning broadly as he scooped up the manual, tucked it under his arm, saluted, and hurried from the room. Lee glanced back at the two people seated across from him as he picked up the fork that impaled the mound of eggs and took a bite. He blinked, startled by the smiles on both their faces.
“What?” he asked, swallowing hastily.
“Just proves what I’ve been telling Wade about you, Skipper.”
“I think it’s the reason your crew takes such good care of you, Captain,” the woman said then, her silky voice a caress along his already sensitized nerves. “You take very good care of them.”
“And she doesn’t know the half of it,” Morton continued. Lee stared at him, somehow knowing that he referred to the many times he had put his own life at risk for crew and boat, and hoping that this was one aspect of Lee Crane that his friend had not shared with Dr. Maxwell.
Wade reached across the table, her soft, cool hand resting atop his as it lay next to his plate. Her fingers tightened, and he swallowed spasmodically, his gaze sliding toward Morton. The exec sat next to her, his arm resting familiarly across the back of her chair, and he was smiling congenially at him.
“It’s comforting for me to know that Chip works with such men as the crew of the Seaview and her captain,” Wade was saying, and he drew his attention back to her. “I feel very certain that you will be looking after his welfare in particular, Lee.”
“Uh.... It works both ways, Dr. Maxwell, as you may have noticed. It’s not a calculated thing. We... we all.... It’s the only way a submarine can operate....”
“At least this submarine, Lee,” Chip reminded him. Chip pushed back in his chair and extended his hand to Wade, drawing her up beside him. “We’ll leave you to your breakfast in peace, Skipper. I’m standing the next watch too, and I promised Wade I’d show her how we plot our course... with your permission, naturally.”
Lee felt himself frowning. “You don’t need clearance for that, Chip. I doubt there’s very much we do here that Dr. Maxwell couldn’t figure out on her own in time,” he answered honestly.
“I do wish you’d call me Wade, Lee. I feel like I know you so well, and we should be good friends,” she said, patting Chip’s free hand proprietarily.
“Yeah, Lee. Why so formal?”
Crane stared at his exec, realizing that if they had been anywhere but aboard the Seaview he would have had no reluctance in calling the woman by her first name. Still....
“I’ll do my best,” he conceded.
Chip seemed satisfied, and pulled the redhead with him as he departed. She caught Lee’s gaze with her own as she followed the exec, and once more he felt the unmistakable pull of attraction. He lowered his head swiftly, turning to his breakfast with more diligence than he generally demonstrated, at least for a few bites. At last he laid the fork down and picked up the coffee mug, sipping at the strong beverage absently. What was going on? he wondered almost desperately.
“What’s the matter, Lee?”
He jumped in sudden surprise, looking up as Harriman Nelson sat down across from him with his own mug of coffee in hand.
“I can’t remember the last time I was able to enter a room,
pour myself a cup of coffee, and speak to you without your being aware the
entire time. You feeling all right? You need to pay a visit to
“I feel fine, Admiral. Honestly. I... I was just thinking about Dr. Maxwell.”
“Now that’s a woman worth thinking about. She’s a real beauty, isn’t she?”
“She is that, sir.”
“But... what?” Nelson persisted, hearing the unspoken word in Crane’s tone.
Lee pushed his unfinished breakfast plate aside and crossed his arms on the table, leaning forward as he gazed at his friend and employer.
“You’ve spent more time with her... them... than I have, Admiral. What’s your estimation?”
“Of Dr. Maxwell, or of this whole endeavor of theirs?”
That really wasn’t the angle Lee was questioning, but he allowed the diversion. “We really haven’t discussed it, Admiral. I suppose we should have done, but... when I got back and you confirmed Admiral Carstairs’ claim that you’d approved the mission, it just seemed to be a done deal, and....”
“My fault, Lee. I apologize for blindsiding you at Bauer & Boen.”
“It did rather take me by surprise. After
Nelson made that growling sound deep in his throat that Lee was so familiar with, and Crane’s tension eased minutely.
“If it’d been just ONI I might have had more reservations, but since the request actually came from State.... I still have concerns, but this request was lodged more as an order than a favor.”
“From the State Department, sir?”
“And ultimately, higher up than that. Martin Bauer has friends in all the right places to get what he wants, and you have made a name for yourself, son.”
“No.” Lee lowered his head, as much in acknowledgement of that reputation as denial.
“I intended to discuss this assignment with you long before now, but you’ve been keeping yourself pretty busy with extra watches....”
“No explanations necessary. I’ve seen how well they seem to be getting along. But that takes us back to your misgivings about Dr. Maxwell. Does it have anything at all to do with this mission, or is it strictly... personal?”
Crane could feel himself flushing, and that angered him. He had absolutely nothing to be embarrassed about. “First off, I guess you’d say it was just personal. Like you say, they seem to be getting along so well, but... well, sir....” He broke off, unwilling to continue in what might be seen as a condemnation.
“You’re just not sure that she’s as sincere as she appears to be,” Nelson stated flatly, reading his captain perfectly. He leaned back in his chair, reaching into his pocket for his pack of cigarettes before remembering that he had left them in his cabin.
Lee looked at the admiral sharply, surprised in spite of himself, and raised one hand to scrub his fingers through the short waves atop on his head, betraying his agitation.
Nelson took a deep swallow of the strong coffee before he continued. “I’ve heard the story about how Chip chose the Navy over marriage...” he began, then broke off at another startled glance from his captain. “I’ve met the Mortons on several occasions, remember. Mrs. Morton is as gregarious as her son is taciturn.” Nelson paused, his ready smile fading as he studied Crane speculatively. “I’m assuming you have checked into the background of all three?”
Crane swallowed with some difficulty, it seemed, and nodded soberly. “And Bauer & Boen, itself. Everything seems aboveboard with them, all of them....”
“Then it’s Dr. Maxwell, herself? I understood that when she found out Chip served aboard the Seaview and that her boss was considering hiring us she urged Bauer to complete the contract so she could see him again.”
Lee swallowed with difficulty. Somehow he had gotten the impression from Martin Bauer that Wade Maxwell had been more than a passive participant in the choice of how her team got to Maranvar.
“But it isn’t the hiring of Seaview that has you concerned is it, son. You said it was more personal than professional. It’s only natural to want to protect our friends from potential harm, whether it’s emotional or physical,” Nelson said quietly, speaking from experience where the younger man, himself, was concerned.
“That’s what has me concerned, sir,” he replied eventually. He looked up, meeting Nelson’s highly aware blue eyes. “You said it yourself, Admiral. I just don’t get the feeling that she’s entirely sincere... and Chip....”
“Seems to have fallen for her all over again. I’ve seen the signs, Lee. Could it be that you’re just concerned that he’ll be hurt again?”
“To hear him tell it it wasn’t him who was hurt before. But I lived with him over those weeks and months. I know how badly the breakup, or her reaction to it, affected him. Maybe… after all that hurt, and all that anger I’m just having trouble accepting this reconciliation.”
“She is a beautiful woman. Most men would overlook a great deal just to have her on their arm, much less smiling at them the way she does at Chip.”
Nelson was grinning, tilting his own russet head meaningfully. He was taking Lee’s apprehensions for sexual frustration, not concern, it seemed to the captain. Lee sagged, admitting frustration, though he was certain its source was something else less definable.
“You know, Lee,” Nelson continued, intentionally keeping his tone light, “some women actually prefer blonds to brunets. Some even like redheads.”
“I’m aware of that, Admiral,” Crane replied, forcing a weak grin. “I.... It’s not my style... to try and take someone else’s girl....”
“I didn’t think for a moment that it was, son,” Nelson replied, his amusement still evident in his voice. “Surely you’re not worried that the crew might think you’re losing your... edge.” Nelson cleared his throat to cover the ill-restrained snicker that followed.
“Admiral,” Lee groaned, as uncomfortable with his distinction as a ladies’ man as he was his reputation as an ONI agent, and the tone of indulgence in Nelson’s voice was more than a little irritating. “It’s not my behavior that is at issue here.”
“Mr. Morton’s?” Nelson asked, feigning shock.
“No, sir! Chip would never….” Crane defended his friend. He should have kept his concerns to himself, he decided belatedly. He was probably just imagining things anyway. He shifted in his chair, his body language dismissing the possibility of Chip behaving in an unacceptable manner.
“You said you wanted to discuss the mission with me?” he said, determined to change the subject.
Nelson chuckled agreeably. He knew his captain well and recognized an attempt to redirect him when he heard one. For the moment he was willing to be diverted, but anything that ruffled his captain’s feathers like this had was not something he was willing to drop entirely. But he would bide his time and do some investigating on his own. Never one to blindly accept any singular report he would make his own decisions about the beautiful Dr. Maxwell.
He took another deep swallow of the inky coffee, and followed Crane’s lead.
“I’m sure you’re aware that Maranvar is controlled by a military junta.” Crane nodded, and Nelson was certain that much of what he was about to say was already familiar to the younger man but he continued undeterred. “Despite legal elections there last year the military junta has refused to surrender the power they’ve held for a decade, and, in fact, has placed most of the new heads of state under house arrest. The legitimate government does have followers, however, and there are other factions that would do most anything to rid themselves of both the junta and the elected officials and place their own people in power. Also, in the area where you will be traveling there are sects who are violently opposed to either government. Those states have been fighting for their own independence for fifty years or better.”
“Yes, sir,” Lee said patiently.
“The junta is behind hiring Bauer & Boen to build this dam smack in the middle of one of those states. The conflict there has been brutal. The junta has conscripted local men to work at decimating their own land in preparation for the dam. Villages have been leveled, women and children sold into slavery. In retaliation a guerilla force has sprung up; convoys have been attacked, soldiers killed.”
Lee nodded soberly, and revealed, “Before we sailed I read a lot of CIA reports, sir. The general consensus is that the dam is little more than a ploy to subjugate the Chandian people. Knowing that, I don’t understand why State gave its approval for Bauer & Boen to take the contract in the first place. What are they up to? It’s not like State to play this sort of game.”
“From what they want us to believe, it’s in order to get some hard and fast proof of what is going on in Chand province.”
“That just doesn’t ring true to me... that they’d be so concerned about human rights in a third world country like Maranvar as to risk the lives of American businessmen to prove it. It’d make more sense if State wanted us to investigate why the Junta is wanting to build that dam in the first place. If it’s a hydro-electric plant the way we’ve been told... what are they going to do with that kind of power? They certainly won’t have the river current need for such volume. And why in the location they’ve picked?”
He bowed his head, his hand rising again to run his fingers through his short hair in agitation.
“There are hundreds of fields of opium poppies in that area.... The Junta has been suspected of being heavily involved in the heroin pipelines to the States. I’ve been trying to figure out how they could be using the electrical power for processing....”
Nelson stared at him, knowing that Crane’s ONI contacts afforded him information not available even to a retired admiral, but this sounded almost personal.
“Have you been there, Lee?”
“No, not me... but the CIA... they could have agents....” Lee sat stiffly in his chair, no longer solely Seaview’s captain. It was a side of Crane that Nelson was aware of, but that he seldom saw, the ONI operative. His voice, when he continued was dark, even ominous. “Civilians shouldn’t be going into that kind of an environment, and we definitely shouldn’t be taking them!”
“It’s not really up to us, Lee. Bauer & Boen obtained the permits and they are determined to go in whether you accompany them, or not. Maybe, with you and Chip along, if something untoward does happen they’ll stand a better chance of getting out of there safely.”
“Unless you run into trouble let him continue to believe it’s nothing more than courtesy escort duty with an unexpected bonus,” Nelson cautioned. “We can’t be sure it’ll be anything more than that.”
Crane was quiet for a long while, merely staring at the table top before him. “I... I don’t want him along,” he admitted at last, his statement flat and without embellishment.
“And we both know why. Chip hates the ONI for the way they use you, and he doesn’t have the training they’ve given you, but, since Dr. Maxwell is going, I don’t see how we can stop him short of ordering him to remain aboard.”
Lee nodded gloomily. “And even then, he might jump ship.”
Nelson chuckled dryly. “You think they’re that serious?”
“I don’t know. One minute I think so, the next....” He sighed deeply, once more clutching at his head. “I remember how he was when he came back to the Academy for our second year. You said you knew about him and Rusty breaking up but nobody really knows how hard it was on him. Back then... Chip was always in high spirits, cheerful, eager, a real jokester sometimes. I guess it’s part of what made us such a good team... the light and the dark in more than just appearance....”
Crane picked up the fork from his abandoned breakfast and stabbed absently at the lumps of egg for several long moments, clearly lost in memory.
“The year before he’d been as easy to read as an open book. That fall he was different when he reported back, shuttered, even guarded. All that was obvious was that he was carrying a big load of misery that he didn’t want to share with anyone. For the first time I found myself having to try to cheer him up.”
Lee hesitated, looking into Nelson’s blue eyes, reluctant to continue, but the admiral nodded, his gesture almost an order. He inhaled slowly, deeply, choosing his words carefully.
“I tried to get him to talk to me.... It wasn’t like him, to be so closed-mouthed. Finally, out of pure desperation, I called his mother... She told me about Wade... though she only called her Rusty the way Chip does. I guess there’d been an ugly scene just before Chip left home to come back to the Academy. They’d taken up dating again that summer while he was home, then when he was getting ready to return....”
“I think I can visualize the scene. It’s happened more than once I know for a fact. She told him it just wasn’t working out?”
“Actually... no. He wanted her to find someone else... someone who could be there for her all the time.... She was... pretty insecure back then, I guess, kind of....” He hesitated, seeking the right word, then shook his head and used the only one that came to mind, “needy. Chip knew it’d be years before he’d be in a place where he could be with her... provide for her.... You know how hard it is for Navy men... even now.”
Nelson nodded. “It’s usually the midshipman who gets dumped, not vice versa, but it’s in perfect character for our Mr. Morton to think first of the girl in question.”
“Knowing Chip, I’m sure he was as gentle as was possible, but it didn’t sound like Rusty took it well at all. I know that she kept trying to contact him but her calls weren’t considered emergencies and the switchboard would only tell him that she had called after the fact. He ended up getting more than one punishment duty because she wouldn’t stop. He was told it didn’t look good on his record for a future officer to be unable to handle his personal life better. Then... finally... she did stop calling.... He never said if it was because of something he told her, or if someone in his family had intervened, but he never mentioned her name again. I didn’t connect Bauer & Boen’s Dr. Wade Maxwell with Chip’s high school sweetheart, Rusty until she stepped out of the limo.”
“Chip was aware of the names of those coming from Bauer & Boen and he did nothing to avoid her. Maybe he wanted to see if there was still anything between them. I understand she’s never married.”
“If that’s what it is I’m all for it, but....”
“You keep throwing in the buts, Lee.”
“I do, don’t I.”
“Do you think... she has something in mind other than reviving an old romance?”
“I don’t know, Admiral. I just wish I did. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Chip so... so vulnerable.... Not since the first time.”
“And you say you have nothing... real... to base your uneasiness on?”
“No... nothing... definite...,” he hedged.
“I’ve learned to trust your instincts, Lee, even when you’re not telling me everything you know.”
Crane forced a thin smile. “Then let’s just hope I’m as far off base on this as I’ve ever been on anything in my life.” He rose slowly to his feet. “I’ve got paperwork to do before I take the conn, Admiral.”
“I have a sealed envelope from Admiral Carstairs, Lee. We’re to open it together after we’re docked in Benyene.”
“That doesn’t reassure me very much as to what this mission is really about. It also doesn’t give us much time to change our plans.”
“I’ll make myself available any time if you want to talk before we get there, Lee. You know that.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Admiral Harriman Nelson watched in silence as the tall, straight young man who was his captain strode from the Wardroom. He knew Crane was not bound immediately for his cabin and the stack of paperwork that awaited him, but to perform one of his customary tours of the submarine, his walkabout, as the crew called it. It was part of what made him such a good skipper, this abiding interest and concern for his boat and her crew. Harriman knew how fortunate he was to have Crane in command of his submarine. Had he elected to remain in the regular Navy Lee would certainly have achieved Nelson’s own rank one day, but he also knew that Lee was skipper of the Seaview by his own choice. Nelson knew he was more than content with the challenges offered him here, the formidable job of sharing in running the Institute itself, and his love for the Seaview, which was equaled only by Nelson’s own.
He had spoken truly to him. He had learned to trust the younger man’s instincts and never once had they played them false. If Lee had concerns about Wade Maxwell that his honor would not allow him to reveal Nelson would still honor them, even knowing, as Lee himself seemed to, that it could be just a sense of protectiveness on his part toward his oldest friend. Nelson reached to his shirt pocket for the non-existent cigarettes once more, then shook his head, disgruntled. Well, if there was any mystery about the woman he was confident Lee would dig it out, and he wouldn’t allow it to interfere with the mission, either. Not if he knew Lee Crane.
Lee finished reading the contents of the sealed envelope and replaced it on Nelson’s desk in front of the admiral. Nelson knew him well, and he was aware that the younger man was forcing himself to appear casual as he leaned back in the chair across from him, schooling his muscles to relax, keeping his expression bland and unreadable. Crane was naturally reserved, but years of undercover missions for the ONI had honed that poise into a calmness that concealed the inner workings of the man’s mind. Even here in the familiar confines of Nelson’s cabin with a man he considered a friend he did not permit his reactions to show. But the admiral was accustomed to this façade of his captain’s. Lee Crane was a man of extremes, calm, caring, intensely involved, and cool, distant, and on occasion, deadly.
He watched the younger man surreptitiously as Crane seemed
to study the area map he had retained from the folder, although Nelson was
certain he didn’t really need to examine it.
From his reaction when they had discussed Maranvar before he was
confident that Lee knew the country as well as he knew the streets of
Most of the information Carstairs had included in the envelope had been standard briefing materials, nothing particularly new or unexpected. Lee and Chip were to accompany the Bauer & Boen party to the construction base camp in Chand, verify that the place was as secure as the army pledged it to be, then start back for Benyene.
It was the sealed envelope within the sealed envelope that was more revealing. This was when Lee’s real assignment would begin, the part that Chip Morton would not be privy to until it began.
Impatient with Crane’s continued silence Nelson reprised what they had both just read.
“So in the last year the CIA’s sent three agents into those
mountains. The first man disappeared
nearly two years ago, but was confirmed dead by the second agent just days
before the Company lost contact with him. The last agent was returned to the
The CIA wanted to know the status of their missing agent. If he was alive they wanted a report. If he was dead... they wanted to know that, too. Crane was not to go out of his way to contact the rebels, but if the CIA agent was alive and with them as was believed, it was hoped the agent would find a way to get in touch with the two obviously military men.
“You were right about this being more than just an escort job,” Nelson continued, watching the play of awareness that crossed the younger man’s handsome features. “And I couldn’t see Jesse Carstairs agreeing to send one of his best agents on a baby-sitting assignment, either, even at the State Department’s request unless there was something else going on. But still, it could be as simple a mission as he claims it will be.”
Crane leaned forward slightly, and the younger man nodded slowly as he folded the map and handed it back to the admiral to be included in the folder.
Now it was Nelson’s turn to nod in agreement. “Could it be they think he’s gone rogue?”
“Cale Anderson? I doubt it.” Lee’s eyes closed slowly and he sighed. “I didn’t know it was him in-country, but he’s an agent of nearly twenty years’ field service. I’ve never met him, but I’ve heard only good things about him through the grape vine.”
Nelson frowned, meeting the younger man’s gaze as their eyes met. There was sorrow in that expressive golden-brown gaze and he knew Crane feared the agent was dead.
“Then he’s no beginner, Lee.” He tapped the papers on his desk. “This says he’s been in Maranvar for about a year. The other two are both confirmed dead.”
“Just as he could be, himself.”
Another tap on the report cover. “This tells me that
“Then he’s probably in a position he can’t extricate himself from without putting his assignment in jeopardy,” Lee answered firmly, speaking from experience, Nelson realized.
“That seems to be
Crane gave a sharp, humorless laugh. “If they know anything they’re not sharing that information with the ONI. It’s always that way.”
Nelson frowned. This was his captain, his friend he was sending into harm’s way again, and he was not pleased.
“You said you’d heard of Cale Anderson. What do you know about him?”
“He’s around fifty, ex-Navy Seal. A real hard case. If anyone can survive underground with the guerillas, it would be someone like that.” Lee crossed his arms over his chest and leaned back in the chair. “I’m aware that you spoke to Carstairs last night on the radio, Admiral, and that tells me that you’ve got doubts of your own about this assignment.”
“Anytime you go out on one of Jesse’s boondoggles I have
more than just a few doubts, but this time I don’t think he’s got any more
information than what he’s provided us.
Just make yourself visible, and available. If
“What was his cover when he went in?”
“Surveyor for Bauer & Boen.”
“My God....” Lee gasped, a whole new scenario revealing itself to his agile mind.
Nelson gave a little nod. “When he disappeared, the Maranvar junta government put out the word that he had been kidnapped by the guerillas. They may actually believe it... or it’s possible they believe he’s dead.”
“And, what about the government. How firmly behind Dr. Maxwell and her team are they... really? If push comes to shove, are they likely to leave them hanging out to dry?”
“What does your gut tell you, Lee?”
He smiled weakly. “That I probably needn’t have asked. How much do I have to tell Chip?”
“This is on a need to know basis only. If it becomes necessary, then of course you can tell him everything, but unless it does he’s probably better off not knowing. You’ll be on your own... as usual.” Crane sagged visibly. “You going to be all right, Lee? This is a little different from most of the missions you’ve been on... maybe no less dangerous, but definitely different.”
“At least Chip’ll be there if I need him. That’s a bonus... if he has to be there at all. I know I said I didn’t want him along, but....”
Nelson studied his young friend’s face, deciding that a change of subject was warranted. “How’s our young Lothario doing, anyway?”
“I’d say he’s doing just fine, Admiral, although if anyone has seduced anyone, I’d say it was Dr. Maxwell who’s doing the job.”
“You still having misgivings about her?”
“I’m still not sure,” he admitted. “Maybe I was totally out in left field before.”
“Knowing you, I doubt it. She’s still flirting with you, isn’t she.” It was a statement rather than a question and the color washed from Crane’s face instantly as he stared openly at Nelson. “Since our talk a few days ago I’ve been keeping my eyes open. I’ve noticed the looks, the smiles, the not so casual little touches.” The color returned to the captain’s skin with a sudden rush.
“If you have.... Chip must....” he gasped.
“Relax. I doubt he’s noticed a thing.” Lee nodded. “It almost looks as though she’s trying to make him jealous, but not quite. Maybe she’s just trying to win over the man she knows is Morton’s best friend... to advance her own agenda?”
“That could be it, of course.” Lee sat forward obviously unconvinced, studying his hands open on his knees now.
“There’s more to this than just your discomfort with Dr. Maxwell’s personal sincerity. Is it the fact that there are civilians going in with you? I know how you feel about that sort of thing. Care to address what’s really disturbing you?”
Crane looked up abruptly, nearly overcome with the nameless dread that had been building inside him ever since he had turned and watched Admiral Carstairs enter Bauer’s office.
“I like Roger and Pete well enough. They’re tough... have to be in what they do. But, something’s not right about this whole thing, Admiral. I just can’t put my finger on it. It should be straightforward. It seems to be straightforward. But if Cale Anderson worked for Bauer & Boen and he’s disappeared, why are they so confident of their friendly reception? Have they had assurances from the Maranvar government that no one knows about to make them dismiss what could be a very tense situation? Or is it that they don’t realize that one wrong move could put them right in the middle of a blood-bath!”
Lee was quiet for a very long while, his arms still folded almost defensively, but his gaze betraying his distant thoughts.
“Do you think Dr. Maxwell is unaware of all this?” Nelson asked at last.
“I don’t know. There
are unpleasant implications whichever way it is. If she’s that uninformed it doesn’t speak
well of her, or of Bauer & Boen. If
she knows and is disregarding the danger....
I don’t like either scenario.
It’d be too easy to get killed if she and her team get cocky. Bauer may be convinced that
Nelson reached for the cigarette pack on the corner of his desk, and tapped out another. He lit up deftly, and breathed out the smoke.
“When it comes to the Company, nothing’s ever simple,” Lee muttered.
Crane exhaled vehemently, knowing that it would not be the first time, if Nelson’s supposition was correct, that after years in the field a weary man’s need for rest and peace had outweighed his devotion to duty, and adversely affected his judgment.
He rose smoothly from the chair. “I’d better get to the Control Room. I want to take us into the harbor myself.”
“How long will it be before we arrive?”
Crane glanced at his watch. “If their port authorities have given us clearance we should be tying up in a little less than two hours.”
“Any chance they won’t?”
Lee grinned boyishly. “I can only hope,” he admitted.
“Then get you gone, son. You have enough to concern yourself about without worrying about the Seaview as well. We’ll take good care of her while you’re ashore, you know.”
“I’m sure you will, sir.” He grimaced, realizing as he finished that his tone sounded less than confident. I’m sorry, Admiral. She is your baby, I know....”
“Forget it, Lee. Our feelings for this boat are pretty much on a par, you know. And I know you’re always comfortable leaving Mr. Morton in charge but he’s going with you this time and you’re stuck with the junior officers… and me. I appreciate your qualms.”
“But... Admiral....” he protested again, then relaxed as Nelson grinned hugely at him.
“Go on, Lee. I know you have a lot to do before we dock.”
“Aye, sir. Thank you, sir,” he managed, fighting back his own chortle of relief.
Crane turned and strode to the door, slipping out into the corridor like a schoolboy released from detention, the chuckle rising unbidden in his throat. He hesitated, regaining control of himself as he closed the door silently.
“I didn’t expect to run into you here, Captain.”
He whirled at the unexpected voice, taken inexplicably by surprise. She was only a few feet away. She must have been there when he emerged from Nelson’s quarters, and he berated himself for not noticing.
“Dr. Maxwell,” he stammered uncharacteristically, and resorted to formality. “Is there something I can do for you?”
She walked toward him slowly. She had forsaken the high heels as soon as she boarded the Seaview but she moved as though she still wore them, elegantly, gracefully. Without them she was still tall, 5’8” at least, and she came to a halt before him, smiling charmingly, her violet-blue eyes meeting his steadily. She was already dressed for disembarkation, he realized, no longer wearing the casual slacks and loose shirt she had favored during the trip. Now she wore sandals, and a deep blue, ankle length embroidered skirt he recognized as a garment known as a kain, together with a long-sleeved silk blouse of a paler blue, also richly embroidered. Her long hair was pulled back, not severely, but gently, allowing a few tendrils of the glorious auburn mane to spill free from the clip that secured it at the nape of her long neck.
Lee gulped, awash with unwelcome emotions. She was absolutely breathtakingly beautiful.
“Is there something you want to do, Captain?”
He staggered back a single step, his back to the bulkhead. She reached out to him, her fingers just touching his hand for an instant before he jerked away, fighting for control.
“I… I’m expected in the Control Room, Dr. Maxwell,” he choked out.
Her hand grasped his, and he felt paralyzed, unable to break free though he knew it should have been easy.
“I wish you could like me just a little bit, Lee. It would make it so much easier for Chip....” The uncommonly long lashes batted at him seductively. “
“Chip’s my best friend.”
“And your treating me like a pariah is affecting him. It’s affecting me.”
“I haven’t meant to do anything like that,” he admitted truthfully.
“Is it that you don’t want him to fall in love with me again?”
He shook his head slowly in denial. “I just don’t want him to be hurt again.”
“Again? Him?” she gasped, her dark blue eyes blazing with sudden fury. “That’s all you care about, isn’t it? Him!” Her anger was spiraling upward, approaching uncontrollable levels he could see at once, and he was at a loss as to how to calm her. But as suddenly as she had flared, the rage dissipated, and she smiled. If he had been unable to see her eyes he would have believed the smile, but the fury was still there in those amethyst depths. “Of course your concern is for him, Lee. I’m aware of how you... feel about him. But... I thought you’d want him to be happy.”
“And you think you’re the one to make him happy?” he asked distantly.
“It seems so, doesn’t it?” Her fingers tightened on his hand. “I’ve grown up since he left me. I’m not that weeping little girl any more.” She stepped closer to him. He inhaled sharply, knowing he should move away, but her gaze seemed to hold him captive. “I’m not a child any longer, Lee, or haven’t you noticed that?”
He blinked as though just waking from deep sleep, and carefully extricated himself from her hold. “I’m due in the conn, Dr. Maxwell,” he said quietly, rigidly in control once more.
She stared at him, her full mouth drawn into a bitter line. “Are you a coward, Captain? Or is it something else with you entirely?”
“I’ll forget you said that, Doctor. We can’t afford to be at odds on the journey into the interior.”
“So you’ll just run away from this?” She shook her head pityingly. “No matter how much you protest I know you’re attracted to me. But, maybe you’re just jealous, Captain.”
“I won’t even grace that with a reply, Doctor,” he interrupted, his voice brittle, his words clipped, “and I don’t think this is the time or the place to discuss our differences.”
“But you’d love to see Chip discard me again, wouldn’t you? That way--.”
“Chip’s personal life is his own. He does not now, nor has he ever had to answer to anyone but himself in that. If you will excuse me....”
The captain wheeled about and strode away. He could feel her eyes following him, and he fought the urge to turn and finish the argument, but he knew that it was impossible. What was wrong with the woman that she behaved this way? Was Chip truly deceived or was he just lost in desire. Or worse still, had he really fallen in love with her again?
Wade watched after the captain as he strode down the passageway, his broad shoulders stiff with indignation, his hands curled into fists at his sides. She carefully kept her features impassive, her full lips curving into a sulky smile until he turned into the ladderwell and disappeared from her view. She turned then, making her way to the Wardroom where she had arranged to meet Chip Morton. It had been a lucky chance that she encountered Crane now, and what just happened between them could not have been more perfect had she planned it. The last ten days confined to this horrible prison of a boat had been tolerable only in that she had been allowed to reestablish a close relationship with Morton, and ample opportunity to observe the man he considered his best friend.
The Wardroom was deserted as she had been confident it would be this near to docking. Every member of the crew of Seaview seemed to have some urgent duty to attend to, and she wouldn’t be particularly surprised if Chip was late to meet her. It would be just like Crane to find a way to keep them apart, even temporarily, and yet she was determined to outsmart him. She was fed up with hearing Chip carrying on about his friend, the Captain, just as he had once done about his young roommate so many years before. She just wanted to show Chip that his precious Lee Crane was not as wonderful as he claimed.
To her own surprise she realized that her hands were trembling slightly as she poured herself a mug of the strong brew and turned back to the long table. She seated herself with her back to the corridor, though she was positioned so that she could see the reflection of any one approaching in the highly polished steel of the rear wall. She did not want to be taken by surprise, not in the mood she was in at the moment, but she did not want anyone to be able to read her emotions in her face.
She blew absently across the steaming liquid in the cup, hating the strong, heavy taste of what passed for coffee on the submarine but needing something in her hands. Crane’s shocked, even horrified expression when she had approached him continued to linger before her mind’s eye. She wasn’t accustomed to such reactions from men. In fact, only one other man had ever rejected her, though perhaps for a different reason, and both of them were here on this ship, this boat, she corrected herself automatically after countless times of being corrected by any and all aboard. She supposed she should have expected Crane’s reaction to her advances, though she would have thought any man that attractive would be accustomed to women flirting with him. She smiled mirthlessly, recalling his agitated retreat. She was certain he found her appealing, but his incensed rejection still echoed in her mind.
She placed the untouched mug of coffee on the tabletop, and with her elbows on the table as well, she leaned into her hands, crossing them over her face. Crane could be a problem, a real stumbling block, she thought morosely, and she shuddered. Nearly two weeks cooped up on this seagoing coffin was almost more than she could take, and suddenly the frustration and discomfort was overwhelming and she felt tears gathering beneath her closed lids, to slip effortlessly through her lashes.
She jumped in alarm. This was exactly what she had wanted to avoid, but perhaps she could still turn it to her advantage. She lowered her hands and turned slightly in her chair to look up into Chip Morton’s worry-shadowed but handsome face. She blinked slowly, allowing the lingering tears to slide free.
“What’s wrong, Rusty? Why are you crying?” Morton asked anxiously. He slid onto the chair next to hers and offered her a crisply folded handkerchief retrieved from his pocket.
“It’s nothing, Chip, really.... Please, don’t ask me.” She sighed when he remained silent, mindful of her spoken wishes. “I... I’m sure he didn’t mean anything at all....” she replied brokenly, but the tears flowed freely.
“He? Someone said something that made you cry? Tell me who it was and I’ll....”
“No, I can’t do that. Chip, darling, please don’t make me... it doesn’t matter....” she murmured, a sob catching in her throat.
“Please, who was it that upset you? I’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Chip persisted gallantly, just as she knew he would.
“It was....” She looked sadly into his eyes, tears still in her own. “It was Lee,” she finished, sniffling, wiping delicately at her eyes with the handkerchief.
“Lee?” Chip’s tension seemed to intensify abruptly. “Are you sure? Couldn’t you have misunderstood? Lee wouldn’t--.”
“He doesn’t like me!” she countered sharply. “And yes, I’m sure. He said... well, never mind what he said, but it’s so obvious! He can never get away from me fast enough!”
“Aw, Rusty, it takes a lot of time to run a boat like this. He’s a busy man....”
“So are you, and you’re never... cruel.”
“Cruel? Lee?” Chip shook his head slowly. “You must have caught him at a busy moment, hon. I’ve never known him to say a cruel word to anyone! Sharp, maybe, impatient, on occasion, but never outright cruel.” He took her hand in his, smiling encouragingly.
“Then maybe you don’t know him as well as you think! He.... I think he’s jealous of us! Of what he sees growing between us.”
Now Morton chuckled softly. “Seaview’s the only lady in Lee’s life he’s likely to be jealous over.”
She raised her violet eyes to his, one fat tear slipping from the inner corner of her right eye to slide down her flushed cheek. Chip raised his hand, catching the tear on a fingertip.
“You don’t believe me,” she whimpered.
With a sharp inhalation, Morton drew her into his arms, allowing her to rest her head against his shoulder while he caressed the back of her head above the clip holding her hair. She sobbed quietly then shuddered as though fighting back more tears. Chip gave a deep, racking sigh.
“I’ll talk to him, Rusty. I’m sure he didn’t mean to upset you. He’s a good guy, really, and I want the two of you to be able to get along.”
“And if we can’t?” she went on, pushing him as much as she dared. “If he continues to loathe me… are you going to let that come between us...?” She snuggled closer and leaned against him as if for reassurance, holding her breath as she waited for his answer.
Chip rested his cheek against the softness of her hair.
“That won’t happen, sweetheart.”
“He wants to split us up, Chip. If you could have seen his face....”
“Lee just needs time to get to know you properly. I’m sure he’ll come to recognize what you mean to me.”
“He’s jealous and I’m sure he’d confine you to the ship if he thought he could get away with it. I know he would. ”
“He has his orders, Rusty. I’m sure the thought’s never even occurred to him. We’ve been friends a long time… he and I, and he wouldn’t do anything that would make me choose….” His words faded away as he continued to hold her, his distracted thoughts pre-occupying him. Would it really come down to that? And why was Lee behaving so uncharacteristically?
Wade closed her eyes, breathing in the comforting scent of the man who held her, reveling in the strength of his arms around her. She smiled, smugly satisfied. Lee Crane wouldn’t break her hold on Chip this time…this time she would win or destroy them both in the effort!
The arrival of the giant submarine at the docks in Benyene had been one of the worst media circuses that Crane had ever observed. The country’s Junta-sponsored television cameramen vied with the newspapermen at dockside for pictures of the unusual event while crowds of people pushed and shoved at the barricades in order to get a closer view of the Seaview. Junta soldiers had arrived belatedly and forced the spectators back in order to facilitate the off-loading of the project team’s equipment. None of the Seaview crew needed his orders to prevent them from interacting with the locals, and those who had drawn guard duty took on their responsibilities with more than a little determination. A security detail from the Seaview had accompanied Roger and Pete and the government representative, one Mr. Ne-Win, to oversee the transfer of their equipment from submarine to truck to train, and upon their return the two engineers had reported that everything had gone without a hitch. The equipment was, they assured Dr. Maxwell and the Admiral, safely under heavy military guard, and the train that would take them north was scheduled to leave the city around 14:00.
Crane had changed into his shore uniform and completed his last walk through the boat before their departure. As he entered the Control Room from the aft hatch his gaze flicked critically across every station. Everything was normal, the Forenoon Watch as diligent as always. Crane stopped behind the sonar station as he passed through the Control Room, his gaze on the giant monitor that clearly showed the dock and the military guards.
“Let me see it all, Ski,” he ordered quietly, and the senior rating responded instantly, his fingers flying over the controls. Within a moment the scene on the monitor changed, scanning the dock then covering the Seaview’s deck from forecastle to fantail. The security guard on the deck was well armed and alert, he noted, and instead of their customary jumpsuits they wore Service Dress Whites, undoubtedly a more recognizable uniform to the people of Maranvar than Seaview standard issue.
“Whose idea was that? The dress uniforms on the deck watch,” Crane asked of no one in particular.
“Uh, mine, sir,” Chief Sharkey spoke at his shoulder. Lee glanced at him. The COB was not usually so tentative, he thought as the Chief went on. “The Admiral approved it, sir.”
“It was a good idea, Chief.”
Sharkey sighed in uncharacteristic relief. “Uh, thank you, Skipper. You don’t think it’s a might over the top?”
“Not at all. In my opinion we’re here as much to impress and intimidate as we are to make nice with the locals.”
“But, I thought....”
The captain gave an imperative jerk of his head, and stepped toward the charting table, his implied command drawing the Chief with him. “It’s SOP to post a guard topside in port, Chief, and an absolute requirement when the port may prove hostile. You got the same briefing about our mission here as the rest of the crew. Your suggestion was an excellent one, so what makes you question that... and yourself all of a sudden?”
Helplessly Sharkey glanced forward, toward the observation nose. It was empty at the moment, but Lee knew that it had become the habitual hang out for Wade Maxwell during the trip.
“What did she say?” he asked wearily.
“Nothin’ right out, sir,” Sharkey replied, relaxing now that he knew his CO understood. “Just a raised eyebrow, and a sigh. I’m probably way off base, Skipper.”
“I’ll trust your instincts, Chief,” he told the older man, unconsciously echoing Nelson’s own words to him. “I always have, haven’t I?”
Never one to dissimilate, Sharkey merely nodded. “There was just somethin’ ‘bout her manner, Cap’n. Kinda disapproving, y’know?”
Lee allowed a brief, reluctant smile. “You did exactly the right thing, Chief Sharkey. Our entire presence here is debatable to say the least. It can’t hurt to let them know that we’re not going to be caught off guard.”
“Particularly not with you and Mr. Morton goin’ ashore, Skipper. I’m not real comfortable about that either.”
“Another point where we’re in complete agreement. But, we’ll be back in less than a week. Why, we may be sitting on the end of the dock waiting for you when you get back from your mercy mission to Corendali.”
“Not much chance of that, Skipper. Why, the Admiral, himself, said we’d be back here station keeping offshore within seventy-two hours.” Sharkey grinned sheepishly, realizing that Crane had not been apprised of that bit of information, but it did not silence the garrulous CPO. The supplies Bauer & Boen are sending to them sure sweetened the pot for the Admiral. Those folks in Corendali are always getting’ get a raw deal from ol’ Mother Nature. Either they’re suffering from famine and drought, or they’re flooding! Right now it’s drought.”
“Yeah, and in less than a month the monsoons will be starting there... here they’re likely to start before we get back,” he said, then added reflectively, “Odd time to be starting this endeavor.”
“Captain Crane?” Lee
looked up as
The captain grinned.
“For before you leave, read now, huh?” Both men smiled their agreement and
understanding. “As you were,
He wheeled about and jogged up the spiral ladderwell to the next level, entering Officers’ Country familiarly. The doors were all closed and he assumed that Chip was on the dock already with Wade and her team, but as he passed his own quarters the door to Chip’s cabin swung inward and the exec stepped out to face him. The smile he had ready for his friend failed at the dark expression in Morton’s blue eyes.
“Chip?” he said quietly, coming to a halt before the other man. “Is something wrong?”
“I don’t know, Captain. Is there?” Morton asked shortly.
Lee frowned. The formality, as well as the tone was totally out of character for Chip Morton. He had been abnormally quiet as they had brought the big boat into port, but there was nothing about his manner to explain his attitude now, and somehow Lee knew that whatever was disturbing him had nothing to do with the Seaview, and he proceeded cautiously. “I was just in the Control Room and everything was fine. Have you informa--.”
“It’s not about the boat!” Morton interrupted, something else he would never do under ordinary circumstances. “I hear that you don’t want me along on this trip. Is that true?”
Lee took a half-step back from Morton’s rage. “I’ve made no secret of that. I know how you feel about these things, and there’s something about the whole thing that--.”
“It’s just escort duty, for crying out loud. She said you were looking for a reason....”
“She? What do you mean?”
“It’s Rusty.... I found her in the Wardroom before we docked. She... she was crying.”
“Why?” Crane blurted without thought.
“She thinks you don’t like her, that you’re trying to come between us,” Chip declared abruptly, then blinked as the words did not have the impact he had expected.
“Is that what she told you?” Lee asked calmly.
“I wasn’t going to say anything at all about it, but I’ve been thinking.... She was crying,” he repeated, “and I had to pry it out of her. I thought the two of you were getting along all right! What’s gotten into you, Lee?” This was not going well, Morton thought anxiously. He was angry, but his anger was coming across more petulant than indignant, and Lee was reacting to that.
“Me?” Crane replied incredulously. “She’s not my girlfriend, Chip. What does it matter if we like one another?” Lee asked somewhat harshly, wanting to say more. He frowned at his friend, unwilling to get into this with him now with the mission about to get underway.
“Because you’re my friend, and... and well, I want you to like her, too. So, why does she think you want to break us up? What happened between the two of you?” Morton asked, his tone still razor-edged.
“Nothing really, Chip,” the captain hedged.
Time was too short for him to even hint that he believed the woman had repeatedly tried to seduce him on this journey. He couldn’t drop that kind of bombshell on Chip and expect him not to explode, or, at the very least question Lee’s motives, and there just wasn’t enough time to deal with it properly. But maybe Chip was right about her, he conceded, and if she was honestly trying to befriend him he would be willing to try. Still, he was certain it had not been friendship she had been offering him, as certain as anything he had ever felt in his life.
“Must have been something, Lee. She’s really upset,” Chip was insisting, his tone expecting an explanation.
Lee hesitated but he answered at last. “She caught me in the corridor outside the Admiral’s office. I’d been going over the political situation in Maranvar with him and... maybe I was a little... sharp with her. I... I’ll apologize for any offence I may have given.”
Chip’s demeanor eased abruptly, as though he had only been waiting for a reasonable explanation to loose his anger. He smiled, though still a little distantly, it seemed to Crane. “That’s not necessary. I already explained that you were probably preoccupied and that she must have misunderstood. She hasn’t seen you in your intense captain mood.”
Lee dismissed the subtle taunt and remained silent for a moment, knowing that if either of them had a grizzly temper on occasion it was Morton. Still, he could not help wondering at how the scene had played out between Chip and Wade. It shouldn’t have surprised him that she would play on Chip’s sympathies with a fabricated story, turning on the tears at will, but it did. If she was crying, he was sure it was out of frustration or anger, not hurt feelings.
“The admiral’s waiting for me, Chip,” he informed the exec.
“Yes, of course,” Morton sighed as he turned away. “I’ll see you topside.”
Lee nodded soberly and moved on down the corridor away from Chip’s quarters and his own, then rounded the corner to approach Nelson’s cabin. His leather heels echoed hollowly in the silence, but he no longer noticed the sound after so many years of duty aboard submarines of all sizes. He came to a halt before the door with Nelson’s nameplate affixed to the panel, then he raised his hand and rapped twice.
With a wry smile at the familiar bark from within he turned the knob and pushed open the door. As he had expected, Nelson was still sitting at his desk, the habitual cigarette between his fingers, the ashtray nearly overflowing with crushed-out butts. The Admiral was looking toward the door when Lee entered, and that, in itself, was rather unusual.
“You wanted to see me, sir?” he asked in standard form, still slightly shaken by the confrontation with his exec.
“Of course I did, Lee. Sit down. Sit down. You weren’t going to try and slip away without saying goodbye, were you?”
Lee’s smile returned as he sank into the chair across from the Admiral. It had been little more than an hour since he had been seated in this very chair, but there was no way, even if protocol had not demanded it, that he would leave the Seaview without speaking to his friend and mentor one last time. “Not hardly, sir.”
Nelson leaned back in his chair, allowing himself a brief, glowing smile of his own.
“It looks like you’re ready to go,” Nelson continued, nodding toward the Service Khaki uniform that Crane wore. His gaze paused momentarily on the ranked ribbons on the young man’s breast, realizing that their number had increased since he had joined the Seaview’s crew, but at what cost. He blinked. “You take care of yourself out there, Lee.”
“I will, sir. Chip will be along, don’t forget.”
Nelson leaned back in his chair, relaxing somewhat. “I suppose if anyone can keep you from
overdoing it, he can.” He continued to
study his captain closely for a few moments.
“You’ll be well underway by the time we disembark.” Lee nodded.
“We should be able to make our delivery to the aid station in
He broke off, his rusty brows drawing down over deep blue eyes and he raised one hand to rub his chin thoughtfully.
“I really don’t like the two of you being out of radio contact, Lee. It worries me.”
“I’m not crazy about it either, but I doubt it would do much good to take one along anyway. We’re going to be down among the mountains in Chand and we’d need a satellite radio to do any good unless we managed to make it to one of the peaks.”
“And the Junta has prohibited any of you from taking one anyway. It’s something I would have insisted upon if I’d been Martin Bauer.”
“It does make you wonder, doesn’t it. What are they trying to hide?”
“The real reason why the CIA wants an agent in there, I’d wager. Just keep a low profile, Lee. Nothing about this smells right anymore....”
“Anymore?” Crane ground out. “You mean it did to you once?”
Nelson lowered his head and gave Lee the most sheepish look he could ever remember. “I’m sorry to say that yes, it did. At least it didn’t seem like it would be so bad. I mean, they were allowing civilians to go in, and one of them was a woman! What was I to think?”
“That the alphabet orgs generally bend the truth to fit their own needs. But don’t give it another thought.... We’ll be back in five days, tops, and I might even be coaxed into bringing you back a longyis for you to wear to the next Institute party.”
“Longyis? I....” Nelson stopped blustering and grinned. “You come back in one piece with a Maranvarian skirt in hand and I’ll wear it, son! I swear I will.”
Crane smiled at him fondly for a long moment, then his smile gave way to a broad grin. “I’ll hold you to that promise, Admiral,” he replied.
Lee rose slowly from his chair, then leaned across the desk to take the older man’s hand in his. Their grips were mutually firm and warm, and lasted only a moment longer than if one of them had been leaving the submarine on holiday instead of a potentially dangerous assignment.
“Five days, sir,” Lee said softly, then nodded to the admiral before he wheeled and departed, the door closing quietly behind him.
Nelson sat without moving for several seconds, then he
flipped the switch on the intercom box.
“No sir. I believe he’s still in his quarters.”
“Then contact him and tell him I want to see him before he leaves the Seaview.”
“No, not immediately. Just tell him not to leave the boat without stopping by my quarters first.”
Nelson released the switch and sagged back in his chair for a moment before he bent forward over his papers once more. He was sure Morton was virtually on the brink of departure and the knock came in good time.
“Come,” he barked, still studying the spreadsheet before him. He felt the opening of the door, and the approach of the executive officer, but still he did not look up. It was an officer’s ploy to leave a subordinate standing at attention awaiting his pleasure, and one he seldom indulged himself in, but somehow it seemed appropriate at the moment.
“Sit down, Chip,” he said at last. The younger man sighed nearly inaudibly and he sank into the chair so recently vacated by the captain. “I wanted a few words with you before you go.”
Nelson’s restless hands found his cigarette pack but rather than shake one out, he merely turned it absently in his fingers as he looked toward the XO. “What is your opinion of this mission, Mr. Morton?”
Chip blinked, startled by the question coming from Admiral Nelson.
“I... I’m not sure what to think, Admiral. I’ve been briefed by both the project team leader and Captain Crane. It sounds like it should be just simple escort duty.”
“One would think so, on the surface.”
Once more Chip blinked, then frowned. “Are you saying that it’s not what it seems, Admiral?”
“I’m saying that a lot of things, and people, may not be what they seem in this, Mr. Morton. Captain Crane has experience in this sort of thing. I suggest you follow his lead, and....”
“Just keep your eyes open. You know who you can really trust and I am depending on you to... to make sure that you both come back from this trip safely. Am I understood?”
“Yes, sir. Of course, sir.” Morton started to raise his hand to salute, but hesitated, still frowning thoughtfully. “Did... does Lee know you were talking to me?”
“It’s my prerogative. I... I’ve just thought Lee seemed a bit preoccupied lately. He takes these missions so to heart.”
“Yes sir, he does. And he’s old Navy enough to be uncomfortable with a woman aboard. I’ve seen it before....”
“You think that’s what it is? You think he’s uncomfortable around Dr. Maxwell just because she’s a woman?” The skeptical tone in Nelson’s voice cut through Morton’s momentary smugness like a knife. “If he’s uneasy I would lay odds he has good reason, Mr. Morton. Perhaps reason you would do well to consider.”
“But Admiral... If he’s jealous of...”
Nelson made a rude noise that was no less incredulous for its lack of agreement. “I won’t even dignify that in any manner, Commander, but you might recall that he’s worked double shifts this voyage so that you could spend more time with Dr. Maxwell. Everyone aboard has been aware of that, even if you haven’t,” the admiral barked unsympathetically, and Chip’s gaze dropped self-consciously.
Nelson gave a sharp shake of his head. “I don’t have the right to say anything further, Morton, but you aren’t the man I’ve always believed you to be if you let this come between the two of you. He’s concerned about your well being, and if it interferes with his carrying out of this mission then you’re all likely to suffer. You are aware of that, aren’t you?”
“The... mission, sir?” Morton said thinly. “I thought it was just a State Department escort assignment.”
“It’s an ONI/CIA assignment in the guise of a State Department escort assignment. Does that clarify for you why Lee has been reluctant to have you along?”
Chip groaned weakly. “He hasn’t said a word to me.”
“He didn’t want to... distract you from your... pursuits. But I, on the other hand, have no such compunctions. Sit down, Mr. Morton. This is going to be quick, and it’s not going to be pleasant.”
Lee Crane hesitated for an instant as he emerged from the
sail onto the bridge, gazing out across the busy
His roaming gaze found the trio of Bauer & Boen engineers standing just off the ramp on the dock. They were protected by a double row of soldiers, and beyond that concrete bolsters kept the crowd back. Two ancient, but gleaming limousines stood just outside that barricade, uniformed drivers standing by the passenger doors. There was a local man with them, shorter than any of the three he stood beside, stocky, and totally unimpressive in appearance, his white, tropical suit neat but slightly ill-fit. Both Snow and Barry wore khakis similar in style if not in cut to the uniform Crane wore, and Wade was still dressed in the lovely kain and silk blouse she had worn earlier.
Lee descended from the bridge with the ease of long practice and crossed the deck where he saluted the American flag, then walked swiftly down the gangway toward the others. The Maranvarian looked up as he approached, and seeing his shift of attention Wade turned slowly, gracing the captain with a regal smile.
“Hello, Captain Crane,” she crooned, her voice heavy with control and superiority. “I would like to introduce you to Mr. Ne-Win....”
The small man stepped past Wade, seeming to dismiss her with that single gesture. He extended his hand toward the submarine captain, his round face splitting with a wide smile.
“Captain, it is a very great pleasure to meet you! I was just telling these fine people how impressed I am with your giant submarine. I am Nga Ne-Win, aide-de-camp to General Hoc Jil, the president of our interim government.”
Lee accepted Ne-Win’s damp, pudgy hand in his long, slender grip, but held it no longer than was absolutely necessary for propriety. Mr. Ne-Win,” he returned evenly, forcing a smile.
“Ah, and Admiral Nelson and Commander Morton, too, I take it,” Ne-Win said in an unpleasantly unctuous tone.
Crane turned to greet Nelson but found himself, instead, face to face with Chip Morton. His friend’s face was flushed, as though he had just undergone some physical stress, and there was a discomfiture in the other man’s eyes that he had not seen there often, almost like embarrassment. What could have taken place in the short time since he’d seen him, he wondered. But then Nelson was speaking, addressing the adjutant formally and Chip stepped around him, going to stand beside Wade Maxwell as though it was his rightful place.
“Mr. Ne-Win, yes,” Nelson said. “I received word that you would meet us. I take it everything is as your government pledged?”
“Oh yes, Admiral. The train that will take us all north is carrying nearly one hundred soldiers to ensure the safety of your people as well as the project team from Bauer & Boen. We will transfer to trucks at Chandok mid-morning tomorrow for the rest of the trip into the mountains.”
“The insurrectionists have been attacking the train?” Lee asked suspiciously.
“This is not your wild west, Captain, but yes, they have done so on occasion. But I can assure you that you will be as safe as we can make you. Even on the journey too the base camp there will be thirty armed soldiers in the convoy. Rest assured, Captain, Admiral, that every precaution has been taken to prevent the insurgents from causing harm.”
Nelson nodded soberly, though Lee knew from experience that he was not totally at ease with the assurances offered. Nor was he.
“If I may be so bold, Admiral, we should take our leave. The train is merely waiting for us to board before it leaves for the north.”
“Of course, of course.” Nelson turned toward the three engineers, his smile wide and would certainly have seemed open and sincere to anyone who did not know him as well as the two top members of the Seaview’s command staff. He shook hands briefly with both Roger Snow and Peter Barry, then took Wade’s offered hand between his own. “Now you take care of yourself, young lady. And all three of you, remember... you can have a return ticket on the Seaview if you want it.” He turned slightly to include Crane as well as Morton. “I’ll see the two of you in five days.” His gaze flickered briefly toward Ne-Win. “The Seaview will be standing off shore in seventy-two hours awaiting your return.”
Lee understood why the admiral had stated the obvious, at least what was obvious to both himself and Morton. He looked beyond Nelson toward Ne-Win, noticing the nervous way the little man licked his lips. He would bear watching.
The meal aboard the train had been excellent, served by a native wait staff that would have done the finest restaurant in the world proud. The delectable aromas and the artful display of the dishes had tempted even Lee’s usually disinterested palate to enjoyment beginning with the oddly delicious ginger salad through the predictable though spicy chicken curry, to the spongy dessert cake that was the perfect ending course, light and tasty, and laced with raisins and sprinkled with poppy seeds. Now the five Americans relaxed around the oval table with Crane at one end, and the government liaison, Mr. Ne-Win, acting as host seated at the other. Wade and Chip were seated on Ne-Win’s right, while Barry and Snow occupied the opposite side of the table. Now the table had been cleared and strong tea served, as well as small, delicate glasses of a local liqueur that tasted pleasantly of cloves and cinnamon.
Lee leaned back in his chair, the stem of the glass turning between his fingers as he quietly studied the others at the table. He had become casually acquainted with the two Bauer & Boen engineers during the voyage, as much as he usually permitted himself, and he had enjoyed Pete Barry’s self-deprecating good humor and enthusiasm, and Roger Snow’s easy intelligence and friendliness. Both men were quiet now themselves, sipping the strong cordials, also watching the tableau being played out between Wade and Ne-Win. He was smiling ingratiatingly at the beautiful woman, nodding at something she had said, her voice pitched low so that even Chip, seated at her side, was leaning forward in order to hear. Initially Crane had pegged the little man as a typical government sycophant, his behavior characteristic of someone sent to win the favor of visiting dignitaries, but the first time Ne-Win’s gaze had briefly met his own he suspected something more. There was sharp, cagey intelligence in those very dark eyes, and something more troubling. After that first very abbreviated confrontation Ne-Win had studiously avoided meeting Lee’s eyes, his gaze dropping each time as though in deference to the Seaview’s captain, but his conversation was too informed, his attention to Wade too accomplished for Lee to accept his subservient behavior toward him.
Exchanging a surreptitious glance and a nod, both Roger and Pete drained their glasses and pushed back from the table. “Thanks for a delicious meal, Mr. Ne-Win, but it’s been a busy day and I imagine tomorrow is likely to be equally tiring, so we’re going to get some sleep,” Pete Barry said with a smile.
“As you wish, sirs,” the liaison purred.
“What time did you say we’d be likely to arrive at the station where we leave the train?” Roger Snow certainly knew the stated time, but Crane silently applauded his confirmation.
“Not until mid-morning, Mr. Snow. Breakfast will be served to you here at eight-thirty. We will have adequate time for a leisurely meal before we arrive at Chandok.”
“Good. Then we’ll see you in the morning at breakfast.”
“And, don’t forget, sirs, that for your own safety you are requested to confine yourselves to this car alone. The train carries the public as well as our military, and the country into which we travel is rife with insurgency. I can guarantee your safety only as long as you remain in this closed car.”
Both engineers glanced from Ne-Win to Crane. The captain nodded slowly. “We have this car to ourselves. Since none of us speak the dialect here it would be wise to stay apart from the locals,” he admitted.
Pete Barry chuckled lightly. “Well, that suits me. Guess it’s a good thing I haven’t been prone to sleepwalking since I was a kid, though.”
“It may be,” Lee agreed with a grin. “Good night, Pete, Roger.”
“Good night, all. If breakfast is as delicious as dinner, you won’t have to call us twice.”
Roger Snow smiled at his companion’s comment and led the way aft from the dining room which had been set up at the front of the railcar. There was relative silence for several moments, only the clatter of the wheels on the tracks breaking the stillness. At last it was Chip Morton who broke the silence, clearing his throat somewhat noisily and raising his glass.
“I’ll take some more of this vsin, if you don’t mind, Mr. Ne-Win.”
“It is particularly strong if one is not accustomed to it, Commander Morton. Are you sure?”
Lee was aware of the slight stiffening of Chip’s shoulders. The comment was casually given and yet even Lee also felt the insult of the adjutant’s words.
“I think I can handle it,” Morton replied curtly, then forced a smile as Wade’s long-nailed fingers tightened on his wrist as it rested on the table between them. “After all, I’m not driving tonight.”
Ne-Win’s laugh was as forced as Chip’s smile, but he poured the amber liquid into his glass. The vsin was another local product, a costly delicacy offered only to the most notable of guests the liaison had informed them as he had poured their first and only glass, and Lee found himself wondering if the man had other plans for the expensive cordial if he could salvage any from Chip’s sudden interest.
“I’ll have another glass too if you don’t mind,” he found himself saying. The liqueur was truly delicious, and Chip was correct in that they had only to go to their room and sleep this night, but it was not a craving that prompted his request, but an unexpected need to support his friend. “Surely you’ve heard that sailors love their drink,” he continued, his own tone light and intentionally pacifying. His glass was filled resignedly, and with a grim smile Ne-Win turned questioningly toward Wade.
“Just a splash, Mr. Ne-Win. It’s so very good, but it’s already affecting my head,” she replied sweetly with a quick toss of her long hair.
Lee was all too aware of the slight flush of her skin, and the subtle slurring of her words. The night before the Seaview docked at Benyene Nelson had formally acknowledged their endeavor with glasses of 100 year old Irish cognac. Wade had not seemed particularly affected even after her second snifter of the strong liquor, and he could not readily accept that the vsin, potent as it was, was influencing her so strongly as it appeared. Crane sipped at the sweet-warm liquid, feeling its heat flowing through his veins, and he smiled, amending his opinion, then grew abruptly serious once more. A sober Wade was unpredictable enough. An intoxicated one could prove dangerous.
She was speaking softly to Chip he noticed then, leaning on his shoulder and gazing up at him with those amazing violet eyes, her lips slightly parted....
Lee blinked rapidly and set the glass of vsin down with a slight clink on the table top, recognizing its effect on his own system. He became aware of Ne-Win’s scrutiny, and the knowing smirk on the little man’s bland features. Forcing back his irritation, Lee nodded in acknowledgement. The junta representative replaced the stopper in the bottle, and pushed himself to his feet, his smugness easing into a more sincere smile.
“I will leave you to your rest, Captain... Commander, and Doctor Maxwell. There is a bell chord there at the end of the coach,” he said, nodding toward the front end of the car at the silken sash that hung there. “You have merely to pull that when you desire breakfast. No one will enter this car you until you request it, even me.”
“So you have said, Mr. Ne-Win. We are your guests,” Lee reminded coolly. “We have nothing to be concerned about... have we?”
“No, of course not,” Ne-Win replied unctuously. “Until the morning then. Good night.”
The three Americans bade him good night with varying degrees of enthusiasm, and the compartment was almost tensely quiet as the door snapped closed behind the adjutant. Crane sat back in his chair, the barely touched glass of vsin before him on the table, and as if following his example Chip used two fingers to slide his own glass away from him.
“I thought you liked it, Chipper,” Wade purred, swallowing the golden liquid that remained in her own glass. She placed the delicate glass on the table beside Chip’s, and picked up the one he had set aside. “No use letting it go to waste.”
“Ne-Win wasn’t kidding about it being strong stuff, Rusty. I only asked for it because he didn’t offer.... Maybe you ought to....”
She smiled at him charmingly as she sipped, batting her long lashes. “I think we should go to bed now, Chipper.”
Lee inhaled sharply at her statement that was so much more an invitation than just an idle suggestion. A flush climbed rosily up from beneath Morton’s collar, and he glanced sidelong at his captain, but Crane was already rising, turning toward the door that gave access to their car from the rest of the train. He examined the old-fashioned knob and facing plate on the door. There was no locking mechanism, but he had really expected none. He stepped back, crossing his arms over his chest as he considered what was, to him, an obvious problem. Security.
“Don’t be such a worrywart, Captain,” Wade’s voice sounded just behind him and he felt his muscles tighten across his back even though he did not move, then she was chuckling, laughing at him, and the husky sound clawed at his nerves. “Mr. Ne-Win said no one would disturb us. What are you afraid of?”
“Lee’s just looking after your safety, Rusty. This isn’t
“We’ve got government authorization to be here, theirs and ours. Nothing can happen to us here.”
Lee had turned slowly as they spoke until he faced them both. Chip was frowning, and for the first time in many days he seemed to be looking at the woman with some consternation. The captain remained silent, wanting his friend to handle the situation rather than having to do so himself, and as he always did Chip came through.
“Now, Rusty, you know that’s no guarantee of safety. Maranvar is a country in constant political upheaval. There are factions here that would happily blow this train off the tracks just to get at the troops aboard. With five Americans aboard... that might just be the frosting on the cake for them. You hear all the time about Americans being abducted by one militant group or another in countries like this....”
“They have pledged to protect us, Chip,” Wade interrupted, her words drink-thickened. “Besides, that’s why you and Captain Crane are along, isn’t it? To make sure they hold up their part of the bargain?”
Unwilling to be drawn into an argument, Lee turned again toward the door, this time dragging one of the straight-backed wooden chairs with him. Deftly he jammed the back of the chair beneath the knob on the door, then shrugged as he pivoted. “It just doesn’t do any harm to take simple precautions,” he explained. “I think I’m going to follow Roger and Pete’s example if the two of you don’t mind, and head for bed.”
Wade stepped forward unexpectedly, smiling charmingly at him but her slight unsteadiness was accentuated by the rocking of the coach on the old tracks and she stumbled, falling against him. The thought went through his mind that it was a calculated maneuver, then the dampness of the nearly full glass of vsin soaking into his shirt convinced him he was right. He had seen the way Wade moved aboard Seaview when she had first come aboard, wearing the unconscionably high heels. Even when the Seaview got underway she had had little difficulty maintaining stability.
Carefully he set her back away from him, surrendering her into Chip Morton’s arms even as he removed the empty glass from her fingers and replaced it on the table. Her deep blue-violet eyes met his with a steadiness that belied inebriation, and her smile was more one of amusement than apology.
“Make sure she gets safely to bed, Mr. Morton,” he ordered
as though standing on the
The aged Pullman car had been remodeled to provide the dining room, leaving three fairly standard sleeping compartments, and a fourth room that housed a small, but relatively modern bathroom. Lee unbuttoned his shirt as he navigated the narrow passageway with the sureness of any seaman. The bathroom was at the rear of the car directly across from the room he and Chip were to share, next to the room occupied by Snow and Barry. He spent several minutes removing the ranked ribbons from the left breast of the stained shirt, tucking them into his trousers pocket, determined to leave off the majority of them when he dressed in the morning. He stripped out of the shirt then and dumped it into the sink, twisting on the hot water and allowing the stream to pour over the stain. At least it wasn’t red wine, he thought absently. And at least he wasn’t wearing whites. The shirt would be wrinkled when it dried, but with a little luck it would be wearable in a pinch. Sink-laundry was not an unfamiliar exercise for any Navy man, and Lee completed his efforts, squeezed the excess moisture out of the cloth, then after shaking out the worst of the wrinkles he draped it over the single towel rack in the room. A towel rack without a towel, he noted irritably. Well, if nothing else, the shirt could fill that requirement.
He stepped back into the passageway, the dim light here making it difficult to examine the rear door of the car. This was the last car of the train, not a position he would have chosen, but he was relieved to see a heavy steel bar bolted in place to secure the door. Access would be nearly impossible, but escape would be equally problematic, his cautious nature worried. As he checked the solidity of the door, even this far removed from the dining room, Lee could hear the hum of conversation between his friend and Wade Maxwell. Their voices rose and fell, and he knew that all was not love-words and tenderness between them. With a reluctant sigh he made his way across the hall to his own compartment. He did not look down the passageway toward the lighted room where the voices suddenly dropped to a quieter level. He would leave Wade to Chip, whom he was sure neither needed nor wanted any interference from him.
The sleeping compartment was small, the plush seat against the rear wall of the car had been converted into the lower bunk, and the upper one folded down from above. A single chair, an ancient leather-upholstered armchair, and a low luggage bench were the only amenities. He refrained from turning on the light, another residual effect of too many ONI missions. There was no need it, he told himself, and it could make him an easy target from outside the train even if he chose to draw the shades they were translucent and would conceal little. He knew he was being slightly paranoid, but the ONI taken advantage of the strong sense of self-preservation inherent in him, honing into sharpness the instincts he had been born with.
Crane pulled off his shoes and socks, and removed his trousers, folding them carefully before he placed them across the back of the chair. He fell into the lower bunk in exhaustion, wearied by the stress of the day’s events more than early rising but, as was common for him, sleep was not an easy conquest. This was the first moment he’d had just to himself since awaking that morning and thoughts chased themselves around in his mind.
He was accustomed to dealing with the problems of command, of ensuring that the Seaview operated smoothly and her crew remained safe. He had become skilled in all manner of covert activities over the years, and he was adept, if not comfortable in dealing with the Seaview’s various paying clients. But Wade Maxwell presented a dilemma that all his training and experience could not solve for him. There was something wrong with the woman, with her thinking, with her approach to everything that even remotely involved Chip Morton, and for some reason, himself as well, he was convinced. He had witnessed the other side of her, however, the tough, brilliant head of this project team and whose leadership was completely accepted and unquestioned by the two men who worked directly under her guidance. He had sat in on several of their planning meetings aboard Seaview, and, as an engineer himself, he had found nothing questionable in their designs. He had examined the schematics for the dam that Bauer & Boen had sent to the Maranvar government, had studied the detailed topographic maps of the proposed site for the dam, and although his specialty was not in structural engineering he was forced to admit that it looked to be a well-executed plan.
Wade was correct in her assertion that they were here by invitation, and so far it would appear that the Maranvar junta was making every effort to provide for their safety. Still, that instinct he had by nature and had honed to razor sharpness over years of ONI missions warned him that all was not as it appeared.
Why was he here? he wondered distantly. Why had Admiral Carstairs involved him in this endeavor? Somehow he was certain that Bauer & Boen had been completely unaware of his existence until Carstairs, or another like him, had convinced them that Lee Crane needed to accompany them into the interior of Maranvar. Why? He half understood Wade’s need to include Chip. She had loved him once. Perhaps she still did in a slightly perverse way that saw his position aboard Seaview, and the friendship the two men shared as a threat. But had Chip been included because Carstairs had elected Crane to accompany the team, or had he, himself, been chosen only because Wade Maxwell wanted Chip Morton’s presence? It was something he was unlikely to ever know for sure.
Lee pushed himself up, leaning his back against the wall at the head of the bunk and rubbed his forehead uneasily. He turned his gaze out the window at his feet, watching the passage of the moonlight-illuminated landscape through which the train passed, the wooded hills, the occasional clusters of hut-like buildings that were small villages squatting beside the tracks. The country was poor, terribly poverty stricken, the farms he saw the only bright spots in a blighted existence, the crops strong and green, well watered by the river that the junta planned to confine behind their dam. How could Bauer & Boen, in all good conscience, erect a structure that would deprive these people of the water they required? And why had the Maranvar junta felt it necessary to go abroad to find someone to build their dam instead of utilizing their own experts? Was it publicity they were looking for?
After what seemed a long while he lay back down, but squirmed in the narrow bed, wishing himself back aboard the Seaview. At least there when he couldn’t sleep there were other things for him to do. He could be checking on that air-purification valve that was replaced the day before yesterday, and confirm that there was still at least one backup valve in stores. Air-revitalization was the most vital system on a submarine, and although he knew the Seaview was in good hands without him when he wasn’t aboard he couldn’t help but worry. If Chip had been there in charge as he usually was in this kind of situation his concerns would be less, but this time Chip was here with him, his mind on Wade Maxwell not the mission, and as hostile toward him as he had ever been in their long association.
All because of a woman.
Lee sighed wearily, longing for the slumber that would not come. Perhaps asleep he could either escape his problems for a time, or solve them. He raised his hands, long fingers covering his eyes, then moving to his forehead to rub away the dull ache that had set in. What was wrong with him? He should be happy for his friend if he had truly found the one woman he could spend his life with. A sudden shudder ran through his body and he smiled grimly. If. He had been exposed to a side of Wade that she had concealed from Chip; an ugly side. He knew his friend was too astute a judge of character to be deceived for long, but Rusty was a step ahead of most people. Once Chip had loved her. He was as sure of that as he was certain that it was not love that motivated Wade now.
At long last he shoved his body further beneath the light covers and turned onto his side, facing the wall as quiet sounds began to come from the compartment just forward of his own. Wade’s bedroom. It appeared that he had misjudged his friend yet again, and that Chip had opted to sleep elsewhere than his own bunk this night, he thought distractedly. The sounds he could hear were muted, soft voices, gentle, tender voices, and then silence. With a long sigh he closed his eyes, determined to will himself to sleep.
Chip watched Lee’s silent retreat down the rocking train car wondering if he would have handled the accident with the wine with as much aplomb as his friend, considering the antipathy between Lee and Wade. Chip had been subjected to Wade’s overtly affectionate behavior all through dinner, and somehow he had been taken aback by her attitude, though he wondered if he would have even noticed it at all if Nelson hadn’t spoken up before they disembarked. When Wade had first approached him with that old glow in her eyes, and with the same smile on her lips as he remembered he was willing to immerse himself in the pure pleasure of her company. He’d had hopes of their relationship becoming something more, but he had to admit now that he had been seeing her through the eyes of memory, not reality, and he was not a happy man.
She was clutching his arm now almost possessively, and, unaccountably, it bothered him. He patted her hand gently, but decided not to press the matter when she proved reluctant to release him. She seemed to have reacted more strongly to the vsin than any of the men and he tried to put off her present clinginess to the drink. He looked down at her and straight into the deep, bottomless violet pools that were her eyes. He gulped, feeling his senses reel as they did each time he found himself there.
“Take me to my room now, Chip,” she whispered huskily, and leaned her head against his shoulder.
Freeing his arm and sliding it around her Morton led her the dozen or so steps from the dining room into the passageway. He reached for the knob on her compartment door only to find her hand covering his, her fingers warm and moving enticingly. She encouraged him to turn the knob, then she pushed the door open herself and drew him inside with her. He stood in the middle of the small room, his back to the companionway, but she did not allow the door to remain open long. She slipped behind him and gave it a shove closed then she moved lightly around him toward the turned down bed, a real bed, in this room, Chip noted distantly. She pirouetted on the ball of one foot, something it would be unlikely that an intoxicated person would be able to do, he admitted, then moved back toward him, reaching her hands up to clasp at the back of his neck, drawing his head down toward hers.
She kissed him fervently, deeply, and persistently. For a moment he allowed himself to respond, his own hands finding her slender waist, reliving the yearnings of a younger Chip Morton. She inched backwards toward the bed. He knew his heart rate was accelerating with each moment the kiss lasted, but at last, as he dragged his closed eyes open and as he caught sight of their reflection in the glass of the window he stiffened and pulled back. She held to him tightly, and there seemed to be the sharpness of her nails against the back of his neck until he reached up, grasped her fingers and gently removed her hands from his neck.
“We can’t do this here, Rusty,” he told her kindly.
“Well, we certainly couldn’t do it on your submarine with all those sailors around all the time!”
“I had hoped that we’d have more than just one night on a train.”
“One night’s better than nothing,” she replied peevishly, her words sharp and hurled at him hurtfully. “I thought maybe you’d finally grown up a little!”
Chip looked down at her once more as he held her away at arms’ length and steeled himself against the power of her phenomenal eyes. He refused to rise to the bait she was casting.
“Now is not the time, and this is not the place, Wade.”
“You just don’t want him to hear us!” she said sharply, her voice rising shrewishly. “You’ve always cared more about what he thought than about us!”
“That’s not true. I just have a duty to uphold.”
She tore free of his gentle grip and flung herself at him, the force of her lunge driving him back against the compartment wall next to the door and she was kissing him fiercely, demanding the response he refused her. Once more he found himself literally pealing her arms away from his neck, and this time when he set her away it was with less gentleness.
“Stop it!” he ordered, his voice pitched low, but with the tone of command that no one dared dispute.
With her arms firmly in his grip he backed her across the few steps to the bed, pushing her down onto the narrow mattress and looming above her, his blue eyes as stormy as a winter’s sky.
“I’m going to pretend this didn’t happen.”
“You can’t mean that, Chip. Did he get to you after all? I told you he was trying to split us up.”
“Don’t start in on that. I’m too tired to argue about it tonight. Go to bed. Sleep off the wine. Maybe we can talk about it later... tomorrow maybe.”
He released her arms and straightened, taking a single cautious step backward, prepared in case she came at him again. She looked up, her eyes slightly unfocused from the wine, he assumed.
“I’m not used to men rejecting me, and you’ve done it entirely too often.”
“It’s the timing, Rusty. It was timing fifteen years ago, and it’s timing now. I’m here on assignment, not a vacation. I have a responsibility--.”
“Do you think that captain of yours has always turned down what’s offered him when he’s on assignment? I’ll just bet not. With looks like his he must be fighting them off all the time... if he fights at all. Maybe I’ve just picked the wrong officer....”
“Stop now, before you say something neither of us can forgive.”
He saw the change come into her eyes, the decision to desist.
“You’re tired,” he suggested. Suddenly he was more than a little eager to get out away from her. “Let’s put this off to the strength of the wine. Go to sleep now and we’ll talk tomorrow... maybe when we get to the camp we’ll have some time....”
She raised her feet up onto the bed and lay back against the pillow, arching her back and lifting her long russet hair, running her fingers languidly through the tresses. She smiled at him captivatingly.
“At least come give me a good night kiss,” she implored, holding out one hand.
Morton chuckled dryly. “You’re not catching me with that one. I haven’t forgotten just how cagey you can be. Tomorrow!”
He paused, expecting more argument, but she merely smiled, her long lashes fluttering momentarily. She brought her hand to her mouth, her lips just brushing the tips of her fingers before she blew the kiss at him. He smiled. He couldn’t help himself. Then he turned and slipped from the compartment.
It was only a few steps along the passageway to the door of the next compartment, and he entered the darkened room silently, careful to close the door behind him without a sound. There was little light even coming through the wide window from the quarter moon, but he knew that Lee had taken the lower bunk, the prerogative not only of rank, but the reward for the first to retire. He groaned softly, not entirely confident that the ancient upper berth would support his weight.
He undressed quietly, placing his shoes under the chair beside Lee’s, his shirt and trousers over the same chair where Lee had left his pants, then with a heavy sigh he hoisted himself up into the top berth. He lay very still for several minutes, listening to his friend’s breathing, the steady, deep breaths, but somehow he knew he was not asleep.
“You having your usual trouble sleeping, Lee?” he asked quietly, just in case he was wrong and Lee had managed to fall asleep, a difficult accomplishment for him at times.
There was a creak of the bedsprings from below as Crane rolled over.
“I guess you could say that. Got a lot on my mind.”
Chip turned onto his left side. Once he would have immediately asked what it was that Lee was thinking about, or even ventured a guess of his own, but he was still uneasy with what had passed between himself and his friend.
“I had the oddest sensation when I came in here,” he admitted. “It’s been a long time since we were roomies, but it just kind of reminded me of that. I’ve been thinking about it a lot... the Academy, I mean.”
“Hmmmm,” Lee’s grumble was appropriately interested but completely non-committal.
“I wish you could have known Rusty like she was before I left for the Academy,” Chip heard himself say, the tone of absolute regret in his voice a complete surprise. Crane was moving in the bed below, as though about to rise.
“Has... something happened to make you think she’s changed?” Lee asked softly, and Chip knew without a doubt that his friend was hoping he hadn’t overstepped the boundaries Chip realized he had erected around his relationship with Wade.
“She’s changed... I can’t deny that. But it’s been a long time. I’ve changed, too.” He squirmed uncomfortably. “She asked that I apologize for her again about the drink she spilled on your shirt,” he lied glibly. “I’m sure it was the vsin. I put her to bed.... She was asleep practically before her head hit the pillow.”
“Not a big problem. She’s not used to keeping her balance the way we Navy men are. B’cides, I have a couple of extra shirts in my kit.”
Chip latched onto the offered distraction almost desperately. “I told her that you would. I also told her that you’d’ve come prepared for almost anything.”
“I haven’t had a chance to offer her my apologies.”
“Forget about it, Lee,” he answered almost too quickly he felt, and he cursed himself for not keeping the edge out of his voice. “She... she’s always been... emotional.”
In the darkness he knew that Lee, always sensitive to those around him, must hear the emotions behind the words. He lay back against his own pillow, listening to the rattle and clatter of the train wheels on the tracks, feeling the shuddering that was reminiscent, but so very different from the motion of the Seaview.
“What about you, Chip?” Lee asked at last. “How do you feel about her?”
Morton gave a sharp, bitter laugh. “Don’t I wish I knew.”
Lee remained silent. Waiting. He would wait indefinitely for his friend’s response, Chip knew.
“We’ve talked about a lot since we set sail, but at the same time... nothing. We talk around how we feel, avoiding what we want for the future... not even addressing whether there might be any kind of future for us together. But, worst of all, we haven’t even discussed what split us up to begin with.”
Chip choked into silence, this time cursing himself for revealing so much. Lee’s quiet patience could always make him betray himself, even years ago at the Academy whenever Chip tried to conceal something from him, be it a poor grade or a broken heart. He would be quiet, he would be understanding, he would be sympathetic, but in the end he would be totally honest with him.
“It’s hardly been two weeks, don’t forget,” the captain reminded, “and you’ve been apart a long time. There’s bound to be a lot of ground to be made up.”
“Yeah, and that proverbial bridge that I burned... needs to be rebuilt.”
“Bridge building is a lot of work.”
Now Chip’s laugh was lighter, easier. “Easier than dam building, I’d guess.” He hesitated once more. “Nothing’s going to be resolved before we have to return to the Seaview. Which may be a good thing,” he finished disjointedly. “She’s going to be here for months, and we’ll be at sea most of that time. If....”
“If what you feel is something... real... I doubt you’ll let it go,” Lee assured him.
“You have more confidence in me than I do. I threw away her love last time, remember.”
Lee sighed, disagreeing with his reasoning. “You didn’t throw it away. You were just doing what you thought was best... for both of you. Besides, it looks like you didn’t push her so far away that she hasn’t sought you out again. Have a little faith, old friend. Like the old song said, whatever will be will be.”
“Oh, thanks,” Chip grumbled. “Nothing more profound than that?”
Now the captain allowed himself a soft chuckle. “That’s the Admiral’s area of expertise, not mine,” he said, then had to stifle a yawn.
“I....” Chip began, his voice very far away, it seemed even to himself, and it took him some time to continue, but Crane gave him that time. “I’m sorry I jumped all over you this morning, Lee. I was way out of line.”
“You just misunderstood, that’s all,” the captain said gently. “Maybe I did too. Can we get on with this mission without being angry with one another? I don’t function well that way.”
“Me either. Guess I’ve been acting a fool, but... I never claimed to understand women.”
“We’re only men, Chip. We aren’t meant to understand them,” Lee replied, and there was a smile in his voice.
Chip chuckled in response. “We’ve got about an eight hour trip to the dam site after we get the trucks loaded,” he observed absently.
“Then we should be getting some rest. I love this train. Should make for a good night’s sleep.”
“It’s noisy. And rough.”
“But it’s a classic. It’s history, my friend. It’s Bogart, Ladd, Garfield....”
“I remember all those old black and white movies you loved back at school.”
“Yeah. That little theater in town that only showed Film Noir. It was great.”
“Maybe we need to start having them occasionally aboard Seaview for movie night. I’ll look into it when we get back.”
Lee grinned into the darkness. “There’s an idea,” he agreed.
The ancient train lumbered into a station that was little
more than a large shed huddled next to the tracks. The Bauer & Boen equipment was swiftly
transferred from the train to one of a line of trucks, into which unmarked
boxes and crates were loaded from other freight cars of the train. Lee had not been at all surprised to see that
the convoy was a heavily armed military one.
As he had assured Admiral Nelson he was well aware of the constant
violence in these
The first truck had nosed out of town shortly before 10:00, and now, at nearly dusk, the convoy moved slowly along the narrow jungle track. It seemed that the purpose of the convoy had been two-fold, to carry the Americans to their destination, but also to re-supply the army posts along their route. There were now only five vehicles, three trucks, a WWII Ford jeep, and a 1930’s Dodge Westchester Suburban. The jeep was heavily armed with a 50 caliber machine gun mounted in the back and manned by a dark-visaged soldier. The trucks were also remnants of WWII, rumbling GMAC deuce-and-a-halfs, still painted olive drab although the US Army star in its broken circle although it gave him a twist of the heart to see that the emblems had been crudely painted out on doors and hoods. One of the trucks carried the team’s personal luggage and supplies for the camp, while the other two carried their cargo crates and a dozen Junta soldiers each.
At their mid-afternoon break Lee had abandoned the Suburban and the others, surrendering, in part, to his discomfiture at Ne-Win’s unexpected fawning over him as the higher ranked military officer. To Crane it was galling, and it felt insincere, even deceitful, and he liked to think he was a more than adequate judge of character. He had learned to trust his instincts over the years, and that judgment had saved his life on many occasions.
When it became obvious that Crane was not going to respond to his effusive acclaim the adjutant had turned his escalated attention toward Wade. The two had discussed the proposed dam, the feasibility of its being built at the location the Maranvar government had chosen, the design, and even the type of concrete that would be used. What Ne-Win had carefully glossed over was any potential problems with the local inhabitants, although the captain had quietly raised concerns that were quickly echoed by Roger Snow. When Pete had brought up the question of laborers, the adjutant had merely glowered at him, and resumed his near-monologue on the wondrous achievements of his government.
But Ne-Win’s sycophancy had not been what had finally driven him out of the Suburban. It had been Wade. She was seated between Chip and himself; tight quarters under the best of circumstances, but the cushions of the ancient vehicle’s seats were warn and uncomfortable, causing all three of them to continually fidget for a less painful place to sit. At first when her thigh had pressed against his he had thought nothing of it, and had tried to compress himself into a smaller space to afford her more room. But then it had happened again, several times, and he became aware of her gaze on him, gauging his reaction each time. Finally, while Chip had been leaning forward, talking to the other two members of the project team, she had turned slightly in the seat, her deep blue eyes locked on his face as her hand moved slowly to rest on his thigh; intentionally, purposefully, and skillfully placed for the greatest impact. He had managed to stifle the gasp that nearly escaped his throat, his own gaze flicking from her to Chip, then pointedly, and with no little amount of difficulty he had shifted his position fractionally, but enough to allow him to cross his legs at the knee in an uncomfortable, but definitive rejection. She had merely smiled in a smug, satisfied way, like a cat who, although deprived of the mouse it was after, was pleased with the chase, nonetheless.
Lee had exited the Suburban at the next rest-stop, claiming stiffness from the inability to move, not really caring if she knew he was fleeing her company. He had elected to ride in the jeep that traveled the point position, enjoying the fresh air and the freedom the open vehicle provided him to examine the area through which they passed. Dusk found him still ensconced in the front passenger seat of the jeep, collar open, tie gone, his right foot braced against the gas can affixed behind the front fender, his right hand casually near the handle on the body side panel. He had unabashedly grabbed that handle on more than one occasion that afternoon as they traversed the crude roadway. These little jeeps were never known for their luxurious ride, but they were sturdy and reliable, though he found the presence of the soldier manning the big gun at his back slightly disquieting.
He had spent many of the hours of slow, steady and completely uneventful travel reviewing every word that had passed between himself and Wade since she first boarded Seaview. It seemed that Chip was totally oblivious to her inexplicable flirting, and that was completely out of character for the exec, and yet her cautious behavior in the car earlier convinced him that her overtures had been intentionally secretive. Once he might have tried to convince himself that her propositions were nothing of the sort, that they were his own imagination. She was certainly a beautiful woman, and one any man would be delighted to find attracted to him. Unless she was the lost love of your best friend. Surely Chip must have been aware of Wade’s not so subtle overtures during the day, he reasoned. He knew Ne-Win had taken notice, having caught the little sycophant’s knowing grin and wink more than once.
Was Chip, alert, always aware Chip, who normally had no difficulty in accepting but not falling prey to the allure of even the most beautiful women, actually succumbing to her charms? Lee was determined not to interfere with anything that might make his long-time friend happy, or worse, push him into a relationship he did not truly want with his own doubts and protests. He wanted that kind of happiness for Chip, the completion that say, Torpedoman Jenkins, or Engineering Mate Wallace, or any of the other men aboard Seaview had found in marriage. But another part of him did not find Wade’s forceful single-mindedness appealing, and he found he still did not trust her motives. He had repeatedly fought the urge to warn his friend away from her, but he knew he did not have that right. Chip was capable of handling his own affairs and he certainly wouldn’t appreciate anyone’s interference, even.... No, he corrected himself before the thought was finished; Chip would not tolerate even his best friend’s meddling, not with this woman.
The submarine officers were scheduled to remain at the camp only two nights before returning to the capital and their rendezvous with the Seaview. Lee felt the end of this assignment could not come too soon for him, his uneasiness around these agents of a less than friendly government making him tense and suspicious. All he really wanted to do was ensure that the American team was securely settled in, and safe.
Safe. Somehow he could not convince himself that any of them really safe here. There was too much ambiguity, too much falseness. There was more to it than simply his aversion to the virtual enslavement of these hill clans who had been free for as long as memory could tell, or even the alteration of the river’s flow that would deprive the down-river villages of irrigation. He had to admit those reservations at least to himself, he reasoned, even if he could not reveal it to anyone else. If he could only act on his own instincts he would have them all on the next train back to the capital. All of them. Perhaps Bauer’s project team felt comfortable with the arrangements their company had made, but Lee had been in too many countries where the governments had been oppressive and tyrannical and totally unreliable to trust this one. Bauer seemed to accept the contract in good faith, but he could not convince himself that the Junta’s selection of the American company was based solely on the lowest bid.
“How much further to the camp?” he asked the army driver at last.
“Not far, Captain,” the man replied in heavily accented English. At least he could speak some English, Lee thought. Thanks to the ONI and their technology he had a nodding acquaintance with a dozen languages, and could speak fluently in a few others, although as time past even those faded with disuse. But the dialect he had heard here was not something he was at all familiar with, and he felt at an unaccustomed disadvantage.
He looked up at the nearly vertical, deeply shadowed hillsides of the narrow valley ahead as they approached its mouth, the lushness of the growth on those hills, the size of the trees, and somehow he felt hemmed in here more than he ever did aboard Seaview a thousand feet below the surface. But within a year the track they followed would be underwater, a great concrete structure sealing the narrow end of the valley, and filled to nearly half that thousand feet in water from the diverted river.
He felt himself shiver at the thought although the air was hot and humid and unpleasantly heavy; the cloth of even his light-weight summer khakis clung to his body the way they never did in Seaview’s climate-controlled coolness. He could smell the odor of smoke on the blood-warm air now, and he shifted uneasily on the horsehair-filled seat cushion. It would be nearly dark by the time they reached the encampment, and he disliked the idea of proceeding through the heavily forested area in the dark. It made ambush entirely too convenient.
The driver of the jeep began to brake, the vehicle slowing gradually, but definitely. He said something quickly and, to Lee, unintelligibly, to the soldier manning the machine gun in the back of jeep, and the man turned to his duty with a speed that should have done his officers proud.
Crane peered into the evening gloom, frowning. “What is it?”
“There are frequently... bandits... in this sector. A moment, sir, while I confirm that we may proceed....”
The jeep came to a complete halt and the driver pulled a large walkie-talkie from behind his seat, speaking into it, his tone questioning. More of the same dialect sounded hollowly from the speaker.
“It is clear. We may continue.”
“Bandits, huh?” Lee kept his expression controlled, but he knew it was not bandits that concerned the driver. “Bet the folks around here are grateful for the army’s presence to protect them.”
He knew he was risking the man’s animosity, but he needed to find out what he could. If the military was so uneasy as to betray that apprehension to strangers, then it would seem that the guerillas were more active than the reports had indicated. The driver grunted and resumed his taciturn silence, and the jeep picked up speed somewhat. So far he had observed little that would be of any use to any of the organizations associated with this mission. The country was dirt poor, but that was no secret. In the city, there had been the expected third-world beggars, the hovels. Today Lee had noted the furtive looks, the downcast eyes, the clenched fists of the people along the road when the convoy had passed through small villages along their route and it had brought the Chand rebels strongly to his mind. He wondered if Chip had taken notice. Surely he had seen Morton’s jaw tighten a time or two before they left the capital yesterday, and there was a certain haunted expression in the exec’s blue eyes when their gazes had met since leaving the train, though they had not discussed it.
Lee stretched against the short seat back of the jeep, arching his spine. He was inordinately glad Chip was along, he realized abruptly, belying his protestations to Nelson, glad he had not been required to escort the trio alone. Granted, Chip had accompanied him on one or two other ONI missions, and he had done extraordinarily well for a man who did not have the covert training or even the desire to be an agent. Abruptly Lee found himself wondering about how Chip would deal with leaving Wade to her job here in the jungle in this unpredictable situation as he would be required to do. He had seemed to accept it last night, but it would still be hard for him. However, Chip was nothing if not a stickler for following protocol and obeying orders, and his obligations lay aboard Seaview. Lee knew he would try to make it as easy for him as possible. Chip was his friend, his best friend, and had been since their first days at the Academy. Nelson was his friend, too, but the relationship was different. Chip was a peer, a buddy. Nelson was a mentor, a guide. They were both equally vital in the scheme of his life, and he knew he would sacrifice himself willingly for either man, as he was confident they would do for him, if it came to that.
Now, where had that unpleasant thought come from? he wondered. He gave a quiet grunt, but one loud enough to draw the driver’s momentary attention. He grinned sheepishly, sure that the man believed he was reacting to the roughness of the track, and turned his attention ahead of them.
The road was hardly more than a path hacked out of the jungle. Ahead of them he could see cliffs of gray stone protruding from the dense undergrowth, the fading light setting the sheer surfaces aglow. He found himself thinking that this would truly be an ideal location for a dam if it only had a river. The river, its course altered at some time millennia ago, ran through the hills further to the north, but its path would be redirected once more, this time by the hand of man, to flow through this valley. Dams, even in the States, were always a subject of contention, but here the government was callously displacing thousands of people and turning self-sufficient farmers into beggars. Here, those same people were willing to die rather than surrender their land.
At last the jeep emerged from the heavily forested area into the manmade clearing that was their destination. There were about twenty wall-tents to the right of the road, and on the left a half-dozen rough wooden buildings had been built with their backs against the sheer cliff face. At the far end of the compound an enclosed area contained a bulldozer, a couple more jeeps, and several large trucks. The little jeep coasted to a halt, the Suburban coming to a halt some twenty feet behind. Without stopping, the trucks pulled out of line, passing the two halted vehicles quickly and rumbled toward the equipment compound, disgorging the uniformed soldiers as soon as they came to a stop.
Lee unfolded his long legs from the confines of the jeep, and rose, turning to wave a greeting at Chip as the tall exec climbed out of one side of the Suburban while Ne-Win nearly bolted from the other. The captain watched the adjutant as the smaller man hurried away from the vehicle, curious at his apparent anxiousness to meet with the camp commandant. At their last rest stop he had tiresomely informed them that as soon as they arrived he would arrange for the camp commander to meet with them, and it seemed he was following through on his vow.
Lee stood at the rear of the jeep, just looking around, and allowing his muscles time to adjust. A uniformed man had emerged from the nearest and largest wooden building, the camp commander, he guessed, and engaged Ne-Win in conversation. But instead of eagerly approaching them both men began a casual retreat toward the building the CO had vacated. Not good protocol, Crane thought absently, to leave important guests cooling their heels in the increasing darkness. The driver and the gunner of the jeep had ambled away, joining their counterparts near the equipment compound.
Morton had nodded his response to Lee’s wave and turned to offer his hand to Wade as she climbed stiffly from the big Suburban just a moment ahead of Roger Snow. She might claim total self sufficiency, Lee thought cynically, but she was more than willing to accept Chip’s gallant assistance. They took a few steps away from the vehicle before she reached out to stop him, saying something that Lee could not hear, but Morton’s expression could only be described as engrossed. Pete Barry was laughing good-naturedly as he exited from the other side and ambled toward the dark-haired submarine captain, leaving the other three behind. He had nearly reached the second jeep when he called out, raising his voice just enough for it to reach Lee.
“You gonna join us, Captain Crane? We’re gonna be meeting with your equivalent, Captain Soe in a few minutes.”
Lee started to nod, but something was clawing at his ONI-trained senses. They were alone, he realized abruptly, isolated in the center of the clearing near the vehicles, and he frowned as a strange sound reached his ears, a sound he had heard only a few times in his life. For a critical moment his disbelief held him motionless, then the breathy whistling sound grew ever louder as the mortar shell approached. He leaped forward, shouting a warning, but it was too late. The shell impacted between the jeep and the Suburban in a flash of smoke and dust. Pete Barry was gone.
Lee found himself on the ground, the exposed skin of his
face and hands peppered and bleeding from a half-dozen spots, and he was
screaming in denial, in angry rejection of the engineer’s death. There was the racketing sound of machine guns
and the thud of rifles, M‑1 Garands or even
There was gunfire all around him, and he had no idea whose hand fired the bullet that struck him, soldier or rebel, but it really didn’t matter. One moment he was running, the next he was stumbling, losing his balance and slamming into the ground near the smoking pit where Pete Barry had died. There was no pain, just the shock of the bullet hitting him, then the sensation of heat, a burning in his side that was a fiery brand. Without conscious thought he came back to his feet, still running. Another explosion sent him sprawling again the air knocked out of his lungs, and this time it was more difficult to rise. As he struggled to do so he heard another blast and Chip’s cry of alarm, and Wade’s abruptly cut off scream. He shook his head, trying to clear the ringing in his ears, then raised one arm to wipe across his eyes, but the dust in the air made it difficult to see. He staggered to his feet, and onward a few uneven steps, then threw himself flat as another mortar shell impacted nearby.
He reached the threesome at last. Roger was crumpled in a heap, lying quietly, but whimpering in pain or fear. Chip was crouched next to Wade, her head and torso clutched to his chest as she lay in ominous silence.
“Chip?” Lee forced himself to hands and knees, crawling closer so that all four of them huddled in the inadequate shelter of the Suburban.
“Lee.” Chip’s voice was a moan of misery, his attention only for the girl.
“Shrapnel?” Lee asked, observing the blood that poured from a wound at her hairline, already staining Chip's uniform shirt. Chip just nodded dazedly. “You okay, buddy? You’re not hurt?”
The glittering blue eyes met his abruptly, and Lee was startled by the anguish visible there. “I’m all right. She was right beside me. I told her she’d be fine....”
Crane looked up at his friend from his position sprawled out on the ground. At any other time Chip’s first concern would be for his captain, his friend as well as his C.O. That he didn’t even ask was a clear indication that Morton was in shock, himself, probably concussed from the mortar, but at least he wasn’t bleeding.
Confident that Morton needed only a few moments to recover Lee inched closer, leaning forward to examine the gash in Wade’s scalp. It was deep, and like most head wounds, bloody, but the piece of flying metal had not penetrated the skull. He sank back on his heels, drawing his arm up across his middle protectively.
“Head wounds bleed. You know that,” he said quickly, glancing around them. “We’ve got to get out of the open.”
The soldiers seemed to have taken up defensive positions wherever they could, their sporadic fire directed toward the northern hillside. Lee looked over his shoulder at the jungle behind them.
“That way,” he decided, and started to push himself to his feet, but a wave of weakness nearly brought him down. He huddled once more on hands and knees, his head hanging.
“Lee, you’re hurt. I didn’t realize.” Chip’s tone of revived concern penetrated the fog that abruptly threatened to overwhelm him.
“We’ve got to get out of the open, and we’re too far from the cabins,” he repeated urgently, ignoring Morton’s solicitousness. He looked up at his exec. “Chip, I’m sorry.... You’ll have to take Roger... I... I don’t think I can manage him.”
“What about Rusty?”
“I’ll carry her.”
“God, no,” Chip groaned.
Another man might have argued, his desire to be the one to carry the woman he loved overwhelming his reason, but Lee knew that Chip Morton was nothing if not a reasonable man. They both ducked their heads as another mortar shell screamed by them, then Morton was clambering to his feet, holding Wade carefully in his arms.
“Get to your feet, Lee, and I’ll hand her to you.” Crane nodded, and struggled to stand in the meager shelter of the Suburban, reaching out to steady himself for a brief moment, abruptly grateful for the darkness that had fallen.
“We’ve got to get away from here fast. We’re the target....” he muttered faintly, urging his friend to haste.
Lee inhaled slowly, bracing himself as Chip eased Wade’s limp form across his shoulders. He settled her dead weight more comfortably, grabbed her wrists in his left hand, and started toward the tree line, his steps unsteady, but gaining determination if not strength with each stride. Morton caught up with him after a moment, carrying Roger Snow much as he bore Dr. Maxwell.
“You remember the map?” Crane puffed as they entered the edge of the trees.
“Yeah.” Chip’s face was flushed from the effort of carrying the heavier man, but he trotted sturdily at the captain’s side.
“About five miles in the direction we’re headed.”
“Good.” He ran for several moments without speaking, could not speak, in fact. “What’re Roger’s injuries?” he got out at last.
“He’s got a bad gash on his inner thigh, and a puncture wound in his upper arm, and he’s losing blood fast. He’s unconscious. Shock, I think.”
“Same for Wade. Good thing for me. I don’t know if I could carry her far if she wasn’t limp.”
“Lee...? How bad are you hurt? More shrapnel?”
“Bullet, I think. I’ll be fine.” Morton snorted derisively. “I can make it, Chip. It’s what I do, remember?” he said, sharply defensive, then shook his head. “Sorry.”
“This isn’t the first time you’ve had to carry out a wounded comrade, is it?”
“Unfortunately... no.” The sound of battle was well behind them now, but Lee’s concerns were not eased, and apparently shared by Morton.
“Lee, it’s going to be pitch black soon. How far do you think we can go?”
“As far as we can....” Crane choked into silence again, the act of speaking nearly too much at the moment. “In case... we’re separated... we’ll meet at the cascades that were on the map... a few miles west... downstream. Stay away from the river till then... till we can figure out what’s going on.”
“We won’t get separated!”
Lee stumbled, and the building weakness made his tone sharper than he intended. “Chip, which one of us has more experience at this sort of thing?” He gulped back an apology. He had to make sure his friend understood what was at stake here; what was really at stake.
“Yeah, I know all about your expertise, Captain,” Chip replied bitterly, and Lee spared him a swift glance, wondering how much of the other man’s attitude was from stress and worry over the woman he cared about, and how much might actually be long-held resentment. “You give the orders. I’ll obey....” He fell silent, but the words he didn’t speak —as always— hung in the air between them.
“We’ll get out of this, Chip,” Crane began, trying to offer reassurance even though it was hollow, and Morton seemed to hear it.
“Don’t patronize me, Lee. I can be as good at this as you are, don’t forget. I don’t go on your blasted ONI missions out of choice, not out of inability!”
It wasn’t entirely true, and both men knew it. The training they had received at the Academy had made them strong and skillful, but it was the specialized training the ONI had provided Crane, combined with his own innate abilities that frequently got Lee out of killing situations that other men would have never survived.
“Then shut up and keep moving. I don’t have the strength to run and argue with you at the same time. Later.... We’ll straighten it out later.”
Lee pushed past him, hoping they would have that later time to clear the air between them, and summoned energy from the wellspring of stamina he was forced to tap so often on those too-frequent ONI missions. He fell into the steady, ground-eating trot that, uninjured, he could maintain for hours, but now, his strength dwindled with the blood that seeped from the untended wound and saturated his clothing, beginning to trail across his hip, and down his right leg. He freed one hand and reached into his khaki trousers pocket, withdrawing his handkerchief and shoving it inside his shirt against the wound. It was inadequate, but it would just have to do for now.
They hurried on, putting distance between themselves and the camp. The light was completely gone, the sound of gunfire nearly silent behind them. There had been no mortar fire since they entered the trees. The attackers would soon confirm that those they sought were not among the dead, or at least most of them were not. Pete Barry was still there.
His distraction was costly. He tripped over the edge of an exposed stone outcropping, and staggered, groaning helplessly as he righted himself.
He knew Chip was unaware of the severity of his wound, or he would have protested their flight, but Lee felt the need for their escape attempt, for attempt was all it was, as urgently as his next breath.
“I can go on for a while longer, then we’ll have to stop and rest. You doin’ okay?”
“Yeah, if you like carrying two hundred pounds of dead weight.” Morton chuckled softly, but without humor. “How’s Rusty?”
Lee bit back another sharp response. Any other time Chip would have been all over him about his own injuries, but not now, not with Wade hurt, and for some reason he found it unpleasant to be ignored. True, Chip’s solicitousness was frequently annoying when he was injured, but the care and concern behind that behavior had always been sincere, and greatly appreciated despite his protestations. Perversely, he missed it.
“She’s still unconscious, but her breathing’s good.”
“She’s been out a long time.”
“She took a good clout to the head.”
“And you? You making it okay?”
So, he was concerned after all, Lee thought dazedly.
“I’m about done in,” he admitted reluctantly. “How about Roger?”
“Starting to come around. He’s lost a lot of blood though.”
“I hear you,” Lee grumbled. “Damn,” he gasped as he stumbled again. “We’d better take a break. We’ve got maybe an hour on them....”
Lee raised his head, peering around in the dimness.
“Here....” he got out, fighting to keep his voice strong. “We’d better stop here.” He staggered to a halt, his breathing quick and ragged. “Can you put Roger down, then help me with Wade? I don’t want to jar her anymore than is necessary,” he said, but it was as much for his own lack of strength that he asked.
“Give me a second,” Chip returned. He was breathless too, Crane noted.
“Are you all right?” he queried. “Mortars pack a mean wallop.” He should check his friend for concussion, he told himself. It was almost a given that the blast would have caused some injury, however slight. But he knew he could do no more to help his friend than he could do for himself or the others.
“To quote a friend, I’m fine. Had my bell rung a bit, but I don’t think I’m hurt.”
Lee nodded wearily and closed his eyes, not that vision offered a whole lot at the moment here beneath the tall trees. He heard Roger grunt as Morton eased him to the ground, then there was a muted conversation between the two men, words that he could not distinguish one from another for the roaring in his ears. The folded handkerchief he had shoved inside his shirt against the wound was blood-soaked, clinging damply to his skin, but it had slowed the bleeding even if it hadn’t stopped it. Somehow he had to conceal the gravity of his wound. Chip had enough to deal with at the moment without worrying about him. He should be a long way from being finished, but the next few hours were not going to be pleasant, he knew without a doubt.
He flinched in alarm as Morton touched his arm. “Lee, let her go. I’ll take her now,” his friend said gently.
He released his grip on Wade’s wrists slowly, allowing the exec to ease her away from him, and the removal of her weight was as stunning as a blow. He staggered, nearly falling, but managed to catch himself.
“How bad are you hurt, Lee?” Morton asked conversationally.
The exec had long ago discovered the futility of confrontation when it came to the Seaview’s captain, and as he placed Wade gently on the ground and arranged her limbs more comfortably he glanced up at him surreptitiously. Lee had not sunk to the ground as he expected. Instead, he leaned his back against the trunk of a tree, bending one leg to brace himself against it. The moon was barely risen, it’s its first quarter light feeble, but there was enough ambient light that he could see the dark splotch on the tan of Lee’s uniform shirt that could only be blood. He knew his friend’s propensity to push himself beyond the limits of normal endurance, but in this case he didn’t know what he could do to prevent him. Of the four, Chip was the only one who was virtually unhurt, and yet it was Lee’s training and experience that would likely get them out of this predicament he knew well.
“Lee?” he asked again. He had shifted part of his attention back to Wade, but he heard the captain’s deep ragged sigh.
“How is she?” Crane asked, once more avoiding answering Chip’s question.
“She’s waking up. I can tell you more in a few minutes. Till then, you need to tell me how you are. I can see the blood. How bad are you hit?”
“I’ve had worse.”
Chip snorted derisively. “You know, sometimes your stoicism gets really tiresome.”
“It wouldn’t help for me to moan and groan and wallow in self pity.”
“Yeah, maybe... but I’d still like to know if... if you’re gonna leave me alone out here. For once, be honest with me about how bad you’re hurt.” A movement from Crane drew his attention once more. The captain had at last slipped down the tree trunk to the ground, and now sat hunched over, his knees bent, and his head braced against his forearms. “Lee?” he said sharply, and started toward him.
“Stay with Wade. I’m just... tired.”
“Dammit, Lee!” Chip swore vehemently.
Crane raised his head, and even in the darkness Chip could see a familiar glitter of determination in his friend’s eyes. It was one of the unique things about Lee Crane. He had seen it first at the Academy. Lee never quit. No matter what the odds were against him he continued to wage the good fight, whether it was in the classroom, or the boxing ring, or in the Control Room of the Seaview. It was a trait that made him the officer he was. It was also a trait that drove his friend mad.
“It’s not good, Chip,” Lee said softly, reluctantly. “It’s not a through and through, so I’ve only got the entry wound bleeding out, but... the bullet’s still in me.”
“I’m surprised you’ve made it this far,” Chip began, then shook his head. “No, I guess I’m not. It’s a cinch neither you nor Roger will make it much further this way, and I doubt we’re going to find many friendlies around here close enough to help.”
Crane returned his head to his forearms. “We’re in a bad spot, all right,” he conceded. "I had hoped to last a little longer."
There was a note of such crushing weariness in his voice that Chip felt his own heart twisting in sympathy. But compassion would not see them safely out of this fix, he reminded himself.
At that moment Wade began to whimper, and he lifted her in his arms, holding her tenderly against a violent waking. Head injuries were unpredictable things, and the victim was frequently combative when consciousness returned. He examined the wound at her hairline as he held her. It was no longer bleeding, and if she was regaining consciousness spontaneously that was a good sign. “Easy, darlin’,” he crooned softly. “We’re safe here.”
Her eyes flickered open, gazing up at him with instant awareness. “My head hurts,” she said, sounding very young and childlike, almost like the seven year old girl he'd first fallen in love with.
“I would think so. You took a bad knock and you’ve been unconscious for a long time.”
“But... I’m all right?”
“You should be just fine,” he assured her, though he had seen too many head injuries, mainly suffered by his friend, the captain of Seaview, to be overconfident.
“You remember us talking about the Chand guerillas?”
“The ones who... don’t want the dam to be built,” she replied, her voice growing stronger.
“Yeah. It seems they really don’t want it built. They attacked the base camp.”
“Impossible! They’re supposed to be totally under control!”
“According to whom?” Lee grumbled. “The driver of the jeep was pretty concerned about an ambush. Looks like he was right to be....”
“But why?” Her voice was rising in pitch, becoming shrill.
“As you said, they don’t want the government to build the dam here. But there may be more to it than that....” Unlike hers, Lee’s voice drifted away into silence. Chip fought the need to go to him as Wade’s arms went round his neck, seeking his reassurance.
“What is he saying, Chip? We were assured that everything was under control. They said we’d be welcomed!”
“Probably not speaking for the local folks,” Morton replied. “Our Intel says they’re likely to do just about anything to stop the building of this dam.”
“They were after US!” she gasped. “They want to kill us!” She began to struggle weakly within the circle of Chip’s arms. “Pete! Rog! Where are they?”
“Roger’s here, hurt. Pete... is dead,” he told her gently.
Wade pressed her face into Morton’s chest, her body shuddering with revulsion.
“It was quick,” Lee put in faintly. “He didn’t suffer.”
The young woman turned her head, seeking the captain warily, then she looked up at Chip, frowning. “He sounds strange.”
“He’s got a bullet in him.” He glanced over his shoulder. “He carried you....”
She seemed to disregard that revelation. “What about Roger? You said he was here.”
“He’s starting to wake up.” The muted groans from the geologist confirmed at least part of his conjecture. “He’s got a bleeder on his inner thigh that I need to get bound up before we take another step, and another wound on his arm.”
“What about Captain Crane?” she whispered. “How badly is he hurt?”
“I don’t know. It may be bad....”
“But he carried me?”
“Several miles. He’s done it before....” he began, then silenced himself hearing a note of unwelcome bitterness in his own voice. Did he really resent Lee’s expertise that drew him into ONI missions so very much? No, he reasoned. It was what so frequently happened to his friend on those missions that he resented. He shook his head grimly. And it was happening again.
“Are you all right, Chip?” she asked then, and he nodded, though he was mindful of the blood that stained his uniform.
“Not a scratch. It’s Roger’s blood.” He eased her away from him. “We don’t have much time before we have to get going again. I need to see what I can do for Roger and Lee.”
“I’m frightened, Chip,” she told him, her voice trembling. She clung to his arm like a terrified child.
“That’s natural,” he replied gently, tracing the line of her jaw with one finger. “You just lie still, and rest. We’ll have to be moving on in a few minutes.” He patted her hand comfortingly before he freed himself and moved stiffly to Roger Snow’s side.
The ordnance specialist was awake too, he saw at once, but he was not in good shape. The entire left pant leg of his trousers was saturated with blood, as was the sleeve and side of his shirt, and the thin moonlight revealed the paleness of his face, the fear in the wide-set brown eyes.
“Hey, man,” he greeted casually. “You’re a mess.”
“I... I saw Pete....”
“He’s gone, Rog,” he confirmed softly. “But we’re gonna get out of this fix. Don’t you worry....”
“Rusty’’s right here, and fine. Lee’s hurt, too, but let’s take a look at your leg now.” Snow nodded weakly, then fought to silence the whimper of pain that rose when Chip seized the edges of the torn fabric of his trousers and ripped.
The wound was still freely bleeding, or bleeding again, Morton couldn’t tell. It seemed that whatever had hit him had torn through the flesh of his inner thigh, possibly damaging an artery, explaining the profusion of blood.
“I don’t suppose anybody has a first aid kit tucked away anywhere, do they?” he asked, pitching his voice as lightly as he could.
“Chip... here,” Lee called faintly, and Chip turned, more than half expecting his resourceful friend to have done just that, but Lee was digging into his pants pocket, then he tossed him the small pocket knife the exec belatedly remembered that the captain always carried. “Cut off his pants leg... use it to make a bandage...”
“He needs more than a bandage, Lee.”
“Yeah, me too,” Crane answered surprisingly. “He needs stitches, but this’s the best we can do right now. Bind it tight so he doesn’t bleed to death before you get back.”
For a moment Chip worked at doing what the captain had suggested, then he paused, staring back over his shoulder at his friend.
“What do you mean, when I get back?”
“You’ve got to get Wade out of here. To someplace safe. I don’t know where that is, and frankly, I just don’t have it in me right now to go traipsing around this jungle trying to find it.”
“This is not the time for false bravado, Captain,” the girl said then, her tone slightly disdainful.
Chip's voice was soft, little more than a whisper, but as firm as stone. “There’s nothing false about him, Wade, and it sure as hell isn’t bravado.” He hesitated only a moment before he spoke louder. “You sure, Lee? You’re that bad off?”
“Pretty bad. I haven’t lost as much blood as Roger has, but enough to make me a liability.... With that head injury Wade shouldn’t be allowed to walk for a while, much less run. I... I can’t carry her any further... and...” his voice died away, and Chip knew how much it cost his friend to admit to his weakness. “You’re a strong man, Chip, but I doubt even you’d make it much farther carrying Roger. I.... I think the only thing we can do is for Roger and me to hunker down here... and hope the guerillas don’t find us.”
“Lee, this doesn’t sound like you.”
“More like me than you know, Chip.” He sighed heavily. “It’s what has to happen... and I think Roger will agree with me.... Roger?”
The other man was quiet for a long while before he answered, his voice thin and weak. “Can’t say I was looking forward to continuing the mode of transportation we took from the camp. We can hide out from them, I’m sure.”
“What if they have tracking dogs,” Wade put in, her voice once more rising shrilly. “They’ll find us with no problem!”
“They’re guerillas, not the army,” Chip countered sharply, then regained the control he was known for before he spoke again. “Not that the army seemed to have any hounds, either. The guerillas may be expert trackers, though. Lee?”
“They won’t have to track anyone if you don’t get yourselves gone. Finish up with Roger, and head out.”
“What about your wound?”
“Chip!” Lee howled, his hand rising to his head in frustration. “I’ll take care of it myself. You know I’ve done it before! Please,” his voice became a plea rather than an order, “just get out of here before they catch up with us! If I thought there was any way I could keep up, I’d be with you in a heartbeat. Surely you know that!”
Morton shifted his gaze from the captain to the young woman, understanding more than he would reveal to Crane.
“All right, Lee. But, I’ll come back for you! Surely you know that!”
“I’m countin’ on it.” Lee stretched his long legs out in front of him, seeming, for all appearances, to be settling in for the duration. “As much as I hate the idea, I guess you’d be best off heading for the army post in that last little town we past through. I wouldn’t go back to the work camp.”
Chip was working swiftly at cutting the chino material of Roger’s pants leg into strips then bound them securely around the ugly wound. He saved one strip for the laceration on his arm, then rose, going to kneel down next to his captain and friend. He pressed the pocketknife back into Crane’s hand, maintaining his grip as he stared down at him.
“I’m trusting you to come through this alive, you know.”
Lee grinned. “I have every intention of doing exactly that, my friend.”
Chip leaned a little closer, lowering his voice. “I know what you’re doing, Lee, and I know why.”
“Just trying to stay alive, Mr. Morton. Seems to come down to that every time I go on one of these blasted missions.”
“Then maybe next time you should just say no.”
“You could have said no this time.”
“Is that why you came?” Chip gasped, horrified. “Because I was coming?”
“Don’t take that on, Chip. I would have come with... or without you. The Admiral okayed the mission, remember?” In spite of his best intentions, a wave of pain washed over Lee that he could not conceal from his friend. He grimaced, his fingers clutching at his shirtfront. “Get Wade someplace safe. Keep yourself alive....”
“Lee....” he begged.
“Come on, buddy. I always come back, remember? Just like that proverbial bad penny.”
Chip swallowed deeply. “You’d better. That’s all I can say.”
Morton lunged to his feet without another word, and whirled back toward Wade. He scooped her up in his arms and, with a swift glance at the stars through the trees, he set off at a steady pace through the jungle.
Lee watched after them as long as he could convince himself that he could still catch sight of some movement, some glimpse of Morton’s khaki uniform in the darkness, then he sighed wearily and dragged his agony-ridden body across the intervening few feet and settled beside Roger Snow. He could not prevent himself from double checking the explosive expert’s bandages, even knowing that Chip would have done a superior job on this as he did on everything he undertook. When he finished, and slumped back against the fallen log next to which Roger lay, he realized that the man’s eyes were open and staring at him with more awareness than he had expected.
“You should have gone on with them,” Roger stated flatly.
“I’d have given out entirely inside a mile, m’friend.”
“I can’t see you just giving up like this. Not from what I’ve heard about you.” Lee managed a thin smile in response, and Roger inhaled sharply as realization dawned. “You’re not, are you. You figured we were slowing them down.”
The captain lowered his head, his eyes closing in abject exhaustion.
“We were,” he confirmed. “They stand a better chance just the two of them. Chip’ll send help back.... We’ll get out of this... if we can steer clear of the guys trying to kill us.”
“And what are our chances there?”
“Fair to middlin’,” Lee quipped with a grin. “We’ll just find us a hole and go to ground. I doubt they’ll be taking the time to turn over every rock and log.”
“You doubt...? You’re risking your own life to stay with me, and you doubt they’ll take the time to search for us? My God, man!”
Crane leaned toward him, his own voice hardly more than a whisper. “Even if I was alone, Rog, I’d be about done.... Maybe especially if I was alone.” Lee hesitated, his eyes closing briefly against the pain that clawed at him. “I’ve pushed on longer than I figured I could. I’ve got a bullet in my gut, and at the rate I’m weakening, I figure I’m bleeding internally.”
“Are you tellin’ me that if you’d been alone you would have given up sooner? That you’ve been pushing yourself to the edge just because of us?”
Lee closed his eyes again and leaned his head back against the log. There was cynicism in the other man’s voice, disbelief and bitterness, and he couldn’t blame him.
“Nothing so noble as that, Roger.”
“Wade called it bravado. I think maybe she was right.”
The captain shook his head wearily. “It’s just easier... to do what you have to do when there are people depending on you. I learned that a long time ago... at the Academy, maybe....” He sighed, his body shuddering as he did so. “A lot of people think some of the things I’ve done... are... heroic.” His eyes were still closed and he could not see Roger’s subtle nod. “It’s not like that. It’s not heroism to do what you have to do... when there's nothing else left that you can do.”
Snow was quiet for a moment, studying the pain showing in the other man’s face.
“When Mr. Bauer told us he had arranged for you to join us, he also told us about some of the things you’ve done, Crane. Sounded pretty outstanding to me.”
Lee rocked his head back and forth. “I just manage to hang on a little longer than most. The Admiral says I’m stubborn.... Maybe that’s all it is.”
“Well,” Roger began thoughtfully, then hesitated, but after a moment he began to smile widely. “If stubbornness will keep us alive, then I guess we’ve got a lot going for the both of us.”
Lee allowed a slow smile to ease the harshness of his pain-twisted features, then he sobered abruptly, raising his head and staring at Snow.
“What do you mean, he arranged for us?”
“Just you, Captain. Wade had been lobbying for her old boyfriend to ride shotgun on this trip when State informed us that we could not go alone, and Bauer found out where Wade’s Chip Morton was assigned.... He wanted the prestige of the Seaview, and... well, I think the old autocrat really was concerned about our safety. He contacted the State Department. After some negotiations I guess they worked it out to the way things happened.”
Crane stared at him, his brown eyes glowing darkly in the light of the quarter moon. “Why?” he asked simply. “That looks like he suspected things weren’t what they seemed from the first, but he still touted this as a simple escort mission.”
Snow chuckled humorlessly. “You’ve never been on assignment with Wade Maxwell!”
Lee allowed himself to relax a bit, appreciating the other man’s effort at pointed humor. “She does seem to be a force to be reckoned with.”
“She’s talked about your Mr. Morton for as long as I’ve known her. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised at how she’s responded to him.”
“But you are? Why?” Lee asked.
“Oh, I don’t know. Guess I’d always thought there was no love lost there. He did dump her for the Navy, you know.”
“I know.” He fell silent for a moment, wondering if he should pursue the subject. “Do you think her interest in him is... sincere?”
Roger Snow grinned. “She’s a woman. Who can tell?” They were both silent for some time, each enduring their pain in their own way. “One thing I’ll say, Captain Crane... I don’t think she’ll ever give up what she does to be any man’s wife.”
Lee nodded grimly. “Any more than we’d give up the sea to stay ashore full time. You married, Roger?”
“Nah. In that, I guess I agree. Haven’t met anyone who was willing to wait at home while I was off building dams in the hinterlands.”
“Some of the married men on Seaview have come to me about the tough time their wives have at home when they’re not there... dealing with the day to day emergencies like sick kids, broken cars, or leaking water heaters. Even with the way all the Institute wives support each other it’s hard to subject the woman you love to that... aloneness.”
“The empty bed syndrome,” Snow agreed. He stared at Crane openly, aware that the captain had once more closed his eyes. He was a man of many facets, he realized, strong and determined, a real leader, but also a man with a depth of heart that surprised him.
“You really do watch out for everyone, don’t you, Captain. I definitely got that impression aboard your submarine, but now I’ve seen it for myself.”
“Actually, Chip does a better job of it than I do. And, he watches out for me in the bargain.”
“Not this time, Captain. And he knows it.”
“He’ll be back, Rog. That I can guarantee,” he said softly. “Let’s get a few more minutes’ rest, then I want us to move away from this spot. If they do find us, I don’t want them to stumble across Chip’s trail in the bargain.”
“And vice versa.”
“And, vice versa,” Lee agreed. “I’m not giving up on us, Roger. But this jungle is the guerillas’ backyard.”
“If there’s any way possible I think you’ll get us out of this,” Snow commented softly.
Lee grinned, but inside he was afraid.
He gave them only fifteen minutes' rest before he forced himself to his feet. The gunshot wound wasn't bleeding anymore, but he couldn't guess if that was a good thing or not. The handkerchief was effectively covering the wound and he knew better than to try and remove it, but it was sticky and uncomfortable, nonetheless, adding to his already considerable discomfort.
Roger had pushed himself into a sitting position, and he tried to help as Lee ducked down to draw the heavier man across his shoulders, but the effort was still almost more than either of them could accomplish. Lee staggered beneath his weight, righting himself with some difficulty, stumbling against a tree, catching his sleeve on one of the low branches. After a moment he moved away from the tiny clearing, angling away from the distant river back toward the direction of the road, a full forty-five degrees off the line Morton had taken earlier.
"Relax as much as you can, Roger," he requested.
"You can't carry me very far like this, Captain. I outweigh you by fifty pounds, at least."
"Getting you in place was the hardest part. But... I'm not expecting to go too far. I'd like to, but I just don't have the strength. Sorry."
"Don't apologize. I don't know what they thought one or two men, military experts or not, could do to keep us safe in this hornets' nest."
"Is that what they told you? That we'd keep you safe?"
"Something like that. Yeah."
"You should never have come here, Roger. Bauer must have known it, the State Department should have known it, and the ONI knew it. The guerillas aren't going to allow that dam to be built without a serious fight... and I think the junta has something else in mind entirely...."
"But Bauer said he had received assurances...."
"Assurances? From the junta. Or from the guerillas?"
Snow shuddered. "I don’t know. Wade's been talking all along as though there was absolutely no need for any of us to be concerned. That we’d be totally safe whether we had security with us or not.”
Lee frowned at what Roger was revealing. The engineer’s voice was unbelievably weak,
and had his head not been right at Crane’s shoulder, he doubted that he would
have been able to hear his words at all.
The man was bleeding to death, even more surely than Lee was, himself,
and there was nothing he could do to prevent it. But, in spite of his concern for Snow’s
condition, he was troubled by what he saw as Bauer & Boen’s unconscionable
overconfidence. Bauer had sent his
people to this place of cruelty and viciousness and violent hatreds with little
or no concern for their safety, and they had come as naïvely as babes. But Wade....
Somehow he was not convinced of her lack of culpability. There had been something about her behavior
since the moment they sailed from
He stumbled in the darkness. He could hear pursuers behind them now, the occasional voice, a cough, even what could only be a curse, though he could not understand the words. He was relatively confident they were not junta soldiers. Surely they would be calling out, actively seeking them, instead of the almost stealthy passage of those who followed. He glanced back. He could see the flickering glare of torches behind him. It must be the guerillas who had struck their trail, and, as he had expected, even hoped, they were following his blundering path, not Chip.
Well, he would make it as difficult for them as he could, he resolved. As long as he could continue to put one foot in front of the other, he would try to evade them. He had no desire, whatsoever, to fall into the guerillas’ hands.
Chip Morton’s steady jog had slowed to a walk. He was tired; bone tired, and worried. He should never have left Lee and Roger behind. He knew his friend all too well to expect him to sit quietly and hide from the pursuers. No, Lee would do everything in his power to protect the man in his charge, and, he would do it even if it cost him his own life. That was Lee Crane. Chip knew it, and he knew it was why every man aboard Seaview owed him his life many times over. And it was just one of the many reasons he loved his Skipper like a brother. He was family; all the crew on Seaview were family. Not for the first time Chip had to fight against the nearly overpowering fear that he had seen his friend... alive... for the last time. But, he always came back, didn’t he? Hadn’t he said it himself? He had always done, so far, but that didn’t mean his luck would hold forever, Chip reminded himself logically. The ONI considered him one of their most capable agents, but did that mean they believed he was invincible? Not hardly. The only organization that did not consider Lee Crane expendable was the Nelson Institute, and to them, he was literally indispensable.
Morton had to drag his swirling thoughts back to the beautiful woman he carried in his arms. Now what kind of a Sailor was he, anyway? he thought wearily as she spoke again.
“You’re a million miles away.”
“Not so far as that.”
“You were thinking about... him; Captain Crane.”
He sighed, as much from exasperation as exhaustion. He was growing exceedingly tired of her not so subtle jibes at Lee, her bitter tone whenever she spoke of him.
“I’d think you might spare him a thought or two as well, Wade, him and Roger both. You know their chances of surviving aren’t that good.”
“But you still left them behind,” she said loftily. “You must have thought Crane would be able to take care of himself.”
“Lee can handle most anything, but now... he’s got Roger to look out for, and with that bullet in him....” He came to a stop, placing her on her feet before him, though he held onto her shoulders to steady her after the sudden motion. “Don’t you understand... what he did for you? At what cost?”
She frowned, her eyes dark in the faint light from the moon now standing directly overhead. “It’s his job.... Mr. Bauer paid the Nelson Institute a high price for him to keep us safe.”
“Keep you...!” Chip choked out. “My God, Wade!”
“That’s the second time you’ve called me Wade instead of Rusty. Are you angry with me for some reason?”
Chip could feel a very intense anger rising inside of him at this woman he had thought he could have real, lasting feelings for. She was acting as if Lee was little more than a hired mercenary, a nameless, faceless bodyguard sent by the State Department to guard her precious self. How could she be so blind to the worth of a man like Crane?
“Have you always been this way?”
“What way is that, Chip?” she asked innocently.
He shook his head, unwilling to voice the doubts that had risen to plague him. “Aren’t you afraid, Rusty? Anyone else in this situation would be. God knows, I’m scared to death.”
“Won’t you take care of me?” she asked sharply.
“The way Lee has done? He’s sacrificing himself for us, you know.”
He stared down at her, wishing he could put off her behavior to the effects of her head injury, but somehow knowing he couldn’t.
“He could have come with us,” she replied, her tone cool and composed.
“With a bullet in his belly he’s lucky to have made it as far as he did.”
“He hasn’t really lived up to his reputation, has he?”
Chip staggered backwards. “I can’t believe you said that! He’s killing himself to preserve your petty, self-serving life!” He blinked away the fog of disbelief. “And you’ll expect me to do exactly the same thing if it comes down to it, won’t you.”
“That’s why you’re here too, isn’t it? It was your choice to join the Navy, don’t forget. That's what put you in the position you're in, not me!”
He stood in abject silence, his horror conflicting with his incredulity, his sorrow. “I think I understand now. I... I knew I had hurt you, but I didn’t realize it was so badly that it made you hate me like this. I’m sorry.”
“Oh, don’t give yourself so much importance!” she snapped back. “Just get me out of here and then you can go back for your precious Lee Crane. Just like you did when you were nineteen years old!”
“What!?” Chip felt as though he had been doused with a bucket of ice water. "You've thought... all along that I went back to the Academy because of him?"
"He was all you could talk about the whole time you were home that summer, Chip. Have you forgotten? You kept telling me how great he was, how smart, how lucky you were to have him for a friend!"
"I was lucky! I still am! Maybe luckier than I ever realized."
"He told me... on the Seaview, about how close submariners become. It didn't surprise me at all about him.... He hardly batted an eye when I came on to him, but you, Chip! You were never that way before!"
“You... came on to Lee? You really did that?”
“And all he did was run away! That says it all, if you ask me!”
Morton’s entire body seemed to contract, to sag. “It says that I was totally wrong… about you… about him. I thought he was jealous....”
“Well, isn’t he? I thought I could come between the two of you... win you back to me, but--."
Without warning Chip reached out and gripped her upper arms once more, but this time it was not to steady her. She yelped as his fingers dug into her flesh. She looked up into his face, whitened by the pale moon, meeting his strangely luminous blue eyes evenly.
“When did you become such a vicious little bitch?”
“I’m just what you made me, Chip Morton!” she cried, but the expression in his eyes was chilling, and she shivered.
“You... set out... to drive... a wedge between... Lee and me?” he said with measured firmness. “Because your feelings were hurt? You’ve harbored that kind of grudge for all these years?!”
“You humiliated me! Everyone at home knew that you’d rejected me! And why! It was him you brought home at Christmas time! Him your family took with them on vacation. Him you wanted to spend your life with! You chose him over me!”
Chip released her abruptly and stepped back, his handsome features dark with a fury that few people ever saw.
“I chose the Navy, you little fool! Lee is my friend. He was my friend through a lot of stupid stuff that only young men away at school would understand. He challenged me and pushed me through the Academy, made me work hard enough to be one of the top two in our graduating class. That was his doing... because he cared about my success as much as his own... then as well as now! As a friend! Nothing more and nothing less! How could you delude yourself into believing….” He could not even say the words, so foreign were they to his own nature and to the truth of the man who was his captain and his friend.
“You don’t have to lie to me, Chip. I’ve seen the letters you wrote to Marisa from the Academy....”
"You... what?" he gasped. “How?”
“Well how do you think? Your family expected us to be married!”
He was shocked, and his surprise showed on his face that anyone in his family would reveal those personal missives. He shook his head in total disbelief, somehow convinced that she must have stolen the letters, but she misunderstood, yet again.
“When I saw how you were always praising him to the skies it became obvious to me, and it still is. You were, and are more than just... friends!"
He raised one hand to his head, combing trembling fingers through his short blond hair. He shuddered, horrified, furious, anguished.
"Not in the way you think, Dr. Maxwell. Never in the way you think."
He stepped around her, but gripped her wrist as he past, drawing her with him as he started walking once more. He was obligated to get her to safety, but he was damned if he would kill himself carrying her when there was no need.
He shivered again, fighting to keep his voice calm as he replied. "I can't explain it to you, and I doubt you'd ever understand. Obviously there's never been anyone in your life whose mere existence made your own seem more valuable, more vital. Someone you'd be more than willing to die to protect, and that you know beyond a doubt that he’d do the same for you!"
She tried to wrench her arm out of his grip, but he held fast, his stride lengthening with his anger.
"That's just rhetoric."
"Not when it comes to Lee Crane. I've seen him do it a hundred times... put his life on the line for someone else. Just like he's doing now... for you... and for me." He cleared his throat of the roughness that had developed there. "You say it's his job, and unfortunately I think he’d agree with you, but it's more than just that. He... uhm...” He shook his head, finding it difficult to continue.
“Maybe he just has a death wish.”
Morton threw her hand down and whirled on her, and for an instant, from his dark expression, Wade thought he was angry enough to strike her, but he remained rigidly aloof as if by force of will alone.
“I just pray that... somehow... we all come out of this... and somehow... you’ll realize just how absolutely wrong you’ve been.” He took a single step backward. “You know, I... I could have loved you again, Wade. I did once... and I was falling for the woman I thought you had become... but she wasn’t real. Not any more real than the Chip Morton you convinced yourself that I was.”
“You... love me?” she choked out.
“I might have....” He turned away slowly. “I guess this makes twice I’ve rejected you, doesn’t it. That has to be a record for both of us.”
“Chip... if I.... If I was wrong....” she stammered. She followed after him as he moved away.
“More wrong than you can begin to imagine. But believe me....” He broke off as the sound of weapons fire echoed through the forest. His jaw tightened, and a muscle began to twitch in the hollow of his cheek. “If either of those two men dies, Lee or Roger, and if there was something you knew, or could have done to prevent it.... Well, you’d better not be around if I find that out.”
“Chip... I don’t know anything.... Honestly!”
He glanced back at her, slacking his pace just enough to enable her to catch up. “We’ll see.”
The darkness beneath the close-set trees was nearly total and Lee was forced to proceed slowly, to place his unsteady feet carefully. It was tough going; the ground was a trap of roots and fallen branches and stones, and for what seemed the hundredth time he tripped, jarring a muted cry of pain from his throat. With a sob he righted himself, renewing his grip on Roger’s wrists, and stumbled on through the blackness. He was concerned about the engineer. He had been troublingly silent for the past fifteen minutes or so, his blood flowing freely once more, and mingling with Crane’s own blood to saturate his khaki shirt. The captain’s breathing was as harsh and painful as Snow’s was shallow and faint, and it burned its way through his throat from the fire that consumed his lungs. His muscles screamed a protest of their own, but he could not give in to their demands; he knew that if he stopped to rest he would be unable to go on. He was too tired, he had carried Roger too far, and he had lost too much blood himself to have the strength rising again would require.
At least in the darkness he stood a better chance of remaining unseen. But they had lights... no, it was blazing torches, he recalled, but even those would allow them to move more freely than he in this utter darkness. And they were close behind. Too close. There had been other lights he was sure, powerful flashlights he seemed to remember from earlier, but it was blazing torches off to his right as he staggered onward. They were going to cut him off.
For a moment his eyes closed in dejection, then he was going down, this time landing hard on one knee, and jolting loose his grip on the wrists he had clutched for so long, allowing his burden to slip from his grasp and crumple in a heap next to him. He sobbed... from pain, from exhaustion, from the growing sense of loss, and yes, from fear. He hunched forward in his own misery, his breathing a sob, his eyes closed, his arms crossed over his belly. That was where the pain was centered, radiating outward like the spokes of a wheel. The fall had broken open his own wound again, and he could feel the warmth of blood running through the meager bandage into his shirt and the waistband of his uniform trousers once more.
His mind reeled, momentarily losing touch with reality. Too much wine on his shirt. Spoiled. No, it was blood, and this was the second uniform ruined. He’d have some explaining to do to the storekeeper. But not now. He raised his head, bringing his thoughts laboriously back into focus.
He knew he had to get back to his feet, to keep moving, but he had pushed his body beyond its limits, and he could do little more than huddle there on hands and knees, his muscles shuddering. He had failed. He would die. The man who had placed his life into his keeping would also die. If the guerillas wanted them dead, they would kill them out of hand. It would end here, in the dark gloom of the Chand forest, and he would be unable to offer any resistance at all.
Crane collapsed to the ground beside Roger, his muscles still in spasm, his body too exhausted to even cry out against his fate. Somewhere far in the distance there were gunshots; small arms fire, as well as the heavier rifles he had heard before, and he groaned.
“Please no.... Not Chip,” he breathed out, fearing the worst.
He could hear movement in the trees around him and yet helplessly his eyes closed in spite of his need to see them come as he knew they must, and when he opened them again, he lay in a circle of flickering golden light.
More than a dozen men surrounded the two Americans, some holding torches high, but all carrying weapons of one kind or another. Lee managed to roll onto his back, his pain-dulled gaze drifting from one man to the next as he struggled to push himself up onto one elbow.
“Well now. Who do we have here?” an unfamiliar voice questioned in English.
Crane shifted his attention with uncommon difficulty, then allowed himself to slump back against the ground, unable to do anything else. He stared up at the man pushing through the circle of guerillas, blinking as realization slowly dawned. The man wore the same loose-fitting, distinctive hill-country tunic and pants, as the rest of the men, but his skin was paler, his eyes light, either blue or gray, his hair sandy-brown.
“Cale Anderson,” Lee identified him, hardly recognizing his own voice for its weakness.
The other man knelt beside him, his arms folded atop one knee. “You have the advantage of me. Captain, isn’t it? U.S. Navy?” he observed despite the deplorable condition of Lee’s uniform.
“Crane, SSRN Seaview. Not regular Navy... now.”
Under other circumstances Lee might have felt equally surprised to be recognized, but he was too tired, too weak. He just stared at the man looming over him silently for what seemed a very long while.
“Looks like you and Roger are in a bad way.”
Several sharp responses came to Crane’s mind, but weakness seemed to have affected his tongue, as well. He merely nodded.
“You led us on quite a chase, Captain.”
“You still... caught us.”
“Just you. Not the rest of your party. And you, only barely in time, I’d say. You make a guy think you didn’t want our help.”
“Help?” he replied, his tone one of deep sarcasm.
Crane drew himself abruptly back from the brink of oblivion to stare up at the CIA agent, realization dawning slowly as he replayed the attack in his mind that the man spoke the truth. He remembered wondering about the way the soldiers had stayed away from the vehicles, and about how the group of Americans had been left exposed and vulnerable in the clearing. It had happened so quickly; not unexpectedly, but abruptly.
“Trick,” he managed.
“Guess you could call it that, though I can’t imagine what possessed them. They’ve been so circumspect till now. I’d say that without your quick thinking maybe all of you’d be dead now.”
“Why?” he whispered ineffectually, but it seemed
“Why’d they bring you all this way out in the boondocks
just to kill you? Damned if I know,
Captain. Maybe someone just screwed up,
big time. But, let’s wait to talk it all
over till we get you and Roger here back to our
camp. We’ve got a doctor.... He’s South Vietnamese, came over here after
the fall of
Crane tried to force a smile, but was only marginally successful.
“Not unless you got a supply of plasma,” he said, his words thick and nearly unintelligible even to his own ears.
“You let us worry about that.” He paused, and Lee became belatedly aware
that some of
“Roger has shrapnel wounds, but it looks like you took a bullet, Captain. Maybe someone wanted you definitely out of the picture.”
Lee nodded but his mind whirled in confusion, and his thoughts took a jump. “Heard gunfire... just now….” Crane whispered through the waves of pain that threatened to inundate him.
“That was us. We ran
into one of the Army patrols just before we came across your trail. We took them out of the equation,”
“Dr. Maxwell has a head wound... Chip... maybe a concussion. He hasn’t been acting himself.”
“Oh yeah, I’ll just bet.
Not with Maxwell around. She’s
enough to turn any man’s head,”
“Pete Barry’s... dead... first casualty,” Lee reminded. “Mortar shell.”
“You knew him?”
“Yeah,” the other man murmured. “Good guy. Always smiling... laughing.... Eager as a little kid.” The captain nodded slowly. “But I meant the other Navy man and Wade... Dr. Maxwell. You order him on? That it?”
“Then... did she convince him to abandon you?”
Lee’s dark eyes studied the other man for a long moment, hearing hostility behind the question, that he could not fathom at the moment. “Not... Chip,” he got out. “He knew... he had to get... her to safety.”
“Well, there isn’t much of that around here, I’m afraid. The forest is crawling with soldiers. If he’s not as skilled as you are, even uninjured they won’t stand much of a chance to escape.”
“Don’t under... esti... mate Chip.” Crane’s awareness was ebbing, although not
the pain that stole his strength and his will, but he was not yet ready to
surrender completely to the unknown.
“Why?” he asked vaguely again, and once more
“Damned if I know, Crane. Maybe just politics. We’ll plan a nice long talk about it once you’re in better shape. Shall we?”
“Tell me now.... In case....”
“State suspects something,” Lee replied, lying skillfully.
There was a commotion nearby and Lee glanced once more toward the place where Roger Snow lay, the other man’s face ghastly pale in the flickering light from the torches. There had been fresh bandages applied to his injuries, he noted, and the guerillas were carefully lifting his unconscious form onto a makeshift stretcher.
“We have one for you, too,”
“Didn’t know... friendly....” Lee whispered, finding speaking more and more difficult, but again the CIA man grasped his meaning.
“How could you? We never get all the info we should have before we go out into the field, now do we? I’ll bet you’ve run up against that problem with the ONI, just like me with my handlers.”
“Seems... so.” Once more Lee’s scattered attention drifted back to the litter being carried away. “How far?”
“Far enough that the Army hasn’t found us. Hopefully, near enough for Roger.”
Crane swallowed with some difficulty, hearing skepticism in the other man’s voice. His head moved slightly in denial. “Don’t let him die,” he said, his voice surprisingly clear.
“Chip.... Commander Morton, and Dr. Maxwell....” he whispered, his voice fading, but none the less imperative for its weakness.
“All right,” he conceded, forcing a grin. “These men will get the two of you to our camp. I’ll go after Wade and your friend. “Don’t worry. Any luck at all and I’ll find them before the Army does.”
He saw the gratitude flare in the dark eyes, then slowly
the awareness began to fade although the submarine captain fought the battle
valiantly, and at last the dark lashes lay quietly against his pale skin. Shudders of pain racked the slender body,
more so now than while he had been awake,
“All right, you men, move out!” he called in encouragement to the guerillas, and half the squad jogged away while the others gathered round to await his orders.
“Chip?” Wade’s voice was tentative, unsure of the reception she would get from the tall, fair-haired man who for some time had been walking ahead of her in absolute silence, his shoulders hunched against her. His only response was a grumble. “I... uh.... Maybe... I was wrong.”
“There’s a surprise.”
She stumbled in the darkness, not really anticipating the bitterness of his tone. After her great disappointment with him years ago she had learned to use the advantage her beauty and wit could exert over men, and until tonight Chip had seemed no different than any other man. But now he seemed oblivious to the wiles she used, the tears, the trembling voice, the occasional piteous sob. He did not slack his pace, nor offer her any assistance. His anger was a banked inferno that she could still feel.
What right did he have to be angry? she asked herself, her own fury rising. He was the one who had abandoned her all those long years ago; left her for a future that did not include her, that could never have included her; left her to the years of heartache and misery that losing him had caused. She sighed her despair. When had the conviction begun that he had thrown her away for a relationship with his roommate? Had there even been a real reason, or had it simply been a way to salve her own wounded ego? The pictures she had seen of the two young men, taken that Christmas at Chip’s family celebration in the midst of his first year at the Academy, were still clear in her memory. Chip was smiling and obviously very happy, heart-stoppingly gorgeous and yet so beyond her reach that she had wept for days. He had stood in front of the Christmas tree, his arm companionably over the shoulders of an even younger Lee Crane, dark, more serious, and almost too elegantly handsome to be believed.
At the time she had seen only the friendship between them, had known that Crane had cut short his holiday with his own family in order to spend a few days with Chip’s. She had observed them around town, watching them the way so many teenaged girls spied on ex-boyfriends. Chip had behaved so typically, outgoing, cheerful, ensuring that his more reserved friend enjoyed himself at the parties, ice skating on the lake, even double dating with the Saunders twins. Had that been the final blow to an already damaged ego? It had certainly been painful to see him cavorting in the snow with Karen Saunders while his young roommate put the final touches on their enormous snowman. It had been so obvious that the friendship between the two plebes was already deep and abiding. There had been no evidence of anything else. None whatsoever. When had it become more in her mind?
And the following summer had been worse for her. Chip’s time at home had seemed so brief and she had no longer been an integral part of his life. Then Crane had arrived, as he had at Christmas, to take up more of his time. Didn’t they spend enough time together at school? And the way Chip’s sisters fawned over the tall, dark-haired boy had been enough to make her want to scream. But it had been obvious to her that Crane preferred the company of his roommate even over the very attractive Morton girls or even in dating the eager Saunders sisters. Had that been when the suspicion had begun? She had been so hurt, and so angry.
Wade felt hot tears running down her cheeks. Chip had left her for the Navy and for the relationship he had with Crane, be it merely friendship or something more, and he, alone, was responsible for her years of misery. He had to be made to pay for the hurt he had inflicted. It’s what she had dreamed of since she had realized that he was not coming back. Marisa, silly, naive girl that she was, had kept her informed of his advancements during those early years, and then later she had needed no confederate to follow his career. She remembered the expensive Lalique vase, a gift from Bauer & Boen upon the completion of her first project with them, smashed to lavender splinters against the stone of her fireplace after she read the announcement of Lee Crane assuming command of the Seaview, a position that brought the two friends together once more.
This contract to Maranvar seemed a gift from heaven for
her. As soon as she had read the clause
in the contract that required a representative of the
“Chip, please listen to me,” she begged brokenly, but she was smiling into the darkness.
For the first time in nearly an hour Morton came to a halt, turning to stare down at her, his eyes as cold and hard as chips of blue agate. It was a look any erring seaman aboard the Seaview would have recognized and it chilled her to the core. She shuddered in spite of her resolution.
“I owe you an apology; you and Captain Crane.”
“You’re not to say a word about any of this to him.” His voice was like the wind off a glacier.
“All right,” she conceded. “I won’t. But... you, Chip. Can’t you please try to forgive me? I was so young, and I’d been hurt, and... and I guess I just needed some excuse for your leaving me. You had never been... so committed... to anything before, not like that. Surely you can understand.”
“You think so?”
He flinched suddenly, looking around them anxiously as the sound of weapons fire echoed distantly through the forest. He gave himself a visible shake, returning his attention to her
“Maybe when this is all over.... Right now, we just need to get out of this mess.”
“You’ll manage it. I know you will! You’re as good as he is!”
“Don’t patronize me,” he began, then fell silent, remembering that he had said precisely those words to Lee shortly after they had begun their flight from the army compound.
He had been angry with Crane at the time. No not angry, he amended, just frustrated at what appeared to be Lee’s overdeveloped capacity for heroism surfacing once more. When he had uttered those words he had not known how badly hurt his friend really was, and now he wished the words back, as he wished back a lot he had said and done in the past two weeks.
He should have known better than to allow even an instant’s doubt regarding the captain’s honor. He knew Lee. He should have trusted him. How had he become so suspicious and cynical, even resentful of the man he claimed as a brother in all but blood? He knew, of course. Wade’s endless innuendos, her outright allegations of impropriety. He should have recognized it when he found her crying. Even as a teenager she never wept. He should have known, he berated himself again. But Lee had said nothing. He had remained the gentleman throughout it all even when Wade was behaving more like a common tramp than a professional woman. Lee had behaved totally in character, he knew.
Morton was comfortable with his own abilities as an officer, and satisfied with himself as a man. He’d had dozens of lady friends since graduation from the Academy, and yet in the past two weeks Chip felt he had failed not only his duty, but his friend as well as himself. He knew he was an exceptional XO, one of the best, and would undoubtedly make a first-rate captain one day, but he had no delusions that he would be anywhere near the kind of skipper Lee was. Chip found himself smiling weakly. Lee Crane was the Top Gun of submariners. There had been a lot of submarine commanders in the Navy since the Alligator had slipped beneath the waves in 1861, but there were precious few like Lee Crane. He had come to the realization long ago that his friend functioned differently than most men, even the really great ones.
His anger was fading, transmuting into a kind of deep sorrow, and Chip reached out, taking Wade’s hand in his for the first time in more than an hour and began to walk once more, slowly now so that she could more easily match his pace.
“We had a Military Ethics instructor at the Academy one term, Vice Admiral Jacob Franklin,” he commented as they walked. She frowned, wondering why he was bringing up the Academy, but somehow sensing that it was of importance, at least to him, and she chose not to interrupt. “He used to quote something Albert Einstein had said... quoted it so often, in fact, that it almost became a joke with most of us in his class. But, not Lee. I think it really resonated with him... with the man he was becoming.”
“What was the quote, Chip?” she asked softly, a diffident tone in her voice now.
“It was, ‘The world is a dangerous place. Not because of the people who are evil; but because of the people who don't do anything about it’.”
Wade stumbled, but Chip’s hand tightened on hers, steadying her. “And you think your friend made a conscious decision to be one of those who did something?” Her tone was still skeptical, but she contained her cynicism tightly.
“Oh, I doubt it’s ever been a conscious thing. No, I think it’s just who he is, someone who won’t stand aside if there’s anything at all he can do. You’ve probably seen it... the sort of person that gets out in the middle of a busy freeway to divert traffic around an accident site, or the guy who crawls into the burning car to pull the driver out....”
“Is that why... you... admire him so much?”
“Admire him?” He seemed startled, taken aback. “I guess I admire him. As a skipper he’s second to none. But, when he goes on these ONI missions most of the time I just want to beat him senseless.”
“Then why does he do it, Chip? I mean, I could tell that the men aboard Seaview hold him in some kind of awe. I mean... you are too, of course, but... it’s somehow different with him.”
“You can see that now? You didn’t a little while ago.”
She inhaled slowly, steadying her voice. The words were impossibly difficult to say, but they were necessary if she was to regain the ground she had lost.
“All right. I’ve been a blind fool... about everything. I’ll admit that. Maybe I did let my pride get in the way. But we had known each other for ten years before you went away to the Academy, Chip, and I thought... I believed.... We were... very close.... I guess I really knew it wasn’t in you to....”
She pulled him to a reluctant halt, stepping around to face him.
“Chip, I was wrong. I’ll keep saying it until you believe me. When you left my whole world seemed to fall apart. I hadn’t imagined anything... but spending my life with you... then... to see you... with him that Christmas, and again in the summer.... I tried to make you love me again.... But... you went back anyway....”
Wade’s knees buckled and she dropped to the ground, her hands going to her face, her shoulders shuddering as if deep sobs racked her slender body. Another time he might have knelt beside her, might have pulled her into his arms to comfort her, but this time he was not convinced, and he did not move.
“Wade, we really don’t have time for this right now,” he told her, but his voice was quiet, gentle. He leaned down at last, drawing her back to her feet, holding her away from him when she would have moved into his embrace. “We have to do everything in our power to get to that Army depot... to get Roger and Lee some help. But, I promise... we’ll talk later.... We’ll get everything straightened out when we’re all safe.”
“You promise?” she said tentatively, her lower lip assuming the hint of the pout that had once driven him wild with desire.
“You’ve got my word.”
“The word of an officer and a gentleman?” she asked with a timid smile. “I wish we could have at least stayed in touch... back then.” Her smile widened enchantingly and he could see her eyes sparkling in the feeble moonlight. “I mean, I understand there were certain formal dances....”
Chip responded with a sad smile of his own. “I remember that last spring formal. We had a good time.”
“Yes, we did. But
that was also the night you told me you were leaving for the
He sighed. “I guess it didn’t end so well after all.”
“But we’ll have the time to correct all that. Won’t we?”
“We’ll sure try. Come on, we’ve got a long way to go. Are you going to be able to make it?”
“I have to, don’t I, if I want to make amends with your Captain.” She had meant to sound cheerful, but Chip’s expression darkened unexpectedly, and she knew his thoughts had never been far from his friend’s safety. “He’ll be all right, Chip. I’m sure he will be.”
Morton turned and once more began to lead the way, pushing his way through the dense undergrowth. “There’s been an awful lot of gunfire back that direction. If he was caught in any of that.... He wasn’t armed, don’t forget.”
She heaved a huge sigh. “I wish we’d never come here. I wish Martin had never signed the contract with the Maranvar government. I should have known we wouldn’t be as safe as they promised us.”
“They?” Chip asked, keeping his own tone steady.
“Well, Martin Bauer, for one, and his pet CIA agent.”
“CIA?” he repeated numbly, the reason for Lee’s involvement beginning to come clear at last. “Who?”
“Cale Anderson. He’s retired CIA. That’s why Martin had so many contacts in the spy world. He was sent over here nearly a year ago to pave the way for us, but he disappeared. Martin thinks he joined the guerillas, you know.”
“Why’d he do that? Doesn’t seem the smartest thing to do.”
“Why to protect us, of course. The rebels here don’t want the dam built, you know that. But they know the government will have it their way in the long run, so they wanted some leverage of their own.”
“Oh, I don’t know, Chip. I’m really not interested in politics. There were two other agents who came to join him, but they were killed by bandits before--.”
“Bandits?” Morton interrupted incredulously, then ran his fingers through his short-cropped hair in a gesture reminiscent of his best friend. His eyes closed briefly, fighting the awareness that flooded through him. “Send two after one, then comes five more. Not a bad payoff.”
“I don’t understand why anyone’d try to kill us though,” she said, her tone almost a whine. “We were supposed to be safe.”
“Does seem a bit excessive.” Chip raised his arm, wiping his sweaty forehead on his sleeve. “Lee must have worn off on me after all,” he began, unaware of the suspicious glance she cast at him. “I’m getting one of his hunches... that things here aren’t quite the way we were led to believe.”
“That sounds terribly esoteric. Not at all like you....”
“No. You used to be such a bourgeois realist. Always the spoilsport at the Halloween parties, as I recall.”
Chip did not reply at once, his brow furrowed thoughtfully. Her words stung, but he had to admit the truth of them, at least in part. There was a time that he believed nothing that he could not see, hear or touch, and then only after thorough examination. The corner of his mouth tilted a little. “After some of the experiences I’ve had aboard the Seaview, I guess maybe I’ve learned to be a little less pragmatic. Besides, Lee’s hunches generally pay off. I’m starting to wonder if what we’re doing right now’s the wisest move for us to make.”
“I heard him say for us to head for the army station in the last village we came through,” she countered.
“Yeah, but it was the way he said it. He wasn’t sure. He was having second thoughts... doubts.”
“And the two of you are so close that you can read his mind?” she scoffed.
Chip heard the mocking tone and his frown deepened, but he refused to be baited. “We’ve worked side by side for several years now. I know how he thinks, how he’s going to react to things, and I know something was bothering him... something more than just the way we were attacked, or the fact that he had a bullet in him.”
“But he said--.”
“Yes, I know. But he wasn’t sure! We’re caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Whichever way we go, it could turn out to be the wrong way.”
There were sounds in the forest around them, he realized then, seeming to come from every direction, some distant, some nearer. There were voices too, calling their names in strongly accented English, pleas for them to answer, to make themselves known, and he recognized Ne-Win’s voice rising with the others.
“How did they find us?” Chip muttered.
“I don’t care! We’ll be safe now!” Wade cried exuberantly, and without warning she was running away from him, darting through the trees like a frightened doe.
“Wait!” he called, taking a step to follow, then just as suddenly he felt an impact in the middle of his back, a terrific blow that drove him to his knees, then forward onto his face, and after years of high school and collegiate football he recognized the shoulder block for what it was. A burly hand was clamped across his mouth as he struggled against the weight pressing him into the forest loam. He couldn’t breath. The air was being pressed from his lungs, the hand over his mouth blocking access to air, and tiny burst of light began to sparkle behind his lids. No! he thought desperately as he struggled then a quick, sharp blow struck the back of his neck and awareness receded, blackness replacing the flashes of light, but even darker than unconsciousness was the conviction that he had failed Wade, and that he had failed Lee.
Cale Anderson jogged along at the heels of the young giant he had originally set on Morton, and who now carried the semi-conscious submariner slung over his shoulder as easily as another man might carry a child. He should have taken greater care to see that the commander was not injured further. He should have remembered Crane’s concerns that his friend might have a head injury, and knowing how tricky such things could be he should have taken greater precautions.
But things had not gone well. They had nearly been too late altogether.
Morton had seemed so engrossed with that damned woman that
he had failed to hear the soldiers moving quietly through the forest toward
them until that crafty little weasel, Ne-Win, had begun to call out to them
again as he had done periodically throughout the night. But Morton was not a man trained for this,
not an agent like Crane, or himself. His
world was the fantastic submarine, Seaview,
his life beneath the sea so foreign and frightening to
Five minutes. Had he been five minutes quicker they could have had them both safely away before the soldiers got so close. If he had not spent so much time talking to Crane, trying to convince the man that they were on the same side he would have succeeded in the mission set them by the submarine captain. No, he admitted rationally. Had he been five minutes sooner they would likely all have been captured.
He trotted along easily, a year in the jungle toughening him physically and honing his abilities back into the peak form they had been before his nominal retirement. But it was the men with him who were the experts in this jungle. They were the sons and grandsons of the guerillas who fought alongside the British against the Japanese during World War II. This was their jungle, their land, their home. He lived among them now, and they were his friends. In many ways they looked to him for leadership, even as they had looked to the British officers, but he was an outsider, a stranger. Still....
He knew the jungle almost as well as the locals now and
each of them moved separately, apart from the others. It was an unfriendly place for those who did
not know it, and yet Crane’s friend, Morton had done better than he would have
expected, he admitted, handicapped as he had been by Wade, to have gotten so
far before discovery. And Crane....
Morton was beginning to stir, and
“Commander Morton,” he said at last. “You’re safe with us. Captain Crane sent us to find you.”
Blue eyes opened quickly, staring up at
“You’ve seen Lee? Captain Crane?” Chip struggled to sit up, ignoring his spinning head for a moment, then raised his hand to his neck, rubbing at the pain. “Is he all right?”
Friendship’s first concern, as had been Crane’s for him,
“Then what about Wade? You have her, too?”
“Dr. Maxwell.... Fool woman ran right into their arms,” he explained bitterly. It had been a long time since he’d gotten along with Wade Maxwell. Her self-centered superiority had palled quickly. “They didn’t harm her. Took her right into the fold like she was a lost lamb. Looked like they were taking her back to the base camp.”
Morton nodded slowly but it was apparent that his thoughts were forming slowly. “What about Lee? You didn’t answer me before. Is he...?”
“He’s alive, they both are, him and Roger Snow,”
“How can I be sure...?”
“That I’m not ragging you on? That I didn’t find them, wounded, and finish them both off before coming after you? All I can ask is your trust. You’re not tied up, there aren’t any guns aimed at you. I don’t have a password, your captain didn’t give me any tricky phrase to convince you of my sincerity. In fact, I’d say he was probably as doubtful as you are about which side I’m on. But he knew me when I told him my name... Cale Anderson. He must have been briefed on my presence here.”
“Wade mentioned you too.... She said you were working for Bauer & Boen maybe less than the CIA.”
“I guess you’d say I was working for both of them. I was sent here by Martin Bauer’s company, but the CIA asked me to keep my eyes open. I did, and what I saw forced me to go to ground some months back to stay alive. The Company sent in a couple more agents to find me, but they were exposed and eliminated. I never even saw them.”
“So what was it that you found out? I think Lee was sent here for the same reason as you.”
“That all this is some kind of major deception, but I haven’t been able to figure out what it is they’re really doing. Building a dam here can accomplish nothing.” He rose and offered his hand to the blond commander. “Maybe between the three of us we can come up with something.”
“What will they do with Wade?” Morton asked as he allowed
“She’s a beautiful woman, Commander. She has more defenses than any of us. The Wade Maxwell I remember will be able to twist them to her bidding without a great deal of trouble, I’d say.”
“You don’t like her.”
“Just say we didn’t get along well after awhile. I’ve always found that people... men or women... who put themselves above everyone else tend to get guys like me into trouble.” He hesitated and frowned. “But I’d say you feel somewhat differently.”
“I knew her when we were kids,” Morton said quietly.
“Chip Morton! Of course! I remember her talking about you now. I knew the name was familiar when Crane mentioned it, but... I didn’t make the connection.”
Chip looked around into the darkness. “Suppose you could take me to where Lee is now? I... I....”
“You’d like to see for yourself that he’s alive. I understand, Mr. Morton. I’ve had a friend or two in my day that I’d do about anything for as well. He was mighty concerned about you, too.”
Chip bowed his head, unable to meet the other man’s direct gaze.
“Oh, it’s that way, is it? I hate to see a woman comin’ between two good friends. Happens way too often, in my opinion.”
Chip’s head rocked back and forth, but he still did not
“It’s not the way you think,” he answered sharply, then glanced up, embarrassed. And it’s not... it won’t.... he finished weakly.”
“What are you talking about?” Chip asked as he stumbled over a root. “You make it sound like she’s the enemy!”
“She’s a woman, boy! She may not be the enemy, but she sure isn’t one of the guys. I guess she’s had to learn to be tough, considerin’ the field she’s in....”
Under other circumstances Chip would have stopped in his tracks, but his anxiety to reach Lee kept his feet moving as he looked sidelong at Cale Anderson. There was something in his voice that struck a responsive note inside him. “You were in love with her.”
The response he received was not exactly what he expected. The older man laughed. He laughed heartily at first, but his laughter changed almost immediately into a bitter chuckle.
“Yeah, I suppose you could say that.”
They walked in silence for several minutes, the hillsmen
drifting around them like wisps of smoke.
Chip fought the desire to urge him to explain, knowing instinctively
that he would speak when and if he chose to.
“I was a surveyor in the Army before the Company recruited me. When I retired I went to work for Bauer & Boen. I’d worked for them for a couple of years before Wade came on board. She took the company by storm.”
“I can believe that,” Chip agreed.
“She has both of the big bosses eating out of her hand.” Chip only nodded. “The two of you getting back together? From what she said before, you were an item when you were kids.”
Morton smiled at the term, an item.
“I thought there was a chance for a while, but now... I don’t think so. She... she made some accusations that I doubt I’ll ever be able to forget, and she has a few misconceptions I doubt she’ll get over soon.” Chip shook his head sorrowfully and succumbed to his curiosity. “What did she tell you about me?”
“That you were the love of her life but you threw her over
for someone else. She claimed she’d
gotten over it, but the last time I saw her before I came over here...
something she said then... made me think maybe it was otherwise....”
Chip did not press him now, his own thoughts torn between
concern for Wade in the hands of the very people who had tried to kill them,
and his very real fear for Lee Crane’s survival.
“You said you had found Lee and Roger? Then he did stay put and waited...?”
“Waited? Not that one!” the agent scoffed sourly. “Led us on a merry chase for nearly half an hour before his strength gave out.”
“And... his head wound?”
“That’s him, all right. How much longer before we get there?”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The rebel camp was well hidden. There were no trails that led to it and the guerillas’ habit of approaching solitarily prevented any beaten paths. The camp, although temporary, was well situated at the mouth of a narrow gorge, hardly as wide at the bottom as a man was tall, and through which plunged one of the many streams that laced these mountains. Due to the orientation of the chasm and the sharp gradient of the rushing water, a perpetual breeze seemed to blow down from the mountains, swiftly disbursing any scent of campfire smoke.
The rain that had begun as a drizzle little more than a
half-hour before had increased to a steady downpour slowing their progress much
to Chip’s distress.
“Over there,” he murmured and started toward the lighted hut, but he drew Morton to a sudden, alarmed halt as a figure stepped from the shadows to confront them.
He felt his mouth go dry as though all the moisture in him had suddenly been drained. “What happened, Sein?” he asked, falling easily into the hill-dialect. He was only distantly aware of Morton stiffening at his side.
“We were intercepted by soldiers at the lightning-blasted tree.”
“The civilian we have. Dr. Luong has finished working on him. He will survive.”
“The men with him... were killed. Our group was divided. We could do nothing to aid them without endangering the man entrusted to us.”
“Was the captain killed as well?”
“What is it?” Morton demanded harshly, having heard his friend’s name clearly among the foreign words.
“In a minute, Commander! Give me a minute to find out what’s happened,” he snapped back in English, then continued in the Chand dialect. “What about Crane? Is he dead?”
“We don’t think so, Anderson. We found the litter, and the bodies of our men, but the American was not among them.”
“What’s happened?” Chip said, his tone a command in itself.
“Things were fairly botched, Morton. I’m sorry.” He rubbed his exhaustion-gritty eyes with his fingers before continuing. Morton did not move, but stood rigidly frozen in front of him, waiting tensely. “The group bringing your friend here was ambushed by a squad of soldiers.”
“Is he dead then?” Chip asked, his voice amazingly steady. He swallowed with some difficulty though, and his eyes were glazed with dread.
“I’d say they took him with them. The men responsible for him are all dead, but
Crane was gone.”
Chip felt himself stagger; felt as though he had just been slammed in the stomach by a giant fist.
The persistent rain had soaked his hair and ran down his face, and drenched his clothing. At first he was aware only of the rain and the agony that filled his body, throbbing through his veins as if his very blood had turned into flame. Gradually he became aware of his surroundings, of the men on his either side, his arms pulled across their shoulders as they nearly carried him through the jungle. He raised his head, staring blearily ahead, seeing the brightness of area lights, then the vaguely familiar layout of the dam construction encampment. He groaned, as much from the realization of returning full circle to where this nightmare had begun as from any agony of the body.
The soldier on his left muttered something to him, or at him, he decided. He could not understand the words, only the jarring tone of derision and the tightened grip on his wrist, the not so subtle urging to move faster, and he was too weak to do anything but try to comply. His steps faltered, and yet they did not slow their pace, but forced him to stagger forward or be dragged between them. His uniform trousers were wet and mud-soaked and his aching knees told him they had done exactly that while he had been unconscious, their indifferent, if not outright abusive treatment convincing him that Cale Anderson had been correct in his warning. Why they had not killed him outright the way they had done the rebel attachment he was almost afraid to think on. All he could hope now was that Roger’s party had avoided discovery, and that Chip and Wade had made good their escape.
They were nearly dragging him again, his weakness slowing their progress beyond their tolerance, apparently. He forced his head up, glancing sidelong as they started across the clearing. The wreckage of the jeep and the damaged Suburban had been removed, as had all evidence of the earlier attack, and he wondered dazedly what they had done with Pete Barry’s remains. He dragged his head up further, peering forward through the rain. Their destination seemed to be one of the smaller wooden buildings, the one that boasted a double guard outside the door, and he realized he would be almost relieved to reach it, no matter what lay ahead for him. One of the waiting guards opened the solid wooden door as they approached, then Lee felt himself being hurled inside the hut to crash inelegantly across the floor as a woman screamed in fright or surprise.
Reality retreated. He could hear voices, unintelligible for a long while, until he realized that the woman was swearing loudly, colorfully and fluently.
Chip Morton paced the floor like a caged tiger, his nerves growing tighter by the moment. The hut was hardly tall enough for him to move without his still aching head hitting the roof and the pacing was doing little to alleviate his tension. His hands clenched and unclenched at his sides as he walked, the visible evidence of the turmoil within him.
Roger Snow had survived the journey to the guerilla camp. The Vietnamese doctor had successfully stopped the bleeding and sewn up the wounds and the geologist was receiving his second bag of plasma by the time they had arrived. Lee should have been here, too. The doctor could have removed the bullet and patched him up, and he would have been receiving the life-saving plasma as well. It should have happened that way. But it didn’t.
Cale had left him here in this hut with the doctor’s admonition to get some rest, but rest had been impossible to achieve and after less than a half hour he had literally bolted from the cot to begin his pacing. The agent was meeting with the other guerilla leaders, and without knowing the language Chip knew he would be at a disadvantage, and perhaps even a liability to their planning. But the sense of urgency that consumed him would not be denied. Lee was still alive... somehow he knew it... but his time was short. They had to do something now!
He whirled toward the doorway to face Cale Anderson anxiously. “Have you come up with a plan?”
“Nothing terribly brilliant, I’m afraid. After the death of those men with Crane we’re down to only twenty fighters here in this camp. Sein and the others have voted to send a messenger to a couple of the other cells to gather for an assault on the construction camp.”
“There’s no time!” Chip blurted out. “Lee could be dying while we’re standing here discussing tactics!”
“I don’t want his death any more than you do, Morton. But I have an obligation to these people.”
“What about your obligation to one of your own? To Lee? And what about Wade? You said you loved her once. You gonna leave her there with those murderers without trying to get her back?”
“Relax, Commander! I said our plan wasn’t brilliant, not that we didn’t have one! Four of my men were killed when Crane was taken. There are men here that feel as strongly about them as you do about your friend. But I don’t think the Lee Crane I met would welcome anyone getting killed in the effort to pull him out of a bad spot. My people are going to give us cover while you and I go in after Wade and Crane. They’re ready to leave now if you are.”
Lee returned to consciousness slowly. The pain returned before awareness, then the rough feel of the wooden plank beneath his cheek as he lay face down on the floor, the cold wetness of his clothes clinging to his skin, and lastly the hum of sound that broke into two separate voices. Wade’s voice he identified immediately, but it took him a few seconds longer to recognize the strong, forceful voice as belonging to the once timid and conciliatory Ne-Win. Training as well as experience had taught him to conceal consciousness as long as possible when he awoke in an unknown situation and he obeyed that instinct now, lying motionlessly, trying to make some sense of the conversation that ebbed and flowed above him.
“You can’t leave me locked in here with him! He’s dead, or he will be soon! Can’t you see that?”
“I can see, Dr. Maxwell. What happens to him is of little concern to me... except that he remains alive until we have the others in our custody as well. It may be his life that will bring them to us.”
Lee felt his heart leap within his chest at Ne-Win’s comment. Chip had not been captured! He remained at large even though, somehow, Wade had been retaken. He tried to relax, relieved of at least one concern. Them. He had said them. He must mean Roger. They must not know how badly injured Roger had been. Or could they know about Cale Anderson? Did they know that he was with the rebels?
“His life? You think they’ll come for him and not me?” Wade nearly screamed, and her strident voice set the agony in Lee’s body raging along his nerves until he trembled helplessly, but their focus was on one another and they did not see, did not realize that he was awake. “Chip loves me! He’ll come after ME!” she shrieked, pacing wildly across the floor. But when she spoke again her voice was carefully modulated, even calm. “If he doesn’t he’s not the man he pretends to be!”
Lee swallowed back the groan that rose in his throat. She was right. Chip would come for them both, just as Lee would do if the tables were turned. He would come, and the soldiers would be waiting for him. But no, Chip would not walk blindly into the trap that would be set for him. He was an excellent tactician and had proven it a hundred times during his years in the Navy. Perhaps he had never had the intense and specialized training that Lee had undergone as an ONI agent, but Crane had shared enough details of his experiences regarding the missions he had undertaken for his friend to recognize the danger and take precautions.
“You have an inexcusably high opinion of yourself, Dr. Maxwell.”
“Why you....” she blustered.
“What do you mean, no work? We have a contract.”
“Which will be worth no more than its paper when the world
discovers that the
Lee’s already ragged breathing caught in a faint
groan. There had to be more to the junta’s
scheme than a desire to embarrass the
“You mean... it was all a trick? You lured us all here just to... to kill us?” Wade murmured softly. For the first time since he’d met her Lee heard real vulnerability in her voice, and a dread he recognized all too well. “Why?”
Ne-Win chuckled again, a sound that Lee was rapidly coming to hate.
“We are a poor country with a government not universally
recognized. If it can be shown that the
“You’re kidnapping us?” she asked, her voice rising in pitch with her incredulity.
“We are not so foolish. It is accepted that your country refuses to pay ransom for hostages, any hostages....”
“Then why?” Wade gasped. “We’ve done nothing to you!”
“Have you not? It will be a simple matter to prove that your government has sent spies instead of engineers.”
“Spies? Surely you don’t mean Cale! He was working at Bauer & Boen when I joined them! He had been out of that business for years, and he told me....”
“So you did know him. I thought perhaps that was a fabrication of his, as well.”
“Have you killed him too?” she demanded shrilly, a tone in her voice now that Lee had never heard there before, one very near panic.
There was the unexpected sound of flesh sharply striking flesh and Wade staggered backwards into Crane’s line of sight. There were vivid red finger marks already visible on her cheek as Ne-Win leaped after her and took her arms in a brutal grip. Fat tears started from the amazing violet eyes but Ne-Win seemed unmoved and he glowered at her fiercely.
“Do not speak to me so, woman!”
“Is Cale dead? I have to know....”she pleaded.
“That man has been a thorn in my side since the day he arrived. Your friend, Anderson, is not dead. He has joined with the Chand rebels against us! They beleaguer our convoys, they steal our supplies and burn our poppy fields! Over the past few months two more of his breed arrived under the pretense of being civil engineers, but they have been removed. Now you come, the sheep to bait the trap for the tiger.”
“I’ll be bait for no man!” she objected, then went silent as he made a threatening motion once more, but held back the blow. “Why are you telling me all this?” she went on, emboldened. “Why can’t you just let us go? Crane and the others were convinced it was the rebels who attacked us, and....”
“Then why did your Captain, here, direct you into the trees away from the camp instead of toward the cliffs behind the cabins? No. He suspected. I think he has been suspicious all along.”
Lee closed his eyes momentarily, opening them quickly as consciousness receded with the isolating darkness. Why had he chosen to bolt toward the forest instead of the reasonable protection of the buildings, and the support of the army? Had he suspected something even then?
“How should I know? I was unconscious! Ask him... Crane... if you haven’t let him die already!”
Ne-Win ignored her outburst. “I expected hired security men to accompany you, not the military officers the junta had specified. And then, to discover that they had sent us the captain and first officer of the famous Seaview.... It was perfect. There will be no way that your government can deny their involvement in our small war here.”
“War? You’re insane!”
“But we will have the proof, Dr. Maxwell! We will have a reporter from the Benyene Newspaper, and a video journalist to record the sad aftermath of the brief but violent hostilities between the army and the American led insurgents. Why, if they were not so well known to the public, I might even believe that Crane and Morton were sent by one of your secret organizations, as well.”
Lee could see Wade’s face through his lowered lashes, could see the confusion written there giving way to total astonishment, and he prayed she would keep silent. It would be all the worse for them if Ne-Win discovered the truth of his own statement. The little man was a burning fuse working its way inexorably toward the inevitable explosion. Crane was familiar with men like him, the quiet, apparently subservient ones who conceal a great deal of ambition and anger behind an unremarkable exterior.
“No one will ever believe a cockeyed story like that!”
“Oh but they will.
The rebels already have one American advisor. We have photographs to prove it. We have the identification of the other two
agents, and now come two more to his aid, men that no one can deny are
military. After this the
He should have known better than to hope she would be reasonable, Lee realized as a slow smile softened Wade’s beautiful features. No, he pleaded silently, but then she was laughing, looking up at the little man looming over her. She should have been afraid. Was she crazy? Any sane person would be fearful in this situation, but she seemed totally aloof and indifferent. After a moment she wiped tears of laughter from her eyes.
“This is your big plan, mastermind? You’ve gone to so much trouble for something
that will accomplish absolutely nothing!
The State Department told us before we left
She was completely unprepared for his instantaneous reaction. Lee knew the blow was coming even before Ne-Win released his grip on her arm and he started to shout a warning, but he was too late. Ne-Win brought his closed fist forward across her jaw in a blow that would have felled most men. She collapsed before him, sudden fear radiating from her like heat waves off desert sand. Ne-Win was shorter than she was but the self-assured woman Lee had become accustomed to aboard Seaview vanished with that blow. Lee’s own muscles tensed, though he feared he did not have the strength to launch a successful attack and he shuddered with frustration. It had always been a part of his character to protect those who looked to him for defense, even those with whom he was at odds. It was a certainty that he could not witness Wade being beaten and not do something to stop Ne-Win.
True to his nature Crane pushed up, bracing himself on his forearms. Long ago he had discovered that there was always just a little strength left if he truly needed it, enough for that one last effort that would save his life, or that of another. Slowly he inched forward, the taunting words Ne-Win hurled at the woman just a buzz of sound in his ears.
“You are a beautiful woman, Dr. Maxwell.” Another blow and a whimper from Wade. “Women in my country serve a singular purpose. There are many powerful men in my country who would be pleased to add you to their household.” Slap. “Bruises heal, Dr. Maxwell, and you will learn obedience before your beauty is spoiled.”
Ne-Win struck her again. Wade gave a strangled, terrified squeak of pain and the sound spurred Lee into action. He shoved himself to his feet, lunging toward the adjutant but Ne-Win was more aware than he had expected and even as the captain moved, the smaller man whirled, a large semi-automatic pistol appearing unexpectedly in his hand. Lee was too weak to alter his attack and he was completely at Ne-Win’s mercy. One part of his mind expected to hear the explosion of the Tokarev and feel the agony of his own death, but the only explosion was inside his skull as the automatic smashed across his face.
Ne-Win stood over the fallen captain, a malicious smile on his narrow lips. The man was certainly unconscious now, a trickle of blood running from the gash across a high cheekbone just below his eye. Crane was an enigma. Too young to be a submarine captain, but still in command of the largest, most advanced submarine in the world. He was quiet, almost self-effacing, but there was something in the dark eyes that spoke of ability and competence. And there was something else, something subtly disquieting, something that led him to believe Crane knew more than he should if he was only a retired Naval officer.
The junta liaison turned back toward the woman cowering on the floor and pulled back the slide on the weapon to cock it then stretched out his arm, the muzzle of the Tokarev aiming straight at Wade’s head. She cowered against the wall, her violet eyes wide with terror as she looked up at him.
“I could easily kill you right now, Dr. Maxwell. As beautiful as you are I do not believe your personality would be so appealing to the men I had in mind. Shall I kill you instead? Is that what you would have me do?”
She swallowed with some difficulty, tried to speak and failed, then tried again.
“I.... I want to live.”
“All right, then.” He nodded his head toward the unconscious Crane. “The captain, here, may have spent the last of his life to save you a beating. I will guarantee you’ll live at least as long as he does. I don’t want him dead just yet.”
“I’m not... that kind of doctor....” she sobbed.
“You are all he has. Will you let him die? This man who saved your life... perhaps more than once in the past twenty-four hours? I saw how you taunted him both on the train and on the trip here. There is no real love lost between the two of you, and yet he chose to expend what little strength he had left in the effort to keep you from being harmed.” Ne-Win sighed and replaced the .45 into the shoulder holster beneath his coat. “It is his bad fortune to be here... with you... instead of any one of the men in your company. At least they would treat him fairly.”
“I’ll try to keep him alive!” she told him hotly, straightening her back against the wall. “But you’ve got to promise me that if he dies you won’t hurt me... I... I’ll do anything....”
Ne-Win smiled broadly. “You don’t have a choice in the matter. None at all.”
Wade watched in silence as the junta agent stepped over Crane’s long legs and ambled negligently toward the door. He gave two quick raps on the heavy panel then stepped through when it was opened from outside.
She was alone in the cabin with a dying man. She shivered.
Never in her life had she been exposed to serious injury, illness, or
death, and she realized now just how fortunate and insulated she had been. In her capacity of project team leader she
had been in several third-world countries, but looking back now she knew that
the men of her team had shielded her from most of the unpleasantness rife in
those places. Two years ago, she had
A faint sound from the unconscious man on the floor near her brought her attention back to the hut, and she drew her knees up to her chest, huddling in fear and dread. The rain drummed incessantly against the thin roof and she shivered, suddenly chilled. The hut consisted of two small rooms; the one where she was now was sparsely furnished with only a wooden table and three chairs. When she was first brought to this cabin she had seen the pile of their belongings, duffle bags and suitcases, that had been dumped in the back room, and remembered thinking it would be delightful to get out of her dirty, muddy clothes and into clean ones. It was still an appealing thought, but Ne-Win’s ultimatum still rang in her ears.
Wade crept toward Crane slowly, even apprehensively. Except for the blood on his cheek his normally olive skin was pale, almost ashen, and the long, thick lashes lay damply against his skin. He had beautiful eyes, she thought inanely, remembering the delight that had shone through the dark gaze upon their meeting. He had been glad to meet her, happy for his friend to be reunited with his old sweetheart. She hadn’t seen it then. She had been too involved in her plan of vindication to notice that at the time. And now....
She reached out, fearfully touching the man’s unmarred cheek, the bloody gash on the other repelling her. Hi skin was cold. The sound he had made must surely have been his last breath. He was dead and she was here alone, exposed to any vileness Ne-Win chose to exert. Wade brought her hands to her face, shuddering in abject horror. Crane was supposed to be so great, purported to be an extraordinary captain, an unparalleled agent, and yet he had died as easily as any other man. She shuddered as tears slid from her eyes and beneath her fingers. His troubles were over. Hers were just beginning.
She flinched violently at the barely audible whisper, but she did not lower her hands. She was afraid, more afraid than she had ever been in her life. He was not dead. She would have to care for him, and her stomach churned at the thought of the blood, of even having to look at the wound that bled so freely.
The summons in that weak sound was more than she could bear. She lowered her hands, folding her fingers together at her chin, and looked down into the dark, intelligent eyes. He frowned, his right hand clutching at his side, then he grimaced as a wave of pain washed over him before he spoke.
“You... ok... okay?” he whispered brokenly.
She stared at him in disbelief. A moment ago she had thought him dead and yet he lived, and his first words were of concern for her. Chip had told her, but she had not believed him.
“I’m... all right,” she admitted reluctantly, sniffing. “Why did you do that?”
A tired smile softened the lines of agony that were etched around his mouth. She could see his emotions flickering through those amazing dark eyes as he rejected first the careless quip that she knew was his usual response, then, as quickly he dismissed an arrogant untruth, deciding at last on honesty.
“I couldn’t... let... him hurt... you.”
“After the way I’ve behaved?” She frowned, knowing that he spoke the truth, but finding it difficult to accept. “He could have killed you.”
The smile faded. “Didn’t... bring me back... here... jus’ to kill me... out of hand. Wants s’thing....”
“He wants us all dead!” she snapped back at him.
“Don’t... think so.” He exhaled slowly, his breath catching in his throat at the constant pain. “May... be... at first.... Seaview... his prize....”
She stared, then began to laugh even as she had laughed at Ne-Win, derisive laughter that had brought the other man to violence. “You’re mad, as well as dying,” she got out at last.
“Could be.... To both... counts.” Another shuddering sigh. “But... I’m not wrong.”
She hesitated, seeing the complete conviction in his eyes. Could he be right? Was that why Ne-Win wanted him alive? Wanted them all alive and in their hands? Did the junta think they could either coerce Admiral Nelson into surrendering the Seaview in order to save the lives of his two command officers, or did they plan on forcing Chip to escort them aboard to keep both Lee and Wade, herself, alive?
Suddenly she wanted nothing more than to be out of this
cabin and out of this country and back in her safe and familiar condo in
“We’re going to die,” she whispered feebly.
“Don’t give up... yet.
Chip’s free... and
His voice was fading again, and his forehead was furrowed with the effort of holding the pain at bay. He was shivering more violently than she was, she realized, though for an entirely different reason. He was lying in a pool of his own blood mingling with the rainwater that seeped from his clothes. He was not dead, but death wasn’t far away she knew without a doubt. Hypothermia would kill him just as surely as the blood loss, and that she could do something about.
She scrambled to her feet and darted into the rear room. It was small and rectangular and dark, no door or window here to admit light. But, as she had hoped there were beds, six bare-mattressed bunks, sheets and blankets folded neatly in the center of each one. She knew he was too weak to walk into this room even with her help, but she had to do something. She snatched up a stack of the heavy wool blankets and one of the unbleached cotton sheets and hurried back into the front room, dropping to her knees at his side.
His eyes were closed again and she wondered if he had lost consciousness for the last time. But no, she had thought that before and he had proven her wrong. She laid the blankets aside and shook out the rectangle of cotton. It was too tough for her to tear, and for a moment her pessimism resurfaced until she recalled the pocket knife that Chip had returned to the captain after bandaging Roger’s injuries.
“Don’t you dare get the wrong idea here, Captain,” she murmured, pitching her tone much more brightly than she felt as she slipped her hand into the front pocket of his rain- and blood-soaked trousers. She found the knife and withdrew it, glancing at his face as she did so. His eyes were still closed, but surprisingly, he was smiling, one corner of his mouth curved sardonically, and she found herself smiling in response.
She cut the sheet in half, then each half once again. She used the largest of the pieces to blot up the worst of the water around him. She spread out two blankets one atop the other as near to him as she could without touching the wet area, then folded one of the sheet quarters into a large pad and laid it with the rest of the sheet.. She moved around to his head and knelt there, her hands sliding beneath his shoulders.
“Can you help me at all, Lee? I know it’ll be hard, but I want to get you dry and warm, and I can’t move you by myself.”
He nodded, and with his teeth clamped into his lip he struggled to move. She guided his efforts until he was on the blankets. She eased beneath him, supporting him against her shoulder as she placed the pad of cloth over the one the guerillas had applied, then worked to wrap the other portion of the sheet around his middle. She wrapped the blankets securely around his shivering body, then, after a moment’s indecision she slipped behind him once more and reached out to retrieve the last blanket. It was awkward, but she managed to spread it over them both, then allowed him to lean back, his dark head resting against her breast as she braced herself against the wall.
“That’s about all I can do,” she said softly, feeling more tolerant of him at that moment than ever before.
“Y’did... f-f-fine,” he stammered, still shivering severely.
He was quiet for some time, just gazing off into the distance, and she found herself wondering where his thoughts had taken him. Was he dwelling on the pain that filled him, or worrying about what would happen when Ne-Win returned? Or was he thinking about Chip Morton who had achieved the escape he had been unable to accomplish? Was he silently cursing his bad luck, or even the man he claimed to be his friend?
“I... owe you an a...p-p-pol... ogy... I... p-p-pr’mised C-C-Chip....” he spoke into the silence, his voice hardly audible at all over the thrumming of the rain on the roof. “I... s-s-sorry I off-f-fended you on S-S-Seaview.”
She stared at him in surprise, shocked by where his thoughts had actually gone. She had not expected him to ever acknowledge what had passed between them on board the submarine. Now, at this moment, with him lying here so near death it all seemed so petty and immature, what she had thought of him, her hatred of Chip Morton. She leaned her head down, her mouth close to his ear. “I may have been wrong about you, Captain. You’re not at all the man I thought you would be.”
He sighed wearily, and his eyes closed once more. He was not unconscious she knew from the tightness around his mouth, the tension in his body, but he seemed content at the moment.
Even damaged he was still an incredibly attractive man, she thought absently. She was glad she had done what little she could do for him, even knowing it had been Ne-Win’s threat that had made her act. It eased her conscience somewhat. Chip had tried to make her understand what kind of man his friend was but all the years she had spent embracing her own anger and heartache had blinded her. His friend. That’s all they were. Friends. But being Lee Crane’s friend was more than enough it seemed.
“They’ll come....” he whispered then. She nodded, understanding his reassurance. “B...both of them.... Chip and Cale.”
“Cale? How do you know about him?” she asked.
“Met him... b-briefly.” Again that quirky little smile. “You d-do have a s-strange effect on men, Wade.” He shivered, but she could feel the tension in his body beginning to ease somewhat. “How well... did y-you know.... C-Cale?”
Unconsciously, in a gesture more intimate than she would have allowed an hour ago, she rested her cheek atop Lee’s head, his thick black, curly hair nearly dry now.
“About as well as a man and woman can, I guess. We were... together... for seven months, fifteen days and nine hours.”
“D-don’t know... exactly, huh?” he asked, the half-smile returning again. His shivering was less now, but she remembered hearing that that could be a bad sign. At least his color seemed somewhat better. “Care... to tell me... what happened?”
She knew he was making idle conversation, perhaps to keep his mind off his own condition, but for the first time in years she found that she didn’t mind. Ordinarily she preferred to control the topics of discussion, keeping it to subject matter of comfort to her, and this definitely was not one of those areas. Still, the shape he was in it was unlikely that anything she told him would ever be shared with another person.
“I ruined it. It’s as simple as that.” She straightened, then leaned her head back against the wall and closed her eyes, remembering.
“Musta been suf...thin’ big.... He doesn’t strike me... as the kind of man who’d give up easy... on anything....”
His words drifted away, lost in a stifled groan. Without conscious intention Wade raised her hand to his head, sliding her fingers through the soft, dark curls soothingly.
“What about... Chip?” he asked very quietly then. “Were you going to build him up... and then dump him? To get back what you felt he’d... done to you?”
Her fingers stilled and for some reason the anger she had harbored for years did not well up within her. She looked down into the quiet, handsome face of the man in her arms, and knew that the hatred was gone, inexplicably, totally, and she hoped, irrevocably gone.
“I did want to hurt him....” She smiled thoughtfully. “I’d planned what I would do for years. But, it turns out he wasn’t the man I remembered, at all.”
“Happens... that way... sometimes....”
“I loved them, him and then Cale, or I thought I did. I’m not sure anymore.”
“Everyone... changes.... Not n-necessarily what their... heart feels.”
He shuddered and his body went slack, but his breathing continued, slowly, steadily.
“And now...” she told him softly, confident that he could no longer hear her. “I’ve lost both of them.”
The rain pounded on his unprotected head, merging with the jack-hammer behind his eyes. He had worn the same wide-brimmed hat as the rest of their small group until just a few minutes earlier, but he had not wanted anything to hamper the visibility he would need to carry out his own part of the plan. And this was his own contribution. The Chand rebels had intended to more or less rush the compound in force, having gathered their fellows from other camps and other villages, leaving Anderson and himself to free Wade and Lee. The rebels were over a hundred strong now, and well armed, though Chip hesitated to inquire as to how their weapons had been acquired. At his insistence, he had assumed the mission himself, leaving Cale to head up one unit of the rebels, the man he had called Sein, another, and two more groups were under the command of men from their own villages. But Cale had refused to allow him to go alone. There were two others with him, men who knew a smattering of English to his relief, and the three of them lay in the undergrowth at the east end of the small clearing, the sheer stone cliff not ten feet to the right of their position.
He had been relieved that the rain had continued and was even heavier than it had been on their hike from the rebel camp. Daylight would make it more difficult to advance unseen, but the heavy downpour had the patrolling sentries walking their watch with heads down, wide-brimmed hats similar to the one he had discarded tipped down over their faces. He waited until the sentries were at their most distant point and consulted his watch, then gave a quick nod to the men with him, and rose in a low crouch, darting toward the corner of the nearest cabins.
During their brief planning session
The three men drifted like wraiths from the back of one cabin to the next, moving silently although inside the buildings the sound of the rain on the corrugated metal roofs would conceal any small sounds they made. The patrols were watchful but there had been no sign of the rebels since their brief encounters in the forest the night before, and boredom, combined with the rain made for inattentiveness.
Cale Anderson had promised him enough time to see to the prisoners’ safety, but the attack would be launched soon, hopefully taking the compound as much by surprise as the attack on the Americans had taken them unaware. By the time the bullets started flying Chip planned on being inside the cabin where Lee and Wade were being held prisoner. Chip stood with his back to the wall now, the AK-47 cocked and ready in his hands, his gaze moving ceaselessly while the other two men pulled small pry-bars from their packs and inserted the heads beneath side-by-side planks on the rear wall. The walls were comprised of only the single layer of wood, they had promised, and they worked carefully, levering the boards loose with a minimum of noise until at last there was a space large enough to allow him entrance.
He nodded to the nearest rebel, surrendered the Russian rifle to the other and withdrew the old WWII Colt .45 automatic that Cale had given him from his belt. He ducked through the opening into the dimness of the rear room of the cabin, then waited just a moment while the two men silently replaced the boards well enough to be invisible to casual observation. They would not remain, he knew, but would join the rest of the guerillas for the fight to come.
There was no sound to greet him, but there were no weapons aimed at him, either, he consoled himself. Lee and Wade had to be here. There was no other reason for there to be guards on the front door. He crept silently across the room then flattened against the wall beside the opening between the rooms, raising his left arm to hastily blot at the moisture streaming from his short hair. There wasn’t a sound that he could hear above the clatter of the rain on the steel roofing, and inhaling deeply, he steadied his nerves before he peered briefly inside. His hand was sweaty on the grip of the Colt and as much as his heart urged him to speed, he would not risk failure at this point. They were there, both Lee and Wade, and they seemed to be alone. Lee looked terrible, ghostly pale, a bloody gash on his cheek standing out starkly, but the fact that Wade held him in her arms as she huddled on the floor convinced him that his friend was still alive. Wade was pallid as well, her usually rosy complexion washed out and tear-stained. She had been crying and somehow he knew that these tears were real, and were for the wounded man as much as her own situation, and somehow that surprised him.
Abruptly Wade looked up, her violet gaze going first to the outer door, then finding him and locking with his lighter blue eyes. He saw an instant of panic flare in the depths, then an expression that had become more familiar, anger and disdain.
“There’s no one else here,” she assured him coldly, but her tears started afresh, belying her tone. “Ne-Win left us hours ago and no one’s been near us since.”
Chip cast a quick look about the room to confirm her statement, then crossed the distance between them in a rush. He went down on his knees, laying aside the pistol as he reached out to touch Crane’s throat in a gesture he had performed too often in the past few years.
“Damn it,” he grumbled miserably. “They didn’t even pretend to treat his wound, did they?” Wade made no effort to respond to the obvious. “How long’s he been unconscious?”
“I don’t know. A long time. He woke up a few times and we’d talk, but he didn’t stay awake long.”
“Must have been hard on you... having him go out like that and leave you alone,” he muttered as he opened the cocooning blankets and found Lee’s wrist. She did not reply, and he didn’t press her for one, unwilling to open the gates of her anger further.
Crane’s pulse was fast, but stronger than he had expected. The bandages that swathed his middle were bloody, but the stains were drying and there was no bright red of fresh blood staining the cloth. Perhaps there was hope after all.
“You did this?” he asked, indicating the most recent bandage.
The anger returned instantly to her eyes and the defensiveness to her voice. “You know I’m not that kind of doctor! I did the best I could!”
“You did just fine, Rusty. I guess I was just a little surprised.... You always had such an aversion to blood,” he reminded her, recalling several incidents from high school where she had gone pale and nearly fainted when he’d received minor cuts or bloody noses in football games.
“You remember that?” she blurted in surprise, then, self-consciously she shifted her attention back to Crane, her fingers running through his inky hair once more. “I guess being around your Captain Crane for very long would likely cure me of that, wouldn’t it. The stories I heard aboard Seaview....”
“Must have seemed pretty farfetched.”
She nodded. “They did... at the time. But I’ve had a lot of time to think.... About a lot of things.” She sighed distractedly.
“Well you did a good thing keeping him warm like this. Probably kept him alive....”
“There’re more blankets on the bunks back there. He’s still shivering occasionally....”
Her voice was soft, unexpectedly tender, but Chip spared no time for speculation.
“All hell’s gonna break loose in a minute,” he explained, “and it’ll be safer for us all in that back room.” Chip folded back the blankets to envelop Crane once more and rose smoothly to his feet. “Back in a minute,” he said, and wheeled, returning to the second room.
The bunks were all made of 1”x6” lumber, nailed together crudely but securely. The mattresses were little more than straw or grasses covered in blue and white ticking, but it was better than placing his friend directly onto the wooden floor again, and safer from gunfire than the elevated bunks. He shook out one of the blankets he found stacked on another bed and spread it out over the mattress, then returned to the front room where he went down on one knee beside the captain.
“Lee, I don’t know if you can hear me, buddy, but I’ve got to move you. This is likely to be a bit uncomfortable, but your friend Cale is going to launch his attack any minute now, and we’re sitting ducks out here for any stray bullets.”
As he continued to speak, offering reassurances to a man who was probably incapable of hearing him, he threw aside the damp blankets that enfolded his friend and slipped one arm beneath Crane’s shoulders and the other beneath his knees. He lunged to his feet in one great effort, lifting the captain free of the blankets, cradling him gently in his arms. Lee was slender, but he was well muscled, and Morton knew from experience that he wasn’t as underweight as Jamie liked to claim, nor was he as light as he appeared. He carried the still form into the second room, all too aware of the burning fever-heat he could feel through his friend’s clothes. He placed him carefully on the mattress, straightening his unresistant limbs, then began inspecting the improvised bandages to make sure that moving him hadn’t aggravated the wound.
He was aware that Wade had slowly followed him, then paused in the doorway to lean against the jamb, her arms crossed. “Come on back here, Wade. It’s not much protection, but it’s some safer....” he began absently, completely preoccupied with wrapping the blanket around his friend’s shuddering body.
“Safer. I... I suppose it’s too much to hope that you’ve got someone out back there waiting to take me someplace even more secure.” He glanced over his shoulder, glowering soberly. She shrugged almost negligently. “Well, it was just a thought.”
“Like I said, it’s gonna be a shooting gallery outside any minute. These walls aren’t much protection, but they’re better than being out in the open.”
She nodded and moved into the room, retrieving blankets one-handedly from another bed and surrendering them to Morton. She stood near the captain’s head and leaned against the bunk upright, watching as Chip tucked the additional blankets snuggly around Crane’s body.
“He was sure you’d come, you know,” she said softly then. Chip grumbled noncommittally. “The last time he woke up... I thought he was delirious, but he kept asking if you were here yet.... kept swearing you would come for... us....”
“Sounds like Lee. He would never leave a comrade in a bind like this.”
“And he knew you wouldn’t either. You can’t let him die... not him.”
Now his expression became totally incredulous and he twisted about on his knees to stare up at her for a moment. “You’d better get down here... in case the shooting starts.” Obediently, passively, she knelt beside the mattress near Lee’s head. “That’s a pretty drastic change of attitude from how you felt about him before,” Chip continued. “Care to tell me what brought it on?”
She sighed deeply. “Ne-Win was here when they brought the Captain in and just threw him down on the floor. At first I thought he was dead, but Ne-Win was sure he wouldn’t die so easily. He wanted him alive... to entice you back here.”
“That’s what we thought he had in mind. Go on.”
“I said some things that angered Ne-Win and he hit me. The cut on Lee’s cheek? He got it keeping Ne-Win from beating me, or even killing me. Ne-Win hit him instead.”
“That doesn’t surprise me.”
She looked up, her dark blue eyes sparkling with unshed tears. “Well it surprised me! I didn’t ask for his help, didn’t expect it, but he put himself at risk anyway.... I think his actions even surprised Ne-Win because he’s left us alone after that.” She shuddered as she sighed deeply. “I’m not used to people doing things for me... anything... without some ulterior motive!”
As though unable to help herself, Wade’s hand crept out once more, tugging the blanket closer around Crane’s shoulders.
“When you left me I threw away my belief in people,” she continued. He shook his head in rejection, but she went on. “I didn’t say you were responsible. It was a conscious decision on my part. After I snuck a look at the letters you wrote to Marisa I.... Yes, I’m a sneak thief, too. She never knew. I put them back. But... I had to know if there was any hope for me at all. You sounded so happy, so content with what you were doing... So I determined to never let myself be hurt again! You wouldn’t let me love you... so I learned to hate you instead. You and the man I convinced myself was responsible.”
“You can’t blame Lee for anything. The Navy’s what I wanted.”
“I know that now. I’ve realized a lot of things in the past few hours... many that aren’t very flattering to my ego.” She sighed, her fingers gently caressing the tumble of black curls. “I lied to you before, Chip. He was never anything but a perfect gentleman to me.”
“I know,” he replied softly.
She glanced at him sharply, her tone accusing. “You believed what I said at the time. I know you did!”
“I shouldn’t have. I know Lee too well to have doubted his honor for a second, and that’s what believing you made me do. I’m not proud of it.” He raised his head, meeting her gaze evenly. There was a distant, almost haunted look in the violet depths of her eyes that puzzled him, but now that he had begun he had to finish. “Lee’s the best judge of people I’ve ever known. And yet he didn’t try to sway me against you. He trusted me to make my own decisions. And that’s what I’ve done. Even without all this I’d have ended up having to tell you the same thing I did back when we were kids... that my career comes first because it’s more than just a career to me. There’s no future in loving me, Rusty. I’m as good as married already.... Every man aboard the Seaview is the same way. Some of them can manage both. But it just wouldn’t work for us....”
She stared at him for a long while. It was still quiet outside the cabin, even the rain seemed to have eased off slightly, the pounding on the roof slacked in intensity. He steeled himself for her outburst, for her howl of denial, of anger, or even of anguish, but she remained still, only her fingers moving ceaselessly through Lee’s hair.
“I’m sorry, Chip. I really am.” He blinked, his surprise at her reaction obvious. “I didn’t understand. All these years wasted because I didn’t understand why you did what you did!” Great, glistening tears began to slide from her eyes unheeded and Chip continued to stare. “You told me! God, I know you told me that it was as much for me as for you, but I didn’t understand!”
She was sobbing openly now, and yet when he would have moved toward her she extended her hand, holding him at bay. Were these tears any more sincere than those she had shed in the Wardroom when she was telling him her lies about Lee? How could he be sure?
“Lee was awake more than you’d think, Chip,” she continued after a moment. “We talked.... He said the same thing... about being married to a Navy man, but... until I heard it from you I couldn’t... really... accept it. I do understand now. I wouldn’t be who I am today if I’d made you marry me back then. And you wouldn’t... and he wouldn’t either. And from what you told me there are a lot of people who wouldn’t be alive today without him. I’ve got to quit second guessing things, and stop being such a spoiled brat.”
Morton felt himself beginning to relax and he permitted a gentle smile. “I guess I can go along with that.”
They were both quiet for several seconds, the only sound that of the rain, and Lee’s rather difficult breathing.
“He will be all right won’t he?”
“If the rebel’s doctor can get through to us. He’s an old man, but he managed to save Roger’s life. I’m hoping he can do the same for Lee.”
“I should have asked about Roger,” she said, wiping at her eyes. “I really am such a selfish bitch.”
“Just concerned for your own survival. In this case, it might not be all that out of order. I’d say you weren’t as used to life and death situations as Lee is, or your friend Cale, for instance.”
“Cale? Is he really coming here?” she asked eagerly. There was life in her eyes once more, he noted wryly. She blushed and dropped her gaze. “Lee mentioned his name, but I wasn’t sure if he knew who he was talking about. I had such a hard time understanding him a lot of the time.”
“Cale Anderson, ex CIA agent, Bauer & Boen surveyor, and pretty decent human being. One and the same. He... spoke of you....”
“Oh no,” she gasped. “We... we didn’t part on the best of terms, Chip. I seem to make that happen a lot don’t I?”
“Maybe just with the people you love. Roger and... Pete... seemed genuinely... fond of you.”
“Oh, Chip, you really are a terrible liar. I know I’ve been a real witch, and I can’t say I’m going to be able to change overnight, but in the past few hours I’ve learned what it’s like to be really hurt, and to be honest and loyal, and... and care about someone more than yourself. That’s what I learned from him, you know. After everything that I did and said to him and about him... for him to risk his own life to save me a beating. I... I feel just horrible.”
The strongly accented word took them both by surprise, and Morton cursed as he shifted about on the floor, staring up at Ne-Win as the small man stood in the opening between the two rooms, a large-bore automatic pistol aimed directly at him. His hand itched for the Colt he had laid aside in the other room, and he sighed in defeat. How much of their conversation had Ne-Win heard, he wondered anxiously.
“Don’t feel guilty, Dr. Maxwell. He was destined for this end from the first. And you, Commander Morton. We have been waiting for you. It took you longer to arrive than I expected. Your obvious affection for our fair Dr. Maxwell, here, and your supposed friendship with Captain Crane apparently did not lend wings to your heels.”
Chip swallowed back a harsh response, realizing that Ne-Win had taken off the guise of friendliness that he had worn since they’d met him in Benyene, but Morton chose to play the innocent a while longer.
“I’m not used to finding my way through the jungle. It took me some time to find my way back,” he said evenly.
Could Ne-Win possibly be unaware of the guerillas in the jungle beyond the camp? Of course he had no reason to suspect that he had met up with them. And that would explain why he did not search him for the gun he had negligently laid aside. But why hadn’t he seen it on the floor.
And, where was Anderson and his men, he thought with some bitterness.
“Crane needs a doctor,” he managed to continue. “Are you trying to kill him?”
“No, just not trying to save him. The responsibility for his survival rests entirely on your shoulders, Commander. We have medical aid here, and although perhaps not up to your standards it might well be able to perform that service.”
“Your government asked us here! Is this the way you thank us?”
“My government, neither the legal one nor the junta has any say in this matter. There are those of us who have wearied of the constant tug-of-war they wage between themselves, never accomplishing anything while the provinces rise in rebellion that will shatter my country’s unity. There are those of us who would see a new order established!.”
“So, you’re playing your own game to take over your country, huh. Bet there’ll be some surprised diplomats on both sides of the fence if you’re successful in your coup. But what do you want from us?” Morton asked wearily.
Where was Anderson?
“He wants the Seaview, Chip. Lee had it figured out, and he told me,” Wade spoke up. “He means to use her to blackmail his way to the top of his government.”
Chip stared at her, surprised though he knew he shouldn’t have been.
“So, your friend is as clever as was reported. He was the only one who was supposed to die, you know. The other two were... what is the term you Americans use...? Collateral damage? Yes, that is it.”
Morton met the man’s black eyes evenly, refusing to allow his anger or his uneasiness to be revealed in his impassive expression. He realized, then, that it was likely true. Lee had been the only one hit by a bullet. The rest of the injuries, even Pete Barry’s unfortunate death, were all the result of the mortar shells. Chip blinked, the scene replaying itself in his mind’s eye in that instant.
“Why?” he ground out bitterly. “And why that way?”
“A man like him... is dangerous. I could see, from the first, that he was suspicious. Had there been another way, I would have chosen it.”
“But he didn’t die.”
“No, but with your captain dead, cruelly murdered by the rebels, you, grief stricken and yet enthralled with our beauty here and determined to keep her safe, would have been more likely to fall in with my plans. Your Captain Crane is entirely too resourceful for my liking.” Ne-Win moved slightly, shifting the direction of the gun barrel. “It might be best if I were to put a bullet in his brain right now.”
“No!” Chip ordered, his tone as emphatic as any he had ever used on the bridge of the Seaview.
In one lithe motion he was on his feet, looming between the unconscious captain and Ne-Win despite the pistol that now swung to center on his own chest. The expression on the smaller man’s face was revealing, triumphant.
“So, despite the woman’s efforts the bond between you remains intact. I had wondered if it would be so.”
Where the hell was Anderson?
But at least Ne-Win didn’t seem inclined to kill them hastily, and if he could just keep him talking until the guerillas did begin their attack perhaps he could take him in that instant of surprise.
“You seem to know an awful lot about our personal lives,” Chip said softly.
“I had a full dossier on the entire project team from Bauer & Boen within days of the signing of the contract. However, it was a little more difficult to obtain information on you and the Captain at short notice, despite the prominence the Seaview has acquired in the American newspapers. But there are always people willing to talk for a price, and your Captain Crane is well known in certain circles. It was your presence, yours and his, Commander, that turned my hopes into plans, my plans into actuality.”
Ne-Win’s gaze shifted past Chip, his thin mouth tilting as he momentarily gloated over the wounded man’s condition.
“How many people have attempted to achieve what I have already done, Commander? I have read the newspaper reports; even here in our third world country we can obtain your larger newspapers. I have read between the lines in the articles in those papers. I know how many times the Seaview has been endangered by those who would use her for their own purposes, and I know how many times she was saved by the skill and courage of her crew, led by their gallant captain. And I know the old adage that if you would kill the serpent you must first cut off its head. That is where the others have made their first mistake....”
“You’ll never get your hands on the Seaview,” Chip warned coldly.
“There, you are wrong, Commander. I am also aware of the fondness your Admiral Nelson holds for the two most senior officers of his submarine. He is not the kind of man who will sacrifice your lives just to protect his submarine. I’ve already arranged for a message to be sent to him.”
“You don’t know the Admiral very well, then,” Morton began, then turned slightly as Lee moaned, his dark head moving restlessly against the mattress. He dropped to his knees once more as Crane began to struggle against the confining blankets. “Easy, Lee,” he said gently, placing his left hand lightly on the captain’s shoulder, although his right clenched tightly as Ne-Win chuckled mirthlessly, and continued. It seemed, to his hopeful observation, that perhaps Crane’s struggles eased just a little.
“I also know that although he may be unaware of it, himself, Lee Crane is Nelson’s chosen heir to his empire, as close to him as a son. What man would allow his son to die when he holds it in his power to prevent it? And you, Commander, you and Crane have been friends for many years, good friends. Your actions here have proven that you cannot stand by and allow him to die without doing everything in your power to save him.”
Chip nodded, knowing it was the truth, and knowing that nothing he could say would make Ne-Win think otherwise. Lee was burning up with fever, his face flushed and damp, and his extended unconsciousness had Morton more than concerned. He’d seen Lee hurt more times than he liked to consider, sometimes badly enough that even Will Jamieson had despaired of his survival. But this time there was no Dr. Jamieson to help him, not even the doctor Anderson had promised.
Lee’s voice was hardly a whisper, more of a breath, an exhalation of the name of the man he somehow, even in his unconsciousness, knew was nearby. Lee’s brown eyes flickered open briefly, meeting the exec’s trouble blue gaze, but there was little more than a flicker of recognition there in the dark depths before the sooty lashes lowered. Chip hunched forward, listening for any word, but there was nothing more, only a slow sigh. Chip’s head bowed between rounded shoulders, and he hardly noticed Wade’s gentle touch of reassurance on his arm.
“He knows you’re here, Chip,” she told him in a whisper.
Morton nodded, and at last he spoke to Ne-Win without looking up.
“I doubt that Lee would want his life at the price you’re asking.”
“If that is true, I can put an end to your concern for him for all time.”
The direction of Ne-Win’s automatic shifted once more, coming to bear on the helpless captain’s chest, and Chip reacted with a snarl, lunging toward him with arms outstretched. But Ne-Win was expecting his attack and his pistol slashed around, the side of the barrel slamming with near-killing force against Morton’s head, driving the taller man back to his knees, to huddle there, his hands splayed against the floorboards of the cabin, his head hanging once more as consciousness flirted with oblivion.
Morton’s ears rang with the sound of Wade’s scream.
Chip blinked. That could only be Lee’s voice, and he dragged his throbbing head up enough to look sidelong at his friend. Lee was awake, he realized thickly, one hand stretched out from beneath the blanket toward Rusty, and she was on her feet, the .45 Colt Chip had laid aside clutched in both her hands. He stared at her, unable, at the moment, to fathom where she had gotten the automatic. It seemed Ne-Win was equally astonished though hardly alarmed, but he was intelligent enough to know that she still posed a threat and he froze without changing position.
“A woman with a loaded weapon. Now that is dangerous,” he said, condescension redolent in his voice. “Don’t you think you should put the gun down, Dr. Maxwell? It’s awfully big for you, now isn’t it?”
Ne-Win was off balance and out of position, Chip noticed instantly, the pistol he had used as a club pointed toward the wall just above Morton’s head, not toward any of the Americans now, but with the Colt in Wade’s hands instead of his own he felt they were still not out of danger. What could she know about guns? If he moved he knew Ne-Win could kill him before she could even cock the automatic, and after that Wade and... Lee.
Anderson! If you’re coming, make it now! he thought desperately.
“You drop your gun, Mr. Ne-Win! I’m not such a novice as you might believe.” As if to prove her point she moved her left hand, pulling back the slide on the pistol, not so easily, but cocking the semi-automatic deftly, nonetheless.
From his position Chip could see Ne-Win’s knuckles go white as his grip tightened on the trigger, and he could see the barrel of the Tokarev inching slowly back toward Wade. He tensed, knowing he would have to make a play for the gun, but knowing, at the same time, that his reactions would be slowed severely. This was how Lee had received the ugly gash on his cheek, he realized, but his own head was spinning, pounding with agony so that he could hardly think. Ne-Win was watching Wade, his attention divided between her and Lee, who had, impossibly, roused further and pushed himself up onto his elbow. Ne-Win appeared to have disregarded him as a threat, but Chip could not depend on that.
Then everything seemed to happen at once. Ne-Win swung his hand and the Tokarev around toward Wade and Lee at the moment of Chip’s second lunge. Outside the cabin weapons fire erupted noisily and bullets spanged into the cabin. Lee gave a sharp cry of denial that was choked off in a gasp of pain as Ne-Win’s Tokarev came to bear on Wade. But Chip plowed into Ne-Win, and Wade pulled the trigger on the Colt an instant before the Chinese pistol fired and there was a crash followed by a gust of cool damp air from the front of the cabin.
Then, for an instant nothing moved, as though every living thing in the universe had been frozen for the space of a single heartbeat. The silence was absolute, thundering for a split second before the world began again. Ne-Win’s weapon discharged harmlessly into the wall behind the bunk next to which Lee still lay, the Tokarev dropping from nerveless fingers to clatter to the wooden floor a few seconds before Ne-Win’s lifeless body followed, sprawling inelegantly in front of Morton. Wade staggered backward with the Colt’s recoil, the pistol still locked between her hands.
Chip raised his arm, wiping blood he had been unaware of out of his eyes, blood that blurred his vision. With some difficulty he managed to get back to his knees and look around. Wade stood riveted to the spot, her eyes wide and unfocused. She was in shock, he recognized at once, stunned by what she had done, by the horror of the whole affair. His own stunned gaze slipped beyond her to the ominously still form of his friend, and locked there. A few moments ago he had been awake and relatively alert, aware of what was going on around him, and now it appeared that he was deeply unconscious again... or worse. Chip started toward him, his only thought to reach his friend and help him if that was still possible.
“Looks like I arrived just a second too late to get in on the excitement.”
The voice registered dimly but it raised no alarms in his desensitized brain. Wade, however gave a strangely strangled sob and Chip looked up dimly as Cale Anderson moved toward them with the same jungle cat-like gait that Lee frequently retained upon return from one mission or another for ONI.
“’Bout time,” Morton grumbled, and blinked at the thickness of his own voice.
“Looks like that concussion’s got a concussion now, Commander. Just stay quiet. The doc’s on his way.”
Anderson swung the strap of his assault rifle over his shoulder familiarly, and came to a halt in front of Wade. He reached out, carefully removing the Colt from her hands and thumbing the safety before he tucked the pistol into his waistband. He grabbed one of the remaining blankets, shook it out and swung it around her shoulders, pressing her down onto one of the bunks.
“You stay there, Knickers. I’ve got to see to the Navy, here. Okay, babe?”
“You came....” she murmured, then her dazed violet eyes snapped into sharp focus as she echoed Morton’s sentiments. “It’s about bloody time you got here, Cale Anderson!” she yowled, and launched herself into his unprepared embrace. She kissed him fiercely but briefly, then pushed herself back, away from him, her eyes sparkling with tears. “Do I always have to do everything?” she demanded then, and began to cry, torrents of tears coursing down her cheeks.
“Easy does it, little lady,” Anderson attempted, obviously at a disadvantage with the crying woman where he had not been with an angry one. His arms tightened around her, and his lips brushed the top of her head proprietarily. “But I really need to see what kind of shape your friend Morton’s in. And the Captain doesn’t look so good, either.”
Almost immediately Wade pushed away again, scrubbing at her eyes with the backs of her knuckles like a small child, then looking up at Anderson, meeting his gray eyes steadily. “Lee’s in a bad way. Chip said you had a doctor?”
“He’s coming. The Chand Brigade is just performing a little mop-up now.” He nodded back the way he had come, at the radically decreased gunfire outside the cabin.
“Chand Brigade?” Morton managed to get out. He was sitting cross-legged now, but he was holding one hand to his head, while the other rested lightly on Crane’s shoulder.
“Every good unit needs a name to call themselves, Commander,” Anderson answered with a grin. “Dr. Luong should be here in a few minutes. He’s too old to dodge too many bullets and we don’t want to lose him.”
“Wade’s right about Lee. He needs real help now.... More than a field hospital! He needs real surgery. God only know where that bullet’s gotten to, and what kind of damage it’s done.”
“I’ve seen your friend’s stubbornness, Commander. He’s not going to give up on us, and Dr. Luong’s more than any field medic you’ve ever seen. He’ll be able to stabilize him enough for him to last till your doctor to get here, I’m sure.”
“I told him, your skipper here, that things weren’t necessarily the way they seemed with us. After you left us, Commander, I got word that the men I’d sent to the top of the cliff with the radio last night had succeeded in making contact with the Seaview. They relayed my request for immediate extraction.”
“You… what? You’ve had a radio all along?”
“Not that it does us much good most of the time. The only place we can get a signal out is from the mountain. It’s how I got word to the Company those few times. But it’s dangerous and unreliable. They only had the connection for a minute, but someone named Sharkey guaranteed that your people would be here before nightfall in some kind of flying craft.”
“The Flying Sub,” Morton filled in, somehow not really surprised that they were on the way. He turned back to his friend, his fingers tightening just fractionally on the other man’s shoulder. “Help’s comin’, buddy. You just hang in there for a while longer, you hear me?”
Lee’s sooty lashes fluttered, his dark eyes opening and meeting Chip’s moist blue gaze.
“You look... like... hell....” he managed, but his pained words ended in a brief smile. “Jamie’s gonna just kill us.”
A sudden spate of unintelligible language distracted Chip’s attention as the small, gray-haired man he had first met in the guerilla’s camp charged into the back room of the cabin. He no longer wore native garb, however, but was dressed in a dark suit of a different era, and clutched a rather large black leather bag to his chest. But this was not the meek, intimidated man he had been when they met, this was a Will Jamieson of another age, another nationality, and suddenly Morton felt the tension he had experienced for the past few hours begin to ease.
“He says we’d better get out of the way and give him some room to work. And for us to put Crane back up on the bed where he belongs if we expect him to examine him because he’s not going to do it on the floor,” Anderson explained with a grin.
Chip found himself staring, taken completely aback by the man’s change of personality.
“You sure this is the same man from your camp? Dr. Luong?”
“Sure is. He just a little riled at the moment. He says injuries in war are one thing and to be expected, but that your friends condition has little to do with war.”
Anderson scooped the barely-conscious captain up and placed him on the nearest bed with a mattress, then straightened, ruffling the younger man’s curly hair gently as he would do a child.
“Don’t you worry about a thing, Crane. The little man dug a bullet outa me a few months ago and I was back on my feet in days.”
The doctor glanced sidelong at
“You know Vietnamese?”
“Same way... you do....” Lee confirmed. “Doc here... says you were on your... feet... because you... couldn’t sit down....”
Anderson snorted, garnering another round of muttering from the doctor. Lee grinned widely.
“He’ll be just fine, Captain Crane. He was sitting up having breakfast when we left the camp. As soon as the doc, here, got him stitched up and stopped the blood loss, he started to rally. Now you, on the other hand, might be a little more tricky.”
Lee nodded distantly then allowed himself to relax, his eyes to close, and his breathing to deepen.
Anderson watched closely, then turned away, taking Morton’s hand to help him to his feet.
“The doc says we should clear outa here so he can take care of Crane. He’s got an assistant coming to help him.”
“I’m staying,” Chip said flatly. He was forever being refused the right to stay with Lee in Sick Bay, but he was determined not to be denied here.
“Then maybe you should take one of the other beds, Commander. You’re looking a little green around the gills.”
“I’m going to be here in case Lee needs me. I... I owe him that much.”
“Chip,” Wade began, but Morton shook his head.
“He’s my friend, Rusty. He’d do... has done the same for me.”
“But Cale was right, Chip, you do look terrible,” she persisted. “Lie down until the doctor can take a look at you, too.”
The doctor, who seemed to be able to understand English, even if he did not speak it, or chose not to, grumbled again in his native language.
“Chip...” Lee called softly, his voice hardly more than a moan, but a moan with authority. “Sit down. That... is an order. The Doc... says he has... relieved you of duty. You’re outranked.”
“Lee....” Morton protested.
“There!” Dr. Luong said sharply, pointing imperatively at the foot of the bed where the captain lay. “Just... don’t faint while I’m working on him!” he finished dryly.
Anderson took Wade’s hand in his and towed her firmly from the room, fully aware of Chip Morton watching their exit before he turned and sank down on the bed as he had been directed. It was silent outside now, no more gunfire at all, but this wasn’t really his fight any longer, and he left the aftermath to be dealt with by the Chand residents.
“I’m afraid your contract is probably going to be considered null and void, Knickers.”
“Don’t call me that,” she said thinly.
He smiled widely, remembering the day he had coined that pet name for her, a beautiful day on a beach in Mexico on their first vacation together. She had folded up her wide-legged trousers, blousing them above the knee so she could wade into the water without getting them wet. He had told her that she looked like she was wearing knickers. It was as simple as that. A moment of warmth and intimacy.
He came to a halt in the center of the room, brighter now than it had been as the front door hung off its hinges though the continuing rain poured through the opening. They both spoke at the same time.
Anderson chuckled. “Ladies first.”
“I just wanted to say I was sorry for the way I behaved last year after Paraguay. All this has helped me understand what you were trying to do.”
“Just trying to keep your pretty head on your pretty shoulders.”
“Then why didn’t you tell me that at the time?” she demanded, her fury blooming full blown in an instant. “Why did you have to treat me like a child, or an incompetent fool?”
He stared at her for a moment only. “Because you wouldn’t listen to me! You were stubborn and so damned full of yourself that you refused to hear a thing I was telling you. It was a matter of just grabbing you and making you leave, or letting us all get killed.”
“But you had no right!” she cried and lashed out at him, but he caught both her wrists and held her firm.
“I had every right, you little fool! I was the expert in that area and you knew it! Not only that, but I loved you! I was going to lose you one way or another. It was either let you get yourself killed, or make you leave and lose you to your own ego and anger. I... I couldn’t let you die.”
Suddenly the big man sagged. He released her wrists and turned away, his shoulders rounded.
For a few seconds she did not move. She stared at his broad back in utter confusion as the anger in her heart faded further away, slipping from her grasp as if it had never been. She had loved Chip Morton, or she had thought she did. She was seventeen when he left her for the last time. A child. But children loved just as deeply as adults, didn’t they? But he had, and still did love the Navy more than he had ever loved her.
She had loved Cale as a woman loves, fully, completely, joyously. And he had loved her in return. But she had thrown away his love as surely as she had believed Chip had thrown away hers. What a fool she was. What an utter and unbelievable fool.
“Cale?” she whispered, taking a stumbling step forward.
He did not answer and he did not move. She put out one hand, her fingers running across the shoulders encase in heavy, homespun cotton. He shivered, but gave no further evidence that he was aware of her. She longed to touch him as she had once done, to feel the smoothness of his flesh, the firmness of his body. He was a strong man, even brawny, she thought, not like Crane’s lean sort of build, or even Chip’s slightly more sturdy physique, but she remembered how safe she had felt enfolded in his arms. Like Crane his flesh was not unmarred, and she cringed at the memory of the pale scars she had once found so distasteful. Now she understood the price he had paid for each of those marks on his body.
“Will Lee really be all right?” she heard herself ask, and this question brought him around to face her.
“His kind doesn’t die easy.”
“His kind. Your kind, too.”
His head came up sharply, his gray eyes boring into hers. “Yeah. Me, too.”
“Are you going back to your old line of work? I mean... you’ve thrived here....”
He smiled gently, and for a moment she thought he might reach out to her again, but he didn’t.
“I doubt it. Being an agent is a young man’s pursuit... for the likes of Crane and Morton.”
“He’s here, isn’t he? Okay, so he’s not the same personality type as the captain, but he’d go through hell and high water to pull him out of trouble. I can guarantee you that.”
“They’re a set, Wade. Like a pair of perfectly matched horses pulling side by side in their traces. Apart one is just as strong as the other, just as smart and well trained, but together they can do anything, achieve any height. Together.”
“I understand that now. Lee helped me to see a lot of things differently....” She smiled charmingly. “I... I’d like for us to try again, Cale. You said you loved me once. I’d like to see if I could make that happen again.”
Once more she felt the burning intensity of his gaze. “Are you serious?”
“I’ve never been more serious in my life. I... I understand if you don’t want....”
He silenced her with a kiss. It was gentle at first, then the passion between them built like a blazing fire and she went into his welcoming arms, finding within them the sanctuary she had sought all her adult life.
Chip Morton spotted the Institute sedan parked off the road ahead and gestured for Chief Sharkey to pull in beside it. There was no sign of the Seaview’s captain in the vicinity, and he had been told that Crane was not yet strong enough to have ventured far on foot, but knowing him as he did, he could not repress a shudder of concern. Casting a sidelong glance at Sharkey, behind the steering wheel, he knew his fears were not his alone.
The Chief eased the car off the pavement close beside an identical dark sedan and switched off the engine, and waited for Morton to provide the lead. But the XO did not move immediately, merely sitting in the front seat beside the Chief, turning his cover restlessly between his hands.
“You sure that’s his car, sir?” he asked at last, the Exec’s inactivity troubling him.
Morton nodded. “Pool car Number 6. Doc insisted that he drive an automatic if he needed to drive at all. But he wasn’t supposed to drive so far.”
“No sports car for the Skipper for a while, yet, I take it?” Sharkey put in with a grin, but his smile was not answered and he sobered immediately.
The Exec remained silent, staring through the windshield toward the ocean in the distance. The water was dark and rolling, the incoming tide beginning to crash against the rocky points of land that extended out from the cliff face. The afternoon was aging, and the clouds along the horizon promised an uncommonly beautiful sunset. When Morton moved it was abrupt and without warning. He thrust open the door and stepped out, squaring his cover on his head and starting forward across the nearly flat expanse of the cliff top, certain, without knowing how he knew, that Lee would be at the water’s edge some distance below where they had parked. Sharkey caught up with him after only a few strides, and paced at his side.
They came to a halt, their seeking gazes finding the figure of the man they sought without difficulty. Lee Crane sat on the sun-warmed white sand of the crescent beach that curved between the two enfolding arms of the cove. The eager surf rushed onto the sand, each successive wave creeping higher as though seeking to become one with the young captain, to enfold him in its loving embrace as if having noted his absence on the last mission of the Seaview. Morton shook his head, banishing the un-summoned image grimly. He couldn’t scoff at such things anymore, not after so many strange events that had taken place aboard the submarine in the years just past. Wade had accused him of being pragmatic. She would never have the chance to realize just how much he had changed from that uncompromising young man.
“You can head on back to the Institute, Chief. I’ll bring the Captain back in his car. Tell the Admiral we’ll be there for dinner.”
“It’s gonna be dark soon, Mr. Morton. You sure you don’t want me to wait?”
“We’ll be fine, Sharkey. But there should be a flashlight in the glove box of each of the cars. They might be handy coming back up the hill.”
“I’ll get ‘em, sir,” Sharkey offered, and trotted away.
Morton did not take his eyes off his friend, and only
distantly registered the sound of the slamming car doors. It had been nearly a month since he’d last
seen Lee, confined to one of the beds in the
Despite Dr. Luong’s best efforts Lee’s survival had been questionable when the Flying Sub airlifted the two officers out of the Chand mountains. It had been Nelson, himself, at the controls of FS1. It had taken his skill to put the small craft down on its rarely utilized landing gear in the clearing outside the wooden hut where they waited.
Even though the bullet was successfully removed and Lee was
stabilized in Seaview’s
Characteristically, Jamieson was tough when it came to his patients, but in the Med Bay he had proven to be an outright tyrant once the Seaview reached to port, limiting access to Lee’s room to only a select few, and then for only a few minutes at a time. Crane remained in critical condition, never healing as quickly as the CMO would have liked. Jamieson had assured them that Nelson’s hovering, compounded now by Morton’s, as well as his awareness that his boat was in port served to make the Captain even more anxious and distraught than his usual reaction to being in the hospital evoked. Neither condition was one that the doctor would tolerate as it would delay his patient’s recovery. A rather heated discussion between the Admiral and the doctor had ultimately led to Nelson’s decision, albeit a reluctant one, to undertake a personal venture to the Aleutian Trench. For some time Nelson had talked about retrieving specimens of deep-water Vesicomyid seep clams but Lee had been less than enthusiastic about the mundane mission. There was nothing that would require Captain Crane’s expertise, oversight or varied skills, or even his presence. It was simply a collection effort but it successfully removed all the irritants from the injured captain’s sphere of influence.
Nelson’s eyes had been haunted as they put out to sea, and it had torn at Morton’s heart to leave his friend ashore, knowing that the Seaview was where he would have preferred to be. The knowledge had eaten away at him that he had yet to apologize to Crane for his unforgivable behavior where Wade was concerned. But Lee hadn’t been strong enough, even then, for what could prove to be an emotional purge.
“Uh... Mr. Morton, sir?”
Chip glanced at the Chief with a start. He accepted the two slim aluminum tubes from Sharkey and tucked them into the inside pocket of his uniform coat, then nodded his dismissal. Recognizing the gesture from thousands given aboard ship, the CPO backed away.
“We’ll keep that ol’ light in the window, Commander,” Sharkey offered lightly.
Morton nodded, smiling at the Chief’s words, the ones he often spoke to Lee as the captain left the Seaview on one dangerous mission or another. Funny. He didn’t remember him saying them as they left the submarine in Benyene. He blinked, seeing the same realization in the other man’s eyes.
“Don’t give it a thought, Sharkey,” he urged him. “I’ll bring him home safe and sound this time. I can almost guarantee it.”
“Almost,” the Chief grumbled sourly at Morton’s inadvertent slip. “Never can tell with the Skipper,” he finished, and, saluting, turned back toward the cars.
Chip did not watch the senior enlisted man’s retreat. Instead, he kept his gaze locked on the solitary man seated far below where he stood. He waited until Sharkey had reversed the institute car onto the tarmac and started his return trip to town before he sought out the hardly visible path that led down the precipitous slope to the beach.
What was Lee doing here, he wondered as his leather soles slipped on the gravel, and he maintained his balance only with some arm waving. Damned fool wasn’t strong enough to go out for mountain climbing. He’d see him back in Med Bay again if he’d done himself any harm, he vowed, all too aware of the futility of any such effort on his part. Still, this was a beautiful spot, isolated, rustic. He could understand its appeal.
Lee was dressed in his usual off-duty attire, jeans, running shoes, and a soft gray, long-sleeved chambray shirt, open at the throat. He was seated in the sand, his back to an outcropping of stone, his legs flexed, his arms crossed atop his knees as he gazed out at the ocean as if lost in thought. He didn’t turn toward him, or give any outward sign that he was aware that Morton was there, but Chip knew his friend well, and he moved forward slowly, coming to a halt and sinking down, cross-legged, beside the captain.
Neither man spoke, and much to Morton’s surprise the silence was easy, comfortable, and he was reassured. At least over their weeks apart Lee had not allowed their disagreements to fester. The few words he had managed with Crane since that night in the jungle of Maranvar had been less than satisfying for Morton. He had failed his friend, he felt. He had doubted him, and Lee knew it, and that, above all else, felt like betrayal. He had acted the fool, and had nothing to show for it but a seriously wounded captain and a damaged friendship. Much to his surprise, Wade had chosen to remain with Cale Anderson in Maranvar, returning to the safety of the guerilla camp with him until Roger could travel. Now all three Americans had made their way into Thailand and were enjoying the luxury of a tourist resort on the southern coast of that country. Somehow he could not help but be slightly resentful.
“You’re back early. Everything go okay?” Lee asked softly into the silence.
“Without a hitch. Didn’t take as long as we expected to gather the samples the Admiral wanted,” Morton explained, though they both knew that the real reason for their early return was concern about Crane, himself.
“He examining his clams back at the Institute?” There was amusement in the familiar voice.
“Actually, he was going to come with me but he got hung up on a conference call with the Joint Chiefs almost before we were dockside. Told me to come ahead without him. But we’re invited to his place for dinner. Steaks. Jamie’ll be there. He said the red meat’d do you good.”
Chip knew he was babbling, but he couldn’t seem to stop himself.
Lee nodded. He had not changed his position. He kept his dark gaze locked on the horizon. Was he avoiding meeting his exec’s gaze, knowing that Chip would see the anger and animosity in the depths of his expressive dark eyes. Morton lowered his head.
“Uh, I mean, we weren’t checking up on you, y’know!”
“Of course you were,” Lee answered with a distant smile. “And it’s a good thing, too. I’ve been waiting for you to get here to help me back up that slope.”
Chip swung around, staring at his friend openly. “Are you serious?” he exclaimed in amazement.
“Never more-so. Jamie says it’s going to take me a while longer to get my full strength back, and that hill’s bound to be steeper going up than coming down.”
Chip closed his gaping mouth without uttering the astonished thoughts that plunged through his mind, then the truth dawned blazingly.
“You didn’t even know we were docking this afternoon!” he blurted, then saw Lee flinch slightly at the confirmation that he was still being kept out of the loop when it came to resuming his duties. He swallowed with difficulty and blundered on. “You couldn’t have been waiting for us!”
“Maybe so, but that hill does look pretty intimidating. May have to put in a more congenial path when I build my house here.”
“So this is the place, huh?”
“Yeah. My offer was accepted a couple of days ago.”
“Well, congratulations, buddy,” he replied with less enthusiasm than he knew he should have done. “That’s a big step, but you’ll sure have a great view.”
“Yeah, if and when I ever get a house built.” Lee’s voice was suddenly tired, Chip realized, and more discouraged than he would have expected, but Lee seemed to fight through his momentary despondency. “Till then, I figure we could have some pretty good barbeques here on the beach if we stationed the Seaview off the point there, and came ashore in zodiacs.”
“If I didn’t know better, I’d think you’d been talking to Riley,” Morton chuckled.
“Not talking... but I’ve been listening for years.”
The silence stretched between them again, and Morton could feel himself beginning to tense.
“I was surprised Jamie approved your coming out here all alone.”
“I told him I had to grow up and leave home sooner or later,” Lee answered with a rather forced smile. “Surely he didn’t grab you and send you after me the minute you stepped ashore.”
Chip swallowed again, for that was exactly what had happened. He opted for a change of subject. It had to be broached sooner or later.
“There was a letter from Rusty waiting for me when we docked. I read it on the way out.” Lee’s eyebrows raised quizzically. “Sharkey was driving. I sent him back with the car. You’re stuck with me for the return trip.”
The captain merely nodded, but when it seemed Chip had forgotten where he was headed, he prodded gently. “Jamie told me she’d elected to stay behind with Anderson when you airlifted me out. Were you okay with that?”
“I wasn’t thinking much about her just then. The whole time we were loading you into FS1 and during the take-off you kept trying to die on us. Kept us all pretty well occupied.”
Lee merely grumbled. “Don’t remember much, myself. That could be why, I suppose.”
“Death does affect the memory some,” Morton quipped, but there was little humor in his deep voice.
Once more the silence stretched between them, neither tense nor relaxed. There was so much Chip wanted to say to Lee. He wanted to get some things off his chest, no, he needed to, but the words would not come. Lee seemed to be okay with him. He didn’t seem to be disappointed in him, but he couldn’t tell, and it was driving him crazy.
“She says she and Anderson are relaxing at some fancy
“I heard through the grapevine that they were safe.”
Chip nodded. Of course he had. Knowing Lee he would have been asking about the others practically from his first rational thought.
Chip could think of nothing to say that did not sound bitter or self-pitying. At last he gave up trying and thrust the envelope containing Wade’s letter into Lee’s hands. He watched silently as Lee’s long fingers removed the two sheets of stationery and unfolded them. He read the beautifully written script without comment, and then lowered his hand to his knee, still holding the papers as he raised his gaze back to the dark clouds streaming across the horizon, the sun beginning to slide behind them and tinging the sky a deep rose.
“So, it’s all over,” he said at last, his voice very soft.
Chip nodded, his voice still failing him. The words in the letter were indelibly imprinted on his mind’s eye. She had thanked him for saving her life, and asked him to convey similar appreciation to Lee, whom she just assumed was well once more. Then, as he had come to realize was exactly her style, she had spent the rest of the page and a half telling him about how good Cale Anderson was for her, and that they were going to try it again, to make a go of the relationship they had squandered. No apologies, no acceptance of responsibility for anything. It took courage to own the mistakes one made, and Wade didn’t have that kind of courage.
“Lee... I.... There’s a lot I need to say--.”
“No you don’t, buddy,” Crane interrupted, his voice still soft, but carrying that note of command that he could convey with a whisper.
His hands were busy once more, folding the letter and returning it to its envelope. He ran his fingers across the top fold of the envelope, then folded down an additional half-inch, creasing the fold sharply before he returned the envelope to Morton.
“Nothing’s changed between us, Chip.”
Morton stared at him blankly for a moment. “Do you really believe that?”
“It’s more than a belief.”
For the first time since Chip’s arrival, Lee turned to face him squarely. The golden flecks in Lee’s dusky eyes caught fire in the waning sunlight and in that instant Chip’s doubts were erased. He knew Lee Crane was an honest man, but never before had he seen that honesty, that sincerity as clearly as he did at this moment. It would take more than a few cross words to dissuade the other man of his friendship, he realized, and he was humbled by the degree of trust he saw in the other man. No man in his right mind could look into Lee’s eyes and see what he saw, and ever betray him. He knew that without a shadow of a doubt. And what was more, he knew that Lee saw the same thing reflected in him.
They didn’t speak. There was no need, and after a long moment, Crane shifted back around in the sand, his attention turned back toward the ocean.
“Gonna be a fantastic sunset,” Chip managed to get out at last.
Lee made a non-committal sound, and the silence fell once more, until, “You said the Admiral was grilling steaks?”
“Yeah, and maybe prawns. Baked potatoes for sure, and Jamie said he’d bring some asparagus... lots of vitamins in asparagus. Good--.”
“Yeah, I know. Good for what ails me.”
The sun sank lower and the sky turned a brighter red, the edges of the clouds aflame with crimson and gold. At last Lee sighed wearily.
“Well, are we going to sit here all night, or are you going to help me up? I’ve been a sick man, you know.”
With a light-hearted chuckle Morton bounded to his feet and extended his hand to his friend, then gripped his shoulder in order to help him stand. He was still so weak, Chip realized, feeling the slight trembling of the muscles beneath his fingers.
“What were you planning on doing if no one showed to winch you back up the hill, Captain?” he asked sternly.
“Riley has regaled us all with the joys of sleeping on the beach, remember? I would have managed.”
“Hmmmph,” Morton responded in a reasonable imitation of Nelson’s rumble. “Come on, then. The Admiral won’t be happy if we’re late to dinner, and I’ll bet you’ve had about enough of Jamie’s harping about your eating.”
“You can say that again. Why do you think I came all this way out here... but to get some peace and quiet for a while.”
Chip slipped his arm around Crane’s slender waist and allowed him to rest his arm over his shoulder.
He slipped his hand inside his jacket for the two small flashlights, holding them out on the palm of his hand. Lee looked at him, his intensity drawing Chip’s eyes like a magnet. For the first time since he had learned that the captain had been taken by Ne-Win’s army Chip felt relaxed and at ease.
“Upward and onward, my friend,” he encouraged, then set his foot to the trail.
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